When all is (almost) said and done…

At times it felt like this semester would never end, but here we are at the end of the term and I now ask myself where the time has gone!  In three and a half weeks we are back in the classroom.  New students, new challenges, and a new start.  I am both excited and daunted by the new challenges that I face as I attempt to incorporate my new AP Spanish Language course into my curriculum.  I am certain that none of my incoming seniors have ever taken an online course, although they are, of course, quite adept at using technology for learning.  But this, as I have come to learn in this class, is a very different experience.  Online learning requires a different framework of thinking and behaving.  It requires a sense of self-reliance, responsibility and an openness to collaboration and reflection.  Many of our high school students are not equipped with these survival skills.  So I see the incorporation of this course as a huge task that supersedes simply teaching about Spanish language and culture.  Nevertheless, I am up for the challenge and (almost) ready.

So, what have I learned myself as a student?  From Kassop, I learned to view online learning as a way to reach all types of classroom learners.  But more importantly, online learning not only allows students to learn according to their favored multiple intelligences (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.), it also allows students to learn according to their own rate of information reception.  While the classroom forces us all to be quick thinkers, and immediate responders, many of us are not.  We need time to formulate ideas, responses and concepts.  Students who cannot respond immediately are left out of the learning environment and many may eventually ‘check-out’.  In the online environment, I have learned to appreciate the value of reflection and extended discussions.  Sometimes reading a post a second time gives me a very different insight.  Think of all the learning moments that escape us in the f2f classroom because of the pre-set pace.

From Alex (A series of Unfortunate Online Events and How to Avoid Them) , I learned an incredible amount of invaluable information that gave me a broadened perspective from the viewpoint of a student as well as a teacher.  During module 2, it was easier to begin construction of my online course knowing what pitfalls to be aware of.  This saved a lot of revisions later on!  Pelz also offered a clear and insightful design for structuring online courses: Let students do the work (that’s how they learn); Interactivity (we learn from each other); and Presence (be there for your students).  I also loved learning how the three components of Teaching Presence ( Instructional Design, Facilitating Discourse, and Direct Instruction) all tie together to create a learning community between teachers and students, and student-to-student.

Finally, in regard to what also helped my learning, I would have to thank my course mates.  From them I learned a great deal about alternative views to issues and problems, about using technology and about constructing very professional looking online courses.  Seeing others accomplish things that I had either not thought of, or was too intimidated to attempt, made me take chances.  This is what learning is all about – moving out of our comfort zone and pushing our possibilities.

When all is said and done, this was a fantastic learning experience.  Thank you, Alex!

Time to Dig Deeper

Even as much as I am enjoying the construction of my online course, I am also enjoying watching myself develop as an online educator.  I feel as if I have reached a point where the ‘construction phase’ – although still incomplete – needs to move deeper into the ‘cognitive phase’.  Meaning that it is not enough to put together a ‘pretty’ course, one needs to make sure it is educationally sound in terms of building social, cognitive and teaching presence (Garrison, 200x). Although, personally, I started with a course concept and direction and tried to apply the online course building principles explained in Alex’s many informative Breeze presentations, I think one becomes so overwhelmed with the construction components that, until you have some level of a basic course foundation built first, it is nearly impossible to dig deeper and ask yourself if you’ve considered all of the social, cognitive and teaching presence issues that need to be incorporated.  I’m still busy figuring out if the font size is too big or too small!

Again, I’m reminded of  my own analogy  a few post ago when I equate this endeavor to climbing a mountain.  It is only when you are into the adventure awhile that you stop wondering if your feet will get blisters because you didn’t double-sock it, or if you brought enough water along, or even if you have the stamina.  Once you reach a certain point along the journey, you begin to forget to worry.  Then you start to enjoy the journey.  Finally, you concentrate on how to become a true hiker!  That’s when the view gets super spectacular.

So at this point in my ‘online journey’, I am focused on deeper aspects of online course construction.  The basic focus of building an online community of inquiry as discussed by Garrison (200x)  and Alex (Breeze Presentation, ETAP 687) within an AP Spanish Language course is intriguing.  I am thinking that one way I could establish social presence (the first of the three components of a community of inquiry) is perhaps by contributing relevant and personal information into introductions, forums, and message boards that would give me the “ability to project one’s self and establish personal and purposeful relationships” (Garrison, p.63).  Even more than during the first introductions, this atmosphere needs to be continuously projected throughout the course if a sense of community is to be established.  Personal stories give life to a faceless person, just as they do in literature.  We come to know, like, love, despise, and sympathize with characters the more we know about them.  Online it is very different in the sense that we are communicating interactively, but unless we become ‘real’ to our students, there will be a disconnect between instructor-student that must ultimately interfere with knowledge acquisition, particularly since effective teaching presence has been shown to directly affect the quality of education in online environments based on interactions between students and instructors (Alex – Breeze presentation module 5).

The second aspect that I feel I am ready to attack on a deeper level is the issue of cognitive presence.  I need to go back and look at my discussion questions, and how they are worded, to be sure that their constructions fosters “practical inquiry where participants move deliberately form understanding the problem or issue through to exploration, integration and application” (Garrison, p. 65).  Specifically, I need to ask myself:  Do these questions simply ask student to use their  foundational knowledge, and book resources,  in order to answer the questions? Or do they need to think, analyze, research and push themselves cognitively in order to understand, and answer, the posted questions?

Finally, teaching presence will be, for me, the most difficult.   How will I know when to  facilitate and when to discourse?  Learners are all at different levels in this course.  Particularly since some of the Spanish readings tie strongly into a person’s personal cultural experiences.  I have some student’s who travel regularly to foreign countries and others who have never traveled.  Interpretations of culturally embedded stories will be very different depending on the student’s world vision.  Therefore, some will require more direct instruction and some will require less.  This will carry over into discussions where some will need more discourse while others may need only facilitation.  How is this balanced?  I don’t know.

It seems that the old adage, ‘practice makes perfect’ may apply here as well.  Obviously is is important to continue reading the current literature, but, as with mountain climbing – you’ll never really know unless you get out there and do it yourself.

Almost there…….AP Spanish Language Online Coming Soon!

A big sigh of relief.  I feel like I am almost there…..in terms of set-up anyway.  Functionality is another issue!  All I can say is that I would really like to use my course come September and I hope that it works!  This has been so much fun learning how to construct and format content knowledge in such a different way.  The recent conversations between Alex and her colleagues in Seesmic was insightful because, as a student, I could sit back and learn how educators in the online world think about educating.  Techniques, delivery of content, student and teacher interactions and course layout all come to life when educators discourse about what works and what doesn’t, or what is difficult for them as teachers.  This is important because these tips act as beacons in the night for the rest of us who are inexperienced in this realm.  We know what to watch out for (example: repeat instructions in several places in your course, make content instructions simple and clear, don’t try to get too colorful and fancy – keep it simple).

Because I work with language, and all four learning skills need to be emphasized in my online ocurse (speaking, reading, writing and listening) it has been challenging to incorporate a balance of these, but I think that I did.  I am looking forward to a review by Alex and my classmates to see where I can improve.

Like climbing a mountain

I am beginning to think the construction of this online course is a bit like mountain climbing.  You strive to reach one peak, thinking it is the highest and will give you a full view of where you are and where you need to go, only to discover that there is a higher peak in the distance!  So, down you go into another valley only to climb a higher hill.  Relating this to the construction of this online course, I felt so close to getting a firm handle on what I needed to include, where I was, and what I needed to do next – and then suddenly the end seemed so far off!  Each time I get a module structure and try to add some semblance of a pattern throughout for students to follow, I see things that need to be changed.  For example, I set a “learning pattern” throughout all of my modules: Introduction to grammar, Spanish literature, Spanish Culture, discussion, reflection, evaluation/feedback.  Now I am wondering if the ‘pattern’ is too structured.  Does this structure foster, or dampen, the goal of establishing teaching presence?  Am I too much the teacher?

Many of the cultural questions that students will answer after listening to authentically produced audios are open-ended, or allow for a high degree of creativity.  For these answers, I am asking students to reply by producing a recording of their own.  I am wondering if this method will stimulate creative responses, or if students will record the minimum they can just do get the assignment done.   Will they see it as an assignment given to them, or as an opportunity to learn, discuss and practice their language skills.  How can I get them to push their comfort limits in using an acquired second language to express themselves?  In a f2f environment I can monitor this first hand through direct instruction and encouragement, asking for class collaboration and assistance, or modeling.  But this certainly will be different in an online environment.  My confidence lies in the fact that these will be senior students, about to go off to college or the ‘real world’.  So the andraogical pedagogy concepts we discussed in ETAP 687 will be at work here too (such as students drawing from their vast reservoir of experience, learning as a means to cope with real-life tasks,  and learning as a mean to develop competence).

Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board.  I intend to do some course changes in the coming week.  Hopefully to produce something that encourages and fosters independent and creative learning at a higher level than what I have now.

On Building a Moodle Model

This is truly a challenge!  Trying to understand the technicalities of constructing an online course, while at the same time learning about what it means to teach online and how it differs from the classroom, is pushing my capabilities to another level.  From my previous posts, I reflected on the need to help develop higher level thinking in my students through discussion.  But now there is the element of teaching presence to consider as well.  The goal of critical thinking requires that all three components of teaching presence, facilitating discourse, direct instruction and instructional design and organization work together in every component of the online course.  How can I accomplish this in so few weeks?  I have decided to focus on structure first: mechanics, technical input and course layout.  After those elements are in place I think I will go back and rearrange course components so that the layout accommodates facilitation of discourse (Are my questions worded properly?  Are they dead ends?  Do they allow for Socratic discussion or are they skewed towards preconceived answers?)  Then I need to consider how I will approach the issue of direct instruction.  What types of ways can I use to focus the discussions, summarize, confirm understanding, diagnosing misconceptions and injecting knowledge from diverse scenarios (Alex’s Breeze presentation)?  If I should decide to have a student-led discussion, how will I ensure that the above aspects of direct instruction are accommodated?  I think these questions can be theorized but must be realized in practice before a true teaching presence becomes part and par for the course.

