Textbooks (yes, again)

Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.

This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.

nobleadvantagearoowsWe started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.

I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.

So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.

Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:

  • Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
  • Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
  • Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.

The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?

When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.

How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?

By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.

The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.

So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.

It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.

Practice and principles

The tension between theory and practice occurs in many fields, and it is certainly marked in online education. As with many academic disciplines, in online education the practice began without a foundation in research, since one can’t research what is essentially new.

As college professors, many of us began (years before there was online anything) by actually teaching. We had very little, if any, training in education or pedagogy. Some of us became good teachers anyway, because we loved what we did, we wanted to share our knowledge, and we cared about students. We learned about principles, research and techniques as we went along, and rolled them in to our practice.

So the idea that we should start with principles when introducing faculty to online teaching seems strange. We now have a good mix of professors who began as “just” practitioners, and those who have had training in teaching techniques. We learn from each other regularly.

So what are these principles, the ones I think should come later in the process? Jim Julius, our current Faculty Director of Online Education, recently put together a workshop on Foundational Principles. It was designed to be the “glue” that holds together a mashup of his office’s workshops with those of our Program for Online Teaching. We are running these this week.

His slides are great! Many of the useful principles I learned as I went along over the last couple of decades are there: Bloom’s TaxonomyUniversal Design, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles, the Community of Inquiry model. So much useful stuff.

As a POT workshop presenter, I am not sure where to use these, however. I know that many faculty come to online teaching concerned about technology, time, and tools. They are professionals already in the classroom, and may be excited or fearful (or both) about teaching online. At POT, our motto has always been Pedagogy First. We want to start with faculty as professionals who have already developed their own approach to both their discipline and their teaching. To present them with principles seems to ignore the knowledge they already have, and suggests that they need to somehow “start over” to teach online, that they don’t have the information or skills they need. Our focus is on the individual instructor, and his/her pedagogical strengths. We want to help faculty translate these strengths into an online class, while exploring online environments and tools they may find interesting. So our approach goes the other way when it comes to principles – we help faculty review the methods they’ve already found effective, and work from there. The principles come up naturally during the evolution of practice.

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The Cart Before the Horse, Flickr cc Emilio Labrador

As a practitioner, then, I find myself dealing with principles by reverse engineering from what I actually do. Here’s what I do, here’s what works – oh yeah, it happens to fit this model and is affirmed by this research. That may be proof of one of two possibilities: (1) I actually read this stuff somewhere without knowing it and unconsciously applied it (this seems unlikely) or (2) the techniques I developed through practice using (and continually revising) my pedagogy were good enough to be backed up by research that came later.

That does not mean that what I do could be considered “best practices”. Rather, they are the best practices for me to use, until I decide to try something else.

The concept of foundational principles, to me, seems to imply a model of “best practices” that apply to everyone. That may be a perfectly valid way to introduce newbies to online teaching, or it may do two very bad things for faculty: limit their approach by making it seem that a certain way is “right”, and intimidate them before they even start.

I am a historian. If I had been presented with the “principles” of History before I did any, I wouldn’t have gone into the field. Most disciplines are like this — the “methodology” or “proofs” course is taught at the sophomore or upper-division level, then again in graduate school.

POT’s Certificate Class tries to combine advice, exploration, self-awareness and a bit of theory, but always starts with the instructor’s pedagogy, not principles. So if we err, and I’m sure to some we do, it will always be on the side of practice over principles.

 

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.

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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.