Friday, December 18, 2009

Teaching the Texters

"Viewed from the other side of the Atlantic, text messaging by adolescents in the United States seems reminiscent of the early days of desktop publishing. Once we reveled in experiments with point size, font style, and color. The results were often graphic disasters, as we failed to heed the Delphic warning, "Nothing in Excess." Gradually word processing became a workaday tool, and our documents calmed down. In Europe, text messaging (generally known as SMS) first appeared in 1993, giving young people a decade more experience with the medium than their American counterparts. What is still often a toy in America, played on with youthful abandon, has settled into a pedestrian appliance elsewhere, particularly as teens mature into young adults." - Naomi S. Baron, author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World in a blog post.

Now that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have embraced the mobile phone - and Apple has made the mobile phone a true mobile multimedia computing device - we as instructors have to accept the fact that our students are never far from their mobile friends, in or out of class. This video, first uploaded to YouTube in 2007, challenges teachers to incorporate texting assignments in their classrooms to help engage and motivate students. It suggests, for example, that you use class time to ask students to text someone outside of class and find out what they had for breakfast, what the weather is like where they are, and what they last purchased. Bonus points might be added for text messages that come from another country and/or in another language.

Marc Prensky believes we educators must incorporate cell phones into instruction. "Languages, literature, public speaking, writing, storytelling, and history are just a few of the subjects that are highly adaptable to voice-only technology." Texting adds the ability to "conduct pop quizzes or spelling or math tests, to poll students' opinions, to make learners aware of current events for class discussion (e.g., with messages from Cable News Network's Breaking News), and even to tutor students." He goes on: "Can we create programs, or even exams, that we hand out on memory cards for students to slip into their phones? Can homework and exams get marked and annotated automatically?...Can classes and schools (or subjects across those) be set up so that all classmates are permanently connected, and can pedagogies be constructed to take advantage of this?"

The number of text messages transmitted in the United States grew by more than 80 percent over the 12 months ended in June, 2009, to 135.2 billion per month. That number - 80 - is the average number of text messages each of your students sends every day. Along with sending messages, they're reading books, watching and uploading videos, voting on game shows, learning languages, and interacting with tutors. They're learning, in other words. And we're challenged to teach them in a language they understand.

Here's part of the new lingo, in case it shows up in your chat window:
! = I have a comment
10Q = Thank you
121 = One to one
404 = I haven't a clue.
411 = Information
511 = Too much information
::poof:: = I'm gone
AAK = Asleep at keyboard
AFC = Away from computer
AWHFY = Are we having fun yet?
(For more, check this link.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Are You an Instructor or a Friend?

“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a [student]'s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a [student] humanized or de-humanized.” - Dr. Haim Ginott

We want out students to like us, of course. In the online environment, though, the social cues are different, and students may confuse friendliness (smiley faces, chatted words of encouragement, etc.) with ardor. It's important that the instructor set the tone and maintain an atmosphere of propriety, whether or not you keep a casual online profile. Consider how your students see you and how you would like to be seen in your online classroom. It's easier to relax after taking a rigid stance than it is to restore an image of toughness once you've caved in.

I generally begin with my online students by discussing the boundaries of our online relationship. This includes how they are to communicate with me outside of class (e-mail and IM), and what rights of privacy I maintain for myself and will respect for them. I'm also careful about how much of my personal information I make available to them and try to establish the guidelines for what's fair play in our online relationships. Since there are institutional policies that apply, I discuss the college or university policies that apply to appropriate behavior online and acceptable uses of technology.

In a class, the instructor is not a peer, in the sense of being an equal of the students. Friendliness is important, but friendship is a stretch: the teacher calls the shots and assesses performance. The line may move in your online sessions, but it has to be drawn.

Discipline is important in the online classroom, just as it is face-to-face. When a student behaves unacceptably, either send a private message to that student immediately or pull them aside in a private chat room to discuss the infraction. Avoid public confrontations, since these smack of humiliation and are an abuse of power that will create more problems than they solve. Similarly, shouting does not solve noise issues online: use the technology to mute students or put yourself in lecture mode.

If you treat your students with respect, give them opportunities to shine in your classroom, provide them with acceptable and fair policies, and avoid negative discussions or complaining, they'll appreciate you as an instructor and reciprocate with positive learning and responses. You'll be their teacher and the learning experience will be a friend they'll look forward to revisiting.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Those Multitasking Students!

Bill Tancer's Click laments, “with the pervasiveness of wireless hot spots and laptops that have built-in wireless capability, conference audiences have turned keynotes into multitasking events, half-listening to presentations while simultaneously answering email and browsing the web.” Most of us must guiltily admit that he's right: we don't pay full attention at conferences anymore, whether the conference is virtual or face-to-face, unless the speaker does something to grab and hold our attention.

"Multitasking" is a misnomer: we aren't really able to do several things at the same time. Joe Medina points this out on Brain Rules: although we can talk and breathe at the same time, we can't really read a book and listen to a conversation simultaneously. What we do, rather, is quickly switch from one task to another, and back again, and the speed with which we switch makes us think we're doing all of them at the same time. As I type this blog I'm listening to music, but the lyrics are escaping me until I pause long enough to give them my full attention.

