Last week I attended another round of teaching resource courses within the “Senior Teaching Professionals” program. The program is designed to help people in their early teaching phases, like postdocs and junior professors to become better and more efficient educators within today’s modern university. So far I have really enjoyed the program and the people attending. It is refreshing to meet people from all sorts of disciplines, but also grounding to hear that so many problems we have with students are similar. It also fills me with joy that they generally like teaching and that they also find the positive response of a few students such a gratifying reward that it makes them go on.
This week we talked about E-Learning and E-Teaching. While in the past the courses associated with the “Senior Teaching Professionals” have been top notch, I can’t say that with this course. Nevertheless it gave me a lot to think about and it even inspired some new ideas I might use in some lectures.
So let’s get quickly the things I didn’t like out of the way. The professor mentoring us this time was an old web pioneer, having worked on the development of HTML at CERN with Tim Berners Lee. Having spent his 15-year stint in the New Economy, he returned to academia a few years ago, where he now deals with the web in education. So for those amazing credentials his course was quite chaotic. There were a lot of buzz words, but not that much substance. Also some… well… shall I say, outdated concepts in my mind, like second life (seriously? My husband does actually own the T-shirt pictured on the right from the now defunct getafirstlife.com). He did mention that not all e-tools are applicable for all lectures, e.g. a blog instead of a final written project is just not doable in subject like math and physics, where typing in the LaTeX formulas can be much larger hassles for beginning students that what the communication aspect is worth. However, I feel he should have shown successful blog examples instead of directing us to WordPress and encouraging us to “play around”.
Now, the stuff that I liked or that sparked some ideas in my mind:
– I was not yet acquainted with the MOODLE platform we have at our University, but we thoroughly introduced it and its functionalities during the first day. It offers ease of use, all the necessary tools preinstalled and automatic / immediate access for all students enrolled in your course. The drawbacks are that the interface is a bit outdated (no drag&drop for wikis e.g.) and well, that it is a closed environment in which nobody from outside will ever be able to access it. I think it is a powerful platform that can be immensely useful, but probably not one I will use in my class, since I don’t have any fears of, say, installing a forum or wiki platform on my homepage.
– The main point of the professor was communication. But in my mind it goes beyond that, it’s about accountability to your students. To give them the opportunity of acquiring the best information out there if they wish to do so and to give them the tools to do that. Be it in the simple stuff of putting your lectures online and linking to interesting and relevant articles to the idea of giving them the opportunity to confer amongst themselves when I don’t have the time to respond to every e-mail or inquiry.
– Lots of people have spent an enormous amount of time and energy in putting the resources out there and most of them are free. Now it’s up to you to figure out if they will be applicable – that is the challenge! In the days where udacity and coursera are perhaps shifting the paradigm of learning online, we need to remember to never among all blogs, wikis, forums, hangouts, etc. forget that the personal communication makes for the real “aha-moments”. So among all accountability don’t forget offline accessibility either.
What will I implement in the end? Beyond putting lectures, homework problems and solutions on the web? I think a summary in the type of a wiki for the lecture would be good, maybe with a comment function. That way the student can help point out a relevant article or something I missed, but he/she can also gripe about something. Please, connect with me, leave comments, write me on my various interfaces; I try to be as accessible as possible. I will probably NOT apply much of social network things beyond that, (un)fortunately our advanced astrophysics classes are small enough that I can invite you for a coffee for anything needing discussion beyond a quick comment blurb or link.