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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue C ::: September 2003

Lessons Learned

Since our Orientation to Adult Education pilot, we have developed and delivered 11 other e-PD courses, most in a blended format. The lessons we have learned are obvious when viewed in retrospect. At the time, however, the choice was either to do it right or do it now. We chose the latter and learned much from doing so.

All participants need to have the minimum hardware, software, Internet connectivity, and the technical support needed to access and participate in an online course. Course developers often fail to consider that many educators use computers less sophisticated than those on which the materials are developed; they also often face the challenges of firewalls, proxy servers, etc. Such issues should be addressed before an educator registers for an online course or unit.

Courses must be built with the lowest common technology denominator in mind. Posting huge files, such as video-streaming, long audio clips, and PowerPoint presentations, which take several minutes to download using a 56K modem, results only in frustration for low-end users. Lower-tech options should be offered for low end users. For example, if an audio clip is included, then a written script should also be available.

Beyond hardware considerations, participants must have the requisite computer skills prior to taking an online course. It was sobering for me to realize how many of our educators had never accessed the Internet or used a computer. We now list prerequisite computer skills in our course publicity and in registration confirmation letters, although we do not offer training through the DAEL. Participants must be able to start a computer, connect to and navigate the Internet, manipulate windows, be able to print, scroll through, and read and reply to e-mail.

All participants should have their own personal e-mail address. Not all employers give part-time instructors e-mail accounts. Free e-mail services exist; however, many adult education centers function within restrictive environments that do not allow for the receipt of e-mail from free account sites. Without an ability to communicate by e-mail, much of the potential benefit of an online course is lost. As in a face-to-face environment, the communication that occurs among participants, and between the instructor and the learner, is critical. Some course management systems offer an internal messaging interface that operates independently of e-mail and can be used for individual or group communication.

What if an instructor cannot meet the first three conditions of participation? Despite the requirement that literacy providers have access to computers and the Internet, and that new staff must complete the Orientation in whatever format it is offered (e-PD), not all do. Those without computer skills, access to the Internet, and e-mail had no alternative way to partake of our PD offerings.

Pilot testing a new course with a limited number of participants is preferable to immediately launching it statewide. Running a pilot, or field test, allows for the identification and correction of problems, errors, and areas of confusion in the course in a relatively controlled environment. In the long run, it saves time.

Experienced current practitioners should be consulted every step of the way, from creating the course outline, to providing content or editing drafts, pilot testing the course, providing feedback, and perhaps facilitating online discussion. The idealistic vision of state department staff must be tempered with the realistic perspectives of those in the field if online course curriculum development is to be successful. 

Ample time must be allotted for course development and delivery. The amount of time required to create and manage an online course should be generously estimated, and then tripled. Creation of the course is but a small segment of the time required. We grossly underestimated how time consuming it would be to teach or facilitate a course.

What do facilitators do? Facilitators answer learners' questions about navigating the course, reveal content at appropriate times during the course (to keep learners more or less together, we displayed two modules a week so that learners would not bound ahead and finish), respond to submitted assignments, start discussions and moderate the course discussion board, monitor learner participation, and fix broken web links (Schweizer, 1999). Without adequate facilitation time, a course threatens to become a stale repository of content and more of a self-paced tutorial than a place and reason for lively exchange and sharing among participants. Our instructors so loved their time together in workshops that we wanted to keep this aspect of sharing and exchange of ideas alive online as well as in the workshop. 
What takes so much time? Responding to myriad e-mails from participants. And, unlike a workshop, answering once does not instantly benefit the entire class (although a message board or posted announcement can be used to avoid answering the same question from multiple participants). Monitoring the discussion board can take hours. Inappropriate messages must be dealt with, erroneous information must be corrected, and participation by non-responding students must be elicited repeatedly. Then there are the technical problems to be corrected: a file won't open, a participant can't log in, the font is too small and the content too long to comfortably read on the screen, a participant needs assistance printing material. It all takes time, and lots of it.

Advance promotion of the online concept is a must. Learning online is foreign territory for many. Given the opportunity, many would choose to remain off-line. Offering strong material, sharing testimonials from your pilot participants - their respected peers - and promoting the new venture in a positive and exciting way in advance will do much to dispel initial resistance. As with any marketing endeavor, the benefits must be clearly presented. 

Delivery and support partners should be selected with care. Work out in detail and in advance exactly what role each party will play. 

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Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL