Reaction to John Thompson’s talk- re: Discussion forums

Question for my fellow MOOC-ers:  Any tips on promoting interaction  in whole class forums where let’s say 20 students are reaction to a reading or what not? How can I help students get past the “post-‘n-go” mentality? I want them reading each others’ posts and respond.  I will say: “Post AND respond to at least two other students’s posts,” but it seems stilted and generally it seems like a lot of “Oh, good job, Johnny” that doesn’t lead anywhere. I also don’t want to get into nickel-and-diming them points in the gradebook for posting/failing to post these kinds of responses to each other.  How can we help it become a more organic process for them? (This is for a community college writing class where some inexperienced students and a range of abilities.)  Also…

~Thank you, John Thompson, for encouraging instructors to be involved in discussion forums.  A colleague and I have discussed this – ie., does it highjack the students’ interactions if the instructor inserts herself?  I tend to chime in and highlight students’ posts that show quality thought, supportive interaction, etc.  I also try to refer students to other students’ posts (eg., “Did you see Jenny’s post?  She said a similar thing but added a point.  What do you think?  Neat to see the same line of thinking here!” )  Otherwise, I fear forums are just another place where students submit  their writing and walk away without reading each others’ posts.  In fact, that’s the hardest part of whole class forums for me:  getting students to interact. Small group peer review forums are more interactive, but sometimes I want the whole class posting in the same place.  I think my presence helps there, but, yes, it takes a lot of time!

Week 2: Response to What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

I appreciate the list from Ken Bain’s book.  Given my experience teaching community college writing online in a really diverse community here in Hawai’i, I think he hit the nail on the head.  The Canadian h.s. survey, however, included some suggestions and teaching practices that worry me a bit.  I understand the survey focused on adolescents who may need a different online experience than adults, but I question suggestions like — ie., be willing to allow as many resubmissions of work as students need and engage socially (to the extent where you may become a counselor, it seems to imply). This goes hand-in-hand with some comments in this MOOC that students need to know we’re available 24-7 online. Hmmm…

As a recovering workaholic (ha!), I’ve been talking lately with another dedicated writing teacher about how to make our jobs sustainable.  We’ve also been talking about how to make students more accountable for problem-solving, using the resources we provide (“Did you read the assigned sample essays and analyze them as we asked?”), and not blaming the instructor as a first reaction.  Comments made in this MOOC in the webinars and readings acknowledge that teaching online requires an enormous amount of time and personal investment.  That’s both wonderful and challenging.  But, I do think we need to train students to understand there is a balance… We are there to support them in a genuine, connected manner, but we also have to find ways to make this work sustainable.  For example, for me, this semester, it means I cannot read every draft of every paper my students write and allow repeated graded revisions. There are too many of them, too few hours in a day, week, semester.

I am reminded of readings I’ve encountered about the “milleniums” — this generation of students who have been described as highly distracted, multi-taskers who want things to be spoon-fed (ideally through multi-media), etc.  They want what they want –now! I don‘t agree with a lot of the negative descriptions, but the conversations that arise out of trying to define this generations’ qualities do make me question: How far do online instructors work within a culture of “give me what I need now”?  Can instructors really keep up and provide these students with the “quick hits” (quick responses, immediate feedback) that social media, etc., sets as the norm?  Just thinking…

Last thought:  In the community college setting where adjunct faculty are underpaid and where full-time faculty are saddled with committee work, etc., how do instructors commit to the level of involvement needed for a successful online class?  More and more, we’re asked to think about “engagement” as an answer to curing the horribly low graduation rates and swelling numbers of developmental students.  Cracking the code to “engagement” is hugely important, and I do agree that small efforts can have great benefits.  Ex: I’m try to show my personality, add humor, motivate with cool quotes and images, respond immediately to questions/concerns, grade work quickly, post announcements and reminders, use voice memos, pick up the phone to call struggling students, and generally cheer on students daily.  That’s all do-able. And, I love it actually.  I really do.  Compared to the 1.5 hours/2x/week that I get with my f2f students, I do enjoy the on-going rapport with my online students tremendously.

But, over- individualizing instruction or extending ourselves too far in an effort to engage students who come to online education without really understanding their role or without the necessary skills can drown us and make us feel like we’re bending over backwards in a setting that doesn’t necessarily support us.  (Examples:  A college allowing students to register and begin an online class 3 weeks into the semester.  Or, a student who wants feedback on every draft every step of the way and thinks nothing of messaging me 3-4 times a day. ) That’s a recipe for burnout.

  To an extent, the learners need to find it in themselves to show and do the work and take charge of their educational experience.  So, that brings me back to Ken Bain’s last point: “Understand your students’ ambitions.”   I’d add “Help your students define their own ambitions and help them seek the many resources that can assist them (not just you).

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain (2004) discusses some of the major ways that teachers can connect with students through the practices of effective teaching. Below is a list of suggestions to help you connect with your students.

  • Spend time online with students to nurture their learning.
  • Invest in your students by not fostering a feeling of power over them.
  • Have the attitude that, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”
  • Create an online environment where everyone can contribute and each contribution is unique.
  • Foster the feeling that teachers are fellow students and human beings struggling with mysteries of the universe.
  • Provide task praise (you did that well) and avoid person praise (you are so smart.)
  • Give students as much control as possible over their learning.
  • Provide lots of non-judgmental feedback.
  • Encourage collaboration and cooperation.
  • Provide many opportunities to revise and improve work.
  • Avoid language of demands and promises.
  • Make a promise to your students that you will try to help each one achieve as much as possible.
  • Understand your students’ ambitions.

Response to Tony’s Step 4: Build on existing resources

With each new semester, I have become more and more convinced that using available resources is helpful and necessary.  When I started teaching writing online, I produced a ton of original content to supplement the textbook.  In a way, it was an important step in my evolution as a f2f and online teacher. Like Greg and Tony mentioned in the webinars, it made me focus, articulate, and refine my goals and strategies.  (Yes, online teaching has improved my f2f teaching greatly!)   However, now, I definitely see the value in “using existing online resources rather than re-inventing the wheel” and  Tony’s other point:  “Indeed, if several of you are developing a program, then there is considerable scope for working collaboratively to develop high quality materials that can be shared.”  Of course, the work involved in further tailor what I have gathered from others can be labor-intensive, but it’s often better than starting from scratch.  For example, our department recently re-purposed and revised a online Library Competency Unit created by the main library staff that is better suited for our students at our smaller branch campus of the college. Now that we have this nice resource, more and more instructors in various departments want to use it.  That’s terrific.  This sharing has also led to valuable questions like : “Wait… in which classes should students be covering this content?  If they encounter the same material in different classes, is that bad or is it positive reinforcement?  etc.”  

Finally, I loved this reminder: “The main question is whether you as the instructor need to find such material, or whether it would be better to get students to search, find, select, analyze and apply information. After all, these are key ’21st century skills’ that students need to have.”   I can see myself doing more of this! Food for thought…



About sensemaking and artifacts

Thanks to our classmate Ida and others,  I’m starting to see now how I can use my blog as a record of reflection and depository of other related material I chance upon.  I guess I do engage in “sensemaking” and “artifact” collecting all the time. 😉  I also gravitate toward having my community college students do so, but sometimes I back away from introducing them to this kind of process because I worry they’ll struggle with the technology (especially my older students) and get distracted or overly worried (they’re already overwhelmed by the college experience and fragile). Or, they’ll get so wrapped up in the fun of the technology (the younger students usually) that they’ll burn excess time in an already crowded semester.  Ex:  I thought about teaching them to use bubbl mind map online to collect quotes from their readings across the semester and represent their connections.  But… can they handle the tech?  Some could do it on paper with pens and sticky notes, I suppose.  It could be up to them.  Or, we could do one massive class bubbl… It starts to feel like there are a lot of possible glitches and things to work through, so I haven’t jumped into it, even though it could be a rich learning experience for us all.   Really, it’s the time pressure created by a tight class schedule that is not conducive to more exploration and unpredictable time-tables (how long will it take students to get started? how much time can they dedicate to this outside of class? if I want to use this with f2f students in a sort of hybrid model, how much time do I have to support f2f students online as well,?etc.)

In response to Tony’s Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

I am really enjoying Tony’s 9 Steps!  I thought I would copy some of his key comments into a Word doc and respond to them as I read on.  Step 1 alone has raised so many thoughts, and I’m realizing I can’t possibly respond to everything I’ve copied! I have been teaching writing online for about 6 semesters and I remain excited and challenged, so  I will also enjoy reading Tony’s posts on 21st learning for experienced online instructors, too. For now, these 9 steps are wonderfully affirming and thought-provoking.  Here are some tid-bits that struck me:

Tony writes, “online students need to feel that the instructor is ‘present’ online.”

I work hard at this and I just got wonderful feedback from a student who said, “You spoiled me!” and went on to explain that her current online class in the same discipline feels impersonal.  She said she doesn’t even know the instructor is there, but she “misses” me.  I am certainly amazed by how close a relationship some of my online students feel they have established with me by the end of the semester.  At times, it’s closer than I feel.

What worries me, however, are the students who do not realize this is an integral part of their online learning (despite my best efforts to help them “acculturate”) – that establishing a connection with their instructor is a good thing and requires they step up and respond to the invitation to interact.

