on blogs and blogging

Jim Sullivan suggests that we consider the following question in our blog posts this week:

“What might be the advantages and disadvantages of using a class blog or student blogs for your class?”

I have enjoyed the blogging aspect of potcert. And I thought Lisa’s and Jim’s videos were interesting and informative. Lisa’s video was a useful overview of blogging for courses (I liked the chart), and Jim’s provided good examples of applications. (Honestly, I did wonder whether it would have been useful to see these vids earlier, say soon after we started with all of this blogging stuff, but then again those of us new to blogging, which includes me, may not have been ready for that much information without some experience first).

All of this has made me think about incorporating blogging into my courses, replacing the discussion board aspect of them (which as I’ve noted previously, I’ve never been very good at pulling off anyway). And I have been considering using a blog instead of an LMS in order to do so. In thinking about this, I have indeed considered the advantages and disadvantages of blogs and blogging.

I think the advantages are fairly clear.  When we blog, we have a good bit more freedom of what to say, how to say it, to whom to say it, etc. than when we respond to a prompt.  We have to think more about what we are saying than when we respond to a prompt (at least I think we do). It’s sustained writing. It’s creative writing. It’s reflective writing. And if we don’t do it in an LMS, then it’s out there for the world to see (should it want to look, that is). And I like all of this. I also like that I can respond to those posts that I find particularly interesting and that I’m not forced to comment on a specific prompt, whether I have anything to say about it or not.

The advantages are also the disadvantages. I wonder whether blogging too “me-centered” and not “idea or topic centered” or “discussion-centered” enough. I wonder about what I’m missing after I’ve responded to 10 or so blogs and am just “done,” when I don’t have time or energy to cull through all of the comments. I wonder whether, because there is so much freedom, we really ever advance the conversation. It is easy to miss a thought in a post or comment and then post the idea again as if it were a new one. Are we getting anywhere or just spinning our wheels?  Are we getting there together? Is that important?

Freedom, creation, reflection, interest. Those are big things. They may well outweigh the disadvantages. But the disadvantages certainly are worthy of consideration.

come again?

Hello potcert people,

I realize that I’m probably way over thinking things (such sometimes happens for me about this time in the semester), but I’ve been puzzling over the terms “open” and “platform” and what these terms might mean when you stick ‘em together.

The term “open” seems to me like it’s showing up everywhere these days: “open source,” “open course,” “open resource” (per Ko and Rossen), “open learning,” “open forum,” etc, etc, etc. The meaning of the term seems to vary from “free and freely available for use” to “free-for-all.” What do we mean by it?

The term “platform” shows up in many different ways, too. I think generally it means something that you can build stuff on, a foundation. When I’m thinking about computer technology, I tend to think of an operating system or a programming language as a platform. (Sorry folks. I’m not a techie! Just trying to slog my way through the terminology!). Or perhaps it is more basic, like the general definition. So we might use an LMS, social media, an immersive environment, upon which to build a course or module. Is that what we mean?

So “open platform.” What exactly is that? It seems like it might mean some technology upon which you can build stuff that’s free and available to others to use (and perhaps change as they want, without attribution). On the other hand, it could mean technology (software?) upon which you can build something that allows opportunities for free and open learning.

So given the week’s assignments, I’m thinking maybe it’s the latter: something different, “alternative” (not the typical LMS) that can allow for learning that can take many directions, to allow students to learn in a way that is more open than other methods. Is that right?

“Open.” “Platform.” “Open platform.” Come again?

on vampires and bunnies

Fang Li took the potcert bama cohort on a tour of Second Life last Wednesday afternoon (here’s his interesting blog post about SL). I enjoyed the tour, and it made me really think about SL and its viability (for me at least) as an instructional option.

On one hand, I wondered whether from an instructional perspective at least, it’s kind of window dressing for something I could accomplish by video or chat through an LMS. I also wondered whether it’s just one more thing students would have to learn to do to be successful in an online course.

On the other hand, it seemed to me in some ways a much more natural virtual setting (hmmm) than an LMS. At least students don’t have to click one place for content, click back, click another place for discussion, click back, click another place to post an assignment, click back, and so forth.

