10 Ways to Give Your Students the Gift of Slack

I'm guessing there are a lot of people who can connect with this genius cartoon I saw and shared at G+ this morning via Paul Thomas. I wish I could just give my needy students heaps of cash... but I'm a member of the precariate myself, not a professor. Luckily, though, I have a lot of freedom in my teaching, so what I can do is give my students the gift of SLACK. On the importance of slack, see Paul Thomas - The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement.

Some of the options below are very specific to the types of classes I teach (and teaching online creates a great space for slack, thank goodness), but hopefully there are some ideas here that can be useful to all kinds of teachers of all kinds of classes.

1. Eliminate punitive grading. This, in my opinion, is the best way to help reduce students' fear of making mistakes and increase their sense of freedom and confidence to experiment with their own learning. I do no grading of any kind; instead, the students do their own grading, and it is not punitive grading — it's just full credit for work completed. Details about grading here.

2. Celebrate mistakes. Instead of penalizing mistakes, build on them as opportunities for learning. Making "growth mindset" an explicit part of my classes is one of the best decisions I ever made. As a teacher, I never saw mistakes as a failure... but I realized that my students might not share that perspective. By making growth mindset an explicit part of the class, I can help students see mistakes as the road that leads to learning, rather than something to be ashamed of. More about growth mindset here.

3. Build revision into the writing. Instead of just asking students to turn in a paper at the end of the semester (leaving no room for error), I use a writing process that has lots of slack built in. Every piece of writing for the class project gets revised at least once, maybe twice, maybe even three times: it's all good! There are no negative consequences or penalties for the students who, for whatever reason, are doing a lot of revisions to their writing. More about writing projects here.

4. Eliminate quizzes and tests. Quizzes and tests are, by their nature, pretty unforgiving. Plus, they're usually not a lot of fun and not very creative. So, I've gotten rid of quizzes and tests. If you feel like you do want/need quizzes and tests, let students retake quizzes and tests after they have gotten feedback from you and had the opportunity to practice whatever they are being tested on.

5. Let students plan their own schedule. My students' lives are extremely complicated, so I make sure they can plan my class 100% around their schedule. I do ask for 6 hours per week of their time total, but if that happens to be from 1AM-4AM two nights a week, that's fine (and some students do work a schedule like that, especially if they are working an evening shift at their job). This time flexibility is one of the best aspects of teaching online, in my opinion: you can let the asynchronous model be a source of slack for your students. More about self-scheduling here.

6. Offer lots of make-up. I offer extra credit both in order to allow students to pursue their own interests, but also so that it is easy to make up any work that they miss in a given week. The extra credit is all relevant to the class and represents good learning; basically, the extra credit is a kind of "shadow class" that I would love to be teaching if the students and I had all the time in the world. Since time is limited, there is an abundance of activities classified as extra credit each week. That way, if students ever miss deadlines (as they often do), it's easy to make up the work later at their convenience. They can also use the extra credit to work ahead and finish early, which is great: that gives them some slack as they face final exams in their other classes.

7. Let students choose their reading. Each week, students choose what they are going to read, based on their own personal preferences with regard to the topic, the type of reading, the delivery format, etc. Hopefully they will make a good choice, but if they discover they don't like the reading they chose, then they should be able to do a better job the next week of choosing what to read. In addition, they can do all the reading for free online; they don't need to buy any books. Since my school already charges a $120 online course fee (penalty), I feel it is my obligation to make sure that there are no books to buy.

8. Allow for "half" reading. In my classes, I've been able to divide the reading up into two parts each week. Sure, I'd like for students to read both parts, but it's okay if they only read one part: they will be able to carry on so long as they've done half of the reading, and I definitely for them to really read just half rather than to bluff their way through the whole thing or skim without taking anything away from the experience. I'm able to offer the half-reading option because of the types of content that I teach and the highly modular nature of my course design; you can see what I mean by content divided into two halves if you look at a typical two-part unit in the MythFolklore UnTextbook.

9. Let students choose their own grade. Admittedly, most of my students want to get an A, and that's fine — but they don't "need" an A in order to learn something, and they don't "need" an A in order to make progress towards their degree. I teach Gen. Ed., and all they need to do is pass the class to get credit that counts towards graduation. So I emphasize that whether they want an A or B or C is up to them; my only goal is that they should pass the class while learning something of value to them. The A-B-C grade is just a result of the number of weeks they actively participate in the class. If for whatever reason they decide to participate less and take a grade other than A, that is fine, no questions asked... and it's really not a big deal. Plus, they can check on their progress at any given moment to know exactly where they stand.

10. Practice empathy. As someone who loves to read and write, I have to remind myself that this is not true for all my students. I also know that while I enjoy a lot of slack in my life, they might have no slack at all (some of my students work full-time, are raising young children, are managing serious medical conditions, etc.). By practicing empathy, I can try to learn about what my students need and respond to those needs if I can — but most of all I need to take the time to listen without judging, and then to help if I can. I've also made empathy part of the class; you can see how that works here: Empathy Challenges.

And on that subject, here's a lovely video to watch: Brené Brown on Empathy.

10 Reasons Why Growth Mindset Works For Me

I just finished writing up the last of the Fall 2015 reports on the growth mindset experiment, and I am so happy with how things turned out. In fact, the growth mindset project went so well that I will expand it in the Spring semester, carrying on with the growth mindset while also adding a new set of self-challenges for students to work on if they want:

(1) There will be the Growth Mindset Challenges as before, and I'll be updating/expanding those based on what I learned this semester.

(2) I am calling the new set of challenges Learning by H.E.A.R.T. and I'll have lots more to say about that in a separate post! I'm just now starting on that.

But now, back to Fall 2015... I wanted to use the list approach here to try to organize my thoughts about how growth mindset contributed to the class overall. My guess is that this could work in so many types of classes! Here are the important observations I want to take away from this semester:

1. Growth mindset is new to students. Only a few students had heard of growth mindset before! That surprised me, given the number of K-12 teachers who work with this model. I feel even more motivated to develop this dimension of my class now that I know it is something students may never have even encountered before. I teach mostly college seniors... so, better late than never!

2. Students are quick to embrace growth mindset. Now, that doesn't mean they have a deep or full understanding of it right away, but there is not any initial resistance to the idea. Some students worked on growth mindset challenges every single week, and quite a few remarked that it was one of their most valuable take-aways from the class. Now that I see which elements of growth mindset are immediately obvious and which concepts are less obvious, I'll be able to do a better job of deciding what information and resources to emphasize next semester.

3. Growth mindset is relevant to all students. The courses I teach are part of the Humanities Gen. Ed. program at my school, and the students come from all the colleges/majors — accounting, biochemistry, public relations, petroleum engineering, you name it. That variety is really exciting, but also daunting for me as a teacher because I have to design the class in a way that it can benefit every single student. I am really happy that growth mindset is something that has the potential to benefit every single student, putting the "general" back in "General Education" as it were.

4. Growth mindset is relevant to students' whole lives. I really loved the ways students found to use growth mindset in their other classes, on the job, with their own children, etc. I learned so much from reading the blog posts where they wrote about connecting growth mindset to other parts of their lives and also the posts where they wrote about sharing growth mindset with friends, roommates, family, etc.

5. Growth mindset can permeate the whole class. This was one of the nicest surprises for me: even students who were not doing challenges still got into the growth mindset way of looking at things and would remark about growth mindset in their blog posts. Even without doing the challenges themselves, they were learning about them from the daily announcements and from other students' blogs that they visited. Students doing assignments in class that had no direct connection to the Growth Mindset Challenges often included growth mindset references and ideas in those other blog posts. That was really cool to see!

6. Growth mindset reduces fear and anxiety. Although this is a writing class, many of the students are reluctant writers; likewise, even though this is an online class, plenty of students have technology anxiety. Being able to couch my feedback to them in terms of growth mindset was really wonderful. I had always used the mindset strategy in sharing feedback with students, but making growth mindset an explicit part of the class is even better: now students can do their own growth "self-talk" in addition to the growth talk they hear from me. I could also see that it was helping students give each other better feedback too as they commented on each other's work.

7. Growth mindset is a powerful basis for colearning. It has always been my goal to be a colearner with my students, but the hierarchy of the university is a big obstacle for that. With growth mindset, I could share with my students the different ways I am trying to challenge myself and grow, just as they are. Lifelong learning: it's not just a slogan!

8. Growth mindset puts learning over grades. Even though I don't do any grading in my classes, students are (understandably) still very grade-oriented, and some of them even miss getting grades from me. Growth mindset fills that gap and has finally given me a vocabulary to use in talking with my students about learning in a way that has nothing at all to do with grades. Learning IS growth, and the growth IS learning. Grades have nothing to do with it, and mindset lets us focus on process rather than product.

9. Growth mindset is fun! I love the way that growth mindset embraces creativity and fun, imagination and excitement, all the things that I value both as a learner and as a teacher. Unlike the grit approach (which is such a turn-off for me), growth mindset is something that is both challenging and encouraging at the same time, and I was so glad to see that students perceived it in a very positive and energizing way also.

10. Growth mindset goes well with memes. The "growth mindset cats" added an element of growth mindset to the announcements every single day in a very eye-catching way. Some of the students were themselves really into cats, but even the students who were not into cats could appreciate the humor and messages of the memes. Students eagerly shared lots of humorous and motivational memes in their blogs, and some of them also made memes of their own. Learning that can happen by means of memes is very useful in a fully online class!

As I saw which cat memes students shared and reshared in their blogs, I became aware of which memes they really connected with; below are some of the most popular cats, and you can see all the growth cats at my Growth Mindset Memes blog.

10 Reasons Why I Use a Blog for Class Announcements

I've been having trouble getting back into the swing of things at this blog, so I'm going to try the "10 Reasons Why" approach. The post can more or less write itself this way! I'm starting with this particular list in celebration of Blogger https allowing me to make even better use of my announcements blog (more about that here).

First, you might take a look at my Class Announcements blog. There's a new announcement every day, including Saturday and Sunday (Saturday is a slow day, admittedly, but Sunday is probably the busiest day in terms of students who are doing work for class).

1. Modeling a blog for my students. Given that my students are also blogging for class, I appreciate being able to model the usefulness of blogging for my students, along with good practices in formatting, linking, etc. There is no particular value in modeling my use of D2L BS for them. Real school requires real tools, in my opinion, not faux tools like the LMS.

2. Blogs are open, not trapped in the LMS. I believe in open education and, when I publish something on the open Internet, it becomes an OER. There are people who subscribe to my class announcements blog who are not in my class because they find the content fun to read, and I also sometimes share my class announcements with the social networks I am part of at Google+ and Twitter. There is no way to make anything inside D2L open to anybody anywhere; it is completely closed.

3. One blog, two classes. Although this might not be relevant to others, it is very relevant to me: I have two different classes, but I use the same class announcements blog for both. If I were to do the announcements inside the LMS, I would have to do separate announcements for the two classes (even if the content were identical!), and if I have to edit or update the announcements, I'd have to do that twice. Nightmare! With a blog, I can update one blog and have it appear as the LMS homepage for both of my classes.

4. Blogs are great for quick publishing. I use blogs as the publishing platform for pretty much everything I do. For me, it is much more congenial than trying to create content inside the LMS. In Blogger, for example, links are easy by design: highlight link text, Control-K, Control-V. In contrast, just try creating a link with the editor in D2L: it assumes you want to create a link to a tool in the course, so the task of creating a link to something on the real Internet is a long and convoluted process. Look how you have to scroll down to create a link to a URL; the list is alphabetical and URL just happens to be the very last item on the list. D2L may call it "quicklink" ... but there is nothing quick about it!

5. Blog posts are linkable. I can include links to specific announcements in emails that I send to students. This is most useful when I need to remind them about something that was highlighted in the announcements a few days ago. Plus, students can click on the link and see the announcement without having to log in to the LMS. So, for example, if a student is working on Dante and I want to share with them a Dante video that was in the class announcements last week, I just provide a link to that announcements post. And, yes, there's an advantage to linking that way rather than to the video directly: I like to get students to pay attention to the announcements; you never know when they might find something else in there that is useful to them.

6. Blogs look good on mobile. For students who might be reading the class announcements on a mobile phone, they look great! Blogger has good mobile-detection, and it switches to a nice mobile-friendly display automatically. So, if a student gets an email reminder from me that contains a link to the class announcements, they will see the mobile version of the announcements automatically if they are reading that email on their phone. Just add ?m=1 to a Blogger blog post URL to see the mobile view. This is actually very handy for creating print-friendly versions of other content I publish with Blogger (like the UnTextbook materials); you can always bring up the mobile version in your browser window and print that, which is much more efficient than printing the standard view.

7. Blogs offer multiple distribution channels. Students can look at the blog in their browser without even logging in to the LMS (I urge them to bookmark the link), they can subscribe by email (a surprisingly large number of students choose that option, and they can use whatever email address they want), they can get an RSS feed (a few of my students use blog aggregators), and, glory hallelujah, the blog serves as the landing page in D2L, so students see the announcements whenever they log in. Screenshot (note the very nifty graphic from the Norse Mythology Twitter stream which just happens to be at the top of the widget at this moment):

8. Blogs have sidebars! Admittedly, I am never sure if students will look at the sidebar of the blog, but I can put some useful information and eye-catching content there on the optimistic assumption that it might get noticed. So, for example, I currently have a class Twitter feed in the sidebar, along with a random growth mindset cat, plus some other basic information and links relevant to the classes. If students are looking at the blog on a mobile device, they don't see the sidebar, but they do see the sidebar if they are looking at the blog in their browser or in the LMS. I love the way the Twitter sidebar lets me keep the content "lively," so that for students who log in more than once in a day, there is the possibility that they will see different images there in the sidebar each time (and, of course, they can click and go to the Twitter stream directly from that widget display). Just for fun, I've embedded that Twitter widget down at the bottom of this blog post too.

9. Blogs are useful content repositories. Almost all the content in my announcements is recycled; I add a little bit of new material every semester, but I rely heavily on past semesters. By labeling the blog posts week by week and using weekday titles, I can quickly access past posts, reminding myself what I might need to be telling students on, say, Tuesday of Week 7. Here, for example, is a label that shows you all the Week 7 posts over time. I would never trust an LMS as a real content repository because, sooner or later, we are going to move to a different LMS; it's inevitable. With blogs, I can download and back up my blog and even move it to another platform if I want, although I've been happily using Blogger far longer than we have had D2L at my school, and I expect I will be using Blogger long after D2L has been replaced by something else.

10. And when the LMS is down.... my blog is up! Pretty much every semester, the LMS is down for some reason or another, and sometimes it is part of a wider campus outage. By having my class announcements outside the LMS, I can let students know about the outage and provide them with regular updates.

Okay, thanks to the rule of 10 I can stop there. I'm wondering if anybody from D2L BS will chime in to let me know why I really should be using their "news tool" instead...

And here's that widget from the sidebar embedded here this post:

Syllabuses: The Old-Fashioned Kind

Due to some red tape tangles at my school, I had to do up a brief c.v. and submit traditional syllabuses for my courses. I actually don't even give my students a traditional syllabus because we have a full Orientation Week instead. So, these one-page syllabuses are intended not so much for my students (I doubt I will even show it to them), but they are need to be on file in the department that offers them. Here they are:

It was cool to see how the classes, which were always pretty similar, have grown more and more similar over time, so that basically only two sentences are different between the two syllabuses: the learning objective related to the reading, and the weekly assignment related to the reading. Everything else between the two courses is the same. That is the result of years of convergence, and I am really happy about that. I've taken the best of both classes and applied them to both. Now that I have a solid model that I feel really good about, it makes me realize how easy it would be to create more classes: it would just require building a new UnTextbook on the topic of the new course and sliding it into place.

I also created a new page at my domain with this simple URL: Syllabus.MythFolklore.net. This seemed useful so that I was able to put that URL in the syllabuses themselves. That way, if somebody is looking at a printed copy, they will know where to go online to get a version with active web links, and also to be sure it is the most current version.

Spring 2016: The First Email - Connecting.

Both Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics filled last week, so I went ahead and sent out my introductory email, hoping to make sure everyone knows what the class is about. I was able to include links to the new blog randomizer I wrote just last weekend: I knew it would be useful for all kinds of things! Below is the text of the email. But first, a few remarks.

This email is the first moment in my building a relationship with most of these students, so it's an important email. A few of the students have already been in touch because they needed an enrollment permission, and a few of the students are returning from a past semester, so we are already connected. For most of the students, though, I am just a name in Ozone, and so likewise they are just names to me. For teaching and learning to happen, we have to be more than names: we have to be people, and we have to be connected. This email is a way to start that exciting process not just of learning about myth and epics, but of learning about each other.

And a more general observation: Faculty need to communicate proactively with students. How can students make informed decisions about classes without knowing more about what classes really involve? It seems to me students would really benefit if all faculty would do this... and how hard is it? Not hard at all. You write the email, and you send it to the class roster in D2L. Since D2L synchs with our enrollment system, all the Spring semester students are right there, waiting for us to contact them. I think we should all be doing this, and I know from experience that the students appreciate it. Some students will probably drop when they learn what the class involves, and that's great: there is still plenty of time for them to find another class, and there is still plenty of time for me to admit students from the waiting list!


Subject line:

MLLL-4993-995 - Epics of India: information about this fully online course
MLLL-3043-995 - Mythology and Folklore: information about this fully online course

Text of email same for both classes: 

Hello, everybody! If you are receiving this email it is because you are enrolled in one of the online classes I'm teaching this Spring: Myth-Folklore (MLLL-3043-995) and Indian Epics (MLLL-4993-995). I wanted to send around some information about the classes so you can take a minute to check and make sure that this is the right class for you. There is some basic information about both classes here:

More specifically, here is what you can expect:

BLOGGING. These are both fully online classes, but instead of using D2L discussion boards, we will be doing all the class work at blogs. If you have never had a blog before, don't worry: it's easy (and fun!) to get a blog up and running. You can see how that works by looking at some of the blogs for this semester:
Random Myth-Folklore blog:
Random Indian Epics blog:

READING. These classes are writing-intensive (as you can see from the blogs), and reading-intensive. Instead of coming to a classroom 3 hours a week, you will be reading appx. 2-3 hours per week. There are no books to buy. Instead, the readings are all online (for Indian Epics, there are also comic books and graphic novels on Reserve in Bizzell, but you can choose to do all-online readings in that class if you want; it's up to you). More information about the readings:
Indian Epics: 

WRITING. You will be creating a semester-long writing project, either a Storybook (based on the topic of your choice) or a Portfolio (consisting of the best writing from your blog, chosen by you). You can find out more about the writing projects here:

WORKLOAD. There are no quizzes or exams (and no final exam); instead, the work consists of reading and writing assignments at a steady pace every week. To see what a weekly schedule is like, with both reading and writing assignments, check out the semester calendar:

SCHEDULE. The class requires appx. 6-8 hours of work each week, every week. You can schedule that work on whatever days of the week and at whatever times you want; here is how that self-scheduling works:

I hope these materials will answer any questions you have about the class, but if not, just let me know. These classes are a lot of fun; I've been teaching them for over 10 years now, and every semester is a new adventure! At the same time, every semester there are a few students who end up not happy with the fully online class format. So, I wanted to share this information with you now so that you can decide how it looks to you and, as I said, if you have any questions, let me know!


Screenshot of the courses page linked above:

Philosophy of Teaching and Learning

Because of a bureaucratic snafu, I need to get my courses re-approved by the department that offers them; I am employed by the Dean's office of my college and I report to the college's Director of Online Courses, but my courses are actually offered through an academic department, and so they have been since 2002. There is a new department chair, however, and she does not know me, and so we have a video conference set up next week, and this weekend I am preparing some documentation for that meeting. Specifically I needed to prepare a one-page c.v., so I did that (you can see my brief c.v. here).

Yet that c.v. didn't actually seem to say anything important about what I do, which is to teach online courses full-time. So, even though it was not something requested, I decided to write a Philosophy of Teaching and Learning. And that was a very thought-provoking experience! I tried to write the first version thinking about the department chair and other administrators at my school who might be reviewing it, but the result was so stilted and artificial that it didn't seem like me at all, and it felt very defensiveness (gee, I wonder why, ha ha). Then I decided to write the version you see there now — a philosophy to share with my students — and that turned out great! That seems much more positive and useful. Faculty are required to have a c.v. and they are required to have syllabuses for their classes, but just think how useful it would be if we all had prepared and share a philosophy of teaching and learning: what an amazing collection of ideas and insights that would be!

So, I'm thinking that this statement could be something I fold into the growth-mindset assignment for the first week of class. Right now, I ask the students to do a totally free-form growth mindset post after learning something about growth mindset from a Carol Dweck video and some related reading. Now what I am thinking I might do is to have students watch the Carol Dweck video, then read how growth mindset is part of my own personal philosophy, and THEN ask them to respond, perhaps in the form of their own philosophy of learning, or a learning biography ("what I've learned about learning"), or perhaps with a specific response to Dweck and/or questions they would like to ask me.

Anyway, this is all falling into the category of life's lemons and lemonade. Since the bureaucratic snafu came out of nowhere, it really caught me by surprise and made me feel pretty anxious. But thanks to a good video meeting last week with the online course director, I felt more confident about preparing the c.v., and I feel even better having come up with something I can actually use in my classes next semester! Yes!!!

Part 2: Content Curation and Student Choice

In this new post for the Indian Epics UnTextbook Report, I will try to sum up what it means to organize course readings that are driven by student choice, a system I am using in both of the Gen. Ed. Humanities classes that I teach, Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. The goal is for students to explore readings that are of real value to them based on their personal interests and preferences. My role is no longer to decide on the readings for the whole class (i.e., the textbook) but instead to be a curator, selecting and presenting the reading options in a way that will help the students make good choices about what to read. That set of reading options is what I call "the UnTextbook."

Myth-Folklore UnTextbook

During the summer of 2014, I created an UnTextbook for my Myth-Folklore class, building 100 reading units arranged in 9 different modules (Classical, Biblical, Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian, African, Native American, British, European), resulting in literally trillions of possible combinations as the students choose their reading week by week. You can read about that project here: The UnTextbook: An OER Interview.

I completed this project on my own time and, because of the abundance of public domain reading materials I could draw on, I was able to complete this project without any funding support from my school.

An UnTextbook for Indian Epics Too!

I really wanted to do an UnTextbook for Indian Epics also, but it presented a lot of challenges that I did not face with the Myth-Folklore class:
  • the Ramayana and Mahabharata are completely unfamiliar to most of the students at the beginning of the course
  • both epics are big narratives that cannot be presented as week-long mix-and-match units (the approach used in Myth-Folklore)
  • overall, the reading load in this class is greater than in the Myth-Folklore class (appx. 50-100 pages per week)
  • the public domain materials are exciting, but many students would probably balk at reading only 19th- and early 20th-century materials
Despite those challenges, the success of the UnTextbook in Myth-Folklore made me determined to find a way to make this work. I decided that I could do this by using a mix of public domain materials online and books available for purchase in the Bookstore (the same books I had previously used as the required reading material).

But things got even better: Stacy Zemke of the OER office in the OU Libraries urged me to apply for a $2500 grant to purchase additional materials that students could access in the Library. This was amazing: I was able to buy books, comic books, graphic novels, Kindle books and audiobooks, plus a film, all of which would be available to my students based on their reading choices. I got that grant just in time to dedicate the summer to this project.

Summer 2015: All-Indian-Epics All-The-Time

So, over the summer, I worked on Indian Epics ALL THE TIME (here's a timeline). Most importantly, I created my own "Public Domain Editions" of the Ramayana and of the Mahabharata (complete with audio), drawing on different public domain texts to create an anthology approach to each epic. That was a huge project for me, but really exciting, and I am looking forward to improving both epics based on feedback I am getting from the students this year.

Then, as time allowed I also wrote up reading guides for the comic books and other reading materials, including some very detailed commentaries with links and images for students who wanted some extra guidance while they were reading. And that is just the beginning of what I want to do over the next couple of years; I love writing the detailed commentaries, and the students really use them, so it's just a matter of finding the time to write.

Anyway, thanks to great help from Stacy and her assistant Cody Taylor managing the ordering and cataloging of the Library materials, I was able to create a first version of the UnTextbook for students to browse and choose from in time for Fall 2015. You can get an overview of the content by looking at the students' reading choices for the Ramayana part of the class in Weeks 2-3 and Week 4, the Mahabharata part of the class in Weeks 5-6 and Week 7, and then the free reading in Weeks 9-14.

The results have been great: this was a class where many students struggled with the readings, especially with the Mahabharata. This semester, though, there is so much more engagement with both epics, and students are also exploring related topics like the Krishna legends and Buddhist storytelling traditions. Although it is still a difficult class (the topic is new, and there is a lot of reading), the difficulty is the good kind of difficulty, the type of challenge that can lead to real learning.

Trillions and Trillions of Textbooks

Just as with the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook, there is some amazing math at work here: the number of combinations is astronomical. Based on their interests and preferences, students can choose from literally trillions of reading paths.

Weeks 2-3: 2 choices (Ramayana)
Week 4: 101 choices (lots of comic book combinations!)
Weeks 5-6: 2 choices (Mahabharata)
Week 7: 539 choices (even more comic book combinations!)
Weeks 9-14: four thousand trillion trillion (really a LOT of comic book combinations)

And even if we just count "comic book" as an option (and not all the specific comic book combinations), then the numbers are still impressive: over 900 trillion combinations. Perhaps most importantly, even if students just limited themselves to the free public domain materials available online (which is what about half of the students in class have done), things still look really good: there are over 2 trillion combinations of the free online reading options.

