The Learning MarketSpace, April 2003
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Perspectives on issues and developments at the nexus of higher education and information technology.
Can Online Education Scale?
On most campuses, the job of a faculty member is seen as monolithic: a collection of tasks that are, with few exceptions, carried out by one person. American higher education remains what Bill Massy and Bob Zemsky have called a "handicraft" industry—in which the vast majority of courses are developed and delivered as "one-offs" by individual professors. In most colleges and universities, this repetitive, labor-intensive approach has been transferred to online education as well.
As online programs have grown, however, the more successful of them have begun to struggle with the pressure of building individual versions of every section of every course. Several like Colorado Community Colleges Online (CCCOnline), the University of Phoenix and SUNY Empire State College's Center for Distance Learning have abandoned the every-faculty-member-for-himself approach in favor of designing courses centrally, which are then taught by multiple instructors. The pre-built course becomes the core for all sections with some faculty customization of individual sections. By designing online courses with a "build it once, use it often" approach, the costs of development for online instruction go down dramatically, especially when the instructors are adjunct faculty.
Almost without exception, however, those online programs that develop courses once continue to use individual faculty members to deliver multiple sections of the same course, each of which is relatively small in size. This model assumes that the instructor must be responsible for all interactions, answering every inquiry, comment or discussion personally. As a result, faculty members often spend more time teaching online and interacting with students than is the case in classroom teaching. This small-class model limits the ability of programs both to scale (i.e., produce more cost-effective courses) and to serve more students (i.e., increase access). In some cases, programs with especially high demand are finding difficulty in securing the needed number of instructors.
The Center for Academic Transformation's Program in Course Redesign offers a number of strategies that can address this problem. Each strategy takes advantage of information technology and a sophisticated division of labor to enable fewer instructors to serve larger numbers of students. Four basic design principles, which can be used in various combinations, undergird these strategies.
1. Combine multiple sections of a course into one large section.
A key idea in these redesign strategies is that both the development and delivery of entire courses are the objects of redesign. Like the online programs mentioned above, courses are designed once—often by faculty teams with IT support—but unlike those programs, the redesigned courses are delivered in a single section. Virginia Tech, for example, combined 38 linear algebra sections of ~40 students each into one 1500-student section; Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) combined 26 fine arts sections of ~30 students each into one 800-student section; and the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) combined 16-20 world literature sections of ~60 students each into one 800-student section.
The advantages of offering the course in a single section are many. Consistent content coverage means that all students have the same kinds of learning experiences. In contrast, those programs that build once, deliver often using multiple instructors cannot guarantee a consistent experience for students, especially when instructors pick and choose what to cover. Course coherence and quality control improve significantly in a single-section approach. The desired learning outcomes among all students can be more easily achieved, and students are more consistently prepared when they move on to other courses. Treating the whole course as one section also can eliminate duplication of effort on the part of instructors; faculty involved in the course can divide their tasks among themselves and target their efforts to particular aspects of course delivery.
2. Emphasize student-to-student interaction and teaming.
As long as faculty members are expected to respond to every student question or interact directly with each individual student, it will never be possible to accommodate enrollment growth cost effectively while providing a high-quality learning experience for students. Strategies that direct course activities to and receive responses from groups of students provide a way out of this dilemma. Many of the projects in the Program on Course Redesign use teaming strategies, but in its redesign of introductory astronomy, the University of Colorado-Boulder has developed the most elaborate one. Although this design relies on face-to-face interaction, it could easily be adapted for fully online use.
The entire class (~200 students) meets twice a week with one faculty member. At the first meeting, the instructor provides a brief overview of the week's activities. About a dozen discussion questions are posted on the Web, ranging from factual questions to complex questions that require the students to draw a conclusion from a variety of facts and principles. Some questions have no definite answer and are intended to elicit controversy. In mid-week, students meet for one hour in small learning teams of 10-15 students (supervised by undergraduate learning assistants) to prepare answers collaboratively and to carry out inquiry-based team projects. Teams are supported by software that allows them to collaborate synchronously or asynchronously. All teams post written answers to all questions, and every team member must sign up as a designated answerer for one or two questions.
At the next full-class meeting, the instructor leads a discussion session in which he directs questions, not to individual students, but to the learning teams. Before the meeting, the instructor uses convenient software to review all the posted written answers to a given question. If all the teams have correctly answered a given question, the instructor skips that question. Instead, he devotes the discussion time to questions with dissonant answers among teams. Periodically the instructor poses a related question and gives the class time for each team to formulate an answer. The discussion sessions both reinforce the students' learning and clear up misconceptions.
3. Automate grading and student feedback wherever possible.
Increasing the amount and frequency of feedback to students is a well-documented pedagogical technique that leads to increased learning. Rather than relying on individual faculty members in small sections to provide feedback to students (a technique known to increase faculty workload significantly), courses involved in the Program in Course Redesign incorporate automated grading that provides immediate feedback to students wherever possible. Rio Salado College, for example, uses Academic Systems mathematics software, which includes a large bank of problems and answers for each topic; FCGU and USM use WebCT to create tests banks for practice tests for each course module in their humanities courses.
Automated grading and feedback probes students’ preparedness and conceptual understanding, motivates them to keep on top of course material and encourages them to spend more time on task. Students receive diagnostic feedback that points out why an incorrect response is inappropriate and directs them to material needing review. While these practices are highly desirable in all courses, in distance-learning courses they can remove the time gap between the submission of assignments or tests via mail or email and instructor response. In addition, they off-load a significant number of instructional tasks to the technology, thus reducing rather than increasing faculty workload.
4. Use a differentiated personnel strategy.
By redesigning the way the whole course is delivered to use different kinds of personnel in addition to faculty members, it is possible to increase the number of students that can be served at reduced cost. Each of the following examples relies on adding personnel with specific responsibilities to the instructional mix and creating a division of labor both among faculty members and others involved in the course.
Each of these four strategies, used alone or in combination with one another, points the way to cost-effective methods of serving more students while increasing the quality of their learning experiences. Re-considering how to deliver as well as develop online courses is the key.
Featuring progress reports and outcomes achieved by the Program in Course Redesign.
-- An overview of the Round I projects and an analysis of what was learned from the perspective of the program staff is now available in PDF format at Program in Course Redesign: Round I. Final reports for each of the ten projects can be found by following the links at Project Descriptions Sorted by Degree of Success.
Final reports have been submitted by nine of the ten Round II projects. Highlights include:
For more information about the Round II projects, please see Project Descriptions Sorted by Grant Rounds. Final reports will be posted on the Web site in late spring 2003.
Interim progress reports for each of the Round III projects as of 12/31/02 are available at Project Descriptions Sorted by Grant Rounds. Follow the links to each institution's report. Highlights from those reports include the following:
Highlighting themes and activities that cut across redesign projects.
Redesign? It's Contagious!
At many of the institutions participating in the Program in Course Redesign, other courses within the department are being redesigned. In addition, other departments are using the Program's principles to redesign courses to improve quality and reduce cost. Here are some examples:
Reporting on initiatives that share the Center's goals and objectives.
Sloan-C Volume on Cost-Effective Online Learning
Research shows ample evidence that online programs can yield institutional cost efficiencies while improving learning and reducing costs to learners. Strengthening the business of education—quality learning at capacity enrollment--online programs can help schools prepare for what The Chronicle of Higher Education calls "increasingly dire budget circumstances."
The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) will present its views on these questions in the forthcoming volume: Quality Studies: Online Education Practice and Direction, the fourth volume in its Elements of Quality Online Education series.
Learning Communities: Strategies That Improve the Undergraduate Experience
Sharing with the Program on Course Redesign a focus on the need for student engagement in learning, especially in the first year of college, the National Learning Communities Project strives to strengthen curricular learning community efforts on individual campuses, as well as to foster more robust communities of learning community practice. Working with teams at participating institutions, the Project seeks to connect emerging learning community leaders with one another and to involve them in making contributions to strengthening and disseminating learning community strategies beyond their home campuses. To learn more contact, Dr. Barbara Smith or visit http://www.evergreen.edu/washcenter/project.asp?pid=73.
Online Courses in Remote Sensing
With $15 million from NASA, the Institute of Advanced Education in GeoSpatial Science at the University of Mississippi is building 50 courses over the next five years to develop a robust integrated curriculum for geospatial remote sensing. Using faculty from programs across the United States, the Institute will develop a repository of dynamic online coursework. This coursework will be delivered via various media--Internet, CD-ROM, DVD and compressed video--which translates into anywhere, anytime delivery of educational material in an interactive, learner-centered environment. Presently few US institutions offer a major in geospatial science, which has multiple applications in forestry, biology, aeronautics, engineering and social science. Now interested institutions can develop majors in these fields without individually designing the core courses. Rather they can build on a central repository of modules thatcan be used individually or combined as whole courses. A licensing arrangement for the modules will make the project self-sustaining and will support continuous updating and improvement. To learn more about this project contact Dr. Pamela Lawhead or visit http://geoworkforce.olemiss.edu/.
Redesigning Institutions To Improve Student Learning and Contain Costs
Led by Alan Guskin, former chancellor of Antioch University, the Project on the Future of Higher Education is a focused initiative that brings together the best ideas and creative thinkers to answer the question: Given what we know about likely future social, technological and economic realities, if we were creating a college or university today, what would it look like? Calls for an increased focus on student learning clash with discussions of cost containment and accountability, while innovations in areas such as technology and distance learning present both challenges and opportunities. The Institute is envisioning new models for colleges and universities that will enhance undergraduate learning and increase the quality of faculty work life in a climate of reduced resources. For more information about this initiative, see http://www.pfhe.org/.
The National Center for Academic Transformation serves as a source of expertise and support for those in higher education who wish to take advantage of the capabilities of information technology to transform their academic practices.
Copyright 2003, The National Center for Academic Transformation