The Scary Part About Being a Student

It’s summer! I just moved from North Carolina to Wyoming to start a new job. I’m getting settled in. Posts between now and August 21st will be intermittent as I get up to speed. Regular content will resume August 21st.

Recently, I drove about 1800 miles to move from Durham, NC to Laramie, WY. You can do the drive in three days if you’re willing to drive 8-10 hours a day and stop only for necessities. I didn’t want to do that and took 5 1/2 days to get here stopping to see the sights along the way.

A picture I took in the cave system.

One of the places I stopped at was the City Museum in St. Louis. I had no real understanding of what this place was and simply went on the recommendation of a friend who said I had to go there. If you’ve never been, there is no way to explain what this place is like (however this site and this one do a really solid job). One of the things they are known for is an elaborate, man-made cave system that you can explore. However, that’s just one aspect of this place which encompasses 600,000 square feet.

There are, of course, other things you need to know about this place. For example, there are slides everywhere. You can be walking around and suddenly a hole appears next to you. It could be a tunnel that you can climb through OR it could be a slide that leads to who knows where. You have to decide if you want to take the slide or not, and it’s not a simple decision to make. Taking the slide means letting go of exploring where you are at, and you might be interested in seeing what lies ahead. If you go down the slide, you will end up someplace that may or may not appeal to you, and getting back to where you had been before you took the slide isn’t necessarily easy and, in fact, may never happen.

Why? Because there are no maps at the City Museum. You just have to go for it.

And during my experience there I couldn’t help but think about how what I was doing in the museum helped me better understand myself as a teacher and just how scary it could be to be a student in one of my classes.

No Map

It’s not that City Museum doesn’t have any directions as far as where things are. When you enter the lobby there’s a sign that tells you the cave system is directly ahead. That’s kinda about it. You have to figure out where things are and, as a result, end up getting annoyed, frustrated, scared, and excited. I experienced at least all of those emotions.

The whole no map thing reminded me of how I recently started exploring the idea of creating customizable paths in my class this fall. The options for students would be to have a map – completely crafted by myself to meet goals I had determined – or to create their own based on a set of choices placed before them (and then they can tailor their experience towards their own goals). What I learned through my experience at City Museum is that this isn’t as straight-forward as having students decide which path they want to take.

Why? Because sometimes you challenge yourself and get completely freaked out.

Go ahead. Any place you want to start is good.

The first thing I did at the museum was enter the cave system. But I immediately found out I didn’t understand what was going on. Do I just start climbing anywhere? Go through any opening? Is that allowed? I was an adult conditioned to a system where there are rules that I should follow, and I kept looking for someone to tell me what to do.


There was an opening in front of me so I started to enter it when a woman said, “You are brave.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I can’t make myself go down that part,” she answered. “It’s dark and narrow.

Upon closer inspection I thought, well, it does look a bit scary, but I can do this. And in I went.

And she was right. It was dark and narrow. And while I knew, logically, that I was completely safe and that, eventually, I would come out of this dark and narrow place I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I could have pushed forward, but doing so would have required me to make a series of decisions about which way to go (there were usually options and this was rarely a straight path) and put up with my fear and discomfort. But I didn’t do it. I let the fear take over and I backed out the way that I had come in because I knew that would get me out of the tight spot I had gotten myself into.

How This Experience Informs My Teaching

For me, City Museum asked me to take risks. I didn’t know where I was going most of the time. I didn’t know where I would end up. Sometimes things got uncomfortable. I realized I ask my students to do the same. I ask them to do things that are not a big deal to me but that are a big deal to them. I am sure there were plenty of kids running around the museum that day that would not have understand my panic in the caves. For them, it was nothing, you just keep making decisions about which way to go and you end up where you end up. Some of them likely had been enough times that they knew where they were going.

Second, when students take risks I need to give them options if they push themselves too far. I pushed myself too far in this example. But I knew how to get out of it (back out the way I had come in) and doing so had zero consequences. I didn’t fail at the museum or get kicked out. I simply made decisions from there on out that didn’t put me back in the same position. Yes, this limited my experience at the museum but I don’t regret it. I wasn’t ready for all the experiences the museum had to offer. However, I learned a lot just from wandering around within the spaces I was comfortable. Being in the museum was so new that it was overwhelming. I didn’t need to take it all on at once. What I needed was multiple trips. Over time I would likely start pushing my boundaries a bit.

If students take risks, and go farther than they are ready, then I need to consider what that means in the context of class. I want students to take risks, and I like the idea of them deciding how much of a map they want to be provided with. However, I learned it’s easy to get excited about push yourself too far. When that happens, there needs to be a way out that comes without consequences.

