Illinois at Springfield
PAC 442 - "Internet and American Life"
Prof. Burks Oakley II
Revised 30 November 2005
At the University of Illinois at Springfield, all undergraduate students must complete a minimum of twelve semester hours of upper-division general education, in order to ensure that they receive a broad, well-rounded education. Among these general education courses, Public Affairs Colloquia (PAC) are designed to increase awareness of contemporary public issues and to provide a wider understanding through a multidisciplinary approach to these issues. PAC courses are designed:
When students began to register for PAC 442 in the Spring 2004 semester, there was huge demand. Prof. Burks Oakley was enlisted to teach an additional online section (two other faculty were similarly recruited), and based on continuing demand, he offered this course again every fall and spring semester since that time. Oakley's section of the course, like many other online courses at UIS, has an enrollment maximum of twenty-five students. He typically starts the semester with twenty-eight students, knowing that some will drop during the first few weeks of the semester.
Information relevant to the PAC 442 online course, including all of the course handouts, is available on the course website . The main part of the course is accessed through the Blackboard course management system, in which students have access to the course syllabus, information on how to contact the instructor, and an asynchronous discussion forum .
The PAC 442 course takes a constructivist approach to learning , similar to other online courses at UIS. The online course is structured to promote interaction among the students, and between the students and the professor. Each week, students read two or three reports from the Pew Internet Project, and they each lead a discussion of an important question raised in the report. Since these reports are available online in PDF format, there is no textbook for the course, which makes the students in the class very happy. The "student-led" discussions in PAC 442 are a Sloan-C effective practice in online learning, as described originally by Prof. Bill Pelz, of Herkimer County Community College [6,7].
To promote "quick trust" among the students , they all participate in a discussion introducing themselves to the others, as well as an ice-breaker activity, during the first week of the semester. These activities set the stage for all of the interactions that take place throughout the rest of the semester; it is typical for students in the PAC 442 online course to login four or more times each week, and post several messages each time they login. Over the course of a weekly discussion, there typically are 250 postings for a class of twenty-five students.
Students in the PAC 442 online course write two papers: the first paper is about how the Internet has impacted their lives during the past five years, while the second paper is related specifically to public policy and the Internet. In the first paper, students write about topics as diverse as creating a personal business on eBay, finding critical healthcare information online that changed the diagnosis and treatment for a loved one, and having to fold a business (involving baseball card swap meets) due to competition from the Internet. In the second paper, students discuss laws and public policies that are related to topics such as controlling spam, ordering prescription drugs from Canada via the web, the digital divide, music downloading, Internet voting, and web filtering in public libraries. Prof. Oakley provides a rubric used in grading these papers, as well as a checklist of important details . Prior to writing each paper, the students must discuss their chosen topic in an online forum, and help other students brainstorm ideas for their papers (the students' grades on their papers depend in part on their participation in these "phase one" activities) [6,7]. Again, the goal is to promote interaction between the students in the course and overcome any sense of isolation by geographically-distant online students.
Prof. Oakley travels on a regular basis, throughout Illinois and the USA. He always takes his digital camera, and takes photos of himself (from arm's length) in locations ranging from the ice rink at Rockefeller Center in NYC to a golf course in Palm Springs, CA. He always includes a small head-shot with each of his postings in the discussion forums, just so that the students see him as a "real person" and not just an online professor. In fact, he asks the students to call him "Burks", rather than "Prof. Oakley", again to help break down any barriers due to distance.
Each semester, Oakley engages the students in a mid-term (formative) assessment, as well as an end-of-term (summative) assessment. The results of these assessments are posted on the class website . The success of his student-centered, interactive, constructivist approach to online learning is best summed up in what one student wrote a note to Oakley in the final evaluation after the Spring 2004 semester, which said in part "I will add you to my list of best instructors. I am 48 years old, so it has been almost 30 years since I have had an instructor as dedicated and good as you. Thank you so much for your dedication! I'm so glad that you chose teaching as your profession."