Newsletter 10 – Teaching in a Virtual Classroom

Ken Beals, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion

February 2014

Following the debacle over online teaching at UVA, I became part of a pilot project to convert courses being taught on campus to a fully online model. Participants were not only paid to develop the courses, but worked hand in hand with course design specialists and technology experts in this process.

My task was to convert my course on medical ethics to a fully online version.
One of the operating assumptions at UVA, that I’m not sure we need to follow, was that online courses would, as nearly as possible, duplicate the classroom experience:

• Real time (synchronous) online sessions therefore involved almost as many “classroom” hours as you would have on campus for a full semester course. We used a UVA adaptation of Blackboard Collaborate, incorporating most of the activities that would be expected in a traditional classroom session, except that lectures were brief and infrequent. Student presentations went very well (there were 12-15 students in the class), as they quickly learned how to show power point presentations on the white board and link to video material from the web. I did learn that animations embedded in power point presentations didn’t transfer to the white board, and electing the “show desktop” option in order to maintain those features meant being unable to see student chat during the presentation, so I decided the animations could be sacrificed. Another tip: During one class session my mike shorted out, and it was only by noticing distressed comments in the chat box that I realized I wasn’t being heard, so do remember to monitor the chat box during Blackboard presentations.
• Virtual office hours enabled students to “drop in” at posted hours – and I was surprised to find students using those hours more readily than students use my real office hours on campus! I’m looking at using that model, but with my office connection using Google Talk rather than Blackboard.
• Quizzes were posted on Blackboard, as well as the usual discussion boards. Live links to video material were also provided.

One feature I found especially helpful for students was a “Lessons” page (part of UVA’s modification of Blackboard), where topics, tests, and resources materials were listed in a weekly calendar format with live links to all the related materials (tests, video materials, discussion boards etc.) for that week. This feature enabled students to quickly see what material should be completed in any given week. There were sometimes glitches, where links were broken and had to be reestablished, but overall students found it a helpful tool. The tests I created sometimes had problems with the automatic grading, especially when I used multiple choice items, but short answer questions worked well.

I don’t think the model of having an online “virtual classroom” synchronous session for every traditional class session is necessarily the most effective model for us. However I do think that as group versions of Baldwin Online and Adult Programs courses often go unfilled, an alternative whereby classes meet online (rather than face to face) 4-6 times a semester might attract students who would like to have some interaction with fellow students but hesitate to sign up for group sessions due to considerations of transportation, child care etc..

Beverly and Reid are available to help by consulting on various methods of providing synchronous class sessions or online office hours for your courses.

About the Committee:
The Instructional Technology Committee is an ad-hoc faculty committee made up of representatives from the faculty and the Instructional Technology staff at Mary Baldwin. The Current Committee is:

Ken Beals
Carol Creager
Doris Dodson
Ben Herz
Bob Klonoski
Chandra Mason
Pat Murphy
Reid Oechslin
Rachel Potter
Beverly Riddell
Laura van Assendelft

The charter of the committee is to:
Provide a forum for input to the Instructional Technology staff on the relative value of technological improvements from a pedagogical perspective.
Be a champion and example for technology enhanced teaching within their schools
Try out new technologies that seem promising
Develop and share best practices & rubrics for technology enhanced teaching
Recommend equipment and management for mixed use (instructional and non-instructional) space
This committee meets as necessary.