Please Learn From My Mistakes
I have come to the sad realization that many of the innovations designed to
keep my course fresh have failed. My memories of failures are so poignant that
it may be constructive to share them here. They can serve as warnings to others.
Unstructured chat room discussions don’t work. Chats lack depth. Someone
new is always interrupting the online conversation with his or her own topic
just when the discussion is getting interesting.
Ungraded assignments are usually ignored. I used to ask two students to search
the Web for two or three sites that provided alternative ways to learn the “topic
of the day.” They shared information on these sites in annotated bibliographies.
An end-of-the-course evaluation, however, revealed that their classmates never
went to these sites.
My current practice is to require each student to e-mail me with an evaluative
comment regarding the sites. They know that their comments will factor into
the participation portion of their course grades. A recent end-of-the-course
evaluation now shows that the students regard the alternate Web sites as important
and useful components of the course.
Personal e-mails can overwhelm. One semester, I asked all of my students to
send me an e-mail answer to an assigned question each time we reached the end
of a textbook chapter. The responsibility for reading and evaluating all those
submissions just about ruined my family life. Now I have Student A e-mail a
proposed answer to Students B and C. Students A, B, and C must settle on a single
answer. They teach one another, and I have only one-third as much grading to
Students need to know in advance what their responsibilities are if the computer
network g'es down on the eve of an important deadline. Networks do go down.
Students will panic, unless there are instructions in the syllabus that anticipate
forgiveness or outline their alternatives.
Another semester, several weeks before the final, I accidentally deleted all
my students’ grades from the electronic grade book. Fortunately, the syllabus
stressed that each student is expected to keep a copy of every assignment submitted
and also of every grade-related message sent to him or her. With help from the
class and substantial effort, I was able to reconstruct the gradebook. Now I
print out a backup copy of grades about every two weeks.
I’ve come to realize that students accessing materials from course Web
sites using a dial-up modem from a shared apartment off campus cannot, or will
not, wait for long downloads. I had the bright—and well-received—idea
of personalizing the list of course assignments. For each of our 34 assignment
days I added thumbnail photos of the students responsible for presenting their
special reports. Although student reaction to this personalization was quite
positive, I noticed that they were consulting the list of assignments less frequently.
A focus group session revealed that the list was now taking longer than a minute
to open. Consulting the list was an increased burden.
My students bring their laptops to class everyday. Even so, I’ve learned
that it’s wise to exchange e-mail messages before class when anything out
of the ordinary is to occur. If, for example, my plan for the day requires that
every student have their computer, I send the class an e-mail message.
I suspect that others have made mistakes from which we can all learn. If you
have a brief story you’d like me to share in a future column, please e-mail
me. Let me know if it’s OK to mention your name or if you’d prefer
to remain anonymous.
David Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president and dean of the International
Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.