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The sleeper in the back of the room

  October 9th, 2011

I’d love to say that I’m such an engaging lecturer that I’ve never had a sleeper in the back of my classroom but sadly that’s not true.  I have.  And I know I’ve had sleepers in my online classroom too but I don’t have to see them.  The benefit to my online classroom is that sleepers don’t really matter.  Students have to be self-motivated enough to learn the material, turn in assignments, and take exams without having a scheduled time to show up for class.  The student who might sleep through my lecture on models of nutrient uptake might find my online presentation really interesting and be actively engaged in our online discussion.  A student who is engaged in the classroom might find online courses difficult because they must find their own time to view material and they don’t have me standing in front of them 3x a week saying “Hey isn’t this cool!” to get them excited about a topic.

Basically I think online courses are great because they are available to a wider population than can come to campus and take classes.  I love the variety of people I’ve had in my classes.  Teaching Perennial Plants to someone in Qatar definitely expanded my list of plants to consider, although most of the plants she had growing around her wouldn’t grow in Corvallis.  The drawback I see and I don’t think you can avoid is that online you don’t have an instructor right there who you can stop and ask questions of.  There are ways to make that difference OK but I think for some students on campus will always work better.  It just depends on how they learn.  And the reality is that there will always be sleepers not matter how engaging we are on campus or online.

Some thoughts on how I’ve set up my online courses…

1 – keep the course design simple.  I use a Course Information section, a Course Documents section, an Assignments section, and an Exam section.  Course Information contains the syllabus and calendar.  Course Documents contains the topics we’re coving in class grouped in 3 week blocks.  Under each topic there is text, ppt, and links to further reading, usually only 2 or 3 things per folder.  In Assignments I have an explanation and a link for them to turn in their work.  Exams contains, well, exams.  I like this arrangement b/c students never open 1 section and feel overwhelmed by what they see.

I also prefer discussion boards to blogs b/c it keeps all the course interactions in 1 place. Students don’t have to leave the course Bb site and log onto another site to contribute to the  course.

3 – I use discussion boards and I use groups for the boards.  I arrange my discussion boards with individual threads for individual topics so that there is never an open ended “jump in” type expectation.  As discussions develop I encourage students to start threads for ideas that they think are interesting or important and I start new threads when a new idea pops up.  This helps avoid discussions that get so convoluted that you can’t remember where it started.  Using groups of 10 or so also keeps discussions more focused and seems to give students more of an opportunity to make new contributions rather than just agreeing with each other.

Of course I’m teaching a science course so they types of discussions and information I’m presenting may be very different from a writing course or an art or music course.

Sarah Finger McDonald

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4 Responses to “The sleeper in the back of the room”

  1. Great point about the sleepers in the back. I like to think that mine are due to the early hour – 9 a.m. – or the warm room? And that online students will “come to class” alert and ready – but that could be wishful thinking.
    Your point on simplicity in the online course is a great reminder. I have a tendency to be a “more is more” person, and I want to share all the great resources that I see…but… that can overwhelm people, I know. So I am trying to resist.

    I like your ideas on Disc. Board. People do go to new topics mid-thread and then the replies and the tree of replies becomes very convoluted indeed. I asked in the general discussion whether DB had a folder function so that one could group forums by topics – such as a folder of Homework forums and one of peer review forums, etc. Do you know?

    What ARE the perennial plants in Qatar? And does that phone app which identified trees in the US also identify plants elsewhere? That’s one online tool that could help a lot.

    Thanks for all the good sharing.

    Comment by jamesosa - October 10th, 2011 @ 8:16 am
  2. Hey Sarah
    Great Post
    I’m sure I’ve had people sleeping with their eyes open. I don’t have a huge sample size to work with, but there was one student who was pretty blatant about it. Head resting on folded arms. You could almost see the ZZZZZs floating over his head. Though I didn’t notice any drool, there was probably some of that as well. Thankfully he WAS in the back of the class, so it wasn’t as insulting as it could have been. His excuse: He’d just returned from a long road trip with his Rugby team, and was both tired and sick. My response: If you’re going to be in class, make an effort to pay attention. If you’re too tired or sick, just don’t come to class. It makes no sense to just come and sleep. So I spoke to him about it, he apologized, and it never happened again. Yet I have to say it stuck with me.

    With your words in mind, I think about the degree of self-motivation an online student must have. A student such as the one I mention won’t tune in just to tune out. They simply won’t tune in in the first place, at least not until they feel ready. And when will that be? This is one of the challenges to online teaching I wrote about on the Discussion Board, one shared by others. There are a great many students who repeatedly make their presence known on the Discussion Board or via email, and there are others who only chime in on occasion, and even then only with a sentence or two. I often wonder if they’re taking in all of the material and are simply bashful, or if they’re just not committed to the class. Assignment results typically tell the tale, though the answer is still not obvious.

    I share your preference regarding use of Discussion Boards. It’s nice to have a kindred spirit of sorts.

    Comment by stemperd - October 10th, 2011 @ 9:51 am
  3. As course sizes become larger, I’ve had many more instructors asking about how to set up groups for discussion purposes. It makes it easier to follow a discussion when there are fewer participants. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount of ‘screen reading’ that faces the instructor. In some science courses, some of the group discussion board monitoring has been delegated to several TAs. Or, in some weeks, the groups are asked to post just a summary post to the main board so all the students can get a feel for the ideas discussed in the other groups.

    Comment by Karen Watte - October 10th, 2011 @ 11:24 am
  4. Another idea to manage discussion boards is to have students facilitate them as an assignment. This works especially well with 400/500 level courses, where grad students can be asked to lead discussions for a week. This can work in lower level courses, too, though.

    Comment by Shannon - October 11th, 2011 @ 10:09 am

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