Monday, November 5, 2012

BlendKit 2012 Week 4

Blending the “Old China Trade”: Week 4 Readings Reflections
    In redesigning a course on the “Old China Trade” toward a hybrid or blended format, I am more wary the readings for Week 4 of BlendKit 2012 have left me even more wary about the pitfalls of communication.  As I mentioned in my first blog posting on this subject, the readings both the history of the China Trade (again, we should be using a broader term such as the “Indies trade”) and hybrid teaching challenge the instructor to master multiple languages—those of the 18th- and 19th century Atlantic community, of 18th- and 19th century Western commerce, of 18th- and 19th century Asia, and of separate domain, modern educational technology.
    My aim is to build on a one-week summer institute in local history that Kimberly Alexander and I taught in 2008 called Everyday Life in Early America.  Kimberly and I taught the course on-site at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth New Hampshire, where she was Chief Curator, instilling a sense of vicarious experience through lectures and discussions that took place in historic homes and workplaces.  A key element of the institute was the blog—which we still maintain—that posed questions for the students’ evening reflections (  The prompts included quotes from the course readings, a Thanksgiving Prayer composed by a Stratham, New Hampshire shoemaker, and epitaphs from a 19th-century graveyard.  We saw truly thoughtful responses to our daily posts, and many students returned to the morning class feeling (they reported) quite connected to the course and its several themes.
     Applying this format to a course on the “Old China Trade” next semester will, I anticipate, be more of a challenge.  In past iterations, a number of students were impressed by what they described as a “crossing borders” experience of meshing the US History and Asian History courses they had taken previously; others, however, reported feeling a bit overwhelmed by the complications of the approach.  Consequently, this course needs to offer a broad medley of assignments that can appeal to the variety of students’ learning styles.
    One advantage of a hybrid course is that it offers additional layers of communication and assessment beyond the traditional face-to face course.  So, briefly, an instructor can reconsider the conventional formats:
     Lectures.  I like face-to-face lectures.  I don’t think I am very good at them, but many of students say that would rather watch and hear “the expert” present an organized body of narrative and analysis.  Mine are not strictly monologues, but more socratic discussions, that describe a chain of events and ask the class to consider causation (“Why did American merchants need to move beyond their familiar Atlantic and Caribbean domains after the Revolution?”) and experience (“Considering the readings from Shaw and Delano, what did it feel like to be one of the first Americans in Canton or Bencoolen?”).  And, in this way, students’ responses provide an opportunity of assessment—even in a lecture.
     On Canvas (or a similar platform). I can augment the face-to-face lecture by posting the Powerpoint lecture, adding more material and even posing questions to consider in the slides.
     Discussions.  Not my strong point, but, again, many of my students enjoy the give-and-take conversations we have.  Many like, also, the opportunity to ask questions?  Other, still, like to show off what they have learned.  Perhaps the major obstacle to classroom discussion is time—there is never enough to allow everyone enough time to participate.  The “talkers,” it frequently seems, could talk all day long.  The “wallflowers” want to participate, but are held back by shyness or an inability to articulate complex ideas.  This is where the technology has been a great benefit.
     Having recently instituted asynchronous online discussions on Canvas, I have been quite impressed with my students’ conversations.  They appear able to reflect more deeply on what they have read and to express their ideas more clearly.  And, these become threaded conversations in which many actually respond to what others have published earlier, so I can see and analyze how well the class understands the my lectures, particular readings, and even the broad course themes.  And, the discussions provide another assessment opportunity.
     As for assignments, there is too much to say about the variety of tasks an instructor can design in a course on the Old China Trade; I’ll explore a sampling in a later blog.

