A boring education

A recent story about college students in the San Diego Union Tribune was pretty interesting. Here’s an example:

Students want schools to adjust to their needs, interests and lifestyles, and to do so quickly.

“I’m always having to adapt to education rather than having education adapt to me,” said Ella Chen, a sophomore at UC San Diego.

The restlessness is widespread. Nearly 40 percent of the freshmen surveyed by the university in 2016 said they were frequently bored in class.

The article goes on to say that students want “more hands-on, experiential learning”. (I have this for history: my students interpret primary source documents like historians do. But I think what they mean here would require a TARDIS.)

One of the main purposes of education, especially the education of young people, is to acculturate the student into the broader society. You can change the processes of formal education, but the motive for these systems is the same. In the case of university, there is an additional set of purposes having to do with the development of the intellect, particularly in connecting fields of knowledge (à la Cardinal Newman).

I was bored in a number of my classes, at all levels of my education. The solution was to extract from the class what I could, and supplement its content on my own. That’s a life skill. I was also in a number of classes where I wasn’t bored, but other students were. An old saying goes, “this isn’t boring — you are bored”.

While I spend a whole lot of energy making history exciting for students, but the fact is, some are bored. I share my passion for the subject, but that isn’t enough for some to get engaged. Once could understand this through research on student character traits (persistence, resilience, grit), and respond appropriately. But it is so much easier to blame teachers, and the system. I recently saw this dissertation online: Understanding Disinterest: How Online Undergraduate Students Perceive And Respond To Disengaged Faculty Members. Setting aside the improper use of the word “disinterest” (it means lack of bias), here is another low-sample study (N=8) claiming a larger significance. It assumes a gap in research on how students perceive online teachers (a gap I believe is filled by faculty evaluations). The study uses transactional distance theory, or rather the parts of it that fit the argument, to conflate teaching skill with enthusiasm. It shows low student success for professors who don’t demonstrate the kind of actions that will motivate students.

It is obvious that the problems of the customer-service model of education continue to expand. The larger question is how it has become accepted wisdom that students require motivation in the form of entertaining behaviors on the part of instructors, that not to do so means being boring, and that boring is not OK and needs to be fixed. Regardless of what a student may need in terms of acculturation, self-direction, and scholarship, it has become more important that they be entertained into learning, then get a degree as quickly as possible to avoid wasting public monies.

Education should not adapt to such support goals, nor adapt to fit what students say they want.

Many years ago I was in a group of “stakeholders” choosing among Course Management Systems for the college. We had a student contingent, and they were most insistent that they wanted just one thing. They wanted all their professors to input all the deadlines for all assignments into one central calendar system, so they could stay on task. At the time, this would have been daunting for faculty, and would have massively increased their workload. Nowadays, the adoption of the college-wide (state-wide if you’re a community college) LMS insists that this be done, and professors do it. And yet, despite answering what students said they needed to be successful, so many are not successful that we need massive state-wide student success initiatives.

While I have no problem adjusting to student needs (cogent information, skill-building assignments, fair grading, access to help) I do have a problem adjusting to their wants. Diagnosing their desires as a social problem that needs to be solved degrades the purpose of college.




The nostalgia of moving . . . hosts

Yes, it’s finally time to move. No, not my real-world house, but my server. Yes, I know it’s a rental, but…

I’ve been at Lunarpages since 2004. That’s a long time. And in that time, Lunarpages has gone from a groovy startup where you could call and get a person, to a business-centered company where they give you grief about SSL. And yell at you when someone hacks your blog. It got so bad I had to move to WordPress.com, so that tells you something.

In the meantime, my online colleagues Jim Groom and Tim Owens (I think I met them online back in the early CCK08 and first-run ds106 days?) started Reclaim Hosting. Faculty and student focused, Reclaim has provided excellent service to many, but I couldn’t move until I knew for sure that my students wouldn’t need access during the changeover. My sabbatical starts Friday – the time is now.

