Best Practices 2015
Ruth Small – Syracuse University
Since my research and teaching focus on motivation, I try to “practice what I preach” and apply the theories and models I am teaching my students to my own teaching. As a result, my instruction is highly student-centered and I see my role, not simply as an expert and conveyer of information, but more as a facilitator and a learner. So, I offer my knowledge while providing guidance and opportunities for students to choose what and how they learn within my course curriculum and to share what they discover and learn along the way. Graduate students, whether online or in the classroom, bring to each course they take a set of personal knowledge, skills, attitudes, and experiences that, when shared, can enrich everyone’s experience in the course, including the instructor’s. I try to tap into all of that by giving students opportunities to lead the learning, choose what assignments best suit their learning needs, submit drafts of assignments to other students and to me so they can get valuable feedback in time to make their work even better, and, most of all, be creative about how they approach their learning. This creates a rich and satisfying learning culture within my courses.
Kim Thompson – Charles Sturt University
The scaffolding needed for engaged distance learning can be tricky to design and create. The first week of class is crucial. I am kind of convinced that students decide in the first 10 seconds whether they are going to love or hate the class. Having a well-designed subject that I know and love makes all the difference, both for the students who trust me to provide them with something they did not know before they enrolled, as well as for me as an instructor managing my own balance of teaching, research, administration, and service to the Information Studies community.
I have been an online student myself and so as I design and prepare classes I often ask myself “Would I want to be sitting this class?” Remembering how it feels to be a student motivates me to engage with the students as the savvy and responsible adults they are. Teaching students from around the world in WISE subjects, I try to find ways to build upon their expertise and work to involve them in as much peer teaching as we can dream up, to be sure the students get a chance to network and engage with each other as an international cohort. Sometimes the “great ideas” work, sometimes they don’t, so asking for student feedback along the way is valuable as well. If something isn’t working, we change it.
Sheila Corrall - University of Pittsburgh
I see course assignments as central to student learning and I try to design meaningful tasks, which require students to relate theory or models from the literature to real-world practice, and to submit work in formats they could be asked to produce in their professional practice. I am also committed to an inquiry-based pedagogy that models the process of research in the learning experience, and gives students opportunities to define their own lines of inquiry, as preparation for evidence-based practice in the workplace. So I never set essays or term papers, but instead have them draft briefing papers on issues of the day; design and carry out onsite library assessments; participate critically and reflectively in online communities of practice; conduct and write-up interviews with practitioners; evaluate relevant resources and compile recommendations; and use the conventional structure of a research report to gain experience in writing for publication. In addition, I always explain the rationale for my assignments when introducing them to students. I like to have assignments that let students focus on a particular area of practice or special interest so they can pursue their personal career goals in class, and I find that often motivates them to go further into a subject. I also use a mix of individual and teamwork, again to reflect the real world of work. I expect students to do a lot of work in my courses, so it really is very important that all that time and effort is put to good effect.
Emily Knox - University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Best practice for me is to start with theory and then move toward more practical applications in courses. I find that this not only gives students a solid foundation for their work in the profession but also leads to better discussions in class. With a strong theoretical background, students are able to critically analyze arguments in articles and among their peers more coherently. I also encourage students to interrogate any ideas that I might present during the course. Like other instructors, I have been focused on making my assignments more applicable to students’ professional lives. This means that I ask for fewer research papers and more posters, portfolios, case studies, short response papers, and book reviews. I find that the students appreciate having different types assessments throughout their courses. All of these principles hold whether I am teaching face-to-face or online.
Ellen Detlefsen - University of Pittsburgh
I try to design courses that allow students in an asynchronous online class to be able to work on their own AND interact and share with each other on a weekly basis. Communication via email and discussion boards allows me to work with individuals one-on-one, and with the class as a group, which is especially important because these classes do not have any meetings or activities as a group. I use a combination of slides with hot-linked websites, and an audio commentary, to set out the big picture, and then assign reviews, practice reference questions, collection development problems, peoples’ choice awards for student papers, posters, and site visits that allow students to hone in on topics that are of interest to them. My goal is to make health and aging information come alive for students who are typically exploring those topics for the first time! I do want them to feel that their class is preparing them for the profession that they will soon be joining. I also try to treat the students as adult learners with busy lives for whom the information may be both professionally appropriate and personally relevant; many of them have told me that they use the resources that we explore in class with their own family members.
