Friday, July 27, 2012

So many students, so little time (Part 3) 

It is nearing the end of the summer semester, the time when I typically realize that I have approximately 100 term papers awaiting grading, and no TA support. Usually my reaction is to put my head on my desk and think "Why did I do this to myself?". But not this semester, oh no! 

I have finally learned from my mistakes. Not only does having an end-of-term paper in my course open the gates to grading hell, it also means that students don't actually ever receive any feedback (although I leave them feedback, very few ever return to the course to read it, as I can tell from the usage reports from our LMS.) So instead, this semester, I tried something new. Students used to have to write a term paper with a number of components to it: a topic that relates to the course material but hasn't explicitly been covered, inclusion of citations from a number of research articles on the subject that they have found themselves, explicit connections to a specific set of concepts from the course, and recommendations to an audience of their choice (as it is an adolescent development course, the audience is typically parents, teachers, policy makers, or teens themselves). This results in a 6-8 paper per student. And, as you can imagine, not only is there a lot of grading, but a lot of repetition (why is it everyone wants to write about anorexia or teen suicide?).

Now, students still write all of these same sections, but they do them as part of a discussion with their classmates. Students were allowed to choose groups based on topics that interested them (which I generated from the past 3 years of term paper topics), and they remained with that group throughout the semester. On "even" weeks, students were assigned a role, and each wrote a post that was similar to one of the sections from the previous version of this assignment. So, for example, someone found an article about the topic and provided the citation and a summary. The online discussion forum also provided opportunities for students to provide other forms of information, such as videos and online news articles, or even websites devoted to the topic. On "odd" weeks, students were required to respond to at least two of their group mates' posts from the previous week. So this way, students got exposed to the same (and more!) information, provided one another with feedback throughout the semester, and I had much less grading to do (see Part 2 from this series). At the end of the semester, I will still have students submit a final report, but this will be a 1-2 page summary of what they learned from the group discussions, written in a format that could actually be of use to someone beyond the individual student . For example, one of my students is writing a letter to parents that could be sent home from the principal of the school where she works.

Of course, I didn't choose this approach simply to make grading easier (although it helps!). The new assignment also designed to be more engaging for students; they are exploring the same topic throughout the semester as they learn about adolescent development, and are doing so in a collaborative fashion where they have one another as models, resources, and sounding boards. Students are required to think critically not only about what they read and discover in academic journals and on the internet, but also about their classmates' posts, and have opportunities to provide feedback, a skill that will come in handy in the "real world". From my reading of the discussions, I can say that the depth of thought, particularly as the semester has progressed, surpasses what I was accustomed to reading in the final term papers. Win-win!

Friday, July 20, 2012

My Love/Hate Relationship with Technology

My Love/Hate Relationship with Technology!

by Dr. Vanae E. Morris

I LOVE technology gadgets! I have been fascinated with technology since the day I walked into a Skaggs Drugstore and saw a display with a black & white television with a PONG game system hooked up to display this fabulous new game! My fascination grew when I purchased the first little computer developed by Texas Instruments, which then led to the gaming systems by Sega and Atari, which then led to my first “real” computer where I learned DOS! My first laptop was a Compaq and it did not have an internal floppy drive so I had to buy an external 3 ½ inch floppy drive so I could load programs. My first cell phone was a “brick” and I never lost or dropped a call! I loved all of these “firsts” of my technology gadgets!

Technology has both improved and exasperated my life!  The word processing software alone has been worth the wait, since I learned how to type on an electric typewriter! I know that having my smartphone, tablet, and netbook have made it possible for me to be more productive and made teaching and learning online a viable reality!  However, there is a hate relationship with technology because so many things can go wrong, all of which I think I have experienced at one point or another while teaching and learning online! 

I am currently teaching online courses, which oftentimes includes students (and myself) taking vacations and traveling for work. My students have been faced with the dilemma of how to travel and still complete the assignments required for an online asynchronous class. 

My first experience with traveling and teaching online occurred a few years ago on a four week road trip vacation to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington DC. I made meticulous plans that would successfully help me complete the process. I contacted my dial-up provider (yes, I still had one at the time) and made a copy of all the dial-up numbers needed for the various cities and towns we would be visiting just in case I did not have access to a WiFi connection through the hotels, and I practiced several times connecting to the internet using my cell phone and the dial-up numbers (not a PDA or smartphone) so that I would be prepared for various scenarios.  As I think about that experience, it would have been much easier with the smartphone, tablet, and netbook that I now have to make the necessary internet connections, not to mention the unlimited data plans that are currently available through cell phone carriers!

For the most part, my plan was successful and I completed the various tasks required when teaching an online course. However, there were a few memorable experiences (that I can now laugh about) such as sitting in the van in the middle of Jamestown, New York dialing up with my cell phone because that was the only place I had a strong enough signal to connect to the internet, upload my course content, and participate in the discussions.  It seems that resort towns such as Jamestown, which has the Chautauqua resort, do not like cell towers restricting their view. Besides, if you are on vacation, you should not need your cell phone, right? 

One of my students shared her recent escapade while traveling to southern Utah. She had contacted the hotel to confirm that they had WiFi access, which the hotel confirmed, so she traveled to her hotel only to find out that the access was limited to the hotel lobby. The lobby had no available power plugs for her waning laptop battery and her limited data plan had been used checking and sending emails.  Needless to say, she was quite exasperated with the whole experience. Another student shared that she had all the necessary software and hardware to conduct a live Chat session but quickly discovered that her internet provider did not have the capacity to allow for this type of live session. I have had several students lose power during storms, fires, and other natural disasters outside of their control. 

I introduce all of this as a precursor to the thoughts that have been rambling around in my head lately about accountability in an online course. Most of the classes I teach are graduate level, and I have several times been faced with the dilemma of how to accommodate the technology glitches of an online learning environment, with that of accountability. I also have other instructors asking for my advice regarding the online learning environment, technology, and accountability.  Excuses come in all varieties and my students (and myself on occasion) have used every excuse in the book about why an assignment is late or missing; however, my all-time favorite occurred last semester when one of my graduate students told me she missed an assignment because “CANVAS did not remind her!” 

I have a strong philosophy about constructivism (based on the learning theories of Piaget (1973), Vygotsky (1978), Dewey (1938), and Bruner (1996) and adult learning principles as outlined in Knowles, 2011), which places more of the responsibility on the student for learning; however, over the last few years, I have tried to mesh the glitches of technology with this constructivist view of accountability in an online learning environment.  I have not always been successful and I can think of a few instances where the situation was excruciatingly painful! Because of these experiences, my syllabus now includes a “technology paragraph” that I have developed (and re-developed) over the years of teaching both ground and online courses. 

Should we hold students more or less accountable for their learning in an online class? How have you meshed accountability with technology in your online courses? 

What are your thoughts?


Bruner, J. S. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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.
Piaget, J. (1973). To understand is to invent: The future of education.  New York: Grossman.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Monday, July 9, 2012

So many students, so little time (Part 2)

Pie. Yes, pie.

Not only is pie delicious, but it will also help me to illustrate how I go about grading discussion posts in my large online classes. Ah, how versatile pie is!

(Yes, I promised to write about how I adapted my final paper for a large course - I'll talk about that in another post. Pie was just so tempting...)

In any course, it's important for students to have opportunities to discuss the material with one another. This gives them opportunities to articulate their own ideas, be exposed to different perspectives on the same subject, have questions answered, practice providing feedback, potentially negotiate conflict, and hopefully have fun while interacting with others. This tends to be especially important in online classes (and I would argue, large classes of any variety), where students can feel somewhat isolated and anonymous. Regardless of how intriguing or thought-provoking these discussions might be, there are still some students who are not motivated to participate unless you attach a grade to said involvement. (And yes, there are some who are stalwart enough to resist the urge to participate, despite the temptations of interesting conversation, learning, and points earned.)

My typical set-up for discussions is to split students into groups; in one current class students were randomly assigned to groups of 5-6, in the other they were allowed to self-select based on topic of interest. Students are provided with a prompt or a task for their initial post (e.g., post a picture or video that illustrates something you learned about cognitive development in the first two years of life, and write at least a paragraph explaining what concept or stage of development you think it illustrates and why). The next week, students must respond to at least two of their group mates' posts, and are given an additional prompt or task (e.g., make connections between the original post and what you have since learned about psychosocial development in the first two years - for example, how might language and attachment be related?). 

So let's do a little math. 

I am currently teaching 2 courses. In one course I have 81 students, and in the other, 75, for a total of 156 students.
156 students x (1 post + 2 replies) every other week = 468 entries 
468 entries x 5 (that's how many posts I have them complete over the semester) = 2340 entries to grade
Even at 5 minutes an entry to grade, that's the better part of my summer gone.

Okay, so clearly, particularly without any TA support, this is not actually what I'm doing. Instead, I've told students that I randomly select who will be graded each time there is a discussion and reply due, but they don't know when they will get graded, so they'd be wise to produce quality work each time around. 

Think of it this way - I don't have to eat the whole pie to know it's delicious. Likewise, I don't have to taste everything a baker makes to rant or rave about his or her creations. I can eat just a small sample, give a review, and not end up feeling sick.

This semester, I decided that each student will receive feedback from me at least twice, with the first time being within the first 3 weeks of classes. Then I plotted out a spreadsheet with all students and all due dates, and (somewhat) randomly selected who would get graded when. As I grade, I give full marks to those who posted on time but aren't selected for that week (or 0 to those who didn't post or posted late), and read only the entries written by the "lucky few". And I only grade posts once the replies have also been written, so I only go into the discussion boards (or actually, the SpeedGrader, because we use Canvas) once per grading session. 

Some more math:
I average around 12 students per class per grading "session"
So (12 students x 2 classes) x (1 post + 2 replies) = 72 entries per "grading session" on average
OR 156 students x (1 post + 2 replies) x 2 (times each student gets graded) = 936 entries to grade during the semester - that's a drop of 60% in terms of what needs to get graded, and I get my summer (and sanity) back!

This is the first time doing this for me, but it's not a particularly new approach to grading. Although some (especially students) seem to think this approach to grading is arbitrary, and thus this approach can be somewhat controversial, I stand by the assumptions of random sampling, and my students haven't complained yet. My experience is also that students are getting more and higher quality feedback than they would have if I were responding to each and every post.

So I can have my pie and eat it too.