A Lesson for Online Teachers

This is a true blog post.  I haven’t thought thru this.  I don’t really have time to write this, but I want to get something down before I forget it, or decide it’s not valuable.

I’ve taught online for five years now.  Every time, I learn how to do it better. Online courses have a tendency to be isolating to the students.  I work hard to prevent that with layers of interactivity, study groups, and other things. Students have to be present on a regular basis or I notice and can reach out to them.

One thing I’ve done since the beginning is ask students to create short videos to introduce themselves to the class, just as I have done.  This works well, but during this summer’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute (which I haven’t blogged about yet, but will), I had a little idea to take it a step further.

Every week I hold a Google Hangout for my online students.  The hangouts give me a chance to talk about what I think students should be working on, especially those topics that are challenging to learn.  Perhaps more importantly, it gives students the opportunity to ask me any course related questions face-to-face (or rather screen-to-screen).  These hangouts on air are automatically archived on YouTube so students who can’t be present can watch the recording. And they do.

So here’s my little idea.  It won’t work for every online course or every student, but it made a little difference in my context.  I conducted the first hangout of the term from a conference room on campus.  I invited any students who wanted to attend it person.  5 students showed up along with 9 others in the Hangout.  (I know of several students who couldn’t get in so maybe next time we’ll use Zoom.)

The students who participated in person were more active than most who participated virtually.  Every in-person student asked questions, while only some did online.  The in-person group provided an enhanced dynamic to the hangout which lasted nearly an hour.  I was able to go back and forth from the in-person to the virtual audience, and they seemed to stimulate each other.

When we finished, the in-person group asked when we would do this again? They seemed to really find it helpful.  They also formed an immediate study group, which I have formalized when selecting groups for the class.  I hadn’t planned on doing it again, but when they asked I said, perhaps we could do it the hangout before each exam.

Something to add to my online toolkit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MOOCs and Motivation: Part 2

This post is a continuation of the previous one, but digs deeper into the question of why participants fail to complete MOOCs  It is speculative and personal. It’s possibly based too much on my own experience, so take it for what it’s worth.

The most frequently expressed reason for dropping out of #OpenLearning17 was lack of time. While I accept that at one level, I also wonder if there are deeper reasons. Let’s start with some thoughts specifically on MOOCs; then we can explore deeper issues of motivation, comparing the experience of students with the experience of instructors and professionals.

I’m assuming that participants joined #OpenLearning17 because they have an interest in and want to learn the subject. There was little or no extrinsic reward for doing so. This has been the case for all the MOOCs I’ve participated in.

MOOCs often include a great deal of work in a given week. Some weeks #OpenLearning17 certainly did. The idea is that those who have a particular interest in the subject can dig more deeply than those who don’t. I found that when I had worked through a certain amount of the work, I felt like I knew enough to participate. I didn’t have to do all of the work to reach that point. During some weeks, I wasn’t able to do enough work to reach that point. This made me less able or less willing to participate publicly.  As one participant indicated in a survey response,

“Yes, as the semester went on my schedule got much busier and I couldn’t fit the OpenLearning activities in. Some weeks required a lot more than others and then I felt like I couldn’t really do the week justice.“

MOOCs tend to be based on a cohort model—they are not self-paced. If one finds one can’t keep up with the ostensive pace of the course—if, for several weeks in a row, one finds they don’t do enough of the work to reach that level of understanding of the subject mentioned above, I think there’s a tendency for participants to feel like it’s not worth coming back, even if the course is not vertically building.   If this process spirals out of control, the MOOC participant may drop out.

Could it be that the (arbitrary) pace of the online course doesn’t match the time availability of most of the students? What then? (And what does this say about the learning experiences of the students in the courses we teach?)

Is the problem of failure to complete a MOOC due to the lack of accountability?  Students more often than not stay with a course because of the grade and credits that will be earned.  Is that a bug or a feature? One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that relatively few students plan well for the end of the semester. Final papers and exams are often worse than I would expect from students, given the quality of their earlier work. This seems due in part to the fact that students are stressed beyond the level that makes them productive, and some students seem to give up, just to be done with it.

When I engage in a scholarly project, I work at it until it’s done to my satisfaction. Often the only deadline is my own. When I have an externally-imposed deadline, I tend to adjust the pace of my work to meet that deadline. I can do this because I have a lot of experience and a strong sense of how much time a given task or set of tasks will take.  [ For a related discussion, see John Warner recent piece.]

When I’m teaching, the schedule is external—I have to turn grades in by a certain date, and I make that deadline. Sometimes that results in a difficult couple of days and I may end up wishing I had a bit more time. In the case of determining final grades, again experience has taught me about how long something will take, though ultimately the need to meet the deadline may make me less sensitive to how good a job I’ve done. It’s probably true that final exams and final grades are, to a certain extent, like sausage making.

How is a student’s experience taking a class different from an instructor or professional completing their work? Many students don’t know how much effort it takes to complete their assignments and/or what a good result is or how much time it takes. In other words, students lack self-efficacy and the ability to self-regulate their learning.  I see this particularly with first year students, but also with some upper level students.

When I do something professionally I typically want to meet a standard of what I consider good work. When I was an undergraduate, while I wanted to do good work, I wasn’t always sure what that would be. When push came to shove, I turned in what I had, for better or for worse. While I had a grade at stake, the lack of experience and understanding of my learning process meant that I didn’t always achieve my goals.

When I do something professionally I have a good understanding of process I’m about to engage in. As a student, I had an imperfect understanding of that process and, at times,that   led me to undershoot.  Why didn’t the uncertainty lead me to overshoot? Because there’s nothing higher than a A? Because I wasn’t as motivated as a student as I am as a professional?  I’m not sure. As a student, I had a lot of what I thought were important things competing for my time. As a professional I do also, but I also have a better sense of what’s important, and how long things will take.

What about when I take a course or a MOOC? My participation in #OpenLearning17 asked me to do some things that I wasn’t all that familiar or comfortable with.  These including annotating documents with Hypothes.is, Creating Storify(s), and participating in real time twitter discussions when I hadn’t done enough of the assignments to be able to contribute much. I felt self-conscious about embarrassing myself publicly.  As Sarah Rose Cavanaugh said in a recent Chronicle piece, “To participate is to risk a lowering of one’s status.”  In short, during #OpenLearning17, at times I behaved like a student.

Is there a tendency as a student to give up agency to the instructor, falling back on our learned behavior of school? I just know that when I take a course, I don’t feel as responsible as when I teach one, or as when I do some other professional task. I wonder if I’m the only faculty member who feels that way.  More importantly, how can we encourage our students to get beyond this artificial barrier to learning?


Image courtesy of tamahaji “The Motivation” via flickr.com

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

MOOCs and Motivation: Part 1

One of the criticisms of MOOCS has been that while they enroll a large number of participants, only a few finish. We had this experience with #OpenLearning17, but I wonder if it’s a bug or a feature. In this post, I present the data, while in the next I will speculate about what it means.

Let’s start with the data. Our constructivist MOOC went on for 14 weeks during the early part of 2017, roughly the same time as my semester. Since one of the goals of the Faculty Collaborative project was to create a sustaining resource, I extended my look several weeks past the end of the course. Two forms of engagement with the course that left a record were twitter and blog posts. The following two charts show total tweets and posts (by week) from the beginning of the course thru six weeks after.

The pattern of blog posts and tweets is similar. The numbers start large and then diminish over time. The blog posts are strictly diminishing through the end of the course. There’s more variation in the tweets, probably based on the topics of the week, but the trend is also diminishing. While the most tweets were in the first week, there were local peaks in Week 5 (Digital Literacy) and Week 8 (Open Pedagogy). Note also the surge of tweets during the ODU Summer Institute week (The week labeled +3), after the course was formally over. Twitter is a common backchannel for communication during conferences and similar events. Note also that the conversation continues with at least 12 tweets per week since the course end and an average of 5 blog posts per week since then.

The pattern of declining activity from the first week of the course is consistent with the claim that only a small fraction of participants finish, and by extension, that MOOCs are a failure. But is that the only takeaway?

When I mentioned this to David Wiley, he proposed alternatively that maybe people got what they wanted from the MOOC and then left. Not everyone is interested in every topic. Perhaps they tuned in for those topics and not others. Some of the tweet data is consistent with that hypothesis with surges and declines around specific topics.

We also surveyed participants about why they didn’t complete the course. According to the survey results, there were two reasons for people dropping out: The most important was lack of time or time conflicts, given one’s other commitments. There were also respondents who indicated a lack of interest in a some topics.

With respect to the first reason, here is a sample of responses:

  • I loved the week or so that I was actively participating in OpenLearning17. The topics and associated readings were thought-provoking, the chats, etc. stimulating. Facilitation and collegial sharing was great. I had been looking forward to the experience and it did not disappoint. Unfortunately I did not have the time to continue.


  • The intensity of my workload meant I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the writing.


  • Yes, it was mainly a time issue as my participation decreased…although I did catch all of the web hangouts with Randy and Bret, and did some tweeting during those sessions. But my blogging certainly dropped off, which I regret.


  • I apologize for disappearing from the class.  Student draft-conferencing season hit, and I’ve been swamped.


  • For me it was totally a time thing. I had to parse out my hours and minutes diligently and just kept having to hope there’d be time for OpenLearning17- but it kept vanishing.


  • As the semester went on, my schedule got much busier and I couldn’t fit the OpenLearning activities in. I could probably do something like this more effectively over the summer. Or with more flexibility (do multiple lessons in one week, none another week, if that worked better for my schedule).


  • I was excited about the course and kept up with the reading for a number of weeks past when I stopped blogging/tweeting about it, but I noticed myself tapering off and I was disappointed that I couldn’t make it work. … I really WANTED to remain engaged with the cMOOC as the term went forward; I even tried to time-limit my engagement so that I could do a thing within the context of the time constraints I was working under. I just literally ran out of time to do so. I needed every second.


There is some evidence that individuals continued to participate, even if they didn’t have the time to blog.

  • It all interested me– it was time– I tried to follow, but I didn’t have time to write and engage. Between travel, all my work projects and my dissertation, it was just too much. Content was actually more of interest toward the end for me– and I have lots of things in my head, just no time to get them out.


  • I actually intended to write a wrap up to that effect a couple weeks ago when the course ended, but you know how the end of spring semester can be.


Some participants expressed a lack of interest in particular topics:

  • Thanks again for organizing the OpenLearning17 course. I will continue going over the readings and on occasion blogging about them. I dropped out because of time, and the openlearning project, which I found highly stimulating but marginal to my current job responsibilities (which focus on faculty career planning), had to be cut. (emphasis added)


  • Honestly, it was a combination of factors for me. I really appreciated the academic exploration of open-related topics, but sometimes they simply were just too theoretical for me. I am a librarian at a community college so I spend a lot of time thinking about and working toward what will help our students today, and while I appreciate the need for academic exploration, practical takeaways and insights help keep it balanced for me. But it wasn’t that the later topics didn’t interest me; in fact I think some of the topics in the week I missed would have been more relevant to me and my role in open learning, and I will hopefully get a chance to explore those this summer. (emphasis added)


Several participants expressed an interest in continuing the conversation in the future:

  • I very much appreciated the opportunities presented by the course, and hope to remain part of the conversation going forward.


  • I really appreciated the format and many ways to engage in the course! I would definitely try again with something like this!


  • There’s still a host of things I want to review from how the thing went down, and a whole lot of learning I can take from the thing. But this spring turned out not to be the time for that at all.


  • If you all are willing, I am planning a bit further ahead now and I think that will insure that I have the time for OpenLearning18.


Next, what might this evidence mean?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Practice, Assessment, Feedback; Repeat!

Online Gaming

I’ve had the privilege of attending two conferences this week that furthered the thinking in my last blog post on teaching and learning. The first event was the OER Leadership Day at the North East OER Summit hosted by the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. The second was the 2107 New Media Consortium Summer Conference in Boston.

At the OER Leadership event, Ross Strader quoted Carnegie Mellon’s Herb Simon as saying

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks.” [emphasis added]

In short, no doing and thinking implies no learning. Norman Bier supported this claim, citing a recent study (Koedinger et al, 2016) which found that “the learning effect of doing is about six times greater than that of (e.g.) reading.”

Consider the following simple model of learning:

  1. Work with (i.e. do and think about) the material;
  2. Assess the learning;
  3. Obtain expert feedback from the assessment;
  4. Repeat!

Getting feedback from assessment is critical for deeper learning to occur. It’s not (just) the assessment, but the feedback that matters.’ Ideally, the feedback needs to come soon after the assessment.  Important note: assessment & feedback as discussed in this post are not for summative purposes; rather, they are integral to the learning that results. This subtle, but important point, seems difficult for students raised in a conventional learning environment (and many teachers) to grasp.

Back at the OER Leadership day, David Wiley asked why computer games are so compelling? The answer is because they follow the Practice, Assessment, Feedback; Repeat model and the feedback is instantaneous!

Now let’s think back to tutorial learning. Tutorial learning works because it follows this model with near immediate feedback and with the further wrinkle that, before moving on the next topic, the learner must repeat the practice and assessment until mastery is reached.

How does the pedagogy of lecture fit into the frame of the Practice, Assessment, Feedback; Repeat model?  At the NMC meeting, as part of a thought-provoking keynote, Richard Culatta described

“A lecture [as] a really a zoomed out YouTube video that you can’t speed up or slowdown, and the sound doesn’t always work.”  “Additionally, it’s very expensive to produce.”

There’s a lot of truth to that statement, and yet there was also immediate push back on Twitter, saying while it may be overused in teaching, lecture has its place!  Fair enough, but if lecture is not (primarily) for learning, what is its purpose?  Gardner Campbell responded (again on Twitter) “Great lecture is cognitive testimony! ”  Indeed, I agree, though perhaps much of what is described as lecture in university classrooms (speaking from my own experience and practice) is less than great.

Let’s apply our model of learning to lecture.  What is the assessment and feedback on a lecture? Is it the midterm examination?  If so, the feedback, at least early in the term, is not very timely.  If the feedback is negative, I wonder how many students decide it’s too late to review; otherwise, they risk falling behind the upcoming material.  Perhaps this explains the lack of learning most students obtain from a lecture.

In a recent columnJosh Kim stated:

I believe deep in my bones that learning is a relationship. That authentic learning has everything to do with the educator / learner relationship – with the mentoring and coaching and caring that is inseparable from the art of teaching.

Throw down!

I have explored the link between teaching and coaching before, but let me leave you with this: Who is more likely to improve their practice,
someone watching a baseball game from the stands, or someone playing the game?  I agree that we can be inspired by excellent play, and even motivated to work harder on our own game, but it seems clear that practicing the sport is more likely to lead to improved play.  Perhaps attending a lecture is like being a spectator at a sporting event?

Images courtesy of:

  • AIBakker Playing Games via flickr
  • Piers Nie Computer Game via flickr
  • SAG Throw down! via flickr
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Learning & Mastery

Suppose we define learning as the acquisition of knowledge and skills (and habits of the mind) in some content domain, like Principles of Macroeconomics. Learning occurs when a student interacts with content (and with the instructor regarding the content). Perhaps the lowest potential for learning occurs when the student is merely exposed to content, for example by reading a chapter in a textbook or by listening to a lecture. Such examples of passive learning are less effective at facilitating learning than examples that require students to more actively engage with the content.

More than 30 years ago, Benjamin Bloom reported on some research that speaks to these issues. He and his graduate students considered three learning environments:
1. Traditional Classroom – 1 instructor teaching 30 students (e.g. lecture), with periodic summative testing (e.g. Chapter tests or midterm exams)
2. Mastery Learning – 1 instructor teaching 30 students. Similar to conventional teaching except for the inclusion of frequent formative assessments with feedback and corrective procedures, then retests.
3. Tutorial Learning – 1 instructor with one student. Frequent formative assessments with feedback & correctives…

Bloom’s findings were pretty startling. He reported:

“[T]he average student under mastery learning performed better than 84 percent of the students in the traditional classroom.”
“[T]he average tutored student performed better than 98 percent of the students in the traditional classroom.”

What this implies is that nearly every student can master the content with tutorial learning. Think about that. Nearly every student, not just the best students, can master the content.  Shouldn’t that be what all teachers want?  Of course, few universities can afford to teach that way. The stories of large lecture courses, sometimes very large lecture courses (at least at the introductory level) are legion. This led Bloom to issue a challenge, which has been called “The Two Sigma Problem”: How can we structure instruction that simulates Bloom’s results more affordably than getting a tutor for every student?

Why do students learn more under mastery learning and tutorial learning?

“In mastery learning, the teacher reteaches topics that the majority of students don’t master, small groups peer-tutor one another on challenging topics, and students individually review materials they’ve missed.

Mastery learning works because it makes sure most students learn prerequisite content before moving on to advanced content.  As Bloom puts it, “the class adjusts its pace and path to ensure foundational topics are mastered before moving on.” By contrast, if a class moves on to more advanced topics when students haven’t learned the prerequisites, any subsequent learning will be built on a weak foundation at best. Can a student be successful taking SPAN 102 without passing SPAN 101? Yes, but it will be harder for most to do. If a class moves on from each topic when some students haven’t mastered it, over time more and more students will fall behind. It will be like jumping into SPAN 300 before taking SPAN 101-102 & SPAN 201-202. Some students could do that successfully, but most will not. (By success, I’m not referring to grades, but to learning.)

Tutorial learning takes it a step further by making learning personalized.

“Personalization is defined as differentiating instruction and providing regular corrective feedback based on the needs of each student. This included personalizing both path and pace–identifying and addressing missing prerequisite knowledge, and spending more time where necessary to ensure students achieved mastery of topics before moving on.”

In short, traditional learning means the instructor follows the course schedule to cover all the content by the end of the semester, regardless of how much students have learned. This is because instructors face two constraints: required content and limited time.  Mastery learning means the instructor makes sure the class learns the prerequisites before moving on.  Tutorial learning is personalized, so every student learns before moving on.

Of course, teaching practice in real life occurs on a spectrum. Traditional classrooms can include some review, but the emphasis is covering the content and summative assessments. Tutorial learning could be one tutor with a few students, not just one student.

Mastery and tutorial learning seem to conflict with many teachers desire/need to “cover the content.”  I hear this most often from science faculty.  It would seem that these better approaches take more time, so that one would teach less of the content by the end of the semester.  Now I know that what an instructor “covers” doesn’t or shouldn’t matter if student’s don’t learn it, and I believe that.  But aren’t we setting students up to fail if we constrain ourselves to the same curriculum with the same traditional length term?  This must mean we don’t really expect all students to be able to achieve mastery, despite what Bloom found.  Or it could be a collective action problem.

My response, at least in my face-to-face courses, has been to teach with something like Socratic-questioning, which I try continue as long as students seem unsure about the material. The result is that I cover less content but teach it more deeply, at least that’s what I’ve hoped.

At the same time, it is easy for me to get lazy when I teach online. Since there are no class sessions, the opportunities for Socratic-questioning are limited. I have weekly Google hangouts for interested students; additionally, I offer twitter for daily discussions. As a result, the hurdles for conversation about the content are higher, and so we probably do less of that. At least that’s the case for some/many students.

Bloom said something else that resonates for me here. He postulates that conventional teaching falls short of what’s possible because teachers only call on some students. This can be true of mastery learning (as he defines it) as well. Perhaps this helps explain lower outcomes (or harder efforts) in online courses.

What could online instructors do differently? That’s something to ponder.


Image courtesy of Anne Davis 773 “learning” via Flickr.com

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Virginia Faculty Collaboratives Panel Presentation at ODU Center for Learning & Teaching Summer Institute

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

On the nonlinear way my mind works

I always get a thrill on those occasions where, for a while, many things I read or hear or see seem to be on the same topic. Or maybe it’s just my mind seeing connections. This is a longish post, so bear with me—there is a punch line.

Earlier this semester, around mid-term, I was in New York with several students—each year I take students to present their original research at a professional conference. The undergraduate sessions, which I help organize, are sponsored by Issues in Political Economy, an undergraduate journal of economic research (broadly defined). Anyway, when I saw and read Gardner Campbell’s post Conceptual Frameworks: Some Thoughts, I knew I had to share it with my senior seminar.

{Gardner’s post was a contribution to #OpenLearning17, an open online course that is running this Spring as part of the AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives Initiative, which I’ll explain in more detail below.}

This year’s senior seminar follows a model that I’ve used before. I identify an interesting question to which I don’t know the answer.  I organize the class as a research team and we spend the semester exploring the question and figuring out an answer, which we publish online. The process is loosely based on backwards-design: We start from the research question and ask “What do we need to figure out to be able to answer the question?” We divide up responsibility for those things, and the students research them. We report out in class and make note of what we’ve learned. Then we repeat the process in greater granularity. Finally, we draft a report of what we’ve learned (which process we’re doing right now). In lieu of a final exam, I ask students to reflect on two questions: What have you learned, and what have you contributed to the class’ learning? I ask them to provide evidence from their own work (e.g. blog posts, written reports, presentations to the class, contributions to the final report) to support their claims.

This year’s group has great chemistry and I’ve been very pleased with our work so far. After reading Gardner’s post, I emailed the class, told them we would move what we had planned for Monday to Wednesday, and instead I asked them to read Gardner’s post and be prepared to discuss it on Monday.  In class on Monday, I posed three questions to the group:

  1. What is a conceptual framework?
  2. Why should a course have a conceptual framework?
  3. What is the conceptual framework for this seminar?

I have to admit that I didn’t know if the discussion would take, if it would last five minutes or the entire class period, I just felt it had potential. The discussion turned out to be extraordinary. Every student had something to say. Four students had already blogged about Gardner’s post before class without any prompting. I want to highlight the contributions of two students in particular:

B. is the only student in my seminar who is not an economics major. But she keeps taking my courses. She spoke up saying that she was the kind of student who liked to know exactly what was expected so that she could exactly meet the instructor’s standard. She said my classes make her uncomfortable because while they may provide a broad framework, they don’t specify exactly what is expected. But for some reason she has been willing to take these courses that make her uncomfortable, because she has learned that she will get something important out of them.

A. is the only student in my seminar who has not taken a course with me before. In her comments, she quite simply went off on what’s wrong with education today, or as I describe it, the game of school, which she asserted encourages good grades and test scores to the detriment of real learning. She went on to say that the courses where she has learned the most were those that set broad guidelines and then expected students to figure out what to do with them.  We might call those courses examples of “real school.”

Why am I bringing up this seminar? Because by not seeking to convey a specific body of content, and by not knowing the outcomes in advance, the seminar employs a fairly open pedagogy. More on this point later.

A few days after my seminar discussion while meeting with students in my online intro class, many of whom are adult students who need my class for their degree programs, I witnessed a different perspective. These students have jobs and families. They don’t have a lot of free time. Many of these students have a very specific goal in mind, and it’s not education, the way I think of it. They are taking my course to meet specific degree requirements. They are pursuing their degree program because they see it as instrumental in reaching a career goal. In some cases, they merely need a college degree. These students want to have a rubric. They want to be told exactly what they need to know to get the grade: A, or B or C. They don’t want an open learning experience.

They seem to be asking:

Can we just skip the process and go right to the learning that’s going to be on the test?

To be fair, they are not asking for the answers; they just don’t want to spend scarce time on things that aren’t important, which they take to mean things that won’t be on the exam. But what if there are no exams in a course?  Does that mean there’s nothing worth learning?

It’s hard for me to fault these students. They are doing what they’ve been socialized to do. They are trying to win the game of school. They are paying good money to get a job, career advancement, etc., and in many cases they have a clearer idea of what they want out of college than my traditional-age students.  Some of these students are really good, A students. They have great potential to be educated, but that doesn’t appear to be their goal, at least not in the way I mean it.

What about the many students who start college without a clear idea of what they’re here for, what their mission is, what they want to accomplish at school. Some of them find their way and flourish.  Most of them graduate.  Some of them don’t. What responsibility do faculty have here?

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare introductory with advanced courses, but I am left wondering what faculty should do.  University students are adults, after all.  Should we respect their choice and go on with our work?  Or should we assume that students don’t know a different model of school, and then offer them one?

That brings us to general education, and the AAC&U Faculty Collaboratives initiative, of which #OpenLearning17 was a part. Over the last decade, the AAC&U has done terrific work at defining what college graduates need to know and be able to do to become contributing members of society, both in terms of undergraduate major programs and especially general education. This work is largely based on research in the learning sciences, something that few university faculty learned in our graduate programs. The work includes the so-called High Impact Practices, which have been found to correlate with student success.  The AAC&U has also developed guidelines and rubrics for assessment of these goals. So the purpose of the Faculty Collaboratives project is to introduce faculty to these practices, demonstrate how they enhance student learning and success, and encourage faculty to try them out.

In my view, general education courses traditionally haven’t been a good entry point to real school. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some courses that do the trick. But consider all the general education courses that are primarily designed as introductions to a major. Or the introductory courses which are designed to be gatekeeper courses. These are not courses designed to pique students’ curiosity to think deeply about how disciplines help learners make sense of real world issues and problems. They tend to be about covering content, lots of content. The end result seems to be that students see general education courses mainly as hurdles to be gotten over, impediments to their getting to their real curricula. (It’s not just students with this problem. Think about the language that faculty advisors sometimes use.)

General education courses are not merely courses we are obligated to teach for the institution so that we can teach the upper level courses we want to teach and so we can do our scholarly activity. They are, or should be, important entry points for real school. Students shouldn’t have to wait until senior seminars to get a glimpse of what real school can be.

We can learn how to more effectively teach Gen Eds by incorporating what the Faculty Collaboratives initiatives have publicized and promoted.  Liberal arts and sciences institutions should have a particular advantage here over larger universities with large lecture courses. Compare a research university where only the best undergraduates have the opportunity to conduct research with a faculty member, with a small liberal arts college where all graduates are expected to have done so.

But we can take this a step further if we combine general education with open educational practices. Open education, which has been the subject of #OpenLearning17, is a pedagogical approach that offers extraordinary promise for those willing to try it.  By addressing real world problems that students care about, by giving students agency, by showing students that what they are doing matters, by connecting students to outside audiences, experts and novices who are genuinely interested in what the students have to say, open education and its practitioners can show the power that real education provides to change the world.

That’s my take away from the Virginia Faculty Collaboratives project.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Using Hypothes.is to Help Students Read Scholarly Papers

One of the things I’ve learned from #OpenLearning17 has been the ability to use Hypothes.is to collaboratively read something online.  Hypothes.is is free software that allows one to annotate any webpage as one is reading.  The annotations are a layer “on top of” the webpage.  They do not modify the page itself.  While the annotations are reason enough to find Hypothes.is interesting, the software allows one to share the annotations with anyone else using Hypothes.is.  But wait–there’s more!  A group of people can read the same webpage and annotate it in parallel, each seeing each others’ comments.  This raises some interesting possibilities.

In my upper level courses, it’s not unusual for me to assign students to read scholarly journal articles.  This is not trivial.  Economics journal articles are a particular type of technical writing.  It takes practice to figure out the format of journal articles, but more importantly, the argument contained in them.  This is especially true when the argument is mathematical, or when the argument includes statistical analysis, as are often the case. I imagine professional writing in other disciplines is similarly challenging.  I assign these readings and hope for the best.  When I discuss the articles in class, I ask if there are any questions, and I ask students what they made of the articles.  A few students ask questions or express opinions.  Most are silent, perhaps because they found the task too difficult.  They can’t even say what they didn’t understand.

What if I told students we were going to read the article together as a group?  What if I left signposts in the form of annotations to guide the reading?  What if I asked students to identify things they didn’t understand and asked others to respond if they could?  I suspect it would be a different experience than my previous practice.  It’s possible that students would get more out of it.  At a minimum, it would harder for students to pretend to do the work when they’ve left few or no comments.  I think this is worth trying.

I wonder what other possibilities there are for using Hypothes.is in one’s teaching?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

A New Model for OER: Anthologies Instead of Textbooks?

I have heard that sometimes adjunct faculty are assigned to teach a class at the last minute, often with the textbook already chosen and sometimes with a syllabus to follow. No one should argue that this is an ideal situation. But I also wonder how often instructors teach their courses to meet the align with the textbook they are using, rather than teaching the way that works best according to their context (e.g. students and their understanding of the subject)? I know I did it this way when I was a new faculty member. One of the claims regarding open source textbooks is that they lead faculty to think more deeply about their pedagogy and their contexts. This is what popped into my head when I read Cathy Saunder’s wonderful thought-provoking post: How Good Can a Course that Follows a Standard Textbook Be?

For some years, I’ve wondered why there tend not to be open textbooks in English Literature or Composition. OER publishers have told me that they prefer to publish open textbooks that have a large market. English faculty have told me they don’t typically use textbooks, but rather anthologies with commentary. Cathy made two points in her post that caught my interest:

“The class is, however, a huge one, with over 100 22-student sections taught each semester, and the instructor community is correspondingly large (even with many of us teaching 3 or 4 sections a semester).”

“Because 300-level composition courses with similar learning goals are rare, we don’t really fit into an existing market (though this doesn’t, of course, keep textbook reps from trying to convince us that they’ve got the perfect book for our class).”

These points made me think that there is indeed a large market for suitable English OER, and that we might be able to expand Cathy’s model of creating and sharing resources as follows. An OER publisher connects a group of interested instructors, who work together to develop not a textbook, nor an anthology, but a collection of readings, annotations, commentaries, and other resources. The OER publisher creates a platform that would allow instructors to easily create their own anthology, by picking and choosing from the collection of resources, which the platform would then turn into a finished book.  The book could be made available in a variety of digital or print formats for free or modest prices. One could imagine asking students to contribute to the collection as well in the form of renewable assignments that David Wiley has discussed and Robin DeRosa has experimented with. The platform would also keep the master copy of all finished books created, for use by those adjuncts who are hired at the last minute or anyone else who didn’t wish to create their own customized anthology.  What say you @OpenStax & @LumenLearning?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Welcome to OER Week of OpenLearning’17

OER, which is an acronym for Open Educational Resources, seems like a no-brainer to me. In my 30+ year career teaching Principles of Economics, I have used a variety of books, including traditional commercial textbooks, books written on economic subjects for lay audiences (in lieu of a standard textbook), and no text book at all. I’ve concluded that most intro books are pretty much the same, and that any experienced instructor can teach effectively using pretty much any intro text. Why then should we ask our students to use commercial textbooks that cost $75, $175 or $375, when there are free or very inexpensive alternatives available? Yes it takes some time and effort to adopt and transition to using a new text. I don’t discount this, but as professionals don’t we have an obligation to do that if we think it would be better for our students?

Over the last few years, I’ve adopted OER for my intro courses. Before we go further, let’s get a few myths out of the way. When I talk about OER this week, I’m not referring to class materials, bits of content, what used to be called learning objects. I mean open source, complete printed or digital texts edited and published by organizations with solid reputations. These are not self-published books.

For faculty who don’t have experience with OER, there are five key questions we will explore this week:

1. What is OER?
2. How good are open source textbooks?
3. What do instructors and students who use OER think of them?
4. How do we find OER in our discipline?
5. What comes after adoption of OER?

Monday: What is OER?

Open educational resources are much more than simply free resources. In addition, OER give students and teachers the following five rights:

  1. Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

While you may not yet fully understand the “5 Rs,” as David Wiley calls them, but understand this: they dramatically change the role of a textbook in a course (or at least they offer the potential for that).

  • Read FAQ for Policymakers: Open Educational Resources https://docs.google.com/document/d/1px3jCbMW-bzhc7oNwxgaphTrurTr39lnowq1ZyE8Ec0/mobilebasic


  • What is OER? http://libguides.tcc.edu/faculty/OER/oer-info


  • David Wiley, “On the Relationship Between Free and Permissions in “Open” https://opencontent.org/blog/archives/4783


  • Join in – Open Dialog Session: The Open Textbook Library
    Are you concerned about higher education access and affordability? Open textbooks can help ease the burden of textbook costs for students and provide faculty with high quality, customizable course content. Join us for a discussion of textbook costs and student success.

4pm EDT; Tune in via Zoom & submit questions via Twitter.

Tuesday: How good are open source textbooks?

How can we be sure that the quality is equal to that of traditional commercial textbooks? Are open source textbooks peer reviewed? Do they go through a comparable quality control process?

  • Read How Good Can a Free, Open-Source Book Really Be? http://pedablogy.stevegreenlaw.org/2014/12/how-good-can-a-free-open-source-book-really-be/


  • How Good is a Free, Open-Source Text Part 2: http://pedablogy.stevegreenlaw.org/2014/12/how-good-is-a-free-open-source-text-part-2/


  • Join in – Conversation with John Hilton III about the research on OER efficacy. http://OpenEdGroup.org
    12 noon via Zoom conference

Wednesday: What do instructors and students who use OER think of them?


  • Join in – Twitter chat 2:00-3:00 pm

Thursday: How do we find OER in our discipline?

  • http://umw-oer-summit.economooc.com/how-to-find-open-textbooks/
  • http://libguides.tcc.edu/c.php?g=304199 OER libguide from TCC
  • Interview with Open Textbook author, Caitie Finlayson (recorded video) Twitter


  • Join in: Q & A with Caitie Finlayson, TIME: 11am-12noon EDT

Friday: What comes after adoption of OER?

Some have called open source textbooks as the gateway drug to something more bigger. As the week comes to an end, we can pursue two possible threads

1. Perhaps the best attribute of OER is not that it’s free, but that it makes instructors think profoundly about how they teach the course.

  • http://openlearninghub.net/week-eight-open-pedagogy/

2. Digital Courseware as a textbook alternative

  • Read Digital Courseware https://library.educause.edu/topics/teaching-and-learning/digital-courseware


  • Courseware http://postsecondary.gatesfoundation.org/areas-of-focus/solutions/digital-learning/courseware/


  • Waymaker: Personalized Learning Meets Open Education

Join in – Twitter conversation 2pm – 3pm

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment