Dual Pathways in Online Learning

I’m slowly plugging away at developing my online class for the fall. In previous posts, I have talked about developing a story for my syllabus to tell (see Part 1 and Part 2). And while I’m still working on identifying readings, I am also exploring ideas about how to structure my course. Enter this fabulous article from Matt Crosslin over at EduGeek Journal. Matt’s article discusses customizable pathway designs, and that’s the idea I want to take a closer look at today.

What is a Customizable Pathway Design?

As I understand it, a customizable pathway design allows students to have some degree of freedom over charting their own way through the course. Notice I said some degree. The choices are constrained. Matt helps us understand how this works by using a garden as an example. He notes:

The main consideration for these possibilities is that they should be designed as part of the same course in a way that learners can switch back and forth between them as needed. Many ask: ‘why not just design two courses?” You don’t want two courses as that could impeded changing modalities, as well as create barriers to social interactions. The main picture that I have in my head to explain why this is so is a large botanical garden…There is a path there for those that want to follow it, but you are free to veer off and make your own path to see other things from different angles or contexts. But you don’t just design two gardens, one that is just a pathway and one that is just open fields. You design both in one space.

Things just clicked in place for me when I read this. It reminded me that I once tried to do something along these lines, but I was probably mediocre at best. The problem I had was I asked students to decide if they wanted to stay on the path as I had set it up OR if they wanted to chart their own course. Once they made the decision that was that.

What I understood from Matt’s post was that there was no need to be so final about it. Students could make decisions at certain intervals. For example, each week they could decide if they wanted to use the course of study I had planned or if they wanted to create their own. They could move back and forth between doing this as they needed or they could spend the entire course doing it as I had set it up or charting their own path. Any combination you can think of would work here.

What’s the Rationale?

What I took away from Matt’s post is that having options about how you complete a component of the course (choosing to do what the instructor has laid out or choosing from a list of options) allows students the opportunity to adjust the curriculum to better suit their needs. For example, one week a student might know a great deal about a given topic. That student could select options that would delve them into a more advanced or nuanced path and help them extend their learning. However, the next week the student might be a novice at what we’re discussing and might decide it’s better to use the path that I have set.

And of course there’s so much room for variation. Even if a student didn’t feel particularly strong about a topic, let’s say there was one item I had on the path that week that they didn’t need for whatever reason. They could simply remove that one item and replace it with something else. When they chart their own path, they don’t have to do it 100% from scratch. It could be as simple as swapping one item out.

Now, the next logical questions for me were:

  • How do we document this?
  • How do I know that students did what they said they would do?
  • How do I know what students are learning or need more help with?

In Matt’s post, as well as some email exchanges we’ve had, I was able to get some clarity on this. And that’s where we’ll be heading next week. So do come back.

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One Year Ago

Two Years Ago



Online Courses: Lessons Learned (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about how I have been taking two online courses and lessons I was learning as part of being a student in that context. Previously, I wrote about what I learned from taking the Twitter Masterminds course. Today, I want to share with you a lesson I have learned from being a part of the Edorble Academy.

What is Edorble?

I’ve written about Edorble when it was in its very early, Beta, stages (it’s since moved out of Beta mode). You can read more about it and get access to it here. In short, Edorble is a 3D world intended for educational purposes. The world you create is private to your group. They have a number of tools you can use that allow students to do things like engage in group chats and give presentations. Check it out to see what it’s all about.

What is the Edorble Academy?

The Edorble Academy offers courses about such topics as educational technology, online teaching, and gamification. It’s a relatively new addition to Edorble and content is still being developed. I signed up for a free course that recently launched called, “3D +VR (virtual reality) Technology in the Classroom.” As with Twitter Masterminds, I signed up because it met some professional goals of mine. However, I also used it as an opportunity to take the student perspective and see what I could learn that I could apply to my own online teaching.

Lesson Learned: Thoughts on Structured Release of Content

The Edorble class differed from Twitter Masterminds (TM) in its approach to releasing content. Where TM had all the content available to me immediately, Edorble’s class was intended to be four weeks long with content being released every Saturday morning. Like TM, Edorble has modules (they are just called sections), and each section has its own set of chapters. I can go back and forth between the sections. Once content is released it’s mine. The Edorble course had a more academic/school type feel to me. Probably because it was set up to be a four week course and so had a more semester like feel to me.

It was an interesting experience to contrast the TM approach of all content at once vs. Edorble’s release once a week for four weeks. TM probably has about the same amount of content as Edorble. Here are my thoughts:

  • Edorble’s approach was initially less overwhelming. I didn’t run around sifting through all the content at light speed, but I did sift through all the content I received and then went back to dive into particular aspects more deeply. As with TM, after I had settled into the course I basically did the content in the order it was presented unless I could articulate why I shouldn’t. I continue to assume the instructor orders things in a particular manner (probably a reasonable assumption; I know it’s what I do)
  • Being less overwhelming doesn’t make it better. It just makes it different. It’s simply something to notice. In both cases, I was overwhelmed to varying degrees but again, that’s not bad. It’s a good reminder that students likely experience this, it’s a normal emotion to experience, and it goes away as one becomes familiar with the content and structure.
  • In a typical college course, the expectation is to release the majority of the content all at once. Think about it…I give my students a syllabus that has all readings and assignments on it with due dates and what not. It’s not everything, but it’s a substantial portion of what they will be doing. It’s helpful because it allows students to plan how they want to approach their work and structure their time. But my experiences in these two courses have raised questions for me about the degree I should be giving more or less content away right off the bat in an online course. I have zero answers, but I am thinking about it.

Where I’m At With All This

As I write this, I am still working on identifying readings and just getting the basics done for my course. But I have plenty of time (sort of. I am moving across the country soon!). I plan to keep thinking about how content will be released in my course. I’m also still thinking about the idea that syllabi are written in a linear manner (understandable) and so as students we read and interact with them that way. This means that content, once it’s been “covered,” is often not returned to.

I’m thinking about this in two ways. First, I’m considering if there is a way to structure my syllabus so that it doesn’t promote linear engagement. Second, I’m considering if the standard structure is OK and that perhaps it’s more about how we ask and expect students to engage with it that promotes a linear engagement with it. For example, in my last post I discussed how my professional goals allowed me to pick and choose content. Those goals would take me back to content I had viewed in a previous module. Therefore, while the TM course was set up in a linear way, how I approached it allowed me to engage with it in a non-linear manner. How can I encourage this amongst my own students? I’ll get back to you.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago




Taking An Online Course: Lessons Learned

While I am in the early stages of planning my online course, I am also in the middle of taking two of them! It made me wonder how many people who teach online courses have gotten the opportunity to take one? We’ve all taken plenty of face to face classes for years on end. Doing so has given us lots of opportunities to consider what we like or don’t like about that type of instruction. But I’m guessing most of us have had very limited opportunities to see what online classes look like and to experience different structures.

I didn’t seek out online classes because I wanted the experience of taking them. I happened to come across two that fit my professional needs and so I signed up for them. While I am learning content relevant to my needs in both courses, I am also taking the time to pay attention to how the instructors organize the courses and what kinds of experiences I get as a student. In today’s post I want to discuss some of the big ideas I have learned from one of them.

Background: The Twitter Masterminds

Twitter Masterminds is an online course developed by Mark Barnes (@markbarnes19 on twitter). The goal of the course is to help you become an expert at using twitter. This includes identifying relevant people to follow (and hopefully be followed by) and how to use twitter in more thoughtful and mindful ways.

I had found myself in a bit of a twitter rut. I enjoy using the tool. I’ve written a lot about how to use it in teaching. However, I was getting stuck in terms of finding good people to follow, building my followers, and I knew I wasn’t getting the most out of the tool. I took this course because I wanted to address these issues. FYI: It’s an amazing course, and I’ve gotten everything I wanted out of it and more. I’ll be reviewing it in a few weeks, but go here if you would like to take a closer look at it.

For the rest of this post, I want to talk to you about one of the big ideas I learned about how the course was structured and how I am thinking about it in terms of an academic/higher education context.

Self Paced: All The Content At Once

In Twitter Masterminds (TM), you get access to all the content at once. Having all the content at once is a bit like being turned loose in a candy store and saying you can eat anything you want however use please. While some things don’t look useful, most do. Most everything is exciting. You want it all, and you want it all at once.