We have the same problem as teachers. What should we as teachers do to keep students engaged? Should we set up rules that ban distractions? Are there attention-grabbing methods/tricks that work during those critical first five minutes of class? Can we recommend certain behaviors to our students to help them concentrate?

Here are a few suggestions, and (as always), I welcome yours:
  1. Remember the 10-minute rule (See Brain Rules). You have about 10 minutes to get and hold attention before you lose them. And once they're gone, it's tough to get them back.
  2. Don't blame students for having other things to do. We all have other obligations. Let them know how long you need them in your presentation/lecture, and don't keep them longer than that.
  3. Archive your session so students can return to it at a later time (or more than once) to catch up on what they missed while Oprah was talking.
  4. Work in engagement exercises, polls, and other interactive opportunities in your session. See previous posts for suggestions.
  5. Give each student a job to do during the class.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Let's Chat!

"Many learners are accustomed to using chat for recreational purposes which is often very informal and quickly composed without reflection. Effectively adopting chat for academic purposes requires structure and effective moderation of the discussion. As a synchronous tool, chat is usually one-to-many and involves all participants being online simultaneously and often has them interacting at the same time. Without time for reflection, some instructors have found it effective to prepare students in advance with specific questions or content for them to mull over before engaging in dialogue. As a one-to-one tool, many instructors are finding [chat] to be an effective tool for conducting virtual office hours and for providing more responsiveness to student requests." (Valencia University's Office of Information Technology)

The Valencia tutorial goes on to recommend these instructional practices for using chat in class:

  • Inform learners of your expectations for how these tools will be used as part of the course.
  • Outline the rules in your syllabus (i.e., no harsh language, no belittling of their fellow classmates, keeping their comments relevant to the topic).  
  • Decide what your objectives are for using chat. Ask how can using chat assist the learners in achieving the overall goals of the course.
  • Prepare a focused topic in advance for each chat session.
  • Monitor the dialogue to keep it on topic.
  • Consider the number of students that can be meaningfully involved in chat.
  • Establish a protocol so that learners will know when another has completed their message (i.e. ask learners to add an asterisk * at the end of their sentence).
  • Be aware of those who tend not to participate. Is it due to a technological or skill problem? Some learners can type very quickly while others type quite slowly. This may affect the frequency of all learner's participation. If nonparticipation seems to be attributed to neither technological problems or typing skills, is there a way to draw them into the chat?
  • Summarize the major points at the end of the chat session.

 To this list I would add a few I've seen Confer instructors use effectively:
  • Quizzes. Ask a question orally and invite students to answer using the chat tool. This can be done individually or as a group (depending on the size of the group). This type of "spot" quiz is very useful for assessing the real learning that's taken place, and can be used at any time during a teaching session.
  • Brainstorming. This is similar to quizzing your students, in that you're using this technique to gain insights into what your students are thinking. But in this case, you're not necessarily looking for a specific answer to the questions or ideas you pose: you're trying to get students to think for themselves and express their ideas.
  • Group work. Break up a large class into smaller groups in breakout rooms so that the chat window does not overfill with information. Then, encourage your students to use the chat window to discuss a question and/or work together on a project.
  • Debriefing. Chat can be an effective way to make sure students "got" what you said and accomplished what they were supposed to accomplish. What went well, and what needs improvement?
For chat to be useful and not a distraction in your class, you'll want some coping strategies like those listed above. You'll also want to ensure that ground rules (etiquette) are posted and agreed upon.

Lisa Weber and Jennifer Lieberman observe that "chat often has a negative reputation because of its potential to become chaotic since students and faculty communicating simultaneously can obscure the message and make following a conversation difficult.." They suggest some intriguing uses of chat for language instruction, including language partner exchanges, grammar review, dynamic language practice, error analysis, and non-intrusive correction. With minor modifications, any of these suggestions could be applied to other subject matter.

Paying attention to chats from your students is a terrific way to monitor their engagement in the class and to modify your pacing or presentation accordingly. When three or more students suddenly start typing in the chat area while you're making a point, that's probably a good sign that something you said caused confusion or was missed. When there's a good deal of off-topic chat, you may have lost the class's attention; it's time to bring them back into the mix with some interactive exercises.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Application Sharing for Effect

“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." - Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta

Application sharing allows the Confer instructor to share anything on his/her desktop, and to pass control to other participants. Although most instructors use this primarily as a demonstration feature, it is most effective as a means of facilitating interaction among students.

But we've observed that this is not the most popular tool, nor is it used by a great many instructors. As Vlad Wielbut of the Alliance for Community Technology says about application sharing: "This standard feature of many Web conferencing tools can be extremely valuable when trying to explain to students how a particular piece of software works: what is better than showing this piece of softwae 'in action', even letting students take control of it for a while, so as to make sure they understand what happens when they do this or that to it. Yet, this is often one of the less intuitive features and requires at least a little bit of training to use it and use it well."

