Sep 24

I’m working on a class to get a certification for online learning – course design. As a result, I’m working on an online class and I needed to create/tweak a syllabus. I’ve been studying some different resources for online syllabi:

  1. The Syllabus
  2. Creating an Effective Online Syllabus
  3. Online Course Design: 13 Strategies for Teaching in a Web-based Environment
  4. Developing Your Online Syllabus

I’ve collected my thoughts while looking at best practices for creating an online syllabus:

One of the interesting differences between K-12 and higher ed is the importance of a syllabus. I think this mostly has to do with 3 factors: (1) the amount of time you have students on a weekly basis, (2) the fact that you only have higher ed students for half of the year and (3) students in higher ed also have more responsiblity to do independent learning as far as the content of the course goes.

In K-12, students get a lot more handholding than they do in higher ed. We need to give explicit information concerning the text (students have to find their own text, it’s not provided), students need to know where to go for help (tutoring, disability services, etc. – they don’t have a guidance counselor or special ed case worker to guide them) and the list could go on.
Inviting a colleague to see your syllabus is an interesting thought. Usually, this doesn’t happen on our campus unless there’s a problem, i.e. grade appeal. Having recently been in K-12, there isn’t the culture of sharing that is (more) expected in higher ed. Many (even on my higher ed campus) are unwilling share and show what they are doing. Without getting too philosophical, I think this is what’s wrong with education. We’ve cultured an atmosphere of secrecy instead of a collegial peer learning network. I definitely see the value in encouraging peer review on syllabi. If for no other reason than to get another set of eyes on it to “keep the university out of trouble”. For instance, if I forgot to include our disability statement, that could be a real problem in many cases.

As an adjunct instructor in Physical Geography, I really appreciate the analogy of the syllabus as a road map. Not only to see where we are going, but what kinds of challenges/experiences will the learner encounter along the way? Do I have to buy my own gas or is there a built-in system of help available?

I know many students have a problem with organization. Most classes use the first day of school as a day to cover the syllabus. This probably seems like drudgery to many students. What kind of strategy can we use to increase the usefullness of the syllabus and recapture that first day of class? Here’s my idea: why not create a screencast of the instructor going over the syllabus and require students to watch that and take a quiz over it? Just a thought. We need to sell this syllabus as a tool, rather than a requirement. I do really like the idea of giving a schedule to show explicit scaffolding of concepts so students can understand, I need to learn A before I can get to B. It’s a process of sequenced steps, not a bunch of individual activities. It’s got to be sold as an overview, not simply a list.

For students, the contract is likely the most important piece. They want to know “how they are going to get (earn – hopefully) their A (B, C, D, whatever). Explicit instructions on how to earn what points for what activity. Certainly the expectations from the instructor may be the most significant piece in this section. What can they expect time-wise from me? Do I keep up on grading? Do I start and end class on time? If I am contacted, what expectation is there for a response? What is the best way to contact me?


Sep 05

So I’ll resist the urge to talk about how long it’s been since I’ve posted. I haven’t posted. Oh well.

I’m starting on my SLOAN-C certification for Online Teaching. This is a fully online workshop designed to prepare faculty to teach online (as the name implies). Another adventure. More learning. Just my thing. I’m excited to learn more about something that will make me more effective at my job. What is that job? I’m an instructional designer and I work at helping faculty discover the tools and strategies they need to effectively accomplish their learning objectives in an online format. It’s a new job and a new position; I’ve only been here since January. I have zero formal training in Educational technology except for an undergraduate class and one graduate class. Why did they hire me again?

I know my writing has been quite boring and dry lately. I’m hoping to make it more conversational and reflective again and move away from the drab literature review I was doing during my last class. I’ve got to get back in the habit of reflecting. I miss it and I miss knowing that I have something to catalog my progress as a novice course designer.

I will just say I’ve learned so much over the last several months. I’m beginning to play a little bit with code. I really want to learn more HTML, JavaScript and CSS. It’s a large task, but I really love it. I’ve even toyed with the idea of a second undergraduate degree in programming or computer science or network engineering. However, that’s likely not to be due to my advanced age and time restraints on getting this doctorate done.

Feb 28

I had the opportunity to share an online pedagogy training with our faculty at SNU. We did a little discussion of ADA and how can offer equal opportunities for learning to our students with disabilities. We also talked about our online template. We use Moodle as our LMS and when I begin working with a professor to develop a course, I set up a new course for them from a template. While we hope that instructors can make a course their own, we do want to have some similarity between all of our courses. If students know exactly where to look for resources (assignment lists, etc.), we reduce their cognitive load and free them to learn content, instead of trying to learn where components of a course can be found. Our online courses are only 6 weeks long, so they have a small window in which to learn where resources within the course are located.

Our main focus of the training, however, was the PDAS model. While we do not expect every course to have each of these four components in every single week of a course, we do hope to balance these strategies throughout their courses.

