Are You Ready To Teach Online?

When I started working with designing online courses in 2000, our focus on readiness for online learning was on students.  Like other colleges at that time, we considered freshman "not ready" for the responsibilities and time management required to take online versions of courses. For a time, the college of computer science at that university didn't want their students taking online courses in their major at all. An opinion that seemed quite ironic.

Unfortunately, there was less concern about whether or not teachers were ready to teach online. It was not unusual for an instructor to come my instructional technology department and say that he or she was told that they were teaching online next semester. At least half of them were not happy about this and were totally new to online learning.

We created several "readiness" quizzes for potential students to take. They were not required and did not block students from registering for an online section. One of the things we felt was the biggest factor for on;line success or failure was time management. For students and teachers, especially in the early years of online learning, there was an idea that being online would give you more free time. In almost every case, the opposite was true. That seemed to be especially true if this was your first experience with being online.

Recently, I saw a blog post that was about the idea of having a readiness quiz/survey for faculty.

There are still these tools online for students, like this one from the University of North Carolina called Online Learning Readiness Questionnaire for Students. It is harder to find similar tools for instructors and faculty planning to teach online. In either case, a quiz would ask about skills needed to be successful. Some are technical - learning to use a learning management system - and the things that are often called "soft skills" that I feel are more important to success, like self-direction and time management,

The aforementioned post shares some surveys and key findings from two papers on ‘readiness’ for online learning and teaching. My own experiences heading up a department of instructional designers and working with faculty would agree with many of the findings given. Though I do feel that instructors must “possess personal attributes to perform online teaching and administration of the online environment successfully“ I know that it is rare for a person to be rejected from teaching online for any such criteria. 

It may have been more true in 2000, but still today I hear that too many teachers want to replicate their on-ground course online. "I always show the class this film. I want to put it online," says the teacher. But, we can't because we don't access to a streaming version or the rights to use it online. "But that's what I always do in class."

“Teaching in an online course involves more than replicating classroom strategies in a different form. It “requires a different approach—one that focuses less on the amount of time students spend together in a particular place, and more on facilitating a distance community and on activities designed for students working individually” (University of Washington, 2004).”

That different approach can be a good thing. An opportunity for real redesign and improvement, but that is not always the result.

The research noted indicates that there isn't very much support for readiness questionnaires leading to better learning outcomes for students (Gascoigne & Parnell, 2014) and I would expect there is even less evidence for significant changes in success from using a "screening" of new faculty.

And yet, I would still encourage the use of these tools for students and faculty. I especially like going through these skills with faculty 1:1 with course designers and technologists if the process has the ability to defer faculty from being online until they are better prepared or even reject the, from teaching online. That would definitely be met with opposition from faculty and departments.

In her post, Debbie Morrison identifies 3 skill sets that need to be considered with faculty.

1.  Technology and Social Media Skills including basic computer skills, proficiency with software applications, features and functions within the LMS (grading tools often baffle newbies) and platforms for communication/engagement outside the LMS from conferencing software (Google Hangouts, WebEx etc.) to using social tools that are quite optional like Twitter, Google+ or Facebook

2.  Administrative and Organization Skills such as time management in quick response to student questions, constructive feedback on student work and in forums, and handling academic integrity issues in new ways.

3. Pedagogical Skills which needs to be much more student-focused online

Morrison provides two surveys that might be useful to look at if you are considering teaching online for the first time or if you are part of the screening process for new online instructors:

Faculty Self Assessment: Preparing for Online Teaching from Penn State University (free to use under the Creative Commons license)

CUNY published on its faculty website an example of a feedback report of the Penn State Self-Assessment

A faculty readiness survey from the University of Toledo is a 20-question self-scoring survey. (UX note: select the radio button that is above the answer you want)


Flipping Learning and Making Spaces

I did a presentation titled "Flipping the Learning Model" for the annual conference of the Connecticut Education Network in May 2015. The flipped classroom has been a hot topic in education for a number of years, but more recently, the idea of flipping professional development has been experimented at schools and in corporate training. That is a topic I did a presentation on last fall at NJEDge.Net Annual Conference. Taking the flipped classroom into the world of professional development is a relatively new step in the flipped learning model.

