Prepare for the Megalecture

By Daorcey Le Bray

For 600 students, the “Megalecture” has arrived at the University of Calgary, with all its benefits and challenges.

COMS 363, Professional and Technical Communication, teaches students from Management to Engineering a hands-on and inquiry-based approach to rhetorical theory, writing and presentation skills. Last year, the course, which is required by many degrees, was taught in 21 30-student sections, and two-thirds were taught by sessional instructors.

The course is now taught in Megalecture format. Students attend one of two 300-person lectures, followed by a tutorial and lab with 30 students. The course is taught by two instructors and 10 TAs. It’s breaking new ground in educating large numbers of students, and it may herald the shape of university classes to come.

"It is possible that we shall see more courses of this kind in the future," said Faculty of Communication and Culture Acting Associate Dean Academic Professor Christine Suther- land. "But it’s too early to tell."

As a burgeoning and untested course, challenges came early as instructors came to grips with the time required to teach communication skills to a combined class of 600.

Professor Doug Hare, the second instructor for the course, explained the Megalecture "takes time for the student, the TAs and us." Both he and Smith are aware more time spent teaching such an intensive course detracts from time spent on research, publication and other teaching.

"This is definitely an uncomfortable arrangement," said Smith. "Everyone is working at the absolute limits of their hours."

Confronted with the possibility of 12-plus hours per week facilitating and grading 60 students in labs and tutorials, many TAs balked in the first week of class. One graduate student even resigned after learning of the expected workload.

According to Communications and Culture Dean Dr. Kathleen Scherf, the concerns were immediately addressed during a weekend meeting and TA workload was rolled back. As well, time spent on the course will be monitored to ensure they can meet their research and study requirements as graduate students.

"We got right on that after the first week of classes," explained Scherf. "The measure of quality is not in the problems which arise, but how you deal with them."

The Megalecture concept was developed during late 2002. Since sessionals would not be needed to teach the COMS 363 Megalecture, those who previously taught the course found their contracts unrenewed in the face of the U of C’s Winter 2003 budget cuts.

To further complicate the loss, the Haskayne School of Business removed a similar course from its calendar, requiring B.Comm. students take COMS 363. While this meant an influx of students to the course, it also provides a redirection of cash from the business school to pay Communication and Culture TAs and hire a new assistant professor in the area of Professional Communications.

"We’re trying very hard to balance the budget cuts with the quality of the student experience and with innovative teaching," said Scherf. "Obviously, we’re going to hit some bumps along the road."

Associated with large class sizes is concern for the quality of education per student.

"Megalectures have the greater possibility of producing less highly educated people than do smaller classes," said Hare.

The labs and lectures are designed to combat this problem, and they receive the approval of Students’ Union Vice-President Academic Demetrios Nicolaides.

"It’s better, if you have large lectures, to have supplementary tutorials than to have none at all," he said.

But TA Calvin Seaman said students should be concerned about the limited time he and his colleagues spend with students.

"I think the students are getting ripped off, in that respect," he said.

According to Smith, the ideal number of students in a writing class under one instructor is 30, compared to the 60 stewarded by the TAs. Her colleagues from American universities are often shocked to hear her TAs are responsible for so many students. Even though her "heart is in this field" as an instructor and course designer, the enormous course is "an embarrassment" in her field. In her opinion, the course will become better as the TA to student ratio decreases. She and Hare expect the current situation to be temporary.

"Megalectures are dramatic numbers. If they ever lose the word ‘dramatic’ in front, we’re in trouble," said Hare. "We sincerely hope this is an anomaly."

Scherf is convinced the growing pains of a new course structure will surely pass and reveal a groundbreaking program.

"This is the first year we’re doing this and we’re still working some things out," she said.

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