Faculty from both Penn State New Kensington and Fayette, The Eberly Campus, have been working on the design of online courses they are converting from resident courses, thanks to a SoftChalk pilot funded through the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.
“With more and more faculty at the campuses wanting to offer their courses online or hybrid, they want to be able to have their courses well organized, easy to navigate, and have a cohesive appearance—much the same as the World Campus courses,” said Cheryl Tkacs, Information Technology Services instructional designer at Penn State Fayette. “Because faculty do not have an instructional designer that can be assigned to design their courses for them, it is important that they have the tools that are easy to work with and have a short learning curve.”
The software that met the criteria to create these online courses was SoftChalk, which creates lesson content in the form of webpages, Tkacs said. SoftChalk gives faculty the ability to create interactive content such as quizzes, videos, audio files and graphics, which is packaged as either a zip file or a SCORM content zip file and then uploaded into ANGEL.
“The purpose is to create well planned and organized course material for the students with the added bonus of being able to upload videos and other multimedia material to the lesson without straining the course limit space in ANGEL,” Tkacs said.
The need for a pilot arose due to the cost of the SoftChalk software, which is more than $600 for an individual user license, Tkacs said. Angela Linse, executive director of the Schreyer Institute, provided the funding needed to purchase several licenses for faculty interested in participating in the pilot.
According to Tkacs, five faculty members from Fayette and one faculty member from New Kensington originally agreed to participate in the pilot and submitted proposals to the Schreyer Institute. Each proposal described the resident course the faculty member wanted to convert into an online course. Faculty attended a workshop that covered the basic features of SoftChalk, to help them get started in using the software, Tkacs said.
A progress report will be made at the beginning of the spring semester to Cindy Decker Raynak, a senior instructional designer and faculty consultant of the Schreyer Institute who has begun to deliver some hybrid faculty development programs through SoftChalk. Faculty members who joined the pilot were asked to work with Decker Raynak, along with Tkacs or Deborah Sillman, instructional designer and biology instructor at New Kensington.
Currently, Sillman is using SoftChalk for BIOL 129 (GN) Mammalian Anatomy, where she used the software to develop a sheep heart anatomy module. She said that she assigned the module to her students prior to actual lab dissection so that they would come into the lab with prior knowledge of the anatomy of a sheep heart.
“I liked the fact that I could incorporate questions along with the images and text in this module,” Sillman said. “I found the software very easy to use and an excellent tool for lab preparation.”
Kevin Maxwell, a senior instructor in science at Fayette, said that he has been using SoftChalk in preparation for his STAT 200 (GQ) Elementary Statistics course he will teach in the spring. Maxwell had gotten involved with the pilot last spring semester and had planned to use SoftChalk in place of just ANGEL for his MATH 021 (GQ) College Algebra I course he has taught online several times, but the course was dropped from the spring course offerings, so he will be teaching STAT 200 instead next spring semester.
“Because this is my first time teaching this class online and because of the shorter time frame I have to prepare the materials, I’m not sure I will be able to use the program to the extent that I had hoped,” Maxwell said. “But I plan to continue to make some changes for future offerings.”
Faculty and instructional designers involved in the pilot have found out SoftChalk has several pros and cons.
“It is a powerful tool for faculty who want to make their course interfaces more consistent, friendly, and interactive,” Decker Raynak said. “However, I found that I needed to use my programming background to edit the HTML code more frequently than I liked.”
SoftChalk requires a big time investment, a common trait of most web design tools, Decker Raynak said. The licensing structure is another downside, as its current state makes it too expensive to be used widely. Decker Raynak said she would love to see it used widely across the campuses in the future, though.
Ease of use is another benefit of SoftChalk. If a faculty member can use a word processing program, he or she should have no problem with the software, Tkacs said.
“I have never used any other web design software to prepare an online course before SoftChalk, but I can say that I think it will have a much better feel and look than other courses I have prepared with only ANGEL,” Maxwell said. “It is easy to use so far, and most importantly, I think the end result will be user-friendly for the students.”
“I can say that this software package is quite easy to use, and the results are very professional in appearance,” Sillman said. “So, a faculty member without a high level of technical skills—someone who doesn’t know HTML or any other coding/programming knowledge—would be just fine using this.”