Posts in "Teaching"

Testing out a new grade scheme

This semester, I tested out a new grading scheme for my face-to-face version of PR Publications. I’ve taught the class 10+ different times over the past few years, and while all of them have been different to some degree, this semester was different in that I completely eliminated numerical grades from the final grade equation.

I want to preface by saying that I don’t believe this is possible to do in every course and every discipline. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it for most. But for a class like mine it was the right way to go. My class has no quizzes or tests as it’s  project based. These creative design projects have small tasks that lead up to turning in the project and several of those tasks are feedback loops where students both give and get feedback from peers and myself on how to improve their project. Because of the amount of iteration that takes place before a project is turned in, the majority of students are turning in what I consider (again, very subjective) to be “A” work. Students who don’t do well in my class (and there are very few) don’t do so from a lack of talent or creative ability but usually because they simply didn’t complete the projects.

There were two main drivers in making this decision. One was that, with the move to the Canvas learning system, I could now make assignments simply “complete/incomplete” which I found to be quite nice. Points were no longer a necessity to have a grade book. The second is that, after reading and hearing Dave Cormier talk about learning contracts for many years now, I took it upon myself to read the actual syllabus/spreadsheet (novel concept I know) to get closer to fully understanding the model and I think get it now. I’ll admit I’m still not sure I fully understand his specific model or that I am doing it correctly, but I’m happy to say I’ve settled on a version that works for my course’s needs. I

And so let us imagine the type of questions you are asking so let’s have a pretend conversation….

So how exactly does this work? What’s your grade scheme.

Great question, faithful reader. So before I answer this I have to explain what class used to be like. For the last couple years, I’ve been using the curriculum for the online version of PR Pubs in my face-to-face class as well. You can see that course here. The way that course works, is that the course is broke up into weekly lessons which is broke up into 5 to 10 tasks or “micro assignments.” Most of these micro assignments require students to turn in some type of artifact, usually a blog post, to prove that they have completed the work. A complete course is close to 100 individual gradebook assignments. For me, this has been great for online where I’ve found it better to have students show work through artifacts. It also gives them a very clear path towards completion. But this method hasn’t been super necessary for the face-to-face simply because I physically watch their progress happen in the classroom so the act of turning in of all the individual assignments feels a little bit more like a formality than anything else.

So the first thing I did was simplify assignments. One weekly (16 total) blog post. Five total design projects. You can’t turn in a project until I tell I say you’ve done enough work on it. And I reserve the right to make you revise your work as many times as I think are necessary. All assignments are complete/incomplete. And, YES, students still earned a letter grade. Grade mix was as such:

A: Earn completes on all design assignments + 15 blog posts

B: Earn completes on all design assignments + 13 blog posts

C: Earn completes on all but one design assignment + 12 blog posts

D: Earn completes on all but two design assignments + 10 blog posts

F: Student has failed to earn completes on three design assignments and 10 blog posts

Attendance matters. Students drop a letter grade after two missed classes for each class. I usually don’t like being an attendance stickler (attendance for my class is always high anyways), but my class is lab format and not lecture so students are accruing work hours not just listening hours in my classroom. And sitting and doing work is the only way you actually improve, and in a class like mine where improvement is the name of the game, it’s necessary.

But how do students know how they did if you don’t grade it?

Complete/incomplete as an assignment grade doesn’t mean they don’t receive feedback. As I mentioned, students do SEVERAL iterations on the projects. I believe that my role as instructor is to give my students the opportunity to produce their best work. That means not just accepting a first draft, but giving students the opportunity to rework a project multiple times if necessary.

As for blog posts, I use a rubric not to grade the blog post but to give them feedback on how to improve their blogging. I also frequently gives comments on every blog post. And, yes, I read every blog post.

Last, and I’ve talked about this before, I am as interested in doing reflecting on what they did as I am the work they do. Drawing from art pedagogy and metaliteracy, I’m hoping students achieve self actualization as much as anything else. I say all this to say I want students to learn to be critical enough of their own work to be able to tell me how they did, where they fell short, where they grew, and where they still see room for important. Somewhere on my soapbox I’ll usually talk about how students tend to not get a lot of experience doing this even though it’s incredibly critical in life post-college. Further, I have students doing a reflection posts reflecting on the idea of blog posts (soooooo meta) and a common arch is a student saying they found it pointless and repetitive at first but later found it to be therapeutic and necessary and that they are grateful to now have the collection of all of their reflections.

Did student work suffer?

Absolutely not though I won’t say I wasn’t initially concerned this would happen. I will say that I find it deeply troubling that there is a belief that students will only do work if they are given specific numeric points. I think this is a model that proves students can be engaged beyond points. More on that from a student’s perspective below.

How did the students respond to the approach?

The funny thing is we didn’t really talk about it a lot. And in fact I think that was one of the benefits. Grading creative work is incredibly subjective, but this grading method allowed students to have a complete transparent view of where they stood in the class grade wise. And I’m not looking for great work; I’m looking for their best work. Because students always knew where they stood, I never had many questions about grades. So with that I asked students on their last blog post to reflect on the course format. Students said the following:

The grade scheme relieved initial worry.

Lastly, the “complete or incomplete” grades in this course made me enjoy this class that much more. Instead of worrying about adhering to A-worthy designs, I got to focus on learning and creating. Not having to worry about my percentage throughout the course was refreshing, because it gave me the opportunity to focus on other things rather than making an A. This course’s grading style was definitely unique and effective. Demery Pennington

It did not hamper student effort.

