Thoughts about Student Success

Over the last year, I have fallen prey to a common ailment of bloggers—wanting to get 7510769972_7a212fcfe5_myour ideas just right before they are published.  Putting your ideas out there is, after all, risky.  Especially when those ideas may be half-baked.  Of course, that’s contrary to the way some view blogging.  Gardner Campbell recently wrote “Almost all the time, I write my posts in one sitting and publish them right away.”  Half-baked or not, it’s almost certainly better to post those ideas; otherwise, they may never get published at all.  So here goes!

In recent years, I’ve become interested in student success at a systematic level.  Last Saturday, I participated in our First Year Honors Common Reading Group.  Afterwards the faculty discussion leaders went out to debrief.  We were universally pleased with how well it went, with how easy it was to lead the discussion with students who had read the book and were clearly interested in discussing it.  The hardest part was reining in the dominant speakers (of whom we had three in a group of eight) to provide the space for the other students to talk.

You might retort, well of course the book discussions went well since you had bright students, but I think it was more than that.  Students are successful and earn good grades not merely because they are intelligent, but also because of behaviors, habits of the mind, that they practice.  So it’s not just who they are, but what they do that matters.  The honors students were prepared for the discussion and they also wanted to learn from it.  They were intellectuals in the sense that they wanted to discuss and debate the ideas in the book so they could learn from it.  The prospect of learning seemed to motivate them.

I had two takeaways from this about student success more generally:  First, I think it may be important that students find a sense of belonging, for example, by becoming part of a group with common interests, especially one where some sense of peer pressure motivates them.  On athletic teams, there can be a sense of wanting to do well academically so you don’t let the team down.  Academic majors probably are another example of students working together in parallel towards common goals.  Could this be one reason why students who fail to declare a major until very late find it difficult to complete the degree?

The second takeaway is the following.  I wonder if productive academic behaviors can be taught to students who aren’t honors students, especially in the context of their group.  What are good practices for economics majors?  What are the same for Historic Preservation?  I’m sure there is some overlap across departments, but I suspect there are also differences.

I also think that being part of a cohort (not just part of a group) can be important.  A sophomore economics major probably has less in common than a senior economics major.  Two sophomores are more likely to be taking the same courses.

Groups tend to have leaders or at least faculty responsible for the groups.  This could be a way to establish the “one faculty or staff member who cares about your academic success.”  The director of our Honors Program struck me as similar to the “house mother” in dormitories of old.  Who is offering the same caring and attention to our non-honors FY and older students?

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Is teaching more than content delivery?

Good teaching should be.

As I prep for classes this year, I feel meta—I feel like I may be seeing or understanding things more clearly than before.

Student and instructor enthusiasm is high at the beginning of the term.  As an instructor, I provide lots of scaffolding, e.g. motivation for the class, explanation how the course will work, suggestions for how students can be successful.  (I wrote myself a sticky note to remember:

  • NEED to Scaffold, Scaffold, Scaffold
  • NEED to Encourage, Encourage, Encourage
  • NEED to look for the struggling students )

And students make genuine efforts to follow through.

Then at some point (around mid time), the enthusiasm/thoughtfulness slips:  Students and faculty feel tired.  Faculty start to worry about “covering the content” – they focus their energies on “teaching” rather than on student learning.  Students start to worry about grades instead of learning. There doesn’t seem to be any time for thought anymore.  But can there any real learning without thought?  Have instructors forgotten that it’s not what they “cover” but what students learn that matters?  Some instructors seem to have the old school notion that their job is to push all the content out there, and then the students who get it (memorize it?) get rewarded, and those who don’t get it, well not everyone is cut out to be an [ insert discipline ] major.  Hey, not everyone is cut out to go to college.  I disagree.  Our job is to teach all our students, not simply filter out those who can’t learn  the material as fast as we deliver it.

Which brings me to my point:

Can we take a time out during the semester for thought?  Is there a way we can re- generate the scaffolding so that it lasts all term?  I’m looking for practical suggestions here.  I have one thought: to spend a class period after the midterm in my intermediate macro class reviewing some of the things we talked about the first week of the course.  In other words, not just going over the exam, but reminding students what the purpose of the course is?  What students really need to learn from the mass of content we study?  The best way to learn that.   How I am available for help, and how it’s not too late to get a decent grade in the course.

