Reflection – what have I learned? (part 2)

This summer held some amazing opportunities for me.  At the top of the list – being in Washington DC for the 20th anniversary of the ADA at the National Council of Disability’s (NCD) summit.

I had posted about the summit while I was in DC and talked about some of the technology issues that were raised while I was there.  I learned so much about other disability issues that I had never considered, including independent living and the role NCD has played throughout the years.  But I was moved by some of the people that I met.

Take, for instance, 12 year old Tia Holmes.  This kid was amazing.  I was blown away by her poise and her ability to express herself and the confidence she had.  She is a kid with a disability – cerebral palsy, I think.  It affected her ability to speak so her speech was a bit difficult to understand.  At 12, she participated in a panel discussion with other adults who have disabilities, talking about their experiences.  Marca, the panel’s moderator and former chair of NCD, asked Tia to talk about her experiences at school.  Mind you, this kid is in middle school – not a fun place to be for any kid at that age let alone a kid with an obvious disability.  The one thing Tia said has been resonating in my head over and over again for the past few weeks – “Everyone is different so why is being different so different?”

The other panelist who really moved me was Sgt. Karl Plasco.  He had been deployed to Iraq twice and had been injured by roadside bombs both times.  He came to the summit to participate in the panel only 4 days after having surgery to wire his jaw shut as part of his rehab for his most recent injuries.  He had several broken ribs, needed significant reconstruction of his shoulder and probably had head injuries as well.  But there he was, realizing for the first time that he was an individual with a disability.  He replied to Marca, “I never really thought that I was a person with a disability.  I’m just a busted up dude.”  We work with a lot of veterans at Empire State College so I really appreciated his candor and his ability to express what so many of the wounded warriors say to me when I tell them that they qualify for accommodations – no, thanks.  I just got hurt a bit but I’m really fine.

Attending this summit made me realize just how much I love what I do.  I enjoy helping students identify and overcome barriers that are in their way.  I love helping faculty to recognize new issues that they had taken for granted and didn’t think of.  I thrive on sharing what I have learned with my colleagues, particularly about accommodating students with disabilities in online courses.  Taking this course this summer has made me better at that.  I understand more about the tools that may be used and the ways in which students may be asked to interact with their online courses.

Reflection – What have I learned? (part one)

It seems like a better question might be, “what haven’t I learned?”  This has been a busy summer for me.  I want to start with this blog, part one, to talk about course specific things I have learned.

First, I have learned the value in asking questions and empowering my students to do the same.  The article from the Critical thinking site that we read for this class and that I read for another class was incredibly helpful for me.  I don’t always feel that I am that good at asking questions, which makes the thought of completing a dissertation completely overwhelming since it is predicated on asking a good question!  I learned (or maybe re-learned) how to scaffold a student’s learning, to take them through the zone of proximal development and to show them how to go from where they are to where they want to be.  It was pretty powerful stuff.

Second, I have learned that online course design is really fun.  I really enjoyed building the online course and thinking through new ways to do things.  I have to thank my classmates for being so open with their ideas, their feedback and their courses because you have all inspired me to bring more into my course as a result.  I started off the summer thinking that I wouldn’t care much if I did not have an opportunity to teach the course but now I think I would be devastated if I couldn’t!  It would be awesome to bring this to my faculty at Empire State College but it would be really cool to expand my horizons, too.

Third, I have learned that there are so many tools that can enhance students’ learning.  I am the most excited about Diigo and how I can continue to use that in my own learning, particularly as I continue my research as I complete my doctoral degree.  But I have also found new uses for blogging, for twitter and voice thread.  I have also come to recognize that I can evaluate these tools for accessibility issues and be able to provide and share that information to help other students and faculty.  I am pretty excited about those tools and how they will continue to enhance my work and academic lives.

This summer went by a lot faster than I thought it would.  It’s hard to believe that it is over already!  I’m glad I had the opportunity to take this course and am excited to see what happens next!

