Plunge into SmartSite paid off, instructor tells SITT

Instructors using SmartSite for the first time are usually advised to start with just one or two of its tools, so they don't get overwhelmed by everything the new UC Davis course-management system can do. Kristina de Korsak chose to go the other way.

The graduate student in Linguistics used 10 of its online tools in a class she taught on Language, Gender and Society last winter--and on Tuesday, during day two of the Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology, she gladly shared the lessons she learned. The experiment mostly worked, she said, and helped more students participate in the class. But some of their reactions surprised her.

De Korsak spoke during one of the morning sessions at this year's SITT, an annual week of seminars and workshops devoted to inspiring better, more thoughtful teaching at UC Davis.

De Korsak, an energetic and accomplished student in her department's Ph.D. program, "holds the record for most tools used in a particular class," said SITT coordinator Andy Jones as he introduced her to an audience of several dozen people in 26 Wellman. She called her session "Jumping in with Both Feet: Using Multiple SmartSite Tools."

"I'm not as tech savvy as I'm made out to be," de Korsak added as she began her talk. "[But] I did use virtually every tool that existed."

Her involvement with SmartSite began when she won the Chancellor's Teaching Fellowship to team-teach Linguistics 163 in winter 2007 with Linguistics Professor Lenora Timm.

Language, Gender and Society is a general education, upper-division social science writing class that typically enrolls 65 to 100 students. De Korsak wanted to increase student interaction, and decided to build a Web site as part of her bid for the fellowship--then fully realized, after winning, that building the site would be slow and hard for her.

She found her answer last summer when she learned the campus was rolling out SmartSite as the preferred online course-management system for UC Davis. Faculty can use the system to create Web sites for their classes. She joined the SmartSite pilot program, enlisted help from the campus SmartSite development group and the Faculty Mentoring Faculty Program, and got started.

The SmartSite course site created for the class, she said, became a link between students, instructors and the information through use of an online study guide, a virtual discussion group, and online activities and resources. She used 10 SmartSite tools--modules, chat, message board, assignments, the drop box, wiki, syllabus, email archive, announcements and schedule, in that order of frequency--but focused Tuesday on the first three.

As for the outcome, she listed three challenges:

--About 10 percent of the class said they don't like computers or technology.

--Another group of students, very savvy about tech, thought they could program the system better themselves. (De Korsak simply passed their ideas on to the SmartSite group helping her.)

--Unforeseen issues arose. Some students, for instance, wondered why they couldn't use their laptops during the final. They'd been doing work online--why did the final have to be on paper?

Some lessons learned:

--There was a little confusion.

--"My organization wasn't necessarily [the students'] organization."
--SmartSi te is powerful.

De Korsak said the course's online component helped several categories of students, which she defined as the "computer-oriented, the risk takers, the creatively inclined, the taciturn, and the students with challenges."

The instructors--de Korsak, a teaching assistant and Timm--gained new skills, new feedback, new ideas and a new learning curve, de Korsak said.

The institute, which has enrolled about 120 people this year, continues through Friday. Material from the sessions will be posted to the SITT 2007 Web site as the week progresses.