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Implementation Issues

The University of Southern Mississippi

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

  • Faculty Team Decision-Making

Allowing academic decisions about the course to rise solely from the faculty team has 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

Buying prepackaged 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 been using for years and understands well. The instructors' presentations were recorded and prepared for streaming with a suite of Apple-based and Apple-endorsed equipment; everything worked well and seamlessly, and the learning curve was not difficult to master. RealServer software has been used to deliver a considerable amount of video--sometimes as much as six hours per week--to every enrolled student. It has 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.

  • Creating a Unified Learning Environment

The course at long last provides a unified learning environment with consistent and measurable outcomes for all students. Internal and external review bodies often objected to the idea that the department could offer a common educational experience in World Literature without having a common textbook or syllabus. Although there are still those faculty members who object, on principle, to the one-textbook, one-syllabus approach, the majority now realize both the necessity of providing a consistent experience in a general education course and the feasibility of doing so through the hybrid model.

What worked least well?

The initial faculty team was led to think that, although many aspects of the course would change, the core element, their actual classroom instruction, would change but little. Behind this thinking were the assumptions that with 128 students enrolled, with the newness of the idea of optional lecture attendance, and with basic student conservatism, many students would undoubtedly attend instructors' presentations, and so any day's class would look more or less "normal" from the instructors' side of the room. In fact in an opening day survey of students (N=34), 14.7% said they would be attending every class even with the optional attendance policy, 35.3% thought they would attend three-quarters of the time, 20.1% about half the time, 14.7% about one-quarter of the time, and another 14.7% planned not to attend any live presentations.

Yet a couple of weeks into the course the students were gone. On a good day (from the instructors' perspective) there would be half a dozen students present. Some days there would be none at all. Instructors had to retool--and quickly. Although they were successful in adapting to a near-empty room, that is not what the model called for: building on the traditional classroom setting, encouraging talkative students to participate still more in an audience of similarly inclined peers, and opening the course up to other kinds of access by students unlikely to participate in class discussion.

An end-of-term survey (N=67) revealed that half of the students not only chose not to attend live presentations but also failed to view most of the online presentations. In retrospect and with supreme understatement, many finally realized that, as one student wrote, "the lectures are very important for a literature class." Time and again they advised future students to come to class or watch the lectures online. Although such a conclusion seems obvious, for some students it seemed to come as a revelation. The information now provided to students to orient them to the course stresses the importance of mastering all course materials--the readings, class notes, complementary audiovisual and web materials, and especially presentations--to succeed.

We still believe that model is the right one. Thus we have changed the way we advertise the course to encourage students to attend presentations: we tell them it is a good idea and, more importantly, we have feedback from their peers telling them it is a very good idea to attend (see the course website at <http://www.usm.edu/worldlit> for student comments and videotaped interviews). Of course they still do not have to attend and many will not, but we do expect better attendance in the fall than we witnessed in the spring.

December 2002 Update: To prepare for fall 2002, we changed the way we advertised the course to encourage students to attend presentations: we told them it is a good idea and, more importantly, we provided feedback from their peers telling them it is a very good idea to attend (see the course website at <http://www.usm.edu/worldlit> for student comments and videotaped interviews). And did it work? Although 406 students were enrolled, attendance in the opening weeks of the course averaged around 80, or about 20% of the enrollment. By the end of the term, when only 314 students were still actively engaged in completing coursework, attendance had dropped to around 30, or about 10% of the class. Of course, non-attendance is not a major problem if students are viewing the presentations online. Fall 2002 end-of-term surveys (N=168), however, again revealed that 39% of the students not only chose not to attend live presentations but also failed to view most of the online presentations--a lower percentage than in the preceding term, but nonetheless an unacceptably high level of non-engagement.

Thus, as we move into spring 2003, faculty will stress with renewed vigor that the presentations are central to the experience and remind students that exams and essay assignments are tightly linked to instructors' presentations. To skip presentations, whether live or online, inevitably results in lower grades. Although some students will still choose to try to pass through the course by giving it as little attention as possible--just as some students always have, regardless of format--they will do so with the clear warning that their grades will suffer if they do.

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

Our goals have not changed. We are working, however, to make the model perform as designed; namely, to encourage students either to attend or to watch presentations so that they can succeed in the course.

  • Course Content

Instructors have reevaluated the syllabus and made a few minor adjustments. There are no challenges here beyond finding better complementary media for some of the readings.

  • Technology

The software and hardware worked flawlessly in the spring pilot. Although the number of students will increase in the fall, our bandwidth and server analyses indicate the systems should be able to handle the increased capacity. If not, plans are in place to accommodate the load.

  • Faculty Development and Support

New instructors need to cycle into World Literature and experienced ones cycle out to continue the hybrid course into the future. The faculty line-up is set for 2002-2003, and in the fall planning will begin for 2003-2004. One of the current instructors has already expressed interest in taking over the job of course coordinator for 2003-2004, another current instructor wants to continue teaching the hybrid course, and two instructors not currently involved with the project want to begin in 2003-2004.

  • Student Attitudes

Entering the pilot, we identified student attitudes and possible negative reactions as our deepest concern. Happily, our fears proved ungrounded. Students adapted rapidly to the redesign format, and though many understood only too late that the course would take at least as much effort as a traditional one, they still gave the hybrid high marks at the end of the term. Nonetheless, plans are underway to (1) contact students with information about the course before the term begins so that they have time to experiment with WebCT; (2) improve WebCT training materials to get students off on the right foot from the moment the course begins; and (3) provide a number of training sessions during the first week of the term to help students understand the nature of the hybrid course and what it will require of them.

December 2002 Update: Our goals have not changed. We are working, however, to make the model perform as designed; namely, to encourage students either to attend or to watch presentations so that they can succeed in the course.

  • Technology

The software and hardware again worked flawlessly in the fall 2002 full implementation. Anticipating even greater use of the RealServer by other university faculty who are adopting the hybrid model, the campus recently negotiated a new contract for more concurrent streams, so there should be no difficulty accommodating spring 2003 loads.

  • Faculty Development and Support

The departmental faculty has agreed to allow the redesigned World Literature course to continue into 2003-2004, beyond the grant's expiration. As anticipated, new instructors will cycle into the course and some experienced ones cycle out. Plans for 2003-2004 are now set: two of the present instructors will continue and two new ones will join them. The department chair will continue to serve as the course coordinator.

  • Student Attitudes

Negative student reaction did arrive, though it came later than expected. Despite accomplishing everything described in the 6/30/02 report, there was student dissatisfaction, based largely on fundamental misunderstandings about the hybrid format of the course and what it might mean for students to choose not to attend live presentations. Publicity for the course has been changed for spring 2003 and a learning style assessment tool has been added in order to help students make more informed decisions about how best to engage the redesigned course.

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