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OWL's online web-based system offers students

by Leslie Wolfe

The university's Online Web-Based Learning (OWL) system provides interactive instruction that's designed to bring about illumination - at noon or any other time of day, and from any locale with Internet access.
Every student at a large university has experienced this: You take a seat among two or three hundred others in a large lecture hall; the lights go out; the slide projector comes on; and the lecture begins. You may have just made a dash across campus through brisk winds, and although you have shed several outer layers, the room rapidly warms and fills with the smell of steaming wool. Your thoughts drift to your part-time job, your current relationship, the lab you have to make up. No matter how enthusiastic the lecturer is, no matter how passionate she is about her subject, you can safely retreat to your private zone because you know you won’t be called upon. This is just a Gen Ed course, after all, outside your major, and only one of five you are taking this semester. Soon the slides and the lecturer seem far away, and your eyes are getting very heavy . . . .

"We call it ‘darkness at noon,’" says Laetitia La Follette, associate professor of art history at UMass Amherst. "We all work on our ‘performances,’ but no matter how hard we try, we know we’re not reaching a lot of students. In fact, we know many of them don’t even show up until there’s a test." This phenomenon is not going away any time soon, says David Hart (’90G), executive director of the Center for Computer-Based Instructional Technology (CCBIT). In fact, he says, "Given the unfortunate way the economics of higher ed is going, there will be more of these classes, not fewer."

So, at a university with fewer teachers and larger classes, the question is: How do we make sure that the students in large survey courses are learning? One answer is the university’s Online Web-Based Learning (OWL) system, which supplements the lecture hall and enhances the learning experience by providing interactive instruction that’s designed to bring about illumination – at noon or any other time of day.

OWL, a combined learning management and "authoring" program that was created by CCBIT and faculty from the university’s chemistry department, has many useful features. The authoring component enables instructors to write student assignments, including questions and feedback, and post them to the Internet. The instructors also add student rosters, so that enrolled students can get the assignments at any Internet-enabled computer – at school, home, or work. The learning management portion of the system keeps records, including quiz scores.

At its most basic, OWL allows extensive quizzing. Online students can get immediate feedback on each question they answer. If they get the answer wrong, they are told why, and can try the question again. Students do not need to do an entire assignment at once, but can work on a few questions and return later to do more. "On average," says Hart, "a student completes an online chemistry exercise three times before doing it correctly." This is in stark contrast to paper-based assignments, which allow students only one chance, and are graded by teaching assistants who may take days or weeks to give feedback.

In all, 28 departments and programs at UMass and its affiliates have placed homework assignments, tests and interactive instruction on OWL. Most of the 12,000 to 13,000 students who use OWL each year (some of these students are double-counted because they use OWL in multiple courses) are on campus, although OWL is used for a few distance education courses in accounting, entomology and nutrition.

OWL’s primary support, CCBIT, is headed by Hart, who works with a group of approximately 10 faculty, staff and part-time students. The team includes a director, Professor Beverly Woolf of the computer science department, Stephen Battisti, software architect, Cindy Stein, user support specialist, and Matthew Mattingly, multimedia director. This group’s main function is to provide software development for continued enhancement of OWL, along with instructional design and development services to help professors effectively place their content in an interactive online environment.

CCBIT’s support is very important in ensuring the quality and consistency of OWL instruction. Mattingly, who serves as a project manager, explains that his job is to translate the faculty’s ideas into something that can be effectively presented on a computer. The instructors bring subject knowledge and teaching experience, he says. "They know what the standards are, what students should get out of a course, and how best to explain the material. Then it’s our job to find effective ways to present that material online." This involves working with a team of graphic artists and programmers through several iterations of the material until it’s done to everyone’s satisfaction.

As an example of some of the most effective uses of OWL, Mattingly points to the work of Mycho Jellison, a ’00 graduate in computer science. Jellison is one of the CCBIT team members who helps instructors "push the envelope" of what can be effectively – and sometimes dazzlingly – presented via the Internet. Using multimedia development tools such as Macromedia’s Director and Shockwave Flash, Jellison has helped create animated movies that result in more engaging, interactive presentations.

So how do we know OWL provides a better way to learn? That’s where Alan Peterfreund of Amherst’s Peterfreund Associates comes in. In the last four years, Peterfreund’s firm has been an independent evaluator for many government-sponsored education projects, primarily in support of CCBIT projects. In his work with UMass, he has been impressed with what he’s seen: "What is interesting and profound is the degree to which these OWL projects influence what happens in the classroom. To the extent to which students come to class better prepared, teachers can do more exciting things. They can introduce interactivity, explore material at a greater depth, and introduce material at a higher level."

Peterfreund gauges the success of individual projects through two main assessments, the first of which is a "formative" evaluation, which involves collecting information – through surveys and interviews with students, faculty and teaching assistants – in order to get their perspectives on the effectiveness of the course. The second part is a "summative" evaluation, which is an attempt to collect information that demonstrates the success of the project – to make sure that learning objectives are met. In a best-case scenario, evaluations make sense of the learning performance of students. Based on student scores and surveys and input from the instructors, CCBIT learns which methods are effective and which aren’t. Thus many courses continually evolve, incorporating changes and new and better methods based on feedback.

The rigor and value of the assessment process can be seen in the art history department’s introductory survey course. (See sidebar, page 33.) The first computer-based versions of the art history assignments, authored by La Follette and a number of Five College faculty and supported by Five Colleges, Inc., were really just electronic slideshows accompanied by audio narratives. Delivered in 1996 to various campuses – a freshman seminar at Mount Holyoke College, a senior seminar at Smith, and the honors section of the intro survey at UMass – although the mini-lectures introduced some of art history’s variety to students, they simply transferred traditional pedagogy to a new medium. The evaluation indicated the need for several improvements. There had to be better access to the assignment modules, so that students could work on them at a time and place of their own choosing. The online portion had to become an engaged rather than a passive experience. Homework needed to be increased to put accountability into place for learning the material. Finally, the modules needed to be integrated more fully with the curriculum.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE), the art history team was able to revise the materials. Contributors to this project included La Follette and fellow UMass professors Anne Mochon and Walter Denny, as well as Nina James-Fowler (Smith College), Gretchen G. Fox (who holds a master’s in art history from UMass) and Larry Smith (who recently retired as instructor of art history and studio art at Holyoke Community College). In this iteration of the materials, five of the original eight art history modules were integrated with OWL, so the assignments could be graded online. Programming help came from CCBIT personnel, including Mattingly and Jellison.

This time the evaluation was much more positive, and students expressed great enthusiasm for the material. Even more gratifying to the project team was the demonstrated learning outcome. Students were required to write an essay putting together a number of facts, demonstrating that they could place the information they learned into the context of a bigger story. Students taking the course along with the new online modules scored an average of 20 percentage points better than did the control group, which used print materials or an older CD-ROM version of the modules.

Peterfreund notes that most OWL projects revolve around a central question: "How do you support innovative education at a large university where economics force you into large classes? Economics doesn’t allow UMass to get away from large lecture classes, but that doesn’t mean you need to be enslaved by old pedagogies."

Peterfreund points to several people on campus who are drawing national attention for their OWL courses. In addition to La Follette, he mentions
Professors Roberta Day, Beatrice Botch and William Vining of the chemistry department, Professors Arthur Swift and Jose Mestre (’79G) of the physics department; and he cites George Knightly’s recent project in the mathematics and statistics department as an example of the need for OWL. The math department is being severely hit by early retirements, says Peterfreund, so they have to consider how to support courses that other departments depend on. They appreciate how OWL can be a resource in addressing that problem.

A recent NSF grant gave funding to develop highly interactive modules for learning calculus in Math 127: "Calculus for Life & Social Sciences I." As project leader, Knightly recognized that one of the challenges in math is having enough resources to grade homework in large lecture courses. OWL allowed them to meet that challenge – and allowed them to add even more homework. You might think that students would cringe at the thought of more work, but Peterfreund’s evaluation noted tremendous acceptance of the homework system. "Students recognized the value in the system in that it helps them learn and succeed in the course. This is as true for students who are trying to get an A as it is for students who struggle to pass the course."

As part of the evaluation, the project team also talked with faculty in life sciences and business departments to find out why they were requiring calculus: Was it because the students actually use it, or because it has always been required? What they learned was that instructors would like to use even more calculus if they could be confident that students were competent in it. This started a dialogue with the instructors about how calculus could be more subject-specific. Feedback like this will be used to improve the next version of the course.

Hart mentions the chemistry department as another area, like art history and math, where the online learning paradigm is being pushed even further. By complementing OWL’s basic functionality with interactive animations, instructors have been able to simulate dry labs. For instance, students are presented with a virtual beaker into which an electrode has been placed. By manipulating several variables – different solutions and different electrical currents – students can learn the principles of electrolysis. Again, multiple tries and true, if virtual, experimentation are the keys to student success.