What do I use rented space on a server for? Well, everything, judging by my account stats. I have 31 MySQL databases, 6 subdomains, 5 FTP accounts. I’ve downloaded dozens of scripts, and many versions of Moodle, and run them. Not to mention the 23 GB of files. But this is exactly what needs mentioning.

You know how people downsize their dwelling as they get older? Time to downsize. The web has matured, not always in ways I approve of. And my college had gone over to Canvas, which I don’t approve of either. As the world cares less about creative ways to do things, I find that most of my files are no longer used. Broadband speeds have increased so much that my zillions of .mov files, painstakingly compressed to make them work on dialup modems, then digitized, then ripped from digital, then compressed more mildly – this has left trails of media files. Do I use any of them? No – everything now streams from YouTube or Vimeo.

Here’s a sample of just one lecture file from just one class of my six classes:

This is a lecture on the High Middle Ages (a great era for technology – come take my class!). The top file is the online lecture. The second one is text for a page that opens with a mouseover image, the manor map .png. Then there are my original audio files of me reading this lecture, recorded long ago as aiff and compressed through some antique application that no longer exists to make them .mov. There’s a poster image for a media file (took hours to make in my old freeware gif program) that now plays on YouTube, and then the most nostalgic item of all: the redplay.mov file. It’s a button that when you press it, the lecture audio file plays. I have red ones for this class, blue ones for others, and I made them myself by stealing a graphic and using code I learned from a book called Quicktime for the Web. (You can also see .mp3 files I made later, but my old Mac was acting up and used the origin dates.)

Good times, man. The old days, when I was up half the night learning media compression and stealing bits of code from various places, including printed books. When my HTML for Dummies book got worn out from use. Before Google, before learning management systems. Back when on the internet no one could tell you were a woman, or a non-coder, or just a historian who never really liked computers but was determined to teach online and do it well, reducing the “distance”. A time when I’d install programs from Fantastico to try polls and self-grading quizzes, when I could learn just enough Javascript to make stuff happen, cobbled together my own web pages with cool embedded stuff, having no idea what the hell I was doing, and later when I hacked Dreamweaver and WordPress. When students said, “wow! this is a cool class! all my others are just text”.

Nowadays, the databases don’t operate anymore because most of them were Moodle and Lunarpages gave me so much grief about Chinese hackers that I disabled them all. I no longer use all the cool apps I can run on the server, because Canvas won’t serve scripts that are inside of html pages. After two years trying to hack Canvas, I know what can be done, and none of it requires programs I run on my own.

So although Reclaim can migrate all my stuff over, for free, I’m saying no thanks. I’ve got only 10 GB on the Reclaim plan, but these days that should be plenty. So I’m spending a few days moving those old files out of the folders, and I’ll get it all under 10 GB (8 really) or bust. It’s an opportunity to pack up the stuff and put it in storage on a hard drive, upload everything and check it, decide whether I want to start up databases to run old stuff or just let my work (POT certificate classes, Moodle classes, old web pages) just fall off the Internet. It’s all backed up. I think I’ll let it stay that way.

You know you’ve been to Britain a lot when…

You automatically look the correct way first before crossing the street.

You are told your room is on the first floor, and you don’t have to think about it before you get in the lift.

You get out correct change from your wallet without having to translate the currency in your head (you also stop looking in your wallet for £1 notes).

You get on the hiking boots for what locals describe as “a short walk”.

You chat about the weather immediately.

You say hello first, rather make a request.

You start thinking of the sidewalk as the pavement, the chip as the crisp, the sparking water as the fizzy water, the arugula as rocket, and the “pausta” as “paasta”.

You don’t expect Mexican food to taste like food from Mexico.

You say “sorry” every time you ask for something.

You are happy to take advice on visiting California sights from a London cabbie.

You are SO grateful for a cup of tea (actually, I do that at home, too!).


