Friday, October 8, 2010

Why I Like Some Classes More Than Others

By Susan Codone

After 8 years of college teaching, I have learned that I simply like some classes more than others.  Not just the students, necessarily, but the classes themselves as a whole.  For these classes, I often find myself smiling as I heft my books and head down to the classroom, anticipating a good class session.  After some thought and a little reading, I’ve been able to capture just why I like some classes more than others—at least six solid reasons.

The first reason I like some classes more than others is simply attendance.  I like it when my students are there!  Those classes with the best attendance are more successful, in my experience.  In fact, an article by Nitsa Davidovitch and Dan Soen in the College Student Journal (Sept 2006) reports on a study conducted at an Israeli university.  Over 9,000 students were surveyed, and the higher the student’s class attendance, the more highly the student rated the instructor.  I generalize that to mean the students performed better as well.  Coming to class more often makes class better!

The second reason I like some classes better than others is the students’ participation.  Raymond Jones, writing in College Teaching (2008), says that class participation can be a way both to increase knowledge and apply it contextually, and that all students can benefit from other students sharing their insights.  When students participate regularly, the instructor is able to build on their knowledge because it is shared.  This makes class better!

The third reason I like some classes better than others is seeing the pride students take in their work.  When students work hard and are proud of what they do, they get more satisfaction from it as well as greater learning.  Pride is motivating.  Lisa Williams and David Steno, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2008), say that most psychologists agree that pride is a positive emotion coming from achievements that can be attributed to effort and ability.  They also state that when someone feels proud about a recognized accomplishment, like a graded assignment, they may feel an incentive to “pursue further action in that valued domain”.  In other words, pride makes you continue to try harder.  I like it when my students feel pride in their work because it makes them want to continue doing well!

A fourth reason I like some classes more than others is the cohesiveness of the group – the sense of belonging the students have to the class.  David Kember and Natalia Li wrote in the International Journal of Lifelong Education (2001) that students who feel they belong to a class have better quality learning outcomes and find the class a more fulfilling and enjoyable process.  They recommend having personal relationships with students to encourage this sense of belonging.   In my experience, it doesn’t take much to generate this cohesiveness – just a little interest from the instructor and time for the students to get to know each other and the expected learning outcomes, and to commit to both.

A fifth reason I like some classes more than others is the common conversation that often springs up, both along academic lines and more personal lines.  As I become more familiar with the students, I begin to know the athletes and when their games are; I know the engineering students and their work in design, and I become accustomed to talking with them all about class material and their extracurricular lives.  Debra Myhill writes in Research Papers in Education (2006) that Vygotsky’s wrote this first – it was his belief that language is fundamental to learning and meaning and that this effect is at the center of any discussion of how classroom conversation can promote learning.  Myhill writes also of an “internally persuasive discourse” where students are encouraged to develop a range of speaking and listening roles.  This kind of discourse shapes learning, makes class more interesting, levels the playing field, and opens up opportunities for instructors to develop classroom conversations common to all students.

A final reason I like some classes more than others is when my students buy in to a common class purpose.  This is sometimes called engagement in the academic literature, and represents the process by which students invest themselves into a class.  Some schools try to understand this process better.  For example, Rachelle Heller, Cheryl Beil, Kim Dam, and Belinda Haerum write in the Journal of Engineering Education (July 2010) that at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, they surveyed 135 freshmen students to see how they would define engagement; 74 responded and half of those indicated that engagement is related to faculty involvement, their own interest in the topic, and their interaction with other students.  It is clear that students who buy into a class or are engaged with its content are more successful.  There are ways to foster this engagement.  I prefer to get to know my students, show them I am interested in their experiences, and try to convey my excitement for the topics I teach.  I am always gratified when they respond well to this, and it always makes me like the class even more.

