Fall 2010 Semester Begins at American University

This fall semester, my dad and I will once again be teaching the course, Education for International Development. Each semester teaching this course (and this is our third), we are trying to find new ways to better engage the students with the subject, explore new teaching methods, and experiment with new online learning platforms.

In past semesters we have used the social networking service, Ning, which served our purposes pretty well, especially since it creates a Facebook type experience with which most students are familiar. However, Ning got rid of its free service, so we decided to use a different online platform to host our course discussions and materials and we chose wordpress.  Check out the class website to see how we set it up.

I am really pleased with how the free wordpress blog platform has worked for our purposes for several reasons:

(1)  We have been able to post all relevant course information on the site – syllabus, course requirements, readings, videos, etc. – allowing for a relatively paperless class.

(2) The blogging format has allowed us to essentially create a journal of what we’ve been doing in the course.  After each class, I post a quick summary of what was discussed and sometimes I will include a picture from the class of the students engaged in whatever activity or exercise we did that day.  Then within the 24 hours following the class, the students are asked to post their reflections on the class – one new fact, insight, or perspective they learned or found particularly interesting and one thing that they would like to learn more about.  This asks the students to actually take a minute to think about what they just experienced, write it down, and share it the with the class.  I think, too often, in a fast paced college environment, if students are not asked or given the opportunity to simply reflect on their classes, a lot of information and key learning can get lost.  By sharing their reflections as a comment, which all other students can then see, it also exposes students to what their peers are learning and that then triggers new thoughts and ideas that they may not have had otherwise.

(3) Since the class only meets once a week (albeit for 3 hours), that still leaves 6 days in between our class conversations about the subject.  Without having something that keeps up tied together as a learning community a once a week class can seem quite disjointed.  So, each week we post a brief introduction to the topic we’ll be discussing and they will be reading about (sometimes we’ll even embed an inspirational, provocative, or creative video into that post that acts as a trailer, of sorts, with the hope of getting them excited to delve into the readings).  After the introduction we post a set of questions based off the readings and videos they are asked to read and watch that week.  The students get to choose which question to answer and then they post their responses as a comment.  This has been a great way to keep the conversations alive throughout the week, especially since in a blog format, student responses can turn into discussion threads, where one student response is building off another’s.  It is a wonderful experience for my dad and I to see these conversation take shape throughout the week.  It is a great learning experience, as well, because many students bring in ideas, experiences, and perspectives that shed new light on the topic.

(4) And lastly, the main writing assignments throughout the semester ask the students to post three of their own blog entries about particular topics.  The goal behind these blog postings is to give students an opportunity for self-guided learning where they either take one of the topics they want to learn more about, investigate it further on their own and blog about their findings and new found perspectives, or if they experience something related the course in another class, at an internship, chatting with a friend, or reading the news online, they blog about that experience.  Students are then asked to comment on their blogs of their peers as they are posted throughout the semester.  What’s nice about this is that my dad and I are just two people who have our own ideas in terms of what information, materials, organizations, stories, etc. are relevant to the class, but there is much more out their in the world that we can learn and that the students can bring into the class on their own initiative.

I think we will definitely continue to use wordpress for the class and continue to find ways to utilize it as a learning platform.  I am pleased with how we’ve used it this year thus far.

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