Over 60 students from eight colleges and schools gathered for an open town hall meeting hosted by the School of Undergraduate Studies Council to discuss the role of online education with Brent Iverson, dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies. As flipped classrooms, MOOCs, lecture captures, and other education technologies become more prevalent, Iverson sought student feedback to influence decisions made by the university administration. Iverson asked students to lead the discussion and speak freely, with the promise that while their thoughts would be recorded, they would remain anonymous. “Your voice is far more important than a bunch of people like me sitting around a table trying to draft something,” Iverson said. “Things are changing and we don’t always know what to do. We need your guidance.”
Divided on Best Class Format
Many students spoke positively about their experiences in flipped classrooms, a format in which students learn concepts through watching video lectures at home and complete homework problems in class. “In a normal lecture class, if you have a teacher that doesn’t communicate his ideas well and you’re spending the entire time taking notes, you don’t have time to even think about asking questions,” a student said. “[In the flipped classroom] I could watch the videos over and over again to get a certain point, and if I still didn’t get it, I could come in with a question right before class and ask my TA about it.”
Others didn’t enjoy learning from videos and learning modules, preferring normal lectures with more human interaction. “Instead of going to calculus and being taught what to do, I’m watching YouTube videos and then doing my math homework, and then doing more problems in class,” a student said.
Students spoke fondly of professors who blended formats, like David Laude, a chemistry professor, who lectures and has students work on problems in class, but also provides videos and learning modules.
Course Catalog Transparency
Through a show of hands, all the students agreed that it’s critical to include information about class format in the online course listings. Currently, students can’t tell the format of the classes for which they are registering. “Specifying the format would be so helpful, because it would let you know if that’s a teaching style that works for you or not,” a student said.
When they first arrive on campus, many students are unfamiliar with the flipped classroom or online class formats. “Professors don’t really talk much about the class format, they just say, here are the lecture captures and here’s the homework that you have to do on Quest. But that’s a completely different structure than high school,” a student said.
Overall, students appreciate that courses are offered in a variety of formats. “It’s really important to recognize that different people have different methods of learning and grasping information,” a student said.
Preference for Traditional Homework Assignments
When Iverson asked everyone who preferred that homework be turned in on paper, all the students raised their hands. “If we turned in actual homework and got that back from the TA [that would be helpful],” a student said. “A lot of problems that I had in the past were just because of one silly little step. Once that clicks for you the entire class makes so much more sense.”
Students spoke most critically of Quest, an online homework program used in most math classes. “I think a lot of kids are missing out because of this online homework. It’s become more important to just get the answers and put them in as opposed to sitting down and figuring it out.”
Many students admitted resorting to Google to solve problems or using WolframAlpha, an online computational answer system, to find the answers after getting discouraged trying to learn the methods through videos or learning modules. Most prefer working in groups in class or solving problems in discussion sessions with teaching assistants to guide them. “I am a TA for a chemistry class where the professor has discussion sessions with no phones, no book, no notes,” a student said. “Students sit in groups and figure out the problems that the professor gives them. So much more learning goes on compared to when the students just use Google.”
Future of Online Education at UT
No matter what technologies are used, Iverson wants students to learn the information in the way that works for them. He plans to compile the student feedback and use that to direct conversations regarding the future of technology in UT classrooms. “What we have is the wild west,” Iverson said. “I put my classes online as videos. There are people who are doing MOOCs, people flipping classrooms, people doing blended classrooms. There’s no blue print, no committee, it’s just happening. Your voice has to be heard.”