Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Secret to Increased Student Retention

There is a big push in our local community and technical college system to both increase retention and move more students towards degree completion.  This is an ongoing struggle, as we are working with students whose lives are split between work, family and school. Sometimes it feels like the harder we - the institutions -  try, the harder it gets. My own institution, Renton Technical College, has an open entry system that  allows for anyone in the community to register for the program of their choice with relative ease and get started on learning job skills.  The problem is keeping them until program completion.  Why would someone invest the time, money and effort  in starting a program only to leave after one or two quarters? The pat "look on the positive side" answer is usually that they found a job; the less flattering one is that their language skills or study skills weren't up to par.  But amazingly,  it is never that they weren't being taught well.

This is the elephant in the room. We need to train our teachers to reach our learners where they are at.  At community and technical colleges we have so many teachers who are subject matter experts from the field who have very little or absolutely no training in how to teach.  This is a glaring problem that we need to face.  We have older teachers who have been teaching in a "sage on the stage; read a chapter and take a test" form for years who are now seeing internet-savvy students walk away because they can get so much of what they need on their own, and who want to learn from someone who engages them on multiple levels. And immigrant students  - who used to be a classroom minority - are now the majority, and need to be recognized and have their needs identified and their abilities acknowledged.

This could all be solved with some expectations and guidelines for teachers to be updated with current teaching practices and ongoing chances to experiment, share and collaborate.  Just like students, they need a clear pathway to success, not a foggy "go and do it" approach to their jobs. Unlike K-12 educators, higher education does not require teachers to be certified in any way on teaching itself, but perhaps this is the moment where that should shift.  No amount of expertise in any given field will help you when you are working with students from all ages, backgrounds, and goals. If a system and a school want to increase retention and completion rates, they should look first and foremost at improving the very thing that education is all about: Teaching and Learning.

English 101 students at RTC 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Tweeting as Practice in Metacognition

My Twitter journey has been an intentional one.  I had never used Twitter at all when I signed up for a Canvas Network MOOC on social media in 2013. (You can read about it my experience, which I likened to Whitewater River Rafting, here.) Thinking it would be a "light" and easy course, I discovered that it took quite a bit of effort to get going in a meaningful direction. I was interested in learning to use Twitter as an educator; to network and learn from other educators, and I kept myself in that mindset.  Our task was to find people in our fields to follow, and to get 50 people to follow us as we practiced the fine art of creating 140-character units of meaning that are powerful enough to catch the attention of others.  It took me nearly 10 weeks to do it, but I did. Here is a snapshot taken the day before the course ended, when I had tweeted 89 times, followed 155 others, and finally got 50 people to follow me: 

I have now tweeted 1,332 times and am following 625 educators, and  have 441 followers.  I look at Twitter as a professional development tool, an inspiring friend, and an intelligent and friendly social network.  For someone as busy and somewhat introverted as myself, it is a treasure. And, I have found that it is a great tool for metacognitive practice.

Metacognition: Thinking about Thinking

When I go to conferences, I listen, pull out main ideas, and tweet.  I take photos and add words, and my brain starts to put ideas together.  I lean my head down, listening, and re-word main ideas from keynotes and presentations. I am acutely aware of using the tool to make my thoughts clear, to find connections with the concepts and myself,  and to make meaning from my immediate world. My initial self-consciousness at even having my phone in my hand has given way to a purposeful taking of photos, adding thoughts, ideas, and questions to them.  It may look like I'm not listening.  Actually, I'm listening - and remembering - much more than I ever did in the past.  I used to take notes that were kept in unopened folders that were eventually recycled.  Now I stretch my brain and connect on a much deeper level.  

It did take some practice; messaging, typing, snapping photos all at once.  It has become much easier for me, and I'm sure would be even easier if I were as adept at using a cellphone as many people are.  But I persevere, and find that - even if I happen to miss a sentence or two of what is said along the way - I come away with a lot more than I used to. I love how this is immediately shared and often built upon by others.  It is a memory-booster and idea-generator all at once,  I can review tweets later, and I can like and retweet  the ideas of others, and  add them to my personal collection. 

Tweeting also helps me keep my metacognative mindset in everyday situations as well.  I take photos of students on our campus, ask permission to tweet it (so far always greeted with enthusiasm) and then add thoughts to them.  The combination of words and images is powerful. Pausing in a busy day to take a picture, connect with an individual, and share that connection, is powerful. I have started making a conscious effort to allow this room for connection and reflection. 

I have been influenced by the ideas of others on twitter, and am constantly amazed at the intelligence and creativity I encounter in the education community.  I rarely have time for a "tweet chat" but the few I have participated in have been incredibly thought-provoking. Just seeing some of the remnants of the chats of others has been useful.  My Twitter community has opened my eyes to things I need to think more about related to teaching and learning; accessibility, equity, diversity, tech tools, professional development, data, research and more. 

