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Lessons Learned

Drexel University

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Online learning materials. Students had 24-hour access to all course learning materials, including the syllabus, lectures, previously submitted and graded assignments, announcements, chat and discussion groups. A course management system provided centralized access to these materials, making it easy for students to find what they needed with a single login. Having lecture materials online opened in-class hours to other activities such as presenting a broad overview of concepts to be undertaken that week, answering questions, and organizing large-group, "pair and share" exercises, all of which created a more active learning environment.

Increased interaction among students. A dedicated computer laboratory containing five clusters, each with five wireless-networked laptop computers and a projector that could be switched from one computer to another, was built to facilitate group work. Group assignments were downloaded from a central server using a wireless network. Each group could project its shared work onto white board "wallpaper" that covered all walls, annotating the projected screen image or writing notes to the side as they worked through the assignment. Recently, the room has been equipped with tablet PCs, which allow electronic pen-based annotation of assignments. Teaching assistants check student work at specified checkpoints in the assignment, providing immediate feedback to students.

Groups were put together to mix students with greater previous programming or computing experience and those with little previous programming experience. This provided less experienced students with immediate access to help them master the initial obstacles in learning to program and kept the class more unified in their learning stage. Small computing issues did not become major roadblocks, and students could instead focus on important concepts. The more experienced students could quickly answer questions and demonstrate the use of the computer and/or software tools to the less experienced in their group, preventing them from falling so far behind in the initial stages that they could not catch up. This was a notable departure from the traditional course.

The faculty noted that the students participating in the redesigned course were more enthusiastic and alert during class time and appeared to be learning more than students in the traditional course. The classroom dynamic improved as a result of the group work since the students developed a sense of community earlier in the term than in the traditional course. They made good friends in their major much sooner and felt more connected to each other.

Individualized, on-demand assistance. There was a growth in email, chat and threaded discussion as the online component of the course became more firmly established. Students seemed to be less inhibited about asking questions and stating opinions through online mechanisms than in person. Some students would send email from down the hall even when faculty members were in their offices holding office hours. Students found the availability of "virtual office hours" helpful, particularly late in the evening the day before an assignment was due. Getting questions answered from home while actively working on homework improved the learning experience by decreasing students' sense of frustration in overcoming minor but persistent programming errors.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Online course management system. Routine course activities were automated and/or moved online, including online submission, grading and return of student assignments; online quizzes with automated grading; some online office hours (via chat facilities and email); automated processing, submission, and return of student assignments to plagiarism detection software; and, automated electronic dissemination of student assignments to the appropriate grader, including decompressing files when needed.

Returning graded assignments to students electronically prevented losses and eliminated theft of graded student work by students looking to cheat. Use of plagiarism detection software specifically designed for computer code (Moss or Jplag) eliminated major copying of homework solutions and created an environment where students were responsible for their own work. Online office hours were facilitated by having graded and submitted student work simultaneously available to both the student and the teaching assistant. Specific questions about grading could be answered online with greater immediacy.

This automation reduced costs by greatly decreasing the amount of time faculty and teaching assistants had to spend tracking down student work, separating papers and diskettes into the appropriate piles for grading and then redistributing them for return to students in the appropriate lecture or lab session. Lost and misplaced papers are no longer a concern. Students know whether their work has been submitted successfully so questions about what happened to assignments and whether they were actually submitted no longer need to be researched. Retrieving information about individual students has also become easier since everything is online and accessible via password-protected files.

Software tools. The team created and continues to refine software tools to facilitate online course management by interfacing with our course management system and other third party software applications (such as plagiarism detection software). These tools provided a more versatile interface to the course management system and eliminated some of the more time-consuming aspects of using it, such as multiple mouse clicks per case to retrieve or return student information.

Shared resources. Course materials, including online lectures, quizzes, exam questions (in a bank), and assignments, were designed for ease of re-use by multiple faculty members, both within a single term and across terms. As more and more materials have become available online and as their quality has improved, faculty have found that they have significantly less work to do to prepare for teaching the course. The team is developing question banks for quizzes and for group and individual laboratory assignments and is looking into ways of annotating the questions and assignments to indicate knowledge levels needed, underlying concepts, and appropriate student audiences.

Staffing substitutions. Prior to the redesign, Drexel was looking for ways to achieve cost savings and began to employ part-time undergraduate laboratory assistants in addition to regular full-time teaching assistants. This change did not always provide a satisfactory experience for the students. Increased use of online materials has greatly stabilized the course, offering more uniformity from term to term and from instructor to instructor. The use of active group learning in the laboratories also changed the role of the laboratory assistants from providing content and reviewing homework assignments to facilitating group learning and problem-solving. Because of the greater structure provided by the course redesign, using hourly undergraduate and graduate students in labs has become more effective, as has using auxiliary rather than tenured or tenure-track faculty. Since these instructional staff cost less than full-time teaching assistants and tenured/tenure-track faculty, these changes contributed to the cost savings.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Changes in the redesign plan. In the middle of the project, the department of mathematics and computer science was split into independent departments. Mathematics remained in the College of Arts and Sciences, and computer science moved to the College of Engineering. The importance of having departmental leadership strongly support the redesign became increasingly clear after the department was split. Team members ended up in both departments, which created conflicting priorities that affected the pace of redesign. This change also affected the involvement of the department leadership with the redesign as the new department head for Computer Science was not a member of the redesign team as the head of the joint department had been. This resulted in a change in the scope of the project because of a shift in the way the target courses would be used.

The original proposal called for combining related courses by creating multi-level modules for different majors that would allow students to master computer programming at different knowledge levels, depending on their major and career goals. Instead of fully combining the courses across all majors, two separate but related courses are now offered. The first is a two-quarter sequence that moves through the material quickly and is best taken by students with some previous programming experience. The second covers the same material in three quarters, including supplemental examples and exercises to help students with little or no prior programming experience master the material. Students who do not get at least a C in the first course of the two-quarter sequence are strongly encouraged to move into the middle term of the "stretched" three-quarter sequence even though some of the material will be repeated.

The fragility of creating and sustaining major pedagogic changes under changes in leadership, which may bring changed priorities, is evident in this project. Existing redesign features at the time of the split have been sustained and developed more fully, but aspects of the redesign that were not yet in place have been more problematic to initiate due to changing interests and changing personnel. The project team is still working to achieve all of the redesign goals; however, the pace of implementation of some aspects has been slowed.

Changes in the redesign plan. Both faculty and students expressed concern that the one-hour large group/lecture session per week did not provide enough time for faculty-student interaction. Students requested that the number of in-class hours be increased to provide more face-to-face time with the faculty. As a result, the team increased the once a week "lecture" meeting to one and a half hours while retaining the more active learning approach to these sessions, incorporating pair and share activities, for example, to keep students alert and thinking during this part of the course.

Acceptance of new paradigms and training. The desire to go back to old ways of doing things had to be overcome by both faculty and students. Once this occurred, many embraced the new system as providing a better learning experience. As new faculty, teaching assistants, and students were brought into the course over time, it was important to help them go through the same steps of accepting a different learning model and to point out ways of creating the type of connections attributed to the traditional lecture format. Laboratory assistants needed to be coached in how to facilitate and engage students in problem-solving rather than in resorting to lecturing or providing answers to students. Thus a formal training system with follow-up monitoring was needed for new faculty, teaching assistants, and laboratory assistants so they could fully adapt to the course redesign.

Software and hardware problems. A constant issue for faculty was adapting to new versions of software, particularly when such a large portion of the course delivery depended on sophisticated software systems. Project software had to be constantly upgraded to adapt to changes in interfacing software, such as the plagiarism detection software. The learning curve was never fully mastered as various routine activities were done slightly differently with each new release of the course management software, which serves as the backbone for online delivery of course materials.

Some of the novel, non-computer aspects of the laboratory, such as the use of "whiteboard wallpaper" and the use of computer projectors to display individual work for the instructor and group to view, were paradoxically the components that required the most "tuning" – finding projectors that would work reliably yet economically, and finding markers that would be easy to clean from the whiteboards. Nevertheless, these were viewed as essential aspects of the room's operation.

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