Self-Help!

The topic for the most recent meeting of the Online Teaching Workgroup was evaluating (or self-evaluating) online courses. This is an important way for us to improve our teaching by seeking the experience and advice of a peer.

There are several types of evaluations departments and universities use for peer evaluations. Most are a simple observation by another faculty member who then makes a short write-up. Online evaluations tend to be more quanititative and thorough asking about specific aspects of each course. Southern Arkansas University’s evaluation tool is perhaps the best example. This is an Excel file you can fill out using dropdown menus. At the end it automatically gives you a grade based on your answers.

Penn State‘s form is more open ended, but it still has seven categories with focused questions. Ironically, the scholarship Penn State uses as the foundation for its review is from 1987. This same scholarship also forms the foundation for the Quality Matters rubric, which is the most commonly used online teaching tool. Needless to say, these work for face to face courses as well as online.

Evaluating yourself or a peer is a good way to think about your class in a different way. Give honest answers to the questions and try to make moderate improvements if there are glaring issues. These evaluation forms are only a start. As the attendees of the OTW meeting pointed out, there was not much that was specifically “online” about any of the evaluation forms I showed. These are only a starting point to self-improvement and can be combined with students evaluations to improve your approach to a course.

The Powers of the Module Introduction Page

Carmen’s modules page is bare bones. You can easily organize your material and assignments and use headings but there is no way to have descriptions on the modules page or any tools to help guide your student’s progress other than the order you sort the materials. Students thrive with more guidance, especially in an online course, so you should consider adding a page to the beginning of each module that will guide their work. What kind of material should that page have?

  1. A brief introduction to the topic(s) covered in the module
  2. Your goals for the module (you can use Bloom’s Taxonomy)
  3. An ordered list of the work your students need to do for that module. This can also include short introductions for each reading or activity
  4. Announcements for upcoming major assignments and modules.

These pages can be simple or complex. You can link to each reading, video, and assignment in the module directly from the page. You can include questions to guide reading and the discussion questions on the page as well. Alternately, you can make the page just a checklist for students to go through to ensure they covered the material in the optimal order. You could even embed your video lectures on the introduction page to make them easy for students to find.

You can make a class without ever using the modules by making these introductory pages for each unit. You can link to them through the home page on Carmen. This ensures that students cannot skip your introduction before they begin on the material in a module. It is, however, that much more work!

What do you think of introductory pages? What do/would yours look like? Let me know below!

Evaluations

Evaluations for online courses can be rough. Students often enter the course with unrealistic expectations based on their experience in face to face courses, and gender, race, and heteronormative bias has been well documented in student evaluations for all courses. This is particularly egregious online where studies have shown that randomly assigning a female name to an instructor netted lower scores for the same materials. What can instructors do to get better feedback from their own students?

The first thing you can do is make sure that students understand the differences between an online class and a face to face class. You can include language in the syllabus about the difference and add questions about it into a syllabus quiz at the start of the semester. This should give students better insight into your course and might help them provide better feedback.

The next thing you can do is take control of the evaluation process. You can make your own evaluations and have students fill them out as often as you want. You’ll never eliminate bias, but by making the evaluations more focused, you can target feedback better and encourage more focused thought from your students.

One particular recommendation I can make is to make “One Point Better” evaluations at the end of your modules. These are simple, two-question evaluations. The first question asks you students to rank the module from one to ten. The next question asks your students how you can make the module one point better. You can make these evaluations even more focused by asking students about different parts of the module like the quiz or the discussion.

In order to make this evaluations, you can use surveys. Go to the Quizzes page and add a new quiz. Below the text box, there is a dropdown menu where you can make the quiz into an ungraded survey. Next, check the box below to make the survey anonymous. Once you make the survey, add the questions and save it. In order to ensure that students complete the survey, add the survey to a module, then edit the module and add the survey as a requirement. Finally, edit the next module (and those after) and add this module with the survey as a prerequisite. This will force the students to take the survey before progressing through the course.

 

Case Studies: A Different Way to Present Material

Most of the online courses we offer in the History Department are surveys covering a broad span of history. Many of us therefore feel trapped by the amount of material we have to cover to give a full impression of the scope of the class. Class sessions and modules become defined by broad and breathless narrative combined with a smattering of primary sources from a reader with bare any relation to each other. This is a comfortable way to teach but it can put a lot of onus on the teacher (how do you become so informed on such disparate topics) while presenting students with a burdensome amount of information.

One way to break this reliance on narrative is to give your students case studies to work through in each unit instead of giving them more material from the narrative they can get from a textbook or online videos. You can present materials connected to a theme like disease or women related to the period your students are reading about from. Doing this in an online course also offers you the opportunity to use materials from different media in the study. In the olden days our department used a series of these in the form of Retrieving the American Past and Experiencing the European Past. An example I use in my classes looks like this:

How connected was the Roman Empire?

