Sunday, November 09, 2014

Do you answer email? Student academic question in online courses

I often get new online instructors who tell me that the amount of email questions they had to answer during the semester was debilitatingly high. Some get discouraged by this mountain of email and they often say teaching an online course takes more time that teaching a face-to-face course. Well, don't despair.

If students send you academic questions via email then you have an opportunity! The current student culture has as a default to ask academic questions via email. However, I think everyone can benefit if Teaching Teams actively try to resist this practice. For every question raised by one student we know that are others that have the same question (especially when the class is large). So I like the practice of reinforcing, whenever possible, that academic questions are to be asked in the discussion forums on the class website (i.e. on the Learning Management System).

In addition to writing it in the syllabus, I have used several tactics over the years, such as:
  1. If you send out a regular weekly News item to students, mention there that academic questions should be placed in the discussion forums on the class website and openly encourage students to answer questions from their peers.
  2. I model the behaviour in the discussion forum early and I pose academic questions in the forum myself (usually I try to link it to a current event, an interesting academic resource, or I try to use the opportunity to discuss a particularly difficult question on a recent assignment, etc).
  3. When I get an academic question from a student via email, I answer the question and then I strongly encourage that the student communicate the question and the answer to the class in the discussion forum (for everyone's benefit)
  4. I also include in the email reply that in the future, academic questions should go into the discussion forum because peers may be able to provide feedback quicker than I can as the instructor, and that open discussion of these issues can benefit many students.
  5. I gently praise those students that answer questions posed by their peers in the class discussion forums, and I very gently correct or add to the discussion, if required.
Every instructor is different in how they strategically guide the ship when they are teaching online; however, with some effort, one can foster a greater sense of group community in online classes with these types of approaches and students can benefit from this. Secretly, the instructor benefits as well.

Do you have any tips or tricks on how to keep you student generated email under control? Share it with us in a comment below.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Help your students before they are your students: Math Diagnostic Quiz

If you have been to university or college recently in a science-related discipline then you may have encountered a mathematics diagnostic quiz. Some institutions use them to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their incoming students. Most institutions keep the results internal and some locations use the results to triage the students into different math course sections. You know - put the best students together to accelerate their learning and assemble the weakest students together to provide them the help they need to catch up. However, if your institution chooses not to adopt this approach then you can use the mathematics diagnostic quiz to enable students to help themselves.

The idea is to choose the Top 10 Competencies that students should be comfortable with in order to be successful in the first 6 weeks of the first semester math course. Then to squarely align the mathematics diagnostic quiz on these Top 10 Competencies. After students take the quiz, you can report the results not only as their overall score, but you can also report which of the Top 10 Competencies they have demonstrated and which they have not yet demonstrated. Armed with this information, students can take matters into their own hands and brush-up on the competencies they have not demonstrated.

The online product can go one step further and provide 10 different short tutorials that align directly with the Top 10 Competencies. Students who wish remedial information can refer directly to the short tutorial elements that match their individual performance. Furthermore, it would be good practice to embed small self-assessment quizzes in each of the 10 Tutorial elements to allow students to self-assess their knowledge and skills after they complete the tutorial. Then it is up to them to decide when to be satisfied with their personal performance.

All this to enable students to help themselves BEFORE they become your students in the Fall semester. What do you think of this strategy? Have you seen similar ones employed? Do you think there are other useful ways to help students academically before the first day of class? Let us know with a comment.

Friday, April 25, 2014

One of the secret ingredients in online courses: TAs!

I’ve just spent the morning thinking about Teaching Assistant (TA) roles for a large online course that I am designing and I thought I would take a moment to share.  It's a second year university course and I have a vision to dseign it such that it can be effective with large enrollment numbers between 200 and 1000 learners.  It's not a MOOC per se, it's just a large online course.

One of the secret ingredients that I will design into the mix is specialized TA roles so I am trying to develop a useful models for segmenting the TA cadre into different roles to provide a range of learner supports that complements the role of the senior instructor.  This will also be a customized model that is tailored to this particular course's subject matter as well.

If we think of student-to-(instructor/TA) interaction from a service perspective, these are some of the the tasks that TAs can contribute to:
  1. TAs can mark student deliverables and provide written feedback on deliverables to students
  2. TAs can monitor the Q&A discussion forum, and be active by asking and answering questions (this can help promote student engagement)
  3. TAs can conduct optional Q&A sessions in a synchronous web-mediated fashion (like online office hours - this can help promote student engagement with students who have a preference for synchronous interaction)
  4. TAs can contribute to a social media stream for the online course. The course can have a twitter account, announcements and motivating tweets (such as announcing a cool solution to a particular problem that has been just posted on the discussion forum, or a current event in the field, etc) could be made by TAs.
  5. TAs could perform other tasks that are specific to the particular course design? (to be determined?)
The pool of available TAs can be ‘triaged’, depending on their skills and experience, into the role that best fits them.  Also, some TAs can be assigned more than one role as long as the work balance falls into the allotted number of hours for their effort over the term.  Naturally, TAs will require a solid training experience before the course starts so all the concurrent activities can be synchronized and all the expectations can be aligned.

Do you have any useful models for various role definitions for TAs in Online Courses?  Also, do you have any training guides developed specifically for TAs in online courses?   Leave a comment below and let's help each other out.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Are you new to social media curation in online learning? [VIDEO]

When you think about the word "curation", what comes to mind?  Well for me, I think about museums right away.  I think about the museum curators that work in museums going through collections of resources and making decision about which artifacts to collect together and how to organize them to tell a story, to emphasize a concept, or to serve a learning outcome.  And it's just not about placing the chosen artifacts together in the museum and then walking away.  These museum curators describe the salient features of the artifacts and organize them in such a way that new visitors can glean the required information and discover for themselves the intended (or novel) themes and the stories.  It's an important job to be a museum curator because their bias about the artifacts invariably will make its way into the finish product on display.  I don't really think that's a bad thing, because museum curators are experts in their field and they can identify the most compelling themes and stories, and expertly organize artifacts in museums for people to interact with so they can learn.

So what does this have to do with online learning?  Well, re-read the entire paragraph above, but substitute the words "museum curator" for "teacher", and where you see "museums" put "online courses".  Go ahead re-read it.

Wonderful isn't it?  So if you are thinking of becoming an expert online teacher, take a moment to improve your skills in curation, especially social media curation.

This great video produced by Vanessa Dennen (Florida State University) for the Social Media for Active Learning MOOC (#SMOOC2014), will give you a quick overview of social media curation. It's a great topic that all online instructors will love exploring.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Engage! Top 6 Best Practices that Foster Learner Engagement with Online Instructional Video

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I've been watching Philip Guo at the University of Rochester closely since I stumbled across his great research on instructional video usage in MOOCs. This month, he is publishing a paper for the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Learning at Scale that has very useful recommendation on ways to foster learner engagement with online instructional video. I love this paper and you should take the time to read it in detail because it contains more than 6 recommendations. However, for those in a rush, here's my interpretation of the Top 6 of his recommendations that resonated most with me:
  1. Video length can significantly affect engagement. Shorter videos are much more engaging to learners. Invest in pre-production lesson planning to segment videos into chunks that are no longer than 6-7 minutes in length, if possible. 
  2. Videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head (where the instructor looks directly into the camera) with slides are more engaging than slides alone. Invest in post-production editing to display the instructor’s head at opportune times in the video. Avoid displaying the instructor’s head for the entire video unless there are no slides that accompany the presentation. 
  3. Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than studio recordings. In videos where there are few slides and more video of the instructor’s talking head, try filming in an informal setting related to the subject matter of the video (i.e. office, lab, in the field, etc.) instead of a formal production studio. 
  4. For step-by-step problem solving walkthroughs, Khan Academy-style tablet drawing tutorials are more engaging than slides alone. 
  5. Videos where instructors speak fairly fast and with high enthusiasm are more engaging (especially for instructors who's native language is the same as the language of the course). The pace can be accelerated compared to conventional face-to-face lectures. This also has the indirect positive effect of keeping video length shorter (see point 1 above). During post production, consider removing some speech pauses including “umms” and “ahhs” if they are present too frequently. 
  6. Learners engage differently with lecture-style conceptual videos compared to step-by-step walkthrough procedural tutorial videos. For lectures-style, focus more on the providing a good first-watch experience from beginning to end. For step-by-step walkthrough tutorials, make it easy to rewatch and/or skim the video. For example, clearly number the “step” in the process as the process develops so that students can easily orient themselves in the tutorial video when they re-watch relevant parts. 
What do you think of these 6 best practices?  Do you have experience with any of them?  Would you add any others to this list?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The magic bullet? Reducing costs with online courses in Canada

There’s no magic bullet. Nope. None. Stop looking for one. The simple fact that a course is offered online, or at a distance, does not equate with automatic cost savings when compared to the cost of developing and delivering a traditional onsite course in a higher education setting. Being an online course is not a magic bullet to cost reduction.

In Canada, several reports have been issued in the last decade which examine this subject. The fine folks at Contact North / Contact Nord recently released a interesting survey of the existing literature in Canada. It’s a very useful annotated bibliography-style of presentation that walks you through the salient pieces of literature and supplies some useful quotes. Read it in detail here.

I have never done research on this subject, but I have been closely related to the development and delivery of online courses in Canada for a long time. My feeling is largely in agreement with what you’ll read in the Contact North report. I feel that costs savings are not directly associated with the simple existence of online courses per se. Instead, offering a mixture of online and classroom-based courses offers choices for students, enhances student flexibility and enriches the suite of products that an institution can offer to learners. There can be some indirect cost reduction. For example, colleges and universities that are space constrained may find that offering online courses alleviates scheduling conflict nightmares, the need to find large classrooms for growing class sizes, and/or the need to build new campus buildings.

Lastly, I believe online courses can increase a revenue stream by providing access to learners that might otherwise not be able to come to your school. This factor could be very important to those schools offering niche programming - especially those with a solid marketing plan (Hint: one that involves intelligent social media strategies!)

Do you have any ideas on this subject? Share them with a comment below.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Quality Matters is Cool

The university that I work at just purchased an institutional membership to the Quality Matters (QM) Program.  If you are not familiar with QM, it's basically a quality assurance program for online courses that is faculty-centered, grounded in research and rubric-based.

As someone who has been working in online education for a dozen years, I am excited!  I quickly registered for and completed their first foundational workshop called: Applying the QM Rubric (APPQMR).  It was a great.  It is a 2-week asynchronous workshop that is very task oriented.  The eight modules walk participants through using the QM Rubric by assigning a variety of tasks including giving feedback on an actual online course that went through the QM Review process.  It was a very nice learning opportunity because some activities centered around examining the sample online course before it went to review, while other activities asked participants to comment on improvements that were found in the same sample course after it was reviewed, etc.  The workshop is discounted from $300 to $200/person since my university is an institutional member.  However, it's well worth the $300 even if your university doesn't participate.  As advertised, I can confirm that it takes about 8-10hrs/week to completed so make sure you block time in your schedule if you choose to do this workshop. I enjoyed the training so much, I’ll be moving to the next level and completing the training to become a Certified QM Peer Reviewer.

If you need more information on the Higher Education Professional Development Opportunities for QM, you can find it here.

If you have any questions, let me know with a comment below.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CHANGE is the Future of Higher Education? Tony Bates' Vision.

Question: What can a person who is in their mid-seventies and 3 months from retirement offer the field of education as a whole?

Answer: A lot; especially if that person is Tony Bates.

Source: years he has been actively trying to apply his well-documented wisdom to predict the future of higher education in the developing world, and this month he publishes a vision for the 5- to 10-year time horizon that may cause some interesting reactions from a variety of higher education people including administrators, instructors, researchers, students and leaders alike! Entitled 2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond, it highlights several key aspects that are being considered at this moment:
  • how online learning and onsite learning are being blended, and how physical barriers to student access to courses are being removed
  • how some higher education institutions might grow their enrollments by being market leaders in mainstream programs while smaller institutions may have to seek out niche marketing strategies
  • how tuition fees in the future may be dependent on the level of service and support that a student wants instead of fixed prices determined by the nature of the program or course in question. 
  • the trend to decrease the time spent delivering conventional face-to-face lectures 
  • how many institutions may begin to eliminate the concept of final exams in favour of outcome-based assessment involving a student's ability to work collaboratively, to exercise skills and to show progression of their competence in the domain 
  • how students will have increasing choice in when, what, where and how they obtain their various educational credentials 
  • how the demand for access to lifelong learning opportunities will continue to grow 
Lots of fundamental and profound ideas are found in Tony's full article. Read it - don't skim it. After you read it, how does it make you feel? Did he miss anything? Is he off-base with one of his ideas? Leave a comment below if you like.