Revolution vs the Glory of Subversion

Back before there were internet memes and video going viral, we had bumper stickers. Some were “bumper stickers for life”, with sayings that stuck. My favorite was “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm”.

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Although the phrase resonated with me at an early age, I actually was not so good at subversion. My tactic tended to be in-your-face revolution. As editor of the high school paper, I campaigned against the policy of locking up truant students all day. During the war in 1991, I marched and sang and chanted with anti-war protestors. When things were unethical, I made a huge, public fuss.

And yet, they kept locking up students. And we didn’t leave Kuwait (in fact, we went back for much more bloodshed). And things didn’t change much. My head became flat from banging it against the wall.

taniaguevaraAs I worked more in education, I used the same tactics. I pushed administration for team-taught courses. I pushed for a faculty forum to count for committee credit. I tried to stop the hiring of administrators we didn’t need, and push for the hiring of those we did. When online teaching started, I pushed for hybrid classes. I tried to change people’s minds through the force of my will, my argumentation skills, and the fact that I was, well, right.

And again the achievements were small. Team teaching went down in disputes about pay, faculty forum was not “governance” so it didn’t count, we hired more administrators, and a dean dismissed my hybrids with “I just don’t see what audience we’re serving”. I created a file folder entitled “Ineffectual Activism” where I stored the papers related to my failures.

Then I got older and craftier. My new motto became “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission”. I believed in academic freedom, and the independence I had as a college instructor. I made it my mission to deeply understand the rules, then see how I could get around them without actually breaking anything.

This worked much better. But as I explored “edupunk”, and open education, and online educational experiments, and open resources, and MOOCs, I noted a revolutionary spirit. Being of that nature myself, I tried to join in. Modern education is irrelevant and stultifying! We are a post-industrial world with an industrial education system! Do-it-yourself college! Student engagement through student interests! Down with curriculum! Down with lectures!

guillotineBut the problem with revolution is always the same. It throws out many babies with lots of bathwater. Educational revolution meant that the really good ideas of the past, many of which were enshrined in the “canon” of Western Civilization, were cast away. Academic rigor was dismissed as a concept of the privileged. Coherent reading and writing became secondary to creative multimedia, which was seen as more intellectually complex just because it was multimedia.

Students responded accordingly. Lectures of merit and enthusiasm were greeted with bored students surfing the web instead of taking notes. They said they couldn’t learn properly because the teacher wasn’t engaging them in their preferred learning style. They shopped for the classes that made the fewest demands on them intellectually.

There is much subversion to be done. Gardner Campbell, in a recent presentation, holds “compliance” to be at the bottom of the learning pyramid, the factor that keeps learning imprisoned. And yet there are so many ways to twist compliance into good learning environments, to use its elements to enforce rigor while allowing for creativity in every corner, in every crack in the sidewalk.

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Retention and the affective domain

I hate emotions. Yes, I know that’s an emotional thing to say, but they get in the way of learning more than any other thing.

I struggle to understand why students drop online classes. I’m not getting much help from the research. Compared to the traditional classroom, we know that online students get lower marks (Fonolahi 2014). But we’re also thinking that they need greater social interaction (Boston et al 2009), want more direct instruction and feedback (Gaytan 2015), and apparently do not need to experience a locus of control (Cui 2015).

Couple this with the article in the Atlantic on Starbucks helping baristas go to college. What’s working to keep students enrolled, the article points out, isn’t just the money for tuition. Contracting university ASU has in turn contracted with a company to provide personalized monitoring. Students are called and encouraged to stay on track. Most need assistance with their confidence as much as working their way through bureaucracy.

The undercurrent here is emotions, the affective domain. I suspect a great deal depends on how students feel. If you feel comfortable in a class, you stay in the class.

On-campus classes often have a built-in comfort/affective boost, because students have been in that environment for 12 years of school. We remove that when we go online – I understand that. And we assume that because students communicate with each other and with parts of society on cell phones and computers, that the environment is familiar, but we know that for learning it really isn’t.

So we worry about the social online environment. Will students feel isolated? Will they feel they aren’t really in a class?

But now I have to add: will they feel it’s too much work? will they feel they don’t have time to do this class? will they feel that other classes are easier than mine so they’ll drop mine?

My classes are friendly, I’m friendly, I reach out, I email when people are struggling. I use their names. I track all these students. I contact them. I do not phone them or go to their house, though (I’ve had an admin suggest that, but there are many reasons students take online classes, and one is privacy).

