Playing online: why online instructors should spend more time on the web

Slidecast with audio:


In teaching a face-to-face class, even if we’ve never been in a particular classroom before, we know what to expect. There will be desks or tables for students, a chalkboard or whiteboard for presentation, and possibly technologies for demonstration or doing experiments. Image flickr cc f_a_r_e_w_e_l_l

We also know there will be people, students who arrive with different goals and expectations, who communicate in different ways, and who have varying skill levels. We know how to adapt the environment to our pedagogy, moving desks into a circle or placing students in a certain group. We also know we will be communicating with students as individuals and as a group. Students at GMU service learning
These are the same skills we need to take online.

Our advantage in a face-to-face classroom is that most of us grew up in classrooms. We’ve seen various physical configurations, different pedagogies, and a wide variety of colleagues. Image flickr cc Steve and Jemma Copley

If the web is our classroom online, we must explore a lot more to understand the environment and become comfortable with it. If we only use the internet for email and Facebook, and the web for shopping and looking things up, we’ve only spent time in one corner of the classroom (the corner with the bean bag chairs and the board games).

It is a mistake to assume that our younger students grew up in this classroom – they too have only spent time in the “fun corner”. The web is a wonderful place to learn, but not many people know how to use it for learning.

If they’ve taken an online class in a learning management system, they have been to another corner of the internet. This corner is closed, however. During class, they went to the one place to learn. When they finished their class, they couldn’t see their work anymore. Many online instructors are only trained to use an LMS, but starting with the system instead of the larger web is backward. The whole web is the real classroom.

Image flickr cc by Redden-McAllister Playing on the web can help us acquire skills such as navigating around a website, engaging in online conversations with others, working with options and settings, creating video and audio, and learning new vocabulary as we play. These skills make us better online instructors.

Image flickr cc by noil’s In this way, the web becomes our space, within which we can do all the things we know how to do: realize the curriculum, use effective teaching practices, bring students together. And that, after all, is what we’re here to do.

Best. Workshop. Ever.

On Thursday, the Program for Online Teaching facilitated a workshop we called, depending on where you looked it up, “Where the Hell Do I Start?”, “Start Here!” or “Beginners Workshop”. A one-day, seven-hour experience, we had a full house of 24 (and more on the wait list), almost all of whom rated the workshop “Extremely Useful”. Here’s our formula:

1. A 1-hour online synchronous planning session with the facilitators to come up with the idea (after a grueling “how do I do this?” session in August where attendees clearly wanted their hand held as they clicked a mouse),
2. A 5-hour planning session with two workshop leaders (fueled by coffee in cups the size of your head),
3. Dedicated, knowledgeable, calm, reliable, flexible, volunteer facilitators in an approximate ratio of 1-to-3 with attendees,
4. A firm commitment to:
* avoid anything that might cause the workshop to be taken over by one instructor’s needs or technical questions
* avoid any technical or educational jargon (I was forbidden from saying “instructivist” and “connectivism”, for example)
* avoid focusing on tools instead of teaching
5. A pattern of activity that uses a classroom for presenting and collaborative work, and a lab for individual playing and help, and going back and forth between them to keep everyone moving,
6. A $20 fee to not only pay for lunch but add value and responsibility to the idea of attendance, and
7. Good facilities and a crucial teaspoon of technical support.

Can’t wait for the description of what we did? No need to wait till the movie comes out — here it is.

[vimeo 19056991 w=400 h=300]

Beginners Workshop from Program for Online Teaching on Vimeo.

The objectives

Goal: Provide novice and beginning online instructors with direction in creating their first online class, and an opportunity to focus on their own needs.

