I opened my Twitter account in late 2007, about a year after the company started. I wrote my first tweet in early January 2008. I must have gotten inspired and posted another one 3 months later, after the twins were born. Then silence. In that time, the company and its brand grew like crazy. Celebrities were battling to see who could get the most followers. Athletes were displaying their intelligence for all the world to behold. People were losing their jobs over ill-advised tweets. One reporter even used it to tattle on the President for saying, "jackass." And all this time, I refused to use it. It wasn't just refusal, but a complete loss for any real reason to use it other than feeding my ego and trying to look hip. I will just come out and say it, "I hated Twitter," and I refused to use it.
Yet, I still managed to get 31 followers. This is approximately 1 million less than Ashton Kutcher, but it still feels like a lot. I actually know most of the people who follow me, and I wonder if they are disappointed that I don't post more. Probably not. To date, I follow no one on Twitter. I have no idea how clever Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, or Ellen DeGeneres are because I don't read their tweets. I assume they are just as clever in 140 characters as they are in 1 hour on television.
Fast forward to Spring 2013. I am teaching several classes at a wonderful private university in Fort Worth. I have many students and many, many papers to grade. I am constantly getting e-mails, and I constantly have information I need to e-mail my students. Our learning management system has an announcement tool and mass e-mail function, but they don't work great. Some of the students don't check eCollege very often, and my mass e-mails to the class many times end up in the Spam folder. The announcement tool is clunky, and it takes about 10 clicks and a login to post something, and that is just for one class. Yet, several of my students suggest, quite honestly, that they would like to get more frequent updates about events and assignments, especially when items were posted to the grade book.
Clearly, I needed to do something different. Enter Twitter. It hit me one day that I could just as easily post something to Twitter and embed a widget on the home page of my course eCollege shell. Now I can post announcements from my phone, iPad, or MacBook, and they immediately go to the feed on my homepage. No logging in. No saving. No e-mailing students to announce a new announcement. The students can actually follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my Tweets. I will confess this is probably the one area of technology where I can honesty say they know more than me. Whatever they do, they can get my announcements and updates in a format that works for them. If they prefer to check eCollege, that works. If they like to get updates via e-mail, they can get that. If they want push notifications on their phone, foggedaboudit. Services like Twitter take the content and let users decide what they want to do with it and how they choose to receive it. Since the process is so easy, I'm much more likely to post class announcements than if I know I need a 5-10 minute block. The 140 character limit forces me to be concise. No more wordy, rambling announcements with 20 updates and 10 links. The announcements are short, simple and easy to remember. I can also include links to other documents or resources.
So, I do not consider myself a "tweeter," but I have found a use for this tool 5 years after creating my account. I am eager to see how this works when I start using it from the onset of the semester. I don't think it will lead to better learning or more student engagement, but it will keep me connected to the class in a way that makes sense to them. And if there is less complaining, I'm in.
The first time I saw a demo with clickers, I was hooked. I was a doc student at the University of Virginia, and the Curry School of Education had a class set of 30 clickers and a receiver that professors could check out and use with their classes. A colleague and I checked out the clickers to use with a class of preservice teachers. We spent about two hours setting them up and testing them, and everything seemed to be on track for an exciting romp of student engagement and deep learning. (sarcasm). Honestly, we just wanted to see how they worked and look cool in front of the students.
The short story is this activity totally flopped. The student accounts did not work and only about one-fourth of the clickers would register with the receiver. We spent a little time doing the awkward technology dance, then we bailed on the idea and proceeded with our activity sans clickers.
I have had this same experience in a dozen or so classes, workshops, meetings, and conference presentations. Thankfully, none of these have been at my expense, other than the annoying time lapse created by people insisting something will work if they bang on it long enough. In my own teaching, I had all but abandoned the use of clickers simply because they never seemed to work properly. Rather, I would use strategies that I knew were more stable, such as Google Forms. I could create a short form, send it to the students (via e-mail or a bit.ly address) and get instant feedback from my students. The interface was pretty simple, and assuming I didn't ask my students questions requiring a long, wordy response, I could take a quick pulse from the class in a matter of minutes.
Most of my classes have met in computer labs, so access to a browser has never been a problem. However, I had to rethink how to implement this strategy when I was in a traditional classroom. I tried having students send responses from these forms using their phones a couple of times, but the forms did not render very well on the small screen. This was also before smartphones had the kind of saturation they do now. About half my students had smartphones, and some of them were a little sensitive about using data for school activities (though no one seems to hesitate when it comes to sending and receiving texts during class). Go figure.
Once I started teaching a large lecture-type class at TCU, I knew I had to start thinking again about ways to engage the class. I found it very difficult to encourage discussion among a hundred students, and the "think, pair, share" technique was wearing thin because their mini-discussion never went anywhere. Very few of the students actually wanted to share their conversation with everyone else, and those that did were my usual suspects who did all the talking. I began researching ways to facilitate clickery-type activities in my large class without making the students buy actual clickers (at a $100 a pop) or bring their laptops (and all the wifi connectivity issues that come along with that).
