Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Online course resources

I am looking at the blank site for my new course with dread. It is such a huge timesink to prep the web learning system site for a new class. The interface is super-clunky and counter-intuitive, which makes it a huge headache, and I am not even sure how much value the students get from it.

It is convenient to be able to post electronic resources without having to photocopy a whole bunch of course stuff (and also not waste a huge amount of paper, since it is impossible to match the attendance with the number of sheets). In the olden days when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was an undergrad, I am sure professors complained about photocopying stuff for their courses. At the same time, that function could easily be replicated through a course shared file repository. No need for all the bells and whistles.

So I ask is it worth it? Looking at the typical components:

Posting files online
Easily replicated elsewhere without the headache. As a side effect of having course Web resources, students now expect professors to post their slides online. Alas, student evaluations are used for tenure and promotion, so it is not easy to just say no and take the hit. I am not sure that this is helpful. I've noticed a  large decline in my students' note taking skills (which are actually useful later in life). I've also noticed my course slides available (and sometimes for sale!) at various sites that collect such information for students. I am not hugely uptight about my IP rights and all, but it is irritating to see my hard work available to the whole world. If I wanted that, I would post them on the open web myself. I did complain when I found my slides for sale. Neutral.

Online discussion forums
Some years, the online discussion forums get heavy use, particularly for large intro courses, but some years not. I actually like them, since they can reduce my workload quite a bit, and sometimes head off having to answer the same question over and over again via email. It does not prevent having to answer the same question over and over again in office hours. Sometimes degenerates into an Internet discussion board (which adds moderating to the workload). This happened to me once. Probably a benefit most years.

Online gradebook
Excel is so much easier to use for this (and THAT should shame these web learning companies!) that I usually do my gradebook keeping offline, and copy the results into the tool. So, not a time saver for me. I don't know how useful the students find it, but most of them only look at the end of the course, which suggests not much. Net minus, then.

Recorded lectures
Significantly reduces course attendance. The lecture format (which is more or less required for a course with 200+ students and half a TA) may not be the best tool for learning, but at least the students keep vaguely up with the material. And without recorded lectures, students don't fool themselves into thinking they can watch later, and then never do it. I see many of the students binge watching lectures a few days before the exam. This is unlikely to help their learning. A net minus in my opinion.

Online quizzes/evaluations
Anything provided by the company is useless, since the answers are pretty much freely available pretty quickly. Making my own is very time consuming, but I actually like this feature (now that I know how to make variables in the questions so each student gets their own individual problem). Can't be worth much of the overall course grade, since it is impossible to know who actually completed it. Still a net plus (I think).

Linked web resources
I have yet to find a way to get the students who need this to use it, so overall neutral. Could be a useful tool, though, since it is much easier to just click and link than to type in a web address. My failure to effectively use this notwithstanding, a plus.

Email tool
Definitely a minus for the prof. Makes it way too easy to send an email with just one little question (that is already answered elsewhere!). Repeated for 200 students, makes responding to actual class problems difficult. Net minus.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

School supplies!

The best part about back to school is buying school supplies. I always used to love buying all the things on my list on the first day of school. The ProdigalKids get their lists before school starts (which makes a lot of sense!), but I still love gathering all the school stuff and getting it ready.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Recruiting students

When I first started at ProdigalU, I did a hard sell on my group and my research. I gave a flashy presentation, had handouts to give to students, and pushed pretty hard to recruit. Since then, I've kind of had a change of heart. After a few years of recruiting and mentoring, I came to realize a few things that made me change my approach:
  1.  Selling my research to someone not really interested is a bad idea. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, and if a student is lukewarm on their project at the beginning, they will either not finish, or do a half-assed job when what little shine there is comes off. Student enthusiasm is the most important thing, so now I discuss my research, showing off all the really cool things, but backing off a bit on the sales pitch, and allow the interested ones to select themselves. Relatedly, persistence is much more important than what is on the CV when they arrive at ProdigalU.
  2. Being able to work with someone is really, really important. Sometimes people just don't "click" for whatever reason. I do not become best buds with my students (more on socializing here), nor do I expect a personal connection with everyone in my group. It is human nature that some people are easier to get along with than others, and I try my best to be fair. I try to provide as equal opportunities as possible for things like fellowships, conferences, introductions to other scientists, and other professional development stuff. If when meeting someone, I don't think I can successfully do that (they rub me the wrong way, or I feel like our communication styles don't mesh well), I am better off not having them join my group.
  3.  My current students are the best recruitment tool. I try to do a good job as a mentor, and help my students be successful. If I am doing a decent job of it, my students are happy and excited about their work, and convey that to new students looking for a group. Many new grad students are not all that sure about what they want to work on, so having exciting research with good results paired with a happy and productive group is more effective at recruiting than any flashy presentation or web site. 
  4. Success builds on success. Probably true everywhere.
So my approach now is to try to have a good conversation with incoming students, show off my latest results, describe what my students actually do in terms of techniques and methods and then send them off to meet my current students if they are interested in hearing more.  After a few years on the job, I am hopefully better at selecting students I can work with (when it doesn't work out, it is very, very painful). I've developed this more laid back approach in the past couple of years, and so far, I am pleased with the results.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Students and vacation

I have had the same vacation policy since I started my group at ProdigalU. My students can take 3-4 weeks of vacation per year as they see fit, as long as they remain productive while they are supposed to be working. I do not formally track their vacation time, though I keep the emails with their requests so I have a record if needed. Since starting, I have never had to deny a vacation. When my students are not being as productive as they should, they know it, and don't ask me for much time off. I once had to tell a student that if they planned a long vacation for the holidays, they would need to start being more productive, but other than that, I have found that my students are quite responsible in taking care of it themselves. In fact, I have told my students that they should not work on manuscripts or literature searches while on vacation, since it is supposed to be vacation!

When I was a student, there was a group that was notorious for not being "allowed" to take vacation. The group policy was 2 weeks per year maximum, not during mid-summer or winter break, since grad students were supposed to be in the lab more when classes are not in session. This always struck me as ridiculously stingy and likely to lead to burnout and resentment.

One of my colleagues has a kind of unusual problem--one of his best students is traveling too much. Part of it is conference travel, which also takes time away from the lab. Part of it is the desire for vacations to visit family as well as vacations for time off (since not everyone finds family visits recharging). But it is an odd problem for an ambitious student to have, since slowing down on progress delays finishing the PhD, and ambitious students usually recognize this.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Prepping new classes

At the beginning of each semester,  I always have high hopes for what I will be able to do in my classes. I have ambitious plans about have I will make things better. Maybe add demos or videos, or perhaps integrate in some of the modern literature to basic courses. Once the reality of the semester hits, many of those plans go by the wayside, and I mostly stick with the tried and true, updated each year for clarity and with better examples.

It is worse for a new course. Before I start prepping, I have all these goals about what I want to do. But then the reality of just how much work prepping a new course is hits, and I just try to make it as good as I can and still stay on top of things. For my first class, I had a whole bunch of lectures prepped ahead of time, and I still barely managed to be two lectures ahead of the class (so I could post notes in advance of lecture).

I am better about time management now, but it is still a struggle to prep lectures efficiently, especially because the first time through, I have no idea how quickly the class will move through the material. With a year in a course under my belt, it is easier to make timing adjustments on the fly, depending on how the class goes.