Monday, December 29, 2008

Do-it-yourself lecture makeovers

Years ago when I first started teaching my idea of an engaging lecture was to bring blank overhead transparencies to class, and write on them while talking. I even mastered a David-Lettermanesque delivery to my lectures that got me a few laughs here and there…and served to fuel my enthusiasm for teaching. What I didn’t realize then is that I wasn’t a good lecturer…and that what I was delivering was far from engaging.

Lecture is an instructional approach used by many faculty...sometimes out of habit, lack of alternative models, or necessity (e.g., constraints of the physical space, limited in-class time, high number of students). We know stuff about our discipline, so it requires little effort for us to talk about that stuff. Although we have to prepare for class, the preparation is relatively easy when our plan is to lecture...again, because we know our stuff. But, who is doing all of the fruitful cognitive processing on the topic -- the person preparing the lecture, or the person listening to the lecture? So, the questions of the hour are -- regardless of the efficiency of lecture, does lecture really achieve what we want to achieve? Are students engaged, and are they processing and retaining what we are sharing with them?

It turns out that the answer is no. So, does this mean we need to stop lecturing, or are there ways to improve the lecture approach?

Seems to me that the more we can have students do something with the content -- as opposed to listen to us talk about the content -- the better. Therefore, embedding students-do-something-now strategies throughout a lecture is a good way to enhance the students' experience and opportunity to process and reflect on the content. Acknowledging that this is not an easy task in a traditional lecture hall (equipped with fixed stadium seating!) with 100+ students, here are a few examples of students-do-something-now strategies that may work regardless of the instructional constraints:
  • Think-pair-share. This strategy involves (1) asking the students a question about the content; (2) giving students an opportunity to consider the question, study their notes and/or text; (3) confer with their neighbor regarding their answer to the question. There are many variations on this strategy, especially in terms of how to handle the "share" aspect. For example, a pair can join up with another pair to discuss the question; using Clickers, pairs can log their response (this is a nice option for providing the whole audience with instant feedback, and for giving you as the lecturing information that can help provide direction for the next part of the lecture.); and pairs can log their response and their names on to index cards, pass them to the front, and the lecturer can randomly select a few responses to share with the whole group. [Note: This approach also provides a jumping off place for the rest of the lecture, and the index cards with students' names can be used for student participation grading.]

  • Interview. Instead of lecturing, I have had students interview me about the topic. I start this strategy by telling students that during the interview they must collect all of the information they need on the topic to fulfill the requirements for writing an essay, completing a project, or preparing for an exam. Then students -- in teams with an elected interviewer, in rows with the person in the front deemed the official interviewer -- work together to determine what 3-5 questions their group (team or row) needs to ask in order to achieve the objective. This strategy encourages students to reflect on what they already know, what they can find out via their text or other resource, and what they absolutely need to ask their professor. It also helps them construct good questions, and prioritize needs. [Note: I have previously described a related strategy, called Stump the Professor.]

  • Point-counterpoint. One of the best lecture-enhancement strategies I've used is to invite a colleague to participate in a point-counterpoint discussion on a particular topic (often controversial), with the students as our audience. This strategy allows students to listen to two (or more, as with a panel) practitioners/experts discuss and debate issues related to the topic. It helps students recognize that there are differing perspectives on the issues, and to see how colleagues grapple with those differing perspectives.

  • Fishbowl. Another strategy that has worked well for me is to select different groups of students to participate with me in a small group discussion, with the rest of the students listening. I form these student groups ahead of time so I can keep track of who has participated, and make sure that I invite everyone in the audience to participate at least once.

  • Value-added. I avoid lecturing on the same content the students have available to them via the textbook, article packet, or other set of resources. If I lecture on the same content they have available to them elsewhere they learn very quickly to either (a) not bother reading the text, or (b) not bother attending the lecture. As an expert in the domain, I have something unique to offer -- my take on the topic at hand, and my stories about how it plays out in practice. I want students to see the value in both the readings and what I have to share, so I avoid replication.

  • Making it relevant, Part 1. As often as possible, instead of lecturing in the conventional way, I tell stories or describe cases that illustrate the points I want students to consider. This strategy helps students process the content in a more contextually meaningful way, helping students see how the content is relevant to the working world.

  • Making it relevant, Part 2. It helps students engage in a lecture if they understand how the lecture content is related to (a) their professional preparation (i.e., what they will be doing on-the-job), and (b) how they are assessed in the course. I remind students at the beginning, middle, and end of a lecture how the content is related to both their professional work and/or the current assignment they are completing for the course. I then reinforce those relationships by incorporating them into my assessment of the assignment. For example, when I ask students to provide design documentation for an instructional product they have created, I require them to cite not only their readings but the lectures and class discussions as well. [Note: Related, I occasionally use the one-minute paper or quiz strategy, informing students at the start of the lecture that at the end of the class I will ask them to submit a one-minute paper or quiz. Knowing that this is coming encourages students to attend to the lecture and take useful notes.]

  • Making it relevant, Part 3. My courses are very project-oriented. Therefore, a strategy I have found very helpful is to focus my lecture content on issues directly relevant to the students' ability to fulfill the project requirements.

  • "Give me a break"...i.e., a pause in the action. This is a simple strategy to implement during a lecture. I allow students time throughout a lecture to summarize what I've shared, clean up their notes, ask for clarification from neighbors, and -- in general -- process and reflect on the content. After the pause in the action, I ask for questions -- often, after time to reflect on the lecture, a few students will find they have a gap in their notes and will ask me a follow-up question. I have found that giving students time to summarize the lecture thus far, in their own words, allows them the time and space to do the same sort of fruitful cognitive processing that I've done in preparing the lecture. If I don't give them time to process and reflect, then the lecture is for naught...and all I have accomplished is hearing myself talk.

These are just a few ideas for enhancing the lecture approach. I find it helpful to mix up the strategies so I am not doing the same thing repeatedly. These strategies have helped me deal with the instructional constraints of large classes held in traditional lecture hall settings. And, ultimately, I have found that I do not actually do that much lecturing, instead allowing students time and space to work with the content in more relevant and meaningful ways that help them stay engaged.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A few strategies for setting the right tone for online discussions

As a staple of online instructional interaction, online discussions are a big part of what takes place in the learning community – it is through these discussions, often, that much of the learning occurs. Therefore, learners’ comfort with participating in online discussions can have a big influence on what they achieve in the course. Comfort can be achieved through establishing trust with the instructor and with course colleagues, and through practice via non-threatening discussion experiences. To establish trust, consider the following strategies:
  • Share a story, related to the content of the course if possible, that gives learners insight into your values, passions, interests, etc. Consider using a tool such as PowerPoint to enhance your story with photos, images, and audio clips (including your voice) – making it a digital story, in other words. See for an example of a digital story that helps my students feel more connected to me (and, therefore, more willing to share and participate in course activities, specifically discussion) while introducing an important topic my courses – values for teaching and learning. Notice that students never see the me, but hear my voice, see photos of my family, and listen to me describe a life-altering event that reflects my own values around teaching and learning. Now that I have shared, the students are more open to sharing.

  • Ask students to post bios/introductions, but to encourage discourse around the shared information ask them to share of list of “facts” about themselves – some true and some not true. Have students engage in a “20 Questions” like discussion so they can determine which facts are in fact false. Besides the practice with using the discussion forum tool and responding appropriately to others’ messages, students start making connections that help them feel more comfortable. “We graduated from the same high school!” “You like to quilt too. What was your last project?” “I’ve been to Australia too. You have to go to Perth…” “What do you mean, ‘Don’t get off the boat in Ensenada’? There’s a story there.”

