Slip Sliding Away

A quick post before I attempt to get back on track with actual, real-time, deadlines passing online teaching…..

A basic problem with teaching online is the lack of a specific time of day when you must be teaching. I have thought of this problem only from the perspective of the student. If students do not have a scheduled lecture or seminar class to attend, will they adhere to deadlines for assignments? Or more commonly, do they produce those assignments at the last minute? And I mean ‘last minute’ because my online courses have specific date and time deadlines. It has become common over the 13 years I have taught online courses for a very few students to post early in the week of a one week discussion topic, for example. A larger group, say about 30% will post in the two or three days prior to the deadline. Then another 50% on the last day…. and then the remaining roughly 20% post in the last hour or even half hour (or even last minute and beyond).

But, what about me?  Teaching occurs in my courses in History during discussion assignments. I read posts and respond, to praise, correct, guide, add, subtract. But what happens when I let things slide due to other committments and do not post responses myself until the last day or even last hour?

Perhaps if I looked hard at my own psychology and practices I could find a way to institute changes for students too.

Posted in Distance education, Learning online, teaching, teaching online, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Peer review online

Currently I am teaching a revised course. One aspect of the revision was to include a ‘peer-review’ tool. The assignment itself was poorly planned and communicated. This was my fault in the sense that I did not stay on top of it, but not my fault in that I did not design the assignment, rather it was handed to me as a fait accompli. During the revision process, the project was generally described to me and I thought it a good idea. When the course began and the time to begin the students on the assignment arrived, I found a number of irritating flaws. I fixed them (though the end of term student comments may disagree with this personal assessment!). But, in the next week I have to teach myself how to use the peer review tool that the university has provided.

This is a group project, online of course. The students are automatically divided into groups of no more than 15 in a class of about 200.  But the peer review group project called for groups of around 7 each. The instructions required the students to form their own groups. In a large, online class this would have been a disaster. I asked the tech designer and he said integrating an automatic tool to create groups would have to wait for the next time the course was offered. But I had a vague memory of being able to alter groups on my own. So I poked around the course and found I could create a second set of groups.  So, I arbitrarily divided the class into groups of 6 or 7. Then I  notified everyone that they could now click their group enrollment button and  see themselves in two groups:  discussions and Group project. Then I prevailed on the regular tech staff to create a Discussion work group area for the project. I announced all this to the class.

After two or three revisions to the instructions I have got most of them working in their individual groups preparing for the first stage, which is peer review. Here each member of each group must assign a grade to everyone else and to the project submission as a whole. At least that’s how I understand it at this point. Once this is done, I then grade each group and perhaps each student, though I am not yet clear on that.

My take away from this:  everything today is done in a rush and in institutional settings, one must expect irritating major and minor problems that the instructor must repair and explain and sort, as the designer will be of little help. The designer will have moved on to the next project and you are now old, dead  history.  The instructor must rise from the grave to keep some sort of efficiency in place.

Posted in Distance education, teaching online, technology in teaching, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How exactly does one teach online?

A nice long title instead of my usual pithy headlines seemed appropriate for this post. I was awarded a fellowship from the University of Guelph here in Canada a few years back to answer that very question. I didn’t answer it, at least to my satisfaction and not, I suspect to that of those who attended my talk (judging from the puzzled looks in the assembled group). At the time I had to fill most of an hour talking about something that could be encapsulated in a sentence or at most two. Engage with your students on a regular basis.  There. Now you have it. You can stop reading if you wish right here.

Ah, but you might ask, how?  And to employ a half remembered bit of Shakesepeare, ‘aye, there’s the rub’.

This rub depends on the platform used to teach online. I am familiar with Coursera and with my university’s system, Courselink.  Coursera seems to be not terribly interactive and not surprisingly so as it is designed to handle tens of thousands of students. But if you are teaching a reasonable number. Well, reasonable in today’s terms – my current two courses this Fall term have respectively, 191 students and 90 students as compared to my first year History course in 1969 at the University of Windsor, Ontario that had 27 students enrolled (and mostly awake.)  For History in this context and using a platform that consists mostly of text and images – somewhat like reading a printed textbook with assignments – I find that discussion groups are the place where teaching happens.

In this method, a question is posed, based on the course readings and links, say perhaps Was Henry VIII of England a Protestant?  Students will answer, the eager students early in the period of time set aside for the discussion, but most will frantically scrabble to post an answer in the last day, or last hour even.

Your job: ‘Post comments on what they say!’  Not just  pats on the head…. ‘good post Jane Doe!’ but engage with the material and their comments to show them how to ‘re-think the thoughts of the past’ and how to do so critically (as in showing the entire context), emphasize context… react to their ideas, chat, talk, guide….. screw every other part of the course up if you must, but do not avoid this!