What I did find particularly intriguing was the idea of creating myself, much more intentionally, as an instructor, than I typically do. I know I choose a persona for any class I teach, but if I were to use second life, I would really in fact have to choose a persona, an avatar.  I’d pick what I am to look like, from character type, to face shape, to hair color, to eye color, and so forth, all of which provides a signal to who I am as a teacher. Students do the same, right?

So we put on our teacher faces and we put on our student faces and we get together in this virtual world to talk things over, to learn things.  Do the personas that we choose influence teaching and learning?

It seems like they might. It seems like they might suggest things about the nature of the teacher-student relationship, the roles that participants take up, the approachability of the participants, the level of distraction caused by the avatars, and so forth.

To put the question to the extreme, what does it mean when a bunny shows up for a class taught by a vampire?  Or vice versa, a vampire shows up to be taught by a bunny?

be there or be square

I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between instructor presence and community. I think there must be a very fine balance to achieve between “being there” and letting community happen (in other words, not squashing community by virtue of “being there” as instructors).

In a response to Felton Square’s interesting post about community, I mentioned that in a course I was recently teaching, a student said that when instructors had “gone missing” in  courses, community had really developed as students had to cling together to survive the courses. I was suprised, not only by the fact that instructors (notice the plural word form there) would “go missing” in the middle of a course, but also that doing so would open up opportunities for community. The instructors left the virtual building, but the course and students went on…

Lisa Lane notes that she does not intentionly structure for comunity. She states that it either happens or it does not. She asks the question whether community is up to the students anyway. Perhaps it is. And perhaps it should be. A more natural, virtual approach to community is an appealing idea.

For me, all of this has raised some questions:

  • In online courses, how do we know when we have moved from communication to community?
  • Who is responsible for developing community in online courses?
  • Can a strong instructor presence be an impediment to community in online courses?
  • How do we balance between “being there” and “being square” (squashing community)?
  • Do we need to let students know that community is at least in part up to them? If so, how do we do that?
  • Do we need to prepare students to assume roles in a community? Or at least make them aware of the possibilities? How would we do that?

Tough questions to be sure, but I hope to hear some of your thoughts about how to (at least in part) answer them!

neither here nor there

Given our assignments and readings and Todd Conaway’s synchronous session (as well as some academic writing I’m doing at the moment), I’ve been thinking a good bit about community  in online courses this week, both what it is and how to get it.

It seems to me that community in an online class is something of a different animal than other kinds of community that we think about as teachers. It is not the same as community in an onsite course, which we establish quickly by sizing each other up by appearance, telling jokes, agreeing or disagreeing with each other, either verbally or non-verbally, etc. Yet it’s not the same as online communities which are based on interest (and sharing knowledge and information, and thus learning, if informal) and are completely voluntary. These take a long time to establish, and members can engage in legitimate peripheral participation, or lurk (as Lave and Wenger suggest), prior to moving to engagement and then ultimately involvement and leadership in the community. So community in online courses seems to me to have characteristics of these two types of communities, but it cannot be characterized as either.

So what is that different animal?  That is something I’m not at all sure about. And it seems to me that it’s difficult to figure out how to get/establish “it” if you don’t know what “it” is.

That said, I think community in an online course is one of those things that you seem to know it if you’ve got it and that you sure know if you don’t. And I think some of the activities in the book and some of the things Pilar suggested in the video are great, and they seem like legitimate/useful suggestions for how to get “it”.

It might be an interesting exercize to look at what our practical experiences suggest works and sort of reverse engineer a definition of what community in an online course really is, which might in turn help us come up with even more ideas about how to accomplish it.

Open and distributed learning

MOOCs are receiving considerable attention from those of us who study higher education these days. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to browse the Chronicle of Higher Education without seeing an article or a blog post about MOOCs. This flurry of attention in the media is making for some interesting discussions in a “Technology in Higher Education” course I am teaching this term.

Related to this, I showed the following video in the course a couple of weeks ago:

We had an interesting discussion about the distributed nature of MOOCs, and many thought it was interesting that having folks on different pages is a feature in at least some MOOCs (although those offered through for-profit ventures seem to be much more structured and much less distributed).  We discussed the value in allowing flexibility and ownership of learning, but we also discussed whether students could end up feeling out of the loop, missing out on the conversation, missing out on the learning. Is distribution an asset to or detractor from community? It was a very good discussion in which folks who hold a variety of different perspectives were able to share ideas and information.


