Forms of online learning enhance students’ experiences
April 24, 2012
When Jamie Henke set out to create an online course in music theory, some feared that the only students who would enroll would be those who wanted to attend class from their residence halls, still clad in pajamas.
But the class has attracted students who are studying abroad, doing internships or need flexibility because of work schedules. What’s more, retired dentists, computer programmers and lawyers in search of educational opportunities have enrolled to learn how to compose music, says Henke, faculty associate in the Division of Continuing Studies.
Henke is at the forefront of a movement on campus toward Educational Innovation, a campaign aimed at enhancing student learning while improving the university’s capacity and finding new revenue sources. Those who teach are being encouraged to think about how to offer their classes solely online or in a blended environment, which means teaching with a mix of online and in-person techniques.
“Blended learning and online learning can not only maintain student educational performance, but enhance it,” says Aaron Brower, vice provost for teaching and learning. “To do it right requires time, efforts and some start-up costs, and Educational Innovation is ready to provide help and support with those challenges.”
Henke is one of many educators on campus who are innovating to expand the university’s reach to nontraditional or distance learning audiences through weekend, evening, online and blended courses, although their approaches are different.
“You’ll hear a lot of faculty say, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t do a lot of what I need to do online,’” says Jeff Russell, dean of the Division of Continuing Studies and Vice Provost of Life Long Learning and a member of the effort’s organizing team with Brower and Maury Cotter of the Office of Quality Improvement. “When you listen to each one of them, they’re not doing it the same way, but there are certain tenets that are the same. The touchstone is quality and excellence, and we don’t want to give that up.”
Beth Martin, assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy, teaches a two-semester class for first-year pharmacy students that spans 100 hours – but only 17 of those hours are in a face-to-face environment. When they’re not meeting in a classroom, students are learning how to write like professionals while writing to a wiki (a website that allows users to add or change content), where they also critique each other’s work.
Rather than having students remain detached from the class and each other, Martin says they often feel better connected because they’re communicating more often.
“The touchstone is quality and excellence, and we don’t want to give that up.”
“I see the wallflowers come alive,” Martin says. “You see more reflection when writing on a regular basis. I don’t get that in groups of 25.”
Students sometimes learn better in an online environment because they get more out of lectures, says Kristin Eschenfelder, professor of library and information studies, who teaches an online course in database design.
Students in Eschenfelder’s class must complete lessons each week, which involves completing a weekly workbook in addition to listening to lectures delivered via PowerPoint with an audio overlay.
“They enjoy that the database lectures are online because it allows them to listen to a difficult part of a lecture over and over and over again without the embarrassment of revealing they didn’t get a point,” she says.
In designing an online course that engages students beyond campus, as well as those on campus but who have different needs, Henke has succeeded in extending the university’s reach to new audiences.
“Some are really nontraditional students, but traditional students can fall into some not-so-traditional categories because of what their needs are for completing a degree at UW-Madison, Henke says.
To teach music theory, Henke uses podcasts recorded on a Macintosh computer using Garage Band software and videos that show her hands creating music notation. Files are traded over email.
Students also do a role-play exercise where they assume the identities of famous composers, doing research to learn how Beethoven might interact with Stravinsky, for example.
“Students are having so much fun role playing, they don’t realize they’re engaging in research, critical thinking and writing,” Henke says.
Brower and Russell are looking for proposals to emerge and encourage people across campus to contact them with ideas or questions. Even those who might not think they’re technologically savvy enough should consider it, Russell says.
“The more people we talk to, the more we realize is going on,” Russell says.