25 March, 2010

Focus on Pedagogy in Training On-line Teacher-Designers

I have been looking into teacher training for on-line programs in different universities.  I am amazed to see that most of them focus on effective use of the tools offered in their digital platform and on the Internet.  I can see a reason for this in northern countries where teachers set foot into university classrooms only after obtaining a teaching certificate and graduate work both in education and in their field of study.  For the most part these teachers have deep understandings of sound pedagogical principles and need to learn how to implement these principles in an on-line environment.

However, it is confusing for me to see universities in southern countries that do not have such qualified teachers follow the same route when training them to offer on-line classes.  These teachers give on-line classes in much the same way they give their on-site classes, only through the Internet. In this way, answering questions about a power point presentation happens pretty much the same way either on-site or on-line. I imagine that if a university considers that teacher's on-site classes acceptable, then there is no reason to consider his/her on-line classes any differently.

When I was asked to plan a teacher training program for designing and facilitating on-line classes, I never hesitated to put pedagogical concerns at the heart of the program, just as my university does for any type of class.  To implement social constructivism in an on-line setting requires not only mastering a core set of tools because the teacher-designer needs to make key decisions about how to best use the tools to encourage autonomous learning, collaborative structures, authentic performance-based assessment and peer feedback sessions in an effort to guide students towards answering their own essential questions.

This is not to say that teachers in the program are not familiar with these concepts, as many of them are. However, it seems that in too many cases these principles have degenerated into slogans like "learning by doing" that have lost much of the meaning they might have once had.  When teachers attempt to use their previous knowledge to design meaningful on-line learning experiences, the depth of understanding of these principles becomes evident.

Challenging questions inevitably arise for teachers who take their role as designers seriously:
  • What are the key differences between designing an on-site class and an on-line class?
  • How can teachers establish rapport in the classroom with little physical contact?
  • How can we encourage and support autonomous learning with students who come from a school system where those are discouraged and often punished?
  • How do I manage my time and how do I calculate appropriate task time for my students?
  • How do I plan performance-based assessment for on-line classes?

These questions cannot be answered by spending 10 or 20 hours learning to manage the tools offered in a digital platform or on the Internet. Some might be answered by trial and error or by participating in forums for on-line teachers. But what about those questions that are left unanswered? Or what about those teachers who never get over the hump that these questions impose? In either case these teachers will fall back to their comfort zone by following traditional teaching methods. And in either case learning is the first casualty.

Further, a focus on tool management can lead to the idea that they are the key to learning, when in reality they are mere instruments for implementing pedagogical principles. Learning to emphasize principle over form in on-line course design happens painlessly in very few cases, and it takes time to for the necessary low-stakes trial and error process to yield its fruit in a well-designed course.

In this way a teacher training program for on-line instructors-designers should focus on pedagogy and should give teachers plenty of time to build their courses, reflect on their effectiveness in low-stakes environments and correct their own errors. Teachers will then be well prepared to face on-line teaching challenges with much the same confidence they have in their on site classes.

24 March, 2010

A Sports Analogy for Assessment

On page 96 of the book "A Repair Kit for Grading", the author (Ken O'Connor) draws a useful analogy between performance-based assessment and a band or a sports team:

"It is critical that both teachers and students recognize when assessment is primarily for learning (formative) and when it is primarily of learning (summative). Students understand this in band and in sports, when practice is clearly identified and separate from an actual performance or game."

If we follow this analogy, then the final exam for a unit and/or course becomes the big game for the sports team. If you are training basketball players, don't you think that the best way to test their abilities is to have them play a game? In this way the coach sets out the big game as the final exam, and in the same way all of the activities that lead up to that game are meant to help the players prepare for that game.

The diagnostic assessment is an initial activity that puts students in a simulated game to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. Once they have been identified, the formative assessments are the practice sessions that help students refine specific technical skills, build leadership skills, raise stamina and work on team building, all necessary for each player to perform at his/her best and for the team to win.

Note that in this case,

• All of the players clearly understand what is expected of them by the time the big game comes around.
• All of them understand what their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses are and are motivated to improve their skills in order to support the team.
• The coach wants the players to do their best and pushes the players to practice hard so they can do so.
• The team knows that the practices don't give them points in the final game, and for that reason its the game that counts and not the practices, although the more they practice the better they will play in the game. After the big game, the team evaluates its performance, draws up new strategies to improve and starts practicing again.

