Pessimism and the POT Cert Way


cc Todd Morris via Flickr

The whole thing is going the wrong way.

Educational research clearly indicates that effective online teaching includes elements such as professorial enthusiasm, use of multiple tools appropriate to the pedagogy, personalized attention to the students, guided pursuit of student interests, and collaboration, even to the point of creating online communities for learning.

Market forces clearly encourage the use or purchase of set systems to house online courses (Coursera, iVersity, Udacity, Instructure), taught through easily standardized modules that don’t need much monitoring, with flexibility and convenience the prized elements for consumers (oh, sorry…I meant students). They offer products, processes and support that will save universities money while they make money through their product. It is in their interest to have only their product in use, if possible tied in with their own support structures to provide a seamless experience for their…um, students.

Market forces do bow to popularity, of course. Online tools that are used by large numbers of people are integrated or plugged in to the systems. Google Docs, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be part of your class, even in Canvas! (Gosh, that’s exciting.)

So, back to that research (and you thought I’d forgotten). The approach promoted by the POT Certificate Class emphasizes the pedagogy of the individual instructor, supported by the use of appropriate tools. Everything I’ve worked on for the past decade has been in the direction of empowering instructors to empower their students to learn, by emphasizing the instructors’ knowledge and approach, realized through cool web tools that the fit the task.

But the tools will not be there if the market forces prevail in education. They will become expensive (think Ning) or unavailable. Faculty who design their own courses, and teach them using tools that fit their imagination, will become fewer and fewer. It won’t be worth the time to create a course in such an old-fashioned way.

Governments and universities are clearly aligning themselves with market forces, in desperation. That desperation is not just financial. It is, ironically, based on lack of knowledge. Little consideration is taken of the research. Market forces, in the forma of educational product companies, couch their products in the illusion of innovation, but what they offer is packaging. They make the process of learning so much less messy.

Trouble is, learning is messy. It can’t be broken down into outcomes and modules. Teachers know this, and the research shows it. But all that can be ignored, and so much money (and hassle!) saved, by having assistants facilitate carefully packaged courses instead of faculty teaching them. No need for faculty – they can be replaced with “content experts” on teams of course designers (yes, I know, it’s already happening, in lots of places).

So ultimately, programs like our Program for Online Teaching Certificate Class (now between semesters) will become anachronisms, teaching skills that are no longer used, like penmanship and typesetting. And by then, there won’t be many pens or typesets to choose from anyway. It will all fade away.

The new Google-dominated POT Cert Class

Last year, the POT Cert Class was set up in a WordPress blog, and I used the FeedWordPress plugin to pull in everyone’s blog posts. As an open class, some people participating in the class were doing cool things other than following the syllabus, so there was a separate Deep End page for their posts, where I used HungryFeed. The whole setup is explained here and here.

It became too complex for one person to handle, particularly when that person is me and problems occurred, like feeds not being pulled in and the fix being code-level.

So this year I had different goals.  The plan was that everyone still have their own blog, but share the link to their weekly post in the Pedagogy First Google Plus Community.

But as I set up the WordPress blog (which was there for the syllabus, widgets, static material), I realized that there was no need for two systems. After consulting with my colleagues Jim (our blog meister), Laura (our commenter and organizer), and Todd (our captain of synchronicity), I shifted the whole thing to a Google Site. There was no need for the Community, since I had some old gadget that could do discussion.


The only miscalculation was that my old gadget nested discussions, but when I moved the discussions to the new site, they didn’t nest. This made me angry, but I got over it. In the first place, each person would be posting a link each week, and everyone would reply to them anyway. And in the second place, it wasn’t worth going back to WordPress just for that. I will miss nesting, but it had just become necessary to simplify.

It was also, as Todd pointed out to me (after his initial concerns about Site, which he works with a lot), an opportunity to learn while doing while learning while doing. That’s what POT is all about anyway. So the fact that I’d never run a Google Site shouldn’t matter, and will be a challenge, and what the hell.

Yes, we’re missing some things doing it this way. Some things are bad:

1. I created a Google Form to have people register, then I manually Share the Site with them, getting their info off the registration form. So they must have a Google account (and I thought a gmail address, but it seems OK so long as the whatever address is accessed via Google). Google does not allow people to just have comment permission – everyone who comments must have full edit permission. But I trust everyone in the class – I know they won’t mess up the site. So as names come in, I must Share with full permissions.

2. Sites will only allow use of a limited number of “gadgets”, which are kind of like WordPress’ widgets but far less flexible.

