Anise A. G. D'O. FERREIRA <email@example.com>
Catholic University of São Paulo
This paper discusses insights gained from the author's experience in planning and teaching two courses aimed at improving academic Internet use in research and teaching by college teachers, professionals, and master's degree candidates. The courses involved different educational strategies. The first one had prescriptive goals and tasks; the second had a content-based, goal-oriented activity, in which certain abilities, subgoals, and knowledge were implicitly required. The evaluation of both courses was based on students' effective engagement in course activities, measured by class attendance, dropout rate, students' reports, interaction, and performance observations in both online and in-class activities. The results highlighted three important influences on learning: institutional infrastructure and policies for faculty and graduate student improvement, students' previous experience (e.g., proficiency in English reading or computer use), and motivational engagement, which can be ascribed to a participatory and constructive learning environment at the cost of more time-consuming interaction among participants and with the instructor. This paper raises questions about institutional policies for faculty training, theoretical and methodological issues in motivational aspects of the learning environment, implications for future online courses, and their evaluation.
Recent Brazilian federal law (MEC, 1998) has established regulations for accreditation of distance-learning programs at undergraduate and graduate levels where networking will play an important role. At the same time, private colleges trying to become universities are being forced by law to require their staff members to have at least a master's degree (MEC, 1996). These two facts impose upon college teachers the pressure of both completing their graduate studies and being able to deal with the new information and communication technologies such as the Internet. This paper evaluates two courses intended to promote the use of the Internet among college teachers and master's degree students in the fields of education and communication in a college that recently became a university offering a great number of in-class major courses and some online extension courses.
The university in question used to have its Internet rooms packed with undergraduate students, who, in interviews with their representatives, complained about the low level of faculty member computer and Internet literacy. A survey conducted by the department of technological development showed that among the 230 faculty members surveyed, 24 percent had an Internet account, 80 percent had household equipment, 50 percent claimed to have satisfactory to good knowledge of the operating system, and 70 percent claimed to have reasonable to good knowledge of a word processor. Forty-five percent manifested interest in becoming more competent computer users, in learning how to use the Internet as an academic resource, and eventually in providing educational or informative websites. Some faculty members were also graduate students enrolled in the communication and education master's degree program. The institutional policy was, at that time, to offer training sessions to faculty members who needed to learn how to use the Internet in their academic work. Those who were also graduate students in the master's program received extra credits for attending this first graduate-level course, which totaled 30 hours, including classes and work time. For the second course, graduate students received full credit, since it was offered as a full-term, 60-hour course. This paper discusses the insights gained from my experience in planning and teaching these courses respectively entitled "Research and communication via Internet" (May-June 1997), and "Instrumental Internet for academic purposes" (August-November 1998).
Both courses aimed at the understanding and use of the Internet as an instrument for improving academic abilities such as:
The evaluations of both courses were based on the effective engagement of students in course activities, measured by classroom attendance, dropout rate, student reports, interaction, and performance observations in both online and in-class activities.
This paper raises questions about institutional policies for faculty training, theoretical issues about motivational aspects of learning environment and goals, and implications for future online projects and their evaluations.
The first course had strategies that were based upon behavioral goals and tasks related to projected learner needs. The strategies had activities organized in units of knowledge. These units involved lectures and practice exercises. There was some flexibility in the practice sessions, since the content target of tasks had to be related to the participants' main area of interest and the pace of performance had to be based on their competence in computer use. The instructor was available to give in-class guidance and feedback during practice sessions. Pedagogically, this teaching plan reflects, in part, some of the behaviorist principles of educational methodology, such as previous specification of goals and tasks in sequential steps, and the belief that the educator can control and predict required learning outcomes (Burton, Moore and Magliaro, 1996).
At the end of the course, the participants would be expected to:
In order to attain the objectives, the participants were expected to:
Enrolled in the course were 30 male and female adults, consisting of faculty members (part-time college professors), invited coordinators, invited librarians, and administrative employees. This group was heterogeneous in academic level, English language proficiency, professional interests, and familiarity with both microcomputers and the Internet. The department of technological development wanted this opportunity to reach the greatest possible number of people.
