Ranked as one of the nation’s top 20 most innovative universities by US News & World Report, the University of Central Florida (UCF) consistently earns high marks for its online programs.
Part of their mission statement states, “We believe innovation comes from the meeting of diverse viewpoints. And when more people unleash their full potential, anything is possible.”
That kind of thinking and culture is evident in a group working together at UCF to redesign Spanish language courses — Spanish instructors Anne Prucha and Kacie Tartt, and instructional designer Jessica Tojo-Raible.
According to Megan Tesene, Ph.D., Associate Director for the Personalized Learning Consortium at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), which supported the early work of this team, this project is an example of faculty innovators committed to sharing their knowledge with colleagues to drive change and improve outcomes in the learning community: “Their leadership highlights how finding the right faculty innovators who are committed to sharing their learnings with colleagues builds communities of pedagogical innovation.”
Intrigued by adaptive learning
Tartt has been teaching Spanish for 15 years at UCF where more than 80 percent of the program’s introductory courses are already online. Always looking for ways to improve student success, she was intrigued by an in-house presentation on adaptive learning given in 2017 by Tojo-Raible. Used effectively, adaptive learning can close achievement gaps by personalizing the student experience and providing instructors and programs data that allows them to create targeted supports.
Curious, Tartt experimented with adaptive learning in one of her courses that fall, using courseware with fixed publisher content. The following year, Dr. Wendy Howard, Program Director of Pegasus Innovation Lab at UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning, approached Tartt about participating in a campus-wide course redesign project to implement adaptive courseware.
The initiative, funded by a grant from the APLU, focused on gateway classes and high-enrollment classes. The goal was to increase student success and decrease DFW rates (the rate of students earning D or F grades or withdrawing without earning credit).
Tartt reached out to her colleague Prucha to join her in the initiative. Coincidentally, they were assigned to work with Tojo-Raible, who had introduced Tartt to adaptive learning in the first place.
Prucha and Tartt chose two introductory Spanish courses, Elementary Spanish Language and Civilization I and II, to redesign using adaptive learning software. Unsatisfied with the traditional textbook and courseware approach to language teaching, Tartt and Prucha decided to utilize open education resources going forward, which would provide them with more customization of their course content.
An effective collaboration
Tojo-Raible says of Tartt and Prucha, “They came up with the content. They’re the subject-matter experts. I merely helped them put the content into the platform and helped them think about what they wanted to achieve pedagogically.”
Their weekly meetings to discuss content and assignments were often day-long sessions at one another’s homes. They used a shared online spreadsheet to track the status of course content — for example, when elements were ready for Tojo-Raible to load into Realizeit, the adaptive learning software they were using, or when elements were staged for Tartt and Prucha to review.
All three emphasize that having collaborators was critical, as was a good sense of humor and open communication. Prucha and Tartt say Tojo-Raible’s guidance was vital to their success.
“Jessica guided us about what could work in the application,” Prucha said. “Kacie and I had ideas on the content and how to deliver it, and Jessica guided us in how best to do this in Realizeit. Together, the three of us worked on solutions with the goal being pedagogically sound content and delivery of that content.”
They liked that instead of telling them “we can’t do that,” Tojo-Raible would take their idea and find a way to make it work. For example, early on they found that using short essay questions in the adaptive learning software was cumbersome. Tojo-Raible’s solution was to build those activities in the university’s learning management system (Canvas) instead.
She also worked with them to ensure consistent and clear layout, illustration, and typography throughout the student experience.
Results and continuous improvement
In the first semester of teaching an adaptive version of their online introductory courses, Elementary Spanish Language and Civilization I (SPN 1120C) and Elementary Spanish Language and Civilization II (SPN 1121C), Tartt and Prucha saw immediate results. Tartt taught two sections of SPN 1120C with a total of 67 students. Prucha taught three sections of SPN 1121C that semester, with a total of 91 students.
Compared to the sections of these courses taught by Prucha and Tartt in the previous semester:
- The number of students earning an A, B, or C grade in SPN 1120C rose by 23%. In SPN 1121C, grades rose by 22%.
- Withdrawal rates in SPN 1120C decreased by 7%. In SPN 1121C, they decreased by 13%.
- In student evaluations, satisfaction increased .14 points (on a 5-point scale) in SPN 1120C and increased .46 points in SPN 1121C.
After teaching three semesters using adaptive courseware, Tartt and Prucha continue to see the payoff. Students are achieving better learning outcomes, their courses are seeing lower DFW rates, and, because they chose open education sources, student costs are lower.
Now with a second grant, Tartt and Prucha secured a course assistant to conduct a detailed review of both courses, and they are collaborating with her to create and add more content to the adaptive learning software, such as infographics and audio files.
Expanding adaptive learning to the rest of the department
The lessons learned from this team’s experience are being applied to other courses in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at UCF. Prucha says they have met with other faculty working on redesigning their courses and will continue to be resources for them. She and Tartt are sharing best practices, their templates, and their support.
- Starting in fall 2020, two more Spanish instructors will begin teaching adaptive courses.
- Colleagues are working to implement adaptive learning in French, Portuguese, Italian, and German courses.
- A team of instructional designers is dedicated to adaptive learning implementation, and Tojo-Raible is supporting the Portuguese instructors.
Motivated to continue innovating
“I like to try new things and should probably have a healthier fear of failure, but I don’t,” says Tartt. “I’m always motivated by the needs of my students.”
Collaborating with Tartt inspires Prucha, who says, “We’re like-minded and have a really good interaction.”
Prucha has been teaching Spanish at the college level for 33 years, often facing the same challenges and hearing the same complaints from students and faculty. Now she’s hearing positive feedback from students and faculty about the value of adaptive courseware.
She advocates talking to colleagues at other institutions to see what innovative things they are trying, as well as thinking about areas where courses may be less effective and setting goals and objectives for improving.
Tojo-Raible says it’s her job to innovate, but she’s inspired by working with Tartt and Prucha. “They really care about their students and their students’ success,” she says. She has seen the success of this dedicated, passionate team and she knows it’s possible for others to innovate as well.
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