The tension between theory and practice occurs in many fields, and it is certainly marked in online education. As with many academic disciplines, in online education the practice began without a foundation in research, since one can’t research what is essentially new.
As college professors, many of us began (years before there was online anything) by actually teaching. We had very little, if any, training in education or pedagogy. Some of us became good teachers anyway, because we loved what we did, we wanted to share our knowledge, and we cared about students. We learned about principles, research and techniques as we went along, and rolled them in to our practice.
So the idea that we should start with principles when introducing faculty to online teaching seems strange. We now have a good mix of professors who began as “just” practitioners, and those who have had training in teaching techniques. We learn from each other regularly.
So what are these principles, the ones I think should come later in the process? Jim Julius, our current Faculty Director of Online Education, recently put together a workshop on Foundational Principles. It was designed to be the “glue” that holds together a mashup of his office’s workshops with those of our Program for Online Teaching. We are running these this week.
His slides are great! Many of the useful principles I learned as I went along over the last couple of decades are there: Bloom’s Taxonomy, Universal Design, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles, the Community of Inquiry model. So much useful stuff.
As a POT workshop presenter, I am not sure where to use these, however. I know that many faculty come to online teaching concerned about technology, time, and tools. They are professionals already in the classroom, and may be excited or fearful (or both) about teaching online. At POT, our motto has always been Pedagogy First. We want to start with faculty as professionals who have already developed their own approach to both their discipline and their teaching. To present them with principles seems to ignore the knowledge they already have, and suggests that they need to somehow “start over” to teach online, that they don’t have the information or skills they need. Our focus is on the individual instructor, and his/her pedagogical strengths. We want to help faculty translate these strengths into an online class, while exploring online environments and tools they may find interesting. So our approach goes the other way when it comes to principles – we help faculty review the methods they’ve already found effective, and work from there. The principles come up naturally during the evolution of practice.
As a practitioner, then, I find myself dealing with principles by reverse engineering from what I actually do. Here’s what I do, here’s what works – oh yeah, it happens to fit this model and is affirmed by this research. That may be proof of one of two possibilities: (1) I actually read this stuff somewhere without knowing it and unconsciously applied it (this seems unlikely) or (2) the techniques I developed through practice using (and continually revising) my pedagogy were good enough to be backed up by research that came later.
That does not mean that what I do could be considered “best practices”. Rather, they are the best practices for me to use, until I decide to try something else.
The concept of foundational principles, to me, seems to imply a model of “best practices” that apply to everyone. That may be a perfectly valid way to introduce newbies to online teaching, or it may do two very bad things for faculty: limit their approach by making it seem that a certain way is “right”, and intimidate them before they even start.
I am a historian. If I had been presented with the “principles” of History before I did any, I wouldn’t have gone into the field. Most disciplines are like this — the “methodology” or “proofs” course is taught at the sophomore or upper-division level, then again in graduate school.
POT’s Certificate Class tries to combine advice, exploration, self-awareness and a bit of theory, but always starts with the instructor’s pedagogy, not principles. So if we err, and I’m sure to some we do, it will always be on the side of practice over principles.
Lately it’s been kind of eerie in the world of open online classes, at least those taught by folks whose work I respect the most.
This year, our Program for Online Teaching leadership for the POT Certificate Class was down to three overworked facilitators, plus our wonderful moderators and those who let us use their videos. The class was definitely a Small Open Online Class, and since it had assigned readings and a schedule, and since MOOCs have become mega-commercial horrors, I no longer call it a MOOC of any sort anyway. For such a small group (60 registered originally), the community was fabulous, both supportive and knowledgeable. A little over a dozen learners completed and earned a badge for spring semester, and/or a certificate for the entire 2013-14 year.
The format of the class was different from the previous year (2012-13), where I had struggled (as a non-programmer) with FeedWordpress to bring in everyone’s feeds. Instead we used a Google Site. We asked everyone to post a link to their blog post at the Site, and engage in discussion at the Site instead of in the blog comments. I was able to bring in blog feeds easily using Gadgets.
