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Educational Consulting, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Top Ten Ideas for Good Online Course Design in a Hurry

Many faculty across the country, and perhaps across the world, are having to move their courses online at the last minute. Advice on how to do so proliferates, and most of it is quite good. I’d like to write here about the ten most essential things to keep in mind when designing an online course, especially at the last minute.

But my number one principle is this: It’s all about simplicity. I can’t stress that enough. Make sure your students know what to do, when to do it, and where to find it. So here are my top ten principles for simplicity in course design:

  1. Be redundant in giving instructions. Provide a full syllabus that provides the plan for the whole semester, week by week. and duplicate the content of your syllabus in your weekly units, broken down by week. Make sure your syllabus is perfect then copy and paste. Along those lines…
  2. Organize your course into weekly units. Name them Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, etc. List the start and end dates for each week. I recommend an instructional week that runs from Monday-Sunday for the sake of working students, but your institution may already have this organized for you.
  3. Keep everything for the week in the weekly unit. Don’t make students click out of the weekly unit to go to the week’s discussion forum, quiz, or readings. You want them to find everything for the week in the same place, week after week.
  4. Make sure you use the same terms for the same items everywhere. If it’s called a Discussion Forum in your syllabus, don’t call it a Threaded Discussion in the online course itself.
  5. Keep everything organized the same way week to week. If you have links or pages every week for an introduction to the week, readings, quiz, and discussion forum, keep them in the same order every week. Place items in the order in which you want students to do the work.
  6. Don’t be creative, quirky, original, or cute. Horrible thing to say, but you want to be clear, direct, explicit, and simple first of all.
  7. Don’t try to say everything. Generally avoid large blocks of text. Yes, use bullet points, like I’m using here, and short, simple sentences. If you have a long, written lecture as a separate component, that’s fine, but I would also supplement that with video and/or a PowerPoint. I can’t emphasize enough the value of students hearing you in terms of their comprehension of instructions and assigned reading.
  8. Find material online. Find YouTube videos or podcasts. Build the links into your weekly units. Explain what the links are and why they are valuable in short, simple sentences.
  9. Find electronic versions of the assigned readings whenever possible. Post links to them in your weekly units. Your students may forget or lose their books, and you may be surprised how many students think they can do the whole course on their phone.
  10. Maintain regular contact and engagement. Make sure your students have to enter the course at least two to three times a week, and try to make sure your students hear from you at least three times a week. Post announcements, send reminders, provide feedback on their work, and ideally, host a live chat once a week. Your students, for the most part, actually want to hear from you. They’d like to see you in person, especially if they’re used to having you in class. You’re their teacher.

If you’re using video of your own for your courses — and I realize many, if not most, people reading this shudder at the thought of recording themselves on video — I have a few additional tips for you:

BAD IDEA: Recording yourself from your bedroom desk with the bathroom door behind you.

BETTER IDEA: Recording yourself with your back to a wall in a quiet room, if such a thing exists for you.

PRO TIP: Recording yourself with a bookcase behind you. Sounds superficial, but it makes an impression, especially if the books are related to the content of the course.

These aren’t recommendations for a course designed from the start to be online, although these top ten tips apply to them as well. These tips are I think the most important things to keep in mind if you’re putting a course online at the last minute.

College Writing, Educational Consulting, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy

Understanding Online Education

Throughout my own college education I didn’t take a single online class. For both my graduate and undergraduate degrees I attended small liberal arts colleges that prided themselves on small classes, strong teaching, and close personal attention. Neither of them offered any online classes at the time, much less fully online programs. But when I was ABD I returned to teach full time at one of them as a Lecturer, from 2004-2008, and one year the college faced the Avian flu — remember that? In response, the college asked its faculty to design courses that would allow students to complete their semesters online should the college have to close unexpectedly. So this Coronavirus situation has been faced before. These contingency plans have been considered in the past, if not implemented, so it seems appropriate to revisit what online education is, how it works, and common misconceptions about it as many colleges across the country are actually closing now and moving courses online at the last minute.

My first experience of an online class was in fact in response to a mini-crisis: I was dropped into an online graduate class last minute due to the unexpected death of a faculty member. I started teaching in my first full-time Assistant Professor position in the Fall of 2008, and due to that unexpected death, I had to cover an online graduate class the Spring semester of that year, before I started full time. Needless to say, with my prior educational background I was deeply skeptical of online education. However, as I continued on with that institution I typically taught at least one online class per semester out of a four course load and at least two over the summer, always at the graduate level. I then went on to lead the successful redesign of a fully online Master of Humanities degree program, which I then Chaired, in addition to the numerous online classes I’ve developed from scratch and taught. That experience has changed my perception of online learning.