Tweeting stimulates my thinking process; I have to think about what I want to take away and  how to express it. For me, the process of tweeting is thinking - often deep thinking.  

Have you had this kind of experience? How do you approach twitter?  I'm interested in your experiences.  On twitter I am @lizfalconer80. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

10 Days of Pokemon Go: One Educator's Perspective

There's something about summer that makes us feel whimsical.  As we don our sunglasses, feel the sun, and open car windows, our inner self starts to relax.  I was in a summer mood when my friend Tim- a working IT professional in his mid 40s - told me that he was playing Pokemon Go, and found it to be fun.  My usual dubious, anti-gaming, mom self was inexplicably set aside, and, in the name of education and  exploration,  I decided to try it. Together, we downloaded it, and took our first Pokemon Go walk.

Day 1: Go!

This is amazing!  It actually knows where I am; I can see the streets appear around me as I walk, and blue "PokeStops" appear in the distance as I walk. I create my avatar with purple hair and a matching outfit and we set forth into our shared space. My world is now filled with PokeStops and Pokemon (Pocket Monsters)  buzzing my phone, challenging me to catch them.  The fact that when you click on the stops they fill in with an actual photo of the area made me wonder about the blurring of lines between virtual and real for young kids. The Pokemon move with a liveliness and animation that teases me to just try to catch them; my PokeBalls were jumped over and dodged time and time again with ease. Each Pokemon has a name and type, and points are given by the type of catch you make. Once you catch one, it is added to your Pokedex.  Points. points, points for everything. Spin the Pokestop medallion, and the balls and other useful tools fly out to you....not unlike a roulette wheel, except you win every single time. Gambling addiction, anyone?

Day 2: Scaffolded Learning

Breaking learning into chunks and then providing a way to approach each chunk is scaffolded learning. Pokemon has this concept down pat.  You start with easy-to-catch Pokemon at first.  "Gotcha!"  There is music and sound effects as well, but I never had my sound turned up.) There are PokeGyms that appear on the screen, but when you click on it as a beginner, it says, "You will be able to go to the gym after you reach Level Five." You get good at what you are doing in steps.  Every time something new appears or is caught, there is a one-sentence explanation of what it is and what that means. There are lots of chances to succeed - PokeStops everywhere! Pokemon appearing again and again!  - and no one knows how many times it takes you to catch one; if you keep trying, you can keep winning. Pokemon-Go is constructed like a  "safe assignment," something I have been promoting  in my courses; giving students lots of chances to self-assess without worrying about being graded; lots of smaller assessments for students to check and see how they are doing as they learn, rather than one or two large tests.

It is a very upbeat and positive distraction. Emphasis on distraction; since it is so immediate and intertwined with your own life (when I went to the beach, Pokemon-Go went with me; when you play in the evening, the screen turns to night-time colors.)  It is almost like your own life has expanded. The Google orange man has been around for a while, what was missing was the engagement. There have to be ways we can incorporate these concepts into learning.  I imagined a Quizlet-Go; a program that has vocabulary words that you have to "catch" with their definition of things around you and related concepts. 

Day 3: Growth Mindset

Perseverance is worth a lot when it comes to learning; seeing yourself as being able to succeed and failure as a chance to learn are keys to a growth mindset.  Pokemon Go helps to hone this mindset, as you have numerous chances to fail and then try again and again to win.  You can move ahead, as I did, with no experience in gaming culture, but simply the determination to make it to the next level. I did not feel frustration at having to keep finding PokeStops to gather more balls, but enjoyed the process. By deciding to move to another level, I then did so simply by persevering; no matter that some were caught easily and some not.  Along the way I collected some badges that also worked to nudge me forward; 10 Water Pokemon! 10 Insect Pokemon!  These things encouraged me to keep going, in spite of the fact that it often took me numerous attempts to catch those silly things.

Day 4: Walk to incubate!

There is a lot of research that points to the benefits of exercise and the brain; learning is increased when the body moves. Many educators such as myself make sure students have a chance to shift gears every once in a while to increase learning, and moving to another table in the room, shifting from listening to a lecture to group work,  is enough of a change in the environment to refresh the brain. Pokemon Go not only refreshes the brain with new Pokemon, they slowly bring in various types of winnings at PokeStops besides the beginner's PokeBall. Occasional eggs started appearing at PokeStops, and I learned how to put them in incubators. I have 2 km and 5 km incubators; those eggs will hatch with even more powerful Pokemon after, and only after, I have walked those distances. This means, walk with your phone. This means, keep playing.  Constant engagement: brilliant. "Gamification" in education is huge, but we are nowhere near this level of engagement. Yet.

Day 5: Level Up!

I became a Level 5 and was eligible for the PokeGym.  This could be my nature, it could be because I don't know enough about it, but the thought of battling other Pokemon did not interest me.  I kept walking, catching, and incubating. By this time, my husband John was way ahead of me.  The points pulled him in, and I noticed that he was reading the information more carefully than I was,  (when you capture one and it says "Great!" you get more points than when  you capture one and it says "Nice!" (Or maybe visa-versa; you can see how important this is to me.) I have to say this struck me as a male/female thing. He was going for the gold. I was enjoying the process.

Day 6: Trampled

Soon after, my husband John  confessed that he had gone to a PokeGym. He had used his strongest Pokemon, a crab type creature called Paras.  He had expected that a trainer would be there, and he would be able to learn what to do, in a step-by-step style, as we had been doing all along.  Instead, his crab had been instantly beaten. In his words, Trampled.  We ain't in Kansas no more... This is a PokeGym.  It was like walking into a final thinking you are fully prepared, and flunking because none of the material was covered in class.  Whoops. Pokemon Go dropped the ball here - so to speak -  at least from a beginner's perspective.

Day 7: A Community...of Sorts

When you play Pokemon Go, you talk to others who are playing too. That means the UPS driver, the guy next to you in the parking lot, the people sitting on the bench near you.  People exchange tips and ask what level you are. Most of the people I talked to were in their 30's and younger. Other players seemed happy to see someone of my generation (= old) playing.  Non-playing friends thought I was joking; they shook their heads in disbelief; my esteem visibly falling before my eyes.  They all but said it: "What a waste of time."  For the first time in my life, I was at the other end of the disappointed glare that I have given my sons in the past.

You notice duos, and trios of kids playing as they walk down the street, completely engrossed. "Watch where you are going" and "Do not Trespass" the game warns in intervals. The game has brought them outside, and has brought them together.  This is impressive and important. It is a community builder; if you consider they are all in a classroom, it is the kind of classroom community where people are sharing and helping each other.  Both the educator and mom parts of me appreciate that, but both the educator and mom parts of me also know that real community needs more interaction than just playing a game next to each other. We have to be careful when we talk about community, as (in my mind)  it involves interactions. There is also some level where race plays into this, as I (white) am not worried about walking around randomly with this game in hand, but someone else may be perceived as a threat.   On some level, it is a game of privilege, as you play it on a smartphone, with a lifestyle that allows you to choose this diversion.

Day 8: Free Catches!

We visited our 24-year old son Brian  in Bellingham, WA, and my husband discovered with excitement a Lure Module; someone had switched on a feature that lures Pokemon to the area and anyone there can benefit by being able to capture Pokemon easily.  We went near the area and stood on a street corner and there were Pokemon everywhere to catch, sprinkled into the air were cherry blossoms-like petals of celebration. We busily caught Pokemon.  Our son stood next to us and watched, incredulous.

Day 9: Perspective Shift

On Day 9,  I started to notice the "distracted listening" syndrome in myself and others. We are pretending to listen - and even feeling like we are participating - in conversations around us, but one eye is on the game. We casually attempt to catch a Pokemon as we wait for an order to arrive, or while walking to the car, for example.  I knew I was doing it, but it didn't start to bother me until I was driving, and my husband John, riding shotgun, was trying to catch Pokemon and get balls from Pokemon stops at 50 mph.  I felt like I was chauffeuring a young teen around, even though he tried valiantly to cover.  I began to feel myself turn from experimenting educator to exasperated mom mode.   I could see that this could potentially affect our relationship if we continued along these lines.  (Playing "a little" is probably not an option that will work very well. How much is a little?)

Day 10: Pokemon Stop

The next day I  reached Level 8, and  I decided it was time to stop.  At this point John is a Level 15.   This is probably a typical female/male sample of difference in gaming. I could see how it could be fun to keep playing, of course, but I also felt like actively playing was interfering with too many thoughts and ideas that I am compelled to use in my work and life, and at this incredible moment in education, there are too many other things to explore.

I am happy I experienced Pokemon Go, and actually had more fun than I expected.  It has been truly educational, and I know it could easily be used for subjects such as local geography (PokeStops are usually small places of distinction that we often don't notice)  math (distances walked, points, percentages) and even writing (who is your Avatar?)  You could even get creative with surveys of Pokemon Go users for communication studies, and there must be ways this can be tied to coding.  It reinforced my ideas about scaffolding and engagement, and as an online teacher, I am convinced we need to find ways to utilize more of that. Pokemon Go was exactly what is it supposed to be: Fun. But I don't want it to take over my life, so I am stopping.

At least for now.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Teacher as Student

Summer is a time of re-energizing for many faculty. It is also a great time for some focused professional development without the constant stress of teaching. One of the best forms of professional development available it to become a student yourself. It is through the experience of putting on the student hat that I often find myself seeing a need for deeper empathy for busy schedules, distractions, and the frustration of unclear navigation or assignment directions.  When I take online PD courses such as Quality Matters, it requires me to work in Moodle, a platform I am unfamiliar with, and it brings to light many of the stumbling areas that our students experience when working online. Directions that seem clear to the instructor can be interpreted with confusion by students; vocabulary we are familiar with ("Download"; "Post"; "Attach") may be very familiar to us, but not to someone new or coming back to school after many years. 
In RTC's  eLearning Certificate courses for faculty, we have "soft" weekly deadlines, asking that participants use them for guidelines, but understanding that some will be working in spurts and starts.   I have had many participants express gratitude for this.  Are there ways we can allow the kind of flexibility in our regular courses?  
Face to face courses offer us similar opportunities to glean teaching ideas based on our experience as a learner. I have found so many Do's and Don'ts  by attending classes, seminars, and presentations. While sitting in the student seat, we have a chance to step back and reflect on what it means to learn according to someone else's standards and expectations. It gives us the chance to re-think our own style, incorporate new ideas, and make mental notes on what to avoid. 
Faculty, I hope you have the chance to be a student this summer. If you are looking for ways to do this, you can sign up for a MOOC at or, or look for opportunities in your institution or area, including free library presentations and programs offered by the city.  Re-energize as a student, and start fall with a refreshed perspective. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016


     I am just finishing checking and collecting course outcomes for almost 500 courses at our college. That means over 2,000 outcomes, in an epic spreadsheet, ready to be added to our website. It so happens that this year I have also become a co-facilitator in several Quality Matters workshops offered by our state system as well, all of which focus on course outcomes, alignment of outcomes  with assignments, and assessment. That means that this year I have had the opportunity to take a very close look at hundreds of course pieces; syllabi and modules and rubrics and discussions on how to improve all of the above. For someone who loves building curriculum (I also spend a lot of time developing and facilitating other professional development courses for educators as well) this has been a fantastically fascinating (albeit time-consuming) experience.

     The outcome of this?  I have a new respect for the power of outcomes and what they can do for both faculty and students. They help faculty deeply consider the main aspects of their course and how to best bring that to the students.   To not get too distracted or stray too far off course. They help students see what it is they are going to get out of a course, and - especially with the help of rubrics - what the expectations are for how they will get there. Clear language regarding outcomes helps to bring an immediacy to the learning experience.  Together, the faculty and students strive to work through the activities;  to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create.  (I have made a list of Bloom's action verbs available on our Canvas LMS help tab for faculty to easily refer to when writing their outcomes.)

     Writing outcomes takes some thought; it is a process that is something akin to painting an abstract picture. It requires expressing your thoughts about a whole course in a few succinct sentences. (Later, this helps you to break down each module you teach to support those course outcomes as well.) Many faculty teach with a very general idea of what needs to be done, adjusting as they go based on student needs, time, and materials.  Most have no time to write formal lesson plans, per se. Outcomes should respect this need for creativity and on-the-fly adjustments; they should not confine that very important personal aspect of teaching. They need to convey the general underlying concepts, not the details of any given course. And they are most powerful when they address the truly meaningful aspects of learning.  

    Thoughtful outcomes create an improved pathway for both faculty and students. I look forward to the continued journey in working with more and more faculty on outcomes and their related aspects. Outcomes, like online learning, are becoming a part of the 21st century learning experience, and can be artfully embedded into any course. If we embrace them and allow them to help us teach, our classes will become all the more vibrant. 

PARK | Flickr - Photo Sharing! : taken from - winny biets

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Google Micro-lessons

I just opened google and saw an adorable scene of birds in trees and a birdwatcher looking at them. When I scrolled over the scene, it said "Phobe Snetsinger's 85th Birthday" with this link to further information. There, I could see at a glance that she  was an American bird-watcher famous for having seen and documented birds of over 8,000 different species of birds. She lived from 1931 to 1999. Fron there, another link to me to her intriguing-sounding book,  Birding on Borrowed Time and saw that "Phoebe's quest to see as many birds as possible only began at the age of 34, when she first laid eyes on a resplendent Blackburnian Warble."

So - let's do the math; She lived to be 68.  She started watching birds when she was 34 - halway through her life.  That means that in about 34 years, she documented more than anyone else had at that point: Birds of more than 8,000 different species. Even to a non-bird-watcher, I know: That's a lot of bird-watching! 

That's a lot of determination. People find this kind of thing striking, and inspiring.  And google knows it.  They give us a bit of inspiration, along with some historical facts on people or events every day. They use a visual for engagment, to draw us in. And let us do the rest; relate to our own experiences, think about determination, look at something with new eyes.

Google gives us micro-lessons every day. We take them for granted, but there are so many ways they could be used. A daily writing prompt, or art prompt. Math questions; if she viewed 8,000 species in 34 years, on average how many did she view a year? Each month? Geography questions, science questions....limitless. Next time you need something quick and engaging, remember google. A micro-lesson a day, for any learner. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Inspired, not Driven

Data is BIG nowadays.  With so much information coming to us so much more easily than ever, we can make a million more connections than before. Daily. Educational institutions are dating big data with all the hope of a first date; we are scrutinizing data concerning how our students learn, how our teachers teach, who are learners are, how our messaging works, and oh so much more.  We have shifted our reflections and reporting to be focused on data, which in turn has led us to more data. Along the way we have incrementally become much more inclusive and embracing of those Number People, who used to seem so quiet and esoteric, turned to only at the last minute when a grant was being written. (Still the case. But no longer just then.)

The IR department of many an institution is being suddenly recognized as the most exciting and important department on any given campus, giving them in turn an increase in self-confidence and motivation.  Our own IR team has started Data Summits for faculty and staff, built data glossaries and directories, and started fantastic newsletter in the past year.  So much information to analyze and learn from. Slowly, it has spread across campus to even people like myself, as I cautiously attend data summits - Please don't ask me a numbers question! - and get to know our IR staff, who, it turns out do not bite. The past couple of years has been like a giant ah-hah moment for people like myself, who tend to form ideas, opinions, and construct whole programs, courses, and departmental initiatives based on gut feelings formed from experience, lots of reading and thinking, and a willingness to take risks.  Like rouge detectives, we follow our hunches. 

It is exciting when those hunches coincide with the data. But nowadays we are seeing how data can also lead the way, not just verify and document what we are doing. "Data-driven" (or "data-informed") decisions are thought of as the best approach to making any decision now, large or small.  Data-driven, evidence-based decision-making is how every decision is made. While I see the reasoning there, I feel that "data-driven" somehow take the human side out of our decisions.  These decisions are still about people, and people are complex and sometimes unpredictably idiosyncratic, not to mention dynamic. I want to preserve and honor that. 

Inspired by Data

Words are important, and help define our perspectives. (I wrote a related post on terminology:  The Problem with Problem-Based Learning, where I asked that PBL, Problem-Based Learning, be viewed as SBL, Solutions-Based Learning.) What I need data for is to inspire me.  As an educator, I want to find new directions for teaching and learning, find new ways to connect with students, and new ways to engage faculty. I want to be data-inspired, not data driven. I want a phrase that compels me to imagine.   I want to create and be inspired by data, not be driven by it. Driven feels tireless and exhausting.  Inspired feels motivating and fascinating, full of possibilities. Let's move forward with data-inspired mindsets that embrace a little messiness and allow us to take risks. Sometimes -  even data shows -  those are the best kinds of decisions. 


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Online Learners all get the Front Row

     In the online classroom,  every student in the class is in the front row.  Everyone can see and hear. You don't have to worry about your voice carrying, or that someone can't read your writing on the whiteboard. No one is jumping up and leaving when the bell rings, questions unanswered.  No one is dominating the class so that others can't talk.  There is less chance for the conversation to go off-topic, and zero chance that you have to repeat yourself because someone is late. 

     This means that online teaching can be as surprisingly time-consuming and exhausting as it is rewarding and exciting. While we have the chance to interact with each student as an individual with our feedback, that can take a lot of effort in larger courses.  And while there is a growing array of tools to use to create active learning environments for our students,  becoming experts on what and how to use them takes time and effort.  We have to stay on our virtual toes all the time; it is a different mindset to being "on" for a class period.  It is a shift in perspective that requires intentional adjustments. 

    But the more I teach online the more I think it is ultimately well worth the shift. I have found that I get to know so many students on a personal basis online, and the format has given them a chance to help me  not just by with my typos (which happens more often than I like to admit) but by pointing out relevant articles and contributing amazing posts and ideas that there simply is no venue for in a ground classroom. Hybrid has long been my favorite format, but as my schedule has become filled with creating and facilitating more and more online courses, I am gaining a deeper appreciation of what it can bring to our learning experiences. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sparrow Goes to Conference, Gets Crumbs

I have attended and presented at many conferences over the years, and have always felt conflicted about attending. It is not just my introverted self; it is a problem of life interruption. First there is the paperwork required; I know I am lucky that I can usually have my institution cover most of the costs, but that demands that a somewhat esoteric and 1970s- style paperwork process be carried out.

Signing up with excitement months in advance, I tell myself that surely my life will have more breathing space than it does at that moment. (Scheduling Denial is the go-to attitude of every Over-extender.)  I have matured somewhat out of my penchant to Attend Everything over the years, but the impulse is still there. My work schedule has gotten nothing but busier and responsibilities have increased immensely. (Over-Extenders thrive on self inflicting responsibilities.)  Time away requires carving out some space that pushes work to be somehow fitted in with a mad rush to wrap up before I leave, or piled up in a stack of papers covered with sticky notes  - even more than usual - after I get back.  My email inbox looks like a rush-hour traffic jam if left unattended for a day or two, complete with horns honking. So I usually just don't "leave" as far as my email colleagues are concerned.  

The development of a very engaging Personal Learning Network has also given me a great avenue for connecting with new ideas and brilliant people without the cost and time required of conferences. I have followed blogs for years, and had my ESL students blogging when I was a teacher in that sphere.  Facebook groups and Pinterest have been another great source of ideas. I  learned to use twitter in a MOOC course in 2012, and - after an incredibly slow and painful struggle to "get" it - have found it to be  the single most meaningful action I have taken as an educator in the past five years; I connect with educators all the time, and whenever I want a short burst of inspiration, it is there with articles, visuals, and ideas.

With my PLN nourishment I feel less need to attend every conference, and can use my budget for other things. When I do attend conferences, I sit up front so I can see  (and hear!) the slides and presenter clearly, I turn on my phone, take a picture to help myself remember it, and listen for a "golden line" to tweet.  With some practice, it has gotten easier to juggle listening, tweeting, and thinking. And not feeling self-conscious about doing all of the above.  It focuses me on the presentation and gives me something to remember it with afterwards. And the act of doing that invariably connects me to even more people interested in what I'm interested in.  Tweets are re-tweeted and commented on, and the conversation grows beyond the room I am in. They are like crumbs from the conference table; maybe not as fancy as the main meal, but tidbits that many sparrows can enjoy.

sparrow | Flickr - Photo Sharing! : taken from - Abhilash Kumar 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Hands-On Equals Minds-On

Three years ago my institution began to shift from competencies to outcomes.  First, college-wide outcomes were written, re-written, and settled on. Creating and aligning program-wide outcomes was next; each department gathered together in meetings to collaborate with their teams and create them.  There were various outcomes workshops, to talk about how to write SMART outcomes, and look at examples of clear, measurable outcomes. Those were collected by the program Deans, and added to our website.  I helped with the workshops, and added the program outcomes to our Canvas site as well.

This year, the focus is on course outcomes. There were various discussion as to how to make sure all faculty write them if they haven't already, and to make sure they are in the syllabi. There was some talk of having some more required meetings for faculty, but based on the fact that most faculty are pressed for time and we had already had a series of meetings, I suggested that faculty be allowed to submit their syllabi tabs online (we are using Canvas as our campus-wide grade book) and that I would give their outcomes a quick check, helping to adjust if necessary. Had I been really thinking about how many outcomes that would be to read, I might not have made that suggestion.  But that's what we decided to do.   

I created a short do-it-yourself course in Canvas,  The Outcomes Project.  It includes information on what outcomes are, the difference between competencies and outcomes, measurable verbs, and various samples of syllabi with outcomes.  Throughout spring quarter, faculty are submitting their syllabi for one year of outcomes; winter quarter first, then spring, then summer/fall. Several times a week I open The Outcomes Project,  and look at course outcomes from across campus. 

I  am the Outcomes Gatherer. As I look at the diverse outcomes from courses in allied health, business and welding to construction, automotive, and culinary arts, I am looking at our campus with new eyes. As a technical college, we see ourselves (and portray ourselves) as a hands-on institution.  "Learning by doing" has  been one of our mottos. Our mission is to put a diverse student population to work. But the outcomes show me something else as well. Hands-on equals minds-on:  Thinking skills are just as important as doing skills. 

This is what we have in common. 

For every photo or video you see of people working with their hands on our website, what you aren't seeing is what's going on in their minds. At the heart of all the courses are analytical skills. Cross-departmentally, students are expected to learn to analyze problems, find solutions, calculate numbers, explain issues, and make decisions. They are expected to demonstrate the Why along with the How. This is what we have in common, no matter what tool we are holding, what safety skill we are instilling or what repair we are practicing. 

The course outcomes speak to this side of what we are doing.  Yes, we are a hands-on place, for hands-on people.  But our focus is on empowering the mind as well as the hands, and with today's job market looking for innovation, curiosity, and critical thinking, we can make a great contribution. It may behove us to shift our self-perception to align with our course outcomes. We are a Minds-On college. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mr. Wade-a-Minute

Fresh from the Washington Canvas Conference at Tacoma Community College, my husband John and I went out to dinner at the nearby Duke's Restaurant.  This is a very popular waterfront spot known for its great chowder and seafood food - and its fantastic happy hour menu, always a big selling point for us. I had been part of  3 presentations at the conference, and was feeling delighted that the pressure was over, that the sessions had been good, and to have made some great new connections as well as reconnecting with others that inspire me.  Bring on the happy hour!

Our 30-ish waiter came and bent down on one knee by the table to talk to us.  I noticed right away his focus; his first mission was to connect.  It felt like we knew him - he connected as a person; none of that rote, memorized stuff. He introduced himself as Wade, and explained some menu items as we looked over the huge menu- so many decisions to make.  He could tell we would need time. "No hurry - just let me know when you are ready," he said.  As he turned to leave, he said, "It's Wade. My friends in college used to call me "Wade-a-Minute".

Now, I usually can't remember someone's name for more than 5 seconds after they turn away. But he had given me a mnemonic. Wait a Minute.  Mr. Wade-a-Minute.

When he brought our drinks, we chatted a bit more. He looked at my peacock scarf and said, "Peacock; my spirit animal." I looked at him quizzically. "They laugh like humans, and I love to laugh," he explained.  "How do you know its your spirit animal?"  I asked.  "I took the spirit animal test," he said.  As soon as he left the table, I looked it up online on my phone.

As we enjoyed our (first) drinks, I took the short spirit animal quiz. In the past, a lot of people at our institution have  taken the Strength Finder Quiz, and they have cards posted near their desks or on their doors, with things such as: Achiever. Empathy. Positivity.  It has always bothered me that they are not grammatically parallel terms. They also seem to be no more "real" than the  horoscope...although you can get that for free, whereas this one costs money.  So I was happy to take the quiz....and delighted with the results.

When Mr. Wade-a-Minute came back to the table, I told him: "I'm a butterfly.  Powerful transformer." He grinned - a bit surprised that (someone so old as myself?) had taken the quiz.  He had engaged me with a new idea, and I had tried something new.  My husband John thought it was a perfect description, but  rather than take the quiz himself, wanted to concentrate on his new drink, which Mr You-Know-Who had recommended.

As we enjoyed our meal, I watched Wade move around the section. He knelt at each table and gave them his full attention, nodding, listening, recommending. He made sure that each of his tables had his undivided attention when he was there, then he was up and running; putting in orders, bringing food and drinks, moving with efficiency and intent.

It dawned on me that he was putting into action many ideas that were highlighted at the conference. He knows how to connect and meet his audience where they are, he is not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side, and I had learned something new.  He brought the personal into the setting to build a little community at each very diverse table, with diverse needs and attitudes. He guided the whole experience, and we left with a feeling of wanting to go back, not because of the food, but because of Mr. Wade-a-Minute.

I think we all have this power in our hands, if we just connect with intent, listen to our students' needs, and step back and guide their experience.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Your Online Body Language Says About You Originally published by eLearning Industry Jan 21st 2016

Everyone knows that your body language conveys much –if not more– than what you say. And we usually approach the online environment as if there were no body language. But there is another way to look at this: Your online body language can be powerful as well as body language in person.
If you are not investing your full self into your online courses, your online body language says that you don’t care about your student. If your course is set up as a list of files to open and links to read –without dialogue, images, activities, or engagement from you– then no matter what you contend, your online body language says that the students as individuals –people who have ideas and experiences to contribute to the learning experience– are not very important to you.
If your courses are mainly a series of multiple-choice tests based on the readings or PowerPoints, then your online body language is challenging; your arms are crossed; perhaps you are stifling a yawn. Go ahead, try and pass this course. I actually don’t care whether you do or not. You may find that your students end up yawning as well, and leaving your course unimpressed and more than ready to forget the material.
On the other hand, if your course is made up of links to an outside subscription site, where students have to pay as part of their textbook cost, what your online body language is saying is Leave me aloneThere’s the material, over there to study. It’s enough that I have to enter all these grades! Not only are the students paying for something that you probably could provide them (with some effort and Open Educational Resources), your attitude in many cases negatively affects how they feel about the subject and the class. Not to mention how they feel about you.
If your course is devoid of images to illustrate ideas and stimulate discussions, without giving the students different ways to show that they understand the content, your online body language conveys the fact that you have no understanding of the diverse learners you have in your class, and little patience with those who don't already know what you know. Your online body language in this case is dismissive; if you can’t learn content the same way I remember having to learn it, then go somewhere else. (And you may find that students actually can go somewhere else, and may very well do so.)

It’s Not Too Late To Change

Fortunately, online body language can be changed. If you really want your students to enjoy learning, your attitude counts more than your knowledge. You can adjust your online body language by being aware of how strongly it “speaks” to your students, and revise your course to reflect your new online body language. Consider raising your awareness of different learning styles, exploring some online tools that may be useful for you, taking or finding some photos and utilize them in your course. Create a discussion around a topic that allows students to share their ideas; have them create videos, upload photos, and become part of the fabric of your course. Build on that energy; allow your course to be a place where everyone is leaning forward, across their desks, collaborating and learning.  This feeling can be created online, with an engaged online body language.
You can even insert a quick survey into a current course; ask your students what is working for them, what they are confused about, and what their biggest challenge is in your course. Experiment with some different ideas – consciously leaving your own comfort zone is a great way to mentor a growth mindset with your students.
If you engage your students with a variety of activities, provide personal feedback on assignments, boost your curriculum by taking advantage of the internet tools and resources, and provide safe places for formative assessments (such as practice tests), lots of visuals and a clear direction for success, your body language says: I care about you. I want you to succeed.  I am here to help. Your smile is genuine; your voice is sincere. Your online body language can pull struggling –sometimes even reluctant– students along.
Yes, online body language exists. Be aware that no matter what you say (or write) your online body language has a strong effect on your students.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Promoting Professionalism, Inclusiveness, and a Growth Mindset in a Week Zero course

Our new week zero is being rolled out as I type, and I've thus far read more than 200 assignment submissions, and responded to them individually.  What I am seeing is that our students are determined, motivated, eager to learn, with a lot of life experience and demands, from a variety of  backgrounds and cultures. 

I'm from China. I‘m currently taking an  ESL course to improve my English skills. I love children very much and I want to be a teacher in the future,  so I will taking the child development associate course in the summer quarter.

I work full time on the graveyard shift that is why I am taking this course online. I have three children two of them are grown and out of the house but I do have a 7 year old still home so I am hoping to better my life so that someday I can do this from home and open my own business and be successful at both jobs.

The material in this course was put together so that students can navigate in the new Canvas platform, with lots of step-by-step guides and images; in many ways, what one can expect from an introductory Canvas course. But it was also constructed with three other somewhat unique but important concepts in mind. 

1. Creating a Campus-wide Community

First of all, I wanted students to feel that they are part of a campus-wide learning community. They are welcomed into this community on the homepage with an RTC class holding a welcome sign. From the start, they can see that they are part of something bigger, and by seeing faces like their own on the front page, they can see that they are not alone on their voyage. Many of our students are coming back to college for worker retraining after many years away from school, or from other countries and cultures; the more they feel included, the more successful they will be. 

One of the assignments was to practice posting to a discussion forum with a short self-introduction, which allows people to see each others' the goals and backgrounds. It also has the *option* of replying to another post. This immediately started conversations that connected people across campus.

Glenda, I have a four legged kid as well! They are the best :)
Hi Liza! I'm also interested in becoming a surgical tech as well! It's nice to meet you! 

2. Connecting Canvas to Careers

I also wanted to tie the ability to use Canvas to digital literacy (creating a personal bio and choosing an image that represents who you are) as well as our college mission statement, which is to to put a diverse population to work.  Being a productive member of the work force means computer literacy, no matter what field you enter.  Using Canvas is a direct tie-in to their career goals.  One of our instructors, Sarah Zugschwerdt, created a great infographic to bring this point home. 

what you learn from using Canvas

In their own words

One of their assignment options was to talk about how much Canvas experience they have, and whether they like working on a computer: by calling this out on a personal level, students have the opportunity to express their relationships to computers.
I strongly enjoy working on a computer. I've always done a better work. Somehow, I just feel more inspired, more interested. My computer is my ally, my friend, and my confident. 
I enjoy being able to do homework by myself, on my computer and getting motivated to work at home instead of spending my time for useless things. It is highly motivating, and it makes me feel more comfortable about my work. 
I enjoy the freedom working on a computer allows me, because it enables me to complete assignments/projects whenever I have the time to, (whether this be early morning or late at night), so I would say I really do enjoy working on a computer because it allows me the flexibility to make my own schedule. 
So far, no one has said they dislike working on a computer altogether. Asking this question and allowing the student to answer in their own words has the student acknowledging and owning the concept: Computers are important and useful, and they actually - for the most part - enjoy using them. 

3. Promoting a Growth Mindset 

Promoting a growth mindset was also a focus of this short course: rather than the common "is eLearning right for you?" quiz approach, I created an infographic with the message that anyone can develop the habits of success, and illustrates simple ways to do it. Enough of the false divisions between people who "can" and "can't" do online learning; our courses all include some aspect of it, and everyone CAN do it. 

Numerous resources were also introduced, such as campus resources that include our library and student resource center and virtual help like eTutoring and AskWa.  But for our many students with few college-ready skills I also included links to free online resources for working on math and typing. Making personal use of the internet capabilities is crucial to creating lifelong learning habits. No student should have to feel they need to wait for someone else - or always pay money - to learn. 

Since the course is being rolled out with the new year, one of the practice assignment options is to share their new year's resolution. Having students consider and write their goals is a way to encourage them to carry them out, and anyone who chose this option received  a personal response.

New Year's Resolution: Pass my Aerospace Tooling course.
My New Year's resolution is to be better to myself and my family in the future.
My New Year's resolution is to do well on my first quarter at RTC.
The only quiz in the course, covering some of the important concepts, was set up as a practice quiz, allowing students to take it as many times as needed.  Practice quizzes are a great way to have students see how much they have learned in a safe environment. But the bulk of the interactions were on sharing, encouraging, and celebrating excitement about learning. 

It is a Week Zero course that sets the stage for success not just by presenting information, but by engagement on a personal level, connecting the course goals with personal and professional growth, and rewarding effort. Creating an inclusive community of learners, communicating with them as individuals,  and focusing on how much they CAN do as well as giving them tools for success is what this course is about.  I am looking forward to seeing how it plays out within the larger picture at the college; after all, it is just one part of the pathway to success. 

It has been over 20 years since I graduated from high school and didn't even think I would make it through my first quarter. But with the help of my classmates and awesome instructors I made it. Now I have the confidence to push forward and earn a degree. With this being said, thank you for your time and aloha!