Reflection – where am I?

Right now, it is 1 am and I am sitting in my hotel room at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC with internet that is FINALLY working!  I am here for the National Council on Disability’s Disability Policy Summit on the 20th Anniversary of the ADA.  It’s a very cool time to be here, talking about very important issues that are facing the disability community today.

The summit’s theme is “Live, Learn, Earn.”  It is well known that individuals with disabilities, despite the progress made as a result of the ADA, are still underemployed or unemployed in high numbers.  We need to fix that.  There are also issues relating to new technologies and other innovations that affect how individuals with disabilities live and learn.  Online learning is only one small component of that.  Today, we heard from Kathy Strauss of the FCC about the regulatory actions her agency is taking to ensure that tools like Skype are accessible to individuals with disabilities.  It is an excellent example of a tool that is widely used to foster communication that does not afford individuals with hearing disabilities the same sort of access as everyone else.  Another delegate raised the issue of the size of keyboards on cell phones.  Texting is an effective means of communicating for those with hearing impairments however, the size of the keyboards have been getting smaller.  If the individual with a hearing impairment also has a physical disability, the keyboard size may make the phone inaccessible.  We need to encourage the retailers to keep these options available to allow for greater access.

I would encourage my classmates to join in the discussion and share your experiences working with students with disabilities by joining the NCD’s facebook page and commenting.  It is really important for us to hear from all sectors so we can identify issues and develop potential solutions.

Reflection – emerging technology

A few weeks ago, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education and the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter to all college and university presidents regarding the use of emerging technology is higher education.  The impetus for the letter were the recent settlement agreements reached over the lawsuits and complaints filed over several colleges’ pilot program using the Kindle DX by Amazon in the classroom to deliver textbooks.

If you are not familiar with the issue, several advocacy organizations, including the National Federation of the Blind, either sued or filed federal complaints regarding the accessibility of the Kindle for individuals with visual impairments. While most books are able to be read aloud by the Kindle, a person cannot independently turn this feature on or navigate to a desired book or chapter without the use of sight.  The menu is a pull-down menu and is not currently voiced to allow someone who cannot see to use the device.

The joint letter is significant for many reasons. First, it is designed to give colleges and universities pause when considering the use of ebook readers and other portable textbook options that are not fully accessible.  But beyond that, the letter has stated that the use of all technology should only be considered when that technology is fully accessible or an equitable alternative that has similar ease of use is available.  This is a strong statement that has significant implications for online learning.

We are using new tools in online courses all the time.  Some are accessible to most users with disabilities with little to no tinkering.  Other tools are not.  These are the tools that may get our colleges and universities into trouble if we are not careful.  So, what do those of us who are designing online course activities do?  We need to make sure that we are insisting on the most accessible tools that are available.  And we need to make sure that we are collaborating with our campus disability services office to talk about the accessibility issues that may be present in using this tool and how we can accommodate a student.  There are lots of ways that we can accommodate students with various disabilities and it is much easier to do so in the development phase rather than waiting until the course is live and a student has made their needs known.

Reflection – who am I?

It is interesting to think about how I am changing my identity as an online teacher as a result of this course.  Alex has frequently given me feedback regarding making my posted comments and course information in my course more engaging and not so formal.  It’s hard to switch back to informal writing when so much of what I write on a regular basis is formal and somewhat cut and dry.  There isn’t a lot of fun to be had when writing about disability services and compliance with the law all that often!

