CC-BY-NC-SA by Luke Chan on Flickr

From Community College to College community

When students drop courses at our community college, we ask them to complete a course drop survey form explaining their reasons for dropping.  The majority state for “personal reasons” the second most frequent response is for “other” reasons. Apparently we are not unique. Neal Raisman recently shared on his blog – “Great Service Matters” – the results of a study of why students leave college. Many of these students at the point of departure state they leave for “personal reasons”.

CC-BY-NC-SA by Luke Chan on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Luke Chan on Flickr

In the study, 864 students were interviewed after at least six months following their leaving college. The break in time was intended to give students an opportunity to be more reflective and open about their reasons for leaving.

Twenty-six percent of students reported they left because the “college doesn’t care”. Another twenty-four reported “poor service” as their main reason for leaving – which could be interpreted as another way of saying that the college doesn’t care. Together, these two responses account for fifty percent of students leaving school.

That’s huge.

In a previous post I shared the results of our own student survey of online learners asking what we could do to help them be more successful. It was clear from these student responses that they valued courses where the instructor was available and accessible – in other words – cared about them and how they were doing in the course.

What does it mean for a college to care?

Raisman talks about the importance of customer service. Certainly responsiveness is an important component to quality customer service, including something as obvious as having people available to answer calls, emails, texts, etc. in a timely manner. Listening to what students have to say, and then putting ourselves in their shoes is key to responsive and caring customer service.

Inclusiveness is another essential consideration. Many students at the community college are first generation college students. Their parents, friends and family may not be in a position to advise them about college life, expectations, and what it takes to succeed. Keeping this in mind, we need to consider ways of connecting students to the campus. For on-campus students this may mean student organizations or study groups. For online students we need to consider virtual connections that may leverage social media, or collaborative class projects, virtual office hours, etc. With more than 80% adoption of mobile technology by college students, there has never been a better time to leverage social media as a means of connecting all students to the college community.

Student support is more than a responsive friendly help desk or online tutoring – it includes a creating a sense of community for both the on-campus and the online student. If we are to succeed in retaining our distance learners,  the community college must become more of a college community.

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Gamification and Student-to-content Interactivity

Learner engagement is considered to be an effective predictor of student success. We can increase learner engagement by focusing on interactivity in course design.

Dice CC-BY-NC-SA by Daniela Hartmann on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Daniela Hartmann on Flickr

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University published a paper on the topic: Predicting Online Student Outcomes from a Measure of Course Quality (Jaggars & Xu.) The purpose of the study was to gather empirical evidence regarding the link between online course quality and student outcomes.

The study looked at four main areas:

  • Course design: organization and navigation
  • Learning objectives and assessment
  • Interpersonal interactions (student-to-instructor & student-to-student)
  • Effective use of technology

Much of what was learned through the research reaffirms what we have shared here before – that there exists a positive correlation between student-to-instructor interactivity and student success.

What the study did not reveal was a correlation between student success and online course design, or for that matter, between student success and the alignment of learning objectives and assessment. That isn’t to say these aren’t essential considerations when designing the online course – they are. But rather, that the study did not provide evidence that these factors are directly related to student achievement.

Another interesting finding was that although student-to-instructor interactions showed a positive correlation to student outcomes, this was not necessarily the case with student-to-student interactions. In fact, students indicated their experience with online discussion and group projects was, to paraphrase, pretty much a time sink.

Initially, the findings appeared to support a relationship between the effective use of technology and course grades, but after controlling for student characteristics the relationship became less apparent. Most quality assurance rubrics and accepted practices in online delivery suggest that educational technologies need to be current or state-of-the-art. However, this study suggests when designing rubrics for online course design…

“…quality ratings for technology may wish to focus on not just the use of “current” technologies but how these technologies are used to support user interaction, confidence, motivation, and learning.”

It occurs to me that interaction, confidence, motivation and learning can all be supported by the introduction of games or gamification in learning design.

