Potential pitfalls – Collaborative learning

A couple of caveats on top -

  1. I have a very hard time writing about learning concisely.
  2. I don’t have a computer right now and I am writing this on a tablet. So far, in my experience, WordPress on a tablet doesn’t mesh well with #1. Fair warning.

So #1 + #2 = I’m focusing on one pitfall — one that I’ve been struggling with for a while – how to foster collaborative learning in the online environment.

Like a lot of others, I’ve used discussion boards and I have a lot of experience with discussions that didn’t work out quite like I’d hoped  - long lists of replies that don’t go beyond “I agree,” or “I liked Sue’s  post,” discussions that read like a series of disconnected opinions, or discussions that never get off the ground because all of the posts come in an hour before the deadline.

But maybe a hurdle here is that I’m trying to figure out how to replicate in-class discussion.

As a librarian, I know that knowing how to learn online — from people as well as from texts — is an essential skill.  Looking at that real-world context, I see two main ways that people engage and learn online and I think these translate pretty well to the classroom too –

  • Interacting with people different than me, I am being pushed to see things from another perspective or to consider topics I’ve never considered.


  • I have a question, I need help to answer it.

The replicating-class-discussions problems are mostly tied up in that first way of learning — and that’s a really tough one in out-of-classroom contexts too, as anyone who has ever been sucked into an unmoderated online comment section can attest.

Listen to Yourself (xkcd)

So maybe instead, it would be helpful to start with the other type of questions — the simpler ones that fall under I have a question, I need help to answer it.

These are situations where someone has a pretty specific, defined need and they need a piece of information, an opinion, a visual or something to fill that need.  This could be something they could just access — like this blog post about repainting Ikea furniture, or they might need to find a person, or a community.  This is really common in the world of technology troubleshooting.

This kind of learning is important.  It does take some skill.  And it’s not hard to motivate people to engage in it, at least as learners who are already self-motivated by their own need for the information.  And once you’re part of a community, it’s pretty common to want to give back – to answer questions on the forums, or to put up your own posts when you’re the one that figures out how to do the thing.  When you’re a part of the community, you know what’ll be useful, what’s likely to get you a positive reaction.

top half of a young man's head with a lightbulb suspended above it

some rights reserved by Flickr user Matthew Wynn

This gives me some ideas for my hybrid U-Engage course.   

There might be value in talking explicitly to students about creating and finding learning communities, showing examples of how that works (and having them share their own experience) before setting up part of the class discussion board for this purpose.

Asking students to create digital content that shows how they solved a problem common to people in the class community seems like a potentially fruitful way to start getting them engaged with the idea of teaching and learning online.


Additional thoughts -

In some ways, this seems particularly interesting in a U-Engage class because the “how to” or “DIY” content could be grounded in the subject material of the class (digital remixing), or it could be about all of the How to Be an OSU Student skills that are part of the first-year experience program.

This raises the thought of audience — problems that come up because of the subject matter of this specific course might be better handled within the familiar class community — on Blackboard or some other shared site.  On the other hand, the best audience for How to Navigate OSU strategies would probably be broader than that — publishing somewhere more open is potentially riskier, but might make that kind of activity feel more authentic.

Of course, this doesn’t really get at the issues raised at the beginning because this kind of learning isn’t the challenging, potentially risky learning that we’re usually hoping to spark in class discussions.  I am starting to have thoughts about this kind of learning too. But I don’t think I’m going to get there in this post — it’s long enough already.

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This picture of my dog shows how I feel as I embark on this journey to redesign the hybrid course: Inquisitive eyes, but I’m not sure I want to wake up quite yet.  Here it goes…Given my passion for learning technologies, I’ll put a twist on this with ways I celebrate emerging technologies because they allow us to avoid these pitfallsIMG_2940

Online Course Design Pitfall #1: Upload your course materials, then call it a day. The beauty of emerging technologies is that they allow us to do things we couldn’t do in the past to support learning.  In collaboration with of the four c’s: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking + the fifth, culture,  there are many online possibilities to enhance student engagement and learning.  Finding ways of working with course content in ways that employ the four c’s and create a culture of learning is one of the favorite parts of my work.   It can be frustrating at times, because it requires ME to use the four c’s. However, when it comes together, it’s exciting.  Here’s an example of how I introduce myself to my learners by leveraging some of the technologies out there and trying to set an example of how they too can interact with the technologies in ways that allow them a unique voice.

