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Lessons Learned

Fairfield University

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Using computer exercises in the lecture. Several computer activities were implemented in the lecture using the portable iBook computers. Most of these exercises were designed to (1) illustrate difficult concepts, (2) allow students to practice certain skills or test certain hypotheses, and (3) work with other students to enhance the learning and discussion of these topics. These activities relied heavily on purchased biology software or external biology Web sites. Most activities were organized through a newly designed course Web page (including syllabi, review sheets and tutorials), with links to Web-based activities.

Using online exercises in the laboratory. The wireless technology used in the lecture was also integrated into a series of three dissection labs. A variety of Web sites were selected that focused on the evolutionary relationships between organisms, and the anatomy of particular animals. These sites were used to complement the discussion of animal diversity in lab and the standard animal dissections. In addition, a course laboratory Web site was generated that helped to guide students with these exercises and provide links to the relevant sites. In the past, students found this set of dissection labs dry and purposeless, especially since many had done these activities in high school.

Incorporating computers in these labs accomplished four important learning objectives. First, it enhanced student comprehension by allowing students to think about the evolutionary relationships between the animals they were observing – a critical part of this exercise. Second, it exposed students to a much greater breadth of information, including a wider diversity of animals. Third, it facilitated more team-centered learning due to the questions and discussions raised by the Web sites. Students were expected to do more than just follow a series of exercises; they were asked to propose ideas and discuss hypotheses based on all the information available to them on the suggested sites. Fourth, it allowed students to extend this learning process outside the bounds of the laboratory since they could access these sites outside of the lab and continue to investigate their unanswered questions.

Using technology to provide students with out-of-class information. Technology was used to provide students with 24-hour access to the course syllabus, online lecture notes, and review questions. Students found all of these tools to be extremely helpful throughout the course and in preparation for exams. The team found that all types of students took advantage of these features, and many used them to direct their questions in the weekly recitation periods. It seemed to be most beneficial for problem-oriented topics and otherwise complicated concepts. It also helped focus student attention on those topics the instructors felt were most important from all those covered in class, and provided students with a written description of how a variety of topics tie together.

Using technology for class data input. The creation of a Web site specifically designed to input and collect class data allowed faculty to demonstrate the Hardy-Weinberg principle (explaining population genetics) in a way impossible in the previous course. Each student was asked to sample five of his or her friends for five different heritable traits and input their data to the Web site. In this way, the team was able to collect a large data set (500-600 people for each trait) and use it to study population genetics and statistical analysis. This activity was extremely successful from the faculty and student perspective. The instructors were able to get students involved in a unique way and demonstrate this biological concept with a much more meaningful set of data. Students found the Web site self-explanatory and easy to use. This use of technology enhanced student comprehension of this material.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Consolidating sections. The redesign of General Biology involved consolidating four separate sections into a single large-lecture format and reducing the faculty by almost half. The total number of faculty involved in the lecture portion of the course went from four in the fall and three in the spring to two each semester. This change depended on the successful use of technology to create dynamic learning environments for the students to make up for the larger sized class.

Shared resources. The use of computers dramatically enhanced the delivery of the course content and reduced faculty labor indirectly by forcing more of the learning to take place within the classroom, thereby alleviating some of the burden on faculty in office hours and extra student appointments. The use of biology Web sites and relevant software and activities in class was extremely useful in illustrating specific content that is otherwise difficult to convey, and traditionally necessitates much more one-on-one faculty-student interaction outside of class. In addition, the use of online lecture notes and review questions, activities associated with the text CD assigned outside of class, and Web sites designed to complement laboratory exercises greatly assisted students in their learning, and were often used by students instead of faculty office hours, further reducing faculty labor.

Online resources in labs. Replacing some dissection labs with computer-based activities decreased laboratory costs by nearly 73% (from $2470 to $680) by reducing the need to purchase large numbers of dissection organisms. In addition, using national and international Web sites allowed faculty to reduce the number of required wet labs by half while, at the same time, expanding the ability of students to study comparative anatomy, not easily accomplished before.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Technology issues. Using portable computers in lecture and laboratory was extremely efficient and facilitated a great deal of student involvement and interaction. Although the instructors were initially concerned about both the speed of the Internet connections and the iBooks' reliability, they experienced very fast connections and very few problems. In the pilot semester, one laboratory section suffered from the Web server being down, but, in hindsight, even this dilemma was easily resolved. Since this project relied heavily on technology, the team depended on excellent technical support from the computer and network services staff, who performed above and beyond their already full daily schedules.

Since the computers were used in both the lecture and laboratory, using, moving and securing them between spaces was a challenge. The computers were stored in a locked cabinet, accessible by the faculty for use in the lecture or lab. With increased use, the computers became more susceptible to damage and theft. In the future, the instructors want to assign each student pair a particular computer, each named after a historically significant biologist, to be used throughout the entire semester. This will make students accountable for their own computers and should expedite computer pick-up at the beginning of class.

Using existing material. Most of the redesign relied on pre-existing material. First, the instructors were able to use online lecture notes and review questions previously created by the faculty. Second, the computer exercises used in both the classroom and laboratory utilized specific Web sites created and maintained mostly by other academic institutions. It was critical, however, to review these Web sites thoroughly before using them with students to ensure ease of use and high-quality content. Because of this careful evaluation, students encountered few problems accessing or using these Web sites. Some sites proved to be much more helpful than others, allowing the team to be more selective in subsequent years. In addition, the instructors purchased the BioQuest software library, which includes over 70 modules covering topics from all areas of the biological sciences.

Departmental buy-in. Since some traditional lectures were replaced by computer activities each semester, less time was available to cover the necessary material in the traditional lecture format. Thus, some lecture material that has become obsolete in today's science was eliminated, as were certain laboratory exercises that are simply procedural rather than inquiry-based. Instead, the team relied on particular software activities as assignments outside of class to emphasize the detail in biological concepts. The team had strong backing from most of the department, including freedom and encouragement to redesign the course syllabus as appropriate. The team has, however, been constantly faced with the challenge of obtaining faculty buy-in from the entire department. Thus far, they have been able to convince the majority that the changes will enhance learning without sacrificing content. The team has concluded that being effective change agents does not require complete buy-in if there is core support.

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