Online Discussions: Frustrating and Ineffective?

Having pursued my bachelor’s degree in a face-to-face setting I was not aware of how commonly discussion threads were used in online education. I had online courses and hybrid courses during my undergraduate and MBA coursework, but none of these courses featured any discussion threads. Discussion threads were viewed as ineffective as discussions could occur within the class meetings. Additionally, other assessment measures were taken to “test” for student achievement. Assessments such as papers, tests, homework assignments, and presentations were common.

Then, I pursued two other graduate degrees online. I noticed a disturbing trend, the overuses of online discussion threads. These courses were asynchronous in nature [no set meeting time like a synchronous course would have]. At first the discussion threads seemed to replace the homework aspect of the grading scale. Then, it became clear that the online discussion threads were being used as a means to check whether or not students were completing the assigned literature. Readings were assigned over periods of the course; called modules, that were generally one to two weeks long.

This is where the problem came to exist. As educators we should strive to have all assessments associated with learning objectives and the course curriculum. Having assessments that have no direct or indirect correlation with objectives and the course are viewed as busy work. Busy work is viewed as an unnecessary request by students. I have seen first hand that undergraduate students struggle to understand what busy work actually is, but graduate students have a firm grasp.

Why are discussion threads busy work? They require a limited response related to a small piece of information. For example, you may have been assigned to read 100 pages in a given week and the discussion thread has to do with three of those pages. These three pages may have been viewed as irrelevant to you and their focus is not in line with the learning objectives of the course or the course curriculum, but the instructor thought it was something interesting.

Why are discussion threads frustrating and ineffective? The focus is on obscurity; rather than understanding. All discussion threads I have seen focus on an obscure fact or comment made within a module’s readings that needs to be addressed. These are often statements that have nothing to do with the course content or learning objectives, but were interesting to the instructor when they glossed over the readings. How to fix this? Online discussion threads need to focus on a broader outcome that can be tied to the learning objectives. For example, if the learning objective of Module 1 is to ensure students can identify a communication style in education, the question should be associated with that, not a question on a few pages out of the 100 pages a student read. Another issue is the setup and execution of the discussion thread itself. In my experience the discussion threads have required an initial post by a certain day of the week and then two responses by the end of the week. This hamstrings students who are go-getters and want to get their coursework done; as they are relying on their classmates who are likely to procrastinate until the due date. This limits the effectiveness of the discussion thread. The focus becomes more on responding just to fill the quota and complete by the deadline. How to fix this? Make the discussion threads more organic. Give overall parameters [or a rubric] of what is expected in the responses, but do not exercise a limit or strong deadlines. Discussions are more effective when they are done like they would be in person. For example, if someone sends me an email asking intriguing questions it may take me more than 24 hours to consider a response. I would not write a response simply to have it done, but would contemplate the questions, formulate an effective response, and respond when appropriate.

Online discussion threads can be much more effective than they currently are. Due to their current setup that are viewed as busy work that just needs to get done. Online instructors need to find an effective way to make their discussion threads appropriate in relation to the learning objectives and the course; as opposed to simply a manner to check a student read or as a manner of attendance.

 

Using Rubrics as a Grading Tool

Recently I have had an interaction with an individual employed in higher education who indicated that as long as a rubric is filled out no reasoning is necessary to define why sections of a rubric were selected. Most of us in academia would agree that, that is wrong, as it leaves ambiguity for our students. It leads me to this post where I intend to offer some key characteristics to using a rubric properly.

Create Your Own Rubric:
There are resources abound that will offer sample resources on nearly every assignment you may give. Most will actually offer sample rubrics for particular assignments. So why do I think it is a good idea to create your own? Creating your own rubric allows you to tightly wind what you are looking for in an assignment. Some assignments might only need to be defined as Average, Good or Very Good, while other assignments may need multiple designations as to what each section defines. For example, if you ask for 5 resources on a research paper and a student doesn’t meet this expectation you will need to define all possibilities from 0 resources to 5 resources to properly assess this criterion. You can use examples to gather ideas, but creating your own allows you to grade in a more efficient fashion, since you’ve defined everything in accordance to the way you grade.

