Comments on Selected Week 4 Resources: ‘Natural Critical Learning Environment’

The following is a quick review of the following authors from the list of resources, including brief excerpts from each: Ken Bain, Debbie Morrison, Greg Walker, Hua Bai, Nega Debela & Berlin Fang, Erst Carmichael and Helen Farrell.

Greg Walker

Greg Walker

As expected, the packages are labeled “online” but the contents are pretty much standard onground material. The most difficult turn to make in online teaching is the one that separates the F2F mindset from the virtual. The medium is the message, but the message in the online medium is still the F2F instructional framework. But there’s one exception, and that’s Greg Walker, who attempts to match the message with the medium. He says, “Blanchette (2001) found that asynchronous discussions allow for a higher level of cognitive questions that encourage critical thinking,” and the difference, he says, is that “learners have more time to process questions and develop responses.”

Carol B. MacKnight

Carol B. MacKnight

Carol B. MacKnight wasn’t included in the list, but she mentions this disconnect between online and F2F orientations: “The question is whether faculty can change their teaching strategies to use online communication tools effectively to help every member in the class go beyond being exposed to content to the point of critically interacting with it” (Teaching Critical Thinking Through Online Discussions, Educause Quarterly, 2000). This article is thirteen years old, and many today may not have a clue what MacKnight means by “bulletin board” in the following statement: “The bulletin board offers the possibility for coaching discussions to take students ideas to the next level to deeper, more intellectual, and reflective learning.” They’re the forerunners of today’s web-based discussion forums, and in the days before the web, they were accessed via modems run on telephone lines.

I like MacKnight’s plain wording in the following list: “Going online, students must have a clear understanding of the goal of the activity and have the necessary social skills to:

• ask the right questions,
• listen to each other,
• take turns and share work,
• help each other learn,
• respect each other’s ideas,
• build on each other’s ideas,
• construct their own understanding, and
• think in new ways.”

Still, the information in the readings is excellent and underscores strategies for incorporating critical thinking into discussions, F2F and online. I’m surprised that the context for critical thinking is limited to discussion outcomes and ignores project outcomes since discussions aren’t usually ends in themselves but tools or means to generate deeper thinking that’s reflected in papers or reports. Bain, however, does allude to this procedural function of discussions: “Because the best teachers plan their courses backward, deciding what students should be able to do by the end of the semester, they map a series of intellectual developments through the course.”

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The Vulnerability Imperative in Online Learning: A Response to Julio

Julio C. Castro in “Essential question (week 3)” (Momenta Learning 9/24/13): “A great way to help my students [put] themselves out there and at the same time, help them generate creative and innovative solutions is by inviting them to create a blog where they can express their ideas and bounce around possible solutions and scenarios with others. The discussion forums I will create for the students to manage on their own while they work on their projects, will include directions on how to set up a blog and I will add that all of the participants interact with those blogs by visiting them and comment on the posts from the author. My hope is that some of them will eventually use the blog as a creative tool later on, on a permanent basis. I will also invite them to create a profile in systems similar to LinkedIn (professional associations) because this exposes you to others that can take a look at your work and provide feedback. Creating projects that can later be shared with others online is a great creative process, at least [it] is working for me so far”1 (emphasis added).

Response

Greg and his staff posted a quote from Brené Brown in the activity description: “I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief … that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest. So let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.”

Courage, plain and simple, means risk taking. How do we teach courage? This is a tough question. Some would argue that it’s genetic — but I disagree. I think it’s teachable. It begins with parents, but if it’s neglected in the home, then schools and colleges have the responsibility.

When I say to my students, “Have the courage to risk new ideas and to question the status quo,” I’m also saying “Think!”

In my schooling, the best teachers encouraged and became excited by students who took risks in the world of ideas. For them, it wasn’t “my way or the highway” but “take us on the freeway for a ride in your car.” The goal in discussions wasn’t “how to figure out the answer in the teacher’s head” but “to share what’s new in all our heads.”

How do we teach courage? Perhaps the simplest answer is to model it. In an earlier post, I mentioned my freshman comp teacher, A. J. Alexander. He was my first encounter with an authentic teacher, and the impact on me was life changing. He didn’t say be courageous. He was courageous. (Some might even say he was crazy.) In our first session, he sat on the desk in front of the class. Behind him, above the chalkboard, was a “NO SMOKING” sign. He lit a cigarette, smoked it, killed it on the side of the desk, walked over to the waste basket and tossed it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his “Miss May, will you please shut up.” She sat in the front row and was quietly talking to the person next to her while Alexander was lecturing.

