Sunday, April 3, 2011

Course Redesign: The Emporium Model

In my last post on course redesign, I mentioned that the emporium model is the most common model used for course redesign.  The emporium model uses computer-delivered instruction with computer-assisted homework to evaluate the students.  Work is performed in a computer lab with the instructors helping the students as tutors.

My experience with teaching the emporium model is limited.  I taught with it once in graduate school in the fall of 2006.  I had two sections of College Algebra.  The course used ALEKS and the students worked in the lab three days each week.  I had only ten of forty students pass the course.  There were many reasons for a low pass rate, including an impossible final.  (Which I did not write.  It took me a full two hours to complete.)  Also, the course automatically failed students after nine absences.  (Again, not my idea.)

Benefits of the Emporium Model

There are several benefits to the students.  Students are forced to do the work.  The amount of time on task for each student can be recorded by the homework system.  Mastery learning is incorporated into the emporium model in most cases.  That means that the students must show proficiency in each part of the class to pass.  The emporium model is often self-paced minimally-paced.  That means that students can finish more than one course in a semester, or that students can carry their work from one semester to the next if they make enough progress. It is often possible for students to test out of part of a course, allowing them to spend time on the parts where they have difficulty.

The benefits for the instructors is that there is no prep time or grading.  Once the course is set to go, the students do the prepared assignments and watch the prepared videos.  The grading is done by the computer.  Instructors can wander around the computer lab helping students on specific topics, without having to guess on the student's level of understanding.

The benefits for the administration are that more students can be placed in the class, as only one instructor can be in the lab with several tutors to assist.  This means more students can be taught with the same number of faculty.  I've heard of one person teaching nine courses in a semester.  Also, the with self-paced classes, students will have a sense of accomplishment even though they didn't finish the entire course, which leads to higher retention.  With more students eventually passing math, that means that more students will finish their programs and graduation rates will increase.

Drawbacks of the Emporium Model

One of the drawbacks for the students is that they don't know how to adapt to the course structure.  Some students believe that the course is an online course, which means that attendance is a problem.  I had attendance issues when I taught with the emporium, and so have other instructors.  Students also have a hard time transferring math from the computer to paper and back.  When students are in front of the computer, they feel they have to do all the work on the computer.  They don't realize that they need to work on paper as well.  Also, not every student works well in a computer lab.  They need to take the initiative to get the instructors attention, which can be difficult when competing with fifty other students.  

There are also some doubts about how well students learn from computers.  Sylvia Martinez raised this issue today on her blog.  She is writing specifically about the Khan Academy, but her comments are appropriate to the emporium model.

The drawbacks to the instructors is that they have to learn to manage the chaos of the lab.  This may not be a problem for elementary school teachers, but college instructors have less experience with this type of learning environment.  Also, instructors can easily overwhelmed by increased numbers of students.  Even though there is less grading and prep time, there are still student questions to be answered.  Answering e-mail takes up a larger proportion of the instructor's time.  Also, it is difficult for an instructor to judge the comprehension of a student based solely on the feedback from a computer homework system.  There are many different aids built into the software that gives the student and instructor an inflated sense of comprehension.

The drawbacks to administrators is that there may be more students who are entering programs with an inflated sense of preparation.  It is possible for students to fail their next physics or HVAC class because they cannot transfer their math skills outside of the math classroom.  That will lead to lead to lower pass rates in other classes.  (Of course the students passed my class, so it's not my fault.)  Also, there is additional record keeping as students continue classes from one semester to the next, or enroll in classes during the middle of the semester.

Does the Emporium Model Do More Harm than Good?

One of the points that John Squires made during our meeting in Louisville is that course redesigns at different colleges have different results.  If the faculty buy into the redesign and make use of its strengths, than improvements in pass rates can occur.  It is not uncommon for pass rates to stay the same or decrease for a few semesters before increasing.  So, the amount of harm or good done by the emporium model depends on the instructors using the model.  (Of course, the same thing can be said about lectures.)

One aspect of our course redesign at MCTC is to collect data on the learning of our students.  Pass rates get most of the attention when course redesign is discussed, but little is said about student learning.  Our college is only using the emporium model for half of our sections of developmental mathematics in the coming fall.  The other half will have lecture with assignments similar to those in the emporium sections.  We will be able to test the affect of the emporium model on student learning.