If the idea is to learn, but to also push yourself, then I have to recognize that sometimes this will fail. Just like I recognized that I didn’t want to continue on in a particular part of the cave system so too might students realize they have taken on too much or selected a task that ended up being more than they were ready to take on. This isn’t failure, and we shouldn’t treat it as such. This is recognizing one’s one limitations at the moment and adjusting accordingly.

Yes, I could have kept on in the cave system despite the overwhelming fear and panic I felt within the tight space I had wandered into. But what would it have accomplished? Probably nothing but relief when I got myself out – which is exactly what I felt when I backed myself out. What would have been the point of dragging it out? Yes, I would have learned that I was capable of doing it and surviving, but I would have just endured it. I don’t think I would have learned much else.

I don’t want students to endure class. I want them to learn and grow. And giving them that experience might require backing up and re-configuring the path. I need to remember to make space for that.

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Framing the Problem

When I think about writing a syllabus, and how I want to structure a class, I tend to formulate it around questions. For example, I have taught a class where the overarching question was, “What does it mean to be literate?” and another where it was, “What counts as knowledge?” I then use these larger questions to identify smaller, usually weekly, questions that help us explore the overarching one.

This approach is totally fine. I like it a whole lot better than setting specific course objectives. Students come to class on Day One, we explore the overarching question, and I get insight into where they stand with it all. It’s good stuff.

But recently I read something – and I am sorry but I cannot recall what I was reading or where – and it inspired me to think a bit differently about how I frame my courses. Rather than set objectives, or framing it through questions, what if I instead asked my students to consider what problem or problems they wanted to use the course to work on solving.

This approach may not work well for undergraduates, but it could work well in masters and possibly doctoral level courses. In a masters course, particularly those that are designed for working professionals, students come into the class with questions and issues related to their work. They can then use the course as a space to work on those problems.

Of course the dance here is that this is a class and not an independent study. I am not suggesting that we should craft numerous independent studies for each student. Part of the reason (I assume) you take courses is to interact with people who have knowledge and experiences different from your own and who can push and challenge you in different ways. Not everything in a course has to align with a problem a student wishes to address. Rather there should be space inside the course for students to tackle several small issues or one large one.

The goal, as I see it, is not about solving the problem but making progress in understanding and responding to it. If we return to the dual pathways idea, we can see that this kind of design gives us the opportunity to frame a course in this manner. On the one hand, maybe somebody who comes into my course sees their problem as simply not knowing much about the topics we are examining. Maybe they consider themselves a novice. That’s fine. Their goal is to simply gain more information and become better informed. In the dual pathway approach, this person can stick to the agenda I have crafted for them.

But maybe somebody else has some experience and knowledge about the course and has specific questions and issues they want to examine. I still design my course. It still has readings and assignments, and so on…but because I set it up as a dual pathway it can easily allow for students to frame the course around a problem they want to solve.

In the past, I’ve always tried to have at least one assignment where students can frame it around something of interest to them. However, what I am suggesting in this post is a bit different. I’m suggesting that students frame the entire course around a problem they want to address. They then get on the pathway and make decisions about what they want to do based on that problem. Again, the problems would range in complexity.

It’s an interesting approach, and one that can give a lot of power (and hopefully meaning) to students as they experience a course. It’s an idea I’m twirling around in my head right now and thinking about implementing for the upcoming academic year. If it sounds a bit messy right now, that’s because it is messy in my mind.

But I’m ok with that.

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The Campus LMS: Bound to the System

Regardless of if you teach online, face-to-face, or in a hybrid format you likely have some experience with a Learner Management System (LMS). And, I assume your campus subscribes to one which, technically, means you are supposed to use it.

So let’s talk about that.

First, there are obvious benefits to a campus LMS. For me, the benefit is that it simply exists as an option. So if you know nothing else about technology, or other options, you always have the campus LMS to fall back on. And, if you have issues, you should have tech support to utilize as well.

But the campus LMS, for all the good it’s supposed to do, has its drawbacks. Of course different ones have different features and may be more or less user friendly and to your liking. I get that. But they all do the same thing: they bound us to their system, and they do it in the following ways:

Sets the Structure

An LMS takes control over how your course is structured. This includes what features you can use, how you use them, where they are located, etc…It also dictates how your course looks. The system controls the way things look to you and your students.

