Note-Taking Pairs

Students are typically not naturally adept at efficient and effective note taking. In my experience, students either try to write down each idea word for word during a lecture or discussion or take very limited notes. I’m always looking for new strategies to support my students to develop better strategies. Thanks to Richard Reis’ excellent Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter (click here to subscribe), I picked up a tip that I’m going to try this semester: Note-Taking Pairs. Here’s the brief abstract of the approach. Visit the post to get the full text.

In Note-Taking Pairs, student partners work together to improve their individual notes.  Working with a peer provides students with an opportunity to revisit and crosscheck notes with another source.  Partners help each other acquire missing information and correct inaccuracies so that their combined effort is superior to their individual notes.

Practicing technology integration decisions via the TPACK Game

I had the pleasure to co-facilitate two full-day Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction workshops in the last week – one at William & Mary and one at the University of New England in Sydney. TEI Workshops ( are designed to help college and university faculty find ways to integrate technology in their teaching in a way that both helps them to teach their content more effectively and to simultaneously find ways to engage their students in 21st century learning skills (21CLS). These workshops are very participatory, discussion-based, and action-oriented. By the end of the day, each participant develops the outline for a revised course activity, experience, assignment or project that they can take back to their teaching. They are lively and fun experiences, and I really enjoying helping to facilitate them.

Despite the technology focus for the workshop, one highlight for participants is a simple sorting/matching game that can probably be easily adapted to a range of different learning activities and content foci. In the context of the TEI workshop, this game is designed to help the participants match a content topic that they teach with learning activities and technologies that “fit” to create a powerful learning experience. In the game, participants are provided with blank white index cards, on which they write content topics for the courses they teach. We then provide them with a set of yellow pedagogy cards – each with a different type of learning activity (e.g., group discussion, simulation, demonstration, etc.). Finally, a set of green cards include different technologies that may be used in the classroom or online (e.g., presentation software, video recording, wikis, etc.). Through a series of rounds, participants are direct to either randomly draw or strategically combine sets of cards (content, pedagogy, and technology) to learn to identify and generate good “fit” among the three. This is called the TPACK Game and was originated by Judi Harris, Punya Mishra, and Matt Koehler back in 2007 at the National Technology Leadership Summit. Punya provides a good history of the game along with other variations. This is always one of the participants’ favorite activity of the workshop. It generates great discussion, which often extends beyond the 1:15 minute time block that we allocate for it.

While this experience is focused on a particular learning goal with specific reasoning processes in mind, this kind of simple sorting game can be extremely helpful in two respects. First, as one Australian history professor noted, considering a range of different teaching approaches and learning activities helped him to consider new possibilities. It’s only human nature to fall into routines, but this game can help you to break out of your normal practice and consider new ideas. Another way it can be helpful is to consider new ways to use familiar tools. OneNote is one of the applications we work with in the workshop. Many of the Australian participants were already using OneNote for their own notetaking and organization. When the encountered this technology in the context of the TPACK game however, they began to see applications for group work – particularly research projects. There were similar insights related to the use of Skype and Padlet as well.

In my mind, however, these aren’t the primary benefits to the TPACK game. I think the most powerful aspect of the game is the conversations that are catalyzed as participants discuss their choices and alternatives. Groups often become quite animated as they discuss different possible combinations of content, pedagogy and technology. They share their unique experiences and insights as they discuss the cards they are dealt. It is in these collaborations that some of the most transformative new approaches are developed. In the academy, we often don’t have the forum to discuss our teaching practice. The TPACK game is one way to drive this discussion. How else might we encourage these conversations on teaching practice in higher education?

Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 5

So, here we are at almost the halfway point of the semester. Hard to believe that Spring break begins next week. So far in this series, I’ve explored conceptualizing the course, the community of practice framework, and strategies to facilitate online discussion. Astute readers may also remember my rant about the importance of tools – particularly with the frustrations with using BlackBoard as the LMS. While I certainly stand by what I wrote about BlackBoard, I thought it was only fair to highlight one aspect of BlackBoard that is incredibly useful and powerful – the inline grading feature.

