Friday, September 13, 2013

The nine steps to quality online learning...

This week in the course "How to Teach Online," the focus was on the fundamentals of online teaching, and how one would employ those fundamentals in their own teaching practice. In particular, the materials presented focused on concepts that revolve around Tony Bates' "Nine Steps to Quality Online Teaching." For reference, click on the links below.

The Nine Steps of Quality Online Teaching
  1. Decide how you want to teach online.
  2. Decide what kind of online course you and your students need.
  3. Work in a team. 
  4. Build on existing resources.
  5. Master the technology.
  6. Set appropriate learning goals for online learning.
  7. Design course structure and learning activities
  8. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  9. Evaluate and innovate
My first impression with the list, after having read through each of the steps, was that while everything I read was sensible, based on my own experience, something seemed out of place. Let's examine the first step - "Decide how you want to teach online." 

While I agree with Bates that this is probably the most important step of the nine, I don't believe it should be the first step at all. That is, unless you are a master online educator with the skills and confidence gained by knowledge and experience. For the average educator, with limited or minimal experience and skills, you might as well be jumping into the middle of the ocean with no idea where to go. What are the options? How does it all work? What are the tools and technologies available? Are there policy implications? What technical or other issues will we have to face? To paraphrase a certain unpopular former politician - we don't know what we don't know.

The majority of educators I know will look at an XBox 360, or a Playstation 3, or a Wii, and to them it is all the same. To them, those disparate game systems are all "Nintendos." All three may be vastly different, supported by different technological ecosystems, targeted at different audiences, but to a majority of educators that I know, it is a distinction without a difference. They are game machines, kids play video games on them, hence they are all "Nintendos."

I constantly encounter the same attitude and outlook amongst colleagues when it comes to online teaching and online resources. Get into a group discussion about the issue, and you'll hear phrases like "We could use Google," or "why not use SkyDrive?" To the layman, those ideas probably sound just fine. To the more practiced ear, the phrase "please specify" pops into mind. How, exactly, would we use Google or Skydrive? What services? To what purpose? Do we need an LMS? or a CMS? Or both? What about the stakeholders? What sort of infrastructure do we have to contend with? Is this for a class? A subject? A grade? A school? A school system? And that's not all. I could list dozens more questions off the top of my head.

But that's the thing. It's not my first rodeo. I've immersed myself in e-learning for quite some time, and I have had time to come to know what I did not know. I have also come to expect the existence of a broad swath of more things I do not know, but knowledge of which will be of importance sometime later down the road. And as valuable as that is, that knowledge is of little or no use to those around me until they have had a chance to stumble over some of the same bumps in the road. 

This is why, the way I see it, the first step should really be "work in a team." In any group, a very few will be experts, some will be conversant, and the rest will be minimally able, but relatively willing. Once you gather your team, start out with a collaborative task that involves at least some of the tools and technologies you think might be employed. An online unit, for example, including the lesson plans, materials, and assessments. This is where you "design course structure and activities." As this occurs, the team will start to "master the technology" through the process of the collaborative tasks, as they construct materials collaboratively, reflect, edit, ask for help, offer assistance, etc. But that's it. That's where I end the list, at least for round one.

Rome wasn't built in a day. It may be cliche, but it's apt. Your team of educators will spend time struggling through the many issues that will inevitably crop up, as they implement this new thing. Technical issues, complaints, disagreements, worries, ridiculous objections raised by the technical illiterate. As irritating and annoying as these things are, they are a necessary part of the process. And unless and until you confront them, there is little point in engaging the rest of the nine steps.

In the end, I'd say that Tony has it about right, except that I would probably shuffle the deck. My nine steps to quality online teaching would look something like this:

The Nine Steps to Quality Online Teaching (Revised)

Round One

1) Work in a team
2) Design course structure and materials
3) Master the technology

Round Two

4) Evaluate and innovate
5) Build on existing resources
6) Decide what kind of online course you and your students need
7) Set appropriate learning goals for online learning
8) Decide how you want to teach online
9) Communicate, communicate, communicate


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Get Lucky - Mario Paint Composer - Daft Punk

Like most teenaged boys in North America, in the 90s it was all about the SNES, and the Genesis.