  • For purposes of practicing online discussion (using the tools, protocols, etiquette, etc.), give learners opportunities to discuss non-threatening, low-judgmental topics. Consider the following activities:
    • Send students to a website that requires they do something and then ask them to share their experience with the group. For example,
      • Have students visit and respond to the following questions in a discussion forum:
        - What happens to you while you are there?
        - What is your favorite part of the experience?
        - Why do you think I am asking you to do these sorts of activities?
      • Have them visit the Mr. Picassohead website -- -- and create an artwork, then submit a link to the discussion forum. Once posted, encourage students to comment on each other’s artwork.

    • Post entertaining photos (not related to the course content) and ask students to share their captions. See below for an example of one of my favorite photos with some student captions.

      A few student captions:
      • Wait please! I do have good news...I just saved tons of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.
      • Tim Burton "re-imagines" When Harry Met Sally.
      • I can take the giant brain, I can take the claws for hands, but why must you insist on wearing blue leather pants every time we go out?
      • MIT student enrolls at UCD. Instructors panic!
      • Listen, you're a nice guy and have a great personality, but my mother simply won't accept a son-in-law whose brain is on the outside.
      • During a break on the set, Ted belts out a rendition of "If I only had brain" on his air guitar. Meanwhile, Mary makes a run for it, hoping her career as an actress is still intact.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wordle...just for phluff?

I've been using a fun (and quite popular) online tool called Wordle to produce images of word collections. For example, I recently created a Wordle image as a main page graphic for my online course. Here is a simple one that summarizes what I write about on this blog --

In this example, some words -- such as teaching -- are larger than others because they are included in the word list more frequently than others. To illustrate, if I were creating a Wordle image to represent the concept of baseball, my initial list of terms for this concept would include: baseball, bat, field, hat, player, field, umpire, glove, stadium, fans, hotdogs, popcorn, etc. This list would produce a Wordle image in which all of the words were the same size, indicating that they were of equal importance in understanding the concept of baseball. However, from my perspective, the word baseball is more important to understanding the concept then hotdog or popcorn. Therefore, I would modify the list as follows to make sure baseball was the most prominent word in the Wordle image: baseball, baseball bat, baseball field, baseball hat, baseball player, baseball field, and so on. With the revised list, the most frequently used word is baseball, so it would be the largest word in the Wordle image. In this way, I can easily illustrate word strength and importance within a list of words if desirable.

Wordle can be used for instructional purposes. For example, I have asked students to produce Wordle images that represent their understanding of a reading, topic, concept, or idea. Then, I ask small groups of students to debrief their images together to discuss what terms they selected and why, why some terms are larger than others (or what terms should be larger than others because they are more important), and so on. A variation is to limit the number of words students (working as individuals or in small groups) can use to describe a complex concept (e.g., constructivism, eLearning, diversity), and have them create a Wordle image that captures the essence of the concept with exactly 20 words. I have also used it to create word collections and asked students to determine how the words are connected, and what topic the collection of words describe. These types of activities encourage students to reflect on a topic or concept, and articulate their understanding based on that reflection.

Wordle can also be used during class introductions, specifically in online courses. Instead of asking students to share a bio, students can produce a Wordle image that summarizes who they are, likes and dislikes, hobbies, and so on. Again, it is a fun way to encourage reflection, articulation, and sharing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Scavenger hunts for encouraging students to read and process the syllabus

In my post on Jazzing up the syllabus, I describe a few ways to make going through the syllabus during the first class meeting a relevant learning opportunity. What I neglected to share is a strategy I've been using in my online courses for several years -- the scavenger hunt. In my online courses I ask students to complete a scavenger hunt about the course, with most of the content for the hunt coming from the syllabus. Here is a list of scavenger hunt questions I used in a recent course:

  1. In your own words, state the learning objectives for this course.
  2. In your own words, describe the purpose and requirements of the team project.
  3. On what days of the week are assignments and projects due?
  4. What learning objectives are addressed by the individual project due on March 9th?
  5. For what reason(s) would a student be granted an incomplete in the course?
  6. What is the purpose of the Weekly Survey?
  7. Who are the authors of the required texts?
  8. What is meant by academic freedom?
  9. What will you be able to add to your portfolio and/or resume in terms of knowledge, skills, and products as a result of successfully completing this course?
  10. What is the best way to reach Joni outside of the course? How quickly will Joni respond to email? And, when is it best to contact Joni with questions, concerns, challenges, etc.?

Everyone in the course is required to complete the scavenger hunt, so it is an easy way for me to verify that everyone has at least looked at the syllabus.

Syllabus scavenger hunts also work well in on-campus courses. On the first night of class, you can have dyads or triads working on a hunt, and make it a contest for teams -- which teams get it done the quickest, which teams' responses are the most accurate, and which team accomplishes both. You can make the questions more complex, so that students have to dig deeply into the syllabus to answer the questions.

A syllabus scavenger hunt is an easy way to ensure that students read the syllabus during the first week (if online) or first night (if on-campus), and it allows me an opportunity to immediately clarify things based on the students' responses. And, it's fun!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Blogging supports other forms of sharing

As described in an earlier post on the educational purposes of blogging, I really do use this blog for reflecting on my own practice and as an ideation sketchbook of my ideas. It is a place to formulate stuff, share formative and summative versions of my thinking about teaching. It has also helped me with other forms of professional sharing. For example, I had a recent piece published in the International Society for Performance Improvement's (ISPI) monthly newsletter, PerformanceXpress. Before blogging, I hadn't considered alternative outlets for my focus was strictly on contributing to refereed journals, with an occasional book chapter and non-refereed journal article thrown in for good measure. [Note: I am a faculty member in a system that highly values refereed journal articles, so my focus isn't unusual. But, the university also cares about professional reach...and let's face it, refereed articles are not always the best way to reach the professional community of practice.] Through the practice of blogging, I have come to value shorter, to-the-point how-tos, commentaries, and missives. A short, clearly presented how-to on a specific teaching strategy, for example, can have immediate influence on practice if widely made available to the folks who have an interest. A blog can serve that purpose, but so can an online newsletter such as PerformanceXpress.

Another reinforced "a-ha" for me is how the content of one's blog can find, with revision and enhancement, a life via some other forum. The content for my short commentary on the educational value of blogging published in the ISPI newsletter -- Contributing to the Thousands of Invisible Threads -- originated in this blog. And, another piece also published in the newsletter about the Pecha Kucha format for presentations originated in this blog. So, this blog is helping my writing, helping me build a habit of writing, helping me develop ideas that have an audience beyond the blog.

This overall positive experience has me now examining what I want to share, why I want to share it, and where I want to share it. And, this is helping me to be more open to all sorts of forums for my ideas. I think this is a fruitful examination for anyone, not only in terms of considering alternative delivery formats and publication avenues but in terms of audience. Consider how you can reach the audience that is interested in your topic, and be willing to share your ideas and work via forums outside of your discipline publications. I'm still working on this one...I almost exclusively publish in instructional design and technology forums. But, I am now excited about connecting with folks outside of my discipline who may be interested in my ideas too. [Note: Hear what Seth Godin and Tom Peters say about the power of blogging.]

As my five-year-old daughter said, "Sharing is hard, but it works out to be pretty good." My response, "Yep, sharing is cool. Let's do it some more."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Encouraging students to read before it hopeless?

This is a topic on the minds of many of my faculty colleagues (and me!) -- how to get students to complete the assigned readings before class...or at all. My initial thoughts on this have always been that the readings have to be relevant:

  1. To achieving the learning objectives
  2. To completing the assignments and projects of the course
  3. To student assessment
  4. To the world outside of the course (whether in support of future study, of being a professional, of being a citizen)

Beyond this, however, there are important considerations that have to do with student readiness and time, and faculty expectations and habits.

