Initial Publication Date: November 30, 2016

Improving Teaching and Learning

Part of the InTeGrate Penn State University Program Model

Courses and Materials
Developed by the Project »

Impact on Teaching and Learning

Impact 1: Increasing the active nature of general education courses

The main objective of the InTeGrate blended and online courses is to engage students and enhance their learning through activities. Course lectures are written online in a voice like they would be spoken in class. Students meet once or twice a week to conduct the lab activities in pairs. These activities generally use large data sets and require the students to have read the lecture materials. In some courses and modules, these activities are formative. All modules have some form of summative assignment, usually a lab activity or, in some cases, a Blog. Our goal has been to streamline these assignments so they can be finished in the lab period. In several of the courses, we have focused the activities on certain types of software such as Google Earth, GeoMapApp or STELLA so that students become comfortable with the programs. Examples include:

  • Students use a STELLA model to explore how Earth's climate works in this lab activity from the Earth in the Future course.
  • Students explore the physiography of large coastal cities using Google Earth and GeoMapApp in this summative assessment from the Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society course.
  • Students examine land use changes using Google Earth in the Earth in the Future course.
  • Students reinforce their understanding of Peak Oil using a simple STELLA model in the summative assessment for the Energy, Environment, and Our Future course.
  • Several courses involve a summative Capstone activity which is also active in nature. This activity involves collecting data over the course of the semester and is woven in with different the different disciplines in the course. For example, the Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society course Capstone involves choosing a coastal city, investigating its topography and physiography, its hazard susceptibility, engineering in place to lower the risk, and finally policy to help communities respond to the risk.
  • The Future of Food course Capstone has students examine the food production in a region focusing on climate change, energy and water.
  • The Water: Science and Society course Capstone involves delving into the water problems of a large urban area.

Impact 2: Increasing the interdisciplinarity of general education courses

Traditionally general education geology courses have been highly disciplinary; take for instance a traditional physical geology, oceanography, or hazards course. All of the new Earth courses are interdisciplinary in nature following the general InTeGrate philosophy on sustainability education. This philosophy is centered on the principle that students need to understand how policy, law, business, and engineering relate to the hard science. Students need to understand the solutions to scientific problems from a scientific and social scientific angle.

For example in the Coastal Processes, Hazards, and Society course, we integrate an understanding of coastal processes and hazards with engineering and policy solutions to the hazards.

In the Future of Food course, we integrate an understanding of sustainability for agriculture with the challenges posed by food insecurity and modern diets to human health and well-being.

Increasing the interdisciplinary content of general education courses has two primary goals. The first is to increase the relevance to the diverse group of students who takes them and to possibly recruit more students into the geosciences. More broadly, however, our goal is to make students more aware of the broad range of issues that surround global change and how policy and engineering decisions are interwoven with the science.

Impact 3: Researching the impact of blended and online modes of delivery on student learning

To this point, all conclusions about the impact of the blended versus fully online instruction are anecdotal. For both formats, there is a broad response that depends in part on the commitment of the student and her or his preparation for the course. For the blended courses, the chief obstacle is making sure students devote sufficient time to the lecture part of the class so that they learn from it. There is a tendency for students not to have read the lecture materials before coming to lab. This is something we stress as critical, but numerous students still clearly are unprepared. We are toying with the idea of holding the quiz before the lab to ensure students devote the necessary time to the lecture materials.

We have made the labs a little simpler for the fully online courses, since the professor is not readily available to explain concepts. The main challenge is providing students with the help they need in an efficient manner. One of the issues with the fully online courses is that many students leave the labs till the last minute, when it is no longer possible to help them. These students often become very frustrated with the exercises.

Up to now, we have had insufficient survey responses to evaluate the relative effectiveness of blended and entirely online in a rigorous fashion. We are now offering credit for the completion of the pre- and post-surveys and should receive response from a broad enough set of students to conduct a rigorous analysis of the impact of mode of delivery.

Supporting Faculty Change

We assembled a group of Earth Science faculty across the Penn State Commonwealth Campus system. We held monthly webinars to promote the adoption of the new Earth courses and to develop the e-learning cooperative program. We typically had about 10 faculty from six campuses attend the webinars. The campuses include Abington, Behrend (Erie), Brandywine, DuBois, Harrisburg and University Park.

The first webinar included a presentation of the InTeGrate program and a general overview of the blended and online courses developed at Penn State. The second webinar focused on the advantages and disadvantages of the two modes of instruction. For example, the blended courses allow teamwork, while online courses do not. They provide students with more flexibility over typical face-to-face courses, and they allow the faculty to become well acquainted with students as they work with them in the labs. Online courses have the major benefit of allowing us to reach larger numbers of students and non-traditional learners.

Several of the faculty have taught in both modes so this was a lively discussion. The third webinar focused on needs of faculty at the different campuses. The main outcome of this meeting was that the faculty at several (not all) campuses are challenged with high teaching loads and low enrollment general education courses when they need to be putting more energy into teaching upper level courses as a part of new and proposed degree programs. Thus there is a need for sharing the teaching of general education courses through an online education consortium.

The fourth webinar focused on a lengthy discussion of the mechanics of an e-learning cooperative, how it is set up, the rules and regulations and commitment. In short, a cooperative is set up when a faculty or group of faculty agree to teach an online course for a two or three year period. An agreed number of seats are assigned to each campus in the consortium and some to other campuses. Typically the consortia members are charged a fee per seat which comes to the campus that teaches the course but this has been waived for our program. This webinar also included a discussion of faculty teaching schedules for the next year and initial commitments to teach as part of the consortium.

Adoption of the materials at the Commonwealth Campuses is almost entirely in blended mode. So far only one of the faculty from the Commonwealth Campuses has agreed to teach an e-learning cooperative course. This is Not a significant problem because fixed term faculty are teaching the online courses.