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Tools of the trade

Chalk gives way to chat

Virtual universities use a wide range of technology to make learning as easy and collaborative as possible. While the level of sophistication varies, standard to most Web courses are communication systems, such as email, real-time chat rooms, and threaded discussion groups that that let students interact with instructors and each other online.

To demonstrate the kind of technologies used in online teaching, NEWS.COM examined the software package being used by institutions like the State University of New York, University of Kentucky, and Net Day 96 program.

The Virtual Classroom:
What the student sees

Lecture notes
Students will find lecture material in folders organized by date, just as if they were going to a

Traditional lecture

Questions are filtered through the professor and class time is limited. Because of the seating arrangement, students face front and are discouraged from interacting with each other.
Online chat or threaded discussion

These formats are not limited by time and encourage students to debate topics with each other, as well as the instructor.
class on certain day. Content can be general, designed for use by the entire class, or personalized for each student.

Message system
Central to online learning is communication and collaboration. (See infographic.) Web-based messaging systems connect students with each other, as well as their instructor.

It is possible to have multiple discussion lists in any course. Depending on the professor, students might see moderated real-time chat or threaded discussions where they can read messages and upload file attachments that provide additional course resources. Each discussion topic is placed in its own folder. A button at the bottom of every page allows the student to send a message, in context, to the instructor at any point.

Interactive quizzes
Students will often be asked to take interactive quizzes. These quizzes are automatically graded on the server and the student will get his or her results instantaneously.

The Virtual Office:
What the professor sees

Course creation
TopClass, the software used by SUNY, has a course outliner, which allows the instructor to construct or modify their material quickly. The program takes care of all of the HTML, and the professors can modify any individual's course work without affecting others in the class.

Course management
Courses are constructed of small units, which can consist of lecture material, exercises, or other units. Units can be exported and imported from one course to another, so the professor only has to prepare the material once.

Student management
The software tracks each individual user, the status of all course material assigned to them, and every message that they read and send. Instructors can also view the status of any of their assigned students which helps monitor progress.