Student readiness and time

Are students skilled at reading academic text? They may do a lot of reading (of materials like blogs, Facebook/MySpace pages, text messages, popular media text, and so on), but that sort of reading doesn't translate well to academic reading (see previous post on October 2, 2008). Also, students may not know the difference between skimming, scanning, directed reading, deep reading, and so on. Being clear about what we want students to do with their reading, and how to do it requires our attention. So, we need to scaffold students' reading via modeling and think-alouds, and providing them with examples of how we would mark and/or take notes on the text. In addition, we need to assist students in translating their approach to reading to an academic approach to reading. Spending some time on this sort of prereading instruction will help students learn how to process academic text.

Related, we also need to keep in mind that we have prior knowledge -- the schema -- to process new reading on topics we know about. Students may not. So, it takes them longer to process. An additional thing we can do is help students connect new reading to what they already know.

Do students have time to read the text? An interesting study by Ronald Carver several years ago (1985, How good are some of the world's best readers, Reading Research Quarterly, 20(4), 389-419) compared the word count and comprehension rate of strong student readers with people who read as a consistent part of their profession (such as faculty). There was a 150 word per minute difference between the strong student readers and the professional readers. The takeaway for me is the realization that some students do not read as fast as we do, which means that it may take them much more time to complete an assigned reading; something that takes us an hour to read, may take students 2-4 hours to read. If we are asking students to do other things between classes too, we need to take time-on-reading/task into consideration.

Also, students often have legitimate constraints on their time. Many of them work 15-20 hours a week, some have dependent care responsibilities, and many are concurrently taking several courses. The last thing they need are reading assignments that are not directly and clearly relevant to the work of the course (and beyond). I deal with this by making sure that the reading is critical to being able to complete assignments, and I tie the reading into those assignments in terms of assessment. And, I scale back my reading assignments so that students can deeply process, engage with, and apply a few readings, as opposed to assigning many readings and finding that they barely remember anything they've read and cannot apply the content of the readings to assignments.

Faculty expectations and habits

Are we clear about why we are asking students to read something? We need to remind (and keep reminding) students about the connections between the reading assignments and the course assignments and assessment (and the connection to the profession, etc.). Also, it doesn't hurt to share your enthusiasm for the reading -- why you think the reading is good, what some of the "a-ha" excerpts were for you, what you would like them to focus on, and so on. It sure would be nice to instill a love of reading in the process...

Do we lecture on (or provide students with a summary of) the same material that's in the text? When we do this, students quickly learn that they don't need to do the reading as long as they attend to the lecture and/or summary.

Do we engage students in activities that require them to apply the readings?
Again, another thing students figure out quickly is that if we do not actively have them do something with the readings in class or for projects, that they don't need to read. And, it has to go beyond asking for volunteers to share their thoughts about the reading. Students need to know -- preferably in advance -- what you will be asking them to do with the readings during the next class meeting (for example, involving them in small group discussions using discussion protocols). This way they know how to prepare, what to prepare...and that everyone has to prepare (so, no hiding in the back of the room). [Note: I have several blog posts on facilitating discussions and using discussion protocols. I use discussion protocols all the time, and find them to be highly effective in establishing expectations for reading.]

Do we hold students accountable for completing the readings?
This gets at assessment. If we are going to ask students to complete readings, how will we determine if they have been completed and what is the students' reward or payoff for completing the readings (beyond the "learning is reward enough" payoff)? I prefer more authentic approaches to this, so I require students to use the readings to defend their instructional design work; for example, students have to submit design documents in support of a lesson they have developed, and in those design documents they have to use the readings to support their decisions (and I often require them to triangulate their citations so they can demonstrate how more than one author/reading supports each decision). But, I also like assessment strategies that focus on specific readings, such as having students:

  • Write one-minute papers summarizing the readings -- I then assess and award points for those summaries
  • Assign inspiration points to each other for contributing valuable perspectives, ideas, counterarguments, summaries and so on to the discussion -- I track those points and apply them to the final grades [Note: For more on inspiration points, see the post in this blog.]

Getting students to read in preparation for class is difficult, but if you attend to issues related to reading preparation, reading assignments (in and out of class), and assessment, you can take appropriate action and help students be more successful.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Let's stop blaming technology

Every now and again, an article about the perceived failure of technology in schools to realize the anticipated, expected promise of improved student learning and achievement crosses into my radar. I typically dismiss these articles because they usually present flawed and incomplete arguments, and/or fail to recognize the complexity of the situation. One of these articles, by Mark Bauerlein, crossed my virtual desk today -- Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind - Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming -- and I am compelled to reflect. Here are my thoughts regarding the assumptions that often underlie the "failure of technology in the classroom" argument:

(a) Access to technology equates to effective instructional use of technology and appropriate integration of technology. The one thing teachers and students can tell us is that putting computers with Internet access in the classroom doesn't lead to automatic academic enhancements. In fact, without attending to infrastructure -- faculty and student training, instructional approaches and strategies, incentives and rewards, assessment and accountability, and the like -- technology can serve as a distraction, and derail attention to student learning and achievement. When schools do attend to infrastructure, then technology can be integrated with positive results. Not only for student learning and achievement, but to enhance students' motivation to learning, prepare students to use technology in productive ways (to support inquiry, knowledge construction, communication and collaboration, and expression), connect students and faculty to the world outside of the classroom, and reenergize teachers' instructional practice. That's pretty powerful stuff...but, cannot occur by only providing access.

(b) All content on the Web should be read and processed in the same way as content in books, articles, and print in general. If that's the case, then the Internet becomes just a way to deliver print instead of something that is unique, giving us a different view on and way to work with content. Thinking about my own use of the Web, when I want to to quickly gather ideas and information, then I scan Web content (following the "F pattern" -- or the like -- described in Bauerlein's article). But, if my purpose for access Web content requires deeper processing, then I approach the Web (and other resources, regardless of format) differently. So, context and purpose is an important aspect of this discussion, not addressed in the article.

(c) The problem is technology. I am so tired of this argument. Have the machines finally taken over as predicted by the Terminator movies? This is insulting to educators because it assumes that we don't use tools based on our expertise. As if a tool is just plunked into our classrooms, and we blindly use it (or not) without any consideration of student learning and achievement. Instead, the issue has to do with how educators use technology, and our need to address technology and information literacy in our classrooms. We need to help students (and our colleagues sometimes) learn how to use technology and online resources appropriately. This is not a failure of technology, but a failure of attending to the appropriate integration and use of technology and a failure to support educators in this endeavor (via training, support services, learning communities, strategies, resources, and TIME).

Now is the time to get real about technology and information literacy. We need to prepare students for their professions and for a world that increasingly uses technology in all aspects of daily function. Let's focus our attention on improving student learning and achievement, using all of the tools we have available to us.

Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pecha Kucha, an alternative format for presentations

My students and I have been exploring an interesting format for presentations, called Pecha Kucha (pronounced peh-cha ku-cha...but said really fast). The basic format is 20 slides/images, 20 seconds per slide/image (so, just under 7 minutes per presentation). Developed by two architects (see the Wikipedia entry for more background and links to useful resources) as a way to structure presentations of architectural designs in an efficient and non-detrimental-to-the-message way, Pecha Kucha is gaining in popularity. So, what is it exactly? For a few online examples of Pecha Kucha, see Daniel Pink's YouTube video on the topic of emotionally intelligent signage, Ginny Brady's Vimeo video on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Dean Shareski's example for his students. Dean's stands out for me because I like that he is asking students follow the Pecha Kucha format for their reflections at the end of the course (his example serves as a model for the students). For examples of live, on-stage Pecha Kucha presentations, see Jeremy Fuksa's Facebook presentation at a Pecha Kucha Night in Kansas City, and Glasgow's Pecha Kucha Night (Note: adult content, view at your own risk).

