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Teaching was a thing that I was least sure about when taking on my position at The U. People talk about how little training on grant writing one gets as a PhD student. For me, teaching was probably more neglected while doing my PhD.

Fortunately I was not short of ideas for teaching because I had encountered so many great teachers in my life and I happen to also research teaching and learning. So when designing my first course at The U—an introductory course on Learning Analytics—I weaved in a few ideas that I thought would be always important for my philosophy of teaching.

Community and group work

Five years of researching knowledge building in elementary schools has transformed my views on teaching and learning. The key idea of the knowledge building approach is to have students collectively taking responsibility in advancing their community knowledge through discourse. So knowledge building emphasize communal discourse, going very far to claim that “the state of public knowledge in a community only exists in the discourse of that community, the progress of knowledge just is the progress of knowledge-building discourse” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006, in Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences).

Knowledge Forum (v5) was used to support week-basd communal discourse. I didn’t require students to contribute a certain number of posts each week. Student contributions were not counted towards grades unless one didn’t contribute at all. Students were encouraged to expose their thinking (however immature) and provide constructive criticism to their peers. (I also hoped to use Knowledge Forum as an idea archive so that students could have access to their ideas in later phase of the course and make attempts to weave them together in the end. But it didn’t work as well as wished.)

Additionally, I set up two types of groups to help students assuming more responsibility in this course: (1) Special Interest Groups—each student voluntarily signed up for one topic in the course and became responsible for leading the whole class learning this topic with her group mates, and (2) Working Groups—students self-organized into groups to tackle real-world learning analytics problems and worked towards tentative solutions as final projects of this course.

As a beginner teacher, I sometimes felt the urge to lecture my students, because that lecturing usually means more “certainty” for the teacher. I tried hard to resist this temptation, letting students counting on each other—essentially functioning as a community. In this course, letting students taking more responsibility produced better experience than having myself delivering lectures. Some Special Interest Groups designed great materials and activities which I could never come up with—partly because, I admit wholeheartedly, they’re much better teachers than me. Not only more diverse voices became represented in the course, my understanding of learning analytics had also been transformed by student voices during this course.

Openness

There were three aspects when it comes to openness in my teaching. The first is openness with content. Researchers are generally doing a poor job opening their scholarly processes, for a variety of reasons, good or bad. I condemn this reality (see my tweet below). It’s probably the same for teaching, despite the trends of open educational resources, open education, and MOOC. Because I had (and still have) my best intention to offer the course again in the future, I treated my course materials as “objects” subject to continual refinement by myself and the world—sort of like open-source computer programs. So I hosted all course materials on a Github repository, rather than putting them in my secrete computer or the secular course management system.

The second aspect is openness with web spaces. I encouraged students to tweet using the #LAUMN hashtag. I also created a Netvibes channel for the course, which aggregated posts from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and selected blog posts. I also aggregated tweets from the #learninganalytics hashtag in the Netvibes dashboard to help nurturing a sense of connecting with the broader community, which I will further discuss below. A student initiated a Google+ community for this course as well. Fostering openness with web spaces grants students choices of which venues to interact with (even though they’re still required to use Knowledge Forum), and enriches their professional growth.

The third aspect was openness with “outer” communities. As mentioned above, students were encouraged to become connected with updates from the learning analytics community. I invited a few guest speakers to talk with us virtually or F2F. A group of us even went to a data science event together in March. I believe teaching at all levels—even in elementary grades—should adopt this mindset, not downgrading learning to an inferior version of what’s happening in the “real-world.”

Adaptivity

I have been constantly revising my syllabus all through the semester. I changed readings based on my perception of students’ prior knowledge, even though it was difficult for a class of grad students with diverse backgrounds.

Lessons learned

The course was generally successful, based on reviews I got from students. Of course, it was also probably because they are all nice—because (1) they’re really nice, and (2) we are in Minnesota :).

Besides the general success, I also learned many lessons. Students were very tolerant of my teaching. I wish to do a better job in facilitating F2F discussion so that everyone would have better chance to talk. I wish to spend more efforts to encourage international students to speak out in class meetings. I hope to set up a more effective introduction at the beginning of the course so that students would feel more confident. I would provide clearer description of evaluation criteria (even though I believe grades are the last things you would care in grad school). I would also need to think hard on the dilemma of having discourse taking place at different venues of students’ choices (e.g., Twitter and Google+) and the need for a strong, coherent discourse for all. I’m working towards addressing these issues when this course is offered again in Spring 2016.

Finally, isn’t nice to get a photo of myself put together with plain text by a student? After all, it was a blast to teach a talented and energetic group of students in my first semester at The U.

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Bodong Chen


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Bodong Chen, University of Minnesota

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