Professional and Technical Communication
SUNY Institute of Technology
Increasingly, a large percentage of the students attending the State University of New York (SUNY) Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome, an upper-division college in upstate New York, are older, non-traditional students, many juggling family, part-time or full-time employment, and academic schedules. Other non-traditional learners include students who want or need to update their marketable skills but, because their work schedules vary greatly, do not have the time to attend traditional classroom instruction. SUNY Learning Network (SLN), an asynchronous learning environment, was created with these students in mind: distance or e-learning would afford them more learning opportunities and academic advancement though online courses, while meeting their job and family demands. Simply stated, e-learning involves delivering and interacting with academic content through, in our case, the Internet. Theoretically, the "e-classroom" would be a great way for these students to have access to all kinds of additional learning. But do these students receive the same caliber of education as they would in a traditional classroom? Where in the definition of e-learning is the word "quality" or "measured output?" In other words, is e-learning equal to or as credible as traditional classroom learning? Can students learn equally well in both education venues? Judging from my collaborative teaching experience, I say no.
"SLN uses multiple servers in multiple locations. Servers run MS Windows NT and Lotus Domino. All servers 'replicate' to each other so that every server is a mirror of the other ones. This means that all courses are on all servers at all times" (SLN Course Developer's Handbook, 2000)
Although a variety of courses has been offered through SLN, some are more suitable for distance learning than others. According to Lynnette Porter (1997), "not every course can be taught well in a distance learning environment" and certain "skills" courses (as opposed to content courses) seem not to be suitably adapted. The reason, again according to Porter, is that "not all courses are designed for mass instruction". COM 306, Report Writing and Technical Communication, represents a skills course and is best completed individually, with assistance from the professor. To develop and master the writing skill, students must practice, receive immediate feedback, and practice again. That is the process of writing.
COM 306, offered every semester and required of all students no matter the major, is designed to teach students to communicate effectively in the professional environment; students are given ample practice with both individual and collaboratively-composed documents. Since the course is taught in a computerized writing lab, students become proficient with desktop publishing and graphics applications to enhance their writing. Instructors expect students to have some hardware and software expertise. Classes are limited to 20 students because the course is writing-intensive. For the distance learning course, my colleagues and I, most importantly, expected our students to be self-directed and self-motivated, and comfortable with the technology and with Web-based communication skills (e.g., e-mail), qualities inherent in distance learning. Students had to determine for themselves how long they needed to be logged onto the course to achieve their desired grade. The responsibility of learning and of advancing skills knowledge was up to the students, a point we made clear a number of times throughout the orientation and course modules. In fact, the strength of distance learning lies in the notion that "e-learning expects the students to do the [work] themselves, to go through the mental processes necessary to identify, retain, and retrieve the salient points of a lesson on their own" (Dong, 2001a).
Or as Dong puts it in another article, "the success of that learning depends upon the individual learner; indeed, it is the learner and not the teacher who will move e-learning from technological promise to productive practice" (Dong, 2001b).
Both my colleague, a composition and literature specialist, and I, a technical communicator and computer interaction specialist, come from traditional academic backgrounds. Despite much skepticism, we thought it would be a learning experience for us to "pool our talents" and teach COM 306 collaboratively. My colleague already had an unfavorable experience with a distance learning class of a similar nature, and my distance learning experience came at the hands of disappointing CBT (computer-based training) courses in a corporate environment. Still, we accepted the challenge.
Combining our talents, we offered COM 306 after a semester of training and preparation. More than in a traditional classroom, we were challenged to keep students motivated, to increase course interaction, all the while remaining faithful to the traditional course-based mission and goal: writing is a process and improves only with practice and feedback. This online version of COM 306 was not to be viewed as a "watered down," simplified (i.e., "easy") version of the traditional classroom instruction. We maintained our original goal of (measurably) improving student writing and editing. For the same number of credits, students would do the same amount of equivalent work, but with the burden of learning resting squarely with them. Gone were the days of professorial "spoonfeeding" of material. After all, it was our intention not to "dummy down" this online course, but to require students to write something every week as a way of improving their writing and editing skills and, ultimately, increasing their own level of student motivation, a so-called benefit of the Web-based classroom (McCormack & Jones, 1998).
In doing so, we required both individual and collaborative writing assignments, all intended (and clearly stated at the onset) to add up and to contribute to the final project, a 15-page real-world proposal. Common problems (errors in parallelism, passive voice, agreement, and development, to name a few) were handled in Bulletin Board documents. The Bulletin Board served as our discussion area; here we made announcements, responded to students' questions and concerns, and offered links to outside web sites for further information or practice. Furthermore, for those students who repeatedly failed to grasp basic grammatical and writing concepts (i.e., they made the same errors over and over and over again), despite comments and explanations on the writing assignments themselves, we e-mailed our comments and/or explanations and offered private consultation during office hours. To round out the communication process, we included the use of fax and phone in our distance learning toolkit.
Success in any workplace writing situation involves interacting and communicating with peers, supervisors, and subject matter experts (SMEs). Furthermore, "e-learning is predicated on the effective use of communication, the need for learners to exercise effective learning skills in this new milieu of communication over the Internet and the World Wide Web" (Dong, 2001b). In addition to the typical Meet Your Classmates area (area designated for students to get to know each other), we encouraged and required varying interaction and communication activities; in fact, we made it a necessary component in the course, monitoring the depth and breadth of the interaction and communication taking place and making students aware of interaction as part of our evaluation process. However, despite consistent gentle reminders and prodding, interaction and communication remained a stumbling block throughout. For example, early on students were to interview one another and post personalized "profiles," including digital pictures, ("ice-breaking" task) so that some "sense of community and belonging" could be established. Based on this information, students were to form proposal work groups (lasting the duration of the semester), designate a group spokesperson, and equitably distribute the proposal writing tasks for the final project. We provided private discussion and work activity space, viewed only by group members and the instructors, to monitor both the quality and quantity of individual group members' contributions to the proposal. Here we hoped not only to increase student interaction, but also to review and comment on outlines, drafts, research skills, and various levels of editing, all stipulated many times over in both Narrative Overview (description with goals and objectives stated) and What's Due When (description of assignments and due dates) modules throughout the course. Our idea was to simulate the researching and editing process to any writing task, as well as to develop tact and diplomacy skills when dealing with others' writing. Although the literature on Web-based learning consistently stresses the component of interaction, the reality is that quality interaction is difficult to accomplish. You can require students to correspond with their peers and with the professors, but for the most part, students will sit back and not participate, or participate in a mediocre fashion. We feel students prefer face-to-face contact with peers and professors.
Additionally, we required students to use the Internet as a research and writing tool, not just as an information delivery system. Yet, given the vast number of sites available to students and the technology that makes the sharing (and copying) of information free and easy, the potential for students to plagiarize is present. Therefore, we became greatly concerned about the potential for rampant plagiarism, a problem brought to the attention of the entire campus faculty. The overview course materials warned students about plagiarizing and the consequences, and we made Bulletin Board comments when we noticed discrepancies in a single student's writing style. Because the instances of plagiarism on our campus were on the rise, we asked the Dean of Arts and Sciences to order plagiarism detection software to ease our concerns. We did not set out to be the 'plagiarism police,' but we did make it known to students that we had access to such software and that we'd use it if we noticed sweeping changes in style and vocabulary.
While a good deal of the literature we reviewed comparing online with traditional classes touts the tremendous growth of the e-learning market (Jones, 2000), and student perception of learning as being approximately the same as in a traditional class, we did not find this to be true at all. On the contrary, though students like the convenience of distance learning, we agree with the research that states "learning at a distance is not what most students prefer" (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994). Furthermore, a good number of the textbooks on Web-based training rarely, if ever, discuss output measures or quality indicators; and though some of the literature calls for the need for evaluation measures and learner assessment, there's no such discussion of what or how to measure (Wagner, 1995). Simply put, quality education goes beyond perfected skills; quality education "represents learning to see events in context and in perspective, the ability to formulate and consider options for future action, and comfort in dealing with new challenges" (Ashworth, 1996). In fact, according "to a recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Association for Higher Education, an article entitled 'What Research Says about Improving Undergraduate Education' lists 'high expectations' as the number one characteristic of quality undergraduate education." More importantly, in terms of writing quality, my colleague and I were concerned with having our students effectively communicate technical information to a group of users based on user requirements, needs, and expectations: we wanted the information to successfully satisfy its purpose and the needs of the user. Since we intended to assess student performance in terms of writing quality, our assessment methods, therefore, were limited to the writing assignments themselves. Exams, multiple-choice quizzes, and skill/drill activities were simply, in our minds, not satisfactory or meaningful assessment measures. In trying to measure "quality writing," we applied the same output quality metrics or controls successful in the traditional classroom course: students would be involved in the process of writing (process-oriented writing) while we applied quality checkpoints (i.e., task orientation, organization, clarity, visual communication, grammatical and mechanical correctness, completeness, and accuracy) during the process instead of at the end. To clarify this even further, our assessment techniques intended to evaluate and chart the progress of students' writing through the course by tracking or charting student progress in grammar and use of sophisticated knowledge in developing a document. Writing quality meant more than simply "turning out an acceptable final report."
Having a total of 39 combined teaching years with COM 306, we set out to measure student performance by grade distribution and course evaluation. Compared to our teaching of the traditional course, this class fared far worse. Sixteen students registered for the course (all classes are limited to 20 students), but only twelve remained, with two of those students failing to submit any work beyond the first month of the course. Five students dropped within the first few weeks. The overall final average was 1.9, well below the final average of 2.72 of the traditional class. Fifty-five percent of the distance-learning students received Cs or lower, and only 27% received Bs; 40-44% of the students in the traditional class received Bs, a marked difference.
In charting our students' progress, more distressing and discouraging to us was the students' failure to understand, learn, and correct basic grammatical and mechanical errors. Though we explained and commented on each and every paper submitted on the use of passive voice in technical communication, our students continued to make this mistake. The same held true for parallel construction and the superfluous use of commas. Additionally, we thought it best to use students' own writing to point out and explain repeated writing problems, a strategy we use successfully in the traditional class. We posed some sample sentences to the Bulletin Board with our explanations and ample corrections. These exchanges, dialogues if you will, took place in the "virtual classroom," where immediate and rapid back-and-forth communication or feedback isn't possible. This virtual classroom does not provide students with a total learning experience, that is, a physical setting and the face-to-face communication and interactions that occur in a traditional classroom. "Students report that they value the presence of a learning group, and that the information interactions that occur before and after, and sometimes during, a formal class are valuable components of the total learning experience" (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994). Similarly, "learning often takes place in groups and in face-to-face exchanges, not in front of a tv screen or computer monitor" (Ashworth, 1996).
Despite the fact that our assessment methods were clearly signposted and feedback was personal and meaningful, our students simply didn't "get it." Furthermore, as the semester progressed, students did less: they read less, they processed less information, they produced less, they conversed and interacted less, and they lowered their own expectations. One factor that most probably contributed to this "non learning" ("virtual learning" as Ashworth coins it) may be a lack of responsibility and discipline on the students' part to go beyond our comments, though an online textbook, links, and self-graded exercises were provided. My colleague attributes this failure to depth: students fail to take the next step in their own learning, whether that step involves following up on a grammar exercise or asking appropriate follow-up questions or participating in a discussion that requires them to think, solve problems, or challenge themselves. Students simply didn't want to do "too much," especially if they felt the course was already taxing their time and energies. According to Dong, "more than in the classroom, e-learners need to have done their reading and preparatory work so as to be able to communicate intelligently with others across cyberspace where they can be challenged by colleagues in the learning community" (Dong, 2001 September). Another factor may be the students' general failure to read and understand (i.e., communicate) the course requirements and expectations, though this information was readily available in overview and various modules throughout the course. Clearly, our objectives and descriptions of the writing assignments (with estimated page counts) were given in a number of places, including but not limited to the Orientation and Syllabus/Calendar and each module's At a Glance and Written Assignment Area. Confused students were free to post questions or ask for clarification in each module's Question Area or on the Bulletin Board; those too embarrassed could email us directly. But as Paul Trout (1996) points out, "a lot of university students today are not habitual readers and find reading time-consuming and taxing." (Trout, 1996) It is this fundamental level of communication that "appears to be the basic skill that must be honed and perfected so as to allow the learner to take full advantage of e-learning" (Dong, 2001b).