  1. A short video describing the topic and its relation to the readings for the week/module.
  2. A description of Monte Testaccio in Rome (a hill made of discarded pottery) from archeology.org.
  3. A link to ORBIS, a “Google Maps” for imperial Rome.
  4. Descriptions of travel in the Roman empire: Bordeaux Itinerary and a couple of other.
  5. A discussion page for students to answer a series of questions.

Case studies allow teachers to bring in a series of sources and media related to one main theme or issue. This allows you to run a focused discussion where even students who do not complete all the readings can participate effectively. It also allows you to focus more on the skills history can offer to students allowing them to think critically about sources in one topic instead of focusing on narratives.

Rubrics: Carmen’s Most Hidden Secret

One of the issues that comes up in many of my posts is being able to give students effective and specific feedback. When you have 45 or more students, giving every one of them good feedback can be very taxing. Thankfully, Carmen has a way to simplify the process, but it’s not very easy to find the options. Under the Outcomes link on the left of a Carmen course, you can create rubrics to use for each of your assignments.

Rubrics can be attached to every type of assignment Carmen offers (assignments, quizzes, discussions and more). You can use them to create a set of canned comments you can give on graded material. This not only can make feedback less time consuming, but also more effective by giving the students specific and standard issues to improve throughout the course.

Rubrics should focus on the outcomes you want students to get from your course (in History those outcomes are usually things like “students will read primary and secondary sources critically” and “students can present and critique historical arguments”). One way to think about the outcomes you want your students to get from your class is to use Bloom’s Taxonomy which you can read about it in my post on adding variety to your discussions. Bloom’s Taxonomy is designed to connect activities like “understand” or “evaluate” with fields of knowledge like “facts” or “processes” to define outcomes for your students.

Find out more about making and using rubrics in the Canvas Guide.

 

World Turned Upside Down: Online Lecturing

One of the major departures for teaching online is the way we present students with their materials. In particular, there is no set times to present students with our take on the material. While it is tempting to convert all of our face-to-face materials into an online course, it might be helpful to think of learning online in a new way and avoiding “lecturing” altogether.

Online teachers should think of their courses as “flipped classrooms.” Theses are courses where students familiarize themselves with material on their own time then complete group work or other learning activities in the classroom (they do homework in class and lectures at home, hence flipped). You can read all about flipped classrooms at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. Feel free to skip to the section on the key elements to see practical ways you can flip your class. Online courses are flipped by design, so these are good techniques to consider when making your own course.

Flipped Classroom

Created by Knewton

So how does thinking of online teaching as a flipped classroom affect the way you should approach the course? First, you need to think of a workflow for your students. Flipped classes use video lectures, powerpoints, online videos, and readings to present material to students then have a method for instructors to ensure that students worked through that material before coming to class. In an online course, you could ask students to complete a quiz before they are allowed to participate in discussion for that unit (you can do this by making separate modules for the quizzes and readings in a unit and making the quiz a “prerequisite” for the module under the edit option).

Flipped classes often use class time for discussion (something most of us are very familiar with) but some have students work on a project together or ask students to take turns teaching their peers the materials. These are all ways to replace the onerous discussion requirement with different activities for students to complete. For some ideas on activities other than discussion you can implement in your class, see my post Do We Need to Have a Discussion?

Finally, when considering how to present your own material to students, you should try to focus on the most effective and engaging ways to do that. Short videos are more effective than long videos (5-7 minutes is pretty typical). When presenting a lot of material, split it into several short videos so that students can watch them at their leisure. It’s also generally recommended that you be visible in your videos. If you are reading your powerpoints use software that can take video while capturing your screen like Mediasite or OBS Studio. This is a minor recommendation, but it helps students feel more engaged with a class when they can actually see the instructor. It also gives you another way to emphasize the material.

Do We Need to Have a Discussion?

Much of the day-to-day work when teaching online is running the discussion forum for the class. It requires even more work to ensure that student contributions are thoughtful and carry the conversation forward. This is also, perhaps, the most thankless portion of the job.

Discussion plays an important social role in the class. As mentioned in the page about motivating students, social interactions are a strong intrinsic motivator that will help students succeed and maintain interest in your classes. Discussion is the easiest (but maybe not the most effective) way to add that social aspect to a class.

Carmen does offer other social tools to help bring your students together. One of the most commonly used is Carmen Connect, a tool that allows you to video conference with multiple people. This tool does require set times, so instructors will have to be ready to lead the same discussion multiple times a week (and didn’t we all get tired of that after DSLing?)

Another option is group work. Carmen offers several tools to make group projects possible, the newest being integration with Microsoft Office which makes tradition group assignments (like papers and presentations) easy to organize. Many courses use CarmenWiki as a way to let students collaborate on making webpages or for each student to run a blog. One idea to make a social assignment is to have students critique or comment on each other’s work. Maybe divide them into small groups and have them take turns where a different student writes a response to the materials for the week and the other members of the group comment on that response. This can be done using blogs on CarmenWiki or by allowing students to make pages and discussions in Carmen.

Finally, some tricks can be used to improve discussions. The first is to divide the class into small groups for each discussion (you can do this under the People tab in Carmen). Students will be less overwhelmed by the size of a discussion if they are in groups of 10 instead of 50. Adding variety to discussion topics can also encourage student engagement. Finally, keeping expectations clear and giving constructive feedback early in the class can pay off in less work down the line. When you have issues with students’ posts, make sure your feedback is specific. If a student writes an excellent post, give specific and positive feedback so that they (and others in the discussion) know the ways to succeed.

Have you used any of the tools or techniques in the post? Let me know how it went by leaving a comment!

Research and Teaching Are Not Mutually Exclusive Skills

While many of us might feel like teachers first (after all, that’s where the money comes from), our training in the department is focused on research. Thankfully, with online teaching, many of the skills we use for research can be transferred to our teaching.

  1. Organization

As scholars we deal with a lot of information. In many ways, the process of writing a paper/dissertation chapter is the process of condensing raw primary source information around an argument. That same process needs to be done with the units we build our class around. There is far too much information about Ancient Greece out there for me to expect my students to know it all, so I need to find out what I want to focus on and use the best materials for that. This year I am focusing on how the Greek poleis created a sense of community. I’m ditching the warfare and pottery to talk about religious rituals and theater just like I focused on a small slice of Roman history in my dissertation. You really cannot cover everything in a survey, so focus on ideas you find interesting or relevant and edit your material!

  1. Work Flow

Many of us have different philosophies when it comes to our writing habits but most of us have at least developed writing habits of some kind. I have greatly benefited from setting a very modest amount of work to do every day (write one page). This same system can be applied to preparing materials for an online class: record one video, or make one discussion, or make one quiz. If you start early, you can make a class with a modest amount of work each day. Start your own “master course” by clicking the button on the bottom right of carmen.osu.edu and get started today!

  1. Finding Materials

The last shared skill I will cover here is our skill for finding materials and information for our own research. Many of us teach classes that bring us far from our comfort zone. I have taught Byzantine succession crises and ancient Chinese military innovations despite my firm roots in Western Europe. I made up for my lack of specialty by knowing the right questions to ask and where to look for high-quality overviews (Cambridge Histories Online, for example). Much of the skill of the historian is know where to find information and evaluating the claims in a document. The same skills work when listening to podcasts or watching documentaries to Bohn up on topics outside of our comfort zone.

What skills from your research do you bring to the classroom, digital or otherwise?

Add Variety to Class Discussions

Bloom’s Taxonomy visualized.

The image above is a representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a way to classify learning objectives teachers have for their students. The taxonomy divides the learning process into two dimensions, the knowledge dimension and the cognitive process dimension. Goals are found in the places where the two dimensions intersect. Teachers should have a set of objectives for their students to meet by the end of the semester, and this chart helps define those goals.

This chart is useful for visualizing the variety of questions we can ask of our students not just in discussion but in all of their assignments, reading guides, and study guides. You can use this chart as a jumping off point to adding more variety to the questions you pose in discussion and to make a more sensible series of questions to guide your students through a set of materials (it’s easiest to work from the squares nearest us and build to the squares further away).

I found myself focusing on remembering and understanding facts and concepts in my reading guides and quizzes but jumping to analyzing and evaluating facts, concepts, and procedures in discussion and paper prompts. I have since begun adding more variety from this chart. Students can get fatigued by answering the same kinds of questions repeatedly and it’s good to constantly refresh the skills in every box on the chart. By adding more variety to the questions you ask, you help students better understand the material and stay more engaged.

Learn more about Bloom’s Taxonomy at Iowa State’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

What kinds of questions do you like to ask your students in discussion? Where do they fit on this chart?

First Weeks of Class

The first weeks of an online class are very important. Students will form a lasting impression of your course and instructors need to anticipate their needs. Students perform best when they feel well-informed and understand the steps to success in a class. In an online class this often means that there are two “first week”s. The syllabus week and the week when they cover material the first time.

What do the first two weeks of your courses look like?
How do you outline the expectations you have for students?
What do you think it is important to cover in the first weeks?

Let me know in the comments!