Just enough and not too much

After having watched Lisa and Jim’s session on the interactive syllabus, I am convinced by their argument that having one is a good idea. I liked Laura’s comment about how making a syllabus interactive requires student’s to look at it more than once at the beginning of the term; it is instead a much more integral part of the course. So I am planning to develop an interactive syllabus for my next course.

One thing I need to think about is where to put it. I took a look at BB, which as I mentioned in my last post I haven’t used before since my uni just switched over to it (well I have done a couple of Blackboard Collaborate sessions, but that’s about it). It is very structured, and it seemed difficult to modify, as Lisa mentioned in the session. I did like Lisa’s Moodle syllabus, but I also think that the POTCERT syllabus has some nice features, with the weekly postings of the readings and tasks for the week, so I may try to work out something similar.

In looking at the Ko and Rossen text, I found the comment that most instructors include too little detail to be an interesting one. I have no doubt that they are right about that. I suspect my inclination would be to provide too few details.  But I’m also thinking that it is equally possible to provide too many details. To have something so busy that students are distracted by it. To have it so much information and so many links and images that it is easy to get lost in them. Indeed I’ve seen a few syllabi for online courses that seemed to me way, way over the top. I suspect I wouldn’t respond well to those were I taking the course.

So a question I have, then, is this: how much is just enough and not too much?

On multimodality and course design

I love text. Love it. Love to read it. Love it so much that my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in English literature. Love it so much that when I give presentations, I spend ages trying to select the most appropriate font to express my meaning. Love it so much that I write books (my husband calls writing academic books my hobby…I really need to get a hobby). I could go on, but I won’t. In short, I’m really into text…

Except when I’m not. I think about how I approach Web-based stuff. Although I truly love reading, I don’t want to read a bunch of stuff online. Perhaps the technology is just not “there” yet or perhaps it’s just me, but I feel like seeing too much text online just drags me down. I don’t want to have to look at a lot of bullet points. I don’t want to see lines and lines of links, sitting there waiting for me to click on them….

Rather, online I want mutlimodality; I want pictures and sounds and words. I want those pictures and words and sounds to have an easy and comfortable coexistence. I want them to relate and interrelate and make my online experience an easy, informative, and visually-appealing one.

I think that multimodality is something I want to translate into my online teaching as well. (It’s occuring to me at the moment that it would be nice to work on it in my blogging! I’ll have to do that sometime). So I’m thinking about the online course design process and my next online course and how I would very much like to avoid designing a primarily text-driven course. The question is how to go about that. Todd Conaway’s post, in which he describes asking teachers to draw their courses, resonated with me. Seems like drawing is actually a good way to go, and I have done drawing and storyboarding when designing an online course before with good success. So in theory, I am planning to start the design of my next course by storyboarding….

In practice, I’ve got couple of issues to contend with. As it turns out, the course I’ll be teaching next term is Reading Research in Higher Education. This is a course, as the title suggests, in which students learn to read social science research studies related to higher/postsecondary education. They also learn to write about these studies, as in a literature review. In sum, then, it is a course about texts which involves producing text.

The other issue is that, if I teach more than half of the course online, I am pretty well required to use Blackboard. I have not used this LMS before (I have used WebCT and eLearning), but on a quick glance, it appears to me to be fairly text-oriented. I’m sure that there are opportunities to upload videos and include images and such, and I’m guessing that there’s a way to work with it so that the course layout doesn’t appear to be so text-y, but on a first look, pretty much what I see is text.

So here is how I am set up for next term:

  • As a person who is  enamoured with text;
  • As a designer working in Blackboard, text driven as it appears to be;
  • As a teacher who is to help students learn how to read and write about a certain type of text.

Storyboarding this as a fairly mutlimodal class should be a really interesting exercize. I believe that I have some hard work, and creative thinking, ahead of me!


Course design: What are we missing?

