Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Content: What's in a name?

Is "course content" the guts of an online course? We have a link on our old course shell called "Content." But I think this word sends the wrong message about online learning.

Content suggests stuff. And not surprisingly the Content folder has served in many courses as a container for stuff: power points, pdfs, lecture notes, instructions. Stuff that teachers store and students access.

Online learning is much more than the delivery and consumption of content. It is an active process of engagement, interaction among teachers and learner, practice, trial and error, application and adoption. And our course designs can reflect and promote this.

Many instructors ignore the name and make "Content" the place where things happen, where students go to interact and do. We are moving away from using the word "Content" in our course shells. And by changing the name we hope to change more teachers' and students' expectations about what goes on in an online course.

I hope that this decision will lead to a significant change in both thinking and in practice. "Learning Modules" doesn't quite do the trick. But it at least references learning, rather than stuff.

Monday, November 30, 2015

File Attachments - The Bane of Mobile Learning

We can make our online courses more mobile friendly by cutting down on file attachments. File attachments are a nuisance to mobile device users.

The problem 

Downloading and saving. Files such as .docx, .pdf, xlsx need to be downloaded. These files are not easily saved to mobile devices and might need to be downloaded every time they are used.

Opening to view. Once downloaded the file must be opened with a mobile app. While all computers can now open most file types, this is not yet true with phones and tablets. The student's device may not have the necessary "app."

What you can do

Create a page. Each Learning Management System (LMS) has an easy to use page creation tool. In Blackboard you can create pages with the "item" and the "new blank page" content tool. Rather than attach a file, create a blackboard page that contains the files content.

Do you attach your syllabus as a Word file? Your syllabus can be pasted on one of these pages in your LMS. Do you have a reference table in Excel that you attach within your course? Create a page in your LMS and paste it either as a table or an image.

Links to the Web. Do you attach .pdfs of articles you want your students to read? Ask your librarian if she can give you a "permalink" to an online source for the article. By adding a link to the article the student may be able to read the article online. Linking to the source also ensures that you are not violating "fair use" by distributing copies of copyrighted works.

Interactive files. What if you want students to fill out information in your word document or excel file? You might consider sharing Google word processing documents and sheets with students and linking them to your course. Google documents can be manipulated online with free mobile apps.

Printing. One reason for attaching a file is that it can be printed and set on students desk for frequent reference. Mobile users are not only less likely to work at a specific desk, they are unlikely to have or use a printer.

Some attachments are unavoidable. Most can be replaced by pages containing the content or links to files that can be used in a browser or free mobile app. With more and more online students relying on mobile devices (at least some of the time), let's take steps to make our course content mobile friendly.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Your Online Students May Not Have Computers

A recent study by the Pew Research Center reports that among young adults (ages 18-29) more have a smartphone than a computer. And this is a recent shift. In 2011 88 percent of young adults had computers, compared to 52 percent that had smartphones.

MP3, Computer Ownership Has Dropped Among Younger Adults Since 2010
Technology Device Ownership (PEW 2015)
While the study does not distinguish between young adults who are enrolled in college or not, it does alert online teachers about an important trend. Students are likely to be depending more and more on mobile devices.

Most learning management systems are adapting to this change by providing mobile apps. Apps allow students to view and interact with course content on a small format device.

While this is an important improvement, a course is only as mobile as we - online faculty - make it.  In my next post I will share a surprising strategy to make your course more mobile friendly.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Plagiarism or Poor Writing Skills? Part 2

This is the second in a two part look at plagiarism. 

What can we do about a student's improper use of another's words in written assignments?  In my August 9, 2015 post, I distinguish between intentional and unintentional use of another's work and posit causes of the latter. Here I discuss strategies for detection of plagiarism and teaching about original writing.


The instructor's judgement. An instructor may quickly gain a feel for their students' writing.  A post or assignment submission containing phrases that are uncharacteristic of the student's writing, will alert the attentive teacher that a student may be plagiarizing.

Blackboard's SafeAssign. For essay type assignments the institution's learning management system (LMS) may have an integrated originality checker. 

In Blackboard this is the SafeAssign tool. During setup of the writing assignment, the SafeAssign feature (or LMS equivalent) can be enabled. 
To use Safe Assign check the box under Plagiarism tools in the assignment setup.

Turnitin Assignment. Your school may have a third party add-on to your LMS for checking student originality. Linfield College uses Turnitin as another option for faculty. In Blackboard instructors can choose to create an "assignment" with or without SafeAssign enabled. Or we can create a "Turnitin assignment."
Under Optional Settings the instructor can determine whether the student may view the report and resubmit.

These are helpful and automatic screening tools. But plagiarism detection tools are not infallible. Instructors may find examples of another's words in student submissions that passed the originality test. A recent issue of  Inside Higher Ed reported on a several-year study that suggests that the combination of the instructor's judgement and Google search produce far more accurate results than SafeAssign, Turnitin and their competitors. If you have concerns about a particular student or a particular piece of writing, try using Google to check your concern.

Teaching Writing

At many institutions faculty from all disciplines have taken on the shared responsibility for improving student writing skills. A great place to start is to use written assignments as an opportunity to revisit what we mean by original writing, paraphrasing and the effective use of quotations. Here are some strategies that may help.

  • Include guidelines for writing in your syllabus or course expectations. Expand on your institutions plagiarism policy with your own specific definitions and behavioral standards.
  • Use the features of "SafeAssign" and "Turnitin" that support self correction (allow students to see the report and make multiple submissions) favoring improvement over punishment.
  • Look for unexpected phrasing and vocabulary in student's posts.
  • Address examples of un-cited use of another's words or inappropriate quotation. Communicate with the students directly and require their work to be rewritten in their own words. 
  • Be prepared to provide direct instruction on note-taking, paraphrasing, quotation and citation to the class or individual students. Ask students to distinguish between proper and improper examples of each.

It may take a student some instruction and a couple of rewrites before s/he understands the problem and the solution. Using a combination of clear expectations, early detection and teaching strategies, we may offer students tools to become effective, original writers and avoid the severe consequences to which academic/professional integrity violations lead.

Straumsheim, C. (2015). What Is detected? News. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved on 7-30-15 from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/07/14/turnitin-faces-new-questions-about-efficacy-plagiarism-detection-software

Monday, August 3, 2015

Plagiarism or Poor Writing Skills? Part 1

image licensed for sharing by Tennessee Tuxedo
This is the first in a two part look at plagiarism. In this first part I seek to define the problem and identify causes. In part two, I will offer some solutions.

As an instructor, I frequently run into examples of student writing that contain key phrases, entire sentences, and even entire paragraphs that were written by someone else -- not cited by the student. I have also, though far less frequently, received a paper or final project that was written entirely by someone else.

Both of these can be viewed as plagiarism. But there is an important difference. In the second case, the use of another's work as the student's own was clearly intentional and deserves severe consequences. In the former case the intentionality may be harder to discern. I choose to treat these cases as poor writing skills, and an opportunity for me to provide students with skills to succeed in the future.

There are many causes of unintentional plagiarism.
  • With digital tools it is dangerously easy to use copy-and-paste instead of taking notes in one’s own words. I have observed otherwise ethical professionals forget that their copy-and-pasted notes are actually in another's words and use them to produce a paper or report.
  • Many students develop poor strategies in primary school and continue them to this day. Students will often tell me that they thought quotation was unnecessary as long as they only used an "insignificant" phrase or sentence (or three) from another source.  Alternatively students may believe that it is acceptable to use large portions of another's work as long as quotation marks or citation are added. 
  • A poor paraphrasing strategy that writers may not have shed by college is taking another's sentence and replacing or reorganizing words. They see paraphrasing as a restructuring of another authors words, rather than a restating of the underlying meaning.
  • Some students have genuinely not received the expected training on the distinction between original writing and plagiarism.
Just as digital media has made it easy for students to copy others' words, it has also made it easy for instructors to detect when a student presents others' words as their own. We have powerful tools at our disposal. These tools can be used to catch our students at plagiarism and they can be used to teach our students how to write effectively and honestly.

In part two (scheduled for publication on August 17) I explore strategies for detection of unoriginal writing and for developing student's original-writing skills.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Evangelizing the gradebook

My appreciation for a grade book is new. And like any recent convert, I'm evangelical.

I have resisted the grade book in many LMSs over the years. Until recently I had an uncomfortable relationship with grades. And what could possibly do columns, numbers and calculated fields better than an excel spreadsheet? There seemed to be no reason to learn to use this clumsy tool that I did not need.

But I have discovered that the grade book in many LMSs has much greater value than assigning a number to a spreadsheet (though it does that surprisingly well). And, with a little preplanning the LMS grade book won't lock me into a particular style of grading. In the following I will be using Blackboard's grade book or "grade center" as an example, because Blackboard is the LMS used at Linfield. Moodle and Canvas grade books work a bit differently but can achieve the same ends.

  • The grade book, when paired with my own rubrics, makes it easy to quickly grade assignments. Locating and downloading assignments is not necessary. Going back and forth from assignment to student list is not necessary.
  • The grade book gives me multiple ways to give feedback to students: A number, written feedback, and in-margin comments.
  • The grade book let's me give students "just-in-time" personal notes of encouragement or clarification.
  • The grade book let's me blind-grade when desirable. I can grade work without seeing student names - which encourages me to be more objective about my grading criteria.
  • The grade book presents me with ALL students' submissions of a single assignment in one place, making it easy to see patterns across the class.
  • The grade book presents me with ALL of a single student's work in one place, making it easy to see patterns for that student. 
  • The grade book tells me what is new. Until I started using the grade book, I looked at each discussion thread and each assignment every day to see what was new. Now I stop at the grade book first. The grade book presents an exclamation point (!) next to new work (posts, journal entries, quizzes, assignments).
  • When grading a student's discussion contribution, I see all of their posts in one collection.
  • When grading a blog or journal entry I can post comments on their writing, right from the grade book.
I know that timely and meaningful feedback is one of the key indicators of student success and satisfaction in an online course. Though my intentions have been good, I have found it hard to be prompt with feedback - until I mastered the grade book. In fact my home grown systems were far more clumsy than the one in my LMS.

I believe in setting a high bar for success in my courses. I also provide lots of ways to reach success: repeated attempts; alternative ways to complete assignments; optional assignments and more possible points than are necessary. Many of my students exceed the required work for an A.

Based on my rubric criteria, an "A" discussion post gets 6 points - though it is possible to get 7. Journal posts can get 4 but a 3.5 translates to an "A". I am able to assign bonuses for unexpected entries, risk taking, effort, creativity, insight. Each week I give students a points target. They know where they stand based on that target. My approach is not traditional and it is possible within the structure of the LMS grade book.

I'd love to hear how others are using their LMS grade book. Please comment below.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Reading and Online Students

Stack of books topped by pair of eyeglasses
As I prepare for summer term, I think about the amount of reading I expect of my online students.

In addition to the chapters, articles, websites required of my online students and their in-class counterparts, I ask my online students to read much, much more. Directions and announcements that would have been spoken in-class, are written. My instruction and redirection which may have taken the form of short presentations or lectures are converted to text. Small and large group discussions must be followed in print.

It is no wonder that online students don't remember the details I think are so clear in my syllabus or cannot always locate the date an assignment is due.

I've developed some strategies over the years to help students make their way through the mountain (or sometimes chaotic forest) of reading I ask them to do.

  • I encourage students to learn how to use the text-to-speech tools on their computer. Some find it helpful to read along as their computer reads to them.
  • I begin each module with a "module at a glance" that is formatted the same way each time. It contains a picture (emblematic of the week's topic) and headings "Read/Investigate," "Think/Write," "Discuss," and "Do."
  • I repeat key elements of the syllabus in the weekly modules as they're needed.
  • I make audio/video recordings of some of my announcements.
  • I give open text / open internet quizzes about course documents and how to navigate the course (and me).
I would love to learn what others do. If you have strategies to help students with the reading demands of online learning, please comment below.