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.

Embedding stuff: the missing manual

We’ve had some assignments at Pedagogy First! lately where we asked people to embed stuff, but didn’t tell them how! 8-0

Sooo….Here is a YouTube video on embedding a Slideshare slidecast into Blackboard, Moodle and WordPress:

Here is another, on embedding a Jing video from into Blackboard, Moodle and WordPress:

And here is one on embedding a YouTube video (like these) into a WordPress post:

The dangers of segregating the digital sphere

I have begun to think it is dangerous to consider the digital, the online, the technological, as separate from the whole.

Partly this thought is a result of attending Martin Weller’s presentation this morning for the Change MOOC, where he presented a wonderful discussion of Digital Scholarship. But my question was whether the attention given to digital scholarship as its own issue doesn’t undermine the effort to have it become mainstream.

This goes beyond the “no significant difference” argument that comes up periodically for online teaching, although for me it started there. At our college, online teaching came about as a “modality” or “mode of delivery”, because it was 1998 and we were trying to offer it as an option for students. We taught ourselves how to teach online, all before learning management systems, best practices, or student learning outcomes. And most of us involved said it was just teaching, doing what we do but adapting it for a different “classroom”. I’m not sure I ever saw the difference between “online education” and “education”, or my “online U.S. history class” and my “U.S. history class”.

It’s not that I don’t acknowledge differences between the relationships, work tasks, and communication we engage in online and those we engage in face-to-face. But I also acknowledge differences between relationships, work tasks, and communication in various face-to-face settings, and it has always been that way. If we say “online community” instead of just “community”, we imply a separate reality that may or may not be the case. Rick Schwier’s presentation in Alec Couros’ EC&I831 last night noted that there are many ways that communities form in online environments, and of course there are many ways that communities form in-person also. Schwier noted that some of us use multiple online personalities, reflecting the in-person reality that you don’t talk the same way to your priest as you do to your coach as you do to your mom as you do to your college president.

A class is a class to me, whether it’s taught under a tree, or in a circle, or over the internet, or by hand-written snail mail.

I’m going to argue for completely ignoring the fact that things are “digital” or “online”. In terms of scholarship (it’s own heavily-laden word), continuing to fight for the acceptance of “digital scholarship” perpetuates the idea that it is somehow different from “regular scholarship”, that is is not as real. We shouldn’t focus only on the vetting of articles, the false scarcity of  information and the tyranny of for-profit journals, but on behaving as if it’s just scholarship. The same standards (peer review, for example) should apply if  you’re going to say it’s real, or scientific, or important, but whether it’s online for free or in a bound pay-walled journal  is irrelevant in terms of its value. It’s either good research and useful to me, or it’s crappy research regardless of format.

This is why I am against the idea of having a “dean of online”, a “coordinator of online education”, or anything else that segregates the digital aspects of education into their own sphere. If we do that, we continue to emphasize its differences. While this may be an advantage up to a point (getting funding for online projects, justifying masters programs in educational technology, paying government employees to create standards and rules for accessibility), it also provides ammunition for those who are resistant to technology and resistant to change. It packages the “technology-enhanced” and the “online” and the “distance ed” into something that is easier to dismiss and de-fund. Such packaging can also discourage innovation by making “online education” a specialization beyond the understanding of ordinary faculty, something that requires strict management by administrators. And that packaging can be literally packaged, by selling “online courses” created by “teams” at for-profit institutions, or “course cartridges” in Blackboard, available for those too controlled or too timid to create their own classes.

The distinction thus gets in the way of professional development, when good faculty feel they are entering a new and scary world instead of just extending something they already do skillfully — teach.

So I’m declaring myself against “digital scholarship”, “online community”, “distance education”, and anything else that applies a special adjective to something wonderful we do as humans but happen to do using a computer.

And no, that doesn’t mean my Facebook “friends” are my “real friends”.

Defaults are bad

I’ve said it before, but the evidence is clearly stacking up.

Take “Hackgate“, where devious journalists apparently hacked people’s cell phones. How did they do it? No complicated geekiness involved, really. Each cellphone provider programs its phones with a default password. Few people change it. So it’s easy to log in as someone and get their info.

According to Tristan Stewart-Robertson , “Most people wouldn’t think to change the standard manufacturer’s code, such as 9999 or 0000, to protect voicemail, and so it’s usually quite easy to access.”

In other words, leaving your cell phone on its default is bad.

Do you like WordPress? I do. When I set up a new blog, it gives me an “admin” username automatically. But since it does that for everyone, it’s easy to hack into.

So you need to make your own account with a password, make that account an Administrator, then delete the default account. Because default is bad.

As online instructors, we do it with Learning Management Systems. Blackboard says this menu button is for syllabus, so we upload our syllabus there. This button is for discussions, so we create them all there. This one is for quizzes. Now they have one called “Content”. Oh my, that’s helpful.

My class is organized like a syllabus. I need a button for Unit 1, a button for Unit 2. Every time we do a workshop where one of our faculty demonstrates how we’ve adjusted an LMS to make it look like a syllabus, we see light bulbs go on all over the room. We have, over the years, called these workshops things like “Making Blackboard Work for You”, “Redesigning Blackboard”, and “The Interactive Syllabus”. Yesterday our presenters Andrea Petri and Laura Paciorek gave a workshop called “A New Wardrobe for Blackboard: Technical Basics of Instructional Design”. Andrea showed us his class, organized into units, with each unit a page full of links, all in one place for that unit.

We’ve got tutorials, like this one on creating an interactive syllabus in Blackboard by Pilar Hernández . We have a handout showing a logical chapter-based LMS menu. Laura Paciorek made a screencast on how to change the Blackboard menu . And still, the first thing most new instructors do is load their .doc syllabus into the Syllabus or Content area. Sigh.

Not changing the defaults is akin to leaving the light flashing 12:00 on the VCR (you remember VCRs, right?). Next semester we’ll offer another, longer workshop. We’re thinking of something like “Creating Learning Units in Blackboard”.

Because defaults, you know, are bad.

The LMS and the adolescence of web learning

I am noting this semester that although our surveys still show a substantial preference among students for Moodle over Blackboard, more students than before are whining and saying they want just Blackboard.

The main reasons are that they’d prefer having all their classes in one system (convenience), and they don’t want to be confused by using a new system (ease).

I am concerned because I sense that the “one LMS to rule them all” viewpoint is getting more and more traction, and that the new argument (as opposed to administrative, top-down, management arguments) is going to be that students prefer it. Diploma mills like to standardize their LMS configuration for all their classes to control content and teaching, but they justify it by saying that it’s easier (read: better) for the students. This thinking is bleeding into public education.

While I understand the desire for convenience, I have long argued that when students take classes online, they are learning not only the subject matter but technology skills. Being exposed to more than one system means they are learning transferrability of those skills, which I think is important in the workplace. And it’s more important than the inconvenience of using a second log-in (which they do anyway because they have Facebook open at the same time).

On the issue of ease, there may be levels of web learning maturation at work here:

Childhood: people who are very new to using the web for learning tend to accept what is given to them, because they don’t really know what the options are. When online learning with the LMS was new, most people were in this category.

Adulthood: people who use the web a great deal and in varied ways tend to do better in online classes, and assess the worth of the LMS (or any tool) based on how well it works for the course.

Adolescence: in between are the adolescents. They know just enough to be dangerous. They have enough experience to want convenience and not enough to understand the larger issues of pedagogy, including the restrictiveness of an LMS on what the instructor wants to do. They can drive but have no sense of how traffic works.

And they haven’t been exposed to enough good online classes, or enough online classes that customize the system sufficiently. If you take five classes in Blackboard, and in each one the instructor has left the course menu items pretty much intact, than that is what you think a Bb class looks like. You know where all the buttons are.  The students don’t know this, but the way I would use Bb, my class could look just like it does in Moodle:

Well, pretty close anyway.

Why it’s important to deal now with the “teen angst” of web-adolescence:

1. Not customizing the LMS to suit your pedagogy implies that we all teach the same way. If we all teach the same way, then a computer can do our work instead. (I’ve been reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind – he’s pretty clear that if a computer can do your job, eventually it will.)

2. Instructors should use the tools that best create the environment they want, and that increasingly means web applications that require multiple log-ins. Students should get accustomed to using separate tools for separate tasks, just like in the real world.

3. Acknowledging the teen view means taking it seriously, but it doesn’t mean developing policy around it. Just as parents try to mitigate the excesses of the teen diet and habits, we owe students our wisdom in creating the learning experience that is most appropriate. (Oh dear, I’m starting to sound like Edmund Burke again.)

In a world dominated by look-alike online classes, the tendency will be to assume all classes should be that way.

In a world featuring variety and creativity, the tendency will be to assume these as part of learning online.

I’d much prefer to both learn and teach in the latter.