Mentors use ‘the Zone’ to empower students

Thursday, October 16, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:35 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

To Dale Musser, creating Web sites and digital video are like riding a bicycle: You learn by doing.

“You have to get on the bicycle and learn how to ride it,” not be told how from the front of a classroom, said Musser, assistant professor of Network Learning Systems in MU’s School of Information Science and Learning Technologies.

So when Musser came a year ago to head MU’s new-media certification program, he jumped at the chance to overhaul a system he thought was caught in an overly structured teacher-student mold dating back to the early Industrial Age.

Musser said he and his colleagues overhauled all the existing classes. What emerged in their place was the Zone, a learning environment that combines face-to-face mentoring with online feedback.

The Zone, which officially opened this fall, is both a physical space — a computer lab in the airy loft of Townsend Hall at MU — and a virtual space, powered by Shadow netWorkspace, software Musser and colleagues designed as a “complete comprehensive learning environment for the Internet,” Musser said.

Right now, the Zone offers for-credit digital media classes — for example, Web Development or Intro to Internet Services — taught both online and in person on students’ own time. Students are assigned projects to complete by the end of the semester and provided resources and mentors to do so.

There are no lectures. Classes do not meet at set times, and students can work on-site or over the Internet. Either way, they get real-time feedback from graduate student mentors and two professors, Musser and Apple Computer veteran Jim Laffey.

At first, three courses were offered as a pilot test for the project, which Musser hoped would bring distance learning and campus learning together. Now, 18 courses are offered, with 55 hours of on-site and virtual support available each week.

“We hope to continue to offer everything,” said doctoral student and Zone mentor Chris Amelung, who helped develop the Zone and manages six other mentors.

Amelung has found through research that students in online learning environments often “get a feeling of aloneness” because they don’t know who else is online. The Zone is a rewarding experience because it provides “more ways for students to interact,” Amelung said.

In the Zone, no system tracks students’ grades and evaluations over the semester, Amelung said. But mentors stay abreast of problems students have through constant contact via e-mail, discussion boards, phone and in person.

At the heart of the virtual space is Shadow netWorkspace, which Musser first developed in the 1990s at MU for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers who wanted to reach out to students over the Internet but didn’t know how to set up message boards and other tools, he said.

“The Web is a browsing tool. It lets you get at information easily, but it doesn’t let you create information easily,” Musser said. “With Shadow, you can do it with the click of a mouse.”

The software is free and requires no installation by students. It is open-source, meaning that developers can add or change features as needed. Shadow netWorkspace helps users manage tasks, calendars and address books and reminds them of assignments.

It also empowers students, Musser said, which reflects the personal philosophy he followed in setting up the Zone. “There are no particular limitations that say teachers are godlike, students are just followers,” he said.

For instance, any Shadow netWorkspace user — student, mentor or teacher — can create a discussion group or decide who does or doesn’t have access to review a project. This system eliminates the need for an official to facilitate access to the site. Not all Zone students adjust to such an unstructured learning format.

“We have some students for whom it doesn’t work,” Musser said. Some students are used to structured courses with an exact plan and specific due dates, so working in The Zone takes some motivation, he said.

But feedback so far has been mostly positive, Musser said. “I get lots of, ‘I wish all my courses were like that’ e-mails.”

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