Friday, August 31, 2012

Public Syllabi/Microsoft Office for Teaching

I have mixed feelings about the first ten days of the semester, when students are free to add and drop without the instructor's permission.  On the one hand, I wrote this verse last year, which argued that we should get rid of the process entirely.  On the other hand, the likelihood that we'll get rid of this capability is nil, so we should ask how might we make the current practice better.  For students who drop a class and are looking to pick up another it is clear that some want to make that choice by sampling the syllabi of the various alternatives.  Such sampling also could be important for the original registering for class.

As an instructor I know that much of what we do is just in time.  I was re-doing my syllabus the week before the start of the semester.  But for many courses the offering is more mature and teh syllabus doesn't vary that much from one semester to the next.  When this is true, last semester's syllabus has potential value to students who are choosing which course to add this semester.  The issue then is to collect those syllabi and place them in a location where students are apt to find them.  I note that course description information is generally available via the course catalog.  But that information is typically dated and not instructor specific.  Further, it is summary information only.  Recent syllabi would be far more useful to students. 

Not that long ago my department asked instructors to provide syllabi so they could have them on record.  If instructors provided those as links to a public Web document, and if Banner allowed urls in the description field, then there would be a mechanism to achieve the above goal.  Below I will talk more about the expression, "with ifs you can put Paris in a bottle."  So let me say here that I don't know whether Banner has this ability to accept urls.  But assuming it does, the reason that we don't do this is that customary practice hasn't caught up with what the technology can deliver.  Then wouldn't it make sense to try to modify the usual practice? 

Now let me turn to the students who are already enrolled in the class.  At the beginning of the semester it is a good idea that the instructor demonstrate some personal commitment to the student's learning.  One way of doing this is to send personalized messages to the student.  A technology that facilitates such mailings is mail merge.  The Microsoft version is particularly well done and shows a tight integration between Word (where the message is composed), Excel (which keeps the Merge fields and the indiosyncratic information on each student), and Outlook (which sends out the email messages).  It starts in Word, which has a Menu item called Mailings and then there is a particular icon called Start Mail Merge.  It really is simple to do and works quite nicely.  Incidentally, I polled my class about checking email.  They were unanimous on checking at least once a day.  So the claim that email is dead may be over stated. 

Now let me turn to my use of Excel for math  (the math in economics) homework.  Much of what I want to talk about is illustrated in a post about making complex graphs more readable by students.  This were "if statements" come in, big time.  The trick to constructing such graphs is to make each series that is plotted in the graph conditional on the state - the series says one thing if it is to plotted and says a different thing if it is to be hidden.  Since most of my econ graphs plot nonnegative values only, hiding happens by making the entries in the series negative.  In the spreadsheet available at the link, I used the "spin button" as a simple control to change the state.  Upping the state by one would plot one additional series and the student could focus on that particular aspect of the graph.  The student then "builds" the graph by advancing the state. 

In the homework that I've been constructing (the first one is almost done and will be posted later today as long as the storm doesn't knock out the electricity) I've taken this an additional step or two which I find pedagogically pleasing and which is in accord with the vision I articulated in this piece about Dialogic Learning Objects.   There is narrative that gives background.  At some juncture there is a question that asks for the student to evaluate something.  This is a numeric/algebraic evaluation that the student puts into an empty cell situated at the appropriate juncture in the narrative.  (There is a training spreadsheet for how to do these calculations, so students are ready to do the homework.  I plan to go over that training spreadsheet in my next class session.  The file must be download and used with the real Excel.)   Once the students have entered their calculation into the cell, they get immediate feedback - Correct or Incorrect.  If it is correct, then the graph is updated with the information from their calculation and they can proceed further into the narrative.  If it is incorrect, then they must do the calculation over to get a correct answer.

When they've done all the questions correctly, the thing spits out a key, based on their course assigned alias and on their netid.  They enter the key into a Google Form so they can receive credit for doing the homework.  I believe the approach is consistent with FERPA since were little actual identity information is communicated and it is done so in a veiled way.  There is no partial credit.  They only get the key from having completed the entire workbook.  So the incentives are there for them to do that.  The students have also been told that this homework will become the basis for the exams.  So they have incentive to understand the homework, rather than simply to let a friend do it for them.  And the homework is written in a step by step way so as to facilitate that understanding. 

It is laborious to author this way, no doubt.  And I've yet to work on making it simple to take their Google Forms submission and create an entry into the class grade book.  That is next on my to do list.  The real question is whether the product so generated is worth this effort.  So I am much interested in the student reaction to this homework.  In the meantime, however, here's a hats off to Microsoft for providing tools that give this flexibility in use.  Maybe others will want to try similar use on their own. 

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