The ed tech dream is dead

As if regular old political news weren’t bad enough, we must make connections between the behemoths of technology and the decline of enthusiasm for web-based educational technology and online learning in general. The conclusions are not inspiring.

As you know if you read my blog, I essentially gave up on web-based apps for my students a couple of years ago, and have moved all my class activity to the Canvas system or a Canvas-based LTI within that system (with the exception of one Honors blog).

As the author of Insidious Pedagogy, this has been a painful, soul-searching path leading to closing my classes. Since the beginnings (I started teaching online in 1998), I have encouraged faculty to put their pedagogy first, to find ways to force the technologies to do what you want. As an early fan of pedagogies that emphasize constructivism and connectivism, I have experimented with many formats (contract grading, connectivist learning, open blogging). If you’ve heard of Ning, Glogster, Dellicious, Blip,tv, Blabberize, Elgg, Eyejot, GoAnimate, Lingr, Mind42, MyPlick, Overstream, Plotagon, Plupper, Screenr, Slideshare, Trialmeme, and Posterous, you have some idea of what I’ve tried.

My college went over to Canvas in the wave of California Community Colleges who’d been made an offer we couldn’t refuse. As California began to standardize its online college education, mass media began to cover the concerns I’d had all along about student privacy and exposure in online environments. I no longer had any arguments to answer those who objected to students working on the open web, even as the web was closing.

So whatever else Facebook and Google have done (and none of it struck me as exceptional or unusual), they have underlined my concerns about students working openly, and undermined public confidence in living portions of our lives on the web. We were so concerned about not being sold by Learning Management Systems that we were sold by the very providers who gave us freedom.

Educators who persist in using social media for the classes are not just outliers in ed tech anymore – they are now collaborators in the dissemination and sale of student information and data. Stalwarts who object to online teaching and web-based learning can now say, “see? it isn’t safe!” Anything not in a protected, encrypted, controlled system is rightly suspect.

We’ve lost, and to me that has meant not only abandoning my own open classwork and my own research in educational trends but a return to subversion inside the system.

My pedagogical focus now is creating encouraging environments and meaningful tasks for students that take advantage of system-based automation while allowing for freedom of pursuits. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ed tech — Canvas forces me to take my place as a nobody functionary, a foot soldier following orders, with limited creativity and continual frustration. It’s one of the worst LMSs ever created, with a “community” deluded into thinking we help improve it. When my head is flat from pounding it against Canvas walls, I try to remind myself it’s like making a movie during the Hays Code.

But doing anything else isn’t moving forward.

Why journalists write such good history books

In an only slightly different life, I would have been a journalist. As a significantly younger person, I followed Watergate closely, reading All The President’s Men (as well as Haldeman’s The Ends of Power), and attending a lecture by John Dean given at my college. I saved all the Newsweek articles on Patty Hearst, and all my newspaper clippings of the 1975 World Series, in a laundry basket. I became copy editor and then editor of my high school newspaper, writing articles and proofing galleys and protesting the truancy laws. I majored in English at UCLA.

I switched to History due to an odd series of events involving a high school counselor who didn’t tell me when the AP English test was offered, a fascination with the musical 1776, and a brilliant course I took with historian Joyce Appleby. I never took a journalism class after high school, but instead trained as a historian. My degrees are in History, and my certificates are in Education.

For the past decade or so, I’ve studied the evolution of the web as a teaching tool, and in particular online pedagogy. I’ve experienced the typewriter, the internet, the web, as customer and creator. I’ve used rotary dial phones, dial-up modems, and cell phones. Even as I experienced digital history unfolding (or perhaps because I experienced it), I have “reported” my findings rather than studying the phenomena as a historian. After years of being the person in the room saying “but this has all happened before”, I have recently returned to the study of history as my primary task. And yet, the history books I most enjoy reading now are not written by historians. They’re written by journalists.

