A reading cycle

Students who come to my courses often get a bit of a shock – I try very hard to not lecture. My classes are flipped, blended and discussion based. Often students are not aware of what they are getting into when the join my options, so this is a utility blog post to explain how I work, at the moment. (next week I may change things!)

In the first session of every course, apart from the usual admin announcements, I ask the group to go on the forums and introduce themselves and outline what their interest in the course is and what they want to get out of it – what are their personal learning outcomes from the course. I set a couple of readings – nothing too heavy, introductory and provocative to kick off the cycle of readings and discussion.

I bunch up most of my teaching on Mondays and Tuesdays, so the usual flow is that I ask learners to respond to the reading(s) and discussion prompt on the forums before the weekend. Over the weekend, and before the next session, I ask them to respond to another students’ posting.

In the next session, I start from their discussion – I pick out interesting contributions and open them up in the data projector so everyone can see the most interesting. We work them round the room, picking up other points and responses and gather the group thoughts.

Several other things happen during the disucssion

First, I never put up a bad post or criticise what someone said on the forums.  There is no wrong – but there may be differing interpretations and that is good because it highlights how easy it is for different learners to get different understandings out of the same reading, and discussing that is useful. (if someone is seriously wrong I’ll correct them privately)

Secondly, the group collectively may miss something important, but the discussion usually reveals that and I can backfill it

Thirdly, usually the discussion in the last minutes gets to the lead on to the next weeks readings. Sometimes, the discussion goes off an a radically different but interesting tangent and i need to rethink the map. Often, I just dive into the forums and edit the discussion prompt, right there in the room, to kick off the next weeks readings.

There is then, a natural flow over the course between online  and in class discussions with knowledge actively constructed among the group rather than simply shovelled out by me in powerpoints.

Several other thing are common practice in my classes.

Early on I usually outline some of the research on how asynchronous online discussion work, and recommend some of the key articles by Garrison and Gunawardena. The theories about online discussion isn’t something I secretly apply to my learners; it’s out there in the open – these are the metacognative skills we are trying to develop folks, read the playbook and work it.

I also ask learners to time their readings early on – they need to be able to ‘read’ a chapter or article in under an hour because they may have 5 or 6 courses ongoing, all with a leading load and they need to become conscious of managing serious reading.  I aim to get 2 hours of reading a week out of them, to leave time for other work.

Another consideration is that a topic is often not ‘finished’ in one week. Topics run on, and therefore the number of distinct topics that can be covered in a course is not the same a the number of weeks in a term. Equally, classes may diverge from the preferred pathway while remaining within the right general topic area, so you actually need more topics at least semi-prepared, not less.

All of the activity in the discussion forums is assessed – In every course as part of the course portfolio I ask students to submit their best posts, and their best responses to other posts.

In fully online classes, we use Google Hangouts on Air instead of face to face sessions, and these are usually shorter than a traditional class, and often with less activity.

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