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

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