But, I have been making a conscious effort to pay attention to my “voice” in the online course and to make sure that it is warm and inviting.  I don’t regularly “teach” in the traditional sense of the word but I do present a lot, both internally at the college and externally at conferences and other professional meetings.  My style is typically light and full of bad jokes that are strategically placed to get a bit of a laugh.  It’s harder to translate that online since humor can often be misinterpreted in the online environment and doesn’t always translate into print.  I have found myself using more emoticons in some of my writing to convey either humor or a bit of sarcasm.  Hopefully it isn’t too obnoxious!  🙂

This course has been helpful thus far in not just thinking about what I could do but also reflecting on what I have done.  I think I am learning more because I have my previous online teaching experience to think about.  There are things that I know I did well but there are other things that I think I could have done better.  Posting to and monitoring the discussion forums is one example.  As I have written about before, I think I could have done a better job of pushing my students to think a little farther and could have used questions more effectively.  Asking questions is something I need to work on as a learner myself.  I often rely on allowing others to ask the questions rather than asking them myself.  Between this and my other online course this summer, I am getting a lot of practice!

As I have been drafting the course modules and learning activities, I am actively working on two areas – 1.  Asking better questions.  2.  Reflecting the “real” me in my written materials throughout the course.

Week 4: What I want in my online course

A good deal of the reflecting that I have done this week in the course has to do with discussion posts and how to keep them interactive, engaging and lively.  I stated in one of our discussion forums that, in my previous online teaching experience, every time I posted to the discussion forum, I was the “thread-killer.”  Meaning, I posted as the instructor and all of the students stopped talking on that thread.  You could hear the gears grinding to a halt…she was here, all talking stop!  🙂

As part of some of the discussion posts, I have been thinking about how to avoid that in future courses.  I don’t anticipate teaching a course online for credit until I am done with my doctoral degree, so I do have some time to think through how to avoid this from happening again.  I think there are a number of reasons why my posts were “conversation ending” rather than “conversation continuing.”  First, I don’t think there were clear expectations set for the students regarding discussions.  In another online course that I am taking this summer, the instructor expects all forum posts to be “student-led discussions.”  The expectation is that each student will post a question that is designed to spark discussion.  The guiding principle comes from this article at the Critical Thinking Community.  The use of questioning and making it explicitly clear what I expect of students (i.e., posting a question for discussion, responding to each person’s post, etc.) are two things that I intend to do differently in my future teaching.

The second issue I have thought about quite a bit is the evaluation of discussions.  If I am going to include a discussion forum in a module, it has to be worth the students’ time.  One way to improve that is to improve the prompt and directions given to students.  The other way of getting students invested is through the weight assigned to the discussion posts.  The course I am developing for this particular course is a no-credit professional development course for faculty and staff on disability and higher education.  There is no grade to be assigned.  I am doing some work to determine how I can be creative in the evaluation of the discussions to make it worth the time to my students in the absence of grades.  I welcome any thoughts others might have.

Have a good week everyone!  Hard to believe we’re getting into week 5 now!  (3)

Week 3: What have you learned?

It’s hard to believe that it is the end of the third week of the summer term!  Where on earth did the time go??

There are several questions for this week’s blog post but I am going to focus on the first question: What did you learn that you did not know before?

It is somewhat difficult to answer this question.  I have taught online in the past and I have revised an online course for my institution.  As a result, I have gone through fairly in depth online workshops designed to prepare me for those experiences.  So most of the concepts that we are discussing in ETAP 687 are ones that I have been exposed to in the past.  But there are things that I have forgotten along the way and other items that I have taken for granted.

From my experience working with other online instructors over the years, I think there are concepts that most instructors take for granted, regardless of how often they teach online or how long they have been doing it.  For example, in the article, A Series of Unfortunate Online Events and How to Avoid Them by our course instructor, Alex Pickett, she discusses the conversion of face to face courses to the online environment, stating:

“Conversion requires “rethinking” how to achieve learning objectives and how to assess learning within the options and limitations of the new learning environment” (10).

In so many conversations with online instructors, particularly those new to the environment, I hear folks talk about how it is not that difficult to teach online and that it isn’t that much different from teaching in a traditional classroom.  Those folks are wrong.  Those of us who understand try to help them realize that you cannot teach the same course online that you do in the face-to-face environment.  You also cannot rely on the same methods of engaging and assessing.  The environment is different and instructors have to understand where the strengths and challenges lie to utilize them effectively to influence their students’ learning experiences.  This is a lesson that has been reinforced and strengthened by the work I have done this week in the course.

As this was the start of a new module, I do have a suggestion to help (hopefully) improve the course.  Alex, you posted that you were missing our conversations.  I think there is some tension between the need to post early in the course and the need to know what we need to discuss by having sufficient time to at least read through one of the course readings or to engage in one of the multimedia experiences.  It may help to allow for a day or two of no discussion posts to give everyone a chance to engage with the module’s content, become a little familiar and then begin the discussion posts.  Just my $.02.  🙂


Week 2: Learning new tools

Wow, the summer is already starting to go by fast!  It is the end of the second week of the course and it is June 6.  How did that happen?   And I can’t believe it is already time to post another reflections blog.  I was kind of surprised that Alex posted a link to my first post on her twitter feed.  I’m hoping that it was a sign that she liked what she saw and not a “OMG, please DON’T do that!” kind of thing.  🙂  (I have a feeling I would have heard more from her if I hadn’t been on the right track!)  This whole blogging thing is still feeling a bit unnatural for me but here goes…

This week has been a little difficult to focus on the course.  My grandmother passed away on Saturday, May 29 after a tough fight with cancer.  She was 87.  The last couple of months were rough on her.  Her oldest son, my uncle, unexpectedly died in March of a heart attack.  (that story would be a whole other blog post.  Cliff notes version – make sure you have a will if your spouse has died before you and you have a minor child.)  This was just a few weeks after she was diagnosed and moved to a wonderful facility for people with terminal cancer (Rosary Hill Home – where the angels walk on earth.  If you are ever looking for a new place to give charitable donations, this is the place).  So, needless to say, my focus has been more on family this week than on the course.

With that said, though, I didn’t totally slack off.  😉  I have finally figured out why it was that I couldn’t  create links in my moodle discussion posts.  I was using Safari and the tool bar didn’t show up above my text box.  I switched to firefox and voila! there’s the tool bar.  I can now be a link posting fool!  I am also feeling a lot more comfortable with using diigo and may think through how I can use that in other areas.  I also did a voice thread of a power point presentation that I have done with a colleague at several national conferences: Accessible courses: Going beyond technology to meet the needs of students with disabilities.  It was fun recording the comments, even if it was after midnight because that’s the only time my house is quiet!

I was also reminded of the Sloan-C Effective Practices collection this week when I read a classmate’s blog post.  These practices are submitted by member institutions to a peer review panel for consideration and are things that have worked well in other online programs.  The five pillars of quality under which practices are collected are:

  1. access
  2. learning effectiveness
  3. faculty satisfaction
  4. student satisfaction
  5. scale

It is really helpful to read through the summary report that synthesizes the best practices around 24 frequently asked questions about online learning.  While there are a lot of good ideas, I quickly recognized that there weren’t that many (if any) effective practices that pertained to students with disabilities in online learning.  It frequently frustrates me that this population of student is often overlooked.

It also reminded me that I had been intending to submit an effective practice to Sloan for our “Is online learning for me?” webpage and questions.  I developed these questions after about 3-4 months in my position at Empire State College.  I realized that I found myself having many conversations with prospective students about online learning and whether or not it was a good idea for that prospective student to enroll in an online course because of his or her disability.  Now that I have additional staff support in the office, we are taking this advisement process and the questions that go with it a step farther.  We are developing an online learning orientation specifically for students with disabilities.  We’re starting small, with ESC students as our audience, but I am hoping that we can get additional resources to expand the scope of the orientation for any student with a disability thinking about online learning.

Well, it is now 10 minutes into June 7 and the next week has begun.  I am looking forward to moving onto the next module and continuing to work on the course that I am building, Disability & Higher Education. Have a great week!


