Every semester I ask my students about my online classes. After doing this for many years, I have come to the following conclusions regarding those negative comments, the ones that may be few but that keep us up at night. So if you are dealing with some negative feedback, and blowing it out of proportion, consider:
If you use text, video and audio to explain the navigation of the class at the beginning, they complain that there is too much to do. If you don’t use media to explain the navigation of the class, they complain because they get lost.
If you use a linear form of navigation throughout the class, they complain because they don’t understand what to do. If you use a non-linear form of navigation, they complain that they’re lost.
If you use nested forums where all posts are visible, they complain because the page is too long to scroll. If you use threaded forums where each post must be clicked, they complain that they can’t follow the conversation.
If you use the default buttons in the LMS, they complain because the course is just as boring as their last class. If you don’t use the default buttons in the LMS, they complain because the class doesn’t look the same as their last class.
If you grade things slowly because you’re putting lots of comments on assignments, they complain because they aren’t getting their work back fast enough. If you grade quickly, they complain because they aren’t getting enough detailed feedback.
If you post instructions in one place, they complain that they didn’t see them and so didn’t know about the assignment. If you post them in many places, they get confused that there was so much material they couldn’t find it all.
If you require quizzes provided by the publisher, they complain because either the publisher’s system didn’t work, or they didn’t want a different password, or the wording of the questions was too difficult. If you provide custom quizzes, they complain that the questions were not asking exactly what was written in the readings.
If you are nice and give a student a break on one assignment, they assume that all assignment deadlines are negotiable. If you don’t give them a break, you’re being cruel because it wasn’t their fault.
If you have them submit all assignments privately, they complain because they weren’t given any examples. If you have them work publicly in a forum, they complain because their work is seen by others.
If you have only a few types of tasks, they complain that they weren’t given enough chances to show their knowledge. If you have many different types of tasks, they complain that there was too much to do.
If you provide a rubric, they complain that they didn’t know about it or that their circumstances don’t apply to it. If you don’t provide a rubric, they claim grading was arbitrary.
If you provide only text-based lectures and assignments, they complain because there is so much reading. If you augment with audio or video, they complain because they couldn’t get the technology to work or didn’t think those parts were assigned.
If you do not require context reading aside from lectures, they complain that the course is subjective and they needed the facts. If you provide context reading from Wikipedia, they complain that Wikipedia shouldn’t be assigned because it’s not a good source.
If you do not allow outside readings as a source for writing, they complain because they were limited to only what was provided. If you allow outside readings, they complain because they didn’t know how to choose them or weren’t allowed to use them instead of the assigned readings.
If you create similar interactive activities for each unit, they complain because they’re doing the same thing every week. If you create varied activities for each unit, they complain that it isn’t consistent so they don’t know what to do.
If you do not ask them to complete an anonymous survey, they complain because they weren’t allowed to give feedback about the class. If you do ask them to complete an anonymous survey, they complain about things they would not mention in front of other students.
No, I won’t stop asking them for feedback, and I’ll bet you can tell it’s that grading / marking / begging / exceptions time of year, and many of my students would consider this list a mischaracterization because they love my class, and how it was constructed, and they tell me so, and they are right. But when it comes to considering that negative feedback….pass the grains of salt, please.
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.
It happened all of a sudden. The feed from one POT Cert Class participant just wasn’t coming into the Pedagogy First aggregated blog. I spent hours trying to figure out why not – the feed finder screen would just go blank on only her feed. I Googled, I pounded, I went through what there is of FeedWordpress documentation. Mostly I wished I were Alan Levine or Tim Owens.
I have mentioned before that technologies known for doing some really cool things are becoming unreasonably complicated. This particular technological problem rests on a self-hosted installation of the software WordPress (built and maintained by a wonderful community) and the FeedWordpress plugin (built and maintained by a wonderful coding person). When one gets updated, it often doesn’t play nice with the other. And I can’t fix it. I say again unto you, I am not a coder. I find code, I steal code, I envy code, but I do not code.
I finally asked that a new blog be created for this participant, and it seems to be feeding. For now. Of course, the other one had fed too, all of the first semester. Given my own significant limitations, we will not be able to do this again this way next year.
The recipe at the moment is this. Start with recent adventures with self-hosted Moodle, add this new self-hosted WordPress crisis, mix with a dash of cloud failure (Google abandoning Reader, Posterous closing shop, and SeesmicWeb being bought and killed by the inferior HootSuite ). Stir and cook with a big dollop of my recent participation in reviewing a publisher-created program for grading student essays, and you have the kind of disillusionment you get by realizing you have already been devoured by the whale but didn’t know it.
The monsters (big proprietary systems, cloud-based sites, self-hosting) appeared to be separate, but were actually all parts of the same beast.