I just took a peek at Alec Couros’ DCMOOC, and noticed participants in their Google Plus Community posting links to their weekly blog post. Aha!
Now, when it came to our POT Cert Class this year, there were some issues. I wasn’t delighted with the non-nested discussions in Google Sites, and we discovered that three people couldn’t really run the class effectively, even with moderators, when all three facilitators work full-time plus. But the need, at our college and elsewhere, for pedagogically-based learning about how to teach online is still there. So we decided to create a self-guided Learning Pathway instead.
Then I discovered there was already a Google Plus Community, to which I was invited, called Learning Pathways. Aha!
cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped
Anyway, I started creating the new Pedagogy First! Learning Pathway (work in progress is here), and my colleague Laura Paciorek has been helping. The idea is that the pathway is essentially comprised of curated content and assignments for a portfolio, and that any individual or group could participate and use the site for a “class” or individual study. Then for community, we plan to use our own POT Google Plus Community (mostly because some folks don’t like Facebook, where we also have a POT group).
So then I find that Jim Groom has created a self-directed class for ds106. Based on the successful Headless ds106, it is called the Open ds106 Course. Aha!
The synchronicity is striking, or at least it strikes me. And the trends for these classes, and many more, defy a number of assumptions I made when all this cMOOCishness and openness stuff started. I mean waaaay back in 2005 or so (which is also when I started the Program for Online Teaching).
(NB: I am deliberately ignoring xMOOCs, those based in commercial or university-commercial collaborations. My focus here is on what I’ve called Task-Based MOOCs.)
I am surprised to see that when it comes to task-based open online classes:
1. We haven’t ditched the “course”.
While we all acknowledge the importance of connections and helping people be nodes in a network, what this looks like in practice isn’t that different from any other sort of dedicated community that uses online space to interact. And we all continue to create some sort of teacher-designed content, even if it’s just a pathway through assignments or a schedule or a set of expectations.
2. We don’t have a wide variety of platforms from which to choose.
I believe that Alec Couros began designing open courses in wikis, but now is using WordPress. Jim Groom’s ds106 is WordPress-based also. So was OCTEL. Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOCMOOC used Instructure Canvas, but for most of the open classes and cMOOCs, WordPress seems preferred. I’ve moved back to it myself with the Learning Pathway, although the discussion will be in G+. I recall when the choices were more diverse, and even a time when Alec and I were searching for an open discussion program that featured nested posts, as in Moodle and Ning.
3. The personality/persona of the instructor continues to be a factor in the success of an open class.
Jim Groom, David Wiley, Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Jesse Stommel — all have distinct, interesting personalities and teaching styles. Participants, even while creating communities and connections, are guided not only by the design of the class but by the instructor’s presence. Without a teacher who inspires, an open online class is just a website.
Given these similarities, do we now have models for independent open online classes? And when it comes to designing an open online class, have we hit our stride or are we in a rut?
I was delighted and inspired by Jenny Mackness’ recent post on Spaces at an exhibition. One could take each space and envision ways in which it is a metaphor for a learning space as experienced by a college class (yes, that’s my perspective and I’m sticking to it).
I answered Jenny on Facebook:
My physical classroom at San Elijo is wonderful in many ways – it has two doors and windows that open, a big projection screen, a computer that works, and four large whiteboards. But with the exception of a few old college announcements and a two-decade-old project poster on Israel, the walls are blank and there is no visual stimulation in the room other than the people in it. While I understand the monastic impulse, the space still seems sterile.
Compare this to the content-rich, ever-distracting web.
We think of our online classes as being on the web, but most of them aren’t on the web – they’re inside an LMS, isolated from the internet. New online instructors often sense this sterility and add images and videos. But the images are often decorative rather than instructional, and the videos are now embedded, which is great for convenience and less distraction but less suitable for exploration.
