My classes are not perfect

… and neither am I. And surely it’s all for the best, anyway.

It’s the night before the new term here. I’ve been working steadily for the last week to prepare. There have been orientations and retreats (all virtual this year, of course). I’ve done a ton of advising and behind-the-scenes work to help with course registration. I assisted other instructors in all sorts of ways (developing activity ideas, sharing files, recording videos). I also helped the graduate instructors who I supervise create intro videos and rework a campus class for remote delivery. And then, finally, I took care of my own class prep.

My classes are locked and loaded, ready to be released in the morning. This weekend I updated videos, dates, and assignments. I refreshed readings. I found (and corrected) two typos in last year’s versions of the course materials. I closely looked at assignments and considered a new one in one course (but decided the current version of the course is nicely streamlined so I left it as-is). I could do more. I won’t. I don’t have time. I’m not even sure that I should do more if I had the time.

My Canvas sites surely contain an error or two. It’s inevitable. I doubt I’ve ever had a term where I didn’t eventually find a typo or broken link (or have it pointed out to me by someone who stumbled upon it) across pages of text and links. Would I have done a better job finding those errors if I hadn’t spent time helping others and instead focused all of my energy on my own course? I doubt it. No matter how thorough I am, these things happen. I still try to be thorough, but I accept the errors for what they are: minor signs of imperfection. Signs of being human. Nothing that actually impedes the learning experience.

There is, of course, a difference between having a well-designed course with a minor typo or broken link and having a poorly or under-deigned course. Typos and broken links can be fixed with a few keystrokes, but poor design often leads to student confusion and frustration.

Ultimately the stakes are low in a well-designed course. Still, while I type this post I resist the urge to go back to my classes and do … something. Thoughts run through my head like:

  • If I check it all over one more time, I bet I’ll catch a typo. Or not. My eyes are tired. I’ve already checked over it.Twice. I’m not likely to find the tenacious typo now.
  • If I recorded that video one more time, maybe I could get rid of the spot where I stumble on a word. That was Take 3. It was the best of 4 takes. It is surely good enough.
  • There was that graphic I was going to make for Week 1. And then I ran out of time. It would be so cool. Maybe I could make it now? Or I could get some sleep. No one will know that it’s missing. No one knows it’s something I meant to do. It’s cool — but it’s far from necessary. And maybe I can do it tomorrow.
  • Maybe I should have spent more time looking for new readings. I only did a cursory search to see what relevant items had been published in the last year. Then again, if my cursory search turned up nothing, then the readings that I used and was happy with last year should suffice.

I imagine that even if I found one more typo, recorded a flawless video, made that cool graphic, and found a new reading, I’d still be sitting here pondering what more I could have done to improve the classes.

I’m going to launch my classes, flaws and all, because I know that they are more than just good enough. They’re not perfect, but I don’t actually believe there is any such thing as the perfectly designed class. There are always different decisions one could make. Better graphics one could use. More course materials one could create. However, having the 100% typo-free, graphically gorgeous class wouldn’t necessarily improve learning outcomes for my students.

After years of reconciling with them, I’ve reached a point where I feel that minor course imperfections work in my favor. Through them I show that I’m human. By addressing them when I see them or having them pointed out, I show that I care and that I’m responsive. By thanking the people who point them out and not reacting with shame or embarrassment, I model a mature way of handling my imperfection. I hope I make my students feel more comfortable. I don’t hold myself to an impossible standard, and I don’t hold them to one, either.

In the end, teaching isn’t about perfection. Neither is learning. But both are about growth. I’m ready to grow and learn this term, and I’m confident that I’ve designed materials, activities, and assessments that will help my students grow and learn, too. Now the heavy lifting (facilitation) begins.

I’m ready to get this term started. Me and my slightly imperfect classes are going to initiate some rich learning interactions — and isn’t that the important thing?

Discussion Board Guidelines

Something I get asked about a lot is how I get students to be active participants in asynchronous discussion.

The short answer: I ask them to.

The longer answer: I have clear expectations and communicate them to my students. Otherwise, how would they know what to do? Many of them are new to asynchronous discussion or, worse, have developed minimum participation habits based on low or unarticulated expectations in other online learning experiences they’ve had.

Over the years, I’ve learned that I need to tell students exactly what constitutes a robust class discussion and explain why we are engaged in discussion. If I don’t, my students will engage in all sorts of discussion behaviors that I don’t want them to, like:

  1. Write all of their posts in the fifteen minutes before the deadline.
  2. Write mini-essays that no one wants to read or respond to (or grade).
  3. Write posts that essentially say nothing.
  4. Write posts that just repeat the readings or what someone else has said.
  5. Worry all week that they don’t know enough or haven’t read enough to participate.

Each of these behaviors inhibits discussion. The first four make it unlikely anyone will read and respond, and the fifth causes unnecessary stress and delays participation.

Asynchronous discussion is not quite the same as synchronous discussion, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. However, we should expect it to be engaging and robust in its own way. Additionally, we should expect it to provide our students with the practice that they need to master course concepts and succeed on larger course assessments.

Over the years, I’ve developed discussion guidelines that I share with my students at the beginning of the course. These guidelines — all three pages of them — lay out my philosophy of online discussion.

These guidelines will help many students engage in discussion as expected, and they in turn become model participants for other students to follow. However, guidelines alone are not enough. Feedback and grades also help shape student behavior. When students do not perform as expected, I let them know. I provide written feedback about how to improve (and I can point right back to the guidelines) and may deduct points as well. Most students who get improvement-focused feedback improve the next week. The ones who don’t will continue to get the feedback and lose points. I can’t change their behavior for them, but I can provide feedback and offer to talk with them about the expectations if they are confused or are unhappy with the grade they have received. (I always offer. No one has ever taken me up on that offer, so I assume those students are happy as-is.)

I’m sharing my baseline discussion guideline document here, as a word document so anyone can easily save and edit it.

Feel free to adapt the document for your own use. You’ll see that I don’t make students discuss every week. Instead, I use a system where low grades are dropped, which means students can take a few weeks off without hurting their final grades. I’m a strong believer in that approach … but that’s another post for another day.

Let’s get learning (virtually) webinar

slide from presentation

On August 13 I gave a webinar at FSU focusing on perspectives and tips related to the remote learning term that looms ahead for many K-12 and university students.

The first 15 minutes of the webinar content was a presentation, and the remainder was Q&A. The attendees asked a lot of good questions.

In the 24 hours since the webinar ended, I’ve had several people ask me for a copy of the slides and a link to the recording, so I’m sharing them here.

Webinar recording: Let’s Get Learning (Virtually) Webinar

I’ve also had people ask me about doing PD sessions for their school or organization. Yes, I do that! If you’re interested in that, contact me.