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Course Development Issues

Fairfield University

To what extent have you been able to use previously developed materials in your re-design instead of creating new materials?

Of the multiple uses of technology in our re-design, most have relied completely on pre-existing material. First, we were able to use on-line lecture notes and review questions previously created by our faculty. Second, the computer exercises used in both the classroom and laboratory utilized specific Web sites created and maintained mostly by other academic institutions. We did find it critical to review these Web sites thoroughly before their use with students to ensure ease of use and review content. Thus some faculty time was spent on these tasks before the semester began, but these activities should require far less time with the continuation of the course. As a result of careful evaluation, students encountered few problems accessing or using these Web sites in the pilot semester. Some sites proved to be much more helpful than others, allowing us to be more selective in the upcoming year.

Some new materials were generated in the pilot semester, including the Hardy-Weinberg Web site. This site was created by our team, with significant help from the information technology specialist. This took some time to develop, but will now be able to be used every year with no additional work. We also hired an external Web designer to create a new course Web site. This has now been constructed, and will require little faculty effort each year to revise, update, and maintain.

Since the full implementation of the redesign will take place in the fall 2001, many more existing sites and software will be utilized. Several of these are now in the review process. However, we have chosen one commercially available software package (BioQuest) for use in the upcoming academic year. BioQuest is a software library with over 70 modules to choose from covering topics from all areas of the biological sciences.

December 2001 Update: Implementation of a course management tool (WebCT) has been very helpful. We also took advantage of the CD-ROM and web page associated with the text. These tools provided access to activities that fit within our pedagogical framework, and served as a useful study tool for students.

What kinds of activities took up the most time in your course development effort?

Those activities that required the most time in the re-design so far were establishing the wireless technology, reviewing existing software and Web sites for course use, and establishing our own course Web sites. A major amount of time was spent purchasing the computers, installing the airport stations, and coding each computer to have the necessary components for student use in the lecture and laboratory (i.e. passwords, bookmarks, etc.). Since we are striving for a cohesive functional course, with as few glitches as possible, the careful review of software and Web sites is critical and required a good deal of time. Likewise, the design of useful course Web sites with important links was also a time consuming task. However, all three of these activities were expected to require significant faculty time and effort, and this will likely diminish as the fully implemented course continues to run. The review of new material will always be essential, but will become less labor intensive as many previously incorporated exercises will already be in place.

Have students been directly involved in the re-design process?

Students have aided in the re-design process in the laboratory as upper level teaching assistants. Specifically, these TAs would help students with experimental designs and procedures, and in the course pilot, would be able to guide students with the use of the computers and particular on-line activities. We found feedback from these TAs to be extremely useful since all of them were students of the “traditional” introductory biology course, and they could thus provide a comparative perspective, albeit somewhat biased, on the laboratory components of the two courses. We found no drawbacks to including students in this re-design effort.

What kinds of support for your project have you been receiving from your department or the institution more broadly?

Support for our project has come in many forms. We have received overwhelming support from the institution, by means of acknowledgment and financial assistance. As part of this effort, Fairfield University has agreed to fund an approximately $200,000 re-design of the auditorium used to teach introductory biology to better accommodate the use of computers in the classroom.

Since our project relies heavily on technology, we depend on a great deal of technical support, much of which is not funded by this grant. This project relied heavily on support from personnel from the Computer and Network Services department on our campus. These individuals were asked to perform duties associated with our course that went above-and-beyond their already full daily schedules. The success of our project has relied on their excellent services, and to ensure that continued level of performance we believe factoring stipends for these individuals into the original budget would have been wise. Nonetheless, we have made very judicious use of the available funds, and have found that it was sufficient to cover the activities we proposed. This support has been instrumental in launching the re-design, and will be absolutely essential in maintaining it.

Finally, we have had strong backing from most of our department, including freedom and encouragement to re-design the course syllabus as appropriate for these new changes. We are constantly faced with the challenge of obtaining complete faculty buy-in from the entire department. We have, thus far, been able to convince the majority of faculty in the department that our changes will enhance learning in the introductory biology course, without sacrificing content. Since our re-design efforts have support from most of the department, and those faculty involved in the course are fully behind this endeavor, we do not see this as a major problem. In fact, we are convinced that to be effective agents of change, we do not require complete buy-in if there is a core or support.

December 2001 Update: A greater number of our colleagues in the Biology Department (and across the campus) are interested in teaching using the methodologies employed in General Biology. In addition, the renovation of the auditorium was completed during summer 2001, which allowed for much greater flexibility in the way the course was taught.

In response to the successes associated with our redesign efforts, we have begun plans to change the entire introductory sequence for our biology majors. This will involve expanding the General Biology sequence to three semesters while reducing the number of required second year courses by one. We believe that with our updated method of instruction, students will receive the same (or better) level of training in three semesters that used to require four semesters.

A number of benefits will accrue when we switch to the Pew-inspired General Biology model, and these include: 1.) a further reduction in costs since one fewer large enrollment class will be necessary, 2.) greater coverage of the biological sciences for our majors (since we will increase the number of required upper-level courses by one), 3.) greater flexibility in each student’s ability to choose courses in their areas of interest, 4.) additional exposure of student’s to an IT-rich course environment, and 5.) better coverage of the breadth of the biological sciences.

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