After a lot of searching around and trying different apps, I settled on Socrative. Socrative is an app that works on multiple platforms (i.e., browser, iPhone and Android app, tablet), and it can be controlled by the teacher from either a computer or mobile device. Teachers can send out general questions (Multiple Choice, True/False, Short Answer), or they can create quizzes ahead of time and send those to students. Responses from preformed quizzes can be aggregated into a spreadsheet and sent to the teacher for later analysis. There is a separate app for teachers and students, and there are separate URLs for both if anyone is using a browser.
The best feature of this app, in my opinion, is the ability to create quizzes in a spreadsheet and upload them to the teacher account. I have found the spreadsheet to be much easier to use than the web interface because of how easy it is to copy and paste items, as well as move things around. Here is an example of a quiz created using the template, and you can download it from Socrative here. Once students have completed a preformed quiz, you are given the results in a spreadsheet. Below are two examples of what these reports look like. Correct answers are highlighted in green and incorrect in red. You can also see if a student did not respond. Students have to enter their name before they start the quiz, but I deleted them in these examples.
Running a close second to the spreadsheet-import feature is that results are updated in real time on the teacher app or account. I could display the teacher screen and see the results change as students sent in their responses. I still have not found a way to show both the questions and the results at the same time, but this hasn't been a deal breaker for me.
Quizzes can take the form of traditional MC or TF, short answer, Space Race or short answer. My college students had a strange euphoric response to the Space Race activities, which I cannot fully explain. Actually, the response from the students was very positive. They all added the app to their phones, and I would put SOCRATIVE at the top of the page that included a question. Without fail, when SOCRATIVE popped up on the screen, the class instinctively grabbed their phones and waited for the question. They even memorized my room number, which was helpful for those times I became the absent-minded professor and couldn't remember it.
A final perk of this tool is that it runs through the Cloud rather than relying on infrared sensors to send and receive signals. As long as both the student and teacher devices are connected to the Internet, the tools works. To date, I have used this tool about 100 times and never had issues with data being received. I have had a few instances of students getting a weak signal on their phones, but those instances have been isolated and infrequent.
On my mid-semester questionnaire, several students mentioned this tool specifically and remarked that they liked seeing the results from these short discussion questions show up immediately on the screen. Turns out, students like seeing how their ideas or opinions compare with everyone else. They also like using their own phones or computers to do this without having to purchase an clicker. Pedagogically, I would typically have the students discuss the questions in pairs or groups of three and make them converge on an answer. I tried to make the responses such that students had to choose between all seemingly good options. I like to think the discussion was the best part of the activity and the technology just facilitated it.
So, how do you facilitate class discussion? Do you use clickers or apps to do this? What are you techniques?
When my college got a cart with 20 iPads, I began brimming with ideas. I had been teaching in a computer lab for about 7 years, and there were many ideas I had always wanted to try on tablets and mobile devices.
Computer labs can be a challenging place to teach, and I must admit I am still not completely comfortable having to remind students repeatedly to stop looking at Facebook or Zappos. There are many activities you can do in a technology-enriched classroom, but it takes some time and careful planning to teach the students how to carefully move media from a camera to a computer to the cloud to a different computer and back to the cloud. Some of my students never become quite comfortable with storing and retrieving their data from multiple devices, even though the technology is advanced enough nowadays to make the process seamless.
An environment which is even harder to teach in than a computer lab is a large lecture hall. Until last fall, the largest class I had ever taught was about 30 students. This all changed when I began teaching the course for my college intended to orient early-career students to the big, wide world of education. This class is primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores, and they are a mix of education majors and folks from other programs seeking an elective. The class meets for two hours, three days per week. I typically facilitate lecture/discussion on Monday, Wednesday is spent in schools observing teachers and students, and Friday is a lab with more discussion, presentations, and other activities. Needless to say, this class is its own planet with quite a bit of gravitational pull.
Teaching this class presented many challenges, but the most immediate to me as professor on record was to make the Monday lecture/discussion not so brutal. Here are a few facts you may or may not know about college students :
- Their primary objective is to earn a high grade. This is particularly true at a private university.
- This objective tends to keep the students' focus on points, scores, and averages.
- This tends to divert their attention away from learning for the purpose of mastery.
- Class time, therefore, is seen as something required to help them meet their objective.
This becomes challenging because anything the students perceive will not be on a test or included in a paper becomes unnecessary, in their opinion. So for me, the goal has been to make the Monday class meetings something the students want to do rather than have to do.
One method I have used is mini-projects with the class iPad cart. I didn't want to burn the students out with these projects, but I had a few ideas I had used on a smaller scale. I was ready to try them on a larger scale with more students. My iPad mini-projects this semester included:
- Short Public Service Announcement videos about risky behaviors many students try in school. The students got into groups of 3-4 and made a short PSA about the risky behavior they were given (e.g., drugs, alcohol, delinquency, pregnancy, STDs, and cheating. They had to include at least two statistics we discussed in class, and the video had to include everyone in the group. They uploaded the videos to a common Google Drive account, and I made the videos available for each student to view.
- Group wiki about the hard decisions school districts must make about funding and cutting programs. Each group played School Budget Hold'Em, then reflected about their decisions on a wiki. The iPads turned out to be not so great at editing a wiki, but thankfully many of the students bring their laptops to class.