Why Numbers Matter

I'll confess to being completely uninterested in Big Data (unless you mean... Big Data), but I am very interested in giving students a big range of choices. The power of those choices becomes apparent from the combinations: week after week the combinatorial math results in trillions of paths, a big number that does justice to the unknown (and unknowable) range of interests that my students could bring to the class each semester. Let's call the students' range of interests potentially infinite; that means I really do need trillions of combinations to try to keep up with them.

The downside of choices is the process of choice itself. I need to present these options in ways so that students are aware of all the options without being overwhelmed. This is a worthwhile challenge because, if I do this right, they will be learning about the subject matter through the act of choosing. So, just to take one possible example, if a student reads through the Krishna comic books page, looking at the blurbs to find one or two comic books to read, they also get a sense of what the range of Krishna legends is like.

In the next post, I'll write up a more detailed inventory of the ways in which I am presenting materials to students. I'm passionate about all these reading options (and the same goes for Myth-Folklore), which gives me the motivation to keep on experimenting and exploring. Even better: the enthusiasm might be infectious, as enthusiasm often is!

Indian Epics UnTextbook Report: Timeline (Part 1)

Although it's not the end of the semester yet, I wanted to start documenting my Indian Epics "UnTextbook" course redesign so that I could share these materials as part of our #OpenTeachingOU chat about curation coming up on Friday, Oct. 30. For additional posts on this topic, including subsequent parts of this report, see the IndiaUnTextbook label.

At the outset, I want to give a big thank you to Stacy Zemke and to Cody Taylor of the OER project in the OU Libraries for making all of this possible! When I first started thinking about redesigning my course materials, I didn't even think of applying for an OER grant since I really didn't want a textbook (OER or otherwise). Stacy, however, urged me to apply for a grant to try an "UnTextbook" experiment, and with the funds from that grant, I was able to go in directions I never would have dreamed possible!

For this post, I'll provide a timeline of major events.

Summer 2014: I made an UnTextbook for my Myth-Folklore class (see the UnTextbook).

Fall 2014: I supplemented the books for Indian Epics with the India-related materials in the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook.

December 2014: The moment of "Eureka!" when I realized I could do an UnTextbook for Indian Epics too.

January 2015. I started cataloging public domain books to solicit student feedback in the Spring semester.

April 2015. I saw the ACK comic books on sale ($399, free shipping) and bought a set for myself, and the Library also bought a set. You can see the unboxing in the Library! I started writing up ACK comic book guides in a new blog dedicated to the comic books; this process is ongoing.
As of October 2015: There are 100 weeks of comic book reading available (13 weeks have detailed commentaries).

May 2015. I started the Public Domain Edition of Ramayana, and we began the process of purchasing additional Library materials (print books, including graphic novels, ebooks, audiobooks, and one film). I also began cataloging the online and Library books and writing up Reading Guides; this process is ongoing.
As of October 2015: There are 244 weeks of reading available (19 weeks have detailed commentaries).

June 2015. I started the Public Domain Edition of the Mahabharata (finished in September), and I reorganized my Indian Epics Images blog and began adding new items.
As of October 2015: There are 299 Ramayana images, 311 Mahabharata images, and 118 other images, for a total of 728 images.

July 2015. I finished the PDE Ramayana and began adding audio with Soundcloud. I created a Diigo Library to help students in exploring and choosing what to read. I continued to catalog and write reading guides for the comic books and other reading materials.

August 2015. I reorganized the course wiki to reflect the new content choices, and the Fall semester students successfully started the Ramayana portion of the class with no problems. Students chose between the Narayan book and the PDE Ramayana, and many students using the PDE Ramayana remarked on how much they liked having the audio!

September 2015. I finished the PDE Marabharata and started adding audio (finished audio in October). Students successfully completed the Ramayana portion of the class and started the Mahabharata portion (Weeks 5-7). This was great: the Mahabharata is a much harder epic to read, but this new approach with students choosing from different reading options worked much better!

October 2015. I continued to add new reading materials, while students completed the Mahabharata portion of the class and began the free reading (Weeks 9-14).

Verdict so far: the experiment has gone even better than I expected overall! I would like to get more students to come to the Library to use the amazing materials there (so far I would guess fewer than half of the students have come to the Library to read there), but the students who are choosing instead to read public domain materials and/or to buy their own Kindle ebooks seem very happy with their choices.

Here is a randomizing widget for the comic book collection:

~ ~ ~


Click refresh page for a random comic book, and click on the title to see the blog post for the comic book that grabs your attention.

Growth Mindset: Making Learning a Priority

This item is a cross-posting from my Growth Mindset Memes blog. To find out more, visit the blog: Pay attention and stretch your knowledge.

This growth cat is inspired by a quote from Carol Dweck's book Mindset: "Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention to information that could stretch their knowledge." The image comes from Cheezburger. I've written a short essay about this one which you can read below.

Pay attention and stretch your knowledge.

The context is a study that Carol Dweck conducted comparing people with traits of a fixed mindset to people with traits of a growth mindset, looking for how people respond to feedback about performance. This is an incredibly important topic for teachers and students, so I will quote that section of the book in full here. This is the kind of finding that reinforces my conviction that grading is one of the biggest problems with traditional schooling: by focusing only on right/wrong instead of feedback for growth, we reinforce the self-limiting habits of the fixed mindset.
You can even see the difference in people’s brain waves. People with both mindsets came into our brain-wave lab at Columbia. As they answered hard questions and got feedback, we were curious about when their brain waves would show them to be interested and attentive. 
People with a fixed mindset were only interested when the feedback reflected on their ability. Their brain waves showed them paying close attention when they were told whether their answers were right or wrong. But when they were presented with information that could help them learn, there was no sign of interest. Even when they’d gotten an answer wrong, they were not interested in learning what the right answer was.  
Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention to information that could stretch their knowledge. Only for them was learning a priority.
I'll compare Dweck's experiment to something that happened to me in my first semester of college teaching, something which was a revelation to me and which began my transformation as a writing teacher:

In the Fall of 1999, I was teaching what was for me a large Mythology class (50 students), and the students had turned in a short paper at the beginning of the semester; this was back when I taught in a classroom, before I started teaching online. I knew I could not write extensive comments on that many papers, but at the same time I was dismayed by the quality of the papers: some of the papers were very good but some of them were in pretty bad shape (it was my first class at the University of Oklahoma; previously I had been a graduate student instructor at UC Berkeley).

So, I didn't know what to do, but it seemed like a good opportunity for an experiment. I told the students that they could choose: I had graded the papers and would give them back with the grades on them but no comments, or I would write comments on the papers on the condition that the student then revise the paper — but not for a better grade; it would just be an opportunity to work on their writing in order to improve it.

In that class of 50 students, exactly one student asked me to put comments on the paper so that he could revise it. All the other students simply wanted to get the grade and move on. That little experiment showed me that the students really were focused on the grade and they had come to my class to get a grade; learning was not their primary goal, even though many of them really did need help with their writing and were surely aware of that fact.

Since my own goal really was to help students with their writing, I realized that I needed to do something dramatically different in my classes; to find out more about how I changed my teaching practice completely, see this post: The Shift from Teaching Content to ... Teaching Writers.

Purpose(s) of the Syllabus

I'm going to use this space as a place to start thinking about the syllabus: what it's for, how to use it best, and also keeping track of syllabus-related items I find online, like the latest discussion about trigger warnings etc. that's been prompted by Jonathan Haidt's Atlantic article: The Coddling of the American Mind.

Some Q&A about student choice, challenges, etc.

This is fun! I got an email inquiry from someone about my classes, and after poking around in this blog and other stuff that I have online, she sent me a few questions, really thought-provoking ones, so I thought I would post some answers here:

I assume you've taught onsite as well as online. How do you approach teaching differently in the online environment? 

I haven't taught in a classroom since 2001, and I don't miss it at all. There are tradeoffs, sure, and some things I would be able to do in a classroom that I cannot do online... but there are far far FAR more things that I can do online but not in a classroom. I was never really all that satisfied in the classroom because of the number of students I knew I was not reaching; that's probably the most important difference: online, I have so many opportunities to connect with every single student. For me, that is a very important goal.

What are the biggest lessons you've learned about designing and teaching effective online courses? 

In honor of the magic of the number three, I'll list three lessons:
1. I evaluate every aspect of a course in order to keep making it better and better: everything can always be made better, and I'm not afraid to give up on an experiment that is clearly not working. There are always other experiments to try!
2. I try to empathize with the students and see things through their eyes. With some students, I have lots in common, so that's easy, but there are other students who bring totally new perspectives and experiences to my classes, and those are the students who can most help me to do a better job.
3. I make sure that I enjoy everything about the class; that doesn't necessarily mean the students will enjoy everything... but at least I can be optimistic about that! If there is something I find boring or I don't enjoy, that means I need to change it somehow or try something else.

Your courses give students a lot of choice. How do you determine what degree of choice is appropriate? 

I think about this a lot: it's not so much that you can have too much choice, but the challenge is how to present the choices so that students don't feel overwhelmed, giving them what they need to make good choices (i.e. either a choice that is really successful OR a choice that, while not a good one, leads them to make better choices in the future). So, I try to be really attentive to how I present the choices, and I also try to get lots of feedback from the students about their choices: how they make those choices, how satisfied they are with the results, what I can do to help as they make those choices, etc. That job would be a lot easier if students came to class EXPECTING to choose, but often they come expecting me to make all the decisions and tell them what to do... and overcoming that expectation is the biggest problem of all! In general, students do not get to make a lot of choices when it comes to school, so they are sometimes surprised and even frustrated — understandably so, because a lack of choices means they don't develop the self-awareness they need to make those choices confidently.

Also, how do you balance the rigor/challenge of different assignment options, and allow scope while keeping them aligned with your objectives? 

I honestly don't have objectives. I definitely have hopes (but those hopes are very wide-ranging, amorphous, and they vary from student to student), but what I am really looking for is that the students will have what you could call "subjectives," the goals that they want to achieve. I see my role as encouraging them to define those "subjectives," and to strive to go farther and farther. One of the things I am really excited about this coming year is to make the idea of a "growth mindset" more explicit with the students, helping them to see how important it is for them to set their own challenges, rather than expecting me to play that role for them.

In your experience, what approaches have produced the best work from students? What kinds of tasks have led to students pushing themselves most in creative or intellectual directions?

It varies so much from student to student, but I have never regretted the choice to focus on creative storytelling instead of the traditional analytical essay. I prefer completely open-ended assignments so that the students' creativity can go in all kinds of directions, and I know that by sharing their work with each other, they can find inspiration that is much more powerful than anything I might say or do as the instructor in the class. As I mentioned in response to the previous question, I am hoping to make all of that a more explicit part of the class next year, making the "growth mindset" a theme that I explore in the class assignments and in the class announcements, and I know I will learn a lot from how the students respond to that and what they contribute. These are just some of the questions I want to pose for them, and I'm sure I'll come up with lots more in the next month: Growth Mindset Blog Challenge: Something new for Fall 2015.


And some follow-up questions:

What is it about teaching online that makes you feel that you can connect more with students than in a physical classroom? What makes this environment preferable, in your experience, for learning?

This question is easy to answer since it is the focus of my one-and-only post at Medium, so I'll just link to that:
Devotedly Digital: Why I Love Teaching Online

Have you found any good methods for helping students develop a growth mindset (or self-awareness or a tolerance for ambiguity)? I'd love to hear if you have.

That is my big new project for this coming year! That has happened in my courses in the past, but I realized that it is important to make that more EXPLICIT, so that the students can really take charge of their "mindset management" as it were, just as I ask them to take charge of other aspects of the class. I'll be able to report back on how many of the students take me up on the challenge and what they do with it; based on that, I'll then decide if I should also weave some of this as something required in the course. I'll be adding to this list of challenges as I get new ideas all semester long, and I am hoping some other teachers will participate in this — one other faculty member at my school may be joining in with her students, which will be super: Growth Mindset Challenge.

Is there an assignment or idea from your courses that you're most proud of, that you'd be willing to share with me?

Oh, the Storybooks for sure: I've had those as part of both classes since the very beginning, and I also did that when I taught in the classroom (although it works better online when the Storybooks can more naturally play a leading role in the class online than in the classroom). I just did up a fun slideshow with some links here:
What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Student Engagement?

And you can find out lots more at the Anatomy of an Online Course site, too. Not only do they make each semester really productive and fun for the students and for me, they also have amazing re-use value:
Storybooks: Student-Created Content for Long-Term (Re)Use

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Student Engagement?

I talk about student engagement A LOT ... and what I mean by that is students creating and sharing their learning — in their blogs, at their websites, and in the comments they leave for each other as they read and respond to each other's work. Every student is different, and they each have something unique and wonderful to contribute to the class as you can see in this Flickr slideshow with snapshots of some Storybook projects:

(want music? just click play below!)

I could go on and on about the amazing things that happen when students unleash their imaginations and share the results with one another... but instead of reading my words here, I'd urge you to go EXPLORE and take a look at their work! Here are some links:
To learn more about student writing and student writers, you might be interested in this blog post: The Shift from Teaching Content to ... Teaching Writers.

... And I'm looking forward to participating in Power of Connections this summer in order to share and explore the potential of connected learning together with you!
From everyone's favorite clarinet-player in Mumbai, Shankar Tucker:

Spreadsheet Magic: Randomizing Blogs

I was not sure if I should write up notes on how to build a randomizer in a spreadsheet, so I asked a few people and concluded that, yes, writing up some notes might be a good thing! So, here are some notes about how I create randomizers for my classes in a GoogleDocs spreadsheet. 

I use the spreadsheet randomizer for two purposes: to randomize my commenting at the students' blogs and to randomize the commenting group assignments for both blogs and projects. I'm guessing this is potentially useful for anyone running a class with a blog network, especially if (like me) you are short on time without a lot of time to comment on student blogs but want to do so fairly and/or if (like me) you want to get students introduced to as many other students as possible in the class by randomizing the comment groups each week.


I am going to explain how these concepts work in GoogleDocs spreadsheets. Presumably they work in Excel also, but you'll have to check and see. If you use Excel and have never tried GoogleDocs spreadsheets, why not use this as an excuse to give the GoogleDocs version a try...? Being able to access your spreadsheets on any computer sure is handy!

Here are a few key strategies to note:

Random function. It's easy to insert the random function in a GoogleDocs spreadsheet cell. Just type this in the cell:


You can then sort on that column and it will randomize all the rows. Trust me on this. It will look weird because after the sort, the spreadsheet randomly assigns values to the cells (after having sorted on the previous set of random values). But since that is after the sort, it's all good. If you don't believe me, pound away on a column for a few tries: sort A-Z, then sort again, then sort again. You will see the magic of randomness at work!

Hyperlink function. When you are first setting up your spreadsheet, you will probably want to use the hyperlink function to create the actual linked text. I create a column with student names, for example, and a column with their blog URLs. Then I use the hyperlink function to create the linked text. The function is:

=HYPERLINK(url, label)

I then do a copy of the column and paste-special-values-only because I don't really like live formulas lying around if I don't need them. Then I hide the columns with the names and the blog URLs; I can use them for other things later, but I don't need them anymore for the randomizer now that I have the linked text.

Sheets. I have met some people who weren't confident about using separate sub-sheets in a spreadsheet. Use sheets! I have one spreadsheet for my randomizers, and it has six sheets. I use the '3groups' data to help manage the IEblogs and the MFblogs as you will see below; having it all in one big spreadsheet is great.

Freeze header row. You may think you don't need it, but it's really helpful to create a header row and freeze it so that you always know for sure what you are dealing with in your spreadsheet. I colorcode my header rows for my different classes to help remind me just what I am looking at (purple for both classes, yellow for Myth-Folklore, green for Indian Epics).

Okay, with those preliminaries out of the way, here's how I randomize blogs that I look at, and here's how I randomize blog comment groups for the students.


For the blog randomizer, I need three columns:
  • random column: see RAND function above
  • commented column: blank or "commented"
  • blog link: see HYPERLINK function above
When I have some time to comment, I randomize the spreadsheet by sorting the random column A-Z. Then, I comment on as many blogs as I have time for. When I comment, I write "commented" in the commented column and I blank out the random column.

Don't re-sort after  you comment on each blog; just work on down through the list commenting. The random numbers will regenerate every time you edit the spreadsheet, but that doesn't matter.

Then, the next time that you sort the random column, all the commented blogs will go to the bottom of the list because the random column is blank. Here's what the bottom of the list looks like after I sort the random column next time:

Pretty nifty, yes? Basically zero time spent keeping track of who got comments from you, so you can spend all your time on the commenting itself!

After you have cycled through all the students (and honestly, it takes me a few weeks; my focus is on commenting on their projects, not on their blogs), you can then type RAND() in the cells of the random column and start all over again.


For the group randomizer, only one thing is different: I need a column for the group number. So, there are now four columns in the spreadsheet: the randomizing column, name, GROUP, and the blog link.

The idea is that I can use the randomizing column to sort, and then I paste in the group numbers from a separate sheet (1-1-1-2-2-2-3-3-3 for three people in each group). That allows me to copy the group number column with the blog link column to create the actual blog groups. Then, I come back to the spreadsheet, sort on the name column, and that allows me to create the alphabetical list of names showing each person their group number. You can see the results here: Sample Blog Groups.

For the project commenting groups, it's the same procedure although a bit more complicated for reasons just having to do with my classes (some students do Portfolios, some do Storybooks, etc. etc.), but I use a spreadsheet to create the random groups in just the same way!


If you would like a screencast demo, check out the screencast I made for our DML2015 panel: Laura Loves Randomizers! The part about using spreadsheets to randomize starts at about 4:30 in the video:

Randomization Wonderland

In a typical semester, I teach one class with 30-40 students and another class with 50-60 students. Those are not "big" classes I guess (at my school, you can get a grant to help with course development for "big" classes... which means enrollments of 600 or more!), but they are big enough that the sheer level of activity in any given week can be very daunting: stories and other blog posts, comments, projects ... it's a LOT of stuff.

My goal as the instructor is to keep an eye on everything (thank you, Inoreader and the magic of RSS!), but that is not a reasonable goal for students. Instead, students need to find their own individual pathways as they connect with others, and my goal is to help them find those pathways, either by means of making their own choices OR by providing them with random choices that can lead them in totally new directions, meeting new students in class, encountering new stories, etc. Choice is great, but random is also good, a fun and effective way to just take the plunge and get connected!

At the bottom of this post, I've provided a list of links to the different kinds of randomizers that I now use in my classes. But first, some history:

Let the Fates Decide

I first discovered the power of random way back when I built the Myth-Folklore class online back in 2002. Each week, there was a choice of two reading options (now, with the UnTextbook, there are so many more choices; more on that below), and so I created a simple little javascript called "Let the Fates decide!" for students who couldn't decide on their own, either because they really liked both options or because they had never heard of either option and thus had no grounds on which to choose.

When I made the javascript (it was the first javascript I ever wrote by hand!), I was scrupulously fair, making sure each choice had a 50-50 chance of appearing. Much to my surprise, students were really fond of the Fates, and they would sometimes writing in their blogs about how "The Fates told me to choose King Arthur three times in a row!" and so on. Those old pages are still up; here's an example: Medieval Heroes.

I was only half-joking about the Fates: ancient divination was a topic that had fascinated me in graduate school, and many of the ancient practices were based on what we would call randomness, like the casting of lots (sortilege, cleromancy). There were even some wonderful book-based forms of divination — bibliomancy — such as the sortes Virgilianae: open the book by the poet Vergil (at random), choose a passage (at random), and it will provide the answer to your question, whatever it might be. The English word "sorcery" comes from this Latin word for the casting of lots, sortes. Of course, in modern times we have the Magic 8-Ball

Enter Randy Hoyt and RotateContent.com

I will not dwell too long on the weird coincidence that the builder of the randomizer I use most, RotateContent.com, is himself named Randy (cue Theramin music...). Randy Hoyt was a student in the very first class I taught at OU back in 1999 and we have been friends ever since; he is now a genius computer programmer and also a maker of board games (see his latest Kickstarter for Foxtrot games: Lanterns). Randy went on to take Myth-Folklore online back in the very early days, and also Indian Epics in early days; a lovely poem he wrote for that class is still online here: Song of Kaikeyi. 

So, probably around 2003 or so (honestly, I don't even remember when exactly), I hired Randy to build me a randomizer. It actually started out as a date-based content tool, but it was Randy who realized that the same table-based content could be deployed by date OR at random, and so the free online tool, RotateContent.com, was born. Randy has been so kind and generous to host the script on his server all this time, long long long after I paid him for the project. All you need to do is put content in an HTML table and, presto, RotateContent will give it back to you as a randomizing javascript or as a date-based javascript. 

To show how that works, here's the latest script I wrote with RotateContent: it's a randomizer for the Amar Chitra Katha comic books that will be part of Indian Epics starting next year! 

I hope to add lots more comic books in June and July; right now there are about a dozen comic books, which makes for an okay randomized experience. But by the time I get 50 or 60 comic books by the end of the summer, it will be really fun.


As the "Fates" example above shows, randomness has a quality of fun to it, even mystical fun, which students can really appreciate. In a world where so much of school is scripted and predictable, sometimes to the point of being mind-numbing, the UN-predictability of randomness can provide some much needed fun.

At the same that it is fun, randomness is also a very effective tool for distributing attention and effort. So, for example, by putting the students in random commenting groups each week, I can help make sure that over time they all get about the same number of comments on their blog that originate from this assignment (other commenting assignments are 100% student-choice based, and that's good too; some blogs do become quite popular compared to others). In any given week, some students get more comments from this assignment and some students get fewer (because student participation is itself random too), but over time the power of random evens it all out.

So too with my participation in the form of blog comments: I spend a few minutes each day commenting on student blog posts at random — literally at random, using a randomizer to highlight blogs for me to comment on. Over time, that helps make sure I am involved in all the blogs without having to use tedious checklists. I don't have a lot of time to spend commenting on blogs, and the randomizer helps me make sure that the time is indeed well spent, attending to all the students but at random over time.

Random content presentation is also important in terms of distributing the students' attention over all the content equally, at least in terms of the first contact. Not all content will interest them to the same degree, obviously, but I want them to be exposed to all the content equally. So, when I have lots of content, like hundreds of past student projects, just putting them in a list is not a good idea: the items at the top of the list will inevitably get the most attention, and for no good reason. A list does not randomize attention, and I want the students' attention to be randomized; then, when one of the random items really gets their attention, they can click to learn more.

Example of Randomizing and Randomizers

So, I hope the preceding paragraphs have managed to convey how powerful randomization can be, both as a way to engage students and also for distributing effort and attention. For the nitty-gritty, here are some of the ways I use randomization and randomizers in my classes. I use RotateContent to build the randomizing widgets that I insert into blog posts and web pages, while other examples are casual randomization done on the fly using GoogleDocs spreadsheets.

~ ~ ~

Crystal Ball. The Crystal Ball is the updated version of "Let the Fates decide!" for the UnTextbook which presents the students with many choices each week. That links shows all the crystal balls, but the students only see one ball at a time as I link to the individual posts week by week as the students progress through the semester. For example, in the Myth-Folklore class Week 4 has India and Middle Eastern reading options.

Random Storybooks. It is really important to expose the students to as many past student Storybook projects as possible out of the hundreds in the archive, so I use random Storybook widgets on the homepage of the online course syllabus, at the eStorybook support site, as part of the Favorite Storybooks exploration assignment during the Orientation week of class, in the sidebar of the class announcements blog, etc.

Other random content widgets. I have other randomizing content widgets as well such as the random Indian Epics comic book widget shown above, a random Indian Epics image widget which you can see in the sidebar of the Indian Epics image blog, random Myth images in the sidebar of this words and writing blog, etc.

Random weekly groups. Each week I use a GoogleDocs Spreadsheet to sort the students into random groups each week. The reason I put them into groups, as opposed to just having students visit the blogs and projects totally at random, is to promote a sense of back-and-forth dialogue (you are commenting on the work of the same people who are commenting on your work that week). Here's a screenshot of how that looks: the students find their name in the alphabetical list, which lets them quickly find their group for that week, new random groups each week.

Random participation by me. While I read every page of all the projects, my participation in the students' other work is done at random. I have links to their blogs in a spreadsheet, and I randomize the listing of the blogs when I spend some time each day commenting. Once I get to the blog, I choose what to comment on there, but the choice of blogs is random.

~ ~ ~

Randomizing in a spreadsheet is easy (I just use the RAND function in a cell and sort on that column; details here), but RotateContent can require some advance planning, especially if you are using images. Here's a write-up I did about creating a RotateContent widget: Using RotateContent to Make Widgets. I wrote this up when my Latin LOLCats won a contest for creative widgets sponsored by D2L. There's no love lost between me and D2L, but I do love widgets! :-)

And . . . .  drum-roll please . . . here is my first-ever screencast! In preparation for DML2015 and our panel "The Open Show" I made a little video: Laura Loves Randomizers. It gives a quick rundown of both the content randomizers built with RotateContent and also the blog randomizers that I run in a spreadsheet. Please be kind: I never made a screencast before. It was fun! :-)