How to Customize Big Classes

I'm often challenged to suggest ways to use technology in really large classes of 60 and 200 and 600 students. In practice, I believe that the potential for value added by computers is even greater in larger classes.

Consider these two points: First, computers enable and support interpersonal communication, exchange of information, timely dialogue, and collaborations; second, computers make feasible customizing assignments, differentiating the experiences of shoulder-to-shoulder learners, and individualizing learning opportunities. There are other benefits that come from adopting the computer, but the highest benefit/lowest cost use of the computer—to enhance communication—is also the most supportive of learning. And it is in larger classes where the potential for increasing customized communication is the greatest.

However, before most of these benefits can be realized it's necessary to work through one issue: computer access, or more specifically, regular access to the Internet.

From the outset, usually in the course syllabus that's distributed at the first session, all students should be told that they must check their e-mail daily and that they must be able to access course materials on the Internet. In other words, all teaching in this course will proceed on the assumption that students own the textbook, that students have access to the library and laboratory at appropriate times, that students come to most classes, that quizzes and exams will be taken when scheduled, and that students have daily access to the Internet. It may not be equally convenient for every student to reach the Internet every day, just as different students will face unique challenges in getting to the library and even to class. But the difficulties encountered by a few will not be permitted to deny the opportunities provided by computers for the many.

If a particular student finds this eminently reasonable condition too onerous, that student should enroll in another section or not take the course. In order to avoid confusion and professorial double-work, it is essential that all students be party to the computer-based communication system around which the course is built. With two-thirds of American households, 75 percent of American college students, every college's computer lab, and almost every public library now connected to the Internet, the presumption of universal access is not only necessary, it's also reasonable.

Once the Internet is thought of as a learning tool available to all, big classes can be enhanced by four strategies: delegate, communicate, collaborate, and customize.

Delegate
Ask your large corps of students to help each other learn by:

  • Identifying and sharing URLs that support learning the material in different ways.
  • Refining each others' rough draft papers or answers to end-of-the-chapter questions.
  • Accepting periodic designation as "captain of a 10-student group" for the week and, in the role of captain, consolidate student questions and answers and make sure that every student in the group leaves the week with an understanding of the material.
  • Identifying, during the end of the term, those students who were most helpful to them.

Communicate

  • Establish a daily deadline for checking e-mail.
  • Use an electronic grade book (with periodic backups in hard copy).
  • Build a frequently-asked-questions file that can be improved with each course iteration.
  • Design team assignments that can (if necessary) be worked on asynchronously.

Collaborate

  • Watch for teaching-with-technology sessions at national disciplinary meetings.
  • Make a deal with several colleagues to develop interactive materials for one week of assignments in exchange for their developing materials for other topics and weeks.
  • Check MERLOT at www.merlot.org for chunks of material.
  • Check out the National Gallery of Courses Taught with Technology at http://iccel.wfu.edu/gallery.

Customize

  • Ask each student to complete a short profile-of-interests form, including a picture, and place the material on the course Internet site.
  • Once or twice during the term, after consulting the profile, send a short e-mail note to each student.
  • In class, ask students to wear nametags and establish a fixed seating pattern. If feasible, create a seating chart with pictures and names; send an electronic copy of the chart to all students.
  • Provide the URLs for alternative ways of learning the material, and for examples of the use of the material that relate to different interests.
  • If feasible, establish a hierarchy of help whereby a student's question (often delivered via e-mail) can first be addressed by classmates, then a paid undergraduate advisor to the course, then a graduate assistant, then an assistant professor, and finally (if not yet answered) to the full professor in charge of the course.

Many of these activities are natural elements of small courses, but the technology allows us to consider pursuing these same strategies when larger numbers of students are involved. Because of large numbers, larger up-front investments of time can be justified.

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