Project takes learning online

One of Christina Jacobson’s class assignments requires the College of Liberal Arts sophomore to find the most effective way to get in touch with her state representative: e-mail or snail mail.
From what she has learned in her American Government and Politics class, e-mail works best.
Jacobson’s class is participating in the Internet Learning Alternative Project. The project, run by the University’s Digital Media Center, is an example of how the University is integrating the Internet into the teaching-learning process.
The University aims for all 9,000 courses the school offers to have their own Web page by the year 2001, said Shih-Pau Yen, director of Academic & Distributed Computer Services. The office, together with the University Libraries, helps staff and supports the Digital Media Center.
Since winter quarter, three courses at the University have been a part of the Internet Learning Alternatives Project. They are: Introduction to World History, American Government and Politics and Beginning Russian.
Two of the classes have about 230 students enrolled, while the Russian class has only 15 students at the Twin Cities campus and five more at the Morris campus.
The project was demonstrated to the public at a conference titled Internet Learning Alternatives: Designing and Managing New Learning Opportunities held last week at Coffman Memorial Union.
The three classes use the Web differently. World History has the Web as its primary source or “time machine,” allowing students to do a quantum leap to different periods of time. Participants use the Web to explore everything from inspecting a stone scripture dating from the year 1432 in China, to visiting Deng Xiaoping’s funeral and getting ready to witness the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule on July 1.
Students are also required to complete three online assignments to fulfill the course requirements, said M.J. Maynes, the class’ instructor.
In the American politics and Russian classes, however, the Web-based materials serve as supplementary learning tools and additional channels of communication. Students in these classes can review the lectures on the Web at their own pace, practice with online exams and communicate with instructors and classmates via the Internet.
The evaluations from the two larger classes signal a positive reaction from most students, said Linda Jorn, acting director of the center. Yet faculty concerns about the issues of accessibility and University-wide implementation prevail.
“From the class, I got more confidence using the Internet,” said natural resources junior Andrea Cade. “I encountered some technical problems, though. And my home computer is real slow. I have to use computers at the University labs.”
Currently the University has 1,000 computers accessible to students on the Twin Cities campus. Most departments offer additional computer service to their students. All residential dorms are also equipped with computer labs, Yen said. Sixty-five percent of University freshmen now have access to a personal computer.
Among relevant issues addressed during last week’s conference were: privacy of students, copyright and the possibility of depersonalized communication between students and instructors.
“We have a password-protected system to all Web pages that contain students’ information, and those that contain copyrighted materials,” said Cheryl Towler, center coordinator.
American government and politics Professor Steve Smith said, “I don’t think the Internet technology de-personalizes the class, but actually it improves the overall quality of the class.”
He illustrated the point by comparing the evaluations he got from the Web-enhanced class and “regular” classes. His personal evaluation from the students did not change.
However, the other aspects, namely the accessibility to and quality of class materials and teaching assistants, all got higher scores. Also the midterm mean score improved by six points, Smith said.
At the moment, there are more than 100 faculty members working with the center to develop their class materials online, Jorn said. But the problem the center is facing right now is that the supply cannot meet the fast-increasing demand.
“But we are reaching a critical point where we need to talk to the dean of each college so we can set the right priority,” she said.