Epilogue 1 (Epilog 1 for American friends)

I have begun the process of downloading the blog posts here prepatory for the book to come. This will take some time as I have only early thoughts on the purpose and theme of this book. There are many, many scholarly studies of online teaching. There are many techniques I have not  used. Some of these are not considered because they suit different disciplines than mine, History. Some I have not used because I am a contract instructor and do not have full access to funding. Many of these require live online attendance and I do not like sessions in an online course that require students to login at a specific date and time. The other day, the library held a live seminar for my current course, teaching non-Humanities students how to distinguish scholarly from non-scholarly sources and how to find sources online in the library system. There are 95 students in the class, but only 4 logged in live for the session – and two of them did not stay for the whole 45 minutes. I posted a pdf of the slides and a link to the recording, but do not know how many availed themselves of this tool.

This brings me to the underlying point here. The questions asked by some students indicate they do not always (often?) read instructions or read the announcements, both text and video I post giving them more perspective on issues and assignments.

This is true of face to face instruction as well though. You can make a point clearly and with some repetition in class, and someone will come up to you a day or week or even after that very class and ask you a question that shows they slept through your talk.

I hope mostly that students will remember the importance of evidence when thinking.

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Good news (for me)

I am posting this on each of my blogs – this blog is ready to jump to a new life as an eBook, so this news is immediately useful as I write using iBooks Author:

 

Apple Books

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Blogging a book

I began this blog as a product of a Fellowship I held for one semester at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.  The Fellowship was something of a disappointment to me as my intentions did not work out as planned. I had hoped originally to be allowed access to emails of students and instructors who had taken or taught online at the university. I was then going to develop a questionaire to survey their varied experiences and from that draw usable conclusions. Alas, I was stonewalled on access and at the last minute had to change my approach radically. I decided to present a paper/talk on how to teach online, drawn of necessity primarily from my own experience. I did a lot of reading in the social scientific literature and attended one conference run by an organization that claimed to be in the forefront of best practices for online instruction. I duly finished and gave the talk, but was not happy. The Prezi I used is linked to the website this blog appears on, so anyone can judge. My own thoughts are that my results were pretty thin.

But, one aspect was to continue this blog and the website also and that I do judge better. I am an indie author in another life and at one of the very useful Indie author conferences I attend three times (thrice!) a year I learned about blogging books. Most writers can organize their time sufficiently well enough to have a block of time each day to write. My home situation does not allow this. My writing is done in snatched moments. I can find 5-30 minutes at a stretch to write a blog post and give it a quick edit.

As I say, one session at one of these conferences was about blogging a book. That is, each blog post, whether that be daily, or twice a week or once a week is a building block of a future book. I thought this is perfect for my situation and I decided to produce a book out of this blog. The person presenting this idea suggested that one could produce 50,000 words, a short book, over the course of a  year blogging. This is not to say that this is the finished product – but it would be the first rough draft.

I have 75 blog posts going back to July 31, 2011. I haven’t done a word count but I suspect this is more than enough for a book. It is time I think to transfer these words to my word processor, or better yet to Apple’s iBooks Author program. There I can easily produce a multimedia eBook – after all a book on online instruction should be multimedia. Only this free program from Apple allows a writer to produce a multimedia work without having to hire a development team. The few multimedia books produced that way cost many thousands of dollars to produce. This will be of the same quality but the only cost will be in my time which is mine to spend.

This won’t be the last blog post – I will continue to write here as ideas occur and information flows to me. But the blogs up to this point are now transmogrifying to first draft status as a book.

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Presence

In the middle of marking final examination papers as my mind drifted away from the Cristeros rebellion in 1920s Mexico, a thought occurred to me.

I began watching a series of Harvard lectures on the Hebrew Bible. The prof gave his introductory, ‘what this course is about and what it is not about along with the usual business on textbooks, etc.’ in an engaging fashion including answering questions from the class (invisible except for voices off camera).

This got me thinking about my own period of time teaching face to face in a classroom and even in a seminar setting, but principally in a classroom lecture format. Secondly, a student sent me a comment that he had liked my online course because occasionally my ‘dry and quirky’ sense of humour would show through – actually two or three students remarked on this.

Then I thought about the lectures I attended as an undergraduate student, and what it was about those classes that affected me. Usually it was the personal characteristics the professor brought to the classroom as much as it was the information. Information can be had in a classroom course from the textbook, and online in text or image. But bringing that information to life is a factor and function of the personality (or lack thereof, alas!) of the instructor.

So, what to do?

Well something I had planned to do this semester, but massive class size and the new necessity in the university world of …. ummmm… sucking up to your TAs in order to keep your job (Teaching Assistants are more important than part time instructors because we part timers are costs to the university and the department, while TAs are graduate students and bring in grants from the government and tuition and are thus profit centres). This plus home problems of a permanent sort scuttled my intentions. I did several videos, but not as I envisioned them.

Here is what I will do in the new term while teaching one course. It is one course at a university that does not provide Teaching Assistants and which has 95% of its faculty on the part time roster.  This removes the two disadvantages I noted above. I will have at least a weekly video where I introduce and go over the main points in the material for that unit. I will go further and have a short lecture/video for each sub-heading. I will also invite questions – not sure what technical format to use here as I would have to set it up on my own. I will scout around the net and see if I can find a chat room type thingie …. free I hope as in January my income is reduced by a full 50%.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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