What publishers are creating instead of Lego sets

I have had the pleasure of exploring one of the top publishing company’s new materials and framework for an online textbook, both as a faculty member being marketed to and as a reviewer. Such work gives me a good feel for how textbook publishers are reacting to the challenges of the web.

The product in this case is an online history textbook with pedagogical elements built in. It tries to take advantage of the online medium, providing charts and maps that students can “explore” by clicking on various elements and rearranging data. It provides audio reading of each chapter. The author and publisher have used current research to determine the optimal length of reading for each section, and the optimal layout (one column only, with short sections and all media centered on the “page”).

I was in a group of professors viewing this product via webinar, and a debate ensued about one of the charts. The other history profs got all excited about the possibilities of moving the data around, and began to argue the various conclusions one could make (in this case, about free blacks as a percentage of the population in the 1790s). I said very little. That sort of exploration, easily done by historians, would have to be guided with students. I would need to be in the room, with the chart on a screen, or in a synchronous session, for them to get anything out of moving raw historical data around.

We were also shown a cool primary source as well as a cool chart. And at that point I found myself rebelling against the package. What a great chart! What a cool source! But I don’t care for the package – the language of the book is at too low a level, and the coverage too superficial. There is too great an attempt to engage interest, and too little rigor. I didn’t like the “critical thinking” questions. They had students do some writing while reading, which is great, but the questions were bad – I would want to use my own.

Why can’t I take what I need (the chart and the source) and put it where I want? Why can’t these things be modular? Why are we still in the format of the textbook, when the technology enables us to move beyond it?

legobricksI have written before about the challenges of Learning Management Systems, and how they need to be more like boxes of Lego bricks than pre-designed Lego projects.  I have come to the exact same conclusion about textbooks. I want the erector set, the Lego bricks, the little bottles of chemicals, not a pre-created product. Even before the web, publishers would market books to me with huge ancillary collections, often including PowerPoint slides, CD-ROMs, and primary sources. But I couldn’t take the PowerPoints apart to get the images and use them differently, and I couldn’t use the primary sources next to my online lecture – instead, students had to pay for access and log in to get to the source. As I recently noted, placing teaching elements in proximity to each other is crucial to effective pedagogy. With publisher materials, I’ve never been able to do it.

The packaged product needs to be offered in pieces, like custom publishing, only cleaner. It is already possible to piece together a “custom” textbook with many publishers, but you choose from their limited database, those things to which they hold copyright.

If, instead, the publishers got together, they could create huge databases of material, and each little item could be priced low (kind of like an iTunes song). The company owning the copyright would get the money, but the product itself could be pieced together online by the instructor. I could include a scholarly paper, my own writing, images, cool charts, and many more items in the order I wanted. There would be testing modules that I could insert anywhere, with my own questions and choice of how the responses are recorded (email to me, LMS, the publisher’s LMS, etc).

All packaged works have their own pedagogy. We need to be able to disconnect the brick-like elements to support our own.

What’s new (and not good) in online teaching articles

I confess to disappointment in my recent reading of research on online teaching.

There are many articles now expounding the benefits of faculty being assisted (whether they like it or not) by instructional designers. Many of these are written by people getting degrees in instructional design or PhDs in vague areas of Education. In addition, theses like this one (1) claim that faculty who design their own courses cannot articulate design concepts (or “instructional development processes”), and therefore need serious help. Another study claims that competencies should be based on the many roles online instructors must undertake: developer/designer, educational expert, evaluator, facilitator, scientist of their discipline, lifelong learner, organiser/manager, social director, technologist. (2) It’s a wonder anyone wants to each online at all with a job description like that.

Of course, the fact that such “competencies” have been invented along with the whole field of online instructional design, may be part of the issue. And few acknowledge that the field itself contains serious conflicts of ideas and may be based on techno-utopianism. (3)

One paper (4) does indicate that some of the problems we see in asynchronous online education may be the result of students who do not have the skills to succeed in classes coming to online classes in increasing numbers. But in general, the blame for any problems in online classes falls on the instructors, through the argument that they lack proper training.

Faculty teach. Some cannot articulate educational principles as taught in schools of Education, because they are experts in their field rather than Education. Can quality online classes be developed by people who do not have degrees in education, instructional design, or educational technology? Yes, indeed – I have seen many. The major requirements seem to be passion for ones discipline, passion for the online learning space, and a willingness to learn new skills to create the desired learning experiences for students.

But the pattern in the literature shows a desire to “professionalize” online teaching, via
1. the development of a body of “research” (in this case primarily through the proliferation of doctoral theses based on small sample sizes),
2. the advancement of fields originally focused on supporting educators, but now claiming to be leading educational reform,
3. the creation of “best practices” and “competencies” (designed to ferret out “worse practices” and create standardization), and
4. the promotion of the idea that current online faculty are desperately in need of assistance.

Cui bono? Well, those earning degrees in instructional design and educational technology, particularly those who want jobs in educational administration. For-profit online universities also benefit because they can more easily justify standardized courses taught by poorly-paid staff. So do public and private universities expanding their Ed D programs, online and on-site, to bring in those grad school dollars. The proliferation of journals and associations benefits publishers (many of them closed presses). And those who already have jobs in educational administration have more ammunition to reduce the influence of independent faculty, and limit creativity in the name of accountability.

 

(1) Raul Mendez, Instructional Development Skills and Competencies for Post-Secondary Faculty-Designers Developing Online Courses (Capella PhD, October 2014) 

(2) Diogo Casanova, Antonio Moreira & Nilza Costa, Key competencies to become an e-Learning successful instructor (Santiago Univ, Portugal, n.d.) 

(3) Julian Thornton, “We will fix the deficit”: deficit theories in the literature of educational technology adoption (asccilite2014, New Zealand) 

(4)Jason Stulo, Asynchronous Distance Education: The Challenge of Teaching Across Time and Space (M Sc, University of Wisconsin-Stout, March 2012) 

New directions for POT

Yes, we can certainly avoid the obvious jokes, but POT means Program for Online Teaching, the faculty volunteer program I’ve been directing since 2005. We began as a group of online instructors frustrated with the “training” being provided to those starting to teach online. These trainings mostly consisted of teaching faculty how to use technologies the college had purchased (later the LMS) and plug things into it. We wanted to have faculty consider their pedagogy first, then make the technology work for them.

We began by offering workshops through our college’s own professional development program, and gradually these expanded into full workshop days. We also created a website, and posted videos and materials from our workshops there. Faculty have found the site useful, but I’ve been maintaining it pretty much singlehandedly for the last few years. All of us who work as POT are college instructors with large responsibilities for teaching, departmental work, and disciplinary study. Many have joined us from outside our home college. Since 2010, we have offered the POT Certificate Class, an online course mentored and moderated by like-minded experts and teachers from around the globe. The class, too, has taken much time and yet no one has ever been paid to help. (Many of us are of the “sure, I’ll help you move if you feed me pizza” model of social responsibility.)

In the meantime, the field has changed. Since 2005, “instructional design” and “educational technology” have become their own disciplines, offering PhDs all over the place. Sponsored companies have been founded to host online courses on proprietary platforms. Administrative careers have sprung up in deploying and managing stables of online instructors at for-profit universities, offering “team-created” courses where the faculty member is only a “discipline expert”. “Best practices” have been promoted based on principles derived from the research of these new doctorates (many of whom used small sample sizes, creating their principles of whole cloth).

It is a world in which POT now appears anachronistic, encouraging what I call “artisan” courses, built as creative endeavors by individual instructors trying to translate their teaching strengths into the online environment. These courses are pedagogically and philosophically the opposite of the canned, instant-feedback, publisher-created “packages” and team-built classes and MOOCs that are now pervasive. Like artisan breads and hand-made cabinetry, these courses require more work to make and are individual in design. Their quality cannot be determined by a list of “best practices”, but by the love and attention that goes into their creation, and the passion and dedication of the teachers who are teaching within their own design.

We have watched these artisan principles undermined not only by forces beyond the institution, but by faculty new to online, who have been encouraged to think along cookie-cutter course lines. Classes where most of the content comes from a publisher course cartridge are being held up as models, locally and statewide, as online initiatives are developed to create more standardization and “accountability”. Faculty now come to POT hoping for “how to” workshops (“how do I get this to work in Blackboard?”) rather than approaching us with pedagogy they want to develop online. The POT Cert Class, which is free, global, and at the moment unsustainable, is being used by some to assure “training” rather than pedagogical preparation. We find ourselves in the position of providing a free service rather than a model, a service which surely should be funded by the state if “training” is so important.

My colleague Jim Sullivan and I have decided that the answer to all this training, standardization, and dependency is primarily journalistic. With all the information out there on “how to”, and all the institutional and administrative backing for training and standardization, it is important that we share, publicly and convincingly, the meaning and methods behind our “pedagogy first” approach. So we are changing the POT website, always in WordPress’ blog format anyway, into the Pedagogy First blog. Here we hope to invite the people for whom “pedagogy first” is the natural approach, to write and discuss. We will ask many of the wonderful people who have mentored and moderated our POT Certificate. We will ask folks to share their talents and techniques as well as their perspectives.

Because when mechanization encroaches on creative endeavor, it is important for artisans to articulate why their way is better, what value is added by their efforts.

Artisans unite.

The Value of Proximity

Togetherness is a good thing.

It’s pretty clear, even in recent studies, that we want to present information to students in “multiple modalities” (text, graphics, video). But there have been a few studies discussing the placement of “learning objects” (text, video, images) on a webpage, and how that placement relates to learning. The results of a 10-year study at UCSB by Richard Mayer and colleagues focused on how best to use audio, text, video and other media elements (1) . They discovered that how media elements are handled on the screen impacts learning.

Improved learning resulted from adding graphics to text, and from adding text to graphics. But “[t]he trick is to use illustrations that are congruent with the instructional message”, rather than for effect or entertainment.
Interestingly, a conversational tone and the use of an “agent” (a talking head video or animated cartoon), even just the voice, also helped learning.

Explaining graphics with audio improved learning also. But too much was overload. Audio and text explaining a graphic decreased learning, and any gratuitous or dramatic elements added only to get attention caused distraction and also decreased learning.

Putting the issue of relevancy aside for a moment (obviously the text and graphics should both be trying to further the same instructional goal), I think the important issue is proximity. If there is a graph at the top of the page, but the graph is explained with text three paragraphs later, I don’t think it will help.

Proximity is critical, because the relationship between objects that may be obvious to instructors may not be obvious to students.

In my online lectures, I have always put illustrative images next to the appropriate text. I remember in the late 90s repeatedly looking up a cheat sheet my mentor, Kathleen Rippberger, made showing me how to write HTML to wrap text around an image (thank you, HTML). Over time, I came to embed videos, then YouTube videos, also within the lecture page (thank you, embed code). This year, I began embedding the primary sources right into the lecture (thank you, iframe).

The desire to keep things together even caused me to explore putting a lecture and the corresponding discussion together on the same page, which I could do using iframes in Moodle. But the effect is still not seamless, and it looks awkward on mobile devices.

lecdisctogether

If we extend the principle of proximity to the defaults on a typical Learning Management system, however, we will be disappointed. I despair as I look at Blackboard’s default menu, with everything separated: “course materials” here, discussion forum there, tests way over there. It was this problem that led our instructors to create the main page as an interactive syllabus. But even there, the page is a list of links:

week1links

The goal of proximity explains why so many instructors try various forms of “modules” and “units”, which seem to me like online versions of the paper packets we used to use in grade school.

Proximity thinking has come a little late to online education, but it needs a place at the table. The delay has been caused by not only the LMS, but by all the reasons the LMS is popular, including deceptive plug-and-play functionality and ongoing difficulty creating structured learning experiences if you aren’t a web-head. Time to consider proximity as its own design concept, within the LMS if necessary.

(1) Ruth Clark, Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why, Learning Solutions Magazine (2002)

History Myth: You Can’t Change the Past

I hear this a lot, and not always in relation to History as an academic discipline: “You can’t change the past!” While you can change what you are doing right now (perhaps) and therefore alter the future (maybe), the past is immutable. Right? Wrong.

Whether it’s personal history or academic history, the past is variable. We know from recent studies of memory that even our personal memories may be faulty, whether we believe that we shook hands with Mickey Mouse or re-construct our memories in therapy sessions. The entire field of neuroplasticity is based on evidence that the brain itself (and its corresponding shifts in emotion and behavior) changes over time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Copyright Kenneth Allen

The idea that the past is unchangeable derives from the definition of “the past” as consisting of externally verifiable, objective events. These events occurred – there is no way to undo them.

And yet, which things do we remember from that past? Why these things and not others? In which emotional contexts have we placed them? Those contexts influence our interpretation of the past.

For example, I remember my art teacher in high school drawing a large brain and a small brain on the chalkboard, and explaining that girls can’t do art because their brain is smaller. Throughout my life I have blamed him and his sexism for instilling me with a lack of confidence – to this day I do not draw. And yet, he may have thought he was being funny, or I may have had no confidence in my abilities already. I can certainly remember other times when someone in authority had told me I was no good at something, and my response was to prove them wrong. I may well be justifying my lack of visual art skills with this “memory”, putting it in that context for emotional reasons.

Context is also crucial in History as an academic discipline. We cannot change that the Bastille was stormed in July 1789. But how do we look at that event? What do we think it meant? Do we see it differently when our own society is in chaos, and barriers are being torn down, than we do in more placid eras?

Historians know that the purpose of doing history is not to rehash and memorize facts. It is to interpret those facts in the context of our own time. The entire field of historiography is built around the importance of setting historical studies within the timeframe of the historian. That’s why we now have histories of women, or poverty, or empire. What we’re interested in, and therefore what we look for in the past, changes over time. That changes “the past” in a very real sense.unbroken+trailer

It is no coincidence that we re-evaluate the British Empire when we are struggling with our own, or that we romanticise the counter-culture of the 1960s during a time of heightened materialism, or that we see a revival of World War II books and movies that struggle with the heroism of war during a time when our nation’s effectiveness in war is being questioned.

So of course we can change the past, both the academic past and the personal past. For our own pasts, we can recast our memories, reinterpret them, endow them with different meanings (in many ways, the entire field of psychotherapy is about doing exactly that). For the academic past, we can examine those “objective” events in light of our own interests and understandings. And that, after all, is what doing History is all about.

LMSing around

Well, it’s been a long time that we have all been discussing the evils of the Learning Management System. From my own articles back in 2008 and 2009, to Michael Feldstein’s November post with all its responses, those of us who believe we are progressive, non-conformist, future-thinking, out-of-the-box people have been gleefully dissing the LMS. The LMS is a tool that encourages conformity, poor pedagogy, closed silos, commercial exploitation, robo-grading, and the death of the open web. It discourages openness, shared resources, perpetual web portfolios, and the joy of a cloud-based utopia.

I have happily been anti-LMS for many years. And all this time I have been using Moodle.

Some are surprised. I had a colleague come up to me, apologetically, last term. He had an LMS question, but prefaced it with, “I know you don’t use an LMS, but…”

I have been participating in Connected Courses, where naturally we all agree that the LMS hampers connections. Connected Courses is a wonderful idea, with wonderful people. The hub of it is housed on WordPress, a customized installation managed beautifully by the god of WordPress, Alan Levine, and designed by a team fed by a grant. It is not a model that many others could follow without institutional support and/or a maestro like Alan hanging out in the garage. I’ve used WordPress in a similar construct (but by no means as lovely a site) for the Program for Online Teaching Class over several years. I gave up on it in May 2013  – it was just too hard. The plugin that makes it possible, FeedWordpress, is supported by one man on his own time, and requires lots of tweaking.

I don’t have staff, assistants, or a grant. I teach at a community college. I teach 40 students per section, 5-7 sections per semester, usually with five different preps (a prep is a particular course – Western Civ I, US History II). I often teach as many as five of these classes online, with at least three different preps. Many of my colleagues teach at multiple campuses, and teach over 300 students in multiple sections all over the county. In all these years, the suggestions of how to be open and wonderful and non-LMS with this many students (considering the requirements put upon us to track and grade their work) have been very few. Connectivism? After much experience, study and thought, I have determined that the management of large numbers of students’ individual achievement cannot be solved with connectivist models. (The popularity of MOOCs is testament to this. Commercial and university xMOOCs are often robo-graded and/or managed by large numbers of “staff” and graduate students.)

Given the 265 students I will need to teach this spring, the LMS provides the space I need, given the dearth of good alternatives.

What the LMS is good at, of course, is management:

  • automatically graded quizzes provide instant feedback to the student
  • grade book feature provides for privacy and quick checks on progress
  • customizations enable me to organize the grade book in a way that makes it possible for me to see at a glance where a student is doing well and where s/he is struggling
  • easy embedding makes it possible for me to make external sites, presentations, and tools part of the class
  • students are automatically added and dropped via connection with the college’s student enrollment system
  • security features create a space mostly closed to surveillance

It’s very poor for:

  • open learning
  • student-created content that lives beyond the semester
  • making students feel like individuals
  • providing multiple learning paths

BUT I mostly solve what’s bad through my own design and pedagogy:

  • having all written work done in forums where students can see everyone else’s work
  • encouraging students to draft all their work on their own hard drives
  • keeping track of students’ preferred names from their posts and using them publicly in the space

No, I can’t solve it all. Neither can WordPress, Ning, Facebook, Google, Schoology, Drupal, Canvas, or the open web. There’s been nothing radically different out there in years. Startups of great tools have mostly shut down. Progress in online learning technology has slowed to a crawl.

So am I a traitor to the cause? An apologist for the LMS? A closet user who then shows up at 12-step meetings? No, I’m just practical. Do I think that users like me can make the LMS better? Nope, I’m just back to 2012. Only now I don’t feel so guilty.