Monday, June 30, 2014

Guerrilla Teaching

I regularly participate in #iaedchat (Iowa education chat) on Sunday evenings (8 p.m. Central Time.) We discuss a wide range of topics, and it isn't just Iowa educators in the chat. If you teach and are on Twitter, I highly recommend it.

In our last Twitterchat we were discussing the value of peer visits to your classroom. We discussed the differences between administrator visits and peer visits, the nature of the feedback teachers can get from peers, and how to translate this feedback into action. The ideas were flying fast--lots of interesting approaches and great techniques!

I suddenly had the image of "guerrilla teaching"--instead of a structured visit, bursting in on a colleague's class (invited, of course) and joining in the teaching under way. I shared this idea to some enthusiastic response.

No, not this kind of guerrilla teaching! [Image from quimbob]

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Think with me for a moment about footprints.

Footprints in the sand wash away when the tide comes in. We sometimes place handprints or footprints in wet concrete to leave our mark for the future. And an old adage for those who love the outdoors is, "Take only pictures, leave only footprints."

Footprints are evidence of where we have been, what we have done. I think it makes sense then that we sometimes describe the trail we live through the online realm as our "digital footprint." But unlike footprints in the sand, your digital footprint is more like footprints left in concrete. Indelible. Hard to remove.

When I used to serve as Technology Coordinator at a K-8 school, I taught a unit on digital citizenship unit for middle schoolers. One of the ideas I shared with the kids was "the Internet has a long memory." Digital footprints, set in concrete.

Perpetual walking
Perpetual walking [Image by pulpolox CC BY-NC 2.0]

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cognitive Presence, Social Presence, Teaching Presence

I have taught online for the past three summers,  and this summer it has felt like a welcome respite to take courses online instead of teaching them. It is good for me to be in the student's seat, and to think about online teaching and learning from the learner's perspective. It is interesting for me to be learning about teaching in an online setting. Since I already have some first-hand knowledge--I have taught five or six courses online now--one might think I have expertise in online teaching. And I suppose I do, to a point, but the things I have learned have mostly come through trial and error so far. This course has been a fantastic way to rethink not only what I am doing as an online instructor, but why I am doing it that way.

Specifically, one of the things I have been wondering about is how to build teaching presence in an online course. Since the courses I teach have been mostly asynchronous (we rarely have meetings in which we all are logged in at the same time to share in realtime), it has been a challenge for me to try to replicate what I do in face-to-face courses.

Image by Phil Norton [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why Can't School Be Like This?

I am teaching a couple of courses at a summer camp for middle schoolers this week: "Engineering for Speed" (building solar cars, Lego contraptions, and designing and constructing our own electric cars) and "Geek Squad" (all things geeky, including junkbots, mini-catapults, marble roller coasters, and straw rockets.) I love this stuff--it's fun for me to connect with middle schoolers and help them learn more about things that they are already excited about.

But it happened again.

In the middle of our work, one of my engineers-in-training looked up from his soldering iron and wistfully said,

"Why can't school be like this?"

Yes, sixth graders can learn to safely use a soldering iron!

I'm asking the same question. Why can't learning in school be more like learning at summer camp?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Moving a Face-to-Face Course Online

I’ve been thinking a lot throughout the spring about translating a face-to-face course into an online format. I have done this myself in the past. A few summers ago, I adjuncted a graduate course centered on thematic teaching and developing thematic units as a face-to-face course. Two years later, the course was to be offered again, but in an online format. It took a lot of thought to make that switch happen. Some of the activities that worked well in a classroom didn’t work as well in an online course that was largely text-based.

It is challenging to have to rethink a course this way, and I found it to be an interesting learning experience for me as well. Honestly, it was some trial and error for me, which was not all bad—often we learn more from our mistakes than our successes! Some of the things I tried (different texts, peer review for lesson plans underway, incorporating video) worked fairly well. Other things didn’t work as well—particularly the way I structured some small group discussions. (The real issue here was that I just grouped students together based on the grade levels they teach…rather than taking other factors into account. In particular I found that getting to know students’ work habits and schedule of participation and using this as a basis for forming groups really helped to make a better experience for everyone.)

Because I learned some things through making mistakes, subsequent courses I’ve taught online have gone better than ever before. I’m still learning—I won’t claim all expertise in teaching online—though I will say that I’m better now than I was four years ago when I was first teaching online.

But here’s the thing: I know I can still get better. And I want to get better. So I’m looking for opportunities to keep learning.

This summer I’m taking courses for my graduate work that focus on online teaching and learning. One of them is even titled “Online Teaching for Adult Learners”…which is what I do in the courses I teach for our M.Ed. program. In the course, we are using Ko and Rossen’s book Teaching Online: A Practical Guide as one of our main texts. I have found it very helpful, and I’m feeling both affirmed and challenged. I’m feeling affirmed in some of the things I discovered through trial and error that are actually best practices for online teaching. I’m feeling challenged in some things that I know I can do better the next time I teach a course online!

So, you may be wondering, what do Ko and Rossen—these experts in online teaching—have to say about translating a face-to-face course to an online setting? Lots, actually. A sampling:

  • “Putting your class online doesn’t mean copying your lectures and syllabus word for word” (p. 45).
  • “Learning objectives and the core syllabus remain the same as in the on-site version” (p. 46).
  • “If you simply post your lectures and syllabus on the Web, you haven’t necessarily created a viable tool for your students” (p. 52).
  • “The move to an online format offers you opportunities to try out new methods and approaches. Preserving the quality of your course need not mean finding an exact translation of what you’ve always done in the past” (p. 61).
  • “All types of group activities, from peer review to true cooperative learning exercises are possible in the online environment…[but] group organization and working procedures take longer to develop in the online environment” (p. 77).

