VOL. 39 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 23, 2015
UT using digital courses to improve on-campus learning
By Jeannie Naujeck
“A free college education for all!” It’s one of the rallying cries of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and it’s a big reason why the septuagenarian socialist is so popular among students, many of whom are graduating with crippling loans.
While boldly stated, Sanders’ idea is not particularly controversial. Public university systems and legislators in a number of states, including some like Texas and Florida that are well to his political right, have been exploring ways to significantly cut college costs for some time.
Some systems want to take advantage of massive open online courses (MOOCs) now widely available to cut the traditional four-year undergraduate degree to three.
Next fall, Texas State University will allow matriculating freshmen to take all their first-year courses through MOOCs – skipping the campus experience entirely for the first year through a program called Freshman Year for Free.
Students will effectively report to campus as sophomores, and pay for three years of college instead of four. The only charge for freshman-year courses will be test fees.
That kind of experiment isn’t on the horizon in Tennessee.
“Residential education is most assuredly not dead. New buildings are going up all the time around here,” says Jennifer Gramling, director of online programs at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, who described a campus teeming with students on a bright October day.
But through Governor Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” program, which refers to the goal of putting a postgraduate diploma on the walls of 55 percent of Tennessee adults by 2025, the University of Tennessee system has been experimenting with educational technology, incorporating MOOCs into campus instruction with the goal of more engaged classrooms – not empty ones.
The state set aside $1 million to fund online innovation projects in 2013, and another $1 million in 2014.
“We’re always interested in taking advantage of new instructional technologies,” says Gramling. “But we know that when students engage directly with faculty members and fellow students that their experiences are richer – and we want the technology to be able to facilitate that.”
To that end, UT has been conducting pilot classes on its Knoxville, Martin and Chattanooga campuses that incorporate digital learning to improve the on-campus experience. Several instructors have experimented with “flipped” classes, which turn traditional instruction on its head by requiring students to view lectures outside of class.
One of those instructors is math professor Malissa Peery, who conducted an experiment in spring 2014 with two sections of her introductory algebra class, which annually serves about 700 students.
Students in the traditional class sat through Peery’s “live” lectures and worked problems on their own time outside of class. Students in the “flipped” class watched Peery’s lectures online outside of class, then used class time to work problems in small groups and with instructors.
The result? At the end of the semester, 80.3 percent of students in the flipped class completed it, compared to 76.8 percent of students in the traditional class. Of the completers, 75.4 percent of the flipped students passed the class, while 67.9 percent of the traditional class passed.
“Students would say to me, ‘Ms. Peery, I understood everything you said in class but then when I got home and I was working on it by myself I would just get stuck,’” Peery explains. “So it solves that problem. It’s a great solution.”
The math class is for enrolled students only, part of the tuition package.
UT-Knoxville also redesigned First Year Studies 101, a class required for all incoming freshman, as an online course on the Coursera platform. Similar projects were undertaken at UT-Chattanooga and UT-Martin with freshman-level courses in English rhetoric and composition and music appreciation.
Drive to 55 has also funded the development of 10 free MOOCs by the Lipscomb University College of Education’s Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation.
The MOOCs are aimed at undergraduate teaching majors, and can potentially be taken for credit at a discounted price.
Peery, who calls herself “flipped forever,” says that along with benefiting students, taped lectures enable her to make better use of her time. Rather than repeating the same live lecture in front of multiple class sections, semester after semester, she can focus on activities like managing and mentoring graduate teaching assistants.
This fall, more than 700 students taking the introductory algebra course are split into 27 sections, each run by a TA. Peery is still the instructor of record – presenting the lecture online, emailing students and overseeing teaching quality – but she now has time to train her TAs to be better teachers.
“I’m not only giving the students a different experience, but I’m giving the teaching assistants a different experience as well. It’s really working out well,” she said.
So well, in fact, that Peery is currently developing a flipped version of basic calculus through a Creative Teaching Grant awarded from the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center.
“I don’t lecture in class anymore,” Peery reported after the MOOC experiment.
“The students are expected to come to class prepared and ready to work. And the best part is that I get to interact with the students while they’re working, clarifying details of the lesson, answering questions and asking questions that help students put the pieces together.
“The result is a much more personal learning experience.”
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