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Lessons Learned

The University of Southern Mississippi

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Low-stakes mastery quizzes. Automated quizzing allowed students to self-assess how carefully they were reading, review, retest, and possibly earn a higher score--all the while gaining a greater mastery over course content. Because the faculty began their presentations only after the testing window closed each week, faculty were also able to gauge how well students were performing on quizzes and, when necessary, adjust their presentations to focus on areas with which students were having the greatest difficulty. When faculty were confident that students had mastered factual content, they could move more quickly to analysis and synthesis of information, helping students to higher orders of learning. Mastery quizzing was thus an important formative tool for both students and faculty alike.

Individualized, on-demand assistance. A new division of labor allowed faculty, graduate assistants, and technology to work together to improve student learning outcomes. Faculty concentrated on explaining course content, graduate assistants worked one-on-one with students to improve writing skills, and technology managed aspects of the course that could be automated. Significant improvements appeared in both reading and writing skills for students in the redesigned course. These results call into question the commonly held notion that the "best" course is always a small one taught by a single instructor working alone. Instructional tasks can be divided and students can benefit from the division.

Accommodation of different learning styles. It is a paradox that the redesigned course is at once more consistent than ever before (all students are in a single section, with a single syllabus, taught and graded by a single team with shared responsibilities) and potentially more flexible than it has ever been. Students could choose to attend live presentations or watch them online (or both), take quizzes till they demonstrated content mastery, view a large array of optional complementary media linked to course content, explore recommended web sites to deepen their understanding of literature, and consult with graduate assistants to get help with their essays. Survey results indicate that although students engaged the course differently, their satisfaction level was quite high, and most agreed that they had learned the required materials. So is the redesigned course one section with hundreds of students or hundreds of sections, each tailored by and to an individual student's needs? The answer is both, the former from the standpoint of faculty and the latter from the standpoint of students.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Consolidating sections. The redesign combined 16-20 distinct faculty- and adjunct-taught sections into a single, technology-assisted section offered by a team composed of four faculty who shared responsibility for teaching, four graduate assistants who helped students with essay drafts and graded essay assignments, and a faculty coordinator. In essence, far fewer departmental resources were used to offer the course. Additionally, having four faculty members share the teaching (each was responsible for offering one-quarter of the presentations) effectively saved yet more resources, allowing these faculty to devote greater time to other teaching, research, and service duties. Consolidation was possible only through technology. At the most basic level, there was not an auditorium on campus large enough to hold all the students enrolled.

Course management software. It was clear that delivering and managing a large course required solutions that only technology could supply in a cost-effective way. Thus, course management software (WebCT) was used to automate quizzing and feedback, streamline the path for students to submit essays and graders to return comments, provide a consistent and readily accessible means of record keeping for both students and faculty, and create a virtual classroom environment in which students and teachers could exchange ideas asynchronously.

Online resources. Streaming video software (RealVideo) was used to deliver faculty presentations to students who could not or chose not to attend the live sessions. Additional media such as audio and video versions of plays and stories, usually available only in a single copy at the library reserve desk, were also streamed to students. Technology allowed the course to reach more students than ever before while still maintaining a fixed delivery cost regardless of the number of students enrolled.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Paving the way for change. Initial stories in the campus and local press emphasized the technology of the course, especially its online dimensions, and pitched making life easier as students could "come to class without leaving home." The stories frightened many students, angered faculty, and confused administrators as parents phoned them to ask for details about an "instructorless" course that was still in the design stage.

In hindsight, a better approach would have been to emphasize how traditional the course could be for students who chose that path: students could still attend live presentations and participate in discussions; WebCT was already being used in hundreds of other campus courses; and there would be more in-person help and office hours available than ever before with a nine-person team (four faculty instructors, four graduate assistant graders, and a faculty coordinator) collectively offering the redesigned course rather than the sole instructor of a "normal" course. It would have been better to insist that the press stress educational ends rather than technological means from the outset. Although improved reading and writing skills will always seem less "newsworthy" than stories about streaming video, it's nevertheless crucial to keep a clear focus on why the technology has been called into play in the first place.

Faculty decision-making. Allowing academic decisions about the course to rise solely from the faculty team made it easier to sell the redesign to other faculty. Faculty are suspicious of administrative moves that find ways to substitute technology for instructors--even adjunct instructors--but when the initiative comes from the faculty who already teach the course, other faculty seem much more willing to accept the change.

Using prepackaged technology solutions. Using out-of-the-box technology solutions and leveraging others that the university had already invested in proved to be wise decisions that have saved incalculable time. The course was deployed over WebCT, a platform the campus has used for years and understands well. The instructors' presentations were prepared for streaming with a suite of Apple-based equipment; everything worked well and seamlessly. RealServer (now Helix) software was used to deliver a considerable amount of video--sometimes as much as six hours per week--to enrolled students. It worked well, too. But the primary conclusion here is to use what already has been developed whenever possible rather than invent something from scratch. Faculty are busy enough with the academic side of the course. They shouldn't have to worry about the technology, too.

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