An organic peer review of an online class, and the Quality Matters rubric

anamorphic art by  UTISZ (Istvan Orosz)

Anamorphic Art by Istvan Orosz. Anamorphic art depends on how you look at it, and without the perspective, you might not see the image, much like a teaching observation of an online class. This Hungarian artist’s website is at: http://web.axelero.hu/utisz/page.htm

The last teaching task I completed for the year 2014 was a two-part peer teaching observation with Dr Sara Lawrence. But, unlike the teaching observations I have done in the past, this one was for an online class. I had never done a teaching observation for an online class before. We had a standard checklist for peer review, but the questions in it did little to guide us, so we made our way via a somewhat organic discussion, facilitated by the course materials stored in the completed versions of Blackboard shells for two separate courses. Here’s our process, boiled down to four parts that we experienced organically through the process of two, one and a half hour peer reviews. The first of these peer reviews was held in November, the other after classes ended in December 2014.

  1. We began by the person whose teaching was being reviewed expressing their values and goals, before we set out to look at materials.
  2. Then the person whose teaching was being reviewed discussed how the design of the course reflected those goals, or didn’t, and what struggles (design tensions) they had already discovered.
  3. Then we moved through course materials and some manifested discussions that took place in the course as. Looking at student work branched into a lot of discussion and ideation. I think we both found it difficult to stop from explaining details to the other while one looked through the online interactions.
  4. We then discussed nuances of interpretation that students might gather and divergent strategies we might be taking in our different approaches. These talks meandered quite a bit to the relationships between teaching content, learner context, institutional resources, materials and past experiences with the design.
  5. We concluded with itemized lists of revisions that might improve our instructional designs, we each added some plausible, and new, instructional tactics that might specifically serve these unique groups of students we have in these courses.

As it was my first peer observation for an online class, I didn’t know how our process stacked up against others. I have always taught online while also teaching other courses face to face, and this was my first formal review of an online class. The institution where I teach is going through a process of implementing review standards for online classes. I think standards are a good thing, if they promote learning in the end. So, after these reviews were completed, I went and read some of the literature surrounding the commercial materials being implemented by Quality Matters, the organization contracted to ensure a process of quality improvement for online course design. I found these materials from their website, and focused on one document (Introduction to the Quality Matters Program) in particular because I thought it might give me decent insight into how our ad hoc process compared to the initiative. That document provided an overview of the process and the focus areas, and I supplemented it with reading a white paper literature review published by Quality Matters.

What struck me was that our organic process and the areas of focus as stated in the Quality Matters literature seemed to outline identical discussions. The following table maps out the organic discussion as organized by the QM rubric.

Quality Matters Rubric Item Organic discussion among two peers
1. The Course Overview and Introduction  We both focused on getting to those materials, but I remember there was a fair bit of explaining verbally. This lead to a rather elaborated discussion about the role of the syllabus in online education, just how long it should and could be, and what value sub-documents might have as linked components of an online syllabus.
2.Learning Objectives and Competencies  Both Sarah and I related learning objectives when explaining materials we has added to our courses; competencies were are part of that discussion. What I found curious about this discussion is that each of us had more holistic goals that go beyond performance objectives. In one case, the competencies were state-mandated, which introduced a design tension: at the graduate level, the mandated competency is vaguely stated as required content of the syllabus. Is the instructor free to elaborate on that? Does that break the rules?
3.Assessment and Measurement  Both teachers elaborated on the rationale behind the point systems used, the rationale behind the tasks, and the values expressed by the design of the assessment systems as a whole. What struck me as curious about this discussion was the relationship between context and grading, revealing a design tension on one case. If a course is only offered once every two years, then with each instantiation materials must change, requiring changes in assessment practices, and limiting the design to an ongoing process rather than a fixed entity that can be decided on prior to the launch of the course. How would this context stack up against a rubric designed for courses with fixed and permanent content? Thus the design tension lies in the assessment of the assessment, rather than in the assessment of the students in their performances in the course.
4.Instructional Materials  I gathered from these segments of the discussion that materials’ discussions are pervasive within any discussion of online teaching. Our discussion lead to a recognition that all of the course is effectively course material. For example, in the discussion of navigation, which would be an access issue I assume, where content items are stored and how they are linked up (inside or outside of the LMS) is in fact teaching material in its own right. The design of how materials are delivered sends a message. A video linked outside the shell carries a message of don’t trust the system. Thus the design itself is a component of the course materials, a nuance I had not originally been cognizant of when I designed the course.
5.Learner Interaction and Engagement  Both teachers iterated the importance of interaction and the struggles with supporting it online. This lead to discussions of timing; e.g. when tasks are due during the week and throughout the semester. Views on interaction also lead to a discussion of teaching values. One instructor placed value on catering to the learners’ convenience by making everything phone-enabled. The other expressed a value of expressing the gravity of the task by pushing learners to experience the course via a full sized screen, were they can interact more fully, less distracted, and deeper. The contrasting values in this regard were some of my most valuable take-aways from the experience. Again, the configuration of learner interaction with both other learners and the instructor was both an expression of teaching values and a materials issue at the same time.
6.Course Technology  Discussions of technological choices were organic and pervasive through both talks. A number of persistent obstacles emerged. For example, Blackboard does not transfer links to purchased content (Atomic Learning models) resulting in dead links for students despite a number of proofreads of the course since the icons for the modules do in fact transfer over, albeit with outdated links. Thus each commercial content link, and there could be several in a design, must be revisited. In proofing a course before its launch, this can be difficult since catching all of them is not automated like we might find in a web authoring tool. Another point of concern was that Blackboard does not support a traditional wiki environment, in the sense that learners normally define the term. Supporting collaborative writing is then challenging despite the assumption that this technology supports that type of interaction.
7.Learner Support  I found it curious that our discussion of learner support actually hinged on a definition of our learners, who they are, and the broader goals behind what is meant to be taught in the course. Again, the topic itself cannot be disentangled from the discussion of materials. For example, one instructor felt that a course requirement asking learners to search out answers to technical topics prior to submitting questions was a move toward empowerment, and the other focused on curating materials because of the large amount of misinformation on the web. Both perspectives present a logical and reasoned position from a teaching standpoint. This discussion revealed an important aspect to understanding how a whole course fits together; something we would hope a viewer would know prior to evaluating an online course. It struck me that answers to the “correct” way one might empower learners in an environment that places so much emphasis on self-accessed learning hinges on each teacher’s perspective, and knowledge of their specific population of learners.
8.Accessibility  This term in the QM literature would need to be interrogated to be fully understood because accessibility can range from providing multimodal access to learning materials in a traditional sense (captioned videos for example), to values related to the design technology-enhanced learning more broadly. For example, I had not previously noticed the cluttered nature of my courses landing page. I had not discovered some of the tools on the landing page could be removed or hidden. This is actually an access issue. With so much on a single screen, is the instructor aware of how much of a burden they are putting on learners’ ability to find what they are looking for? Also, I had not included redundant links in convenient locations within the course. In retrospect, these are as much accessibility issues as providing captions on videos. We discovered this through the course of our talk. The same goes for providing free alternatives to software that I had assumed learners would have, an assumption I now question.

