Holiday Greetings

Some holiday cheer as the calendar year winds down:

Should I fix you some sandwiches?
Should I fix you some sandwiches?

The College of Saint Rose has seen its enrollment decline by 15 percent since 2008. In an attempt to balance its budget, it has eliminated twenty-three academic programs. More than ten percent of its full-time faculty are slated for termination. Programs scheduled for closure include bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, religious studies, sociology, geology, Spanish, and economics.

Burlington College continues to teeter on the edge of abyss, for reasons I discussed in August and December of 2014. Burlington’s full-time undergraduate enrollment shrank by one-third from fall 2014 to fall 2015, to 123 students. The college has announced a $2,000 reduction in tuition for the next academic year. In reality the college is just cutting its discount rate in the hopes that a lower sticker price will appeal to a larger number of potential students. Unfortunately these are the same people who have the greatest need for financial aid.

Meanwhile Arizona State University (ASU) and edX have reported a few of the results from the inaugural year of their MOOC-based Global Freshman Academy. Of the 34,000+ people who registered for the Academy’s three MOOCs, only 323 are now eligible for earning academic credit. Some people might say that a completion rate of less than one percent makes the initiative a massive failure. But it’s highly doubtful that the majority of the people who registered for the MOOCs did so to obtain academic credit. It’s also unlikely that the MOOC participants on average were as motivated as the typical student on campus. It could even be the case that many of those who registered for the MOOCs were not as academically prepared for college-level courses as the average ASU first-year student.

As I’ve written previously, I see MOOCs as an extremely low-cost, low-risk, and convenient alternative to much of what happens in many university classrooms. ASU and edX are starting small, gathering data, and iterating. Soon they will be offering a full year’s worth of college courses at a price that is less than half of what Burlington College and College of Saint Rose are charging.

Graded Online Discussions: Update

Switchboard OperatorsBack in August I complained about the lack of student discussion in two sparsely-enrolled online graduate courses. I’m now past the mid-point in two other such courses, and I thought I’d post an update.

When teaching online, I frame each week’s discussion around a question that relates to the week’s reading assignments. Now that I explicitly grade the discussions using a feature of the Canvas LMS, I see comments that are much more on point and thoughtful, so to me there is no reason to revert back to the old format in which I really just tallied the number of comments made by each student.

In contrast to the summer courses, I’m getting a lot more discussion. I believe class size is the driving factor, not the season. In my current courses, there are still some students who post comments rarely or not at all, but in absolute terms there are more people in each course who are willing to carry on a conversation — which leads to more conversation.

In the first week of these courses, I did notice what appeared to be an upper bound on class size for productive discussion. Students who commented later in the week repeated ideas that many of their classmates had posted earlier. There is little chance for originality after reading fifteen responses to the same question. I solved this problem by switching on another Canvas feature, “users must post before seeing replies.”

Cleaning up other people’s mess (in a good way)

3175714614_321ac67ede_bA few weeks ago, I wrote about simulating the Greek crisis. I suggested then that one issue in doing this was the difficulty of carrying things over from year to year in the classroom: students change, curricula change, you never quite know whether it’s still going to be relevant, etc.

As Amanda rightly pointed out in an email to me some time later, you can perfectly well do it, with a bit of thought. So it’s with that bit of thought that I am now doing it.

Last year I created my first online asynchronous simulation for the INOTLES project in which I participate. As you’ll see from the post, it’s a simplified recreation of the East European situation, with a friendly (if ponderous) EU-like structure on one side and a confident (if worryingly so) Russia-like country on the other.

I played this with my students too, with the upshot that the ‘Russians’ produced a surprising success in sealing a deal with the ‘East Europeans’ (largely over a misunderstanding, but let’s not pretend that doesn’t happen in real life too). I put the simulation back on the shelf, mused on what had happened and then basically forgot about it.

Until Amanda’s email. There’s no reason why this year’s students can’t pick up where their predecessors left off.

It’s a fictional scenario, with all the requisite information provided. Since it allows for a wide-ranging set of actions, there is no obvious end-point or stable equilibrium. Indeed, one might imagine that some students might take the opportunity to revise the actions of the past, just because they can. Certainly, given the rather devil-may-care approach to a second round of the Hobbes games in class yesterday, that looks like a rather likely outcome.

I’ll quote Amanda at some length here:

Whenever we do a simulation, it tends to be a new run of an old game–how neat would it be to have the simulation just continue, with students acting as the newly appointed representative for that country and having to work with old agreements produced by students who are no longer in power?  I find the idea really interesting, not only for the sense of realism it brings to ongoing negotiations, but also for the real-world skill of having to step into a job vacated by someone else and having to figure out what the prior office holder did and how to incorporate their decisions into your own

Amanda’s last point is perhaps the crucial one: we all have to pick up other people’s stuff and deal with it – it’s a basic stable of professional life – so getting to experience that is a useful opportunity for personal development.

Indeed, in this game the original conceit that it opened with no particular situation is clearly unrealistic, so we’ll learn about path dependency directly.

Amanda’s one concern was about record-keeping: how to capture what had happened, so that we can pick it up again. Well, I’ll admit that this isn’t a big issue in this case. The final agreement reached ran to a full four lines of hand-written text and there was nothing else to share. I’m hoping that this time around we’ll have clearer sight of the next year, so that paper-trails can be left, with all the joys that brings.

As usual, this is all new territory for me, so I’ll be reporting back as we progress.

Perils of Small (Online) Courses, Part 2

How I see my course design
How I see my course design

Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of discussion in two online graduate courses with a combined enrollment of eleven students. These two courses ended yesterday and I’m now taking a break from grading final exams. Discussion decreased to zero in the last week of one of the courses and remained paltry in the other.

I created an ungraded, anonymous survey to try to find out what students thought was most useful about these courses. Perhaps how I think about course design, which includes weekly discussion, is very different from how students think about it. However, only two people responded to the survey, so I have to guess both about the causes of the problem and about potential remedies.

None of these remedies are very attractive to me. I could increase the weight of discussion participation in the final grade to something like 20 percent. But as I wrote previously, my online courses are populated primarily by adult students who have competing demands on their time — such as family and full-time careers. I do not want to penalize people too severely if writing about the course readings is all they have time for, especially since it’s my belief that students learn more from this than from participating in discussions with classmates who often have erroneous or biased points of view.

A second option is to require that each student submit a certain number of responses to other students’ discussion comments each week. But with only a half dozen or so students in a course, I suspect they will quickly just be repeating what others have already posted. 

How students might see my course design
How students might see my course design

A third possibility is to alter the discussion medium itself by requiring video rather than text posts.  Video comments were actually suggested at the blended learning conference that I recently attended as a way of enhancing online discussion, and so I inserted brief introductory videos into discussions beginning with the fourth week of class. But there are major drawbacks to this technique, too. Videos aren’t captioned, which contradicts universal design principles. Listening to comments made on video takes longer than reading text when the instructor is grading the quality of the content. And some students will invariably be incapable of producing video of sufficient quality or in a usable format.

The last option is to just abandon online discussions altogether — one less thing for me to grade — when a small number of students enroll in a course. Given students’ lack of engagement with online discussion this year, they must not have found it very important to their learning or to their grades, so eliminating it might not have much of a negative effect.

The Perils of Small (Online) Classes

Shrinking ManA few months ago I wrote about a few of the effects of small class sizes in my undergraduate courses. I’m experiencing related problems in my online graduate courses, where per-class enrollments have dropped to only about a half dozen students.

With so few students, there is no actual conversation in weekly discussions. I fully understand and accept the fact that several factors probably diminish student contributions to discussions — these courses are online, asynchronous, and convenience for students is paramount. However, people did respond to each others’ discussion comments in previous semesters when enrollments were higher.

This is the first time that I’ve explicitly tied discussion posts to a rubric — at least two posts per week, with the first before midnight on Wednesdays, with cited examples from the reading assignments, to earn full credit — rather than vaguely categorize them as evidence of course participation. But making my assessment of students’ contributions to discussions more transparent should encourage rather than discourage posts, if it has any effect at all.

In sum, students are occasionally acknowledging the existence of their classmates but decide to forego interacting with them. They might be reading each others’ discussion posts, but there is no way for me to tell if this is in fact happening; if they are, they aren’t writing responses. Overall it seems unlikely that much social learning is occurring.

