In January 2002, Information Technologies-User Services at the University of Delaware teamed up with leaders of the Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education (ITUE) to host a series of WebCT classes infused with active learning strategies. This article outlines the WebCT Communications class, in which a problem-based learning approach was used to teach the online course management system to the participants. To generate participant interest, a current real-world problem was introduced within the context of teaching WebCT. Participants were asked to work together in groups to address the real-world problem as they learned WebCT techniques to facilitate their group work. This was a radical departure from the traditional WebCT faculty training sessions that employ mini-lectures and a lockstep procedure in which participants follow prescribed keystrokes to learn the features of WebCT at the University of Delaware
The specific goals of the class were to introduce participants to three of the four WebCT Communications tools, Discussions, Mail, and Chat, and to model how these tools can be used to enhance student communication. The Whiteboard tool was omitted from this session due to time constraints and lack of use at the University of Delaware. To prepare for this session, a WebCT course was created that included those tools that would be used in the class.
Prior to the session, the facilitators formed registered participants into groups, with approximately four participants per group. The session was held in a computer training facility. To ensure that communication among group members was computer-mediated rather than face-to-face, seating assignments were pre-determined so that group members were not sitting near one another.
The Workshop Session
The three-hour session began with an overview of problem-based learning and active learning strategies presented by Dr. George Watson, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences and ITUE co-founder. Dr. Valerie Hans, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice and an ITUE leader, continued the overview by describing her use of WebCT and active learning approaches in her classes at the University of Delaware.
After the half-hour overview, the participants were given their first assignment, a group icebreaker. Using the WebCT Mail tool, participants were asked to introduce themselves to the other members of their group. Each group was then required to devise a group name and send one e-mail message to the instructor indicating its group name. The facilitators purposely started with the Mail tool because e-mail is a concept with which all participants were likely to be familiar. However, other WebCT communications features such as the Discussions tool can provide more efficient methods of group communication. Beginning with the Mail feature and moving to the Discussions tool allowed the participants to see for themselves the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
Once all the groups had sent their emails to the instructor, Erin Sicuranza of IT-User Services gave a demonstration on how to open and read e-mail messages. She also introduced the Discussions tool, and demonstrated how to set up private discussion topics for the groups. Initially, the participant groups experienced difficulty getting started with the opening activity. As noted above, the active learning approach was a departure from the usual WebCT faculty training sessions. This became even more evident when one participant decided to leave because she was admittedly hoping to sit passively and work on other research while in the session, rather than being actively engaged with the material. According to other feedback, some participants found it difficult at first to place themselves in the role of students; others were expecting more direction from the facilitators on actually using the Mail tool itself. Additionally, the facilitators were asking students located near one another to communicate using the computer as a medium, rather than speaking.
To overcome some of these initial barriers, the four facilitators monitored
the room and assisted participants individually. Also, Watson added a
bit of lightheartedness to the atmosphere by creating a two-sided sign
that indicated on one side, "Talking allowed," and on the reverse
side, "No Talking." This was a visual cue that told participants
when they needed to use the computer to "talk" to group members,
and when they were allowed to participate in a live class discussion.
Once the participants got started, the remainder of the process went more
Once the groups completed the icebreaker and watched the demonstrations of the Mail and Discussions tools noted above, Hans presented the participants with the first stage of a problem, which was quite similar to a PBL problem that she might use in her own classes on the courts. The problem took up a timely issue in January of 2002, deciding on a method of trial for terrorist suspects. Hans posted the instructions and Stage One of the problem under the Main topic in the Discussions tool, where all participants would be able to read it.
Hans directed the participants to the Discussions tool in WebCT where they were asked to use their private group topics to exchange views about the two questions for fifteen minutes.
Following the Stage One discussion exercise, Karen Kral of IT-User Services demonstrated how an instructor can track student progress throughout the WebCT course, and how to view student discussion postings.
After a fifteen-minute break, Hans presented the participants with the second stage of the problem by posting it as a new topic in the Discussions area:
The next portion of the session introduced the Chat feature of WebCT. The University of Delaware has a resident expert on terrorism, Dr. Mark Miller of the Department of Political Science and International Relations, and as luck would have it, Miller was a participant in the WebCT session that day. Hans had contacted Miller prior to the session and asked if he would be willing to play the role of expert for an online chat session. He enthusiastically agreed to participate in this role, and even if he were not a participant in the class, Miller could have joined the chat session from anywhere he had access to the Internet.
During this section of the workshop, the facilitators moved Miller to a different part of the lab so that other participants would not be able to see him, thereby simulating a true online chat session. During the chat, designated participants posed questions that their group devised in the previous section of the class. Miller responded to as many questions as time allowed.
There are important considerations to bear in mind when using a chat
session in a workshop. First, if you have an expert who is not an efficient
typist, you may wish to offer assistance, a surrogate typist to transcribe
the expert's words. In a short time period, it can be difficult for a
slow typist to address many of the questions posed by participants. Even
Miller, a good typist, at one point apologized for his slow typing. It
can be difficult to think through an answer and to type simultaneously.
Secondly, it may be best to designate certain participants from each group
to pose the questions in the chat room. It can be overwhelming to have
a roomful of participants all sending questions to the expert at once,
and will most likely reduce the number of answers that the expert can
provide. Finally, when choosing an expert for the chat session, remember
that the expert can be anywhere in the world provided that he or she has
access to a computer and the Internet, and a valid WebCT account with
access to your course.
For the last ten minutes of the formal session, participants were again directed to the WebCT Discussions tool, to develop their group's final recommendation about a tribunal for the terrorists. The group was then asked to post its recommendation, along with the most important justifications for their recommendation, to the Main section of the Discussions area. Even with tight time constraints, two of the three groups did manage to complete the final assignment.
The session concluded with an informal open group discussion. Interestingly, the session generated such enthusiasm that several participants stayed beyond the scheduled time to continue discussing what they had learned about WebCT and about the problem content.
Was this an effective way to teach a WebCT workshop? To determine the answer to this question, the facilitators reviewed the class evaluations, and sent a follow-up e-mail message to the workshop participants. According to the evaluations, the majority of the participants felt that the Discussions and Chat tools would be useful in their jobs; only two felt that way about the Mail tool. All of the participants felt the information was presented clearly, even though facilitators provided less instruction from the front of the room than is the case in a traditionally taught training session. Other comments verified that certain participants appreciated seeing the tools from a student's perspective, that the problem was useful for structuring communication, and that some will continue to explore uses of these tools for their own courses.
One person responded that the last part of the class, posting a final recommendation, was unnecessary. However, based on past experience using active learning approaches in faculty development work, the facilitators felt that asking groups to post a final recommendation was important in that it provides closure to the problem. It was a good way to end the formal part of the session, especially for those participants that were somewhat uneasy with the problem-based approach at first.
Finally, the e-mail follow-up has proven that participants are indeed using the tools that they experienced in this workshop. Several participants who are currently teaching a course are using the Discussions tool. Only one is using the Chat tool at this point for online meetings, but one respondent said he is thinking about using it to provide extra student assistance. Those participants who are not teaching this semester are planning to incorporate the Discussions tool in their courses at some point in the near future. In the words of one participant, "the class was very helpful, and the format was good. I wish more faculty would take advantage of WebCT because students appreciate it."
| © Erin Sicuranza,
Valerie Hans, Karen Kral, and George Watson, Univ. of Delaware, 2002.