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 State's Department of Distance Education/World Campus. "What is the World Campus like?" they wanted to know. After all, the notion of a "virtual" university is still quite new, so 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. "It depends . . ." was the common reply, as World Campus courses weren't being created with a cookie cutter. Each course and each program of study was developed a unique entity, based on the nature of the content and the needs of the students. To try to paint a picture of what a World Campus course "looks like" as well as addressing 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 would want to register for a course that was a complete unknown anymore than 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. That answer was World Campus 101.
World Campus 101 (WC 101) is a free, publicly accessible "course" that provides students with the information they need to be productive and successful in the World Campus. It is designed to help new World Campus students become acquainted with Penn State's distance learning environment. It is also a resource that can help potential students decide whether the World Campus learning environment is for them or not. WC 101 speaks to the adult learner about the demands and dynamics required to be successful when learning at a distance. The resource also introduces learners to the core technical skills and capabilities they'll need to have in order to participate in the World Campus. After learning about the World Campus, many find that, besides the fact that students are located all around the globe, the virtual campus is not so different from a traditional one.
WC 101 is divided into five modules:
1. What's it like to be a Penn State World Campus student?
2. Using on-line course materials.
3. Interacting with your instructor and fellow students.
4. Using academic resources in your courses.
5. Getting help when you need it.
Each module covers several different topic areas, providing students with the specific, detailed information they need. (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.
Real-life examples 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. WC 101 can be reviewed at any time, place, and pace. All that is needed is a Web browser and an Internet connection.
World Campus 101 did not require an enormous resource investment. It was well worth the effort in terms of making the student orientation process much more efficient. The main goal was to create a resource that would not only explain to students what taking a course through the World Campus would be like, but would also let them experience our on-line environment. The latter was a challenge, there isn't just one delivery system in use at the World Campus. Some courses utilize FirstClass computer conferencing software, others 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 all. And that doesn't even cover all the variations.
An additional concern was security. 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 security policies since such accounts are easily falsified by the "guests." As a result, the decision was made to concentrate on the core, "generic," 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."
In terms of staffing, 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.
The technology used to develop the resource was fairly "routine" for a Web site. A "WYSIWYG" (what you see is what you get) HTML editor (Claris Home Page) was used to quickly markup the pages and a graphics program (Adobe Photoshop) was used to create the screen shots that are embedded in the resource. For the self-check quizzes (including an interactive crossword puzzle) an inexpensive shareware program was employed (Hot Potatoes from the University of Victoria Language Centre). The entire resource was developed on a midrange Macintosh computer. The resulting "course" was then placed on the existing World Campus server.
To market this free resource, a press release was distributed statewide to Pennsylvania media and to Distance Education/Higher Education media outlets in early 1999. A high-profile link to WC 101 was also added to the main World Campus home page. 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. Links to WC 101 also appear on the main information page for individual World Campus courses.
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 better understand what on-line learning is all about.
As word spread and the number of visitors to the site grew, the decision was made to add an evaluation form to WC 101 to capture feedback. The form consists of 7 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've 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. Although this is not surprising for a free resource, the lack of formal response is still troubling. We will continue to strategize ways to solicit more feedback from our users.
The internal response to WC 101 has been overwhelmingly positive. The resource has allowed for a consistent and thorough orientation to 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 because WC 101 is fully automated, it 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 on-line learning environment and to share those reflections with the others in the Penn State community and with colleagues around the globe.
For further information regarding the World Campus, please see http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu on the Web.
Ann T. Luck, Center for Academic Computing, Instructional Designer, World Campus