Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A feature request for Google Calendar

I am teaching this semester with Google Calendar as my course calendar. The calendar widget (or is it gadget) is nice in that it can be placed anywhere in the sidebar of my blog and shows the upcoming entries. However, the details of the event show up only as text in the widget (and likewise in the actual calendar when it is published in html). It is highly desirable to have links in the details that can take the students to readings or other Web pages. So what I'd like to have happen is this. Imagine a detail that says:

We'll discuss a paper on xyz. Please go to read the paper at and then also read the critique at

When a reminder of a google calendar entry gets sent via gmail, the detail does appear to hotlink the urls. If they can do it there, why not also do it in the widgets and in the html version of the calendar? Pretty please?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Personal Learning Coaches for College Students

One of the things that is jumping out at me as I teach a seminar class for Honors students is that students need their thinking critiqued and that if they feel the person providing the critique is earnest and sensitive to their needs, while also being critical where appropriate, then the student very much wants the coaching. I hadn't planned to serve in the role of learning coach before the course started. After a week or so into the semester, it seemed like a necessary thing for some of the students. In one case it appeared that the student was making intellectual errors of a certain sort. The student needs extensive practice with a different approach to remedy the problem. In a couple of other cases it was more a matter of confidence. The students were under performing and needed feedback and reassurance that they were ok, while at the same time getting a critique of their early work, which was not up to par.

Such coaching in the context of a seminar class is perhaps a natural extension of the course work. But this seminar is for a small group of elite students. What about having a learning coach for any student who wanted that. This may be a moronic idea because there could be quite a few students who would want such a thing if it were available, and the activity is labor intensive. If an instructor in the role of coach devotes an hour or two per week to a student, above and beyond the instructors other obligations, then the instructor probably can take on at most 2 or 3 students at a time. The student/faculty ratio here is on the order of 20:1. So it would seem impossible to do this for one and all.

One way to get the numbers in balance is to offer the coaching say for one semester only, perhaps when the students are juniors. If an instructor can take on between 4 and 6 students per year, having a different crop in the spring than in the fall, then that gets it closer to being do-able from a bean counting perspective. And doing it in the junior year, the coaching could be viewed as a way to continue on with general education values as the students delves into the major.

Why would faculty and students participate in a coaching program? On my campus the shoe has yet to drop as a consequence of the State of Illinois' fiscal woes. That will happen soon enough. When it does, the consequences are likely to be many and just about each will seem for the worse - larger classes, faculty and staff taking on greater burdens, fewer support staff overall, greater student alienation, etc. It will then start occurring to some that to prevent the situation from imploding entirely, many of us have to step up and do still more.

In doing a few Google searches in preparation for writing this piece, I found a college that uses learning coaches as a faculty development approach. Suppose we started to do that too, both to get more faculty sensitive about their own teaching and to get them ready to serve as learning coaches for students. It would take a while to get a critical mass of instructors, some who would serve as models of what a personal learning coach for students is like, the others to coach the next cohort of would-be coaches. But if it worked in the early stages, I see no reason why it couldn't ramp up on its own, particularly if everyone who does it is volunteering. Perhaps after it grew sufficiently it would need a staff person to manage logistics. Otherwise the program could be run in a very Spartan way resource-wise.

I've written elsewhere of the Peter Drucker argument that we should all have two careers, one that is for pay and enables us to put food on the table and a roof over head, the other as a volunteer so we can express our sense of social responsibility. Instituting a program of personal learning coaches for students would be a way to enable that for faculty and encourage students to be reflective about their own learning in a way that is not tied to any particular course. I'm intrigued by this possibility.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

More on Teaching with Blogs

class survey
We've finished our second week of class (the sessions are on Monday and Wednesday). After class concludes I've asked the students to complete a brief survey using the Forms tool in Google Spreadsheet. There are five forced response questions to rate the session and a paragraph question so they can submit comments. These are the same questions I came up with a year ago in the post Schon and Gawande, which were inspired by the Apgar scoring system for measuring the well being of a newborn that Gawande writes about. At this point I'm not trying to convert these into a numerical score. I'm not sure the students yet understand what the last two items are asking about so the numbers wouldn't mean much anyway. But by eyeballing the histograms of the results, you can get a sense of how much the students are on the same page with each other and how the session went for them.

I should add that the students get no course credit for doing this. But since most of them are already online checking out the course blog, it isn't much of intrusion that way. The first time 15 out of 18 completed it. The reviews were mixed. I think the students who gave positive reviews were being polite. The students who gave negative reviews made some pretty caustic comments. On the substance they were probably right. I wasn't very happy with the session either. We couldn't get a conversation started. Students did talk up. But they didn't respond to each other. So I made some changes to the way the class would interact for the Wednesday session. I'm hopeful that the act of making change in response to feedback from them will keep them participating in the survey. The second one is still underway. At present we have a little more than half the class who have completed it.

The students talked a lot more in the the Wednesday session. I bit my tongue a few times to keep from talking up, so they'd work things through for themselves. This may be better for them since they take ownership, but they didn't push on the content the way I wanted them to. So I wrote up a post to fill in what was omitted. I doubt that is good way to get closure to the discussion. I wonder whether I'll see bits and pieces of the Wednesday discussion in their reflections that are due on Friday evening. Of the few reflections that have already been done, I've not seen those sort of connections. I'll continue to push for it. The technology itself doesn't solve that issue. Let's see if the students can figure that out for themselves.