Textbook balancing act

No, I’m not talking about improving your posture by putting it on your head. Rather, I am once again examining the possibility of using textbooks (both open and closed) as I contemplate writing another online class (this one Early American).

I have been looking at open textbooks.  Last semester, for my modern US History class, I used OpenStax. When I printed it out, though, it filled a large binder, logging in at 579 pages (yes, of course I printed double-sided). Then I discovered something much more succinct – the textbook at the US Department of State’s website  (don’t panic – it doesn’t get overtly political until the last three chapters, so I can use that for teaching).

I decided to use the State Department text for my Honors section, but as I worked with it, I decided it was good for my regular sections too. So I spent some weeks writing test questions, and am using it this semester.

But when I looked at it for Early American, it seemed sparse – only 7 chapters for 16 weeks. I realize that the historian who most recently revised it fully (Alonzo L. Hamby) is an expert in modern American history, so I understand why. So I went back to look at OpenStax, and others. But they’re so huge! The one I really liked, a good textbook written by profs at the U of North Georgia came out at 852 pages!

Then I realized the issue wasn’t the textbook, but my lectures. I have no online lectures for Early American history. But I have good, long, multimedia lectures for Modern American. So it makes sense for the modern class to have a small textbook (State Department) and the new course to have a more complete text (OpenStax, perhaps).

The lesson I recalled: when you adopt a textbook, really adopt a textbook, you have to acknowledge the reality of student reading. Many students today have trouble reading, both in terms of practical literacy and concentration. They have challenges of structure, vocabulary and content. We can’t do what was done when I was in college – assign a standard text, expect that they’ve read it, give a quiz or two, and ignore it in lecture. They won’t read it, or even buy it.

Current publishers have understood this, and now provide guided reading tools as part of course packages. Pearson’s REVEL is the most interesting, because it literally guides students through each page of the text, reading it aloud to them and highlighting pertinent passages. I call this Ethel the Aarvark pedagogy (from the Monty Python skit where the bookshop owner has to read the book to the customer).

So even if I don’t want to use the pablum packages (and I did consider this for my failed Jekyll and Hyde experiment), I must face reality about student reading abilities. If I adopt a textbook, I have to get into it, help them through it, work with it. It has to become central to the class, and all other aspects must be built around it. That will only work in a class format where I do not have my own lectures, but rather comment on the unit and the textbook. Otherwise, if I want to keep the lab aspects of my class, there’d be too much for community college students to manage.

Nevertheless, I confess that the pre-digested history in a textbook is not very palatable…

Context for Dissatisfaction with History

Yes, I am a historian. And yet, for the past two decades, I have been very unhappy with the direction of my discipline. Many historical articles (both popular and academic) now emphasize how people felt in the past, rather than what they did and why. There is little rational analysis, just a retelling of stories to emphasize their possible (and sometimes improbable) emotional context.

I find this emphasis on feelings not only disconcerting, but difficult to see as factually based. The evidence is not only sketchy, but its interpretation is often subject to presentism (the tendency to put the expectations of the present onto the past). But, I thought, it must only be me – everyone else in the profession seems pretty darned happy, getting published in the increasingly large numbers of historical journals and participating in professional conferences at the American Historical Association.

So today I was listening to an old CD I have, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US, a speech he gave in 1995 at Reed College. And he mentioned postmodernist history, and in particular Gertrude Himmelfarb. I found her enlightening essay Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History (1992) and finally understood.

What I’m seeing really has been happening, inside the profession, since I got my degree. I’ve certainly noticed it everywhere, not only in history books (few of which I can stomach anymore) but in popular culture. There, especially in novels and films, history is merely a setting, not a context. Interestingly, it was 1998 (only a few years after Himmelfarb’s article and Zinn’s speech) when I first noticed it, in the film Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett.  Queen Elizabeth’s power or the events of the time played no role in the film – it was all about the emotions felt by the queen and her cast of characters. I learned nothing and came out thinking nothing. And, of course, over the last two decades we’ve seen a rise in what I call X-culture: Extreme Everything, from bloodshed in films to reality TV to news reporting. If it isn’t extreme sports, or extreme comedy, or extreme horror, we no longer care.

So it turns out there really has been a trend in the discipline of history too, which Himmelfarb put in the context of postmodernism, and its emphasis on creativity and imagination over hard historical work and, well, facts. And I don’t think her points about multiculturalism are far off the mark either. In addition to the melting pot and salad bowl examinations of cultural difference and assimilation, we now add a framework that imaginatively puts certain groups of people on top, in a superior place to which they may well have aspired but never in fact possessed. While such a technique may provide insight into what people may have felt, or may have wanted, it is ahistorical and belongs in the literary realm.

Thus when people suggest I should go back and get my Ph.D., or publish more in my field (instead of on the subject of online teaching), I recoil. I’d rather hold up the old-guard modernist history, based on modern methodology and the collection, examination and interpretation of facts. I know those facts also include people of many cultures, backgrounds, genders, etc., and that they can be used to successfully celebrate all people without resorting to make-believe. And that’s not my imagination.

Student communication tracking trick

moodledunceOne of the big problems with Moodle is that the student profiles are connected to the central installation, not the course in which the student is enrolled.

This means that if I use the central Messages system to talk to students, I cannot tell which of my six (!) Moodle classes they’re in. They assume I can, since they Message from within the class. I spend too much time looking up which class they’re talking about.

So I tried a cgi form I adapted from somewhere, in text input boxes on the main page. I put the ?subject= code in each so I could tell which class they were coming from (the email would arrive with the course name in the subject line). But many students didn’t use it, and would just email me.

Some students need me a lot, so they email a lot, but I could never remember which class they were in and they could never remember to put the class name and section number in their email. In fact, many did not know what their section number was or what it meant, so I’d have three sections of History 111 and have to look them up even if they put History 111 in their email.

I could use a link with mailto:, but that opens a student’s email program on their hard drive. I don’t use my Apple mail, I use Gmail. They mostly use Gmail too, or at least web-based mail, like Yahoo. Hardly anyone uses a desktop program for Gmail anymore.

So I’m trying two tricks.

1) Gmail me
I surfed around until I figured out the code to get a link to open their Gmail so they can use my Gmail with my subject line. For History 111 #1337:

<a href="https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?view=cm&amp;fs=1&amp;to=llane@miracosta.edu&amp;su=Hist111#1337" target="_blank">Gmail Lisa</a>

2) Google Circles
I turned on People Widget in Settings ->General. When a student emails me the first time, I look them up and put them in a circle corresponding to the class section they’re in (I made a circle for each class section). Then with the People Widget on, I can see which class they’re in right next to their email.

circle

It’s better already.

Revolution vs the Glory of Subversion

Back before there were internet memes and video going viral, we had bumper stickers. Some were “bumper stickers for life”, with sayings that stuck. My favorite was “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm”.

subvert

Although the phrase resonated with me at an early age, I actually was not so good at subversion. My tactic tended to be in-your-face revolution. As editor of the high school paper, I campaigned against the policy of locking up truant students all day. During the war in 1991, I marched and sang and chanted with anti-war protestors. When things were unethical, I made a huge, public fuss.

And yet, they kept locking up students. And we didn’t leave Kuwait (in fact, we went back for much more bloodshed). And things didn’t change much. My head became flat from banging it against the wall.

taniaguevaraAs I worked more in education, I used the same tactics. I pushed administration for team-taught courses. I pushed for a faculty forum to count for committee credit. I tried to stop the hiring of administrators we didn’t need, and push for the hiring of those we did. When online teaching started, I pushed for hybrid classes. I tried to change people’s minds through the force of my will, my argumentation skills, and the fact that I was, well, right.

And again the achievements were small. Team teaching went down in disputes about pay, faculty forum was not “governance” so it didn’t count, we hired more administrators, and a dean dismissed my hybrids with “I just don’t see what audience we’re serving”. I created a file folder entitled “Ineffectual Activism” where I stored the papers related to my failures.

Then I got older and craftier. My new motto became “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission”. I believed in academic freedom, and the independence I had as a college instructor. I made it my mission to deeply understand the rules, then see how I could get around them without actually breaking anything.