Margaret Driscoll has identified 20 best practices for using application sharing in an interesting and practical article:
  1. Use the long method (don't use shortcuts your students can't follow on screen)
  2. Tell learners where to look.
  3. Apply window management (close unnecessary windows).
  4. Optimize the visibility of the mouse.
  5. Define class size.
  6. Evaluate when to use and not use application sharing.
  7. Schedule sessions for 40-60 minutes.
  8. Probe for understanding.
  9. Plan for latency.
  10. Determine student viewing area.
  11. Use the page up and page down keys.
  12. Warm up the participants.
  13. Watch your presentation.
  14. Move slowly.
  15. Coach participants' performance.
  16. Ask permission (before assuming control of another person's desktop).
  17. Assign finite tasks.
  18. Monitor the other tools (hand-rasing and chat in particular).
  19. Start with a moderator (have a helper).
  20. Practice, practice, practice.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Learning to Interact Online: It's a Progression

"It is assumed by academic institutions that if online courses and programs are offered, teachers will know how to teach in that environment, and more importantly, students will know how to learn or engage with that material. Our experience is that the opposite is true. Faculty need training and assistance in making the transition to the online environment, but students also need to be taught how to learn online. Learning through the use of technology takes more than mastery of a software program or comfort with the hardware being used. It takes an awareness of the impact that this form of learning has on the learning process itself. As more and more institutions and their instructors enter the cyberspace classroom and encounter both successes and difficulties in the process, they are coming face-to-face with the realities of online teaching and asking more, not fewer, questions about how to make the transition successfully." - Rena Paloff and Keith Pratt, Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom.

I've had occasion to notice the progressions that instructors make as they master the tools of educational technology and apply them to pedagogical tasks. For example, a teacher who comes to Confer for the first time has an interactive whiteboard, which is the most obvious tool for presenting content to students. This instructor will begin by using the whiteboard only as a visual support, presenting static slides and accompanying them by narration. The whiteboard becomes, in essence, the online equivalent of a projector, and there is little or no effort to use it for conceptual development, interaction with students, or as a discussion stimulus.

After time, some instructors become comfortable enough with the Confer environment to use the whiteboard to solicit student responses. He/she may use the pointing tool to highlight some of the content, or allow students to draw or annotate the online slides. More and more, this instructor will use the whiteboard to challenge students to think by means of visual stimuli and verbal coaching.

Eventually, these instructors develop a new way of thinking about the whiteboard and its usefulness. They see ways to use it as an integral part of any online session with students, and they try to integrate its inherent interactivity into their lesson plans. They have developed an awareness both of the available techniques for annotation, drawing, and manipulating screen content and objects, and have become fluent in using these techniques. Now, they make sure that students - individually or collectively - react to and interact with the whiteboard content. They drag and drop students' annotations to match concepts, hide or reveal certain objects to engage questions, match objects or terms on the screen, or use freehand drawings to illustrate improvements or new approaches. The whiteboard becomes less and less a screen for displaying static content and increasingly a tool for prompting discussion, eliciting responses, developing ideas, and testing hypotheses. These instructors often develop their own content specifically for the whiteboard rather than displaying ready-made PowerPoints.

Gilly Salmon calls this latter kind of teaching "e-moderating" and maintains that it is the key to teaching and learning online. Salmon's five-stage model describes the ways both instructors (e-moderators) and learners progress in the online classroom: 1. Access and Motivation, in which the first challenges are to successfully login and make the visit worth the trouble; 2. Socialization, in which the challenges are to adapt to individual learner needs, provide bridges between old skills and new ones, and allow for individualized expression; 3. Information Exchange, which invites challenges and participation, encourages group tasks and roles, and is characterized by often "messy" communications; 4. Knowledge Construction, with much questioning, discussion, challenging, motivating, and interaction in order to build understanding; and 5. Development, in which the learners become independent critical thinkers, able to inject humor into the process, and able to reflect on what and how they have learned online.

Thankfully, I've been able to watch some of this progression among our Confer users, and to benefit from their experiences and insights. As these e-moderators emerge in our learning community, they'll help all of us to understand the developing online conferencing environment and how it can best enable learning and growth.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ask Questions

"The important thing is to never stop questioning."- Albert Einstein. Eric Vogt adds that questions are a prerequisite to learning, a window into creativity and insight. They motivate fresh thinking, challenge outdated assumptions, and lead us to the future. In the virtual classroom, students need to be given the chance to answer provocative questions and to ask them of one another and the instructor. 

In your online classroom, begin with a simple exercise on the whiteboard. Using the text tool, write any topic related to your course or workshop: "syntax," "percent," "graduation requirements," "neurosis," "troubleshooting," or "beauty." Invite students to use the audio tool or the chat area to pose open-ended questions about the topic: "What is beauty?" "Are there different kinds of beauty?" You can call on students randomly or in order (e.g., by name from the roster), and explain that this will continue until someone cannot posit a new question. You should be able to generate a very long list with even just a few students, if they're interested and paying attention.

Now focus the learners on what role questions have in their learning process. Why is it important for them to ask questions? Did any of the questions asked during this exercise make you pause and reconsider your concept of the topic? Do you feel comfortable asking questions in this class and venue?

