Professor Gary Allen teaches Anatomy 1010, An Introduction to Anatomy, in the Department of Medical Neuroscience at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada. This is a large enrolment course with over 1,000 students. It is a standard three credit course and is a pre-requisite for many academic disciplines in health sciences.
As the numbers wanting to enrol in the course grew, and as the number of faculty and support staff available to teach the course declined, Professor Allen found himself gradually moving the course more and more online over time until the whole course could be taken online. It is offered to over 1,000 students each year with just one instructor. It is an unrestricted course, open to all students. The online course is delivered twice, once in the fall and once in each winter semester, with over 500 students enrolled in each section. Students can attend the three weekly one hour lectures offered in the classroom, if they wish, but the majority study online.
The main ‘container’ for delivery of the course is now the D2L’s Brightspace learning management system used at Dalhousie (see Figure 1 below).
Within this online space students have access to:
- Recorded lectures by Professor Allen
- An online study guide specific to the course developed over time by Professor Allen
- PowerPoint slides and handouts of the lectures
- A Virtual Anatomy Laboratory
- Access to the WileyPlus website
- Online midterm and laboratory exams
- An anatomy blog
Students also buy an online Wiley textbook (US$120) on anatomy with an online study supplement through Wiley’s WileyPlus web site. The online study supplement contains a wide range of interactive audio and video resources. The WileyPlus supplement includes weekly homework assignments, with immediate feedback for self-assessment, and sample exam questions. Students are expected to do a weekly multiple-choice assignment after each week’s recorded lecture.
The Virtual Anatomy Laboratory is a series of 12 x 15-20 minute videos made by Professor Allen (using Camtasia) of actual dissection labs, with voice over explaining the visuals.
Students who attend the in-class lectures can interact with Professor Allen, but most of the interaction with the professor is by e-mail. He receives an average of around 60 e-mails a day which he answers if appropriate. The classes also have a Facebook group.
Students also have one group exercise. In groups of up to three they use their phones to make a five minute anatomy video. Students choose the topic, with guidelines from the instructor.
With a total annual enrolment of more than 1,000 students and one instructor, the assessment system is particularly important. Students receive marks towards their assessment in the following ways:
- 30% of grade for weekly questions linked to the week’s lectures
- 30% for three mid-term exams
- 10% for the three lab exams
- 30% for final exam
All tests are multiple-choice with automated answers. Exam questions are randomly generated from a very large test bank contained in the Wiley textbook online supplement. Questions are displayed one at a time and students have a set number of questions to answer in a timed one-hour period. Tests in WileyPlus come with feedback. Students need to verify their identities for exams.
Online tests are open book and unsupervised but exams are at a set time. Students are encouraged to look up answers rather than memorize. Students may take some test questions again after feedback.
Benefits and outcomes
The course design enables unlimited enrolment and is a logical response to increased class size and shrinking number of instructors and demonstrators.
The course is much more accessible for students, especially those working. The online resources provide enrichment of course content and the exams and tests enable mastery learning and immediate feedback. Students learn how to find and interpret material rather than just memorizing.
The average grade of the class has increased by 5-8 points since it went fully online. Student feedback is very positive. Students can track their grades through the online Grade Book and see their progress in comparison to other students.
Challenges and enhancements
Professor Allen is continuously finding new tools and techniques that make the course more interactive and interesting. The lectures use humour and are related where possible to topical issues.
This course has been developed into its present format over a period of nearly 20 years. It requires a dedicated and experienced teacher to make it work. The emphasis on online testing and computer-assisted learning will not appeal to every type of instructor.
The course is heavily dependent on an expensive first year textbook combined with online supplementary materials provided by the publisher. Exam and test questions have to be continually monitored and sometimes rewritten.
Professor Allen plans to retire soon, and is actively engaged in finding another instructor to replace him.
This is a very effective way to manage very large classes with just one instructor. There are many textbooks now available with rich and comprehensive online multimedia supplementary materials and tests that provide instant feedback. Rich media, interactivity with the learning materials, and immediate feedback will result in high levels of student engagement at a distance. Thus, this kind of design will be very attractive for instructors with very large classes and where the subject matter lends itself to this approach.
Professor Gary Allen
Department of Medical Neuroscience
Halifax, Nova Scotia