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Lessons Learned

Rio Salado College

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

Consistent content coverage. Using the Academic Systems software ensures that all students who complete the course successfully will have the same kinds of learning experiences. This means that they will be more consistently prepared when they move to the next course in the sequence or to other courses requiring a mathematical background.

Individualized study and assessment. With a large bank of problems and answers for each topic, the Academic Systems software supports the ability of each student to work as long as needed on any particular topic. Because the software provides immediate feedback, students know what aspects of the course they have not mastered and can take appropriate corrective actions. In addition, since students can take the end-of-module quizzes as soon as they are ready, they can move quickly or slowly through the material, depending on their comprehension and past experience or education. They do not need to wait until the class or the instructor is ready to move on to the next topic.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Online content delivery. The Academic Systems software presented the content so well that instructors did not need to spend time delivering content, thus enabling one faculty member, with the help of a course assistant, to be responsible for four mathematics courses simultaneously while spending less time than would be needed to offer only one course without the software.

Course assistant. The addition of a course assistant to address non-math-related questions and to monitor students’ progress enabled (1) an increase in enrollment from 35 to 100 students per section and (2) the concurrent scheduling of four levels of math courses. This position was filled first with a math tutor, but the responsibilities of the course assistant did not require math skills; therefore, there was no reason to pay a tutor rate when those skills would be underutilized or never utilized. The second assistant had the requisite technology skills but needed more hours of employment than the course position provided. The third and “permanent” assistant was a very advanced high school student who found the hours, compensation, and responsibilities to be satisfactory. The faculty member and the course assistant initially occupied the same office, allowing the assistant to receive database training and to understand the clearly defined job responsibilities.

Automated course administration. The Academic Systems software provides a built-in tracking system that allows both the faculty member and the course assistant to know the status of every student in each of the four courses easily and quickly. The instructor and the assistant are able to monitor individual students’ time-on-task as well as students’ progress through the multiple modules.

Online homework. All assignments are completed within the context of the software and are graded on the spot. Feedback to students is immediate. This is highly desirable in a distance-learning course because it removes the time gap found in courses that require mailing (even e-mailing) of assignments and tests for grading by the instructor.

Online quizzing. At the end of each module, students must pass a quiz that is automatically graded. Feedback to the student is immediate, and the faculty member and course assistant also receive the quiz results immediately.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Selection and training of faculty. It is important to identify the right faculty member to teach the redesigned courses—someone who not only understands the Academic Systems software but also has the right attitude to adapt to change. Perhaps the most important learning for the course-redesign team occurred as a result of the second phase of the project. The adjunct faculty member who was assigned to the project had experience with Academic Systems and had been an excellent adjunct faculty member with Rio Salado for a number of years. Based on the pilot project, the team anticipated challenges associated with students’ attitudes and expectations; instead, the challenge involved an instructor who found it extremely difficult to adjust to working with an assistant and to having 100 students in a single section. The instructor did not fully utilize the assistant’s help. Having an assistant available to respond to students’ inquiries was contrary to the instructor’s nature and philosophy of teaching, even though the instructor estimated that only 6% of the students’ communications required a math instructor’s response and another 16% required a response by an instructor, although not necessarily a math instructor. In a follow-up interview, the assistant said: “Students had more information given to them directly [from the instructor] that they could have easily found for themselves … he never forwarded e-mails to me for me to respond to … his e-mails to students were very detailed … there was one major advantage, the class seemed more personal to the students.” Because of such variability in the attitudes and preparation of adjunct instructors, Rio has chosen to limit future implementations of the redesigned courses to 50 enrolled students.

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