Sometimes it’s hard to capture exactly what about a class makes it likable; you just know that you like that class more than others and you’re always happy to hold class sessions.  When students attend and participate, it simply makes our job easier!  Conveying content is facilitated by students who want to be there and who take part in class.  When students take pride in their work because of their expectations and those of the instructor, class is better.  When classes form into cohesive groups, communication is shared and students are happier.  When there is common conversation and a common class purpose, learning flows and everyone benefits.  And I like those classes just a little bit better!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coming Soon

I have a new post coming soon on Discovery Learning.  School has started and has taken my attention temporarily, but look for the new posting soon!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Google CloudCourse

by Susan Codone


Google's new release of CloudCourse, its new internal learning platform, hasn't drawn much press attention, but it is being tried out by both corporate and educational users.  Read Write Web reports that CloudCourse is built on Google's App Engine and is a course-scheduling tool, fully integrated with Google Calendar.  CloudCourse also includes approval processes, wait list management, and room and user profile information and can be synced with internal systems that users may have.  The intended audience for CloudCourse is the corporate e-learning market, but educators are taking a look at the application as well.

Read Write Web reports an interview with Irwin Boutoul, a software engineer at Google, who says that Google didn't design the system with universities in mind, instead building it as a course scheduling tool for business enterprises.  Nevertheless, Google would like to see universities pick up this platform and code additional features on top of it to make it more relevant to the higher education market.

CloudCourse does not yet contain all the functionality that will make it an alternative to the other LMS systems available.  Since the source code is open, businesses and universities are free to explore and build upon the application, improving it along the way.  Google itself says that CloudCourse allows anyone to create and track learning activities.  It also offers sync service, to sync CloudCourse to users' internal systems, room info service, to schedule classes in different locations, and user info services, to look up user profiles.  It was developed in Python, using the Django web application framework and the Closure Javascript library.

Irwin Boutboul and Phaneendhar Vemuru, the leaders of the CloudCourse software engineering team, say that they developed CloudCourse to:

  • Provide a course scheduling system fully integrated with Google services
  • Demonstrate what it takes to build an application using App Engine

By releasing CloudCourse as open source, they hope that developers may want to port or build enterprise applications on App Engine.  CloudCourse is available for download and you can join the CloudCourse mailing list.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mobile Learning

by Susan Codone

Mobile learning is a fast-growing phenomenon commensurate with the pace of mobile phone growth and other communication devices with Internet connectivity.  Originally, distance learning occupied this landscape, then e-learning, and now mobile learning is coming as a worthy successor.  Wikipedia defines mobile learning, or M-Learning, as any sort of learning that happens when the learner is not at a fixed location, or learning that happens when the learner takes advantage of the learning opportunities offered by mobile technologies.

Yi-Shun Wang, Ming-Cheng Wu, and Hsiu-Yuan-Wang, writing in Investigating the Determinants and Age and Gender Differences in the Acceptance of Mobile Learning (British Journal of Educational Technology, 2009), say that mobile learning is the delivery of learning to students anytime and anywhere through the use of wireless Internet and mobile devices, such as mobile phones, PDA's, smartphones, digital audio players, handheld computers, MP3 players, and notebooks.  Wikipedia states that the term covers "portable learning" that is accessible from virtually anywhere; it is also collaborative in nature since sharing is almost instantaneous among learners using the same content. Instant feedback is another characteristic.

The Great Divide in Mobile Learning
Sanjaya Mishra, in a 2009 review of Giasemi Vavoula's book Researching Mobile Learning (British Journal of Educational Technology, 2010) writes that mobile technology can help us achieve the last mile of access to the Net and to a vast range of learning resources in digital form, and create digital bridges for access to education.  In contrast, David Caverly, Anne Ward, and Michael Caverly, in TechTalk: Mobile Learning and Access, write that there is a serious digital divide with mobile technology.  As the graphic shows, there is disparity between access to resources and the literacy required for using mobile technology.  But, this kind of gap existed when distance learning began and then when e-learning began to take over the marketplace.  Given time for the technology to develop and for users to find their way, this divide will shrink as the others did in the past.

Caverly, Ward, and Caverly report Morgan Stanley's research that 60% of the world's population had access to a mobile phone in 2008.  They go on to say that Internet-connected mobile phones are the primary means of wireless access for 68% of English-speaking Hispanics  and 65% of African Americans.  By 2020, Morgan Stanley predicts that mobile phones will be the primary connectivity device for the Internet, surpassing desktop and laptop computers.

