Friday, July 22, 2011

Day One

How important is the first day of your online course? Have you sat back and thought about it? Think back to when you were in school and each time a new class began what gave you anxiety or what were you most excited about finding out on the first day? Our students at Baker begin a new course rapidly, yet each new course in some way produces anxieties and/or excitement as well. I have been pondering the question of the importance of the first day of class and began to do some digging. I've aggregated some of the information I've found and outlined some tips or principles to consider when beginning a new online course. The first day can be just as exhilarating for the instructor because you get to apply your skill to a new group and try out the new, or revamped, online shell. What are some particulars to hone in on for that first day that will set the tone for the rest of the course? That's the question I targeted as I began to gather some information for this posting. Below you'll find my suggestions; however, if you have some ideas you'd like to see added to the list send me a message and I'll keep building out the list.

Eye Line:
When students first enter Moodle they are always dropped in at the very top, this becomes their initial eye line. What you place in this space is very important because it becomes the initial space for contact. Spruce this area up. Make it lively and compelling to look at. Consider using images, pronounced colors, video, etc . . . This space is also your first line of communication. The News forum will always be present, but everything else is up to you. I would encourage placing a questions forum, one that you subscribe to, in this space as well. Immediately having that viewable to students sends the message that you are available and willing to curb any anxieties they may have. In this space should be vital documents for students that will help them navigate the course design and content. Either place each file in one by one or create a directory and link to it. The directory is a nice idea because the folder icon connects visually as a recognizable repository source.One of the more effective tools I have been incorporating is brief podcast, students have been providing positive feedback about them. I spend 10 to 15 minutes going over the syllabus, course design, and expectations the same as I would if we were meeting face to face. I follow that up with a Questionnaire asking students to respond to one of two choices: Yes, I have listened to the introductory podcast and have no questions; or, Yes, I have listened to the introductory podcast and would like the instructor to follow up with me. This puts the responsibility on them to listen and then recognize they have a question. I track the responses and follow up if needed. It personalizes the first day in a distant environment that can sometimes feel impersonal. 

Road Map
Depending on where your course lies within the cohort sequence, you may assume students understand where to go or what to do when they first enter a course. I would caution not to make that assumption. Moodle does a nice job of outlining the weeks or topics, so that aspect is clear, but what students should engage in first in regards to assignments, readings, or activities isn't as clear. Don't hide this information, make it prominent each week, but especially week one. The syllabus is important here because of the class schedule and assignment overview sections that provide detail, but in order to ensure a seamless transition from paper to LMS students need that information reinforced. Use the same naming conventions as on your syllabus and provide an outline or "map" of where students should begin. Be explicit. If they need to tackle readings first to begin the forums so they can post and respond by certain due dates then explicitly spell this out. I would even suggest not hiding it, place it directly on the interface. How you set up this first day's material should be adopted in each subsequent week as well. That way the first day becomes the orientation for the rest of the time spent in that shell.

I know, you teach in the second to last class of the cohort and the students all know one another so introductions are a moot point. Maybe for the students and each other but not for you. Merely asking the students to tell a little about themselves extends an olive branch or sets a precedence that as the instructor you are interested in each one of them. In addition to that, you never know what information you may glean from what a person tells you that becomes useful later in class. Recently I had a student struggle with a term, he just wasn't making a connection with it when it came to applying it to his analysis. Because I knew a little of his interests I was able to use one of his hobbies as an illustration of how the term is applied, and that's what clicked with him. It was foreign to him until it was placed within a context that he identified with. You just never know where an instructional strategy may originate.

