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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.

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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.

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.

Strategizing group research

gantt-chart-templates-1024x724

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.

A tired topic: Wikipedia in graduate school

I don’t want to ever revisit this topic. Here goes.wikipedia-war-china-japan-rock-paper-scissors-demotivational-poster-1226442657.png

Each faculty member chooses to allow or disallow the citation of Wikipedia for different reasons. Here are my reasons with, of course, my rationale.

Wikipedia is a collective understanding of a topic. If a student cites such an understanding, then the citation is appropriate, provided the citation is complete with a date– dates are uniquely important with editable online content. If a citation of Wikipedia argues that information is an authoritative source, it’s wrong. Authority requires ownership of decisions and direct responsibility for what is claimed. To provide a citation to Wikipedia as an authoritative source reflects a misunderstanding of the media configuration in Inst Tech. In my courses, I ask that my students understand how the media works and what it means. So in my classes, inappropriate references to Wikipedia (Wikipedia as authority) are not permitted. My learners are expected to understand how media relates to information because that is a topic in Instructional Technology, and that includes understanding how a wiki, or any other real-time editable content, works. Having said that,Wikipedia is a wonderful resource to show what the public thinks about a topic, or what a group of people in the public think about a topic.

If one chooses Wikipedia as a source to show this, the date is extremely important. Public opinion changes and discussions naturally evolve. Therefore, I reject any citation of Wikipedia that lacks a date. Wikipedia also updates often. To present an argument that assumes otherwise is sloppy and misleading. Therefore, any citation to Wikipedia that lacks a date is not permissible in my courses. Again, doing so reflects a misunderstanding of the way information and media work together. Other instructors may accept such citations because what they teach is likely very different from what I teach.

The short answer one might get from some educators is that Wikipedia is a starting point but not an end destination—it should be used to find other sources. I don’t really buy into this either because at the graduate level, I expect more than following the work of whoever on Wikipedia. I expect my students to not release the responsibility of their understandings of topics to random individuals. There is no indication on Wikipedia about whether to not its sources on a particular topic are up to date. I suggest keeping that in mind when using Wikipedia as a launching point for research meant to have depth. It may or may not reflect the current state of public knowledge on a topic. Why do we want depth? Arthur Levine explains this better than I do.

Forbidden words in Instructional Technology

Expanded title might read, Why I forbid students to use certain words when they describe a design, and the list itself

This week a student asked me to explain the differences among discussion boards, discussion forums, and blogs. I paused because I knew my answer was actually a blog post, and not really what a student wants to hear. I wondered if my answer held value for her the same as I felt it holds for me. I am someone who appreciates an accurate description of a design, but not a lot of people do. Maybe that’s because design communication is one of those things that really only get appreciated when it breaks down. So I paused, and thought about it, then I gave her and the whole class the whole long-winded lecture (via the Blackboard asynchronous message feature) about why it’s important to describe designs well. Here’s what I said.

picture of forbidden words

Editor Hugo Lindgren’s list of forbidden words at the NY Times Magazine. His list is far longer than mine, and thus suggests to me that after all, I am not such a bad guy. Check out his fill list at the link provided at the end of this entry.

