Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Flying Without a Text

Textbooks? We don't need no stinkin' textbooks!

Some of my colleagues still think this is radical, but I'm becoming a proponent of "no textbook" teaching. I have only used a text for one course in the past two years. This is a scary proposition for many instructors who rely on publishers to provide curriculum, exam questions, materials and even learning objectives. They say it takes too much time to prepare materials. They say it also makes it more difficult for a course to be "repeatable" by multiple instructors, and assures consistency in the material covered.

Although I understand these arguments, I have to say that I feel a tremendous sense of freedom in not being tied to a textbook. I don't have to worry about meeting the pesky college bookstore's ordering deadlines. I also feel very good about not requiring that students fork out hundreds of precious dollars for books that they may or may not use. But the most important benefit is that I think it has actually improved student learning in my classes!

First, by not relying on a textbook, students discover that there is a gold mine of course content and information freely available on the web. Thanks to the Open Courseware and Creative Commons movements this is growing exponentially every day. Students can be exposed to many different ideas and perspectives rather than getting just the perspective of a single textbook's author(s) and the instructor. They can also continue to learn and research areas of interest after the class is over, contributing to lifelong learning. And, of course, there are no heavy books to carry around.

Second, rather than spending my time on reviewing textbooks and finding course materials, I have more time to work with students one-on-one as a mentor and adviser. How am I able to get away with this? I make them do the work. I provide them with the framework or "scaffolding" of questions and problems to solve. They go looking for the answers and build their own library of resources along the way. It's amazing how much you can learn while looking for something else. :)

Why Should Teachers Have All the Learning?

One day as I was prepping for classes, I realized that I was spending hours looking through textbooks and "filtering" materials to assign for students to read. This was contributing significantly to my own mastery of the subject matter, but did the students really benefit from all my effort? Most of the time when I asked students to "own up" about whether they had actually done the reading assignments, the answer was lots of eye lowering and mumbling. Some "not really" and some excuses. So why was I spending so much time culling through these materials that students didn't take the time to read anyway? Like many instructors, at first I was disappointed, hardened my stance on completing the reading assignments and tried motivations like pop quizzes. This is what teachers do, right? I started to wonder if this was really the most effective approach.

Research on how people learn has shown that deep learning is achieved through inquiry, discovery, and problem solving. Metacognitive skills are developed when we reflect on our own learning, as teachers do when we have to organize and present concepts to students. We are required to think critically, defend arguments and validate sources. So who is doing the active learning here?

Rather than "teach" material and assign readings from a text, I tried reversing the roles. Students do the research, culling through materials, and then present their findings in multiple ways. They must post information they have found centrally online for others to review, question and critique. They also present it orally during in-class presentations. I've begun to run my classes more like "brown bag" seminars, where everyone has a responsibility for teaching and learning. In this way, students are creating their own "body of knowledge" around a subject domain as a class, and it is dynamic, current and ever-changing from quarter to quarter. Just like real life.

Exam questions? Test pools? Students build 'em. They are required to submit questions to the pool as part of their knowledge discovery process. They feel ownership for the material, and for the questions. A quick lesson in creating effective exam questions goes a long way (and also helps to reduce text anxiety). The answers are in the body of knowledge they have created as a class and made available for study. It reduces cheating too, as the exams change every quarter.;)

How do I know that student learning has improved? It's not difficult to observe. You can read their interactions online and watch their progression of understanding as their "codified" body of knowledge grows. You can see the enthusiasm and responsibility they take for their learning as they share knowledge with each other in class. What I've experienced with this approach is the pure joy of learning. I look forward to seeing what the students will find and present each week. My role is one of organizer, facilitator, evaluator, mentor and expert learner. We are learning together.

What? No More "Hitting the Books?"

Each quarter as I move further and further away from traditional textbooks, I'm discovering new ways of learning and continuing to hone these "radical" teaching methods. Of course, this process of knowledge discovery is nothing new. Graduate students and researchers at universities have been learning for centuries through questioning, independent study and peer review. So why should feeding students canned information from a textbook and then asking them to regurgitate it be the standard for education?

I've received varying reactions from students over the past two years when they find out there are not textbooks required. Many are pleasantly surprised that they don't have to purchase books, but others are skeptical. Some have complained that they don't have a physical book to hold on to and write in. Some want the familiar structure of a course built around a textbook. A few have even dropped my class before it started.

Perhaps it's because we grew up this way, but there is comfort in the familiarity of textbooks. We have fond memories of carrying around book bags, doodling in the margins and highlighting passages of text. We have stories about late nights studying, "hitting the books," and cramming for exams. To most of us, this represents school. But I would contend that it doesn't represent learning.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Cleaning up my Digital Life for the New Year

The end of the year always seems like a convenient time to organize my life. Perhaps it's an illusion, but I somehow believe that I'll be able to start fresh for the new year. Maybe NEXT year I'll be more organized!

This Christmas I got a new laptop (a MacBook Pro, 320 GB with 8 Gig of RAM!) so for the past few days I've been focused on migrating data and cleaning out files as I set up my digital life in its new home. I also added an iPad to the mix last summer, so with my iPhone and my new MacBook Pro, my computing world is now just about perfect! I created a new taxonomy for my files, researched personal productivity tools, and renewed all of my "tried and true" online subscriptions to productivity tools like Remember the Milk and Evernote for another year.

However, as I took inventory of my online presence, I realized that I have neglected this blog - the last post on this blog was in 2009! It's not that I haven't been online - I just have too many places to post and keep up with! I experienced information overload this year, and even took a hiatus from all online interaction to spend time in my garden this past summer. It was very cathartic, and I highly recommend "unplugging" for awhile.

So, here we are in December, another year has flown by, and I just finished teaching Business Information Management during Fall quarter. In this course we discuss the definitions of data, information and knowledge, information overload and many other related topics. Students were required to blog throughout the quarter about the topics covered each week. For many, this was the first time they had ever "blogged" and they were a bit apprehensive about it!

At the beginning of the quarter I proposed a question for them to ponder, "are blogs information?" For those that did not have an active online life, the initial answer to this question was "no.' Blogs were seen as something frivolous and personal - even a waste of time. Some did not see blogs or twitter as information of value to business. Throughout the quarter, in addition to their blogging assignments, I provided readings from blog articles, and my own "lectures" were in the form of blog posts in the online classroom. By the end of the quarter, the students' reflections told a different story. Many students wrote that reading other perspectives helped them to gain a better understanding of the course materials. There was a sense of community and learning together. Through participating in the process of blogging and commenting on other blogs, they were able to clarify and articulate their own knowledge. They definitely saw the value in blogs as information.

In my final wrap-up post to the class, I wrote "The world's knowledge is made up of many voices and ideas. If people weren't willing to codify their knowledge in some form (writing, video, audio, etc.) and put it out there for others to use, we would not have the vast network of information that we rely on for our work and our daily lives."

Well, I guess I should take my own advice. I resolve to blog more in 2011 and contribute in some small way to the knowledge network of the world. :)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

More WetPaint

In January 2008 I blogged about WetPaint as a tool for teaching. Since then, the tool has improved considerably! WetPaint now has a moderated community for educators to share ideas and get support. It is becoming a full-blown social networking tool, with advanced discussion features, so I decided to try using it this summer for my online Business Information Management class. Although Blackboard is typically used at my college for online courses, recently I've felt stifled by the "instructor centered" paradigm that Blackboard is built around. For this particular course, I wanted students to drive the course content and experience the process of building an online community and information resource. Even with the blog and wiki tools in Blackboard, it just didn't create the kind of interactive wiki environment that I wanted for this course, so I set up a private site in WetPaint (and since it's a site for education, they removed the ads for me too.) It's an experiment, but so far it's working out well!

Here's how I set it up:
Since the students are most familiar with Blackboard, and the course enrollments are managed there, I posted the basic course information and all assignments in the Blackboard course shell with external links to WetPaint wherever necessary. However, WetPaint is the discussion board. I created a menu item in Blackboard that's an external link to WetPaint, so it can be opened within the Blackboard environment. The only downside is that if the student doesn't save their login information within their web browser, they have to log in to the WetPaint site again if they launch it from Blackboard.

I sent an email invitation to all of the students enrolled in the course to become members of the private WetPaint site. For the first week's assignment, I asked them to complete their member profile on the site and include a picture. I also asked them to create a personal home page in WetPaint. Each week, students are asked to blog about specific topics related to the course material. Their blog posts are sub-pages under each student's personal home page.

For the weekly discussion, I ask students to visit at least 3 other people's blogs and add comments during the week. Students are also responsible for moderating and responding to any discussion threads on pages they create. This organizes the discussion by person, rather than by topic - a little different than the typical online course discussion board. I also created a Group Glossary page where students add terms as sub-pages each week. This becomes the class "Wikipedia" specifically relevant to the course.

Here are some of the things I've observed so far:
  • Student's Reaction: The new tool definitely pushed students out of their comfort zone, and at first many of them were frustrated about where to find things and how to navigate the environment. I had to do quite a bit of hand-holding and reassuring during the first 2 weeks, but after that the majority of students caught on. To get their reactions during the first week, I created a discussion thread for them to express their feelings about the tool.
  • Rich Content Options: WetPaint makes it easy to link to multimedia content, and for students to create a library of related content as well. As the instructor, I can include a variety of different types of materials very easily, but students can also add videos, images and other media to their blog pages. This has made the course much more interesting.
  • Learning Community: Having pictures and profiles for each student makes the class seem more personal. The discussions also seem much more interactive than in Blackboard. I don't know if it's the environment, or the caliber of students in this class, but it's a lively community!
  • Tracking Participation: WetPaint makes it very easy to grade online participation and for everyone to see each other's participation level. Each member profile has a "Contributions" tab where everything the member does on the site is recorded, with links to specific contributions. I created a gradebook item in Blackboard where I recorded each student's WetPaint ID as a cross-reference, so it's easy to find their member profile.
  • Moderation: It does take some time to keep the site "tidy" as well as stay on top of the discussions. I set up a basic skeleton for the course, but sometimes students put pages in the wrong places, so I just move them. I've offered up extra points to students who want to help me keep the site organized as the amount of content has grown throughout the quarter.
  • Feedback to Students: A couple of nice features of WetPaint are the ability to send Compliments to individual members and the ability to add "To Do" notes on pages. As I'm reading blogs I can click on the author's profile and send a Compliment. This shows up in the member's profile and also as a message to the person. Students seem to really enjoy getting compliments from me and from other students in the class. It helps to build the sense of community. Also, if I think a page needs work (like the blog post is only 3 words...), I can add a "To Do" on the page, that sends a message to the author and notifies me when it's done.
As always, there are a few things I would do differently the next time - I'm learning as I go too. For example, I realized that I could customize the member profile questions and would use this as a Get Acquainted tool during the first week. Also, I might create a template for the "home" pages for each student to fill in initially so they could see the structure of the site a little better, and either create a tutorial video demonstrating how to use the site or have a face-to-face meeting with students during the first week to go through it. This may help to alleviate some of the frustration at the beginning of the quarter.

I think many of the students have enjoyed exploring different features of WetPaint after they got over the initial learning curve. It has outstanding discussion board tools that allow students to control their own online classroom. It may not be for the instructor who needs to feel in control, as the class definitely takes on a life of its own. :) However, I would recommend it as an enhancement to Blackboard, as a complete environment for teaching online, or for enhancing "on ground" classes.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Google Docs for Educators

Mr. "Education Virtually Anywhere" has been giving me a hard time because it has been so long since I made a post on this blog. I admit, I've been busy with other things...

At the ICCP Board meeting this past weekend I had a great conversation with Jim Bell, a fellow community college IT instructor and ICCP board member. We were chatting over dinner about all of the useful tools for students that are now available "in the cloud." With these free and accessible tools on the web, students don't need to download or purchase expensive software to complete their assignments, and online or group collaboration becomes much easier. Just about every day I learn about something new. Since I usually learn about them on other blogs and Twitter posts, I decided that I need to get back to tracking and sharing these on my blog.

One of my all-time favorite tools is Google Docs. I keep finding new and innovative ways to use it, in all aspects of my life. It revolutionalizes collaborative writing. In its most basic function, it's a suite of productivity applications - a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation builder. The applications are free and completely online - no software to download - so you can access them from any computer with a web browser (and some cell phones!).

Although useful as a suite of free applications, the real power of web-based tools becomes evident when you begin sharing. It completely changes the way you think and work with documents because you no longer save and email them around for people to make comments or updates. You "share" the document for other people to read and modify - giving specific permissions depending on what you want them to do with it. When multiple people share a document, you're all working on the same thing (not copies of the thing), sometimes even at the same time, with real-time updates. It's much like a "wiki." You can upload documents, store them online, export into a variety of popular formats and even publish them as web pages.

Google Presentations allows you to create or upload powerpoint-like documents that can be shared by publishing and sending a link to the URL to anyone you want to participate in the presentation. Set up a time, launch a Skype conference call, send out the link to participants and voila! you have a free video conference. Pulling together that group presentation assignment at the last minute becomes a breeze when you are all working on the same presentation, at the same time!

Google Spreadsheets allows you to share a spreadsheet and also lets you "chat" with others who are online editing the spreadsheet at the same time. It has the ability to create forms for gathering data and then compiles the data into a joint worksheet.

When you put these tools in the hands of students and give them problems to solve, the learning opportunities are endless. Click the link from the title of this post (or here) to see videos and testimonials on Google Docs in Education.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Professional Certification = REAL assessment!

I was inspired by James McCusker's column in the Sunday, 8/31 Herald, "Certification would help college grads prove their skills," regarding Charles Murray's book: Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. As an educator, a certified I.T. professional and an advocate of industry certification, I was especially attracted to the idea of certification as assessment. It is a natural partner to the concept of "education virtually anywhere."

What I like about this idea is that it firmly places the responsibility for what a person knows on the individual rather than the education system. Certification requires a personal commitment to learning a body of knowledge and being able to demonstrate skills, measured by some independent external assessment body. In my work with our college's accreditation over the past few years, I have been actively involved in discussions about assessment and accountability in higher education. However, the focus of educational reform has often been on making institutions more accountable for success of students, rather than emphasizing the motivation for students to take responsibility for their own learning. Standardized tests such as the WASL are used to rank institutions and control funding. They do little to encourage assessment as a tool for students to manage their own life-long learning. For most traditional college students, attaining a degree has become a simple test of survival. If you can stay awake (and sober) enough to pass all your classes, and you can afford to pay for at least 4 years of college, you can get a degree. On the other hand, the professional credentialing process is all about setting personal knowledge-oriented goals and striving to attain them.

I began to imagine.... what if MOST employers valued certification credentials more than college degrees? What would that do to the world of academia?
  • To exist, colleges would have to truly focus on the individual student's needs and on REAL assessment. Colleges or programs would be judged on their ability to help students prepare for externally administered evaluations, rather than graduation rates.
  • There would, undoubtedly, be an outcry from academics who teach liberal arts and "soft" skills that do not easily translate to specific professions or certifications. Purely academic programs may have to justify their existence and demonstrate their value.
  • Same place, same time models of teaching would be challenged. Individuals could gain the knowledge needed to attain certification from many different sources, at anytime.
  • The cost of college would no longer be a factor. As long as you could pass the exams, it wouldn't matter if you went to school at Harvard or learned from sites on the internet.
  • Life-long learning would be expected. There would be no need to confine your education to a 4 year program, or earn "credits" from a single institution. You could pick up knowledge on your own terms - on your own time table.
  • Colleges would have to rethink the traditional efficiency-based models of offering programs. Maintaining optimum student-to-faculty ratios will no longer be a relevant measure of productivity for educational institutions.
  • Colleges would have to really focus on the services they offer and the value they provide to learners - such as providing resources and administering assessments. Perhaps even moving toward a "health-club-like" model of subscription-based education. (See Corey's Advisory Bored blog entry "Basic Cable").
  • For certifications to be rigorous and meaningful, employers would need to become more actively involved in the development and validation of certification assessments. Employers would have some "skin in the game."
Unfortunately, U.S. employers and educational institutions have a long way to go before they would embrace such a model. Except in well-established professions such as Accounting and Law, hiring managers and HR departments are often unaware of existing certification bodies or they undervalue these credentials. Changing such deeply entrenched systems and strongly held beliefs about education is a lion many have fought but few have conquered. However, as more public scrutiny is given to assessment in higher education, perhaps professional certification will gain more credibility. This is not a bad thing, and in my opinion, would send a tsunami of change throughout our traditional institutions of higher education.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Knowledge is a personal thing

Andy Williams' latest post on Visual Literacy and Informal Learning triggered some interest and exploration for me around personal learning environments (PLEs) and the power of reflecting on how we personally acquire knowledge.
As I perused through the collection of PLEs at http://edtechpost.wikispaces.com/PLE+Diagrams, I am inspired to begin working on my own personal learning environment diagram. This reinforced the concept that knowledge is a dynamic and very personal growth process. We develop new understanding as we continually challenge and reorganize our own knowledge. Creating visual diagrams is a way to reflect on our own models and make them explicit, while collecting these models in one place provides the opportunity to see patterns, analyze them and learn from them - also opening up a tiny insight into the diverse ways that people see their world. This demonstrates one of the valuable aspects of the collaborative tools we now have available in the web-enabled world. It's clear that formal education is only one node in the expanding network of learning resources.

Does this make the stereotypical role of "teacher" in our formal education systems irrelevant?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Del.icio.us Uses for Social Bookmarking

I'm warming up to social bookmarking, and I know that some teachers have been trying to understand how social bookmarking can be useful. Here are some ideas:
  • Preparing for a class or workshop, I have found and tagged items that I want to demonstrate. By giving them all a specific tag I can find them easily by opening up my Del.icio.us account and clicking on the tag. Example: Workshop.
  • I have a list of web articles that I want students to read for an assignment. I simply add them to my Del.icio.us with a special tag like "MGMT215-A1" (using a code to identify the assignment). Then when I select all items with this tag, I can create a URL just for this list and include it in my Blackboard course materials. Students don't need a del.icio.us account to view it, they simply see the list of links. I can also add comments. Example: MGMT 215 Links. You can easily reuse these links from class to class.
  • I find articles on the web that my husband or a friend might be interested in. I simply add their del.icio.us ID to my network, and now I can add a tag "for:"+ their ID and it will show up in their list. By the way, Corey is already having fun with this one. He posted a link in my "Links for You" on "How to Effectively Load a Dishwasher." Is that a hint? :)
  • Create a group resource account that can be shared and add the link to a blog or website. You can give the login and password out, or any group members with their own Del.icio.us accounts can share links with others by adding the group account to their network and use the "for:Groupname" tag to share specific links. See EdCC Faculty Group Page.
  • Show students how to collect resources on Del.icio.us for group research projects.
  • Research topics using the Del.icio.us search. Let other people's tagging help you find items of interest!
Learning and teaching students how to use tags is also an exercise in organization and categorization of information. This is a great skill, and may be a fun way to explore a variety of topics and vocabularies for different disciplines - for example, what are all of the terms and keywords that are used to described your discipline or profession?