Lotus LearningSpace (http://www.lotus.com/learningspace) is a courseware application that consists of five course areas: the Schedule (a syllabus), the MediaCenter (media library for lectures, readings, interactive media), the CourseRoom (threaded discussion and assignment area), Profiles (class roster) and the Assessment database (a database to store tests, quizzes, and questions). In preparation for writing this article, I posed questions to instructors who have used LearningSpace this fall to teach semester-based courses. These courses were designed and constructed with the help of the UW Learning Innovations Development Team (http://learn.wisconsin.edu) The students in these courses never came together in a face-to-face meeting; all instruction was carried out asynchronously in LearningSpace. Though I highlight the comments of only two instructors below, I think that their comments are broadly representative of many of our instructors' experience.
Q1. What were the positive aspects of teaching on line using Learning Space?
Instructor A wrote, "Once the environment is understood, it provides a consistent interface where the course materials are readily accessible." Predictability concerning where to locate course materials is a strength of the course areas of LearningSpace (the Schedule, MediaCenter, CourseRoom and Profile databases). These course areas provide a preexisting organizational structure that has helped establish a consistent course structure across courses within a program. For instance, all the UW Colleges courses have a consistent organization and presentation that the students will come to recognize and count on.
Security and Trust
Another strength is user authentication (the process of limiting access to those students with usernames and passwords). Again Instructor A "The security (user names and passwords) could be a potential utility if a course has sensitive or confidential materials." Quality instructor-student interaction is the main way to battle the potential sense of isolation, anonymity, and impersonality of this environment.
Instructor B added, "The candor is quite amazing - students seemed much more willing to discuss what would otherwise be considered sensitive information than in face-to-face format." Trust is paramount in this relationship. As Instructor A noted, the course security plays a central role in establishing this sense of trust. Though user authentication is found in most courseware products, the process of user authentication in Notes meets the some of the highest US security standards.
Instructor A wrote, "The threaded discussion feature has the potential for being an important learning tool." Instructor B identified "the amount of interchange and candor among the students" as a strength of LearningSpace. "No one can 'hide,'" she continued, "or blend into the background so everyone participated." In our instructional design, we attempt to assist the instructors in taking full advantage of threaded discussion, one of the strongest features of LearningSpace. Neither instructor saw their courses in LearningSpace as a lecture-based course.
Given the activity-based nature of our courses, we recognize that the student must be instructed in how to learn and participate effectively in on-line courses. The discussion must be carefully structured and presented as central to the course outcomes, not simply as ornament. Instructor A wrote, "Instructors need to be very, very explicit in their instructions. It is helpful to have others look through material before it is made available to students [to check it] for clarity and accuracy. Interactions like classroom discussion can be more difficult so instructors who desire to have interaction must plan carefully to make it an integral part of the course."
Instructor B's course uses threaded discussion extensively and very successfully. Each week the students are involved in class and smaller group work in which they engage in legal analyses, debates, and case studies. Minimum expectations are set for each activity, requiring all students to participate at some level. The instructor plays a vital role, responding to the students' contributions in the class discussions and monitoring group work, making sure to keep the students on track. As Instructor B noted, the students cannot hide in this participatory environment. In activities-based instruction, neither can the instructor! I cannot emphasize enough how her ongoing presence determines the success of the course as she models for the students and instructs in how she expects them to contribute. This consistent, ongoing presence can be assured only if instructors structure their weekly schedules carefully to make sure that they regularly "get into" the course and make their presence known. If the instructor fails in this regard, it is similar to not showing up for face-to-face classes or office hours. Our experience has proved that when this occurs, all motivation and participation on the students' part are lost and are very difficult to recover.
Q2. What didn't work very well in teaching on line using LearningSpace?
Complexity of LearningSpace
Both instructors remarked on the complexity and steep learning curve of LearningSpace. At UWLI we have found that this curve, related to negotiating the course interface, must be explicitly addressed in course design. To accomplish this, we follow a strategy we call "ramping" for the students, where we introduce only one new interactive function within the environment each week. We also strive to use consistent navigational conventions throughout the course, particularly conventions related to document categorization and hyperlinking.
Slow response and download times caused some frustrations for both the instructors and the students. Instructor A wrote, "In my approach to teaching and learning, feedback on work is essential for students to learn." It is a critical step in the design process to begin by developing and testing a clear, simple, and straightforward instructional approach regardless of the bells and whistles the courseware package offers. In this careful selection of which of the capabilities you will need in LearningSpace, always keep in mind the end users' computer capabilities and Internet connection.
Keeping the technological complexities in mind, we have been satisfied with LearningSpace's central strength: the power of threaded discussions that allow for secure class and small-group interaction. With careful instructional design, the value of interactions between students and instructors overcame the technical difficulties. Instructor B "Students must see [the] instructor as [a] partner in the process. All my students were motivated and participated - [I] don't know if that is a reflection of the student, course, or Internet delivery format." I would wager that this is a reflection of the instruction, the consistent high-quality feedback and the presence of the instructor in the course. In the end it is the quality of the instructor's interactions with the students that carries the day, and technology should be transparent in support of this challenge.
Distance Education Clearinghouse
Instructional Design at Instructional Communications Systems
Training for Videconferencing
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Last Updated: January 2006