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eTEACH: New Technologies for Active Learning


he passive lecture hall may become a thing of the past for some college and university courses if a bold experiment by University of Wisconsin professors Gregory Moses and John Strikwerda proves successful. As part of the NPACI-supported eTEACH Learning on Demand project, Moses, an engineering physics professor, and Strikwerda, a computer science professor, incorporated a multimedia format into Problem Solving with Computers. Students "attend" virtual lectures for the introductory course in computational science at their convenience via streaming video on the Web. They do "homework" in active, faculty-facilitated team laboratories that focus on realistic problems. Students and faculty are giving high marks to the redesigned course.

eTEACH interface

eTEACH interface

Problem Solving with Computers is delivered via the Web and consists of streaming video of the professor’s lecture (window at upper left), a live table of contents (lower left), coordinated slides (upper right) and relevant Web links (lower right). Since taped lectures take about half as long as live ones, students can watch lectures between classes. Web controls allow them to jump to table of contents entries, review a sentence or two, or the whole lecture.

"I liked the course a lot, including the flexibility to watch lectures on the Web between classes, and watching them again while studying for exams," said Monica Petrie, a Wisconsin engineering student who took the redesigned course using eTEACH. "Most of all, I liked the team laboratories because the professor is right there to answer questions, and you work with students from other disciplines on realistic problems. I learned so much that way."


How were Moses and Strikwerda able to make this dry computing-in-engineering course come to life? "The new technologies were the starting point, but technology alone isn’t a silver bullet," said Moses. "The key is using technology to improve the educational process." On the basis of extensive research on how students learn–by doing, by hands-on problem solving experiences, by interacting with others–Moses and Strikwerda were convinced they knew a better way.

Like many good ideas, eTEACH is simple, but it embodies profound changes. "We’ve eliminated passive lecture halls and gotten students more involved and active," said Moses. After faculty lectures are recorded on video, they are then delivered on demand to each student via streaming video on the Web. Making use of technology to automate time-consuming lectures allows Moses and Strikwerda to spend more time interacting with the students. "People are surprised when they learn that I’m actually spending twice as much time with students in the redesigned course," said Moses. This increased contact takes place in a weekly lab, co-created by students who have already taken the course. In this lab, students work in teams to solve realistic problems with a professor’s direct help.

Instead of being a solitary activity, homework now becomes an active environment of contact between faculty and students. "This is where we really find out each week what the students do and don’t understand and why," said Moses.

Each faculty member facilitates four laboratories per week, which is challenging but provides excellent feedback. This contact also fosters ongoing collaboration between students and faculty to improve the course. Moses explained that "eTEACH is sometimes confused with distance learning, but we’re actually doing the opposite by using high-bandwidth technology to bring faculty and students closer together."

Moses said it’s fitting that this first application of eTEACH is in a course that focuses on NPACI’s primary mission–using computers to solve scientific problems. "It’s really an introductory course in the new field of computational science," he said. SDSC is providing technological support with the SDSC Storage Resource Broker software, which will be used to index and store lectures and other video materials.


Extensive research was done before the redesigned course was offered to students, and it is being evaluated by Julie Foertsch, a scientist at the Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation, and Dissemination Center at Wisconsin. Developer Michael Litzkow of Wisconsin’s Department of Engineering Physics explains that "a key thing the surveys revealed is that students value having control over the Web presentations." As a result, Litzkow, who wrote the reliable course software and authoring tool, is adding controls that allow students to review a mere sentence or two in a lecture, providing new capabilities well beyond what are possible in traditional lectures.

"We’re very encouraged by our first year’s experience with eTEACH," said Moses. "And by using easy-to-use authoring software and inexpensive video technologies, we’ve kept eTEACH within reach of almost all educational institutions." –PT


Project Leaders
Gregory Moses
John Strikwerda
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Michael Litzkow
Julie Foertsch
University of Wisconsin, Madison