Prepare is the part of a course in which students are “instructed” on the concepts or information to be learned. Usually, this would look like students reading from texts, watching videos, reading journal articles or websites, or some kind of similar activity. The key to this component is that professors tell students where to get the information. This is instructor-centered learning. As a side note, I personally think this should be minimalized in a course. I’m a constructivist and I think students learn best when they have to go find information.

Discover is the antithesis of the previous strategy. In discover, students construct their own knowledge. They are tasked with finding the information on their own. They have to go and “do” something. This particular strategy could take many forms, e.g. experiment (science), argumentative essay (english), find patterns of behavior in a culture (social studies), etc. The bottom line is that students begin to find their own knowledge and evaluate that knowledge for parts of it they find relevant.

It is hard to talk about either of the first two without bringing in the third component: Analyze. This is the part of the learning process in which students actually do something with the information they have learned in the first two steps. After all, if you learn something and do not do something with that knowledge, what’s the point? In analyze, students might compare and contrast two stories they have read. They could read a piece of literature and create a modern version of the work (video?). They might analyze a piece of literature through the cultural lens through which it was written (literature and social studies connection). I have always enjoyed looking at the historical context of science and thinking about why advances where made. There might even be a fine arts connection to be had here in this step (pointillism and atomic theory?)

Finally, students need to Share. How can you have any kind of class without some kind of buy-in to a social theory of learning? Students need to interact with others. This becomes even more important when you consider that by simply taking an online class, they area at a disadvantage in the social aspect of learning. This means that we, as designers/instructors, must be purposeful in creating opportunities for students to share their knowledge with others. This accomplishes two things: the “sharer” learns more by being forced to communicate their learning, either in writing or in the spoken word. The “sharee” learns more by being exposed to other’s worldview, perspective, and ideas of what is important within a particular knowledge domain.

This model of learning is not new to most of you, I would imagine. You probably have components of this in your classes, whether online or face-to-face. I’m learning this as I begin to deepen my understanding of classroom models and learning theories: In education, as in Physics, there is not yet a Grand Unified Theory. No single learning theory works for every single learner. We must use components from many different theories to enable students to be successful in our domain.

As teachers, we must be able to offer students opportunities to learn, based on their particular learning style. There may be learning theories that work better for differently structured domains or even from one “class” in a school to another, i.e. this year’s sophomores, juniors, seniors, etc. This idea is why every teacher should be a learner (yes, SNU School of ED, I also think we need to be lifelong-learners). I didn’t really understand this when I was in school. When I finished my undergraduate work, I thought, “I’ve arrived.” However, continuing my learning beyond that has shown me just how much I don’t know. That, I believe, is where true learning begins.

Jan 18

Wikipedia isn't quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

No doubt you have been on Wikipedia or at least seen it at the top of your search results. As a teacher, I did not allow students to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but I did encourage them to use the site. There are many uses and contrary to what most teachers say, it does not need to be avoided. Wikipedia has been demonized in education. Whether or not that has a good reason is open for debate, but the mindset needs to be changed.

Two years ago, I spent about six weeks working with a couple of physics researchers at Oklahoma State. When Dr. Rizatdinova wanted me to learn something, she always pulled up Wikipedia first. Was this ignorance? Or does she recognize that Wikipedia is, on average, more accurate than print sources? I suspect it is the latter. She has a PhD in High Energy Physics from Moscow University, so I can only imagine she has a pretty clear understanding of how to find correct information on the internet.

Back in 2009, I had a realization: Putnam City High School did not have a Wikipedia page. I thought to myself, “How can this be?” At that point, I realized I had two choices, I could continue to be a consumer of knowledge (and allow my students to do so) or I could model for my students what being a producer of knowledge looks like. I chose the latter. I did a minimal amount of research about the history of Putnam City High School and started a Wikipedia page. This was one of only two edits I made to the page. I only mention that because it has some (not a lot) of information on it, most of which was put there by others. There are actually people who enjoy building pages and some of them found our page! My second edit was to correct the mascot. I could have noticed the error and pointed it out to others, further casting the site in a bad light. However, I decided it would be better to make the page better.

A couple of weeks after I created the page, I went back to the page and there was a note at the top saying, “This page does not meet Wikipedia’s quality standards, you can help by adding citations and information.” What? They have “quality standards”? They actually want you to add citations? To show where your information comes from? That sounds a lot like the kind of thing we teach students when writing papers. I suspect Wikipedia could be used as a tool to teach writing, instead of being talked about like the plague.

Over the last two weeks, I have talked (probably too much) about Wikipedia over the course of some professional development I have done about technology. One was at Deer Creek Schools and the other at Yukon Public Schools. I spent some time talking about how students should no longer look at the web as a place to simply get information. They should also look at it as a place to construct their own knowledge base and add to the overall knowledge about a topic. This is (at least part of) the purpose of Wikipedia.