What I was more interested in in the CEN presentation was rethinking how learners work before and after a face-to-face training session to make it more self-directed.

That leads us into discussions of technology integration and andragogical concepts that maximize the time online and during the live group sessions.In both cases, the idea is to rethink what we want to spend our time with in face-to-face (F2F) sessions and how can we move training before and after those sessions to be self-directed.

The flipped learning model using technology, even in our personal learning, maximizes the F2F time for interaction.

I paired my session with another one on makerspaces and I asked attendees to try this flipped learning activity before coming to the conference and the plan was that we would complete it in the face-to-face session. 

As I anticipated, only a few people took up the challenge to do something prior to the session. They were asked to to experiment with one or more ways to increase the volume and sound quality of a smartphone using simple materials and no electronics or additional power. The sample provided online were simple - from just using a cup or bowl to a built object. A few people brought a result of their DIY experimentation to the live session. I would expect a bigger response from students in a course or a group involved in a class, project or makerspace. But, as my slides indicated, as with assigning students "homework" any flipped model must anticipate that some attendeees will not have done the preparation for the session.

In our face-to-face session, I tested a few samples with a decibel meter, but the presentation and my intent was to discuss how this simple exercise can be applied to classroom learning.

I asked some questions of those who did try experimenting, as I would with students.

What did you learn from your experiments? What materials made the greatest improvement in sound? What is more important: volume or sound quality? How would you define "sound quality?" What additional equipment or learning would be necessary for you to go further with this experiment? How might you use this exercise (or a similar one) in your classroom?

I recall reading EDUCAUSE's "7 Things You Should Know About Makerspaces" in 2013. They ask and answer, "What are the implications for teaching and learning?"

"The makerspace gives room and materials for physical learning. Because these spaces can easily be cross-disciplinary, students in many fields can use them, often finding technical help for work they are undertaking in their areas. At the same time, those in engineering and technology will find their work enriched by contributions from those in other fields. Makerspaces allow students to take control of their own learning as they take ownership of projects they have not just designed but defined. At the same time, students often appreciate the

hands-on use of emerging technologies and a comfortable acquaintance with the kind of experimentation that leads to a completed project. Where makerspaces exist on campus, they provide a physical laboratory for inquiry-based learning."

Whether you call your space for creative work and play a classroom or a makerspace or an innovation lab, hackerspace, tech shop or fabrication lab, what we need to focus on as educators is what goes on inside that space. More important than the name of the space is the pedagogy for its use and how it reaches out to a larger community - whether that be a school, campus or city.


The T in Teaching Centers

These centers at colleges have many different names - Teaching & Learning Center (TLC), Teaching Support Center (TSC), Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) etc. - but  "what's in a name" - or a letter?

My university is exploring starting one of these centers (tentatively to be a Teaching Excellence Center - TEC). We already have a Technology Support Center and an Instructional Resource Center and a Master Teacher Group. So what would be the mission of the new Center?

In looking at examples of centers at other colleges, I have noticed that in many of them, the "T" has more often come to mean "technology" rather than "teaching." 

No doubt there is more and more overlap with those two things these days. But what needs to be clear is that if  the focus is how to use tools, then don't call it a teaching center.

For me, a teaching center would focus on pedagogy (and andragogy). How to use the quiz tool or gradebook in the LMS is not about assessment.  How to create stronger quizzes and sharing effective grading policies is pedagogy.

About 15 years ago, my department initiated a Teaching, Learning and Technology Group at the university. I was the manager of instructional technology then and we did instructional design (primarily for online courses) and worked with faculty to use the LMS, create audio and video files and use "tools." But when we planned our training sessions during the semester, we always included sessions that were on topics like authentic assessment, learning styles, Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge and other teaching topics. I was at first surprised at the interest in these sessions at a college level. I had come from the K-12 world where everyone had some education courses in the undergrad and grad curriculum and pedagogy was a standard part of professional development. It pleasantly surprised me when a professor said, "I never took an education course, so I find this all very interesting. I try to imitate good teachers I had, and avoid being like the bad ones."

