Web-Enabled Databases to Support Teaching

At the 1999 inception of course management at MU, a mere spreadsheet was adequate to keep track of the few dozen instructors who were early adopters of WebCT. As the popularity and sophistication of CMS usage increased and as Blackboard was added to the mix, the campus needed an adaptable system to (1) streamline the process for faculty signing-up to use BlackBoard or WebCT, (2) keep track of which faculty members were teaching which courses in the two systems, (3) manage courses over time so that an accurate historical record could be kept, and (4) facilitate the course creation, backup and copying processes from semester to semester. Although both BlackBoard and WebCT have a variety of internal tools designed to aid teaching and learning in online environments, neither system has what MU's ET@MO staff needed to manage and integrate the information that the two course management systems contained separately. As the number of support staff grew and the computing environment became more heterogeneous, an easy-to-use, cross-platform solution was needed so that multiple staff members could access and compare information.

Using FileMaker Pro, ET@MO staff created online course site request Web forms that feed directly into a database that contains information about the WebCT and BlackBoard courses offered in the current semester. Staff verify the information that faculty provide, making corrections as needed. Staff also import data from the university's distance learning administrative unit thereby eliminating the need for those faculty members to request a course site. Once data are verified, the five-member course management team can access the data simultaneously and "divide up" the creation of new courses based on platform, originating department, and several other criteria. This shared process helps balance the workload among staff at crunch times, especially at the beginning of the semester. To ensure that there is a historical record containing both faculty- and course-specific information, staff members use embedded macros to "push" final data from the short-term database to a permanent database. Having accurate historical records has enabled better planning for course management system growth, and also has helped various departments, schools, and colleges identify new possible degree programs from coherent groups of courses already using online technologies in significant ways. In Fall 2004, more than 60,000 students enrolled in approximately 1,200 WebCT and BlackBoard courses across the entire university curriculum--including face-to-face courses as well as courses offered completely online.

Facilitating Mid-Semester Course Evaluations

The University of Missouri has offered pencil-and-paper mid-semester evaluations for many years, but it has been a time-intensive task. First, faculty members needed to carve out at least 15 minutes of class time to conduct the evaluation. Next, university staff had to collect, tabulate, summarize (often re-typing hand-written comments to protect student anonymity), and then return paper summaries to faculty members. This process could literally take weeks, wasting valuable time when teaching improvements could have been implemented. Further, students felt that their comments were too late to bring about beneficial changes while they were taking the class.

To address the challenge of providing timely feedback, ET@MO collaborated with MU's Program for Excellence in Teaching (PET) to create an online "Early Feedback" teaching evaluation system. First, staff from these two units adapted the paper-and-pencil course assessment to an online format for faculty members who voluntarily requested the service. Next, Filemaker Pro automatically sends students in each course an e-mail message linking to the online course evaluation form which, when submitted, feeds into a database. With FileMaker Pro driving the system, staff are able to quickly generate feedback reports for each faculty member's course, save these summaries in PDF format, and e-mail them to faculty as soon as their students are done providing feedback. This tabulation process--which literally takes only a few seconds of staff time per course--gives faculty members access to timely information with which to improve teaching before the semester is finished. The time savings also frees staff for increased consultation with faculty who want to discuss new teaching strategies. In the past two years, this service has grown tremendously, and is now used by more than 500 courses each semester.On Likert scale questions, results from the 33 percent online response rate were found to be statistically similar to the 81 percent paper-and-pencil response rate. On open-ended questions, students were found to comment on twice as many different components of the course, and to provide twice as much description about each component when compared to the face-to-face version. Because of FileMaker Pro's easy-to-use interface and cross-platform compatibility, office staff and graduate student assistants from both support units can easily serve faculty from any FileMaker-equipped computer on the Internet. Version 2 of this system, which will allow faculty to use default questions or create their own, is under development and will be deployed in Spring 2005.

Like many other universities, the University of Missouri-Columbia has experienced rapid growth in the number of information technologies and systems serving its educational mission. FileMaker Pro has been an indispensable tool for allowing the staff that serves the campus to coordinate and innovate their services in this complex learning environment.

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