The hard and fast difference among discussion boards, discussion forums, and blogs is nothing. They are all slang words for asynchronous configurations, and at this point in time, have generally become so varied in specific manifestations, that the terms are slightly more valuable than total gibberish. So to me, they all signify the same thing– asynchronous communication that needs to be described more accurately to be understood. Blogs are supposedly reverse chronological journals of substantial length. But of course there’s Twitter, the quintessential micro-blog with a character lengthy of what, 150? Obviously not very blog-like. Then you have discussion forums that have traditionally been open-access, threaded asynchronous messages that are persistent—meant to be knowledge development venues that stay available pretty much as long as those who contributed to them might ever want to retrieve them or look something up. Our limited access Blackboard forums erase themselves two weeks after the end of the course, so they are really not forum-like either.  The varied asynchronous communication configurations on Blackboard are given a bunch of these random titles simply for the purpose of selling the LMS to faculty who have better things to worry about than what is really a blog, and what is really a forum. (Incidentally, there is nothing done on Blackboard that can’t be done on WordPress for free, and Blackboard costs 20,000$ a year, just to run the platform. These sales tactics work really well.) The inaccuracy of these words in relation to their less than uniform manifestations is exactly WHY I give my students a list of forbidden words. “Blog, forum, discussion board, etc…” are all terms that are way too inaccurate for an instructional designer to use on the job without long explanations of what they mean in a given case. These are sales-language terms and inaccurate tech-slang, not design terms. I tell my students that clients may use them in talking to you, but you should not use them when talking to your clients. As an instructional designer, you need to know more than these vague words to talk about online learning, technology enhanced learning, or technology integration. While it may sound like a very small point I am making here, we are actually talking about a lot of money when it comes to the job itself. Imagine a design needs to be amended or reconfigured because of a communication error between client and designer. You’re likely imagining serious lost time, like entire weekends spent recreating a design to fix the miscommunication. If you’re billing by the hour, you might save your client (20 hours X 50) 1000$. If you’re doing this once a month, you’re 12,000$ more valuable as an instructional designer than your peers, simply because you use the right words when you sit down and talk about a design, not to mention the fact that your clients are happier and giving you more work. I say call a spade a spade, don’t use forbidden words, use accurate design terms, or, in this case, call your high-tech spade with embedded communication for learning a “persistent, asynchronous skeuomorph, affording multiple channel, limited access, converged CMC.”

The forbidden words

  • Web 2.0 (as if this ever actually meant anything anyway)
  • MOOC
  • Blog (Some Blogs are reverse chronological, some are chronological, and some are not even weblogs thus making them not blogs at all. The term is so misused it is no longer meaningful when talking about design. It’s ok if you say “this is my blog” because you have identified a specific Blog. However, if you say “It is designed like a Blog” the listener could be thinking one of one hundred different things.)
  • Wiki (“openly editable webpage” is far more accurate for some platforms commonly called “wikis”, otherwise wikis have so many versions it is hard to imagine what you mean, exactly)
  • Homepage
  • Social Bookmarks / Bookmarking
  • All proprietary words are forbidden except as archetype comparisons (e.g. Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc…)
  • Podcasts & Vlog (these are slang terms for uploaded video, but actually are aligned with not design, but content genre. Avoid these terms unless you’re analyzing content)
  • Chat room
  • All proprietary words are forbidden (e.g. Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc…)
  • Cell phone (no one knows what a cell phone is anymore because the concept of “phone” is gone when we text on a phone but make calls on computers, aka via VoIP, “Skype.” Avoid saying “phone” because everyone seems to suddenly get confused.)
  • Good, bad, best, better, worst, great, nice, ok, interesting, and information. These are all vague and confusing.
  • Computer ( I add this because different types  abound and unless you’re talking about a new one, such as wearable computing, you’re probably using the term in a way that could be much more precise with another word.)

The recommended terms

I preface this list of preferred terms with, “Here are words that are typically employed by professionals and demonstrate an understanding of emerging technology for instructional design: (You should use all applicable terms here instead of the ones above.) If you do not know any of these words, look them up.”

  • Synchronous/Asynchronous
  • Open access, single access, limited access, password protected
  • Persistent
  • Vertical / horizontal array
  • Handheld device
  • Computer-mediated communication (CMC)
  • Converged media, converged media CMC (or CMCMC)
  • Social Network /  collaborative access
  • Character allowance
  • Editable
  • Website
  • Images, Image-texts, imagetext
  • One-to-many / one-to-one / many-to-one / user-to-interface-  communication types
  • Multi-user
  • Password protected /  access protected
  • Responsive / unresponsive or “fixed” design (means the display does not adapt to the device)
  • Design tensions (I cannot stress learning this term enough. All designers use this word, and if you don’t recognize design tensions, you’re not analyzing very well. They are there in every design.)
  • Customizable
  • Learner experience
  • Video sharing site
  • Annotatable
  • Presence indicator
  • cloud storage

BONUS TERM: skeuomorph

The picture is graciously stolen from a New York Times Magazine article about their forbidden words list, linked here.

Publishing as a graduate student & tips for submitting a manuscript for submission

I have been asked about publishing as a graduate student, and have decided to share that opinion here with some pointers. I chose the blog as opposed to elsewhere because the blog is the venue for these perspectives—not a university website, not in-class materials. These views are not the views of Texas A&M University, nor do they really belong in any of the classes I teach. Publishing as a grad student is not part of my course; rather, it is part of how I see the experience of being a graduate student, what it should be, and what it is.

