KNOXVILLE – One year into a two-year pilot program, the University of Tennessee’s test of the utility of new online learning technology compared to other online platforms currently in use has achieved successful outcomes that resulted in additional state funding.
Launched in May 2013, the pilot program is a partnership between the UT System and the Tennessee Board of Regents, funded by a $1 million appropriation from the state of Tennessee for online innovation projects in connection with Gov. Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign. Based largely on the pilot’s initial success, an additional $1 million appropriation was approved by the legislature last month. The added funding will be used broadly to apply lessons learned from the pilot or to test additional ways technology can be leveraged to improve student outcomes.
The pilot program is using technology developed by Coursera and edX, national innovators in massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
“Universities across the country are questioning what the future holds for higher education given rapid advances in technology, changing demands of those we serve and declining state support,” UT President Joe DiPietro said. “We must be open to considering new approaches to delivering education, and this is one example of how we’re doing that in Tennessee and at UT.”
To date, four courses have been piloted on UT’s campuses across the state using the Coursera platform, which relies heavily on short video lectures, quizzes and immediate feedback to ensure students master each concept before moving to the next. Two courses were offered completely online, and two tested a “flipped classroom” approach, which requires students to watch lectures outside of class. Courses include:
- English Rhetoric and Composition I and II, UT Chattanooga (fall 2013 and spring 2014)
- Masterpieces of Music, UT Martin (fall 2013 and spring 2014)
- College Algebra, UT Knoxville (spring 2014)
“The excitement generated by this project has been energizing,” said India Lane, UT assistant vice president for academic affairs and student success. “Within a few months, it was easy to see how this type of investment and team effort helps us get in the trenches and test methods that we hope will reduce the number of students repeating introductory courses and lead to better retention and graduation rates.”
Initial takeaways from the pilot include the value of course redesign and quality video instruction and the importance of course fit for success in an online platform.
For Malissa Peery, a faculty member in the math department at UT Knoxville, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive for both her and participating students.
“I’d never taught online before and was a little concerned about a flipped approach, but I really wanted to try it because I always hear students say they understand everything in class but can’t do it when they get home,” she said. “So it made perfect sense. They watch my lectures outside of class, and when we’re together, we’re doing exercises to reinforce the material and build connections between the concepts.
“Even the energy level in the flipped class is different. The students are interacting, it’s less stressful and a lot more fun.”
Roberto Mancusi, associate professor of music at UT Martin, has been teaching a general education music appreciation course online since 2010 and agreed to transition the course to Coursera to compare the two platforms.
“I noticed students using Coursera were more engaged in the discussion board and offered more thought-based responses,” he said. “They seemed to have a better understanding of the material. They even started a discussion thread about what they thought of the course, and they all thought it was wonderful.”
As an experienced online lecturer at UT Chattanooga and fan of technology, Tiffany Mitchell jumped at the chance to convert her online English rhetoric and composition II course to Coursera. She said she found the platform, in its current design, to be more of a content consumption tool better suited for lecture-heavy courses. She agreed the video aspect was a valuable addition but has continued using outside tools to allow for intense peer-to-peer and peer-to-instructor interaction.
Three courses are being designed now for testing the edX platform. In fall 2014, a general education literature course using edX will launch at UT Martin, along with an upper-level education course at UT Chattanooga. The pilot will conclude in summer 2015 with all UT Knoxville freshmen being enrolled in First-Year Studies 100, a required course that takes place over the summer to help incoming students transition, using the edX platform.
In total, more than 4,800 UT students are expected to participate in the Coursera and edX pilot courses, and their feedback, along with input from faculty and support staff, will continue to be collected, compared to experiences and student outcomes at TBR and used to determine next steps and future plans.
“Through this pilot, we’re gaining valuable knowledge,” Lane said. “We intentionally mapped out a small pilot project and have proceeded carefully, monitoring the process and outcomes before considering any larger-scale adaption. As expected, the campus teams turned out fantastic course content, but we didn’t anticipate the synergy and exponential value we have gained from collaborating as a system and with TBR to brainstorm, share successes and address challenges.
“What we’re seeing are the amazing results that can happen when you invest in a team effort like this and allow faculty the opportunity to focus their energy for the benefit of their students.”