Complexity over simplicity in online classes

road to the hamlet A student goes into Online Class A for the first time. They see a list of items by type (syllabus, readings, lectures, discussion). They see a syllabus, listing the dates for when each of these content type items is due, and what constitutes them being done (i.e. complete this quiz, post one posting and two replies, submit this essay). They buy their textbook, and follow it, with chapter readings listed clearly on the readings page. At the end, they take a final exam that goes over the entire course content.
forest Another student goes into Online Class B. They see a list of weeks, or topics. There is a syllabus laying out the goals of the course: exploration, discovery, production of assignments, community. Readings are provided, but may not be required or there may be a choice. Perhaps there is a learning contract instead of a syllabus. Forum postings may be focused on what the student has discovered by following research instructions, scaffolded to adapt as the student’s work changes. Assignments may emphasize skills rather than content. The final exam is a video project where their unique research is shared and peer evaluated.

Given the dozen or so years a student has spent in traditional classes prior to college, Class A may seem more familiar, comfortable, and simpler. Class B may be perceived as difficult, or disorganized. Data on student clicks and questions asked may show some confusion, some cognitive challenges that need to be overcome. More questions may be emailed to the instructor, or posted to a forum.

Recent efforts to “improve” online course “integrity” have led to various rubrics, standards, and evaluative tools, wielded by administrators and instructional improvement teams. These assess the “quality” of an online course. The ones I’ve seen, and the faculty I’ve talked to who have been subject to them, note that the rubrics clearly prefer the Online Class A model: content-based, simply laid out, clearly expressing not only expectations but overall outcomes. Complexity is seen as “cogitive overload” and is discouraged.

The result is an unexpected (and for the admins, often unintended) standardization. Although the teams and projects deny that the intention is to standardize online classes, to make them “cookie cutter”, that is the likely result. The instructor’s role is to guide students through the material in an organized way, and to use insightful discussion prompts and exam questions to assess deeper thinking about the content. If the content they used has been structured to clearly align everything the student encounters with particular learning outcomes, so much the better, privileging textbook publishers who create such programs for profit.

How do faculty respond to this push for simplicity, when we know that teaching is inherently complex? In my years heading the Program for Online Teaching, we have always seen a tendency for any instructor new to online classes to automatically follow the Class A model. The reasons for this are varied. In most cases, the instructor has not examined their own pedagogy in the traditional classroom, or does not use online communities and resources for their own learning. Some are intimidated by the technology and throw their own classroom pedagogy out the window, having been guided by instructional designers and other support staff to simply fill in the blanks of the LMS.

Since many faculty new to online teaching are under time pressure to develop a class, the cognitive dissonance in their own learning becomes overload very quickly. The easiest thing to do is opt for the simple path – upload a syllabus in Word or pdf, upload readings the same way, set up a weekly discussion post with a question requiring a response, and create some exams. Many, many students complain that their online classes are impersonal, that they feel like they’re just learning from a computer instead of a person (and in the case of instructors who adopt course cartridges, that is often true). Students come to believe that this is what an online class is – a list of tasks to be completed and graded, rather than a learning experience.

simplemaze complexmaze1
This maze looks complex, but it is actually simple – there is only one path. You will learn little by attempting it.
This maze is complex, so you will need to make choices.

This is why POT has focused on helping instructors understand their own pedagogy, assess their teaching strengths, and build online classes that emphasize these strengths, calling this “Pedagogy First”. We encourage models that break away from “type listing” to create a unique interactive syllabus. And we want faculty to explore models that encourage students to think critically, express their learning creatively, and utilize the affordances of technology. If the supported LMS doesn’t fit what they want to do, we want them to link out or adopt a different venue. If they excel at student-directed learning, student-developed content, constructivism, or connectivist learning, we want them to have the freedom to build their classes around those models.

That’s because we value faculty creativity, originality, and pedagogical goals. We also believe that only by offering various pathways and options to explore learning about online teaching can we help teachers excel as the professionals they are.

Unfortunately, a trend has begun to cast those of us who were early adopters of online technologies, and originators of our own online pedagogies, as outliers instead of guides and modelers. We are being told that the days of “cobbling” our own systems together are over, that we need to join the “community” of large initiatives designed to create more accountable and approvable online classes. There is head-shaking about the learning we had to go through “back then”, and reminders that such efforts (like learning html, or exploring different online tools) are no longer necessary. We now have everything laid out for us; all the features we need are inside the mandated LMS. We must step down from our role as innovators and join the parade, marching together. We must realize that it is time to, in a word, simplify.

