TeacherReady: Final Reflection

My time with TeacherReady has come to a close much more quickly than I could have possibly imagined. Am I teacher, ready? I certainly feel that I learned a great deal during the length of this program. I was able to examine the way I educate, and identify several areas where I can make significant improvements that will benefit my students’ learning. I have included below my final reflection, part of my culminating lesson with TeacherReady.

Having taught for over thirteen years to a variety of ages, in multiple institutions, and several subjects focused on English language learning I felt confident enrolling in the TeacherReady program. It was not that I thought I had nothing to learn, but that I was a good teacher. As I progressed through the course, and especially during the culminating lesson, working with my mentor, I learned that there were a great many areas to improve in my teaching methodology, but above all, it related to planning: defining specific and appropriate learning objectives, planning regular means of feedback, and following prescribed routines for classroom management.

The first and most important lesson I learned regarding planning related to learning objectives. When I started working through the lessons in Teacher Ready, I soon realized that I was not planning my lessons effectively. I was often simply filling the classroom time with topic focused learning tasks that the students would enjoy. I was skipping essential steps in the lesson design process and doing a disservice to myself and more importantly to my students. I was not assessing students’ needs appropriately, and I was therefore not defining appropriate learning objectives that clearly defined what students needed to know to achieve mastery. This became quite clear during the culminating week. I had made improvements in my lesson planning, but there was still some disconnect between learning objectives and learning tasks. It reminded me, planning needs to be cyclical, an ongoing process that responds to the students’ learning gaps, which need to be regularly determined through appropriate feedback.

This brings me to the second area for improvement, planning regular and varied means of feedback, an area that I was woefully neglecting. It became abundantly clear during the culminating week of TeacherReady, simply by having to answer the question, “How do you know?” I had to admit that for a great many classes in my teaching life, I did not know until the summative assessments. I would find myself surprised that students performed above or below my expectations, and I realized that my students’ progress towards mastery was not being effectively monitored. First, because mastery was not clearly defined for them, and second because I was not effectively checking in with them, nor providing opportunities for the students themselves to self-assess. To avoid this in the future I will include specific means of feedback for me to assess students, students to assess the learning activities as well as their progress towards mastery.

The last area related to planning that I have learned to consider more carefully is that of classroom management. Because I usually teach older students, I overlooked establishing routines in the classroom. I provide a list of expectations at the beginning of class, but I do not refer to them regularly and it is obvious that students quickly forget them. They do not understand that learning could benefit by attempting to meet or surpass these expectations. I also noticed during the culminating week that I was attempting to talk over students, and that students often misunderstood my instructions. They realized that if they did not listen to my instructions that I would come to them individually and help them anyway. I plan to establish classroom rules and routines as a class and hold them accountable. I also plan to include in my lesson plans, comprehension checks after giving instructions. If students need to answer questions, like “Ok, what do we do first?” after they hear instructions they will strive to pay greater attention, and it will reduce the amount of effort I expend to get learning tasks started.

In conclusion, the time spent with TeacherReady was indispensable. The lessons that I learned reached far beyond what I described in this essay, and I look forward to learning and improving my teaching methodology in the years to come. What TeacherReady may have provided most of all is the desire to provide better educational opportunities for my students, as well as the means to do that through effective planning, implementation, and review of my lessons.

It was a valuable experience, and I would recommend the program to those interested in becoming a professionally licensed teacher. Take a look at the ELA lesson plan I created during the culminating week of Teacher Ready.

Skillagents: Active Learning

I recently got back into the Skillagents course and completed the next section on active learning. This part of the course begins to delve into the application of the ideas discussed in the mindset modules; into how to transition from passive content based learning to contextually embedded integration of skills with attitudes, or “making meaning”. This part of the course also begins to explore the psychology of learning and the different types of thinking that learners need to utilize in active learning. The ingredients of active learning are threefold: gathering of ideas and information in the form of text, audio, and video, meaningful and relevant physical and cognitive experiences through real world simulations, case studies or observation of experts, and reflection and feedback.

Although there are similarities between passive and active learning, they both include expertly curated content, the difference lies in the design of the course or how the learners are expected to interact with this content. These interactions are related to the second two ingredients for active learning. The first of these, authentic simulations, is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Since starting to explore the world of instructional design a discussion that I have followed is that instructional design for academics and business are distinct and incompatible generally due to the idea of return on investment. Either you learn to design for the business world or institutions of higher learning. I first saw this argument from Cathy Moore’s blog post regarding her approach to scenario building through action mapping. I agree with her that designing for both worlds is not the same, but the overlap is becoming increasingly blurred. Recently, Christy Tucker wrote a great piece looking at the ideas inherent in active learning for higher ed. Her post had some great ideas for courses in psychology and teacher training. It seems that students in higher education are demanding a return on their investment. They want real world skills so that they can be employable. Employers too are finding that graduates don’t have the requisite skills necessary to enter the workforce. We have seen attempts in the past to answer this through for-profit institutions like ITT Tech or Devry, and many community colleges are focused on helping students transition into the workplace, something I learned about in my recent design course for adult basic education through Designers for Learning. Therefore it seems that it is a responsibility of college level courses to be designed for active learning, and to provide authentic scenarios for students to practice real world skills. This call is already being answered in the private sector through companies like 2U and CorpU, and if higher ed institutions want to stay current and relevant they need to be doing the same thing.

The last ingredient of active learning, reflection, begins to explore the psychology of learning. Thinking can be divided into system 1 which is associative, impulsive, and emotion, and system 2 which is analytical, logical, hierarchical. Obviously, reflective activities need to be designed to help learners tap into this system 2 type thinking. This is much harder to do, and requires a greater responsibility on the learner and the designer. It is the designer’s responsibility to provide opportunities for deep reflection, through insightful and challenging discussion questions in a safe place that is actively moderated and defined by appropriate guidelines. It is the learner’s responsibility to dedicate the time and mental resources necessary to genuinely engage with these reflective prompts.

Designing active learning is no easy task, it requires insight from subject matter experts, and an architect’s sensitivity in planning the course, but if successfully designed for learners to actively engage with meaningful content in real-world context it can lead to meaningful and significant changes in learners’ lives in both corporate or academic institutions.

Teacher Ready I

I recently began an alternative route to professional teaching licensure through Teacher Ready a program supported by the University of West Florida. There were several reasons I started this program. The first being that I am interested in learning more about Common Core standards and how teachers should operate, and design their classes within these standards. The second was to improve myself as an educator, to reflect on my teaching practices and incorporate new ideas into my pedagogy. Finally, the Teacher Ready program has the opportunity to further my education by transferring 12 credit hours to the University of West Florida’s Curriculum and Instruction M.Ed, which has a cognate in Instructional Technology. I have recently completed the second lesson, and thought it would be a good time to reflect, and synthesize what I have learned recently.

It is interesting to see the parallels presented in this Teacher Ready course to things I have been learning in courses for Instructional Design. Despite the fact that Teacher Ready is focusing on best practices for the elementary or secondary school classroom, there are important similarities that are represented in the lessons presented at Skillagents and Blendkit. Although there are important distinctions between how adults and children or adolescents learn there are comparable elements, specifically regarding learner engagement and the development of aligned learning objectives.

One of the first things that I learned in the Teacher Ready course, was the importance of the learners’ first interaction with the teacher and the course material. This was referred to as PRIME TIME, and is related to the notion of first impressions. It is not only the first day of school, but the first few minutes of class as well. If successfully prepared for, it presents the students with an instructor who is prepared, caring, calm and stable. It sets the tone for the course by clearly defining the expectations for all the participants of the course. Finally, it is rooted in the idea that the learning process is ongoing and collaborative, the learners are valuable and represent untapped potential that can be realized through the structured design of this learning environment. These ideas of worth and potential have been discussed in the Value Mindset of Skillagents. The idea of establishing clear expectations for learners in the blended learning environment were presented in Blendkit as well. These ideas are intimately related to the second lesson in Teacher Ready that focused on defining learning objectives.

