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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

I am very fortunate to work closely with a fantastic colleague, mentor, and friend.  Dr. Jennifer Branch is the Coordinator of the Teacher-Librarianship by Distance Learning program at the University of Alberta and I have been able to work with her for the last 8 years as one of the instructors in the program.  During my PhD program, I worked as Jennifer’s research assistant and I learned so much from her about research and teaching and publishing and academia in general. It was a great year!

Our work together has continued since then as we have developed and taught new courses, conducted research, and attended conferences together.  One of the courses we have developed and taught over the last few years is the Exploration of Web 2.0 course that encourages students to play with Web 2.0 tools and blog about their experiences.  Since teaching the course for the first time in Winter, 2008, we have taught over 100 students.  The course won a Faculty of Education Technology in Teaching Award 2011, which was given “in recognition of excellence in the performance of teaching duties using technology”.

This fall, Jennifer and I are teaching 3 sections of our Web 2.0 course between the two of us and last spring we started talking about what we were going to do with the course and the changes we wanted to make to the course content and assignments.  As we were talking about these course revisions, I had a crazy idea that we should team teach the course, combining all 3 sections of the course into one big classroom with both of us equally responsible for teaching.  To me, it made a lot of sense to combine the sections and teach them together. And luckily, Jennifer could see the advantages of this crazy plan and agreed to team teach EDES 501 with me this term.

'soccer practice'

We are now about 3 weeks away from the last day of classes for the fall term and I am so happy that we decided to approach the teaching of this course in this way.  Team teaching the course with 45 students in one combined class has been a phenomenal experience for me (and I think Jennifer would agree).  Here are some of the things I that I have learned and am thinking about regarding team teaching:

  • It’s a lot of work to teach 45 students in one class.  Even though I am only responsible for marking one third of the students’ work, we are both reading and responding to discussion posts and we have worked hard to get to know all of the students, regardless of which section they are in.  The sheer number of posts (especially in the early weeks of the course) was overwhelming at first (for us and for our students) but now that we are into a regular rhythm we know that our diverse group of students are benefiting from learning with and from one another.
  • Teaching a class with 45 students is MUCH easier with 2 instructors.  Knowing that Jennifer would respond to a question or a post if I couldn’t get to it that day alleviated a lot of stress.  Our students benefit from having two of us available at various times to respond to emails and messages.
  • It is so nice to know that someone has my back.  When I got sick a few weeks ago, I didn’t have to worry about responding to messages or even checking in because I knew Jennifer would take care of things while I was out for the count.  Similarly, when Jennifer was away at a conference earlier in the term, I was able to take over and manage discussions, post weekly announcements, and answer questions posed on the course management system.
  • Evaluating student work is hard…grading is hard, but having someone to talk to about grading criteria, assessment practices, etc. has been really helpful.  Jennifer and I have spent a lot of time creating grading criteria and talking about how to assess our students’ work fairly and these discussions have helped me be a better instructor.
  • Talking about pedagogy and teaching and course content has made the course stronger.  Having someone who is teaching the same course at the same time (in the same virtual classroom) has given me a chance to really talk about and think about some of the issues that come up.  In other circumstances, I might not think so much about what is working (and what is not working), but because we are seeing the same things, we talk about them and we make changes as we go along.  We also have a running list of things to think about and change for the next time we teach the course.

Working as a team to teach this course has been a completely rewarding experience.  We are working so closely together that our students have started calling us Jsquared or J²! I have learned a lot about teaching and learning from Jennifer and we have spent hours (literally, hours) on skype talking about how to improve this course (and all our courses), how to make the learning experience more rewarding for our students, and how to become better teachers ourselves.  Those conversations have left me with a lot to think about and have given me goals for changes I want to make to other classes that I teach.

Our experiences teaching this class have also made us realize that if this kind team teaching is beneficial and positive for us (and we are experienced instructors in the online environment), it would be so helpful to provide similar kinds of mentorship experiences for new instructors, especially instructors who are new to teaching online.  For many people, teaching online can be intimidating and scary, especially at first.  If university departments could provide opportunities for new online instructors to teach with an experienced instructor, the benefits could be very worthwhile.

As teachers, I don’t think we often take the time to really talk to our colleagues about teaching and learning. We don’t often have the time (or we don’t feel like we have the time) to think about how to improve our teaching practice.  What I have learned this term is that working as part of a teaching team and taking the time to really talk about teaching and courses and pedagogy and assessment has been very valuable to me.  It has made me a better teacher.  And it has given my students a better experience than it would have been if Jennifer and I hadn’t taken a bit of a risk to try something new.

