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.

Snippets, tweets and other desserts

I promise this post will be short.

Perhaps my discontent began with a perfectly innocent study, claiming student satisfaction with short video lectures. Or perhaps it was when I was cruising through Netvibes reading bits of things. Or maybe it was the student in the corner before class, starting the videos of a guy playing guitar, but only listening to the first 30 seconds of each song.

We live in a world of snippets, soundbytes and little pieces. To me, these are dessert, or spice. I like tweets and status updates sprinkled on my daily knowledge. But, to raise the 1980s cliche, where’s the beef?

I had a student last semester get angry at me because she was failing the class, and didn’t seem to know about it until week 12 of 16. I had been giving everyone feedback every week on every little thing. For her, she had failed almost every quiz, I think because she didn’t understand what she was reading. She only answered a question correctly when it was derived from a short snippet of text.

Yes, we know people don’t read full-length articles as much, that movies are getting shorter, that society is either engendering or catering to what they used to call a “short attention span”. We have studies showing multitasking doesn’t work, but those aren’t the ones that worry me. The ones that worry me show that students love snippets, and that the conclusion is we should provide more snippets.

I think it’s bad for anyone’s diet to have all dessert.

More importantly, we are losing the idea of how to put the snippets together into something with meaning. This makes some practice in digital storytelling an essential skill – we must learn to create narrative if nothing else.

But I digress. Or perhaps I’m just done.

Wacky online class stuff, part 47

I say “part 47″ because I’m sure I’ve posted at least 46 wacky things so far – I just haven’t called them that.

This wacky thing is about my US History classes. I offer two online sections of the class each semester, and have done for years. Thus, on the registration page, it lists two sections, each with a different section number (say, #1561 and #1562).

Invariably, both sections fill (not because everyone needs US History, but because everyone thinks they do – but difficulties in academic advising are a topic for a different post).

Also invariably, the first section numerically (here #1561) fills first, and that shows in red lettering when one tries to enroll. A logical person would see that it’s full and register for the other section.

Instead, every semester, a handful of students add themselves to the wait list for the first section, even when the other section has plenty of seats.

Now here’s the other wacky part. Every semester, the second section (here #1562) will contain a larger number of students who throughout the semester fail to follow instructions, and whose work is of significantly lower quality.

I am not sure what this means. Is it simply that students who register first for any particular class are naturally drawn to the first section, and they’re first because they plan ahead and can follow instructions? Since I encourage the wait-listed students to instead register for the second section, this might increase the number of students who don’t quite get it, and they combine with the students who added late, either for lack of planning or lack of interest in the course.

Whatever the reason, I can pretty much predict the grade distribution at the end of the semester, depending on the section number. Which seems kinda wacky.

Changes for spring

Yes, I change stuff every semester (Jen Dalby likes to watch me prep, cuz it makes me tweet crazy things). Here’s what’s on for spring semester:

Expectation zone: percentage changes 

crocus

Crocus, harbingers of spring
(cc Julie ann Johnson via Flickr)

I believe students expect the quizzes (based on reading, and factual retention) to count for more. This semester, quizzes are only 30% of the grade. I’m raising it to 50%. Primary sources, which they like and which require some research, have been only 20% – I’m raising it to 30%.

Back to the future : shorter and more frequent writing

Having gone the other way, from weekly writing, to every other week, to six assignments, to five, I am going back to the way I had it at first – weekly writing. The big change is that it won’t be as formal, even though it still scaffolds up to the final essay. The other big change is it won’t be “graded”. Rather, writing will be part of the “A bit of writing and conversation” forum. Students will be encouraged to post a short piece of writing based on their choice of primary sources, and converse with each other.

But I did it!: contribution grading will be based on completion

Instead of the Contribution Assessment, which I have used successfully for awhile (I admit it, I get bored), I am counting 20% of the grade (10% for each half of the semester) for the writing and conversation, all together. I intend to base this primarily on completion, but want flexibility for quality issues and to touch base with students in the middle of the class, which is what I liked best about the assessments. If I change my mind, I’ll do self-assessments.

Autobots roll out: automation for completion

I am turning on the Activity Completion feature in Moodle, and using it for the first time. The “bit of writing and conversation” is a checkbox on the main page – a single post marks it complete. Same for the primary source. For the quiz, completing it and getting an (automated) grade completes the task.  Very few of my students fail the class because they can’t do the work – most fail because they don’t complete the tasks. Since I believe the tasks are important elements of practice, each one is low stakes but all need to be done. The green check (or lack thereof) on the main page will be obvious.

What I’m not changing

In a survey earlier this semester, students indicated that what they liked best were (1) my lectures, and (2) posting their own primary sources. So those aren’t changing at all. They didn’t like discussion, so that’s now optional and part of the writing forums.

But why change anything? (apart from, like, the boredom thing)

magician

cc JD Hancock via Flickr.

I am trying to answer a concern I have about this semester – the drop rate has been very high in all but one section. The drops mostly came at the beginning of the class. When I surveyed students who dropped, they told me the class was too much work. Interestingly, some wanted a class where they only had to log in once a week. I have not reduced the work at all, which I may regret later, but I am going to dare to use my experience to interpret what they’ve said.

I think part of the problem is that the class looks like too much work on the main page. Using Activity Completion makes the work more instantly visible, so they can see their progress and what’s lacking immediately. I am also removing the “labels”, or titles, for each section, so there is less text (a shorter list) to see for each week, while keeping the interactive syllabus format.  For those who think they can do the class only logging in  once a week, they can if they’re smart, by taking the quiz, posting their source, and posting their writing all on the same day. Since I don’t plan to “grade” conversation, if someone really doesn’t want to participate or talk to anyone, they don’t have to.

As with everything, we’ll see what happens!

Forecast: cloudy, with 0% chance of privacy

I recently acquired a MacBook Air, running 10.9 (Mavericks), because my old MacBook (running 10.6 Snow Leopard) was struggling with ordinary tasks. (I think I skipped the leonine versions, 10.8 Mountain Lion and 10.7 Lion).

After clicking on all the “skip” boxes to prevent linking the new laptop with my Apple ID, I proceeded to add it to my household network, which is wired. It allowed me to access my local hard drives and my desktop Mac. But it will not let me print unless I add the IP address of my locally networked printer to iCloud. Um, no thanks. I guess I’ll walk that flash drive across the room.

I tried using TextEdit, and my new laptop warned me it could not save back to the networked computer. I also noticed there was no “Save As” command at all. It took much searching to find out I now have to press Command, as if “Save As” is an unusual thing to do.

It became apparent that Apple wants me to use iCloud. For everything.

cloud1941

Russell Lee, Highway scene, Idaho County, Idaho,
July 1941, from Photogrammar

And so the fog rolled in. I could not install my version of Microsoft Office from my old computer. Or my old versions of anything else. This is the first Mac not to let me drag, drop and use those wonderful old apps that always worked – GraphicConverter, VisualHub, iMovieHD, etc. – regardless of felinity.

As I’ve continued to work with this sleek sans-CD-drive lightweight little miracle, it’s become clear to me what’s going on. There is pressure on my workflow to rise upward and become cloud-like. And it isn’t just an Apple thing. Microsoft is doing the same with its Live stuff – my college’s email is in the cloud now. I can’t buy a boxed version of Office, or Dreamweaver, for the new laptop. Googly Chromebook wants to always be cloudy – it takes special apps to work offline.

I think it’s clear (or rather, foggy) that future consumer computer systems will consist of only a few components: the Processing Unit, an input device (gestural or mouse-like or keyboard-ish) and a networked printer. There will be no wires (only power cords) and no ports on the PU (I don’t say CPU because it won’t be central to anything – it will be a screen with a motherboard).

All your work will be saved to the cloud. All communication with your printer and phone and other devices will be done in the cloud or by Bluetooth-like wireless communication. Your USB hubs and LaCie drives will end up in the garage with the SCSI peripherals and floppies. There will be no need for local files or storage, except for temporary files waiting for the wireless connection to come back on because service was disrupted (kind of like battery backup). There will be no on/off button for the wireless on any device – printer, modem, and PU will all have wireless connections that are always on.

All your family photos will be uploaded into the cloud, conveniently sorted with facial recognition. Your banking transactions will float above the neighborhood with those of everyone who lives near you. Sex chats and Snapchats will drift in the air like confetti. If you are a scientist or someone working on something that needs to remain secret until it’s published, you will find it challenging to keep updating your passwords and praying that cloud services won’t have a security breach like Target or Home Depot.

I, for one, do not welcome our wireless, cloud-based overlords. If I want a machine to which I can privately save my work, neither the hardware nor software will be there to support me. All my recent advice about saving a copy of your stuff is about to become impossible to follow.

I will be very glad of one thing – my manual typewriter. It may be the only way to ensure privacy, and bring in a little sunshine, five years from now.

Their favorite part of the class

I had a high drop rate the first week of class in several of the online sections, so I asked those who dropped to do a quick survey for me about why they dropped:

surveydrops

Because overload seemed to be an issue, I wondered what part of the class I might be able to do away with.

So I polled my students in the fourth week of class, asking them “What’s your favorite part of the class so far?” The result from those who responded out of five sections of History classes:

31 – the lectures
21 – the primary source readings linked from lecture
33 -  posting my own primary sources
3 – the writing assignments
3  – the discussion forums
1  – connection with other students outside class
5  – the textbook (only two classes have a textbook – 4 of these were from the England class, which actually has only an atlas)

What’s interesting about this is that so few like discussion. Discussion is, actually, my most recent addition to the classes. I added it only because it was hard to discuss in either the primary sources boards or the writing forums, and there were some cool issues that we could do only in discussion, such as ways history connects to what’s going on today. So I set it up to be student-led, and not every week. We don’t do discussion on the six weeks we do writing. And after the first two discussions, I rarely participate. The activity level has been high, even though I have not set a specific number of responses or replies.

But they don’t like it, or at least don’t love it. I expected that they would like posting their own primary sources, but I didn’t realize they were even reading the sources linked from lecture, so that’s cool. The lectures – well, those are mine. I spent a long time constructing and revising them. They have video clips and lots of graphics and lots of, well, ME. So I’m glad they like them.

I wonder whether removing discussion would help the class seem less overwhelming?