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ES2012 – Exemplary Teaching: Using CTools to Enhance Interactive Teaching May 10, 2012

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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CTools is U-M’s implementation of the Sakai learning management system. While the tools in this post will be specific to CTools, the general principles are not.

Most people use very few tools, and much of what they do aligns with what instructors have traditionally done. For example, many instructors post readings in Resources, essentially using CTools as a replacement for a coursepack.  Most instructors also use it for communicating with students, either by using the email tool or by sending announcements. Most instructors also use one of the gradebooks in CTools. In other words, instructors’ primary use of CTools is for doing the things instructors have always done.

During the winter semester, the USE lab runs a poll on the CTools home page, asking students to identify teachers who make really great use or unique use of CTools. Stein Brunvand and Brenda Gunderson were among those identified by students this year.

Brunvand teaches at UM Dearborn. His classes are a mix of online and blended classes, making CTools an important interface for his students. His typical class size is somewhere around 25 students. Gunderson teaches very large statistics classes (1500 students during fall and winter terms.) There are usually 54 lab sections with around 2 dozen GSIs. Each GSI gets a project site for their class, which is tied into the lecture site. In addition, there is another project site for all the GSIs, with resources from past semesters they can review and copy, and things that she might want them to “test drive” before releasing it to the students, so CTools is not only an LMS, it is also a CMS for her GSIs.

Both of them had one major message for instructors using CTools: make it worth your students’ while to use. If they know they can get to everything they need, they will use it. Also, although neither specifically made this point, it’s important to organize the material. Students will not use what they can’t find, or they’ll email you to ask where they should look for it.

Video was a common thread for both. Brunvand uses a 15-20 minute video podcast, made with audacity, which includes things like what to turn in this week and what to do when done with the video. The podcast is in iTunesU so students can subscribe, but he also adds it to Resources. Gunderson uses BlueReview for lecture capture. Many instructors worry that attendance will drop if lecture recordings are provided online, but she says she doesn’t see a significant decrease. She also uses clickers, but they are not used in grading, only to gauge student understanding during lecture. Both used video to do things like answer email or give brief instructions for things like accessing virtual sites. They both felt it was faster than trying to do screen shots and type instructions. Neither do much editing of the video.

Brunvand uses the forum tool extensively for discussion. Students are required to post to the forum both in response to his podcast or to topics he starts, and to other students’ responses. However, he does not set a minimum requirement for posting other than the requirement for weekly posting. Generally, students seemed to use the forums regularly, and would continue the conversation after the deadline for that week. He will also respond, but not until after the deadline unless there was something confusing about the assignment. Brunvand felt that if he responded too soon, the students reacted as if that meant there was a specific, right answer, and conversation would stop. He has students place an image in the Resources to use as a sort of profile picture that they attach to each post. This is important in an online class, where this may be the only way students ever know anything about their fellow students. The default permissions on both Resources and Forums have to be changed to allow students to upload and edit their own materials.

One of the most important things to Gunderson is to make the front page useful. The “Site Info” section can accept things like pictures or HTML, and students repeatedly cited the “Get Things Done” (GTD) list as something they really liked. Each week, she creates a webpage with all the things due that week, the things that a good student should be doing (e.g. reading chapter 6, reviewing ch 4 homework…), important events (exam dates, drop/add deadline), office hours, policy reminders (e.g. the missed lab policy might be included for the thanksgiving week GTD) and links to the resources they’ll need. She also likes to include a fun item or two, like a comic or fun youTube video. It is based on an article she read in ProfHacker, probably the one at http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/an-introduction-to-gtd-getting-things-done/22719. The post goes out at about the same time, so students know when to look for it. She sends a notification to tell students it is up, but that is the only email she sends out normally.




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