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Learning from a Distance

By Carla L. Mueller | Monster Contributing Writer

In the past decade, distance education has expanded from correspondence courses and use of interactive audio and video to Web-based courses that meet in a virtual classroom on the Internet. Fifty-one percent of respondents to a survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported offering distance education courses. Many nursing programs are also using distance education technologies to complement traditional on-campus classroom teaching.

Web-Based Courses

Web-based courses are structured without traditional on-campus classroom experiences. Web-based courses come in many unique forms — each a customized approach to meeting the particular needs of an institution. Usually there is an effort to capture some of the institutional culture and beliefs regarding education into the design. The “market” the institution is trying to serve is also a factor. Commercially designed courseware packages are available for Web-based course delivery (e.g., Blackboard, Prometheus, WebCT) and provide areas for posting the syllabus, lecture material and assignments, as well as an electronic grade book.

Students in a virtual classroom may meet online via a discussion forum or a virtual chat. Both of these tools allow members of the class to carry on discussions about class topics. The discussion board is an asynchronous tool, which allows the discussion to take place over a period of time, and members of the class do not have to be logged on at the same time to enter into the discussion. Class members can log on at any time and read new items and make their own additions to the discussion as responses. The virtual chat is a synchronous tool, meaning that all members must be logged on at the same time. Everyone interacts together at the same time to discuss topics and share information. Getting consensus for a chat room time from a Web-based student group can be challenging due to varied work and family schedules and geographic locations/time zones. Web-based courses may meet over the traditional semester or quarter or be part of an accelerated program delivery model where a course is completed over a five- to six- week period.

Online students

Students who choose to attend Web-based programs are primarily working adults who want to increase their job skills and opportunities for advancement. These working adults have multiple role responsibilities that prevent them from participating in traditional on-campus classes. The shift work and irregular days off that many nurses endure impose additional barriers. Additionally, some students live far from a university with the program that they desire. Students enrolled in traditional on-campus programs are also signing up for Web-based courses. Many of these students choose Web-based classes because of a conflict in their schedules with other sections of the class offered on campus or because of conflicts in their work schedules and scheduled class times on campus.

Online Faculty

The term facilitator is often used for online faculty. This term is appropriate for online faculty who must move from being the sage on the stage to becoming the guide on the side. This role transition can be difficult for some faculty members because not all of the skills and tools that they have used in the traditional on-ground classroom will migrate successfully to the online classroom. Moving to this new venue requires training, not only in the courseware used to deliver the class but in the pedagogy of teaching online. Most universities offer faculty the opportunity to work with instructional designers during the course design phase. A number of excellent distance education references are also available to provide guidance during the course design phase.

A key to the overall training process is the mentorship phase. This is of particular importance to those with limited or no experience in a virtual classroom environment. No matter how much training one receives, the training is not complete until classroom experience is available. The mentorship activities assist the new instructor in successfully adjusting to the virtual classroom. This part of the process also reduces the risk for the institution when new facilitators enter a classroom. The seasoned mentor can spot potential problems and suggest corrective actions before they become significant issues for the instructor and the university.

Copyright Issues

Copyright protects certain kinds of “original works of authorship” whether published or unpublished. Copyright grants the author of the work the legal right to determine how or when the work will be reproduced, distributed, displayed or performed. Works covered by copyright include literary works; musical and dramatic works; pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; audiovisual works; and sound recordings.

Copyright law allows faculty members to use copyright-protected material in the live, face-to-face classroom at nonprofit educational institutions. However, once classes are transmitted to remote locations (e.g., via interactive audio/video, videotape or computer-mediated instruction), the law applies limits to the types of works that may be used. At this time, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does not allow access of works at diverse locations other than a traditional classroom and where the transmission may involve incidental copies in order to make the display or performance of the work possible. At this time, the law inhibits the growth of distance education through computer-mediated instruction.

Faculty members developing courses for computer-mediated course delivery would be wise to review the copyright information available at their university copyright office and at the many copyright sites available via the Internet prior to using material to avoid violating copyright law.

Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual property rights or ownership of the course materials developed for distribution via computer-mediated instruction is a thorny issue at many educational institutions. There are strong mutual interests shared by the university, faculty and students. Faculty members considering development of a course for delivery via computer-mediated instruction would be wise to become informed about their educational institution’s intellectual property rights policies and the required contracts. Policies vary widely from institution to institution. The least restrictive policies give full ownership of the materials developed to faculty members. The most restrictive policies give full ownership of the materials and right of distribution to the university. Many policies lie between the two extremes and contracts can be negotiable depending on the amount of support provided by the university for course development.

Are Web-Based Courses for Everyone?

Absolutely not. However, they are suitable for most individuals. Students and faculty must believe that high quality can take place without meeting in a traditional classroom setting. They must be willing to accept the value of facilitated learning in place of traditional faculty-directed, lecture-based learning. Initially, students may express discomfort with a change to facilitated learning. This mode of learning is unfamiliar at first and requires more independent work by students such as reading the textbook and researching additional information. Students taking Web-based courses typically report that these courses require a greater time investment than traditional on-campus courses. This is in contrast to the expectations of students new to Web-based courses who often expect them to require less time.

Currently, most universities focus online courses at the adult learning market. Even adult learners must be self-starters with sufficient discipline to maintain the pace of a typical accelerated program. If one procrastinates for several days or a week, a fast-paced Web-based program may pass them by so that catching up is difficult or impossible.

Students taking Web-based courses have to be computer literate and know how to do basic computer, email and word processing operations. However, they need not be computer gurus. Most Web-based programs use courseware to deliver their online programs that is very intuitive and requires a minimum number of computer-related skills. Students do need to have access to an up-to-date computer and access to the Internet.

Making the Decision to Offer Web-Based Courses

Making the decision to offer Web-based courses is a difficult one both for schools of nursing and for individual faculty members. Significant financial investment is needed for faculty training and to allow release time for course development. Investment may also be needed for courseware to facilitate Web-based courses and instructional design support.

Challenges that faculty may encounter when offering Web-based courses include a steep learning curve when courses are under development and offered for the first time, increased workload, adjustment to the change in teaching pedagogy, identification of qualified preceptors at multiple sites, test security, development of appropriate assessment tools and challenges imposed by technology. Technical support and advance planning are critical for Web-based courses to run smoothly.

Web-based courses are offered at an increasing number of nursing programs and are on the horizon at many others as colleges and universities work to reach adult students and students in remote areas. New modes of course delivery such as Web-based courses allow student interaction between a widely spread student population and offer accessible higher education to self-directed students who otherwise might be unable to attend classes. As technology improves and faculty and students become more adept in the use of technology, distance education promises to provide new avenues for teaching and learning.

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