Oklahoma recently adopted the English/Language Arts and Mathematics Common Core State Standards. These standards mandate that students should “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate…” Wikipedia would be a fantastic place to do that. By the way, this was cut and pasted from the grade 3-5 standards.

Imagine starting a Wikipedia page for your school (neither Yukon nor Deer Creek have pages for any of their schools at the time of this writing). You could have students develop interview questions, contact members of the community, video the interviews, post them to the school district’s webpage, and then link to the video interviews as primary sources for your Wikipedia article(s). Would students think differently about their writing if they had that kind of ownership? Would they write differently with that kind of audience?

I recognize that Wikipedia can be used incorrectly. As teachers, should we continue letting students use it incorrectly? Or should we be proactive in our approach? I hope you will reconsider how you present Wikipedia to your students. Like most things on the web, it can be used to learn something.

I challenged the teachers from both Yukon and Deer Creed to build Wikipedia pages for their schools. I’ll be interested to see if they pick up the gauntlet. What about you? Does your district have a page? Does your school? Is there some other way to integrate Wikipedia into your teaching? I would love to hear your ideas.

**I posted this today because Wikipedia is blacked out to protest the US Government’s efforts to censor information on the internet through SOPA and PIPA. Both of these bills (like most) have a good intent. The controversy comes in from the way in which they are doing the “policing”.**

Jan 12

I have no idea if anyone actually gets anything out of what I’m writing, but it’s time to start learning again, which means writing/reflection. I’ve taken about 6 months off from school, but I’m back in class taking it to the next level. This time it’s Trends and Issues in Educational Technology.

For class, I’ve been reading The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences (R. Keith Sawyer, Ed. 2005). I’ve just started, but the first part of the book is fantastic!

It begins with a bit of educational history, starting with the early years of Public Education in America and the concept of instructionism. While I write this, my computer says that instuctionism is not a word, but you are all familiar with the concept because it’s how you were taught in school. There was a lot of wrote memorization and factual learning, but not a lot of critical thinking or application. It did a good job of preparing students for the “industrialized economy of the early 20th century” (Sawyer, 2005). However, in today’s knowledge economy, this won’t work any longer. Students cannot continue to be taught fact after fact. They cannot continue to be taught the same way they were 100 years ago, because the world is not the same place as it was 100 years ago.  We have to teach students how to think. Thinking is a skill. In order to teach it, students must be put in the position of practicing that skill. The only way they will get better is to practice.

Before picking up this book (on my new Kindle), I’d never heard of the Learning Sciences. I guess I had a vague understanding of what they were/are, but didn’t know them by that name. However, beginning in the 1970′s and ending in the 1990′s, scientists and researchers began to word towards a consensus on the way in which students need to learn to be successful in today’s society. Those are:

  • It is important for students to gain a deep conceptual understanding. Many of you can probably recite Newton’s 2nd law of Motion, but could you apply it to a situation?
  • In addition to teaching better, some focus needs to be on students learning better. Great teachers are so important, but if the student (or teacher) doesn’t have some grasp on how they learn, it may not do much good. Passive learning is no longer acceptable. Students must take control of their learning and begin to construct their own body of knowledge. (I know, Piaget has been saying this since the 60′s!)
  • Schools must create an environment where learning can occur. Facts are okay, but teachers and schools need to put students in situations that encourage thinking deeply about concepts and there must be some real world application.
  • Successful learning comes as a result of building on the learner’s prior knowledge.  Again, no passive learning. Students come in with prior understanding (or misunderstanding) and often only learn enough to pass a test, but their learning in no way affects the way in which they interact with their world.
  • Reflection is important. That’s why I write here. It’s not so anyone can read. It’s so I can process. This blog is a place for me to actively analyze my state of knowledge. What did I know before and what do I know now? How are those different? How will what I’ve learned impact me? Will it? If not, why not?

**bold sections: The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences, (R. Keith Sawyer, Ed. 2005).

Next week, I’m doing my “final” professional development session with public school teachers. I say final only because it’s the last commitment I made while a State Dept. of Ed. employee. I’m supposed to talk about Problem-Based Learning. The early part of this book, while not explicitly so, talks about Problem-Based Learning.

Students need to engage in inquiry, beginning with a driving question and proposing a hypothesis/solution. They need to use complex representations to communicate and collaborate. They also need to use models, represented in some visual format. That’s basically what my presentation is, in 3 sentences. If you are a Yukon Public School teacher, don’t bother coming to listen. You just got the nutshell version!

Finally, there is a situativity perspective. This means that knowledge is not static. Knowledge is a process. I think of it as a sieve. When you interact with the information, you change what is there and it changes you, as well. It goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition and moves into a fundamental change in the way in which learners collaborate. This change comes as a result of the collaboration.

Bring it on. This is going to be a great class.

In case you are wondering what’s going on here, here’s a little intro video I made of myself for class.