Since this post in 2009, my drop-out rate has increased. I have done surveys on why they drop, and asked them. In response I’ve reduced the workload, especially the number of writing assignments. I’ve considered publisher cartridges and programs. I’ve even considered switching from Moodle to Blackboard or Canvas, but if I switch, then my very best pedagogy (the History Lab) won’t work because the LMS won’t let me batch grade posts.

And then I start to wonder, why is all the pressure about retention put on faculty? Some newer studies suggest that retention in courses students take for online breadth-requirement classes (like mine) is 64%, about 10% lower than on-site (Wladis et al 2015). If I had more history majors, it would be closer to 81%. All the studies acknowledge “external factors” (reading level, GPA, online class experience, jobs, family support, etc.) and yet all the advice is that faculty should do things to make the classes more inviting, more engaging, more relevant to their current lives regardless of the subject (Park and Choi 2009)

Could the institution help? Yes, I think so, but how they could help would be controversial:

1. Create a barrier. Students attempting to enroll in an online class would have to do something to force understanding of the self-direction and commitment required. Perhaps this would be an interactive tutorial, but it should be something that keeps popping up throughout the semester as a reminder. This might help students feel like this will be hard, this will be a challenge, this will require effort.

2. Have the college contact them. Not the teacher, the college. According to this article, at the University of West Georgia, retention increased when faculty reporting students they couldn’t reach to academic advisers who tracked them down and offered cheerleading services.

I have more research to do, of course (I’m stashing all my Diigo bookmarks here). Many of the studies are based on student surveys, and I know from faculty evaluations that these seemingly “objective” surveys are usually based on how students feel when they respond to them. Some of the research (Croxton 2014) is tying together student satisfaction and retention in terms of theory. In a world where some students want trigger warnings and controls on free speech in order to protect their feelings, any focus on how students feel, and how their feelings affect their decision to drop the class, would be helpful.

New directions for POT

Yes, we can certainly avoid the obvious jokes, but POT means Program for Online Teaching, the faculty volunteer program I’ve been directing since 2005. We began as a group of online instructors frustrated with the “training” being provided to those starting to teach online. These trainings mostly consisted of teaching faculty how to use technologies the college had purchased (later the LMS) and plug things into it. We wanted to have faculty consider their pedagogy first, then make the technology work for them.

We began by offering workshops through our college’s own professional development program, and gradually these expanded into full workshop days. We also created a website, and posted videos and materials from our workshops there. Faculty have found the site useful, but I’ve been maintaining it pretty much singlehandedly for the last few years. All of us who work as POT are college instructors with large responsibilities for teaching, departmental work, and disciplinary study. Many have joined us from outside our home college. Since 2010, we have offered the POT Certificate Class, an online course mentored and moderated by like-minded experts and teachers from around the globe. The class, too, has taken much time and yet no one has ever been paid to help. (Many of us are of the “sure, I’ll help you move if you feed me pizza” model of social responsibility.)

In the meantime, the field has changed. Since 2005, “instructional design” and “educational technology” have become their own disciplines, offering PhDs all over the place. Sponsored companies have been founded to host online courses on proprietary platforms. Administrative careers have sprung up in deploying and managing stables of online instructors at for-profit universities, offering “team-created” courses where the faculty member is only a “discipline expert”. “Best practices” have been promoted based on principles derived from the research of these new doctorates (many of whom used small sample sizes, creating their principles of whole cloth).

It is a world in which POT now appears anachronistic, encouraging what I call “artisan” courses, built as creative endeavors by individual instructors trying to translate their teaching strengths into the online environment. These courses are pedagogically and philosophically the opposite of the canned, instant-feedback, publisher-created “packages” and team-built classes and MOOCs that are now pervasive. Like artisan breads and hand-made cabinetry, these courses require more work to make and are individual in design. Their quality cannot be determined by a list of “best practices”, but by the love and attention that goes into their creation, and the passion and dedication of the teachers who are teaching within their own design.

We have watched these artisan principles undermined not only by forces beyond the institution, but by faculty new to online, who have been encouraged to think along cookie-cutter course lines. Classes where most of the content comes from a publisher course cartridge are being held up as models, locally and statewide, as online initiatives are developed to create more standardization and “accountability”. Faculty now come to POT hoping for “how to” workshops (“how do I get this to work in Blackboard?”) rather than approaching us with pedagogy they want to develop online. The POT Cert Class, which is free, global, and at the moment unsustainable, is being used by some to assure “training” rather than pedagogical preparation. We find ourselves in the position of providing a free service rather than a model, a service which surely should be funded by the state if “training” is so important.

