Guest Experts

by Evelyn Beck

EVEN ON-LINE, THE voice of a single course instructor can grow wearisome over the length of a semester. One way to pique student interest, and invigorate your own teaching, is to invite guest experts to interact with your class via Internet bulletin boards or chat rooms. The Internet makes it easier for guest experts to participate. They do not have to live locally, making it possible for someone from New South Wales, Australia, for example, to join a group of nursing students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And asking guests to respond on-line to student comments over several days at their convenience is less demanding than requesting them to deliver a presentation during your on-campus class meeting. Whom should you invite?

John Foltz, who supplements his on-campus junior/senior level agribusiness management course with an Internet component at the University of Idaho in Moscow, uses his industry contacts to find agribusiness managers, lenders or consultants. This process, he admits, is time consuming. Each guest expert mails in a discussion question, which Foltz posts on-line. Then the students engage in an asynchronous, threaded discussion, first with the expert, then among themselves. Foltz emphasizes finding topics “in ‘gray’ areas, not something where there is a ‘black and white’ answer. These will generate lots of discussion, where nobody is right or wrong.”

Such open-ended questions might involve controversy or at least ask why rather than what. At the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Zane Berge teaches several on-line graduate courses in education. For guest experts, he invites the author of the book or chapter currently under study. He uses audio or computer conferencing, sometimes in real time but more often asynchronously. “Students ask questions, or float ideas, to the guest, for the guest’s reaction,” he says. “It is a conversation, but more or less it is Q & A between the guest and one or two students at a time, rather than the more normal conversations with ideas coming and reactions being posted by a greater number of students.”

The technology is more high tech at the Air Command and Staff College, a professional military education program for midcareer officers located at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Guests deliver a live lecture for resident students; for nonresidents, the lecture is videotaped, digitized and put on a course CD. Guests have ranged from General Anthony Zinni briefing the students on the United States Central Command to Andy Rooney discussing his military experiences and the media’s relations with the military. “Our students get to hear what the current leaders are thinking, and it helps to stimulate critical thinking,” says Gregory Herbert, chairman of the college’s distance learning curriculum department.

Guest experts need not be prominent in their professions. One obvious source is other faculty on your campus. Your college communications department might even have a list of faculty
who have agreed to serve as guest speakers when asked. And manufacturers, trade associations, and publishers would probably be delighted for the promotional opportunity. Or consider community leaders or agency representatives. Just be sure that whomever you ask has Internet access. One drawback of bringing in guest experts, of course, is the time required
to identify such individuals and to prepare them for the student interaction.

If they have little familiarity with computers and you’re asking them to respond to students on-line, such preparation may take even more time. And there is also the human factor.
“The guest lecturer may have to cancel at the last minute,” says Herbert. “Or they may show up and present a topic that has absolutely nothing to do with what you wanted them to
speak about.” A backup plan is essential, though a wayward guest may bring unexpected enlightenment. Herbert says that no matter what topic his invited lecturers have addressed,
he and his students have always learned something. The benefits of opening up your classroom are many. “It makes the class interactive and introduces real-life experiences,” says Foltz.

Berge, who coedited Computer-Mediated Communication and the On-line Classroom (Hampton Press, 1995), agrees, adding that “These experts give very practical and firsthand insight into the topics in the course at a time students are generally interested. Students love guest experts.” What students-and faculty-love is the new voice that shakes up interaction which might have become predictable. As in any classroom environment, the peculiar passions of each individual on-line soon become obvious; while this allows a level of comfort, it can also get stale. The participation of an outsider with experience and expertise of special interest to the course material can provide a kick-start for the rest of the semester. “What guest
speakers bring to our curriculum,” says Herbert, “is something the students can’t get anywhere else.”

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