Wednesday, May 30, 2012

eContent: What's All That About?

Last week, as part of the Center for Teaching and Learning Assessment's annual "Teaching and Learning Conference," Academic Technology hosted an eContent Fair for faculty to meet with different publishers to discuss and discover what kinds of resources were available to them.  Over the two days, we had four different publishers talking about what they have available for a wide range of disciplines.  Cengage, Macmillan, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson had representatives to talk with faculty about what more these is to offer besides the traditional textbook.

Some of our reasoning in offering this to faculty and moving forward to do this again in the future is the fact that publishers have come a long way in what they have to offer faculty.  Years ago, when faculty thought of ebooks in lieu of textbooks, they mainly thought of a digital form of the textbook either as a website or .PDF.  But the fact is, the resources that publishers provide for students and faculty are rather substantial.  As faculty, we struggle with assigning an expensive textbook that will be financial hard to justify for many students, especially after having paid for the class.  But I think if you want to get the most out of the price they have to pay for the textbook, it would be beneficial to make use of the digital resources that many publishers have to offer.

So what are some of these resources available?  What follows are some of the highlights.  Not all publishers have all the features mentioned, but many have a good range of them and it’s worth contacting the publishers to find out what resources you will be able to use.

Enhanced Content
With many of the ebooks today, it’s not just the text in digital format, but more content can be added or even customized for particular purposes.  Assigning specific chapters, supplemental links, primary sources, additional videos and sound clips can take a few minutes and clicks to establish the course materials in the order you want them accomplished.   Faculty can add their own customized content such as instructor notes, added links, and files.

Not only can faculty annotate the text, but the tools are present for students to annotate their readings with highlight and virtual sticky notes.  This encourages students to interact and engage their text in ways that older ebooks certainly couldn’t.  Beyond this, some ebooks come with additional programs that might include games (crosswords puzzles, virtual flash cards, trivia questions, etc) and some even have simulations and video games that make students work through different problems or projects (such as a virtual body to explore in an anatomy class).  Discussion forums can also be created (often with suggestions for questions by the publisher or with the faculty’s own choice).

Many of the ebooks provide a pool of hundreds of questions per chapter to create quizzes and tests.  Some of the publishers have created adaptive software and ranked the questions so that students will get increasingly hard questions as they are more successful—increasing the challenge or meeting the student at where he/she is at.   When used as formative evaluations to determine a student's understanding, quizzes like these can be highly useful for learning. But beyond standard quizzes, many ebooks offers other useful elements.  Papers and major assignments can be submitted and graded online by the faculty who can draw upon a pool of comments generated by the instructor in present and previous courses.  With everything centered in the portal for the course, students can chart their progress and learn about where their performance is lacking or where they need more assistance.

In the large picture, the usefulness of eContent material is to get the most out of a significant investment for both you and the students.  Additionally, the various materials (and means of tracking) allow for the instructor to have a much clearer sense of what the students are learning and where they are struggling.  This can mean better results in the class as you can better tailor your time with students in accordance with where they need the most help.  If you are further interested in eContent for a book you are already using or in a text you’re interested in using, click through to the publishers, see what they have to offer, and contact a rep.

Do you use econtent?  What are some of the advantages and disadvantages?  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Books We’re Talking About: The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map

So during winter break, I caught wind of an interesting idea with regards to syllabus.  What if you made a more visually-oriented syllabus to emphasize information and step away from the text-overload that syllabi (particularly mine) tend to be.  Having finished my syllabus with hours to spare, I decided to spend those hours visually re-creating the syllabus. I liked the finished product, but it wasn’t much more than just adding glitter and flare, but not necessarily doing much with how I used the visual dynamic to enhance learning and the student’s experience.  I planned on still using it, but wasn’t feeling the full potential of the visual syllabus.  But then I read The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map:  Communicating Your Course by Linda B. Nilson (Jossey-Bass, 2007).  

Within the first chapter of this book, I already had a clearer picture of just what I should be aiming to do with a graphic syllabus that I was missing before.  Nilson’s premise is clear and easy to understand (albeit, challenging to fully execute).  Given that many people absorb much information visually and contextually, it doesn’t make entire sense to have a syllabus that is segmented into its different silos of:  objectives, goals, assignments/assessments/readings.  Her goal is to help the reader consider the ways in which one can depict how all these parts of the course fit together in the syllabus.  

This is useful for two reasons.  The first is that it helps the faculty member have a clearer sense of what he/she is assigning in terms of work and make sure it explicitly connects to objective and goals.  This grants a clearer vision of what the instructor is doing.  The other reason is that it gives students a stronger context of how it all fits together.  Beyond just the “why do I have to take this course” questions, a graphic syllabus can instantly connect the student with context that clarifies questions of why as well as better understanding how information fits together for their growth within the course.  

