Customizing OAKS for the #TechGeneration

Samantha Bruce of Geology takes a new spin on the OAKS Homepage to make it more “Facebook-ish” for her #TechGeneration students:

Customizing the OAKS Homepage to Teach the Tech Generation at College of Charleston

The focus of the 2012 Faculty Technology Institute(s) was Teaching the #TechGeneration. Through discussion we attempted to define what is meant by “Tech Generation” and how this term applies to our students and their learning styles. While many thoughts and ideas were generated, the generalized description I took away from the overall conversation is as follows:

The Tech Generation is the population born after the development and widespread use of computers and the internet. This generation has grown accustomed to quick access to a vast amount of readily available information. Smart phones, tablets and similar technologies have increased the demand and expectations of the Tech Generation to acquire instantaneous answers to both complex and trivial questions. Quality and depth of information obtained and referenced may be sacrificed for prompt acquisition, and many of this generation rely solely on websites for all or most news and facts; perhaps because they don’t have much experience using and searching through other sources. The Tech Generation is excellent at learning how to use new technologies and often do not require instruction or references. On the contrary, when conducting research many of the Tech Generation are great at finding surficial information and summaries, but have difficulty accessing comprehensive materials and differentiating between credible sources of data. The Tech Generation is characterized by on-the spot, constant communication through the use of text messages, instant messages, e-mail, social media and video chats. When compared to previous generations, the Tech Generation exhibits loose discretion as to when and where such communication may be appropriate. Lastly, the Tech Generation is creative, likes using technology and uses technology well.

How I responded in the classroom…

Knowing that Tech Generation students like using and interacting with technology I decided to treat my OAKS homepage like a Facebook page (of sorts). I customized the homepage through the use of widgets that were updated regularly to give the students quick and easy access to the most pertinent information that would help them do well in the course. The first widget I created contained my contact information (Figure 1) and I displayed it as a banner across the top of the page. This was great (for the students and me!) as it ensured every student had the information to get in touch with me and the information couldn’t be lost. In years past I have had students use the excuse of not knowing how to contact me or not knowing where my mailbox was located as an explanation for why they didn’t turn in an assignment or make-up a missed lab. This year I didn’t have any students who missed an assignment or make-up lab because they didn’t know how to get in touch with me.


OAKS Example 1 - Bruce

Figure 1: Contact Information custom widget.

I used the default ‘News’ widget and updated it throughout the semester to share class announcements with the students. Important notices were both posted in the News section and e-mailed to the group, which I was also able to do through the OAKS interface. Each week I updated the custom widgets, ‘To Do For Class’ and ‘Weekly Quiz Focus Points’ (Figure 2). Since all the lab class materials were posted to the OAKS Content page I was able to provide direct links within the widgets to the needed materials. I came up with the idea to create the ‘To Do For Class’ widget because I would often receive e-mails from students who couldn’t remember what assignments needed to be completed and didn’t write them down during class. Having this widget posted to OAKS eliminated all such e-mails inquiring about what to do or when it was due. Instead, I only received e-mails from students who needed clarification or help with an assignment. Having fewer e-mails to read and reply to allowed me to respond more quickly to the students who actually needed my help with the subject matter; another win-win situation. On a side note, I did find it beneficial to remove the To Do list for weeks that had already past so as not to confuse a student who wasn’t sure what week of lab we were on. However, I did leave the To Do list for the week immediately before the current lab week in case any student had been absent and still needed this information.

OAKS Example 2 - Bruce

Figure 2: News widget and To Do For Class and Weekly Quiz Focus Points custom widgets.

