Introduction. The busy lives that people lead today have caused a demand for a more convenient method to

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1 On-Line Courses: A Comparison of Two Vastly Different Experiences by Sharon Testone, Ph.D. Introduction The busy lives that people lead today have caused a demand for a more convenient method to gain a college education. For several years, many students have preferred to enroll in courses at extension sites to reduce the commuting time to class. With the wide availability of computers, students now have the opportunity to take courses from their office, home or perhaps the local library. All they need is a computer and an internet service provider and they may attend classes at their own convenience and receive instruction at any time. This type of instruction is gaining in popularity each semester; however, there are many pedagogical questions that must be addressed. Institutions that are considering the possibility of adding on-line courses to their current schedules need to investigate these issues prior to developing the courses. As the Coordinator for Developmental Mathematics Programs at Onondaga Community College, I became intrigued with the possibility of teaching developmental mathematics courses on-line. The more I investigated this type of distance learning, the more questions I began to formulate. For example, Can students learn mathematics via this mode of instruction?, Do they need a traditional classroom setting with access to an instructor?, Will they be able to learn the material on their own? Although I have over twenty years of experience working with developmental students and fourteen years working in an independent study program, I did not feel that I could answer those questions. Since I had no experience with distance learning, I decided to enroll in on-line courses. This article will attempt to describe two vastly different experiences and an interpretation of what caused these differences. 1

2 The First Experience: A Course in Human Resource Management Although I was interested in on-line mathematics courses, I decided to begin my experience by enrolling in a course where I had no prior knowledge. This approach was chosen to help me determine if it was possible for me to learn new information without the benefit of classroom instruction. After searching the internet, I found a course offered by an out of state university on Human Resource Management. Fortunately, I enrolled a few weeks in advance which allowed me to become accustomed to working in this environment. The university required all on-line students to test the system and their ability to read attached files, send attached files, and navigate through a fairly complex system of , classrooms, and discussion groups. I immediately felt that a huge support network was available. Students were posting hello messages to former classmates in hopes that they had enrolled in another course. Novices, like myself, were asking for help navigating through the system and for information from other students regarding their feelings about prior courses that they had taken and what benefits they had gained from those courses. On the first day of the scheduled class, the instructor sent an introductory message to the students. This message included a description of his background, his hopes for the course, the syllabus and a schedule of reading assignments. He also explained that lecture notes would be posted in an attached file twice each week and specific questions would be assigned for each student to submit. He then asked all students in the class to write a brief personal introduction and to post it on the class bulletin board for all to read. This method allowed students to become acquainted with each other. Additionally, he stated that all assignments should be posted to the classroom bulletin board for everyone to read and critique. Since twenty-two students were 2

3 enrolled in the class, he required a general critique rather than asking us to comment on assignments from each of our classmates. Most students only chose to make positive comments and would quote statements that they believed to be particularly intriguing. In most cases, the assignments were well-written and extremely interesting because they dealt with real world situations. Since the instructor required that all students try to apply the concepts to their current position, the class was asked to maintain the confidentiality required for this type of open environment. In addition to student comments, the instructor made general remarks which were posted to the classroom bulletin. He would write private messages; however, if he felt that a student needed some improvement in the written assignments. I found this experience to be very rewarding. The instructor was on-line many times during the week and he responded quickly to any questions that were posted by students. Additionally, students often tried to assist each other and were very supportive. I felt that I personally knew the instructor and my fellow classmates. I visited the on-line classroom quite often to view current activity and I was very disappointed when the final exam was due indicating the end of the semester. Since the final exam was ed directly to the instructor, the students in the class did not have an opportunity to discuss their responses to the complex case study. Several students asked the instructor if it would be possible for the class to discuss the case study after he had received and graded the exams. He obtained permission from the university to keep the classroom bulletin board open for an additional week to allow this discussion to occur. I believe that this request demonstrated how involved the students were in the class and how much we all enjoyed discussing issues with our classmates. 3

4 The Second Experience: A Course in College Algebra After having a favorable experience in the Human Resource Management course, I decided to continue my investigation of on-line courses and the possibility of teaching mathematics in this mode. Although I was interested in developmental mathematics, I was unable to find a course at that level. Eventually, I enrolled in a College Algebra on-line course offered from a college in New York State. I decided not to inform the instructor that I was a Mathematics Professor because I wanted a realistic view of the course. Although I had previous knowledge of the content, my interest was primarily in presentation style via the internet, use of graphing calculators, and student reactions to the course. Initially, the two courses compared favorably with each other. The instructor introduced herself and asked each student to do the same via the classroom bulletin board. She provided a syllabus and a tentative schedule for exams throughout the semester. Furthermore, she stated her desire to have students ask for assistance when needed and her hopes that other students also would respond to the requests. Students were allowed to discuss homework assignments; however, all exams except the final, were to be completed on the honor system and ed to the instructor. The final exam was to be mailed to an approved proctor who would be responsible for administering the exam and returning it to the instructor. Soon after the course began, it became evident that communication and cooperation was not at the same level that existed in the Human Resource Management course. Actually, there was very little student interaction in the College Algebra course. The notes for the course were definitely lacking. The students were merely given pages in the textbook to read and assigned specific problems to complete. The course was advertised as a distance learning course, but it 4

