New Title V and substantive interaction

In its wisdom, the state is proposing the following changes for online classes:

Originally, the issue was teacher-student contact, a response to the fear that teachers would just upload stuff and not do any work. Now they’ve decided to legislate pedagogy, and insist on student-student contact.

I know several faculty who aren’t happy about this, because their pedagogy doesn’t rely on student-student interaction. Rather their course is set up to maximize student interaction with the course materials. Several instructors I know engage students in highly individualized feedback. One responds to each student’s posted analysis of each reading each week. Another evaluates submitted assignments in great detail. They both have in-depth, ongoing, substantive contact with every single student. Neither relies on students interacting with each other.

So this is bogus from the start, pedagogically speaking. The state has decided to intervene in methodology, based on research that is questionable at best. Studies using physical classroom research, for example, compare straight lecture to group activities (active learning). They tend to ignore the many other activities that can be assigned in an online class but aren’t reliant on other students (for example, instant feedback on a quiz question). Other studies of “community” in online classes focus on the affective domain rather than the quality of work. While it is an option, it is not necessary to have student-to-student interaction for a student to feel like part of the class; that can also be achieved through instructor presence, student-instructor interaction, and student-content interaction. Focusing on students interacting also ignores the teacher-student tutorial model,  which provides individualized responses. Many students want individual attention far more than they want “community”.

But we don’t make the rules.

Since the state is so dedicated to the word “substantive”, I looked it up:

Substantive- “Having a firm basis in reality and so important, meaningful, or considerable.” (Oxforddictionaries.com)

1. denoting substance, 2. expressing existence, 3. meaningful or important (OED)

So if it’s there and it’s real, it’s fine. An instructor, without being pressured, wouldn’t have such interactions if they didn’t believe them to be important or meaningful. In the case of “considerable”, a class that has a lot of meaningless discussion would also be covered.

This brings us to Lisa’s Rule on Rules: when confronted with legislative stupidity, it is usually best to look at what you’re already doing and see if it can be used to demonstrate that your work already complies with the new rule.

Tonight I attended a wonderfully balanced session on the new pending rules. It was led by Sean Davis, our wonderful sociologist at MiraCosta. He noted the controversy over the rule, but focused on options for how to create such interactions. These included discussion/question forums, emails between students, peer feedback, student groups, interactive video (we have a pilot for Arc), video conferencing, chat, and collaborative projects. I would add to this group annotation, which is a major source of interaction in my own classes.

For those instructors who do any sort of student-student interaction, it should not be hard to justify what they do within the new context. It is indeed these instructors who are most concerned about the new law.

Most instructors have a discussion forum. Some of these are problematic or meaningless, but if they do it every week, they’re good. I can justify much of my students’ work, because in addition to annotating written primary sources, they post their visual sources in a forum, and “like” the sources they enjoy. “Like” is interaction, and if you ask students to “like” for a purpose (they plan to use the idea, or vote up ideas the class will use), it’s meaningful.

This sort of “passive interaction” or “accidental interaction” can satisfy the rule. Passive interaction is like a cocktail party — everyone is in the same place but not necessarily at the same time or for the same purpose. But they see what the others are doing, and adapt their behavior according. Open forums where students post assignments can serve this purpose. Particularly if they’re graded only individually, and privately, posted student work can help other students see where they stand, demonstrate alternative ways of doing the work, and serve as examples.

So the professor who has students submit their assignments directly to her could instead have them submitted to a forum (if necessary, the forum could be set not to show other work until ones own work is submitted). The prof who responds to his students individually after they post in a forum could add a summary post noting the contributions of particular students, asking that they be used as examples.

I admit that I am completely uncomfortable with asking students to email or message each other privately, and I have never been a fan of peer feedback although I know people who do it well. And I remain appalled (I am often appalled) that the rules never seem to care about the interaction between the student and the content. Where’s the rule that says courses should include deep, sustained, meaningful interaction between the individual student and the materials being studied? Where’s the rule that says courses should integrate important and meaningful contact between the student and the norms of the discipline?