My colleague Jim Sullivan and I have decided that the answer to all this training, standardization, and dependency is primarily journalistic. With all the information out there on “how to”, and all the institutional and administrative backing for training and standardization, it is important that we share, publicly and convincingly, the meaning and methods behind our “pedagogy first” approach. So we are changing the POT website, always in WordPress’ blog format anyway, into the Pedagogy First blog. Here we hope to invite the people for whom “pedagogy first” is the natural approach, to write and discuss. We will ask many of the wonderful people who have mentored and moderated our POT Certificate. We will ask folks to share their talents and techniques as well as their perspectives.

Because when mechanization encroaches on creative endeavor, it is important for artisans to articulate why their way is better, what value is added by their efforts.

Artisans unite.

Snippets, tweets and other desserts

I promise this post will be short.

Perhaps my discontent began with a perfectly innocent study, claiming student satisfaction with short video lectures. Or perhaps it was when I was cruising through Netvibes reading bits of things. Or maybe it was the student in the corner before class, starting the videos of a guy playing guitar, but only listening to the first 30 seconds of each song.

We live in a world of snippets, soundbytes and little pieces. To me, these are dessert, or spice. I like tweets and status updates sprinkled on my daily knowledge. But, to raise the 1980s cliche, where’s the beef?

I had a student last semester get angry at me because she was failing the class, and didn’t seem to know about it until week 12 of 16. I had been giving everyone feedback every week on every little thing. For her, she had failed almost every quiz, I think because she didn’t understand what she was reading. She only answered a question correctly when it was derived from a short snippet of text.

Yes, we know people don’t read full-length articles as much, that movies are getting shorter, that society is either engendering or catering to what they used to call a “short attention span”. We have studies showing multitasking doesn’t work, but those aren’t the ones that worry me. The ones that worry me show that students love snippets, and that the conclusion is we should provide more snippets.

I think it’s bad for anyone’s diet to have all dessert.

More importantly, we are losing the idea of how to put the snippets together into something with meaning. This makes some practice in digital storytelling an essential skill – we must learn to create narrative if nothing else.

But I digress. Or perhaps I’m just done.

A hard drive of ones own

I just read Audrey Watters’ impassioned post about an old bogey-man of mine, the Learning Management System. And while I started nodding my head as she went through the usual problems with Blackboard and the whole silo idea of LMSs, a subject on which I have opined many times, I ended up shaking my head and thinking about my hard drive and Slideshare slidecasts.

There are some premises here that I’m not so sure about anymore:

The first is that LMSs can’t contain any student-centered learning. I’ve seen, and built, some very good classes in an LMS. No, they weren’t open. But they were still good. I’ve also seen some really bad courses, in the open and in the LMS. I’ve written about how the LMS leads to bad classes, which it can certainly do. But that trend can, and should, be effectively fought with techniques for building good classes anyway, regardless of platform.

openAnother premise is that open is always better. Closed courses are not just manifestations of bureaucratic and administrative attempts to institute efficiency and focus on outcomes, although they are that too. Closed courses provide a sense of protection for students and professors, just like the closed classroom door does. Even apart from FERPA (which isn’t about what most people think it’s about anyway), there is an argument to be made that academic freedom, student participation, and the use of copyrighted material, is much easier and “freer” in a closed silo.

A third is that open tools are better and, somehow, more reliable. They aren’t. They are as subject to the vagaries of the market as the LMS. And again, my classic example is Slideshare, where I spent many hours synchronizing my lecture audio to my slides, only to have them discontinue the slidecast feature this year, effectively silencing my teaching.

Connected to this is the lament that when the class is over, all the student work disappears. It doesn’t have to, at least not for the individual student. I recommend to everyone, faculty and students alike, that anything they work on, anything they post or build, they should keep a copy of, on their own hard drive. Is it awful that the class disappears, the experience with all the forums and group activity? Sure, but it is ephemeral in the same way as an on-site class. Your work doesn’t have to be.

