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Lessons Learned

Virginia Tech

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Online tutorials. Online tutorials are the main tools for presenting course materials. Each tutorial includes a short module on one or two topics framed by opening and closing screens that summarize the main points. Within the module, navigation is interactive; students can choose to see additional explanation and examples along the way. Typically, screens that take advantage of color, motion, and interactivity to illustrate related computational methods follow an explanation of a problem or theorem.

Modules are grouped into sections, two of which are covered each week. Each section homepage contains links to a variety of additional learning tools: streaming video lectures, lecture notes, and exercises (with answers and short videos in which full solutions are presented). One more link leads to quizzes for practice and for weekly grades. These materials are Web-based and can be studied at home, at a campus lab or at the Math Emporium, where live assistance from math staff is available. Graded quizzes must be taken at the Emporium.

The materials, especially the tutorial modules, have been upgraded from year to year for content, style, and reliability of the software. The degree to which the tutorials have taken over the main instructional role testifies to their success. Survey results confirm this: a large and growing majority (up to 84%) of the students agree or tend to agree that “the computer presentations explain the concepts well.”

Math Emporium computer lab. The Math Emporium is open 24/7; faculty and peer tutors are present at the Math Emporium 74 hours per week. The Emporium staff—faculty, graduate assistants, and undergraduate tutors—have survey approval rates consistently in the 70%–85% range for knowledge of the material, politeness, responsiveness, and effectiveness at explaining concepts.

Online video lectures and lecture notes. Beginning in fall 2001, online video lectures replaced the optional live lectures given at the Math Emporium. The live lectures had been poorly attended, and survey results indicate that the online format is much more successful. In fall 2000, 35% of the students were “very pleased” or “somewhat pleased” with the lectures, and 57% marked “not applicable,” indicating nonattendance. In fall 2001, the online materials received a 62% “somewhat/very pleased” score, and only 16% of the students marked “not applicable.” In addition, the online lectures have further reduced labor costs.

Online weekly practice quizzes. Usually two quizzes are due each week. They are taken unproctored at the Math Emporium. Feedback is instantaneous. At this stage, the quizzes perform very well technically, but to avoid significant proctoring, they are kept at a fairly low level in terms of difficulty and weight in the course grade. For a difficult topic like eigenvalues, students may get inadequate reinforcement. In designing tutorials for a second course (Precalculus), the developers have opted for a more rigid lesson structure in which quizzes act as entry and exit gateways to each topical module.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Online delivery. The 40-student sections—with duplicating lectures, homework, and tests—were replaced with online materials. Online course-delivery techniques such as tutorials, streaming-video lectures, and lecture notes on the Web, supplemented with a printed textbook, give more flexible access to course content than the parallel efforts of a teaching staff. One instructor, working half-time, oversees the entire operation and performs the necessary in-person tasks. GTAs and peer tutors handle other interaction. Online practice quizzes replaced weekly homework grading.

Online midterm tests and final exams. With the development of a server-based testing system, large databases of questions are easily generated. Grading and record-keeping are automatic.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Acceptance by students. Students and their home departments were uneasy, at best, about the new system at first. The off-campus location of the Math Emporium and serious problems with system crashes and data-handling errors in the first year were the most visible targets of dissatisfaction. The issues of perception were addressed successfully through active communication with departments and with patient replies to hundreds of e-mail messages from students. Software and hardware problems were generally worked out in the first year (through improvements in equipment, programs, and system backup), and they eventually decreased to near zero. The town bus service improved, partly in response to demand on the Math Emporium route. Finally, the novelty and anxiety wore off as succeeding classes of students moved through the system and as the Math Emporium blended into the teaching scene (it is, in fact, many students’ preferred place to work).

Software and hardware reliability. The introduction of online midterm tests and final exams in 2001 brought in new operational difficulties that must be worked out. For example, the tendency of students to wait until the test deadline has overloaded the server at times. Various schemes for staggering the deadlines are being tested.

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