Tag Archive | education

Thoughts on Teaching – Summer School – 7/14/2016

I have started up my summer session as of yesterday.  Summers are low impact overall, with 50 students in two online sections for the next 5 1/2 weeks here, and the first two days here have largely matched the low-key aspect so far.

As I think about it, I see a lot of value to the summer session for both professors and students.

For students at the community college level, a full load of classes can be quite challenging, as they tend to have at least one job, take care of family members, and have many commitments outside of school that traditional, four-year students do not have.  As well, many are coming in with academic deficiencies that need remediation and many struggle financially to pay for college, books, housing, and transportation.  Many students taking 12 to 15 hours in a long semester struggle with these problems, and yet their reliance on financial aid makes ties them to a full-time schedule.  As well, many students really do not have an idea of what it means to be a full-time college student, as opposed to a high school student, and this shows in their struggles, especially in the fall semester.  In the summer, students can take a maximum of two classes in a summer session, and most just take one.  This allows them to concentrate in on one course and do the best they can in it.  I will say that my grade distribution, the quality of work, and the number of students successfully completing the course are much higher in the summer than in a long semester.  I find students to be generally more focused and able to work around other commitments better with the lower pressure from fewer classes.

From the professor side, as well, the smaller number of classes and students (as an example, in a long semester, I generally teach six sections and have around 200 students) can be a nice break and time for recovery.  The long semesters can wear down even the most dedicated instructors, whereas the summers allow for a more relaxed teaching and grading pace.  Because I have required office hours in the summer (10 hours on campus per week in the summer), I am almost forced to get things done in a way that can easily be left behind in more unstructured summer time.  I plan on preparing my fall semester and reworking some of the material while also catching up on my own professional development reading that I never seem to have time for otherwise.  I can feel productive without feeling overwhelmed, which is something that is hard to achieve otherwise.

What do you think?  Are you or have you ever taken a summer course?  Do you teach in the summer if you are in the profession?

Thoughts on Life – Summer Balance -6/22/2016

I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on.  I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session.  What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.

I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts.  For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer.  I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them.  And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to.  Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting.  I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there.  There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session.  Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.

One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com).  I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to.  I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job.  The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better.  I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far.  The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education.  The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education.  I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university.  I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students.  I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.

Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall.  I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now.  I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one.  I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now.  I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme.  It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together.  So, that is what I am thinking about.

Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update.  I’ll be back for more later.

Thoughts on Life – Work-Life Balance – 6/14/2016

So, hello again.  Yes.  I know.  I have not been on here in a while.  In fact, if you look back at the posting history on this blog, I have not been posting regularly since the fall of 2014.  Here it is, the summer of 2016.  So, what happened?

Life.

We had our fourth kid in the fall of 2012, and by the time I stopped posting regularly, she was up and running around the house.  In fact, if I look back at my extracurricular work (blogging, Coursera courses, and the like), a lot of it stopped around that time.  I was able to keep going through the first couple of years until she was very mobile and demanding on time.  I can’t say it was a conscious decision, but it was something that my wife and I had conversations about.  We discussed the constant pressure that I felt to be on all the time in my job.  With a teaching load that is at least half online, there is pressure to be doing work 24/7, and, to a certain extent, I was.  However, since that point, I have tried to incorporate more family time and more free time into what I do, so that I am not constantly expected to be working.  I am not saying I was constantly working, but I was always work-aware, checking email, looking at my courses, and trying to fill my free time with relevant activities.  That all changed around the spring of 2015, when I changed how I balance my work and my life to be biased more toward life.  And, this blogging has been one of the things that has dropped off.

Another decision that affected the blogging came straight from this decision.  I had always had Sunday evening online office hours, even though few students ever attended them.  I took two hours out of every Sunday and sat in front of the computer in my office on a video-conferencing program to be available to my students.  That was an ideal time to also sit down and write a blog entry, as I had to be in front of the computer doing work for that time.  Of course, since almost no students ever came on, I had the time for blogging as well.  After the fall of 2014, I dropped these hours because they were so poorly attended and because they were more of an inconvenience that a help to my own work-life balance.  While occasionally productive, it brought work home even more directly than I do now, and it was something that became harder and harder as the toddler got more mobile.  Dropping those hours is not something I regret, and it has again moved me more toward the life side of the work-life balance, but it has had an impact as well.