Any thoughts would be much appreciated!


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The Future of Higher Education

2227374205_44520cfe70_nHaving nothing better to do (or nothing that I felt like doing) on a Sunday afternoon, I thought I’d respond to Bryan Alexander’s thought-provoking post on nothing less than the future of higher education.

First a caveat: I am not an expert in higher education finance, but as an economist I do have an opinion–no rejoinder necessary, Bryan ;-)

I don’t think Bryan’s analysis is quite complete, or at least it’s not representative of what I’m seeing.  The economist in me always asks, “What’s the alternative?” If consumers and families decide “that college costs shouldn’t rise any further,” that’s a wish or an emotion, but what does it mean?  What can families do about it?  Let’s assume we’re dealing with the majority of colleges and universities below the very top, where students and families actually have to pay for school.  The natural response is to downsize, either by choosing “cheaper” schools, say a public over a private, or spending the first year or two at community college and then finishing at a four year school.

There’s a lot of money to save with both options.  The average cost per year at a private four year institution is more than $40,000. The corresponding cost at an in-state public is about half that.  (Even the “net cost” at a private is higher than at a public.) So we should expect to see more students choosing the University of Virginia (in my state) over say NYU.  We should also expect to see more students staying in state, choosing UVa over say Penn State.  Community colleges are cheaper even than public four year schools.  When you include the fact that most community college students live at home so they don’t pay room and board, community colleges become significantly cheaper.  So Bryan’s first scenario may be normal looking for higher education as a whole, but it’s not normal (even new normal) for individual schools, who may be facing extraordinary stresses.

Bryan’s second scenario feels right to me, at least the symptoms seem familiar.  But what’s not right is it seems too surface level to me.  To make sense out of what’s going on, one has to start with a theory of what’s been driving the costs of higher ed.  The theory that makes the most sense to me is Baumol’s cost disease.  The best explanation of this is Archibald & Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much?

If Archibald and Feldman are right about what’s driving costs, many of the surface symptoms are only minor embellishments on the cost train.  The question again is what can consumers do about it and what can schools do?  Consumers may be “outraged a[t] rising prices,” but their options here are the same as in scenario 1 above.  “State and national politicians of all stripes [may] join their chorus.  They [may] demand more for less.”  But what does that mean operationally?   If schools do not have the endowment growth to cover the increasing costs and/or the reduction in state support, then (whatever people think) prices will have to continue to rise and the scenario 1 options will prevail.  I see this as the likely short run outcome.  But this is not a stable outcome.   As consumers downsize to other schools, the schools they would have attended will run into problems on the revenue side.  See, for example, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Loyola of New Orleans.  For now, those schools are holding their programs together with the fiscal equivalent of duct tape, but if the trend continues, at some point a tipping point will be reached resulting in catastrophic failures.

The only solution that I see, long term, is to change the rules of the game.  MOOCs are an example of an attempt to do this, but I don’t see that MOOCs as they currently exist are the answer.  For a school to be viable, it’s going to need to clearly identify its value-added and focus its efforts in that area.  Schools that continue to offer programs that are only adequate are going to face increased revenue shorfalls.  Our school is in the early stages of attempting to play a different game by looking for new, innovative programs to invest in, and by making difficult choices about long time programs to reduce or close.  We’ll see how that works out.  My guess is that in the coming years we will see an increase in diversity of what a college education looks like, as schools experiment to find a strategy that works for their context.  Many of these experiments will fail, but hopefully some will succeed.  I haven’t thought enough about this yet, but I could imagine faculty whose disciplinary departments in small liberal arts colleges are being downsized moving into interdisciplinary departments to teach common courses in a new university curriculum.  A very different but promising example of a sustainable strategy could be Mike Caulfield’s idea for residential online education.  I would hate to see the alternative of a two tiered system of higher ed:  Residential education for the few and something like career-oriented online education for the many.

One thing is clear: the higher ed system has not reached an equilibrium yet.

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Quantitative Analysis of ECON201Online

You may recall from my earlier posts that I was concerned that students were learning substantially less in my online course than the parallel face-to-face course.  The difference in final exam scores was one full letter grade!  My hypothesis was that this difference was due to the fact that the online course enrolled mostly first years and sophomores, while the face-to-face course was mostly juniors and seniors. To test this hypothesis, I conducted a regression analysis using a fairly standard “educational production” function.  The function assumes that learning is produced by combining inputs of  student ability, student effort, the quality of the learning environment, plus some standard demographic controls.

I collected the data fairly early in the spring semester, but my busy life being what it is I didn’t get around to running the regression until I found a reason for it:  I teach regression analysis in my introductory research methodology class, and I find the students are always more engaged when I illustrate with “real” research results than made-up ones.  So when it was time to talk regression in the research class, I did the analysis and presented the results to my research class.

The sample size was 35: 21 from my face-to-face course and 14 online.  Yes, the sample size is small, but both courses are writing-intensive, so that gives me the “luxury” of teaching small classes.  The bottom line is that it is what it is.   I did a couple different versions of the model with raw (uncurved) final exam scores as the dependent variable, and the following as explanatory variables:

  • Student GPA (less their grade in my course) — this was to capture some measure of how bright each student was, and to a certain extent, how hard they work.
  • Credit Hours Earned — this was to control for how much experience each student had in university coursework.
  • Whether the Section was Online or Face-to-Face (i.e. the treatment variable)
  • Whether or not the course was required for the student’s major
  • Gender — the literature says that women do less well in economics than men.

The results were consistent across the different model specifications: The medium of the course had no statistically significant influence on the final exam score.  Instead, the most important determinant was Student GPA, followed by Credit Hours Earned.  (Neither Required for the Major nor Gender mattered either.)

In short, I may have done a less than optimal job of teaching the online course my first time, but it didn’t seem to have a significant impact on student learning (subject to all the normal caveats of regression analysis).

I have fiddled with the registration permissions so that when I teach the course again this fall, I will have a more equal mix of lower level and upper level students in each class.  Plus I’ll have a year of experience under my belt.  We’ll see how it goes.  Stay tuned!

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Why take #DS106?

6635587829_c89c7936bbI’ve decided to embark on the roadtrip called DS106.  This week as I’ve pondered my discussion, I joined the twitter conversation about this iteration of the course.  To get my feet wet, I tweeted:

@sgreenla: Wondering whether I have the creative chops for #ds106.  Guess that’s part of why I’ve put off taking it.

This casual tweet set off a series of responses (slightly edited):

Christina Hendricks@clhendricksbc  Me too, so need practice.

Alan Levine@cogdog 

@clhendricksbc @sgreenla This intrigues me- the barrier for entry to #ds106 could not be lower. No requirements, no fixed schedule, no grade

Christina Hendricks ‏@clhendricksbc

@cogdog Agreed! But there are so many creative ppl doing amazing things; I feel a bit intimidated. That’s probably stupid, though @sgreenla

Alan Levine ‏@cogdog

@clhendricksbc @sgreenla It makes me wonder about how we mature to beings that self-talk ourselves out of trying (I’m guilty of it myself)

Alan Levine ‏@cogdog

@clhendricksbc @sgreenla It’s not stupid, its human. Only compare yourself to yourself. It’s like taking up running at Olympian pace.

Christina Hendricks ‏@clhendricksbc

@cogdog @sgreenla Yeah, the social comparison thing is hard, esp. re: creative stuff. Decided to ditch it and just have fun. Seems like such a great group of ppl doing ds106 that I want to talk to/connect with too. Bonus!


So this got me thinking.   It’s the social pressure that’s the barrier.  As Christina says, this doesn’t feel like an entry level course where learners are expected to know little about the subject coming in.  There are so many creative people doing amazing things.  I barely know what some of the things are (e.g. animated gifs) much less know how to create them.  What if I embarrass myself?  What if I can’t live up to the standard set by the rest of the class?

I’ve thought about “taking” DS106 for a longtime.  I’m not sure that’s the right verb, though.  My sense is you can’t “take” DS106 in the same way that I’ve taken the three MOOCs I’ve attempted.  Rather, DS106 seems to demand a level of engagement or commitment that goes far beyond what a normal class requires.  It feels like a cult, almost.  This is not a bad thing—I’d love to be able to create course environments in my classes that would make students feel like this.  But it is a hurdle for bringing new people in.

The thing is, my “ought to take DS106 desire” wasn’t enough to make me take the plunge.  There are a lot of things that professionally I “ought” to do, but I don’t have the time or emotional energy to do them all.  In fact, things I put in that category are generally things I don’t do.

