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The winter semester COMS 363 will benefit from mistakes made in the first megalecture technical writing class.
Anna Doyle/the Gauntlet

Ironing out the wrinkles in COMS 363

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Imagine a new class that uses all new instructional materials and never-before tested technology. The course description uses phrases like "blended learning" and "inquiry-based." It has inexperienced TAs as the primary instructors and the lecture material seems unrelated to the information presented in labs and tutorials. In addition, the megalecture format crams 600 students from diverse faculties into one class and professors cannot be contacted with concerns.

This scenario happened last semester when the Faculty of Communication and Culture revamped COMS 363, Professional and Technical Communication, a course requirement for many engineering, business, communication and science students. It replaced other faculty-specific communication courses.

"We tried too many new things all at the same time," admitted Dr. Helen Holmes, the associate Dean of Communication and Culture who is also instructing a COMS 363 lecture this semester. "I'm not denying that there were problems."

Many students complained about the course throughout the semester.

"It was like a science experiment gone horribly wrong," complained a disgruntled second-year communication studies major who requested her name be withheld.

"There was disconnection be- tween what I thought [the course was about] and what I got," said Alvin Schur, a computer science major who was enrolled in the course last semester.

Schur attributes many of the problems with the course to the emphasis on the new Blackboard learning system, an interactive web-based classroom.

"[There were] technical problems with Blackboard," said Schur. "Grades disappeared, we couldn't log on and couldn't submit our assignments sometimes."

Workload was also a problem for students.

"There was too much work," explained Dr. Holmes. "The course was very time consuming."

"I started with poor communication skills," said Schur. "I learned a great deal from the course and the TA, but to accomplish that I had to work 10-12 hours per week outside of class."

Students' Union faculty representative for Communication and Culture Laura Schultz predicted there would be problems with the course early on.

"I raised red flags in a faculty meeting last spring," said Schultz. "The course was implemented sooner than it should have been. COMS 363 is an example of what blended learning shouldn't be."

Schultz blamed the course prob- lems on a number of factors, including the massive class size.

"A lot of these problems stem from the super large classroom, but that's out of our control," she said. "It was unfortunate for students last semester."

Administrators have made many changes to the course for the winter semester, including cutting back on assignments, providing more feedback, placing less emphasis on Blackboard technology and simplifying the course website. In addition, the TAS and professors alike now have valuable experience working in the blended learning format.

"I am confident in the basic philosophy of the course," stated Dr. Holmes. "I feel really confident that we've made a lot of changes that will alleviate the confusion of last term."

Schur is also confident in the faculty's abilities to make positive changes to the course.

"The administrative team from Communication and Culture put a lot of effort into this course," said Schur. "They did very well considering the circumstances."

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Comments

Thanks, Emily, for this informative article, and thanks to Alvin, Helen and others who contributed to it.

As one of the main instructors assigned to the fall term Coms 363 I can say it was a very difficult beginning, a bumpy road. Not even the best of our faculty's planners could have foreseen some of the problems we would run into due to the sudden shift from independent sections of 30 to a staff of 13-14 people with 600 students, two "identical" lectures, and labs and tutorials held all over campus at various times during the week.

Our fall cohort of students did a wonderful job and learned a lot, though not without valid complaints along the way. We heard you and we sympathized, making plans for change as early as October, but there was little we could do about the Fall situation as instructors and TAs. You have to start somewhere, and we were all doing our best under a lot of stress.

Regarding the course design: While there are inevitably some sacrifices in moving from independent sections to a large, complex format, we have tried to compensate by strengthening the curriculum. It used to be that you might enrol in 363 and, depending on the textbook and instructor, you might get as little as a course that focused on technical format and grammar/style-- as useful as those topics are, they can be quite limited and high-schoolish on their own. The curriculum still includes direction on "how to write a report, memo, proposal, etc." and style and grammar workshops, but it puts these in context of group research projects and client-focused writing scenarios. This helps students learn the basics while practicing important communication skills that are used in the workplace, such as online communication, editing and revision, usability testing, and collaboration. There's also a stronger grounding in rhetorical perspective and research skills, which encourages students to carefully consider why and to whom they are writing, not just obediently following tips and rules. So while students are writing fewer pages per person than they used to in 363, they are learning more, and more that makes them think and apply the skills to professional life.

As for the apparent lecture/lab-tutorial disconnect, I'd like to have some constructive suggestions of how to make lectures relate to labs -- *You* try lecturing on communication skills! It's like lecturing on swimming! Of course we tried our best to make the lectures support what students were doing in their assignments, but without an exam in fall term students seemed to think that lectures were useless. It's also less motivating to go to a lecture once a week when you hardly know the lecturer because you are with a TA in a smaller group of 30 for 2/3 of the class time. So we added an exam for Winter term, and we'll see if students will attend lectures.

Regardless of the kinks that still need the iron, the staff involved in Coms 363 truly does have the interests of students at heart, and wants to give them an education that will be a useful and rich preparation for workplace communication.

One student commented that, in order to really learn the communication skills required in COMS 363 he had to put in "10-12 hours per week outside of class." That should come as no surprise to any student. Every one hour per week in class should require 2-3 hours per week of study: reviewing, reading ahead, preparing assignments and studying for exams. Therefore, a 3 hour/week class which also has a 1 hour/week tutorial should translate into a minimum of 8 hours, maximum of 12 hours per week of study time. This formula holds true for the class of 25 students or the class of 300: we instructors and TAs can present material and do our best to help students learn but genuine learning only takes place when students embrace the process of learning themselves and own responsibility for doing the learning. The student who learned a great deal from attending class and doing 10-12 hours/week of studying was working within the expected time frame, not suffering from a work overload.

That being said, I continue to believe that smaller classes provide a much better opportunity for teachers to teach and students to learn. If all we are doing is trying to get students to memorize and "re-barf" on multiple choice exams, then maybe the mega lecture is satisfactory. However, no multiple choice exam can provide opportunity for students to exercise critical thinking, analyzing and synthesizing skills, precisely the skills they should be learning at a university.

Ok Dr. Scheelar, so if I attend 5 classes a week, and lets say 2 of these are 3 hours with a 1 hour lab, and the other three are not, then according to you:

...a 3 hour/week class which also has a 1 hour/week tutorial should translate into a minimum of 8 hours, maximum of 12 hours per week of study time.

So the two 4 hour classes, plus the three 3 hour classes (6 - 9 hours of study) means that a full time student should spend a total of 51 hours in class or studying per week at a minimum. Take it to the maximum, and it is 68 hours!! You've got to be kidding. And now we need to volunteer, take the horible city transit to campus, work 20 hours a week to avoid a rediculous amount of debt, humans need some social contact, exercise, meals, sleep.

Two to three hours of studying per hour of class is not even close to being feasible or realistic. What world are you living on Dr. Scheelar?

I wasted $500 on this course in the fall semester, and watched my professor make gross amounts of money for no work. Meanwhile, my TA taught me what I learned (in labs), my TA marked my weekly assignments, my TA marked my presentations, my TA explained the readings to me, my TA helped me with my group project, my TA marked my group project draft, my TA marked my group project, while my Prof "maybe marked some of my individual project depending on which TA it came from."

So what did these professors do all semester while TA's worked their butts off to help students? I don't care what excuses I hear about COMS 363, that was a waste for everyone involved. You don't 'test a course' on 600 students, like you don't test a medical procedure on 600 patients. A bad course gives bad grades. People out there depend on their grades to pay for tuition, pass classes and get somewhere in life. University classes should never be an experiment in how little work a prof can get away with while a TA does everything.