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Equivalency:  Classroom contact hours

In a message dated 11/29/2006 11:09:40 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, an instructor asks:
Out of curiosity, how do you guarantee or verify that students are actually spending those contact hours online (1 hr vs. 5 min. of actual online time, say)?
- (Instructor: name on file).

Dear Instructor,
I've found there are several defensible approaches to the topic of class time equivalency.
The most impressive approach I know of is to use an online timer combined with random identity testing.  I've seen this done for "drivers education" courses wherein the program at random intervals requires the student to input personally identifiable data.  And since the program was connected to the state drivers license bureau it was able to draw upon some serious data.  For example, "What is your drivers license number?"  "Which of the following was one of your addresses?"  "What year were you born?" "Which insurance company do you use for your automobile insurance."
Such questions are likely to trip up someone "sitting in" for a student.
I would reckon such a system cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement.  I can only imagine the work hours and levels of approval that course went through to become reality.
Such an approach is beyond the reach of many instructors, but is becoming more and more possible by using Course Management Software (CMS) such as Blackboard, E-college, or Breeze.  Such programs can actually track time spent online per student.  Thus enabling the instructor to see if the student was logged in for the required amount of time. 

Another approach, (one which I'm pursuing) is to work backward from the expected course outcomes.  For example how does a college decide to allocate 3 credit hours to a language course?  Why are some courses worth 5 credit hours and others worth 3 credits.  Such determinations can be made by using statistical averages and applying them to the presentation times.  Which is to say, on average it takes a certain amount of time to teach a certain amount of material.  How do you know if you have successfully taught the material? Traditionally this is determined via testing.  

We are not considering instructional methodology at this point. The question at hand has nothing to do with any of the dozens of popular or once popular methodologies such as: Direct,  Grammar-Translation, Reading, Audiolingual, Community Language Learning, Functional-Notional, Total Physical Response, etc.  The question we are addressing is how long, on average does it take to introduce 15 concepts.  Note: a lexical concept (vocabulary word) has not been fully introduced until a student understands the grammatical, cultural, and pragmatic aspects related to that concept.  Thus knowing a sign is not the same as knowing how to use a sign according to the grammar of the language and the conventions of the community to which that language is affiliated.

For example, we may determine on average it takes approximately an hour to:
* Welcome students
* Make announcements
* Take care of relevant business: passing back papers, distributing handouts, etc.
* Review 15 previously learned concepts
* Introduce 15 new concepts 
* Introduce the grammatical, pragmatic, and cultural aspects of those concepts
* Reinforce the new concepts
* Provide time for student practicing of the concepts
* Provide corrective and positive feedback
* Answer questions
* Review the 15 new concepts
* Set expectations for the next course period
*  Assign and clarify homework
*  Dismiss class

Thus it is defensible to state that it takes approximately of 4 minutes of classroom time per “grammatically informed” lexical item.  By grammatically informed I mean the sign and the knowledge of how to use that sign.
We can say that it takes 4 minutes of classroom time to teach a student a sign and how to appropriately use that sign in grammatically correct fashion in a conversation.  It is not enough for a student to internalize a list of signs.  The student must also learn how to use those signs according to convention. 

Once we determine how long it takes to learn a thing we can then use multiplication to determine how long it takes to learn a group of things.  If the average student learns one sign or general concept per four minutes, then the average student will learn 15 signs in an hour and 150 signs in 10 hours, 300 signs in 20 hours, 600 signs in 40 hours, and so forth.  A 45 contact hour class, using that rate of acquisition would cover 675 lexical concepts.

Next we need to take into account a number of factors that impact the rate of sign acquisition.
When you consider the workings of the human brain it is generally accepted as fact that as the amount of learned information increases, so does the need for additional review time to maintain that learning.

Additionally we need to consider that in most in-person classroom environments there are individuals who are less capable than the rest of the students and these individuals tend to slow the progress of the class.

It is also not uncommon for many college-level classroom instructors on test days to give the test and then dismiss the class even though technically there is time remaining on the clock. Whether appropriate or not, it occurs and must be accounted for when considering, “Where does the time go?”

The list of factors that “eat into” instructional time could go on at length, but let’s move on after one more example:  Many instructors take a full day of class to hand out their syllabus and explain its contents to students.  When comparing this to “time spent online” how does one account for the hour a student takes reading a syllabus, emailing the instructor for clarification of various items, and then reading the response?  How do we account for the teaching time of the instructor who takes 15 minutes each to type out a response to 10 different emailed questions from students?  Does that 150 minutes of the teacher’s time count toward “class time?”  What if the teacher’s responses are posted to a “class bulletin board” or submitted to a class listserv?

Obviously a lot goes on in both in-person classes and online classes that does not directly contribute toward acquisition of topic-related knowledge.  Thus we see our initial determination of 675 lexical concepts is in fact only an “ideal” and must be adjusted downward to more appropriately reflect typical expected learning outcomes.  Again, statistics based on experience might indicate that a more typical amount of lexical concepts (and the attending grammatical, cultural, and pragmatic information) would be in the range of 400 per 3 credit hour course.  Active, awake, motivated students might conceivably complete such a course having learned a great deal more signs.  Students on the other end of the spectrum might complete the course having learned only 60% of the targeted signs (including, the appropriate grammatical, cultural, and pragmatic information), or 240 signs—worthy of a “D minus.”  But we are dealing with averages here rather than extremes so let us simply state that a student successfully completing a 3 credit hour class will be able to demonstrate and recognize approximately 400 signs (including, of course, the appropriate grammatical, cultural, and pragmatic information related to those signs.) 

Why do I repeat the instructions “culturally, grammatically, and pragmatically correct?”  Because there are those who will see the words “400 signs” and become blind for the rest of the sentence.  I’m not talking about lists of words here--I’m talking about units of measurement that are embedded in discourse level sentences, paragraphs, and conversations.  Students are learning to engage in discourse. The testing I’m referring to is discourse level testing:  Recognition of whole sentences, appreciation of pragmatic nuances, and selection of appropriate grammar.  The signs I’m referring to do not exist in isolation from their linguistic conventions.  The percentages I’m referring to here require that signs not only be presented, but that they be presented in grammatically correct ways at the discourse level of communication.

Seat time becomes irrelevant at this point and the only real consideration is, “Can a student demonstrate and recognize a certain number of  signs (in a culturally, grammatically, and pragmatically correct fashion)?”  If so, then it is defensible that the student has completed an amount of study equivalent to that of a 3 credit hour college-level ASL course.



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