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]

6675297699_299d827878_m
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

Grades: the low-down on the drop-downs

In addition to submitting a grade for each student, and a last date of attendance of they failed, we are now asked to assess the level of learning outcomes for each student for two elements: critical thinking and global awareness.

Our grade sheet is starting to look like a data entry form.

I have heard faculty complain that this is ridiculous and impossible – it would take far too much time to reassess each student’s class performance in outcome areas (last year it was just one) as well as their final grade.

I don’t think so.

I remember many, many years ago, we had a full faculty meeting about developing and tracking our first Student Learning Outcomes. It was the third or fourth iteration of this idea, and we were all sick of it – sick of hearing about this stuff that had clearly come in from the outside, through administrative fiat. And one of my favorite colleagues stood up and said, “Don’t we already have this? It’s called GRADES.”

I’ve never forgotten that. The grade I give means something. I spend a lot of time determining what percentage of the final grade counts for each assignment and skill. So does my grade now mean nothing when set up against outcomes? Do I really have to reassess each student for their demonstration of critical thinking and global awareness?

No, because these are built into the Course of Study, the class design, and my pedagogy. When I give that final grade, it says something already about the student’s achievement in critical thinking and global awareness.

The drop-downs have levels of achievement on these:

gradesurf
My default for a real passing grade (A, B or C) is “Practitioner – Met”. If they hadn’t met my standard for critical thinking and global awareness, they wouldn’t have passed the course.

My default for a D or F is “Apprentice- Not Met” if the student finished the class. If they stopped attending, it’s “Novice-Not Met”.

If I recall their work as being excellent, Critical Thinking jumps to “Expert – Exceeded”. Few get this designation – I am the expert, and few excel in either critical thinking or global awareness. But if they did, I remember it – I don’t have to look anything up.

Similarly, I recall other details leading to exceptions: the brilliant expert student who got a D for not turning stuff in, the B student who didn’t know where China was, etc. Again, no need to look those up.

So even though it seems burdensome, the process goes pretty quickly. Because I trust my grades.

Co-posted at MiraCosta’s Reflections on Practice blog

Rhizo15: Toppling the teacher

Historically, when a dictator is removed from power, all the factions being oppressed by that dictator fight each other for power. This happens regardless of the peaceful or democratic or socialistic ambitions of those who topple the dictator. In ancient Greece, the pattern was from monarchy, to oligarchy, to tyranny (in this case a ruler brought to power by the people), to democracy, and then often back again to monarchy.

This isn’t because monarchy is a natural state, necessarily. It is because having been under a monarchy or dictatorship, people have had little opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to build something better, particularly with other people.

If we look at our educational system, many have described it as a hold-over from 19th century industrialization, the need to teach people to be good factory workers. This isn’t really true, as many great and creative thinkers came out of those schools, and made improvements in education as well as work.

But it’s a handy narrative for those who want to create a “freer”, inquiry-based experience for students, instead of emphasizing rote learning and one-size-fits-all curriculum.

ComierToppledSo this week we ask whether we could get rid of our glorious leader, Dave. We don’t want to focus on getting rid of Dave as Dave – Dave is so inherently likable, and he gave us all this opportunity to get rid of him. But if he were a dictator, and we were to topple him as a symbol of industrial education, with the goal of creating our own inquiry-based class, would it work?

Yes, because this class is full of people who have, usually through their own efforts and sometimes exclusively so, aquired the skills to be able to do that. If we do it with our students, it can certainly work for some of them (there are many examples of successful inquiry-based classes), but only if enough students acquire the skills necessary to function in that environment.

It is unlikely that students suddenly without a teacher would fight among themselves for control, however. Instead, they would likely seek another leader. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly, in committee meetings, classrooms, and local government. Many people do not want to inquire – they want to be told what to learn, what to think. When we open up the curriculum, they are lost and frustrated without enough guidance.

How do we get past this, help students (and ourselves) acquire the skills necessary to direct their own learning? Won’t we just be leaving different people behind when we topple the dictator?

Rhizo15: But I like content!

As Rhizo15 leaves the week about content (obviously I was not paying attention), I feel obligated to be the voice at the back of the (now empty) room saying, “But I like content!”

oliver-twist-007I love it. I’m the kid who sat on the floor reading the encyclopedia. I’m the student who got thrown out of the library when it closed. I’m the one looking up studies on the internet. I love content. All content. The expression of human knowledge, going back for centuries. Give it to me. In books, online, in text, on video. I want it all.

Why do we diss content in favor of connections? I like connections, I learn from them, but only when I bring something to the table. What do I bring? What do my students bring? Understanding of, or questions about, content. Content is what we’ve read, seen, heard.

Let’s not remove content – please don’t take it away. If we do that, we’ll all be connecting and communicating, but about what? About connecting and communicating? I like information – it gives me something to argue about.

Say, all these Rhizo15 tweets and posts I’m reading – they’re content! The product of other people’s minds, set out for me to absorb/enjoy/dispute/misunderstand. We create content, we share it, we respond and the response is more content.

I’ve MOOCed and rhizomed and connected and I still love content. The content we’ve inherited, the content we’re given, the content we discover, and the content we make.

Rhizo15: Symbolic measurement

I can’t measure learning, only the symbolic artifacts of learning.

That’s not so strange. We measure civic responsibility by how many people vote, but we can’t measure how “good” those votes are, the extent to which they are backed by intelligent thought or research into the issues. We can only measure outcomes.

As a college instructor with over 200 students and no assistants, I’m in an impossible situation to assess learning. I can only assess outcome achievement. I pretend that I can create assignments that will produce symbolic artifacts of learning. Then I grade the artifacts.

But it’s all a ruse. A student comes in with certain skills. Perhaps they already know how to learn, or have already learned the subject. They get As and Bs because they are engaged and eager to learn. When I give them an A for producing excellent outcomes, I have no idea whether I am grading their learning. What if they already knew or had examined the material before my class? What if they did all the work, but it didn’t change their mind or approach in any way? The “A” is a measurement of outcome achievement, regardless of background.

Similarly, the student who turns in no work at all may have learned something, something amazing, something that may or may not have related to what I taught, but was connected to my class. I’ve had military wives who learned, not history, but how important it was for them to have somewhere to be each day. I had a surfer guy who learned that if he synthesized information and then created his own interpretation, his conclusions were valid and could be important to others. I have students who learn that if they are polite to me and treat me with respect, they will in turn be treated with respect, and students who learn that faceless institutions don’t have to be impersonal.

If my measurement for that were individual, it wouldn’t relate to their grade in History. If my measurement were societal, I’d need to look to society. When I look to society, I see an awful lot of people behaving as if they’ve learned nothing from history. So instead I hope that they learned what they needed, whether or not I was able to assess it.

(this post related to the Rhizo15 class)