The course Web site is integral to the success of blended or online learning


Sakai Project

Introduction

Here at UM we use CTools, an implementation of Sakai. While this is a perfectly reasonable CMS, it was built to support a class from a different era, one in which the professor is the center of learning and students are simply the recipients of knowledge.

Recently in “Technology turbocharges a new educational philosophy” I wrote how technology extends the capabilities and influence of professors and students while also supporting different communication patterns. It also makes it possible to support individualized learning. In this article I want to bring these soaring ideas down to earth, if just a little bit, and discuss what they have to do with the course Web site.

And I'm good with my hands, too.

A practical guy

I’m a very practical guy; I was a practical student and I am a practical professor. When I was a student I didn’t do very much classwork unless I thought I would get something out of it. What was that something? Either I thought I would learn something that was particularly interesting to me or I thought it would help me get a better grade. And not too much in-between. I definitely didn’t do work because it’s supposed to be interesting, or everyone else likes learning about this stuff, or it’s not so hard so just do it.

I have taken that attitude with me in my role as professor. I try to make it clear why what I’m teaching is really interesting to me (so that they know that there is someone in the world who likes this stuff) and why I think it should be interesting to them (usually tied to their academic development [smallest chance of connecting with them], career, or personal life). You might expect me to say here and I also make it clear how the student can get a good grade. Actually, I generally don’t. I don’t really do this on purpose. I point in the general direction of what is good versus what is bad, but I don’t want to set an artificially low ceiling and say this is good enough to get an “A”. I have found that my students are amazingly good at exceeding any bar that I put up for them. So…I let them set the bar. I let them define their range of activities, input, and insights. They explore their talents, and I help them refine their approach. The results have most often been exemplary.

Students as teachers

You might be wondering what this all has to do with a course Web site. Here’s the connection. I believe that:

  • Communication among students is important.
  • Learning is good, whether or not the source of the learning is the professor or a student.
  • Students can provide excellent instruction to other students (and the professor, if he’ll listen).
  • Timely and meaningful feedback is a powerful way of learning and improving.
  • Students can be good at providing feedback to each other.
  • Students grow and learn just as much when they are in the role of teacher as when they are in the role of learner.

Recall from above that I personally didn’t like doing something (unless I really liked it) unless I thought it would help me get a better grade. Well, suppose that students think this way. (Not too unreasonable, in my opinion.) In order to get them to take on the above roles, they need to believe (in the absence of truly liking the material) that what they are doing will help them get a better grade. The question now becomes how do we make the connection between them taking on the above roles and them getting a better grade.

The reimagined course Web site

The course Web site has to support, track, and enable measurement of all of these new activities. If the activity isn’t being supported, tracked, or measured, then it isn’t being integrated into the student’s grade. And if it doesn’t count towards the grade, then the student isn’t doing it. Thus, the Web site has to fill all three of these roles or it’t not doing all that it can to support students and professors as they make their way through the semester.

The Web site is no longer simply about an inbox that the student puts assignments in so that the professor can grade it. It’s no longer about the students sending messages to the faculty member and vice versa.

So, what does the course Web site need to do?

  • Provide a way for students to submit a draft, for other students to critique the draft, for the author to evaluate the critiques. Each stage needs to be captured and attributed to each individual student.
  • Provide a way for students to submit a final version, for other students to respond to the document, for the author to respond to those responses, and so on. And for everyone to evaluate the quality of the arguments made.
  • Provide a way for students to submit teaching materials.
  • Provide a way for students to add to existing teaching materials.
  • Provide a way for students to evaluate the specific contributions (messages, critiques, responses, materials) of students whenever and wherever they might see them. And to give credit to students who take the time to provide the evaluations themselves!

It is definitely the case (for now) that each professor is going to want different reports for different classes. Each professor will want to emphasize different tasks and different roles for the students to play during the semester. This exploration is necessary in order to move to a new model of learning that is pretty far away from our current model. I believe it has the potential to be a better model, but we definitely have a lot of thinking, planning, experimenting, and doing ahead of us.

Drupal

Next steps

This isn’t simply a next generation of a traditional scholastic CMS. This is more like a community support/building Web site combined with a media publishing site. I actually don’t think it would be that difficult to build such a site with Drupal. It seems like all the tools (modules) are already there just waiting to be put together in the right way. I’m in the process of building it right now, so I guess we’ll see one way or the other.

If you’re interested in this project (or know of a related one that I apparently don’t know about), please let me know via twitter or the comments.

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