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.
Two things have happened that have caused me to think again about professor-student communications and attitudes, and how they may impact learning.
A couple of weeks ago in the POT Facebook group, I posted this in total frustration, as a response to the student attitudes I mentioned in my last post.
Just an idea…..
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History 111 Online
I was only half-serious. Yet several teachers began to use it as a template for making actual reponses to students, thanking me for the idea and reporting results.
This is because teachers are frustrated. Obviously I understand that.
Then this week Donna Marques posted this video in the POT Facebook group.
I have watched this a couple of times. My gut reaction to the voice of the professor is negative – he sounds pompous to say the least. The student sounds stupid. I try to imagine a student watching this. The “A” student says “duh”. The “C” student says, “That teacher is mean. This video is mean. It’s making fun of me.” But the gut reaction of teachers is, “Yes! This teaches the student about responsibility!”
I have concerns about the affective domain and its impact on teaching. The video enforces the power relationship between prof and student in the discussion of rules and grades. The underlying assumption is that strict rules, and sticking to them, provides an equitable environment for student learning.
I have three problems with this:
1. Students do not respond the same way to this attitude and message. In fact, the type of student for whom this needs to be said is the exact type of student who will resent the message and learn nothing from it.
2. The attitude perpetuates the dependence of the student (and professor!) at a very basic level of rules and obedience. The prof is now playing the low-level game of carrots and sticks, as if we were training dogs instead of educating citizens. At no point can we engage the larger issues of why one should follow deadlines and be responsible. This level of discussion is great for training hamburger flippers at McDonald’s, but not an educated citizenry.
3. It implies that a student will pass the class if they follow instructions. This isn’t true – some students will be cognitively unable to do the level of work required. And we can’t talk about that because of 1 and 2 above have already caused levels of emotion that make such a conversation impossible.
This doesn’t mean I’m recommending being a pushover. And keep in mind that I’m writing this while I’m experiencing my own crisis about students not following instructions. I have basic requirements for primary source posts – post an image, the author/artist, its title, date and a link. About half of my students refuse to follow the basic instructions, even to the point where I had another student message me this morning offering to help them do it right.
I can repeat the instructions, and I do, in multiple places. I can grade them down, and eventually I will. And sure, I could create a video or use the one above, thinking it’s designed to teach them responsibility.
But all it will do is cause resentment. And if they’re resentful, we won’t be able to get past their badly cited posts, and into historical analysis. I need the students who are cognitively able to do the work to follow me into doing real history - that’s my real job. And they won’t follow me if they think I’m mean.
I have long been searching for a way to have students collaboratively annotate documents, so that they could examine primary sources together in a way that makes their learning visible. I considered building a class around Diigo but abandoned it when Diigo went down for over 24 hours – I couldn’t leave students dependent on it for a whole class. The other problem was that everyone would need an account, and it would be awkward to integrate with an LMS.So this semester I’m trying embedded Crocodocs. I upload the primary sources for that week from my workbook, and then embed the document in my course. Students can add their name to the list once they open the page, so they don’t need a Crocodoc account unless they want one so that it adds their name automatically.
This is working even though Crocodoc is moving toward a paid business model – a single Personal account is still free, and all the docs are in my account – each one is just set to be annotated by anyone.
It’s working pedagogically, too – students in my Honors class are annotating primary sources each week, answering each other’s questions, and posing their own. It’s a cool object-based way to work together.
Homework with open-ended questions
For my on-site Western Civ class, I’m trying homework that mixes open ended questions with factual questions, in “finish the sentence” format, for example:
The dates of the Ancient Period were approximately
The natural behaviors of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers may have led to religion that was
The natural behavior of the Nile River may have led to Mesopotamian kings
The results have made it possible for me to see their level of understanding quickly.
In the same class, I’m not grading individual assignments, although I have begun indicating the “level” of individual assignments and pop quizzes. Students may request an assessment of their work up to three times per semester, using my Rubric to Rule Them All. It’s Week 4 and only one student has considered requesting evaluation this early.
In my online classes, I’m also trying a midway method between grading every forum post (these are really writing assignments, just in “public”) and grading them all at the mid-term and ending point. I’ve said I’ll randomly grade forum posts for a total of 40% of the grade, which leaves it open for me to grade more or fewer posts, as needed.
This semester they seem to be exhibiting some bizarre combination of the Ikea effect (they think if they put in lots of effort they’re doing it right), misguided self-esteem training (you are wonderful!), an inflated but unsubstantiated sense of computer competence (the opposite of what I used to get – they now assume it’s my fault instead of theirs), and the me-web (which has taught them to be the center of their own universe). It’s only about a half dozen students that seem to treat me like a combination of a computer and a South Asian helpdesk, but their constant queries (based on a disinclination to read anything I’ve posted) is taking up a disproportionate amount of my time.
My own textbook
Don’t get me wrong – this was a very good idea and students were most appreciative of being able to have it printed at a discount at Office Depot for under $20. They use it and study it. In fact, they read it so closely that it’s short circuiting my own in-class stories. I don’t think of myself as using a narrative pedagogy, but obviously I’m mistaken. A great many of my lecture stories are in the textbook, since they are really written lectures. I kind of knew this would happen, just not quite so often.
They also forget to do the online context reading because the book is in hand, and they know I wrote it so figure it’s more important.
Moodle 2.3 has got to be the most cumbersome, counter-intuitive product Moodle has ever produced. It is beginning to rival Blackboard in the opaqueness of its usability design. It has buried previously teacher-accessible functions in either the administrative settings (making them inaccessible) or multiple diabolical contextual menus, until the items you need are not only so deep you need a fishing pole, but are in a different ice hole than where you started. Moodle is suffering from roomsful-of-monkeys-on-typewriters syndrome. The alternatives would be Canvas (now with nested discussions but still relatively little flexibility and total dependence on them for a free class), paying for Ning (pay? me?), Blackboard (gag me with a spoon), or WordPress (where being admin is a major time suck). Perhaps I was more serious about going back to web pages and email than I realized.
When he enters, he cannot see his dog until his body is fully in the foyer.
If he turns around to get the mail because he forgot to do that on the way in, his dog disappears.
When he turns back to the door, it is no longer there. Neither is his car behind him.
He must go back to where the car was so it appears, reopen the car door, sit in the seat, open the car door, put his foot down, and walk toward the front door to get into the house again. The dog will then come greet him.
The brilliant and knowledgeable Alec Couros is trying to organize etmooc, a MOOC about educational technology. He’s got a Google Doc, a team of people helping, a Google Community group , an #etmooc hashtag, and a WordPress website. Wonderful, experienced, exciting people have been making a huge number of suggestions on approach, and resources, and speakers, and so much more. During a meeting of some of the helpers, some choices arose about how to organize the course:
To what extent can a more organized approach be combined with a lot of freedom? Is there a spectrum between a typical university course and an open educational community?
If I were designing the course, my combination would be a main course with set topics that launch on a particular date (Alan’s idea), and after some basic introduction to the topic, development of a mini-community that continues with that topic.
For the main course, I would have a syllabus, start and end dates, and the list of topics, two weeks apart. Maybe 6 topics total so no one loses interest – a 12-week class. The strands happening now in the Google Community might work as topics: Connected Learning (this could include set-up), Digital Citizenship, Digital Storytelling, Open Learning, Tools in Context 1, Tools in Context 2.
The goal for each topic would be to develop a mini-community on that topic. The first task for each topic would be a collaborative document where participants put what they want to learn about (inquiry) and start listing resources (content). These resources could include materials from the “experts” who were normally be guest speakers, including their videos. If there are many participants in the topic, they could vote on the top 12 resources to focus on. The time for posting the list of questions and resources would be limited to a week or so, then reflection could begin on blogs and/or elsewhere (synchronous sessions, creation of artifacts, etc). For the sake of alignment, the facilitator for that topic would suggest contributions in a format appropriate to the topic (Digital Storytelling might look ds106-ish, Tools in Context 1 might suggest the use of Prezi or Diigo).
The mini-community for that topic established over the two weeks, we’d go on to the next topic. Again, brief introduction by the main instructor, then collaborative inquiry/question collection and resource gathering, then reflection and communication. And so on.
These topical mini-communities would each have their own space somehow, either as a Google Community topic or a WordPress tag or something, and at least one leader or facilitator (yes, someone would be in charge). That mini-community could continue long past the course or not, continue for as long as it stayed alive. Participants could come and go from the main course, participating in all of the topics like a regular class, or in just one or two.
So you’d need one central instructor (Alec, or me if it were my course), then at least 6 facilitators (teams might be better), plus as many participants as want to join.
I’d have no assessments, no awards, no assumption of the acquisition of mad tech skilz by participants. There would be structure for the main course and at the top level of each topic, but freedom in reflection, creation and community. There could be guest speakers for individual topics if the mini-community wanted them, but none for the main course.
So, after thinking about it for a few days, that’s what I would do.
There has been great focus lately on that slippery, administratively-led, accountability-driven beast we call “student success”. Our college is creating entire plans designed to “help students succeed”, which means (depending on whom you talk to) passing their classes, transferring to university, obtaining a certificate, or just not dropping the hell out of college. (It does not tend to mean, interestingly, students succeeding in achieving their own personal goals like having a reason to get out of bed, or not getting kicked out of their parent’s house, or having somewhere they’re supposed to be, or hanging with their friends, or staying on their parent’s health insurance, but that’s the subject of another post.)
Sometimes the focus is on student services, making sure that students aren’t abandoned on campus, that they know where to go for help. But there’s also an instructional aspect. Recently, our Professional Development Committee received a statewide vision statement that included the sentence, “All personnel will have ongoing opportunities to develop and expand the skills and practices that influence students’ ability to complete their educational goals”. I don’t think by “personnel” they mean janitors and those helpful people over in the cafeteria.
The implication in applying “student success” directives to instruction is that pedagogy has a strong influence on whether students succeed or not. This should be a no-brainer. It should be obvious that better teaching leads to more student success.
So here’s my anecdotal, non-scientific list, a short draft based on 25 years of teaching experience, of pedagogical choices that appear to make little or no difference to student success. None of them are based on research – yet. I have in mind a longitudinal study of my own pedagogical methods related to grades, but that would take a sabbatical.
What Doesn’t Seem to Matter
Giving all test questions in advance.
Multiple-choice or essay, it doesn’t matter. The top students use them to increase confidence as they get the A they would have gotten anyway.
Having open book (or open lecture, materials, web) exams.
Online or on-site, having access to materials may improve certain individual’s work (usually those who would get an A anyway), but not the overall grades. In online classes, the effect is negligible.
Active interaction with peers increases happiness but not grades.
Using the web in class during a test.
Test scores vary little even when students have their devices and access to the web. This may be related to the kind of tests I design, which don’t test facts but force students to use them. If they don’t study and internalize the information, open access to it doesn’t help.
Methods other than lecture.
Class grades have been close to the same regardless of whether the primary mode of classroom activity was me lecturing, students working in groups, or student-led projects (for this last, the drop rate, however, is very high).
Peer grading or working publicly.
Despite what I’ve heard from others, I have seen no improvement in quality based on students writing in public or grading each others’ work – I do not see the peer pressure that is presumably at play here. Revision of exam works or essays in consultation with peers similarly causes little if any improvement.
So why bother?
Any difference, as I’ve been saying for years, is affective. Open book or open web exams make students less stressed about the test, because their fear is the failure of memorization. Same with giving questions in advance.
Some would say that since these pedagogical techniques make no difference, we shouldn’t bother doing them. Let’s have closed exams, no community, droning lectures. I see it the opposite way – there’s no reason not to have open access during exams or opportunities to form community. It does no harm and creates a friendlier learning environment.
It just doesn’t seem to improve “student success”.