Be Prepared

“Students think online courses are easy” is a common refrain heard from faculty in the Office of Distance Education.  The truth is online courses are hard.  They require specific skills to be successful.  How do we help students be prepared for that reality?  If you are a faculty member looking for ideas on how to help students be prepared for the rigor of online learning or a student who wants to make sure they are as prepared as they can be for an online course consider these resources from the Office of Distance Education.

eLearnReady

eLearnReady is a free web-based set of questions that evaluate a users readiness for online learning.  Developed by a group led by Dr. Corey Lee and Dr. Natalie Abell this tool asks students 40 multiple-choice questions covering 9 success factors.  Upon completion of the questionnaire, a user receives an email with their results along with resources and suggestions for improvement in each factor.  Anyone can take the questionnaire at any time.  It is an excellent self-assessment tool.

Faculty who want to collect course-wide data on all of their students using the tool need to create an account through which they issue invitations to students to participate in the survey.  Using the tool in this manner allows an instructor to see class-wide areas of weakness or strength and target instruction accordingly.

West Chester University faculty who are interested in incorporating this tool into their course should contact their assigned instructional designer for support and use ideas.

Orientation for Distance Education Students

A more involved option for preparing students to be successful is our Orientation for Distance Education Students.  Here is a 40 second introduction video:

Faculty must request access for their courses each semester they wish to use the orientation by contacting their assigned instructional designer. Students interested in completing the orientation on their own should contact Distance Education Support to gain access.

Tech Tip Tuesdays

Every Tuesday during the fall and spring semesters, the Office of Distance Education produces a short video on a new technology or tip for using a technology.  These are a great way to stay current and learn new skills.  You can see the full playlist of videos below.

Distance Education Support

Finally, faculty and students can always contact the Distance Education Support for assistance with anything related to distance education.  If you are struggling with something related to distance education, contact support.

Support can be reached by phone at 610-436-3373 or email at distanceed@wcupa.edu.  Hours are usually 8:00 am to 8:00 PM Monday through Thursday, 8:00 am to 4:30 pm on Friday, and 12:00 to 8:00 pm on Sunday.  Be sure to check the Office of Distance Education website to confirm the current hours.

Don’t be fooled into thinking online courses are easy.  Prepare yourself by making sure you know what it takes to be successful.

Social Media in Online Learning

Social media and online learning are two online features that are continuing to grow.  West Chester’s distance education courses have grown from just over 100 courses in 2012 to almost 500 course offerings today. Most student’s use social media every day, multiple times a day and even businesses use it for marketing and engaging with their customers. Incorporating social media into online learning would help students engage with other students and the school since they don’t come to campus for class.

When taking classes face-to-face, students get to interact with people in their classes who are also probably in their major or program of study. It is beneficial to students, to meet people who have similar goals as they do and are interested in the same areas or subjects.  Thefacebook-2048127_1280y can turn to each other for help and their work load is similar, so they can easily relate to each other about school. Sometimes these types of friends or companions are what helps people get through the tough times at school because they realize they’re not alone.  Students who are in fully online programs don’t get to interact everyday with other students.  By incorporating social media, students can create an online community similar to the interactions they would be having in a face-to-face class.

Facebook groups for a class is one way to help create an online community. By having a Facebook group for one class, the students in the class can post questions for other people in the class to help them out with.  If the professor is included in the group, the professor could share related material and encourage informal discussion for the class.

Becoming “friends” with students in their online class on Facebook, is also kind of like befriending them in class. It’s as if they are getting to know them a little better. If students found each other on Facebook, they’ll feel more comfortable talking with them via discussion in the online course and then asking them questions if they have any because it will give them a sense of knowing each other on a more personal level.

While Facebook is a great way to use social media in online courses, sobubbles-1968272_1280 is Twitter. Twitter allows students to share and tweet relative information.  Creating a course hashtag allows students to share information and then click on the hashtag and see basically a discussion or information related to only that course.  Students can follow the professor and see what they share, but even if they didn’t want to do that, professors could use the hashtag and share information that way. This is another informal way to create class discussion, but keeping it organized on the internet for just the class.

Learning management systems allow for class discussions and for students to interact with each other, but sometimes just being “inside” the course is a little intimidating. Student’s might find it a little weird to talk informally in a non-graded discussion. Bringing student’s “outside” the classroom and onto social media can help students interact on a more personal level with each other and create connections with people in their classes.

How to Customize Your Blend

Photo of Blender

Here at West Chester University, teaching a blended course means that anywhere from 30% to 79% of your course can be taught online. That’s a big range. So it’s not surprising that I often meet faculty who are struggling to find their unique blend of online and face-to-face instruction for their blended course. What should go online? What should be done face-to-face? Isn’t there a formula for this?!?

Photo frustrated woman at computer

Unfortunately, there’s no formula, but there is a method for “customizing your blend”:

  1. First, look at your lesson plans. What learning activities are best suited to your objectives? Forget about the mode of delivery for now- the very first thing you want to do is determine the ideal learning experience for each week’s lesson, unit, or module. What would be the absolute best learning experience for your students? Write out an outline including all the learning activities for your course if you haven’t already.
  2. Next, analyze the elements of each learning experience and start sorting. Is there anything that naturally lends itself to an online environment? What experiences will work best in the classroom? Can you think of ways to keep students connected and engaged as they move between online and face-to-face formats?
  3. Now you’re ready to start exploring how technology can support and enhance the learning experience. At West Chester University, you have access to the Desire2Learn LMS and tools such as Adobe Connect and VoiceThread. There are also countless, free, web-based tools available online. The key is remembering that the learning experience should be the focus, not the technology!

It’s only three steps, but they are big, messy steps and like the first few steps at my house, they’re kind of cluttered with leaves and a basket meant for shoes that’s instead full of mail, toys, and who knows what else until I sort it. Figuring out your customized blend can be challenging whether you’re working with an existing course outline or building one from scratch. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the instructional design team in the Office of Distance Education at any step in the process.

Hands on Science Labs for Online Students- We can do that!

“How do you provide an authentic laboratory experience for science students in online education?” the associate dean asked me during our new staff orientation.  Knowing that this was a very common question posed by science faculty, I paused for a moment before mentioning the only answer I knew at the time, that there were a number of computer programs and websites available that would simulate various science laboratory experiments. The associate dean listened politely then said, “Those do have some value, but it still isn’t the same as a real lab experience.”  Recognizing that the dean was right and not knowing any better, I let the point drop and we moved on to other topics.

Fast-forward a year later and now I would say the associate dean is only partially right.  Here is why. For introductory online science courses there are options to use:

  1. Home kitchen labs which make use of everyday materials found in your kitchen to conduct simple experiments that still provide the hands-on experience.  These experiments are limited to what students can find in a kitchen and must remain relatively safe to conduct in a home setting.
  2. Commercial lab kits which can be sent directly to a student and contain everything students need to safely conduct a number of laboratory experiments just as they might in a regular face-to-face on campus lab course.  These kits offer the ability to do more than kitchen labs, but are still limited to experiments that can be done safely in a home setting.
  3. Remote controlled robot based labs where students from off-site control robots which manipulate the experiment materials in an on-site laboratory.  This type of lab allows students to participate in slightly more complex and hazardous experiments without needing to be on campus. This type of remote lab costs more then the other two options and can sometimes require additional training in how to use the robots.

If you were paying attention, you may have noticed what I described is for introductory science courses.  At this time, there are not yet great solutions available for the more complex and advanced scientific experiments conducted in upper level laboratory courses.  Virtual reality tools hold some promise to eventually be a possible solution; however, they need to become more affordable and realistic before they will be a viable solution.

So where does this leave us?  If you are a science faculty who is interested in developing an online science course, but has been stuck on the laboratory component, come talk to us here in the Office of Distance Education.  As this article has demonstrated, there are solutions available.  We are eager to work with you to find the right mix of laboratory options among those listed here and other possibilities to develop an online laboratory course that does provide an authentic laboratory experience for science students.

 

 

Fostering Engagement with Social Media

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Social media has a lot going for it as an educational tool: nearly everyone has some type of social media account, it’s easy to create an account if you don’t have one, social media makes it easy for people to connect, collaborate, and share, and social media platforms are optimized for mobile devices. In short, social media makes it easy for people to engage.  Faculty want to engage their students; students want to be engaged. Social media inherently engages. So how can you harness the power of social media to foster engagement in your course? Let’s look to Facebook and Twitter for examples.

Facebook

The groups feature in Facebook is an excellent tool for connecting faculty and students. Groups can be public, private, or secret depending on the privacy level desired. The groups feature allows for file sharing, polls, as well as the commenting and reaction features that we all know and love. Examples include an instructor making a group for the class to ask questions and connect with each other, share thoughts, applicable articles,

twitter feed
WCU Online Twitter feed embedded on a WCU D2L homepage

and news events. Students can make groups to collaborate for group projects or connect over similar interests.

 

Twitter

How much can you accomplish in 140 characters? A lot. Establishing a course hashtag by combining the course code and section number (e.g. #PHI12502) is a quick and easy way for faculty and students to start connecting over course topics. Liking and re-tweeting people and organizations in the field being studied can connect students to important names and current research. Faculty at West Chester University can even embed their personal twitter feed or a hashtag based feed as a widget on their course homepage.

These are just a few ideas for using social media in your class but the options are endless. I’ve heard of using Pinterest and Instagram for scavenger hunts and Snapchat for storytelling.

Have you used social media in your course? Tell us about it in the comments!

Want to try using social media in your course but you’re not sure how to get started? Contact us! We’d love to help.

 

 

Getting the Soil Right

How does a faculty member benefit from working with an instructional designer?

Working with an instructional designer gives you access to a vast array of distance education knowledge and expertise.  In a typical month a designer will work with an average of 20 faculty across the University,

  • seeing the activities they use,
  • the tools they incorporate,
  • the challenges they face,
  • and the solutions we develop.