For examples of the format in action during face-to-face sessions, search YouTube...there are several examples, although not really one that stands out for me as an exemplar. Why? Because there seems to be a tendency with the format for presenters to simply talk faster in order to say as much as possible in 20 seconds...instead of allowing the image up on the screen to speak for itself with limited commentary. It doesn't seem that folks use silence to their advantage (or music, for that matter), to allow the audience to process, reflect on, and explore an intellectual and emotional connection with the image (and this seems like a big loss because I perceive the format as a way to encourage us to present stronger visual images, instead of relying on our spoken words...). And, it seems a useful structure for storytelling...and I don't see a lot of great examples of its use in that arena (not that they're not out there). Another thing I have noticed is that it seems that the structure discourages presenters from more actively engaging the audience, and discourages them from using the physical space (many examples simply show the presenter standing rigid to the side of the screen, talking quickly). My final observation has been that given the intentional informality of a Pecha Kucha session, presenters seem to stutter, utter many "ummms" and "ands" and run out of time. Informality shouldn't replace the need for preparation...or the presenter's message is fuddled or lost.

My students and I are exploring all of these aspects, and are in the process of creating some examples that might end up inspiring others to check out Pecha Kucha. Once we have something to share, I will be sure to post them in this blog. [Also, another instructional use I am considering -- so will keep you posted -- is providing students with a set of 20 images. Then, having each of them do their own Pecha Kucha presentation with that set of images. They can change the image order, say what they want, add a soundtrack, etc. (And, may I could allow them to change out up to five of the 20 images with something else, or add elements to the existing images.) I think it would be fascinating to see how different -- or similar -- each student's presentation ends up.]

A suggestion if this post has encouraged you to look into Pecha Kucha. Instead of only relying on online videos of Pecha Kucha in action, see if there is a Pecha Kucha Night in your area. I recently attended Pecha Kucha Night in Denver, and found the experience insightful in terms of understanding how the format plays out. I also enjoyed connecting in a live, physical space with like-minded practitioners...all interested in design and creative expression.

Note: Also see my short article in PerformanceXpress on the topic.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Get out there and observe

I have been so lucky recently to have multiple opportunities to observe my colleagues teaching on-campus and online. It has served to rejuvenate my own teaching...encouraging me to reflect on my teaching and course design decisions. These observations have reinforced for me the following:

  • The importance of connecting with students and enhancing social presence.
  • The value of establishing and continually reminding students of the relevance of their coursework in terms of the profession for which they are preparing.
  • The need to use a variety of instructional strategies in order to engage all of the students in the room.
  • The criticality of providing students with clear directions and expectations at the get-go.
  • The usefulness of consistent and frequent opportunities for students to receive feedback.

If you are able, ask colleagues if you can observe them in action (or, better yet, for a learning community with a group of colleagues that allows for observation and follow-up and continued discussion about teaching and learning). Or, check with your Center for Faculty Development. Ours has a list of faculty who have agreed to allow colleagues to visit their classrooms. Definitely an opportunity to take advantage of.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rockin' Robin, Tweet, Tweet, Tweet... My adventure with Twitter

It has been awhile since I have posted to this blog because I've been focused on sharing ideas and connecting with folks in different ways (e.g., through my Ideation blog, webinars, online newsletters, LMS). For example, one social networking tool I've been exploring with students and colleagues is Twitter.

My reason for getting into Twitter, and inviting interested online students to try it out with me, is because I wanted to have an informal, playful way for my online students and I to connect throughout the day (see the my course ideation blog for an overview of my decision to use Twitter and my immediate thoughts after launching it). This has to do with me overarching interest in enhancing social presence in online learning experiences. I have found that I can't accomplish all I want to accomplish in terms of social presence withing the structure of a learning management system (LMS). What has consistently been lacking for me is the informal, playful banter and chit-chat that I have with students in my on-campus courses. This banter helps students connect with me, experience my personality. And, it helps them connect with each other in a more emotional way. To address this in the LMS, I have incorporated weekly fun activities (such as coming up with captions for goofy photos, or competing in an online game), established discussion forums for non-academic topics, had students produce music playlists for the week, and so on. But, although helpful, these strategies didn't seem to do enough to enhance social presence. Twitter seems to have potential to further support my efforts in this arena, and the results so far have been positive (although I now wish that I had more strongly encouraged all of the students to participate).

I have also used Twitter to connect with colleagues, especially within the university, via Twitter and have found this type of connection rewarding. Besides our playful banter which I have found refreshing, we are able to immediately point each other to interesting articles, YouTube videos, webinars, events, and the like. And, we also use it to ask questions, in a pop-into-your-office sort of way. For example, I have been in meetings and needed a quick answer to a question, posted my question in Twitter, and quickly received responses that I then shared with the meeting group to help the discussion move forward. That's pretty powerful.

At this point, I am not following or be followed by that many folks. That works for me. But, some folks have very large social networks in Twitter. That's exciting. When used effectively, Twitter helps you stay connected with students and colleagues in a fun and meaningful way...and provides immediately connection with a brain-trust of practitioners and experts that can provide on-the-job performance support. And, can tell you when there is free pie in the lobby!

Check out Twitter...and connect with me. My username in Twitter is jonidunlap.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Improving the odds of effective collaborative work in online courses

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of online course designers and faculty to talk about how to improve the odds of involving online students in effective collaborative activities. In preparation for the discussion, I revisited a set of guidelines I had put together for other workshops and talks I deliver on the subject. Many of these guidelines have already found there way into this blog, but I thought it might be helpful to have them all in one place. So, the following are some guidelines and suggestions I've found helpful when designing collaborative (groupwork and teamwork) activities.

A couple of basic definitions

Tenets of collaborative/cooperative learning ~
– Positive interdependence
– Individual accountability
– Promotive interaction
– Development of teamwork skills (with guided practice)
– Regular assessment of teamwork functioning

Groupwork ~
– Activity spans short time frame.
– Groups formed spontaneously.
– Groups breakup after a session (little or no commitment).
– Most students equipped with skills to do groupwork.

Teamwork ~
– Activities span long time frame.
– Teams formed carefully.
– Teams stay formed and have commitments.
– Students are ill equipped with skills to do teamwork.

A few basic guidelines about collaborative work
  1. Balance individual and collaborative work, online and off-line work.

  2. Make sure collaborative work is relevant, and that learners understand the relevance.

  3. Even if you are not involving learners in collaborative projects, assign learners to study/support groups or involve them in other collaborative activities: role-playing, debates, discussion protocols (e.g., jigsaw, rotating stations, the final word), peer review, case studies, game/quiz show, competitions, group test taking, “Naked Came the Manatee” co-construction/writing, and so on.

  4. Assign learners to teams with 4-5 members. Form team with goal to spread abilities, skills and learning preferences/styles. [Follow a method, such as mixed ability, or learning preference assessment, or learning goal focus.]

  5. Keep learners in same teams during the whole semester.

  6. Build time into the course schedule for team formation.

  7. Establish explicit individual learner roles and responsibilities (e.g., organizer/project manager, main researcher, section writer, editor, etc.). Roles and responsibilities should lead to a fair division of labor. Rotate roles with each project.

  8. Have learners construct a team agreement, including ramifications of non-compliance with the agreement.

  9. Consider easier team projects early on, building towards more complexity.

  10. Establish a mechanism for checking in on teams and individual team members.

  11. Break a collaborative project up into a subset of deliverables (smaller, more manageable team projects), with due dates spread out across the timeframe.

  12. Engage in structured walkthroughs at various points during the project. [Use synchronous tools to meet with a team and ask pointed questions of each team member regarding contributions to the project, etc.]

  13. Require weekly status reports from each team/team member (e.g., summarize what the team accomplished this week, describe your most significant contribution to the project this week, describe why the contribution was significant, describe with other team members contributed, and describe what you need to accomplish on the project next week).

  14. With each project, include a team-graded component and an individual-graded component.

  15. Assess process, and/or product, and/or outcome.

  16. Consider “no jeopardy” approaches to collaborative work that allow for a submitted product to be complete without a missing member’s contribution. Examples include: each student completes an allocated task that contributes to the final team product and gets the marks for that task; each student writes and submits an individual report based on the team’s work on the task/project; each student takes an exam, with exam questions that specifically target the team project, and can only be answered by students who have been thoroughly involved in the project; each student’s contribution is assessed via individually-produced evidence such as status reports, journals, time logs, and direct observation; each student produces an individual paper based on the team project.

