IT and the Common Core Courses: some issues and solutions
A Discussion Document
Two key questions to address:
1. “How can we manage the common core curriculum with 6000 students for the first year
(double cohort) and 3000 in subsequent years?”
If there are six components and students have to choose one course under each area, a
total of 6 six-credit courses will need to be assembled and delivered. Furthermore, under
each component, there will be about a dozen courses for the students to choose from.
Assuming that there is even distribution for the 12 options, we are talking about 250
students for each course. It would be possible for each course to be taught by two
teachers or run twice by the same teacher. However, we are talking about 125 students
each (by HKU standards these would be large classes). We could of course offer mass
lectures of 1000 students for a few lectures across two different campuses. However
from our knowledge of the research literature do we honestly feel that such a strategy is
in the interests of the students and the university?
2. How can information and communication technology (ICT) help us to implement the
common core curriculum?
If HKU is to successfully implement the new Common Core Curriculum as part of the 4 Year Undergraduate Curriculum Reform, it is going to be difficult (if not impossible) to merely scale up present practice – to physically increase the size of the campus and increase staff numbers. An obvious way to cope with the number of students, and range of new common core courses, will be to teach differently and embrace the new technologies. To go down a path of minimal change in teaching and learning practices with mass lectures does not acknowledge recent technological and pedagogic developments in higher education and may not be in the interest of the university nor its students. There is considerable evidence that the generation born since 1984 (described as „digital natives‟) learn differently to students in the past. Their expectations as students will
evolve in conjunction with the increased affordances offered by ICTs and the social networking offered by Web 2.0 applications. Whatever the agreed solution, there will be funding implications. It is our understanding that the university wants to implement the new curriculum at a minimal cost: a factor taken into account in this response.
The challenge is exemplified in the comments of one committee member:
Given that the budget is not going to go significantly up with enrolment numbers,
departments/faculties may be driven towards large class sizes and will be seeking
efficiencies in ways of handling large classes. The courses that will adopt large classes
are likely to be the introductory ones. Thus, central focus could be on these introductory
courses. This focus may also reduce resistance from colleagues on developing their ICT
skills and use of online learning environments if some support and guidance was
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There are three major costs associated with teaching in the university – all involve academic and
support staff – staff who consume the major part of the annual budget.
1. Delivery of teaching and support to students – including assessment. This currently
involves conventional lectures and presentations, seminars, demonstrations and
tutorials in workshops, laboratories and clinical settings etc. It also involves a
variety of assessment methods – many geared to small group practices.
Delivery of teaching
Conventional mass lectures delivered to large numbers of students may not be the best solution to the challenge we face (even assuming there are venues available for such delivery). Pragmatically, if large groups are reduced in size the number of teaching staff (a major cost to the university) multiplies as does the need for coordination between the team of teachers. Furthermore, pedagogically this form of communication is limited; the opportunity for interaction and input into the teaching by students and by, for example, industry partners in lectures is virtually nil.
However, if the „lecture‟ is to continue to dominate, ICT can contribute to more open and
flexible forms of delivery, through for example the use of pre-prepared as well as live video inputs and podcasts from within/outside HKU and Hong Kong. Online resources can combine PowerPoint type delivery with the provision of maps and charts, tables and figures, photographs and extracts. It can locate and present articles, discussion papers and reports, as well as entering web sites, annotate these pages and posting a copy of the entire sequence on a web site for further study.
It is possible for a student to visit this online resource, develop it further for themselves and fellow students and for teachers as well as for partners in commerce and industry, make digital copies for more individual study and development and print out extracts. The work completed can be used the following year or in part presented to industry partners to impact on their work, increasing the „shelf-life‟ and usefulness of resource components of courses –
updated and developed in an ongoing way by both teachers and students and even by partners outside the University in certain courses. In other words, the technology enables components of the courses to be developed and elaborated and changed by all stakeholders, including students.
Seminars and tutorials
A considerable amount of learning takes place in seminars and tutorials – where interaction is
encouraged - but this can be extremely labour intensive for staff. As such the maximum benefit has to be obtained from these sessions.
ICT can enable students to undertake preparatory work outside the formal classroom. This can be achieved in personal study or within Self Help Groups – which may include the study
of specially prepared printed material linked to online resources (the Learning Commons will play an important role).
