Finding the right balance

This is my comment from about finding the right balance through blended learning.  Parts of it may, therefore, seem a little out of context.

Trying to find the right balance is often a difficult thing to do, especially when there are so many good things you can do. My general rule of thumb is that when you add something to your class, something needs to go. However, there is a point when this isn’t really possible any longer. When it gets to this point, I tend to start examining the way the course and instruction are designed. Is the content being disseminated in the most efficient way possible?

This is where I think blended learning can really be helpful. Wendy I know you are already doing some work with Edmodo so this may not be anything new to you, but for the rest of the group it might be helpful.

What I’d do would be to look at everything that I want to include in my course. Put it all out on the table if you will. Then start thinking about what it is that you could do online. Are there components that can be facilitated online, such as discussions, readings, etc. that will reduce the load of your face to face lessons? If so, then start by organizing those components into an online “pile” if you will.

Next, I’d start looking at some of the things that you’ve done in the past that have traditionally taken place during class. Are there other things like lectures and group work that you typically give your students time in class to do that can be facilitated online? Some of you may be thinking, crazy Dan, doing group work online! As crazy as it sounds, it’s actually not that hard and can actually give your students more flexibility. In my master’s program (75% online) we did a considerable amount of group work using tools like Google Docs, WebCT (BB9), Skype, and Adobe Connect. And when it comes to lectures, there are a number of tools available that can help make the transition to online. While I don’t like lectures, sometimes you just have to lecture, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it in class. So as you survey the components of your course for those type of tasks, put them in the online pile as well.

Remember, you don’t have to put everything online, but ranking components by importance will help you decide if you can do it online or in class. Once you have gone through everything in your course, you should see all the pieces of your course that you want to do in class. These should be the crucial components of your course: major projects, central methods, etc. You should also see a considerable amount of your course that will be taught online. These are going to be things like discussions, lectures, small group activities (not major projects), videos, etc. These are still important pieces of your course, and by putting them online in no way are you lessening their value. Rather, you are just being more efficient with how you spend your time in your course.

As you go through this process, you’ll want to talk with an instructional designer who is familiar with online learning, such as myself. The main contact on campus would be Jason Vetter in ITS-ET. Contacting one of us when you go through this process will help as we will likely provide a different perspective. Remember, my goal here is not to have you simply post your syllabus and readings online. I’m talking about putting major components of your course online to complement your face to face sessions with your students. What I’m advocating for is much more difficult to do at the beginning, but has a much greater payout in the end in terms of the type of learning your students experience and the time savings you can experience in class that allows you to do other tasks with your students.


Social media, Pen pals, and Access

I was reading an infographic about social media and education and one part talked about how an instructor uses social media to connect his foreign language students with native speaking people.  Essentially, his students have pen pals they are connecting with using social media (Skype).  This surely makes a much more authentic experience than what I had when I was in school and we used mail to communicate back and forth.  Effective, but I never really knew my pen pal and certainly didn’t stay in contact after the course ended.  Social media is changing how we communicate and interact, but in a good way.

This was certainly an exciting opportunity for this teacher’s students to experience, but what struck me most about this was the incredible ease we have to connect with others from around the world.  We have almost unlimited access to people, information, and other resources, but the unfortunate reality is that too few teachers leverage these tools to create meaningful experiences for their students.  I don’t have any hard data to support my claims, just my own beliefs and opinions, but it doesn’t seem like teachers are unwilling to use social media.  To me, it seems like teachers just need support and a vision to see the possibilities.  The problem as I see it is that two fundamental things are missing from many schools…proper support and a vision.

What are your thoughts?  How are you or other teachers in your school using social media to communicate with others on a local, state, national, or even global scale?  How has that changed the dynamic of the classroom?  Add a comment and keep the conversation going.

Online education: Is it as good as face-to-face education…it can


I came across these two questions when I was browsing through my RSS reader this morning, and it made me think about how we can wield distance education to reach the ever expanding clientele schools are educating.  Here are the questions:

What I like about this article is that it shows some of the problems associated with online education as it is widely done at all levels.  I think of the courses that don’t allow for student voice, feedback, interaction with other students/instructors, etc.  I also think of some of the courses that were offered online from a local community college from my K-12 days as a technology coordinator.  The courses were online courses taught without an instructor, where course materials are available online and students complete assignments based solely on readings and online exercises that rarely require any form of higher order thinking.  When online education is conducted in this manner, I too find the prospects of a face-to-face education much more appealing than the online alternative.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way.  With the range of available online technologies today, there are very few technological reasons to not have a meaningful online educational experience.  The problem lies with poor instructional design for online learning environments.  We cannot simply post instructional materials or as the article mentioned, provide no way for feedback or interaction.  The principles of effective instruction are still applicable in online environments just as they are in face-to-face environments.  For me it all starts creating an environment that promotes interaction and social presence.

Interaction is key for any classroom.  This may seem difficult for online courses, but it doesn’t have to be if the course is designed in a way that promotes interaction in both synchronous and asynchronous methods.  In synchronous online environments, this can be done through the use of video conference software, web cams, microphones, chat rooms, and back channels.  With some simple moderation all of these can be integrated into most online synchronous courses.  In asynchronous online environments, the same level of interaction can be attained through discussion boards, social networks, email, weekly video updates from instructors, or even texting between participants.  While interaction is delayed, it doesn’t mean they are or need to be of any lesser quality.  All of these means of communication also provide the necessary social presence that is necessary for students to perform well in any learning environment.

Social presence is the level at which a participant in a course feels they are received by others in the course.  This can be simply done in a face-to-face course by going to class and interacting with other students and the instructor.  However, distance education makes this a little more difficult since participants don’t physically go to class.  This doesn’t mean that social presence isn’t necessary or possible in online environments.  It just means that instructors have to work a little harder to make it possible for social presence to be established.  There are many ways to go about this, but what I have found to be the best way, from my experiences in an online graduate program through Iowa State University, is to provide a way for students to communicate with each other.  Provide them with a space that is meant just for them.  Let them share stuff that’s going on in their lives, even though it won’t relate to what’s being discussed in class.  Life happens so embrace it and use it to make the connections stronger within the course.  These interactions are necessary for students to become comfortable with each other and lead to more enriched discussions.

Another way to promote social presence is to have a blended learning environment where students actually meet face-to-face at different times in the semester.  This can be done at the beginning of the course, a couple times throughout, or at the end of the semester.  Being able to see and hear what someone else sounds like is a great way to establish social presence in an online course.

When it comes down to it, education is all about the interactions and connections being made by students and their instructors.  If we fail to create a learning environment that promotes these characteristics, then we will not be able to succeed in online learning environments, or at least not at the same level as their face-to-face counterparts.

ePortfolio follow-up


I thought I would post a follow-up to my last post about eportfolios, which focused more on what I thought about ePortfolios as a medium for showing what we know and how I think they can best be done.  In the world we live in today, we need to consider the resources we draw upon to teach our students.  With very little effort, and maybe just a bit of thought, most teachers can find a media rich resource to use in class.  But how do we document the effective use of such rich resources if we are completing paper based portfolios?

The easiest way is to ditch the paper and go with an electronic portfolio or ePortfolio.  ePortfolios can take many forms, from non-linear PowerPoints to simple Web pages to full fledge Web 2.0 wikis, blogs, or even social networks.  The main thing to keep in mind is that the person creating the ePortfolio chooses the platform that works best for them, not their administrator or next door teacher.  Finding the right platform can be a little overwhelming, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Pick a platform that represents your work the best.
  • Pick a platform that doesn’t require a significant time commitment to learn the basics of “how” to use the software.  Some time investment will be required, but it shouldn’t be so much that you don’t have time for anything else.
  • Think about the type of media you will be using.  If you have video, but no way to embed said video you might want to find a different platform.
  • If you don’t know what platform will work for you, ask for help.  Talk to your administrator, the teachers in your hallway, or even ask for help on Twitter or Facebook.  Many people have been where you are and can help show you the way out.

What I like about ePortfolios, and really paper portfolios, is how easy it is to reflect on the “artifact.”  In most Web 2.0 platforms we have today, there are comment features for nearly everything associated with the software being used.  Whether it be a blog, wiki, podcast, etc., there is almost always some way to make a comment.  This easy access allows us to not only reflect on what we are doing and teaching, but it also allows others to comment on our work and provide feedback.  The power is in the feedback, not the process.  We are often blinded when we look at our own work, so it helps when someone we trust or even someone we haven’t built a trust with, takes a look at our work.

While this post focused more on teachers and ePortfolios, I think they are a great idea for students as well.  If I were teaching a class, I would have all students create an ePortfolio where they could submit their assignments for the course.  I would also have them share the URLs for the ePortfolios with other students in the class, and even other students, teachers, or experts in the state, nation, and world.  Give students the means and platform to speak from and to receive feedback from the rest of the world.  While you may be a very accomplished and educated teacher, receiving feedback from others may make more of an impact on your students’ education than you ever can.  And that’s okay.

Here are some platform ideas for creating ePortfolios.  Note: this is not a how-to perse or an exhaustive list, but rather a list of possibilities.

  • Blog
  • Wiki
  • Web Page
  • Social Networking site: Ning, Facebook Page
  • Podcasts
  • PowerPoint
  • Moodle
  • BlackBoard

The power of miscommunication…

I am relatively new at blogging for an audience other than the immediate staff I work with at my school. Now that I only work with a small number of people I decided to put myself “out there” by advertising new posts on my blog by updating twitter page.  This has led to many more readers making the journey to my blog to see what I am contributing.  What I soon experienced made me very aware of the dangers of communicating in text…miscommunication.

What happened to me is a common thing that likely has happened to everyone.  I miss read what someone else wrote in a comment.  This led to me feeling a bit frantic, and eventually a little embarrassed, because I thought I had done something wrong, violated some sacred blogging code that I hadn’t realized.  In reality, someone was simply asking me what I thought.  After communicating back and forth a few times I realized I hadn’t really stolen someone else’s idea and I actually had an engaging conversation with someone in another country (very cool by the way).

The point of my ramblings is that it is all to easy to misunderstand someone when communicating via text.  There is little room for expression or tone, which can make deciphering meaning all the more difficult.  As we move to a more globally connected world, where we interact with people in other time zones and in more asynchronous ways, it is important that we prepare our students to be more literate so they don’t fall into the situation I did.  Here are some things to keep in mind when writing online:

  • Try to explain what you mean as clearly as you can, in as simple a way possible.  Don’t write an essay for a two sentence response.
  • If someone misquotes or misunderstands you, let them know.  They likely didn’t understand what you meant and might just take an example to clear up the situation.
  • If you don’t know what someone means, ask them to clarify.  Maybe you overlooked something and the author can help you clarify.
  • Use examples to explain your point.  This can easily be done by linking to other sources on the Internet.
  • Don’t freak out when someone challenges your ideas.  Conflicting ideas is how we learn, so embrace different opinions and be passionate about what you’re discussing.