Week 1: Reflecting

The theme of our first module is “Reflect.”  This is a process that I have often taken for granted in my own education and teaching.  I find myself thinking, “Reflect?  Reflect on what?  I’m not even sure where I am going or what I am doing – how the heck am I going to reflect on what I am not sure I am going to do yet?”  That’s probably more of a defensive response to having to actually sit and write a blog post than anything else!  🙂

But I did reflect this week.  While reading the first part of the online course development manual, I was struck by the reminder that each student experiences an online course individually, not as part of a group.  The reminder was given to us to think through our course profile as if we were writing it to an individual student.  Reading that sentence unexpectedly made me pause.  I have been around online learning and online courses a lot over the past five years but I *never* thought of it that way.  What advice or guidance could I have given to my own students when I was teaching online had I thought about how they were experiencing the course rather than the way I was experiencing the course?

It also amazed me to watch the social media revolution video.  Wow, if facebook were a country it would be the 3rd largest in the world! It really is astonishing.  I also found myself nodding my head as I saw the words flash on the screen, “Social media isn’t a fad, it’s a fundamental shift in the way we communicate.”  What did we do before facebook?  I am constantly awed by how often I feel the need to pop on there and see what any of my 347 (seriously – how can I possibly know that many people even with my crazy large Irish Catholic family?) friends are up to.  I am more up to date on what is happening in the life of someone I have known since first grade but haven’t seen in over 20 years than I am in what is happening in my neighbor’s life.

But, it reminds us that we need to harness the power of these tools to enhance our students’ learning.  Even the adult students that I work with at Empire State College are embracing these tools and trying them out.  There are many ways that we can use these tools as educators to meet our students where they are and support them in their own learning.

This week, reflecting has also included ensuring universal access and usability for my online course.  Universal design for learning is a set of principles that are based on architectural concepts, including curb cuts for wheel chairs and lever door handles rather than door knobs.  The basic premise is universal access for all.  While curb cuts in sidewalks were primarily designed to allow a wheel chair user to safely move from the sidewalk to the road surface, those of us who have pushed a stroller, pulled a wheeled suitcase or used roller blades have most likely benefitted from their existence.  These concepts are applied to learning environments.  The main principles include presenting information through multiple means, allowing multiple means of acting on information and expressing learning, and providing more than one way of engaging with information.

The Center for Universal Design in North Carolina have developed seven principles of universally designed spaces.  These principles can be adapted to design learning environments that are available, accessible and usable to the most users regardless of need.  The seven principles are:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

The University of Washington’s DO-IT program also has many resources available for those who would like to learn more about meeting the needs of students with disabilities.  DO-IT is a federally funded grant program designed to provide resources and support for faculty and staff working with students with disabilities, especially those working with technology.  My caution to those of you looking for answers to the question, “How do I accommodate students with disabilities online?,” is to be prepared to find a lot of resources relating to the needs of students with sensory impairments (vision and hearing) and not a lot for other disability types.  I will be sharing other resources as I get them bookmarked onto Diigo.

I also wanted to spend a few lines discussing the experience of the course so far.  I am very interested and engaged in the course content and materials.  I have enjoyed our discussions and I really appreciate the multiple ways students can connect with each other and with Alex.  My main suggestion at this point would be to break the discussion for the first module into 2 separate discussion boards – one for introductions and a second to begin discussing the content.  I think giving some time for students to become familiar with the rubrics and to develop a comfort level with self- and peer evaluations may help to lessen some of the feelings of being overwhelmed I certainly experienced this week.  (4)

Getting started

There’s nothing worse than coming to your blog to find nothing.  It’s overwhelming, actually, to realize that you have not said anything and the blank screen just keeps staring back at you.  I have never been a big fan of journalling or blogging and, truth be told, if this weren’t a course requirement, this blog wouldn’t exist.  However, I do see the value in thinking about the experiences I am having in learning more about online teaching and course development.  But, before I really get started, I need something there that says, “I’m getting started.”  I’ll be back with more later.