Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes by Flower Darby with James M. Lang

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What it is:

Small Teaching Online is a 225 page book written as a follow up to Small Teaching to address ways in which the small teaching approach can be adapted in the online medium. Both books address small practical changes that you can make to your teaching that will positively impact student learning. Although this resource appears to be directed strictly to an audience of faculty teaching solely online, it offers tips that would be beneficial to any faculty member who finds themselves building some of their course content into an online space.

Topics Covered:

Small Teaching Online is broken up into three parts: Designing for Learning, Teaching Humans, and Motivating Online Students (and Instructors). The chapter-by-chapter breakdown is:

  • Part I: Designing for Learning
    •     Surfacing Backward Design
    •     Guiding Learning Through Engagement
    •     Using Media and Technology Tools
  • Part II: Teaching Humans
    •     Building Community
    •     Giving Feedback
    •     Fostering Student Persistence and Success
  • Part III: Motivating Online Students (and Instructors)
    •     Creating Autonomy
    •     Making Connections
    •     Developing as an Online Instructor

My Takeaways:

It has always been my contention that online learning forces a lot of pedagogical considerations that should occur in all learning environments, but become much more apparent when teaching in an online space because you are establishing all new norms. The authors make this point in the introduction when they contrast the experience of entering an in person classroom vs. an online space. In one experience students walk through a door – in another they need to navigate several login protocols and guidelines to gain access to a course space and then 

“Once online students finally get into their class, it is frequently unclear what they should do first.” (p. xvii)

Using the example as a guideline we can see that a course needs to be re-thought when it is taught online. Some of the biggest takeaways I found were:

  • Design and align your course content – Teaching online is a great opportunity to consider what you are teaching, how students will use that knowledge, and how you will know that they are successful. This can start with your assessments & assignments. Look at what you’ve typically required and then break it down from there. What is the purpose of the assignment? What are students demonstrating through that work and what type of thinking have they had to use to generate it? Does it address your course objectives? Is it meaningful to students? If not – how can you re-work that piece?
  • Pay attention to the clues your students are giving you. Recognize that as an expert in your field you may make assumptions that trip up novices a bit. Do you notice that a large portion of your class missed what you thought was a fairly obvious conclusion? You need to figure that out! Sometimes breaking the assignment down into chunks can help to move students through a complex thought process (and provide you with the means to address a mis-conception at the exact point it occurs rather than after a whole thought process has been built on that mistake). Use discussion forums to monitor for confusion. Are you noticing patterns? Jump in and ask questions, provide resources and suggestions when you think they might be helpful in redirection students.
  • Connection matters. It shouldn’t be surprising that I had the same takeaway for Small Teaching. This is the core of education – connection. However, connecting in an online space is unique. What you might be able to do through eye contact or a quick conversation on the way to class, needs to happen in a different way in an online class. Regardless of medium students need to feel seen and heard. They want to know you care. Helping students to build their own personal learning networks is a method where you will not only get to know the students interests, but also help them to develop a network that can further support them in the learning after they have left your classroom. It also establishes the power and value of connection in all areas of our lives.

Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang

A picture of a desk with books, an apple, pencils and alphabet blocks on it.
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

What it is:

Small Teaching is a 246 page book written to address small moves that faculty in Higher Education settings can make to address teaching challenges and improve student learning in the process. This book is for you if you are looking for small practical adjustments you can make to your teaching to address learning challenges.

Topics Covered:

Small Teaching is broken up into three major parts to address: knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. The chapter by chapter breakdown is:

  • Part I: Knowledge
    • Retrieving
    • Predicting
    • Interleaving
  • Part II: Understanding
    • Connecting
    • Practicing
    • Self-Explaining
  • Part III: Inspiration
    • Motivating
    • Growing
    • Expanding

My Takeaways:

Practice, practice, practice – make sure your assignments and formative assessments are practice sessions that mimic the way in which you will summatively assess your students. In other words – don’t assign papers all semester and then assess a student’s knowledge based on a multiple choice exam. Give students the opportunity to practice the cognitive activity that you have chosen to summatively assess their knowledge so that the assessment method does not impact your students’ ability to show you what they understand.

Focus on growth – use reflective metacognitive exercises to help students recognize and analyze the ways in which their knowledge and understanding has grown over the course of time. This practice not only positively impacts learning gains – it also reinforces a growth mindset.