Self-hosting, a domain of ones own, the path of ds106 and the noble D’Arcy Norman – this has been the antidote to the bullying tactics of the LMS and publisher-created content. I have held it up as the way to avoid both big proprietary monsters and the vagaries of the disappearing web apps and fly-by-night cloud offerings. I have scoffed (quietly) at those who said they could not run their own blog, it was too hard. While I have not been guilty of encouraging anyone to run their own Moodle installation, I have persisted in doing it myself as a bulwark against Moodlling ignorance and exterally-run systems.
All this begins to seem like folly, a folly based on desire. An example: I want nested discussion forums where students can post multimedia, so I have Moodle. I find out today that (cloud-based) Schoology has nested forums! Yay! No! Wait! They are touted around the web as a “start up” of four years or so who use proprietary code (cue John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back music). I will have a free class, but never be able to access it otherwise, years down the line.
Fact is, none of these options are perfect, or even sufficient. The big LMS systems (including Moodle) upgrade and you can’t restore old courses and actually view student work – they say you can, but in fact it doesn’t work. I have all my courses backed up as Moodle .zip files, but now they’ve changed to .mbz. Out in the cloud, I can export my Posterous as they close down, but when I import it into WordPress a bunch of stuff is wrong or missing or ugly. These things weren’t built to be transferrable, or to cater to the archiving tendencies of the mere customer. Whether proprietary and exorbitantly priced, or open source and impossible to run without an IT degreee, none of the options have a sense of history, only a blindered vision of a future fulfilled by profits, market share, or geeky street cred.
Perhaps I am dissembling now to be running a class encouraging faculty to plunge into explorations of web tools and new technologies. I cannot in good conscience suggest anyone build a course around any of them. My colleague Todd Conaway says that it’s better to learn from creating, to meet the challenge of the occasional failure, to engage the technologies and learn from them even if they’re transient. I know that is true. But if you spend too much time in the belly of the beast (whether self-hosted, cloud-based, or LMSed) , things start to smell fishy.
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.
But 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?
Here, let me help you. Photo by iapsii via Flickr.
There is some limited agreement about “what’s wrong” with higher education. It is currently trendy to denigrate the lecture format, the high price of a college education, the usefulness of the curriculum, and the lack of focus on individual growth. The solution, depending on your view, might be MOOCs (free huge online classes), an acceptance of non-college-educated workers (no one wants to talk about that), or a focus on “student success”. For those inside the current college system, this last is becoming most popular.
We admit that many of our students are underprepared, overly dependent, and unmotivated. A “student success” focus is designed to deal with these failings and enable students to graduate, presumably by somehow making them more prepared, less dependent and more motivated. Student services are ramped up, early alert systems enabled to provide counseling for those failing their classes. Even professional development for everyone from janitors to administrators is designed to promote “student success”.
However, the system as it exists is not set up to provide the type of personal attention that “student success” advocates say is needed. College is designed for the prepared, independent, motivated student – that’s what makes it “higher” education. Grades are assigned to those students to determine the level of their work compared to a discipline standard, and assessment assumes that the work they do is the result of their learning. At the undergraduate level, college is designed for general rather than deep learning, in a process that forces the student to do lots of reading and pay attention.
I commit heresy now when I say that this traditional design might be a good thing.
Certainly the patching we’re trying to do to fix it is counterproductive. If we accept and condone the underpreparedness, the dependency, and the lack of motivation, we increase the tendency of these students to come to college and expect high levels of deeply personal support. We refuse to say that a student is simply not ready for college, since this could both undermine their “self esteem” and hold them back for remedial work when they need to get their degree soon. So instead it falls on professors to desperately try to hold to a standard of college-level work, while both students and administrators exert pressure on them to ensure “student success”. Part-time college profs in particular know that if they don’t have a certain level of “success”, they’ll lose their jobs.
The view that profs should be deeply attentive to individual students is also leaking into the current arguments about online education. The recent New York Times article The Trouble with Online College has caused great consternation in the ranks, but what jumped out at me is the claim that online classes do not allow for “getting to know” ones students. (In response, some commenters insist that online classes have just as much or more personal interactions between profs and students as on-site classes. That’s true but it’s beside the point.)
I am increasingly having trouble with the argument that “getting to know your students” is the hallmark of class quality. Instead, quality education should create an environment for the students to get to know the ideas and the discipline. The energy for learning should originate with the student, who needs to study and work hard to figure out both the system and the content. Professors are experts in their discipline, not in engendering character development. Their role is to model their scholarly engagement with their discipline, not their personal engagement with their students. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be good teachers, but it doesn’t define a good teacher as someone who really knows their individual students well. I will “know” a certain percentage of students, in person or online, as it happens naturally. And not knowing every student “well” doesn’t mean not contacting or following up with students who are doing poorly – that’s always appropriate. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be nice – I’m an advocate of nice .