The assignments would be the logical place to allow for exploration, as I do with my students collecting primary sources from wherever they can find them (article on this forthcoming). And yet I see so many classes where all class materials are given inside the LMS space, and I wonder whether we are afraid of field trips because we know that richness also means distractions, and predictability is very important to the success of many of our students. The web is never predictable.
Where are the structured web spaces, the ones where we as teachers know what’s there, but where students can explore? Databases full of primary sources are boring. Where is the equivalent of installation art, where the artist defines the space but the interpretations and experience are left to the viewer?
Not that long ago, there were exciting new things to try in ed tech. It was easy to get enthusiastic about not only new products but the way the web was going, and to encourage faculty to jump in.
But in the last few years, the web has gone stagnant. Certain models of development, and certain tools, have become dominant, and online teaching has become far less excitiing.
1. Education is seen as a market.
Education, as Apple has known since 1981, is a market. But instead of marketing products toward innovative faculty, now products become “enterprise” and are marketed to administrators. This is a larger version of the problem I wrote about six years ago. Then, the Learning Management System, particularly the dominance of Blackboard, stifled innovative pedagogy, especially for novices who just plugged things in to the system. Now we have that writ large. We limit what’s available because restriction is seen as the only way to offer “support” (which faculty now desperately need – see #7). Educators are no longer seen as having special standing as users, with full-featured accounts offered for fee — we are just a target market like every other “consumer”.
2. The web isn’t as friendly anymore.
A couple of years ago, I got a note from an irate blogger because I was using her education blog to try out a feed aggregation plugin for WordPress. She thought I was making money off her work. Last week, I received a notice from Zoho, because my last post linked specifically to their LiveDesk page. They asked me to change my link. The link in my post. In my blog. Apparently linking to anywhere in a website other than the main page adversely affects their Google SEO standings.
We have pulled people away from the idea of creating their own web spaces, because it’s so much more convenient to just use Facebook or Google. In addition to the stalkers and evil net users we’ve always been afraid of, commercial entities like Apple and Google now collect, use, and sell our personal information and web use habits. We are watched, tracked, bought, sold, folded, stapled and mutilated on the web. It’s gone from playground to panopticon.
3. Tentative faculty were right.
When faculty were afraid to work with web 2.0 tools, we used to talk about the possible creativity. When they worried that they might work hard on something only to have it disappear, we’d talk about the transience of everything on the web, or how much benefit their work would have for students. But they’ve been right. Even though I’ve preached for years not to keep your important stuff on the web (even this post is backed up in plain text), I have been affected by the loss of tools like Posterous and the audio feature in Slideshare. Colleagues have been impacted by price hikes for Ning. Things that we created learning objects in for free now charge $49/month.
4. Nothing new is out there.
This is true pedagogically and technologically. When the new exciting thing is Haiku Deck (yet another simple tool for making what is essentially PowerPoint slides online), we’re in trouble. Tools that really do something new, like Prezi and Blabberize, are becoming very rare. This is despite the institutionalization of open source as a viable alternative to proprietary development. Now the purpose of development is to Beta a product, then monetize as quickly as possible. Almost every tool I’ve used has either disappeared or gone “freemium”, with the free version (think Blogger) being almost useless for any sort of innovative teaching. The IPO for Twitter is more than economic news — it’s emblematic of the move to commercialism in a way that creates stagnation within the product. All development will now be aimed at monetization.
And the tools themselves just perpetuate the same ways of doing things. We have failed to move beyond PowerPoint. Although we are better at designing slides (huge slides of text are now the exception), it’s still the same idea. Slideshows with audio were not exactly innovative (they duplicated the teacher talking through a filmstrip, if you remember those), but they were at least useful until Slideshare did away with the soundtrack (my last post tried Thinglink and Soundcloud to do something similar). The emphasis, unless you are a professional web developer or video-maker buying big products, is on easy sharing. Pinterest, the most recent “new” way of doing things, is just an easier version of CoolIris, which is just an easier version of posting images on a web page. Blogging plugins are aimed at monetization and search standings. And none of it ever got easier – wikis are still as hard to use as they always were. Sure, we can shrink-a-dink stuff for mobile. But I see little that is new (my online colleagues tell me gaming has seen all the innovations).