To ensure active learning, select one of the questions and have each student speak (or chat) for one minute (using the timer) on the subject. You can do this at any time during your online lectures or workshops to make sure that your students are involved in their own learning by asking questions and looking for answers.

At the Centre for Leadership in Learning at McMaster University, a good question has these properties:
  1. Most importantly...something you are interested in.

  2. The question is open to research.
  1. You don't already know the answer, or have not already decided on the answer before doing the research.
  1. The question may have multiple possible answers when initially asked.
  1. It has a clear focus.
  1. The question should be reasonable.
  1. Try to avoid or rephrase questions which have a premise.
  1. Make sure you have defined all the terms in your question so you know exactly what you are asking.
  1. A new question can be asked once all your information is gathered.
  1. Having the right answer matters to you.
 Follow the above link to discover Paul Bidwell's ingenius "Quescussions" activity, which forces students to ask questions as a means of discovery. You may also want to look here for more suggestions for asking good questions in class.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Learning to Learn

"The single most important thing you can learn in the ‘flat’ world is the ability to learn how to learn - to constantly absorb, and teach yourself, new ways of doing old things or new ways of doing new things... To learn how to learn, you have to love learning - or you have to at least enjoy it - because so much learning is about being motivated to teach yourself. And while it seems that some people are just born with that motivation, many others can develop it or have it implanted with the right teacher." - Thomas L. Friedman,
The World is Flat.

The world is changing at a rapid pace, and, as Eric Hoffer said, "in times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." We cannot accurately predict what skills our students will need or jobs they will be required to do in future years. But we can - and must! - teach them to value learning, and to become adept at self-instruction.

One way to do this in the online classroom is to engage the class in a discussion of what learning is about. You might begin with the quote that opens this article, placing it on the whiteboard and inviting comments from students. You could then use the Web tool to take students to this synopsis of Friedman's book - or share the file using the file sharing tool.

Try some pointed questions, either with the entire class or by assigning them to groups in breakout rooms. What does "flat world" mean? What's the difference between "learning" and "learning to learn"? In a global workplace, why is it important to learn to learn?

Once this concept has been discussed and appreciated, tune in to your students' own abilities and preferences for learning. Try using the Polling tool to identify students' preferences for learning (e.g., A, Group work; B, Reading the text; C, Listening to lectures and taking notes; D, Discussion). Or use the VARK questionnaire to identify learning styles. These will help students identify their own preferences for taking in information visually, aurally, by reading and writing, kinesthetically, or multimodally. Once they've completed these questionnaires, take them to the VARK Helpsheets so they can plan their own "learning to learn" strategies.

Doing this early in the semester is a great way to prepare students - not only for your class, but for a lifetime of learning.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's Different Online

"Surprisingly, despite the widespread infusion and use of the Internet, we have yet to develop a clear understanding of the impact these technologies have had and are having on the processes of learning. Theoretical and research foundations have not kept pace with technological growth and use. Several questions have been posed and answered; yet many more remain. We are developing a good idea of 'what' the technology can do, while 'how's' (e.g., How can the Internet assist us with teaching and learning processes?) and 'why's' (e.g., Why this technology now?) remain relatively unclear." So say Hill in a chapter of the Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology.
Anyone who teaches online and in face-to-face classrooms knows that the each environment poses its own challenges and opportunities. It's a mistake, however, to treat them as if they were the same. Distance has an effect on teaching, and "distance" can be defined not just geographically but psychologically. Perceived distance between instructor and learner has to be minimized. In the physical classroom, the teacher moves toward the student, walks around, focuses visual attention, invites students to share. Online, distance is shortened in similar ways: by calling on students by name, "poking" them with public and private messages, inviting interaction, and sending emoticons.
Control of the traditional classroom is accomplished via physical and visible measures: the instructor metes out harsh looks, raises or lowers the volume, raps on the table or chalkboard, etc. Online, control often transfers to the learners, and instructors have to make difficult decisions about how much of that control they want to relinquish. Turning off chat, for example, can help ensure that students will not be distracted from your whiteboard content, but it may have the negative effect of making them look elsewhere for opportunities to communicate. Ruth Clark laments that "lacking the physical presence of the instructor, student attention in the virtual classroom tends to drift. It’s not uncommon for participants to respond to email, review unrelated documents, or even leave their computers during the session.”[1] J. Pulichino, in The Synchronous e-Learning Report for 2005, maintains that “the main frustration with the virtual classroom environment is multitasking. No matter how engaging you are as an instructor, you must still battle the students’ constant temptation to check email and multitask.”[2]
The social context of the physical classroom is determined by the physical presence of other students and the instructor(s). Online, students can't always see or hear one another (unless the instructor makes that possible), so they may need to be assured that there is a "there" there: that others are a part of the online class and that they share a common "space," even if they can't see it. Audio feedback - at least of the instructor's voice - cannot be over-emphasized in this context: it's the single most effective reminder of presence. It's also a good idea to make sure students are comfortable with the online environment: that they can navigate between the panes (chat, whiteboard, roster, video window, etc.) easily and are comfortable with the online classroom so that they can find and appreciate various other indicators of social presence.
How do you make your students comfortable in your online space?

[1] Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 1007, p. 57.
[2] Pulichino, J. ’The Synchronous e-Learning Research Report 2005.” Santa Rosa, CA: The eLearning Guild Research, 2006, p. 15. Retrieved March 24, 2008.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Respect Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

"There are many roads to learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college. Brilliant students in the seminar room may be all thumbs in the lab or art studio. Students rich in hands-on experience may not do so well with theory. Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learn in new ways that do not come so easily." (Chickering and Gamson)

In the online classroom, there are many opportunities to allow your students' diverse approaches to learning free expression. Don't limit yourself or your class to only a single teaching or presentation style. Experiment, and pay attention to how students respond.

One of the strengths of a captured session (an archive) is that it allows students a chance to review at their own pace what you provide at the pace that suits you best. They can play and re-play the lecture or parts of it, taking notes or paying attention to specific words or actions to enrich their experience and understanding of what happened and what was communicated.

Shi and Morrow (2006) discovered that instructors felt the audio tool (which allows for voice interaction with online students) was an effective tool for reinforcing diverse learning styles. One effective way to use this tool is to explain visuals you're presenting on the whiteboard: instead of overloading working memory with visual graphics along with text, allow students to "see" the visual content you're presenting and "hear" your explanation. Similarly, allowing students who may be slow or reluctant typists to interact orally gives them options to communicate.

I've extolled the virtues of breakout rooms elsewhere. In this context, I'll posit that a breakout room provides enhanced opportunities for individual participation, since it reduces the size of the group of learners and makes online time more accessible to each student.

When you allow your students to use the chat tools, you provide them with more chances to communicate and you empower those students who may be shy about speaking up or being singled out. It's also a far less threatening way to raise questions than is speaking out and interrupting the instructor. Shi and Morrow also identified the chat tool as associated with diverse learning styles.

Remember, also, that captioning is available for students who are differently-abled. Providing a captioned session will help the hearing-impaired student participate in the live session and understand what happened in the archived session. It may also allow students who have difficulty understanding different speakers (e.g., non-native speakers) to follow conversations and discussions that happen during class.

Thank goodness for diverse students, and diverse tools they can use for learning!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Communicate High Expecations

"Expect more and you will get more. High expectations are important for everyone -- for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts." (Chickering and Gamson)

One of my favorite ways to begin a session with students is by playing this three-minute video from Stanford's Education Center. In it, Tina Seelig passionately urges her audience to "Be Fabulous!" It's our job as instructors to raise the expectations of our students, and the best time to do that is right at the beginning of the relationship. Before telling students how to achieve, tell them why achievement is important. Give them a reason and a desire to do well in your class. When they make important points in an online session, "reward" them with happy faces or applause (the emoticons), and/or verbally congratulate them. Cultivate an atmosphere in your online classroom of curiosity and mutual support. Keep your sessions positive and "fun" - in short, be fabulous.

Ted Panitz offers this experience:

1. I send my students a letter prior to class describing the cooperative nature of the class and my expectations. I ask them to write a math autobiography, get the text, read chapter 1 and work out as many problems as they can. I give them my home and work phone numbers just in case the letter causes an anxiety attack. The effect is marvelous as reported by my students.
2. I collect and read all the autobiographies and respond with personal notes of encouragement and/or verbal responses when appropriate. The fact that we are writing back and forth opens up a line of communication about each student in the context of the course.
3. I ask the students to sign a Success Contract which I sign outlining what I will do and what I expect them to do. I actually refer to it throughout the semester and remind them of their commitment to the course and themselves as well as to me.
4. I ask my students to do a written analysis of the 7 principles as they apply to math classes and cooperative learning. Number 6 often receives a lot of discussion because students are not used to hearing high expectation expressed about them. Again I write back explaining my thoughts and experiences. In a way this establishes a peer relation versus that of student and teacher.
5. When students are working in groups I resist providing quick answers and encourage them to seek answers themselves by relying on the abilities of their members. I comment that someone in the group will be able to find a solution and working together they will certainly be able to answer each members questions. It takes them a little while to get used to this but after they do they revel in each group members success.
6. At the end of each exam or assignment I ask students to comment on how they feel they are doing and how the class is going. I also ask if they have any suggestions for me which might improve the class. This is optional and not graded. It tells them that I respect and value their opinions.
7. I provide a lot of verbal encouragement throughout the semester...
8. I try to learn something about each student that I can relate to and I discuss things with them which will help them understand my background and interests better. I always explain my rationale for doing things. I share my experiences with them and the class and encourage them to do the same. Many students have told me that knowing me personally sets high expectations since they do not want to let me down. They see me as a friend and mentor.
9. I use a mastery approach to testing where I check exams for correct answers and return the papers for corrections during the exam... The emphasis is on understanding the problem, not the grade and all students become capable of obtaining a perfect test. The effect of this approach is to empower the students, create a positive assessment atmosphere and encourage the students to take more responsibility for their learning and success...
10. Cooperative learning techniques set high expectations of students. Students work in groups collaboratively in all my classes during every class session. I encourage them to help each other and express their opinions about their problem solutions. As they get comfortable with this approach and with their partners their self esteem grows and the expectations of what they can accomplish rises dramatically. People who previously approached math with great anxiety suddenly see themselves as tutor/teachers, not just recipients of someone else's knowledge. Cooperative learning carries with it a presumption that students can learn the material together and then demonstrate their abilities individually through a variety of assessment methods including exams, oral presentations, written assignments and working on the board.
11. During the semester I periodically survey the students to ask their opinion about how they feel the course is progressing. Is it meeting their expectations, what could I do to facilitate their learning, what could they do to help the class and themselves?

