Study affects on-line course plans
By Catherine Doss
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 12 - November 13, 1997
The assessment of a recent collaborative project between Virginia Tech's College of Arts and Sciences and its educational-technologies unit reveals a transformation in the way students learn when exposed to technology-enriched courses.
According to the study, students who were enrolled in four courses designed with significant computer-based elements reported more active engagement with course work and invested more of their own time in the course. Likewise, faculty members reported a change in their role from a one-way dispenser of information to more of a facilitator for learning.
"What we learned from this study will have a profound effect on how faculty members envision on-line courses at this university," said David Taylor, coordinator of the assessment phase of the 18-month project titled Asynchronous Communication Courses to Enable Student Success (ACCESS). The project faculty members were Art Buikema, William Claus, and John Neal, all in the biology department. The project was directed by Lucinda Roy, professor of English and formerly associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and John Moore, director of educational technologies.
In 1995, Virginia Tech received a $200,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to design and implement four courses using concepts of asynchronous learning, and to evaluate their overall effectiveness. Asynchronous learning occurs when the variables of time and place--as they relate to teacher and students--are flexible.
Courses in the ACCESS project, all in the university's biology department, incorporated significant asynchronous elements into their structure, including course web pages; on-line faculty office hours; electronic chat rooms; and network access to all class materials, color slides, answers to frequently asked questions, class announcements, practice exams, and sophisticated computer-animated graphics of complex concepts within the lecture presentation.
For the assessment of the project, Taylor collected and evaluated both quantitative and qualitative data throughout each course. Quantitative data, generated by in-depth surveys of several hundred students, looked at demographics; student familiarity, ownership, and attitudes toward computers; attitudes toward various modes of instruction; and usefulness of course web sites. Qualitative inquiry was conducted through class observation, discussion with professors, and telephone and video interviews of students.
"Our goal was to determine if the traditional credit-for-contact model of higher education could be changed without negatively affecting student success in the classroom," Taylor said. "More specifically, we wanted to know what effect, if any, methods of asynchronous learning had on faculty productivity and student learning. The project showed that asynchronous methods offer a way to overcome some of the problems of a large-class lecture model."
Generally, students reported that access to class information and materials, to professors, and to each other was improved with the use of computer and information technology in their courses. They also felt the additional communication channels improved interaction among their peers and that student/professor interaction was enhanced through the use of e-mail and on-line chat rooms.
Buikema reported frequently tailoring his lectures from student chat-room conversations. "This has changed the way I think about my students and changed the way I teach," he said.
Other findings of the ACCESS project included the following:
* By using a course web page instead of making class announcements at the beginning of each live lecture, one professor saved an estimated 10-20 percent of each class period.
* Student anxiety and alienation toward the use of computers decreased significantly from the beginning to the end of the semester in three of the four technology-enriched courses.
The technologically based design of the four courses in the ACCESS project continues and, in some cases, has been expanded upon this fall. In addition, 19 new initiatives, representing courses in seven colleges within the university are under way. The university will award grants for other courseware initiatives in December.
The findings from the ACCESS project will be shared with faculty members and administrators around the country who want to know how asynchronous learning can be used effectively.