January 5, 2011

Are online classes right for you?

Filed under: January 2011 — mbrown @ 11:01 am

Many educators consider taking online courses but are concerned about the technical skills required to navigate such a course. Without an onsite trainer to answer immediate questions perhaps they won’t be able to solve technical issues that arise.

There are also questions about the time constraints. With an already busy schedule, how much time will be required to complete assignments and listen to lectures? What are the benefits of attending an online course over an onsite workshop where there is a trainer on hand to address any technical issues that arise?

These are common questions and concerns that many educators have when considering participating in an online course. We decided to talk with a group of six teachers who participated in an online course and found it beneficial to work together as a team. They shared their insights about these pressing questions. Perhaps their feedback will help you make a better-informed decision when deciding which type of professional development is right for you.

Judith Schaljo is a computer teacher who participated in an online course entitled Inspiration, Kidspiration, Kidpix: An Online Workshop, along with five other teachers. She and her colleagues had never taken an online class before and decided that they would participate in the class together after school, one afternoon each week. With a group of people, you always have a variety of skill levels regarding technology. In this particular group, the range of experience varied from beginners, who were still at the early stages of learning to navigate programs on the computer to experienced users, who felt confident navigating the screen and learning the new programs.

The first few weeks it took about 2 1/2 hours to complete the lessons together. Some of the beginners of the group needed extra help learning to navigate the screen. After the initial learning stage, the teachers began helping each other and  they would just fly through the lesson in 60-90 minutes each week.  “The teachers picked up a lot of confidence using the computer and using the new software. We did a recap of what they learned each week and some were really impressed with how much they learned and how far they had come from week one,” said Judith.

Each week the lectures were posted to the workshop website on Monday. Judith would print out the lecture and give it to the teachers so that they could begin thinking about the assignment for the week. The group then met on Wednesdays after school to go through the lecture step by step as a group and complete the assignment. As the weeks progressed some teachers felt comfortable moving ahead in the lesson on their own and others kept pace with the group. “By the last two weeks, most folks were able to do the assignment part without my help. They really picked up skill and self-confidence,” said Judith.

One of the benefits the group found in taking an online course over a traditional onsite training was that it gave teachers time to think about how the software would fit into their lessons and class work. Several teachers immediately saw how Inspiration would work with their lessons and began using it right away.  Each teacher has one computer in their classroom so they use the programs for lesson presentations and then bring the students to the lab so that they can complete assignments using the software. Students have really enjoyed manipulating the software.

If you are beginner using the computer, Judith recommends taking your first online class with a colleague. It was very helpful to the teachers to work together and collaborate on their assignments. She found that the teachers in her group gained confidence using the computer in just a few weeks. As a computer teacher, Judith recognizes that everyone has different learning styles when it comes to technology. As far as recommending online classes to others, Judith says “I think they can give one a try and see if it fits their learning style and needs.”

A big key to success in these courses is communication. Don’t be afraid to ask your instructor questions. No question is too small. Many participants are just beginning to learn their way around computers. You may need help with basic navigation skills and that is just fine. This is especially important because it can be frustrating trying to figure things out on your own. You may think your question is a small one, but you’d be surprised to know that many of your classmates have the same questions. Not only are your instructors available through email, but if you have an issue that you would like to discuss over the phone they are happy to accommodate you at time that is convenient for you.

Another important key to success is to communicate with your classmates. Discussion boards are set up for you to collaborate with your classmates, share lesson ideas, ask questions, and widen the range of resources available to you as an educator not only through participation in this course but for sharing ideas in the future. These courses are an excellent way to interact with other educators in the field, share ideas, and build professional relationships that will be beneficial for years to come.

Overall Judith and her colleagues’ experience taking an online course was a positive one. “The ten teachers involved in this workshop were K-4 classroom teachers and they shared a lot of lesson plan ideas as well as helped each other with exploring the features of the software. I am the computer teacher, but signed up as a workshop participant, also, although I led the teachers through the workshop lessons each week. The three programs we were introduced to are excellent and present so many possibilities.”

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