3. I could not figure out at first why people who were logged in to Google already, and were given full permissions, could not comment. Turned out there is a little, tiny, teeny-weeny “sign in” link at the very bottom of the page. I turned it into a big button. I also found out that when other people log in, they see a link to a Google survey. So I did this next to the button:

4. The list of those allowed to Share cannot be reorganized, so it’s hard to see if I’ve added someone already.

5. Gadgets are blind. You cannot see them until you save them, so you can only see them in non-edit mode, so if you use a lot of gadgets it’s hard to see what the hell you’re doing.

6. There is a Google Discussion gadget that I could have used instead of my old gadget (I still have no idea where it came from) but that would require putting everyone into a Google Group, yet another little Google box that would have to be set up. Then the forums would be gadgets. Yick.

But I’ve been able to do some cool stuff:

1. Weekly discussion links in the Navigation menu. 

This took a little work, but Site’s More -> Edit site menu settings let me add pages, call them what I wanted, and put them in the order I wanted into the menu.


2. A good substitute for those feeds. 

Although it’s not the central way to read everyone’s work, I was able to create a page of feeds using the same gadget over and over.


3. The site can be open yet protected.

Everyone can see everything, but only those with Edit permission can comment.

4. More cool things I don’t know about yet.

But I’ll find them!

Do I have reservations? Only about every five minutes. How could we do this? How could we put our discussions into such a space, dominated and controlled by Evil Empire #2 (or is it #3? I’m losing track)? What if Google cancels Sites next month?

Be flexible, Todd tells me. Be nimble. OK. Let’s do it.


A new pedagogy for a new MOOCy world

Let’s say that David Wiley is right (and why shouldn’t he be, as king of the open course?). He writes:

Our traditional pedagogies scale poorly beyond 30 or so people because they were developed in the context of teaching 30 or so people. I think it’s safe to assume that, in the same way that our pedagogies-for-30-people degrade as the number of students goes up, pedagogies-for-1000s-of-people degrade as the number of students goes down. Pedagogies for 1000s of people probably function so poorly in the context of 30 people that we’ve never even really tried them before. In other words, we’ve never taught 100,000 people at a time before, and consequently we’ve never developed pedagogies for teaching this many people at once – the last few years just show us trying to shoe-horn pedagogies-for-30 into MOOCs and then publishing articles about the astonishing drop rates.

And I commented there:

Well, some would say that connectivist learning theory is the approach indigenous to the online environment, and it often tends to be attacked in the same breath with MOOCs. But I like the idea that something very new is needed. People keep talking about “scaling up” old pedagogies. Maybe it isn’t about scaling anything up after all, but rather creating something entirely new (maybe not even based on connectivism). Maybe the new model could be something between the one-teacher model and the peer-grading model.

So let’s give it a try. Hmmmm…in between the one-teacher model and the peer-grading model.

I’ve got it!

Start with a team of teachers or professors. They approach the MOOC like writing a textbook – each controls a section that is in their area of expertise. They write the curriculum, assignments, select all materials for that section, record a video if that’s their preferred mode (and only if that’s their preferred mode). And then they moderate the whole class with all the other profs, assessing and providing feedback to students, dividing the workload. We could “scale” based on the number of students – at 30 students per prof, that’s about 33 instructors for a class of 1,000 students.

It’s kind of what we do in our open online class-formerly-known-as-a-SMOOC (or Shhhhmooc, since we like to keep it quiet), the POT Certificate Class, where a different expert moderates discussion each week, based on readings and on their own video introduction to the material. Only this would be bigger.

Think of the employment possibilities, which take care of Jonathan Rees‘  concerns (and mine) about doing away with qualified professors when our society needs them the most. More professors employed!

Think of the quality – no work assessed by uneducated peers, but rather by real professors. No “teams” where the professors are relegated to the role of “content experts” while IDs and ed techs take the lead – they would operate in a clearly supportive role.

Think of the academic freedom – each professor controlling their own content and approach for their section of the class. There would be variety, too, of method, readings, focus.

Think of the connectivism – possible in this environment, but within a more traditionally-organized “course” that can be transferrable and assessable, and thus count for credit at real universities. Instructivist, constructivist and connectivist approaches could all be used in the same class.

It’s certainly one possibility.

MOOCs: love ‘em, hate ‘em, but don’t conflate ‘em

“I hate MOOCs because they’re automated and my stuff is peer-graded and I don’t have time for it and it isn’t accredited anyway and professors shouldn’t just be performers and everyone’s gonna lose their jobs.”

“I love MOOCs because the university system is too expensive and it’s just lectures anyway and I didn’t learn anything when I want to a traditional university and students are paying too much for gymnasiums and administrator salaries.”

We’ve got a series of conflations that I’m seeing over and over, to the point where everytime I read an article about MOOCs (and especially the comments after each article, like here at Bloomberg), I can only sigh.

moocmonolithMOOCs are not all created equal. We can’t keep treating them monolithically.