Techniques for assembling self study materials are well known and have been demonstrated to be effective. Certainly, if the goal of the university is to produce independent learners such a mechanism should be part of the teaching system.
The new technologies can be used by students within a Self Help Group (or designated group) to interact at a distance. This may be in real time (synchronous) or over a particular period (asynchronous). Furthermore, students would have the opportunity to use these technologies
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in making their contribution to the seminar or tutorial. Staff would be able to draw upon evidence of these exchanges in their teaching. For example, smart phones already offer a plethora of functionalities including the ability to create photos, video, audio and text messages.
In addition as pointed out by a committee member:
all new devices will have global positioning satellite (GPS) as a standard feature on the
integrated circuit chipset of mobile devices. While the future with technology is very hard
to predict, it may be reasonably expected that mobile devices will encompass a range of
functionalities including virtual keyboards (already exist), the ability to project a full
screen image (currently under development), much higher data transfer rates (3 and 3.5 G
mobile telephony and 803.11g wireless) over much greater distances.
Social networking software (e.g., blogging, wikis and media wiki) should also be part of
the virtual learning environment components supported by the university. The use of such
software is already widespread in the student community (fully one third of the online
population of China has a blog) and needs to be supported to enhance teaching and
learning and facilitate globalisation of the student experience.
Assessment dominates the lives of staff and students. Whilst it is feasible to use a common assignment for several hundred students it would be extremely difficult for one person to mark hundreds of assignments reliably and within an acceptable turnaround time. (Other universities have adopted a ratio of between 20 – 30 assignments per marker – with the
coordination of marking to ensure marker reliability.) The question of the amount of marked assignment activities set in each core course needs to be discussed and resolved in the early stages of courses development.
In this context large population courses can benefit from the use of web-based Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs). This need not be the sole form of assessment – but it offers the
prospect of quick and efficient assessment of broad areas of the course. The format of MCQs can be generated by computer programmes and marked by that computer and can do so reliably. Furthermore, feedback can be created in advance (in anticipation of particular answers / misunderstandings) and feedback tailored to each student. Common misconceptions or errors can be identified and posted on a web site at the same time. There are many high quality research-tested MCQ databases in many subjects that can be bought and imported into HKU systems. Large scale successful examples of these MCQs databases can be evidenced in common core subjects in universities around the world. One of the limitations of bought in MCQs is their likely bias to particular cultures. However, these MCQ banks could be supplemented by locally produced MCQs. Of course the great advantage of those bought-in-MCQs is the quality of the product and the pre-testing and evaluation that has been completed. Different universities have implemented mass MCQs in many ways. HKU would not necessarily need to set up lots of special PC labs for these MCQs, but could use some of the existing labs at specific times, though having several timetabled, dedicated and administered rooms in eg the Learning Commons would be beneficial. In addition, certain types of MCQs could be completed by students submitting their answers via their own personal mobile device, in- or out-of-class.
Conventional written assignments can be sent electronically to the lecturer. Software packages can enable these assignments to be marked online – with tailor made feedback
returned rapidly to students. Furthermore, a copy of the comments / grades can be sent to student records and to their personal file online. Some of HKU courses already do all
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marking, feedback, student record submissions as one - solely on. It would thus be possible to draw upon the experience of colleagues in assembling showcases of good practice and in any associated briefing and training sessions.
It should be emphasised, however, that conventional pen and paper exams will not provide the required evidence of student learning outcomes outlined in the HKU 4 year undergraduate reform discussion document and in line with the 3+3+4 policy document. ePortfolios that can encompass these broader learning outcomes should be considered an essential component of the assessment strategy.
ICT enables concern over cheating and plagiarism to be reduced by alerting students to systems that will monitor / check all assignments for copying and plagiarism. Software packages are available at HKU that will help students in correct referencing of work and check for plagiarism before final submission for marking (eg Turnitin, which has been successfully used at HKU for several years, managed by the Library). Plagiarism can be further reduced by setting where possible activities that require students to personalise their assignments to meet specific and varied needs.
2. The construction of courses is also a major cost. It can take an academic staff
member months, if not years, to develop a course of study. Furthermore, if the
teaching of a course is dependent upon one teacher delivering the course, the entire
course is vulnerable to illness or absence of that academic staff member.
Whilst small teams can ensure high quality courses it is at a cost of greater amounts of staff time. However, others have demonstrated that even substantial courses can be assembled rapidly given some support and guidance.
The university will have to explore alternative ways of assembling courses. In this context ICT can help. It can facilitate inputs by other academic staff and other professionals who are unable to attend the university. It can move from courses being teacher dependent to learner
focused. It can involve learners in the process of knowledge creation. (This can occur regardless of ICT).
One option is to establish a small curriculum development team composed of an educational developer and several teachers with teaching workload reduction, seconded from faculty. This central coordinated team would ensure consistency across the common core courses, ensuring synergies between courses components, fairness in assignments, activities and tasks, etc. An external consultant could comment on the courses and the way they are structured, the role technology plays, etc. eg Professor John Hedberg? Input from other visiting scholars/external experts could be collected (eg Profs Fred Lockwood, Derek Hodgson). However, the responsibility for the common core courses would rest with this small central team. They would need to develop a broad framework for the curriculum, ensure full articulation with agreed 4 Year Curriculum goals, how the curriculum will be taught/delivered etc. The appointment of a Program Director (PD) and course coordinators for the common core courses would be beneficial. These staff can be seconded from faculty to CAUT and given a teaching workload reduction for this work.
The development of one or two common core courses should be piloted in 2008/2009 with students. Between now and when the pilot course(s) are offered in 2008, the details of the course(s) should be completed and sample components tested and evaluated. This would provide evidence to inform future decision making.
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One option being debated is to bring in some „stellar teachers‟ to be involved in these
common core courses. They could be asked to be involved in developing components of the course in advance and these components, including their presentations could be recorded, and made into Reuseable Learning Objects and stored along with student activities online. This
would ensure that the „shelf-life‟ of using these „stellar teachers‟ would last far longer than
their presence at HKU and would allow alternative deliveries of course components to mass lectures or even as a supplement to mass lectures. Searches through the internet will also reveal some excellent freeware in the form of Learning Objects that could be included in the
Core materials for the courses would need to be developed and provided to students and those involved in teaching the courses. These materials could use a variety of media – print, online
activities, links to student groups tasks. Developing the core content in advance of any teaching/learning delivery would ensure additional consistency and ability of monitor and test the quality before full scale trials.
3. The increase in student numbers will place a huge burden on administrative systems.
The adoption of a common portal or banner system and the use of internationally
accredited student metadata systems that hold and share basic information from
student records, support services, faculty lists, semester dates, timetables, library
sources, financial records, online payments and other internal sites is essential.
HKU already operates a portal and multiple Learning Management Systems (LMS)
eg WebCT, Moodle, Blackboard and home grown systems such as ILN. Faculty will
not agree to an enforced single LMS and indeed such ‘strait-jacketing’ would not
serve a useful purpose within HKU. Using IEEE standards for interoperability
would enhance links between student records and the courses students are enrolled
in to be easily pulled into the different LMS faculties and departments prefer to use.
Banner information system
There is a need to develop a sophisticated single sign-on Banner or HKU Portal system to leverage the opportunities provided by ICTs. The banner system will need to be standards-based, enabling the use of student metadata for the single sign-on. Such a coordinated system enables a one stop shop to be established with a seamless flow of information around the university. At the time a student expresses interest in joining the university a record is created. Electronic or paper based materials can be forwarded, options offered, preparatory work provided etc.
As one committee member pointed out:
currently, I have to ask my students to submit their photos, and conduct a short
survey to obtain their previous academic background. All the information is in fact
available at the registry but is not made available to instructors.
Virtual Learning Environments
The power of the University Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) will be pervasive; the VLE will become a major vehicle for teaching and learning and the delivery of teaching materials, its support and assessment as well as a central tool in enabling interaction and learning during the course. Learners will need to visit the university or course site before commencement of
the course – to find their way around the site(s), practice using the navigation tools, down load files, up load files, post messages, go to other sites etc. It will become an integral part of their learning experience at the university.
