UC Santa Cruz Online Course Emphasizes Student Involvement

October 24, 2002

The course, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, made use of custom software developed by the instructor, Tara Madhyastha, an assistant professor of computer engineering. Madhyastha developed the online version of the course after teaching it with conventional lectures for three years. Offered by the Department of Computer Engineering as CMPE185, the course teaches engineers and computer scientists how to write everything from technical reports and documentation to resumes and letters of recommendation.

“Since I began teaching this class, I have been developing software to allow the students to do progressively more things online, from online submission of assignments to peer editing. Eventually it became clear that there was no need for the lectures,” Madhyastha said.

Many courses at UCSC and other universities have a web site where students can find various kinds of information and materials, but this was UCSC’s first course to do away with regular class meetings. Self-assessment and student collaboration were central to the learning experience in Madhyastha’s online course. For example, the peer-editing software she developed, called PeerEdit, allowed students to review and comment on other students’ work online.

“In the traditional model for online course offerings, students interact with materials that the instructor posts on a web site. Our philosophy is to harness the students’ ability to teach themselves and enable them to interact with each other. That’s what peer editing is all about,” Madhyastha said.

Lynda Goff, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, said peer review is an effective tool for teaching writing skills, and it is being used in writing programs throughout the country.

“Students actually learn more about writing by critiquing other students’ papers. At the same time, peer review can help alleviate the bottleneck that results when all of the critical feedback has to come from the instructor,” Goff said.

Having students in a large class critique each other’s papers, however, presents some logistical challenges that Madhyastha overcame with the web-based software tools she created. She designed the PeerEdit software to work with commercial programs such as WebCT, a platform for creating instructional web sites, and Adobe Acrobat for marking up documents.

“She is able to use this integrated computer program to set up the assignments, monitor the peer-review process, and really get the students to work together. And on top of that she delivered it as a virtual course this year,” Goff said. “It was a tremendous success and we are learning a lot from what she has done. This may be a model that we can scale up and use more widely on the campus to improve writing instruction.”

Madhyastha worked closely with Larry Merkley, campus consultant for information technology, to implement the online version of the course. By offering it during Summer Session, they were able to do a pilot run with a smaller number of students than typically take the course during the school year.

“We had a really good experience, and now we want to move forward and see where it can go from here,” Merkley said. “I don’t see this as something that is going to replace face-to-face teaching, but it can be a very effective approach for certain subjects and for certain students. If you can create an experience online that actually addresses certain needs and helps students learn more effectively, people will want to go in that direction.”

In designing the online course, Madhyastha focused on carefully constructed assignments and self-assessment exercises. Virginia Draper, coordinator of UCSC’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, and Holly Cordova, coordinator of the campus’s Learning Center, gave Madhyastha the idea of using self-assessment and helped her develop the assignments and self-assessment worksheets.

Madhyastha told the students what was important for each assignment and asked them to rate themselves and each other on how well they met those criteria. She was available for consultation during extended office hours by phone and instant messaging (like e-mail but without delays, allowing conversation-like exchanges). Students could also come to her office in person, but fewer did so than in the regular class, she said. There were also assigned books, online quizzes, and an online newsgroup for the class (all elements Madhyastha used in the regular course, as well).

The course has received more than the usual scrutiny of student performance and attitudes. Tests administered during two classroom sessions, one at the beginning and one at the end of the course, are being used to evaluate the effectiveness of the online approach. The results analyzed so far show high student approval ratings, and Madhyastha said the students seemed to be more engaged in the learning process than in the lecture-based course.

Richard Hughey, chair of the Department of Computer Engineering, said the student evaluations were impressive. All of the students said the course should be offered online again, and they gave Madhyastha high marks for overall teaching, despite the fact that she never gave a lecture. The students also performed phenomenally well, Hughey said, although he noted that the online course may have attracted more self-motivated students.

“There may have been some self-selection, but the results certainly bode well for using this approach,” Hughey said.

Madhyastha said she feels ready to offer the online course to a larger group of students during the regular academic year. The one part of the course that suffered in the online approach was the segment dealing with oral presentations, she said.

“Some topics don’t lend themselves as well to this mode of teaching, so I’d like to have an additional class session to explain how to give presentations,” she said.

Goff said the campus is exploring other opportunities for online delivery of courses. The goal is not to replace classroom-based teaching, but to use technology to provide additional or enhanced learning opportunities for students, she said.

“I think it has tremendous potential to provide added benefits,” Goff said.


Tim Stephens

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