IT Course Incorporates Novel Teaching Format

Posted: December 15, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Dave Andrews

No classroom? No problem.

Online courses are becoming increasingly popular as classroom structures change and course materials become more technical.

Sharon Caraballo
Sharon Caraballo

Sharon Caraballo, assistant dean for academic affairs in the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering, is one professor who has embraced the online course concept.

Caraballo teaches IT 308, a course focusing on graphical user interfaces and designing event-driven programs. When she began teaching the class in the spring 2008 semester, she completely changed its format.

Caraballo teaches the course “asynchronously,” meaning that the students access the online course and complete their assignments when their schedules permit. There is never a moment when all of the students are online at the same time covering the same material.

The course uses Blackboard, a software program that allows instructors to host their classes on the web.

“I wanted to teach a course where I could experiment with distance education,” Caraballo says.

“I’ve met many professors over the years who have said that this format is usually challenging, both for the professors to teach as well as for the students to grasp. With [IT 308], we’ve proven that it can be very effective.”

When students log on to the class site for the first time, they are greeted by a video recording of Caraballo introducing herself and the course material that will be covered during the semester.

Beyond that, unless the students decide they need to speak with Caraballo in person, the only interaction they have with the professor and the other students is online until they take their midterm and final exams.

“It’s very interesting for me and the students as we interact face to face during midterms,” Caraballo says. “For most of them, it’s the first time they actually meet the people they’ve been corresponding with on Blackboard.”

Some still question this form of teaching, as interaction between students is often considered an important part of classroom learning and student development. But Caraballo believes this platform gives her students even more opportunities to work together.

“I’ve noticed the students are much more involved with their own work because they know the other students will see it [once it is posted online] and critique it,” she says.

“Knowing they’ll have an audience gives them more motivation to produce their best work possible. And getting immediate feedback from their peers is very beneficial to them as they grasp the material.”

Caraballo has made it a requirement for her students to comment during online discussions. But having the whole week to do so eliminates the tendency of some students to become “the quiet student in the back who rarely contributes,” Caraballo says.

“This takes the pressure away from those students who may feel as though they only have a certain amount of time to say something brilliant.”

Much of Caraballo’s focus was to think of what could be done in this teaching format that couldn’t be done in a classroom, and not vice versa.

Rather than limiting students to a small block of time, she says, they have an entire week to understand and complete a given assignment. Once they’ve got it down, they move on to a new lesson.

One aspect that has both pros and cons is that students manage their own class schedule. In a classroom, everyone simply shows up at a specific time, and the class takes place regardless of student motivation. Caraballo’s class requires much more initiative from the students.

After two successful semesters, Caraballo feels she’s on the right track with her delivery. And her students agree.

“There was a good sense of community among the students. We had an understanding that we were all there to help one another,” says Amanda Richburg, a Mason graduate student who took IT 308 last spring.

“It was independent enough where I felt like I could work well on my own, and at the same time, it was very easy to reach out to my classmates and know that help was right there.”

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