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No need to show up for class

How online learning software goes way beyond webcasts

Globe and Mail Update

Until a year ago, I taught night courses in copywriting and business writing at the University of Toronto. One or two nights
a week, I'd trek downtown and meet with students who had arrived from all over the greater Toronto area after a long day of work. Sometimes I felt too tired to teach.

Then everything changed. When I was about to renew my contract, the program co-ordinator made me an offer: "How would you like to teach your courses online?"

Hmm—work from home in my track pants, when I feel like working? No long subway ride downtown? Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

Now, I have a mix of students from Toronto, across Canada and the United States. They show up online whenever it's convenient for them to read my lecture notes, download assignments and post questions, comments and observations on the class discussion board. It's not a classroom, but it is interactive.

I use Blackboard, made by Blackboard Inc. of Washington, D.C. Although there are times when accessing or posting to Blackboard is a tad sluggish (kind of like commuting downtown during rush hour or sitting at
a dead stop on the subway), it's a comprehensive online teaching tool. I can upload lecture notes and assignments, set up discussion forums for each lecture, include links to external resources, post announcements, e-mail my students and much more. It's easy for students to navigate, get the information they need and interact with their classmates. And everyone logs on when they have time.

Blackboard isn't just for universities. Large companies
are using it to offer professional development and training programs—all the while saving time and money. As an added bonus, employees can work on the courses in short snippets, when they have time—either during breaks or after work.

Blackboard is one of many online instructional applications. Recently, I had a chance to try out Adobe Captivate, which lets you teach specific computer applications or soft skills, such as effective communications,
by creating simulations, scenario-based training and quizzes—all without any programming knowledge or multimedia skills. With Captivate, you can create presentations with audio (or jazz up imported PowerPoint presentations), multiple-choice quizzes with immediate assessments, or various scenarios that branch into different outcomes depending on the choices students make.

To teach people how to use a specific computer application, you can create a course by simply recording your mouse movements as you work through a program. You can add copy to text bubbles associated with each mouse movement. Then, you can upload the final recording to Captivate. Once students have watched the recording, they can be tested on it by being asked to replicate what you did to make a program work. If they get something wrong, Captivate can be set up to stop and replay the lesson.

Captivate and other e-learning applications can be used in conjunction with Adobe Acrobat Connect, a browser-based web conferencing solution that can be used to deliver Captivate, PowerPoint and videos. Such applications are being used by global businesses that want to establish company-wide standards of service and knowledge. Instead of flying instructors around the world and hauling dozens or hundreds of employees into a classroom, hotel or conference centre, companies run courses and training sessions online.

There are also a few real-time options. With webinars, for instance, students call in to hear the instructor and go to a website where they can watch a PowerPoint presentation. I've conducted several webinars, and although the students couldn't see me and I couldn't see them,
it felt like we were in a classroom. I talked away and flipped through my slides; participants could ask questions over the phone or by text messaging.

Of course, there's a certain irony to webinars—participants have to show up at a predetermined time, kind of like making it to class on time. But webinars can often be recorded and saved so others can play them at their convenience.

Then there are e-mail correspondence courses. They're not high-tech, but they can be effective. The instructor e-mails lessons to students, who work at their own pace and can, in turn, e-mail questions and assignments to the instructor. I have run several writing courses by e-mail. No phone or browser required.

No matter which system you use, e-courses can be as engaging and informative as classroom-based training—and a whole lot cheaper. And an added bonus: no dreary commute, which means
e-learning can help you save your sanity and the environment.

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