What probably made me the most jubilant was the fact that there we no quantitative measure of grades. We were only asked to do the project and have it approved for submission. The pressure of getting an A left my shoulders. I still understood that I had to create quality work though. I never EVER slacked on making projects for this class. I always gave it my all and I would go outside of class to finish my work if need be. Brian Keener

Students found it fair.

The grading policy was probably the fairest of any course I have taken thus far in my college career because my instructor knows that creativity is subjective. It would be unfair to assign a letter grade to work we put much into. Knowing that as long as I gave it my best and submitted work on time reduced stress. It also allowed me greater time bravely to explore the creative journey. Wyatt Stanford

They also found it student centered.

I’m thankful to be in a class that was centered around the student. Having a class that grades weren’t the main concern allowed me to be able to express my work in a more creative way instead of being restricted to guidelines and classroom expectations from a rubric. Micayla Payne

It allowed them to take risks.

When I first started this class, I was super surprised to hear that instead of getting actual grades on our work that it would be more of a completion grade. This was my first class formatted in this way. I was a little nervous that I would allow myself to not take this class seriously since I did not have to worry about grades, but I am glad I did not do that. I think taking away the grade aspect of this class helped me tremendously. Instead of focusing on getting an A, I was focusing on letting my creative side shine and enjoy what I was doing. Sierra Abbott

Though it could have been more clearly stated.

At first, it was unclear to me if we’d get a letter grade for this class or receive a pass/fail, though. I could’ve simply been distracted when you went over this, but I think making that more clear would be beneficial to students in the future. Sami Canavan

So I’ll go ahead and restate that I don’t believe this method is for everyone nor would it solve the issues I still see with letter grades in general. But this was a way in which I could play within the system given to me but also shift the grade book away from a false sense of mastery and towards a method of gradual progress. I’ll be curious to see the course evaluations (where the critical feedback tends to come) and I’m excited to tweak the recipe a bit as necessary as the course evolves.

Openness without penalty

Note: On Monday, September 26, 2016, I gave a talk at Middlebury College. Below is the working transcript I wrote for the talk, though I did not actually read it. The talk can be viewed online.

Today I’m going to focus on my journey as both a college instructor as well as administrator over a project we have at the University of Oklahoma where give students, faculty, and staff a modern space to build on the open web and what it’s done for my courses as well as my community.

But before I get there I want to pose and explore some broader questions. How do we choose the technologies we choose for our courses? Why do we choose the technologies we choose? What do these choices say about who we are and what we believe? How can we learn more about who we are through these choices?

You see, I believe that to discuss education technology you need to first contextualize these situations, as not all technologies are suited for every situation. In fact, I would go further and say that not every technology is congruent with every teaching philosophy. As an instructor I’m not a neutral entity; I teach my subjects the way I want to teach them. Similarly, technologies are not neutral as they, too, have biases that have been implicitly or explicitly built into them and their uses.

I’d like to unpack these ideas of teaching philosophies and the neutrality of technology a bit, but first, I’d like to take the moment to out myself. Purely by discipline, I’m far from a humanist. I teach Advertising and Public Relations courses in Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications; our area is called Strategic Communications. Ad and PR, while certainly can be studied, is much more a profession than it is a discipline. We pull from business, marketing, communications, human relations, art, visual communications and we package and sell these disciplines in such a way that it’s really complicated to understand your return on your investment, much to our benefit. Yes, we are in the journalism school, but, as my newspaper writin’ college roommate would tell me as often as he could, “You ad guys are not journalists.”

So, here I am, saying something similar, “Us ad guys are not humanists.” When I was in grad school (my graduate work is in Learning Technologies) I did what a good grad student does in that wrote a personal mission statement and a teaching philosophy which has been stuck on my syllabus for the past four years that I’ve been teaching, and it wasn’t until very recently, as I reflected on how I taught, that, by golly, there might be an outside chance that my teaching style is actually very humanist.

Now, if you are curious as to where you might fit in, here is a list of teaching philosophies as described by Elias and Merriam (1980) and later adapted by Zinn (1990).

Zinn used this framework to ask questions about how decisions in the classroom are made. Zinn says that when one engages in the practice of education, certain beliefs about life are applied to the practice, and these constitute as a philosophy in education.

Personally, I have reverence for all of these philosophies, but I fall squarely into the category described here as a humanist. I structure my course around not just mastering content but enhancing personal growth and development.

Further, most research around the Internet has focused on one of these three areas: uses (or the artifact generated via technology), technological (with a focus on the technology itself), and social (the outcomes of the technology) (Dahlberg 2004).

What’s interesting is that you can begin to lay these philosophies — teaching and technology — over one another, as was done by Heather Kanuka (2008).

Technologies can, under certain circumstances… provide flexibility, convenience, and meet individual student needs… Specifically, uses of technology can play a critical role in providing flexible and open access to the growing needs of individual students… For humanists, learning is view as a highly personal endeavor, and, as such, self-concept, self-perception, intrinsic motivation, self-evaluation, and discovery are important to learning and thinking skills.
— Heather Kanuka

So I want to look look closer at this idea of how one can attempt to leverage technology to facilitate this idea of self-actualization, or at least how I’ve tried to attack it myself. As I mentioned I teach ad and public relations, and I specifically teach design-oriented courses. My students are, for the most part, not designers. In fact, I would say they are quite anxious about this course either because they don’t consider themselves creative, or they consider themselves computer illiterate, or maybe it’s just because they aren’t familiar with an assessment methodology beyond quizzes, test, and essays. So needless to say they are out of their comfort zone. And so I’ve adopted an overarching goal for my course which is that I want every student to be able to see that they are, indeed a creative human being. I’m really passionate about creativity. And I believe this strategy can easily be applied to other disciplines. You are passionate about chemistry, and you want your students to see that chemistry is approachable, or math is approachable, or writing is approachable.