So what’s different this time?   I have a real reason for taking DS106.  Last year, I taught my first fully online course.  It was a great experience and, at the same time, it was a humbling experience.  I failed my students in some important ways.  The course was not the best learning experience it could be.  Teaching online is a different animal than teaching face-to-face, and though I thought I understood that, in retrospect deep down I still thought I could hit it out of the park the first time.  I couldn’t.   I’ve spent six months, since the end of that course thinking about how to improve it, thinking about what I did wrong the last time.  I am anxious do to it again.


I’ve gotten a lot of help along the way.   Wendy Drexler (@wendydrexler) made an extraordinary effort to meet with me to give me just the right kind of pep talk.  She had been following my blog posts about my online course, and decided correctly that I needed an intervention. Her effort involved an hour long drive, a car breakdown, which made the trip *much* longer, all to help someone she’d never met in person before.

I also participated in Dan Ariely’s A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior MOOC.  I haven’t completed it yet, but I did achieve my goal which was to get a richer sense of online learning, something I can use to improve my own course.

In short, I want to take DS106 because I think it will help me make my online course a better learning experience.  So I’m not taking DS106 because it’s a “requirement” in some sense (“I ought to take this for professional reasons.”)  Rather, I’m taking it because I want to, because I see a genuine need this course can help to address.  Perhaps that’s the difference between a novice view of learning and a professional, mature view.

Maybe the best help came from Christina Hendricks (@clhendricksbc) who showed me that I’m not alone in my inexperience and anxieties.  So Christina, if you’re willing to do this with me, I’m willing to do it with you.

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Qualitative Analysis of Econ201online

Last semester (as readers of this blog know), I taught my first fully online course, Principles of Macroeconomics.  I also taught a second section in my traditional face-to-face mode.  As part of the assessment of my online course, I asked students to complete a course evaluation, which they turned in to my department chair who gave me the results after the semester was over.  As a control, I gave the same assessment (except for a couple of online-specific questions) to my face-to-face course.  The response rate from the online class was quite good:  12/15 students.  The response rate from the face-to-face course was less impressive; only 8 of 21 students turned it in.  I’m aware that the latter may not be representative of the course experience, but I’m going to treat it as such anyway.

The mean grade on the final exam was one letter grade lower for the online class than for the face-to-face class.  In previous posts, I’ve alluded to why I think that might be the case, but it’s not yet clear that the cause was the modality of the course.  Let’s look at the survey results:

What year in school are you?

The two course sections didn’t have the same demographics.  There were more lower-level students in the online course, due probably to the fact that my department’s courses fill up quickly during registration. The modal student in the online course was a first semester freshman (5/12 students).  There were also 4/12 sophomores.  By contrast, the students in the face-to-face course were more uniformly distributed with two first years, two sophomores, three juniors (the mode) and one senior.  The less college experience of the online students could be part of the reason for the difference in exam scores.

Where are you living?

More students in the online course lived at a distance from campus, including three who live more than an hour away.  Still, more than 50% (7/12) of the online students lived on campus.  This is pretty common for liberal arts schools with online programs.

Did you read the syllabus?

Nearly everyone in the online course (10/12) read “All of the syllabus.” One student indicated they had read “Some of the syllabus” and one student had no response.

By contrast, the median student in the face-to-face course read “Some” of the syllabus.

Did you watch the Course Videos?

These four questions were exclusive to the online section.  The online course included two types of videos:  introductory videos to each section of the course (including three introductory videos to the course itself) and video excerpts from my face-to-face lectures.  These were limited to the last couple of topics which are highly analytical.

Three quarters of the online students said they watched “all” the videos.  The remainder indicated that they watched “some” of the videos.  Two thirds of the students said they watched the video lectures, and one third said they did not.  All the students indicated that when they watched a video, they watched it in its entirety.  Similarly, two thirds said they watched videos more than once.  It sounds like the students thought the videos were useful.  Next year, I plan to add more videos (for the analytic topics early in the course).

Did you read the blog posts on the website?   

In the online course, 7/12 students read “all” the posts, three read “some” posts, one read “few or none,” and one did not respond.

In the f2f course, half the respondents read “some of the posts,” half read “few or none”.  No one read all.

