One thing which has been worrying me about the growth of University level MOOCs, from the perspective of a high school teacher has been to what extent online content can be created and deployed in the secondary school without it becoming another tool for de-professionalising teachers. That online content will penetrate high schools I am certain of, but who will author that content?
I have invested quite a lot of time and energy into exploring and learning about software that can be used to author online content, and some of them have very steep learning curves indeed, and are unlikely ever to gain much traction in the classroom. Flash, for example, can be used to create professional content, but not many teachers are likely to take it up. PowerPoint, on the other hand has gained wide adoption by teachers. Last week I got the opportunity to design an entire online course module for my school, and it made me wonder if I could create a unit of work that would be easily replicable by other teachers, teachers perhaps less confident in their ability to author online materials. Put another way, how easy would it be for teachers to author their own online courses on a limited budget, limited skills base, and with little time to do it in?
This year, all our grade 10 students will be writing an assessment in Critical Thinking Skills as part of a pilot programme in the Independent Examination Board. While an important step forward in promoting Cognitive Education, this has caught us a little on the hop. How do we prepare our students for this in a meaningful way, without simply teaching to the test?
The school set aside a day’s workshop for the grade 10s, but this was clearly quite inadequate. I have had some success putting together short modules online for my computer classes on topics such as Internet research, copyright and plagiarism, so I volunteered to.put together a unit on Thinking Skills. The problem was that I only had a week to do it in, and students only a week to use the course! On top of this, the unit had to teach how to identify premise and conclusion, truth, validity and soundness in logical arguments, drawing conclusions, identifying assumptions, assessing evidence and problem solving!
This was clearly an impossible task, so I decided to scale the project down and deal with just two aspects of the syllabus, namely the formal vocabulary of logical arguments: premise, conclusion, truth, validity and soundness, and problem solving. The idea was that the students would be asked to work through these two units on their own, online, as preparation for the test. This seemed more manageable given they only had a week to do so. Together with the input from the workshop they should then have sufficient input into how to identify the structure of an argument to be able to be able to identify assumptions and assess evidence, and sufficient practice solving a variety of different problem types.
We would have to use the school Moodle platform for the course. I have experimented with using a blog as a VLE platform, with a test course I set up called TwitterMooc. But Moodle would allow me to set up online quizzes easily, and because the course had to work purely online, it seemed to me that using quizzes as assessment would help students understand when they got an answer wrong, and could be used in lieu of guided instruction.
It was the first time I had had to design online content quite so publicly, and with such a tight deadline. With a topic quite as dry as formal logic, I also had to try to inject as much fun as possible into it. I thought about adding gamified elements, but looming deadlines discouraged me from getting too ambitious, This was a bit of a cram course, and I was sure the students would approach it this way. I needed the instructional elements to be as direct as possible. Instead I opened with the Monty Python “that was never 5 minutes” sketch as this sets out a very clear definition of what an argument is.
I then created two flash slide shows using PowerPoint and the iSpring Presenter plugin which allows you to publish a flash file from a PowerPoint. I use the free version. The aim of these slide shows was to present the main ideas as economically as possible, and take students through a few examples.
Then I created two sort quizzes, using the quiz module in Moodle. The quizzes could be taken multiple times, allowing students to attempt the quiz repeatedly to achieve full marks. The quizzes were intended to give students an opportunity to practise identifying the components of a logical argument, premise and conclusion, truth, validity and soundness. I am not a fan of the quiz. They are often silly and superficial. But in this instance there was not really enough time to create a peer-assessed, or teacher assessed environment. It also seemed to me that identifying premise and conclusion was something that could be assessed in a quiz in a fairly non-threatening way, since the student could use the check answer function to test out whether they were on the right track or not..
These are very crude tools, but they are accessible to many teachers, and can be implemented very quickly. This suggests to me that online course content, designed by teachers themselves is not only possible, but will become de rigueur in the not too distant future.