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Create a self-grading weighted rubric with Google Forms

If you have been a college instructor for any length of time, you have most certainly gotten this question from students: "Why did you take points off for _____?" This question is based on their assumption that they start at 100 rather than zero, which is where I believe they start before an assignment has been graded. If they fail to turn in an assignment, they are given the current point value, which is zero. I do not, in fact, take away all of their points as a fiery demonstration of my absolute authority in the classroom. The disparity between the way I see this issue and how my students view it comes down to a difference in understanding about how rubrics work. My students tend to think I am doing math while I read their papers (1 point off for this, 2 points off for that ...), when what I am actually doing is just reading their papers and looking for the things I told them I was going to be looking for. These "things" we will call criteria, and each criterion is explained in the rubric. The criteria are, in reality, my standards for what I expect on each assignment. I understand that some students will meet the standard, and others will fall (either a little or a lot) short of it because they still learning. When they fall short, I give them feedback for what to work on so they can meet the standard. Say it slowly ... l  e  a  r  n  i  n  g. For example, when I write in the rubric that in order to get a 4, "All references to other sources are properly cited using APA (6th ed.) format", that is actually what I am expecting. I will not give a 4 for something that did not match the description for a 4. This is one of my standards for excellent (4-level) work. Their work may be close, but it' s not quite there, hence, the 3 instead of a 4. I didn't take off points as a punishment; they just didn't quite get there this time. 

This gets complicated when I have to take that feedback and turn it into a grade. My hope is that the feedback take precedent over the grade, but I have been in this profession long enough to know that students want a grade. Most of them want to know the market value of their work, and I want to be as thoughtful, accurate, and consistent as possible when giving them both the feedback and the grade. So, how does one go about this?

My solution was to create a self-grading rubric that does all of the math in background so I can focus on the feedback. My tool of choice? Google Forms and Sheets, of course. These two go together like Jenny and Forrest. Here is how it works:

Step one: Create a rubric using Forms

Keep in mind, this is for you, not the students. I provide the students a detailed analytic rubric for the assignment, then I turn that into something usable for myself. Below is an example:

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.23.58 PM

You can also add fields to give the students pre-written feedback. I know some people disagree with this, but when you grade 30 of these bad boys and find yourself giving the same feedback on every (freaking) paper, something has to give. Below are some examples of canned feedback I give students. I included an "other" field so I can write in specific comments for students that may not apply to any other paper. And trust me, I use this field liberally.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.30.15 PM

Step two: Format the spreadsheet to automatically convert and calculate scores

Since I am converting the rubric feedback into a grade, I know that some criteria are more valuable than others. I would rather see students supporting their claims with high-quality evidence than putting the comma in the right place. Both are important, but not equally important.

In order to weight a score, you have to multiply it by the percentage that the criterion bears on the overall grade. For example, if Quality of Writing is worth 20% of the overall score, I would multiply this criterion by .2. Here is what it looks like in the example:

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.38.09 PM

Basically, what the spreadsheet is doing is converting your score of 4 into a percentage of 5, which is the highest score possible. The spreadsheet then adds all of the converted scores and multiplies them by 20 (which is 100 divided by 5, the highest possible score). The resulting grade is below, I used colored squares in an attempt to show which cells correspond to each other.

Weighted Averages

 

I also checked the appropriate canned feedback and added in my own comments. You will notice below that using the checkboxes puts commas in between each comment. You can get rid of those by using the Find and Replace tool.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.45.50 PM

Step three: Use copyDown add-on to apply formulas to new entries

This is the magic ingredient that helps this rubric keep you very productive. You will need to find the copyDown add-on for Google Sheets and install it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 2.28.26 PM

Once you have all your formulas in Row 2 of your spreadsheet, copyDown will detect those formulas and apply them to every subsequent row that is submitted through your form. In other words, the values you enter will be automatically calculated without any effort on your part. This is what makes the rubric a self-grading rubric. Yes, it's that simple.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 2.31.08 PM

Step four: Send feedback to students

I use FormMule to send the feedback to the students, but you can do whatever you want. I guess this depends on how many students you have and how much time you have. You could copy and paste the feedback into Word and e-mail it to the students, or you could use the comments tool in your CMS. For me, FormMule is the way to go.

The main drawback to doing it this way is that I cannot put my feedback in the form of comments within the paper, which can be helpful. I will have to find a way to do this, but for now I am using this system.

What techniques do you use for calculating student grades on assignments and giving them the feedback quickly?

Strength of Weak Ties and your PLN

Intuitively, the benefits of connecting with educators with similar goals and interests makes sense. I don't have the solution to every problem I might encounter as a teacher, but I probably know people who, collectively, do. If I want to try a new kind of student project or learning activity, I can probably find someone who has already done it and learn from their experience. According to Bandura, Vygotsky, and Dewey, the social element of learning is an integral part of the process. As humans who are perpetually learning, growing, and becoming, our social networks are invaluable.

Despite their value, not all social connections are the same, nor are they all capable of performing the same role in our lives. According to Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University, social connections (or as he calls them, ties) vary in strength and utility in our lives. He proposes that the more time, proximity, intimacy, emotional intensity, and reciprocal services people share, the stronger their ties to each other. Conversely, acquaintances with whom we share few of those resources would be considered weak ties.

Granovetter's argument is that the strong ties in our lives provide us with few innovative and creative ideas because there is more likelihood those people in our close-knit networks think and act like we do. The worse case scenario is groupthink, but more often the result of strong networks is maintenance of the status quo. I have personally seen this in schools, where teachers seem to be locked into their way of doing things. New teachers are quickly assimilated into their school's way of thinking and doing things, despite what they learned in their teacher preparation program. Schools all have their strengths and  unique culture, but they do not always embrace innovative ideas.

This is especially true when you consider the typical model for professional development. I remember these experiences as a teacher, when we would all gather for a day of "learning." Someone who knew nothing about my school, my students, or my professional goals, would come in and try to change my teaching practice in 8 hours. While the ideas we were hearing may have been new, the support system for implementing and reflecting on these ideas consisted of a strong network characterized by a well established culture, expectations, and norms. In essence, any innovation that may have occured as a result of the professional development left when the speaker exited the building, and we quickly defaulted back to our usual way of doing things. Typically, the best part of the day was lunch.

According to Granovetter, strong ties are not the best source of new ideas and opportunities. We know our own ideas pretty well, but we may be oblivious to what is going on around us. Just as my strong network has strengths and solutions to certain issues, other strong networks have different strengths and solutions to other issues. Unless the two strong networks create channels to bridge their ideas through acquintances, they will spin in isolation without ever getting anywhere. Granovetter calls these acquaintances weak ties, and his hypothesis is that they are an essential piece in diffusing innovative ideas and new opportunities across organizations.

This is where a PLN comes in. Teachers who are connected use social media tools, conferences, and other social opportunities as a way to connect to the ideas and opportunities they might not otherwise learn about if they only associate with their strong ties. In turn, I share my ideas and opportunities with those whom I am only loosely connected through my PLN. The result is, as Granovetter explains, a crucial bridge to other densely knit social groups. In this regard, a PLN is like connecting galaxies or remote islands that otherwise might not even know of each other's existence.

My main point is this: developing and maintaining a PLN goes beyond getting teachers to embrace digital social tools like blogs and Twitter. The tools in this case are mere conduits for something much deeper, bigger, and more important. The digital social tools are that crucial bridge to ideas being considered and implemented in other galaxies, ideas and opportunities you may never otherwise consider or find out about. This is something sociologists have been pondering for decades, and the underlying principles are as relevant now as they were when Granovetter began writing about this in 1973. The more time and space people share, the more they think alike and adopt similar behavioral patterns. While this may provide a certain level of security and comfort for some people, it is not ideal for growing and learning. We need weak ties to other strong networks if we wish to stay fresh and creative. This is why teachers should build, engage, and share within a PLN. This is why weak ties area actually quite strong.

If you would like to read Granovetter's article on this, you can access it here. He has written extensively on this topic, but this particular article is my favorite.

Gamification: A semester in the trenches

My reasons for wanting to use gamification strategies in my large Intro to Education course were obvious: student accountability, timely and continuous feedback, and better motivation to do otherwise rudimentary activities. I learned pretty quickly that implementing gamification strategies was more difficult than I initially thought. First, I had to figure out the instructional design aspects of gamification. How many points are different experiences worth? What do I count and what do I leave out? Second, I had to figure out how to keep track of all of this and communicate it back to the students. As I have written about before, I used Google Sheets to do this.

Overall, I would say I am pleased with how my first attempt at gamification turned out. Was it perfect? No way. Did the students like it? Mostly, but I'm sure I will hear from those who didn't on my course evaluations. Did these strategies help me reach my course goals? Absolutely! Class attendance was the best it has ever been in the 3 years I've taught the course. I regularly had over 90% of the students completing the weekly readings every week. That is unbelievable! I actually had students competing to complete extra credit so they could move to the top of the leaderboard. I did not see that one coming. Even though the course outcomes associated with these gamification strategies were successful, I learned a lot about how to do it better next semester. I will discuss these lessons in more detail.

More Competition

One of my goals in using gamification strategies in my class was to increase engagement and not give students a laundry list of things to do every week. Well, the way I structured the points, it turned out to be just what I was trying to avoid. Every week the students had to complete a module (video and/or reading + short quiz) before class on Monday. Then they went to schools on Wednesday, and there were points associated with that. On Friday, they participated in small group discussion, which had even more points. Everything was recorded on a big spreadsheet, and students were ranked on a leaderboard. What I discovered was that most of the students completed all of the requirements each week. Basically, there was no way to really move UP the leaderboard. Students could only move DOWN if they failed to complete a requirement. Believe it or not, that is not very competitive, and therefore, isn't all that much fun.

There were minimal opportunities for students to do extra and move up the leaderboard, but they were in fact so minimal that it hardly made a difference. This didn't keep the students from trying to get more points here and there, which was my first clue that there needs to be more competition. Some ideas I am playing with include:

  • Using Kahoot for discussion questions
  • Students voting for "best" responses to questions
  • Competitions between discussion groups (attendance, challenges, completion rate, etc.)
  • Challenges during class

I do not want to overdo this, but I think a little more competition would make this aspect of the class a lot more fun.

Reboot

Another flaw in my approach this semester was that the "game" lasted all semester. I gave the students monthly feedback in the form of a points sheet, which led many of them to just see it as a big assignment. I would venture to guess that they viewed this experiment as a big ole' laundry list because I treated it like one. In the end, there was no way for students who had gotten behind early in the semester to make corrections and do better the next time around. Students could recognize the impact of their choices on their point total and start to do better, but it did not erase early mistakes. This goes against the nature of most competitive endeavors, where players can overcome early mistakes later in the competition and keep themselves in the game.

I am thinking about splitting the game up into three smaller games this spring, and starting the points and leaderboard over each time. This will allow students who get off to a bad start to do better the next time. I can still keep track of completed assignments and attendance for the purposes of grading, but I will link other incentives to the leaderboard. What are the incentives? I have no idea, but I have a few weeks to think about it.

Better Feedback

Another issue I ran into this semester was getting feedback to the students on a weekly basis. I did pretty well at first, then some of my TAs got behind on entering scores and I went a few weeks without sending updates to the class. Once everything was updated and I got around to sending the updates, some of the students were like, "Whoa! How did I lose all these points?! I thought I was doing OK!" And I was like, "How can you not know if you missed class or an assignment?!" And they were like, "Hey man, we're too busy to remember all that!" And I was like ... OK, you get the point.

This observation has less to do with the game itself and more to do with giving more timely, detailed feedback. Some of the students felt like they were in the dark all semester and did not know they had missed 6, 7, or 8 classes until the end of the semester. I was never the kind of student to miss class, but I can see how it might be easy to lose track over such a long period of time.

I have a plan for keeping the spreadsheet updated better, but it is not really worth writing about here. Needless to say, I think weekly updates will help quell some of the panicky e-mails at the end of the semester.

What am I missing?

I am pretty sure my second attempt at gamification will go much better than the first, and I'm looking forward to putting some of these ideas into practice. For those of you who have been doing this for awhile, what are your suggestions? Am I missing something obvious? Am I making assumptions with potentially disastrous consequences? I would love to hear from the true game masters!

5 Ways to Find Out What Students are Thinking

Bored Students Student participation typically falls into two extreme ends of the class discussion continuum. Some students raise their hand every time I ask a question. These students have an opinion on just about everything, and if I'm not careful they will dominate class discussion. I have had experiences where the same 2-3 students will talk so much during discussions that the other students will stop raising their hands. As a teacher, this is definitely a scenario you want to avoid. The end of the spectrum is characterized by a roomful of students who are so disengaged they will barely make eye contact. Maybe they didn't do the class reading, or perhaps they think that avoiding discussion will shorten class time and end in an early dismissal. Perhaps the class is large and students are intimidated speaking in front of the group. Either way, it makes for a very awkward and aggravating situation.

The longer I have taught, the more strategies I have discovered for getting the entire class involved in discussion. Early in my career I would just pose questions to the entire class. I eventually learned simple strategies like using cards or popsicle sticks for calling on students who don't raise their hands. This helped me get more students involved. Still, getting called on was a game of chance and some students would tune out in hopes that their number wouldn't get called. I eventually started using some different pedagogical strategies such as Think, Pair, Share, Numbered Heads Together, Jigsaw, Jeopardy, or Fishbowl for engaging students in discussion prompts. Each of these techniques for facilitating discussion got everyone involved and had more accountability than sitting in class hoping not to get called on.

Even with great discussion strategies, there are times when I want to know what the students are thinking. This isn't always possible when the majority of the discussion is a verbal exchange. I have used chart paper or construction paper to have students summarize their thoughts, but this is not always easy to present and when it's all over I'm stuck with a bunch of chart paper.

With the emergence of free (or kind of cheap) web-based and mobile apps, teachers can find out what students are thinking in a variety of ways, and all without using up all the consumables. I will describe five tools I have used in my classes to put student thinking at the forefront of the discussion.

Socrative

This is a free app that has iOS, Android, and web-based options. Students enter in the class code then wait for a prompt from the teacher. Results are instantly aggregated on the screen, giving everyone real-time results from the prompt. There are several options for prompts teachers can send the class, including T/F, Multiple Choice, and Short Answer. Prompts can be generic (i.e., A, B, C ...) or prepared in advance with specific answer choices. Results from saved quizzes can be downloaded as a spreadsheet for further analysis or grading.

Socrative is a great tool for quick discussion questions where you A) want students to talk about a prompt and B) get fast statistics on what everyone is thinking. I have had students use the mobile app on their phones many times, and it almost always works like a champ. I just post the question, students grab their phones, and within minutes you have a bar graph populated with student responses. This can actually prompt further discussion.

ActivePrompt

Another way to find out what students are thinking is to have them place a dot on an image. When enough people do this on the same image you can start to see trends and hotspots. I have done this with continua (e.g., Place a dot on the continuum where you believe the responsibility lies for a positive classroom: Teachers or Students), maps, quadrants, or other diagrams.

When you upload an image to ActivePrompt, you are given two prompts: one for the students to place their dot, and one with all of the dots displayed. You can try this using the following URL:

http://activeprompt.herokuapp.com/SBGWN

You can see the results here:

http://activeprompt.herokuapp.com/TWBUN

I have used this tool in class several times, and it has always been reliable. Students will typically discuss a prompt in pairs, place their dot based on their discussion, then we will discuss patterns and themes as a class.

InfuseLearning

This tool has many of the same features as Socrative, but it has the extra benefit of the InfuseDraw tool. Teachers send students a prompt on which they can draw, annotate, or label an image. Results are saved in the teacher dashboard and can be downloaded as a PDF. Like Socrative, the students do not need an account to log in. They just enter the class code and they are ready for the teacher to send the prompt. The few times I have used this tool it has worked great. Since Apollo, my class-syncing tool of choice, has some of the same features I tend to use that tool instead. However, if you are looking for straight prompts without having students follow your presentation on their screens, InfuseLearning is the way to go.

Google Presentation

I have already written about how to use this tool before, so I won't spend a lot of time explaining how I have used this activity in class. You can do the same thing, or something similar, with Google Docs or Draw, but I like the features in Presentation and the fact that you can assign each group a different slide in the same file.

Google Forms

If you are wanting to get more extensive feedback from students, Forms is the way to go. Results from the forms are instantly sent to a spreadsheet. We all know that spreadsheets are like magic because of all you can do with them. With the emergence of Add-Ons, you can now do even more. Some examples of ways I have used Form data: display the automatically-generated pie graphs, randomly choose responses directly from the spreadsheet, cut and paste the responses into Wordle for an (almost) instant word cloud, or e-mail the students a badge once they complete a set of prompts or an activity (this is not done in real-time ... usually after class).

Since the types of items you can use in a Google form are so diverse, there are many opportunities to use this tool to facilitate discussion in class. Responses are anonymous by default unless  you include an item for names. This tool will require some preparation before class, but that is true of most that I have mentioned here. It's one thing to send out an impromptu poll using Socrative. It's something quite different to make my students sit and watch me create a Google Form. Overall, this is a great tool to keep in the box and use when it fits your instruction.

The importance of discussing and reflecting on learning experiences is pretty well documented. When we give students the opportunity to verbally process their thinking, we increase the chances that they will be able to retain and apply skills and knowledge after the fact. Discussion and reflection helps us give new information personal meaning. Good class discussion starts with good pedagogical practice, but with new tools there are even more opportunities to make it relevant, engaging, and active.

What tools or strategies do you use to facilitate class discussion and find out what students are thinking?

Schoolification

Pac-Man (1980), will go on show at MoMA in New York in 2013 I have been thinking about gamification a lot lately. I teach a really big class full of energetic undergraduates, and I want to make the class better. It is already pretty darn good, but there is always room for improvement. One way to do this is to add game elements to some of the more mundane aspects of the course.

As an aspiring Teaching and Learning scholar, I dug into the literature on gamification and game-based learning (and trust me, there is A LOT of it!) to investigate possible frameworks and suggestions for a successful implementation of game-based learning. One framework that has been really helpful for me as I plan some game-based elements into my course was proposed by Bunchball, a corporate gamification company. As stated in one of their white papers, there are 6 elements that serve as the building blocks to all successful games. Coincidentally, these game elements interact with game dynamics that are associated with basic human desires that tend to motivate and engage people within a gaming experience.

[table id=1 /]

When I look at this table, I see many similarities and natural applications to education. The way the education system is currently structured, there is already a pretty heavy dose of competition, achievement, reward, and status. There is also some possibility for self-expression and altruism, depending on the way a course is set up. So, I understand that education and gamification go hand-in-hand quite naturally.

So what happens when an instructor takes activities that students might naturally enjoy and make them just another assignment? I call this "schoolification," which is when a teacher deflates student interest in an activity or project by assigning points, a grade, or any other requirement that students might otherwise resist.

The first time I encountered schoolification, before I even had a name for it, was in a conference presentation where a professor described his use of Facebook in his classes. Each student in the class had to join his group on FB, they were required to comment on his posts, and they would "lose points" if they didn't do either of those things. My first thought was, wow, that's a great way to make students hate Facebook. Take something they like, make them use it in a way they don't want, then hold their grade over their head of they don't do it.

If the instructor is not careful, I think the same thing can happen with blogs, digital stories, flipped lessons, and cooperative learning (or any other activity for that matter). Students have to be held accountable for their professionalism, but how do we do this without schoolifying activities they might otherwise enjoy? This is a challenge I would like to learn more about.

How do you hold students accountable for their participation in class activities without schoolifying those activities that are intended to be engaging and fun.

Are You a Technology Ninja or Samurai?


ninja-samurai

I will start by stating the obvious: There is a HUGE difference between learning to use technology for yourself and using it effectively in the student learning process. Both applications of technology have specific skill sets, they inform each other, and they are both important. In the educational technology world, you might see this dichotomy through various lenses: digital media literacy, TPACK, SAMR, or some other framework you're fond of presenting at conferences.

My awareness of the massive difference between these technology applications came when I began encouraging the students in my large, 100-person education course to bring their laptops, tablets, and phones. OK, I don't have to actually encourage college students to bring their phones to class. Pry them out of their hands? That's more like it. Anyway, once I began infusing my class with activities that require technology, I realized I am not as good as teaching with it as I thought I was. Yes, I knew how to do some cool things to present information to my class, but when it came to using technology in real time with 100 students in a way that kept them active and engaged, I had a lot to learn. This is when I decided I was a pretty good Technology Ninja, but I had a long way to go until I was a Technology Samurai.

What do these two terms mean? Let me explain.

Technology Ninja

Ninja were covert agents who specialized in espionage, assassination, sabotage, and infiltration. They were skilled at disguising themselves as servants, camouflaging themselves with trees and other objects, and scaling the walls of buildings like Spider-Man. Their objective was to infiltrate enemy dwellings without being seen. In fact, there is probably a ninja in your pantry right now, scooping out your peanut butter with a Chinese Throwing Star.

As a Technology Ninja, I have gotten really good at using technology in ways that my students hardly know it's there. My most recent set of posts about Outsmarting the LMS is a good illustration of ways to be a Technology Ninja. You can embed documents and web pages, install scripts, and set up forms to make your job easier, and the people actually using these tools have no idea about the magic you have worked on the back end. They just know it works.

While these ninjutsu techniques save me a lot of time and energy in the long run, they do very little to influence the lived experience of my class meetings. Most of the work is done in the background, usually in the form of tinkering, testing, and modifying. It wasn't until I told my entire class of 100+ students that I wanted them to bring their devices to class that I realized these skills were not sufficient for me to reach the level of technology greatness I have always aspired to achieve.

Technology Samurai

When I first began thinking through these ideas, I wrote this out as SAMRi. Get it? SAMR with a lower-case i, like Apple does, only at the end of the word instead of the beginning. Because I am aiming for the R (redefinition) in SAMRand after I achieve the R in my technology integration skills/knowledge, then I will be a technology SAMRi! Uh ... yeah. Anything that needs that much explanation is not as clever as I initially thought it was. Also, SAMRi would direct a lot of traffic to my blog by people looking for Saudi Arabian folk music.

So, what is a Technology Samurai? The traditional samurai were an elite class of noble Japanese warriors, dedicated to protecting their culture, leaders, and territory. Unlike those stealth and sneaky ninjas, they were skilled at hand-to-hand combat and infantry tactics. Their weapons of choice were swords, kama, longbows, daggers, and armor. They were skilled horsemen, and they were also known to use rifles and cannons in the latter years of their existence. Samurai were also governed by a strict honor code, characterized by discipline and loyalty. In a word, they were fearless.

You know what else is fearless? Telling your class to BYOD. Unless you have thought through the details of your activity, you will have students knee deep in Pinterest or Facebook before you can say, "OK, let me just try one more thing to get this to work." Students love technology, but not in the way nerds like me think they love it. They love that technology connects them to the things they love.

So, after having done this for a semester, I have started coming up with a few essential skills that every Technology Samurai must master. These skills/tools are focused primarily on teaching in a BYOD or 1:1 environment. I will address being a Technology Samurai in the areas of digital media projects, collaboration, research, etc. in the coming weeks.

Sync your class

You must have a way to get every student in the same place and keep them there. Your class LMS page won't work. Neither will a Facebook group or Schoology or Edmodo. Why? There are too many other features to look at. Grades, assignments, forums, friends. Too many distractors. You need to keep them all in the same place at once. I recommend a tool like Apollo or Top Hat. If all of your students are on iPads, you may consider NearPod. Each of these tools has something in common: they put your content on every screen in the room at the same time. Yes, students can stray away, but not as much as you might think.

Reduce Friction

This is something that took me awhile to figure out. Personally, I do not like logging in to things. I would much rather log in once and then have the tool remember me. Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter .... they are great at this. My school's LMS? It's like Guy Pearce in Memento every time I close the browser window. Whenever possible, I try to minimize the number of times students have to log in to do class activities. Once is ideal, twice is acceptable, three times is just getting to be plain annoying.

Collect student responses

In addition to getting all of the students in one place, virtually speaking, you want to keep them engaged. A good way to do this is to involve them in activities that make them think then require a response. There are several tools that will let you do this. Apollo and Top Hat have built-in student response features. Socrative and Infuselearning provide another way for students to respond, and they do not have to set up an account to do it. They just enter the class code, and they automatically receive a prompt every time the teacher posts a question.

Deploy links

Another important tool to have in your arsenal if you are going to teach like a samurai is to be able to deploy links to the class. By deploy links, I mean send the student out from your synced content to other content (videos, web pages, forms, etc.). Apps like Apollo and Infuselearning have a built-in link tool that will send a URL to every student logged into your class page or presentation. This is really handy if you want students to spend a few minutes reading and discussing an article, blog post, video, or image. You can also send the students to an editable Google Doc, Sheet, or Presentation if you want to give them a place to discuss or share ideas.

An acceptable alternative to sending links to students is using a URL shortening tool, like bit.ly or goo.gl. Just remember to use a serif font so the students can tell the different between capital I and lower-case L. You may also want to consider if this is appropriate based on the size of the room and projection system, the age of the students, and number of times you are having them key in shortened URLs. If you have a bunch of these on the board, it may get confusing to the students.

Facilitate group work

Another skill to master as a Technology Samurai is to keep students engaged in group activities with their computers. I mean, the students have lugged their computers to class and followed along up to this point, so why not do some things with computers that computers are uniquely good at doing. Maybe that involves editing the same document at the same time, or adding slides to a common presentation. You can have them pin and explain places on a map.  Annotate or draw images using the drawing quiz tool in Apollo or Infuselearning. Create a 5-picture story, or capture a 30-second explanation on Educreations. I'm not trying to exhaust the possibilities here. If you went to the trouble to have the students bring their computers to class (or went to the extreme trouble of providing a device for every student in the school), then leverage the capabilities of a computer. Don't use it like a pencil then complain that students just want to look at Pinterest.

Showcase the students

Now that you have had the students doing some activities on the computer during class, showcase their work. Display their annotations and diagrams. Flip through the presentation and let each group present their page. Show the 5-pic stories and see if the students can guess the topic. Watch the 30-second explanations. This part of the BYOD learning environment is more than the payoff. It's the point in the lesson in which you communicate to your students whether you, as the chief learner in the room, value this activity as a real learning endeavor or just a hi-tech time filler. If you truly value the work they are doing, then devote time to acknowledging, praising, critiquing, and sharing the fruits of their labor. If you blow past the showcase, don't be surprised if the students show less enthusiasm and engagement the next time around.

You should strive to be both a ninja and a samurai. A samja. A ninjurai. A SAMuRinja. Both skill sets are important for teachers these days, for different reasons. One will keep you learning, the other will help you focus on student learning. The way of the ninja and samurai is not easy. They involve risk, uncertainty, failures, faith, persistence, patience, creativity, and problem solving. There is great cost in becoming a lifelong learner, but it's not nearly as costly as settling in and ceasing to grow and develop as a teacher.

So, what are your examples of being a Technology Ninja or Samurai? I will follow up on this, and I would love to hear your ideas.

Some Bullet Points and a Picture

As a teacher, I am always making instructional decisions. More often than not, these decision manifest themselves as questions. What do I want the students to know, understand, or be able to do at the end of my lesson? Who will do most of the talking, me or the students? Where does this lesson fit in the big picture of the class? Will I use technology? Will the students use technology? In addition to asking myself these questions, I am also continually looking for ways to teach better. That includes instructional strategies and technology. In some cases, the stars align and I discover strategies in which technology allows me to teach a lesson in a completely new way. For those SAMR enthusiasts out there, this would be R, or redefinition.

One such idea I recently came up with is an activity I call Some Bullet Points and a Picture (SBPAP). Yes, I have a dry sense of humor. This activity builds on the time-tested teaching strategy of having students work in groups and put their ideas down on chart paper. I love this activity, especially for class reading activities. I will assign an article, divide the class into groups, have them read a specific section of the article, then summarize and share their section with the rest of the class. This is a great way for the students to take ownership of the article and teach it to each other. It also gives them an advance organizer for when they go back and read it again for the exam.

SBPAP is the same idea as using chart paper, but the students summarize their group discussions on separate slides in a Google Presentation. I did some minimal setting up before class by creating the presentation, making it editable for anyone with the link, and creating a separate slide for each section of the article. The students then went to the Google Presentation, found their slide, and began summarizing their section of the article. The only two rules were 1) they had to paraphrase every main point in their own words, and 2) they had to find a picture that characterized their main points. The students used the research tool to find their images so they did not have to leave Google Presentation. Overall, the students loved the activity and we had a lot of fun seeing everyone's slides get edited at once.

There are some obvious advantages to doing this activity with a Google Presentation instead of chart paper:

  • The summaries are all in one place, so I can see which groups are making progress and who is not
  • Since the students are all working on the same presentation, I can project it and have each group present their ideas
  • The research tool allows the students to search for images, videos, quotes, charts, facts without leaving the presentation
  • After the activity is over, I can export the presentation as a PDF and post it to my LMS
  • The slides give me a record of what we covered in class, especially for students who missed and want to know if we "talked about anything important"
  • I don't have to figure out what to do with the chart paper after the activity is over

SBPAP was a great way to engage the students and have them actively learn the content. I will definitely do this again, and I may even think of some other ways to modify this activity and leverage more features of Google Presentation.

What are some innovative ways you have used Google Presentation in your classes to facilitate group work or engage the students?

Move over LiveSlide ... Hello Apollo

Apollo IconA few weeks ago, LiveSlide got a complete overhaul. So complete, in fact, that it was given a new name. I have written before about how much I enjoyed using LiveSlide, and I am happy to report that my overall satisfaction with this tool has not changed at all since I first started using it. I would like to go over a few of the new features that I really like about Apollo. First of all, Apollo is a classroom presentation/engagement tool. Imagine a classroom full of children with devices or computers, such as iPads or Chromebooks. Imagine instead of projecting your content on one big screen and requiring students to follow along, you could project your content onto every screen at the same time. This is exactly what Apollo does, but the newly updated version does so much more.

Slide Sharing

The main feature of Apollo is that it lets the teacher set up classes and share presentations with students on multiple platforms. Since this tool is completely brower-based, students can access the content from phones, tablets, and computers. Students can create an account in minutes, and for a small subscription they can access all of the decks from a class anytime they want. The free account allows students to follow along while the teacher is presenting, but they don't have access to the decks outside of class.

The teacher can set up the decks to advance all at the same time, or students can browse the slides at their own pace. There is also a tool for taking notes, though this would only be necessary if the student has the subscription. Several of my students have paid for the subscription, and they have liked being able to review their notes and the slides (with my annotations from class) when preparing for a test.

Annotations

The teacher screen features several different tools for annotating slides during a lesson. The tool I use most is the pen. I have surprised myself at how often I write things down on the slides, or draw arrows and circles for emphasis. I guess I have used PPT for so long, I forgot this is what teachers actually did when chalkboards were cutting edge technology! The eraser tool from LiveSlide is gone, which is a little annoying. I do like to be able to erase things when I make a mistake, so hopefully that feature will come back.

Control

The feature with the most promise is the ability to hand over control of the slides to a student. The student must be signed in to the class to do this. Once there are students signed in, I can pass off control and they will be able to annotate the slides for everyone or advance the slides. This has a lot of potential for group work and gathering formative assessment about their progress. In the past, I would have groups stand up and share what they talked about. Now, I can give them control and let them show their work instantly on the big screen.

Assessment

A new feature to Apollo is the ability to quiz students on the fly. The multiple choice tool has been there all along, but now you can turn a slide into an assessment by having students annotate or draw an image. Their drawing is instantly saved to the deck, and you can get quick feedback about their understanding of a concept. For example. you could create a slide with an image of a plant cell. While you are on that slide, you add a Drawing Quiz. When the students get to that slide, they will be prompted to draw on the image (e.g., label the parts of the cell) and submit their answers. The images then show up in a dashboard for you to look at. You can also add the student submissions to the presentation if you want to show it to the class.

Web Content

One of the hardest things about teaching in a BYOD environment (at least for me) is deploying links for everyone to view. In a computer lab, I can use SMART Sync or LANSchool to send content to all of the students, but this is much harder in a classroom where everyone is on their own computer. I have tried shortened URLs with bit.ly or goo.gl, but I still have to stop what I am doing and write the address on the board. With Apollo, I can add a URL to a slide, either in advance or on the fly, and it instantly creates a link in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. Students can then click on that link and view the content I have pushed out with minimal disruption to instruction.

I can do the same thing with videos. By simply adding the video URL, Apollo identifies the video and embeds it into the deck. So, rather than put a class full of students asleep watching a video on a big screen, I can have small groups of students huddle around a small screen and discuss a video. I have already done things like, "Stop the video every time you see [blank] and discuss what you think the teacher will do next." It's much more active than just showing the video and trying to discuss it as a whole group.

Recording

One feature I have not used yet is the ability to record a presentation while I am presenting. In order to do this, you have to download the native app and present from a laptop. I haven't really had a reason to do this yet, but I will play around with it this summer when I have some time.

There are many things I like about Apollo. I like that their team is so responsive. One of their reps actually drove to my campus to watch me use it in action, and gave me some feedback for adding students to the class. I like being able to wirelessly control the slides from my iPad and walk around the room while the students have the same content on their screens. I love being able to add links, blanks slides and video on the fly for students to view. Even more than that, I really, really love being able to annotate the slides in real time. No lag, no awkward angular lines ... just my good ole' terrible handwriting for the students to behold in all its glory. Apollo really is a great tool for teaching in a BYOD class. You can learn more about Apollo at their YouTube channel.

I would encourage you to give Apollo a try. I am also interested in hearing about other strategies for keeping students engaged and active in a BYOD environment. Let me know of your ideas, I would love to hear them.

Teaching Naked: The workshop, not the dream

Last week, I attended a workshop hosted by our teaching excellence center called Teaching Naked. This is a catchy title for both Jose Antonio Bowen's book and workshops, but I find it a little ironic considering the content from his presentation. When I think of "teaching naked," I think of eliminating all adornments and superfluous elements from the class. I had a professor at UVa, Dr. John Sanderson, who taught this way. For an entire semester, he taught our Tests and Measures class without the use of PowerPoint, a LMS, or any other instructional tools. He showed a couple of short video clips on the VHS player, and he would occasionally bring some handouts. Most of his diagrams were written on the board when we arrived, and the majority of the class was discussion and lecture. It was an engaging class and quite helpful in my development as a researcher. I had already taken Stats I when I took Dr. Sanderson's class, and he did a nice job of filling in the gaps of what I had missed the first time. He truly taught naked. On the other hand, Dr. Bowen's workshop centered on using A LOT of technology. His approach to teaching could best be described as the "flipped classroom." He presents students with a variety of media to watch, think about, and learn outside of class, then uses class time to engage students in activities that require face-to-face human interaction. I like this approach to teaching and hope to emulate it with the same skill as Dr. Bowen, but I do not consider it "naked." In fact, it is quite heavily adorned with a host of social media tools, to the extent that I wondered how a students, or the professor, would keep up with it all. He talked about e-mail, Twitter, Socrative, Facebook groups, Google Hangouts, Skype, YouTube, Merlot, and several other tools. What he did not talk about at any point in the talk was PowerPoint. In fact, the take-away message from the workshop was, "Stop delivering boring lectures using PowerPoint and start engaging your class more ... during class time."

Some of Dr. Bowen's ideas were not new to me. Socrative, Twitter, YouTube videos, Google Docs. I use each of these tools in different ways to support my teaching and keep students connected to the class. Other ideas where, quite honestly, not ever going to be part of my workflow: Facebook groups, Skype, or MOOC's. But I did take away some ideas I would like to implement either this semester or in the spring. I have already taken one suggestion, which is to send student materials related to class electronically after class is over. This way, they are not reading the paper instead of listening. I also would like to try broadcasting a Google Hangout session live sometime before the next paper is due. I have responded to nearly 30 e-mails in the last two days, each of which ask essentially the same 3-4 questions. I will give the Hangout a try and see if anyone joins in to ask questions that everyone can hear the answer to. This also lets me record the session, so students who miss can watch it later. I have never been that open to devoting time in the evenings in this way, but after spending at least two hours in the last couple of days responding to e-mails, I like the idea of reducing this down to an hour. Show up, let the students ask their questions, and get them to work.

In addition to some new ideas to apply to my teaching, the hour and a half spent listening to Dr. Bowen speak was quite enjoyable. He's funny, intelligent, and has some very keen insight into the way students think and approach school. I haven't decided yet if I will read his book, but I will definitely look through his website for some new ideas. In no time, I will be teaching naked too!

Creating visual tutorials with Snapguide

For the past two weeks, the students in my graduate class have been exploring various ways to provide scaffolding to learners using digital tools. These explorations have been grounded in an article we read by Mayer & Moreno (2003), which describes 9 practical ways to reduce cognitive load using instructional design principles and digital tools. The students have done everything from creating QuickStart guides with screenshots and Word to screencasts with Screencast-o-Matic to "flipped" lessons with Educreations. The main theme that emerged from all of these explorations is that digital tools, while easy to access and use, are still quite complex and rarely work in isolation. Content creators need to understand a variety of tools to create, share, and distribute their digital products. Some people call this digital literacy. Teachers rarely have time to devote large blocks to teaching their students how to use digital tools, which is why it is helpful to have a variety of techniques to record and share explanations which can be viewed outside of class time. This is the beauty of digitally-supported scaffolding. Teachers can continue to support student learning even when class is not in session.

