Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A little MOOC madness

I signed up for a MOOC class today. For those of you as yet unfamiliar with that particular acronym, a MOOC is a massive open online class.

Let me see if I can offer you the most primer of primers, especially given how little I  know myself. I don't know the author of this article, but he has a pictorial reference to The Princess Bride. I know; random. Anyway, the author, Aaron Bady, gives a very nice and concise background on the rise and increasing presence of MOOCs.

Online learning isn't new. A lot of educators have firmly resisted online education and equally firmly believe that online education has little to no value. Well, there were people who felt the same way about horseless carriages and other equally equilibrium-shattering innovations. We are often threatened by that which we don't understand and which requires. . .  change.

Those of us who have taken well-designed and well-facilitated online classes know they are much like well-designed and well-facilitated face-to-face classes. Only harder. Because the onus for learning is mostly on the learner.

Those of us who have spent painful and long hours designing an online course know how hard it can be. A 15-week online course requires the instructor and instructional designer to think through as many situations and scenarios as possible when designing the entire 15 weeks of lessons, assignments, and assessments.

It took me nearly 80 hours to design my first online course. And then online facilitation--checking the discussion boards, reviewing assignments, coaching, etc.--took me approximately 45 minutes to an hour for each student for each assignment. It was excruciating, and fascinating.

So the MOOC takes the online course to a much grander scale. At present they are free and one can expect little to no interaction from the instructor because enrollment could be in the thousands. Why? Well, it's open, which means anyone can sign up for the course. Anyone. Anywhere. And it's free.

At the end of my 7-week course, I'll get a nifty certificate but only if I complete the assignments and pass the tests.

The MOOC experience, at least for now, might be an experience in learning for the sake of learning.

Which isn't such a terrible thing.

Next time: a little more MOOC madness.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pedagogical content knowledge redux. Content or teaching? Why choose?

"So my question is this: should the focus be on content or on teaching practices?"

This was a question raised by a frustrated teacher who was grappling with Common Core. Lower your verbal guns. Yes, I know it's easy to take aim at Common Core, but this isn't about Common Core. This is about a teacher who finds herself at a crossroads and is actually asking if it's more important for her to focus on content knowledge or teaching practices.

Remember when we talked about "pedagogical content knowledge"? It was Dr. Lee Shulman who first talked about pedagogical content knowledge. In 1986. Shulman wrote that pedagogical content knowledge
. . . embodies the aspects of content most germane to its teachability. Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one's subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations - in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning (p. 9). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching
Then in 1993, Cochran, DeRuiter, and King offered another view of pedagogical content knowledge
to be more consistent with a constructivist perspective on teaching and learning. They described a model of pedagogical content knowledge that results from an integration of four major components, two of which are subject matter knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. The other two other components of teacher knowledge also differentiate teachers from subject matter experts. One component is teachers' knowledge of students' abilities and learning strategies, ages and developmental levels, attitudes, motivations, and prior knowledge of the concepts to be taught. Students' prior knowledge has been especially visible in the last decade due to literally hundreds of studies on student misconceptions in science and mathematics. The other component of teacher knowledge that contributes to pedagogical content knowledge is teachers' understanding of the social, political, cultural and physical environments in which students are asked to learn. The model in Figure 1 shows that these four components of teachers' knowledge all contribute to the integrated understanding that we call pedagogical content knowledge; and the arrows indicate that pedagogical content knowledge continues to grow with teaching experience. The integrated nature of pedagogical content knowledge is also described by Kennedy (1990).
Oh my that's a lot to take in, so if you've just skimmed past the quote, let me sum up: 1) teachers need to know their content; 2) teachers need to have good ways to present, teach, or make their content accessible to students and need to have a variety of ways to do so; 3) teachers need to know their content well enough to know where there are likely to be challenges for students and misconceptions; and 4) teachers need to be aware of the landscape in which students live and learn.

Sounds easy, huh? It isn't. Imagine a room full of 28 or 35 or 42 different personalities. They have different learning styles, attitudes about school and learning and being, and motivations. Some might love to learn but want to hide it because they don't want to a geek; the educational landscape isn't just about the political and environmental considerations, but the chaos of cultural and social issues that can plague students at school or at home.

Teachers can get lost in all of that, so part of what teachers need to relearn--and what our teacher education programs and professional development need to address--is how to focus on the things that teachers can do best and well. And that too is much easier said than done.