small changes, new habits: using the web as a textbook

February 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

All online classes use the web, but few use it very well.

Most online classes are old-fashioned correspondence courses in modern (digital) clothes.  More people are able to get an education, but the instruction itself  hasn’t undergone any meaningful change.

Books + lecture + testing = learning.  It’s a shame.

Technology has opened up so many possibilities for learning, but we are too tied to our old ways to make space for them.

They say that the best way to break an old habit is to start a new one.  I think that applies to our education system.

I have a professor this term who is doing something small that I find interesting.  Rather than using a textbook or power point slides or a packaged WileyPLUS product to teach, he uses questions.  There is no assigned reading and no prepared lectures, instead he gives us a list of questions and asks us to find the answer wherever we can.  Essentially, the Web is our textbook.  And I like it.

It’s not for every teacher and surely not for every course.  But it acknowledges (even validates) the opportunities for learning that are available to us outside the university press and library.  It acknowledges that students are capable of seeking and finding knowledge without direct supervision from a certified expert.  In that way, this small course is subversive.  And refreshing.

So far, I am learning a lot with the Web as my textbook.  It’s a small thing.  But it’s big, too.

Have you taught or taken any courses that use the Web in lieu of a textbook?  What are small/big things you have seen lately in online learning?


can online learning be a transformative experience?

November 24th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In Freakonomics Goes to College, the question is asked, “Where is the value added in education?”

Especially at the university level (I would argue in high school at well), most of what what we study is forgotten when class ends.  This is true regardless of the skill of the teacher or the dedication of the student.  But not only do graduates obtain higher earnings with additional formal education, most college graduates would also say that they feel like they learned something in college.

What is that?

I had a teacher who once told me that learning wasn’t about remembering, but about taking in the knowledge of someone else.  It’s a transfer.  And I think that it is that transfer, that osmosis,  that makes education a transformative experience.

The question is, can that happen online?

My experience studying online would tell me no.  I don’t bump into new people from different walks of life (no, discussion boards and group projects don’t fill that role).  I don’t spend time (virtual or otherwise) with professors and T.A.s that inspire me to see things in a new light.  But I am a grown woman.  I have traveled widely, read widely.  In my online education, I wasn’t looking for transformation, I was looking for skills.  And I have gained a lot of those.

But I wonder, are we settling for skill-based online education when we could be offering transformation?

What would it look like to have a transformative college experience online?  What about high school?

I have more thoughts on this that I hope to share soon.  Until then, I would like to hear yours.  Can online learning be a transformative experience?

Happy learning,



on reaching out and making it matter

October 30th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

My husband and I put the kids to bed.  He does the dishes.  I sit at the desktop.  Midterms are over and Halloween is tomorrow.  I find myself fudging though an assignment and writing another slapdash discussion post.  I’m a good student and know how to get a decent grade.  And my work no longer matters to me.

Of course, working for the grade is something that many students can slip into no matter where their learning.  But I find it especially easy when I am taking courses online.    Why?  Because people become abstractions.

When I studied at an on-site university, my classmates saw me and I saw them.  I visited my professors’ office hours and ran into my T.A.s around town.  So when I walked into discussion, vanity demanded that even if I hadn’t done all the reading (which was often the case) I would chose my words carefully and bring something interesting to the table.  It demanded that I write the best essay I could so I could look my professor in the eye the next day.

My classmates and teachers saw me and I saw them and I wanted them to see me as someone who was competent, someone who had something to say.

In online learning, people become abstractions.  I don’t see my classmates except as names on a screen (which I rarely bother to notice).  Without any personal connection to the professor or T.A.s I assume that they don’t bother to recognize me either, that we are all just names on screens to each other.

Design could do a lot to fix this (and it should).  But meanwhile, let me just put in a word for reaching out.  Now and again, I will get an e-mail from a professor telling me that they like my work and appreciate what I do.  And it makes a difference.  When I believe that what I do matters to them, that I matter to them, I stop making a game of trying to wring out the best grade from the least effort (a game I have played for most of my formal education).  I want to know that when I do good work that it matters to someone.   Because when it matters to them, somehow it matters to me too.  It really does.  The smallest acts of connection make a difference.

a word on powerpoint

October 13th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Maybe I am just missing something.

Maybe PowerPoint really sings to some people.  Maybe there are folks out there who read a chapter summary and think “God, I wish there was a PowerPoint for this.”

But, seriously.  PowerPoints.

They are written, but not skim-able.  They are visual, but not engaging.  When voice is added, rather than making me feel connected to the instructor and the content, the presentation feels forced and I feel tied to the pace of the speaker.

Many of the online university courses I have taken make extensive use of PowerPoint.  What a waste for online learning- with such a wealth of new tools and possibilities!- to be stuck using such a dull knife.

An easy example of better tools are video and screencast, which Khan Academy and various MOOCS have put to great use. But let’s not be too prescriptive.  Prescriptivism has been the biggest problem with the way educational institutions have taken on technology.

Educators are different and need to play to their strengths.  For some this means a lot of personal touches, hip videos, some screencast where it counts.  For others it means crafting well-organized resources, timely links, and asking the right questions.

Maybe there are a few teachers out there (maybe) who chose to use PowerPoint because it is the best tool for the way they educate.  But I get the impression that it is generally used instead because it is easy or because it is familiar.  And sometimes (though thankfully not often) because it is an easy crutch for poor teaching.  I am a humble student who doesn’t know what goes on behind the curtain, but I imagine that if educators had teaching tools that were more individualized and well-designed, online learning would become more effective.  And more interesting.

And I wouldn’t be flipping through so many PowerPoints.


in praise of the quiz

September 30th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Ah, the quiz.

This semester I have developed an appreciation for quizzes as a learning tool (did I just write that?).

Half my classes have weekly quizzes. And I love it. With two qualifiers:

  1. All these quizzes contribute to a very small portion (or none at all) of my final grade, and
  2. In both cases, the quizzes are untimed and can be taken again and again.

I sit at my desk and flip through my book. I retake the quizzes until I am happy with my grade. It’s kind of nice. The quizzes give me a reason to revisit the material and an opportunity to see myself doing well at the course. It’s a win-win.

These low-stakes quizzes also help solve a sticky problem. One of the challenges for the online student is discerning the instructor’s priorities and vision. Every week so much information comes your way, sometimes with very little guidance. What details should you hold on to? What portions of the reading should you focus on? Is it important to learn the vocabulary or just the concepts?

Quizzes are not sexy. They aren’t even interesting. But low-stakes quizzing give me some assurance that I am on the right track (much more so than over-emphasized online discussion, but more on that another time).   And I like that.

Sometimes, it’s okay to think inside the box.