Connection matters – the way in which you connect and interact with your students will impact their motivation. Sometimes you will not recognize the impact that a few moments of personalized attention will have on a student, but you can bet on the fact that this time is never wasted. In my experience this motivation is dual purpose; it positively impacts both teachers and students.

“Whatever we do, we have to remember that the brains in our classrooms do more than think; they feel, and those feelings can play a valuable role in our efforts to motivate and inspire student learning” (p. 193).

Canvas Gradebook

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Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

As the semester start date approaches we get more questions about grading and how different grading schemes can be configured in Canvas. Members of the Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry are always happy to schedule consultations to discuss this in more depth, however Canvas also provides several resources that faculty can review at their convenience as well. To get an overview of the gradebook in text form you can visit the article “What are Grades and the Gradebook”. In addition, Canvas has a great gradebook overview video that I’ve embedded below. Please note that although the title says that it is outdated – this functionality will be live until 2020. To view what options will be available in the new gradebook in 2020 please view the video at the bottom of this page.

2020 Gradebook

What does instructional design look like? – Post #11 – The Wrap Up

This is the 11th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Meeting 11 was our first multi-day meeting week. During this session the team reviewed the list of questions and missing information compiled by Heather. Several items were placeholders for work that the faculty member was currently working on.

The team had a productive conversation about providing a means to make it easier for students to identify what work had been completed and what still needed to be done. It was determined that any available automated completion settings in Canvas could actually increase confusion, so the team settled on providing a Google sheet checklist that mirrored the components spreadsheet shared earlier in the course. The checklist was an optional support tool to help students familiarize themselves with a more self-directed learning environment. We are excited to collect feedback from students on this method to see if it is effective and helpful in the way that we hope it will be! (Initial feedback was VERY positive!)

At this meeting it was becoming apparent that the course design process was starting to draw to a conclusion which generated a sense of accomplishment in both team members. Although there were still a number of items we hoped to learn from the first participants in the course – we felt confident that we had done our best to try to anticipate sticky points and challenges and to mitigate those challenges.

As we wrapped up our final official meeting, we agreed to keep the lines of communication open, and Heather assured Anne that she would be available should any unexpected design concerns or questions arise.

Now we just had to wait for the start date — onward!

What does instructional design look like? – Post #10 – Beginning to Review Our Work

This is the 10th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

In this meeting we took the temp in terms of where we were in course development timeline and what additional work needed to be completed to get to our end point on time. Heather was able to do a thorough review of two modules so questions about those items were also addressed. The team revisited the checklist to confirm progress. We also submitted additional requests for assistance with:

  • Transcription of a recorded interview
  • Support for an in-person tech session
  • Help from a student intern to review course content 

In preparation for the next meeting Heather spent the following week working her way through the course and came up with the following list of outstanding questions and to-do items. We considered this our first copy edit review of the course content.

Questions

  1. Added links to assignment guideline docs from the About this Course grading section. – Is this ok?
  2. What would you like to do about the Quest activity? (This activity was designed to take students on an active tour of the course where they had to discover different info in the course.)
  3. Items at end of module 1 (This referred to additional content in draft format that were awaiting finalization of reading schedule.)
  4. Module 4 exit ticket – how do you want this to be submitted? (via Canvas assignment?)
  5. Consider suggesting to students that they start a new thread for each discussion group – Module 4 discussion
  6. Items at end of module 5 (This referred to additional content in draft format that were awaiting finalization of reading schedule.)
  7. Entrance ticket for module 7 is the assignment for module 6 – or is it supposed to be the wiki here? (Checking links is a crucial part of the final steps of hybrid course development.)

Needs to be done

  • Exit ticket for module 2
  • Add link to this reading in module 5 – Visualizing qualitative data in evaluation research. New Directions for Evaluation, 139, 53-71.
  • Figure out how the Storytelling with Data links and info (library resources) should be managed
  • Add transcript to interview page
  • Course tour video & transcript (for main page)
  • Add assignments into module view

What does instructional design look like? – Post #9 – Additional Resources & Backups

This is the 9th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

In between meetings 8 & 9 the team re-connected with the media development specialist to fine tune the workflow for how videos could be edited with the support and advice of the media specialist. Video will be used minimally in the course so the team did not believe it would take up a great deal of time to do this. The minimal use was intentional given the time frame for development and launch of the course.

During meeting 9 Anne shared challenges she was continuing to face with getting access to an ebook for the course. The library believed it would have this accessible by the time the course began, however the faculty member felt that until this was confirmed as well as the ability for multiple students to access the ebook at once, she was tied into developing a mirrored reading/resource list that could be used if this option fell through. The team decided that a good interim step would be to place additional readings into a “supplemental resources” section within each module so that the work of locating the resources would still benefit the course even if they were not used as the core texts. Together the team also brainstormed using this section as an invitation for students to suggest other resources that they found over the course term.

Lastly, the team discussed the way in which course development had migrated from the faculty member’s core documentation in Google Drive to content being added directly into Canvas. There was some concern about not having this content in a non-Canvas format so Heather shared some export options including the ePub export which (at the time of this writing) was still in beta. Heather tested out the export which included an epub and a corresponding zip file which included other files that had been uploaded to the Canvas site.

What does instructional design look like? Post #8 — Zooming!

This is the 8th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

During the session the team met with four other participants to test out the functionality of Zoom. Anne planned to use Zoom for a once-a-week in-person meeting with the course participants. Functionality that she hoped to test included how to raise hands, chat, share documents, break into break-out rooms, and return from the rooms. 

During the course of the testing we learned about the importance of logging into Zoom before entering the room. (Without logging in you won’t have the facilitator controls!) Also – Anne was pleased with the ease with which she was able to move between break out rooms to check in on conversations. 

During this session we also tried out using an external tool called PearDeck as a part of the Zoom session. After carefully reviewing the functionality against what was possible in Zoom, Anne decided that tools within Zoom would work best for the class’ needs.

By the end of the session Anne was feeling much more comfortable navigating in Zoom and managing the class through the interface. Heather used the session to construct a Zoom testing checklist to refer back to in future Zoom testing sessions with other faculty members. This process worked towards the Digital Pedagogy & Media group’s goal to systematize some functions of their work that would be repeated over the course of transitioning content into a new medium.

One last simple design task was integrating a link to Anne’s Zoom room into the side menu in Canvas. We did this using the redirect tool in Canvas. I’ve included a video tutorial below to explain how to do this. Please note that any external apps that require student interaction need to go through an ITS security review before they are used in the classroom.

How to use the redirect tool in Canvas

What does instructional design look like? Post #7 – Connecting across Distance

This is the 7th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

The first item on our agenda was to iron out details about the grading scheme and assignment category setups to make sure that they would function as Anne was expecting. We found that Canvas grading schemes work very well with traditional percentage ‘buckets’. Below is an example of percentage buckets, however please note these were not used for Anne’s course:

  • Papers = 20%
  • Exams (3) = 60%
  • Participation = 20%

However, faculty who are interested in offering extra credit, the opportunity to drop the lowest grade in a category, or any other adjustment that would not necessarily apply to the full class will not find this functionality within the Canvas gradebook. In these instances we suggest faculty use an outside tool for grade calculations. (DLINQ staff are happy to consult on this topic.)

The team also continued to discuss a weekly communication plan and Anne decided that using announcements would work well. Rather than preparing weekly communications ahead of time, Anne would prepare a template and would write the contents of the message as the course proceeded. Anne felt that this would provide the most flexibility which would be helpful since it will be her first time teaching this course. The team agreed that being able to respond to unexpected inquiries and questions in the weekly announcements would be the best experience for the students and would increase the effectiveness of this modality. Canvas would still allow us to set up multiple announcement messages ahead of time (based on the template) that could be adjusted (but not need to be created) on a week by week basis.

In the next week the team planned to collaborate on a Zoom testing session that would allow Anne to test out different functionalities that she hoped to use as a part of her synchronous sessions. Heather planned to incorporate the outline for this testing plan into a template that is being designed to help structure the development of hybrid course spaces. Some of the items to test included:

What does instructional design look like? Post #6 — The evolution of roles in project collaboration

This is the 6th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Kelly Sikkemaon Unsplash

At this point in the course development process the instructional designer role (Heather) had shifted to providing more general guidance and support while the faculty member (Anne) focused more intently on loading content into the Canvas course site. As such, Heather adjusted to follow the faculty member’s lead in terms of when the pair meant face-to-face via Zoom and what work took place asynchronously via email. 

Anne shared some grade scheme adjustments that needed to be made that the Heather planned to add to the course site after a few clarifying questions were answered. Questions had to do with how participation grades would be calculated on a weekly basis to clarify what items would be graded in Canvas vs. what items would be manually entered in the Canvas gradebook. View more information about how the Canvas gradebook works here.

In addition, Heather suggested coming up with a weekly communications plan that could actually be drafted prior to the start of the class. This concept had been discussed earlier in the development process, but the more extensive content creation provided a better mechanism for following through on this topic. The intention of the weekly communication would be to set up and reinforce the weekly course structure outlined in Canvas to try to avoid any confusion that might surface as the class schedule filled with assignments.

Anne also expressed a need to share assignment details much earlier than originally planned to help the students put all the pieces together — which resulted in some content reorganization. The faculty member was very comfortable with Canvas and completed all of the content edits for the week. Heather found that her time was being spent in a more advisory/clarification role at this point in the process vs. at the start of the project when design skills were most regularly used.

Moving forward the team anticipated meeting on a face-to-face basis more sparingly as needed and increasing the frequency of email or asynchronous communications moving forward so that we could use our time most efficiency.

HPL II – Chapter 8 – Digital Technology

“…learning technology is most useful when it is designed to meet specific needs and contexts” (p. 164).

I read sentences like this and I sometimes wonder…does that really need to be written? Is this an a-ha moment for anyone? Are we still doing things in classrooms without thinking about why we are doing them?

Unfortunately the answer (as most students would attest) is a loud YES. Informally I’ve spoken to many students of all ages who’ve expressed frustration with an activity that is taking place in their class that they don’t understand the reasoning for. It doesn’t make sense to them why they are doing what they are doing and in too many situations – they don’t feel comfortable asking why.

One of the reasons I really enjoy working at the intersection of education and technology is that technology makes it more difficult to do anything without having a reason for why you are doing it and a methodology for sharing this with students. I think of it as the ‘emperor has no clothes’ moment. These moments happen with traditional teaching methods too, only it’s more challenging for a student to ask “Why are you lecturing this content? How do you expect me to process this material?” because lecturing as a teaching method is normalized within our society. It looks like “good teaching”, it’s familiar, and has been used for decades. However, it’s much easier to question a new methodology because it lacks this normalization – which is actually a really good thing. It forces educators to be more critical of and deliberate with their approaches to learning and teaching because they need to be ready to explain them.

When  students are asked to create a web site to share their papers on – the emperor has no clothes. What’s the purpose of the extra work here? What are you trying to accomplish in this medium – and does it work? If you can’t answer those questions meaningfully – you are missing the why.

Assignment: Create a poster of your research using Illustrator. No additional info given.

Assignment: Create a podcast of your interview. No additional info given.

However, each of these assignment has a potential ‘why’. The key is in the description and assessment of the assignment.

A web site – can be used to strengthen persuasive skills in a multi-modal context. Teach and assess your students on the variety of ways that visual and navigational elements can impact someone’s understanding of a new concept. Added bonus? – Integrating digital and information literacy skills into your curriculum.

A poster – can be used to distill the most salient points of your research into a format that can be consumed by someone with limited knowledge of your academic area. Creators need to consider what is common baseline knowledge in a set population and adjust the description of their work to target that audiences’ pre-existing knowledge.

A podcast – can be used to tell a story using first-hand accounts. Podcasts also lend themselves to helping students examine the power of narrative and specific examples in helping audiences to connect to complex topics. Creators can layer in storytelling and analysis to draw a more nuanced and personal argument.

In each of these examples what is most often missing is a more specific breakdown of what the assignment is trying to accomplish. Often this is hidden under the guise of “engagement”. Using a new mode of communication will allow my students to better engage with the content. While that’s often very true – we still need to explain how and why.

This explanation can help on many levels. The authors point out that

“Whether technology is motivating to people is likely to depend on the learner, the task, and the learning context” (p. 173).

The authors also reference 5 stages that creators often move through: 1. Identify or find a place where creation is happening, 2. Lurk or watch what’s going on, 3. Begin to make small contributions to creations, 4. Create their own material, and finally 5. Begin to lead the creation of materials (p. 175). This is important information for teachers to be aware of. It indicates that taking time to familiarize oneself with the process of creation is not a quick or single-step process. For authentic creation to take place, students must be given time to assimilate to creation environments.

No technology has a defined outcome. In fact, “there is considerable evidence that use of a single instructional technology can lead to different outcomes when used by different learners in different contexts” (p. 194). The “why” is so important and it’s more difficult to avoid explaining why you choose to use a certain technology than why you have chosen to lecture today. We should be asking and answering the ‘why question’ for both actions – but for now technology seems to be the home of “why”.