Most of these works are about the history of technology, which was my specialty in grad school (although I studied medieval, not modern, technology). Tom Standage (The Guardian, The Economist) published his brilliant The Victorian Internet in 1998, the same year I began teaching online. The book became a reference for me, a way to connect the present (in which I was frantically operating) with the past I understood. In 2003, a student gave me a copy of Empires of Light, by Jill Jonnes (New York Times), about Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse. It was another reminder that so many things (commercial competition, technological advancement, bloody-minded geniuses) are not new. Atlantic and NY Times writer Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) was a delight, part of a body of his work that supported my gut instinct that the web was making us stupid and that our dependency on computers had a serious dark side (that was the same year that saw the rise of MOOCs).

Steven Johnson (Wired, NY Times) wrote The Ghost Map, a 2006 book so clear and brilliant in its discussion of the cholera epidemic in London that I assigned both the book and his TED talk to students.

Few of these people have history degrees. Johnson’s are in semiotics and English lit. Carr, also literature. Standage has a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford. Interestingly for those looking at women writers, Jonnes is the only one with a PhD in history, obtained after she was a published writer for the New York Times.

They don’t pretend to be historians. Standage notes his specialty is “the use of historical analogy in science, technology and business writing”. Johnson just calls himself a writer, and Wikipedia says the same about Carr.  Jonnes uses no noun to describe herself despite her degree.

With such a trend in evidence, it didn’t surprise me to read in Bloomberg Businessweek that New York Times reporter Cade Metz is writing a history of artificial intelligence.

Normally I’m quite the snob about non-historians doing history. For example, we have a number of departments at the college who offer classes with the word “history” in the title, but are taught by language or music instructors. The individuals teaching them are quite wonderful, but they aren’t doing history. They’re teaching cultural heritage, typically without reference to historical methodology. Their technique is usually narrative, rather than the development of a thesis to be proven with evidence. Similarly, the profusion of “history” days and months for groups of subcultures (women, African Americans, etc.) are all heritage-based, although they claim to be doing history in order to show they are on the right side of history, which is another thing entirely.

Such storytelling, however uncomfortable I may be with it as a historian, has always been important to human beings. It has become increasingly significant in recent years, as competing narratives are created to defend particular points of view. To the agggrieved, for example, all of human history may be a story of grievances. Historians study historiography, the “schools” of history formed by different viewpoints (such as Marxist history, or the Annales school, or the New Left). Historians tend to recognize these varying perspectives, though not always. Competing perspectives are inherent in the discipline. They’re a feature, not a bug. Historians know there is no “one” history, but rather histories told for varied reasons. That’s why historical evidence is so important — it is needed to support ones perspective, to ground it in fact.

Neither historian nor journalist, English prof Marshall McLuhan provided the foundation for many of the works mentioned here in his The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

So what do journalists and historians have in common? Both observe the world carefully, and note patterns. Both access the past for context. Both rely on sources, tell stories, create narrative, highlight key people and events. But they divide on method. A journalist may consult only a few sources, or a very broad selection of sources, and need not engage in exhaustive research among scholarly articles or primary documents. They may rely on scholars’ interpretations, since they themselves are not engaging in scholarship. Journalists may use more literary techniques to draw the reader in, to make clever connections. (These techniques have actually changed the way history is written by historians, as publishers now seek a broader audience for history books in an age where fewer people purchase books at all.)

Most importantly, journalists need not provide a new perspective beyond the telling of an interesting story. The originality lies in the creative telling of a tale, rather than in the development of an argument that must be proven with facts. Perhaps this is why the articles on Patty Hearst did not lead me to research the Hearst family, or terrorism, or cults. I never got into the history of baseball. I watched Watergate happening but did not feel an urge to research previous presidential scandals, or violations of the constitution, or the composition of the White House staff. The stories were complete in themselves.

So when a journalist turns a hand to history, it has the potential to be more lively, and more immediate. Liberties are taken (almost into “creative non-fiction”) with personalities, like those of Tesla or John Snow. “Bringing history alive” (a phrase that makes me cringe, with its implication of imposed drama) need not involve engaging in historical scholarship, but it does create the all-important analogies that Tom Standage mentions. These books bring facts to light, and connections between past and present. Without the work of writers like Standage and Johnson, it is unlikely I would have found the connections between what I was doing with my teaching, and what others have done in the past. Even if I discovered these connections while defending history in the various MOOCs in which I was enrolled, I might not have realized my own potential to write about them.

Skilled journalists make the reader feel engaged in the story, even if their thesis is nothing more than, “look at this cool series of events that happened”. Because they live in our time, their reasons for looking into the past are the same as those of historians: to find insights about ourselves in the present. With such similar goals, it isn’t surprising that so many good books featuring history are written by journalists.

Quotation for today

All teaching in big classes must necessarily make against originality

H.G. Wells, The Saturday Review, 14 December 1895


Automaton at CIMA, photo by Rama, CC licensed.

From Business Week (2 April 2018) about Russian startup Robot Vera:

“The co-founders, with a background in human resources, two years ago found themselves making hundreds of calls to candidates who’s lost interest in the given job or couldn’t be located. ‘We felt like robots ourselves, so we figured it was better to automate the task,’ [cofounder] Uraksin says.”

Ever feel like a robot teaching online? I know I do. Hours of time spend adjusting grades, putting in zeros for incomplete assignments, activating rubrics. Clicking to sort student names, clicking down three levels to send a student a message. I can imagine myself as a Victorian metallic automaton, typing on my computer instead of writing with my quill, mousing around, click, click, click.

Then there’s grading. I’m really fast. I can read an assignment quickly and click the appropriate boxes on the rubric. I know exactly what to look for, because the whole thing is my design. Click, click. But I have good rubrics, that give meaningful feedback to students, so that takes time to do well. Click, click.

So from the Robot Vera perspective (and that of everyone discussing automation taking over jobs), I have to ask: what part of my job should be automated? So many of the things I thought would be done by the machine, after two decades teaching online, are not. Stupid tasks take much of my time. Even auto-grading has to be double-checked (I change about 20% of auto-graded items). I don’t call support for actual help doing or creating things with the system – I get the system. I call because something  horrid and unexpected happened, and 9 times out of 10, it’s because I left a box unchecked, or neglected to use a particular combination of settings. Because I wasn’t, in other words, a good enough automaton.

What would happen if I automated everything that makes me feel like a robot? Marking, grading, tracking, checking outcomes, planning courses according to state mandates to which I am opposed?

Would I have more time to do the actual teaching, the contact with students, the individual discussions, the leading of in-depth conversations? Wouldn’t that feel less robotic, like I’m a person who cannot be replaced by an automaton?

I have already noticed that handing off the grading of primary sources to my students, having them do a checklist to get the grade for their post each week, allows me time to instead respond to the sources, note connections, give feedback so they can fix their work and “earn” the points they gave themselves, encourage them to return and see the work of their colleagues. I get a better view of what’s happening, with human eyes.

I can also respond individually to their auto-graded Lecture Notes (2 points if you turn it in). Doing that this week for the first time, several students took the opportunity to engage in private discussion with me, and it was about the history, not the grades.

So instead of resisting automation, I will continue to grapple with how to make it work for us all. Because, as usual, the simplification of the problem does not reflect reality. The simple version is just a dichotomy: teacher-involved OR auto-graded. But (in current trendy parlance) it can be and. I suspect it can even be because of – because there is auto-grading, I can be more involved as a teacher.

The ideas I’m exploring (student independence, teaching as modeling and demonstrating, learning as practicing and reflecting, and transferring the burden of learning) fit well with some automating if it gives me the freedom to do what I do best: that old-fashioned human teaching. So hand me that can of oil…


In my researches on H.G. Wells, I have discovered a field dominated by English Lit types and those who love his science fiction. Likewise, Steampunk is not really a place for historians, but rather a place for imagination, for “alternative history” (which, of course, isn’t history at all).

However, in a literary sense, I find Steampunk appealing. My first foray was a wonderful book, Steampunk: Extraordinary Tales of Victorian Futurism  (2012). It was not what I expected. Indeed I now realize it was not what any Steampunk aficionado would expect either. Instead of contemporary fiction set in the Victorian era, the stories were written by Victorian authors in the 19th century. As Mike Ashley says in his “Introduction: When Steampunk was Real”: “I would argue that steampunk was well under way by the 1880s but came into its own in the 1890s”. The dime novels and stories of this era contained visions of the future, automatons, interplanetary travel — all the steampunky stuff. Steampunk did not begin, as I had imagined when I bothered to think at all about such things, with Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen (1988).

About the same time I read Ashley’s anthology, I began reading H.G. Wells’ short stories, then Jules Verne. I read and saw the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. A bit later, I read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft (yes, I know, he’s later, in the 1920s, but his work is a staple of Steampunk anyway). I began to understand the idea and the aesthetic. As a historian, I see so many commonalities between our current age and the Victorian age: the fascination with gadgetry, the naive hope of technology and science solving all our problems, the horrifying division of classes between the haves and the have nots. The middle-class guilt, the compulsive acquisition of household goods, the energy infused in politics, the trappings of celebrity – I’ve seen all this before.

So this weekend there was a Steampunk Expo here in San Diego. Now, again, keep in mind – I am not an SCA or Renaissance Faire type. I enjoy dressing up only very occasionally. The anachronisms inherent in contemporary events pretending to take place in the past cause me extreme annoyance (no one watches historical movies with me either – I ruin them). But in the case of Steampunk, the desire for “authenticity” is not really there. It is already imaginary – 21st century people living an alternative history that never happened, based on a fascination with Victorian thinking.

And it’s the thinking that brings me back to the literature, and the writing. The expo had panels, and one was of steampunk writers: “Fantasy or Science? Does Steampunk Literature Rely More On One Or Is It A Combination Of Both?”, with Tim Powers, Vernor Vinge, Erix Hendrix, Madeline Holly Rosing, and Dru Pagliassotti. I do not know their work, but the discussion was fascinating. I learned that the bible for understanding the Victorian underworld is Henry Mayhew’s volumes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851), which I know as a primary source for history.

But on the nature of writing fiction, and the complexities of writing Steampunk in particular, some interesting topics were tossed around by the panel:

The idea that 19th century steam technology made it impossible to justify slavery, because brute force was no longer as necessary. I have to think about this, because one could argue that the children put to work were enslaved to the machines.

The paucity of female heroes in steampunk works, a motivating factor for Madeline Holly Rosing. I find myself disillusioned with this one – there were new books on display in the vendors’ room that featured heroines in bustiers and stockings, looking like streetwalkers. I met a woman in the bathroom who was dressed in suede and carried arrows to rescue fairies. And yet I know that women had quite a bit of power during the Victorian era. Even though it was often wielded in private venues, it could have devastating effects. Educated women were at an advantage here, rather than those who could fight monsters. But I do understand that in science fiction in general, and steampunk in particular, most of the characters have been male.

The conflict between science/technology and magic, and the difficulty of determining genre. When there is greater technology, there appears to be less need for magic, and vice versa. However, one can gain social insight by putting one tool in the hands of elites, and the other in the hands of the masses. Magic, at first, was discussed as being something not everyone has. But the same could be said for technology. So an interesting framework can be created by having the elites control magic, while the masses rely on technology and have to seek the elite oracles and mages for help. Or, conversely, the elites control the technology, while the people have only homespun magic on which to rely. This idea certainly makes the genre of fantasy more interesting to me.

The ways in which Steampunk can be kept “real”. This came up several times – an effort must be made to imbue a fictional work with enough veracity that the reader accepts the premise and actions. Science plays this role – even if the author doesn’t get deeply into the science, a bit of scientific justification can make things possible. And the reader must believe it is possible, that what they’re reading could happen, somehow, at some time, somewhere. For magic, it is necessary to show ceremonies or steps to the magic – that creates the illusion of authenticity, since we associate tradition and rituals with things that are real. Similarly, creating social myths for an imaginary society can make it seem more real. Logic, said Vinge, should be implicit – as in David Levine’s Arabella novel where ships sail solar winds. The units of measurement should be believable and translatable – then the audience will follow.

So to maintain this veracity, all things have to come from somewhere. Powers talked about a novel where anyone who lied had water dumped over his head from nowhere. The novel never explained where this water came from – if water appears somewhere, it must disappear from somewhere. Basic natural science is inviolate. And, said Powers, one must consider consequences – surely courts would not be needed if we all knew who lied the moment they were lying? Why would probate be needed if everyone could talk to ghosts?

Once could work against what we know is real, however, by placing the character(s) in an era where people didn’t know certain things (nuclear power, antibiotics, the distance between planets). Then it was OK to have things askew, because they are also askew to the character. The reader, presumably, knows better, and thus will accept a character’s ignorance of what they know to be real.

More in alignment with my own teaching and examination of history, Steampunk stories can bring up findings from the past, things that were (or in fiction, may have been) ahead of their time, but did not move forward. It was pointed out that when there was no money, no investment, innovations can die off. We can bring them back in fiction, or they can be rediscovered. I am continually discovering things from earlier ages, where they were thought not to exist yet. We tend to assume the past was more primitive than now — often it wasn’t.

And yes, I dressed up, in a Victorian ball gown, decorated hat, gears on my earrings, cameos and watch face necklaces. But this one session made my day.

OER and the Powers that Be

Me: Gosh, I love Open Educational Resources. I hate those high textbook prices, because they’re high for no reason. Plus a lot of them aren’t very good, and go in directions I don’t want. Luckily, there’s a lot available on the web.

Powers that Be (15 years later): Wow, we want to get into OERs! We just discovered we can save students money and achieve local, state and national political kudos for doing this. We’ll have grants!

Me: That’s great! I want to apply. I created two of my own textbooks out of Wikipedia articles that I edited. Then I edited a bunch of primary sources and added them to the books. They’re in pdf. Students just print them if they want to, or read them online – saves tons of money! Where do I sign?

Powers that Be: Oh, no, we don’t want you to create the OERs. Look at all the stuff out there! We’ve got textbooks and materials, not very well organized and into multiple places. Go search those. Adopt one of those. Then you can have the grant.

Me: Oh, well there are some classes I teach where I haven’t done my own books. American History, for example. Hmmm…not much good stuff, though there are quite a few texts available. Here’s one that will do – I just need to annotate it in an accessible way – it doesn’t seem to have the Salem Witch Trials and other important things. It’ll be quite a bit of work. But that’s OK — where do I sign for a grant?

Powers that Be: Oh, well you have to show that you’re saving students money from the previous semester.

Me: But the previous semesters I’ve been using either open resources or my own edited books and materials. I haven’t used a commercial textbook in some of these classes for several years.

Powers that Be: Then you get no grant. You have to show a difference between what your students spent last semester and what they’ll spend with your newly adopted OER.

Me: But I’ve been giving my students OERs for years! I’ve been in the vanguard! A trendsetter! Without people like me you wouldn’t even know what OERs are!

Powers that Be: You’re misunderstanding the goal here. We need to show we are saving students money after we became involved.  That’s what the grant is for. Then we need to show exactly how much we’ve saved. What’s happened over previous years doesn’t matter.

Me: You know, it seems like it’s more important to you to take credit for OERs than to expand their use, or to assist people like me who have been developing, revising and using OERs without compensation for the last two decades or so. Perhaps those who claim that the real purpose behind institutional OER adoption is to allow states to reduce funding to public schools are correct. Is my taxpayer money going to grants like this?

Powers that Be: You bet! Be proud to be a part of such educational innovation. 🙂

The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

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