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Implementation Issues

Drexel University

Looking back on the course pilot itself, what worked best?

  • Group work

Group work was good for students educationally. They seemed to enjoy it and to get a lot out of it. The energy level in the room was there consistently. Students were paying attention for entire time rather than phasing out after five minutes. Most of them seemed engaged in the material, active in the lab setting, and on task.

Students were not as resistant to changes as was expected. Generally, students did not say they were not learning anything, a concern in advance. One problem area is that if a student gets left behind the rest of the group (e.g., is not able to keep up), there is not much that can be done. At least such students get cues from the group members that they are behind and need to do something quickly, unlike in lecture where students may delude themselves that everyone else is also lost.

The technology for group work held together—the percent of uptime was very high: we did not have crashes in the middle of the sessions, and when a problem occurred, the TAs were resourceful about handling outages.

  • Using WebCT for Assignment Submission

Despite the problems in dealing with WebCT, fewer things got lost in the long run. Faculty could easily check the assignment database to make sure all items had been turned in, and multiple people could access the assignments at the same time: if a student came to an office hour with the faculty, they could look at the assignment at the same time the TA was grading it somewhere else entirely. In addition, once the Labrador software was developed, it was easy to submit the assignments to the plagiarism detector, Moss. Again, this could be done simultaneously with the grading so there were no delays in processing assignments so they could be returned to students on a timely basis.

December 2002 Update: Web-based lecture materials and active group learning in the labs have been very successful.

What worked least well?

  • WebCT’s Learning Curve for Students

Submitting the first assignment required training that traditional paper and pencil does not. Our solution has been to use a practice submission session in lab to give students experience in the process before they need to do it—but this takes extra class time. In addition, uploading more than one file, something that can occur regularly in developing computer programs, requires care: the WebCT interface is confusing rather than designed to help students do this successfully so again class time is needed to make sure students navigate correctly and faculty need to intervene when mistakes occur.

  • WebCT Instructor Interface for Preparing Labs and Quizzes

The interface is time-consuming to work with, even for multiple-choice questions (which should be easy). Once you have materials prepared, they are not easily ported to other courses/terms. Editing is difficult, especially if you have a collection of questions that you want to edit. Labs require a little editing every term, even just to change due dates, and this ended up requiring more effort that we anticipated.

  • Student-Faculty Interaction

Getting enough face-to-face time with the students to connect to them became an issue for faculty and students. The students connect to each other, or at least to their group, through the group work, but the both the faculty and the students felt disconnected from each other. The connections faculty usually develop with their classes did not become established until late in the term unlike in the traditional course. For example, until we held a class session on problems in the course, students did not come to office hours or feel they had a real relationship with the instructor. After the session, students began to come to office hours and interact more with the instructor.

  • Use of Lecture Time

It was not clear how best to use the one hour per week lecture and make it effective. There is not enough time to recapitulate the readings and lecture in one hour—this is not a traditional lecture any more. But what would work well is not as clear. We are exploring various large group activities (e.g., pair and share) for these sessions as well as what information is best delivered in the lecture versus using the online facilities.

  • IRB Approvals

We were told unexpectedly that we needed approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) before holding focus groups or other activities that had not previously been used as part of the usual course assessment process. This IRB application was complicated and arcane: many of the forms are designed for invasive medical studies and did not fit our study well. By the time the process ran its course, we had completed the initial pilot phase of the project. In the end, two members of the IRB reviewed the material and it was “determined by the Office of Research that this study does not require IRB approval. Even though there is an assessment via focus groups, it is really a corrective project rather than research.”

December 2002 Update: Getting the students to buy into this approach has been difficult in some cases. Certain students do not buy into it right away because it is different from the way their other courses are taught. Some students feel that, because the instructors are not actively providing lectures and “putting on a show”, the faculty are not doing work for the course. The behind-the-scenes work is much more invisible to the students and the lack of a lecture to attend troubles these students. We are working on providing these students with greater faculty and teaching assistant interactions, including online, so they feel their instructors are working with them to help them learn the material. We have swapped some of the chat hours for live office hour sessions, which has helped.

What are the biggest challenges you face in moving from the course pilot to the project's next phase?

Aspects of the re-design are taking much longer than anticipated: particularly creating online materials such as audio and video supplements to the lecture notes, quizzes, and labs. We plan to organize our course materials differently to make them truly useful for multiple faculty to use. In the spring quarter, we followed up on the pilot section with a different instructor and a larger group of students. This gave us experience with the difficulties faculty face when using materials created by someone else. Issues arose on the primary purpose of assignments, why certain elements were emphasized in lectures over others, what materials worked better or worse than others, etc. As a result of this experience, we see the need to create a repository of the materials for each version of the course with information about the files beyond simply their structure and content: we need to also store information on how best to use them. This could become part of an online instructor’s manual.

Other challenges include creating multi-level modules and online materials fast enough; creating software tools and stabilizing versions of tools as they develop; and ringing new participants into the project is a challenge, especially creating materials/atmosphere where people of different personalities and styles can succeed. As deployment of the re-design expands to larger groups, additional lab facilities will be needed that facilitate the group work approach.

December 2002 Update: Originally with the multi-level approach, we intended to offer similar courses to different audiences but not include all of the same material. The level of the material would be tailored to the major. However, all of the relevant majors (CS, IS, Computer Engineering, Digital Media) want their students to be able to take CS courses, so they need an adequate preparation for Data Structures, the course that follows the introductory programming sequence. As a result, we are offering the IS course at a slower pace (3 terms to cover the equivalent CS 2 term course) but at the same level of technical proficiency.

We have also begun to incorporate Tablet PC technology in the computer lab as well as for grading. This is a new technology that was not readily available (or affordable) at the time we first considered our course redesign. We plan to explore how the tablet PCs will affect both our course redesign and new approaches to pedagogy. Utilizing this technology in the course is consistent with our original plan to utilize technology to improve education and make it more cost effective. This new technology will enable us to make learning more interactive and to develop more fully our electronic grading system for homework submitted online.

We have fully implemented the course redesign for CS and CE majors and this year will implement the redesign for IS majors. Next year we will extend the course redesign to also encompass Software Engineering (SE) majors.

Challenges include:

  • Sustaining our current success in taking the IS students through the same material as the CS students—at the same level of technical sophistication. Our goal is to run two versions of the same course: one for prepared students in two terms and one for students with weaker backgrounds in three terms, regardless of major.
  • Coordinating the course redesign with the new programming sequence in Software Engineering (a new major that involves many of the CS faculty), which uses Java instead of C++. We plan to port our course redesign to Java for next academic year—a major challenge—and combine these two sequences into one. We plan to include software engineering principles more explicitly in the redesign, to bring these two sequences into closer alignment and to provide students with greater exposure to software engineering concepts earlier in their education. We will need to examine the Introduction to Computer Science course that leads into the introductory computer programming sequence to see how to coordinate this course with the merged sequences
  • Continuing the collaboration of mathematics and computer science faculty across departmental and collegial lines
  • Extending our approach to mathematics/statistics courses as well as outside our group to other majors
  • Finding additional sources of funding to continue our course redesign efforts in new areas, particularly while maintaining our interdisciplinary connections.

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