of CourseInfo Course Management Software to Motivate Students in Traditional
Ellen R. Cohn, University of Pittsburgh
Gary P. Stoehr, University of Pittsburgh
Course management web-based software packages such as CourseInfo, (www.blackboard.net) promise benefits for institutions, instructors, and their students in the form of cost savings, (e.g., reduced departmental copying of handouts) and administrative efficiency, (e.g., the electronic "posting" of student grades). Course management software can also facilitate student interconnectivity with classmates, the instructor, outside experts and the Internet. Posted handouts may minimize "student stenographer" tasks and allow for more class time to engage in active learning activities that stimulate higher order thinking. Yet, uninspired uses of CourseInfo, such as inadequately orienting students to the technology, posting instructor's lecture notes for the entire semester, failing to notify students when materials are posted, and reducing faculty face-to-face office hours, may decrease student motivation and inhibit class attendance.
This paper will illustrate ways in which the authors use CourseInfo to motivate and engage undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in traditional course settings. The authors' experiences with CourseInfo are multidisciplinary, and include two team taught courses in pharmacy and therapeutics (GPS and ERC), a large lecture class in communication and rhetoric (ERC), and five courses in communication science and disorders (ERC).
Examples of CourseInfo use will be provided to illustrate ways in which course management packages may impact student motivation and subsequent learning. This will be done in two "mock" CourseInfo developments, which can be found at: http://courseinfo.wfu.edu/. One course site illustrates motivating instructional practices, the other, demotivating practices.
The examples will be presented in the context of contemporary topics in instructional motivation, including: student developmental tasks, (Chickering, 1969, 1981); factors which influence a student's desire to learn, (Wlodkowski, 1991); hierarchy of human needs, (Maslow, 1954); student helplessness versus student mastery, and instructor behaviors (Perry 1991; Perry et. al, 1996); the need to recognize and address student misconceptions, (Hansen, Fall, 1998), and the value of peer modeling (Small and Lankes, 1996).
The purpose of this paper is to describe and contrast motivating and demotivating instructional uses of a course management web-based software package, CourseInfo. This will be presented from the perspective of student motivation, in the context of contemporary topics in instructional motivation.
2.1 Structure and Organization
CourseInfo is a web-based course management software package developed by Blackboard Inc., (www.blackboard.net). On the student side of this template-based program, there are several sections described below:
a. Announcements: Instructors communicate items that require immediate student attention, such as changes in assignments, class meeting times and dates. This section also serves as a place to alert students to new course postings.
b. Course Information: This section includes the content of the traditional course syllabus and links to the World Wide Web within the syllabus.
c. Staff Information: Instructors and teaching assistants can include their photos, office and telephone listings, and biographical information.
d. Course Documents: Instructors post information relating to content. Some faculty organize this by date of class, and include learning objectives, key concepts, reading assignments, lecture outlines or notes, and/or PowerPoint presentations. Others present information by lecture topic.
e. Assignments: This is a place to post the details of assignments, as well as examples of "best" assignments. We often include "whole class feedback summaries." Class quizzes and precourse surveys can also be accessed in this section.
f. Communication: There are several functions within this section. Users can e-mail faculty and/or students, read Student Home Pages, conduct group work, participate in a virtual discussion, and contribute to a threaded-discussion.
g. External Links: Faculty can post web-based references, including the URL and a description.
h. Student Tools: This includes the Calendar Tool, student access to their own Student Home Page, a Drop Box to submit files or assignments to the instructor and a Gradebook.
i. Control Panel: In addition to access to the above sections, course instructors, and designated teaching assistants and course builders, but not students, are granted various levels of access within the Control Panel. This is where the instructors, and their designee(s) build the course structure and content. Instructors can allow or disallow student access, customize, and activate or deactivate content within each of the sections as needed.
j. Course Map: The most important aspect of effective college instruction seems to be "instructor organization," (Perry et al, 1996) and CourseInfo provides a highly visible organizational structure. In addition, a course map feature allows students to view the course structure graphically and to open specific sections or files without having to navigate web pages. The search feature allows students to superimpose their own organizational structure by accessing key word specific content. Students report that the course map is helpful to determine where specific content is located.
2.2 The Process
CourseInfo provides web-based opportunities for virtual connectivity, including e-mail, Internet access, an ability to include external experts, students and consumers in a course experience; and even an opportunity to share lectures between institutions. It is also a place for groups to work together on group projects. These opportunities can be relatively static, as in the case of posted discussion entries or e-mail, or they may be dynamic, as in the case of online discussions.
