Sunday, August 01, 2010

Reflections of an Online Student, Part 1: Where is the course and when did it start?

This is the first of a series of postings on my experience of being an on-line university student. This was very educational, but not in the way I was expecting.

I was offered the opportunity to take part as a student in an on-line course run by a university on Online Student Centred Discussion run for tutors. This was an appealing idea, as though I have designed and tutored an online course, I have no formal qualifications in how to do this. In fact while I have been designing and delivering postgraduate education for nine years, I have no formal qualifications in teaching.

It is ten years since I undertook any formal university studies, and that was not a pleasant experience (a business Masters by coursework, which I withdrew from after a few weeks). So it seemed a good way to ease myself back into formal studies with a relevant short course in an environment I am familiar with (online).

So I signed up for the course and waited for it to start. I had never been a very good student and one recurring nightmare, from a primary school experience, was to be asked for an assignment I did not know about (and so had not done) in front of the class. After years of peace this nightmare re-occurred so I thought I should tackle it by logging into the learning management system and see when the course was due to start.

To my horror, I found that the course had started a week and a half before. As this was only a four week short course, I was already considerably behind. Leaving aside the question of why my tutor had not contacted me, I spent several frantic hours trying to catch up. Given I was an expert in the use of the web (I teach web design at university) and had designed and delivered online courses, I assumed this would not be difficult, but I was very wrong.

To my further horror, I found I had considerable difficulty using the e-learning system, which is based on Blackboard. I have been extensively trained in the use of Moodle, somewhat in Web CT and have also used Sakai and Atutor. I assumed that all e-learning systems are much the same and I would have no difficulty using Blackboard. However, I found the system very difficult to use and after several weeks still cannot operate it effectively.

The first problem was to find my course in the system. After entering my user id and password I had what looked like a typical e-learning front page, with "Welcome Tom Worthington", which was a good start. There were two items listed below: "University library and your online course" and "Facilitating Online Teaching and Learning". While the first of these said it was my course, it wasn't. It seemed to be a list of generic resources to help online students, provided by the university library. The second link took me to a series of announcements which related to a course, so I guessed these must be for my course.

However, to my alarm, the first message in the course web site was not the "Welcome to week 1" I expected, but was about week 2. It seemed that the course had already started and I had missed a week and a half. At this point my nightmares about missing classes and being late for assignments became real. I considered sending the tutor a blazing message complaining about not having been reminded to start the course, but then considered how I would answer such a message. As a student it is my responsibility to be ready to start the course on time. While the tutor could be expected to notice if I am missing for more than a week, it is not their job to micromanage me. As someone supposedly experienced in running such courses I could not stand the humiliation, so I decided to see how much I could catch up on before asking for help. As a web expert, and someone with experience in e-learning design, I should be able to breeze through. How hard could it be? Find out in Part 2.

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