- Thank You video to participating school. The students in this class, in addition to hearing me pontificate each week about the mysteries of education, observed in local schools for an hour each week. I put them in groups and had them record short thank you messages, which I edited into one video. I then sent the final video the schools, which I assume they enjoyed but I don't really know for sure.
- 5 Picture Charades about the various philosophies of education. They worked in teams and tried to portray a different philosophy of education (traditional, progressive, existential, and critical) in 5 pictures. All I have to say is, students can be very creative when they want to.
- Flipped lesson outlining the lesson sequence using Educreations. The students were given relatively easy topics, such as long division, simple machines, branches of government, and subject/predicate, and instructed to create a short lesson for students. One of the requirements was to label each section of the lesson (activate background knowledge, state objectives, explain the concept or skill, guided practice, independent practice), which I think was one of the key parts of this project. The students thought the main take-away was learning how hard it is to explain things succinctly and accurately. I still find that challenging with my own children.
I learned a lot about using iPads with a large class in a lecture hall setting. There were a lot of challenges and mistakes, but not as many as I would have predicted. As technology usually goes, my hiccups came in places I didn't predict. I think the students received this projects pretty openly, and their products were very good for the most part. The other challenge was finding time to watch and read their creations. 20, 2 minute PSA videos can take a lot of time to get through, especially when you add in transition and loading time. I will have to think of a way to do this better. These activities definitely stretched me and increased my own skill set, and I am eager to try it again in the fall.
I have always been one of those teachers who likes to show a lot of stuff on the screen. Before projectors, I displayed graphs, charts, images, and graphic organizers using a TV or overhead projector. I have always loved supporting what I have to say with visuals. So, it should come as no surprise that my computer, or any computer, is a necessary resource for my teaching.
I also like to switch back and forth between media. I am that guy who always has about 10 tabs open in a browser, and an addition 5 programs running on my computer. I switch between slides to documents to video to applications. I'm sure this drives my students crazy, but they get used to it. One thing I never got used to was being trapped behind my computer while I teach. I am definitely not one of these roam-the-room types, but I don't like to stand behind my computer and constantly have to look down at my screen. Since I utilize far more tools than just PPT, the little clicker thing never really worked for me. What I have always wanted is a miniature control panel that fits in one hand and allows me to switch seamlessly between apps and media, and even mark up that media for emphasis.
Well, during the Fall semester this capability literally fell at my doorstep when my department bought me an iPad. I had always wanted to use an iPad, but I didn't want to spend the money. I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to new devices. Anyway, I got the news from my dean that I would be getting an iPad, so I began researching ways to use it as a mission control for teaching.
My first task was to figure out how to mirror my iPad on the screen of my MacBook Pro. I discovered there are basically two ways to do this. You can use the iPad as a remote desktop and control the computer using the device. I tried PocketCloud, Doceri, and Splashtop 2. PocketCloud never really worked for me. I would be logged in, but I would have trouble connecting my two devices. Doceri worked pretty well, and even allowed me to mark up the screen, but it cost money and I didn't really like trying to find things on the screen. Besides, I was far more interested in teaching from the iPad apps than I was using the programs on my computer. Splashtop actually works really well, and I was able to get it for free. However, it is still just a remote view of my computer, which is not what I want. I much prefer the interface and ease of use of the iPad.
To keep this short, I settled on AirServer to mirror my iPad on my MacBook. There are a couple of programs that do this, and I liked this one best after downloading a couple of demos. AirServer fools your iPad into thinking your MacBook is an Apple TV, so you can use the built-in AirPlay to wirelessly mirror your device. For AirServer to work, your MacBook and iPad must be on the same wireless network. My university is very strict when it comes to using the wireless network, so this kind of thing is blocked. I found out, however, that I can pair my MacBook with my iPad using Bluetooth, and it works just the same. The only hiccup is when I try to stream video from the iPad to the MacBook via Bluetooth. It almost always freezes, so I have started playing video files directly from the hard drive. Other than that, this is a great solution that has not failed me yet.
The next thing I had to do -- and I am still doing -- is find apps that enable me to enhance my teaching with the iPad. I mean, if there is no value added, then why spend $12 for AirServer and bother figuring out how to mirror the display? I did quite a bit of reading and researching different apps that do the things I want to do in my classes, and I have found a pretty nice set that I rely on regularly. Here they are by category.
- SlideShark: Easy to import and sync from the cloud, and maintains animations and formatting
- Explain Everything: A nice combo of slides and an interactive whiteboard. Also lets me record my talk and upload it directly to Google Drive or YouTube (which I have yet to do.) By the way, when I Google "explain everything," it gives me a definition for the word "everything." Now that's pretty funny.
- SugarSync: This lets me sync everything (that I want) from my computer to the cloud. I can then access it from the iPad and send it to just about any app.
- Google Drive: This basically does the same thing, with the added bonus of displaying Google Docs, which I use a lot. This interface is also much better for images and PDFs.
- Socrative: This is a clicker app that still just blows my mind. I hope it stays free forever, but I'm sure it won't. I can send out quick polls to my class, both forced-response and open-ended. I can also create quizzes and exit tickets, and have the results e-mailed to me in a spreadsheet. I will probably write exclusively about this app later.
In order to demonstrate how this works, I have created a short video of how I move between apps during one of my class meetings. This is unedited, but you will get the point.
I've taken a hiatus from this blog since August 28. I actually have started three other posts that I abandoned for various reasons. Well, now I'm back. For now.
This year as I began my new position, I was given access to a whole new variety of digital tools. At UNT, it was digital fabrication and energy monitoring. I had enough devices to give one per group of students, which meant I could do some really cool things. It's a lot of fun teaching project-based learning to future teachers when you have the tools to do it. Of course, there were other things we didn't have at UNT, like interactive whiteboards and mobile devices (specifically, iPads). So, there were some other important skills that were hard to teach.
At TCU, I don't have the project-based learning tools, but I do have an interactive whiteboard, my own iPad and cart of 20 iPads for students to use in class. This has opened up a whole new domain of learning and teaching with technology. I have been able to do activities with my classes I thought I would never be able to teach. My goal over the course of the next several weeks (months?) is to post some of these activities, along with examples from students.
The first activity I would like to talk about is Flipped Classroom lessons using Educreations. I have been piloting several of these Digital Whiteboard apps, such as Show Me, Explain Everything, and Knowmia, and Educreations was the best fit for this activity. Show Me also would have been a good fit for my activity because it instantly syncs lessons to the Cloud and you can access the video files from a browser. Additionally, it lets you download a copy of the video file to your computer in case you want to do additional editing or combine lessons. Educreations does not have this capability yet. As a side note, Explain Everything (paid) and Knowmia (free) are very robust tools and worth learning. They allow you to import and export media and projects to other Cloud services like DropBox, Google Drive, Evernote, and Box. There are many tools for presenting content, including embedding web pages, video, and audio files.
For this activity, I gave the students three "badges" they were to earn: video editing, screencasting and a flipped lesson. The idea behind the flipped lesson is that students present content to students to watch and learn at home with the intention of doing more collaborative, hands-on activities at school when everyone is in the same room. The students worked in pairs to create and record a short lesson, which they later uploaded to the class Educreations account.
Beyond the simple interface of the tool and how fun it was to create mini-lessons, I knew this was the only way for my students to see the importance of developing this competency as a future teacher. The students commented on how great it would be to create examples for how to correctly work math problems, edit their writing, convey science and social studies concepts that students and parents could watch at home during homework time. This is usually when students have questions, and many parents feel frustrated trying to help their children. I can't speak for everyone, but I routinely would tell my dad, "But that's not how the TEACHER did it!"
An added benefit for this activity is that students got to practice explaining academic concepts at a level their students could understand. You really have to think about such aspects as pacing, language, examples and sequence when you are planning these lessons. The students were able to practice presenting to students without dealing with some of the environmental factors that often stump early-career teachers, such as crowd control and limited attention spans. As one student explained, "I used to think I was good at explaining stuff, but this activity really forced me to think about what I was saying and how fast I talk." Even though this was not my intention, the class got an impromptu lesson on micro-teaching.
I plan on integrating this strategy into my classes many more times in the coming semester. Ideally, I could work with a teacher (or two or three) and have my students create mini-lessons based on the content being address in the schools. My students would get experience teaching lessons in a concise, understandable way, and the teachers and students would have resources to utilize at home. An added benefit would be feedback from teachers and students about the quality of their lessons and explanations. We'll see how this goes.
To see some examples created by students in my class, visit our Educreations page.
I've had this thought more than once during the past few weeks: What if I delete my Facebook account? I have no real reason to delete it, and I certainly have nothing against Zuckerberg or the company (though recent history has definitely exposed his true business sense). I haven't posted anything I'm trying to hide, and there is no one in my Friend list who I believe to be a liability. So, what is the source of these feelings?
That is the feeling I am left with when I look at Facebook. To me, it is a very hollow. I know it is not that way for everyone, such as my sister who is very involved in playing various games with several of her friends. I know many people who chit-chat back and forth with their friends all day, as if they were in the same room. I think this is great, but it's not the experience I have had. I'm not sure it's the experience I want to have.
The obvious advantages to Facebook are the networking and being able to see what people are up to (assuming they choose to share their lives) without having to ask. Networking, especially in this day and age, is a benefit. It's nice to have a central place where you can send people messages, knowing it will go directly into the e-mail inbox. It's also frustrating when you never get a response from someone, knowing your message went directly into their e-mail inbox. To this end, I would say this has been my main use of Facebook.
Facebook also does a nice job of keeping people who would not ordinarily be in your consciousness in your consciousness. Stalking, lurking or whatever you want to call it probably is not a benefit, except for those moments when you think, "I wonder whatever happened to old So-and-so," then you proceed to find him or her on Facebook, only to discover he lives in Peoria, Illinois and sells sand to hourglass companies. "Oh," you think to yourself, and move on. But at least old So-and-so is in your thoughts in some way, which is a way to stay connected to your past, I guess.
For me, the hollowness comes from knowing there are many people in my Friends list who want to know about me but aren't really interested in knowing me anymore. They want to have a connection to me in case I ever come in handy but they aren't committed enough to actually connect. I have a handful of friends who actually do write back, chit-chat or want to get together from time to time, but I am starting to think those are the friends I would have stayed in touch with even if there were no Facebook.
Like I said, hollow.
The main question for me, however, is not the impact this 21st century digitally-driven social networking has on me. I'm a grown-up with a great job, wonderful family and sense of purpose in life. I can deal with a little hollowness. The bigger question is how does this type of connecting affect people who have never known anything else? How are my children going to define friendship? Will they grow up thinking that people are information you need to simply find out? That once you know the person's information, you "know" that person? Will they believe the lie that you are what you share? Will they feel compelled to tweet, update, instragram or whatever every single experience they've had, or even worse, manufacture experiences just because they think they'll make for a good tweet, instragram or update?
When I think about the true friends in my life, I think of inside jokes, mountain adventures, long stories to fill long bus rides to school events, secret pacts made by a campfire, calling each other over college breaks to find time to hang out. I think about talking over dinner, serving together with someone other than ourselves in mind, playing phone tag for weeks until one of us catches the other person at home, road trips. Friendships should be so heavy with shared experiences they leave a wake in our past that never really dissipates.
I'm sure my children will use Facebook (or something like it), but I am starting to believe I will have to be purposeful if I hope to keep it from becoming the central piece in their social lives. Lives are more than data, and connection is more than updates. One way to help with this is to keep my account open and use it responsibly. And Friend them when they're old enough.
The following post is something I wrote as a guest blogger on Wes Fryer's popular blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativity. My contribution will be posted on June 21.
The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer.
The first time I remember “creating” something for a school assignment was in 3rd grade. Up until this point, what I remember about school involved completing worksheets at my desk, reading from various texts in front of the whole class, and being placed in groups based on my ability in math and reading. This all changed in Mr. Beaver’s class, my 3rd grade teacher.
Mr. Beaver involved his students in various activities and challenges, most of which required us to build something with materials we found at home. He would come into class one day and toss out some ambiguous statement as if it were a hook with a worm: “My daughter bought a kite this weekend, and it works pretty well. I wonder if she could have built a kite out of supplies she found at home. Nah, probably not. That’s too hard for someone her age.” This was just enough for a few of us to go home and try to prove him wrong. During the school year, we had several projects that involved creating things: electromagnets, dioramas, kites, maps. For a kid who liked making stuff anyway, it was a fun year in school.
This experience probably planted the seed in my mind that projects are a fun and engaging way to learn. As a teacher, I tried to implement several different projects throughout the year, and now I spend a fair amount of time helping other teachers design and implement student projects in their classrooms.
Most of the work I have done in recent years has centered around digital media: teachers helping students combine images, audio, video and/or text to express their learning through such products as digital stories, documentaries, podcasts, virtual museums and comics. More recently, however, I have been involved in projects that cross over from digital media to physical media, otherwise known as digital fabrication or desktop engineering.
The focus of this initiative, under the direction of Glen Bull at the University of Virginia, is to teach students to apply math, science, engineering and technology skills and concepts to real-world problems. Students create digital models of objects such as electrical circuits, windmills, and gears, print and cut them using special equipment, then construct the components into a physical object. This short video describes the process of digital fabrication.
The concept of creating virtual 3D representations of objects before creating the physical object is not new. Many of the things we use everyday - cars, homes, buildings, city plans, electronics, and aircraft - were first designed and tested in a virtual environment before the physical object was ever built. Similar to storyboarding in movies and game design, virtual models help designers test and troubleshoot their products without making potentially costly mistakes that waste resources. As teachers, we want our students to be problem solvers and identify areas for improvement early in a process rather than later.
An integral part of this initiative has been training teachers - both in-service and preservice - how to integrate engineering and fabrication activities into their existing curriculum. Our research has confirmed a line of previous studies that many in-service and preservice teachers, especially at the elementary level, lack confidence when it comes to teaching math and science. This can be a barrier when it comes to encouraging teachers to create engineering design projects for their students. In response to this problem, we have been replicating engineering design projects being done with 4-5 grade students in Virginia with preservice teachers in North Texas.
If you are interested in reading examples about digital fabrication in a teacher education course, I have provided a few for you here:
- Teaching Virtual Design in a Physical World
- Implementing Digital Fabrication
- Digital Fabrication, take two
The University of Virginia also has a wealth of resources on this topic, which can be accessed for free on the Make to Learn website. Most of these activities do not require a Silhouette cutting machine and have been successfully implemented in some classrooms with nothing more than scissors. I have also found some excellent activities at robives.com, but I have yet to try any of them with students or teachers.
My hope is that sharing some of the work being done in the area of desktop engineering with a larger audience will generate some interest in doing this type of work in the classroom. This initiative is in its infancy, yet it has already attracted quite a bit of attention and buy-in from several school districts, universities and the National Science Foundation. The need for our students to be creators, thinkers and innovators has never been greater, and there seems to be no better way to foster these qualities than to engage students in activities that require creativity, thinking and innovation. Students already have a reputation for being massive consumers of digital media and other technological innovations, and they are one of the largest groups to create and share digital content. Now, with the emergence of desktop engineering we have the resources at our fingertips to help them discover the relationship between virtual and physical media and further explore what it means to play with media.
