Whose discussion? (my 500th post)

For years, I didn’t have a “discussion” in my online classes. When I changed the discussion forum to a workspace, a place for students to post primary sources to support their writing, I didn’t miss the “I agree” posts or the obvious display of ignorance intended to pad a certain number of posts a week.

What started cropping up, though, were bits of discussion. A reply to a primary source, or to a writing assignment, because a student was particularly moved or related to the subject. And there didn’t seem to be enough opportunity to discuss issues in history, controversies and interesting perspectives that weren’t covered in the material. Plus, it was clear to me that the students had too many writing assignments. I was asking for them weekly, not very big assignments, but because they were scaffolded they required a lot of grading and feedback. That was hard to do with so many students, and they were getting bored with the work even if I wasn’t getting bored reading them.

So last summer, where the 16-week class is compressed to 8 weeks anyway, I had the students writing weekly, but there was also a discussion. I assigned students to groups randomly once the enrollment settled down. Then I made simple instructions, and modeled by leading the first discussions myself.



In the third week or so, I posted the student-led discussion forums, with instructions like this:

Grading was just rolled into the Contribution Assessment grade at mid-term and at the end of the class.

The result was excellent last summer, so I decided to keep it going this year. I model the first two discussions with questions and ongoing participation, then the groups are supposed to take over. This semester has been very different from last summer, however. A couple of groups had to be contacted to remind them to start discussion. One student wrote me complaining that another student had plagiarized his discussion question off of an educational website instead of creating his own. Now in Week 12, the discussion participants are fewer in every class.

So what’s different?

1. The instructions are a little more specific.
Last summer I was pretty vague, and didn’t insist that they connect topics to lecture or readings. While I added this to bring the focus onto the course materials, it may have stifled some freedom.

2. The discussions are every other week in the 16-week format.
This may have encouraged lost attention and boredom over time. A shorter, compressed format seems to keep focus better in general. This may be a good argument for 8-week classes.

3. The Contribution Assessment happened only once.
I was doing a mid-term and end-of-term assessment, but dropped the latter because the point of it was to help students recognize and improve their performance, and it’s too late to do that at the end of the class. But I may have gotten rid of a stick/carrot motivation for participating in discussion during the last half of the semester.

4. The students are different.
Last summer I had one Western Civ class full of university students, and one US History class full of typical community college students. At the start of the term, the university students were gung-ho, then they faded. The community college students’ behavior was reversed — they started slowly and gradually became more engaged. So I assumed that I would see similar patterns. But in all of this term’s five sections, there is just one pattern — about a dozen particular students are really into discussion, and the others are just posting to post. I can tell because they don’t reply to each others’ posts, just to my prompt.

So what to do for this summer? I think I should keep the format. But for next fall? Should I create my own discussions? Drop them again? Gotta think on this one.



Spaces, the web, and the classroom

I was delighted and inspired by Jenny Mackness’ recent post on Spaces at an exhibition. One could take each space and envision ways in which it is a metaphor for a learning space as experienced by a college class (yes, that’s my perspective and I’m sticking to it).

I answered Jenny on Facebook:

Screenshot 2014-04-05 at 7.20.28 PM

 My physical classroom at San Elijo is wonderful in many ways – it has two doors and windows that open, a big projection screen, a computer that works, and four large whiteboards.  But with the exception of a few old college announcements and a two-decade-old project poster on Israel, the walls are blank and there is no visual stimulation in the room other than the people in it. While I understand the monastic impulse, the space still seems sterile.

Compare this to the content-rich, ever-distracting web.

We think of our online classes as being on the web, but most of them aren’t on the web – they’re inside an LMS, isolated from the internet. New online instructors often sense this sterility and add images and videos. But the images are often decorative rather than instructional, and the videos are now embedded, which is great for convenience and less distraction but less suitable for exploration.


The assignments would be the logical place to allow for exploration, as I do with my students collecting primary sources from wherever they can find them (article on this forthcoming). And yet I see so many classes where all class materials are given inside the LMS space, and I wonder whether we are afraid of field trips because we know that richness also means distractions, and predictability is very important to the success of many of our students. The web is never predictable.

Where are the structured web spaces, the ones where we as teachers know what’s there, but where students can explore? Databases full of primary sources are boring. Where is the equivalent of installation art, where the artist defines the space but the interpretations and experience are left to the viewer?


Stagnation (a cranky post)

Not that long ago, there were exciting new things to try in ed tech. It was easy to get enthusiastic about not only new products but the way the web was going, and to encourage faculty to jump in.

But in the last few years, the web has gone stagnant. Certain models of development, and certain tools, have become dominant, and online teaching has become far less excitiing.

