Keep It Simple, Stupid

All, Education, Teaching, Technology

With the Fall 2014 Semester in the rearview mirror and the Spring 2015 Semester fast approaching, I want to take a few minutes to reflect on the past and plan for the future in this brief breathing space we call winter break. I was feeling pretty good about my fall semester. I really really enjoyed the classes that I taught and thought my students did some really amazing work. Then I read the final reflections of my students. Most confirmed my happy glow, but there was one student who burst my bubble of happiness and crushed my confidence. There’s always one. I’ve been trying to tell myself that, but it isn’t working terribly well. I’ve been contemplating a blog post to respond to that one student, but in the meantime I’m going to take stock of what went well, what went wrong, and what needs fixing (aka the good, the bad, and the ugly).

As I blogged about last week, this was my first semester using project-based learning in all my classes and I don’t have one regret about it. My system is not perfect, but PBL challenged and engaged my students and resulted in some pretty interesting work that effectively demonstrated achievement of our student learner outcomes. This was also my first semester with service learning (my first year seminar student projects) and I really liked how SL gave the projects a definite audience and purpose – and many of my students seemed to like it as well. Finally, this was my first semester embracing bring your own device and I was quite happy with the results. I taught exclusively online for a long time and then in a computer lab, so I was pretty worried about how I could still embrace the tech I love with only minimal tech in my classroom. However, BYOD made it possible for students to connect and create as well as leverage their in-class low-stakes writing to class blog posts and other assignments.

I did make some mistakes this semester and the three I want to focus on can all be summed up in two little words: too much. Too much work for the students, too much work for me, and too much technology. As I mentioned before, I taught online for a long time and there were assignments that I created to maintain contact with my students and scaffold larger assignments that I incorporated into my face-to-face classes. It was not that these assignments were bad, but they created additional work for my students and myself outside of class that (in hindsight) was a bit redundant considering the work we were doing in class. Another mistake that I made concerned our use of technology. I use Blackboard extensively to support our course and I like to use Google+ to support community and communication with my online classes. Plus, my professional writing students were expected to experiment and publish using social media and my first year seminar students were expected to experiment with presentation tools and use Edmodo for our service learning project. This was all good experience for my students, but challenging for many and so in the future I will need to work on finding a better balance. I think it is my job to push my students out of their comfort zones, but I don’t need to take it to this extreme. I need to find a better balance when it comes to learning new technology tools.

And now for the ugly problem areas that I need to fix before I teach again. I need to rethink my self-assessment journal assignment when I teach face-to-face classes. This is a great assignment when you have little or no personal contact with students and I think it is still important for students to spend some time reflecting on their learning and goals, but I am planning to change it to a quarterly rather than weekly assignment in the spring. Hopefully that will lessen the burden on both my students and me while still reaping the benefits. Another assignment that I know I need to fix is my community assignment using Google+. This is a great assignment for an online class. My online students have repeatedly told this was the only online class where they felt connected with their classmates and instructor – thanks to Google+. I think it is an invaluable tool for creating a backchannel for communication as well as building community, but I’m not certain that is enough reason to add this requirement to a more traditional class where we have other options for more traditional backchannels (such as whispering in the hallway and passing notes in class). Still thinking about this one. Finally, I’m also contemplating a change in the way the way badges are awarded in my class. I think rather than awarding badges twice each semester after collecting and tallying votes (always time consuming no matter what tools I use) that this semester I will make this an assignment – so that my students will take turns awarding badges each week for class participation. I think it will help students worry less about the badges due to the regular feedback, it will also be easier on them to award the badges as they are focusing on one week rather than several weeks, and it will make it a lot easier for me to manage the process.

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