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Vol. 11, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676


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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 11, No. 1. 
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1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 1999. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, 1749 Hamilton Road, Suite 106, Okemos, MI 48864. Telephone: 517.351.8335

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Computer Mediated Interaction in a Distance Education Course

Carolyn S. Wilken

Dr. Wilken is an Associate Professor in Family Relations and Child Development at Oklahoma State University, and was formerly the Director of the Galichia Institute for Gerontology and Family Studies in the College of Human Ecology, Kansas State University.

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The author describes the process of developing and teaching a World Wide Web course. This case study illustrates the nature of course development (front-loaded rather than day-to-day), strategies for presenting the content of course, techniques for fostering teacher-student and student-student interaction, and recommendations for assuring that technology supports rather than interferes with the learning process.

A variety of primary interactions must occur between teacher and learner before teaching and learning evolve into the process known as education. This basic premise holds true whether the educational process takes place in the classroom, through the mail, or via telecommunication.

The pedagogical literature is replete with descriptions of student-content, student-student, and student-teacher interactions as they occur in the traditional classroom (Moore, 1989). Researchers who have explored these interactions in non-traditional settings of distance education, such as correspondence courses and independent learning, emphasize the importance of nurturing these interactions and recognize the impact of distances of time and space upon these interactions.

Traditional European pedagogy continues to dominate modern higher education classrooms. In this paradigm, the professor, who defines and imparts knowledge, orchestrates the educational process. The professor determines the course content and designs student-content interactions. Likewise, the professor makes an impact on student-student and student-teacher interactions. In a traditional academic setting these interactions generally occur face-to-face as students share time and physical space with their professor and with other students. Traditional college students, having recently emerged from 12 years of traditional education, depend upon and indeed expect their professors to structure the quantity and quality of their classroom related interactions.

In contrast to the traditional teacher-centered paradigm, non-traditional academic programs are primarily learner-centered. In historically popular independent study or correspondence courses, the professor interacts with the student vicariously through the educational materials chosen for the students to study. In non-traditional distance settings, the actual process of learning takes place independently of the instructor.

The typical non-traditional student is more than 25 years old, married, and has family and community responsibilities. She is employed and attends school on a part-time basis. For many years these students have turned to non-traditional programs in order to meet their education objectives while continuing to meet ongoing responsibilities. These students’ expectations differ significantly from traditional college-age students. Adult students enter the classroom with a certain level of experiential learning. They typically know what they need or want to learn, and they require a great deal of flexibility as to when and where they attend class. This independence comes at a price. When distance education relies primarily on the mail and an occasional phone call, students’ primary interaction is with the course content. The student and faculty member may meet personally at the beginning and end of the course, or not at all. Students have little or no student-student interaction.

With the proliferation of distance education courses, indeed complete degree programs, educators are asking if education is truly possible without structured student/student and student/teacher interactions (Clark, 1993). In this paper, the author uses her experience developing and teaching a Web-based, computer mediated course titled Community Based Health Promotion Programs for Older Adults to describe both the process and impact of using computer conferencing to fill the interaction gaps inherent to distance education.

Community Based Health Promotion Programs for Older Adults is a 3 credit dual level graduate/undergraduate course taught exclusively on the World Wide Web (WWW). The course syllabus, goals and objectives, reading assignments, and lectures reside on the Web, giving students the opportunity to complete their coursework in an asynchronous manner—at the time and location of their convenience. The Web serves as the tool to connect students with the content of the course. This course also uses computer mediated communication, specifically electronic-mail, threaded message boards, and real-time discussion sessions (chat rooms) to facilitate interaction among students and between students and teacher.

Teacher-Technology Interaction

Instructors of Web based courses need either technical support or technical savvy. I chose to use all of the available technical support the university could provide. Two years after beginning to develop this course, I still do not know how to use the hypertext markup language known as HTML. I don’t know how to set up a bulletin board or a discussion room. I couldn’t begin to “design a Web page.” I decided early on that I am a gerontologist, not a computer programmer. In retrospect, that decision has usually served me well, but has also left me frustrated. Other instructors are quite adept at HTML programming and the technical aspects of managing a discussion room and bulletin board. I struggle with e-mail.

Web course development requires comprehensive, holistic, front-loaded development, rather than day-to-day planning. Fellow faculty and administrators who have not undertaken this effort, seriously underestimate the time required for course development and maintenance. In a study of how faculty prepare distance education courses, Wolcott (1993) offers the following statement from one faculty member in her sample: “I don’t know of anybody who sits down and thinks through a class the way this (distance delivery) system makes you think through it to crank out a sixty or seventy page syllabus. It’s a very time-consuming process to prepare and teach one of these courses. It takes planning much further in advance to do this kind of course than to do it on campus.”

Student-Content Interaction

The appearance of information on the computer screen is critical to student-content interaction in a Web class. In traditional didactic settings, the presence of the instructor can mediate the interaction between the student and content and can compensate for hastily written overhead transparencies or drawings on a chalkboard. In distance education, the content must stand on its own. As a Cooperative Extension Specialist, I rarely have an opportunity to interact on a personal level with my students and so I present information in a “fact sheet” format. I followed that same style in designing this course paying particular attention to appearance and readability. As with my Extension printed materials I drew on design techniques such as headings, underlining, italics, bolding, and bullets to help students identify critical pieces of information.

The basic content of this course is presented in what I’ve called a netlecture. A netlecture, is simply a traditional lecture redesigned for an electronic format. The style is conversational. I could take the netlecture and read it to a traditional class and it would sound like a typical lecture. I specifically chose conversational language to encourage a sense of personal interaction between teacher and student as opposed to reading more pages in a textbook. Following is an excerpt from a netlecture about health promotion and aging.

If you had just turned 65, what would be your biggest concern? The number of years you may have to live, or the quality of life you have in the next 17 or so years? Most people will say that quality of life is more important than quantity of life. Their focus is not on life expectancy, but rather on healthy expectancy, or the number of healthy years they can expect to have left. The quality of those remaining years depend on one’s physical activity, nutritional intake, social support network access to good medical care, health education, and health services.

Active links to other Web sites related to the content are embedded in the netlecture. For example, links to demographic data provided by the US Census, American Association of Retired Persons, and National Institute for Aging Web sites serve to facilitate both the student’s cognitive and physical interaction with the materials. Students express appreciation for the “break” in reading, and the opportunity to use the Web as a resource to supplement their learning.

The content for a Web course is in no way limited by the materials posted by the instructor. The Web itself is a connection to information on every subject imaginable. Introducing students to the Web through course links or specific class assignments exposes students to both trustworthy and questionable information. It is therefore imperative that students learn how to scrutinize information located on the World Wide Web. To address this issue, one course unit involves identifying and evaluating health promotion sites on the Web. The netlecture for this unit includes specific information about how to evaluate a site and in the discussion students evaluate sites they have posted on the bulletin board.

Student-Teacher Interaction

Students participating in this course were typical non-traditional students—primarily women, more than 25 years old, employed and attending school on a part time basis. The majority of students who have completed the course were graduate level—10 masters, 2 PhDs, and 3 post-doctoral students employed in health related fields. Seven students were nurses working in academic settings, 6 students worked in the health-care industry, 4 were academic faculty/non-nursing. Three undergraduate students completed the course.

Computer mediated communication tools facilitate student and professor interaction on several levels. I frequently use electronic-mail (e-mail) to interact with individual students and I use list-serves to contact the class. E-mail is routinely used to provide feedback to individual students regarding assignments and answers to specific questions. Each student’s final evaluation and grade summary was transmitted electronically to the student. Electronic mail and the threaded message board are particularly useful as ways to exchange information at any time of the day or night. The students and I can send or respond to messages at our convenience.

List-serves (group e-mail) are an efficient and effective way to get a message to the entire class. Students learn to check their e-mail daily for up-to-the minute information regarding the course. Although electronic mail is an effective and efficient method for sending brief messages to students, sending and receiving longer messages is more complex. Students are required to complete several writing assignments for the course. Originally, these were to be sent as attachments via e-mail. Compatibility problems with attachments occasionally prevented my opening them. Although I can open attachments from some students without difficulty, others prove impossible. A great deal of time and effort is expended trying to send and retrieve assignments. The students agree that written assignments should be sent by fax or mail to reduce the frustration created by incompatible software.

The discussion sessions (often known as chat rooms) were the most successful and most satisfying method of communicating between students and instructor and among students. With one exception, students overwhelmingly identify the discussion sessions as the highlight of the course. One student reported, “The discussions in class are very lively. The instructor keeps the discussion going and gets everyone involved, capitalizing on the knowledge and expertise of the class members… This is truly an adult learning experience.”