 

The literature on observation in teacher education makes some very clear points about how teachers are best supported. Some key considerations are that teachers are best supported by non-judgmental observations (Fanselow, Bullock, Van Es), observation of larger constructs such as course design and lesson plans reveal very different aspects of teaching expertise and perspective than close inspections of specific teacher moves (Preston, Rosean), and “effective” practice cannot be defined without the input of the teacher (Owston). I wonder if some of these ideas do not get lost when we try and standardize peer review of online teaching. The Quality Matters materials do seem quite tied to the current research in online learning, which is a good thing, so, it strikes me as a beneficial aid to a novice teacher. But I have to wonder if the rubric wasn’t created from discussions like the one I had with Sara. The mapping of the discussion over the rubric strikes me as too precise to be coincidental. Perhaps the rubric only tells you what *should* be in a professional discussion; things competent professionals would talk about anyway.

Perhaps the QM initiative is an attempt to combat the issue of teacher obsolesce in the face of new technology. I think what our conversation suggests to me is that teaching online is less about being online than it is about teaching. The QM website goes to great lengths to make it clear that it has a rigorous approach to development, informed by the most current research, and includes a lit review of some of the trends in online learning research. What I think the approach may be missing in this endeavor is a key recognition that teaching and learning are in fact two different things, albeit interrelated. Research into online learning can only take us so far into learning how to teach online. Once someone grasps the concepts behind the available tools, the discussion goes much deeper into values, perspectives, and deeply held notions about learning a specific set of content items. The relationship between strategy and content is not one to one, but rather stochastic and deeply tied to values the teacher holds (Reigeluth). We have a comparatively meager body of research related to online teaching strategies than we do on online learning. I came away from these talks with the notion that peer-review observation of an online course is less about technology than it is about what it means to teach, less about the machine and more about the people we are trying to connect with and nurture.

This experience left me somewhat suspect of decontextualized observations from someone who is not in touch with our learners. There comes a point where the context of the learner reigns supreme over any instructional strategy that a teacher is assuming, and those unique contexts surface through discussion with a colleague about how the materials and design came to be as they are. I welcome any peer review with a colleague from my institution, but I wonder how much common ground I might find with someone from somewhere else. Perhaps this is related to why we grant tenure based on teaching at the institution giving tenure and not elsewhere. The differences in foci among teachers at different institutions may parallel differences among teachers within one institution, but they may also not. What one teacher is trying to accomplish may, or may not, be what the rubric supposes the teacher is trying to accomplish, and may or may not be needed for these particular students given the circumstances of the program as a whole. I remember more than once coming upon the phrase, “no, that’s already in another course.” This may be why MJ Bishop (University System of Maryland) says we don’t do courses as much as we do degrees; the course and the teachers have to fit together. The conversation about what should be taught is equally as important as the conversation about how it should be taught, and I am not so sure the two can be extricated from each other in a meaningful way, as we found in the multiple locations in our talk where the discussion of materials could not be torn from the other topics that our meandering conversation unearthed. I would feel more comfortable discussing curriculum choices with a teacher whose approach I know, than one whose approach is still a black box. Professional familiarity has an important value on the context of a school, a value the QM perspective seems to overlook.

