Teaching Online : The Nuts & Bolts

There are many digital tools available for us to deliver course content, including open source software and very expensive proprietary suites.  The terms CMS (Course Management System) and LMS (Learning Management System) get tossed around a bit, as this sector of education is growing so quickly. In simplest terms, these management systems can be thought of as a “homepage” for the course; a place where students can “go” (in the digital sense of the word) to attend class, review course materials, access information, and communicate with the instructor and peers.  The real value of the CMS is the ease of use in organizing and accessing the various activities and assets of a class.  At best, the technology used should be nearly invisible.

The CMS of choice at Albright is “Moodle”  http://moodle.org , and many instructors here are already using it to augment traditional classes.  Moodle, like other systems I’ve used has its positive and negative points: It’s well organized, secure, and has a fair array of tools. It’s easy to access from anywhere, as it’s web based. It’s also difficult to customize, filled with confusing navigation components and requires a great deal of time for simple file management and editing tasks.

 

I chose to use a combination of tools for the summer’s Art265 online session. With most classes, the core activities will guide the selection of tools used.  In the traditional classroom, this course can be broken down into a few main types of activities: lecture and technical demonstration, classroom discussion, textbook based learning (with project based tutorials), and major projects where the students apply what they’ve learned from the other activities.  One-to-one communication and feedback is also essential here, as I suspect it is in every course.

 

I chose to use Moodle as the main delivery mechanism for my lectures and demonstrations.  Moodle can be modified to work in a “module” system, where I was able to type lecture and demo material, upload images, and link to videos and external resources.  In one case, I realized that creating a video could nearly replicate an in-class demonstration, and created a privately linked Youtube channel for the class.  Though this thwarts mid-lecture questions, students do have the opportunity to ask questions through other tools, and “re-watch the lecture” to get a clearer picture of the content.  Project results tell me this was effective and I will likely record more short lectures and demos as time progresses.  That said, typing and video recording all of my delivered content took months.  And in any course where content changes regularly, it will take a great deal of preparation every time the course is run.

 

For classroom discussion I chose the built-in Moodle forums.  This allowed quick non-realtime interaction and was well organized. Though scheduled realtime chat sessions may be more effective for other classes, it was important for me to let students manage their own time (time management is a graded component in many of my classes).  Moodle allows me to view a record of every student’s time spent with the materials and discussions.

 

For textbook-based tutorials and projects in Art265, the final product a student creates is a digital file, as apposed to a written paper or time-based presentation. For these activities I chose to use “Dropbox” https://www.dropbox.com/ , a file sharing service.  Though not open-source, this tool is free, relatively simple to use and has its own help-system for those new to this type of file-sharing programs.

 

Lastly, for one-to-one communication, grading and feedback, Moodle has a tolerable suite of tools that I chose to ignore completely.  All of this communication was done through email (with allowances for face-to-face meetings if needed).  I chose to go this route as there is a high comfort level with the technology, and smaller files can be easily attached. In many situations throughout the weeks, I found myself creating small diagrams, sketches and demonstration images on a case-by-case basis to accompany my emails.  This is a quick process for me, as Photoshop is nearly a native language in my field.  For others, I believe that the newly arriving html5 based multi-user sketch/chat platforms would be VERY useful for one-to-one communication of complex ideas and methods.  Live video chat applications that allow computer screen sharing could also be quite useful.

 

For this “test” class, I tried to use the simplest, cheapest and most widely available tools we have at our hands.  In reflection, I feel this added a great deal of preparation time, but has now given me a simple and portable batch of content that can be tweaked and easily moved from one software platform to the next.  I’ve already dissected most of the material and re-applied it as augmentation to a traditional classroom-based session of Art265 running currently.

 

I’ll revisit this combination of tools in my next entry with some insight on what worked, what could be improved, and the bit of insight that could be culled from the small enrollment in this class.

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