Friday, May 13, 2016

@DrDougThompson Wins! Here's Another Teaching Post, This Time About "Online Fridays"

Time spent on book: 1.5 hour
Words written: 260
Grade for the day: B- (Higher grade because I woke up at 3:50 AM and plowed away. Obligations all day, so I knew this would be my only time to write. Go away Guilt Ghost!)



I don't intend to make this a teaching blog. But at this point, all writing is good writing, so here we go. 

Today is our final day of "community development," and I led a session on my experiments with what I call "Online Fridays." 

Some background...

The majority of my teaching is devoted to our introductory course, which blends a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi with an analysis of contemporary issues. All first-year students take this course. And we endeavor to keep the class size low. So the course demands a healthy number of sections.

I teach on M-W-F at the edges of the day: 8:00 AM, 9:00 AM, 3:10 PM, and 4:10 PM. (Yes, there have been semesters when I teach this bad boy four times. But usually it's just three.) As you might imagine, these time slots present a host of problems, mostly all of them sleep-related. Another somewhat related problem for SFU in particular is athletics. Nearly half (not a typo) of our students are involved in sports. Half. Because of athletic events, then, they miss a lot of Fridays. 

So in an effort to address this problem, last fall, I decided to move my Friday classes online. I like to make my course as predictable as possible. In other words, I never want the attentive student to be surprised by an assignment, discussion, or activity. Online Fridays follow this practice. Each week, students must complete three exercises: 1) a reading; 2) a recorded lecture; and 3) a quiz. 

The readings are all related to the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, so Online Fridays have a predictable topic. The lecture is recorded on PowerPoint, and it corresponds to the reading for the day. Students then complete a 5-to-10 point quiz on the reading and lecture. The quiz is usually made of straightforward multiple-choice and true/false questions. The principal intent of the quizzes is to assure accountability. So I don't really worry about "collaboration" between students--at least they are covering the material in one way or another. That said, students take the quizzes using a "lockdown" browser. And questions are randomly ordered and appear one at a time with no backtracking.

I also start each Monday by leading a "discussion" about Friday's lecture. In all honesty, these can be a challenge. It's often difficult to get much going, no matter how I ask the questions. So I have taken to just calling on random students, and not waiting for raised hands. My hope is that this practice gives added incentive to students to 1) do the work; 2) take good notes; and 3) review those notes when coming to class. But it doesn't always work out. 

For the most part, students have responded positively to Online Fridays. Athletes and non-athletes alike obviously like the freedom that it offers. But they also report that they appreciate being able to go back to the recorded lectures when it's time for the larger exams and for the final project. 

For my part, I like that Online Fridays give students some independent responsibilities. I generally open the assignment on Wednesday, and they have until Friday to complete it. A handful of students always either put it off until the last minute or forget outright. That only happens once or twice, though, as they learn valuable lessons about budgeting their time. 

I also like it (selfishly) because it saves me from giving the same lecture three or four times. While I have gotten good at repeating myself, I do find myself wondering, "Have I told this class this yet?" 

If you are interested in trying this out, here are four observations that I have about the process:
  • Have a plan, keep it simple, and don't assume anything. In the first week, I go over the process of Online Fridays and have them walk through it. On Blackboard, I have a bunch of graphics and "how tos." This helps set a pattern for the ensuing weeks. Having said this, last semester, I had a student tell me that he didn't realize that the rest of the lectures were recorded also. So yea... it's worth repeating yourself a few times in the opening weeks. 
  • Get a good microphone. I use a Yeti. While most laptop mics are decent quality, external mics are vastly superior. There are less expensive alternatives to the Yeti, to include the Snowball or Snowflake. Any of them will work.
  • Pour your soul into your lectures. I know, I know... We already do this. But recording lectures is somewhat lonely. You're in your office, door closed, and no one is listening. I try to imagine an audience of eager listeners (you know, just like in a normal class), and wow them with whatever I have (you know, just like in a normal class). And I often re-record slides. A 30-minute lecture can take me 2 hours to record because I really want it to be precise. 
  • Make lectures shorter than what you would do in class. Mine tend not to exceed 30-minutes. No matter how awesome I might think my lectures are, I can't expect students to watch anything longer. So I edit and trim around the edges. 
  • Constantly remind your students of the value of Online Fridays. I'm a big fan of not only telling students what I am am doing, but why I am doing it as well. So: "This teaches good habits." "This frees up your schedule." "This familiarizes you with technologies that you might have to use in the workplace." Indeed, education comes in many shapes and forms.
That's all I have time for today. If any of my readers are interested in trying this in their own classes, I am happy to go into further detail. Otherwise, enjoy the weekend!  


[This is my opening lecture. You can transfer recorded PPTs to a video file and upload it to Youtube. I tend not to do this because it takes a REALLY long time to switch over. But it's not a bad option.]

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