Home » n. 24 gennaio/febbraio 2004

Timsoft Experience in Building Successful Online Courses

24 gennaio 2004 | Carmen Holotescu Director Timsoft, Romania Lecturer CS, University Politehnica Timisoara, Romania Online Instructor, University of Maryland, USA

Timsoft Ltd – http://www.timsoft.ro – is one of the most active actors in eLearning in Romania.

The firm has developed the online learning environment eLearnTS; variants of eLearnTS are used to offer online courses for individuals or for firms, to organize and host online workshops, and to provide virtual spaces for communities of practice or collaborative spaces for distributed teams.

The following online courses were developed and are running periodically: IT courses as C/C++, Java, HTML/Javascript , CGI/Perl, SQL, PHP, XML, Dreamweaver MX, Flash MX, C#, UNIX, Visual C++, J2EE, Software Project Management, and also online courses for eLearning Facilitators.

Timsoft is also the host of the Romanian eLearning Community, and together with e-Learning Centre UK organize online workshops and publish an eLearning eJournal.

eLearnTS is very flexible, extensible, fast; it is based on free technologies: Perl, mySQL, XML. The main components of the eLearnTS and their functions are:

1. Authoring system – An authoring component used by the space administrator in creation and edition of the materials.
2. Registration system -The database with the participants specific information.
3. A content delivery function – The content may be in the form of text, images, sounds, animations. However the basic functionality that can be expected from an online learning environment is the creation of plain text and HTML documents.
4. A navigation model – Syllabus, calendar, class lists, links, a search tool.
5. Online assessment – Tools for delivering and managing tests.
6. Synchronous tools – The chat-room allows the course members to communicate in real time with the facilitator; the environment offers also the facility of Live Chat, the facilitator can be contacted for real-time consultations when he is online. The transcript of a chat discussion can be published.
7. Asynchronous tools – conferences (web-forums). The conferences constitute the central part of the environment, that assure the interaction between all the members.
8. Security system – A component for controlling the access to the virtual environment.

The firm facilitators are university professors, but also active industry experts, and/or researchers; they were trained in American or European programs for eLearning.

The following principles define Timsoft approach to delivering quality e-Learning:

  • Constructivism paradigm
    The constructivist paradigm is the core of the online courses: the teacher becomes a partner in the team which builds the learning process. The instructor promotes activities through which students can lead themselves and develop valuable reasoning skill in the process. The learners decide, conduct, and control much of the learning process.
    The teacher acts as a coach rather than a transmitter of information as usually happens in f2f classroom, and also acts as a guide, pointing students to the appropriate tools and resources for their own learning, for they become lifelong learners.

  • Adult Education Principles
    Students who are actively engaged in the learning process will be more likely to achieve success, as they begin to feel empowered and their personal achievement and self-direction levels rise.
    Self-directedness and an active learner role, as well as solution-centered activities are key concepts of Andragogy – introduced by Malcolm.
    The most articles show that adults are: autonomous and self-directed, goal oriented, relevancy oriented (problem centered), practical and problem-solvers, have accumulated life experiences.
    Thus the courses start with a pretest as to evaluate the learners experience, knowledge, learning styles and course expectations; the course will provide a learning process tailored on his own needs, in which the student has the active role.

    Oxford English Dictionary says: “The aim of facilitation is to provide enough information and the appropriate environment allow people to apply the subject for themselves”.

    Pratt (1981) developed five broad clusters of desirable teaching characteristics for those involved in adult education:

    • Developing adult-to-adult working relationships.
    • Developing understanding of and responsibility for instruction.
    • Dealing with closure and ending, in other words summarizing learning accomplishments and indicating future learning.
    • Establishing role clarity and credibility.
    • Guarding the contract, in other words keeping the instruction within the agreed boundaries.
  • Learning Communities
    The definition of “online community” is always changing, and very subjective. An online community is about building relationships, about learning together, about collaborating, about listening to the others. To exist, an online community needs:

    • clearly stated purposes, a set of guiding principles
    • subtle, experienced, enthusiastic moderators
    • motivated, interested members
    • metaphors for linking the participants
    • good virtual environment.

