|The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative
The University of Southern Mississippi
Course Title: Introduction to Computing
The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) plans to redesign Introduction to Computing, a course most frequently used to satisfy the computer competency requirement in the general education curriculum. Annual enrollment is ~704 students. Although most sections are offered in a traditional classroom setting, several sections have been offered in an online format during each semester for the last five years, and these sections are usually among the first to reach their enrollment limit.
Introduction to Computing suffers from course drift. Though the course plan is relatively consistent from one section and instructor to another, the actual implementation can easily drift away from the generic syllabus. The course’s objectives are tightly coupled with speeding changes in technology, creating a dynamic model. Keeping abreast of the changing technologies and incorporating them into the curriculum present ongoing challenges to the instructors. Sections are typically taught by many different instructors with a variety of credentials, ranging from graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) to professors in the School of Computing. Experienced faculty should be teaching this course, but current resources do not permit them to teach all of the sections.
USM will redesign the course using the Fully Online Model. Multiple sections will be replaced by one large section each semester. Interactive learning modules including online exercises, project assignments and low stakes quizzes will actively engage the students in the learning process. A computer lab will be open 40 hours per week to accommodate students where GTAs will provide on-demand assistance; students may also work from other locations. Student progress will be closely monitored. If students fall behind, they will receive an “invitation to learn,” which will require them to work face-to-face with a GTA at a designated time.
The redesigned course will enhance student engagement through the online activities. They will receive immediate feedback on their work and GTAs will be available in the lab to provide individual assistance as needed. Close monitoring of student progress will ensure timely intervention. Course drift will be eliminated by using a single syllabus and consistent delivery of course content.
Student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing performance on a common final exam in both traditional and redesigned sections offered in parallel during the pilot semester, as well as comparing course grades using common grading criteria. Baseline data previously collected in fall 2007 to measure student learning outcomes in the traditional course will also be compared with outcomes in the redesigned course.
USM will decrease the cost-per-student from $249 in the traditional and online sections of the course to $109 in the redesigned course, a 56% savings. The savings will be achieved by reducing the number of sections from 12 to one in the fall and from 26 to three annually. Section size will increase from a range of 28 to 34 to ~400 in the fall, ~250 in the spring and ~75 in the summer. The number of faculty teaching the course will decrease from three to two after one year of successful implementation. GTAs will increase from four to seven. The savings will be used to support the School of Computing’s mission of teaching, research and service and to provide the seeds for other redesign efforts.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
Performance on common final exams from 270 redesign students taught during fall 2009 was compared to performance on the same final exam for 395 traditional students taught during fall 2007. The percentage of redesign students scoring a C or better on the exam was 69% compared with 61% of traditional students.
Student success rates (C or better in the course) were 72.8% in the traditional course and 68.1% in the full redesign. These results occurred even though the project assignments in the redesigned course were more complex than the ones previously assigned in the traditional course.
The retention rate (enrolled in course to end including F and NA grades) during both timeframes was in the 98% to 98.5% range.
Were costs reduced as planned?
The cost savings plan was successfully implemented. Significant cost savings were achieved by reducing the number of sections from 26 to 3 annually, the number of instructional staff assigned to the course, reducing instructional staff time required for materials development and lecture preparation and eliminating duplication of effort for tasks required of each member of the instructional staff. The consolidation of efforts resulted in a cost-per-student reduction from $249 to $109, a savings of 56%.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Eliminating course drift. As a result of the redesign, course drift was virtually eliminated. The traditional course was taught in a multi-section format on both the Hattiesburg and Gulf Coast campuses by instructional staff with a variety of credentials, ranging from graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) to professors. The 12 sections of the course offered during fall 2007 were taught by eight different instructors. Though the course plan was relatively consistent from one section to another, the actual implementation easily drifted away from the generic syllabus. The planned redesign condensed all sections offered each semester into a single online section with all content delivered electronically, all quizzes and tests administered online, and all project files submitted online. All instructors and all students accessed the same online materials in the course management system with a single syllabus used by all. All project assignments were the same, and all students followed the same schedule of course activities. The redesign ensured consistent delivery of course content.
Actively engaging students in their learning. The redesigned course incorporated low-stakes quizzing as a means of delivering content and engaging students in their learning. Students were encouraged to take quizzes on each week’s content as many times as they wished, with the goal of scoring at least a 90 for the weekly quiz grade. Most students took each week’s quizzes eight or ten times, but some students demonstrated much more perseverance by sometimes completing as many as 25 quizzes during a given week. Students were then able to review their quiz submissions as they prepared for the unit tests and the final exam.
Improving student attitudes. Students enrolled in the redesigned course have commented positively regarding both the content of the course and its structure. The low-stakes quizzes actively engaged the students in their learning and provided an opportunity for them to learn content in a non-threatening environment. Students frequently visited the course lab to work on their project assignments and to receive assistance from the GTAs who staffed the lab.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Reducing the number of instructional staff. Prior to the redesign, the traditional course was taught in a multi-section format of up to 12 sections per semester with up to eight different members of the instructional staff. The redesigned course offered during fall 2009 was supported by four instructional staff, a reduction of 50% over the fall of 2007.
Sharing resources. Since the redesigned course was offered as a single online listing in Blackboard, all students and instructional staff accessed the same materials. These materials were developed, prepared and set up once for use by all instead of requiring duplication of efforts by other instructional staff. Reducing this workload enabled faculty members to focus more of their time on student learning.
What implementation issues were most important?
Invitation to learn. Though students were encouraged to complete and submit their work for each week as early during the week as possible in order to avoid last-minute issues, some procrastination occurred; and this prompted mass distribution of email messages. Students who had not scored at least a 90 on the weekly quizzes by Wednesday afternoon of a given week received an “invitation” to meet in the course lab at a designated time later that week to complete their work face-to-face with a GTA.
Staffing the lab. The original intent of the redesign was to staff the course lab with peer learning assistants. However, student feedback during and following the pilot indicated that this was not an effective means of providing assistance for the students. For the full implementation, the lab was staffed with course instructors and GTAs; this proved to be a much more effective means of ensuring that the students were able to obtain the assistance they needed.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
The sustainability of the project is not in question. The cost-effective nature of the redesign approach will ensure long-term sustainability. All sections of Introduction to Computing follow the redesign format, and all students enrolled in the course share a common learning experience.
The shared resources facilitate adding new instructors to the course. For example, a new GTA who joined the instructional staff quickly learned to use the materials and became a valuable team member. This positive “first teaching experience” will no doubt foster his continued interest in teaching and also serve as a model for other GTAs who will be assigned to the course in the future.
Innovations in the project are being used in other courses and by other faculty in the School of Computing. In addition, the course redesign has served as a template for redesigning other courses in the school and for other grant activities.