Online Courses: Experiments and Innovations

As I continue to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to constructing and executing online courses as part of my professional development as a teacher, I am emboldened by the amazing positive feedback I’ve received from my students on their evaluations of the courses. I expected a much rougher first year. Instead, student approval of my courses is as high as I achieved teaching in-person in small seminar courses. I might be doing something right!

My primary focus has been on achieving some that’s-a-real-person identity via remote technologies in spite of the severe limitations of those technologies in forging real human connection. In this brief post, I want to share two things I’ve learned and prospects for further online teaching improvement and effectiveness.

Minimize Handout Use

I love to write. Which means I love to revise and rewrite. Look at any handout I’ve written and used for five years running and not one of ’em will be reused without edits. It’s one of the ways I incorporate lessons learned as well as feedback from colleagues and students. I also love to “borrow” handouts my colleagues use and make them my own.

printed-handouts-of-limited-use-in-online-courses

Source: “5 Fresh Powerpoint Alternatives,” by Adam Tratt. Haiku Deck Blog.

But for an online course, printed handouts–or electronic versions of the same–have not been as effective in communicating background information, assignment instructions, assessment criteria, and other common types of supplemental course material I provide to my students. There are reasons for this phenomenon that are part of an ongoing research area of mine. The online nature of the course is itself not the direct cause of this; I have noticed the same ineffectiveness of communicating vital information via the printed word with students in traditional in-person classes. So this problem exists on a continuum.

The second thing I’ve learned from teaching online courses has been a result of trial-and-error experimentation.

Video Handouts

That phrase makes no sense, right? Nevertheless, this is how I’ve begun to conceptualize my handouts for my online students. The information in my handouts is critical, I believe, for providing the context and guidance students need to achieve the course objectives and learning outcomes.

Fortunately, before I taught my first full online course, I had already observed the problem of student use and understanding of printed text handouts in my traditional seminar courses. So I knew that I needed to communicate this information to my students in an alternative medium. Video was the obvious choice, but how best to deliver that video content?

I’ve tried three platforms: Periscope, Google Hangouts, and YouTube. In a separate post, I’ll review my experience with each. Presently, I am working with YouTube (links below). With Periscope and Google Hangouts, my focus was on real-time accessibility. I wanted to produce a kind of virtual class session / office hours space for students to connect live with each other and me. But this runs up against one of the main benefits of taking an online course as a student: the flexibility to complete the course assignments on one’s own schedule. Students are often working jobs full-time or have other responsibilities that limit the days of the week and times they can engage online. The same is true for us teachers! Since the majority of students could not attend these virtual meetings live, I decided to take the additional steps of recording and editing them for replay. I upload them to YouTube so that all of the students in the class can watch them at their convenience. But this misses the original goal of having real-time engagement. Unless such online meetings are “contractually” built into the course, that is, showing up for an online class meeting is counted like attendance in a traditional classroom, it is going to be difficult to find days and times when the majority of students can attend together.

So that has been a major lesson I’ve learned about online pedagogy for typical online courses. I think the promise of real-time online class meetings is so valuable that I don’t plan on giving up on it – just think how underserved communities could be reached with world-class courses taught live by master teachers. All that is needed is a minimal commitment to technological infrastructure in a traditional school, library, or community center, and colleges and universities promoting the program and dedicating a small staff for technical support.

One day. For now, I am pleased with the complementary written and video materials to deliver all of the course structure and content to empower my students to work their way through the course at their own pace. Having all of this in place before the course starts allows me to focus my time and energy where it is more valuable: evaluating the work produced by the students and giving them constructive feedback.

A version of this post was originally published on my LinkedIn site.

Links

Course Introduction (video only)

Course Syllabus (written and video – written primary)

How to Read the Course Texts (written and video – video is primary)

How to Use the Analytical Model for the Course Assignments (written and video – both essential)

How to Participate in the Online Discussions (written and video – video is primary)

If you’d like a copy of any of my written handouts, just drop me a line using the Contact form and I’ll be glad to share them with you.

Commencement 2016

To all of my students and colleagues, past and present, at Truckee Meadows CC, Barrett Honors College at ASU, the University of Kentucky, and elsewhere now flung far around the globe…

graduation-commencement

It is another season where many of us teachers look fondly back at our students’ achievements and forward to the fruits of their education blossoming in due course. It is also a season of platitudes and well-intentioned lies woven by commencement speakers paid to give you one last blast of praise before you leave the paternalistic confines of your schooling. I can tell you, my dear students, that every one of us faculty have sat through a two-hour-plus commencement ceremony and thought to ourselves, “Wow. I could give a much better talk and I’d do it for free.” Okay, not that part about for free, but definitely the better speech part. I have decided this year to not wait for an invitation to address you. I am writing it down here, and if Fate or luck brings it to your attention, then I hope you will find some nugget or two worth remembering.

If you’ve been in one of my philosophy courses or Honors seminars, you’ve heard me prattle on about “the human predicament.” (I prefer ‘predicament’ to the noncommittal ‘condition’ or ‘situation’, which seem to me embarrassed euphemisms for the Real Thing.) If you are blissfully unaware of the human predicament’s existential grip on you, then what follows may sound like the ravings of an extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, I have about a half century of life behind me and have felt its ever-tightening and omnipresent hold on me and on all those whom I love and know. So if you are a student, I can think of no better way to encourage you on your way beyond these first few years of your adulthood to those that follow than to describe this predicament as I have experienced it and give you what paltry advice I possess to help you navigate it. Because what I would never say in class I say now: the human predicament is very real, and at times very painful, but with some perspective such as that offered by the great wisdom traditions, it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

My philosopher friend Bill Vallicella wrote a short post in 2009 on his blog that perfectly captures my own difficult experience coming to terms with this. It is the heart of this post—I quote it below in full. It is my favorite thing that he has written and I hope you will find it, as I have, as honest, enlightening, and encouraging as it is challenging. It is a great Mirror. mirror-lakeIt can show you your own heart, that seat of will and desire, as well as the hearts of others. This Mirror will show you the truth about yourself. It is therefore no easy matter to stand before it and take in its revelations without the cover of our well-worn robes of self-delusion and bad faith. It will confirm the presence of real wounds you have suffered, those scars you carry, even from youngest childhood, while those fabrications of your own design dissolve. It will reveal to you, like Nietzsche’s greatest weight, in “your loneliest loneliness,” that which we take extraordinary pains almost every hour of every day to conceal about ourselves from ourselves and others. Bill’s text is quoted in blue; my edits and commentary are in black:

 

I’ve been loved, hated, honored, loathed, respected, scorned, justly penalized, unjustly maligned, praised for what I should not have been praised for, lionized, demonized, put on a pedestal, dragged through the mud, understood, misunderstood, ill-understood, well-understood, ignored, admired, envied, tolerated, and found intolerable. And the same most likely goes for you.

 

Can you control what others say and think about you? Nope, not one bit. Reputation is a fickle and cruel master. And the gossip train is always on time (gossip is the currency of the small-souled, bitter, and envious—for your own sake renounce it and all of its ways). Far better than managing your reputation (what a depressing phrase!) is the life’s work of developing your character. John Wooden, the great basketball coach, said it well: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And if you really are, on balance, a decent character, this, like truth, will out in the end. But how do you know if you really possess good character? You can know by the quality of your friends—what does the Mirror reveal about them? The true friend, like my dearest friend Jack, knows your character. He will celebrate with you your joys and praise your victories—but not overmuch!—and will not forsake you when you do wrong because he knows doing wrong is not in character for you. The true friend always accepts you but doesn’t always approve—and because he’s a friend he will tell you when he doesn’t approve. You can endure and overcome any abuses to your reputation with such friends. Dare to be transparent and vulnerable to them.

 

I’ve been the object of Schadenfreude, of glacial indifference, of jealousy. I’ve been the object of every emotional attitude by someone or other, at some time or other, for some reason or other, or for no reason at all. I’ve been loved and then hated by the same person, and the other way around. I’ve been liked by people who do not now love me, and loved by people who do not now like me. I attract and I repel, sometimes different people, sometimes the same people at different times. I have been different people to different people and different people to myself. And the same most likely goes for you.

 

That first sentence is ordinary professional life in a nutshell! The rewards of most of the work available to professionals of all kinds in these days, in tandem with the penalties, are delivered by aggressive forces of dehumanization. We easily become its agents and inevitably suffer as its patients. Your well-being will oscillate, sometimes wildly, under the force of these vicissitudes if your own sense of worth and importance is attached to the judgment and approval of those around you.

Institutions exist in part to evaluate individuals because people love to evaluate each other. It is up to you how much stock you will place in their measures, both favorable and unfavorable. I have been the recipient of many gifts, honors, and kindnesses, the genuine outweighing the treacherous many, many times over. These validate the good and true things I know about my work as a teacher and scholar. Even as they fill me with gratitude, I release them and their hold on my ego, just as I brush away arrows of spite and malice intended to poison me. If you were a student of mine, I probably had you read a Stoic–Seneca, Cicero, or Epictetus–and probably Boethius. Their works can be of consolation to you as your years accumulate and you endure the progress of Rota Fortunae. It’s good soil and the harvest will sustain you.

What is there of value to glean from these musings? I have added some of my own thoughts in the commentary above, some of which coincides with the points distilled by Bill in his post:

 

The human heart is fickle, and there is no call to care too much about what anyone thinks of you, whether good or bad — even yourself.

 

Easy to believe, hard to practice. Which reminds me of a related point that my friend George taught me a few years ago. Moral rules, guidelines, and policies have no power to guard or change your behavior.

Just above, I told you “Don’t be a gossip!” What good is that command if you haven’t the power to prevent yourself from gossiping? The answer to that question is the real purpose of such rules: to judge and condemn. That is their real power. And we humans love to exercise that power. And to turn the screw another perverse notch, we can condemn you for lacking the power to obey the rule.

But why isn’t knowledge of the rule enough? Why can’t you “just do it” (or don’t do it)? Often, the rule, or the fear of failing to do it, or the fear of breaking it, is enough to goad or restrain you. But sometimes behavior originates from our wounds. And wounded people wound others. Wounds—those of the heart as well as the body—have to be tended to and healed. Can you heal yourself? Maybe. But many of us need assistance outside of ourselves. The great wisdom traditions speak to this need for transformation. A good counselor or therapist can be a lifesaver. Don’t spurn these aids. That pretty much includes all of us.

wreckage-fuselageHave you broken a moral or institutional rule and been subsequently judged or condemned for doing so? Then you have learned the point of such rules the hard way. Now comes the test: you have the option to own it or evade it. I recommend owning it, and let others think what they will of you. It may chasten you when you are tempted to stand as judge over a fellow rulebreaker. Such are the tests of character that actually count when owning your failures, mistakes, or transgressions: remorse and empathy. All of your deeds, good and bad, are part of your story, for better and for worse. And the same goes for all of us.

 

Human reality is an ever-shifting play of perspectives and evaluations and, insofar forth, bare of ultimate reality and so not to be taken with utmost seriousness. All of the great wisdom traditions teach the need of detachment or non-attachment. You are grasping at straws and chasing after shadows if you seek your worth or ultimate reality in the broken mirrors of others’ subjectivity. My mirror and your mirror are broken, too.

 

In the clear Mirror of Bill’s wisdom, a wisdom that springs from the likes of the Stoics, Boethius, and the teachers, ascetics, and monastics of the great religions of the world, the deformities and blemishes of our own hearts are laid bare. You may thunder “I!” as loud and as long as you please. Duly consider all that your hands have done and the toil you have spent in doing it. Is it worth anything? Of course! Is it where your worth is to be found? You might as well chase after the wind. Fix your gaze above the vanities, schemes, and petty vengeances in which your ego longs to embroil you, and with which others would brutalize you.

 

If you have been done wrong, think of the times you have done others wrong. If on occasion you have not gotten what you deserve, recall the times when you got more than you deserved — and perhaps at the expense of the more deserving. If you judge that you have been unfairly treated, bear in mind that it is just someone’s judgment that you have been unfairly treated, and that the mere fact that this someone is you is not all that significant.

 

“I have been done wrong!” I have shouted, mostly to myself. And it was true. But that first sentence of Bill’s does not let me play the victim. Self-righteous indignation is not an option on the table because I have done others wrong, too. Will you be treated unfairly tomorrow? Almost certainly. And who judges this treatment unfair? You? That’s just another human judgment, yes? So don’t make too much of this shadow play of fairness while we tarry in the Cave.

You are not alone in the barbed net of the human predicament. Share in each others’ trials and joys as fellow sojourners through the heights and depths of this too transient life. You will know your true friends and you will be known by them. I am grateful always to those who have seen me in the Mirror and not turned away: Jack and Jack, Jack, Jeff, and Chris, and my family. My fondest wish for all of you is not that you will live a morally spotless life, or that you will know only pleasure and happiness and never pain, or that you will achieve an unbroken string of worldly success unblemished by failure. No, none of these patronizing fictions will do for this event. I give you instead this Mirror and trust that you will dust it off from time to time, heed its lessons, and persevere in the hard work of building your character and your life.

Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

It’s January. The beginning of another semester. It’s cold and your commitment to attend class is being tested.

snow-ice-cold-ground

Winter isn’t coming. It’s HERE. It’s time to buckle down and get stuff done.

I’ve updated a series of posts I published last year on how to do discussion in a Socratic seminar. I’m calling this the “Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion” series. In today’s post, I’m going to list the five keys (I don’t want to keep you waiting!) and then over the next week I’ll dedicate a WHOLE post to EACH key. So stay tuned for my inside tips to crushing it in your seminar discussion.

The Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

1. Focused Preparation

The key word there is focused. Well, preparation is pretty much a key word, too. But the problem with just telling you to “Have good preparation!” – duh – is that it’s too vague. You want to use your time wisely. So when you buckle down to prep for your seminar session, you want to make the most of your time. After all, you’ve got other classes to study for, too. This Key will be my next post.

2. Full Engagement

You may think you’re paying attention and ready to jump into a discussion. But your behaviors might be tells that something else is occupying your attention. I’m going to discuss the behaviors to avoid and the behaviors to adopt so that not only YOU know you’re engaged, but your INSTRUCTOR and CLASSMATES know you are, too.

3. Dialogue, not Diatribe

Seminar-Table-DiscussionWhen you open your mouth to speak, what’s your goal? What kind of discussion are you actually engaging in? Are you debating? Pontificating? Showing off? Defensive? Frustrated? What kind of discussion leads to the Course goal: understanding amazing ideas and great books and becoming a better thinker? This is one of my favorite topics to teach because it makes such a big difference in how much you learn and take away from the class.

4. Go to the Source

You’re prepared…check. You’re engaged…check. You’re developing those dialogue skills…check. Now what are you going to talk about? Content is king, they say. And your content came from the bookstore or Amazon. So this Key is all about how to make the text the star of your discussion.

5. Repurpose the Discussion

Overheard – 1: “That was a great class!” 2: “Iknowright?” And like a ship silently gliding away on the calm night waters, the content of the discussion is lost forever… When this happens it’s like your team winning a tough game after a lot of practice and preparation, and then quitting rather than going on to play for the championship. But a great discussion should be #winning beyond the bell for that class. In the final post I’ll show you what to do after the class is over and how to take the best material from the discussion and reuse it in the course … or even in other courses.

So these are the Five Keys to successful Socratic Seminar Discussion. Next we’re going to unpack each one in the next five posts. So stay tuned for loads more practical advice on succeeding in your seminar.