Online Course Design Pitfall #2: Let the course management system drive your thinking. Technology standards and outcomes are a part of all my classes.  I frequently motivate and remind learners in my courses that the skills they learn by using technologies are transferable.  The same applies to me as I design spaces that allow learners to collaborate, communicate, be creative and flex their critical thinking muscles.  Sometimes this comes together on the university learning management system.  Other times, other sites meet specific needs best. It’s important for me to have a working knowledge of available sites and their functionality, so I can make informed design choices in creating a culture of learning.  This reminder to myself of transferable skills on learning management systems is particularly timely as the university faces the decision between Blackboard and Canvas :-)  Here are a few social media sites I refer my learners to for further exploration.

Online Course Design Pitfall #3: Insist on being the “sage on the stage.” I’d likely trip and fall off the stage if I start seeing myself in that way.  There are educators that belong in the limelight with their lecturing or storytelling abilities.  I find my comfort level within the realm of facilitator and aggregator. The description in this pitfall opens up the concept of the vast amount of information that is available to learners at their fingertips.  As a facilitator and curator, part my role is to aid learners in the understanding of digital information literacy.

Online Course Design Pitfall #4: Expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it. I enjoy the work of Howard Rheingold and others who speak on the topic of learners as producers of knowledge rather than consumers.   This is another place in blended and online learning that has potential for learners to synthesize, create, and share, often in new ways.  It can be fun to step-it-up and have them share with a real audience.  Creating assignments that avoid this pitfall is probably my personal favorite part of utilizing online learning technologies.  There are many engaging sites out there that learners can use to create.  Here is my toolbox I draw from as I design my courses.

Online Course Design Pitfall #5: Ignore the ways students learn from each other.  This is perhaps the way I’ve changed the most since I started teaching online.  When I first started, I believed I needed to be actively involved in responding in all of the spaces.  Over the years, I have come to see the real need to step back and provide safe spaces for learners to learn from each other without the presence of an instructor voice.  As I move forward in learning about blended spaces, I want to explore ways of doing this better both f2f and online.

These pitfalls are important to keep in mind.  A challenge for me is in balancing the time it takes to create quality spaces, assignments, and assessments that foster the four c’s and create an engaging culture of learning.  It’s a reason I started aggregating sites I find useful and exploring their possibilities by blogging.  It gives me easy access to learning technologies as my courses continually evolve.

Happy learning to all as we create, learn and share!

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Pitfalls and Challenges to Avoid Them

Reading through the many pitfalls of online courses helped me reflect on the content of my face-to-face and online courses. The Hybrid approach that I am working toward deploying next term, is a way for me to carefully scrutinize and evaluate the content of both, the F2F and online course as I restyle and refashion it for the Hybrid format. Currently, I am guilty of uploading content into my online course directly from the F2F approach – although I do tweak the course considerably throughout the term – I am still guilty of preserving quite a bit of the content. I want to avoid this, I want to make the course more interactive, offer a few more hands-on activities, and keep it short, succinct, and yet visually appealing. I will avoid this pitfall because I am aware of it, I have recognized it; I think that’s the first step to making a change. Restructuring or refashioning content is difficult as it is very time-consuming and there are lots of good ideas out there, but the challenge remains with selecting which ones work best for you. I tried facebook group pages, but they are difficult to monitor as stats are not downloadable and activity cannot really be tracked. Because I teach 3 courses every term, I have to divide my time between my classes which leaves very little time to make substantial changes to one course and disregard the rest :( I presume adopting the piece-meal approach might be a better way to go? I look forward to some responses to addressing these challenges.

Additionally, while I am not guilty of thinking that students do not learn from each other, I struggle with trying to get them to go beyond writing short, cursory replies rather than engaging with the readings and tying together concepts, examples, and case studies. I have tried Blogs in Blackboard, but did not find it too effective. I was thinking of using Wikis for the Hybrid course. Anyone have any ideas on what’s more effective? Anyone use a rubric that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

I’ll stop here :)

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My Hybrid Course in a Nutshell – Kathy Greaves

Hi all :)   You probably don’t know me but I was part of the spring, 2013 Hybrid Learning Community. I tend to say that I failed the course miserably but Cub has been kind enough to say that I just took an Incomplete. So here I am finishing up one of the final requirements of my spring HLC – my blog envisioning my hybrid course.

HDFS 201: Contemporary Families in the U.S. is a very large enrollment (350) Baccalaureate Core Course that meets the Difference, Power, and Discrimination (DPD) requirement. Students are typically from all four classes and all colleges. This 3-credit course will meet every Tuesday for 80 minutes. The DPD content of the course is very sensitive and focuses on issues of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia in the context of U.S. families. Contextual topics include poverty, cohabitation, marriage, divorce, LGBT families, parent-child relationships, work-family balance, family violence, and family policy. Most students don’t have a particularly hard time with the material, but there is a significant minority of students who have very specific beliefs about families and Systems of Oppression and, as a result, feel that what I am presenting is “made up.” So that’s quite challenging.

The most significant challenge for me has been trying to figure out how to engage SO MANY students with each other either in the classroom or online – and resources providing ideas have been few and far between. But I do have a plan.

Each week, online activities will include watching mini-lectures and taking a quiz on textbook reading. The quizzes will replace the in-class mid-term exam I usually give. Over the course of the term, they will submit evaluations of four specific articles related to the DPD content. There will also be some weeks where they’ll have to find information online and bring it to class for further discussion. I might try one or two discussion boards, but I hesitate not only because of the size of the class but also because of the DPD content. Some students have been known to say some highly insensitive things and since the class is about families, these insensitive things are usually taken very personally. With over 350 students, I am worried about the time devoted to managing that.

In class, I’ll integrate online content with F2F experiences in a number of ways. First, I’ll cover a bit more lecture related to each of the online mini-lectures. Second, I’ll pose keypad questions based upon the online mini-lectures. Third, student will contribute information they found online.

While I haven’t included a way for students to interact with each other online (aside from the possibility of a discussion board), I will include some “pair and share” activities in class. Students will also be sharing online information they found with their “pair and share” partner as well as with the whole class. Keypad activities are a final way in which students are engaged in the class.

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SOC 316 Hybrid: Social Statistics with Style

Sociology has become, for a fair number of our majors, a refuge within the university system from the onslaught of mathematics.  Despite the misconception, the study of society is rooted in empirical observation and statistical analysis.  After all, we are a Social Science, not a Humanity.  This pattern is particularly vexing as roughly 10% of sociology majors are quite accomplished mathematicians.

This reality produces a true challenge for teachers in sociology, and one that may be solved through the hybrid environment.  SOC 316 teaches students the conceptual under pinning of statistical analysis, their practice through an industry standard statistical program, and their application through the completion of research project.  These goals divide the class into three sections: conceptual lectures, labs, and the paper.

By using recorded, online lectures, students with math-phobia can watch the process over and over until they understand the process, while students with stronger math skills can fast forward and not waste their time.  For both sets of students, their understanding will be evaluated through a series of weekly homework assignments collected through blackboard.  After the homework due, a document appears showing students how to properly do the work.

The process for the lab is largely the same, using videos to help bridge the gap between students who are very comfortable with computers and those who are largely perplexed by them.  Due to the complexity of the software, and the fact that unlike math which might be used daily there is little opportunity to use the software outside of class, a pair of weekly homework assignments will evaluate students’ skills.  Rather than using a document, short videos are recorded walking the students through the steps.

The final object of the class is evaluated through a series of weekly assignments that mirror the process of producing the analysis section of a journal article.  The sit in parallel to the skills taught both in lecture and lab.


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ENGR 390: A hybrid concept

I plan to offer ENGR 390 Engineering Economy course as a hybrid offering in Fall 2014. I have some experience teaching this class online (3 times) as well as on campus in a traditional setting (6 times). The online section typically has 10-20 students. The Corvallis campus offering has about 90-100 students and typically has 2 offerings.

My first motivation for offering the hybrid course is to make a comparative assessment if there is a way to address the limitations and challenges posed by the two previous offerings. By investing this time, I will be able to gain first-hand experience in disruptive teaching innovations sweeping academia. I expect that the experience will allow me to formulate improved strategies for meeting a big challenge in current engineering education of more effectively engaging students in a large class-room. I would also like to tap into the opportunity of addressing learning needs that are more global than local.

In the hybrid course offering, I will use about 75 short video lectures (5-8 minutes in length) that I have recorded for the on-line component of the course. These lectures cover all the concepts needed for the course along with several examples. This will allow students to have a flexible learning platform that will partially address student engagement challenges in a large class-room such as: (a) I missed what was said and now can’t keep pace, (b) I was too tired/sick/bored to attend class and now I am behind, (c) the concept was too complicated at first explanation and I would like to hear it again. Despite, all these lofty motivations, I suspect that many students will not put in the time to carefully study this material and hope to get by the course simply showing up unprepared to class, as is their current disposition.

In order to address the above problem, I would like to add quizzes on Blackboard that ensure that the student is putting in the time to learn the material and that too in a timely manner. I heard some ideas on how it can be implemented with automatic grading without becoming an enormous work burden. I have experimented on this idea with a commercial portal that is fraught with too many limitations. I’d like to put this alternative approach into practice and award 20% of the grade on this exercise.

The traditional format provides little opportunity to implement a term project owing to the class size. I am tinkering with the idea of using small on-line discussion groups (say 10) that will work on an assigned problem in stages and deliver an online report and presentation around Week 8 (10% of the grade). The rest of the class has to review the material and will submit an assignment based on the projects in Week 10 (10% of the grade). This is the most challenging part of the course design and chances are if I don’t get good ideas from my learning cohorts I may well abandon this part of the course.

In the flipped classroom, I’d like to have working sessions to solve problems for which the students are graded for another 30%. The face time will also involve 2 mid-terms for 30-40% of the grade (depending on whether the project route is feasible or not).

I’d love to hear what the rest of the learning crew thinks about my proposed course design.













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My Hybrid Course in a Nutshell

A quick overview of the class.  It’s BA101 – Introduction to Business.  As the title implies the course is designed to introduce students to the world of business – as such it is a “mile wide and an inch deep” (or maybe three inches deep).  The general idea is they will gain a deeper understanding of business basics (accounting, marketing, operations, etc.)  Currently the course is a six credit large lecture format class with three 1½ hour lectures and one smaller 1 hour lab per week.  Enrollment varies between 170-300 per term.    Students are primarily freshmen and sophomores and there is a large international contingent (typically 15%-40%).  For hybrid deployment I plan on have one 2 hour lecture per week and continue with the weekly 1 hour labs.

Right now I envision using the lecture class meeting time to do three things:  1) Continue to cover some of the same material I currently cover in lecture 2) Go a bit deeper on some of the topics, and 3) Do more activities and discussion in lecture.  I currently do a fair amount of “pair-share” and some problem work, but it always comes directly after delivery of the content and it is often rushed.  By pushing some of the content to the web via micro-lectures and materials from Merlot I should be able to dedicate more time and detail to in-class activities.  The overall goal is to spend more time in-class working on application of concepts as opposed to explaining the concepts.

Online I plan to continue to continue quizzes I currently do regarding textbook and article readings.  Additionally, I am already running assignments through Blackboard and will continue this as well.  As I mentioned I envision doing a number of micro lectures as well as employing some of the material I have found at Merlot.  I would like to get eCampus involved to create a couple of interactive online activities.  Finally, I plan to employ the discussion board.   Given the size of my class I will probably only do it two or three times during the spring quarter, using it as a trial to see if I want to continue or if it needs to be refined for future use.

As for linking.  My idea is to have them read and watch lectures prior to face-to-face meetings.  Through in-class activities and discussion we can then dig into the material more deeply.  One functionality that is supposed to be available in the next iteration of Blackboard is the ability to aggregate class quiz data.  Currently if I want to look at class wide Blackboard Quiz data (e.g. # of times a given pool question was asked/number of correct responses) I can’t.  Once I have this ability I plan to use the data as a discussion starter in class (e.g. “I see we struggled with the following question.  Let’s talk about it….”).

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Hybrid Science — SUS/SOIL 102 goes digital

Life once was easy.  I taught my usual 3 classes, did research.  But then one day I said, you know, it really bugs me that we don’t have a Sustainability degree here.  5 years later (and a new Sustainability degree) I thought, you know, it is silly that OSU, as a major environmental science research mecca, does not have an introductory Environmental Science and Sustainability class.  2 years later I think… you know, that class isn’t really open to everyone because it will only be scheduled once a term and if a class conflicts, the student can’t take it.  And besides, if there is a 100 person limit, how much interaction will there be in the large lecture anyhow?  The personal interaction will all be in the smaller group labs and recitations!  Why not make the ‘sage on the stage’ part digital, and keep the interactions to smaller groups?  And that is the history of why I want to make my 100-person Sustainability SUS/SOIL 102 into a hybrid class.

I think that this sort of lab/recitation class really lends itself to a hybrid format.  Everyone should try it :) as long as they aren’t as easily overwhelmed by glitzy computer technology as I am.  Since discussion and hands-on activities are all handled in a small-group 3 hour sessions anyhow, why not put the background learning content on the web, so that students can learn and incorporate material at their own speed?  Some students learn science in 2 seconds, will take the Blackboard quizzes, analyze the data presented, write what they need to write, and be done 20 minutes later.  Others might need to really ponder the concepts, Google and Wikipedia half the vocabulary, and fret over data analysis and synthesis for a lot longer.  Why not from the comfort of their own dorm rooms, or more likely, the local coffee house?

The tricky part might be in how lost students might get — what if they really need a lot of help with content in the book or with lecture material?  Then again, in a 100 person class, they don’t get help during the lecture part.

