Winter 2006 term post-mortem
1) This was the second term where I assigned recorded lectures from a previous term and held workshops instead of repeating myself one more time. In contrast to the previous course CHEM241, most of the lectures had some publisher material that I could not share publicly. This was not an issue for the audio podcast but any visual information (aside from the introductory first lecture) had to be password protected. I had traditionally done this by keeping files on WebCT. However, since our upgrade to the Vista edition of WebCT, students were complaining that downloading files was problematic because of a time-out error, even for small pdf files. In order to work around this, I moved all downloadable files to our CoAS server in a password protected folder. This worked really well because it enabled any or our faculty to construct a regular URL (e.g. http://showme.physics.drexel.edu/coas/aquino/242-2005-wi-week1fri.pdf) to link to a file and provide the password only to their students. I don't think it is possible to create a URL to a file in WebCT from the open web. One has to first log in.
2) I am a proponent of using technology as sparingly as possible because there is an intimidation and confusion factor that must be overcome for many students taking a non conventional class such as mine. That is why I resisted using wikis so long and why I pushed for viewing the streaming screencasts as the only way to access the lectures. However, just as student demand motivated me to start podcasting the audio, student requests for making the lecture videos downloadable pushed me to provide the lectures in AVI format. One problem with that was the large file size (about 200 Meg/hour) and the annoying fact that AVI files created by Camtasia need special codecs to play. One of my students found a site to download the codecs but I think that is just asking too much of my less technically inclined audience.
3) The real video breakthrough this term came from yet another request, a student who wanted to view the lectures on her new video ipod. Those of you who have been following this blog will know that I was not a big fan of vodcasting lectures, mainly because of the gigantic file downloads that were initially being pushed through the feeds. But it turns out that it is possible to create vodcasts in m4v format that will play beautifully on a video ipod at 50 Meg/hour. Although the resolution is not quite as good as the Flash screencasts I have been providing, for applications not involving 12 point fonts (like small text on a website), it is just fine for typical powerpoint presentations. The challenge here is to convince students that they don't need an ipod or Mac to view the vodcast via iTunes. Any computer capable of playing Quicktime will do. But all of the students who have been watching them on their video ipods have been very pleased.
4) Just like last term, only a small number of students made use of any given workshop and a few times no students showed up. However, those who did come made really good use of the time. Some students wanted to work on questions that they kept getting wrong while others wanted to do questions with me before watching the lectures. For concepts like NMR, which involves analyzing spectra to identify molecules, I think that doing problems before watching the theory may actually be a better way to teach it. But each student is different and the beauty of technology is that I can use different tools to see what works best for a particular student.
5) I spiced up the Unreal Tournament (educational version, no weapons) Races this term by offering better prizes. The winner would draw a card for an even chance of winning a video ipod, a chemistry book, a molecular model kit or a consolation prize. I didn't give out the same prize to the same student twice so the odds of winning the ipod improved for persistent students. One student won every prize. There were about 4-5 students who consistently participated in the UT races, which ran about once every week or two. The UT race is basically a quiz using a first person perspective running into doors decorated with chemical reactions and concepts. Any incorrect selection takes the student back to the start of the maze. Students would often continue playing even after the race was over and ask me questions when they were stuck. This type of immersive experience seemed to be a very good way for some students to learn the material.
6) I offered 3 extra credit options worth up to 2%. Although many students were initially interested in contributing to the UsefulChem malaria project, only two persevered and they are still working in my lab. A few students did the blog assignment. I thought the most interesting was about the chemistry behind glowsticks. Those who started early got the most feedback from me and learned the most not only about their specific topic but also about the way chemical information is stored in the world. The most popular extra credit choice was creating Unreal Tournament true and false doors. I was hoping that I could use these for the whole class to benefit and I did select a few for some of the UT races but in the end it was quicker to just create them myself and cover the material that I considered to be most critical. I was toying with the idea of increasing the amount of extra credit for next term but I want the students who get involved to really want to do it out of genuine interest. Otherwise, instead of a constructivist learning project, it will turn into just another hoop to jump through. So I'll keep it at 2% next term as well.