by Dan Barnett
Philosophy Instructor and Faculty Coordinator for Distance Learning
One of my students, "Peter," visited me in my physical office at the mid-point of last semester. He is an average student, fully capable of passing an online course, yet he was facing a plummeting grade and a loss of confidence.
As we talked, it became clear that he hadn’t noticed the assignments that were outside the learning modules I used. "Have you read the syllabus?" Yes. "How about the orientation?" Yes, again. "Have you checked your grades, which would have shown the missing assignments?" Well, no. "Why not?" He figured that at midterm time I would e-mail the grades to everyone, so he had not bothered to check them.
Though he was embarrassed when I pointed out the other assignments, we continued the conversation and he became my teacher. Peter would become one of many intelligent online students who do not make it through a course the first time. However, during that office visit he provided a key to helping students do better online: a strategy I call the CSI, or “course scene investigation,” approach.
Face-to-face courses have built-in expectations. At the beginning of each class the instructor will tell his or her students if an assignment he or she gives is due during the next class period. Virtual classrooms, however, vary immensely, even within the constraints of the learning management system. Some instructors package all of their materials in page-by-page learning modules; some within loose folders; some in links on the course menu. New online students bring expectations from the face-to-face and other online courses they have taken.
A new online course I’m developing aims to help students become better online students by blowing up the outside expectations they bring. The CSI approach encourages students to put aside her preconceived ideas and investigate the “course scene” as a detective reviews the scene of the crime. (No wisecracks, please!) Students are challenged to determine and locate the elements of the course that will comprise their grade (often from the syllabus). What is required to complete each task? Reading? Listening to or viewing a presentation? Interacting with other students? Doing research on the Web? Visiting a library? Thinking?
Student create a personal guide through the course labyrinth and he or she now feels empowered. My theory is that this will translate into better overall retention, because the work of capable students is not being undermined by their own, often subconscious, assumptions. It is not about technology. It is not about intellectual acumen. It is about pitching a tent in an unfamiliar campground and learning the trails. It’s about helping Peters not become re-Peters.
Summer 2012 Issue of the ITC Newsletter, Instructional Technology Council.