This isn't simply a matter of teaching philosophy: research indicates that "there is a clear relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement." Read this article to see what I mean. You owe it to your students (your profession, yourself) to energetically, enthusiastically, and wholeheartedly communicate high expectations in your classroom.

Let me know how you do this.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Time on Task

"Time plus energy equals learning. There is no substitute for time on task. Learning to use one's time well is critical for students and professionals alike. Students need help in learning effective time management. Allocating realistic amounts of time means effective learning for students and effective teaching for faculty. How an institution defines time expectations for students, faculty, administrators, and other professional staff can establish the basis of high performance for all. " (Chickering and Gamson)

Time in the synchronous online classroom is critical. Students who wait for the instructor to load materials, prepare polls, or master the necessary technologies will be diverted by other distractions (e.g., e-mails, Facebook feeds, private chat messages) and may not be able to focus once the instructor is ready. This puts a burden on the online instructor to prepare delivery as well as content so as to minimize delays and control time in the online classroom. With Confer, using the Plan tool - which allows you to pre-load multimedia content, polls, quizzes, slides, and Web pages - is an excellent way to manage the pace of your instruction.

It's also your responsibility as the instructor to reinforce time on task in your classroom. Students need help in learning effective time management, and you can provide this by giving them realistic time expectations during the class. The "Timer" tool - which presents a visible running clock on the desktop of each participant - is a great option in this context. Give students a task - for example, list what you know or think about X issue - and set the clock for five minutes, with an audible alarm option selected. This lets the students know that they have a job to do, in a limited amount of time, and that the "clock is ticking" for them to accomplish the job.

You can also help your students by reminding them of deadlines throughout your teaching. Use part of your lecture time to post reminders on the Whiteboard, or post announcements in the Chat area (you can post an announcement message here that pops up with an audible alert). These messages help students organize their time and focus on their required work.

One tool that helps reduce the time students sometimes squander searching for assignments or syllabi is the File Transfer tool. Using this simple tool, you can transfer your assignments to every student (even those who are viewing your archived session) in real time. This eliminates the concern that your Course Management System may be down when students are trying to access assignments, or that they won't be able to find the assignments you've posted. "Hand out" the assignments in real time, and let students know when and how you expect them to be completed.

Speaking of archives, remember that your recorded sessions can be paused and resumed. It's a good idea in longer class sessions to allow for breaks and to pause the recording so that viewers of the archive don't have to navigate through "dead time" to find the point where you resumed teaching.

Carl Sandburg wrote, "Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you." This applies to students as well as instructors, in all learning environments.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Prompt Feedback

"Knowing what you know and don't know focuses learning. Students need appropriate feedback on performance to benefit from courses. When getting started, students need help in assessing existing knowledge and competence. In classes, students need frequent opportunities to perform and receive suggestions for improvement. At various points during college, and at the end, students need chances to reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to know, and how to assess themselves." (Chickering and Gamson)

If your students come to the online classroom with no clues from you about how well (or poorly) they're doing, they may well wonder why they're coming at all. There are plenty of available tools for impromptu and/or formal assessment, and you should make it a point to use them often.

The breakout rooms, for example, are a perfect resource for allowing individuals or groups to complete self-paced exercises you make available or to take quizzes you administer or deliver to the rooms. Another innovative use of breakout rooms, suggested by Clark and Kwinn, is to set up trios in breakout rooms for role-play exercises, with one of the three acting as an observer. "Guidelines for conducting the role play can be posted on the white board, and the observer can take notes in chat as the role play proceeds and give feedback via audio or white board following the role play exercise.” Note that this technique gives the prompt feedback delivery method to the students, rather than to the instructor.

The chat tool is effective for informal, individualized feedback during an online session. You can send private messages of encouragement or admonishment without distracting the other students or embarrassing your targets. Even a public "Bravo!" in the chat window allows students to know that you're paying attention and that they're on the right track. Another feature of the chat tool is that it can provide your students with a non-threatening way to pose questions or communicate other needs with you. Students who are reluctant to speak up in class sometimes find it easier to communicate in the chat area, and it's almost always true that if one student aks a question, others have it in their minds.

