Sunday, November 29, 2015

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:






Tuesday, November 17, 2015

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.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

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!

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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:
Myth-Folklore: 
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!

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Screenshot of the courses page linked above:




Sunday, November 1, 2015

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!!!