Magazine article Techniques

How to Teach in Cyberspace

Magazine article Techniques

How to Teach in Cyberspace

Article excerpt


Distance learning is booming as schools continue to keep pace with the needs of their students. Working parents are taking Web-based courses at times convenient to their schedules. Students in rural areas are using e-mail to communicate with instructors they may never meet in person.

A recent Department of Education study of postsecondary schools found that 58 percent of two-year and 62 percent of four-year public colleges offer distance education courses. Another 28 percent of two-year and 23 percent of four-year public colleges plan to start offering distance courses within three years.

So, who will teach distance students? If you're a new teacher or you plan to be in the teaching profession for the next several years, chances are you're going to get called up to the plate. Look at it as an exciting opportunity to teach in different ways. And realize that mastering distance instruction can make you a more marketable teacher.

Find your custom fit

Some institutions, like the University of Phoenix, are using custom-made software that automates networking capabilities, making it easier to link the computers of students, teachers and schools. All students must load the software onto their personal computers to access their courses. When students tap into the school's network, course materials, notes and discussions are automatically downloaded and the students' assignments and comments are uploaded.

Other schools are keeping it simpler and inexpensive. Thomas College in Waterville, Maine, for instance, uses the World Wide Web to post class information. Students need a current version of Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer to participate. Many schools also use a password-protected system.

But the daunting part for many instructors is actually teaching the distance course. It's one thing to learn how to use the technology and quite another to use it well. In almost all cases, the teacher provides a "lecture" at least once a week. This could be in the form of a broadcast e-mail message to all students or it could be a document posted on the course's Web page. In these formats students may not be able to hear the inflections in your voice or see the expressions on your face, but you can include hyperlinks for emphasis. Hyperlinks are words or phrases that when clicked take the reader directly to related Web material, like definitions or additional readings. Most current versions of Microsoft Word include this feature.

But live interaction between teachers and students also is key to distance learning success. Live chat sessions, in which students and faculty meet at a set time and have discussions by keying in their comments and questions, can be a lively way to learn. Shy students who tend not to participate in traditional classroom discussions may feel encouraged to type in their two cents. After the chat, which usually lasts about an hour, a transcript of the discussion can be posted to the class Web page for students who missed it. It's also a good reference for teachers to have; they can refer back to it to see which concepts generated the most questions or discussion. Many Internet-based courses, however, rely less on chat sessions because such sessions require all participants to be available at the same time--an obstacle that led to this sort of class in the first place.

Professor Thomas Easton's technology education students at Thomas College use weekly chat sessions to exchange notes and ask each other questions about upcoming assignments. They also use online message boards (which unlike live chat sessions always are available) to post questions about their coursework and add to comments from the weekly chat session. Amy Sterling Casil, who teaches writing at several institutions, gives her weekly lectures via live chat sessions, working from notes much as she does in the classroom. …

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