Friday, August 26, 2005

Moving Down the Learning Curve

One of the big issues during the early SCALE days was raising student expectations and instructors subsequently not being able to live up to it – an example of the instructor making things harder on themselves. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Almost anything worth doing has to be learned. It’s efficient to work harder during this learning phase rather than work at a steady pace and let the learning happen en passant, because what the instructor will do afterwards will be different (and better) and getting to that point quickly is a good thing. It is possible to raise student expectations and make life easier for the instructor simultaneously. But that doesn’t happen by coincidence and it certainly doesn’t happen by standing pat on the teaching.

Instructors getting started perhaps should not be too caught up in these issues, since they have enough on their mind to keep them busy. But those who have used the course management system in the past are likely ready to take next steps and we should encourage them to do so rather than expect them to come to us looking for suggestions. Here are a few different ideas just to get the rest of you thinking along these lines. There are many other things that can be done.

Public Web Presence for Course that Exists Inside the CMS

One of the long standing issues that instructors who use Blackboard or WebCT have had (I believe this is true for other CMS as well) is that it’s been kind of clunky to have a “public piece” to the class Web site presence and a site inside the CMS as well. Now the instructor could keep a blog for the public presence, take the RSS or Atom feed for that blog and run it through the an xml to javascript converter and then plop that Javascript into a page that takes HTML input inside the CMS. Students in the class read the feed inside the CMS while those who are not class members can access the blog. The instructor does have to author in both the blog environment and the CMS environment, but that is not too hard and for everyone else it should work like a charm.

Tracking and Notifying Students by Grade Book Performance

One of the great things about technology is that you can use it to “nag” selectively so the person who needs the prodding gets the information, but it is done by an email rather than a face to face scolding. So, for example, if a class has a weekly quiz then those who have missed the deadline in the past can get reminders about the pending deadline. Or those who have overall low performance can get a suggestion email that they come into office hours to discuss their progress in the course. Certainly the WebCT Vista grade book tool is very good for doing queries of this sort to identify the target population and then it is simple to email the group. Instructors who make a practice of this sort of thing may come to realize they need some boilerplate for these emails so they don’t have to spend a lot of time authoring each message individually. An instructor doing this long term will want to develop scripts that automate the entire process, but until that point one can get much of the benefit without too much hassle just by using the query and export tools that are built into the system.

Buddy System for Students

While many in the teaching and learning business extol the importance of group work, one frequently ignored benefit, especially in large classes, is that otherwise students can become invisible. So, for example, if study groups form in a voluntary manner by the students themselves with no involvement of the instructor then it is possible, perhaps even likely, that some students will not be involved. They will be complete outsiders and some of them will end up lost in the course.

Group work allows students to check in on other students. To use my swimming example from a couple of days ago, if one of the students is drowning the others in the group will know this and they’ll try a few things to bring the struggling student around.

Most CMS have a way of provisioning work space for a student that is just for the group or at least for members of the group to submit work on behalf of the groups and for group members to track the work as it is evaluated. So the CMS can make the student buddy system work better and thereby help to ensure that students don’t go off the deep end.

I ‘m sure there are other examples we can use as possible paths down the learning curve. I’d love to hear from readers of this blog with their pet ideas. Having spent the last couple of years getting our instructors acclimated to the new enterprise CMS we may lose sight of our need to give the ones who already made the switch something new to try. We need to keep at it.

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