Sunday, September 14, 2014
Our biggest shock thus far has been the amount of student interest. Given the lack of advertising, even to UT Austin students; and the very late registration opening (the Friday before classes began), we were expecting somewhere between 15-25 UT Austin students. I was persuaded to wait on pulling the plug with the argument that this would be a good opportunity to beta test the course with a small group. With 300 students, though, we can't afford any screw-ups. If I've learned anything about teaching at scale, it is that any minor error has the potential to cause enormous confusion and chaos. It was a mad scramble to staff the courses appropriately and also to get all the usual course documents prepared for the instructors. In the first few weeks of the semester, I focused a lot of attention on making sure that we communicated regularly to the online students, and that we were exceptionally responsive to their questions. As expected, there was a bit of disorientation but I think we were able to resolve it pretty quickly and get everyone down to work on the modules.
And then there was the matter of getting the modules polished and out the door. We had nearly all of the content finished, but still needed to add short podcasts. Thankfully, my new project manager is an audio engineer. I sent him scripts and recordings of me reading all the strange Latin names and terms; he found people to record the podcasts in their studio. I wanted there to be a multiplicity of voices, and we have that. My technologist also worked hard to get the first three modules out during these first weeks of the semester. I did a lot of proofreading, editing, and decision-making while she worked on the packaging of the content.
The only major issue we've had was with copying the Canvas course site from one course to another. For some reason, this process is buggy and required us to go in and re-edit the copied site. Otherwise, apart from some broken links, we've had few questions from students. They seem to be doing what we want them to do: working on their modules. They will have their first discussion this week, on Piazza. In order to facilitate better discussion, we've divided them into groups of about 50. The quality of these posts should tell us a lot about how well they are learning in the online environment. It should also serve as a check for them.
My biggest issue is trying to figure out how to manage the scale problem. The course design is constructivist and high touch. So far, I've decided that we will make every effort to give generous amounts of feedback through the first three modules. This will get them to the first midterm. After that, I am thinking about introducing a couple of things: first, instead of the instructional team grading and responding to all short answer questions (there are quite a few in each module), we will respond to a selection of questions and then post general feedback for the others. Second, I will have them respond to a peer's short answers. I am thinking that I might do the first form of response for the modules that lead up to the second midterm; and then the third form for the modules that lead up to the third midterm. And frame this transition as part of the design (which, in fact, it is): by the end of the semester, we want them to have progressed from passive recipients of feedback to active givers of it, whether to themselves or to their fellow students. I was motivated to think harder about this issue because of the size of the class, but I actually think it's one of those situations where a problem is actually a stimulus to a better solution.
It is going to be a very long semester for me. Thankfully, I have my sine qua non, Dr. Liew, helping me every step of the way; a very strong instructional team; and a great project manager who is doing his best to take tasks away from me. Still, it takes a lot of time to prepare the modules for release. We have to work very carefully to ensure that no errors are introduced and to ensure that everything is set properly. But we are also focused on quality. My team of students who worked on the modules this summer did an excellent job of preparing drafts. Now we are revising, beefing up content, adding graphics, and creating introductions, summaries, podcasts, etc. It is interesting but mentally draining work. On the bright side, we are creating a durable artifact, and much of the work that we are doing this fall will not have to be redone in the near future.