As if anyone would even argue this point, I just had a flash that served as one more reminder why digital text is here to stay. This is also why The Cloud is here to stay, and why eReaders are here to stay, and why the discipline of close reading is here to stay. Here's what happened.
I was crafting an e-mail to a friend about a possible digital media study this upcoming fall. In my message, I decided to mention Jonah Lehrer's book ... again. Have I told you about his book, Imagine, lately? Do you need the hyperlink so you can buy it? Am I a sycophant yet? Anyway, there was a phrase from his book that I wanted to use (i.e., claim as my own), but I couldn't remember it. I reached to get my Kindle, and realized it was at home, as are all of my other devices that have this book on it. So, I looked up Kindle on Google, and found out they have a Cloud Reader for computers. Why wouldn't they? I mean, Amazon can sync my other devices so that when I put one down and pick up another later on, I start reading right where I left off. In a matter of 5 or so clicks, I was looking at Lehrer's book at the exact place where I stopped reading last night. I located the phrase (meta-idea), and went right back to my e-mail. Actually, I came right to my blog, then I will get back to my e-mail ... after lunch.
This kind of thing was not even possible a few years ago. If I needed to look at something in a book, I had to either bring the book with me or wait until I got home, to my office, etc. Now I have every book I own (in digital format) right in front of me whenever I need to look something up. I don't think I will ever buy another printed book again. I'm sure publishers will still send me copies of books to review, but if they ever give me the option, I want the eBook. It's important to note, I still had to read the eBook. If I want to make a note, I have to actually make the note. If something in one book makes me think of something in another book, I have to be disciplined enough to write it down before I forget. The eBook (or any digital media, for that matter) does not do the thinking for you, but boy oh boy, does it change the way I approach my scholarship. I love the Web because I find all kinds of resources I never knew existed, but what I really love is to be able to reference those resources I have already read, thought about, re-read, took notes on, and integrated into my existing knowledge base. The perfect storm of taking the time to sit still and read something, mixed with ubiquitous access when I can't remember a phrase or term or quotation. It's the epitome of distributed cognition, to me.
Oh, and my back doesn't hurt anymore from lugging around all those books.
This post is prompted by a Facebook post from a former colleague:
Students used to ask me if they could earn extra credit after grades were posted. Now they just ask if I will bump up their grade. Why do they ask that?
The very first semester I taught a college course, one of my students came to me with what I thought was a strange request. She admitted to me that she had not done as well in the class as she normally did, she had a lot "going on" that semester and wanted to know if I could possibly give her some extra credit to help raise her grade to a B. I thought about it, then responded to her that to give extra credit to one student meant I needed to give the same opportunity to all students. Because I was a graduate instructor for this class, my overall GPA was closely monitored. If the class average was too close to a B+, it was assumed my class wasn't very rigorous and I wasn't expecting much out of my students. I responded to my student and told her that I would not be giving post-hoc extra credit to any of the students. Consequently, in subsequent semesters, I would give all students the chance to earn extra credit by attending various speaking engagements on campus: guest lectures, convocation, etc. They would attend, sign in, write an analysis of the speaker, and get some extra points. This seemed fair at the time.
The next class I taught was a summer class at a community college, and it was not a public speaking class. So, the extra credit assignment did not really fit the subject matter. Besides, the class was offered in a quiet little town in the Rockies, and there weren't that many opportunities to hear people give speeches, unless of course, I wanted them to attend church or a school board meeting. The former is risky in a public education setting, and the latter is just plain torture. So, rather than offer extra credit, I added "participation" points into the course total. Students who came to class, participated and turned their assignments in on time received all of their points. This seemed like a cool thing to do, until I realized it was inflating my grades quite a bit and students who did rather low-quality work were still making a decent grade in my class.
This brings me to my current philosophy on extra credit, which is that I don't give it. I also don't give participation points. Students are given assignments, quizzes and in-class activities, and their final grade reflects how they did on those assignments. Ever since I decided to simplify my life and eliminate extra credit and participation points, I have noticed most of my students step up to the challenge do do pretty good work. I still get the occasional plea for extra credit, or more likely, asking if I will take a late assignment for partial credit. I always let them do this as long as it is before grades have been posted. Usually, the partial credit does keep them from failing, but their overall grade is not stellar. I never give extra credit, either corporate or individual.
So, this gets me to the FB post that prompted all of this. A new twist on this phenomenon of students asking for extra credit is for them to come right out and ask for a boost to their grade. Like my colleague, I have had at least a half dozen of these requests in the past few years. They have ranged from ...
I really, really want to make the Dean's List this semester. Is there any way you could bump me up to an A?
I'm in the "People's lives depend on my competence" Program, and I will get kicked out if I fail your class. Is there any way you could give me a D? A C would be better.
Is there any way you can bump my grade up to a B? I'm less than a point away!
