Interactions, Interventions, and the New Technologies
Thomas Smith, Director of Engineering Telecommunications Programming at the University of Wisconsin, claims, "Faculty-student interaction is one of the most costly and troublesome elements of any distance education program. It can account for anywhere from 20-60 percent of total costs."
Distance education instructors must design course interactions with a diligent eye to time and resource costs for both instructor and student (see Course Design and the New Technologies, July/August 1998 TIPS News). Multiple strategies exist, depending on the learning to be demonstrated.
E-mail is easy to establish: give students an e-mail address and require transmissions. However, with poorly designed e-mail approaches, faculty find that, over time, personal lives disappear into answering procedural, rather than content questions. Without interaction design, faculty members may find it typical to receive 100 messages a day. Instructors are best served by providing clear definitions of acceptable e-mail.
Frequently-Asked-Questions (FAQ) files can usually solve interaction overload and, thus, reduce costs. FAQs can be (1) sent by e-mail to the student, (2) posted as files on campus networks, (3) placed on web-pages, or (4) used instead of greetings in voice mail systems (similar to what a caller hears on an answering machine).
Listservs (electronic mailing lists) are another tool to reduce overload and costs. Again, instructors must design the interaction approaches with time and resources in mind. Few overload issues are solved by simply giving students an address for a listserv where all course-related interactions are posted.
Where collaboration is the objective, instructors must design the acceptable communication protocols. With technical support restricted, faculty must consider the time needed to manage listservs. With limited storage resources, faculty must determine archiving policies.
As a way for further control of faculty costs, instructors must learn to watch from the sidelines and be ready to intervene only when necessary. Without guidance, students post banalities, and response without contribution costs all. In turn, instructors feel obligated to respond, and again the costs accumulate. Design decisions rely on the expected student performance, with a keen eye to controlling costs from within the learning environment.
What, then, offers designers the greatest flexibility with simultaneous control of costs and resources? Web conferencing combines the best of the previous approaches with both synchonous (i.e., chat) and asynchronous (i.e., bulletin board) capabilities. Web conferencing, however, offers some striking features that other approaches do not. For example, students have a graphical interface through which discussion threads can be tracked. Similarly, students can post (1) schedules when working in teams, (2) images such as diagrams and photographs to fulfill course requirements, (3) URLs which other students merely click to see related on-line sources, and (4) mail-to messages that are private e-mail comments directed to any conference member.
In distance learning course design, calculate costs related to the time and resources needed for each component of a course. Only then can these costs begin to come under control.