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International Distance Learning Using the SLN Platform
A Sociology Course on Social Control*
Craig B. Little
Belarus State University
Moscow State University
The Course and Its Origins
We first taught our distance-learning course on social control in the Fall 2002 semester when it enrolled seven students from the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland and five English-proficient students from Belarus State University. We taught the course entirely in English on the SUNY Learning Network (SLN), an asynchronous, Web-based platform (see Jaffee 1997). We replicated our successful pilot endeavor in Spring 2004 with a significantly larger enrollment consisting of ten students from SUNY Cortland, seven from Belarus, four from Moscow State University and one from Griffith University in Australia. It was taught a third time, in Spring 2006, with ten SUNY students, seven from Belarus and one from Australia. We base our report, therefore, on experiences over two offerings of the same course--the first relatively small and simple, the second and third both larger and more complex.
LESSONS FROM OUR EXPERIENCE
Groundwork: The Conditions for Success
Motivation. The first prerequisite for any educational endeavor is eager, motivated faculty and students. For both American students and their international colleagues enrolled in an international on-line distance-learning course, a noteworthy motivation is the opportunity to enhance cross-cultural communication and understanding. While hardly a perfect analog to the full immersion experience of a more usual semester abroad, it does offer students an opportunity to interact intensively with students from another country over an entire semester at virtually no additional costs beyond those of a typical on-line course. Because we conducted our course on the Internet, all students probably improved their computer facility and Internet research skills. And because all of the interaction in an Internet class takes place through writing, all participants can improve their writing skills through the sheer volume of writing produced in a semester. (We have more to say about this below.) Specifically for the international (non-American) students, an on-line course taught in English imparts valuable practice for improving English reading and writing. For international students who are highly proficient in English, the informal interaction of on-line discussions with their American counterparts offers exposure to slang, abbreviations, and contemporary native-speaker usage not easily derived from texts. An added motivation for internationals is preparation for possible graduate study in the United States.
Relationships. Professors contemplating a similar endeavor should have previously established a strong, cooperative working relationship. Many American faculty members have such relationships with international colleagues through Fulbright exchanges, research projects and the like. Where these exist, the first requisite for building a successful international classroom is in place. We strongly believe that an international on-line classroom—at least in its developmental stages—must have an actively engaged contact faculty member at each country’s site. While primary responsibility for substantive course preparation and day-to-day teaching responsibilities can be either evenly or unevenly divided, there should be a professor at each campus to whom students can turn for advice.
Selecting the topic. Sociology courses are particularly suited to taking full advantage of the cross-cultural possibilities presented by on-line distance education. Our course on social control offered opportunities for students to read about and exchange views on a broad range of subtopics from imprisonment to video surveillance and the prevention of terrorism. We can readily imagine equivalent success with many sociology courses, such as Family Sociology, Social Stratification, Gerontology, or Sociology of Education, which inherently deal with social policy issues that can be illuminated by a cross-cultural perspective. For international students, topics not available in their own curricula may be of special interest.
Keep it simple. On-line courses are typically built in “chunks” or modules. Our course on social control had five: (1) Introductions, (2) Crime Control as Industry, (3) The Culture of Control, (4) Everyday Surveillance, and (5) What We Have Learned. Modules 2, 3, and 4 were each based on a book of that title to be read in the module (Christie 2000; Garland 2001; Staples 2000). The simplicity of the course structure was mirrored by the simplicity of the technology employed. SLN is a Web-based course template and development and delivery system that was developed to serve people throughout New York State, many of whom do not have access to broadband, high-speed Internet connections. Therefore, SLN is oriented to the “lowest common denominator” of Internet access and technology, making it appropriate for use by faculty partners and students in an international on-line course. Other Web-based platforms like Blackboard and WebCT are equally capable of operating at a basic level. We advocate simplicity in course structure and technology because, in our experience, it works.
Provide opportunities for on-line interaction. Several researchers have found that the greater the interactivity in an on-line course, the more students are satisfied and the more they learn (Jaffee 1997, 2003; Shea et al. 2001; Chen 2003). In an international on-line course, both assignments and open student discussion threads can be used to amplify the benefits of cross-cultural interaction. For example, in Module 1 we used a Web-based assignment to take advantage of the opportunities for international learning and interaction. The assignment directed students to use Web resources to learn about a part of the world new to them and then to interact on-line with their international classmates starting from what they had learned.
Coordinating the schedule. Although we combined students from four universities spread over three continents in our international classroom, we did not have major difficulties coordinating our semester schedules. With relatively minor adjustments to the semester starting and ending dates, and allowing some flexibility to accommodate differing semester breaks or holidays, we found that these matters could be negotiated with relative ease and any disruption in the normal flow of activity in the on-line classroom was barely noticeable.
Class size. The first time we taught our course 12 students were enrolled. The second time, the course enrolled 21; the third time it enrolled 18. Thus, our three experiences fall closely within the ideal range of 12 to 20 students found to be the ideal for asynchronous distance-learning courses (Benson et al., 2002). Comparing the three, we conclude that an enrollment of around 20 is the best size for this type of international course. Having several students enrolled from two or more countries provides sufficient diversity of backgrounds, skills and opinions to enrich the on-line student interaction.
Teaching the Course
Day-to-day matters. Perhaps the most important aspect of teaching any on-line course is for the professors to establish their presence by going on-line regularly (Shea et al. 2003a and 2003b). Quick responses to student questions, timely evaluations of written work, and occasional contributions to student on-line discussions can motivate students to log on frequently and keep up with the work. Instructors must be clear and demanding about student responsibilities, while living up to their own. Instructors and students must both understand that the course will take as much time as (and possibly even more than) a traditional classroom course. Firm demands should be properly balanced by tolerance when students face technical or access problems inherent to on-line teaching. Although as students and professors we did occasionally experience technical or access difficulties, we doubt that they were any more frequent in our international classroom than they are in any on-line, Web-based course within the United States.
We recommend that professors each evaluate their own students’ work. This simplifies the inevitable differences in grading standards across countries, academic institutions, and professors. Because the only students who are apt to compare grades in an international course are those residing at the same university, the problem of differing standards, to the extent that it exists at all, is moot. Furthermore in a course taught in English that enrolls students who are not native English speakers, it would be very difficult for an American professor to evaluate what can be reasonably expected in both formal (reading questions and exams) and informal (on-line student discussions) written work. It is both fairest and educationally most fruitful for students in each country to be evaluated against the particular criteria and standards that are most important from the viewpoint of their supervising professor. Although we advocate independent evaluations, we also found it very rewarding to read the work of students abroad, finding the comparisons among students informative and thought provoking.
Institutional Accounting. Assigning students credits can easily be left up to the home institution. Most institutions abroad have some analog to an “independent study” course. If so, the student can simply sign up for that course under the direction of the distance-learning course’s affiliated professor with the agreement that successful completion of the on-line course is the assigned work for the independent study. If an international student's university will not grant official university credits, the American university can issue an official “certificate of attendance and completion,” which may have significant value to students abroad in verifying their English facility and academic performance. Because the costs of adding students to an established Internet-based course are minimal, American university administrators can probably be convinced that the value of this international experience to the American students enrolled easily offsets any loss incurred by collecting reduced or no tuition from the international students enrolled.
Craig B. Little, SUNY Cortland and Larissa Titarenko, Belarus State University
*A full version of this entry can be found at: “Creating a Successful Distance Learning Classroom,” (with Larrisa Titarenko and Mira Bergelson) Teaching Sociology 33(4): 355-370, 2005.