The Evaluation of the 1994 Beginning Internet Course

J.M.Rogan, January 1995

The first of four one credit Reach for the Sky online classes on the use of the internet was taught during the Fall 1994 semester by Frank Odasz. Altogether, twenty three teachers, all in the State of Montana, participated in the course. This report reflects the nature of the course itself, the reaction of participants to the course, and reflections on the course by the person who designed and taught it.

Course Outline
The description of the course is taken from the syllabus, which was provided online to participants at the beginning of the semester. Lessons were then posted online on a weekly basis, with the exception of a two week hiatus in mid-October.

This course is intended to cover the general concepts and hands- on functional basics for use of Internet email, listserves, newsgroups, gopher menus, telneting, File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and other capabilities, using Big Sky Telegraph's custom Internet services and menus.

The course emphasized:
1) the dynamics behind the creation of sustainable online communities of teachers,
2) the access and sharing of highest-value information from the Internet and elsewhere,
3) the evaluation of the best science and math resources on the Internet for inclusion in BST's teacher-evaluated science/math clearinghouse.
Feedback from Participants
At the conclusion of the course, eight questions were sent to all Reach for the Sky participants. Since a brief evaluation of the course was conducted at the midterm, some of the questions in the final evaluation concentrated on the latter part of the course. The questions, and the responses to them, are given below.

1. How do you perceive the level of detail in the Internet Lessons (since mid-term)? Please explain. Feel free to use examples if that will assist you.

In general, respondents seemed satisfied with the level of detail in the lessons. It seems that an improvement was noted as the course progressed.

* I think there is a good balance between detail and overload. The lessons are written concisely but are full of information. The "read it and do it" type of instruction is valued.

* I think it's been great. Everything I needed to know to complete lessons has been included. There was or is some glitch on lesson 12 since I can't read the GIF images, but I'm sure that will be fixed soon. This is the only time I've come across a glitch (that I can remember).

* I feel that the level of detail in the internet lessons has been adequate. It is very apparent that the author put in considerable time and as Frank is becoming more aware of the various learning styles of the reachers, he has adjusted according to his students.

* As the class was nearing completion, the directions were much easier to understand and the step by steps were much better than the beginning of the course.

* The level of detail has improved a great deal. The directions are much easier to follow!

* The detail seems to be sufficient. The fluff of the previous lessons was a little distracting. For the first time travelers on internet these lessons were enough. However, some of the instructions could still be more concise. We tend to forget how lost we got the first time we traveled the path.

*level of detail--this seemed to be fine. I didn't feel overwhelmed nor did I feel like I was missing major pieces of info or that the lessons were too easy.

* I have been happy with the internet lessons. I believe they have been about the right length and detail. I appreciated the adjustment and break at mid term. I think there should be a scheduled break during the semester to allow some of the participants the opportunity to either catch up or do some additional exploring on their own.

* All of the information that I received form the internet course is of invaluable nature. I realize that this is a great opportunity to become knowledgeable on the subject. I enjoy the images that I am able to share with others. People always like pictures. The lesson detail seem to be at a doable level. I appreciate the time between some of the lessons. Each week seems to bring different responses both from the course and the time available in reality.

* The second half of the lessons were much easier for me to complete successfully. The step by step instructions helped tremendously.

2. How do you perceive the length of the Internet Lessons (since midterm)? Please explain. Feel free to use examples if it will assist you.

The general consensus is that the length of the lessons was just about right. By October, a number of the teachers were falling behind in their lessons. As a result a two week hiatus on lessons was instituted. Following that break, the satisfaction with the length of the lessons appears to have increased.

* I think there is a good balance between detail and overload.

* I don't think the lessons have been to lengthy. Frank always get me thinking about something I hadn't thought of before, so I think that's been good for me, it's just hard to find time in a busy day, but I've been able to do it so far.

* The idea of the break was good. It allowed those who had fallen behind for whatever reason to catch up and to feel like they were with the rest of the group. The flexibility of the lessons that allowed each individual to adjust time on line was very important.

* They were about the right length. When I could follow a specific plan of action without trial and error guessing, I found that I could accomplish much more faster.

* The length is great, long enough to explain a great deal, and short enough to fit the busy schedules of teachers.

* The length of each lesson was ok for me. I've been so busy with many things that they were easy for me to finish when I decided to do so.

* Length--this was great!! Each lesson took from 2 to 3 hours. This included initial reading, pondering, trying online, sometimes trying again online, and reflection.

* The length of the lessons seemed to better than the first part. I tried to get organized and set a definite amount of time to complete each lesson. I set aside specific times to download the lesson and then to print and complete it. I completed the lessons near the end of the course.

