Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Generate MLA and APA citations

Imported from my old Online Education blog

This looks like a neat idea. I will check it out later and add some more information. Comments in the mean time would be highly appreciated!

Cites, Sites, and Thoughts: Site: Landmark Citation Project -- Generate MLA and APA citations

Community Part I - Discussion Boards

Imported from my old Online Education blog

I was going to cover cheating but decided that I need to do a little research. In the meantime, I am going to talk about the Online Education Community. Granted, my experience has been limited, one school and not even two full quarters yet, but I can always change my mind later if my first impression turns out to be wrong. This issue is about working together, how students help teach each other whether they know it or not.

I posted once before about discussion board projects but I want to elaborate a little bit more on this topic. Many of you that use the Internet as a research tool will catch this first analogy right away. There are a few web sites that I use frequently to track down technology problems I have to solve at work. Most of them offer forums for us to post a description of the problem and other people will read the post and respond with their experience or additional documentation that might know about. These forum posts hang around out there and help others find solutions to the problems they have without them even having to ask anyone for help. The class discussion boards are like this in some ways. Our initial posts are usually a solution to a problem or a recommendation based on a class scenario. It doesn't stop there though. We are required to post comments about other people's posts as part of the assignment. The more active students will even banter a little bit in defense of their stated positions. When we're lucky and get responses between some astute students there can be some pretty good conversations where we can learn more about the issues at hand. This reinforces the work we did researching the topic tremendously and it's kind of fun too.

Admittedly, it is pretty rare to see a long banter session but not all topics really have a lot of angles to them. One thing we do get with every assignment though is a different spin on what we have discovered. If you're in a class like this, try to make a point to read a lot of other posts even if you don't respond to them all. You will learn a lot from people that think a little differently than you do. In the technology industry there are a lot of ways to do things and the last place you want to be is stuck in your ways. If that happens, you'll be left behind, maybe without a job. I have seen this happen to others first-hand.

Finally I want to give a testimony on the discussion board concept from my own experience. Just a couple weeks ago we had an assignment where we had to look at an existing network setup for a fairly small company. Each of the three departments in the company had their own network and they were all very different. Our assignment was to come up with some options for merging the networks and connecting them to the new parent company as they had been bought out. It was the beginning of the quarter and we had just had a two-week break from classes. I work in a Microsoft shop so over that two weeks I had gotten back into my Microsoft-centric ways and totally ignored Linux as a serious option in the assignment. I also missed the part about the parent company being a primarily Linux shop. Duh! Well, two classmates quickly pointed out my error and I was forces to admit the mistake. Being such an obvious blunder I am not sure I would have gotten such a good grade had those two not chimed in with their comments and given me the opportunity to correct myself. Not only that, but on the next assignment (a PowerPoint presentation) I gave Linux its proper position beside Windows Server 2003 as a contender in this environment. So, simple comments of constructive criticism from two intelligent students helped me get two A's in a row.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

No Tests!

Imported from my old Online Education blog

I got a comment from one of my instructors and he said I might be getting some publicity so I figured I would get some new content out here. I have a couple ideas for articles that I hope will spark some discussion so here goes…

At CTU Online we don't have tests. (I don't know about other online schools so if you have first-hand knowledge of other institutions, please add your comments.) At first glance, that almost seems to imply that there is no basis for measuring the knowledge and learning of the students which translates to their degrees being valueless. On the contrary (I have been listening to a C. S. Lewis audio book during my daily commute so if I start to sound pompous, please smack me down), the measures are there and I believe that they are a much more valuable gauge of students' abilities than tests.

Note: I was about to go into this big thing on honesty and cheating but I decided to save that for another article. Please hold off on related comments or shoot me an email with your comments; better yet, blog it and send me a link!

Our grades at CTUO are based purely on projects. How about that, in the "real world" we are evaluated on our project performance too. Some projects are just a few paragraphs to be posted on a discussion board, others are PowerPoint presentations, and there are other types depending on the course objectives. The thing is, we get to apply the knowledge while we are acquiring it. I have a poor short-term memory so if I don't put something into practice, I forget about it. By applying the knowledge it somehow goes into a different area of my brain that is actually good at remembering stuff so I really learn it. Tests just don't focus on that area of learning; they only focus on the end result, the answer. While I am a good test taker, I think it is a lot more valuable that we have to demonstrate how we came up with the answer and reason out the issues involved. It is not enough to say that a particular network application is the best choice for a situation; we should have to describe why we believe this to be true.

About half of the projects so far have been various deliverables that are turned in to the instructor. Things like PowerPoint presentations, short research papers, programs, etc. Mostly the sort of thing you might do at a regular job. You don't do research papers at work? Has anyone ever asked you a question where you had to look up the answer? I am sure you have. You might have even provided some links to online material where you found the answer; yes, you even cited your resources. Maybe not formally but the concept is the same. The point is that you have a problem, you find an answer, and you document the answer to prove your point. Do a thorough job and you have demonstrated your knowledge; your reward is a good grade which might even turn into some cash in the future when you finish your education (the formal one).

I mentioned earlier that some of our projects are multi-paragraph posts on a discussion board. It is really not that simple and it is a lot more valuable than it sounds at first too. Not only do we have to post our research to the general public (for the particular class at least); we also have to reply to the posts of others. We can't pass the class without doing these assignments that force us to open ourselves to criticism. Whoa! This is too much like the real world! That is what is so great about it. I am pursuing a software engineering degree and I work in the industry at the same time. I also seek criticism of my work on a regular basis. If you have trouble learning from your mistakes or prefer to hide them, it is time to change. It is kind of cliché but it is also true that if you do not learn from your mistakes then you are doomed to repeat them. One more thing about discussion boards; if you really want to get the most out of these assignments, defend your case. The more active students will likely engage in a lively conversation and you will all learn more from it. Technology projects are almost always a team effort and the discussion board projects help engage the students in communication activities. As far as comparing discussion board assignments to tests; discussion boards provide a more positive experience of learning from mistakes while with tests it is too late to fix the mistakes so we often don't even bother to.

We are also honing a key skill that is more valuable than any technical knowledge, research. I was already pretty successful as a software developer and a database administrator and really the degree is not really a necessity for me. I came back, however, to fill in some of the gaps in my general knowledge that I missed by not finishing college in the first place. The biggest life lesson that I learned since I left college was that it is not as important to know the answer but more important to know how to find the answer. That is what we are being "tested" on.