The lectures were offered in a classroom in which a microcomputer (personal computer; PC) directly accessed the Internet through a 64 Kb line connecting to the Internet service provider (ISP).This microcomputer was a Pentium PC (133 MHz, 32 MB RAM, 1 MB Video RAM) equipped with CD-ROM drive and multimedia resources, running Win95 and the necessary Internet clients. A datashow was used to project the Microsoft PowerPoint slides and Internet applications during explanations of their features and academic usage. Since the connection was neither fast nor stable, the instructor sometimes had to present the material off-line.
The institution provided Internet access on campus via direct connection, since it was not able to provide an off campus dial-up service. An Internet laboratory, with 40 identically configured PCs (without multimedia resources), was available for students who wanted to practice in the afternoons. However, they preferred to use the equipment available in the teachers' room, which was equally slow and nonstable but offered more privacy.
The invited coordinators, librarians, and administrative employees had microcomputers in their offices with direct or dial-up connections to the Internet. Since those connections were not stable, and some machines had maintenance problems, some preferred to use their personal equipment and connections at home.
The participants were given printed material that contained:
The course was divided into sessions and assignments:
By the third week, those who had no familiarity whatsoever with computers began dropping out. They said they had no available time to practice. The dropout rate reached 66.6 percent. Only 10 (six graduate students, two coordinators, one administrative employee, and a librarian), from the initial 30, attended the lectures consistently. During the eight weeks, the presence of the instructor in practice sessions was requested three times by each pair of the more assiduous students. E-mail was also used to communicate with those participants. Nobody turned in all the assignments. All of them complained about lack of time and blamed their unproductive days on the nonstable infrastructure conditions. Moreover, some reported that they tried at least to attend the lecture sessions because they felt obligated by their superiors. On the other hand, there was some positive feedback. One of the coordinators reported having been very satisfied with being able to find documents he needed. The librarian and administrative employee started an informal interaction with instructor in order to solve specific problems with their professional activities on the Internet.
While it is possible to imagine many reasons why the participants didn't satisfactorily complete their assignments or finish the course, the obvious reasons were institutional infrastructure problems and participants' time constraints, since some were part-time professors and had their own businesses. Of course, one could say that a better infrastructure and paid release time would help. In fact, two hours a week dedicated to practice falls short of learning needs. At least 10 hours a week would be necessary . The instructor noted that those who persisted in continuing the course, despite the difficulties, exhibited common characteristics: a) engagement in activities in which the Internet fulfilled immediate needs and b) English reading proficiency. Among those who continued were the coordinators, senior researchers, and professionals, who experienced immediate benefits. For the librarian and employee, the course provided insights into the use of Internet tools. On closer inspection, it turns out that the course may have started from the false premise that participants were equally as motivated as this latter group.
Pedagogically, one can say that the teaching strategies, based on prescribed and structured exercises, were not adequate for all the learners. Even though the exercises were related to the solution of a genuine problem, they were not embedded in a meaningful or relevant project for the majority of the participants.
The importance of English reading proficiency makes sense, since most sources of relevant information at that time were in English. Many still are, such as indexes, abstracts, publishers, electronic lists, newsletters, and general information websites. These results demonstrated that infrastructure and time can be powerful factors, but motivational aspects embedded in strategies may also be powerful.
The second course had practically the same general objectives as the first one, focusing more on a critical analysis of academic performance through the Internet. However, task goals and specific contents were not previously established by the professor as in the first course. The design took into account the remaining unsolved problems of infrastructure and students' lack of time. In order to minimize these effects, course duration was increased, criteria for selection of participants were established, and course content and strategies were modified; the design became more flexible, according to students' difficulties and motivation.
This course proposed content-based, goal-oriented activity, in which many abilities and subgoals and much knowledge were implicitly required. The final objective was to build an academic information resource website (individually and in group) in which specific contents were negotiated with the instructor and among the students, based on their real work and research issues. The students, along with the instructor, evaluated and selected a free service for Web page storage, such as Geocities, Xoom, and Starmedia, where they stored their assignments and structured their website.
Traditionally, instructional design is associated with prescriptive instructional packages where the learner stands in a passive position (Wilson, 1997). However, this proposal was based on pedagogical assumptions that relate technology-based learning environments to motivational (Small, 1997) and sociocultural constructivist approaches to instructional design (Duffy & Cunningham ,1997; Wilson, 1997; Law, L-C, 1995, Jonassen, Mayes & McAleese, 1993 ). According to Jonassen and colleagues (1993), technology-based learning environments are adequate for the constructivist assumptions, such as knowledge construction, active learning, social negotiation of meaning, real world, relevant or meaningful context of learning, and so on. Duffy & Cunningham (1997) say that problem-based learning is an instructional model that exemplifies their representation of the constructivist theory. According to them, learning occurs when the problem functions as a guide, an integrator or test, an example, a vehicle for process, and a stimulus for authentic activity. Also, the aspect of social-dialogical activity in the constructivist approach can be accomplished in either classroom interaction or online collaborative work. Jonassen (1994) recommends the application of technology as a cognitive learning tool rather than as instructional media, which means students design their own instruction.
