Program in Course Redesign

University at Buffalo (SUNY)

The Traditional Course

The course chosen for redesign is an introductory computer-literacy course with an enrollment that may be increasing in the next two years. The University at Buffalo (UB) now requires all freshmen to have access to a computer, a requirement that is expected to lead to increased enrollment in the course. In addition, the College of Arts and Sciences is currently considering a proposal to use the course to satisfy a university-wide mathematics, statistics, and computing General Education requirement, a move that would dramatically increase enrollment. Even if this proposal is not approved, enrollment should increase based on the trend of the last few years. One of the goals for redesign is to create a course that will allow for this potential expansion while increasing active learning.

The traditional course enrolls approximately 1,000 students per year. It is taught in large lecture sections of approximately 200 students. Sections meet three times a week over a 15-week semester. In addition to the lecture, students have two hours of formal lab and two hours of open lab per week. A full-time, non-tenure-track faculty member teaches two sections per semester, and a temporary lecturer covers the third section. Seven graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) teach the lab sections. The GTAs also hold office hours in the lab during open-lab hours. Four undergraduate students are paid at an hourly rate to staff the lab during the rest of the open-lab hours.

The course redesign intends to increase students’ learning and decrease costs while planning for greater enrollment. Three specific problems need to be addressed:

  • Many of the students have little or no computer experience, cannot use Web-based materials right away, and need more face-to-face assistance, especially at the start of the semester.
  • Many of the current course GTAs are not native English speakers, so communication is often difficult with beginning students who need more intensive, face-to-face assistance.
  • Advanced technical staff are available, but their expertise does not necessarily match the more basic needs of students.

The Redesigned Course

The learning goals for the redesigned course will require students to

  • learn basic computer skills such as how to use a word-processor and a spreadsheet;
  • understand the concepts underlying these skills, enabling them to develop capabilities on their own to cope with technology and its changes;
  • become fluent in the information technology basics needed for success as a student, worker, and informed citizen; and
    apply information technology to personally relevant tasks.

To help students achieve these learning goals, course resources and structure will be redesigned to promote active learning. The following strategies will be employed:

  • Decrease the number of lectures from three to two per week
  • Improve learning through the use of Web- and lab-based computer-supported collaborative learning, all of which support active learning
  • Use undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs) instead of GTAs to provide more face-to-face help and circumvent communication difficulties with GTAs
  • Increase individualized assistance and transition during the semester from a predominately face-to-face environment to more of an online environment
  • Use more effective technical support for the course and the lab
  • Lighten the faculty members' workload through the use of a course-management system and online testing

Web-based active learning tutorials developed by textbook publishers, faculty at other colleges and universities, and commercial vendors will provide students with alternative ways of learning some of the material previously covered in lectures. Online pre-quizzes will be used as learning tools by providing feedback on which topics need to be studied more fully and directing students to relevant course materials. Short mini-lectures on selected topics that students find most difficult—topics that are unlikely to change much over a period of several years—will be made available via CDs to students. Additionally, short individual projects will be supplemented with multi-week group projects, allowing for collaborative learning and the opportunity to integrate a broader range of concepts, skills, and capabilities. Web-based learning resources will thus allow the course structure to be redesigned for two instead of three lectures per week.

In a computer-literacy course, it is particularly challenging to increase learning and reduce costs through the use of technology. At the outset, most students are not sufficiently comfortable with technology to be able to replace face-to-face contact with Web-based materials. The redesigned course will increase the face-to-face personal assistance available to students through the use of ULAs. The university has used a small number of ULAs in the past and has found them to be very effective. However, they have not been able to completely replace GTAs because ULAs are not allowed to grade other undergraduates. This shift becomes possible now with the use of automatically graded online quizzes and exams. GTAs will be reassigned to advanced computer science courses, where demand is increasing and their technical expertise can be used more fully.

The goal of the redesign is to offer a flexible learning environment that will allow self-motivated students to advance at their own pace through the course. At the same time, a highly structured learning experience will be provided for students who require clearly spelled-out expectations to be met at regular intervals. The needs for flexibility and structure will be met through a restructuring of lab hours. More formal labs and fewer open hours will be available at the start of the semester to offer maximum support to students who have little or no computer experience and cannot jump right into using Web-based materials. Lab hours at the end of the semester will be the reverse, with fewer formal lab and more open hours available to offer more online personal assistance as students progress.

Technical support will shift from advanced to lower-level technical staff with expertise more appropriate to aid beginning learners. Finally, a course-management system (Blackboard) and online testing will lighten faculty workload.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 3 lecture sections of 200 students each
  • 19 lab sections of approximately 26 students each
  • 7 contact hours per week: 3 (1-hour) lectures, 1 (2-hour) formal lab, 1 (2-hour) open lab
  • One instructor teaches two sections, and another teaches one section. Each delivers three lectures and lab sections (one teaches 12 sections; the other teaches 7 sections) each week. In addition, they analyze the results of initial surveys diagnosing students’ knowledge; create 11 assignments, 11 quizzes, 2 hourly exams, 2 lab exams, and 1 final exam; and supervise the grading of assignments and exams by GTAs.
  • Seven GTAs, shared across lecture sections, assist in teaching the course by teaching lab sections, holding office hours during open-lab hours, grading exams, and attending staff meetings.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 3 lecture sections of 200 students each
  • 7 contact hours per week: 2 (1-hour) lectures and 5 hours of flexible lab with more formal lab hours at the start of the semester and more open-lab hours at the end
  • One instructor teaches two sections, and another teaches one section. Each delivers two lectures each week. Course-management software takes over testing and grading tasks.
  • ULAs assist in teaching by staffing formal and open-lab hours and providing face-to-face assistance with students as needed. In addition, they attend a one-hour staff meeting each week.


In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Reduce weekly lectures from three to two
  • Provide a more flexible structure to formal and open-lab hours, one that changes as students' needs change throughout the term
  • Replace pencil-and-paper with online testing
  • Use ULAs instead of GTAs to circumvent communication problems and increase face-to-face personal assistance
  • Introduce collaborative as well as individual learning projects
  • Replace advanced with lower-level technical staff whose expertise better matches students’ needs



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