Set the Standard
MLA citation. The previous instructor encouraged this student to continue using outside sources. The standard set by the previous instructor was carried over to my course where the student had adopted this as the norm, only to suffer an alarming awakening.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Plagiarism and Prevention Methods

For some students writing is an arduous task that is quickly remedied with technological advantages available today. Recently Turnitin released internal numbers on which sites students are plagiarizing the most. As students feel more and more comfortable with technology the temptation to cut/copy and paste into a paper will be even more enticing than it already is. Turnitin reported sites such as Wikipedia and as resources students rely on for information. Why read through a journal, book, or periodical when you can query it, copy it, and be on your way? This tactic by students has raised concern across academia with student writing, critical thinking, and academic integrity. One result stemming from this practice is the rise in plagiarism. Protecting and promoting intellectual property is vital within academics so a person's originality remains protected. The pros and cons of the read-write-collaborate- web is the mantra of freeware promotes little restriction on the creation of ideas, which fits in many respects with the impetus for the Internet. As an instructor what measures can you take in order to help deter plagiarism? That's at the heart of this posting.
  1. Devise a means to determine where students are with their understanding of what plagiarism is. Some students do not recognize that copying from a website is an act of stealing, so start with defining plagiarism.
  2. Let students know from the onset that you will actively seek out plagiarism when grading written work. State this in your syllabus, mention it early on in class or post it in Moodle, and carry through with it. Hollow "threats" are easily sniffed out and shared between students. The best thing you can do it catch early on, educate the students (hopefully just one) on what their error was and how to correct it.
  3.  Reinforce sources available to them to help refresh/educate them on proper citation, its importance, and how to do it. Each one of our students gets this in their orientation course and are asked to purchase a handbook, as well as the university has designed a style guide. Combine these resources with what sites such as Noodletools and the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) and there is plenty of information to supplement your instructions. I would encourage you, if you are using Moodle, to make these readily available in your class and refer to them in your feedback on written work.
  4. Get to know your students' writing early on. Have short papers, forums, or blogs that stipulate proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation in order to gain perspective on their writing ability and style. This can go a long way in detecting plagiarism.
  5. Stipulate in your assignment up-to-date research. One aspect of the paper mills that students can purchase papers from is their papers may be several years old, so asking students to include a source from within (set time frame here) compels them to do original research. 
  6. Revision, revision...revision. Catching an issue, especially for those moments when a student is genuinely making an honest error, earlier in the process benefits you as the grader and the student in the long run. The revision process doesn't have to include full and complete drafts, but the more they can offer the better feedback you can provide.
  7. As part of the writing assignment require some reflection component where you ask students to review how they researched their topic, what problems did they occur, how they reached their topic or thesis statement, and what would they do differently. This holds them accountable to convey some aspect of their research and writing preparation.
  8. Require course or topic specific terminology, outline a specific structure, and assign what type of audience you want students to consider. 
These steps will not fully ensure there will not be the valid attempt by a student to cram a project in at the last minute that was constructed via the entering of a credit card or the paste option on the mouse, but they can help.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    The Mundane Discussion

    I shared a series of emails with an instructor the other day that made me take pause and realize something worth sharing. Our online content is dependent upon the instructor's ability to engage with students in a meaningful manner and compel students to share and collaborate with one another. How do we accomplish this, currently? More often than not a common tool or resource used within Moodle (Baker's LMS) is the forum (or discussion board, depending on your LMS' lingo). Have our students become numb to the forum? This instructor and I brainstormed ways to incorporate alternative platforms, as well as forums, that motivate (and in some cases force...but this can't be the main basis for discussion) students to share original thought and engage one another. The instructor's initial comment was that students were just going through the motions. Students waited for one person to post, read what they wrote and then summarized that person's view as their own. The result was a stale, thoughtless strand of forum posts that didn't contribute meaningful insight to that week's discussion or topic. How can this be avoided...can it? I contend that it can be avoided but there is a layered process.

    First step, as the instructor what do you want to accomplish with the forums...what purpose will they serve? Do you want free/open discussions, will students answer a specific question, will students originate the content, are students graded, will the forum posts count toward formal writing standards, is the forum discussion based upon media, etc...? Outlining which of these is a factor is critical because it sets the tone for you as the course designer on how you will write your syllabus and incorporate specific language to achieve your goal. What course or weekly objective is the forum serving? I realize that we (when I say we I mean administrators at Baker in SPGS) ask for some form of discussion each week from our online instructors in their course design. This stems from the notion that you wouldn't hold class on-ground without having discussions so why is it acceptable online (although there are always those mitigating circumstances and exceptions)? Second thought is the syllabus. How you word and construct the syllabus is vital. Do you have a standard paragraph that applies to all forums? Do you have a rubric?  Rubrics are invaluable because it provides an outline of expectations that you can construct your feedback around...and yes you want to give feedback on the forums. Forums are a place for you as the instructor to....well, instruct. Are all forums structured the same? There is a value in having consistency with how you design an accelerated course, but you can diversify the content. One week you originate the question, the next week students lead the forum, the third week is based off of audio or video, etc... I have had great success when I structure course discussions as a student lead adventure. I assign multiple students as the lead for a given week and by Thursday of their week they are to write a critical analysis of a topic (which I assign), that pertains to the course, of at least 250 words. Then they are responsible for monitoring the forum and replying to anyone that comments to their post; the other students not leading the forum are responsible for reading and responding to at least two of their peers' posts. Points are earned as a facilitator and a responder, with everyone getting at least one turn as a facilitator.  Also, alter how the forums are setup. In Moodle you can have a Q&A forum where students have to respond to a question before they read what others have posted. There is a simple discussion option that places all the posts on a single page, kind of like a wiki page. Or you can have each student post one topic before they can reply to what others have posted. The last consideration is the modality for the discussion. Moodle provides a blog, a wiki, and online chat option in addition to forums. Each of these can be incorporated for the purpose of fostering student collaboration and in-class discussions, as well as break up the routine students endure because the majority of discussions occur within a forum right now. Moreover, forums, wikis, and blogs allow for you to add video, audio, web links, and files to them. Use these options to create an interactive discussion to motivate interest as well.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011


    I recently had a project and remembered a website mentioned by a colleague, Dipity, that would let you create interactive time-lines with text, video, images, and share over social media, embed or collaborate. I see Dipity as a meshing of mind mapping, history, and Web 2.0. As I explored it more and more I began to consider its value in a course and became intrigued with it. When you initially enter the site you are hit with a time-line that is covering current events. Each day I visit it is different, but what a great tool to use for my upcoming mass media course. I can have students access the website, review the time-line, and analyze (based upon the principles from chapters discussing visual media, modern journalism, and video games and storytelling) how this tool conveys information, depicts its content, informs its viewers, and shapes the understanding of the world in which we live in. That's just one idea. With the way the site is designed there are time-lines covering a variety of topics. The way the site works is that some time-lines are public, some allow for comments, some allow for viewers to contribute, and some you can embed. The restrictions are important because if you ask students to use it you and them need to know the barriers that may and may not exist when producing a time-line. What about its features? Each time I play with it a learn a little more, which for means they've done a nice job of keeping how to use the site fresh and interesting. First off, you can upload images, type in text, and link or embed videos to your time-line. You cannot upload Word, PDF or PPT to your time-line to share, at least as far as I know. You set the date for each item which determines where it appears on the time-line. There is a +/- bar that allows you to zoom in and out, depending on how much or little you zoom in determines how long the time-line is. You can scroll the time-line by using the scroll bar at the bottom or using your mouse to grab and drag the time-line itself. Dipity defaults to a time-line view, but you can also view it as a flipbook or list. It will also map certain items depending on the wording or imagery used. For instance, I wrote a section about Edward Said and mentioned his roots in Palestine as a youth in 1947, so it mapped Palestine in 1947 and had the names of the cities in both English and Arabic, using Google maps. I thought that was a fantastic little idea. You are one click away from sharing your time-line on Twitter or Facebook, and to retrieve the embed code. If you have an account, and a time-line is public, you can choose to follow it so you are aware of any updates or changes made to it. For me this could be extremely useful. You could embed a time-line in your course and ask students to view it daily or weekly and respond to particular questions of how they interact with it, learn from it, use it, etc...I think it is one of those sites that offers rewards to the creative mind that can devise assignments and student activities to capture its use. I know I will promote it as a means to replace PPT as another format to present over a topic on.