5. Online teaching has institutionalized in the wrong direction.
There were initially two models for online teaching. One was the DIY, faculty-driven, creative, early adopter, free development model. The other was the enterprise system, LMS-for-sale, cookie-cutter classes model. The latter featured scalability via automated grading and servers that could handle hundreds of students. When MOOCs became popular about five years ago, both models were in use. In adopting the standardized model as an answer to high college expenses, and promoting it in the best universities, the standardized, commercial model has won. When big universities other than its originator (Stanford) become commercial partners in Coursera, for example, that’s pretty clear.
6. The field has professionalized, also in the wrong direction.
cc BK at Flickr
Instead of faculty becoming experts in educational technology as part of a creative process, and being supported by their employers to get certificates and degrees to teach others, educational technology and online course administration are now their own fields with their own PhDs. This means that individuals who have never been teachers and have very little experience create small-sample studies and get degrees that net them jobs administrating experiences for faculty. The entire process promotes the idea that ed tech is too complex for ordinary faculty, promoting dependence and lack of agency.
7. Creativity is being outsourced.
A correlary to this trend is that the fun part (or second most fun part, depending on how much you like students) is being done by others. Creativity in teaching online comes in three places: course design, course materials development, and interactions with students. Most online teachers have great potential for developing good techniques for the latter, especially if they have teaching experience in other settings. But the creative fire, and the development of ones own online pedagogy, is being outsourced to “course developers” and “teams” who take the “burden” of creating courses off overworked faculty.
What seems to be advancement, then, has stifled online teaching.
Lessons of technology
I am a historian of technology – it’s what I do. In discussing some of the above disillusionment with my colleague Scott Johnson, he mentioned how prepping an online course is seen like housework – an ongoing process that people need relief from. Back in the 1980s, historian Ruth Schwartz Cohen wrote a book called More Work for Mother. It was about the changes in domestic technology at the turn of the last century (washing machines, vaccuum cleaners) and the way they were supposed to save labor. But instead, they caused a change in standards for cleanliness that increased their necessity. In addition, they put more of the burden on women, since they no longer needed help beating rugs and hauling laundry tubs.
The promise of technology for improving learning has been realized to a certain extent on the learner end – it is now much easier for the self-motivated, research-oriented students of information and perspectives to save, share and innovate within their own learning experience. But for teachers it’s “more work for mother”, as technologies, instead of relieving a burden, place too many demands on our time for too little return. That not only leaves teachers tired and willing to give up their pedagogical freedom to the nearest ed tech PhD, it leaves the students who need a lot of guidance out in the cold.
A silver lining
There are a number of ways to deal with all this. Most involve some pruning, and even a return to previous ways of thinking.
Select the right tools
When we create something on the web, we should only do so in places where we can download a copy in a typical format, like mp4. Otherwise, we should avoid the product.
Focus on one technology that works
Online courses could be simplified. Select one technology (video, audio, slides) and make that your own. And by “own” I mean created in a way where you can save a copy before uploading to YouTube.
Return to basics
If the technology is turning into a time-suck, return to the more personal way of doing things, like assignments and feedback by email.
Use the technology when it truly saves labor
An automated gradebook where students can log in and see their grades saves labor. Automated grading for multiple-choice or formative assessment saves labor. Other aspects of technology (internal messaging systems, clunky captioning tools, things you have to spend 15 hours learning) may not be good time investments.
Outsource the things you hate
Take advantage of whatever systems or people are provided to you for free, and learn the features or tasks they provide that make these tasks easier. But prioritize first based on what you like – if you love course design, keep it for yourself.
Play with a purpose
It used to be we’d play with the newest gadgets and apps so that we could build permanent things, but this doesn’t work. So play with the intention of learning about technologies in general. All the skills can be transferred to other web technologies.
Go to where you are
If you love your LMS, stay there and learn to use it well. If you prefer WordPress, learn all about it. If you’re a Google fan, become proficient. Don’t worry about going to where other people are (Facebook or mobile apps) if that’s not your thing.
When technology causes loss, or bad changes, instead of improving our lives, we should evolve. I got rid of my dishwasher because it was a continual source of disappointment – it didn’t get dishes very clean, and it got to the point where I was pretty much washing them by hand anyway. So I bought a bigger dish drainer, removed the dishwasher, and gained some badly needed kitchen space. But before that happened I wasted a lot of time and effort working with the machine’s inadequacies, because after all it was supposed to save me time and trouble.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when technology is controlling us instead of the other way around. If the web isn’t providing exciting options anymore, it’s time to adapt and get some of our space back.
Having read yet another tweet complaining about the lack of connection between what’s taught in classrooms and what’s needed in the workplace, I posted my own:
It hit a nerve with a number of people.
One of my connections wrote
This is exactly it. My classes in History are General Education. My goal is to help foster an educated citizenry, not an efficient workforce.
And I am not promoting the other narratives either:
One popular narrative is that we should change education because it is irrelevant to the innovations of the future. In this story, today’s entrepreneurs are lauded, the guys who dropped out of school or didn’t like college because their classes were boring. Their success supposedly proves the irrelevance of our educational system. What it actually does is attest to the role of genius, luck, opportunity and money.
Another narrative links the use of electronic technologies, particularly the web, to making education more relevant. While I am deeply tied to the use of web technologies for teaching, I have not been able to buy into the idea that either the openness of the web or the marketplace of ideas is sufficient for providing a full education.
It’s the same reason I can’t accept the narrative that automated online courses and xMOOCs with peer or graduate student feedback schemes are a substitute for what we’re doing well in our colleges.
The final narrative I reject is the one that says that we live in a post-industrial world, so that many of the skills we used to value (the ability to follow an extended argument, or write coherent prose, or articulate ethics) are no longer needed. We need these skills, not because they are going to be applied somewhere specific, but because they change who we are and make us better people.
Knowledge that transforms students, that turns them into growing, learning, educated people, is by necessity broad and deep. What’s learned in college may have very little application to the specific tasks of a student’s future job.
Education changes people’s broad perspective of the world. It trains habits of mind, not technicians.
Related posts: Relevance in an Age of Forgetting
As I read some pretty bad final essays (and some good ones), it is always tempting to wonder whether my work makes any difference.
This semester, for the last writing forum, I did not have students post their essay drafts, as I usually do. Since they had started their essays earlier this time, I simply didn’t want to see them again. Instead, I had a discussion questions, something like:
Although I was clearly asking for reflection about the discipline, I instead got a zillion posts evaluating the class. I was surprised.
And one very much stood out, from Rachel Brawner, one of my US history students (used by permission):
Once I had a student ask me, on the first day of class, “What are you going to do to make history interesting for me?” I replied that I hoped that the materials I was assigning were inherently interesting, and that engaging them would be the key. He scoffed, but at the end of the class told me I had been right. The materials, especially the primary source book I had edited, kept him engaged.
I had another student tell me that this workbook (my primary source collection for modern US history) was a book of “activist documents”. I had never thought of that before – I had simply collected sources (maybe 5 for each weekly unit, edited down) that I thought represented the period. When I looked at the collection more critically, I realized he was right. My sources for that class are all about the people making change, or show the reason why they had to.
And now a student has taken that and gone from pessimism to optimism about our country while writing an essay.
Providing a place, and some information, to change someone’s mind – that’s why we do it.