This last request was actually the most recent (over the weekend), and it was obvious the student had neither read the syllabus nor totalled his points for the course. Yes, he was less than one percentage point away, but 7 actual points from a B. I looked at his scores again very carefully to make sure I didn't make an error in my calculations. Nope, Excel proved trustworthy once again. Then I looked at his scores on the papers, which can be a little more subjective. No, he did fine on those. I then looked at his exam scores. Ouch! Someone had not been doing his reading, and when I saw that 18% on the final, I knew his final grade would stand.
My motto has always been "I won't do something for students they aren't willing to do for themselves." My other motto is "A student's grade should be based on his effort, not mine." OK, both of my mottoes -- which I don't go around reciting, by the way -- have some holes in them, but you get the point. There is a growing attitude among some college students that they are flipping the bill for college and it's the professor's obligation to smooth the road out along the way. Any hint of frustration or micro-failure (as opposed to macro-failure, such as failing out of school) along the way means the professor isn't doing his or her job. I guess I see it differently.
Imagine you bought a house. The bank lends you the money for that house, but once you take possession it is completely your responsibility. If you live there for 4 years, make some improvements, keep it clean and stay caught up on general maintenance, there is a good chance you will be able to get a return on the investment. If you live there 4 years, have keggers every weekend, punch holes in the walls, let the lawn die and allow the place to get grungy, it isn't because the bank sold you a bad house. The bank also didn't fail to do their job. The truth is, maintaining and improving a house is hard work, and it never really ends as long as you own the home. This is kind of how I see a college education. The student is making an investment, but what he or she does with that investment is completely up to the student. It should involve some frustration and micro-failures along the way, as well as an understanding that some subjects just can't be made easier. (A great explanation of the role of criticism and frustration in the creative, and learning, process can be found in Jonah Lehrer's book, Imagine.) They're hard because they're hard. Which reminds me, if you found college Calculus easy, I hate you. But you're also my hero.
This is where I will end this. I have spent the last decade or so trimming the fluff out of my courses and helping my students understand that things which are hard are hard for a reason, and it's not because I suck at my job. I promise my classes that I will come to every single class meeting fully prepared with well thought-out activities, examples and food for discussion. I take my job seriously. I also expect them to show up fully prepared with well thought-out questions (and challenges) to the material I make them consume, and that they take their jobs seriously. For each assignment, they start at "0" and work their way up, so there is never any need to ask why I "took points off." I will explain every single point (or lack of) in my comments. If they come to every class meeting prepared and do every project to the best of their ability, they won't fail. I will answer every question they have, no matter how stupid they think it sounds. If they are good stewards of the "credits" they have sitting in front of them as they plan and complete their assignments, there won't be any need to ask for extra credit at the end of the term. B, or C for that matter, is not a failing grade. And no, I will not bump you up a grade, no matter how much you think you deserve it. That devalues the work done by your classmates who actually earned that same grade without any special treatment.
So, what are your stories about bizarre (audacious, narcissistic, self-indulgent, etc.) student requests? How do you handle the issue of extra credit or participation grades? I would love to broaden my perspective on this issue.
This semester was one of the more challenging I've had since I began teaching college. For one, I was teaching 4 classes: three undergrad and one grad. Three of the classes were completely online, and the other was hybrid. The hybrid class and grad class were at a large university in my city, and the other two classes were at a small community college about a thousand miles away. Confused yet? Good, because that is how I felt most of the semester.
What made this particular semester even more challenging was the nature of the courses I was teaching. I call them Mine, Yours and Ours, and each course presented its own set of challenges.
I have taught these online sections of the same class for about 7 years. This began as an experiment, and it was so popular within the community college setting in which it was offered that they asked me to teach more sections. For three years I only taught in the summer, then I was asked to pick up one section in the fall and spring, and now I am teaching two sections each semester and two each summer. This particular course can be used as a substitute for basic composition, and apparently there are a lot of students who do not want to take basic composition. This class still requires the students to do quite a bit of writing, but the crux of each assignment is not me pointing out the deficiencies in their writing. (Of which. There. Are. Many.) I focus more on their content, but I still point out areas of their writing that need to be improved in the subsequent papers. Anyway, the course is not that hard and students who stay on track all semester almost always make an A. Everyone else usually makes a D or F. Seriously.
I could easily teach this class in my sleep. I know exactly when each assignment is due, what I am looking for from each student, and I can usually successfully guide students back on track when they show signs of dropping out. One of my sections this semester did kind of implode (only 10 out of 23 students completed the class), but this is the first time this has happened. When I finally hand this class over to someone else, which I will be doing in the fall, I feel pretty confident that I know it well enough to help the new instructor get off to a good start. In other words, I feel like I totally own this course and have command of what happens throughout the semester. In fact, most of the teaching I have done throughout my career falls into the Mine category. For good or bad, it's my course.
Another of my courses this semester was an online graduate course. When I was asked to teach this curse ... I mean, course ... I felt pretty confident I would be able to do it just from the title. I promptly found out which books the professor had been using, obtained desk copies and proceeded to look through her syllabus. I contacted her former teaching assistant, and this is when I found out about something called Intellectual Property. I already knew what this was, but what I didn't know was that at this particular school that meant I was supposed to teach the course "as is." The lessons, assignments, discussions, etc. were already loaded into Blackboard and all I had to do was show up. This didn't sound so bad at first, but as I began looking at the assignments I knew this was going to be very challenging. Maybe I am just immature, but I found it REALLLLY hard to enforce assignments with students that I never would have given in the first place. I never really got control of my serve the entire semester, and I think the main reason was that I felt such little ownership of the course. Many of the assignments were outdated, the technology the students were using was definitely outdated, and some of the tasks the students were asked to perform were not even possible in the most recent versions of the software. To add insult to injury, I was not allowed to have access to the server the students were using to host their websites. When they would e-mail me with questions about uploading (or Putting, in this case), I didn't know exactly how to help them because I did not have access to Put files on the server. How can you help someone with something you have never done before?!? I could not even see the files on the back end to tell them if they were in the right directory or not.
I have taught this exact course at another university, but I completely designed and implemented it myself. I was able to answer student questions (and challenges) with confidence because everything that was there was something I put there. The students learned a lot, and the evaluations turned out pretty good. I will not even look at the evaluations for this class. Had it not been for the fact that this class was made up of pretty motivated Master's students, this would have been a total disaster. I am willing to bet the students already think it was.
The final class I taught this semester, a hybrid course at a large university, would mostly be described as a team effort. The course outline was made up of several topics I chose myself and some that were "part of the course." Most of the course policies were my decision (attendance, late work, participation), while others were required to be common across all sections (readings, exams). This course has historically been a source of student data using a battery of attitude and self-efficacy instruments, so there were some lessons that we were all encouraged to teach in order to assess changes in those areas. Some of the modules for this course were designed as part of a grant-funded project, and I taught them for all of the instructors. This was quite time consuming, but it did give me a chance to refine my teaching strategy over several iterations, which is good for improving my personal instruction. Most of the instructors for this class give the same assignments, though they differ in how they are graded and how much work the students are expected to do. The area in this course with the most variation was in the final project. Without going into a lot of detail, this varied greatly across different sections of the course. I guess the bottom line here is that overall this is a good course, but the student experience is very different depending on who is teaching the section.
My experience with teaching this semester gave me a front-row seat into some of the big issues facing higher-ed teaching in this era.
- Canned content : college courses :: canned food : nutrition. I believe it was necessary for me to teach a pre-planned course of someone else's content in order to experience how utterly horrible this is as an educational model. Yet, there are dozens of institutions, both non- and for-profit, that follow this model. My experience with being given a course shell already populated with assignments, readings, discussions and projects was nothing short of disastrous. The entire course, from the terminology to the tools to the links, was out of date. Can I get a "screencast" from the congregation? How about a screenshot? Maybe a video lecture where the slides and voice-over are in the same file? Nothing. This notion of taking a course shell, changing the dates on the syllabus and serving it like yesterday's meatloaf is not as efficient as some people think it is. Instruction is not some thing (i.e., knowledge) that is delivered through a human to other humans. It is the act of a human taking a thing (subject matter) and transforming it into a learning experience for other humans. If a person can gather a bunch of resources and teach himself something new, that's great, but it isn't teaching, and I'm pretty sure universities do not intend to build themselves on this self-help model. If the "teacher" is just the person who makes sure Blackboard is working and points students to the person who actually has access to the server, then why in the world did I bother getting a Ph.D.? Where is the expertise in that?!?
- I have completely re-thought my strategy for handing over my online course this fall. My original plan was put everything in a folder, burn it to a disc and giving it to the new instructor. Given the chance that the new instructor might take my content and do what I was forced to do with the grad class, I will probably only give the new instructor as many resources as he needs to get started. I think there is some value in having to think through the course and make decisions about what to assign, and when. The new instructor should come up with his own tests and assignments based on what he thinks is important to know. I have lived with the course so long, I may be missing the point entirely and don't even know it. I want to be helpful, but I also want what is best for the students. And after my experience with the online grad class, I think that what's best for the students is when the instructor puts his or her advanced degree to good use and brands the course with his or her brain, perspective and creativity, not someone else's.
- Standardized courses are really tricky. My first experience with a standardized course was a public speaking class at a large university that ran between 60-65 section each semester. It was required, in classes of 20-25 students, for every single undergraduate in the university. I don't think there was one graduate instructor, adjunct or professor who taught the class exactly as it was supposed to be taught. I think they were all pretty similar, but you can't expect intelligent, creative individuals to teach something in the exact same way. The hybrid course I taught is a completely unique experience from section to section, and I think that is OK. But you also want to ensure that in a certification program, as this one is, all students are held to the same standards. Standards vs. Personalization. That is a really hard balance to find, and it is something I will have to think about a lot this summer. In the fall I am teaching a 100+ student course with several TAs to "manage" smaller groups of students. I want the TAs to be themselves and explore their own style, but I also want each student held to the same standards. No shortcuts. No trying to win cool points by being lax. Again, I had to have this experience with a multi-section standardized course because I am about to be in charge of one myself.
Every semester I have taught at the college level has been so different. Nothing has played out exactly the same way twice. No two groups of students have responded exactly the same way to the same project, story or reading. This is what makes it fun, but it also makes it incredibly challenging. The only thing that is guaranteed is that nothing is guaranteed. Oh, and cliches. You are guaranteed to see a few of those if you read my blog.