What might they recall?

This semester I instituted “roll calls” in my online classes, one during each week before a drop deadline. My idea was to check on my students quickly, see who was paying attention, before looking more closely at who might need help or need to drop the class.

I did this in the form of a “Choice”, a tiny Moodle survey. Once they answer, they can see everyone’s answer.

The first one is just a check to make sure they’re receiving the announcements (called Latest News in Moodle) by email. The options are:

• Yes, I am!
• No, so I’ll check my spam filter and profile settings.
• No, but I don’t need them because I check Latest News every day.

For next semester, I will be adding: “No, but then I found them in my Promotions folder in Gmail, so I’ll change my settings.”

The second choice asks what their favorite part of the class is so far (see results here).

My third one, about 75% into the semester, said, “What might you recall when this class is over?” and I only gave four options, and they could only choose one. Here’s what happened, across four class sections:

  • factual details from history 36
  • the primary sources I found and posted 48
  • how to write a historical thesis 30
  • how to manage time while taking an online class 29
  • not answered 5

I was surprised by how evenly these were spaced, but gratified that the searches they did themselves were likely to stick.

I have yet to find a way to do this in Canvas. They don’t seem to have open surveys…

A 50/50 Proposition

The saying goes that there are two types of people: those who divide people into two types of people, and those who don’t.

Our current Program for Online Teaching Chat has turned toward the issue of learner-centered versus teacher-centered instruction. This week’s discussion focused on what has become the so-trendy-we-must-question-it shift from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. This is the belief, promoted in numerous papers and presentations over the last decade, that instructor-led, lecture-based, textbook-based, LMS-dependent, top-down models of pedagogy are antiquated and useless, leaving underprepared or economically disadvantaged or socio-economically challenged students out in the cold.

The answer is to shift to student-led, interest-guided, open resource, open format, participant-centered pedagogies, exemplified by but not limited to Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs). Even apart from the fact that corporate interests have taken the side of this more-customer model, we still have two types of people: those who support a 100% shift to student-centered learning, and those who don’t.

z_creamsicleBut, as many of our experienced faculty have pointed out in our Chat, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. And certainly, every time I change something in my classes, I end up with a combination pedagogy, a 50-50 type of deal.

I hesitate to stay this, but there are few faculty who can actually pull off fully student-centered classes. I do know some who have, and I admire them enormously. But the difficulty is that the risk is too high for those of us who teach large, publicly-funded classes. For these instructors, if we cut off the instructor-directed elements (textbooks, continual reminders, poured-in information) our students could drop or fail. Since many of us can’t afford to let that happen, we have to be careful.

So yes, I support a shift from fully prof-directed pedagogies. But to a 50-50 model:

  • 50% prepared materials / 50% student-created materials
  • 50% open stuff / 50% closed safety
  • 50% instructivism / 50% constructivism or connectivism

Not quite a popular point of view in our increasingly polarized educational and political climate, but heck, I’m a pragmatist. Some students do better with the more instructivist elements, likely because they’re trained to it and it feels safe. Other do better with the more constructivist work, finding it more fun and interesting. I set up my classes with three areas of graded work: one part instructivist (quizzes based on reading), one part constructivist (posting primary sources), and one part a combination (writing assignments based on those sources).

I didn’t do this consciously – it has simply evolved based on my practical experience. Students are pushed out of their comfort zone, but only 50% of the time. They get the content I feed them, but only 50% of the time. My grade scale makes it possible to get a C in the class by being good at half and not good at half. That works for me.

Join the POT Chat in Facebook

Discovery wins!

Again this semester I have polled my students.

What’s your favorite part of the class so far?
– not answered 9
– the lectures 63
– the textbook (for two classes of US only) 2
– the primary source readings linked from the lecture 34
– posting my own primary sources 66
– the writing assignments 1
– the discussion forums 4
– connection with other students outside class 1

Every other time I’ve done this, Lecture had the highest points. For the first time, primary source posts have pulled ahead.

Why does this matter? Because their primary source posts are based on them going out on the web and finding cool stuff, then posting it and telling us about the source with a full citation. It’s a skill, and discovery, and DIY history. Then we use those sources for our writing assignments.

I’m hoping this is a turning point, although I’m OK with 50% instructivism and 50% constructivism if that’s what works!

Student communication tracking trick

moodledunceOne of the big problems with Moodle is that the student profiles are connected to the central installation, not the course in which the student is enrolled.

This means that if I use the central Messages system to talk to students, I cannot tell which of my six (!) Moodle classes they’re in. They assume I can, since they Message from within the class. I spend too much time looking up which class they’re talking about.