Shocking behavior for a teacher. But for a 17-year-old straight out of high school, it was mindblowing. And he was like this, consistently, in all phases of the course. He turned a bunch of us into English majors that fall — students who would’ve said “no way” if you asked us a few months earlier. Literature and writing suddenly became real, pulsing with life and energy — like rock ‘n’ roll — far from the dull gray words stained on yellowed paper in the outdated textbooks we used in high school.

I later learned that courage didn’t always come in piss and fire but also came in subtler packages. But the common denominator was the eyes that lit up when they heard authentic thinking from a student. That connection between student, idea, and teacher is powerful stuff.

We all have built-in crap detectors, and in students they’re probably cranked all the way up. They know BS when they hear it, and for many BS is synonymous with getting good grades. So the first step in courage making may be to be honest. Sounds simple, but hard to do when reward lies in the opposite direction.

When we’re honest, we allow others into the secret places in our minds, and we feel vulnerable. But the alternative is . . .

Being honest, taking risks, having courage — it doesn’t mean posting a photo, video, or bio or being outrageous for its own sake; and it doesn’t mean pouring your heart out or being stupid and putting yourself or others in danger. I think we all recognize it when we see it. We’re engineered by nature to value it. It’s in our DNA. So the answer is within each of us, i.e., if we care to take a look.

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1 Julio is responding to the question related to the “Video of the Week“: “If vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change how can you teach your students to be more creative using the Internet?” The video: “Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability,” TED, YouTube, 1/3/11.

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‘Community’ As a Relative Structure: A Response to Rachael

Rachael in her reply (9/26) to Sarah’s “Week 3 – Activity Reflection“: “In another semester I used blogs instead of discussion boards. Students worked in teams to create an artifact (of individual artifacts) to answer an essential question that was general enough to allow them to choose how they wanted to approach it. They posted to their team blogs and commented on each other’s blogs. It worked out well because they were creating artifacts that were purposeful and contributing to the online community instead of it staying in a ‘closed garden’ in the LMS forums” (emphasis added).

Response

I never actually thought about why I prefer to set up my courses in “public” WordPress blogs and ask my students to do the same for publishing and sharing their drafts. Thus, as I browsed the conversations in our TOMOOC community, Rachael’s comment above jumped out at me.

In a sense, communities are relative constructs without borders, at once a group of people sharing a single space and time as well as a network that’s linked to countless other networks that transcend space and time. It’s difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that the largest community of all is the web, which links billions of people throughout the world in a single Network that comprises all the networks on Earth.

The overwhelming image for me is the individual, via smartphones, tablets, and notebooks, connected to every one of the 2.5 billion people as well as the countless sources of information on the internet.

With this link to the world in our pockets and backpacks, I can’t help but feel that the “‘closed garden’ in the LMS forums” where we, as educators, construct our interactive sessions may be stifling for students and teachers. Why, I wonder, do we build walls around learning when the world’s resources are all around us.

Surely, to prepare our students for the 21st century, we need to make sure that they are capable of creating, sustaining, and leveraging their own presence in the worldwide online community. For them, to be is to be equally at home onground and online.

In a way, what we’re practicing in TOMOOC is a model for the power of learning when it’s open and connected to the internet. In the recent stats shared by the staff, we can see that our conversations are reaching a much wider audience from around the world. In last year’s MOOC, for example, I mentioned Dave Cormier1 in one of my posts and actually received a comment from Dave himself — who wasn’t directly connected to the MOOC.

In an earlier post, I responded to Rachael’s comment re authentic learning. The idea was that learning ought to be as “real” as possible for students, and Rachael’s comment here re “closed” versus “open” learning spaces is a another side of that same coin.

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1 “The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (also known as CCK08). CCK08 . . . was led by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council” (Wikipedia).

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Artifact 3: Community in Online Forums

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Authenticity in Online Class Discussions: A Response to Rachael

In her 9/26/13 TOMOOC response to Munwah, Rachael I. said: “. . . To support the needs and aspirations of adult learners, we need to help our students engage in collaborative and authentic learning so that learning is meaningful and purposeful and utilizes their previous experiences. I’m interested in learning more about authentic learning activities instructors incorporate in their college courses. Do you do any in your classes?”

Response

The focus in TOMOOC’s third week1 is interaction in online discussion forums, and Moore’s2 classification may be a good place to start. He identifies three types of interaction: learner-learner, learner-teacher, and learner-content. In my mind, learner-content is not a true interaction and should perhaps be lumped together with learner-teacher. Thus, the two main categories are learner-learner and learner- teacher.

