Online Education For Dummies 8

Navigating the Classroom

In This Chapter ▶ Getting into your virtual classroom ▶ Finding and reviewing the documents you need to succeed ▶ Determining how the content in a course is organized ▶ Meeting folks during office hours On the first day of a traditional class, the instructor usually passes out papers, explains the class, reviews grading, and talks a little about what the class entails. In online education, the same kinds of resources are available, but you get them in a different fashion. After you register for one or more online classes (see Chapter 7), you’re ready to log in and find your way around the virtual classroom, which is where students and faculty gather together to learn. The beauty of this virtual classroom is that you don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to fight for parking, and you can come to school whenever it’s convenient!
This chapter walks you through a typical login experience and helps you become familiar with some of the materials and activities your instructor may have for you.
Reaching Your Virtual Classroom Your calendar tells you that class starts today. What does that mean? Do you need to log in at 8 a.m. to complete a task? We assume you’re excited to begin with online education but a little anxious as to what to do first. It’s not as easy as showing up to the right classroom, and all of this is new! In the following sections, we explain how to use the right Web address, set some Internet options, log in to the school’s home page, and find the link for each course you’re taking.

Some institutions let you log in a day or two early just to start looking around. If you’re given this opportunity, take advantage of it. If you don’t have time to log in early, at least log in on the first day so your instructor knows you’re present.
Using the right address and setting some Internet options Sometime prior to the start of a course, the school sends information about how to log in to your virtual classroom. In some cases, you may receive this a week in advance; in other cases, it may arrive hours prior to the start of the course. It all depends on the school. This communication includes a specific URL (Web address), a username, and a password. You type that URL (for example, in the address bar of the browser, in place of whatever URL shows when you open your browser. Hit enter and the Web page should change to your school page.
Hopefully, the correspondence from your school also includes instructions explaining how to set your browser for optimal performance (see Chapter 3 for the basics on browsers). In most cases, you want your Temporary Internet Files (found within Internet Options in the Tools menu) set so that the browser checks for newer versions of stored pages every time you visit those pages (see Figure 8-1).

Every browser and operating system has a different method and look to it. In Figure 8-1, we show you how Windows XP looks when you’re trying to set the Temporary Internet Files. Follow these steps:

  1. Notice there are seven tabs at the top. Click on the first tab: General. 2. That mini-page is broken into three categories: Look to the middle for the area labeled Temporary Internet Files. 3. Look within that area and you’ll see three rectangular buttons. The one on the far right is labeled Settings. 4. Click on Settings and make sure the first option, “Every visit to the page,” is selected.
    Logging in and checking out the portal After you find your virtual classroom, log in for the first time by using the username and password provided by the school. These words or codes are case sensitive, meaning you cannot capitalize at will. Type the information exactly as it is on the paper (or on the screen if it was e-mailed to you).
    Generally, your login doesn’t take you directly to your course; rather, it takes you to a home page that includes additional information and a link to your course. (If you’re taking more than one course, you’ll see a link for each one.) This first home page, called the portal, may include information like announcements to all students, links to the library, or tutorials on common processes. It may even be the same page you used to register for classes. Figure 8-2 shows a sample of a portal from which a student would access her course(s).
    If your portal looks nothing like the one in Figure 8-2, don’t worry: What you see when you log in depends on the course management system software your school uses. There are several major vendors in North America and worldwide: Blackboard, WebCT, Desire2Learn®, and Moodle, for example. Whether you know which course management system your school uses may make for interesting cocktail party conversation with other online students, but it doesn’t really matter in terms of getting your work done. If your school doesn’t blatantly tell you in their correspondence, you will see the logo when you log into the course. Vendors love to let you know who they are!

Many institutions ask students to change their passwords as soon as they log in, and this is typically done from the portal. This is for your own security. We recommend changing your password, but not immediately. First, take some time to look around your new environment, specifically finding and printing your technical support and instructor contact information before changing your password. That way, if for some reason you get locked out of the system, you’ll know who and where to call! (Flip to Chapter 3 for the basics on passwords.)
Finding your course’s home page As we note in the preceding section, your course management system software (for example, Blackboard, WebCT, Desire2Learn, or Moodle) determines exactly what you see on the application’s home page when you log in. But in all cases, you see a link to your course, most often identified by the course name and catalog number (refer to Figure 8-2). Once you find the link to your course, click on it to be taken to the main page, also sometimes called the home page, of your course.