Follow Your Rubric:
I have experienced situations where the same rubric was used on multiple assignments. On one assignment I would receive one grade and on another assignment I would receive a different grade even though the rubric was followed in both cases. Once you’ve defined your rubric structure you must follow it. If you use the rubric for multiple assignments you must be consistent. Failing to be consistent can impact student morale and cause fatigue.

Be Prepared to Explain Your Rubric:
Some of us think in different ways. To avoid any issues it is best to explain your rubric to your course for the best execution of your plan. Failing to explain your rubric can lead to ambiguity or even a complete lack of understanding that leads to no one following it.

Be Prepared to Execute Your Rubric:
If you’ve detailed 5 resources are necessary for an assignment and only 3 are provided be certain to select the section that notes 3 resources were provided. This helps define to a student where they missed points.

Be Prepared to Offer Commentary:
Simply receiving a rubric with sections checked off is unlikely to help any student understand their grade. You should provide your reasoning for selecting the rubric sections. This provides students with the opportunity to not only see where they need improvement, but use this information for the next assignment.

Be Prepared to Discuss:
Students may not necessarily agree with every point we take off for, so it is important to allow for dialogue. Be ready to confirm your commentary by using examples. Then offer ideas for improvement, such as proofreading, peer review, etc.

Modify Accordingly:
Nothing is ever perfect. Be willing to modify your rubric according to how it is working. You might find a rubric that fits one class nicely might not fit another class. You might find that a rubric might be too harsh or too vague once you have all grades computed. Fine tuning your rubric allows for greater opportunities that it can be used over and over in the future. Be sure to modify the rubric any time you modify the assignment as well.

Rubric Tools:
Rubistar
Annenberg Learner
Teachnology Rubric Maker
iRubric
Essay Tagger

Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Rubrics

You can also use Google and Google Docs to find more tools and samples to use.


The Art of Professional Development

Locally professional development is viewed as a utter mess. Often the local school districts will have a few in-service events each school year that are geared towards professional development. These are often exercises in futility. The primary reason is when they occur. For example, one district is having one on Columbus Day when every other district in the state is closed. The other is the focus. Most professional development exercises are focusing on some usage of educational technology. This results in two fragmented groups: those who already know how to use the technology and those who have no interest in using the technology. I recall the one year a district tried to force all teachers to create and use a Google Sites webpage. It didn’t work well.

So how can a school district provide better professional development? Realizing that one size fits all isn’t pragmatic. Have a few options available and make them known ahead of time or even have a signup sheet for each particular group. Addressing a wide range of problems is always a good idea too. Some teachers may be struggling with HIB policies and so the same old song and dance may not be useful to them.

We all know however that our school district isn’t going to provide us with all of our professional development needs. Luckily there are a number of professional development opportunities online that I’ve found enjoyable and will share.

SimpleK12:
I might be a little bias as an ambassador for SimpleK12, but I believe they provide a strong professional development presence online. They provide PD on a wide variety of topics from classroom management to ELL. Not only do they have a constantly updated list of active webinars [where you signup in advance for the scheduled view], but they have an extensive list of on-demand webinars. There are more than enough resources with the free model to advance your career, but you could always move onto the paid yearly model and access even more. Additionally there are countless other educators on SimpleK12 just waiting to collaborate and interact with you. It is essentially a new Personal Learning Network for you!

EdWeek:
EdWeek is likely well known for its articles about education, but they do offer professional development webinars through their website. While SimpleK12 probably has 20 live webinars scheduled at any time, EdWeek usually has 5. EdWeek also provides you access to their on-demand webinars with a PowerPoint associated with the presentation. EdWeek even provides a paid professional development toolkit in areas like classroom management and educational technology.

Simply Use Google:
You may navigate through various professional development websites and find what you’re looking for is missing. As is becoming a common phrase these days “just Google it.” Most professional development websites are looking to hit on a wide range of topics and your specific interest may not be broad enough for those involved to produce content. Googling your keyword with professional development will hopefully give you specific information helpful to your cause. For example, Adobe provides webinars on some of its products. That might be professional development to you if you are teaching a Multimedia course, but you may not know how to find this out. Google helps out here. You may even find that there are professional development websites devoted to your content area too.

There are even some local groups you can join as a school district and pay for individual teachers to attend professional development workshops, like is offered by the Southern Regional Institute and Educational Technology Training Center.

Remember some school districts will help you [including financially] in professional development pursuits, while others won’t. So understand you may be required to do the bulk of the work if you want to improve. It will be worth it!


Empathy with Students Goes a Long Way

Recently I read the story of Teddy who was struggling to find his footing in the classroom. According to the information posted he had been a great student with a number of friends, but the loss of a parent derailed his academic success to a degree. His teacher reviewed his previous teachers’ commentary on his classroom performance. Once she noticed the pattern she took a stronger interest in Teddy and the relationship continued to grow until after Teddy left her class, including Teddy returning to inform the teacher of all the important things going on in his life.

Most educators dream of these situations, where you have such an impact in a student’s life that their success is often your success, as they are so excited to inform you of the new chapters in their lives.

Your question might be “How do I show empathy for my students”?

Empathy can be shown in a number of ways with your students. The one aspect you need to understand is there can be a small line between students taking advantage of you and you showing empathy for their situations. For example, if you see provide an extension to a student once due to an incident they may expect you to do this every time. So be firm with your classroom policies.

Empathy can be a tool used to connect with your students as well. Some students, like Teddy, may require you to work harder than your normal interactions, but the pay off is well worth it. You are not friends with your students, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pull for them in the same manner that their friends do.

Some scenarios I have seen play out in the classroom include the following:

  • A student has a poor home life and does not like to go home:
  • A teacher can consider offering additional after school hours and if the student needs help with their work, use this time to help them navigate through their assignments.

  • A student may have a parent who is terminally ill:
  • A teacher may allow a student to periodically check their cell phone even if it goes against school policy or setup an alternative for reaching the student in case something happens.

  • A student has concerns that limit their concentration:
  • A teacher must not get frustrated with this type of student and instead work with the student individually to ensure they are comprehending all necessary materials. Usually if an IEP or 504 mentions such an issue there may be recommendations for the educator.

    Ultimately showing empathy for situations that come up may help you in connecting with your students and secure a stronger level of respect, as long as you establish that you aren’t a pushover, but aren’t unreasonable.


    My Summer with Edmodo

    For those that don’t know Edmodo is a Learning Management System (LMS) that looks like Facebook. In my opinion Edmodo is a LMS that is geared more towards a K-12 audience than a higher education audience. In a lot of aspects Edmodo seems more like a social media tool than a Learning Management System due to its interactive setup and visual appearance. Make no mistake though, Edmodo is one powerful educational tool.

    Prior to 2014 I had periodically played around with Edmodo, using it sporadically inside my classroom. Then, EdmodoCon 2014 happened and I grew more and more involved with Edmodo after hearing about all the wonderful things students and teachers can do with Edmodo.

    Then I received an e-mail earlier this year asking me to become an ambassador for Edmodo. I agreed and have been very happy with my decision. I am now actively helping my peers within the Edmodo community with any questions they may have and vice versa. I’m providing resources to my peers and offering feedback to those resources my peers post within the Spotlight section of Edmodo. My involvement with helping out on Edmodo has also made me a Luminary, which according to information at EdmodoCon 2015 will result in me receiving a cape [to show off my Super Edmodo Skills I’m sure].

    Additionally, this opportunity has allowed me to connect with even more of my peers on Edmodo through the various challenges Edmodo has for its ambassadors to complete, through its Teacher Leader Network. We can connect on Facebook, Twitter, etc. due to setting up our Edmodo accounts to link to our social media.

    I can’t wait to turn my enjoyable summer with Edmodo into continued and prolonged usage of the amazing Learning Management System and encourage you to do so as well.


