Sunday, August 01, 2010

Reflections of an Online Student, Part 4: Student forums

Having caught up with some readings for my Course in Online Student Centred Discussion, it was time to post to some of the online forums. I was not looking forward to this, being late to the course, with no excuses as a self-professed e-learning expert. Also I was still having difficulty getting the Blackboard learning management system to work reliably. The system told me that some functions may not work as I was using Apple OS9 operating system, which was a worry as I was not using an Apple computer. Blackboard seemed to confuse OS9 with Linux.

However, the online student discussion forums seemed to working so I posted an introduction about myself. In doing this I noticed that there appeared to be no way to format the text, or include hypertext links. While I like using plain text, it was a bit disconcerting as the formatting bar was not functioning on my web browser. This required me to write my posting elsewhere so I could spell check it, before pasting it to the forum.

The forums seemed to work much like any threaded conversaiton system. But I was able to find a function to shown me just new postings and so each time I had to laboriously scroll through all the postings looking for new ones (at least the new postings were in bold, so I could see them).

Seeing what was posted calmed some of the panic I had been in for the last few hours, since discovering the course had started more than a week ago. The other students seemed to be tutors like myself with the same concerns. The tutor also seemed to be doing a good job of responding to student issues.

As I had partly come to grips with the system, reading material, doing quizzes and posting, I decided to make contact with the tutor and request assistance. However, I could not find how to use the system to send them a message. Instead I reluctantly decided to content them by email (I don't like doing this as it is annoying and time consuming to get communications from students outside the LMS).

My message resulted in a prompt and useful reply. Apparently I was not really late starting the course: there were two separate cohorts of students doing the same course using the same materials. Unknown to myself, I was in the later second group. This made little sense to me, as it did not match the timings in the course materials. But it was explained in an e-mail message forwarded to me by the tutor, and which appears to have been stopped previously by my spam filter.

Some more communication with the tutor answered some of my other concerns: the grade book made no sense as this course was not for assessment. This cam as a surprise and a disappointment as one of the primary reasons for doing the course was to be assesed. Without the assessment, this made little sense as a university "course".

Also it was apparent that that some of the problems I was having was because I was not using a computer running a Microsoft operating system and Internet Explorer browser.

The tutor also explained that they had inherited the course and it was due for redevelopment. That went some way to explaining the non-logical arrangement of the material.

For a few days I did readings and posted discussion items. But I felt that I had learnt as much as I was going to from this course. What it mainly impressed on me was the need for:
  1. Clear and logical arrangement of course materials,
  2. Software and content which complies with web standards so it will work on a wide range of student's computers,
  3. Frequent communication between the tutor and student
Unfortunately this course provided those lessons by doing none of those things. The course was so poorly delivered that at times I wondered if this was deliberately done to make a point to tutors, but in this case the course seems to have been poorly design, implemented and run.

The course was useful in confirming that I do know something already about designing and running on-line courses. It also gave me the confidence that I was not doing a poor job compared to other university on-line courses. It also emphasised that poor course content delivered with poor tools can be partly made up for by good tutors and fellow students.

In the end I realised that being a university student has not got any easier since I last tried it and is not something which should be undertaken lightly. I will be treating my students with increased respect, with a better understating of how difficult what they are attempting is.

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