Sage on the Stage

Food engineering is a broad field and I think it critical that students be able to understand basic principles and use them to analyze situations and equipment with which they inevitably have little initial familiarity.  I view a significant part of my role as instuctor to be teaching students the language of engineering and relatedly how to use this new knowledge to identify materials that might be useful to class but also during future professional careers, i.e., I view myself more as facilitator for learning than a sole source of knowledge.

I am also lucky enough to teach groups of students with significant food processing experience through internship or prior work life and strive to bring their knowledge into the class.  This is definitely something that could be done better, however, and I am hoping to use the enhanced discussion forum capabilities of canvas to bring out these experiences and improve the performance and understanding of all the students in each class.

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The sage in a cage?

These ideas will be important to keep in mind as I design a hybrid course, and actually also apear to be an excellent guide for all forms of course delivery. One reason I am participating in this FLC is to renew my ideas and methods of teaching – which are fairly conventional at present – and I can certainly feel the internal momentum starting to shift. However I do also want to keep certain effective elements going. I am sure many of us have had the experience when delivering a lecture where the class suddenly becomes energized and interested in a given topic, firing out good questions and answering them in short order. This is an uplifting experience for an instructor too. How to keep that going? That is why I am drawn to the hybrid mode as I hope I can shed some of the conventional methods, while maybe keeping the best bits. The challenge for me will be in identifying areas where I can make changes, areas that work well already, all while keeping in mind that the course has to work, and also have a level of workload that doesn’t become all consuming.

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Avoiding Pitfall #5: Encourage Students to learn from each other

As the course that I am converting to a hybrid course is also a new course, I am experiencing and evaluating the issues in course content delivery in a face-to-face classroom environment this term. Avoiding pitfalls in online course design will help overcome those issues as well.

Because the course is a large (85 students) lecture class, it is difficult to interact with students or have students engage in class discussions. I gave out the first project, which is due this Tuesday. I think if I incorporate and encourage online discussions between students, it will help promote student understanding. More specifically, the project requires students to learn the content from the class and reinforce learning through an online open educational tool called UDacity before they apply concepts and do the project. Some students told me that they had a hard time signing up UDacity and finding the course and the lesson. There may be more students who are not brave enough to contact me to ask. If I were to open a Canvas discussion page for the project or made it a group project and offer a virtual room for students to interact with each other, they would be able to learn from each other more easily.

I think I would be more aware of pitfall #5 in online course preparation, as the students have less direct interaction time with the instructor.  However, the large lecture class has a similar problem, as it is so easy for students to be anonymous and passive in the classroom. The opportunities that online educational tools offer can encourage student-to-student discussions even for face-to-face classes.

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One should probably avoid drinking from a firehose

In my reading of the “5 common pitfalls”, #s 3-5 stood out to me as being a) quite interconnected and b) quite relevant to my biggest frustrations with the classes I’ve been teaching so far and the big opportunities I see for the hybrid format. All three of these involve developing course materials and assignments that are engaging (relevant to student interests and appropriate for their learning styles), interactive (student isn’t just a passive recipient of text/audio/video), and cooperative or collaborative (students work with and learn from each other and me).

The class I want to hybridize is a large lecture+lab course on environmental science. I feel pretty good about pitfalls 1 and 2 because I also teach (and therefore can borrow from) the online version of the course, which is pretty well designed, delivered, and received by the students (although it is in need of many updates and improvements itself, including areas relevant to all 5 topics). The on-campus classes I have stepped into are very traditional, sage-on-the-stage intro science lectures, and that is not a role that is comfortable for me. I would much prefer to act as a guide or mentor of students’ (more self-directed) learning processes. I love that about the online classes. I picture the hybrid format as the best of both worlds–I get to step off the stage and encourage students take ownership and (partial) navigation of their learning, but I get to supervise that a little more closely and intervene sooner when they are veering off-course than I do in the online courses.

The super-mega-pitfall that I see hiding in the shadows next to #s 3-5 is the work required to avoid those individual pitfalls. There is so much good information out there–pre-existing content and ideas/tools for creating good content)–and we’re learning about repositories and even curated collections of those materials in this course, but the amount of time needed to go through that material and customize the existing good stuff and develop new good stuff is really intimidating to me.  I am having a hard enough time keeping up with the existing courses without making changes, let alone overhauling them at the same time. (Note: this is a particularly challenging term for me with a new course and the most students ever. My energy and optimism will hopefully tick back up next term.)

The answer of course is to not drink from the firehose, but to go inside and turn the kitchen tap for an appropriate portion of water. In the case of course development, I suppose that means tackling one learning objective at a time.

