Blog: Catheryn Cheal

Catheryn Cheal, Ph.D. has some big ideas about technology and education. Which is fitting since she's the Assistant Vice President of e-Learning and Instructional Support at Oakland University. She'll be writing this week about the evolution of learning and technology, and its potential impact on SE Michigan.

Post No 2: What’s new in online instruction?

Beyond the discussion board, Oakland University, in the past couple of years, has increased its arsenal of online teaching methodologies. Our main software is an open source, course management system, called Moodle. Open source code means that our PHP programmer can make changes as necessary to a license-free product that is shared and adapted all over the world at other universities. It is a prime example of user-generated content in that instructors, students, and programmers all reside in universities and, here at OU, are quick to acknowledge and respond to user-needs.

There are various software tools in Moodle, like online quizzes that provide student assessment as well as a method to reinforce learning. Online quizzes are, by nature, open book quizzes and great for emphasizing and reiterating points in the reading. Synchronous chat discussion groups work well for brainstorming and have the immediate interpersonal feedback needed to retain and motivate students. Wiki pages allow for student groups to edit one another’s written work and provide histories for the instructor to check that all group members are contributing. Databases of any kind of subject matter, like art images, can be created by groups of students.

A second instance of Moodle is used for our e-Portfolio. Students are in control of their own spaces with all the functionality of the course management Moodle, and they may allow potential employers access to their best work, uploaded to individual digital portfolio spaces.

Another program is called Elluminate and allows for synchronous video-conferencing, where an instructor can show any files on their own desktop to students at home. Elluminate has text chat for questions or audio/video capabilities through a webcam. Because the entire class is online at the same time, complex material can be demonstrated easily.

An island in Second Life is our latest addition. Second Life is a virtual world whose users build avatars, alternate cartoon-like identities, to enter a three-dimensional land of oceans, mountains, and plains. All content, such as buildings, vehicles, clothing, and learning objects are user-created. Digital objects can contain scripts that make them responsive to commands. So faculty and students can construct, for example, a scale-replica of the Sistine Chapel or a simulation of an interactive tsunami wave or a hospital scenario with diagnostic possibilities. The OU island currently has two amphitheaters for group interaction and meetings, a sandbox to practice building objects, a Temple of Transport with links to other educational islands, a Free Will market with give-away objects like food and clothing,  (I know, I know…why bother eating in a virtual world?), several faculty houses, a disco built by one of my students, and an art exhibit area. We haven’t attempted to recreate the Oakland University campus because the island is meant to be an experimental space for teaching and learning and we want to take advantage of the physical possibilities of Second Life like flying, building, and communicating rather than try to recreate the limitations of the real world.

I taught an Honors course in Second Life last semester, along with an art professor. The students researched projects about virtual worlds, such as copyright and music, gay life, teaching Japanese language, architectural recreation, and the presentation of text. After writing a paper, they then reconceptualized and built the topic as a three-dimensional environment. A Rhetoric instructor is currently working on a research project to condition his students to the rigors of public speaking, by having them speak to an audience of avatars in Second Life and then gradually moving them into real life. An art instructor had her students construct and mount snapshots from around the world in Second Life in an exhibition building.

The constantly evolving new tools in instructional technology give us at Oakland University a rich, interactive set of methodologies to improve online courses and programs.