Learning Grounds Ep. 016: Dean Shareski and Creating Online Community

In this episode, Zac talks with Dean Shareski about the difficulties unique to attempting to create a sense of community in online courses compared to face-to-face learning as well as other unique difficulties in community creation in conference presentations.


Learning Grounds Ep. 011: In Which Jessica Alzen talks of teacher evaluation and the split between online and face-to-face teaching

In this episode, Zac talks to researcher and graduate student Jessica Alzen about constructing teacher evaluation systems and the differences between online and face-to-face teaching.


Things I Know 80 of 365: Building online courses is scary

In my experience, it takes about twice as long — prep time, putting materials together — to actually deliver the online course than it does to deliver the on-campus course.

– Denise Keele, professor of environmental policy, quoted on npr.com

For about an hour this afternoon, I felt as though I’d written myself into a corner. I’m doing some work with a school district’s professional development office to build a course on inquiry and project-based learning in the literacy classroom.

The thing should be a piece of cake.

I’ve spent the better part of a year in an online grad program that gets it wrong in so many ways that I am acutely aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of online learning.

Building the course is about more than distilling the core beliefs and approaches of how I think about teaching and passing on those ideals.

It is also about building a space where the discussion board isn’t a place where discussions go to die and feedback consists of copying and pasting from a rubric.

After eight months of knowing what it feels like when done wrong, I sat scheming today, dedicated to constructing an online learning space and process that felt real.

The worry we have about K-12 teachers ignoring the needs of their students and teaching in mentally tortuous ways because their education is compulsory, is too often exacerbated in adult learning spaces.

Sometimes, I let my mind wander and imagine what the planning sessions must be like.

“Okay, we want our faculty to be trained in how to take an inquiry-based approach in the classroom. Let’s sit them all in a cafegymnatorium and tell them about inquiry.”

“That’s a great idea. I’ll build a PowerPoint with all the information from the book we’ll buy them and see how many words I can fit on each slide.”

“Great! While you two are doing that, I’ll build the online follow-up that will vacillate between assignments giving them directions to follow that are so specific that the implementation can’t possibly fit their students’ needs and assignments so vague they’ll never be certain they completed them correctly until they receive the final e-mail.”

You can see what I was working against this afternoon.

I don’t want to build what I hate.

Turned out the answer was the same as it ever was. I need to do what I say I believe. I started drafting questions to help focus on the ends toward which participants will work. I imagined how a participant would ideally shape his classroom upon completion and worked backward to design modules that help participants raise relevant questions and work toward their answers through inquiry, implementation and reflection.

The course is still in its most nascent stages, but I’m building somewhere I’d like to learn. That can’t be all bad.

It turned out the best way to avoid becoming the practitioners I resent wasn’t to work against becoming them, but to work to be more myself.

I wonder how many times I’m going to have to learn that lesson.

Things I Know 26 of 365: I need to know my teachers

No more teachers’ dirty looks.

– Alice Cooper, “School’s Out”

“Do you like your facilitator?” one of my kids asked the other day about the facilitator of my grad class.

I paused.

“I don’t know her.”

I truly don’t.

This course has featured no welcome e-mail, no bio on BlackBoard. Nothing.

In the course chat, I learned a little about her church, but not much about her.

Were it not for the tacit trust I put in the university’s hiring processes, I might worry she’s a pimply-faced high school sophomore who fits his grading in between Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

I don’t know her enough to like her.

I’ll never know her the way I would were we to share physical space. I’ll never know the color of her hair. I realize the strangeness of that statement, but it’s nothing to the strangeness of the not knowing.

Her face looks like as she gives a class time to ponder a question will forever be a mystery to me.

Does she pronounce my name with a drawl? Would she appreciate my humor? I’ll never know if she’s someone who stands the entire class or leans against a wall or desk.

I’ll never know.

These things I’d like to know.

If I’m to like her, these things help me decide.

If I’m to respect her, I need to know her.

She is responsible for facilitating my learning around curricula and learning, yet I can tell you not one thing about her pedagogy.

I imagine these weeks we’re together in this course to be similar to the early days of an arranged marriage. Contrastingly, though, we both have designs on an annulment.

It’s easier to dislike her if she exists as this disembodied set of deadlines and dropboxes.

My own little Milgram experiment.

A key piece of learning from my grad program has been my understanding of my drive to connect my learning to relationships.

My mathematical matriculation through AP Calculus was due solely to the care and academic craftsmanship of Mr. Curry.

I’ve yet to feel that care or craftsmanship in my courses.

This is not whining.

This is me attempting to understand why my otherwise voracious appetite for learning, understanding and creating meaning absolutely vanishes in these courses.

In no small part, I need to know my instructor as much as I need to know my content.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Chat/Discussion

As I’ve explained, I started my master’s program a few weeks ago. Through an online program, I’ll have a Master’s of Teaching and Learning in Curriculum and Instruction in 14 months. It’s my first time in an all-online learning environment. They’re doing it wrong.

As I’ve mentioned, my course requires participation in three online chats throughout its 8-week run. I missed the first chat as I was in a tiny town in a small town outside East London in Eastern Cape, South Africa, and the Internet was spotty.

Wednesday, I returned to the States.

Wednesday, our second chat was scheduled.

After two days of travel involving 3 continents, I had my sister pull over on the drive from O’Hare back down to Springfield, IL and I signed on sitting in supremely busy McDonald’s of Pontiac, IL. (If you don’t think there’s a global information divide, compare that last sentence to this situation and get back to me.)

No matter the free Internet juice my MacBook was sucking down, it just couldn’t talk to the chat room.
As had happened during my first go, I’d log in to the WebCT chat room, one person would send a line of dialogue and the infinite pinwheel of death would appear.

This happened across Firefox, Flock and Chrome.

After 30 minutes of trying, I e-mailed “Education Specialist” to say I wouldn’t be making it to the night’s chat.

Here’s what happens if you miss a chat:

After missing the last chat, I opted for the second choice. I’d intended to go with the first option, but the transcript never got posted. I inquired about it on the discussion board. But, as I’ve now learned, “Education Specialist” doesn’t so much use the discussion board.

I in my e-mail explaining my absence from Chat 2, I said I’d keep an eye out for the transcript. Subtle, I know.

Chat 2’s questions for discussion were:

Some potentially beefy material.

Before I read the transcript, I checked back to see what the requirements for participation were…non-existent.

On the other hand, I found this:

While no set requirements for participation exist, we are to write a synopsis of what we’ve learned in the chat and copy and paste it to our “Chat Log” along with our compiled responses to the weekly discussion forum.
I’m a bit worried that option 4 here runs in contrast with option 2 for those who missed the chat. Seems even if I opt for option 2, I’ll still need to include option 4 which is the same as option 1 above.

Here’s where I’d normally make the argument for putting all information in the same place, but I don’t have it in me right now.

Baffled, I’ve turned to the transcript.

Here’s how the discussion began:

The response to that one was kind of ugly.

The answers, by the way, Active Learning and Classroom Management. The first one makes me chuckle every time.

Then “Education Specialist” said:

But not everyone had finished typing the first strands, so it was a mix of strands  in what was an actual request to repeat specific information back to the instructor.

In the middle of it all, someone asked a question about an upcoming assignment and received the reply:


It was difficult to read the rest of the transcript. “Education Specialist” would yell each successive pre-announced question and my peers would type their responses back to “Education Specialist.”

Here’s the only feedback I could find:

Warms the cockles, no?

Forty-seven minutes in, and it was over.


In this course, we’ve read (or were assigned to read) multiple chapters about making learning active, moving from a teacher-centered approach, making learning authentic and multiple modalities.

Then, in one of the 3 times we’re all in the same “room,” it’s straight-forward teacher-centered call and response. Desperate for any actual evidence of, you know, chat, I took a tally.

In the discussion that took place before “Education Specialist” left the room, peers responded directly to one another a total of 5 times. Those responses were generally along the lines of “I have used that tool and find it very helpful as well in the math classroom.”

Hardly the free, open and democratic exchange of ideas I work to facilitate in my classroom.

Chat can and should be a much more powerful tool for facilitating learning from varied geographic areas.

Election Night 2008, I sat in Chris’ living room with my laptop, logged in to a moodle chat room open to all SLA learners for discussion of the history that was being made. People were throwing out commentary, questions, answers, tips for the channel with the best coverage. When it got down to the wire, a rich conversation started about how some news outlets were calling the election whilst others were not.

No pre-fab discussion questions were needed. Something interesting to talk about and learn from was happening and so we got together to explore it.

This week, seasoned educators from around the country were asked “What techniques do you utilize to manage classroom behavior?” and 3 people responded with 10 lines of text.

Every second of the 47 minutes that chat was being facilitated could and should have been dedicated to just that question. Teachers from multiple disciplines talking about what they do to set and maintain the climate of their classrooms, and we spent maybe 5 minutes.

This isn’t active learning. This isn’t inquiry. This isn’t constructivist. This isn’t, well, it just isn’t.

Better than this.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Course Design

As I’ve explained, I started my master’s program three weeks ago. Through an online program, I’ll have a Master’s of Teaching and Learning in Curriculum and Instruction in 14 months. It’s my first time in an all-online learning environment. They’re doing it wrong.

This is the front page of my current course:

This is the discussion forum:
You’ll note there are multiple threads. That’s because not everyone in the course responds to the weekly discussion questions through reply.
Here’s a classmate’s response post:
Here’s my attempt to preemptively stop all of my classmates from posting their discussions and responses as file attachments:

The “Education Specialist” has a thread about each upcoming assignment, except one that was due last Sunday. On the syllabus, it’s due next Sunday:

On the due date sheet, it was due last Sunday:
In the course dropbox, it was due last Sunday:
In the discussion forum, where we’ve been alerted to how to complete all assignments, not a peep:
My e-mail:

The “Education Specialist’s” response:
The page that has heretofore gone unmentioned in the discussion forum:

Each course at SLA uses moodle as a content delivery system. From time to time, I’ve attempted to use Google Calendar or other means of delivering due dates and course assignments. It hasn’t worked. My learners have looked in one place. If I put it in one place, they know where to look. It makes the actual work easier if they don’t have to search for assignment due dates and descriptions.
The same could be said for this course.
In short, they’re doing it wrong.