Education to Go

Aug. 21 – Sept. 3,03
VOL 122 NO. 29
Education to Go
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
As days get shorter and leaves begin changing to their fall hues, students will be returning to their studies, but not necessarily the classrooms. Scores of people wanting to continue their education but lacking the time to devote to sitting at a desk are now taking classes from the convenience of their own homes.

“More and more people are beginning to see the value of online learning,” said Olia Muller, diocesan director of technology. “Online learning is where our technology is taking us.” The diocese introduced online classes in March 2002 through Education to go –– a unique instructor-facilitated online program. Registration and the course catalog can be found at www.ed2go.com/diocese as well as at the diocese’s website, www.syrdio.org . The classes are open to anyone who wrestles with an irregular schedule but wants to learn.

“Classes work around your time, rather than you adjusting your schedule to fit them in,” Muller said. “You can take them before breakfast, during lunch, late at night, or at any other time that’s convenient for you.” According to Father Charles Vavonese, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools, by offering the online classes the diocese is extending the teaching mission of Catholic schools to a large group of people. “Everyone –– parents, students, teachers –– can benefit from the classes,” Father Vavonese stated.

While some classes require learners to purchase books or software, the main item necessary for online classes –– besides an eagerness to learn –– is Netscape Navigator, Netscape Communicator or Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser. There is a wide variety of subjects to choose from, ranging from self-improvement, computer and Internet classes, to test prep classes (SAT) and certification classes.

Sister Nancy Gregg, CSJ, assistant principal at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in Syracuse, is currently taking an Intermediate Access class through the diocese. She hopes the class will help her gain a greater knowledge of the Microsoft Access database –– the database used at Bishop Grimes. The biggest advantage the online class has offered Sister Nancy is time. “You are no longer tied to the traditional class time periods –– that is Monday, Wednesday, Friday, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.,” she explained. “You can sit in on the classes whenever you want and from anywhere, providing you have access to a computer with Internet capabilities.”

The classes also allow her to learn at her own pace, said Sister Nancy. “Each class is centered on one or more concepts with many opportunities to practice the skills presented,” she said. “But you can choose when you want to take the various assignments.” The classes are a practical resource for people who have hectic lives, pointed out Father Vavonese. “Online classes recognize the complexity of everyday lives, They let us think outside the box and provide people with a new delivery system,” he said.

Those who sign up will be granted access to two lessons each week for six weeks. Because online education is still a fairly new approach to learning, some might be understandably hesitant to navigate through the online world. But thanks to the step-by-step format of the program, they need not be fearful. “The classes have been designed and reviewed by a number of people. Yes, it’s a different and novel medium of technology, but it is still simple enough for people to follow,” Father Vavonese said. “The format of the classes makes it easy to learn,” added Sister Nancy.

There are aspects of the online world that novice online students will have to get accustomed to. For starters, Internet slang. To accompany the high speed of the Internet, shortcut phrases such as “brb” (be right back) and “ttyl” (talk to you later) make it faster to communicate. There is also chat room etiquette. It is considered rude to type in all caps; people might think they are being shouted at. Muller recommends prospective learners take a demonstration class which can be found on the websites. By clicking on the “demonstration” link, visitors can experience how simple online learning is. During one demo, instructor Craig Power takes would-be learners into his Introduction to PC Hardware class. Individuals can navigate through the online classroom by clicking the menu bars located at the top or bottom of almost every page.

To see lesson plans or to view supplementary material for a lesson, one just clicks the word “lessons” on either menu bar or clicks on the link that says Lesson 01 on the right side of the page. If at any point students have questions about the lesson, like all online instructors Power has set-up a discussion room, accessed by clicking on the word “discussion” on the menu bar. To test mastery of the lesson material, the course provides a series of quizzes for learners. Quizzes are an important way to check a learner’s progress, said Sister Nancy.

Visitors to Power’s demonstration class can see how well-structured classes are. The instructor makes weekly announcements, posts assignments, and sets weekly deadlines with each lesson. This routine offers some semblance of a classroom setting, noted Sister Nancy. Power tells students they control their level of interaction. “This course can be highly interactive, but the level of that interactivity is controlled by you,” he stated during the demonstration class. “Since I can’t see that puzzled look on your face, it’s going to be up to you to ask questions when you get stuck.”

He urges students to ask interesting questions not only of him but also of fellow students. “I want to make sure that you and your classmates benefit from these often illuminating queries,” Power said. To facilitate this, he created 12 discussion areas, one for each lesson. A major advantage of the discussion areas is that, unlike classrooms, they are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; students are free to use these discussion areas to post questions about their lessons.

Discussion area questions also serve as challenges for fellow students. On most occasions, another learner is bound to have an answer to a question. Likewise, learners should be able to find questions in the discussion area that they can answer. “I firmly believe that the best way to learn a new skill is to teach it to others,” said Power, who also recommends books and other resources to his students. Online classes are especially beneficial for teachers and those who are eager to get their feet wet –– technologically speaking. “There are a number of teachers as well as students in the diocese who are interested in learning a software package but haven’t been able to find the time to take a class,” pointed out Father Vavonese, who plans to take an online class himself this fall. “Whether you are a student or administrator it is important that you continue to learn,” Muller added. Without the convenience afforded to Judith Corwin, a teacher at Our Lady of Sorrows in Endicott, by online classes, she doubts she would have been able to take a recent class on digital photography.

Although the classes offered no face-to-face interaction with fellow students or the instructor, Corwin noticed the classes were surprisingly personable. Teaching students about digital photography, the instructor put up wedding pictures. A link on the site also provided the instructor’s photograph and his qualifications. “Although there is a sense of being far away, it is a fairly personable way of learning,” commented Corwin. Corwin could have opted to take classes through Binghamton University, but classes through the diocese were less expensive –– most classes are around $59 dollars while classes from the university are $80. “You are getting a better deal,” she said. Those who are taking online classes via the diocese are also supporting the technology program. “A portion of the funds enable us to continue providing the diocese with very importnat technologival resourcese,” stated Muller. Though online courses are a resourceful way to learn, they require the same amount of time and effort as traditional classes. “People should know that online courses aren’t necessarily easier,” Muller cautioned. It takes a disciplined person to learn on his or her own, without being reminded of assignments or being “pop-quizzed” on the day’s learning. Although students will remain in constant contact with their instructor and their classmates through course discussion areas, learning over the Internet is essentially a solitary activity. Those who prefer face-to-face interaction or find it difficult to complete lessons in a timely manner will probably fare better in a classroom environment.

But if online classes work for an individual, they can be a valuable resource. “I would encourage everyone to take advantage of all that online classes have to offer,” said Sister Nancy. “It is worth the time and effort. Besides, you just might like it.”

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