I struggle with textbooks, yet I need a form of context that students understand intuitively. In my rejection of traditional texts, I have been exploring both the new online pathways-though-text offered by publishers like Cengage and Pearson. My experiment with Pearson went badly, and reminded me that the answer is still open resources, free if possible.

Right now all my classes have these elements:

  • Textbook or context reading, sometimes with quiz questions (about 15% of student time)
  • Lectures I’ve written and recorded, with quiz questions I wrote (about 20% of student time)
  • Primary sources inside those lecture, and that used to be in my printed workbook (about 10% if they read them)
  • Constructivist primary source collection creation and writing (about 40%)
  • Writing on those collected primary sources (about 15%)

The main challenge is how to balance the textbook reading, and any accountability via quizzes, with the rest of the workload, particularly the primary sources inside the lecture.

US History II

Open Education Resources include history textbooks, but there are very few. OpenStax_US-History_700x906After much searching, I have discovered one I like for US History II, even though it is left-leaning (a whole chapter on the New Deal? really?) and needs some reorganizing. Unlike most of the OER history texts, it has review questions, is written and peer-reviewed by historians, and comes out of a respected university (Rice). It even looks like a textbook. OpenStax’s system allows a somewhat cumbersome but handy way to reorganized the sections and chapters. I can even rename them. After about 24 hours, it creates a solid PDF version of the book, with a table of contents, repaging and automatic transferring of questions and terms to the appropriate section. While it will take time to extract the questions for quizzes, I think it’s worth it given the quality of the text. I will likely lose the focus on the primary sources inside the lecture – the textbook is too large. But since my US students tend to be at a lower level than my other classes, they likely need both the security of an ordinary-looking textbook and the information it provides. I am testing chapters this semester in all three online sections, even without quiz questions.

But US is it. There are no similar quality resources available for Western Civ, World History, History of England, or History of Technology (my new class!).

History of Technology

BookCreatorSo for Western Civ I tried to create a book from Wikpedia articles, using Wikipedia’s Book Creator. This has not gone well. Wikipedia is for the most part fine from a factual perspective for common areas of history, but some sections are written in too much detail by total fanatics of that particular era or subject. I have spend many hours trying to make it work. For History of Technology, however, I might just need a basic Western Civ overview as background – all else would be articles and primary sources, in addition to lectures. I have created a book from a single overview article. I can add my own stuff with PDF using Preview, perhaps, or just have it online.

Western Civ

103bookFrustrated with the Wikipedia book, I began copying Wikipedia text of the sections I liked into a Word document, and editing. For Western Civ I, I have finished. I have a complete textbook of Wikipedia text edited carefully by me, with main terms in bold, the primary source documents from within the lecture included at the end of every chapter, and quiz questions I wrote from the resulting book. I am using it for the first time this semester in both the online and on-site sections of the class.

It will take time, but it looks like I’ll be doing the same for Western Civ II.

History of England

It is the only class with a published item students much purchase. I wrote my own quiz questions out of it. When they stop publishing The Penguin Illustrated History of England and Ireland, I’m in trouble.


I have had to take open resources in hand myself – I have found nothing that can be adopted wholesale, like a traditional texts. But traditional texts have their own problems, of coverage, rigidity, poor supplements, bad quiz questions, etc. And history texts are costing over $100 now, which wouldn’t be so bad except they aren’t good enough for that kind of money. And my own texts I can edit, re-edit – they can evolve over time at no cost to the student except for printing if they’d like to print.

I’d like to share all this. The Wikipedia books aren’t mine – I’ve done the editing but only written some of the text, and adding documents I have been using for years, most of which have passed copyright clearance on more than one occasion when custom published in previous book efforts. If I do construct quiz banks out of the OpenStax chapters, I’d like them to be available for others to use (my created book already is, inside the OpenStax CNX system). OER should be, well, O.

But it looks like it’s not enough to do OER. Looks like you have to create Build-Your-Own OER.

A really good start

Every semester I encourage students to start their online class by posting in the forum (variably called the Pub, or Coffee House, or Taverna, depending on the class). I usually ask them to do a couple of things, like update their Profile, take a distance ed readiness quiz, and introduce themselves. Although I encourage them to reply to each other and make connections, I always have classes where it’s all left-justified responses to my post – they don’t talk to each other.

This semester is totally different – they’re all talking about what it’s like to take an online class, and what their hopes are for this one, and how they’re getting organized to stay on track (not staying on track is, to my mind, the #1 reason for failure in online classes).

What made the difference? Well, I made a video about the class, but I’ve done that before. No, I’m convinced it was putting this video, usually just a link for the class, embedded right there in the forum.

I’m guessing that they “see themselves” in the video, students like themselves. They watch it because it’s right there at the start of the class, inside the discussion, right at the top.

The video is patched together from last year’s extra credit assignment, where I asked students to make a video clip with advice for new online MiraCosta students. I graded them higher if they filmed on campus and offered a really good tip. They had to give me permission to use their video publicly. Then I just edited and uploaded to YouTube.

