Textbook balancing act

No, I’m not talking about improving your posture by putting it on your head. Rather, I am once again examining the possibility of using textbooks (both open and closed) as I contemplate writing another online class (this one Early American).

I have been looking at open textbooks.  Last semester, for my modern US History class, I used OpenStax. When I printed it out, though, it filled a large binder, logging in at 579 pages (yes, of course I printed double-sided). Then I discovered something much more succinct – the textbook at the US Department of State’s website  (don’t panic – it doesn’t get overtly political until the last three chapters, so I can use that for teaching).

I decided to use the State Department text for my Honors section, but as I worked with it, I decided it was good for my regular sections too. So I spent some weeks writing test questions, and am using it this semester.

But when I looked at it for Early American, it seemed sparse – only 7 chapters for 16 weeks. I realize that the historian who most recently revised it fully (Alonzo L. Hamby) is an expert in modern American history, so I understand why. So I went back to look at OpenStax, and others. But they’re so huge! The one I really liked, a good textbook written by profs at the U of North Georgia came out at 852 pages!

Then I realized the issue wasn’t the textbook, but my lectures. I have no online lectures for Early American history. But I have good, long, multimedia lectures for Modern American. So it makes sense for the modern class to have a small textbook (State Department) and the new course to have a more complete text (OpenStax, perhaps).

The lesson I recalled: when you adopt a textbook, really adopt a textbook, you have to acknowledge the reality of student reading. Many students today have trouble reading, both in terms of practical literacy and concentration. They have challenges of structure, vocabulary and content. We can’t do what was done when I was in college – assign a standard text, expect that they’ve read it, give a quiz or two, and ignore it in lecture. They won’t read it, or even buy it.

Current publishers have understood this, and now provide guided reading tools as part of course packages. Pearson’s REVEL is the most interesting, because it literally guides students through each page of the text, reading it aloud to them and highlighting pertinent passages. I call this Ethel the Aarvark pedagogy (from the Monty Python skit where the bookshop owner has to read the book to the customer).

So even if I don’t want to use the pablum packages (and I did consider this for my failed Jekyll and Hyde experiment), I must face reality about student reading abilities. If I adopt a textbook, I have to get into it, help them through it, work with it. It has to become central to the class, and all other aspects must be built around it. That will only work in a class format where I do not have my own lectures, but rather comment on the unit and the textbook. Otherwise, if I want to keep the lab aspects of my class, there’d be too much for community college students to manage.

Nevertheless, I confess that the pre-digested history in a textbook is not very palatable…

Maybe free is bad – something else not to talk about

I have just spent the last few weeks doing as I meant to do for the last year – creating a book of Wikipedia text and my own edited primary source documents to create a free textbook for my students in Western Civ I.

Now that I’ve finished, and it’s all ready for my summer classes (both as a pdf they can download and print, and chapters inside my online class), I can go back and catch up on my reading about online teaching.

One of the things I’m supposed to be reading about is OEI, the California Online Education Initiative being run by a number of wonderful people. What they’re creating, however, will undermine artisan course design and bring in rubrics that already have several good online teachers in tears.

As part of this project, there are courses being offered by faculty at several institutions. A number of faculty have volunteered to have their classes be models for the new system (I declined when I saw the rubric). The word “model” has now been thrown around the administration as meaning they are great classes.

Some may be. Some of the most lauded, however, are taught with prepackaged course cartridges and full technology from a major publisher. I went and looked at that publisher’s offering for one “model” class, their costly package to students, and found what I expected – the cartridge is essentially teaching the class.

While it’s sickening that this kind of thing is the new “model” course for the future (I’ve ranted about that elsewhere), I was looking at the price. $177 new, with rentals varying from $80-133.

In all classes except one, now, I’ve given all the materials to my students. They don’t need to buy anything. My classes have students who go in and out, don’t do all their work, fail because they don’t follow instructions. In the “model” canned course, student success rates are high, as is retention. Extremely high. Only 10% seem to leave the class. Grades are high too. In History classes overall, it isn’t unusual to have 20% drop the class. We have always thought this is because our History classes are more demanding than what is being offered in other disciplines.

