Friday, July 10, 2015

A Blended Dilemma

I've been a bit mired down recently as I've wondered how to organize the online materials and activities for a face-to-face seminar for new faculty. Here's my dilemma....

If I have two very different kinds of activities happening throughout the August sessions, should I recognize those as parallel and put them in two different modules? Or should I instead focus on chronology and group together things from week 1, then from week 2, and so on?

I'm raising the question here because it illustrates a challenge that our instructor has alluded to several times: teaching a blended class is not necessarily easier than teaching on online course. Sometimes it creates new issues that would not occur (at least not to the same degree) in either an online or a face-to-face setting.

Let me explain a little further with the example I'm considering. During the August sessions of our new faculty orientation, we spend a lot of time exploring. First thing in the morning, we explore perspectives, concepts, biblical guidance, the college's educational task and framework, and readings that are key to our work as professors in a Reformed Christian college. After our morning break (with almond patties from Casey's Bakery if we are lucky!), we explore some more. But these explorations typically involve field trips where we trek around campus to visit support staff at their offices and work spaces so that new faculty know where to find them and can better remember which faces, places, and names go together.

"Parallel Lines" by Brian Smithson
See what I mean about two parallel kinds of tracks? Right now, my leaning is to collect all of the handouts from the field trips in one online area/module/page that new faculty can easily find, and then to put the perspectival resources in another. That makes sense to me as a learner....but I'm trying to think like a learner who isn't me.

Maybe that sums up one of the key takeaways I've learned from this BOLT seminar (Blended/Online Learning & Teaching): I need to think like learners who aren't me, and then shape my instruction to reach them where they are.

Hmmm, sounds a lot like the dilemmas of face-to-face teaching after all.

Time to ponder a little more about how best to organize the online resources. Maybe it's not an either-or dilemma and there is a third way?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Interruptions: Learning to Plan for the Unexpected

As I've been trying to get this post started, I've been interrupted twice already with the chiming of alerts on someone else's tablet.

Interruptions happen. They surprise us with their timing: by definition--look at the roots of the word--they come between ("inter") and break apart ("rupt") our plans for a stretch of time.

Photo, George Mason Memorial, by KellarW
Although the timing may be unanticipated, interruptions aren't really surprising. Alerts chime, icons and chat boxes pop up, phones ring. Many interruptions aren't unwelcome: colleagues, students, family, and friends stop to chat or ask questions. And even when we do have longer stretches of time, eventually we find that we need to pause when our stomachs growl, nature calls, or it's time to call it a night.

So, as any teacher (or parent) who has been in it for the long haul can tell you, it's probably wise to plan for some interruptions--to expect to be interrupted, and plan for more time than you need to get something done. O'Grady calls it creating a buffer, or planning a margin. We might also call it being realistic. (I didn't say I was good at it.)

As I reflect on what I've learned this week in our pedagogy seminar, one of the standout reminders is this: expect the unexpected. For me as a student, that means planning some extra study time to allow for interruptions. For me as a teacher, it means that I should expect students will need to stop and start, often for great reasons. Instead of complaining about it, I should anticipate this reality and help bolster their ability and desire to keep coming back to their learning and moving forward in their studies.

Robin Smith (2008) puts it this way: "...interruptions become part of the expectations of Web-based learning, and they require your course content to have these components": chunkability, repeatability, pausability, and understandability. (Conquering the Content, pp. 64-65).

That's great advice. It makes sense for writers as a way to help readers. (Look at those little chunks of content on this screen--manageable paragraphs make a difference! And notice the pauses that you get with headers and occasional boldface or bullets--places to rest your eyes, thanks to contrast!)

Expecting the unexpected also makes sense as a way for teachers to plan course design with the goal of helping students. For online videos, if we can make higher quality screencasts by recording in short bursts AND our students are more likely to watch them (because they can commit to smaller chunks at a time, in case they need to pause), it's a win-win. I'm excited to try this out with some screen casting.

I also want to think about how we might apply this to written texts, so that we can assign some sustained reading of longer texts while also helping students with some chunking. Chapters are a start (wondering if my students will buy it if I tell them to read chunk 1?), but we can occasionally take this to another level.

Interruptions are as old as time. Best to plan for them!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Downsizing Online Discussions

One of the great things about having teachers take courses where we are the students is how it pushes us to re-examine common teaching practices. That is happening for me and, I think I can safely say, for many in our cohort in BOLT 101 (Blended & Online Learning & Teaching).

The place where we're really feeling the pinch is in our online discussion forums. We've tried a variety of formats, including several of the standard threaded discussions in our Canvas learning management system, some discussions that are more like a physical mailroom bulletin board in Padlet, and some that are text/image-centered, audio/visual discussions, via VoiceThread.

Image by Richard G
We're learning at least two things.

