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Next Generation Course Management System (Instructor)

The following usage scenario has been written for the NLII/Educause Next Generation Course Management workgroup, 2003.

Jane Miller just got hired at Major State University, a large research institution, as Assistant Professor of Physics. The new semester, Fall 2007, starts in two weeks, and Jane just received her teaching assignment: “Introductory Physics II,” a lecture-based 400-student course for non-majors. Her chair tells her that for budgetary reasons no TA support is available for this course, and recommends the university-wide course management system NextGenCMS as, in his words, “a replacement for the TAs.”

Jane sits in her office among unopened moving boxes and wonders where to start. She has never taught this course before, and already knows that she cannot focus a lot of her efforts on it, since clearly her main thrust needs to be in attracting research dollars and building her group. Well, let’s see what NextGenCMS can do for her, she thinks.

She logs into the university’s central portal, and among other things, her role as Course Coordinator for “Introductory Physics II” shows up. So far, so good, she thinks, and clicks on it. Unfortunately, all she sees at the moment is the syllabus for the course, but at least, she notices, her contact information, the description of the course, the lecture hours and location, etc, are already filled in from the university’s administrative systems. There is also a “To-Do” tab. Already? The semester has not even started yet! Jane clicks on it, and sees that her course enrollment is caped at 400, that her course is full, and that there are 27 students on the waiting list. The lecture hall capacity is 450, the system claims, so: does she want to grant enrollment overrides? Jane hesitantly clicks “Yes,” and grants overrides to the five students for which the system indicates that they need her course now in order to be able to graduate at the end of the semester. Does she want to be alerted by future “To-Do” items via email? Again, a hesitant “Yes,” but only for to-do items with a leftover deadline of less than 24 hours – those, on the other hand, she wants flagged orange in her inbox.

The “To-Do” tab goes away, but now really all that her course has is a syllabus and a menu. Jane clicks on “Get Materials” and suddenly feels like she was re-directed to one of those online bookstores – “Hello, Jane Miller, we have recommendations for you.” Jane remembers that NextGenCMS has access to the course descriptions and thus “knows” what kind of material she needs.

Right underneath is the “Featured Recommendation:” “Introductory Electricity and Magnetism,” according to the description a “complete online course in a box for 70 dollars” by Smith Academic Online Publishers, Inc. Wait a minute, 70 dollars? From whom? Jane clicks on the “Help” link. As it turns out, NextGenCMS can host commercial content and sell access to online coursepacks to the students; the charges show up automatically on the tuition bill as “materials fee.” Very tempting, a course in a box, but 70 dollars … Jane remembers that her son will go to college 15 years down the road, and decides against it – 10 or 20 dollars would be okay, but not 70, even though that is cheaper than the hardcopy textbooks which were still broadly required in the days when she was a student. The help link also provides a link to her preferences, and there she is able to set a limit of 20 dollars maximum price for the course materials.

Her screen changes, no more “courses in a box.” But there are courses that colleagues of hers apparently taught at other universities. Jane clicks on the top one, apparently in order of faculty and student ratings, which would cost her students 16.85 dollars. And odd price, she thinks, and clicks on “Explanation.” It turns out that 20 cents go to the faculty member from Exclusive Private College who assembled the course, 4 cents to another faculty member who assembled the chapter object on “Induction,” which the former faculty member apparently imported wholesale, 15 cents each for 5 simulations from yet another faculty member, 20 cents each for 30 online graded homework problems from – lo and behold – Smith Academic Online Publishers, Inc., some embedded illustrations from a grant project, etc … the system keeps track of individual learning object costs, calculates the total price, and does the accounting and distribution of funds behind the scenes. Jane also notes that she will save her students nearly three dollars since the course includes items from a simulation collection for which the campus library owns a site license.

Jane starts browsing around in the course, reads some of the other faculty and student comments, and quickly sees why this course is so highly rated: a beautiful assembly of high quality learning objects, sequenced in a transparent and straightforward manner. The sequences even branch, taking into account remedial needs identified by the learner’s performance on assessment items along the way. Jane decides to start with this course, and puts it into her “shopping cart” – she can fine-tune it later.

Jane flips back and idly navigates around her new course for a while, reads some of the text material, watches lecture demonstration movies, and tries some of the online homework. She gets stuck on one homework problem, which especially intrigues her, but she doubts that any student would be able to do it without some easier exercise leading up to it.

She clicks on “Materials” again and this time finds contextual recommendations, not only related to the chapter object on “Magnetism” which she is currently in, but also in relation to this particular problem. Jane could look at “easier, “ “harder,” and “related” homework objects on the same topic, but decides to click on “helpful” resources. The “Explanation” link to this collection explains that the objects in this category have been identified by doing data mining on the individual pathways, which learners took through the material in the past, and finding the resources which learners worked on before being successful on the current one. Jane finds an appropriate resource from a popular collection already licensed by her library, and glues it into her course in front of the other one. She gets a dialog box, asking if she would like to offer her modified assembly as a re-usable object in the library. Sure. The system knows the intellectual rights inheritance of her object, and would also allow Jane to add a tiny charge for her efforts in selecting new material. Jane decides that this was “really nothing” and waives charges, like many others do, but she does add a comment why she added the new object into this one, and chooses some additional metadata from entries which the system suggests based on an automated analysis of the content. The next faculty person coming into the library could now use her extended object instead of the original one.

Jane is happy with the afternoon so far, 4 hours of work, and she almost has her course together, except for the exams. Jane knows that exams at Major State University are done with wireless PDA-like devices instead of bubble sheets, and are also administered and graded by NextGenCMS, so the exam questions must be somewhere in the library. Sure enough, there is a “Generate Exams” link in the menu, and Jane clicks on it. She enters a departmental peer-reviewed exam question pool, already sorted by “Midterm 1,” “Midterm 2” and “Final” for her course, and an inviting “Automatically Assemble Exams” button – something of an introductory natural science, mathematics, and engineering anomaly; her colleagues in the liberal arts will not likely have that button, and Jane doubts that this is going to work without hiccups for her, either.

The introductory physics courses have a de-facto almost standardized curriculum across the nation, but Jane is glad that she does not have to guess exactly what is expected for this course in her new department, especially regarding the more optional topics and the overall level of difficulty. As always with exams, Jane already starts to feel some level of anxiety, since she knows that the peer-reviewed question pool will also enable quantitative comparisons between her course and those taught by her peers in previous semesters. At least she gets to assemble her own exam – a friend of hers ended up in a department where as part of a research project the exams are assembled without any input from him, and even he does not know the exam until an hour before it happens. At least, he says, he cannot be accused of “teaching to the test.”

In both his and her department, the students have complete access to the departmental exam question pool. Since the questions are randomizing, meaning, they have different graphs, numbers, statements, etc., in different context and for different learners, they will not get the exact same problem on the exam, anyway. And if some students indeed work through all of the hundreds of questions in the pool and understand how they work, well, good for them, maybe they learned something.

Jane clicks the “Assemble Exam” button, which generates a randomized exam from the pool, covering all expected topics in her department, and taking into account the statistically generated degrees of difficulty and degrees of discrimination from previous use of the questions.

As it turns out, that was indeed a little bit too easy, she gets warnings from an automatic consistency check: Midterm 2 has a question on self-inductance, which is a topic not covered in her current course, while her course talks extensively about radar, which is not on her exams. Jane marvels about the quality of metadata apparently associated with each object. She clicks on the provided links and sees that her course has an appendix with an application example for electromagnetic waves on radar. Jane decides to remove the appendix, since it is indeed a bit too much in depth. Regarding self-inductance, the provided link helps her to quickly find some good content pages and homework in the library, which she glues into her course.

Two months later, the number of unopened moving boxes has not significantly changed, but Jane is well into teaching her course. After her chair told her that not only physics-discipline but also educational grants would count for her tenure, Jane abandoned some of her initially somewhat cynical outlook on teaching, and started to take additional interest in what is going on in her course. Every morning and regularly during the day she flips over to NextGenCMS for five to ten minutes. The system points her to items undergoing heavy discussion and homework problems that seem to be particularly difficult. Student messages sent directly to Jane are enhanced with all the contextual background information Jane needs, namely a screenshot of what the students had on the screen when they submitted the message, a listing of all discussions contributions and – if it is a problem – all previous submissions the student made on that resource, the correct answer for that particular student, links to performance summary screens and face-to-face notes made about the student, and links to a frequently-asked-question database with comments and replies Jane had made regarding the resource in question to other students in the past, with easy copy-and-paste.

Jane started to tie deadlines on relevant homework problems closely to her lecture schedule, and takes some time in the morning analyzing the answer patterns of her students before giving her lecture. The software assists her in finding the most frequent answer correlations within and between problems, and even brings up annotations by her colleagues, who have encountered similar correlations – Jane frequently adjusts her lecture to address the misconceptions and naïve or alternative conceptions she detected. She finds that her students appreciate her timely feedback and correction, and the rate of students who decide that physics “is just not for them” after falling way behind has dropped from previous experiences she had.

Today, however, Jane encounters a more unpleasant task: her to-do items include the Academic Probation Evaluation forms for eight of her students who had failed to meet the minimum GPA in previous semesters. Several items have already been filled in automatically, such as homework regularity and exam/quiz scores thus far. Other items, such as class participation and open-ended evaluation are still open for Jane to fill in. In a class of 400, this is a hard task. She pulls up the summary page for the first student – and is relieved that she immediately recognizes Anne from the photo: Anne had frequently come up after class and in office hours. Jane looks through some of the face-to-face notes she had made about Anne after office hours, reads some of Anne’s online discussion contributions, checks out her access and work patterns, and reads an essay response, which Anne had submitted last week. Jane gladly presses “Submit” on her entries into the Academic Probation Evaluation; from all indicators, Anne will be fine. Now John on the other hand: the photo does not ring a bell, but the name sure does. The system had frequently flagged him as “learner-at-risk” for falling behind. Jane looks through some of the messages she had sent to John – he had acknowledged receipt, but not shown up to office hours as Jane had requested, in fact not even answered the messages at all. Exams and quizzes are averaging 1.7. John had submitted twice to the course discussion, but only to ask what the correct answer for a particular question is. Last week’s essay was thrown out because of 93 percent similarity with an essay submitted two semesters earlier, and John did not bother to resubmit. Jane recommends that John should meet with his faculty advisor as soon as possible. Some other cases were less clear-cut, but Jane appreciated the decision-support she received from NextGenCMS.

By the end of the semester, Jane will have frequently modified and adjusted her course curriculum, and written a number of homework problems, some of which even got picked up elsewhere – records of such “peer-approval” will be available to Jane’s tenure committee. Jane submitted a small curriculum development grant for laboratory pre-tests and tutorials, which she would like to develop for a coming semester, and listed NextGenCMS as dissemination tool and part of her evaluation support strategy.

John barely made a 2.0 after all, but only after his faculty advisor made sure that he stopped delivering pizzas all night long, even at the risk of having less available funds for his cellphone bill and designer clothes.

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Supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF-ITR 0085921, NSF-CCLI-ASA 0243126, and NSF-CCLI 0717790. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Initial funding for CAPA has been provided by the Alfred. P. Sloan Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

©2013 Michigan State University Board of Trustees.