Albuquerque Inspirations: my peers excite me … and so do theirs

Greetings colleagues! I am writing this post from Albuquerque, NM, where I’ve been up to my elbows at the Southwest Popular American Culture Association conference this week. I presented my paper yesterday, and that’s the only excuse I can come up with for missing the Friday deadline for this blog post. It’s 0634 in the morning, and I’ve been up since 0430 catching up on overdue grading, but hunting makes me an early riser, so I don’t mind. The sun is just starting to grumble its way up the Albuquerque skyline, and the sky is pale grayish-blue. I grew up in this state, so coming to SWPACA always makes me nostalgic, particularly when it comes to polishing off a bowl of green chile stew.

Sorry: I just had to share.

I concur heartily with our adamsden, who spoke of how easy it is, at some point in the term, to backslide into some and even all of the bad habits mentioned St. Germain’s article. But then again, screwing stuff up is the price of going off the map, and taking chances is what makes teaching exciting. After doing this for 16 years (and I know some of you have been doing it far longer), that’s one thing I can say for certain. Anyone who teaches something the same way for decades is doing something wrong. The recipe can always be improved.

Any major cook will tell you.

Of the five pitfalls St. Germain wags her pedagogical finger at, I found myself most smitten with Pitfall #5: Ignore the ways students learn from each other. Over the years, in every class I teach, I have always been impressed (and even spiritually clubbed over the head) by how thirsty our students are to relate to each other on a personal level. Some of this thirst may be impelled by the harsh realities of attempting to teach meta-lecture classes in excess of 150+ students, where participants feel like so many faceless faces in a crowd.

Maybe it’s the fact that, since birth, millennials have been trained and nurtured to work in pods, like orcas, and there is a certain reassurance in sticking with the herd.

But I think the answer is far different. I think our students are thirsty to work with each other because it is stimulating, plain and simple. While they might, in a best case scenario, honor and cherish their educational relationships with us old teacherly types (I speak for myself, obviously), they find own interpersonal relationships incredibly exciting, as they agree, disagree, admire and/or square off with each other in the Arena of the Intellect.

And can I fault them? Look at where I am right now: at a conference in Albuquerque, arguing and reveling in adaptation theory with my colleagues, finding inspiration and motivation to bring back home to my classrooms. Making new connections and eating green chile cheeseburgers for lunch.

So reflecting on St. Germain’s nice, punchy article (I love it when pedagogical theory gets to, and sticks with, the point), I solemnly pledge to stay alert, to not remain content with mere discussion board exchanges, but to bust my hump to figure out more interactive ways my students can make contact with–and gain inspiration from–each other. There are untapped wells of energy in that process, and it is my aim in the coming terms to tap this wellspring of energy and channel it to make a more exciting classroom. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt the students learn as much (even more) from each other than they would if I try to cram my agenda of “knowledge” into their heads.

One of the most inspirational texts I have stumbled on in my career is titled “The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation,” by the French political theorist, Jacques Ranciere. I will close this missive with one of my favorite quotes, in which Ranciere critiques the megalomaniacal master-driven style of learning:

“The master always keeps a piece of learning–that is to say, a piece of the student’s ignorance–up his sleeve. I understood that, says the satisfied student. You think so, corrects the master. in fact, there’s a difficulty here that I’ve been sparing you until now. We will explain it when we get to the corresponding lesson. What does this mean? asks the curious student. I could tell you, responds the master, but it would be premature: you wouldn’t understand at all. It will be explained to you next year. The master is always a length ahead of the student, who always feels that in order to go farther he must have another master, supplementary explications. Thus does the triumphant Achilles drag Hector’s corpse, attached to his chariot, around the city of Troy.”

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Pitfall narrowly avoided!

The last pitfall (Ignore the ways students learn from each other) particularly resonated with me.  The course I teach, ED 340, relies heavily on student-to-student learning as a way to support students with the classroom management piece of teaching.   It’s important to get the classroom management piece right; we know that new teachers who struggle with classroom management are at higher risk for relying on more teacher-centered instruction (read: students quiet, teacher talks).  They are also more likely to drop out of the profession altogether.

Right now, this student-to-student learning comes mostly in the form of instructor-facilitated problem-solving in the physical classroom (“How would you handle ______situation?”  “How could ________situation have been prevented?”).  It’s an important part of helping them feel more prepared to take over their own class, and one of the parts of the class that the students say they most appreciate.

But in the online component to my class, I’ll be honest – I almost fell for this pitfall.  My first instinct was to load all of my course content (readings, responses, etc.) online, and to forget that some of this student-to-student learning can happen online.  Our readings and my reflection over the last couple of weeks have helped me see that a better option is to re-design my class so that at least some of this problem-solving happens virtually.