The use of games in education has gained momentum in recent years. Games can be very motivating (perhaps even addicting). In a game we interact with the medium, often are given problems to solve or challenges to overcome, make choices, and as we progress in skill we become more confident.

Tools like Respondus StudyMate and Quia can be used to turn objective type quizzes into word games: (matching, hangman, crossword, fill in the blank). This is especially helpful when learning new terminology. After integrating games into her Medical Terminology course a couple of years ago an instructor reported significant improvement in student test scores as students began to spend hours reviewing the content as they played games and tried to improve their scores.

The learning is not necessarily the learner’s primary goal when playing a game, but rather accomplishing a task, mastering a certain level, gaining points or credits, and ultimately to win. Of course learning happens as an outcome in the process. Games are by definition, competitive – we may compete against the computer, chance, ourselves, or others (bringing us back to the earlier discussion about student-to-student interactions).

According to Karl Kapp, “Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.”

“Through the careful application of game elements—such as the freedom to fail, interest curve, storytelling, and feedback—in learning programs, ordinary content can be made more engaging without the development of a full-fledged learning game.” – Karl Kapp

By looking for ways to implement game elements into our courses we may be able to repond to the several questions brought up in the study, including student to student interactions, and effective use of technology (student to content interactions).

For more information about gamification, check out Karl’s article Getting Started with Gamification on ASTD.org.

What students love about online learning…

Students say they love their online courses when their instructor is accessible and responsive, when their instructor is hard to reach or unresponsive – not so much.

CC-BY-NC-SA by John Harvey on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by John Harvey on Flickr

We recently surveyed our online students regarding distance learning support services. The last question in the survey asked for “any other comments” they wished to offer. About two-thirds of the responses were very positive with students telling us how much they appreciated the online options. Here’s the gist…

“Although the instructor had organized the course well on Blackboard, I could never get a prompt response…”

“My instructor was awesome and was always there if you had any questions.”

“…every course I have taken has been great and the professors have all been attentive and responsive”.

“I really enjoyed my online course with [my] professor… he was responsive to my individual questions and he always replied in a timely compassionate manner.”

“I enjoyed my online courses. The professors were always available for help, though at times I had to wait a day or so for them to email me back.”

“I enjoy my online classes. My psychology class this semester has been great. My economics teacher on the other hand, I feel is very distant and not very helpful when I try and reach out to him.”

Note the theme here – “I loved the online course – my instructor was responsive”.

It would appear that instructor responsiveness and availability is key to student satisfaction in the online learning experience. Some thoughts on how to accomplish this in your online courses…

Students need to know the instructor’s preferred communication style.

Which tools or methods will you employ – email, instant messaging, texts, voice calls, Twitter, Skype, or a combination thereof? Posting this information in the syllabus and course introductory pages can help to manage expectations. Students will know that although you are not available twenty-four-seven, you can still be reached and will be getting back with them in a reasonable amount of time. Tell the students you will respond in a timely manner so they know when to expect a response, and be specific. If your intention is to answer inquiries within 24 hours, state this on the course homepage along with your contact information. I knew a teacher, new to online, who told her students that she would be checking her emails on Thursday evenings. Yeah… as you might imagine, that was not very well received.

Online instructors should not feel the need to respond to every text as it is received, but they do need to establish some sort of routine. If you check your email first thing in the morning or before you go to bed at night, students will begin to expect your responses around these times. If the schedule changes – you’re on vacation, or working on a project that takes you away from your normal rhythm – send out a message or announcement that they might not hear back from you until the next day.

Virtual office hours are useful even when students don’t take advantage of them. They know that Tuesdays and Thursdays they can log into the chat or find you on Skype between 2:30 and 4:00 in the afternoon. I know more than a few faculty who regularly schedule virtual conferences with their students using Google Hangouts or Skype, just to add a more personal connection as they review their students’ writing assignments.

Have the students introduce themselves to the rest of the class at the beginning of the semester. This can be very helpful in creating a sense of community in the virtual classroom environment. You can model this by posting your own introduction to a discussion forum as the first assignment. Using the Blackboard video feature or simply sharing a short video from your phone can help students to see you as a real person so they can put a face along with the name of their professor.

For more ideas about improving communication and interaction, check out the Communications & Interactions Plan found at University of Utah’s Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence: https://utah.instructure.com/courses/148446/pages/communication-and-interaction-plan-strategies

Does social media belong in the classroom?

Social media, when used for teaching and learning encourage student-to-faculty, student-to-student, and student-to-content interaction and thereby have the potential to increase learner engagement.

CC-BY-NC-SA by Espacio Camon on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Espacio Camon on Flickr

A few years ago, Rey Junco researched the effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades and found that “Twitter can be used as an educational tool to help engage students and to mobilize faculty into a more active and participatory role.”

Although use of social media has increased for both students and teachers their preference is for personal rather than for educational purposes.

The Social Media for Teaching and Learning report by Pearson & Babson finds faculty use of social media has increased in all areas: personal, professional, and educational. However, most faculty still have some strong reservations when it comes to use in the classroom. Although it appears that both faculty and students see the value of integrating mobile technologies into teaching and learning, both groups are concerned with privacy and prefer to keep their personal separate from their academic lives.

“Concerns about privacy, both for themselves and for their students, and about maintaining the class as a private space for free and open discussion, have been at the top of the list of concerns in all of the reports. Until faculty feel that this issue has been addressed, the wide-scale adoption of commercial social media tools in the classroom will remain limited.”

– Pearson: Social Media for Teaching & Learning

The very nature of Social media is highly interactive and therefore engaging – permitting us to share our stuff – news articles, blogs, videos, photos, etc. – with our connections in practically real-time.

shareThe advantage of social media over LMS tools like the discussion forum is the convenience of sharing directly from the media to our connections – like the difference between email and texting.

“This is cool! I’ll share it. There – I shared it!” …five people liking it and three comments later and we’re engaged in a conversation.

So how do we get around this privacy thing?

The critical thing about social media when it comes to privacy is the social network. Some social networks can be made either open or closed, public or private. For example some Google Plus Communities are made available for anyone to join while others are by permission only.

Our campus uses Gmail for student email, so virtually every student has a Google Plus account whether they know it or not. They just need activate it. As an instructor I can create a private community in Google Plus for my course, email the students in my class and invite them to join. Content shared within a private Google Plus community is visible only to those who are members of the community.

There – we have a private social network. Now what?

The latest ECAR study on undergraduate students and information technology shows that students are willing to use their mobile technologies for educational purposes, they just need some instruction on how to do so.

With a little orientation students can quickly get up to speed.

Students need to know how to manage their networks or “circles” in Google Plus and then how to like (+1)  and to share media when they find it. As the community owners, we need to set some guidelines for our community so students know what is appropriate to share and how to engage in the conversation. We also need to show them the mechanics of the tools.

Categories can be created within the community. By using hashtags (e.g. #edtech) when sharing or posting media, the content and discussions can be organized into various topics and forums. This works great for managing small group discussion and assignments or for topically organizing the media and other content.

Students can share various media (location, photos, video) directly from their phones, tablets, or computers. Hangouts (live chat and video) permit up to ten students to interact remotely in real-time with desktop sharing, audio and video. This is especially helpful with collaboration in small study groups.

The Hangouts on Air feature permits the instructor or guest speakers to join the class from a distance and to stream, as well as record lectures, which are then automatically posted to the community timeline.

The private community is not limited to the classroom but permits the instructor to decide who can join the community. By expanding the network students from multiple sections, upper-classmates, alumni, and experts in the field can engage in classroom discussions.

Google Plus communities permit the faculty and students to share documents, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. anything stored in Google Drive – permitting students to collaborate in the development of class projects or share their portfolios.

Does social media belong in the classroom? I would say yes, depending on what you hope to achieve. There are many ways of engaging students by extending the classroom using social media if you are willing to invest a little time and effort to set up a private network.