My principal concern is over student motivation.  I set the points for Blackboard activities high, and getting through each week’s activities requires reading all the material assigned, watching TED talks, doing online work.  The points for midterms and finals are set relatively low, so that the weekly activities were good carrots.  They get points SUBTRACTED from their grade (a lot) if they don’t come to the lab/recitation, besides not getting the points for the lab, so there is a lot of playing Big Brother for these young non-science major freshmen, likely in their first college science class.  Is there a better way to play Big Brother and ‘encourage’ them to keep up to date and be more self-motivated than they ever had to be in high school?  More carrots, more sticks?


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My hybrid course (ECON 424/524) in a nutshell

Here’s a description of my hybrid course, ECON 424/524: Introduction to Econometrics, in a nutshell. The course will enroll 25-30 students, mostly junior and senior economics majors. The course covers the basics of econometric analysis, focusing on multivariate linear regression analysis. My goal is to equip students with an understanding of how economists and other social scientists conduct quantitative empirical analysis, i.e., how they use data to test theories. Many students find the course challenging, because it involves a substantial amount of math and statistics. The difficulty that students face in absorbing this material in a traditional lecture format prompted me to develop this hybrid course, in hopes that incorporating online instruction would provide a new medium for students to learn the material.

We will meet twice per week: once for 80 minutes for an in-class session, and once for 50 minutes for a computer lab session. Students will be responsible for about two hours of online activities per week. I plan to incorporate many elements of the “flipped classroom” in my course. Online activities will consist largely of video lecture that will supplement textbook reading. The 80-minute classroom sessions will focus on problem solving, although I will also reserve time for review of lecture material and student questions. The weekly computer lab sessions will focus on application of the course content using statistical software; students will complete laboratory exercises that ask them to apply econometric techniques to social science datasets that I provide.

In moving from a traditional on-class version of the course to this hybrid version, the novel components are the video lectures and the 80-minute classroom session. I plan to produce my own video lectures in the Khan Academy mold: short (5-15 minute) mini-lectures on a particular subtopic in econometrics, consisting of my narration over whiteboard-style description of the concepts. In fact, Khan Academy and other online courses already have some appropriate material that I plan to assign, although I will produce the bulk of recorded lectures.

During the 80-minute classroom session, I plan to spend most of the time solving practice problems. In each session, I will have a series of practice problems that cover the week’s material and are similar to what students will face on their graded homework and exams. I will vary the way in which we solve these problems throughout the session: sometimes I will walk the entire class through a problem, asking for voluntary input as we go along. Other times I will split students into small groups, and ask a group to show how they solved the problem to the rest of the class. For shorter problems, I may poll the class about possible solutions, and ask students who disagree with each other to discuss their answers and see if they reach consensus. I will also inevitably need some classroom time to review the trickier parts of lecture material, as well as to set aside time to answer student questions.

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Entry level class in philosophy, especially in Ethics, are most often quite different than what the student expects. First, there is the basic (mis)-conception that ‘everybody has their own philosophy’ and we’re here to share ours and compare. Second, pertaining to ethics in particular, everybody already thinks they know the difference between morally right and wrong, what makes something morally right or wrong, etc.. That is, while we’ve all been socialized into some society with it’s norms, we often simply don’t step back and reflect and question them, so we think the answers are easy and obvious. For these reasons, I’ve found a lot of my work in these classes is enforcing that these ideas are not well founded – it’s a constant job to keep the students thinking critically (i.e. not wanting to avoid seeming uppity with their own moral opinions and being willing to question the views of others) and to not slip back into a philosophical assumption (e.g. that all moral judgments are relative to one’s cultural, or that there are no moral truths) without recognizing that this *is* a philosophical position that has to be defended by argument).

My view is that these conditions make the “sage on the stage” model of conducting a classroom very tempting, as I’ve said, in the lower-division courses especially because students are so easily tempted to fall back into their preconceptions about what is going on when we “do” philosophy. I’m not ‘pouring knowledge into open minds’ so much as trying to keep everybody’s thinking focused on what exactly it is we are trying to do.

My biggest worry, then, is Design Pitfall #3. In light of this, I hope to use our face-to-face classroom experience to ‘keep them in line,’ so to speak, and to give some kind of special warning at those times about the times that I am not there to remind them. I’ll need to think of someway for them to carry the idea that, for example, not all nifty ideas are thereby philosophically interesting, nor does writing or speaking in obscure ways make their work more ‘philosophical’ etc. This will be a challenge to me for the on-line in designing the on-line portion of my class.

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