Are boring discussions taking over your online course?

If your online courses involve online discussion (and they should!), I urge you to consider the types of discussions your students are having. Before I get into that, lets discuss the advantages of online discussion. Online discussion is what separates online courses from traditional distance learning correspondence courses. It gives us that ‘feel’ i.e., social presence, that a face to face course has. So if you want your learners to be happy there needs to be an element of discussion and student/teacher presence in the course. However, what I find is that many online instructors have boring discussions causing a slight decrease in satisfaction when comparing their online vs face to face student satisfaction scores. In fact at the end of my online courses I get many comments from students stating that they were happy they didn’t have boring discussions like other online courses they have taken. Many say they were nervous to take my course due to bad experiences in other online courses.

Why does this happen?

We know the students need to do the discussions as part of the learning process however the students usually see most discussions as busy work – something they are required to do, that is not fun, that they feel they do not get a lot out of. As a result, I have been experimenting with a discussion strategy that I believe works very well in online courses, which promotes learning and makes each discussion very beneficial for the student.

What do I do?

Instead of posing a discussion question that I hope sparks students interest I have students do a project. While we all love discussion questions the issue is that in a 5, 8 or 15 week course where students need to participate each week, there is no way you are going to come up with 1-3 discussion questions each week that students generally care about and thus they lose motivation doing the same thing over and over again. In addition, many discussion questions don’t even spark discussion and students are posting simply to meet the requirements in the course. This is boring! So I create a project for each week of the course that students post to the discussion forum and then discuss. I love this idea because students will get to see how another student viewed the assignment and learn from what they did. What are some example projects/activities that I have students do instead of a weekly discussion question? Some examples include presentations, videos, screencasts, critique articles/videos, charts, collages, short fictional stories, and many others. I try to make each week a different activity that relates to the content covered for the week. This way before my week starts students have done a small project on the topic and they have started discussing it. What I find is that many students go in and look at each students project because they are curious to see what their classmates did. This creates a great learning environment and makes students very comfortable with each other. I find that doing this has increased my end of course review scores, end of course comments, and increased the amount of compliments I get for my online courses. Give it a try and see how it works out for you. And I find this works for both undergraduate and graduate courses!

Putting syllabi, schedules, and other documents into blackboard

When putting your documents into blackboard there are a few tricks that I have found that really help you out as an instructor. I have observed most instructors doing 1 of 2 things when putting their files into blackboard and I choose option number 3.

The first and easiest thing is to simply upload your Word or PDF documents directly into blackboard. This is easy for you. And the students can simply download the files. The disadvantage is that students need to download the files and you cannot make changes to the documents once they have the hard copies. This becomes a chore if you post this in 3 different places and then need to make changes.

The second most common thing is pasting your text into blackboard so that there is nothing to download. This does take longer as you need to reformat it once you do the copy/paste but its easier for your students. The advantage is that you can edit the documents throughout the semester as needed because there is one master copy. The disadvantage is that you cannot easily email it to students unless you also have a Word/PDF version.

As I said, I choose option 3, which is have found is more or less a combination of the two. I provide students with a link from a shared server (ie dropbox) in blackboard. That way, whenever students click the link they are taken to the document via the web browser. Plus, if I want to make changes to the documents I can simply make the change to the actual file without having to navigate in blackboard. This is especially useful if you put your syllabus is 2-3 different places (ie on the main page, then in discussion forums, email to students, etc.). This makes it very easy and you can tell students that whenever they want to see the document to please click the link. Any downloaded version is always old. I also put a modified date at the top so they can match up downloaded version to the latest link.

Structuring a discussion forum in an online course

When creating a discussion board for an online course you do not just create it and hope it gets used. You also do not just put a bunch of boring questions and hope students learn something. You need to plan it out. I am going to highlight several of the things that I use and have found add to my student’s success and course enjoyment.

Help! – A help or questions and answer forum is a great place for students to ask questions. Students can ask questions and other students can respond. This saves me time because if a student answers the question, I may not need to. Additionally, all students in the course get to see all of the responses.

Cool resources – This is a place for my students and I to post articles, websites, blogs, news stories, etc that are relevant to the course. As an instructor I try to post to this forum about 8-10 times throughout the semester. This is a chance for students to also post cool resources they may come across in their research and coursework that may benefit the rest of the class.

Announcements – I post a weekly statement to students in this section. That weekly announcement tells them exactly what is due for the week and includes any course updates. I also send this out as an email. This helps keeps students on track so that they do not feel lost in the course. I find that sending an email and posting to the forum is a must.

Social forum – This is a place where students can post anything – course related or not. This forum usually does not see that much activity however when questions are asked they are usually very important. For instance, students may ask about certifications and such that may not be relevant to my class but are important for all students in my program. Another example might be resume help. Important topics but there may only be 2-3 for a whole semester course.

Introductions – I have all students introduce themselves. I also ask them to post a picture of themselves. This way it puts a face with a name and makes the class more personable. In this introduction I ask them the following: goals, where they live/are from, experience, and ask them to tell us something fun/exciting about themselves. They usually have fun with this.

Discussions – This is where the activities take place. Each week I have students complete activities in my classes and discuss them. I try to stay away from traditional discussion questions as a primary assignment as I find that students feel they are boring. So instead I will ask them to choose a research article and review, create a presentation on a topic, create a table comparing and contrasting, or even create a screencast or video. These activities get at the same type of learning (or deeper) that I would get from discussion questions but are a bit more fun. I try to make a different activity for each week of my course. Students then are usually required to post several times to their classmates.

Get certified to teach online!

The Watson College of Education at UNCW Introduces New Online Teaching & Learning Certificate Program

Beginning this summer, the Watson College of Education will offer a post-baccalaureate certificate in Online Teaching and Learning (OT&L).  The 18-credit hour program is designed to meet growing demand from K-12 schools, colleges and universities and businesses for professionals who are interested to gain knowledge and skills to design, develop, implement, manage and evaluate effective online and blended learning programs.

WCE’s Online Teaching and Learning certificate is the first program of its kind in the state.  Courses are offered in the evening and led by faculty with real-world experience in K-12, government and corporate settings.  Full time students and working professionals who enroll in the program can participate either face-to-face or online through synchronous conferencing technology.

The Watson College of Education is now accepting applications for summer and fall 2014. For more information please see the attached flyer, visit http://uncw.edu/ed/mit/otlcertification.html or contact Florence Martin, Instructional Technology Program Coordinator (martinf@uncw.edu or 910-962-7174).

See attached brochure:  MIT_OTLCertbrochure

Online learning: Have we reached market saturization?

A new report suggests that online course growth is slowing. This is not new either – there have been reports over the last 2-3 years that online growth has stagnated. We have hit a point in the market where demand is being met. We all knew this point would come and it took about 10 years to get there. Of course online learning has been around longer but it wasn’t really mainstream until the early 2000s and I think I am being generous by saying that.

Who really wants more online courses and why?

Thought this article on the chronicle was pretty much spot on. Very good piece:

Source: http://chronicle.com/article/Who-Is-Driving-the-Online/140505/

“Proponents of online learning often use train metaphors to describe its growing impact on the educational landscape. Those of us who teach at two-year colleges, especially, are constantly encouraged, prodded, hectored, cajoled—and sometimes even ordered—to get on board. Otherwise, we’re told, we’re likely to be run over.

As one who is skeptical regarding the long-term benefits of online learning, I would attest that the train metaphor is pretty apt. I sometimes feel as though I’m standing on the tracks, signaling “proceed with caution,” while the online locomotive bears down on me, air horn reverberating.

I suspect others share that vivid nightmare. But what makes it especially sobering now is that, with the advent of MOOCs, the train is picking up steam and we’re no longer alone in its destructive path. These days entire departments, disciplines, and even institutions potentially stand in the way, at risk of being pulverized along with the rest of us.

Thinking about that phenomenon has led me to wonder, lately, just who is at the throttle. I think that’s a question well worth asking, and the answer ought to inform our response as faculty members. It seems to me that there are only a handful of possibilities:

Students. Supposedly everything we do in higher education is for the students, and we tend to be especially insistent on that point whenever we fear people might question our motives. Online learning is a perfect example. The reason we keep offering more and more classes online is that students are demanding them. Right?

Well, maybe. It’s true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that “the slower rate of growth … compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau.”

Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult.

So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn’t exactly hold up.

Faculty members. Are they driving the train by demanding to teach more and more classes online? After all, faculty members are often faulted for putting their own scheduling preferences ahead of students’ needs and desires. Is this simply another case of professorial self-centeredness?

I don’t think so. Speaking anecdotally for a moment, I’ve talked to literally scores of people who teach online, at my institution and others. Hardly any of them prefer it. Oh, they might prefer it in the sense that teaching online allows them more flexibility or reduces their commute. But the overwhelming majority of them tell me that, all things being equal, they would much prefer to teach in a traditional classroom, because they enjoy the personal interaction with students.

According to a 2009 report by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, only about 36 percent of faculty members have any experience developing or teaching an online course—a number that conforms closely to the roughly one-third of students who take classes online. Moreover, according to The Chronicle’s report, the study also found that professors’ general attitude toward online courses remains unfavorable—even among those who teach online: “70 percent of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction.”

When it comes to MOOCs, even fewer faculty members are on board. In fact, as we saw during the recent exchange between San Jose State University’s philosophy department and the Harvard professor Michael Sandel, for every faculty member developing a MOOC, there appear to be dozens who object to using such courses in lieu of more traditional offerings.

More telling, perhaps, is the recent Chronicle survey that found that 72 percent of faculty members who teach MOOCs don’t believe their students should receive college credit. In other words, even supporters of MOOCs don’t think they’re as good as face-to-face instruction.

So it’s not our colleagues at the throttle of the monstrous locomotive threatening to squash the rest of us.

Employers. Maybe it’s the end users, the companies that hire our graduates, who insist on more and more—and bigger and bigger—online offerings. Certainly, if you listen to the administrators and politicians (and yes, I’ll get to them in a moment), that would seem to be the case.

Unfortunately, that theory doesn’t wash, either. Another recent survey conducted for The Chronicle found that employers have a favorable impression of all types of colleges and universities—except for online institutions. And while there’s certainly a difference between students who complete their entire degrees online and those who just take a few online courses, the findings clearly suggest that employers don’t trust online instruction as much as traditional methods.

Just a few weeks ago, in “Giving Employers What They Don’t Really Want,” Robert J. Sternberg, president of the University of Wyoming, tackled this issue directly. He noted that most of the employers surveyed by The Chronicle said they were looking to hire people with “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” as well as having “ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.” The problem, Sternberg said, is that “those are not skills optimally developed through passive learning … including MOOCs.”

Whatever we’ve been told, I don’t believe employers are demanding that students take more online classes or sign up for MOOCs. Which brings us to …

Administrators. Since the “online revolution” began in the mid-1990s, I’ve taught at three different two-year colleges, visited many others, and sat through countless conference presentations trumpeting the latest technological breakthrough. My observation is that administrators, along with a handful of true believers among the faculty, have always been the primary proponents of online learning. On campus, at least, they’re the ones driving the train.

Why? The main reason, I believe, is money. Online courses enable colleges to enroll students and “deliver content” inexpensively, since they don’t require classrooms, parking spaces, restrooms, or, in some cases, even faculty offices. I’ve heard people argue that, done well, online courses can cost just as much as the face-to-face variety. That may be true, but I dare say that at most two-year colleges, they are offered as cheaply as possible, and that is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, for their existence.

California’s higher-education leaders basically admitted as much when they considered, a few months ago, the possibility of “outsourcing” some of their course offerings. The problem as they saw it was that they couldn’t afford to offer all the classes students wanted; and the solution, they thought, might just be MOOCs, which would enable them to provide those courses (in a manner of speaking) at comparatively low cost. Fortunately, that idea fell through.

Another reason that campus leaders—especially at two-year colleges—seem so anxious to embrace online learning is that it’s “innovative.” If there’s one thing every community-college president wants carved on his or her tombstone, it’s that he or she was “an innovator.” (That, and maybe a “transformational leader.”) Ironically, for many of those presidents, being innovative seems to mean doing exactly what everybody else is doing, only more of it.

Clearly, the online train that threatens to roll right over us has an administrator at the throttle, gleefully pushing the handle toward “full power.”

Politicians. On the other hand, administrators are not alone. Joining them in driving the train is a politician (or two, or a dozen) shouting encouragement, or perhaps threats.

Administrators, after all, especially at public institutions (which nearly all community colleges are), serve at the pleasure of politicians. And what is it that pleases politicians? Apparently, it’s for as many students as possible to take as many online classes as possible.

Exhibit A is an opinion essay by Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Randy Best that ran in Inside Higher Ed back in May. Entitled “Higher Ed in 2018,” the essay foresees an educational landscape in which “more than 80 percent of professional degree programs [sic] … will be earned online.” Why? Because “rising tuition, declining government subsidies, stagnant endowments, and increased competition are challenging higher education like never before.”

In other words, it’s all about the cost. As the friend who sent me that essay noted, nowhere does it say anything about the quality of education people will be receiving in this brave new world. That’s because all too often politicians, like administrators, aren’t concerned with quality; they’re more interested in the bottom line. And it’s not just Republican politicians, like Jeb Bush, who fall into that category: The state senator in California who originally proposed outsourcing to MOOCs is a Democrat.

I understand that politicians have a duty to be good stewards of public money, as do college administrators; and I certainly don’t have any objection to cutting costs where we can. But when our primary objective becomes making degrees as cheap as possible, rather than providing the best education possible, we’re missing the mark as educators and doing no good for the future of our students or our nation.

That’s why it’s so important for us as faculty members to realize who’s driving the online locomotive. It’s not students, only about a third of whom take any online classes. It’s not our colleagues, the vast majority of whom still aren’t fully on board with online learning in general, much less with MOOCs. And it’s certainly not employers, who over all seem to prefer that students take most of their coursework in traditional classrooms. It’s the administrators and the politicians, whose priorities—let’s be honest—are not the same as ours.

I sometimes wonder if the train is so big, and moving so fast, that it’s just going to derail itself due to basic physics. But unless that happens, and until it does, the only way to slow it down is for enough of us to refuse to get on board and instead line the tracks, signaling “proceed with caution” with all our might.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of “Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges.” He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for “On Hiring.” The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.”

How to develop units for online courses

Since my students’ online units are due today, I figured I would make this post. If you want to make your online course successful a best practice is to include the following things in each unit. I say this because many times I see an online course and things are not spelled out for the learner. I get into a lesson and I do not see objectives or their are not directions for me and I kind of have to assume that I just click through the materials. This usually works fine for me as I have a lot of online course experience but for new learners, this is just setting up a disaster. So I have compiled the following list.

Just to clarify, when I say unit in online learning, I generally refer to one section/topic/week/lesson in a course that is online and 80%+ asychronous. In higher ed we break this into weeks however each environment might be different. Here is a list of things that should be included in an online unit, however remember that each case/course is different and may require more/less depending on the needs to the client and students.

Things that should be included in an online unit:

* Lesson Title
* Concept / Topic To Teach
* Standards Addressed if appropriate (usually for K-12 only)
* General Goal(s)
* Course Objectives
* Required Materials – the students need anything to complete this? Maybe they need headphones to listen to a video
* Step-By-Step Procedures – This is where you give them very detailed step by step directions. Course content can be in this section.
* Course content (instructional strategies)
* Closure (wrap up the unit)
* Assessment Based On Objectives (assignment, test, quiz, etc.)
* Adaptations (For Students With Learning Disabilities) – usually only applied to K-12
* Extensions (For Gifted Students) if appropriate or for students who want to learn more about the topic – this should always be included for all learners – K-12, higher ed, corporate, government
* Possible Connections To Other Subjects
* Appendix – materials, such as PPT, Videos, Podcasts, etc.