Some manuscripts require more work than others. Some of mine required my mentors to work pretty hard,

Some manuscripts require more work than others. Some of mine required my mentors to work pretty hard

Occasionally a paper written for a course actually has enough merit to be the raw construct of a paper worthy to be read by others. For advanced graduate students, writing for school is writing for publication, if you’re doing it correctly. At the undergraduate level, and in some parts of early graduate school, the act of writing is one of honing your thinking, sharpening the analytical knife, and learning to put knowledge to use. But in the later stages of graduate school, the healthy target is publication because the publication process is where coddling ends, and the writer faces the real challenge of expert review.

A student asked me, “But aren’t our professors experts?”  It is very likely your professor is an expert in the topic of the course, but your professor reads your paper with a completely different purpose than she reads articles for review. She reads your paper to see if you understand the concepts and procedures she taught you. She reads submitted manuscripts to see if the knowledge presented is a contribution to HER knowledge, not yours. This difference is subtle, but important. There is much to be learned in the process of publication, and the experience of the publication process while in graduate school is essential to understanding what it means to be a scholar. While I am not advocating that all final papers be submitted to journals, I am advocating that submission to publication is the ideal target for young authors, especially when those young authors are students who are interested in going into higher education or research.

I need to preface my tips for preparing a manuscript with a few warnings. Publication circles are small. Submitting a term paper for publication prematurely can get one’s name associated with low quality scholarship.  While publication is a worthy target, it’s also a target that should be approached with caution, preparation, and rigor. This blog post was inspired by student questions about my position on writing for publication at the graduate level, not because I advocate sending final papers to journals. That would be irresponsible, and counter-productive. I didn’t like getting papers written for class as an editor, and I got a few. Here are some things to keep in mind should you endeavor to publish from what you wrote in a grad school course.

1. Select the publication venue PRIOR to writing your paper. Imagining the readership of the magazine or journal while writing tends to force some students to re-think before they write. If you know real people will read it, you’re less likely to write far-flung ideas and more likely to explain your position in simple language. For some, imagining real people can also have the adverse effect of writers’ block. Let’s assume for now that that will not happen. Selecting the venue first can be influential in helping you accomplish tasks during the process as well. Searching that journal for articles on your topic and then responding to those articles directly in your paper can bring a stuck writer to some valuable insights early in the process of writing. This also provides direction for style and gives the work real meaning beyond the credits awarded for the course. It also leads into my next point.

2. Make sure that you have cited the journal to which you are submitting. This is valuable for 2 reasons. First, if you can’t cite the journal, your article probably does not belong in that journal. A great example is a paper I helped someone prepare for a games and simulations journal. The literature they were using was not from the journal to which they were submitting, even though the title of the paper and the title of the journal seemed to match. Under closer inspection, it was a poor fit. Preparation of that article for that journal would have been waste of time. The second reason is that each journal is a discussion in progress and the reviewers need to know that you’re up on the discussion taking place in that journal. Not all the reviewers are fully up-to-date on ALL topics being addressed in a journal. A paper that cites NO work in that journal is a good indication that the article was NOT written for that journal and would not be very interesting, or helpful, for those who read that journal for that topic. In fact, if it is truly outdated and uninformed, it will drive some readers away. Therefore, I know as an editor I was always suspicious of using up reviewers’ time with articles that were outdated or uninformed. Making sure there are a few substantive citations from that journal to situate the article within the larger discussion gives the reviewers and editor a means of deciding whether or not what you have submitted will be interesting for readers.

3. Anonymize. An “A” on your paper does not mean your paper is ready for submission. There are a number of tasks that need to be accomplished before the manuscript is ready to send off to submission. An obvious but sometimes forgotten task is to clean up and anonimyze the manuscript for review. If you have had to deal with peer or teacher comments, address as many of them as is applicable to improving the manuscript, BUT GET RID OF THE COMMENTS. Accept all changes, save as a clean draft, and remove your personal electronic stamp by (…if using MS Word) going to Microsoft emblem in the upper left->prepare-> then properties. Also make sure there are no remaining tracked-changes lurking at the end. Your goal is to make it to review; only a clean, anonimyzed manuscript will be sent out.

