Should Online Classes Be Fun?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

There’s fun as comic relief, then there’s fun as passion.

The first is temporary and a diversion. In the classroom, it’s the seventh-inning stretch in a long lecture. The piano stairs (see the video below) falls into this category, a diversion from the dreary commute from one point to another in a big city. The jokes in an otherwise long and boring speech, too, are diversionary, sugar coating for a bland or bitter pill. The assumption is that the speaker has a captive audience that requires some form of relief.

The fun that makes the most sense for education is passion. Think of our personal interests, joys, hobbies. These aren’t haha funny. They’re aha fun. And the interesting thing is, we don’t need comic relief in these pursuits because they’re inherently engaging, absorbing. We lose ourselves in them. In a word, this type of fun is what Dewey calls “educative.”

When we have passion for something, we have an insatiable hunger for all there is to know about it. My son, growing up, wasn’t the best student, but I never worried because I knew he was bright. Even in grade school, he knew all the NBA teams and players and was an expert on MJ and the Bulls and, later, Kobe and his Lakers.

Driven by passion, he absorbed tons of information like a sponge via TV, newspapers, and magazines. He didn’t need a teacher. And this is the beauty of fun when it’s a passion. We become our own best teachers. We teach ourselves, or more accurately, we learn on our own.

We also become active participants, and my son played organized ball from elementary through high school. The fact that he spent much of his varsity years on the bench didn’t dampen his passion. Today, he still enjoys watching games and playing ball with his friends.

Think of your own passions. Golf? Travel? Cooking? Gardening? Reading?

Independent learning doesn’t mean we don’t seek out experts. We do, but on our own terms. We might read books on it, attend lectures or conferences, subscribe to periodicals. But we don’t need a teacher or a guide to tell us how to enjoy our passion. We already do, and decisions about what or how are part of the joy that we reserve for ourselves.

aha-haha

How to transfer this p-fun into the classroom? That’s the biggy.

Conventional wisdom says to use pull rather than push strategies, and this means using individual or group interest as a starting point. The common term for this is student-centered practices. The idea is to get students to personally buy into the objectives and lessons, to own them. This way, they’re learning primarily for their own sake and only partially for the teacher or the grade. The motivation is mostly intrinsic.

When motivation is located within the student, learning becomes largely self-directed and fun. In a word, passionate.

In composition, the variables we can manipulate are our assignments — readings, discussions, and paper topics. We need to come up with assignments that allow students to personally connect or engage with the class work, so they’re no longer doing a class assignment but a personal project.

In my English 200 (College Composition II) lessons, I’ve tried to set up a personal connection between topic and self to generate passion. For students who buy in, the results are terrific. For example, here’s a paper from earlier in the semester: “Broken Into Beautiful – Ishinomaki.”

These students were engaged in the learning activities that led up to their final paper. I read this as fun of the aha variety. They’ve made a connection with the objectives and class work and produced a paper that is personally passionate. Now, I have to figure out how to work the same kind of magic with students who don’t buy in and just go through the motions and churn out works with little or no passion. One strategy is our course publication that I use to feature exemplary student works such as the two mentioned above. These works are part of the course content that all students are required to read.
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Note: This article was prompted by a forum assignment in an in-service workshop I’m taking at Kapi’olani Community College, which is part of the University of Hawaii System. The completely online course, Teaching Online Prep Program (TOPP): Spring 2017, is being taught by Helen Torigoe and Marisa Yamada, instructional designers in the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching and Technology (CELTT). The “Piano Stairs” YouTube video was embedded in their lesson plan.

A Cure for Writer’s Block: A Letter to My Students

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Papers play a huge part in my online writing and literature courses. As part of our writing process, I require preliminary and final drafts. Of the two, preliminary drafts are the most important from the standpoint of pedagogy and learning. They must be submitted on time for writers to fully engage in the peer review activity, which is the heart of the writing process.

Thus, meeting the deadline is critical. Early this morning, I received an email from one of my better students, warning me that she may be late in submitting her preliminary draft because she’s hit the wall — writer’s block. The deadline is midnight today. I ended up writing a message to her about overcoming this affliction that most writers experience. After sending it, I decided to refine and distribute it to all my classes. After further thought, I decided that this may be useful to some of my colleagues who assign papers and struggle with students who can’t seem to meet deadlines.

If you find this useful, please feel free to use it, in part or in whole. No permission necessary. Some of the details may not work for you, so be sure to revise or delete them. -Jim

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Our first review draft is due at midnight today. I know, you’re aware of that and don’t need to be reminded. If you’re like many writers, your draft is not done. In fact, for some of you, it’s barely off the ground. You’ve been grappling against that age-old nemesis, writer’s block.

As a writer, I understand exactly where you’re coming from. Believe me, you’re not alone. Writer’s block is a problem for 99% of all writers. Thus, I know that procrastination is not the cause for a late paper. In fact, it is a symptom of writer’s block.  Continue reading

Charles Moran: A Tribute by Nick Carbone

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Nick Carbone‘s “#worthassigning: Five Online Essays by Charles Moran,”1 a touching and enlightening tribute to a pioneering leader in writing and ed tech, is #worthreading. Here are a few excerpts from the article:

Moran: “How the teacher uses a given teaching environment depends upon the character of that environment, of course, but it also depends upon who that teacher is.”

This is a timeless reminder that a teacher-proof, one-size-fits-all model for teaching with technology runs against the grain of what we know about successful teaching.

Moran: “I begin to resent, too, the amount of new work I seem to have to do. For instance, I’ve had to go all the way to my office to get to my computer to put together a writing exercise for the class, print multiple copies on blue paper, and cut the pages in half to distribute to the class. I wrote, ‘All this cutting and copying is time- and resource-consuming!'”

Moran wrote this in the context of technology at the time, and it underscores the importance of perspective in using technology in teaching. When the effort leads to less efficiency by increasing tedium and cost, then we need to step back and re-examine our priorities. This caveat, however, needs to be weighed against perceived long-term benefits. Is the current inefficiency a trial-and-error penalty for greater efficiency in the future?

Moran: “Technology seems to be leading us forward to new forms of writing, but, as used by standardized testing programs, backward to the five-paragraph theme.”

Moran has a way of hooking into the big issues in ed tech, and this is an example. Standardized testing serves a useful purpose, but that purpose can be a huge obstacle to critical reform. If we, educators, allow it to lead our practice, then we lose sight of other purposes that are equally and, arguably, far more important.

Moran: “Among our goals as writing teachers are these: help students discover and use their voices; help them take risks with their writing; help them master the grammar, usage, mechanics, and styles of written English.”

As teachers, we’re consumed by learning objectives, and in our quest for the kinds of objective data that computers are so good at gathering and crunching, we forget that measurability is a primitive gauge and that we really don’t know how to measure the higher order variables in writing such as the importance of one’s genuine voice in developing writing skills and the value of courage in exploring new forms of expression. Overreliance on competencies that can be easily measured ignores the critical importance of competencies that we can’t even begin to identify let alone measure.

Carbone: “It focuses on what is lost when one goes back to not using the technology after coming to rely on it, and so it reverses the anxiety many faculty feel when they start to use technology. Charlie does a great job of making a simple brick and mortar classroom feel strange.”

Carbone, in commenting on one of Moran’s essays, reminds us that the cat’s out of the bag. Once we’ve stepped into a new medium, returning to the old is out of the question. Our world of teaching is forever changing, and we have no choice but to keep moving with the flow.

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1 Odds and Ends, 24 June 2015. I received this tip from Bert Kimura (email, 25 June 2015).