    Friday, March 18, 2011

    Improving Student Learning

    Can screen capture improve student learning? Before we answer that let me define what I mean when I write screen capture: it is when you record all activity done on your computer screen, potentially with audio, and share it through an external website. Screen capturing is literally recording what you are doing on your computer screen and sharing it. I've blogged about my favorite screen capture freeware tool, screencast-o-matic, but there are several available to choose from. What I want to tackle with this blog post is less about how to screen capture or what resources there are; I would rather discuss what the potential benefits are. Are there benefits? That is a fair question, and my response would be there are. To be candid, I am a proponent of screen capturing in an online environment, even though I do recognize potential drawbacks, so my focus here will be to promote its benefits because I believe they outweigh the drawbacks.

    Consider relying on screen captures to provide supplemental and remedial information. This will free you up to focus on higher-order learning in your discussions and assignment feedback.

    Screen capturing allows you to develop course content and add your personality, personalizing the online environment for students. Having content recorded allows students to record, pause, and playback information. This allows time for reflection and contemplation.  Essentially you are creating on demand instruction that is becoming increasingly mobile.

    What types of content are viable screen capture options:
    • Instruction on how to complete an assignment, or clarification over an activity, are a beginning point. Even though you have your assignments written out in your syllabus, recording the instructions and adding more detail through explanation adds another level of information for students. Besides, if you think about it when you teach on-ground you don't just have students read the syllabus and call it a day. You go over the content with them to delve deeper into the purpose of the assignment or activity, so why not do that online?
    • Demonstrate an activity, dissect an assignment, display a sequence of activities, and/or convey to students how the material threads together from week to week.
    • Review of course concepts, reading materials, and/or supplemental materials. The importance of this is that it allows you to bring in your interpretation and explanation of a particular subject and topic. At Baker students are expected to cover a fair amount of material in a condensed amount of time, anyway you can aid students in retaining essential concepts and explain how they correlate to course objectives will increase retention. Screen capturing allows you to bring your voice (literally) into the online classroom.
     The last thought on this is that screen capturing will provide some flexibility to duplicate what you may have successfully done on-ground in an online course. Recently we had an instructor interview someone via a screen capture to bring them into their online course as a guest speaker; we've also had someone create entire video sequences over how to work through college algebra equations to build a support video library. It has had a positive impact on students. With minimal technological skills you can be screen capturing and, I feel, greatly enhance the online environment.

    Friday, March 11, 2011

    Online Retention

    I read an article this week in Campus Technology titled "Strong and Steady Wins the Retention Race" (for those interested in the article click here). The article, written by Angela Naginey, Director of Retention at Cal Lutheran University, outlined steps taken to improve student retention.  Naginey's article provides a brief background into the creation of her position within the university and conveys the principles and recommendations she has employed. Many of Naginey's assertions are logical and reasonable, so it made me think about the online environment. How can we at Baker do better to retain online students, or is it even possible? There are some variables outside the scope of online instructors, such as recruiting and initial orientations, but then there are some variables online instructors can directly address. In a previous blog I discussed how to engage online students, which I think relates to retaining students as well, but for this post I want to present specific strategies for the purpose of retention. Ultimately, once students enter the online environment instructors become the first line for implementing best practices in retention. The university still has an important role with its internal support, but the instructor is often the first line of communication. With that said, what are some ideas to consider implementing in your online course that blend with our students and Moodle?
    1.  Do you gauge your student's abilities early on? Particularly with writing or math? Assigning a short assignment in week one or two, informal or formal, provides a beginning assessment point. From there you can evaluate direct areas of needs, provide direct feedback to those areas, and monitor them for the duration of the course. In the instance a student has multiple needs, this is where we can work them to obtain extra assistance, or build a focus plan for them that sets up obtainable benchmarks. Something subtle like this early on can alleviate frustrations later on in the course and build a positive relationship with students that can aid in retention efforts.
    2. Do you ever survey your students after a couple of weeks to get a feel for where they are? I would always suggest adding a forum in Moodle where students can ask questions, but have you ever considered adding a survey or choice option (both available within Moodle) to gain a sense of how students are coming along? Particularly if you've taught the course before and know of trouble spots for students, then it may behoove you and the students to pose a survey or choice question in Moodle about their comprehension or progress in a particular area. From that you can target a lecture to better explain that area or hone in on assignment feedback that prepares students for the potential difficulties. This process of coaching students along can assist with retention.
    3. How do you build an online community in your class? A constant found within studies of student attrition in online environments is the lack of community, or feeling of isolation. How do you combat that within the confines of Moodle and Baker's policies? Have you thought about it at all? Maybe in week one have a forum available for students where they are asked to say something brief about who they are as a student and person, and you reply with some tidbits about yourself. Add an introductory audio piece where your personality can come out.It should be brief and doesn't have to necessarily be course related. Do you do an icebreaker in week one? I realize that many of our cohorts, depending on where you teach in the program, are familiar with one another, so use this as an opportunity for them to get to know you. Do you put your picture in your Moodle profile? Giving students a visual image of who you are can assist in making a better connection (besides, all those smiley faces begin to drive me nutty after a while). How accessible are you; more importantly, how accessible are students for one another? Do you ever assign peer work outside of learning teams? Incorporating a peer activity where a student is forced to step outside their learning teams is an ideal way to expand their support within a cohort. Small steps such as these can go a long way in reducing the isolation feeling students sometimes have and cultivate the feeling of online community.
    4. How do you champion student success? Often as instructors we are immersed in critical assessments, where we focus on what is wrong in order to improve our students. But, how do you give accolades to students that succeed? Do you merely give a "nice job" comment? Do you present their work to the class? Do you go into detail about which aspects were done well, so they can capitalize on those and continue to develop them? It is vital we critically evaluate students, but it is just as important that we give them their earned acclaim as well. Particularly if you are aware of hurdles they've overcome in order to reach a certain point, boosting their confidence makes the accomplishment personal and recognizable.

