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.