People first. Content second. Technology third.

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People first. Content second. Technology third.

This is the way to handle the shift to remote teaching that is happening due to COVID-19.

Instructors who are nervous about shifting online for the first time, students who chose to be campus students, not online students, and people who are feeling unsettled and/or isolated during this crisis: I see you.

In the midst of our educational response to a public health crisis, it’s easy to fixate on the technology. I’ve seen lists of tools that are available to use for teaching online. I’ve used several of them in the past, and they’re good tools. I won’t dispute that. Several of the tools are already available for free in some form, and many technology companies have offered their tools for free in the midst of this crisis. That’s very generous. But it still doesn’t mean that our primary job right now as educators is to learn how to use tools.

In the midst of this time, our response as educators should focus on the people first. Per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we know that it’s difficult for people to focus on tasks like learning if their basic physiological and safety needs aren’t being met. Many of us are worried about our health right now. Finances may also be a struggle, and nothing feels quite normal. Plus social distancing is not easy. We cannot make these issues go away for our students, but we can provide them with safe people and spaces to discuss and process their feelings. We can also consider each student’s ability to learn under the current conditions. For some, learning may be a respite from worry, and our classes may provide a helpful social connection. For others, the distraction may be too great, and keeping up with courses may be an additional stressor.

Of course, we have an obligation to support learning whenever possible, and in that sense we need to focus on the content second. In our courses we already have learning objectives related to that content. Look to those objectives to determine what the teaching obligation is at this point. In other words, the question right now shouldn’t be “How do I put my class online?” Instead, it should be “How do I best help my student meet these learning objectives during what’s left of the term?” You probably can’t take your class as it was originally designed and put it online. Maybe you can do that with parts of it. However, right now the key is to do whatever works.

With people first and content second, technology is third. Technology can provide a means of connecting people, delivering content to learners and facilitating assessment, but it can also be a barrier. When I design an online course, I want the technology to recede into the background so the people and content can connect effectively. If my students are focusing on how to use the technology, then they’re not focused on learning. What we’re all doing right now isn’t even designing online courses. We’re just figuring out how to help our students meet the learning objectives while we’re all social distancing and trying to keep ourselves and others healthy. So, while the Internet and apps can help, they’re not the only way we can make this work. I say this last part with great confidence; as a high school student in the 1980s I took a correspondence course, communicating with my instructor via Canada Post. I learned.

With this philosophy in mind, I’ve been writing this series of blog posts, all of which are being rounded up here. Some of these posts focus on people and their needs, Others on figuring out what to do with the content. And yet others on the technology, because we are using it. I love to geek out on the technology, but I am not doing that right now. Instead, I want to keep stressing how important it is to keep in perspective that it’s okay to use the technology imperfectly right now, and to use as little of it as possible and in the simplest of ways. If you have great ideas, save them for later. Propose properly designed online classes, and seek development assistance and funds to accomplish that goal. But for now? Keep it simple, and use just what you need to help your students learn.

Finally, as an instructional designer, I should point out that “people first, content second, technology third” is not just a statement for getting through COVID-19. It should always be our mantra as educators. It is only after we find out what people need and are ready to learn that we can determine what content should be learned. Then technology should just be brought in as a support, not as the showcase itself.

Social Media as an Educational Innovation: Tips

Two weeks ago I gave a presentation at AECT about social media as an educational innovation. The presentation was part of a session brought together by Bob Reiser, and the other presenters were Clark Quinn (Mobile Learning), David Wiley (OER), and Curt Bonk (MOOCs). We were each tasked with providing our best tips or advice on our topics, with a 10-minute time limit.

It was an interesting task, trying to distill my thoughts on social media use in formal learning settings into a rather brief presentation. In the end I came up with 9 tips (and having passed them in front of my students first I feel confident that I hit on the main points I typically cover in a full semester’s class).

Here are my slides, as well as some thoughts on each tip:

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Thoughts on online course design, teaching, and learning

I was recently notified — appropriately enough while at the e-Learn conference — that I have been selected to receive an award from my university’s Office of Distance Learning. This award, for Excellence in Online Course Design, will be made during National Distance Learning Week.

One of the award’s criteria involves being evaluated against the Quality Matters rubric. I’m proud to say that I met the criteria despite having designed the course without ever having reviewed them. But then again I teach instructional design, so that would (ideally) be the case, right?

As part of the award experience, I was asked to come in for a video shoot and answer some questions about my experiences with online learning. I believe there will be a video of the awards winners (and perhaps others?) playing at some point during the award ceremony.

I was provided with the questions the week before the video was shot. To prepare for the video, I sat down and typed out my answers to the questions. I enjoyed the process, which gave me a chance to really reflect on my own experiences. I’m not sure how effectively I hit these points on the video itself (I wasn’t reading my answers, but rather giving a live, unscripted response), but since I actually had my responses typed up I figured I might as well post them here:

How did you utilize the online course environment to engage your online students?

