"Preparing Students for Web-based Course Delivery"
a paper presented by
Dale Mueller, EdD, RN
Educator and Instructional Designer
This presentation summarizes key skills and concepts to be mastered by students for successful participation in Web-based delivery of the distance learning experience, as well as institutional support for student preparation. Students are simultaneously participants in the educational process and consumers of the Web-based educational product, and therefore should be fully prepared for and supported in an optimal distance learning experience. Wherever possible, educators and programs should anticipate barriers and encumbrances that may inhibit the Web-based learning process, and build in adequate preparatory skill acquisition for optimal student success.
This paper identifies key areas where barriers to learning have been observed to occur, taken from three years of instructor experience in electronic classroom delivery. This author is currently presenting workshops promoting Internet literacy for adult learners, and many of the issues consolidated and presented in this paper are covered in depth in face-to-face workshops for educators and instructional designers.
The key to proactive classroom management is the degree to which potential barriers have been anticipated and addressed by the institution, the instructional designer, and the facilitator of the course. Solutions are included in this paper as well as a discussion of typical barriers, in the event that solutions used successfully by others may contribute to knowledge of electronic classroom management ongoing. Comprehensive solutions to barriers are presented first, as an organized proactive approach may address many of the individual barriers discussed further in this paper.
Organizational support for learner mastery of skills for Web-based courses include these ideas and programs:
1. Provide a campus users lab or workshop, where key skills are introduced and practiced to an acceptable level of proficiency. This resource works well where Web-based instruction is offered as a supplement to an on-ground course, and students are campus-based.
2. Provide a Web-based lab or workshop, where key skills are practiced by enrollees prior to the course of instruction for the actual Web-based credit course experience. This resource works well given that the student has overcome some of the browser and hardware proficiency barriers discussed below, and is able to successfully access the Web-based platform for instruction.
3. Provide a text-based hard copy guide or checklist of preparatory skills and requirements. This text guide may also include other useful resources. This "handbook" type resource works equally well with either campus-based or entirely distance-based students. Such a guide should contain pertinent URLs for resources and browser downloads, as well as areas in the guide to be filled in by the student with pertinent personalized information such as dates that LISTS were joined, records of passwords and other codes, email addresses of key individuals, and the phone number of the institution "help" desk.
4. Provide a telephone "help" line staffed with knowledgeable technical support personnel. This resource works well only if staff can assist the caller through problem-solving in a calm manner while using non-technical vocabulary, and desk availability is offered for all time zones served by the Web-based course.
5. Provide e-mail assistance as supplemental to the "help" line. This resource is helpful given that students can use email with proficiency.
6. Provide telephone support at various and specified times, staffed by students, faculty, or classmates. This resource utilizes either the "train-the-trainer" or "peer support" modalities, and works well when the institution can offer, for example, staffing by graduate students or by enrolled students as part of a classroom assignment.
7. Instructors are advised to take into consideration the skill proficiency of their students when designing content and instructional strategies in their course. Where skill proficiency is unknown, an informal learning skill inventory from instructor to students is suggested. Allowances should be made for remediation in skills for students who may require such support prior to participating in the learning exercise for course content. One method of incorporating this process is to inventory the students well enough in advance as to allow time for any remediation that appears necessary prior to assignments being due that rely on said proficiencies.
HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE
Understanding the technical requirements to participate in Web-based courses requires that students are able to identify characteristics of hardware and software in their possession. For Web-based courses, identification of preferred browser is also a requirement. Students may not be familiar with the capabilities of their hard drive or programs, and may indeed be using Dad's computer for your course. Hardware and software requirements must be easy to understand, identify, and comply with, as this represents the threshold experience allowing students entry to the institution's Web-based classroom.
Does your course/program require specific minimum hardware? For example, is your program exclusively Web-based? Is there other software required besides access to the Internet and locating information on your home page? Can your delivery be accommodated by both Macintosh and Windows platforms? For Web delivery, are there browser requirements? For Web-based courses, are there features of your preferred browser or course that are not supported equally on Macintosh and Windows platforms; how about Web-TV? Do potential students understand the technical jargon, and have you provided simple solutions for students lacking a technical vocabulary? Do you offer resources for students to get set up with the appropriate browser, and where do they go if they encounter difficulties?
