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.

Educational Consulting, Learning, Pedagogy

Understanding Course Evaluations

At the end of almost every college course, almost all colleges and universities in the United States have students fill out a student course evaluation, in which students fill out a form that gives the school their feedback about the class, the instruction, and the textbook. There are a recent interesting studies out examining their effectiveness, including one study out of UC Berkeley evaluating the validity of student course evaluations in measuring teaching effectiveness. The results are similar to the results of the many other studies conducted in the past: student course evaluations are not reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness:

Student ratings of teaching have been used, studied, and debated for almost a century. This article examines student ratings of teaching from a statistical perspective. The common practice of relying on averages of student teaching evaluation scores as the primary measure of teaching effectiveness for promotion and tenure decisions should be abandoned for substantive and statistical reasons: There is strong evidence that student responses to questions of “effectiveness” do  not measure teaching effectiveness. Response rates and response variability  matter. And comparing averages of categorical responses, even if the categories  are represented by numbers, makes little sense. Student ratings of teaching are valuable when they ask the right questions, report response rates and score distributions, and are balanced by a variety of other sources and methods to evaluate teaching.

What do student course evaluations measure, then? The authors of this study summarize the findings of previous studies here:

  • Student teaching evaluation scores are highly correlated with students’ grade expectations (Marsh and Cooper 1980; Short et al. 2012; Worthington 2002). WHAT THIS MEANS:
    • If you’re an instructor and want high course evaluations, pass out As like candy.
    • Adjunct instructors, having the least job security and the most job retention anxiety, are most likely to inflate grades to get high course evaluations.
    • Net result: over-reliance on adjunct instructors and on student course evaluations to evaluate teachers leads to grade inflation and low course rigor; i.e., poor educational quality.
  • Effectiveness scores and enjoyment scores  are related. In a pilot of online course evaluations in the UC Berkeley Department of Statistics in Fall 2012, among the 1486 students who rated the instructor’s overall effectiveness and their enjoyment of the  course on a 7-point scale, the correlation between instructor effectiveness and course enjoyment was 0.75, and the correlation between course effectiveness and course enjoyment was 0.8.
    • WHAT THIS MEANS: If students enjoyed the course, they will rate it highly. But enjoyment by itself isn’t a measure of learning. The instructor may just be a good performer.
    • Conversely, lack of enjoyment doesn’t mean the student didn’t learn. The types of assessments and activities that promote long term retention, in fact, lead to low course evaluations. The practices that students like the least actually help them learn and retain the most. See the link right above.
  • Students’ ratings of instructors  can be predicted from the students’ reaction to 30 seconds of silent video of the instructor: first impressions may dictate end-of-course evaluation scores, and physical attractiveness matters (Ambady and Rosenthal 1993).
    • WHAT THIS MEANS: student course evaluations are, more than anything else, superficial measures of instructor popularity rather than teaching effectiveness.
  • Gender, ethnicity, and the instructor’s age matter (Anderson and Miller 1997;  Basow 1995; Cramer and  Alexitch 2000; Marsh and Dunkin 1992;  Wachtel 1998; Weinberg et al. 2007; Worthington 2002).
    • WHAT THIS MEANS: student course evaluations are, at worst, racist, elitist, ageist, and sexist superficial measures of instructor popularity.

So how do we rate teaching effectiveness? I’d recommend the following:

  • Worry less about evaluating the teacher for promotion and focus on gauging effectiveness for the sake of seeking out the most effective strategies for that specific student population.
  • Rely in part on peer evaluations — teachers in the field conducting this evaluation. Field specific knowledge matters, as teaching isn’t just a matter of technique, but of careful selection of content.
  • We still do want to hear from students, of course, so use course evaluation tools that focus on teaching effectiveness, such as those provided by the IDEA Center.

Just for the record, I’ve always been an engaging instructor who generally gets high course evaluations, so I’m not worried about myself here. I am, however, worried about how effectively students are being educated. Reliance on student course evaluations, at present, is working against educational quality.

You can read the study below:

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

More about Technology and Education

When I was sixteen I took Shōrin-ryū lessons with a friend of mine at the local Y. The first thing we asked our instructor was, “When will we receive training with weapons?” Why did we ask this question? Because we were sixteen. Our instructor, who was not sixteen, fortunately, told us that he didn’t train students to use weapons until they were at least a brown belt, which is one stage before black, because weapons are an extension of our bodies. We can’t learn to use weapons properly until we learn to use our bodies properly.

Similarly, technology is an extension of our minds. All the tech in the world won’t make us smarter if we haven’t developed our minds. Without that mental development, we’ll just be idiots with fancy toys, and I think we all know the world has enough of those already. So the first question we need to ask about any educational technology is, “In what ways, exactly, will this educational technology improve our teaching?” My experience with a great deal of educational technology is that the learning curve for instructors and students is so steep, and the tech so buggy, that tech, except when completely necessary, is as much an impediment to learning as it is a benefit.

When we think about the use of tech in education, we should also consider the fact that “traditional education” using “outmoded methods” invented the computer, the cellphone, and put astronauts on the moon. Given the history of education, I think it’s safe to say that educational tech is irrelevant to educational effectiveness. I think it’s important to understand that educational tech is not a magic bullet that will suddenly transform colleges into centers of effective learning (most of them actually are already). The basis of strong education is committed and well-supported instructors.

The Luddites were an early-industrial group of English workers who, because they were under the threat of being displaced by machinery, went out and started destroying machines. I don’t mean to advocate for some kind of twenty-first-century educational Luddism. There is no turning back, or away, from our culture’s dependence upon technology in the foreseeable future. I think we need to distinguish between educating students using technology and educating students to use technology. Rather than looking for the next magic pedagogical bullet in a box, I think we should be teaching our students to code, basic programming languages, how computers and networks work, and so on. We need to raise the bar on technological literacy, in other words, but that’s very different from looking for the latest multimillion dollar pedagogical tool while we continue to disinvest in teachers.

I would like to encourage students and instructors to focus primarily on developing the most advanced technology that we all have: that highly complex processor wet-wired between our ears. Read a lot and read increasingly complex texts. Learn how to write well. Take the most advanced math that you can. No matter what your major, try to get in at least a year of calculus before you finish college, preferably one semester before you finish high school. If you develop yourself in these ways, your tech will be an extension of your highly developed mind enabling you to do things better and faster. If you don’t, your tech will do your thinking for you, and the only possibilities that you’ll ever be able to consider will be determined by the programming parameters of your equipment.

Pedagogy

Are Teachers Entertainers?

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Some time back I followed a LinkedIn discussion in which one instructor took the position that teachers are entertainers because learning should be fun, and another took issue with him — he maybe agreed that learning should be fun, but he didn’t like the idea that teachers are entertainers. I think it wouldn’t hurt to consider how we use the words “fun” and “entertainment” when we think about classroom experiences and instructor’s roles.

We tend to say that we’re “entertained” by films, plays, concerts, stand-up comics, etc. Actors, comics, and musicians are entertainers. Being entertainers, they perform while we watch, and we enjoy what we’re watching. But when we’re being entertained, we’re passive. However, we have fun at the beach, the carnival, or when we’re playing games. When we’re having fun, we’re active. So by these definitions, whenever instructors are acting like entertainers, students are passive observers, but when students are having fun, they’re engaged — they’re doing something. So if instructors are entertainers, students aren’t having fun.

But to say that students should have fun in the classroom doesn’t seem quite right either: “fun” seems mindless (though it doesn’t have to be), and mindless isn’t what a college classroom should be. I think we should abandon the notion of fun altogether and adopt the idea of pleasure instead, so that we think about learning as an advanced form of pleasure. I’m drawing here from Book VII of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he distinguishes carefully between the pleasures of the body and the pleasures of the soul:

Neither practical wisdom nor any state of being is impeded by the pleasure arising from it; it is foreign pleasures that impede, for the pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more.

There are pleasures that impede growth and pleasures that foster growth, and learning is one of the pleasures that foster growth. Aristotle calls these pleasures “natural.” They’re like eating. We eat so that we can live, and pleasure is a natural by-product of our eating, but not the purpose of eating. Learning should work the same way. We learn so we can live and grow, and the natural by-product of learning is pleasure, but pleasure isn’t the purpose of learning. It’s just a by-product. When students truly learn, when a light comes on and they see something — maybe even the whole world — in ways that they haven’t before, those students experience a deep pleasure that makes them want to learn even more. As we learn, our ability to gain pleasure from learning grows with us.

Strategies for increasing the pleasure of learning:

  • “Big picture” teaching — teaching that relates the material to students’ own lived experiences, prior knowledge, and future lives.
  • Minimizing (though not eliminating) lectures and involving students in more activities: have students do something with the knowledge they acquire.
  • Problem solving activities are perhaps the best. Pose a problem for students to solve with the material at hand.

These strategies work, usually. Are they limited?  Of course — by reasonable class sizes, by the amount of instructor support, and by students’ prior learning experiences, which usually involve having all of the imagination and pleasures of learning beaten out of them by test preparation instruction — and by hours of mindless fun in front of a television set or playing a video game.

But I’ve also seen students resistant to learning have their heads turned by these strategies, so they’re worth trying.