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Lessons Learned

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

In-class pedagogy. The most salient positive aspect of the redesigned course has been the pedagogical changes that resulted from removing the vocabulary and grammar practices from the classroom to the computer. In-class time can be spent on using the foreign language instead of talking about it. In-class activities now emphasize speaking and writing and encourage students to negotiate meaning, interact with each other and collaborate on tasks in the foreign language. Research in second language acquisition indicates that for students to internalize what they learn, they must be given opportunities to produce the foreign language both orally and in writing.

Online activities and resources. Reading, writing and grammar exercises were moved online and redesigned to incorporate a rich array of learning resources and activities. Over 400 graphic, audio and video files were keyed to course concepts. The textbook and workbook exercises previously used in a paper format were moved online along with directions for use and model answers. Students received immediate (automated) feedback and detailed grammatical explanations about their work. Exercises were divided between practice exercises that could be taken as many times as needed and quizzes that could be taken only once for a grade.

Collaborative homework assignments encouraged online student discussions and tasks done interactively with a small group of students. Vocabulary translations and listening comprehension exercises were provided for each chapter along with links to online Spanish dictionaries. For each chapter a printable checklist was developed that included chapter outcomes and all exercises in order of completion; specified how the chapter was structured; distinguished the practice exercises from graded ones; included due dates; and allowed students to track the exercises they have completed and to record their scores. Collectively these online resources and activities provide an active learning environment and increase student engagement with the course content and with each other.

Opportunities for continuous improvement. The use of a wide array of learning resources has highlighted the flexibility of the online environment for continuous improvement. During each phase of implementation, the course team has been able to modify, update and revise various learning experiences based on what worked well and what did not. Student feedback on the clarity and number of assignments, as well as need for greater explanations and models has provided multiple good indicators for areas needing change. Each of these concerns has been addressed, while those materials that were working well continued to provide good learning experiences. The online environment permits flexibility in design and expansion where needed, and changes are made in a timely way.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Online course materials. The preparation time for instructors has declined significantly as many learning experiences have been moved online. In addition, grading time has also declined as many of the exercises are graded automatically. By putting course materials online, the team has also reduced the cost of materials students needed to purchase. In the traditional format, students paid a total of approximately $182.35 for the textbook ($65.75), a CD-ROM ($10.95), two workbooks ($67.90) and audio CDs to accompany the workbooks ($37.75). In the redesigned course, students pay only $96.00 or $81.15 for a customized version of the textbook ($59.25 new/$44.40 used) and an access card ($36.75) for the online material.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

GTA readiness and training. Initially the team overestimated the level of graduate teaching assistant (GTA) preparedness and underestimated amount of training needed. Many of the GTAs had no experience in an online environment and were not prepared to help the students when they asked questions or encountered problems. Although training was held prior to the start of the pilot term, the team discovered that there was a need for ongoing training and stronger continuing GTA support than was initially planned. Because many of the GTAs are Master's candidates with minimal or no teaching experience, their readiness to engage in a newly designed learning environment was also low. With this combination of challenges, the personnel structure of subsequent terms was changed, and GTAs are now paired with adjunct instructors who have a higher level of readiness to work with students in the new design; GTAs no longer teach sections independently. This revised model is much more successful and provides a more supportive learning environment for both the GTAs and the students.

Technological problems. Technological problems constitute the most important implementation issue experienced by most students at each phase of implementation and one that continues to be a challenge. The first four to five weeks in the pilot term were extremely problematic due to server problems. Students were frustrated and anxious, and instructors complained about the amount of time they had to spend resetting activities, responding to student email questions and complaints, and discussing technology-related problems in class. The technological problems were rooted in a glitch in the server. After the problems were resolved, there was a substantial reduction in student complaints.

As the course numbers scaled up toward full implementation, the Instructional Technology Center increased the amount of GTA/instructor training on the course management system and exposure to the course structure to compensate for those with limited technology skills and/or experience. In a subsequent term, the course management system and delivery servers were upgraded to the more robust enterprise version of Blackboard. After these changes, there were only minor problems and the feedback from both instructors and students was quite positive. Just prior to full implementation, the online A/V material was transferred to a streaming server. In the process, a few files were lost, causing renewed frustrations and concerns on the part of instructors. These frustrations were magnified as a result of increased class sizes. In collaboration with the course coordinator, the technical and instructional support staff have worked diligently to rectify technical problems and increase instructor support.

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