For Pinar Çelik, it all starts with goals: What do faculty members looking to improve their courses want to accomplish this semester, next year, and over the long haul?
Çelik is a learning designer with the Learning Design Collaboratory, a program that provides course assessment, course design, and a community of practice for University of Iowa faculty members and instructors.
“We begin by identifying things we’d like to modify under the guidance of preliminary course assessment, usually one to seven goals,” she says. “From there we create a timeline, implement changes, and assess our implementation results.”
Developed and managed by the Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology (OTLT), the Collaboratory aims to help faculty and students alike get more from their courses and learning experiences at the University of Iowa.
“We have four goals—supporting student success, improving the faculty experience, boosting quality and transferability of course design, and reducing costs for students,” says Chris Clark, IT director and Collaboratory project manager.
The program addresses factors like format, structure, or materials of courses and helps faculty participants evaluate their work in a new light.
“It provides a chance for faculty to talk through their ideas with peers and learning designers,” Clark says. “We see how changes in attitudes about teaching lead to behavioral changes and, eventually, changes in outcomes for students.”
Digging into data
Data can tell learning designers a lot about a course, but faculty perspectives often reveal even more.
“With our assessment team, we look at data like incoming GPAs, demographics, and exam scores to identify discrepancies, but also rely on anecdotal feedback,” Çelik says. “Faculty share information about physical spaces, attendance, class format, and other factors that data may not capture.”
For Matt Hill and colleagues, the Collaboratory offered a forum for exploring the traditionally high drop, fail, and withdrawal rate for Anthropology 1201: World Geography, and shed light on instructors’ observations that first-year students seemed to be struggling with the course in different ways.
“We would get a lot of questions about assignments and when they were due, or why we were doing this or that in the course,” says Hill, associate professor of anthropology. “It started to feel for the first time that students were asking less about course content and more about structures and procedures. We couldn’t assume that they brought the same basic knowledge about being a college student.”
Data analysis showed that first-generation students comprised a high percentage of those encountering trouble. Attendance problems underscored the idea that these students weren’t sure what was expected of them.
After reviewing course assessment data provided by OTLT research associate Yu (Tracy) Zhao, Hill worked with learning designer Shelby Herig and lead instructional designer Amy Oberfoell from Distance and Online Education on a series of changes. They relied less on the syllabus for info about goals, deadlines, and overall expectations, and more on a streamlined ICON site, regular emails to students, and reminders during lecture. Instructors also started taking roll and introduced student-response-system “clickers” to boost classroom engagement.
“We saw changes almost immediately,” Hill says. “The procedural questions simply went away. Late or missed assignments seemed to improve dramatically. Attendance for lecture was well above 90 percent for most of the semester.”
Some changes were unexpected. On surveys, students reported mixed feelings about clickers (though clicker use seems to correlate with higher exam scores). They gave the ICON site high marks but used fewer pages. And scores on some specific essays and exams initially dropped.
“Grades aside, I think the changes are positive,” Hill says.
Taking course materials digital
Tapping data sources and adopting interactive classroom tools are just a couple of ways the Collaboratory uses instructional technology to advance course-redesign goals. Others connect faculty with emerging or established options, including many already supported by various university units.
“We offer access to services that faculty otherwise might need to research on their own,” Clark says. “We do our best to provide a holistic approach and a comprehensive support team.”
When instructors and designers assessed potential improvements for Chemistry 1110: Principles of Chemistry, converting a print laboratory manual into an interactive, fully accessible digital alternative made their shortlist.
The project used Pressbooks, a platform for creating textbooks and other resources in multiple formats that work across a spectrum of devices. It infuses videos and 3D models into a dynamic document, incorporates quizzes on safety protocols, and evolves to keep pace with scientific discovery.
Going digital saves students the cost of purchasing a printed manual. It also ensures that users with disabilities can access the material using screen readers or other assistive technologies.
“We’d eventually like to make these and other online resources available publicly,” says Çelik, who helped develop the Chemistry 1110 manual with Herig and OTLT colleagues Vicky Maloy and Abisola Osinuga. “We hope they can reach more students at the university and other institutions.”
Starting from basics
Collaboratory projects involve courses taught by individual faculty members or teams, cover fields ranging from the hard sciences to the humanities, and stem from awareness of a specific problem or a general interest in building a better course or learning experience.
Though solutions often touch technology, some of the most profound developments come from conversations about why faculty do what they do.
“Talking about goals can be transformational,” Clark says. “Faculty frequently tell us that they approach some courses the way they always have, without pausing to think about what they’re trying to accomplish. We help them find that framework.”