New Answers for E-Learning

Wikis and avatars are improving the educational experience

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The best online teachers also exploit the Web's opportunities for interactivity and eye-catching graphics. Barbara Christe, who teaches biomedical engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University- Indianapolis, uses simulations that allow students to scroll over circuit diagrams to see how changes in current affect resistance, for example. Michigan State University has developed a Jeopardy!-like website, packed with quiz questions that science and math students can answer to see how well they've mastered key concepts. The University of Maryland-University College has developed a gamelike simulation of a crime scene for students in its criminalistics class. And a growing number of teachers are experimenting with presenting lectures and information as avatars in Second Life.

Student community. Isolation is one of the most common reasons given by online students who drop out or fail, so "community-building is part of the art of teaching," says Julie Little, interim director of Educause, a nonprofit devoted to technology in education. Some schools, for example, are trying to match students with peers who take at least some of the same online classes each semester, so they get to know each other and can cheer each other on. Other colleges turn each course into an instant community by requiring students to post information about themselves on a class blog, Web page, or Facebook. Most typically require students to share their reactions to readings, assignments, and other students' work at least once a week. Many also require students to join together to work on team projects. Professors at Old Dominion University have E-learning students collaborate on a wiki textbook, for example. The University of Maryland is even creating virtual clubs and honor societies.

Quick and thorough responses by professors. "The evidence shows the more access, more interaction, and more opportunities for feedback learners have from instructors, the better they do," says Christine Geith, the executive director of Michigan State's Global Online Connection. Geith, who earned her doctorate online, says she learned to seek out classes with professors who were available during more than just standard office hours. That means the best online teachers are easily accessible, if not by phone, then by E-mail, instant message, or some other method. Overseas students taking online courses stateside might prefer professors who use Skype or some other free long- distance service, for example, she notes.

While some of his online courses took as little as one hour a week and were easy A's, Sierra College student Kerr says he'll seek out more online courses like his art history class. He says he finds the best classes by checking with classmates and researching professors on sites like ratemyprofessors.com. The six or so hours a week he figures he spent on the art history class was less than he typically gives to a traditional class, but much of that time is spent commuting or sitting bored in a classroom, he says. During his online class hours, he was immersed in research, thinking, writing—and learning. Says Kerr: "I'm saving gas, I'm saving time, and I'm saving money."