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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.

Design Principles and Online Teaching

This weekend, I came across an article on designer Dieter Rams.  While his name may not be familiar with most people, his designs definitely are.  In his years working for Braun, he was involved in the design and development of over 500 products including hair dryers, portable radios and bookshelves.  Besides showing images of some of Rams’ more recognizable creations, the article also included different principles that Rams recommends for good design.  While the principles are probably better applied to the design of physical objects, the list also resonated with me as being applicable to the world of online teaching.  Here are a few of the connections I drew.

1.  Good design is innovative.  While developing an online class can be difficult and time consuming, the course should be designed so it can evolve and expand with time.  While the basic design must be “long-lasting” (another of Rams’ design principles), the overall course should reflect current technologies and pedagogies to engage students and foster their learning.  The innovative online class is designed so it leverages what we know about learning, incorporates the best methods and technologies available and is able to change with time.

2.  Good design is aesthetic.  Online course design involves much more than uploading PowerPoint slides and Word documents into a Learning Management System.  Aesthetically, the course should be designed to visually connect with students and draw them into learning.  An aesthetically designed online class isn’t one that simply uses pretty colors or graphics.  To be aesthetic, the class must be simply designed and organized and draw on what we know about presentation of information and student learning (Multimedia Principles and Universal Design for Learning).

3.  Good design makes a product understandable.  Are your students lost when they enter your online class?  A well-designed online class should make sense to students who enter the environment for the first time.  Wondering whether your online course is completely understandable?  Survey your students and find out.  If they’re unable to navigate the learning environment you’ve designed, students will have a lot of trouble being successful.

4.  Good design is unobtrusive.   Online learning environments need to be welcoming spaces for students.  The layout of the course should not interfere with learning and should support the learning activities in the space.  In other posts, I’ve discussed the importance of developing a strong Community of Inquiry in an online class.  Designing an unobstrusive online learning environment can help foster the social presence that is so critical to the success of online learning.

5.  Good design is honest.  While I’m sure Rams wasn’t directly talking about establishing expectations when he talks about honesty of design, as an online educator, I see how important this is.  In online classrooms, students need to know the rules of the game and need to have all expectations clearly outlined. How often should they be online?  What contributions are you requiring?  How will you evaluate their work?  How can they communicate with you?  Including these expectations (and others) in clear terms will make the design of the class more honest and transparent.

6.  Good design is a little design as possible.  Too much can be too much.  I know that isn’t really profound but as online educators, we need to fully examine the tools we use and why we’re using them.   I have some colleagues who want to include every tool that’s available in the Learning Management System.  But that’s not really the point.   In my professional development sessions, I recommend that online teachers examine the purpose of the tools they use and use only those that support the achievement of learning objectives.

Gamifying Professional Development

This week, a colleague and I are leading a professional development workshop unlike any other one I’ve ever organized.  The workshop, called MU Levels Up, was designed to teach about “gamification in education” and we’ve structured the week to leverage game concepts.  For those of you who may not be familiar, gamification involves using game elements in non-gaming situations.  If you’ve ever earned a star by using your MyStarbucks card or earned points for checking into Four Square at some restaurant, you’ve seen gamification first hand.  The purpose behind gamification in education is to foster more student engagement and motivation in course material.  While I recognize that intrinsic motivators are far more valuable than extrinsic ones, the truth is that many students (and adults) are motivated by external rewards (grades, class rank, etc).  Gamification just takes this process to another level.  In a gamified classroom, students participate in scaffolded challenges where the develop expertise and earn badges when they demonstrate competency.  The students receive feedback to encourage improvement and assistance to further develop their abilities.  Gamified classroom can also leverage game elements like avatars, leaderboards, and Easter eggs to foster student engagement.

But would gamfication work in a professional development capacity with educators?  That’s the goal with our workshop.   To examine this, we’ve constructed several professional development activities around a larger online game.  About twenty colleagues volunteered to play and they are completing challenges that build their understanding of gamification concepts.  Besides talking about the process conceptually, we’re using badges and a leaderboard to give the participants some experience with what infusing these tools in an educational environment is like.  Participants are also collecting points based on their participation in discussions and bonus points for their contributions based on certain tasks.  For instance, in a challenge released today called It’s Elemental, participants are researching how gamification is currently being used on college campuses and identifying the game elements the instructors employed.  To receive bonus points, participants need to contribute “evidence-based” examples to the discussion.  The goal in this particular challenge isn’t just to show how cool gamification is but to examine the instructional benefits by looking at research and critically analyzing the results.  The ensuing conversation should be educational and entertaining.

While I’m sure that I’ll have more observations once the game is completed, the initial reactions from faculty have been positive.  We’ve incorporated some challenges that encourage participants to meet one another face-to-face and others that ask them to motivate their colleagues.  At this point of the game, almost every participant has contributed to some degree in the game and some have found the hidden “Easter eggs” that we’ve built into the game to foster other collaborative activities.  It’s a promising professional development structure that I hope we replicate down the road.