Admittedly, this is just a selection of soundbites to illustrate their perspective. Throughout the book, Ko and Rossen give very practical advice for how to make the shift. They discuss diverse issues such as:

  • how to structure online presentations of content, 
  • how to interact and communicate with individuals and small groups to engage them and foster deeper learning, 
  • how to arrange group-oriented work, 
  • how to address student-generated content and how to have them share their work, 
  • how to support students conducting research in an online course, and
  • how to assess student learning, including suggestions for a wide array of options.
I'm sure I'll have more posts on this topic as the course rolls on. If you, dear reader, have specific questions, please don't hesitate to comment and ask them. I'll give answers as I can, and I'll share what I've learned.

Ko, S. & Rossen, S. (2010). Teaching online: A practical guide. 3rd Ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Monday, June 16, 2014

All of Us are Smarter than Any of Us

I'm taking two courses for my doctoral work this summer, and both are about online teaching and learning. One of them is titled "Social Network Learning," which makes it sound like it's all about Twitter and Facebook. To be fair, it is about Twitter and Facebook, but it's more about social presence in online learning, and making connections with other people as resources for learning.

I'm just beginning week two of the course, and as an assignment we were asked to find an image that represents our beginning conception of a personal learning environment (PLE.) After selecting an image, we had to write a brief explanation of our thinking about the image, and how it connects to our current thinking about PLE's.

Here is the picture I selected, and my reflection about it:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Developing Self-Direction in Online Learning

Two great texts this term...
I am taking two electives for my doctoral work this summer, and both are related to online teaching and learning. One course is titled Online Teaching for Adult Learners, and the name says it all. Since I am already teaching adult learners in our online M.Ed. program, I'm taking this one to (hopefully) learn more, refine my skills, and get better. This week in class, we considered adult learning theory, and in particular how adults learn in online contexts. We read a variety of articles and chapters to build a foundation for this course, and what follows is a synthesis of those readings.

Our professor provided a number of prompts to stir our reflections in response to this week's readings, and I was particularly interested by the personal application I could make to this question:

Becoming a Digitally-Competent Teacher

It kind of drives me crazy when educators try to argue that they don't need to be tech savvy. Yes, it takes work to keep up with rapidly changing technologies. No, not every new tech tool (toy?) needs to be adopted into a formal education setting. But it's not 1989, people. I think it's safe to say that computer technology is firmly in place in schools. And, yes, there has been a shift in the expectations for teachers because of this.

But it's not as if this kind of shift hasn't happened before.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Student-Participated Conferences

I can admit it: as a newbie teacher, I dreaded and feared parent-teacher conferences. I think much of this fear was shaped by my experience as a first-year teacher, when I hadn't planned enough for what the conference would look like, and where I had several parents extremely dissatisfied with the things I was doing as a teacher. (In their defense, it was probably warranted. In my defense, I got better.)

As my teaching career progressed, I grew to grudgingly accept parent-teacher conferences. Though they still stressed me out beforehand (probably shell-shock from that first-year experience), by the end of those few nights every fall and spring, I often felt quite good about the opportunity to connect with parents and have candid conversations about successes and shortcomings--both for me and for their children.

In the last school I served as a middle school teacher, we had traditional parent-teacher conferences in the fall, but we invited (required) students to participate in the spring. In fact, we wanted these conferences to be led by the students themselves. We collected a folder of their work throughout the few weeks leading up to the conference nights, and then gave students some class time to organized that pile of papers into some semblance of order. Students also filled out a checklist about their work habits to share with the adults in attendance the night of the conference.

As you might suspect, the results were mixed. Most of my students dreaded this night as much as I dreaded conferences as a newbie teacher. 20 minutes flipping through papers with Mom and Dad, and the teacher hovering nearby? Or even worse: parents and teacher ganging up to point out where you are falling short? What 13-year-old looks forward to that kind of experience?

Image by Innovation_School [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Colossian Force: A Theory of Everything

I first applied to serve as an adjunct instructor teaching science methods at Dordt College back in 2006. I remember that after my interview with the Provost, I was strolling through the Campus Center, admiring some of the artwork on the walls. There was one interesting sculpture hanging on the wall that really caught my attention—bright colors and shapes leaping out at odd angles. I was curious, so I walked over for a closer look.

On the card next to the sculpture there was a note explaining the artist’s inspiration. He had been talking to a scientist who is looking for a “Theory of Everything.” (Maybe you’ve heard of such theories? Basically, the idea is that scientists would love to find one set of laws and equations that will elegantly explain all the forces and energy in the whole universe—gravity, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism…everything!) In the artist’s statement, he notes that the scientist mentioned a “Colossian force” as a possible Theory of Everything. The artist noted Colossians 1:16, 17 as a source for the idea of this “Colossian force.”

I was curious, so I looked it up. Here’s what it says: “For by him, [that is, Jesus Christ,] all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…and in him all things hold together.” Wow, right? This is the ultimate Theory of Everything!

God surely has created an amazing universe. And the thing that really gets me is this: it all works together all the time! God’s designs are so much greater than we can possibly imagine! This is one of the reasons I love to teach science, and I love to study Creation myself: the more we study and learn about the world God created, the more we can be awestruck at the incredible power and amazing care He has. Thanks be to God!