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ENRICHING THE ONLINE LEARNING EXPERIENCE THROUGH PROJECTS, SUPPORT, TECHNOLOGY, AND COMMUNITY-BUILDING

B. Pittman, H. Barksdale

North Carolina State University (UNITED STATES)
Most students at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, North Carolina, are required to take a course that prepares them for workplace writing and speaking. In Fall 2004, students were offered the option to take this course online. Now, several years later, nearly every section of the course is offered online, providing much-appreciated flexibility for both students and instructors as well as learning experiences as rewarding as those in a traditional section. Instructors use a variety of technologies to appeal to a variety of learning styles, continually improve their activities and assignments, and create an engaging atmosphere in the virtual classroom.
With around 35,000 students, NCSU is the largest of the 16 state-supported universities in North Carolina, around 25,000 of whom are under-graduates. Most are required to take one of the three professional writing courses offered through the English Department. Approximately 50 sections of the professional writing courses are offered each semester. The objectives of the courses include preparing students to write and speak persuasively in the workplace, to work productively on teams, to design reader-friendly documents, to use electronic media competently, and to engage ethically in every activity and decision.
Instructors enjoy much autonomy in developing activities and assignments to address these objectives and receive excellent support from the Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) at NCSU. Instructors also frequently share ideas and concerns although they rarely see each other. Community building is as important for instructors in an online environment as for students.
Instructors find that it can be challenging to become increasingly aware of and proficient with new technology for courses that require so much preparation and feedback. Preparation and grading is often more time-consuming than that of a traditional class. Sometimes students are unfamiliar with technology or the balance between discipline and flexibility required for success in the course.
Online sections are taught through Moodle, an open-source learning management system (LMS), that includes standard features such as public and private discussion forums, options for organizing and presenting course content, a link for submitting assignments and returning feedback, and information (for instructors only) about each student’s use of the site. Beyond these standard features, however, instructors frequently use PowerPoint within the website, wikis, dropbox, and Google groups. Instructors sometimes video lectures, and, because the course requires oral presentations, use webcams and other recording technology. Instructors also use Jing, an application for instant screenshots and screen captures.
Overall, both students and instructors find that technology enriches the learning experience and that offering a class exclusively online does not compromise its learning objectives or its sense of community.