1. Education is seen as a market.

Education, as Apple has known since 1981, is a market. But instead of marketing products toward innovative faculty, now products become “enterprise” and are marketed to administrators. This is a larger version of the problem I wrote about six years ago. Then, the Learning Management System, particularly the dominance of Blackboard, stifled innovative pedagogy, especially for novices who just plugged things in to the system. Now we have that writ large. We limit what’s available because restriction is seen as the only way to offer “support” (which faculty now desperately need – see #7). Educators are no longer seen as having special standing as users, with full-featured accounts offered for fee — we are just a target market like every other “consumer”.

fbcartoon2. The web isn’t as friendly anymore.

A couple of years ago, I got a note from an irate blogger because I was using her education blog to try out a feed aggregation plugin for WordPress. She thought I was making money off her work. Last week, I received a notice from Zoho, because my last post linked specifically to their LiveDesk page. They asked me to change my link. The link in my post. In my blog. Apparently linking to anywhere in a website other than the main page adversely affects their Google SEO standings.

We have pulled people away from the idea of creating their own web spaces, because it’s so much more convenient to just use Facebook or Google. In addition to the stalkers and evil net users we’ve always been afraid of, commercial entities like Apple and Google now collect, use, and sell our personal information and web use habits. We are watched, tracked, bought, sold, folded, stapled and mutilated on the web. It’s gone from playground to panopticon.

3. Tentative faculty were right.

When faculty were afraid to work with web 2.0 tools, we used to talk about the possible creativity. When they worried that they might work hard on something only to have it disappear, we’d talk about the transience of everything on the web, or how much benefit their work would have for students. But they’ve been right. Even though I’ve preached for years not to keep your important stuff on the web (even this post is backed up in plain text), I have been affected by the loss of tools like Posterous and the audio feature in Slideshare. Colleagues have been impacted by price hikes for Ning. Things that we created learning objects in for free now charge $49/month.

4. Nothing new is out there.

This is true pedagogically and technologically. When the new exciting thing is Haiku Deck (yet another simple tool for making what is essentially PowerPoint slides online), we’re in trouble. Tools that really do something new, like Prezi and Blabberize, are becoming very rare. This is despite the institutionalization of open source as a viable alternative to proprietary development. Now the purpose of development is to Beta a product, then monetize as quickly as possible. Almost every tool I’ve used has either disappeared or gone “freemium”, with the free version (think Blogger) being almost useless for any sort of innovative teaching. The IPO for Twitter is more than economic news — it’s emblematic of the move to commercialism in a way that creates stagnation within the product. All development will now be aimed at monetization.

And the tools themselves just perpetuate the same ways of doing things. We have failed to move beyond PowerPoint. Although we are better at designing slides (huge slides of text are now the exception), it’s still the same idea. Slideshows with audio were not exactly innovative (they duplicated the teacher talking through a filmstrip, if you remember those), but they were at least useful until Slideshare did away with the soundtrack (my last post tried Thinglink and Soundcloud to do something similar). The emphasis, unless you are a professional web developer or video-maker buying big products, is on easy sharing. Pinterest, the most recent “new” way of doing things, is just an easier version of CoolIris, which is just an easier version of posting images on a web page. Blogging plugins are aimed at monetization and search standings. And none of it ever got easier – wikis are still as hard to use as they always were. Sure, we can shrink-a-dink stuff for mobile. But I see little that is new (my online colleagues tell me gaming has seen all the innovations).

5. Online teaching has institutionalized in the wrong direction.

There were initially two models for online teaching. One was the DIY, faculty-driven, creative, early adopter, free development model. The other was the enterprise system, LMS-for-sale, cookie-cutter classes model. The latter featured scalability via automated grading and servers that could handle hundreds of students. When MOOCs became popular about five years ago, both models were in use. In adopting the standardized model as an answer to high college expenses, and promoting it in the best universities, the standardized, commercial model has won. When big universities other than its originator (Stanford) become commercial partners in Coursera, for example, that’s pretty clear.

6. The field has professionalized, also in the wrong direction.

cc BK at Flickr

cc BK at Flickr

Instead of faculty becoming experts in educational technology as part of a creative process, and being supported by their employers to get certificates and degrees to teach others, educational technology and online course administration are now their own fields with their own PhDs. This means that individuals who have never been teachers and have very little experience create small-sample studies and get degrees that net them jobs administrating experiences for faculty. The entire process promotes the idea that ed tech is too complex for ordinary faculty, promoting dependence and lack of agency.

7. Creativity is being outsourced.

A correlary to this trend is that the fun part (or second most fun part, depending on how much you like students) is being done by others. Creativity in teaching online comes in three places: course design, course materials development, and interactions with students. Most online teachers have great potential for developing good techniques for the latter, especially if they have teaching experience in other settings. But the creative fire, and the development of ones own online pedagogy, is being outsourced to “course developers” and “teams” who take the “burden” of creating courses off overworked faculty.

What seems to be advancement, then, has stifled online teaching.

Lessons of technology

I am a historian of technology – it’s what I do. In discussing some of the above disillusionment with my colleague Scott Johnson, he mentioned how prepping an online course is seen like housework – an ongoing process that people need relief from. Back in the 1980s, historian Ruth Schwartz Cohen wrote a book called More Work for Mother. It was about the changes in domestic technology at the turn of the last century (washing machines, vaccuum cleaners) and the way they were supposed to save labor. But instead, they caused a change in standards for cleanliness that increased their necessity. In addition, they put more of the burden on women, since they no longer needed help beating rugs and hauling laundry tubs.

The promise of technology for improving learning has been realized to a certain extent on the learner end – it is now much easier for the self-motivated, research-oriented students of information and perspectives to save, share and innovate within their own learning experience. But for teachers it’s “more work for mother”, as technologies, instead of relieving a burden, place too many demands on our time for too little return. That not only leaves teachers tired and willing to give up their pedagogical freedom to the nearest ed tech PhD, it leaves the students who need a lot of guidance out in the cold.

A silver lining

There are a number of ways to deal with all this. Most involve some pruning, and even a return to previous ways of thinking.

Select the right tools
When we create something on the web, we should only do so in places where we can download a copy in a typical format, like mp4. Otherwise, we should avoid the product.

Focus on one technology that works
Online courses could be simplified. Select one technology (video, audio, slides) and make that your own. And by “own” I mean created in a way where you can save a copy before uploading to YouTube.

Return to basics
If the technology is turning into a time-suck, return to the more personal way of doing things, like assignments and feedback by email.

Use the technology when it truly saves labor
An automated gradebook where students can log in and see their grades saves labor. Automated grading for multiple-choice or formative assessment saves labor. Other aspects of technology (internal messaging systems, clunky captioning tools, things you have to spend 15 hours learning) may not be good time investments.

Outsource the things you hate
Take advantage of whatever systems or people are provided to you for free, and learn the features or tasks they provide that make these tasks easier. But prioritize first based on what you like – if you love course design, keep it for yourself.

Play with a purpose
It used to be we’d play with the newest gadgets and apps so that we could build permanent things, but this doesn’t work. So play with the intention of learning about technologies in general. All the skills can be transferred to other web technologies.

Go to where you are
If you love your LMS, stay there and learn to use it well. If you prefer WordPress, learn all about it. If you’re a Google fan, become proficient. Don’t worry about going to where other people are (Facebook or mobile apps) if that’s not your thing.

When technology causes loss, or bad changes, instead of improving our lives, we should evolve. I got rid of my dishwasher because it was a continual source of disappointment – it didn’t get dishes very clean, and it got to the point where I was pretty much washing them by hand anyway. So I bought a bigger dish drainer, removed the dishwasher, and gained some badly needed kitchen space. But before that happened I wasted a lot of time and effort working with the machine’s inadequacies, because after all it was supposed to save me time and trouble.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when technology is controlling us instead of the other way around. If the web isn’t providing exciting options anymore, it’s time to adapt and get some of our space back.

Thinglink + Soundcloud test

I’m finally getting around to trawling for new ideas over at the POT Cert Class.

I listened to Joanne’s Soundcloud in her post, and was reminded – oh, yeah, audio!

I thought, that’s a nice picture of her. And the audio is playing over it. Would it be possible to make that a set of images that changed? After all, I’m still smarting from Slideshare’s cavalier decision to delete all my carefully synced audio lectures from my slide sets. So I put “soundcloud images” into DuckDuckGo, and somehow ended up at this page saying how you could add SoundCloud audio  to an image in ThingLink, which I’ve never used. So I got a ThingLink account, uploaded an image, tagged it “LACMA”. Then I went into SoundCloud, used its new Record feature to record an audio test, then went back to ThingLink.

I added another tag and put in the URL for my SoundCloud audio, and changed the link image to a play button. Then I clicked Share to get the embed code to put it all here. Here’s what happened (mouse over if you don’t see the link buttons):

I know where you’re coming from

Starting a new year means starting a new semester, and this time it will start a week early.

The issue today was IM. My classes are in Moodle, but I’ve always used a status button so students can communicate with me instantly if I’m online.

Moodle has something called Messages. Back in version 1.x, I couldn’t tell which class a student was in when they Messaged me. Instead of fixing this in 2.x, they made it worse by removing all user information outside the courses completely, making it not only impossible to tell which class a student was in, but impossible to get back to where you were working in your course site.

