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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Actually teaching tolerance

There are currently discussions (a recent one at Hybrid Pedagogy comes to mind ) about being open with our students about ourselves in order to encourage tolerance, particularly of sexuality. To me, this is part of a much larger issue about values and responsibilities, and it is broadening the list of trends with which I, respectfully, disagree.

The sexuality issue connects with similar lines of “equity” that I’ve been struggling with in recent years. According to contemporary cultural norms, I have to be X to understand what it’s like to experience discrimination about being X. I receive social messages implying that whatever labels I apply to myself, or that society applies to me, should be made public to encourage tolerance (except that tolerance is now a bad word because it implies denigrating the ideas we’re supposed to be tolerant of). My own ideas are dismissed because I am what the culture now calls “privileged” — I am told I don’t understand, because my understanding is not the same as someone else’s.

Lately, people I admire try to tell me what to do and think. I am told that All Lives Matter means that Black Lives Don’t, that I can’t understand anything because I’m white, or female, or middle class, or whatever sexual orientation, or religion, or culture, that other people think I am. I was told by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright that I couldn’t support Bernie Sanders because I am female and he isn’t, and that I’m betraying my sex to not like Hillary Clinton.

A year ago, I saw a sticker on an office window at my college. It was triangular and featured a rainbow design with  “Safe Space” written on it. Thinking I understood (this is a safe space to be who you are), I asked how to get one, and was told to attend a training. So I did. And during that training, I was told that as a teacher it is my job to shut down intolerance in the classroom. That if anyone says anything anti-X (gay, trans, etc) I am to indicate that is inappropriate, and that people in the room might be X and be offended. I was further told that I should say that such views won’t be allowed in my class.

I raised my hand and pointed out that I want the bigot to speak, that I want him or her in my office speaking their mind. How else could I talk to them and convince them of tolerance? I was laughed at. People thought I was joking. Instructors whom I respect and like chuckled at my comment. At the end of the session, I thanked them and refused the sticker, saying I don’t stand for these values the way they are being told to me. I bought a rainbow flag and put it on my office window.

I have always been a proponent of teaching tolerance. The question is, how do we do it? Does revealing our sexuality, or religion, or culture, to our class teach tolerance and appreciation of difference? Does shutting down diverse views, especially those we find abhorrent, correct a problem? Or does it just use our authority, and our supposed role model status, to enforce a particular view of what constitutes tolerance?

My preference is for modeling tolerance rather than “teaching” it. I refuse to shut down conversation in my classroom, because my goal is critical thinking as well as an open mind and freedom of speech. My own speech tends to be egalitarian, and I always point out that what I say is my interpretation of the historical and scholarly sources. When I speak about anyone whom mainstream culture might consider unusual, I talk about them as if they aren’t unusual at all. And as a historian, I’m interested in understanding diverse points of view, because conflicts among them create not only our history, but our perception of our history.

I didn’t realize until recently that the trends I oppose are connected (call me naïve). I have long been against trigger warnings, except for blanket ones (i.e. you will encounter disturbing ideas because college is supposed to do that). I oppose adding my “pronoun” to my professional signature, because I believe such things divide us all even more, into smaller and smaller stultifying categories. I think that safe spaces, trigger warnings, shutting down the opposition, and latter-day political correctness are all manifestations of limitations on speech and academic freedom. These ideas about equity and safety were intended to do right and be inclusive, but in practice have become exclusionary.

Until recently I’ve felt quite alone in this position, as formal manifestations of the popular viewpoint emerge, fill up my college email, and are financed by my tax dollars. This week, however, The Atlantic published this article on How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students. Don’t be fooled by the title – it isn’t so much about religious students as about the appreciation of all points of view, not just the current set of what is accepted. And now I read that the University of Chicago agrees, and is telling its entering freshmen there will be no trigger warnings, that they will be exposed to, and expected to engage, diverse ideas.

And for those who think I’m a nihilist, I’m not. This is not cultural relativism. I don’t believe that all points of view have equal value, or that ethics are arbitrary. Rather, refusing to disallow objectionable speech is putting ethics into the context of civil discourse, rather than promoting a set of norms that can be used to exclude people. I agree with those who say that the extremities of our current national discourse are caused, in some part, by dismissing other people’s points of view as stupid, and by liberals (myself included) being smug.  It is entirely possible that the refusal to discuss objectionable ideas has led to the increase in the frequency and volume of those ideas. If we do not value civil discourse and actual inclusivity, we undermine the most precious values of our civilization.

