BYU online courses finish first year with mixed reviews

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    By AMBER MEAGER

    It’s 10 p.m.

    A virtual bell rings and class begins. A student, sitting in front of her laptop at the kitchen table, logs into a world of web links, discussion boards, video clips and computer graphics.

    Welcome to the world of a student enrolled in semester online.

    The conclusion of BYU’s first semester online is drawing near, and professors, students and course designers are pausing for retrospection and contemplation of the future of online courses.

    “I like semester online because I can go at my own pace,” said Joy Adams, 18, a freshman from Yuba City, Calif., majoring in Speech Pathology. “But I still like lectures, because it reinforces the material in your mind.”

    Adams is currently enrolled in her first semester online course, Audiology and Speech Language Pathology 133, or ASLP 133. Her mixed reaction to the course is typical of BYU students exploring the many facets of distance education.

    Despite some misgivings, Adams said several tools helped her keep up with the coursework, including deadlines, discussion boards and study groups. But students who are not self-motivated should not take a course online, Adams said.

    Adams said her professor, Wendel Walton, was a good teacher, which is no surprise, considering Walton was nominated Outstanding Faculty Member by the Center for Instructional Design in October 1999.

    According to the Center for Instructional Design, he had a 90% class retention rate.

    Walton, who has over 30 years experience teaching in public and higher education, was asked to put ASLP 133 on the Internet a year and half ago, Walton said.

    “When I was first approached, I didn’t like the idea. I am a spontaneous guy, and I like the interaction with the class. How are you going to be interactive when the whole thing’s canned?” Walton said.

    But Walton decided to take the challenge. The result of his endeavors includes diverse exposure to the subject of audiology and speech pathology through 83 web sites and various audio and video clips, he said.

    “The subject matter is ideal for this mode of education. There is so much matter that even if I was teaching the class in a customary fashion, I don’t think I would be able to cover all the content,” Walton said.

    With 75 people in his class, Walton said students who might normally be afraid to ask questions in the classroom do not hesitate to send questions by e-mail.

    “It is such a vital medium. The content material carries by itself and frees me to deal with students’ particular concerns,” Walton said.

    Olin Campbell, Faculty Chair of the Teaching and Learning Technology Committee, works with others to address concerns for courses online.

    “Many faculty members who are creating online courses are early adopters who are excited about using new strategies and want to learn more,” Campbell said.

    Others are taking a ‘wait and see approach,’ he said.

    “There are many issues to work through, and there will inevitably be rough spots,” Campbell said.

    Campbell is excited about the learning innovations at BYU — particularly the work of the Center for Instructional Design.

    “I think that the Center for Instructional Design is doing an astounding job. They were given a huge task, and they are doing it well,” Campbell said.

    Some BYU professors still need convincing of semester online possibilities, and part of the CID’s job is to ameliorate those concerns, said Greg Waddoups, Measurement and Evaluation Specialist for the CID.

    “The biggest concern the faculty have is that they will lose the close relationship with their students when they transfer from the more traditional stand-up teaching style to using technology as the medium for instruction,” Waddoups said.

    This concern, the idea of media replacing the professor, is being dealt with directly by the Center, Waddoups said.

    “I believe that (media) can be implemented in ways that improve the experience and actually make the professors more powerful than they were before in getting their message to the students, ” said Joseph South, Instructional Designer at the Center.

    In several cases, the Center is trying to improve the classroom by combining the best of the classroom with the best that media has to offer, South said.

    Currently, the CID is collecting information about all of the professors’ concerns and creating resources like the Instructional Media Center, which will provide faculty with the training and tools they need to have more control over their course content, Waddoups said.

    While the opinions of instructional designers or professors about online courses are important, the most important audience is the student, said South.

    “The students have to feel like it is adding value, like they can learn from it. If the students don’t feel like they can learn from it, then it doesn’t matter if the rest of us like it,” he said.

    Waddoups said that generally students are pleased with the courses and that flexibility is essential. The results of a mid-semester questionnaire, which surveyed 166 students, indicated that 92% of students said online courses allowed them to learn at their own convenience.

    “Students are extremely busy people. Their lives are scheduled in from dawn to dusk, and just being able to do something at 12 at night instead of 10 in the morning can change everything,” South said.

    An advantage of online courses with the greatest implication for increased learning is the notion of freeing class time for discussion by providing course content online, South said.

    “Why is it that we think that a good instructional model is for a professor to simply rehearse their knowledge and for a student to copy it down? I hope that faculty will think of the media as adding more power. If the student can spend their learning time analyzing instead of copying, you have significantly improved the experience,” South said.

    Not only will students benefit from online learning now, they will have valuable skills for future, South said.

    “Based on the current trends, it is likely that online learning will be a major way that people who are not formally students will learn in the next 10 to 20 years. If we can introduce students to this method while they are at the university, then they will be more likely to take advantage of these opportunities once they leave,” he said.

    Kalani Morse, 25, a senior from Mililani, Hawaii, studying public relations is currently enrolled in Business Management 340 online.

    Learning how to use technology was the most valuable aspect of going online, he said.

    “More than anything, what it teaches you is how to use the Internet and other resources rather than just relying on the teacher,” Morse said.

    The CID is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of online courses, Waddoups said.

    “I think that we have gathered some encouraging data, that would show that there are reasons to be optimistic. I think that we have a lot to learn, and this is still in the experimental phase,” Waddoups said.

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