Maybe free is bad – something else not to talk about

I have just spent the last few weeks doing as I meant to do for the last year – creating a book of Wikipedia text and my own edited primary source documents to create a free textbook for my students in Western Civ I.

Now that I’ve finished, and it’s all ready for my summer classes (both as a pdf they can download and print, and chapters inside my online class), I can go back and catch up on my reading about online teaching.

One of the things I’m supposed to be reading about is OEI, the California Online Education Initiative being run by a number of wonderful people. What they’re creating, however, will undermine artisan course design and bring in rubrics that already have several good online teachers in tears.

As part of this project, there are courses being offered by faculty at several institutions. A number of faculty have volunteered to have their classes be models for the new system (I declined when I saw the rubric). The word “model” has now been thrown around the administration as meaning they are great classes.

Some may be. Some of the most lauded, however, are taught with prepackaged course cartridges and full technology from a major publisher. I went and looked at that publisher’s offering for one “model” class, their costly package to students, and found what I expected – the cartridge is essentially teaching the class.

While it’s sickening that this kind of thing is the new “model” course for the future (I’ve ranted about that elsewhere), I was looking at the price. $177 new, with rentals varying from $80-133.

In all classes except one, now, I’ve given all the materials to my students. They don’t need to buy anything. My classes have students who go in and out, don’t do all their work, fail because they don’t follow instructions. In the “model” canned course, student success rates are high, as is retention. Extremely high. Only 10% seem to leave the class. Grades are high too. In History classes overall, it isn’t unusual to have 20% drop the class. We have always thought this is because our History classes are more demanding than what is being offered in other disciplines.

But there may be another aspect. If one pays $177, perhaps one is more dedicated to the class? Or could it be that the canned class makes it easier for students to pass without much stress (i.e. thinking) so they tend to stay? Or could the canned class be better? for whom? for learning? or just to make everything easier for everyone, student and instructor alike?

But wait! I know of another discipline (again, not mine) with high student success and retention also, where their online numbers equal their on-site numbers, but the classes are not canned, and in fact are outstanding artisan classes. The book? $95 new, $52-72 for rental.

My conclusion? I should not be creating free materials – it may be devaluing the classes I’m teaching. I know it’s not the quality of the materials – not only do I edit them all myself, but I have reviewed dozens of textbooks (see my name in many of them) and most are not very good. It’s the perception of the quality of the materials.

I had a student comment on an evaluation that he didn’t want to read the article I had linked from Wikipedia, because it made him feel like he wasn’t in a college class – if he wanted to read Wikipedia, he didn’t need to be paying college tuition. (Of course, he isn’t paying much tuition – the state has him covered – but that’s another post.) The quality of the article wasn’t the point – it was Wikipedia, so it must be useless.

If I’m right, the point that has gotten lost in the anger at high textbook prices, the insistence that community college remain open access, and the administrative concern about retention, is that students may want to pay high prices for textbooks. It may keep them dedicated to the class, even when they have to borrow money to buy them. I don’t think anyone really wants to talk about that possibility.

Let’s not talk about it

Preparing for the next semester is always when I analyze what is and isn’t working this semester. The discussions, which I left open for students to lead and get extra credit for, aren’t working. In previous semesters, I’ve tried guided discussion, group-led discussion, and open discussion. I’ve tried weekly forums, fortnightly forums, and one big forum with topics.  I haven’t been satisfied with the results of any of them.

Turns out I’m not alone. According to a recent article (1), others are frustrated also. Most of the participants in the study “believed students prefer not to interact with other students in online courses, and this is reason enough not to do so.” They mention open chat rooms no one used, and forums with little participation. They even noted that the “Help I Have a Question!” forums went unused, and that their primary mode of connection with students was, comfortably, email.

And these are teachers to whom overcoming the distance is important, and who want to create a caring environment for students. They are experienced online professors, who have been “influenced by past failures”:  “teachers admitted forgoing some attempts to develop significant learner-learner interaction despite believing it was a necessary component of the web experience”.

In addition, the study points out that our students (underprepared community college) likely require tons of guidance:

In situations where students will likely exhibit low levels of autonomy, either because of unfamiliarity with technology or the complexity of the course materials, the faculty member may need to provide early substantial support and dialogue, while students projected to have greater autonomy may benefit more from socially constructed knowledge and less formal structure from the instructor.

So perhaps there are two factors here – student antipathy to discussion, and their need for firm guidance and structure, working against the open method for forums. I have noticed that my own “Help” forums, which used to get a lot of posts, don’t anymore – students vastly prefer emailing me, and if I really want to be helpful I answer them (rather than saying “post in the forum”).

I’m considering limiting discussion to just a few – specifically on controversial or extra-deep topics. And perhaps encouraging it around the primary sources they post each week. And eliminating all other forums.

Yes, it seems we are going backward, but that shouldn’t be surprising. My honors students asked this week about the format for the final project, and I was trying to link them to some tools when I discovered that most of the free tools (Voicethread, Glogster) aren’t free anymore. They asked if I wanted PowerPoint. No, I don’t, but if they have it that’s what they’ll want to use.

Considering that more students this semester than ever before are struggling with basics (following instructions, comprehending reading, learning from text, submitting their work each week), I do not believe I can afford to “push” them technologically. I will offer cool options, but only as options.

And I should likely spend my time firming up structures and pathways. Let’s not talk about it.

 

 

 

 

1) John A. Huss, Orly SelaOranim and Shannon Eastep, A Case Study of Online Instructors and Their Quest for Greater Interactivity in Their Courses: Overcoming the Distance in Distance Education, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, Volume 40, Issue 4, Article 5, 2015,

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)