(There may have been confusion in the online class about what a post was, e.g. posts on the course website vs. posts on the discussion board.)

Did you read and use the Learning Objectives?

In the online course, 10/12 students indicated that they “Read and used the learning objectives to assess their learning,” one “Read but didn’t use the learning objectives,” and one did neither.

In the face-to-face course, 2/8 students “Read & used the learning objectives,” 5/8 “Read but didn’t use” them, 1/8 “didn’t read or use” and one student didn’t respond.

These questions suggest that the online students made greater use of the course syllabus & website, including announcements and learning objectives, than the face-to-face class did.  This is not surprising since the latter had class sessions with me three times a week which they could use for the same purpose.

How much time did you put into this course compared to others at UMW?

The face-to-face students overwhelmingly put the same time into this course as their other courses, and rated it the same difficulty as their others. By contrast, half the online students put less time into the course than their other (mostly f2f) courses, one student put more time in and five put in the same time.

More than half (7/12) of the online students said the course was harder than their other courses.  In addition, half the online students said the course was harder to keep up in than their other courses.

Let me repeat that:  Half the online students rated the online course as harder than their other courses, yet they put less time into the course.  Is this a reflection of the lower experience of the online students or was it something else?

Was the instructor accessible for help in this course?  

There was not much difference between the two courses on this question; the majority of both said the instructor was accessible.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (where 1 indicates “very connected” and 5 indicates “very disconnected), compared to your other courses at UMW, how “connected” did you feel in this course?

The mean score for the online students was 3.42 and the median score was 3.5.  For the face-to-face students, the mean score was 2.69 while the median was 2.75.   The online students felt less connected!  That’s not great news, but it’s not unexpected.

The remaining questions in the survey were more open-ended, which means they have the potential for richer information, but they are also harder to process.

What was the most difficult or challenging aspect of taking this course? 

The responses to this question from the online class were very different from the face-to-face class (the latter of which showed no pattern and familiar from past years).

There were five mentions of the need for independent learning. Four students indicated this was a negative, though one said, “Different learning techniques did have to be developed because a lot of an online course work and learning is done solely on the student’s own time.  Some people have difficulty understanding this but it isn’t something that cannot be fixed if it becomes an issue.  Note that was the student who put more effort into the online course than his other courses.

There were two comments along the lines of “not having any lecture materials.  Notes, videos, class meetings, or guides prior to doing each topic.  During each one, I felt very confused and not sure what I was doing each time.“  This is accurate at some level, but baffling nonetheless.  For each topic, the course website provides readings, learning objectives, and for the more analytic topics, video excerpts from my face-to-face lectures.  What I didn’t provide was my lecture notes or any other distillations of my thinking, because I think that students should construct those themselves, that such construction is necessary for deep learning.  Some students seemed to think that learning in this course meant memorizing my thinking and parroting it back to me on exams.  Again, this may reflect the relative inexperience of the online group.

There were three mentions of loss of opportunity to ask questions “right away”.  That is the nature of asynchronous learning, but it doesn’t imply no opportunity to ask questions at all.  I offered online office hours using Skype Sunday through Thursday evenings, but had very few takers.  Students were also aware of my regular, face-to-face office hours.  I was also accessible via twitter and of course email, though only a few students contacted me.  This was also inconsistent with the survey responses about instructor accessibility, so I wonder what concern this question reflects?

There were five mentions of difficulty keeping up with the deadlines, including two mentions of “not knowing when assignments were due” because dates were not on hard wired in the syllabus, since deadlines depended on the class’ progress thru the material.  All assignments were announced either by twitter, email, or text or video announcements on the course website.  Most were announced multiple ways.  I plan to create an Upcoming Deadlines link, prominently displayed on the course homepage, for next year’s class.

There were two mentions of the difficulty of the exams, which was the only thing in common with the face-to-face class.

Which essay was your favorite?  Why? 

The responses to this question revealed no pattern within or between classes.

What is the most important thing that you learned in this course?

The responses to this question revealed no pattern within or between classes.

What suggestions do you have for improving student learning in this course?

Three students asked for more online discussions. That was interesting, because I didn’t get a lot of participation in those and ended up not doing them after the middle of the semester.  I guess I pulled the plug too early.  I’ve given some thought to a better way to organize online discussions which I will try out next time.

Three students asked for more video lecture excerpts, especially early in the course.  I had already planned on doing that.  I have the raw video from a year ago, and I can easily edit that to fit.

Two students suggested synchronous meetings online once a week.  I’m not sure what need that would solve, though I plan on experimenting with Google Hangout as a better platform for online meetings.

Two students asked me to use our institution’s LMS (Canvas) “like their other courses do.”  Alternatively, they asked for a “more organized website.”  I’ll have to think about what that means since.

What advice would you give future students who wanted to know if they should take this course?

Four students mentioned the need for Time Management.  Four also mentioned the need to be self-directed, or else “you should take the course face-to-face.”

The other comments showed no particular pattern.

There was also no correspondence between the comments from the online class and the comments from the face-to-face class.  Two of the face-to-face students urged students to make sure you read the chapter before class time.  Two students suggested paying attention in class.  And two said students should study hard for exams.


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Online Teaching & Learning: It’s harder than it looks

It has been said that no plan survives first contact and that has certainly been my experience teaching online this semester.  I thought I was well prepared to teach this course, as well prepared as anyone can be who has never taught a fully online course before.  I have explored teaching with different digital technologies in my otherwise face-to-face courses since about 1992.  I have used groupware, discussion boards, wikis, blogs, and other tools.  Admittedly, I am writing this during final exam week, so I may not have enough distance yet for an objective look, but looking back it appears that many/most of the components of my course that were intended to differentiate it and make it a genuinely liberal arts & sciences experience were ultimately jettisoned in an effort to save time and cover the content.

Let’s start with my plan to use twitter to create social context for the course.  I figured this would be easier than my earlier experiments with twitter since Millenials have now “discovered” twitter, but that didn’t seem to be the case.  Early on it seemed clear that my students didn’t really want to use twitter.  Some even told me so.

Most students tweeted using the class hashtag no more than five times over the course of the semester.   Only one student really used twitter daily while a few more did weekly.   That doesn’t seem like much of a social presence to me.   After a couple of weeks, I became worried that my students were not getting the basic communications about the course.   This inference could have been unwarranted, since posting tweets is neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee following twitter.  In any case, I began to follow important tweets (after a couple of hours) with duplicate email messages. Then I stopped the tweets pretty much altogether.

I had great hopes for using an online discussion board to take the place of class sessions.  It didn’t work out well in practice.  I never got the majority of the students to participate in the online discussions we had.  Most students seemed unable to do the type of critical thinking necessary for using the schema to categorize content in each topic—perhaps the approach was too abstract for them.   I never got a majority of students to participate, even when I changed the task to asking them to “summarize” a reading for the course.  They appeared to see the discussion board as something extra, not something central to the course.  This could have been because, though I gave students credit for participating, I gave no explicit grades on the participation.  I made note of the quantity and quality of student posts, but I didn’t provide that to students.  This is something I could improve on in the future.  It’s also possible I needed to spend (more) time training the students in what I wanted them to do with the discussion board.  The students seemed to want me to “give them” what they needed to know, rather than asking them to dig it out for themselves.

Finally, the macromooc was a fail.  I think the concept had legs, but the timing didn’t work out.  By the time we had covered the course content needed to evaluate the presidential candidates’ economic policies, the election was upon us so we had no time to do what I had planned.  I think I will try something more limited next year.

What was left to distinguish the course was the writing assignments which worked fairly well at getting the students to explore the content in more detail than they would in a lecture-course.  Some students, though, seemed to see them as independent of the course content.  Several asked, “Will what we did on the essays be on the midterm?”

The online class ran consistently about a week behind the face-to-face class.  This lag was due to the first week in which we spent team-building and getting used to the online features.  Note that I tried to do this before the “first” day of class but didn’t get enough participation.  It was fortunate that the final exam for the online course was the last day of the exam period.

Students didn’t do a good enough job of “following” the course.  A number missed Essay 5, which was given around the same time as Essay 4.  Essay 5 was announced via an all-class email.  One student emailed me, “How did you notify us that it was due? I was talking to some classmates and none of us had any clue that there was an essay due.”  Eight students had already turned the assignment in at that point.

