Livestreaming For My Students

Last week, I tried a new tactic to engage with my students.  I was inspired by two workshops I attended during Conestoga’s annual E3 (Employees for Excellence in Education) Conference.  The first workshop covered how to write good assignment prompts, with clarity and purpose in mind, and the second covered strategies for writing for online courses.  In the course I manage online, my students were preparing to submit their first major philosophical paper, and historically my students do poorly on the writing side.  I largely attribute this to it being their first time trying to write a philosophical paper and their only exposure to this point was either essays in high school or non-philosophy essays for other courses in college.  After sitting in on these two workshops, I reflected on what I could do, in an online course, that would improve my student’s ability to write.  It’s challenging to engage with online students for two reasons:

  • first, you (almost) never meet your students face to face, so you lose the ability to use tone, voice, inflection, and body language to convey information, and
  • second, online courses are atemporal, which means you don’t engage with your students at the same time.

An idea I’ve been kicking around for some time is creating a video for my students as an added bit of content for the course.  The problem with this option is it’s still fairly static and easy for students to skip if they feel it doesn’t contribute to improving their assessments.  It also goes in one direction, where I speak at my camera rather than engaging with the students.

However, I’ve been mulling over another option.  I have borrowed a web camera from my podcasting partner, I have a good microphone, and I delivered a webinar with a live Q&A in the middle of May.  I considered running a livestream last semester, however when I offered the option to the students, I had no requests for it.  But this semester, I decided to set it up and run it, regardless if students attended or not.  At worst, it would be a wasted hour of my time.  However, the benefits would be two-fold: my students would have a chance to interact with me and ask me questions about their assignment, and it would give me practice with a new skill set.

I picked a date and time, figured out how to broadcast (in the end, I went with Twitch, but next time I’ll test out YouTube Live) and went for it.  I had 4-7 students drop in, which is fairly low engagement, however the questions were really good and I had a lot of fun actively engaging with students again.

One unfortunate thing was I didn’t set up the system to auto-record, so I don’t have a copy of the livestream to review or upload.  I ended up recording a second (static) video to cover the main points so that my students had something to reference when they were completing and submitting their essays this past weekend.

It was a good experience and I plan to run at least one livestream per semester moving forward.  I have yet to grade the papers, so I don’t know if I had a material impact on their performance, but in time I hope that my students will get better with the added direction I can give them.  I also now have a video that I can post to help them think through the process of writing a philosophical paper.  If nothing else, it’s good to build handy resources and have them available for your students.  My goal is to help my students improve their thinking and writing as a result of taking my course.  Even if their papers are 1% better as a result of my direction, it’s worth it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Grading Drift

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of grade drift recently. My brain usually turns to grade drifting at the end of each semester as I evaluate how objectively I have scored the students. If you’ve never taught before, what I call “grade drift” is the tendency for an instructor to allow their grading standards to drift as they grade an assignment. I’m not sure how prevalent this is for assessments that are concerned with exact answers, such as math, science, engineering, programming, etc. But in assessments that deal with qualitative or creative responses, it’s common for you as an instructor to change your evaluation thresholds as you make your way through the pile of papers.

There are a few reasons why this happens. In my first courses, my grades would drift if I didn’t have a sufficiently robust marking guide to help me narrow down the kinds of answers I was looking for in a student’s response. Now that I’ve taught the course a few times, I know generally what I’m looking for and can go through the assignments with a checklist of items. This form of grade drift is usually related to lacking experience in teaching and grading, especially if your course delivery isn’t tied to your course learning outcomes.

However, there is another reason why your grades might drift. On the one hand, you want to approach your evaluations as if they are objective – that there are clear right and wrong answers. After all, your grading should be defensible, and one way to defend the grade you grant is by pointing to an objective standard. However, on the other hand, you want your evaluations of your student’s work to allow for imagination, creativity, and novel connections between ideas. You also want your evaluations to acknowledge that your classes have unique compositions of people, with their own experiences and their own progressions through your course. Just because you teach the same material each semester doesn’t mean your students progress through it at the same rate. Different students will take the material differently, which means the average response you read through will be different for each cohort of students.

This means that some groups will be “better” than others in how they perform. You can choose to penalize the students for not meeting an abstract standard that you’ve set, or you can meet the students where they are and make it your goal in the course to improve their performance as you go.

I know that some instructors will take the first approach. They will believe their teaching, evaluations, and courses are reflective of an external, eternal, objective standard; they don’t think they are being arbitrary. I’m willing to bet that these are also instructors who believe that a 70% in their course is “like a 50% in other courses” (a literal thing I’ve heard said by a peer). I think this approach is wrong and it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to pass a course. When a student passes a course, it means they have met the minimum requirements of the course learning objectives. Anything above that should reflect varying degrees of competence and mastery. If your course is designed so that a student is only “just” meeting the standards with anything above a 70%, you haven’t calibrated the course or your expectations very well. At an undergraduate level, your job is to elevate your students, and improve their abilities while meeting the program learning outcome objectives.

