Article #8 from an ongoing Series
From Reluctance to Enthusiasm in Three Years:
Online Courses in the CNIT Department
After a long Computer Information Science (CIS) department meeting in 2001, the faculty agreed that the first and perhaps only online course to be offered by the department should be Unix Shell Scripting, since the beginning Unix students had not been gaining enough practice writing scripts. The focus of the discussion was questioning whether an online course could provide sufficient rigor and if cheating could be prevented. The go-ahead was given because the course was not required, was not a prerequisite, and the students would definitely benefit from more practice. Students who thought they could cheat would find they were unprepared and would not learn or do well in the successive course. In the attempt to prevent cheating, an in-person comprehensive final exam with positive identification was mandated. Peter Wood has been offering this class ever since.
From this very tentative beginning, we discovered vast categories of students who were not being served by the standard method of delivery of our courses. These students enrolled in online courses in great numbers: full-time workers, single parents, disabled and homebound people, people with transportation and parking problems, and people with unusual work schedules (often our working students are sent on assignment out of state); even City College students on their study-abroad assignments participated. So when the Department subsequently split due to its large size, the Computer Networking and Information Technology (CNIT) subset began to experiment with offering more online courses.
Introduction to Networking was the next course to be offered online. Although it provided much needed foundation and background material, many online students were skipping the campus sections. Much to our surprise, we found the quality of student work and their enthusiasm far exceeded that of the in-person sections. One reason for this was that working students added a higher level of experience they shared with others and the online Discussion Board gave them 24-hour access to communicate with each other.
CNIT's Industry Advisory Board stressed developing teamwork and group projects in our course offerings. Students used the chat rooms and the group presentation tools built into WebCT to facilitate this. We had mixed results—just as in the real world–some students did all the work while others coasted. But the experience of planning and organizing research and reporting back to the class was a good project management learning experience for the students.
CNIT students began requesting more online course offerings, particularly those that could help them complete department certificates. With only slight changes in the methodology section of the course outlines, new online sections were developed for many of our classes.
Those classes that benefit from hands-on lab exercises used a hybrid approach using in-person lab sessions, an Open Lab room, and simulation exercises on a CD-ROM. Richard Taha's CNIT 240 Windows Network Essentials course uses short streaming videos that show step-by-step how to install Windows 2003 Server. Not only can online students benefit from hearing the explanation (captioning is provided for reading), but the students can replay each segment as often as they wish—something you cannot do in a regular class!
Almost every course in the CNIT Department is now available in both delivery methods. Often we have both face-to-face and online sections offered in the same semester so students can switch back and forth between the two. They can come to campus to hear a live lecture or participate in a scheduled lab time. They can also use the online reference materials as a supplement to the classroom section or as a way of keeping in touch when work sends them away.
CNIT offers the certificate Fundamentals of Networking that can be completed entirely online. Two additional certificates will be offered in Fall 2004: Wireless Networking and Network Security. With sixteen offerings in the catalog, the CNIT department is also developing an online survey to collect the VTEA data.
As more students become familiar with the format and procedures of online courses and in using WebCT, they need less orientation and have more success with the courses. Not only are the students in CNIT becoming familiar with the opportunities provided by the online courses, the faculty is as well. By Fall 2004 every full-time CNIT faculty member and a number of part-timers will have been trained in online course development. The consistency in the interface design makes it easier not only for students, but faculty as well. One faculty member can develop a course and another can teach it (if needed by scheduling).
Although we were off to a slow start, online delivery of courses is now part of our lives; not only as a convenience, but also as enrichment.