Backward design, so you can move forward

Right now most of us in higher ed are stuck between a rock and a hard place instructionally. Or between x weeks of productive learning and an endpoint that we can’t reach on the planned path.

At this time, backward design is a great approach to take. It’s a pretty good instructional design approach in general, but right now it’s particularly useful.

The first step is to just let go of whatever you had planned for the rest of the term. Really. Let go of it. Don’t worry about how to convert it to online or some other remote form of delivery. Once you’re able to leave your plans in the past, you’re free to focus on the end point. What do your students need to know or be able to do by the end of your class? What is the next instructor counting on the students to know? What do they have to be able to do, professionally? Let this be your guide.

Ideally, you can look toward your learning objectives and your assessments for guidance at this time. It’s possible, however, that they don’t really reflect what is truly important. Objective drift happens all the time. Sometimes we have interesting ideas, and they lead us astray. The wandering path may be a fruitful one, and we may have some truly inspiring assessments planned. Any assessment, even when aligned with the objectives, is just one of many possible ways to determine if the desired learning has occurred. With that in mind, this might be a good time to come up with alternate assessments — and even to give multiple options.

By staring with the end point, it’s possible to move backward and determine what really needs to happen in a class for the remainder of the term. Let yourself scale back as needed.

Start with assessments.

Let’s say you have a 10 page paper with at least 15 unique references planned. Is the ability to write a 10 page paper an objective? Is synthesizing an argument across multiple references an objective? If not, maybe you can let go of some of these details this term, and reduce the paper length or number of references, or even offer students the opportunity to be assessed in a different form. Similarly, if you had planned in class presentations but now wonder if recording a presentation might be beyond the skill set of some students, maybe you can just have students turn in detailed powerpoints, or allow a brief paper instead.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that you take a look at your planned assessments and determine if they are still feasible in their current form. Will you struggle to grade them remotely? Will your students struggle to complete them under current circumstances? If so, then they’re not the right assessments for this term. Find an alternate.

If you’re not sure what your students will be able to do, here’s a great way to figure that out. Ask them. Maybe provide a few options, and conduct a poll. Or just plan to give them multiple choices, noting that all roads lead to Rome.

Right now I’m helping folks in one course shift from a group project (a challenge to coordinate in the best of times, with class time allotted to group work) to a scaled back version of the same project to be completed individually. In another class, I’m helping an instructor alter a test that was supposed to be proctored, changing it to an open book version. And in a third class, I worked with someone to get rid of some small quizzes and instead make them online self-check quizzes.

Then consider content.

Once you know what is absolutely essential to assess, take a look at content. Is there anything that isn’t critical right now? If so, perhaps you can let it go. Alternately, you might keep it, but mark it optional. I know, I know … that means that a lot of students won’t even open a single document related to that content. They won’t read a word of it, or watch a frame of it. Under current circumstances, that needs to be okay. There will probably also be some students who will enjoy the optional work, and complete it because they are interested and have the time to do it.

Once you know which content is critical, you can streamline for your students. Maybe you can remove a reading or two. Or post a transcript of a video, so bandwidth-challenged folks can read instead of watch. Or turn a complex reading into a brief summary for the students, through which they can quickly glean the key points.

In sum: Start at the end. Figure out what is necessary. Trim and reshape as needed.

Writing good discussion prompts

In a classroom setting, an instructor can walk in with a general question, like “What did you think about this week’s reading?” and then weave student responses into a meaningful, complex discussion in real time.

On a discussion board, that same question will fall flat. Students won’t know how to respond. There’s the honest response: I thought it was long. The complementary response: I thought it was very interesting and important. The factual one: This reading was about x, y, and z.

Other discussion questions that don’t work so well on a discussion board include:

  • Who invented the ____________?
  • What does the author mean she says “insert quote from reading here”?
  • What were the three main points of the reading?

The first one has a single correct answer. Once that answer is given, there’s nowhere for the discussion to go. I’ve seen questions like this asked in the past, and I’ve seen a dozen students proceed to give the same response. One of the last to reply even wrote, “I’m not really sure, but I think it’s …” before giving the correct answer, showing that they hadn’t even bothered to look at what others had written before responding. The second and third ones may be open to interpretation, but will reach the saturation point for responses pretty quickly. Again, there will be nowhere for the discussion to go. Additionally, all three questions orient the students toward the instructor rather than their peers. When students respond, they’ll wait for an instructor to affirm their response.

