Ironing out the wrinkles in COMS 363

By Emily Senger

Imagine a new class that uses all new instructional materials and never-before tested technology. The course description uses phrases like “blended learning” and “inquiry-based.” It has inexperienced TAs as the primary instructors and the lecture material seems unrelated to the information presented in labs and tutorials. In addition, the megalecture format crams 600 students from diverse faculties into one class and professors cannot be contacted with concerns.

This scenario happened last semester when the Faculty of Communication and Culture revamped COMS 363, Professional and Technical Communication, a course requirement for many engineering, business, communication and science students. It replaced other faculty-specific communication courses.

"We tried too many new things all at the same time," admitted Dr. Helen Holmes, the associate Dean of Communication and Culture who is also instructing a COMS 363 lecture this semester. "I’m not denying that there were problems."

Many students complained about the course throughout the semester.

"It was like a science experiment gone horribly wrong," complained a disgruntled second-year communication studies major who requested her name be withheld.

"There was disconnection be- tween what I thought [the course was about] and what I got," said Alvin Schur, a computer science major who was enrolled in the course last semester.

Schur attributes many of the problems with the course to the emphasis on the new Blackboard learning system, an interactive web-based classroom.

"[There were] technical problems with Blackboard," said Schur. "Grades disappeared, we couldn’t log on and couldn’t submit our assignments sometimes."

Workload was also a problem for students.

"There was too much work," explained Dr. Holmes. "The course was very time consuming."

"I started with poor communication skills," said Schur. "I learned a great deal from the course and the TA, but to accomplish that I had to work 10-12 hours per week outside of class."

Students’ Union faculty representative for Communication and Culture Laura Schultz predicted there would be problems with the course early on.

"I raised red flags in a faculty meeting last spring," said Schultz. "The course was implemented sooner than it should have been. COMS 363 is an example of what blended learning shouldn’t be."

Schultz blamed the course prob- lems on a number of factors, including the massive class size.

"A lot of these problems stem from the super large classroom, but that’s out of our control," she said. "It was unfortunate for students last semester."

Administrators have made many changes to the course for the winter semester, including cutting back on assignments, providing more feedback, placing less emphasis on Blackboard technology and simplifying the course website. In addition, the TAS and professors alike now have valuable experience working in the blended learning format.

"I am confident in the basic philosophy of the course," stated Dr. Holmes. "I feel really confident that we’ve made a lot of changes that will alleviate the confusion of last term."

Schur is also confident in the faculty’s abilities to make positive changes to the course.

"The administrative team from Communication and Culture put a lot of effort into this course," said Schur. "They did very well considering the circumstances."

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