    Creating a Website for the Busy Educator

    These days most educators simply don’t have the time to spend days on end setting up a personal website for their classroom or educational ventures. Some educators prefer using Google Sites because it is free, but Google Sites is limited in the content you can provide to your audience or students. Google Sites is perfectly fine for the older teacher who is about to retire, but wants to follow their school districts’ move into newer technology. Most other educators need to focus on creating a strong website that can constantly be referenced.

    My primary suggested reasons for creating your own personal website are:

  • Snapshot of your teaching – in case you end up moving on to a different district you will have a visible instrument to show a new administrative team of what you’ve done and how you’ve done it.
  • It can evolve – some educators initially start their websites as a tool for their students, but the website may eventually involve if other individuals are viewing your website. You could in theory have multiple parts of your website that are each geared towards different ventures.
  • You’re in control – if you are like me you use a bunch of worksheets in the classroom, well with a website you can store all of these worksheets on your server, which wouldn’t be possible with Google Sites or your school district’s allotted website space.
  • One tool educators use if they’re not that familiar with website design in Weebly. There are free aspects to Weebly and paid aspects too. Weebly is a lot like Wixx, another website design service for those with limited design backgrounds. It allows you to modify a template, looks okay, but is pretty basic.


    The Easiest Way to Create a Website. Weebly.com

    If you’re going the paid route there are some websites you should be familiar with in 1&1 and GoDaddy.


    www.1and1.com

    Both of these allow you to purchase a domain, hosting and all the bells and whistles you need to run a website. I personally prefer GoDaddy, but have heard good things about 1&1. NOTE: I only purchase domains through GoDaddy and use a different hosting company.


    $8.99 .COM Domains from GoDaddy!

    Another option you can use is Web.com but haven’t used any of their products to advise one way or the other.


    Web.com Windows Hosting

    I then utilize Host Gator for my hosting, as it allows me to create forums, blogs, etc. with ease.

    Once my website is up and running I head over to Vista Print and get some cool advertising gear for the new website. You can too!

    NOTE: Use the tools you are most comfortable with after doing your research.

    Should Grammarly Be Used to Grade English Assignments?

    During my MeD program at Bowling Green State University there were a number of courses that placed emphasis on grading in the same manner that an English professor or teacher would on writing assignments. Since none of these individuals were actually qualified to do so with the same eye an English professor or teacher would they turned to Grammarly, a paid tool for reviewing writing. I once asked why they use Grammarly and the response was simply that “everyone else does.”

    In my experiences with these professors using Grammarly, the review Grammarly provided DID NOT match that of a trained English teacher on any occurrence. Grammarly seemed to be a tool used as a quick solution to those with limited proofreading and reviewing skills. It was like TurnItIn, which is an easy and quick way to check for plagiarism.

    So the assumption is that Grammarly may be used by some graduate professors, but should it be used to grade English assignments?

    Based on seeing the product in action I think it should only be used as a supplemental tool when grading English assignments. For example, you may miss something simple if you are grading late at night and Grammarly may catch it for you. This is solely based on my experience that the review Grammarly provided didn’t match the review of a skilled English professor or teacher.

    With that said Grammarly can also be used as a supplemental tool for all educators, but bear in mind if you’re grading for punctuation, grammar, etc. to only use Grammarly’s findings as part of your grading. Feel free to try Grammarly today and be your own judge.


    Free & Quick Proofreading from Grammarly!

    Is HIB Preventing Bullying?

    In recent years school districts have done more and more to prevent harassment, bullying and intimidation within the school environment. One would assume that with school districts now being required to report incidents of harassment, bullying and intimidation that the amount of cases would be going down. There is no definitive way of determining if this is true or not as we are still struggling to identify bullying and often find ourselves in a reactive state, rather than a proactive state.

