Looking Hard in the Mirror

[Note: And I thought last week’s post was long . . . .  As always, any comments (praise or critique) are more than welcome.]

I have considered teaching online a challenge ever since I taught my first (problematic) course and prepared to design my second online course.  It was clear to me that approaching an online course in the same way as an in-person course was flawed.  There were new obstacles that were never an issue in face-to-face instruction (lack of immediate feedback being the primary example) and new advantages that were barely possible in the same face-to-face course (the advantage of sustained asynchronous assignments, which Chickering and Ehrmann so nicely illustrate with the homework example).  Designing an online course made me examine my other teaching practices and to try and make changes in the classroom.  I would not say I have been entirely successful, but there is progress, which the questionnaire nicely shows.

The Questionnaire

My total score was a twelve (smack dab in the middle of the scale) and this is not surprising.  By section this breaks down into:

  • Interest in material: Small group discussions are useful in class for creating interest in the material. (3)
  • Content: Large group discussions or debates are useful in class for covering content. (4)
  • Roles: Students should be active participants in creating their own knowledge. (3)
  • Assessments: Assessments are most important as learning tool for students. (2)

What’s interesting to me about this is that this applies to my teaching as it is now.  Here is my score based on where I would like to be:

  • Interest in material: Students should be given choices of how to learn the material. (2)
  • Content: The content in a class should be at least partially created by the students. (2)
  • Roles: Students should be active participants in creating their own knowledge. (3)
  • Assessments: Assessments are most important as learning tool for students. (2)

Or, a total of nine.

Those three points represent the difference between my current teaching-centered style and what I hope to achieve with a student-centered style.   I hope, over the course of this class, to make a successful transition.

Getting Started

I have already made a strong commitment to using an independent blogging platform (WordPress) to run my courses.  I typically organize my classes with a full menu at the top (Syllabus, Schedule, Readings, Learning Packet, Rubrics, Examples, People).  You can see a full example of one of my courses here.  This organization has worked fairly well and I’m not too concerned with changing it.

I am, however, concerned with changing the type of engagement students have with the material, each other, and me.  The course above represents one of my most student-centered courses, but I can’t help thinking that more could be done.  In many ways, it simple represents me letting the students go with little guidance and, despite my constructionist sympathies and my decidedly constructionist philosophy work, I think that students shouldn’t be left to create their own knowledge.

The whole point of education is that these students are starting from a disadvantaged epistemic position–they don’t know important things.  As much as they should be encouraged to engage with and derive knowledge from the world, they need to be doing this with some level of skill.  In other words, they need to have already learned some unproblematic starting position.  I think it is the role of the instructor to push, pull, and prod students to this position, whatever it may be.  Thus, handing the student the tools is not enough–the instructor needs to work alongside the students in the use of these tools.

Up until this point, I feel like I have largely been handing students the tools.  I want to figure out how to work alongside them.

Looking at the Past, Looking Forward

One thing that interests me very much are standards for judging course design.  As Ko and Rossen say, many of these things are often done intuitively, but, as is often true, what is done intuitively is not always done as efficiently or effectively as possible–feeling for the right balance is not as effective as being able to describe the right balance.

To this end, I looked over the Seven Principles, QOCI (on which, like erica, I couldn’t find any checklists), NSQOC (which is amazing and I will be writing a post analyzing one of my courses in the near future), and ROI (and I’ve run out of letters, so don’t expect any more acronyms).  How have I met each of these standards

Seven Principles

1. Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

Reciprocity, yes, cooperation, minimal.  I run largely discussion-based online courses.  Students tend to handle themselves very well in these forums, but they tend to stand apart as individuals.  I have rarely (or is that never?) had students work together on a single thing. Design Goal: Encourage Cooperation.

2. Uses Active Learning Techniques

Absolutely!  In my Medical Ethics course (my favorite, if you haven’t guessed by now), I have students lead discussions applying the new concepts and techniques to case studies (given) and news stories (found) and engage each other in arranged debates.  The students love these.  However, the range of activities is very limited.  Again, these are all very discussion-based.  Design Goal: Increase Variety of Activities.

3. Gives Prompt Feedback

Yes and no.  I am quick with email responses, but my turn around is slower for more in depth feedback.  For example, one comment that students consistently give for this course is that they would like to have more guidance on preparing for the debate.  Design Goal: Construct More Direct and Frequent Instructor Feedback

4. Emphasizes Time on Task

Now this one is tough.  Every online course I’ve taught is an intensive five or three week course.  How exactly do you emphasize time on task when I fully expect students to burn themselves out and die working on my course (I kid.  Unless you’re a student who found this, in which case I mean every word of it).  No Goal.

5. Communicates High Expectations

I love this principle.  Do you know how many times I’ve heard that undergrads are lazy and will avoid work at all costs and that this is doubly true of online students, who are just there to get an easy grade?  Answer: too many.  What I’ve found is quite the contrary.  Students not only work harder when they are expected to work harder, they seem to like the higher expectations as well.  No Goal.

7. Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

This is my biggest concern.  As I noticed before, I tend to favor one way of interacting–student-led discussions.  This is fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  Students need to be even more actively engaged with their learning: choosing their learning path, using multiple resources, and discussing in multiple formats.  Design Goal: Open Greater Space for Student Control of Learning

A Basic Foundation

This winter, I hope to teach Environmental Ethics, a three-week writing intensive course that is meant to be equivalent to a full 14-week in-person course.  This poses twin challenges, then: meaningfully condensing the goals and objectives of a 14-week course to 3-weeks and meeting my personal design goals from above.

Course Description:

The natural world is all around us. We live in it, feed off it, and fundamentally depend on it. Yet, many of us pay very little attention to it unless something goes wrong. This course examines our relationship to the natural world and what kinds of moral and social obligations we have to that world. By engaging directly with the debates that surround contemporary events and policies–like fracking, global warming, genetically modified food, and population growth–we will explore the various concepts and theories that lie behind these debates and learn to turn a critical eye towards our engagement with the environment.

Course Goals:

  • Understand basic ethical theories, modern environmental problems and related socio-political movements
  • Develop basic critical thinking, writing, and revision skills
  • Learn to work in a collaborative community

Course Objectives:

The student will

  • Maintain a personal blog to present and track course progress
  • Analyze found information connected to the course topics
  • Post on both assigned and individually developed writing topics
  • Apply concepts and theories to concrete situations
  • Collaboratively create wiki pages that accurately describe ethical theories, contemporary environmental issues, and related socio-political movements
  • Comment on other student’s work
  • Develop a portfolio of revised blog posts and other work from the semester

[verbs from here and here.  That second one is really nice, with a clear description for the proper use of each verb.]

Brief Analysis

Overall, the biggest problem I had with this week’s work was the distinction between goals and objectives.  While conceptually I understand the differences, in practice most goals I wrote tended towards demonstration and, so, objectives.  In doing research, I found that many schools don’t make a distinction and mainly look for what Ko and Rossen call objectives (see second “here” in the brackets above).

Tune in next week . . . 

Comments 5

  1. avatar Lisa M Lane wrote:

    You have a great plan, and make an interesting point about where you are vs where you want to be. I think that may be one the reasons such surveys are useful, to help us see the whole spectrum where our own work resides.

    I guess I’d see your “goal” as something that applies to the whole class, and the objectives as the means for getting there. In this case, I think your goal is an overall understanding of environmental ethics.

    Posted 21 Sep 2011 at 7:17 pm
  2. avatar Cris wrote:

    I’m considering moving my class from a wiki to a blog so was really interested in how you set yours up, Brandon. The organization seems clear and it’s easy to find everything at a glance. What really struck me though was your use of group leaders for discussion. I tried this — once — and even had the leaders post a summary after the discussion. Students hated it! All have been spoiled by the ubiquitous read and post two comments that you’d think had been ordained by John Dewey (Alright, so I know he wouldn’t have supported that). What tips would you give for making this strategy work? I may be game to try it again.

    Posted 21 Sep 2011 at 10:30 pm
  3. avatar Eduardo Peirano wrote:

    The organization of the Medical Ethics class blog is great. Everyone can search posts by category and also by students in the pagePeople « Medical Ethics

    Posted 21 Sep 2011 at 10:49 pm
  4. avatar Eduardo Peirano wrote:

    It is easy to create a class blog Adding Users to WordPress.com I taught 2 short courses, with few students, each one. I was satisfied with the results

    Posted 22 Sep 2011 at 12:05 am
  5. avatar Brandon wrote:

    @Cris: In my own experience, the students’ reactions really depend on the kind of assignment they are leading on. There’s a lot more angry murmurings if they are asked to lead a general discussion on a topic, as opposed to being given a specific focus and empowered to set the tone of the discussion and raise the central questions. There’s a balance between empowerment and instructor control. I try to place that control in the kind of assignments I assign (e.g. find a news story and do this) and give them freedom within that control. Overall, I’ve found that you need to give the leaders a specific task and that this lessens the . . . hostility to leading. In fact, almost every student I’ve had has loved the structure of the course!

    Of course, if you do this already, then . . . .

    I love to talk about this, so feel free to email me or whatever if you want to talk course design 😉

    Posted 22 Sep 2011 at 3:16 pm

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