As a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), I’m a big believer in taking advantage of the university tools available to me as an instructor. I’ve never taught a fully online course, for example, but I’ve always used my university’s learning management system (LMS) when designing my courses and lesson plans. At ISU, we use “ReggieNet” (our mascot is Reggie Redbird), which is a version of the Sakai LMS. Of course, I don’t use every LMS tool possible, as there are over a dozen and not all are necessary for the types of content I teach. I also believe you should only use a tool if it’s actually beneficial to the teaching/learning experience, rather than just because it’s available or the cool, new thing-to-do. I use my course website every day that I teach, even if I’m not in a computer lab classroom. In today’s post, I share the one tool I feel every instructor should use if they have access to a LMS at their college/university. To find out what it is, just keep reading…
“Lessons”: The Most Valuable LMS Tool for Instructors and Students
A few weeks before every semester, I receive access to a basic course website for every course I will be teaching. On these sites, some basic tools are already included, like a gradebook, a page to post my syllabus and semester schedule, and a calendar where I can add deadlines and events. There are other tools that are commonly used amongst my fellow GTAs, like an assignments page where students can submit digital work, a forums page for creating online discussions, and a Drop Box folder, where students can save drafts of their work and access it later on without having to sign up for an iCloud service. [I actually use this tool when giving students individual feedback on their projects, since only each student and I can access their folder.] There are tools that are less common, but still mentioned every once in a while when discussing our class activities. A class wiki page or blog are both options in our LMS, and digital tests and quizzes can be created without outsourcing to sites like SurveyMonkey. But, while all these tools are fantastic, the tool I feel is the most valuable on ReggieNet is the one I don’t hear about often from my fellow instructors. And that tool is called “lessons.”
In today's post, I share the one tool I feel every instructor should use if they have access to a LMS at their college/university. Click To Tweet
What is “Lessons”?
The “Lessons” tool basically allows the instructor to create individual pages on their course site. In addition to the sidebar tabs like “Gradebook” “Assignments” and “Forums,” you can have tabs labeled “Unit 1” “Unit 2” “Unit 3” or “18th Century” “19th Century” “20th Century” or “Lectures” “Lab Activities” “Homework Assignments.” As far as I know, there are no limits to how many pages you create, and you can also create sub-pages in each page, as well. Currently, I divide my ENG 101.10 class by units and my ENG 170 class by “Pre-Midterm” and “Post-Midterm” (as the final exam isn’t cumulative). Once you title each page, a tab for each appears on the course sidebar. You can rearrange the sidebar tabs into whatever order works best for your class.
Once you create each page, you can then add over a dozen types of elements to it. I provide a few examples below, but before I get to them, I want to make clear why this tool is so fantastic.
Why Is It So Amazing?
Lessons allows you to keep a digital record of your whole course in one central location. It’s protected in the LMS, so you don’t have to worry about student information accidentally appearing online somewhere it shouldn’t. You can post activity sheets, PDFs, videos, etc. without worrying about them being found by anyone roaming the internet that just happens upon a website like the one I’ve created for myself and my blog. With this security, you can share tons of valuable content with your students in one space, rather than across multiple tools. How exactly does this work? Here are a few examples of how I use this tool in my ENG 170 course.
Using “Lessons” to Organize Your Course
As I mentioned earlier, I create to lessons pages for my ENG 170 website: “Pre-Midterm” and “Post-Midterm.” Once I have the Pre-Midterm page created, my first step is “adding text” to the page. In my pages, I track every week on a weekly, then daily, schedule. Below, I’ve taken a screenshot of the second week of class. I teach on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, so those are the only two days that appear each week. This semester, I decided to include the dates as well, in case my students or I need to look back for an activity from a while ago. I use different font styles and sizes to create a neatly organized aesthetic for the page.
I always make clear to my students on the first day of class that the homework I describe below each day is that night’s homework, rather than the homework due on that day. So, the homework described under “Tuesday” is for Thursday’s class, and the homework under “Thursday” is due the following Tuesday. Any links connected to the homework are placed below the description. In the image above, I’ve labeled the types of content I’ve linked to the page. The icons to the left of the content are built-in representations of the type of content that’s been posted. In Lessons, adding text, files from your computer, or hyperlinks is as easy as the click of a button.
Because linking to other websites is so easy, this tool has made assigning online readings incredibly efficient. Students don’t have to find these readings on their own, or search for them in the various LMS tools that allow for adding hyperlinks. My students know that they can always find their online homework readings on this one page. Considering how much children’s and young adult literature is online (fairy tales, poetry, and fables especially), I don’t have to require my students to buy anthologies just for a few days of discussion. They can use their own digital devices or a library’s to access our class website and all these links. I don’t embed the readings to the page; I link out to them. I highly suggest taking this approach yourself.
As it’s not evident in the examples above, I just want to point out that you can change the font quite a bit in this tool. Not just size and style, but color as well. I find the colors option useful when emphasizing major project deadlines and letting my students know I’ve posted assignment grades and feedback, like the example below. My students will find it hard to claim that they didn’t realize something was due or that I offered suggestions on how to improve their future writing when all the homework appears on one page and major deadlines and feedback are mentioned in large, red font.
Using “Lessons” as Back-Up When the Unexpected Happens
For the most part, I use this tool to help my students know exactly where to go to find their homework assignment descriptions and content, even if they are absent. My personal philosophy on student absences is that they are inevitable, and that requiring them to ask a classmate or myself for information on homework is a recipe for missing work, non-participation in the next class’ activities, and general confusion. To help prevent these issues, I make sure my students always know what they need for the next class period. I don’t describe the in-class activities for each day, though, as the students are responsible for being in class and completing that work. They can find in-class lecture notes and online activities on the lessons page, so they don’t fall too far behind, but it’s up to them to engage with their classmates or myself to find out exactly what happened in any classes they miss.
When I miss a class, however, I can use this tool to post classwork information. I was out sick the second day of the semester this year. Instead of having to move back scheduled activities, however, I just created a digital version of one of my classes (and posted a written description of the class activity for my other course so they could do it at home).
As I mentioned in an earlier post about teaching tips, I use the second day of the semester to describe the major class projects. In the case above, I screen-recorded myself verbally going over each major assignment sheet. I made some minor edits to each video, uploaded it to YouTube, and then linked it on my lessons page. Here’s an example, if you’re curious. While videos can just be embedded directly to this page, a couple of them were too big. Also, on YouTube, I can create unlisted videos that are only accessible if you have the link to the video. I can see exactly how many times each video has been watched and therefore have a general idea of how many students actually listened to the online version of the class period.
A Couple More Great Features
With this tool, all my class resources are in one, organized space. I can also link to other tools on the LMS site. The first link in the image below directs my students to a discussion forum activity. They can find the activity by clicking the forum tab on the sidebar and searching through all our forum discussions, or they can just click on the specific forum activity via the lessons page immediately after reading the homework description. I can do the same with assignment links, test and quizzes, and more. I can also create quick questions for my students to answer directly on this page and checklists to help them keep track of their work. These last two options are illustrated below in blue boxes (which is actually how they are defaulted to appear on the site). I use the questions tool as an easy way to take quick polls. I haven’t used the checklist tool yet (the image below is a mock example), but this blog post has inspired me to give it a try soon.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using this tool. I cannot recommend enough giving it a try on your own LMS. On a Sakai system, you will likely have to manually add the tool via the “Site Info” tab (click the “Manage Tools” button from there) and spend a bit of time getting familiar with the tool, but it’s incredibly worth the effort.
I hope I’ve convinced you to try out this tool in the future (it might be called something else in your learning management system, but I doubt it’s completely unique to Sakai). Even if you’re not one to use a ton of online readings and resources in your class, the record keeping element can be so beneficial to you and your students. If you prefer to keep a private record of your classes, you might want to use a teaching journal instead.
I’m curious, what’s your favorite LMS tool and why?