Our TLT group tried to be both things - tech and teaching. But with all the focus on the tools lately and much of out Technology Support Center's staff time taken with supporting tools, the teaching can easily be forgotten. This is probably more true at a school like NJIT which is a science and technology university,  I spent 5 years at a community college and the scale tipped more to teaching than technology there. 

Having and utilizing a Master Teacher group, your writing center and tutoring staffs, and librarians is one way to increase the teaching content over the tools. Of course, it would be great to see a center being able to combine the tools with the teaching, so that the session on building effective quizzes also showed faculty how to do that well in the LMS, if that's what they are using.

Training Teachers Based on Competencies

Meeting of doctors at the university of Paris.jpg

"Meeting of doctors at the University of Paris" Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

As a graduate of a teacher-preparation program, I am always interested in hearing about new approaches to that process. Lately, there has been increasing demand for educators. I suspect that is partially from a lack of supply. Teaching is not seen as being a very attractive career these days. When I entered teaching four decades ago, it was viewed as a good solid career. The pay would not be great, but the benefits were good. It was particularly attractive to women who were mothers and could arrange their days and the year on a similar schedule to that of their children. It was a profession, but seen as less professional than a lawyer or doctor, although those three were once grouped together in rank. But that was a long time ago.

I have also seen more alternative preparation options being offered. The latest I have seen is a new graduate school and research lab announced by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. It will be a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to conduct research on teacher and school leadership education. (MIT has no school of education.)

It is very research-based and it will be part of a new institute at MIT, called the MIT PK-12 Initiative. That aspect will provide support to STEM teachers.

It is also competency-based, which is not entirely new to higher education, but a new approach to teacher preparation. It will focus on competencies rather than on seat time. 

Arthur Levine (former president of Teachers College, Columbia University and now head of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation) says that "Instead of focusing on courses and credits students need to take, we're going to focus on the skills and knowledge they need to have to enter the classroom." Most education schools have such low admission standards and are of such poor quality, Levine says, it would be easier to replace them than repair them. "They're old and dated." 

The Woodrow Wilson Academy only will take in 25 students during 2017, its first year. Being selective seems to be important for success. A new report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that the more selective the program, the more likely that graduating teachers will remain in the profession and that students will be successful in the classroom. Students in the new Academy will have an opportunity to work with partner school districts in the greater Boston area. 

Some comparisons have been made to Teach for America. That program is also selective. It trains new teachers for up to 10 weeks over the summer and then sends them into some of the poorest parts of the country. But TFA's results show that rather than training new teachers, it helps people figure out what they want to do with their future. And after Corps members complete their required two year commitment, fewer than a third stay in their positions beyond that period. 

This Academy is at the graduate level and I feel that the real problems in teacher preparation - and the best place to make change - occur in undergraduate programs. I'm not aware at any radical departures in programs at that level.


A Course Is Not a Game, Even If It Is Gameful

Gamification gets no respect - or, at least, not much respect. Most teachers still say that "learning shouldn't be a game." Some even say "learning shouldn't be fun." But gamification isn't about making coursework a game as much as it is using game tools and strategies in learning.

A wise conference presenter once told me that, "If your faculty are opposed to gamification, call it 'simulations.' They understand those and it's easier to get grants for them."

Whether or not that is true, using gaming techniques in higher education has arrived. Simple game tools like the use of points, missions, badges and leaderboards can be effective, especially in online environments.

Much of the research into gaming theory or "gamification" in education centers on trying to increase student engagement and motivation. It's tempting to think that the student who can't focus on an assignment for 20 minutes, but who can play a videogame for 4 hours straight, might be more engaged in an assignment that is more like that game.

What if the classroom was more like a video game? A professor at the University of Michigan is using gaming to develop GradeCraft. It is a learning-management system that lets instructors organize their courses in a “gameful” way.

One gaming technique it uses is allowing students to choose their own path through a course, selecting the assignments that interest and challenge them. 

Most courses don't offer chances to make mistakes without penalties. Yes, games have penalties too, but in most games risks don’t come with serious consequences. It is more likely that you will have to repeat a level. In other words, you learn by practicing, revising and trying again.