I find myself on the other side of this issue. I understand what the goals are of the course I teach, and my aim is less concerned with ensuring my students can adequately explain all the theory they are exposed to in the course. Instead, my goals is to make my students better thinkers and writers from where they enter my course to their exit. If they can explain Aristotle’s ideas of tragedy by the end, great! But I won’t lose sleep if they can’t. My course is a general elective, and that means I’m supposed to round them out as students and people. I care less about them absorbing my esoteric knowledge and instead I care more about them learning how to think, reason, and communicate their ideas clearly.

And that’s why sometimes my grades drift as I score the student’s rubrics. I start off with some ideas of where they could be, then I calibrate my grading to meet them at their level. It’s a little more work for me, but I think it better captures the student’s performance.

As indicated above, there are a few strategies for overcoming this, such as having a clear rubric and clear notes on what you are looking for.  Also, marking all the students on one question, one at a time, rather than marking an entire submission will make it easy to compare student fairly.

While this is an unfortunate thing (the students like to think they are being objectively evaluated) this will happen as you come to understand the natural curve of your class.  You can either grade your students to one standard, or you can reflexively respond to your class’s own knowledge and aptitudes.  If your course objectives are clear, then you can feel free to adapt your grading to match the student’s progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

3 Year Blogiversary

Yesterday marked my 3rd anniversary of the first post on this blog.  On April 21st, 2016, my first post went live – Welcome and First Post  It was the typical post you see on most blogs to announce a new voice has been added to the internet – the “Hello World” of the blogosphere.

In those three years, I have posted 158 times, and put up content on a nearly consistent weekly schedule.  While the blog still doesn’t really have a focus, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made and even of some of the insights and musings I’ve published.  I still find it strange that my most visited post continues to be my review of the Zombies, Run! training app, with a total of 1,366 page views as of writing (a minimum of 100 monthly visits since August 2018).  Otherwise, I’m pretty happy with having 3,136 views from 2,417 visitors.  It makes me feel special.

Shout-out to my 73 followers on WordPress!  And shout-out to my top two commenters, my Aunt K and Tis Leigh of Tis But A Moment!  I’m glad you find value in my ramblings.

Even without focus or purpose, I plan to keep up the habit of writing and posting things weekly.  Here’s to another few years of writing yet!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Management and Teaching My Replacement

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been onboarding my replacement at work.  On the one hand, it’s great to finally offload the extra tasks that I’ve been juggling since assuming my new position.  On the other hand, I’m having to experience a new world at work in the form of management and performance coaching.  It’s one thing to do the tasks yourself, but it’s an entirely different thing to anticipate another person’s tasks, teach those tasks to the person, the follow-up on the progress with feedback.

While I am not the direct manager for the new program assistant, I share some of the responsibilities for ensuring she’s successful in her new role by virtue of me being the last person who occupied the role.  I suppose I’m over-thinking this a bit, since employees move on all the time and are not accountable for the new person’s performance.  Nevertheless, between me still working in the same office and me being a team player, I feel that it is my duty to help the new employee succeed until she can run under her own steam.  Afterall, the program assistant position is a job that was developed over the course of four years, so it’s a lot to take in all at once.

I knew prior to her starting that I would need to reflect intentionally on how I could teach someone to do the job that I have built over time, and figure out how to deconstruct the tasks and portfolios so that it makes sense to a fresh set of eyes.  Since this is my first time doing this, I took a stab at it and realized that there was a lot more I could have done to prepare for onboarding her.

One example is at the end of her first day.  I met with her to do a mini-debrief on how she felt her first day went.  She admitted it was a bit overwhelming, but was confident that she would learn more as she did the tasks.  She then asked for my input on what she should do the next day.  I hadn’t anticipated this question, so I floundered a bit, suggesting that she should take some time to read through the relevant policies and procedures I’ve got stashed away in a binder, as well as reviewing the committee minutes from the past year for an upcoming meeting she will need to plan.

After work, I reflected on this and realized that I didn’t do a good job of setting her up with concrete tasks for her to fill her day meaningfully.  Don’t get me wrong – at some point she will need to read over all of that stuff as it will be important to her job.  However, I realized there are better ways she could be utilizing her time.  Instead of reading over abstract documents, I need to get her working on tasks that are directly related to what she will be doing over time.

The next day, I jotted some ideas down and met with her in the afternoon to discuss how things are going and give her concrete tasks to start figuring out, such as responding to program-based email inquiries, learning where to find reports, typing up committee minutes so I could critique them, etc.  I also coached her on setting up meetings with the program Chairs to 1.) introduce herself more formally, and b.) to learn from them what their needs and wishes are.  I seeded some questions with her on topics she ought to cover, and left it to her to arrange the meetings.  In the background, I also spoke informally with some of the Chairs to let them know she was doing this, and to suggest ways they could help onboard her to their program areas.

