October 14, 2002
First UCSC course offered entirely online emphasizes
By Tim Stephens
UCSC offered its first course taught entirely online during the 2002
Summer Session. Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and
campus administrators said the course demonstrates the tremendous potential
for using web-based technology as a teaching tool.
|Tara Madhyastha developed the
online version of the course after teaching it with conventional
Photo: UCSC Photo Services
The course, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, made
use of custom software developed by the instructor, Tara Madhyastha,
an assistant professor of computer engineering. Madhyastha developed
the online version of the course after teaching it with conventional
lectures for three years.
Offered by the Department of Computer Engineering as CMPE185, the course
teaches engineers and computer scientists how to write everything from
technical reports and documentation to resumes and letters of recommendation.
"Since I began teaching this class, I have been developing software
to allow the students to do progressively more things online, from online
submission of assignments to peer editing. Eventually it became clear
that there was no need for the lectures," Madhyastha said.
Many courses at UCSC and other universities have a web site where students
can find various kinds of information and materials, but this was UCSC's
first course to do away with regular class meetings. Self-assessment
and student collaboration were central to the learning experience in
Madhyastha's online course. For example, the peer-editing software she
developed, called PeerEdit, allowed students to review and comment on
other students' work online.
"In the traditional model for online course offerings, students
interact with materials that the instructor posts on a web site. Our
philosophy is to harness the students' ability to teach themselves and
enable them to interact with each other. That's what peer editing is
all about," Madhyastha said.
Lynda Goff, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, said
peer review is an effective tool for teaching writing skills, and it
is being used in writing programs throughout the country.
"Students actually learn more about writing by critiquing other
students' papers. At the same time, peer review can help alleviate the
bottleneck that results when all of the critical feedback has to come
from the instructor," Goff said.
Having students in a large class critique each other's papers, however,
presents some logistical challenges that Madhyastha overcame with the
web-based software tools she created. She designed the PeerEdit software
to work with commercial programs such as WebCT, a platform for creating
instructional web sites, and Adobe Acrobat for marking up documents.
"She is able to use this integrated computer program to set up
the assignments, monitor the peer-review process, and really get the
students to work together. And on top of that she delivered it as a
virtual course this year," Goff said. "It was a tremendous
success and we are learning a lot from what she has done. This may be
a model that we can scale up and use more widely on the campus to improve
Madhyastha worked closely with Larry Merkley, campus consultant for
information technology, to implement the online version of the course.
By offering it during Summer Session, they were able to do a pilot run
with a smaller number of students than typically take the course during
the school year.
"We had a really good experience, and now we want to move forward
and see where it can go from here," Merkley said. "I don't
see this as something that is going to replace face-to-face teaching,
but it can be a very effective approach for certain subjects and for
certain students. If you can create an experience online that actually
addresses certain needs and helps students learn more effectively, people
will want to go in that direction."
In designing the online course, Madhyastha focused on carefully constructed
assignments and self-assessment exercises. Virginia Draper, coordinator
of UCSC's Writing Across the Curriculum program, and Holly Cordova,
coordinator of the campus's Learning Center, gave Madhyastha the idea
of using self-assessment and helped her develop the assignments and
Madhyastha told the students what was important for each assignment
and asked them to rate themselves and each other on how well they met
those criteria. She was available for consultation during extended office
hours by phone and instant messaging (like e-mail but without delays,
allowing conversation-like exchanges). Students could also come to her
office in person, but fewer did so than in the regular class, she said.
There were also assigned books, online quizzes, and an online newsgroup
for the class (all elements Madhyastha used in the regular course, as
The course has received more than the usual scrutiny of student performance
and attitudes. Tests administered during two classroom sessions, one
at the beginning and one at the end of the course, are being used to
evaluate the effectiveness of the online approach. The results analyzed
so far show high student approval ratings, and Madhyastha said the students
seemed to be more engaged in the learning process than in the lecture-based
Richard Hughey, chair of the Department of Computer Engineering, said
the student evaluations were impressive. All of the students said the
course should be offered online again, and they gave Madhyastha high
marks for overall teaching, despite the fact that she never gave a lecture.
The students also performed phenomenally well, Hughey said, although
he noted that the online course may have attracted more self-motivated
"There may have been some self-selection, but the results certainly
bode well for using this approach," Hughey said.
Madhyastha said she feels ready to offer the online course to a larger
group of students during the regular academic year. The one part of
the course that suffered in the online approach was the segment dealing
with oral presentations, she said.
"Some topics don't lend themselves as well to this mode of teaching,
so I'd like to have an additional class session to explain how to give
presentations," she said.
Goff said the campus is exploring other opportunities for online delivery
of courses. The goal is not to replace classroom-based teaching, but
to use technology to provide additional or enhanced learning opportunities
for students, she said.
"I think it has tremendous potential to provide added benefits,"
Madhyastha will give a presentation for faculty and administrators
on her experiences teaching the online course on Tuesday, October 22,
from 9:30 to 11 a.m. in Room 201, College Eight Red Building. Please
RSVP to Max Ritchie at (831)459-4302 or email@example.com if you plan
Additional information about the PeerEdit software and related projects
is available at the web site of the COLLAGE (Collaborative Approach
to Global Education) Project at http://www.collage.soe.ucsc.edu/.
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