Friday, August 29, 2014

Time Saving Tips for Online Teaching (2014)

English: A clock made in Revolutionary France,...
 A clock made in Revolutionary France,
showing the 10-hour metric clock.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We often hear that online learning takes a lot of time for instructors. I have found that it can, but when a course is set up in advance, using the appropriate tools, a lot of time can be saved. A little work and planning in advance can save teachers a lot of time when it will really count. Many of these techniques make for a more engaging experience for the students and make teaching online less stressful for instructors.

Note: this is an update of a post from 2012 that adds tips that teachers have sent in since then. Thanks everyone! Here are some of my favorite time-saving tips. Please add to them through the comments or via email.

1. Create a "Welcome Letter" that not only introduces the instructor and the course but gives detailed instructions on how to access the course and where to get help.

2. Use a "Week Zero" that opens up before your class. Create a module in your online class that is always open that tells students how to use the online tools for your course. This module would be a good place for links to online student services that may be available to your studnets.

3. Create a comprehensive syllabus.  Use the syllabus to let students know how to find tech support, tutoring, and a librarian. If your college does not provide online tutoring for students, be sure to check out OpenStudy which provides free, facilitated, online peer tutoring.

4. Use a syllabus quiz. Creating a quiz or syllabus scavenger hunt will help students understand how your course is organized and where to find help. I found this to be even more effective if it were worth a few points.

5. Make your course easy to navigate. Keep as much content as you can no more than two clicks away. Use a consistent format week-to-week or module-to-module. Remove buttons or tools you are not using.

6. Schedule your time. Do not work on your online course because you can; work on it because you have scheduled the time. Let the students know your schedule. Access your course consistently (e.g. three times a week) and respond to email promptly (with-in 48 hours).

7. Be strict about forms of communication. If you give students multiple email and messaging accounts to contact you, be prepared for students to use them. Some instructors do not receive class related email but take course related questions only through the learning management system. Some will only use email. Some only take assignments in drop box. Make sure you are clear about how you want to be contacted.

8. Automate your course as much as possible. Take advantage of the time-release feature of announcements and other content in the tools that you are using like your learning management system. Record and reuse lectures. Let online tools handle as much of the grading as you can.

9. Distributing and exchanging documents. Use the assignment feature of your LMS instead of e-mail. Encourage students to share documents using Google Docs or Dropbox.

10. Centralize question and answers. Use a discussion forum for “Frequently Asked Questions.” Create a FAQ page. Ask students to ask questions in the forum rather than e-mail so everyone benefits from the answer.

11. Use online groups with a deliverable. Let the students do the work. Do not respond to every posting, respond to the group deliverable.

12. Use a "common responses" file to quickly paste in answers to common questions. This file can be a Google Docs file that you can open on any computer.

13. Allow students to facilitate online discussions. Giving students an opportunity to discuss what they have learned in their own voice can really help students learn.

14. Use a detailed grading rubric to help answer questions in advance.  Teachers can create rubrics online using tools like RubiStar.

15. Encourage student-student interaction and study groups. Give them the space to solve problems.

16. Communicate to the entire class regularly. Use audio and/or video each week. Try to anticipate problems or sticking points in a class and record a video to address these issues. We like to suggest tools like Screencast-o-Matic. A YouTube account is also very handy.

17. Save a tree. If you are still printing out papers, learn to use the "Insert comments" feature in your word processor. Downloading papers, printing, then scanning and re-uploading is an enormous time sink. Find out if your college uses "TurnItIn" or some other such service with quick grading tools for documents. If you have not learned how to do this, it will make a huge difference. (And yes, we still have teachers doing this.)


What about you? How do you streamline your online teaching process? Leave a comment below if you have any time saving tips.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Open Textbooks at Humboldt State University

English: The Jolly Giant Commons while briefly...
The Jolly Giant Commons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I presented the other day at Humboldt State University's conference "Institute for Student Success." I was really pleased that the organizers seem to recognize economic barriers to education as a factor in student success. I am also very excited about some of the work already in progress here at HSU with open textbooks. Last year, I worked with Chris Callahan, one of our Biology instructors, to put his BIOL 102L online - human biology with a lab. The course used chapters from two open textbooks, numerous videos from Kahn Academy and elsewhere. The labs combined some simulations from Smart Science as well as a collection of experiments that the students could do in their own home. One of the requirements of the lab report had the students take pictures of themselves actually doing the experiments. It is amazing what some of these students could accomplish with a hotplate or a microwave in their dorm rooms!

One of my goals with this presentation was to find other faculty who might be interested in open textbooks or who may already be working with OERs and open textbooks: I was not disappointed.

Laura Hahn and Scott Payton of HSU, and Lance Lippert of Illinois State University have written a textbook in Wikibooks called "Survey of Communication Study." The text is for the capstone course for the BA and the interesting part is that the capstone includes having the students edit and update the textbook. As an instructional designer, I am always interested in new models of open textbook creation and I think this is very innovative. It has the potential of combining open textbook authoring with portfolio assessment. This is a great answer to the question "who is going to maintain and update an open book once it is published?" This turns the "textbook" into a living community of scholarship rather than a static object of consumption.

There are other projects here that I will be writing about later so watch this space! Good things are happening at Humboldt State.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

Death of the Book Redux

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein (from Wikipedia) 
I don't know if this is related to climate change or the polar vortex, but the yearly declaration that the book is dead or dying is early this year. Naomi S. Baron, in her article "How E-Reading Threatens the Humanities" is the latest. Never mind the fact that with every new change in technology, there is resistance to the change. Socrates was suspicious of writing itself because it took away from relying on memory. Writers like Sven Birkerts have been writing wistful epitaphs on books and culture for years, if you are not familiar with him, his book "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age" might be hard to find now in paperback but it is available in a Kindle edition.  The article is filled with anecdotal evidence from experiences with her students and she asks:

Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days? More fundamentally, are they studying the humanities, which are based on long-form reading?

As a former English teacher, I would say that is not their job but ours as teachers. It is our job to show them why Milton, Thucydides or Wittgenstein are relevant. The humanities have always been in crisis because most students expect to get training in college that will allow them to get work afterwords. It is our job as instructors to show them that despite that goal, everything they learn in humanities courses will only help them later.

When I first entered college in the 80s, I read about the death of the book, the death of the humanities, and read articles about the importance of a liberal arts education. This is probably just the nature of journals like the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but you rarely see articles like this from state or community colleges. They always seem to come from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League where instructors can afford the luxury of sitting in big libraries reading old leather bound books. What these instructors are really afraid of is the change in the technology. The technology makes paying hundreds of dollars for a text irrelevant and wasteful. There are too many new ways to deeply engage in an online text. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in this read Innovating Pedagogy 2012, the first article is called "New pedagogy for e-books." There are a number of tools that allow for commenting, highlighting, and discussing texts. I would especially include here:

  • NB from the Haystack Group at MIT's CSAIL. This site allows instructors to upload PDFs and then students can bookmark, highlight, add comments, and discuss the text with the class.
  • Diigo allows students to bookmark, highlight and comment on online texts and then share those bookmarks.
  • Bounce - Students or teachers can select regions of a webpage, annotate, and share the URL of the annotated page with others, who may also comment.
  • Google Docs - Any text can be uploaded to Google Docs and shared with a class that can highlight and comment on that text.
  • And just about any wiki like wikispaces.com are good collaborative spaces to share and comment on texts. 
There is something exciting about holding a device in my hands that is connected to the largest library in the world. I can thoughtfully read on an iPad because I can annotate a text, bookmark, connect with others who are reading the text and if the author is alive, I can even send an email.

I see both sides of the argument - we do lose something whenever new technology is introduced. But sometimes we gain things as well. Every shift in communication technology has led to some kind of disruption, but also a benefit. We should learn from that history: moveable type got rid of scribes but eventually lowered the cost of books. One of the many ironies about all of this is that I know more people reading the classics right now because they are free downloads via Kindle, Google Books, Gutenberg, and the University of Pennsylvania's Online Books page.

We have a Biology teacher here who used an online, open textbook (openly licensed via Creative Commons) for his online and face-to-face Biology courses. Our survey tells us that these students felt that there was no difference between their experiences with the etext than with a commercial hardcopy except commercial text was too expensive!

It is up to instructors to work out how best to use this technology. There is a right way and a wrong way. Instructors should be asking questions about how best to leverage the technology into new opportunities for teaching and learning. There are a lot of tools here to harness towards the end of making the humanities engaging. Where Baron sees distractions, I see opportunities for engagement and deep learning. What Baron is really saying is that the old methods of teaching do not work in the connected age; I am not sure why that is news.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Why Connectivism is a Learning Theory

Domains of major fields of physics
Domains of major fields of physics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
David Wiley recently made a comment on his blog, in response to a very succinct posting by Stephen Downes, that the learning theory Connectivism, though he is sympathetic to it, was incomplete. I am not sure what to make of that. I understand David's point that terms need to be carefully defined. A solid theory needs operationally defined key terms. But I am not sure that Connectivism is really incomplete. There are a lot of great theories out there that work well and are very useful but are not "complete" in every sense. Einstein thought that his theories of relativity would lead to a Universal Field theory and because his work does not account sufficiently for quantum mechanics, in that sense his theory is incomplete. But it is still quite useful and irreplaceable in many fields of study and in practical application.

When Einstein first published his theory it had to go through years of refinement and testing. That is the process. There are still things being worked out with Darwin's Theory of Evolution but the days of wondering if it is valid are long behind us. It has been proven, observed, and tested. There are still evolutionary mechanisms to be worked out and the history of evolution will take more field work.

