Laura Gibbs

Starting with Confidence and Enthusiasm

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Aug 5, 2017

There was a fantastic discussion about scaffolding that took place at Twitter last week; I was out of town when it happened, but I was reminded by the thoughts people shared there about the HUGE importance of how you get a class up and running, helping students to see the big picture so that they can feel confident and ready to go right from the start. Here are some links for picking up pieces of this emergent Twitter convo via Jesse Stommel, John Stewart, Jason Hogan, Jess Reingold, Amy Collier and lots more!

Here's a key part of the convo for me:


screenshot of Twitter convo (link in post)


This semester, I am making some big changes to my Orientation Week because I will have appx. 20% more students than before, and that means people will be getting a little less personal attention from me; my school can ask me to take on more students, and I will... but I am very strict about my time; I put in my 40 hours religiously every week, but not more than that. In addition, I no longer have the ability to close my enrollment during Week 1 (which is kind of a relief; instead of me deciding who gets in, it's all automated now — managing all that person by person myself actually took a lot of emotional energy if not much actual time), so that means I could potentially see students adding the class as late as Friday of the Orientation Week. As a result, I really have two Orientation weeks now; I've made some big changes in Week 2 with some more Orientation-like activities there so that I'll be able to help someone get caught up easily who does add the class late.


Anyway, I'm working on the Orientation Week this weekend so that I can get my classes set up in Canvas next week and be ready to go on August 14 for students who want an early start. For this blog post, I wanted to share a link to the Orientation Week page with a quick overview of the activities and what I'm working on:

Orientation Week link


Here are some observations:


In-Page Navigation. I'm using some named anchors in the page plus some other formatting to make it easy for students to jump to specific days as they go through the week, plus there's a nice PDF version for easy printing (that's a feature of PBWorks, the wiki software I am using here).


Dumbledore. I still get an enormous boost in both of my classes from the students' experience of Harry Potter as a mythical storytelling event in their lifetimes, so I rely on Dumbledore to help set the mood. I've been using this graphic for a couple years now, though, so I might change it... but I'm using it for at least one more semester (words are magic).


Dumbledore: "Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic — capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it."


Time. Probably the single biggest challenge students have in my online classes is being able to budget and manage their time. I am very careful to have 5-6 hours of work per week every week, starting from this first week. That shouldn't come as a shock to any college student IMO, but for some it really is a surprise; if you are used to just showing up for class and taking exams, then you expect just 3 hours per week (with occasional exam-cramming), not 6 hours every week. Online can also set up some wrong expectations: some students (esp. those who have never done online) may assume an online class requires little work from week to week. In addition to a full week's time load starting in Week 1 (so they can gauge if this will work for them or not), I also try to provide "guesstimates" of the time for each assignment. Many of the assignments involve new kinds of open-ended tasks and activities that are unfamiliar (esp. for the non-humanities majors, which means most of the students), so it can be hard for them to guesstimate on their own.


Syllabus-not-Syllabus. This week's activities serve the same function as a syllabus, but the activities list does not look like a syllabus, and that's because I really want students to set aside their expectations when they start this class. I don't want things to look the same as in their other classes because this class really IS different than their other classes. If they do want a traditional syllabus, I have one available they can look at, but they certainly don't need to look at it. Doing these first week assignments "is" the syllabus. I've heard students refer to the first week now as "Syllabus Week" ... and that works for my class too, but I don't just mean passing eyeballs over impersonal pieces of paper; for me, the syllabus means doing the things that will launch you into a semester of learning with confidence and enthusiasm.


Email. Students do not turn in their work by email, but I really want them to email with any questions they have. That means when I get an email from a student, I know it is something important that I should attend to quickly, and since I am at my desk pretty much all day every day M-F, I can respond quickly. From past course evaluations, I know students really appreciate that I am available to answer their questions without delay, and I am very grateful when they write to ask me something because that is a clue to me that I need to improve the instructions, provide more/better info, etc. (That's also my selfish reason for having a soft start one week early: the eager students who start early help me find all the things I need to fix/improve before the semester really starts.)


THE BLOG. On the first day of class, I want students to feel like they are making creative choices, working on open-ended assignments. So, after quickly making sure they understand the essential features of the class (i.e. getting them to not stress about the grading), they start their blog, and every other assignment this week will result in a blog post (practice!). Very few of the students have ever blogged before and, without exception, they are happy and surprised that it is not hard at all. New, but not hard, which means a big success on Day One.


Favorite Places. For their first blog post, they write about a favorite place, which is a wonderful way to bring images into the post, and I really enjoy reading about their favorite places. In some ways, that is a more fun blog post for me than the usual Introduction (which comes later in the week). This favorite places post is a nice, low-stakes way to blog, and I check each post carefully when I comment to see if people are having trouble with any of the technical nitty-gritty (image citation, link text, labels, etc.). In some ways I feel like I learn more about students from this favorite place post than from the actual Intro, which often comes out kind of formulaic, no matter how hard I try to encourage them to go wild with the Intro. But that's okay; people can tinker with their Introduction posts all semester long (because the students socialize through those Introductions all semester; it's not just a one-week thing).


Student Work Front and Center. The class projects are the most important content in the class, and it is really exciting to have the students start exploring the archive of past projects. It's a way for them to get inspired about their own project, and also a way for me to convey to them how important their work is: future students will be learning from them, just as they are learning from past students now.


Growth Mindset. Making growth mindset an explicit part of the class is something I started doing just a couple of years ago, and I am so glad I did. Especially as people get started with the class, growth mindset is such a fantastic way to get them to think about how this class can be different from their other classes (growth, not grades), and also how they want to prepare themselves mentally for the semester to come in all their classes.


Overviews. Then, at the end of the week, there are three overview tasks where I zoom in on the kinds of work the students will be doing starting in the next week, the tools they will be using, plus time management. This is something new I'm able to do now that I've moved the first Storytelling assignment off to Week 2. That's the biggest change I'm making: it used to be there was a Storytelling assignment here in Week 1, but now that will be Week 2 instead. Since students are still exploring the story projects from past semesters in Week 1, they are getting a taste of the storytelling activities to come, and I am thinking that having the first story post SEPARATE from the other Orientation work will allow me to give the Storytelling the special attention it deserves at the beginning of Week 2. I also think these overview assignments, while a bit tedious, will be reassuring to students who are uncomfortable with how different this class is, especially if they were expecting a video-lecture/take-the-quiz type of online class. And if all the weirdness of earlier in the week wore them out, these are an easy, no-stress way to finish up. Then, they can move right on to Week 2: and let the storytelling begin!


I've still got lots more work to do: revising the past assignments, writing up the two new ones... but I thought a lot about the changes over the past week (I was at my dad's, with time to think but not time to be on the computer much), and I am really happy about this, even though changes always make me a little nervous. I've got some returning students who did one of my classes last semester who are back for the other class this Fall, so I will get some good feedback from them based on what they remember of Orientation last time and this time. Fingers crossed!