Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some End to the Bitching Madness

First of all, let me just acknowledge that I've been a bit of a frustrated and whining crank over the past couple of days. And then, let me thank you all for your thoughtful comments, and for listening to me complain, because those two things combined have really helped me to strategize about how I'm going to handle things in the web course that refuses to behave.

Plans/Strategies for the short term:
  1. I'm going to be on top of posting discussion questions on the day after blog posts are due, in the event that other classmates don't do their assigned work. I've been doing this a bit off the cuff, but I haven't been systematic about when I do it, which is placing an undue burden on students who are "checked in" to the course.
  2. Should things continue to implode with students submitting (or not) their assignments, I'm going to reconfigure the commenting requirement for the blog, so that students have more agency in choosing how they fulfill it. Commenting is worth a full 15% of their course grade, so if things don't improve, I've got to do something for the non-slackers.
  3. I actually have gotten substantive feedback already from the non-slackers, so I'm reluctant at this point to do some mandatory assessment activity, to which only the non-slackers would probably respond anyway. This is not to poo-poo the suggestions about midterm evals, etc., but I do think hat one of the problems with the web format is that I can't make them do these evals in front of me, during "class time" as I would with students in a F2F environment. So I'm holding out on implementing this strategy, mainly because I think that the time investment of putting together yet another assignment that the slackers ignored wouldn't be worth my time as an instructor. I'd rather focus more energy, for the time being, on the students who are checked in.
  4. I have been alerting individual students to their grades for assignments that they are missing, but at midterm, I will send a midterm grade estimate to each individual student, which also includes a projected grade if they continue on their current paths, to let them know where they stand and to indicate their prospects if they continue in their current fashion.

Plans/Strategies for the long term:

  1. I realized today that I'm less interested in the short-term strategies for this course than in the long-term ones, not because I'm not invested in this particular section this semester but because I care about making this course good over the next three semesters in which I've committed to teaching it.
  2. First, I will do a power-point or podcast for the first week in which I briefly outlinethe expectations and demands of the course. All of this is in the course syllabus already,but I think a good number of them didn't actually read this stuff in the first week this semester, even though it was their only assignment for the first week. I think that I need to be more hardcore about course expectations - and more bullet-point-y - than I thought I had to be, having never taught online before. It's fine if they drop immediately: the problems occur when they claim to exist in the course - a course that depends on them producing and interacting throughout the semester - and yet don't really do so.
  3. I also think that my ideas about how the "commenting" requirement should be fulfilled should be more flexible than they currently are for the course blog. Originally, I thought that requiring three blog posts per semester of each student while their other work on the blog would be in the form of commenting was doing them a favor. I think I'm now going to change the "commenting" requirement in such a way that they can comment or do brief posts to fulfill that requirement. I think that this will be good.
  4. I also think that I'm going to incorporate a colleague's practice in the course policies that if you fail to submit any major assignment on the due date that you fail the course. In the F2F classroom I don't like this policy, because it feels incredibly inflexible to me. In the online environment however - particularly in trying to get them interacting with one another and investing in the course - I think it may be a good way of sending a message that they need to be keeping up and participating.

So, those are the things that I've come up with over the course of the day. They feel true to who I am as a teacher, and they feel like strategies that I can implement within the current course design, which I do think makes sense, that will make things more transparent for even the least engaged of students. I think that I tend to aim my teaching at the upper-middle of students in my F2F courses, and I think that maybe in the online environment - or the particular online enviornment of this course - that I need to aim more at the lower-middle.

See, this is one of the things that I think may be causing me static this semester. On the one hand, this course is technically, on paper, a writing-intensive capstone course for a major at the university. In other words, it's populated almost entirely with seniors. This would indicate, in a normal situation, a certain level of competency and commitment. However, this major is also typically a "completer degree," i.e., students who choose this major often do so because of its relative flexibility and (often) lack of rigor, when they have failed to meet the expectations of one or more other majors. The point of this major, in other words, is often that it constitutes the quickest way to a piece of paper that names one a college graduate. I suspect that this is even more true for those students who choose to take the course online. In other words, I think I may need to be even more of a hard-ass than I'd typically be in expressing my expectations. They don't have the benefit of seeing how those expectations play out in person - they don't get the benefit of "tone" in person. So I think I need to be even more explicitly a hard-ass than I typically am in order for this thing to work. Also, I should note, the issue here is not "distance learners" vs. my typical population that I teach. These students are *part* of the population that I teach - they're not from all over the country - but they have commitments that prohibit them from taking only traditional classes.

I suppose I mention all of this because as much as I do believe the method of delivery is part of my problem, it's not the only factor in the equation. In some respects, this problem has little to do with method of delivery and much more to do with student population. Dealing with this student population in the F2F classroom is in many regards easier, because my personality and face-time with them can motivate and carry them to a large degree. I think the discomfort that I feel with this particular class this semester is that I can't, in this medium, do the typical things that I do to force them to work. So there's a learning curve.

All of that said, I'm getting a lot out of thinking about how to articulate this stuff in another medium. I've reflected on my teaching more related to this course than I have in relation to any other in recent memory. I think that this is ultimately good for me and for my students in all courses.

In other news, I met with my mentor today about the tenure binder, and it was awesome. I have things to say about that, but that will have to wait for another post, for I am exhausted.

1 comment:

Belle said...

Great post. I think your insights are really helpful; have you thought about consolidating them for other online instructors? It would have been so helpful to have these kinds of problems and proposals in front of me when I configured my online class (and didn't, of course). The stuff I found for helping me solve similar problems always put it in either 'you're an idiot, do it this way' or 'you're the prof; figure it out' kinds of stuff.

Thanks. I'm going to print this out and put it in my 'if I ever get conned into doing another online class' file.