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You can’t say you can’t play.

I’ve always envied exceptionally good athletes.  They seem to possess an innate ability to pick up any sport and excel.  I am not that person.  I was always one of the last people picked for any sport I played.  On my middle school baseball team, I played the league mandated two innings and was always safely stationed in left field.  Despite my lack of ability, however, I still got the chance to play.  Sure, I wasn’t the best kickball player or the best flag football player but I still had the opportunity to play.  No one said I couldn’t.  I didn’t have to sit on the sidelines and watch my peers play.  I still had the opportunity.  And who knows? Maybe with a little hard work and some support, I would have excelled.

I’ve been thinking a lot about opportunity lately and how we provide educational opportunities for our students.  I’m working with a team of colleagues to develop an online program in our department.  We’ve been examining different online teaching rubrics to use as guides as we build our online classes.  Every rubric explicitly states that online teachers need to support the unique needs of all learners.  But I wonder how many online teachers take these requirements to heart?  I worry that because online teachers don’t always “see” their students that they visualize some idealized, able-bodied individual who can easily access the content in whatever form they’re placed online.  I’ve heard some individuals ask, “Why would a blind student want to take an online class?” Others have said, “We shouldn’t let our students with disabilities take online classes.”  But you can’t say you can’t play.  It’s unethical.  It’s immoral.  It’s also illegal.

Maybe it’s better to discuss a different scenario.  Imagine an elementary classroom where small groups of students are excitedly engaged in some learning activities.  The teacher moves from group to group, interacting with the students and assessing their learning.  Off to the side, however, a lone student sits.  Because of his learning disability, he’s unable to participate in today’s activities.  He sits silently with his aide as the rest of the class engages in the lesson.  Would it be okay to place this student on the educational sidelines while the rest of the students learned?  But that’s essentially what online teachers do when they don’t consider the accessibility of their course content.  From providing transcripts of online videos to using templates to organize course material, you can insure educational access to all students and give them the opportunity to learn.  Wondering whether the materials in your online class are accessible?  Check out these resources from Portland Community College which provide step-by-step guides so you can select and build course content so you can provide an equal playing field so all learners can succeed.

Planning for an inclement weather day

Winter is starting to descend on the Northeastern part of the United States.  The days are getting shorter.  The nights are getting colder and words like “chance of snow showers” are undoubtedly on the horizon.  With the unpredictable nature of weather, it is probably a good time to start thinking about what happens in the event of an inclement weather day.  With the prevalence of online tools, a face-to-face instructor has more options than forcing students to navigate icy roads to attend a lecture.  While technology creates opportunities for moving a class online, planning ahead is critical.  Here are some suggestions that can help make the inclement weather days a little more productive.

1. Schedule a mock online day with your students.  With the options available in tools like Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts, almost any class can be moved online easily.  But these tools take a little practice to master.  Have your students bring their laptops to your face-to-face class and have them join a synchronous classroom.  Teach a short mini-lesson with them and walk around to show them how to use some of the engagement tools.  While this may sound time consuming, it’s important to remember that by troubleshooting the technology issues during a practice lesson, you will save yourself and your students a world of problems down the road.

2.  Make your expectations clear.  Explain to your students what you plan to do on an inclement weather day and how you plan to communicate any schedule changes.  If you’re teaching an early morning or evening class, detail when students should expect you to email them.  You want to keep in mind that while some students may live on campus, others may travel from a distance to attend your class.  Emailing fifteen before class won’t save anyone a treacherous drive.

3.  If you build it, they will come.  Another option for an inclement weather day is to schedule an asynchronous emergency module that you can quickly assign when you need it.  Some topics can be easily moved throughout a semester without really damaging the flow of the course.  In my Instructional Technology class, for instance, I have a self-contained online module that covers copyright laws ready to assign whenever it’s needed.   With a few clicks, the module can be up and running and students can still be productive despite a weather interruption.

4.  Understand your institution’s inclement weather policies.  Before you schedule an online replacement for a canceled face-to-face class, ask around to find out how your school handles cancellations and delays.  Some institutions don’t require students to participate in rescheduled classes.  Others may leave make-up classes at the instructor’s discretion.  Regardless, you need to factor your institution’s policies into your inclement weather plan.

5.  Be flexible.  With some of the weird weather issues you’re likely to face, it’s important to flexible with students.  Last winter, I moved a face-to-face class online because of an impending ice storm.  As the storm hit, some students lost power and were unable to participate in the lesson.  When the weather cleared, I communicated to the missing students that I understood their absence and directed them to watch the recorded session and complete the online assignment.


Helping the online student succeed

I’m currently co-teaching a graduate course in online instruction for K-12 teachers in local districts.  In the class, we’re examining different technologies that can support online instruction.  Rather than just focusing on tools, my co-instructor and I wanted to bring a human element to online teaching.  Online learning may be mediated via technology but the process still involves real human beings engaged in the processes of teaching and learning.  To better humanize the online teaching/learning experience, we wanted our class to explore the lives of online teachers and the students with whom they work.  Our students watched interviews with online teachers and saw video diaries of online students.  The processes were eye-opening for our class.

As the group discussed the videos they watched, one member of the class offered a list of “vital components” that students need to be successful in online classes.  As more of the class offered items for the list, the discussion started to grow and evolve.  At the start of the conversation, most of the components focused on the qualities that online students should possess (self-motivation, independence, supportive learning environment, etc).  Students select online instruction for various reasons.  Some have encountered bullying in brick and mortar environments.  Others have illnesses that may impede their ability to succeed in face-to-face classrooms.  Others choose online instruction because of their involvement in sports, the arts or in some career-related field.

As we discussed the video diaries, however, some of the class recognized that while we were seeing the backgrounds of some online students, ALL online students were not being represented.  For instance, there are students who choose online schools because they haven’t been successful in the regular classroom environments  Maybe their learning disabilities aren’t being supported or maybe their local school is having academic troubles.  As we started widening the scope and role of online instruction, the class started to recognize the importance of the online teacher.  The “vital components” started to include items like “caring, dedicated instructors” and “scaffolded instruction” and “avenues for collaboration and interaction with the teacher.”  As the list continued to grow, a few members of the class recognized that the list we were creating wasn’t THAT different from the vital components any student would need for any learning environment, regardless of whether the classroom was online or face-to-face.  The process was instructive.  I worry that we get so caught up in the medium of instruction that we lose the essence of teaching.  At it’s most basic form, teaching is about helping students learn.  Sure, there are processes and pedagogies unique to online teaching, but the goal is the same.

As my class wondered about the “vital components” that were necessary for online students to be successful, the discussion evolved into a larger analysis of our roles as teachers and the educational needs for our learners.  Regardless of the medium of instruction, we teach the students we have.  Ultimately, the most vital component for a students’ success may be us as teachers.

TECH stands for technology integration

Over the last few years of blogging on the 8 Blog, I’ve shared a few different frameworks that can assist instructors with integrating technology in their classroom.  Regular readers may recall the SAMR model which views technology integration as a hierarchy with “substitution” being the lowest form of technology integration and “redefinition” being the highest form.  In the SAMR model, the focus is really what the technology affords and how it changes a specific lesson.  For instance,  Google Docs can be used in a variety of ways in a classroom.  The tool can be used to replace a simple typewriter (substitution), as a peer editing tool (augmentation) or as a way to collaborate synchronously with experts from around the world (redefinition).  The SAMR model offers a common vocabulary to describe these types of integration.

Despite its popularity amongst instructional technologists, however, the SAMR model isn’t the only game in town.  Educators from the University of South Florida developed the Technology Integration Matrix.   In the Technology Integration Matrix (TIM), the focus isn’t on the technology but the overall learning environment.  The TIM examines five different characteristics of the learning environment (constructive, active, goal-directed, authentic and collaborative) and the way that instructors create lessons that utilize technology to support the different aspects.  In this model, technology and student learning are more closely linked.  Using the TIM with instructors, however, can be challenging.  The overall matrix offers 25 different aspects to consider, since each of the five environmental characteristics is examined along a five level integration continuum.  The individual descriptions are dense and weighty and some instructors have trouble applying the matrix despite the resources provided on the TIM website.

Checking out my Twitter feed yesterday, I came across a simple technology integration model that appears to be developed by Jennifer Roberts, a blogger and teacher from southern California.  In Roberts’ model, the different levels of technology integration can be remembered through the simple acronym TECH.  T stands for “traditional” with an instructor using technology to support traditional pedagogy.  At the next level, E, the teacher “enhances” a lesson by integrating multiple tools for student learning.  At the next level, C stands for “choice” with the teacher offering multiple technologies from which students can choose to tackle a broad range of goals.  The highest level, H, involves the instructors “handing off” the lesson to the students and allowing them choice not only in the tools they use but the types of products they create to demonstrate their learning.

photo-708822While the TECH model is a little simplistic, it successfully combines the best components from the SAMR and TIM.  First, the simplicity of the TECH model can make it as easy to use as the SAMR model.  Like the TIM, the TECH model focuses more on the student and the instructor roles in the classroom.  At its core, the TIM seeks to promote less teacher control and more student choice in lessons.  This same focus is apparent in the TECH model but in more digestible form.

While the different models provide some divergent views of technology integration, they also could provide some scaffolding to instructors new to technology integration.  Used in conjunction with one another, they could help instructors develop a fuller view of technology integration.  For instance, maybe the SAMR model is used to introduce the concept of technology integration to instructors.  Later, the TECH model could be used to expand the view of technology integration until the TIM is used to fully analyze the overly learning environment supported through technology.  Used in this manner, the different models can provide a complementary and developmental view of technology integration for instructors.

The importance of engagement

Every once and a while, the stars align and it seems that nature makes something stand out.  Sure, my psychologist friends would chalk it up to the “frequency effect” and explain that after something has come to someone’s attention that it begins to appear with improbable frequency.  You buy a Kia Sorrento and you start to see them everywhere.  Or you hear a Joni Mitchell song on the radio and then you start to hear her at the grocery store, at the coffee shop and everywhere. But this is different.  Or at least it feels different.  Let me explain.

Last week, I met with some teachers who taught in an online school.  The teachers discussed how it important it was to make a connection with students.  One teacher talked about fist bumping his monitor while engaged in a webcam meeting with students.  Another talked about getting students to do “the wave” digitally by raising their hands in succession in the virtual classroom.  Another discussed starting and ending his synchronous classes with the playing of a popular song.  As he explained, “you have to engage them in the class to get them to learn.”

After that meeting with the online teachers, it seems my head has been in this “student engagement” place.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about how important student engagement is and how effective I am in involving my students in the learning process.  Then, yesterday, I started teaching an online class.  As part of their first assignment, my students were asked to reflect on their own experiences teaching or learning online.  One of the students, a middle school math teacher at a “brick and mortar” school discussed how she tried to teach a blended course and struggled because she couldn’t connect with the students.  She explained that the class felt sterile and that she hoped our online class would give her some strategies to better engage her students and help them learn.  Score another point for student engagement.

But this awareness to “student engagement” isn’t only limited to online teaching.  Last night, I had the pleasure of hearing a guest speaker who was presenting to a colleague’s class.  The speaker was an adolescent who had experienced a traumatic brain injury several years ago and was visiting the class to discuss her recovery process in depth.  While she talked mostly about her years of rehabilitation, she also discussed her experiences in school and with teachers.  She talked about how certain teachers helped to bring the content alive and made her understand the topics despite the challenges she faced.  She then said something that brought the student engagement piece home.  “If I’m going to like the content, I have to like the teacher.  They don’t need to be my friend or anything.  But I have to know they’re trying to get me involved.”

Maybe it is the frequency effect. I may be seeing signs for student engagement everywhere because a recent interaction helped to bring the topic back to the surface.  Or maybe the world is trying to show me how important it is to engage my students and involve them in the learning process.   Either way, student engagement now has my attention.  Maybe this post will help it have yours as well.

What is the “core mechanic” of your class?

I’m not a game designer but I’ve been thinking a lot about games recently.  The gaming industry is HUGE right now with the production costs of many new video games topping the budgets of movies.  For instance, with all of its special effects and technical wizardry, Transformers:  Age of Extinction cost $210 million to make.  Released earlier this year, the movie earned $100 million dollars in its opening weekend.  By comparison, this year’s most hyped video game release, Destiny, reportedly cost over $500 million to make.  In its first five days, the game sold over $325 million.   Extending the focus to smartphone games and board games, the gaming industry is big business right now.

But my reflections on games don’t really stem from production costs or earnings.  A few weeks ago, a colleague and I designed an online professional development game for faculty on our campus.  The whole experience was designed around exploring “gamification in education.”  We discussed game mechanics and motivation and how the concepts could be applied in classroom settings.  The game provided a real “meta” experience for the participants.  They were learning about gaming as they were playing a game.  It was also a lot of fun.

One of the concepts we examined was the idea of “core mechanics.”  In video games, there is a core mechanic upon which the game is based.  It’s the action that happens most frequently and the skill that needs to be mastered for a player to be successful.  Charmie Kim, a game designer, wrote about “core mechanics” on her blog at Funstorm and included the following graphic to drive design and analysis of games.

CoreDiagramIn her framework, the core mechanic sits at the heart of the overall experience of the game.  The “secondary mechanics” are those actions that happen less frequently but are still critical to successful game play.  The “progression” is the holistic system which dictates the main source of change in the game.  The “narrative’ situates the overall experience and provides context for the other levels.  For instance, in the classic video Super Mario Brothers, the core mechanic would by “jumping” while the secondary mechanics would include “collecting coins and defeating enemies.”  The player progresses as they accumulate lives and move up levels in the game until eventually Princess Peach is saved.  Applied to other games, the core mechanic might include matching candies in Candy Crush, arranging blocks in Tetris or flinging birds in Angry Birds.  Kim’s framework provides a simplistic view of games and game design, but it could also provide a helpful lens to educators.

Think about a course you teach.  What is the core mechanic of your class?  I know most of us like to focus on the content we teach but what about the mechanics that individuals must master to be successful in your class?  Like Mario jumping from toadstool to toadstool, what skill is the key to being successful? What lies at the heart of the overall experience in your classroom? Is it “listen?”  Or “think?”  I know the comparisons between games and classrooms are somewhat limited and definitely debatable.  But I thought the “core mechanic” lens could provide a thoughtful, reflective exercise for some instructors.  It certainly has for me.


Online Instructors: Be VOCAL!

I came across an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning this weekend that discussed the characteristics of online instructors.  The author, John Savery from the University of Akron, examined the types of interactions that engaged students and promoted their learning.   To contribute to a successful learning environment for students and instructors, Savery argues that instructors need to be “VOCAL” – Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical and a Leader-by-example.  While the acronym itself might be easy to follow, I thought some explanation may be needed to connect the descriptors to online instruction.

1.  Visible.  Students need to interact with their instructors, especially in online learning environments.  While it can be difficult to have a “teaching presence” in a digitally mediated space, it’s not impossible.   Instructors can start by participating in online discussions and by providing opportunities for students to engage in synchronous chats.  I spoke with a colleague recently who is taking an online class through a major university with a renowned online college.  She rarely interacts with the instructor and often feels isolated.  By being more visible, instructors communicate that the students’ work and participation is valued.

2.  Organized.  Learning management systems offer opportunities for organizing content and communication easily.  While an instructor doesn’t necessarily have to use all of the organization structures available, it’s critical that s/he communicates the organization clearly to students.  Making the organizational structure transparent for students will help them find materials and will promote more participation in class.

3.  Compassionate.  I worry that many people confuse “compassion” with lowering expectations.  In Savery’s work, being compassionate means providing opportunities for student-instructor and student-student interaction.  A compassionate instructor recognizes that all classes, even online ones, have a social component that needs to be fostered.

4.  Analytical.  If I were to rewrite Savery’s framework, I would replace analytical with assessment, since this is really the critical activity that’s needed in online course.  Analytical instructors provide clear expectations and guidelines for planned assessments and offer timely feedback on student work.

5.  Leader-by-example.  Online instructors model good behavior and participate fully in the online class.  While there is some overlap with being visible, being a leader-by-example extends the instructor’s role a little further.  For instance, if you provide discussion board expectations, don’t violate those expectations yourself.  Returning to my colleague who feels isolated in her online class, the instructor rarely posts the types of in-depth of responses she expects from the students in the class.  When instructors ask for thoughtful critical reflections but only communicate “Agreed” or “I concur,” they’re not being leaders-by-example.

While some could argue that much of the VOCAL framework is simply a rehash of the Community of Inquiry concept, I like how efficiently it promotes good online instruction.  The acronym is easy to remember and focuses on some of the most widely violated aspects of online instruction.


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