4. Save your acknowledgement for later. If you’ve had previous support by the teacher or classmates to help develop the manuscript, it’s professional and courteous to include an acknowledgement of that support, but NOT at the submission stage. Remove the acknowledgement if you’ve already placed it in. That acknowledgment goes back in after the first review. Also, you need to remove any language from the acknowledgement that could be interpreted as promotional, subjective, or identifies this article as coursework. Once the course is over, it is no longer coursework. The revised manuscript after review will likely be quite different from the manuscript you submitted. Remove any sentences in the manuscript that state or imply the manuscript was part of a course. If you have never written an acknowledgment, keep it modest and simple. Here’s an example I gave to one of my students. It’s not particularly elegant, but it’s a functional acknowledgement for someone who had not written one before.
I acknowledge the guidance of Craig D. Howard PhD, Assistant Professor of Inst. Technology at Texas A&M – Texarkana, the helpful reviews of XXX,YYY, ZZZ, and the anonymous reviewers at [publication name here]. I acknowledge the US Army Tuition Assistance Program for supporting the development of this article while I was deployed in Afghanistan. 

This particular student was in the active military at the time when he wrote this article and his study was supported by a US Army program. I cautioned him to check if there were any grant numbers or specific language that should be included, but honestly, I know very little about these legalities and a comment from a reader on this point would be very helpful.

5. Read the writers guidelines. These are also known as  “Instructions for Authors” at some publications. Check the publication’s website. Here’s an example of some writers guidelines at Tech Trends.

Writers guidelines invariably have little nuances that can slow down your article’s review. Get as many of these minor changes BEFORE submission. Sometimes an article gets to the top of the to-review list, a guidelines problem is uncovered (like a bio left in the article or style issue) and the article goes back to you for repair, only to go to the bottom of the list when re-submitted. Just off the top of my head, watch out for short abstract word limits and the publication specific spellings such as “m-learning” or a preferred way to write electronic mail (Email, email, or e-mail.)  Don’t be afraid to condense some of your text. Unlike some papers for school, longer papers have a more treacherous road to publication than shorter ones. (This is more of an issue in print journals than electronic ones.) Exceeding the word count on the writers guidelines can easily get you a rejection prior to review.

Along these same lines, if you have included terms specific to your institution, remove them. I have returned at least a dozen manuscripts to authors prior to review asking that the authors replace course numbers with course names. “In our course, w200, there were 4 instructors and 120 students over five sections.” No one wants to guess what w200 is, though we can if we must.

6. Craft your bio. The editor may need it quickly and having it handy and in the online system, or ready to be emailed saves time. Keep your bio under 100 words. I have seen 200-400 word bios that get an article pushed to a later issue based on space limitations. Remember, a shorter bio is more publisher-friendly than a longer one.  Your bio is always written in the 3rd person, and usually ignores your undergraduate education. I recommended to the students above to write his as follows:

Joseph Dotson is a Masters student at Texas A&M University – Texarkana and a [rank here]  in the US Army.

While this bio is short, it is important. Be careful about the name you use. You want the formal version UNLESS you’re going to stick with the informal version forever. I had to switch to “Craig D. Howard” once I learned there was a Craig Howard in New Jersey writing Jewish nostalgia. I am neither Jewish nor very nostalgic. This is one case where your middle initial is helpful for disambiguation. I know not everyone has a middle initial, but if you do, use it.

7. Register with the journal as an author, upload and SUBMIT.  Of course, be sure to read the submission steps. They usually tell you when you’ll be hearing back about the journal’s receipt of your manuscript.  Sometimes the confirmation is sent automatically via a bot, sometimes it’s an actual email from the editor. Can take anywhere from a couple hours to 2 weeks.  The time of the year plays a role as well. Both Tech Trends and IJDL were inundated with manuscripts during the first week of June, and received NOTHING in October and November. Be aware that holidays can slow the process down at every stage. My quickest confirmation was also a rejection. It took  Abbie Brown 3.5 minutes  to reject my article while he was the editor at Tech Trends. I considered that a success to because I learned something right away– if it can’t be anonimyzed, it goes elsewhere. Remember, just getting into the process is an accomplishment. If you are a student, and your article is rejected, CONGRATULATIONS! You just got more learning out of the course that you took than a large percentage of the students who paid the same tuition that you did.