You may not be able to see the entire course at once. Some instructors like to show only what is needed in the beginning so students don’t become overwhelmed. This is new, after all! However, your interface probably has links to some standard materials, such as a welcome message from your instructor, the syllabus, the calendar, and other information we look at more specifically later in this chapter. So that you know you’re in the right place, Figures 8-3 and 8-4 show what you might see when logging into two different systems for the first time:
✓ Figure 8-3 shows a home page of a course taught on Angel. Notice that you see courses you have access to along with groups and announcements. Announcements might be reminders of deadlines, notes about additional resources, or basic processes that relate to everyone. This kind of opening page lets you choose to go where you need with the information that will help you succeed. ✓ Figure 8-4 shows a home page of a course taught on Moodle. In this case, you see links to content right away. You can jump directly to the lessons of the course and information about assignments. Announcements may be off to the side or contained within a special forum.

Locating and Understanding Critical Documents After you know how to get to the right home page for each course you’re taking, you want to collect a few major documents you need. Think of this as a treasure hunt. Hopefully your instructor has been kind enough to put an “X Marks the Spot” on the course’s home page, but just in case it’s not that easy, this section walks you through what to look for — including the syllabus, calendar, and details on grading — and where to find it.
Start a notebook for each online course you take. Find the documents in the following sections and keep copies in both printed form and in a folder on your computer’s hard drive. The printed copy is more portable, and if your computer crashes (it happens), you’ll have the instructor’s name and contact information and can continue working on the course at a different computer. You can also keep printed articles and resources as they become available in your course. It’s not very “green,” but many people still prefer to have a paper copy for easier reading and note taking. Most of us still like to scribble in the margins!

The syllabus In order to teach this particular course, your instructor has to determine its goals, objectives, assignments, and much more. By putting these in writing, she creates a syllabus. Every course needs a plan. The syllabus communicates that plan and is therefore one of the most important documents in your course. You can think of this document as a general map of where you’re headed in a course.
A link to the syllabus is often front and center on the home page. It may be a button to the left or an icon in the middle of the page, but it’s generally very visible. A typical syllabus includes information on:
✓ Course basics: The name of the course, credit hours, goals and objectives, and required textbooks ✓ Instructor contact information: Name, possibly biography, address, phone, e-mail, and other contact information, such as time zone and availability ✓ Course content: Topics to be covered and possibly a schedule or calendar (see the next section for more information) ✓ Grading: How you’ll be evaluated, the kinds of assignments you’ll do, the rationale for those assignments, and the distribution of points (we cover details on grading later in this chapter) ✓ Policies: Academic honesty, the general expectations of logging in and participating, whether late work is acceptable, netiquette expectations, and other policies that help you understand how the instructor runs the class ✓ Resources: Links to technical support, the library, the bookstore, academic advising or tutoring, disability services, and other resources students may need
Think of the syllabus as an informal contract between you and the instructor. She has the responsibility to teach you as she planned, and you have the responsibility to follow through with what is expected. To use the syllabus to your advantage, read it and become familiar with what is expected of you. Pay special attention to how you’ll be graded and the general expectations of logging in and participating.

The calendar Even though a course might be advertised as “anywhere and anytime,” you still have to complete assignments according to a calendar. Even self-paced courses have deadlines!
You can typically find calendars on the home page. On all calendars, you see the dates on which assignments are due. You may also find important deadlines and dates listed on the syllabus. Specific calendar forms depend on the course management software, but they typically fall into two camps:
✓ Those that give you a graphic view (see Figure 8-5): This calendar is found on the home page and is in a traditional chart format almost anyone can recognize. ✓ Those that list assignments (see Figure 8-6): This form lists the assignments in a linear fashion. It may be found on the home page, or as a link elsewhere.

Most of us keep multiple calendars and rarely synchronize them. The calendar in the kitchen doesn’t include the business trip you have planned, and your office calendar doesn’t say anything about needing cookies for the PTA. Coordinate all your calendars so you know when major assignments are due and how these intersect with business and family. For example, look ahead to see whether a group project is coming up in your class and make sure you don’t plan a family weekend getaway in the middle of it. Consider transferring all calendar items into your favorite calendaring program, such as Microsoft Outlook. When you do this, you can set up reminders to alert you when assignments are due or synchronous sessions are scheduled.
When coordinating your calendars and figuring out deadlines, pay attention to what time something is due and what time zone the course calendar refers to. Course management systems will timestamp all your submitted assignments for the instructor’s record. For example, assignments due at midnight Eastern Time are due at 9 p.m. Pacific Time. This is a big difference and can have a dramatic affect on your grade if assignments are turned in late.
As you’re coordinating dates, be sure to think about whether you need a calendar in digital or paper form. While coauthor Susan keeps an electronic calendar on Google Calendar, she also has several paper versions printed and hanging in front of her monitor. There’s no shame in printing!

Don’t depend on your instructor to remind you of due dates. Similarly, don’t assume she uses the calendar feature within the course software. Instead, take responsibility for writing down and coordinating dates.
Finding out how you’re graded If you’re going to invest a major portion of your free time in studying, we assume you want to be rewarded with a good grade. In the following sections, we describe a few key documents related to grading: the grading scale, any rubric used for your course, and the late policy.
The grading scale You want to identify how you’ll be graded and what you need to do to earn the highest score. Somewhere in your course, possibly in the syllabus but also as a separate link on the home page, should be a grading scale. Figure 8-7 shows the major components that should be included: a list of general assignments, the available number of points for each assignment, and the grade distribution based on the total number of points you earn. Notice the example doesn’t include grades D or F. We were thinking of a graduate level course where typically anything lower than a C is considered failing.

When you first look at a grading scale, focus on the types of assignments, what percentage of points go with each assignment, and any projects or assignments that seem to be worth a lot more than others. Also pay attention to the proportion of points assigned to ongoing or routine activities, such as weekly discussion or chapter tests.

You can learn a lot from the example in Figure 8-7. If you read this document carefully, you can conclude:
✓ Discussion is very important in this course. It’s worth 25 percent of the grade! A rubric also is mentioned. Reading the rubric will tell you exactly what is expected from the discussion portion of the course. (See the next section for more on rubrics.) ✓ Quizzes are as important as weekly reflections, but only half as important as discussion. The instructor may be using quizzes as a way to make sure you keep up-to-date with the facts of the course so you don’t fall behind. This way you can also test yourself so you know where to focus your energy. ✓ The final project is worth a quarter of the grade, but there is no final exam. Plus, the paper is evaluated using a rubric. That means you should start looking for the rubric! It also means you should start organizing your time to break this big project into smaller pieces. ✓ A’s don’t come easily. You need 93 percent to get an A.
Rubrics A rubric is an evaluation plan or a scoring tool that helps the instructor determine how well your paper, project, or participation lines up with the ideal. Rubrics are typically found in the instructions for the assignment or linked to the instructions. Rubrics typically include several categories that are deemed important to the final product. For example, in written work, the quality of your ideas is assessed along with your ability to think critically and write in a grammatically acceptable form. The rubric communicates what’s important by the relative weights given to the categories. Look at the example rubric in Table 8-1, which is for the discussion portion of a course.
When you look at a rubric, you want to determine what’s important and where the instructor is going to turn her attention. Most rubrics have categories that organize the evaluation. Then within each category, you’ll see details about what an excellent paper or project would include. This rubric tells you the following:
✓ The development of ideas is twice as important as mechanics (5 points versus 2 points). ✓ Proper citation is expected, according to the “content” description. ✓ You must respond to at least two peers in order to get full credit.
Reading the rubric in detail before completing the assignment can help you prepare and self-check your assignments before turning them in for grades. We guarantee you can earn higher grades by reading and following the rubric! See Chapter 14 for more information about rubrics.

The late policy As much as you plan to be on time with all your assignments, occasionally life gets in the way. Be sure you understand what the late policy is for your online course. The late policy may be included in the syllabus or with each assignment. Some instructors accept work past the deadline, while others don’t. In every case, if you know you won’t meet the deadline and have a good reason, contact your instructor! Explain the circumstances and politely ask for an extension.
Notice, we said “and have a good reason.” Good reasons would include someone becoming seriously ill, your wife having a baby earlier than expected, a death in the family, or a natural disaster such as flooding. Good reasons would not include a NASCAR race you attended, an impromptu trip to the beach, or Mother’s Day. In those situations, you could have planned in advance to get your work in on time.

