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.

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.

Educational Consulting, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Why You Should Take Notes by Hand

Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicate that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on paper.

This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted while working on their laptops. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. Students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — rather than thinking about the lecture.

On the other hand, students who take notes on paper have to think about what they’re writing down because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who took notes on paper scored higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.

But in addition to this difference, students taking notes on laptops are indeed distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop, like Facebook, email, and chats.

These bad practices disseminate throughout educational institution. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (a result noted in one study). School administrators listen to these student complaints and attempt to address outmoded instructional methods.

To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen. Schools then have to spend millions of dollars on this tech so have to adjunctify the faculty pool, which further degrades instructional quality. The problem is not that adjunct instructors are bad instructors, but that they are badly paid and badly overworked.

As a result, we have a higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say, the last fifteen to twenty years).

The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the study.

Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion about these ideas:

  • Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck, but this tech is continually evolving. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
  • There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, so this difference may also be related to how our brains and bodies work together. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
  • The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.
  • There are always exceptions. Some students need the support provided by electronic devices when note taking. Let’s just be careful not to define the rule by its exceptions.

College Writing, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Print vs. E-Books

We all have to use what works best for us, but it’s also smart to pay attention to some of the latest research, which indicates that reading print books rather than electronic books is better for us in several ways:

  • Print books lead to increased comprehension. The tactile experience of reading a printed book actually matters. Check out the research.
  • Related to the above, we’re more likely to read every line of printed material. When we read e-books, we tend to read the first line and then just the words near the beginning of the line after that.
  • We lose the ability to engage in linear reading if we don’t do it often.
  • Reading printed material for about an hour before bedtime helps us sleep. Reading ebooks keeps us awake.

I read both e-books and print books, and I’m grateful for my e-readers (really, the apps on my iPad) when I’m traveling. It’s easier to carry 1000 books on one iPad than it is to carry five in a backpack. I relied a great deal on an app called iAnnotate while I was reading for my last published scholarship, the introduction and chapter 1 of Reading as Democracy in Crisis. I can’t tell you how useful the app was to me: it allowed me to highlight, underline, and annotate dozens of .pdf files and then email my annotations to myself. Imagine having all of the text that you highlighted in all of your books gathered up in searchable electronic form.

Even with this experience, I know what the researchers mean by the tactile elements of memory, the feeling of better control over your media with pages. I do remember where to find things in books by their physical location in the book, which isn’t possible with an e-reader: you can only search terms and page numbers. I think the point here isn’t which search method is more efficient, but which reading style engages more of the brain by engaging more of our physical senses. So I appreciate ebooks and use them quite a bit, but for educational purposes, especially in K-12 environments, we should use them carefully and deliberately, being aware of their drawbacks as well.

I’d like you to consider a few things about the way we developed our technologies:

  • The people who developed our technologies didn’t have our technologies. In other words, the people who built the first computer didn’t have computers.
  • The engineers who landed men on the moon did most of their work on slide rules.
  • The computers that they did at first use had less computing power than our telephones.

So we should use the best technology available to us while being aware of its limitations. Don’t dump your printed books. Continue reading in multiple media, and make sure your children especially regularly read printed books.