The Teacher Ready course is dedicated to preparing teachers to enter the classroom in American or International schools. The second lesson in Teacher Ready focuses on defining learning objectives from the Common Core standards that many states have adopted. Learning objectives are essential to the learning process. They represent the necessary steps for learners to be successful not only in their educational pursuit but in the ownership of this process, that is the development of learning autonomy. Learning objectives need to be challenging to the students, clearly defined, and referenced throughout the course. Learning objectives are a communication tool. They express to the learners the goals of the course, describe the relevance of the practice activities within the course, and shape the feedback whether that be personal self-reflection, teacher created assessments, or responses from peers. One very interesting statistic related to the use of learning objectives as a communication tool is that merely stating the day or lesson’s objectives can increase student achievement by 27%, and by including a rubric for their learning to encourage self-reflection can increase that rate to 37%.

There is much more to say about both of these topics, and I am sure they will be referred to regularly throughout the Teacher Ready course. It is exciting to learn new things related to instruction from a different perspective, and I look forward to the following courses in Teacher Ready and how I can apply those lessons learned to my own instructional designs.

Skillagents: Value Mindset 

The third and final mindset in the Skillagents course is the value mindset, and I found it to be the most inspiring as well as challenging. The value mindset asks designers to dream big for the potential value a course can have for the learners. It urges the designer to not simply make artificial knowledge the goal of the course which is rewarded with a hollow certification, but to assist learners in making long term changes to the skills and attitudes related to the course objectives rooted in the real world.

These lofty goals are met by asking regularly what value the course can have for the learners not only by the end of the course, but long term. This value can be defined through empathy with the learners’ and their needs, and can be achieved by providing genuine and meaningful contexts to prepare learners to make appropriate decisions for future tasks.

This is all well and good, quite inspiring to want to change lives, but reality is never that easy. Learners come to our classes for a variety of reasons  and with a multitude of preconceived notions and expectations. From my own experience with EFL learners in South Korea, who have experienced over ten years of passive English education, the final 3 – 6 years with the sole focus of passing the English section of the college entrance exam, a majority enter my conversational and academic English classrooms disheartened and numb. Their communication language skills have plateaued and the majority of students just want to complete the required courses and get on with their degree. This is what Anna Sabramowicz calls the impossible staircase illusion. A situation where learners don’t see their progress and lose sight of the value of your course.This type of situation is not unique and can occur in other contexts, such as where learners are participating in required training for the workplace. It is in response to these challenges where the designer has to be the most vigilant, explicit, and ambitious.

Vigilance is necessary because there is a temptation for the designer or trainer to respond to the learners’ indifference to mandatory courses with equal resolve. Let’s just get through this. Let’s just satisfy the requirement. This attitude can sneak in over time, but through conversations with colleagues, and participation in professional development of their own, designers can remain vigilant and continue to design courses that challenge and motivate learners.

The designer must also be explicit in the description of the objectives of the course. It is well known that the objectives of a course should be described at the beginning of a course when working with adults, and that these goals should be described in the learners’ language, not overly academic or industry-laden terms. However, as mentioned above the goals should extend past the end of the course, and these should also be clearly communicated to the learners in order to demonstrate the value the course can have for learners in the future.

This brings us to the last idea of being ambitious, and inherent in this idea is a certain vulnerability. It is not easy to share your ambitions for the course with your learners. Especially if learners are already approaching your course with a certain level of indifference or incredulity. But if bravery and enthusiasm is encouraged in your design and incorporated throughout, it will be met with equal amounts enthusiasm for the course goals and objectives from learners. 

In conclusion, the value mindset module was very inspiring. It made me reevaluate the design of my past courses, and how I define and communicate the course objectives to my learners. It made me want to be more ambitious with what I expect from my learners and myself. I am excited for the next iteration of the courses I design. 