In summary, the position assumed by the instructor here gave importance to creating opportunities for the students to perform and accomplish tasks in a genuine situation, to perform collaborative tasks, and to reach goals according to group and individual needs and desires.
Nine graduate students, one journalist, one business administrator, one social communication college teacher, one marketing college teacher, two teachers of English as foreign language, and three pedagogical advisors applied for this course. The enrollment requirements were a) to have their own Internet account and connection at home, b) to be a proficient English language reader, c) to have basic computer skills in the operating system, word processors, browser, and e-mail clients, and d) to have 10 extra hours a week available to practice. The students who judged that they could not fulfill all the requirements (either because their level of English reading was poor, or because their computer skills were inadequate) were accepted upon agreeing to work additional hours. A student who had more experience with Internet than his classmates did offered to help the others with technical problems. Although this student was experienced in the use of Internet tools, he was not confident using them as academic tools.
Aside from their own Internet access and accounts, students could use the undergraduate laboratory in the afternoons. The undergraduate campus was situated slightly less than one kilometer from the graduate department. The instructor could use a shared dial-up access available in one room in the graduate department, or use her own Internet dial-up access and account at home. The undergraduate laboratory was reserved for classes one morning every other week. It had 40 PCs (133 MHz, 32 MB RAM, HD 2 GB, 1 MB Video RAM) connected in a Novell local network with direct access to the Internet through a 64 MB line to the ISP. The other sessions took place in a regular classroom on the graduate campus, with desks and a white board, where lectures and discussions were carried on.
The course was divided in classroom and remote activities. Sixty accredited hours were given: 15 weekly four-hour sessions with students and the instructor in a regular classroom (desks and white board) or with students and instructors at the laboratory every other week from the sixth session on, where some online activities took place in pairs or groups. The remote activity -- that is, homework and online work -- was not computed as instruction hours for administrative purposes.
The general content involved the following topics in theoretical discussions and practical activities:
Classroom and laboratory activities involved:
Remote activities involved:
The first two sessions were dedicated to planning and organizing the work routine, based on discussions of students' research and work themes. The themes for readings were derived from instructor-student dialogue. Readings and discussions, alternating with short lectures, involved the selected topics mentioned above. The complexity of practice activities was negotiated with the students during the course. In order to help initiate practice, two Web pages were provided -- one containing academic resource information addresses, the other containing guidelines for bibliography searches.
In order to become more technically familiar with the tools, each student agreed to store homework in individual Web pages. Then, they had to edit all the individual material (handwritten or in HTML [hypertext markup language] format) and organize it in a collective website according to data and criteria they had read and discussed.
Student evaluation was based on in-class and online participation and production, in both individual and collective publication of assignments negotiated with the instructor (some in HTML, others distributed through e-mail).
There were no dropouts, although one of the students missed classes, was always 30 minutes late, and couldn't accomplish any of the work established by the instructor and group. He complained about his defective microcomputer and lack of time either to have it fixed or to work on campus. The average rate of attendance was 91 percent.
By the fifth session, the site for the Web page storage was chosen. Since the site had a forum service, some of the messages exchanged by the group remained at the site and could be revisited anytime. However, not all the messages exchanged were stored at the site.
Two hundred and forty messages were sent to the group list. Thirty-one percent were sent by the instructor, and 29.5 percent were sent by the student who was more experienced in the Internet. He also forwarded some peer messages to the list. Three percent came from another graduate professor who collaborated in finding course material once in a while. Thirty-nine percent were sent by the other students, who could be divided into two groups of three: a) average-level interaction, ranging from 0.7 to 14 percent, and b) minimum interaction with less than 0.7 percent. It is important to notice that some messages were not sent directly to the list by the students, but were sent to classmates. As the course progressed, online interaction decreased: 41 percent of the total messages sent during the course were exchanged in the first month, 28 percent in the second, 10 percent in the third, and 5 percent in the last.
The content of these communications was mostly organizational (instructor's feedback, comments and suggestions to all students, and students' messages to all proposing and assuming tasks) and technical (students asking for help, instructor and students giving help). There was student-student communication, too. At the beginning of the course, the numbers showed an active list. As soon as the course evolved, the list activity decreased. This has a simple explanation. The individual tasks decreased and collective work was required in order to accomplish the collective site; the greater part of these messages were sent directly to the classmates with whom the student was sharing the activity.
The level of remote, online interaction was less than that expected by the instructor, since the group had agreed that part of the theoretical discussions and work would be distributed to all in the class list. The students took more time to solve technical difficulties, and they didn't have time to deal electronically with the material gathered in the interval between classes. So, they printed the material, read it at home, and discussed it in the classroom.
The assignments exhibited in class and in the website formed the students' portfolio for evaluation. These materials showed that practically all of the students (89%) were able to:
Priority was given to content organization and quality, instead of graphic embellishment. The collective site was remarkably superior to the individual pages both in quantity and quality (URL: http://members.xoom.com/tgcarmona/default.html).
In terms of specific skills for using Internet software, tools, and services, they were able to get an Internet account, install communication and Internet software, communicate more frequently through e-mail, navigate the WWW, use search engines, download and upload material through an ftp client, and edit HTML. Of course, there were different levels of performance and achievements. Although most had already used e-mail and the WWW before the course, some took much more time to achieve results than others and still had to follow personal written notes and instructions.
Judging by the commitment to course requirements, the instructor expected a higher level of accomplishment. However, the students emphasized that their ability to gather relevant academic material through Internet information and communication services increased (in some cases, from zero). According to discussions, assignments, and reports collected during sessions, all the students, except one, had insufficient previous experience with Internet clients or other software, and six were slow English readers. All students needed more time to complete activities, some as much as 15 hours. One group misjudged the time they had available for the courses, and in some cases, had as few as six hours a week to work. The most experienced student said he needed seven hours a week to complete his work. Even those who had more experience with word processors or graphic editors demonstrated difficulty in transferring these abilities to other tools as Internet clients. For example, the student who was a proficient English reader and had very good computer skills with text and graphic editors said that six to eight hours a week were necessary in order to achieve her goals. Although the students also complained about the slow Internet access they had in the laboratory sessions, having some classes in the Internet laboratory proved to be essential for those who had poorer computer skills.
The quality and quantity of discussions of course content were negatively affected by the effort spent resolving technical problems. Some students reported that they wanted to explore and discuss subjects of interest in greater depth and quantity. Technical difficulties forced the instructor to be less demanding concerning the focus of the course. Changes were made to accommodate the majority of student needs. However, the students became aware of and put into practice important concepts of academic Internet use, such as criteria for establishing quality of information, usability, and peculiarities of the media in communication and education. At the end of the course, they reported that their technical level as well their comprehension of Internet technology use improved (some had serious prejudices about using the Internet in academic work). They also reported that the benefits they got from the Internet for their research and educational processes increased substantially during the course and that they were satisfied with their progress. Some reported that the Internet helped them to find theoretical and methodological trends in their research areas.
These better results in the second course can be ascribed to modifications in course methodology motivated by the necessity of managing student lack of time, access difficulties on campus, and maintenance of student interest in Internet academic usage.
The differences between the two courses were remarkable in terms of students, design, and results. The differences in results could be seen by the dropout rate and student accomplishments and reports, which can be indicators of differences in motivation.
There were differences among participants in terms of quantity, time commitment, and interests. The first group was bigger and more heterogeneous. The small number of students enrolled in the second course was probably an effect of enrollment requirements regarding computer and English-reading skills. Also, this restricted number could have reflected the difference in motivation.
Most important, however, were the changes made in course strategies. Increasing course duration and work hours in the second course seem to have provided enough time to participants to interact, solve problems, negotiate contents, and, as a consequence, find meaningful and relevant context tasks for the use of the Internet. Also, the second class was more aware of the time availability requirements.
The strategies in the first and second course were learner focused in different ways. In the first, participants couldn't choose the activity, but could adapt the exercises to their interests. In the second, the students negotiated all the activities. So, problem-solving strategies embedded in activities involved more meaningful and relevant situations. In other words, the increase of interaction time allowed for a different methodology --one that privileged learning based on interaction and problem solving, thus increasing motivation.
