Saturday, August 2, 2014

Course Redesign Update: August 2... Being flexible online in a rigid school culture

Wow, I had not anticipated how many great opportunities I was going to have by totally redesigning my classes. There were so many little things I've wanted to do for a long time, but I could do them a little at a time; it's a whole huge set of changes that needed to happen together... and it feels so good! In terms of the actual class activities — reading, writing, sharing — nothing has changed... but the organizational aspects of the class are so much better, and I hope the students will find it more fun and easier to manage, while still learning a lot.

About one of the changes, though, I am ambivalent, and I want to write about that today. Last semester I tried to document in great detail just how students were managing their time, based on the indirect evidence available to me. When I first designed my classes way back in 2002, I did that on the optimistic (and very wrong) assumption that students would be ready and eager to create and manage their own schedules! I figured that I would decide on the week-to-week schedule (just to make sure students were making progress over the course of the semester), but that the students could, more or less, decide for themselves how to manage their daily schedules, with just a minimum of daily deadlines from me (deadlines that I had to impose in order to make the student-to-student interaction parts of the class function)... and I especially hoped that they would choose to work a week or more ahead in order to give themselves total freedom in devising that daily schedule.

After all, it makes sense: if a student devises her own schedule, based on the constraints in her life, of course that would be better than a rigid and arbitrary schedule imposed by the teacher... right? How could it be otherwise?

Alas, I was so wrong. It was not just that students were a little surprised and confused by being asked to create their own schedule for the week's work; some of them apparently just couldn't do it. Instead, they took the few daily deadlines I had set, and used those as their ONLY deadlines, and so they did their work in unwieldy bursts of activity which were stressful for them and did not lead to good work either.

So, over the past 10 years, I have tried to find all kinds of ways to accommodate that problem, building in class procedures to support the students in their efforts to create and manage their own class schedules. Here are just a few of the things I have implemented:

* announcements every day to keep students informed and enthused
* an explicit pep talk about time management in the first week of class and lots of time management tips in the daily announcements
* a "grace period" to give people a second chance if they missed a deadline (overall, this has been a GREAT innovation, but for the most needy students it is not effective: they just ignore the regular deadline and treat the grace period as the deadline)
* very positive (Carol-Dweck-ian), upbeat reminders about keeping up; at first I did them weekly, then I started doing them for every grace period
* EXTRA CREDIT for working ahead, which is usually the all-powerful motivator... but not so: all the other extra credit options in my classes were often used by many students — but the extra credit for working ahead was used by almost no one

Last semester, I had really run out of new strategies, so instead I spent the semester documenting my anecdotal impression by keeping a careful count of student time management successes (working ahead) and troubles (falling behind) week by week. The numbers confirmed my anecdotal impression: some students fell behind despite my best efforts, and almost no students were working ahead; the large majority of students were simply depending entirely on me to set the schedule for their work in the class.

So, I've given up. Yes, I am conceding to the larger culture of teacher-control/student-passivity which rules my school, and I have created a more granular work flow with more deadlines from me. And I'm very ambivalent about that. On the one hand, I am thrilled to be able to help my struggling students this way, and I know it will help; by having me pace the work for them, the students will have less stress and will learn more. So that's great. And the few students who do work ahead will be unaffected by this; anyone who WANTS to set their own schedule can totally do that, and more power to them.

But I now know that very few students will do that and, in a sense, I have become part of the problem, reinforcing the pattern of teacher-control rather than student-control which I would far prefer to see. How depressing is that?

Still, there are all kinds of benefits, and I am confident that this is the right choice to make. I won't get into too many of the details, but the three main changes I have made are these:

* Monday assignment deadline. Before, I figured people would actually start their week over the weekend, or maybe on Monday, based on what was most convenient for them, and the first deadlines came on Tuesday. Well, almost all the students simply waited until Tuesday to start the week. Not good. So now, for the first time ever, I have pulled off the first task to be completed in each of the classes and made that due on Monday. Which means most students will indeed start their week on Monday instead of waiting until Tuesday. I have to confess, though, it feels so wrong to have Monday deadlines. That is something I told myself I would never do (so... never say never!).

* Reading and writing separated. In the previous incarnations of these classes, I had let the reading and writing assignments stand side by side, letting students decide what kind of approach to the writing they preferred: writing their own story right away while the reading was fresh in their mind, or waiting a day to let it  percolate and sink in. This meant that the final reading assignment for the week was due on Thursday, as was the storytelling assignment. Now, however, I have radically changed the way that works: the reading assignments are compressed into the first half of the week (Monday and Tuesday), with the writing assignment on Wednesday.

* Review on Thursday. I also optimistically assumed that students would want to manage their own weekly review, looking back on the past week and preparing for the next week. That's a necessity, right? For a semester to be coherent, you need to constantly be reviewing, right? Unfortunately, no. Instead, the larger school culture promotes a relentless forward movement from one assignment to the next, with no looking back. That might make sense in terms of checking assignments off just to get things over and done with, but it is surely not good for learning. So now I have an explicit review assignment on Thursday. This was inspired by my use of a midweek review in Indian Epics last year that was super successful, and that class also had very successful review weeks in Week 8 and Week 15. So, in both classes now there is a review assignment on Thursday (which is also a great feedback assignment for me, too, which is exciting), and I have added in review weeks to the Myth-Folklore class in Weeks 8 and 15, just like in Indian Epics.

So, on the one hand, I am really glad about these design changes. They will make for a better class experience for all the students, and especially for the students who struggle with time management (and that really is the only serious obstacle students face in my classes: TIME and the stress that comes from not having enough time). I will also be getting better feedback, both direct and indirect, from this more granular schedule. Yes, big data, ha ha. Not that Desire2Learn helps me track any of this data... but I have my own data-tracking to support my reminder emails to the students (all of which I rewrote this morning to fit the new schedule).

On the other hand, I wish I did not have to do this and that, instead, students would want the freedom to set their own schedules. By creating this more granular schedule, I have given in to the forces that insist I am "in charge" of the class and that student learning is something to be "managed" (even if our learning management system is of not help to me at all in this process, ha ha).

So... I am very curious to see how this will go! It will take me a while to retrain myself to get into the new work flow this semester (especially Monday deadlines, blech), but the daily reminders will help me to do that, and I bet by the third or fourth week of the semester, I won't even remember that it used to be organized any other way. And I am hoping for good things to result from the re-organization!

So, here are the Indian Epics weekly activities, and I'll be working on the new listing for Myth-Folklore today! :-)

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