I wish video music had been this awesome back then.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

iCloud iWork Beta Open for All

Now, I'm a Mac fan. 100%. I use a Lenovo ThinkPad at work, but it's more of a grudging acceptance of the tool I'm given than anything approaching enthusiasm. When it comes to my creative work, be it video editing, presentation development, audio editing and production, even writing, I feel more comfortable using a Mac. In my old job, I had a MacBook Pro that I carried with me everywhere I went, moreso even than my second daughter and her ubiquitous blanket. Luckily, when I had to hand that MacBook in after changing my job, I still had my trusty iMac at home. Still, not having access to Keynote or iMovie at work can be a massive pain. (At least until I can afford to spring for a new MBP...)

Well, this is where Apple's iCloud iWork Beta steps in. Up until now, Apple has had amazing software, and unbeatable hardware, but their online services were beyond awful. Atrocious is a more apt description. Even Microsoft's SkyDrive was leaps beyond what Apple had put out, even including the stunted and awkward Word and Excel Web Apps. No, when it came to online tools, I really found only Google had the a full suite of apps I could reliably use.

Sure, I had to contend with some shortcomings. I love Google Docs Presentations, but boy it takes work to make a Google Docs Presentation look smooth or stylish. I love the collaborative and security features of Google Docs Spreadsheets, but I sure wish Google Docs Spreadsheets made it easier to add hyperlinks in a cell. Or even more than one hyperlink per cell. Google Documents is a dandy word processor, but man I wish Google Documents could handle tables less like a fingerless man playing the piano. Still, as a whole, Google Docs/Drive can be a powerful tool. But what about this new iWork thing?

At first glance, it's pretty good. The Keynote app is slick and smooth. It functions more like the iOS version of Keynote than the OSX version. The interface is fast and intuitive - Drag and drop image placement, easy to use masks, quick and simple slide transition options, and the presentation plays smooth as silk. The same slickness and simplicity is evident in the Numbers and Pages apps. The real drawback for all three, however, is in the collaboration and sharing options. Thus far there appears to be no collaboration options at all. As for sharing? After you set up a mandatory iCloud Mail account (, you then have the option of sending your document in the iWork format, a PDF, or the equivalent MS Office format. Not share, as in send a link, but share as in send an email with the file as an attachment. (Hey Apple, the 90's called...) Unfortunately, this is a bit of a deal-breaker for me.

With Google Docs Spreadsheets, for example, as long as I own, or have permissions for a sheet, I can use the "ImportRange" function to pull the data from multiple sheets into a central data collection tool. Currently I use this for mark aggregation, as I have my teachers enter marks into individual markbooks made from a Google Docs Spreadsheets, and that data flows into a master sheet that I use to keep an eye on student performance. In addition, when it comes time for unit planning, I set up a Google Docs Spreadsheet with multiple tabs, and use the permissions functions to assign people to specific tabs for lesson and resource development. During this process, dozens of educators work simultaneously on the same document, creating content, adding comments, or using the chat function. It's an incredibly powerful tool in this manner. Also, for Google Docs Presentations, I set up resources that I then publish online, giving me an embed code I can use to embed the presentation on any of the various blogs I have set up as learning resource management tools. Because of these powerful sharing, collaboration, and data linking options, even though Google Docs/Drive is the square kid at the dance, it is the square kid with a mickey in his pocket, and the keys to a sweet ride.

Overall, I could use the Keynote App to develop a presentation, then upload that to Google Docs, as a clumsy workaround for sharing and embedding. But after what I have seen with the newly released Bunkr,  a fully HTML5 presentation app that has blown my socks off recently. Still, if you just want to make a stylish presentation, a magazine quality document, or a basic spreadsheet, then iWork Beta is a great (free!) option.

How to Teach Online

I am enrolling in another MOOC. I tried a few Coursera courses a while back, and did not successfully complete a single one of them. They were great while I was in them, but I just did not have the time to really engage them. Mind you, I was concurrently enrolled in two MFA courses and a Masters thesis... so in retrospect the lack of time was something I should have figured in advanced. They say the eyes are bigger than the stomach, and likewise the intention is often greater than the allotted free time.

In any event, being on the last legs of my thesis, and working in an an environment that is rapidly integrating e-learning into the curriculum, I figure that the "How to Teach Online" MOOC offered by the University of Hawaii might be something I can devote the proper amount of time and attention to.

The course is asking students to post about  their progress, and about class assignments on personal blogs, the feeds of which will be aggregated by the course. So if you see the label "tomooc" on a post, it's just me submitting an assignment.

I'm hoping this will be informative.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Grinning Streak

I run through a lot of personal musical fads. Lately I've been listening to Capital Cities "Safe and Sound" as my daily let's-feel-good-the-workday-is-done-time-to-go-home song. Prior to that it was non-stop "Of Monsters and Men". But everyone has a band, at least one band or group whose music and ethos became indelibly embedded in their soul, whose every new album or release brings out a sense of anticipation and excitement. It's why some people feel shattered and betrayed when a band like this breaks up, because the emotional connection is so intimate and real. The band that is like that for me, my band, is the Barenaked Ladies.

Now, I won't say I love every song they have ever made, nor would I say that the songs of theirs that I love the best should be at the peak of every critic's top-ten list. Indeed, there are a number of songs of theirs that I will skip past wihtout a thought. However there are other songs, songs where with just the first chords, I feel, invoked within me, a sort of reverie, emotionally transporting me in place and time, a la Anton Ego upon his first taste of Remy's ratatouille.

BNL's latest album, entitled Grinning Streak, is now available on You Tube. The entire album is free to stream, and while I have had only a single listen through, my snap judgement is that this is one of the best albums byt BNL in a long time. Some albums I have had to have multiple listen throughs before I started connecting to them and appreciating them, some I have had an almost instant connection to. Grinning Streak falls into the latter group.

I'm looking forward to the next few days. My playlist is set.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Coursera - Week 1

The Grimm's Household Tales
In has been an interesting introduction to the free, massive open online courses offered by Coursera. I've enjoyed the experience so much that I've already signed up for two more courses - Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, set to start on September 10th, and Greek & Roman Mythology, which starts on September 24th. I'm looking forward to them, but seeing as how I will also be launching into my masters thesis in poetry, as well as two single semester courses on playwriting, and teaching creative writing around then, I'm not sure if I will be able to see those courses through. Considering the results of my first week with the two courses I am currently enrolled in, Listening to World Music, and Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, I may indeed have to be a little more on task to keep all those plates spinning.

Week 1 - Science Fiction and Fantasy

The course is taught by Eric Rabkin, from the University of Michigan. Thus far I have enjoyed the videos, although they are traditional lectures. That said, the videos do cut away from Rabkin to display example texts, illustrations, and pictures. The audio is always clear, and Rabkin has a knack for explaining complex topics in a relatable and understandable manner.

The course expectations are clear. Each week we read a text, and are expected to write an essay of between 270 and 320 words. The submissions page will not accept any entry above 320 words, which helps encourage concision. After submitting an assignment, you have to read and evaluate essays by 5 of your classmates. These essays are chosen at random, and provide no identifying information, just the text. Your job is to give them a score of 1 to 3 (1 = Terrible, 2 = Average, 3 = Awesome) for two separate categories, form and content. In addition to the numerical score, you have to write comments/critiques of between 30 to 150 words for each category, with an additional optional comments section for anything else you might have to say. In one of the videos, Rabkin explains that for each category, 10%-30% of the marks should be a 1, and no more than 20% should be a 3.

Thus far I have given scores that range between a 2 (lowest score possible) and a 4 (average).  Of the six essays I evaluated (after the first five you are given an option of evaluating more), none showed any real creative thought or effort, and only two had a (barely) university-level command of English. As the course currently has an enrollment of between the high five and low six figures, the participants will represent a broad spectrum both academically and culturally. While this might mean that I should perhaps focus more on the ideas being expressed than the precision with which those ideas are conveyed, as this is meant to be a university-level course, conducted in English, it would be better if my evaluations reflected that.

Overall I have nothing but good things to say about how Rabkin and his team are running the course so far. Based on the e-mails they have sent out to the students, and also based on what I know about the general nature of those who would flock to a course in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Remember, I'm an internet nerd too, and I know what my people can be like), I am absolutely sure that Rabkin and his assistants have been absolutely hammered by a deluge of irritating, off-topic, mind-boggling e-mails. That they seem to be taking the feedback in stride and maintaining a the integrity of the course and the prepared syllabus is refreshing.

Week 1 - Listening to World Music

I'll admit it, I was not a good student this week. I downloaded the videos, watched them, enjoyed the lectures, but when it came to the assignment, I messed up. I didn't pay proper attention to the submission deadlines, and missed the deadline. One thing I'll say is that I love the fact that these courses have hard and fast deadlines. When the deadline passes, you can't even attempt to submit a response. When I'm a conscientious student, there is nothing I hate more than seeing late and overdue submissions make their way in to the marking pile.

The course is taught by Carol Muller, from the University of Pennsylvania. The videos are also lectures, but put together differently. Muller is recorded in green screen, and the Powerpoint slides are are placed behind and to the side of her. Where Rabkin's videos featured him sitting and cutting away to show slides, Muller is standing, and always present in the videos.

Hopefully I can get my act together for week 2, and get things done on time.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Build Up, Don't Tear Down

I came across a post on Scott McLeod's blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, regarding a recent Washington Post article that was critical of Salman Khan, and his online education efforts.

Reading the article put my blood pressure up a mite, and I ended up leaving this as a comment on McLeod's post.

I'm of two minds on that article. On the one hand, I do agree that the aesthetics of Khan's videos leave much to be desired, but as to whether Khan's approach is inherently bad teaching? I'm not so sure.

A normal teacher is observed during a lesson around two or three times a year wherever I have worked. After an observation comes a feedback session where everything that occurred in the lesson is nitpicked.  Strong areas are highlighted, areas of improvement are pointed out, and the teacher walks away with a record of that observation. 

Generally speaking, teachers wear their Sunday best when being observed. They pull out the assessment tool, make sure to touch upon the key elements being assessed, and put on a show. While every other lesson in their day-to-day practice may still be good, it is rare for any teacher to bring their B-Game to an observation. And after the observation is over, they are left to keep on keeping on.

But that's not the case for Khan. For Khan, every lesson is an observed lesson. Every lesson has thousands of keen eyed educators assessing and nitpicking it, commenting on it, and judging it.  Imagine if every lesson you taught, day after day, were observed in the same manner? Would you be brining your A-Game each and every time? Would you be as infallible as the Pope with your facts, figures, explanations and analogies?

Probably not.

This, then, is what so irritated me about this article. It encapsulates a mindset that I find absolutely infuriating. 

So Sal Khan goes ahead and teaches a couple thousand different lessons. Some are great, some not as great. But instead of saying "Hey, this is an awesome foundation we can build upon", or "I like Khan's video, but I would add that another way to conceptualize (concept) is...", all I hear is "How come Khan doesn't explain (insert concept) as good as (insert educator's name) does?" Or they make an entire video about why Khan was wrong on some point or another.

Khan is trying to do something that few educators have tried to do. He is trying to create a broad swathe of resources that can be accessed by anybody, covering a broad span of topics, grade levels, and subjects. As Odin was the "All-Father" some see Khan as turning into the "All-Teacher," and look upon that with the specialist's contempt of the jack-of-all-trades, and dismiss his work as merely a lesser effort.

The article says "[i]n the class it's bad teaching, and online it's a revolution?" In a word, yes.

Khan's lessons, whatever their merit, are there, online. Available to one and all. You can put the greatest teacher in the world in a room and have them teach the greatest lesson ever taught, and it will still amount to less than what Khan has achieved. Why? Because that lesson, however good it was, ceased to be the moment class was over. All that would remain would be, as Tenacious D would put it, a tribute.

Serious educators do not criticize and tear down. Serious educators analyze and build upon. Don't like Khan's explanation of something? Then edit his video, add your own spin. Credit the source and make it better. 

That's the whole point of the creative commons. It's the underlying principle of the scientific method. It's the entire basis of western culture since the enlightenment.

Make, share, use, make better.

Okay. End of rant. But as a postscript...

Bad teaching? That's a first world view. I teach in Asia, and for students who study the Indian syllabus, or in similar systems in Asia (which is most of them), what Khan does is what they want. The student centered, problem solving, independent learning approach is better, but it is not the norm in the most populated areas of the world. It is only prevalent in wealthy nations, and even there these approaches are limited to the relatively privileged groups.

Teachers in North America are insanely privileged in comparison to teachers almost anywhere else. In South Asia, the average teacher barely earns a subsistence level wage, has to contend with enormous class sizes, and has little to no logistical support. Students get little to no individual attention, so resources like what Khan produces are an absolute godsend. Sure he may be just going over example after example, but you know what? That's what the they want over here. That's how education functions over here.  It's not a question of what is best practice and what is not, it is a question of what actually is. 

"[H]ow the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory" may not necessarily work as well in Bihar as it would in Iowa.