This was a much better way to onboard her, and she was busy over the rest of the week learning various systems.  She would stop by my office a few times a day to ask clarifying questions or ask advice on how she should approach a certain task.  She was learning by doing, and seems to be adjusting well to her new role.  I’ll leave it for her actual boss to determine whether she is meeting targets, but at least I know she’s able to work with us as a team behind her.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My Backfill Starts Today (Job Update)

A few months back, I updated that I hadn’t been selected for a job I was in the running for (again).  Well, turns out that I was a tad premature in my announcement.  A few weeks after the post went live, my boss came to my desk, smiling, and let me know that the candidate they had moved forward on originally had accepted a job elsewhere, which moved me from the second slot to the top.  I was advanced to two more informal interviews, and on March 4th I started my new job as the Graduate Attributes Quality Assurance Coordinator for our degree programs.  And finally, my replacement for my old position started today, which will begin the formal hand-off of all of my old job tasks.

This is a different phase of work for me.  I’ve trained people on tasks before, but I’ve never trained my replacement.  Until now, I’ve been trying to balance both job portfolios, but now I begin the process of uncoupling myself from my old tasks and handing them off to the new Program Assistant.

I feel a little bad for her.  The Program Assistant position didn’t exist in our office when I first started at the college.  It is the result of four years of expanding the role to take on tasks that didn’t really fit under other people’s roles.  It’s wholly unique in the college as far as I know, and it interacts with almost all major stakeholders: students, faculty, administration, alumni, and industry partners.  I have to condense the four key areas of my job – Advisory Committees, Program Development, Continuous Improvement, and Student Advising – into a meaningful set of processes and best practices.  At each phase of my old job’s development, my boss would give me a mandate, and I would figure out how to operationalize it over the next year.  It’s a lot of stuff to summarize and cleanly hand off, and I’m only now realizing that I didn’t spend enough time reflecting on how to make the work accessible to someone else.

Granted, this is a place of business, and she’s an employee.  She’s competent and is expected to actively learn her role, so it’s not up to me to hold her hand or treat her as if she needs special guidance.  The benefit of this transition is that I’m still in the office and available to answer questions as she learns her new role.

And in this transition, not only do I have a new job, but I’m occupying a brand new position at the college, which means I get a chance to take the objectives set by my boss and figure out what it means all over again, which is an exciting prospect to me.  Similar to my experience working in the gambling lab, I like situations where I’m given an objective and carte blanche to set up processes and procedures myself.

It is a steep learning curve, but I’m liking the work so far.  It’s just outside of my comfort zone, which is a good place for me to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Emails and Saving Mental Bandwidth

At the start of 2019, I wanted to conduct an experiment.  I had grown irritated with the volume of email in my personal account.  Each day, I would wake up to 10 or so new emails from various retailers with information on promotions, offers, and deals.  I had tolerated these emails for sometime because I liked to keep abreast of potential deals that I could take advantage of.

However, the emails weren’t just morning updates.  I would keep my personal email open at work and clear emails throughout the day, which forced me to continuously switch back and forth.  I wanted a better way of managing the inflow of messages without unsubscribing to emails that genuinely were bringing me information I would want when planning upcoming purchases.

I took some time and set up around 60 filters to automatically route messages from my inbox to a separate Promotions folder (I know Gmail can handle this, but I wanted to be intentional with the process).  I also unsubscribed to a bunch of lists where I never opened the messages.  It was a lot of front end work that took a few days to complete, but slowly my inbox got quieter.

emails
As of March 18th, 2019

Now, after 3 months of progress, I have seen between 1,500-2,000 messages get routed away from my inbox.  2,000 messages that I never read, and didn’t have to make a decision whether to open it or automatically delete.

I don’t think of this as some sort of productivity hack.  At most, I’ve saved maybe an hour of time in 3 months, so it’s not like it’s a quality of life adjustment.  Instead, the value I find is in the mental bandwidth saved from not having to constantly switch back and forth through email.

It’s a signal and noise ratio issue.  So much of my time is spent wading through a lot of noise that is distracting me from focusing my attention on what’s important.  On the best of days, I do my best to fight off my inability to focus on work and maybe carve out some meaningful time by avoiding things that have been designed to draw me towards them (I’m looking at you, social media and YouTube).  Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes my monkey brain gets the best of me.

There are two strategies to deal with this.  You can either intentionally focus the signal, or you can do what I’ve done in this instance and try to turn down the noise a bit.  Too much noise can interfere with the signals you are trying to pick up.  While email is hardly a signal-killing thing in my life, it’s a steady trickle of distractions that I’ve started intentionally cutting to make room in my attention for more important things.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan