Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The rise and fall of using non-campus supported software for teaching

My teaching approach has evolved to rely intensively on rss feeds in the course presence.  There are two different uses.  One is for calendar/scheduling.  The other is for student blogs. 

It used to be that Google Calendar generated a feed for "upcoming items" that could be displayed by a gadget (widget?) in the sidebar.  It is a very useful function for the students to be able to see what is upcoming in a simple way and from that become aware of what they must read, what files to download, what assignments to do, etc.  When that worked it offer functionality superior to what I see in the LMS.  However, sometime in fall 2012 that gadget stopped working in Blogger.  It is no longer supported. 

So I tried to come up with an alternative.  I made an entirely separate blog just for the schedule.   Then I made five labels.  They are for: the class session on Tuesday, the class session on Thursday, the prompt for the student blog posts, the homework in Excel, and the exams.  Every item (which was also to appear in Google Calendar if they preferred that view) would get one and only one label.  Each label generates its own rss feed.  I put those five feeds into the feed gadget and called it Upcoming Activities, which appears in the sidebar on the left of the main class blog.  In concept this would do the trick. 

Only yesterday I realized that the feeds weren't updating where the gadget displayed them.  I still don't understand why.  My work around, which may not have solved anything other than the immediate issue, was to make a new label and delete the old label.  When the gadget displayed the new label, the most recent item appeared.  But whether the new label updates, I don't yet know. 

If the feeds don't update then the convenience benefit from having an open site like this is significantly diminished.  For the student blogs, in particular, I track them in a feed reader.  This way I can tell what I've yet to read.  My approach is to comment on every post students make, if they get the thing in before the deadline.  So tracking their posts is a big deal. 

On a different but related item, for the student blogs I have them post under an alias, the name of a famous economist concatenated with course name and semester.  This way they can blog out in the open but people outside the class won' know who is writing the post.  I believe that is reasonable privacy protection, but I still can't "require" that.  I need to give the students the option of using a campus supported (or in this case LAS supported) alternative, one that requires authentication for access and thus is entirely unavailable to those outside the class.  I have a Moodle site for the class anyway, because I need a grade book and a way to send secure messages to students.  There is a blogging function in that and it looks improved from when I last used it (in spring 2011).  Each post now gets a permalink, so students can make linked references to the posts of their classmates.  And it now enables attachments. 

I still feel that course sites should be public, not locked inside an LMS.  And it is better if student writing online is also public.  The openness online helps to convey a tone of being open intellectually in class.  But if feeds don't update, it becomes much more of a hassle to go this route. 

Let me add one more thing.  Back in the 1990s when I used Mallard, I thought it was okay for students to receive an auto-grade for an online quiz and if they didn't get it completely right then to retake the quiz to get a better score.  But the feedback then would only come when they submitted the entire quiz.  If there are many questions  in the quiz then there can be a substantial lag between when the student makes the mistake and when the student gets feedback about it.  That is not good.  Alternatively, if there are only short quizzes to reduce the lags, then there needs to be a lot of these.  Then the student is constantly being graded and the MyGrades area is filled with quiz score results.  I don't think that is good either. 

What is desired, in my view, is to have a self-test function, with immediate feedback after answering a question, but then for the student to receive a participation credit for having done the entire quiz successfully.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, questions must be sequenced about one larger problem to solve.  If random parameters have been used the realizations must stay the same from one question to the next and values calculated correctly for a prior question can then be used in a subsequent question.  This way they can see the larger picture instead of being trapped by minutia. 

I can do all these things in Excel, using the IF function and conditional formatting.  It is much more flexible this way than the LMS quiz tools, in my experience.  I've designed it so when they've completed the assignment it spits out a code that they paste into Google forms so they can get credit.  This way, they get no immediate score for doing this.  It is a manual step for me to take the data from the completed forms and upload into the grade book.  So there will be some lag in that. I think this is right pedagogically (even if it is a bit more work) because the student gets the message that doing the work is important and must be done frequently.   But grade assessment happens with much less frequency, so the students don't feel they are constantly being prodded by the professor.  Nobody like that feeling. 

As with the student blogging, I think my way of doing assessments in Excel is better.  But if I moved to Moodle for the student blogging, would I use the Moodle assignment tool to submit the Excel results or move to the quiz tool and abandon the Excel outright?  I don't know.  I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.  In the meantime I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the feeds start to update. 

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