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Alternate Worlds: The Final (?) Chapter

(or: More on Teaching with an Open LMS).

I meant to post a midterm follow-up to my two earlier posts (Part One and Part Two) about my Alternate Worlds course. But time got away from me, and I was having so much fun actually teaching the course that that didn’t happen.

But now as we prepare for Convocation here at Macaulay, and the students are on the verge of submitting their final projects, I thought I would at least provide a kind of wrap-up of final thoughts.

First and foremost–just on the level of a course, without considering the LMS (open or otherwise), I had a blast with these students and this course!  My idea, originally, scared me a bit because I was asking students to do something that was unusual for them, and unusual for me.  The course was thoroughly interdisciplinary, and thoroughly reflective.  Not only were they thinking and reading about the future of education, I was actually treating them as the experts on the subject–since they were the ones actively engaged in their 14th (or so) year of education.  They were a diverse group, with a diverse range of educational experiences, and they completely jumped on the chance to think deeply and critically about those experiences.
I am now thinking very seriously about ways to make a course of this type more widely available.  I think that reflection and integration of learning experiences is really the core of what should happen during the college career.  This is a “capstone” experience (even if it’s during the progress of the building, rather than capping the construction), and it works so much more deeply and completely than the usual “thesis” requirement (a long research paper) that gets plopped onto students in most capstones.  These students reported (and I could see it happening) that they really learned about themselves and their classmates, in addition to their own majors and their own coursework.  It was learning about learning (or as a colleague and I have experienced in a different context, “Looking at Learning, Looking Together“).

And that last connection is an important one. For me this course grew out of my own interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning–and my own conviction that meta-learning, SoTL work carried out by students and teachers working together, could be a new and productive direction.

I learned a lot from teaching the course–and so did the students.  I won’t quote excerpts here, but I hope people will take the time to look at some of the students’ final reflections and evaluations.

One of those reflections, you’ll notice, is in the form of a video log.  The course as a whole was open (quite intentionally) to all kinds of alternate expressive media.  Students experimented with mind maps and comic strips, video and voicethreads, rather than just papers (although they did some papers, too).  The results of that were mixed–in a good way.  Students used the opportunity to try new media, and learned (maybe mostly from when those attempts were not successful) what those media supported or did not support in their own learning styles.  As the final projects come in, I think that I’ll be seeing experimentation there, too.

(Students were also surprised, I think, although I wasn’t, to find that they actually got to know their classmates better, felt a more personal connection, in a class where they never actually saw those classmates in person.  I know from teaching online for so long that fully online courses almost always, if they’re thoughtfully designed, result in more student-student and instructor-student interaction, not less, than face-to-face course do.  The students did wish for just one or two in-person meetings–maybe social ones for a meal or a movie–and we may still do that now that the semester is over.  I think I will build at least one of those into future iterations of the course.)

Now about the Open LMS experiment.  First I can say, categorically and without hesitation, that WordPress, with assorted plugins and a slightly customized theme, works extremely well as the platform for a fully-online course.  Far better than Blackboard, in fact, because I could make the design of the course match my objectives and style.  And I could have degrees of openness, and the students (and I) can know that the course is there for the future.

The students did decide that the forum should be closed, just for the class.  Late in the semester we did agree to take just a few of the forum posts and make them public (as “forum gems“).  There was a lot more that happened on the forums, but the students wanted a bit more freedom to talk informally, not worrying so much about polish, and to talk more openly about things that they might not like about other courses.  All very understandable, and in fact they still did quite a bit of direct and honest discussion on the public areas.

I was hopeful, as one of the goals of making the reflections open, that we would get comments from people outside the class on those posts.  As it turns out, that didn’t happen.  Maybe people who were reading the posts (and I know that there were some) felt like they didn’t want to intrude? But the option is still there, and in a way, comments on the students’ thoughts even after the course is “over” would still be a good thing.

I also thought that I would be using Google Forms for quizzes.  The process worked, it wasn’t very difficult, but as it turned out, after the first experimental quiz, I never used any more.  In teaching online in the past, I’ve always used quick low-stakes quizzes as a kind of enforcement to make sure that students do the reading.  But I wasn’t experienced with Honors students.  They not only do the reading, they also do the optional reading, and they integrate it and use it.  I would like to think that this happened because I used such extremely interesting readings (and in some cases that might have been true), but even in cases where they told me they were not enjoying the readings (and audiobook, in one case, that some students found frustrating), they were clearly reading and thinking about what they were reading.

In terms of replicating the course, I’ve now got the framework very well established, and know how to tweak a theme and use the right plugins (Dropbox plugin for submitting assignments. KB Gradebook for grades, for example.  Neither of those is perfect, but both are very, very good).  Students made good use of RSS feeds and subscriptions (and I can’t say enough about Simple Press Forum.  It is a fantastic forum software–and all as a free plugin right in WordPress.  Extremely impressive.  Far superior to any of the other options), and for announcements, a text widget with a picture which I changed every time I changed the announcement worked very well.  When I really needed to “push” an announcement, I could easily push out an email to all “authors” on the site.  (one lack in that plugin–something a faculty member requested for another course yesterday–the ability to add attachments to those emails.  I don’t know how easy that would be…).  I feel very confident that with any fairly-skilled faculty member could take this framework and easily run a similar online course.  And with an ITF, the faculty member wouldn’t really need to have the skills at all.

There’s so much more I could say about this course.  It was a terrific experience and I very much hope to do it again–and share it and have others teach it, too.  But more than me talking about it, I really would refer anyone interested to go to the course site and browse around yourself.  And leave comments.  I’ll add that link, one more time.  http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/alternateworlds.

I titled this post “The Final (?) Chapter” and that question mark is there for a reason.  This is really a starting place–I hope not to make this a final post for this course or these questions.  Not just because I want to teach the course again, not just because the course remains open to the students and many other audiences, but because I think we are just beginning (the course was only one beginning) to question what a “course” really is.  I don’t think that my students will accept that question as an obvious one anymore, and I think the challenge for all of us is to continue to see the “Alternate Worlds” that are in our futures.

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