It’s bad enough that so many courses contain discussion forums because the instructors think they should. That has been going on for years, even before this rule was enacted. The inevitable response to the new rule will be more one-post-two-reply “discussions” that frustrate online teachers and become rote and meaningless for students. Surely the new rule must be a misguided attempt to replicate the classroom, except perhaps the people who wrote it haven’t been in one for awhile. Where’s the rule requiring students in a non-distance education class to be forced to interact with each other?

In the meantime, such attempts should be dealt with by showing that what we already do satisfies the rule. It’s just a shame that we have to.

 

 

Honors Contracts in Canvas

Yes, it’s another how-to-so-I-don’t-forget post! (Sorry, I would much rather being doing England travelogues.)

Background

So… I have a stand-alone Honors section this semester, with 25 students of varied abilities, some Honors students and others not, some just desperate to grab a seat in an online US History because we never offer enough. This stand-alone section is online and in Canvas. I have created weekly research tasks for this class, each in a forum so all can share their work as their project progresses. You can see these tasks together here on this Google Doc.

Honors Contracts, however, are the mechanism by which individual students in non-Honors (regular) classes can take the class officially for Honors. This is typically done by working on research individually with the instructor.

I have strived to create community among my Honors Contract students, but with little success. One of the issues is numbers: I am only allowed to teach 5 contracts per term. Since Honors Contracts are fairly new, I usually only get 4-5 requests anyway, but they are from different classes. Excluding 8-week classes for European History and U.S., this leaves my History of England and History of Technology classes for Honors Contracts.

I have struggled with student self-direction with the Contracts, and many of my Contract students don’t complete, for various reasons (mostly personal rather than academic). The problem is that when they get into trouble, the system does not allow them back into the “regular” course – they do the Honors work or they fail.

So last year I had this great idea to combine the Honors Contracts students from these two classes, and have them work on this blog, with set readings and curriculum. The two students that finished did great. But there were problems with the technology (or rather, problems with me and the technology – if I hadn’t insisted the college connect WordPress to the enrollment system, they would not have happened).

The Plan

Since community is not working (for me or for the students),  I will be returning to the original intention of Contracts: individual research projects.

This does not mean I think my set course in “Victorian Science and Science Fiction” wasn’t wonderful (it was effing brilliant) or that everyone shouldn’t study Frankenstein, watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or read Arabella of Mars (they should). It just isn’t sustainable at this time.

Since I have already created weekly research forums for my stand-alone US History class, I will simply import these into my History of England and History of Technology Canvas shells. But they will only be assigned to one group, which I’ll name Honors Contracts (I supposed I could amuse myself by calling it Unicorns or something, but I might get confused.)*

The way it works at my college, Contract students are “in class” with the regular section, but just do some different, more advanced work. In order to provide time for their research, I have my Contract students stop taking quizzes and stop uploading lecture notes after the first two weeks of class, so long as their grades are OK. But I don’t want to keep a separate grade tally (you know, on a piece of paper, God forbid). I just found out that it’s easy to Excuse students from taking particular assignments, right in the gradebook, as shown here:

I got this from this Canvas help page. So I’ll do that for all their quizzes and lecture notes.

Since the research forums are forums, if I have more than one Contract student in a class, they can work together, but I’ll change the instructions to remove required interaction. I’ll be their buddy in the forum, just like an individual tutor (I would like to furnish my online office like an Oxford don, but that might be too much — oh, wait, I could Voki!**).  If I want to get Contract students together, we can use social media (Facebook group) and/or real-life meetings at Peet’s Coffee.

Ideally, it would be nice to have a separate Canvas course that would integrate all the Contract students from my various classes, but Canvas cannot do that and keep it connected to the regular class site. (I’ll be lucky if it does this properly.***)

And yes, it will take awhile to set up, particularly since Canvas will want to do stupid things, like put all forums on the Calendar so all students can see, or include it in the Syllabus Assignments list even when they aren’t assigned to everyone.