BlendKit 2012 Week 3

Week 3 Readings Reflections: Assessment
     Assessment has been a gray area in my courses.  For one thing, the study of History—as opposed to the objective exam civics that passes for historical study in most secondary schools—calls for high order thinking.  For another, objective questions take an inordinate amount of time to make up and make cheating too tempting. 
* How much of the final course grade do you typically allot to testing? How many tests/exams do you usually require? How can you avoid creating a “high stakes” environment that may inadvertently set students up for failure/cheating?
     I use a constellation of brief essay papers, discussions, and essay exams.  These challenge the student to describe a term (who, what, when, where, why), situate events in chains of cause-and-effect, and account for significance, covering a range of levels.
In a follow-up paragraph, students are asked to write a personal reaction to the document or narrative that they have read, and here most seem to find it easy to develop their ideas or relate an aspect of constitutional history, the American Revolution, or the China Trade to their own lives.  The whole essay is structured to balance student learning, and student control, in the language of
Hoffman and Lowe (January 2011).  In addition, the coursework is structured to reduce cheating to negligible levels; papers are submitted online and I can easily Google suspicious phrasings.  The most common challenge that students ask about is keeping their writing to the one-page suggested length; they are free to write more, and I have seen seven-page offerings for this one-page assignment.
* What expectations do you have for online assessments? How do these expectations compare to those you have for face-to-face assessments? Are you harboring any biases?
When I began online assignments (submitting papers and exams via email or Canvas), I expected only that this was another option for students.  The benefits have astonished me.  Not only is the quality of essay-writing far better, but it turns out that digital papers are far easier to grade (and this I did not anticipate).  Furthermore, we can now use the papers as a jumping-off point for asynchronous online discussion.  Biases?  Hmmmmm.
* What trade-offs do you see between the affordances of auto-scored online quizzes and project-based assessments? How will you strike the right balance in your blended learning course?
I would not use an auto-scored quiz, and the formula I am using seems to offer students an interesting intellectual challenge.
    How will you implement formal and informal assessments of learning into your blended learning course? Will these all take place face-to-face, online, or in a combination?
            Overall, this week’s readings have been the most problematic in thinking about ways of adapting my courses to a blended format.  The readings on a transfer of learning strategy, emphasizing application “to something tangible or if it can’t be used in real life,” does not seem directly relevant to the study of History or, rather, what we study is “real life,” although in the past.  Certainly, though, it has been true in my courses that “[t]echnology is useful in simplifying this task of transferring the learning strategy.”  In this case, by utilizing Canvas to display my PowerPoint lectures and historic documents, I do not have to cover as much material during class time, and my students are not rushed in note-taking, enabling them to think more about the issues that we are discussing. 
            What I had not given much thought to is the argument that “[s]upplying examples to read as text online or offline proves to be helpful.”  Although I generally supply model answers for the misterm and final essay exams, I do so often as an afterthought and in response to student requests.  Nor had I considered using Bloom’s taxonomy to inspire alternative design strategies.  As part of my foray into blended teaching, then, I will be exploring fresh design strategies and incorporating the tools suggested in the Week 3 readings.

Monday, October 29, 2012

BlendKit 2012 Week 2


     The readings for Week 2 of BlendKit were provocative in the sensse that they privilege the role of instructor to the neglect of the scholar.  Of course, this is an initial impression from a cursory introduction to the literature on blended learning.  But, the statement from EDUCAUSE may represent the general sense of the literature on interaction: “Even though technology enables greater learner control and autonomy, learners generally value social contact and faculty guidance, especially when entering a new field or course of study.”  This is not consistent with my classroom experience, where in activities such as group discussion student-to-student interaction often falters.  I have been continually surprised to experiment with these interactions, only to receive email and in-person comments asking me to return to lectures.  These students (my sense is that they represent the majority of the class) assert that they “learn more” from a lecture than from their peers, and do not miss the social interaction.  However (!), I have seen something new in the online discussions that I have begun this semester.  The responses have been much more thoughtful and considered than in conventional discussion.  And, students have begun to respond to each other’s comments in an equally considered (and respectful) way.

So, reviewing the questions:
1. Is there value in student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction in all courses regardless of discipline?
    The jury is still out.  But, I find compelling the study by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) which observes that “minimal guidance is not as effective as guided instruction due to different approaches evident in how experts function.”  I think many students (and I do believe we teach at the margins, employing different tools and techniques to reach different learning styles, hoping that in the end we have reached an entire class) seek certain kinds of interaction.  Most want clear, specific feedback on their work, and this may be the core of effective instruction.  Some want to learn the discourse of a discipline, recognizing that the kinds of questions we raise, how we talk about sources of evidence, how we describe our analysis, how we present our interpretations is an essential aspect of becoming a historian or chemist or marketing professional.  It is an observation that is supported by Gardner (2006) discussion of conceptual networks.  Having seen History constructed as discrete facts to be memorized in the high school classes (and this is a more common complaint since the introduction of state-wide “accountability” testing), many students want to understand how we can situate events in a “more richly connected, nuanced, and diverse” chronology.  As Gardner notes, “But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying ideas, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply ‘inert knowledge’”

2. What role does interaction play in courses in which the emphasis is on declarative knowledge (e.g., introductory “survey” courses at the lower-division undergraduate level) or, similarly, in courses that cultivate procedural knowledge (e.g., technical courses requiring the working of problem sets)?
    The overall conclusion that the readings present is that students need opportunities for personal expression and that “personal expression may be leveraged in blended learning”; the challenge is to find the optimal tools for doing so in classes that emphasize either declarative or procedural knowledge.  Because my History classes aim to integrate both forms, teaching both methodology as well as content, the need to create opportunities for students’ personal expression is high.  I want my students to understand that thinking like a historian engages a particular method and calls for a form of discourse that is different from conventional conversation.  For example, “the evidence suggests” rather than “not for nothing, but my opinion is.”  Blended learning has enabled me offer both the classroom and online platforms for student expression, and I have seen some interaction between the two.  That is, some students try out their ideas in online threaded discussions, thereby gaining the confidence to offer their ideas and try out historical discourse in the classroom.  In the classroom, I can model the discourse, but online, I can provide more guided instruction than class time allows.

3. As you consider designing a blended learning course, what kinds of interactions can you envision occurring face-to-face, and how might you use the online environment for interactions? What opportunities are there for you to explore different instructional strategies in the blended course than you have in the past?
    This question reminds me of a point that Bill Gates made time ago: Meetings should never be scheduled simply to disseminate information; this can be done through email.  Rather, meetings optimally create opportunities to answer questions, identify problems or alternative paths to strategy, and make consensual decisions.  Following Gates’ observation, I am experimenting with:
Face-to face
* Lectures are Socratic, interactive, or otherwise participatory. Even in a PowerPoint talk, the slides incorporate questions to stimulate class discussion.  Some lectures may begin with a short in-class writing assignment.
* In-class discussions that enable students respond to questions, and, especially, to raise their own spontaneous questions.
* Asynchronous online discussions that create a more neutral environment and enable all students to feel comfortable in contributing.  This has shown some very promising results.  As noted, it seems to “allow students to enter more deeply into the material or an idea. There is time to look up facts, to draft an outline of what to say, and to revise mistakes before others respond.”  The flexibility extends to my time, also, as I can respond to pieces of the threaded discussion at more convenient times and in pieces, enabling me to offer a considered, thoughtful response to each student.
* Similarly, I have tried a blog in the past and hope to start one up this week for our BlendKit course.  I have used it to pose a question and elicit student responses just as in a threaded discussion, but now see that I can use it in other ways—to ask students to post responses (documents, quotations, images) that they want the group to analyze or that support a point they want to make.

4. What factors might limit the feasibility of robust interaction face-to-face or online?
            There are a number of factors, including student learning styles and preparedness faculty teaching styles, personality and facility in articulation and expression.  As Kirschner, Sweller & Clark conclude, “minimal guidance is not as effective as guided instruction due to different approaches evident in how experts function (epistemology) in a domain and how learners best learn.”
            I was particularly struck by the work of Darken and Sibert (1996) on “wayfinding.”  Although this research “explores a similar theme of the learner-in-control approach to learning,” their ideas challenged, somewhat ironically, my sense of instructional design, particularly if I provide enough “environmental cues” to guide my students’ learning, especially online.  While there are other considerations that the question above raises, this is the issue that I want to consider and explore further in the coming weeks.