Some instructors like chat rooms where students enter for a specific period of time and and engage in real time discussion.  This appeals to me as a pedagogical technique, but not as a realistic technique. Why would I say that? Well…. one reason students take online courses is to avoid having to be at a particular place at a particular time – though I must admit (see above) that most end posting answers in the last possible few minutes anyway, so perhaps there is not a lot of difference. More importantly, I think you will get better reasoned answers in the discussion format than in a chat room. Students have time to do a little research, to construct their posts and then to think about responses to others answering the same questions.  Also, you, the instructor have time to frantically search for an answer to an unexpectedly difficult question and keep your reputation as a guru of your discipline.

Both of these are effective techniques and both promote regular engagement with students which is the essence of online teaching. (and why I am not a fan of MOOCs).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Jordan Peterson

An Online University

I have been following the ruckus around Prof. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto in a desultory fashion for some time now. He caught my attention with his protest against being forced to use certain words. I am old enough to recall the furor over the introduction of the term ‘Ms.’ – I remained neutral then and remain neutral now on its use because its use neither irritates nor arouses me to any great passion. I can adopt this attitude as the word  was not forced. You could use it or not use it. But the power of the state is beginning to encroach on language from many directions now, one being the use of human rights legislation to force people to use invented pronouns for those who self-identify as transgender. I say, by all means describe yourself in any way you wish, and ask, yell at, argue with, plead with others to use your invented words. People can then respond in kind. But do not add this to a growing list of human rights. I have listened to arguments in favour and remain entirely unconvinced. But, this is getting off topic. My eyes alighted on the video linked above as a result of a this original controversy, but I watched it because the idea of a new sort of university intrigued me.

Now, Jordan Peterson seems unaware of Coursera or Moocs, or even Canada’s Athabaska University, or for that matter the extensive array of online courses offered by the school where I teach as a contract lecturer, the University of Guelph – which uses a commercial software package called Courselink.

All of these, however, suffer from a defect, or to employ the use of an older version of a word, a ‘want’, that is a ‘lack’, best expressed in one of my favourite Biblical sayings: you cannot put new wine into old wineskins. All these technologies for online teaching strive to put this new form of learning, online learning, into the old wineskins that defined teaching in front of a classroom filled with students. The worst of these I have seen are standard classroom lectures filmed and put up online – complete with references to text books to purchase at university bookstores, and chalk on chalk boards hardly visible for the online viewer. The best I have seen incorporate white boards where you can see the words or diagrams being produced and the prof’s head in a box in a corner talking, or even live video podcasts. I do not like live as that defeats one of the aspects of the new wine:  students can access this at a time convenient for them, not at a pre-set time (this is an old wineskin).

So, Jordan Peterson in this interview was somewhat vague on the format and the technical aspects but I hope it entails a complete rethinking and movement away from the old wineskin of an instructor standing in front of rows of chairs filled with students. In any case in the modern classroom, many of these students are busy texting, or surfing the net, unlike past students who dozed and dreamed and even slept.

Posted in artificial intelligence, Distance education, teaching online, technology in teaching, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Open Textbooks

The law professor Michael Geist ( a specialist in Internet and eCommerce law at the U of Ottawa) reported on the Creative Commons conference in his recent blog post:

He concentrated on Ontario’s move to provide open and free textbooks. For those who don’t know, textbooks  are extremely expensive to produce, though profitable for publishers. A study was done in 2009, that also looked at digital books, but remember the iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle were launched in 2007 and textbooks were not yet in consideration. University textbooks in Canada can cost $100 or more each. Publishers claim that the low numbers sold of individual text books justify the high prices.  Maybe. A number of years ago, I submitted a textbook idea to an acquisitions editor of a university press. They were interested, but when I asked if they produced eBooks, the editor said, no but some older editions were produced as pdfs. “Hmmmm” I thought, musing that universities are supposed to be on the leading edge. It is one reason my online courses do not require textbooks. The course notes and links together form the course textbook.

Education should be entirely tax supported. It is one thing for families and even teachers to supply paper or notebooks (though these were covered by taxes in my school days). K-12 schools still supply texbooks, though hearsay reports note they are in terrible condition. This is not acceptable at university, and it is even less acceptable that  textbooks should be both required and at a stratospheric cost.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Term ends/Term begins

When I taught face to face in a classroom, I had lectures prepared and lecture notes and then points listing the key words for each section of the lecture… then an overhead with a list of the main points to be covered in that class, for the class to see as I babbled on. Later of course, this took the form of a projection of my laptop or iPad screen onto the large white screens used for videos.