I can only hope that my views will be…tolerated.

Grade work, not students

It seems like a technology thing, but it isn’t. Of Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas, only Moodle lets you grade posts, not students.

Bb and Canvas both let you use rubrics/ratings to grade discussions, but both want to grade by student rather than post. Canvas even forces you into one grade per student, regardless of how often they posted.

This is a perfect example of bad pedagogy embedded in the technology. It’s based on the idea of grading students, because students get the grades.

But I don’t grade students — I grade work. In forums for posting primary sources, I rate each source, using qualitative scales — primary source fulfilled, live link needed, full citation needed, etc. These correspond to number grades that go to the Gradebook, but what the student sees is the comment, indicating which corrections they need to make.

And in Moodle I can grade them all with drop downs, because a single, simple forum is all on one page. Super quick.

Bb and Canvas’ insistence on grading per student means several clicks per student, per class, every week, for every source posted. Bad pedagogy, bad workflow.

Perhaps if these LMSs considered that we were grading work rather than students, it wouldn’t be designed like this. When a student asks “did you grade me down?” or “when you grade me, remember I have four classes”, I always point out that I never grade them, only their work.

How did we get to a place where the default is to grade students? Is it our educational culture, associating a person’s work with who they are? Surely that’s a bad idea. When we conflate a person with their work, we imply that their work is not only a product of themselves, it is their self. Every critique become a critique of the self.

We mustn’t embed bad ideas into immutable systems. Really.


The last role shift for faculty

I wrote last year about my concerns that instructional design (with all its newly-minted PhDs) is taking over teaching, even to the extent that teachers doubt themselves. In 2013, I worried that market forces were undermining the independence of faculty to choose tools for their pedagogies. Way back in 2008, I said I would look into how faculty are becoming content experts and having design taken away from them. In the current iterations of large schemes to standardize online education through “best practices” and “instructional quality improvement”, I am watching it all come home to roost as our roles are forcibly shifted.

Roles shifts for teachers, of course, are not new. For some time, research has indicated that instructors should consider shifting roles from “sages” to “guides”, using the affordances of the web. I have various concerns about this, and tend to prefer an approach which balances instructivism with constructivism. So far I’ve had that freedom. But this current role shift is more insidious, because it assumes that we do not have the knowledge to teach at all. rubrica1As our courses are assessed for “quality” by outside teams of instructional designers and instructional administrators, the rubrics they apply enforce self-referential norms developed by those fields. If their research indicates that collaboration among students is good, then collaboration should be part of every class. If the presentation of course objectives are seen as being important, they must be clearly articulated and appear, preferably with specific “outcomes”, at the beginning of the class. If it is determined that “content” should be “chunked” in manageable segments, then all classes must do that.

What if an instructor decides, however, based on his own experience, that these rules are not right for his pedagogy? I know an instructor who has designed her skills-based courses in such a way that collaboration is useful only to share basic ideas or final products, but not for working together on projects. I know another who reveals course objectives in a “just-in-time” way, as the students are working on particular tasks, not at the beginning in a list. I know a wonderful lecturer who puts his long, written, narrative lectures online, with no chunking involved. All of these instructors have students who do well, and some who do badly, but whether they do well or badly they tend to learn a lot.

But the “best practices”, applied as mandates, will not allow any of them to teach in these ways, ways that reflect the strengths of their own practice and their own pedagogy. They will not be respected as professionals, but rather treated as cogs of a larger machine, as mere “content experts”.

QualityControlIn other words, the role of teachers as instructional designers, as developers of the students’ learning experience, is being taken away. That crucial aspect of our role, the reason many of us became teachers in the first place, is being outsourced to others. And we are told that is in the interest of quality, not standardization. We are told that it is to help us become better teachers. We are told that what they want is “student success”.

We are not told that the goal is to create easy-to-administer McClasses, or to support the rise of a plutocracy, or to micromanage “course delivery“. We are not told that “student success” means passing students through the system as quickly and easily as possible, and that faculty who teach creatively are basically just in the way of the goals of administrators and students alike.

The separation of “course design” from teaching is false. Will we be fooled as this lack of respect for our profession is couched as trying to “help” us do better?

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.