Skillagents: The Lecture Mindset

The lecture mindset is an extension of the ideas presented in the content-centered courses module in Skillagents. As the previous post mentioned lecture based courses homogenize learners, and create passive learning environments which can reduce learner motivation and engagement. It also restricts flexibility for both the educator and learner, in terms of missed classes or other unexpected events. Finally, it presents the danger of creating knowledge gaps because the synchronous or face-to-face time spent with learners is filled primarily with lecture material, and reduces learners opportunities to question what they are learning or for the instructor to explore “teachable moments”.

The solution, lies in blended learning, or the flipped classroom, something that I have explored in recent posts. This approach frees both the learners and the educator to be more exploratory in the learning process, but places more responsibility on each party as well. The educator acts as a curator of beneficial educational resources, needs to provide more individualized mentoring to students, and have confidence responding to problems with the technology necessary for blended learning solutions. The learner too must act more autonomously, completing the necessary requirements before entering the class, and participating actively and appropriately in the online space of the course.

One way to ensure that these roles are being achieved throughout the course is through regular self and course evaluation by all parties. These assessments can have many functions. Simple pre-assessments can used to determine learners’ expectations for the course and their familiarity with the content. Weekly “check-ins” are not only a great way to learn how learners are responding to the course, but also as a means of informal summative assessment to gauge learners’ understanding and usage of the content provided.

There are three important aspects of these evaluations that need to be remembered. First is that these assessments should be in the form of short open-ended questions that encourage learners to share their individualized and honest responses to the course. Second, the responses should be categorized into changes that can be put into place immediately, in the next module, or the next iteration of the course. Finally, results should be shared with class to demonstrate that their perceptions of the course are valued, and to nurture a dialogue about the learning process.

Skillagents: Post-Content Mindset

I recently completed the first mindset module in Skillagents, which identifies several problems with content-based courses. Content-based courses are traditional courses where an all-knowing educator spews knowledge of a topic that they know quite a bit about with the hope that learners will be able to regurgitate it back to them at a later date.

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The first problem is that with advent of the internet the content is everywhere, free, and its legitimacy is improving. For example universities like MIT are providing lectures and full courses for free digitally. That is tough competition, and learners are going to question why they need to pay X amount of dollars to hear you lecture when they can find comparable or better content in minutes on their phone.

The second problem with content-based courses or just content itself, is that there is no context. Real world context allows learners to absorb, retain, and apply new knowledge. Just think back to any of your previous lessons in education. A great deal of content has been lost, I am sure, because the necessary connections between information and application were not strong enough in the first place or regularly repeated in meaningful ways.

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The final problem with content-based courses is that they are not individualized. Generally, a one-size fits all mentality is used to ensure that learners with less experience in a certain topic are not left behind. The assumption that all learners are at a certain level, stifles motivation and opportunity for learners to engage with the content.

Content-based courses are everywhere, and they are hard to kill. I have experienced my share of content-based courses, and admittedly taught several content-based courses. The reason that these types of courses continue to persist is that the alternative takes time. To address the problems mentioned above, and create courses that are individualized, and which provide opportunities for real-world application takes time and skills. Time and skills that many educators or subject matter experts don’t have. Therefore it is the role of a quality instructional designer to guide those with valuable content in creating a course where the value of the course is understood to the learner throughout the course. This idea of value is one of the keys to a course’s success, and is achieved by creating a lifelong effect on the learner through the meaningful real-world application of lessons learned.

Skillagents: First Impressions

Several months ago I completed two very valuable courses: Blendkit 2016 and Designers for Learning: OpenABE but both were dramatically different in how they made me think about instructional design. I have detailed my experience with Blendkit on this blog, and described the lesson I designed for Designers for Learning on my portfolio. One feeling that has plagued me since I discovered instructional design, is a constant feeling of being behind. I assume that is common for tech integrated careers: how to stay current? I have made a commitment to myself to always be learning, reflecting and adapting. Luckily I found a course whose goals are to train me in just that: Skillagents.

Anna Sabramowicz has not only provided a wealth of knowledge regarding instructional design, but she practices what she preaches. Her lessons are approachable, engaging, and clearly organized. Not only that but she has built a strong community in Facebook with current and former Skillagents. She encourages, if not demands full participation in the course and regularly and personally checks in on you, asking for feedback in the course, pointing out new resources available to you, or in my case keeping me on track with the lessons.

The first part of the course is a general overview of the current climate of education and how this is both intimidating and exciting. Traditional education is changing if not dead, and instructional designers can be active participants in the engineering of new types of educational experiences if they are willing to adapt to these changes. One of the primary changes is that now the learner has greater access to information and greater control of his or her learning, and the it is the goal of the instructional designer to place the learner as the primary focus of the lesson.

Skillagents is clearly focused on the learner and I look forward to learning more valuable lessons and using this blog to reflect on what I am learning, how it is encouraging me to adapt, and in what ways.

Blendkit 2016 Week 5

This is the fifth and final week of instruction in the Blendkit program. This week we were introduced to the various types of instruments for evaluation that exist, and the limitations that exist employing any one type of evaluation. In order to get a fuller picture of the quality of the educational experience that an instructor’s blended course is providing a blend of evaluation tools is needed: self-assessment, student summative feedback, and peer or administrative feedback. Although this may require more time for the instructor, it is essential, especially in the first incarnation of a blended course, to pursue a quality blended learning environment. To keep this goal a focus of the design of my blended learning course I will employ these three assessment strategies.

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First, self-assessment and writing personal teaching goals for both the f2f and the online environments is a good idea. It reminds me of reflective teaching practice that I learned to utilize during my MA TESOL program. In my opinion it is the online portion of a blended online course where the instructor needs to be the most vigilant, and active, to ensure that students feel supported and that the instructor is present. I think there is a danger that, because the online environment encourages learner autonomy, instructors might say, “Well, I created the environment, now it’s up to them to engage with it.” The old horse water metaphor. However if feedback on assignments is not prompt and the instructor does not engage in discussions (without dominating) students will disengage or define it as busy work, and not participate earnestly.

The second aspect of quality assurance in blended learning lies in summative feedback provided by students. Our institution provides opportunities for student feedback after the midterm and final exams, but these are focused on f2f interactions. I will encourage students to comment on the online portion of the course at that time, and will provide an online survey or discussion forum on the learning management system as well. Questions would be directed at learners’ perception of relevance of online assignments to course goals, ease of site use, and clarity of assignment instructions.

The final part of this evaluation process would be to get some outside perspective from a colleague or administrator, ideally someone with experience designing or implementing blended learning. Luckily there are several faculty members who are experienced in this area in my department. I will provide a rubric to one of these faculty members and administrative access to the LMS where my course resides so that they can see students’ levels of participantion as well as settings on quizzes and assignments. Finally, I will ask to do a similar evaluation of their blended learning course. I have found great value in observing staff members’ classes and discussing their design choices, so I am sure there would be similar benefit in observation of the online environment they design for learners.

This final step, evaluation, in most design models like ADDIE, ensure that your design process is iterative and that the designer works to constantly improve the E-learning environment for learners so that the content and assignments are clearly described and understood by learners and that they match course learning objectives. I look forward to implementing this final step and learning what steps I can take to improve my course design

Blendkit 2016 Week 4

This week we began to look at the variety of assignments that can be used to encourage students’ learning, in line with defined objectives, and in order to succeed in summative assessments. The opportunities that the technological tools available online for creating educational resources as an educator or as a student are vast. With this diversity there lies a danger that the assignments given to students may be misunderstood in terms of how to accomplish the task, or its connection to the f2f portion of the course. Throughout the reading, uniformity in assignments as well as a clear connection to the activities and learning objectives that occur inside the classroom is paramount. Keeping this warning in mind, it is exciting to explore some of the options to maximize learning and increase learner engagement with the course.

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The primary goal for attempting a blended learning course in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is to maximize learners’ opportunities for language production both in and outside of the class. Korean students have had a lot of experience with receptive skills like reading and listening comprehension, as it is a core area of assessment in the college entrance exam for high school students. However, despite 9-12 years of English education both in the public and private educational industries, students enter university classrooms with limited communicative ability. Therefore the assignments I choose are focused on language production through discussion (online and f2f), role play, debate, and academic writing skills.

The online portion of the course is composed of video tutorials (readily available for TOFEL content due to its popularity as a subject worldwide), quizzes, and discussions currently, but I am interested in how I can build more on this without overwhelming my students with new tools. I understand that technology has to be gently integrated especially in this context. In an upcoming unit, on home design and architecture I ask students to choose a video from the playlist Offbeat Spaces, summarize it and then describe their own ideal space. This is still a discussion assignment that they have experience with, but now they have to navigate a playlist which offers learners a choice on what they want to watch and interact with. The videos are short and have closed captioning so they are accessible to lower level language students as well.

Ideas for the future include having students record themselves having conversations or role playing then upload the video to their class site on the LMS, but this idea will first be introduced in class to ensure success. This might be an opportunity to introduce some of the video editing software available for them to experiment with and increase their digital literacy. As I mentioned in my last post I am also interested in getting students to use their voices by recording their discussion posts on their phones or using other audio tools and uploading their responses on the LMS assignment. This can be a great help to increase confidence in their speaking, and get them thinking about pronunciation and intonation.

It is an exciting time for education and blended learning solutions can provide a multitude of new ways for learners to engage, create and navigate their learning opportunities. These solutions can be effective if designed correctly so that learners feel safe, and confident in meeting the challenges presented throughout the course.

Blendkit 2016 Week 3

This week was focused on designing appropriate assessments, online or in class, aligned with learning objectives. I found the reading this week, quite thought provoking, in regard to potential means of assessment that I hadn’t considered and am considering integrating into the online section of my course.

First, let me give a brief description of the types of assessment in my Practical English course I teach. There are two formal assessments of the students’ communicative competence, a midterm and final. The midterm and final are similar. There is a speaking section, where two students are required to ask and answer 4-5 questions (chosen by the professor) based on topics from the textbook. They should maintain the conversation for about 8 minutes. There is also a paper based exam that tests there listening, reading, and writing skills. The listening and reading are multiple choice, true/false, and short answer questions based on what they heard or read. The writing section asks students’ to write a paragraph in response to a writing prompt based on the topics in the book. The only difference between the midterm and the final is that the final is weighted more heavily, and the topics are different.

The assessments that I include in the online portion of my course are informal quizzes,  discussion boards, and paragraph assignments. The quizzes are formulated so they resemble the formal assessments that they will experience throughout the year. It was encouraging to read about the study by Walker et al. (2014) which showed that students who took practice exams online performed better on in-class graded exams. This is an area that I greatly curious about, since as I mentioned I have chosen to move the listening and reading requirements online, and assess them there. I am also interested in revising or improving my questions so that they push learners to higher level thinking.

Finally, one of the most challenging aspects of EFL is connecting students’ language studies with real world application. The English speaking world and being an active participant in it, seems so distant to the students I am sure, no matter how much I try to bring it into the classroom. However, the opportunities for students to search out articles or pictures related to the topics we study online, and share them in our online community is exciting. I often encourage my students to be online tourists, and experience English that way. In an upcoming lesson we will study color, architecture and housing. I will ask students to post pictures from their homes or around their cities with a brief description. I will also ask students to participate in the online discussion next week by uploading an audio or video recording of their comment rather than just typing their response. I also liked the one-sentence summary idea and may implement that to get students to synthesize what they learned in the previous week.

There were a lot of good ideas presented in this reading, as well as some important areas of reflection. I look forward to implementing new and interesting types of assessments to engage learners and achieve learning objectives, as well as revise existing online assessments in this iterative design process.