Back to the Future with Blended Courses

I recently returned from the Online Learning Consortium’s conference on blended learning. Blended, or hybrid, means a course in which lecture content has been moved online, and less-frequent classroom sessions focus on higher-order tasks of application, evaluation, or synthesis.

Here is the advice that veterans of blended course design gave at the conference:

  • Set student expectations in advance. Students who are new to blended courses frequently conclude that they are a bad combination of the online and face-to-face worlds. It’s up to instructors to frame the experience as one that provides greater access to and more effective interaction with faculty. Pitching the course as an experiment is probably the worst message to send.
  • Online content and face-to-face exercises must correspond to but not duplicate each other. Students’ classroom participation in team- or project-based activities, for example, needs to align with the key concepts of the online content so that both sides of the course unfold in a coherently-scheduled, mutually-reinforcing manner. A frequent method of assessment that prevents non-proficient students from progressing through the content is highly useful in this regard. If online replicates what happens in the classroom, or if they are not integrated with each other, students will either stop engaging with the former or stop being physically present in the latter. 
  • Students need to understand that “online time” does not replace “homework time.” They will still need to devote significant effort outside of class to research, writing, or the completion of problem sets. This message can be highlighted as part of the orientation to using online content that students will need at the beginning of the semester.
  • Conversely, instructors need to be careful not to overwhelm students with material in excess of what students would encounter in the course’s traditional version. 
  • Online video should be in 5-10 minute pieces with Goldilocks-style assessment exercises after each piece — something not too easy nor too difficult. This fosters students’ engagement with the content by giving them the feeling that they’re being fairly challenged. If the assessments are perceived as too difficult or as irrelevant busy work, student motivation to access the content will decrease.
  • When producing video, don’t be afraid to be a real human. Students are not looking for a Taylor Swift-level of production value.
  • Use replicable tools, methods, and content to drive down the financial and emotional costs of creating additional blended courses in the future.

Grading Discussion in Online Courses

Cat ErrorIf enrollment holds steady, on June 29 I will start teaching two seven-week online graduate courses.* I’ve been teaching these courses every summer for several years, and I’ve decided to experiment this summer with a different system for grading student discussions.

I incorporate student discussion into all my courses, whether they are on campus or online, because I believe it fosters student engagement. But–yet again–discussion in these two courses last year demonstrated that there is often a difference between my beliefs about what students should do and how they decide to achieve whatever objectives they have set for themselves.

The shift was also prompted by the adoption of a different instructional tool. When I began teaching these courses, my university used Blackboard as its course management system. Anyone who has used Blackboard knows that it lacks an intuitive user interface and requires that both students and instructors click through innumerable screens. I created this rubric for class discussion, but there was no way to easily link it to what students were writing. Also the rubric was much too complicated to use to evaluate every discussion post by every student. My assessment of discussion defaulted to digging into the student analytics feature after the mini-semester had ended, to weigh the total number of a student’s posts against a scale I had created. Students got little direct feedback from me on how well they were performing in this component of the course while it was still running.

Last year a few students did not participate at all in the weekly discussions. Because of how I structure my courses, they were able to exercise other options and still perform well in terms of their final grades. But their absence from the discussions meant that their peers were not learning from them and they were not learning from their peers. And it looked to me that the lack of transparency in how I evaluated discussion made this outcome more likely.

This time around the courses will be delivered via Canvas instead of Blackboard. Canvas allows the instructor to create interactive rubrics that can be linked to specific assignments or posts in a discussion. The instructor clicks on the rubric’s boxes and the resulting grade is generated. Students see how their work will be assessed without having to click through a myriad of webpages, and they get immediate feedback from the instructor. 

So I created this new rubric, simpler than the old one but still containing the criteria that I think are most important for peer learning in a professional environment, for grading each student’s discussion posts on a week-by-week basis.** I’ll let you know how it works.

*The courses are the politics of the Middle East and comparative political development, part of an M.A. program in international relations. If you’re interested in acquiring some transferable graduate credit hours, learning about a new subject, or learning how to design and teach online course on a compressed schedule, get in touch–you don’t need to be admitted to the degree program to  enroll in either course.

**My wife/colleague showed me how to do this.