In looking back on it, I have mixed feelings about the change.  I miss blogging regularly, and I feel more disconnected from my work at times.  It also has made my actual work time more stressful, as there is more pressure to get things done in the time I am working.  As well, when work does poke into life, as it did in the last semester because of a committee I was chairing, it is that much more stressful as well.  However, the overall effect has been good.  I do spend more time with my family than before, I think, and I am not as tied into work as I used to be while at home.  As well, I have been reading more than I used to, especially of fiction, which I love.  I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books that I read, and during the last school year (September-May), I read 39 books.  I consider that a success as well.

Lately, however, I have been feeling the need to get back into pushing myself more academically.  I need to find a balance, and I have not yet figured out how to hit that balance.  I do not necessarily think that I have leaned too far toward life at this point, but I do think that I have not committed myself to as much of the extracurricular work activity that I should be doing, such as keeping up this blog.  I would like to take more continuing education-type courses.  I would like to read more in my field (yes, of those 39 books, not a single one was a history book).  I would like to work on course redesign, lecture rewriting, and new teaching methods.  And, I want to do all of this without disrupting the balance too much.  So, we shall see how it goes.

I guess you will see this result directly.  If I am regularly posting on here, then you can see that I am working more outside of just teaching.  So, keep me honest and let me know when I fall behind.  Also, do you have any thoughts on this?

Thoughts on Education – “The Advancement Problem” – July 13, 2015

I have been far behind in my reading on educational issues for a while.  In fact, when I started this second summer session, I went and deleted almost 4 months of emails about articles from The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.  I always plan to read over what has been said in those articles, but they go into a specific email folder, and, when I don’t have time, those emails become the lowest priority.  And, of course, once I fall behind, it is hard to get up the energy to go back and review them for things I might want to read.  I am always amazed at people like my wife who have 8-10,000 unread emails in their inbox, but I can see how, once you get a certain level behind, it is almost too much to catch up.

The other thing I am behind on is my whole “Thoughts on Education” series, where I talk about issues in education.  So, I am also restarting that here, with the hope of doing these types of posts more often as well.

The article that got me thinking again was posted last month in Inside Higher Ed.  It came from the blog series Confessions of a Community College Dean, and it was called “The Advancement Problem.”  In the post he highlights an issue that has been bugging me for a while, what happens after you have hit most major academic milestones.  I have looked forward in my own career, and I am not sure what it will bring.  This coming year will be my tenth year teaching at my current community college.  I have been here through a two presidents so far, and have moved from being one of the young ones to being a veteran in the department, as most of those older than me have either retired or are on the verge of retiring.  When I arrived in 2006, I was the youngest in my department by almost 30 years.  Now, I am in the middle of the pack in age and one of the longest in tenure.  Of course, at my community college, there is no actual tenure, as we are all on renewable, one-year contracts.  Yet, after the first couple of years, we all essentially have tenure, as few people are ever dismissed where I am, outside of program closings and far outlying academic performances.

We do have titles, but they are largely meaningless and completely ignored by the college and administration.  There was a push for titles, but it is run by faculty and has no recognition officially and comes with no compensation.  They are largely so that we do not have to just call ourselves Instructors on our business cards.  I am an Assistant Professor, although I might be an Associate by now.  There is so little need for the titles, that I have not even calculated to see if I might be able to move up.  I know others care deeply about these titles, but they provide little incentive for me.  The largest things you can do to go up in rank is to gain an additional degree or stay an additional year, as most other things count very little.  I have no desire to get an additional degree, so I am basically going to move up when I have stayed here long enough.

And, that is the issue that the article got me thinking about.  My future in teaching is to stay teaching at my community college, teach for several more decades, and then retire.  I might become department chair one day, if I haven’t burned too many bridges by then, but I am really not sure what else there is.  And, since I am teaching at a community college, that means that, for the next several decades, I keep teaching the same thing – the two halves of the American history survey.  Over and over.  If I stay thirty more years, I will be about 70, having worked here for forty years.  I will make more money than I do now, although we do not have step pay.  We are dependent on raises being passed in the budget years, but, as long as those raises keep coming, I will make more money each year.  And, I will continue to teach the same classes.