The second class was less dependent on institutional infrastructure. This fact seems to have minimized the difficulties of Internet access the first class had experienced. Even though they had on-campus Internet access as an option in case of technical problems, the students avoided it and complained about slow connection in the laboratory sessions. Not counting on institutional infrastructure turned out to be a sounder strategy.
One could say that the second course shared three characteristics of a theory of intrinsically motivated instruction (Malone, 1981): challenge, fantasy, and curiosity. Challenge refers to the goal, an uncertain outcome, and ludic aspect of tools. The goal was personally meaningful; the difficulty level was chosen by the learner and negotiated in the group. The computer itself can be viewed as a toy. The success in challenging tasks increases self-esteem. Here, fantasy could assume its psychoanalytical connotation, since the information site represented in due proportion a projection of students' desires and needs. Curiosity, for its part, is fulfilled, since the work with hypermedia tools such as HTML and graphic editors attracts attention (sensory curiosity), is intellectually intriguing, provides surprising feedback, and offers opportunities to solve intellectual conflictive situations (cognitive curiosity). These characteristics are being reviewed by Web-based instruction designers (Duchastel, 1997).
Although the study of motivation can be separated from the study of learning (Weiner, 1990), for the educational researcher, all indications pointed to the need for student-focused, flexible, interactive design for online and in-class activities in order to motivate learners, focus their attention, and keep their engagement high. This supports theoretical assumptions about both online and face-to-face motivational aspects of instructional design. Duchastel (1998) says that:
[motivational aspect] is heavily intertwined with content selection [of instruction] (...), and with situatedness (or lack thereof) of the instruction itself. Just-in-time instruction (increasingly found in corporate training), highly contextualized instruction (as found in problem-based and case-based learning), naturalistic instruction (using realistic settings and problems, simulations and other high-impact instructional media) are modern developments in instructional approaches that emphasize authenticity (Jonassen, 1998). They seek to capitalize on the learner's natural curiosity and current intellectual needs, thus doing away with artificial means of motivating students.
The adoption of these strategies also agrees with the need for participatory environments in adult learning (Imel, 1988).
Wlodkowski (1993) asserts that the available knowledge in the practice of motivating adults to learn doesn't fit into any single theory of motivation. However, according to him it is perfectly possible to adapt motivational principles to instructional strategies in learning situations. He developed the time continuum model of motivation which takes into account three phases: (a) beginning learning process, when attitudes and needs have to be analyzed; (b) during learning process, when stimulation and affect are the focus, and (c) ending learning process, when competence and reinforcement are the keys. Different motivational theories are related to each of these phases. For him, adult motivation operates on integrated and hierarchical levels:
[success + volition]1st level + value]} 2nd level + enjoyment]}3rd level.
It is possible to say that the strategies involved in the second course, in some degree, favored the students' management of their own success, volition fulfillment, value, and enjoyment achievement.
These results offer some perspectives on what seems necessary for future online classes. First, they offer evidence of the problems many college teachers are undergoing by trying to cope with conflicting institutional situations: the need for computer- and Internet-user competence, lack of time for training and studying, lack of institutional policies for distance-learning design/teaching workload, and lack of efficient networking infrastructure and support. As we saw, creating engagement in computer-based learning environments guided by participatory and constructive principles is time consuming for the instructor and students. Institutions that want their faculty to be more competent in academic use of the Internet will have to adopt adequate policies. And those faculty members who have poorer computer skills will still need support provided by immediate, personal interaction and feedback. As to the difficulties in transferring computer skills from one software to another, an important issue is raised. Since the software industry changes users' interfaces constantly, it is hard to keep up with new designs. It seems that, in no circumstance, should interface usability issues be neglected, judging by what has been pointed out by Jakob Nielsen(1998a,1988b) concerning the Web.
Second, besides the influence of institutional policies and of students' previous experience (e.g., proficiency in English reading or in computer use), their motivational engagement as users of the Internet for academic purposes was shown to be very important. This engagement was indirectly observed through in-class performance and student reports and production. The motivational engagement can be ascribed in part to the participatory and constructive learning environment provided by time-consuming interaction. How should we evaluate the presence of these characteristics in the online environment? As to interaction, it is easier to register, since courseware can track all communication. In order to evaluate the subjective expectations for success and value in future online courses, I suggest the adoption of instruments of motivational analysis, such as the Website Motivational Analysis Checklist-WebMAC (Small & Arnone, 1998).
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