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It would be advantageous for all programmes in the common core curriculum to adopt the same Look and Feel, the same system of navigation so as to aid movement between courses. The university should consider the use of open-source VLEs in the future in order to have the flexibility of customising any VLE for the university community. The total cost of ownership (TCO) of open source software has been shown to be less than proprietary systems, giving greater control of customisation and faster development times.
Other measures identified by committee members:
; „Reduce non-essential tutorials. If only answers to homework assignments are given
in tutorials, a detailed solution can be posted in the class website and make these
tutorials optional (for those who need face-to-face discussion with the TA.) My
school has successfully adopted this approach. Can we do the same for lectures? I
believe so. In my teaching of an introductory course, I give my students two options
of assessment schemes. In one scheme, students are assessed continuously with
homework, midterms, and final exams. In the other, students are assessed only with
one final exam. Students have to make a choice at the beginning of the semester. So,
some students can completely skip the lectures and the weekly assessments.
Something in this vein could also be adopted for the common core.‟
; „In order to more fully integrate ICT into the curriculum, we need to demonstrate
some good examples in relevant contexts. Each department could be helped to
develop one or two good examples, but this would require some external department
; „In the philosophy department I have developed a logic course which is completely
taught online, attracting about 150 to 350 students a semester. In this course:
o There are no lectures. All reading material is provided online:
o There are optional tutorials for students who have problems. Some do attend
but most don't.
o Many students love the flexibility of the course and say it helps them solve
o Some students have difficulties with self-learning online.
o Grading is always a problem. We use one experienced full-time tutor to deal
with the course and postgrad students to assist with grading.
o We insist on having a final exam in addition to short questions / MCs
coursework because it is impossible to eradicate plagiarism (given the
; „It might be useful to review whether there are shared competencies in the courses to
see if there can be reusable components which can be taught online or at least without
duplication of efforts.
; „Online material: Hardworking students like to review such material at their own
pace. Lazy students forget about them and look at them before the relevant
assessment. I think such self-learning will become more important if student-centered
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learning is to be emphasized. But teachers will have to be given incentives and help
to convert lecture material which they can teach easily into high-quality instructional
material in some format which can provide useful feedback. We need to ensure that
teachers do not just put their lecture notes online and throw in some ill-thought out
MCQs and call it a day.
Assumptions regarding ICT skills.
; „Whilst many technology applications are user friendly the University should not
assume all students and staff will feel confident in their ICT skills and have high
levels of technical expertise. Whilst ICT applications should seek to be intuitive,
opportunities are needed to enable those involved to practice using the technology
applications in context, well before any new courses start.‟
; „One technology worth considering is personal mobile devices. It is likely that all
students will have access to mobile devices that can be used in their learning – lap
top computers, Professional Digital Assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones (Hong
Kong mobile phone penetration is already way over 130%). In a few years we can
expect all students to have mobile devices that will connect to the internet and have
wireless connections.‟ „… HKU already has an effective wireless LAN set up that
enables connectivity across all campuses. „ „ … Large scale testing with 1600 mobile
PDAs is presently being carried out at the CityU.‟
HKU and the digital natives study
; HKU will take part in an inter-institutional higher education study on first year
students‟ experiences with technology and also how teachers use and perceive the
value of digital technology to support their teaching/student learning. The project is
an extension of an Australian study supported by a Carrick Grant (a sort of TDG).
The results of this study will provide HKU with clearer understanding of where we
are with regards to the use and perceptions of student and staff values of IT in the
Dr Bob Fox
Chair IT sub-committee
4 Year Undergraduate Curriculuim Reform Steering Committee
3 June, 2007
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Monash University ICT-Infrastructure Strategic Plan 2010
University of Wollongong Strategic Planning for Blended eLearning http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1033&context=asdpapers
Phillips, R. (2005). Pedagogical, institutional and human factors influencing the widespread adoption of educational technology in higher education.
Garnter Report by Yanosky, R., Harris, M., & Zastrocky, M. (2003) Higher-Education E-Learning Meets Open Source http://ldt.stanford.edu/~educ39106/articles/hiEdOpenSource-g.pdf
Strategic Plan of the Kentucky Virtual University 2006-2009
The University of South Carolina Strategic and Assessment Plan For Distance and Distributed Learning At the University of South Carolina 2003-2008 http://www.it.sc.edu/oit/docs/eLearningstrategicplan.pdf
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