Distance Courses: The Good, The Not-So-Good and the Miscellaneous

I'm taking “Advocacy and Library Issues” with former CLA President, Wendy Newman, as a distance course this term.  This is my first ever distance course (I took French 101 as a distance course back in 1993 or so but was in the classroom in front of the instructor while the other students were at sites around the province via video links- this was pre-Internet – so that doesn't really count.) 

So, after the first week, here's some thoughts on the good and not-so-good about it.  This is perhaps a timely list as the department offered an unprecedented (as far as I know) six classes by distance this term.  That's not a huge deal except the rules say that you can only take one distance course per term so that can cause some issues if two of the courses appeal to you or, even if they don't, because it severely limits the number of regular courses left for you to choose from. 

If I could suggest one change in this policy, I'd let students take up to two distance courses, especially when so many are offered.  Maybe a ratio would work – if less than five distance courses are offered (like in the summer semester), you can only take one.  But if more than five are offered, you can take up to two? 

Here's a screenshot of what the window for viewing class lectures looks like:


GOOD
– obviously, the biggest advantage is that, outside of a few set times for chat sessions and in-person meetings, the student can work on their own schedule.  You can read the discussion board in the morning when you get up or in the evening before you go to bed.  If you work Monday to Friday, you can view the lecture on the weekend. 
– working in your underwear while drinking a beverage of your choice might also be considered a related benefit by some people
– since the course is comprised of a combination of video lectures, PowerPoint slides, a discussion board, chat sessions and other related items, you can view (and re-view) any of these items at any time.
– not sure if they do this but presumably there could be some cost and/or time savings for professors in that once the course lectures are recorded, they can be re-used in the future
– being a distance course co-offered with U of T's FIS program, this particular class gives us a great opportunity to interact with some of our colleagues from another school that we wouldn't normally have.  I've already met one person from Regina who I wouldn't have met otherwise for instance.

NOT SO GOOD
– people have to be fairly comfortable with technology to do everything the course requires (although to be fair, nothing is too complicated.  The biggest “techie” thing I had to do was change my Java settings to allow me to cut & paste into their discussion board's “Compose” window.  And strangely, I still can't figure out how to embed my picture in my required “Introduce Yourself” post.)
– for some reason, you can only play/pause the lectures but not rewind which would be helpful in those times where you just miss a comment and want to skip back a few seconds.
– although the software we're using (Blackboard Academic Suite) is fairly robust, there are minor annoyances – no way to view only unread messages and things like that.  There are also no newer technologies like blogs, wikis, RSS feeds integrated which might make it more effective.
(Update: sounds like some of my issues might be because I'm using FireFox and their tech support person suggests I log-in with IE.  Yuck.  It's horrible when any site, let alone one for a University, has to tell you which software to use!)
– I find the system slow to click around in sometimes giving me memories of having 56k dial-up access again.  The software is part of the U of T Portal system and I'm not sure if that's part of the reason or not.
– related to that last point, there are a couple extra complications dealing with a U of T system for us at UWO.  I don't think we can change our generated passwords to something easier to remember without a U of T UserID for instance.
– this hasn't happened yet but there's always the concern that tone is harder to convey in a virtual environment.  As someone with a sometimes sarcastic, sometimes dry sense of humour, I am very aware of the problems this can cause.
– minor annoyance but they only offer the video in Windows Media or RealPlayer format, neither of which I'm a huge fan of. 

OTHER POINTS
– it's a different form of interaction to only communicate with classmates and the instructor virtually.  Some people like it, some people don't.  It may be better for introverts, worse for people who aren't as comfortable with technology for instance. 
– this depends on the person as well but some people could find it harder to focus on the lectures/assignments than in a classroom setting (it's the old argument about how to run a home office and yet maintain a division between the two). 
– you also have to be very self-motivated to keep up on everything when there are no regular class sessions.

– the video window you watch is fairly small (typical YouTube 320×200 size) although you can right click and change it to full size view which is easier to watch

Comments 7

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    You *can* rewind, but it's not precise. There's a vertical green bar in the counter at the bottom of the screen that moves as you listen. If you drag it back to the position that you want to listen to, it'll play it. Figuring out how far to go is another matter entirely, so you might want to exercise your trigger finger on the play/pause button. 🙂 And yeah, I have to agree: the pages load up far too slowly, and I can't figure out how to place my photo in a post. Still, Blackboard is much better than WebCT on the student side of things for course content delivery.
    Cheers!
    Rachel

    Posted 19 Sep 2006 at 12:57 am
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    Hey Rachel,
    Thanks for the tip. I didn't notice that green bar during my first viewing (must've been too engrossed in the lecture! ;))
    I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one frustrated with the speed of the site and how to upload images. Now there's a notice that we have to set-up U of T e-mail addresses too so I've got to figure out how to do that.
    J.

    Posted 20 Sep 2006 at 3:27 am
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    “since the course is comprised of a combination of video lectures, PowerPoint slides, a discussion board, chat sessions and other related items, you can view (and re-view) any of these items at any time.
    – not sure if they do this but presumably there could be some cost and/or time savings for professors in that once the course lectures are recorded, they can be re-used in the future”
    One issue, from the Prof's perspective and perhaps administration's, is ownership of course content. I had at least one non-faculty professor express concerns about UWO respecting her intellectual property. This admission was made in order to explain an inconvenience regarding making copies of her lecture notes (which were on reserve for consultation, but she requested that no copies be made). There may be others with similar concerns but no specific reason to tell the class about them.
    If a professor from outside of UWO wants to include course content in a book or lecture tour, it might complicate things legally if UWO is holding onto the IP. It might be clear in the contracts who owns what, but then again in big fish/little fish contract negotiations a lot of the little-fish's concerns have to be taken with a lot of trust.
    Cheers

    Posted 20 Sep 2006 at 1:32 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    That's a good point I didn't think about. I would suspect they (UWO) have a fairly tight contract to cover these contigencies but again, having the course jointly offered by U of T and UWO complicates matters further.
    A prof who didn't want their lecture notes photocopied? Wow, that's hardcore! Must've been some damned impressive knowledge that person was protecting! 😉

    Posted 20 Sep 2006 at 10:11 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    “because I'm using FireFox and their tech support person suggests I log-in with IE.”
    *shudder*
    IE, Windows Media, and RealPlayer. Oh, the horror…
    “the department offered an unprecedented (as far as I know) six classes by distance this term.”
    Five, after they cancelled 515 due to insufficient enrolment, which was IMO entirely due to the one-distance-course-per-person-per-term restriction. Yeah, still slightly annoyed about that (why exactly couldn't they lift the restriction for that one course, then ask if anyone else wanted to take it? I bet they could have gotten enough students that way.)

    Posted 24 Sep 2006 at 4:47 pm
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    There have been a lot of frustrations with this software. It's too bad in this day and age when it shouldn't be like that, especially in a University environment.
    As for the number of distance classes offered, yet again another frustrating thing that doesn't need to be the case, at least as far as I can see.

    Posted 26 Sep 2006 at 12:52 am
  7. Anonymous wrote:

    Just for the record, FIMS people didn't have to set-up a U of T account – I misread the notice on the site.

    Posted 05 Nov 2006 at 10:33 pm
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