Sages and curators

I’ve thought for a long time about the ways in which education has been becoming more student centered and less “sage on a stage”.   The latter description of teaching feels dismissive to me of how much earlier generations learned from people who synthesized, organized, weighted and presented bodies of information and ideas that now are widely available through multiple media.  Rather than dismiss the sages, I’d argue that good sages have always been curators  and that the job of synthesizing, organizing, weighing and presenting is even more critical today given the boundless un-curated streams of media and information available 24/7 on the internet and elsewhere.

Training students to be curators, encouraging students to engage with the work of weighing, assessing, critiquing what they hear and observe and take for granted are some of the goals of the academic discipline of Sociology, the field in which I’ve been creating online and hybrid courses this past year.   Some of the ways to cultivate curating that I’m integrating into those courses include:  Student driven research — in which students collaborate with others around a short autoethnography assignment from which they  generate a set of research questions they  “take into the field” doing interviews and writing a research report that synthesizes theory and observation, that is then shared as a group in a presentation online.   Another way that students can be encouraged to become curators is by giving them data to describe, interpret and explain vis a vis other data they’ve encountered in readings or research.  Practicing interpreting what they read in discussion with others, sifting the weight of evidence among conflicting ideas, and getting students out into the community — collecting observational notes, writing about what they see, and comparing those observations with other students —  gets them away from the stage, and cultivates curating in a community with other learners.

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How to Create Peer to Peer Engagement Online in a Hybrid Course

One of the common pitfalls in online course design is not creating opportunities and engagement for students to discuss, critique and learn from one another in the online environment.

I will avoid this in my hybrid class by:

  1. Emphasizing the importance of peer to peer learning in the course syllabus and explaining to the students that this is will be an important component to the course experience and one of our core learning methods.
  2. Designing graded assignments that require students to collaborate, discuss and present as a shared experience online — in process and presentation.
  3. Utilizing online tools that allow students to explore, practice and understand how different platforms, deliveries and methods of creating a ‘shared work experience’ will enhance their learning and inform their practice.
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Online Course Design Pitfall #4: Expect Your Students to Consume Knowledge Rather Than Create It

This pitfall stood out to me, as it seemed it would be an easy trap to fall into while redesigning the course I teach. Many of the resources previously developed for the Special Animal Med course are geared toward a course format where the instructor feeds the class information, the students consume the knowledge, and then the students confirm that the knowledge was assimilated by reproducing it for a test. While hopefully this transfer of knowledge has been delivered in an interesting and thoughtful way, it has been passive rather than actively engaging the students.

I hope to avoid this pitfall by purposefully redesigning the course materials to actively engage the students. Much of what they will do “in the real world” when they encounter these unusual species in the clinic will be gathering and applying their own resources to clinical case. My goal is to incorporate exercises where the students “create knowledge” by gathering information and synthesizing it into a format for sharing with their peers or potentially the pet-owning public. For example, the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine hosts an event called “Pet Day” which is open to the public. I would love to see the class create several interactive stations or exhibits that could educate and inspire Pet Day attendees on topics like comparing sources of dietary vitamin C for guinea pigs or how to create an ideal habitat for your rat.

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Becoming “The Guide on the Side”: Centering Students in Hybrid Courses

As long as I’ve been a Spanish teacher (sixteen years now!) we as a profession have been talking about and moving toward student-centered, content-based, and task- or project-based teaching; language instructors have long since stopped seeing themselves as the proverbial “Sage on the Stage” (see Online Course Design Pitfall #3: Insist on being the “sage on the stage.” from this article).  And while being a facilitator rather than an all-knowing keeper of information looks a bit different in an online or hybrid environment than in a fully F2F class, I imagine we can apply the many of the same skills to make sure our students remain the central focus of our courses.

In order to keep our hybrid courses student-centered both inside and outside of the classroom, we must avoid the temptation to overuse recorded grammar lectures and stuff the online component of the course with prepackaged content delivery while reserving our task-based, communicative activities for our classroom meetings.

One specific activity that may help us avoid this issue is a great tool available for Canvas: the glossary function.

