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Web Tool Helps Determine How and What Students Learn

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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This gives us much more access to how they are learning. Say you give what you think is a brilliant lecture, but then everyone bombs the quiz. Well, clearly it wasn't so brilliant; you have to rethink that lecture. ... It's a way to use technology where appropriate, and the students get a better experience


The article below looks at the use of CourseWork, class software that helps test, grade, and analyze students' weaknesses. It appeared on April 23, 2003 in the Stanford Report. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Learning How to Learn

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Anyone who has ever sat through a freshman survey course knows the sinking feeling of anonymity that often comes with being just one among hundreds in a large lecture course -- wondering if the professor even knows who you are, let alone how well you are grappling with the course materials.

Russell Fernald, director of the Human Biology Program, was all too familiar with the dilemma of distance and anonymity in large lecture classes. HumBio shares with economics the distinction of being among Stanford's largest undergraduate majors, and its core courses typically number 300 or so students. So Fernald's interest was piqued when he was approached in 1998 by a team from the former Stanford Learning Lab that was exploring new ways to use technology and the web to aid in teaching.

"We said, 'OK, we have these very large survey courses with 300 students. How can we use technology to close the distance with our students, not increase it?'" Fernald recalled.

Working closely with the Learning Lab team, Fernald and biological sciences Professor Craig Heller devised weekly online problems sets as way for students to self-diagnose what they were learning -- or not -- and for professors and their teaching assistants to get to know students in each section of their large courses. Delivered via a course website that allowed anytime/anywhere access to the materials and online posting of students' completed work, the problem sets had both multiple choice questions, which could be graded automatically, and a short writing section in which students elaborate on their multiple choice selections. Professors and TAs could rapidly review the work and focus on the expository section when too many errors showed up in the multiple choice questions.

"The core classes are way too big to do that on weekly basis. But we could use the technology [of class-specific web pages] to do it automatically," Fernald said. "We can read over the essays to see specifically what the students are getting or missing. You see that Tiffany does not understand this part, or that one section didn't do well on such and such a topic. Then you can send Tiffany a note to come see you about it, or go over the problem material again in that section.

"This gives us much more access to how they are learning. Say you give what you think is a brilliant lecture, but then everyone bombs the quiz. Well, clearly it wasn't so brilliant; you have to rethink that lecture. ... It's a way to use technology where appropriate, and the students get a better experience," Fernald added.

HumBio's online problem sets were the precursor for CourseWork, a course website development and distribution tool devised by Academic Computing. Targeted at faculty who want a web presence for their course without having to spend a lot of time learning the technical ins and outs of web pages, it serves as a template for creating a website.

Under the guidance of education technology manager Charles Kerns, the CourseWork team took HumBio's online problem set model and built it out into a web-based course management system that is simple and easy to use. Technical requirements are limited to the ability to use email, surf the web and type in Microsoft Word, Kerns said.

Initially, the team worked with HumBio and a handful of other courses, most of them languages. The Digital Language Lab, housed within Academic Computing on the second floor of Meyer Library, became one of the key drivers of innovation for CourseWork as the programmers modified the program to record, save and play back audio files online for weekly language quizzes.

In addition to setting up a homepage with the course description and other basic information, faculty can use simple web-based forms to post the syllabus, schedule, course materials and assignments, as well as send e-mail to individual students or the entire class. A pop-up copyright box reminds faculty about obtaining the proper permissions for any materials they post; they have the same responsibilities as if they were handing out photocopies in class.

Access to areas of the site beyond the homepage, which lists the course description and basic information, is limited to enrolled students. Students submit their work -- time- and date-stamped -- online, where faculty and TAs can likewise grade it and post results, all in a secure environment. "The Holy Grail is to do it better and faster -- testing, grading, giving feedback, whatever," said Kerns.

The latest version of CourseWork, released last fall, is linked to the Registrar's Axess system: When students enroll in a course they are automatically enrolled in its CourseWork site and have access to the secure pages. Sites also are linked to the libraries, so that students can check to see if reserved materials are available or being used; faculty can also add links to other materials.

"It's the 80 percent solution," said Lois Brooks, director of Academic Computing, who oversaw the CourseWork team that took over the project in 2000. "There's enough there for everyone to get the basics. It's not trying to be the 'best in class' version for those who want the top end, but it still has lots of jazzy features."

Evidently, CourseWork has sold itself. From its launch in Fall 2001 as a pilot with a handful of courses, use skyrocketed to 400 courses and 6,000 registered students by June 2002. To date, some 550 courses in 68 departments are using CourseWork; 7,325 students (some of them in multiple courses) were enrolled in Winter Quarter. Language courses are far and away the largest users, with 28 separate Spanish course sites alone, followed by the Program in Writing and Rhetoric with 29 sites. The schools of Humanities and Sciences and Engineering are the largest users.

Chris Chidsey, associate professor of chemistry, is a CourseWork convert, praising both the program's ease of use and the responsiveness of its staff in handling the inevitable bugs as it rolled out. Above all, he is sold on its advantages as a campuswide efficiency tool.

"On the benefits of using IT for pedagogy, the jury is still out. ... But for improved administration and pure efficiency, CourseWork is a no-brainer," he said. "It offers real network advantages, in the economic sense of network: the more people who use the system, the more valuable it becomes."

CourseWork was developed as part of the Open Knowledge Initiative, a multi-university project led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop course management software and other teaching tools. The Mellon grant runs out this June, and the project's administrators are weighing possible alternatives for continued funding. Brooks said no decisions have yet been reached on how to pay for CourseWork's support costs, which run approximately $500,000 per year. Meanwhile, a separate Mellon grant is funding work on an expanded testing tool, the Assignment and Assessment Manager, to be available next winter.

"Your coursework, materials, exams are all in the same place. You can check it anytime; it's secure," said junior Smita Das, a chemistry major. "It just makes everything easier."