John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204
I teach a course on problem-solving that does not meet on campus; it is offered only on the Internet. This approach to teaching bothered me when I first heard about it because I was suspicious of claims that teaching could be done with no personal contact between the teacher and the students. Indiana University has offered correspondence courses for many years, but my impression has always been that only students with a good deal of self-discipline succeed in them; most students need the regular schedule of a traditionally taught course. Yet distance education in a variety of formats seems to be an important part of the future of education, so I decided to create a one-credit course that involved no face-to-face contact to see what could be done when the teaching and the learning are not done synchronously.
I chose problem-solving for my experiment because a market survey conducted by the I.U. School of Continuing Studies indicated that a pool of students existed who wanted to improve their quantitative reasoning skills but who could not easily attend any of the campuses in the state. One of my goals was to help them develop problem-solving skills by using a variety of environmentally-based subjects: water and air pollution, depletion of resources, and earthquake risks, were among the topics I used to construct problems that students could attack using the strategies discussed in the text materials I wrote and posted on the course's Homepage. A second goal was to ensure that students had some sort of contact with me and with each other, so I created a listserv for the course to allow them to communicate whatever problems they experienced in the course. In addition, I was curious to learn how the asynchronous study group represented by participation in the listserv conversations would work. I also planned to have telephone office hours, using an 800 telephone number, which was available to the university at a reasonable rate.
So the course has two main components: the text materials provided on the Homepage and the communication fostered by the listserv. In principle, there was little new about putting text materials on a Homepage; students could just have easily been reading a textbook. The material I developed (on problem-solving strategies and the interpretation of graphs and tables) was written in short segments, partly because many students do not like to read and partly because no one likes to read long documents on a computer screen. I tried to write bite-sized segments of text which included some worked out examples, followed by links to other examples that they could try, and then, after a few such segments, a link to an assignment. The listserv was the interesting component because, like all e-mail conversations, there can be a considerable lag time between posting a message and getting a response. In order to learn using this communications medium, students must be able to attend to a subject for short periods of time and go back to it when responses to their messages come in. The assignments, which are due every three weeks, are submitted in a variety of ways: e-mail and fax are the most common, but one student slides the papers under my office door at night.
It is easy to create a course but it is difficult to determine how successful it is. Because I had never taught a course on problem-solving before, I had no good way to judge the effect(s) of the asynchronous format on student learning. One of the purposes of the listserv was to attempt a qualitative assessment of the course by using the students' exchanges to monitor how they progressed during the semester. In addition, my hope was that examination of the exchanges would provide some insight into what kinds of things in the text and problem sets worked and what ones did not work.
Once the Spring, 1997 semester began, I realized that I would not be able to do much of what I planned. The course was not advertised well, so instead of the intended clientele, the six students who enrolled were all registered on my campus, and all were science and engineering majors. In addition, two of them were married to each other. So much for a widely scattered group of students terrified of science. The makeup of the group made it nearly impossible to use the listserv as planned. Although there was a range of abilities in the group, because of their backgrounds few of the students found the problems difficult, so they rarely needed to communicate with each other. Most of the messages concerned problems that had misprints in them or missing information. There seemed to be no need for telephone office hours, so that component was not implemented.
The course will be taught again in the Fall 1997 semester, with better advertising, so I anticipate a different clientele and different results. For now, I have to be satisfied with the fact that I learned quite a lot about the capabilities of on-line technologies, conferencing software, and the psychology of writing stand-alone text materials. I may create a three-credit version of the course this summer to attract a new group of students; those who want a course to satisfy a science requirement. If that works out, I plan assess the effectiveness of Internet courses by offering an additional, on-campus section, one "taught" in the traditional manner, to act as a control group. With proper advertising, I should get enough students in both sections to assess the effectiveness of the asynchronous format.
Since October 1, 1997
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