Redesigning the open online class show: POT Cert

I spent last week at the Connected Courses workshop, where amazing people are creating an open online class about, basically, how to teach an open online class. The energy was such that it reminded me of my previous life working in the theatre. The design and beginning development of that class in many ways looks like our POT Cert Class looked last year. Or really, two years ago, when we ran it in WordPress, using the FeedWordpress plugin to aggregate the feeds from participants’ blogs.

But there’s a huge difference between POT Cert and the Connected Courses theatrical productions. Connected Courses is supported by a grant structure and has staff, techies, a paid director, and many resources in addition to the design team I got to be part of. A Best Play Tony would send 20 people up to the stage. POT’s certificate class has been run by community theatre style volunteers: myself, the POT leaders who wanted to work on it, and the generous moderators and mentors (faculty, ed tech folks, and others) who paid it forward after getting their own certificate or joined out of altruism, love, appreciation, or insanity.


La Cage Aux Folles original cast, 1983

We have no money to act as either motivator or thanks – this is not professional theatre. We refused money years ago, because it corrupts our artistic freedom. But this isn’t a world where people can really afford to work for pizza (or retweets or good reviews), and no one wants to run the same show year after year. We must economize. Even Les Miserables and La Cage aux Folles have pared down their production designs. I think a lot of the POT Cert cast and crew have tired of doing it.

Another reason for ennui may be because the class never seems to move forward. Even the best, most experienced online instructor could become bored with the same interpretation of the same play.

I teach History to community college students. While my methods and materials may change each term, the students do not – they are beginners in History in the same way the faculty who need the POT Cert Class are beginners in online teaching. In both cases we’re trying to help newbies, not only by teaching them methods and having them explore content. Like any good play, we have a message. For History, my message is that primary sources can be put together into diverse narratives that answer the needs of society at the time. For online teaching, POT’s message is that faculty must begin with their own pedagogy, and then select and control the technologies that support and expand that pedagogy in the online environment. It’s the reason POT exists – to start faculty with pedagogy rather than letting technology control them. We don’t want an audience who’s seen this show before.

My emphasis in the old days was design, and in many ways it still is. Our current POT Cert design was moved from WordPress to Google Sites last year in order to simplify production with a smaller crew. As always, participants had to set up and run their own blogs, but instead of their posts feeding into a central blog via FeedWordpress, they had to post a link to their work in the discussion, and conversation took place at the Site instead of on their blogs. This worked well with the 25 or so participants we had, though I will never forgive Google Sites (or the many discussion forum alternatives) for not nesting replies cleanly, as WordPress does.

The number of participants in POT Cert has gotten slightly smaller each year, likely because there are now so many alternative shows competing with what we do (and I ain’t no Michael Eisner). Unfortunately, many of these Broadway alternatives provide technology training rather than pedagogical preparation, and are developed by educational technologists rather than in-the-trenches teachers. So what we do continues to be important. We rage against the Disney-fied edtech commercial culture machine.

Last year’s class in Google Sites was hard to run with three facilitators, though it was easier than in WordPress (FeedWordpress can have problems that would frustrate anyone who doesn’t code). And even with audience participation, the show runs too long for current tastes. At 24 weeks (a badge for each semester, and a certificate for completion of two semesters), it is a bit too Angels in America.

So this summer Laura and I began to design a self-paced learning pathway, with only six units, as a static WordPress site. It’s like the TV version of our class. The idea was that people could use the pathway themselves or in cohorts at their institutions. Communities using the content could be run elsewhere if desired, like friends sitting around a living room to experience it together. Or people could do the pathway on their own, and somehow automatically get a badge. But then the Connected Courses workshop reminded me that the cohort aspect of an open, online class is extremely important. The audience must feel and hear each other for it to work. I realized that the “self-paced” idea likely wouldn’t fly.

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

I think the new production will involve something like this:

1. Separation of the show from the audience 
This allows for more flexible use of the content, and a bit more instruction. And as we write it, Laura and I sense the joy of creation. Perhaps someday it will be a book, its own script.

2. Assigned seating 
Although anyone may use the content, we do need to “run” the community, and have continual feedback from other community members and ourselves. Without content, it’s just a community. Without community, it’s a disembodied course. With content and community connected, it’s a class. What happens on stage is only half, or less than half, of a successful show.

3. Audience as creators 
Our current class has always required participants to blog every week, with the final post of the semester and year consisting of a list of annotated links to all their previous work. It is that post, combined with their self-assessment, that we used to evaluate for the badge or certificate, since it puts everything in one place. Calling the blog posts something like Portfolio Assignments will make that clear from Day 1.

4. Angels in the Outfield instead of Angels in America 
If it has enough content, and more options for more experienced people, it should be possible to put what we need into a 12-week format.

