What I have learned (2)

I have also learned to appreciate the learning effect of peer review. In this course, we have practiced self-assessment and peer assessment for every post we create. But I did not fully appreciate what peer review is all about until the refining stage, where we evaluate classmate’s course design. Professor gave us a checklist, or a set of criteria, embedded in a course review form. There are many questions to go through, slightly different from the checklist two weeks ago.

When I did the review, I allowed myself to be in a position of an instructional designer. I went through the list very carefully, and made extensive comments. All was done without thinking about my own course, which was also being reviewed by others. Not reflecting back to my own course made my review of others easier. That’s because I was able to take a disinterested stance and give an impartial review. All I cared about was whether or not the course had satisfied the requirements, and nothing else. Had I been too reflective about my own course, I could have been bothered by consideration such as, “geez, I did not complete this part either, maybe I should be easy on this guy, give him a break”. That would have generated biased and unreliable course review for my classmates.

When I went through the same course review process three times, and revisited my own course design. Boy I can tell you, it’s not pretty. I knew coming into that week my course was far from complete, but I knew I did my best, and did not think it’s that bad. Broken links, inconsistent presentation, incomplete contents were all over the place. (I thank my reviewers for their patience and valuable suggestions, really.) Fortunately, I could see these problems clearly, and figured out plan of revisions right away. I felt like my understanding of the criteria of good course design had increased significantly simply by changing the perspectives back and forth between reviewer and self-reviewer. What I learn to love the peer review activity is that, peer review allows learners to temporarily detach themselves from their own works, in which they have vested interests, and adopt a perspective of an objective observer by applying a set of standards. By doing so, learners learn to appreciate the value of the objective standards, and therefore acquire a keener insight into their own works later on.


Chasing the deadline

I don’t know why, but I am always chasing the deadlines. This course will officially come to an end today, and I spent the whole day polishing my course design. I wish I could have done this earlier, but, it always comes down to the last minute.

There are several changes to its original form. I’ve added the reflective blog as an additional learning activity. Like the reviewers said, personal blog is truly useful in creating a self-reflective touch on the learner’s learning experience. Given the opportunity, the learners are more likely to express their true selves on consistent basis. Writing a blog is like a monologue. There is no interlocutor to speak to. You speak to yourself, believing that others will read them. Even when comments are scare, you still get the sense, or hope, or believe, that the blog will reach to some unknown readers. Acquiring a disposition to expressing oneself genuine, reflective side will, I think, help the learner speak in the same manner in forum discussions. It that’s the case, that means keeping a blog will help build up social presence, since one of the key ideas of social presence is that learners feel free and at ease in expressing their true selves as real persons. Blog writing, therefore, has the instrumental value in contributing to the development of social presence. Furthermore, blog writing has intrinsic value as well. It helps boost self-awareness of one’s learning, especially when one is not writing an assigned topic, but focusing on what happened to him. Acquiring such a disposition also helps keep the learner on top of his learning progress, instead of learning out of response or conditioned by requirements.

I also bring in an image file for each module. The image is meant to intrigue learners’ interest. It took me a while to find the fitting ones, but I am so happy to find a video clip from Jerry Seinfeld on youtube. It’s one of my favorite episodes, where Kramer and Poppie were arguing about the beginning of a pizza. Poppie insisted that the moment that ingredients were put on top of the dough, it’s a pizza; while Kramer maintained that it’s not a pizza until it came out of the oven. A clear reference to one of the issues in abortion is in place. It probably does not clarify anything, but it’s a pleasant way of saying a problem. Besides, it’s Seinfeld, always making me laugh.

The course design is not perfect yet. There are problems. I probably am under the unconscious affect of the fact that I won’t be using the course design to teach online in foreseeable future. It’s difficult to motivate oneself to perfect something that generally requires extensive practical experiences for revision. But, I’d done my best.


