The Georgia On-line Teaching Initiative

  1. 1. David L. Gants

    University of Georgia

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I. History
A number of software packages now exist for the teaching of composition in a computer-aided environment. For example, the University of Georgia's Department of English recently completed evaluation of two such products in its networked computer classrooms, W.W. Norton's "Connect" and the Daedalus suite of groupware tools. Other university systems in the United States and elsewhere have used similar packages with varying degrees of success. While each of the existing instructional software programs has its peculiar strengths, the fact that they are designed to run only on local area networks (LANs) limits their use to student populations with access to networked terminals or to universities that support remote LAN connections.
With the emergence over the past two years of the World-Wide Web as a robust educational medium, Norton and others have begun revising their current LAN-based software for Web use. In addition, a large number of individual instructors have already shifted basic course administration to the Web, distributing class syllabi and assignments via Web pages as well as exploiting the broader Internet services such as electronic mail and Usenet news groups. All signs point to the continuing and rapid development of the Web as a medium for the exchange of information and ideas.
Late last winter, in response to an internal call for proposals from Georgia's Vice President for Academic Affairs, a colleague from Rhetoric and Composition and I designed and received funding for a project for the development of remote, synchronous learning strategies to be integrated into existing departmental curricula. We determined that the Internet and the Web offered the greatest potential to develop and deliver an innovative program for remote instruction in both synchronous and asynchronous modes. We also decided that existing packages for computer-aided instruction, even should they be successfully rewritten for Web use, lack the flexibility and ease of timely upgrade necessary for a project such as this. Technology is leaping ahead so swiftly that we wanted the ability to quickly implement software and hardware improvements ourselves, without waiting for commercial providers to issue upgrades. Furthermore, we discovered that many of the tools required for remote instruction already exist in freeware or shareware form, or could inexpensively be created using server-side cgi tools or client- side java applications. Such an existing collection gives us the ability, when combined with natively-developed applications, to assemble a complete set of custom-designed tools at a fraction of the cost asked by commercial software companies.
Our project, which we called the Georgia On-line Teaching Initiative (GOTI), aims to create a Web-based suite of instructional resources, organized structurally in a component fashion. As individual components are superseded by subsequent improvements in design, such a framework provides us with the ability to quickly replace or upgrade those components without disrupting the package as a whole. We anticipate that new and exciting tools will continue to emerge in the future, and we will add those with demonstrated use fulness tothe original instructional suite as they emerge. Our project model is conceived as a growing and evolving site, one which will enable instructors to choose the resources suite according to their individual needs, adopting those pieces that best fit their syllabi.
This paper discusses the technical and pedagogical implications of creating and sustaining large-scale, on-line teaching in terms of hardware, software, and personnel resources. While the framework of the discussion will be theoretical, the center will focus on practical examples drawn from on-line composition and literature courses taught at Georgia during the 1997-98 academic term. If scheduling and time differences allow, I would like to involve an actual class in the discussion using the GOTI infrastructure.
II. Implementation
The main thrust of GOTI follows two tracks: the continuing development of educational tools in support of on-line learning; and the creation of training opportunities for faculty graduate instructors. The two most basic tools for digital-based instruction--electronic mail and word processing--already existed at the university, with an adequate support and training mechanism already in place. In addition, the Department of English had in place a Web server available to faculty and students, as well as a basic set of Web-based components such as on-line bulletin boards and document submission forms. We therefore focused our developmental efforts on the creation of a virtual teaching environment and on an interactive document editor.
