University of Colorado at Boulder
Looking back on the course pilot itself, what worked best?
The most spectacular success was the use of undergraduate TAs. I hold weekly meetings with the TAs. These meetings have given me a much better feel for the student response to the class than I have ever been able to get in a large lecture format, and the feedback has been invaluable in improving the format of the curse. The second most successful strategy was to have the students work in learning teams to present their results of research projects as web pages. The third most successful strategy was to grade students for their performance in learning teams as well as for their individual performance.
What worked least well?
Getting students to prepare in advance for discussions. Some students do this naturally, but most are not used to this kind of class. We are still learning how to create more effective mechanisms to encourage students to prepare in advance for discussion sessions.
We haven't been as thorough as we should be in enforcing our expectations for on-line asynchronous work. If students don't see that we are watching and evaluating their performance, week by week, many will let it slide. So, in the spring 2001 semester, we are incorporating more detailed record keeping procedures of student performance in our software, and providing more intensive feedback to make it clear to all the students that we are doing so.
What are the biggest challenges you face in moving from the course pilot to the project's next phase?
It was a good thing that we started with a relatively small class for the pilot program. Much of our software wasn't ready when we ran the pilot program. We were playing catch-up with the software throughout the semester, and several times we had to fall back to non-technical solutions (good-old pencil and paper). Our software is in much better shape now and worked well in fall 2000. We are making further changes to the software to encourage more student interaction.
We needed to invest a fair amount of time in summer 2000 in preparing more on-line exercises. The main challenge is to get all students more deeply involved in discussions. We're going to use software to track the efforts by individual students to prepare in advance for discussion, and we're going to conduct formal rehearsals for large class discussion during the meetings of the learning teams.
We have a challenge scaling up to the section of 220 students for the spring 2001 semester. One problem is that we don't have the capacity in our computing labs to support meetings of that many students every week. So, we are changing the format of the learning teams: students will actually meet as a group with their coaches only once every two weeks instead of once a week. We hope that the students in the teams will still develop group spirit, and we will make a special effort to introduce more group activities early in the semester (such as night-time observing on telescopes) that will encourage bonding among team members. We will include more rigorous requirements for asynchronous collaboration among team members to replace group meetings, and the undergraduate TAs (coaches) will be more proactive in encouraging such activity.
The large group discussions were successful and generated a high level of student involvement. With the greater number of learning teams in fall 2000, we began to notice significant differences among the performance of learning teams. Some worked very well; others not so well. As we scale the course to larger enrollment during spring 2001, we will be paying greater attention to in-progress assessment of learning teams and the training, and support of undergraduate TAs. We need to find out early if TAs are having difficulty and to provide the support and training necessary to correct problems when we discover them.
Adequate coverage of course content is not a problem. This course is very rich in factual content; we probably try to include too much. If anything, I'll cut down the amount of content to permit deeper student involvement. Less is more.
The opportunities and challenges for using technology are unlimited, but very time-consuming to develop. We'll have to choose carefully among the many opportunities that present themselves. But we are very optimistic about the partnership we have developed with the University of Oregon. They have developed a wonderful suite of Java applets, and we are now involved in continuing to develop these tools and incorporating them in our new course format.
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