On-line Education: A Future in Extension Education?
Farm Business Management Update, April 1998
By David M. Kohl and Troy D. Wilson of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech
This past winter, we participated in a six-week on-line course on distance learning administered by UCLA Extension. The primary objective of the course was to assist us in becoming certified instructors in the computer-based, on-line environment. Distance learning is broadly defined as learning that occurs in an environment other than a physical classroom where other students and an instructor are present. On-line education is a specialized type of distance learning in which classes are conducted in a virtual classroom using a computer. . Computer requirements vary depending on the technology chosen, but general requirements include a computer with a sufficiently fast processor and large enough storage capacity for the course software and the student-created files. A modem and phone access is a prerequisite. Depending on the course, word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation software may be required. Additionally, to succeed in the on-line environment, as an instructor or student, one must be comfortable with written communication.
Our course was facilitated by three experienced instructors, one of whom has written a book on distance learning that was used as the text in our course. The curriculum included exams, discussion questions, and individual projects. On-line education may make use of a variety of different technologies including email-based software, the World Wide Web, CD-ROMs, and video. Our particular course used the email-based software Convene that allowed for the creation of meeting rooms for various purposes such as lectures, general discussion, and chat.
On-line education can be a supplement to traditional "on-ground" education, and in some cases, can replace it. Futurists say that by the year 2005 up to 50 percent of adult education could occur on-line. In our traditional classes, we emphasize "high touch" and getting to know as many students as possible. Therefore, when we enrolled, we were skeptical of the on-line environment. However, we both found that the high touch component was alive and well in the virtual classroom, although we never made physical contact with any of our classmates. We were enrolled in separate sections of the course, and had classmates coming from 15 different states provide a broad range of perspectives. The class included a mix of educators, bank examiners, and administrators. Our course was taught asynchronously, meaning students could visit the virtual classroom at any time of the day or night, from any location. Students could fit the course to their schedule and not have to travel. As professor and graduate student, we both saw the economic advantages of this method of instruction, including reduced travel costs and fewer arrangements for facilities. The actual cost to the student of an on-line course is generally equal to the cost of the traditional approach.
Most on-line courses compress the traditional 15-week course into 6 weeks format. Therefore, instructors suggest that only one course be taken at a time. On-line students spend an average four to six hours per week for each course taken. However, we discovered that in some instances, four to six hours ballooned to eight to ten hours including readings, assignments, and responding to class dialogue. The instructors required us to login to the virtual classroom five days each week over the six-week period to respond to the assignments and discussion of other students. On-line education requires considerable self-discipline for the students because no set meeting time is assigned. Time commitments of the participants and scheduling issues are of prime importance.
Through interviews with current on-line instructors, we found that attempting to teach an on-line course requires a minimum of 12 weeks of preparation, which includes devising course objectives, outlines, lectures or assigned readings, and critical thinking questions. A common misconception, they said, is that an on-ground class can automatically be transferred into the on-line environment. Adaptation of material is necessary to mesh with the versatile nature of the virtual classroom and link course objectives to the learning experience. Critical to the success of a program is that administrators need to enroll and successfully complete the course so that they see the process from the student/instructor perspective. Proper orientation is a requirement for both instructors and students. Difficulties with the technology and/or course procedures can doom a class from the outset.
Class size is usually limited to 12 to 15 students, when using the preferred interactive models for on-line instruction. Classes larger than 15 must move more toward a lecture format, reducing student and instructor interaction. Maximum size recommendations for classes, regardless of style of teaching, are 25 per course. The recommended maximum limit on total courses taught per year, by one instructor, is usually three to four. Instructors can plan on spending four to six hours or more per week on the course when class is in session. Significant weekend work may be necessary for such tasks as grading. Responsibilities include monitoring and interacting with the class through discussion questions, grading, and class administration. Most important is the timeliness of student/teacher interaction. Evaluations must be prompt for the on-line class when compared to the on-ground class. Without face to face contact, student tension quickly accelerates.
Critical thinking assignments take precedence over lectures in the on-line classroom. An on-line course requires the use of article and interview critiques, case studies, and discussion questions that are linked to weekly objectives and outcomes. One particularly effective strategy is to ask students to prepare questions to be answered by fellow students. Life experiences and relevant current events are crucial to the process. These techniques take students to a level of learning that extends beyond memorization and regurgitation. The on-line teacher responsible for guiding and monitoring activity in the classroom is more of a facilitator than an instructor. A major responsibility of the instructor is to control the amount of dialogue, which can become overwhelming at the start of a course.
Through our on-line experience, we concluded that on-line education would never replace face to face instruction. However, it could be a useful tool for extension clients in remote areas, with work schedules that are not conducive to regular methods of education. On-line education could also be useful in the delivery of education from specialists to agents. Frequently, seminars in Virginia require eight hours of travel for a one or two-hour workshop. Through on-line classes, both travel and time costs can be redirected toward the educational experience. Extension educators may also use experts from other states or programs as a method to improve effectiveness in education.
We were challenged by the on-line experience. Our first on-line teaching opportunity will involve a course on credit analysis for agrilenders. A number of producers have also inquired about possible topics. On-line education may or may not realize its full potential. However, in our society where time is so valuable and adult education is critical for global competitiveness, on-line education deserves a fair evaluation or hard look.
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