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