Diary of an eLearner

GWU Summer 2014 Semester Recap

This past summer was full of big life-changing moments for me, and on many different levels. The first and most exciting was the birth of my second daughter, Nadia. Now I’m the proud father of two great girls! The second was the start of my new position at Lyndon State College. I’m currently working as the Coordinator of Instructional Technology. I already touched on these two topics in a previous post I titled Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, which I published this past July 28th, so I won’t rehash those topics. Instead, I want to talk about my final semester in the ETL program at George Washington University. This past summer semester I took my final two courses, which were EDUC 6421: Critical Issues in Distance Education & EDUC 6426: Computer Interface Design for Learning. Following the successful completion of those two remaining classes, I wrote the final comprehensive exam, which is meant to test your overall understanding and competency in the field of educational technology and instructional design. I can only think of one word to describe it, and that’s Intense! My only advice for all my fellow ETLers is to make sure to plan ahead and give yourself ample time to review all the material that you covered throughout the degree. I know it sounds like an impossible task, but I assure you that it’s not. I know how tough all my fellow classmates work, so really the information has already been properly absorbed. Just don’t forget to go in confident about your eLearning skills, and make sure to show them what you know!

EDUC 6421: Critical Issues in Distance Education is a course designed around the major concepts affecting the field of distance education. Most ETL graduates will find themselves in a position where they will be dealing with distance education to some degree, be it an eLearning support specialist, a instructional technologist or even a school librarian. Distance education has proven to be a major player in the educational landscape, and as educational technologist, it’s our role to properly understand the current issues affecting it’s practitioners. Besides weekly articles and journals provided by the professor, the required textbook was Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education (5th Edition), written by Michael Simonson, Sharon E. Smaldino, Michael Albright and Susan Zvacek. The book is a great resource for anyone interested in exploring the topic of distance education. It’s divided into three section:

  1. Part 1 – Covers the theory behind the distance education movement
  2. Part 2 – Addresses the practical skills needed to function in the distance education environment
  3. Part 3 – Focuses on managerial issues that often arise when running a distance education class/program

EDUC 6426: Computer Interface Design for Learning is focused around the concept of Human-Computer Interaction or HCI. For anyone new to the idea of HCI, I highly recommend that you watch this short introductory video:

For those of you that already know a little bit about HCI, but are looking to learn more, then I really recommend taking the time to listen to the next video, which is a lecture by Björn Hartmann at UC Berkley:

EDUC 6426 was a great way to explore the exciting and very important topic of HCI. Up until this point in my studies, I had felt rather comfortable with the theory behind ID and I had already been able to start managing and creating some eLearning projects that were actually being used by several different institutes of higher learning, such as the University of Maryland and Williams College. But nobody wants a “theory guy” designing their software or training, it’s the same as nobody wants a programmer designing their OS. Well, this class provided the balance and helped remind me that there are many different aspects behind ID, including a simple to understand interface. One creative way to do this was through the use of the book The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman, who has years of experience consulting companies to design human-centered products and services. I thought that this was an interesting way to teach us the importance of designing for the user. Take it away from the tech world, and put it in the real-world. I highly recommend the book as a fun summer-read for all you instructional designers.

The major text for the course was Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction (5th Edition), by Ben Shneiderman, Catherine Plaisant, Maxine Cohen and Steven Jacobs. Like the textbook for the above mentioned course, this one is a must-read for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of HCI. Lots of theory is given but also practical tips for designing a computer interface on desktop platforms, mobile devices or on the Web. The book will ensure that your interface will be easily accessible to all users, be it young, old or disabled.

Well that’s it, my final semester reflection for my studies at GW. I hope these semester recaps have helped all you current and prospective ETL students. I can’t say enough good things about this program. If you have any interest in learning about educational technology, eLearning development or instructional design, then you must consider apply to this program. I want to give a big thanks to all my professors at GW, mainly Dr. Natalie Milman, Dr. Ryan Watkins and Dr. Bill Robie. Without your guidance I wouldn’t be launching into this exciting career, thank you!

Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions concerning the ETL program, or what it’s like being an online grad student. I’d be glad to help!

Top 3 Science Apps You Must Use This Year

So it’s already September 5th, and we’re all beginning to get back into the rhythm of classes once again. Since STEM was such a hot topic last year, and most if not all educational reformists were discussing the state of science and technology in our school systems, I thought it would be a good time to start promoting some very valuable tools that you can incorporate into your lectures. It never hurts to start the year on a good foot! Here are my top three science apps and the reasons why I think you should be using them with your students:

1. Celestia

If by any chance you have a young daughter at home, you’re first thought about this app might be princess celestia. (It might just be a sign that I’ve seen far too many My Little Pony episodes.) The Celestia that I’m referring to is a real-time, 3D visualization of space app. It’s available for both the Windows and Mac operating systems. A large group of worldwide volunteers are constantly feeding new data into the Celestia system, making sure that the information presented is as up-to-date as possible. I love how easily it brings to life the actual orbital movements of the planets. A must have for visual learners.

2. Solve the Outbreak

Solve the Outbreak is a free iPad app created by the folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a perfect way to introduce the topic of the ebola outbreak that is currently occurring in West Africa. The students will be prompted to research three different epidemics. They will have access to background information, specific data on the region in question and other forms of clues. The student takes the role of a medical professional and must decide on the best possible solution for stopping the spread of the epidemic. Here is some actual gameplay footage from the app:

3. Mahjong Chem

This last suggestion is aimed at all those chemistry teachers whose students are having trouble memorizing or just understanding the periodic table of elements. Mahjong Chem, available for both the iPad and iPhone, combines the periodic table with the game of Mahjong. We can thank the Chemistry Department at Stetson University for this great learning game. Students will learn how to match elemental names to symbols, how to name polyatomic ions, how to assign the correct oxidation numbers and learn electronic configurations. If your students finish their class work early, make sure they take out their phones and play this great game.

If you have any science apps that you think are great, please let me know by posting it in the comments box below!

Lost & the Secret to Exciting Teaching Through Cliffhangers

My wife and I have recently started watching Lost, which first aired in 2004 and lasted for 6 seasons. Thanks to the wonders of Netflix, we’re able to enjoy this great show that had passed us by on its original run. This post has nothing to do with some of the deep questions that the show brings up, even though I’m really tempted to do a post on the philosophical aspect of the show. This post is on the important use of cliffhangers in teaching. On a side note, any teacher looking to introduce some philosophy into their lessons should consider watching the show. Also, you should definitely check out the book Philosophy For Beginners by Richard Osborne. It’s done in a comic book style, and covers all the major philosophers, from the Presocratics to the Existentialists. What I want to talk about is the way the show is structured, and how that recipe can be applied to your lesson plans.

In case you haven’t seen Lost, the premise of the show surrounds a group of people whose plane has crashed on an exotic island. It is soon apparent to them that this is no ordinary island, but one filled with mysteries and a large black smoke monster. Yeah, I know, so cool! The writing of the show is the real star. It’s written in a way that ensures the viewer comes back for more, and that’s the idea I want to focus on. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger, and of course every season ends on a major cliffhanger. It’s one of those shows that’s difficult or impossible to just watch one episode at a time because you are left needing to know what happens next. This formula produces not just entertaining television, but it can also be used to produce entertaining and engaging lessons.

What I’m advising may not work for every subject, I’ll admit it, but I think that with the right adjustments it can be used to promote student motivation. I’ve taught many different subjects, from English to world religions and even to an introductory psychology course, but my initial teacher training was in history. Like many of you, I was drawn to my teachable subject because I had excellent teachers in that subject when I was a student. All my favourite history teachers approached their classes as a long story, and it struck a chord with me. I took that into all my very own history classes. I built a cliffhanger into the end of every lesson, and a hook into the following lesson that would remind my students of the story and where we left off. This technique not only ignites my students’ passion for history, but it brings the historical people and their stories alive. The worst history teachers are those that approach it as taking a tour of a museum – students don’t want to visit history behind glass barriers, they want to live it for themselves.

