Vol. 7, No. 3: November 15, 2000
Web Lessons in a Nutshell:
Findings of the Faculty/TA Collaborative Web Project
by Alan Aycock, Instructional Design Consult, Learning Technology
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The Faculty/TA Collaborative Web Project was funded by Curricular Redesign Grant support from UW System in 1999. The purpose of the project was to bring together UWM faculty, UW Colleges faculty, and UWM teaching assistants to work in teams to explore how the web can be best be used for instruction and to develop web sites for their respective classes. During fall 1999, 42 faculty and 14 teaching assistants collaborated to place 58 courses online, registering more than 3,000 students. Fourteen disciplines were represented from academic areas as diverse as accounting, art history, engineering, and sociology. The final report of the Faculty/TA Project is available at http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/LTC/tafa.report.html.
On the basis of our experience with the Faculty/TA Project, what advice would we offer to teachers who use the web to supplement their traditional course material, and to those who teach the teachers to use the web as a supplement?
A bad first experience building or using a course web site may create an enormous obstacle to future online work. The most effective way to help instructors and students learn is to avoid condescension: offer a patient repetition of basic instructions, and strip away all the computer jargon, which is too often a barrier in itself to a relatively simple online task. As a way to keep things simple, when we teach instructors we use specific examples of actual course web sites to show them how their colleagues have handled basic pedagogical issues; we also strongly encourage instructors to provide online models of good coursework for their students.
Sometimes instructors become overwhelmed by the task of developing or using an online web site. We remind instructors that most begin by putting online the materials – syllabus, schedule, assignments – that they hand out in hard copy. As instructors become more comfortable with the course web site, they may add a discussion forum or an online assignment. Using a course web site (or any technology) is not an end in itself, but an active process of pedagogical experimentation. The purpose of using technology is to promote good teaching, not just to use technology because it’s available.
An instructor’s first impulse is to treat the course web site as an add-on, and to assume that "if I build it, they will come." They won’t. The students must see that the instructor takes the online material seriously enough to integrate it with the course as a whole. Hence our idea that an instructor should take 5% of the course grade and reallocate it to online work. Once an instructor has taken that basic decision – online work is worth something – pedagogical creativity often follows. Which 5% of the course grade? Maybe something that doesn’t work as well in a traditional format as the instructor would like. Or something that the instructor is so confident about that it can be put online without any real difficulty.
Neither instructors nor students need know everything about a software program to do what is necessary to arrange or complete course work. We choose easy-to-learn software for course web sites, devise short, focused training sessions (as little as 30 or 50 minutes) to get started, and emphasize that it’s often best to wait until an instructor needs to do more with a course web site to learn more about the minutiae of the software that manages the site. Hands-on training with lots of friendly repetition and trouble-shooting available as followup is an excellent way to support both instructors and students who create and use a course web site.
When Coyote devises an ingenious strategy to trap Roadrunner and it backfires catastrophically, Coyote never tries the same strategy again, but goes on to some other equally disastrous plan. Analogously, sometimes instructors and students just give up when things go wrong online. Training should emphasize the virtue of patience, of seeking appropriate collegial advice and student feedback, and of simply fixing up what has gone wrong. The big advantage of a course web site is that it can always be improved, even in midcourse, if something doesn’t work.
Instructors and students may have little time or patience with lengthy documentation on developing and using a course web site. For this reason, our typical workshop handout is only about two or three pages long with screen shots, more aide-memoire than manual. Similarly, we encourage faculty to teach their students to use the course web site with similar one-page handouts at the start of a course, and thereafter as work becomes due. For instance, very little of one’s reading and writing skill generalizes directly from the traditional face-to-face classroom to online work, so students normally need a one-page protocol or template on how to carry on a scholarly exchange by posting to an online discussion forum.
When students or teachers have been trying to perform an online task such as logging on to a course site or uploading a file without success, the course web site seems more trouble than it’s worth. After twenty minutes, the user should have live help available almost immediately via a quick-response e-mail address, a 24/7 help desk, or an individual known to be helpful and accessible. Reading the manual is not an acceptable substitute for social interaction in such circumstances.
Learn more on the Faculty/TA Collaborative Web Project's website. Comments or requests for further information may be directed to Dr. Alan Aycock. For more articles by Dr. Aycock, see his homepage at UW-Milwaukee.