IOC #1: Interactivity is not a luxury anymore

Tracking reports of useful sessions I attended at the IOC conference, one of the best was by Daniel Franc of WebStudy Inc. What was most interesting was his focus on the shift that’s happening now, just the last few years, from content to interactivity.

It used to be that one defined the effectiveness of an online class from the quality of its content, but that has changed. Franc cited a study by eLearning Guild from 2005 showing that most Learning Management Systems were being used to deliver content, and compared it to the 2007 version showing that most were being used for collaboration, knowledge management, and virtual real-time classes. Just putting content online leads to a decline in student motivation, while interactivity increases it.

Franc’s was one of several sessions emphasizing interactivity as not just supplementary to online learning, but as an essential component. There were several sessions on podcasting (see podcastforteachers.org) and Web 2.0 tools (such as pipes and Second Life). Jonathan Finkelstein, founder of LearningTimes and author Learning in Real Time, led us through a synchronous exercise in Elluminate (which I notice is now quoting this blog in its advertising!). He divided the whiteboard into portions and we all added nouns, verbs and adjectives. Then four of us rearranged the words to make poems, while one person verbally described the action. A very interesting lesson both in group construction and in simply describing rather than interpreting as a learning tool that all could benefit from.

PreQuiz glory and role of assessments

A few years ago I was influenced by a story I heard of a professor who worked hard to prevent cheating online. He created a huge test bank of hundreds of questions, from which the software selected for each quiz. One day, after adding another bunch of questions to the test bank, he found a printout containing single question (including those he’d just added) left in his classroom by a student. At first he was furious, then he decided that if a student was going to study the entire bank of almost 1,000 questions to pass his tests, they were studying anyway and what the hell.

Last semester I began making “PreQuizzes”, repeatable no-grade quizzes containing all the multiple-choice questions that would be on the real quiz. (My quizzes are 70% multiple-choice and 30% writing questions — I figure 70% is a C and if you can only answer factual questions in history that is C-level performance.) I set the software (first Blackboard and now Moodle) to not let them see the answers, just the final score, thinking if they had to take it repeatedly without knowing which ones they missed, they’d have to study harder!

Last night a student IM’d me. She said why didn’t PreQuiz #2 let her see her answers, like in PreQuiz #1? We discovered that I had accidentally set PreQuiz #1 in “adaptive mode” (I’m new at Moodle), which lets students answer each question individually, then click Submit to find out instantly whether they got that question right. They could immediately try again for a right answer. She said it had been very helpful!

My first thought was, “Yeah, I’ll bet!” That was not what I had in mind. I told her that, and she said, oh, but it had been so helpful to her to be able to look things up one at a time. She’s a good student. I asked her, if I did them all that way, wouldn’t in make the students lazy? She said, yes, the lazy ones, she wasn’t going to lie. I thought about it while she chatted with others (she carries 19 units and lives online), then decided, what the hell. All the PreQuizzes are now adaptive mode, with bunches of questions, and we’ll see how it goes!

My decision is based on current research involving quizzes as learning, which integrate assessment with the class instead of having it represent an end to learning (see in-class example). This is an important point, since MiraCosta and many other colleges are formulating Outcomes and Assessment plans to cater to results-oriented environments of accountability (such as state legislatures). Many of us learned in our own education that “the test” is the end result of studying a particular topic, and many of us discovered that we forgot the material as soon as we took the test, yet we still push this method.

To use the current edu-speak lingo, we could replace such “summative assessments” with “formative assessments” (see Penn State article).
In an online environment, immediate feedback has a role that is increasingly being recognized as crucial. At a recent conference, I learned that the high speed of broadband increases student frustration, because they see the internet as instant. They no longer go get a cup of coffee while waiting for something to download. When they don’t get an “instant” result (or an instant solution to their technical problem, email, whatever), frustration skyrockets at a much faster rate.

Perhaps my PreQuizzes will solve several problems: they provide instant feedback for every question (reducing frustration), integrate assessment into the learning process, and still force them to study bunches of questions if they haven’t done the reading fully. Maybe they’ll even drink less coffee!

Temper, temper

It’s getting to be that time of the semester when I lose patience. From my end of the wire, it seems I’m writing the same things over and over: “Yes, the first post of the week is due Wednesday midnight, it says that on the main page”, “no, you don’t have to subscribe to the forums”, “please use Messages rather than email”. The students, of course, whether or not they read the posts of others, are asking individually and have no idea I’m answering the same damn questions for four different classes.

The solution? Frequent breaks, quantities of ones favorite beverage, and liberal use of emoticons. Sometimes adding that 🙂 at the end of the response makes me go back and change the tone of the note. So very California! Have a nice day.

Getting them on the web

Sure, it’s a done deal with a fully online class: students have to go to the internet to take the class. But what if you’re using online materials for an on-site class? I made a few suggestions to a colleague of mine yesterday. We bumped into each other at Trader Joe’s and she said students were dropping her classes because they don’t want to go on the web to do the homework she’s posted. They say they don’t have a computer, or DSL, don’t want to go to the lab…

I have done some things to force my on-site students, comfortably, onto the computer:

1. Do an orientation
The second or third class meeting I reserve a computer lab and we all go there, the whole class. We all go into the class site together.
Why? Most of them are afraid of the computer. It has nothing to do with connections, etc.

2. Demonstrate
The class website is up on the screen every day in class. I show them how to do things.

3. Sell it
I point out how cool it is for me to be able to work at night or whenever. For classes using labs, it’s more convenient than having to go the the lab and log hours there. Be enthusiastic about how they can get information any time about how they’re doing.

4. Use it as a feedback loop
Send everyone an email the first week, with the URL to the site and instructions. Post the grades and feedback there. Post homeworks and exercises that offer immediate feedback, like some automatically-graded multiple-choice items.

We hear a lot of crap about how technology-savvy these students are, especially the young ones, and it isn’t true. They don’t think of technology as we do. It’s just a way to do something. If they IM or txt message, that’s what they know. If they do email, it’s with friends. They don’t trust (or maybe even like) the incursion of school into their internet time, or vice versa.

Many of them are scared to mess something up on the computer. In fact, just this morning I found out a student had erased the entire class wiki, where we’ve all been developing the first quiz. It was no problem for me: I just went back and reset it at an earlier version, and copied and pasted the missing stuff students had added. But this student would be so embarrassed if I singled him out this morning, so I won’t. We’ll all go over the wiki together anyway today, and I’ll discuss things more generally! 🙂

An overwhelming start

I have already had e-mails from online faculty reflected what I’m thinking too — how overwhelming it is to have students enthusiastically participating and asking questions before and during the first weeks of class.

I get the sense that if we are trying hard to connect and get them involved at the beginning, it will pay off, but it’s a tremendous amount of work the first week or so. When I emailed all my students the Wednesday night before class started, I had two immediate challenges. One, my ISP (AT&T/Yahoo/SBC/whatever) didn’t want me sending emails to 200 addresses. I had to keep unplugging and replugging my modem and router to create a new IP address to get the messages out, 40 at a time. Two, students went into the classes in droves, signing themselves up for Moodle accounts and doing everything I asked them to do the first week, and more!

My IM, Messages and email have been buzzing with enthusiastic, nervous and energetic comments and questions. Almost every took the Tech Check extra credit quiz. The intro posts in discussion have been numerous and detailed (a little too detailed to my mind — why would anyone put their address and home phone number in their profile?)

But it comes down to this, an IM conversation with a student that went something like this:

Student: This is great! Thanks for doing this IM thing. It’s really helpful.
Me: I’m glad you like it, but it’s getting kinda crazy! 🙂
Student: No, it’s not crazy, it’s helpful.
Me: Well, I have 200 students, so I’m kinda going crazy.
Student: Oh, yeah, I can see that!

And I am. But it’s good to know I’m catching them early, because I want to know who’s committed and who’s not, who’s a novice and needs extra help, who can lead the others. It’s exciting…but exhausting.

Student intelligences

We haven’t even started the semester, but already my students are coming into the classes, which I opened last Wednesday. I sent them all an email with instructions, since the classes are in Moodle rather than Blackboard. My first assignment is to take the Multiple Intelligences survey and introduce themselves in the context of their survey results.

Many of my students are rating very high on nature and body movement, then music. I guess I was expecting more visual/spatial, since I’ve been trying to cater to visual learners. I’m going to track this, and get a general result for my 150+ students all together, and see what comes out. I need a way to do this electronically, huh? Anyway, I’ve got to think about how to reach nature and body movement learners, though I have recently learned that online body learners do better in online classes if they have the computer on a high counter, and can move around the room and come back easily as they work. What do I do with a nature learner in a history class?

Ideas for online discussion

One of my weakest areas recently has been online discussion, and not just because Blackboard’s new discussion board is execrable. I’ve been reading up on a good method for summarizing student’s contributions and moving the conversation forward: Collison et al’s Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators (2000). I created a summary for our roundtable workshop next week.

The main idea is that the instructor’s posts are “interventions” in the discussion. They should list mini-quotations from several student posts, noting common areas, tensions, etc. in the thread. The instructor then could take on one or more roles, generating a new direction, setting up a concept for reflection, mediating a polarized discussion, or offering an alternative view. All this while trying to avoid grandstanding or hijacking the conversation. The point is to guide the students’ interaction with each other in a way that furthers class goals, answering the needs of the larger group.

A 2001 video at MCC library

In this case, of a Dallas Tele conference on the challenge of retaining online students (2001). Enchanted by the ideas of Joyce Bishop of Golden West, who had great ideas about multiple intelligences in online learning. I’m following her advice and have changed the first week’s discussion in all my online classes to have students take a Multiple Intelligences Assessment and discuss their results and what they need to make the class a successful experience for them.