In face-to-face Spanish courses, students are given a list of vocabulary words to memorize at the beginning of each lesson.  They’re expected to use these words, but the list is never sufficient, and students make frequent use of tools like google translate and while they’re completing assignments in Spanish courses.  Why not make this necessary part of language learning into a wiki-building activity? Whenever students need to look up a word for an assignment, they can add it to the course glossary– complete with definitions, tags, relevant images or examples– thereby creating a living, evolving, searchable document to which students both contribute and refer.  The course glossary is accessible via a plugin that’s displayed on every Canvas window in the course, so it’s easy to navigate, consult, and build.

There are many ways to make sure students are the principal content-creators in both the online and F2F portions of hybrid courses; this is just one I’m excited to try!

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Creative Ownership Through Applied Studio Exercises

My focus is on Course Design Pitfall #4 Expect you students to consume knowledge rather than create it. The course I am developing for hybrid learning is a digital arts studio course focused on narrative storytelling. In this course students learn about screenwriting, storyboarding, shot composition, editing for story and animation from several lectures and tutorials. They then apply all aspects of preparation for production to their very own large scale creative project based on their very own story. In this way they not only become familiar with the concepts and terminology associated with the storytelling creative industry, they also get and opportunity to create their own and have a significant portfolio piece for graduation.

Preproduction has a fairly steep learning curve in terms of the digital art tools and I provide several pre-recorded software tutorials for students. This gives the students a fairly large tool kit to choose from when they produce their animatics for the end of term. In order for students to create their own knowledge rather than consume it I will have them talk to each other regularly in class during our face-to-face time through a series of project check-ins. This activity is where students get into small groups and chat about their own approaches to to making their project. This is also an opportunity for students to talk about creative problems they are having and helping each other solve technical issues. Through these group activities/check-ins my hope is that students will create their own knowledge with each other as they choose the best techniques for their large scale creative project. Students will forge their own creative path and technical approach to digital storytelling in a linear narrative format.

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Use of online homework to link courses in the curriculum

This post is generally related to pitfall number 5:Ignore the ways students learn from each other.

I consider it very important to have a handle on how my students link the material in my course with information in other courses, both those that they are taking currently and those they took in previous terms. To assess this, I ask the students to identify a subject that we will discuss in my course – usually within the next week or so – and find material from a previous course that will supplement my lecture. For example, we might talk about a particular bacterial species in my class… well, they had heard of that bacteria in Immunology class from last term. Students work in pairs and provide a visual from the previous class and discuss how it is connected with the subject that we will talk about. One-page assignments are delivered to me by email and I evaluate them every other day or so. I will comment if they have inaccuracies in their report and ask them to fix it. Students are responsible for four submissions per term and they can choose which week they wish to complete their homework.

I have used this for several years now and here following are the specific benefits I see:

  • I get a sense of what students know before they hear my lecture
  • I can position myself to stress concepts that were not evident in their homework
  • I can go talk to previous instructors about things I think they present incorrectly in their class (has happened!). Vice versa has happened as well- I have changed my lectures to reflect more accurately a concept from a previous class.
  • Students process information from the previous class in the context of what they will hear from me
  • Students review their previous class material as they try to find subjects to write about in their homework
  • Students work in pairs and can use the time to communicate about subject matter
  • Finally – if a student has a great question in class or a specific topic that they are interested in, I will ask them to explore that question in a homework format and submit it as one of their assignments.

I have found this approach very successful as I work to integrate course material vertically and horizontally in our curriculum. I expect to continue and perhaps expand this as I transition to the hybrid course strategy.

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Using student-student interaction to increase learning

My post is addressing pitfall #5 in the article that we read (ignoring the ways in which students learn from each other).

One of the things that we do in our online Spanish classes that we will carry over into our hybrid courses is incentivizing specific types of student-student interaction. We often do this by requiring peer reviews of important projects. This has a number of different benefits. First, it keeps students engaged in the course, and it forces them to not only view the content that their peers have created but also to comment on it in a meaningful way. I encourage students to avoid generic remarks such as “good job” or “great work” and to instead focus on specific things that the person did well and / or particular areas in which they could improve. As a result, students have to look more deeply at the work of their peers, and the feedback that students receive on their work is often more useful. In addition, when students engage more meaningfully with their peers, they inevitably learn more.