Modules and More: Understanding a Course’s Content Organization Take a look at any standard textbook, and you’ll see that it’s divided into chapters. Each chapter covers a different topic. In some cases, Chapter 4 only makes sense if you’ve read Chapters 1, 2, and 3. In other textbooks, you can jump around from chapter to chapter and the content still makes sense.
Online courses are organized in a similar fashion. They’re also broken down into smaller pieces, or “chapters.” Your instructor probably organizes what you’re going to do in the class according to weeks or topics. This way, you focus on one chunk of information at a time. Some instructors, though, organize content for a class by different functions: discussions, assignments, quizzes, tests, and the like.
You can see evidence of how the course is organized by checking out the course’s home page.
✓ Figure 8-8 shows the organizational pattern on the screen. The box to the left labeled “menu” tells you that the information has been chunked into smaller units called modules. Each module probably contains just enough data for one or two weeks. In these courses, everything you need to complete the module can be found within the week or topic heading. ✓ In other courses, materials and assignments may be provided according to function. This situation requires a little more clicking on your part. For example, if there’s no obvious link to modules organized by week or topic on the course’s home page, you may have to click on a link titled “Discussions” and then another link labeled “Week 2 Discussions” in order to participate in Week 2’s class discussion. Next, you may need to go back to the course’s home page and click an “Assignments” link to locate Week 2’s assignments. In most cases, this structure is determined by the course management system, not the instructor.
The way a course is organized affects the placement of certain documents related to assignments and testing, especially rubrics, handouts, and resources. Your instructor may leave handouts and resources in a couple locations:
✓ She may put all of them within the module for which they’re needed. For example, Module One’s handouts would be in Module One’s folder, including the instructions for an upcoming assignment and the details on grading, including the rubric. ✓ On the other hand, your instructor may put all the rubrics and related documents together in one location and call this “Grading” or “Assessment.”

What can you learn from this? No two instructors are the same, and you may need to click around to find the materials you’re looking for. Hopefully, your instructor will at least be consistent and you’ll be able to find things more quickly after spending a little time becoming familiar with your virtual classroom. Finally, there’s no harm in asking the instructor! Just say the Dummies people got you thinking there might be something you’re missing.
Attending Virtual Office Hours If you take a traditional on-ground course, your instructor will tell you about “office hours.” These are established times when you can drop by the instructor’s office and discuss any concerns. For example, if you really bombed the last test, you may want to go over the answers or talk about where you missed the point. Similarly, in the virtual world, instructors conduct virtual office hours as a means of staying connected to their students. In the following sections, we describe these office hours and their benefits, and we provide pointers on how to access virtual offices.

Discovering the value of virtual office hours In the online world, the instructor may have an office in another state or country! For that reason, the office hours are virtual, meaning they’re conducted online. Using synchronous software, the instructor makes herself available for conversation or communication at a specific time.
Instructors approach office hours a couple ways:
✓ Some make themselves available for questions and comments, and if no one shows up, they just work at their computer. ✓ Others have a specific agenda and use the time to provide additional information you may not otherwise cover in class. For example, coauthor Susan regularly previews technology tools her students may find helpful. In many cases, these virtual office hours are recorded so if you can’t attend the “live” meeting, you can watch the recording later and get the same information. The instructor posts a link after the meeting so you know where and how to access the recording. However, even if your instructor’s office hours are recorded, nothing beats the live interaction — so attend if you can. You won’t regret it. You may need a few private moments with the instructor to ask a question about a grade, comment on a personal situation, or talk about anything you don’t want the rest of the class to know. If that’s the case, let the instructor know in advance by way of an e-mail. You can then schedule a private conversation.
Lots of students and instructors enjoy virtual office hours because they afford a kind of real-person connection that the asynchronous environment doesn’t. This is your opportunity to interact with live voices! Yes, with a simple microphone/headset device (available at any office supply store; see Chapter 3 for details), participants can talk to one another! The instant gratification of communication during virtual office hours is very powerful in reinforcing a sense of belonging and presence within the class. It gives both faculty and students an opportunity to strengthen the learning community bonds.
Virtual office hours are also great for reinforcing course content. Coauthor Susan is able to demonstrate new technologies by sharing her screen with her class. Students get to see a live demonstration of how to use the technology and step-by-step instructions for doing so.
In addition to providing virtual office space for instructors, your institution may provide students with virtual office space. This space is open 24/7 for students who want to meet with other students in order to complete group projects, discuss content, and so forth. These spaces are often restricted by course enrollment and recorded for security purposes. They provide a great vehicle for collaborating on assignments in an interactive environment. We discuss this issue in more detail in Chapter 12.

Accessing the virtual office If your college provides virtual office space to instructors and/or students, you will see a special login place within your course, typically on the home page. Often the software needed for office hours is different from your course management system, but they should be integrated. For example, you might have a course offered in Moodle with office hours occurring in Elluminate, but a link in your course should take you seamlessly to your new destination. Figure 8-9 shows a typical virtual office space. Notice there’s a space for sharing slides or images in the center. To the left are a list of participants, a place for chat with text, and an audio button allowing for voice chat. These features are fairly standard with Web conferencing software.

No matter what technology is used for virtual office space, the institution should also provide links to tutorials on how to navigate to, and interact within, the synchronous environment. These tutorials may be a part of your institution’s orientation materials, which you’re hopefully able to refer to at any time. (Check out Chapter 7 for more about orientation programs.)

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