Signature Courses Lead the Way

Preparations for fall are an investment in the future

In the 2020 spring semester, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, Carnegie Mellon University faculty moved more than 4,900 course-sections to remote instruction in a matter of weeks. Faculty rushed to make sure course materials were available to their students and lesson plans could be adapted for remote learning. Students, scattered across time zones, turned in assignments, connected with group members and kept learning. Everyone pulled together, and in May, CMU conferred more than 5,400 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to the class of 2020.

The coronavirus crisis hasn’t subsided, and this fall will bring changes to the CMU learning environment.

CMU worked over the summer to adapt classrooms and courses for the hybrid model of teaching and learning. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation , CMU’s research-based teaching resource center, helped faculty and administrators plan for the best possible experience for returning students, whether they are on campus or remote. To do that, Marsha Lovett - director of the Eberly Center, associate vice provost for Teaching Innovation and Learning Analytics and a teaching professor in the Department of Psychology - enacted a three-pronged plan.

First, Lovett and her team at the Eberly Center provided tools and resources for every CMU faculty member to use to design high-quality hybrid courses, whether they worked one on one with the Eberly Center or not. Second, they offered a variety of interactive sessions to disseminate and discuss evidence-based strategies to address key aspects of remote and hybrid instruction. Finally, Lovett’s team launched the Signature Course Initiative, a targeted set of CMU courses that will serve as a model for the fall and an investment in the future.

The CMU Way

Each signature course has two goals: make enhancements to the overall course for fall, and incorporate a technology-enhanced learning component that will be used in fall and iteratively improved in future semesters.

The 15 courses chosen for the initiative range from large general education classes taken by students from every college at CMU to small, highly specialized master’s program classes. They all have one thing in common - they each represent a signature strength at CMU, with potential to shape the university’s future.

"We are taking this opportunity to move the needle on the number of faculty who are using CMU’s learning engineering approach and adopting our learning science research," Lovett said. "We have put in a lot of work to make sure all of our fall classes are fantastic. With the signature courses, we’re making sure that work, and the learning science research we have been doing for years, is set to improve the university in the long-term, a model for the way forward at CMU."

Lovett collaborated with CMU’s deans to identify courses from a pool of applicants. Among the criteria, they looked for courses with subject matter that represents a strength at the university and had at least one faculty member who was willing to dedicate significant time over the summer to develop the course.

Richard Scheines , dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and leader of the Simon Initiative , worked closely with Lovett.

"At some point in April we all realized that we were not going back to normal in the fall," Scheines said. "After a few deep sighs, we picked our heads up and wondered what sort of opportunity this presented. We quickly realized that we have the resources at CMU, e.g., the expertise in Eberly, the tools in Simon, and an outstanding faculty, to make some excellent lemonade out of a large basket of COVID lemons. The signature courses are a great example of that spirit."

Signature course faculty received support from the Eberly Center as they worked to meet those goals. Kicking off with a set of initiative-wide and project-specific sessions in June, teams met throughout the summer to discuss evidence-based strategies, get training on tools and technology, and learn from each other.

"In the spring semester, we found it really helpful to be able to learn from one another across disciplines," Lovett said. "I have been excited to see faculty in the signature courses listen for ideas from each other, adopt, and adapt. The hope is that these ideas will extend beyond the signature courses at CMU."

Making Learning Engineering Central

CMU’s learning engineering approach to education will be central to the signature course initiative.

"Learning engineering means making learning something you can observe," said Norman Bier, executive director of CMU’s Simon Initiative. "We build models for how we think people learn, put those models into practice, collect data and iteratively improve. The classes in the Signature Course Initiative are perfect candidates for this model."

In addition to support from the Eberly Center, signature course teams are getting help from students in the CMU’s masters of educational technology and applied learning science (METALS) program. METALS is a one-year, interdisciplinary master’s program that trains graduate students to become learning engineers. These students are helping the Ebery Center’s full-time learning engineers with developing and testing tools, investigating and comparing tools to fill gaps in Eberly’s teaching toolkit, and supporting the development of instructional content.

Judy Brooks , director of educational technology and design at the Eberly Center, said the METALS students have been an integral part of the Signature Course Initiative.

"We’ve had lots of experience with the quality of work and expertise that METALS students bring, having hired several METALS graduates into the Eberly team," Brooks said.

Community Building

For many of the signature courses, community building is an essential part of the plan.

Dave Culyba , an assistant teaching professor, is leading Building Virtual Worlds, one of four core classes in the Master’s in Entertainment Technology (MET) program from CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). He has made teamwork a focus of the class, starting by integrating CollaborativeU , an Open Learning Initiative course that helps students learn to collaborate effectively, into the course.

"Students are expected to spend about 24 hours a week working in this course, but we may only see them formally in class for about three hours. It’s so important to establish the sense of community for students to succeed," Culyba said.

Similarly, Ken Hovis , associate teaching professor and Mellon College of Science assistant dean for educational initiatives, plans to use technology to reinforce the community building aspects of his course. Students in EUREKA!: Discovery and Its Impact can expect to use interactive lesson plans and informal communication tools like Slack to be a part of the course this fall.

"Having more transparency and open communication with our students will hopefully help them to make stronger connections with the topics we discuss and build lasting relationships," Hovis said. "The improvements we are making this semester are going to stick around for the long run."

The Signature Course Initiative is new this year, but it’s not the beginning or the end of support from the Eberly Center. In the past year, Eberly worked one on one with about 470 faculty.

Christina Bjorndahl , special faculty in the department of philosophy, has been working with the Eberly Center for several years. She’s excited for this opportunity to make her Nature of Language course part of the Signature Course Initiative.

"Although I’m going to miss seeing my students in person, I’m really excited for the additional tools that we’re going to be bringing to these classes," she said. "I’m especially excited for the asynchronous discussions that we’re having, and I’m looking forward to working with them to building our community."


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