But there may be another aspect. If one pays $177, perhaps one is more dedicated to the class? Or could it be that the canned class makes it easier for students to pass without much stress (i.e. thinking) so they tend to stay? Or could the canned class be better? for whom? for learning? or just to make everything easier for everyone, student and instructor alike?

But wait! I know of another discipline (again, not mine) with high student success and retention also, where their online numbers equal their on-site numbers, but the classes are not canned, and in fact are outstanding artisan classes. The book? $95 new, $52-72 for rental.

My conclusion? I should not be creating free materials – it may be devaluing the classes I’m teaching. I know it’s not the quality of the materials – not only do I edit them all myself, but I have reviewed dozens of textbooks (see my name in many of them) and most are not very good. It’s the perception of the quality of the materials.

I had a student comment on an evaluation that he didn’t want to read the article I had linked from Wikipedia, because it made him feel like he wasn’t in a college class – if he wanted to read Wikipedia, he didn’t need to be paying college tuition. (Of course, he isn’t paying much tuition – the state has him covered – but that’s another post.) The quality of the article wasn’t the point – it was Wikipedia, so it must be useless.

If I’m right, the point that has gotten lost in the anger at high textbook prices, the insistence that community college remain open access, and the administrative concern about retention, is that students may want to pay high prices for textbooks. It may keep them dedicated to the class, even when they have to borrow money to buy them. I don’t think anyone really wants to talk about that possibility.

Textbooks (yes, again)

Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.

This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.

nobleadvantagearoowsWe started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.

I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.

So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.

Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:

  • Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
  • Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
  • Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.

The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?

When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.

How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?

By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.

The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.

So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.

It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.

Redesigning the open online class show: POT Cert

I spent last week at the Connected Courses workshop, where amazing people are creating an open online class about, basically, how to teach an open online class. The energy was such that it reminded me of my previous life working in the theatre. The design and beginning development of that class in many ways looks like our POT Cert Class looked last year. Or really, two years ago, when we ran it in WordPress, using the FeedWordpress plugin to aggregate the feeds from participants’ blogs.

But there’s a huge difference between POT Cert and the Connected Courses theatrical productions. Connected Courses is supported by a grant structure and has staff, techies, a paid director, and many resources in addition to the design team I got to be part of. A Best Play Tony would send 20 people up to the stage. POT’s certificate class has been run by community theatre style volunteers: myself, the POT leaders who wanted to work on it, and the generous moderators and mentors (faculty, ed tech folks, and others) who paid it forward after getting their own certificate or joined out of altruism, love, appreciation, or insanity.


La Cage Aux Folles original cast, 1983

We have no money to act as either motivator or thanks – this is not professional theatre. We refused money years ago, because it corrupts our artistic freedom. But this isn’t a world where people can really afford to work for pizza (or retweets or good reviews), and no one wants to run the same show year after year. We must economize. Even Les Miserables and La Cage aux Folles have pared down their production designs. I think a lot of the POT Cert cast and crew have tired of doing it.

Another reason for ennui may be because the class never seems to move forward. Even the best, most experienced online instructor could become bored with the same interpretation of the same play.

I teach History to community college students. While my methods and materials may change each term, the students do not – they are beginners in History in the same way the faculty who need the POT Cert Class are beginners in online teaching. In both cases we’re trying to help newbies, not only by teaching them methods and having them explore content. Like any good play, we have a message. For History, my message is that primary sources can be put together into diverse narratives that answer the needs of society at the time. For online teaching, POT’s message is that faculty must begin with their own pedagogy, and then select and control the technologies that support and expand that pedagogy in the online environment. It’s the reason POT exists – to start faculty with pedagogy rather than letting technology control them. We don’t want an audience who’s seen this show before.

My emphasis in the old days was design, and in many ways it still is. Our current POT Cert design was moved from WordPress to Google Sites last year in order to simplify production with a smaller crew. As always, participants had to set up and run their own blogs, but instead of their posts feeding into a central blog via FeedWordpress, they had to post a link to their work in the discussion, and conversation took place at the Site instead of on their blogs. This worked well with the 25 or so participants we had, though I will never forgive Google Sites (or the many discussion forum alternatives) for not nesting replies cleanly, as WordPress does.