It will be interesting to see how things go from here. Will they talk more in the posting forums, where discussion is not required? I don’t even have a grade for discussion or contribution this semester. Will they stay motivated? Will they stay enrolled? Let’s find out.

Canceling the experiment

Yes, only one day later, following the completion of the zillions of questions I wrote for the activities, I am canceling the experiment (see previous posts on the experiment and its challenges).

I think the last straws were:
1. The photo of a Gay Rights poster that said, “Gay is NOT a choice” with a caption that talked about being gay as a “sexual preference”,
2. The lack of text transcript for any of the songs or speeches, including Woman by Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis’ audio from prison,
3. Trying to overlook spelling and grammar errors that I’d mark if they were on a student’s paper,
4. Pearson throwing all the assignments (over 1,000) into the Blackboard grade book, instead of the ones I’ve assigned, with no option to just use those (the two options were “all” or “select”, meaning one at a time),
5. Discovering that Mac OS (10.6 or 10.9) running Chrome won’t work with Blackboard because of Java issues, so I have to use Firefox, and
6. Realizing I have just lost over a week to this that I could have spent improving my own materials.

So, alas, no cool article comparing artisan courses to canned courses. At least until we’ve got better canned courses.

Challenges of the Experiment

In my last post I detailed my experiment for Fall, wherein I will teach one section of modern U.S. History online using a publisher’s course package, adding only my own discussion topics (four) and writing assignments (five). All other presentation materials and assessments will derive from the package. The class will take place in Blackboard, our fully supported college system.

There are challenges already. The package is set up by chapters, yet chapters cannot be assigned individually inside Blackboard. I have “linked” my Pearson package to the Blackboard class, but all this means is that a button can be used from inside Blackboard which takes you out to the Pearson site. (Supposedly the Blackboard gradebook will reflect the Pearson grades – I’ve “linked” that too.)

PearsonListBut that’s not the real challenge – it’s the material. For each chapter, there is a long list of resources: document activities, image activities, map activities, “closer look” features. Since each of these has at least one question attached (I assume that’s the “activity” – there’s nothing else active here), I assumed these were multiple choice questions, for automatic grading. Turns out most of them are “essay” questions, all of low quality (i.e. “what is x talking about in this document?”), that I would have to grade. I’ve assigned over a dozen for each chapter. Besides, the whole idea of the experiment was to be using their pedagogy as much as possible instead of mine.

So now I’ve spent many, many hours creating multiple-choice questions, one for each document or image. Because I’m an experienced teacher, my questions are good and require critical thinking even though they’re multiple-choice. That in itself may undermine the experiment.

The other (huge) challenge is the quality of the materials. Not only are the questions stupid, but the items themselves do not contain full citations. Some are just copyrighted “Pearson”. Many do not name a photographer, or just say “Library of Congress”. PearsonClipSome don’t even have a date! They let you into just enough code that I can kind of correct some of these by adding words to the title. But there are audio files with no lyrics or transcripts. And, worst of all, the primary source video clips (Edison’s footage of Annie Oakley, footage of the Rough Riders) are in low resolution and look terrible. I could find better quality of the same footage using Internet Archive. There are also typographical errors in the transcript and in the titles and descriptions of the sources.

The interface for me requires a lot of deep drilling to do things, and the system persists in showing items I supposedly made invisible because I won’t be using them. It does, however, distribute any changes I make across the system.

Clearly MyHistoryLab is just a book supplement, rather than a full course cartridge, and yes, I expected much more. REVEL, their new, more interactive program, only became available yesterday, so I can’t use that yet because I don’t have time to play with it and make assignments. Stuck with MyHistoryLab for this semester, I can only hope this will be a semblance of the experiment I planned.

The Jekyll and Hyde Experiment

Cybermen_formation_DoomsdayAs I continue to advocate hand-made “artisan” online classes and openness and freedom, all forces are moving in the other direction. New education initiatives lead us into forced, system-wide learning management systems, standardized rubrics for evaluating what makes a “good” online class, and tracking mechanisms that give surveillance a whole new meaning.

So I’m going to give the other side a try.

cc licensed Vicky Hugheston via Flickr

cc licensed Vicky Hugheston via Flickr

Right now my online classes are designed and developed by me, and taught in the only LMS that allows for nested single page forums (Moodle). Nested single page forums are essential to the primary source assignments I believe are best for students (and on which I published awhile back).  My self-designed classes feature my own lectures, written in HTML by me, with embedded media elements throughout. I wrote all the quiz questions myself, and have moved almost everything toward free, open resources (one class still has an atlas). My writing assignments are scaffolded and designed to support my learning objectives and student learning outcomes.

But this semester one of my class sections will be different.

For one section of US History, I will abandon all artisan elements of my class. I have searched through the modern US History course packages and cartridges available from the major publishers. They were all quite expensive. I chose the least expensive option with the best textbook (Faragher’s Out of Many). Pearson is developing what they call a REVEL package for this text, but although due out this month it does not appear to be finished yet, so I will use the previous package, MyHistoryLab.

blackborgflickrI’ll use Blackboard as the LMS. I’ve linked the Pearson MyHistoryLab account to the Blackboard course. Although this was supposted to provide “integration”, what it provided was essentially a button that links the student out to the Pearson MyHistoryLab website. Frankly, I was expecting something a little more sophisticated. I know that several of my colleagues use course packages that are more seamless, but I guess History isn’t one of the hot sellers for this stuff.

For this Blackboard class, I am making sure I have all the elements written up in articles on “Best Practices” for online classes, including:

  • BestPracticesNextExitAn introductory video about me containing some personal revelations
  • A forum for students to ask questions
  • A full syllabus with complete schedule and all pertinent rules required by the college
  • Discussions with insightful prompts (no “one answer” questions) and required interaction
  • Frequent low stakes assessment (robograded)
  • Speedy evaluation of all work (mostly robograded)
  • A variety of media – text, documents, images, and video

One thing I can’t bring myself to do is write a statement of Netiquette. I just can’t do it. Since I removed such a statement from my syllabus, I have had absolutely no problems with anyone posting bad things.

I am striving to make the class as standardized as possible. I will, however, have to change a couple of things. MyHistoryLab doesn’t cite its sources for primary source images or documents. They just write “Copyright Pearson” on everything. Some of the photos don’t even have a date. None name the photographer. This is bad History. But it’s a publisher’s product, so it must be OK, right? Nevertheless, I may feel obligated to add a few accurate citations.

The other thing I can’t do is substitute my writing assignments for Pearson’s. My scaffolded assignments fulfill half of my student learning outcomes, so I’m keeping them. It’s just that instead of students going out on the web to find their own sources and pursue their own interests, they will have to use sources from MyHistoryLab.

Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde (1)I call this the Jekyll and Hyde Experiment because it feels like I am two different instructors. Jekyll teaches “old-fashioned”, hand-made classes designed to provide students with choices and freedom within a structure. Hyde will teach with materials and assessments developed and sold by someone else.

I realize that many, many online teachers have to be Hyde all the time. At most for-profit diploma mills, faculty teach a course developed by a “team”. The only way to insert their own personality is in the Staff Information page and their Discussion Board prompts. So this experiment should also give me a better understanding of my colleagues who have far less freedom than I have had.

Then we will see. Will the students in the canned section do better than in my artisan sections? Will they be happier? Will it make any difference at all?  I’ll blog as we go….

The tyranny and comfort of “best practices”

[Originally posted at the Program for Online Teaching website, May 2015]

According to Wikipedia, a “best practice” is one that “has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark”. The page also notes that it is considered by some to be a business buzzword “used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things”.

Without knowing this, I became hostile to the term “best practices” about online teaching early on, for a number of reasons. It hadn’t been around that long, and I couldn’t help but notice that most of the people touting “best practices” were not, themselves, practitioners. And yet, the literature abides:

And that’s just the first few entries in Google.

So what’s wrong with all this?

Such lists, which vary from each other, can easily become prescriptive.

Taking the Penn State list as an example, everything sounds, at first, quite reasonable. Everyone would appreciate the need for the teacher to monitor submissions, but it is apparently a “best practice” to “remind them of missed and/or upcoming deadlines”. The professor is thus responsible for providing reminders, even if the course is already set up with clearly established deadlines. Perhaps I would be expected to send out text messages every week to remind them of every quiz, even if my pedagogy were designed to encourage them to monitor their own workload.6675224737_e680a2e684_m

“Provide meaningful feedback on student work”, it says, and tells us not to say “good job”. This could be interpreted in a number of ways. With my weekly assignments, it could require me to provide full textual feedback to every student every week, which would be impossible. Instead, I use a qualitative scale.

I notice that the Penn State list includes matters of college policy rather than pedagogy, all mixed in to “best practices”.

Or there’s this example:

Here the best practices are all put together into a template used by all teachers in the system, in order to reduce “the cognitive stress students report in navigating educational materials”. And yet many students want similar systems as a convenience, regardless of the learning experience the professor is trying to create. We are heading toward the “canned” course model, where academic freedom runs a distant second to standardization.

6675432873_3379c15d93_mThere is a fine line between “best practices” (meaning some good ideas that you might use), and “college x’s best practices” (the rules which you must follow). The buzz-phrase makes it sound as those these practices have been proven to be “best”, when what’s best is actually affected by instructor personality, discipline, pedagogy, technical knowledge, and other variables. I’ve seen very little agreement on what constitutes what’s best in any sort of teaching, much less online teaching.

Limited knowledge, as usual, leads to efforts to reduce the cognitive load, not of students, but of instructors. It is much easier to follow administratively-led best practices than to determine how to develop ones own online pedagogy. For many faculty, it’s more comfortable to do what you’re told than to develop your own way. We struggle with this with our students – developing inquiry-based exercises and problem-based learning can be difficult when students insist they want to just be told what they’re supposed to learn.

I think it’s wrong to encourage a limited view of teaching online, supporting it with selected (and often very small sample) “studies”, and calling it “best practices”. Doesn’t seem like good practice to me.

Images by Barry Dahl, cc Flikr