HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (September 9, 2013) - Every semester, all first-year students beginning their academic career at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) participate in a 14-week, one-credit course known as "Charger Success 101."
The goal of the course, says Assistant Dean of Students T.J. Brecciaroli, is to ease the transition to campus and help students build the foundation to a richer UAH experience. Topics include time management, financial literacy, diversity, and health and wellness.
"The idea of college student transitions is growing in the field, and people know the importance of supporting our students through those transitions," he says. "So Charger Success 101 helps them start off on the right foot, get acclimated, and make a seamless transition to college."
This semester though, there's something a little different happening. Brecciaroli is introducing the increasingly popular model of the "flipped classroom," where information is provided outside of the classroom and class time is used for interacting and engaging.
"The days of sitting and listening to a lecture have changed," he says. "There's absolutely value in a lecture-style class. But students coming to our campus have a variety of learning styles, and the way we keep our students engaged and be most successful is to learn and adapt to what our students want."
And what students want is technology - "technology is something our new students understand," says Brecciaroli. So instead of relying on a traditional textbook, all course content for this semester's Charger Success 101 is online, accessible via the student's computer, tablet, or smartphone.
"Students are required to watch a 10 to 15 minute instructional video on their own time and then come to class prepared to discuss it," he says. "And then class time is spent on activities, interaction, and discussion, and not on listening to an instructor standing in front of the class and lecturing."
But getting new students to participate in, let alone initiate, discussion can be tricky, no matter how well prepared they are. Fortunately, Brecciaroli is prepared for that too. As part of a pilot program, he is introducing a student response system - known more familiarly as "clickers" - to the Charger Success 101 classroom.
"I think everyone can relate to 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' when they poll the audience," he says. "And with clickers, regardless of whether or not a student is comfortable raising their hand in class, their vote matters."
Just as valuable is the fact that clickers allow instructors to gauge student understanding of course material on the fly, and adjust accordingly. "They can poll the students for the answer to a question, discuss the merits of each answer, and then poll them again to see if their answers change as a result of the discussion," he says.
That's key, he continues, since "in this day and age, our students are requiring more timely feedback." The clickers not only allow for that during class discussions, but can also be preloaded with the answers to a test. "They can respond to the test questions and then find out their score immediately," he says.
Both instructors and students will receive their own clickers as part of the curriculum, and Brecciaroli says it's written into the syllabus that the students are expected to bring their clickers to class. And both will receive instruction on how to use the clicker, though for today's students, that hardly seems necessary. "Whether or not they've used a certain technology before, they're comfortable," he says with a laugh.
This isn't the first time clickers have been used in a UAH classroom; the Colleges of Science and Nursing have used various forms of clickers in some of their classes for the past two years. "Dean Fix and Mary Setzer are huge supporters of clickers and we ended up choosing the same ones they use," Brecciaroli says.
But it is the first time that they have been using them in conjunction with the flipped classroom model. "I think it changes the entire platform," he says. "Bringing in faculty members and letting them be facilitators and not context experts and then having the students be part of the conversation using clickers is ahead of the curve."
Brecciaroli plans to assess the program over the course of the semester and incorporate faculty and student feedback to make it stronger for the future. And while he's not advocating a total clicker take-over of the UAH curriculum - "we definitely are not looking to adopt across campus," he says - he does believe that there is a place for technology in the classroom.
"We want students to be part of the conversation and have that 'ah-ha' moment, so the question is, How can we be the most effective at reaching the students?" he says. "One of the ways to do that is by bringing technology into the classroom and giving every student a voice."
And as for the smooth transition that Charger Success 101 is designed to ensure? Brecciaroli predicts that it can only be enhanced by relying on something so familiar to this generation of students. "Their lives revolve around smartphones, so bringing in another technology to make them more a part of the class will see positive results."