Sunday, August 21, 2016

Setting Up My Course For The Fall

It occurred to me that some of my practices in getting my class going would be of interest to others.  In turn, a good chunk of what I do has been cribbed over the years from a variety of other people.  But I should note ahead of time that much of what I do is in that gray area of not necessarily violating campus policy but also not something that the campus would embrace.  On the other hand, once upon a time I was somebody involved with setting campus policy.  On that front, I know that Campus Legal and the Security/Privacy folks will always side with stricter interpretations of FERPA.  Teaching and learning folks, in contrast, are looking for any and all ways to embrace educative practice, and might be willing to throw FERPA under the bus toward that end.

Alas, we've never really thought this through and acted first before considering the full consequences.  For example, last week I gave a session for the Grad Academy where I made a point that nowadays instructors should consider teaching the individual student rather than merely teaching the subject.  This requires the approach to be somewhat customized to the particular students strengths and weaknesses.  But, for example, while student advisors can see transcript information for individual students, instructors cannot.  That is university policy.  (I doubt that if you actually read the stuff at the FERPA site that you could conclude this a necessary step to embrace the law.  On the other hand, instructors don't like to be reined in and if they had access to this information, not provided by the student themselves, no doubt some small fraction of instructors would abuse the privilege.  Students who ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school do typically share their transcript with the instructor who will write the letter.)

With this as background, my current bias as a cranky old guy who has no problem being critical of the university, is to trust my own instincts on these matters.   On the educative side of the equation, I think most of online instruction should be out in the open.  This includes student created content that the students themselves post online.  There are several reasons to argue for openness.  The university should be a place for the free exchange of ideas.  Openness is consistent with that.  Quality is likely to be higher with an open site as there are incentive effects at work in crafting your own creations when you are not quite sure who will see them.  Open sites can serve future students, who can get a look see into the course before they register for it.   Likewise it can serve alumni students who may occasionally have an interaction with their former professors.  And then there is possible benefit to a community entirely external to the university.

There are a few other things to note here that people should consider when looking at this stuff.  First, I am comparatively time abundant, as a retired person.  For the most part I don't mind putting in the effort in setting up this stuff.  Other instructors might balk at that, educative benefit or not.  If the approach ever was to scale, some of the tasks I do now would have to be automated - by somebody other than me.  Second, what I do while not completely novel is still substantially different from what the students experience in most of their other classes.  Some of the educative benefit that I see might stem from that.  It's impossible for me to know that now.   Third, I have yet to mention copyright, another reason why the campus prefers the LMS to an open site or to use the Library for eReserves.  For the most part what I do I believe is consistent with copyright.  But I also think copyright law has ridiculously long term structures.  I use music as background for my PowerPoint presentations.

I never select anything current.  But stuff I listened to 45 years ago I will use; yet that stuff is still under copyright.  I became aware, after my parents died, that I had an interest in the music my dad listened too - mainly folk music.  Reasoning by analogy, I thought perhaps my students might connect a little with music that I listened to.  I don't know that such a connection actually emerges, but if it does that has educative value.  I'll try anything that might work.  Plus, my class is comparatively small, and the real issue is that students don't sufficiently access the content.  There is essentially no risk that any of my content will go viral.

This is my class site for the fall, a work in progress now.  I hope to have the Syllabus done by this evening so I can alert the class about it before our first session on Tuesday.   Let me describe it a bit so the reader can better understand what is there.  I have a prof.arvan gmail account.  I use a Blogger screen name, Professor Arvan, so the posts that you can see are done under that screen name.  I have a YouTube channel for profarvan (at the time it didn't like the period in the name) that I use to distribute video content for the class.  The blog posts I make that feature the video content can be thought of as providing metadata for those videos.  For other content - Excel files, PowerPoint files, and pdf files, I use my campus account to distribute that.  All of that content is out in the open.  (The Box setting says the content is accessible to anyone with the link.)   The blog posts that feature this other content likewise serve as metadata for that.

For the first time, I am trying to prepare some of the blog posts in advance of when they will be published.  In Blogger, that looks like this.

Because this is an upper level course in the major and is itself not a prerequisite for any other course, I don't operate on a strict timetable and have the class itself determine our pace to some extent.  So I don't want to get too far out front with these scheduled posts, only to find they are a little out of wack with how the class is proceeding.  Nonetheless, I know that I phase in and out on being eager to make course content versus having the equivalent of writer's block for making this stuff.  So I need to leverage those times when I'm in productive mode.  This sort of posting in advance helps with that stuff. 

I use Google Calendar as my scheduling software and link content from calendar entries as well as from Blog posts.  One of the tabbed pages has the full calendar, with the default that it is displayed in a monthly view.  There is also a gadget in the left sidebar for upcoming items, so students can more readily track what's next.  The reason for the double entry for content, both calendar and blog, is that the calendar is better for alerting students to the content, while the blog allows students to pose questions or comments, in response to a given post.

I use Google forms quite a bit.  I survey the class a handful of times during the semester and use Google forms for that.  I also use it for submissions on tracking that they've done the homework in Excel.  Note that I assign students a class specific alias.  (The alias concatenates the name of a famous economist with the course title.)  In Google forms I do collect alias information, but nothing about their true identity.

Students make their own blogs and post under their alias.  I encourage them to use a non-university Google account.  The vast majority of them already have a non-university gmail.  Most of them don't already use Blogger.  So it is not that big a deal for them to use that account for Blogger and then set the screen name to their alias.  I want to note here that many students use non-university gmail rather than the campus provided Google apps account.  There are a few reasons for this.  For international students, it is a way to use an Americanized name in their email address.  For other students, they want this to be their lifetime work email and don't expect to use a university account for this purpose, even if that account will be enabled forever.  They are branding themselves.  They don't want to be co-branded with the university.  Some also use an account that was already being used a lot in high school.

To alert students about the class site, give them their assigned alias, and try to get them prepared for the first class session I send them an individualized email for that purpose.  I send this to their campus email account, because that is what is provided to me with the roster information that I can download.  I used mail merge in Word for this purpose, with the various field information in Excel and then the individual messages sent via Outlook.  This is last year's letter, so you can have a look at the contents. 

Students are said to disdain email, so some might think this sort of communication would not be effective.  My experience is somewhat different from that stereotype.  Most students will use email fairly regularly, if not with the frequency that they use text messaging.  Those students who rely on a non-university account more than likely have a forward set up on their campus account.  So the opening message does get read for the most part.  In some cases, I do have to use the first day of class to alert students that they should check their Inbox.

With this message and other things I do in the course site, I am trying to convey a certain intensity that I hope will be contagious, with the students embracing it for themselves.  Inadvertently, the university process of adds and drops during the first two weeks of the semester acts to dampen that intensity.  (See my longish rhyme that explains the issues, The first ten days blues.)  Absent a change in university policy on this front, something which I'm not expecting but which I'd be delighted to see were it to happen, there needs to be some effort put into to counteract the student lethargy that the process encourages. 

Let me close with the following observation.  Apart from my calendar entries, I make no effort whatsoever to make my stuff accessible on a smartphone and I really don't want my students to try to do coursework on the phone.  Perhaps there are other courses where the phone is a legitimate instrument for doing their course work.  It is not in mine.  The screen is too small to be an eReader, except in a pinch.  It is certainly not an instrument for writing anything extensive.  And my Excel content is totally out of reach on a phone.  I don't use clickers in class.  (We are small enough that having them raise their hands is not an unreasonable expectation.)  I can imagine phones as an alternative for clickers, but it is not relevant in my course.  And on a higher level, I want to encourage my students to be reflective.  The phone, in contrast, encourages immediate response.  So while I'm no technophobe, there are some technology uses that do not compute for me.

I think that's okay.  What matters first and foremost is the learning.  Everything else is a distant second.

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