Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A hearty thank you!

With gratitude to all of the readers and especially to Ms. Karen Franker, University of Wisconsin-Stout, I am delighted to report that "Communication and Higher Education: Life on the Tenure-Track at a Teaching Institution" blog was selected as one of the "Top 8 Education Blogs to Inspire and Inform" by the University of Wisconsin-Stout:

Dr. Jennifer T. Edwards from Tarleton State University, author of A Millennial Professor's View of Higher Education blog ( was also recognized with her insights into both the millennial student/professor minds as well as her emphasis on new technology activities and uses in higher education classrooms. This is an honor and a very hearty thanks for the recognition and for all who read the sometimes exhausting, but (nearly) always rewarding journey along the tenure track. Thank you!

Tech geek at heart...

"My name is Lora and I am an educational technology geek" -- Yes, I have to admit this after spending nearly all day yesterday "working" on my online course with the new 9.1 version of BlackBoard, the geek moniker is fully embraced. I realized my day did not feel as if I had done work, but instead it felt as if I had been playing on the computer all day. Believe me, progress was made and the course is coming along but I was continually sidetracked by exploring the new features available in this course management upgrade. I felt like I was logging into a familiar site with a familiar goal and was then surprised by what was in front of me. It was like going on a walk when you know you need to arrive at, let's say a grocery store as a final destination, but as you walk you decide to take a scenic digression and find yourself in a beautiful farmer's market full of brightly colored seasonal delights. BlackBoard 9 is a more verdant place than BlackBoard 8 and I am glad to make use of it this semester. After my one-day adventure in BB-9 I found it to be user-friendly and similar to 8 in many ways but those of us who are not willing to click and see what happens might find it takes a bit of time to adjust to the new visual layout.

My students can easily embrace the intuitive software and make use of several new features. Though some of my students have used blog and wiki applications in class before, they have been difficult items outside of the BlackBoard program. Now, these items are embedded into their courses and much more accessible. I am pleased by the "journal" feature which allows students access to an ongoing reflective writing process throughout the semester and allows me to avoid the submission of "journals" after each speech. This tool allows the students better ability to reflect since they can see their past submissions right along with my comments and will give richer depth to their reflection.

Of course, this is all in the "I-sure-hope-it-works-like-it-looks-like-it-will" phase so I will report back on the outcome of the new course tools. In the meantime, my true geekiness continued as I clicked my way through resources for embracing all of BB-9 and here are a few resources that might prove useful to others beginning with BB or simply experiencing the upgrade transition as we are: is of course the best place to go for help, tutorials, and webinars. A great place to begin clicking and reading about instructional opportunities with BB-9 for a presentation on the Mashup feature of BB-9

And for any beginning the transition to online instruction remember to keep the communication lines open. Consider reading Betts (2009) article, "Lost in Translation: Importance of effective communication in online education" from the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration:

Facing a course I've taught online for nine semesters and updating the course with a new learning platform wasn't as tedious as I had dreaded--in fact, the course preparation yesterday was fun and has allowed me to breathe new life into some of the course elements which increases my energy and will hopefully help to engage the students. Faculty duties continue in the realm of instruction and for many of us, that means sprucing up our understanding of new technology and getting our geek on as we prepare for a new semester.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Improvement and assessment: Growing your courses

It is that reflective time of year again for most educators when we review what worked and what did not over the course of the recent semester. It is also a time to embrace changes for improvement in course offerings and options. Are your courses adapting to your students' shifting needs? Do you seek to improve class activities, texts, and online space? It can be difficult to find the energy to tackle even small change in courses we are regularly instructing, but it can be incredibly rejuvenating for you and for your students.
This semester my institution is upgrading from the online course management system, Blackboard's, earlier version to the newer version 9. Many institutions have already made this change and any advice is greatly welcome! The newer version appears to embrace technology as more than a post/reply medium and allows new ways for students to engage and (hopefully) learn including wiki pages, a blog, better video embedding options, search tools, and more visualized learning features in the course controls area. I am excited to work with the new version and embrace the possibilities behind the upgrade but it is also a time to really assess what has been working well in my online course. New tools and technology in the classroom are only beneficial if they are employed purposefully and with pedagogical intent. This coming semester will be one to watch and see what works, what does not, and what new technological elements to explore in more depth before employing them in the course. There are many detailed webinars and help options on the BlackBoard page at
During this break from the campus, I am using my time to enter data, analyze data on another project, and hopefully edit an article. But I am most looking forward to examining the new version of Blackboard and preparing my courses so the students can benefit from the new and exciting learning tools available to them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"our" work during our "breaks"

Yes, another "vacation" from work looms and everyone inquires what will be done with all of that time off...this winter I am taking a week to visit with family over the holidays, but will be absorbing the rest of my time with much needed research writing. It seems there are never enough hours in the day during a regular semester -- particularly this past semester where much of my time was on a new course prep, a new text, and an extra "overload" course (making five courses total). I am also sitting on two university committees that are what I have dubbed "time eaters" since they just slowly munch and crunch all of my little bits of extra time away. We've all sat on such committees, I am sure, and know the importance of the work but also the desire for time for "our" work.

"Our" work varies from field to field, but it is that simple desire to research what we want, to explore what we find most interesting, and to publish and write in the area we consider "ours." This proves difficult when there are many hands reaching for our time and our energy. But the "break" will prove a great time to readjust my excel spreadsheet of tasks, goals, and time lines that will hopefully lead to a positive review come tenure-review time in Fall 2012.

As faculty at teaching-centered universities this struggle to find time for our work while teaching many (often very full) classes is an on-going issue of balance and strategies/prioritizing. It is a battle I speak of often, write about often, and which fills the pages of my journals where I fight with my teaching love and my research passions. I am insistent that I can blur the lines between the areas of the tenure-track faculty member's responsibilities and find a balance that will allow the separate segments of my work to be braided into a strong holistic vision, but I have yet to find a way to make this happen. Perhaps it takes time and continued energy in all three areas before I begin to see the parts as collaborative and fully functional. Until then, I must simply continue focusing on each part in its turn and hope that the quasi-equal emphasis will end in some semblance of balance.

With that thought, I enter the winter break with the goal of making up lost ground in the research realm and pushing projects forward that have lacked the necessary focus the past few months.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Grading gadgets

There are many words to describe this time of year: hectic, frantic, overwhelming, and the simplistic but appropriate word: busy. Final exam time can bring out the best and worst in our students and in ourselves. As we find our own work mounting along with students we haven't seen in weeks coming out of the woodwork, it is easy to fall behind and give in to the emotional drain of finals. However, there are many new (and not so new) tools we can use to facilitate this time of year. Here are some ideas that can ease the strain of the final weeks of a semester.

My colleagues and I are handed out roll books at the beginning of each term and I look at them in wonder. I have never kept a pen-and-paper roll book. As a graduate student I was taught using excel and I continue to allow the digital formulas to easily compute everything from attendance to participation. I have permission to simply print out my grade sheets and staple them in the hard-copy roll book. It saves me hours of calculations that many of my colleagues continue to do. It also allows me to know where each student stands every day of the semester, so I can easily warn students (or commend them) early in the term. Things are getting fancier in the digital grading arena: Blackboard's grading options are nice, but there are other software options like Class Action Gradebook ( and iGrade (designed more for k-12), GradeKeeper (, and SnapGrades ( These options can help instructors organize their time and track their students' progress and make recording final grades as simple as clicking a button.

Grading individual assignments is also going digital in my discipline of Communication Studies. The public speaking course instructor could explore SpeechGrader (, a software program that has been mentioned at several conferences recently for the ease in grading speeches. This software allows for individual student reports to be generated as well as an overview of class performance so instructors can easily target problem areas.

Of course, there are many options and opportunities to explore when it comes to efficiency and quality in recording student scores and providing useful student feedback. There is nothing wrong with handwritten grade books, but organizationally I enjoy the cleanliness and ease of Excel and Blackboard options. I find that it works nicely with my ability to access my grade books without lugging around hard copies and it facilitates a student-professor interaction when I can easily print out grade slips with all of the student's scores and hand them out at midterm to show where and how grades are devised.
Little techniques can help with our grading and most of those involve advanced planning and clear preparation of guidelines and rubrics (see also for more tips on efficient grading), but technology has become a part of the process.
Teaching tools are essential and just as engaging (I'm currently exploring Wordle -, Mindomo -, and many organizational/company-hosted teaching sites such as CSPAN- where my teaching can embrace new technologies while continuing to focus on content and critical listening. More teaching tools can be explored at Education World, a great place for teaching ideas and discussions: