Teaching: It’s All About Change

Of Mice and Men (1939 film)

Of Mice and Men (1939 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s because I work with technology or maybe it’s just because I always like change, but I’m the kind of person who constantly re-arranges things, clears out clutter, and never hesitates to throw things away. Compared to my husband, who might be classified as a borderline hoarder, I don’t see the use of keeping anything that does not have a useful life in the present or near future.

This must translate to my teaching style, as I always (and I mean always) change some items of my courses every semester. I always want to try something new using rapidly evolving technologies, helping my students (who are learning to become leaders in the field of educational technology) understand and apply these principles of change to their own profession.

Of course, embracing change and constantly pushing the envelope of experimentation can get you into some hot water. For instance, you will more than likely make mistakes and provide mis-information at times. You will possibly increase frustration and cognitive dissonance in your students. Students may not like it and blame you for their difficulties. But, in the end, taking risks, embracing change, and using technology in creative and new ways is just what teachers should be doing.

I believe it is only through trial and error, testing our hypotheses, and constantly making corrections and adjustments that we truly learn. Aren’t teachers supposed to be learners too, modeling just what it takes to become a 21st century learner?

Instead of teaching to the status quo, re-using “safe” curriculum and lessons, I argue that teachers should push the boundaries, suggesting ways to improve learning and engage learners. Why do we still insist students read Siddhartha and Of Mice and Men, when there are so many other excellent books that can fuel a student’s imagination and inquiry? Teaching should be about transformation, about meaning, and yes, also about enjoyment. I am reminded of a very powerful statement written by one of my current students: “An important, often forgotten element of all lesson plans should be the question ‘Am I excited about this?'” (You can read Dave’s tweets @daveguymon).

No one is perfect. As teachers, we strive for perfection, accepting that we might never truly reach it, but trying all the same. Might change and the desire to take risks in teaching help us reach this goal of perfection–that moment when our teaching captures the epiphany of learning and inspires our students to assume more autonomy and leadership? That’s probably the goal behind my desire to always try new things, to always keep changing my courses and how I teach. At least I’ll keep telling myself that when the end of course student evaluations come rolling in.

Google Hangouts: Live Interpreter App

Google Hangouts: Live Interpreter App

I am learning a lot about what it’s like to be born deaf. I have one of these students currently enrolled in my Introduction to Educational Technology course and have been researching ways to seamlessly include her in various learning environments. We tested Google Hangout Captions App last week, and it worked very well. I used Dragon Dictate to enter the text automatically in the captioning pane (well, sometimes the text was not perfect, but it always offers us a chance to laugh!)

Now, I have discovered Hangouts Interpreter App, which allows you to assign someone to interpret using ASL. The video appears in the upper-right of the screen. I haven’t seen this in action, but it appears that when the interpreter is signing, (s)he is in the active screen too.

This would allow a student who is deaf to actively participate in a Google Hangout (of course you need to schedule an ASL interpreter to join the meeting) and then communicate to the group using the chat feature. Or, the student who is deaf could sign to the interpreter, who could then provide the communication back to the group.

Of course, a person who is deaf could easily use Google Hangouts to communicate with another person who is deaf, both using their webcams and ASL. They no longer need to be in the same room.

The world is really changing and offering many more options for people with special needs, due to rapidly evolving technologies. I am hoping to test these tools and am excited about the prospects for the future.

For more information about accessibility in Google Hangouts, please read this G+ post:


Scaffold Student Learning: Provide a WordPress Import File

Wordpress, Technorati, GBC stickers

WordPress, Technorati, GBC stickers (Photo credit: Titanas)

This post falls under the category, “Why didn’t I think of this sooner???”

In my EDTECH 501: Introduction to Educational Technology class, students begin the sometimes arduous process of creating and organizing a learning log, using WordPress.com. This learning log can eventually be transformed to a showcase portfolio, a final project required for our M.E.T. degree here at Boise State. I provide a lot of resources, online help, and a sample site (http://edtechbsu.wordpress.com), but I still encounter students who have a difficult time learning how to use WordPress.

Well, I think I’ve figured out a great solution to help all students–and it is so incredibly simple–provide a WordPress import file that they can use for their beginning WordPress.com sites.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. I edited an existing WordPress site that includes some of the basic structure to help students get started. All categories are included (these are the AECT Standards aligned with student artifacts), a basic navigation structure (pages), widgets, and a sample first post for their first artifact, an introduction video. Even if a student has started working on their WordPress.com Learning Log, (s)he can import this file and save a lot of time configuring their site. Again, why I didn’t think about this sooner eludes me–I’ve known for YEARS that you could easily import any WordPress site to another one.
  2. Then, I exported this site (go to Tools>Export on your WordPress.com dashboard) and saved the file. I put the file on our Moodle course site for students to download, along with brief instructions. Then, to help out even further (because I noticed the Tag Cloud widget didn’t export and other customizations are still needed), I created a quick video tutorial and uploaded to YouTube.

I haven’t heard back from any students yet, but this should work like a charm–it should help those students who are struggling get an instant start and save others who have started their learning log the time it takes to enter each of the AECT Standards as individual categories.

So, if you are requiring your students create a learning log or other type of journal using WordPress (or any blogging platform, for that matter), create a sample site that contains the basic structure, export that file, and then provide that for your students to import to their WordPress sites. It will save them time, provide the scaffolding that some of them need, and make your life as an instructor just a little bit saner. I said a little bit.

Five Strategies to Improve Online Course Design (and Learning!)

student-centered learning

“Teaching is not something you can go into the forest and do by yourself” (Ralph W. Tyler, educator, 1902 – 1994).

It’s the end of another semester–time to reflect upon the successes and not-so-good outcomes of my course and make plans for improvements. So far, my student comments and feedback have been very positive. They seemed to really enjoy the flexibility of the course, small group interactions and yes, even small group projects (they had one), being able to view other students’ work, and grow in their use of technology in the classroom.

Many of them were able to transfer what they were learning in my class to their own classrooms, making this course especially relevant and authentic. But, as teachers, we always know there is room for improvement. So . . . what would I do differently?

Here are five strategies I will use to improve my course for next semester:

1. Provide Research to Validate Course Structure

Of course, I know that it’s almost impossible to make all students happy or expect everyone to absolutely love the way my course is structured. One student told me he did not see the purpose of viewing and rating other students’ work. I can understand that statement and realize I should have included more information in the syllabus about the structure of the course (student-centered learning) and why it is set up that way. I should have included links to research about active and collaborative learning and why it is so effective.

For a great article on the effectiveness of student-centered learning, read Felder & Brent (1996).

2. Use Technology Tools for Consistent Contact

In looking back at the course, I also feel I should have included more opportunities for live interaction with me and the rest of the students. I want to begin, sustain, and complete the course with consistent contact.

Therefore, next semester, I’m going to require all students join me in an Adobe Connect meeting during the first week, simply as a way to introduce themselves and tell me why they are pursuing a degree in educational technology.

I will set up multiple meetings and times, so that all students have an opportunity to attend. Not only will this set the stage for a more personal and collaborative course experience, but it will also provide technology training on how to participate in a web meeting and use teleconferencing tools.

I will also require students add me to their Google chat list and conduct a live chat with me during the first week. I will show them how they can use Google chat to send me a text message if I’m not online (I use Google Voice to create a separate number, so I don’t have to give out my personal cell phone number). This tool provides an excellent way to contact me for quick questions so students can move on. I am always trying to figure out better ways to communicate with students, reducing the amount of email I receive.

3. Redesign Course Syllabus

I plan on improving the structure and comprehensibility of my course syllabus. I just finished reading (and will be reading this one again and again) Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education by Kathleen F. Gabriel.

Although this book focuses on undergraduates and face-to-face courses, it can easily be applied to graduate and online courses.

I believe that many of our graduate students come to our courses unprepared in various areas–technology expertise, returning to school after many years, workplace challenges, family conflicts, and other areas. Appendix A of this book includes a syllabus outline from “Starting the Semester on the Right Foot: 40 Concrete Ideas to Take Into the Classroom Tomorrow.”

I also plan on creating a narrated video of the syllabus, to provide an introduction and explanation for additional support.

4. Use Course Data To Identify At-Risk Students

I will consistently and regularly check student statistics and data, to identify which students might be at-risk from the get-go. Students who do not interact or check course content are at a higher risk of failing the course. I need to be right on top of these data and contact these students right away.

This is another benefit of having students add me to their Google Chat contact list–I should be easily able to contact them back! If they are not online, then I will send them emails. If they do not respond to those, I will call them.

We are doing our students a disservice if we do not at least TRY to follow up and contact those who are not attending class or struggling with assignments.

5. Consistently Ask for Student Feedback

Sometimes lessons go wrong or plans for learning just don’t work out. Make this an advantage. Immediately poll your students to find out how you could make the lesson better. Listen to their ideas and adjust as needed. Teaching and learning is always a work in progress.

Of course, as teachers, we can only do so much. But helping our students learn how to learn and modeling life-long learning can be one of our most important lessons.


Bellows, N. (2003). Starting the semester on the right foot: 40 concrete ideas to take into the classroom tomorrow. Teaching and Learning News Newsletter, 13(1), 6 – 7.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered Instruction. College Teaching, 44(2), 43–47.

Gabriel, K. F. (2008). Teaching unprepared students: Strategies for promoting success and retention in higher education. Sterling VA: Stylus Pub Llc.

Don’t Forget the . . . Data

My son is struggling in his online college algebra course, and I’m wondering if the instructor even knows. The reason for my wondering is the structure of the course itself–Boise State uses a prepackaged course called “My MathLab,” developed by textbook giant Pearson Publishing. Students login to the site, work through exercises on their own and then take tests (this software only works with Windows OS and Internet Explorer, by the way).

My MathLab does not include much social interaction (a necessary element of online course design) and naturally, there are minimal opportunities for teacher personalization of course content. I’m not implying that my son’s algebra course is poorly designed or that the teacher doesn’t care, but I’m wondering if students’ course data are available to the teacher, in order to identify who might need additional help.

But wait a minute, you might argue–isn’t the student responsible for his/her own learning and shouldn’t (s)he be pro-active in getting help? Well yes, of course. But sometimes the student may not know! The instructor, through viewing student data logs and other reports should be able to quickly identify and notify these students of potential problems, helping them address deficiencies in learning. Online courses provide a ton of data to analyze–when students last accessed the course, how long they stay on a page, what pages they visit, how many times they interact in a discussion forum, the resources they access, their personal profiles, and a whole lot more.

With these data, we can discover a lot more about our students and more easily identify their needs. Instead of waiting until the end of the course to discover a student didn’t turn in assignments or participate in activities, instructors can get a snapshot of student activity at any time, allowing them to create more options for students or improve the course design.

Here’s an example:

I want to find out how my students interacted in a discussion forum. In Moodle, I can use the reports feature (Participation Report) to see how many posts were viewed and how many posts my students submitted. Moodle can then identify which of the students did not participate and from there I can send them a message, reminding them of the assignment and asking them if they needed any help. And I can also send confirming messages to the students who were active, thanking them for their participation. Instead of feeling isolated in an online environment, my students receive personalized feedback and know I am monitoring their activity.

But we can take it one step further–by allowing students to view their own activity logs. This is also another feature in Moodle, that can be enabled in the course settings. You should inform your students that they can view their own activity logs and encourage them to be active participants in their own learning.

Being an excellent online instructor is more than uploading content, answering questions, and grading work. It also includes a commitment to consistent analysis of the data available in an online environment to inform, guide, and improve student learning. If you are an online instructor, find out what types of student activity logs are available for you to explore. And then start using them.

Check this out (Image of data visual at top of this post)! Data Visualization Tool for Discussion Forums (browser-based, works with major Learning Management Systems): SNAPP