By the end of this workshop, beginning online workshop participants will:
1. be assisted in determining their own online pedagogy for one class
2. set up and storyboard an online class
3. set up Blackboard to match their own pedagogy as expressed on their storyboard
4. determine which course design elements to add
5. review a road map of resources to learn how to add these elements

The set-up

Got approval through professional development
Workshop announced two months in advance by newsletter, email, and on the POT website
Each participant signed up through professional development’s website
Each participant paid $20 to Academic Senate for lunch and materials
Participation limited to 24 attendees (the max in the computer lab)
One facilitator bought pastries and one two dispensers of Starbuck’s coffee
Another facilitator brought drinks for lunch
Lunch of sandwiches, salad, breadsticks and cookies ordered from Pat and Oscars with delivery
Porfolios created by one leader with POT stickers (not the Chinese kind, made at Office Depot), and the following pages:

What we did

Coffee and pastries in the courtyard 8:45
Nametags for all.

9:00-9:30 Classroom: Show and Tell
We passed out the packets.
Pilar welcomed attendees and introduced the Show and Tell videos:
Jill’s screencast
Lisa’s screencast
John Turbeville’s screencast
Janeen’s screencast
Pilar’s screencast
Lisa worked the technology (played the videos).

9:30-11:00 — Classroom: Understanding the Guiding Force of your pedagogy
-Pilar briefly described to attendees what would happen throughout the day.
-Lisa led them through the Questionnaire so they could start to understand their teaching style and goals. Talked about how each score might lead toward focusiing more on either presentation or interactivity.
-Pilar asked them to get with the person next to them to discuss what their Guiding Force is when they think about their class. Facilitators circulated amongst the groups to help them figure that out– what guides your class? (Your syllabus, Textbook, Course pre-made software, SLOs,…)
– Pilar shared examples of 2 course designs and how they are organized (based on guiding force), allowing questions but limiting them to course design
– Participants created their own draft of a course map from a blank storyboard, separately or in pairs as they preferred – presenters walked them through essential components (which were listed on worksheet for guidance), for about 20 minutes

11:00 Computer Lab: Using Blackboard to set up a course your way
– Pilar demonstrated how to set up Blackboard to match their pedagogy by first erasing all menu items and anything forcing Bb’s innate pedagogy
– Everyone assisted, and Karen Korstad from Academic Info Services set up blank Bb classes to play with

12:20 lunch on the patio 4800 building, dealt with the fact that Pat and Oscars didn’t bring forks (a good lesson in the need for appropriate technologies)

1:00 Classroom: Determining what you need to learn to create what you want
– Jim and Jill focused on “what do you need to know now?” — determining knowledge needs so they could list what kind of tools they might want to use to fulfill their goals (synchronous meeting, short video, audio recording, etc.).
– The rest of us were on hand to help with questions, discussion.
[The goal: Determine which elements you need to add to your online class based on your pedagogy for your class, and produce a comprehensive needs list — what categories of tools?]

2:00 Computer Lab: Accessing Resources, tools and help
Lisa + Karen presented Resources and Help, Jill demonstrated how to set up voice communication inside Bb since there was much interest in that; we got out the headsets for people to play with Wimba, Audacity or Eyejot, but couldn’t do Jing because the lab didn’t have it installed

3:00 Classroom: How do we prepare students?
We all returned to the classroom to discuss: based on what each instructor plans to create, what will students need in order to understand how their class works and be prepared (including technologically) to participate fully? Lisa led discussion of what individual faculty need their students to know how to do, and wrote a list on the whiteboard. Then we listed ways to make sure that happens, through syllabus quizzes, low-stakes usage and tutorials. We sent everyone back to the lab on their way out to do the survey.


We got immediate feedback via SurveyMonkey, which all but one attendee filled out.

Of attendees, 56% were associate faculty, 44% were full-timers.

Experience: 74% had never taught an online class.

Goals: 87% took the workshop to enhance their teaching skills.

Satisfaction: 87% said the workshop was “Extremely useful” in fulfilling their goals.

Among the things participants found most useful was access to expert teachers, help setting up their course, a thorough introduction to key components of getting started, seeing what others were doing, being introduced to various tools, and “Understanding that these online instructors do not let the technology drive the course”.

Among the things participants wanted was more attention to their individual questions, the avoidance of too much computer detail, and 2 or 3-day workshops.

Of the activities they might consider participating in now that they’d taken the workshop, 83% wanted more workshops, 78% intended to explore online tools independently, 78% were interested in POT’s Online Teaching Certificate, 65% planned to participate in the new automated online Blackboard training, 57% would participate in Bb workshops, 39% intended to discuss online teaching issues in their department, and 9% intended to start their own blog.

Lessons learned

We consider that we have both inspired and educated 23 people to become independent, pedagogically-driven online instructors, and couldn’t be happier. Suggestions for ourselves:

  • Make sure the computer folks don’t reimage computers on the day before or day of the conference.
  • Get Starbucks to put the milk in containers that actually pour.
  • Get Pat and Oscars to bring forks to prevent raiding of people’s offices at the last minute.
  • More cookies.
  • Make an open board for participants to post questions that can be addressed throughout the day.

Seven things I’d want to know as a new online teacher

This started as a “things I wish I knew” list, but these are the biggies I’ve learned in 12 years of teaching online:

1. Save everything on your own hard drive.
Course management systems, and access to them, come and go. I now create all quizzes, discussion prompts and extensive directions (the things I plug into a CMS) in plain text files, then use copy-and-paste to put them into whatever system.

2. Serve yourself.
Serve your creations from a server where you rent space rather than the college’s server — link to or embed everything. You never know who’ll decide they own your stuff, or when resources won’t be available. And that “Web 2.0” company (think Ning) could go premium or be gone entirely tomorrow.

3. Trying to reduce workload can lead to better creativity.
Most online classes at public institutions contain too many students. Learning techniques of grouping students, clustering assignments, and using templates for activities is invaluable.

4. Online teaching is its own discipline, and we need to study it.
It’s not just a “method of delivery” or a “format” — it’s its own field, with a whole community of practitioners in K-12, college, training and consulting. It pays to be in touch with people who know the latest trends. Entire careers are being built by people who know nothing about teaching, but get advanced degrees researching it so they can get jobs and tell you what to do. Not knowing the jargon or the research, and being able to critique it, could mean less autonomy in your own work.

5. Knowing HTML will be a boon more times than you can count.
Entering (or copying and pasting — see #1) text into WYSIWYG editors inside various systems does not give you enough control. When something goes wrong (the text looks bad, the paragraph doesn’t indent correctly, the bulleting is mixed up) , clicking on < > and fixing it saves loads of time. Also, knowing just a bit of code means you can use other people’s cool ideas and plug them in yourself.

6. Sharing is important.
Current trends show that the “wild west” nature of the open web is moving toward more closed applications (think Facebook). Large media companies now dominate the web, but so far, access is low-threshold. This means we can share our work with each other just by putting it on the open web. Innovation, help, ideas, and reflection result from doing this.

7. Content isn’t a course.
More and more universities (Harvard, MIT, Berkeley) are offering their lectures freely and openly. But content isn’t a course — just plugging in someone else’s material doesn’t make it a class, much less your class. This is also true of publisher-created content. Student’s highest priority remains learning from the teacher, whether directly or through the pedagogy designed by the instructor. If you’re not creating the content pathway and facilitating the learning at every step, you’re not the teacher.

Top Five Myths of Teaching Online

1. I gotta use Blackboard.

No, you don’t, even if your institution sets you up a Bb or WebCT class and has a policy saying you must use it. Blackboard, or any course management system, is just a shell. There are a zillion features you’ll never use. Or maybe you’re an innovator who’d rather teach with blogs and wikis. Solutions:

  • Learn to use the Control Panel’s Course Menu to change all the buttons. Make invisible those features you won’t use. Remove them from Tools. This makes it easier for students anyway.
  • If you want to use the web inside your class, add Course Menu buttons and link out to the URLs of blogs, wikis, etc., being sure to tell students they’ll need to set up accounts. But the pages themselves will look like they’re in Blackboard unless you tell it to open them on a new screen.

2. It takes too much time.

That depends on how you organize, and what you want to do. It is a mistake to assume you must create the entire class before it starts, and have everything visible to students as they enter. Think in terms of it being a regular class, just online instead of in a physical classroom. The same time-savers and time-wasters come into play. Yes, there is a learning curve, so it may feel more like your first year of teaching than your tenth. If you are already web-savvy, this time is negligible. If not, make time first to play on the web.

3. It’s not like real teaching.

It is real teaching in every sense, from preparing class materials, to planning for interaction, grading, and expressing your professorial personality. If you don’t believe that, ask to sit in on an online class someone else is teaching. The trick is to set up a class that demands your online presence, and use every opportunity to create a classroom personality through the way you write and what you create. Some instructors need set times to go in and add to discussion or message students on their progress, so they’re always aware of what’s going on “in class”. Others are on the web anyway and “stop by” daily.

4. The students know more than I do.

If you mean cellphones and Facebook, yes, they just might. Although you could use these technologies to teach, it’s unlikely you’d choose to do so. Students’ superior kills in social interaction technologies do not translate directly into learning online, anymore than being socially popular translates to in-class performance. You know your discipline and you know how to teach more than they know how to learn, in any environment. And anything they know that you want to know, they’ll be delighted to teach you.

5. I don’t know how.

You can learn from others, or just get started. Create a class, planning it just like you would an on-site class. For every element you do in class, look in your course management system or search on the web to figure out how to do it online. Experimentation is key — you can’t break anything. Get technical help when and if you need it. Start small, and build more into your class after you teach it the first time.

Preventing Fear

I dreamt the other night that I went to the first day of class as a student, an upper division or graduate class of some kind. About 20 students. The professor walks in and begins an interactive lecture. I realize I don’t understand what he’s talking about.

I look around and see that each of the other students has a stack of about 7 books. Seeing I’m lost, a helpful student opens one and points to a chapter for me. But it’s obvious from the way the professor is talking that everyone has read this already. Before the first day of class. Everyone is quite literally “on the same page”, and I have no idea what’s being discussed.

I’m thinking now, as I plan for workshops next week for faculty, whether faculty feel the same way. They come to the workshops, and it seems like they were supposed to know something before they came, but they don’t know what. I need a place to start to make them comfortable.

The emphasis on pedagogy, rather than technology, is one way to do that. We all can talk about teaching, classrooms, our students. Not everyone is online. If the approach is to take ones teaching methods, and apply them in a different environment, it not only properly de-emphasizes technology, it may increase the comfort level in seminars. My colleague Jim Sullivan did this so effectively last fall, and it’s an approach we all need to take as we help faculty navigate the technology for what it is: just a toolset for achieving your pedagogical goals.

Finding the Sweet Spot

The smoke in So Cal has given me some time to think about last Friday’s workshops (it’s not like I’d go outside or anything!).

Jim‘s plan for the workshop went well, though we did have to remind people that their big goals should focus on pedagogy rather on content. As people talked about their needs, I created a list of issues and possible solutions. The list was organized as we went along, according to the categories I semi-remembered from the current e-learning research. Because each presenter had different strategies, a lot of possible solutions emerged.

At the Showcase which followed, I had expected instructors to show off their online classes, but since each only had 10 minutes, they each showed one special thing they’re doing. Historian Karl Golemo demonstrated not only his PowerPoint with Audio, but also talked about having students submit assignments as PDF files, then commenting in handwriting on his electronic Wacom Intuos Pad tablet using Bluebeam PDF Revu. (This approach, it turns out, is featured in recent research by Vicky Morgan and Cheri Toledo). Julie Harland demonstrated how she’s integrated Pearson’s Course Compass CMS into her classes. Louisa Moon showed us her illustrated lectures and how she runs discussion in Blackboard (she’s been my inspiration for years!). Karen Smith showed how she structures discussion for hospitality students (who often have English as a second language). Kit Hudnutt showed how she has used Articulate software to create interactive units inside the CMS for internship orientations.