In 2013, I watched a presentation by Jim Groom about a project that was taking place at the University of Mary Washington called a Domain’s of One Own in which they they were affording all students at the institution a domain to build out a digital identity and use the space to reflect on their learning experience. This use case, and particularly the philosophy behind giving students a space of their own (inspired by the famous essay A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf) really resonated with me and what I was attempting to do with my students. Jim had similar goals for his students in a Digital Storytelling course (DS106 #4life), and it felt good to come across a technology that really resonated with my teaching philosophy.

As I spent the last summer redesigning a course that I was to teach this fall, I looked at several of them to better understand creativity. What are the building blocks of the creative process? How can I build a classroom environment that is conducive to creativity? There are lots of theories out there about creativity itself (pro tip: if you want a have a book on NY Times Best Sellers list, write one). But one interesting idea that has come up several times throughout writing on creativity is is the notion that the creative art process is specifically related to the process of self-actualization. And you can break this process down into a four-part process (Rogers 1961, Linderman and Herberholz 1977, Ross 1980, Rider 1987).

I want to walk through this process and showing how I’ve built this into my courses.


This first phase of self-actualization through creativity is awareness and it involves being open to new thoughts and experiences. In my class, this is the domain itself. Each student has a domain in which much of the work will take place, outside of the walls of the password-protected learning management system. Having a public, academic identity is foreign territory for the majority of my students. And as an instructor I have to, first, acknowledge this, and, second, tread lightly here. I want to encourage students to take ownership of their space, to personalize their space, to allow their space to reflect who they are. In many ways, this is an analogy for what I’m hoping for with the course. I want them to take ownership of their own creativity and becomes agents of their learning. Own your self; own your work.

Hello World

The interesting thing about domains is that they begin amorphous. It’s loosely defined by the technology but only really take shape once a student has spent a considerable amount of time inside of it, and you have to learn to become comfortable with things not looking or feeling right at the beginning. Carl Rogers says this is necessary for creativity. One has to have “a tolerance for ambiguity where ambiguity exists.”

How do our technologies lend themselves to ambiguity? How flexible or rigid are they? Can you begin to see how technologies limit the ways in which we are allowed to use them? How flexible or rigid are we as instructors of courses? How much should we be?

Is it even possible to support students in an environment of ambiguity? Here are a couple strategies that I’ve taken in assisting in this environment. First, understand that these take time to mature. Build in ways for students to work on pieces of their domain throughout the semester. If you are going to assign a portfolio project, do so at the beginning of the semester rather than the end have them do small pieces of it over time. In fact, I would recommend focusing on the technology itself as little as possible when students get in it. If you let it, web technology can seem very overwhelming and a lot of that is due to the flexibility. I want students to know how to create basic content and how to customize the look and feel for when they feel ready to customize the space.

The beginnings of a student space

Second, I want them to be exposed to the work of other students. One of the best benefits of the open web is its ability to be networked.

Student Work Syndication

I manage a WordPress syndication hub which allows students to see each others work. Remember how I said students are overly anxious coming into the course? It helps to know you aren’t the only. It also helps to see how a student responded to a specific problem or simply get inspiration from viewing a peer’s space.

Language exists only when it is listened to as well as spoken. The hearer is an indispensable partner. The work of art is completely only as it works in the experience of others than the one who created it.
— John Dewey

One of my favorite things to see in my classroom is when a student asks someone else in class “How did you do that?” and that students gets the opportunity to teach them how they uploaded their photo or added a Twitter widget or the like.

My last recommendation, and this is in my mind the most important of the three, is really, truly evaluate your assessment strategy. The more you set requirements on your student’s domain and the more you restrict how it can be used, the more it will reflect you and the less it will reflect them. This freedom, this openness, can be described as the cornerstone of the creativity.

If there be no self-expression, no free play of individuality, the product will of necessity be but an instance of a species; it will lack the freshness and originality found only in things that are individual on their own account.
— John Dewey

Selection and Reflection

The second phase of the creative process involves both selection and reflection. And these two go hand-and-hand because allowing students to earn freedom through choice allows them to additionally have the opportunity to critically evaluate on an internal level the choice they made.

I’ve taken multiple strategies towards this idea. The first is fairly easy in that almost all of my design projects allow them to decide who they are designing for. Students are allowed to choose the company or organization and I encourage them to choose one they are highly familiar with like a student organization or I tell them to pick a company from the Fortune 500 list or something similar. I give them some restrictions such as the medium for which they are designing and that it includes various components but, ultimately, how they complete it is up to them. Nothing beats a good, old fashion open-ended problem. This also allows the students to have a design portfolio that doesn’t just show they technical skill but gives them space to show how they problem solve.

This semester I’ve taken that a step further and now let them even choose the assignments they want to complete through an assignment bank (developed by Alan Levine and available on Github).

This is an assignment where students learn Adobe Photoshop through designing a title card similar to the aesthetic of the Netflix series, Stranger Things. Students write a reflection on the assignment on their own blog and then the work is syndicated back to the challenge bank so students can see how other students completed the challenge. Selection. Reflection. Awareness. Openness.

Working Process

The third stage is the working process. Because I’ve already created a level of freedom in how one can complete the project, they can approach it in a way that is matches their unique idea. And because of the networked approach of the course, it allows them multiple venues for feedback. Both myself and my peers comment on student work at various moments across a project.


