Managing Expectations When Teaching with Technology

After recently working with a couple of faculty grappling with tech issues early in a course, I found myself repeating some basic advice for “next time.”  Maybe these can be of help to others.

Whenever you introduce technology that is new to students, it helps to plan ahead for how to handle the inevitable questions and confusion.

  1. Write clear, simple, directions.  Obvious but essential.  Explain what you expect them to do.  Highlight key ideas or steps in large, bold, colored fonts, or highlights. Keep it brief so the important stuff isn’t lost in extraneous details.  
  2. Keep instructions (mostly) general.  There are exceptions but it’s usually not a good idea to walk students through step-by-step “click-this-button” directions.  In simply following such specific directions students don’t necessarily learn the “why’s” or principles behind what they are doing. This results in their being lost when anything goes awry and deviates from the step-by-step instructions. In addition, overly-detailed directions will become outdated the moment the technology changes in the least.
  3. Prepare for problems.  There will be problems; that’s the nature of technology.  Be upfront and tell this to students ahead of time so it doesn’t come as a surprise to them and so you don’t feel the unrealistic pressure to run a perfectly smooth course.  They are less likely to freak out when problems arise and you are less likely to feel frantic in response.
  4. Acknowledge your limitations.  Faculty often feel the need to be the “expert” with all the answers. Not fully understanding the technology they are working with can be very unsettling.  As an alternative, I’d suggest being upfront about your limitations. Tell students, “I’m not a tech expert. We’ll be experimenting and learning some of this together.”  Again, don’t create unrealistic pressure for yourself. Best of all, by doing this you’re modelling  for your students how to be a life-long learner.
  5. Test the system before it matters.  Plan ahead and try out as much as you can in advance of the course.  Then create an early low/no stakes assignment that uses the technology in question.  This gives everyone a chance to troubleshoot problems in a low-pressure situation.
  6. Use a public venue for answering questions.  Have a mechanism in place to answer questions and share tips that is visible to all students. Answer a question once and other students are less likely to ask it. What you don’t want is 50 personal emails asking you essentially the same thing.  The public venue for answering questions might be a discussion forum with a tech-question thread, an announcements page on a course website, a Twitter hashtag for the course, a shared tech-issues Google Doc, a few minutes set aside in a face-to-face class, or anything that makes responses visible to all students.  If a student emails you a question, answer it in public and steer the student to the response to insist on this approach.
  7. Encourage students to help each other.  When a student tries and fails to do something with technology, they probably have classmates who were successful in their attempt to do the exact same thing.  These students are now experts and can explain what they did from a student’s perspective, diffusing some of the frustration.  Tap into that expertise; you don’t need to answer everything.  Set the expectation that students will help each other using the public venue you’ve set up.  Applaud students who help.  It’s a win-win-win.
  8. Point to support resources.  Make sure students have easy access to appropriate documentation regarding the technology you’re using (usually just a link to support pages and forums) as well as to any technology support resources on your campus (an IT help desk, for example).  Encourage them to use these.
  9. Suggest limits on your time.  While you need to check in on students regularly, you can’t be online 24-7.  Having a loose routine can help manage student expectations and create some limits for your time. For example, you might check in on an online forums first thing in the morning to respond to any issues from students who often work late at night.  Or you might indicate that Sunday or the weekend are “off” times when you won’t be available. Let students know about your general work pattern so they can adjust expectations.
  10. Encourage self-reliance.  Many of these tips relate to developing students’ self-reliance.  It can be useful to make this explicit.  Remind them that a key part of being educated is learning how to learn. This is especially relevant for quickly-changing technology. Encourage the practice of looking for answers on their own before asking others.  Have them check the support resources you’ve flagged, ask other students, or just Google their questions.  Developing these skills will serve them well long after your course is over.

We’d all like technology to work flawlessly with no hassles.  Not gonna happen.  But with a little planning you can minimize hassles and focus on the benefits you wanted to get from the tech in the first place.

“Objective” Grading as a Strategic Ritual

During an interesting conversation with a colleague and friend about pedagogical issues and the use of WordPress, the topic of “objective” grading came up.  In this context, it appeared to be shorthand for things that could be counted–blog posts, comments, perhaps multiple choice responses.  Being a sociologist of media, I always cringe a bit at the use of “objectivity” to describe such efforts.  That’s because media sociologists long ago debunked the notion of objectivity in journalism, pointing out its historically specific origins.

One of the classics in this area is Gaye Tuchman’s 1972 article, “Objectivity as a Strategic Ritual,” which summarizes in its abstract (using the gendered language of the day):

The newspapermen studied believe they may mitigate such continual pressures as deadlines, possible libel suits, and anticipated reprimands of superiors by being able to claim that their work is “objective.” This article …shows that in discussing content and interorganizational relationships, the newsman can only invoke his news judgment; however, he can claim objectivity by citing procedures he has followed which exemplify the formal attributes of a news story or a newspaper. For instance, the newsman can suggest that he quoted other people instead of offering his own opinions. The article suggests that “objectivity” may be seen as a strategic ritual protecting newspapermen from the risks of their trade. It asks whether other professions might not also use the term “objectivity” in the same way. (p. 660)

My conversation today reminded me of this classic piece and had me wondering if we can usefully think of “objective” grading as a strategic ritual, protecting instructors from the anticipated rebuke of students and (for junior faculty) anticipated criticism of tenure committees.

My curiosity led me back to the article for the first time in years and I found some very useful discussions.  For example, Tuchman (661) describes rituals in this way:

A ritual is discussed here as a routine procedure which has relatively little or only tangential relevance to the end sought. Adherence to the procedure is frequently compulsive. That such a procedure may be the best known means of attaining the sought end does not detract from its characterization as a ritual.

This certainly seemed potentially applicable to how instructors might use “objective” grading in classes.

Further, Tuchman (661) notes that invoking objectivity can be understood as a type of performance strategy.  In this context:

“The term ‘strategy’ denotes tactics used offensively to anticipate attack or defensively to deflect criticism. Objectivity as strategic ritual may be used by other professionals to defend themselves from critical onslaught.”

Again, this seemed usefully applicable to the case of objective grading.

And then, in re-reading the article, I realized my association with teaching had already been made by Tuchman late in the piece.  Citing Everett Hughes’ discussion of ritual, Tuchman (676-677) notes that her study:

…supports Everett Hughes’s contention (1964, pp. 94-98) that occupations develop ritualized procedures to protect themselves from blame. He notes, “In teaching,” an occupation like journalism, “where ends are very ill-defined–and consequently mistakes are equally so–where the lay world is quick to criticize and to blame, correct handling becomes ritual as much as or even more than an art. If a teacher can prove that he has followed the ritual, blame is shifted from himself to the miserable child or student; and failure can be and is put upon them” (pp. 96, 97).

An interesting way to think about the topic, I think.

None of this is to say I’ll necessarily stop using assessment measures that can be easily quantified, including suggested word counts on writing assignments and multiple choice quizzes.  These can be marshalled in the cause of efficiency, especially when teaching larger numbers of students, though they are certainly only one small element of assessment.  (See Enoch Hale’s recent helpful discussion of assessment.) But Tuchman’s work is a useful reminder that labelling such efforts as “objective” obscures their social construction.

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.

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.

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.