Monday, February 26, 2007

Students writing their own textbook using a wiki

At Old Dominion University in Virginia, Dwight Allen and his graduate assistants teach over 200 students in "Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education." The course has many sections, some taught on campus, some in a distance learning format.

Allen saw that the textbook was not engaging students effectively, so he decided that, the next term, the students would be assigned to collaboratively create their own text, using the same software used by authors of Wikipedia.

Allen's team provided the chapter headings; students each worked on a different section, writing for other students. Three versions of each section were written and, later, students critiqued the drafts, and voted for the best version of each one. Using their advice, the faculty picked the versions for each chapter; the other versions were also included as supplementary material. All this was done in the first month of the course; after that, the students studied the textbook they'd created, as well as using other elements of instruction: lectures, discussions, readings, and so on.

For more on how the course and writing were organized, click here.
What you see above is a new addition to our materials on 'Digital Writing Across the Curriculum.'

A little explanation: Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is important because writing is the lifeblood of most college courses: when students entering a course can already write well, the instructor has more options for how to teach them, and how to assess what they've learned. When those same students also have skills of digital writing (e.g., creating web sites, using multimedia, writing for wikis and blogs), those options expand even further. That's my hypothesis, and this TLT Group resource gives examples of disciplinary courses that are being taught in fresh, effective ways by using assignments that involve digital writing. Please send me more examples! We hope that our subscribing institutions will use this web site to consider whether, and how, to foster such skills in their students in order to help all departments improve instruction and assessment.

If you like this work, the best way to support it is to urge your institution to subscribe to The TLT Group.

Humor - support service crisis

The parallels between the uses of reading/writing, the uses of campuses, and the uses of computers and the Internet are fascinating. Not only the gains for higher learning are similar; so are the problems. Click here if you're interested in reading a short piece I wrote about that theme several years ago.

Here's a bit of humor on the same subject. This YouTube video clip shows a monk checking with his Help Desk staff about how to use a mystifying new technology, the book. It was passed along to me by my friend Jeffrey Brewster in Brussels. I'm not sure what the original language is (German? Flemish? Dutch?) but the English subtitles are quite adequate. I loved it!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Flashlight Approach to Evaluation, Summarized

For a variety of reasons, educators, their units and institutions now often gather evidence in order to evaluate 'stuff'. By 'stuff' we mean tools, resources, and facilities such as course materials, computer software, classroom design, blended courses, distance learning programs, network infrastructure, libraries, ePortfolios, ... By "evaluate" we mean a purposeful gathering of the evidence needed in order to make better choices about what to do next.

These days when people think about evaluation, their thinking often begins and ends with 'outcomes assessment.' But information about outcomes is rarely enough, by itself, to show how to improve those outcomes. (For more on this point, click here.) The Flashlight approach to evaluation is designed to provide the best insights for improving outcomes for the least effort.

The Flashlight approach has a number of elements, of which these are the most important:

1. Activities: Focus on what people do with the 'stuff' at issue. For example, if you want to get more value from personal response systems (some of which are also known as 'clickers'), you first need to discover what faculty and students are actually doing with the clickers. For instance, are the clickers being used to create structured discussion about difficult ideas? to take attendance? to test memorization? Each of those patterns of use (which we refer to as 'activities') will create different benefits, costs, damage...

2. The dark side: Consider people's fears and concerns about the stuff, not just their hopes and goals. For example, if clickers are being used to take attendance, are students sending friends to class with a handful of clickers?

3. Motives, incentives, and disincentives: Value is created by the way people use stuff. So the best clues for increasing that value come from learning why people use the stuff as they do. For example, if you do a workshop on the value of using clickers for conceptual learning, and 30% of the participants don't start using clickers that way, you should investigate the reasons. It might be rooted in their personal approaches to teaching, their disciplines, your training, reactions of students, their facilities, ... No matter what you discover, it's almost always going to be useful in helping you figure out whether and how to get more value from clickers.

4. Education is not a machine: Even when the same faculty member teaches two sections of the same course, and has taught them for years, what students do and learn will differ. Add clickers, or any other technology that increases options for faculty and students, and that variation will probably increase. That's one reason we emphasize unique uses perspective for evaluation, and not just uniform impact approaches.

5. Collaboration: Whose choices influence how the stuff is used? Whose choices could change how the stuff is used? Those are the people who should be involved in helping design your study. If you need help in gathering data (e.g., getting good response rates to surveys), then they can help. They can also help you make sure that your questions and language are clear and compelling.

6. Start evaluating now: To improve outcomes (including costs), change activities. (Buying new stuff is just a means to change activities). And it's always the right time to begin studying an activity. So start evaluating now.
For example, if you're interested in using clickers to foster conceptual learning, start evaluating conceptual learning (including faculty development) now, whether or not you're using clickers yet, whether or not you're experienced in their use yet, whether or not you're considering replacing one kind of clicker with another. For example, if you are considering buying new stuff, your findings can help you
* choose products;
* remove barriers to effective use even before the technology becomes available, and
* provide baseline data for measuring the impact of the new stuff.
In short, whether or not it's time to buy, develop, or replace stuff, it's always time to begin studying activities that use, or that would use, that stuff.

The whole Flashlight Evaluation Handbook is designed to flesh out these and related ideas using examples and specialized guides. The TLT Group can also provide coaching (send us your draft plans and we can talk), collaborators in doing such studies, or we can even do them for you. So take a look at the Handbook and contact us if you'd like to talk (301-270-8311;

PS. If your institution is a subscriber, feel free to use this summary for workshops. If your institution is not yet a subscriber, we would appreciate it if you would ask permission to use this material.

Choice and Happiness

How much does our happiness depend on on what happens to us (win the lottery or have your limbs amputated?), and on choices we make about our lives? Dan Gilbert gave this startling talk on both topics, illustrated with some provocative psychological studies:
Gilbert's talk is certainly making me take a second look at decisions about which I tend to agonize, and about the role of choice in life, and I'm going to read his book Stumbling on Happiness. How many choices do you face? Does your job involve giving other people choices in life? If you have time or inclination to watch only one of the talks described here, watch Dan Gilbert's and please post a comment about what you make of its implications for your life and work.

Two other TED talks dealt a subset of Gilbert's topic, just having to do with choices in products and services.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about recent research that has led food companies to create many more choices in grocery stores: so many different kinds of mustard and vinegar, for example.

But even though research indicates that companies can sell more mustard if they offer these choices (because there is no 'ideal mustard', at any price: different folks like different kinds of mustard), do such choices make us happier? Barry Schwartz uses cartoons to explain why he thinks these choices are making us unhappier:

To repeat: if you have time to watch only one, watch Gilbert's. If you know anything about Zen Buddhism, tell us how this relates, or doesn't, to that or to other religions. In the meantime, I may start flipping coins as a way of making tough decisions about life!

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Paradox of Risk

Steve Gilbert and I have been working with a major university system on issues of strategic planning. Their planning teams have developed a huge list of imperatives for institutions and the system office, in order to improve teaching and learning with technology. I wondered how they would choose among those priorities: like everyone else, they have only limited funds, and even more limited time and attention. Choice is crucial, even when all the alternatives are wonderful, important and interdependent.

It reminded me of an evaluation that was done of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) when I was a staff member there. I think this was around 1979. The final report said that most FIPSE projects succeeded so well locally that they continued in operation at least 2 years after funding ended, and that they influenced something like a dozen other institutions, too. At our first staff meeting after these findings were announced, most of us were over the moon. But my colleague Alison Bernstein (now with the Ford Foundation) was disturbed. 'We're supposed to be a risk-taking funder,' she warned. 'This may mean we've been too conservative in choosing among proposals.'

I thought about that. Most seed grant programs had success rates far lower than FIPSE's: 10-20%, not 80-90%. Authors had written influential books about how likely innovation in higher education was to fail. So why were these FIPSE projects succeeding so often? The answer seems relevant to strategic planning today.

FIPSE's review process attracted people to submit their best ideas. The review process winnowed out almost all of them: less than 5% were funded. And 'apples' were always compared with 'oranges': which ideas were most learner-centered, cost-effective and capable of far-reaching impact?

I think the resulting ideas were so powerful that people inside and outside the author's institution would say, "Normally when you propose something I don't pay much attention. But this idea is different. It's so important that we can't let it fail. How can I help you?" FIPSE-funded ideas usually attracted resources and support far beyond what FIPSE had awarded. I remember talking with another institution that had adopted an idea pioneered by a FIPSE grantee, "Once we realized that it was possible to do that, our institution couldn't not do it."

Institutions and systems need ways to seek out ideas, from inside and outside. Sift them for the ones that are so important, and so potentially rewarding, that a coalition of support is easy to put together. A few ideas like that, successfully implemented, can help develop momentum and support for a second generation of improvements. Like FIPSE, it's also important to use some degree of external review to help sift ideas: external review can help the institution see if the ideas really are significant, and remove some of the political risk of making such choices purely with insider input.

What do you think? Wonderful idea? Impractical? Wrong-headed?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Take 5 for Teaching" Five-Minute Workshops - Example, "The Last Day of Class"

Provided by Todd Zakrajsek, Director, Faculty Center for Innovative Teaching (FaCIT), Central Michigan University. EMAIL:

Several examples available at:

[5 MINUTE VIDEO] "The Last Day of Class"
Need QuickTime or similar player.

To what extent is it useful to have this available as a 5-minute video recording?
vs. Audio recording?
vs. Text description?

Which combinations of video, audio, text, etc. and a possible face-to-face session would be especially useful? For which purposes?

List of main points from video presentation:

  • Food
  • Undergrad research possibilities
  • Review syllabus
  • Link course content to life
  • Greet students by name
  • Ask for student feedback
  • Discuss what current students would write to students who take course next term
  • Discuss next semester
  • 3 most important things learned in course
  • Describe what TEACHER has learned
  • Self-addressed stamped envelopes for students - encourage later feedback
  • Course-evaluation survey at BEGINNING of session
  • Resist urge to cram in more topics
  • Discuss purpose of course and hopes

Monday, February 05, 2007

Imagine Adding Face-to-Face to Online Educ. - Thought Experiment

Exciting "thought experiment":
Suppose all higher education were conducted online.
Now imagine how and why you would ADD face-to-face meetings.
  • In what ways could you improve online education by creating new hybrid or blended options?
  • What strategies would you recommend to teachers,students in this new combined environment?
  • How could you best take advantage of both synchronous and asynchronous interaction?
  • What different media might you use?
  • In what ways would you encourage, support, or prevent students from multi-tasking?
  • How does the concept of "band-width" influence your choices?

This activity was suggested by Doug Eder, Director of Univ. Evaluation, Arizona State Univ. during a telephone conference call 1/30/2007 involving about a dozen experts in various aspects of faculty and professional development for college teaching and learning.

Listen to Eder describe this idea informally via MP3 .

Image Maps - 2 Instructional Examples [MP3 Audio 40 secs]

Two samples of instructional use of image maps from John Prusch of Excelsior College:
1. For a course in phonetics, several linked Web pages enable the learner to HEAR sounds associated with phonetic symbols in a variety of configurations:

2. A Page from the Babylonian Talmud: "Click on any portion of the …image, …[for] when and where the text was composed, its contents and purposes, …"

Prusch comments: "Image maps are an under utilized but quick and easy tool to use in teaching. They provide a simple means for explaining, illustrating, or annotating difficult concepts, processes, and examples not only with text but also with images, video, and sound recordings." MP3 Audio Version

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Help! Need webcast telephone connection!

Need 2-way link between Webcast and telephone conference call.
  • Prefer software interface solution (e.g., linking Skype phone call with Webcast connection INSIDE a computer).
  • Hardware device linking computer, phone and headset would be OK, but Andrea PCTI device is inadequate due to local radio interfeernce.
Some people who participate in the Webcast cannot use a headset connected to a computer for audio participation, so they need to be able to use a telephone to connect to a conference call to hear and be heard.

  1. Run live Webcast with 2-way link to telephone conference call.
  2. This link must be monitored and controlled by someone via a headset.
  3. Everyone who is participating in phone conference call must be able to hear everything that is "broadcast" by the Internet Webcast.
  4. Each person who is participating in the phone conference call must be ABLE TO BE heard by everyone who is participating via the Internet in the Webcast. This person needs to be able to click on the microphone to speak option in the Webcast when someone in the telephone conference call wants to speak and be heard by others on the Webcast.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Using video case studies for faculty development

MERLOT is working on including some stories, thanks to a FIPSE grant for a project called ELIXR that is just getting underway.

Some years ago I wrote a report on the use of video stories for faculty development:

A group of us had spent a day watching videos and looking at multimedia web sites for faculty development (the few that existed in 1995!) . We concluded, among other things, that we had seen two types of materials, both of which could be classed as stories:
  1. Stories intended to help the user visualize a way of teaching and become interested in trying it ("explanatory selling stories")
  2. Stories intended to give the user, interested in a particular way of teaching, the vicarious experience of getting into trouble so that the reader (usually in a seminar with others) could learn how to identify and analyze that type of problem, and figure out how to deal with it (e.g., how to turn it into a teachable moment). ("provocative case studies")

These kinds of stories, especially the provocative case studies, are very important for helping faculty use technology to alter the nature of their teaching, but I've seen almost none in use. The TLT Group has developed a few text case studies of this type (if you're at a TLT Group institutional subscriber, use the regular username and password if you'd like to see this subscriber-only material and let us know how we can add to it!).

The University of Victoria in Canada has a DVD of such stories called "Critical Incidents in Teaching with Technology." The DVD is intended for use in faculty development. Has anyone seen and used it?

Has anyone seen and used any other faculty development materials designed to help faculty learn how to get out of trouble that new pedagogical approaches (using technology) might get them into?