The final stage of the creative process is the creation itself. The creation itself is critical to self-actualization and to get from creative work (and, its worth stressing, creative work is not limited to actual art) you need to know how you got there. My favorite part of the semester is towards the end. Because students now have this collection of reflections on their learning throughout the semester, I have them spend some time reading their blogs chronologically. Through reading their reflections, I ask them to put together a narrative of their learning process with a final assignment being to design a Summary of Learning. These have taken on several different forms over the years.

OU Create

I been fortunate enough at the University of Oklahoma that having this type of space is now being supported through our Provost’s Office much like MiddCreate. Ours is affectionately similarly named: OU Create. And since 2014, we’ve had more than 3,200 students, faculty, and staff sign up for space on OU Create.

At the time, we were looking to do more of the type of work that I was doing in my course across the institution. Students in courses leveraging domains as a way of publicly narrating their learning while building a portfolio of work in a way in which they can better understand their learning journey.

I have to be honest — it’s a really good thesis. It’s a great plan. I’ve got the right rearchers to back up that this works. And I would love it if every student at the University of Oklahoma left with a portfolio/journal/whatever similar to this. I believe in the power of it.

But what’s even better is that now that we have offered this infrastructure to the entire community, it’s being used in ways I could have never imagined. Some of the use cases don’t involve blogging or WordPress at ALL (everything I personally do relies on that!). These ideas include undergraduate research projects, study abroad blogs, digital lab notebooks, digital library exhibits, student-run news magazines, faculty research groups, business prototypes, student election sites, and faculty learning communities.

And these are mostly just institutional types of projects. The last project I want to show you is a secondary space from a student. And I wanted to make sure you heard about this project directly from him.

I want to make a couple closing points here about what these spaces add for our communities. First, this kind of project doesn’t happen if we had simply gone with a single e-portfolio solution or a single tool in our learning management system. We had to give flexibility and with that we had to trust our community to do this kind of stuff with their space. No one asked Keegan to do any of this, but this is how it’s became his space and how it reflects him. Second, what Keegan says is bold. He’s talking first about how uncomfortable he was in this space, how it took him time to find comfort, and now how he is opening up about his family and using his domain as a tool for healing. That’s vulnerability. And that’s realness.

I feel a sense of satisfaction when I can dare to communicate the realness in me to another. Then I feel genuine and spontaneous and alive.
— Carl Rogers

That’s the philosophy I want to have. I unabashedly want our students to ooze realness. In whatever form that ends up in. That’s my teaching philosophy: oozing realness. And to bring us full circle: it’s matters. You’re teaching philosophy matters a lot. It’s matters in the technology we choose.

Image credits: flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Toward a Polaroid Pedagogy

A few weeks ago, Matt Crosslin reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in doing a Google Hangout for #HumanMOOC focused around the Community of Inquiry notion of cognitive presence. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to talk about my interpretation on how we can digitally create spaces that can enhance cognitive presence, partially because the lineup of guest speakers is, to say the least, humbling to be included in, but also because I’m a former HumanMOOC student. I took a lot from my experience in the course last year and appreciate the opportunity to continue to be involved in the #HumanMOOC community. The video is below:

The holidays have been inspirational in helping me think through a new way of explaining my approach to online teaching and learning. Over the last few days, I read a book called Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott subtitled “Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” I found myself in passenger seat of the family car headed to Albuquerque to visit family for the holidays, reading this book, and going “Holy crap, where was this when I was in college? Instructions on both writing and life were more than necessary during that period of my life. Why am I just reading this now?” Needless to say, I think it’s a fantastic read (side note: I’ll probably start optionally including on my syllabus). A good friend recommended it to me, and so now I’m recommending it to all of you.

Anyways, Anne has this chapter titled “Polaroids” which focuses on writing first drafts. Allow me to attempt to poorly paraphase Lamott’s concept:

When you decide to take a picture, you have a very concrete goal: taking a picture. Simple. And, to some degree, you assume this predetermined sense of what will inevitably emerge from the camera based on your minimal interaction with the camera’s viewfinder. So, naturally, you take the picture. Maybe you’re taking a picture of your family at, I don’t know, say the Santa Monica pier (Lamott’s analogy is a family against a fence). You’ve performed this task, your polaroid emerges from the camera body, and the film is, at first, as Lamott describes, just a “grayish green murkiness.” But slowly, as the film develops of a period of time, the scene in which you’ve captured comes into focus. First, you see your family. But as you look closer you begin to notice there’s also a dad and his child in the background sharing a corn dog, and the dad is bent over as they both attempt to take a bite. You then notice that its dark enough that the lights from the ferris wheel in the background are reflecting off the water creating this cascading sense of infinity. And you notice that the tide is slightly higher than normal and it’s created this illusion of the pillars of the pier emerging out from the earth. And then you begin to conceptualize that the photo isn’t about your family at all. It’s about shared experiences; between your family no doubt, and the father and son; the ferris wheel and the water. Or maybe the pier and the water. Or perhaps nature and man.

From Lamotte:

You couldn’t have had any way of knowing what this piece of work would look like when you first started. You just knew that there was something about that compelled you, and you stayed with that something long enough for it to show you what it was about.

If you don’t take the picture, this realization doesn’t take place. But now that this artifact exists, you have the opportunity look at it, to analyze it, and dig for emerging themes.

From an instructor perspective, I’ve been thinking about what causes me to fall into a mode of instruction of teaching students simply how to take a polaroid and forgetting to build in the opportunity to really reflect on the picture itself and dig for those background images.

When we first started OU Create, one of my first presentations was to the all of the deans at the annual Deans’ Retreat. Our domains infrastructure is literally a week old, and here I am, nervously workshopping them through the presentation, installing WordPress on all of the spaces, as well as trying to build in an appropriate amount of time for senior administrators to play around with the concept of blogging. In my mind, it went fine though I think it’s safe to say that, due to my nervousness about the group and the newness of the project, I was simply relieved that it had eventually ended.

