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.

Why deMOOCification won’t work

A few MOOCish ideas came together for me today. I was actually trying to avoid the subject, so info about MOOCs has to come to me (RSS as blessing and curse). For awhile all I got was how great today’s MOOCs were, how democratizing, how problem-solving, how very trendy. I just shook my head, watching as the forces of educational reform (which I used to favor) merged with commercial interests (of which I have never been a fan).

Now, in the past few months, there is a realization that Massive Open Online Classes, especially those in the xMOOC, proto-commercial model (think Coursera/Udacity) aren’t really such a good idea. There has been opposition. It has taken awhile for folks to realize that faculty will not only be sidelined into being “content experts”, but that they could lose their jobs as big classes are taught by fewer, less-educated people (simple arithmetic, really). There has been concern that C/U MOOCs perpectuate non-participatory, lecture-based pedagogies. There has been a dawning recognition that somehow MOOCs aren’t even really free (either as free beer or free speech).

So now we have some very cogent, intelligent reactions to the big MOOC trend. Many, however, want to turn the clock back. DeMOOCification, though I can’t find the word in Google much less Webster’s, is becoming a thing.

Aaron Bady’s paper on the MOOC Moment and the End of Reform  points out that MOOCs mark the end of efforts to actually reform what’s wrong with universities, implying one would have to turn back for real reform. Jonathan Rees (a MOOC objector from the beginning) predicts the ultimate failure of MOOCs, and calls faculty to arms. He writes:

I still think MOOCs will collapse from their failure to earn back their start-up costs by giving their product away. Nevertheless, MOOCs can still do an awful lot of damage during their long death throes.

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_ImageAs much as I don’t want to say this, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that MOOCs will die on their own. I can’t think of any trend which saved large institutitions money and trouble, then died a natural death. And faculty can’t defend against them – we have been made powerless very slowly, over a long period of administrative takeover and public apathy (or even antipathy in our new era of anti-intellectualism). What happened at SJSU and Amherst is the exception  - an exception I applaud, but an exception. The public perceives faculty objections to MOOCs as an issue of job security rather than quality.

And yet Martin Weller also forsees the beginning of the end, as Coursera tries to define itself differently, which looks like a commercial product flailing around looking for how to make money.

But I see no sign of weakness. This week Audrey Watters reported that more and more state universities are adopting commercial MOOCs, contracted with Coursera  – this doesn’t surprise me in the least. MOOC “providers” have found their niche in contracting with universities. University money may not seem like much if you want to run a Fortune 500 company, but on sheer economies of scale it’s the biggest untapped market in the world.

We’ve got a lethal combination of ironies:

* a public perception that college is both overpriced and overfunded (ironically leading to state funding contractions),

* higher college fees due to expanding administrations while corporate/business interests buy influence at both public and private universities (more business was supposed to provide more money), and

* a sudden entrepreneurial interest in public education as the only expanding field (other than health care, but education doesn’t have the research or equipment costs)

So, as argued beautfully by Eric Hayot, too many forces are behind MOOCs to reverse them.  His conclusion is that we need to create good MOOCs, kind of like a counterforce to bad MOOCs.

That may be doable, but one thing that won’t work is wishing for MOOCs to go away. It just isn’t going to happen.

Nor will it happen that the good cMOOCs (which is where it all started) will become the default model for MOOCs. Connectivist MOOCs require self-direction and exploration on the part of students, which is difficult to assess on a massive, credit-earning scale. Commercial xMOOCs are catering to an entirely different audience: the masses of lower division students who couldn’t get into their GE classes. The motivation is completion and credits at the lowest price, not learning. Coursera/Udacity-run MOOCs are focused on numbers and super-prof lectures and automated grading of essays and quizzes, in order to process these masses of dissatisfied students who want to buy those pesky credits now. Administrators want to help them do it, saving money and gaining alumni. The demand and the desire to satisfy that demand are in perfect harmony, regardless of the problems.

To say that MOOCs will fade away because they’re of poor quality or bad pedagogy is like saying that McDonalds will go away because the food is unhealthy and the chairs are too hard, or that Walmart will disappear because the service is awful and it’s a lousy shopping environment. Convenience and price will win, regardless of quality. Creating good MOOCs might thus be Pollyannish, or naive, or consume far more time and energy than they would be worth. This is especially true if we start building solid, pedagogically sound MOOCs to feed into a machine more suited for fast food – good classes will be few and far between, and the “customers” will not appreciate them because they will make students think and take more responsibility for their own learning.

And no one really wants that.

Why the plutocracy loves the new online model

I reference first the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the bill being proposed in the California legislature to create a “faculty-free” New University of California online (read it and scream).

And yet, this should surprise no one. We are living in a plutocracy. MOOCs are becoming popular as potential money savers for universities and money makers for “education” companies. One might think these two phenomena are unrelated. They’re not.

It is in the interest of a plutocracy to keep people uneducated, since an educated populace is dangerous. By marketing education as a commodity, the plutocracy encourages the view of education as a product that can be purchased, and is sold by professional “manufacturers” – companies like Coursera – and whose services can be outsourced.

The body of knowledge (actually the body of information) that is freely available can now be packaged and sold, farmed when necessary but also created in a lab. People will prefer processed education because it is convenient and inexpensive, just as they prefer processed food and shopping at Walmart despite the hidden human costs.

In such a system, faculty are perceived as aristocratic remnants of a past where their services were needed due to the scarcity of information (actually a scarcity of knowledge). Now that such information is “free” (floating in Wikipedia, scanned books, blogs etc.), professors can be replaced with “knowledge workers” and “content experts” employed by companies and universities that manufacture courses and degrees.

This is acceptable because of the general belief that much of what one learns in college is not used later by the individual. Most members of the legislature, Congress, and corporations went to college and know they use very little of the information they were forced to learn there. That focus is on content (information) rather than analytical skills (a foundation of knowledge). Thus those without such skills conclude that content can be packaged by educational entrepreneurs and will be welcomed into the marketplace.

And they’ll be right since those buying (and promoting) the product lack the analytical skills necessary to understand that college is not about information and its retention. The “customers” of such a product want to “learn” the information, be tested on it, and get a degree that lets them move on and make money and buy a car and support a family and save money by shopping at Walmart.

This must be OK, because capitalism provides for the best products and services to rise to the top at the best prices. What harm could there be? The market will provide us with the best and least expensive education.

Here’s an example of what happens in my discipline. History education is primarily based on narrative – American history is the “story” of our country. The story line is adapted to promote certain values by emphasizing particular events, documents, and ideas. Keith Ereksen’s Beyond History Wars in the current OAH journal, looks at the story lines of American history and notes:

For more than two centuries Americans have told stories of “consensus” that emphasize the ways that “one people” and “one nation” formed a triumphant and unique nation…. Thus, what is truly at stake in history wars are not facts but stories. Because neither facts nor historical documents “speak” for themselves, we must pay attention to the way that details are placed within larger story lines. These story lines—persuasive historical narratives and interpretations—tell people which facts are important to remember and which are not.

When learning is focused on content, we absorb the narrative.

This organizing power of stories explains why students can read a textbook filled with correct facts, watch a Hollywood movie riddled with errors, and then recall only the errors on subsequent tests…

In any history class, the narrative is provided by the textbook and/or the instructor. In a “processed” class, retention of facts via the narrative is assessed. With little or no opportunity for debating or discussing competing narratives, or different uses for the same historical information, students have no opportunity to gain knowledge rather than information.

Thus “education” becomes a product to be packaged and sold, rather than an achievement earned through that messy process of learning, with all its nuances, grey areas, and complexity. We distill it to something that requires no interpretation except the one you are given.

Anyone who understands democracy can see the danger in that.




The fine line between automation and insanity

For many years I’ve been arguing that instructors must create their own classes, and their materials (like this stuff) when possible. We should automate only those things that are purely factual or arguably objective, such as multiple-choice quizzes of factual information. We should avoid pre-packaged materials and course cartridges, picking and choosing those elements which forward our own pedagogy, not that of “learning teams” or publishers wanting to sell texts and ancillaries. I was taught one reason for this very early on by Louisa Moon, who in 1998 advised me to create online lectures that spoke in my voice, because at the time we were worried that others might take the lectures we created and give them to others to teach with, without credit or thanks. Now the reason is a little more complicated.

As the years have passed, my own pedagogical goals have focused more on student discovery, creation and writing. The historical facts I like to leave to Wikipedia and multiple-choice quizzes. All my lectures and materials are my own or I have found them. I use no course cartridges (I only ever used them for quiz questions anyway), and often eschew even a textbook. I do artisanal online teaching.

darthpearsonBut while I have been exercising my pedagogy and DIY skills, the market and the trends move in a different direction. This week I attended a session where a publishing company showed us history software, including a piece that could grade essays for us. Some of the other professors in the room admitted this would be helpful, since we have too many students and want them to do so much writing. I, on the other hand, warned that machine-graded essays is a step toward either having grad students teach our classes or having us teach hundreds of students. Other historians’ responses to the invitation to participate in helping create computer essay grading are here. The current popularity of MOOCs  bears out the concern about teaching massive classes, and so does this review of concerns from back in 1998.

