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Online courses as an option for teacher training :the asynchronous option
by Adele Raemer

In the previous installment, I wrote about my experience with distance learning. This time, I will describe one of the e-learning environments that I have experienced, and discuss the pros and cons that come up regarding e-learning in general. I will talk about how these courses operate, the "personal" factor (can you actually develop a significant learner-teacher relationship online?), who it suits and who drops out. I hope to be able to give you a peek at new possibilities for getting those elusive "gmulim".

Highlearn @ TOP (CET)

Highlearn is the platform I know best, which is why I am starting here. Highlearn has been around for a while, and is used in many of the colleges and universities in this country, as well as in TOP (Teacher Online Pisga) through CET (Matach). I first learned to be an e-teacher through an online course for e-teaching about 5 years ago. For the past 3 years I have taught NBA Online courses, and this year I was a facilitator for the online version of the ministry's new course for junior high school EFL teachers: Curriculum Anchored Teaching (CAT).

Highlearn is a platform (1) which sits on the TOP server (2). It is not graphically beautiful, rather linear and (I find) pretty logical, although it can take a while to learn its logic. It is for this reason that every online course at CET begins with a Face to Face (F2F) session, to teach new participants how to find their way around the platform. Each session has a "file" (like on your computer library) and each file contains units of work (articles to read, tasks to do, participations in forums (3), etc.). As an instructor, I "build" each session beforehand, and, while the course is going on, my job is to facilitate, answer questions, deal with different technical issues and give feedback. The interactions in the courses take place on the forums, where people post their ideas and interact with other participants. Whereas, in a regular course one is required to attend the sessions at least 80% of the time, we count forum participation in lieu of the attendance.

For example, the participants will be asked to read an article and respond to it in different ways (give their opinion, play Devil's Advocate, look deeper into the issue by searching the internet for more information, etc.) For each of these assignments, participants are asked to post their answers, and respond to x number of other postings. These are counted as participation (attendance). The convenient part of this is that, whereas in a regular course where you attend physically, you have to set that time aside each week (or however often the sessions take place), clear your schedule, take care of getting someone to watch the kids, work out transportation (not an issue maybe if you live in Tel Aviv, but for those of us who live in the peripheries…..) and GET THERE; in an online course, you just have to get to your computer. The courses on TOP are asynchronous. You can work on the material whenever it is convenient for you: 1 am, when everyone is in bed - or 5 am (before the rest of the world wakes up), on weekends or during a "window" between classes. That is the other convenience: all you need is a computer with an Internet connection. In fact, two years ago when I went to visit family over Hannuka, I was able to run the course, and none of my participants would have known that I was away from home (if it weren't for the fact that I TOLD them that I was looking out the window at snow ;)! SO, if you have some down time at school, you can get some of your coursework done!

Of course, there are drawbacks, as well. You have to be relatively computer literate (although if you are NOT, and see it as a challenge to sign up for an online course, anyway, you learn twice as much! The courseware AND more computer proficiency that you had before!) and relatively self-disciplined. Although the learning is asynchronous, the work has schedules and deadlines that must be kept, otherwise, you will find yourself snowed under (even if you are still in Israel. and in the summer) and may find it impossible to make up the lost time. In face, this, I believe, is one reason for drop outs - some people have a hard time keeping up with the work and need someone (the instructor) to nudge them on. As a facilitator, I DO do this to some extent, via emails and even phone calls, in extreme cases. But it is not always enough. Another complaint is that it is a lot of work for a 56 hour gmul. (In fact, this is something we have been trying to change, and may even succeed eventually!) The truth is, I participated in a face to face NBA course, and then I was an instructor in a face to face NBA course - and I can say as a fact that the syllabus is the same - and the only difference is the fact that doing a course on the internet gives you a certain amount of extra freedom for deeper investigation of topics that interest you. And the extra work it would take for ME as a participant, is made up by the time I save not having to travel to participate in a course.

Following are some comments made by people who participated in my online courses this year:

"Being a veteran teacher, I didn't expect much and that's why I was surprised. The course was on a high level and very demanding."

"I think I achieved more than I expected! The rationale of the NBA became clearer to me and I learned many tools for its implementation."

"I think that the course, in general, met my major expectations -I wanted a course that would allow me to pace my work individually, work on the assignments whenever it's convenient for me and it REALLY happened. I wanted to learn about designing projects and I got some knowledge about it. I wanted to know to know where "I am" in terms of my knowledge and professional skills compared to my colleagues (5 years after graduating) and I got this impression."

"I felt there was way too much work for ONLY 56 hours (half a gmul not even a full one)."

"I hoped to enjoy online learning, and didn't."

"The advantages of being able to choose my own hours of work are considerable. However, I am very much a 'people person', ..and, as such, missed the interaction that face-to-face meetings provide. I felt very isolated from the other participants, and partially isolated from my instructor. (although) …..she was always available and ready to help, either online or by phone. However, I missed the group atmosphere of a class….. All in all, it was a useful experience, but to my chagrin, I would think very carefully about taking further courses online."

To read more about the pros and cons of online learning go to:

Personally, distance learning suits me. I read, write and think on the computer. I enjoy learning on my own sometimes (not that I dislike the interaction with other people, but each mode has its benefits) and working where and when it suits me, I am hooked on virtual learning. It may not be for everyone. I know for sure that it IS "for" me; maybe it is "for" you, too! In my next installment, I will discuss synchronous online learning options. I hope to see some of you readers in one of my online courses next year! But for now…. Enjoy the summer break!

(1) Platform: The system on which programs or operating systems operate. A platform is simply the computer and the operating system (O/S), for example, a Windows NT on an Intel chipset is a platform, as well as a Linux O/S on an Intel machine is a different platform.

(2) A Web server is a program that, using the client/server model and the World Wide Web's Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), serves the files that form Web pages to Web users (whose computers contain HTTP clients that forward their requests). Every computer on the Internet that contains a Web site must have a Web server program. Two leading Web servers are Apache, the most widely-installed Web server, and Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS). Other Web servers include Novell's Web Server for users of its NetWare operating system and IBM's family of Lotus Domino servers, primarily for IBM's OS/390 and AS/400 customers. Web servers often come as part of a larger package of Internet- and intranet-related programs for serving e-mail, downloading requests for File Transfer Protocol (FTP) files, and building and publishing Web pages. Considerations in choosing a Web server include how well it works with the operating system and other servers, its ability to handle server-side programming, security characteristics, and publishing, search engine, and site building tools that may come with it.

(3) A discussion board (known also by various other names such as discussion group, discussion forum, message board, and online forum) is a general term for any online "bulletin board" where you can leave and expect to see responses to messages you have left. Or you can just read the board.

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