The most common misperception about online classes is that they’re low quality — that they’re somehow worse instructionally because they’re online. That perception is mistaken, but it exists for a reason. The original major online programs were developed and expanded by for-profit colleges and universities such as the University of Phoenix, which had over 600,000 students at one point. The truth is that for-profit colleges and universities themselves are the problem, having the lowest graduation rates, the lowest retention rates, the worst employment numbers for their graduates, and the highest student loan default rates. It doesn’t matter if their programs are fully seated or fully online: they get the same results.

But since the for-profit higher educational model is an abject failure with either seated or online classes, it’s not the class format that’s the problem. I’d like to emphasize a core idea that I think applies to pedagogy across the boards: there is no magic bullet when it comes to teaching. There is no one model that works best in all circumstances, for all students, at all times. The truth is that different pedagogical models have different strengths and weaknesses, so choosing one over the other involves a tradeoff: you sacrifice the benefits of one kind of pedagogy for the strengths of another. That tradeoff needs to be defined in terms of the student population.

How do we understand that payoff for different student populations? A few fundamental principles might help at this point.

  1. It’s not the format, it’s the teacher. Some teachers teach better in online environments, some worse, and some about the same. But no format works well unless the teacher works well, and teachers are able to work well when they are supported with decent pay and benefits and treated with respect by administration and students. Many colleges and universities think online programs reliant upon adjunct instructors will be a cash cow for them, but they wind up spending more in advertising to continually recruit students to replace the ones they lose — and seldom get to the point where their program really grows in a sustainable way.
  2. It’s not the format, it’s the student. Online classes require more work, not less, from both teachers and students, and they require more independent work and discipline from the student. Some studies have shown that advanced students do better in online classes because they have more independence, while at the same time, experiments with online formats for general education curriculum at San Jose State University and elsewhere were met with horrible failure. Students who need more attention and direction from their teachers will do worse in online environments. Students who prefer to work independently will do better.
  3. Online classes are more rigorous, not less. In most online classes, the student must participate publicly every week. Almost everything is in writing: instructions, assignments, lectures, feedback, etc. There are usually some video components as well as PowerPoints, but unless it’s a math class, there’s a lot of reading and writing every week.
  4. Can teachers replicate their pedagogy in an online environment? The most common thing I’ve heard from teachers who have never taught online is, “I can’t replicate what I do in the classroom online.” Of course not. But once you start to teach online, you will find a new “instructional you” as you do so, and you’ll find it works the other way too: you can’t replicate what you do in an online class face to face either. I think this is part of why people think online classes are somehow worse: it’s hard to generate that same in-person chemistry. It’s like of like seeing a concert versus watching one on film. It’s hard to beat the live experience, but you can’t rewind and rewatch a live performance either. That’s the tradeoff, and studies indicate that the chemistry produced in an in-person classroom isn’t absolutely vital for student learning. Students think they learn more when the chemistry is there, but assessments of actual learning show otherwise.
  5. Spoken words help with reading comprehension for difficult texts. Reading out loud helps. Close, line by line readings of parts of difficult texts help. When I teach Paradise Lost, I often cover the first 40 lines this way, and students are able to read much better on their own afterwards. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, find YouTube equivalents or podcasts. There are many good resources already out there for many of our major works.

So, how should we react to moving our classes online? First, be patient. Students will be stressed, teachers will be stressed, IT people will be stressed, and the technology itself will be stressed — servers will get a lot busier all at once.

Next, realize that student learning occurs from what students do in and out of the classroom, not teachers. Teachers are facilitators of student learning, not the source of it. Classrooms don’t work like The Matrix: there’s no jack you can plug into the back of your head that will teach you to fly a helicopter. So while teachers are vital to learning, students need to understand learning only occurs for them when they do the work.

Finally, once it’s set up, get to work. Work on your classes at least a little bit every day until your work for the week is complete, and above all, don’t try to just do it all in one day and be done with it. You’ll get behind.

We will get past this.

Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Educating for Technological Literacy

Over the course of twenty years’ experience in higher education, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how technology interacts with students and faculty in an educational context, and I’ve heard quite a bit of salesmanship on the topic. I’ve come to see that most of the rhetoric is just that, salesmanship. Either someone is selling some tech or someone has bought into a sales pitch, even to the point where I’ve heard college presidents threaten to fire faculty who “don’t use technology in the classroom.”

This situation proceeds from a failure to understand how student learning works, what role technology can play in it, and how technology should be integrated into the classroom. I’m first going to suggest a way of thinking differently, and then I’m going to recommend concrete ways to implement that thinking.

I’d like to distinguish between two ways of thinking about technology and education:

  1. Students should be educated using technology.
  2. Students should be educated in the use of technology.

All of our problems come from confusing the first statement with the second.

Students do not necessarily need to be educated using technology. For example, students can receive the most important benefits of all text-based education using only a pad, a pencil, and a book. But they do need to be educated in the use of technology: what it is, how it works, what it means to use it, and how it interacts with society at large. This latter kind of education I’m calling technological literacy.

Believing that we need to educate our students using technology means we continually look for the latest new gadget that will finally replace our teachers, and that’s a misguided quest. But belief in the need for technological literacy is a curricular matter, something that considers what kind of education in technology students need for their majors and their future careers. For the most part, our applied sciences have this figured out, because the tech in many significant ways is the field, or is inextricably a part of it (AutoCAD, anyone?). But step outside of the applied sciences and the problems begin, and this distinction between educating students using technology and educating students in the use of technology becomes all important.

Requiring that we educate students using technology is, I think, badly misguided. For the most part, educational technology is always an additional barrier to learning, not only a supplement. It’s a wall between students and their interaction with the material, and anyone who has worked with educational technology knows that it always requires a learning curve (which is sometimes very steep), never completely delivers, sometimes doesn’t deliver at all, and often breaks down. As a result, we spend too much time worrying about the tech and not enough learning about our subjects and developing our skills.

This isn’t to say that educational technology isn’t a benefit. I don’t think I would want to work without a learning management system, which is an online system containing material associated with each course. These systems are just too practical in some ways, especially in giving students one place to access course materials such as the syllabus, the course schedule, their grade book, and regular communication from their instructors. But anyone who has worked with them knows all of their problems. And beyond that obvious application, there are some highly effective, specialized tools, such as computer programs that help students with dyslexia, that all students should have access to if needed.

So I’m not a luddite, but I think we need to be aware of the limitations and problems inherent in focusing on educating students using technology. There is a better way of thinking, however, which is focusing instead on educating students to use technology, or on technological literacy. We live our lives immersed in a variety of technologies that we cannot escape. As a result, we should know what these everyday technologies are, how they work, why we need them, and how they connect with the larger world. As a curricular matter, then, I think all college students should receive the following instruction as a regular part of their general education curriculum:

  1. Advanced training in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and their equivalents.
  2. A basic understanding of what networks are and how they function.
  3. A basic understanding of what databases are and how they function.
  4. A basic understanding of the internet, social media, and related privacy and access issues, instruction that should be connected to instruction in information literacy.
  5. A commitment to the application of this training and knowledge in upper division coursework.

Obviously, if we provide students education in the use of technology, we will be educating them using technology, but our focus will be completely different. It will be on technological literacy, a new form of literacy badly needed in today’s highly tech-oriented world but still very much lacking in most educational institutions.

College Advising, Educational Consulting

What to Know Before You Start at a Large University

The start of the Fall 2019 semester is just around the corner, which means that literally tens of thousands of students are getting ready to start college at one of the many large universities around the United States. If you’re getting ready to attend a large university for the first time — a university with enrollment in the tens of thousands — here are a few things you need to know.

First, think of this transition like moving to a new city. I don’t mean only that you’re leaving your home town and moving to a new college town, but that moving onto a large campus is like moving to a new city in itself. The campus itself is like a small city, and sometimes like a medium-sized city — if you already live in Columbus and are starting at OSU, or if you already live in Orlando and are starting at UCF, that transition into college is still like moving to a new city. So you need to get the lay of the land.

First and most importantly, go to orientation. Don’t blow it off. Listen to every word and take notes. Three years down the line you’ll wish you paid more attention at orientation, so just tell yourself you already regret not paying attention, and then pay attention.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions at orientation. Most people will have the same questions. But, there are smart ways to ask questions and less smart to ask them. The smart way to ask questions is to listen first to the information being presented, process it, and then ask questions about the information just presented. If you have questions about something that hasn’t been covered, wait until the end. It will probably be covered.