I created the ‘Weekly Quiz Focus Points’ widget because of a suggestion made by a student during the fall semester. Midway through the semester I gave the students an informal class evaluation using the Surveys tool on OAKS. I asked the students for feedback on what was going well in class and what I should keep doing, as well as for feedback on what was not going well in class and what I could do better. Several students noted not knowing what to study in order to prepare for the weekly lab quiz. While introducing the weekly subject and presenting the information needed to complete the lab exercise I always explain what the focus of the lab is and what the focus of the associated quiz will be. However, based on the survey this wasn’t effective for several students. One of the students who shared having difficulty determining what to study also suggested I provide weekly focus points. I heeded their advice and created a widget to contain this information. I established this practice midway through the fall semester, but had it in place for the entire spring semester. For this widget I simply kept adding on to the growing list of what the students were responsible to know from each lab week. At the end of the semester the widget had study points for every lab and therefore served as a study guide for the final exam that the students could begin using at their earliest convenience. However, I did not have this replace the traditional final exam study guide I usually post to the OAKS Content section. Since the final lab exam is cumulative and can be overwhelming for some students to study for, I also provided a pared down version of the weekly focus points to give the students a more pointed study direction. This leads me to the million dollar question,

“Did average quiz scores increase as a result of providing the weekly quiz focus points?”.

The answer, yes. Average quiz scores increased for the population of students who wanted to do well and were willing to study, but perhaps had difficulty focusing on what to study. However, providing weekly quiz focus points did not equate to everyone in the class doing well. Some students don’t study, and providing focus points for them to use to study did not change their habits or their grades.

To make general information and guidance easily accessible I created the custom widgets ‘Free tutors available through the Center for Student Learning’ and ‘How to Document an Absence’ (Figure 3). Many students do not know the College offers free tutors for virtually any class they take; although there are exceptions for some upper level courses and independent studies where peer tutors simply aren’t on campus. For introductory classes such as what I teach tutors are certainly available, so I created a widget that explained how a student would go about obtaining a tutor through the Center for Student Learning. In class I always remind students that I am their resource and I encourage students who are having difficulties or need questions answered to first e-mail or meet with me. I further explain that if anyone feels that they truly need someone to go through the material with them a second time every week and help them study on a weekly basis I recommend they seek out a tutor.

OAKS Example 3 - Bruce

Figure 3: Free Tutors and How to Document an Absence custom widgets.

The ‘How to Document an Absence’ widget is especially helpful for lab situations. If a student misses a class they are missing an entire week of work. Labs and the weekly quiz can take hours to complete (hence why labs are scheduled for 3 hours at a time) and it can be quite difficult to get a student caught up especially if they can’t slide into another lab section for the make-up (i.e. make-up the lab before the lab week is over and attend another section working on the lab they missed). For this reason, I only allow students with excused absences to make-up a missed lab outside of the lab week. The absence widget explains what it is students need to do in order to get their absence documented in order to be allowed to make-up material outside of the lab week if that is the only time that they can do so. I plan to edit this widget for next semester to include information explaining that when students are sick (legitimately) and visit Health Services a notice automatically goes out to all of their professors. I tell students this in class, but would like to add it to the widget. I also plan to add information explaining that if a student wants an absence to be considered excused they must actually supply documentation to the Office of the Associate Dean of Students indicating why they were absent (although as with anything there are always exceptions). I need to explain in the widget that just because a student goes to the office to document their absence, the office does not automatically send an excused absence note; they will send an absence notice but it may indicate an undocumented absence. If I receive a note indicating that an absence is undocumented (as opposed to documented) I don’t allow the student to make-up a lab outside of the lab week. Although again, there are always exceptions; if a student e-mails me immediately after missing a lab (which I request they do) I use my discretion and try to be as flexible as possible.

What next?

I had many students tell me directly or comment in informal surveys that they really liked the way the OAKS course page was set up and that they found the custom widgets very helpful. Therefore, I plan to continue using a custom OAKS homepage and will also work to customize other sections of OAKS. The Tech Generation likes using technology to quickly access needed information, and if it helps them to do well in my course I am going to do my best to provide them with what they want.

One Response to “Customizing OAKS for the #TechGeneration”

  1. Deb Vaughn June 3, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    Samantha, your OAKS page looks great. Thanks for sharing the customizations you made for our #techgeneration students!

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