I focus heavily on communication and interaction in my online courses.

Although I don’t think the online and face-to-face classrooms should really be compared – they’re like apples and oranges – for me the essence of the face-to-face classroom has always been that it’s a space to work through ideas and engage with others. I want my online course environment to be the same kind of space.

I require students to interact with me and with each other through discussion. Together, we work through core concepts related to the course. We construct and deconstruct examples. We clarify muddy points, and intentionally muddy points that on the surface seemed clear. I require students to share work and provide each other with feedback. I communicate with them on the discussion board, taking the role of an expert co-learner. I share, I probe, and when necessary I provide extra bits of instruction.

I use bi-weekly synchronous sessions, which are recorded for those who can’t make it live, to give students the chance to interact with me in real time. Rather than giving a standard lecture during those sessions, I tend to speak about relevant current events, work through examples, or address misunderstandings or interesting tangents that pop up on the discussion board.

Note that I’ve not yet mentioned course materials. That’s intentional. In my view, course materials are just that – materials. They provide information, and give us a starting baseline for learning. They provide fodder for discussion. Some texts, graphics, or videos may communicate concepts better than others, and ideally I’d like to think that I choose or design (whatever the case may be) the best of them to incorporate into my classes. However, sometimes there is no “best” or “ideal” that is readily accessible. Also, “best” can, itself, be rather subjective and context-specific, and “not great” can often provide a superb launching point for discussion. So, whether the materials used in a class are the best or the worst, what matters most to me is the way that we use those materials in the class.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching online? What is the most rewarding?

For me, the most challenging aspect is the silent students. I am, by nature, a communicator. In a face-to-face class, the students who do not speak much at least provide visual cues – body positions, glances, and gestures – that show how they feel and whether they’re paying attention, struggling to understand a concept, etc. Online, it’s much more difficult to differentiate the quiet student who understands the course material quite well from the disengaged student from the student who is struggling but fearful of saying something.

The other challenging aspect – and this may be magnified by teaching instructional design students – is what I call design laid bare. In other words, your course design is visibly posted from the start of the class in front of the students, where it can readily be critiqued and questioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It pushes me to plan my courses thoroughly and at times raises some interesting discussions of alternate ways in which a course topic might be taught online.

The most rewarding part of teaching online is getting to know my students so well and see their learning process unfold week after week, documented via our course interaction and communication tools. The discussion board is like a window into their minds in some ways. I get to know the students so well by reading their ideas in the discussion, and I believe strongly that the process of writing out their ideas – as opposed to speaking off the cuff in a synchronous setting – really pushes a deeper understanding of the course material for some students.

I also find that I’m more readily able to individualize courses for online students, or track them in groups with like interests. So, a class with 30 students who have interests in K-12, higher ed, and corporate learning can be split into conference-like tracks and have more focused discussions each week.

Finally, the biggest reward is when an online learning skeptic tells me that after taking my course he or she understands the value of online learning.

Please describe the project or course that was recognized for the award you’ve received (Excellence in Online Course Design)

The course is Mobile Learning, EME5077. In this course, student learn about the basic definitions, pedagogies, and technologies used to support mobile learning and the process to design mobile learning activities. Through the assignments, they get to design ebooks and QR-code based learning activities and create prototypes of a learning app.

Discuss some of your methods for designing your online course. How did organization and design impact the quality of your course?

When I design a course I focus on four main things:

  1. Alignment of objectives, course content, learning activities and assessments
  2. Opportunities for peer feedback and interaction
  3. Opportunities to interact with the instructor
  4. Consistency from week to week and assignment to assignment

Typically I create both a content roadmap and communications plan for the course.

The content roadmap helps me get an overview of how the content, learning activities, and assignments fit together and helps me determine the best sequencing for the course.

The communications plan helps me visualize the overall participation workload, the points at which students become interdependent for completing assignments, and the ways in which I plan to interact with the students.

In the Mobile Learning course, for example, I included:

  • weekly announcements
  • weekly discussions for most weeks of the course
  • bi-weekly synchronous sessions
  • student contributed “tech smackdowns” during some of the bi-weekly sessions
  • personalized pulse-check emails at the 1/3 and 2/3 points
  • peer critiques using VoiceThread

The key is to find the right amount of interaction and communication, knowing that students will desire and take advantage of it to varying extents and that it has be manageable or it cannot be sustained.

There’s also a small bit of my courses that I consider to be designed for serendipity or intentionally undesigned. I find this to be particularly important when teaching adult learners. In other words, I want to be prepared to incorporate my students’ interests and experiences, events and opportunities that arise, and current events into the class experience to keep it as up-to-date and relevant as possible. That intentionally undersigned element also keeps the course really interesting for me each time I teach it.

