Site blog: UWSoE

Picture of Sharon Derry
by Sharon Derry - Wednesday, 5 December 2012, 02:00 PM
Anyone in the world

As I have required many reflections of you this semester, here are a few reflections of my own learning and experience in the HAL Online course for Fall, 2012.

I, or my graduate students, have taught this course for many semesters very successfully (it is typically highly rated), and I have put a great deal of thought into designing the activities, which have evolved over the years. However, I regret and apologize that in my last semester here, I’ve not been able to supervise the course and interact with students online as much as I typically have. This has been a very unusual semester, and although I’m not comfortable speaking about personal matters and I don’t believe in making excuses, I would like to share a few things that affected my ability to focus as much attention on you and this course as I would have liked.

First, as I have mentioned, I am moving to the University of North Carolina to become the Thomas James Professor in Experiential Learning on Jan 1.  I hope there to be developing programs and working with teachers in poorer rural areas and promoting more of the kinds of work that you saw in the video about Ms Herd’s school in Tennessee (which is a school not very far from where I grew up, incidentally). That I started my transition to UNC during this semester (locating a new home, selling my old one, etc.) drew some of my attention away from my teaching. In a typical semester I have at least a part-time TA to help, but the department could not provide one this semester. In addition to moving myself, I am also moving my 92-year old mother to a new community near where I will live, which was a time consuming process this semester. Finally, my younger grandson in Switzerland whom I have mentioned has been critically ill, so I spent time with him in Switzerland part of the semester. To top it all off, I came down with pneumonia in October. It was the online format helped me keep the course running. My main point, however, is that this has been a trying semester and I have not been able to meet all my own hopes and expectations as the leader for my last course at UW. I wanted to explain.

Nevertheless, and importantly, very importantly, the work that some of you have completed online has been extraordinarily good!  Almost all of you have learned a great deal and have demonstrated that you can use and reason with the material to make decisions and solve problems that range from judging political candidates to analyzing curriculum materials and learners’ thinking. Many of the goals for the course have been met by many of the students. I am satisfied that you have experienced some well-designed activities and have learned from one another and from the materials offered and the processes in which you engaged. I appreciate the motivation and enthusiasm I have seen in many of your forum contributions and blogs. I am convinced that a great many of you have read and studied all or nearly all of the recommended or assigned materials and virtually everyone has read a large percentage them. The midterm exam performance was overall quite good. I have been very pleased that some of you have begun to integrate material from various parts of the course and even other courses you are taking to think about the problems I posed to you in various exercises, some of which were quite challenging.

My educational approach this semester has, essentially, been problem-based learning. This is a compromise approach that has a constructivist bent, but it does not allow you as much latitude as I might like in framing your own problems. Typically I do have a month in which students create a design project, but I did not feel that I could pull that off this semester without a TA. I often have a “readers’ choice” week in which students select a chapter consistent with their personal interests. I did not offer that this semester and wish that I had. I will return that assignment if teach a similar course at UNC.

The NYT is running a series of articles on a new trend in higher education called MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. Some such courses enroll up to 40,000 students worldwide, incredible! Why do this? It offers students the world over access to educational experience. Unless taken for credit, the courses are free. Even for credit they are inexpensive. The best universities are offering them: MIT, Stanford, Harvard. It is an interesting trend because it may foreshadow at least part of the future of higher education. These courses have managers and designers, but obviously the teacher does not interact much with students. Rather, students interact with and learn from each other. I have wondered if HAL Online might be scaled up to become a MOOC. My experience this semester that limited my online presence actually gave me an opportunity to see what students could do without online guidance from a teacher. I was pleasantly surprised that my absence from online interactions did not have a seriously negative effect. However, I did spend significant time providing feedback. And the essay exams required my human consideration and grading. MOOCs use artificial intelligence to manage courses but still do not typically test with essay exams nor do they evaluate online interactions. It would be a challenge to figure out how to do that on a very large scale. Let me know if you have any thoughts.

I was disappointed in the face-to-face class. My own lecture did not achieve what I had hoped. Not my greatest performance for sure. But partly it was because 7 people, mostly the education majors, did not attend, and the class was focused to some extent on them. Because 7 people were absent and time was precious, I did not introduce the new online tool that I wanted to try (which I mentioned in the outline and at first class, in case some of you noticed: Videomosaic). Videomosaic may actually be part of the technical solution of how to scale this course to a larger size, but I aborted the tryout based on a gut feeling that it would not have worked out at this time.

However, one of my realizations about the “lecture” (which I had hoped would be more of a conversation) was that many students actually could not quickly recall the main ideas of what the various lessons (on problem solving, transfer, etc.) were about. I was surprised that no one was able (or perhaps willing in public) to summarize the main idea in the PFL article, for example. I realized that few students had actually paid attention to the structure of the course (The names of the units and lessons are an important organizing feature.), so did not quickly connect my queries to them. I recalled my own time in high school when I suddenly realized the importance of the organization of the Western Literature textbook. It was organized into sections and chapters by eras, and those eras had themes and principles based on events of the times that made the literature much more meaningful if you understood it that way.  Thinking about Halpern’s graphic organizers and the ideas of conceptual chunking: These higher-order schemes are important.

Thus, despite all our enthusiasm over constructivist approaches (recalling students’ blogs and discussions that had such appreciation for the teaching of Ms Herd), a problem remains: Ideas that students learn incidentally during the process of problem solving are less precise and general and recallable in a different context than ideas learned from traditional instruction that are largely taught as abstract ideas in relative isolation from their problem-solving contexts. Thus courses like HAL Online might need a dose of the traditional mixed in, with perhaps even a few short-answer or multiple-choice tests.

I’ve taught that way before. The trade-off and sacrifice involved is that while problem-based/constructivist approaches take time away from covering and testing specific material, the opposite is also true. More of one means less of the other.

Perhaps the main issue lies in what and what not to “cover.” This is the Core Standards dilemma. The video I showed in the FTF class on Core Standards is about, essentially, reducing curriculum coverage substantially so that what is covered can be examined in depth.  It is also about making teachers designers who winnow and sift and analyze their subjects to identify the major key central ideas of their disciplines and to focus students’ time and energy on going into depth on those core “big ideas.” This is a lot to expect from teachers.


The Core Standards as well as the constructivist philosophy expects in addition that educators of all ilk be able to analyze their students’ thinking in depth and guide each of them, based on understanding their prior knowledge, toward greater in-depth knowledge of core principles. I do think that for college student-teacher interactions, online courses are very helpful in this regard. I may not know each one of you personally, but I do feel I have an in-depth understanding of how well you are thinking about the material related to this course. Some of you who might not have excelled on multiple-choice exams have shown that you can understand and use the material in problem solving. Had this been a lecture course, there is no way I would know each of your learning-science minds as well as I do.

So, this course has been a learning experience for all of us. I regret that my last experience with you was not “glorious.” I have had a few glorious HAL online semesters and had hoped for a final one. I do leave you with confidence that you have acquired some very useful knowledge and wish you well in your lives and careers.

[ Modified: Wednesday, 5 December 2012, 02:52 PM ]