Unlike other disciplines here, we cannot really make classes outside of the American history survey.  We teach one section each of the two halves of western civilization, but I am only qualified to teach the second one, so I will never get to participate in that survey line.  We have tried to offer state history, but that has not ever made here.  And, the other history classes that are open to us to teach are all electives that would have a very small audience at best.  Then, to take someone out of a survey class that will fill and put them in an elective history class that might or might not make is not really a viable option anyway.  So, my best option is to try teaching the surveys in different ways.  I have taught them as traditional lecture courses, online, and hybrid formats.  To keep my interest in teaching the same things over and over, I will keep changing, adapting, and updating what I do.  But I sometimes wonder if that will be enough.

I have even already been chosen for the two biggest awards that a faculty member can receive at my community college, leaving even recognition out of things unless I wait another decade or so to see if it happens again.  This is what I see as the “Advancement Problem.”  Do I want the biggest thing to be said about me when I do retire that I taught the same classes at the same institution for decades on end?  Certainly, many people do, and they are celebrated when they retire.  And, the truth is, it is a good job, with good pay, good benefits, and good hours.  I have a steady job that I am not likely to be fired from, which is more than many people can say.  But what I worry about is burnout.  I have felt that off and on for the past couple of years, and involvement in nasty office politics has left me hesitant to pursue one of the routes that is available to do something different — moving into administration in some form, even if it is just as a department chair.  However, that does appear to be the only “different” thing to do.

What I don’t have are any solutions.  I have recently joined professional organizations and would love to go to conferences and be more active in professional life.  But I have both a large family that is hard to leave and a college that cuts our travel budgets every year.  So, that is, unfortunately, largely out of the question unless the conferences are close.  I try to read and keep up with changes and developments, and I hope that will be enough.

Any ideas out there for other things to look at in approaching this problem?

Thoughts on Teaching – Summer School – 7/9/2015

And so the summer session begins.  I am teaching the second of our two summer sessions, which means that I just finished up roughly 8 weeks off before starting teaching again.  I have never done that before, as I usually teach the first summer session, which means 3 weeks off, teach for 5 weeks, and then 5 weeks off.  I can’t say I got any more or less done in having the 8 weeks off together, but I will see how I feel at the end of this summer session on how that change affects me.

I have 44 total students in two online sections this summer.  We are on day 2 of the session, and 10 of those students have not yet logged into the classroom.  Of the 34 who have, things seem to be going well so far.  I have fielded some questions, and I have found one minor mistake in the material that I had prepared.  Otherwise, I would say that it has been a smooth start so far.  About 20-25 students have been at least somewhat active, starting to complete some assignments and interacting with the introductory materials.

The summer is always strange, as I pointed out to the students directly in one of my initial announcement posts.  As opposed to a traditional, long semester, the students have just 5 weeks to complete all of the material.  And, if you consider when I have to schedule exams (the school and Testing Center are only open Monday-Thursday over the summer), things get even more rushed.  The first half of the course will take a little less than two weeks, which is normally the first seven weeks of a long semester.  As I pointed out to the students, this means that each two days, they are covering a week’s worth of material.  I would have let it go a bit longer, but with the school schedule, I have the first exam running a Wednesday and Thursday, leaving only 13 days to cover the first half of the course before the exam opens.  Then, they will have about 2 1/2 weeks for the second half of the class, because I had to schedule my exams around the college’s schedule.  I understand the need to have shorter work weeks in the summer and the less need for long hours with a much smaller student presence in summer classes, but 4 days a week is limiting when compared to 6 days a week in the long semester.

I have made some suggestions to the students on how to complete the material in time.  I have the class set up with two major deadlines, one at the end of each unit.  I know that the temptation for the students will be to put it all off until the end of each unit, but I have warned them that there is more material to complete than can be done in a day or two.  My suggestion is that they take the class with the goal to complete each “week’s” worth of material from the long semesters every two days.  If they do that, they will be on a path to complete the course material with no problem.  I cannot, of course, force them to do this, but it is my suggestion.  Of course, I could actually force them to do it, by putting in intermediate deadlines, but I like the flexibility that the current format allows students to have.  The summers are always complicated, and I want to make this a process that works well for all of the students regardless of vacation and work schedules.

We shall see how the summer session progresses, but it has been a good start so far.

