When Nicole Westbrook started her spring semester at Catonsville Community College, she was taking a traditional lecture class in astronomy. After a few weeks, she transferred to a self-paced version of the course, going to the independent study lab instead of a classroom and viewing the daily lessons on a computer screen.
"I found it more helpful than a class lecture," Ms. Westbrook, 18, said. "I had more of an understanding of what I was learning. With the computer, I could take my time. It wasn't a rushed message."
Self-paced classes allow students to absorb information at the speed that is right for them, said Stephanie Caravello-Hibbert, associate professor at Catonsville Community College who teaches self-paced astronomy and earth science courses there. Lectures, she explained, assume that all students learn at the same rate.
"Part of the college's mission is to give the diversified student body different ways of learning," Mrs. Caravello-Hibbert said. "Not everybody learns the same way."
Computers are the key to the alternative learning experience in the self-paced classes at Catonsville. Mrs. Caravello-Hibbert has written a computerized textbook which delivers the same class material that a professor would present in a lecture. With the computer, however, students can review any concept with which they have difficulty.
On the computer screen is a textbook which includes written material, artwork, full-motion video and audio. Students interact with the computer, answering questions it poses to them, exploring concepts, looking up definitions and examining historical notes.
"When students are more involved, they tend to learn better," Mrs. Caravello-Hibbert said, adding that when she teaches the self-paced classes, her role changes and she becomes more of a mentor or guide to the students.
"In lectures, students don't have to pay attention. But with an interactive computer program, they have to respond."
Students may select a convenient time to come to the independent study lab to do their classwork. Some work quickly and finish the course in less than half of a semester while others need extra time.
For each study unit, they are given a list of learning objectives with questions they must be able to answer. When they finish the unit, they meet individually with the instructor to review what they have learned. They take a practice test on the computer and then a formal written test.
Because the courses are competency-based, students must master the material in every unit before they can move on. Frequent tests are given and students are required to earn an A. This motivates them to try harder and builds self-confidence in students who have had difficulty with science courses.
"In lectures, if students don't understand something, a lot of times they don't bother to ask the instructor," Mrs. Caravello-Hibbert said. "But here they're forced to make themselves understand."
Rolena King decided to take the self-paced earth science class last spring because of the personal attention the teacher gives to each student.
"I thought that was very important," Miss King said. "The teacher was always nearby if I had any questions. And if I had problems I could always backtrack on the computer. I also liked the class because I could work it around my school schedule."
Catonsville Community College has created a special program for the study of the Japanese language and culture. Beginning this fall at CCC, Japanese 101 will be offered as a 3-credit course for individuals who want to learn basic communications for export trade with Japan and for others who seek a greater knowledge of Japanese culture.