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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Utilizing OAK in your courses

Posted by on Friday, March 8, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Prof. P,

I have never made my OAK site a priority when preparing classes, but this semester I want that to be different. I’ve always managed to put the syllabus online, and sometimes an occasional reading or two, but I think I could be using it more. What do you recommend?

Technologically curious

Dear T.C.,

I like your attitude. It’s never too late to make a small change that can have a big difference.  Working more closely to develop a detailed plan on an OAK site can do just that. The great thing is, once you’ve developed material for a class once on OAK, a lot of it can be transferred within the system to the OAK site for the next time you teach that class, or to another section of the same class.

I can’t give you a detailed click-for-click guide to OAK – better ones than I would write already are available! Also, every school at Vanderbilt has their own OAK liaison. Click here to find out who yours is. And just as a way of getting started, here is a quick guide to the different elements that make up an OAK site. That being said, I’ll go over a few features that I find the most helpful, and why I like to use them.

I like personalizing the OAK site for my classes, so that my students know right away which class they are working with. One way to make your OAK site more customized to the course you are teaching is to look at the side menu. A standard OAK site has a list of folders to the left: Announcements, Syllabus, Course Content, Discussions, Groups, Tools, and Help. You can change all of these folders, or “content areas,” to match your class. “Course Content” can be renamed “Course Readings,” or you can add a content area called “Essay Topics,” if you want to make them easier to find. You can even delete a content area if you know you won’t use it. Not planning on having students work in groups? Then you can get rid of that content area. Here are the detailed instructions. You can also change the way your OAK page looks: what colors are used, what page is the first page you see, and what picture is the “Banner” – something you can change to let students see right away what the class will be about. I like uploading a different picture every time we move to a new topic in the semester. You can change this by going to the style page.

You’ve already found one of the ways that OAK can be most helpful: as a central storing place for class documents. That can include syllabi, readings, assignment prompts, and class announcements. The more of this information is on OAK, the more students can look there first, then ask a question if they can’t find the answer online, saving you time in class or at home on email answering the same question over and over. When you put documents online, you can decide whether you want to upload a file for students to download, or have the text available to be read right from the OAK site. Each has its pros and cons, but generally speaking, being able to check for information (due dates, assignment descriptions, and so on) by just reading it on a page is the quickest and easiest. If you find yourself answering the same questions from students over and over again in email, you can even write an FAQ page, and provide links to where students can find due dates, assignment descriptions, and so on.

Not only can the OAK site be a great resource for storing materials for your students, you can use it to collect and keep track of student work using the assignment feature. If you already allow students to submit work electronically via email, having them submit it on OAK can be easier for you: your email inbox won’t be cluttered with reminders of what you have to grade, you can just look on OAK when you’re ready to read essays. If this is the first time you’re using this feature, you might think about having a “practice submission” with your students, so that they feel confident they know how to submit their work. Very detailed instructions are found here and include instructions for your students, too.

Speaking of grading, this is a good time to remember that the OAK grade center is really the only method of communicating student grades electronically that respects the students’ rights to privacy outlined in FERPA. Email is too insecure as a way of transferring such private information. By setting up your OAK grade center, you can let students know how they have performed in class up to date, and even set it to calculate their grade as the semester progresses. Here’s a link to the detailed instructions for the grade center.

The best way for your students to make the most use out of the OAK site is to use it consistently yourself. Update the site regularly, even if it’s just making an announcement about an exam or paper next week. Begin the semester with the most important readings or assignments already uploaded, but add to them and revise them as necessary over the semester. If you’re going to take advantage of the grade center, then update it regularly, and let students know what assignments still have to be factored into their final grades. The more consistently students find what they’re looking for on the OAK site, the more they’ll use it.

Have fun exploring, and let me know how what changes you decided to implement!

Prof. P.


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