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.