I’m reading through the backlog of posts from the community from my two week absence.  And of course I missed the purposefully conversation heavy weeks!  Looking overall the in depth conversations everyone is having is really a nice reminder of the educational opportunities that conversations can be.

Of course it’s also a reminder of my own tendency towards solitary pursuits and lends a bit of an insular feel to my advocacy for “owned” spaces.  While this ownership is important, I think that it can also have a negative impact–it can isolate and actually push students (and people in general, or course) apart if we, as instructors are not careful.

Well, I’m off to comment!

Further Ramblings about the Distributed Classroom

My thoughts have begun to turn towards my Winter course again and, as my Examination copies of the potential textbooks have not sped their way across the United States, I’ve been thinking more and more about the form of a course based around distributed conversation (or distributed communities)–about what online “geography” is ideal for such conversations.

A distributed classroom–a classroom that is not centralized in a single LMS, blog, or forum, but spread out across each individual student’s own online space–depends heavily on each individual’s skills of time management, organization, as well as responsibility, dedication, and knowledge base.  Of course, none of these might actually exist, so this leads to two basic formats of distributed classrooms:

  1. Ones like the POT certificate course, which assume the necessary skills and commitment.
  2. Others, which are targeted at building up such skills and commitment from the start.

The first format can focus entirely on the skills and knowledge particular to the class, while the second has to combine the teaching of learning skills and responsibility with the skills and knowledge particular to the topics the class is about.  There is a clear advantage to the first format, but it only works under limited circumstances.  In the college environment that exists today, these kinds of learning skills and self-motivation cannot be immediately assumed.  And while a long course–over a semester or, even better, over a year–can move from the second model to the first as the students learn and develop, shorter classes do not have the same luxury.

Does this mean that shorter classes cannot use the model of the distributed classroom?  Of course not (why, that would be madness! ;)).  But we need to understand exactly what role the centralized aspect of the course plays in a distributed classroom to make most effective use of the instructor-controlled aspect of the course.

The Hub

I grew up in a small down that was originally founded as a Methodist summer campground.  The town was set up like the hub and spokes of a wheel (12 spokes for each of the disciples of  Jesus–not important, but there you are).  Individuals lived all along the spokes and met and worshiped at the hub.  It was the hub that represented the joint purpose of being part of the community and that provided the stability necessary to hold the community together.

Yep, it's a wheel.

In a completely unsurprising move, this image is vaguely important in a metaphorical sense.

Any classroom can be visualized like the spokes and hub of a wheel, with only the size of the hub varying.  The traditional, lecture-based, in-person classroom is almost entirely hub–the students read and do homework and then meet and do the majority of learning in the classroom.  A course like POTcert is mostly spokes (and, actually, many additional reinforcing connections between the spokes) with a minimally intrusive hub.  The hub is still necessary–it makes the wheel work–but it provides little stability on its own.  Students touch base at the hub to understand the purpose of the week and then go off to their own spaces (or shared spaces–no Facebook, Google+, and Twitter really don’t work in this visual) to work and interact across the spokes.  The smaller the hub, the more the stability–coherence, even work, of the course–is transferred to the spokes–the students’ own spaces.

When Ko and Rossen talk about the different areas of a course, they are talking primarily about the hub.  The standard online course replicates the centralized nature of the traditional in-person classroom.  Here is the discussion area where topics will be discussed.  Here is the assignment area where assignments will be assigned.  Here is the schedule . . . where scheduling is done.  The students do their own work and then travel along the spokes to the hub to communicate and do the process of learning.  Anyone who has been teaching for even a reasonable amount of time recognizes that most of the actual learning experience often takes place in class–on their own students most often just absorb information.  In these standard courses, the learning experience is primarily focused on the centralized aspect–hub–of the course.  A distributed classroom needs to be arranged differently.  The learning needs to be pushed along the spokes, away from the hub.


This is not to say that eliminating the hub completely is the ideal we should aim for in our teaching.  The hub has, at least, the minimal role of organizing the learning of the class.  But in a class where both topic skills and knowledge and learning skills and knowledge are being taught, the role of the hub has to be stronger–the hub has to be larger.  The task is finding the correct balance for the particular course.

Which brings me to my current dilemma.  Can a distributed classroom be built well for a three week, 100-level course?  100-level points to the fact that most of the students will not have any built in learning skills, while three week means that there is no time to slowly decrease the importance of the centralized elements of the course.  Yet, I think that giving students the opportunity to practice and learn both topic related skills and general learning skills at once can be fruitful.  But to do this, I need to find a balance between centralized control and decentralized freedom.

So, what should appear on a “centralized” space in a decentralized classroom?  What is the role of this central hub?

Syllabus, Syllabus, Who’s Got the Syllabus?

Most of this week’s readings and videos were uncontroversial to me.  If you look at this site here, you can see an example of how I layout and organize all the content areas of my course including the syllabus, schedule, assignments, examples, and so on (if you’ve looked at my Medical Ethics course, you’ve seen this).  I think of this as the syllabus-view design.  If you look here, you’ll see my current schedule, which for the first time includes direct links to all electronic  assignments.  You can see samples of this in the first two units (Introduction and Metaphysics).  I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that we should always have direct links to whatever content we are referring to.  My “syllabus” is made of multiple content sections, each connecting back to the other.  But that means that any student who wants to review the instructions for an assignment can reach it with one click from any page: first the syllabus, then the “learning packet,” then the example page, then the rubrics.  And so on.

This is perhaps one of the most important design elements of an online syllabus: minimize clicks.  Make something easily and immediately accessible and the students will use it.  No clicks is ideal, one click is good, two clicks is bad, and three clicks is an abomination . . . .

It’s funny to me reading and watching these resources because it made me realize how little training I ever had with Blackboard (my first LMS and my first hate!).  When I worked in Blackboard, I was one of those instructors (as I suspect are all of the instructors in my department) who posted their syllabus as a word doc or pdf in the content area or at best put it in its own content area.  I look back at that now and think “really!?”

Given that I’m going to be teaching more about using Blackboard in the future, it makes sense for me to think about what practices are most effective in that LMS.  A particularly useful source for this is Lisa’s article, Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching.  Blackboard is a fairly clear example of this “insidious pedagogy” because it has a start point that encourages simple content delivery instead of any kind of more interactive course structure.  Here is the announcements section, here is where the course documents go (an amorphous mass of info if I every saw one), here assignments, oh! and here discussions . . . if you feel so inclined.

And this default setup is all the more molding of course design if an instructor is not already trained to deal with setting up and organizing the course.  Imagine the first time you were confronted with a new, complex program . . . or maybe you don’t need to imagine because you are dealing with it now.  These easiest thing to do is take your cues from the program.  “This must be the right way to do it.  Why would they design the program this way if it wasn’t?”  But, of course, this isn’t true.  [There are worse offenders than Blackboard out there.  Blackboard has options.  A place like Udemy is primarily built for content delivery only.  That is not the riht model for open/private education.]

Thinking about training beginning instructors, it strikes me that the initial suggestion made in the First Friday “Interactive Syllabus” recording is the best: grouping content and activities by topic–what might might be called a topics-oriented style of design.  The idea of that bar on the left of the Blackboard site suddenly becoming the map to the course is incredibly appealing and visually illustrates the kind of spatial and conceptual thinking that instructors need to shift to when helping students navigate what Ko and Rossen call online “geography.”

I leave you with a strategy that I use with my posted lectures.

Questions to Consider:

  • Have you ever been the “victim” of insidious pedagogy?  When?  How?
  • Which style of course layout do you find more appealing: topic-oriented or syllabus-view?
  • What kinds of successful organization of courses have you seen or used in the past?

Online instruction is better than in-person instruction!

. . . or not.

I remember when the Department of Education’s meta-analysis of studies of in-class room, blended, and online instruction came out in 2009 that this was the general conclusion that was trumpeted.  Since, I wasn’t strongly involved at that point, I didn’t pay much attention.  Now that I am involved (and interested), I’ve gone back and looked at the report.  Which concludes that

When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

Which is good and validates online education, but certainly doesn’t call for the overthrow of the physical classroom.

No, this study is much more interesting for the reasons it finds for the success of online instruction: use of time.  It is not an astonishing conclusion that the more active time students spend on a topic the greater their learning.  But

one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction.

And here is the crux of the matter.  It may be that (at least in some fields and some kinds of classes) an online course is better . . . if it is the only option that is open to the school.  However, the DoE report found that blended learning was the best overall.  And this tells us that in-person and online courses each have strengths that can be combined: the immediate feedback loop of in-person instruction and the expansion of time of online instruction.

Given this, what can we learn about online instruction all by its lonesome? Here are a couple interesting points:

Learning outcomes are not impacted at all by

  1. the medium used for conveying information (e.g. text, video, slides).
  2. learning scripts and scaffolds.  But they do increase the number of questions asked.
  3. class size, if best practices are used.

Learning outcomes are impacted positively by

  1. practices that promote self-reflection, self-management, and self-awareness.
  2. prompts that have students examine both sides of an argument, rather than have them defend one position with evidence.
  3. both instructor-led and collaborative instruction.  Independent study has no correlation with positive outcomes.


Prezi and Planning

I thought I’d try and put some time into learning Prezi.  Here is the result and, coincidentally, my week 4 post.

One aspect I failed to include in the presentation was a discussion of the importance of html. Put simply, I think you really have to have some basic knowledge of html if you are going to work outside a LMS (and it helps even if you are only using an LMS). Sometime’s it is simply easier to know basic HTML than to have to depend on others. For example, I wanted to create a “People” page for my courses. In WordPress, the most obvious solution is to find a plug-in. Unfortunately, the only acceptable one also put all the members of any of the blogs in my network on the “People” page. So, I had to find my own solution. Using a couple of tutorials on php (which unfortunately I’ve just discovered no longer exist, as the domain registration has expired) and basic HTML knowledge, I was able to put this together, which I now use on all my courses.  If I hadn’t had this kind of (let’s be honest) barely competent level of working knowledge, I wouldn’t have been able to put this together.  Now imagine if I really knew HTML and php!

Bundle Update #2

My proper Week 04 post will be coming tomorrow (Prezi is a time sink. Which is why I don’t use it for my classes, but I thought “What the hell!” And Prezi is a time sink), but rule one is don’t post about not posting so . . .

The Google Reader bundle has been updated to add two new blogs–one that slipped through my net initially and another that was just added.  The link at the initial post is updated to reflect that, so I’ll just post the link to that to avoid taking up too much space.

A Question About “Contact”

Many states (mine included) have laws governing the amount of “contact hours” an instructor must have with students, i.e. the required number of combined in-class and office hours.  However, at least here in New York, there are no guidelines for translating this law to apply to online courses.

How should these laws be understood and met in an online context?

Do only face-to-face meetings count?  Are text and video chat the closest equivalent?  What about discussion boards?  Email?  How are we to understand such requirements in the digital age?

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 . . . 

Bundle Update

The Google Reader bundle has been updated to add a new blog and change Lisa’s to a potcert11-only feed.  The link at the initial post is updated to reflect that, so I’ll just post the link to that to avoid taking up too much space.

Comment Subscriptions

If I’m so big on distributed conversations/communities, why don’t I have a “subscribe to comments” option on my posts?

Good point.

Added!  Just use this option from now on.  Subscriptions available for “All” or “Replies to my comments.”

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