Dorothea Salo - University of Wisconsin-Madison
In the last few years, I have been paying better attention to the -- for lack of a better word -- digestibility of my online course content. This doesn't mean less content and certainly not less rigor. What it means to me is respecting how hard it is for anybody to maintain lengthy continuous focus on a single activity happening through a screen.
So I've been breaking things up. For me, even in-person lectures always turn out to have natural pause points or question points. These days when I revise online courses and their lectures, I leverage those pause points, interspersing short written snippets from me or hands-on activities between shorter lecture segments. It's the same content as face-to-face, just presented in a way that respects online affordances.
I'm still teaching myself how to do this better, and forgiving myself that I haven't made it perfect yet. It can be incredibly time-consuming and cumbersome to set up worthwhile activities in current course-management systems! Still, my sense is that students learn more this way and are happier with the experience, so it is worth the extra effort... though I would certainly appreciate a course-management system that doesn't make good instructional design so difficult.
Christine Pawley - University of Wisconsin-Madison
I am fairly new to online teaching, and my ideas are still evolving. Discussion has always been an important feature of my classroom teaching, and I have learned to appreciate a couple of features of online discussion. One is that everyone has a chance (and indeed is required) to contribute to discussion, which isn’t always feasible face-to-face, especially in a large class. Another is that several threads of discussion can continue simultaneously, and in an extended fashion—barriers of time and space are less restricting.
I encourage students to think of themselves as a problem-solving team, rather than as individuals in competition with each other. Many have extensive and diverse experiences, and they can learn a lot from each other. I myself tend to hold back in discussion; I often find that if I wait, a student will come up with the point I was planning to make, and that it is much better if they hear from each other, since they already have so many opportunities to “hear” my voice.
Since I keep a fairly low profile in discussion I use other techniques to communicate with the class. In addition to readings and narrated lectures, I post a written introduction to each week, with comments on readings and assignments coming up, and general comments on past assignments. I also comment in detail on individual assignments, with feedback on ideas and structure as well as writing style. Students write a reflective journal, which I read three times in a semester, and that works well as a tool for one-on-one communication. I provide a mid-term assessment of their class participation.
I try to be very organized. I see the syllabus as a contract, and try not to change it once the semester is under way (unless I have made a mistake, of course), since I find that students appreciate a strong structure. Most are juggling busy lives and lack of clarity about class expectations is anathema to them. I create discussion space for students to ask public questions about the syllabus or assignments, and encourage them to email me with individual questions. I check the class website frequently, and try to respond very quickly to their concerns.
None of this is rocket science, but it seems to help.
Cynthia Cheng Correia - Simmons College
First, my online instruction is based on the understanding that my students fall along the spectrum of the online learning experience: at one end are veterans who are at ease with online learning and at the other end are first-timers for whom every aspect is novel, unfamiliar, and even challenging. I need to be prepared for both, understand that I am their regular and first point of contact, and minimize the potential barriers to learning online.
Beyond this, I practice the following:
Since competitive intelligence isn’t a traditional part of LIS practice, it’s important to demonstrate its relevance to a wide variety of professional applications in and beyond the field, to students’ past and present work environments, and to their careers. To keep my course content compelling, I try to introduce current, thought-provoking, and inspiring topics, material, discussions that will help propel my students’ professional practices toward sound management, good leadership, and innovation.
I incorporate a variety of content media to support different types of learning styles and to reinforce learning. Information and content overload is a persistent challenge, especially for a course that is rich with material. Applying knowledge management principles and employing frameworks and models help us harness the material, as well as develop the analytical discipline that’s vital to competitive intelligence.
Since some of my students will likely be new to online instruction and most will be new to competitive intelligence, I try to be very clear regarding course process, performance, and purpose. For those who are new to the online experience, I share some observations about how online learning is different from traditional settings, present very clear instructions not only regarding assignments, but on how to access and use course tools, and how to plan and manage their coursework in this environment. I emphasize early on the importance of being familiar and prepared with our course environment, timelines and deadlines, and resources, so that students can focus on learning.
Regarding performance, I define what constitutes success in my course: I post rubrics and outline my expectations; however, I also explain that, while I assign grades, my broader role and intentions are 1) for students to understand well and apply the course material for professional practice 2) to help develop information professionals who are well-prepared to manage and to lead.
In addition to clarity of process and performance expectations, it’s vital that students have clarity of purpose – that they understand what they will gain from participating in my courses. In addition to knowing the course objectives and my objectives as their instructor, I ask students to contemplate and share their backgrounds, why they are drawn to the course, and what they hope to gain from it. This helps them develop focus and helps me get to know them, so that I can help them find value in my course. At the end of the course, I ask them to review their stated objectives, consider what they’ve learned, and propose how they will apply what they’ve learned in the workplace and in LIS in general.
Communication is vital to instruction and learning, but the online setting can present challenges to timeliness, communication styles, information overload, and school-life balance. To get a head start, I reach out to students a few weeks in advance with a course welcome and introduction in order to establish a line of communication and rapport, and to avoid creating a course avalanche at the start of class. From the beginning of class, I check into the discussion forums daily and I try to be online when most of my students are, so that I can be more responsive. This was a key lesson I learned (first the hard way, then with invaluable guidance) when I started teaching online 8 years ago. Timeliness can be challenging across time zones, but I try to accommodate as much as I can, especially for one-to-one or team-based synchronous communications.
In addition to our standard asynchronous communication methods: email, weekly and special discussion forums, and LMS messaging, regular group tele-/video sessions give us real-time voice contact that helps build class rapport, address immediate questions and inputs, spark exchanges, and facilitate team-building.
It’s important for students to see in my course efforts a model for management and communication of their own course projects, as well as course participation in general: identifying needs, checking-in and reporting, providing guidance in planning and problem-solving, anticipating changes and adapting, and being available and engaged.
The online environment offers tremendous opportunities for learning, but a host of sites, tools, and services offer increasing sophistication, raise expectations, and present competition for students’ engagement, which is critical to their learning experience. Moreover, while most students begin the course with excitement, it’s accompanied by some degree of uncertainty or even nervousness. To overcome these potential barriers, I try to create a comfortable environment for exchange, balancing an expectation for professionalism, the provision of support, and a healthy dose of levity.
I remind students that we will be colleagues in the field before we know it and that this course is an environment where they should assume their professional roles and exercise their professional voice. This is important as they connect what they’re learning to their experiences and observations, develop confidence, and build on what they’ve learned after the course has wrapped. It’s important to demonstrate that professionalism and learning can be combined with enthusiasm and fun, and I hope that the students see this in how we approach the topics, how I appreciate what they bring to the class, and we engage with each other. (It certainly helps that LIS is a field that many people enter out of deep interest, enjoyment, and even passion.)
With each course, I aim to improve my instruction by learning and refining my methods and tools. I learn from my students, and practice double-loop learning and process improvement. I also continue to draw instructional lessons, inspiration, and support from my former instructors and colleagues.
Lilia Pavlovsky – Rutgers University
Teaching is about cultivating an environment and space for interaction that motivates students to learn. Teaching online is about doing this in a digitally mediated context where the design of learning spaces is critical to fostering engagement in a virtual classroom. I put as much effort into the design of my classes as I do in teaching them because ultimately design impacts behavior and shapes the learning culture within.
My teaching goal is to empower students to be the drivers of their learning experience within and beyond the classroom. This requires a certain amount of uncertainty and risk taking on their part, but once they get a taste of this freedom to explore there is no turning back. My job is to enable this process to be a successful learning experience that fosters critical thinking and exploring outside the traditional boundaries of the educational "box." How this happens or how this looks depends on the nature, scope and goals of the subject matter. There is no one "cookie cutter" plan or pedagogical approach.
One “best practice” that I consistently follow is that virtual learning spaces require frequent refreshing and improvement due to the evolving nature of technical tools. The other critical part of the equation is that instructor engagement is paramount to a positive outcome. Without that, you simply have a virtual space loaded with information. My role is to help students discover meaning in that space and apply that learning to their respective contexts.