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I have been thinking a lot about community lately, particularly as I walk and run through the streets in our neighbourhood, looking at the

Community

houses, watching the people go about their daily routines, envying other people’s landscaping or colourful front doors.  I have also been thinking about what it means to be part of a community or neighbourhood.  My family and I moved from Edmonton to Montreal about 16 months ago.  It was a big move for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was leaving behind the neighbours we had gotten to know on our street in Alberta.  In the time we had lived on the street, we had gotten to know some of the neighbours, especially as our kids all got older and started to play together.  We could stand on our front lawns and talk to other parents.  The kids organized epic street hockey games that involved equipment, nets, and sometimes even the dads!  It was nice to know that we would all watch out for one another’s kids.

When we left our old house, we hoped that our new neighbourhood would offer a similar sense of community.  What we have discovered is that it is hard to be the new folks on the street.  In the 16 months that we have lived here, we have met only a handful of our neighbours, and mostly those are the families whose kids go to school with our kids.  We are starting to see our kids organizing some epic street hockey games and play with some of the neighbourhood kids, but we have yet to meet our immediate next door neighbours.  Many people do not even say hello when you happen to run into them taking the garbage to the curb or shovelling snow from the driveway.  I don’t know if it is a language barrier (this is a city where English is not the primary language), or a general sense of busy-ness or something else that prevents people in our new neighbourhood from reaching out.  I do know that it is a very strange feeling to live in a neighbourhood and not really feel like you are part of the community.

All this leads me to think about how communities are built in online classrooms.  How can instructors in online courses ensure that their students feel like they are part of a community of learners? What strategies do instructors and students in online classes use to develop relationships that are supportive and strong and positive?

Over the 9 years that I have been teaching online, I have developed a few strategies that I think have been successful in building community.  For example, at the beginning of every course, I spend at least a week doing activities to encourage my students to get to know me and one another. I introduce myself by sharing a Voicethread presentation I created of my home office (the presentation can be viewed here: http://voicethread.com/share/1641220/).   I am thinking about using this same idea to have students take photos of their own work spaces and submit them to either a Flickr set or a Voicethread so that we can not only picture one another, but also visualize where we each work on course assignments and discussions.

In the early days of the term, I ask students to post their photos to their profile pages in the course management system (in Moodle and Desire2Learn, these photos also appear beside any discussion posts, which is a brilliant way of picturing who is speaking in a discussion) and then to post a personal introduction to the discussion thread.  These two things are critical for not only ensuring that my students are all able to log on to the course and navigate their way around the various sections of the class, but also to ensure that from the very beginning we are starting to get to know one another.  I also ask my students to complete a “Getting to Know You Form” which they share with one another.  Their forms include personal information about where they work and what they do, previous courses completed, goals for and fears about the course, and their favourite cookies.  These forms are helpful at the beginning of the course as we all get to know one another, and continue to be used by students as a yearbook of sorts that they can refer back to throughout the term.

Another strategy that I use is to share a lot of information about myself in my courses.  I make use of regular announcements to my students (a Monday morning announcement and then other announcements throughout the week) to not only remind them of upcoming deadlines, important information, things to remember about the week, etc., but to also talk about my life and my work.  I talk about my family, the weather, and just about anything else that I think is worth sharing.  I am trying to model transparency but also trying to invite my students into my world a little bit and put a human face in front of the typed words of the online course content and discussions.  Students have responded positively to how I use these announcements to keep in touch with them.

Another strategy I use in all my courses is a “Virtual Starbucks” area in the discussion forums which invites students to sit back with a cup of coffee (or tea, or hot chocolate!) and talk about non course related  stuff with me and their classmates.  I have a Coffee Talk thread (for anything that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere else), a Favourite Restaurants and Recipes thread, a book recommendations thread, and a professional resources thread.  These are places for students to share their ideas and recommendations on topics that are outside the course content.  But using these informal spaces to connect with one another has been an effective strategy for some students to get to know one another better.

Building relationships in online spaces takes time and some planning.  I always build in 10 days to 2 weeks at the beginning of the term as community building time.  Some people might question my rationale for taking that much time away from the course content but I would argue that this is the best use of our time in those first days of a course.  Laying the groundwork for a strong, positive community takes time, but it also ensures that the rest of the course runs more smoothly and that my students and I have a more successful and enjoyable experience working together.  I only wish that my attempts at building community in my real worlds were as successful!

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