Christopher Penna, et al.
Freshman English Goes High Tech
Being able to read and write well is essential to success in college and in life. Critical Reading and Writing, a required course known to UD students as E110, tries to teach just that.
Each year, around three thousand E110 students grapple with rhetorical skills. English professors, well aware of the challenges students face, search for new ways to teach the basics of effective writing. One of those teachers is assistant professor Christopher Penna. He, along with Clyde Moneyhun, assistant professor and director of writing, envisions an E110 curriculum transformed by e-learning as a way to improve students’ writing skills.
Traditionally, freshman English has been taught exclusively in the classroom. That model, while standard, has some limitations for both the student and teacher. For one, “it confines teaching and learning to the classroom,” said Penna. Secondly, “the classroom can be idiosyncratic,” added Moneyhun, making it difficult for teaching assistants and faculty to achieve E110’s curricular aims uniformly.
Penna and his colleagues applied for a Technology-Enhanced Course Redesign grant to see if technology could help. The grant sought to develop a hybrid course, that is, a part in-class and part online curriculum. Working with Justin Schakelman, an instructional designer with PRESENT, the team chose MyCourses as the technology best suited to the task.
“The idea was to take what we knew about teaching online and in the classroom and fuse them together to strengthen the curriculum,” Penna remarked. In the hybrid course, students use custom resources in MyCourses to guide the writing process. Once the writing is underway, they edit each others’ papers in the online discussion forum.
“We created tight linkages among all the activities in MyCourses,” said Moneyhun. “The online portion of the hybrid is a place for self-directed learning as well as thoughtful, focused collaboration.”
UD’s English faculty are no strangers to teaching with technology. Marcia Halio, assistant professor, has been using online course management to support classroom activities for several years. “A hybrid course, when well-executed, keeps students on task both in and out of the classroom,” Halio mentioned.
While the hybrid may motivate students to devote more time to the course, getting E110 instructors involved and creating effective teachers within the hybrid model is no small feat. “You have to be aware of how the content in MyCourses relates to what’s covered in class, and vice versa,” said Penna, who has taught many distance courses, “and that has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with pedagogy.”
The E110 hybrid is designed as a MyCourses-based template that faculty and TAs can customize to their needs. “The core activities are structured so any of our teaching staff can pick it up and run with it,” said Moneyhun.
At the beginning of the semester, the department trains TAs to use the hybrid, both functionally and strategically. Then, Penna and Moneyhun monitor their success throughout the semester.
Teaching assistants, according to a recent survey, appear to be responding well to the pre-packaged e-learning. More important, student outcomes have been promising.
About half of the students in the hybrid sections of E110 found the peer-review tool to be helpful to their writing. Many students were pleased with the tight integration between the calendar and syllabus, citing its ability to keep them focused.
Is the quality of student writing going up? “That remains to be seen,” remarked Penna. Teaching with MyCourses will take a few semesters to work out all the kinks. In the meantime, some E110 faculty are planning a study that compares the traditional classroom format with the hybrid. “We’re optimistic that the hybrid format will help students improve reading, critical thinking, and writing skills,” said Moneyhun.
One member of the faculty, Barbara Lutz, encouraged by the hybrid initiative, is eager to teach with it again next semester. With respect to its communication features, “students were better able to write about certain concepts after they reviewed other people's responses [in MyCourses],” said Lutz.
Lessons learned from the hybrid are spreading beyond the boundaries of UD. “I’ll be taking what I’ve learned from this project to my next faculty post, where there’s a lot of interest in e-learning,” said Moneyhun as he enthusiastically prepares for his new position at Stanford University.
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“We’re optimistic that the hybrid format will help students improve reading, critical thinking, and writing skills.”
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