What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching

Judith_McDaniel2_80By Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

I just finished teaching my Women in Western Culture course online for the third time. The course materials span from prehistory—in the form of various creation myths in diverse cultures—to modern art and literature. It’s a quick overview with a theme: How were women seen in each of these instances and did the literature create or reflect women’s positions in the culture? Topics for discussion include the effect of religious myth on gender stereotypes, gender expectations of men and women, gender biases in language, among others. This is a class that I have taught at least a dozen times in a face-to-face format over the last 15 years. In the summer of 2008, I designed the class for online presentation for the first time.

Here are a few of the comments from students at the end of this summer term. I offer them not to compliment myself but to lead into an examination of what these students appreciate in a university level course and how we can design experiences that will take them there.

Preference for online format—personal interaction and group dynamics:

  • Ellie—I would definitely recommend a class like this, whether it was a boy or a girl. I think that an online class like this may be an even better experience because people can express their feelings and reactions to certain readings without having to worry about the reactions of their classmates. I am very glad I took this class.
  • Grant—I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt like it was easier to post my opinion online than in a classroom. When I started posting I was sort of nervous about posting my ideas, but after a little while I felt a lot more comfortable with it than I would have in a classroom. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I guess just not having to see everyone’s responses immediately kinda changes things.
  • Ashley—I would definitely recommend this class to a friend. I would tell them to take it in an online format over a classroom format. This class requires your opinion and not everyone is comfortable in expressing their opinion in a classroom format because they don’t want to be judge. The online format makes you worry less about other peoples judgments which makes it easier to express your opinion.
  • Hoi Ying—I agree with you that this class is perfect for web-delivered. Since some of the topics that we discussed were relatively controversial, it was better for us to discuss it online, where we would not see each other’s races and sexes. I know I certainly would be too embarrassed or timid to voice my opinion in the classroom.

How do we design for anonymity and protection of opinions?

We don’t. To a large extent, this is one of the gifts of the online format. Students don’t see one another and any intimacy they develop (and they do grow to know and like one another in varying degrees) is based on their expression of ideas and exchange of ideas. The one important role for an instructor in this regard is making sure that appropriate online etiquette is described, modeled, and enforced.

Significant learning from online interactive discussions:

  • Arlene—The most surprising thing that happened consistently over this semester, was not necessarily in relation to the readings, but to the responses that my classmates had for each discussion. I was so surprised by the numerous postings, holding such high quality and different responses. There were definitely remarks made that I had never considered before reading their posting. All I can say for my fellow classmates is job well done, you made it easier for me to discuss the readings – whether it was giving me a new perspective or answering a question that I simply couldn’t answer. Actually, to be completely honest, I enjoyed every day that we had discussions because I could write what I thought and have the ability to comment on the totally opposite idea that someone else had. There were definitely some good discussions from this semester.
  • Keith—The thing that surprised me the most was that the course wasn’t about women’s oppression in the business world or the objectification of women in the media but the course was more about the oppression of a woman’s ability to think and act for herself. The most important thing I learned was to listen to not just women but to other people as they express their opinion because i never know when they may bring up a topic or have an idea that I never thought about. This will help me with being a doctor and being a better human being.
  • Carley—When you mentioned that each classmate has very different ideas and opinions that they bring to the discussion, and it helps you form your own ideas, I can honestly agree. In the beginning of the class I would always read what everyone said before me but I realized that wouldn’t help me when it came to my turn to write my initial post. I think it really helps to go with your gut instinct of what you pulled to the reading. It brings more conversation, cause you might find people agree and disagree with you but it helps you learn.

Annie Leibovitz

How do we design for interactive discussions?

The first time I taught this course, I was pretty pleased with myself when I looked at the discussion forums I had created. And then I wasn’t. Student responses were perfunctory, not expansive. I required them to “respond” to one or two other postings, which they did in very limited ways: “Oh, great idea!” or “I guess I hadn’t thought of that.” I went back to the drawing board with the discussions remaining and was more specific. “Respond to an opinion that disagrees with yours.”  That was better, but an even greater improvement came when I asked them to “Respond to an opinion that disagrees with yours and ask a question about the source of that opinion.”

