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Web-Enhanced Lecture Course Scores Big with Students and Faculty

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In spring of 1999, I developed a Web site to enhance a lecture course in Biology. The class met twice a week and there were three lecture exams that comprised most of the points for the course. As Developmental Biology is visually intensive, I wanted to utilize the ability of the Web to allow students access to illustrations and movies. The course Web site I developed with WebCT (http://www.webct.com/) had the following features: e-mail (from within the Web site), a bulletin board, chat groups, announcements, direct student access to lecture notes, videos and animation used in lecture or exam keys, monitoring of student grades by students (they can compare their own grades with Web site-generated histograms of all class grades), faculty monitoring of hits and time on the Web site, posting of exam results (especially important now that we cannot legally post grades in hallways), and use of online timed quizzes (with grading by program). With WebCT, or an equivalent package such as Blackboard, teachers are not bogged down in learning HTML language or even learning FTP procedures.

 

Thus, students could view the course Web site from homes, their jobs, or when on trips across the nation (important for our commuting, urban university students – 75% of our University of Colorado-Denver students have family and jobs). In addition, the professor d'es not have to deliver the key to the library reserve desk or deal with hallway postings that are torn down by students. Animations and video can be viewed outside of the classroom (as opposed to audio-visual aids that are not available outside of the classroom or only available by in-house checkout from the library).

 

There are a growing number of Web sites that contain videos or animation. I believe that the use of video and animation both in lecture and on the Web is one of the major advantages of computers in teaching. With lecture notes and calendar published on the Web, the instructor can update them during the semester instead of publishing them months ahead of time. The professor can post an answer to a question that one student asked and the answer will reach all students (using the Bulletin Board or e-mail functions). Many students said that they learned valuable computer and Internet skills that have helped them in other courses.

 

I also attempted to use the Web to mimic the process of research. Later in the semester, the class met in the computer lab to conduct original research using videos posted on the Web (http://www.cudenver.edu/~bstith/resweb.html). We measured and compared the time for a calcium wave to cross various cells (this activity was related to a discussion of the biochemistry of the calcium wave in lecture).

 

As a measure of its value and its ability to interest and motivate students, 17 out of 25 students continued to visit the Web site in the weeks after the final was given. This was not just to view final grades, as some entered the site up to three weeks later and the average number of hits after the final was 8.2 ± 4.8 s.d. per student (range of 2 to 17 hits).

 

Disadvantages students noted included slow computers at home (or even in university computer labs), or slow modem connections to the university computer from home. There were student concerns about “getting dumped offline.” Other disadvantages for the instructor include the time required for learning WebCT and setting up the Web site, difficulties in digitizing video and making the animations, lack of technical help, and, sometimes, the lack of reward for integrating technology in teaching.

 

Online Quizzes

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of the use of WebCT was that I could set the time allowed for the online quizzes and the number of times that students could take each quiz (http://www.cudenver.edu/~bstith/quinstr.html). As a starting point, I would suggest allowing three attempts. WebCT would then keep only the highest grade among the attempts (the score that is kept could be the result of other options). More than one student told me that being able to repeat quizzes encouraged them to study the material over and over again between attempts.

 

Placing a time limit on the quiz prevents a student from simply looking up every answer and taking the exam over a period of days. I would suggest starting out allowing two minutes per question (I had 10 to 30 questions per quiz). There were many student concerns about fill-in-the-blank questions, so I used few or none of this type. In the matching type of question, if there are two different statements to be matched up with one answer, there could be problems in computer grading.

 

I generated about 80-100 questions per quiz and allowed WebCT to pick a random group of 20 questions for each student. This random selection of questions means that students will be less likely to simply memorize answers and retake the quiz immediately. This brought up the question of whether the quizzes were of equal difficulty. After a quiz had been taken, I could identify especially difficult questions, remove them and give students who had the question extra points.

 

One must assume that the 20 questions the student sees on the online quiz are going to be printed out (I know of no easy way of preventing this), or that a group of students could be taking a quiz for an individual student. To offset these possibilities, I chose to make the in-class exams worth significantly more points.

Detailed "To Do" List for the Teacher

1)      As Developmental Biology was a lecture course, at the first lecture I “warned” students about the Web enhancement aspects of the course. During the second and third lecture periods, I met with the students in the University of Colorado-Denver computer lab to introduce the use of the Web. The computer lab had about 35 computers, of which half were Macintosh. Instructors should be prepared to know both IBM and Mac systems. In this first lecture, I also provided students with a map to the computer lab, the computer lab hours, and student passwords and their user names.

 

2)      In another handout given out in the first lecture, I made a checklist of items to be accomplished in the computer labs. It is entitled “Use of Web site for Developmental Biology 3804” (http://www.cudenver.edu/~bstith/useweb.html). If possible, more than one faculty member should be present at these computer labs to answer all of the student’s questions and help those with computer phobia.

 

In the two sessions (1 hr 15 min each) at the computer lab, students entered the course Web site through my home page (http://www.cudenver.edu/~bstith) and used the login ID and password that I have set up. Students looked through the student manual for WebCT, explored various icons, read an e-mail from the professor and sent an e-mail back to me, read my welcome message on the Bulletin board and posted a response. They noted the chat room and its purpose. They then took a three-question sample quiz.

 

After forming groups, students used Web search engines to search for definitions of terms from a prerequisite course (General Biology). Answers are posted to the Bulletin Board and the second online quiz is based on these definitions. Posting to the Bulletin Board should ensure that all students know how to post, follow threads and then read each other’s posting. The next online quiz covered this material.

 

Working in groups to complete the various exercises, the students with lower computer skills learned from the more skilled students. However, problems arose when some students skipped steps or did not check them off as they went. In a concern that I find in other active learning groups, some students let others do their work and did not pick up information required for later computer exercises.

 

3)      Find out if students will be accessing the Web from University computer labs or from home. For sites without e-mail, realize that the students may have to activate their university account, get their new e-mail address, and then learn e-mail as a separate program.

 

4)      I found that the computers in our computer lab vary wildly as to their speed and, thus, how well videos play. Also, instructors should know how many computers are available so they have an idea of how many students will be using each computer. If plug-ins are required for viewing videos or animation (e.g., Shockwave, Quicktime), make sure that they are already loaded into the computer. Conversely, the instructor could make downloading of required plug-ins an exercise for the student.

 

5)      Remember to create a snapshot of the course at regular intervals. The snapshot records files and student hits per page and per student.

 

6)      In the first lecture class, I surveyed the students as to their computer skills and experience. Questions that could be asked: Do you use e-mail? Do you regularly access the Web? Have you used a search engine? How fast is your modem at home? My results: 21 out of 25 students had used the Web, 24 out of 25 used e-mail, 23 out of 25 had a computer at home (20 out of the 23 computers were Pentiums).

 

7)      Before the semester begins, post a link to the WebCT student manual on the course Web site. Add a welcome page, a welcome e-mail and a welcome message to the Bulletin Board. Hide the icons not needed immediately, to reduce complexity and confusion. Fill in dates on the calendar.

 

8)      Make sure that you visit the Web site as a student, to get a feel for what they will experience throughout the course.

 

9)      Consider printing out hardcopies of course information, and what you will do if someone refuses to use the Web site. Think about how you will handle students who want to pick up the course two to three weeks into the semester.

 

10)  As I had a lecture presentation twice a week, and I continued to keep up on the Web site hits per student, I did not find a problem with “lurkers.” These are students who semi-drop out of a course without officially withdrawing. This can be a major problem in distance education.

 

11)  There may be technical concerns if you are to use the Web in the classroom. I had a setup with the following arrangement. The University computer was connected to my laptop with an Ethernet connection. The laptop was then connected to a video projector to show the Web page or a CD-ROM animation in the classroom. In addition, I showed segments of VHS tapes, which required a VCR, amplifier and connections to the video projector. It is surprising how many unique cables are needed, how many visits to computer stores were required to purchase my own cables, and how many switches there are on the video projection system.

 

12)  In WebCT, when printing out student names and grades, you may have to print using the “landscape” setting on your printer and even then you may have to hide certain columns to fit over 8 columns of grades on the page.

 

13)  Chat rooms are best with small groups only. Large groups should use threaded discussion on the bulletin board. You can set up review sessions for pre-selected groups of students, using the chat room.

 

14)  You may want to discuss dial-up info for students accessing the Web through the university computer from their home computer. I did not emphasize this way of accessing the Web, since most students could already access our university computer from their home, or access the Internet through AOL.

 

 

Student Surveys

I gave a student survey just before finals week, and found that the Web did enhance a majority of the students’ experience in the course (http://www.cudenver.edu/~bstith/survey.html). Students spent an average of 2.9 ± 2.8 hours per week (n=18). Student comments about the use of the Web for researching course topics included:

“I have learned the Web has amazing information about many subjects. I also used it for [another course].”

“[It] helped in not only explaining concepts from a different perspective than text but it also helped in consolidating ideas. It also encouraged me to use the Web to further explore ideas.”

The course Web site comments included:

          “A better way to communicate with other students in class.”

          “Easy access made studying easier.”

          “Getting grades without disrupting the teacher.”

          “A bit adventurous, which makes it entertaining and light.”

      “This was my second online course, but the Web coupled with the class lecture cemented many topics and discussion.”

          “I think it was a great idea, even though it was hard to learn at first because I had no previous experience on the Web.”

          “I love taking the online quizzes more than once. The material stays in my head.”

          “I like having the lecture notes on the Web, in addition to the calendar.”

          “I’ve actually registered for an online summer class. It has taken some of the mystery away from using the Web.”

          “Although I considered it a valuable research tool in past, I have a better idea of how powerful a resource it can be.”

          “I did know how the Web could be used for teaching, but it contains an enormous amount of information, and I enjoyed looking for it.”

 

Data Obtained During the Web-Enhanced Course

One of the main measures that WebCT reports is how many hits the student has made on various pages of the Web site. Obviously, if the number of hits is low, then the student is not working. However, if a student worked hard, then one might expect the time per hit to increase with the number of hits.

 

As shown in Fig. 1, there is a poor correlation below 80 hits (i.e. for most students, the number of hits is not representative of how hard they work). It was interesting to note the total number of hits versus the week of the semester for three students (Fig. 2). A slow week of Web site usage coincided with the first part of Spring break and it was followed by heavy usage during the week classes resumed. In a separate study, I found that only 2 out of 25 students used the Web within 5 hours of an exam. There appeared to be a lot of Web usage after the exams.

 

The number of hits d'es not seem to correlate with the final grade achieved (Fig. 3: from the top line: “A” students are represented by the triangle, “C” students by the diamond, and “B” students by the circle). However, the number of articles that a student read on the Web site Bulletin Board did seem to correlate with final grades (see Fig. 4).

 

In summary, most students found that a Web site helped them in the lecture course. Whether this Web site increased student grades is still not known, since this was the first time the course was given in conjunction with the Web site.

 

 

Dr. Stith received his Ph.D. in physiology in 1982, and has taught at the University of Colorado-Denver since 1987. He has received over a million dollars in research grants from the National Science Foundation and a French pharmaceutical company. He teaches General Cell Biology, Developmental Biology and two graduate courses.

 

E-mail: bstith@carbon.cudenver.edu

 

 

Acknowledgements

In addition to the students who took this first course in Developmental Biology, I would like to thank May Lowry, Ed Nuhfer, Carl Pletsch and Vickey Wood for their help. I would like to acknowledge financial help from the ITI grant program, David Kassoy (Large Course Development Project) and from a challenge grant to The UCD Office of Teaching Effectiveness (E. Nuhfer, C. Pletsch). Space came from the School of Education (Tom Bellamy).

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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