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Course Development Issues

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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

From the beginning we planned to use material already available. We had to change the format of much of this material to conform to the formats used in CourseInfo, the learning management system we use at The University of Tennessee.

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

The bulk of the time spent on course development involved editing the exercises to remove typos, mistakes, inappropriate quiz formats, and rewriting exercises. The activities that were not from the textbook, ones we wrote or adapted, took the longest time because we had to try them on for size in the spring 2001 semester to insure their success. Many of the changes consisted of rewriting exercises so that there would be one answer to conform to CourseInfo. Consequently, we decided to provide some open-end exercises, which were not graded. Students printed these particular exercises and the teacher decided when to collect them, how to use them, etc. Students’ comments, however, indicated that they saw no real value in these exercises, as there were no right or wrong answers. In fact, they merely ask for the students’ opinions or personal information, like family members, what they eat for breakfast, etc. The open-ended ones we had place online had to be rewritten after reading students’ comments about them. As a result, we rewrote them to have correct or incorrect answers.

Open-ended and collaborative tasks, however, are essential for successful language learning to occur. Thus, a handful of collaborative activities were tested out in one class this spring. The most successful of these activities have been integrated into each chapter. These collaborative tasks allow for communicative language use, as opposed to discrete point practice. For example, students collect data from the Web and then share it with other students in their group so that all pieces are synthesized. Then, they present their results to all members in their class via either e-mail or through the discussion board in CourseInfo. Once all students have read all the information available, they arrive at some conclusions, which they then address in class.

December 2001 Update: In Phase II of this project (fall 2001), the activities where students had to print results and take to them class were eliminated and replaced with two collaborative sections: the Blue Book and the Collaborative Homework Assignments (CHA). Feedback from instructors regarding the Bluebooks and CHA were extremely positive. They did suggest, however, that the CHA assignments be spaced out more equitably and that we write in an alternative assignment for those students whose partners do not collaborate.

The revisions made in summer 2001 were numerous. The activities that were not from the textbook, ones we wrote or adapted, took the longest time because we had to try them on for size in the spring 2001 to insure their success. Furthermore, the open-ended ones we had placed online had to be rewritten after reading students’ comments about them. The bulk of the time spent on course development involved editing the exercises to remove typos, mistakes, inappropriate quiz formats, rewriting exercises and designing the Bluebook and CHA activities.

According to the GTAs and instructors, the payoff for the revisions was clearly visible in fall 2001 (Phase II) once the technical problems with the course management server were resolved. In phase II, students did not complain or send negative emails to their teachers and appeared to be doing the online work. Some of the GTAs and instructors posted in their classrooms examples of the Collaborative Homework Assignments (brochures, menus, and posters). One classroom was particularly impressive and on several occasions comments were left on the classroom board commending student’s work. Official student perceptions based on the ITC and departmental questionnaires are currently being analyzed for Phase II.

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

In phase I, students, in an indirect way, have indeed been involved in the re-design. Student input throughout the semester was invaluable. We made changes in mid semester based on student suggestions, such as adding a vocabulary list, offering links to Spanish dictionaries on the Web. Students identified problematic exercises and commented on exercises. We took their feedback seriously, as much of it made sense and was insightful.

December 2001 Update: Based on the feedback received from student questionnaires (administered by ITC in phase I of the project) regarding the variety of modem connection speeds and/or computer configurations from which they were accessing the course materials, we ensured all of the 400+ graphic, audio, and video files utilized in the course were optimized for efficient download speed. A tutorial was developed to provide students with clear instructions for how to download the players needed to access the course AV files and how to configure those players for their connection speeds.

Incorporating feedback received from GTA/Instructor interviews, in addition to the ITC and departmental student questionnaires, additional information was included for each chapter to ensure the students understood the specific outcomes of the chapter, how the chapter was structured, how to distinguish graded from practice exercises, a chapter vocabulary list, and a printable “checklist” of activities they could use to determine if they had completed all of the associated chapter activities. These checklists were developed for the M/W and T/R sections with associated due dates so students could monitor their homework responsibilities more accurately. With these adjustments and more responsibility placed on the GTAs/Instructors to communicate in advance to the course developer any errors in text, mismatched files, etc. we feel ninety-five percent of the glitches have been corrected for Phase II (fall 2001). Those few remaining will be resolved before the spring 2002 course launch.

For the second phase of this project, fall 2001; student feedback has led us to rethink the format of some of the online material. For example, we are rethinking how we will score practices in spring 2002, how we will reduce the number of activities by collapsing many into one bigger activity folder, how we will space the Bluebook and Collaborative Homework Assignments, and where we will house the practice activities within Blackboard’s new, and more flexible, course structure.

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

Most of the support we have received for this project has come from the Instructional Technology Center (ITC) where Julie Little and Alec Reidl are located. Without their help, this project would have never been realized. They have been a delightful group with which to work, dependable, conscientious, and personable.

December 2001 Update: As the numbers of students served in this course increase, other campus groups have become integral to the project.

  • The Customer Technology Support personnel that operate the university’s public computing labs and Help Desk along with the Technology Training Team provide large-scale technical support and training opportunities for students.
  • The Libraries’ newly established Digital Media Services Center offers digitization, file conversion, and streaming server host services for the course’s dual format (Real and Quicktime) A/V files.
  • The Innovative Technology Center (ITC) has increased the amount of GTA/Instructor training on the course management system and exposure to the course structure prior to the semester to compensate for those with limited technology skills and/or experiences using instructional technologies.

In addition, the ITC supports the course management system and the December 2001 migration to a more robust system of servers and software capabilities brings the university’s student information systems and data warehousing groups to the table for auto-enrollment and registration of students into all of the university’s online course sites. This new course management system will provide more flexibility in how the course is structured.

While the unforeseen technical problems with the course management system at the outset of the fall 2001 semester were not due to the lack of support from any departmental or campus group, there is a disappointment worth communicating. When the problems occurred, several students dropped the course and those remaining burdened the GTAs and instructors with technical support issues. For several of the department faculty, word of these problems created doubt about the benefits of technology-enhanced instruction for either augmented or total online use. As a result, the project will rely more heavily on continued support of departmental leadership and a heightened effort to communicate the results of the project research.

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