Some institutions have overcome these obstacles by offering campus-based computers in a learning laboratory. If technical staff are hired for the purpose of assisting distance learning students, non-technical vocabulary should be used when dealing with the anxious student, as explaining solutions in technical terms will generally not be perceived as reassuring or helpful. Some institutions have negotiated student access packages and pricing with a designated ISP, thereby "standardizing" access, browser, and start-up home page options somewhat.
While the most obvious skill for successful participation in Web-based course delivery is perhaps the most often overlooked, it deserves mention here -- that is the skill of using the keyboard (typing skills). Instructors should anticipate that not all students are proficient typists, and indeed, some students will use colloquial chat room slang shortcuts in an academic environment. Instructors should specify the level of academic compliance expected for text-based work, and provide support for students to gain proficiency with such requirements. Poor keyboard skills inhibit participation or articulate expression with synchronous media in particular. Students can be guided to use a spell-check program with preparing notes for asynchronous communication, as well as pace preparation in their own way. Overall, strong competency with keyboarding supports a successful learning experience, and lack of such skills promotes frustration for the otherwise motivated student.
Students who have participated in traditional on-ground classroom settings must adjust to the rapidity of communication and response, coupled with the isolation of a home-office environment, present in the electronic classroom. In addition, while time management may not be problematic for the competent self-directed student, this may be an issue for the student who has historically required peer support for meeting deadlines and stimulating discussion.
Vagaries of Internet Service Providers can be a source of frustration for beginning Web-based learners. Pre-loaded contents of the ISP "home page," getting connected to the ISP email service, and getting familiar with pre-loaded sign-on information can overwhelm the beginner. Instructors should not assume that all students know how to access and use appropriate search engine tools, how to catalog and reply to email messages, and how to download information from the Internet. Although these appear to be rudimentary skills, many students are not familiar nor proficient. Referring students to their ISP for support is an anxiety-producing activity for some students, so again a checklist or frequently asked questions to support dialog to the ISP "help" desk is a helpful tool.
Organizing the options menu within the chosen browser is another area where students often need assistance. Successful participation requires that students be able to identify both type of browser and version of browser, and to make changes where necessary. There may exist separate considerations for students accessing Web pages through a gateway such as AOL or Prodigy, as at times these gateway supported browsers behave differently than when accessed through ISPs.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR ASYNCHRONOUS MEDIA
To use sending and receiving notes as a successful communication tool, students must appreciate several key ideas about the technique:
1. Brevity is appreciated. Use fewer words, while communicating essential key ideas.
2. Include a reference to the original material when replying to someone else's message. Don't assume all readers will understand what you are referring to in your reply.
3. Be sure your teasing or humor is understood as such. Be familiar with emoticons, as they are part of casual Web-based communication vocabulary.
4. Appreciate that electronic delivery begs for immediate response. Messages not answered within a day's time begin to edge on being rude.
5. Understand the characteristics of the software being used. Know how to verify that notes were sent, received, saved.
6. Translate due dates into the appropriate time zone for the student. A "midnight Wednesday" deadline set by the instructor may translate into a 9:00 PM deadline depending on the home time zone of the student.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR SYNCHRONOUS MEDIA
The most frequent use of synchronous instruction for Web-based courses is that of various "chat" or multi-user conferencing features. There are several key skills that facilitate learning in such environments. These are:
1. Familiarity with the basic keyboard commands of the program. For example, action verbs, moods, gender, and other expressive phrases, while enhancing communication, may require practice to proficiency for the beginning user.
2. Basic typing skills, as mentioned previously, allows the student to focus on the content of the classroom meeting. Of all the possible features of Web-based instruction, synchronous chat is the modality requiring optimal typing skills.
3. User identification. While keeping participants' depth of character identified is a consideration in asynchronous participation as well, synchronous communication demands that participants can identify each other from keyboarding or other cues. Keeping the participants well identified, and being able to organize various points of view as discussions unfold is often problematic for the beginning student.
While this list of barriers and suggested support interventions is not meant to be comprehensive, included here are observations and interventions that have been common to instructional experience in Web-based delivery. This author has incorporated support for many of the anticipated barriers and required skills into the design aspect of course delivery. This paper has been presented with the anticipation that the information here will allow other instructors to build barrier-free courses as well.
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