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Labor Saving Techniques

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Given that a major goal of the course re-design project is to substitute technology "capital" for faculty teaching "labor," in what particular aspects of the course and its delivery are you finding that you are able to do this?

We initiated the redesign of Introductory Biology in order to sustain our use of active learning in the large classroom setting. We had found that the active learning environment required more instructor time and more support from staff. We were also challenged to cover the requisite content in the active learning setting. Finally, we faced the difficulty of recruiting new faculty to teach in the course now perceived as costly in terms of time, effort, and technological skills.

Three components of the redesign that allow us to achieve our goals by substituting technology for labor are currently in place. They are the student preparation Web page, the on-line Duck quiz, and the ClassTalk communication system. We have found that the student preparation page serves as a vehicle for delivering content not covered in class. We were also surprised and pleased to find that students used it as a study tool. One instructor effectively used the Web site provided by the textbook publisher as a source of additional activities on the preparation page. The preparation page also allowed more timely coordination of class and reading assignments and was the site of pertinent announcements. The online Duck quiz allowed students to practice problem-solving outside of class both in preparation for class and in studying for exams. The preparation page, Duck quiz, and ClassTalk system all allow student participation to be monitored during the semester. We are in the process of determining whether we can identify at risk students from their completion of the Duck quiz and participation in class. Finally we have used the in class communication system, ClassTalk, to allow for robust small group problem-solving in the large classroom setting.

The software for the Web-based student preparation and quizzing system are freely available at http://bcrc.bio.umass.edu/projects/duck/ (Duck) and http://bcrc.bio.umass.edu/projects/prep/) (Preparation Page.)

We have also begun to design and build a database to serve as a reservoir of questions suitable for use as in ClassTalk, the Duck quiz, or on exams. It is our goal that this database will allow question entry from a variety of formats, and allow questions to be categorized by topic, concept and appropriate usage. The database will provide a great savings in instructor time in preparing the Duck quizzes, ClassTalk questions and exams. In addition to working on the database, we are in the process of reassessing the design of the Web-based tools and with the hope of realizing further time-savings for instructors and students.

Finally, previously Dr. Steven Brewer attended all lectures to run the ClassTalk network. In the redesign, the technical support of the ClassTalk system support is now being provided by a technical support staff position.

December 2001 Update: During this period, we have reduced the number of faculty from four to two for the most significant savings. This has had the benefit of freeing two professors for other teaching assignments and research, and relieved the perennial problem of finding faculty to teach in Biology 100. In addition, TAs are no longer expected to attend lecture, and are now able to understand lecture material from the web site. This has improved the ability of TAs to serve students in their lab section who ask questions about lecture content.

The collaboration between instructors of the two sections of the course provided an additional labor savings. Because the two sections were using identical course material, there was a fruitful division of labor between the instructors so that work for each task was not duplicated.

Now that the materials are in place, in the coming years we expect to realize the savings in labor thus far devoted to course material creation. Both the content and design of the course web site are now mature and will be relatively stable for some years to come. In addition, we have built a data base of questions and problems that instructors can use for in class problem solving, quizzes and exams. In this sense, most of the course materials required for presentation in the format we have created are in place and available for use by both experienced and new instructors in future years.

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