The value of professional knowledge of a colleague hints on something more profound, and something related to improving teaching growth on personal level as well as on a program or school level: the importance of trust and comradery. The importance of trust is pervading into many fields of late, including medicine. All of the components of teacher observation that I found in my in-person observations were present in this discussion of our teaching, and I don’t know how comfortable I feel about intimate discussions of my teaching rationale with someone who may function on very different belief system about what teaching is, is not, and what is should be. Nor do I see an incentive to want a third party to see my course through my eyes. Sharing that with a colleague I foresee working with for a long time does hold that value for sharing. Working with people you know and trust is not intimidating nor trivial; it is a pleasurable and feels like time well invested in a colleague and one’s own teaching. It strikes me that this will pay off for students as well; teachers who know each other and how each other teach can make better decisions about what policies to implement. Also, accomplishments can be shared, and setbacks can be supported. A peer review with a trusted colleague makes for a better working environment.

I came out of this experience with the conclusion that a peer observation of an online class is not wholly different peer observation of a classroom teaching– the most rewarding parts are the discussion that happens after looking at teaching choices, and in discovering why a trusted colleague teaches the way they do, sharing why I do what I do, and reflecting on how this might be done better for the both of us, and our learners.

Supporting healthy failure in online education

Edo is the formed name of the city that is now known as Tokyo

“Write this sentence in the past” (credit: 本気の発想 translated poorly by Craig as “serious creativity” from Twitter user tag: @Honki_Honki.

Teachers are told to make learning fun. Yeah! However, there is a fair percentage of learning that includes rejection and supporting that online is hard. Educational psychologists manage to gloss over the emotional side of things and come up with statements in research jargon that a learner is adjusting mental schema according to new information. Adjusting one’s mental schema to accommodate a big whopping REWRITE on a paper may have positive correlations on psychometric evaluations of learning, but calling it fun is a stretch. Many teacher training programs and educational psychology texts make it seem as if the learner simply processes information, without any pain. But adjusting one’s own “schema of the world” includes a key realization, I was wrong the first time.

Confronting one’s own being wrong is decidedly not fun, but it is effective. Sometimes it is so effective that we remember the lessons for a lifetime. Here are few of mine: Mr Savery, my highschool German teacher who I admired, told me to guess on the German language article declensions on my advanced placement exam. “Look, declensions in German are ‘en’ 70% of the time, if you try and figure it out, which is what you generally try to do and I know this because I have watched you take my tests for 4 years, you’ll lose time you could have spend getting to the questions that you are better at answering. Just guess all your declension items and move to vocabulary items as fast as you can.” This made me rethink just how much I knew and strategize my learning down the road. I went on to survive a year in Austria with this knowledge and pass a year’s worth of coursework delivered entirely in German. Dr George Hole’s comment on a final paper, “you didn’t think as much on this paper” was devastating. This forced me to rethink my writing and shortly thereafter I won a scholarship to Columbia University based on my application essay. Dr Carol Numrich’s similar comments on graduate papers were the same. Her feedback played into how I approached my doctoral application where I secured a fellowship to Indiana University. Ginette Delandshere handed me down a whopping REWRITE. Susan Herring’s 300+ requests for revision on the post-defense edit of my dissertation spun my head. How could I possibly write that poorly? Elizabeth Boling’s comment to my doctoral quals was eye-opening, in a more holistic way than just school, “righteous indignation does not serve you well in this context.” This idea played into my search strategy on the job market and helped me survive my dissertation. None of these rejections were fun, but they were all effective. All were in school, and none were online.

Healthy failures, as opposed to failures that lack transformative impact, also share something in common that is hard to accomplish online: care. The memory of the failure is coupled with the memory of the person who delivered it. It is the failures that are handed down from specific people that we remember. The failures I remember were all handed down from people who cared, or at least I felt that they cared for me. Imparting that feeling of being cared for is part of being a professional educator. While a missed objective question on an impersonal test may just require one to revisit the chapter, failures associated with more transformative learning all revolved around larger efforts: writing longer papers, preparing for bigger tests that seemingly predict a future, or attaining a significant life changing milestone–like finishing the Phd and getting my first tenure track job. Multiple choice, short answer and like approaches to formative assessments do not offer access to this kind of learning. Occasionally I have seen phrases on job descriptions in order of “genuine care for students,” but I have yet to see that operationalized into required teaching practices, especially online teaching practices. Failures on the big things may need to come from someone who has, or seems to have, a general interest in your well being in order to make that change from simple procedural and concept learning to transformational learning. The online instructor is not equipped with the same tools to express this care, and generally has had few examples to fall back on.

A large percentage of our online teachers have not experienced how care is expressed or attained online and have few experiences themselves of how failure is supported online, myself included. The online courses I have taken have all seemed somewhat removed from me; a kind of no frills instructional endeavor that gets right to the point, stays there, and ends. Read the materials, watch the video, listen to the podcast, post twice or three times a week, take the test, submit via the dropbox, finished. There were few pats on the back and little encouragement. Given this context, there was little opportunity for the instructors of these courses to impact real transformative change in my being. Any instructor who attempts incorporating support for failure is breaking new ground because, not only did they not experience failure support themselves, the media which they are working likely did not even exist a few years ago. Online instructors are not only learning to teach online, they are learning a whole gamut of digital ways to communicate. The best they can hope to do is try out some tips they saw at a conference, and learn from their mistakes over a long period of time, which I am trying to do.

Given the significance of these experiences in the longer term perspective of the experience of learning, I find it remarkable that I don’t find more emphasis on teaching failure well. Andrew Tawfik is starting to scratch the surface here, but we have a long way to go. In many years of teacher training I don’t remember ever focusing on how to deliver and support failure in learning, and I don’t remember any of these experiences that happened at-a-distance. Now that I am teaching online via an LMS, I feel even more handicapped at delivering this kind of caring for failure via the machine. Perhaps this is the greater implication of Joni Dunlap and Patrick Lowenthal’s advocacy for high touch low tech in online learning. But this is far easier said than done in contexts where learners have little time for synchronous communication and all their experiences come filtered through the lean media of a learning management system.

Healthy failure is difficult to administrate. It is a tricky business to put requirements for failure into programs, course designs, or teaching requirements. In the dynamics of instructional roles among teachers, few instructors enjoy being the one who tells learners that they were flat out wrong, the paper failed to meet certain standards, the learner is unlikely to pass given the present course of action, and so on. In graduate education there is a second ethical responsibility of telling a learner that, while the student may pass the course, from the state of the learners’ progress, it appears unlikely that the course of study will prove a prudent use of the student’s time, energy and money. This may just be the dirty work of teaching, especially online teaching where the message comes stripped of all tone and affection expressing care. Every job has some dirty work. Handing out the required rewrite may just be the dirty work of online education. Including precautionary statements in the omnipresent, all powerful, contractual agreement syllabus, seems to have little effect in mitigating the emotional impact. The statement “If the required criteria are not met in your final paper you may get a rewrite” is little consolation to the learner who actually does get a rewrite. Explanations that the editing process includes some of the most important aspects of learning the course entails can add salt to the wound even though the intension of the statement is to express care.

In our effort to make learning fun we sometimes handicap teachers, and learners, into thinking it is supposed to be fun all the time. If our most effective teaching strategies include experiences that are not fun, we may be handicapping our teachers from using the best tools they have to teach, especially online.

In-school but out of class, CATPALS at A&M Texarkana and why you should care

CATPALS this year focuses on Environmental Issues and all TAMUT registered students can pick up their free copy of Allen's The Good Food Revolution at the bursar. Go get it and get involved!

CATPALS this year focuses on Environmental Issues and all TAMUT registered students can pick up their free copy of Allen’s The Good Food Revolution at the Student Success Center-UC330. Go get it and get involved!

Universities, colleges and other types of learning institutions often pursue projects that initially start as non-credit bearing activities until they grow into accepted pedagogical practices and can become courses, or components of courses, and carry credit. These initiatives are how educational institutions transform. These are often the kinds of initiatives that make news, and often affect real change, even if that change is not readily apparent at the onset of the project. In each case, it takes multiple players to make institutional change into institutional reality.

For example, one such design is the reading program started by Alejandro Gac-Artigas featured recently on PBS here. This is instructional design, (by the way, it’s a design case, albeit a rather superficial one) teachers implemented a cooperative summer reading program with parents, a design genre that has been implemented dozens of times before (McCarthey 2000). Innovative or not, this type of attention on an in-school but out of class activity is important for gaining support and buy-in from those whose cooperation is needed to make initiatives succeed. What’s not mentioned in the video segment, but is vitally important, is the cooperative support from others at the institution. If you look closely at the PBS video segment, there are a number of indicators that this intervention is not a single-source project. The sessions happen during summer break; thus administration played a part in getting summer funding to keep doors open. There are multiple teachers teaching this curriculum, thus some other teacher volunteered to help with the teaching. There is non-junk food on the tables to keep parents and kids revved up during the activity; cafeteria staff also had a role. Before I talk about A&M Texarkana’s CATPALs, I will mention two other transformative projects that enlisted many players to transform teaching and learning at institutions where I saw this same type of in-school but out of class intervention transform the institution, in ways large and small.

Kanda University’s Self-Access Learning Centre: In 1998-99, Lucy Cooker wanted to create a space for learners that was less antiseptic, more inviting, and supportive of the motivated learner to really excel though self-paced learning. She talks about in this video. Notice she focuses on institutional support in her talk about the centre, which has now boomed to serving hundreds of learners daily from just a small 2-classroom project. Dozens of instructors supported the SALC during its fledgling years, though not all believed in the idea that a self-motivated learner could do what she was proposing. The SALC now employs several learning advisors and has transformed Kanda University from a school where learning was lock-step, to an institution that can support literally limitless language learning— in fact, several languages if a learner is so motivated. It truly transformed Kanda University in Chiba, Japan.

Indiana University’s Anti-plagiarism Test: in the early 2000’s, a number of teachers and teaching assistants at Indiana University endeavored to create a sustainable pedagogical response to help combat plagiarism. (Key members were: Theodore Frick, Elizabeth Boling, Andrew Barrett, Cesur Dagli, Rod Myers, Meltem Albayrak-Karahan, Joseph Defazio, and Noriko Matsumura). The test was supported by assistant instructors and other teachers who assigned the test, students who volunteered their skills in design, programming, or a myriad of other skills, and the university who supported the overhead. The IU anti-plagiarism tutorial (and test) now serves literally millions of students and teachers all over the world every year.

CATPALS at Texas A&M Texarkana: Committee for Annual Thematic Program and Lecture Series (CATPALS) is a whole-campus initiative designed to integrate multidisciplinary learning and community development at Texas A&M University – Texarakana. It has been spear-headed by Michal Perri, an Associate Professor of History. This year the theme is environmental issues and the University will be having lectures and providing reading materials to go along with the lectures. I will attend all the lectures I can. The projects started off with a free book (way to get professors on board!). You can pick up a copy of the book at Elizabeth Patterson’s office in the Student Success Center, UC330.

  • Allen, W. (2012) The good food revolution. Gotham Books (254 pages)

Lecture dates will be publicly announced via the TAMUT website: Search CATPALS @ http:tamut.edu

Here is my challenge: Any student who is taking any course I am teaching can gain a 5% increase on their final grade by creating instruction to go with any lecture material covered in CATPALS. It can be an online quiz, a tutorial, a video (vlog, etc…), or any other form of mediated instruction, but the experience must be accessible remotely in order to get credit. We can host your developed material on our student work webpage. I will share the media with the CATPALS committee. This is a great opportunity to put what you learn in Instructional technology to good use, become a part of the Texas A&M larger community of learners, and create a portfolio item which just could be that missing link that takes you from being a job applicant to an employed instructional designer.

References:

McCarthey, S. J. (2000). Home–school connections: A review of the literature. The Journal of Educational Research, 93(3), 145-153.

 

Information for Visiting Scholars at Texas A&M University Texarkana

Wordle VS graphic

Wordle.net provides the best cliche’ image maker for that moment when you need an image to accompany text and can’t think of anything better. Try it sometime.

I am flattered by the communications I have received over the past year asking for invitation letters to be a visiting scholar under my sponsorship. To expedite the process, please read the following prior to contacting me. This blog post will let you know how things proceed here at Texas A&M University Texarkana (TAMUT) and help you prepare for the process of obtaining a letter of invitation.

Purpose

The purpose of a scholarly visit, no matter how long the stay, usually 6 months to one year, is intended for scholarship, not as a precursor to enrolling in our Masters in Instructional Technology (ITED). If you are interested in our MS in ITED, you will find that in our program we have small classes, the program is very affordable, and is also 100% accessible online, here. The university is reasonably skeptical about requests to simply come here and take classes. Rather, the university is happy to extend sponsorship to an individual looking to further research in which we are already engaged. Generally speaking, scholars who have not yet published, or who are in the process of forming a dissertation committee, face a series of other questions when asking for a letter.

Required documentation

So far, all the requests I have received have to do with studying TESOL learning. While this is part of my research in general, I focus on rather specific area within that topic—learning in mediated environments. I do not have access to learner data in face to face settings at the moment. To talk about those possibilities at TAMUT, contact Dr Rincon via her contact information here. If you are interested in collaborating on studies involving mediated instruction, the first step is to assemble the following documents.

  • Visiting Scholar Application Form (docx or pdf). This is where the process starts. Please read the whole form prior to sending me email.
  • A cover letter describing the purpose of your stay and how my research is aligned with this purpose.
  • A copy of your most recent curriculum vitae.
  • A 1-2 page research plan including a description of the data, proposed analytical approach and potential contribution to the field of instructional/educational technology, TESOL, or instructional design.

A few things to keep in mind

Please allow at least 30 days for this process, starting from the time you submit your application package. There will likely be some sort of interview in the process of creating the invitation letter. You will need to have a drivers’ license as Texarkana is not fully accessible via public transportation. Texas A&M University Texarkana may or may not be able to provide an office for the duration of your stay; this is contingent upon space availability. TAMUT does have on-campus housing, the details of which can be discussed during your interview. TAMUT can provide access to library resources and there is ample space in the library for scholarly work. TAMUT can accommodate requests to present the scholarly accomplishments you make while here and I can provide a letter of completion/certificate at the conclusion of your time with me.

Design Tensions

I am writing this blog post after a failed online search for a clear, concise, yet sufficient explanation of design tensions in instructional design. Here’s my attempt at such an explanation, along with my acknowledgement that this can be said more elegantly. I hope for a better definition from someone out there because I am not strong in this area, and I know others are (eg: Deborah Tatar — see citation at the bottom.)

Design tensions are relationships between design components or features that are linked such that when one is repaired, improved or changed, another fails, is altered, or rendered ineffective.

For a general example in education, when designing for a problem-based intervention, too much structure in supporting scaffolds destroys the nature of the problem-based learning by giving away a quick solution, while too little supporting scaffolds may render the intervention impossible or overly frustrating for learners. Design tensions can be so great as to render the approach infeasible, or alternatively, they may be somehow minimized or balanced in the process of design.

Most importantly for instructional designers, tensions must be identified in order for a problem space to be defined. One has to know what the problem is in order to solve it, no? (Not sure on that one, but it sounds good to me so far). Like is said in many contexts, defining the problem is half the battle.

In a design document of any kind, if one says there’s a design tension somewhere in a design, the listener is expecting the next sentence to tell which component or feature impacts which other component, feature or characteristic of the design.

HCI deals with this more explicitly than instructional design. The graphic above is from a book on interaction design by Brian Whitworth with Adnan Ahmad. A full elaboration of the concept of design tensions is available in: Tatar, D. (2007) The Design Tensions Framework. Human–Computer Interaction (22) 4, 413-451.

Campus Pack (CP) addition for Blackboard: A usability review

I was asked to review Campus Pack (CP), a Blackboard overlay that attempts to improve on Blackboard functionality. Here are the issues I found.

1. Campus Pack lacks scent trails, or an intuitive design

The CP homepage graphic. This post is not in support of CP.

The CP homepage graphic. This post is not in support of CP.

Intuitive design is the feeling that a device makes sense from the user perspective. Campus Pack seems to challenge the user, and make even the simplest of tasks more difficult. For example, when new pages are created in the wiki, they must be accessed via linked hypertext that only appears on down scroll. Someone coming into a wiki to find new work will be hard-pressed to figure out where to access the work they are looking for. The browsing instructor can search for hours and never find the students’ completed work.

The dashboard is unlabeled and difficult to locate. Campus Pack uses a number of internally created terms which I find, and my students found, misleading. For example, “assignment dashboard” is a Campus Pack internally created term, and is the path to assignments, but it is not labeled as such and it difficult to locate. A Dashboard speaks to me as a selection of instruments gauging progress and present measurements in different areas. This seems to have a different meaning in Campus Pack. For CP, people have access via a dashboard.

Redundant features confuse users. CP contains a “directory” that neither access campus information nor BB information. Instead, it is a class roster that requires students to type in information about themselves. These types of problems plague CP. Campus Pack includes a redundant messaging, which does not disable the standard BB messaging function when activated. Therefore, the instructor may have messages they are unaware of. This duel messaging functionality cause problems because leaners who sent the instructor mail may assume their instructor checks “CAMPUS PACK MAIL” but the instructor may actually never find out about the message. Other pages are redundant and result in confusion. “Campus Pack: Course membership” serves the same function as the Blackboard Roster, but its presence misleads students to thinking that there is an alternative pathway to the wiki’s when there is not. Active hyper-linked pictures lead to spaces that appear as if they are undeveloped wikis, but are in fact a completely different content location. Students can easily be fooled into believing all their classmates’ wikis are empty. CP also includes a large, installable analog clock as a redundant feature for computers that do not have clocks. (I am yet to find such a machine.)

It should be noted that these new uses of older familiar terms are not defined. While a new use for an old term is in and off itself confusing, CP provides no glossary for their terms. Many items in CP are called “portals.” That’s fine, but few students have a clue what these words mean, nor how it impacts how they do things in CP. I am unclear as well. There is little use for a user to have their menu called a portal, unless the menu somehow functions differently from a normal menu.

2. Campus Pack has limited compatibility

Limited compatibility issues make CP very difficult for users, and limit its value as an addition to Blackboard. Mobile phone integration does not appear available for Campus Pack. Copy / paste functionality is not universally compatible with other programs. Campus Pack support C/P in some browsers, not on others. If your students read online, but write, and edit what they have read, in collaborative writing tasks, this will cause problems for students attempting to complete those tasks. Therefore, the software does not appear to have advantages over the most rudimentary versions of Blackboard. Students will like be unable to do any work on the fly via phones, and they cannot complete writing tasks in some browsers.

Some capability is actually disadvantageous. Campus pack includes social networking gadgets that link outside the interface, and can expose learners’ coursework to the public. SNS integration may appear an attractive feature of CP provide the instructor is protected from any type of related litigation, and does not teach in a public institution where the disclosure of learner information might potentially put the instructor in tenuous legal circumstances. Twitter, Facebook, and Flicker accounts can all be linked via CP.

3. Screen space is poorly used

While not nearly as detrimental as the two topics above, the misuse of screen real estate makes Campus Pack even more difficult to use and should be mentioned. Screen real estate is devoted either navigation, or to work space; the two functions are not integrated in one user interface. This creates problems in work flow. One cannot access, work, and save and move on seamlessly. The tasks must be broken up completely. Thus, you cannot read text in one area and write in another. Rather, navigation stretches the length and height of the screen, occupying all of it. For example, in some areas of the LMS addition, five different horizontal menus are employed while the rest of the screen is dead space.

Strategizing group research

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A Gannt chart is an excellent tool for organizing group research, but a research strategy needs a little more. Check out http://www.trainingable.com/free-download-excel-gantt-chart-templates/ or some free Gannt Charts.

I see research groups get stuck all the time. Graduate students, and those setting out to do research in groups, can get bogged down and tripped up at dozens of spots in the process from conception of an idea to publication of a completed study. Collective intelligence matters less in the process of research than strategy does in seeing the task through to completion. I’ve put together a few thoughts to help research groups strategize their process of working together.

Disclaimer: Putting these ideas down in a document was inspired by two blogs I follow. I am a big fan of two online blogs where senior faculty tell it like it is to doc students: Karen Kelsky’s the Professor is In and Matt Might’s Computer Science Blog. Both of those blogs offer great tips for doc students and others trying to do research, but I haven’t found this particular topic on those blogs—some of these ideas might be there under different terms than the one I use- strategizing group research.

1. Write down a strategy. I am surprised by how few groups seem to actually have a research strategy written and shared among group members. I think some of the fault lies in the terms we use to do research. Research strategies are comprised of more than just research methods. Of course, without the knowledge of methods a study will never get off the ground, but the knowledge of a research method can give a group a false sense of security that they know exactly how to get a study done. Coursework in a research method simulates a research environment much like an aviation simulation mirrors really flying a real plane. In a methods course, errors will not kill you, nor kill the study; they will just provide opportunities for learning. Errors in the real world can stop a study in its tracks. Research methods are so complex that having a controlled environment is often the only way to start in on the process of learning how to apply a method of data collection and analysis, but coursework takes place in an artificially controlled environment, unlike “real” research that happens in the real world. So this blog post is about those other areas that deter studies from finding their way into publication. A research strategy is usually a shared document that delineates who will do what, by when, and is all-inclusive, from IRB approvals to drafting tasks, from start to finish. It’s not set in stone, it’s a living documents that gets a group from start to finish on each project. I offer a few tips for creating a strategy to get the job done beyond the methods.

2. Document reasons for group membership. Students who have completed coursework in research methods often overlook the roles different people play in a research group. Perhaps this is because the experience of group work in methods coursework sets a stage where everyone is equal, and that aspect of the simulation is far from the truth of doing real research in the real world. In the real world, each member of a research group is there for a different reason, and those reasons are important. They significantly impact how group members are likely to behave. Each person needs a certain thing out of the project. Perhaps it is learning a new method, or perhaps it is getting a pub. Perhaps it is some stake in a research grant. Perhaps it is exposure to the experience. Whatever it is, it needs to be written down. Often, graduate students are not taught to do this in their coursework. These reasons are not addressed in methods coursework because they are not methods, but they are part of research in a group. Recognizing these roles is part of a solid research strategy. Methods classes rarely tell you to solicit and document the reasons people have come to a research group, but the practice informs all the members of the group and facilitates good will and understanding as the group moves forward with a project.

3. Recognize power dynamics in the beginning. Very often faculty and students are mixed. Sometimes junior and senior faculty are also mixed. When these contexts occur, power dynamics can get confusing. Students may solicit guidance from a faculty member who is not the leader on that particular study and their subsequent advice may be taken in undesirable directions for the leader of the group, or they may not recognize junior faculty are not exactly full equals to other members of the group. Sometimes a faculty member will refuse guidance as they might feel out of place, or if the leader is using the study as a teaching mechanism, for either a junior faculty or for a student. Recognizing positions of authority can help everyone navigate awkward moments and move on.

4. Discuss authorship and roles prior to the onset of the study. This is probably the most critical of the points I am making here. To be honest, the onus for this rests on those in lesser positions of power because they have the most to lose. At the same time, I am yet to encounter a faculty member anywhere who doesn’t want the process spelled out clearly – so do not be hesitant in approaching any faculty member leading or participating in research with questions about roles and authorship. It often happens is that the group is so busy in doing the work that they forget to stop and make some decisions about the strategy to get each aspect of the project done, or he needs of certain members are overlooked. There are dozens of websites out there with guidelines to determine who is first author, but the truth is, it is often the highest ranking faculty member who sets the rules. For my own work with students, my policy is always the same: If you have written the first draft of the paper, you are the first author. If I am invited to be a subsequent author, my name will appear last no matter how many students are included in the byline, and I will read and edit the draft that is submitted as well as the final proof, and those are the only drafts I will read from start to finish. I think most faculty members have some sort of general policy but rarely put it in writing because of the many different contexts they encounter. My own circumstances are pretty limited so I can put forward a blanket policy at this point in my career. While a discussion of roles and authorship may seem trivial, I have seen plenty of cases where studies develop in one direction or another where the roles and tasks were not clearly spelled out at the start, confusion ensues, papers never make it to submission, and there’s a fair bit of “I thought you were going to do that part.”  Everybody loses in such a case. I suggest that all groups doing research have the authorship discussion up front to.