Nilson delves into a variety of issues and concerns about how to go about it and illustrates that there is good variation about how to do it.  She provides readers with thoughts about how and why one might do it, but shows there are many ways to go about it.  In particular, she provides dozens of graphic syllabi from previous courses (her own and others) in various disciplines to help stimulate ideas across departments.  To help readers better envision their own syllabus in a new light, she regularly compares what a text syllabus looks like in contrast to the (same) graphically-enhanced syllabus.  

Within the first two chapters, she already had me hooked and thinking differently about my own courses.  I’m imagining a comic-book syllabus for my comic book course that would be “teaching” as one progresses through the different elements of the syllabus.  But immediately, it helped me to reconsider that American Literature course I had created my first visual syllabus for.  I’ve found that I like doing American Literature 1 by addressing different types of writing and moving through the significant pieces in chronological order.  This works in many ways but is limiting because students will lack context (or forget) of how the different types of writings fit with one another.  By thinking about Nilson’s ideas, it allowed me to craft something more meaningful for the students as you can see from the impromptu outline below.  

And that’s probably the other element that I like about Nilson.  She emphasizes that one does not need to be an artist to creating a graphic syllabus—nor does one need numerous programs and equipment.  I did the image below in Excel.  Both MS Word and Powerpoint have outline/mapping tools that you can utilize and master very quickly.  You can go high-end (and she shows examples of such), but you can still be graphically rich and simplistic in the types of visual you use (Good thing too—I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler!).  

One final consideration with approaching a graphic syllabus (beside, “read the book!”).  I would still recommend gathering the material together in a textual format initially.  That is, first create your standard textual syllabus and save a copy of it before proceeding to create a graphic syllabus.  One big reason and one small reason for this.  The big reason is that you want to make sure your syllabus is accessible to all students.  Therefore, a student who cannot access the visual syllabus might need the text made available and the graphic elements may not be useful.  The other reason for composing it as text before moving into graphics is that you’ll have a great “before” and “after” examples to share with your colleagues (and maybe even us here on the blog!).  
  • Have you tried a graphic syllabus?  How did it go?
  • Are you interested in attempting a graphic syllabus?  What would you need to do it?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Freeing The Course Part 4: Assignments

In this final entry on freeing the course (check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), we are looking at free tools and resources relating to assignments.  These might be ways of changing up assignments, making them more interactive, or even in some cases, easier to evaluate and access.  Many of these resources we’ve mentioned before in different capacities, but they are definitely great for thinking about assignments as well.

Yes, GoogleDocs, again.  Whether you want them to develop a document, spreadsheet, or presentation, you can use GoogleDocs for the space to be used.  You can also create surveys and possibly quizzes if you want to engage your students further.  What’s great about GoogleDocs is its collaborative nature and the ways you (or your students) can share files coupled with the document history where you can directly compare differences between older and newer versions.

Diigo is a familiar tool on this blog and rightly so.  It’s a social bookmarking site where an instructor could create a group for the class.  Herein, they could add substantive links related to course topics along with descriptions and explanations of what the sites were.  Another idea would be for the instructor to incorporate a large range of links and assign the students different links to go to within Diigo and annotate.  Diigo allows for individuals or groups to annotate their bookmarks, thus allowing for an engaging dialogue among the students about a site’s content.

Yet another great tool we enjoy on this blog, Wikis can be used in a variety of ways.  Whether you’re sending students to create an entry on Wikipedia itself, or encouraging them to make a course notebook in wiki format, there’s some great ways instructors can make students creators and owners of the course content.

Glogster is a free digital posterboard that allows the user to put up images, text, sound files, and videos all integrated into a collage.  It’s a useful tool as a compliment to inclass presentations or as a means of online presentations.

Blogs are great for assignments.  There are many different ways of using a blog, but there are several that seem to do well.

  1. The instructor writes the blog entries (as kind of mini-lessons or making connections from content to the world at large) and the students must comment.
  2. Students create their own blogs and then comment on one another’s blog.
  3. One blog is created for the class and different students must post about related material over the course of the semester.
Regardless of how you go about approaching it, blogs can be a great assignment that help students think and communicate more critically.

We’ve talked about this tool before as a teaching tool, but it could also be used as an assignment for students to create a narrated presentation utilizing course materials or research.  It’s a quick tool to learn and faculty could assign students to develop different videos around course concepts.  Faculty could also assign students to create a virtual tour of the internet to present their research.  Audacity is a similar tool, though it’s only for audio recording, but faculty might assign similar projects.

So what other tools out there help you to free up the course?  We’re always looking for new ideas and tools, so please let us know.