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    140 Characters or Less

    That is all you get, 140 characters. Not only letters, characters. Twitter has forced its users to condense their thoughts down to 140 characters. I am a fan of Twitter and find its value in education an untapped resource, but I have to admit that the 140 characters stipulation is creating a problematic subculture (although don't blame Twitter, they are merely aligning with your cell phone limit). What I mean is that students in the online environment seem to accept the truncated typing conducive for Twitter (or instant messaging in general) as somehow acceptable when posting to an online forum or discussion board. I've literally added language to my syllabi that attempts to deal with the issue. None the less, Twitter has some benefits for online education and education in general. Twitter allows you to follow some intelligent folks. And by follow I don't mean reading about their lunch or when they open the garage door, I mean substantive information that is meaningful. Twitter has various repositories that allow the character limit to become the point of engagement, then take you through the linking process to more depth and information. Through such sites as TwitDocs, TwitVid, and TwitPic you can upload documents, videos and images that you are able to link to or share. I can place an article that I want to students to read in TwitDoc, tweet that it is there, and they can then access the document and read it either online or save it to their computer. A site such as TwitCam allows you to record a vlog (that's a video blog), link to it, and those following you on Twitter can access it. The TwitCam becomes a perfect way to integrate yourself into an online classroom and add that oh so important instructor voice in. Not to mention that with the shortening of a URL (Twitter will do this, or there are outside websites that can help) what you have on the web becomes part of the 140 characters. What about this idea. I was working with a marketing instructor and they wanted to illustrate how social media works. We took a Twitter feed and did a hash-tag search for marketing, then embedded the result into her course so students in Moodle could read the feed without leaving the course. It gave them a perspective of how dialogue is shaped through social media and how to grab the consumer's attention in an abbreviated form. Not to mention Screenr, which is a screencasting freeware tool, that sends out a tweet after you've posted your recorded message. We've had one creative instructor require students to tweet as they are engaged in their literature reading, giving their immediate impression. It allowed students to follow the thoughts of others and it allowed those that posted to review how their thoughts progressed. There are some creative activities to be built around this medium, but you have to be willing to accept it validity in education first. Here is a link to a Pew research poll on the demographics of Twitter users. The numbers give you some idea of who is engaging via Twitter, but with some creativity and ingenuity the options of how to incorporate Twitter into a classroom are endless (Pew Research Poll).  Here are some folks I like to follow on Twitter that I find are constantly adding information that is useful and meaningful: