Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Best Practices in Online Teaching

I'm doing a workshop at the Teaching and Learning with Technology 2009 Conference, hosted by the Maricopa Community Colleges, and thought I'd beta-test some ideas on my own community here in the College of Public Programs at ASU. First, because some of the faculty here have been experimenting with better teaching online for years, and second, because this is a great conference that the Center for Learning and Instruction at MCC does each year, and I want ASU to look good when I present.

My topic will be "e-Teaching: if it's more work, you're doing it wrong" - a topic very dear to my heart and one that I promote to the faculty until they're tired of hearing from me. But it's common knowledge and much discusses in the online research that instructors struggle managing workload when first teaching online. And if they don't seek help, they often burn out and tell others not to attempt it. It doesn't have to be that way, and there's much in the literature regarding practices that make it easier for the instructor and the learner to experience online courses. I'd go so far as to say that if you're doing it right, you can leverage the technology to make less work for you, once the course is developed.

Quick tips of the Top Ten sort:
  1. NO email. At least not on the course content, assignments, schedule, etc. That's what the discussion forum is for and rather than answer the same question 10 times, you answer it once.
  2. Simple, clear navigation and course structure. If you don't know how to turn off some of the navigation menu in your course management system, ask someone. Students hate 10 links, and they hate them more when half of them are blank. Mine are: Announcements, Course Information, Learning Modules, Communication, Discussion Board, Tools. Students find what they need quickly and in the places expected. I also link to other places in the course when inside the learning modules (eg discussion board for a post, Course Info/Syllabus when referring to policies, etc)
  3. Frequent communication. Lure them to class! Send an email when you've opened a new module, released a quiz, posted grades, posted an announcement, etc. The more time 'in class', the better they'll do and letting them know something new is waiting often lures them in.
  4. Clear expectations. It is harder online and the written text might be interpreted in different ways. What you mean by "a rich discussion post" might be 2 sentences to a student. Let them know exactly what's expected and consequences for not delivering. Rubrics are great for setting explicit values to grading. Pts, # words/paragraphs/citations/, language, spelling, etc all help. Hate creating rubrics? Try the Rubistar site where instructors share work. Sadly, they don't organize by grades, so you need to be specific in searching. Here's one for a research argument essay.
  5. Instructor presence. Your students need to feel a connection to you. Announcements help, but audio announcements, pictures, personal stories all create a better 'virtual you'. A colleague of mine publishes a picture a week with his announcements. During my fellowship, travelling around the US, I put up pics of where I was each each week.
OK, those are my top 5. Sound right? Send more and I'll add a Part II.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Words, Tags, Bones and Trees: the Value of Clouds

I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down, and still somehow,
It's cloud illusions I recall,
I really don't know clouds, at all.

Another post on data in the clouds? No, not today. Instead, a presentation about extending word clouds as trees got me thinking about the value of presenting data in the shape of clouds. Clouds and trees and ...fishbone diagrams. For those new to word clouds, it's time to hop into a new tool for visualizing text and the amazing possibilities it affords for better understanding and text mining. In that vein, I enjoyed a presentation (linked below) by Gambette and Veronis, not because they offer some very complicated home-grown software for generating a version of tag clouds via tree structures, but because they explain the value for use of analyzing text via cloud structures.

In teaching, use of simple tag/word cloud tools like Wordle or IBM's Many Eyes provide a tool for visualizing the student's own or another author's text. For visual learners, this provides valuable insight and synthesis of ideas that may otherwise prove elusive. As the presentation below describes, tag clouds provide tools for objective literature analysis, discourse analysis, text mining for meaning, or an exploration of natural language processing - which the authors describe as text desambiguation. Much more complicated than necessary, when a picture speaks 1,000 words, but first one needs access to the picture.
Wordle: TagClouds
So explore Wordle first with a favorite piece of your text (as I did with this Blog post on right; click on thumbnail to access). It's as simple as copy and paste in the Wordle window. See if it doesn't provide immediate insight into the text and a new option for exploring meaning. Then, wander over to ManyEyes and explore the many, many visual and structural options for doing the same. Both are free to use. If you have ideas for using in your teaching, post them here and I'll share in my work. For a more detailed and scholarly look at the use of cloud analysis, follow along in the Slideshare presentation: Visualising a text with a tree cloud