Global Communications in a Graduate Course on Online Education at the University of Tsukuba
Steve McCarty (Professor, Osaka Jogakuin College)
This is an abridged version of the article. The full article with many illustrations is available in PDF form here. (about 1 MB)
This article reports on a case where global communications were realized in a Japanese classroom. From February 16-20, 2004 the author taught an intensive course at the national University of Tsukuba Graduate School of Education entitled Online Education in Theory, Practice, and Applying the Internet to English Education.
Synchronous and asynchronous (not real-time) Internet voice technologies, integrated into WebCT learning management systems in Australia and the U.S., were accessed by the instructor and students from a typical networked computer lab in Tsukuba, Japan's Science City. Online education experts in the U.S., England, Malaysia and Brazil participated through the Internet as mentors, engaging the graduate students in audioconferences, chats and other forms of Web-based communication.
Aside from the course work, the graduate students submitted a collective report in Japanese detailing the course activities and their impressions. Their report, welcomed in their native language as most authentic, is Appendix 3 in the full PDF version of this article linked above. The report is also fully translated into English by the author in Appendix 2. Appendix 1 is the original illustrated flyer with the course description that the graduate students received. The full PDF version includes many illustrations and can serve as a tutorial for Internet communications in password-protected virtual learning environments.
Substantive discussions of online pedagogy helped the students turn from skepticism about distance education to enthusiastic appreciation of online education. Although the real-time communications with mentors abroad in their target language was most impressive to the students, other keys resulting in the positive outcome could be discerned. Planning was necessary for Internet access throughout the course, with synchronous events involving various time zones. Having the instructor's screen always projected allowed students to easily experience new technologies. The cooperation of university staff, sustained collaboration with reliable online educators abroad, plus reliable networks and educational technologies were also vital.
Learning Management Systems and other digital technologies allow for much of the course to be preserved as research data. More can be shown to other educators, and more accountability is therefore possible than with traditional face-to-face (f2f) courses. So in many ways the classroom has been opened to the world. Given pedagogies and technologies readily welcomed by the learners, a positive form of globalization is also assured.
As the course was both on online education and taught utilizing online education communication tools, the media reinforced the message. By contrast, a similar course was previously taught in a regular lecture format in the abstract, whereas hands-on experience is essential to empower the learners with information and communication technologies (ICT). While such a course could be taught at a distance, Japanese culture privileges face relationships and solidarity rituals of everyday f2f communication. Thus the fully hybrid format was most suitable: having the instructor there throughout the course, plus a constant Internet connection for each student and opportunities for authentic interaction with informants at a distance.
While vast e-learning research has been published, and learning management systems have been widely used in Western countries, there has been little attention to non-Western cultural and linguistic contexts where the universality of the online pedagogies and technologies might be tested. Therefore, rather than appealing to authorities on educational effectiveness, what may provide the most original and revealing data is the graduate students' reflections, which show that the experience was empowering and that their learning was transformative.
Similar courses combining plural voice technologies and learning management systems with global involvement so intensively have scarcely been attempted in Japan and most parts of the world. The Tsukuba graduate students had hardly heard of online education before, although some of them were already schoolteachers returning for an advanced degree. Yet this report shows what is already possible through international networking among educators. The author could draw upon World Association for Online Education (WAOE) colleagues who have been collaborating reliably since 1998 for continuing professional development.
While Japan has the infrastructure of an advanced nation, it is rare for an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) course to be focused away from the English language itself, to include authentic encounters with mentors, to involve many countries, or for online education to be recognized as a new discipline in the first place for it to appear in the curriculum. In Japan if not most non-Western countries, the institutional culture for EFL practitioners, which delimits the scope of pedagogical practices, has impeded experiments the infrastructure would have allowed. In any event, it was not until 2004 that this author had the opportunity to teach online education per se to EFL pedagogy majors and aim for the ultimate goal of actualizing the globalized classroom.
Course preparations to ensure a successful outcome are detailed in the full PDF article. Besides securing a networked computer lab with reasonably up-to-date equipment, what may need to be added is a free download of java runtime installed in each computer for the voice technologies, plus earphones with a microphone.
Preparations included arranging to use WebCT at Portland State University (PSU) in Oregon as a course platform. PSU hosts the author's virtual organization WAOE as an international public service. It was also possible to reserve the HorizonLive Internet conferencing system or virtual classroom platform, as it allows for PowerPoint-style presentations and other functions, integrated with WebCT. The Portland WebCT was to serve for chats, text discussion, course e-mail, Web documents by the instructor as the designer, and participants' home pages, including those of mentors to increase familiarity. In addition, the author arranged with NetSpot Pty. Ltd. in Australia to try Wimba asynchronous and synchronous voice technologies integrated with their WebCT platform in Adelaide. HorizonLive and Wimba started to merge their companies soon after this course. According to course needs and how the instructor had perceived their strengths, HorizonLive was selected for audioconferences and mainly the voice BBS of Wimba.
Furthermore, preparations included gathering the registered students' names and e-mail addresses to send to Oregon and South Australia so that students could be given user names and passwords to log into the course venues. The graduate students were also sent a message with the URL for the class home page on the open Web with links to articles and resources on online education for study before, during and after the one-week course.
Chronological summary of course activities
On the first day students learned various background information and computer techniques. They found that taking screen shots of Web pages to paste into their own documents was especially useful. They bookmarked the lecturer's home page as a favorite in their browsers from which they could reach the various venues such as WebCT courses in Portland, Oregon and Adelaide, South Australia. They then were oriented to the WebCT functions such as syllabus and calendar that had been set up before the course. After viewing the home pages of mentors, with WebCT they made their own home pages for the first time. Mentors also utilized the Student Homepages function to become more familiar to the graduate students. Students were asked to take photos of each other with their mobile phones and mail them to the lecturer's Web mail based in the U.S. The lecturer then passed the photo files to the students on a disk to add to their home pages, asking them to think about where the data had actually travelled, both wireless and wired, criss-crossing the Pacific Ocean almost instantaneously. The lecturer's screen was projected throughout the course, and students reported afterwards that they could easily learn new technologies one after another, including the HTML programming language editor for making home pages.
In the afternoon the students experienced the Wimba Voice Board, a BBS where their recorded voices are still archived along with their written messages. They could ask as well as answer questions, discussing their past experience and how online education could be applied to TEFL in Japan or to their future studies and work.
Later the students learned about sites on the open Web where they could practice English or do machine translations between Japanese and English, and they were amazed at what was available for free. After class as well the lecturer could help students with their individual needs.
On the second day in the morning, utilizing the WebCT Chat function, there was a real-time written discussion with the mentors abroad. Besides defining online education, its problems (compared to f2f classes) and issues when introducing it into Japan were actively discussed in writing. Students found the pace too fast at times, with a response sometimes separated from the original message, but then posters adjusted by starting to mention the name of the person to whom they were responding. The graduate students found the chat exciting to experience for the first time and thought that secondary school students in Japan would enjoy this technology while acquiring English.
In the afternoon everyone went away from the computers, formed a circle and discussed the theme of "Global Online Education" based on the lecturer's global survey results. The Tsukuba students were to look for patterns in the results, comparing various countries with Japan, on topics such as the state of the use of virtual learning environments, issues such as globalization and whether or not women were equally involved. The graduate students concluded that the introduction of online education should be discussed nationally in Japan.
On the third day in the morning there was an audioconference with several practitioners of online education abroad. There was a presentation similar to PowerPoint utilizing the HorizonLive conferencing system, and demonstrating other features such as instant polls with the results automatically compiled in charts. The graduate students peppered the mentors with oral questions about online courses in concrete practice, their problems and solutions, benefits and future possibilities for Japan.
In the afternoon the main activity utilized the WebCT Discussion function, an electronic bulletin board system (BBS). Students added their own questions as well as answering questions in a threaded discussion with the lecturer and other participants. Questions were about online education and related concepts that had been brainstormed in the course. Students reported that with the technical terms in each question explained by the lecturer they gained a deep understanding of online education. They wrote that BBS technology is markedly more efficient that than the traditional blackboard, chalk and notebook, so it should by all means be used in mainstream educational institutions.
On the fourth day in the morning there was first an oral class discussion of the previous day's questions and answers written in the BBS, and the lecturer provided augmented explanations of the issues. Around the middle of the day the discussion continued in the Wimba Voice Board, applying new understandings to how the online education techniques the students had learned could be applied to EFL in Japan. The graduate students thought that online education might motivate students to grow as learners.
Later in the afternoon the students learned about an entirely online academic conference while visiting its Website at the University of Hawaii. Online conferences, in which the lecturer has actively participated since 1996, open up participation in academic societies to people in many countries at various occupational levels. The graduate students also learned to distinguish the open Web that is freely accessible and searchable from the password-protected Web where most online courses take place. Forming a circle offline again, students were asked what kind of virtual organization they might like to participate in. Examples included networks of EFL teachers in different regions or of fellow alumni so as not to lose contact in the future.
Students reported that the class included both theoretical and practical activities, and that there was important feedback from student-student exchanges. They reported that the lecturer brought the discussion together in the form of augmenting students' views, so the progression of the discussion was easily understandable. There were some difficult theoretical issues, they wrote, but explanations were illustrated by very helpful examples. They concluded that online education holds great potential.
On the fifth and last day there was time allotted for independent study and working on final papers that had to be evaluated the next morning before the lecturer left Tsukuba. But in mid-morning there was also a second audioconference with mentors abroad. Particularly online learning textbook author Maggie McVay-Lynch, who had conducted the earlier HorizonLive online presentation, was peppered with questions the students had accumulated during the course. Topics included the actual situation of online classes and the roles of teachers and students.
The graduate students enjoyed audioconferencing and also found it to be superb practical training in English listening and speaking. Particularly for junior and senior high school students in Japan who have hardly any opportunity to use English outside of class, online education would be a most suitable means to activate and actually use what is learned in class. The graduate students had thought that education through the Internet was something personal and closed off from others, but they finally realized that, provided the pedagogy is sound, online education is surprisingly interactive and useful for expanding the individual's narrow world.
Course feedback and concluding remarks
This article has focused on reporting certain technical and practical aspects of conducting a course on online education in Japan utilizing global communications. The concepts brainstormed in class, charted in Appendix 1 of the full PDF article, along with intercultural, pedagogical, and disciplinary issues are treated in other articles published since 2004 that can be accessed at the author's online library:
Since Japanese self-expression tends to be understated, avoiding extremes, their glowing reports in Appendix 2 (translated version) or Appendix 3 (original Japanese) bode well for the future of online education in Japan. To paraphrase the saying attributed to Confucius, they did not just receive a loaf of bread (informational course content) but learned how to fish (online learning technologies, skills and strategies to use from then on), so they expressly looked forward to further empowering themselves as learners and teachers with online education.
Besides the above-mentioned voluntary report, data included all the preserved class work such as individual student reports and their messages posted in the online media. Here is an example transcribing exactly what a graduate student said by means of the Wimba Voice Board. A specific goal of the course was for students to construct knowledge of how online education could be applied to TEFL in Japan:
I'd like to speak my impressions ... Through this intensive course on online education I have found some new possibilities for Japanese students to learn English. First, online education can provide the participants with the opportunities of not only input but output. For example, chatting gives a good chance to improve writing skills, and teleconferencing is a good chance to improve fluency in speaking. The activities like these are really important for Japanese students because they have little chance to use English in their daily life. English is not a second language to the Japanese. Second, they can learn English at their own pace according to their own English level. Online education can become less threatening and more comfortable way of learning to some students than face-to-face situation. Generally speaking, Japanese who are learning English are not confident in their communication skills. And there are many Japanese who are shy. Online education can give them a good preparation for face-to-face communication.
A female student who did not need credit for the course nevertheless volunteered the following by e-mail on February 19, 2004:
according to this course, we can get appropriately materials from time to time by 'virtual organization.' ... The [Japanese government-prescribed] course of study says that communicative competence is important if we live in Japan. Given that, this system does meet requirements presented for EFL education in Japan. Due to this course, I find that we can use online education to give learners a chance to communicate (or interact) as well as to develop their proficiency. ... Especially, I enjoyed many practical tasks! So, I want to keep studying this [emphasis in original].
One of the mentors, Nicholas Bowskill at the University of Sheffield wrote the following on August 19, 2004:
For me it had echoes of the online mentoring activities [of WAOE] in the way it assembled a group of distributed mentors for the temporary needs of another group/individual. ... having a community of knowledgeable and willing volunteers we are able to be mutually supportive in ways that look beyond institutional boundaries. So, for me, the experience reconfirmed my belief in the power of a professional online learning community.
Indeed, what one instructor could accomplish was extended by networking among educators as well as by networked computers. Seeing the potential of ICT to link people as well as to overcome space and time, both lay people and educators will be motivated to become lifelong learners progressively empowered by online education.