Facilitating Discussion in a Class of 1000 Students
School of Forest Resources
College of the Environment
University of Washington, Seattle Campus
The challenge for Rob Harrison, a professor in the School of Forest Resources, is to deliver a high quality learning experience to the very large number of students who take his Environmental Science course, ESRM 100. At its peak, the course has had as many as 1100 students, with a TA to student ratio of about 200 to 1. "The various technology tools and resources we use," states Harrison, "are essential."
ESRM 100 provides a comprehensive overview of environmental science, ranging from the general structure of the earth and how it works to issues like biological diversity, pollution, and global warming. Students attend three exams together in Kane Hall and complete one final written project, which they work on individually or in small groups. The rest of the course happens online.
When Harrison first started using technology tools for his teaching in 1989, he was putting course pages on the Web using a tool called Mosaic. Although it was revolutionary to be able to post course material online, it was also a difficult process, and there was the added issue that his students had no idea how to use the tool. Harrison states, "Now students are coming in and they’re so savvy. This is what they want to do. The students would prefer to learn in an online format rather than have face time with me. I think both learning strategies are useful, but there are certain courses that work in an online format."
Tools Help Manage a Large Class
Harrison states that what he needs in ESRM 100 are simple technology tools that work extremely fast. Students are provided with two different ways to access course lectures. He is also constantly thinking of ways to use technology to save time. He runs the course Web site through his Mac server so that he can edit the site instantly from his desktop, without having to log in to the UW system. He has created a standard set of student email responses that are saved as macros and can be automatically inserted into an email at the touch of a button. As a study aid, Harrison records lectures on his laptop and offers the audio files to his students. Students access the lectures primarily through Powerpoint slides that are posted to the course Web site, though Harrison is currently piloting a new system from UW Education Outreach to provide an additional access point.
Harrison uses a Catalyst GoPost discussion board as an integral tool in the course. The board gets a lot of use, with over 600 individual conversations recorded last Spring quarter. Harrison emphasizes, “There’s a big difference between a tool that works for 20 students and a tool that works for 1000 students,” going on to explain that he uses GoPost because he feels it is scalable to any level that he wants to take it to. He also uses Catalyst GradeBook to submit grades to the registrar, which saves him a lot of time: “Those old Husky purple forms, when you have a thousand students, it’s a day-long process.” In the past, Harrison used the Catalyst Peer Review tool, which allowed students to read and comment on other students’ final projects. Harrison is planning to re-introduce the peer review requirement this Spring and is still deciding which tool would best facilitate the process.
Overall, Harrison is very pleased with the Catalyst Web Tools: “The main thing is they’re fast, they work as advertised, and they offer a suite of things that help me to get students to write. And they also organize student materials in such a way that the grading responsibilities can easily be divided up.”
Challenges and Futures Plans
One of the problems that Harrison has encountered while teaching this course is changing technologies. Running ESRM 100 smoothly requires that technology be completely integrated beforehand; one upgrade to a product he relies on means hours of work upgrading all his tools and forms. For Harrison, working the system has often meant convincing lab administrators to keep the software he is using on their computers, or LST staff from phasing out older versions of the Catalyst Web Tools. Yet Harrison has many dreams for the future in terms of technology that would help ESRM 100 run more effectively and efficiently. He hopes one day to have a tool that can facilitate the creation of a student-generated set of 1000 exam questions, which the students could use throughout the quarter as a means of studying for the exams and measuring how well they understand the content of the course. For Harrison, tying the technology to the student learning experience in this way can help deliver course concepts and content that the students want, when they want it.
In his teaching, Harrison is thoroughly focused on the students. He states, “We’re living right on the edge of our time management at the moment, and it’s working well for the students. And that’s what’s important, not that it works well for me. What I want is to have as many UW students as possible take ESRM 100 and give the most high quality course I can give in the amount of time I have to spend. That’s key. And right now, with the Catalyst Tools, the macros, the Web site, and everything else that makes this course happen, it’s working.”