Navigating the treacherous waters of the LMS

A student wrote me last week asking when the extra credit is due in her class. Since I had put the due date next to big red letters as a label in Moodle, I told her the date (of course) and asked if she was able to see it at the site. I sent her a screenshot to be (a bit impatiently, I admit) helpful:

extracreditdue

She replied, thanking me and telling me she hadn’t seen it because she uses the “list on the left”. Confused, I asked what she meant. To me the screen looks like this – no list on the left.

myscreen

It turned out she is using the Navigation menu, which I have docked on the left side. I never use it.

I looked at it and noticed it didn’t have any of my labels, just a list of the Moodle activities that have links:

MoodleNav2

Here’s that week as I designed it, in the center column, the main page:

Moodlecenter2

 Notice that my labels, which have the due dates, are not in the Navigation menu. This prompted me to tweet:

loststudenttweet

The Navigation menu, which surely more than one student is using, cannot be removed, even if I were running my own installation, which I’m not.

So here is where the technology forces me to change my method, and messes with my design. These things are due every week on the same day. I have the labels to mark them clearly, and they are convenient to replicate throughout the class. They also set a clear pattern, like a calendar.

But if students are using the Navigation menu, and I cannot stop them, my method is poor, and it would be better to put the dates in the description of each activity, or at least have “Due Tuesday” in the title of the activity.

However, what happens when I have a reading assignment from a book? I have one class coming up this summer where I am using a textbook, because I haven’t yet edited a satisfactory version of my Wikipedia-based textbook. So my Moodle page looks like this:

103Moodlepage

The lectures will appear in the Navigation menu, because they will be linked. But students will not be able to see the reading assignment, because it is a label, because there is nothing to link it to — it’s a real, page-ridden textbook. To fix this, I’d have to create a page for each reading assignment, which is likely what I will have to do.

Students will also not see my introduction to each week’s material. :-(

Hours await me of removing labels I had painstakingly created for five classes, and making activity pages for things that are not activities, all because students are using a Navigation menu to navigate. Super.

Student authentication and the Hays Code

Recently, my college (and many others) have been subjected to demands that we provide solid “authentication” of our online students, in a late and yet hurried attempt to comply with a federal law from the 2008 amendment of the Higher Education Act*.

Ostensibly “student authentication” means somehow proving that the students who take our online classes are the same ones who registered. (This implies that some of them are not, of course – we know that students may have others take classes for them, and that it’s easy to do this online.)

The 14th c. University of Paris,
a hotbed of plagiarism

We ignore, of course, that this form of cheating also happens in the classroom, where we do not force students to show ID and it’s possible to have a mom take an entire class for her kid. We ignore that our on-site students may have others write their papers for them, or buy papers. Entire degrees have been earned by people who were not the ones enrolled, at least since around the year AD 1150 or so.

We react to these problems nowadays by freaking out and instituting methods right out of George Orwell’s 1984: video cameras that watch students take exams (1), keystroke analysis (1), thumbprint verification (2), double-level passcodes.

The big, easy solution is proposed by those who believe in the true “authentication” provided by Learning Management Systems in conjunction with student enrollment systems (3). When a student applies and is given an ID and password to the enrollment system, we assume they are who they say they are. Then we carry that assumption into an LMS that has data fed to it by the enrollment system.

All other places except the LMS are considered “insecure”, because only the enrollment system-LMS password link is considered proper verification in the absence of the more draconian methods listed above.

I have argued extensively and in multiple venues that the structure of the standard LMS adversely influences the pedagogy of online teaching, especially for novice instructors (4). But the days are clearly coming when we will be forced to use the college-supported LMS and only that system (this is already true for many people at many colleges). We have tried to avoid it at my college by developing various policies through faculty power channels, all of which have been gradually dismissed.

A more reasonable approach than either Big Brother or LMS/enrollment is the argument of pedagogy as verification. Teachers should know a student’s writing style, and be able recognize when they vary from it. Frequent assignments, of course, are necessary to do this, and it’s all highly subjective. One way to manage this subjectivity is to implement requirements that faculty offer a certain type and number of assignments, or use particular strategies for assessments (5). One should not give assignments, for example, that can be easily purchased or copied from elsewhere. While I agree that we shouldn’t do this anyway (unless it’s part of analyzing such works), forcing an instructor to change how they do assignments is as bad as forcing them to use the LMS.

The issue here isn’t one of technological appropriation and student verification. It’s an issue of pedagogy and academic freedom. The professor’s right to teach a course with their own methods is clearly undermined by each of the proposed “solutions” to student verification. Gradually American citizens have been deprived of their civil liberties in the name of national security, and college instructors are experiencing the same in the name of student verification. And yet colleges consider these as technical problems, and few faculty are doing anything about it. Many faculty who do not teach online respond to such issues with the same learned helpless they use to repond to educational technology in general.

haysposterThe only hope, since this incursion cannot be stopped, is to respond to it like Hollywood responded to the Hays Code (6). The Hays Code, in all of its horrid repression of creative expression, forced movie makers to be even more creative. To get around the rules, they came up with new methods, techniques, and memes. The result was an era of screwball comedies and cool mysteries. Many stuck to the rules but got around the intent of those rules, designed to produce only “wholesome” entertainment.

Of course, they also re-cut great films from before 1930, and the restrictiveness affected film-making until the 1960s.

I am trying to determine an appropriate response to the Hays Code atmosphere that is infecting online teaching. Surely somehow the restrictiveness could lead to more creativity?

 

———————————-

* The push actually isn’t the 2008 law, but the recent popularity of MOOCs and the desire of many to have have universities accept them for credit. Since they are open courses, often on open systems, the verification issue is more obvious.

 

(1) Mary Beth Marklein, Colleges try to verify online attendance, USA Today, July 16, 2013

(2) Adam Vrankulj, Human Recognition Systems to launch platform for student ID and attendance verification, BiometricUpdate.com, June 27, 2013.

(3) Jeffrey L. Bailie and Michael Jortberg, Online Learner Authentication: Verifying the Identity of Online Users, Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol 5, no 2, June 2009.

(4) Lisa M Lane, Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching,
First Monday, Volume 14 Number 10 (27 September 2009).

(5) Justin Ferriman, How to Prevent Cheating in Online Courses, LearnDash, July 11, 2013.

(6) The Hays Code http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html.

Openness in a surveillance society

I have been so critical of Learning Management Systems for the past ten years that people write to me asking what I use instead of an LMS, even though I usually use Moodle and blog about it. I have written articles on how the LMS determines pedagogy, and spent much time helping faculty put their pedagogy before the demands of such systems. I have been a huge promoter of using Web 2.0 tools for teaching. I just want to set up my credentials here to preface my concerns about using what used to be these more “open” methods.

In May of last year, I indicated reservations about the way things have gone in terms of openness. In this post, I was wary of closed/open spaces like Google and Facebook, where students could be exploited.  In June I indicated I wouldn’t switch from the anonymous Google Talkback to something my students had to sign up with Google for. That was before the recent public understanding of our surveillance society, brought home by the revelations of Edward Snowden. His work seemed to mark an endpoint that originated with Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy’s famous quotation from 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

My concerns mean I have agonized over terms of service, along similar lines of Royan Lee, whose excellent blog post inspired this one. . Lee writes, in noting the mainstream acceptance of Google for education despite its Terms of Service.

“Suddenly, the amazing qualities of something like Google Apps for Education seems a little more about efficiency and logistics and less about transformation to me as an educator.”

Whenever I ask students to get a free account to do a Glogster or Slideshare, or open a group for them in Facebook, I think about these things.

There is a Google Community called Using Google Apps as a Free LMS, so I posted a link to Lee’s post there and got an excellent question in response:

questiongooglelms

My response indicates how this is coming together for me.

I would never be one to defend a commercial LMS as a better system. But it is closed in the sense that under normal conditions only the institution has access to the student input. And thinking about it more broadly, student input in the LMS is usually very focused on the course (this depends on pedagogy, of course – some students may indeed post highly personal information in the LMS). Using Google or any open-to-the-web service for classes connects the students’ personal use of that system to their coursework, widening the surveillance opportunities. Same thing with using Facebook. I’ve leaned toward my own hosted WordPress as a more balanced option, but certainly the functionality is not up to the ease of use as Google. My concern is just that the ease comes at a price.

This presents some confusion about open and closed, and what they mean in a surveillance society.

“Open” can mean available to anyone on the web without a password. But it can also mean accessible to ISPs, government surveillance, and commercial data collection. I don’t think we can ignore that anymore, even as we promote open education (I do!) and sharing (yes again!).

It means that a system like Google or Facebook can be “open” in the sense of available to surveillance, and “closed” in the sense of having to sign in and participate in places within the system that are supposedly “closed off” to other areas of the same system (like Google Communities, Google Circles, Google Apps for Education, Facebook Groups). Such areas are deceptive – they imply privacy that does not exist, even as Google and Facebook change their policies to expose more and more of these closed places to the public (for example, Facebook group posts showing up on your timeline) and to their own commercial data collection.

Very few people understand this. They think signing in and turning off Facebook settings and keeping our Circles of people separate implies some privacy. The purpose of signing in is not to protect your privacy. It’s to enable tracking and consolidation and data collection. And while I admire Royan Lee’s goal in spending a lot of time teaching his students about Terms of Service, I need to teach them History. I cannot save my students from the insatiable hunger of Big Data.

Lee is right in corresponding a society that accepts ongoing surveillance by the government with our acceptance of the terms required by web services. They are very similar. It is said that we accept surveillance because we believe if people aren’t doing anything wrong, what’s the harm? We extend this simplistic thinking to our web participation, if we think about it at all.

The solutions seem to be narrowing, to self-hosted LMS options like WordPress or Moodle or one of the newer open-source options. Even then, if you are logged in to Google and use Chrome, for example, your work in other systems can be tracked and (I assume in paranoid moments) recorded.

The closed LMS unfortunately is likely to be safer in a world that doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s just that wasn’t the world in which I wanted to work.

What’s in a name? and where am I?

A little over a year ago, the LMS I use (Moodle) was hooked up via a tool called Conduit to our college’s online enrollment system (SURF).

This meant that when a student enrolled for the class in SURF, their information would automatically appear in my class roster of participants in Moodle. Blackboard had been connected for awhile, but I hadn’t used Bb. I had been using self-enrollment with Moodle, where I gave students the URL and they made an account for themselves. I liked it this way, but the college decided on integration, so despite my protests, we integrated. There were major technical problems at first, but those have been resolved now. The more serious problems, however, remain.

A student’s name appears as their college-registered name, and cannot be changed. If they prefer to be called Jake instead of Jacob, or use their middle name, they can say so in the introduction forum, but everything they post will still say Jacob. Every message they send to each other and to me through the system calls them Jacob. The name they prefer to use (the one we ask for a write down when we take roll in a physical classroom) disappears in an obscure forum. Their very name is taken away.

A lesser, but annoying, problem is that the “short name” of the class has to be set as a series of numbers for the system to work. This changes the breadcrumb navigation so that users must click on the numbers to get back to the main page of the class. Before SURF integration, I used a shortname that made sense, like “Main Page” or “History 103″. But now it’s “0807895″. Imagine being deep in the class and wanting to get back to the main page and seeing navigation that says

breadcrumbs

And on top of that, if you accidentally hit the back button in the browser in a frantic attempt to get, you know, BACK, you get popped out of the system and get this:

shibboleth

You have instantly been thrown an error by a system you’ve never heard of, represented by a griffin who looks upset with you.

The other advantage to the self-enrollment practice was that students had to enter their own information. Although many refuse to recognize it, the fact is that few students use email to communicate. They use texting and Facebook, and rarely check their email. Thus the emails they entered in SURF way back four years ago when they first registered are often invalid, and they don’t get the emails asking them to update their email address. If they do check their email, they don’t know that spam filters could be throwing everything from MiraCosta in the trash. So if there’s a problem and you need to connect with them by email, it’s been made harder with the integration. With self-enrollment they at least entered their current email, increasing the chance that they’d see mine.

So despite Moodle’s wonderful nested forums (the reason I use Moodle), the system can now dehumanize, frighten, and disconnect students within minutes of starting a class. I can’t see that as progress. Yet another case of administrative efficiency (in this case, authentication and standardization) trumping both the affective and organizational needs of students and teachers, and making things more unfriendly.

POT Cert changes

pflogo2We are planning for the Program for Online Teaching Certificate Class for fall, and there will be some changes!

We’re keeping the independent blogs.

After discussion about having all participants as authors on one blog, we’ve decided that the “space of ones own” concept was too important to lose. MiraCosta instructors will continue to have the ability to get a blog through the college. For others, we’re no longer encouraging Edublogs (which makes you pay now to embed video). We enthusastically encourage a hosted blog of ones own, but we realize not everyone is up to that challenge. We are moderately encouraging WordPress.com. We’re noting that Blogger seems to work rather well, so it’s the first time we’ll recommend that. Since we aren’t aggregating, there are more choices – people could even use Tumblr.

No more FeedWordpress or a big aggregated blog

This turned into a nightmare that could only be improved by being a coder, which I’m not. Dealing with recalcitrant feeds (and finding them when people can’t tell where they are) became a major time suck. I can use another plugin to create a page of feeds if I want to, but it won’t be the core of the course. I still recommend the FeedWordpress method to anyone who has coding knowledge, time, and/or the staff to make it work. I have no staff.

Commenting will be part of a larger community are instead of on the blogs.

Last year, posts were aggregated and clicking to comment led back to the participant’s blog. The blog and comment (call and response) model has not been working as well as we’d hoped.

There are many reasons for this, but my take is the basic idea that blogs weren’t really intended for conversation, only commenting. One purpose of blog comments was to make sure participants knew they weren’t blogging into a void, but this wasn’t always achieved despite the very best efforts of our mentors, moderators and participants. Requiring comments leads to useless comments, and not requiring them leads to very few comments. The method was not fostering community. And no, I don’t believe it would have done so even if the comments had stayed on the aggregated blog. Moderators weren’t really moderating a conversation, but rather giving attaboys which, while important, did not provide real conversation.

Instead, we’ll be asking participants to share a link to their weekly posts in a new Google Plus Community, which is where all discussion and commenting will take place.

No, this is not ideal. There are privacy concerns (well, not so much privacy as Inappropriate Gathering and Use of Personal Information) in forcing folks to use Google. The same was a concern in our Facebook Group, where much interaction has taken place. But in order to introduce participants to the largest social networks being used for education, and in order to have meaningful, recorded and open synchronous sessions, we’ve decided to go with Big Brother.

Workload is reduced and more options provided

It’s a heavy course, with much reading and many tools. We’ve reduced these by providing options (for example, try a video or audio tool, not one of each). We are moving some of the readings into an “optional” column.

A badge can be earned for one semester

We’ve changed the structure to divide the 24-week class into two 12-week semesters, each with a different focus: Online Pedagogy for fall, and Online Education (for spring). Each can earn a badge, with both badges within two years required for the certificate.

This will provide a reward for those completing one semester, and choice of focus. Fall is heavier on pedagogy and course setup; spring is heavier on tools and theory. Beginners will be encouraged to start in fall, but more experienced online instructors are welcome to hop in for spring.

So we’re still working, but these are the ideas so far!

Fixing what is broke: 36 customizations for Moodle 2

These are the settings I think need to be changed by administrators to make Moodle 2 a working LMS for teachers.

ADVANCED

Enable outcomes, stats, RSS, completion…
Advanced settings -
“Enable Outcomes” – check for yes
“Enable RSS feeds” – check for yes
“Enable completion tracking” – check for yes
“Enable conditional access” – check for yes
“Enable plagiarism plugins” – check yes if MCC is using them
“Enable statistics” – decide whether server load is worth it

USERS

Remove emails from gradebook
Users–>Permissions–>User policies -> Show User Identity -> uncheck email

GRADES

Enable recovering of previous grades
Grades – General settings – “Recover grades default” – check box

Enable tab navigation in Grades
Grades – General settings – “Navigation method” – tabs

Enable static colum for student names in gradebook
Grade – Report settings – Grader report – enable “Static students column”

Enable quick feedback
Grade – Report settings – Grader report – Quick feedback – check for Yes

Enable quicker grading via AJAX
Grade – Report settings – Grader report – Enable AJAX – check for Yes

LOCATION

Set clock at Pacific Time (or your local time)
Location – Location settings – timezone UTC-7 (for spring-fall, would be UTC-8 for fall-spring)

PLUGINS

Remove requirement for activity description on pages
Plugins – Activity Modules – Page – uncheck “Require activity description”

Continue manual marking of posts as in 1.9
Plugins – Activity Modules – Forums - Manual message read marking – check the box

Timed posts for instructors
Plugins > Activity modules > Forum

Show emoticons
Plugins – Filters – Manage filters – Display emoticons as images (on)

Make available converting URLs into links and images
Plugins – Filters – Manage filters – Convert URLs into links and images (off but available)

Ensure multimedia works
Plugins – Filters – Manage filters – Multimedia plugins – On – apply to content and headings

Set module display to minimize navigation zone, display in all formats, and make popups bigger
Plugins – activity modules – URL
“Frame height” – change to 100
“Available display options” select all,
“Popup width (in pixels) – change to 800, Advanced
“Popup height (in pixels) – change to 600, Advanced

Customize forums
Plugins – Activity modules – Forum -
“Use email address in reply” – check for No
“Read after days” – change to 160
“Maximum attachment size” – change to 2 MB
“Manual message read marking” – check for yes
“Timed posts” – check for yes

SECURITY

Allow object and embed, post changes
Security – Site policies – Allow EMBED and OBJECT tags check box,
Max time to edit posts change to 60 minutes

Prevent text warnings on instructor forum posts
Security – Site policies – Enable Trusted Content

APPEARANCE

Enable html for labels
Appearance – HTML settings – uncheck box to allow html for labels

Add links to view user posts
Appearance – Navigation – check box to add links

Arialist theme for visible new posts
Appearance – Themes – Arialist – CSS box
.forumpost.unread .content {border:2px solid #D88A00;} /*unread post border*/ — change color to #1e00d8

Arialist theme for column size
Appearance – Themes – Arialist – Column width – 250px

Enable AJAX and Javascript
Appearance – AJAX and Javascript – Enable Ajax

Enable course themes
Appearance – Themes – Enable course themes

In addition, teacher roles need to be changed so that teachers may “login as” students, and see the grade link as part of their Activity Report.