Lessons from an Online Summer Course (It’s All in the Details #6-#16)

This is part of a series of posts on what I learned from teaching an online summer course for the first time.  (See the first post for context.)  

These lessons–in no particular order–are about medium-to-small issues that can make a difference.  Everything but the kitchen sink is included here and most are extremely brief.  I may well take up some of these points in their own posts in the future.

#6 Learn By Doing (Student Edition)

Teaching online gave me the opportunity to revisit my goals in an intro course.  What am I trying to accomplish?  What are my primary learning goals?  When faculty ask themselves such questions, we often focus on content; the “things” that we want students to know.  We often think in terms of “covering” material and too often plan assignments and assessments around what students can recall of that content.  But the biggest takeaways from from this sort of course are not the minutia that are easily assessed (and easily graded) on multiple choice quizzes.  Instead, I usually want students to use information in some way–to think critically, to construct arguments, to communicate effectively. For this course, I tried to put more emphasis on what I wanted students to be able to do.

It seemed to me that the best way to cultivate the ability to “see” sociologically was through practice, so course assignments were geared towards simple application of sociological concepts in brief writing assignments that involved analyzing aspects of social life (self, education, pop culture, news, etc.) from outside the course.  I went cold turkey with no quizzing at all in this course…but not without a cost (see #7).

#7  Keep What Works

I’m a believer in the general principle of “all things in moderation” and the classroom is no exception.  I violated that to a degree by dropping any quizzing in this course.  It wasn’t a big deal and the course got along okay without it but I’d probably reintroduce some quizzes in the future.  There are two reasons for this.  First, quizzing about readings helps ensure that students do them, plain and simple. Doing readings is not the goal but a prerequisite for doing the work that matters.  When juggling competing demands on their time, students make strategic decisions and leaving readings up to their discretion can mean they don’t get done as completely as is needed.  Second, good quizzing gives students useful feedback.  In the end of the semester evaluation, two students asked for quizzing precisely for this reason, noting that quizzes help them to check their level of understanding of the material. In the past, I’ve worked automated quizzing into the course, allowing students to re-take the quiz a second time as learning experience.  I’ll probably return to this practice in some modest form next time around.

One area where I did stick to my moderation principle was in keeping my textbook.  I’ve written the textbook I use in this course, which makes it a bit absurd for me not to use it.1  The book gives me a framework for the class, telling a coherent “story” across a variety of topics, and provides some useful additional background material for students.  Just because you’re online on an open platform, doesn’t mean you can’t work in more traditional resources if useful.

#8 Think carefully about workflow and feedback.  Teaching online creates some unique workflows and using student blogs adds to the issue.  Where will student blog posts aggregate?  How will students see and access each other’s work?  How do you want to access their blogs?  How will you–and other students–comment on posts? How much of this will be visible?  Do you want to be able to search by author?  By word?  Thinking through these details will influence how you set-up your course site, as well as the instructions you give students.  It is imperative that you take your site for a trial run in advance of the course and work out any issues that arise as you use it.  You don’t want to be figuring this out as students are trying to use it live.

#9 Stay Flexible

While preparation is important, stuff happens in a course and it’s always important to stay flexible, changing things up on the fly as needed.  For example, unexpectedly, this course turned out to have a large number of seniors in it–some of whom had already walked in the Spring graduation and were simply getting their last 3 credits.  (I learned that this was prompted partly by the addition of sociology  to the MCAT exam; pre-med students realized they probably should take a sociology course to prepare.)  This made some activities I’d planned for first- and second-year students irrelevant.  For example, I had planned on inviting colleagues from sociology to drop in to the course at various points to talk a bit about their areas of interest and the more advanced courses they taught.  This was aimed at introducing students to other faculty and hopefully get some to consider majoring in the field.  With 25 seniors in class, that was irrelevant, so I dropped this plan.

#10 Teach about learning.  Because I was experimenting with new things in this course, I decided to start the course with a brief module on education.  I was also much more explicit than usual in explaining why I was doing various things, including assigning group work.  This ended up being a very useful addition to the course.  A number of students commented on various aspects of it, including never having thought about why they were being asked to do group work. Discussing this up front set up the opportunity for some meta-analyses later in the course.

#11  Digital Natives Still Must Be Socialized.  The notion of “digital natives” typically suggests that merely because they were born into a culture infused with new media, students have some automatic affinity for digital media.  But as any sociologist knows, culture–by definition–must be taught and it’s quickly apparent to anyone teaching with technology that many–perhaps most–students are not very adept in using technology.  I think we vastly overestimate how proficient students are at figuring our how to work with digital media.  Basic media literacies is an area where higher education appears to be failing terribly.  I’m glad I anticipated this an allowed time in the first week or two for students to acclimate to the new technology-based demands.

#12 Encourage ownership of a blog.  I was struck by how many students immediately treated a blog as only a course assignment, rather than their digital space.  The most obvious sign of this was the number of students who titled their blog some variation of the course name, rather than a unique name.  Next time, I’ll more actively explain their ownership of this space and encourage them to personalize it.

#13 Faces Matter. Simple student avatars, typically head shots, in the discussion forum were very helpful to me.  I suspect neuroscientists could explain what’s going on here, but having a face to connect to a name and a series of posts made it feel more “real” and immediate than just a name without an avatar.  Avatars that were not pictures of students were not as helpful.  There are privacy issues to consider but I’m thinking of making a unique avatar–preferably a head shot–a requirement in future classes.

#14 Harness peer feedback.  The volume of blogging can be very time-consuming to read and comment upon.  Next time around, one of my agenda items is to explore how to use peer feedback.  If done well, not only is such feedback a valuable process for both the person giving and receiving the feedback but it enables the instructor to focus on other issues.  It’s an element I didn’t incorporate well this first time out.

#15 Watch your tagging.  If you assign tags for students to use for their blog post assignments, make sure they are unique enough to not get mixed in with other RSS feeds you might be aggregating.  For example, I made a mistake by asking students to use the tag “culture” for an assignment. That’s way too broad and posts from sociology blogs I was also feeding to the website that were tagged with “culture” got mixed in.

#16 Scale matters…a lot!  Reading and commenting on written work is very time-consuming, regardless of the medium by which is is delivered. Forty-two students with two or three written assignments a week (due to the compressed time frame of a summer course) resulted in a fire-hose of content for me to deal with.  Realistically, for this model of course structure to be adopted by regular full-time teaching faculty without TAs, there needs to be some modifications made to keep the experience from being overwhelming.  Using peer assessment and reducing the number of blog assignments are among some of the possible options.


So those are some of the notes I made to myself as I moved through my first online course.  I appreciated the opportunity to teach this class. I have a much better feel for the sorts of issues that arise in this context, as well as an appreciation for the potential of online courses.  If you’re considering an online class, I’ll end where I began, by encouraging you to jump in and learn by doing.

  1. I don’t want to profit from the assignment of my own text, so I always estimate the royalties I’d earn from the class and write a check to a local charity for that amount. []

Lessons from an Online Summer Course (The “Big Picture” #4-#5)

This is part of a series of posts on what I learned from teaching an online summer course for the first time.  (See the first post for context.)  

This pair of lessons deals with “big picture” issues regarding online learning, namely what you can and can’t do online.

Lesson #4: There Are Things You Can’t Do Online

Let’s get this out of the way: asynchronous online courses are not the equivalent of face-to-face classes.  In particular, I’ve never seen really robust discussions taking place in such courses.  I’m referring to the dynamic give-and-take of a great classroom discussion that is partially planned, partially spontaneous.  I’m thinking of the sort of discussion that goes places you had not anticipated and yet circles back around to where you started and creates a memorable learning experience.  Those discussions leave you feeling great about teaching and have students continuing the exchange in the hall after class. Those social experiences are the height of face-to-face classes and their unique sense of in-the-moment engagement doesn’t reproduce in online discussions.

I experimented a bit with discussions, using a discussion forum and posing some fairly open-ended prompts.  I’m sure the prompts could have been stronger (something I’d like to learn more about) but the experience seemed to confirm what I’d suspected: The online environment enables serial comments and feedback but those are different beasts than a dynamic discussion.  If a class with great face-to-face discussions is like a fast-paced basketball game with the ball moving quickly from player to player, an asynchronous online course discussion is more like a game of correspondence chess.  It’s fast-paced, fluid, sustained, spontaneity versus slow, irregular–and often awkward–fits and starts.

But let’s be real; great, participatory discussions don’t happen that often in face-to-face classes, either.  They’re so memorable because they’re so rare.  In large lecture halls, they never happen.  There, even good discussions end up involving only a small percentage of the students.  Most students watch.  “Clickers” and variations on “think/pair/share” exercises help keep students engaged in these large environments but these pale in comparison to a vibrant class discussion.  So let’s fess up: as I learned, there are some things you can do in a smaller classroom that you can’t do online…or in a big lecture hall.

Less predictably, I also learned that truly collaborative group work online is very difficult and something I may not try again. That’s a big deal for me.  I’ve long used small learning groups in most of my face-to-face classes and have found them to be a valuable pedagogical strategy.  I assign students to groups of 5 or 6 students for the entire semester and ask them to complete in-class exercises and outside projects of growing complexity as the semester progresses.  Students resist at first (who likes group work?) but learn to appreciate and rely upon their group over time.  They only work outside of class after having met together a number of times in-class.  They start to bond as a group and develop a sense of mutual obligation that helps mitigate the “free rider” problem.

Online–and especially in a brief 8-week courses–there wasn’t time for students to develop a good group dynamic. The short course period may be a confounding variable here but students reported being frustrated by trying to communicate asynchronously with other group members to work on group projects, a problem that would likely persist even in a longer course.  The asynchronous nature of the interaction made it tedious and slow-moving; not good for getting group work done efficiently.  Varied work and class schedules in busy lives seemed to make synchronous online communication in small groups untenable–though that is something I believe is worth exploring more.  As I note below, asynchronous online communication is great for connecting students to comment, provide feedback, and foster mutual support.  But, in the span of a course, I don’t see an easy way to have truly collaborative projects online (not merely splitting up portions of a single project into smaller parts).

Some folks see such limitations in online courses and conclude: Face-to-face = good;  online = bad.  But that’s too facile and it misses the fact that plenty of face-to-face classes are bad and that online classes can be good.  But they are not the equivalent of face-to-face classes.  Nor should they be.  Which brings me to…

Lesson #5: There are Things You Can Only Do Online

This vast topic is way beyond the scope of this post but I’ll make a few comments with a couple of modest examples.  (This is part of a much larger discussion about “connected learning,” among other things.)

a. Connect to Outside Content.

Back in the late 1990s, I’d started putting course material on a crude website I’d created, with links to outside resources.  In a social movements class, for example, we studied some historical movements and then I’d have students visit the web sites of some contemporary social movement organizations to analyze their apparent message, audience, tactics, and so on.  In a media class, we looked at the web sites of news organizations, comparing and contrasting story choices, sourcing, and framing issues.  Connecting to outside, live, content helped to illustrate how course concepts were useful in analyzing contemporary “real-world” events and issues.

Two decades later, this ability to connect to a universe of content is one of things that still makes the Internet so valuable for teaching.  Except that now the content has grown exponentially in quantity, variety, and type, and the ways to connect to it have expanded as well.

The Internet is a cornucopia of useful information and examples in text, audio, image, and video formats.  With minimal effort, an instructor can find interesting readings and examples relevant to any course topic and link to it  It’s one way to connect outward from a class.  I certainly did that in this course, linking to news accounts and pop culture examples to show connections.  In a more advanced class I could easily link to Census Bureau or GSS data, Pew surveys, and more.

Or, as I did here, you can simply set up a stream of relevant blogs (or a Twitter feed) that will deliver fresh content.  That’s especially useful in a field like sociology where current events lend themselves to quick commentary and analysis.  By vetting some trusted blogs you can show your students how people in your field think and work.  I could easily see building an assignment around monitoring the blog stream and picking some content to critique, praise, or analyze.  Even though I had no assignments pegged to this stream, several students used material from these blog posts in their own posts.

Back in the day, I did all the searching and connecting.  Now, students can also bring Internet-based content to class, while also creating their own content.  Student blogs create a space for them to work, including a way to link, comment on, and analyze outside content, making both that content and their analyses available to the class (and anyone with the URL).  Course web sites can serve as a “mother blog,” using the FeedWordPress plug-in to aggregate the content produced by students.  Students get to see and potentially comment on the work being created by their colleagues.  I tread very lightly this first time out, encouraging but not requiring commenting, with mixed results.  There wasn’t a lot of commenting but often students would mention another student’s blog post, so clearly some of them were reading each other’s work.

I also experimented with a prototype using a Gravity form (a WordPress plug-in) built by my colleague, Tom Woodward, to create what I called the “Imagination Gallery.” This first time out, I limited myself to running a test of this approach but I will definitely expand its use in future iterations of this course.   It produces a nice archive of material that can travel from course offering to course offering (and the sort feature creates some nice eye candy, too!).

Finally, I used these linking capacities to have students contribute to the course site itself.  Early on, I asked students to find and link to a picture they felt represented some aspect of course content and write a brief comment on their choice.  Some were predictable but others, including a photo of Rosalind Franklin (“the mother of DNA”) would have never occurred to me.  I then chose a number of these to load into the banner feature of the WordPress theme I was using, thereby randomly generating a new banner photo from the images they’d collected each time a page loaded.  I thought it would be a nice little symbolic way to signal their ownership of the course.  In retrospect, it also symbolizes the connections between the course, students, and broader Internet-based resources.

b. Post Your Own Content

The popularity of the flipped classroom model has raised awareness of the value of posting mini-lectures and other instructor-generated content online for students to access outside of class.  This obviously applies to online courses as well and I won’t dwell on this point.  I experimented with producing a few simple, low-tech videos (using Camtasia), posted to YouTube.  Students could use these–or not–as they wanted.  Unlike a live lecture, the ability to pause, replay, or skip portions of the videos puts students in control of this content’s use.  Some videos were lecture-like, summarizing key points or demonstrating some ideas.  But I also experimented with an introduction to the sociological perspective using the example of coffee and a simple video suggesting different models of education.  All of these seemed to be well received; a number of students mentioned them in the course evaluation and requested that I include more such videos.

Instructor-generated content need not be limited to videos.  I’d certainly like to experiment with other formats in the future.

c. Connect Students to Each Other

The biggest drawback of online courses is the potential for an impersonal experience that leaves students feeling isolated and unsupported.  Many online courses do just that.  A part of the goal in enlisting technology for this class was to use it to enable students to connect to each other.  Just because face-to-face style discussions don’t seem to work online, doesn’t mean that other types of communication can’t thrive.

I used a light touch on promoting student interaction.  I had a single assignment asking them to comment on other blogs just to make sure they knew how to do this and to show the possibility.  After that, though, I didn’t make this a requirement.  I also had students assigned to small groups, required self-introductions, and assigned a couple of group exercises.

I learned that using various platforms can enable much more communication among students than is possible in a face-to-face class.  Early in the course we were studying “culture” and I realized that we had some aspects of an organizational culture developing in our class.  I asked students to post about this.  Among the responses, were comments about student interaction:

  • “My first online course was an economics course. It was entirely based on readings and testing on those readings. Pretty straightforward, dull, and boring. However, this class allows room for engaging with other students, through group work and discussion forums. In my opinion this is what all online classes should do.” (Salma Omer)
  • “I have never experienced a class like this before . … this course has forced me to interact with students more than I have in my other classes. We are all interacting and staying connected daily through reading each other’s blogs/discussions and interacting with group members.” (Ashley Cimino)
  • “This class has been more interactive. At first, the idea of setting up a twitter account and posting profile pictures/avatars was not my favorite. At that time, I just wanted to complete my readings and post my assignments. But I see how these things enhance our learning experience even if it is done completely online. Many of my previous online learning experiences have been […] just posted syllabus, post your discussion, take test….that’s it. But we see that online classes are not created equal and in this case only, inequality is fine.” (Bryan Smith)
  • “I definitely enjoy this new style of learning. I think that this online course is different from the rest of my online classes because instead of just working on writing on my own I have to collaborate with other people in my group as well. It is a learning experience that teaches you how to better interact with others through the online world.” (Daniella Chinsammy)

One student summarized it more eloquently than I could have:

  • “There is something really fascinating about this culture of Sociology 101 that we are building here: by connecting on so many different platforms, so often, and by having many identifiers (avatars, little Twitter bios, etc) I am learning more about my fellows much faster than I would in a classroom environment. As an English major, my classes are largely discussion-based, so I am used to hearing from classmates regularly—but still not THIS regularly, and not quite this personally. Even if ‘online anonymity’ is dead in Socy101 due to all the aforementioned ways of connecting, there still is freedom behind a screen that helps people open up. Also, online culture, particularly in a class setting, it seems, promotes clarity of thought and intention that can be lacking in a classroom where you have no time to really formulate your reply and make it as concise and clear as possible. (Laura Seabourne)

So while the lack of synchronous spontaneity can be viewed as shortcoming of online learning, it can also be understood as an advantage, creating new opportunities for communication that are actually more personal and perhaps more thoughtful than in-class discussions.

These features applied to me as well.  I’m able to craft comments a bit more deliberately when I write them than I can in a spontaneous face-to-face discussion.  And in one of my favorite features of the course, I learned an enormous amount about students as people through their blog and discussion posts. I often learned about students’ hometowns or home countries, their hobbies, their studies in school, their hopes for a career, their anxieties and frustrations about education.  I even had some personal e-mail exchanges on completely non-course topics raised by their blogs, such as an interest in running a student and I shared.

So online learning is not the equivalent of a face-to-face class and it shouldn’t be thought of as such.  But it also offers unique opportunities that are we’re only beginning to explore.

Through all of this, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the appeal of “hybrid” or “blended” courses.  Where feasible, why not take advantage of the best of both worlds?  Why not build-in dynamic social interactions in face-to-face settings through smaller group exercises, while simultaneously taking advantage of the unique features of the Internet?  Why not pull down the fences that separate face-to-face and online?

Next: Some “small” detailed takeaways that can matter.


Lessons from an Online Summer Course (#1-#3)

This is part of a series of posts on what I learned from teaching an online summer course for the first time.  (See the first post for context.)  With just one course under my belt, my takeaway lessons are tentative, of course, and will be familiar to experienced online teachers.  Still, perhaps they can be of some use to other first-time teachers.

This first group of three lessons focuses on the challenges of technology.

Lesson #1. Learn By Doing

There’s no way to really get a feel for teaching online until you do it.  I tried to be as prepared as I could in advance of this course.  I talked with people who were more experienced. I read a bit.  I played around with some ideas.  But in the end, it was only through the process of doing it that I really began learning about teaching online.

By doing my course, I learned more about what worked and what didn’t for me.  I identified some of the details of technology that I needed to learn–and the many parts I didn’t need to bother with.  I realized things I’d want to do next time around, as well as things I’d drop after having tried them.  I learned that I over-thought some issues and neglected to anticipate others.  (Along the way I was reminded of the wisdom of epistemological pragmatism.)

Yes, we can and should prepare well.  But we learn by doing.  Jump in; get started.  Perhaps start small to better manage the messiness but just start.

Lesson #2: Teacher, Teach Thyself, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying Even Though I Still Don’t Love the Technology

Teaching online for the first time means dealing with the technology that enables you to do so. Ed-tech enthusiasts can tell you about the wonders of this technology…and they’re right to a degree.  But the immediate experience as a first-time teacher is that learning and working with this tech is a time-consuming pain.  Period.  I’m not surprised that many faculty shy away from it entirely.

To me, ed-tech is a lot like my car.  I value being able to get from one place to another and sometimes I even enjoy the journey along the way.  But I’ve never been a car guy and I have no interest in ever being one.  I want to use the technology for my purposes, not learn the details of how it works.  In some ways, I think that’s what distinguishes most faculty from many ed-tech folks.  The latter are interested in the tech itself; what it can do and how it might be adapted for learning.  They get their hands greasy messing around under the hood.  Faculty want their cars to work when they turn the key. End of story.

I’m no different.  I’m not a Luddite by any means but my first instinct is not right-click “view page source” to figure out how someone created something. But working on this course reminded me of the importance of stretching and teaching myself new things, however modest. If we are to innovate, we need to have some understanding of the capacities of the tools with which we work.

I had the luxury of great support if I needed it but I tried as much as I could to answer my own questions, many of which eventually could be answered by Googling a topic or searching in the extensive WordPress Codex or support pages for help.  Instead of asking them, I started keeping a file of running questions and would try to answer them myself when I had a chance.

All of this was a great reminder that learning new things outside of our areas of comfort and expertise is not always easy.  We ask students to do this all the time and we can get exasperated when they ask questions they should be able to answer for themselves.  Yet, I caught myself wanting to do the exact same thing.  I wasn’t an expert in WordPress (or whatever aspect of the course I was dealing with) so why shouldn’t I turn to the person who is more of an expert for a quick answer?  The reason, of course, is that I’d be missing an opportunity to grow and become more independent.

If we want to help students “learn how to learn”–to develop the skills to be lifelong learners–it’s useful to put ourselves in the position of being a student.  As teachers, we need to teach ourselves to be learners.

Lesson #3: Be Honest, Especially About Not Knowing

This wasn’t a new lesson; I’ve always been very comfortable in class acknowledging that I didn’t know something.  But teaching online gave me the opportunity to be ignorant about a whole set of new issues! I tried to be up front with students from start to finish.  I cautioned that this would be a different sort of class than they’d likely experienced before; that it would require the use of blogs; that their writing would be public; that we’d be doing group work; that I was experimenting with what for me were new technologies; and that there would inevitably be bumps in the road along the way.

Technology can be intimidating for both students and faculty.  But I’ve come to believe that faculty anxiety about technology is often tied to bigger issues of knowledge and expertise. As instructors, we are inevitably making a claim that we have something to offer students; that we can assist in their learning a subject and/or a skill.  We are often used to being the “experts” in the classroom.  Not knowing can make us uncomfortable. Trying something new in the class means we have to deal with uncertainty; with not knowing. Isn’t it our job to be the local expert?

Of course, after years of study,  I know many things that my students don’t about the subjects I teach. (And they bring knowledge about many things in which they are interested that I don’t know anything about.)  But I think that part of my job as a teacher is to model being a learner, not an expert.  And one of the things good learners know is how little they know!

I used a policy of honesty this summer, explaining that part of the learning process involves overcoming obstacles.  Here was part of my simple attempt (photo included):

“I’m trying some technologies in this course for the first time, so the road is bound to get a little rough.  This first week will be the toughest for learning new tech things.  Be persistent, take a deep breath, maintain a sense of humor, don’t drive into the side of a house, and we’ll work through this together. (Or maybe I’m the only one who’s a little anxious about this?)”

“Rough Road” by Curtis Perry CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I find a little self-deprecating humor fits with my personality.  Being honest about working problems out as they arose became part of the course zeitgeist in which we were repeatedly experimenting with new things and turning to each other for assistance.

Next: “Big picture” lessons about online learning.

Lessons from an Online Summer Course (Introduction)

101 course header

I taught an experimental online introductory sociology course this summer  and I planned to write a blog post summarizing some of the things I learned from that experience.   As I drafted the post, it got longer and longer until it became clear that it was silly of me to try to tackle all of the issues raised by the class in a single post.  Instead, I’ll return to lessons learned in a series of posts in the coming days.

For now, let me set the stage and introduce what was a learning experience for me in a number of ways.  This was my first time:

  • teaching entirely online
  • teaching a summer course in a shortened 8-week session
  • using WordPress as a course platform
  • using student blogs as a major assignment

So the forthcoming series of “lessons learned” comes from both a long-time teacher but also a first-time newbie, reflecting on the challenges of this type of course, the opportunities it provides, and its connection to broader education issues.

Premise and Context

This course:

  • was during an 8-week summer semester
  • was capped at 50 students but after drop/add 42 remained
  • had no TAs
  • was supported by an ed-tech specialist (Thanks, Tom!) who assisted me in setting up the WordPress site
  • was the only class I was teaching this summer

I mention all of these details because they are important in considering whether or not this course model can realistically be adopted by faculty teaching with a regular course load (anywhere from 2 to 4 courses per semester here) with as large–and often much larger–class enrollment (the situation most faculty face).  I’ll return to this issue of transferability in a later post.

Finally, the primary goal of this introductory course was to familiarize students with the basic sociological perspective, including seeing connections between micro/meso/and macro level phenomena and understanding the role of culture/socialization, structure/agency, and power/inequality in social life.  Almost none of these students were sociology majors, so I was trying to help students see the relevance and applicability of sociology to better understanding everyday life, rather than focusing on detailed specialized knowledge of the field.  That, too, was an important feature of this class–and one that may not be transferable to courses that are unavoidably more content-driven.

So there there you have the basic premise.  What did I learn?  That comes next.

“Do I Need Internet Access for an Online Course?”

I’m teaching my first online course beginning this week and I’m already getting an education. The course is structured to include individual work, encourage some student collaboration, and use Internet resources. It’s been wonderful to “see” students arrive and set up their blogs and get their Twitter account–many for the first time with both. I’m looking forward to working with them and I’m sure I’ll learn as much as they will.

But my education about online courses is initially coming from the students who have dropped the class before it’s started. It’s no surprise to me that some students who enrolled in a summertime online course were perhaps looking for some easy credits and decided to drop the class after seeing the syllabus.

What I didn’t expect was the student who emailed to tell me she’d be travelling abroad throughout the entire course and would likely not have Internet access much of that time. Could she still take the online course without Internet access, she asked? She was serious, noting that she’d taken an online class in the past and was able to do all the work at the end.

Reading between the lines of several other emails, I got a definite whiff of: “I wasn’t expecting real work in an online course.”

Which may explain another odd incident. A student enrolled in an elite liberal arts college wanted to take the class. She diligently informed her institution of her plans and was met with skepticism about an online course. Would there be verifiable exams? No, but there was a detailed multi-page syllabus outlining course assignments and expectations, which includes considerable writing, group projects, discussion forums, and more. Pretty substantial for a 100-level course. After some delay, word came back: the school would not approve the course. The kicker is they were happy to approve a face-to-face lecture class where the syllabus is less than a page long and course requirements are 4-6 pop quizzes and a midterm and final taken via “blue books.”

In some ways, this is a classic case of a lack of intersubjectivity; that is, we don’t yet have a widely shared understanding or common expectation about what, exactly, an online course is. People who already have taken an online course likely overgeneralize that experience, assuming all such courses are more or less the same. Those of us experimenting with different ways of teaching online face that legacy.

My takeaway here is that it will be awhile before people understand that an “online” course can mean many different things, just as a “face-to-face” class is an umbrella term at best. Over time we’ll develop new norms and expectations for taking an online class but, for now, those are still largely unformed. This presents us with an opportunity to influence the nature of those expectations. In this sense, we have collective agency and we get to help build this future.

All I Need to Teach are Desks that Move…or Disappear


My very first academic publication was in the journal Teaching Sociology and it focused on the use of active learning groups to help first-time teachers learn to teach.  By using group activities as the core of a course, the instructor was relieved of the “Atlas complex”–the assumption that the instructor needed to assume full responsibility for carrying the class, as is common in lecture courses.  This was especially useful in calming the nerves of first-time teachers but was an effort that embodied an entire student-centered approach to education.  This approach was something I learned from one of my grad school mentors, Bill Gamson (husband of educational scholar Zelda Gamson of “Seven Principles” fame, and a creator of innovative simulation games SIMSOC (simulated society), What’s News?, and the Global Justice Game –as well as being an early pioneer of fantasy sports.)

In this approach, rather than passively listen to an instructor lecture, students work together in small groups, completing a brief exercise related to course readings.  Often this involved a bit of role playing (“imagine you have been commissioned to advise the local city council on…”).  Through the semester, students took turns carrying out various tasks in the groups (“time-keeper” to keep the group on task, “recorder” to take notes) and towards the end of class one person from each group (the “spokesperson”) would report back to the class as a whole on what they did, often having “majority” and “minority” reports when students disagreed about a topic.  As an instructor, I designed the exercise, introduced the topic, and then moved around from group to group listening in on the discussion and answering any questions that came up.  During reports, I’d often pose questions, point out interesting convergences or divergences between groups, and try to bring it all back to the readings and topic of the day.

This approach had a crucial requirement: desks that moved.  The first thing I’d do each day is tell students to move into their small groups and get their desks in a tight circle, leaving an open chair for me.  Soon students got accustomed to putting their desks in a circle even before I arrived for the class.  During my career, as classes were being scheduled for the next semester, it became a sort of recurring joke between my department chair and me:  I never cared what rooms my courses were in as long as they had desks that moved.

To me, that physical arrangement symbolized a type of education in which:

  • The instructor played a crucial role in setting up the experience but didn’t need to be the center of attention during most of the class; this was literally student-centered.
  • Students learned to collaborate, managing the ups and downs of group work.  For example, this could include carrying a student who was unprepared on a particular day but then demanding accountability from them over time.
  • Students applied the ideas they were reading about to various exercise scenarios; a very active form of learning.
  • Students learned from each other during discussions as they clarified ideas and readings and expressed different viewpoints on the subject at hand.
  • Students experienced making and listening to short oral presentations as they reported back to the class as a whole.

Conversely, to me, there’s nothing more depressing about higher education than big lecture halls with fixed seating facing the sage on the stage–clickers or not.  Been there, done that.  It’s the difference between watching a sporting event from the stands versus sweating on the field/court/ice.  Yes, participating is harder than just watching–and requires challenging teamwork–but it is ultimately much more rewarding.

As I work on prepping my first online course, I realize that in this environment the desks don’t just move, they disappear.  Of course, I’m not the first to note the leveraging of technology to promote active learning but there’s nothing like prepping a course to drive the point home.  Clearly, many of the elements of small group exercises can be transferred to the online environment:

  • The instructor’s role is still to structure an experience to encourage learning but, ultimately, it is students—often working together—who must act to learn
  • Simple exercises created by the instructor but carried out by students in small groups, can occur online using Google forms or blog posts.
  • Space for discussion among a small number of students can happen in discussion forums, blog posts, and comments to blog posts
  • Reporting back to the class as a whole can happen via aggregated blog posts.

In addition, while I “lose” the wonderful intimacy of face-to-face discussion in small groups–a puzzled look that signals a lack of understanding or a broad smile that signals an “Aha!” moment–the unique affordances of the Web can potentially enhance the small group learning experience:

  • Rather than “sitting in” on a single group discussion at a time as I move around a room, I can now “listen in” to all of them by surveying the discussion forums and chime in as warranted via written comments.
  • Content from across the Internet can now be worked into the premise of a group assignment (via hyperlinked videos, images, and other resources) and be a part of how students carry out assignments (via curated content)
  • The time limits of a 50- or 75-minute class disappear on the web; students can use technology to more efficiency spend time on task.
  • The results of student work don’t have to disappear at the end of a class period or semester; they can be archived and made available for viewing.

I’m far from having worked out the details of what I’ll be doing online.  I’m sure there’ll be many bumps in the road along the way, so for this first effort I’m keeping my goals somewhat modest.  However, I’m heartened to be returning to familiar principles from my early academic training that seem to resonate more strongly than ever in the digital age.  And I hope to be able to expand my experimentation to see where it takes me.

LMS: Metaphors, a Misnomer, and a Continuing Challenge

First, the metaphors.  There was an interesting discussion about Learning Management Systems (LMS) that included a list of potential metaphors (none of them pretty) with Tom Woodward proposing the LMS as fast food restaurant. That metaphor is quite similar to Mark Carrigan’s thought experiment about commercial publishing as restaurant.  He asks us to imagine a world where only restaurants (i.e. professionally prepared meals) existed, which is quickly disrupted by the introduction of kitchens in the home (open education resources).  He points out:

None of this means that restaurants go out of business. But it does mean the economics of the restaurant business change profoundly. What was once, in the thought-experiment, a position of hegemony where everyone is reliant on the restaurant for all their meals becomes a position where the restaurant must offer some additional value vis-a-vis the meals people are able to cook at home. If everyone can cook in a way which is good enough for everyday purposes, the restaurant must offer something else. … once the infrastructure and the expertise is distributed widely enough, it simply has to innovate or its position will eventually become untenable.

Carrigan’s talking about academic publishing and the rise of open-source materials but much the same can be said about LMS providers.  Indeed, the two have been merging more as textbook publishers provide course platforms that plug into Blackboard (such as Connect) or, as with OpenClass, exist independently.  ((Full disclosure: I’m an author with material on the Connect platform.))  But the point is that the LMS–and textbook publishers–have gotten more elaborate in their offerings in an effort to stay relevant.  More on this below.

Second, the misnomer:  Blackboard et. al. are Course Management Systems that have little to do with learning per se.  They do, however, have a lot to do with managing the administrative logistics of large classes.  The newer publisher-based platforms, too, are heavily oriented towards responding to this market.  They have learned from frazzled faculty juggling hundreds of students in many courses that simply staying afloat is a challenging task that can be made somewhat easier by the LMS and related platforms.  Again, this not about learning per se, it’s about survival and course “management” under far-less-than-ideal circumstances.  It is also a reminder that when we are talking about teaching and learning, it is very useful to get more specific.  Is it a 12-student seminar?  A 40-student course?  A 300-student offering?  Online, hybrid, or in-person? Different situations lend themselves to different tools.

Finally, the continuing challenge.  I doubt anyone would rush to the defense of any LMS as an ideal learning platform in any circumstance.  But they are responses to the structural conditions that prevail at many colleges and universities.  As in Carrigan’s metaphor, these “restaurant” LMS platforms offer things that are not readily available to faculty on their own: easy management of grading, basic analytics about student activities (reading, self-quizzing, etc), even some automated study/quizzing capacity often labelled as “adaptive learning.”  As flawed as they can be (“fast food”?), they are attempts to respond to perceived faculty needs (if not student learning).  Large classes are not going away.  Grading will continue to be a part of for-credit courses. Student privacy concerns (and FERPA) will continue to be a concern.  So the continuing challenge is something like: How do we initiate and expand alternatives to the LMS-bound course that usefully respond to the real-world circumstances under which many faculty labor, while facilitating more meaningful learning experiences for students?


Is Classified NSA Material Lurking in Your Manuscript?

You may not know this but material that is published in newspapers and widely available on the Internet may still be illegal to publish in a book.  I certainly had no clue about this but was advised as much by my publisher this past year.

The incident came to mind today when it was announced that the Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post were joint winners of the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden that documented the massive NSA surveillance program.

Those documents were the source of my legal education as my co-author and I were revising our Media/Society book.  We briefly discussed the NSA’s electronic surveillance in the book and wanted to use a now well-known slide from the NSA’s PowerPoint presentation on its Prism program (below).  The slide clearly suggested the NSA’s use of some of the most popular web sites to gather information, including e-mails, photos, videos, and social networking details.

from the Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/prism-collection-documents/images/prism-slide-4.jpg

Our publisher, SAGE, raised legal concerns and said it couldn’t be done.  At first, the presence of corporate logos seemed to be the issue; they were concerned about possible lawsuits for using the copyrighted material.  We understood and said we could redact the actual logos and use the rest of the slide, but that wasn’t enough.  We finally learned that the real concern was that these “classified” slides—now widely published in newspapers and across the web—were still in a legal limbo.  The legal department was concerned that as book publishers (rather than journalists) the company might be liable for printing classified material—no matter how widely available it is.

In the end, it was clear they wouldn’t publish the slide.  Since it was widely available elsewhere, this wasn’t a matter of deep principle for us but it was a “teachable moment.”  We opted to use another photo of a protestor supporting Snowden and then, in the caption, added an “Authors’ note to readers” explaining that we originally planned to use the image of the Prism slide but ended up not doing so because it apparently remains classified.  We then listed the Guardian and Washington Post URL’s where the slide could be viewed.  Hopefully, astute instructors can use the material to generate awareness about how designating material as “classified” can have repercussions that extend into places we might not expect.


F2F Teaching is Like Surfing

I’m a sucker for a good analogy.  I happen to catch writer Scott Z. Burns on Charlie Rose’s program and he was talking about the difference between writing for movies (which are typically finalized before audiences see them) versus writing for the stage (where writers revise based on previews and can continue to tinker with the play long after performances have started).  My rough summary:

Doing a movie is like skiing.  You move but the mountain stays still.  Writing for the stage, though, is like surfing; your audience is constantly providing feedback to which you can adjust. You move in response to how the waves move.

I immediately thought of teaching face-to-face classes, where a good presentation or exercise often requires adjusting on the fly.  That discussion question you thought was provocative falls flat.  A student brings up something you hadn’t anticipated and it triggers an excellent discussion–at the expense of what you thought you’d be examining that day.  And doing this often feels like I imagine balancing on surfboard would; nothing is solid or secure, close and constant monitoring is required, and quick adjustments are crucial.

Planning my first-ever online course, I’m reminded of how often I’ve relied on those off-the-cuff adjustments to keep face-to-face classes lively and engaging.  With an asynchronous online course, though, I expect to lose this level of immediacy and spontaneity (while gaining some other features).  It’s more skiing than surfing.


Developing Employable Skills in Students

Education is about much more than getting a job.  However, ignoring this aspect of education is a luxury that only the privileged can enjoy.  Most students are rightfully concerned about how what they are learning in school can help them get a job.  This is especially true for first-generation college students who often see getting a college degree as the potential ticket to better employment than their parents had.

That was certainly true in my case.  I didn’t know what I would do after college, but I sincerely hoped a degree would allow me to do something other than work in the local paper mill, the major employer in my town where I worked summers to save money for school.   I first flirted with being a computer science major, mostly because that seemed very practical and I could easily explain it to my parents.  “See?  College will lead to a practical, good-paying job.”  After a semester of rudimentary programming (Pascal anyone?) I was bored to tears and quickly disabused of that idea.

Fortunately for me, I was at a liberal arts college that allowed me to explore, shifting my major to political science, then English, and finally sociology.  (I double-majored in the latter two.)  In the process of wandering, I was learning how to learn, how to think, and how to communicate.  In short, I was getting a real college education, rather than training for a job.  I had no idea at the time that my choice of major was largely irrelevant.  The skills I was learning were highly transferable to many different situations.

And so it is today that many students think of college in the narrow language of job training, rather than as a broad education.  This may be perfectly appropriate for some pre-professional programs where job-training is the focus and learning content is the emphasis.  But there’s considerable evidence that what many employers want is not narrowly trained students but broadly educated individuals.  For example, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found in a small survey (summarized in a Forbes article) that the ten skills employers want most are:

1. Ability to work in a team
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
5. Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others

With the exception of #7, all of these are broad skills potentially taught in many disciplines.

I was reminded of this again after reading about an interview with Laszlo Bock, the VP of what Google calls “people operations.”  In the piece, Bock makes similar points.  He notes that, for technical jobs, skills in a specific area are important but:

For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.

Another key concern is:

… leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power…Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.

Once again, these are generic skills and processes, not specific content.

None of this is new or earth-shattering but these are important lessons for students, for whom this may be new.  They are also important for faculty to learn–or re-learn, as well.  We often focus disproportionately on content; on the specific subject-matter that we love and love to teach.  That enthusiasm is important but we need to be cognizant of the broader picture, making sure to incorporate skill-building exercises in our courses.  Multiple-choice quizzes are the assessment of last resort.  What are students learning to do in our classes?  How are they working with others?  Do they write?  Solve problems?  Create projects that let them practice communicating using various media?  How do they get to “show what they know”?  What skills are they developing?  All useful questions to ask ourselves as we design courses that help students truly prepare for the workplace.