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Hybrid class and engagement in the community

Students in my class are matched to a community organization with whom they develop an evaluation plan. I tell my students there’s no right answer. In this class, you don’t turn to the back of the textbook to find the correct response. Instead, I share with them lots of resources and examples to give them good ideas. I like not being the “sage on the stage” and I like to have students surprise me with their creative and critically-thoughtful evaluation ideas.

But what worries me about online learning is how do I provide all these resources without just being a series of pdfs and links on a webpage? How do I provide these materials that engage the students? I’d like to improve my technology skills. I’ve seen other faculty that make “videos” of them using online resources – you seen them navigate the website and hear their voice explaining what they are doing. I think that these types of techniques would be beneficial to my course. I could show students how to review the CDC evaluation materials or perform a literature search on PubMed, etc.

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Expecting students to consume rather than create knowledge

I have been teaching this course on fish disease for over 20 years and I am both struggling with and intrigued by how to restructure the content. One section of the course that is challenging even when f2f is the introductory lectures where I introduce the “parade of pathogens” – the bacteria, viruses and parasites that they need to know the characteristics of to understand how disease occurs and why some diseases are harder to control than others.

One way that I am thinking about changing this in the hybrid format is to present a short lecture on general characteristics of, for example, bacterial pathogens. I would present the characteristics of one important pathogen, filling in a table with information like type of infection caused, optimal temperature range, mode of transmission, photo of pathology etc.  Then I would ask the students to sign up to fill out the table for one pathogen from a list (anticipating up to 3 people would be able to select the same pathogen) before coming to class.  In the f2f session we would break into groups by pathogen so they could have a chance to discuss and revise their table content, then as a group we would fill out the table (from a google doc on their computers) and discuss the similarities and differences and why these are important.

These tables would then serve as references that they would use throughout the term and as study guides for exams.

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Peer-to-peer technical help and design review

Response to “Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design: #5: Ignore the ways students learn from each other

The course I’m redesigning covers  3D modeling, including 2D and 3D design, color, lighting, and spatial narrative. This is a 4 credit course that meets 2 times each week. In that time, it is a real challenge to spend sufficient time on the core design concepts while also introducing the software (Maya). As I mentioned in our first meeting, one way to improve this situation is to assign on-line tutorials for basic skills training. That is already helping to free up class time. For the first time I’ve also started a discussion board for students to share and assist with technical problems. This is taking much pressure off of me to be the software guru and is encouraging students to work with each other. They spend countless hours outside of class time working side by side in the computer lab, so facilitating online collaboration is a natural extension. I plan to expand on this, once I see the results of the current trial run.

One area I have not experimented with is on-line peer review. I’ve spent many class sessions in art classes, both as a student and an instructor involved in critiques. In art school students are trained in this method early in their studies, and learn appropriate ways to give and receive feedback, without being insulting, and hopefully, without taking the comments personally. (That’s often difficult when work is a form of deeply personal expression.) For many of my students, this is the first design class, and formal critique is unfamiliar. The last thing I want to do is discourage or embarass students who are unaccustomed to having their work reviewed in front of the class. For that reason I am very gentle with in-class critiques. On rare occasion I bring the rest of the class into the conversation, but I keep that to a minimum, partially due to concern for feelings, but more significantly because it takes so much class time. This means that the main way students are getting honest critique is through emails or personal meetings with me. The meetings are far more productive, and I can phrase my critiques in ways that are supportive, gauging my comments in part on their verbal responses and body language. Some may find this approach far too gentle and accommodating, but I’ve seen “non artists” be very discouraged when unaccustomed to what they perceive as a harsh assessment of their work. The challenge is that providing this personalized face-to-face critique is time consuming and difficult to schedule. Yet trying to retain that level of sensitivity in e-mail communications is difficult, even for me, given how easy it is to misinterpret written messages. The end result of all of this is that I’m not providing as much critique as I’d like to.

I like the idea of bringing critique to on-line discussions since it would allow for a much greater range of feedback than I’m able to provide in or outside of class time. How useful that critique is depends on the ability of other students to assess the work. I feel confident that they can learn to assess work in a constructive way. My greater concern is the sense of personal attack. If I struggle to be sensitive in writing, I can only imagine how that’s going to be for students, particularly when I look at the flaming comments people often post on blogs. Many people can be outright insulting and cruel in their assessment of other people’s comments, as we all know. I had a real challenge in my MFA program with discussion boards. There were many misinterpretations,  and some people felt that they were being insulted and attacked. This is in a group of sensitive people trained in critique! So this is really my primary dilemma. Successful online critique would be very useful to students and would free up class time. Unsuccessful online critique could be unhelpful, very discouraging, and could drive students away from the online peer-to-peer experience entirely. Worse, it could shut them down creatively. 

Back to the central question: How will I avoid this pitfall in my hybrid course? The answer is, I don’t know. I understand and support the concept, but I’m wary of this approach, and don’t know how I can implement it successfully in terms of peer reviews.