So I tried a cgi form I adapted from somewhere, in text input boxes on the main page. I put the ?subject= code in each so I could tell which class they were coming from (the email would arrive with the course name in the subject line). But many students didn’t use it, and would just email me.

Some students need me a lot, so they email a lot, but I could never remember which class they were in and they could never remember to put the class name and section number in their email. In fact, many did not know what their section number was or what it meant, so I’d have three sections of History 111 and have to look them up even if they put History 111 in their email.

I could use a link with mailto:, but that opens a student’s email program on their hard drive. I don’t use my Apple mail, I use Gmail. They mostly use Gmail too, or at least web-based mail, like Yahoo. Hardly anyone uses a desktop program for Gmail anymore.

So I’m trying two tricks.

1) Gmail me
I surfed around until I figured out the code to get a link to open their Gmail so they can use my Gmail with my subject line. For History 111 #1337:

<a href="https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?view=cm&amp;fs=1&amp;to=llane@miracosta.edu&amp;su=Hist111#1337" target="_blank">Gmail Lisa</a>

2) Google Circles
I turned on People Widget in Settings ->General. When a student emails me the first time, I look them up and put them in a circle corresponding to the class section they’re in (I made a circle for each class section). Then with the People Widget on, I can see which class they’re in right next to their email.


It’s better already.

Notes on Jim’s blogging workshop

Today I attended Jim Sullivan’s workshop “Blogging Across the Disciplines“. Although I’m always thrilled to listen to and learn from Jim, there were a few ideas I picked out that I’m going to work on.

The first was the way Jim’s class blogs with students emphasize the public nature of the blog. His class blogs make clear that the assignments are public writing, and he also posts to an audience rather than just to the students. When I blogged with students, I made the mistake of not emphasizing the public nature of the blog. Rather I was just using WordPress like an LMS. What I missed was the opportunity for students to change their writing in response to an audience (even if that audience doesn’t comment – I didn’t track the visitor stats either).

JimSBlogThe second idea was the way Jim makes students read each others’ work. Not only does he refer to student posts in his own comments, but he has quizzes where the student must match the post author with an idea from that author’s post.

His prompts are also expert. Just one example: “pick a scene from The Devil Wears Prada and explain what it says about work in America”. Instead of assigning the movie (which students would have to either watch or view scenes from), that exercise is embedded in the prompt. The legwork is theirs. And he creates a theme for each class (this one is work).

Some of the participants at the workshop had great ideas. One requires that student posts have “novelty” as a rubric item. Another considered assessing based on “connections”. Clarity about the goal of each post is crucial.

There was discussion about using the methods of ones discipline to design and assess student blogging. The scientific method was mentioned, and some faculty like to have students directly apply knowledge in their posts (rather than just “write about x”). I could do that with the historical method – review it with students, then ask them to apply it to the secondary source articles I assign. In fact, I could do that now, just in forum discussion.

Almost everything I heard in the workshop would also be useful in LMS-bound forums, in fact.

The alst idea occurred to me during the workshop. A blog would be a great site for a Learning Community. I’ve worked at MiraCosta for over 25 years, and during that time there have been various experiments with team-teaching, cluster classes, cohorts, and learning communities. At present it looks like the process is pretty bound up in an administrative sense. But there’s no need for that. Take two classes that work well together, plan it with the other instructor, and have both classes post to a common blog. Instant learning community.

So thanks to Jim Sullivan for another fab workshop!

Results from 131 students

It’s only taken me 17 years of teaching online to develop a student survey that is both broad enough to cover all my classes and narrow enough to give me good feedback.

Just sharing a few things here. Total students responding was 131. Most students responding were passing the class.


They still like my lectures the most, and textbook readings the least. They still like posting their own primary sources.


Hours and hours of work on that Help Page and – no surprise given what they email me about – they don’t use it. They do like seeing the whole course on one page (so I won’t switch to showing only the current week, an option in Moodle) and they like my comments and the audio of my lectures (I’ll read it for you!). The None category is a little depressing….


The engagement results are clear, too. They like the lectures and posting their own source. They don’t like reading much. But they really liked what I added this year – the completion checkboxes on the Moodle page. I will be sad to lose that. But note: they like seeing each other’s work, but don’t require contact with other students. I’ve been saying that for awhile – collaboration and teamwork is online classes is not always needed. For my class, engagement with the work and posting what you find may be taking the place of “interaction” among students. They can learn from each other without necessarily engaging in forums in response to each others’ posts.