Of course any tool that can be utilized as a syllabus or course website is going to do this. For example, I am a huge fan of Wikispaces but using it means that my syllabus and course are going to look particular ways and have particular features. The difference is that when I get to choose a tool like Wikispaces I am making a mindful and conscience decision about how I want my course to look. I’ve played around with Wikispaces. I like how my class website/syllabus looks when I use it. I don’t like how things look when I go into my former university’s LMS (Sakai).

If you have little knowledge about alternative tools to your LMS, or little time to research them, then you are forced into the structure and format of whatever LMS your campus subscribes to. You may like it, you may not, and you may or may not know any better. Which brings me to my next point….

The LMS Has Power

The LMS is now dictating to you what your course looks like, how you and your students function within it, and even how information is communicated. This means that is maintains power over teaching and learning. If you use an LMS mindlessly (i.e. “I use this because that’s what I was told to do”) then you give up any power you had over your course and turn it over to the LMS.

Of course, as I said, any tool you use will shape your course. But if you get to select that tool then you retain your power. You are deciding what you want the course to look like, and you are identifying the tools to make it happen. If the tool doesn’t meet the need for you, then you can drop it and find a new one (or make your own!).

And what if you don’t get to select your own tool? What if you are told you have no options, you are simply not allowed, to use anything BUT the LMS?

Then that is a lot of power and control placed over you, how you teach, and how your students experience their education. And I bet the people who make such decisions don’t even realize it. They don’t realize that what they have done is sanitized teaching and learning.

I’m Not Against the LMS

Least this sound like I am anti-LMS let me state that I’m not. What I am against is being told what tools we must use to accomplish our teaching. If a university wants to subscribe to an LMS then by all means do so. If you are happy with that decision, if the LMS works for you, then please, use it. But I think it’s important to recognize that these systems have power. If we agree with what they have to offer us then that’s fine.

But we need to stop and took a look at what these system say about teaching and learning. Who are they benefiting? What does teaching and learning look like within the system? Are we ok with that? Do we want something more, something different? And will we be able to strike out and utilize tools beyond the LMS?

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Examining The Points-Based Grading System

Recently, I came across this article on point-based grading systems. The ideas in the article were nothing new, and I’m sure you’ve heard most (if not all) before. This includes things like:

  • students expect and are used to points
  • points are not entirely objective
  • points are an extrinsic form of motivation; the goal is to get more points

My take away from this article is that while points-based grading systems have their place, they emphasize the earning of points and de-emphasize learning. Recently, I shared a post where one of my former students wrote about their experiences with my own point-based system. While the author of the points-based post refers to a previous article on how to get students to think more about learning, and less about grades, the ideas fell flat with me.

The truth is, grades matter and they particularly matter at the undergraduate level where students are often thinking ahead to advanced degrees. Students don’t just expect points anymore. They have grown up in a system where they are sort and ranked and tested to death. They have grown up in a high stakes system that emphasizes grades over learning.

Even at the Masters level, I have found that students’ rationale for why they are there is first and foremost a pay increase (totally understandable). At least, that’s what the majority of them have said on the first day of class when asked to share what motivated them to come back to school. Yes, some people put learning first. Most put salary first, and most don’t mention learning.

How Might We Change This?

I think getting students to be more interested in learning and less interested in grades is difficult – especially in higher education. Doing so requires a cultural shift both in how we do things and how students perceive the course and engage with it and each other. Grades are high stakes. And, even if they are not, students are so used to seeing them as such that it’s a common mindset to hold.

If we want students to put learning first, then we have to accept that learning comes with risks. We learn, in part, through trial and error. We learn by taking chances. We learn by struggling. We learn by failing. And none of that is commonly valued in traditional grading systems. The norm is you have one chance to show what you understand. If you take a risk, and you bomb out, you will pay the price.

That’s not what I want.

The Place for Competency Based Education

This is where I think competency based education (CBE) has a chance to play an important role – at least at the graduate level. However, it requires doing some things differently. I could run a CBE course and tell students that an A is earned by acquiring so many competencies, but I don’t think that’s what we want to do. Instead, what I would envision is this:

  • students enter a program and are given a road map for completion.
  • the road map takes stand alone courses and breaks them down into competencies
  • students need to acquire the knowledge relevant to each competency and then demonstrate a particular level of mastery to get it checked off as being met
  • students leave not with a grade (although we could assign them if need be) but a list of competencies they have obtained and the mastery level they obtained each with

Something like this would work well in an online program where teaching and learning could be more fluid if traditional face-to-face meeting times were scrapped. Instructors create content, share readings, and set up ways for students to interact and share work. This could be done through an LMS, a facebook group, twitter chats, and so on.

Getting Started

Doing this kind of work requires a program to let go of traditional semester systems. It means that we have to let go of traditional views on teaching loads in higher education. It does not mean that we overload instructors with students and work to accomplish this idea.

For the last 12 years, I have taught a 2/2 load. While numbers of students within a class vary, it’s reasonable to assume an average of 25. That’s 50 students a semester or 100 a year give or take. If I worked only in the type of program I am laying out here, then let’s say I could be responsible for up to 100 students at a time.

Initially this would be a lot of work. I would have to get everything set up. However, once I did then the work load would decrease to something reasonable. My focus would shift to making sure content was updated and relevant, interacting with students, and providing assistance (and scoring) competencies.

So, in the end, what I’m saying is I don’t think we even need points-based grading systems. Certainly not for everyone. If we want students to focus on learning then we have to make their experiences about learning. In a couple of weeks I will lay out my thoughts on how we can set up a structure to do just that.

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The Problems with Competencies

I’ve been reading College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher EducationBecause I am in the middle of reading it, this post isn’t meant to be a review of the book (which I am thoroughly enjoying). The point of this post is to bring us back around to discussing issues with competency based education in higher education.

In general, I’m a big fan of seeing what we can do with competency based education (CBE) in higher ed. But, as you can see, I’ve titled this post about the problems with CBE. This isn’t because I truly think CBE is problematic. Instead, I think CBE can cause problems within the existing structures of higher ed (hence the book title – College Disrupted), and I think that while we should recognize these issues we should not let them be reasons to not move forward and see what CBE has to offer.

The Summer Course

I got to this post because I was thinking about a summer course that someone at my new institution will have to teach every year. I have a new job, and while this summer course is not in my contract for me to teach it is a required course that someone has to teach every year. I am a very appropriate person to teach it. FYI: summer pay for teaching a course is not that great, and it’s not exactly on my agenda of things I want to do. Ever.

But, if we assume that it has to be taught, what are the options?

  • someone else can teach it
  • maybe the university would allow an advanced graduate student to teach it
  • i could take the money in exchange for turning it into a CBE course

Back Up a Minute

Initially, I was wondering if we could take the entire masters program – of which this course is a part of – and make it CBE. But I thought that might be a bit much, and it presented a whole host of problems. The biggest one I saw right away was:

  • how do we handle teaching loads in a CBE situation?

One obvious way to handle it is to just keep courses on their normal timeline but make them competency based. I’ve done this before, and it’s not a big deal. But given that the masters program is online, it seems like we could really open this baby up and let her rip. Take down timelines. Or maybe set up some place holders like the degree needs to be completed (and all competencies mastered) within so many years of starting the program. But when you do that you cycle back to the question of teaching loads. The university has created a structure of what teaching looks like. CBE has the potential to really not work well within that structure.

Go Back to that Summer Course

I returned to just the idea of the summer course because it was a manageable thing that I could easily see getting accomplished. I thought….what if I could convince whoever is in charge to let me take the course (which is fully online) and run it as a CBE? The course could still launch in the summer if they needed it to, but we could give students a year to complete the competencies.

As far as my teaching load goes, well, this course would never count as part of my load because it’s supposed to be a summer course that I would be paid extra for. So let’s let it run for one full year. Give me the money you would give me had I taught it in the summer. I’ll stay on top of the students and check off their competencies earned as they complete them. I’ll organize the whole thing, and we can use it as a test run.

I have no idea if I can make this idea fly. But, for me, it solves the problem of who wants to teach the summer course AND it allows me to explore CBE.

Don’t Let the Problems Be Problems

I once had a phone conversation with a group of people who were very interested in developing online education courses. They wanted my input, and they hoped I would be a part of it. Now, I’m not saying I was full of brilliant ideas. But what did happen is I was met with reason after reason for why my ideas were too difficult to implement. Not that they were bad – just hard to do.

When I was thinking of CBE I was brought back to the realization of how universities structure teaching loads. That can make thinking about how to implement CBE challenging unless you confine it to a typical semester box. But, if you don’t want to do that, then don’t. Acknowledge the challenge and then work through it, work around it, but don’t let it be your brick wall.

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Reimagine Education

I want to put something on your radar in case you don’t know about it: The Reimagine Education conference. I’m not sure how I found out about it, but I was excited to learn that this is a group that supports innovation and change in education (particularly with technology). I’ve never been before (I’m hoping to go this year), but the conference serves as a, “global competition designed to identify the most innovative, novel approaches to higher education.” You can see last year’s award winners here, and I would note that while they might emphasize higher education, some of these ideas can be applied with a variety of ages.

I was excited to learn that my good friends at Edorble was recognized with a Silver award from the conference in 2016. Their work is a great example of something that is not just limited to higher education and can be used in a variety of contexts. Make sure you check them out as well as the other winners.

After learning about Reimagine Education, I decided to see if I could convince them to let me be a judge. Somehow, I managed to get them to agree to this. Did you know you can apply to be a judge? The nice thing about being a judge is that you are not required to attend the conference. You judge about 20 projects from the comfort of your own home (or your favorite bar – I’m not judging). They expect that each project will take you about 30 minutes to judge which comes out to about 10 hours of work. They give you a half-price ticket for being a judge.

Now, I’ve never been to the conference before, but I do hope to go (December 4th-5th in Philadelphia). I got a little bit of sticker shock when I first looked at the prices (even with a 50% discount). But, let’s get real. There are several options for how you can attend the conference. The full experience – which looks like it includes every meal under the sun – costs 900.00 (full price). I spend around 2000.00 on a conference give or take a bit for everything. So, when I framed it like that I realized that even the full price ticket with all the bells and whistles (you can get tickets for less than that) was really on par with my normal conference going budget. So a 50% off ticket for being a judge?

More than do-able. I’m so in.

I am also so excited. As a judge, I’ll get to see the innovative work people are doing. At the conference, I’ll get to see some of this in person (I assume) and meet a whole new range of people. I’m expecting to see a range of ideas that can inform and transform how we teach in higher education.

Who’s with me?

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Teacher as Designer

I’ve just finished reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Matter and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I was inspired to read it to further my thinking on gamification in teaching. It’s not about gamification in education specifically – although there is a bit on it in the book – but rather what games get right that hook people, bring them together as a community, and get them to work on problems that range from the simple to the complex. McGonigal examines how we can harness the characteristics found in games and use them in our lives.

At one point, McGonigal discusses how video games often have stories. While we don’t need stories to enjoy video games, those that have them can help us experience a sense of power. She goes on to explain:

It’s the power to act with meaning: to do something that matters in a bigger picture. The story is the bigger picture; the player’s actions are what matters. As Polack explains, “Story sets the stage for meaning. It frames the player’s actions. We, as designers, are not telling, we’re not showing, we’re informing the doing – the actions the players engage in and the feats they undergo.”

Immediately I found myself thinking that as teachers we are also designers. We set up and design the experiences students can go through. What we choose for our course to look like – through readings, assignments, and in-class activities – provides a frame for the students’ actions. We definitely inform the doing or the potential for doing. I say potential because students can opt out of anything or minimize their actions. Students always have a say in how they will respond within the framework of the design we created.

The quote also reminded me about the role story can play in our courses. I talked awhile ago about creating a story line for my syllabus. Granted my story doesn’t have any exciting plot twists, but it does move my students through big ideas in the course. My courses always had bid ideas in them. Each week there would be a big idea, usually with a question we would focus on within that idea, that would set the tone for the week. But I have found that writing out my ideas in a story format forces me to think about their interconnectedness. I can’t just dash off a list of big ideas, order them, and go from there. Writing out the story forces me to look deeper into what I really want students to experience.

Once the story has been created, I then have to think how I want my students to move through it. What opportunities do I want to offer them that allow them to deepen their understandings or question pre-existing beliefs? To me, this is very different from planning. This is designing, and there is a distinct different.

Planning vs. Designing

Traditionally, planning (either a syllabus or a lesson) is centered around a set of learning objectives. Games certainly have objectives too. There could be one grand objective – which, when you finish it, means the game is over – and many smaller objectives that help you to achieve the grand one. But these objectives are problems that must be solved. Learning objectives presented in classroom instruction are given as what you can expect to learn when you have completed the course or a given aspect of it. They are typically not presented as a set of complex challenges and problems that you must solve.

So when we plan in the traditional sense we back up to what we want students to learn and go out from there. Telling a story, creating complex problems, etc…are not even necessarily part of the picture. As the instructor, all I have to do is think about what I want you to learn and what tasks should help get you there. And while I have technically designed something for you to experience, I don’t see designing the same way I see planning.

Planning, to me, follows a rigid formula with objectives and outcomes. I see designing as setting the stage for students to engage in challenges intended to solve a complex problem – or at least getting them closer to solving it.

What if we stopped asking ourselves, and each other, what our objectives were for a course or given time frame? Instead, what if we started asking what the complex problem was we hoped students would solve or contribute to as a result of the course? How might our instruction, our design of a class, and students’ experiences look? I think it’s worth exploring.

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