Thursday, March 29, 2007

Dialogic Learning Objects Revisited

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No."
Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
Highway 61 Revisited

It’s time for us to make sacrifices about our teaching. For some of us, we’ll be sacrificing our old ways. For others, we’ll be sacrificing a bit on our principles. For still others, it will about sacrificing our (not so) spare time to do course development. Me? I’ve taught recently to mostly freshmen honors students who weren’t likely to take more economics. What I did there worked great in that setting. I’m trying to figure out what would have to be sacrificed going to other settings – high enrollment versions for non-honors students, upper level courses in the major, or adult students in professional programs.

What I did for the honors students was based on my Dialogic Learning Objects piece from a few years ago. Early in the course I had the students do content surveys that I had authored which gave a discourse on an economics question – does such and such market have trade only at equilibrium prices or does trade also occur out of equilibrium? – and then the analysis that flowed from the base question, interspersed with subsidiary questions to which the students got paragraph boxes where they wrote their then thinking in response. Those responses were submitted and I would review them and then we’d discuss further in class. A little later in the course the students had as their first project to make content surveys of their own and then we went through the same drill of administering them online and discussing them further in class.

I learned that I write better than these freshmen. :--) I’m much more familiar with the subject so can layer the discussion with interesting related questions. Their writing is much flatter. But nevertheless, it was an ok way to expose the other students to the ideas as long as we had the follow up discussion. We did the layering then in class, not in the original presentation of the content. Overall this worked quite well.

I’m now focusing on the high enrollment case where the content survey might substitute entirely for the lecture. But I don’t think paragraph questions of this sort can work with those large numbers and I making a good argument on intellectual grounds might not be sufficient to pull the students in – there may have to be other ways to make the content compelling.

I’ve been futzing with this for a while trying a few different things, and now I’ve got something I think is worth taking a look at for other people to react to. Of course, most of them won’t have the context of what a traditional economics lecture is like as a basis for comparison. But I hope you can get the idea.

I authored this in Respondus for WebCT Vista 4 or CE 6. This is a zip file of the Respondus folder. It’s a small file because all the multimedia content is linked. This is the best for viewing the content as it is authored, but you need Respondus for that purpose. (UIUC faculty and staff can get Respondus from the Webstore, where it is free because the Campus has a site license.) This is a zip file of the Self-Test that gets produced for delivery in WebCT Vista. If you have acesss to WebCT, you should be able to import this file and view the self-test yourself. And for those who have neither of these, I made some Web pages that show the questions and feedback on each slide, with a simple navigation at the bottom. This doesn’t give the interaction that one has in a self-test, but it should convey some of the idea.

Here is a quick overview of what I was trying for in making this. I’m aiming to simulate real dialog. So in the self-test, you’ll find some of the narrative in the responses to the questions. I wanted to use some well produced content from outside an Econ course and then based the presentation on that so without almost any effort at all I found this quite long piece from NPR, which is really quite fantastic as intro and motivation for this presentation. In contrast to a textbook presentation, the type I railed about in my previous post, here everything I do is built around the NPR piece. I don’t use the example to illustrate the theory I’ve already developed, which is the standard textbook approach. I used the theory in response to the example, to further illuminate it.

There are some video clips of me lecturing. They are under 10 minutes in total. And they are there to illuminate what is done on the Excel spreadsheet. This might have been done with just voice over. But we’re getting to the point where video of this sort is no more of a big deal than just audio and perhaps there is some value in seeing the face responsible for the content as well as hearing the voice. I’m not sure on that one.

But there is also a lot of writing. I think I’m better as an author than I am as a speaker. Where there is narrative, I write. The speaking is restricted to covering technical aspects that are harder to write about. That particular mixture may be idiosyncratic to me, but perhaps it makes sense for others to try.

If you look through this you can think of each slide like PowerPoint, but with a question at the end and feedback to the question. And instead of bullets there are sentences and discussion. There are links to a variety of different content. I could have embedded some of that (or make it seem embedded) but chose not to do that because when I get to the Excel part I want to the student to see both the self-test question and the spreadsheet at the same time and then window management becomes an issue. If there were only the self test, then embedding content would be ok.

The point is that all sort different materials are mixed in with the only overriding idea to try to preserve the sense of dialog. If you think of each individual item as a little departure on the theme, the departure has to make sense at that juncture. So there is an idea of authoring and pacing of presentation in the background.

I’m sure this doesn’t look slick. But it might still be quite effective if it works in achieving the goals I’ve outlined above. I’d love to know what you think about the approach, because I think it is promising and would like to see others try it.

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