Tag Archive | online courses

Thoughts on Teaching – Teaching in a Pandemic – Fall Semester (?) – 8/21/2020

I write this on the near-eve of starting back to the Fall semester. There has not been a semester like this before in my lifetime, for sure.

I finished up a fully-online summer session just last week, although that was not unusual for me, as I normally teach online-only in the summer. The only two differences were that I did not have access to a testing center for my students and I did not hold any face-to-face office hours. That saved me a bit on gas, not having to commute to campus (about a 50-mile round trip), but the effect was largely the same as any other summer. So, my summer teaching in a pandemic was barely different than my normal teaching in the summer.

This coming semester, however, is going to be intense. It is going to be uncertain. As of right now, the Friday before the semester starts on Monday, there are still a number of things in the works and decisions that have not been finalized, leaving a lot of things in the air.

I am, much like in the summer, fairly well positioned already for this upcoming semester. I already teach online, which is what 3/5 of my classes are this semester. The other two classes are hybrids that have run about 70/30 online/face-to-face, meaning that they are also pretty much ready to go with only minor adjustments. The only thing giving me anxiety about them right now is the question of if I am going to have to hybridize my hybrids. Both of them are in classrooms where the full class cannot meet at one time and still maintain social distancing. There are two ways this can work out this semester:

  1. If bigger rooms can be found for the two hybrid sections, then they will run just as normal hybrid classes this semester.
  2. If not, then I have to hybridize the hybrids. That means that there will be two cohorts of students, and half will meet on one week and half on the next week, with each student ultimately meeting face-to-face for half of the normal number of sessions. For a hybrid class that would only meet 16 times a semester, that would mean each student only meets 8 times, with the rest of the class being fully online.

I call this hybridizing the hybrid because all face-to-face classes are already being hybridized at my community college. The classes are being divided in half if they are not in a room large enough for everyone to fit, and then half meet on the first day of the week and half on the second.

And, just as a side note, I will not know if I get option 1 or 2 above until sometime early in the coming week. And, when it is known, there is not a clear indication of how I am going to get every student to know what changes there might be, especially if some of them are not to show up on the first day we meet (Wednesday).

If this all sounds really complicated, it is. It is stretching all of our imaginations, our resources, and our capabilities across the college. But we are managing so far. It is nobody’s fault that things are this way, but it certainly makes everything difficult.

I will return soon to talk more about what this semester looks like, but that’s where we stand at this point.

Thoughts on Teaching – Series on Student Reflection, Part 2 – 7/4/2020

In Part 2 of this series, I am going to look at why I decided to introduce and include student reflection in my courses.

I started out using what I called reflection responses in my hybrid class, largely as a check on making sure that students were actually paying attention in class to what we were talking about. The first two semesters I used them, they took the form of questions that I posted in the last 5 minutes of class, with the answers due the next day. This both helped make sure the students stayed for the whole class and helped me see if they were understanding the main points from the day. I was reasonably happy about this method, but in a class that is discussion-based, the difficulty was both in making sure I ended with enough time to write out a question and in not being able to set the question before that point in time as I did not know how the discussion might go. As it became more of a burden, I moved to a new type of reflection in my hybrid courses the next semester.

In Spring 2019, I changed over the reflection responses in my hybrid course, giving the first ones that look like the assignment I discussed in Part 1 of this series. I started using a set series of questions that were released on the day of the class and then due the next day, giving them about 36 hours to complete them. While they were not tied specifically to the discussion, I still tied them to the larger themes of that week in the class. Again, that worked reasonably well.

In Spring 2019, I attended the TxDLA conference in Galveston, TX, and heard another session on the ideas of having the students do self-reflection. It was not the first time at all, but it was the one that really triggered me to consider expanding their use. That conference also started getting me to think about reflection more as a way to have the students set their own goals for how they would complete the material and allow me to check in on both their progress in the course and their overall attitudes each week.

In combination with the ideas from the conference, I had reformatted my online course in the 2018-19 school year, moving from weekly due dates to a unit format, with each unit being open for 3-5 weeks and all assignments in the unit due at the end of the unit. I was overall pleased with how that was going, but a certain percentage of students were waiting until the last minute every unit and then not being able to complete everything. For other students, they were really confused on what they should be doing each week, as they could not plan well enough to be able to spread out the material to get it all done in a 3-5 week period.

