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Engage and Assess with Plickers

I’m not often blindsided by instructional technology.  With Twitter, Facebook and a bunch of like-minded, creative friends, I usually hear about new learning technologies before they become widely adopted.  But I missed this one.  Plickers is hot stuff!  And it’s free and easy to use.  If you’re an educator and have always wanted to jump into the world of clickers, push those thoughts and ambitions aside.  Plickers is what you want to try. Here’s a run down for how Plickers works.  An instructor goes to the Plickers website and prints off a different Plickers card for each student in their class.  Each Plickers card looks like a cross between the aliens in Space Invaders and a QR code.  When used in class, the student holds up their card when asked an engagement or assessment question.  The instructor uses the camera on her smartphone and pans across the room.  The camera registers each card as a different  response for each student.  You may be wondering how students can answer differently if they’re only given a single card.  That’s probably the most innovative part of the Plickers assessment system.  The orientation of the card registers the student’s response.  Holding the card one way will register as an A.  Holding the card another would register as a B.  The system supports four different card orientations so instructors can ask multiple-choice questions with up to four responses. The Plickers website has card groups for small classes (under 40 students) or larger classes (up to 63 students).  In addition to offering the cards, the website also allows instructors to create questions and classes on their computers that easily sync with their smartphones.  If an instructor connects a card to a specific student, the site and app records the student’s responses which can be used for grading purposes if the instructor chooses.  Plickers is an easy to use system that doesn’t rely on students buying any expensive technology or instructors.  Maybe that’s why over 52,000 teachers in 112 countries have used Plickers. If you’re worried about Plickers being free now and then moving to a pay system down the road, fear not.  The system was first developed by Nolan Amy, a former math teacher, who explains: “Plickers is free. And don’t worry, we’re not going to suddenly start charging for the product you love. As former teachers, we know how important it is to be able to depend on the tools you use. In addition to constantly improving the always-free version of Plickers that exists right now, we’re hoping to add a Premium, paid version as well.” So jump in.  Download some Plickers cards and start engaging your students today.  With almost no financial investment, what’s stopping you?

Why I like to teach online

A few days ago, I was working with some colleagues who were developing online classes for the first time.  Since it was a new experience, they were examining all of the different ways to foster interaction and participation in the class.  I explained that they had to manage three different means of interaction in their course:  student/student interaction, student/instructor interaction and student/content interaction.  Most new online instructors focus their attention on student/content interaction.  They upload screencasts they’ve created or link to journal articles online.  They make sure that their students can effectively access content that helps them learn.

But that’s just one aspect of an online class.  If we want to create online classes that resemble our collaborative face-to-face classes, we need to consider the other avenues of interaction.  Students need to interact with their peers to help build their understanding.  Online students need to be able to interact with us as instructors so we can support their learning effectively.  And this is where the new online teachers were struggling.  While we generated a bunch of strategies that could help foster more interaction and participation, they worried about getting it right.  How would they know if the strategies were effective?

And this is why I like teaching online.  As someone who is highly reflective of his own teaching, I like the data that online classes can provide.  Almost every aspect of a student’s participation and interaction in an online class is captured while they engage in the course.  In a face-to-face class, a student’s participation and interaction can be observed while a lesson is occurring.  Once the lesson is over, however, any remnants of that participation and interaction are lost forever.  Sure, face-to-face instructors can record a lesson to watch later but that usually changes the nature of the class.  This “observer effect” can change how the students behave and participate in the class.

In an online class, however, participation and interaction are reified via the learning management system.  “Reify” is one of those words that sounds pretty complicated and scholarly.  In my mind, though, it’s the best way to describe the nature of an online class.  Participation and interaction are abstract processes that are hard to visualize or capture in face-to-face settings.  But in online realms, those abstract processes are made concrete.  They’re reified.  When a student comments on a peer’s post, the comment is captured in text. When a student struggles with a screencast, we can see that they need to watch it a few times.  When students don’t understand a given assignment, we can see their frustration through the posts in discussion forums.

This “reification” provides a world of information for reflective practitioners who work in online settings.  At the end of the semester, I can go back and look at how students interacted with content, with their peers and with me.  I can see areas where they may have struggled and revise course content and processes as needed.  And this is the advice that I gave the new online instructors.  Try to make the course as effective as possible but be ready to examine the course at the end of the semester and make improvements.  By examining the archive of instructional footprints that remain after a course is over, they’ll have a better idea of what worked and what didn’t.  And that’s one of my favorite parts of teaching online.  Analyzing the reified remnants of an online class informs my teaching and makes me a better online instructor.

Tips to Make Your Webinar Great!

I’ll be honest.  I usually find webinars to be a huge waste of time.  I’ve signed up for so many over the years and have been utterly disappointed almost every time.  While the content of the sessions are usually strong, it’s the presentation style that ruins the experience.  Usually, the presenter talks on and on and forgets there’s even an audience participating in the session.  While the webinar is being held in some synchronous platform (Blackboard Collaborate, WebEx, etc.), the presenter completely forgets to draw on these tools and transmits information lecture-style to the group.

It’s funny, though.  Over the last few months, I’ve been asked to lead a few webinars for different groups.  While I’d like to think that it’s due to my amazing webinar skills, it’s probably due in part to the financial situation at many institutions.  It’s less expensive to invite a speaker to present through a webinar than to travel to the institution and speak for an hour or so.  After leading a bunch of webinars over the last year, I thought I’d share some tips for making your next webinar great.  Not planning to lead a webinar anytime soon?  These tips will work for leading a synchronous online classroom, too.

1.  Engage the audience.  Since the webinar is being delivered through a synchronous platform, remember to use the functionality of the space to your advantage.  Use the audio tools or the chat window to get the group talking.  I usually dedicate the first minute or two of the webinar so attendees can share brief introductions.  I also build in engagement questions throughout the presentation to change the pace and lessen the passivity of the webinar.

2.  Be conversational.  I’ve shared the need for conversational tones in other posts.  Mayer’s research with multimedia has shown that people learn more from conversational presentations than formal ones.  While you may want to sketch out the points you plan to make in your presentation, avoid writing a formal script.  The formal tone of your presentation will undermine its effectiveness.

3.  Don’t read your slides.  This relates to another one of Mayer’s multimedia principles and it’s a killer in a webinar or in any presentation environment.  The practice is governed by the “redundancy principle” which discusses how the brain is impacted when redundant information is presented through visual and auditory channels.  The redundancy creates a “cognitive load” for the learner which will significantly diminish the effectiveness of the presentation.

4.  Practice, practice, practice.  Few people enjoy practicing but it’s critical to the success of any activity.  Take a few minutes and become more familiar with the synchronous space.  If you have a co-presenter, run through the presentation together so you have a good idea who will be leading which parts of the presentation.  You may even want to invite a colleague to participate in the practice run so you can test out the engagement questions you’ve planned.

5.  Evaluate your slides.  Some slides don’t translate well to a webinar format.  If you’re using PowerPoint, steer clear of font sizes less than 32 point and don’t fill every slide with text.  If you’re using tables or graphs, make sure the graphics are large enough to be easily read and interpreted.

6.  It’s time for change.  Don’t spend a ton of time on any one slide.  Some presenters suggest changing every five to eight minutes.  While I don’t follow any set time standard, I try to infuse enough fluidity and change in the presentation to keep the participants interested and engaged.

7.  Share the stage.  The best way to get a group involved is to have them share their expertise.  This works in a face-to-face environment or an online one.  Providing a few minutes for people to share their ideas or experiences draws the group in and helps them find ownership and value in the session.

Drowning in Data

I spoke with a reporter last week about an event I was planning.  My institution’s public relations director had contacted the reporter to see if the newspaper would be interested in writing an article covering the event.  In the interview, the reporter asked directly “Is this something that would make our readers click?”  Obviously, the reporter was talking about clicking on a link for the article on the newspaper’s website.  While I think the reporter was trying to gauge the larger interest for the event, he also communicated something else.  Data matter.  In the newspaper world, it’s no longer about subscriptions.  It’s clicks.  When readers visit the newspaper’s website, they click to get access to an article.  But the click isn’t just an access point.  It’s a piece of data.  It shows how many people have engaged with the article, which is important for selling advertising space.  If an article can generate many clicks, the newspaper will presumably benefit from an uptick in advertising revenue.  The newspaper can show exactly how many people have engaged with the article and can use those numbers when talking to advertisers.  That’s the power of clicks as data.

But there’s also a negative to clicking.  Although the event was a novel collaboration across many institutions of higher education in our area, the article never appeared in print or online.  The reporter obviously decided that there wasn’t enough clickable interest in the event and he needed to focus his attention elsewhere.  In the interview a week earlier, I asked the reporter whether clicking influenced which stories the newspaper ran.  “Penn State stories generate a lot of interest.  We broke a click count record recently with an article about Joe Paterno.”  It shouldn’t be too surprising that the paper’s website features a drop down for Penn State.  Helps to generate more clicks.

