It didn't take long for students to warm up to the idea of taking classes during winter break.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Nearly 1,000 students took a total of eight four-week online courses from Dec. 22 to Jan. 16, with classes filling so quickly administrators had to remove predetermined size caps on some.
The pilot program was the first time the U. of I. has offered a winter session, a period when the campus traditionally shuts down before and after the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
"We were very surprised at the number of students who enrolled, and instructors have commented that these were some of the most dedicated and engaged students with whom they have worked," said Deanna Raineri, the associate provost for education innovation within the Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.
"It has gone way past our expectations."
Raineri said she has heard mostly positive comments from students and professors following the session, and administrators are surveying both groups to determine whether there is enough support to offer a permanent winter session. Creating a new attendance term would require senate approval.
While the winter session courses are taught in four weeks, they still contain the same academic fullness as the regular 16-week course.
"These are not light versions of these courses," Raineri said, noting that many of the general education courses already had been offered with an online option, making them easier to adapt to the shortened format.
That gives students more course-taking options - but it also puts more responsibility on the students to keep up with the accelerated pace, she said, though the number of students dropping a course during the winter session was not significantly different than the eight-week online and traditional courses. One of the challenges was to ensure that students were made aware of the fast pace of the winter session before they signed up.
Raineri said the student demographic was very similar to the general student population, with international students making up just over one-fifth of enrolled students.
Jose J. Vazquez-Cognet, a professor of economics, said the winter session is just one more way to serve students' ever-changing needs.
The introduction to microeconomics course he taught during the winter session is normally delivered during a 16-week session, but the course also is offered through an eight-week online option during the summer.
"I haven't cut any corners," he said of the course, which attracted more than 100 students for the winter session - nearly the same as his summer session classes. "We've played around with the format, reorganized things and just compounded all of the material into the time frame."
Vazquez-Cognet said he wasn't entirely convinced the winter session would be well-received by students - or that he wanted to spend his break teaching.
"I was really neutral about it," he said, "In fact, I thought it might be an inconvenience to me - but it surpassed all of my expectations."
He said the students in the class were as dedicated and engaged a group as he has seen. He said discussion forums were full of insightful conversations and the work turned in was superior. It made the teaching side of the experience comparatively easy.
"These were really goal-oriented students," he said. "There was less hand-holding than when I teach in the summer."
Vazquez-Cognet said he's excited that his course can now be delivered in three different formats - and that students are able to better choose how and at what pace they want to learn.
"Students can just choose which (approach) works for them best and which they like better," he said.
Joseph Petry, a professor who adapted his economics statistics II course to the winter session, said the students performed better than their summer course-taking counterparts - by 5 to 10 percent on average.
He said there were more student "drops" than for his summer course - but those who stayed performed well.
"It became evident to the students right away that they couldn't just get by in this class," Petry said. "It was going to come at them quick and hard. The well-prepared, motivated students did extremely well - some finishing the entire set of homework halfway through the course."
The online forum conversations also were held at a higher-than-average level, he said, and students were able to easily follow the work schedule through the use of an online calendar.
"The students who can manage this kind of schedule are really high functioning and a lot of fun to work with," Petry said, which made managing the course much easier for him.
"Winter break is usually more flexible," he said. "For me, it was (a matter of) remembering to be involved with the class nearly every day."
Petry said he likes the online aspect of teaching because many times he is able to learn more about students than in a face-to-face environment. He said he would like to try to teach another winter session in the future.
"I can learn more about their personal likes, dislikes, hobbies, where they are from, their majors, etc.," he said. "It makes everyone seem more human."
Eric Snodgrass, a professor of atmospheric sciences, taught perhaps the most timely of the courses - on severe and hazardous weather.
Snodgrass and a team from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences transferred the material in his eight-week summer online course to "modules" for the four-week winter format.
"There was a lot of adjustment to get the course properly scheduled into a four-week format," he said. "Essentially, each week a series of lectures and online assignments were presented to the students, and they were allowed to structure their time each week to work on the lesson - as long as they met the Sunday night deadlines."
The work paid off, with around 360 students taking the winter session course.
To make it even more student-friendly, Snodgrass said the materials were made available on a U. of I. Box account two weeks prior to the start of the class, and the three-part final exam was formatted to be taken in stages.
"I recognized that students have a lot of travel plans over the holidays and I wanted to make this class as manageable as possible," he said. "There were dozens of students working on my course material on Christmas Eve. I was up working late that night anyway ... and my students were posting lots of questions on the discussion forums."
Snodgrass said the "vast majority" of his students kept up and performed well on the final exam.
He said students are able to use the winter and summer sessions to check off requirements, while keeping already busy semester schedules open to take major-related courses.
He said he is finding that online courses allow him to learn more about his students. And those students occasionally see him on campus and approach him like they're longtime friends.
"They find it strange and funny to finally meet the teacher that up to that point was only on their computer," Snodgrass said. "It's been great to get to know them now that they're back on campus."
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