In my first #DenninInsights post, I discussed some of the common course designations that UCI will be using for the upcoming 2021/22 academic year. After that, we took a journey through course structures, grading philosophy and practices, the meaning of standards, and even views on academic integrity. But what should we expect from these reflections? Well, what I hope for is a year or two (or more) of experimentation when it comes to the types of courses offered in institutions of higher education!

As faculty truly embrace the fact that course structures need to be designed with intention and align with student strengths and needs, they will bring their natural creativity to the process. Building on what we have learned during the pandemic, faculty will also be able to leverage technology in their courses in innovative and exciting ways. Combined with increased access to data and research, I hope for an explosion of new course styles and delivery modes. 

Here are just a few examples based on my reflections and conversations with colleagues.

First, imagine the traditional lecture course that meets for three hours a week in-person. The lecture involves some combination of information delivery by the instructor, student questions answered by the instructor, and perhaps even time for students to do some activity. During the information delivery portion, students take notes to study from. This step of engaging with the lecture material at a later date is critical to the learning process. After all, it is the rare person that can process, completely understand, and remember the content of a lecture without having material to refer back to!

However, there are some students who struggle to process information while taking notes. While these students might benefit from being more present during a lecture, the design of the course forces them to take notes because it is their only way to save information for later engagement.

If we embrace new technologies and encourage the evolution of our courses, we can easily redesign the traditional lecture course to suit a wider range of student needs. For instance, imagine that the instructor records their live lectures, quickly edits them, and posts them for students to review in the future. This step increases the ways in which the students can grapple with the material after class. And during class, the students who find note-taking more a distraction than a benefit can focus on processing the material in real-time and perhaps engage more fully by asking questions, joining the conversations that naturally arise during class, and so on. 

Taking this one step further, what if students could post these questions through a “chat” mechanism in real-time and an undergraduate learning assistant collated, processed, and organized the questions for the instructor to answer? Not only would this ensure that the instructor could clarify confusing course material, but it would also make class participation much easier for students who do not feel comfortable posing questions to the entire class aloud. 

Switch to another typical scene. Class has ended, and students gather around the instructor with questions. One of their questions inspires the instructor with a new way of presenting a critical point. They now face a dilemma: taking time from the next lecture to re-explain the concept might compromise their carefully crafted schedule that barely fits into 10 weeks. Fortunately, technology offers a solution that doesn’t take up class time while still distributing the information to all students. The instructor could record a 5-10 minute mini-lecture on their home computer (or even their smartphone) and post it on the class website as an optional resource. Students who choose to watch it can continue asking questions in the comment section, and their online discussions can be a resource to all students.

One of the most significant places for experimentation and creativity of design is in the space of “hybrid” courses. The simplicity of making videos with chapter indexes, closed captions, annotations, and even embedded quizzes allows us to rethink time and space. (And as a physicist, any contemplation of time and space is encouraged!) What would it mean to carefully design a course with:

  1. One hour of pre-recorded lecture material that is broken down into 10-15 minute chunks, each with a short comprehension quiz, that students watch at the beginning of the week.
  2. One hour and twenty minutes of required in-class time that involves group activities with real-time feedback. 
  3. One more hour of short follow-up videos that make connections between the initial lectures and what happened during the in-person activity.
  4. The typical homework and projects for the subject and course.

This is just one permutation of the traditional three to four hours a week that used to be fixed in space and time and can now be flexed between physical space, virtual space, synchronous, and asynchronous time.

Pushing the creative boundaries further, imagine a course explicitly focused on learning how to learn and apply skills and concepts within a discipline. Instead of a traditional course that takes all students through concepts and skills in a linear fashion, the core of this experimental course would be a set of real-world, open-ended problems. Solving these problems would require all the competencies taught in a traditional course, but it would be up to the students to determine which skills and knowledge are required to solve each problem.

Instead of the traditional lectures, material would be packaged as online modules of video lectures, quizzes, and discussion boards. In class, the students would meet in teams and interact with the instructor, TAs, and undergraduate Learning Assistants to get real-time feedback on their progress, questions, etc. The students would actively make choices each week on which modules to study for the current stage of their problem. By the end of the quarter, they would have learned the same set of concepts and skills covered in a traditional course. More importantly, they would have practiced deciding what knowledge they need to solve a problem and how to learn it in a reasonable time frame.

These are just a few examples of promising ways to evolve our courses, from a small-scale change to a radical new vision of instruction. They all build on the student-faculty, student-student, and student-material interactions, leveraging both interactions in shared physical spaces and in the online space. They preserve the fundamental elements of student and faculty time and effort, all while redistributing where it occurs! They allow for creative new structures that can actually increase the effectiveness and inclusive nature of our courses—what higher education should be striving for.