What I have learned (1)

It’s hard to believe we are already in the final week of this course. We are asked to reflect on what we have learned in this course, and indeed there’s a lot to say about this assignment. As shown clearly in this blog, I’ve been trying to reflect on my learning process in a very personal way, and I will continue to do this even after the semester finished.

As a first time online course taker, taking a course dedicated to online teaching and learning, this semester was destined to be a real challenge to me. I had no online learning experience for me to be the basis of reflection, so I had to learn and reflect at the same time. To use a notion I learned from my knowledgeable classmates, it’s like a process of meta-cognition, being constantly and self-reflectively knowing what one’s learning about.

Fortunately, I am quite familiar with online environment and use of computer-mediated communication, so the technical challenge has not been an issue for my learning. Posting articles in Moodle, as well as opening video clips, audios, pdf files, are sort of natural for me to deal with. There is, however, a problem with technology, that is, the extensive use of varied Web 2.0 online tools/gadgets. In the beginning weeks, classmates raised the issue of privacy in using these tools. Privacy is part of the reasons why in my private life I am not an early adopter of these new Web 2.0 tools. But now that we have to use them, I learn to use them, even though not extensively. These tools once caused a difficult situation for me because I was so overwhelmed that I wasn’t sure where to focus. It was like I needed to do this in one website, then discuss in moodle threaded discussions, and then blogging here. Sometimes I mixed up the assignments, answering the assignments in blog posts, and saying something in the blog that were supposed to be done in threaded discussions. In addition, I wasn’t very sure the purpose of using these tools, the importance of getting familiar with them, and the relative weight toward the evaluation of my study. Being unable to see these tools (i.e. learning activities) in an appropriate order, relative to the overall design of the course, everything appeared to be important; nothing ended up standing out as the one that I was supposed to focus on.

I wouldn’t say my difficulty in the beginning weeks was a result of the course design. Quite the contrary, the design of the course is superb. I believe my problem is typical of first-time online course takers. Online learning environment requires a very different mindset and learning style from the students (from teachers as well) in order for the course to be effective and successful. When learners are not aware of this fact, of what their responsibilities are in making it work, online courses are less likely to move forward.


teaching critical thinking online

The success of my course, Moral Choices, requires that students acquire the disposition to critical thinking. It becomes ultimately important that my course design is able to create a learning environment that is specifically conducive to the development of the ability to think critically.

I come across an article which addresses explicitly this issue. The author offers 15 strategies for teaching thinking in online classes. They are (Peirce, 2003, p. 309):

  1. Conduct opinion polls/surveys before assigned readings to arouse interest in topics and to assess and employ students’ prior knowledge.
  2. Design self-testing quizzes and tutorials to prepare students for well-grounded discussions.
  3. Conduct interactive asynchronous discussions.
  4. Pose well-designed questions for asynchronous discussions.
  5. Create cognitive dissonance: provoke discomfort, unsettle confirmed notions, uncover misconceptions, inspire curiosity, pose problems.
  6. Assign writing-to learn tasks as homework and/or discussion.
  7. Present activities that require considering opposing views.
  8. Assign a mediatory argument promoting a resolution acceptable to both sides.
  9. Adopt collaborative and cooperative learning techniques, simulations, and role-plays to online users.
  10. Ask students to evaluate Internet resources.
  11. Ask students to reflect on their responses to the course content and on their learning processes in private journals.
  12. Develop critical thinking dispositions.
  13. Promote critical consciousness.
  14. Move students to higher intellectual stages.
  15. Understand students’ levels of self-directedness.

There is an online version of the strategies: http://academic.pgcc.edu/~wpeirce/MCCCTR/ttol.html

Peirce suggests that, since students come to class with loads of opinions about the topics (even more so moral issues, I’d say) whether they are well-informed or not, a way to generate interest in assigned readings is to take a survey of their opinions, or to pre-test their knowledge of the information. (p. 310) I find this suggestion interesting and it leads me back to my earlier reflections on quizzes. Quizzes may not be needed in taking attendance, nor reliable in assessing whether students come to class well-prepared or not, but quizzes may still be useful in inspiring curiosity among students. The trick is to design the survey questions or quiz questions in a way that draws directly from the assigned readings theses or concepts that students would find unfamiliar unless they have done the readings. For those who have not done the readings, they’d feel the pressure and need to make it up as quickly as possible. For those who have, it’s a way to reassure them what are the key notions in this topic/module.