BlendKit 2012 Week 1 Refections

     To start off, I am going to post some reflections to the Week 1 readings that are available on the BlendKit site at: Although I am a bit wary, I am somewhat less concerned about the technology than about the vocabulary of pedagogy that frankly seems rather alien to the discourse of historians. The language of Eastern markets—“banyan,” “comprador,” “laq”—seems more accessible than the vocabulary of “outcomes,” “emergence,” or “course delivery.” Of course, in my doctoral program, the emphasis was on acquiring knowledge and mastering analysis and synthesis; we weren’t taught how to teach, except through the “deep-end-of-the-pool experience” of teaching discussion sections and giving occasional lectures. Here we go:

     In reflecting on the reading for Week 1 of BlendKit 2012, both potential benefits and clear challenges present themselves to the course designer. I certainly appreciated the tone of contingency, flexibility, and incremental development that the readings stressed. And, I appreciated how the readings complemented my own classroom experiences, recognizing the opportunities that blended learning offers for addressing each student’s individual learning styles and life circumstances and relaxing the “one best way” approach that seeks to standardize classroom instruction.

Identify the general benefits of blended learning 
     Certainly, a blended approach offers more convenience and flexibility for both students and instructor, but I was more interested in the idea that it offers “a method to infuse new engagement opportunities into established courses or, for some, provide a transitional opportunity between fully face-to-face and fully online instruction.” I have dabbled in blended learning (not always cognizant that that is what I was doing) in a US History course, last year receiving brief papers online and this year adding an asynchronous discussion component. Although I am at a loss to explain it, the quality of the writing in the brief papers was significantly higher than anything I had seen before. In the asynchronous online discussions this year, again, the quality of conversation has been remarkably sophisticated. This experience bears out the U.S. Department of Education’s (2010) “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” particularly in its finding, “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction” (p. xv). In this case, I believe it does so because of the flexibility that the blended approach offers to a variety of student personalities and learning styles. It enables students who feel constrained by a 75-minute period to ask all their questions and offer all their reflections. It enables, as well, the less articulate student and the reticent personality an opportunity to “speak” in a more comfortable environment. The prompt questions that I offer allow for a range of responses, from the strictly historical (description and analysis) to the more personal and reflective. For both, ironically, the technology in this case fosters a personal connection that the constraints of the classroom limit.

 Recognize a range of implementation options possible in developing blended learning courses
     Here, I have much to learn. I don’t consider myself a technological adept, and, honestly, would rather spend my time reading to develop my knowledge than develop new skills in delivering that knowledge. So, I was relieved to see blended learning described as a “controlled process,” and especially, to learn that one begins from a position that “We as teachers usually establish on paper the "ideal" learning experience when you work under a more familiar, traditional style of teaching,” and then proceeds incrementally to design in the technological elements that may foster optimal learning experiences for the range of students in a class. And, I particularly appreciated George Siemens’s observation, “By recognizing learning as a messy, nebulous, informal, chaotic process, we need to rethink how we design our instruction.”

     There is another element to this: The tools that I may incorporate will have to reflect my own personality and teaching style. At this early stage, synchronous events seem a bit daunting, and I am wary of effectively monitoring collaborative exercises. But, self-paced learning, narrative feedback, the inclusion of complementary support materials should be consistent with my teaching.

 Articulate design plans for “blending” one of the courses you teach
     Here, the Course Blueprint was quite useful (although it took some time to learn the techniques of moving boxes around and the result is not aesthetically beautiful). My goal is to take a favorite course that I have taught in the past—The Old China Trade, 1784-1844—and transform it into a hybrid or blended course. At this point, it is decidedly an “emergent process.” But, there are already areas in which I can see opportunities to incorporate the technology to make the history more vicarious and experiential, enhancing the relevance of the episode for my students. The chart (Fig. 31.3) in Case Study 2 was especially useful for organizing my thoughts, and I will continue to refer back to it throughout the weeks (and years) ahead, and I look forward to developing my design for the course.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Blending the "Old China Trade"

     For the next few weeks, we will be taking a different tack in thinking about the "Old China Trade," focusing more on pedagogy. In conjunction with a course on blended learning entitled BlendKit2012 (, offered by Dr. Kelvin Thompson and Dr. Linda Futchhe out of the University of Central Florida (highly recommended), the blog will explore some strategies for teaching the "Old China Trade" in a blended or hybrid course. Some of this will incorporate responses to the BlendKit literature, while other postings will experiment with several technologies and strategies for introducing ideas and prompting reflection. At this point, I imagine that the journey is not unlike the some of the ad hoc voyages in which our China and Indies traders engaged: sailing from port to port, mixing cargoes, searching for resources that might bring some profit, and, overall, constantly adapting to the unknown.