The number of participants in POT Cert has gotten slightly smaller each year, likely because there are now so many alternative shows competing with what we do (and I ain’t no Michael Eisner). Unfortunately, many of these Broadway alternatives provide technology training rather than pedagogical preparation, and are developed by educational technologists rather than in-the-trenches teachers. So what we do continues to be important. We rage against the Disney-fied edtech commercial culture machine.

Last year’s class in Google Sites was hard to run with three facilitators, though it was easier than in WordPress (FeedWordpress can have problems that would frustrate anyone who doesn’t code). And even with audience participation, the show runs too long for current tastes. At 24 weeks (a badge for each semester, and a certificate for completion of two semesters), it is a bit too Angels in America.

So this summer Laura and I began to design a self-paced learning pathway, with only six units, as a static WordPress site. It’s like the TV version of our class. The idea was that people could use the pathway themselves or in cohorts at their institutions. Communities using the content could be run elsewhere if desired, like friends sitting around a living room to experience it together. Or people could do the pathway on their own, and somehow automatically get a badge. But then the Connected Courses workshop reminded me that the cohort aspect of an open, online class is extremely important. The audience must feel and hear each other for it to work. I realized that the “self-paced” idea likely wouldn’t fly.

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

I think the new production will involve something like this:

1. Separation of the show from the audience 
This allows for more flexible use of the content, and a bit more instruction. And as we write it, Laura and I sense the joy of creation. Perhaps someday it will be a book, its own script.

2. Assigned seating 
Although anyone may use the content, we do need to “run” the community, and have continual feedback from other community members and ourselves. Without content, it’s just a community. Without community, it’s a disembodied course. With content and community connected, it’s a class. What happens on stage is only half, or less than half, of a successful show.

3. Audience as creators 
Our current class has always required participants to blog every week, with the final post of the semester and year consisting of a list of annotated links to all their previous work. It is that post, combined with their self-assessment, that we used to evaluate for the badge or certificate, since it puts everything in one place. Calling the blog posts something like Portfolio Assignments will make that clear from Day 1.

4. Angels in the Outfield instead of Angels in America 
If it has enough content, and more options for more experienced people, it should be possible to put what we need into a 12-week format.

So that’s where we’re headed, at least for now…I think we’ve got a show.

Tracking my elusive OERs

So I return from Connected Courses (whole other wonderful story) to find Alan Levine’s call for Open Educational Resources, and I think, hey, no problem, got lots of ’em…

I started hunting them down. Alan’s right – it wasn’t easy. Found some scat. Some prints… Oh! I remembered where I put one!

In the MERLOT cage…

where it’s so lonely, since 2006. No peer reviews, no discussion, no indications of use. Did anyone use it? I don’t know. It says it’s copyrighted when I didn’t copyright it. I’ll have to stuff it and mount it on the wall. Can’t claim it as a live sighting.

Over the years, I’ve seen my stuff, the stuff I put out in the wild. I’ve seen this image from my blog in a number of places (like wikis and Stephen Downes’ OL Daily). The post that went with it has been cited in a number of dissertations about MOOCs.

Are those real sightings? or just scat?

Maybe it’s more important that others have sighted my stuff, and used it for themselves, rather than redistributed it. They’ve taken a photo of my OER in the wild and put it on their wall of learning instead of cloning it. Before Slideshare got rid of my audio (for which I shall never forgive them), I had a number of lectures there as slidecasts.

Over 6,000 people viewed my “A Very Brief History of American Women Before 1919” (now in YouTube). Over 5,000 viewed my 6-slide presentation on Online Learning Theory. But what’s really interests me are my hour-long class lectures in history, which (when they had audio) were like taking a whole correspondence class in Western Civ. Thousands of views, many from regions far from the US. Somebody out there was learning, though without the audio they’re now learning a lot less.

So in Slideshare I have a graveyard of OERs, each with a flashy tombstone and visitors who put flowers on the graves.