1. Mode matters. Our discussions are shaped, in part, by our ability to post links and pictures, to change where we insert ourselves in the conversation, to hear the voices and see videos of our colleagues, to mark up a common whiteboard or shared image/text. We like the ability to be more socially present, so options like VoiceThread where we can point at texts, mark them up, and see and hear each other are helpful for asynchronous learning. (Though given the chance, I'd still opt for some real-time meetings too, as I love the flex of synchronous discussions. I'm so glad I have tools like Google Hangouts and Google Drive for real-time meetings with colleagues around the country!) In short, it's important for us to pay attention to the discussion tools we choose, and to keep tabs with students to find out how these tools help and how they hinder them.

2. Group size matters...more and more over the long haul. The second big takeaway from our online discussion is nothing earth-shaking: it's that group size matters. What's new is that we're finding group size matters not only in each smaller conversation, but also over time. It can be tough to be the 16th person to join a discussion already in progress and feel like you have something new to say, let alone to keep track of all of the different lines of thought in play within one conversation. It can be tougher yet to try hear others and feel heard (to know and be known?) when we are working with that larger group size over a series of weeks. We notice that we may hear/read shorter snippets from each individual, but if everyone in class is in the same conversation, we don't get a more in-depth or sustained perspective from any one person.

So....what to do about group size? Smaller groups seem like a promising solution. So far we've tried out these tools in whole-class discussions. But I've also experienced models where there are sub-groups within the class, with 4-5 people in a cluster chiming in more often (say 4 times per week) in order to draw out ideas, challenge each other, and explore some tangents. Members of the group then take turns reporting to an all-class forum, so that there are a limited number of posts in that "whole class" conversation, which makes following the threads more manageable.

This shouldn't be face-to-face classes, we use small groups for some of the same reasons. If we see speaking as a mode of thinking, then it's important that students have opportunities to speak often and be challenged to improve their ideas along the way.

We're trying this on a small scale with our blogs (we have assigned sub-groups to read and comment on each other's pages), and I'm glad to know that at least a few of my colleagues are on the hook to have to read this and respond. I'll be curious to hear what you have to say, friends!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Discontent with Content

I'm finishing up week three of my online seminar, which means I've persisted long enough to hit the halfway point. As I hoped and expected, this course is stretching me a bit, and that's a good thing. It means my teaching muscles should be a bit more limber, more flexible--so long as I keep using them and keep stretching.

What I like is that when I push a little on this course, it pushes back at me. Isometrics, anyone?

Dark Side of the Moon album cover,
Pink Floyd
The word "content" (as in , "the content") is where I've been pushing. I don't love that term as a summary of what teachers teach, so although our textbook has been a helpful resource, I don't love its title: Conquering the Content. My concern is that "content" sounds so static, maybe even stagnant. It makes it sound like we are teaching a body of facts and stats....and that's it. But we are teaching so much more: whether we realize it or not, our students are likely also learning from us about habits of mind and heart--habits that direct their worship at each moment of their lives. If we're not careful, we'll reinforce the ways in which our students conform to culture; in faithful teaching, we seek to help students be transformed.

That's why I like the SKA framework that was introduced in our seminar this week via MIT's Teaching & Learning Laboratory page about planning for learning outcomes. It's a simple acronym, but it encompasses much more than "content." SKA stands for skills, knowledge, and attitudes. When we're planning for each of these dimensions of learning, we're planning to put students' hands, heads, and hearts to work. That's a task that has the potential to result in true transformation.

And whaddaya know? When I've been using SKA this week as a grid to help me plan a future course, it helps me to stretch my course ensure that students will do more that fill their minds with "content." Maybe it will even prompt some healthy discontent for them, too.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Permission to Play

It's week two of our online course, and what fascinates me most is not the technology, but what it looks like as we "students"--actually professors--tend to do as learners. It's striking to me that we seem to need someone to give us, overtly, permission to play. There are lots of opportunities to be playful, but we aren't necessarily taking them. For example, this week on the Padlet bulletin board, which could be a very visual and interactive way to riff back and forth, we tended to treat the space like a place to submit mini-essays. I wonder why?

Maybe it's because we're concentrating so hard on getting tricky new things right. (Reminds me of what it felt like to be in the front passenger seat tonight while me daughter drove me for the first time on the blacktop: that was a good time to concentrate on tricky new things and leave joking and play for later!) There's probably something to that, especially for anyone who feels like one false move might put them in the cyberspace ditch. Picture us with our teeth clenched, shoulders hunched in concentration....

Or, maybe it's because we're teachers, and rule-following comes to us pretty naturally. Hmm. I suspect none of you who know more than a handful of teachers are going to believe that one.

Maybe it's because we need someone to show us how to be playful? I think this is an important part of learning to be playful, at least for me. I need someone to help me imagine how I might BE playful in our online spaces and activities. I know about wordplay. I am not so fluent in using images and memes in playful ways. I'm so used to doing things as I know how to do them that I need to see someone else go first to envision something new.

Photo by David Goehring
The kind of help I (we) might benefit from is a little like the good that comes form being out for a walk with my youngest. Yes, of course, I know how to walk. Yet I'm used to walking simply as a way to get from one place to the other. But through her example and a little coaxing, my daughter reminds me that "a walk" is also for skipping, for wandering, and for having some fun. That's the kind of walking partner I need with me as I head out for an online adventure. Want to come along?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Summertime, and the Learning is "Easy-er"

I'm back at it, at least for a little while: for six weeks this summer, I'm again taking a course about using learning technologies in my teaching. And, in connection with that course, I'm blogging again, too.

Photo by Ian Burt
This time around, I'm finding the learning experience easier. I'm thinking about why that might be. What is making this course go more smoothly for me than the last time around, two short years ago? And why, even though it's "easier," do I feel that I am learning more?

It's Not Because I Was Ready for This Course....
It's not because I'm a tech whiz. I'm not. Case in point: I let go of my computer for a few hours this week (they pried it out of my hands!) so that the helpful team in our computer services department could complete some updates. When my laptop came back, the new email interface threw me off so much that you'd think they'd sent me the equivalent of the backward bike that some playful welders rigged to go left when steered right. "Little" changes in the appearance of my inbox were disrupting my workflow, suddenly making it tough for me to scan and sort my messages at the quick pace I was accustomed to. For a good 24 hours afterward, I did a lot of growling at my inbox and telling myself to buck up and learn.

So no, clearly it isn't my technical prowess that's helping me find my way more easily through this second course in blended and online teaching.

Maybe, you think, it's because I've been through these ropes before, I know (at least a little) what to anticipate and what to do, and I bring a bit more confidence to the task. That may be part of what's happening for me, but I don't think it's the most important thing. Technologies keep changing at a fast pace, so past experience only gets me so far. For example, I'm working with a different LMS this time (Canvas vs. Blackboard), and I expect that I'll learn many other newer technologies and pedagogical approaches. That's why I'm taking the course--because these things keep changing, and I need to keep learning.

...It's Because This Course Was Ready for Me
The big difference that I really feel this time is that our instructor is doing a great job of anticipating the questions, worries, and struggles we might have as people who have a lot to learn about online, blended, and web-enhanced learning and teaching. Three "little" things that I've found helpful so far:

  1. Receiving an email in advance of the course that outlined expectations and made it clear what we needed to do to get started....including how to find the virtual front door and when to show up for the start of class. In a F2F school, new students get a tour of the building and a preview of the school. Online, students need some guidance about space and time, too.
  2. Viewing the task and visual help tips in a single window. When it was time to post links to our blogs, we could see the written instructions with some screenshots on the same page where we had to do the linking. No need to toggle to another screen, read technical jargon, and then try to remember it back where we had to complete the task. And therefore, no cognitive overload for our short-term memories while we were in the thick of trying to get a new task done.
  3. Seeing new comments in the course discussions from him on a daily basis makes it clear that he is here to help. We don't have to worry that we'll "do it all wrong" for a whole week (since that covers a lot of ground in a 6-week course!) before getting some corrective help. Our instructor is obviously present and teaching!

For me, these things are making this summer course pleasant, even fun. I hope you are enjoying summer as well. Need a pick me up? Maybe some Ella Fitzgerald will help: "Summertime...." Sing along!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Making Time for Grace

What does it look like to live in grace on a college campus? As we live today, do we really have time to live as grace-filled people? What would it look like to make grace a priority in our daily schedules and agendas?

These were the questions that got us talking yesterday in a Lenten reading group that I've joined. There were nine of us there, and many of us were meeting for the first time or only knew each other by name--six students, a professor, a maintenance staff member, and me. You wouldn't think this would be the place to take up tough life questions, but we'd agreed to read The Cure together and to meet weekly to talk through the chapters, so there we were, digging right into the hard questions. 

I suppose that where we landed was a bit ironic: we got to this discussion after reading a chapter that emphasized that we don't do anything that brings us God's grace--the whole point is that he sees the brokenness, shamefulness, and shortcomings in each one of us, yet seeks us out in spite of ourselves. We fail at "being good," and yet God offers us his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his renewing and transforming power.

So what's this about "making time" to live in grace? Our discussion wasn't about trying to earn God's love. Quite the opposite. Rather, we talked about what it would look like if we were to stop wearing our masks--to stop trying to fool others into thinking that we have it all together, to freely acknowledge that we are much in need of grace. 

One of out student leaders reflected on how we rush past each other in hallways and on sidewalks, often exchanging a superficial "Hi, how ya doing?" and "Fine" even when we or our neighbors aren't fine. And that's where the question came in: what would it look like if we made time to live in grace? What would it look like if we made the time it takes to linger, to share together in our need for grace and the thanksgiving that we have for it?

Our group had a few practical ideas: maybe we would allow more time for traveling between classes, meetings, and other responsibilities--valuing sidewalk conversations enough to plan time for them into the day instead of always rushing from here to there. Instead of filling our schedules to the top, we'd allow some open spaces each day, expecting the unexpected in our relationships with others and allowing time to listen and learn together.   

Along with turning the clock forward tonight, I'll also be making some adjustments to my calendar. I  think the students had it right: living together in a community of grace works better when we intetionally allow for the time it takes to travel the road together.