So, in Fall 2019, I introduced the reflection responses as I detailed in Part 1. The immediate benefits were that I could help direct the students in what they should be working on each week to keep on track. The questions asked also put it in their own minds that they did need to plan out how they were spending their time in the course. I also used the “nudge” approach by mentioning certain upcoming assignments in the middle questions, getting them to realize that certain deadlines or assignments were coming up that they might not have on their radar yet. I saw an immediate improvement in their own self-reported progress in the course, although I have not had a chance yet to go back and run any comparison numbers to see what it might have changed in grades.

The bigger surprise was the answers to the final question — the open-ended one. From the beginning, a good 1/2 to 2/3 of the students were answering that question. I was getting at least a paragraph and sometimes multiple paragraphs about what was going on in their lives. I started having a much better sense of what their lives were like and what challenges they were facing outside of class. I also heard about birthdays, celebrations, pets, relatives, accidents, funerals, successes, failures, and just about everything else you can imagine. While I can say that not all of what they wrote were things that I necessarily wanted to know, it kept me appraised of what they were doing with their lives and how they were fitting my class in with everything else going on. I had a better idea of why one student might not be completing assignments on time or why another student might need an extension on an assignment. I could see ahead of time when a student might be struggling with something, and I could send congratulations to them when something positive happened.

Over the past two semesters, I have found the whole process to be very rewarding. In the next post, I will talk more about the student response to the reflections they were asked to fill out.

Thoughts on Teaching – Series on Student Reflection, Part 1 – 6/24/2020

This is the first substantive post of my new series on student reflection. I have detailed where this series comes from in my previous post introducing the series.

In this post, I am going to describe the student reflection assignment that I have used for 4 semesters now. Later posts in the series will deal with why I use student reflection (Part 2), the student response to these reflections (Part 3), my thoughts on how they are going and what they can help with (Part 4), and then what use they can be in our new pandemic world (Part 5).

I started using student reflection as a part of my hybrid classes starting in Fall 2018. For the first year of using them, they were more aimed at making sure the students were paying attention in class, but they slowly morphed into something more than just a reflection on the class. Over the summer of 2019, I made the decision to move student reflection into my online course and to change up the use of them in the hybrid class.

In Part 2 of this series, I will delve more into why I use them and why I made the changes. For now, I just want to give you the format of them.

Each week, my students are asked to submit a response to the following 5 questions. I have no specific word count on this assignment, and I grade only on if they complete it.

  1. What did you do in the class in the past week? (After the first week, I add a second question: How does that match up with what you said you would do in the previous week’s reflection?)
  2. What are you planning on doing for this class in the upcoming week?
  3. This question relates to something going on inside the course. This can be something like:
    1. Have you started working on a particular assignment yet?
    2. Reminder to make sure they know something is coming up, like the drop deadline.
    3. Question about how they responded to a specific assignment, especially if I am trying something new.
  4. This question relates to something going on outside of the course, such as:
    1. How are the other courses going that you are taking?
    2. If it is later in the semester, what advice would they now give themselves at the beginning of the semester?
    3. What is the best piece of advice they have received about succeeding in college?
    4. What one change would they make in the course if they had the ability?
    5. Are you planning on attending/participating in this particular thing going on at the college?
    6. What are your plans for after you finish the course/finish at the college
    7. And, especially after the COVID-19 shutdown, this question became one about how they were doing and if they needed help with anything.
  5. Lastly, is there anything else you want to tell me, either about yourself, about the class, or about something interesting in your life? This last question is your free space to write whatever you want to. If you do not want to write anything, that is fine, but I wanted to give everyone some space each week to write whatever they want with no judgment on my part. I will read it, but that is all, unless you ask me for advice or have questions.

So, for each student (I start out the semester with about 200-220 and end up with about 170-180), I get a response back to these questions every week. As noted at the beginning of this post, I will be exploring aspects of this assignment as I move forward with this series.

Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – Reflections – 05/20/2020

I am, of course, not the only one out there who is reflecting back on what teaching through the pandemic was like. I have already discussed some general thoughts on the transition and on how the students reacted in previous blog posts here. I have been consuming various pieces of media, from blogs to webinars to podcasts, where everyone has been reflecting on the changes and how the last couple of months have gone.

One of the pieces that I wanted to reflect some on was a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month – “5 Takeaways From My Covid-19 Teaching.” by Michelle D. Miller.

Probably the most direct takeaway from the piece is what she said about how the transition – “In short, we did the job we signed up to do — under conditions that none of us signed up for. And, unfortunately, it looks like many of us will be in the same predicament come September.” To me, that is really the story of this time. I won’t say at all that everything was the best at all, but I do think that I did a pretty good job in keeping up. I also feel like I actually did more work in the last month and a half than I normally do.

In looking at her 5 lessons learned, I can see some parallels in my own experience.

1. They’ve gotten a bad rap, but Zoom classes can be rewarding.

While I am not so sure about Zoom classes specifically, I found her discussion of the synchronous vs. asynchronous debate interesting. I know for a fact that some of our faculty had never even heard those words with relation to education prior to this, but it became a key point with the transition. My own online course is exclusively asynchronous, but I added in Zoom office hours for them. I have done online office hours before, with only a very minimal participation by the online students. This experience was no different, as they were just online office hours, not a specific session of delivering information. I had not a single student from my three online sections attend any of the online office hours in Zoom, which pretty much matches up with my previous experience. As there was no synchronous component of my online course, there was no expectation on the students that there would be one after, and there was apparently no interest in the new addition for them.

Now, of course, the hybrid class had its own synchronous component of meeting once a week in person. I switched over that time to a Zoom session for each hybrid section, but I did not make it mandatory for attendance. This is largely because of a recognition that many of my students might not be capable of making a session on Zoom, and I didn’t want to penalize them. I had a number of students with connection issues (as in poor internet access), who had family issues or conflicting school times for their kids, or were called in to now work at the time they would have had class. I had one student out of 25 attend for one of my hybrid classes and 4-5 students out of 21 attend out of the other hybrid class. So, there was some small demand, and I gave participation points for coming on and talking about the material. Far more students chose to participate in discussion forums than in the Zoom sessions overall.

2. Have a pivot plan.

This is exactly what we’ve been told to do for the fall. We don’t know if we will be in person, online, or a mix of the two. Right now, our schedule looks exactly as it would any fall, and we have been told that any decision about changes to what we do in the fall won’t come until June. However, the more general messaging is that we need to be ready to pivot and that we all should be developing courses that can be both in-person and online, possibly even at the same time. In many ways, this matches the new thing I have heard quite a bit about in the last week – HyFlex courses. While we won’t have any courses scheduled as HyFlex, the model essentially has students given the opportunity to take the course either online or face-to-face as they want without losing anything either way.

3. Student goals will take center stage.

I will be honest that I did not change enough in my course to affect the student side of things. I already did things like student reflection essays (more on this in a later blog post), things that are already really student-centered. In relation to a lot of the rest of what we were asked to do, my course met the idea of student goals taking center stage before the crisis and continued to do so afterwards.

I will come back soon with the final two, as this is already getting long as it is. What are your thoughts, either as a teacher or students in this new environment?

What I Do – Part 1 – Online Courses – A Brief History of My Own Teaching

These days, I teach classes in two ways — online courses and hybrid courses. Part 1 of the “What I Do” series will look at how I teach online courses.

I have been teaching online since Spring 2007. I was hired on at my current job in 2006. At the time, I was told that I was to develop online courses for the social sciences department. I was given a year at the time, which meant, of course, that I did not think about it for the first couple of months, as I was just trying to get acquainted with a new place and a new job. I had never taught online before, had never taken an online class before, and had never even seen an online system before. So, I was a complete neophyte in the realm of online education.

Of course, my decision to not think about it for the first couple of months would not last. In November of my first semester teaching, I was told that a decision had been made to move the start date from Fall 2007 to Spring 2007, so, instead of about 10 months, I now had 2 months to get an online course ready. I still had not seen an online course or had any idea what it meant to teach online.

I dove in as fast as I could. We were using the Moodle LMS at the time, and I scheduled a training session with our LMS administrator shortly thereafter. The training was great. I understood Moodle, and I was reasonably confident that I could develop in it at a fairly general level (at least well enough to get started). However, I came out of that training thinking that it was great, but that I still did not know how to teach an online course. The LMS training was great at the nuts and bolts of navigating the LMS, but I still had no idea what online pedagogy was. I did not know how to organize an online course, how to create online assignments that were appropriate for a course, or even how an online course should differ from a face-to-face course. And, as I found out shortly afterwards, that was the end of the training offered at my college. I was told that if I wanted to know more, I needed to go and ask others around the college who taught online.

As a very new faculty member with few connections on the campus (and an office that was isolated from everyone else, as I got the only space open at the time, which was behind the stage in the fine arts center), this was not an easy thing to do. I asked around and got a few examples. Some were bad (just have the students write a few pages on each chapter in the book and give them some multiple-choice quizzes — this online teaching thing is a breeze!) and some were ok (some discussions, quizzes, and exams). However, none really stood out to me as models that I wanted to follow. Later I would learn that there was a whole group of people who had been teaching online well for years, but I would not be introduced to them until later.

Thus, I was left on my own. I had about one month left, and I needed a course to be able to present when the spring semester opened. I followed the one consistent piece of advice I had heard from all over the place — make your online course as much like your face-to-face course as possible. I would never give that advice now, but, over a decade ago, that was the standard. That is what I did.

So, this is what my first course (the second half of American history) looked like:

  • My lectures were from lecture notes that I had typed up. I uploaded them, as well as my PowerPoints and other supplementary material that I used in my face-to-face classes.
  • I had the students read 1-2 chapters a week. I was told I needed to hold them accountable for this, so I had them submit a weekly writing assignment most weeks on what they had read. I have no idea now what those assignments looked like, but I am sure they were fairly basic response papers.
  • I had four week-long discussion forums on primary source documents that were in the weeks that I did not have weekly writing assignments.
  • I had three exams that were made up of multiple-choice and true/false questions.

I mirrored this over the summer in developing the first half of American history course. And thus, my career teaching online courses took off.

How did it go? I actually have no idea. Students finished the course. Students got grades. But at that time, I was not much for self-reflection on courses, as I was always just moving on to the next thing. I also had a raging addiction to World of Warcraft that took up much of my spare time, leaving me basically moving in a world without real feedback or intellectual time to think about what I was doing.

For the next several years, I moved along, adjusting things here, moving things around there. Probably the most significant thing I did in year two of teaching online was to record my lectures as audio podcasts. I still use those same podcasts today, and students still compliment me on them, which I take to mean they are both still relevant and were done reasonably well.

By year three of teaching online, I had kicked my World of Warcraft addiction and had started to come face-to-face with the realization that, while my online course was fine, it was nothing special. Over the next couple of years, I started learning online pedagogy, pushed my department to a textbook that had good online tools, and redesigned my course.

My online course today looks nothing like what it did in 2007, and that is a very good thing. I have grown as a professional and now have a course that both satisfies me and is relevant to students and their success. I certainly will not say it is perfect, and I hope to get to a point in this series where I can start talking about changes I would like to make. Up next in the series, I will talk about the structure of what I do today and then will break out the various assignments that I use today.

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 – A Day in Summer School – 6/19/2014

Today was another day of teaching. What can I say. My wife always asks me the same question every day when I come home – Was work exciting? And, I really never have a good answer to that. Rarely is work exciting, but rarely is it dismal either. Going in to work is a necessary evil in many ways. I teach exclusively online in the summer, and your standard community college student taking online classes in the summer is very unlikely to make it to on-campus office hours. In three weeks so far, I have seen three students. Now, yes, if I was not there, those three students could not have come in to see me, but does tha make up for the rest of it? I don’t know. It is a 25-minute commute each way to get to work, and I stay up there for around four hours at a time for office hours. And, for the most part, I sit there and do work. Or not. It depends on my mood, my attentiveness, my concentration, my guilt, and many other things as to whether a day in the office is a good, productive one, or a bad, unproductive one.

But that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter really one way or the other. I am going to get my work done, but I am not necessarily going to get it done during the hours I sit at work. As I am teaching exclusively online right now, there is no physical bounds on my work. It can be done anywhere and at any time. And, of course, being on campus on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am – 2pm is probably the least likely time that my online-only students are going to be working on the course material, meaning that I am most available at the time they are least likely to need my help. But it is the requirement at my community college that we hold on-campus office hours, so I am there. But, again, is it exciting? No. Is it necessary? Apparently. Is it worth it? That depends on the day.

So, when she asked me today, when I got home, if work was exciting, what did I say? Not really. I graded some essay exams. I went to lunch. That’s what I had to say. But, the reality is that I did much more than that. I got there a little before 10 and cleared my email inbox, answering emails from students, including two who wanted to drop the class (because it is now time to take the exam) and one who wanted me to look at drafts of the essay questions for the exam. I clicked through the rest of the emails, most of which required no specific action today but are things I want to look at later. I have a folder rule set up in Outlook to send all of the newsletters and informational emails to a folder to be read when I have the time and interest in reading them. Then I checked in on my online class, looking to see what had happened since I had last looked at the class the night before. I double checked what I had fixed at 8am this morning when the Testing Center had called with a question about the exam, where I had not set the closing time correctly. It was fixed correctly, luckily, and four more students had taken my exam since that point. I then checked to see if the fix that is due from the textbook publisher had come in that would allow me to grade the written submissions of my students had happened yet. And, it had not. So, the publishers’ program that I am class testing still does not allow me to grade what my students submitted, which is getting to be more and more of a problem. I went in to talk to my Dean about it, but he had taken the day off. So, I sent him an email about it. By that time, I had been there about 45 minutes, and so I took a few minutes off to do some random web surfing. I am in the office by myself by that point, so I had turned on some music to listen to. I then started grading. I can grade about 3 exams at a time before I have to take a break. So, in the time between when I started and when it was time to go to lunch, I got 9 exams graded. As the exam actually does not close until tonight, I figured that really wasn’t too bad overall, as I’m ahead of the game there.

I went to my usual Thursday afternoon lunch with some colleagues, and it was 1:30 by the time I got back to the office. I chatted about office politics and the like with some people in my office bay until it was time to go at 2. I made it home in time to help my wife get all of the kids ready to go to the grocery store with her. We then realized that our elder daughter had math tutoring to go to, so my wife took the other kids to the grocery store, and I took the one to the tutoring. I normally sit at Starbucks and work while my daughter is in tutoring, which is where I started this post. However, my wife had gotten locked out of the house, so I had to go back and let her in, leaving me to finish this post later in the day. I entertained the toddler while my wife made dinner, then I went back to get the other daughter from tutoring. We had dinner; I watered the flowerbeds and garden; I did some laundry; and now I sit down.

So, was the day exciting? You tell me, but this was fairly typical.

Thoughts on Teaching Summer School – 7/17/2013

Yes.  I know.  I have not written in a while.  You can blame the birth of our daughter and the first nine months or so of her life.  Between teaching a full load, teaching an overload, taking care of the other three kids, and taking care of a baby, blogging has taken a back seat to the rest of life.  Now that things are settled down some, and my teaching is done for the summer, I hope to get back on here a bit.  We shall see how I do, but you have to start somewhere.

I just finished up my seventh summer of teaching full time (yes, I also taught some summer classes as a graduate student).  I have taught online every summer session that I have taught, and this one went about the same as usual.  Since our pay decrease two summers ago, I now have to teach three summer classes to make the amount of money that I want to make, so I taught three sections — two of the first half of American history and one of the second.  I am not sure why my department chair assigns me both halves in the session, as it would be easier to do all of one, but I don’t have a lot of choice there.

While teaching in the summer, I had some general thoughts that I thought I would share.

The quality of students we get at a community college is dramatically higher in the summer.  The majority of students are ones that are off at a 4-year university somewhere and have come back to get a few classes out of the way cheaply.  Thus, the quality of work submitted is often much higher, and the ratio of A’s to the rest of my teaching is much higher.  It reminds me a lot of my teaching in graduate school, where I was always fairly pleased with the quality of work submitted to me.

At the same time, we also get a lot of students who are taking summer classes who should not.  I started out at the end of the spring semester with three full sections at 30 students each.  By the time the summer session started, I was down by about 10 students, as we always lose some for academic suspensions or failure to pay.  Then, in the first week, upon getting into the class and seeing the level of work required, I lost about 10-12 more students.  Then, over the course of the summer session, I had more drop and/or stop attending.  All together, I started out with 90 students at the end of the spring semester and ended up submitting about 55 real grades to students who worked on material all the way through the summer.  This is fairly typical.

One of the requirements at my community college is that we hold physical office hours over the summer, even if we are teaching only online.  The required number of on-campus office hours is fairly flexible, but some must be there, and I ended up holding 8 on campus each week.  In the five weeks of the summer session, I saw three students in those office hours, and they all came on the day before the first exam opened.  So, except for that day, it was a waste of both my time and gas to go to campus every day.  I also held online office hours in the evening for students who could not make the on-campus hours.  In the five weeks, I had no students in my online office hours.  So, traditional office hours were largely a waste.  However, I answered emails all day every day, participated in online discussions, responded to student posts with questions in the classroom, answered messages in our LMS system, graded, evaluated, read drafts, worked on course material, and more.  Yet, if you count my output on what I did during my “official” time in office hours, it would look like I did very little.  This is the conflict that we run into with teaching online, that the actual productive activities are not easily quantifiable or restricted to traditional avenues.  In our culture that wants to quantify everything, it can easily look like I don’t do much, yet, if you ask my wife, I never stop working.  I am busy in the class every day from when I get up until when I go to bed.

As usual, 20% of my students say they loved the class, 1-2 students said they hated it, and the rest are never heard from.  It is frustrating sometimes, as I can only assume I am doing good as most of what I hear is positive.  Yet, all it takes is that one students to write how much (s)he hated the course to drag down the rest.  That is the comment I obsess over and worry about.  I know I shouldn’t when that person is outnumbered by far by the rest.  The one this summer session hit me harder than usual, as she said that I came off as rude and unwelcome in my Announcements to my students.  Thus, now she has me paranoid that this is how I came off, and that is why I don’t hear from the other students.  The so-called rude Announcement that I made was that the students should read the syllabus and Announcements before contacting me, as I get irritated when I have to copy and paste the answer back to them from something I have already said.  I didn’t think that was an unreasonable thing to say, and I have sent an Announcement out along that line most semesters that I have taught.  Sigh.  It only takes one comment to get under your skin.

And, finally, the good thing about my course now is that I have it all pretty well set up.  So, it largely runs itself, which allows me more time to actually participate in the classroom rather than spending my time creating and maintaining.  It was a generally pleasant experience overall.

And, with that, I’m out for now.  I just hit 1000 words, which is pretty good for the first time out in a while.  I promise to try and write more.

Thoughts on Teaching – 6/10/2012 – Teaching summer school

Well, that time is here again.  Time for teaching summer school again.  We always need the extra money, so I teach every summer.  I teach online, as that is easier with my own schedule as well as easy to step in with prepared classes.  Also, as I am the primary online history instructor at my community college, there is always a high demand for my classes in the summer.  So, I never have to worry about my classes making.  It’s a good thing all the way around.

The summer is always weird.  Squeezing what the students normally do in a 16-week semester in 5 weeks is quite a challenge for them.  They have a lot to do each week, and I don’t think that a lot of students realize what that means.  We always get students who are taking vacations in the middle of the summer session or who wait a week before entering the course, leaving them tremendously behind.  I think that students assume that an online summer course is going to be easy.  The general perception of online courses, I have found, is that they are easy (not mine, unfortunately for them).  As well, many assume that it will be easy to complete a course in 5 weeks because it takes up less time.  The time demand is high, and you cannot put your work off until the last minute because there is a lot of it.

Summer school also attracts an odd mix of students.  Here are some of the types I have noted:

  • Students who want to finish their degree early and so are doubling up in the summer
  • Students who go to a four-year university and are home for the summer and taking a class or two for cheap
  • Students who have failed the class in the normal semester and are hoping for better results in the summer
  • Students who have never taken either an online course or a college course and decide that this is the best way to do it

It’s the last group that is the biggest pain for me.  It’s always a good 10-15% of the students.  I don’t know if someone advised them to do it, or if they simply decided on their own that their first college course should be an online summer class, but it is almost universally a bad idea.  Either online courses or summer courses by themselves are more challenging then many semester-long, face-to-face classes, but to do both as your first experience is brutal.  I spend an inordinate amount of my time in the summer dealing with these students.

On the other side, the first two groups tend to be some of the most motivated and strongest students that I will see in an academic year, so the summer also has its good side, as these students can restore your faith in students.  Teaching can be depressing, especially when a semester goes poorly, and the summer session can sometimes be rejuvenating because you do get some of the best students there.

As of right now, we are just finishing up the first week of the summer session, so four more weeks are left.  The first set of assignments come in tonight at midnight, so I will be able to start sizing up the students at this point.  And, as it is an online class, I again have online office hours.  I have them Wednesday and Sunday nights, and, so far, one student has come by to ask a question.  That makes it already one more student than came to my online office hours all of last semester, so there’s something.

I don’t know how active I will be posting on this blog this summer, but you will probably be hearing from me on Wednesday and Sunday nights at least, as I have to sit here at the computer for two hours anyway.

Thoughts on Education – 3/28/2012 – Thinking about the future of education

I haven’t done any article reviews in a while, so I thought I’d sit down and hit my Evernote box a bit here.  So, here we go.

The first article comes from the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  As with so many others, the intent here is to look at way the future of the university system will be, and while I teach at a community college, and not a university, the ideas are still relevant.   I also, of course, like the origin of this one, since it came out of a conference at my alma mater, Rice University. It starts off this way:  “I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future?  What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studioa reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?”  Certainly, my classrooms are set up that way, even my “other” classroom, the two-way video one, still has all of the emphasis on me.  The article also noted:  “With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.”  I have posted up articles that talk about both of those things before, but this information from this conference really narrows it all down well.  At its heart, what the article notes from the conference is that it is time to update the model to the Digital Age from our older Industrial Age.  That we have adopted the multiple-choice exam and the emphasis on paying attention in class from this old Industrial model, where creating a standardized and regulated labor force was key.  In the Digital Age, it will be important to “ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.”  Throughout the conference, apparently, the emphasis was on “hacking” education, overturning our assumptions, and trying something new.  While the solutions are general in nature, I found this summary of the conference to be right up my alley, and certainly a part of my own thinking as I redesign.  I wish I had known about the conference, as I would have loved to have attended.

Looking at the question from the opposite end is this article from The Choice blog at The New York Times.  The blog post was in response to the UnCollege movement, that says that college is not a place where real learning occurs and that students would be better off not going to college and just going out and pursuing their own dreams and desires without the burden of a college education.  What is presented here is some of the responses to that idea.  A number of people wrote in talking about what the value of college is, so this gives some good baseline information on what college is seen as valuable for.  Here are some of them:

  • “a college degree is economically valuable”
  • “college is a fertile environment for developing critical reasoning skills”
  • several noted that you can get a self-directed, practical college education if you want it
  • “opting out is generally not realistic or responsible, given the market value of a degree”
  • “the true value of college is ineffable and ‘deeply personal,’ not fully measurable in quantifiable ways like test scores and salaries”

That’s just some of the responses, specifically the positive ones, as that’s what I’m looking at here.  It is interesting to see the mix of practical things and more esoteric ideas.  I think that both are hopefully a part of college education and that both are part of what we deliver.  I would like to think that’s what my students are getting out of college in general, and I hope that the redesign that I am going for will help foster that even more.  I especially hope to bring more of the second and fifth comments into what I am doing, as that is the side that I think a college history class can help with.

Then there is this rather disturbing article, again from The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It discusses the rising push for more and more online courses, especially at the community college level.  As the article notes, that is often at the center of the debate over how to grant a higher level of access to the education experience for more and more people.  But, with more emphasis being put on the graduation or completion end and less on the how many are enrolled end, this could end up putting community colleges at an even higher disadvantage.  As one recent study put it, “‘Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.'”  So, we are actually putting our students into more online classes that make them less likely to finish overall.  In fact, they are not only less likely to finish, but they are less likely to succeed at that specific class or come back for later classes.  As well, a different study pointed out similar problems for online students:  “‘While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.'”  This is disturbing to me, as this is exactly what I teach at least half of my schedule each semester in – the online environment exclusively.  I know that success in an online class is difficult, although I have actually been slowly improving the success rate over time in my online sections.  I think I’ve finally hit a good sweet spot with the online classes right now, and I’m less in need of fixing them at the moment.  I do, however, agree with the very end of the article that says that what is often missing from the online courses is the “personal touch.”  That is the only part of the class that I would like to change, as I need a way for me to be more active in the class right now.  I can direct from the point of putting in Announcements and the like, but I do feel that I get lost in whatever the day to day activities are.  I need to design some part of the class that has me participating more directly rather than leaving it up to the students.  Otherwise, I do think I’m doing pretty well in this part of my teaching career.

OK.  I think I’m going to call it a night here.  Any reactions?