SOFTWARE INTERFACE ALLOWS PROFESSORS AND STUDENTS TO CONNECT IN THE ONLINE ARENA
Professor Stuart Sutton left Syracuse for a few weeks in mid-October, but that didn't prevent him from conducting classes. Sutton simply plugged in his laptop and pointed his web browser at a site. Within seconds he was in the classroom. Using a software interface called WebCT, he read through students' assignments, checked their progress on various projects, and posted any new information they needed. He read through transcripts of online discussions the students had in "chat" areas. If necessary, he could have administered exams and graded them online as well.
"All my classes have a heavy WebCT element," Sutton says. "It handles everything relatively automatically, creating complete communications space for students and faculty involved in the class. It's extremely simple to upload any kind of filepoint and clickso it makes the students' and the professors' lives easier."
The School of Information Studies (IST) has used the web-based course management software, created by researchers at the University of British Columbia, since fall 1997. Amy Merrill, IST director of distance education, says the school uses WebCT primarily for courses offered through independent study degree programs (ISDP). These flexible, limited residency programs attract students who, for various reasons, cannot stay on campus to pursue degrees in traditional classrooms. "We started doing ISDP in 1993 with our library science program," Merrill says. "At that time we were using e-mail and listservs and sending a lot of paper through the mail."
In 1996, after the Internet had become more user-friendly, instructors began using web pages to conduct classes. "We found it more effective," Merrill says. "It gave students a more engaging platform for their courses, but also caused a lot of problems because every instructor was using different technology. We needed standardization, and that's why we looked into WebCT."
Sutton says students walk into a traditional classroom and immediately recognize how it worksa circle of chairs means discussion, rows mean lectures. "But when they're out there," he says, indicating ISDP students, "they have no idea how a class is going to function. We decided we needed to have a baseline technology for online courses that students could use in a predictable way."
In addition to library science, IST now offers distance programs for master's degrees in telecommunications and network management, and information resources management. Merrill says 20 courses used WebCT last fall, and not all were ISDP. "Many campus courses use WebCT to supplement regular class sessions," she says. "It's a good way to carry on discussion after class is over, or for the instructor to post materials to the web site for students who might have missed class."
Sutton says Internet classes require a teaching style far different from that of traditional classes. Instructors must tailor the program's interface, load the site with information students need, and spend hours sifting through written material that takes the place of classroom discussions. "It takes more time, but not high-quality time," he says. "I can get up on Saturday morning and do this in my bathrobe."
LIBRARY BOOSTS ITS HIGH-TECH OFFERINGS TO IMPROVE INFORMATION GATHERING
With the rising popularity of electronic media, traditional information-gathering processes are being revamped. The H. Douglas Barclay Law Library is no exception. The library's recently reorganized physical layout and additional computing facilities allow students to make better use of available technology for research, while improved electronic access makes materials available beyond the library's walls. "This model brings together librarian, patron, resources, and technology through integration of the formats that one uses to access information," explains M. Louise Lantzy, director of the law library.
The library's new Electronic Research Center (ERC) is part of this move toward integrated access. The center, which consists of three circular clusters of six computers, integrates CD-ROMs, web-based indexes, and full-text electronic collections. "The goal is to acquaint students with all of the research possibilities and educate them about their use," says Wendy Scott, associate librarian for public services. "Librarians work in close proximity to the ERC so they can help students integrate electronic resources into their research." Students requiring additional support can visit the new Online Reference Laboratory, where librarians work with small groups or individuals in intensive training sessions.
The library's newly redesigned web site (http://www.law.syr.edu/library) identifies and describes key resources for faculty members, students, and other users. Scott says information is placed on the site after careful review, analysis, and annotation by library staff. "We select and link to resources that are most valuable to our user groups," she says. Students can access these resources from home or from the college's new 24-hour computer cluster.
Scott says the library also offers new ways for students to locate course information. "We've replaced our closed reserve system with an open system," she says. "Students can help themselves to the reserves, read them in our new reading room, or photocopy them. Many can be charged out at the circulation desk."
Second-year law student Jennifer Coon welcomes the improvements, saying she now gets information quickly. "I walk in here and find what I need," she says. "I don't have to waste my time or anyone else's."
Law students Tonya Younis, left, and Chris Brown work in the H. Douglas Barclay Law Library's new Electronic Research Center.
Lantzy says the library is committed to providing technology that enhances research. "To do complete research you need access to a variety of information resources," she says. "All the answers are not on the net, in print, or on video. These resources work in tandem."
ANN R. MEARSHEIMER