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Course Management Software and Other Technologies to Support Collaborative Learning in a Nontraditional Pharm.D. Course
Jayne L. Smith, The University of Georgia
Paul J. Brooks, The University of Georgia
A. Bernie Moore, The University of Georgia
William Ozburn,
The University of Georgia
Jonathan Marquess, Mercer University
Elizabeth Horner, Mercer University


Instructor: Bernie Moore, Associate Professor, Joint Staffed with Adult Education and the Fanning Institute for Leadership and Community Development, University of Georgia, Athens, GA.

Instructor Experience: Moore has taught graduate courses on and off campus at UGA for over 22 years and has conducted workshops, training, and facilitated groups throughout Georgia, many locations in the USA, and in Australia, Africa, Scotland, and Taiwan. Each teaching, training, and facilitating activity provides diversity of new ideas and strategies for assisting adult learning.

Moore had the opportunity to facilitate discussions with a group of Pharm.D. students in 1998 and with a second group in August 1999. The content and formats were similar. He was videotaped for about 5 minutes and this was put on the system so the group could see who the instructor was prior to the discussion about a journal article that described self directed learning stages.

A face to face orientation session was held prior to the threaded discussion for participants to see each other and review their overall distance learning program. Learners were oriented to the computer systems, shown how to access the threaded discussion, and encouraged to try out the system as well as get to know their peers. Each of the participants was asked to review and critique the same journal article and share ideas using an interactive threaded-discussion on-line experience.

The 1998 group was nervous and tentative in their initial communications. They experienced some difficulties in getting individual computers to access the system. The more advanced computer people and those with no problems offered suggestions to their peers. Also, the sponsor was able to offer assistance, trouble shoot, and get everyone on line. Moore had to be helped and facilitated through several pilot tests of his computers. The threaded discussion could be reached from any computer location on campus and from the many off campus locations of participants.

Discussion was started by asking questions about the article; something like, how do the ideas about self directed learning relate to your experience as learners in a new technology and format (e.g., distance learning for a professional degree)? Moore responded to each participant usually by the threaded issue (e.g., self direction, motivation to learn, learning in stages, moving from one level or stage of learning to another). Moore engaged in the threaded discussion based upon his schedule, which was usually during the work day or weekend and sometimes in the evenings at home around 9:00 – 11:00 pm. It became evident that many in the group would get on line after their workday and stay on for several hours (e.g., from about 10:00 pm until 1 or 2 in the morning….this was a revelation….professionals and peers engaging in on-line discussions in the late evening and early morning).

Content and direction of the on-line discussion was dictated by questions asked by the group. For the first 3 or 4 days, the discussion was focused on the article about self directed learning. As the group became familiar with the technology, more questions were asked about related issues. What about professional development. What about downsizing? What about new hires? What skills do the new hires have? What education, experience, or combinations do they have? As the session progressed, the group became very comfortable with the technology, trusted each other, and were communicating directly with each other rather than Moore (the instructor). Another revelation came toward the end of the session: some people got into the discussion that had not been involved earlier. Several late comers or lurkers joined the discussion in the last days of the on-line threaded discussion session.

The second group (August 1999) was also a little slow to start. Moore began by commenting about testing the computer systems and how he was doing the same thing. He began the discussion with some of the group prior to the start date. Early in the discussion there were comments and questions related directly to the article about self directed learning. Can everyone be self directed? What are motivations for learning? How do your clients learn? Can you see your clients or customers going through similar learning stages or levels as described in the article? After 2 or 3 days, the topics shifted a little to their overall professional development, how they could apply ideas and strategies to serving clients, and some of their motivations and fears about a new learning challenge. Like the 1998 group, toward the end of the session more people got into the discussion. Two or three had been lurking and not talking and then they jumped into the discussion.

Based upon these two experiences, it seems that there are several challenges to the instructor or technology facilitator. These include getting the discussion started, responding and maintaining the discussion, branching off from the main topics into subtopics and related topics, getting back to the main topic, backing out of the discussion and letting the participants dialogue, and closing off the discussion and moving on to other classes and topics. To get started, it was helpful for the group to read the same material. In 1998 and 1999, the groups read the same article of about 8-10 pages. It was located in a professional journal plus there was a discussion paper about the article, by the author, on the web so participants had access and copies of both documents. Everyone read the same material and could offer their reactions. One approach that Moore used was to acknowledge who he was responding to within any particular thread, e.g., Jack, Ray and Bill and others, and then offer comments. The "and others" statement was used to make sure "others" felt included and involved. When participants responded and sometimes mentioned a related issue or topic, Moore cited research reports and provided a brief connection between their comments and the new info. For example, "Sam and others were talking about forming communities. Wenger, 1998, has a new book about communities of practice that discusses many of the ideas you all mention." Moore often brought the group back to the main ideas by asking for specific ideas, experiences, and situations that participants could relate about the article. For example, "How have you used the suggested strategies in the article to counsel your clients and provide education for your customers?" Participants often responded with scenarios and comments that the group would comment about and then identify another issue or concept related to self directed learning.

Involvement in professional development and how this will benefit participants was an important issue to the 1999 group. How clients are motivated and how professionals are motivated to respond to clients was of interest to both the 1998 and 1999 groups.

From a personal perspective, I hope that both groups never stop their discussions about how clients respond and learn and their own personal distance learning experiences. Because of time pressures, the program shifts from discussion about self-directed learning to other content in the Pharm.D. curriculum. If the initial threaded discussion "treatment" is strong enough, then they will continue to talk, share ideas, help each other, encourage each other, and complete their Pharm.D. studies as a group.