I do feel as if the structure of my AP Spanish Language course incorporates the four perspectives of learning environments as outlined by Shea, Pickett and Pelz (2003).  Because I have tried to incorporate information from a variety of resources, each with a specific learning outcome.  For example, students will first work on some aspect of Spanish grammar that they will later use when writing in their blogs or producing an mp3 file.  It is also learner centered as I have incorporated a number of different activities to accommodate a variety of student interests and learning styles.  Students will be encouraged to use new knowledge, such as that of a cultural nature, and bridge this new insight with what they already know.  Thirdly, the course is community centered through shared projects, discussion and paired-projects.  Lastly, I have tried to make this course assessment centered by providing different means to make students thinking visible, one being the use of blogs as we do in this course.  I am planning on using mp3 feed back audio files to assess the students audio files that they upload.  Also, a recent research article I was reading showed a strong correlation between students learning and retention when they listened to an audio file while reading a corresponding text (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/12/03/audio).  So I have incorporated exercises in each module where students listen/read a cultural story as they learn new Spanish terms, grammar and cultural information.  Their job is then to produce an mp3 audio file in response to a question I post about the reading.

I am finding this whole experience a lot of fun.  I only wish we had more time left tp the semester to produce a truely polished end product.  I don’t know at this point if that will happen.

Removing Classroom Walls

It occurred to me that real learning requires the removal of classroom walls in the sense that students need to be made to feel empowered  in their ability to learn independently, as well as in the amount of information they learn.  This realization was triggered after reading Alex’s blog about her recent NUTN conference.  In her entries she talks about the use of Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies in the online classroom.  My initial thoughts were that teaching online was, of itself, enough of a technological integration for students to expand their thinking.  But I now believe that the online environment, while substantially more engaging to me than a f2f classroom, can still leave one – at the end of the course – with novel ideas and knowledge gained through exchange with only a handful of students, an instructor, and a few texts.  Now I understand why Alex is so interested in the integration of other web 2.0 technologies into the online environment.  Suddenly, the student is propelled to think clearly and critically, as now their core ideas have the potential to be shared with anyone, anywhere.  Although blogs, VoiceThread and other technologies can be privatized for only in-class use, their real potential emerges when they are shared with the academic world-at-large.  This is how we team up with others of similar interests, talk with experts, and make those all essential ‘connections’ in the professional world.  I guess it is time to consider more seriously the application of these tools to my own online course.

3

Reflections….Module 3

For me, this module seems to have been the hump, after which one passes over it, the vision of what needs to come ahead is a little clearer.  Up until this point in the course, it has been a challenge to keep up with all of the necessary learning components to prepare oneself for online teaching:  readings, observations, posts, responses, blogging, citing, learning, connecting and assimilating.  Alex, in her Breeze presentation, asked us to reflect on the key question, “Are you ready?”, and I would have overwhelmingly said yes at the inception of this course.  After initiating the modules, my answer would have been “definitely not”.  But now, I have come to have better vision of what I would like to do with this online course and how I would like to transfer some of the f2f classroom components online, and add others as well.  For example, in the standard classroom setting, I strive to create engaging language activities that help students practice their skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening.  Often I incorporate quite a lot of web 2.0 technology in order to do this.  I have carried this over into my online AP Spanish Language course because I think it fits in nicely with the learning format.  However, classroom discussion has not been a strong component in my f2f classroom.  In an online environment it is fundamental.  Discussions generate questions, and questions promote critical thinking.  I now firmly believe, and understand, that in order to promote a higher level of language usage, I need to help my students learn how to think critically through questioning.  This is best accomplished through a dialogue format, where all students are expected to contribute in a relaxed and supportive learning environment.

I think one thing that has been difficult for me, simply because of my own resistance, is learning how to use moodle.  Although I feel the explanations that Alex provides are explicitly clear, I still find it intimidating to begin construction, and consequently, I deal with my own resistance.  Once started, I am fine.  But it is the initial first step that is difficult.  Perhaps I am still too unfamiliar in how to use moodle, but constructing the learning activities within each module, which were all identical in my case, proved to be pretty tedious by the third module or so.  I am wondering if there is a way to copy a module set-up, and then simply customize the web pages within each module.  Also, both Alex and Rob Piorkowski, whose course I am following closely because it deals with language, have suggested to keep our course construction simple.  Yet, when I look at my course after having spent hours in its construction, I can’t help but feel disappointed at it’s appearance.  Perhaps students do not pay attention to all the bells and whistles that are possible to incorporate into a course design, but I think the reverse may be true too – a plain presentation may not generate much stimulated interest either.  So, I would like to learn more about color, design and presentation, along with how to construct solid content. (4)