  17. Allow for the use of a variety of collaboration tools, not just those tied to the CMS/LMS. Also, use tools and technologies commonly used in the profession for which you are preparing students.

Assessing collaborative work: A few suggestions
  1. Teamwork rubric. Create a rubric for assessing collaborative contribution (see Figure 1), with clear criteria. Make that rubric available to learners well in advance of a collaborative project.

  2. “Rules of Engagement” contract. This contract should include information on:
    • Who will post: Which team member will be responsible for posting the group’s deliverables?
    • Leader or not: Some groups chose a leader to keep things moving, some groups change that leader each week (or every other week or whatever), and some groups decide not to do this.
    • Communication and deadlines: How will they communicate with each other? How often? Will they set interim deadlines? Some groups like to set certain deadlines, such as initial work done by Wednesday, rewrites by Friday, and final posted Sunday.
    • Equal contributions: How will work be distributed?
    • Preferred work style: Some people like to get things done during the week and take the weekend off and others prefer the opposite. What is your style? How will you handle style differences?
    • Not getting work done: What will the group do if one member cannot fulfill his or her obligations? Will that member be docked points, or can the member make up the work?
    • Known problems: Issues you know will come up, how to handle dates you know you will be out of town?

  3. Team Review Form: Figure 2 is a form learners use to assess each other’s contributions to team projects (as well as their own contributions). These assessments can have ramifications, such as if a team member receives less than 50 points on the Team Review Form from more than one team member then that learner’s points for the deliverable will be reduced by 20%. This form can be completed at the end of projects, or at key points throughout a project.

  4. Weekly status reports. Have learners submit weekly (or biweekly) status reports (see #13 under basic guidelines above).

  5. Public and semi-public structured walkthroughs. Use synchronous tools to meet with teams/groups during a project. In advance, provide the group with a set of questions you will ask about the project. When together, randomly select group members to respond to particular questions.

  6. Project quiz/exam. Once the project is complete, test team members on the content of the project.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

And, a bonus. A fun video on the joys of teamwork.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The essence of good storytelling

For me, storytelling is everything. When I pull it off and do it well, it helps me achieve so much as an educator -- engaging learners, establishing social presence, illustrating relevance, encouraging connections between theory and practice, holding attention, having fun, being in community, and so on. It is the key to connecting, to making sense of the world, to contributing to the world. To be a good educator, in my humble opinion, one has to be a great storyteller.

All of us have had people who contributed to our educational, professional, and personal journeys through storytelling. The person who most influenced my love of storytelling as a vehicle for connecting and educating is my father, Ray Dunlap. He was always telling stories (and jokes...humor is an important aspect of storytelling too). Ray died in June 2008. Luckily, I have one of his stories to share here, as an example of good storytelling. It illustrates what stories can accomplish (the laundry list above) with little fanfare. A good story works, even without a big media production to support it. Share your stories with others, it makes a difference.

Thank you, Ray, for sharing your stories.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Appropriate class size for online courses?

What is the thinking these days about class size for online instruction? I was asked this question today. This is a question that online educators frequently examine. My professional recommendation, supported by the literature, is that online class sizes be limited to 15 to 20 students. Why? Here is what we know:
  1. Attrition in online courses and programs is a problem. The attrition typically has three sources: inconsistent expectations, underdeveloped time management and self-directed learning skills, and lack of social presence. In terms of expectations, students continue to think that online courses are easier than on campus courses, that they will be able to fulfill the requirements of the course at their own pace, and so on. As for time management and self-directed learning skills, online educational opportunities tend to require students to take on more responsibility for tracking course requirements, due dates, and the like. Students need to be more autonomous than many of them are used to (e.g., the structure of on-campus courses and the weekly required face-to-face classes with professors tends to eliminate the need for students to manages a lot of the logistical overhead). In terms of social presence, if students experience limited to no connection with the professor and fellow students, they can feel disconnected, disengaged. If they have no voice, or feel that they have no voice, they don't/won't use it...and drift away.

  2. Effective graduate-level teaching (whether online or on campus) involves students in relevant, meaningful projects that help prepare them for the profession; requires professors to provide high levels of constructive feedback; offers students multiple opportunities for exploration, practice, failure; engages students in mentoring and coaching relationships with faculty; involves highly engaging instructional experiences and formats; and so on.

Addressing the issues above (#1) in a way that reflects effective teaching practice (#2) is intensive, especially when the course is online. The transactional distance involved in an online course -- the fact that we are not all in the same room at the same time, and that we are working together asynchronously in a primarily text-based format -- exponentially increases the amount of time a professor needs to attend to the course and the students. So, when there are more than 20 students in an online course, something has to give, something suffers. Either the professor cannot adequately address the issues in #1, or has to significantly scale back the teaching approaches and strategies, or both.

Therefore, since we do not want to compromise on either front, my answer to the question is -- Allow online educators and students to get the most out of the educational opportunity by limiting class sizes to 15 to 20 students. Please.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Presentation on social presence in online courses

I delivered this presentation in May 2008 at the CU Online Symposium. A number of the strategies I share during the presentation are described in more detail throughout the blog. [Note: As stated in other posts, I struggle with delivering presentations in conference and conference-like settings because I do not use PowerPoint or other presentation software well. I recently completed a workshop offered by Edward Tufte...the future -- on the presentation front -- looks brighter, but I'm not making any promises about improvement.]

Presentation description: Enhancing social presence in online courses Because of the critical role that social presence plays in inspirational and meaningful learning, online courses need to include opportunities for rich and relevant learning opportunities that (1) create a sense of learning community in which learners learn from each other and from the teacher, (2) encourage the sharing of multiple perspectives, and (3) promote high quality work through collaboration and peer review – without creating an instructional situation in which everyone is online constantly. In this presentation, we examine various instructional strategies that can be used to accomplish an appropriate level of social presence in online courses.

Web link (sorry, I couldn't make the embedded video work):

Presentation slides: Social Presence

Sunday, June 29, 2008

I write the music in the classroom

I am very interested in figuring out how to use digital music with students. Whether teaching online or on campus, my students are often carrying mp3 players, iPods, or some sort of device for playing and listening to music. Instead of asking them to set that stuff aside, I want to use music in instructional ways. Here are a few ideas:

  • Pick a course topic and have students find songs that say something about that topic. For example, I teach educators, so I have students find songs about school (such as School's Out, We're Going to be Friends, Be True to Your School, Hot for Teacher, and so on). Then, they share their songs and we discuss what the songs tell us about the experience of school...the good, the bad, and the ugly.

  • Related to the idea above, have students pick a word (e.g., power) or an event (e.g., when they felt like they had really succeeded at something) or an emotion/state-of-mind (e.g., confidence), and find a song that represents that word/event/emotion. Students can include an explanation of how/why the song represents that word for them, or students can engage in a 20-question activity to ferret out why each student selected their song.

  • Have students bring in a song and rewrite the lyrics to reflect a particular course topic (everyone can write lyrics for a 12-bar blues, after all). I have a colleague who does this at the end of a course, and students perform their songs (original or rewrite)!

  • Have students select a song, and then create a music video for the song. The video should reflect a particular course topic. For example, if I was teaching a course on language, literacy, and culture, I could have students pick any song, but then create a video in support of the song that reflects diversity. [This idea relates to the various digital storytelling posts in this blog.]