5. Have a contingency plan. A contingency plan is a plan B should members not be able to complete up their assumed role. The plan should ensure that the study makes it through the process even when things pop up, and thing generally do pop up. From my experience of multiple-author research, the contingency plan generally rests on the shoulders of the first author. For example, when there is a deadline ASAP, it’s the first author who sucks up the final touches and provides the momentum to get the product out the door, even on tasks agreed to by others. If the policy is addressed openly, feelings are not hurt and members can proceed, if nothing else, at least informed. The plan especially comes into play in cases where one is waylaid by illness, taking kids little league games, a death in the family, or any of a number of reasons that put obstacles in the path to publication/presentation. From group to group the first author position may means something different. In my experiences, the first author position had a specific meaning that was to-often unspoken– it’s not only (and not necessarily) the one who did the bulk of the work. It signifies who was the driving force behind the research itself, and who is taking responsibility for its completion. Of course, the mores of practices change among fields and institutions, so having the contingency plan discussed ahead of time can be a welcomed insurance policy for guilt and hurt feelings should the unexpected arise. When members are from a variety of cultures, straightforward addressing of the circumstances of contingency becomes even more important.

6. Avoid assuming that formulating the research design determines first authorship. While practices may vary among institutions and fields, the authorship discussion may also bring to light some important nuances of research we rarely get in methods courses. Just because one person came up with one idea does not mean the study itself is “theirs.” There’s a lot that goes into research. When groups meet, dialogue often results in new ideas. Group members new to a group may feel slighted if their assumptions about credit are not fulfilled in the practices of the group. In my own experience, faculty do not require first author position for every study they guide; however, in some cases, a particular study may be of particularly importance, either to a long-term trajectory or for some other reason. As long as the role of the study and value of the credit for it are addressed early on, the authorship discussion is a comfortable one. Faculty accused of “stealing” students research ideas are less likely research thieves than they are guilty of not having the authorship discussion up front. A lot of this could be mitigated by avoiding assumptions about how group work results in credit. Unfortunately, as it is often the responsibility of the student, and not the faculty member, rarely does the faculty member initiate the discussion or put forward these ideas at the start.

7. Several studies can be written on the same data, but this means a separate strategy is needed for each. Planning ahead and deciding who is writing which study from a given project is needed in order to do this. Few projects are at this phase in the early stages. Simply designating one person as “doing qualitative” and another as “doing quantitative” doesn’t avoid conflict in the future because the terms are not accurate descriptions of research.  In my experience, “qualitative” is too vague. Simply equating “quantitative” with anything study that contains numbers is also too vague. I would avoid the both terms in deciding who is doing what. If a project is in the early stages, and multiple studies are planned, some things may need to be worked out prior to the strategy and authorship discussions. In those cases, it is helpful to anticipate revising the strategy as you move forward.
The final three points might be specific to scholars in education. I don’t know enough about other fields to speak to how research groups might work most productively in those fields.

8. Look beyond the quasi-experimental study. One of the problems research groups have is that newer members may only see as far as the experimental aspect of the research. While many research designs in education will fall into this category of quasi-experimental study, there is much more to look at in most projects.  There is the design of the intervention, close inspections of learner experiences, stakeholders’ accounts of a practice, and methods articles, just to name a few. Very often, these other aspects of the study are the most interesting part, once you dig into them. And the experimental study itself may face larger obstacles to publication than new members are ready to tackle: quasi-experimental studies are often closely read for precise usage of research terms, such as the proper labeling of the data, the correct usage of words like “control group” and necessary treatment of what makes them “quasi” as opposed to true experiments, such as having a placebo. The literature review is perhaps the most foundational aspect of any study that gets overlooked, yet group members stepping forward excited to do the literature review are rare. The person who does the literature review is an important and often overlooked role.

9. Revisit the strategy when major changes occur. One of the most difficult things to grasp about the act of actually doing research is that research always reads linearly, but is almost never so in practice. Rather, the process is iterative. I might also add that is it not a bad idea to revisit the strategy after the initial grappling with the data by the group. Research questions are a work in progress until the proofs go to publication, in most cases. Initially viewing data under a general driving concept is great, but keeping in mind that the RQs can change as the project evolves can really empower a research group, and if all the members are aware that the strategy can be amended at any point, people can be encouraged to follow fruitful paths. Avoid getting stuck in “causes” and proposed calculations in the beginning. They can be elusive, especially in early stages when data has just been collected and is not fully prepared. Also, some calculations may or may not be worth the time to calculate until the group has grappled with some of the main ideas. You can always add calculations later at reviewers’ request. If you haven’t yet dug into the data, and done a few passes through with your analysis scheme, you can’t truly foresee what that data really means; and therefore, the initial strategy may have been naive. Seasoned scholars are not deterred by this, but newer members may feel discouraged when data shows the unexpected.

10.  Share the strategy document when new members arrive, and revisit it at the end. The research strategy is more than a Gannt chart. New members need to see the progress that has been made to catch up quickly and contribute, and simply sharing a strategy document with new members can bring them up to speed in a non-biased way, especially is sub-studies have moved in directions of their own. It has value up until the final publication is sent out, and perhaps even after that. A group research strategy can function as a collaborative narrative of the twists and turns of the project. Group projects that last over extended periods of time can lose track of the rationale behind important decisions and expected outcomes. Revisiting a strategy after a projects nears the final stages can offer a lot in retrospect about how decisions were made and how those decisions played out in the end.

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