But over the past decade, I have watched my own students become increasingly unwilling to analyze collective feedback in terms of their own work. Instead they want individual feedback only, preferably in a one-on-one environment with me. At 40 students per class section, I cannot meet that expectation. But it’s a symptom of the individualized attention their sub-standard work has been given thus far. They know that the current system is focused on their “success”, and I’m supposed to make that possible rather than them. Instead of overcoming their own limitations (economic class, learning disability, living situation), they are taught that I will take those hurdles into consideration and lower my expectations. Some have internalized the learning problems and even learning styles they’ve been told they possess as individuals, and they see them as justification for lowered standards. I have students who tell me they can’t do the reading because they are visual learners. (I sometimes find myself mumbling “I’ll read it for you”, a line from Monty Python’s bookshop sketch.)
I realize I sound like a 19th century conservative here, and I am no proponent of Samuel Smiles or social Darwinism. But the dependency of students is expanding within a system increasingly dedicated to enabling their helplessness. Equal opportunity and equal access are the hallmarks of democracy and public education, and I strongly believe in them. But that does not mean equal “success”, especially at the price of academic standards, massive instructor workload, increased student dependency, and an environment that caters to the underprepared and unmotivated.
So I question the current focus on the success of the underprepared, dependent, unmotivated college student. I’m getting concerned that the prepared, independent, motivated learner is being subjected to a restrictive and limited education instead of college or university learning. I have very little time to spend with the high-B student who could be an A, because I spend so much time re-explaining directions and answering individual questions that I’ve already answered collectively, or tracking down poor-performing students to recommend they get tutorial help. This focus on their ‘success” may help them do a little bit better, but at the sacrifice of leaving the better students at the same level as when they came in. I don’t have time to help them make their very good work excellent.
Perhaps “success” should be defined as self-development into an independent learner who can learn something valuable from any professor in any class. It should mean succeeding within various environments and with various teaching styles, and being able to learn something regardless – success as a learner, as someone becoming more educated. (I cringe now when people go off on the track that education reform should be based on people following their own path for learning their own way, studying only those subjects they really care about. College is for finding out the value of subjects you don’t care about, but I guess that’s another post.) I certainly want student success to mean that they come in at a certain level of understanding and increase it in my class. Instead it’s coming to mean a passing grade after lots of detailed and personal help. Thus the cranky post.
For years I have complained that faculty use very few features of their LMS. And I have claimed that they do so because they allow the system to limit their pedagogy, using the LMS defaults and uploading content. Most instructors still use only what I call the Three A’s: announcements, assessments, and assignments. Many also use the discussion forums. Few use messaging, blogs, scholar, or any collaborative or synchronous features.
But my own relationship with the LMS is similarly superficial. I refuse to use deep features because I want to be able to leave the LMS at any time. If I built Lessons in Moodle (which I’ve always wanted to do because branched lessons would be a good technique for some things I do), I could never use them elsewhere. They’d be stuck in the system.
The fact that these systems are increasing in complexity means that we must know more about them to use them effectively. Moodle’s gradebook, for example, takes far more of my time in 2.3 than in 1.9. With the addition of new features (and bugs) it becomes necessary to spend much more time inside the LMS, figuring it out.
This LMS adjustment time is then not available for seeking out new ways to teach, or new technologies. Who can get all excited about the possible educational uses of Springpad or Mightybell or xtranormal when we’re busy trying to figure out how to create a non-numeric scale that translates to points appropriately in the LMS? Who can read about new online pedagogies when it takes hours just to figure out how to get from Messages back to the main course page?
So perhaps the argument now is in favor of not using many features of an LMS. Maybe we should be using the LMS primarily as a shell, not learning too many of the bells and whistles but instead just making it a location or start page for the class.
If we shift that focus, then extensive workshops in Blackboard, Moodle or Desire2Learn are unnecessary. Beginning training is enough. Valuable learning time can then be switched to exploring on the open web, to discovering things we can link to that fit with our pedagogy, instead of figuring how to force our pedagogy to fit the LMS features.
At first I thought – this is a bad idea, because then we get deeply into technologies that may disappear tomorrow. What if I set up a whole course in Diigo and it goes under next year? What if I commit to Pinterest for a class and it disappears?
But then I realized that, as with the nasty transition from Moodle 1.9 to 2.3, the LMS doesn’t stay the same either. It updates to another version on an almost annual basis, forcing relearning and retraining of things that had been working perfectly well. The LMS is a yearly time suck anyway, and the deeper we go, the more it sucks.
So regardless, we have to recreate our classes all the time anyway. Might as well keep a more basic relationship with our LMS, and adapt to the new fun stuff instead.