Mobile Learning in Real Life
So now that we know mobile learning is growing fast, what's an example of how it works in real life?  Consider this scenario, adapted loosely from Are You Ready for Mobile Learning by EDUCAUSE.  On the way to work, a student listens to a podcast of his professor's lecture on his mobile phone, which also serves as an MP3 player.  When he arrives, he receives a text message on his phone from a fellow student who has questions about the class.  He replies, and realizes she is currently copying the text of the instructor's lecture off the course website to her USB drive to plug into her tablet computer.  They text each other about the question, then text the professor, who calls the student to answer the question.  Meanwhile, the first student Googles a term from the lecture on his mobile phone while talking to the professor.  He texts the other student with the answer, and then goes inside to start his day.  This is learning, but via mobile technology, always on the move.

Mobile Learning Pedagogy
The pedagogy for mobile learning is a bit different from that of the classroom.  Mobile learning requires that the professor use almost any means of pushing content out to learners and allow the learner to easily communicate with him and other classmates.  There no longer is one place for learners to go to get content or to be taught; multiple outlets for content exist so that learners can acquire it using the technologies that pace their lives.

There are two main considerations, pedagogically speaking, in mobile learning: content and communication.  Course content may be posted on a course website, perhaps hosted by the university or an instructor, or it might reside inside a learning management system, or LMS, that learners can reach online.  Sometimes mobile content may be placed inside a social networking program like Facebook -- a class could have a Facebook group, and classmembers can contact each other and the instructor within that group.  Or, content may be aggregated into an audio or video podcast, hosted on a website, in an LMS, or even iTunes.

Once the content is available via multiple outlets, the communication component kicks in.  The instructor may use a web meeting program like Webex with voice over Internet protocol and video feeds so that all learners can talk, be seen, and share documents and websites with the class.  Or, Facebook may be used for class communication.  Text messaging can be used to take attendance or do "exit slips" where learners text a summary of what they learned to the instructor.  Email and telephone are also used for communication.  So, there is a constant loop of content being pushed out to learners and communication via various devices and services to tie in learners to class activities.  Just as e-learning took learning away from the classroom, mobile learning is taking learning away from a fixed location.  The goal of mobile learning is to let learners interact with course resources while away from their normal place of learning, like the classroom or their desktop computer.

Limitations of Mobile Learning
There are some limitations to mobile learning.  Connectivity is sometimes a challenge; in addition, mobile phone screens are small, and they don't usually have much memory or processing power.  Input is sometimes slow on tiny keyboards, and limited memory and battery life sometimes force users to stop using technology for a time.   But since the key to mobile learning is using multiple devices to access course content, learners can usually find a way to maximize their resources.

Mobile learning is the newest and most exciting development in learning. By providing so many options for both learners and instructors, mobile learning greatly expands the canvas on which we teach and learn.  It's a foregone conclusion that it will continue to grow as technology develops more connected devices.  Morgan Stanley may be right; by 2020, phones may indeed be the most common way to connect to the Internet.  It will be interesting to see where mobile learning takes higher education in the next ten years.

Recommended Reading
1.  Are You Ready for Mobile Learning?  By EDUCAUSE
2.  International Association for Mobile Learning

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Scaffolding & Teaching (and Learning)

by Susan Codone

Scaffolding is an instructional concept that is often attempted and often misunderstood.  In preparation for this blog posting, I read many articles about scaffolding, most with the word scaffolding in the title.  At least four articles did not offer any definition of scaffolding, describe its origin in Vygotskian thought, or provide any examples of real scaffolding strategies, providing instead broad instructional events like "assignments" or "homework" as efforts that scaffold learning.

Defining Scaffolding
Let's start with some definitions so that we can place scaffolding in the right context.  In Scaffolding Emergent Writing in the Zone of Proximal Development (Literacy Teaching and Learning, 1998), Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong write that Jerome Bruner first wrote about scaffolding in the 1950's.  Rooted in Vygotskian thought (but never discussed by Vygostsky), Bruner defined it as the expert support provided by an instructor to facilitate the learner's transition from assisted to independent performance.  Bruner said that the scaffolds provided by the instructor don't make the task itself easier, but they make it possible for the learner to complete the task without support. 

