Here’s what I want my students to do: understand some of the main events and trends in history, get exposed to some of the possible interpretations of those events, learn some historical skills, practice these skills by doing the kinds of things historians do, think and write historically, create their own interpretations, and read some primary sources that contain great ideas that we need even today.
To actually achieve all that, each student would need to do the following tasks each week:
1. Read a textbook or Wikipedia or something that narrates events.
2. Gather, understand, evaluate, cite and use primary sources in their writing in support of their own intepretations.
3. Converse with others to entertain various opinions and interpretations.
4. Read and analyze primary sources assigned by me.
Consider these the four juggling balls of learning history. Each is a slightly different shape, and so easier or harder for a certain individual to handle. But it’s necessary to have them all in the air to achieve some understanding of the discipline. As a semester continues, the sound of dropping balls is common.
And I’ve noticed a pattern.
A and B-level students will keep them all in the air to some degree, because many of them are intelligent and can strategize the time spent on learning. They will occasionally set one aside, depending on their own talents and interests. But they will juggle all four balls most of the time, completing almost all if not all of the various assignments.
Mid-level (C and high D) students will drop a ball early on, and they’ll drop whichever is most difficult for them, regardless of how many points are involved. Most don’t pick it up again, and if they do, they’ve already forgotten how to juggle that many.
And if we look again at the four balls again, there are serious qualitative differences, regardless of which ones are “hard” to work with.
1. Read about the facts: this is what everyone is used to doing through 12 years of schooling, so they expect it and think it’s most important. It’s the easy, round ball. But at college, it’s just the foundation.
2. Understand and use primary sources: this is kind of fun, because they get to discover these on their own and see everyone else’s, so also a fairly round ball. But it takes some work, and some time, to keep it going.
3. Discuss: this is also something they’ve done before, a round ball that’s a little slippery. It’s hard to learn to discuss history critically, but because it seems simple, they’ll set this one aside to deal with the first two when they run short on time – they see it as an extra (many see it in a classroom as an extra also), not real learning.
4. Read and analyze primary sources: a ball with weird stitching, this involves reading English at a level many of them have not achieved, so it’s hard and they put it aside a lot.
So what’s the problem? All students strategize and choose what work they want to do, right?
Take one of the sets of primary sources I assign – selections from Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Beowulf. All have moral lessons, lessons about becoming an adult that can be very meaningful to a 19-year-old, particularly one who’s male, has a tough relationship with his dad (if he has one around), and isn’t sure how to make his own way in the world.
The high-level 19-year-olds will read and learn, but many of them are from higher socio-economic groups in our society, and have gotten the moral lessons elsewhere anyway (they implicitly understood that Star Wars wasn’t just a sci-fi tale). The mid-level students are the ones who need the lesson, but they’re the most likely to avoid these readings.
But I can’t make those sources the whole class. Without the context (#1 – the facts) teaching sources like these is teaching mythology, or ethics, or literature, not history.
We must have the context. But mid-level students read too poorly to do it all, so they pick up a few facts, find a few sources, write some, and skip the hard reading.
So perhaps my own maturity has encountered their efforts at maturity.
As an inexperienced instructor, I too focused on facts. I was into the textbook and the facts I presented in my lecture, and tested them on that. They wrote essays on those facts, the kind you find in essay banks on the internet. After a few years, I began emphasizing interpretations, then more recently I’ve focused on collecting sources and developing historical writing. Now I’m thinking about morality – what is the importance of history if not to teach lessons?
Yes, this is unpopular. The development of social science since the 1940s says that History should be an objective pursuit, while the continuation of History as a humanities class says we are teaching core values. But the social scientists missed the point of historical study – the very focus of scientific endeavor is guided by the needs of society at that particular moment in time. It’s a natural, Dead-Poets-Society kind of thing to try to help young people by using the universal texts that have helped others shape themselves as individuals, in some case for thousands of years.
If I emphasize those sources more, it may also solve another problem I have – the current cultural focus on storytelling. I’ve never been able to relate to it, this urge to put everything (and in some cases every minute of ones life) into a story. But stories that matter have a lesson to them, which is why they’ve been around so long.
Now to get the C and D students to focus on them.
I have been so critical of Learning Management Systems for the past ten years that people write to me asking what I use instead of an LMS, even though I usually use Moodle and blog about it. I have written articles on how the LMS determines pedagogy, and spent much time helping faculty put their pedagogy before the demands of such systems. I have been a huge promoter of using Web 2.0 tools for teaching. I just want to set up my credentials here to preface my concerns about using what used to be these more “open” methods.
