Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

The Advanced Visualization Center creates interactive three-dimensional objects that students can pull apart and manipulate.

Using Technology to Enhance Learning at Wallace State Community College


Much of the current discourse in and about higher education is focused on technology, especially the debate over whether technology-based learning will replace the traditional classroom. A less dramatic but equally important conversation is addressing the ways in which new technologies can supplement, modify, and enhance existing teaching practices and models. At Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama, a new department is developing technological tools to help instructors provide a better learning experience for students, no matter where classes take place.

Supported by a Title III grant and another grant from the state of Alabama, the eLearning Department at Wallace State offers technology support to help faculty improve learning in face-to-face, online, and hybrid courses. The department trains faculty in the use of learning management systems, assists in the creation of new audio-visual media, and manages one of Alabama's four Advanced Visualization Centers, which create interactive three-dimensional objects to provide hands-on learning experiences. It's a fundamentally student-centered approach, says Bruce Tenison, director of eLearning. "We start by asking the instructor what is hard to convey to students," Tenison says, and then provide a tool to make it easier.

Enhancing the Classroom Experience

Even traditional face-to-face courses at Wallace State are required to have some online resources—at minimum a syllabus and assignment list posted to a Blackboard course site, and some instructors include considerably more. Kathy Buckelew, a professor of English, posts all her lecture notes and presentation slides online, which is helpful for students with different learning styles, she says. Students who rely on note-taking can still do so, but they don't worry about missing anything, and students who learn better by listening can do so knowing that they can review any visual materials online. Buckelew also uses the site as a platform for student photo essays. Students create the essays as PowerPoint presentations and post them to the course website, allowing them to include audio, animation, and other features that wouldn't be possible in a printed assignment.

Many faculty members at Wallace State are also beginning to use Class Capture to document their class presentations live, so that spontaneous questions and discussions that arise in class, not just the prepared lecture, are available for review. Many faculty say having access to all these materials for review makes a big difference for their students. Tenison recalls a faculty member from the diesel mechanics program who reported a remarkable improvement in student performance once he posted his materials online. In the past, his students had typically scored around 20 to 30 percent on a particular test. After putting his course materials online, including graphic representations and other visual materials, the average score rose to 80 percent.

As is typical at many colleges and universities, Wallace State uses the Blackboard learning management system, and most of the online tools faculty use run as simple plugins for Blackboard. This is a very deliberate choice, says Russell Gann, one of two instructional designers in the eLearning Department. While some institutions may have an instructional designer for each academic department, Gann and his colleague serve the entire faculty and so they try to provide tools that faculty can quickly learn to use without assistance. Gann can train faculty to use a simple HTML editor like Soft Chalk, for example, which allows faculty to take a static image and build in rollover text and simple activities like quizzes.

For more sophisticated interactive objects, faculty can turn to the Advanced Visualization Center (AVC). The graphic artists at the AVC can create three-dimensional objects that can be moved and altered, either in the center or later on a personal computer. The center is especially popular for the health and life sciences, Tenison says, because it can simulate functioning bodies and organs with which students interact. "In occupational therapy, for example, it's really hard to convey the planes of movement to students with just a book," he says. "We created a physical body that moves in those planes. The students instantly see that and retain the information much better."

Students engage with three levels of interaction with objects. Level 1 is simple identification and labeling of the discrete parts of an object. Level 2 involves taking apart and interacting with those parts. Students in the mechanics program, for example, might have to take apart and reassemble the alternator of a car. Level 3 involves multiple participants working together on a scenario—a surgical procedure, say—and making decisions on the spot. Buckelew, for her part, hopes to show her literature students a three-dimensional model of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were staged, so the students can have a better sense of how the plays were originally performed.

Doing Distance Education Effectively

In addition to supporting the faculty with their technology needs in traditional classes, the eLearning Department has been working to improve online courses and adapt new courses to online formats. Before an online class be approved and scheduled, it's first evaluated by faculty and staff using an online learning rubric adapted to Wallace State's shared learning outcomes. The college will soon shift to using the rubric offered by Quality Matters, an organization that helps colleges and universities design effective online courses and offers professional development for faculty. All faculty members at Wallace State who teach online receive training in adapting effective pedagogies to the online environment, "so the students get a consistent experience no matter what course they take," Tenison says.

Once an online course is approved, instructional designers meet with faculty to help them find the particular tools that will work best with their pedagogies and will present their subject matter in the most effective way, Gann says. "When I meet with an instructor, I try to listen and ask how they teach their students. What is your style? What activities do you do? As soon as I have a feel for their teaching style, I try to help them use a corresponding tool online."

"There are some moments that occur in the classroom... that are really hard to capture online," Buckelew says. "But I do use the exact same assignments, materials, and notes in my online class." Discussion boards are an important tool for these courses. Students are required, for instance, to write brief responses to prompts Buckelew posts, and also to respond to each other's postings. Another section of the board is purely student driven. "I have an open topic area where they can communicate with one another about the class, asking questions about what they don't understand and answering those questions for each other. If someone posts a question and no one answers, I may go in and try to assist, but I want them to have the opportunity to ask each other and interact more."

Buckelew has also started creating short YouTube lectures to present some content. While they don't comprise the primary form of content delivery for her online courses, they do allow students to see what Buckelew looks and sounds like, which makes the course feel more personal. That personal touch is important, she says, because research shows that online courses often have a higher attrition rate because students don't feel a strong connection. She and her colleagues try to engage students early, with assignments that introduce students to the broad ideas of the course and offer the chance to earn a good grade early in the semester. Buckelew sends plenty of e-mails to her online students—both to remind them of approaching deadlines and to keep them generally engaged in the course.

Tech Strategies that Translate

Maintaining communication with students is important in any course, not just online courses, and many other strategies faculty at Wallace State use to engage their online students apply just as well to face-to-face classes. Buckelew uses the course site—for all her courses—to create a repository of sample assignments so students have models to use. This is especially important, she says, for meticulous tasks such as MLA citation and documentation. Buckelew also strongly advises using a course website to present all course assignments and outcomes for students. When students have access to all the materials and deadlines in one place, they feel oriented and pace themselves more effectively—important for any class, but especially for online courses, where students have to be more self-directed.

Of course, some elements are harder to translate online. "One thing I'm working on more is creating that collaborative environment, that discussion feel," Buckelew says. "Students interacting live is really special, and I'll always want to keep teaching face-to-face classes."

Wallace State Community College