Wikipedia's entry on instructional scaffolding describes it as representing the helpful interactions between the teacher and learner that enable the learner to do something beyond his or her independent efforts. The crucial characteristic of scaffolding that many people miss is that a scaffold is only a temporary framework that is put up for support and is taken away when the learner gains control of a task.  In An Approach to Reducing Cognitive Load in the Teaching of Introductory Database Concepts (Journal of Information Systems Education, 2010), John Bunch defines scaffolding as something that presents performance support as needed to achieve a goal, and then fades it away as the learner is able to achieve the goal independently.

Types of Scaffolding
There are two types of scaffolding identified in the literature -- hard and soft.  Brian Belland, Krista Glazewski, and Jennifer Richardson (A Scaffolding Framework to Support the Construction of Evidence-Based Arguments Among Middle School Students-- Education, Technology, Research and Development, 2008) define soft scaffolding as just-in-time support provided by a teacher or peer that helps students meaningfully participate in the performance of learning actions.  They define hard scaffolding as technology or paper-based tools that are based on anticipated student needs -- like videos of experts, computer-based help, etc; hard scaffolding is meant to augment soft scaffolding.

Scaffolding Strategies
The strategies used to scaffold learners are the heart of the theory and are how teachers can bring learners along to independent practice.  Many instructional strategies can be used as scaffolding as long as the teacher uses them to gradually bring learners along and then fades out their use as learners gain independence.  In Scaffolding Collaborative Exchange Between Expert and Novice Language Teachers in Threaded Discussion (Foreign Language Annals, 2009), Lina Lee discusses the use of social dialogue and critical reflection in threaded discussion as scaffolding techniques, saying that expert dialogue and feedback with learners offers expert assistance, reduces learner frustration, and increases motivation and cognitive growth.  Instructional strategies like these can be applied carefully as scaffolds to increase independent learning.

Other strategies for scaffolding include:

1. Strategies to solve novel problems
2. Development of mental models that generate multiple representations and visualizations
3. Problem solving strategies with specific steps learners can follow
4. Writing guidelines that serve as a formula for composition
5. Websites that offer additional information for learners trying to solve problems or generate written answers
6. Heuristics offering a framework for completing work

7. In math, using partially worked out examples that students complete with help
8. In literature, using guided role play and reenactments as connections with a story
9. In problem-based learning, using Socratic dialogue and metacognitive coaching to help learners question their understanding
10. In science, using expert modeling, question prompts, concept mapping, evidence gathering, helping questions

Done well, scaffolding and its gradual withdrawal can help promote cognitive growth and transfer of learning.  It can help students learn complex tasks and internalize procedures for solving problems.  Belland, Glazewski, and Richardson say that scaffolding should be systemic, motivating, and tailored to the ability of students.  Making the scaffolding explicit for students helps this process as well -- they should know they are being given support and should know when it is taken away.  Overall, scaffolding is an excellent strategy for structuring learning and making learners independent -- as long as it is done well and competently.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Effective PowerPoint Presentations

by Susan Codone

PowerPoint, and other presentation tools like it, is either the blessing or bane of most professors' daily work.  As a tool to project content, it has often been misused by presenters in a hurry or too uninformed of its features to use it properly.  On the other hand, it can be very successful when used well.  PowerPoint has its detractors, though.  Every article that I reviewed for this blog posting referenced Edward Tufte's 2003 article on the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and talked about his great dislike for bullet points, linear presentations, and simplistic presentations.  Tufte even called PowerPoint "content vacuous".  

