The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Looking back on the course pilot itself, what worked best?
One thing that worked fairly well was the online grading that freed up the graduate students to better prepare their classes and to focus in class on student-centered, meaningful, communicative and collaborative tasks. Once the speak tests are transcribed and analyzed, we will be able to discern whether focusing primarily on communicative activities in class proved to be effective for increasing foreign language proficiency.
Another aspect of the pilot program that worked well was the standardization of all materials so that every class was experiencing the same quizzes, midterm and final.
What worked least well?
What did not work as well as anticipated was the commitment on the part of the students to take all pre and post tests. Many students did not take the tests seriously. I personally saw one student sign up to take the Minnesota reading proficiency test and once he started the test, he merely guessed at every answer. He was done in five minutes. This should not be a big issue in the fall because we will not require students to take as many tests as in the pilot.
What are the biggest challenges you face in moving from the course pilot to the project's next phase?
We have not changed our goals for the re-design, but we have revised ways to achieve them. We learned much from the students throughout the semester and through questionnaires they completed. Students made suggestions, such as providing a list of the chapter vocabulary in each chapter file, offering models for activities that are more complex, re-organizing the layout of each chapter, etc. In the second phase of this project, we hope to engage students more positively, cut down on time spent on glitches due to audio file problems, or to confusion stemming from unclear direction lines, omitted images, or mismatched audio files. In the second phase, we hope to have worked out the glitches so that student perceptions of the course are widely positive.
The biggest challenge we face as we implement this program in fall 2001 will be meeting the needs of the total number of students who will be using a computer to complete online assignments. We will offer 34 sections of this course in the fall. Fifteen of these sections will meet two days per week and the remaining sections will meet three days per week. Whether students meet two days or three days per week, all will use the online material, unlike the spring pilot where the three-day per week classes used their workbook/lab manuals instead of the online material. That means 850 students will be online at some point, perhaps at similar times, every week. We are anxious to observe whether there will be any problems simply due to sheer number of students online.
In addition, we must insure that the graduate students are not carrying more of a load than they are currently. The graduate students will need to teach an extra section in the spring if they participate in the two-day per week group. There must be a reduction in work time so that they will see an additional two-day per week class in the spring as a fair requirement. If this does not happen, the faculty and department head will not remain supportive of the redesigned course.
Finally, students’ attitudes and reactions rooted in their experiences with the pilot project this spring must change. The online material had too many glitches; the in-class time was not what they typically expected from a foreign language class (grammar/vocabulary explanation and practice). They were expected to be familiar with the material and come to class prepared to ask specific questions and actually begin using Spanish for functional purposes. They felt they spent too much time on homework: much time spent on waiting for exercises, deciphering their grades, and maneuvering through the layers of material to get to the exercise they had to complete next.
December 2001 Update: Due to server problems at the start of the Phase II (fall 2001), the first four to five weeks of class were extremely problematic. Instructors complained about the amount of time they had to spend resetting activities in the course management system to provide students access to the graded and non-graded activities, responding to student e-mail questions and complaints, and discussing the technology-related problems in class. Students dropped out in numbers greater that ever before due entirely to the problems that arose with the server. After the problems were resolved, there were few complaints about the online component of the course. However, the initial four to five weeks of class colored the students’ and instructors’ perceptions regarding the effectiveness of online instruction.
Due to the demand across the university for online course materials delivery, the course management system and delivery servers have been upgraded to a more robust version of Blackboard that will launch spring 2002. The upgrade will eliminate the vast majority of technology-related problems experienced this fall, allowing the GTAs/Instructors to experience the full benefit of online grading.
Another variable that could have influenced student perceptions regarding online instruction was the attitude of the GTAs and instructors. The quality of the GTAs and instructors was not as tightly controlled as in spring 2001 when we had five of the department’s best GTAs and instructors teaching the course. In phase II, all GTAs and instructors had to teach with the online component. Some had less experience with technology, had less experience teaching, were not native English-speakers, and/or had negative attitudes about online instruction because of the time they had to put into addressing student complaints. With student attitudes seeming worse this fall, for a variety of reasons, but mostly stemming from the technical problems they encountered at the outset of the semester, providing the GTAs and instructors with avenues for supporting their students could alleviate the escalation of negative attitudes. While these GTAs and instructors were provided with several orientation sessions to the course structure and the mechanics of the course management system in addition to establishing an internal listserv for active communications and open-door support with the course management specialist, we will be observing more carefully the individual GTAs and instructors to identify additional opportunities to support their needs in advance of problems arising.
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