Saturday, July 25, 2009

That First Draft Feeling

From Seasoned Student to Nascent Teacher:

How my patterns of learning are shaping a fledgling teaching philosophy.

Allow me a little facetiousness, because I may have found my teaching philosophy summed up in a cartoon. Specifically, “A Tale of Two Kitties,” a Warner Brothers Merrie Melody from 1942, in which two cats (modeled after the comedy team Abbott and Costello) try again and again to catch and devour an anything-but-helpless little bird – Tweety in his debut.

Babbitt is the teacher. He spends a lot of time using various tools to help and encourage Catsello to try to “get the bird.” From climbing a ladder to get the bird to being shot up to the bird’s nest either by explosives or a jack-in-the-box, Babbitt encourages Catsello to use familiar tools and a portion of his own wit to capture Tweety, who represents that goal of both teacher and student – a valuable, pedagogically-sound learning experience.

And though I am no teacher, and though I realize I have as much to learn about teaching as Catsello has to learn about hanging about on a wire when Tweety wants to play “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” I believe the course I have built, “Communications 101: Public Speaking, Everyday Speech,” adequately applies the theory of constructivism, along with scaffolding and a learner-centered focus, to create an environment in which I as the teacher can help students apply their current knowledge to learn and apply new skills. That does not mean I have built the perfect course – far from it. I know I have much to learn. But because this course relies on a pedagogical foundation to support its use of technology in helping students apply their current skills and knowledge in the realm of public speaking, I believe I could successfully convince administrators at the University of Idaho to let me teach this course. Barring certification issues, that is.

My Teaching Philosophy

To lay the foundation for my argument that the course I have built is pedagogically sound and defensible in the higher education arena, it’s necessary first to describe my teaching philosophy and the theories underpinning that philosophy.

I confess to being a neophyte in the realm of teaching theory, though not to the realm of teaching since I’ve been involved in various activities both inside and outside the workplace in which I’ve acted as a teacher or facilitator. Because my experiences as a student far outnumber my experiences as a teacher, however, I began building my teaching philosophy by analyzing how I learn as a student. For this paper, I’ll begin my analysis with one of my postings to a class on developing online courses I took in 2009 as I pursued a masters degree in English with an emphasis on technical writing from Utah State University:

I know from my own experience that I retain information better if I can link it to something I've already learned – even if that thing already learned was just learned an hour ago. It's thus that I was able to pass my requirement of being a trained Radiological Worker at work, building on knowledge bit by bit as I progressed through the course. I'm a living example of Anderson's “learning-centered” learning. I'm pretty good at assessing what I know and looking for ways to apply what I'm learning to what I know in order to retain that information. So you'll see me draw a lot on my experience as a student as I progress through this course. Others here are lucky enough to be able to draw on their experiences as teachers.

From this nucleus of thought – pardon the pun – and other thoughts, both inside and outside of class, I have extracted some of the building blocks of a teaching philosophy, as applied to various pedagogical theories and tools. I realize that, in myself, I look for a teacher that:
  • Knows or finds out what I already know
  • Uses my prior knowledge as a scaffold for adding new knowledge
  • Helps me find connections between what I know and what I’m learning
  • Allows individual and collective exploration of new and old material before encouraging synthesis, and
  • Facilitates, rather than strictly orders, what is learned and how I learn it
By studying these attributes, I can explore pedagogical theory and find those theories and tools that most closely align with my expectations. While I recognize not every student learns the way I learn, nor will every teacher teach in a way that meets these expectations, it is reasonable to assume that there are widely-accepted theories that match what I expect and that I can use to build a teaching philosophy. At this point I should note that when I use the term pedagogy, I include andrgogy as well; repeating both terms incessantly seems redundant.

The Anderson I mention in the quote above is Terry Anderson. It is with her writing in Theory and Practice of Online Learning about learner-centered learning that I will begin to construct my philosophy. Anderson states:
Learner-centered learning, according to Bransford et al., includes awareness of the unique cognitive structures and understandings that the learners bring to the learning context. Thus, a teacher makes efforts to gain an understanding of students' pre-existing knowledge, including any misconceptions that the learner starts with in their construction of new knowledge. . . . Learner-centered activities make extensive use of diagnostic tools and activities, so that these pre-existing knowledge structures are made visible to both the teacher and the student.
In Anderson’s definition of learner-centered learning, I see a connection between this tool and my desire to find a teacher who demonstrates the four desirable teacher attributes I outline above. Thus learner-centered learning becomes a key component of my teaching philosophy.

Additional building blocks come from other sources. Mohamed Ally, also writing in Theory and Practice of Online Learning, states:
According to Bonk and Reynolds (1997), to promote higher-order thinking on the Web, online learning must create challenging activities that enable learners to link new information to old, acquire meaningful knowledge, and use their metacognitive abilities; hence, it is the instructional strategy and not the technology that influences the quality of learning. . . . However, it is not the computer per se that makes students learn, but the design of the real-life models and simulations, and the students' interaction with those models and simulations.
From Ally, I receive reinforcement in finding advice to teachers who would follow the first three attributes. I also find evidence to support my student desire for exploration before synthesis. In this kind of exploration, the teacher, once he or she has ascertained what the students know, presents material to supplement and complement student knowledge and stands back as students explore links between old and new, stepping only occasionally with questions or clarifications in order to aid the process of synthesis.

My own exploration and reading has convinced me that, with the teaching tools I’ve identified as valuable to me as a student, the most valuable philosophy to me as a teacher is the constructivist theory. Audrey Gray describes constructivist theory as follows:
Constructivism is a view of learning based on the belief that knowledge isn't a thing that can be simply given by the teacher at the front of the room to students in their desks. Rather, knowledge is constructed by learners through an active, mental process of development; learners are the builders and creators of meaning and knowledge.
Recalling countless hours of classroom time, both on- and off-line, beginning in high school and extending through my undergraduate and graduate years, it is clear to me that teachers who took the constructivist approach in classes I took from them are the ones I recall with the most fondness. More importantly, it’s from those classes that I recall the most knowledge and synthesis of knowledge on which I’ve based and will be able to base further synthesis upon. It’s in those situations where I, the learner, was “the builder and creator of meaning and knowledge” (Gray) and where I, the learner, found the most value. Applying the constructivist approach in any future classroom in which I may be the leader, teacher, or facilitator, then, is of primary importance to me as I attempt to build a pedagogy, curriculum and technological approach that will be of most value to my students.

My arrival in the constructivist camp, however, was not a journey I took alone. Additional underpinnings of constructivist theory – namely that call for peer-to-peer and peer-to-facilitator collaboration in the synthesis of new information with old – also played a large role. Nate Whipple, a fellow USU classmate, neatly sums up the collaborative part of the journey in this posting from our class:
Although I was a bit cynical at first, I am (rather quickly) being converted to constructionist theory. Because I had been so used to the traditional f2f environment where reading is assigned, students read material, and are asked to synthesize, I had not much thought about the possibilities of constructionist based learning. I look forward to being able to design a course where synthesis/assessment takes place only after students have had a chance to collaborate and interact. This collaboration, I believe, is where the most learning happens no matter what the subject. This may seem odd, but I had never realized this idea was a part of my pedagogical philosophy before thinking in terms of online environments.
Add to Nate’s analysis of the pedagogical advantages of collaboration an analysis of the societal benefits of collaboration offered by David Crowsert, another fellow USU student:[
S]imply knowing something can be done does not make it possible for an individual. I believe the dependency on each other is a good thing. I would not be able to do many of the valuable things I do if I had to worry about making my own clothing—nor would anyone want to see me.

Since the first hunter-gatherers, we have depended on each other and this dependency has grown. Yet look at what it has given us. I am glad I live in a world developed through cooperative dependency. And the problems we face—mostly as a result of our own actions—require greater cooperation and mutual dependency not less.
Nate, David, and I, like Babbitt and Catsello from the Warner Brothers cartoon, may have taken a few failed, humorous approaches to arrive at the final destination of constructivism, but our ability to apply new knowledge to what we have already experienced and to collaborate on the analysis of how old and new may fit together is what got us here. Constructivist thinking obviously leads to an overall teaching theory centered in constructivism.

I'm not wearing constructivist blinders, however. I recognize a class in public speaking will tend to attract two broad categories of students: Those who have taken speech courses in high school and are taking speech again in college because it interests them as well as being a are requirement for some majors, and students whoa re taking speech in college because it is a required course for some majors. In order to address the latter category, I have to take a partially objectivist approach to ensure that these students have the proper scaffolding on which to build their knowledge. It would be unfair and pedagogically unsound to assume that all students arrived in this course with enough knowledge to start on the same level of knowledge of and comfort with the subject. To that end, the earlier lessons in my course have a strong objectivist focus, along the lines described by Kelli Cargile Cook:
The objectivist learning theory that grounded early courses is characterized by teachers' tendency to use declarative instructions (lecture, recitation, drill, and practice) and highly-structured activities. . . . Instructors who hold this theory of learning believe that they or the textbooks from which they teach possess the knowledge students need to learn and that their job is to impart this knoweldge to students. . . . Another important assumption of objectivist learning theory is that the expert instructor can adequately assess novice learning through summative evaluation of their final written products or test results (52).
It is the emphasis on novice student assessment that is a particularly appealing part of objectivist theory. I need to know, within the first week or two, where my students stand in their ability to meet class expectations in order to help the majority thrive, rather than dive – a critical task in online courses. The practice, assessment and imparting of knowledge through readings, video and audio assignments, will continue as the course progresses. Novice students will continue to build their nascent scaffolds, while more advanced students can act as peer models and participate at a deeper level in some assignments than the novices will, helping to merge the objectivist and constructionist theories in a harmonious pedagogical blend.

CMS Choice Plays A Distinct Pedagogical Function

So, boots besmirched with constructivist/objectivist soil, it is now time to analyze the journey my online course, Communications 101, “Public Speaking and Everyday Speech,” took from thought to paper to Web, ending up in those same theoretical camps.

First, I'll discuss my class management system (CMS) choice. One of my goals in this course is to provide video examples of good speech practices. Students will be asked to watch videos in which experts model good public speaking techniques. Further along in the course, students will digitally record their own speeches and post them in the CMS for peer review and critique and instructor assessment. Because I rely on video for much of my pedagogy, I needed a CMS that could present video in as uncombersome a way as possible. Neither the most popular CMSs – Blackboard and Syllabase – allow for video embedding, or the ability to place a video, ready to play at a single click of the mouse, so I needed to find a CMS that has that function. Fortunately, I've been using such a service myself for nearly two years – Blogger.

Blogger is a free web logging service (blog is a shortened version of web log) owned by Google. It is ubiquitous on the Web and is used by a wide variety of individuals from literary agents to media critics for an even wider variety of purposes. At my personal blog,, I have, over the past year and a half, posted videos produced by others, and some videos I've produced myself. So I thought, why not take advantage of the Blogger platform to use it as a CMS? Other features I wanted – the ability to post assignments, receive students responses, set aside portions of the site for reflective journals, et cetera – are all tasks Blogger can accomplish easily; so easily in fact that once the planning for my class was finished, building the site took fewer than three hours.

There are workarounds in using Syllabase and Blackboard for such uses – I could provide links to my videos in those CMSs, but I wanted to keep such page-jumping to a minimum, fitting in with what William Horton writes concerning classroom design:
Displaying all the content in a single window minimizes the distractions caused by windows popping up in the learner's field of view. Displaying content in this main window lets you control that display (Horton 499).
As many of the videos I use in my course are found on YouTube, I became concerned over the possibility of distracting my students by providing links to YouTube videos, rather than embedding the videos in my own site. Viewing videos in YouTube also lets students view the comments attached to the videos, other similar videos and a gigantic range of other distractions. Some videos on YouTube forbid embedding. I use one such video in my course, and had to resort to providing a link to the video because I viewed its pedagogical value higher than the possible distraction in sending students to YouTube to view it.

Another primary advantage of selecting Blogger is that since I have been using Blogger “from the inside” – using Blogger tools and simple HTML to build, design, adjust, and add to the appearance and functionality of my blogs – for nearly two years. I have enough technical expertise to help students unfamiliar with the platform to troubleshoot. This is critical, according to Horton, in selecting collaboration tools – and I regard my CMS as such a tool.
[C]onsider what technical support you can offer. If students must master collaboration tools on their own, they may become discouraged. If you (or the tool's vendor) provide tutorials and phone support, the task is less daunting” (Horton 420).
Blogger does offer technical support, but at times the support is confusing and incomplete. I have learned much more through experimentation and long exposure to the product than I have from Blogger's online help files. Students will need such help because as part of the classroom process, they become managers of their own blogs, posting content, replying to comments, and, if they wish, adding elements to common classroom areas such as shared video tips, links, and other areas. This ties in with an assertion that Crowsert makes in a YouTube video he posted in our class. His points are that technology is part of the collaboration and that technology becomes part of the knowledge development process (Crowsert, Post_Week_6).

Finally, Blogger is easier to use than Syllabase and Blackboard on portable media devices such as the Apple iPod Touch. While it's possible to view Syllabase and Blackboard on such devices, reading is difficult and typing out responses is nigh on impossible. Blogger's more flexible format – which does not necessarily take up an entire window – makes it easier to read text. Applications are available to allow users to type in posts and respond to comments. Additionally, when a student clicks on a video to view, the device automatically pulls the video into a full screen view.

Course Design, Content and Theory Matching

As I worked to build in the tools I regarded as critical for this course (discussion forums, chat, video and audio assignments, e-mail, and readings) I took the following approach in determining which tools to use and how to use them. Each tool needed to meet the following requirements:
  • Fulfill a specific pedagogical function
  • Invite collaboration
  • Reinforce scaffolding
  • Represent transparent technology, as defined by Cargile Cook:
When used everyday, technologies become transparent until they are virtually invisible or unrecognizable as technologies. Everyday . . . technologies often become so transparent, in fact, that their uses are regarded simply as facts or means of production, not as experiments tied to theory or a practice open to inquiry (Cook, 57).

I will briefly describe how the tools selected for this course meet these four requirements.

First, discussion forums. The forums are the primary collaborative mechanism on the site. They are advantageous in allowing learners to interact with each other, allow discussions to continue as long as necessary, give everyone a chance to join in the discussion, and encourage full responses (Horton, 428). Thus, they meet the constructionist notion of allowing collaboration and peer teaching, with the teacher acting as the moderator. From the objectivist standpoint, the forums also provide a place for teacher assessment to take place and a place for the teacher to offer students who are novices in the subject the scaffolding necessary to succeed. Such forums also have the advantage of letting students work at their own pace. Novice students can take advantage of their teacher and peers to ask questions as they work with the classroom tools to build their own scaffolding of understanding. Experienced students will be encouraged to think more deeply about the subject at hand, enhancing their own understanding while at the same time acting as peer models for their fellow students. Such forums are ubiquitous and nearly universal not only in CMSs, but throughout the World Wide Web.

Second, chat. As important as the discussion forums are, they are an asynchronous element that, at times, can make some students feel they are being held at a distance from others in the classroom. A chat room, as a synchronous technology, allows for more intimate, real-time responses, either peer-to-peer or peer-to-teacher. They allow teachers and peers to personalize learning, according to Horton (430). Chat fulfills constructionist and objectivist goals by allowing for a different collaborative space and for a space where peers or teachers can offer real-time assessments. Chat rooms are also as ubiquitous on the World Wide Web as are discussion forums. They also have the advantage of being easy to learn for novice students.

Third, video and audio assignments. Speech is intrinsically an activity that involves the senses, especially of sight and hearing. Having videos to provide real-life examples of the assignments I'm asking my students to do is essential to student success. Horton advises:
Use . . . film to explain a subject in a definite logical order, especially where the subject is visual but may be difficult for the learner to imagine (57).
In the first week of “Public Speaking and Everyday Speech,” students are asked to produce a video of themselves delivering a “bag speech,” in which they talk about three items (which they could pull successively out of a bag) to introduce themselves. Because the term and the format of the speech may be unfamiliar, I provide a video example of such a speech. The example offers the students substantial scaffolding on which they can build their own experiences. Video, like chat and discussion forums, is also a familiar sight to even the occasional World Wide Web surfer.

Fourth, e-mail. E-mail is an excellent tool that can be used for both collaboration and assessment. The assessment advantage of e-mail is that it is private. Teachers may offer more direct advice or correction to students who are leery of receiving such instruction in as public a forum as a discussion board or chatroom. Though there are some disadvantages to such “off-line” or outside of the classroom discussions, they are far outweighed by the goals of moderating behavior and gently assessing and coaching students who are struggling in the course. E-mail also has the advantage of being the oldest and, for many tasks, the most effective collaboration tool in e-learning (Horton, 424). Of the tools used in this course, e-mail is the most ubiquitous. So ubiquitous, in fact, for this class I have not set up an e-mail function. Students will be asked at the start of each class which of their e-mail addresses they'd prefer being contacted through.

Finally, reading assignments. Reading assignments are a principal component of objectivist teaching, in providing novice students with adequate scaffolding on which they can build further learning. Expert students may regard some of the readings as elementary, but if discussion forum questions are cleverly thought out, they will be given ample opportunity not only to share their knowledge with others, but to think more deeply about the subjects at hand. Reading is practically as old as humanity. Though reading assignments are web-based, students always have the opportunity to print the reading assignments out on paper, following their reading preference.

A Word on Presentation

Because I am not using a standard CMS, the difficulties that Horton outlines in customizing classroom presentation come to the fore. Blogger, however, allows users to either select a page design template, custom-build a template of their own or adjust a Blogger template for their own users. In designing my site appearance, I take Horton's advice to mind in that “good visual design is about solving problems, not drawing attention” (Horton 495). To that end, I have designed a course that solves problems both for the students and for the instructors. Once the major problems were resolved, I concentrated on design aspects that Horton designates as critical, namely number of windows, legibility of content, layout, and unity (Horton 496).

As I have discussed earlier, I have worked hard to keep the number of windows to a minimum. Where possible, I have embedded content within the site itself, so students are not required to flip from window to window to complete an assignment. In only one case do I have a video assignment that is not embedded and requires opening a new window; in that case, it is because the owner of the video in question does not allow embedding. Additionally, the site chat function has an annoying lag if left minimized on the site. Once opened in a different window, however, the lag disappears. As the chat is used only for special occasions or for socializing, I do not regard this as a difficulty.

The process of trouble-resolving lay in building the site and then subjecting it to what I imagine to be typical student navigation and student needs. Taking the site through several iterations before students became involved allowed me to check and correct navigation problems. For instance, I decided, after a few dry runs through the site, to create what I call the “Site Anchor” area, in which I provide links to the class home page, class Q&A forum and class chatterbox. This way, no matter where a student may wander in the class, there's always a one-click way to get back “home,” find help, or talk with someone.

Content is kept legible by following the common convention of providing black text on a plain white background. While there is some decoration to keep the site visually appealing, the decoration is limited to the site headers, the choice of color for the post titles, and a few smatterings of color here and there in the class sidebar, where items from the syllabus to the schedule to the chat box are kept. (See class website).

Layout, through use of one of Blogger's simpler templates, is kept clean and uncluttered. The layout does require a bit of scrolling, the length of which depends on the length of each week's assignment. Information in the sidebar is kept as hierarchal as possible, with what I regard as the most important information for the students residing at the top, with importance decreasing in relation with the item's proximity to the top of the page.

Site unity is achieved simply by selecting the same template and customizations for each classroom area. Students, as administrators on their own personal blogs, do have the option of changing the appearance of their pages, but I will caution them to keep changes to a minimum (improving their sites for legibility, for instance) but insisting that enough unity be evident from page to page to avoid confusing students who may think they've gone astray in trying to find a peer's assignment forum or reflective journal.

Problems, Problems

As with any CMS, I anticipate problems may arise as students navigate the classroom. Foremost is latent hostility toward the Blogger platform itself. Bloggers and designers with more HTML experience prefer other platforms, such as Wordpress, because Wordpress allows more customizable flexibility than Blogger does. To overocme this difficulty, I have included an area where students may offer links to their own blogs under the suggestion of getting to know each student better. This will allow students, if they so desire – and with prior permission from the teacher and with clear messages made to members of the student's critique/support group – to respond to class postings in their own blogs, where they may be happier with the setup. As long as teachers and peers are aware of where to find their posts, use of Wordpress over Blogger (or any other platform over Blogger) will be tolerated.

Another problem lies with the chat box platform I've chosen for the class. If left in the window within the site, the chatbox lags in reproducing entered text. This difficulty is alleviated by opening the chatbox in another window.

A presentation problem also lies in how Blogger (and most blogging platforms) displays content. In Syllabase and Blackboard, for example, posts are presented in a way where the oldest discussion groups are shown first, with newer groups in a descending order of hierarchy. Blogger, by contrast, presents the newest posts first. During testing, this presented some difficulty for testers who were confused as to why the Week Three discussion forum, for example, appeared before Weeks two and one. The tester quickly realized that the posts were presented in a different hierarchical order than on Blackboard without prompting from me, so that difficulty fixed itself. If, then, a student experienced such difficulty in class, it would be simple to explain Blogger's hierarchical arrangement.

Another difficulty lies in checking on embedded YouTube videos to ensure those selected for the course remain active. YouTube is a dynamic site, where videos are added and removed at the will of the poster, which has led in the past to embedded videos disappearing entirely. To alleviate this concern, I have elected to choose what appears to be the most stable videos among the pool of videos that meet my course's pedagogical needs. By stable, I mean those videos that have been on the site for a significant amount of time, typically six months to a year. Eventually, it would be desireable for me as a teacher to create my own videos, which I could customize exactly to my pedagogical specifications and which could reside in the class YouTube channel until I decided to delete them and replace them with something else.


Bless Babbitt and Catsello, they try their darndest to get the bird. Their collaborative efforts range from sending Catsello up a tall ladder to get Tweety, to outfitting him with a set of plank wings so he can soar above the nest like a Spitfire to swoop down on the unsuspecting bird and take him to the ground for lunch. Though thwarted at every turn, Babbitt and Catsello still provide a sound illustrative example of the teaching philosophy I espouse, and as my classroom espouses through my choices of design, content, collaborative tools, and CMS. Given that “Public Speaking, Everyday Speech” has a sound pedagogical foundation built on the theories of constructivism and objectivism, and given that the goals, objectives, lessons, topics, assignments and assessments reflect those theories through frequent demonstrations of collaboration, peer modeling, and scaffold-building, I firmly believe that a discussion with the University of Idaho administrators and a half-hour perusal of the course website would convince them that this class would be of intrinsic benefit to University of Idaho students.


Tale of Two Kitties. Dir. Bob Clampett. 1942. Viewed on YouTube at
22 July 2009. Warner Brothers.

Anderson, Terry. “Toward a Theory of Online Learning,” Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Ed. Terry Anderson and Faith Elloumi. Athatbasca University, 2004. Web at

Ally, Mohamed. “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning,” Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Ed Terry Anderson and Faith Elloumi. Athabasca University, 2004. Web at

Gray, Audrey. “The Road to Knowledge is Always Under Construction: A Life History Journey to Constructivist Teaching.” SSTA Research Centre, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1997. Web at

Whipple, Nate. Class posting, “title.” Class title. Date

Crowsert, David. Class posting, “title.” Class title. Date

Carglie Cook, Kelli. “Pedagogy-Driven Online Education.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Ed. Kelli Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie.Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Amityville, New York. 2005.

Post_Week_6. Dir. David Crowsert, 2009. Viewed on YouTube at 23 July 2009. No distribution.

Horton, William. “E-Learning by Design.” Pfeiffer, an imprint of John Wiley and Sons, San Francisco, California. 2006.

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