Teaching Online at EMU: The Learning Curves

Despite the fact that I’ve been involved in using technology to teach writing for a long time now, I’ve never taught an online class before, at least before this semester. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the big one for me is that at EMU, these courses are offered through Continuing Education and they tend to staff them with faculty who teach the courses as overloads. I wasn’t willing to do that, but then (for a variety of different reasons that really aren’t that interesting anyway) I was told that I could teach an online class as part of my “regular” teaching load after all and I’m going to start teaching one online class on in a couple of weeks.

After both procrastinating and working on other things I needed to do this summer, I’m finally starting to get my online class together. EMU Online uses eCollege to support their online classes, and eCollege is pretty decent software. I have some issues with it (see below), but it sure as heck is better than WebCT, which I tried to use for another class back in January. Incidentally, there’s actually some campus politics surrounding this because there are “forces” around here who want us to use WebCT to teach online. My hope is that the pro-WebCT people lose this battle.

So far, I’ve got three observations:

  • Once again, I am reminded that a little HTML goes a long LONG way. Every once in a while, I encounter colleagues at EMU or online or at a conference or whatever who say that there’s no real point in learning or teaching basic HTML skills, in part because software like Dreamweaver makes it easy to avoid messing with the code. And you can get away with not using an HTML with eCollege, too. But it sure helps to know at least the basics of HTML.
  • Despite what I do know about HTML and CSS and other computer geek things, I still have to get over a learning curve to make this software work, at least work for me. eCollege isn’t nearly as frustrating as WebCT, but it’s frustrating enough.
  • eCollege (and just about every other software I’ve seen for teaching online) isn’t really designed to teach a writing course, at least the way I tend to teach writing classes. This is kind of hard for me to explain just now, but I guess what I’m getting at is this: eCollege seems to me to assume that a college course is made up of individual units which students work through, more or less independently, and then take a test about to demonstrate knowledge. Sure, there’s plenty of opportunities for interaction between students and between the instructor with the software, but it doesn’t seem that easy to me to exchange drafts of essays in small groups. Of course, that might be just because I’m missing something in the instructions for how to do this.

Oh, and eCollege supports streaming audio and video. I still think I’m just going to upload mp3 files weekly or so. Eventually, I’m going to figure out how to post a “real” podcast for this class– one with an RSS feed and the whole bit– but I probably won’t publish it as part of the eCollege shell.

Which D&D Character are you?

I Am A: True Neutral Half-Elf Bard

True Neutral characters are very rare. They believe that balance is the most important thing, and will not side with any other force. They will do whatever is necessary to preserve that balance, even if it means switching allegiances suddenly.

Half-Elves are a cross between a human and an elf. They are smaller, like their elven ancestors, but have a much shorter lifespan. They are sometimes looked down upon as half-breeds, but this is rare. They have both the curious drive of humans and the patience of elves.

Bards are the entertainers. They sing, dance, and play instruments to make other people happy, and, frequently, make money. They also tend to dabble in magic a bit.

Find out What D&D Character Are You?, courtesy of NeppyMan!

Two additional thoughts to all this:

  • Apparently, there’s a big gaming conference going on right now, GenCon 2005. I heard about it on NPR this morning. It’s something like the 30th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons.
  • When I was a kid– junior high and early high school, actually– I played some Dungeons and Dragons (actually, Advanced D&D), but I think my favorite role playing game was Runequest, which had what we thought was a superior play system to AD&D.

Oh yeah– then I discovered girls….

Will on the links

Will Golfing

Will and I went out and played what was his first round of golf on a real golf course. Sort of.

Will said he was interested in playing golf, so I bought a kiddie-sized nine iron a couple weeks ago for $3 at a Play-it-again Sam’s Sports store. I figured that before I went out and spent $50 on a set of kiddie clubs, I’d make sure that he was actually interested in playing. We went out to the driving range once and out shagging balls another time. He liked it, but he wanted to play on a real golf course.

