You are here: Home > cyber teaching

October 18, 2007

cyber teaching

Posted by dogpossum on October 18, 2007 10:55 AM in the category teaching

I've been using a combinatin of online teaching tools this semester, and I'm not really happy with most of them.
We use WebCT as a standard, university-wide tool. It is very clunky and, quite frankly, pretty dang crap. It's windows based in its logic, and it's counterintuitive, which means that it's often pretty difficult to figure out how to do basic tasks. Even when you've been trained to use it (as I was). It's also super-slow in uploading and managing files. I don't know enough about it to know why, I just know that I don't have that trouble when I'm uploading files to other sites using other tools. It also looks horrible. Not the most important point ever, but when you're working with stoods who aren't exactly keen to start off with... And it's not a very 'friendly' site. It doesn't make me want to explore. It also favours a particular visual logic which is very culturally specific. This is a big deal for me working with students from multicultural backgrounds and who may not have ever used a computer before (this is true of a fair chunk of my students).

Using it has been pretty shitty, and I'm a keen computer nerd. The internet, she is my friend.

We've also been using the e-reserve bit of our library website. That seems the most popular option, especially for students who aren't terribly computer savvy. It helps that it's within the library universe, so they're only using one visual interface, rather than having to learn a whole new environment - they know where all the buttons are. It's also the simplest tool - we just upload basic files to the site and they log in and download them. No fancy teaching modules or whatever. It's a bit like going to the library to borrow a book - simple and functional.

These expereinces remind me of how we developed an online networking tool for the committee running MLX. We started with druple, but we all found it incredibly difficult to use. Most of the team had only very basic experience with complex online environments, and druple was just difficult to use. So we ditched it. I'd been reading about plone and liked the colour scheme. But the more I fiddled with it, the more I liked its usefulness. That's the software we use now. And it's been very useful and successful. We certainly don't use it to its fullest capability - we really just upload files and then comment on them, or email the links from within the site. But that's all we've needed. And it's been neat.

So now I'm thinking about our experieces with webCT this semester, and I'm not satisfied.

I keep thinking 'Most of these guys use faceplant and myface and are really proficient internet kids. How can I steal the best bits of those sites and make a course site that really rocks?' These guys love that stuff, so how can I get them to love a course-related site?

This is what I want:

  • somewhere to put each week's lecture notes and various media files (films, images, sound files, etc)
  • somewhere to put all the assessment documents (assignment tasks, style guide, etc)
  • somewhere to put general notices where all the students can see them

That's the very basic list. It's really just a course reader online, where everyone can see it and access it whenever they want.

I have students who work a lot and have very busy lives. They need something easy to use and navigate, something useful and something that will make their study easier, not harder. So it has to be easy to learn to use. And fun. And actually valuable (not technology for the sake of technology).

I want the site to encourage their interest in the subject. I've been doing some stunt lecturing this semester, trying to capture their interest in the subject. For me, this is the most wonderful, interesting stuff in the whole world. And I want them to find a way into the subject that works for them, and really captures their interest. So I've been looking for interesting little films (thank you, thank you, Chaser, I owe you big time), sound files, pictures and so on. It's been surprisingly successful. I squeeze these into my lectures and then make the urls available. YouTube has been an essential part of this.
I've also figured 'if I'm interested in all this stuff - this whole range of stuff - surely they will find at least one thing that captures their interest?' And if I set an example of 'media is super fun', and a real acquisitive, hunter-gatherer approach to learning, where I 'bring home' the interesting things I've found, perhaps it'll rub off.
Partnered with my 'talk about media you're into' strategy (I talked about it a bit here), it's been reasonably successful. Students have taken the opportunity to talk about the things they've seen in the media that have caught their interest. They've been a bit hesitant and scaredy about revealing an interest in nerdy stuff, but have generally worked up to more confidence. Even the quieter students.

Ok, so other things I want from an online package:

  • somewhere for students to add their 'interesting finds' - images, news stories, AV clips, sound files, TV shows, etc etc
  • something that will encourage discussion, but will work as a complement to the face to face (I do not want this to become a substitute for tutorial chatting - that is still the absolutely central part of any subject)
  • something that's not too time consuming. This is important for my students with kids and lots of responsibilities. So it has to be easy to learn and use.

I've also been thinking about new ways of structuring course. Pretty ambitious stuff, but still. At the moment we have:

  • lectures (1 hour is preferable, but our uni tends to 2 hours with 1 hour tutes - it's a funding thing)
  • tutorials (2 hours preferably)
  • written assignments (my preference is for cumulative, not discrete 'blobs' of essay)
  • readings (delivered in a big wad of reader (Glen has made some really interesting observations about readers here)
  • and perhaps in-class exercises or random quizzes

Here's something I'd like to try:

  • lectures. Large groups of students together in a room listening to someone talk about interesting stuff. One hour is maximum attention span time. Lecturers preferably some big gun in the department (for all these reasons), including some illustration by way of snippets of film or images - whatever best illustrates the points being made
  • tutorials. Small groups (12-15) of students working for 2 hours. Emphasis on discussion and learning to talk about the readings/lectures/ideas. Emphasis on socialising the stoods (eg learning to listen and work collaboratively on developing ideas). Some practical exercises to test theories/methods. I like the 'talking about media' tool to encourage students to talk about their media experiences and workshop/develop their assessment ideas
  • assessment. Two pieces of cumulative assessment (essays to develop writing skills) and a not-too-hard in-class exam. Short answers. Drawing explicitly on weekly quizzes. This will help students who haven't quite gotten the hang of extended written tasks and encourages students to study all the weeks' work, not just the ones relevant to their projects
  • weekly quizzes. Not necessarily for marks, but covering the essential elements of each week's topic. A good way to keep lecturers on-track and give students a clear idea of the main areas of discussion. An excellent revision tool. Also a useful de-stresser for students who feel like they're drowning in a formless mass of details. These could be made available online quite easily.
  • readings. Key readings in the field are absolutely essential. Students do need a guide to key readings in the literature. Discussion of readings should emphasise not only what's in the reading, but also the structure and form of the reading. How is it written? What sources does it use and cite? How does it develop arguments? How does it illustrate key ideas? How influential has it then been on the field? How did it shape opinion? Is it representative of a particular approach? This body of readings should give them a broad overview of important ideas and writing in the field, and serve as a jumping off point for student's further research. Encouraging students to follow up the articles and books which cite these key readings is a useful way of developing research tools and getting them to think about how ideas develop discursively in disciplines
  • possibly some sort of interactive film/slide show/AV. Combining interesting images and audio-visual clips to illustrate points and provide an always-available interactive, multi-media discussion of the issues. This could be available on CD, to be watched in the library, online via a website to be streamed or downloaded.
    This is one I'm not entirely sure of. But I have students with such a range of learning styles and skills, I really like the idea of forcing information into them in a range of forms. I am, though, still wrestling with my instinct to encourage diversity in terms of learning styles within a university context where the one thing we want to do is force them to learn to learn and 'make discourse' by reading and writing (it's ridiculous: I was lecturing this week about the advantages of radio in developing countries - it doesn't require literacy so it's more inclusive!)

So when I talk about a useful online teaching tool, I want something that would complement all this stuff.
If I'm encouraging students to work on cumulative assessment, developing their own 'projects' over 2 essays during the semester and using tutes to discuss and workshop their ideas, then why not use the site to encourage and support that? It would be really nice to make it possible for students to upload their project notes and files to the site, and to then download them and work on them in multiple locations, uploading their additions when they finish a session. That would allow them to share their work with other students, get feedback from staff (egads - the extra work!), discuss ideas, etc. Importantly, it would provide backup for all their data.

I'd also like to have a glossary or lexicon of terms on the site which they can add to. I've had requests for something like this from my students, but haven't had time to develop it.

I'd like the usual email/discussion board/chat options, but I'm not sure just how successful they'd be. They'd be nice for public questions, eg "how many ads should I use for this assignment?" but could be a big fat time sink. Moderating them could suck.

I'm also wondering about whether to put recordings of the lectures online. As with lots of other people, I've been fascinated by Berkeley's YouTube channel and want to take advantage of this idea. On the one hand, we have resisted making full versions of our lectures available for students because it drops the number in lectures. But the number of students who come to lectures drops off as the semester progresses anyway. Partly because students drop out (especially in first year), but also because the pressure towards the end of the semester thins them out. Which makes me think about alternative ways of structuring the semester, too.
I find, though, that I still get a core group at each lecture (mostly students from my tutes, incidentally), and as the classes have shrunk, their willingness to ask questions during the sessions have grown. This isn't like a tutorial - I am still declaiming the Good Oil from the pulpit - but it's an interactive lecture. The students are quite aware of the distinction between the two, and its been interesting seeing how they've developed different modes of interaction for each. They realise that tutes are times for them to talk as much as they like while I listen and monitor, but that lectures are time for me to talk with room for requests for clarifications.

While I had trouble with people chatting in lectures earlier in the semester (and man was it satisfying to kick those arses!), I now get a few whispered to-and-fros. When I say "if you've got a question or comment, share it" (and it doesn't sound as facetious as that reads - they know I really do mean it), they usually reply "oh, I was just asking what that last word was - I didn't hear". So it's just a bit of peer-clarification. Which is all good and nice.

That's actually interesting, because in tutes I encourage students to answer each other's questions and to work collaboratively towards figuring out answers or ideas. But in a lecture we actively discourage that. It's a really weird conflict between student-centred/participatory learning and declaratory, lecturer-centred learning.

I'm still not sure where I stand on in-class presentations by students. On the one hand I don't think it's a good idea because it freaks them out. I also feel that I can better judge their learning if they're participating activley in class, than I could by listen to them stumble through a formal presentation. Shit-scarey and tedious for everyone. But on the other hand, sometimes it's nice to have a chance to actually have the floor to yourself for a while to present a properly worked-through idea.
Maybe a presentation of their research projects? But again, a less formal, more participatory in-group model would be better.

So anyway, to sum it all up, I've been having a look at moodle, another online teaching tool. Will let you know what I think. Will you let me know what you think? I'm interested in feedback from people who teach in other fields especially.

Posted by dogpossum on October 18, 2007 10:55 AM in the category teaching