What Games Teach Our Students That We Can’t

I had planned this blog post to be a continuation of my discussion of how I have gamified my FYC class this semester, but I’ve decided to instead share an interchange that occurred between my son and me this week. I think it illustrates the impact that games and gaming can have on our students in a way much more powerful than anything I’ve read or observed so far.

This past week was 9 weeks exam time at my son’s school. Like me, my son is not a very good test-taker: he experiences test anxiety, both emotionally and physically (suffering with Irritable Bowel Syndrome flare-ups on test days) and does not perform as well under timed conditions as he does under conditions in which he can work at his own pace. Normally, I don’t push him to do schoolwork if he does not have assigned homework, but this past week his free time was replaced with reviewing and practicing for his 9 weeks exams. As usual, he knew his stuff. Until, that is, it was time to review for his History exam. To my dismay, he did not know any of the information on the study guide. This was so shocking because he is such a history buff; his preferred genre is nonfiction dealing with military history and he loves attending anything that includes historical re-enactments or handicrafts. I’m not sure why he was so unfamiliar with the information on the study guide, since his daily grades do not reflect that he is in any way struggling with the material; in fact, he has an A in the class. But the mystery of why the information seemed like foreign material to him was one that would have to wait to be solved; more importantly, I needed to get him familiar enough with the material to pass the exam the next day.

It was a difficult task, to say the least. Because he was not familiar with the context of the information, it became an issue of him memorizing the definitions to vocabulary words and the answers to questions that seemed to have been randomly pulled from the chapters of his history textbook (one example: What thing is true of both the Adena and Hopewell indians?). I tried as best I could to teach him about the context and importance of the terms and questions in the time that we had, but it’s nearly impossible to make up for 9 weeks of context in 3-4 hours. He especially struggled with understanding the concepts of scarcity and specialization. This is understandable considering that he has never experienced scarcity (at least not to a degree significant enough to harm him or make his life difficult) and does not live in a society in which individuals/families have to manufacture goods based on the resources immediately available to them.

Suddenly, in the middle of a fifth or sixth attempt to help him understand the concept of scarcity, he had a lightbulb moment. He looked at me with that look that comes over a student’s face when they finally understand something in a way that makes it both relatable and relevant.

It’s like in Minecraft! If you need to make something out of wood, a stick will only give you so many planks of wood. And if you’re hungry and all you can find is a baby pig, if you kill a baby pig, you don’t get any meat to eat.

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Because he lives in a post-industrial society, my son lives in an age in which the currency is knowledge (as illustrated by his school’s reliance on periodic standardized tests that require the memorization of facts and terms). He could memorize the definition of scarcity, but that does not help him to understand what scarcity really is and how it impacts someone’s life, much less what it’s like to actually experience scarcity, which is probably the only way to truly understand it. Of course we don’t want our children to experience scarcity of food or other basic needs (although far, far too many of our children do experience scarcity on a daily basis). But we do want them to understand scarcity so they can empathize with those who are experiencing it and will have a desire to figure out ways to address scarcity to prevent the suffering that it entails.

I’m not arguing that playing Minecraft will make my son a more empathetic person or teach him how to solve scarcity issues in the world. But because of Minecraft, he is better able to understand what scarcity is and understanding is the first step towards empathy and action. Games allow our students to experience concepts first-hand in ways that reading a textbook and memorizing information cannot; they provide a safe environment for them to gain an understanding of other people’s viewpoints, whether it’s someone who faces the task of locating enough food to help them survive one more day, as in Minecraft, or someone who faces the task of restructuring their daily lives amid a global oil crisis, as in World Without Oil. It’s not so much the rewards systems and motivational factor of games that we should be focusing on, but the opportunity for our students to learn via concrete experiences rather than abstract concepts.

 

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Embracing the Messiness: Lessons from a 21st Century Classroom

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of presenting at a workshop for regional 7-12th grade teachers. The workshop was sponsored by CoRE, which stands for Collaborative Regional Education, a program my university is developing that will create a partnership between it and regional P-12 schools, other universities, and national organizations and businesses (including Apple) with the goal of improving students’ college- and work-readiness. I was asked to share my experiences with integrating Challenge-Based Learning into my classes.

Because my audience was teachers from all disciplines, all secondary grades, and school systems that run the socioeconomic gamut, I chose to focus on some of the core (pardon the pun) lessons I learned from my experiences, rather than trying to preach or push any one particular method or technology. You can view the presentation slideshow with my notes at HaikuDeck.

 

It doesn’t do too much good to learn something if we then don’t apply it. Here’s a few ways I’m integrating the lessons I highlighted in my talk into my classes this semester:

Trust your students

This semester, my FYC I students have taken over the responsibility of providing both formative feedback and summative assessments for each others’ work. I’m also allowing them free reign when it comes to their blogs, both in terms of subject matter and genres/modes.

My FYC II students are currently busy roleplaying in Second Life (sometimes with me there, sometimes not) and writing the course’s secondary textbook–a guide to roleplaying the roles they are taking on.

My Survey of English Literature students are responsible for teaching each other (and me) about the texts and authors we’re studying this term. They’re also collaboratively writing the final exam.

I’ve pretty much made all of my classes student-centered and given them the responsibility to both guide the entire class’s learning and their own.

De-stigmatize failure

This term, all of my classes are using contract grading. The criteria for each potential grade are directly tied to how much the student wishes to participate and how hard they are willing to work. Want to go full tilt and then some? Contract for an A. Determined to do everything I ask? Contract for a B. Want to pick and choose between learning opportunities? Contract for a C. Both of my composition classes and my speech and debate classes are all using portfolios to demonstrate their work, rather than letter grades on individual performances. The only failure students experience is their failure to live up to the responsibilities and goals they decide to take on.

Peer models

I’m putting extra emphasis on having students identify peers whom they can use as models and indicate  exemplary work using social media (by giving the work a +1, liking it on Facebook, or sharing it with others via Twitter or other sm) and, more explicitly, through nominating them for an A in the course.

Students as co-teachers

As I mentioned, my English literature students are serving as experts on the texts and authors we’re studying this semester. The history major is doing an excellent job of filling us in on the political, cultural, and socioeconomic events that took place and how they might bear on what we’re reading. The women’s studies student is giving us insight into women’s issues of the times and how various texts were responding to them. Others have shared connections between our readings and current texts (such as music by Sublime and Regina Spektor) and issues (such as women in the military).

And it seems like every day a student or two will school me on technology or a new interpretation of a short story I’ve read a hundred times or what the world is like for them and how different their lives and college experiences are from my own. But rather than making me feel even more ignorant of or alienated from them, it brings me closer to understanding and sympathizing with them. And makes it easier to communicate with and guide them. And teach them.

Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner

Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.

 

I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Together Now, Part 3: Crowdsourced Assessment Using Google Forms

By matt_leclair

In past posts, I’ve written about various ways that I use Google Docs (now Google Drive) in my courses, including collaborative writing and crowdsourcing annotations for the texts we are reading. Recently, I’ve experimented with a third use for another tool in the Google Docs collection: using Google Forms to crowdsource assessments of the students’ blog posts.

I’ve regularly discussed my struggles with assessment. This semester, this struggle has intensified as I have found it increasingly difficult to manage  assessing and providing feedback on students’ work. This has some to do with the fact that I am teaching five classes, three of which are composition classes. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that all of my classes are now using the challenge-based learning model, so the work that students are doing is both more challenging and complex. This is especially true now that we are near the end of the term because this is where the most creative and cognitively dissonant work is done. I have found it difficult to adequately divide my attention between their regular writing assignments and the work they are doing behind-the-scenes. In trying to figure out how to take some of the onus off of myself without sacrificing timely feedback, I immediately thought of Cathy Davidson’s method of crowdsourcing grading. But as I’ve mentioned in my previous posts on assessment, I’ve met with some resistance from students who don’t want the burden or responsibility of providing negative assessments of their peers:

As a result, they tend to assess their peers over-generously and resist critiquing one another (one class even admitted to giving each other positive assessments across the board because they didn’t want to “hurt someone’s grade”).

One method that I have found to be relatively successful for overcoming these feelings is by making all assessments anonymous, especially in low-stakes, informal situations such as peer review. In considering how I could formalize anonymous peer assessment, I immediately thought of Google Forms. This Google app allows you to create a form that includes various types of questions, such as multiple choice, checklists, and open-ended. Once the form is completed by a respondent, the answers are automatically transferred to a spreadsheet. The creator of the form can then manipulate and share the results however they wish, including an option to view the results as a graphic summary.  The sharing options are useful for sharing the assessment results with students and the summary option is a quick way to get an idea of overarching issues within the students’ work (as well as what the students’ strengths are).

Since it’s so late in the term, I decided to pilot peer assessment rather than integrate it as a formal course assignment (students are required to complete at least 2 assessments, but I am not assigning which peers they must assess). I created a form that is based on the list of criteria for a good blog post that the class worked together to create at the beginning of the term. In addition to these items, I added two open-ended questions that require students to offer some anecdotal feedback on their peers’ posts. Here is the form I created and an excerpt from the results summary:

 

 

 

Once I received the results, it was easy to share them with the students. I simply filtered the column for the title of post alphabetically so that all entries for a particular post were together. I then hid the column for the assessor’s name. Next, I selected the cells that applied to a specific post and downloaded the selection as a PDF that I emailed to the student (I wanted to include the column titles in the selection, so I simply moved down the spreadsheet, hiding the rows for each student’s post after downloading them and before selecting the next set of cells for the next post).