Thoughts at a Conference – Texas Distance Learning Association, Day 2 – 4/8/2015

Today, I am attending the Texas Distance Learning Association Conference in Dallas, TX.  Today is the first full day of the conference, and I will be here throughout the day today.  I am going to be blogging this event today and for the next two days, with a breakdown of each of the sessions that I am attending.

As a note, I have already been here a long time, as I came in rather early to beat the traffic of driving into Dallas.  Thus, I had about a 2-hour starting window for the breakfast (yay! food!).  Getting here at 7 with the first session at 9 meant a long breakfast.  The good thing is that I was joined by several people that I was able to talk with and pass the time.

According to what I have heard from people, attendance is down this year, maybe because it is in Dallas rather than in Corpus Christi or Galveston, as in previous years.  Still, there seems to be a good variety of people here at this point.  I do not have any concept yet about how many either instructors or community college members are here this year.  I hope to find that out as I hit the more specific sessions.

Session 1 – Opening Keynote

Presenter – Ross Ramsey – Executive Editor and Co-Founder, The Texas Tribune

A general overview of the Texas legislate session, discussing issues that affect out budgetary outlooks, both at the state level and in terms of educational focuses.  An overall interesting talk about what the issues are going to be in the last 8 weeks of this legislative session.

Session 2 – SoftChalk – Create-Your-Own Interactive eBooks for iPads and Chromebooks

Presenter – SoftChalk – Paul Miller

I have always been interested in SoftChalk but never seen anything about it.  One distinct idea is that anything you create in SoftChalk can be shared with a web link on any platform.  Following the twitter handle @PaulSoftChalk gives the link for this session.  I am going to be following along with his presentation through his created SoftChalk page.

Showing the use of internal polling, use of frames to display content inside your lesson, use of media (video, images), quizzing embedded in the lesson.

As a note, if you are going to give a presentation to a room full of professionals, you should at least spell check your presentation.  Some credibility is lost, either in the presenter or in the product.  It raises the question to me if spell check is a part of what you can do.  It is so key to what you need in preparing course materials that, if it is not included, this is a weakness.

Next part of the presentation – SoftChalk Cloud – started as a desktop application – now it is in the cloud for both development and distribution.

To create an eBook, you use the eBook Builder within the SoftChalk application.  In this example, he pulled in from a Word document with the majority of the formatting coming over as done in Word.  So, you can bring in material well from what you have created elsewhere – it creates the html code for what you bring in.  Then, you insert page breaks to paginate your book.  Inserting activities goes through the menus with 20 different types of activities available to insert.  As for media, they have a set number of things (Khan Academy, Getty images, and the like).

Seems pretty straightforward in use.  The question is, how different is it to create when you don’t have content ready to go?  How long would it take to set up a new lesson?  And, do you want all the small activities that the students have to do as you go along?  That is what SoftChalk seems designed for, if you want essentially PowerPoint like slides with interactive materials in it. I am not sure if it would work for something more robust in scale.

Also, as was raised in the discussion here, the question is if you want online or offline access.  The advantage to online access is that you don’t have to imbed the whole media content in the lesson, making it a smaller file overall but requiring internet access to use.  If you want it to be completely offline, then you have to embed the material into the eBook itself, leaving you with restrictions on the size of your document, depending on how much stuff you brought in.

And now, the link that I had above is now the thing that he created here (using already made content) in about 15 minutes here. Something to look at and see what I think about it.  The final .epub file is here that you can download and use with students.  I tried opening it in iBooks, and it is certainly pretty rough in how it carries over.  This is a beta product, and it is not all the way together and ready from what I can see.

Session 3 – Exploring “Helper” Apps to Hit Productivity High Notes

Presenter – Sharon Huston – Texas A&M University – Instructional Designer

Looking for ways to make the annoying busy work side of our jobs less monotonous.  How much time do we spend copying and pasting and the like rather than the real essence of our jobs.

ClipMate – clipboard manager that keeps track of what you have copied and pasted so that you can pull multiple different things out of it to paste.  Not a Mac tool – PC only – paid product (about $20) – couldn’t use on work computer, as you have to install program.

ColumnCopy – Chrome extension – Allow you to copy a column of material off of the web

Text Mechanic – webpage that allows you to manipulate text in multiple different ways.

Example of using these two together – pull a list of student email addresses and then clear spaces and add commas to delineate them.

Text Expander on a Mac (Phrase Express) – shortcuts for commonly used phrases – why haven’t I thought about using this with grading?  Can turn my standard comments into something that I can use by typing a short phrase and then getting the entire thing written out.

word2cleanhtml.com – if you want to convert a word document to clean html

Passwords – LastPass – 1Password – DashLane – All set up to get you to have to have one password to work through all of your different password.  LastPass is a browser extension.  Also, the passwords are completely random and not tied to anything that you would have as a connection.

 Using Google Docs Technology to Promote Collaboration

Presenters – Carolyn Awalt and Teresa Cortez – UTEP

Google Docs, Voice, Calendar, Scholar – to be demonstrated today.

Google Docs –

  1. upload and save from your desktop
  2. edit any time, from anywhere
  3. pick who can access your documents
  4. share changes in real time
  5. files are stored securely online
  6. can tell who does what work and people can’t easily slack off

Google Drive – essentially a cloud-based hard drive.  For students, this can be used as a student portfolio if your program needs that.  For instructors, you can share information with students that you are working on with them.  You can determine their level of participation, read only or edits allowed.

Google Contacts – can use it to tag based upon what class they are in.  Not that relevant for me and the way we interact with students.

Google Calendar – ability to share your schedule, access on any computer/mobile device, send invitations and track RSVPs, sync with desktop applications, work offline Could use with students to schedule office hour visits and appointments.  Would that get more students to come by my office hours if they saw that I was available there?  Could also automate when assignments were due without having to send out Announcements to my students when I remember to.  With all students having access to Google through our student gmail accounts, I could add them all to my list and have these things set up for them.  Need to talk to IT to see if I can use my gmail account to add in our students, even if their emails aren’t ending in gmail.

Google Voice – Can set up one number to get at your cell, home, and work phone – that way students call one number and it will ring wherever I am.  Are we allowed to put this as our office number for students?  Accommodates both phone and text, and it will give you a transcript of the phone call.

Google Scholar – for research – an alternative to just the basic Google search – even being able to set up alerts on when certain topics come up.

I was going to stay for one more session, but with not having a hotel room here, I really needed to leave before rush hour traffic began.  As with so much of any conference, I certainly miss out on a lot by not being able to actually stay at the conference hotel, as I have to drive in and out and organize my time around traffic.  I made it to the sessions, but I essentially missed a lot of the networking possibilities by not being able to do any of the late afternoon to evening sessions.

Thoughts on Teaching – Snow Days – March 5, 2015

So, here we stand.  Our third snow day in the last two weeks.  All of them in late February to early March in Texas.  Yes, that is unusual.  It poses the same challenges that happen any time you have unscheduled time off from school, and, without a doubt, it is better than last year, when our big frozen, snow days were during finals period of the fall semester.  Missing days in the 7th and 8th week of the semester is not bad overall, especially since I do not give midterms.  Those who do midterms are struggling to figure out how to make those up, with the real result that most of them just get pushed to after Spring Break, which is next week.

I know that a snow day is nothing particularly unusual, and that what counts as a snow day would be an average winter day in Pennsylvania, where I spent 8 years of graduate school.  Still, it poses interesting challenges.  I want to talk about those challenges in two ways — first with school and schedule and second with personal time.

The most obvious problem with a snow day is making up the material.  For my online classes, there is no problem, except when students have their internet knocked out from losing power and the like.  Otherwise, the semester just goes along like normal.  And, unless it were to happen at a time when we were testing, days off are essentially irrelevant to an online class.  Since half of my load is online, three of my classes were totally unaffected.  My other three classes are hybrid classes, where the days off are more directly problematic.  We only meet once each week, and if the day is missed, that week is missed.  If the classes were distinct, I could make up in one class for one set of assignments missing, but I am teaching three of the same classes, all at the same point and doing the same assignments.  Thus, to make up the material in any meaningful way means making some of my students do significantly more work for the grade than what they would otherwise do.  There also are no built-in make-up days this semester for me, meaning that when I miss, that material is just gone.  I do have some safeguards built in, however.  For one, they all have pre-class writing on the subject to complete.  So, they are, in fact, directly held accountable for the material that we were to discuss that week.  As well, I have an assignment on the chapter(s) for the week also due before class, and that also means the students are held responsible for the material.  What they are missing out on is the actual classroom discussion of the material.  Two of my three hybrid classes have now missed a day (different weeks of material, of course), and that means that I have not had a chance to discuss the material with them.  One of them was last week, and so I did make some references to the material this week in class.  The other one missed this week, which means I will not see them again until two Thursdays from now.  That is a long time to carry over material.  The other big problem for me is that we were in the middle of a three-class themed set of material.  We covered the World War I to World War II period looking at the theme of American neutrality in the world as it related to the US becoming a world power.  Since the three were linked, missing one means that material was not covered and topics got lost.  As we were doing a narrow look at the issues, it also means that the broader context of what was going on in the world also didn’t get connected to the material.  What’s the effect of all of this for the students?  They’re probably just happy to not have to come to class.  But for me, I’m just trying to figure out how to stay on track and cover what I want to cover.  By the next time I see the class that didn’t meet today, it will be two weeks later, and we will be on to the post-war period.  Sigh.  I worry too much, I’m sure, but I can’t help it, as it is my job.

The other side is my personal experience with the snow days.  It seems like an unmitigated good.  A day off from school.  No travel, no obligations.  But it never works that way.  Of course, as I said above, for one thing, my online classes just continue as normal.  The days off we had last week were in the middle of my own grading period of their material, and so I graded in my time off.  But I actually feel like I got less grading done with the days off than I would have if I had gone into work.  The problem with everyone being home is that we are a household of 6, and getting things done at home when everyone is home is not always the easiest thing.  An even bigger problem, however, is the feeling that I get that is like how the students feel.  I have the day off, why should I work?  I have to force myself to get something done.  For example, take today.  If I had been at school, I would have gotten to campus around 9:30.  I would have been in my office doing work from 9:30-11.  I would have taught from 11-12:15.  Lunch until 1:30.  Then back in the office doing work from 1:30-3:30.  On my own at home, I could barely force myself to sit down for an hour to do classwork.  The temptation to view it as a full day off, especially as this would have been the last work day before Spring Break anyway, is strong.  But I have a lot to do.  I have things to catch up on, both in grading and in preparation.  I owe my hybrid students grades on quite a few small things, and I do not even have the next week of material up and ready for them.  But I find it hard to get any real work done.  That means that I am not getting what I need to do done and feeling guilty about not doing the work at the same time.  Isn’t the human brain wonderful?

The solution to this?  Treat a snow day off from work as a work day.  Or, treat a day off from work as a day off.  I have to choose one or the other.  If I try to treat is as partly one or the other, I just feel guilty.

Those are my thoughts on it.  What do you think?  Do you enjoy unexpected days off?  Do you get anything done?  Do you feel guilty about not getting things done?

Thoughts on Teaching – Pre-Semester Preparations – 1/10/2015

Well, here we go.  Another semester is set to start, with just a little over a day left until we get going.  I am teaching six sections this coming semester, three online sections and three hybrid sections.  This last week has been the preparation time to get ready for the semester.  We were worried over the course of this holiday break because we were updating our learning managements system (LMS), and so there were some cautions about doing too much ahead of time in case there were problems.  There turned out not to be any problems, but I scaled back most of my plans for possible changes.  In fact, with my online class, I am simply redoing the course I did last semester, meaning that there were mainly just some changes of dates and a few minor updates.  Otherwise, that course is ready to go.

I have put together a few more changes for my hybrid class.  They have finally gotten my hybrid classes scheduled correctly here, as they are set for meeting only one day a week.  In the past, I have always had them scheduled for two days a week, and then I met for one of those.  Now, I have one class on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, and one on Thursday.  The only negative to that, is that I used to meet for both of the days in the first week, which gave me two days to introduce the class.  Now, I have to get that introduction done in one day.  So, I have developed some introductory materials to show the students how to access my online material and the textbook material.  I used iBooks Author to develop the material, making a .pdf file that is set up like a book and includes both images and links.  I am hoping this provides my students with the information they need in an attractive and accessible format.  If I knew how to attach a .pdf file to this post, I would put an example here, as I am pretty proud of what I did.  It is something new I am trying out, and it worked well.

On that same note, I have put together similar presentations for my hybrid class weekly assignments.  In the past, I had very basic assignments for the students, such as having them watch a documentary, write a response paper, and then discuss it.  Over the years I have been doing this, I have come up repeatedly unsatisfied with my students’ preparation and background knowledge.  So, I have beefed up the activities, providing background information, helpful links, stronger and more involved assignments, and more detailed response papers.  I want the students to be more prepared and to have more engagement with the material.  Again, if I had the ability, I would post one of these up, as I do feel that the iBooks format works pretty well for the material and presentation.  I am not planning on publishing these to the Apple Store, but I do like the ability to create something that looks nice and can be exported in a format that is generic enough for anyone to use.

So, that is what I have been working on.  I have all of the dates in my classes adjusted to the Spring semester.  I have all of the Course Outlines done.  I have the online classrooms ready to go.  The first five weeks of the online course are visible and ready when students get in on Monday.  I have the first three weeks of the hybrid course ready to go, and I hope to get the fourth work done tomorrow and have that be my preparation point to get the students in on Monday.

How about you?  Are you teaching a class this semester?  Are you taking a class?  How ready are you for the semester?

Thoughts on Teaching – End of Semester Wrap-Up – 12/17/14

And so another semester has come to a close.  I have not blogged nearly as much as I would like to, but I hope that changes soon.  This was my second semester in a row of an unasked-for double overloads.  While it may not seem like much to add in an extra 30 students over my normal single-overload semesters, that means more grading, more emails, more student issues, and more time.

My free time becomes less academically oriented the more that I have to actually work on my academic career.  I have more time, I find, for blogging, reading academic newsletters and email subscriptions, and reading in my field, when I am not stretched to the limit on teaching.  I was just catching up on my Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed newsletter subscriptions and realized that I had not read anything there since October, despite getting 3-5 emails a day.  That means that I am behind by a lot, and yet I would like to look at each email I get there, just to keep up with what is going on.  In fact, before deciding to sit down and write a post, I read through a week of the emails, meaning that I am still in October, but in late October versus mid-October.

I staggered out the due dates for material this semester, as I knew I had a lot of students to grade and a lot of work to do.  My assignments for the end of the semester actually started coming in on the Sunday before the last week of classes and were staggered through the Thursday of finals week.  So, while I was grading pretty constantly for about a week and a half, I was never under the big push of having everything needing to be graded in 3-5 days.  In fact, if we had not had our internet service go out at my house from Tuesday through Saturday of finals week, it would have gone relatively smoothly overall.  That added layer of complication made for a more stressful period, but, outside of those last stressful days, I can’t say it was a bad semester overall.

Now, I am winding down toward Christmas at home.  In addition to being selected as Faculty Member of the Year at the end of last spring, I was chosen for the Jack Harvey Academy of Exemplary Teachers this year, which will come in late January.  So, it has been an exciting year for honors.  I hope also to make it to at least one conference this spring, as i try to get back into the academic side of things for my job.  I would like to get back going with continuing education and building my skills rather than just trying to make it from one day to the next.  Teaching fewer classes and students will help, as I will be down to just six sections this coming semester, topping out at 180 students, assuming all of my sections fill.  I hope for more time with my work and with my family.

Thoughts on Teaching – Drop Deadline – 11/16/2014

We have reached the late points in the semester.  With Thanksgiving Break coming quite late this semester, we have 2 1/2 weeks of classes left, followed by finals.  The deadline for withdrawing from classes was last Friday, and every semester I am surprised how late in the semester that students are allowed to drop their classes.  They can go 12 weeks into the a 15-week semester and drop the class at that point if they want to.  I do not know the reasoning behind it, but I can say that I do have my own opinions on what such a deadline does to students.  I know one of the reasons for it is to give the students as much leeway to succeed in a class as possible, and, if students used that time for that, I would wholeheartedly support the late drop deadline.  However, what I see from the teaching side is that the students who drop at the deadline overwhelmingly were ones who should have dropped after week 4 or 5.  That does not mean there aren’t a few who needed that extra time to carry forward and try to get it going over the rest of the semester, but the majority are not in that situation.  We are required to put a last date of attendance when we sign drop slips for our students, and the majority of the drop slips that I see are from students who have not participated since September, and they are dropping in November.  Again, there are always a couple who are attending and participating all the way up to the deadline, but even for many of these, the writing was already on the wall that they were not going to be successful.

So, what is my point here? Let’s start with the students who should have dropped much earlier.  We have an early alert system at my community college, where we send out warnings to students who are falling behind as the semester goes forward.  We can send as many or as few early alerts as we choose, and I know some who send none at all, while others have been known to end up sending some students 7-9 alerts over the course of the semester.  I send out two alerts, one just after count day, when I am first asked to sit down and officially look over my rosters.  At the first point, the alert is very simple, if you have not done any significant work at that point (meaning just a few introductory assignments and a couple of chapter assignments), then I send an early alert.  I have not sat down and looked at the numbers, but just on my general remembrance of names, a good number of these will drop the class or not drop and fail.  The second alert goes out when I have graded the first round of major assignments, which is usually by the 6th week of the semester.  The overlap between the first and second alerts is high, although a few more alerts do go out this second time.  I do not send out alerts after that, as the last round of alerts would hit so close to the drop deadline that I generally don’t have time to sit down and do them.  However, since 65% of the grade is determined by that point (ie. by the end of last week), there really is no further need for an alert at that point.  So, as I said, the majority of students who should drop are fairly obvious by fairly early in the semester.  Students who do not complete the early assignments are not likely to continue doing work.  Students who do not complete the first round of major assignments are not likely to pass the course.  What that means for me, when I look at it, is that the majority of the students who will drop generally should drop somewhere around the 6th to 7th week of the semester.  So, giving them 12 weeks only allows them to drag out the semester unnecessarily.

What about the others?  There are a few who do drop later in the semester who were not obvious earlier.  Some of these are people who were making marginal grades (low Ds and high Fs) after the first round of major grades who do not improve by the second.  Others are ones who don’t run into problems until that second round of major grades, where they either drop significantly in their performance or miss some of the assignments.  The final group are those who are not making the grade they want to make.  We always get a few students who drop because they are looking for an A when they have a C in the class.  I guess the question is, are these students worth the longer drop period?

Here is my fear of what the long drop period gives students.  They can drag out the decision for far too long, when some should cut their losses and get out once it become obvious that they will not be successful.  Of course, it might not be obvious to the students, but it certainly is obvious for me in looking at them.  I do not think we are doing them a good service by letting them keep hanging around.  What I mean by cutting their losses is that some students would be better dropping a course or two and concentrating on the ones that they can succeed in.  If they were to drop one or two early in the semester, they could do better in the classes they remained in.  Some might not take advantage of that, and there is the issue that people always hold out hope for success despite the evidence in their faces.  The financial aid system also makes this route difficult, as students who drop can lose their aid.  Those not on aid lose the money they spent on the class as well, which is something that makes them stay in longer in the hopes they can pull it out.

The question that remains, after this wandering look at the drop deadline as I see it, is, what can we do about this?  Certainly, systems like an early alert are a step in the right direction, but I have received very little feedback from students who I send alerts to.  It takes a couple of hours to get the alerts together and send them out, and I often wonder if it is worth it, as I see very little direct feedback from the students after sending out the alerts.  However, I can certainly say that I did my part to let them know, which is at least one step.  I can’t sit down with each of the students in trouble and get them going.  This is largely because the students who I would need to sit down with are already not coming to class or participating in my online class and I have no way to get a hold of them besides sending an email (which is what the early alert does anyway).

Of course, then the question is, would things really be any different if the drop deadline was earlier?  I don’t know if it would.  The same students would probably drop either way.  It is certainly not directly hurting anyone to have a later deadline, unless we believe that all students are rational and cut their losses earlier when they would need to by dropping the classes that were not going well early to concentrate on the ones left.  I think both psychology and financial aid makes that a difficult prospect.  It would make my own job neater and cleaner, as it certainly is nice to have people cleared off of the roster that I no longer have to keep entering 0’s for on every assignments.  It’s not that this really takes a significant amount of time, but it does get irritating as the semester goes on.  It also leads to lots of lamentations among the faculty, as I cannot count the number of conversations that I have either participated in or heard as we talk about the students who we have given chance after chance to without any real results.

So, maybe I am making too much out of something that is really not a big deal.  I don’t know, but it is what is on my mind.  What do you think?