“How does a factual-recall quiz improve thinking? It doesn’t, but a professor can make passing a quiz on an assigned reading the gateway to discussing it in the conference. Discussions are richer when students are prepared.” (p. 311)

Regarding 4, on this webpage, Peirce offers structured guidance for formulating the discussion assignment in a way that could foster critical thinking. In the article, it’s on pp. 345-347.

Provoking discomfort (point 5) is very useful. Peirce mentions the Socratic questioning as one of the popular method in face-to-face classroom, but quickly recognizes its difficulty to apply it online. He, nonetheless, suggests the following method: First, present a theory, or a concept, and the examples that confirm it. Then bring in discrepant examples. Ask for an explanation why these examples do not match the theory. In the face of a cognitive dissonance, students are motivated to understand the theory, and its applicability better. (p. 315) Creating cognitive dissonance is also a very useful triggering event that may eventually lead to the completion of the cognitive inquiry. In addition, Peirce shares his own strategy. He would ask students to make a list of statements they believe are true. Then he would challenge students to rethink the extent to which these statements in fact are not factual but evaluative ones, thus opening the door to a careful reflection on how evaluative, moral statements should be made properly. I think this is very useful.

The above is just my reading notes to share with everyone. I will follow up with most posts. If you are interested, you can check on this website for a short version (here is the link), or the full article here:


Peirce, W. (2003). Strategies for Teaching Thinking and Promoting Intellectual Development in Online Classes. In S. Reisman (Ed.), Electronic Learning Communities—Issues and Practices (pp. 301-347). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.


Building an online learning community

In this course, we’ve learned the importance of building a sense of learning community among students, how the community of inquiry can improve students’ learning outcome and overall satisfaction in learning. We’ve also discusses the notion of teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence, and how they overlap with one another. Most recently we talked about how to design engaging learning activities, and our course design project is currently at its final, refining stage.

One issue that keeps coming back to me is how a learning community grows, develops, and survives. How a first-time online learner, like myself, is able to overcome overwhelmingly multi-dimensional challenges and a new learning environment, without feeling falling behind and isolated from the rest of the class. For novice online learners, they not only need to learn the course materials, but also the technology, the online tools, the learning environment, the asynchronous nature of communication, and so on. Any misstep in the learning progress could very much undermine their motivation to participation, and put their success in jeopardy. How can we, course designers, make sure novice online learners not only wouldn’t be daunted by new technology and new learning environment, but also would help develop a successful online learning community?

So, in designing my course, I introduce several measures that are meant to deal with this concern. In ice-breaking module, students need to practice every task that they need to do in the upcoming weeks: sending me email, private message in LMS, submitting a post, and responding to posts. In the same opening module, I also assign a discussion forum dedicated to the topic: how does the online learning work? How to succeed? This topic aims to bring forward their reflective comprehension of their new roles as online learners, as opposed to traditional face-to-face classes.

It is until recently I found an article directly addressing this issue, and I am so happy to see that this article also recommends some of the measures that I have incorporated in my course. Brown (2001) sets out to propose a theory that can be used to describe and prescribe the formation of a learning community in distance learning classes. Using the qualitative method of the grounded theory, she suggests that a fully developed learning community exhibits three stages. In the first stage, students make friends with each other and feel comfortable with the learning environment. In the second stage, called community conferment stage, students participate in long, thoughtful threaded discussion on a subject of importance, after which they feel personal satisfaction and kinship. The third, Camaraderie stage is achieved after students engaged in long-term or intense association with others involving personal communication.

