Wednesday, July 13, 2005

On engaging students in large classes

Some of my staff are at Penn State this week for an Educause conference on information technology and instructional design. I hope to learn more about their experience at this conference later in the summer. (I'm at the WebCT User's conference next week, when they return, and for the next few weeks or so folks in the office are taking some much needed vacation time.) In the meantime, we've had a few emails. My sense is that they are getting reenforcement on of lot of good things that have been of interest to them as "research projects" (online collaboration tools like blogs and wikis, podcasting) but I'm not sure they are getting much on improving what they do as their "bread and butter" activities.

Let me give some background to explain what I mean. Because our budgets are tight and we are trying hard to sustain our funding, we've done more looking into our usage than we would have done otherwise. This past spring we had 170 sites for regularly scheduled classes inside our WebCT Vista instance that had at least 100 students (with the biggest at about 950 students). Course coordinators can choose to have one aggregate site when there are multiple sections of the course. So these sites don't necessarily mean the face to face part of the class was done in large lecture. But certainly that is the case for some of them. And I'm guessing these are all undergraduate courses.

That 170 number represents about one tenth of all the undergraduate course offerings. But the registrations in these 170 courses count for about one third of all the possible undergraduate registrations and about two thirds of the registrations we had on our Vista server last spring. So from the perspective of the campus course management system, large class use really is the predominant use. We have small class use, to be sure, and some of that is with tenured faculty who like to innovate with technology in their teaching. But that is not the norm. The norm for use is large class and the norm for non-use is small class (probably for reasons articulated by Howard Strauss in his Chronicle piece from late June).

Given that, it seems reasonable to me to ask how the newer collaboration technologies might help in the large class setting. Certainly, Carol Twigg's work on course redesign needs to be recognized here. Yet to my knowledge none of the projects that Carol sponsored involved the recent wave of communication technologies. So it is interesting to inquire how those technologies might be deployed for large classes. Before getting to that, however, let's note the obvious. If a class has 200 students and one instructor and if all the communication initiated by the students goes through the instructor ---- well, that won't work. Some things must be done to make the large class manageable. That is where innovation and effective teaching practice are needed. But if you think I'm asking for miracles, you're wrong.

I've done a substantial amount of large class teaching myself. In the late '90s as my SCALE project, I introduced a significant online component to my intermediate microeconomics course and simultaneously tripled class size, from about 60 to about 180 students. By far the most significant innovation, and of course I stole the idea from someone else, in this case Burks Oakley, was to use undergraduate peer tutors who had already taken the course. They held online office hours from 7 - 11 PM, Sun - Thurs. I selected these students from among the pool of students who did well in the course and they expressed their willingness to do this type of work by accepting my invitation and attending an orientation session held near the end of the term before the class would be taught. They were paid something like $6 per hour and getting paid to do this work mattered. But I think it also mattered that they got some coaching from me and they were using online communication tools in an obviously constructive way.

Of course, on the novice to expert continuum these students, bright as they were, nevertheless were closer to the novice end than to the expert end. So some care needed to be exercised to put these students into a situation where they could succeed and be helpful. By and large I was able to achieve that. In the process I took a good deal of the instructional burden off of myself. So in that sense the system I came up with worked well.

But that course, like many high enrollment courses, had closed ended content in the main. There was a textbook and (part of ) the homework was working problems from the end of the chapters. Textbook problem solving can have benefit in the study of economics, but especially for students who don't otherwise do this type of problem solving on a regular basis, the work may seem opaque and not especially enlightening. More open ended content should be more engaging for the students and then the econ might fit in better with what else they are learning. Indeed, there has been a push of late to do more inquiry based approaches even in large classes. But this is not straightforward. The question how to proceed down this path raises a host of issues.

One might guess that to keep things manageable there still will have to be some closed ended activities and quite possibly computer grading of some of student work. This should allow other parts of the students work to be open ended. How is that done to make a coherent whole? Do our undergraduate peer mentors assist on the open ended work and if so what is their role? How does the open ended work get assessed? Can blogs or wikis be used to make for ensemble course projects? Can the instructor feel good about what the students are learning yet not feel overwhelmed by the venture? Exactly what constraints does teaching a large class place on the instructor? And are there ways for the large class to be empowering and enable certain good pedagogy that can't happen in the smaller class setting? (For example, undergraduate peer tutors are not affordable in the small class setting.)

Will instructional designers and other IT experts who concentrate in the teaching and learning area help us to answer to these questions? I hope so, but I have my doubts. I know that here, those and related questions are the most important ones to answer. To keep our funding we need to be broadly useful and that means being relevant to large class instructors. I wish the profession as a whole would pay more attention to these concerns.

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