And if you offer your class in an open system of some kind, what’s to say that system is perpetual and eternal? It could disappear, or become expensive, in a few years. Ask anyone who offered a free class in Ning. And if students lose access to materials, that’s because we’re using materials that can’t be accessed outside the system. Maybe we shouldn’t do that. A simple list on a web page, as I do with my lectures, could be in the open. What can’t be accessed anymore is the navigation and LMS-based pedagogy we’re saying people shouldn’t be using anyway.

printshopSo it’s not that the points Audrey makes aren’t valid – she’s great and I love her work. And I love the Domain of Ones Own idea, and WordPress.org, and open courses (I teach some) and the open web and the push to keep it open. It’s just that anyone who’s relying on today’s technology – any of today’s technology – needs to think again.  Our work, as Audrey points out, is not secure in the hands of corporations, or, frankly, educational institutions. It needs to be stored, or at least archived, in our own hands. That’s the whole idea behind the e-portfolio market – except that our portfolios should also be on our hard drives.

The ability to download the artifacts we create online, to keep a duplicate, to draft things in a separate program – these may be more important than LMS-or-no-LMS, than open-or-closed, than corporate-or-educational.  Use the open web, use whatever works out there, build communities and take your students there and rage against the privacy-invading, data-mining machine. Then print a copy.

Practice and principles

The tension between theory and practice occurs in many fields, and it is certainly marked in online education. As with many academic disciplines, in online education the practice began without a foundation in research, since one can’t research what is essentially new.

As college professors, many of us began (years before there was online anything) by actually teaching. We had very little, if any, training in education or pedagogy. Some of us became good teachers anyway, because we loved what we did, we wanted to share our knowledge, and we cared about students. We learned about principles, research and techniques as we went along, and rolled them in to our practice.

So the idea that we should start with principles when introducing faculty to online teaching seems strange. We now have a good mix of professors who began as “just” practitioners, and those who have had training in teaching techniques. We learn from each other regularly.

So what are these principles, the ones I think should come later in the process? Jim Julius, our current Faculty Director of Online Education, recently put together a workshop on Foundational Principles. It was designed to be the “glue” that holds together a mashup of his office’s workshops with those of our Program for Online Teaching. We are running these this week.

His slides are great! Many of the useful principles I learned as I went along over the last couple of decades are there: Bloom’s TaxonomyUniversal Design, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles, the Community of Inquiry model. So much useful stuff.

As a POT workshop presenter, I am not sure where to use these, however. I know that many faculty come to online teaching concerned about technology, time, and tools. They are professionals already in the classroom, and may be excited or fearful (or both) about teaching online. At POT, our motto has always been Pedagogy First. We want to start with faculty as professionals who have already developed their own approach to both their discipline and their teaching. To present them with principles seems to ignore the knowledge they already have, and suggests that they need to somehow “start over” to teach online, that they don’t have the information or skills they need. Our focus is on the individual instructor, and his/her pedagogical strengths. We want to help faculty translate these strengths into an online class, while exploring online environments and tools they may find interesting. So our approach goes the other way when it comes to principles – we help faculty review the methods they’ve already found effective, and work from there. The principles come up naturally during the evolution of practice.

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The Cart Before the Horse, Flickr cc Emilio Labrador

As a practitioner, then, I find myself dealing with principles by reverse engineering from what I actually do. Here’s what I do, here’s what works – oh yeah, it happens to fit this model and is affirmed by this research. That may be proof of one of two possibilities: (1) I actually read this stuff somewhere without knowing it and unconsciously applied it (this seems unlikely) or (2) the techniques I developed through practice using (and continually revising) my pedagogy were good enough to be backed up by research that came later.

That does not mean that what I do could be considered “best practices”. Rather, they are the best practices for me to use, until I decide to try something else.

The concept of foundational principles, to me, seems to imply a model of “best practices” that apply to everyone. That may be a perfectly valid way to introduce newbies to online teaching, or it may do two very bad things for faculty: limit their approach by making it seem that a certain way is “right”, and intimidate them before they even start.

I am a historian. If I had been presented with the “principles” of History before I did any, I wouldn’t have gone into the field. Most disciplines are like this — the “methodology” or “proofs” course is taught at the sophomore or upper-division level, then again in graduate school.

POT’s Certificate Class tries to combine advice, exploration, self-awareness and a bit of theory, but always starts with the instructor’s pedagogy, not principles. So if we err, and I’m sure to some we do, it will always be on the side of practice over principles.