Can Hybrid Classrooms Increase Interaction?

Last week, I posted an infographic about a flipped classroom model that’s being used in high schools. By “flipped classroom,” I’m referring to a model of learning that puts the instruction part of a course (such as lectures) online, freeing up class-time for hands-on work. Essentially, what was once done in the classroom is done at home, and what was done at home is brought back into the classroom. This puts the instructor in the role of facilitator, rather than the sole keeper of knowledge. Students can work to understand the material on their own time and at their own speed, leaving class time open for discussion, questions, group work, or individual work.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I took one online course while I was an undergrad, and I hated it. It was a business writing class, and the instructor was non-responsive to emails, gave very little directed feedback, and left the class to basically figure things out for ourselves. I hated the feeling of being so disconnected from my professor–so much so that I sought out another instructor in the English department who also taught business writing. He was gracious enough to meet with me to discuss my work, and I’m not sure I would have faired very well in the course without his constructive feedback.

This one experience tainted my views of online courses, and I’ve avoided taking them ever since then. It’s also another reason I’ve been cautious about the idea of teaching an online course. I wouldn’t want a student to go through the same experience that I did. I, like many others, fear that teaching online becomes too impersonal, too distant, too disconnected.

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13 Ways the Internet is Making Us Smarter

Image of a man with a "networked" brain

David Weinberger published a piece on Huffington Post a few days ago about 13 Ways the Internet is Making Us Smarter.

The entire article is worth a read, but here are a few points I found particularly thought-provoking:

Linearity of the Book Limits the Reader (But Empowers the Author?)

“Books have favored long-form, sequential chains of thought that lead readers to the author’s conclusion. That’s one useful way of thinking, but it reflects the limitations of paper. The author has to try to keep us on the bus rather than letting us explore more widely because paper knowledge is hard to traverse. The author has to anticipate objections, rather than entering into real-time conversation with readers, because paper knowledge is only made public once it’s done. And it has given us the overly-simplistic idea that a world as complex and chaotic as ours ultimately reduces to long, knowable sequences of logic.”

I’ve thought for a long time now that the hyperlinked and “webbed” nature of the internet is a much closer model to the way we think than the linear form of the book. We think in a messy, jumbled fashion that’s characterized by random connections and associations.

But while the internet itself more closely resembles the way we think, is it the best way to formulate a strong argument to present to others? Maybe it’s the technical writer coming out in me, but I really value a clear, concise, linear argument–one that lets me know exactly what the author is trying to make me understand or see.

A sentence may be made up of a string of independent words. But those words only make sense if you string them in a particular order. If you change the order, you change the meaning (or worse–lose ALL meaning).
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Udacity: Start-up Education

Udacity Logo

Came across this article on The Chronicle of Higher Edthis morning: “Stanford Professor Gives Up Teaching Position, Hopes to Reach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up

Sebastian Thrun, a computer science prof., has given up his tenured track position at Stanford to teach programming courses online through his start-up venture Udacity. Thrun began offering online videos as a part of one of his face-to-face courses at the university and soon realized the online component was more popular than the in-person lectures. Of the 200 students enrolled in the course, only 30 continued coming to class. The Chronicle article notes that “the experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring.”

There are several things that really struck as I was reading the article and exploring Udacity.

  1. I find it kind of ironic that Thrun has found that a course mediated through technology provides a more “intimate,” one-on-one teaching and learning experience for him and his students. One of the critiques of online learning is that it doesn’t provide a personal experience that is conducive to learning. The feedback loops between the instructor and student that an in-person course provides are often missing from an online learning environment–especially one that attracts students by the hundreds or thousands.
  2. How did Thrun measure the effectiveness of his online learning component? Were the students viewing the course online performing as well or better than the 30 who kept coming to class? Did students perform better that semester than in previous semesters?
  3. Exactly what “interactive tools” is Thrun using in this online environment? Since the first course is at the intro-level, I’d be interested in enrolling in the course myself (with all my free time), just to see what it’s all about.
  4. It’s worth nothing that, again, this is a computer science course–which remains consistent with most of the other popular courses being taught online.
  5. Thrun hopes that the upcoming online programing course at Udacity will attract over 500,000 students. How do you maintain a number that high? How do you get feedback and measure progress from that many students?
  6. Students who complete the course will receive a signed certificate of completion from Thrun and his venture partner David Evans, professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. What constitutes “completion?” Watching all the videos? Successfully completing all the work? And who is in charge of assessing all that work?

I’m really curious to see how all of this will pan out.

About Face (Part 4): About Face and Teaching Writing

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin.

How can we use the versioning, auto-save, and undo capabilities to re-envision the ways we teach writing?

 Many teachers will tell you that students perform better when they can see measurable progress. Just like the users of a software program, students want to know “where” they are in a process. Although we can’t always give students a virtual “status bar,” we do try to help them see their improvements.  This is why, at the end of the semester, many writing instructors require students to return to a paper they wrote during the first few weeks of class. The goal is to help students actually recognize how much they’ve (hopefully) learned throughout the semester—in terms of content and grammar, in addition to rhetorical writing strategies.

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About Face (part 3) About Face and Learning Spaces

This is part 3 of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin.

How do we avoid creating situations where users get lost in the interface, or experience “navigational trauma?”

Several times throughout the About Face, the authors quote Antoine de St. Exupery saying, “in anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

To me, this principle seems to be at the core of usability and good design: Give people exactly what they need without all the other “stuff” that distracts, frustrates, or impedes progress and effectiveness.

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Udemy – Academy of You

I came across Udemy after following a link on Facebook from a girl I went to undergrad with: Official Udemy Instructor Course by Kristina Ashley Bjoran.  Kristina’s video is the first in a series on how to create courses on Udemy. (I tried to embed the video file into the post but wasn’t able to for some reason.)

Udemy: Academy of You is an online learning site, and their goal–according to their About page–is to “disrupt and democratize the world of education by enabling anyone to teach and learn online.”  It’s kind of like lynda.com with a social networking element: anyone can produce and develop courses and instead of just videos, Udemy also offers videos, powerpoint, pdfs, and other media files.

Udemy offer courses in the following categories:

The videos aren’t as professionally produced as Lynda, and many of the “Academic Courses” are simply recordings of class lectures.  Many of the courses are free, but a number of them do cost a fee, ranging from under $5 to $255.

I like the fact that anyone can upload videos, but it brings up many of the same questions I had while reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence (which suggested a more open publication process within the academy): How do you ensure quality with open source information? Who maintains it? And what are the incentives for creating quality content?

Udemy’s About page indicates that the courses are curated, but by whom? By what standards to they measure quality?  The site boasts that thousands of instructors have uploaded course materials, but with a full-time staff of just 15 men (I found it a little amusing that all the staff, advisors, and investors listed on the site are men), I’m a little confused about how the content is curated. The job descriptions listed for the staff include developers, programmers, engineers, social marketing, public relations, and user experience–but there really isn’t any mention of content analysis, evaluation, or curation.

I do think the site might present some really interesting possibilities for easily hosting materials for students enrolled in a “traditional” classroom. Udemy actually has a separate page marketing their site to instructors already teaching offline courses, explaining why they should use the site (and instructors from MIT, Yale, Standord, and UCLA are taking advantage of this).  Udemy allows you to to embed courses into websites using widgets, which could be useful if you already have a website you manage for your course’s content and don’t want your students to access yet another website for materials.

Note: Just a quick search for “writing” pulled up a pretty limited selection of writing courses–many of which are on grammar, second language issues, and “form writing” (application essays, resumes, employment application statements, 5-paragraph essays, etc.)

Questions, Part 2: Usability and Assessment of eLearning Tools

  1. Is my intended audience students? Or the instructors who use the tools?
  2. How would I assess the success of writing elearning tools? By student progress and improvement? And how would I determine if that’s a direct result of the tool? Would I determine success by student completion/use of the tool?
  3. How does instructor perception of student success factor in?
  4. How does the instructor’s perception of decreased workload factor in? Is the product a success if it frees the instructor to spend time doing other things?
  5. How would I test for usability? (Is the technology and product design usable? And is the “information” and teaching method usable?)

Questions: Recreating Tools for Teaching Communication Online

Questions to consider about recreating tools for teaching communication online:

  1. I’m consistently frustrated that I can’t spend more time discussing the work produced by individual students. Although creating online teaching tools would mean extensive work on the front end (developing, writing, producing, editing the tools), would it actually free up more time to discuss individual writing?  How much “instruction” could I offload to spaces outside the classroom, so I can focus more directly on individual concerns inside the classroom?
  2. How do we ensure that students use the technologies/applications outside of class? What types of checks must be in place? And how do we do that without giving students yet another login name and password.
  3. What level of writers would this be most effective for? First year writers? Intermediate? Advanced? Undergraduate? Graduate?
  4. What genre of writing would this be most effective for? Academic composition (whatever that means)? Business writing? Technical writing? Web writing?
  5. Am I trying to focus on teaching global process (organization, arrangement, delivery), or local form (grammar, mechanics).