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The Learning MarketSpace, April 2003

A quarterly electronic newsletter of the Center for Academic Transformation highlighting ongoing examples of redesigned learning environments using technology and examining issues related to their development and implementation.



  • Can Online Education Scale?


  • Round I Analysis Available on Web Site
  • Round II Final Report Highlights
  • Round III Interim Progress Reports Available on Web Site


  • Redesign? It's Contagious!


  • Sloan-C Volume on Cost-Effective Online Learning
  • Learning Communities: Strategies That Improve the Undergraduate Experience
  • Online Courses in Remote Sensing
  • Redesigning Institutions To Improve Student Learning and Contain Costs



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.

  • To accomplish its redesign of introductory mathematics, Rio Salado added a course assistant to address non-math-related questions (which characterized 90% of all interactions with students!) and to monitor students' progress. This freed the instructor to handle more students and to concentrate on academic rather than logistical interactions with students. As a result, one instructor is able to teach 100 students concurrently enrolled in any of four math courses. Prior to the redesign, the instructor typically taught 35 students in one section.
  • The University of Southern Mississippi's redesign of World Literature is organized around four four-week modules. A course coordinator, responsible for overall course administration, manages the team-teaching of four faculty members (who each teach one module in their area of expertise) and four graduate assistants (who help students with writing and grade their essays). The faculty members are responsible for content, complementary materials, quizzes and exams. The coordinator and the four faculty members each receive credit for teaching a single course. Prior to the redesign, USM needed to staff 16-20 sections to serve the 800 students enrolled in the course; USM now requires the equivalent of five staffed sections to serve all students. Thus, USM has more than tripled the number of students that faculty can handle by a using coordinated approach.
  • The explicit goals of Florida Gulf Coast University's redesign of its required fine arts course are to accommodate enrollment growth and achieve greater coherence and consistency. Previously the course was taught in sections of 30 students each. The redesign's single section includes six modules, each designed by faculty experts. Students are placed into cohort groups of 60 and, within these, peer learning teams of six students each. A single full-time faculty member, responsible for academic matters and for preceptor supervision, teaches the course, working closely with a full-time course coordinator (responsible for administrative aspects) and a group of preceptors (responsible for interacting with students, monitoring student progress, overseeing four Web Board discussions and grading critical analysis essays.) Preceptors, most of whom have a B.A. in English, are paid $1800 per cohort group; adjuncts who taught the traditional course were paid $2200 per 30-student section. The model allows FGCU to scale by adding preceptors while maintaining important faculty oversight via on-going curricular review and course coordination.

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.

-- Carol A. Twigg


Featuring progress reports and outcomes achieved by the Program in Course Redesign.

Round I

-- 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.

Round II

Final reports have been submitted by nine of the ten Round II projects. Highlights include:

  • Seven of the nine projects showed learning improvements; the other two found no significant difference in student learning.
  • All nine projects reduced costs with an average reduction of 38%.
  • Three institutions have made changes in their course examinations to test significantly higher-level cognitive skills because students are now achieving a higher level of learning as a result of redesign techniques.
  • Of the eight institutions that measured retention, four showed improvement.

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.

Round III

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:

  • Florida Gulf Coast University has added a voluntary first-day meeting to provide students with a better understanding of how the course will work. In addition, based on their experience thus far, preceptors have decided that they can work effectively with 60 students (10 peer learning teams) rather than the planned 48 (8 teams) and are doing so in the current term.
  • Although currently constrained by the number of computer labs available, Iowa State University is seeking ways to expand the number of sections of Discrete Mathematics.
  • Northern Arizona University has completed its pilot term using MyMathLab computer software in College Algebra and found no significant difference in learning or retention. (NAU had to conduct a new pilot after switching software from ALEKS to MyMathLab.) NAU is now in full implementation during the spring term with all 12 sections using the new software.
  • At Portland State University, fall 2002 students studying Spanish in the redesigned course had higher written and oral final exam grades and higher final course grades than fall 2001students in the traditional format.
  • The University of New Mexico has moved to full implementation of its redesign. In the fall 2002 semester, the number of students receiving C- or less was 23.5% compared with 41% in the traditional course. The number of students who received a C or higher was 76.5% (versus 59% in the traditional model), and there were more As and Bs than in previous semesters. Students who attended the optional studio experiences had a lower failure rate than students who chose not to do so.
  • At the University of Southern Mississippi, several changes in the course have been made based on lessons learned in pilot terms. These changes include mailing information to all students before the class begins to provide advance knowledge about how the course functions; adding a learning styles self-assessment to the course Web site to help students make informed decisions about including particular learning experiences and resources; adding a WebCT feature that allows students to take quizzes multiple times and only count the highest score; reducing the number of exams from four to two; and, fine-tuning essay assignments to emphasize feedback and revision.


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:

  • At Carnegie Mellon, the increased efficiencies of the redesign have led to the consolidation of a two-semester course into a one-semester course. In addition, work is underway to incorporate SmartLab into an upper level statistics course at CMU and an introductory statistics course at the University of Pittsburgh. Finally, a fully online introductory statistics course is being built at CMU that will use SmartLab as its core.
  • Fairfield University is in the process of redesigning its introductory biology sequence based on the extremely successful model used in the general biology course. Four courses in the sequence will become three, making it possible for students to take an additional advanced level course.
  • At Florida Gulf Coast University, an introductory chemistry course and an algebra course are being redesigned using the alternative staffing model from the humanities redesign. The next courses planned for redesign are anatomy and physiology and statistics.
  • At Iowa State University, a required orientation course for all business administration students is moving to the same online format currently being used for Discrete Mathematics. Funded by the Cargill Corporation, the new redesign is being managed by one of the team members who redesigned the math course.
  • Penn State University has also redesigned introductory biology with a grant from the Mellon Foundation and is presently redesigning seven high-enrollment, general education courses, using the approaches learned from the Program in Course Redesign.
  • Portland State University has held an internal competition similar to the national process conducted by the Center for Academic Transformation. Selected faculty members were educated about the redesign process and departments offering the top 25 high-enrollment courses were asked to submit proposals. After a committee reviewed the proposals, three departments have been funded for the 2003-04 year. Departmental teams will include technical and instructional design support. The selected courses are Second-Year Spanish (building on the First-Year Spanish project funded by the Program in Course Redesign), Statistics and Computer Science. Benchmark data are being gathered for future redesign of Third-Year Spanish.
  • Rio Salado College has redesigned computer usage and applications courses using instructional software. Previously one instructor worked with 35 students. In the redesign, each lab has a single instructor who works with students on course content and application while five to ten graders (depending on enrollment) oversee course management and record-keeping.Enrollment per instructor ranges from 50 to 200 and spans 14 course titles, saving the college more than $100,000.
  • The University of Alabama has committed substantial funding to expand the use of the Math Technology and Learning Center in pre-calculus courses. In fall 2002, MTLC is providing instruction for all students in Introductory Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, and Pre-Calculus and for pilot sections of Finite Mathematics. Additional math courses will be added over time.
  • At the University of Dayton, the Department of Communications is in the process of launching a redesigned online introductory communications course, modeled in part on the redesigned introductory psychology course.
  • At the University of Iowa, the college physics course is using the online homework (WebAssign) system developed as part of the redesign of introductory chemistry.
  • At UMass, the second-semester of the introductory biology course has been redesigned in the same format as the first semester course. The active learning pedagogy course redesign served as a template for a Davis Educational Foundation grant that now funds eight additional redesigns across campus.
  • The University of Wisconsin-Madison has implemented another redesign in General and Analytical Chemistry, an accelerated first-year course enrolling about 850 students.
  • Following the Linear Algebra redesign model, Virginia Tech has redesigned two additional courses, the first two semesters in the calculus sequence taken by students majoring in such fields as biology, biochemistry, the agricultural sciences and forestry. These large-enrollment courses are offered in the Math Emporium and were designed by a different team building on the lessons learned in the redesign of Linear Algebra. Redesign students tracked to the second term of the calculus course did significantly better than those from traditional formats, indicating that the new format provides a better foundation. Follow-up of student learning will continue.


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."

  • How do online programs succeed in integrating mission, quality and cost?
  • How do prospective online learners select value from the growing array of online programs?
  • How do learning outcomes demonstrably improve while cost of instruction demonstrably decreases?

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

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

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


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.

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