We adopted the educational MOO as our primary teaching space, a sophisticated yet flexible program that allows both students and teachers a wide range of instructional options. After considering a number of different organizational models, we decided that a plan based upon a 20-student section divided into four groups of five students each best filled our requirements. When participating in an on-line small-group discussion, five students is small enough to be manageable by an instructor yet large enough to sustain vigorous debate. Following some initial experimentation we used the five-student model last summer, and found that the discussions produced some intriguing insights. From the first day of on-line discussion we discovered that the students tended to become much more involved in the discussions than in a traditional classroom. For a number of reasons, the students found it easier to contribute to the dialogue; in particular, those students who had tended to hold back or remain silent in a traditional environment opened up and became valuable participants when exposed to the relative freedoms of the MOO. Perhaps because of the freedom of discussion and overall significant increase in discourse, we also found that the students bonded quite early in the quarter. Coming into the class, we had felt some concern that the lack of face-to-face contact might create alienation or distance among the students. Happily we found just the opposite; if anything, the students developed much greater peer cohesion through the MOO than in a traditional classroom. They readily organized meetings outside of class and worked together well on assigned group projects.
We installed a LambdaMOO on our departmental server and used the LinguaMOO enCore as our default database. This database has a long history of success in on-line teaching and comes with pre- built objects designed specifically for educational use:
A. Educational Suites. Each course using the GOTI MOO is assigned a suite of rooms in which they can meet. This suite consists of a central meeting room containing a blackboard for brainstorming and a bulletin board for class notices. In this main space the class as a whole gathers for announcements, presentations, large-group work, etc. Branching off from the central meeting room are four smaller classrooms and an instructor office. The classrooms serve the small-group discussion sessions that play a central role in on-line teaching, and the instructor office can be used for virtual office hours or other instructor-student communication.
B. Intercom/Recorder. Each educational suite comes equipped with an intercom/recorder device. The instructor can selectively activate a microphone situated in each classroom and monitor from the central meeting room the individual group discussion sessions. In addition, each microphone is also connected to a recording mechanism for collecting transcriptions of group discussions. These transcripts can be posted on-line and used for other teaching exercises.
C. Slide Projector. Each educational suite can contain multiple slide projectors which, when activated, shows students a series of short prepared texts. These slides work well when dealing with multiple small-group discussions, for the instructor has at her/his fingertips a variety of prompts to steer discussions in various useful directions.
D. Panel Discussion Suites. The enCore database also includes a suite of rooms designed for moderated panel discussions. Typically, one group locates itself in the central room and presents to the audience, located in a second viewing room, the results of a project, or perhaps engages in a panel discussion. Students located in the viewing room can submit questions to the central group via a moderator, which gives the entire presentation a more formal feel. Of course, the entire process can be recorded for later use.
The other tool for which we looked outside the university was an interactive document editor. For that, we turned to the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and asked them to design a java-based application that would allow a teacher and a student or a group of students to edit a text in a synchronous fashion. Investigation of existing projects revealed that an application similar to what we needed had been built in 1996 by a class at the Helsinki University of Technology.Development of this tool is in full swing and we anticipate beta- testing it during the coming Winter 1998 quarter.
When we turned to the creation of training opportunities for those interested in using GOTI, we were fortunate to have strong support from the department. We modified two existing graduate seminars to accommodate our instructional needs. The first is an Introduction to Teaching with Technology, a survey of the basic applications designed to help the student integrate technology into the classroom. Our aim with this class is to help the student become acquainted with the basic concepts of on-line teaching and to gain familiarity with the essential resources. The second course is an intensive seminar that covers in detail how to create, administer and teach an on-line class. The goal of this seminar is to guide the students through the entire development process so that by the end of the term they will have a course ready to be taught.
As far as faculty are concerned, we have initiated an outreach initiative to make them aware of the possibilities for on-line teaching available to them. We identify likely candidates and deal with them on a one-to-one basis, including individual instruction and graduate assistant training.
During the 1997-98 academic year our support of on-line instruction is limited to the Department of English. With the commencement of the 1998-99 year we anticipate expanding our efforts to include other departments withing the humanities disciplines, including other languages, philosophy and history.

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Conference Info

In review

"Virtual Communities"

Hosted at Debreceni Egyetem (University of Debrecen) (Lajos Kossuth University)

Debrecen, Hungary

July 5, 1998 - July 10, 1998

109 works by 129 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (10), ACH/ICCH (18), ALLC/EADH (25)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC