While earning an Education Ph.D. at University of Central Florida, I have worked as a teaching assistant and now teaching associate for a course called EME 2040: Introduction to Technology for Educators. In the past two semesters (Fall 2017 and Spring 2018), this means that I have been the instructor of record for 140 preservice teachers as they take this required course in pursuit of their four-year education degrees, with slightly more than half of these students majoring in elementary education.
The two sections I have taught in each semester have both been mixed-mode with 35 students each, with much of the students’ work being completed from home and submitted online, but with biweekly face-to-face (F2F) meetings. The scope of the course is quite broad, covering the basics of computers, the Microsoft office suite, searching online, emerging technologies, curricular and pedagogical integration of technology, and many other issues.
Although I have obviously made it widely known that I am instructing the course, based on my LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, et cetera, I have not yet written about the experience of doing so.
Teaching is certainly my favorite part of being a doctoral student. It’s a lot of work and responsibility, but I was prepared well by TA’ing (being a teaching assistant) for my supervisor for an entire year. Being actively involved in Toastmasters for several years, including being president of a club, helps me to not be afraid of speaking, and gives me presentation experience.
On the other hand, it is difficult to be a teacher educator without K–12 teaching experience, who barely looks older than his students (I am Age 26, but many say I look younger). My technological knowledge is impressive, and I do have pedagogical knowledge from my studies as an Applied Learning & Instruction M.A. student (completed 2016), but it can be hard to pull it all together for the students.
Here, I will briefly share a few observations and thoughts from my experience so far.
First, a bit of context: UCF uses the Canvas learning management system (LMS), and the materials for my course are prepared by the course faculty shepherd and my doctoral advisor and supervisor, Dr. Richard Hartshorne (yes, it is confusing in meetings as we both have the same first name). Presently, there are six sections of the course offered in each of the 16-week semesters (fall and spring), of which four others are taught by four adjunct instructors, and three of those sections are fully online, with the fourth and my two sections being mixed mode (in Summer 2018, I will teach a fully online section).
For our F2F meetings we use the following classroom at the UCF Teaching Academy, which has a desktop PC for every student (photo courtesy of UCF):
The room has 36 PCs including the instructor’s, so UCF is maximizing the room’s value by enrolling 35 students. However, face-to-face meetings usually have lower attendance as students can learn about and do much of their work online in the LMS.
I also borrow about a third of my slides from Dr. Hartshorne for the F2F meetings, while making the rest on my own. Here is a set of my favorite slides from one of our last meetings of the semester, posted to SlideShare as “Thripp EME 2040 Slides on Microsoft Education Badges, PowerPoint Quiz, Computer Backups, and Digital Security.” Like many instructors, my slides are text-heavy out of laziness (incorporating images and synthesizing text into bullet points is hard work). But, the course is quite applied; during much of class time I am demonstrating how to do things with PowerPoint, Excel, Weebly, LinkedIn, MindMeister, et cetera using the overhead project which projects my PC’s screen.
It may surprise some that I am actually inclined to be a rather “easy,” forgiving instructor. Although students definitely have to do the work to earn an A in the course, I am more concerned with them learning and applying principles of pedagogy and design, as well as big-picture technological knowledge. This is my aim even if they do not get it right the first time.
Influenced by Schimmer’s persuasive essay, I got rid of late penalties in Spring 2018, as well not requiring attendance. In some ways this backfired, as attendance was low on several meetings, which leads to students not submitting assignments that follow the instructions, even though they are all posted online. Also, many students waited until pretty late to do a big chunk of the work, although not having late penalties also seems to inspire just as many students to work ahead and finish the course early!
My rationale for not taking attendance is probably as trite as the rationales for requiring it. College students are usually adults and preservice teachers, especially, should demonstrate self-regulation. I am actually quite hard on myself so when I see students not attending or leaving early, I chalk it up to failure on my part to capture their attention or teach them something useful. However, in some ways a course like this does not necessarily need F2F meetings, and in fact, the students who attend religiously tend to be the ones who follow directions and put in more effort anyway. This makes grading hard, as submissions from non-attending students often require revisions, not just because they did not come to class, but because they approach their studies differently.
We do have a textbook on technology, with quizzes and an exam derived from the publisher’s test bank, but like with many mixed-mode and online courses, these are delivered unproctored through the LMS. I feel it necessary to explicitly instruct the students that the assessments are open-book. Sure, I could say they are closed-book, but in a way this penalizes honest students with no repercussions for those who reference the web or textbook. I could also offer no guidance on the issue, but this results in the same problem. At the same time, there is a time limit of 1–2 minutes per question (on average), so studying in advance is advised.
As a specialist in financial issues, I am abundantly aware of the costs that college students incur. Although not widespread, a few students fail each semester due to disappearing—they do not participate, respond to messages, nor withdraw from the course. This is disappointing and quite negative. I partly summed this up in this excerpt from an announcement to students late in the Spring 2018 semester:
Please do what you can to take the quizzes/exam and submit assignments, even if they are suboptimal, as it is a shame to leave these points on the table. Even if you are leaving college, it is better to have a higher grade as your grade point average (GPA) will follow you throughout your undergraduate studies if you return to college later, and will be a factor in graduate school admissions if you complete a 4-year degree in the future and apply for a Master’s, doctoral, or specialist degree program.
Another big issue is that these students may have student loans to repay, sans degree or even course credit. Like with damaged credit, failing courses is, in many ways, worse than having a blank college transcript. I, too, had problems getting through my undergraduate studies that damaged my GPA, and I only got to “reset” my GPA in graduate school. I think there are underlying psychological issues here… I speculate that students who are far behind on a course hesitate to even open the LMS or their email out of feelings of shame or regret. In the long run, this may be more damaging than having done the work in a “tough” class like physics, yet failing due to getting the steps and answers wrong.
While only 5% or less of my students fail each semester, there is a larger cohort that shirks part of their coursework, resulting in B’s and C’s where A’s were easily in reach. I am a habitual procrastinator, but since beginning at UCF in 2012, I always get something turned in on-time (usually earning an A as well—thanks in part to grade inflation). It is very sad that many do not make lemonade out of lemons (if procrastination can be likened to lemons).
Teaching EME 2040 is quite obviously easier in many ways than teaching K–12. Nonetheless, I do not offer much in the way of “stern” classroom management. Students listening to music during class or engrossed in their phones or unrelated PC activities are puzzling… why do they come to class at all? My predilection is toward chalking it up to my lectures being boring as hell, even though they are quite interesting to me—I am too interested in showing tools and tricks and discussing technical information rather than how to apply technology to K–12 (and mainly K–5) teaching. For the latter I lean on materials and guest appearances from my supervisor. Another issue, a decidedly first-world problem, is that a classroom with rows of desktop PCs for each student does not encourage F2F engagement or collaboration.
One of my goals is to teach students about copyright and fair use in a nuanced and practical way. This includes recognition that the majority of teachers do not follow the guidelines presented in the class, but that “setting the example” (i.e., social modeling) is a worthwhile pursuit. When I ask students to cite even public domain images, I explain that although not required by law, it informs the viewer that the image is public domain without them having to wonder. When talking about copyright infringement, the practical reality is that being sued is rare, cease and desist letters are more common, and even more important is staying out of trouble with supervisors. I cite university guidance and urge erring on the side of caution.
My vision for EME 2040 diverges from the state’s. The purported focus of the course is on use of technology in the classroom. I think the teacher’s personal use of technology for organization and productivity may be equally important. This is why I cover subjects like Evernote, email management, file management practices, password management, digital organization, and keyboard shortcuts. The dream, of course, is to get more done in less time. The reality often is that “spare” time just gets sucked up by more work. I ask many teachers, administrators, and professors a simple question: Do you get all your work done in under 40 hours per week? I have never heard anything but an emphatic NO! Educators are over-worked, and perhaps work-aholics as well. It comes with the trade.
A big challenge is grading somewhere around 1,000 assignments received from 70 students in a semester. Before, I was the TA to my supervisor sharing the workload with him, but now, I do it all myself. The practical reality is that giving detailed feedback on every assignment would lead me to becoming burned out. Instead, I opt for a policy that I can just give a paragraph or few lines of feedback for students receiving a 90% or above. I do focus on what they did well and what they could do better, but I only pull out the rubric if giving a B or below. I consistently type 100 words per minute, so I can write the feedback up quickly… watching students’ videos and reviewing their websites, PowerPoints, gradebooks, concept maps, et cetera is more work. But, I love it when so many of them go above and beyond the course requirements, and when their work introduces me to new subjects and perspectives.
As a technology instructor, it is surprising how much I prefer text as a medium of communication. I don’t like phone calls or video chats and finding images is hard. I would prefer writing a novella-length blog post to recording a two-minute video of myself. But, there is a place for text that is often lost in our push for multimedia integration. Any avid reader knows this.
I live about an hour from campus, so I put “by appointment only” for my office hours on my syllabus. I answer plenty of course messages and emails from students, but no one ever schedules an office meeting. The challenge, of course, is large, being a Ph.D. student teaching two sections of a course while trying to publish a manuscript and taking three doctoral courses at the same time. Many days, I wish I could just do the teaching job.
These thoughts were in no particular order, and obviously are not comprehensive. Hopefully they were an interesting insight into my work as a Graduate Teaching Associate.