Looking at the history of theories, I am beginning to think that the discipline a given theory arises from is often the one least capable of evaluating it. But that is where all of the experimental and observational evidence is going to come from. Most of the criticisms I have read of Connectivism boil down to the new theory is not like the old theories. A theory is meant to provide a conceptual framework for viewing and understanding phenomena. As an instructional designer, I have a purely practical approach. I am only interested in a theory's usefulness, but for me, a theory must
  • account for current theories (either through refutation or inclusion)? A theory shouldn't just account for a given phenomena, it should do so in some measurably better way (more complete, elegant, etc.).
  • sufficiently explain where we are now.
  • make predictions. Any theory that can't predict anything is basically a conjecture at best.
  • be subject to testing. Here I would emphasize that the theory should change what we do based on experiment and empirical data.  
In my experience, Connectivism has met those four conditions. Those shouldn't be the only ones but as an instructional designer, the theory accounts for current issues in my work in ways that other theories do not. 
Stephen Downes speaking at D2L09.One of the problems of learning theory is that it is usually an interpretation of learning based on a psychological school of thought, sociology, or philosophy. It would be difficult for learning theory not to come from those disciplines, but learning theory seems to get stuck because while the derivative disciplines may have moved on, the learning theory often does not because educators are not participating or doing research in the parent disciplines.

New theories come about when the current theories no longer account for new information or phenomena. This is what made Connectivism particularly important to my work. The theory was created by Stephen Downed and George Siemens (Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age) at the same time that networks and social media were impacting education in some profound ways. Some of the phenomena that Connectivism accounts for are phenomena that many educators fight against: online classes, social media,  MOOCs, student-driven learning, etc. Connectivism for these instructors will never be a valid theory because they will never be comfortable with some of the implications of the theory: it would represent a profound change in their world view that they are not ready to accept. Connectivism is a learning theory because it accounts for the changes we are seeing in our society and in education in ways that the older theories cannot. Even social constructivists have a hard time wrapping their minds around social networks.

With that said, I am no ideologue either. I have my own bones to pick with Connectivism. It is still unclear to me how learning "may reside in a non-human appliance." It should either be the case or not. My definition of learning requires someone to actually do the learning. I see non-human appliances storing information, processing information, even mimicking pattern-making (chess computers). I don't understand how learning resides there. That is my "why a duck?" moment with the theory. It also feels like a left over principle from another theory that is not necessary for Connectivism to be a strong theory on its own.

But Connectivism is not just an explanatory or descriptive theory. As an instructional designer, I can use it to help analyze the success and failure of a particular course. So how would I test it? There are a number of ways. First, we build a course design rubric based on the tenets of Connectivism, and compare the success and retention rates, and course satisfaction (for students and teachers). Second, we repeat the experiment, and share the finding so others can reproduce the results.

The jury is still out for Connectivism. This is as it should be! The jury should always be out for all theories if we are going to engage in the scientific method and reason together. 
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Connectivism - The First 2000 Years

English: picture of 18th century english Tatle...
I would like to highly recommend a book I am currently reading to educators interested in Connectivism. It is called Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2000 Thousand Years by Tom Standage, the digital editor at the Economist. The point of the book is that social media is not a new phenomena but it is something that we have been engaging in for millennia and that it is part of being human. The book is interesting, well-researched and brings pieces of history that have been floating freely in your head together in some unusual and useful ways. He ties how we used to communicate with everything from cuneiform tablets, pottery shards and graffiti together with Twitter, email and Facebook. Some of those themes are discussed were discussed here in postings about the Silk Road as a network, The Republic of Letters, and other postings. I have also written here about Connectivism being "nothing new" and, for me, that is a great compliment to a theory - it means that we can use the theory not only to account for where we are now and where we are going, but also use it to analyze where we have been.

How this vision informs instructional design is that we recognize the social dimension of learning and how learning experiences happen in networks. Instructional design and teaching is the facilitation of these networks. The one-way delivery of information is a one sided "conversation" that has some use. I can gather information through reading a book or hearing a lecture, but I learn when I discuss it, through writing, talking, meeting others (in whatever medium) and make connections.
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Monday, April 21, 2014

Scientific Discovery and the Creative Commons

Tim Spuck's students discuss their search for ...
Tim Spuck's students discuss their search for T Tauri stars with renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Astronomical Society conference in January 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a recent episode of Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke of the dissemination of scientific ideas and publishing as part of the scientific method: "Science requires openness to flourish: our understanding of nature belongs to the world." Ironically, in the same week, I visited our university library to discuss how the College of eLearning and Extended Ed could support their work and one of the librarians told me that they had to drop the journal Nature because it is too expensive. For our little institution it would be over 10k a year for the basic journal - forget about specialty journals. The old model of publishing hampers scientific progress! It certainly limits the examination and testing of ideas to only the colleges that can afford those particular journals. What happens to us if the genius that will cure cancer can only afford a state college? Or is in another country? How much do we lose when the responses, counter-arguments, and reproduction of experiments can only come from a particularly privileged perspective? We all benefit from diverse points for view, including the original investigators. Yes, I would like it if some alumni were able to pool their resources and get us a subscription to Nature and its associated journals. But I would like it even more if more journals followed a Creative Commons model and opened research up to everyone. I loved what the Creative Commons website has to say about this:
The more we understand about science and its complexities, the more important it is for scientific data to be shared openly. It’s not useful to have ten different labs doing the same research and not sharing their results; likewise, we’re much more likely to be able to pinpoint diseases if we have genomic data from a large pool of individuals. Since 2004, we’ve been focusing our efforts to expand the use of Creative Commons licenses to scientific and technical research. (Emphasis my own.)
There are new models of scientific publishing that include openness. Even Nature is taking advantage of open licenses in a limited way.

Another exciting development is the Directory of Open Access Journals which searches 5,622 journals at the full-text article level.

Everyone benefits from open access to data and information. Lets serve the research, not the business models. As the Berlin Declaration on Open Access puts it open access scientific literature should be publicly available, free of charge, and on the Internet "so that those who are interested can read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, refer to and, in any other conceivable legal way, use full texts without encountering any financial, legal or technical barriers other than those associated with Internet access itself."
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Friday, April 11, 2014

Connectivism, Neuroscience, and Education

English: Human brain.
I have never been comfortable with proclamations by educators or scientists (and yes, there is a difference) about how the brain works. The logical fallacy goes something like this: "we have isolated a mechanism in the brain, learning takes place in the brain; therefore, we now know how learning works." Whenever a psychologist says something smug like "the brain doesn't work that way" (around 1:21), I want to pull my hair out. The latest theories about how the brain supposedly works also include huge gaps in our understanding of how the brain supposedly works and plenty of lines of research that may one day soon give us a more complete picture of how the brain supposedly works. The idea is that if we know how the brain is supposed to work, then we will somehow know how we learn. There are so many layers here though that it seems to be an impossible task. First, it assumes a purely mechanistic view of the mind and learning. Not that we have to get metaphysical, but this could be something that is so complicated that thinking of the mind as a flow chart or a network may not even scratch the surface of what is really happening. When educators talk about what neuroscience has to say about learning, we have to remember that neuroscientists aren't even sure what neuroscience has to say about neuroscience. It is a difficult field because each year brings in a new raft of technologies that reveals more and more about the physical properties, chemical reactions, and neural connections in the brain. But I think there is some promising work in neuroscience that we should be keeping an eye on as educators. One of the more interesting lines of research includes the mathematical models around "deep learning." I think this is finally getting at the complexity necessary to account for the complexity of thinking, language, and learning.

Deutsch: Phrenologie
I think there are some promising avenues of discovery in the work of Gary Marcus that could one day help address how we learn. Gary Marcus describes deep learning this way: "Instead of linear logic, deep learning is based on theories of how the human brain works. The program is made of tangled layers of interconnected nodes. It learns by rearranging connections between nodes after each new experience." In other words, the brain is not seen as a series of connected flowcharts but as intersecting nets of connections that create patterns.

Additionally, Geoffrey Hinton describes the brain as a holograph. Daniela Hernandez writes about Hinton in Wired saying that "Hinton was fascinated by the idea that the brain stores memories in much the same way. Rather than keeping them in a single location, it spreads them across its enormous network of neurons."What I like about Hinton is that he says that his work involves creating computer models of intelligence and he seems to avoid the heavy handed proclamations of discovering how learning works. His work discusses "machine learning" which is an entirely different concept. I think it is very important to remember that we are talking about models and not "how the brain works." The networks involved in learning are even more complex than his model because our layers include language, behavior, culture, society, etc. Never mind the chemical and quantum connections in the brain. It is just possible that one day Hinton's work can speak to the complexity of the interplay of all of those networks and their seemingly infinite interrelations.

How does this shape my practice as an educator? I teach workshops on concept mapping and have used concept mapping in my classes, not because I feel that they somehow mimic the way the brain learns but because it is an engaging learning and teaching method that provides opportunities to utilize visual and kinesthetic learning modalities as well as using critical analysis. In other words, it is a method of teaching and learning that engages multiple ways of knowing. And it may also be a good metaphor for how learning may occour in networks, including neural networks. I have seen this discussion around the learning theory, Connectivism. I think we could go into any learning theory and use it, somewhat clumsily, as a way to discuss how learning arises out of the formation and interplay of network, but fortunately George Seimens and Stephen Downes have done a better job with their work around Connectivism.
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