Once I got over the fact that I had all this awesome, useful content available to me I calmed down and allowed myself to skim through it. I didn’t concentrate on anything too deeply at first. I allowed myself to flit in and out with no commitment. I didn’t focus on learning or using anything.

By giving myself time to play, I was able to understand what content was available to me and where I wanted to start my journey. Because all the content was available to me, and the course is self-paced, I was able to structure my experience however I wished. Although TM is structured around modules, and each module has multiple lessons, I could do the modules in any order I wanted and navigate back and forth as I saw fit.

For the most part, I made myself go through the modules in the order in which they were created. I assumed they were placed in that order for a specific reason. If I hit content I already knew or didn’t want to apply just yet then I skipped over it to return to later if needed.

What I Learned About Myself as a Student

Once I got settled into the TM course, I immediately identified a couple of skills I wanted to focus on developing in terms of getting better at twitter. At some point, I became aware that while I was actively applying what I had learned (and getting great benefit out of it!), I had stopped engaging with new content in the course. This is neither good nor bad. However, once I recognized this I started diving back into the modules (slowly) and working on learning more. I continued to apply what I was learning.

This structure of having all the content available is great if it is narrowly focused (which the course is; recall it’s focused on helping you become better at using twitter) and meets a specific need for the user (which of course it did for me or I would not have purchased it). Because I have learning goals, I could go into this space and utilize the teachings. I was also exposed to new ideas that I would never have thought of on my own.

My Take Aways for an Academic Course

In the TM course there is no deadline on learning. The course is mine to access forever. It’s just like if I went out and bought a book to help me learn something. In thinking about what I learned and how I might apply it to an academic course, I realized the following:

  • There is probably no need to release all the content at once. Doing so (to the tune of about 15 weeks worth of content) could be way overwhelming for any student. Releasing all the content at once around a very specific chunk of the course makes the most sense. TM has a good amount of content that is appropriate for the cost. An academic course would have significantly more content. A full release wouldn’t make sense (which got me thinking about how we release content in academic courses in general, but that is for another time).
  • Students need learning goals, and they need to set these for themselves. I came into the TM course with my own set of goals. The course helped me meet those goals as well as extend them. However, because I had my own goals I always felt empowered by how I approached the content and applied it. I usually ask my students what they want to learn in a course, but I never really do much with that information. I use it to get to know them better. If we are going to be studying something that links to one of their goals, I point it out. However, I don’t think it’s my job to do something with everyone’s goals. I do think I could do more to help students think about goal setting in ways that make sense for the course and empower them to realize them.
  • Having freedom to navigate the course and use the information to help me meet my goals was extremely helpful. So while I don’t think releasing all the content at once is the way to go for a 15 week academic course, I do think there’s something to consider here in terms of when and how people get access to content and helping them think about how they use it. I think people tend to use a syllabus in a linear manner, and I’d like to think about how to break that.

Next week I’ll be writing about lessons I have learned from a second online course I am taking. This course is structured much differently and my experiences with it are giving me a broader perspective on what it means to teach online.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago

Finishing the Story of the Syllabus

Last week, I discussed considering what story you wanted your syllabus to tell. At that point, I had taken the ideas I learned from this site and developed a story line for the first half of my fall syllabus. My goal was to complete the story which I was able to do. In this post, I want to share the story in its entirety and talk about next steps in developing my online course.

The Story

The tale of my syllabus is as follows (Week Seven is where the new material picks up):

Week One: Adolescents’ culture and identities influence how they engage with reading and writing and shape their experiences in school.

Weeks Two and Three: Their culture and identities lead them to engage with a variety of literacy practices often not sanctioned by schools.

Week Four: Families and communities often shape and enhance both academic and personal (out-of-school) literacy practices.

Weeks Five and Six: Some students have drastically different experiences in school based on their culture, language, and how schools identify and position them.

Week Seven: As teachers, we can create instruction that is responsive and inclusive for literacy development and content learning.

Week Eight: Through technology, we can understand and engage students deeply and differently.

Weeks Nine and Ten: We can create contexts that promote a love of reading and writing.

Points to Note

First, the basics. Yes, the semester is longer than 10 weeks. I have 14 weeks mapped out on my master calendar. So why only 10 weeks here? Well, the first week would be the intro week. I might go back and add in something to the story that could be connected to some basic work I might have them do. However, I have not gotten that far in my planning. My goal at this point is to map out the big ideas and then chart the journey.

The last week is the end of the semester. While I have some ideas about what we might do that week, I am not putting any readings up. Again, could add in a sentence and finish the story line here but I’m not to that point yet.

One week is Thanksgiving week so I figured people could use that to catch up on stuff. The week before Thanksgiving has been left intentionally blank. I might develop this week later OR I might use it in some other manner. I have yet to figure this out. I like having an open week to allow for some wiggle room with our work.

Second, I actually tried to make the story an actual story. I tried to give it an arc and present both conflict and resolution. I want my students (teachers) to see the problems that exist in the issues we will be examining, but I don’t want them to feel hopeless. I want to make sure we consider solutions. Ideally, this will be a true journey.

What’s Next?

It’s interesting because so far I haven’t done anything that is specifically about teaching online. What I have done so far could be done in any context, and that’s an important point. I’m not saying that online teaching is the same as face-to-face (it’s not), but I am saying be mindful that you do know some things about teaching and how to develop a syllabus. Utilize that.

My next step is still old school stuff. I’m going to be connecting readings to the story in the syllabus. I’ll revise the story if needed. I’m also keeping a notebook where I draft ideas for my course and keep a running list of thoughts. I’m randomly writing down assignment ideas as they come to me. In no way will I use them all, but the notebook is a nice way to ensure I won’t forget them.

Once readings are done I will craft assignments. Some of my assignment ideas stemmed from readings I found. So if I use those readings, great. If not, the probably the assignment won’t make the cut. For now, things have gotten less overwhelming and more like what I am used to. But that’s going to change soon. Then the fun really starts!

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago

What Story Does Your Syllabus Tell?

Recently, a colleague of mine shared a a post with me, “Steps Towards a Big Idea Syllabus.” The larger blog that this seems to be a part of, My Teaching Notebook,  doesn’t seem to be getting regular updates. Too bad. It looks like it has tons of good content to sift through. However, read the post and go dig through the site. It’s worth your time..

The Big Idea post has really helped me in thinking about what I want my online courses for next year to be about. I’ll be teaching one course per semester, and both will be fully online. They are essentially masters courses in adolescent literacy. The idea is to get classroom teachers to think about what it means to develop literacy abilities of adolescent and how to teach them in ways that support it.

Previously, I noted that I had identified some great books I could use for the courses. This was still the case, but I had gotten stuck thinking through what I wanted students to learn. Enter the Big Idea post which states:

Start with Who not What:  “Who are my students and who do they need to become?” rather than “What content should I cover?”

Granted, I do not know my students at all. I’m currently not even living in the state they reside in. But I took this nugget of thinking about transformation and used it to launch my planning rather than stay hyper-focused on content and objectives (which I think get in the way anyways).

The author also talked about seeing your syllabus as a journey and explicitly creating a story line which you would then share with your students. I loved this idea, but I had no idea what story I wanted to tell. So I picked up one of the books I had identified – a more comprehensive text on adolescent literacy – and used it to launch my story.

What I Did

I first did some pretty traditional stuff. I had mapped out weeks for the course, and then I started organizing what chapters we might read from this one book for the fall semester. Since this is really a year long course, I decided to split the fall semester into two chunks. The first chunk would focus on the question, “Who are adolescent readers and writers?” and the second would address, “What is adolescent literacy.” I thought it would be important to understand adolescents as people first, and expand our understandings of their literacy practices, before tackling the concept of adolescent literacy. Once I knew what date ranges these questions would correspond with I then identified readings from the textbook.

story-2After I identified the readings, I began to write my story. The Big Idea post will show you an example, and I followed it. For each week, I had one-two sentences that told my story. In two cases we spent two weeks with the same story line. I ended up only writing the story line for the first half of the semester before I needed a break. Here it is:

Adolescent Literacy: Understanding Who Adolescents Are & What Their Literacy Practices Look Like

Week One: Adolescents’ culture and identities influence how they engage with reading and writing and shape their experiences in school.

Weeks Two and Three: Their culture and identities lead them to engage with a variety of literacy practices often not sanctioned by schools.

Week Four: Families and communities often shape and enhance both academic and personal (out-of-school) literacy practices.

Weeks Five and Six: Some students have drastically different experiences in school based on their culture, language, and how schools identify and position them.

Changing the Readings

While I found the book helpful in getting my story launched (remember this is a new course for me; if I was doing this with a course I knew well I could probably craft a story line right now based on the last syllabus), when I was done I realized I didn’t need the book in it’s entirety. Once I had the story mapped out, I could see where some chapters from the text would make sense but now I had a much better plan for identifying other readings. I also reordered some things as I wrote the story. The initial lay out that I thought made sense – in terms of topics and what we would focus on – worked better with some reordering based on the story I want my students to experience.

What’s Next

Next up will be finishing the story for the semester. I’ll then start to work a little bit on identifying readings that fit in with the story. From there, I will expand out to assignments and additional support structures an online course will require. I hope to have the story completed to share in my next post.

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One Year Ago

Two Years Ago




Overwhelmed Online

I have been very excited that I will finally be teaching fully online! I ordered some desk copies of a few books, and they were spot on with what I needed. I felt like I was really getting ahead of the curve. I’m about six-seven months out from the first course starting, and I already have great books I can use! Now all I have to do is think about what we’re going to be learning and how that is going to play out in an online environment.

doomCue the feeling of being incredibly overwhelmed.

What Happened?

I panicked and froze up when I sat down and started to work things out. I mean, I know how to write a syllabus. I’ve done it so many times. I’ve developed plenty of new courses. I’ve got the skill set, right?

What happened is that everything looked so exciting and fun that everything looked exciting and fun. I couldn’t make a decision about what direction to move in because I could visualize so many possibilities that I struggled to make a decision.

While part of my brain was focusing on content, the other part of my brain was trying to figure out how to construct a class that was innovative and creative and edgy. And honestly, that is the LAST thing I need to thinking about right now.

Part of the problem was also that I’m used to planning hybrid classes. I’m used to having face-to-face sessions where we can touch base in person about things as a group. For some reason, suddenly not having this cause my brain to fail. I don’t know why.

Creating Structure

I learned something from this, and that is the importance of structure. While I was trying to think about what to teach and how to teach it, I had neglected to consider the time frame. And while this is two courses that the same students take over a year, I needed to break it down into more manageable chunks. Thinking about how to teacher over a year, for something I have never taught before in a context I have never taught in, is too much. So I went back to something familiar.

I pulled up the academic calendar for next year, and I started creating weeks. Because my course never meets in person, it never has an official day assigned to it that I can touch base with. No big deal. I assigned it one. I picked Monday. Every time Monday hit, we started a new week. And I went through the calendar and mapped out all the weeks for the fall and the spring.

This is soooo not very exciting, right? And yet, very necessary. We have to embed structure in an online course or else students will float around in it and probably not do as well as they could. While I would like to have some free choice embedded within the course, I think I have to create a continuum of events that range from more to less freedom in terms of when they get accomplished.

And Now Back to the Content

So this is where I have gotten since we last spoke. I became overwhelmed, shut down, and then made a calendar. Now I’m back to focusing on what I want students to learn and if/how I want to use these texts I received. I’m trying not to consider things like assignments or if/how I want to apply gamification to the course. I probably do, but if I let the idea start rolling around in my mind I’ll get panicked again.

I think, for me, the message here is that there is always some value in going old school style in planning a class and writing a syllabus. It’s what I know well, and it helps me get the content down. Once I have that content then I can figure out what to do with it in ways that take advantage of it being an online class. Until I know what I am teaching, I can’t be overly concerned about the online space.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago

Make Time NOT to Write

Yeah…you heard me. I’m hear telling you to find time NOT to write.

Does that sound strange? Well not writing is just as important as writing. The trick is that you have to not write in mindful ways. The idea of not writing is (unfortunately) not accomplished by simply putting your writing off for another day.

You have to schedule it in just like you do you regular writing time.

Giving yourself permission to not write is about taking mindful breaks, and mindful breaks are critical to your success as a writer. There are a number of ways you can think about taking breaks, and I outline them in the video above. Overall, I encourage you to plan for breaks in your writing. Doing so will help prevent burnout and allow you to view your work with a set of fresh eyes each time you approach it.

How are you working on taking mindful breaks in your writing practice?

See the full playlist of academic writing tips.