To further explore this concept tonight, the students created visual tutorials with Snapguide. I found this tool when I was looking through the help resources for another tool, InfuseLearning. I really liked the interface, and when I saw the iOS app I was really impressed with how easy it is to use. The students and I agreed this would be a great way for kids to practice How-To writing, and for teachers to send visual instructions home. I remember sending home detailed written instructions for parents when I was teacher, and the science projects STILL did not come back done correctly. I would have loved to have something like Snapguide to visually walk the students through the project.

It's amazing to me how visual our culture is. Now that seemingly everyone is walking around with small computers in their pockets, there is no end to the media people can create about everyday processes and skills. In addition to being visual culture, we are a culture of sharing. Snapguide combined with other tools like Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter give us the potential to learn just about anything.

Here are some examples my students created last night in class:

Check out How to Make a 3D Foldify by TCU Horned Frogs on Snapguide.

Check out How to Make a Paper Bus by TCU Horned Frogs on Snapguide.

Check out How to Create a Foldable Mini House by TCU Horned Frogs on Snapguide.

What tools do you use to learn and share new things?

It's not you, it's me

For several years, I have asked students to fill out a Student Information Survey at the beginning of the semester. I adapted the same survey from semester to semester, but it essentially consisted of the same questions. Sometimes it was worth a grade, other times not. Sometimes I made the fields required, sometimes not. Since I have typically taught tech-integration courses for the past several years, most of my questions were technical in nature. I wanted to know such things as their current tech setup (type of computer/OS, access to other devices, etc.), experience with current tech trends (social, mobile, Cloud, gaming, etc.), the intensity of their love/hate relationship with tech, and how their teachers in the past have used it. I also asked a a couple of questions about how they learned best and about any teaching experience they had. Overall, this Student Information Survey was not very exciting, but it helped me establish a baseline for what I was dealing with. Now that I do not teach tech integration classes anymore, I have found my current survey needs to be updated as well. For one thing, I have started calling it a "questionnaire," which may just be a semantic issue, but it seems to capture what I am actually doing. The most notable change, however, is the questions themselves. Instead of getting descriptive data, I want the students to be introspective about themselves as learners. Based on a few studies I have read lately, I have learned that student evaluations of their professors are based more on their self-concepts as learners than on the efficacy and characteristics of the professor. For example, one study I looked at used a hierarchical regression analysis to investigate the relationship between students' academic self-efficacy and professor characteristics. The result of this study showed that students with high academic self-efficacy tended to give high ratings to professors with characteristics such as content expertise, professionalism, and disagreeableness (i.e., argues, challenges, steps on toes). On the other hand, students with low academic self-efficacy tended to give high ratings to such professor characteristics as compassion, helpfulness, and student-centeredness (though I personally find that trait to be problematic). The Social Exchange Theory is alive and well in the classroom.

In essence, the college classroom is no different than life in general: People evaluate others based on how they feel about themselves.

In response to this belief about my students, I want them to think a little more deeply about themselves as learners and unpack some of the jargon they tend to throw around. One example of psycho-babble jargon students tend to use is "engaged." For example, when I ask the question, "When do you learn best?" they will often respond by saying, "When I am engaged in my learning." My first response is, "Well, yeah, that's kind of how learning works. It's not a passive process." But I have really started to think more deeply about what students mean by "engaged." I always assumed engagement was a trait of the learner, as in, I am listening, taking notes, asking questions, participating in the discussion: I am in engaged.  Based on my experience in one class last semester, however, I suspect many students have a completely different vision for what "engaged" means. I now believe they see this as a trait of the instructor, as in, you are doing things in class that I deem worthy of my attention. The professor is engaging the students. It all comes down to locus of control. In a perfect world, both of these conceptualizations of "engaged" are true, and the professor is carefully thinking about how to present ideas in an organized and compelling way, while using strategies to draw the students into the process. At the same time, the students buy into this and are internally motivated to participate. Both parties fully understand their role in the process and take it seriously. Of course, I have no idea if any of this actually true, or if I just obsessed about it way too much and displaced a lot of my own insecurities onto the students.

This is why I am asking new questions. I want to know how my students evaluate themselves as learners, how they describe "engaged learning," and how they know if they have learned something or not. I am also including a question that asks them to rate themselves at multi-tasking. This item alone will probably explain 90% of the variance in test scores. In case you have never read my reflections on teaching college students, I believe multi-tasking is a horse apple dipped in a cow pie and sprinkled with bird droppings.

My purpose in asking these questions is two-fold. First, I want my students to honestly think about themselves as learners. I am not expecting light bulbs or fireworks, but I do want to push this issue to the forefront. Second, I want to know their (mis)conceptions about learning and teaching so I can address it. Once I know what they think about these important concepts, I can show them research that either confirms or refutes their beliefs. More importantly, it gives me the opportunity to make the class not just informational, but also transformational. Any time a person has the chance to reflect and say, "I used to think ..., but now I know ..." it opens the door to personal growth. Isn't that what all teachers hope to engender in their classrooms?

So, what strategies or activities do you use to learn about your students? How do you use that information? Is it valuable? Take a minute to let me know what you think.

iPad Mini-Projects in a Lecture Course

When my college got a cart with 20 iPads, I began brimming with ideas. I had been teaching in a computer lab for about 7 years, and there were many ideas I had always wanted to try on tablets and mobile devices.

Computer labs can be a challenging place to teach, and I must admit I am still not completely comfortable having to remind students repeatedly to stop looking at Facebook or Zappos. There are many activities you can do in a technology-enriched classroom, but it takes some time and careful planning to teach the students how to carefully move media from a camera to a computer to the cloud to a different computer and back to the cloud. Some of my students never become quite comfortable with storing and retrieving their data from multiple devices, even though the technology is advanced enough nowadays to make the process seamless.

An environment which is even harder to teach in than a computer lab is a large lecture hall. Until last fall, the largest class I had ever taught was about 30 students. This all changed when I began teaching the course for my college intended to orient early-career students to the big, wide world of education. This class is primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores, and they are a mix of education majors and folks from other programs seeking an elective. The class meets for two hours, three days per week. I typically facilitate lecture/discussion on Monday, Wednesday is spent in schools observing teachers and students, and Friday is a lab with more discussion, presentations, and other activities. Needless to say, this class is its own planet with quite a bit of gravitational pull.

Teaching this class presented many challenges, but the most immediate to me as professor on record was to make the Monday lecture/discussion not so brutal. Here are a few facts you may or may not know about college students :

  1. Their primary objective is to earn a high grade. This is particularly true at a private university.
  2. This objective tends to keep the students' focus on points, scores, and averages.
  3. This tends to divert their attention away from learning for the purpose of mastery.
  4. Class time, therefore, is seen as something required to help them meet their objective.

This becomes challenging because anything the students perceive will not be on a test or included in a paper becomes unnecessary, in their opinion. So for me, the goal has been to make the Monday class meetings something the students want to do rather than have to do.