How colleges leverage social media…

Social Media is essentially about connecting and sharing. Some of the most common ways colleges use social media include marketing, recruitment, and keeping in touch with alumni.

rogerg1flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by roger g1 on Flickr

Our campus has a Facebook page for students to “like” us and to keep up on whats happening on campus. Facebook continues to be the number one social network for all populations and can be leveraged in a variety of ways to help market the college, its programs, and campus events.

Recruitment is an important function of social media. Marquette University offers a virtual tour of their campus to prospective students and their parents using Instagram.

Whether connecting with friends and family through Facebook, networking with coworkers and colleagues through LinkedIn, following someone on Twitter, or sharing your video on YouTube, social media is increasingly becoming part of the average person’s daily life.

Some 42% of online adults now use multiple social networking sites. In addition, Instagram users are nearly as likely as Facebook users to check in to the site on a daily basis.

Pew Internet: Social Media Update 2013

Social media helps us to expand our professional connections as well as to organize and categorize connections into virtual communities. We can join groups, create our own, or invite others join our communities. By creating or joining existing circles, groups, or communities we can build connections with others around common interests and expand our networks far beyond what would otherwise be possible without social media.

By leveraging social media to create a sense of community, we can actually improve persistence and student success. This becomes especially relevant for the increasing percentage of students enrolling in online learning.

Community development is not simply developing a virtual campus or an online resource portal that includes an infinite number of electronic links to student resources and chat rooms. Online administrators must design meaningful opportunities for students to interact with their peers, faculty, adjuncts, and staff in a supportive and inclusive environment.

– K. Betts (2008), Online Human Touch (OHT), JOLT

By leveraging social media to help students better connect to their program of study we foster community both within and outside the classroom. These connections allow students to  be more than observers, but rather participants in the campus community by contributing to the conversation and the culture of the institution, program, and classroom.

CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr

When Online Learning Fails

A recent article in the Instructional Technology Council newsletter shared some of the challenges and frustrations from a student’s perspective when online learning fails.

An high school student tells of her experience enrolling in two online courses during her senior year. While seeking greater flexibility in her summer study schedule, she instead finds the whole experience somewhat frustrating.

Integrating Technology and the Academy

CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr
CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr

Eight important considerations about online learning to consider from the student perspective…

1) Students need to understand the online course requires at least as much time as the face-to-face alternative. Many online courses require logging into a course site and completing assignments and discussion postings on a regular basis – as much as several times per week.

2) Familiarity with required technology is essential. New-to-online or to a given learning management system (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas) will require some orientation. Students and instructors both need to be comfortable with the technology in order that they might focus on the learning.

3) Simply migrating course content and quizzes to the learning management system does not an online course make. In order for deeper learning to be effected students need to actively engage with the content and with one another.

4) Assessments must align with both the content and the learning activities. It can be frustrating when questions on an assessment are not related to the material. Try awarding an extra point to the student who finds an error in either the content or the assessment – and then of course, correct the error as soon as possible.

5) The level of faculty-to-student interaction is arguably the most important factor impacting student retention and academic achievement. Frequent and timely feedback, instructor availability via email / chat / texting, and some type of faculty presence, permit students to better connect with the course through their instructor.

6) Student-to-student interaction creates for the learner, a sense of community – not only for the course at-hand, but to the institution as a whole, and can positively impact both retention and persistence.

7) Support services including online tutoring, technical assistance, self-help tutorials, etc. become all the more critical when the learner is disconnected from the classroom by both time and place.

8) Lastly, Ms. Shriver points out that she prefers “learning in the traditional classroom setting”. Keep in mind that flexibility is the primary reason students enroll in online courses.  Despite the obstacles she fully expects to take more online courses in the future.

Those of us who are responsible for delivering online learning need to be cognizant of the challenges students face and look at what we can do to ensure the learning experience is of the highest quality possible.

