Online platforms: Learning as one goes vs. polished & stable appearance

Recently I posted the following on a course blog (which is a new feature I’m experimenting with this semester):

You will notice that the appearance of the blog has changed and might wonder: Why didn’t the instructors get feedback before going live so the appearance of the online materials could be polished and then stable once the course started?–After all, there are enough “rooms” to explore in the “house” of the online materials without risking having any student feeling that they were in a different house from the one they entered the day before.

Along the same lines of completing the “beta” stage of design and development before the class started, you heard me during class admit that some aspects of the course wiki.. weren’t strictly necessary and some (e.g., a lack of a sidebar menu) were holdovers from the past or compromises so we could use a platform not requiring my university’s login…

Let me reflect on this line of inquiry or critique:

  • One reason for not having everything polished in advance and stable through the semester is lack of time–both for development and for walking through the online materials and seeing the issues above (and others) in advance.  Even if I were to bring out the violins and describe the challenges of working at a public university in times of declining budgets, you would still be entitled to ask: Why take on a time-consuming role if you don’t have time to do things properly?
  • “Doing things properly” is a contestable concept when it comes to online platforms. I avoid the predefined proprietary platforms, such as Blackboard, for many reasons–a) Proprietary platforms suck huge amounts of money away from other university teaching-related budget items and offer little more (often less) than widely available, low-cost online platforms (such as wordpress and wikispaces); b) They require more time to learn than the widely available platforms and what is learned in designing them — and in students using them — cannot be readily transferred outside the proprietary platform. Moreover, they get changed every few years so there is a fresh learning curve and course materials have to be redesigned; c) They do not accommodate the archiving of previous students’ contributions to be made available to future students and inform their work; d) They enforce a flawed pedagogical model in which everything is modular (which is especially obvious when online students cut to the chase by looking for the assignment due without having worked through the learning that is expected before undertaking the assignment).
  • This said, the widely available online platforms keep evolving.  It makes sense to adjust the way a course uses these platforms and to accommodate student expectations (e.g., for a sidebar menu) if not doing so gets in the way of the learning.  After all, this course is not an online course; it simply makes use of online platforms to provide access to materials as well as upload and share assignments.
  • Perhaps the deepest reason for allowing modifications as one goes is that my pedagogical style involves a trade-off:  Students experience an instructor learning as he goes (with shifts and the need for clarifications that might have been avoided by more preparation), but, as compensation, students also experience an instructor who models taking stock and learning from experiences big and small (see recent post on Refractive practice and an earlier series of snapshots on “teaching/learning for reflective practice”).
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Guided tour of my teaching ’05-’09: community-building, wikis & documentation

Although I have taught fewer classes because of course releases under research grants and for administration, the seven strands of the previous two phases [see previous posts] continued, but with additions or extensions in four significant and overlapping directions:

  • Sustained faculty discussions & community building around interdisciplinary research and teaching
    ISHS — Intercollege faculty Seminar in Humanities and Science, since 2004. “A forum for discussion and interaction among faculty at UMass-Boston. Faculty from different disciplines and colleges come together to focus on topics of common interest, exchange ideas, renew their intellectual energy, and advance their work in a spirit of adventure and collaboration.”
    HiSReDG — Health in Society Research Discussion Group, since 2008. “Monthly meetings for interaction among UMB faculty & doctoral students who have (or are developing) an epidemiological focus (broadly construed) to their research and teaching.”
    Themes, Practices, Resources for Faculty-initiated Mentoring, Feb. ’08 presentation to GCE tenure-track faculty about teaching having a value in itself, not only as the tenure review committee evaluates it.
  • Use of web2.0 to extend interactions during and beyond face2face classtime and other activities
    Wikis (CCT, including an evolving compilation of “Summaries or Substantive Statements”, Science in a Changing World, course wikis).
    Social networks, e.g., CCT “ning”
    Podcasts (e.g., CCT Network events)
  • Developing the “vertical” community of students, alums, and part-timers
    The CCT Network, initiated in 2008 (building on previous thinktanks & outreach activities) aims to:

    • organize, in a sustainable fashion, personal & professional development, community building, and educational-innovation activities beyond the formal CCT program of studies.
    • supplement students’ education through the involvement of alums.
    • continue alums’ education by their involvement in the education of students and each other.
  • Fostering a “Science in a Changing World” emphasis in undergraduate & graduate courses, faculty discussions, and workshops, including
    New graduate-level courses serving students from a variety of programs and backgrounds (Science, Technology & Public Policy [now, Scientific & Political Change], Epidemiological Thinking & Population Health, and Gender, Race & the Complexities of Science & Technology (offered through the inter-campus Consortium for Women’s Studies and experimenting with the use of PBL throughout the course)
    Faculty discussions (see above)
    Workshops (especially NewSSC [described above] — the workshop is now in its 6th year)

Related thought-pieces and compilations of exhibits
Teaching/Learning for Reflective Practice

  • snapshots from Peter’s journey teaching research and other courses for the Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT) Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. CCT, despite the “thinking” in its name, is about changing practice. [An essay included in Taking Yourself Seriously, see below]

“Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop” (with S. Fifield & C. Young) [an analysis of the effect of the interactive processes at NewSSC workshops]

An overview of Case- or problem-based learning, which begins from a Scenario in which the problems are not well defined.

