Getting Started in Distance Education: The Ups and Downs of Software

Once you have established content for your distance-education course, it is time to look at software. There are many different types of educational and student-tracking software. The one currently used in the Veterinary Technology program is called WebCT. It offers the ability to track the first and last times each student used the course. It can keep track of quiz and exam scores, calculate grades, and give immediate feedback on exercises. To name a few more of its features, it provides a chat room, a bulletin board, and a glossary.

There are some limitations to this software, and you must decide if these limitations are outweighed by the benefits to you and the students. If the computer-grading feature is used, the best formats for exercise questions are multiple choice, matching, and true-false. These formats have black-and-white answers that the software can comprehend. The software does not do well on short-answer questions: The student must type the answer EXACTLY as you have or the software will mark it wrong. This can be very disheartening for students, who are already facing difficult odds with distance learning. We do not grade the exercises, but instead use them to encourage students to return to the reading material to learn the important information. Students still struggle with the computer marking their answers incorrect. The plus side is the students do get immediate feedback and know if they are on the right track.

We also use HTML-based exercises to challenge the students' higher level cognitive thinking. The answers are then e-mailed to the instructor, who reads them and provides feedback. This allows evaluation of the students' thought processes, not just their ability to recognize information.

It is important to make sure that all the students have the technological capabilities to receive the information sent over the World Wide Web. Setting minimum standards for computer speed, software level, and modem speed is a good idea. It can be very frustrating for a student to try to download material and have to wait with a slow modem. This is also an issue to think about as you create the Web pages and supplemental handouts: Pictures are great, but they can take a long time to download on a slow modem. We have put handouts and pictures on a CD-ROM that is mailed to each student the first week of class.

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