Well, there’s this play around here called Pine View and I found out that they’re running a deal that kids play for $1 on the “Little Pines,” which is their par 3 course. I elected to get a cart (to avoid the possibility of Will pooping out and to give him the added thrill of riding), but even with that, it was only $15 for the two of us. Even better, the course has kids in mind. It has men’s tees, women’s tees, and junior tees, which are way the heck up close to the hole.

I can honestly say we both had a great time. The Little Pines is pretty good for a little par 3 course. It’s short obviously, but there some very narrow fairways, some water hazzards (two of which I hit into and one which Will actually hit over), and some difficult hills, so I had fun playing a “not super easy” course. Will had a blast and he got some good hits when he took his time and kept his head down, my only real pieces of golf coaching. I don’t think I’ve got a Tiger Woods on my hands, but he had fun– I think we might play on Monday, too– and with some lessons and such, I’m sure he’ll get better and be able to beat me in no time.

The beginning of the end for my iBook?

I’m a little worried about my iBook.

All of a sudden, the touchpad has started to behave badly. Sometimes it works fine, at other times it has a mind of its own. Of course, this could have something to do with my installation of OS 10.4 (though I really don’t think that’s it), and a mouse plugged into the USB port works just fine.

But I am worried that the end may be near.

It’s not entirely unexpected because this computer will be three years old in November. In my opinion, there are significant advantages to a laptop computer, but one of the disadvantages is they don’t last as long as desktop computers simply because they get abused– moved around a lot, jostled about, etc. And I should point out that this computer is really the computer in my life. Sure, I have a computer in my office at school, but I use this computer literally every single day and often for hours and hours at a time, even in my office and even though I have a perfectly fine computer on my desk there. Anyway, after three years of constant use, you’d start to get a little ratty after three years, too.

I’m not inclined to buy a computer this year, so hopefully I can get this thing to hang on for another 8 or 10 months. I’d really like it to last until the next generation of Apple laptops comes around, but I don’t know if any computer could last that long.

Are there any freshmen reading this?

The new school year is approaching and it’s approaching more rapidly than I would prefer. I keep getting email messages from students asking about the reading list and assignments for my classes, and I keep having to email them back and explain that I am still trying to figure out what the assignments and the reading list are going to look like. Interestingly enough, these “extra eager” students are enrolled in the online class I’m teaching.

Anyway, as is typical of the new year, there’s a discussion right now about the extent to which first year students do (or, as the argument goes, don’t) read. I say this is “typical” because usually about now, someone posts to the WPA-L mailing list and other places a list of “things entering college freshmen don’t know,” which lists stuff like “freshmen have never heard of Richard Nixon,” an assertion based on nothing and also one that doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.

This year though, there’s a different twist: the posts are revolving around Tommy Lee Goes to College, the latest “reality” show about rock-n-roll guy Tommy Lee (who, like a lot of other celebrities nowadays, seems to be a lot more famous now for “being vaguely famous” in the past rather than actually doing something to make him famous in the present) going to college at the University of Nebraska. One of my colleagues posted a message to the WPA-L list reflecting on the show, noting with despair that “freshmen just don’t read.”

I posted back to the list about this, and as I said there, I think it’s worth remembering that the Tommy Lee show is A TELEVISION SHOW. Even though they say it’s about “reality,” it’s most certainly not really about reality. Thus is the nature of the genre, which I generally do not enjoy at all (though The Amazin Race was pretty cool). And while I haven’t seen the show (and I won’t, unless there is nothing else on TV and I have absolutely positively have nothing– and I mean NOTHING– else to do), I would have to think that it’s pretty heavily edited If you were going to make some choices about what to show Tommy and his new college pals doing, would you show them all studying?

And besides all that, it’s pretty hard to make any clear assumptions about the concepts of “freshmen” or even “reading,” at least around here. EMU is probably best described as a “comprehensive and opportunity-granting regional university,” and what that means in terms of freshmen here is we’ve got a mixed bag. Sure, we have “traditional” college freshmen– 18 or so years old, middle-class kids– but I’ll bet this group makes up just about half of incoming first year students here. We certainly don’t have as many “traditional” freshmen as that quaint liberal arts school in Ann Arbor; our students come in all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds.