Getting the lay of the land means the campus map is your friend. You should get one at orientation, but also download the school app. There should be a great campus map on the app too, and it should be connected to the map program on your phone. Remember, you’ve just moved to a new city, so you need to know how to get around.

You already know that your dorm building and classroom buildings are important to find, and you know you’ll need to know where to go to eat. You know you’ll need the library, but some libraries will be more important than others — most big schools have multiple libraries. Also mark all of the administrative buildings you’ll need. Find the parking lots too. Drop pins everywhere and tag them appropriately.

Campus policies matter, so learn them. Read the Student Handbook. Work within the school’s policies. Learn how the system works, and if you have questions, get help.

Getting help means connecting with your advisor. Use your advisor for help. Know this person. It’s very easy to get lost, be ignored, and not get the help that you need, so it’s up to you to find the right people and ask the right questions.

If you’ve declared a major, connect with your department as soon as you can. Get to know professors and students in the department. Ask their advice for scheduling too, especially the order in which you should take your classes. Some classes will have specific prerequisites, but even the ones that don’t might best be taken in a certain order.

What I’m going to say about your advisor will be true about every single constituent on campus: they are very busy because they have to work with a lot of people. That means:

  • Don’t think your problems are unique.
  • Don’t think your problems are more important than everyone else’s.
  • Don’t think you’re an exception to the rule, but if you truly have exceptional circumstances, let people know.
  • Don’t be a jerk. Be patient, wait in line, when your turn comes up, get all of the information you need. Think about what information you need ahead of time.
  • In fact, be kind to the people behind the desk. They will appreciate it. But, don’t waste their time. Get to the point. There are people waiting.
  • Look for the answers to your questions in the Handbook first. Check the school website for material that you might need to bring with you to any given administrative office for any given reason.
  • Things will take time because everyone is processing a lot of people. That means don’t wait until the last minute for anything. That’s the source of almost all of the problems in my points above.

Do you have any more questions? Contact us. We can help.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Understanding the Market

How Does Our Service Work?

If you’re a high school student, a college student thinking about transferring, a college student thinking about graduate school, or a parent of any one of these, Bright Futures Educational Consulting can help you or your child choose a major and then a college that will give you the best employment prospects with the least debt. That’s our goal.

And, we can do it for students anywhere in the world for a relatively low price.

No matter where you are, you start out with either a telephone or an internet chat. This one hour initial consultation is free. After that, if you choose to retain our services, after you make payment you’ll be sent a link to our proprietary online questionnaire. As part of the questionnaire, you’ll upload a copy of your most recent unofficial transcripts. The questionnaire and transcripts will allow us to make an assessment of your strongest interests, your secondary interests, and then your strengths and weaknesses. It really covers everything.

After we’ve done this assessment, we’ll generate a customized report spelling out your best options for higher education, from choosing a major to choosing a college, along with an analysis of the possible return on your investment for your different degree options.

From there, we start working together — on your application essay, your request for letters of recommendation and, if needed, your financial aid and scholarship applications. Then, you start applying.

Even if you think you’re a weak student with limited options, we can find options for you that you didn’t think you had. Once you’ve started applying, we’ll be with you to advise you and help you all the way until you start college, even up to the point of making sure you’re in touch with the right people at your new institution.

The services you receive are customized — you can save money by only getting help in the areas that you most need it. After that, our consulting service has two tiers. First, in-person and direct, and next, online only. In-person consulting is higher depending upon travel costs. We’re located on Florida’s Space Coast, so anywhere from St. Augustine, FL to Jupiter, FL along Florida’s east coast and then into the Orlando area is our lowest price. Outside that radius, prices go up a bit.

If you’d like to keep costs low, though, you can choose our online only consulting. Since all of our initial consulting and the questionnaire is online, we can conduct all follow up meetings online, and we can send you copies of your consulting report by both email and paper mail.

It’s probably best if you think of our service as an investment that’s bound to save you money — thousands of dollars in student loans, wasted time at the wrong institutions or pursuing the wrong majors, and a lot of stress dealing with the unknowns involved in applying to college. Give us a call and see how we can help you in your specific situation. Check out these other links for more information: