Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Online Chinese

July 14, 2015 2 comments

Just a week into it, I’ve decided to drop the online Chinese course that I wrote about in this recent blog post.  The teacher speaks clearly and is reasonably engaging in the videos, but the course doesn’t meet my needs for instructional design.  It features lots of 4-8 minute videos that go over lists of words, but it’s not clear where and how to practice them.  Each part of the course is separate: videos, workbook pages, quizzes, etc. and the links between them aren’t clear. There’s also a pattern I find frustrating in the videos: the teacher says a word or phrase, then explains the parts and the tone.. and then she goes right on to the next.  I need to hear it again after the explanation, preferably a couple of times, to have a chance of retaining it.

With substantial effort, I could take the notes, rewind the videos, and create the links between instruction, practice, and evaluation.  That just seems a bit more effort than I want to put in.  Instead, I’m going to work on creating infographics in Canva and using Sketchnotes to enhance the visual element of my teaching and coaching.     A more limited, more immediately applicable topic.  If the outcome is adequate, I’ll share some of it here.

Categories: Education

Signing up for an online course in Chinese

June 10, 2015 1 comment
Detail of Nine Dragon Screen, Datong, Shanxi, China. Photo by Doron. Creative Commons license 3.0.

Detail of Nine Dragon Screen, Datong, Shanxi, China. Photo by Doron. Creative Commons license 3.0.

Does anyone out there want to join me in taking a beginning Mandarin Chinese course this summer?  It’s a free EdX offering, it starts July 6, and it runs for 6 weeks.

Here’s my thinking about it:

Pictograms–I’m not artistic, nor am I a strong visual learner, so I approach pictograms with trepidation.  On the other hand, I think they’re fascinating and beautiful.

Tones–all those different meanings depending on how a word is said!  It sounds hard, but maybe an acquaintance with music and an auditory orientation will help.

Image by Creative Commons license.

Image by Creative Commons license.

Starting another language?  Yes, there’s a case to be made for going deeper into a language I’ve studied before.  But at Durham Academy right now, the main focus in exchanges and foreign partnerships is on China.  There will be a student trip to China next year, and it’s possible I’ll be a chaperone.

How can a 6 week course in a topic as vast as Chinese be meaningful?  Well, studying a language is one of the most profound learning experiences I know, so I think there’s general brain-training value.  And a little familiarity with the sound and structure of a language makes it easier to understand native speakers whose accent in English is heavy.  Plus any window onto Chinese culture and values is a good thing for an aspiring “global citizen.”

Methodology–as an online teacher in a very different environment (Global Online Academy), I’d like to learn more about how interaction is generated in MOOCs.  I’d also like to strengthen my foundation for advising clients enrolled in MOOCs as part of a Cloud to Ground Learning program.

And now a confession: I’ve signed up for many a MOOC but never completed one.  The closest I got was when my husband and I took one together for several weeks.  He finished it, but I got swamped with school work and dropped it. Time shouldn’t be as much of an issue this summer, but as a social learner, I’d love to have some company on this journey.  In writing about it, I’m also increasing the pressure on myself to follow through!

So what do you think?  Do you have reasons to take a beginner course in Mandarin Chinese?

Categories: Education

Portal to…

June 8, 2015 1 comment

Portal created by Shared Space. Photo courtesy of Amar Bakshi.

If you have 20 minutes to spare, how about talking with someone in Herat, Afghanistan?  Or Tehran? Or Havana?  Don’t use your phone or Skype; use a Portal–it puts you (virtually) in the same room with your conversation partner.  You can try it out in Washington, DC between now and June 21. This concept has really fired my imagination.  It’s the brainchild of “an arts, design, and technology collective” called Shared Studios, and it gives random people a chance to experience the humanity of “the other”–someone who lives on the other side of one of the world’s political-cultural divides. The vehicle is a gold-painted, video-and-internet-equipped shipping container that’s connected to an identical installation in another part of the world.  Entering it is a bit like going into a movie theater, but you have to do it alone.  In the dark, all you can see is your conversation partner–life size and seemingly present in the room with you.  There’s a question to start with: what would make today a great day for you?  You follow whatever track the the conversation takes, and 20 minutes later you emerge into your own world again.  Nothing is recorded unless you request it, though you’re invited to share a reflection about the experience. The Shared Studios website includes opportunities to host a portal (cost not specified) or build one for $5000-$10,000.  I’m picturing this as a way for Durham Academy students to kick off 9th grade World Literature and World Cultures courses; lower and middle school students would love it, too.  And it could be shared with other schools, museums, scout troops, etc.  Could we find a partner school/city on the other side? I’m really interested in pursuing this.  What do you think, dear readers?

Categories: Education

Questioning and Learning

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

Cloud to Ground Learning

Warren Burger’s book A More Beautiful Question  has gotten me thinking about the relationship between questioning and learning.   It points out that young children ask questions constantly, but the rate slows down when they go to preschool.  By the time children get to middle school, they’re focused on answering teachers’ questions rather than posing their own.  There’s surely a developmental component to this decline, but it’s structural, too: schools focus on answers, penalizing wrong ones, and they leave little room for the questions of learners.

This topic reminds me of a four-year-old child who came to visit my family one time.  He had a new toy in his hand, and the minute he got in the door, he showed it to me, flipped it over, and took out the battery, toy batterysaying, “See?  This is what makes it work!”  He was answering a question that hadn’t even occurred to me.  In…

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Categories: Education

Update: Teaching Online

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

My Global Online Academy course started Sept 4, so after almost a year of preparation, I’ve been officially “at it” for two weeks.  Or maybe three, since I had to arrange and hold Skype calls with my ten students before the course began.  Those were interesting when they happened, and frustrating for the 50% no-show rate.  Each no-show generated an exchange of 3-10 email messages involving apologies, clarifications, and rescheduling, but eventually, I connected with all ten of the students in the class.

Since then, they have taken surveys and quizzes, contributed to discussion forums and pinned their locations on maps… all the tasks I had been developing over the summer.

world map

Digital Journalism students: red = schools, green = personally important places

The systems and assignments are working out fine.  Nothing seems to be too hard, and some students have made lovely observations about the value of journalism to society.  A couple of them have some overdue work at this point.  That worries me because I know from experience that it’s pretty hard to come back from falling behind online.  The drop-ad period is over, so there will be significant consequences for anyone who falls off the train at this point.  It’s hard for me to help, though, when email is about the only tool at my disposal.  I can send a message telling a student what’s overdue, and if there’s no response I can email the responsible adult at his/her school.  That’s about it.  I can’t catch a student at the end of class or in passing on the sidewalk.  I just have to wait for a response.

Fostering community is a big emphasis in GOA courses, and it is possible in part because they are closed.  They aren’t MOOCs, where anybody can see what they write and chime in with interesting or rude comments.  This is a small, private school class, and it’s my job to help the students get to know and support each other.  To that end, I’ve assigned the first group project.  Actually, it’s a partner project, the idea being to start small and maximize the probability of successful interactions.

The assignment went “live,” with the rest of unit 2, on Sunday evening.  It included a short, upbeat video message from me along with this page:

image of course web page

Through the week I’ve been receiving and grading small assignments: contributions to the class current events forum, reflections on the purpose of journalism, and contributions to a discussion of group work (preliminary to actually doing some).  Here’s the short video that introduced the discussion of group work:

Now the partner project should be under way, and I have no idea if students are contacting each other or not.  The first thing they’re supposed to do is claim a decade of the 20th century by putting their names beside it.  So far, no names:

screenshot of project home page (blank)

So I just have to wait.  No sidewalk check-in, no appointed time for class to motivate a last-minute scurry.  I’ve sent an email message to try to bring the assignment to everyone’s attention.  That’s all I can do.

In the background, I’m arranging a “guest speaker” appearance by Tanvi Misra, a reporter for the Atlantic’s City Lab.  She’s young, I know her personally as my daughter’s college roommate, and she does fascinating work.  I’m really excited to offer my students a chance to connect with her, and in the classroom, the excitement would be building.  Online, I can’t detect any response.  Maybe I’m underplaying it, as I have a tendency to do.  But I don’t really know how to whip up enthusiasm in the online medium.  I could create a short video on the subject, but the absence of direct audience feedback creates a daunting potential to look idiotic.

So I’m struggling to feel the personal connection that I’m supposed to be fostering.  Maybe it will come.

Categories: Education

Senior Year Balancing Act

August 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The school year is beginning, and I’m the advisor for a group of twelve seniors.  With a few changes in composition, this group has been together since the beginning of 9th grade.  We call ourselves the “B Team–We’re second to none!”.  “B” was initially for Bessias, though several of the students also have surnames beginning with “B.”  As I think about their senior year, “Balance” strikes me as a good watchword.

Seniors have to engage in two balancing acts.  One is between present and future.  In the present, they are “top dogs” on campus, they have minimal responsibilities, they have the protection of adults and systems.  (They don’t always want the protection, of course, but deep down, they know their lives would be scarier without it).  There’s much to enjoy about the senior year in high school.  Questions about the future loom large, however. These young people have to make their first big set of decisions, they have to submit to a new and consequential form of judgment, and they have to navigate tricky social currents among peers.  It’s not easy to relish the present while the future bears down inexorably.

Seniors also have to work hard on questions of identity while responding to a barrage of What Colleges Want.  Be your best true self, they hear, but make sure you’re exhibiting leadership, volunteering, doing well in classes, cultivating strong recommendations, and taking lots of standardized tests.  And be sure to do well on the those tests.

In the end, I don’t know how consequential the decisions are.  I don’t particularly believe in the quest for the “perfect fit” of student to college.  Students adapt wherever they end up going.  A few transfer.  Different choices surely lead to different futures, but we can never know whether one is really better than another.  The balancing acts will change with age, but resolution…  It will be temporary at most.   I do know this: it’s a pleasure to be part of young people’s lives at this moment of confidence, vulnerability, and possibility.


Categories: Education

Progress in Online Course Development

This week I’m focusing on my Digital Journalism course.  It has to be ready for a tip-to-toe review on August 11, the same day meetings start at Durham Academy.  Technical challenges continue to crop up, but I’m solving them one at a time.  They all relate to how to make everything work in the digital sphere.  Here’s an example from the introductory unit:

I want students to annotate a news article of their choice.  So they have to get their chosen article in a form they can work with–not the BBC or New York Times online; probably print or PDF.  Then they have to mark it up, which is easy with print but needs a tool such as Goodreader or Skitch for PDF (and maybe a tablet computer).  Then they have to upload their product for teacher and classmates to see it and respond.  I explored a bunch of tools before settling on something simple: print the article, mark it with a pen, take a picture, and upload to a discussion forum in Canvas (our Learning Management System).  Any student who has the tools or skills to do it a different way is welcome to use them, but this way I don’t have to teach a bunch of tech tools in the first unit.

Yesterday I got away from such minutia to look at the big picture of the course.  I pulled together all the half-baked units and scraps of ideas that have been building for 6 months and wrote a full year syllabus for Digital Journalism.  “About time!” you say?  I have to agree, but still, it feels good.  I shared the draft with Susan Fine, my Instructional Designer at Global Online Academy, and had feedback waiting for me when I logged in this morning.  (She’s on the west coast, so our schedules are offset).

I’ve never worked with an Instructional Designer or had anyone looking so closely at my work before.  Face-to-face schools rarely afford that kind of instructional support.  In this new medium, and with the added stress of new subject matter, I really appreciate it.  I suppose control issues could come into play for some people, and I know colleagues, especially in public schools, who aren’t fond of administrative oversight.  This feels like meaningful support, though.   It will continue next year, but on more of an as-needed basis.   I really like this model.

Here’s the first part of the syllabus.  You’re invited to see the whole thing–and even add comments–here.

Digital Journalism

Global Online Academy 2014-15


Christine Bessias
Durham Academy, Durham, NC

Course Goals:

  • participate in a key element of democracy
  • explore your local context
  • discover similarities and differences with the contexts of classmates around the world
  • participate in a semi-professional environment: meeting deadlines and fulfilling particular roles in the production of a news blog
  • develop skills for research, interviewing, photography, videography, and layout
  • develop journalistic writing and editing skills
  • critically observe and engage with the work of professional journalists
  • explore issues of personal interest
  • develop interpersonal and technical skills for learning in an online environment

Semester 1

Introduction to Journalism and The Atlas

Sept 4-Oct 10

Course foundations, history of journalism, ethics and essentials of journalistic writing. The Atlas, volume 1, ideas for volume 2.



Categories: Education