Let me use the final group project, a 15-page proposal with separate PowerPoint slides and speakers' notes (to simulate an oral presentation) as an example. You can imagine our surprise when we received an outline and a 2-page memo from one group, a 2-page proposal from another, and other variations from another--all a far cry from what we expected and what we would normally receive from a traditional class. Why? It boils down to exerting control, monitoring progress, and gauging student initiative. A traditional classroom allows for us to call attention to certain groups and their lack of progress; we can mandate group members come to the office for a conference, or we can discuss the problems after class. Such is not the case with e-learning. Sure, we can e-mail groups and request group members call us, but there's no guarantee students are reading the messages. The groups themselves can call into question their own initiative and shoddy work, but does this internal group monitoring really work? In our case, for example, several groups did indeed collaborate to only misunderstand the final project in ways that minimized their group effort and work.
The most important factor contributing to why we didn't get what we expected is that students, despite prodding and nudging from us, simply stopped communicating and interacting with us and with their group members. No matter how many postings and e-mails encouraging and coaxing, even threatening interaction, students literally "turned us off." We think that because the course wasn't the "walk-in-the-park" various students had taken before or expected, the course and its workload turned them off.
As far as the final course evaluation goes, the students simply failed to turn one in, again reiterating their lack of responsibility and our lack of control over students in distance-learning courses. Therefore, we have no student assessment on the effectiveness of this course and its activities.
There's no doubt e-learning is here to stay and poses many challenges to students and professors alike. However, the basis for quality education remains the same: willing, responsible students eager to interact, question, communicate, and learn and professors willing to guide and challenge students to acquire knowledge. Until we see students willing to accept the challenge and take responsibility for their own work and learning and professors using the technology to enhance learning activities and inspire students to use the tools to their own advantages, quality "e-education" will not exist. "Indeed, it seems to be an immutable fact that communication and self-directed learning continue to go hand-in-hand in creating and disseminating knowledge in the e-learning environment" (Dong, 2001b). An online education will never be equal to education taken at a traditional university: "[the] virtual university...seems likely to produce only virtual learning" (Ashworth, 1996).
Ashworth, K. H. (1996, September 6). Virtual universities could produce only virtual learning. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A88.
Dong, F. H. (2001a, March). The advantages and challenges of teaching in the e-learning environment. e-learning, 32-35.
Dong, F. H. (2001b, September). Succeeding as a cyberstudent. e-learning, 12-16.
Jones, D. (2000, May 23). Will business schools go out of business? E-learning, corporate academics change the rules. USA Today.
McCormack, C., & Jones, D. (1998). Building a web-based education system. New York: Wiley Computer Publishing.
Porter, L. (1997). Virtual classroom: Distance learning with the Internet. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Schlosser, C., & Anderson, M. (1994). Distance education: Review of the literature. Washington, DC: Association for Educational Communications & Technology.
SLN course developer's handbook (ver. 7). (2000, March). Albany, NY: SUNY Learning Network.
Trout, P. (1996). What students want: A meditation on course evaluations. The Montana Professor, 6.3, 12-19.
Wagner, E.D. (1995, September/October). Distance education success factors. Adult Learning, 7.1, 18-19+.