tom sanders

Let’s face it; calculus would be a lot easier to handle if we could do it at home in our pajamas.

Well, it’s not quite calculus, but thanks to some creative thinkers, a startup grant and some intrigued students from around the world, many students are getting extra arts education that may not have been possible otherwise.

Cal Poly is offering the first of the “Real Art for Real Learning” series of online classes this quarter, entitled “Teaching Standards-based Art in the Elementary Classroom.” It is an interactive online course available through Cal Poly’s Continuing Education program.

During the online class session, students can participate in group discussions verbally, hear others respond and download course materials in real time.

Born out of a desire to investigate ways to use technology more creatively in the classroom, the course has brought together students from as far away as Kuwait and Virginia, and as local as California, specifically Northridge, Ventura and Cal Poly itself.

Susan Duffy, chair for liberal studies, has played an integral part in developing the series of classes, along with John Houser, the academic program administrator for Continuing Education, and Deborah Spatafore, the main instructor for the courses.

Duffy worked with Dennis “Skip” Parks, Dean for Continuing Education to request a grant to investigate “innovative uses of technology in the classroom,” Duffy said. They received the grant and went to work developing the course series.

“The original target audiences for the class were teachers who wanted more training in arts education, pre-service credential track students wanting course work in the arts, (and) artists who wanted to learn more about the state visual and performing arts standards who might eventually seek employment as visiting artists in public schools,” Duffy said. “We anticipate that there will be a steady increase in enrollment.”

Houser noted that the environment created online matched the one in a physical environment and in some ways even improved upon it.

“One of the problems with distance learning – whether through early correspondence-style courses or bulletin board courses over the Web – has been the lack of real-time interactivity between students and the instructor or a student and other students,” he said.

Houser said the idea was developed to use real-time Web conferencing tools both to increase that interactivity and to see how closely they could reproduce the physical classroom experience in virtual space.

“Related to the latter, we’ve found that we have not only reproduced the classroom experience incredibly well, but we can improve upon the physical classroom experience. For example, by recording the sessions so the students can watch the classes again at their discretion,” Houser said.

Another challenge that the group encountered while conceptualizing the class is how to market and advertise it to potential students, since many of them are teachers who are not necessarily associated with the university.

“We weren’t even certain in January what form the (spring quarter) course was going to take, (along with other concerns), so it took away from the marketing efforts,” Spatafore said.

However, she too expects the courses’ enrollments to increase over time.

Spatafore designed the course series after obtaining her masters of arts degree from Ohio State University with the help of an online course. The university is home to the top arts education program in the country, and her experience with the online courses, especially the delight of receiving such specialized attention from her instructors, has driven her to create a similar environment for students at Cal Poly.

“I was thrilled with the attention I got from my professors,” she said.

She also found that she could take more control of her studies through the online courses, and “tailor my own education,” she said, adding that she could ask “what could I do more?” Through this feedback and communication with the professors, she also made suggestions to improve the courses. In this way, she already had some research done on what worked – and what didn’t – in an online course setting.

Currently, enrollment is available through Continuing Education, but plans are in the works to make it available through the liberal studies program in the fall, to make it easier on students’ pocketbooks.

“Right now students can sign up through Continuing Education. They can get academic credit for it, but there is an extra fee for going through Continuing Education. In the fall we hope to offer the series of classes through liberal studies which would allow students to register and have their normal tuition cover the cost of units,” Duffy said.

All five courses in the series will be available for students this summer, during the second five weeks of the quarter.

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