Teaching LTER in cyberscape: New college course links investigators and students

Network News Fall 2007, Vol. 20 No. 2

"From Yardstick to Gyroscope" a novel approach to interdisciplinary teaching and learning

Investigators from Coweeta, Florida Coastal Everglades and Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER sites are offering an interdisciplinary course for college students in January 2007. The course's structure and content will model the nature of LTER science--crossing disciplines and spanning timezones, using state-of-the-art, interactive distance-learning technology.

While teaching courses using cybertechnologies is becoming increasingly common, "I haven't seen a course that attempts to bridge multiple universities and disciplines" in quite this way, says Laura Ogden, an investigator at the Florida Coastal Everglades LTER and a lead instructor. The course has grown out of the LTER's cross-site and transdisciplinary approach, Laura says. And, as in LTER research, "figuring out how to make this happen--in practice rather than theory--has been the challenge."

The course's unusual title reflects the focus on research methodologies. "The ...yardstick' and ...gyroscope' metaphors reflect the breadth of social science methods and approaches to measuring knowledge," from empirical and quantitative to qualitative and interpretive, says Ogden.

The course materials and archived content will be hosted on WebCT, which is the system used at UGA and widely used around the country, says Coweeta LTER's Ted Gragson. Presentations will be offered through Wimba LiveClassroom, an Internet-based tool specifically for multipoint simulcasting that combines text messaging, video, slides, and whiteboard.

The instructor of the day will present via video and audio in real time, and students will be in a classroom watching a large screen and participating through their computers. Students can post questions either by audio (through the web or over phone lines) or by texting. "If the person asking the question also has video, all participants will see the individual or the class asking the question," Gragson says. "When the instructor answers the question, the video reverts back to them."

The course is offered both through UGA and FIU. However, there will be exceptions for other individuals to access both WebCT content as well as join live presentations on Wimba, through the Coweeta LTER web site, Gragson says. "We are told that the technical limit on the number of passive viewers is a couple of hundred," Gragson says, "while the practical limit on how many could actually ask questions is much smaller."

This is the first time this course has been offered and the technology, while proven, is still not widely used. "We went through a variety of technical approaches to offering this course and talked to a lot of people who had used distance learning before settling on WebCT/Wimba," Gragson says. "My guess is that the biggest challenges will stem from the lack of familiarity or the inherent differences between a live and a virtual classroom." For example, taking turns asking questions in a distributed virtual classroom is much more important than in a physical classroom where everyone is present. "Many of these types of problems can be overcome by simply making sure everyone understands the particularities of the medium," says Gragson.

"There might be some courses similar in the use of the technology," says Morgan Grove, the third lead instructor and a social scientist at Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER site, "but for the organization of the course, we basically made it up."

View the syllabus at: http://coweeta.ecology.uga.edu/ecology/web_learning/syllabus.html.