Tuesday, March 27, 2012

(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 4)

by Rai Farrelly
This past week Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem, UT hosted the 4th Annual Conference on the Scholarship of Teaching and Engagement (SoTE) in Higher Education. I had the pleasure of presenting on my experiment with sharing the power in the class. My talk was entitled 'Sharing the Power: A Community of Learners from Day One'. Interestingly, the director of the UVU Faculty Center along with a student also presented on Sharing the Power in the classroom. Our two sessions, offered back to back, provided a great platform for discussing the opportunities and challenges present in sharing the power.

I shared with the audience some recent feedback I received from my students during an informal midterm qualitative feedback session. I asked them to reflect on the following and give me some input:

1. Was co-designing this course during days 1, 2 and 3 useful to you? Please explain.
2. What topics would you like to revisit for clarification purposes? (e.g., diversity, learning objectives, lesson planning, etc.)
3. What is still unclear and why? (e.g., time on topic, teaching approach, opportunities to reflect)
4. What forthcoming topics are most important/interesting to you at this point? (e.g., learning styles, learner-centered approaches, addressing resistance to learner-centered approaches, assessment, etc.)
5. Would you like to alter the schedule in any way to cover certain topics sooner/later?
6. Are there any topics not on the schedule that you'd like to bring to the class? (e.g., classroom civility, using technology, etc.)

Taking this approach to collecting and addressing midterm feedback continues the power sharing and the sense of this class as a community of learners who should be able to contribute to the design and direction of the course - even midstream. As you can imagine, I received quite a bit of feedback, much of which was very informed and insightful. These are all graduate students, post docs and professionals with needs and goals specific to their roles as teachers at the University. Here are some points from their responses related to sharing the power.

The first question was designed to give me a sense for future iterations of this class as to how useful the opportunity to co-design the course was. These are some of their comments:

1. Allowing us to assist with the planning of the course is empowering. It also increases our own accountability.
2. It gave us some ownership and allowed us to pick what we felt was important.
3. It helped me to see how students can be integrated in the course development process.
4. Making decisions on grading, objectives, etc. was useful.
5. It set the course in motion so that learning objectives became clear and attainable.
6. It brought forth the difficulty encountered with course design and allowed for practice experience with the thought process.
7. It was very helpful.
8. It was nice to be able to contribute to the design according to the class' needs (i.e., our needs).
9. Yes, we felt involved.

Of course, there were some constructive comments and some that just reflected a sense that the process wasn't useful.

1. It was useful for 1.5 days as it gave us a chance to see how it could be done. I thought it could have been shorter than 3 days.
2. Not very useful, but the process is good to experience how to discuss with students.
3. Yes and no. I can certainly see where application is helpful but now I sometimes feel rushed.
4. Not for me specifically. The original syllabus seemed to cover what I wanted to learn. I would have rather spent that time learning other material.
5. I think it dragged on a little too long. Maybe hash stuff out more quickly.

For me, all of these comments are so uplifting. I have learned from their feedback and have a great sense of changes I will make next semester. Clearly, I will need to expedite the process a little bit so we can move into the 'tofu' of the course (I'm a vegetarian!). But, I will conduct the course design in much the same way, relying on the situational factors (e.g., class size, students' needs, goals, expectations, backgrounds, etc.) to inform our course objectives, assessments and learning plan.

In addition to this course design feedback, all of their immediately relevant comments on course content (e.g., muddy points, topics of interest that are not on the agenda and areas that they are looking forward to, etc.) will inform how the last half of our semester plays out. I'm striving to model a course for them that will show how students can and should be part of the process throughout the semester. Hopefully, whether they can articulate exactly how right now or not, they will one day test out the power sharing in their future classes.

One important conversation point at the SoTE conference last week was the level to which you can share the power. From day one with my students, we have discussed our process in comparison with how it might unfold in different types of courses - such as those with over 100 undergraduates. Audience members at our sessions asked about how sharing power could be possible given this factor or that. We tried to stress, as I have with my students, that the question should not be 'To share power or not to share power' but rather, on a continuum of possible power sharing from little to extensive, how much can you afford to share. The answer will come in light of situational factors, not the least of which is a teacher's own comfort zone for power sharing. Consider what you are comfortable with first, then let your context inform the level to which you can involve the students in directing their learning.

I encourage you to take the leap! Dive in and test the waters. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much you enjoy the process. Just be prepared for an all inclusive learning experience. Remember to reflect often, revise as needed, change directions with the 'winds' of student feedback and your own intuitions. All the while, you can pat yourself on the back for stepping up and trying something that honors students' knowledge, experience, goals and expectations! 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Teaching and Learning Online Series - Part 3

Being Prepared and Setting Expectations – Does this need to be different in an online teaching and learning environment?
By Dr. Vanae E. Morris
Adults need to know why they should learn something and they want to learn those things they need to know (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2011). Does this change in an online learning environment? How does being prepared and setting expectations help an adult learn, especially in an online environment?

Questions, questions, questions! I want to know the answers, you say?

Well, there is not always an exact answer to your question; so, let’s talk about some of the things that happen when you receive your teaching assignments for the semester. What is the first thing that you do? Panic, consider textbook options, and then quickly put together a course syllabus? If this is a new course, this may be a scenario you have experienced. If you are teaching a course that you have taught several times before, this feeling of panic may not set in; however, add that you now need to teach this course online to the mix. Now, what is the first thing that you do? Does this change your planning process? Should this change your planning process?

In the asynchronous online course that I teach called Cyber Pedagogy, my focus is on the pedagogy first, not the technology. Once the pedagogical design part is complete, then you are ready to start thinking about the technology tools. The biggest mistake I often see faculty making when teaching online is that they select their technology first and then try to retrofit their objectives and teaching into the technology. This should work the other way around. You should use the technology to achieve your objectives! You should use the technology to engage and enhance student learning! Technology is just one of the tools you can use to help your students successfully meet the learning outcomes of your lessons and overall course.

Being prepared to teach an online course requires the same pedagogical preparation that you would do in a face-to-face course. You need to design your course by determining the situational factors, developing the desired results, analyzing how to assess the desired results, and finally, creating a learning plan that allows the students to practice the content for a successful learning outcome. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005; Fink, 2003). This should not change if you are planning to teach an online course. However, what you do need to consider are the parameters of the online learning environment. For example, how will you conduct a warm-up, present the content, have the students practice, assess the learning, and wrap-up the lesson. In an online course, you also need to determine how you will interact including teacher to student, student to student, and student to content. Determining how you will do this in an online teaching and learning environment is the difference between preparing for a face-to-face class and an online class. The purpose of this blog is not to conduct a class in how this can be accomplished but to encourage you to design your online course with the same pedagogical practices that should be considered in a face-to-face class, then determine how the technology will enhance the learning outcomes. Each online learning management system you use to teach an online course should be examined to determine the best way to accomplish and enhance the learning outcomes of your students.

This brings us to the next best practice, which is to develop a set of explicit expectations for yourself and your students regarding communication and how much time you and your students should be working on the course each week (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). When setting expectations for yourself and your students in an online course, a communication, interaction, and support plan should be put into practice. This plan should:

1. Clearly define preferred communication methods and channels so that students and instructors can communicate

2. Support each other and learn in a social environment

3. Take the time to lay out the rules for online teaching and learning so that students will know what to expect

4. Provide opportunities for community building where students regularly interact with other students, materials and the instructor

5. Make it clear to students where to turn for technical support

This communication plan gives structure for the three important interactions that occur in an online course, teacher to student, student to student, and student to content. As you review your communication plan and expectations, refer back to Part 1 of this series that discusses being present and exactly what that means in an online course.

The next part of this series will include a discussion on starting out strong and using a variety of large group, small groups, and individual work experiences, including the introduction of learning communities within your online course.


Boettcher, J.V. & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (7th ed.). New York: Elsevier.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Friday, March 9, 2012


In previous posts (see Parts I and II in this series), I have been discussing my foray into team projects in a large (140 students) class. It's time for an update!

As can be expected, there are both successes and challenges to report. Perhaps surprisingly to some, my group of "misfits" (the students who were lumped together because they had all neglected to submit the first assignment) are doing quite well. Unfortunately, several of the students assigned to this group consistently miss class and fail to contribute to the group work. However, there is a core of 5 students who are committed to working together, and though they have struggled at times, they are producing work comparable to most of the other groups (and much better than some). In speaking with them during the last two team sessions in class, they seem to have become more comfortable working together. They also seem to be satisfied with my explanation that they won't be penalized for the lack of work contributed by the "no shows", and that they have input into those students' grades. I was especially excited when one of the students in this group said to me last week, "We'll show you! Our poster is going to be the best one!" 

Some of the other groups, on the other hand, haven't banded together in quite the same way, and aren't taking advantage of the class time I have set aside for team work. Several groups do only the bare minimum of what is required for the day, and then leave class early rather than using the time to work together and plan for the next task. For example, I had each student individually submit an annotated citation which was due before class. They were then given 2 class periods to work together to review the information they had each collected, make revisions, seek additional sources, and ultimately create one compiled annotated bibliography submitted for a group grade. Several of the groups simply patched together what they had done as individuals (usually without attending to my comments, much less discussing with one another), submitted their assignments, and left early. It was very clear as I reviewed the submissions which groups had worked as a team, and which had not - and this was reflected in the grades they earned and the feedback I left them.

I'm worried that some of the groups may be of the "I need to put my hand in the fire to learn it's hot" sort. It seems that no matter how many times or in what different ways I communicate that they need to plan ahead and work together, they're just not getting the message. Some of my colleagues have suggested that I create assignments for them to submit at the end of each in-class session, but I don't want to create more busy-work just to get them to stay in class, and the students who are using the time wisely likely wouldn't appreciate the distractions that might be caused by those who are just waiting around until they've been dismissed. I suppose this might be one of those situations where, no matter how difficult it is for me to watch, I have to just let my students fail and face the consequences in order to learn what to do next time.

Luckily, I've already built in some mechanisms that could help them walk away with singed finger tips and a lesson learned, as opposed to third-degree burns. For one, I've made sure that each successive assignment is worth more than the last, which means that if they do poorly on the first few it will impact their grade, but still give them a chance to get back on track and hopefully learn from their mistakes. Also, students are required at several points in the semester to submit feedback on their group mates, which will influence the grades of individual members of the teams. In my experience, pressure from their peers can often lead to students improving their performance.

Although I hated having to give some of the teams harsh feedback this week, it gave me a boost to see how many students turned up in class today (the last Friday before Spring Break). The majority of students were present and met with their groups for at least half of the class period. I brought in materials (poster boards, paper, glue, etc.) for them to get started on their posters, and was impressed to see the students working together to plan their poster layout and calling me over to ask questions. I'm cautiously optimistic that the time I have taken to provide them with feedback - both on the process and the products of their team work - may not have been in vain after all.

Friday, March 2, 2012

(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 3)

by Rai Farrelly
In this series, (Em)Power in the Classroom, we have so far considered what it might look like to share the power with students in the design of courses. In Part 1, I discussed how we worked together as a class - operating more as a learning community - to develop our class culture, our policies, our assignments, etc. I relinquished quite a bit of control in this process rather than adhering to a well-structured syllabus 'dictating' how the course will unfold. In Part 2, I presented our process for developing a grading system in the course - the result being a fairly fluid system that focuses more on successfully completing assignments to satisfy various criteria as measured by a simple qualitative likert scale, rather than striving for numbers and percentages equated with letter grades and based on unclear standards.

As we move forward, we are working with a syllabus that was co-created by all learners in the course, including me. Now, how do we explore the content of the course? Notice, I refrain from saying: How do we "cover" the content? Have you ever though about the use of "cover" in relation to course content? MaryEllen Weimer (2002) says it best in her chapter about the Function of Content:

Our strong content orientation is reflected in the metaphor used to describe the action we take with respect to content: we "cover" it. But what exactly does that metaphor mean? We "cover" content - like leaves cover the forest floor? Like a bedspread covers the bed? Is that the relationship that ought to exist between the teacher and content when the goal is learning?" (p. 46)

Many of us probably do think about 'covering' content - in the sense that we know what we want the students to explore during our courses and we strive to 'get through it all' within the semester. But when we view the content as something that we have to 'cover' or 'get through', we might incidentally blow right by the learning. What if we consider 'using' the content, 'exploring' the content, 'uncovering' the content? This is at the heart of learner-centered instruction - engaging students in exploring the content.

The teacher's role in this process is another point for consideration by many teacher educators, teachers and instructional designers. What is our role when we are trying to engage the students? To what extent are we involved in the learning process? Weimer uses several metaphors to characterize the role of the teacher in a learner-centered environment - coach, midwife, gardener, etc. She promotes stepping out of the spotlight and letting the students lead the learning. Another metaphor from my teacher education courses is that denoting an architect. The latter is the metaphor of my choosing for a reason that was made clear to me in class this past week when we had a little breakdown.