Over the course of my studies and professional career in higher education, I’ve run across several models of instructional design, including (but not limited to) the following:

I think such models provide good information about the kinds of things that are important to think about when designing and developing courses, for those new to teaching in particular. Even for those with extensive teaching experience, I think these models can provide good guidance and can remind us to stay focused on what students should learn and how we will know if they have learned it.

On the other hand, I’ve found some of the design models to be fairly narrow and prescriptive. And I’ve felt that focusing on the specifics such as learning objectives or even outcomes is not in fact the best place to start course design. I mean, I know I’ve got to identify my learning objectives and outcomes, and I know it’s great if I can use the Bloom verbs when I’m writing them up. But there’s been something nagging at me that there’s something more to course design than all these steps and objectives and outcomes and such. What is it?

Something this week has triggered for me a few thoughts about course design. I think the first steps we really take at course design, even if we don’t articulate them, are much more philosophically driven than task-oriented. I think, for example, that we actually start by thinking about what our main problem/question for a specific course is. I think we think about the students we will meet in the course (as Ko and Rossen suggest). And I think we think about teaching and learning spaces (as Todd Conaway suggested in the video for the week).

One thing I think we may be even less intentional about, which is still a philosophical matter, is thinking about what a given course is. How do we conceive of it, really? What is it at a fundamental level? Is the course to be a monolog? A conversation? A text? An event?  A seminar? A game? A bricolage?  These are just a few possibilities, and I imagine that there are many conceptualizations of specific courses (and would love to hear your ideas about what those might be!). I imagine that the answer to the question may well be linked to philosophical structures of specific disciplines and fields as well as to an instructor’s own philosophical perspectives.

TLDR: I think it is important to consider philosophical questions, including “what is the course,” prior to parsing out the learning objectives. Our answers could very well inform our objectives and our ideas about how to accomplish our learning objectives.


Ko and Rossen’s overview of online teaching

I found Ko and Rossen’s first chapter to be fairly interesting.  I liked their point about the lack of physical markers online; both my reading of the research on online learning and experience teaching online suggest that this is accurate, and that there are both upsides and downsides to it. We may not be able to rely on physical cues which can help us understand each other more easily (particularly in text-based courses rather than those with a strong visual element), but on the other hand, we may not judge Gerda before we meet her.

A couple of points interested me. It seemed to me that Ko and Rossen presented teaching online as freedom from stuff (like freedom from having to go to campus and having to show up at a given time) rather than as freedom for stuff (like using tools students use in everyday life or like doing something pedagogically interesting that you couldn’t do offline). I wondered if others found this to be the case (could just be me!), and if so, why the authors framed it in the way that they did.

They also contrasted teaching online with traditional teaching.  I recently read something that put moocs (massively open online courses) on the new and different end of a continuum and “traditional online and face-to-face courses” on the other. So I wonder whether our view of online learning as non-traditional might be changing. Could it be?

There were some points in the chapter that I was not entirely convinced about. The suggestion that it’s “people oriented people” who make the best online instructors, for example, is one of them. I’m not entirely sure what “people oriented people” means, so that could be part of my difficulty with the point, but I can imagine that instructors who rely upon highly intellective rather than highly interpersonal skills could be quite effective online. Perhaps the people-oriented people amongst us can shed some light on this point!

I also am unsure about the assertion that “there’s no need to start from scratch when teaching online.” While that may technically be true, I think it glosses over the fact that simply transferring a face-to-face course as it stands to an online environment may in fact be a terrible idea. In my own teaching, I find that I really need to rethink courses from a fundamental, philosophical level before going online with them. In my experience, online courses are fundamentally different from offline ones. Maybe others have been more succesful with a direct transfer of offline to online, but I’ve not been able to manage such a direct conversion well.

Last contrarian point, I’m not sure I buy the suggestion that “teaching online heightens our awareness of what we’re doing in the classroom.” Again, I think it’s a different thing. And I think that one disadvantage many of us face is that we haven’t taken an online course and thus actually don’t have any awareness of what this different thing is or how it works, particularly from a student perspective (one reason the PotCert is such a useful concept!). Perhaps teaching online does give us a point of comparison, however, and maybe that’s what the authors mean.

I look forward to hearing from others!