Thursday, July 29, 2010

3 Before Me!

"Online Teaching: If it's more work, you're doing it wrong!"

I'm taking this workshop to the streets this month, spreading faculty-contributed best practices far and wee, by any means possible. No better time to shout practice from the digital rooftops. August is upon us and we're all beginning to crank up the dusty LMS shells for Fall semester here at ASU. During busiest course development times, seems it never hurts to remind our teaching community of the obvious. So, let's be obvious for a moment:

It's all, and always, about the learning. We know that. But what is the quality of learning, long term, when the instructor is spread so thin, s/he is cracking into tiny bits? Class sizes are increasing, students are less self-directed, and research demands are omnipresent. Plus, we're increasingly facing 24-hour connectivity and 'online teaching' is now a misnomer. Fact: MOST of the faculty at ASU request a Blackboard container. MOST of the faculty are making more materials and communication options accessible online. Many are teaching hybrid (reduced seat time) courses, and quite a few have leaped into completely online offerings. How you do this makes a difference, and I have at least 10 Best Practices to share, but for now let's dive into my new favorite: 3 Before Me!

What does it mean? It means you stop answering simple questions via email over and over in the mistaken belief that this somehow facilitates better learning. It doesn't. Not really. It encourages laziness and continuation of the misguided notion that you're the only source for knowledge. There are other options, including your own materials, and your BB shell. Email should be reserved for personal, not course, correspondence.

I picked up "3 Before Me" from my colleague, Marc Van Horne, over at ASUOnline, and he's right, for 100 reasons. The most important, from the point of view of faculty support is that technology is a black hole of time and energy and your first line of protection is establishing good practice. 3 Before Me is one of the best of these practices. Protect your energy from small, low ROI, repetitive interrruptions. The second reason is that you're requesting self-reliant behavior from your students and this is a great gift to give.

Try it: set a rule, from the first moment, repeated in many places (syllabus, code of contact, first announcement, whenever rule is broken, etc) that the learner must go to 3, yes THREE, that's III, at least 1-2-3 other sources before coming to you with a digital question. I think this is great rule for F2F teaching as well, modeling responsibility/ownership/self-reliance/ thoughtfulness/ respect for others shouldn't be unique to online behavior...but we won't go there. F2F, instructors love to see that adoring, empty, attention-questing gaze in young eyes and in the classroom, the same, adoring question only gets asked once per class. So, let's just stick to protecting your time and energy digitally, where time and energy matter so easily disappear into an online black hole.

So, what are the magic 3?
  1. The syllabus. 80% of the answers are usually there.
  2. The course discussion board. Create an FAQ forum for quotidian questions. (When is the assignment due, where do I post my response, how many pts for this quiz, how long a post is expected, where do I find the reading...). Other learners often know the answer and may be online earlier and more often than you. This also models a learner community of practice that serves well in the academic discussions and collaborative work.
  3. The technical Help Desk. (At ASU, this is 480-965-4800). You're not the best source of tech support and you shouldn't need to figure out why Janey can't open a PDF while running Window XP and Google Chrome on a Dell Notebook. Leave these questions to people who enjoy answering them.
Here's bottom line: if one student has a question or problem, many others may have the same. Don't answer the same questions over and over, don't create a script for those questions that you open/copy/paste over and over, and don't try to solve questions that aren't your area of expertise (computer problems). Your kindness should not be killing you.

3 Before Me: teaching self-reliance and personal responsibility by sending students in a direction that allows them to look for answers in reliable places, places you've created, places where you've already posted the answers. Give yourself the gift of time and your students the gift of independent inquiry. You'll both be the better for it.

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