Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The introduction documents for my online course had to be ready by today, so that has been my focus. When not answering emails from new graduate students who need advisement, that is. I can't tell you how many I received yesterday. All I did was type responses suggesting courses, explaining how to register online, commiserating about schedule conflicts and closed classes.

I managed to revise the syllabus and tweak the intro. documents. Usually I give access to the first "Module" of the class as soon as the system allows access, even though classes at the university don't actually begin until after Labor Day. In my latest design, the first Module lasts for two weeks.

This semester, because I still have a lot of thinkin' to do, I am keeping Module 1 closed. Maybe it won't open until the semester formally starts, maybe a few days before that. I still have to revise the syllabus for the evening class, and I haven't created the syllabus for the day class yet. Both of those tasks will impact the final syllabus for the online class, too.

Developing, and even just revising, takes a lot of planning, if you want to do a reasonable job. All three books are out in new editions. I am digesting the comments from last year's student evaluations, I am trying to prevent cheating, get students to learn more and be satisfied, and not drive myself crazy with the workload of evaluating assignments for three classes. Right now, the online class has 29 students, the day class has 30, and the evening class has 14. I'm sure more will be added to the night class during the last minute scramble to register.

My evaluations are high, but there are always one or two constructive remarks (to be taken very seriously) and the occasional really mean comment. Those bother me too, because I don't like to think that some student hates learning, college, the class, or - gasp - me - that much. It's a fantasy to think you can reach everyone, no matter how jaded.

Something about teaching education classes, is that the research, and the subject of your teaching, also informs you on student motivation, what is the best way to deliver content, how learning takes place, etc. So I am constantly getting fired up about making changes to my methods. It would be pretty lame to share ideas about self-directed learning and then spend the entire semester doing nothing but old tried and true chalk and talk, no matter how comfortable and familiar that may be to everyone, including most students.

But on the other hand, there are time constraints involved. It takes a lot of energy, and there are deadlines to be respected. You have to draw the line somewhere. There are also the realities of the classroom. Half the time the equipment and various bells and whistles for slideshows etc. aren't available or don't work properly. Group work, presentations, experiments and other hands-on methods are expected by some and hated by others.

This semester, I am a little sorry to be removing two elements of self-direction. One is that I am going to randomly assign students to groups rather than allowing them to choose. The other is a change I made over the summer, and I was pleased with the results. There will be no term paper. I have increased the number of essays, and I provide the topics to students.

The first change is to cut down on group dysfunction. Some students joined groups based on already established friendships, and these cliques of students took advantage of the other members, who did not know anyone else in their group prior to class. In the end, the clique members evaluated their friends as having performed in an outstanding manner, and the others in the group were given mediocre or poor ratings, in spite of reality - which was that the non-clique members did the majority of the work and were the actual leaders.

The second change is to diminish the chance that the written assignments are plagiarized.

On the other hand, I am hoping to decrease the use of the lecture format, by working closely with the groups in discussion. Although I believe I will have to provide a lot of direction for it to work, I think with the the right instructions, and some structured assignments, I can get the groups to address the educational issues in a meaningful way in class, and maybe get some good dialogue going. It find that it is such a challenge to engage students during class. Discussion is much easier in the online world.

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