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Sensible Tools of Engagement
Three Channels for Online Education, and Why You Should Use Them

By Debra Beck / December 2009

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When I launched my distance teaching career at the University of Wyoming in 2001, one very practical roadblock came between me and the rich, multi-sensory learning experience I envisioned for my students: technology.

Or rather, lack of technology. Available tools were primitive by today's standards, and Internet connections were glacial.

Even in 2001, a course built solely on text on a screen would fail to meet the diverse learning needs of my students, and I did what I could to provide alternatives.

I called my friend Andy at the campus teaching resource center and asked him to help me create two "guest lecturer" interviews. They were informative and instructional works of art.

But to bring them to my students, most of whom had dial-up connections, Andy and I had to strip out the video, break the audio into 30- to 60-second bites, and upload them to a streaming site. I then recreated the interview by mixing text-based versions of my questions followed by links to the clips—which some students still couldn't access through their slow connections.

It was a tedious process for me, and frustrating for them. It was also my first reality check regarding technology in the classroom: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

What a difference a few years makes!

Today, thanks to free software, producing podcasts is a one-woman job. Students have easy and fairly reliable access to them via download or by streaming through iTunesU. I have at my disposal a whole teaching toolbox, and knowing which tools to use and to what educational end, keeps me grounded to the "can" versus "should" reality.

In teaching both traditional undergraduates(17-25 years old) and non-traditional graduate students, I've found that age is not necessarily the deciding factor for judging a student's comfort level with technology. Some of my more media-savvy students have been my age or older, while some of those who struggled most were younger. In my experience, the following three types of technology (beyond the threaded discussions that take place online) are within the reach of the majority of my students and are the most useful teaching tools: podcasts, wiki-based group projects, and social bookmarking.

Audacity homepage screen shot

Podcasts, created using Audacity, give students a break from text-driven content. They can listen to me discuss a topic or interview an expert from that field, while employing different senses. Video podcasts I find less reliable since "high speed" remains a relative concept in rural settings, where many of my students live. However, I do provide brief (25 minutes or less) presentations on topics within my field of expertise. Students respond well to both the content and the shift in format variety.

Podcasts also allow me to share information about the class in ways that better fit the learning preferences of each student. They do not replace the syllabus, but they reinforce critical information, expand upon instructions, and otherwise make sure that everyone understands what is expected.

One of the best examples of the value of podcasts is their impact on the quality of weekly journal entries. This particular assignment used to leave several students in a perpetual struggle every semester. No matter how I spelled out the assignment in the syllabus, and no matter how much I reiterated the details in email and notes accompanying grades, the struggle continued.

Then, when I began adding podcasts, I highlighted the troublesome expectation in the course introduction. I reinforced it in a follow-up podcast the second week. The shift in submission quality was immediate and dramatic. At the time, I didn't know whether audio reinforcement or the quality of students in the class made the difference. Doubt was removed in semesters two, three, and beyond.

I create video podcasts using Snap Pro X to walk them through the online component of the course and introduce the wiki, where they will later conduct their group work.

I've also created brief video messages using the screen-capture tool Screener to respond quickly to questions that arise during the week. For example, I recently demonstrated how to turn off email notifications in the wiki after several students complained about being inundated whenever the site was changed. Showing was easier than telling in that case.

Podcasts offer a secondary benefit: the chance to reduce the perceived distance between students and instructor. I'm not just a name on a screen. I have a voice and am a layered human being. While students of all ages have commented on this in reflective assignments and course evaluations, adult students in particular are more likely to describe this as an experience-enhancing factor.

Wiki-Based Group Assignments
Group projects in any setting stir up anxiety. Group projects in an online setting add an extra layer of panic.

In previous years, group assignments were allocated to the discussion thread area of the course site. Students received instruction on what their projects should include and how. Inevitably, the exercises were marked by lost students and projects that were either long, gray pages of type or static PowerPoint slides filled with blocks of text. What was happening was the limitations of the course site defined the format. Worse, these assignments fell short of the interactive, peer-driven learning experiences they were intended be.

More recently, group assignments have been moved to a wiki, which lets us focus attention on where the group work should be taking place and enables a truly interactive and media-rich learning experience that the students can share with others.

The wiki assignments are a work in progress. The first semester that I asked the groups to complete the assignment on a wiki, the students didn't have any examples to work from. That bothered some students tremendously. Now, fortunately, they can look at the work produced by students from previous semesters to get an idea of how the assignment should look.

I'm also learning that it's impossible for me to provide too much guidance and feedback on wiki-base assignments. Still, with the chance to learn from examples left by their predecessors—and constant reassurance from me that messy process is expected and okay—the wiki environment is a richer environment for meeting those assignments' instructional goals.

Social Bookmarking
Rather than rely on a fairly static webliography, which students lose access to once the course ends, I've incorporated my Delicious bookmarks into the course in different ways. One of the more stimulating ways I use them is in posting a discussion question that asks students to explore a subset of my bookmarks and share their favorites or write their impressions. It's fascinating to see what sparks their interest, what they share, and how they connect the readings and discussions held elsewhere in the unit. It encourages a different kind of engagement in the learning process, as they both identify what appeals to or challenges them and respond to what their peers bring to the table.

Many times, they bring examples of articles, tools, and blog posts that reinforce concepts we're discussing in other parts of the unit. In others, they expand our knowledge base by contributing a new layer of detail that they consider to be important within the context of what we are exploring as a group.

Stretch But Don't Overwhelm
Earlier this year, during the Q&A portion of a workshop I delivered on wikis in the classroom, an attendee who appeared to be in his early 20s asked if the impending launch of GoogleWave might change my approach to teaching online. When I offered a qualified "maybe," he challenged me to consider whether I was allowing the "lowest common denominator" to drive those decisions. My response to that notion was unequivocal.

I have one job as an online instructor: expand my students' understanding of the nonprofit sector. I use whatever tools facilitate that understanding or challenge them in ways that inspire and stimulate them. It's important to stretch students in healthy ways, but the reach should never impede learning.

I'm an adventurous media consumer, but many of my students feel challenged when they simply participate openly in threaded discussions. Future students will undoubtedly embrace a wider array of tools in their learning and their daily lives. I'll be there, a step ahead, ready to stretch them as I did those who came before them.


  • Thu, 04 Feb 2010
    Post by Arturo

    does anything needs to be call "one-woman job"?

  • Fri, 18 Dec 2009
    Post by reza

    Thinks These information about e-learning are very helpful for me and my wife. Reza

  • Sun, 06 Dec 2009
    Post by Joseph Boateng, MHIM, RHIA

    I enjoyed reading your article. Though it did not contain very much detail on the subject matter, yet it was very interesting and contained the "inside-out" of online teaching experience. I followed you closely to the end not because I wanted to pick every sentence in the article, but I was 'digesting" all those good ideas so that I will be able to incorporate them into my own eLearning project.

    I am a newbie in the eLearning field and will love to read from experience people like you. Please keep me posted of any new article you post or those interesting ones you read from Internet.

    thanks. Joseph.

  • Sat, 05 Dec 2009
    Post by Carol Cooper-Taylor

    I'm interested to know where you (and others) post your pod casts and why you choose that service over others.


  • Thu, 29 Oct 2009
    Post by luballo

    John I must admit that your tips have made my day!! I am working on a reserach on Web 2.0 technologies and i find them quite useful.

  • Mon, 28 Sep 2009
    Post by kamikraze

    now im working with my final project.. about microblogging for my small group.. very fresh with web2.0 but seems to what the 10 details tell.. is very good to be practiced.. its like information gain skills.. anybody that had anything related with microblog+web2.0.. shall contact me through my email? i would like to know those kind of people.. thanks.. *[email protected]

  • Mon, 09 Jun 2008
    Post by Ray Tolley

    Hi, Maike, Do not become disillusioned. Your up-hill struggle has two components, (1) developing familiarity with the technologies, (2) as with all new initiatives, there is such a backlog of junk to contend with even before starting to do the real work. Just keep your eyes, firmly on your distant goal!

  • Tue, 01 Apr 2008
    Post by Lisa Neal

    Actually, John, I think we all (or at least I) waste small amounts of time throughout my day and a list of ideas like this forces me to stay focused on having a sense of personal accomplishment at the end of the day, week, or month. Try it!

  • Tue, 01 Apr 2008
    Post by johnegood

    Wonderful list of Web2.0 activities. The 10 minute hook is catchy. But more than just a little optimistic...

  • Sat, 29 Mar 2008
    Post by kamini

    great thing by kameeni

  • Thu, 27 Mar 2008
    Post by Alan Levine

    Re #3- Please put article titles inside your TITLE tags. That would save me from tedious copy paste to properly tag this article (which is worthwhile) on social bookmarking sites. Be semantic.