The temptation is appealing, but what is lost when we shift from complexity to simplicity? When instead of exploring and discovering, we are given the tools and the platform? Do we wish to encourage that sort of simplification for our students, when employers have made it clear that what they want is workers who can actually learn? Are such industrial models appropriate in a post-industrial world?

The only solution, as I see it, is to continue to encourage complexity, in both the development of faculty talents and student potential. POT will continue to encourage the reassessment of the Class A model, and continue to question content-based, standardized, simplistic classes both online and in the classroom. We will view ourselves as people of value, with knowledge to contribute to the discussion. We will treat our fellow faculty as creative, self-actualized human beings, lifelong learners who want to express their teaching goals through any of the myriad of available tools and approaches. And that task, like the work we all do, embraces complexity.

Giving SCOPE to Online Classes

It isn’t enough for those of us who are labeled “early adopters” and “artisan” online teachers to just complain about what we don’t want. We know what we are against: monolithic systems, simplistic solutions based on administrative goals, dumbed-down pedagogies, standardized course design, and the stifling of creativity.

But as I’ve been saying about democracy in America (well I have, just not here), we can’t just moan about what’s going wrong – we have to be able to articulate, clearly and convincingly, our positive position. We need to present what we do want, what we favor, what is worthy of defense and respect.

We value:

Serendipity over restrictive pathways.

We believe in frameworks for guiding students in their work — it’s our job to create them. But there must be room for discovery – opportunities for students to find things, pursue their own interests, go down the “rabbit hole”. This might mean having students create content or access the “teacher” features of the technology. It might mean re-evaluating standard grading schemes and “learning outcomes”. This can be messy, and messiness is essential to learning.

Complexity over simplicity.

This does not mean we do not appreciate clear navigation and helping students understand what tasks to do in our classes. What it means is that we really want to challenge students intellectually, to provide multiple pathways to learning and plenty of resources. Online classes should not be simpler than on-site classes, but rather train the student mind for intensive cognitive work. Simple classes which emphasize rote learning and/or “completion” and/or student retention encourage students to see the purpose of the college experience as “getting stuff done” instead of building their minds. What’s easy for students is not necessarily what’s good for students.

Originality over processed content.

Certainly textbooks and material created by others are useful. But the course itself, in design, intent and materials, should be the work of the instructor. Many of us who use Open Educational Resources came to them, not just to save students money, but to provide less restrictive yet more focused objects for student learning. Universal design, while well-intentioned, should never prevent original approaches to material. To us, professional development does not mean learning the LMS – it means discovering ways to find, create, build, and explore so we can create better classes.

Pedagogy over management.

Yes, having an operational website, or even an LMS, may be preferred for “delivering” the class. But the emphasis should be on allowing the instructor to develop their own pedagogy by providing them with the tools and/or freedom to create. The convenience of administration should be a secondary consideration behind creating courses and using tools that emphasize the instructor’s teaching strengths. We want teachers to be able to say, “X works in my class, but Y doesn’t work”, even when the “guidelines” say that every class should have Y, and funding should be provided for X.

Excellence over expediency.

Rewarding instructors who create these serendipitous, complex, original classes for students would go a long way toward making more of them. The goals of building student minds, creating an educated citizenry, and sharing our enthusiasm for our subjects – these define excellence. Excellence is not defined by the opinion of those who appreciated the easy A, or how well a course meets the “best practices” determined by “experts”, or whether the course design is consistent across the disciplines. Rewarding classes that fit the rubric, make administrative processing easy, allow student thinking to remain rudimentary, and provide “options” from a list of things that are all the same — this does no service to our society.

There are many ways to give online classes “SCOPE”, and we need to articulate them.

Step Back

I find it interesting, as a historian, how many elements related to technology are trying to take a step back.

People who use Facebook, for example, are posting less about themselves, even if they’re still posting a lot.

We are realizing that digital infrastructure is vulnerable and analog backups are needed.

We are rethinking open educational resources and how the term “open” has been applied to education, now that open textbooks are an excuse to reduce funding for public education.

We are considering that the development of artificial intelligence is going to require the creativity of liberal arts majors.

We are revising our ideas about taking notes by typing instead of writing, and recognizing that hand-writing notes has value for learning.

We are discussing the possibility that inhibiting speech to protect people from unpleasantness may constitute cultural infantilism.

For a long time I have objected to “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” when it comes to technology adoptions, for all the reasons we see here: the importance of both personal privacy and free speech in a democracy, the vulnerability of digital artifacts (don’t build anything in an LMS!), the ethical entanglements involved in moneyed ventures related to education, and the value of things from the past that worked (but got fixed anyway).

So let’s be sure to back up (and I don’t just mean our files).

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”.

subvert

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.

dandelion

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.