I knew coming in to this course that there were certain analytical topics that students have traditionally had difficulty learning on their own.  I planned to video my in-class lectures on those topics and edit the videos down to bite-sized chunks for the online course.  The first of these topics, Supply & Demand, occurred early in the term.  I found it difficult to come up with the video equipment by the time the lectures started, so I didn’t video this topic.  The online students did noticeably worse than the f2f students on the first exam questions involving S&D.  They also did very poorly on the second exam, which prompted me to find a friend from whom to borrow the video equipment.  From that point on, I lugged the camera, tripod and power cords to and from class each session.  I had to arrive early to set everything up, and depart later to break everything down.  This was tedious.  I learned that video editing can take *hours and hours*, though I did get better at it by the end of the semester.  I did find it very interesting to see myself lecture.  I also got a good sense of how my interactive lecture style is very different (less efficient, time-wise perhaps) than a direct content delivery lecture would be.  In some cases, the pared down videos were only 10 minutes in length for a 50 minute lecture.  I did make sure that none of the clips were longer than 10 minutes and most were closer to 5 minutes.  They are all up on YouTube if you’d like to look at them.  A number of students told me they used the videos to study for the final and that they were very useful, but I think by that point it may have been too late.  I need to think more about how to build the interactive elements of my face-to-face course (e.g. small group problems to work out and present) into the online version.

In retrospect, the students never seemed to buy in to my vision for the course, but neither did they seem to have the self-discipline and metacognition to do the work, and thus the learning, on their own.  Perhaps undergraduates (first and second years and upper level students with other majors) do not have what it takes to be successful in an online course.  Or perhaps the failure was due to my inexperience as an online teacher.

In sum, I found this online course a tremendous amount of work and more than once asked myself why I was killing myself to do this when teaching face-to-face is so much easier and fun.  Nonetheless, I think I should teach online at least once more, since there clearly is a learning curve.

I have two more tasks to do to complete the evaluation of this course.  I asked students in both my face-to-face and online sections to do a course evaluation that I designed.  I need to review and reflect on those evaluations.   I also plan to do a careful statistical analysis of exam grades in the two sections, controlling for student ability, credit hours completed and a couple of other standard variables.  To get that data I need to talk to the Registrar, so both of these tasks will have to wait until I return to school next week.


Photo Credit: “Harder than it looks”

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Video Clips for the Online Course

The online course seemed to do worse again on the second midterm, especially on the analytical parts. I decided that I really needed to video record my class lectures on analytical topics.  I tracked down the equipment and recorded nearly all the subsequent class sessions.  This was tedious since it involved carrying the video camera and tripod to and from class each day.  There was not really any place I could store them in the building in which I teach.

I took the raw video and cut it down to bite-sized chunks, never more than 10 minutes long.  It was genuinely interesting to see myself “in action.”  I discovered that video-editing takes a tremendous amount of time.  I cut out my jokes, and other digressions such as wrong answers by students.  A video/lecture which simply presents content is tighter and shorter than the sort of interactive lecture I typically give to draw out the content from my students.  The video of the latter is probably a waste of time for online, since I don’t think that viewers would appreciate the pauses and digressions, which were important to the students in my classroom (e.g. my responding to questions that were off the topic of the day), but not to those viewing it after the fact.

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Reflection at Midterm Time

[The following are late posts from this past semester]

At mid-semester after I’ve returned the first exam I feel more disconnected from my online students than my face-to-face ones.  The online class seemed to do worse on the exam; many didn’t learn the analytical parts of the material.

I don’t *know* that the outcomes are worse in my online course, but if they are, I can’t rule out the possibility that the fault is mine as an inexperienced instructor.  Still, my course design is pretty solid, much better than just moving lectures online.

Doing test corrections via skype is in many ways easier than doing them in my office.  Skype is more portable and it’s really one-to-one which my office isn’t always.

An observation from both sections, online & F2F:  Students aren’t learning except at a superficial level.  They are learning the symptoms but not the causes.

“Researchers know a lot about how the brain learns, and it’s shocking how rarely that knowledge influences our education system. Studies of physics classes in particular have shown that after completing a traditional class, students can recite Newton’s laws and maybe even do some calculations, but they cannot apply the laws to problems they haven’t seen before. They’ve memorized the information, but they haven’t learned it — much to their teachers’ surprise.”