The use of polls is a terrific option for providing prompt feedback. Although you generally have to prepare your polls ahead of time, it doesn't really take much more than a few seconds to type a poll on the whiteboard and deliver it to your students ad hoc. It's often a good idea to hide the polling results until all participants have responded to ensure honest feedback from the students. You should also remember that you can guage your students even without structured poll responses (i.e., "yes/no" or "A, B, C, D, E"). The whiteboard can be used to pose a question and allow students to type their own responses - either on the whiteboard itself or in the chat area. Doing this often - throughout the class - helps ensure that you're on track with your students and that they're keeping up with you. Remember, though: don't ask a question and ignore the results. Students don't appreciate being ignored.

The emoticons (smiley face, frown, applause, etc.) are also useful feedback tools. You can use them to silently appraise your students, and you can also allow your students to use them to give you a "pulse" on the class. Jonathan Finkelstein advises, “When someone else is speaking, have your mouse near the emotion indicators. Get in the habit of clicking on an emoticon as a participant is speaking or typing to express your reaction. These real-time cues can provide the encouragement and confidence a learner needs.”

Chopeta Lyons suggests that at the end of a class session, use an "instant feedback" whiteboard to allow students to reflect and analyze. Divide the screen down the middle and put a plus on one side and a minus on the other. Students can then type comments anonymously in either or both columns.

How about you?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Active Learning

"Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves. " (- Chickering and Gamson)

In our study of Web conferencing for instruction, Shufang Shi and I found that instructors associated application sharing with the pedagogical principle of active learning more than they did any other tool in the Confer toolset. But if you use application sharing only to demonstrate to students, you're cheating them out of rich online learning opportunities. Make your session interactive by allowing students to complete pre-designed exercises, giving them cursor and desktop control. If you pass control from student to student, allowing them to complete steps in a problem or series of problems, your entire class will pay attention. The process itself - not just segments of the process or individual parts - will be absorbed. One caveat: students aren't always able to understand what they're seeing in application sharing sessions. You may want to explain who's got control of the screen, where they should be looking to find the cursor, or how to navigate at a pace that refreshes the screen on all students' screens without being disorienting.

I've mentioned the value of breakout rooms in a previous note. At least one other strategic advantage is that you can facilitate more active learning in small groups than in large ones. Groups of three-to-five participants will demonstrate greater individual participation than will large online classrooms.

The Chat tool can also be used to ensure active learning. Students find it difficult to listen actively: so do instructors. Move them to the chat area for discussion of a topic in order to re-engage them and to break up the content delivery. Polling students - forcing them to make decisions about the learning content - also encourages active learning.

The Whiteboard's drawing and annotation tools are a wonderful resource for reinforcing active learning. Don't just present your visuals: engage students in them. Instead of simply describing a chart or graphic to the class, ask students to type their reactions - either in the chat area or (if space allows) directly on the whiteboard itself. You can even design visuals with "cartoon balloons" or other cues to encourage and support class annotations.

I'm sure there are hundreds of other ways you use to encourage active learning. Tell us about them!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Develop Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

"Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort that a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's own ideas and responding to others' reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding. " (Chickering and Gamson)

If your Confer class is large, consider using the Breakout Rooms feature. Virtual “rooms” can be created into which you can distribute participants, and from which you can return them at will. This tool allows small groups of learners to work together or hold a discussion in which everyone has ample opportunity to participate.

As Ruth Clark observes, “Spending a few minutes in a breakout room allows a group of three to five participants to actively engage with each other in ways that can lead to greater individual participation and consequent learning.” For one thing, there are less voices to contend with, so each student's audio time is more accessible. For another, research seems to indicate that group cohesion is a by-product of this kind of virtual separation and group formation.

Like every educational tool, though, breakout rooms are only effective if they're used appropriately. Since we know that this feature is designed to facilitate collaboration, we should use it to promote group activities: create a situation in which "students introduce each other, work on homework, problems, projects, research, brainstorming, and other related activities in small groups and then share the materials from the group sessions with the rest of the students” (Zeina Nehme).

Assign a group leader and/or a group scribe before you send students to breakout rooms. The scribe can enter group responses on the whiteboard and summarize group discussions when everyone reconvenes. Find a student who's comfortable using the Confer technology and ask them to lead in the breakout room.

Remember that your ability to control what happens in the online classroom will be compromised when you send students into breakout rooms. PLAN, PLAN, PLAN ahead of time to make sure you haven't introduced chaos into your well-ordered session. Create your breakout rooms ahead of the session, with all relevant information pre-loaded. Explain everything to the students before you send them into their rooms, and even consider having technical and exercise instructions on a file you transfer to them so that there are no misunderstandings. Migrate between rooms so you can be sure students are interacting and collaborating as you would hope.

Jennifer Hoffman recommends these participant "ground rules":

  • If you run into technical problems, contact the facilitator or producer. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to solve them yourselves.
  • Assign someone to manage the exercise, someone to capture information, and someone to report back to the larger group.
  • Don’t leave the breakout session just because the trainer isn’t "watching' you.
  • When using collaboration tools within the breakout rooms (whiteboard, chat, application sharing, web browsing) the ground rules for those tools apply.