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Creating through Active Learning

Photo by Alina Padilla-Miller In 2011, I found myself standing in front of a room full of 2nd and 3rd grade students lecturing about digital storytelling. I explained the power of story, narrative, scripts, production and audience. There were a couple starry-eyed kiddos listening intently but for the majority of the class I watched them fidget, look around the room, play with their shoes, stare at the ceiling and occasionally tune in to me while I was talking. Did they learn anything? I was about to find out.

Once I handed out the 2-column script template, colored markers for color coding and gave instructions, a beautiful sight unfolded. Every student was deep in their creation and applying what I had been lecturing on, as if they had heard everything even though I viewed them as looking completely distracted. The takeaway from this experience was a lasting one, there is significant importance in the learning process through creating.

In the article, “Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design,” Pitfall #4: Expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it, really resonated with me. In the last eight years of teaching, this pitfall has proven to be a crucial one to consider. Much like the 2nd and 3rd grade students demonstrated to me on that day, my college students also like active learning. According to an article in the Standford Teaching Commons, “active learning is means students engage with the material, participate in the class, and collaborate with each other. Don’t expect your students simply to listen and memorize; instead, have them help demonstrate a process, analyze an argument, or apply a concept to a real-world situation.”

So, how will I avoid this pitfall in hybrid classes? Well, I plan to incorporate as much active learning as possible. Through activities, experiments and use of everyday media, there are a lot of opportunities to fold in the creation process. The process of creating is not only necessary to include in active learning but it’s also incredibly engaging and dare I say it, fun! Whether the class is face-to-face, online or hybrid, incorporating active learning will enrich the course and ultimately the student’s experience with the curriculum. Let the creating begin!

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Sage on the Stage

Online Course Design Pitfall #3: Insist on being the “sage on the stage.” According to Elizabeth St. Germain’s article, “Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design,” she discusses how teachers, instructors and professors often teach using the pedagogy that they possess special knowledge and that their students and/or subordinates need to listen to their every word in order to understand this special knowledge. With age and experience on the teacher’s side, it is easy to fall into this habit as a method of enlightening our wards. With the advent of the internet, however, the voice of the sage has been filtered out almost entirely. How do we convey our knowledge in the midst of so much “noise”? It appears that we need to turn to the “noise” and train our students to critically question the wide berth of information from so many online sources, including academic publications that are now easily accessible with a few key words.

Collecting data via online research, analyzing and deciphering the content and preparing the information in a meaningful way that can be used in the classroom can make this a much more useful practice. Rather than students relying on their “sage” to inform them, we have the ability to transform the classroom from unidirectional communication into multilateral communications between instructor to student and student to student. Approaching this from a hybrid design perspective, using the initial collection and deciphering of data online prior to use in the classroom as, for example, small group discussions, moves the omnipotent sage into the role of facilitator, one who directs the flow of the classroom rather than dominating the stage.

For my hybrid course design, I want to enable students to pursue information prior to our class meetings and share what they have found and how they interpret it with their peers and myself. The challenge for me is to know when to “step out of their way” and how to guide the discussions so that they become a learning experience for the students. This is easier said than done, as I have been trained as a passive learner and feel very comfortable with prepared lectures. It may be more taxing to be responsible for your own learning (from the student angle) and scary to potentially not be in complete control of the classroom (from the teacher’s perspective).

It will take some practice on my part, for sure, to become more comfortable as a facilitator, rather than packing the meeting times with information that I want the students to learn and understand. Yet, this seems a necessary change, not only for hybrid courses, but for most all educational designs.

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Creating Knowledge Through Hands-on Experience

The re-worked KIN 511 will require students to apply the rote muscular anatomy knowledge to hands on skills of palpation and identification on a living person as well as acquisition of new evaluative skills that they will be expected to utilize in a clinical setting by the end of the course.  The course design pitfall “#4: Expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it” helped me shift my thought process in a necessary way.  How can I build applicable course activities to engage students, both online and in person, to create their knowledge for themselves rather than consume it for regurgitation for someone else?

For this course I plan to have students heavily engaged in online content for the first two weeks of the 4 week summer term.  The goal of these first two weeks is to get all students on the same level with the anatomical structures and functions via assignments and online activities.  In the final two weeks of the term we will engage in immersive hands on activities to apply the information they engaged with online.  With my clinical background, creation of hands-on learning comes much more naturally in the face-to-face setting.

I foresee some students experiencing more difficulty with creating knowledge based on their clinical background prior to entering the MATRN program.  Students who struggle in the application portion of the course will have resources to expand their hands-on practice time in the form of open lab, guided practice with clinical preceptors and take home palpation modules to work through on their own.