That’s what I really worry about.  Since we have the ability to measure something, then it becomes important.  We don’t really question what the data say or how the data can be misused.  The newspaper is guided by clicks so it runs more articles like the stories that have generated clicks in the past.  With this logic, we should all expect more controversial stories about fallen athletic coaches in our local newspapers.  We should also expect to see fewer feel good stories about local educational efforts.

Data are everywhere though and media outlets aren’t the only ones being misguided by data.  Look at our public schools.  Sometime in the last decade or two, bureaucrats decided that scores on state assessment were the most important pieces of data.  School years were organized around the assessments and entire subjects were dropped so that students could focus more time and attention on the assessable content.  Just like a newspaper solely focusing on articles that can generate clicks, schools have limited their focus to the content that is being assessed.  The trouble with data is that it can narrow our lens so we’re only paying attention to what we can measure.  It’s not good for our newspapers.  Or for our schools.

Getting ready to flex

Last week, a colleague and I lead a webinar on “flex learning” for the Teaching Professor.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, flex learning is when students have the ability to engage with a course either through face-to-face activities, through online activities or both.  If you’re thinking that this sounds like blended or hybrid learning, you’re right.  Or almost right.  Blended learning typically involves a combination of face-to-face and online instruction but the delivery method is decided solely by the instructor.  In a flex classroom, the student chooses whether to engage with the face-to-face or online content.  This shift in power and decision-making is the hallmark of flex learning.  But student-centered instruction is not a new concept.  Several months ago, I wrote about Barr and Tagg’s challenge for college’s to shift paradigms from “teaching to learning.”  A paradigm of learning puts the student at the center.  This student-centered focus is echoed in Maryellen Weimer’s book Learner-Centered Teaching.  In the book, Weimer outlines five principles that are critical for learner-centered teaching.  These principles include:

1.  Think of teaching as facilitation of learning
2.  Shift balance of power toward learner
3.  Use content to organize activities
4.  Responsibility for learning rests with learner
5.  Evaluation provides a way to foster learning

Used as a road map for developing more innovative pedagogy, it’s clear that these principles would lead to flex learning.  Think about it.  “Flexing” places the learner at the center of decision-making and puts the instructor in the role of facilitator.  Instructors would develop face-to-face and online activities that would help learners construct their understanding of the content.  The choice of whether to participate in the face-to-face or online instructional pathway through a course would rest with each student.  A student could attend a face-to-face class, watch an online lesson or participate in activities in either location.  Ultimately, however, assessment would be the real fuel behind flexing success.  Students need self-assessments and formative assessment to provide the data that drives their decision-making.  If a student is struggling with their given choice, they need to know it so they can interact with additional resources within the flex learning environment.  For instance, a motivated, struggling student could choose to participate in both the face-to-face and online pathways.

Most people who encounter the flex concept for the first time get lost in the logistics and challenges.  They think about the possible institutional and departmental roadblocks.  Maybe a colleague will question the rigor of a flex course or maybe an institution doesn’t have an official registration code designated for flexed courses.  Or maybe they worry about constructing congruent pathways so that online and face-to-face students get similar instruction. Some may even worry about doing double work by maintaining an online and traditional course at the same time.  While these are legitimate concerns, I tend to focus on the potential benefits from flex learning.  By choosing their means of engaging with course content, the learner has more ownership over their success in the class and more motivation to succeed.

In an article titled “A Case Against Compulsory Class Attendance Policies in Higher Education,” Karen St. Clair writes:

By making class attendance compulsory, students can lose their feeling of control, begin to feel bad about decision to enroll in college, and may decide there are more important things to than attend class.

Flexing removes the attendance issue and gives students the choice with how they want to engage with course content.  It’s a hard mindset to adopt but embracing student-centeredness and handing over the responsibility of learning to the learner is the critical first step to flexing success.

Harder than it seems

This semester, I’m teaching a graduate class that examines technology used for online teaching.  The class is a blended course, so I use a mixture of online and face-to-face instruction to interact with students and teach the content.  The course is designed to help face-to-face teachers develop capacity with the tools and processes of online instruction.  In the class, my students are studying ways to foster online learning communities and use technology to support instruction and assessment online.   Besides discussing pedagogically based content, the students are also using technology to create screencasts, review technology and manage their own synchronous and asynchronous classroom spaces.  It’s the second semester that I’ve taught the course and it’s the ideal mix of the theoretical and practical aspects of online instruction.

In one of the modules, the students examine recorded synchronous lessons conducted by real K-12 online teachers.  My students examine how the teachers are fostering interaction and engaging the students in the learning process.  The recorded lessons really run the gamut in terms of instructional strategies.  Some instructors use more lecture-based forms of instruction while others work hard to foster a student-centered learning environment in the online room.  Since the lessons differ in content and grade level, it helps to provide a variety of virtual field experiences for the students in the class.

In their reviews, my students outline the effective aspects they recognize in the recordings and also suggest different ways that the instructor could have changed their lesson.  While my students are asked to root their reviews on the readings from the module, many of the students discuss the strategies they use in their face-to-face classes and wonder why the online instructors haven’t incorporated similar approaches in their online classes.  While I try to keep the class focused on reviewing the lesson sand making connections to our course readings, some of the reviews can be a little critical.  While no one in the class is disrespectful, a few lent a very critical eye to the strategies incorporated by the online teachers in the recorded lessons.

Last week, I had the students in the class conduct their own synchronous lessons.  In the assignment, the students were to create a fifteen minute lesson in a synchronous classroom and then invite at least two participants into the space.  The students then shared their lessons with the other members of the class where they were reviewed by their peers.  As the class reviewed their lessons, one of the students posted:

We were WAY too hard on those online teachers!  They really were experts at what they were doing.  Eesh!  Really cool to do this assignment this way – watch lessons first, judge the heck out of them, and then try our own and realize how hard it is.  Well played, Ollie.  Well played.

While it wasn’t my intention to create this level of dissonance, I was hoping the students would see the instructional value from structuring the class this way.  I wanted them to see firsthand how difficult teaching can be. Regardless of whether it’s done in an online or face-to-face learning environment, teaching is harder than it seems.

Is Innovation Contagious?

On the TED Radio Hour on NPR this week, I heard an interview with Gary Slutkin who presented a TED talk at TEDMED in 2013.  In his talk, Slutkin discussed his experiences fighting highly contagious diseases in Africa.  After a decade treating patients with cholera, AIDS and tuberculosis, he returned to America and saw similar epidemic levels of deaths in cities due to gun violence.  An epidemiologist by training, Slutkin began to wonder whether the spread of gun violence could be analyzed in much the same way he studied the spread of a virus in a community.  Taking the violence/illness correlation one step further, Slutkin wondered whether he could identify a “patient zero” who was involved in spreading violence in a community and set up active “blockers” to surround these individuals that could reduce the spread of violence.

If you’ve seen his TED Talk, you know that his research was successful.  In violent communities, Slutkin trained and embedded individuals that could peacefully mediate violent situations and work actively to promote more communication in communities.  Over the course of many trials in numerous communities, he was able to demonstrate how powerful positive (and negative) interactions can be and how they can spread like a contagious disease.

I know that many communities are facing real outbreaks of measles in America and Ebola in African countries.  My efforts here are not to downplay the seriousness of these issues or disregard the deaths and physical impacts of these diseases.  Instead, I wonder whether we could use Slotkin’s lens to examine (and promote) the spread of innovation on campuses.   Think about it.  You have a great idea for a lesson or a new way to assess your students.  Could we share that idea with a few colleagues and have those ideas spread across a campus?  Or maybe you’ve tried some new technology that really engaged your students and actively involved them in a lesson one day.  Could that spread like the flu across the institution, infecting your colleagues with creativity and active learning techniques?  Drawing on medical terms, maybe each of us could become a “patient zero” for innovation.  While the concept may sound a little odd, I have to say that the idea is somewhat empowering.  My mother always advised her sons to “kill them with kindness.”  Maybe, we can infect our colleagues with the innovative spirit.

While I see the power of contagious innovation, I also have to recognize the negative forces that impede this sort of transmission.  While some of us may try to spread innovation, others may be acting as “blockers” and halting the transmission.  They may be spreading isolationism.  Or distrust.  As Slutkin’s work has demonstrated, these sentiments can spread across a community as well.  And maybe that’s the real take away here.  Each of us is transmitting and blocking the spread of some cultural conditions across our respective campus communities.  What do you want to infect?

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