Sociology 368 (Criminology) is a popular undergraduate course at CSU Dominguez Hills. It is offered as an elective in at least two majors – 17.03% of Sociology majors and 19.51% of Criminal Justice Administration (CJA) majors took this course during Academic Year (AY) 2015-16. The course has no prerequisites and anyone can enroll, but it is especially popular with these two majors. It often has a waiting list of 10 to 20 students for a 40-seat section.
Why the Redesign?
Compared to other criminology-focused courses in the sociology department (for example, SOC 369 Juvenile Delinquency or SOC 362 Gangs and Adolescent Subcultures), this course had a disproportionately high number of D, F, W and I grades (AKA “repeatable grades” or “DFWI”) for AY 2015-2016. Its percentage of repeatable grades assigned across all sections offered in AY 2015-16 was 27.5%. When we break out just the students enrolled in online sections for AY 2015-16, that percentage increases to 34.5%. As this course is expected to continue in its popularity (high demand), addressing the issues that create this low success rate is critical.
Another issue with this course is inclusivity. Students at CSUDH are majority under-represented minorities (URM); only 17.4% of the undergraduate population is White or Asian. For AY 2015-16, 301 of the 357 (57%) students enrolled in SOC 368 were URM students. Their DFWI rates across SOC 368 (both online and offline sections) were 29.24%, and in online-only sections this rate rises to 35.84%. The percentage of URM students who are Sociology majors is 91.34%, and for CJA majors 93.74%, so it seems likely that most students enrolling in this course will be URM students, and it is clear that URM students are disproportionately affected. Ensuring that this course does not create further barriers for these students is an important redesign goal.
Possible Causes and Hypotheses
There are three possible causes for the disproportionate DFWI rate in this course: expectations mismatch, online inexperience, and workload. Each of these issues is discussed below.
The majority of students enrolling in this course are not Sociology students but Criminal Justice Administration students, and this may be the source of this problem. They come to the course with a policing perspective that does not mesh with the social science perspective of this course. CJA students need to understand the perspective of the course, rather than assuming it takes the same perspective as their major. Anectodal reports from instructors who have taught this course in person show that CJA majors often give “pushback” when they realize the course is not focused on police procedure. The continued misuse of the term “criminologist” to describe the actors on the popular police procedural television show CSI may also be contributing to this expectation.
Paradoxically, the solution for this problem may lie at least partially in better pre-design of the course. One way to address this issue is to request acknowledgement and buy-in from the students before the semester starts. A planned approach is to send a pre-emptive email to all students both enrolled and on the wait list, explaining the sociological/scientific focus of the course. Two links will be included in this email to help students understand that this course is not about police procedure or crime scene investigation, but rather, the science of crime. These links are included below.
What is the difference between a criminologist and a CSI?
What is the difference between criminology and criminal justice?
Students will then be asked to respond to the email with an acknowledgement that they understand the focus of the course, through use of a Google Form link. Students who have not acknowledged the email by the end of the first week of classes will be dropped from the course, before the end of add-drop and before the census date. This should reduce the number of drops happening after the census date, thus reducing the number of W grades in the course.
- Hypothesis 1: As enrollee awareness of the course focus increases, post-census drop rates should decrease.
A second issue is that the majority of sections in this course during AY 2015-16 were offered as fully-online sections. Due to its popularity with students, as well as facilities issues (space and enrollment), it is necessary to offer the course online, but many students have issues with online courses. For example, new online students experience time management issues, not realizing how much time and self-discipline an online course demands. Many of our students also work full- or part-time while attending CSUDH, and may need help managing the additional demands placed on their time and resources by the requirements of an online course.
One possible solution to this problem is to provide students with a first-week module that allows them to assess their readiness for an online course. This module would include an adult learning activity in which students would state their desired grade and list each assignment with its due date and required score, as well as an online quiz (linked above) to determine points of improvement needed in order to thrive in an online course. The adult learning activity would go through three submissions; if the student cannot follow the directions for the activity by the third submission, a meeting with the instructor through Zoom will be set up to discuss the issues the student is having following the written directions. This initial module would also give students the option to drop the course before the census date, if they feel that they cannot manage these requirements. As with the pre-emptive email and explanation, this should reduce the number of W grades in the course.
- Hypothesis 2: As enrolleee awareness of the demands of an online course increases, post-census drop rates should decrease.
The course can also be redesigned to include some supports – for example, the reminders students normally receive in in-person courses – through text messaging, emails through the LMS, and other methods. Online courses also tend to demand more written work and more reading than in-person courses, due to the nature of online communication, and some of our students may also struggle in this area. I recommend including multiple short written assignments that increase the students’ writing and reading skills. I would also connect students with on-campus resources to help with writing and reading issues, including the Toro Learning Center and its on-campus tutors, as well as providing several writing workshops during the class to help students learn expected college-level writing skills.
- Hypothesis 3: As support for writing assistance for enrollees increases, post-census drop rates should decrease.
- Hypothesis 4: As support for writing assistance for enrollees increases, course D, F and I rates should decrease.
