Learning from Harvard: MOOC story, pt3

Learning from Harvard: Harvard MOOC story - Part 3.
Summary: Viewing Harvard's CS50x MOOC from the inside to sort out teaching tips from the student perspective. Here's what this week taught me...

Harvard MOOC story - Part 3

I sometimes feel like a big game hunter when beginning a new class. I am hesitant to march in without knowing the lay of the land, so I tend to be a bit tentative and observant until I figure out the right strategy. When I’m comfortable that I know how to be successful, I do the right prep work and take my shot. I felt like that’s where I landed this week. I finally figured out the right strategy to work through the CS50x MOOC course. I found that I needed to view the course’s materials out of their given order, which involved trudging through information that I didn’t understand, just to familiarize myself with what I would be doing after I knew what I was doing. It was like reading an uncompleted Mad Lib. “You will use _______(name of a function) to complete a ________(Greek word), using a ________(mathematical term). ”Once I knew the blanks, I could look for what would be filling them, and I was amazed at how many tiny hints of code were sprinkled through the lectures. Once I saw the big picture, I understood what was going to be helpful, and that made this week a cake walk compared to last week.

Week 2 Take-aways:

  • Help your students strategize.
    I covered this a bit in the previous week’s discussion, but I think it’s worth a second mention.  Don’t leave students to fend for themselves.  Stating clear learning outcomes and objectives, providing weekly work load timelines and recommendations, and explicitly describing to students your course’s well-planned sequences of introduction, exploration, concept-development, practice, and execution will help your students know how to succeed.
  • Do your students know how to take notes?
    Especially if you provide your PowerPoint slides or your lecture notes online, do they know how to use them correctly?  In the past weeks I had relied mainly on CS50’s provided notes, which just didn’t work for me when I was stuck on a problem, because I hadn’t engaged with them during the lecture.  This week I made a conscious effort to take better notes that would be helpful in completing the week’s challenges.  I added in my own interpretations, wrote down questions that I needed to ponder, and recorded coding ideas for solving the problem set.  If you’ve never shown students what good note-taking looks like, you should.  While your job might be to teach students the history of the bond market, not to teach them study skills, it’s worth the 10 minutes to cover this in class.  Ask a successful student to make a copy of his/her notes to show next semester’s students how they should not only record your words, but should be adding their own interpretations, questions, ideas, and extensions of the content.
  • Test their bug-finding ability.
    This week’s lecture started with an activity in which faulty code was displayed, and students had to pinpoint the problems and fix.  It’s a great way to review the previous lesson to prep for the next lesson, and it is a great use of Higher Order Thinking Skills. To complete the debugging process, students have to understand the purpose of their program, they have to understand any initial parameters that need to be set up, they have to understand the correct sequence of steps, and they have to understand how to express it in the proper language.  Whether it is analyzing the potential problems of an experiment, critiquing a persuasive essay, or spotting the problem in an accounting statement, this type of high-level check for understanding can and should be used in any field of study.
  • Consider back-channel learning.
    While I wasn’t able to participate in this due to my being an asynchronous student, I did think it was interesting that during the lectures this week, in-class students were given the option of using a live discussion board to post questions to grad teachers who were manning the board and could quickly address the issues without derailing the main lecture. If you have the man-power, this might be worth a try. Many students don’t want to monopolize the instructor with what they see as small questions, and this seems to be the perfect way to clear up their confusion and allow them to keep on learning.  As a lecturer, I would fear that this would lead to a distracting side-conversation, or that students would feel dissuaded from regular Q&A during a lecture.  Having a GTA-manned discussion rather than a student-regulated board would take care of the first problem, and actively engaging the students with Q&A, rather than relying on them to pipe up when they had a question, would take care of the second.  If your course doesn’t have a built-in discussion board platform, Twitter is an easy way to conduct a back channel conversation, using your course’s name as a hashtag.  I just discovered Google Moderator, which seems to be a better tool for classroom use, because it allows students to submit questions and vote each other’s posts up or down the list, so an instructor can answer the most pressing questions first.  A few tutorial videos emphasizing different uses and aspects of Google Moderator can be viewed here:  Using Google Moderator for Classroom DiscussionsThis video will show you how to have set up a forum for engaging online discussions with your students.

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  • Keep asking for feedback.
    I was really disappointed that this week didn’t conclude like last week, with a student survey about the course. After a good deal of frustration over the previous week’s challenges, relating as much to course design as to content, I felt like the course was losing an opportunity to improve. They still asked questions about the work load and how many hours were spent on programming, but it seems that they should also be tracking overall feelings about the course and how students experience the platform, the videos, the discussion boards, or anything else. If this MOOC is a testbed for future courses, there is a very real need for continually tweaking its setup.  Also, students appreciate the chance to praise, to help, or to vent, whichever the case may be, and asking for their feedback is one more way to connect online students to the course and to the real human behind their instruction.

With a few key points about online learning, hopefully you are able to use some of these lessons borrowed from Harvard.  I especially am planning on diving into Google Moderator a little more to examine its real utility in face-to-face courses.  Stay tuned for more in the weeks to come.

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