Teaching Sustainable Community Development Online

By Penny Ralston-Berg, University of Wisconsin, Learning Innovations, and Kelly Cain, University of Wisconsin, River Falls

What d'es wildlife viewing have in common with online learning? Nothing at first thought; they seem to be unrelated, almost contradictory. That was my concern when Dr. Kelly Cain, a University of Wisconsin – River Falls (UWRF) professor known for innovation, approached me in 2004. As an instructional designer, I had had some peculiar requests, but this one topped them all – to build an online program in sustainable community development focused on wildlife recreation and nature tourism.

The Wildlife Recreation and Nature Tourism (WRNT) Graduate Certificate program is a track within the Sustainable Community Development (SCD) online Masters Program offered through the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at UWRF. The program is the first of its kind to be offered in the United States.

According to the “2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation,” wildlife viewing is one of the fastest growing segments of wildlife-related recreation and holds great potential for stimulating local economies. Developed in partnership with Watchable Wildlife, Inc., this program helps conservationists, community leaders, and recreation and hospitality providers build workforce skills necessary to effectively preserve the natural resources of and generate jobs and revenue for their communities. Launched in Fall of 2004, this program already has attracted an enthusiastic cadre of students and is expected to grow to fill an important program niche at UW River Falls.

The program was created as a collaboration between UWRF and University of Wisconsin Extension, Learning Innovations (UWLI). Dr. Cain served as the content expert for the courses in the program, while I served as the instructional designer and course developer. From our first meeting, Dr. Cain’s passion for sustainability and community involvement was contagious. Our primary goal was to infuse this passion into each course in the program.

The program emphasizes community (both in and outside the course), non-traditional assessment methods, and the creation and integration of the SCD Resource Site. Within this innovative online program, students rely on the Desire2Learn learning environment for interactive, seminar-type discussions within the class learning community. The instructional approach centers on using student research topics as the basis for online class discussion. Students find relevant news articles and post URLs in the discussion board for classmates to view. They also provide a summary of the news item and explain its relationship to WRNT. Thus, each course offering is based on current events relevant to the course subject matter, as well as each student’s personal interests.

The program uses non-traditional assessment well-matched to the pedagogy. Each course requires students to complete a portion of an electronic student portfolio, or e-portfolio, as part of the comprehensive certificate program. Because the curriculum is based on active, experiential, and service learning pedagogies, students are expected to apply what they learn, rather than memorize texts and respond to fictitious scenarios. Instead of quizzes and exams, students share pieces of their e-portfolios throughout each course in the program and receive feedback and input from their classmates and instructors. The e-portfolios culminate in a business/management plan that can be implemented in a targeted community, during or after completion of the curriculum. 

Recently, the Sustainable Community Development Resource Site has been added to the program. Everyone enrolled in SCD also is enrolled in this “course” and remains enrolled until they graduate or choose to leave the program. The Resource Site serves as a central resource for Desire2Learn and online learning orientation documents, policy documents, e-portfolio templates and resources, and current and complete e-portfolios from students in the program. The SCD Resource Site will also serve to integrate new tracks or emphasis areas that emerge under the SCD Masters Program.

Dr. Cain’s goals were to provide the most enjoyable and engaging educational experiences for students. Another goal was to design the discussion activities in such a way to allow students to bring current news events, as well as topics relevant to their own interests into the discussion.

We met these goals by creating an open and inviting learning community. Introductions are the first step: the first week of the course is reserved for orientation to the Desire2Learn Learning Environment, course content, and organization. Students complete a personal profile and post a brief introduction describing themselves and their personal interests. This task helps them establish an online social presence and immediately become part of the learning community. From the start of each course the instructor works to create a safe and open learning community where students are free to share their thoughts, opinions, and questions with a diverse group of colleagues. They learn from each other, as well as from the instructor. Dr. Cain facilitates this open discussion by asking follow-up questions and suggesting alternate points of view and additional resources. This community grows over time as students often meet again in other courses within the program.

Our biggest challenge was to accommodate the collection, peer review, and grading of the cumulative electronic portfolio project. We used the discussion board in Desire2Learn to allow students to share documents and perform peer reviews and critiques. Each student posts to a discussion board labeled with his or her name. Revisions are made based on peer comments prior to grading by the Instructor. Students are graded on their peer review participation, as well as the portfolio they create.

For others thinking about converting nontraditional courses or programs to online delivery, we offer the following advice:

  • Use a team of experienced content experts, designers, and media specialists. The typical faculty workload makes independent online program design and development overwhelming. Team support reduces the student learning curve at the beginning of each course, makes the technology more transparent, and allows students to spend more of their time focused on learning.
  • Use the online environment to foster collaboration. I am located in Madison, WI, while Dr. Cain is based in River Falls, WI, separated by 240 miles of Wisconsin roadways. To make our work more efficient during the course design and development phases, we coordinated our work using templates for word processing, HTML content pages, and the Desire2Learn course structure.
  • Don’t create from scratch unless it’s absolutely necessary . Make a conscious effort to reuse text resources, HTML templates and courseware structures; it saves time in the long run.
  • Be prepared to revise , nothing is perfect the first time around. Use feedback from users to refine course design, models, and templates.
  • Look for creative ways to utilize infrastructure software . Experiment and you may discover new and effective instructional practices. The toolset found in the Desire2Learn platform can be used in innovative ways resulting in highly engaging courses and greater efficiencies.
  • Establish a standard file structure to manage course material; this saves time during course maintenance and revision. Extend this practice of using common file structures and naming conventions to all courses in the program.
  • Set clear expectations for participation in the learning community to maximize discussion, (e.g., required frequency of posts, your definition of “active discussion,” rules for conduct within the community, and grading criteria).

As a strong advocate for online learning, Dr. Cain has worked to make the breadth and depth of discussion and engagement in the online environment as engaging, if not more so, than the traditional face-to-face classroom setting. ESM 620, Wildlife Recreation, Nature Tourism, and Sustainability-Based Systems, was the introductory course for this program and ran online for the first time in Spring 2004. This model has been used to produce additional courses for the program. Locally, the entire program is rapidly becoming known as a major asset to the campus-wide embracement of sustainability as a strategic initiative for every facet of university programs and operations. Internationally, enrollment is growing – as is the realization of just how important sustainability is to our global community.

Penny Ralston-Berg is a Senior Instructional Designer at University of Wisconsin-Learning Innovations

Dr. Kelly Cain is a Professor of Plant and Earth Science at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls

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