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Sharing My Work: Teaching Paperless, Year 2

This was my second year teaching a “paperless” 300-level course on Nonprofit and Government Technology at Grand Valley State University. I used online tools for the process both years, although I modified both the tools set and approach the second year. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned about the tools and process.

Syllabus
I used PBWorks (an online wiki tool) for the syllabus the first year. I also created specific pages for each class session: a page for January 18, another for January 25, etc. The second year, I put everything the students needed on a single Google Sites page with a custom course URL: www.pa311.com. Keeping all of the course reading assignments on a single public page seemed to work well. Most of my lectures were delivered with the aid of presentations I created and linked to with Sliderocket.com.

I made two significant changes to the structure and content of the class the second year:
I narrowed the focused of each class session and significantly reduced the number of guest speakers. The narrowed focus, I hope, gave the students a better understanding of several of the core content areas. I plan to keep this approach in future years.

I’m still unsure how to best incorporate guest speakers..  There’s certainly value in exposing the students to multiple voices, but without a solid context for comprehension, I worry that guest speakers’ knowledge and expertise many not be well appreciated by the class. I’ll probably experiment with a few more guest speakers in the next iteration of the syllabus.

Eliminating virtual guest speakers also eliminated the use of Skype and DimDim.com. Since the classroom I used didn’t have webcam capabilities that supported Skype, this did save me the hassle of setting up my laptop, MiFi and Logitech webcam for class sessions.

Student postings and bookmarking
Because I want students to experience reading and posting online, I required them to sign up with a Posterous account both years.  I added all of the students as contributors to the Posterous group I’d established.

The second year I also required a Diigo (social  bookmarking and web-based research tool) account, so students could see how an online research tool works. As with Posterous, I had the students join a Diigo group I’d setup. Requiring the students to bookmark three sites (with a comment on at least one of the booksmarks) each week using Diigo seemed useful.

The experience of setting up and configuring the accounts varies widely from student to student. Some students have their accounts setup and configured before I finish explaining how we’ll be using the tools in class. Other students don’t get their accounts setup properly until I walk through the setup with them individually after the second or third class session. Providing the students with specific setup instructions via a page on the class’ Google Site seemed to help.

While the quality of posts generally improved this year, it seems to me that the students are not formally taught standard practices regarding linking, quoting or referencing online content in blog posts. I’ll definitely be adding a course session focused on this next year.

I wish Posterous had a way to view only items posted by a individual group member: this would make grading much easier!

Exams
I used Google Forms to create exams both years. The exams were a combination of multiple choice and essays.  Google Forms works great for multiple choice questions, but is less than ideal for reading and grading essay responses.  Reading a multi-paragraph response in a single spreadsheet cell is not an ideal reading experience!

Student Projects
Both years, I have required students to complete projects that included content to be posted online and presented in class.  I’ve asked them to link to this content within the Posterous feed, both years, as well.

The students are generally familiar with creating presentations, but could benefit from a bit more guidance regarding effective slide creation and general public speaking practices.  I put together a very brief set of slides on this topic for the class this year, but I need to add this topic to the syllabus next year.

I also need to be more rigorous in my requirements for the presentation format and content.  Requiring a title page, prohibiting the use of video during the presentation unless created by the student, and dictating the tool to be used for creating the slides may help.  I may also require a written, online document in addition to presentation slides.

I tested using PollEverywhere to gather feedback from the students regarding their classmate’s presentations: asking them to rank the presentations occurring each session. This exposed the students to another useful tool. Next year, I may simply ask students to grade each presentation, rather than rank the presentation in comparison to peers.

Virtual Office Hours
Since I live about 2-1/2 hours away from campus, I also offered virtual office hours this year.  I set up a standing meeting using FuzeMeeting.com that students could join twice a week.  Only two students took advantage of this time.  Next year, I’ll offer office hours at just a few strategic points in the semester, not weekly.  I may also move one of the class sessions to a web meeting format, simply because I want the students to be familiar with web meeting tools.

Feedback?I’d welcome comments and suggestions on the syllabus, approach or tools. If you were a student in either year’s classes, I’d be especially interested in your thoughts!

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