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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > October 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 5 — October 2003
Making ITWorkfor Learning
An Easy Route to a Classroom Web Presence
by Trevor Shaw
Director of Academic Technology • Dwight Englewood School • Bergen County, NJ


Are you having difficulty getting your teachers online? Consider a course management system to simplify the process.

One of the unquestionable benefits that computer technology holds for education is the ability to overcome the limitations of time and space that are created by school schedules and classroom walls. For a number of years, technology companies have shown us the potential of the Web to destroy these barriers. We have seen pictures of Johnny downloading his homework when s/he is home sick. We have also seen Johnny's parents getting e-mail at the office about an assignment Johnny missed or accessing the Web to check Johnny's grade.

While a number of schools have seen these promises fulfilled, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Most other schools, while they may have professional-looking Web sites, struggle with how to create a Web presence for teachers and individual classes. It is precisely this classroom Web presence that is required to create the picture that has been painted by the computer industry as true "e-learning," in which course content, assignments, and assessments are accessible to both students and parents from anywhere at any time.

The Distributed Content Creation Imperative

Central to overcoming this hurdle is the notion of distributed content creation. In order to provide high-quality and instructionally relevant content, any Web site must delegate content creation to the owners of that content. Quite simply, schools must make it easy for teachers to publish content. It has to be as easy, if not easier, than it is for them to distribute content the way they currently do on paper. I believe this can be done by addressing bureaucratic issues standing in the way of teacher Web publishing, as well as by implementing technical solutions that make Web publishing fast and easy for the nontechnical user. Finally, schools must introduce initiatives aimed at increasing the Web presence of classrooms, to improve teachers' motivation to publish. In order to make class Web sites truly worthwhile, teachers must share in the vision of their value.

When confronted with these challenges, many schools might conclude, like their teachers, that while live classroom Web content is attractive and useful, the hurdles are just too great. Ironically, the place where the Web has held the most promise for education is also proving to be the most difficult to get online.

While these challenges are indeed real, numerous new tools are emerging to help make classroom Web sites a reality. Schools which recognize the possibilities that Web-enabled classes hold for their students would do well to spend some time examining the hurdles that their particular institutions face and evaluating some of the tools that can help them overcome these hurdles.

Overcoming the Hurdles

Before any school can move in the direction of distributed content creation, it must first streamline the politics of publishing at their institutions. Out of a fear of being embarrassed or a concern for student privacy, many schools have drowned the publication process in needless bureaucracy. These fears are real and have recently been underscored by a California golf coach who posted students' personal information, including phone numbers and class rank, on his Web site.

Schools should realize, however, that incidents such as these are the result of an ignorance of the risks and a lack of clear policies and guidelines. Schools could do away with a large amount of the red tape involved in Web publishing by educating their would-be publishers about the importance of keeping personal information private and by outlining clear policies regarding what is and is not publishable. Once this has been done, a teacher's judgment should be afforded the same level of trust that it is every time he steps in front of a class of students.

A somewhat more challenging issue facing schools trying to Web-enable classrooms is the amount of time and skill required to design and maintain an effective classroom Web site. Professional-looking Web sites are designed and maintained by people who are specially trained to do so, and even the most basic Web sites take time to plan and design. It is unrealistic to expect the average teacher to spend months learning new skills that are not really part of his or her job.

It is also unreasonable to expect that s/he devote hours outside of class planning the design and layout of the class Web site. In order to become a reality for classroom teachers, Web publishing needs to remove the design of the site from the publication process, and teachers must be able to do it without having to master new skills. In short, we need to stop expecting our teachers to be part-time Webmasters.

Tech Tools to the Rescue!

Fortunately, there are a number of new tools that reduce the required time and skill to almost nothing. Using course management software such as Blackboard [http://www. Blackboard.com] or webCT [http://www.webct.com], teachers can immediately be up and running with a high-quality course Web site without spending any additional time designing the site and without having to master any new skills.

A course management system is a database-driven collection of Web sites. Each site represents a course that can be populated with content by an instructor assigned to that site. Students can log in and see the courses in which they are participating and can access a variety of course-related information, including notes, handouts, or e-books. All of these sites can be centrally managed to control what students and teachers can and cannot do with them. Many of the sites can also tie into student information systems to populate courses with students and manage schedule changes automatically.

One of the most popular features of course management systems is the ease with which content can be added to a site. Handouts no longer need to be photocopied, and notes that are compiled by brainstorming in class can immediately be shared with the students by uploading them. Without having to know anything about HTML or Web design, teachers can create content using any application normally used, such as Word, Excel, Photoshop, or Inspiration. To upload content, the teacher need only navigate using a Web browser and click on a button to upload each document. Students then have immediate access to the new content.

In addition to quick and easy content updates, course management systems also offer tools that the amateur Web designer would never be able to build from scratch, such as an online grade book, assignment and task tracking for individual students, and chat rooms where students can meet for tutoring or guests can interact with the students. Most also offer online quizzes that can give students immediate feedback on right and wrong answers. With virtually no skills other than navigating a Web site, a teacher can set up online office hours the night before a test or can post grades for students or their parents to see as soon as a test is graded.

Consistency of Design

Another nice feature of course management systems is that they provide a sense of uniformity to the look and arrangement of information across multiple classes. When teachers design their own class Web sites, even when they are given design criteria, the organization of the site can vary widely from teacher to teacher. Students often struggle to find what they are looking for when homework is in one place on their English teacher's site, while class notes are somewhere else on their math teacher's site. Most course management systems allow for some customization to the teachers preference such as button colors and styles or a banner image, but the general layout of the site is fixed and the organization of each class follows a clear standard.

Many course management systems also feature a portal page that pulls together all relevant information about the courses in which the student is enrolled. After logging in, a student is greeted with a list of his courses, and any announcements or upcoming due dates for any of his courses are prominently displayed on this portal page. Such functionality requires a sophisticated level of database programming that is beyond the skills of most classroom teachers.

An effectively deployed course management system can also help to overcome a lack of teacher motivation regarding class Web sites. Rather than focusing on all the new features and benefits a course management system can provide, those who introduce the system to teachers—the media and technology specialists among you, in your technical advisory roles—should focus on existing problems that can be solved by the new system. Some of these problems might include students who lose handouts or syllabi, the need to quickly distribute material to students, or the amount of time it takes to administer and grade a short quiz. All of these are problems for which teachers would welcome a solution, and a course management system can help address each of them.

If teachers can see a clear benefit to class Web sites, and the effort involved is only a few mouse clicks more than what they are putting forth to create paper-based content for their classes, schools will begin to see a much deeper level of penetration of Web technologies into the daily management of information within a class. Once teachers see that this is not additional work, but rather something that can reduce work and make their students more organized and accountable, schools will begin to move closer to the "e-learning" environments that have been promised to us for years in the advertising literature of our vendors.

 


Trevor Shaw has worked as technology coordinator, consultant, speaker, and classroom teacher since 1993. His work has focused on staff development, curriculum design, and how new technologies impact teaching methods. He is currently the director of academic technology at the Dwight Englewood School in Bergen County, New Jersey. He can be contacted at shawt@d-e.org.
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