But I think it’s more likely that students will stick with their Contract if it’s easier, and if their Honors work is integrated with their regular coursework, at the same online site as their regular work.

Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I continue down this road, paved with good intentions, of bowing to our Canvas overlords.

 

*Update: importing the research forums into the regular courses brought to light another problem — how will I know when an Honors Contract student posts in a research forum? I want to be able to respond to these immediately. But Canvas notifications are “all or nothing”: you either get notifications for all discussion forums in all classes or for none. For everything, you choose how to be notified of “Discussion” (every post) or “Discussion post”.  That would be a nightmare of email notifications. I’m going to try to solve this by adding myself as lisa-student (my test student account) to the course and to the Honors Contract group, and then subscribe to all 13 research forums. 

**After writing this, I renewed my Voki account. First week in the research forums will start something like this:

*** It didn’t. I have also discovered that checking it as a “Group Discussion” is not helpful, because Canvas assumes you want the same discussion assigned to all students, just in different groups. It’s better to assign each Honors forum or quiz to individual students and avoid Groups.

 

Standardizing what’s good

Every October, I work on my classes for next term. Partly this is because the spring schedule comes out the third week of the month, and partly because October has always been particularly difficult for morale and motivation (mine as well as the students’). I’m not sure why. Could be the lack of any real holiday except Halloween (Columbus Day is tainted and it was never a day off anyway), or just mid-term blues.

That’s my excuse anyway, since I’m not supposed to be doing this till after my sabbatical is over. But I am still doing my reading and research. Prepping is more like a break, because mostly what I’m doing is changing settings rather than creating things. It turns me into a non-thinking machine, changing hundreds of due dates and adding lots of links (why aren’t we at a place where I can assign this to someone?). Definitely mindless.

I’ve decided I like the sources and readings for my classes, I like my lectures, so no changes are needed. But at the end of last term, I added two elements to my weekly coursework for two of my classes, then tested again for three this summer. These elements are “Check primary source for points” and “Submit lecture notes”.

So once I’m done, the weekly tasks for each class I teach online will be this:

  • Due Wednesday:
    • Read the textbook
    • Read/listen to lecture
    • Research and post primary source
    • Check primary source for points
  • Due Sunday:
    • Read and discuss the documents
    • Submit lecture notes
    • Quiz

In addition, for the first two weeks there are multi-pages quizzed Learning Units about primary sources. And, three times during the semester, there are Learning Units for the next writing assignment followed by the assignment itself. Writing Assignments are based only on the sources that have been posted in the Boards by the class, and have a scaffolded format that I created myself, so they are difficult if not impossible to purchase or plagiarize. The Final Essay, for the full-term sessions, is based on the third writing assignment, and folds into the grading for Writing Assignments.

“Read the textbook” is linked to the actual textbook pages, except for the one class where I’m still using a purchased book.

“Read/listen to lecture” is linked to my online lectures, hosted on my rented server, which contain audio of me reading the lecture, video clips, etc.

“Research and post primary source” is the laboratory type posting, on a discussion board, of visual primary sources students find on the web, with citations and student commentary.

“Check primary source for points” is a one-question quiz checklist of all the things required for full points on a primary source (image, author, title, date, live link, commentary), so it’s a self-evaluation of their own source, instantly graded.

“Read and discuss the documents” is annotating the assigned textual sources using Perusall inside Canvas as an LTI, which assigns points automatically but I do have to check through all of them and make sure they’re right.

“Submit lecture notes” automatically assigns 2 points when they submit them, and they can be in any format, including images of handwritten notes.

“Quiz” is a multiple-choice quiz based on lecture, documents, and textbook readings.