I used to use Google Talk Chatback Badge instead.  It didn’t tell me which class a student was in, but at least it was easy to let them know I was available, and they didn’t have to have a Google account or log in. That’s gone. The option now is Hangouts and other stuff where they have to join Googleland. I can’t be responsible for making someone violate their own privacy that way.

Then it was Plupper, which I routed through iChat. It’s been down all week. I don’t know if it’s coming back, but all week isn’t OK, so I went hunting again.

I was getting miffed that I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was running all over the web trying to find a free service. I began to realize I didn’t really need “chat”, but some sort of help-desky thing. I was at first delighted to find Zoho LiveDesk (link removed at request of Zoho) which I could adapt. i could even create different badges for different classes. Then I discovered that this multi-button feature was only available on paid accounts – it turned out I had somehow entered a 30 trial that would expire. So much for that.

Then it occurred to me. I rent my own server space – I wondered what open source stuff was hanging out there? I found Mibew, and installed it. It even built its own database (though I had to go in and tweak a bit).

Their button was not exactly what I needed (I won’t be turning blonde and I’ve never looked that happy):



So I got into GIMP and made my own:

Then I made one for offline:



After installing Mibew, I was able to set up each class as a “group”, then create button code for each group, so I can see which class they’re coming from! A unique button went onto each class site – I tested them and they work.

I used the Localization feature (which was highly customizable) to change “Live Support” to “For My History Students”, my designation as “operator” to “teacher”, and the language of client and user to student.

It may not be perfect. It may fail. It may crash. Keep in mind, I don’t code. I just know enough to change other people’s code.

But as I was doing this today, I suddenly realized I was Reclaiming the Web, a goal of many smart people for 2014. Happy New Year!

Lecturing as modeling – a defense

The lecture has been under attack for some time now.

Most recently, I read Tony Bates’ analysis of productivity and online learning.  There were so many issues in it, I could not possibly tackle them all here. His focus is on ways to create productivity gains, so already I am struggling. Education is about changing people’s minds, rather than collecting data for student success and determining what qualifies as “good” course design. If online classes had been put in these terms (productivity, data collection, scale, content development, quality), I never would have agreed to create my first online class back in 1998.

But here I’ll just tackle the idea of “content” (meaning subject-based information) as conveyed via lecture. A couple of quotations from Tony’s post:

Content is only one component of teaching (and an increasingly less important component); other components such as learner support and assessment are even more important.

and he notes work like mine as an “impediment” to progress:

[F]aculty often see themselves as  creating unique and original material in their teaching; this is true occasionally and needs to be respected, especially where faculty are teaching about their own and related research. Often though faculty are merely repackaging prior knowledge. That prior knowledge is increasingly being made available and open for anyone to use. 

This “repackaging” of prior knowledge is also called, among historians, “interpretation”. Essentially, doing history is a process of analyzing sources and creating new knowledge through new interpretation.

New knowledge itself is a repackaging of information and previous knowledge, in any field. To move a subject forward requires either building on or rejecting past knowledge from a foundation of understanding that knowledge.

So when I lecture, I am reframing the historical information and arguments (which we call historiography) into my interpretation, which I am sharing with students via lecture.

Can they find the information on Wikipedia? Indeed they can. Do they have the skills to formulate this information into knowledge? Most do not. Do they need modeling of how to do that? Yes, they do. That’s my job.

We are not talking about the medieval practice of reading aloud from scarce texts, used here by Michael Ullyot as a justification for flipping the classroom. Even if texts are read aloud, the job of the reader in any age is to gloss them, not just read them verbatim. Even in times of scarce texts (the ancient world’s yeshivas come to mind) the scholar’s role is to interpret.

If I do not model ways to reframe the facts of history, I am not teaching. I can do it through lecture, or commentary, or notes on exams, but however I do it, I am engaged in instruction. And because I share my interpretations, based on my knowledge and experience as a historian living in the present age, they are unique, or at least rare.  Students on every evaluation comment on the usefulness of my online lectures to their understanding (while many skip the assigned “content” reading).

Again from Tony’s post:

[T]he quality of open educational resources developed by faculty working alone, without applying best course design practices, is often very low and such ‘open’ resources are often not considered suitable for re-use .

My online lectures may be seen as “low quality” if other people tried to use them in their out-of-a-box course. They are openly available, and Creative Commons licensed, but I’m supposed to feel bad because they aren’t appropriate for adoption by others? If they aren’t “suitable for re-use”, I hope it’s because other historians are sharing their own interpretations, by whatever method.

I think it will become important for online “artisan” teachers to be able to defend their approach, to be able to articulate why our methods are superior to those that emphasize cost effectiveness and economies of scale. If we don’t, it will be worse than just being out of a job or being forced to simply assess student work based on someone else’s “good” course design. We could undermine the very foundations of our disciplines.