Just for fun, I just posted to ETAP 640 my draft of the class syllabus idea/project thing that existed before I started the course.
I had a subject I was interested in. I had two textbooks that I had vetted and was happy with, and some minimal use of additional online resources – most notably, the United Spinal Association’s excellent resource document on disability etiquette. I had built in some flexibility to allow for differing abilities and learning styles – students could choose their preferred four out of seven short assignments, and had the option to complete their final project (paper and presentation) either individually or in a small group.
I thought I was doing a good job at designing a modern, responsive, student-centered course. Really? I was probably about as far along that path as the person who believes that “not seeing” people’s skin color is the pinnacle of cultural competence and sensitivity. (Just in case you’re curious, here’s a good piece of writing on why that’s not so.) It’s actually a little bit embarrassing.
Here are some of the serious problems that existed in my original draft:
- I put one of the more difficult and potentially controversial topics (disability’s intersection with other social marginalizations) right in the first module of the course, simply because I didn’t want to come back to it out of sequence.
- While the assignments had a wide enough variety to be sensitive to differences in learning style, and were at least a step in getting away from all-term-paper-all-the-time, and generally had at least a tenuous degree of “real world” relevance, what they didn’t have in my construction was enough of a tie back to what was actually being covered in the course.
- I was still very much directing the content, exactly what I thought should be covered and how I thought it should be covered, and in an online version, I would have either written all of the discussion questions myself or posted a general, “Let’s talk about this!” sort of discussion without any guidance.
- My major assignment, worth 30% of the course grade, was just another paper and presentation on a related subject. Not something with a whole lot of applicability to most people’s lives; in fact, it had less relevance than most of the short assignments. Also, though I did at least give the option to work on this assignment either individually or in a small group, this is the exact scenario that has contributed to the disastrous group projects I’ve been involved in – and why yes, there was just ANOTHER one in one of Those Other Classes Over There.
- It wasn’t very customizable to the needs of the students who signed up for it. Most students who would take a class with a name like “Disabled in America” are likely to have a personal interest in the subject matter due to personal experience of their own or of those they are close to, a professional interest in the subject matter due to career goals, or possibly both. If I have students who are interested in careers as ASL interpreters, and I move quickly past issues pertaining to Deaf people and focus a lot of attention on, say, wheelchair-accessible buildings and mass transit, I’m going to lose the attention of my students – and rightfully so!
What changed? The class discussions, struggle though I always did with them, were often where I realized that the way I was setting something up didn’t have to be the ONLY way to do it, and combined with Alex’s feedback on some of the intermediate versions of the course, I was able to make changes. Big changes. And I’ve been making changes that aren’t tiny-sized right up to the end. Let’s see if I can share with you how some of the unfolding happened:
- Alex insisted that I have a full-fledged non-optional group project. Yikes! Despite my discomfort with mandating group projects because of some of the awful experiences I’ve had, I realized that the two best group experiences I’ve had were in three courses (Human Behavior & Social Environment I and Micro Practice II at U Albany, if you’re curious, along with one of my Public Administration courses at Brockport) where the instructors said, in effect, “On certain dates later this semester, I’m going to sit back and have you teach your classmates about an important aspect of this course. The sign-up sheet is going around – make your decision quickly, and start thinking about how you’re going to do this.” The combination of being pushed back on about something I was uncomfortable with, and using the lessons of my own positive experiences, led to the creation of the co-taught modules. I now believe the co-taught modules are the heart, soul, and single most important aspect of my Disabled in America class, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. This was the most important thing I learned – to hand trust back to my students, and that it is not only OK to do so, but it actually makes a better class.
- Somewhere along the way in the discussion, the concept of the “virtual field trip” was introduced. I thought for a while about how, or if, I wanted to add one of those. I decided that it was worth doing, and that one module’s co-teachers could be our “virtual tour guides” at a virtual museum. Some of the virtual tour concept also made it into my module that addresses Universal Design.
- Alex telling us to “first make it work, then make it pretty!” I remember an old comic strip (maybe it was from FoxTrot?) of a teenager working on a homework assignment who can’t get past changing the fonts on the header. As my undergrad work-study job was creating presentation materials for teacher in-service programs, I have weaknesses in that direction as well. However, as someone strongly committed to accessibility, I also have the desire to avoid excess bling and adding this and that just because I can. I’m so glad she was explicit on that point – it really freed me to focus on the content.
- The discussion in Module 4 about whether and to what extent we should be rating for spelling, grammar, and usage. I was forced to examine my own prejudices on the subject very closely, and after a lot of internal debate, ended up speaking up and I hope inspiring at least a few classmates to do likewise. My original five-point short assignment rubric was a “three points for content, two points for style” setup. I like my new short assignment rubric, which owes much to the rubric used for GRE writing assessments.This was probably the next major, radical change I made in my thinking about teaching as a result of the class.
- The atmosphere of the course in general, as well as the MANY resources everyone has in diigo, led to my next radical decision, though I went back and forth about it for a while. I decided that the course would be better off without use of the physical textbooks. I had SO MUCH information that I would just be overloading my students at that point, and realistically? For an online student, the physical book is the thing that is more likely to be ignored than the online-available resources. (Yes, from personal experience. Guilty.) Why even create that problem? Besides, much as I love Paul Longmore’s work in particular, I really wanted to bring in a greater diversity of author perspectives and experiences. The virtual course packet I put together allows me to do that.
That’s the big stuff. Then there are the little things I learned from looking at others’ courses, which maybe aren’t so little. Being clear about technological requirements, setting up the feedback system I use to be a combination of reflection for self and feedback for the co-teachers…I could go on, but since EduBlogs has already kicked me off once tonight, I want to get this post published!