Let’s look at a specific example that you can use in your classroom. Pretend that you are teaching your students about Napoleon Bonaparte, and you have just reached the part of the story where he has been forced to abdicate and go into exile on the island of Elba. Now that sounds like it would make a great cliffhanger, so I would build it into the end of one of the lessons. Some of you younger teachers might be concerned about time management, but I assure you that it’s a skill that every teacher can develop through practice. Just make sure that you are coming to class with an excellent bag of bonus material, just in case your lesson runs short and you don’t want to start the following lesson early. An easy solution is to have a wealth of video and audio clips ready. With tools like Google Drive, it’s become very easy to save all this material to one location.

Now back to Napoleon! Ok, so I would aim to end the lesson with Napoleon’s  exile to Elba. But I wouldn’t just leave it there. I would throw it back to my students,  and ask them “What would you do if you were Napoleon?” If they are having a  hard time placing themselves in the situation, then give them options such as  “Would you accept your fate and live out the rest of your days on that Italian island?” or “Would you secretly try to gather your forces in an attempt to retake power and control of France?” Make them realize that these historic figures were real people like us, and they had to decide what to do in the given situation. Many of them will have very interesting ideas and they’ll want to know what the real Napoleon did, but don’t answer them! Leave them on a cliffhanger. Over time your students will grow to love this exciting cliffhangers, and they’ll be looking forward to the next class in order to see what happens next!

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Hectic, frantic, absolutely exciting, any one of these descriptions would be perfect for describing this past month. Besides dealing with the end of the school year, and being swamped with exam corrections and entering end-of-term marks, there was the stress of completing my summer semester at GW. This semester, which runs on a condensed 6-week schedule, I enrolled in two elective classes: EDUC 6421 – Critical Issues in Distance Education & EDUC 6426 – Computer Interface Design for Learning. But I’m going to write about these two courses during the next post, because for now I want to focus on two huge changes in my life: the birth of my beautiful new daughter Nadia, and the start of an exciting new career!

Picture this: the early morning hours of July 4th, I’m struggling to wake up by drinking my ritual cup of coffee and at the same time trying to mentally prepare for the long exam that was just about to start. You see, that morning I was scheduled to write my 3-hour comprehensive exam, which is the culminating task for completing the ETL masters at GW. Originally I was hoping to write this exam the following November, but life threw me a curve ball. A few weeks prior to July 4th, I was offered a position at Lyndon State College in the beautiful state of Vermont. Starting in August, I will be the Coordinator of Instructional Technology. It’s everything that I have been working for these past two years! The snag, every aspect of my masters needed to be completed before the start date of August 4th, in order to obtain my visa. This meant I needed to wrap up the end of the school year at Herzliah HS, finish my two summer courses with GW, and study for this comp exam. Ok, a little crazy I’ll admit, but doable. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my wife was also pregnant and the due date was July 9th!

As the days went by, and the pile of work subsided, I began to feel more confident. My initial terror was that my wife would go into labor either right before, or during my exam. This nightmarish thought pestered me like an annoying fly, it actually became very difficult to concentrate on my studies. But as the date drew closer, it really seemed as though I was in the clear. Finally the night of July 3rd had come. I was feeling confident with the material, and was mentally prepared to take the exam the following morning. I was scheduled to proctor it through McGill University, which is literally a 5-minute walk from our house. I was thrilled! When I first began the ETL program, I was unsure of whether or not I would be able to balance a full-time teaching gig, with being a full-time graduate student, on top of raising my beautiful 3-year-old daughter Amélie. I took it all in baby steps, and pushed through the really busy periods. Now it looked like I was about to complete the masters, with the added bonus of having a new ID position right out of the gate. Very happy man here!

I’m sitting on the couch, coffee mug in hand, triple-checking that I had everything prepared to go write the exam, when my wife slowly walks into the living room. She was crying, and the first thought that went through my mind was “Oh God, who died?”. Thankfully it wasn’t that. She was upset that I would have to miss my exam, the reason of course was that she had started to go into labor. In the end everything worked out perfectly: baby Nadia was born bright-eyed and healthy, mom made a speedy recovery, and I was able to reschedule the exam within the time limit for the visa (big thanks to professor Bill Robie!)

For now, I’m getting ready for the big move down to Vermont. In less than one week I will be living amongst the gorgeous wilderness of the Northeast Kingdom, enjoying the outdoors as much as I possibly can, and beginning my new instructional design position at Lyndon State. These last two years have gone by so fast. The ETL program was very demanding, especially having completed it in that short time span, but I absolutely loved it. It has given me the skills I need in order to succeed in the ID world, and I’m looking forward to applying everything I have studied in my new position. I will continue to document my instructional design/e-learning growth here on my blog, so please continue to follow along!

The Importance of Accreditation for Distance Education

I was recently asked to respond to the following question in one of my graduate classes:

What are some issues involving distance education that should be the focus of research? Why is this issue(s) important?

I answered the following, and wanted to share my response with you on my blog. I hope you enjoy. Like with all of my posts, I welcome comments, especially those that spark interesting dialogue.

I’m a huge supporter of distance education, but that doesn’t mean that it’s flawless or without any drawbacks. Some of the major ones that come to mind include ensuring a high quality of instruction, improper use of educational technology by both the instructors and students, technical problems and inadequate training for the technicians that help run the courses. I’m not going to discuss any of these really important issues right now, even though I believe that each of them requires some reflective thought. Instead, I want to discuss the issue which concerned me the most prior to enrolling in the ETL program at GWU, and that is the issue of accreditation or public opinion.

Hopefully we all enroll in a higher education program in order to grow as a person and a learner, but we still want to know that the degree we are working hard to obtain will open some professional doors for us. Basically, we want to know that our degrees hold the same amount of weight as those in a traditional face-to-face school. However this is not always the case. Many online degrees hold no professional or academic accreditation, and potential future employers do not always view them in a positive light. Two things need to occur in order to solve this issue: firstly, students need to do their due diligence prior to enrolling in an online program, and secondly, colleges and universities offering online degrees must strive to earn accreditation for their courses.

Educational accreditation is similar to a quality of assurance stamp on your degree or certificate. In order to obtain it schools must be evaluated by an external body in order to ensure that the program being offered meets or exceeds all the necessary criteria. For institutions of higher learning, these accreditation commissions are done through a peer review process. Accrediting organizations must first be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) before they can begin evaluating schools. There are currently 52 recognized accrediting bodies in the US, including:

Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)
Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT)
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
Council on Occupational Education (COE)

Students must research any programs they are interested in taking to see if they have received any of these accreditations. If the program hasn’t, then they risk investing both time and money into a degree or certificate that may not hold any water in the professional world. Schools hoping to grow their distance education programs need to get accredited as soon as possible, and once accredited they need to work on keeping it.

I want to end by referring to a report conducted by the Board of Directors of The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The report is titled Quality Issues in Distance Education, acknowledges that many schools are starting their own distance learning programs because of the financial possibilities they bring, but the priority must always be on the quality of learning for the student.

Positive economic outcomes are unlikely to occur quickly, and may not occur at all. Schools are advised to enter distance learning for reasons other than a search for financial windfall. Program quality, unique program attributes and program access are more legitimate reasons. (Quality Issues in Distance Learning)

If you are interested in further exploring the issue of accreditation for online and distance programs, then I recommend that you read the following two reports. Much of what I referenced in this post came from both reports.

 

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