2.3 Barriers to Connectivity
While the opportunities for increased connectivity are great, there are also significant barriers to connectivity. Barriers may include:
a. Computer Competency and Accessibility Issues. The most frequent student complaint relates to access problems. While these may be due to any one of a number of possible causes, including extra-University access restrictions to the CourseInfo system, a paucity of modem connections, or a student's lack of familiarity with computers, it is crucial to address these barriers the first week of class.
We find that student computer competency is not as much of an issue. Students learn to use the software quickly and once they become familiar with the software, little if any orientation is needed. Deficits in this area may be addressed through a brief orientation session, or a self-paced instructional site. This problem may lessen or disappear if universities employ the software in multiple courses.
b. Universal Design Challenges. Inaccessible web pages can deny users with visual and/or learning disabilities full access to CourseInfo materials. Affected individuals will include students who depend upon assistive technologies such as a screen reader or Braille display device to access written information. Pages that do not adhere to principles of "universal design" can prevent the full use of this assistive technology. Design violations may include inadequately labeled images, lists and tables created in an inaccessible format, or failure to caption audio and video clips.
Web content accessibility guidelines were issued by the World Wide Web Consortium Initiative (W3), and remediation strategies are described on the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) site. However, our recent study (Cohn, Molinero, and Stoehr, 1999) indicated that web site accessibility as determined by the automated portion of the CAST Bobby 3.1.1 analysis, is deficient across a variety of the websites associated with higher education. Of 315 college and university websites examined, only 81 sites (26%) were Bobby approved sites. While some of these sites offered "text-only versions," optimal equivalence (i.e., "text equivalents of non-text content") was not achieved. CourseInfo postings can be similarly inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, especially PowerPoint- based lectures that employ graphic images without accompanying text descriptions.
Forsyth and McMillian (Spring, 1991) observe that "virtually all theories of human motivation argue that individuals intuitively calculate the probability they will succeed in a particular situation." It is therefore important for instructors to create the expectation for success in the course, because students who expect failure may not strive for success.
The following are examples of ways in which faculty using CourseInfo can demotivate students:
a. Ignore Student Access Problems. Fail to orient the class to CourseInfo, and do not assertively address access problems that arise in the class.
b. Lecture As Usual. Use CourseInfo as a repository of lecture materials. Lecture directly from the materials, and fail to introduce any interactive classroom learning strategies. Instructors who post the class notes for the entire semester the first week of class, and then fail to offer additional material in class, or incorporate interactive classroom learning, invite poor attendance or student inattention. This is the high-tech equivalent of "lecturing out of the book."
c. Eliminate Handouts and Course Packets. Instead, require students to print posted materials and bring them to class. Include many slow to print graphics. This increases student time spent printing in the computer lab, or requires much of their home computer use for non-instructional purposes. Students complain that when they are expected to download and print lecture notes for three or four courses during the course of a semester, they expend valuable time, telephone and printing resources. Requirements to print anatomical images are especially problematic. Students would much prefer to receive or purchase a course packet.
d. Provide Detailed On-Line Handouts And Tell Students That You Have Provided Detailed Handouts So That "You Won’t Even Have To Take Notes. Just Listen." Be sure to take away the excitement of discovery. Make sure that you tell students how your course material is relevant to their lives. Let students know that only you understand the relevance of the material. Don’t ask them to think about the course content. Just listen.
e. Sporadically Post Course Materials. Fail to e-mail the class when postings are added to the site. Post the obligatory notes for the next morning late at night.
f. Use CourseInfo to Discourage Faculty-Student Communication. Cancel or reduce office hours. Decrease face-to-face student-faculty contact in traditional on-campus classes, under the premise that students can reach faculty via e-mail. Then, fail to respond, or respond with latency to student e-mail. Post a formal, intimidating faculty profile, an unsmiling photo, and abrupt announcements. Do not read or respond to content in Student Pages.
g. Include Demotivating Instructional Practices.
i. Pop Quizzes. Schedule "pop quizzes on CourseInfo." Research by Perry (1991) indicates that classroom factors that cause loss of control can demotivate students. Often these represent unpredictable events, such as a "pop quiz."
ii. Test on Novel Processes. Include assessment questions on CourseInfo quizzes that objectively test comprehension and recognition. Then, administer in-class essay examinations that demand integration and application.
iii. Require Unfocused Web Searches. Include instructionally vacant and web-based search assignments. Require no critical analysis of sources. In contrast, web-based links and assignments should place a high priority on source credibility, and strategically target a level of Bloom's Taxonomy (i.e., knowing, translating, applying, analyzing, synthesizing or evaluating). (Bloom et al., 1956).
i. Create an "Ugly Site." Avoid use of color. Fail to employ the basics of html so as to use paragraphs, bullets, bolding and italics. Post long documents, rather than uploading documents.
j. Be Negative. Do not provide students with an explanation of potential instructional benefits. Show little enthusiasm, and even note that faculty are "almost required" to use the system. When the system fails, publicly express overt negativity.
k. Provide Feedback That Is Critical Without Directions For Improvement. Provide comments like "???, " "unclear, " or "what’s your point?" instead of: "you seem to be implying.….rather than ….." "are you saying……?" or "here you could have provided evidence to support your point such as……" Be sure to always find fault and whatever you do, never, ever catch students doing something right.
Many of these demotivating practices can be seen in the "mock" CourseInfo site.
In contrast, motivating instructional practices are presented in the following "mock" CourseInfo site.
a. Employ Pre-course Engagement Strategies. Entice students to connect to and interact with CourseInfo materials as soon as possible, even before classes begin, because a student's first encounters with the CourseInfo package may require some extra time. Help students to get this orientation phase out of the way, before their academic workload intensifies. One way to engage students "early on" is to use the CourseInfo Communication feature to send them a friendly e-mail before the first class meeting. We welcome them to the class, provide a link to the CourseInfo site and invite them to browse the site to learn more about the course and their instructors. Specifically, we direct them to the Announcements, the Course Documents and the Staff Information sections. We also encourage them to "check-out" the External Links and the Calendar.
b. Communicate Positive and Realistic Messages. It is essential for the faculty member to communicate a genuinely positive attitude toward the technology, and to do so in an expressive manner. Instructor expressiveness seems highly related to achievement for "mastery students," who evidence a high degree of persistence and internal control, but not for at-risk "helpless students," who are more likely to abandon a task after an initial failure (Feldman, 1989; Perry et. al, 1996).
The following are "talking points" for discussion in the first class meeting:
i. Communication Capabilities. CourseInfo is an innovative software package that has the potential to enable us to communicate faster and more efficiently. Students can use CourseInfo features to e-mail faculty, classmates, a work-group, or the entire class.
ii. Postings. Course materials will be posted on CourseInfo so students can listen better and interact more in class. Copies of these will also be available in the library or in the copy center for purchase. We don't want students to function either as "student stenographers" or engage in excessive printing.
iii. Class Attendance Policies. CourseInfo will not diminish student need to attend class. In fact, it will increase the importance of class attendance. Since students won’t need to spend as much time taking notes, faculty will be able to introduce more active learning activities, and some of these will provide students with opportunities to earn additional points toward their final grade.
iv. Collaborative Learning. Students and the instructional team are all in this together. We are all "students" of CourseInfo, and will learn new features each semester.
v. Future Benefits. Faculty chose to learn and use CourseInfo so students can learn and apply new computer competencies. These may be of value in future career(s) and to increase job marketability.
vi. Participation Requirements. CourseInfo participation by all is required, and failure to participate will result in specified grade reductions. There shall be no lurkers. (When students are not participating, e-mail the students to note that they have not yet entered the system, and ask if they need any help.)
vii. Course Statistics and Visitors. Inform students of the capabilities of the Course Statistics feature to track and document their usage (e.g., when they visit the site; what parts of the site they visit). If applicable, tell students there may be observers in the CourseInfo class, such as "visiting faculty members," and personnel who maintain the server.
viii. Ethical Conduct. Review expectations of conduct for CourseInfo usage. Usage is subject to University policies on academic integrity, affirmative action (e.g., non-discrimination; non-harassment) and computer usage.
c. Provide an In-class Demonstration. A CourseInfo demonstration using a projected screen and an Internet connection is sufficient for large (170+ student) undergraduate classes. Orientation to CourseInfo can easily consume 30 minutes of the first class.
d. Distribute a Hard Copy Syllabus. We recommend distribution of a syllabus identical to that which is contained in the CourseInfo Course Information section. Include the CourseInfo site’s web address, sources of computer-based assistance (e.g., Help Desk), and the instructor e-mail address, in the event a student cannot log-on to the site. Most instructors review the syllabus on the first day of class, and we believe it unfair to expect students to download a syllabus for the first class meeting.
e. Encourage Persistence and Peer Learning. Encourage behaviors that are characteristic of student mastery, including the ability to recognize the need for, and seek assistance. Perry et al. (1996) describe a "helpless student" as one who "withdraws from (the) failure situation physically and psychologically," and a "mastery student" as one who "welcomes challenge of task," and "intensifies effort when experiencing failure." Encourage students who are having difficulty mastering course management software to become active problem solvers by seeking a mentor, reading the on-line manual, or calling the Helpline. Enable the CourseInfo feature on quizzes that allows a student to retake a quiz unlimited times without grade penalty. This reinforces attributional retraining, (Weiner, 1986; Perry et al., 1996) whereby a student, who might have previously believed their initial failures are inevitable and permanent, can see that repeated efforts may result in mastery.
f. Require Early, Confidence Building, Participation. A key growth area for college students is to develop a sense of competence via experiences that build confidence. (Chickering; 1969; 1981) The creation of a Student Page is a rewarding initial task. We often require an early posting on the Discussion Board. (While a grade is not assigned to these activities, students are told points will be deducted from a "participation score" if the assignments are not completed.)
g. Conduct Precourse Survey. We include an upgraded Precourse Survey, with questions to assess students' computer competencies, common misconceptions concerning the subject matter, course goals, and preferred learning styles. It is important to identify and then address student misconceptions (i.e., myths, blind spots and overgeneralizations) early in a course. (Hansen, 1998). A Precourse Survey provides an opportunity to establish content baselines in a non-threatening manner, and to use whole class beliefs as a unifying strategy.
h. Determine Barriers and Intervene. Identify operational barriers to CourseInfo usage, and provide remedies. Common problems include: no e-mail account; failure to forward university e-mail to local e-mail account; lack of access to the university computer network in the student's home, or slow acceptance of the need to use the University Computer Lab; and problems with long distance access, or modem based access delays.
i. Address/Balance Student Needs
i. Balance Social-Emotional vs. Task Needs. Provide a mix of content and tasks that balance student needs to initially engage in social-emotional interactions and then to progressively advance into more complex task functions. Early exposure to the site can emphasize orientation to the course requirements and individuals in the classroom community.
ii. Consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Consider how the contents of the CourseInfo site address the basic human needs identified by Maslow (1954).
Physiologic Needs: Can students perceive how mastery of the site contents can contribute to eventual capabilities to positively influence their ability to satisfy their needs for shelter, food, a healthy existence, and protective clothing? Do the time demands of the postings or course activities interfere with student needs for rest in an unhealthy manner? (e.g., a virtual chat scheduled at an excessively late or early hour; posting materials late at night for students to download early in the morning).
Safety Needs: Do students feel comfortable that they are able to post discussion threads and engage in group activities in a"psychologically safe" environment? Is the public sharing of class members’ e-mails judicious within the context of institutional environment, or should the instructor "disallow" that CourseInfo feature.
Love and Belongedness: Is Courseinfo used in such a way as to foster class and group cohesiveness? (e.g., Is the language of the site personal and inclusive, "we" vs. "you;" "our class" vs. "the class.") Do faculty use the Communication Section to facilitate student-faculty communication?
Self-Esteem: Do quizzes provide realistic opportunities for student success? Does the instructor provide explanations why answers are incorrect as feedback on the Assessment instruments? Are students allowed to retake the on-line quizzes without penalty? Does the instructor provide whole class feedback on assignments that states performance strengths, as well as next steps for student mastery?
Self-Actualization: Does the course content stimulate the student to progress from concrete to abstract levels of thinking, and from understanding to synthesis and evaluation? Do the course materials, assignments and external links provide opportunities for the most motivated and engaged students to reach beyond their own, or the instructor’s course expectations? Does the site serve to promote students’ personal academic interests?
j. Set Standards and Showcase Excellence. Establish an expectancy of success. Systematically increase the difficulty and variety of instructional tasks so that they become increasingly challenging, yet achievable. These have been termed ‘just in reach" learning challenges (Wlodkowski, 1991). Provide whole-class feedback, and highlight positive participation behaviors. With student permission, post assignment "best examples." This enables students to see that others can perform in an outstanding fashion, and suggests that they can as well (Small and Lankes, 1996).
k. Create a Visually Attractive Site. Employ color, interesting, even humorous photos, and basic html to visually organize text. This helps students to sustain interest. Interesting graphics provide novelty, direct student attention to what is important, and may enhance memory - all ways to motivate students (Small and Lankes, 1996).
and Future Plans
We intend to continue to use CourseInfo to support our instructional goals, with a primary intent to motivate our students to learn, to participate, and to take an active role in their own learning.
Inspired applications of course management software are highly motivating to students, especially when faculty interact and collaborate with students as their "coaches" rather than as "gatekeepers of information." Student motivation and participation can, in turn, energize faculty to embrace interactive and collaborative teaching strategies.
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Appreciation is expressed to Dr. Diane Davis for suggesting this article, and to Dr. Laurel Willingham-McLain and Dr. Dorothy Frayer who had previously supplied many of the references.
We are grateful to Daniel Pfeifer for his multimedia assistance and to Wake Forest University for hosting the CourseInfo sites constructed for this paper.
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IMEJ multimedia team member assigned to this paper: Daniel Pfeifer