9.5 mile marker post along highway

Celebrating milestones

Mile Marker CC-BY-NC-SA by Michael McCullough on Flickr

Mile Marker CC-BY-NC-SA by Michael McCullough on Flickr

According to a recent National Student Clearinghouse report, one in five students completes their college degree at a different institution than the one where they began. For many students the path to a college degree may be a long and circuitous route.

When deciding to run a marathon, we don’t get up one day and say “I think I’ll try to get in 26 miles this afternoon”. We set incremental goals – milestones – and then by building upon these smaller successes we eventually reach our objective. We start out working up to a mile, then maybe a 5 K, then a 10 K, at some point we go for the half marathon, and eventually we reach our goal.

I have on several occasions, heard students, parents and faculty say they aren’t interested in getting their associates degree – or a certificate in their program. Their focus is only on getting the bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, according the the National Student Clearinghouse report, only about 54 percent of those starting out actually achieve their goal.

I wonder if this is a cultural norm. How is it we do not value the opportunities for smaller successes along the way? And if indeed, this is the case, how might we begin to think differently and start celebrating the milestones and thereby encourage completion?

Some thoughts on how learning technology might support such a shift…

Use online discussion forums, blogs, and rosters at the start of the course, asking students share something about themselves to the class. Instructors can model by providing a simple introduction: my pets, favorite sports, hobby, etc. This can be helpful in creating a sense of community, especially in the online course where students may feel isolated without the advantages of face-to-face interactions available with the classroom environment.

Social networks  like Google+ Communities can offer a means of connecting with other students moving along similar pathways. Google+ Communities may be particularly well suited for establishing strong cohorts across programs and disciplines. Our campus already uses Gmail as its student email solution, thereby providing every student with an account making joining the network practically transparent.

Second year students might serve as moderators or hosts in the community for newly admitted students. Such communities may also include program alumni who are employed in their field or continuing their program of study elsewhere at a four-year institution or graduate program.

To take the marathon analogy a step further (at the risk of overdoing it) the long run is achieved not only with the help of those running along with us in the event, but also with the help of others cheering us on along the way. Hopefully we can help to make the finish line seem all the more within their grasp.

Helping Distance Students Get Onboard

 Some rights reserved by John Biehler
CC-BY-NC-SA by John Biehler on Flickr

Onboarding is a term used for getting new employees acclimated to their new workplace. Also known as “organizational socialization” the process includes introducing new team members to the organization’s values, norms, expectations, policies, etc. It seems to me the business onboarding approach can also serve as a framework for helping distance students get onboard with online learning .

These aren’t necessarily new ideas – just another perspective on the online learning experience, student engagement and retention.  For your consideration, how might “onboarding” provide opportunities for enhancing the online student experience?

1) Transparency: be clear from the beginning about program offerings, what percentage of the degree is offered online, are there any synchronous requirements (e.g. face-to-face orientations, proctored exams, web-conferencing, internships, etc.). Students working long hours or multiple jobs, overseas, etc. may find it difficult or impossible to arrange their schedules to meet such requirements. Designing online programs or courses for maximum flexibility will mean more students can engage at their convenience and ultimately succeed in their academic goals.

2) Personalize: offer opportunities for new students to connect with the college community and to get to know classmates and the instructors personally. Such opportunities can easily be lost with distance education unless we make the effort to reach out and welcome new students. Online orientation should provide the same experience on-campus students receive. Schedule live webinars with icebreakers, polls, short introductions with several campus speakers. Record the sessions for those students unable to connect at the scheduled times.

3) Orientation: new students to your online programs need to learn to navigate the system the same as your on-campus students. One way to accomplish this is for each new student to have an assigned guide to show them where to find support services: enrollment, financial aid, advising, tutoring, library services. Create short (2 minutes-ish) video intros to services. Online orientation and campus tour.

4) Technology: develop student-oriented tutorials for your learning management system (e.g. Blackboard, publisher websites, etc), campus portal, email systems, help desk services, online tutoring – any other online services, as well as any maintenance schedules that can impact availability of services, planned outages, etc. Again, best to have this a personalized experience; a live web-conference session allows for guiding the student through the process.