The chemistry department has been using OWL so effectively and for so long that it has thousands of assignments in the system. In fact, says Hart, they "created the blueprint" for the first system, and had been doing "electronic homework for years before we came along and put it on the Web." The publisher Harcourt (now a division of Thomson Learning) has licensed OWL to distribute some of the chemistry courses. This semester they will reach some 50 schools and over 25,000 students. All of this activity generates royalties for UMass, giving it a return on its investment, some $60,000 to date.

According to Hart, the number of students using the system could rise to 60,000 within a few years. Indeed, CCBIT has just received another FIPSE grant that will support more inquiry-based learning in other departments, such as the geosciences. Part of this new funding is aimed at bringing more animation and interaction to the material. The challenge will be to use the technology to force learners to observe, hypothesize and draw conclusions using the scientific method.

Unless you are a student or on the faculty at UMass, you won’t be able to log onto OWL. However, some examples of CCBIT’s interactive Web work are open to the public. A Web site created for Historic Deerfield’s Memorial Hall museum contains a number of animated movies and interactivities. Check it out at

The electronic support for
introductory art history, authored by Professor Laetitia La Follette and others at the Five Colleges (see main story), is an example of OWL’s use at the university. As students move through the OWL art history assignments (which are used in conjunction with traditional lectures and small group discussions led by teaching assistants), they are required to interact with works of art, answer questions about concepts, and connect those concepts to the topics they will write essays about. For example, the beginning module (one of five currently online), "Learning to Look at Painting: the Primaporta Fresco," presents two works: Claude Monet’s "Corner of the Garden with Dahlias" (1873) and the Primaporta fresco, a gardenscape rendered on the walls of an Italian villa over 2,000 years ago.

Students are guided through an analysis of the paintings that introduces the concepts of composition, iconography and technique. The objective is to help students answer some fundamental questions about the paintings such as: How are time and season depicted? How are you invited to explore the space? What story or meaning is conveyed? As La Follette says, "It’s a matter of getting the students to ‘see’ a painting. We can all look at a painting, but we need to learn how to see it."

As you take a virtual tour of the Primaporta fresco, which adorns the four walls of a dining room in the villa of Livia, wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus, it is immediately obvious that the fresco is a dazzling work. What’s not so obvious is that it is not an ordinary garden: Every plant is simultaneously in bloom or bearing fruit – violets and roses are in flower as pomegranates and quinces ripen – while birds (messengers of the gods) and trees (especially the palm, symbol of victory) carry a political message to the ancient Roman viewer that the empire is victorious and that the reign of Augustus has ushered in a new era of fertility, peace and prosperity. Students are told and shown this, but they also must discover it by exploring different parts of the fresco, finding the elements under discussion, and answering questions that ensure that they are thinking about what they are seeing.

In this module’s section on technique, Monet’s method of working alone on a specific scene set in a moment of time is contrasted with the means by which the Roman fresco was produced: A crew of plasterers and artisans worked from a plan to create an idealized, composite scene not found in time or nature. The Romans wanted to depict a "timeless and triumphal paradise," while Monet endeavored to capture a fleeting moment in his own private garden. Through this contrast, students learn that the answers to the questions about the depiction of nature and the stories told are different for each painting.

All of the course’s tutorials exploit the capabilities of the computer, allowing students to manipulate "objects" that reinforce key concepts. In one module, for example, students can move the figure of a "hiker" backward and forward on a trail, measuring the height of the figure relative to a stationary vantage point, thus learning the simple inverse proportions of linear perspective. In another module, students build a virtual Greek temple: Mix architectural elements from the Ionic and Doric orders, and lightning will destroy your temple; build your temple successfully with columns, capitals, cornices and entablature from a coherent architectural style, and the gods will smile on your effort.

La Follette’s next challenge is to build more interactivity into both the lectures and the online tutorials. "The university is a wonderful place for innovation," says La Follette. "We have great resources like CCBIT that are willing to collaborate with us on projects like these." La Follette and her colleagues, Walter Denny and Monika Schmitter, were recently awarded a Davis Grant that will allow them to improve the online instruction, add an expanded number of OWL modules, and introduce a device called the personal response system (PRS) into the classroom.

The PRS is a wireless, hand-held device, similar to those used to poll the audience in quiz shows, such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Students entering a large lecture hall will use their PRS to log on to the instructor’s system, and will have to respond to questions posed throughout the class. The PRS computer will take attendance, and will know how you answered the instructor’s questions – thus ensuring student participation and accountability. If instructors like La Follette are successful in introducing the PRS into the classroom, student test scores should again go up, but, alas, the students will lose one safe place to take a nap.

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