Faculty Focus


Improving Online Learning, part 1

Instructors have a myriad of technological tools available to enhance online instruction, such as blogs, wikis, and streaming audio and video. I have been particularly interested in streaming audio and video to deliver course content in a dynamic mode that captures the energy of the traditional classroom presentation while taking advantage of the Web’s functionality to combine text, audio, and images. However, given the significant time it takes to design and create a presentation for streaming over the Web, I have wondered whether the time commitment is justified by the learning benefit for students. Do bells and whistles enhance learning online?

Streaming media in online courses
When I recently created an online course on the philosophy of religion, I was concerned with delivering the course content in a variety of ways that would enhance the students’ ability to understand it. In addition to primary readings, study guides, and written lecture notes, I created presentations for streaming over the Web that combined bulleted text with more elaborate narration of the presentation topic, and I made extensive use of images to visually illustrate and make apparent the meanings of the text and narration. I created 12 narrated slide presentations, ranging from 4.5 to 11 minutes and covering topics such as the problem of evil, the validity of religious experience, and faith and reason.

I used Camtasia to produce the presentations, because this software allows for easy editing of video and audio segments, easy conversion to a Flash format for streaming over the Web, and easy construction of downloadable MP3 files and files for podcasting. Although this presentation software is relatively easy to use, it still took me about eight hours to create my first four-and-a-half-minute presentation. This involved learning the software, conceptualizing and creating the presentation, editing it, converting it to a Flash format, and posting it to the course website. By the time I constructed my 12th presentation, I was able to produce a 10-minute presentation and have it posted to my course website in about three hours. The resulting presentations enabled the students to view and listen to the content as often as they wished, to jump to different spots in the presentations, and to advance forward or backward through the content.

Although I was glad to provide students with learning options that would appeal to those who preferred to learn through listening and through visual representation of ideas, I wondered if there would be increased learning benefits and whether these benefits would justify the time needed to produce the presentations. In order to assess this, I also posted a complete transcript of the narration for each presentation. With 31 students in the class, I expected that there would be a natural division between those students who preferred to learn the content through the streamed presentations, those who preferred the text-only versions, and those who would use both modes to learn the course content.

Was it worth the time needed to add the bells and whistles? We’ll answer that question in Thursday’s post.

Jerry Kapus is an associate professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Reprinted from Bells, Whistles, and Learning Online, Online Classroom, May 2009.