What I have found so far is that using Google Forms is an effective method for crowdsourcing assessment of students’ writing. Firstly, it’s quick and convenient for students to complete the assessment. Secondly, it allows for anonymity, eliminating students’ fears about offering negative feedback that may hurt their peers’ feelings or impact their interpersonal relationships with them in and out of class. Lastly, it provides authors with multiple pieces of feedback on their writing that is simply organized. The fact that some of these pieces of feedback may focus on different aspects of their work and/or may compete with one another is actually a positive, as it helps authors see how different readers focus on different aspects of a piece of writing and have different expectations and needs. I think this kind of assessment is also especially effective because as I tell students, when they write a blog post, I am not their primary audience; rather, their peers and anyone else who might be interested in their topic are their target audiences. By receiving feedback from their peers/audience, this reality is made tangible to them.

Ideas Are As Important As Actions

Life flows on within you and without you. ~George Harrison

There’s a lot of emphasis on constructivist learning these days. This, of  course, is a response to the passive-receptive, teacher-centered style of instruction that has been the defining characteristic of the industrialized school model. Constructivism seeks to flip this model by removing the teacher from center stage and asking students to adopt a more active-creative role, whether it be to research and solve a problem (as in problem-based learning); to develop and answer questions of interest to them and others (as in challenge-based learning); or to work to create a tangible product that reflects their understanding on an issue or concept (as in project-based learning). And these are all preferable models of learning to the lecture-focused, drill and kill method.

But I hope that in the process of reforming the focus of the academy into one of learning by doing, we don’t lose sight of the importance of ideas. The life of the mind is still a valuable and necessary component of education.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing a creeping disdain for anything that doesn’t result in some type of action on the part of the learner. For example, in his blog post, “What’s the Problem with TED Ed?”, Shelly Blake-Plock takes issue with the use of TED videos in education:

TED — in the form it is presented online to the masses — is not about doing. It is about watching. Listening. Consuming. Maybe leaving a comment or sharing a link to improve your TEDCred score. Yes, there is a wealth of interesting information and lots to think about. Personally, I find many of the lectures to be inspired. But we shouldn’t confuse an inspiring lecture and provocative ideas with “learning”.

But I would argue that oftentimes we can learn from others’ ideas. I learned a great deal about how a classroom can and should be more like a skatepark from watching TED talks by Dr. Tae Kim and Rodney Mullen and I have since used their ideas as a framework for redesigning my classroom to focus more on the principles that are valued within the skatepark. I also learned about the extraordinary abilities of children who are empowered to make a tangible contribution to their community or who simply have a computer placed within reach with no directions for how to use it. I’ve learned about what it’s like to envision the world as one big comic book and what it’s like to envision the world in pictures. And while I have not acted on any of these last four ideas, I have certainly learned from them, and my own imaginative vision of the world is richer because of them. TED is about sharing ideas. Sometimes those ideas may lead to action and sometimes they may lead to intellectual enlightenment. We can learn from both.

In my First-Year Composition Course, I ask my students to grapple with ideas. In fact, we spend a little over half of the semester dealing with ideas–theirs and those of others that they encounter as they read books, articles, websites, and blogs about whatever issue we are focusing on that semester. They spend time thinking about and debating others’ ideas. And they work through their own ideas by discussing them with each other and trying to articulate them in writing, placing them within the context of others’ ideas. My students don’t necessarily “do something” with every idea they encounter or have. Sometimes an idea is worth talking about. Sometimes it’s worth writing about. Sometimes it’s not. But each idea they encounter or entertain makes an impact, however microscopic, on their intellectual development.

I do eventually ask my students to take action on the ideas they’ve been grappling with. I ask them to solve a problem or ask and answer a question or create an artifact that will help spread their ideas to others (á la TED). But I want them to spend a lot of time thinking about the problem or question or artifact. I want them to develop a mental relationship with an idea before they publicly announce the nature of that relationship through a physical action.

I’m wondering how much of this obsession with observable actions has to do with the very industrialized model that education reformers claim to want to demolish. One of the first things that you learn to do as an education major is to write a learning objective. Everything that happens in the classroom must have an objective. In order to be able to assess whether or not that objective has been met, the result must be measurable. Therefore, it must result in an observable action. But no instrument can measure an idea. And no teacher can assess intellectual engagement.