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Avoiding the ‘Sage on the Stage’ Mentality

As I have been teaching for 22 years, the transformation in teaching from the ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side’ is tremendous. In the health policy world, there are many wonderful briefs, commentaries and other material written in a way that is very accessible to a novice audience. I am not sure that it is even necessary to have ‘instructor notes’ or a PowerPoint presentation. If the instructor is well versed in the available resources (besides the typical textbook), the assignments, in combination with the carefully curated material, can be a very powerful way conveying the ideas.

When I took the Quality Matters class (pretty intensive), I was quite surprised at how the assignments, which were graded, forced me to delve into the material. There was no way I could have passed the class if I did not do the work. This is the type of learning I would like to structure in the hybrid and other online courses.

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Convincing Beginning Poets They Are Makers: Or, Ways to Sidestep Pitfall #4

I found it very difficult to choose a Pitfall, since they all seem interconnected, and since I can identify ways in which I fall for or resist almost all of them in my teaching. However, I think Online Course Design Pitfall #4: Expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it is most relevant to the hybrid course I’m developing: a beginning level poetry writing workshop.

Since students in a poetry workshop are asked to create things that never existed before, you would think the students would be the key knowledge creators.  Poems are as unique as fingerprints, and embody very particular characteristics of a person’s response to the world. However, I find that students put less emphasis on understanding and appreciating what they and others have made, than on whether they “got the assignment right,” whether I like it or approve of it, and how their performance compares to other students’ performances. In fact, the parameters of each poem assignment, designed to expose students to an incrementally more challenging set of skills, can result in paralysis; students simply don’t know where to start, second-guess themselves until they are completely exhausted, turn out poems that competently execute the required skills but are somehow not “alive,” or wait for the class (or my) “seal of approval” before they embrace what they’ve made and really commit to it.

Another challenge is that students come to this class with radically different levels of ability and experience. This means that there are often a few “stars” and a few students who really struggle, or feel that they do. It’s therefore quite difficult to make the workshop a noncompetitive zone. To an extent, I’ve developed prompts and assignments with basic parameters to level the playing field a bit. Each poem assignment requires a few key skills; for instance, the poem must feature a stanza structure, rich sound play, and must speak in a “voice” or persona different from the student’s own. This tends to ensure that students can execute at least one skill well. However, this approach can tumble into Pitfall #4, in which the professor is the task-master and chief arbiter of whether the student has mastered the skill.

One idea that I’ve been entertaining is giving them more control over some of the poem assignments or exercises; for instance, in a given unit that focuses on sound play, I might ask them to collaborate to create a menu of low-stakes poem prompts/exercises that feature sound play, which will allow them to select prompts they can better relate to, or which speak to their strengths. These exercises might lead, in fact, to poems that fulfill the basic requirements for the given poem unit. I’ve used this exercise-generation approach in graduate poetry classes, justifying it in part because these grad students do, in their second year, teach introductory poetry writing, and this approach allows them to “practice teach.” But I think it might be an effective approach for beginners, too.

I’m also interested in developing more of a “gallery” approach to workshop, in which students first submit their work in a way that is similar to a gallery display, even providing an “artist’s statement.” By doing this as a first step before actually workshopping or critiquing the poem, perhaps we can shift some emphasis to the simple but very important question “what did I make” (rather than “did it fulfill the assignment” or “is it any good?”). The students can experience what the class makes through a “what is it and how does it work” lens first, celebrating the work before turning attention to areas where it falls outside the parameters of the assignment or begs for improvement. In a class like this, where revision is required and thus there is an assumption of fine-tuning and adjustment, I think this approach would work well. And it will emphasize that the students are makers, first and foremost.

However, I have no idea what technologies are available (perhaps a blog is my best bet) to make such a gallery possible.  Does anyone have any suggestions? In my graduate classes, we often simply tape up poems on the classroom walls, especially if they are the result of a somewhat risky exercise or experiment, where the writer is trying something outside his or her comfort zone. But, as you can imagine, almost everything a beginning poet writes in outside his or her comfort zone!

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Student to student

Some pitfalls are equally relevant to face to face and online learning.

I find I too often fail to provide time and space for students to really  interact and share with one another.  In our class in particular – the U.S. Health System – many of the students have had intense experiences as a patient or as a family member of someone going through a difficult health event.  I find that they often will communicate with me and I learn more from them about the intricacies and depth of some of the systems issues we discuss in class as well as the still astonishing disconnect between what we need from the health care system and what we actually get.  But, I rarely carve out the space in a large (mostly lecture) class for them to share those experiences with one another and I am unsure how to effectively create a space that encourages that sharing online.  Helping students develop empathy may not be among our stated course goals but it should be.  So, I am hoping to learn how to more effectively use the online tools to encourage students learn more about each other.

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