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.

 

Models for task-based open online classes?

Lately it’s been kind of eerie in the world of open online classes, at least those taught by folks whose work I respect the most.

Emblem7BmedThis year, our Program for Online Teaching leadership for the POT Certificate Class was down to three overworked facilitators, plus our wonderful moderators and those who let us use their videos. The class was definitely a Small Open Online Class, and since it had assigned readings and a schedule, and since MOOCs have become mega-commercial horrors, I no longer call it a MOOC of any sort anyway. For such a small group (60 registered originally), the community was fabulous, both supportive and knowledgeable. A little over a dozen learners completed and earned a badge for spring semester, and/or a certificate for the entire 2013-14 year.

The format of the class was different from the previous year (2012-13), where I had struggled (as a non-programmer) with FeedWordpress to bring in everyone’s feeds. Instead we used a Google Site. We asked everyone to post a link to their blog post at the Site, and engage in discussion at the Site instead of in the blog comments. I was able to bring in blog feeds easily using Gadgets.

I just took a peek at Alec Couros’ DCMOOC, and noticed participants in their Google Plus Community posting links to their weekly blog post. Aha!

Now, when it came to our POT Cert Class this year, there were some issues. I wasn’t delighted with the non-nested discussions in Google Sites, and we discovered that three people couldn’t really run the class effectively, even with moderators, when all three facilitators work full-time plus. But the need, at our college and elsewhere, for pedagogically-based learning about how to teach online is still there. So we decided to create a self-guided Learning Pathway instead.

Then I discovered there was already a Google Plus Community, to which I was invited, called Learning Pathways. Aha!

cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped

cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped

Anyway, I started creating the new Pedagogy First! Learning Pathway (work in progress is here), and my colleague Laura Paciorek has been helping. The idea is that the pathway is essentially comprised of curated content and assignments for a portfolio, and that any individual or group could participate and use the site for a “class” or individual study. Then for community, we plan to use our own POT Google Plus Community (mostly because some folks don’t like Facebook, where we also have a POT group).

So then I find that Jim Groom has created a self-directed class for ds106. Based on the successful Headless ds106, it is called the Open ds106 Course. Aha!

The synchronicity is striking, or at least it strikes me. And the trends for these classes, and many more, defy a number of assumptions I made when all this cMOOCishness and openness stuff started. I mean waaaay back in 2005 or so (which is also when I started the Program for Online Teaching).

(NB: I am deliberately ignoring xMOOCs, those based in commercial or university-commercial collaborations. My focus here is on what I’ve called Task-Based MOOCs.)

I am surprised to see that when it comes to task-based open online classes:

1. We haven’t ditched the “course”.

While we all acknowledge the importance of connections and helping people be nodes in a network, what this looks like in practice isn’t that different from any other sort of dedicated community that uses online space to interact. And we all continue to create some sort of teacher-designed content, even if it’s just a pathway through assignments or a schedule or a set of expectations.

2. We don’t have a wide variety of platforms from which to choose.

I believe that Alec Couros began designing open courses in wikis, but now is using WordPress. Jim Groom’s ds106 is WordPress-based also. So was OCTEL. Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOCMOOC used Instructure Canvas, but for most of the open classes and cMOOCs, WordPress seems preferred. I’ve moved back to it myself with the Learning Pathway, although the discussion will be in G+. I recall when the choices were more diverse, and even a time when Alec and I were searching for an open discussion program that featured nested posts, as in Moodle and Ning.

3. The personality/persona of the instructor continues to be a factor in the success of an open class.

Jim Groom, David Wiley, Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Jesse Stommel — all have distinct, interesting personalities and teaching styles. Participants, even while creating communities and connections, are guided not only by the design of the class but by the instructor’s presence. Without a teacher who inspires, an open online class is just a website.

Given these similarities, do we now have models for independent open online classes? And when it comes to designing an open online class, have we hit our stride or are we in a rut?

Spaces, the web, and the classroom

I was delighted and inspired by Jenny Mackness’ recent post on Spaces at an exhibition. One could take each space and envision ways in which it is a metaphor for a learning space as experienced by a college class (yes, that’s my perspective and I’m sticking to it).

I answered Jenny on Facebook:

Screenshot 2014-04-05 at 7.20.28 PM

 My physical classroom at San Elijo is wonderful in many ways – it has two doors and windows that open, a big projection screen, a computer that works, and four large whiteboards.  But with the exception of a few old college announcements and a two-decade-old project poster on Israel, the walls are blank and there is no visual stimulation in the room other than the people in it. While I understand the monastic impulse, the space still seems sterile.

Compare this to the content-rich, ever-distracting web.

We think of our online classes as being on the web, but most of them aren’t on the web – they’re inside an LMS, isolated from the internet. New online instructors often sense this sterility and add images and videos. But the images are often decorative rather than instructional, and the videos are now embedded, which is great for convenience and less distraction but less suitable for exploration.

Gallery

The assignments would be the logical place to allow for exploration, as I do with my students collecting primary sources from wherever they can find them (article on this forthcoming). And yet I see so many classes where all class materials are given inside the LMS space, and I wonder whether we are afraid of field trips because we know that richness also means distractions, and predictability is very important to the success of many of our students. The web is never predictable.

Where are the structured web spaces, the ones where we as teachers know what’s there, but where students can explore? Databases full of primary sources are boring. Where is the equivalent of installation art, where the artist defines the space but the interpretations and experience are left to the viewer?