In VCU’s3, Weaver’s4, and Ragan’s5 rubrics, the overwhelming pattern seems to be student-teacher, with student-student receiving little or no attention. And even when student-student is mentioned, the standards appear to be vague, almost an afterthought. Here’s an example from the VCU rubric: “The best discussion posts are made in time for others to read and respond.” In Weaver’s scheme, a successful student “constructively responds to classmates postings” and “participates in all module discussions.” Ragan’s list reads like a bunch of criteria for an essay test, with interaction limited to student-teacher.

Thus, the implication is that discussions are primarily “tests” to indirectly measure learning, an evaluation tool rather than a student-student medium for building a community of learners.

The heart of an authentic discussion activity is real-world outcomes — and I don’t mean grades. That is, students need to know that they’re not simply posting whatevers that will earn them a good score from the teacher. They need to know that their ideas will be useful to others in their learning community, that they’re not engaging in busy work just to make the teacher happy.

A simple way to do this is to design (1) writing assignments that require quotes from classmates as well as from published sources and (2) forums that generate postings that could be quoted by classmates. In short, the discussion activities need to be tied to the writing in such a way that they provide a source of content.

The most critical element in the design is the topic.  It must have a built-in potential to grab every student at an affective level, and it must be in the realm of knowledge that is both familiar and new at the same time. Furthermore, the familiar can’t be so overdone that it’s dead, and the new can’t be so unfamiliar that it would take weeks to grasp the bare essentials. (Hint: Incorporate YouTube videos!)

The interaction in this scenario is student-student, students writing for classmates and quoting them in return. The authenticity is in the real-world purpose and consequences. Ideas are quoted and argued in papers, and papers are published in blogs for all to read. The sense of community is in the common purpose and value of everyone’s words in the creation of artifacts for sharing within the community.

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1Week 3: Create community: Connect learners with each other (Sept. 23-29).”
2 M. G. Moore, “Editorial: Three types of interaction” (The American Journal of Distance Education, 1989) in Steve Wheeler’s “Interactions of the fourth kind” (Learning with ‘e’s, 4/8/12).
3Using Discussion Boards in Online Classes” (Virginia Commonwealth University, 09/22/2009).
4 Chris Weaver, “The Discussion Board Book” (2005).
5 Larry Ragan, “Best Practices in Online Teaching – During Teaching – Assess Messages in Online Discussions” (Connexions, 8/21/07).

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‘Lacking in Technical Details’ – A Response to Mshin

Mshin, in “Discussion Questions” (9/22/13): I haven’t taught online yet and don’t know yet if I want to. That’s the main reason I joined this MOOC. I knew absolutely nothing about teaching online before and now I feel I know a lot more about the philosophy and the type of student who signs up, but I feel very lacking in technical details: what are my resources? how do I use them? How do I grade? How do I manage the class? I have no idea!!!

Response

Mshin, you’re asking good questions, which means you’re already identifying the critical issues for yourself. As it turns out, these are basic universal issues for anyone teaching or planning to teach online.

Mshin: [If I teach online,] what are my resources and how do I use them?

You’re already publishing in a blog, mshinblog. Consider what that means. By sending its URL (mshinblog.wordpress.com) to colleagues and friends, you can easily share your essays beyond the TOMOOC audience. And this is the cool part: You could easily create another blog for, say, an English 200 class and call it mshin200 with mshin200.wordpress.com as the URL.

The moment you send the URL to your students, you create a teaching platform. You could publish a syllabus, schedule, assignments, activities, resources, etc., and each of these posts would have a unique URL (or permalink). Thus, in an email announcement to the entire class (more on this below), you could ask students to read the syllabus and turn the word syllabus into a hyperlink. Students would open the email, read the announcement, click on syllabus, and be taken directly to your syllabus.

You could insert the syllabus reading exercise into the course schedule in your blog. Students would click on the word syllabus and find themselves on the syllabus page. Apply this hyperlink principle to readings, guidelines, assignment descriptions, and the universe of online resources and you begin to realize the power of a “simple” blog.

For an example of what’s possible with blogs, consider that our TOMOOC hub, How to Teach Online, is a blog. It’s a lot more complex than yours, but that’s only in degrees. You could easily learn how to post photos and videos on your blog, creating multimedia learning resources for your students. You could also learn how to use the sidebar (area on the right of the mainpage) to insert additional info links.

One of the organizers’ strategies is to ask participants to create personal blogs devoted to TOMOOC activities. As a teacher, you could do the same with your students, i.e., ask them to create their own blogs to share their papers, projects, etc. with their classmates and you.

You mention Laulima, the University of Hawaii’s LMS (learning management system), and this means that you have access to its features. The mailtool allows you to quickly send eblasts (email announcements) via UH Mail to an entire class. If you’re teaching multiple sections of the same course, you can easily combine them into one so that you set up only one Laulima learning platform instead of, say, three. This means one eblast goes to students in all three classes; this also means only one blog for all three classes.

The other great feature of Laulima is the discussion forums. Once you get comfortable with it, you’ll learn how to set up interactive discussion forums for different activities that inform, support, or serve the writing process. TOMOOC’s week 3 is devoted to the problem of creating dynamic and educative discussions.

You’re already using UH email, and all your students will have UH accounts. This means you have a uniform, standard, and secure means of communicating with them privately, 24/7. Think of email as your office and hallway chats with individual students.

Mshin: [If I teach online,] how do I grade?

In your blog schedule, you can post assignments. For example, you could ask students to post preliminary drafts of a paper in their course blogs and to log in to their classmates’ blogs to review their drafts and leave comments. (The blog URLs would be shared in a Laulima discussion forum.) You could then ask them to use the peer comments to publish revised drafts that serve as their final drafts. You would then log in to their blogs to read and evaluate their final drafts as well as the preliminary draft and comments. You could then email your comments and scores to each.

You could also require certain levels of participation in Laulima discussions, and simple rubrics could be used to evaluate and grade student performance.

Mshin: [If I teach online,] how do I manage the class?

You could use an Excel spreadsheet to keep records, and email to contact individuals to praise or encourage. The amazing advantage of online classes is the “paper” trail. Everything is archived: all drafts, comments, posts, email, etc. You could mine this data for instructional purposes. For example, when reviewing a student’s current paper, you have instant access to all her/his previous drafts as well as your and her classmates’ comments on those drafts.

More on resources and how to use them:

With a Twitter account devoted to your online classes, you could easily tweet reminders and tips to students. This is also a quick and effective way to share interesting comments from discussions or memorable lines from student papers.

With YouTube, you and your students have access to literally millions of videos, and you can easily share them with one another for various purposes.

Technically, the whole wide world of the web is the classroom for you and your students, 24/7, and it makes even the grandest MOOC look like an ant in comparison.

In time, I think you’ll find that you no longer need a required text for your course, saving students a bundle. It’d be easier and even better to pull together resources from the web to form your own course text, and you could even ask students to contribute useful links to it.

Thus, re feeling “lacking in technical details,” I think you’re actually not lacking at all. You’re already using the basic technology and simply need to figure out how to remix and repurpose what you already know to develop and deliver an online course.

At this juncture in deciding whether or not to take the plunge, perhaps the most important question is “Why?” Why do you want to teach online? The fact that you’re taking this MOOC and participating in a big way (you’ve written a LOT in your blog!) tells me that you have a why, that you think this may be an important step for you.

I don’t know what your reason is, but I’m guessing it’s a gut feeling that online may be a better way to learn or at least it may offer advantages to strictly F2F approaches. I’d suggest taking the plunge in going completely online with a course — rather than going blended. Blended is like slowly entering the ocean. First a toe, then a foot, ankle, etc. but stopping short of diving in and getting completely wet. You’ll never experience the joy of swimming and diving, the graceful feeling of flight, the sense of weightlessness.

No matter what they say, those standing knee- or waist-deep in water are not swimming. Those teaching blended classes will never know or experience the freedom of completely online courses — freedom from the time and space constraints that have kept us chained to brick ‘n’ mortar campuses for hundreds of years.

Okay, swimming and education are like apples and oranges, and the analogy can only go so far. By the same token, comparisons between online and blended, too, are like apples and oranges. They can only go so far. These are different modes of teaching and learning. To argue the merits of one over the other is pointless. Perhaps the only sensible view is to say that they both have their merits, and leave it at that.

Thus, the most important question for online teaching may be: What are the truly authentic strategies for teaching online? And I think this is the question that you, Mshin, are asking.

Mshin: Online Classrooms seems like a lot of juggling plates in the air and having to remember to toggle between all of them. That part kind of blows my mind. Right now I am only juggling between checking my email and doing this blog!

I like this analogy! Blows my mind, too, and I’m guessing that this comparison isn’t completely negative for both of us. Multitasking — good or bad? I think good, despite “research” that seems to show that performance suffers when we try to do more than one thing at once. In my mind, thinking itself is a multitasking phenomenon, remixing and repurposing continually across wide ranges of data and information. Thus, tools that help us to multitask are aids to thinking — not obstacles.

In the context of online education, we’ve taken teaching and learning out of the single-tasking teacher-centric mode into the multitasking student-centric mode. Students can read their email while pausing in a jog at the beach, complete a class reading at Starbuck’s during a lunch break at work, post a draft to their blog while watching a football game, and participate in a class discussion while traveling in China.

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Presence, ‘Mr. Miyagi Style’ (Artifact 2)

Jenny, in “Mr. Miyagi Style” (Working It Out in the Virtual World, 9/22/13), captures the art of teaching composition.

Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita in a scene from "The Karate Kid" (1984).

Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita in a scene from The Karate Kid (1984): “Wax on, wax off.”

She begins with an understanding that many teachers, even after many years, fail to grasp. Writing is a skill, a performance, an art — something that one does, not something that one knows. It’s more a running stream than a block of ice. Furthermore, it’s a communication skill, it’s interactive, it’s done with others. It’s rhetorical.

When we begin with this assumption, the implications re pedagogy become clear:

Students need a lot of practice learning how to write in a logical fashion. They need practice working with sources; they need practice presenting the works of others and practice responding to those ideas. They don’t show up with these skills, and why should I expect them to? (Jenny)

Jenny’s Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid, 1984) clip captures, in a fun and engaging way, the oneness of learning and teaching: practice, practice, practice; coaching, coaching, coaching. This is teaching as shaping rather than teaching as judging. Writing is a performing art, and through constant practice and feedback over a lifetime — not just a semester or even throughout college — one gradually grows.

In Asia, the arts are called “do” (pronounced dough) or “dao” (or “tao”) — the way. One can follow the way, but one can never own it or master it. Everyone is perpetually a student. But it doesn’t stop there. The path is defined by the travelers, the pilgrims. Those behind (kohai in Japanese) seek guidance from those ahead (senpai), and those ahead guide those behind. Thus, everyone is also perpetually a teacher, like yin and yang.

Like yin and yang, teaching is not separate from learning but an essential part. Teaching a skill reinforces, refines, and expands one’s learning. If a person doesn’t learn something new every time s/he teaches a skill, then he’s not growing as a teacher or a student.

In learning any art, failure and ignorance are givens. No one knows everything, and everyone fails at one point or another. The quest for perfection, not the perfection itself, is the way. From this perspective:

Confusion is okay. Students aren’t just allowed to get frustrated and confused- confusion is encouraged. As a matter of fact, I remind them repeatedly that when they get to a point when they’re about to pull out their hair and quit, they’re right where they’re supposed to be- this is where learning happens. Just as a body builder lifts weights to tear muscles apart to make them stronger, we too must tear our old ways of thinking apart so that we can learn, build empathy, and discover solutions to real world problems. (Jenny)

Ignorance, failure, confusion are the doors to learning, and as Jenny says, “When they get to a point when they’re about to pull out their hair and quit, they’re right where they’re supposed to be — this is where learning happens.” And this is the confluence of learning and teaching, the epiphanic moment when authentic question grasps meaningful answer.

The dao defines presence. As writing teachers, our students are fellow travelers. Thus:

Mutual respect is important. I call them by their first names, so I ask them to call me by mine. . . . I think that in today’s student/teacher climate, going out of my way to let students know it’s okay to call me by my first name will help them speak to me more easily. I hope it makes them more comfortable shooting me an email and asking questions. I think it’s working. (Jenny)

Teachers have to be accessible and respectful. In a word, they need “aloha.”

Teachers also have to love the dao. Jenny says, “I lucked out and get to teach composition.” This is a path she chose. Some of the writing teachers I know treat their courses as punishment to endure or hurdles to overcome to get to their first love, teaching Literature. The proof is in the doing. Jenny’s obviously a writer. She writes. And she loves doing it.

Students “get it” in her words — her enthusiasm for the way, the art of writing:

I want them to have communication skills. I want them to be able to listen to others closely, and I want them to have ways to respond. I want them to know that their ideas matter. I want them to have techniques for dealing with people they don’t necessarily agree with when they still have to find a solution to a problem. I want them to be eloquent, just as I want them to understand the beauty of clarity and brevity. (Jenny)

They also get it in her patience:

There’s a lot of repetition of skills on different topics. I have to repeat myself a lot. Some of them get it the first time, some of them might get it after 16 weeks. I hold on. I try not to get frustrated. We repeat. I think of it like building muscle memory so that when they go into other classes, or go to work, or even have to work out disagreements with their families, friends and neighbors . . . . So we repeat and wax on and wax off and wax on and wax off. (Jenny)

We can establish our presence in online classes with a photo or a video, but we can also do it with our words. Our words are who we are. They aren’t just words, but style, and, paraphrasing Buffon, style is the person. Katherine Anne Porter defines it this way: “You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.”

Students read our words, and through our words, they know who we are, they sense our presence. We and our words are one and the same, inseparable, and getting to know one means getting to know the other.

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