One method I have used is mini-projects with the class iPad cart. I didn't want to burn the students out with these projects, but I had a few ideas I had used on a smaller scale. I was ready to try them on a larger scale with more students. My iPad mini-projects this semester included:

  1. Short Public Service Announcement videos about risky behaviors many students try in school. The students got into groups of 3-4 and made a short PSA about the risky behavior they were given (e.g., drugs, alcohol, delinquency, pregnancy, STDs, and cheating. They had to include at least two statistics we discussed in class, and the video had to include everyone in the group. They uploaded the videos to a common Google Drive account, and I made the videos available for each student to view.
  2. Group wiki about the hard decisions school districts must make about funding and cutting programs. Each group played School Budget Hold'Em, then reflected about their decisions on a wiki. The iPads turned out to be not so great at editing a wiki, but thankfully many of the students bring their laptops to class.
  3. Thank You video to participating school. The students in this class, in addition to hearing me pontificate each week about the mysteries of education, observed in local schools for an hour each week. I put them in groups and had them record short thank you messages, which I edited into one video. I then sent the final video the schools, which I assume they enjoyed but I don't really know for sure.
  4. 5 Picture Charades about the various philosophies of education. They worked in teams and tried to portray a different philosophy of education (traditional, progressive, existential, and critical) in 5 pictures. All I have to say is, students can be very creative when they want to.
  5. Flipped lesson outlining the lesson sequence using Educreations. The students were given relatively easy topics, such as long division, simple machines, branches of government, and subject/predicate, and instructed to create a short lesson for students. One of the requirements was to label each section of the lesson (activate background knowledge, state objectives, explain the concept or skill, guided practice, independent practice), which I think was one of the key parts of this project. The students thought the main take-away was learning how hard it is to explain things succinctly and accurately. I still find that challenging with my own children.

I learned a lot about using iPads with a large class in a lecture hall setting. There were a lot of challenges and mistakes, but not as many as I would have predicted. As technology usually goes, my hiccups came in places I didn't predict. I think the students received this projects pretty openly, and their products were very good for the most part. The other challenge was finding time to watch and read their creations. 20, 2 minute PSA videos can take a lot of time to get through, especially when you add in transition and loading time. I will have to think of a way to do this better. These activities definitely stretched me and increased my own skill set, and I am eager to try it again in the fall.

Guest Blogging in the U.S.A.

The following post is something I wrote as a guest blogger on Wes Fryer's popular blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativity. My contribution will be posted on June 21.

The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer.

-Bertrand Russell

The first time I remember “creating” something for a school assignment was in 3rd grade. Up until this point, what I remember about school involved completing worksheets at my desk, reading from various texts in front of the whole class, and being placed in groups based on my ability in math and reading. This all changed in Mr. Beaver’s class, my 3rd grade teacher.

Mr. Beaver involved his students in various activities and challenges, most of which required us to build something with materials we found at home. He would come into class one day and toss out some ambiguous statement as if it were a hook with a worm: “My daughter bought a kite this weekend, and it works pretty well. I wonder if she could have built a kite out of supplies she found at home. Nah, probably not. That’s too hard for someone her age.” This was just enough for a few of us to go home and try to prove him wrong. During the school year, we had several projects that involved creating things: electromagnets, dioramas, kites, maps. For a kid who liked making stuff anyway, it was a fun year in school.

This experience probably planted the seed in my mind that projects are a fun and engaging way to learn. As a teacher, I tried to implement several different projects throughout the year, and now I spend a fair amount of time helping other teachers design and implement student projects in their classrooms.

Most of the work I have done in recent years has centered around digital media: teachers helping students combine images, audio, video and/or text to express their learning through such products as digital stories, documentaries, podcasts, virtual museums and comics. More recently, however, I have been involved in projects that cross over from digital media to physical media, otherwise known as digital fabrication or desktop engineering.

The focus of this initiative, under the direction of Glen Bull at the University of Virginia, is to teach students to apply math, science, engineering and technology skills and concepts to real-world problems. Students create digital models of objects such as electrical circuits, windmills, and gears, print and cut them using special equipment, then construct the components into a physical object. This short video describes the process of digital fabrication.

The concept of creating virtual 3D representations of objects before creating the physical object is not new. Many of the things we use everyday - cars, homes, buildings, city plans, electronics, and aircraft - were first designed and tested in a virtual environment before the physical object was ever built. Similar to storyboarding in movies and game design, virtual models help designers test and troubleshoot their products without making potentially costly mistakes that waste resources. As teachers, we want our students to be problem solvers and identify areas for improvement early in a process rather than later.

An integral part of this initiative has been training teachers - both in-service and preservice - how to integrate engineering and fabrication activities into their existing curriculum. Our research has confirmed a line of previous studies that many in-service and preservice teachers, especially at the elementary level, lack confidence when it comes to teaching math and science. This can be a barrier when it comes to encouraging teachers to create engineering design projects for their students. In response to this problem, we have been replicating engineering design projects being done with 4-5 grade students in Virginia with preservice teachers in North Texas.

If you are interested in reading examples about digital fabrication in a teacher education course, I have provided a few for you here:

The University of Virginia also has a wealth of resources on this topic, which can be accessed for free on the Make to Learn website. Most of these activities do not require a Silhouette cutting machine and have been successfully implemented in some classrooms with nothing more than scissors. I have also found some excellent activities at robives.com, but I have yet to try any of them with students or teachers.

My hope is that sharing some of the work being done in the area of desktop engineering with a larger audience will generate some interest in doing this type of work in the classroom. This initiative is in its infancy, yet it has already attracted quite a bit of attention and buy-in from several school districts, universities and the National Science Foundation. The need for our students to be creators, thinkers and innovators has never been greater, and there seems to be no better way to foster these qualities than to engage students in activities that require creativity, thinking and innovation. Students already have a reputation for being massive consumers of digital media and other technological innovations, and they are one of the largest groups to create and share digital content. Now, with the emergence of desktop engineering we have the resources at our fingertips to help them discover the relationship between virtual and physical media and further explore what it means to play with media.

Mine, Yours and Ours

This semester was one of the more challenging I've had since I began teaching college. For one, I was teaching 4 classes: three undergrad and one grad. Three of the classes were completely online, and the other was hybrid. The hybrid class and grad class were at a large university in my city, and the other two classes were at a small community college about a thousand miles away. Confused yet? Good, because that is how I felt most of the semester. What made this particular semester even more challenging was the nature of the courses I was teaching. I call them Mine, Yours and Ours, and each course presented its own set of challenges.

Mine

I have taught these online sections of the same class for about 7 years. This began as an experiment, and it was so popular within the community college setting in which it was offered that they asked me to teach more sections. For three years I only taught in the summer, then I was asked to pick up one section in the fall and spring, and now I am teaching two sections each semester and two each summer. This particular course can be used as a substitute for basic composition, and apparently there are a lot of students who do not want to take basic composition. This class still requires the students to do quite a bit of writing, but the crux of each assignment is not me pointing out the deficiencies in their writing. (Of which. There. Are. Many.) I focus more on their content, but I still point out areas of their writing that need to be improved in the subsequent papers. Anyway, the course is not that hard and students who stay on track all semester almost always make an A. Everyone else usually makes a D or F. Seriously.

I could easily teach this class in my sleep. I know exactly when each assignment is due, what I am looking for from each student, and I can usually successfully guide students back on track when they show signs of dropping out. One of my sections this semester did kind of implode (only 10 out of 23 students completed the class), but this is the first time this has happened. When I finally hand this class over to someone else, which I will be doing in the fall, I feel pretty confident that I know it well enough to help the new instructor get off to a good start. In other words, I feel like I totally own this course and have command of what happens throughout the semester. In fact, most of the teaching I have done throughout my career falls into the Mine category. For good or bad, it's my course.

Yours

Another of my courses this semester was an online graduate course. When I was asked to teach this curse ... I mean, course ... I felt pretty confident I would be able to do it just from the title. I promptly found out which books the professor had been using, obtained desk copies and proceeded to look through her syllabus. I contacted her former teaching assistant, and this is when I found out about something called Intellectual Property. I already knew what this was, but what I didn't know was that at this particular school that meant I was supposed to teach the course "as is." The lessons, assignments, discussions, etc. were already loaded into Blackboard and all I had to do was show up.  This didn't sound so bad at first, but as I began looking at the assignments I knew this was going to be very challenging. Maybe I am just immature, but I found it REALLLLY hard to enforce assignments with students that I never would have given in the first place. I never really got control of my serve the entire semester, and I think the main reason was that I felt such little ownership of the course. Many of the assignments were outdated, the technology the students were using was definitely outdated, and some of the tasks the students were asked to perform were not even possible in the most recent versions of the software. To add insult to injury, I was not allowed to have access to the server the students were using to host their websites. When they would e-mail me with questions about uploading (or Putting, in this case), I didn't know exactly how to help them because I did not have access to Put files on the server. How can you help someone with something you have never done before?!? I could not even see the files on the back end to tell them if they were in the right directory or not.

I have taught this exact course at another university, but I completely designed and implemented it myself. I was able to answer student questions (and challenges) with confidence because everything that was there was something I put there. The students learned a lot, and the evaluations turned out pretty good. I will not even look at the evaluations for this class. Had it not been for the fact that this class was made up of pretty motivated Master's students, this would have been a total disaster. I am willing to bet the students already think it was.

Ours

The final class I taught this semester, a hybrid course at a large university, would mostly be described as a team effort. The course outline was made up of several topics I chose myself and some that were "part of the course." Most of the course policies were my decision (attendance, late work, participation), while others were required to be  common across all sections (readings, exams). This course has historically been a source of student data using a battery of attitude and self-efficacy instruments, so there were some lessons that we were all encouraged to teach in order to assess changes in those areas. Some of the modules for this course were designed as part of a grant-funded project, and I taught them for all of the instructors. This was quite time consuming, but it did give me a chance to refine my teaching strategy over several iterations, which is good for improving my personal instruction. Most of the instructors for this class give the same assignments, though they differ in how they are graded and how much work the students are expected to do. The area in this course with the most variation was in the final project. Without going into a lot of detail, this varied greatly across different sections of the course. I guess the bottom line here is that overall this is a good course, but the student experience is very different depending on who is teaching the section.

Take-Aways

My experience with teaching this semester gave me a front-row seat into some of the big issues facing higher-ed teaching in this era.

  1. Canned content : college courses :: canned food : nutrition. I believe it was necessary for me to teach a pre-planned course of someone else's content in order to experience how utterly horrible this is as an educational model. Yet, there are dozens of institutions, both non- and for-profit, that follow this model. My experience with being given a course shell already populated with assignments, readings, discussions and projects was nothing short of disastrous. The entire course, from the terminology to the tools to the links, was out of date. Can I get a "screencast" from the congregation? How about a screenshot? Maybe a video lecture where the slides and voice-over are in the same file? Nothing. This notion of taking a course shell, changing the dates on the syllabus and serving it like yesterday's meatloaf is not as efficient as some people think it is. Instruction is not some thing (i.e., knowledge) that is delivered through a human to other humans. It is the act of a human taking a thing (subject matter) and transforming it into a learning experience for other humans. If a person can gather a bunch of resources and teach himself something new, that's great, but it isn't teaching, and I'm pretty sure universities do not intend to build themselves on this self-help model. If the "teacher" is just the person who makes sure Blackboard is working and points students to the person who actually has access to the server, then why in the world did I bother getting a Ph.D.? Where is the expertise in that?!?
  2. I have completely re-thought my strategy for handing over my online course this fall. My original plan was put everything in a folder, burn it to a disc and giving it to the new instructor. Given the chance that the new instructor might take my content and do what I was forced to do with the grad class, I will probably only give the new instructor as many resources as he needs to get started. I think there is some value in having to think through the course and make decisions about what to assign, and when. The new instructor should come up with his own tests and assignments based on what he thinks is important to know. I have lived with the course so long, I may be missing the point entirely and don't even know it. I want to be helpful, but I also want what is best for the students. And after my experience with the online grad class, I think that what's best for the students is when the instructor puts his or her advanced degree to good use and brands the course with his or her brain, perspective and creativity, not someone else's.
  3. Standardized courses are really tricky. My first experience with a standardized course was a public speaking class at a large university that ran between 60-65 section each semester. It was required, in classes of 20-25 students, for every single undergraduate in the university. I don't think there was one graduate instructor, adjunct or professor who taught the class exactly as it was supposed to be taught. I think they were all pretty similar, but you can't expect intelligent, creative individuals to teach something in the exact same way. The hybrid course I taught is a completely unique experience from section to section, and I think that is OK. But you also want to ensure that in a certification program, as this one is, all students are held to the same standards. Standards vs. Personalization. That is a really hard balance to find, and it is something I will have to think about a lot this summer. In the fall I am teaching a 100+ student course with several TAs to "manage" smaller groups of students. I want the TAs to be themselves and explore their own style, but I also want each student held to the same standards. No shortcuts. No trying to win cool points by being lax. Again, I had to have this experience with a multi-section standardized course because I am about to be in charge of one myself.

Every semester I have taught at the college level has been so different. Nothing has played out exactly the same way twice. No two groups of students have responded exactly the same way to the same project, story or reading. This is what makes it fun, but it also makes it incredibly challenging. The only thing that is guaranteed is that nothing is guaranteed. Oh, and cliches. You are guaranteed to see a few of those if you read my blog.

Podcasting and Learning

I've been orbiting and occupying this big ol' Ed Techy world for quite a long time. So, I've read countless papers, proposals, articles, and chapters on "Why my media is better for learning than your media." I've studied this from a cognitive, social, motivational, and developmental perspective, and I am still not convinced that one medium is better for learning than any other. I do believe that all media have different affordances that make them better-suited for certain contexts, learning styles or learning tasks. Needless to say, I've done (and continue to do) my homework  on this one, and I get a little annoyed when people who just perhaps haven't done as much homework on this topic make blanket statements like this one:

 A new study found that students who listen to lectures on podcasts test better than those who listen in class. (You can read the entire article here.)

The "new study" in question is taken from a 2009 article in New Scientist, and it's reporting on a study done in the same year by Dani McKinney. I found these links in a 2012 blog post by Michael Hyatt. My issue is not with bloggers quoting bloggers quoting bloggers, some of whom don't understand educational technology research. The problem I have with this quote, and those like it, is that it is stated as if this were "proven" fact. Here are some things to consider when reading results from this type of research:

  1. Learning is complex and influenced by many, many factors: motivation, engagement, prior knowledge, environment, aptitude AND delivery method. To say that students who listen to a podcast at home will score better on a test than those who come to class and listen to the lecture is absurd. This can lead to all kinds of misconceptions about learning, multi-tasking, learning styles and media. "You can learn astrophysics while washing the dishes and updating your Facebook status!"
  2. Most educational technology research studies have a long list of limitations. The findings are almost always limited to the study in question, with some suggestions on how to scale it up or replicate the results. This is called "job security" for us academic types.
  3. Teacher-created exams may not be the best measure for student learning. Sure, they're great for assigning grades, but they are often mismatched with the learning objectives, and if they are multiple choice, there's a chance the students could guess and get the right answer. The test items may also be written in such a way that it is easy to eliminate answer choices and choose the right one without really knowing the material. I did not read the entire research article, so I will not make any judgments about this instructor's exam.

Online and hybrid learning environments are here to stay, and the research into best practices and learning outcomes for this model of teaching will only get broader and better. Studies such as the one I reference above are an important part in this process and must be done. Any research study should produce more questions than answers, which this one obviously did (Do podcast lectures have the same effect over an entire semester?) But please, if you are going to quote studies like this, look at the original research article and temper your statements with a qualifier or two. Michael Hyatt and Mile Elgan have thousands and thousands of readers. If I go back and read this tonight, I will have one. People believe what they read, and they especially believe what they read when they WANT to believe it. If you want to do better on tests, or learn something new, try the time-tested strategy of applying yourself and taking ownership of your learning. Don't expect media, podcasts or otherwise, to do for you what you aren't willing to do for yourself.