Taking Yourself Seriously, A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement (with Jeremy Szteiter)

  • Why another book on research and writing? In short, because the approach presented here is not well covered by other texts. Whatever your level of confidence and comfort in research and writing, this book provides ways for you to become more “engaged.” There may be a specific question or a general issue that you think is worth investigating, but how important is that inquiry to you personally? Does it reflect your aspirations, or is the inquiry more directed to meet the expectations of others? Will it help you take action to change your work, life, or wider social arrangements? Will it help you build relationships with others in such action, in pursuing the inquiry effectively and communicating the outcomes? For a car to run its gears need to be engaged with each other; so also your research and writing will progress well if you can bring into alignment your questions and ideas, your aspirations, your ability to take or influence action, and your relationships with other people. This integration of the 4H’s—head, heart, hands, and human connections—is what we mean by taking yourself seriously.

Uses of wikis: More and less than expected

Before reviewing a variety of ways one might use wikis—only the last of which is the much-vaunted “collaborative knowledge generation”—let us consider the general kinds of reasons for using a technological tool. (This post comes from a wikipage with links that I created in order to give a talk on the Uses of Wikis at an educational technology conference in May 2010. The post, like the wikipage, requires clicking on the links and viewing the examples in relation to key terms in the bullet points below the links.)

Why use a technological tool (such as a wiki)?

pedagogical guidelines (from 2001)

  • 1. To extend thinking of students
    • a. Use computers first and foremost to teach or learn things that are difficult to teach or learn with pedagogical approaches that are not based on computers.
    • b. Make sure that learning/knowledge-construction is happening, especially when asking students to use the internet.
    • c. Model computer use on best practices to ensure learning without computers.
  • 2. To facilitate group interaction, e.g., by freeing teacher from the bookkeeping part of class activities
  • 3. To enhance communication of knowledge
  • 4. To organize a personal workstation or “virtual office”

guidelines for service & institutional development (from 2005)

  • planning
  • community-building
  • probing & reflection towards coherent principles
  • transparency and inclusiveness of consultation
  • documenting process, product, and evaluations for institutional learning
  • organization, including efficient use of computer technology, to support all of the above

Also

  • modeling/experimenting with tools that colleagues & students can also adopt/adapt
  • developing & sharing material (open source)
  • interacting beyond normal boundaries

+

  • collaborative generation of knowledge

A range of uses, each followed by the themes/principles (from above) that the use exemplifies
Framework of exchanges

  • beyond normal boundaries; learning/knowledge-construction not very successful

departmental memory and information sharing

  • transparency; institutional learning

towards community guidelines

  • probing & reflection towards coherent principles

Office Hour sign up

  • freeing classtime from bookkeeping; virtual office; organization

fieldbook

  • developing & sharing material

program newsletters

  • community-building; efficiency

recording the process and products of workshops, seminars, and courses (4-day workshop, monthly CCT events)

  • documenting process, product, and evaluations; institutional learning; open source; planning; community-building

community-building & update

  • community-building; documenting process, product, and evaluations; modeling/experimenting with tools

to do list

  • virtual office; efficiency

student reflective practice portfolios; guided tour of teaching

  • documenting process, product, and evaluations/reflection; modeling/experimenting with tools

assembling materials for a fieldbook on teaching

  • developing & sharing material

annotated bibliography entries by students

  • open source

teaching problem-based learning

  • computer use on best practices

-including involvement of panels from a distance

  • interacting beyond normal boundaries; difficult to do without computers

assignment dropboxes and course portfolios

  • efficiency; freeing classtime from bookkeeping

collaborative input to a manuscript or proposal

  • collaborative generation of knowledge

Setting limits in academic life

Short of having a heart attack while working at one’s desk, how do faculty members convey to higher administrators (chairs, deans, etc.) when we are at (or beyond) the limits of what we can take on?  This is an especially pertinent issue as the ratio of regular faculty members to contingent faculty decreases, as the paperwork of so-called accountability increases, as funds for public higher education shrink, and as events outside the academy also call for our time and involvement.

What follows comes from a wikipage which was (and still is) open to all to contribute to. The idea in creating the wikipage was that colleagues would add ideas or respond underneath an idea already posted. (They could identify themselves or not.)  The hope was that this could be a clarifying contribution to being careful and strategic about what we take on and what we ask others to take on.[1]

Clear Priorities

For each priority below in turn, take stock with colleagues[2] in our units of whether we are fulfilling this well and plan what we need to improve.[3] One way to convey our limits is to communicate that we are not ready to move on to the next priority whenever we are not yet able to give ourselves a green light on the priorities that come before it:

* (1st priority) supporting students’ intellectual & professional development

* (2nd) supporting others as colleagues in doing #1

* (3rd) the research, writing, teaching, and organizational development activities that excite us (i.e., that led us to be academics)

* (4th) the operating, planning, and ongoing development of the graduate & undergraduate programs/tracks we’re affiliated with

* (5th) dealing with administrative & other mandates/opportunities (e.g., accreditation reviews, licensure, becoming a Research 1 university…) in ways that don’t detract from #1-4.

Well-designed meetings

Do not attend any meeting without a clear agenda and pre-circulated materials to prepare for efficient use of the face2face time together. (In this spirit, do not convene a meeting unless you have time to define a clear agenda and pre-circulate materials so participants can prepare for efficient use of the time together.)


[1] Nothing much has happened on the wiki yet because it has not been publicized.  To make sure a certain administrator did not construe this as a behind-the-scenes campaign against them, I emailed inviting her comment.  No response came, and, until I had time to follow up, I held off publicizing it to my university colleagues.

[2] If we can find time to do this!

[3] And whether we can do this within a balanced profile of 1/3 research-1/3 teaching-1/3 service (and 1/3 the rest of our lives!) and whether the staff and other resources are there to help.

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