I also developed a rubric to give the students along with the syllabus: “How will I be graded in these online discussions?” A response that is social rather than an intellectual engagement will receive no points. A perfunctory response that indicates the reading has been done will receive one point. The highest level (5 points) requires engagement, a reference to the reading for the post (or previous posts), and a question that will further the discussion. It did not take long before most students became very good conversationalists.

Hard work that is rewarding and rewarded:

  • Brittany—It was somewhat difficult because I worked everyday of this course, but it was not impossible to do in any way, shape or form. It definitely kept me on my toes though! In fact, I read more for this course than I did all last semester…I learned a lot, but each of us had to put effort into this class, it wasn’t to be taken lightly or for an easy grade. This course was structured to learn and grow, which is honestly what I believe happened for us all. I have not read one posting that said my fellow classmate learned nothing during this semester.
  • Cameron—I agree this class was a lot of work but I feel that McDaniel did her best to structure this class in a way that all people are able to do the work especially when they work everyday. This was also the best history class I have taken and would also recommend it to anyone

How do we design for a structure that challenges and rewards?

When I am designing a course for web delivery, I spend more time than otherwise attempting to balance the amount of time and work a student will need to commit. I want the reading to be fairly even across the course, which is hard when I have some poems, some short stories, and some novels. I bring in feature length films, video excerpts, both short (3 minutes) and longer (up to 20 minutes). I try to alternate straight reading assignments with time spent in interactive research on the web.

I use no lecture material in this course. All of the information is included in the prefaces to the discussion prompts, the background for the Essay responses, and in my interjections during the students’ discussions—just to make sure they have all of the pieces I want them to be considering. Moving away from the lecture format was both scary and freeing for me. After 30 years doing it one way, I had to be reassured over and over that students would have an equivalent (if not better) learning experience as I began to adopt this new format.

Discovery through original research:

  • Corey—I also found it interesting to learn about the Bloomsbury group. I had no idea that a group like that with such sexual differences existed in a time era that anything out of the ordinary would classify you as different.
  • Erika—I was actually really excited when I saw today’s assignment because I already had an idea of who I wanted to talk about! I come from a family of photographers (My grandfather was a published photographer) so it has been a passed-down passion. The female artist I wanted to reference and discuss was Annie Leibovitz. She has taken many famous photographs that many people may not know that they were hers. Annie became interested in photography in high school and then went to learn at the San Francisco Art institute and then started doing photography while living in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. She returned to the states in 1970 and became a photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, which she worked for until 1983. Her most famous photograph was that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono where Lennon is curled up next to Ono.

How do we use the web and its resources for original research online?

What I have learned since I started teaching online, which I had not been aware of in quite the same way before, is what extraordinary resources are available for teachers and students. I need to make sure the quality meets my standards, but I would never be able to find a better intellectual resource, for example, than the Itsukushima_toriiwebsite produced by a Brandeis University professor on a Shinto shrine in Japan—the history, the present day use, the myths that support it, and the art work that has grown up around it.

In this Western Culture class, I had three original research projects: one on creation myths, one on women artists from 1975-2009, and one on the social and historical background of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. I think the danger for a course designer is to become trapped in the idea that “equivalency” means using all of the same tools but somehow just shifting them from the classroom or library to the web. To some extent, we can do that, but if we do that we are missing a huge potential learning experience for our students. To me, encouraging our students to live that classic goal of higher education, the life of the mind, means giving them engaging research to do and a forum in which to discuss it with peers and mentor(s).

And in conclusion:

  • Sarah—I think the most important thing I learned from this class is being a better writer. Having to write a paper each week, and a discussion each day really improved my writing skills. I found out that I really enjoyed talking to people in our discussions, and finding ways that I could add to the conversation. I think this type of learning is very important because you learn from your other classmates. They might have found something in the text that you missed or didn’t understand. I also really liked this class cause it breaks you out of your shell and requires you to converse with other classmates. Overall I think this class has brought great improvements to myself as a writer. I’m not as afraid to write papers each week.

Interview with Bert Kimura: TCC 2009 April 14-16

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

The following ETC interview with Bert Kimura, coordinator of the annual TCC (Technology, Colleges and Community) Worldwide Online Conference, the longest running virtual conference, was conducted via email on April 7-8, 2009. Dr. Kimura, a professor at Osaka Gakuin University, orchestrates the completely online event from Japan. The theme of the 14th annual conference is “The New Internet: Collaborative Learning, Social Networking, Technology Tools, and Best Practices.” It will be held on April 14-16, 2009. TCC is a conference designed for university and college practitioners including faculty, academic support staff, counselors, student services personnel, students, and administrators.

Question: What’s the theme of this year’s conference and, more specifically, why did you choose it?

The Internet world is abuzz with social networking and Web 2.0 technologies and, recently, its impact on teaching and learning. We thought that this focus would be appropriate for faculty along with what their colleagues have been doing with these technologies in their (i.e., the early adopters’) classrooms.

TCC coordinators pay attention to the Horizon Report published annually by the New Media Consortium and EduCause. Two years ago, the report cited social media as a technology to have short term impact on teaching and learning.

bert_kimura2Question: What are the primary advantages of online vs. F2F conferences?

1. Ability to “attend” all conference sessions, including the ability to review sessions and content material.
2. No travel expenses or time lost from the workplace.
3. No need to obtain travel approval and submit complex documents to meet administration and/or business office requirements.

Question: What are some innovative or new features that you’ve added to TCC?

1. Live sessions have made the conference alive, i.e., people seem to like knowing that others are doing the same thing at the same time. Through these sessions they can interact with each other through the “back door,” a background chat that is going on simultaneously; this is the same as speaking to your neighbor when sitting in a large plenary session at a conference. Additionally all sessions are recorded and made exclusively available for review to registered participants for six months.
2. Collaboration with LearningTimes. The LearningTimes CEO and president are very savvy technically and hands-on, and they understand how educators work, how tech support should be provided, and they provide an excellent online help desk to conference participants, especially presenters. Their staff support responds quickly and accurately to participant queries. They also respond graciously and encouragingly to those with much less technical savvy.
3. Paper proceedings (peer reviewed papers). We believe that this is one way to raise the credibility of this event and make it accessible to a broader higher education audience. Research institutions still require traditional (and peer reviewed) publications for tenure and promotion. However, by publishing entirely online, we also promote a newer genre. Proceedings can be found at: http://etec.hawaii.edu/proceedings/
4. Inclusion of graduate student presentations. We feel that we need to invest in the future and that TCC can also become a learning laboratory for graduate students. Grad students, especially if they are at the University of Hawai`i, may have much greater difficulty in getting to F2F conferences than faculty.

Question: What’s the secret to TCC’s success?

1. Great collaboration among faculty, worldwide, to bring this event together. We have over 50 individuals that assist in one way or another — advisory panel, proposal reviews (general presentations, e.g., poster sessions), paper proceedings editorial board, editors (writing faculty that review and edit descriptions), session facilitators, and a few others.
2. Quality of presentations — they are interesting, timely, and presented by peers, for and about peers.
3. Continuity and satisfaction among participants. Our surveys (see Additional Sources below) consistently show very high rates of satisfaction. We have managed to persist, and TCC is recognized as the longest running online (virtual) conference.
4. Group rates for participation — i.e., a single charge for an entire campus or system.
5. TCC provides a viable professional development venue for those that encounter difficulty with travel funding.

Question: What are the highlight keynotes, presentations, workshops, etc. for this year’s conference?

See tcc2009.wikispaces.com for the current conference program, presentation descriptions, etc. For keynote sessions, see http://tcc2009.wikispaces.com/Keynote+sessions

“Sakura in early morning. Taking out the trash was pleasant this morning.”
iPhone2 photo (8 April 2009) and caption by Bert Kimura. A view of cherry
blossoms from his apartment in Tsurukabuto, Nada-ku, Kobe, Japan.
See his Kimubert photo gallery.

Question: What’s the outlook for online conferences in general? Are they growing in popularity? Will they eventually surpass F2F conferences? If they’re not growing or are developing slowly, what are some of the obstacles?