In May of last year, I indicated reservations about the way things have gone in terms of openness. In this post, I was wary of closed/open spaces like Google and Facebook, where students could be exploited. In June I indicated I wouldn’t switch from the anonymous Google Talkback to something my students had to sign up with Google for. That was before the recent public understanding of our surveillance society, brought home by the revelations of Edward Snowden. His work seemed to mark an endpoint that originated with Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy’s famous quotation from 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
My concerns mean I have agonized over terms of service, along similar lines of Royan Lee, whose excellent blog post inspired this one. . Lee writes, in noting the mainstream acceptance of Google for education despite its Terms of Service.
“Suddenly, the amazing qualities of something like Google Apps for Education seems a little more about efficiency and logistics and less about transformation to me as an educator.”
Whenever I ask students to get a free account to do a Glogster or Slideshare, or open a group for them in Facebook, I think about these things.
There is a Google Community called Using Google Apps as a Free LMS, so I posted a link to Lee’s post there and got an excellent question in response:
My response indicates how this is coming together for me.
I would never be one to defend a commercial LMS as a better system. But it is closed in the sense that under normal conditions only the institution has access to the student input. And thinking about it more broadly, student input in the LMS is usually very focused on the course (this depends on pedagogy, of course – some students may indeed post highly personal information in the LMS). Using Google or any open-to-the-web service for classes connects the students’ personal use of that system to their coursework, widening the surveillance opportunities. Same thing with using Facebook. I’ve leaned toward my own hosted WordPress as a more balanced option, but certainly the functionality is not up to the ease of use as Google. My concern is just that the ease comes at a price.
This presents some confusion about open and closed, and what they mean in a surveillance society.
“Open” can mean available to anyone on the web without a password. But it can also mean accessible to ISPs, government surveillance, and commercial data collection. I don’t think we can ignore that anymore, even as we promote open education (I do!) and sharing (yes again!).
It means that a system like Google or Facebook can be “open” in the sense of available to surveillance, and “closed” in the sense of having to sign in and participate in places within the system that are supposedly “closed off” to other areas of the same system (like Google Communities, Google Circles, Google Apps for Education, Facebook Groups). Such areas are deceptive – they imply privacy that does not exist, even as Google and Facebook change their policies to expose more and more of these closed places to the public (for example, Facebook group posts showing up on your timeline) and to their own commercial data collection.
Very few people understand this. They think signing in and turning off Facebook settings and keeping our Circles of people separate implies some privacy. The purpose of signing in is not to protect your privacy. It’s to enable tracking and consolidation and data collection. And while I admire Royan Lee’s goal in spending a lot of time teaching his students about Terms of Service, I need to teach them History. I cannot save my students from the insatiable hunger of Big Data.
Lee is right in corresponding a society that accepts ongoing surveillance by the government with our acceptance of the terms required by web services. They are very similar. It is said that we accept surveillance because we believe if people aren’t doing anything wrong, what’s the harm? We extend this simplistic thinking to our web participation, if we think about it at all.
The solutions seem to be narrowing, to self-hosted LMS options like WordPress or Moodle or one of the newer open-source options. Even then, if you are logged in to Google and use Chrome, for example, your work in other systems can be tracked and (I assume in paranoid moments) recorded.
The closed LMS unfortunately is likely to be safer in a world that doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s just that wasn’t the world in which I wanted to work.
A few MOOCish ideas came together for me today. I was actually trying to avoid the subject, so info about MOOCs has to come to me (RSS as blessing and curse). For awhile all I got was how great today’s MOOCs were, how democratizing, how problem-solving, how very trendy. I just shook my head, watching as the forces of educational reform (which I used to favor) merged with commercial interests (of which I have never been a fan).
Now, in the past few months, there is a realization that Massive Open Online Classes, especially those in the xMOOC, proto-commercial model (think Coursera/Udacity) aren’t really such a good idea. There has been opposition. It has taken awhile for folks to realize that faculty will not only be sidelined into being “content experts”, but that they could lose their jobs as big classes are taught by fewer, less-educated people (simple arithmetic, really). There has been concern that C/U MOOCs perpectuate non-participatory, lecture-based pedagogies. There has been a dawning recognition that somehow MOOCs aren’t even really free (either as free beer or free speech).
So now we have some very cogent, intelligent reactions to the big MOOC trend. Many, however, want to turn the clock back. DeMOOCification, though I can’t find the word in Google much less Webster’s, is becoming a thing.