So that’s where we’re headed, at least for now…I think we’ve got a show.

Tracking my elusive OERs

So I return from Connected Courses (whole other wonderful story) to find Alan Levine’s call for Open Educational Resources, and I think, hey, no problem, got lots of ‘em…

I started hunting them down. Alan’s right – it wasn’t easy. Found some scat. Some prints… Oh! I remembered where I put one!

In the MERLOT cage…

where it’s so lonely, since 2006. No peer reviews, no discussion, no indications of use. Did anyone use it? I don’t know. It says it’s copyrighted when I didn’t copyright it. I’ll have to stuff it and mount it on the wall. Can’t claim it as a live sighting.

Over the years, I’ve seen my stuff, the stuff I put out in the wild. I’ve seen this image from my blog in a number of places (like wikis and Stephen Downes’ OL Daily). The post that went with it has been cited in a number of dissertations about MOOCs.

Are those real sightings? or just scat?

Maybe it’s more important that others have sighted my stuff, and used it for themselves, rather than redistributed it. They’ve taken a photo of my OER in the wild and put it on their wall of learning instead of cloning it. Before Slideshare got rid of my audio (for which I shall never forgive them), I had a number of lectures there as slidecasts.

Over 6,000 people viewed my “A Very Brief History of American Women Before 1919″ (now in YouTube). Over 5,000 viewed my 6-slide presentation on Online Learning Theory. But what’s really interests me are my hour-long class lectures in history, which (when they had audio) were like taking a whole correspondence class in Western Civ. Thousands of views, many from regions far from the US. Somebody out there was learning, though without the audio they’re now learning a lot less.

So in Slideshare I have a graveyard of OERs, each with a flashy tombstone and visitors who put flowers on the graves.

I also have a fairly complete bank of my online lectures. They’re on a web page, in plain ole HTML. Does anyone use them? I don’t know.

I use several tools designed to track my influence on the web, but they hardly ever tell me when people post about me, so I can’t find these OERs either. (Lisa M Lane is the name I use. The other two Lisa M Lanes who are big on the web are an author of erotic vampire novels and a chess champion. I gave up.)

Do articles count as OERs? I put them on the open web so anyone can use them. Tweets? Flickr pics? Blog posts? This blog post? What about my the assignments I added to ds106?

So, like any academic, I’m gonna question the proposition. What is an OER? Is it a learning object in a repository? An idea (written or visual) that I put on the web and others used? Or are all these just blurry pictures?

Models for task-based open online classes?

Lately it’s been kind of eerie in the world of open online classes, at least those taught by folks whose work I respect the most.

Emblem7BmedThis year, our Program for Online Teaching leadership for the POT Certificate Class was down to three overworked facilitators, plus our wonderful moderators and those who let us use their videos. The class was definitely a Small Open Online Class, and since it had assigned readings and a schedule, and since MOOCs have become mega-commercial horrors, I no longer call it a MOOC of any sort anyway. For such a small group (60 registered originally), the community was fabulous, both supportive and knowledgeable. A little over a dozen learners completed and earned a badge for spring semester, and/or a certificate for the entire 2013-14 year.

The format of the class was different from the previous year (2012-13), where I had struggled (as a non-programmer) with FeedWordpress to bring in everyone’s feeds. Instead we used a Google Site. We asked everyone to post a link to their blog post at the Site, and engage in discussion at the Site instead of in the blog comments. I was able to bring in blog feeds easily using Gadgets.

I just took a peek at Alec Couros’ DCMOOC, and noticed participants in their Google Plus Community posting links to their weekly blog post. Aha!

Now, when it came to our POT Cert Class this year, there were some issues. I wasn’t delighted with the non-nested discussions in Google Sites, and we discovered that three people couldn’t really run the class effectively, even with moderators, when all three facilitators work full-time plus. But the need, at our college and elsewhere, for pedagogically-based learning about how to teach online is still there. So we decided to create a self-guided Learning Pathway instead.

Then I discovered there was already a Google Plus Community, to which I was invited, called Learning Pathways. Aha!

cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped

cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped

Anyway, I started creating the new Pedagogy First! Learning Pathway (work in progress is here), and my colleague Laura Paciorek has been helping. The idea is that the pathway is essentially comprised of curated content and assignments for a portfolio, and that any individual or group could participate and use the site for a “class” or individual study. Then for community, we plan to use our own POT Google Plus Community (mostly because some folks don’t like Facebook, where we also have a POT group).

So then I find that Jim Groom has created a self-directed class for ds106. Based on the successful Headless ds106, it is called the Open ds106 Course. Aha!

The synchronicity is striking, or at least it strikes me. And the trends for these classes, and many more, defy a number of assumptions I made when all this cMOOCishness and openness stuff started. I mean waaaay back in 2005 or so (which is also when I started the Program for Online Teaching).

(NB: I am deliberately ignoring xMOOCs, those based in commercial or university-commercial collaborations. My focus here is on what I’ve called Task-Based MOOCs.)

I am surprised to see that when it comes to task-based open online classes:

1. We haven’t ditched the “course”.

While we all acknowledge the importance of connections and helping people be nodes in a network, what this looks like in practice isn’t that different from any other sort of dedicated community that uses online space to interact. And we all continue to create some sort of teacher-designed content, even if it’s just a pathway through assignments or a schedule or a set of expectations.

2. We don’t have a wide variety of platforms from which to choose.

I believe that Alec Couros began designing open courses in wikis, but now is using WordPress. Jim Groom’s ds106 is WordPress-based also. So was OCTEL. Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOCMOOC used Instructure Canvas, but for most of the open classes and cMOOCs, WordPress seems preferred. I’ve moved back to it myself with the Learning Pathway, although the discussion will be in G+. I recall when the choices were more diverse, and even a time when Alec and I were searching for an open discussion program that featured nested posts, as in Moodle and Ning.

3. The personality/persona of the instructor continues to be a factor in the success of an open class.

Jim Groom, David Wiley, Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Jesse Stommel — all have distinct, interesting personalities and teaching styles. Participants, even while creating communities and connections, are guided not only by the design of the class but by the instructor’s presence. Without a teacher who inspires, an open online class is just a website.

Given these similarities, do we now have models for independent open online classes? And when it comes to designing an open online class, have we hit our stride or are we in a rut?

Lost in translation

We’re all told now that creating an online class isn’t just translating a face-to-face class, but what if the f2f class was really good?

You scare people when you say, “you can’t just put your on-site class online – you have to change your whole pedagogy, be a facilitator, do things differently, be innovative”. The implication is that if you “just” translate your classroom pedagogy to online, you will create a lousy class.

That’s not necessarily true. Some examples:

In the classroom, a teacher uses constructivist methods, giving students evidence and having groups create case studies for presentation. For her online class, she uses the same method, using online groups and shared presentations.

In the classroom, a teacher is a great lecturer. For his online class, he records his lectures, making sure his presentation is dynamic, and posts those for the class.

In the classroom, a teacher provides lots of opportunities for guided discussion. In her online class, she creates both asynchronous forums with well-designed, provocative topics, and some scheduled synchronous activities in which students can talk in real time.

In the classroom, a teacher creates a student-directed learning environment, where student interests and agency are paramount. In her online class, she does the same in an open, online environment.

In the classroom, a teacher Skypes in guest speakers, and has students interact with others around the world. In his online class, he does the same.

When people say “you can’t just translate your on-site class into an online class”, what they mean is that if your class is only non-interactive factual lecture, a pedantic printed textbook, and set exams, bad things will happen. The instructor could just write out their lectures, make assignments, and create tests. S/he will focus  more on “putting things up” on the LMS in their current form, the content will be dull, and the students may fail to engage.

So there is a risk and an opportunity here. Encourage teachers with dull pedagogies to go online, and it’s possible, but unlikely, that anything good will occur. Encourage teachers who are cognitive of their own approach, who think about their teaching, and who already design experiences that best combine their own strengths with the needs of the students, and good things will happen.

Then instead of telling instructors their pedagogy must change, we can  focus on showing them how  to achieve a good translation of the work they already do.

The other digital divide

I read carefully a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune called Online Class Takers Less Likely to Pass. I am interested in online successful retention rates, the percentage of students passing the class. For online classes at community colleges, successful retention has always hovered around 10% lower  for online than traditional classes.

The 10% holds. According to the article, online class successful retention rates are about 60% at California community colleges vs 70% in traditional classes. The article wants to examine why.

But it also presents an even bigger gap. The article says:

Researchers also found that achievement gaps are exacerbated in the online world. For example, the gap between white and African-American students in traditional classes was 12.9 percentage points; that widens to 17.5 points in online courses. They said that might be partly a reflection of the digital divide, where some students don’t have access to computers and broadband.

I’ve heard this argument many times, that the digital divide makes it hard for students to access the technology they need to be successful in online classes. I think someone needs to acknowledge that this is far less true now, in this state, in this country, than anywhere, ever.

Historically, those with lower incomes tend to purchase items for social reasons, even at the risk of sacrificing quality in housing and food. This has been true since at least the Victorian era, and Thorstein Veblen even wrote a book about it in 1899. I have a number of socio-economically disadvantaged students, and they all have smart phones.

As for race, according to Pew research, more AfricanAmerican and Hispanic people in the US have smart phones than “white” people. And, if we want to get away from race and look only at income, 47% of people earning less than $30,000/year have a smart phone.

Although I don’t recommend taking an online class on a smart phone, many of my students do.

In addition, all the college’s students have access via our computer labs on all our campuses, and local public libraries.

This is not that kind of digital divide.

Someone needs to talk about three very real reasons that there is an offset online achievement gap for certain groups:

1. The primary pedagogy of online class continues to be text-based.

For most online classes, the assignments include reading text. Lots of text. And students must write for most of the heavy General Education classes, and they must do it in standard written English, at the college level, on their smart phone or a crowded library. It seems to me likely that those who do poorly with text would have a better chance of success with alternative assignments. That said, such assignments may not be considered appropriate by the instructor as a way of determining whether material was learned. In my history classes, you must write.

2. Students expect flexibility of time to mean less time.

This is mentioned briefly in the article, that students may enroll thinking an online class will be less work. I think it’s just a confusion between flexibility and total time. Self-directed students budget time appropriately, but others assume that because they can work any time, the total time for the class will somehow be different. If you ask students how many classes they can handle during a semester, they often assume they could handle more if the classes were online.

3. The lives of those struggling to meet basic needs is not conducive to the concentration required of online classes.

Here we have to make the jump from race, which is the focus of the article’s statement, to class, which is more to the point. When you are raising your siblings and carrying two low-paying jobs to feed everyone, even if you have a smart phone there may be no good space in which to work. There’s no time to go to the library. I have a number of students from military families and others with very complex arrangements at home. I have students who have been thrown out of the house and are living in their car. For these people, the time spent in a classroom may be the only time they have to focus on the material. Online classes are a poor option.

This last one is the divide no one wants to talk about, because it involves getting into a deeper discussion of poverty, and the lack of social services and public money available to help. Start talking about this, and you must talk about food stamps and living in a country that provides help for tuition at community colleges but can’t help people with hunger and living circumstances. It’s easier to blame poverty itself for failing to provide the means to buy technology.

If the reason for achievement differences were access to technology, the gap would have narrowed in this age of the rapidly increasing adoption of mobile technologies. But it hasn’t – the 10% hasn’t budged. It won’t surprise me if the larger gap holds too.

After over a decade of this, I’m looking forward to the discussion of the digital divide getting broader.


Paying it forward for extra credit

Yes, of course I offer my students some things to do for extra credit. But near the end of the semester, the last thing I want are more things to grade.

So I do things like Glogster poster assignments, or a speed quiz. But this semester I did something different. I asked them to make a video clip answering the question, ”What’s one tip you would give to a new student in a MiraCosta online class?” Then I put a few of them together to help future students:

I didn’t announce it. I just put a link called “Extra Credit – Short video” in a Moodle forum. The exact wording of the assignment was:

For up to 3% extra credit, create a video of yourself answering the question “What’s one tip you would give to a new student in a MiraCosta online class?” I will be creating a MCC version of a video like this one. Your video should be about 15 seconds long.

Post your video to YouTube and embed it in this forum (do not attach a media file).

Privacy issues:  

  • If you don’t want to appear on camera, you can do a paper slide video instead.
  • Do not use your name in the video unless you want it made public.
  • If you need your video to remain private, put the setting as private in YouTube, give me permission ( to view it, and put the URL here.

Important: to get extra credit, you must indicate in your post whether or not I have your permission to use the video in public, because I plan to put these together for next semester’s students.

Grading criteria:

3 -  one great tip, articulate, good production values (video and audio), filmed on Oceanside or San Elijo campus, includes statement of permission to use

2 – one very good tip, articulate, OK video and audio, filmed outside anywhere, includes statement of permission to use

1 – one good tip, fair video and audio, filmed inside

I came up with it because I was looking around for a cool video for students new to online classes, one that preferably had students in it instead of some prof telling students what’s what. And I found very, very few (including the one I used here as an example for them). So I decided they could help me do it.

It took very little time for me. They did the video work, obviously. There were a few too many phone videos, and not as much emphasis on quality as I would have liked, but since I made it an option in all five of my online classes, there were plenty of clips (over 20) to choose from. I didn’t by any means use all the good ones – just some. I liked the result so much I wrote the students saying I hoped to use this as an example to other teachers and on my blog as well as a resource for students, and to let me know if that wasn’t OK. Everyone was cool.

Technology: I downloaded from YouTube using a Firefox plugin. I took the ones with low sound and used Quicktime to extract the audio, then Audacity to boost it and do some noise control. Then I dropped the resulting QT files into iMovie.

I highly recommend this!