First, let me frame my approach for content exploration in this course. As this is a course on teaching in higher education, I do try to model the strategies and techniques that I wish my students to embrace and implement in their teaching careers in the future (although I'm not sure my approach and underlying goals are always transparent). In any case, I share the 'load' when uncovering content. For example, the students have been taking chunks of the readings from week to week. They take turns leading the class through the content using approaches that promote student engagement. From time to time, a student will present the content in a teacher-centered fashion with limited opportunity for student engagement. In these cases, we talk about alternatives to exploring the content. For the most part however, they have been rather creative as student-teachers - incorporating Think-Pair-Share activities, jigsaw activities, brainstorming sessions and other approaches that promote active learning.

This past week, the topic was the Role of the Teacher. A student took a creative approach, presenting the content in an entertaining fashion, putting a spin on the notion of teacher in the 'spotlight' by literally holding a flashlight above his head while talking about himself and his evolution as a coach and instructor. He used humor and he was blatantly presenting from a place of ego and teacher-centeredness. He was essentially modeling what not to do while having us talk about general principles about the role of the teacher. 

The breakdown I mention above, which reinforces my affinity for the architect metaphor, came during this student's follow-up activity. For him, it was an experiment to see if Weimer's 'all hands off' suggestion is actually realistic. He is skeptical about diminishing the role of the teacher entirely (as he should be) and he wanted to test it out. He gave us very rough instructions for the activity, which required that we get into groups and do the following: 1) reflect on our past, present and future 'teacher selves' (i.e., how we view ourselves as teachers in the past, present and how we hope to be as teachers in the future); 2) as a group decide what strategy we would use to share this information; 3) then execute the strategy. 

If you're confused by those instructions, you're not alone. The entire class was confused. I actually knew what he was getting at, so I wanted to pipe up and provide more scaffolding - but I suppressed my inner charge-taker's voice. (I was in a group and participating as a student, as I do for all of their presentations.) As I observed the activity unfold, I noticed that no one knew what to do, no one was suggesting that we come together as a group and decide on our strategy and the student-teacher was staying very uninvolved - intentionally. Some groups started planning how they would present as a small group, so they were developing their presentations - just not with the whole class.

Finally, our student-teacher brought us back together to ask what we were going to do as a group to reveal our past, present and future teacher selves. A few students spoke up: "We don't really know what you want us to do." Others agreed. Some shared their ideas of an execution strategy that involved role-playing their three teacher selves. The student-teacher challenged them: "But you were supposed to plan that with the whole group."

So, where does the architect come in? This student reinforced for me the effectiveness of the teacher-as-architect metaphor. In this sense, the teacher is the person who carefully designs the lesson, who provides the scaffolding for the activities so that when the learners explore the content (the raw building material) it will be done so in a way that is planned and structured, yet open to a safe level of creative manipulation. 

This student-learner presented an activity that was entirely learner-centered (great!) and required the students to come together (awesome!) and not only take part in an activity but decide what the product of the activity would ultimately be (fabulous!). BUT - the breakdown came in this student-teacher's lack of scaffolding and design for the activity. There was no careful thought given to the delivery of instructions for the activity nor any check of student comprehension prior to setting us free to start the process. Furthermore, there was no on-going 'consultation from the architect' during the 'building' process. He set us free to figure things out without a blueprint.

As a result, this student-teacher concluded that limiting the role of the teacher and putting the responsibility for learning solely in the hands of the students is not realistic. Clearly, the level of 'limits' placed on the teacher and the level of 'responsibility' given to the students will vary depending on those key significant features that I touched on in Part 2 of this series. In other words, class size, student level, discipline and content will impact the extent to which the teacher can step out. But more importantly, any level of sharing power in a classroom requires careful planning and consideration prior to stepping foot in the classroom. Teachers have to craft the activities thoughtfully and ensure that instructions are clearly articulated and delivered. Teachers have to do comprehension checks prior to setting students free to work together. And perhaps most importantly, teachers have to monitor during the learning process and ensure that students are engaged and on task.

As I find myself saying time and again in my promotion of active learning in the classroom, it is much easier to slap together a PowerPoint presentation and 'cover' the content. Promoting true learner engagement requires additional preparation outside of class, but if lessons are crafted carefully and implemented thoughtfully, the benefits of sharing the responsibility for teaching and learning during class far outweigh the time required to make it happen! 

What I learned this week about sharing the power: I should ask students to submit a lesson plan describing how their session will unfold. Currently, I only have them send me the PowerPoint slides that they will use. Ensuring that they effectively use the content and engage the students will mitigate any possible frustration from classmates who could potentially view their 'lesson' or content delivery as a waste of class time (which was the case for one student during the above-mentioned student-teacher's lesson). 

Ah, teaching - ever the learning process for those of us who choose to reflect and evolve!

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

~Rai Farrelly