Like the most fine and rarified and transcendent things in life, the life of the mind is invisible and unquantifiable. It goes on within us and, when it encounters an idea worth spreading or acting on, without us, as well.

By all means, let’s encourage our students to create things. But let’s also show them the beauty of ideas, even those that never result in a tangible response. They can learn something from those, as well.

Loitering in the Witch’s House: My MOOC Experience

photo credit: perpetualplum via photo pin cc

Whether you love Google or hate it, there’s no denying the fact that the company is at the leading edge of open source apps and educational resources. And whether we like it or not, the majority of students are using Google as their primary research tool (and, according to a study summarized by Sarah Kessler, they’re not using it very effectively). I use Google apps extensively in my hybrid courses and, recognizing a need on my students’ part to learn how to use the internet more effectively and critically, I’ve begun to integrate the Google search engine into my research workshops. So when Google recently offered a MOOC entitled “Power Searching with Google,” I immediately signed up, hoping in the process to kill two birds with one stone: 1) to learn some Google search strategies that I could pass along to my students, and 2) to get a taste for the MOOC experience. It was a mixed bag.

Set-up
In terms of set-up, the course was very straightforward. Lessons consisted of video demonstrations followed by activities designed to test your ability to apply the skills addressed in each video. Assessment consisted of a pre-course assessment (meant to gauge existing knowledge of Google search features), a mid-course assessment, and a final assessment. The scores for the mid-course and final assessments were averaged together to determine your “grade” for the course and a passing grade resulted in a certificate of completion. There was also a discussion forum that you could voluntarily participate in.

Pros
1) Individualized pace: While there were deadlines for the mid-course and final assessments, you could work through the course materials at your own pace as long as you were ready to meet those deadlines. This worked great for me because I could complete individual lessons or entire units as it suited me. Considering the hectic schedule I have this summer, this was by far the most effective aspect of the course for me.

2) Paced release of materials: While I could work at my own pace on the materials available to me, I was limited by the fact that the units were released at a graduated rate. This actually turned out to be a positive for me because, since I couldn’t see the entirety of the course materials at the beginning, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of material I would need to cover and I remained focused on each set of materials I had access to.

3) Do-overs: Both practice activities and assessments were set up to allow multiple attempts at answering questions correctly. You could check your answers before submitting your assessments and wrong answers to practice activities usually triggered some feedback in terms of what to review in order to better understand the skill addressed in the activity. I found this to be a very effective method for learning because I didn’t have a fear of failure hanging over me that a single-attempt set-up would have created.

4) Leveling up or down: While I didn’t actually make use of it, there was the option to change the difficulty level of practice activities to either an easier activity or a harder activity. Again, I see this as being an effective method for individualizing assessment. There was also an option to skip activities and see the correct answers. This was effective for those search functions that I was already familiar with and didn’t necessarily want to waste my time trying out; being able to see the answers allowed me to self-assess my prior knowledge and move forward quickly if I wanted to.

Cons
1) Boring videos: I don’t expect lecture and demonstrations to be entertaining, but I do expect them to be somewhat engaging on an intellectual level. The videos were not long (the longest was a little over eight minutes), and this brevity was their only saving grace. It wasn’t just the fact that the instructor sat on a couch the whole time (I suppose in an effort to make the instruction feel more personal), but the content itself dragged in several lessons. Some lessons were far too simplistic and some were overly repetitive. A boring presenter is boring, whether IRL or on video.

2) Google Chrome required: All demonstrations were done in Chrome, so I could not replicate some of the tasks, such as the Search by Image function, as demonstrated. There was no discussion by the instructor of the different ways to complete these tasks in other browsers, though I did eventually receive help via the forum (after I had completed the final assessment). This often led to frustration on my part. If I had taken this course IRL, I would have been able to ask for clarification from the instructor.

3) Difficult tasks given short shrift: There were a few lessons that contained difficult concepts, such as using and interpreting results on WHOIS databases. There was little time spent discussing and demonstrating how to use these databases (although the instructor acknowledged the difficulties of using them), yet being able to do so was part of the final assessment. As a student, this was extremely frustrating and I quickly gave up trying to figure it out by myself (my frustration is demonstrated with some rather derogatory doodles next to my notes on this lesson and a final assessment of the lesson as “useless”). Again, IRL instruction would have afforded me the opportunity to seek clarification on these muddy points and perhaps encourage the instructor to extend the time spent on the databases.

4) Chug and plug assessment: While the practice activities required direct application of skills, the assessments were multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank problems that, for the most part, simply required regurgitating information from the instructor’s demonstrations. At this point, I’m not really certain of how much of the course I have really learned and internalized and how much I’ve simply managed to maintain in my short-term memory.