The course can and should be redesigned to minimize visual clutter, as well. Online courses must be crystal-clear in their expectations and course layouts, so that students will not be confronted with visually confusing layouts, multiple levels of information storage, or other clarity issues.
To that end, this course should be visually redesigned to minimize layering and maximize simplicity in its organization structure. Students should never have to “drill down” more than one level to find an assignment, and a master list of assignments with links to related materials and submission areas should be provided on the front page of the course. I plan to work with an Instructional Designer from our Information Technology department to achieve this design outcome.
- Hypothesis 5: As visual and organizational design simplicity increases, post-census drop rates should decrease.
- Hypothesis 6: As visual and organizational design simplicity increases, post-census D, F, and I rates should decrease.
Finally, having students commit to being “in class” for a certain period of time each week is a third approach to solving this problem. In this instance, students would commit to spending a pre-scheduled block of time on the course (not synchronously, but individually), as many students who take online courses assume that they will take less time, be “easier,” or that they can be completed in spare time. Committing to a block of time that will be dedicated to the course, and stating that commitment in some public or documented way (such as in a discussion board on the LMS) may help fix this problem.
- Hypothesis 7: As active commitment to dedicated time for the course increases, post-census drop rates should decrease.
- Hypothesis 8: As active commitment to dedicated time for the course increases, course D, F, and I rates should decrease.
This course has a fairly high workload as currently designed: one journal reflection and one discussion per week, plus a quiz every three weeks (five total). Certain technology tools, such as PlayPosit, offer the option of incorporating certain written work into the lecture videos as formative or summative quizzes and reflection moments. Instead of passive lectures, the lecture videos would become scored items (for completion, not for a grade) and replace a certain number of journal reflections and discussions. This should provide some variety as well as greater learning opportunities while reducing workload for the students.
At the same time, this course redesign will provide students with multiple-iteration practice for concepts on quizzes and examinations (AKA “adaptive learning,”) and multiple-chance opportunities for learning and revising for written work. Discussions will be structured to allow students to interact with their peers so that course topics are not just covered at a surface level but allow deeper, active learning.
The research module of the course will also be structured to allow students to choose their workload, with simpler, “basic” research projects used to measure basic completion of the course (aka “C” grades), and more complicated research projects building on the basic projects in order to show higher levels of competency and understanding, with the concomitant higher grades. All of these reengineered assignments will be geared towards addressing the student readiness issue of reading and writing skills.
- Hypothesis 9: As perceived and actual workloads decrease, post-census drop rates should decrease.
- Hypothesis 10: As perceived and actual workloads decrease, course D, F, and I rates should decrease.
Meanwhile, the planned asynchronicity of the course will increase inclusivity, allowing students to work at their peak and available times rather than having to tie themselves to particular due dates and times. Instead of points, the course will emphasize competency, and to further this goal a standards-based grading system will be used.
Other Possible Issues
Lack of In-Person Contact
Students are used to having in-person contact with their instructors, and the online environment can often feel isolating. The use of Jing to create short explanatory videos and images for students may help in this area, as it feels more like personal connection with the professor than written responses such as emails. The use of Zoom (online video chat) for online office hours may also assist students in feeling more connected to the class and the professor.
Students should also have multiple methods of contacting the professor and being contacted themselves. One of the most effective contact methods today is text messaging. To aid in this goal, the Remind.com text-messaging system will be implemented to allow students to receive text messages and send them to the professor.
- Hypothesis 11: As avenues for personal connection with the professor increase, post-census drop rates should decrease.
- Hypothesis 12: As avenues for personal connection with the professor increase, course D, F, and I rates should decrease.
“Seat Time” as a Learning Standard
This course redesign must address the issue of inclusivity. Many of our students work outside of school and need more flexibility in terms of deadlines, as they may have to fit classwork in between in-person classes and their work schedule. Scheduling specific deadlines by specific dates defeats the purpose of online learning.
As online courses are asynchronous almost by definition, there is no need to require students to put in a certain amount of “seat time” to complete the course. Instead, the redesign would allow students to progress at their own pace through the coursework. Any assignment can be completed early, and most assignments will have both a due date (the last day to turn it in “on time”) and a deadline date (the last day it will be accepted). This should give students greater flexibility.
To address the possibility that students will wait to submit everything until the last week of classes, a minimum requirement for completing a certain number of course tasks (assignments, discussions, quizzes, etc.) will be set for each week. This will also be used to measure “normal progress” in the course. Students who do not meet this requirement each week will be contacted and counseled.
As discussed under “Online Inexperience” above, students will be required to designate a certain block of time each week that is dedicated to this course, to ensure that they do not fall behind. This is not to be considered “seat time” so much as “allotting adequate time for what the course requires.” Students may schedule their time blocks whenever they feel most comfortable and confident each week.
Finally, all lectures will be provided via video and captioned, so that students with disabilities will still be able to access all course content.
While it is not good scientific practice to apply multiple possible solutions to one problem, the Chancellor’s Office is concerned about the high DFWI rate in this course, and the first priority is lowering that rate. Other adjustments to the course, and comparisons of the various interventions, can be made once the DFWI rate is brought down to around 15% or lower, which is the more usual rate for most courses at CSUDH.