I remember though that that night, shortly after dinner, one of the deans approaching me and saying that they were impressed by the initiative, but they had a hard time really grasping what they were actually doing as they walked through the steps. The dean said, “It kind of reminded me of my organic chemistry class. I was following all of the steps that were laid out for me in my lab manual and I was able to punch the measured variables into the appropriate formulas to get the correct answer. But, I’ll be honest, I never knew what the heck I was actually doing in that class.”

To this day, that comment resonates with me. Mostly, because he was right, though I have plenty of excuses! I was nervous. The wifi in the conference portion of the hotel was dreadful. We had yet to put that many people on the server (in fact, at one point, our firewall decided to label it a “brute force attack” because it wasn’t properly configured yet, thus locking out four or so deans). I wasn’t prepared for all of these added variables so I began to move faster through my instruction just to get everybody to the end of the presentation. “Click this, do that, ignore this, type that. A-ha! Now you have a domain! Doesn’t this feel liberating?!”

I realize now that I dilluted the presentation down to the rote tasks that were required to have a final product, and, by doing so, I had entirely missed the opportunity to simply teach. Obviously, over time the presentation has since been refined, not simply to make it faster and more efficient but to add context and explain what all of this web “stuff” means. To understand web infrastructure and registering a domain, one has to conceptually explain how the web even works to appreciate it.

I’ve also come to accept that, for the most part, domains and the broader notion of the open web are not concepts that one necessarily understands entirely in a single presentation. It requires students sitting–sometimes multiple semesters–to feel comfortable inside this new space and identity. It requires–to stick with the analogy as long as possible–taking polaroids, waiting for them to develop, looking hard at them, seeing what works and doesn’t work, and editing one’s collection. But tell me one thing worth learning that doesn’t take some time? Nobody becomes an expert through TED Talks.

For a few semesters, I’ve done a similar analysis of the teaching I do in my own classroom (both face-to-face and online). I ask myself, “At what moments am I simply walking students through steps? Should I shift slightly away from that more instruction-centered approach?”

Over time, I’ve added an extra layer to the course focused around reflection. Yes, you still perform tasks. You are still asked to create a (insert your artifact here: paper, media, presentation). “But, to help us dig a little deeper,” I tell my students, “let’s also document our process via our blogs and try explaining where we are in the creation process. After your first draft, tell me what you see so far. Has any of the green grey murkiness began to vanish? What emerged? What do you expect to see next? And, after we’ve finished, let’s take some time to think about what got us here. When you came to a fork in the road, which direction did you take? How did you feel before you embarked on this journey? Were you nervous? How do you feel now about that initial uneasyness? Where do you think that initial feeling came from?”

You can’t and, in fact, you’re not supposed to know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.

By no means is this an attempt to discount the artifact. In fact, for any of this to work, one has to take the polaroid. I ask students to polaroid through the medium of a blog posts to, first, generate evidence, which can be linked to assessment. But whats even more interesting is circling back and handing that blog post–that polaroid–back to the student and asking, “What do you see? What does this say? Where did this come from?”

These online spaces can show us what a student did, but even more so, they can show the student what the student did and decide for themselves the value of their final product. And that, to me, is what makes us human; our ability to look inside ourselves.

So, my challenge to all humans trying to do humanize their online course is this: How do we start to build towards this idea of polaroid pedagogy? Should courses only be about “leveling up” and constantly climbing of a taller ladder of predetermined learning objectives? Or are there models that exist for creating spaces that allow built around exploration, experimentation, creation, that exist solely so learning can emerge from these experiences? Am I really that far out there with this idea?

How can we continue to advocate for the digital medium as more than a way to submit our homework–our polaroids–from the comforts of our own home? How can we help students cultivate these digital spaces whose affordances allow for these broader truths to emerge, if even slowly, over time; through drafts, through feedback, through revisions, through reflection? How can we build in choice and personal interest into our courses so that our students aren’t locked into taking the pictures we frame for them, but, rather, the pictures they are interested in capturing? It’s the idea that I’ve been attempting to build on with Indie EdTech: students as artists of their own identity. How can each required polaroid be a reflection of the students themselves allowing them to uncover more about themselves and their truths?

That’s the kind of course that I believe is appropriate for humans.

Feature Image: Kyle Szegedi

Gaylord College Technology Teach-In

Back in March, I wrote about the speaking at the Price College of Business Technology Teach-In. My fearless leader, Mark Morvant had the great idea of bringing this conversation to the Gaylord College of Journalism, my home college and where I currently teach. The real pulling of the strings came from Buddy Wiedemann and Intern Dean Ed Kelley, so thanks to both for putting on an informative event for the college faculty.

Rather than give a 30 minute presentation like I did for Price, I was asked to sit on a faculty panel and discuss the “The Benefits and Challenges of Teaching in the Digital World.” This was one of the most humbling experiences of my career because both people on the panel (David Tarpenning and Robert Kerr) as well as the moderator (Ralph Beliveau) are not only my former professors but arguably the three most influential. Ralph was my first professor in Gaylord and taught Intro to Mass Communications. I’ve always had an appreciation for his intellect and sense of humor. The guy can spout more deep and sound thoughts faster than anyone of I’ve ever met. I liked him so much I actually elected to have him a second time. :smile:

David Tarpenning was one of the first to really show me what it was like to care and have compassion for his students. Few people invest in students the way that Tarpenning does. And, while it was in his class that I decided I was probably going to never be an agency type of guy (I’ve always wanted to work on the organization side), I read one of my favorite books, Confessions of an Ad Man by David Ogilvy.

Last, Robert Kerr, who taught my Media Law course, was the first professor I saw integrate student-created media into the classroom. Even a decade ago, his lectures were littered with videos that had been produced by students in former semesters. The guy is so committed to making law seem interesting to students and for that I’m am forever grateful. :smile:

So, yeah, let’s me reiterate how humbling it is to be settling next to three of your undergraduate idols. Below is a video of my remarks during the panel (my comments start at the 23:55 mark).

Back in March, I wrote about the speaking at the Price College of Business Technology Teach-In. My fearless leader, Mark Morvant had the great idea of bringing this conversation to the Gaylord College of Journalism, my home college and where I currently teach. The real pulling of the strings came from Buddy Wiedemann and Intern Dean Ed Kelley, so thanks to both for putting on an informative event for the college faculty.

Rather than give a 30 minute presentation like I did for Price, I was asked to sit on a faculty panel and discuss the “The Benefits and Challenges of Teaching in the Digital World.” This was one of the most humbling experiences of my career because both people on the panel (David Tarpenning and Robert Kerr) as well as the moderator (Ralph Beliveau) are not only my former professors but arguably the three most influential. Ralph was my first professor in Gaylord and taught Intro to Mass Communications. I’ve always had an appreciation for his intellect and sense of humor. The guy can spout more deep and sound thoughts faster than anyone of I’ve ever met. I liked him so much I actually elected to have him a second time. :smile:

David Tarpenning was one of the first to really show me what it was like to care and have compassion for his students. Few people invest in students the way that Tarpenning does. And, while it was in his class that I decided I was probably going to never be an agency type of guy (I’ve always wanted to work on the organization side), I read one of my favorite books, Confessions of an Ad Man by David Ogilvy.

Last, Robert Kerr, who taught my Media Law course, was the first professor I saw integrate student-created media into the classroom. Even a decade ago, his lectures were littered with videos that had been produced by students in former semesters. The guy is so committed to making law seem interesting to students and for that I’m am forever grateful. :smile:

So, yeah, let’s me reiterate how humbling it is to be settling next to three of your undergraduate idols. Below is a video of my remarks during the panel (my comments start at the 23:55 mark).

A brief summary of my thoughts are as follows:

1. This is an exciting time for media because of digital.

Counter to the rhetoric that we’ve been hearing since 2008, I actually think this is a great time for media, most of which can be attributed to the growth in social media and smart phones. More and more I have access to really great journalism, some of which will never make a print edition of anything. There’s real tangible growth now in digital-only news organizations. According to the Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2014, thirty of the largest digital-only news organizations account for about 3,000 jobs. Buzzfeed has a reporting staff of 170 and Mashable has 70 jobs. If these are the organizations where the news departments are growing, these are the jobs our students should be competing for and we need to embed them in these environments now. This wil really require a rethinking of our classroom experience and it should really challenge, at a minimum, the medium in which we assign students to read texts. Tools like make me really excited about bringing conversation around any article hosted anywhere.

2. Digital allows us to consider learner-centered classrooms.

This was the main thesis of my talk in March, so I’m not going to rehash too much here, but online/digitally-enhanced courses add a wrinkle that requires us as instructors to move the focus off of ourselves and onto the student engagement. This point was articulated very well by David Tarpenning during the panel and his efforts towards creating an active learning environment for his Introduction to Mass Communications course.

3. Digital is a massive component of lifelong learning.

We need to acknowledge that the four years we have the students at the institution is not enough to teach them all the skills necessary for the workforce. Rather, we need to focus on teaching the foundational knowledge and then give students opportunity within our own courses to understand how to learn beyond the institution (or create more opportunities for them to engage beyond their tenure). The College of Journalism is teaching future workers of a still-being-redefined industry. Our job should be to prepare students to continually prepare themselves. “Lifelong learner” is a mindset (not a demographic).

Again, thanks to the Gaylord College for the holding the event and an even bigger thank for live streaming/archiving it. I now get a digital copy of the time Robert Kerr comparing me to Bruce Springsteen:

In 1974, a writer for Rolling Stone went to a little club in New Jersey and then he wrote in the next issue he said, “I’ve seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen.” … When I look at Adam today, and I see what he is doing, and I think, “What is the future of digital education?” I think it looks something like Adam Croom.

I mean, come on. Your former professor comparing you to The Boss! I’ve died and gone to Heaven (though I think it also means I have nothing left to accomplish). So I’ll go now and bask in that comment for awhile.


Cover photo credit: George Yanakiev


Power of Connections

I mentioned in my last post how fast Summer ’15 has flown by due to several obligations. One obligation, which I unfortunately didn’t get to lend enough of my time, was contributing to the “Power of Connections” course that was led by Rob Reynolds at NextThought and Stacy Zemke. Below are two conversation-style videos that I filmed with Rob on the subject of creativity in the classroom:

I also contributed to one of the assignments called an “artifact challenge” based off of Holstee’s manifesto.

As I mentioned, the course was developed by NextThought and ran on the NextThought platform. It’s good to see a company go to such great lengths to not only better understand the user experience of the platform but also the design process and its affordances/limitations.

I was able to briefly join in yesterday’s Twitter chat and I stepped in for a couple questions that circled around specific tools and how you leverage them for your own Personal Learning Environment (PLN).

I tend to get labeled as a technology guy and I’m always one to quickly reply that I’m really interested in the result of technology, not necessarily the technology itself. Even though I teach what would be consider the “tech” course of a sequence, I frankly find the tech side exhausting and almost intrusive at times. Do we really want to learn how to use a piece of software or do we want to understand how we can leverage creation for knowledge dissemination, persuasion, and a deeper understanding of one’s self?

I’ve heard Jim Groom say a couple of times how nice it was when he was no longer teaching “WordPress” and the technology simply became the medium in which student thoughts were exchanged. I had a similar experience this semester where the students were mainly comprised of a former class in which I had already setup with OU Create. It was like being unshackled for the first time. I had been once sentenced to serve a term of teaching how “Add Media” to a blog post and had found my way to parole!

This philosophical stance has deeply influenced how my courses have changed over time. While I understand how valuable it is from a student perspective to have specific buzzwords land on your resume (wordpressphotoshopillustrator) I feel like teaching the tech specifically as a skill is shallow. Committing to a technology means you are committing to a technology’s limitations, to a company’s philosophy (which is a moving target), and to a technological era. I almost feel bad when I can look a resume of a web developer and know exactly when they stopped learning based on the technologies they listed. I want to know you’ve continued to hone your craft over time. And this is the frustration I have with skills-based learning. It can be fantastic, but it’s bound to be dated quickly if you are not connecting it to a broader understanding of what you’re actually trying to do.

Stacy asked a great question on techology: “Why invest if not forever?” Doesn’t it feel a little existential? The clouds have parted, a bright light is shining down, and I’m looking up going “I don’t know Lord! I submit!”

But I really think it’s something that has to be communicated at both the student and administration level. An investment in technology is not a forever fix. It’s temporary like every other solution (including your employees). You need to assume that technology has a short shelf life and you have to plan for that. Some things I like to ask:

  • How flexible is the technology? Essentially: when the time comes can I get out of it? On what standards has it been built? At what cost do I get out? The problem here is sometimes we think the cost of getting out is more than the cost of just staying the course. This kind of thinking has depreciating long-term value.
  • How much does the maker of the technology really care about it? Is it potentially going to be deprecated? Whats the investment they’ve put into it? How open (not that open) are they in discussing their vision? Is it something that excites them? Is it publicly or privated funded? What VCs are backing it and do we know anything about the direction they are pushing the technology?
  • How much do you really care about it? This is a trick question because, if the technology is setup right, you only slightly care because you know your exit strategy. If you’ve invested everything into one format and you don’t know your way out of it, you’re in trouble.

Unleashing the Wisdom Wall

I’ve spent the last couple of days gearing up for the first ever summer version of the PR Pubs which is slated to start on June 29th. At et4online this year I attended a session titled How and Why to Humanize Your Online Class that was lead by Michelle Pacansky-BrockJill Leafstedt, and Kristi O’Niel. I arrived at the conference the day of and thus I wasn’t able to get the full “Humanize” experience, but I did get to see a portion that was led by Kristi, who also happens to be a fellow Pepperdine Wave (Go Waves!), where she walked us through an idea that she and her team has implemented for a chemistry course at CSU Channel Islands. It’s what Michelle has dubbed a “Wisdom Wall” and is a strategy to have students share what they wish they would have known at the beginning of the course with the next set of students.

Here’s an example titled “Words of Wisdom From Survivors of Chem 121”:

Michelle has also written about VoiceThread as a potential asynchronous tool that can be used for online courses.

Given that I was a little under the gun and the semester was winding down, I decided that I would throw up a simple Google Form for students to fill out the second to last week of class with little advice tidbits for future Pubsters.

And to be totally honest, I sort of forgot that I had even done this until after the course had already ended. But its a fascinating perspective to get on your course. The students’ advice ranges from very practical strategies to long, quasi-personal letters about what the PR Pubs experience can become if you are willing to do a some self-examination, give up a little bit of your ego, and come along in the journey.

It also helped me fully realize the emotional investment that goes into a course focused around the creative process. It requires students to acknowledge this place inside of them that they might have been ignoring for sometime. A colleague, John Stewart, and me were recently discussing the euphoric feeling you get when you’ve been tinkering with code for a few hours and you finally discover that single line that makes it function. Or when you can step back from a piece of art and say “It is finished.” Or when you can take what you did and yell at the closest person “Come here!” to show them that piece of furniture that you built, and then you gently nudge them into the recently stained seat so they can be a benefactor of the work that was inherently designed to be shared.

I think the wisdom wall helps students articulate what this little mini life experience we dub a course,whether it reached them personally or not, was like for them, and it gives them an audience that is willing to listen. Below I’ve embedded a few of my favorites but the students will have access to all of them on the PR Pubs wiki. Some student quotes:

On getting started

Start. Just start somewhere. There is a creative element involved in so much of the course, that it is easy to feel stumped before you even begin. Oftentimes I would focus on what my final layout would look like without enjoying the process– I can’t tell you how harmful this was to my design. Through the process, you WILL ultimately shift the screenshot in your head so I recommend you hold a loose visual of what you’re expecting it to look like; this way, you can reenergize yourself and your vision as you go step by step. Your finalized project will be better than expected.

On tinkering

Dear Future PR Pubs Experimenters,

When I came into this class, I didn’t know what to expect. The only photoshop experience I had was one time I put D. Bo’s head on a Batman body. I couldn’t even figure how to create an InDesign document.

But that all changed.

I’m here to tell you that your greatest asset in this class is the time you spend inside the programs. It’s amazing how much you can learn by trial and error with design projects. Trust me, there’s a whole lot of trial and a whole lot of error.

It’s gets better.

I am asking you to tinker, to fiddle, to experiment, to delete and start over. Because, and thank goodness, when you finally get it right, you know it. You know that your design will achieve its objectives. And that feeling is amazing. To know that you have created something out of nothing and that it is good – that is when all of your time invested becomes worth it.

So all in all, put in the time, reap the rewards.

Happy experimenting!

On trying and failing

Try and fail, try and fail, improvise, and try again. As much as you may think you can’t master a project or a program, a little hard work will definitely help you succeed. Good luck, and video tutorials are your friend!

Acknowledging when to cut loose an idea

If an idea isn’t working, it’s okay to abandon that idea and start fresh with something new! Just play around until you find something you like. Designing is a process, you never know where it can take you. So just let ideas flow!

On overcoming yourself

You’re going to be pissed, but let yourself be pissed and cry and stay up all night trying to learn these programs in the beginning. Trust me, coming from someone who can’t even figure out how to do fancy things in a Word document, I learned so incredibly much and have survived the class. Not to mention I’m now comfortable doing work in in-Design. Let yourself get pissed, and struggle. But don’t stop striving to be better and let your creative juices flow. You’ll be proud in the end. Enjoy!

Cover photo is a flickr photo by Diorama Sky shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

PR Pubs Goes Online!

I’m back in the saddle with teaching PR Pubs at the Gaylord College. This semester is extra special because I’ve launched, for the first time in the college’s history, an online section of PR Pubs. The Gaylord College has not historically offered many online courses, so I was humbled when Dean Foote asked me to test out a version of it for the Spring. I built out a course site which you can peruse at Currently, 25% of the course is built out and I will continue to build out content over the semester.

I’m utilizing the Academy WordPress theme, one that I blogged about before and have used once before. I’ll be honest, I’m very lightly using the LMS-like features of it. Most of the functionality being leveraged is the custom “Lesson” pages, but no assessment takes place on here. That is happening inside of D2L (more on that later) because the theme is currently missing some key functionality that I needed (mainly deadlines and grade book views).

First, I need to give a nod to a couple different points of inspiration. The first is Laura Gibbs, who is using OU Create to blog about online course design. If you browse one of her courses, you’ll find a few similarities that are brand new for this course: orientation week and declaration “quizzes.” (read more from her on those aspects here and here). Many thanks to her for exposing a lot of her techniques on that blog and for building out her course on a pbworks wiki. I took a TON away from those resources. I take great admiration in how much she cares about online learning and, more importantly, her students!

The second is, Digital Storytelling from the University of Mary Washington, which was the original inspiration for what I consider the heart of the course, the syndicated blog hub. Thank you Jim Groom and Alan Levine for turning me on to the FeedWordPress plugin, so that I’m able to pull in all of the student blogs RSS feeds into one space. This enables students to be exposed to each others work and learn from each othek. I’ve done this before for the face-to-face course, but I feel that it’s power is only amplified in a fully online environment.

Last is Seth Hartman, in OU IT, who was instrumental in bringing to campus. My class isn’t super tutorial heavy (I subscribe more to the philosophy that you learn best through trial and error/feedback) but it’s very helpful particularly for the beginning of the semester when students are learning to first grasp design programs like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. I’m using several videos from the Introduction to Graphic Design course on Lynda.

From a broad perspective, the course is VERY similar to the face-to-face course, which is already a fairly active learning environment as it takes place in a computer lab. For the online section, I’ve added a more robust structure with weekly quizzes. Students complete 15 lessons for the 15 weeks of the course (minus finals week). Each week they complete a series of activities such as writing blog posts, watching videos, building Pinterest mood boards, playing games (it’s fun to learn typography!), and commenting on each other’s post. On top of that are the five traditional design projects that my face-to-face course has always done. I enjoyed building the course structure so much that I’m having the face-to-face students also use as the course structure. In all reality, the face-to-face section will perform a majority of the activities in class so the declaration quizzes almost become a quasi-attendance policy with the flexibility of accommodating students who end up, for whatever reason, missing significant portions of class. For me, this is one of the biggest advantages to running an online and face-to-face version in tandem. At any point, a student can take advantage of course hub and work from wherever which is HUGE if something like, God forbid, a student loses a parent in the middle of class. Ultimately, my goal has never been to get students to come to 100% of the classes, though they benefit tremendously from consistent attendance. My goal is to see students be successful and the road that they take to get there can take many forms. More than anything, it’s an adequate safety net.

The last thing I want to note is that, as I mentioned earlier, I’m still using the D2L assessment functionality so that students have the grade book. While building my course this semester, I realized you have the ability to change the homepage to whatever website you want it to be so is literally inside of it:

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 4.39.43 PM infiltrates the LMS!

Remember that scene in Men in Black where Edgar devours Kay so Kay destroys him from inside? Yeah, something like that.


I’ve heard my fair share of LMS debates over the last year or so, but, for me at least, this seems to solve most of the issues I have with it. I genuinely enjoy building with WordPress and genuinely don’t enjoy building courses in D2L (I spent what felt like an eternity trying to figure out the quiz functionality). This allows me to use the CMS of my l liking when building it out and gives the added benefit of allowing the public to easily view the course’s contents. That said, there are some excellent benefits to the LMS. First, students know to go here for course work and get access (even mobile access) to the grade book. I’ve done a lot of testing and, from a user perspective, and the course site still has full functionality. I only seem to get problems when I want to enter the Admin panel, but that’s not a big deal and doesn’t impede the student experience. Last, and most beneficial, is that students works and efforts aren’t locked away. In fact, I don’t, nor does any large tech company, hold the rights to the student work. If they are using OU Create, their domain is registered directly in their name and they have full ownership to do whatever they wish to do with the content at the end of the course.

Speaking of OU Create, we’ve got a couple of new shiny features for users this Spring thanks to Tim Owens, so I’ll be writing a blog post about that shortly!

Header is a creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by fOtOmoth