    People’s online voice changes over time as they gain confidence and shed some inhibitions. And the gaining of confidence is of course determined by the stages of “Membership Life Cycle”: Visitor, Novice, Regular, Leader, Elder – Amy Jo Kim : “Community building on the Web”.
    Also all the events, sharing, actions of the community, but also the technical environment determine the developing of unique, persistent and evolving profiles for members and a climate of trust and reciprocity.
    A successful community that preserves the motivation and interest of his members is one where the instructor plans thoroughly, provides enthusiasm, gives the same attention, feedback, encouragement to all. You clarify or learn new things sharing with the others, you feel that your opinions are important.
    The informal conferences are very important in nurturing a community culture in which participants are supportive and honest: leading fun ice-breaking activities in the beginning and sustaining a social life for the group with a café or student lounge discussion thread where non-course topics are welcome throughout the course.
    Every week should bring something new – besides the information itself -, be it the assignments style and/or the presentation style, so that the students can hardly wait to enter the “classroom”. It’s a difficult task out there :-)

  • Adapt to Learning Styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic
    For more than a quarter century, learning style theory has knocked on the door of universities and of corporate training offices offering itself as a credible alternative to one-size-fits-all instruction. Now that technology has given us the means to deliver truly individualized learning, it begs the question: Is it time to let learning styles come in?
    A key to getting and keeping learners actively involved in learning, to reduce learning time, to improve knowledge retention and to increase motivation lies in understanding learning style preferences.
    From adjusting instructional strategies and teaching materials to meet the needs of a variety of learning styles benefit all learners. It’s very important to identify individuals, or groups of individuals, with similar learning styles, then constructing learning activities around the curriculum that correspond to their style.

  • Asynchronous interaction
    For each course, the central part are represented by the course conferences which are asynchronous threaded discussions. Participants don’t have to be logged on to the course simultaneously; they are able to plan their learning program, to explore the curriculum at their own pace, taking time to reflect carefully on the others postings, to work on and to organize their messages, comments, to record their thinking; thus usually the discussions quality is higher than in a traditional class. By interacting with the others, each student brings his insights, experience, tacit knowledge, he validates his opinions.
    Effective online community leaders use many strategies to stimulate student exchange and guide the conversation toward important content, intervening in discussions only when it serves to move the group more clearly toward learning objectives.
    The facilitator creates explicit conferences structure so the community gets what it needs without interrupting the flow of content-based discussions.
    Using metaphors creates a sense of architecture for orientation in the various conferences; each conference environment should have its own standards of (verbal) behaviour – formal or informal.
    There are between 15 and 25 participants in a course to keep collaborative learning manageable.

  • Quality Materials
    The courses materials consist of a static and a dynamic part.
    The static part is prepared by the facilitator.This part contains text, graphics, simulations, online resources. We can speak about a partnership with the market, as the curriculum is established respecting its standards and needs. As the feedback from the participants relative to the usefulness of the material is also important, we have also a partnership with the graduates too. Thus we realize Empowerment Evaluation, which continues after the course ends.
    Course objectives are explicit and matched to the measures used in qualitative assessments. Instructors establish a clear set of rubrics for postings to ensure that evidence of learning is embedded in the discussions.
    The dynamic part of the course is generated by the discussions. Also the students become co-authors, as they have to prepare group projects, research papers which enlarge the course topics.
    Many times, the courses have visiting experts who share the students their experience and expertise area.

  • Ongoing assessment
    Online assessment is a continuous, ongoing process. Instructors find evidence of achievement in participants’ daily contributions to online discussions, and learn each student’s unique voice and approach to solving problems through their postings.
    Students engage in explorations, surveys, creative works, and self-reflection, as appropriate. Multiple, short assignments using a variety of approaches and media help preserve course flexibility, reinforce key concepts, and nurture different strengths.

  • eLearning Methodologies: Case Studies, Problem Based Learning, Group Projects
    Problem-based learning – PBL – is an educational theory that arose from the observation of the way people learn in real-life situations. It has been successfully applied in several domains of teaching and learning, and stimulates similar learning performance in virtual learning environments too. PBL avoids the acquisition of inert knowledge and support knowledge transfer.
    Case Study Approach represents another successful teaching methodology which increases student learning, retention, analyzing situations, critical thinking, research and collaboration skills.
    Collaborate comes from the Latin words laborare (to work) and com (with), and so literally means to work together. Collaboration occurs when a group of people with a common and well-defined goal integrate their individual knowledge and skills to deliver on that goal.

    For the students to learn how to work in groups is a key issue, that lies in the necessity of experiencing real- world working practices: the firms often use geographically distributed teams ( larger than co-located teams ). In fact in an online course, the instructor models the learners, provides them a pattern for their future activity, and this must be a good one. This can happen only if the instructor has a solid background not only in teaching, but also in practice. His goal is to foster healthy group participation, achieving a state in which, as Aristotle put it, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts; the part is more than a fraction of the whole.” It is very important to engage students in an ongoing evaluation of their group experiences. This opportunity for reflection can take the form of a public conference that would give students the chance to share their thoughts and feelings regarding group work skills.

  • Peer Mentoring programs for tutors
    Facilitating online courses is a skill that is continuously learned and improved. In order to support our teachers new to eLearning, an experienced teacher is assigned them – a mentor. Throughout a few weeks, the mentor and mentee discuss teaching philosophies and strategies, and observe each other’s online class for new ideas and feedback. Our instructors are also very active in the Romanian eLearning Community, hosted by Timsoft and participate in international workshops and conferences.

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