* The length was about right. Some lessons took me longer because I made errors or did not read carefully enough. The FTP lesson took a long time online.

3. Please describe your experiences with the technical elements involved in the work you are doing for the Internet Class (since midterm).

The actual mechanics of downloading, transferring a file, using the offline reader, and so on, appears to entail skills which just need a lot of practice and reinforcement. It is one matter to conceptually understand the skills, and another to have the sequence of procedures at one's finger-tips. The latter appears to take time and frequent practice.

* It has taken a lot of time management to do justice to the lessons. We are all busy and there needs to be a balance. The learning is so challenging that I desire more time. I really appreciate exploring the various areas of the internet and sampling all that is available. I do need more practice to become more proficient in the technical aspects.

For instance, I just attempted to download a biology graphic from Harvard University. The download was successful (at least the screen said it was) but I do not know where the file went. I need to go back through the lessons to see how to do it. One thing that may help would be an outline of what is in each lesson so review when needed could be accomplished quickly.

* I've enjoyed the technical elements, I feel like I'm really developing some skills.

* I had very little difficulty in technicality. One experience taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes things go wrong and it is not my fault. I struggled one night for thirty minutes to ftp to remote locations and kept getting outcomes other than what my lesson said I should get. A few days later, I found out that the whole state had been experiencing phone problems. The next time I tried, presto! immediate success.

* There is much that I still do not understand about how all of this works I am a "why" kind of individual and still need to understand that in order to feel competent about what I am learning. This will take time for me to absorb it all.

* The technical elements have been really fun and easy to become familiar with.

* As already stated, I think the instructions need to be more succinct. After I travel a given path a few times, it becomes easy , but until I get it in my head, I need very specific directions.

*technical elements--since mid-quarter I feel that this has been appropriate. I LOVE using my signature file!

* The technical support has been outstanding at Big Sky Telegraph. The Reach For the Sky Staff and instructors have been willing to listen to the participants and make adjustments in the schedule when needed. The technical support has been very helpful. It is nice to know that they are there when needed. I am also encouraged by the willingness of other Reachers to help each other out.

* I am finally able to capture text successfully and read them off line. I have experienced some frustration with being success in some of the technical areas. I know that I am just one stroke away from success and that is the most stressful part. I know the technical part is sequential and just takes practice.

* Basically I felt much more successful completing the second half of the lessons. I fell behind because of personal reasons not because the lessons were too difficult.

4. What are the best aspects of the Internet course?

The best aspects of the course appear to be both the exposure to new ideas and resources on the one hand, and the support and the people involved with the course on the other.

* New experiences, new ideas, pushing to extend our abilities.

* This is one course where you can pose a question to the group and get help instantly. It's been terrific. I feel like I've gained an enormous amount of information. I've been wondering if I'm really processing it all.

* I really like the personal nature that all the staff and students put into the learning. I have seen the RFTS staff be very patient with questions that were asked over and over and over. I also have noticed that as the participants gained skills and confidence they started taking some of the load off of Jon and started offering assistance or their input into how the other students might solve their problem.

* There is so much out there to use with my class.

* I'm not sure if it's been the people (both instructors and allow students) or the incredible information we've been exposed to and will be able to share with our students. Both have been terrific!

* The best aspects at this point are plenty of support.

* It's been good because it forced us to continue experimenting and learning in spite of being really busy with our jobs.

* Best aspects--feeling that I have accomplished something! I know that much will have to be reviewed to get it solid in my head, but I feel very confident now

* The information we are learning is very exciting. When we master all of the material that has been presented, we will have a very useful tool to help us instruct our classes. Eventually the time and effort that I have invested in this project will pay off. I can't say at this time, though, that it is going to knock the socks off of anything.

* I am enjoying gaining the knowledge of the Internet and get excited when you can explain to people what you are doing. The Internet is in the news daily. People are becoming more interested in what it is and how it could help them in their lives.

* The skills I have gained this past year have greatly influenced me and the role technology will play in our classrooms. I am looking forward to using the skills and information I have gained. I'm hoping to incorporate more telecurricular activities into my classroom this next semester.

5. When the course is taught again, what changes would you suggest be made?

Most seemed fairly satisfied with the course the way it was. Some of the suggestions included more time to practice skills, and more specific instruction.

* Can't think of any others things.

* I can't think of any changes, but I'm not a person with a high degree of computer skills. I am used to the format of Frank's lessons and I like the way he teaches, so I wouldn't change things.

* I feel that with a lesson a week, that at times I didn't get enough practice on one area before being pointed to another area. I think that if it were possible to incorporate previous lessons (as drill and practice?) into each lesson that the very nature of performing various tasks would become second nature faster. I also like the idea of having a semester meeting to work on whatever ails you.

* Be very specific. I am just a "rookie".

* More positives for all, although there was a lot of positive support for all involved. I guess there can never be enough positives.

* I would some more examples of what was wanted in each lesson. Let us see what you want then we can do it on our own. Then a few quick follow quizzes.

* My only complaint is that a few times there were some things that didn't work without further clarifications, and sometimes we had to go searching for needed information to complete the assignment. The latter could have been an asset in the long run, because I always remember better when I'm forced to really think it through, however it did cause a little frustration at times.

*Changes--the only changes that I would make were in the first half. The tone of the lessons changed dramatically (for the best) since mid-quarter.

* What would make the course better? I have been wondering about this question. I guess that I would like to have a scheduled break in the semester. This process is very time- consuming. I think that teaching full time and doing this course has taken all of the spare time that I have and then some. I don't want this to sound like a complaint. I just think that the staff should be aware of the job load of teaching full time. I would also like to have the opportunity of having all of us get together during the semester to work out some of the problems we are encountering. Meetings could be scheduled at locations other than Dillon to make travel distances fair.

*My recommendations would be that if there is a lengthy lesson that 2 weeks be given to complete the lesson. Use your judgement and see how students are doing. If it appears that they are falling behind. Adjust. May is a month from hell for teachers. I would greatly appreciate lessons being easy or completed by then.

* The first 6 lessons need more step by step instructions and the FTP lesson should tell us how to back out of a site (return to the first menu).

6. Do you feel that what you have got out of the course was worth the time and effort that you put into it? Please explain.

There was a resounding positive response to the question.

* Yes, absolutely. I especially like the challenge.

* I have been very happy with the skills that I have received from this course. It's been one of the most productive classes I've had in sometime. It has been well worth my time. I have access to unlimited resources now and the world is at my fingertips, this has been terrific!!

* A huge definitely. While I clearly have a ways to go, the internet class was my learning permit to drive the I.S.H. Now that I know the basics, I feel confident enough to strike out on my own.

* I have gotten more than I expected. It is wonderful to be learning all of this and having so much support. Thanks for all the encouragement.

* Oh yes! The worth is immeasurable to both myself and my students. We won't see how truly valuable this is for a while, but I can already see a change in student motivation for the positive.

* Any time put in on this new mode of communication is worth it. I just need more time to gain the skills of the new soft ware programs as well as the internet access.

* This has definitely been worth the time and effort.

* I expect great results and opportunities from taking this class. I guess that I have a hard time even thinking of it as a true class. It is more of an exciting adventure. I feel a strong bond with some of the Reachers, support staff, and instructors. I believe we all want this adventure to work. I am glad to be a part of it.

* I think it has gone beyond my expectations. I was totally unaware of all of the potential in the cyberspace network. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the Reach for the Sky Team.


7. Did you finish the course by 12/23/94? Yes No

If your answer is no, what prevented you from finishing the course?

Yes = 3
Yes to Lessons 1-11 = 3
No = 4

* I ran out of time. ...too much going on before Christmas professionally and personally. Too much to do all at once, and the class was the one thing that could be put on hold at that time.

* I did not finish the course, but it was my fault not yours. I got "invited" in another project, the leadership conference. I did not even begin to realize what I had gotten my self into. Without that , I would have been able to finish easily.

*I did not finish by Dec 23 for a couple reasons. The first is a major crisis in my family and second, since I knew that I had several weeks to finish this course, I put it on the back burner ( darn near off the stove) until I could have time to get it done.

* I thought I had finished and sent lesson 12. I had completed all of the lessons. I just hadn't sent the last response in. Then Christmas came and relatives and my time on line didn't happen.

* Finding time to complete the lessons was a problem for me.

8. Additional Comments:

* Can't wait for the next class.

* Telecommunications has opened new avenues for me in my teaching. It's given me that shot in the arm to stay excited about teaching and use new innovations in the classroom. I hope to continue to grow with this course. I'm looking forward to the next set of lessons. (I'm also wondering if I need a Mac to add to my computer collection, so I can use all of this software)

* To all the staff: Thank you for the piggy-back ride. I think I have my legs under me now and can walk most of the way myself. To the students: We're not only getting where we want to go but wow, talk about telecom friendship being developed...

* Am excited to keep learning about all this. What a great opportunity for me. Thanks for including me in this pioneering project. I have become more aware of the goings on via the Internet since I started this project.

* This has been a very exciting project for me!! Thanks!

Thanks for the input!

* I need to apologize for my lack of immediate responses to question, etc. This has caused me some frustration, as I don't like to do that. I should be able to do better in the future. As I think this training is important and I'm committed to it. Thanks for your patience.

Response of course teacher

The course instructor, Frank Odasz, kept a log for the duration of the course. Hence there exists a record of his insights into the course, the way it was taught, and how it progressed.

1. One of the themes to emerge in Frank's mind concerned the response of the teachers taking the course. He obviously put much store in the course participants being excited by learning new skills and ideas, and hoped that a positive attitude would be infused through much of the online interaction. In this section, his reaction is traced as the course proceeded.

The reachers have fallen into two broad categories: 1. the happy to communicate at anytime group, and 2. the bare minimum communications for whatever reason group. While I'll continue to encourage everyone, it is up to each individual to communicate back to me. Once we hit mid-October, everyone should be solidly in their semester pattern, and for a month and a half, before the holidays hit, we should hit a group pattern of interaction. This will be interesting to watch.

The two week break referred to earlier took place during the MEA convention in Billings.

At MEA next week, we'll have an open lab for helping everyone catch up. Its important to note that each Reacher will be bringing a list of what they need to know, and will have a readiness to learn that will be much more focused that at the summer workshop.

After the break he writes:
Personally, I'm still very excited about being a part of the RFTS project and am encouraged by the attitude and performance of the RFTS teachers. Since I know what its like to get burned out with too much online activity, my major concern with watching for signs of early burnout associated with the online class. A two month break between online courses is very important, as is flexibility with late homework.

I'm very pleased to have received excited messages from many reachers after they successfully subscribed to listservs that they have found pertinent to their specific interests.

And still later:
This week has been very positive with feedback from the Reachers on the lessons. A couple of the least computer-literate Reachers completed Lessons 6 and 7 on their own, without difficulty. These are reasonably challenging lessons, too. While I'm sure those behind are frustrated, and will tend to be critical, those who have kept up are quite positive about the lessons.

I think what we're seeing is that adapting to online instruction is not dependent on skill level, but more on attitude and self-discipline. I posted personal updates to all Reachers, and a group posting showing how many have completed each lesson, without listing names. As far as I can determine, most attitudes are quite positive. If some are negative, they are not sending me that "message." Private email makes it easy to complain to others privately, without being "upfront" with constructive criticisms.

Many Reachers have followed my suggestion and joined the Curriculum listserv and are quietly observing how teachers confident with expressing themselves online are able to collaborate, and socialize. This allows me to model online organization with an advanced group, as those new to online socializing look on.

2. One of Frank's major concerns, as the course developed, was that he appeared to be losing contact with some of the participants. The remarks below were made at various times as the course progressed.

I posted the assessment of our first online discussion, where half didn't participate, for whatever reason. I attempted to stress the point that I can't push anyone to learn or participate online, but that they are in charge of their own learning. Without ongoing two-way interaction its pretty hard to interact meaningfully. I wonder how carefully the first five lessons and the syllabus were read, as these materials thoroughly lay out what the reachers have agreed to as their commitment to interact regularly. Many questions strongly suggest the lessons have not been carefully read by some reachers.

I'll admit I do worry that some reachers don't follow the written instructions well at all, and some have not yet made the connection that the lessons must be performed before the learning can take place. While reading through the lessons first is recommended, they won't "come together" until hands on learning takes place.

I worry that some have such low confidence and shaky personal discipline that they will be left in the dust by the solid learning pace of the bulk of the group. Time available to learn may be a factor, too, but time is always the first excuse and often covers up other reasons like technofear, or as important, an aversion to communicating in writing. I would have liked to have somehow measured the reachers attitudes toward communicative writing before this project. I think some are entirely uncomfortable with communicating in writing, while others think nothing of it.

Some Reachers still seem quite far away and I can't depend on timely responses to my messages to them, hence, I'm uncertain if they even are getting my messages. Other Reachers feel as if they are next door, with friendly, outgoing responses to every message I send them. During the early lessons I stressed the importance of each Reacher's agreement to interact with the instructor as being prerequisite to successful completion of this course. With some Reachers, I feel as if I'm trying to play catch with someone who won't raise their arms to catch the ball, but just let it hit them in the chest, and look away, each time I attempt to engage them.

Clearly, meaningful engagement in distance learning is a challenge. In a face to face class, contact can be forced in a way not possible online. Persons preparing to mentor online need to be made aware of the challenge of maintaining contact and given techniques and ideas to achieve this goal.

3. The responses to the course, and the fact that not all Reachers were keeping up, raised some questions in Frank's mind about the nature of the course itself. He had initially envisaged it as a cohort travelling the same road together, mulling over certain issues and acting as a support group for one another. However, it was also possible to envisage the course as a series of self-guided and self-paced lessons being taken by 22 individuals with minimum interaction.

It has been suggested I post several lessons ahead for those who wish to work ahead, but if I do so, this changes the character of the course from a group moving forward together, helping one another, to an individualized self-study format...which is something I'm consciously trying to avoid. I'll still attempt to post at least one lesson ahead.

I feel since we covered many advanced techniques during the workshop, if some desire advanced activities, they can telnet anywhere in the world, or read any of the several Internet guides we provided them with. I'd prefer they help their partners come up to speed instead of just thinking about themselves. This raises some interesting social trends to watch for. Are we a peer community, or a bunch of individuals working independently.

I'm keenly aware, from experience, that if I push too much new material on the Reachers, some will begin to burn out well before Dec. 10. My goal is to bring the whole group to a mutually satisfying finish, Dec. 10th, with an eager attitude toward the next online class. Though I'm seriously challenged with keeping 22 separate spheres of interaction going, and in keeping the little details of each Reacher's special interests straight, for the most part I'm very satisfied with the course progress at this point. I'll be making special efforts to dialog with the quieter reachers, and we'll see what happens.

If the scaleability of online teacher training is the goal of RFTS, we might consider creating an initial set of lessons that are minimally challenging, but can serve to get teachers used to the "pattern" of regularly taking online lessons. BST's first course would be very suitable for this, with minor changes. Our Reachers are receiving what I would consider to be very thorough training, and are finding the time costs a struggle to manage.

The issue raised here goes beyond the mere maintaining of contact with the instructor dealt with in the previous point. The building and sustaining online communities involves more than linking each student with the instructor. Communities of learners, whether online on in a classroom, is not something which enjoys a preeminent position in most teacher education programs. Therefore it ought to be accorded especial attention when training online mentors.

4. A final theme to emerge in Frank's thinking during the course concerned the use and acquisition of resources. Since most teachers only had long-distance access to the Internet, the issue of time and cost became especially relevant.

Resources: As I suspected, most Reachers are way too busy to spend hours browsing the Internet, or even to ask me to help them find more resources. I've been informally presenting many sample addresses to resource archives, and messages from listservs that demonstrate the Internet culture of friendly, informal sharing of high quality resources. We're in a stage of acclimating to a new communications environment, and should not be overly ambitious in pressing the Reachers to advance. There is a great deal of internalization taking place; of the potential, and in the solidifying of new communications "habits".

I've been posting weekly listings of new resources, and while I've received a few requests...the fact that so few requests have been made speaks loudly to me as to whether most of these reachers are really the least bit interested about browsing the Internet for even more resources on their own. That would take time and effort, which we can't assume will be thus invested, for very practical reasons.

I've been posting weekly Reacher Resource Reports to demonstrate how I can save them time, and ideally, how they can emulate my postings and save each other time, as well.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that since teachers have minimal time to search the Internet for resources, and limited long distance phone budgets, that there is an important niche for providing quality Internet resources on magnetic media or CD-ROM. I have a single disk with 700 quality K-12 lesson plans, for instance. And a CD-ROM could carry 600 megabytes of satellite images, videoclips, and other information, mass producible for a dollar per disk.

It is likely that as the novelty of surfing the Internet to find one's own resources wears off, time and money restraints will begin to take their toll on resource gathering. In the end, alternates to online resource gathering might well be more cost effective. If is also clear that many resources available on the Internet are of marginal use unless accompanied by curriculum support materials. The reaction of Reachers to Lesson 12 by Dave Thomas clearly illustrates this point. Not only were resources in the form of images of Mars provided, but were backed by a well thought out series of lesson plans and activities for students. The development of such support materials is obviously time consuming and cannot be achieved as part of regular preparation time. It would seem beneficial to change the emphasis, once the initial excitement at having unlimited access to resources has begun to wane, to making the most use of a few resources. Perhaps in the future, a course project could entail the creation of a curriculum support package for just one resource. Summer workshops could also emphasize the creation of curriculum packages based around resources available on the Internet directly, or on disk or CDs. This emphasis makes sense economically as well as educationally. It is a direction that future mentors ought consider carefully.

In general, the response of Reachers to the first course was positive. More importantly, the course was seen to improve as the instructor responded to suggestions and comments. Overall it was seen as worth the time and effort invested in it.

Three important issues arose as a result of the interactions that took place during the semester that have important implications for the training of online mentors. These issues are:
1. Maintaining contact with all participants in the online course.
2. Building and sustaining online communities of learners.
3. The effect use of Internet resources in both the educational and economic sense of the word.