  • As a way for students to get to know each other, each student could share a song and explain why the song is meaningful to her or him (I call this the "Soundtrack of Your Life" activity). Or, alternatively, students could share their songs, and then the group could ask questions about the song -- sort of a 20-questions activity -- to figure out why each student selected the song she or he did. Finally, the shared songs could be used to consider the groups shared interests, differences, and so on (e.g., how many folks like jazz, or female songwriters, or sad songs). A great tool for this is Finetune. Finetune allows you to create playlists from a large library of music, and then makes it easy to share your playlists with others. Songza is a similar tool that I also like. So, for the Soundtrack activity, I ask students to create Finetune or Songza playlists that are shared with others in the class. To give you an idea of what you end up with, here are a few examples of my playlists:

    June 17, 2008 (in Songza) ~

    Easy Listening Groove (in Finetune) ~

    Living in London 1978 (in Finetune) ~

    Is that the Amtrak train, already? - Chico, 1988 (in Finetune) ~

Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Stump the Professor"

I have been playing with the idea of playing games with students in online courses, mostly influenced by recently seeing an episode of "Are you smarter than a 5th grader?" online. When I think about those types of games -- Jeopardy, Millionaire, and so on -- I think that it is the questions that make the games interesting. And, that the folks who have the most fun and learn the most are those who construct the questions. It is hard to write a good question. If you can write a good question...that's everything. So, I've been having students -- as individuals or in teams -- compete to develop a great question that can stump me and the rest of the class. Then we have a race to see who can answer it first -- me or them (usually in teams). They usually win, and that's very cool.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Using instructionally, with a cherry on top is a very useful online social bookmarking tool. It allows individuals and groups to collect a library of online resources (i.e., webliography). For instructional purposes, I have asked groups of students to create a webliography on a particular topic. But, honestly, I find this to be somewhat limiting, and less than satisfying in and of itself. It works well if I then have students do something with the resources they have collected. But, if the process ends with the collection, it just doesn't work for me. I don't really like the idea of, "hey kids, let's social bookmark together!" I think it has to have a purpose so students are social bookmarking in order to create something else...something unique, creative, constructive.

So, here are two suggestions for using that have worked for me:

  • Collect a set of sites in, and then ask students to use the sites to create a unique presentation or story. It is interesting to see how different the products students create are, even though they used the same source sites provided via [Alternatively, have groups of students collect and share a set of sites via instead of you.]

  • Post a set of seemingly unrelated links in, and then asked students to figure out why the sites are collected together. The students have to be detectives to figure out why the links/sites are related. [Again, you could have groups of students post a set of seemingly unrelated links in instead of you.]

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

No more teachers' dirty looks...

Students carry a lot of technology with them wherever they go, including into the classroom. Because these technologies -- such as iPods, computers, cell phones -- can serve as distractions from what is instructionally happening in the classroom, many faculty are requiring that students turn everything off at the start of class. What a loss! Instead, my suggestion is to find ways to use students' technology in ways that serve the objectives of the class. Here are a few ideas (Note: I suggest you have students in small groups, so that there is the potential for a more balanced distribution of technology...because, even though it may feel like it, not all students are carrying technology):
  • In small groups, have students answer a set of challenging questions (or complete a scavenger hunt), allowing them to use their computers (to look things up via static sites, or by accessing an online community of practice) and cell phones (to phone a friend).

  • In small groups, have students use their technology to locate the most unique response to a question, or a current news item that is related to the topic.

  • Set up an IM address for the course. Periodically, ask student groups a question and have them IM their response to your IM address. Report out what groups are sharing.

  • Set up an IM address for the course, and have it on during all classes to enable students to ask questions during lectures.

  • Set up a wiki for the topic being covered in class (or throughout the week, depending on the course schedule). Explain to students that the group will collaboratively create a summary of the topic at hand. A few times during the class session, have student groups access the wiki and update it to reflect what has been covered and discussed so far. By the end of the class session, the wiki can serve as a collaboratively developed set of class notes (for the lecture, discussion, lab, and/or activity/project).

  • Create short podcasts (or locate relevant, pre-existing podcasts) related to the topic at hand. Have students download the podcasts to their iPods or computers prior to class. In class, present students with an activity (e.g., a case study) that requires them to access a variety of online resources, including one or more of the podcasts you created or made available.

  • In small groups, have students search their iPods for a song that lyrically reflects what the class is covering, and prepare to share the song and their rationale for how it is related to the current class topic.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Wikipedia, friend or foe

I have recently found that some of my faculty colleagues are leery of allowing students to include Wikipedia references in their papers. I don't blame them. Some of the content in Wikipedia is well established and supported, some content isn't. Sometimes students don't know the difference...or, more accurately, how to determine the difference. And, it is important for them to learn how to determine the difference because we are getting more and more of our content via online sources. So, instead of not allowing students to reference Wikipedia:
  • Allow students to reference Wikipedia as long as they can find two non-Wikipedia sources to support the Wikipedia reference

  • Have students find -- and support with other resources -- the problems with a Wikipedia reference (sort of a WikipediaBusters activity)

  • Have students figure out the biases implied in a Wikipedia entry (e.g., was the entry written by a man, or a Democrat, or someone living in the United States, or someone who doesn't like cats, and so on), and then rewriting the entry to (1) minimize the bias, or (2) reflect an alternative perspective

  • Have students fix a Wikipedia entry, after all an expectation of the Wikipedia community is that participants contribute

I like Wikipedia, and think it can be a great first step in students' writing/research long as they know that anything they read on the Web (or in print, for that matter) is mediated by the author's perspective and biases, and may or may not be accurate. I think activities, like those listed above, can help reinforce this, and also reinforce that they are eligible contributors to community resources, such as Wikipedia.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reliance on visual cues during webcasting

Today, I had another webcast experience as a presenter. I have done them before (both as a presenter and a participant), but it has been a little while since I have presented during a webcast...and I had forgotten...

The webcast was in support of a recent article we (Jackie Dobrovolny, Dave Young, and I) had published in Innovate (a good journal for people interested in online education). [Note: The article is on our use of Kolb's model of experiential learning in the eLearning MA/certificate program at UCD.] Innovate asks authors to participate in a webcast in support of their articles, sharing a presentation and facilitating a discussion. It is a fantastic idea, and one I think more journals should consider because I think audiences/readers crave opportunities to discuss the work (and, in my mind, it recognizes the criticality of social context). Anyway, I love the idea and think it serves its purpose well. [Note: By the way, Innovate has all of these webcasts archived. I have watched/listened to many of them, and found them to be a good source of information...even though I wasn't able to participate in real-time. You will need to register (for both the journal and the archived or live webcasts), but it is free. Also, Jackie and I participated in another webcast of our live presentation at the Innovation 2008 conference, in case there is interest.]

So, it caught me off guard yet again today when I was reminded of how much I rely on the visual cues of the audience. People nodding, taking notes, talking to a neighbor, or even glaring at me with arms crossed across their bodies...those cues give me information that encourages me, informs me, and often redirects me.

I am not a good multitasker. So, my other challenge -- one commonly expressed by people working in synchronous technology-mediated environments -- is that I wanted to deliver a smooth presentation while at the same time attend to the high volume of text-based comments and questions from the audience. There was a ton of interaction (potential and realized) from the audience of around 25 folks. All with great contributions. Yet, I was simply unable to track it all. In fact, there was one point where I completely lost track of where I was in the presentation...something that never happens to me in a face-to-face live setting.

Where does this experience leave me? I am not going to give up on webcasts, that I know. Again, I think there is a craving for synchronous connection, and there is power in that. So, I want to add more webcast opportunities to my online courses, and plan to use them to deliver professional development through UCD's Center for Faculty Development starting in the fall. But, I do have to deal with these two issues -- (1) my reliance of visual cues from the audience, and (2) attending to audience comments and questions. The second issue is much easier to deal with. I have had great luck with asking a colleague to step in and act as moderator during a webcast. The moderator can completely focus on the text traffic, and make sure that I address questions and respond to comments.

In terms of the first issue, I have come up with two angles I will pursue: setting ground rules, and structuring the presentation to support time for frequent interaction.