5 very rapidly became an independent study course on-line. During my twenty years of teaching mathematics to community college students, I have found very few students who would be capable of learning college algebra independently. Several of the students in this class disappeared after the first few weeks and the others were unable to keep pace with the course. Perhaps that is why the instructor did not give the exams as scheduled and did not open new modules in a timely manner. Actually, the class did not receive any messages from the instructor or responses to our questions for over one month. It was only after the class continued a discussion speculating about her whereabouts and left several voice messages at the college that we finally heard from the instructor. Her lack of response for that length of time caused her to eliminate a whole unit from the syllabus. Obviously, I was totally frustrated with this course and I knew the material. I can only imagine how others felt. Another problem with the course that also caused a high level of frustration was the difficulty presenting math problems symbolically over the internet. For example, the instructor could not display exponents or square roots symbols. The problem 3 2 was displayed as 3 ^2 and the problem x + 2 x + 3 was displayed as sqrt(x+ 2) * sqrt(x+3). Throughout the course, the instructor used an excessive number of parenthesis and other symbols to represent the problems. The use of a mathematics editor in combination with the appropriate internet software would have eliminated this difficulty and made the problems clearer to students. At the end of the semester, I wondered how many students had actually completed the course and how they felt about the mathematics instruction they received. Additionally, I was curious as to how the instructor felt about the course and her students' ability to learn via this mode of instruction. Just as I was about to reveal my true identity to the instructor and ask for an opportunity to speak with her about these issues, I discovered that she was planning to make a presentation at a conference about teaching an on-line college algebra course. I attended that 5

6 conference and listened to her feelings about the course. She spoke about the many pitfalls and problems that she faced. Her presentation indicated her dissatisfaction with the course and she did not appear to have any ideas to improve it in the future. Her lack of interest in that course and a semi-negative feeling about her students were evident during the presentation. She informed the audience that twelve students had enrolled in the class. At the end of the semester one student received an A, one student received a C, and the others had either withdrawn during the semester or received a grade of incomplete. The instructor believed that part of the problem was that students were not required to complete any type of placement test before enrolling and most likely did not have the necessary prerequisite skills. She indicated that these results were very similar to those of the previous two semesters and that she most likely would no longer teach this course on-line. Comparison of Experiences As I compared the College Algebra course with the Human Resource Management course, I began to develop ideas to improve the mathematics course. The mathematics instructor was not involved with the class and did not provide instruction or assignments that were conducive to online learning and student interaction. In contrast, the instructor for the Human Resource Management course truly appeared to care about the students. He was on-line often communicating with the class and individuals. He provided detailed notes for the course to supplement the required readings. Additionally, the instructor posed questions that required thought and encouraged student interaction by having students read each others papers and comment. The College Algebra course could have been salvaged if the students were provided with notes and detailed examples instead of mini-lectures consisting of one or two lines giving page 6

7 numbers that should be read and problems to attempt with a caution about the difficulty of the material. Second, interesting application problems should have been posed for students to work on together and submit to the classroom bulletin board. Finally, the instructor should have been on the internet daily to encourage, assist, and prod students. Her disappearance for over one month during the middle of the semester did not help the situation. Plans for an On-line Developmental Mathematics Course Although I had a negative experience with an on-line mathematics course, I am still interested in attempting to teach via that mode of instruction. At this time, the only math course that I would attempt would be a review of developmental mathematics. The purpose of the course would be to help students determine exactly what skills they need to improve. They would then be given an opportunity to refresh these skills at their own pace in preparation for a college level mathematics course. Onondaga Community College currently offers a similar program, but students must come to campus for assistance and to be tested. The independent study courses are: Arithmetic, Beginning Algebra, and Intermediate Algebra. These courses are only open to students who have prior knowledge of the topics included and merely need a refresher. The students use packets of materials written in a programmed learning format to provide a quick review of mathematics topics. On-line, these packets could be used as notes to assist students in reviewing the material. The students would not be left alone with a textbook to decipher. Since the course would be noncredit and the review would be for the student's benefit, there would be no need for a proctored testing environment. Hopefully, a course of this nature would help students 7

8 to prepare for a credit level mathematics course while meeting the current demand for a convenient way for them to gain needed skills. Conclusion It appears that distance learning offerings via computer will continue to grow as the demand for easier access to education increases. Instructors of these courses will be responsible for maintaining quality and for providing an optimal learning environment for their students. To achieve this goal, instructors will have to be prepared to present material in different ways, create assignments that will cause students to work cooperatively, and be willing to give more of their time than is required in a traditional classroom situation. Students will have to be motivated to work independently and to meet deadlines set by an instructor that they may never meet. Although the challenges of teaching on-line are numerous, in many instances educators are meeting these challenges and providing a quality educational experience. The goal for the future should be for more consistency in the quality of courses offered on-line and perhaps a realization that this environment is not suitable for all fields of study. Note: I would like information from anyone who has taught or enrolled in a distance learning on-line course. I am interested in gathering information regarding successes and failures. Additionally, I would like your input regarding the amount of work needed to initiate and maintain a quality course in this environment. Send information to: Dr. Sharon Testone Mathematics Department Onondaga Community College Syracuse, New York or 8

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