At the moment, I’m not sure about the outlook — there are more virtual individual events or hybrid conferences, but not many more, if any, that are entirely online. One thing that is clear is many established F2F conferences are adding or considering streaming live sessions. Some openly indicate that a virtual presentation is an option.

The biggest challenge is the view that online events should be “free,” i.e., they should use funding models that do not charge participants directly. For an event that is associated with a public institution such as the University of Hawai`i (Kapi`olani Community College), it is impossible to use “micro revenue” funding models because institutional business procedures do not accommodate them easily.

Likewise, there is no rush among potential vendors to sponsor single online events. I have been talking with LearningTimes, our partners, to see if a sponsor “package” might be possible, where, for a single fee, a vendor might be able to sponsor multiple online conferences.

Even with 50+ volunteers, a revenue stream is vital to assure continuity. We operate on a budget that is one-twentieth or less of that for a traditional three-day F2F conference. Without volunteers, we could not do this.

Question: What are the prospects for presentations in different languages in future TCC conferences? If this is already a feature, has it been successful? Do you see it growing?

At the moment and with our current audience, there has not been an expressed need for this. However, if we were to target an event for a particular audience (e.g., Japan or China), then we would need to provide a support infrastructure, i.e., captioning and/or simultaneous interpretation.

On the other hand, the Elluminate Live interface that we use for live sessions does allow the user to view the interface and menus in his native language. Elluminate is gradually widening its support of other languages. Having experienced the use of another language interface, Japanese, I find that it makes a big difference to see menu items and dialogue boxes in your native language.

Question: Tell us about your international participants. Has language been a barrier for their participation?

– So far language has not been a challenge. It might be that those who suspect that it will be don’t register. Some, I think, see this as an opportunity to practice their English skills.
– International participants are much fewer in number (less than 10 percent). We’ve had presenters from Saudi Arabia, UK, Scandinavia, Brasil (this year’s keynoter), Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Canada, Israel, Abu Dabi,  Greece, India, as well as other countries.
– In some regions such as Asia (Japan is the example that I’m most knowledgeable about) personal relationships make the difference in terms of participation. On the other hand, it is difficulty for a foreigner, even if s/he lives in the target country, to establish personal networks. I have been able to do this gradually over the past seven years — but it is still, by far, not enough to draw a significant number (even with complimentary passes) to the event. In Japan, it also coincides with the start of the first semester (second week of classes) and, consequently, faculty are busy with regular duties. If we were to hold this event in the first week of September, the effect would be the same for the US. We would have difficulty attracting good quality presentations and papers that, in turn, will draw audiences to the event.

Question: What’s in the works in terms of new features for future conferences?

– Greater involvement with graduate students as presenters and conference staff. It provides TCC with manpower and, at the same time, TCC serves as a valuable learning laboratory for students.
– Events, either regional or global, on occasion, to keep the community interacting with one another throughout the year.
– Some sort of ongoing social communications medium to keep the community informed or to share expertise among members on a regular basis (e.g., a blog, twitter, etc.)

[End of interview.]
The official registration period for TCC 2009 is closed, but you can still register online at https://skellig.kcc.hawaii.edu/tccreg
The homepage for the event can be found at http://tcc.kcc.hawaii.edu

Additional Sources: For additional information about the annual TCC conference, see the following papers presented at the 2006 and 2008 Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Distance Learning and the Internet (DLI) conferences at Toudai and Waseda: Online Conferences and Workshops: Affordable & Ubiquitous Learning Opportunities for Faculty Development, by Bert Y. Kimura and Curtis P. Ho; Evolution of a Virtual Worldwide Conference on Online Teaching, by Curtis P. Ho, Bert Kimura, and Shigeru Narita.

Michelle Rhee – What’s Really at Stake?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

She’s on the cover of Time (week of December 8), in a classroom, unsmiling, dressed in black, holding a broom, with the cover title, “How to Fix America’s Schools,” set to look as though it’s the lesson for the day written on the blackboard. Framing her head is the huge “TIME” trademark. She is Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Education, District of Columbia Public Schools. And the question for the “class” is, Does she have the answer to America’s failing public school systems? Is it, finally, time to make the kinds of sweeping changes that she represents?

Her goal’s clear, “To make Washington the highest-performing urban school district in the nation” [1]. The yardstick is a simple one: reading and math scores on standardized achievement tests. And her formula’s just as simple: reward teachers who can help her reach her goal and get rid of the ones who can’t.

time_mag_cover_dec8This unflinching focus, she says, places the student’s best interest at the forefront of schools. Higher scores will eventually translate to college degrees and better jobs, which are the tickets out of poverty, discrimination, and all the other social ills.

The underlying assumption is that all students can significantly improve their scores IF they have teachers [1] who are willing to set that as the primary goal and do everything it takes to reach it. In this picture, there is absolutely no room for failure. Little or no gain in scores is a sign of failure, and failure means a quick exit from the teaching profession. When student success is weighed against teacher security, there is no issue. Tenure is a dead horse. For teachers, the decision is a simple one, too: Deliver higher scores or get out.

“She is angry at a system of education that puts ‘the interests of adults’ over the ‘interests of children,’ i.e., a system that values job protection for teachers over their effectiveness in the classroom. Rhee is trying to change that system” [2].

What about the gray area, the affective dimensions that defy objective measurement? Rhee says, “The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely. . . . People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning.’ . . . I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job” [1].

michelle_rhee01In pursuit of her goal, Rhee has the complete backing of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who appointed her chancellor in June 2007. “In her first 17 months on the job, Rhee closed 23 schools with low enrollment and overhauled 27 schools with poor academic achievement. She also fired more than 250 teachers and about one-third of the principals at the system’s 128 schools” [3].

Rhee scares the daylights out of me because she may very well be the wish that we’re warned to watch out for, the one that we might actually get. Now that we have someone with the power to really change the system, I suddenly have cold feet. Yes, she seems to make sense. Student achievement should take precedence over the needs of teachers. But are there other issues waiting below the surface that might just jump out and bite us if we follow Rhee?

For example, despite the radical nature of her approach, the bundle that we think of as “school” remains pretty much the same. The burden of accountability has shifted to the teacher, but the roles, resources, goals, and environment remain constant. Even pedagogy seems to be the same–more homework, more demanding tasks, more discipline, more testing. In other words, the same, but more of it.

One could argue that Rhee’s changes don’t go far enough and need to include innovations in information technology. There’s the possibility that these innovations could enhance learning by dramatically altering schools as we know them without some of the harsher consequences that seem to be a part of Rhee’s strategy.

Another issue is the effectiveness of strategies that Rhee lumps into the category of “touchy-feely.” Are these affective, student-centered, holistic, indirect methods proven ineffective? Or are they, perhaps, just as if not more effective than Rhee’s hard-nosed direct approach? Are we ready to toss these out as useless?

Yet another issue is the similarity of Rhee’s model to test-oriented systems in Asia. Is Rhee simply transporting a traditional model from China, India, Japan, and South Korea to the U.S.? If yes, then are there consequences that we need to be aware of?

Finally, are we beginning to draw a line between schools in general and poor urban schools in particular? A line that requires a radically different approach for the latter? Are we bending to the notion that schools not only can be but should be different for resource-poor inner-city schools? If this is the case, then could we be developing a system that channels or tracks children into careers at an early age, forever excluding college for many in favor of technical training? This could result in a form of economic and racial discrimination with far-reaching consequences.

In conclusion, my initial reaction is that Rhee’s ideas sound good, but I’m not quite ready to dump what we have now for an approach that we haven’t fully discussed or studied. At this juncture, an open discussion about the implications of Rhee’s tactics may be in order. I’m sure there are many other issues at stake. Thus, please share your thoughts with us. Either post them as comments to this article or email them to me at jamess@hawaii.edu

(Note: For a quick background, see Amanda Ripley’s “Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge” [26 Nov. 2008] at Time.com and Thomas, Conant, and Wingert’s “An Unlikely Gambler” [23 Aug. 2008, from the magazine issue dated 1 Sep. 2008] at Newsweek.com. Finally, go to YouTube and do a search on “michelle rhee” for lists of videos.)