ACM colleges are known for excellent teaching, and often that takes place in a classroom with a professor and, typically, a fairly small number of students. Can the colleges take that personalized, interactive experience and put it online?
Turning the question around, are there aspects of an online course that can be used in a “traditional” classroom setting to enrich the students’ learning?
Those two questions, posed by the ACM Board of Directors, spurred the Online Learning Project and the creation of a pilot online course in applied calculus that ACM offered to students at its member colleges last summer.
Based on the evaluations from students who took the pilot course, it hit the mark in retaining key characteristics of an on-campus liberal arts course. As one student put it, “As far as possible in an online course, it didn’t feel like one.”
“We’ve seen that the pilot course was very successful, both from the students’ comments and also from the instructors’ evaluation of the students’ performance and their mastery of the learning goals of the course,” said ACM Senior Program Officer David Schodt, who has been working with the project. “It’s also given us ideas on some practical adjustments to make as we offer the course again.”
The eight-week pilot course was developed and co-taught by mathematics professors Chad Topaz (Macalester College) and Kristina Garrett (St. Olaf College). In keeping with the aim of providing an experience that tracked closely with what students were used to on campus, enrollment was capped at 20. Sixteen students from eight different ACM colleges completed the class.
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Building on that inaugural effort, and with the aim of gaining insights into the dynamics of repeating an online course versus creating it from scratch, ACM is offering Calculus: A Modeling Approach again in summer 2014. This time around, the instructors will split up, with Topaz teaching a section of the class and, if demand warrants it, Garrett taking a second group.
To dig deeper into the students’ reactions to the pilot course, ACM asked Dr. Rachelle Brooks to interview students in the summer 2013 class and to analyze the course evaluations. Brooks teaches in Northwestern University’s Higher Education Administration and Policy Program and is the principal investigator for the Teagle Assessment Project. In her report to ACM, she concluded that:
“Overall, the findings from the student interviews should provide assurance to the ACM that courses administered exclusively in an online setting can satisfy student expectations for a quality educational experience when instructors deploy available technological resources to create a more personalized online course-taking experience. Indeed, this course may serve as important evidence that online courses can deliver education in ways that are not all that different from that which is the hallmark of the liberal arts experience: regular student and faculty interactions, low student-to-faculty ratios, and intimate peer-to-peer learning groups.”
The course was structured with a mix of elements that students could do at their own pace – watching online lectures, doing homework problems, engaging in an ongoing class discussion through an online forum – and scheduled activities, such as weekly video tutorials when the professors met with small groups of students. There were also online office hours for students to get extra help, and students could e-mail questions to the instructors at any time.
“Bringing some of these tools – which are really helpful and allow us to meet individual student needs and to be adaptable – into a classroom and doing more of a blended situation could really be an important benefit of this pilot.”
– Kristina Garrett
“The goal of this course is to retain what we think of as the signature characteristics of an on-campus, residential, liberal arts course,” Schodt said. “Two of those important characteristics are student-faculty interaction, which especially takes place in the video tutorials, and the other is to build a community of learners, for which the course used Piazza, an online platform designed to facilitate conversations among students and instructors.”
With the fast pace of a summer course, in which the material of a semester-length class was covered in just eight weeks, the instructors made it a top priority to respond quickly to students’ questions. Most students were juggling the class with full-time jobs and other obligations, Topaz noted, so they often had a short window of time available to get a question answered and complete their homework assignment.
“This was a new effort for both of us, and we were working hard at it,” said Garrett. “We found ourselves being available to students seven days a week, many more hours of the day than we might have anticipated.”
“We [made the effort] because we wanted the process to be smooth for the students,” Topaz said, “but we learned that for next summer we need to have a little bit more infrastructure. So, tentatively, there will be some staffing by undergraduate student assistants, and one of their duties will be to check in online very frequently to make sure students’ questions do not sit unanswered.”
Having upper-level students serve as assistants in courses, such as to grade problems, offer help sessions, or provide technical assistance, is not unusual at ACM colleges, according to Schodt. “There are variations from campus to campus, but used appropriately, student assistants can be a valuable first line for answering questions,” he said. “Of course, the students taking the class always have the option of talking to the professor.”
In his courses at Macalester, Topaz has already “flipped” the classroom. His students prepare for class by going online to watch videos he’s created to replace in-class lectures. Online assessment tools – homework exercises and quizzes that go with the videos – give students a chance to check their understanding of the material on the spot.
The online lectures allow Topaz to devote class time to interactive learning. Students work on problems in small groups as he circulates around the room answering questions and helping the students apply the concepts covered in the lectures.
“A tutorial group of three [in the online course’s weekly video chat] is just like the small group seated in the back corner of my room [on campus],” Topaz said. “I go to hang out with them for ten minutes during class to answer some of their questions, while other students are working on a different homework problem.”
Garrett has used similar techniques in some of her classes at St. Olaf, so both were comfortable developing the online materials for the pilot course.
“Everybody struggles with something,” Garrett said. “It’s the rare student who gets everything the first time through. So every student has the opportunity [to go back through the online lecture]. That pause button – you can’t do that in a lecture in class. That’s one of the things that the online experience does a little better.”
“Students can get this immediate visual feedback on what they’ve just learned because [an exercise] is well-designed and put on course software,” she added. “Bringing some of these tools – which are really helpful and allow us to meet individual student needs and to be adaptable – into a classroom and doing more of a blended situation could really be an important benefit of this pilot.”
Last fall, after she had taught the pilot course, Garrett participated in panels and talked with people in several higher education groups about online education.
“I think what we’re doing is quite different from the focus [of many other groups],” she said, noting that while other panelists talked about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), ACM is very consciously trying to be small and participatory. “We have a different [model], but a successful one in terms of really educating the students who are signing up for this course.”
The Mellon Foundation recently awarded a $2 million grant to ACM to support another phase of the Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) program, and instructional technology and blended learning will be among the priorities of activity fostered by the grant. Indeed, development of the pilot course was funded, in part, by an earlier phase of FaCE.
“The FaCE program has a lot of tie-in to ACM’s online course, and will offer support for both online and blended courses – a kind of hybrid learning,” Schodt said. “There will be a lot of support for faculty to collaborate across the ACM in creating new approaches to blended learning and in using technology in innovative ways within the context of liberal arts education.”