These questions may work in a classroom because a skilled instructor can take any student response and redirect it, fill in missing details, or connect it to another thought. It’s pretty amazing how live facilitation works. In contrast, on a discussion board a student response that falls flat just sits there in an unsatisfactory way until someone else responds to it — if someone else responds to it. Often such contributions are just ignored.

The key to developing fruitful discussion prompts is writing a set of directions that:

  • tells students what they should write in response to the prompt
  • offers the opportunity for each student to have a unique and appropriate response
  • tells students how they should respond to each other, in order to continue the conversation

Here’s an example a discussion prompt that meets these criteria:

TOPIC: Dispelling the Learning Styles Myth
Now that we’ve learned about the learning styles myth, let’s practice dispelling it. First, create a challenge for someone else. Write a brief post from the perspective of someone who believes in the learning styles myth, explaining why you must or cannot learn in a particular style. Then respond to two of your classmates. In your responses, try to break down their beliefs and dispel the myth. Help them understand why such beliefs are neither productive nor empirically supported by using logical arguments and evidence from research. Finally, look at how others have responded. Point out arguments that are particularly effective, and add evidence and arguments in spots where they may be needed.

Note how this prompt has students set up an initial scenario, then respond to each other’s scenarios, and finally evaluate their responses. Throughout the course of this discussion activity, students have to look at both sides of the topic we’ve covered in class (learning styles) and practice developing arguments and using evidence from their readings.

Other options for starting discussions might include asking students to select and interpret a passage from the readings, or to find and share a real-world example of a concept that you’re learning about in the course. From there, the students can find plenty of opportunities to enter the discussion and practice using the key terms, concepts, and skills that you’re learning. There are many variations on this type of discussion activity that you can come up with, all of which push students to dig deep and take ownership of the content.

Alternately, if you have students working on individual projects or papers you might have them use a discussion board to share initial ideas, abstracts, or drafts and then provide each other with peer feedback.

The posts that students produce in response to these prompts may not look anything like a face-to-face class discussion, but that’s okay. As long as the students are working through course material and getting an opportunity to practice applying it, the discussion is serving a useful purpose in the learning process.

Note: There are ways to facilitate asynchronous discussions that more closely resemble natural dialogue, but this really should not be your goal when moving a class online temporarily. Facilitating robust online discussion is a skill that takes time and effort to develop.

Time, tasks, and synchronous learning

You’re teaching a 50-minute class. You arrive in the classroom 8 minutes before class begins, get set up at the front of the room, and greet students as they arrive. The clock strikes the hour, and you begin. Maybe you have an announcement or two. Or maybe you just start with “Today we’ll be learning about …” and dive right in to a lecture or activity. You move smoothly through the day’s lesson plan. You ask questions and students answer them. As the class ending time nears, students give you non-verbal cues about the time. They close notebooks or laptops and put items in their backpacks. Everything runs smoothly.

In a synchronous class, you can do the same things with your students, but time and interactions will work a little differently. To have the smoothest experience possible, it helps to anticipate how time and interactions are different in the synchronous classroom. Here are some thoughts about what to expect and some tips to help manage the experience.

Preparing students. It’s not enough to give your students a time and a link for a synchronous session. Students need to be prepared for what to expect. Things to consider include:

  • Will students be sitting and quietly viewing? Or will they be interacting?
  • What technology do students need to participate? Will a camera and/or microphone be needed?
  • Will you expect students to have webcams on?

Let students know these details in advance. If they will be speaking, they need to be in a quiet location. If they will be on webcam, they should be mindful of what they are wearing (you know these things become tips for a reason), the lighting, and what is in the background. Tell them how to prepare.

Before class begins. Leave yourself enough time to get everything set up for your students. In some tools, like zoom, it’s possible to have students sit in a virtual waiting room until you are able to open up your virtual classroom. You might plan on logging in 15 minutes before class time, so you can get your computer set up, check your camera and microphone, set up slides or screen sharing, and gather all items that you might need into your workspace. If you’ll be doing screen sharing, open all of the necessary screens in the background so you’ll have a smooth transition. Close programs and screens that you won’t be using and turn off any alerts that might interrupt the class. Set up your screen the way you want it (e.g., adjust chat and participant windows so you can see them, if you want).

Once you’re all set up, you can let students join you in the virtual classroom. If you tell students you’ll be online 10 minutes early so you can interact with them and help them get set up, some will join you at that time. Consider it the online equivalent to being available for a few minutes during class, with one key difference: No privacy. That means it’s not a good time to discuss a student’s personal problems or progress in class. It is, however, a great time to ask how your students are doing and get informal feedback on how the class is going.