Conflation 1: All MOOCs are taught the same and I hate them/ love them because of this.

As anyone who’s taken ds106 or the Connectivism MOOCs can tell you, all MOOCs are not taught the same. Even the xMOOC and cMOOC distinction that George Siemens created and that I’ve used before isn’t the full story. There are MOOCs with paying students sponsored by real accredited schools with real working professors, and MOOCs that are proto-commercial and provide no individual attention at all. You could group MOOCs into types (go for it), but they’re not all the same so one should at least try to distinguish.

Conflation 2: MOOCs let the third world get knowledge so I love them.

MOOCs can provide a collaborative shell for pre-recorded lectures from big universities that have been available on YouTube for years. That’s good, but it doesn’t provide the “education” the lesser-developed world may need without some form of accreditation accepted in that location. Some MOOCs could help enormously. Others will become like Nestlé, offering something to the third world for free and then charging later for the formula once the babies are hooked on it.

Conflation 3: MOOCs are economic solutions used by universities so I love them/hate them because of this.

MOOCs cannot solve the problems of public education, which is plagued not only by mismanagement but by public misconception about its worth and role in society. People in financial trouble want lower taxes and lower prices and don’t take the long view. Will universities turn toward MOOCs to save money? Yes, they will. Should faculty do something about that? Yes, if they can (but without public support I doubt it will work). Are MOOCs being offered that are about an opportunity to learn, or to offer open education, instead of saving money? Yes, some are.

What isn’t being conflated?

The concern about professorial jobs, both existentially and in terms of roles, is a clear issue. The MOOCs with an instructivist pedagogy set up a model for super-professors performing in well-produced videos. This threatens both professors’ jobs and the whole idea of what it means to teach. This model implies disdain for both constructivist and connectivist pedagogical models. So we must separate those, too. There is a labor issue. There is a pedagogical issue. Let’s talk about those.

The danger of the conflations is that all MOOCs will become the same, that the Coursera model will be the only one available, that universities will think it’s OK to accept protocommercial MOOCs for credit without examining the individual courses. What’s happening is that intelligent discussion of MOOCs is buried in the blog posts of those in the trenches, while the Chronicle, New York Times, Bloomberg and other big media adopt the simplistic models for their analyses, which are rarely written by anyone who knows anything about education.


On Being Orson

Your course is designed by an instructional designer, and your assessments are graded by computer or by someone in India. The question is — are you still the teacher?

As a professor, I have been designing, delivering, and agonizing over my own classes for 23 years. This didn’t change when I began teaching online 15 years ago. I found the knowledge I needed to create my classes and I did it. I have never used an instructional designer, a design team, a TA, a grader, or anyone who was paid to help me with creating my classes. My knowledge of pedagogy has come from readings and classes I did on my own, and the wonderful people of many professions in my network, many of them online professors and teachers also.

I already argued back in 2011 why communities for online instructors must be led by faculty. Instructional designers, I said, are caught in between the standardization promoted by the institution’s technology decisions and the needs of faculty who want to help their students. I’ve argued against the use of computerized grading. But perhaps the overall message is being missed.

It’s about the role of the professor, especially at a community college.

In addition to teaching, I read a lot of work by PhDs in instructional design and technology, and I keep up with the “innovations” emerging in the proto-commercial educational world. In an exchange awhile back, my Twitter colleague Jennifer Dalby, an instructional designer, made an analogy between teaching a course and a symphony. One person wouldn’t compose, perform and conduct a symphony, so why would the same person both design and teach an online class?

So I thought about this and realized, no, it isn’t like a symphony (although the likes of Beethoven and Mozart did compose, perform and conduct).orson

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

At community colleges, we have the ideal teaching environment. It’s the one place between the restrictions of the K-12 curriculum dictated by states, and the research-based non-teaching focus of universities. At the university, I suppose some faculty might beg for instructional designers, especially if teaching isn’t what they want to be doing. At community colleges, we have no such pressures – the main job we have is teaching. This shouldn’t change just because we teach online.

dicaprioThere are a couple of risks in letting things continue the way they are heading:

1. Our profession will be de-professionalized. This happens as parts of our job become other professions. It’s like outsourcing key parts of your job. What will happen if they offer a PhD in Assessment? in Attendance? in Essay Assignment Design? Will we all become Leonardo, adding our special touch to the work of others, instead of creating our own?

2. We help perpetuate the myth that teaching online is too hard for ordinary teachers.  It isn’t 1998 anymore. It no longer takes deep technical knowledge to teach online. Instead it takes the desire, a lot of energy and some self-acquired knowledge.  But if we are all told that we need instructional designers and educational technologists to help us, from baby steps to final course, we will become totally dependent and our creativity will be stifled.

3. The courses could become cookie-cutter. The LMS already encourages this. If everyone chooses from the same set of instructional design “best practices” recommendations, variety will be lessened. As individuality succumbs to standardization, students will become more accustomed to the same platforms and approaches, limiting their thinking and their learning.

(And yes, if you’re thinking gosh, this sounds like an anti-MOOC argument, it could be that too…)

Welles demanded, and got, full artistic control of his work. He tried new ideas, acted and produced, worked in different mediums.  No, there aren’t many like Orson Welles (or John Huston or Woody Allen or Robert Redford). But striving to attain that level of creative control should be expected, supported, and applauded in community college education. We should take back our classes and teach them.

Mass Pedagogy?

Much of the arguing about Massive Open Online Courses in their xMOOC (proto-commercial) form is about whether it is possible to teach large numbers of people well. This post is partly in response to questions posed in Google Plus by Donna Murdoch, asking about the claim at Hybrid Pedagogy  that “Pedagogy is unfazed by numbers”.

For the most part, xMOOCs consist of three elements:

1. Presentation – usually in the form of filmed set lectures and assigned readings
2. Interaction – usually in the form of asynchronous discussion forums, often monitored and/or moderated by staff from the LMS company or graduate students
3. Assessment – most often in the form of multiple-choice quick-grade quizzes and/or robot-graded essays and/or written work reviewed primarily by peers

Those unhappy with the xMOOC pedagogies (including Laura Gibbs and Jonathan Haber ) complain of poor pedagogy in terms of the interaction and assessment elements, which seem far removed from the professor. At the same time, companies offering such courses insist that their pedagogy is sound. Can both views be correct?

Interestingly, I’ve read few complaints about the quality of the content offered in these classes. This means that the debate about mass pedagogy has two aspects. One is whether the lecture format itself relays good information and well-supported professorial interpretations – this seems to not be a problem. The other is based in the very old argument over whether lecture/presentation itself is good pedagogy.

Then you have to determine what good pedagogy is. Perhaps:

  • Presentation: Good pedagogy presents quality content in ways that encourage depth of exploration
  • Interaction: Good pedagogy provides an opportunity for exploring such ideas with others (experts and non-experts)
  • Assessment: Good pedagogy creates opportunities to demonstrate what has been learned from that exploration

With this model, many xMOOCs provide good pedagogy for presentation, but weaker pedagogies for interaction and assessment. This is primarily because with mass numbers of people, the type of learning shifts from the individual to a more collective experience. The difference of opinion is about whether that shift makes it harder or easier to achieve good pedagogy. (If this seems familiar, it is the same discussion over 500-seat lecture halls and discussion sections being run by graduate students, a debate that pre-dates the internet.)

If you are focused on individual learning and individual evaluation of that learning, either for self-improvement or to be assessed for a grade/credit/degree, then the interaction and assessment elements of xMOOCs can be disappointing. Individualized learners are self-directed enough to do the work and learn well on their own given the presentation, but their efforts at deeper exploration are adversely affected by lack of professorial contact, feedback and input.

If you are focused on crowd-sourced learning and self-actualization through communication with others, xMOOCs may be disappointing for similar reasons. Presentation quality may be high, but presentation is secondary to exploration – it is just a jumping off point. With formulated discussions and automated assessments focused on absorbing that presentation content, there is less opportunity to extend exploration.

But if you are trying to earn that degree in the cheapest, easiest way possible, the xMOOC may provide the model for you. Similarly, if the subject is of only moderate interest, or your focus is to “learn the material”, the quality of presentation offsets the difficulties of interaction and assessment. In fact, broader and deeper interaction and assessment would actually get in your way – deep learning takes time, especially in a larger group.

The weakness of the xMOOC in terms of interaction and assessment are, I’m afraid, directly the result of scale. Deep discussion may occur among people with little experience in a subject, but without that experience it is more likely to be superficial. Assessment may provide an opportunity to demonstrate new knowledge, but when relegated to multiple-choice and robo/peer-graded writing, it is more likely to simply tally retention of content.

Again, none of these ideas should be surprising or new. Those who object to presentation pedagogy in general (the long line of education reformers who continually critique the lecture-based, industrial model) don’t think lecture is good pedagogy anyway and criticize xMOOCs for that reason. Those who object to the commercialization of education (including myself) criticize xMOOCs for that focus. Those who believe that MOOCs are open and free and democratize college-level knowledge, though I think they’re naive, see xMOOCs as a solution to the cost/learning/social problems that plague higher education. But they also see their pedagogy as inherently good, and I just don’t believe that’s true.


* See George Siemens on xMOOCs vs cMOOCs  – this post is not about connectivist MOOCs or task-based MOOCs like DS106.