There are other PowerPoint detractors in addition to Tufte.  David Brier and Kaye Vickery, in a 2009 articled titled "Perception and Use of PowerPoint at Library Instruction Conferences" (References & User Services Quarterly) listed their 5 top characteristics of bad PowerPoint presentations:

1. Speaker reads slides to audience
2. Overuse of text on slide
3. Slides use full sentences and paragraphs instead of bullet points
4. Text is too small to be read
5. Slides are hard to see because of color choices

Many of us have sat through PowerPoint presentations that were difficult to endure, for these reasons and many more.  But PowerPoint, used well, can be quite effective in transmitting important content to listeners.  Patricia Nemec and Anne Sullivan Soydan, in the 2008 Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal (The Medium Isn't the Message), write that PowerPoint has two main functions.  First, it is a visual aide supplemented by a spoken lecture, and second, it is a set of trainer notes that are a useful organizer and pacing tool.  Not only is PowerPoint good as a tool for presenters, it also can help listeners learn and remember better. Jo Mackiewicz, in her 2009 article Comparing PowerPoint Experts' and University Students' Opinions About PowerPoint Presentations (Journal of Technical Writing and Communication), associates Dual Coding Theory with PowerPoint, saying that PowerPoint is uniquely positioned to offer both verbal and visual content, thus activating both processing systems and enhancing memory.

So if PowerPoint can be used well, how can we become better designers and presenters?  One of the greatest minds on the correct use of PowerPoint is Jean-Luc Doumont.  In his 2009 book, Trees, Maps, and Theorems: Effective Communication for Rational Minds, he spells out clearly how to design and present excellent PowerPoint presentations.  I will borrow liberally from his work as I explain how to both design and organize slides and deliver presentations.

Good PowerPoint Slide Organization

Jean Luc Doumont says that presentations should answer five questions -- what, when, why, who, and where.  With a focus on the audience, presenters should be concentrating on what the listeners will be able to do after attending the presentation, not on the next slide.

Doumont recommends this slide organization -- title, attention- getter, preview slide, content, transition, content, conclusion, questions.  The title slide should do just that -- state the title and author's name.  Quickly following, the attention-getter slide is the one that really makes the very first impression on listeners and, obviously, gets their attention. Using a statement, question, anecdote, analogy, or visual, Doumont says that it also serves as an advance organizer, telling the listeners quickly what to expect from the presentation topic and getting them ready to learn.  

The preview slide is very important; this contains the "table of contents" or outline of the presentation.  This tells listeners how long the presentation will be and how many sections it will include.  The preview slide can also be used again as a transition slide throughout the presentation; whenever a new section is begun, show the preview slide with the completed sections grayed out.  This offers listeners a visual indicator of progress and tells them what is left in the presentation.  

The conclusion slide should concisely sum up the presentation, and the questions slide need not say "Questions" -- it could just contain an organizational logo, or some other symbol, and the presenter can just ask for questions.

Effective Slide Design

Doumont correctly says that poorly-designed slides reflect upon the speaker and compete with the speaker for the audience's attention.  Many times we place too much text on the slide, and then the listener cannot both read and listen to the text read out loud at the same time (Dual Coding again -- confusion of processing systems.)  Doumont says that if you aren't going to mention it, don't put it on your slide.  He says speakers make three common mistakes:

1.  Creating slides for themselves as memory aides with often cryptic text
2.  Making slides to double as a written report
3.  Copying text to slides without adapting it to slide format

Doumont says to include text, but a small amount, accompanied by a visual on each slide.  Write in a complete sentence and consider not using bullets, but tabs.  Illustrate your message as visually as possible, limiting the text used.  Use a light background with dark text -- projectors are stronger now and room lights are usually kept on.  Text should be in a sans serif font, with one typeface and only a few sizes.  Color should be used very sparingly.  Resist animations; they distract listeners from your message.

Presenting Slides

Doumont says that opening sentences like "Hello My Name Is" or "I am going to talk about fail to appeal to the audience because they lack a compelling purpose and are not motivating.  Instead, he says to start with a rationale and tell listeners immediately about the purpose of the presentation.  He says that listeners want to know why they should listen at all, and thus we should tell them -- and that we should talk about the topic (The system has three advantages...), and not about the speaker (I will present three advantages...).

Doumont recommends standing either to the left or right of the screen, whatever works with your right or left hand or how you have to advance the slides.  SpeakerFace the audience with shoulders, hips, and feet, and point to the slide with the hand closest to the screen. Project your voice to the back of the room, and elaborate on the slide, never reading the text to listeners who can read it themselves.  Maintain eye contact with listeners as you speak.  This means you should know your presentation material well enough that you don't have to look each time you make a slide transition -- slides should not be used as visual prompts.  When you make a transition to a new section, use the preview slide, but don't read it; let it visually tell the listener what's been done and what's next.  At the closing, sum up the presentation both visually and verbally, and then you're ready for questions.


PowerPoint is like many tools -- it is what you make of it.  By following these guidelines, you can make a credible, successful presentation that will be listened to and remembered.  You don't have to be an advanced PowerPoint user to use it well -- just one who follows good, solid guidelines and who cares more about what the listeners should get from the presentation than just getting through all the slides.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dual Coding Theory and Teaching

Dual Coding
by Susan Codone

Allan Paivio initially proposed Dual Coding Theory in 1971 to explain his view of how we remember pictures and words.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Dual Coding Theory as one of the most influential theories of cognition in the 20th century. Paivio states that his theory of cognition has roots in the practical use of imagery as a memory aid going back over 2500 years (Dual Coding Theory and Education, 2006).  In fact, he says that memory is crucial to Dual Coding Theory because it is the basis of all knowledge and thought.

Paivio argues that there are two ways a person can elaborate on material.  One form of elaboration uses verbal associations; the other form creates a visual image to represent a picture or word.  Paivio says that pictures result in better memory and the potential of imagery is a more reliable predictor of learning than words.  Dual Coding Theory proposes two independent memory codes which together increase the chance of successful information retrieval.

Teaching with Dual Coding Theory
Richard Mayer, who has proposed the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, borrows the concept from Paivio that the learner possesses both a visual information processing system and a verbal information processing system (Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno, A Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning: Implications for Design Principles, 2005).  Both he and Paivio apply their theories in teaching by saying that whenever you teach a concept with words, pair it with an associating picture in order for your students to more easily transfer it from working memory to long-term memory.  For example, the two PowerPoint slides below illustrate this principle; the first is text only, while the second uses the most important text along with a relevant picture of what is being taught.

We all know that text-only slides are not as effective as a slide with text and a relevant picture.  In teaching, though, our use of pictures and text goes beyond teaching efficiency; by offering students both mediums, we open two channels into their working memories, thus laying down more solid neural pathways and making later retrieval much easier.  We make it easier for them both to learn and to recall information later when we use two channels of presentation.

Take a look at this screen grab from a medical e-learning course from Interact Medical.  This particular screen displays text on the left with an explanatory picture, including labels, on the right.  Now, medical education is very dependent on pictures, but this slide is actually more efficient than most; the text on the left "primes" the user to understand the picture on the right, and the picture confirms the message of the text. In the event the student looks at the picture first, the opposite effect occurs -- one pathway is laid down and the student next associates the text with the picture.  Both the visual and verbal information processing systems are invoked in the learner and the message of the text and the image both go together into working memory, linked by association as they eventually move into long-term memory.  The learner can then more easily retrieve the message by recalling the text and the picture, because both are linked by association in long-term memory.

Paivio says that images are more effective in both encoding into memory and retrieving from memory because an image provides a "'second kind of memory code independent of verbal code".  Mayer, in his research on multimedia and cognition, builds on Paivio's work by offering several principles of multimedia learning, the first of which is that it is better to present an explanation in words and pictures than solely in words.  Mayer says there is a multimedia effect consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning because students shown multimedia explanations are able to build two different mental representations -- a verbal and visual model -- and build connections between them.

If you don't know what a kangaroo is, which picture is better?

Dual Coding Theory has great implications for teaching and learning.  Essentially, we do our students a favor when we offer multiple presentation modes to them while teaching -- we make it easier for them to acquire the  information, make associations, store it in working memory, transfer it to long-term memory, and then recall it later.  As professors, we can be better informed by the use of this theory, and our students will benefit.