Beyond the Classroom is a Q&A series where ALT-2040 project teams share their thoughts and experiences leading learning transformation at UBC Okanagan.
This Q&A features:
Lead Applicant: Dr. Ramon Lawrence
Please provide a short overview of your project.
Computer labs are where students learn the key skills of problem-solving, programming, and design. Most computer science courses have a lab section allowing students to practice concepts on practical problems. Unfortunately, lab attendance decreases substantially after 2nd year, which results in fewer students completing the learning objectives and inefficiencies with lab space and teaching assistant resources. Learning is in the ability to apply skills and interact with fellow students and instructors, not by computers in the lab. The project developed virtual labs that can be done at the student’s convenience while providing on-demand support at various times. Virtual labs increase student engagement and performance by allowing completion at their own schedules. Virtual labs were deployed and evaluated in two upper-year computer science courses, and the positive outcomes have resulted in many other courses moving to virtual labs. A generalizable system was deployed that allows instructors to create dynamic questions that can be auto-marked. These questions extend what is currently possible in Canvas, which only supports simple question types such as multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and short answer.
What inspired you to pursue this project?
I strongly believe in delivering excellent student experiences. UBC, as a world-class institution, needs to be a leader in innovative approaches to learning. This project improves student learning in multiple computer science courses and is an example for other instructors wanting to modernize their content and assessments.
How has your project impacted student learning?
Even before COVID, student attendance in scheduled labs and tutorials was declining, and attendance further decreased during and after the pandemic. We operate in an always-on, immediate-response society, and scheduled labs offer no flexibility and limited interaction. The introduction of virtual labs and automated assessments resulted in increased student engagement, immediate and precise assessment feedback, and the flexibility to provide support for student questions on demand. Removing scheduled labs adds flexibility to student schedules and may reduce the need to commute to campus. This is especially inclusive for students who may not be able attend scheduled labs due to personal or financial reasons.
Why is learning transformation important to you?
Continually improving courses results in better experiences for students. As technology and society evolve, our learning techniques and approaches must also keep pace in order to continue to deliver exceptional learning experiences.
What has been the biggest surprise or biggest takeaway from your ALT-2040 project?
The biggest takeaway is the amount of continual effort that is required to improve courses and make learning transformation possible. Instructors may want to improve their courses but may not have the time or administrative support for these activities. It was especially important in this project to make changes that are practical and possible to implement for other instructors given constraints in time and resources.
How did the collaboration of your project team support the success of this project?
Having a team helps design approaches that are applicable beyond an individual’s own instruction. One of the major challenges with any learning transformation is if it can be applied by others who did not develop it.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering developing an ALT-2040 proposal?
One key piece of advice is to reach out to others for tips and help. One of the challenges we faced was interacting with Canvas, and we discovered others who had past experiences and were able to help. These community connections also help inspire new ideas and approaches and inspire other instructors to test your ideas in their classes.
Is there any additional information you would like to include?
Remember that there are lots of resources and support available including at the Centre for Teaching and Learning. There is a community of scholars with experience in ALT-2040 and similar projects who can help. I also strongly encourage people to work on learning transformation projects. There is nothing more important for our students than developing and improving our courses to support their learning and positive experiences at UBCO.