Aaron Bady’s paper on the MOOC Moment and the End of Reform points out that MOOCs mark the end of efforts to actually reform what’s wrong with universities, implying one would have to turn back for real reform. Jonathan Rees (a MOOC objector from the beginning) predicts the ultimate failure of MOOCs, and calls faculty to arms. He writes:
I still think MOOCs will collapse from their failure to earn back their start-up costs by giving their product away. Nevertheless, MOOCs can still do an awful lot of damage during their long death throes.
As much as I don’t want to say this, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that MOOCs will die on their own. I can’t think of any trend which saved large institutitions money and trouble, then died a natural death. And faculty can’t defend against them – we have been made powerless very slowly, over a long period of administrative takeover and public apathy (or even antipathy in our new era of anti-intellectualism). What happened at SJSU and Amherst is the exception - an exception I applaud, but an exception. The public perceives faculty objections to MOOCs as an issue of job security rather than quality.
And yet Martin Weller also forsees the beginning of the end, as Coursera tries to define itself differently, which looks like a commercial product flailing around looking for how to make money.
But I see no sign of weakness. This week Audrey Watters reported that more and more state universities are adopting commercial MOOCs, contracted with Coursera – this doesn’t surprise me in the least. MOOC “providers” have found their niche in contracting with universities. University money may not seem like much if you want to run a Fortune 500 company, but on sheer economies of scale it’s the biggest untapped market in the world.
We’ve got a lethal combination of ironies:
* a public perception that college is both overpriced and overfunded (ironically leading to state funding contractions),
* higher college fees due to expanding administrations while corporate/business interests buy influence at both public and private universities (more business was supposed to provide more money), and
* a sudden entrepreneurial interest in public education as the only expanding field (other than health care, but education doesn’t have the research or equipment costs)
So, as argued beautfully by Eric Hayot, too many forces are behind MOOCs to reverse them. His conclusion is that we need to create good MOOCs, kind of like a counterforce to bad MOOCs.
That may be doable, but one thing that won’t work is wishing for MOOCs to go away. It just isn’t going to happen.
Nor will it happen that the good cMOOCs (which is where it all started) will become the default model for MOOCs. Connectivist MOOCs require self-direction and exploration on the part of students, which is difficult to assess on a massive, credit-earning scale. Commercial xMOOCs are catering to an entirely different audience: the masses of lower division students who couldn’t get into their GE classes. The motivation is completion and credits at the lowest price, not learning. Coursera/Udacity-run MOOCs are focused on numbers and super-prof lectures and automated grading of essays and quizzes, in order to process these masses of dissatisfied students who want to buy those pesky credits now. Administrators want to help them do it, saving money and gaining alumni. The demand and the desire to satisfy that demand are in perfect harmony, regardless of the problems.
To say that MOOCs will fade away because they’re of poor quality or bad pedagogy is like saying that McDonalds will go away because the food is unhealthy and the chairs are too hard, or that Walmart will disappear because the service is awful and it’s a lousy shopping environment. Convenience and price will win, regardless of quality. Creating good MOOCs might thus be Pollyannish, or naive, or consume far more time and energy than they would be worth. This is especially true if we start building solid, pedagogically sound MOOCs to feed into a machine more suited for fast food – good classes will be few and far between, and the “customers” will not appreciate them because they will make students think and take more responsibility for their own learning.
And no one really wants that.
Every semester I ask my students about my online classes. After doing this for many years, I have come to the following conclusions regarding those negative comments, the ones that may be few but that keep us up at night. So if you are dealing with some negative feedback, and blowing it out of proportion, consider:
If you use text, video and audio to explain the navigation of the class at the beginning, they complain that there is too much to do. If you don’t use media to explain the navigation of the class, they complain because they get lost.
If you use a linear form of navigation throughout the class, they complain because they don’t understand what to do. If you use a non-linear form of navigation, they complain that they’re lost.
If you use nested forums where all posts are visible, they complain because the page is too long to scroll. If you use threaded forums where each post must be clicked, they complain that they can’t follow the conversation.
If you use the default buttons in the LMS, they complain because the course is just as boring as their last class. If you don’t use the default buttons in the LMS, they complain because the class doesn’t look the same as their last class.
If you grade things slowly because you’re putting lots of comments on assignments, they complain because they aren’t getting their work back fast enough. If you grade quickly, they complain because they aren’t getting enough detailed feedback.
If you post instructions in one place, they complain that they didn’t see them and so didn’t know about the assignment. If you post them in many places, they get confused that there was so much material they couldn’t find it all.
If you require quizzes provided by the publisher, they complain because either the publisher’s system didn’t work, or they didn’t want a different password, or the wording of the questions was too difficult. If you provide custom quizzes, they complain that the questions were not asking exactly what was written in the readings.
If you are nice and give a student a break on one assignment, they assume that all assignment deadlines are negotiable. If you don’t give them a break, you’re being cruel because it wasn’t their fault.
If you have them submit all assignments privately, they complain because they weren’t given any examples. If you have them work publicly in a forum, they complain because their work is seen by others.
If you have only a few types of tasks, they complain that they weren’t given enough chances to show their knowledge. If you have many different types of tasks, they complain that there was too much to do.
If you provide a rubric, they complain that they didn’t know about it or that their circumstances don’t apply to it. If you don’t provide a rubric, they claim grading was arbitrary.
If you provide only text-based lectures and assignments, they complain because there is so much reading. If you augment with audio or video, they complain because they couldn’t get the technology to work or didn’t think those parts were assigned.
If you do not require context reading aside from lectures, they complain that the course is subjective and they needed the facts. If you provide context reading from Wikipedia, they complain that Wikipedia shouldn’t be assigned because it’s not a good source.
If you do not allow outside readings as a source for writing, they complain because they were limited to only what was provided. If you allow outside readings, they complain because they didn’t know how to choose them or weren’t allowed to use them instead of the assigned readings.
If you create similar interactive activities for each unit, they complain because they’re doing the same thing every week. If you create varied activities for each unit, they complain that it isn’t consistent so they don’t know what to do.
If you do not ask them to complete an anonymous survey, they complain because they weren’t allowed to give feedback about the class. If you do ask them to complete an anonymous survey, they complain about things they would not mention in front of other students.
No, I won’t stop asking them for feedback, and I’ll bet you can tell it’s that grading / marking / begging / exceptions time of year, and many of my students would consider this list a mischaracterization because they love my class, and how it was constructed, and they tell me so, and they are right. But when it comes to considering that negative feedback….pass the grains of salt, please.
I reference first the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the bill being proposed in the California legislature to create a “faculty-free” New University of California online (read it and scream).
And yet, this should surprise no one. We are living in a plutocracy. MOOCs are becoming popular as potential money savers for universities and money makers for “education” companies. One might think these two phenomena are unrelated. They’re not.
It is in the interest of a plutocracy to keep people uneducated, since an educated populace is dangerous. By marketing education as a commodity, the plutocracy encourages the view of education as a product that can be purchased, and is sold by professional “manufacturers” – companies like Coursera – and whose services can be outsourced.
The body of knowledge (actually the body of information) that is freely available can now be packaged and sold, farmed when necessary but also created in a lab. People will prefer processed education because it is convenient and inexpensive, just as they prefer processed food and shopping at Walmart despite the hidden human costs.
In such a system, faculty are perceived as aristocratic remnants of a past where their services were needed due to the scarcity of information (actually a scarcity of knowledge). Now that such information is “free” (floating in Wikipedia, scanned books, blogs etc.), professors can be replaced with “knowledge workers” and “content experts” employed by companies and universities that manufacture courses and degrees.
This is acceptable because of the general belief that much of what one learns in college is not used later by the individual. Most members of the legislature, Congress, and corporations went to college and know they use very little of the information they were forced to learn there. That focus is on content (information) rather than analytical skills (a foundation of knowledge). Thus those without such skills conclude that content can be packaged by educational entrepreneurs and will be welcomed into the marketplace.
And they’ll be right since those buying (and promoting) the product lack the analytical skills necessary to understand that college is not about information and its retention. The “customers” of such a product want to “learn” the information, be tested on it, and get a degree that lets them move on and make money and buy a car and support a family and save money by shopping at Walmart.
This must be OK, because capitalism provides for the best products and services to rise to the top at the best prices. What harm could there be? The market will provide us with the best and least expensive education.
Here’s an example of what happens in my discipline. History education is primarily based on narrative – American history is the “story” of our country. The story line is adapted to promote certain values by emphasizing particular events, documents, and ideas. Keith Ereksen’s Beyond History Wars in the current OAH journal, looks at the story lines of American history and notes:
For more than two centuries Americans have told stories of “consensus” that emphasize the ways that “one people” and “one nation” formed a triumphant and unique nation…. Thus, what is truly at stake in history wars are not facts but stories. Because neither facts nor historical documents “speak” for themselves, we must pay attention to the way that details are placed within larger story lines. These story lines—persuasive historical narratives and interpretations—tell people which facts are important to remember and which are not.
