Friday, January 31, 2014

Details are the devil

Details matter, whether in education, research, parenting, or sports.  And because details matter, they trouble the diligent in pursuit of excellence or in pursuit of completion, on less lofty days.

Today was devoted almost entirely to completing the blended course required for my certification of mastery in blended course design.  The deadline (Tuesday) for submission to the certifying agency is self-imposed, though prudent, given that the course is to be taught in April.

I am being reminded that the challenge of a well-designed course is in the be-deviling details of aligning the course objectives to each teaching unit and to every measure of what I teach in each week, each class, and each assignment...the details of a lecture versus a reading versus an in-class exercise or activity.

I'm convinced that many of the questions students ask about assignments, course expectations, and grading are more indicative of a lack of good course design than of student laziness, inattention, or boredom.  To my chagrin and delight (depending on my level of preparation), I have found that clear expectations, well-written directions (for assignments), and carefully planned lessons both decrease student questions and increase the likelihood of student participation--even when the assignments are not graded.  When assignments are planned well, it's easier for students to do them well.

Students from freshmen through graduate school will do their best to comply with course requirements if they are clear, well planned, and designed for learning.

It's not magic, nor is it manipulation.  It's taking the time (a lot of it) and the thoughtful planning (even more than the time) to design a course from which students will learn, in which they can be successful, and during which they see relevance to their lives.  That's what makes the difference.

The more attention I give to course design, the more I enjoy teaching and the more my students seem to enjoy learning.  The challenge is the time required to attend to the details, the details that differentiate lectures developed years ago to be delivered on auto-pilot from courses that invite students into a collaboration of learning.

It's been a long day and I'm tired.  But the details are coalescing into a course I will be happy to teach...and for which I will be prepared enough to focus on the students and what they need and want to learn.  The more I focus on the devilish details in the planning, the more I can focus on my students in the delivery.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What I've learned about course design

Recently, as part of a continuing education certification, I was required to (re)design a face-to-face course for delivery as a blended course.  Same content, same student classification (MBA candidates) would think this would be easy, right?  Just substituting some online delivery for some of the classes; it's a piece of cake.

Here's what I learned in the process:

  1. I'm a collector and a hoarder of educational "stuff."  This includes but is not limited to textbooks, popular books, scholarly articles, news articles, assignments used by others (with their permission), ideas I've read about, get the picture.
  2. As a result of my collect-and-hoard habit, I have far more content for any given semester than I can ever use.  Which means I need to prioritize and make difficult choices.
  3. I don't like eliminating any of my precious hoard, all of which is gold(en) and some of which has to be platinum.  This would be true of most academics, despite my tongue-in-check self-characterization.
  4. None of that is about the students.  None. At all.  
  5. Starting with the students and what they should know or be able to do because of my course (outcomes)--the starting point for all design--is far harder, 
  6. The process of course design has an elegant simplicity, once I get past the hard part of articulating student outcomes, and provides an organizing schema that makes sense to me and, far more importantly, to my students.
  7. It's easy to do this backwards.  (Worth repeating.)
  8. Assessment can be a learning opportunity, not just a testing or evaluating checkpoint.
  9. Less is ultimately more.  (With credit to Robert Browning's lovely "Andrea del Sarto.")
  10. The better designed my course is, the more I am able to be spontaneous, timely, and embrace the delightfully unexpected.

One of the quiet truths of academia is that most professors are never taught to design any of the courses they teach. They teach as they were taught...or as they wish to learn.  See numbers 1-4 above.