But I notice that some of my own changes also begin to lean toward the dark side. A few students on last year’s evaluation said they wanted more feedback on their weekly writing, which I was grading only via a self-assessment at the mid-point and end of the class. I wanted the emphasis to be on practice rather than grading, but they claimed that they did so much work they wanted more feedback. Since it would be impossible for me to give individual feedback to weekly writing assignments, I instead implemented the “graded post”.  Writing posts are now randomly graded, with the grades aggregated for 20% of the total grade. I thought it would go faster if I created qualitative scales, which took me quite awhile to create but then could be used to provide feedback more quickly. But I have students now who are angry at the feedback, who want details on exactly what the ratings meant, or who can’t tell the scale itself from their own ratings. They are more unhappy now then when they saw the writing as practice and it got graded twice a year (for the same 20%, BTW).

Then, when a colleague came to me overwhelmed by grading essays, I suggested the ratings as a possible way to speed things up, since we know what the errors and issues are going to be. Scales can be super handy. I suddenly realized I was suggesting, and doing, a certain amount of automation. No! That is the path to demons offering publishers’ cartridges and computer-graded essays, assigning us to teach 400 students without any help, devaluing our labor and our knowledge and turning us into pushers of education rather than teachers.

On the other hand, it is insane to provide every student with individual feedback on every bit of work they do. I know many professors who sacrifice family time and sleep time commenting in detail on stacks of essays. I’ve been guilty of it myself. And then we know that less than half the students read the feedback we’ve painstakingly given, and less than half of them implement any suggested changes. But we keep doing it because we care, we want to communicate to them, we want them to learn and do better next time.

So what is the fine line between automation, where the work isn’t ours and may be taken from us or increased to unreasonable quantity, and insanity, where we give feedback to all on everything and sacrifice our off-the-job lives?

Some of the answer may lie in giving the right feedback to the right people at the right time. In my own class, for example, I think I’m doing it too often, which is stifling creative work and causing a focus on the grade. For the stack of essays, we could ask students to write “Comments, please” at the bottom of work where they want comments. Those who miss that in the instructions likely wouldn’t benefit as much from the comments anyway, and those who don’t read them won’t bother.

There must be other ideas, too?

Steps in the right order: from MOOC to COOM

One of the big problems with what desperate universities are doing in adopting MOOCs (SJSU/Udacity and many more) is that the process is backwards.

In the history of MOOCs, some of which I’ve mentioned in my Five Short Years to MOOC Corruption post , there were a couple of pioneers that began with a course and opened it up. Both David Wiley’s  Openness in Education and Alec Couros’ EC&I831 were already courses at BYU and U of Regina respectively in 2007.

They were courses offered in the online format. Course -> Online.

They were courses that were then opened to everyone, existing courses where the professor extended the pedagogy by bringing in participants and readers from everywhere. Course -> Online -> Open.

When a bunch of people join, the course becomes massive. The courses grow organically as people hear about them, tell each other, and join the next round. Course -> Online -> Open -> Massive.

When they grow this way, in the COOM format, there is some focus on preserving the intentions of the Course, conscious use of the affordances of the web in its Online mode, an awareness of the importance of openness for scholarship and connections in its Open offering, and concern for both pedagogy and learning in dealing with Massive.

But the current trend, where universities contract with Udacity or Coursera to have MOOCs taught (or rather presented by stage-lecture profs and facilitated by TAs/grad students or worse, peers) goes backward.

They start with Massive, because they want lots of people attracted to the university, who if they don’t pay money now will be willing to later. Massive also means paying faculty less to do more, and using cheaper labor to facilitate. Then they focus on Open, except they also want to be paid at some point, so that goes kind of sideways – the Open is mostly to attract the Massive. Only then do they get to Online, which is where they struggle technologically so they outsource to Coursera or Udacity or whoever, because it’s easier to do that than actually get into online pedagogy and the complexities of learning on the web. Then Course is last, because it doesn’t really matter -  offer whatever you can, and eventually you can have a degree program and save/make lots of money because of Massive.

I would prefer to design, teach and take a COOM than a MOOC.