Over the years, I’ve often heard faculty bemoan the lack of student interest in their syllabi. Students seem to ignore or easily forget key information presented in the syllabus, and many faculty feel obligated to treat the document like a contract, which only exacerbates the lack of student engagement. While many instructors have offered up helpful tips and examples online, it can be daunting to take on a syllabus makeover in isolation.
Teaching—when you think about it—is a process of manipulation.
Dr. Tom Angelo made this point when he was wrapping up his keynote presentation at the DePaul Faculty Teaching and Learning Conference in May 2017. Since then the idea of “teaching by manipulating” kept popping up in my mind like a little bud seeking its opportunity to break through the ground.
It seems to me the best place to sow the seed of manipulation is my home. As I once heard a conference speaker joke, “Do you know why psychologists have kids? No IRB!”
IRB stands for Institutional Review Board, a committee that reviews and approves (or disapproves) studies that use human subjects. It is a hoop that researchers must jump through—well, unless they are dealing with the human subjects that they’ve produced themselves.
At FITS, we have a number of strategies that we like to recommend to help keep students organized and on task:
- Use the “Completion Tracking” feature in the D2L Content tool so students can check off items as they complete them.
- Set due dates that will be pushed to the calendar tool and encourage students to subscribe to their calendar so that it syncs to whatever personal calendar they use.
- Use use the News tool to send updates and, again, encourage students to subscribe so they get updates via email.
But there’s a danger in all these strategies. If you don’t fully commit to them they can backfire spectacularly, and rather than help keep students on task, only create confusion about what they’re supposed to do.
Do instructional designers secretly serve as change agents in higher education institutions? Change is a faint tremor that rarely erupts to alter the academic structure cemented in tradition and intricate policies. However, instructional designers have a unique role that gives them access to the three primary stakeholders at a university: faculty, administration, and students. Acting in a supportive, non-threatening role, instructional designers have the opportunity to create change without having to move the weighty levers of the academic machine. Taking a look at the five characteristics of change agents identified by George Couros, author of Innovative Mindset, provides a better understanding of why instructional designers may be the secret change agents in higher education institutions.
During a recent research jaunt to update some FITS resources on online learning, I stumbled across an article about the value of including the instructor’s face in course videos. If you don’t have time for the entire piece, here’s my TL;DR:
Faculty often ask me “if it matters” to include their faces within course videos. My standard response is that they should try it in the introductory video. Start the video with your face on the screen, either in full-frame glory or in a small square in the corner (depending on the software you’re using), and then transition to the other typical intro video elements, like a tour of the course or syllabus. That way, you only have to think about being “on camera” for a minute or two.
But what faculty are really asking is this: does including my face in videos either (1) make students feel more engaged with the course materials, or (2) actually result in better learning?
When I’m contacted by faculty who want help creating video for their courses, one of the first things I ask is why they want to make a video. Most of the time it’s to add some instructor presence in an online or hybrid course, but often it’s to replicate a lecture they’ve given in the face-to-face version of the course.
I’m always a bit apprehensive as I tease out the reasons for the request. I don’t want to trespass on the instructor’s prerogative to teach the course as s/he wishes, but I do know that many of the videos I see don’t serve their intended purpose—assuming the purpose is to promote learning or add instructor presence.
I’ve always been research-oriented, and I’d like to believe that I’m a curious soul. I love asking questions, often with little hope of finding a definitive answer. One thing I’ve always wondered is how we think about the things we hold important. It started with what apps I keep on my phone’s home screen. I was looking at the difference between the home screen on my phone versus the home screen on my boyfriend’s phone. He had folders on the front; I put folders on the other pages. I kept a lot of the “pre-installed” apps on my home screen; he just had one or two.
So I started to think about what my home screen might say about what I value and what I use a lot. In this search, I noticed quite a bit about myself:
Recently, on “Pi Day” (3.14, or March 14 for the non-nerds out there) I was reading an article about the benefits of learning programming on the Raspberry Pi, a micro-computer that costs only $35 dollars, and all the ways that it helps tinkerers learn programming and solve obscure issues by creating their own software and hardware solutions. I had recently fallen into the trap of tech lust—the feeling nerds get when they suddenly want to buy some piece of technology they may or may not really need—and decided that I wanted to buy a Pi device and get back into programming, having not written a line of code since high school.
That last bit presented a bit of an issue for me, however. Learning to code was always easiest for me when I had a specific issue to solve, since it helped me predict what kind of code I needed to learn, while also making the motivational factor much easier to maintain. It’s this feeling of not knowing where to start that I often see students struggle with as well.
Facing this issue myself, before I decide which Pi to purchase I’ll look online for specific Pi projects that others have done, to see what solutions I may be able to integrate into my own network and test bench at home. At the same time, I think it is helpful to consider the different pedagogical approaches available to instructors to naturally integrate problems into the assignments we give, in order to help students learn to solve them.
If you think the title of this blog is too complicated to understand, you can use an analogy, such as eating candy without a sweet taste, or drinking water to booze up, or anything that sounds oxymoronic, self-contradictory, and illogical.
If instructor-agnostic means removing the trace of any specific instructor, how could you create a sense of instructor presence in the same course? And why would you want to do it? Have you ever seen a course like that?
Before answering these questions, let me share a personal story with you. Two weeks ago, I received news that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Devastated by the phone call from her primary care physician’s office, which offered nothing but a quick read of the final diagnose, I struggled to find out anything about breast cancer—the causes, the symptoms, the types, the treatment, the chance of spreading. Yet none of the information on the Internet could put me at ease or tell me how to deal with this life-threatening illness. I was overwhelmed by feelings of fear and helplessness until I received the phone call from Beth, a nurse from the pathology department of the hospital.
When you’re developing a new online or hybrid course, it’s hard to look beyond the first course offering. After all, there might not be a second offering if you don’t focus your attention on making sure the course goes well the first time around, and developing the course always seems to take more time than you think it will. It’s hard to put much attention into making the course workable for future offerings. So here are some quick tips to keep in mind when developing a course to make life easier on yourself when you offer it the next time. Follow these tips, and your future self will thank you.