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.
I recently attended EdMedia in Washington DC. I was excited for this conference because this was the first conference that I was attending completely on my own. There’s this tendency when you go to a conference with someone—at least for me—to follow their itinerary rather than come up with your own, so this was a true test for me to see how I could experience a conference completely by myself.
One thing that was really great about this conference was how it wasn’t that large attendee wise. There was a decent amount of people from different areas of the education field but there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of people everywhere, which I felt was a true benefit as it was easier to meet people.
Since this was my first time attending EdMedia, I attended the Newcomer Welcome meeting and they had us do something similar to speed dating where we had 3 minutes to talk to a person and get to know them. This was a great ice breaker, especially for someone who is typically more reserved and has a hard time approaching people.
The other day I was talking to a colleague about developing a new program and how he could best deliver content, especially lectures, to his students who would be scattered around the globe. Naturally, we talked about video and presentation best-practices, but he pointed out his sympathy for students who work full-time and still have to carve out a period to visually focus on a lecture.
The instructor also told me how he balanced a busy schedule and keeping up-to-date on things by listening to podcasts. They are perfect for commuting on transit systems, flying around the world, and doing chores around the apartment and he wondered about how he could create podcast-like content for his students.
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.
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?
In my last post, I detailed a study in the summer of 2016 using the Knewton Adaptive Learning engine built into Pearson’s MyMathLab. This was a limited study with a trial of Knewton in 4 developmental math courses. The results of the trial were compared to sections of the same courses in which the adaptive engine was not used. In that limited study we found that students got better scores overall on the MyMathLab quizzes and that they spent less time on task.
The summer cohort of students isn’t reflective of regular semester classes (in DePaul’s First-Year Program we typically see entering freshmen, where this is the first university level course they have encountered), so we implemented the same trial in 4 courses with larger enrollments and traditional students during the winter 2016 quarter. Please see my previous blog post for information about the Knewton engine and the previous trial.
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.
Getting good feedback from students can be a challenge. Gone are the days where someone from the academic department came into your class and distributed paper course evaluations to every student. Response rates for online course evaluations are abysmal, and the students who respond usually represent the extremes—they either tend to be really happy with the course or decidedly unhappy. So what to do?
Recently the college I support conducted two focus groups for our online students. I didn’t facilitate the focus groups; I have to give credit here to our great online operations team and the researchers who support the college Teaching, Learning and Assessment committee. In these focus groups, our adult students were asked “If you had the opportunity to design your ideal online course experience, what are the features you would include?”
So what did they tell us?