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In the spring of 1998, Penn State opened the doors to its newest "campus," a distance learning initiative called the World Campus. As word spread, prospective students began to inquire. Telephone calls and e-mail notes poured in to Penn States Department of Distance Education/World Campus offices, asking "What is the World Campus like?" Since the notion of a virtual university was still quite new, it was only natural that the general public would be confused, curious, and even skeptical.
For almost a year World Campus staff struggled to answer the question, often replying "It depends " Each World Campus course and each program of study was being developed as a unique entity, based on the nature of the content and the needs of the students. To try to paint a picture of a typical World Campus course, as well as to address related issues such as technical requirements, student application and registration processes, and learner support services, was a difficult task. As time went on, however, it became increasingly apparent that the question had to be answered: no one wanted to register for a course that was only vaguely defined, just as no one would want to take a new job without knowing anything about the job responsibilities or the working environment. The staff had to come up with an answer to these prospective students' inquiries. That answer was World Campus 101.
What is World Campus 101?
World Campus 101 (WC 101) is a free, publicly accessible "course" designed to help new World Campus students become acquainted with Penn States distance learning environment. The course addresses the adult learner primarily about the demands and dynamics required to be successful when learning at a distance. It can also help potential students decide whether the World Campus learning environment suits their needs or not. In addition, the resource teaches learners some of the core technical skills and capabilities they will need to participate in the World Campus.
WC 101 is divided into five modules:
What's it like to be a Penn State World Campus student?
Using online course materials
Interacting with your instructor and fellow students
Using academic resources in your courses
Getting help when you need it.
Each module provides students with detailed information on specific topics of interest. (See the World Campus 101 Table of Contents for a listing of the topics currently covered.) For visitors who are in a hurry, there is even a "Quick Tour" that provides a summary of each module, with links to more detailed information.
WC 101 can be reviewed at any time, place, and pace, with only a Web browser and an Internet connection. Real-life examples of content, assignments and learning activities taken from World Campus courses are included in each module so that students can see what taking a course through the World Campus is really like. And throughout WC 101, students have the opportunity to test their knowledge and skills by completing various activities that are designed to make the orientation process fun.
The Development Process
World Campus 101 did not require an enormous resource investment. That small investment has been well worthwhile as the course has made the student orientation process much more efficient. This resource not only describes the World Campus to students; it also lets them experience our online environment. This was a challenge, since we use many different delivery systems in the World Campus. Some courses utilize FirstClass computer conferencing software, some exist in a course management system called WebCT, some rely on simple HTML pages with "homegrown" communications tools, some have CD-ROM components, and still others aren't computer-based at allto name just a few of the variations currently in place.
WC 101 was also designed with security issues in mind. Many of the systems that are used to deliver World Campus courses are password-protected. In order to let students try out a World Campus course based in FirstClass or WebCT, for example, we would need to give them access to those secure resources. However, allowing Internet surfers to create guest accounts would have been in violation of our university's security policies since such accounts are easily falsified. We decided to concentrate on core skills that one would need to be a successful learner and to teach those skills in a publicly-accessible environment. For example, instead of trying to teach students about the unique features of FirstClass conferences or WebCT forums by using those same systems, WC 101 includes a more generic section on "Using a Bulletin Board System."
A single staff member (an instructional designer for the World Campus) took approximately 100 hours designing the resource, writing the content, and developing the Web site. A second instructional design staff member then spent 15 hours formally reviewing the resulting course and providing editorial feedback. Throughout the design and development process, many members of the World Campus staff (including student employees) were asked to review components of the site and provide formative feedback in order to ensure that the course would meet the needs of World Campus students and prospects.
We used a midrange Macintosh computer to design the WC101 Web page. We marked up the pages quickly with Claris Home Page, a "WYSIWYG" (what you see is what you get) HTML editor, and used Adobe Photoshop to create the screen shots that are embedded in the resource. For the self-check quizzes (including an interactive crossword puzzle), we used an inexpensive shareware program (Hot Potatoes from the University of Victoria Language Centre). The resulting "course" was then placed on the existing World Campus server.
Spreading the Word
To market this free resource, we distributed a statewide press release to Pennsylvania media and to Distance Education/Higher Education media outlets in early 1999. We also added high-profile links to WC 101 on the main World Campus home page and on the pages for individual World Campus courses. In addition, WC 101 was featured prominently in the World Campus view book, a marketing piece that is distributed to individuals who request information about the World Campus.
While initially created for a Penn State audience, WC 101 has received a good deal of attention from outside the University. The Web site is being accessed by more than 2,000 visitors per month. Approximately 10% of these visitors are from outside of the U.S. and nearly 75% are from non-higher education domains. World Campus staff have received numerous messages from around the globe, stating how valuable the resource has been in helping people to understand better what online learning is all about.
As word spread and the number of visitors to the site grew, an evaluation form was added to WC 101 to solicit feedback. The form consists of seven core questions about WC 101, as well as some demographic items. Feedback will be analyzed in an ongoing basis and modifications made to WC 101 as appropriate. Over time new modules and topics will be added to the course in response to this formal feedback and also based on the recommendations of faculty and instructional design staff who are involved in the development and delivery of World Campus courses.
At the time of this writing too little feedback has been captured to prove useful. While we have had many visitors to the site and have received a good deal of positive response through e-mail, relatively few have taken the time to fill out the formal evaluation form. Though this is not surprising for a free resource, we continue to strategize about methods to obtain more feedback.
Was It Worth It?
The internal response to WC 101 has been overwhelmingly positive. The resource has allowed for a consistent and thorough orientation for World Campus students that far surpasses what was previously covered on a course-by-course basis. Instead of addressing core skills or knowledge over and over again at the beginning of each World Campus course, staff members now refer students to a central resource, one that is accessible throughout their learning process, not just at the beginning of a new course. An additional benefit, from an administrative standpoint, is the fact that WC 101 is fully automated and does not require an instructor.
The creation of World Campus 101 has allowed the staff to reflect on the core competencies that are needed for one to be successful in an online learning environment and to share those reflections with the others in the Penn State community and with colleagues around the globe.