Her notion of Time-Triangles is interesting, since it captures the contrast veteran students and novice students allocate their time in learning. (Brown, p. 26)


She also points out the importance of quick response from the instructor, of having veteran students (those who have taken online courses before) help novice learners out. Brown also says that a long and thoughtful discussion can do good to those who are engaged in the discussion and do harm to those who fall behind and feel out of sync with classmates.

“How does an instructor create a desire to participate, to become a community member? Students suggested that foregrounding them would help. Have a discussion of on-line community immediately upon login. What is on-line community? How is it achieved? That’s what this study sought to find out. What can participants expect to gain from it? Some students don’t realize that it is an opportunity to learn from each other, to network with each other, and to gain support (help beyond what the instructor can provide). Early discussion of community and its potential benefits may create a perceived need that students will then want to fill. Certainly the discussion will convey that community is a course expectation so students will work to meet it.” (Brown, 2001, p. 33)

I am glad to find empirical research to support my understanding of online learning. Part of what Brown presents in this paper has been assimilated into the broader Community of Inquiry framework later on. But I still find it inspiring to read her original attempt to discover the dynamics of community-building in online learning environment.

Here’s the reference:

Brown, R. E. (2001). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 18-35.


No discussion, huh?

Having used to engage in forum discussions with classmates every week, it’s quite a strange scenario that students don’t have to discuss. Not that we don’t have to, but there’s no forum dedicated to this module that allow students to talk about what they’ve learned. The only venue students can go is the Ask a Question session.

Why was the course designed in this manner? A practical reason pops out right away: We are in the final stage of finishing up the course design, a deadline was set on last Sunday, and apparently the professor foresaw imperfection of our jobs, so she asked us to refine our courses by giving us a set of very useful checklists to self-assess and improve on the design. Since I did not fill out all the blocks last Sunday, I am grateful to have an extra week to work on parts that were not clearly spelled out or left out unconsciously. By using the checklists, I am able to improve it this time.

I guess I am not the only one in the class who feels weird not be able to share thoughts and reflections as we’ve been doing for weeks. I miss it very much.


Larry was right

It looks like our Professor always knows how to bring in new online tools to engage us. In this module, there’s this website called Seesmic. It was presented to us as an embedded flash video player, or screencast. But it is actually a powerful tool.

She introduces this tool by creating some sort of a topic in Seesmic, and invites colleagues and friends from around the world to come together and talk about how to engage online learners. The original post, and the replies to the original post, are integrated in a nice interface, as if we are watching a TV series, that new episodes (replies) keep pouring in and the show keeps growing. Conceptually it’s like the threaded forum discussions, but Seesmic is done by videos. Very powerful, and it is certainly an engaging use of new technology.

I am particularly impressed by a guy name Larry from Pennsylvania. He makes a point that I cannot agree with more. Engage your students early, often. And engaging activities can be built into course design. I shouldn’t be too surprised by these two tips, since we’ve learned more than that in this course, but his contribution to the Seesmic series highlights this point nicely. Engage the learners early, when the stake is low, when everything is possible, when they are still learning how to learn online. I have to admit that a convincing, powerful shock and awe approach will make them realize how important these tools are for this course. However, the instructor also needs to be careful not to overwhelm his students in the first module, since those who cannot withstand the intensity of these activities may end up dropping out right away.


Improving my course design (3)

One thing that I struggle with is how to evaluate student’s performance. I haven’t learned any theory of assessment or the best method of assessment, so I have to rely on my own experience as a student and as a teacher.

I am torn between two considerations. On the one hand, I think students’ works deserve some credit on their own. Even though the quality will certainly vary, the effort they put in to complete the assignments should entitle them certain credit. When I took f2f classes, that’s normally not the case. Papers handed in, two or three at most for one semester, may receive failing grades (say, D, or E), and usually professors did not give credit for the mere effort. They may adjust the overall graded by curving them, but it’s done not out of recognition of students’ efforts but of aiming at a normal distribution. When I taught f2f classes, I did not change a thing, but in my assessment of individual writing assignments I sometimes use a latent plateau from which all the papers were to be graded. The lowest grade would never be a failing grade (D, for instance). By doing so, I thought I built-in a mechanism that would reward their efforts. On the other hand, rewarding students for simply finishing the requirements does sound strange. Students could have careless submitted gibberish assignments just to get a passing grade, and a student who continuously doing that certainly does not deserve a passing grade.

In my online course, nevertheless, I think I am leaning toward the former direction, giving credits for merely doing the requirements. The reasons behind my decision are: (a) A learner-centered method of teaching and learning does not have a standardized one-fit-all criteria of evaluation. Students may engage in different projects, with different level of difficulty, which reflects more the nature of the projects than their deliberate choice of the easiest. So they should be rewarded, and encouraged, to initiate and finish a project that concerns them. Whether or not the finished project deserves an A or B is another issue. (b) In an online course, it is utterly important to ensure social presence and to foster high intensity of interactions among students. The mechanism to achieve these goals is to require them to participate in class discussions. The process of participation deserves credits.

However, it’s not fair to give everyone the same grade. Best works deserve the highest grades, and vice versa. So how do we distinguish the extraordinary performances from the ordinary ones? That means the despite a basic plateau, there needs to have rooms of variation for assessment of performance. That’s when a clear characterization of rubrics becomes important. The four interval rubrics used in this class is exemplary in fostering students’ share of teaching presence. Either peer assessment or self-assessment is a mechanism designed to ensure that students quickly internalize the rubrics of assessment. Both will be used in my class, even though the official grade will still be up to the instructor’s sole discretion.


“Who are you?”

We are asked to reflect on this topic in this module. Since this course teaches online teaching and learning, I will start with, as usual, my reflections on this learning activity.

First of all, the timing of this topic is interesting. It is not in the beginning of the semester, when ice-breaking activities are used to help classmates know each other. Here, in the middle of the semester, we’re asked to reflect on who we are, what kind of learners/teachers we are. Why now? I can think of only one reason: At this time, ideally there should already be a strong sense of learning community among students. Classmates have had extensive and long discussions with each other, on various topics, ranging from sharing experiences to challenge of thoughts. In a good learning community, discussions are encouraged, open, and constructive. Members of the community are honest and more likely to show their true character traits, and to project themselves as the real persons (social presence). An activity like “who are you”, accordingly, provides a good opportunity for classmates to come forward and let each other know who they really are. Instructors, and researchers possibly, can take the advantage to observe the extent to which social presence is achieved, and a comparison between self-introduction in module one and self-reflection in module four would provide valuable insight on the effectiveness of the course design in fostering social presence.

So, who am I? What have I learned? A few factors can account for what I have done and have learned in this course up to this course. (a) Years of education in philosophy have given me the disposition to critically reflecting on anything, before internalizing them into my belief system. When I come across a webpage found from Google or Wiki, I take in the information, but rarely take it for granted. I need to think it through, make sense of every piece of information as much as possible, and only then can I speak what I have learned in my own words. This habit of learning may not fare well in the era of information explosion, but that’s who I am as a learner. (b) I am brand new in education discipline. I just started the PhD program this summer. There are still so many for me to learn. Even though this course is an introduction to online learning and teaching, and is primarily a guidebook to prepare teachers to teach in an online environment, the beautiful course design has given me plenty of materials to think about lots of issues in education. Sometimes my thinking wandered through different schools of educational theories, superficially or not. Sometimes I have to find additional readings in order to understand what my classmates are talking about. Sometimes I learn quite a lot simply by reading and interacting with my classmates’ lengthy and thoughtful posts. Putting these two factors together, it is naturally why sometimes I asked strange questions that others don’t. But I will keep doing that because I know this learning community can embrace, tolerate, and enjoy my path of learning, and, hopefully, can benefit from my inquisitive style of critical learning. (So, to my dear Professor, when I appear to thinking about some of your deep belief, it’s not that I don’t believe you, rather, it’s my way of learning what I believe is a really important theses.)

That said, I understand that my learning style has deep drawbacks that need to be corrected as soon as possible. Education, as an esteemed discipline of social sciences, prizes empirical, evidence-supported research findings. It’s never enough to just think, reason; I need to find empirical evidence to support my beliefs. Part of the rubrics used in this course is to make this a habit in our thinking and posting. This is extremely important, and I am learning to realign myself toward this direction.

The most challenging task for me has been the wide array of requirements and tasks in this course. I am used to coming to traditional f2f classes, taking notes, doing readings, writing a 20-pages long term paper, and that’s it. But in this course, there’s a spectrum of requirements for each modules, and quite frankly I lost track of them from time to time, though I believe I am putting it together now.


Improving my course design (2)

Not webquest

In the draft of learning activities, I put down Webquest as an exercise that asks students to search on the Internet, select a website that addresses the assigned topic, and then provide a critical review of the website. I thought Webquest is the general term for this type of activity. However, I now realize that it’s not true. Or, I should say, Webquest is a technical terminology that has specific meaning and usage. So, I will simply call it “website critique”.

Creating a social space

It is important to establish social presence in an online course. Evidence has shown that the social presence is positively associated with better learning outcome and students’ satisfaction. When social presence is present, students are likely to project themselves as real persons to fellow classmates, they are more than willing to express their views, opinions, without hesitation, and they are susceptible to criticisms from others. In traditional face-to-face classrooms, it is also important to create a learning environment that is not suppressive, prohibitive or tabooed. The primary method to create social presence is through ice-breaking activities. The use of video, audio, and more personal touch among students and between instructors and students help create a more direct interaction. These considerations will factor into my design of the online course.

Required or optional

No one likes the notion of requirements by nature. No one feels happy to be forced to do something, even that’s for their own good. Even though the idea of andragogy in adult learning stresses the assumption that learners are self-motivated, self-regulated, it is still more realistic to suppose that learners may not come out automatically. So, in order to make something happen in an online learning environment, implementing requirements is probably the best way. In my course, I will require students to accomplish many mini tasks, especially in the beginning modules, that are designed to make sure they come out as often as possible.

How about the required number of posts?

This is difficult to determine. In this course, the requirement is 12, (6 for each week, each module has two weeks). This is different from the ordinary method. The common idea is that for each guiding questions (posted by the instructor), a students must post at least an original response, submit two responses to other’s post, and then respond to comments of one’s own post. The idea is clearly that by requiring this amount of interaction, the discussion can somehow become more engaging and alive. I don’t know who first came up with this practice of distributional requirement, but by mere reflecting on it I find it unsatisfactory. There may be some practical considerations behind this design. (a) Once the group size increases, the total number of posts would be so exceedingly high that the instructor may not have enough time to check on each posts carefully, and if the instructor can’t do that, then the whole basis of evaluation would be cast in doubt. This consideration makes sense for big classes, but not the case for small classes, though how to draw the line is difficult. Besides, Big classes can use break-down grouping to limit the total volume of posts and increase interactivity between them. (b) The other consideration is probably that the procedure somehow corresponds to the process of critical-reflective examination: first get your idea out, then respond to criticisms, and in order to make it work, they are required to submit responses to others’ posts.

In addition to these two consideration, I also want to point out the importance of setting the time frame for first original post. Most online courses are designed to have a module lasts for at least two weeks. If there’s no requirement on when the first post should pop up, it’s likely that most students would wait till the last day to submit their posts, and then respond to others, as a way of getting it done, instead of learning. So, I like the idea in this current course that the first post must show up within 48 hours of a new module. Even though it may not represent students’ best effort (for they would have limited time to complete all the readings and write the post), but it helps the forum to come alive as soon as possible.

So, my plan is to require them duplicate the effort that is, for each week, they need to submit an original post, and comment on others’, and then respond to those comments. It’s just my attempt to maintain a balance between workload and level of interactivity in the class.