Setting ground rules:
  • Demonstrate how participants can engage in side conversations using the "private" feature so that they do not distract the entire audience (or presenter).

  • If there is no moderator involved, ask the audience to hold their questions and comments until the designated times throughout the presentation.

  • If there is a moderator, explain to the audience that the moderator will track comments and questions, try to categorize them into themes, and present them to you during the designated times throughout the presentation.

  • Share a set of emoticons that the audience can use to let you know whether they are in agreement, disagreement, want more, want less, and so on.

Structuring the presentation:
  • If possible, collect potential questions and comments from participants in advance of the webcast. This gives you time to incorporate content that you may not have been planning to address.

  • Make sure there is time before the presentation begins for people to check their technology and say hello.

  • Share the ground rules. Ask if the group wants to change any of the rules, and adjust as appropriate. (If it is possible to send this information out in advance, great. But, review them at the start of the webcast so they are fresh.)

  • If you are interested in collecting some pre-presentation data from folks (to make sure you will address questions, and to get them engaged in the topic), use the polling feature of your webcast tool. For example, the webcast today was in Breeze, which has a polling tool.

  • Set up the presentation so that you are delivering content in 3-5 minute chucks.

  • Between each chunk, open it up for questions. Make sure the time is monitored -- say, only 3-5 minutes for questions.

  • Leave time at the end for a lot more discussion. (I have found that presenters so often fill up their allotted time with their own talking, leaving no time for the audience to participate. And, let's face it, they often do want to participate.)

  • Use the polling feature to check for understanding throughout the presentation. This is a quick way to get feedback without waiting for a large group of people to type in their responses. Plus, it is something that can be set up in advance of the webcast.

  • If appropriate, provide a way for you and the audience to keep the discussion going after the webcast using an asynchronous communication tool (e.g., threaded discussion).

Wish me luck -- I have another webcast coming up, and will certainly put some of these strategies into play.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Design guidelines and standards for eLearning

Always looking for tools to use when considering the quality and effectiveness of my eLearning course design and teaching, here are links to a few resources I have found quite useful:

National Standards for Online Courses and Online Teaching from the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL)

Rubric for Online Education from CSU Chico

Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Establishing a Quality Review for Online Courses in EDUCAUSE Quarterly

Monday, April 21, 2008

Some guidelines for discussion participation

There are a lot of examples of discussion guidelines out there...this is a good thing because learners and faculty are looking for ways to assess discussion participation. Here are a few guidelines -- a Top 10 -- I typically share with students (in conjunction with my use of inspiration/karma points, as described in Karma (or inspiration) points for discussion assessment, and discussion ground rules) --
  1. Be direct: Share comments, ideas, and suggestions directly with classmates.

  2. Be specific: When praising or commenting on others' contributions, avoid being vague. Be clear about what aspect (excerpt, portion, etc.) of the classmate's comment you are responding to. Describe how the classmate's contribution helped you understand the topic or think about the topic in a different way.

  3. Be non-attributive: Do not describe a classmate's attributes but rather describe your experience of her or his contribution – the effect that her or his contribution had on you. Use “I statements” that convey your experience of the other person’s efforts.

  4. Share knowledge and ideas:
    • Applications and examples from the workplace and community
    • Great tips and tricks
    • Unique resources such as useful website, books, blogs, articles, workshop information and/or technical work groups etc.
    • Relevant personal and professional experiences
    • Strategies, tools and problem solving skills

  5. Encourage vision: Present unique, insightful ideas, perspectives, and questions that are thought provoking and promote further discussion. Encourage new ways of thinking that makes the group see something in a new way. Disseminate new information and knowledge about the topic being discussed. Demonstrate your ability to see beyond the obvious.

  6. Contribute to group's sense of well-being and harmony: Be open to others' comments and ideas. Make statements that support and honor differences. Share thoughts and opinions with others without judgment or prejudice. Make comments that help create a healthy learning environment and inspire people to want to learn more. Make statements that mediate differences and find commonality. Make statements that lift classmates' spirits. When appropriate, share comments that draw the conversation back to the focus of the discussion topic.

  7. Demonstrate knowledge of the topic: Contribute to discussions by making comments that are insightful and informed (include resources, personal experiences with a topic, and so on).

  8. Make an extra effort to actively participate throughout the discussion, and engage classmates throughout the duration of the discussion.

  9. Offer assistance to other students, and help others who need extra explanation on a topic.

  10. Pose questions and ask for help when needed.

Related posts in this blog:
Discussion ground rules
Don’t jump into discussions
Engaging quieter online students
Small groups reporting out to the large group?
Karma (or inspiration) points for discussion assessment
Beyond debates and conversational roles (Protocols Part 1)
Structures for asynchronous online discussions (Protocols Part 2)
Structures for synchronous online discussions (Protocols Part 3)
Structures for small groups reporting out to whole group (Protocols Part 4)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What does it really mean to "engage the learner"?

For a number of years now, I start my courses with the following activity (stated differently for different contexts):
1) Describe your best learning experience. Think about your most valuable, effective learning experience and in at least 250 but no more than 500 words share your learning story. When you write your "Best Learning Experience" story, don’t editorialize or try to explain why you think it was your best learning experience, just tell the story. After everyone shares her or his story, we will analyze the stories.

2) Analyze each person's "Best Learning Experience" story. Take time to dig deep to discover why each particular learning experience was so special. This will probably require you to ask probing questions of each person. The goal of this analysis is to uncover a set of underlying strategies or strategic themes that seem to be at work behind the scenes in these stories.

3) Compile strategies and themes into a list of Common Instructional Values. When you design learning experiences and opportunities for others it is very important to consider what you instructionally value as a learner and educator. Your values -- based on your experience in the world and on what you know about how people think and learn (from the study of conceptual, theoretical, and empirical literature) -- should be reflected in your design and selection of instructional approaches and strategies. For example, if you believe that people learn best in collaborative settings, then your instructional design should include opportunities for collaborative learning. So, let's get our values about these things out on the table -- they will provide us with a foundation for the rest of the work we do in this course.

Using the story analyses that you did last week, work together to derive a list of common instructional values that seem to be in use throughout most of the learning experiences. For example, do each (or most) of the stories involve a hands-on component? If so, it is a common instructional value...part of the learning experience that made that experience so valuable and effective. Note: assessment of your instructional design projects throughout the course and program will include an examination of the effective incorporation of these values.

What I have found interesting is how consistent the types of stories are, and the resulting lists are. Here is an example of a "common instructional values" list:

Learner-centered --

Learning activities: are relevant, meaningful, personal, and motivating; require learners to be self-directed, self-regulating, autonomous, intentional, and metacognitively aware; and develop skills and disposition needed for lifelong learning.

Educators: facilitate and guide learning; support students in taking ownership, responsibility, and control over their learning; help students with prior knowledge activation, goal setting, action planning, and reflection; and are culturally-responsive, honoring diversity.

Learning environments include: flexible physical structures, access to a variety of resources, and tools and rubrics that encourage self-assessment and process/goal-achievement monitoring.

Contextual --
Learning activities are: authentic, real world, challenging, relevant, context-specific, complex, ill-structured, project-based, problem-based, enculturation, situated, and anchored.

Educators are: focused on professional preparation and identity; and attentive to the development of students’ confidence and self-efficacy to participate in the professional community of practice.

Learning environments include: simulations, immersion, problems, projects, case studies, service, communities of practice, enculturation.

Active --
Learning activities: are hands-on, generative, dynamic, exploratory, experiential, engaging; involve students in inquiry, discovery, problem solving, decision making, and expression; and culminate in the creation, construction, and building of products, or a performance.

Educators: provide opportunities for questioning, knowledge building, practice, and experimentation; conduct demonstrations; model performance; and engage in think-alouds.

Learning environments include: materials, labs, simulations, case studies, role-playing, and projects.

Social --

Learning activities involve: collaboration, teamwork, group work, cooperation, discourse, discussion, negotiation, debate, conversation, communication, sharing, storytelling, working together, reciprocal teaching, peer teaching/mentoring/coaching, peer review, and co-creation.

Educators: establish teacher and social presence, participate, facilitate discussions and community building, provide coaching and mentoring, and cultivate the social context.

Learning environments include: space for small group work, communication and collaboration tools, rubrics that encourage balanced voices and contributions, and access to external communities.

Supportive --

Learning activities are: culturally responsive, differentiated, fun, entertaining, and scaffolded.

Educators: are humanistic, caring, non-judgmental, competent, credible, well-organized, passionate, inspirational, enthusiastic, and attentive; minimize frustration; provide clear and complete directions/information, constructive feedback, coaching, and mentoring; and honor diversity and creativity.

Learning environments are: safe, non-threatening, celebratory, accommodating, flexible, equitable, resource rich, and multimodal.

So, my thinking is that an "engaging" learning experience requires the experience to be learner-centered, contextual, active, social, and supportive. However, I think you can have all of those things going on and still not create an engaging learning experience (although you have a better chance of it). I think about all of the students' stories over the years, and there is something more that just doesn't seem to be completely captured in the resulting lists of common instructional values. The students' learning experiences (which they might describe as "engaging") seem to be comprised of happenings/occurrences that reflect both an episodic uniqueness and a structured order...there is an ineffable qualitative character that is enjoyed, providing the basis for experienced value and aesthetic appreciation. [Note: My digital story describing my best learning experience is an example of this sort of experience.]

So, how do we engage the learner? A learning experience should be learner-centered, contextual, active, social, and supportive...but we (educators, instructional designers) also need to look at what is experienced by learners and think about how to enhance that (and I can't help but think that we can be helped a lot in this quest by considering what we know about the experience of art, music, theatre, and literature...the emotional and cognitive journey those experiences can take us on).

For a much more in-depth exploration and explanation of these ideas, please visit Pat Parrish's website -- I consider him to be an expert in the area of aesthetic principles for instructional design, and you will be able to access some of his writings via his site. (Or Google him...he has articles published on this topic.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Problems of Practice approach

For the last several years, I have spent a lot of my consulting efforts working with higher education faculty and corporate instructional designers on appropriate instructional strategies for new and repurposed online learning opportunities (e.g., courses, tutorials, modules). Consistently, the tendency has been to start with what has already been done in the past, especially in a repurposing situation: “This has always worked in the face-to-face course, so why change it?” and “I have all the PowerPoint presentations I use in the classroom ready…can’t we just upload those to the server and call it an online course?” However, from my own experience (as well as from the literature), a problem-centered instructional approach is much more effective. Unfortunately, it isn't easy to develop authentic problems that represent the workplace and/or profession to focus and drive learning. So, over the years, I have developed a simple approach -- very similar to a backwards engineering approach to design -- to help myself, colleagues and clients create problems for problem-centered instruction (for face-to-face or online courses and workshops). I refer to this approach as the Problems of Practice (PoP) approach. The four supporting matrices -- with guided, reflective questions -- provide a roadmap for creating authentic problems.

For more information, please see two articles that describe the PoP approach in detail:

Dunlap, J.C. (2008). Getting to the heart of the problem: Using the Problems of Practice approach as a starting place for creating problem-centered instruction. Performance Improvement, 47(8), 26-34.

Dunlap, J.C., Sobel, D.M., & Sands, D. (2007). Supporting students’ cognitive processing in online courses: Designing for deep and meaningful student-to-content interactions. TechTrends, 51(4), 20-31.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Fun tool for making videos

What a fun tool -- Animoto!

I created this video in about 10 minutes.

My thinking is that I could use this tool to help me establish presence with my online students -- sharing photo collages to give them another way to get to know about me and my life. And, I could ask them to do the same as part of their introduction at the beginning of an online course. It is a way to jazz up the conventional "post your photo and bio" activity.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My legal separation from PowerPoint (and other presentation software tools)

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on how Bullet points make me crazy...and is in response to three separate incidents that happened today:
  • To paraphrase a colleague, who was reflecting on our recent collective endeavors to create presentations in support of various workshops, "I am not impressed with our creative use of PowerPoint lately."

  • A question from a student, "Why do you avoid using PowerPoint?...I get the sense that you have [specific] reasons...."

  • I have to submit a PowerPoint presentation to go along with a webcast I am participating in. The original talk, with presentation stack, was an hour long. The webcast will be 25 minutes long. My first reaction to the need to edit the stack was, "Oh, no, not this again...why do they need a PowerPoint slideshow anyway? Can't I just talk?..."
As a mentioned before, I am horrible with this category of tools. Here's a little background on my thoughts at a more general level (as opposed to the Joni-is-lousy-at-this level).

Presentation software, such as PowerPoint, has increasingly received criticism with regard to its misuse and overuse. For example, Edward Tufte, a leading expert on the visual representation of data and a vocal opponent of PowerPoint, compares PowerPoint to a prescription drug whose side effects “induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication” (Tufte, 2003, para 1). Although harshly stated, it is hard to argue with Tufte’s assessment of PowerPoint’s limitations; we have all sat through presentations that he could use as exemplars of his point, as illustrated by these choice comments:
Heard during a training-session break, One-hundred and thirty-one slides?!? What is this, death by PowerPoint? Can’t we just skip the presentation and get to what really matters?

Read on an evaluation form, We could have just read the slides ourselves. What a waste of time.

Seen on a mailroom bulletin board, PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people.

So, even if someone hasn't posted a critical critique of my lack of PowerPoint prowess on a mailroom bulletin board (or in her or his blog), I have a realistic view of my abilities with this tool, and know that I have been guilty of misusing and overusing presentation software.

I am a good-intentioned educator who knows what good teaching looks like and is up-to-speed on current learning theory. Yet time and time-again, I was turning to presentation software as a means for delivering the bulk of my training/workshop (although not course/classroom, thank goodness) content. If asked why, I would point to:

  • Time constraints – when you have limited time to cover a topic, presentation software can help you present the material quickly and succinctly, and can help you make sure you address all of the points you want to cover

  • Development efficiency – presentation software is easy to use and learn how to use; once you have built a presentation, it is easy to repurpose and reuse slides for a new presentation; once you create the slideshow, you automatically can also produce a handout for the audience and a script for yourself

  • Transferability – PowerPoint is everywhere, on every computer, so you don’t have to worry about technology support issues during delivery or when distributing to others

  • Professional credibility – the audience does not perceive you as an expert unless you have prepared a technology-enhanced presentation

  • Audience expectations – the audience is accustomed to the structure of a presentation slideshow, having experienced so many of them; if you are delivering a presentation, the audience expects you to support what you are saying with a slideshow (and expects a handout of the slides)

What is interesting to note is that my list does not include any mention of meeting crucial instructional outcomes, such as creating an interactive, engaging learning experience that supports learning and goal achievement. Given this disconnect between my reasons for using presentation software, what I want to accomplish instructionally during a presentation, my students’ seemingly universal dislike of PowerPoint-driven presentations, and my already well-established ineffective use of Powerpoint, I have excised (as much a possible) PowerPoint from my repertoire. This is not to say that I have given up, quite the contrary. I am constantly looking for better ways to deliver presentations without relying on PowerPoint, and I collect good examples of presentation stacks in the hope that I can change.

So, for the moment, PowerPoint and I are legally separated...not divorced. There is certainly a chance for reconciliation...maybe.

Side note: If you have a chance to see people like David Wiley or Stephen Downes present, you will see good examples of interesting speeches effectively supported with presentation software. In the meantime, here are a few examples of stacks I think work (all from Slideshare, a good resource for finding presentation-design inspiration):

And, for a fun example of the misuse of PowerPoint, please see the Gettysburg Powerpoint slideshow (and be sure to read the "making of" backstory).