Remembering the 2015 Course Innovation Grant

With the warm-ish winter we've been having, we here at Steinhardt Technology Services already have summer on our mind. As we prepare for our second iteration of the 8-week Course Innovation Grant program set to run again this summer, I’ve been asked to share my experience as a graduate student designer working on various courses during last year’s initial launch.

Early last June, just one week into the program, each student designer was given the opportunity to choose which three out of the twelve courses they would like to lead. As I looked over the selected applications, one course in particular stood out to me, and I promptly signed up to take it on. The course was American Sign Language II taught by Applied Psychology Professor, Randy Mowry. Professor Mowry came to the program with the desire to free up some valuable in-class time by conducting his assessments online. Mowry explained that the assessments, while crucial to gauging the success of the students, consumed a large portion of class time. So  much time was lost when administering the cumbersome exam, that the course was never able to cover the final units, an issue Professor Mowry intended to remedy. Ultimately, our solution would be to record video clips of Professor Mowry signing, and embed the videos into NYU Classes using Test & Quizzes tool. Students would then be allowed to take the exams outside of class time.

Although relatively straightforward, transitioning the in-person ASL exam to an online format was no easy task. Each question and solution had to fit many parameters to effectively and fairly assess the students knowledge of ASL. We had to make sure the video was crystal clear, that the option of cheating was diminished, and that the appropriate level of comprehension was being assessed. Mowry constantly reminded us that the exam needed to assess the students recall the correct signs, not their ability to merely recognize possible solutions.

We spent much of the 8 weeks brainstorming and tweaking the assessment items to make sure it was at the same level of quality as the in-person exams. This entailed rewriting exam items numerous times, coming up with clever solutions as to how they would be presented in an online environment, and making sacrifices. This process was more difficult that we had anticipated, and there were even times when Professor Mowry questioned if it would all be worth it. But we kept at it. We knew we had to at least develop a working prototype that a student could test before we could make any drastic changes.

Once we had a working exam, Professor Mowry asked some prior students to test out our prototype;ultimately to compare the quality against the original exam. To our relief, the former students reported back that, although not flawless, the online exam was definitely of comparable quality. Even though this was a major achievement, our work was not yet done. Mowry still needed to redevelop the remaining unit assessments.

Although we were only able to develop one more unit with Professor Mowry during the grant period (June-August 2015), he was provided with the tools, resources, and confidence to be able to eventually complete the exams on his own. While I know this might not be the happy ending we all hope for, I now realize this is the reality of the work. We will never design the perfect course and there will always be more to be done. This was a huge lesson to me. This course, like all the other courses accepted into the grant program, had its strengths and weaknesses yet I say it was a total success. Professor Mowry took a risk, challenged himself to examine and evaluate his course, and to learn invaluable new skills. Together, we made significant strides to advance this course, using innovative techniques, and to improve the student experience for those studying at Steinhardt. To me this course, while still a work in progress, exemplified what is possible through this Course Innovation Grant program.

By Nick Petrilla