I'm interested in how you use (or why you don't use) the breakout rooms feature. Feel free to share your experience here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Student-Faculty Interaction: The Most Important Factor

The Chickering-Gamson paper contends: "Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans. "

So we need to keep and maintain contact with our students. In the Confer environment, one of the key reinforcers of this contact comes from the audio tool, which allows real-time conversation. Jennifer Hoffman says that “The trainer’s voice is perhaps the most important content delivery method available in a synchronous classroom.” Similarly, Clark and Kwinn assert that "audio participation increases social presence and is the best option" for synchronous online communication. We seem to have built-in responders to audio cues, and students who can hear the instructor's voice - to say nothing of being heard by the instructor - are reassured that there is a human being teaching and guiding them in their learning.

Confer also provides a chat tool that gives an ongoing log or transcript of typed conversation during the session. Messages can be sent to a selected audience or a private individual. The text can be resized, and the chat can be saved (copied and pasted) to a text file. This tool provides another interaction option, and its proper use will empower students in the online classroom. Joe Tansey observes that the fact that all students can see the responses in the chat window instantly is a valuable way for participants to share a wealth of ideas and information... Text chat makes it easy for all involved to match responses with contributors, and no responses are overwritten or erased – which can be a risk with some white board tools.” Joe also feels that "a useful feature of text chat is that it can provide learners with a non-threatening way to pose questions or communicate other needs with the instructor. Questions on the mind of one learner are often on the minds of others. If instructors aren’t able to answer all questions during the allotted class time, they can usually save the text chat and respond to questions after class.” Jennifer Hoffman adds that “participants who are more reserved are often more likely to interact when text chat options are available.” In a study called "The Social Arena of the Online Synchronous Environment," Zeina Nehme writes that “a learner might be comfortable chatting only rather than talking on the microphone.” There are limitations to this tool, however: as Schwier and Balbar discovered, one is "the lack of nonverbal cues, and the difficulty interpreting the intentions of each other. Chatting is spontaneous by nature, and this spontaneity doesn't allow participants to craft clear prose, so subtleties were sometimes lost or misinterpreted."

The polling tools are also aimed at interaction, albeit in a more structured way than either voice or chat. Jonathan Finkelstein notes that "polling is a low-threshold way of involving even the more reticent participants, as it allows for a simple means to take part in and affect the flow of a live online session. Integrated polling tools not only help a facilitator quickly gauge interest, comprehension, and opinions of the subject matter at hand, but they can also be used to appraise more subtle measures of student engagement and understanding: those more akin to the hesitant raising of a hand in a physical classroom.” Diana Perney at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School says, "I use this tool throughout a session. I create on the white board a multiple-choice question to start the session and ask the learners to respond, choosing A, B, or C. The polling results give me a sense of the class and activates prior knowledge for the learner. I will repeat this process throughout the session to engage the learners and to keep my finger on the pulse of the class. It often catches the participants off guard – they don’t know when I will ask the next question. The polling tool also meets the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. I ask the question, they see the question, and a button needs to be clicked to indicate a response.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chickering and Gamson and Synchronous Online Teaching

About 20 years ago, the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) sponsored the development of a statement of principles for good undergraduate education. These were compiled by Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson as a summary of decades of research and the collective wisdom of those investigating the college experience. “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” was published in the March 1987 AAHE Bulletin. The principles declare that good practice

1. Encourages student-faculty contact
2. Encourages cooperation among students
3. Encourages active learning
4. Gives prompt feedback
5. Emphasizes time on task
6. Communicates high expectations
7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning

I’ve been lately interested in how these principles are applied in the online Confer environment. For example, how does one use CCC Confer to encourage the first principle, student-faculty contact? What tools are most appropriate for this goal, and what practices or techniques reinforce the principle best? Are these equivalent to traditional classroom practices, or does the online environment change the way this principle is supported?

In the traditional classroom environment, student-faculty contact is encouraged by:
  • office hours in which students can meet with faculty one-on-one or in small, informal groups
  • allowing for in-class discourse (raising hands, seeking student feedback or input)
  • telephone or e-mail accessibility
You can see that Confer provides a “first principle-friendly” environment, in that office hours are an option, without the space and travel constraints common to campuses, any time and any day. The opportunities to raise hands in the Confer classroom, to get feedback from students, and to actively solicit student-faculty exchanges are available with the interaction icons, chat and audio tools, and even with the whiteboard tools, if the instructor chooses. Naturally, Confer is neutral with respect to student-faculty contacts outside of the Confer environment.
We could (and I hope to in future writings) continue down the list and ask ourselves whether or not the Confer environment favors good practice, as defined by each of the principles. I’m of the opinion that each of these principles can be reinforced in the Confer classroom, but that we have to find appropriate and effective ways of using the available tools. For example, is the audio tool (voice) the best one to encourage student-faculty contact? Not necessarily, according to research. Jennifer Hoffman and Zeina Nehme suggest that some students are more comfortable chatting than talking in the virtual classroom. And, since text chat can be saved, the instructor can go back later to answer questions or provide feedback to students even after the class session.
That’s the kind of thing I’ve been thinking about lately. What about you?
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