I also have a fairly complete bank of my online lectures. They’re on a web page, in plain ole HTML. Does anyone use them? I don’t know.

I use several tools designed to track my influence on the web, but they hardly ever tell me when people post about me, so I can’t find these OERs either. (Lisa M Lane is the name I use. The other two Lisa M Lanes who are big on the web are an author of erotic vampire novels and a chess champion. I gave up.)

Do articles count as OERs? I put them on the open web so anyone can use them. Tweets? Flickr pics? Blog posts? This blog post? What about my the assignments I added to ds106?

So, like any academic, I’m gonna question the proposition. What is an OER? Is it a learning object in a repository? An idea (written or visual) that I put on the web and others used? Or are all these just blurry pictures?

Course Footprints

This morning I attended the session Footprints of Emergence, led in the SCoPE community out of British Columbia by Jenny Mackness, Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau based on their recent work published in IRRODL.

I have followed, and even worked a time or two, with Jenny, and am always interested in watching whatever she is working on. Since I missed the first session on November 19, I viewed the recording  to catch up on the ideas. Then during the session, I had printed out a footprint map and tried filling it in for the POT Cert Course.

To oversimplify enormously, the idea of the footprint is based on a kind of map for a particular course or “complex learning environment”, and the emphasis is pedagogy and course design. The base map is a circle, with more structured, prescribed learning experiences toward the center, and more “emergent” (self-directed, expansive, connectivist) elements toward the outside, with “chaos” being the ultimate outside edge. The circle is divided into four areas: Open/Structure (the space or environment and how it’s set up), Interactive Environment (the extent of contextualization and interactivity), Presence/Writing (the learning process and product, or the way the learning is realized), and Agency (self-direction and autonomy of learning). A blank map, available in Word  (I just printed out the image) looks like this:



Each quarter of the circle contains many factors that can be scaled across from more prescribed to more open (here’s one of the charts to explain each). Each can be marked on the map with a dot, and then the dots connected to make a shape. The more the shape is inwards, the more prescribed and directed the experience. The more near the edges the shape is, the more it emphasizes emergent learning. You can see other people’s examples of their courses here.

My interest at first was mapping out the design of the POT Certificate Class, because I knew that much of it is prescribed and I would like it to be more open, although that’s difficult with beginners. I would be mapping the class from the point of view of the designer. As I began, Scott Johnson, who was also in the session and has been with us at POT Cert, offered to map from the point of view of the student. Here’s mine – a footprint of POT Cert as it actually is, rather than my ideal:



Then Scott emailed me and said something about evaluations, and suddenly many possibilities occurred to me:

  • POT workshops could have faculty map their courses. We could guide them through as we were being guided in this workshop.
  • My students in history classes could do it, and I could see how their view compared with mine (another form of student evaluation).
  • K-12 teachers could use this across the curriculum, sharing their maps with each other.
  • Department members who don’t get along could map their own course to discuss differences in pedagogy.

Because what this system does, in addition to providing a way to think through ones own pedagogy, is create a presentation of ones course that can be seen at a glance and compared to others. It’s much easier than visiting a dozen classrooms or clicking through a bunch of online classes. It could spark conversations about pedagogical goals.

What it doesn’t do is dismiss the more prescribed modes of teaching and learning. Although they are closer to the centre and therefore literally less “edgy”, more controlled environments, materials and assessments are by no means considered as irrelevant. This is refreshing, as in my own experience I have found it very difficult to apply the utopian connectivist principles I love as a learner to my role as a teacher of underprepared community college students.

In the chat, Jenny commented that the idea here was balance, but perhaps it is more than that. These map lines can become fluid, changing at various times in the semester, or even for the individuals in the class. Perhaps a class begins with, for example, very limited agency, but as the course continues, that agency becomes more emergent. That’s what happens in my classes – as the semester goes on students have more and more freeedom to bring in resources of interest to them, while at the beginning things are much more instructor-directed.

Although I will undoubtedly make some adaptations, I will be using this somehow, to generate conversation by having participants actually do something (instead of just telling them to “reflect”). A light bulb went on with this – there are many places it could go.