But there was  opportunity to alter what I was intending to say on the fly. If a student asked a question (sometimes a rarity; sometimes common, depending on the group), that opened a new avenue, I would pursue that road. Then at some point, I would come back to my lecture outline. This is the most important advantage of a classroom lecture over an online course presented with pre-written notes.  You can stray from the published outline and wander into equally useful fields, then find a track back to the main points to be covered, connecting them all, often in a way that is more pedagogically useful than the original plan. This is difficult to achieve in online instruction. There you have what used to be called lecture notes, but which I now call your online textbook, but set in stone. A student might text me, or send an email, or a Skype message that lights a different and better path to the same goal than those set in stone by me. But it is less common than in the physical classroom.

To some extent, this shortcoming can be overcome in discussion forums. They don’t have to be chatrooms done live: I avoid those as they violate one of the principle strengths of online instruction: students are free within wide boundaries to work on their own schedule without having to worry about being present at a particular time, free from interruption. As an online instructor I appreciate this too, as I cannot always myself be present for a set apart time of day or a particular day, and even when I can, there are outside interruptions. These might be the doorbell, the phone, someone in the house calling you, the cat jumping on the keyboard, the dog barking…. etc. I favour, therefore, set discussions where I post a question and the students have several days to post answers and comments and agreement or rebuttals. It is vital for the instructor to join each of these conversations, otherwise students may go way off course or present complete misunderstandings. No instructor would ask a seminar group in a room a question, then leave for the hour to let them hash it out on their own, nor should this happen online. Mind you, I still have doubts as most seem to post in the last half hour of the week I set aside.

Another possibility to allow for flexibility I suggested earlier: the use of quick, on the fly video comments by me, either to introduce the themes running through each section of the online text, or when an idea occurs to me. What I haven’t done in the past, but will try in the upcoming term, is to pose these comments in such a way that I hope they inspire comments. Which brings me to another possibility. While I don’t like chat rooms, perhaps I could have a chat room specifically for student comments and questions, that I could respond to as though we were in the same place.  Hmmmmm.

Now another term has ended, and I am preparing for the start of the next, a week away. I am thinking, meditating, cogitating on ways to add more flexibility.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Videos and Animation

Two of the five sessions at the Online Learning Showcase I attended in February dealt with the incorporation of videos into white boards or other presentation software. The first was from a part of the university that is flush with cash and involved using expensive software as well as hiring a trained voice actor. If you have that kind of money, that route was impressive. But, this book I am blogging here  is aimed more at easily usable and immediately practical means for a busy, working instructor to implement a more effective online teaching process.

In this light, the presentation called Concept Exploration Using Video developed for a course in climate change biology, fit the bill. This idea used Powerpoint, with each slide indicating a step in learning about a particular concept, but up in the upper right hand corner there is a video of the instructor explaining the slide.

For both Powerpoint and Keynote this is a simple process once you have a video. Either import or ‘drag and drop’ your video into a slide. With Powerpoint that means going to the Insert menu and the drop down list has a video (and audio alone) choice. Or you can drag and drop files into a slide. The same goes for a Mac, using either Powerpoint for Mac or Keynote. There you go to the Insert Menu and choose the ‘Other’ item.  Drag and drop works fine, as this is the usual procedure on a Mac. Then in either program you can resize and move the video to fit in a corner of your visuals on the slide. Either program can be set to play the video or audio with a click, or to play automatically when the slide opens.

I haven’t used this feature yet and need to see if it can be easily imported into the system my university uses, CourseLink – or will I be required to go through the instructional design department? That is a make or break for me. Why?  Well, the point of much of this is to allow an instructor to add quick modifications to online teaching styles that do not require days, or weeks, or months of preparation plus getting funding approved. This is one reason I got the university ID department to put a Prezi link on my CourseLink menu.I could add content on the Prezi that is linked on the menu on the fly. I may indeed have to put visuals with audio or video into my linked Prezi. But I shall see.

The presentation had some good points about doing videos (or audios) in this way. I also viewed a nearly ten minute tutorial from Sal Khan (of the Khan Academy) which said much the same in a bit more detail: be conversational – students will learn better than from a carefully modulated professional speaker; do not talk above or below students (that is, do not be too simple or too complex); do not have video clips that are more than 10 minutes – 6 is a good optimum. If you do want a longer video, break it up into 10 minute segments.

In the visuals use colours, use hand-drawings …. but that is a topic for another blog post as this requires separate software – or perhaps something on Prezi, Powerpoint, Keynote that I haven’t learned yet!

Here is the Khan link:


Sal Khan on best practices


Posted in Distance education, teaching online, technology in teaching, Uncategorized | Leave a comment