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By KayMills
Pomona, California
T
his is not your father’s introductory psychology
course. No professor is standing in front of a vast lecture
hall, writing concepts like “operant conditioning” or
“depression” on the blackboard. No students are nodding off,
at least not that anyone can see. They’re all sitting at computers,
either at home, in their dormitory, or in an on-campus lab.
For the redesigned Psychology 201 class at Cal Poly
Pomona, there is a website, a password, lectures streamed
online, a CD-ROM for drilling tricky material, a chat room for
discussions, e-mail for asking questions, and assignments and
exams online. During the last spring quarter, this California
State University campus, about 30 miles east of downtown Los
Angeles, had one professor teaching the introductory general
psychology course online while four others taught in the
more traditional lecture method. This fall two professors will
conduct large online sections, and next winter quarter students
will only be able to take the class online.
Cal Poly Pomona is part of an ambitious national effort
to use technology more effectively in large introductory
university classes, to improve instruction in what are often
deadly dull lecture classes with high dropout rates, and to save
money as well.
This redesign project is run by the Center for Academic
Transformation, headquartered at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute in Troy, New York. Its goals may sound like an
oxymoron but they’re not, according to Carol Twigg, the
center’s executive director and the moving force behind the
project. “Most people in higher education think you improve
quality by spending more money,” Twigg said. But that’s not
necessarily the case, she argues, and she clearly thinks this
program is proving it.
Supported by an $8.8 million grant from the Pew
Charitable Trusts, Twigg is encouraging academics to think
differently about how they use technology. If they just use it
to duplicate what they do in lecture halls, she says, they will
not save money or teachmuchmore effectively. As part of the
Pew Learning and Technology Program, Twigg’s center has
provided $200,000 grants to 30 colleges and universities across
the country to redesign large classes. The project tests the
premises that economies of scale could help the schools save
money, and that better use of technology could help students
focus better on what they are supposed to learn.
The schools range in size fromFairfield University, a
private school in Connecticut with an enrollment of 5,200,
to large public campuses like the University of Wisconsin-
Madison, the University of Central Florida, and Penn State.
Three community colleges also are included.
The redesigned introductory courses include algebra,
computer literacy, computer programming, English
Summer 2002
Technological Transformation
An ambitious national effort to use technology more effectively in large introductory university classes
composition, fine arts, Spanish, astronomy, sociology,
American government, psychology, statistics, biology, world
literature and chemistry.
Each institution has redesigned one course. But Twigg is
convinced that if colleges learn the methodology, they will not
need a grant to move on to redesigning other classes—they’ll
generate their own savings. The
goal, she said, “is to move beyond
30 models to change the way every
introductory course in the country
is taught.” If all institutions were to
redesign their top 25 courses using
the center’s methods, she projects
an overall reduction in the cost
of higher education of about 17
percent. She acknowledges that’s “a
pretty large goal.”
While individual universities or
faculty members have redesigned
courses using technology in the
past, there has been nothing like
this project in any coordinated
fashion, said Peter Ewell, senior
associate at the National Center for
Higher EducationManagement Systems in Boulder, Colorado.
Inmost earlier redesign efforts, instruction has remained
teacher-centered rather than learner-centered, he said.
With this systematic approach, “you have to fundamentally
Karen Brzoska (right), an instructional technology designer, created a CD-ROM that
is a key part of a restructured introductory psychology course at Cal Poly Pomona.
As part of the Pew
Learning and Technology
Program, the Center for
Academic Transformation
has provided $200,000
grants to 30 colleges
and universities across
the country to redesign
large classes.
Photos by Axel Koester for CrossTalk