Under this model, grades are determined not only by the work that students produce but also by the authenticity and specificity of their peer reviews. Students quickly learn that they can’t receive full credit for writing a mediocre peer review, and by the end of the course, they have turned into constructive critics.

As a side note, I’ll say that this also makes our jobs easier. While peer reviews cannot take the place of instructor feedback, instructors can reference certain peer reviews in the feedback they leave for students, which often makes us more efficient graders.

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Expanding Avenues for Student Choice

I love the idea of building in ways for students to make decisions about what they learn and how they learn it.  My experience is that being able to choose the path of their learning results in increased engagement.

For example, instead of assigning students to read and summarize a specific article in Spanish, I give them a list of online newspapers in Spanish and ask them to pick an article within a certain theme (e.g. science & technology). Because they have the opportunity to choose an article they are interested in, their level of engagement goes up.  This also takes them out of academia and into the real world. They become exposed to newspapers in other countries and reading material that is intended for native-speaker audiences.  My hope is that this will create a pathway for them to continue exploring Spanish language news sites beyond the scope of the course.

In a recent article I read on common pitfalls in online education I was inspired to take student choice to the next level.  The article encourages building online courses in a way that allows students to teach each other.  Why not not only let students choose their learning resources but use them to teach each other?  I have had students share their article summaries on a discussion board and respond to each other.  More could be done! I love the idea of students working in smaller discussion groups to not only share their findings but also to teach each other what they learned.  Finally, they could then work together in these groups to apply their findings toward some larger project.  Can’t wait to try this!


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Why “It’s all on Canvas!” is not a helpful answer

Online Course Design Pitfall #1: Upload your course materials, then call it a day.

It’s easy to blame students for their inability to find the assignment, or for making “lame” excuses for why they didn’t do the reading. However, since I never used a CMS as an undergrad, I have no idea how to assess whether my course organization makes sense; since I LOVE to read and go down rabbit holes (don’t all academics do this?), I have no idea if the assigned readings are too complex or too long or seemingly “unrelated”. Yes, I get excited about the latest article the compares “resilience” to “adaptive capacity” because it’s what I am currently researching. IRL, though, students may not be able to pick out the nuance or history behind the different terms (nor should they, as it isn’t important to the learning goals of the course!), they have other courses, they don’t have time to mess with a disorganized Canvas site, and they increasingly rely on devices to send them reminders of when things are due. Sooooo, to counter this I have two goals for this term: 1. Revise all course content for updated materials and media (e.g. I want to include podcasts as sources of information, and may expand the acceptable format for participation in an “outside seminar” to participation in an “environmental activism or community-based activity”. 2. Work collaboratively with my new grad student (who also happens to be the course TA and who only months ago completed her undergraduate degree) to check the Canvas site for structure, how enticing it is, and to see if there are any “secret tech tools” I can use to better connect Canvas and course work with their everyday devices and activities (e.g. can Canvas notifications be synched to an iphone calendar??). I suspect that by specifically tackling these issues as a instructor-TA (who happens to have recently been an undergraduate student) team, we should be able to come up with something good!

A third point of action would have to be participation in this Hybrid Course Learning Community. As faculty we (I!) tend to get caught up with other “very important” things, and often don’t (never!) prioritize updating course materials and keeping up to date on technology. Thus, although a far cry from totally jumping on the tech train… I certainly care about designing a course that is exciting for students, and streamlined for ease of teaching and interacting with students; especially when I see them in person once per week. The Learning Community is a great way to hold myself accountable to making those changes and learn along the way. It is my hope that these three strategies will help me to never ever again have to say “It’s all on Canvas!” in my most exasperated voice. And that instead I will find technology to be the unifying factor of the hybrid course delivery.

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Attend an Info Session for the Ecampus Research Fellows Program

marigoldsAre you interested in conducting research about online or hybrid teaching and learning? The OSU Ecampus Research Unit will help you plan your proposal for the Ecampus Research Fellows Program.

The Ecampus Research Unit annually funds up to five faculty and/or department projects – $20,000 each – to support research in the areas of distance and online education, including hybrid delivery.

Info sessions will be held Oct. 1 at 1 p.m. and Oct. 4 at 11:30 a.m. at the fourth floor of The Valley Library, Drinkward Conference Room. Applications are due Nov. 1. For more information, contact Mary Ellen Dello Stritto.

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