This is analogous to how my middle-school son Scott does his math sheets, which offer multiple choice answers (for ease of grading, I assume).  He looks for the multiple choice answer which is right, rather than solving the problem and then selecting the right multiple choice item.  This isn’t merely reversing the order.  When you start from the answer, the problem solving is very different, more mechanical and less learning occurs.  No wonder kids don’t like math any more.

It may be only a perception, but I feel connected to my f2f students.  I can see their body language in class; I can tell when they’re getting something or not.  Not so with my online students.

At the UNC-Wilmington Teaching Economics workshop I attended in early October, I spoke with Pete Schuhmann, a colleague who told me he’s taught online for years (as well as f2f) and that his online courses are *never* as good as f2f.   That made me wonder how his online courses were structured.

When people describe online courses as “lower quality,” what do they mean exactly?  From my perspective, it may mean that (many) online courses provide an inferior learning environment in the sense that it takes more student effort to learn the same content.  If so, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe such courses as *harder*.

Can you learn to dance from a book?  Can you learn to computer program from a lecture?  Perhaps some people can, but for most of us, no.  You have to *do* those things, practice those things to learn them well.  This may be one thing that tends to be missing from online courses.

Even if online courses do provide an inferior learning environment that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer them, as long as we assess them the same way as our f2f courses and as long as students know what they’re in for.   In other words, students in online courses shouldn’t be graded more leniently than in the comparable face-to-face course.  I teach the same class f2f and online.  I don’t teach them the same way, but the content, the learning objectives are identical.

The online course is harder for the average student, for most students.  Why?  Because I’m not there to explain things since there is no class sessions.

This isn’t a radical finding.  Some teachers are harder than others teaching the same section.  Some courses are harder than others.  we think nothing of allowing students to take GenEd courses with the goal of passing them for credit, rather than mastering the material (as we would like them to for a course in the major). Students take a mix of classes/difficulties to complete their degree.

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After I wrote the last post, I found I keep thinking about some of the concerns I raised there.

The advantage of presenting analytic material in class (in my interactive lecture sort of way) is that I get a read on student comprehension as I present the material.  Additionally, after my part when I ask them to do problems either individually (first) or in groups (second) and then present their work, I can tell who gets it and who doesn’t.  I keep iterating through the process (explain/try more problems) until everyone (or nearly everyone) gets it.  In other words, the act of presentation, problem-solving and recitation face-to-face is simultaneously an act of formative assessment.

How can I do that online when I ask them to read, post their thinking, and work in groups to refine that thinking?  For one thing, I can’t see their faces or body language.  So far, most students aren’t posting very much information on the discussion board and some aren’t participating at all.  Admittedly, it’s early days since the students have only had two opportunities with the discussion board, and most are clearly still trying to figure out what is expected.  Which reminds me that I haven’t given any direct feedback about that.  Okay, that’s easy to fix.  [I wish there was a way when I broadcast a video to know if students were even watching it.]

Even at its best, I suspect the discussion board doesn’t lend itself well to providing nearly as much information about student thinking as watching and listening to students talk in groups.  I suppose I could skype with individuals who identified themselves as having problems, but that isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to go, since it makes no sense to do the same thing multiple times with different students, and there’s a limit to the number of folks you can include in a conference video chat on skype.

Next topic.  I added four YouTube videos describing how to use demand and supply analysis to the Topic 2 resources page.  I found it more challenging to select those videos than I expected, given that there may be hundreds of videos on the topic.  The experience, though, helped me answer a question I raised in my last post:  Why go thru the trouble of creating your own video?  [Answer below.]   The process of choosing the right video for my students reminds me of selecting the right textbook.  No matter how good the book, it doesn’t present the material in quite the same way that you do.  It may use slightly different terminology or present things in different order.  While there’s something to be said about making students figure out the translation between the author and you, if the difference is too great, some students, perhaps many, will be confused.  The exception, of course, is if, you wrote the book.  So after reviewing perhaps a dozen of the hundreds of videos out there, I choose four that seem closest to my presentation.  Now they won’t have my lectures to compare against, but they will have the textbook with offers similar challenges in comparison.  I will ask the students what they thought of the videos, and think about how they do on the relevant questions on the upcoming midterm exam.  If they don’t do as well as they should, I guess I’ll have to make my own videos next time.


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