    Your school district has probably established a team to handle HIB incidents within each school and they have probably been trained to some degree on conflict resolution, but is it enough? Often with incidents of physical altercations there is a common way for school districts to handle it: the person who retaliates gets in trouble. The first blow is rarely seen, but the retaliation always is. The same applies to situations of harassment, bullying and intimidation. Usually the agitator or aggressor has nothing to worry about, but the victim does. The victim is often seen as someone who has done something wrong by failing to report the incident promptly. Some victims even fall further into the situation if their teacher hasn’t noticed any incidents in their classroom. Peer pressure is another concern, where if the bully is the entire grade’s bully no one may want to cross them.

    It is paramount to be proactive, rather than reactive when it comes to bullying. Being reactive often punishes the victim in some form or fashion where they feel they cannot come forth with their issues. Being proactive punishes the antagonist or aggressor and can limit future issues.

    There are tons of resources available on the subject matter, such as Simple K12’s Bullying Intervention Toolkit. However, the best way to me to prevent bullying within the school environment is to get your school district to be proactive. School districts often create Public Service Announcements regarding bullying. Do one within your schools where you show the problem and inform the students on where to go for solutions (naming the HIB team, resources, etc.). The PSA below on Cyberbullying should serve as a good start.

    For More Info on Preventing Bullying Click Here!

    Connecting with Your Students By Being Up to Date

    One of the most common issues teachers have with students is their inability to connect with them on a human level. A lot of educators feel their job is to simply enter the classroom, teach the content, prepare the students for the tests and send them on their way. That isn’t how you connect with students. Teachers can connect with students better by intersecting their lives with the course content.

    A perfect example is the video below. A math teacher incorporated the recent song “Teach Me How to Dougie” into a song associated with the content he was teaching.

    This process is one of the best ways to connect with students. I’m sure we all remember the “Elements Song”

    A famous cartoon when I was younger known as Animaniacs actually helped me remember the state capitals with this little diddy:

    You may not be great at rapping or singing, but it is necessary to find a recent event or idea to tie to your current content to help you better connect with your students. Being a little bit goofy will make you more approachable in the eyes of your students.

    Think creatively and something will come to you. It is probably not the best idea to have a rap or song associated with every lecture topic, but inserting some fun into the classroom will help you connect with your students. YouTube is a great place for ideas on potential things you can do to incorporate recent events into your teachings to help you connect with students. You don’t have to be over the top, but make it fun.

    Homework, With a Purpose

    In recent years there is an ever growing debate on Homework vs. No Homework. Many argue for the No Homework side with various reasons associated with their point of view. The primary issue with homework is it’s purpose. If you are assigning homework without a defined purpose you are not doing your students any help.

    When planning your schedule for the week in your classroom be sure to have a defined purpose for the assigned homework. Is there a test tomorrow? Assign homework that will help your students study. Is it an Advanced Placement course? Assign homework that will help prepare students for questions they will see on the exam. Is the course real world oriented like personal finance? Assign homework that students will be interested in like a stock simulation.

    There are a few questions you should be asking yourself to best determine the purpose of a homework assignment that will help you explain the purpose to an administrator, students and parents.

    The first and foremost question you should be asking is does this assignment tie into the content being covered? A homework assignment on a topic covered three days prior may not be appropriate if you’ve moved on to a new topic.

    The next question you should be asking if are my students capable of doing this assignment? By the same token as above, if you haven’t covered a topic yet how can your students successfully complete a homework assignment?

    Another question you need to ask yourself is can all of my students complete this assignment? You may be in a situation where your class is mixed with a variety of students. Some might not be able to complete an assignment without a paraprofessional, parent, etc. helping them out.

    The final question you need to ask yourself is can this assignment be done in class? Ultimately, parents view homework as work that wasn’t completed during the school day. While teachers are often blamed for this it is necessary to consider. Could you potentially fit an assignment into your schedule so that students do not have to take their work home?

    If you are able to define the reasoning behind the homework assignment it is easier to defend giving it. If you can note how it is to serve a purpose: preparing students for an AP exam, preparing students for a test, helping students study for an upcoming test, etc. it will be perceived as more than just something you’re making them do.

    Helping students succeed is our ultimate goal, so we need to have Homework, With a Purpose!