5) Forum confusingly organized and asynchronous: The few times that I did try to use the forum, I had difficulty navigating it. It was supposedly organized by lesson, but I could never find a direct link to the discussion threads for a specific lesson and it seems that most people just posted wherever they felt like it. When I posed questions, I did not receive immediate (or even proximal) feedback; the earliest I received an answer was a little over 24 hours after posting the question. Of course, one aspect of open online learning that MOOCs bank on is student participation; they count on the fact that other students are probably online when questions and comments are posted and are likely to respond faster than forum moderators. However, in this particular MOOC students did not seem particularly eager to help each other out or respond to each others’ posts, and all of my questions were answered by forum moderators.

What does this mean for MOOCs?
My initial response to the idea of MOOCs was hesitantly hopeful. Having completed one, I’m pretty much stuck with the same reservations about them that I have for tuition-based online courses. They are inherently more suited to certain types of students, i.e., those who are highly motivated, self-aware learners with good time management skills and a high tolerance for working alone and not having immediate access to and feedback from their instructor and classmates.

In terms of instruction, it requires as much, if not more, effort to make online instruction engaging because it’s far easier for students to become disengaged with an online course, especially one that’s free and has no extrinsic motivations to stay connected and finish. The one thing that’s possible in online course design that MOOCs cannot capitalize on, due to their massive size, is individualizing instruction. I’m not completely sure of the purpose of the pre-course assessment for Google’s MOOC (unless it’s simply for their own data collection purposes) because the rest of the course was not structured based on my answers to the initial assessment questions. IRL and in small online courses, diagnostic assessments allow for individualization because you can use the information garnered to help direct students towards those materials that will be of most use to them in terms of the gaps in their prior knowledge.

My first MOOC was like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. It seemed to offer an educational paradise: no-cost, developed and delivered by domain experts (whose “certificate of completion” holds cache), flexible in terms of when and how I completed it, open in terms of whom I would be sharing the experience with. Unfortunately, the reality did not live up to the fantasy. Of course, unlike Hansel and Gretel, I could have left whenever I wished. Instead, I stuck it out to the bitter end, hoping to find some redeeming quality in something that held such promise.

What does this mean for hybrid and fully f2f courses?
We need to continue to figure out how to capitalize on the best aspects of f2f learning and online learning. Some variables remain the same, no matter what the medium of instruction. Boring is boring. Materials and activities need to be intellectually engaging and individualized to the greatest extent possible. Community is essential; students need access to their teacher and their classmates, whether it’s physically or virtually, and some of that contact needs to be synchronous (which is one reason that I think hybrid courses are so effective). Assessment needs to be formative, immediate, and authentic. And no type of assessment can measure engagement. I earned a pretty high score in the Google MOOC, a score that does not reflect the boredom and frustration that I experienced. While I certainly came away from the course with an extended set of Google search skills that I did not posses prior to the course, I’m not sure that I would have  completed the course had I been less motivated (the certificate of completion will help to pad my annual faculty review packet).

How many of our own students have walked away from our courses with A’s or B’s, despite boredom or frustration? If we base the success of our courses on the grades that students come away with, we’re ignoring the aspects of learning that MOOCs make obvious: the hardest working and most motivated students will succeed, no matter how poorly designed the learning experience. So, it’s important for students to have opportunities to share anecdotal feedback, not just at the end of the course, but from the very beginning and throughout the course. And it’s important that we be willing to act on that feedback.

In hindsight, I now recognize that it will be very difficult for designers of MOOCs to do this. In fact, it is difficult for MOOCs to enact most of the learning practices that I value: learning-centered instructional design; a skatepark-like learning environment; immediacy; flexibility; authenticity; hybridity; intimacy with the materials, ideas, and people who make up the body of the course. Instead of heralding MOOCs as the salvation of education, we need to recognize them for what they are: an alternative that works for some learners on some levels. However, it’s also an alternative that is still in its infancy and still has room to grow; in fact, I think that DS106 demonstrates what MOOCs are capable of with the right kind of instructors and objectives. Whether or not they can, as a general rule, get there is up for grabs. What makes DS106 work is that it is, like the best IRL course, a truly student-centered community, in that students develop and help assess the assignments. It’s a course completely devoid of sticks and carrots and completely built on the desire to be a part of a unique learning community.

This ideal of a free and open learning community built upon choice and intrinsic motivation is the real promise of MOOCs. But if we continue, as some institutions and companies do, to look to MOOCs as a vehicle for the mass-production and broad dissemination of canned content, we’ll never get there.