5) Socialization:  students need to meet other students enrolled in their program and courses.  Social networks (LinkedIn Groups, Program Facebook Pages, Google Communities, etc.) enable students to connect with the campus community and to create program cohorts. Because our student email system is G-mail, every student has access to the campus network and the ability to connect with others using Google Plus.

Campus Connections: stream student activities and campus events: graduation ceremony, career services, visiting campus speakers, hyflex workshops. Permit students to connect to student course and capstone presentations, portfolios, final projects, course and program guest speakers via web-conferencing solutions.

Pay it forward:  As students find their place in the campus community and program they may in-turn, serve as mentors for new students – yet another way for students to engage and invest in their chosen program. As student graduate, alumni may also participate by becoming guest speakers via webinars, helping students and program faculty to better understand the evolving job market and allowing alumni to contribute ongoing to the program and college.

For an in-depth look at online learner engagement – Kristen BettsOnline Human Touch (OHT) Instruction and Programming: A Conceptual Framework to Increase Student Engagement and Retention in Online Education. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Vol 4 No 3, 2008

Student learning archery with feedback from intructor

Blended Workshop Presentation: Feedback and Assessment

Sharing the slide presentation from a recent Blended Learning Workshop series along with the source material…

Reference materials

Feedback works both ways – instructor to students and students to instructor. Feedback and formative assessment are powerful tools for learner engagement regardless of the delivery format. Technology provides a myriad of opportunities to connect learners with the content, the instructor, and their classmates.

The Way of Tea CC-BY by John Curnow on Flickr

Integrating Technology and the Academy

Despite appearances, we are not born knowing how to use technologies. As with learning to drive a car we need a little help with understanding how it works, a chance to try it out for ourselves, and some experience driving before we can master the process.

In a recent article in AECT Tech Trends – Understanding Technology Literacy: A framework for evaluating educational technology integration, Randall Davies from Brigham Young University challenges the idea that people learn how to use technology effectively simply by using it.

“It is a common fallacy to suppose that because students are growing up in a technological age they are somehow instinctively capable of using technology to learn what is expected of them in school.”

Davies instead offers a framework for technology literacy that includes three levels: Awareness, Praxis, and Phronesis. Although the article refers to students learning and using technology for their studies, I think the premise offers an excellent framework for supporting faculty in the use of technology for teaching and learning, for both the physical and virtual classroom.

At the awareness level, learners are first exposed to the technology – what it is and what it does.

When practical it is best to introduce new technologies by demonstrating them in authentic situations. Rather than invite people to a session about a new document camera, invite them to a session using the document camera as the vehicle to deliver the presentation, then upload and share the recording with them via YouTube. If done well learners will ask questions about the technologies – Hey, how did you do that? What did you use? Can it do this?

These kinds of questions lead to the next level of technology literacy – Praxis (practical application). At the praxis level we learn about the technology itself – not only what it can do, but how to go about it. The training at this level focuses on the technology: how to access, navigate, the functionality, and troubleshooting. These sessions can be offered by instructional technologists in one-on-one session, or to small groups in a lab or classroom. The key feature of this level is that learners have an opportunity to try the technology out for themselves.

The third level – Phronesis is the mastery level (phronesis – competence or wisdom). Ideally the learner shares what they have discovered by using the technology in their own classroom. The things the technology allows them to do more easily, or effectively, or perhaps things they can now do that they could not do before they acquired the technology. Some trial and error is required in order to attain mastery. Until we get practical with the application of technology we are still dealing with the theoretical.

One of the greatest challenges in the integration or adoption of learning technologies at the institutional level is getting everyone to the same place at the same time. This tri-level framework – awareness/praxis/phronesis – may offer a means for us to get most people to the same place over time. First instructors are introduced to the technology (awareness level), then taught how to use it (praxis level), followed by the opportunity to experiment in their classrooms (phronesis level) and then re-cycle the process by sharing what they have learned with their colleagues (revisiting awareness).