Friday, April 27, 2012

Teaching and Learning Online Series - Part 5

Provide for interaction using synchronous and asynchronous activities

By Dr. Vanae E. Morris

Adult learners have a distinct orientation to learning (e.g. life or task centered), and they approach learning as problem solving. Adult learners also need motivation to learn.  Providing asynchronous activities in an online learning environment can help many adult learners learn best in their preferred style of learning and this type of learning environment can also encourage problem solving and critical thinking.  However, as Knowles (2011) discovered and added a sixth assumption to the theory of andragogy, adults need encouragement and need to be motivated to learn. Having a few synchronous activities in an online learning environment could encourage that motivation needed. Think of these synchronous activities as a form of cheerleading because all of the class would be together at the same time discussing, asking questions, and encouraging each other. 

I have taught in an asynchronous learning environment for many years with minimal synchronous activities being a part of that learning environment. However, as I have started teaching in a new online learning management system with students who are more accustomed to face-to-face classroom environments, I have found myself researching different ways that synchronous activities could be added to my online learning environment that would encourage more interaction between myself and the learners, and learner to learner. 

What I do know is that I need to provide activities that provide for three types of interaction, learner to content, learner to instructor, and learner to learner (Moore, 1989).  Of the three, the easiest for an online instructor to provide is generally the learner to content. The learner to content interaction has roots back to “independent study” courses where the learner did, for the most part, only interact with the content with very little interaction with the instructor or other learners.  In the online learning environments of today’s classrooms, this type of interaction is important but in order to be considered an effective online learning environment, providing the other types of interaction becomes critical to the learning process of the online learner. 

What does this type of interaction “look” like in the current online learning environment?  According to Ko (2005) the interaction between instructor and learner includes “being in the classroom on a regular and frequent basis−through announcements, discussion boards, and emails to the whole class” (slide 5). Ko also suggests that the instructor provide a variety of assignments that encourage this type of interaction as well as those that provide for learner to learner interaction such as peer reviews, discussion threads (facilitated not dominated by the instructor), and learning community interactions and assignments. 

Boettcher and Conrad (2010) recognize the importance of synchronous activities just due to the nature of the online course management systems that are available for instructors and learners to interact such as “virtual live classrooms, spontaneous collaboration tools, and an almost infinite number of Web tools and smartphones that support synchronous chat, video messaging and more” (p. 42). However, there is an important reason why students take online courses (and instructors teach online courses)  and that is generally due to the asynchronous aspect of the online learning environment. Providing for both types of learning, synchronous and asynchronous, gives the learner the best of both worlds (f2f and online) because “Sometimes, there is nothing better than a real-time interactive brainstorming and sharing discussion; at other times, the requirement to think, plan, write, and reflect is what makes learning most effective for an individual” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010, p. 42). 


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.

Ko, S. (2005). Student-centered online teaching: Best practices. Retrieved from

Moore, M.G. (1989). Editorial: Three Types of Interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education (3)2.

Friday, April 20, 2012

(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 5)

by Rai Farrelly
Welcome back from the dark side! That's what I'll say when I greet instructors and faculty members who - at some point - fell down the slippery slope of hardcore assessment only to one glorious day question their practices and the mismatch between their assessments and learning objectives - leading them to reflect, read, question and then return to the brighter side of the assessment paradigm.

What exactly shapes the dark and bright sides of this paradigm, you might ask. Well, traditional approaches to assessment not only place far too much emphasis on the grade, they also extract the students from the entire process. Assessment essentially becomes something that happens to the students rather than something with which they engage. Much like the traditional lecture, which has been in place for decades, evaluation practices have been passed down, inherited and accepted as the 'way it should be done.'

Consider this article about how students learn, which states that the word lecture comes from the Latin word meaning 'to read'. There was a great need to lecture back when books weren't readily published. Now, we need not read (talk) to them about our content areas - we can let them read and explore outside of class and then co-construct knowledge around the content, dive in through discussions and activities in class. We'll be on hand to support, facilitate and inspire!

Now let's think about assessment ... and we'll do so through a little anecdote. I recently consulted with a graduate student who is about to teach her own class for the first time. She's had experiences as a teaching assistant, so she's led the occasional lesson and graded many a paper. Now she gets to design her own course and is excited about choosing materials, deciding which topics to include and developing a sense of how to explore the content with her students. 

During our consultation, I asked her what assessments she has in place for the course. Her response: "Two exams and three quizzes." [Insert dramatic pause] Or is it only me that needs the dramatic pause because I know what course she's teaching ... see if you can guess based on her response to my follow-up question. "So, let's take a step back. What are the learning outcomes you have set for this course? What is it that you want them to be able to do by the end of this course?" She lists a few simple, measurable outcomes: 1) to track the life of a seed in the ground until it comes fully into being and produces food; 2) to articulate the policies that impact how, when and where food is grown, and; 3) to describe the relationship of food cultivation to the larger web of life. (I'm kind of paraphrasing, but you get the idea.) It's a class on organic gardening and I struggled to understand the link between her objectives and her assessments. When asked why those would be her measures, she replied: "Because that's how it's always been done."

What alternatives could we implement in this class? I'm sure you can suggest many, but here are a few options I offered: have students keep a journal of their gardens' successes and failures (include relevant content, provide a rubric, set the bar high for quality work), develop group projects that tackle policies relevant to organic gardening in legislature, have students develop strategic plans for local nonprofit community gardens, stage end of semester debates around 'hot topics', have students write a paper on the challenges they faced when developing their compost, etc.

Knowing that this course meets a science requirement for all undergrads, there is the feeling that the assessments should be more rigorous. That's fine. Just create clear, high standards criteria for each assignment. Require students to incorporate key terms, evidence-based argumentation, organizational thinking, problem-solving skills, etc. Alternative assessment does not by its nature imply 'easy assessment'.

When we reconsider how we assess and make sure that our assessments actually measure the learning outcomes we have set forth for our students, we find a balance in our instruction that is often missing when class sessions are hands on and assessments are multiple choice (for example).

With relation to sharing the power (and thereby reducing anxiety) there are many ways to involve students in the assessment process. Barbara Gross Davis (2009) has a wealth of great ideas in her text Tools for Teaching (see Unit VIII - Testing and Grading). She suggests alternative assessments and tweaks on the old favorites. For example, for those courses that just have to implement exams, why not leave space for students to justify their multiple choice answers. How about letting students buy additional information on certain questions (with points, not money - i.e., they lose 3 points of total available, but they get the formula to calculate degrees of freedom). Allow them to bring crib sheets, provide an extra credit question or even let them write one final question in on a blank and answer it for points. Give practice exams and review sessions and maybe even let them redo an exam. Give them a chance to show what they know!

The reality is that if we are married to grades and students are weighed down by the pressure and anxiety about grades, we live on the dark side where students tend to cheat more, they equate their ability with their grades, and they become 'grade grubbers' - begging us at key stages in the semester for more points (Weimer, 2002).

We'll continue to explore assessment next time as I review my students' final portfolio and consider the impact on them of being assessed in this way. I'll also share with you my non-traditional approach to grading - including the negotiation part. 

Gross-Davis, B. (2009). Tools for Teaching – 2nd Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bidding adieu to the textbook

Image from ProfHacker Blog post by Amy Cavender

Getting rid of my textbooks. I have been thinking about it for a while now, but keep making excuses for why I can't do it yet - students will be lost without a textbook, it will take too much time and effort to overhaul my course, how am I going to find (or find time to find) alternative readings...the list goes on. But I am starting to realize that the list of reasons why I should finally give up on textbooks is much longer.

(1) Textbooks are expensive. The textbooks in my human development classes run students upwards of $120 each - I can only imagine what they cost in the physical sciences. Budget cuts in higher education continue, and the way we often make up the difference is by raising tuition. My students are already working full time and attending school - how can I expect them to be able to afford these ridiculous costs? (Not to mention that publishing companies continue to send out unsolicited exam copies, which in turn drive up the price for students even higher. I already have an unspoken rule that I won't adopt a textbook if I receive a free, unsolicited, desk copy.)

(2) Students don't read the textbook. I would argue that the majority of my students use the textbook as a reference book. Sure, there are the students who obediently read everything I have assigned, but even many of those students don't take notes in their books, because that would make it impossible to sell back at the end of the semester. Then there are students on the other end of the spectrum who either never buy the book, or if they do, never crack the cover. I'm not sure how I can help them. But there's a good chunk of folks right in the middle who read the textbook when they are unclear about something from class or are interested in a particular topic, but the rest of the time textbook reading is a rather dry and dull way of filling up time that could be otherwise spent working, socializing, or (if I'm dong my job) actively engaging with course material through completing assignments, providing service in the community, or participating in online class discussions.

(3) Textbooks place restrictions on the structure of my class. Textbooks are inflexible - they provide a particular structure and perspective to the material that I have to work with as I plan my lessons. I work to identify the best written texts I can find, that use a structure I am comfortable with, and I've never felt the need to "cover" or even assign everything in the textbook, but nevertheless, I sometimes feel constrained. Publishers have suggested I take advantage of their "customizable" options, but really, if I were to put the time and effort into selecting just the sections I want, I really could have just identified primary source readings and filled in the gaps with lecture and other learning activities. Realistically, I end up doing that anyway!

(4) I want to foster critical thinking. One of my goals as an educator is to teach students how to think for themselves. I try to run my classes such that I am providing structure and guidance, and students are expected to evaluate evidence, construct arguments, and make decisions. Textbooks seem to reify the notion that knowledge is objective and immutable, and that students can rely on an authority to provide them with the correct answers. Instructors are almost painfully aware, on the other hand, that the information in textbooks is typically 5-10 years behind the research in the field. Furthermore, with advancing technologies, students have access to incomprehensible amounts of information in the blink of an eye, some of which aligns with their textbook, and much of which (for better or worse) does not. Rigidly demanding that they ignore this information and stick to the text is, well, ludicrous.

So this Fall, I have decided to say goodbye to the textbook in my Infancy & Child Development class. It's going to take some time to decide exactly how to do this (e.g., use only primary source readings? suggest publicly available non-academic sources? have the students write a textbook?), which is why I'll still be using textbooks in my classes this Summer semester. Once I have a plan and have tested it out and assessed the results, it won't be long before I make the switch in all of my classes. 

It's the end of an era.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Teaching and Learning Online Series - Part 4

Starting out Strong and Establishing Learning Communities – does this help adults learn experientially and problem solve?
By Dr. Vanae E. Morris
Adult learning principles state that adult learners need to learn experientially, which means an instructor needs to use “techniques that tap into the experience of the learners, such as group discussions, simulation exercise, problem solving activities, case methods, and laboratory methods instead of transmittal techniques [think lecture]. Also, greater emphasis is placed on peer-helping activities” (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005, p. 66).
Starting out strong in an asynchronous online course requires a few more considerations than when starting a face-to-face course. Because your students may not “see” you in an online course, starting the course with a welcome to class announcement or note and including an introductions forum that allows you and your students to introduce who they are is an important first step in creating an online community of learners. The second step is to have a detailed syllabus and schedule, and if you determine that you would like to use Weimer’s (2002) Five Key Changes to Practice, you and your students could work collaboratively together to establish these course documents (see the (Em)Power in the Classroom series).
Remember from Part 2 of this series, a learning community describes a collegial group who are united in their commitment to learning. They share a vision, and work and learn collaboratively. Providing opportunities for your students to experience a variety of large group, small group, and individual work experiences helps to create that sense of community. This variety of groupings also allows for experiential learning as dictated by adult learning principles. I think Cross (1981) said this best when stated, “The role of educators in the learning society is to develop gourmet learners and to be responsive to their interests by providing a wide range of high-quality educational options” (p.251).
Cross, K. P. (1981). Adults as learners: Increasing participation and facilitating learning. 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.
Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco: CA: Jossey-Bass

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


In this series so far, I have been discussing the group work taking place in my large introductory Human Development class. Since I last posted an entry, students have provided one another with peer feedback, and their project grades up to this point have been weighted based on that feedback. So now it's really hitting home with students that their attendance and participation in group work is going to impact their final grades in the course. 
Although I learned a great deal from the peer feedback process (such as how many different ways what I thought was a simple feedback form could be interpreted and completed), one thing that became very clear was the unique situation in which I have placed my student athletes.

The University of Utah has joined the PAC 12. Even someone like me who knows next to nothing about sports can recognize that this is a big deal. Indeed, the U of U's MUSE project recently held a conference where students, faculty, and administration all spoke about how joining the PAC 12 brings attention not only to our Athletics programs, but also to the University as a whole. This means that our academic standards and performance are now being compared to the likes of UCLA and Stanford. No pressure!

Although some may think that student athletes are only interested in their sports, and not committed to their studies, this is a stereotype that has repeatedly not held up as concerns the student athletes in my classes. Moreover, many of these athletes are on scholarships which require them to maintain a certain GPA, not to mention that they are often the focus of media attention both on and off the field. If anything, many athletes feel more pressure to do well in their classes than the average student. 

The group work in my class has put the student athletes in a difficult situation. I chose Fridays as the day for group meetings, as I had hoped that this schedule would help to minimize how many students chose to take an unofficial long weekend (especially as the weather starts to get warmer). To some extent this has worked, but unfortunately, many of the athletes in class are missing Fridays because their sports schedules require them to travel on Friday to reach their next out-of-town event (which are often scheduled on weekends to avoid conflicts with classes). Although I am bound by policy and my own ethics to allow student athletes to make up work they have missed because of their sport, it is difficult for them to make up missed group meetings.

This is not for lack of trying! Several of the student athletes in my class have discussed with me their attempts to keep in touch with their group members through email or the course website, or talk to them during regular class sessions. Unfortunately, although their peers acknowledge that theses students are called away for legitimate reasons, it seems as though they do not truly appreciate the attempts that the athletes are making. Instead, many of the athletes were rated low in terms of being good team players - ah, the irony. 

In the future, I plan to restructure my schedule so that student athletes won't miss the majority of the in-class group meetings. In terms of this semester, I am considering switching up the schedule based on the remaining travel dates of the athletes in my class.This Friday I am also going to be visiting groups with athlete members to discuss the legitimacy of their absences, my role in scheduling group sessions, and what has and can be done to make sure that the student athletes have opportunities to contribute to their groups' work in meaningful ways, and to ensure that the other group members are also "playing fair", and holding up their end by responding to the emails and messages from their team members.