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Learning By Teaching

One of the most effective ways for a student to really master a concept is to present/teach that topic to their peers. This aligns with pitfall #4- expecting students to consume knowledge rather than create it. One of the hardest aspects of distance or online learning is that the mode of delivery can determine the level of interest of the students. To combat this, creating ways for the students to interact with the content in a way that builds ownership of it can affect the overall learning. A good example of this is to use a discussion board to have each student “teach” their peers about a specific topic covered in that module. I saw this used frequently in a research concepts class, and it was incredibly helpful. Not only did we all get to learn our own topics, but we were able to ask clarifying questions of each other. This meant that occasionally, more work was needed by certain students to clarify their topic. The atmosphere was interactive, collaborative, and it also managed to build a community feel. We were all very invested in each other’s learning from this.

In the case of my intended course (WSE 210), I would love to have the students describe the differences in structure of a species of tropical wood. At this juncture, we do not cover tropical woods, but this would be a really cool way for each student to specialize in one species and for everyone to get a taste of some of the tropical woods. It also allows them to have ownership over one species and become the class expert in that.

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Transitioning from Content Delivery to Skills Facilitation

By Inara Scott

In the not-so-distant past, if you wanted to learn about a specialized content area–say, eighteenth century literature, nuclear fusion, or microeconomics–you had to go to college. Specialized information about these subjects lived in the mind of professors, and often, nowhere else. The college professor was the sage on the stage precisely because that was the best or only way to deliver specialized content. Of course, this is no longer the case. Thanks to my friend Google, not to mention online MOOCs, vast amounts of specialized information is publicly and readily available to anyone, whether or not they attend a college.

If the college professor no longer holds the exclusive key to specialized content, what does she hold? In business lingo, what’s her value proposition? As the title of this blog post suggests, I would argue that the professor in today’s classroom must shift their value proposition away from content and toward skills.

The ready availability of specialized information does not necessarily mean information is readily usable. I can access information about nuclear fusion, but that doesn’t mean I can make sense of it. I can find literature online, but that doesn’t mean I can engage in meaningful analysis of it. I can read legal cases, but I may have no idea how to structure a legal argument. This, then, is the new value proposition. Professors must be able to teach students the skills they need to understand, analyze, and apply the content to which they already have access.

This doesn’t mean higher education courses shouldn’t include content. They must. It also doesn’t mean professors don’t need to be skilled in curating, mixing, interpreting, and engaging students in content. These skills remain essential. But it does mean we cannot stop there. We must take students to the next level, where they learn to create their own content.

In a blended classroom, we have a unique opportunity to rethink the structure and content of our courses. It may be tempting to translate existing content to the hybrid environment, but I suggest we resist that urge with everything we have. Rather than delivering content, we should be thinking about what unique skills we are building in students, and how we can engage them in the process of finding, interpreting, and creating their own content.

Let me give a concrete example. I teach business law. When I started teaching, I tended to focus on having students learn the rules of law. I taught about Title VII and employment discrimination, product liability and negligence. Now, I may skip product liability and negligence and focus on how to read cases, how to write persuasively, and how to put together a legal argument. Today, I know my students can google “what is negligence” and find thousands of pages with explainers about the rules of negligence. But if they lack the basic skills for reading and applying those rules, the information they have access to does them no good.

I suspect, twenty years from now, my students will retain little of the content I deliver. And thank goodness–the law changes constantly. If my students retained what I taught them in 2008, it would be that it was constitutional to deny same-sex couples access to marriage benefits. Instead, I focus on skills that will not lose their value over time. I teach them how to analyze a case, how to read critically, and how to put together persuasive and compelling arguments. Today, when I teach about employment discrimination I tell them that we are waiting for a Supreme Court opinion on whether sexual orientation is covered by Title VII. My hope is that after they graduate, I’ve taught them the skills to do their own research about whether we ever get that opinion, and if so, what it says.



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The Power of Doing Before Knowing

I find all 5 of the common pitfalls noted by Elizabeth St. Germain worrisome. I feel like I could read this list every day for a month and still inadvertently back into any one of these traps.

Of particular interest to me today, however, is the idea that students should create their own knowledge rather than simply consuming it. On the surface, it sounds a bit preposterous. Having taught finance to well over a thousand undergraduate students in the last couple years, I know how mixed up students can get about the subject. There are so many new concepts, so much new language, so many new tools with which to become familiar. It’s a huge effort for many students just to pass the class. Don’t they need foundational knowledge before they can possibly create their own knowledge? Is it fair to expect them to scamper up to the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognition before they are ready?

But of course that’s thinking of it too rigidly. I recall the biography Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, on which the movie October Sky is based. The essence of the story is that Homer and his friends fell in love with the idea of rockets, which led them to start making and launching model rockets. Their failures acquainted them with what they didn’t know, like calculus and physics. Those boys created their own informal knowledge which became the foundation for formal knowledge. The narrative makes it clear that the process never would have worked in reverse; Requiring calculus as a prerequisite to building their first rocket would have meant no rockets at all.

So how can I encourage my students to get their hands dirty, so to speak? What’s the equivalent of making model rockets before learning physics or calculus? What can I do to acquaint them with the importance of what they don’t yet know?

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Integrating online and in-class workshops

Online Course Design Pitfall #5: Ignore the ways students learn from each other. 

WR 324 is already heavily collaborative:  students read each other’s first drafts and write peer reviews, which are keyed to specific learning outcomes for each writing assignment.  They meet in small group workshops to discuss their evolving stories (again, I give them specific questions and guidelines that connect to the learning outcomes and assessment guidelines for that assignment).  I  put them in pairs and groups for a variety of other tasks and activities, too.  So avoiding this pitfall is something that’s already built into the nature of this course.

But… a challenge in “hybridizing” 324 will be to figure out “what goes where,” as Cub’s mini-lesson on “Successful Hybrid Design” points out.  “If it works as well online as in class, consider putting it online so you can reserve limited class time for what works better face to face.”  Never having taught online, I’m wrestling with this question.  What will work as well online?  How to divide up the usual group activities between classroom and online (while also developing new approaches that will make the best use of the online format)?  And how to best integrate and connect face-to-face and online learning?

In thinking about the workshop process, I have a couple of ideas.  Online workshopping would work great for the first assignment, which comes early in the term, week 2, before students really feel comfortable with each other.  For the second assignment, I could break the workshop process into two parts:  they respond to each other’s drafts online, and when they meet in class, each writer brings in a plan for revision based on the group’s feedback (and mine).  These would be debriefings, not additional workshops.

This is something we never have time for:  students usually do the workshop, go off and revise their stories, and then turn the final draft in to me.  They don’t get the chance to discuss how the workshop comments aid in their revision process.  (There could even be an online follow-up, where they have the option to read each other’s final drafts—though I want to be careful not to add more work/create a course and a half!)

For the third assignment, maybe I’d move the workshop into the classroom space?

For non-workshop activities, I like this point from Elizabeth St. Germain’s “Five Common Pitfalls”:   “Include assignments that require students to share ideas and resources and present topics to each other.”  Assigning pairs or groups of students (online) to cover particular points in a textbook chapter, or questions on an assigned short story, would be a great way to prepare them for class, so we could jump right into discussion.  I’ll want to be sure that these assignments aren’t too laborious or time consuming.  The idea would be that once they’ve done the reading, they should be able to respond to their group members with their particular topic or idea in ten minutes or so–the same amount of time we’d spend in class on this task.

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Letting students learn from each other

Online Course Design Pitfall #5: Ignore the ways students learn from each other.

The Statistical Genetics course will assess students based on weekly homework and a project.

The homework will usually be in the form of code that will be posted in the Discussion section so that other students can observe alternative ways of performing statistical analyses. While R programming will be a prerequisite, it takes around 3-4 years of coding in R (assuming no prior coding experience) to really feel comfortable with it. Assuming most students who take the class are either 2nd year Master’s students or 1st-3rd year PhD students, I believe the students will naturally be inclined to see if other students have found an easier way of performing a method in R.

I plan on providing feedback (actual grades will be private) to each student’s homework via comments and questions, and I hope this will encourage students to ask questions, if they have any, on homework postings other than their own. I do not plan to give credit to students for discussion participation as I want the discussion to be organic and giving credit for participating in discussions might lead to low effort posts or questions that students do not actually need answered. Is this an incorrect assumption? In the beginning of each class, other than the first, I will go over the most common mistakes I observed in the homework assignments (I’m not going to call specific students out). This would be a good time for students who might have reflected on other students’ postings to ask in-person questions, so I will provide an opportunity for this.

The project will be a multi-week effort where students will find a data set through their own effort or choose one of several provided and apply the methods taught in class on the project. I could make students post weekly updates on their projects. This would benefit the students themselves by forcing them not to complete the project at the last minute. It would also benefit other students by not having to read through all ten or more projects after the class ends, but rather allowing them to read the projects throughout the course, which can possibly lead to collaborations. However, I don’t want students to feel locked into a project on the first week, which posting online would do as they are unlikely to ask me to switch projects as they would think it would reflect poorly on them. Giving students two weeks of working on the project before posting about it seems like a fair compromise.

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