Did the design process cause you to rethink any strategies in your other classes?

Every course design and teaching experience influences the subsequent ones, whether face-to-face or online.

One thing I’ve clearly learned in the context of teaching online is the value of planning personal pulse-checks with the students. In a campus class, just as in an online class, students can feel isolated or as if they lack a connection to the professor. They may be shy about articulating the challenges or struggles they’re experiencing. My pulse-check emails invite students to share with me what’s working and not working for them personally. It takes far less time to do this than you might think. Most students indicate they’re doing fine and the conversation goes no further. The others, who say more, either provide me with positive feedback, which motivates me to keep going, or indicate areas where they need help or the course might be improved. Those messages open dialogues through which I can help students identify strategies that will improve their course performance or explain why the course is designed in a particular way. Sometimes they give me ideas for ways in which I might change course materials, activities, assessments or policies. I get far more useful feedback in this format than I do on end-of-course evaluations.

Why is everyone so flipped out over flipped classrooms?

In 1997 I taught my first undergraduate class. It was a technology course for preservice teachers, and my cohort of graduate student instructors was mentored by a wonderful faculty member who provided just enough support, but also let us design our own classes. As I looked at the course objectives that my students had to meet in that class, I saw a combination of technical skills and technology-related concepts.

Consider the year. 1997. The class met in a computer lab. Some students had their own computers, but not all of them. Those who had computers didn’t necessarily have the same software that we used in class. I quickly sized up the situation and realized:

  1. Our scheduled time in the classroom was precious. It was the time when students had access to both the software and me.
  2. It was difficult to have a discussion in the computer lab, or even to give a lecture and see engaged faces. The equipment hum was loud, students spoke in low voices from behind large monitors, and when I looked out over the classroom I mostly saw hair rising above those monitors.

My solution was to spend our in-class time focused on working through the software-based assignments. Then, to address the other learning objectives and discuss course readings, I posted materials on a web site and we used an online discussion forum. It worked.

I guess that was my flipped classroom? I just called it wise use of time and resources.

Flash forward 15 years and the”flipped” classroom has become a hot topic. The basic gist is to move the lecture component of class online (record a video) and then have students do homework with instructor supervision and assistance during the class session. My reaction has basically been: meh.

This whole movement supposes that in-class time is entirely occupied by lectures, and that those lectures can just be videotaped and will be just as good. Although that may be the reality for some instructors, many of us already use our in-class time differently. We give micro-lectures on a just-in-time basis or heavily intersperse brief lectures with other activities and discussion.

I also have two concerns about the trend:

  1. The flipped model simply adds to the students’ workload unless the class already had a lot homework problems to be completed on a regular basis. If the previous system involved readings (on own) + lecture (in class), in the flipped version students have readings (on own) + lecture (on own) + the class period. Is it a surprise that this would be better? Students are spending more time working on the class. However, it’s also more work.
  2. Simply recording the lectures with a tool like Tegrity isn’t going to cut it. Instructors who lecture for a full 50 or 90 minute period will need to really reconsider their lectures and chunk them up differently. Why? Because watching a videotaped lecture, particularly from a single camera, back of classroom view, can be deadly boring. No one wants to sit through 100+ minutes of that video each week. Really.Oh, wait. I have one more concern:
  3. Classes aren’t comprised of just readings, lectures, and homework. They also (ideally) involve discussion and activities. I don’t see the space for those activities in this model. I suppose the answer is that the classroom part could be working homework problems and/or discussion and other activities. But that brings us right back to the idea that students should be engaged rather than just talked at, which is a bit different from the flipped classroom concept of doing homework with supervision/assistance.

So while I think the idea of pushing instructors to consider how in-class time is being spent is a great one and encouraging instructors to devote less of that in-class time to information dissemination and more to hands-on student application of concepts is also great, I can’t entirely get behind the idea that lectures should be videotaped and put online and that homework should be done in class, at least not as an absolute.

A videotaped lecture is static. It’s like a class reading, just in a different form.

An in-class lecture is a live event, which can be interspersed with live interactions (questions, activities, etc.). There is some real pedagogical value to interspersing explanation with application and practice. It’s not quite the same when the students view the explanation a few days earlier and no longer have it fresh in mind during class — not to mention that any number of students might run out of time or interest and not watch the lecture video before class.

So why is everyone so flipped out over this idea? Clearly the technology is readily accessible. And many institutions have been tasked with being more effective and more efficient all while using fewer resources. However, rather than jumping on the flipped  bandwagon and picking the solution before analyzing the problem, I’d suggest that maybe this is a good time for instructors to determine if their face-to-face classes, as currently taught, might just as readily be videotaped and shared online. If there would be no real differences, then maybe those instructors need to reconsider their methods a bit. However, the change they need may not be the flipped model.