If you work with an instructional designer, you gain easy access to the expertise and knowledge of all of those individuals.  You also gain access to the knowledge and expertise that instructional designers acquire when they attend learning events, like the 2016 D2L Fusion conference, which I just attended this past week.

In the spirit of connection and information sharing, I tried to encapsulate the value of this experience for you, the reader of this blog.  At first I took the analytical approach:

  • 1 moose selfie
  • 2 days of conference
  • 4 general sessions attended
  • 9 breakout sessions attended
  • 100 tweets (yes I counted my #d2lfusion hashtag tweets)
  • 1000 + attendees to interact with
  • way too much coffee

But numbers really don’t do the conference justice.  Next, I considered some of the questions raised and answered through the breakout sessions.

Why online education?

As Jon Becker (@jonbecker) said during his presentation on Connected Learning, “Because the internet is awesome.”  While true, he went further arguing that it enables Connected Learning with the instructional and design benefits like renewable assignments and the ability to cultivate wonder in students.

Why should I care about Universal Design in Learning (UDL)?

Because as Tom Tobin (@ThomasJTobin) said, “UDL is access no matter what the circumstances.”  He encouraged faculty to think about +1.  Add just one more way for the students to access the information or be engaged or demonstrate their understanding.

Why use gamification principles?

Because when done right, it can inspire enjoyment, engagement, and experimentation through the creation of challenge, choices, and consequences.  (Gamification presenters enjoyed their alliteration.)  Said another way, gamified courses create feedback loops where students get to keep trying to overcome learning challenges, receiving feedback each time they fail, until finally they reach mastery and succeed.

Yet questions didn’t capture the value of the conference either.  Finally, I considered the conferences broadest themes.

D2L used the theme “We Love the Way You Teach,” during the conference, but I prefer the message delivered from the two keynote speakers, Sir Ken Robinson and Angela Maiers.  While they each took a different tact, the core of both messages was the same.   Ken and Angela believe that every life matters.  That each person has unique gifts and talents that deserve to be in this world. That the role of an educator, of a teacher, is to help students recognize their value and bring it out into the world.

As Sir Ken Robinson was articulating his idea of human worth he argued that we need to change our educational system from one that is industrialized, focused on output and yield to one that is organic, that celebrates diversity and encourages mutual support and protection.  As he discussed his idea of organic education, he made an analogy to organic farming saying, “If you get the soil right, the plant will be fine.  It will flourish.” For some reason, that idea of “getting the soil right” stuck with me.

As educators, how do we get the “soil” right, so our students will flourish?  What makes up the “soil” in education?  Is that “soil” different in an online educational environment?

I don’t have easy answers to those questions, but I do know that we here at the Office of Distance Education are committed to getting the “soil” right when it comes to distance education. I also know that getting the soil right is impossible without you, the faculty.    We need you.  You matter to us.  So connect with us and benefit from easy access to expertise.

We make better “soil” together.

Want to Create a Great Instructional Video? Start with Great Audio

As an Instructional Designer, part of my job is to help our faculty learn how to construct various components of a Blended or Online course. Typically, this means they need to learn how to create their own instructional videos using a screen-recording program like Camtasia. We offer several bits of advice when starting this process for the first time, such as ‘the instructor should appear in the video’ and ‘limit your recording to 10-15 minutes’, but one of the most important pieces of advice that we give is to use equipment that will ensure a high-quality video. This includes high-quality audio, because there is nothing that will ruin a video faster than poor audio.

We’ve all come across these videos – there are probably tens of thousands of them on YouTube. They’re the ones where you hit the Play button and the video starts but you don’t hear anything. So you turn up the volume on the video, then the volume on your computer, then maybe on your speakers too (if you have external speakers), and now you can hear what the person is saying but there’s also a lot of white noise, which is distracting. Of course later on, after you’ve forgotten that you cranked your volume all the way up, you’ll scare the daylights out of everyone in a 20 foot radius when you go to play something else that was recorded properly and it comes blasting out of your speakers. It happens to the best of us.

What can you do to ensure that you’re recording high-quality audio?

Find a quiet area to make your recording

In a higher education setting, this is sometimes easier said than done. Your typical faculty office has a lot of background noise: loud air-handling systems, ringing telephones, conversations in the hall, students knocking on doors, computer chimes from incoming emails, etc. Find a place in your building or somewhere on campus where these noises and disruptions don’t exist. These sounds will distract your students when they watch your video just like they distract you.

Use a USB or Bluetooth headset

headset
Marc’s Logitech H540 USB headset

The microphones built into most computers record low-quality audio and pick up a lot of background noise. The microphones on headsets can help to reduce a lot of the background noise, plus the arm keeps the microphone at a constant distance from your mouth, which allows you to maintain a consistent volume level throughout the entire recording.

You can find a good headset for around $30-$40 from companies like Logitech, Sennheiser, and Koss.

Take advantage of a recording booth

Many universities have recording booths dedicated for tasks like these with all of the equipment you need. They’re usually found in a library, media center, or teaching and learning center, and were probably setup by staff with AV and technical expertise. WCU has a recording booth in the Office of Distance Education available for faculty use.