A Month with the Jot Touch

In past posts, I’ve written about my love for gadgets.  While I’m not necessarily a collector of devices or an early adopter of things, I’m always exploring the ways that technology can make activities more efficient and the impact that its use has on my life.  A few weeks ago, I purchased a Jot Touch, a fine-point stylus that can be used with an iPad or other tablet.  I found that while I always had my iPad mini with me, I didn’t always have a piece of paper or a pen to take notes.  A colleague suggested checking out the Jot Touch.  After doing some research, I decided to give it a try.  Here are some general observations and reflections about its use.

1.  Taking notes with a pen is different than taking notes by typing.  A few posts ago, I shared some research that examined students’ learning after taking handwritten notes or typewritten notes.  Prior to the Jot Touch, I would use a small wireless keyboard to take notes on my iPad Mini.  I found myself trying to type verbatim the things being said in a meeting and often was unable to keep up.  I also found that the process took me cognitively away from the discussion or meeting that I was trying to capture in notes.  Since the Jot Touch functions like a regular pen, I can now be more connected to the discussion.  I do more summarizing in my notes and more drawings to capture big ideas.

2.  It’s not just another stylus.  I’ve tried using a spongy-tipped stylus before and I found that the stylus couldn’t keep up with my writing.  It would skip on the screen or stop working.  It just didn’t mimic the writing process enough.  With the Jot Touch, however, the process is almost identical to writing on paper.  The newest Jot Touch recognizes pressure sensitivity and gives you more control of writing.  The Jot Touch also includes “palm rejection” so the tablet screen focuses on what you’re writing and not the accidental touch of a palm or wrist.

3.  You need a good note-taking app.  When I decided to move to handwritten notes on my iPad, I explored all of the popular note-taking apps on the market.  I decided to use NotesPlus even though friends had recommended other apps.  I wanted to find an app that fit with my writing style and that would be easy to use.  NotesPlus fit the bill.  If you’re considering using the Jot Touch, be sure to find a note-taking app that fits your needs.

4.  It supports paper-free initiatives.  While all tablet pens probably do this to some degree, I found the Jot Touch to be the best way to mimic paper and pencil activities.  Our campus is trying to limit its paper consumption and has capped student printing.  This semester, I’m attempting to do more grading by hand with the Jot Touch.  With NotesPlus, I’m able to markup PDFs and provide feedback on student writing.  I’m still fine-tuning the workflow but I’m hopeful that the process will allow me to provide more goal-directed feedback that fosters student learning.

The Importance of Collaboration

Today, a group of teachers from a neighboring school district visited my college classroom to speak to my students.  We were introducing a semester long partnership we’d be working on and my students sat attentively as the teachers introduced themselves and discussed how the project would work.  Near the end of the discussion, students started asking their own questions, some of which related directly to the project while others explored more general aspects of the teaching career.  One student asked a question that literally brought tears to a few of the teachers’ eyes.

“How important is it to have a collaborative partner in teaching?”

The first teacher who answered the question discussed how he had spent the last twenty years teaching with his best friend.  His voice got a little strained as he outlined how he had grown as a teacher and as an individual because he had worked so closely with his teaching partner.  Another individual started to cry as she explained that since now she had moved on to being an administrator she missed seeing her teaching partner every day.  “It’s like I’ve lost a best friend,” she explained.  A few discussed how critical it was to trust your colleagues and how collaboration helped to turn good teachers into great ones.  “We bounce ideas off of each other all the time.  He’s not afraid to tell me when my ideas are bad.” one teacher explained.

The discussion was a timely one for my class.  The students are currently reading 21st Century Skills by Trilling and Fadel (2009) which examines the changing nature of society from an industrial-based economy into an information-based one.  The authors outline a series of skills that are needed to be successful in the new economy and provide some curricular ideas for developing these skills in our students.  In the book, collaboration is listed as one of the critical “Learning and Innovation Skills.”  The authors detail how information age economies leverage collaborative efforts to solve multidimensional problems and foster creativity across the group.  By discussing their collaborative partners, the teachers helped to make the content real for my students and show its importance.  It was an unplanned discussion but certainly timely.

But the collaboration discussion wasn’t just a timely issue for my students.  As I examined my Twitter feed prior to starting to write this post, I came across a Faculty Focus article published today on “Strategies for Dealing with a Certified Jerk.”  Rather than a tearful overview of a career of positive collaboration, this article examines incivility and toxicity among collegiate departments.  The article shows the impact of negativism on a department, citing work by Felps, Mitchel and Byington (2006) who found that a single slacker or “jerk” could bring down a group’s productivity by 30 to 40 percent. The article also outlined research by Cipriano and Riccardi (2013) who examined the number of department chairs who dealt with difficult faculty members.  In their study, 83% responded that they had a non-collegial or uncivil department member in their tenure.  The article portrayed a very different view of collaboration and collegiality, one that I hope that my students never have to experience during their careers.

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