The weekly real-time discussion sessions provide the greatest opportunity for student-faculty interaction. Real-time discussions allow for teacher-student interaction and provide the richness and texture of interpersonal interactions so often missing in distance education classes. It is during these discussions that I begin to understand how each student is assimilating the course content. Similarly, real-time discussions can be used to manage routine class housekeeping activities. The real-time discussions also give students an opportunity to interact with one another on a more personal level. Although they are unacquainted with each other, students share job opportunities and personal concerns.

As an instructor, I find the 90-minute discussion sessions exhilarating and exhausting. Because each student’s computer receives my messages and responds to the student’s commands at a different speed, I felt it was necessary to maintain several concurrent lines of discussion. Students who access the Internet through a university system can respond much more quickly than those who get to the Internet through a modem and a commercial server.

The real-time discussion sessions require coordinating times that work for everyone, across 4 different time zones. The class met from 7:30 until 9:00 p.m. Central Standard Time as a compromise for students on each coast. Students on the east coast could get home from work and eat a quick dinner before class and still be finished by 10:00—which most (as busy, hardworking adults) considered a good bedtime. Students on the west coast could get off work at 5 Pacific time, and begin class at 5:30 and be finished by 7 for a late dinner.

I’ve often been asked about the difficulties communicating with several students simultaneously in the discussion sessions. I believe that ten students is probably the upper limit for a single discussion session. In a larger group some students would go unnoticed and would certainly not actively participate. I suppose that could be likened to a large lecture, and that parallel could be used to justify larger enrollments in a Web course. Multiple discussion times would also resolve that issue with students signing up for a weekly time. The limitations of faculty time and energy constrain this option.

Student-Technology Interaction

Hilman et. al, (1994) add student-technology interaction to the list of traditional educational interactions saying “a student cannot begin to deal with the content of the instruction if he or she is unable to first interact with the interface” (p. 36). The following discussion of interaction with the technology highlights the importance of teaching students how to use the technology and of providing access to technical support, especially when technical upgrades are introduced.

In an informal course evaluation conducted via e-mail, students describe technical problems as the most difficult part of the course: “Getting past the technical difficulties, connecting, surviving the shutdowns, etc.” and “The problems I experienced were due to the difficulty of compatibility with KSUs system and the system I use at my institution.”

When the interaction with the technology works smoothly, all is right with the world, but when technical difficulties impact one aspect of the class, frustration with the technology seems to stop progress in other areas of the course. It seems that students become paralyzed until the technical issue is resolved.

Because this was one of the first Web courses offered by Kansas State University the technology changed and emerged along with the course. The technical specialists were choosing and developing new technology at the same time students and I were learning to interact with the technology we had at the beginning of the course. Mid-course changes (upgrades) in technology were frustrating. At one point the entire original course was ‘ported’ into a new interactive framework. The new framework was a great improvement… but making the change in mid-course disrupted the course for several weeks as the “bugs” were worked out. In another instance, a new threaded message board replaced the original static board. When students discovered that they couldn’t successfully complete an assignment because they couldn’t post it to the new message board, they became angry. Students whose only connections to the course were electronic seemed to feel abandoned or in some way locked out when they became disconnected from the course due to technical difficulties. One student described it as feeling like “I was knocking on the door to the classroom but no one would let me in… I knew the class was meeting without me!” Before making any changes, technical specialists must anticipate the practical, instructional, and emotional impact that new/upgraded technology can have on students and faculty of courses in progress.

Summary

The process of developing and teaching a World Wide Web course has been exhilarating, fun, frustrating, mind-stretching, and very time consuming. I trust that the reader who is contemplating Web course development can learn from my experience. For the novice, I think my best advice is that the technology should be in place and the course fully developed and piloted locally prior to off-campus delivery. Technologies should be tested and re-tested before they are released for student and faculty use. Additionally, students must have an opportunity to access all aspects of the course with their own systems prior to enrollment so they know if they can or cannot successfully interact with the technology.

References

Clark, T. (1993). Attitudes of higher education faculty towards distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(2), 19-33.

Hillman, D., Willis, D., & Gunawardena, C. (1994). Learner-interface interaction in distance education: An extension of contemporary models and strategies for practitioners. The American Journal of Distance Education, 8(2), 30-42.

Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.

Wolcotte, L. (1993). Faculty planning for distance teaching. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(1), 26-36.