Because EMU is an “opportunity granting” kind of school, we do admit a lot of dramatically underprepared students, and a lot of these students indeed “don’t read” or do much of anything else related to the college experience, largely because they never were asked to do this kind of work before. Some of them will get their proverbial “acts” together, taking advantages of various tutoring and support services and teachers and such and they’ll go on with their college career. Some won’t and they’ll leave college to go and do something else. And to tell the truth, I think giving students the chance to discover that college is not for them (at least in the moment they are in school) is in itself an “opportunity.”

On the other hand, because it is a bargain, costing literally half as much as U of M (and I like to think we’re a good school, too), we attract a lot of perfectly prepared and “normal” students who just don’t have a lot of money and/or who are working themselves through school.

As far as reading goes: well, this post is long enough without me going down that path. I guess I’ll just say that when we say that “freshmen don’t read,” it seems to me that it depends a lot on what you mean by “freshmen” (see above) and “read” (does skimming count? how about skipping around? what sorts of things do they have to read to count as reading? etc.).

Interestingly enough, literally while I was reading this conversation on WPA-L, Annette was telling me about a blurb for a book she saw in Newsweek. It was My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student by Rebekah “not her name” Nathan. Here’s a blurb from that web site about the book:

Placing her own experiences and those of her classmates into a broader context drawn from national surveys of college life, Nathan finds that today’s students face new challenges to which academic institutions have not adapted. At the end of her freshman year, she has an affection and respect for students as a whole that she had previously reserved only for certain individuals. Being a student, she discovers, is hard work. But she also identifies fundamental misperceptions, misunderstandings, and mistakes on both sides of the educational divide that negatively affect the college experience.

By focusing on the actual experiences of students, My Freshman Year offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently divisive debates surrounding the political, economic, and cultural significance of higher education—as well as a novel perspective from which to look at the achievements and difficulties confronting America’s colleges and universities in the twenty-first century.

There’s a decent article in Inside Higher Ed about Nathan’s book and experience. In terms of the whole “freshmen don’t read” issue, here’s an interesting passage:

In the classroom, Nathan found that she sometimes engaged in the same behavior that had driven her crazy as a professor and that annoys faculty members everywhere: feeling tired or coming to class without a firm sense of the reading. These experiences have made her a different kind of teacher, she says.

“I really did not understand about the reading thing,� she said. “If you ask most professors at most schools, they will tell you that students don’t read.� Nathan said that she, like her fellow students, did the readings when there was a direct relationship between the readings and the course. Obvious ways to make that connection are quizzes and essay assignments. But Nathan says less obvious ways, in which readings are directly related to key themes, can work as well.

“You have to make it useful in the classroom,� she said, “not just reading for reading’s sake.�


In any event, Nathan’s book sounds like it might be interesting, er, reading.

Robin Hood and deja vu

Annette and Will and I went to see The Adventures of Robin Hood tonight, part of the Michigan Theater summer movie program. We had seen the original (and silent) Peter Pan earlier this summer in the same series.

Robin Hood was the definition of “a hoot” in all kinds of fun and funny ways, but I had very much a “seen this before” sorta feeling. Only the 1938 film was the original, of course. While watching this, I just couldn’t stop thinking of Monty Python and The Holy Grail and the Food Network’s Iron Chef. Here’s why:

The connections between Robin Hood and Holy Grail are prehaps pretty obvious. There are all the fight scenes, including the ones where Robin takes out 100 guys with one arrow; the whole bit with people just getting shot with an arrow right out of the blue; fights where someone picks up a heavy-looking table clearly made out of cardboard and throws it at a group that instantly collapses under it. But then there’s other stuff too. For example, the outfits: all of the knights and other “bad guys” hanging around Prince John are all dressed like the knights in Holy Grail— or vice-versa, suppose. And then for some bizarre reason, Robin Hood has a minstrel (Will Scarlet– and hey, guess what? he dresses in red!) during the fight scene with Little John, not unlike Sir Robin in Holy Grail.

So, what’s the Iron Chef connection? First off, there is a lot of food in the movie. I mean, when these people aren’t fighting, they are eating and they are generally eating some animal hoof or whole bird just off of the fire. Second, Prince John (the chief bad buy played by Claude Rains) is dressed exactly like “the chairman” from the original Iron Chef, totally over the top with crazy colors and sequins and everything else. I can’t find any pictures on the web to prove my point, but believe me, if you’ve seen either either of these shows, you know what I’m talking about.

Slight photographic update:

Annette did a better job of researching pictures of Claude Rains than I did. Here are a couple of images from this web site:

Everyone has to have a cape in this movie….

three guys
That’s Claude as Prince John in the middle. This picture really doesn’t do this outfit justice because it includes black pants and shoes with weird silver accents everywhere. Very Iron Chef, IMO.

Howdy, EMU Student Government!

Just last night (actually, it looks like the middle of the night– those students) I had a comment on my post about OS 10.4 asking me to link to the EMU Student Government blog. Consider it done, Bobby! I think it’s a good idea for the student government to have a blog space like this– I wish the faculty council would do the same thing, though I’m not expecting it anytime soon.

Thumbs up on OS 10.4 (Tiger)

I installed the new mac operating system on my laptop yesterday, 10.4. For fellow mac-folk who are still thinking about the upgrade, I give it a big thumbs up. A couple quick thoughts about it, though you can get the full and real scoop from Apple:

  • Despite the advice out there, I threw caution to the wind and didn’t do a “clean install.” I just didn’t have that kind of time or patience, so I just upgraded. Maybe I’ll need to do it right at some point, but I haven’t run into any problems yet.
  • Spotlight is cool; I’m pretty interested in learning more about what it can actually do, too.
  • The “Dashboard” widgets are really cool. In an interesting way, this seems to be Apple’s way of getting people to get away from browsers and do stuff on the ‘net through the Mac interface. I immediately downloaded widgets for accessing wikipedia, google maps, local yellow pages, local weather, television listings, movie listings, a dictionary, and several more that I’m forgetting right now.
  • Mail is pretty cool, though I haven’t quite figured out how it’s any “better” yet than the previous version, and I had preferred having my mailboxes listed on the right and not the left. There’s probably a way to change that.
  • Safari looks very promising with a built-in RSS feed reader, though I haven’t figured out how to use that yet either. And it the WordPress “quicktags” still don’t work in Safari, though there is a new version of WP I have yet to install, so maybe that’s fixed.

Anyway, I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the $70 for the upgrade, but I’d say personally that it is.

That's done (sorta); now what do I need to do?

Monkey writer

I managed to meet the deadline that I had set up for myself with my textbook project just over a week ago– at least technically I met the deadline. This “on-again/off-again” project has been “on-again” in the past six or eight months, so I’m feeling confident about my progress and possibilities of finishing this project, or at least more confident than I have felt in the past. Of course, there’s still a fair amount of work that needs to be done, more revisions and such, it still has to be sent out to readers (yet again), if it’s approved it will take a year or more to actually publish, and even with all that, there is still no guarantee that this thing will ever actually appear as a textbook. Someday, when the dust for all this settles, I’d like to write something about the textbook writing experience. It’s been an education, no question about it.

Anyway, I worked on this a lot for the last 10 days or so, and this morning, the day after I emailed stuff to the editors, I have this odd “what now?” kind of feeling. Frankly, I know “what now”: I have to get ready for that pesky fall semester that is going to be starting here in about two weeks. I need to tidy-up my blogs and some other web projects. I should do at least a little thinking and reading about my longer-term project on the history or writing technologies before the computer (btw, thanks to Dennis Jerz to this link of Flickr picts of “writing machines,” mostly typewriters). And I am also interested in trying to focus some more time on actually trying to read the scholarship in my field and less time in trying to create more of it.

Not to mention I have a life, which includes a seriously neglected garden and a flabby body that needs to get to the gym. Immediately.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I know the answer to the question of this post. It’s just a matter of convincing myself that I need to go on to something else, I suppose. Okay contemplative monkey– get to work then!