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With the advancement of technology, distance education has experienced a renaissance in delivering curriculum via videoconferencing and the Web. Virtual classrooms have popped up at educational institutions across the U.S. and around the world. The concept of a virtual learning space allows the individual the flexibility to take a course anytime, anywhere; to interact with professors and other students in small learning communities; and to choose from a wide range of course offerings. This trend is now filtering down to K-12 schools. This idea is particularly attractive to students in remote areas who would not otherwise be able to take certain courses because there are not enough students or a qualified teacher is unavailable. It is also an innovative way to provide professional development or continuing education to K-12 teachers.

To be instructional, a site needs to have all of the components that are found in any standard learning environment, including rich content and management. Content needs to include more than posting a lesson and having an assignment e-mailed to the teacher. It requires careful planning with objectives, outcomes, organization, appropriate material, and a delivery system that is effective and easy to use. System management includes all of the design elements combined with the delivery system. In most cases content, assignments, discussion, communication, and administration are delivered over the Web. Learners are expected to be self-motivated and share a responsibility for their learning.

When this type of organizational structure is followed, the Web can be transformed into a bona fide interactive learning environment. To this end there are several Web sites that can serve as models when designing Web-based learning spaces.

Virtual Classrooms

CalState Teach

California State University offers a teacher certification program to applicants who have a bachelor's degree and have passed the California Basic Education Skills Test (CBEST). The program is specifically beneficial to those who have emergency teaching certificates and want to gain full certification. With that in mind, coursework is designed around classroom experiences. Participants use web, print and CD-ROM materials. They share ideas through web-based “class discussions,” and get professional feedback through on-site coaching.

PBS Teacherline

PBS TeacherLine's high quality, standards-based graduate-level courses offer teachers the professional development opportunities they need in an accessible online format that makes learning fun, flexible and collaborative. You can earn graduate credit, PDPs, or CEUs while gaining strategies and resources to bring directly to your classroom.

Content Management Systems

There are a variety of content management systems available for school districts. In 1998, I cobbled together open source software to create a virtual learning environment for a consortium that include the Columbus Education Association, Ohio Education Association, and The Ohio State University. In 2003, I became system administrator for Blackboard at Columbus City Schools, Ohio. In addition, I had the opportunity to use Moodle. During this same time, I completed three facilitation courses, developed content, and taught classes for 1) PBS Teacherline 2) eTech Ohio, and 3) Educational Development Center. So, I know both the technical and the educational content side of virtual classrooms. Content management systems are great tools, but without content, they are useless. Think about how you plan to add content to your management system. You can create the content or purchase modules from third party vendors. At Columbus City Schools, we had an EETT grant that gave us the flexibility to have math content custom made. We also created our own content to supplement the virtual high school and elementary math. Creating content required lots of people resources and some understanding of curriculum design.

Blackboard

If you can type you can use this tool. Simply fill in some preliminary information about your course and select a color scheme. Then, work through all of the control panel selections to set up announcements, discussion boards, course content, assignments, registration features, and more. This is a very slick and easy-to-use interface.

Desire2Learn

Brightspace By Desire2Learn™ (Sparks) is a suite of products and services developed to meet the specific needs of K-12 educators. Sparks brings eLearning opportunities to all sizes of schools and ages of students. They also have a team to create customized content.

Moodle

If you are on a budget and your district has a server, then Moodle is the way to go. It is open source software and it's free. It took me about a half hour to set it up with a connection to a Mysql database. There are loads of plugins for adding additional features to your site. It's also easy for teachers to use once you have provided them with some professional development.

Nicenet's Internet Classroom Assistant

Nicenet is an organization of Internet professionals who donate their time to provide services for the Internet community. Internet Classroom Assistant offers conferencing, personal messaging, document sharing, scheduling, and resource linking to the learning environment. Teachers can set up a class in minutes. Although there are not as many features in this program as there are in Blackboard, it is very easy to use.

Components of a Web-Based Professional Development Course

Registration
Depending on how you set up your Web-based class, you may or may not be able to offer online registration. This requires a database and programming script that is part of content management systems.

Syllabus
The syllabus includes information about the instructor, the description of the course or workshop, the objectives, grading scale, and materials.

Schedule or Calendar
The schedule is the timeline for when each lesson should begin and end and when the assignment is due.

Sessions or Modules of Course Material
The sessions or modules include the content that is being taught. It may be a reading supported by multimedia components such as a video.

Assignments
Assignments can be posted on the Web using a content management system. They can also be emailed as an attachment.

Resources
Resources are links to Websites and other materials that are referenced in the lessons.

Discussion Board, Chat, Whiteboard
This area is the communication command center. Students can introduce themselves, topics can be discussed, and collaboration on group projects can take shape in real time.


Instructor Contact (Email)
Email is an ideal way to privately communicate with the instructor.

Evaluation Center
Surveys, evaluations, and grades can be posted in this area.

Technical Help
Information about the kind of computer and software that are needed is generally posted in this area along with any step-by-step instructions.

Originally Published May/Jun 2001

Updated November 24, 2009
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