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Implementation Issues

Fairfield University

Looking back on the course pilot itself, what worked best?

There were many successful features of the course pilot.

First, the use of the wireless iBooks in the large lecture format worked very well. The portable computers were made available to students at the beginning of class, and students worked in pairs on each computer. The information technologist associated with the project was on-hand to assist with any technical difficulties. Students were asked to use a specific set of Web sites to classify an organism assigned to them randomly. The activity was somewhat directed, but self-guided by each pair of students. We found that this exercise engaged most students. Those students with significant experience with computers seemed to help others, and those students that are typically very shy and non-communicative in class were able to participate more in these types of activities. Although several groups of students had questions throughout the activity that could be addressed by the faculty, most students were able to carry out the exercise with little or no assistance. We found it extremely important to use well-researched and dependable Web sites for these activities, thus selecting for those that are easy to follow and manipulate. This use of technology significantly increased student interaction and inquiry-based learning in the lecture, where little or no interaction normally takes place.

Second was the efficient and dependable operation of the wireless technology. Before the pilot, we were concerned about the time it would require for students to set up their computers at the start of class and return them at the end of class. This was surprisingly efficient. We had also been concerned about the speed of the Internet connections once fifty iBooks were on-line at once through three airport stations. Again, we were surprised to observe very fast connections and very few problems with student access.

Third was the use of a Web site specifically designed to input and collect class data that allowed faculty to demonstrate the Hardy-Weinberg principle (explaining population genetics) in a way impossible in the previous course <www.faculty.fairfield.edu/mhill/phenotypes/>. Each student was asked to sample five of his or her friends for five different heritable traits. We then generated a Web site that students could access outside of class to input their data. Finally, we were able to immediately collect the 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 perspectives. We received much positive feedback from students about this activity.

Fourth was the use of on-line dissection Web sites to complement the laboratory <www.faculty.fairfield.edu/mhill/genbio/bi92lab/dissection.html>. 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, we generated a course laboratory Web site that helped to guide students with these exercises, and provide links to the relevant sites. While many students had performed dissections in high school, few were aware of the diversity of the animal kingdom revealed to them by these sites.

December 2001 Update: The use of WebCT was deemed a success given that students had access to all course material on demand. Based on informal surveys, it was clear that students took advantage of course-related materials so that they could study at their own pace, and relied less heavily on face-to-face meetings with professors (i.e., office hours). During the Spring 2002 semester, the project directors are planning on implementing the DUCK intelligent tutor program that was produced by colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This will provide students with an opportunity to test their knowledge using an interactive format before coming to class.

What worked least well?

As we began testing the technology, it became clear that one of our planned activities would not work well. This involved using AppleTalk to capture student computers and rebroadcast their screen to the entire class. While technically feasible, in practice we found the connection times were too long. However, this turned out to be a very small inconvenience since we were able to broadcast computer screens to the entire class using the multi-media projector.

What are the biggest challenges you face in moving from the course pilot to the project's next phase?

Our goals for the re-design have remained basically the same based on the pilot semester. The success of the activities incorporated thus far has allowed us to pursue our original objective for the integration of more information technology in both the lecture and laboratory. Most of the Web sites used in the pilot will remain in the course, although the few that proved to be ineffective or problematic will be eliminated. In the next phase, we hope to further increase student interaction and inquiry-based learning through the use of the wireless technology.

Challenges include:

  • Course Content Coverage

Since seven traditional lectures will probably be replaced by computer activities each semester, less time will be available to cover the necessary material in the traditional lecture format. This problem can be handled in several different ways. One can cover the same amount of material, but at a much quicker pace, providing less depth and detail. One could choose to eliminate certain subject matter, thereby leaving more time for those topics deemed to be “most” important. One could assign more out-of-class assignments/problems that will expose students to particular areas not covered in the lecture. We plan to use a combination of these last two strategies to convey the biological concepts we feel are crucial for the introductory experience. For example, we are eliminating some lecture material that has become obsolete in today’s science, and we are eliminating laboratory exercises that are simply procedural rather than inquiry-based; we will rely on the use of particular software activities as assignments outside of class to emphasize the detail in biological concepts. We also feel that the coverage of many topics will be greatly enhanced by the use of technology in the classroom.

  • Technology

We will be relying on the use of the iBooks in many more lectures and many more laboratories in the second phase of the re-design. As a result, one challenge will be the ease of using, moving and securing the computers between the lecture and laboratories. We plan to store the computers in a locked cabinet, in a locked closet accessible by the faculty for use in the lecture or lab. With the increased use of the computers, they will become more susceptible to damage and theft. Since computers will only be used by students in faculty-supervised spaces, we hope this will not be a problem. We plan to further curtail such problems by assigning each student pair a particular computer to be used throughout the entire semester. Computers will be named after historically significant biologists, and each student will be assigned a specific computer. This will make students accountable for their own computers, and should expedite computer pick-up at the beginning of class. Another technology-associated problem will always be the reliability of the Web server. In the pilot semester, we had one laboratory section that suffered from the server being down, but, in hindsight, even this dilemma was easily resolved (despite an anxious 30 minute wait).

December 2001 Update: The technological problems encountered in our pilot semester have not been a problem this year. From the technological side of implementation, we deem this past semester a huge success.

  • Faculty development and support

Of the four faculty involved in the two-semester course, one will be a new faculty member who will need minimal training with the use of the wireless technology. All faculty will additionally require some time to develop their individual portions of the course. Since each faculty member will now be teaching from his or her own area of expertise, it should be relatively easy for each to review the relevant software and on-line activities and select those most appropriate for the course. This division of labor will allow each faculty to tailor the exercises to his or her own topics of choice and teaching style.

  • Student attitudes and reactions

We have received mostly positive comments from student evaluations of the course pilot. These have focused on a number of aspects of the course including the effective use of technology in the lecture and laboratory. As the course for the upcoming year will include more computer exercises and a better-adapted syllabus, we expect student attitudes and reactions to be even more positive. The few negative comments received from the course pilot mostly cited the large lecture format, since many students are attracted to Fairfield University because of the small class sizes. Since incoming freshmen are often impressionable by the comments of upper level students, we expect resistance to the large lecture format may continue to be of concern until students of the “traditional” format graduate. However, student evaluations praising teaching style, faculty availability, helpfulness of on-line tools, and interactions within the lab were far more common than negativity toward the large lecture format for the pilot course, and will likely continue with the full implementation of the re-design.

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