This worked much better. But as I explored “edupunk”, and open education, and online educational experiments, and open resources, and MOOCs, I noted a revolutionary spirit. Being of that nature myself, I tried to join in. Modern education is irrelevant and stultifying! We are a post-industrial world with an industrial education system! Do-it-yourself college! Student engagement through student interests! Down with curriculum! Down with lectures!

guillotineBut the problem with revolution is always the same. It throws out many babies with lots of bathwater. Educational revolution meant that the really good ideas of the past, many of which were enshrined in the “canon” of Western Civilization, were cast away. Academic rigor was dismissed as a concept of the privileged. Coherent reading and writing became secondary to creative multimedia, which was seen as more intellectually complex just because it was multimedia.

Students responded accordingly. Lectures of merit and enthusiasm were greeted with bored students surfing the web instead of taking notes. They said they couldn’t learn properly because the teacher wasn’t engaging them in their preferred learning style. They shopped for the classes that made the fewest demands on them intellectually.

There is much subversion to be done. Gardner Campbell, in a recent presentation, holds “compliance” to be at the bottom of the learning pyramid, the factor that keeps learning imprisoned. And yet there are so many ways to twist compliance into good learning environments, to use its elements to enforce rigor while allowing for creativity in every corner, in every crack in the sidewalk.

dandelion

Notes on Jim’s blogging workshop

Today I attended Jim Sullivan’s workshop “Blogging Across the Disciplines“. Although I’m always thrilled to listen to and learn from Jim, there were a few ideas I picked out that I’m going to work on.

The first was the way Jim’s class blogs with students emphasize the public nature of the blog. His class blogs make clear that the assignments are public writing, and he also posts to an audience rather than just to the students. When I blogged with students, I made the mistake of not emphasizing the public nature of the blog. Rather I was just using WordPress like an LMS. What I missed was the opportunity for students to change their writing in response to an audience (even if that audience doesn’t comment – I didn’t track the visitor stats either).

JimSBlogThe second idea was the way Jim makes students read each others’ work. Not only does he refer to student posts in his own comments, but he has quizzes where the student must match the post author with an idea from that author’s post.

His prompts are also expert. Just one example: “pick a scene from The Devil Wears Prada and explain what it says about work in America”. Instead of assigning the movie (which students would have to either watch or view scenes from), that exercise is embedded in the prompt. The legwork is theirs. And he creates a theme for each class (this one is work).

Some of the participants at the workshop had great ideas. One requires that student posts have “novelty” as a rubric item. Another considered assessing based on “connections”. Clarity about the goal of each post is crucial.

There was discussion about using the methods of ones discipline to design and assess student blogging. The scientific method was mentioned, and some faculty like to have students directly apply knowledge in their posts (rather than just “write about x”). I could do that with the historical method – review it with students, then ask them to apply it to the secondary source articles I assign. In fact, I could do that now, just in forum discussion.

Almost everything I heard in the workshop would also be useful in LMS-bound forums, in fact.

The alst idea occurred to me during the workshop. A blog would be a great site for a Learning Community. I’ve worked at MiraCosta for over 25 years, and during that time there have been various experiments with team-teaching, cluster classes, cohorts, and learning communities. At present it looks like the process is pretty bound up in an administrative sense. But there’s no need for that. Take two classes that work well together, plan it with the other instructor, and have both classes post to a common blog. Instant learning community.

So thanks to Jim Sullivan for another fab workshop!

Results from 131 students

It’s only taken me 17 years of teaching online to develop a student survey that is both broad enough to cover all my classes and narrow enough to give me good feedback.

Just sharing a few things here. Total students responding was 131. Most students responding were passing the class.

ClassElementsRestuls

They still like my lectures the most, and textbook readings the least. They still like posting their own primary sources.

AddtlElementsResults

Hours and hours of work on that Help Page and – no surprise given what they email me about – they don’t use it. They do like seeing the whole course on one page (so I won’t switch to showing only the current week, an option in Moodle) and they like my comments and the audio of my lectures (I’ll read it for you!). The None category is a little depressing….

EngagementResults

The engagement results are clear, too. They like the lectures and posting their own source. They don’t like reading much. But they really liked what I added this year – the completion checkboxes on the Moodle page. I will be sad to lose that. But note: they like seeing each other’s work, but don’t require contact with other students. I’ve been saying that for awhile – collaboration and teamwork is online classes is not always needed. For my class, engagement with the work and posting what you find may be taking the place of “interaction” among students. They can learn from each other without necessarily engaging in forums in response to each others’ posts.