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Teaching and Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls: Columbia Courses Enhanced and Extended by Web-based Tools

By Lauren Marshall

Barbara Szlanic uses her cyber-classroom in creative ways. Students are divided into French "families" that act out scenarios and post and share photos online. "Voila les Mitterands."

The students in Professor Barbara Szlanic's Elementary French I class at Columbia have two classrooms--one meets almost four hours, three times a week, usually in Hamilton Hall, and the other meets every other minute of the day and night--on-line, through an electronic bulletin board. According to Szlanic, the electronic classroom allows supplemental conversation practice through a second, informal classroom, which is helping students overcome first-year language fear. Meanwhile, it allows her to devote every minute of her "real" class-time to teaching new material.

"I think that as students and the world change, teaching technologies must follow suit," said Szlanic. "In my opinion, the marriage of an exciting and enjoyable in-class dynamic with an equally invigorating cyber-classroom offers students a very satisfying and challenging linguistic experience."

Not only a hit with her students, Szlanic has impressed Professor Ali Alalou, director of the French language program, with the success of her class, so much so that he is encouraging all teachers in beginning, intermediate and advanced language classes to incorporate digital content, including the use of bulletin boards, in their courses.

"Some faculty haven't seen the purpose of this at all because they have had no concrete results to gage student success. But based on Barbara's class, we know that bulletin boards are a powerful tool to encourage foreign-language students to communicate with each other, and we plan to make technology one of the major tools in French courses at Columbia," said Alalou.

Szlanic is just one of many faculty members at Columbia who are extending and enhancing course curriculum through the use of bulletin boards and other on-line tools in college course work.

In the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning's (CCNMTL) inaugural educational forum held Nov. 11 Creative Uses of E-mail and Asynchronous Communication the use of bulletin boards, news rooms and e-mail in coursework was explored in depth from both the faculty and student perspectives--with positive review.

According to Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center and faculty member at Teachers College (TC), there is a serious element of discontinuity in traditional classes. At a designated time and place classes meet, the professor gives a lecture, student interest is peaked, discussion begins to inspire new ideas. Then class ends. And when students and professor return to class days later, ideas are stale, the fervor is lost and, as a result, learning slows down.

Using a bulletin board in a graduate course at Teachers College, the History of Communications, Moretti found a way to break the cycle by digitally sustaining discourse, thus extending his class beyond its four walls and, in doing so, strengthening the class relationship to form a community of thinkers.

Since the beginning of the semester, Moretti posted a question inspired by class discussion on the class bulletin board after each class meeting. In their own time, students then logged on to the board and responded, either directly to the question, to other student responses or to include their own musings on the subject. According to Moretti, the following week the group picked up way beyond where it had left off as result of the digital discussion which took place during the week.

"In all my years in academia, I never got my students to write this much," said Moretti. "Even more importantly, that writing is more often rigorous and authentic, driven by student interest rather than faculty expectation. Properly executed, this is unquestionably a digital extension of the classroom that adds value."

Moretti reported that approximately 18 of his students regularly participate on the bulletin board. In the class to date, some 350 messages have been posted with some questions tallying as many as 45 responses.

According to Florence Sullivan, a doctoral student in information technology at TC, the bulletin board became an organic part of the class, "taking on a life of its own," when the students themselves began posting the questions and applying class discussion to real-life scenarios.

Azly Rahman, a student in Moretti's class and a professor from Malaysia, saw the board as a platform for discussion, provoking his colleagues with his unique cultural perspective.

For Akbar Ali Herndon, a doctoral student in informational technology at TC, the bulletin board became a place for "fermented ideas" to be shared.

Verbal stars, students who dominated class-time discussion, admitted to sitting for hours, staring at their written responses before submitting them.

"Class-time lecture doesn't allow time for "pondering," for thinking about responses over extended periods of time, mulling them over. Such reflection on a question is not possible during class time," said Herndon. "With the bulletin board, I can reflect on questions and write responses, often during several sittings, then post them on the board. Because of the board, I have the sense that the class is ongoing. And the process is so innovative. The board brings ideas to consciousness that I'm not even aware of during class time," said Herndon.

The learning is not restricted to subject matter but also includes in-depth observation and analysis of the thought processes of class colleagues who have bonded as a result of their bold, on-line public displays, thus forming a strong sense of class community.

"I have found it interesting to see how some people approach a question and have learned a lot about them from their approach, their argumentation and the development of their ideas," said Sullivan.

Technology in the classroom is not a panacea for education in and of itself, but Moretti's students who took part in the panel admitted that it is a very powerful tool.

"The level of learning has exponentially increased," said Sullivan. "Truth be told, I'm almost overwhelmed by this board."

Robert McCaughey, professor of history and director of the Barnard Electronic Archive and Teaching Lab and participant in the CCNMNTL forum, requires his students in "Higher Learning in America" to develop their own web sites, creating platforms for the presentation of multimedia reports. Students use the course bulletin board as a place to troubleshoot technical problems related to web site development as well as a place to critique student reports and to discuss topics related to class-time discussion.

McCaughey admitted that these digital tools have translated into more work but he said it is justified because the subject matter can be used again, which results in a "thicker" course. In the long-term, it is time well spent.

Morretti noted that faculty who use bulletin boards and web sites must take time to read and internalize the contents prior to the following class.

"Faculty have a real responsibility because they must present in the next class and must have an awareness of what happened in the interim. But on the up-side, students come to class more fired up and their energy boosts the professor's. Before faculty would not have a clue as to how information was received. Now we have an inkling of what is going on in the minds of our students," said Moretti.

Since the CCNMTL opened last spring offering free development and training to faculty interested in the use of technology in education, the number of converts--faculty techies--has increased. In fact, in less than a year, the Center has introduced some 150 faculty members to the classroom uses of the digital medium. There has been a change in the institutional culture, with 79% of junior faculty and 25% of senior faculty at Columbia College currently teaching courses that include web-content. And with the assistance of the Center's technologists, faculty are harnessing multi-media digital tools that are making their course content more and more robust.

Some faculty are embedding video and images in their online class notes such as Professor Zimmerman of the Dental School, whose class notes include a video on the progression of tooth decay. This semester Rachel Adams, associate professor of English, included a video-clip as an essay question of her take-home mid-term for American Masculinities. Students taking the exam had web-access to the clip, allowing them to repeatedly view the image, just as written passages are read and reread during literary analysis. Professor Jonathan Kramer in his Core Curriculum class Masterpieces of Western Music embedded sound bites of music in his on-line classnotes, facilitating student access to music under study.

The newly-developed CCNMTL multi-media template is already being utilized by faculty to create content-specific multi-media resources, complete with links to images, audio and video as well as an index feature that allows students to instantly find background people and definitions of terms. The template allows for the creation of highly referential teaching and study environments.

Three iterations of the template are now completed:

According to Sylvie Richards, outreach manager for the CCNMTL and former professor of French language and literature, this is only the beginning.

"We are just beginning to think about the future of education, and the exciting thing is the we have a hand in shaping it. The creative use of digital technology in education is generating an explosion in innovation for faculty who have a hunger for pedagogical renewal," Richards said.

"In addition, there is so much content currently available on-line. At the Center, we assist faculty in the creation of dynamic, interesting and challenging courses by taking full advantage of the resources available today," said Richards.

Published: Dec 07, 1999
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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