Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Designing a Class...or a course of study.

How are courses in a university designed?  Can you buy courses from a university store?  Or do college courses just follow the book?

Some years ago I was asked to teach a course in beginning (basic) instructional media at a university's college of education.  It had been taught previously by the head of the department however the dean was trying to get some time for this professor to be able to do some research hence I was asked to teach the course.  Not only teach the course but redesign it and "bring it up to date."  

The first thing to do was to ascertain the parameters--those things which could not be changed.  For instance, this course was in the catalog, 3 quarter credits (which meant that it met for three hours a week for a quarter or twelve weeks of instruction.  That meant for this scheduled course it would meet on Thursdays from 4 pm to 7 pm.  The classroom was a controlled classroom, meaning that only the department of Instructional media had access to it.  It was a long room with an aisle up the middle, a small stage in front and projection equipment already installed in the classroom.  This was before microcomputers were established so I didn't have to teach computers.  The class would have access to a "Self-Instructional Learning Laboratory," a room of equipment set up with special designed instructions to help the student learn how to operate different types of media.

An important task is to review who the student will be in this course.  In this case, being that it was an afternoon/evening course, I could expect a number of experienced teachers wanting to learn more about technology as well as picking up 3 credits for fifth year or master's work.  I could also expect to have a number of upper grade underclass students completing their educational requirements.  The register's office said I might expect forty to fifty students.  While the majority of the students would be in education I might also get a couple of undergraduate Forestry students and some Library Science students.

My next task was to list the equipment that I wanted to demonstrate and to rough out the amount of time I thought I needed for each medium.  I also added an introduction and a summary to the course for time purposes.  At this point I set up the objectives for each medium, not only wanting the student to be able to operate the equipment, but know why it was to be used and what characteristics it brought to the learning, i.e., film brought motion, overhead transparencies brought visual clarity and 35 mm slides brought visual acuity. 

Now the hard work started.  First I wrote out what I thought might be the final exam.  I find testing to be the biggest chore for me--it takes time to write a decent question that will reveal a student's knowledge of that objective.  However, if I start at this juncture, the rest of the course is easier to design.  I received permission from the department to not use a textbook for this course.  My reasoning (which I have reviewed over the years) was that I wanted to students to know the machines through their actions, not through readings.  I'm still not sure what is the best way for the learners.

The next step is to plan the instruction for each objective.  Introduction, presentation of the medium along with demonstration of different materials that can be used at different grade levels (K-12).  For each medium taught I listed capabilities that I wanted each student to acquire from making different types of overheads to previewing film to use in their classrooms.  I wanted them to discover some of their own learning with the equipment and with that discovery some increased positive feelings with the use of instructional media (affective domain).  

Once I had the media objective's instructions outlined, tasks assigned to each objective, I compare it to my final examination.  In some cases I changed the instructional material and in some cases I changed the final exam questions.

I then scheduled the self-instructional learning lab for specific evenings so that students from off campus would have time to participate in the learning laboratory.  Let me digress here for a moment.  Shortly after World War II, Penn State University college of education did some interesting research on how to teach technology.  During WW II soldiers were taught by expository method with the warning that if they didn't learn "it" they would probably be killed.  High internal motivation resulted.  But after the war, how does one motivate the learning of technology without that threat?  Interesting thought.  So Penn State designed a course in media with different approaches in methodology....1) pure lecture (traditional at that time), 2) supervised hands on (one on one), 3) self-instructional laboratory with instructions written on cards or slides), 4) during student teaching and 5) no instructions at all (control group). 

These methods were used for a year and during the following year most of the subjects had gotten teaching jobs and were evaluated by the principal as to their use of instructional materials in their classroom.  There was no difference between the groups including the control group.  Holy cow!  The researchers could think of no reason why this was happening.  However on the second year the control group was significantly lower in evaluation scores by the principals.  But on the third year it was the teachers who had learned in the self-instructional laboratories that seemed to stand out.  Seemed because they were the ones that were now being singled out as "excellent teachers" by the principals.  Not just in using the media but in all aspects of teaching.  

Why?  How come?  The eventual surmise was that these teachers (to be) were learning on their own how to use technology.  That might have been the cognitive and the psycho-motor objectives but they also acquired some affective learning on how to learn by oneself.  So as these teachers went on to teach their classroom, the continued to try different things out in the classroom.  One of these teachers reported that soon after getting her own classroom, the school brought in new technology and she figured that if she learned the other machines she could learn this as well.  Interesting thought here. students would have to go through the self-instruction learning lab and learn how to operate each piece of equipment and demonstrate that learning to a lab instructor.  Hands on testing.

I now had the course designed and the final was once again reviewed.  Because I elected not to use a textbook, I had to write up a course syllabus as well as a number of class handouts.  Because I had a large number of professional teachers in the class I needed to have make up times for those that had to miss class (only a few did), evening office hours for those teaching all day, office hours for those on campus, and a schedule date for the final examination.  

I can report that the class went well.  My notes suggest that I needed more time for student comments--those that went back to their classrooms and tried some of the material I had presented.  "Success breeds success" and you have to let the students brag a bit about what they had done.  Many reported they didn't like the self-instructional lab at the beginning but they all agreed that after some rough starts it was fun "learning the new equipment."  They seem to reinforce the findings of Penn State's learning lab.  One negative that I still haven't quite got over--because of the class time (4 to 7), many of the students came to class eating a fast food dinner.  For an instructor who would not get his dinner until later that night, those fast food dinners sure smelled good.

I didn't follow up on the students after they finished the course.  On hind sight I think I might have done that to see what was valuable to them in their teaching.

Today if I were to design an Instructional Technology course, I would go through some of the same procedures but I probably would have the use of Smart Boards for expository use, computers for sure in laboratories, and I would mandate the use of "Blackboard" instead of handouts.  Student responses would be done on Blackboard, a course management system to facilitate exchange between student and instructor.  

Have you ever thanked a college instructor for the course?  It would be a nice surprise.  

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