Designing a multi-stage, complex performance task as the final exam allows teachers to identify all of the discrete skills students will need to perform well at the end so they can be practiced in low-stakes situations, tried out in scrimmage games and practiced again so that everybody feels ready for the big game.  This movement back and forth between instruction and applying, between drilling discrete skills and performance of the whole task is what helps students learn well. It also helps them learn to learn, which is a capacity that comes in handy as the students take on further personal and academic responsibilities.

Although teachers don't give the same or similar tests more than once as coaches do, we do teach more complex skills that build on what students had to learn for the previous exam. In this way the capacities teachers aim to develop in our students by the end of the semester or year are complex and broad.

This analogy has provided me with a variety of new perspectives on assessment as well as some criteria to evaluate my own assessment strategies. I have become a better teacher by practicing this concept and I hope it gives others some valuable insight too.

16 February, 2010

Essential Questions for Foreign Language Learners

Essential Questions are lighthouses for people interested in learning. Many of us have been lulled, by vocationally-centered education and the need to compete in a tight job market, to thinking that asking ourselves deep, meaningful questions and finding their answers is not very useful to our personal or professional lives. Even people who like pursuing the larger questions in life do it as a personal project, by and large divorced from public life.
Teachers are no exception. Many teachers don't define more essential questions for their classes because of time constraints or because their goals for the students are often very practical and are usually defined by standardized exams, institutional standards or demands of the job market. Such "philosophical" pursuits are seen as extraneous to the objectives at hand - knowing important information and gaining key skills related to the field of study.

Posing essential questions, however, indicates an important shift in how education is conceived. Their purpose is to "connect and bring meaning to all the discrete facts and skills."1 In fact, Wiggins and McTighe contend that "deep and transferable understandings depend upon framing work around such questions." Enduring learning takes place when students are truly puzzled, by "genuine and relevant inquiry"2 into questions they feel the need to resolve not for a grade, rather because the questions are meaningful to them as human beings. An essential question is defined by the course designer then gradually owned by students who fervently pursue its answer.

Essential questions are easier to define in some academic areas than others. For example, in Art: "To what extent does art reflect culture or shape it?"; Science: "How precise must we be?"; Political Science: "Is a democracy that suspends freedoms a contradiction in terms?"; Math: "Are numbers real?"3 These questions can be more appropriate for specific levels of inquiry and although they are used as course foundations, they are not necessarily meant to be used throughout an entire curriculum.

However, working with English as a Foreign Language teachers on this issue has been challenging because they have been trained to think that there is nothing more essential than students learning to communicate in English. Thirty years of focusing the profession on communicative competence has made it the holy grail of all foreign language instruction.

Even if communicative competence is perceived as the most essential question, trained foreign language teachers lead students to explore complex and interesting issues beyond following a route on a map or making a purchase. An example would be asking students to make a TV or radio spot, a project that involves a variety of skills, knowledge and communicative competence in the language.

However, even such engaging activities lead thoughtful students (and teachers) to ask themselves: "Well, so what? What difference does that make? Who cares?" These students and teachers realize that "education is not just about learning 'the answer' or acquiring specific skills, but about learning how to learn" in a broad, meaningful sense.4 If a foreign language course designer wants to go beyond communicative competence to satisfy deeper desires for understanding in his/her students, what essential questions should be asked? Surely there are a variety of satisfactory essential questions that can guide foreign language instruction. I offer one such possible question here hoping that readers will suggest others.

Communicating effectively in a foreign language necessarily requires a certain level of awareness of the target culture so that verbal and body language can be as appropriate and comprehensible as possible. This is a complex task for English learners given that English is spoken in a variety of ways in multiple cultures throughout the world. For this reason, Dweik and Nuar state that textbooks should be evaluated with criteria "which take into consideration the intimate relationship between language and culture." (2005) Further, they state that textbooks should be designed to "bring global and home awareness" into student experience as this is "essential to increase students' multicultural experiences and strategies." (2005) The underlying assumption is that strategies used to communicate with other cultures require experiences with and awareness of that culture.

The Standards for Foreign Language Learning (2006) include Cultural, Connections and Comparisons standards relevant to this issue. These state that students should "gain knowledge and understanding of other cultures" and "develop insight into the nature of language and culture". This is accomplished by 

• "understanding ... the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied."
• acquiring "information and recogniz[ing] the distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the foreign language and its cultures.
• demonstrating "understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own."5

McKay (2002) takes this idea one step further, encouraging what she calls a "sphere of interculturality" as the key objective for cultural content in foreign language textbooks.6 In short, this means that the process of learning about another culture is more than transference of information between cultures because it "entails a reflection on one's own culture as well as the target culture."7 This means that learners use information acquired about the target culture to reflect on characteristics of their own culture that may have been previously unexplored and on contrasts produced through the reflective process. The goal of this reflection is to "recognize how particular pragmatic differences might affect their own cross-cultural encounters."8

However, even McKay's reflective process can fall short of an essential understanding - the logical outcome of an essential question - if its purpose is not to help students value and aim to live by aspects of the target culture that are healthier, and more mature than their own. Similarly, students should value and celebrate aspects of their own culture that are healthier and more mature than the target culture. For example, if there are aspects of a culture, either local or target, that are greener, more inclusive, more appreciative of diversity, more cooperative, more efficient, more just, honest and transparent, more interconnected and are greater expressions of unity, then students should be encouraged to value that aspect of the culture and reflect on how to either incorporate it into their lives or celebrate it if it comes from the local culture.
Within this context communicating in the target language becomes a vehicle to accomplish a more meaningful goal, and is no longer seen as the goal itself.

Supporting our students to constantly examine their values and decisions to connect them more harmoniously with these and other universal principles converts foreign language classes into an opportunity to work towards making student's inner and outer lives more coherent and meaningful. The greatly anticipated "cross-cultural encounter" mentioned by McKay then becomes filled with possible topics of conversation in which students can naturally stretch their language knowledge in order to gain a greater understanding of specific cultural traits of the people they meet. Appreciating such cross-cultural encounters for reasons beyond language learning could very well be one of the greatest accomplishments language teachers can achieve in their students.


1. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 105 (emphasis added)
2. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 110
3. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 105, 112
4. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 109
5. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2006, pg. 4
6. McKay, pg. 83
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.


Dweik, Bader and Nuar, Nadia. A Manual for Evaluating the Cultural Content of EFL Textbooks, approx. 2005. Internet resource: http://www.atel-lb.org/conferences/elt/manul07/ManualEva.htm
McKay, Sandra Lee. Teaching English as an International Language, Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design, 2nd edition. Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development, AlexandrĂ­a, VA. 2005.

16 January, 2010


When I train teachers how to use self-assessment with their students, I show them how it can be applied in a variety of ways for several purposes. I teach them to use it as a tool to help students learn to study and to learn in general by focusing the questions on processes rather than results. In this way, the self-assessment exercise fulfills its most obvious goal by giving students an opportunity to reflect on their actions and take responsibility for them.  If designed correctly, it also teaches students what is expected of them and it teaches good study and learning habits.

I have used this technique in my classes over the years by asking questions such as:

What did you do with the feedback your teacher gave you for Learning Log 1?
  1. I read it carefully and have thought about how to use it to write further Learning Logs
  2. I looked at it quickly
  3. The teacher gave me feedback?

How useful have the objectives set for this course been for you?
  1. I have practically made them my own personal objectives for this module
  2. I read them and they seem logical
  3. This course has objectives?

I know that I am a better teacher than before because:
  1. I have been constantly reflecting on the learning going on in my classes and have tried new ways of improving it
  2. My supervisor(s) and fellow teacher(s) have commented on how I have improved
  3. I feel that I am doing a better job than before
  4. I have received favorable feedback and grades from the TEFL teacher(s)
  5. I am close to getting a TEFL certificate!

This usually evokes positive reactions from students, and I have always imagined that by giving them tips regarding expected behaviors, it helps them learn better too.

So, for the last course I taught, I decided that it was time to get some evidence so I wouldn't have to imagine any longer that my self-assessment tool had the desired effect.

I had students do a self-assessment exercise at the mid-point of a 7-week module and again on the last day of the module. After giving it the first time, I posted it on the digital platform for students to see and use as a reference.  Students had to rate their own individual performance in each category on a scale of 0 (not fulfilled at all) to 4 (fulfilled completely) on such questions as:

  • I have looked over some of the sites posted in the UCG Diigo group _____
  • I have taken initiative to contribute to group tasks _____
  • I have been in contact with the teacher when necessary _____
  • I have fulfilled the objectives of the 3 weeks of study _____

Then students were asked to rate their group performance using the same scale on such questions as:

  • our group has a wiki that has been worked on and built up little by little _____
  • our group is learning to collaborate _____
  • our group has been in constant contact to fulfill assignments _____
  • our group has a functioning set of rules _____
  • our group's vision of 21st Century education is quite developed and reflects a conscientious effort to understand the concepts presented in the course _____

Adding the scores from the individual and group categories gives a good idea of self-perception of effort made to fulfill the goals of the class.

The results demonstrate progress by the end of the course, progress that was reflected in a perceived increase in quality of student work, both individually and in groups.



Individual Change
Group Change
Average Total Change


Of course, this does not provide evidence that the improvement in both individual and group performance by the end of the course can be attributed to the self-assessment exercise. It could very well be due to looming deadlines and good old fashioned desire to pass the course, which motivates increased action as the end of the module nears.

I would like to think that providing students with an opportunity to reflect on effort and how it is directed at the mid-point of the module, and posting the document during the rest of the module contributed at least partially to the average total change above. Knowing this with more precision would allow me to improve the design of my self-assessment exercises to more effectively contribute to better student performance, both in process and product.

17 December, 2009

Assessing Student Performance in Online Classes

Lisa Lane posted some of her experiences about assessment in online environments that are very relevant to my classes.  Assumptions made by her students are pretty much the same ones mine have:

  • Anything called a test or quiz is important.
  • Anything called discussion you can miss.
  • The textbook is the heart of the class and should be read carefully.
  • Anything called an assessment could go one way or another.
  • If it’s online, it’s self-paced and you don’t need to “show up”.
  • All online classes are in Blackboard.
Lisa is particularly concerned about the second point because like me, she wants students to extend their understanding of the topic at hand through discussion in forums.

In terms of course design, I don’t consider the discussion 20% of the course, just 20% of the grade. It’s more like half the class, because it’s the processing and sharing of the knowledge learned via presentation and reading. It’s the heart, not a side activity. It’s lower stakes (not 50% of the grade)  because I want the students to feel free to explore.

This seems simple enough, but my experience corroborates Lisa's - the students just don't get it.

I have found a way to resolve this problem, at least partially. From the beginning of my courses I make it clear that grades will be based on summative assessment only, and that all other activities are formative and for that reason are not graded. For the first few times I gave online classes, this caused so much confusion because students didn’t know where to focus their energy. So, I decided to give a mark to each activity, a number according to its value. I keep this on a Google spreadsheet linked to the Moodle so it is always up to date and visible to students. That changed everything because students can’t stand to see a low number, even if it doesn’t count towards the grade.

Also, if a discussion is designed to last 2 weeks and it is worth 6 points (marks), then I assign 3 to the first week and 3 to the second week. This gets students to participate more constantly and not just at the end of the designated period for that discussion.

I have told them that because activities are formative, they can be improved by going over my feedback and the rubrics. This of course means being flexible with due dates and very patient with problems each student has in doing assignments on time. It has motivated them to interact more with me, with classmates and with the rubrics and it has focused their attention, even if it is inadvertently, on the learning process - writing, editing, consulting, re-writing, re-editing, consulting again - and less on the grade itself.

It is kind of sad to use numbers for this purpose, but it seems to be a language symbol that communicates a message far clearer than many of my attempts to explain and motivate.

14 December, 2009

Internet Access and Online Courses in Ecuador

Training teachers to give online classes has many challenges.  One of the greatest here in Ecuador is the simple fact that so few people have experience with or even access to the Internet.

The Ecuadorian Census Bureau just published a report indicating that 41% of Ecuadorians have used a computer at some point in their lives and 25% have used the Internet.

Of those who have used the Internet, 40% did so from a public place like a cyber cafĂ© as they are called here, 20% from their home and 20% from their work.  The rest reported connecting from a variety of other places.

Further, of those who use the Internet, 46% of them do so for educational purposes, while 7% do so to work.

Here in the city of Guayaquil, 48% of all homes have a telephone line, while 9% have access to the Internet.

Lastly, statistics suggest that the number of Internet users is rising due to increasing access by mobile phone, especially among urban youth. 

So, the obvious question is: who will be my student's students? Or, how possible is it to offer a series of online classes for university students under such circumstances?  Many students seem interested, especially those from provincial cities who otherwise do not have access to high-quality education, but it remains to be seen if they will actually register for the programs and how successful they will be.

Another question I have is how possible is it to take an online class using a mobile phone as the main interface with the course?

In any case, online courses are an opportunity to raise educational standards and give more students access to a wider variety of programs, and that is definitely a step in the right direction.

13 December, 2009

Inaugural Post

My name is Justin Scoggin and I am a teacher trainer at Universidad Casa Grande in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Through this blog I aim to chronicle and reflect on the process of training University teachers to design and deliver online classes. Some of them have previously given their classes on site and are learning to redesign them for online delivery while others will be giving their classes for the first time online. 

The training program consists of five 7-week modules.  
  • The first module introduces teachers to relevant web 2.0 tools, 
  • the second to Moodle and syllabus design,
  • the third  to activity design,
  • the fourth to assessment strategies, both of activities and of entire courses,
  • and the fifth module introduces teachers to basic facilitating strategies.
The first module began in November 2009 and the last module is scheduled to finish in July of 2010.