The majority of my colleagues have left teaching. Well, that deserves more of an explanation. Actually it was I who left teaching and went into industry. In 1986 to be exact. Thirty years ago. I’ve now returned to teaching and am definitely enjoying the challenge.
However, most if not all of the people I began teaching with have retired. So finding a colleague to interview who has kept up with the modern advances in online education has been a bit of a challenge.
The following is an interview with Bob Barlow. Bob was part of the TRU Computing Science Faculty for 13 years (teaching face-to-face) and is now an OLFM teaching three continuous entry courses – COMP 1131, 1231 and 2231. Bob was also the developer for these online courses.
- Question: How do you promote community and connection in a continuous entry course?
Bob: These are introductory and junior courses with very little opportunity for team-based projects. Students are in the process of actually learning the Java programming language, so it is essential that each of them do every piece of assignment programming as a solo effort if they are to become proficient. To provide some sense of community, the Discussions tool is used to give a common point where helpful hints and peer interaction are encouraged.
- Question What are your strategies for facilitating the process of critical inquiry, especially those leading to integration and resolution?
Bob: For all the courses, the assignments give a lot of ‘hints’ to steer the students toward things not covered in the textbook yet are considered fundamental to the language feature or concept they are learning. For example, to program the calculation for volume and area of a sphere, the students are directed to look up the PI constant that is defined in the Math library. As the assignments become more complex, the students have to layer the concepts they have learned to date to build appropriate solutions.
- Question: What digital tools have you employed to support the process of critical inquiry in a continuous entry course?
Bob: I try to use Blackboard as much as possible, especially the Discussion tool as mentioned before. Plus I tend to give as much detailed feedback as possible for the assignments, including suggestions for alternative approaches that they may investigate to develop a better program. The only other tool consistently used is email. At last count, I had students in 9 different time zones, so any synchronous communication or even telephone calls tend to be problematic.
- What are the questions that you have struggled with?
Bob: The most difficult is having the students do enough practice actually writing their own programs. Only then do they really learn the Java language and the basic algorithms. This is much easier in the FTF versions as you would see them in a lab every week for a term. You can have a lot of exercises that are simple to mark and get a lot more reinforcement to the student. I have had a number of OL students do well on the assignments only to fail the final exam. As part of my feedback cycle, I had an email discussion with several and found that they only did the assignments, but ignored the lab exercises and practice questions since there were no marks allocated to them. So, they learned just enough to do the assignments but not enough to become as proficient as needed. A solution may be to have a lot more submitted assignments, but my fellow faculty might then be making less than minimum wage for the amount of marking time required.
I’d like to thank Bob for taking the time to answer my questions. Bob raises some interesting issues and challenges regarding the challenges faced by online students versus time spent in the f2f classroom. Constructive feedback from OLFM’s to course developers may be one approach to facilitating development of courses that specifically address the challenges of online courses.