What was really apparent in both workshops was that two key strategies for online instructors are:

  • find something you love doing in class, and try to replicate it online
  • find one thing you really want to do online, and become an expert at that, whether it’s an application or a technique

For example, one instructor wants to do foreign language conversation online, and becomes an expert at Skype and Elluminate to achieve that goal. Another wants to duplicate work in groups, and becomes expert at the Groups feature in the course management system. Another loves podcasting, and begins recording lectures and posting them with RSS syndication. They ask questions, they Google things, they play with applications. After the initial learning curve, creating materials or facilitating interaction takes very little time.

In other words, each of us has a “sweet spot”, something we care about or a technology we love to use. We get really good at it, and it provides the core of our online classes. This was enlightening to me — none of us are great at all of it, but our sweet spots keep our enthusiasm going and that communicates to students, even (or especially!) in an online environment.

What would you like to do?

My big plan (yeah, I have one) is to get folks to recognize that the pedagogy must come before the technology. While technology can inspire us, at its base it is just a set of tools (or toolset, in the current lingo — like Sears Craftsman).

Good classroom teachers moving into an online environment tend to let the available/popular/supported technology dictate what they do. That’s like letting my wrench, screwdriver and tape measure tell me what to build (though that would make a good Disney movie). Isn’t it more natural to look at a piece of wood, determine it needs to be cut in half, then look for the right saw?

I have seen classroom teachers who excel at discussion and interaction give it up when they get online, and instead start loading Word documents into the preset Blackboard categories. What a waste! So many free tools are now available to do these things, and if a Course Management System must be used, these sites can be linked out from inside what one presenter at Ed-Media called “BlackCT”.

So whatcha want to do? Have students work in groups to create posters and present to the whole class? Try Bubbleshare, which lets students upload and edit slide programs, using the Groups feature of the CMS for discussion, or use Skype so the students can talk to each other as a group. Have students annotate visuals? You can use Flickr for that, either uploading the images yourself or having them do it. Have them study urban growth over time? Try Trulia Hindsight. Collaborate on a paper or wiki, or use free applications for planning, meeting or writing? Zoho is good.

More tools are available all the time. It’s about what you want to have happen. Dream first. Then find the socket wrench.

Advice for Beginners

Margie White‘s presentation at the @ONE conference, though supposedly about Effective Time Management Techniques, was actually an outstanding primer on how to start teaching online.Her first main area was organization. First one must organize oneself, focusing without interruptions and avoiding multi-tasking unless you’re really good at it. You organize your students by being clear with instructions and answering class questions in a public place, like a discussion forum. Organizing materials can best be done by using your own file system, instead of typing things into the Course Management System. (This was dear to my heart, as I’ve been advising folks to do this for years!). I was also delighted to hear her advise that instructors organize and learn their technology: CMS, browser, manipulating images, html (also dear to my heart), accessibility, and screenshot programs.

Next came a discussion of consistency, in materials and course design so that students develop habits of moving through your course. She recommended repeating things in multiple places, using a template for presentation pages, and creating a pattern of online assignments (i.e. “due every Wednesday”). For good instructor workflow, Margie recommended creating the schedule around the instructors’ times for grading and working on the class.

Last was planning (though of course all of this requires planning!). An important point here was Margie’s encouragement for staggering the opening times of course content, as opposed to showing the whole 17 weeks at once. An entire course calendar may be used, but materials only made available a few weeks ahead, to prevent overload. One unique recommendation was keeping a text file of “canned” comments often given on assignments, which can also help retool instructions for the next semester. Working on student boundaries was part of planning: helping students keep up, and being flexible while not allowing them to ignore deadlines.

An outstanding review of what every instructor needs to know, and some ideas I’ll be using myself!