When learning is focused on content, we absorb the narrative.
This organizing power of stories explains why students can read a textbook filled with correct facts, watch a Hollywood movie riddled with errors, and then recall only the errors on subsequent tests…
In any history class, the narrative is provided by the textbook and/or the instructor. In a “processed” class, retention of facts via the narrative is assessed. With little or no opportunity for debating or discussing competing narratives, or different uses for the same historical information, students have no opportunity to gain knowledge rather than information.
Thus “education” becomes a product to be packaged and sold, rather than an achievement earned through that messy process of learning, with all its nuances, grey areas, and complexity. We distill it to something that requires no interpretation except the one you are given.
Anyone who understands democracy can see the danger in that.
It happened all of a sudden. The feed from one POT Cert Class participant just wasn’t coming into the Pedagogy First aggregated blog. I spent hours trying to figure out why not – the feed finder screen would just go blank on only her feed. I Googled, I pounded, I went through what there is of FeedWordpress documentation. Mostly I wished I were Alan Levine or Tim Owens.
I have mentioned before that technologies known for doing some really cool things are becoming unreasonably complicated. This particular technological problem rests on a self-hosted installation of the software WordPress (built and maintained by a wonderful community) and the FeedWordpress plugin (built and maintained by a wonderful coding person). When one gets updated, it often doesn’t play nice with the other. And I can’t fix it. I say again unto you, I am not a coder. I find code, I steal code, I envy code, but I do not code.
I finally asked that a new blog be created for this participant, and it seems to be feeding. For now. Of course, the other one had fed too, all of the first semester. Given my own significant limitations, we will not be able to do this again this way next year.
The recipe at the moment is this. Start with recent adventures with self-hosted Moodle, add this new self-hosted WordPress crisis, mix with a dash of cloud failure (Google abandoning Reader, Posterous closing shop, and SeesmicWeb being bought and killed by the inferior HootSuite ). Stir and cook with a big dollop of my recent participation in reviewing a publisher-created program for grading student essays, and you have the kind of disillusionment you get by realizing you have already been devoured by the whale but didn’t know it.
The monsters (big proprietary systems, cloud-based sites, self-hosting) appeared to be separate, but were actually all parts of the same beast.
Self-hosting, a domain of ones own, the path of ds106 and the noble D’Arcy Norman – this has been the antidote to the bullying tactics of the LMS and publisher-created content. I have held it up as the way to avoid both big proprietary monsters and the vagaries of the disappearing web apps and fly-by-night cloud offerings. I have scoffed (quietly) at those who said they could not run their own blog, it was too hard. While I have not been guilty of encouraging anyone to run their own Moodle installation, I have persisted in doing it myself as a bulwark against Moodlling ignorance and exterally-run systems.
All this begins to seem like folly, a folly based on desire. An example: I want nested discussion forums where students can post multimedia, so I have Moodle. I find out today that (cloud-based) Schoology has nested forums! Yay! No! Wait! They are touted around the web as a “start up” of four years or so who use proprietary code (cue John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back music). I will have a free class, but never be able to access it otherwise, years down the line.
Fact is, none of these options are perfect, or even sufficient. The big LMS systems (including Moodle) upgrade and you can’t restore old courses and actually view student work – they say you can, but in fact it doesn’t work. I have all my courses backed up as Moodle .zip files, but now they’ve changed to .mbz. Out in the cloud, I can export my Posterous as they close down, but when I import it into WordPress a bunch of stuff is wrong or missing or ugly. These things weren’t built to be transferrable, or to cater to the archiving tendencies of the mere customer. Whether proprietary and exorbitantly priced, or open source and impossible to run without an IT degreee, none of the options have a sense of history, only a blindered vision of a future fulfilled by profits, market share, or geeky street cred.
Perhaps I am dissembling now to be running a class encouraging faculty to plunge into explorations of web tools and new technologies. I cannot in good conscience suggest anyone build a course around any of them. My colleague Todd Conaway says that it’s better to learn from creating, to meet the challenge of the occasional failure, to engage the technologies and learn from them even if they’re transient. I know that is true. But if you spend too much time in the belly of the beast (whether self-hosted, cloud-based, or LMSed) , things start to smell fishy.