When class begins. You may plan to start right on time, but expect students to show up during the first minute or two of class. People generally underestimate the amount of time it will take them to get logged in and set up.

Take a moment at the start to make sure everyone is comfortable using the conferencing tool and can hear you and see your slides or whatever other materials you might be sharing.

If you will be recording the session (and you should, because students may want to review it and some students may not be able to attend in real time), let everyone know that you are recording, and then start the recorder.

It’s also a good idea to begin the class session (EVERY class session) with a reminder of the rules of engagement in the online class. These are some good ones to follow:

  • Leave your microphone on mute unless you are speaking.
  • Do not unmute your microphone until you are called on.
  • If you want to be called on, indicate that by (typing in the chat / raising your virtual hand).
  • Feel free to type questions and comments in the chat, but make sure they are on topic and remember that it is a public chat.
  • If tech problems arise and you cannot hear or see me, type in the chat.
  • Questions typed in chat may not be answered immediately, but there will be time to review and answer them.

I have a slide with these rules on them, and regularly ask students if there are other rules they would like to add. I also modify the rules as needed based on the class and the activity.

Expect that the “getting started” part of class may take anywhere from two to five minutes.

During class. If you’re lecturing online, it will feel strange at first because you won’t have the same feedback you get in the classroom. You won’t be able to easily scan the room and see who is paying attention and who looks confused. You won’t be easily able to tell who has a question or a contribution. It may feel like you are staring at the screen talking to yourself.

Sitting still and watching someone talk online is nowhere near as interesting as watching someone lecture in a classroom. You should expect that attention will wane after 10 minutes (if not earlier) unless you’ve been able to engage student attention in some other way. To help students maintain focus or attention, consider some of the following options:

  • Plan to invite students to participate at regular intervals. This may not be the time to get fancy and learn how to use polling tools. Just pause and ask a question or invite student contributions. If you’re using slides, display the question on a slide. Invite students to post their response in the chat, or to speak. To indicate that they want to speak, invite students to raise their virtual hands or, if that’s too much to deal with technologically speaking (and it may be), ask them to type something like “raising hand” in the chat, so you can call on them.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and make comments along the way. Tell them that every so often you will pause to review the chat and catch up with any questions. The change of pace will help break things up enough so students can refocus when you dive back in too content. You can read the chat conversation and respond to it. Invite student to interact with you more while you do that. It might start an interesting class conversation.
  • Offer a 7th inning stretch. Take a short break and invite everyone to get up, get a glass of water, and return in X minutes.

When you invite student to participate, it will take time for them to formulate a response and the type it into the chat. This radio silence can be a little anxiety-inducing if you’re not used to it, and it can be tempting to just keep moving forward. One strategy that can help is to tell students that you will give them a set amount of time (90 seconds?) to formulate or answer questions and submit to the chat. Having a defined purpose for and period of silence makes that silence more comfortable. Sit back and time the break. Have a drink of water and turn your webcam off for a moment if you would like. Return after the appointed time and start responding to what your students have posted.

If you invite students to speak, it will take a moment for them to unmute themselves. That’s normal. Try to get into the habit of saying providing the reminder to unmute, and making everyone comfortable with the silence. “I see Mike’s hand raised. Please unmute yourself and share with us, Mike. Speak whenever you are ready.”

Beware of lag time. Sometimes the audio and visual channels of conferencing tools do not move at the same speed. If you change slides on your computer or share a new document, it may take a moment before everyone else’s screen catches up. Be patient.

At the end of class. If you finish your planned agenda early, that’s fine. Open the session up to Q&A or discussion, and if no one has anything to say, bring the session to a close.

If the allotted time is almost over and you haven’t finished everything you had planned, that’s okay. You can make the decision to go on and finish, inviting people log off if they need to leave, or to wrap up wherever you are.  The latter is probably preferable, because students who have to leave will feel some anxiety about that. If you keep going, remind everyone that you are recording and be sure to share the recording after it is done.

When you wrap up, stop recording. You may wish to stay online for a few minutes (with the recording turned off) for any students who want to interact informally.

Evaluating the session. After the session, take a few moments to reflect. What worked well for you? What could you improve? Did you feel in control of time? If you had too much planned, remember to scale back the next time.

Invite students to offer you feedback, too. What worked for them? What could you do differently the next time?

Finally, don’t forget to share the recording with your class.

Don’t forget or penalize the students who couldn’t join or fully participate in the session. We’re moving online under emergency circumstances. Just because students had been able to show up in a physical classroom at a set time doesn’t mean that they will be able to do the same in a virtual space under their current conditions. Some may not have Internet access at home, or sufficient devices to participate actively (or at all). Under the current circumstances, it’s not reasonable to ask them to go out and find a wifi hotspot or a public library with available computers. In other cases, students may be able to watch but not fully participate. They may have small children at home, or be in a noisy environment that they cannot control. Invite them to participate in whatever ways they can, but also to not feel pressured or upset about what they cannot do. Be sure to have an alternate plan for these students and reassure them that they will not fall behind or be penalized.

 

Time, tasks, and asynchronous learning

When is class? And what am I supposed to do? These are questions that students who are new to asynchronous learning tend to wonder. Without guidance from their instructor, students tend to treat asynchronous experiences as “anytime, anywhere” learning, in which anytime maybe be earlier, later, or less frequently than you had anticipated. Thus, it’s important to set and share your expectations about asynchronous learning with your students.

Setting weekly boundaries

In an asynchronous course, most instructors use a week as the unit of time that defines instructional activities. Ideally you pick a day when the instructional week starts, and a day when it ends. It’s common to use Sun-Sat or Mon-Sun, although I have seen some people try abbreviated weeks with designated days off.

It helps to be precise with time. I might tell my students that the instructional week runs from Monday at 12 am EDT through Sunday at 11:59 pm EDT. Yes, I even specify the time zone because online students may not share the time zone where the institution is located. Also, if you don’t specify it from the start, someone is sure to ask.

Note that there is no perfect choice here. No matter what you choose as the end of the week or deadline/due date for an activity or assignment, someone is bound to complain about it, or at least express a desire for a different time. It goes something like this:

Person 1: Assignments are due by Sunday at 11:59? But my Internet at home isn’t great. I need to have until Monday morning to turn it in, so I can use the Internet at work.

Person 2: It’s due on Monday at noon? That’s no fair! I work on Mondays. How can you expect me to be finishing my assignment while I’m at work? It should be due Monday evening.

Pick a day and time. Be clear about it. Stick to it.

Time and activities

When I teach on campus, I have three contact hours per week. During those three hours, I might do five or six brief, hands-on learning activities with my students.

When I teach asynchronously online, my goal is to have students engaged for a similar amount of time, but not a similar number of activities. It gets complicated to run multiple concurrent activities with students who are participating at distributed times, and it also doesn’t work to try to spread the activities out (e.g., have a Monday activity, a Tuesday activity, and so on).

I recommend streamlining activities as much as possible, so students perceive only one or two interactive tasks for the week. For example, I might ask students to participate on a discussion forum. Within the forum, I may post multiple discussion prompts and give the students a choice of where to respond or ask them to respond to each one. In the end, they may effectively be working through the same learning objectives and content that we would have done across four in-class activities, but because it is all tied together in a single forum and listed as one type of activity, students are less likely to feel overwhelmed.

Set weekly interaction expectations

Knowing when and how to interact on campus is pretty simple for students. They show up to class at the appointed time and follow the directions provided by their instructor. Knowing when and how to interact online is not as easy for students, but the success of your asynchronous activities will be dependent on what students do.

You need to tell students things like how many times per week you expect them to log in to the class, and how many posts you want them to make in a discussion. Getting even more granular, it helps to tell students how many discussion forum posts you expect them to write, what or who they should be responding to in their posts, and what the deadlines are for posting. As nice as it is to think that students will naturally want to discuss, and that they will read and respond to each other’s posts in the forum, this probably won’t happen without clear instructor direction. Remember, this is a new way of learning for these students and they will look to their instructor to set the expectations.

If you want all students to respond to your prompt, tell them. Similarly, if you want students to respond to each other’s messages, tell them. Help them pace those responses and try to stimulate something approximating discussion by giving some deadlines. For example, you might say:

By Thursday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.*

By Sunday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

If you want to push a little more interaction, you could break it up with more incremental deadlines:

By Wednesday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.

By Friday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

By Sunday at 11;59 pm, return to the discussion and reply to at least two more classmates. If anyone has responded to your earlier posts, reply to them.

These are really basic guidelines, and there are certainly more sophisticated ones that you can set up, but if this is your first time doing it, start simple. The end result may not be fully fluid or resemble what you typically think of as discussion, but that’s okay. The mere act of composing one’s initial thoughts in a written message and then reacting to what others have posted is valuable practice and will help your students learn.

Students will display a range of participation behaviors related to time. Some will strive to post early in the week, and may want to get everything done well before the weekend. Others will be deadline huggers, posting right as the clock strikes midnight, or even a few minutes later.

*In many discussion tools, there’s an option to require students to post before they can see everyone else’s posts. You may wish to turn that on if you are concerned about students trying to copy others rather than formulate their own initial posts.

Help students manage their time and weekly tasks

I recommend using checklists for each week you are online. On the checklist you can put the tasks in an appropriate order, and specify and link to each item students are expected to do. This helps students see the week at a glance and feel confident that they are not missing anything. It also helps them manage their time when they can see how many things they need to do.

Here is an example of how I set up weekly module checklists in Canvas. I preface each category of items with the expected activity type (e.g., READ or DISCUSS) and use the same order and format each week to make things as easy as possible for my students.

modulechecklist

Sample of a Module Checklist

 

My Research in a Minute

I recently recorded a Research in a Minute video thanks to the FSU College of Education. It’s difficult to encapsulate all that you do in a mere 60 seconds (give or take), but I think this video gives a pretty decent overview of the main interests that drive my various projects, whether they reflect research, practice, or a combination of the two.

Hitting Reset

Life (or at least my life) tends to move at a fast and furious pace. I want to slow down. I want to learn HOW to slow down. Work and family obligations tend to conspire with each other, filling my days and nights. At any given time I have a zillion thoughts floating around my head, and lists of tasks I need to complete. I try to do as much as I can in small pockets of time, and often feel fragmented and frustrated. About half of my official work day hours are spent in meetings or in the classroom, and prep, grading, and follow-up tasks occupy much of the rest of those hours. Other obligations (as well as my writing) get pushed to the wee hours, when I’m exhausted.

But this past week was different.

Continue reading

Hurricanes and holidays.

It’s been a long week, thanks to Irma. Longer than a week, actually. It’s difficult to remember when I first became aware of Irma. I’m pretty sure that it was last Wednesday – a week ago Wednesday – that the local reporter came by to get my story for the one year anniversary of Hurricane Hermine (which was Friday, and yes, I was in the local paper!). I know I was thinking about Harvey and already watching Irma at that time.

From the first moment I saw Irma, I had a bad feeling about her. I was pretty sure she was coming my way. However, she was still quite far away then. What that meant was that I had a few days to worry when there was nothing to worry about, and then a few more to worry when there might be something to worry about. Finally, by Tuesday, it was time to worry. And prepare. This whole week that has been about trying to get work done while preparing and assessing the overall danger (should I stay or should I go?). Irma is not quite here yet, and she’s taking her sweet time to get here. Until she does arrive, I have to prepare.

Prepare. Prepare? What does that mean to prepare for Irma? Let me share with you everything that I’ve been doing since Friday, when school was canceled:

• Shopping for groceries and supplies to make sure we have everything we need when the stores are closed for a few days. We need everyone’s favorite foods and a few surprises! And let’s not forget enough toilet paper – that’s critical. And wine! Do we have enough wine?
• Checking multiple times to make sure there are enough batteries for all of the electronics.
• Doing all of the laundry – pretty much whipping it off peoples’ bodies and sticking it into the washer – to make sure I can go for a week without doing any laundry.
• Cleaning the fridge and freezer.
• Preparing foods in advance, so I won’t need to be in the kitchen slaving over a stove and we can just plate and serve (ha! My stove has actually been broken since June 2, with a new range top sitting on my living room floor waiting for the installer most of that time, but that’s another story).
• Cleaning the house so it doesn’t need to be done again for a few days.
• Getting the yard in shape – trimmed up, everything put away.
• Rearranging furniture in some rooms to accommodate everyone hanging out together.
• Checking in with friends to see how their plans are coming along.
• Continuously checking the time and the calendar, feeling anxious because time is both passing quickly and slowly. How much time is left to prepare?
• Doing all of this with kid under foot because school is out, and all while trying to keep kid from getting too pumped up about it.

You know what? It feels a lot like preparing for Christmas. The only difference is that I won’t be getting any presents.** Then again, if my house gets through this storm without any damage it’ll be better than any Christmas present.

Anyway, I’m done preparing. Now I’m just sitting here, exhausted, waiting for Christmas Irma to arrive.

 

**Although there will be no opening of gifts, there will surely be a massive cleanup post-Irma. Instead of boxes, wrapping paper, and ribbons it’ll be branches, twigs, and leaves.