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Implementation Issues

Iowa State University

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

The decision to base the course on WebCT worked out well, and the WebCT content provided by Prentice-Hall was of good quality. Making up the EDU assignments took a lot of effort, but the results were good, and the students liked it.

December 2002 Update: Moving some of the TA’s office hours to the computer lab also was a good decision.

What worked least well?

Without doubt, the ALEKS tutorial software was the biggest disappointment. ALEKS is very impressive when you try it out as an instructor, but it did not work out in a classroom setting. The first problem was the selection of material: ALEKS does not have a syllabus for Discrete Math. We chose the Precalculus syllabus, which contains about 60% of the material we cover in Discrete Math, but it turned out that this material cannot be separated from the rest. If you want to assign linear equation word problems, you have to include complex numbers, trigonometry, conic sections, and so on. It took some effort to find a middle ground, and the end result was far from optimal. The problem became apparent when the students received an actual assignment: there is no way for the instructor to assign particular topics. The instructor can set “goals”, but each student is off on a different path towards the goal. Students have to complete lots of material that is not part of the Discrete Math curriculum, and there is no way for them to tell how much more is coming up. We will not be using ALEKS in the future for this course.

December 2002 Update: We had some technical problems with EDU that we didn’t have last term: When students complete an assignment and click on the “Grade” button, EDU sometimes tells them that they have no assignment. When the students log out and back in, the assignment shows up again, but the error message frustrates and confuses them. We also had two documented cases of a disappearing quiz, and a crash that completely wiped out all data for the students that were logged in at the time. (Fortunately, that was only one person from our course, and all scores had been downloaded the day before). We reported all of these to the manufacturer, but so far they haven’t been able to figure out what is going on. We will make sure to educate the students about these problems next term.

The study groups were a mixed success. Some students did not contribute to their groups and only benefited from the work of others. We removed several such students from their groups, at the request of the other group members. Clearly the implementation needs a bit of fine-tuning. Still, the majority of the students felt that the study groups were a positive addition, so we will continue using them.

Overall, we really didn’t have any big problems with the course this time.

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

Our biggest problem has been to keep the students actively involved in the course. We will be making some changes in fall 2002:

  • Split the students into small groups, so they get to know some other people in the course and can find study partners. The groups will be working on assignments together.
  • Stricter deadlines and follow-up for students who are not keeping up.
  • The scheduled computer lab hours will be spent working on assignments in groups, rather than for the exams. The TA will be supervising the computer lab during those times. This will allow the students to ask questions as they come up, rather than having to make a separate trip to the TA’s office. The students will take the exams at other times, at their own convenience.

Another change we plan to make in fall 2002 is to incorporate Excel more into the course. The original intent has always been to de-emphasize hand calculations and teach the students how to solve common problems (interest calculations, linear equations and linear programming) in Excel. However, this was not feasible during the pilot project because we had to keep the online course and the comparison classroom course in synch. We encouraged the students to use Excel, but few of them did. We will be going back to the original plan in fall, and incorporate some assignments that are specifically based on Excel.

December 2002 Update: The changes we have made have worked well. The implementation of study groups needs a bit of work, but in general we will continue with the current policies.

The major challenge right now is to get more students into the online course. There is a marked preference on the part of both the students and their advisors for a classroom section rather than an online section. We plan to do some marketing directed at the student advisors in the Business College.

The Excel assignments have worked out fairly well, but we need to stress them more. They were counted as part of the homework and did not carry much credit compared to the rest of the homework, so some students simply skipped them. For spring 2003, we plan to make the Excel assignments a separate category, with more weight.

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