Many of my recent high school grads come to community college unprepared to engage in the learning environment actively.  I love this part of the job – ie, helping them develop an understanding of what it takes to succeed as a learner.  And, the online environment really challenges them on this level.  The hard part is reaching those who have little experience seeing instructors as mentors, coaches, and people who are in this line of work to cheer them on, support them, and respond to them.

 Tony writes, “Or do I see learning as individual development focused around developing in learners skills and the ability to question, analyse and apply information or knowledge? Do I see myself more as a guide or facilitator of learning for students?”

As I am reading this I am thinking about how so many people have said to me , “I can’t imagine teaching writing online.”  However, writing teachers are very accustomed to being guides, facilitators, coaches.   To me, it feels like a very natural fit for instructors who strive to respond to their writing students genuinely and in a timely manner.  The students’ full writing process is all there in full color and it’s very instructive — for them and for me.

Tony writes, “Moving your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures. It may not mean doing everything online, but focusing the campus experience on what can only be done on campus.”

Yes!  This is exactly what I’m grappling with.  My f2f writing classes feel like such a struggle because I only see the students 2x per week for 1.25 hours each session.  The sessions are too short and they are too spread out.  In contrast, online students have access to me 24-7. My f2f do as well, but they are not accustomed to taking me up on my offer to correspond outside of class.  So, more and more, I am creating online opportunities for my f2f students to work, interact with each other, explore, and think about content throughout the week.

On the other hand, I am hesitant, to be honest, to create due dates or invitations for students to create more artifacts online, especially those require attention outside of our two class sessions per week because I need to limit my own workload.   Tony addresses work load later in his posts… Teaching online in an interactive, “very present” way involves exceptionally more time!  (That is something some English colleagues who shake their heads at teaching writing online don’t quite seem to understand.  The online writing instructors I admire spend soooooo much more time with their students and developing their courses.  As Tony says in his later Steps, there needs to be more collaborative sharing perhaps to cut down on this.)

More later…

My best teacher

We were asked to consider our best teacher.  I had many great teachers, but I certainly regard my high school Latin teacher as a true inspiration. I attended a very large public high school and she had three full sections of 9th and 10th grade Latin. Imagine that.  We all wanted to take her class.  She was spunky and energetic, and yes, the guys drooled over her, but I think we were all captured by her passion and obvious intelligence.   I still remember chanting noun endings: us, um , i , o, o , i, os, orum, is, is!  She was incredibly rigorous, but she made us feel like reading the Aeneid in Latin was absolutely do-able.  She made us care about the human stories in great literature, while also teaching us how to translate with incredible attention to detail.  And, she combined the learning with fun; she held huge Saturnalia parties each year (togas and Cesear salads) and had us make mosaics out of painted broken egg shells.  In 11th and 12th grade, we stuck with her, filling her two AP Latin classes and scoring remarkably high on the AP tests.

The fact that I went off to college as a Classics major speaks volumes.  When I returned to visit her one Christmas break, she burst out enthusiastically, “I am engaged!”  No… she was not re-marrying after years of being a single mom; rather, she was referring to her intellectual engagement.  She had been in Rome on a Fulbright scholarship that previous summer. Her research was making her hum, and  her teaching remained electric.  I remember the way she beamed.  “That,”  I thought, “is why she is a great teacher.  That’s the kind of teacher I want to be.”

So… how does one convey that kind of “teaching like your hair is on fire” in the online environment?  I try… I think I succeed to a degree.  But can it really be shared in an online learning community??  Can students feel a teacher’s “burning to create” attitude and approach online?    Hmmm…

Week 0 – Intentions

  1. What is your intention for this course (why are you here)?

I am fascinated by the ideas behind MOOCs and I want to catch a glimpse of where education is headed online.  I teach expository writing online for a community college, creating all of my own course work, etc., using Sakai (Laulima).  I find the tools helpful but limited and often glitchy.  I hope this experience helps me understand the online learning experience as a student and its potential for motivating students to create and explore.

  1. What issues do you think are important?

I am interested in the idea of re-purposing and re-mixing and having students make their own connections.  I also like the idea of breaking open access to free education — Where could this lead for college students as well as K-12?

  1. How will I contribute?

I have to see.  I suppose I may be asking a lot of questions.  😉

  1. How would you like to see community develop among participants?

I’m not sure what this is asking, so I’ll say I hope we see each other as resources and stay in contact afterwards if we make a neat connection with other like-minded educators.

  1. These types of courses are new for most people. In fact about 90% don’t even participate. How will you overcome the fear of learning in the open and the frustration of using new technology? How do you plan to courageously work through any setbacks, and not give up?

I watch my online students do this every day.  They are remarkably resilient.  I’ll try to model their behavior!  Learning in the open is odd for me, but increasingly more and more comfortable.    I had one other experience with “learning in the open” and supervisors were present and somewhat participating (lurking?)… Now that was odd!