Sunday, August 12, 2012

What's on the Walls of Your Online Classroom?

Okay, having gotten the awful plagiarism thing out of the way, in this post I will present a tale of two online classrooms... but first I want to remind everybody of the general contrast between K-12 classrooms, which usually belong to a teacher (or a small group of teachers), and university classrooms, which usually belong to nobody and are assigned by central scheduling. You can probably remember some wonderful classrooms from elementary school or high school, even years later, right? The books the teacher had on hand, the posters and artwork on the walls, cartoons taped to the door, etc. University classrooms are completely antiseptic by comparison, where professors might tote a few things into the classroom to use for a given class session, only to tote them out again, after having carefully erased everything from the chalkboard. The classrooms have no soul, no personality. The professors' offices are instead the places with personality on a college campus, with cartoons taped to the doors, books abounding, posters and artwork, etc.

Well, one of the great joys for me in switching to online teaching ten years ago was that I was FINALLY able to decorate my own online classroom just the way that I wanted! (I had done a stint as a high school teacher before going to grad school, so had developed a passion for classroom decoration... and I had sorely missed that when I started teaching college classes.) Years ago, I hired a genius student to build a tool - online here for all to use: - which takes content of all kinds (text, images, links, embedded video, etc.) and converts it into a javascript that displays the content by date and/or randomly. That means my online classroom can get redecorated as it were every day or every time the student "walks in," all automatically, without me having to do anything. (I LOVE JAVASCRIPT!)

So, in the homepage for each course that I teach with the course management system I am required to use at my school (Desire2Learn), I use content widgets that provide dynamic content for the students to look at, enjoy and learn from; you can see a screenshot below. I also have dynamic content in the sidebars of the blogs I use for the class, as at the Announcements blog and at the Storybooks blog. There are widgets about mythological images, widgets of stories and fables, widgets of the Greek gods, widgets of the Hindu gods. I also have cartoon widgets, powerful quotes widgets, an Internet bumper sticker widget (that is a big favorite). You can see how a widget works, and even grab the scripts yourself if you want, at my Schoolhouse Widgets blog. You can see a "Tenniel's Alice" widget I have added to this blog in the sidebar, too, for example. I did that for myself, just for fun.

Is it all just eye-candy? No, not really. In the humanities, I figure we are not actually teaching a systematic body of knowledge (canon? what canon?), but instead just trying to stimulate people's curiosity, make them want to learn more, and lead them to good information. If I can use really cool images to get people intrigued about an ancient story or some cultural tradition, and then get them to go to Wikipedia or some other web source to learn more, I consider that a total victory. Humorous content in the widgets helps people relax (and college students are often so stressed). Plus, even if they are not clicking on links all the time, I know the images just jiggle their brain and get them READY to learn. Finally, the widgets also convey to them that I care: they often remark that the other professors don't do anything at all to the default appearance of the D2L course homepage. The mere fact that I bother to decorate tells them that I care. And I do care! A lot! So it's nice to be able to let the students know that I care, both directly and indirectly.

Now, by way of contrast, take a look at the Coursera homepage (screenshot below). No images of any kind except for the tiny little robot in the page banner. No dynamic content of any kind. No personalized content. The announcements themselves are outdated, telling us that we can now turn in our second assignment (uh, no - that assignment was due last Tuesday; we are now supposed to be working on our third assignment... but nobody has updated the announcements in the past ten days).

Surely Coursera can do better than that. They have expert programmers and millions of dollars at their disposal. I, on the other hand, have me, myself, and I (and no money at all) - but, thank goodness, I also have the wonderful free tools available on the Internet, like Blogger, Feedburner, GoogleGadgets, RotateContent, Wikipedia and other OERs, etc.

What has gone wrong here exactly? It seems to me that Coursera is thinking about the course webspace as something like a university classroom - bland, generic, and basically empty. Instead of thinking of it as the classroom, they should think of it instead as something more like the professor's office, or like the university library, or the study spaces in the student union... in short: an inviting, exciting, stimulating place that makes us eager to learn.

They could even get the students to help build the space if they don't want to ask the professors or the universities to do that... so, in my next post, I will have something to say about exactly that: student content creation and curation. :-)


  1. You're right, of course. Which is one of the reasons I like your site - that widget is just so cute. I love looking at Tenniel's artwork. I hope they take your constructive criticism seriously.

    1. Online decorating is so much fun... and SO MUCH EASIER than decorating in the physical world, ha ha. Plus, you don't have to dust or vacuum or mop the floor online! :-)

  2. Very thoughtful and helpful articulation of your experience. Have also enjoyed reading about your experience with Coursera. Btw, not so different in the sciences ... while it may be possible to more clearly distinguish truth/falsity, It is still a tremendous challenge to assemble a coherent perspective in the face of overwhelming body of information!

  3. Overwhelming information: both a blessing and a curse for us all! It has amazed me how the sheer promise of "massivness" (which is about the one thing that MOOCs really DO succeed at!) is taken as a wholly good thing, as opposed to something incredibly weird and problematic, both good and bad. In the SciFi-Fantasy course, I still keep thinking that surely 30,000 people who love literature could have found something to create of more lasting value than the throw-away essays we were asked to write... :-)



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