The grading breakdown is:

Read and discuss the documents 20%
Quizzes 20%
Primary Sources 20%
Lecture Notes 10%
Learning Units 10%
Writing Assignments 20%

Right now, the only class that varies from this is the one US History where I have full discussion. In that class, it’s:

Homework 20%
Lecture notes 20%
Writing Assignments 20%
Discussion 20%
Constitution exercise 10%
Final Essay 10%

The pedagogy, briefly, is based on emphasizing task completion, with grading considerations as secondary. Each individual assignment is low stakes, though with only three or four writing assignments, the stakes are higher for putting all the knowledge together. Assignments that can be graded immediately (quizzes, learning unit knowledge checks self-assessed primary source points, lecture notes) are, so that students can get immediate feedback (yes, I reserve the right to change points if there are inaccuracies or instructions aren’t followed). The addition of lecture notes and self-assessed primary source points adds a metacognitive learning aspect. The work of doing history is engaged in multiple ways, including reading, writing, discovery, sharing, and visual analysis.

Student choice is built in, in several ways. Students choose their own primary sources to post, and their own topics for writing assignments. They can choose which days they work, so long as deadlines are met (each unit opens a week in advance). Lecture note format is up to them, to meet their own note-taking style. Since each individual item is low points, they can choose to miss one or two without it doing serious grade damage. Two attempts are given for self-graded items, so they can go back and correct something without penalty.

My role is guide on the side, in the middle, at the front, and in the end. Instead of grading constantly, I spend my time reading their notes, viewing their posted primary sources, answering questions, writing weekly or twice-weekly communications, conversing with students in the Perusall annotations, and yes, grading their writing assignments. I have had no complaints about how much work the courses are, since most of the things I’m requesting (like lecture notes) are common to on-site classes. Some students appreciate the trust, and the autodidactic opportunities. Others appreciate that I’m there for them, and respond quickly to their individual messages. (On this, I’ve decided that students want the individual approach, but not necessarily for class content – rather they want it for their individual problems and issues, most of which have nothing to do with the subject. My method leaves time for that.) And I can grade more generously, because the point is to do the work, be the historian, rather than show me you’re good enough to do history without me.

There is also something interesting about having the courses this structured. The course itself seems to be its own entity, has its own trajectory and completeness. It is almost like it’s me, the students, and the course. The students and I interact with the course together, instead of the course acting as a weapon with which I beat students using grades. This goes along with the LMS (Canvas – blech), which the students and I can work in (and on, when things go wrong) together — it’s them and me against the system.

So although on the one hand I don’t like the idea of standardizing courses, in this case I’m standardizing what’s good, what works, what meets my pedagogical goals. I am free to change readings, lectures, materials, instructions, at any time. After 20 years of building these courses, I think I’m onto something less subject to the vagaries of passing fads (personalized learning, individual learning styles), dangerous web spaces (MOOCs, open education), and changing jargon (student learning outcomes, guided pathways), and more founded in solid pedagogy.

 

 

The ed tech dream is dead

As if regular old political news weren’t bad enough, we must make connections between the behemoths of technology and the decline of enthusiasm for web-based educational technology and online learning in general. The conclusions are not inspiring.

As you know if you read my blog, I essentially gave up on web-based apps for my students a couple of years ago, and have moved all my class activity to the Canvas system or a Canvas-based LTI within that system (with the exception of one Honors blog).

As the author of Insidious Pedagogy, this has been a painful, soul-searching path leading to closing my classes. Since the beginnings (I started teaching online in 1998), I have encouraged faculty to put their pedagogy first, to find ways to force the technologies to do what you want. As an early fan of pedagogies that emphasize constructivism and connectivism, I have experimented with many formats (contract grading, connectivist learning, open blogging). If you’ve heard of Ning, Glogster, Dellicious, Blip,tv, Blabberize, Elgg, Eyejot, GoAnimate, Lingr, Mind42, MyPlick, Overstream, Plotagon, Plupper, Screenr, Slideshare, Trialmeme, and Posterous, you have some idea of what I’ve tried.

My college went over to Canvas in the wave of California Community Colleges who’d been made an offer we couldn’t refuse. As California began to standardize its online college education, mass media began to cover the concerns I’d had all along about student privacy and exposure in online environments. I no longer had any arguments to answer those who objected to students working on the open web, even as the web was closing.

So whatever else Facebook and Google have done (and none of it struck me as exceptional or unusual), they have underlined my concerns about students working openly, and undermined public confidence in living portions of our lives on the web. We were so concerned about not being sold by Learning Management Systems that we were sold by the very providers who gave us freedom.

Educators who persist in using social media for the classes are not just outliers in ed tech anymore – they are now collaborators in the dissemination and sale of student information and data. Stalwarts who object to online teaching and web-based learning can now say, “see? it isn’t safe!” Anything not in a protected, encrypted, controlled system is rightly suspect.

We’ve lost, and to me that has meant not only abandoning my own open classwork and my own research in educational trends but a return to subversion inside the system.

My pedagogical focus now is creating encouraging environments and meaningful tasks for students that take advantage of system-based automation while allowing for freedom of pursuits. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ed tech — Canvas forces me to take my place as a nobody functionary, a foot soldier following orders, with limited creativity and continual frustration. It’s one of the worst LMSs ever created, with a “community” deluded into thinking we help improve it. When my head is flat from pounding it against Canvas walls, I try to remind myself it’s like making a movie during the Hays Code.

But doing anything else isn’t moving forward.

What is required?

Although I have stepped back quite a bit from my reading and research in online education, I still have a Google Alert set, and still receive and examine recent articles, when I can stomach it.

The dictatorial tone of both articles in my inbox today is the subject here.

The first, The Necessary Knowledge for Online Education: Teaching and Learning to Produce Knowledge (Ferreira et al), did a study of 27 educators, all in the field of Education, to determine what knowledge (this sort of article usually says “skills”) are needed to teach online. What struck me was the premise, stated in the abstract:

Online education requires pedagogical mediation and the skills and competencies to work with technological resources which promote interaction, collaboration, and co-learning.

Well, that’s just not true. Online education does not require an emphasis on collaboration – rather it is one possible approach. It is also entirely possible to create online education that personalizes the class through different kinds of approaches to content, or emphasizes at every step the learner’s relationship with the material rather than through colleagues and “co-learning”. I understand that the current phase in online education pushes the collaborative approach, but it certainly is not “required”.

The second article, Online Continuing and Professional Education: Current Varieties and Best Practices (Schroeder, et al), features this idea:

Teaching online requires a team, not just an individual. While face-to-face teaching may be a singular effort, online teaching includes a multitude of technical, pedagogical, environmental, and associated considerations that requires a team of experts.

That’s not true either. I have never had a “team”, but rather developed not only my own pedagogical and technological skills, but helped design a “Pedagogy First” paradigm wherein the individual instructor’s strengths were basic to course design. I realize that these days there are more resources (among them instructional designers with advanced degrees and research articles produced by candidates for PhDs in Education), but those do not, by some reverse design, indicate that these things are required.

As the literature has developed over the last decade, much of it written by people who are not teachers and have not taught online, the “options” have become “requirements”, and the possibilities have narrowed into “best practices” (best for whom?) and necessary elements. This creates downward pressure on the creativity of teaching online, stultifying the field and cookie-cuttering our courses. Faculty who want students to focus on content are forced to develop “interactions” which oppose their own pedagogy, common sense, and experience. Helpless in a context they did not create, and for which they are pedagogically unsuited, they are told that not only is the social learning method “required”, but that a team is “required” to help them.

Did I mention I’d stepped back from reading the newest in online ed? There’s a reason for that.

New perspectives on DE from 1961

A book from 1961, New Perspectives in University Correspondence Study (Chicago: Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults), lists the “characteristics that a correspondence student needs”:

  • self-motivation
  • organization skills
  • concentration

and “the characteristics necessary for a good program in correspondence study”:

  • clear goals and objectives
  • manageably sized lessons
  • rapid feedback from a skilled teacher

That’s it then. Nothing has changed. Not sure why people are getting degrees in this stuff, really.

from Terry Ann Mood, Distance Education: an Annotated Bibliography (Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc. 1995), p. 15.