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Incorporating Computer-Based Learning into a General Education Statistics Course (STAT 208)

James E. Mays
Mathematical Sciences

The general education course STAT 208 (Statistical Thinking) is a service course that enrolls over 600 Humanities and Sciences students each year (based on current and projected enrollments). There are 322 students enrolled in this current semester (Fall 2001). The overall goal of this project was to introduce computer-based learning into this course. Previously, there have been no supplemental computer-based teaching techniques used in the course other than rare classroom activities based on Excel software and one interactive web-based Java applet. With the new university computer initiative that requires all incoming freshmen to own a computer beginning this semester, it was imperative that this large enrollment general education course be revised to make more extensive use of the new technologies available to students and for instruction. The specific objectives of this project were (1) including a statistical software tool in the course material to give students some experience in using a computer to assist in a statistical analysis, (2) upgrading the course web page for linking to a variety of useful web sites in order to add use of the Internet as a required component of the course, and (3) organizing a collection of web-based interactive learning tools for improved presentation of lecture material and hands-on experience for the students outside of class. These objectives were satisfied as explained below. In addition, the course was added to the VCU listing for courses using the Blackboard software for course web pages so that students would be more familiar with accessing the site and would have some of the tools available that they are used to in Blackboard. This was done by adding the link to the page in the message window in Blackboard.

Accomplishment of Project Objectives

The completion of this project was achieved by performing significant revisions and upgrades to the course web site ( http://www.people.vcu.edu/~jemays/stat208/ ). A picture of what the main web page looks like can be found in Appendix A of this report. In terms of general functionality, the course web site contains pages where the students can access course Information (syllabus, schedule, etc.), information on Instructors for each of the lab sections (office hours, email contacts, web pages), the actual PowerPoint Lecture Slides used in class (along with a link to download the PowerPointViewer), a list of Focus Exercises to be assigned for the entire course, weekly Quizzes to download (in pdf format, with a link to the Acrobat Reader software), and all Lab Activities to be used in the laboratory sections. A portion of the project time was spent organizing these various pages and making sure there was uniform structure and appearance for each. It is now much easier for students to navigate in the web site and the instructors feel much more comfortable encouraging the students to make use of the site.

The specific goals of the project, as mentioned above in the previous section, were accomplished by significantly upgrading the web page involving Learning Links. Objective (1) to introduce a statistical tool for some simple analyses was addressed by adding a description and link to the NCSS Probability Calculator. This is a free download from the Internet that is actually made available to the students directly from the course web page, along with the free WinZip software to unzip the downloadable files. The description of this product and how it is used to find probabilities of interest for the course is found in the picture of this portion of the web page in Appendix B. This is a simple tool to give students a minimal amount of experience in using computer software to simplify statistical analyses.

Objective (2) to upgrade links to a variety of useful web sites in order to add use of the Internet as a required component of the course has also been accomplished with the Learning Links page. Currently a Table of Contents has been created that allows the students to navigate to parts of the page that contain information and links to a variety of web sites that include newspapers, polling organizations, and specific information such as medical reports or data banks. Separate pages for these may be developed in the future as more instructions and comments are added to the descriptions of how to make use of these pages. Appendix C gives a picture of this portion of the web site. Specific links mentioned here include the Gateway Virginia Homepage and Other News Sources (which include links to local news sources such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch and WWBT 12News OnLine, various other Virginia news publications, and USA Today), Sample Survey Polls (with a link to the MarketSearch Homepage, which contains links to various government polling organizations such as the US Census Bureau, and various sites containing statistical data), and links to specific web pages that deal with a specific interesting report or company (a link to the Mars Company for M&M Color Combinations is currently used as a part of our current "M&M" laboratory activity).

Objective (3) to organize a collection of web-based interactive learning tools for presentation and hands-on experience for the students has been accomplished in part by including a link on the Learning Links page that opens a page with links to various sites that contain interactive Java applets illustrating statistical concepts. These web pages and links have been identified and created, but a little more work is needed to write better descriptions and instructions for the use of these tools. This is work that will easily be completed within a few weeks and will not require extra funding beyond this project. A picture of the Regression and Correlation applet that is available on the web page and is used for classroom presentation is given in Appendix D. Other links include applets illustrating histograms, the normal curve, the central limit theorem, the intriguing Let's Make a Deal Game, and pages containing general links to collections of Java applets and other teaching tools.

Impact of Project

STAT 208 typically includes three large lecture sections and around twenty smaller lab sections, so numerous faculty and staff are involved each semester in teaching the course. In Fall 2001, there are seven faculty and staff, and one graduate student teaching various sections. The course is organized so that all sections cover the same material with the same assignments, and this improved web site will serve to greatly ease the organization and preparation for each of these instructors. It should also make for a better learning experience for the over 600 students that enroll in STAT 208 each year. I am currently working on a publication focusing on teaching this new type of introductory statistics course with emphasis on interpretations and hands-on activities, and the results of this project will prove to be a great asset to this paper.

I have learned much about course web development during this project, and feel confident and experienced enough to make further improvements to this course web site as well as easily developing web sites for my other classes. In fact, I have already created simple web pages for two other courses that I teach using the blueprint of this STAT 208 web site. I am excited about the future enhancements that will add to the receptiveness of this course. I look forward to seeking additional funding for more widespread improvements to the course, including more research into how the day-to-day structure of the course needs to be updated to incorporate these new pedagogical tools into the curriculum. A more far reaching goal would be to seek funding to develop the current structure of this introductory course into a distance learning course to be shared by other institutions of learning. The computational development of this course is crucial to the attainment of the goals of the new computer initiative at VCU, both on a university and a departmental level. Additionally, such improvements will further establish this course as one that meets and exceeds the general education requirements of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

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