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Course Development Issues

Drexel University

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

The labs have essentially the same content they have had over past few years, especially the individual labs. They only needed to be reformatted from HTML documents to accommodate WebCT. Students report that the individual labs are not needed in the form of lab exercises per se and take time away from the group labs. We are considering using the individual lab exercises as homework to prepare for the group lab. We are not sure we are using the individual labs to the best advantage, whether to keep them as actual lab activities or use them as homework to be completed before students start their group labs (as a mechanism for developing the skills needed for the group work). We will experiment with this next time the course is offered.

Homework assignments have been recycled with the usual changes needed to keep them fresh and eliminate re-use of answers by students.

Lecture material was not recycled as much since we changed the textbook and made the lectures correspond to the new text. Next year we will be able to re-use more lecture material since we plan to use the same text; however, even that text is being extensively revised and the lecture materials will have to reflect some of the changes. The lecture materials have been reformatted since they are being used very differently. In the past, lecture notes served as guides for the instructors in presenting the lecture material. Now, the lecture material is placed online for students to access on their own.

Students complained that there was too much math content in the assignments this year, which may have been true. Many of the students do not like math, even within our major. Some of this was done in an attempt to find interesting recursion problems; some is due to the fact that initially students have only rudimentary programming techniques available to them and mathematical equations fit within the range of these techniques. This will be an issue for future planning.

December 2002 Update: The lecture notes and individual labs have been re-used a lot with little need for changes other than porting material into WebCT when needed. The two-hour group lab experiences are a new and intrinsic feature of the redesign and considerable effort has gone into developing these labs. As the course proceeds, these materials are being upgraded and reused, with appropriate changes to minimize student misuse of course materials prepared by previous students.

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

Originally we planned to spend the most time developing online versions of the lecture material including slides, audio, and video. Because of the need to modify even existing material to fit WebCT and to accommodate changes in the schedule from term to term (e.g., differing numbers of class meetings due to Monday holidays, unexpected class cancellations), the audio and video aspects of the lectures are lagging behind our anticipated schedule. Converting materials to work with WebCT and revising material from previous terms was also time consuming, even when the material itself already existed in an electronic format of some sort. Preparing the lecture slides and maintaining the Web site have been very time-consuming as has learning to negotiate WebCT’s requirements.

WebCT has proved to be more difficult to work with than we initially anticipated. Over the course of the year, new versions of WebCT have been released containing improvements in some of its features. We have created software tools to help cope with other difficult areas, but the need to do this has been unexpected since we had looked at WebCT as saving time rather than creating a new set of activities for effective course management.

Some of the idiosyncrasies of WebCT as implemented at Drexel caused unexpected problems:

  • People with financial holds got completely locked out of the course since WebCT uses the student database to create student accounts. Then, when the students paid their fees, they were very behind in their coursework. In the traditional course, students would attend lectures and do the work even though no grades could be officially posted until the financial hold was removed.
  • Initially, submitting assignments late was a problem: once the specified due date was past, WebCT locked late papers out. The current version has a mechanism for exception handling that allows late submissions and marks them as late. Faculty can then decide whether to grade them or not.
  • Students have to follow carefully the WebCT protocol for submitting documents or they can get locked out, necessitating interventions from faculty as well as opportunities for gaining more time by purposefully ignoring the protocol: instead of having the dog eat the homework, students claim WebCT mangled it. We need a mechanism for students to determine if they have submitted an assignment successfully so it becomes their responsibility to check for correct submissions, eliminating the “WebCT lost it” issue.

The difficulties with WebCT were not expected: we anticipated a learning curve that would lead to a greater ease in using the software. Instead, we have had to create software tools, some of which were rendered obsolete as WebCT was upgraded, but many of which continue to be used and refined. We anticipated much greater flexibility and ease of use from WebCT.

Corresponding with students took a lot of time: messages needed to be individually handled because there were hundreds of special cases. With the availability of email, discussion groups, and other electronic forms of communication, students did not come to faculty offices. Instead they would find a nearby computer and send email. Answering email took a lot of time, particularly when a long exchange was involved that could have been handled more quickly in conversation. We are working on developing a mechanism for creating an FAQ list automatically since questions come in from so many sources—email, discussion/chat groups, and in person.

A certain amount of reworking course material will be a constant aspect of the course, even once the re-design is completed, since textbooks change, student knowledge at entry changes, and course goals can change over time. We are exploring ways to create tools that will speed up these activities, allowing changes without the need for a major overhaul each time, since we view these changes as an inevitable aspect of maintaining an effective pedagogy. Such changes must be easy to accomplish or other instructors will not make use of the re-design materials.

December 2002 Update: Keeping track of all the electronic communications continues to be very time consuming: there has been a growth in email, chat and threaded discussion as the online component of the course has become more firmly established. Instructors feel that if they do not keep up with all of these exchanges, they can lose touch with what the students are thinking. This is particularly important because the instructors do not see the students in lecture as often as in the traditional course. As a result, they have to rely on other mechanisms to learn what the students are thinking about the course. Students may also feel abandoned when the faculty do not participate in the threaded discussions, particularly if the discussion involves problems they are having with the course.

Grading is also taking a lot of time. We are working on refining our Labrador program to facilitate some of the mechanistic aspects of the grading. We have also ordered Toshiba Protégé 3500 tablet PCs, which will enable more of the TAs to grade online.

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

Students have provided feedback on the course both informally and in some formal sessions. Their comments on the course material, workload, and ease of use of WebCT have helped us refine course materials. Some students are comfortable with the changes in how the course is delivered, but others have expressed the desire for more class hours and direct contact with the faculty.

One drawback in including students is their impatience in seeing their ideas implemented: when they complain about a feature, they want to see an instant improvement and if that is not possible, it creates a generalized discontent that the faculty are “unresponsive”. Often, the changes are under serious consideration but cannot be implemented instantly.

December 2002 Update: We have hired 3-4 undergraduate and graduate assistants to work on the project in addition to the teaching assistants. These students are more senior and have helped with programming and preparing course materials for online delivery. They have also assisted the instructors in developing new course materials.

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

The department head is part of the re-design team so support from the department has been strong. Support from the central university computing support group (IRT) has also been strong, including donation of space to create a dedicated computer laboratory to support this project and participation in the renovation of that space. Institutional Advancement guided an alumna donor in the direction of the project and obtained a sizable donation in support of the laboratory renovation.

December 2002 Update: Drexel University recently split the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science into two departments, moving Computer Science into the College of Engineering while leaving Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Physically, the two departments still occupy the same space and relations have remained cordial between the two groups. The new Department Head for Computer Science has been supporting the redesign project and has contributed funds to the acquisition of the Toshiba tablet PCs for the project. Nira Herrmann is continuing as Department Head of Mathematics and as an active participant on the project.

The split has made some aspects of the project more complicated to pursue, but there are good intentions on all sides and we are dealing with the problems as they arise. For example, we are “trading” instructors to maintain continuity for the project, with Paul Zoski, a Mathematics instructor, teaching the IS and CS courses this year in exchange for another faculty member from CS teaching mathematics courses. This arrangement is supported by the respective deans and the Provost’s Office.

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