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October 8, 2001

First Year Experience Students
Get a Head Start with WebCT

One student asked for a study partner. Another talked about the terrorist attacks on America. Several debated the use of laptop computers.

Sounds like ordinary conversation, doesn't it? But in this case, it's almost midnight and these students have never even met.

They are part of the growing number of freshman who are interacting 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through WebCT, an online course management software package.

WebCT, now used in some 800 UConn courses, incorporates class content, assignments, and interactive features to facilitate continued learning outside of the classroom. As the new semester unfolds, more first-year students are trying their hand at it. More than 70 per cent of incoming students will have courses that use WebCT during their first semester at UConn.

That's one reason why introducing WebCT to freshmen has become a major initiative in the First Year Experience Program, says Dave Ouimette, who directs the program. FYE courses bring students together once a week to help them adjust to life on campus.

"Part of our goal is to enhance and augment our learning skills courses and faculty-student seminars," he says. "But we also want students to learn how to use WebCT, so they're prepared to use it in other classes."

Students in learning skills seminars, which are one-credit courses, are encouraged to use WebCT. "We meet only for an hour a week," says Ouimette, "so we can't possibly go into depth with all the information we have to offer." Training in developing a WebCT course is offered to instructors who teach learning skills courses or faculty seminars.

Every student is given a WebCT account and password and has access to his or her own personalized "MyWebCT" homepage, which gives individual access to online courses.

Michael Toto, a sophomore majoring in secondary education, is a mentor in an FYE learning skills class. Last year, he used WebCT for the first time. "It was a valuable resource for us to keep up with our assignments and post discussions," he says.

A WebCT site has been created for each section of the learning skills seminar, which includes course content that augments what instructors discuss in class. Ouimette says "content experts," including people from career services, housing, counseling and the library, were brought together to determine what should be featured on the site: "We asked them what they wanted first-year students to know in order to make a successful transition to the University, and then we developed web content to support each of those classes."

The First Year Experience Program has also created a website through WebCT for all first-year students, called FYI - First Year Interactive. This site includes a wealth of information for freshmen: calendars of events, news tickers, links, and interactive components including an "Ask the Expert" section, a "Talk to your Orientation Leader" section, and chatrooms and discussion lists open only to first-year students and selected faculty and staff. Students need not be taking a First Year Experience course to use the website.

Jonathan Chin, program assistant for first-year programs, says exposing WebCT to freshmen helps them feel comfortable early in their careers. "It's used in so many courses, we want to get them comfortable using it in a non-threatening, non-graded environment."

Introducing WebCT to students early in their academic careers also saves time for faculty, who, in the past, had to spend class time familiarizing students with it, Chin says.

Chin says WebCT also fosters community. "We encourage students, especially in the FYE courses that meet for one hour a week, to communicate with each other outside of class," he says. Faculty and instructors will often log in during the week when they're not in class and contact students. Also, students who might log in at in at two in the morning can access information, post messages and get responses from their peers."

James Cornell, a freshmen studying business law, finds the discussion boards particularly helpful. He just formed a study group in psychology through the Freshmen Interactive website. "It was easy to find people who want to get together to study," Cornell says. He also enjoys the general conversations: "A lot of people speak their minds, which is really nice."

Chin says WebCT accommodates different learning styles. "There are some students who might not feel comfortable speaking in front of a group," he says, "but put them online in a threaded discussion and they'll be willing to say a lot."

Sherry Fisher