When I set up an assignment for students to submit a paper, I can also create a corresponding rubric to assist me in assessing the work. For example, I ask students to create lesson plan outlines for each of the core content areas in my course. Here’s what the rubric looks like in BlackBoard:

For each dimension of the rubric, you can add comments to the student. You can also add general comments at the end. The scores that you enter on the rubric are then automatically added to the Grade Center. Students are then able to view the rubric and comments along with their grade. I must say, this works extraordinarily well. The Inline Grading feature, however, takes it to another level.

With Inline Grading, you can view the student’s paper and the rubric in the same window:

Or you can display the rubric in a separate window if you prefer more room:

Using a rubric right alongside the student work is so useful. The Inline grading tool adds one last killer feature, though – you can embed comments directly in the student’s paper as well. You can add text comments, draw on the document, highlight text, and cross through text.

These markups are then saved with the document and can be viewed by the student.

Grading student work is certainly not my favorite aspect of teaching. I must say, however, that the simplicity and flexibility of the rubric and inline grading features of BlackBoard make the process both more efficient and more effective. 

Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 4

One thing that I’ve always agonized about in teaching partly online is how to set up and moderate a discussion. I’ve tried all the typical approaches. I’ve tried to let a discussion thread emerge organically without tying it specific numbers of posts, comments, and grades. I’ve done the more typical one original post and two comments per thread. I’ve used rubrics to assess the quality of the posts. In all these approaches, I’m popping in and out of the fora, commenting on as many posts as possible. None of this has every really felt right to me. Not to mention all that lurking and commenting – exhausting. In this course, with about 80 students spread across six discussion groups, clearly this wasn’t reasonable. 

So, with the guidance of one of co-instructors of this course, we’ve tried a different approach. We’ve decided to set specific parameters on the numbers of posts required (you guessed it, one original post and two comments per thread) as well as time slots for both the original posts and comments. We also have a simplistic rubric to help ensure that the posts and comments add value to the discussion. All this has been pretty familiar to me. What’s been different, however, is my role in the discussion.

Rather than constantly hovering over the threads, I have instead begun posting summary posts in each thread. I look for key themes, interesting points, interesting questions, etc. and generate a post that pulls in quotations, etc. This has enabled the discussion to develop more organically for the students. I suspect they feel like it’s more a conversation than a Q&A with the instructor. The first rounds of posts, across all six groups, resulted in better conversations than any that I’ve been a part of. The summary posts give me the opportunity to synthesize and challenge different points of view. In fact, while it’s not required or assessed, several students have posted comments and responses on my summary posts. And while this has been time consuming as well (next round I’ll chart my total time spent in developing these summary posts), it certainly has helped me to identify themes in the students’ thinking as well as some possible misconceptions and things that need to be addressed in class. In short, it’s been a good pedagogical approach so far, I think.

In fairness, we’ve only had one round of discussions so far. Still, I think this has been a more manageable process for me and has resulted in better discussions among the students. I’ll post a follow-up after the next round.

How about you? What works best for you in facilitating and assessing online discussions?

Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 3

This semester, I’m collaborating with colleagues at another institution to design and implement a hybrid course with four sections of students across two universities. If you’ve missed the first two installments in the series, in the first post, I overview the course purpose and structure. In the second, I discussed the opportunities and challenges with implementing an online community of practice. We’re now a few weeks into the semester, and things seem to be going well so far. While it has been time consuming to design the structure for the course, it seems to be coming together. One recurring realization I’ve had over the last few weeks – tools matter.

We’re using BlackBoard as the primary learning management system (LMS) for the collaboration. Specifically, we’re making use of the discussion fora, pages to host rich media cases, the essay testing features for reader response items, and the online grading tool. I’m a relatively experienced BlackBoard user – although in the past my use was limited primarily to the discussion board and gradebook, including the wonderful rubric tool. What’s been new to me this semester is the content hosting (in the form of creating pages with embedded text, images, and video clips) and the test creation tool. I recognize that these are new to me, but I’ve rarely been as frustrated as when using these two functions in BlackBoard. This frustration is despite the wonderful support (technical and pedagogical) from our helpful IT staff. Rather than structuring this post as a “BlackBoard bash,” I want to reflect for a moment on the importance of selecting the right tool to support any kind of technology-enhanced teaching.

Any digital tool has it’s own affordances and constraints. Every tool does some things really well (affordances) and just gets in the way at other times (constraints). My prior use of BlackBoard (primarily discussions and the grade center) has focused primarily on the affordances of the LMS. This has worked well for me and my students in the past. In going deeper with the tool this semester I’ve run (repeatedly) into the constraints. I can’t tell you how frustrating something simple like embedding a YouTube video on a page has been. I keep lamenting how easy it would be to do the same task in another tool – like wikispaces. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if there were an easy work-around, but even with significant support, some of the limitations have been a major source of frustration.

In the end, I think we’ve bent BlackBoard to our will and it will (for the most part) serve our needs. This experience, however, has underscored the point for me how important choosing the right tool is for the best possible experience. Were I to undertake a similar course in the future, I would look long and hard at the different LMS options (I’m looking at you, Canvas). I will make sure that what I want to do (at least the major functions of the course) are not only possible, but hopefully pleasant to use. Because, in a course like this, you find yourself spending a good deal of time in the LMS. For a hybrid or online teaching experience to be productive and rewarding, you have to enjoy using the tools.

Any advice on alternatives for this kind of experience? I’m eager to explore other options.,

The OneNote app is fantastic

I’ve written before on this blog about the utility of Microsoft OneNote for notetaking and organization. What I was writing about was the full-featured desktop app version on the Surface. Recently, however, I’ve (re)discovered metro-style app available for Windows tablets (including the Surface) and iOS devices for free through the respective app stores. This is a “lite” version of the full-featured app available for Windows PCs and tablets. The layout is simpler and the user has far fewer options. Typically, I don’t prefer “lite” versions of apps, because I guess I consider myself more of a power user. In this case, though, I’ve actually unpinned the full version of OneNote on my Surface and exclusively use the new Web app. Why? Two reasons…

The interface is clean and efficient

As you can see the interface on the Web app is much more clean. It doesn’t offer all the features of the desktop version, but it has all I usually need, with one major advantage for a person like me who likes to add handwritten notes to my pages – the new “tool wheel thingy” – that’s a technical term.

This wheel becomes visible when you tap any blank area of the screen. From here you can choose from a set of default tools or you can even “pin” your own favorite tools to the wheel for easy access. This is great for me, because I like to customize the different inking pens I use frequently. Simply put, this feature is just killer for simple, fast, and effective notetaking.

The Web app works great across all my devices

While the full version of the app is available only on Windows PCs and tablets (both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT), the Web app is available via a Web browser or on iOS or Android devices. This is great for those of us who have a full stable of devices. I love the flexibility of know that whatever device I have with me, I can access, add to, and sync my OneNote notes. While the iOS app isn’t nearly as good as its Windows RT brethren, it will work in a pinch.

So, if you haven’t tried the OneNote app recently, I encourage you to give it a shot. I think you’ll like it.

Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 2

One of our primary goals for the multi-institution hybrid course I’ve been working on (first discussed here) is to create what Lave and Wenger (1991) call a “community of practice.” In this case, we’re trying to build a diverse community of novice and practicing professionals in order to explore and enable students to create a vision for integrating technology in their teaching practice. In this case, the community will be comprised of three instructors (each with a different area of expertise), additional university faculty and graduate students, a group of practicing elementary school teachers, and four sections of a students in a course in two university’s teacher education programs. The purpose of a community of practice (COP) structured in this way is to provide diverse expertise, experience and points of view centered on a real-world challenge.

In theory, this approach provides a relative advantage to a single course instructor. The challenge, however, is in coordinating the efforts of these individuals in disparate physical and professional contexts. For the instructors, this has inspired the need for close coordination, not only of course goals, objectives, and activities, but also on the particular roles and contributions individuals can make to help build, nurture and sustain the COP. For the instructors, this is pretty straight forward. Each instructor is taking the lead on developing the class session plan, resources, and facilitation of online discussion in their particular area of expertise. For example, I am designing the course content, discussion, and resources for technology in the social studies. In addition to this course planning, I have also recruited an experienced classroom teacher with a strong vision for technology in the social studies. 

What’s less clear to me at this point, is how the teacher partners, additional faculty and graduate students, and the students in the courses themselves will help to build the community. How, for example, can the classroom teachers contribute to students’ learning beyond the creation and facilitation of their particular course module? How much can we expect busy teachers (who are volunteering their time) to engage in the online community? how can we ensure that we provide the space for the members to contribute their own expertise and experience and still remain true to the overall vision for the course? To what extent do we require students to contribute to the discussions (e.,g., each student will create an original post…) rather than to allow the community to emerge organically? John Drummond ponders this question in an interesting blog post entitled, Gardens of Discussion: What Makes Online Communities Work? We’ve decided that we’ll adopt the “industrial farm” approach that John discusses in his post, essentially providing strict guidelines and structure to the discussion.

In think the jury is out on how (or if) this community will come together in the ways that we’re hoping. If all goes well, I think this COP approach will provide significant benefits our students’ learning in the course, and potentially beyond. I’m quite cognizant, though, that this significant complexity in course structure, facilitation and interaction may make for a convoluted, potentially distracting element of the course. I’m hoping that in chronicling the effort in this blog, and through the related research study, we’ll be able to learn lessons from this work and help to inform their efforts, as well as our classes in the future.



Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 1

This semester, I’ll be teaching a course for undergraduate students on how to integrate technology in their teaching. This course is similar to the one I discussed here and here. In this and other iterations of the course, I’ve included some online activities to complement the primarily face-to-face course. This semester, however, more of the content will be moved online and perhaps even more significantly, I’ll be sharing the teaching and facilitation of the course with instructors from the University of Virginia. The vision is to create a classroom community comprised of four sections of the course – three at UVA and one at WIlliam & Mary. Each of the instructors, myself included, has different teaching experience and expertise. So, in this way, it will be a distributed expertise model. One other element that is interesting in this course is that we will also be partnering with practicing teachers to bring their expertise in both designing the course content and in facilitating the discussions and providing feedback on student work. I’m excited about the development of this community of practice. As you might imagine, however, this complex structure will significantly increase the complexity of the course design and implementation. This is the first of a series of posts where I’ll share insights and lessons learned in this process. I’d love to hear from others who’ve tried something similar or are interested to do so. Please begin the conversation by posting a comment below.

We’ve had several organizational meetings wherein we had to determine the shared course goals, key assignments, and overall structure for the course. We will also be conducting a research study on the process and outcomes, so this obviously adds more decisions and coordination to the mix. Despite the challenges, it’s been a rewarding experience so far – one that’s challenged my thinking and expanded opportunities in terms of course content and design. 

In this course, we’re focused on guiding students through an exploration of technology integration in each of the four core content areas (English language arts, math, science, social studies). Each content area module will span three weeks and open with the exploration of a TPACK rich media case. This portion of each module will take place completely online, with opportunities to discuss the content with classmates and instructors at both sites as well as the classroom teacher partners.Students will then move onto two additional days of learning related to technology in each particular content area. Some of these activities will take place in the classroom, some online. The capstone assignment is the design and presentation of a technology-enhanced teaching unit that can be implemented in their practica or student teaching setting.

Initial conversations, conducted via videoconference, focused on fleshing out course objectives, assignments, the calendar, and structure. Once these were nailed down, we shifted to finding a course management tool that would support the kind of learning experience we envisioned. After considerable discussion and consideration of alternatives, we settled on BlackBoard as the tool that would support our community of practice. BlackBoard is flexible enough to support both the fully online, and hybrid elements of the course. Perhaps most importantly, in contrast to the collection of tools I utilized for a similar experience last semester, BlackBoard will be the “one stop shop” to support the course learning activities. As I’ve begun building content for the course, I’m increasingly comfortable that this decision will work well for what we’re trying to do. It’s certainly not without it’s challenges, however. In the next post, I’ll share my experience of moving what has been primarily a face-to-face course to a hybrid format, focusing on lessons learned in the process.

If you have questions or comments about this experience, please add a comment below. I’d love to hear from readers with similar experience or interest. Stay tuned for the next installment in the series…

Productivity for a new year – focus on efficiency or effectiveness?

I don’t typically spend a lot of time making resolutions, intentions or even major goals as I transition into a new year. Instead, I prefer to look back at the prior year and take stock. In part, this means reviewing my projects and determine whether they should be continued, paused, or deleted. I also try to think about areas in which I struggled in the prior year and how I might be able to address these challenges in the new year. Finally, I try to take a stock back and look at my work life holistically. In general, how are things working?

One thing I’ve been mulling over the last few days is my personal productivity. In some ways, it’s been a really productive year. I’ve generally done a good deal of “shipping” this year – journal articles, workshops, and even my first book, And Action: Directing Documentaries in the Social Studies Classroom. I’ve met my deadlines and moved my projects forward. This is mostly thanks to my task/project management system. Over the last couple of years, I’ve really perfected my system of capture, organization, and execution using my software of choice – Todoist. I can generally crank through my tasks on the way to meeting the next deadline. I had a nagging feeling of discontent, though, as I reflected back on 2013.

I was listening to the latest episode of the Mikes on Mics podcast, and hosts Mike Vardy and Michael Schechter were discussing the meaning of productivity. Mike Vardy was arguing that the key to productivity is balancing efficiency and effectiveness. 

This resonated with me, because I think I had a really efficient year last year, but I don’t know how effective it was. For me, effectiveness boils down to a question – am I working on the right things? When I look back, I don’t see a grand plan or overarching vision to my projects, publications, etc. I think I’ve been working hard, but I don’t know how much time I’ve spent being deliberate about my choices for what to work on. I think that for me, as things come at me, I just want to say yes. And with a high level of efficiency, I can usually manage to get things done. What’s missing for me is attending to the question of what I should be working on. 

So, here’s my focus for the year. It doesn’t matter how efficient you are if you’re working on the wrong projects. Likewise, even if you have a great sense of the right work for you this year, if you aren’t able to organize and manage your projects it’s likely that you either won’t get things done, or you’ll miss deadlines. So, I guess that if I were going to make a resolution, intention, etc., for 2014, it would be to find a proper balance between efficiency and effectiveness in terms of my work.

Results of Online Hybrid Teaching

Back in November, I wrote an initial post on my first real foray into extended hybrid teaching. As a quick recap, students progressed through a three-week fully online module on lesson planning for technology integration in the K-12 teaching.  Aside from two other single session online experiences, the rest of the 15 week course took place in a face-to-face format. And while the students expressed some discomfort with the fully online module, they were mostly positive about the experience. Before I really looked at the work my students produced, I was fairly happy with the experience. What remained for me to see was what their work in this module looked like. Upon further review, I’m quite pleased.

At the conclusion of the three-week module, students turned in a technology-enhanced lesson plan that they could implement in their student teaching internship. Along with the lesson, students had to turn in a technology product that tied to the lesson. For example, if students planned to challenge their students to create a digital timeline or wiki space, they had to create a sample of what their students might create. Finally, students had to complete a semi-structured reflection on their rationale for the technology they included and how they saw the use of technology connecting with both their content and instructional strategies. The last portion of the reflection asked students to discuss the planning process in which they’d engaged in the module. In this post, I’ll quickly summarize the products they created along with their reflections. 

The products that students created were quite strong. I have used a validated assessment rubric to score the lesson plans and products. When I compared the scores of students in two sections of my course this year with students in the prior two years, their rubric scores were significantly improved. The students who completed the experience completely online scored better in all dimensions of the rubric than students in the prior two cohorts. This was encouraging.

Perhaps even more encouraging to me were their reflection responses. While I don’t have a way to systematically compare these reflections to prior years, I am all but certain that these reflections were far more substantive and nuanced than in prior years. The vast majority of the students were able to articulate fairly sophisticated rationales for the technology they included in their lessons and how it connected to their content focus and instructional strategies. This is often difficult for preservice teachers since they don’t have nearly as much classroom teaching experience, even compared with novice teachers. There is a fair bit of research that novice teachers tend to default to their own experience as students when designing their own instruction. In essence, they often “teach how they were taught.” In the case of this cohort, however, it was clear to me that they had developed significantly stronger rationales than prior groups.

It difficult to say whether these differences were solely due to the online module. My gut tells me, though, that this particular cohort was not that different (if at all) from prior cohorts. My strong suspicion is that it was the extended time to reflect, increased chances to discuss their evolving thinking, and the requirement to document their ongoing thinking that was afforded by the asynchronous online module that made the difference. I’m so intrigued by these results that I plan to move more of a similar Spring course to a fully online format to see if these hunches hold up.

I’ll be documenting the process of developing this new blended course, which I hope will be roughly 50% online through a series of posts. I’ll develop out posts on the planning process, facilitation strategies, and the roll-out over the next semester. I hope that you’ll follow along and add your comments as I go.