A really good start

Every semester I encourage students to start their online class by posting in the forum (variably called the Pub, or Coffee House, or Taverna, depending on the class). I usually ask them to do a couple of things, like update their Profile, take a distance ed readiness quiz, and introduce themselves. Although I encourage them to reply to each other and make connections, I always have classes where it’s all left-justified responses to my post – they don’t talk to each other.

This semester is totally different – they’re all talking about what it’s like to take an online class, and what their hopes are for this one, and how they’re getting organized to stay on track (not staying on track is, to my mind, the #1 reason for failure in online classes).

What made the difference? Well, I made a video about the class, but I’ve done that before. No, I’m convinced it was putting this video, usually just a link for the class, embedded right there in the forum.

I’m guessing that they “see themselves” in the video, students like themselves. They watch it because it’s right there at the start of the class, inside the discussion, right at the top.

The video is patched together from last year’s extra credit assignment, where I asked students to make a video clip with advice for new online MiraCosta students. I graded them higher if they filmed on campus and offered a really good tip. They had to give me permission to use their video publicly. Then I just edited and uploaded to YouTube.

It will be interesting to see how things go from here. Will they talk more in the posting forums, where discussion is not required? I don’t even have a grade for discussion or contribution this semester. Will they stay motivated? Will they stay enrolled? Let’s find out.

Canceling the experiment

Yes, only one day later, following the completion of the zillions of questions I wrote for the activities, I am canceling the experiment (see previous posts on the experiment and its challenges).

I think the last straws were:
1. The photo of a Gay Rights poster that said, “Gay is NOT a choice” with a caption that talked about being gay as a “sexual preference”,
2. The lack of text transcript for any of the songs or speeches, including Woman by Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis’ audio from prison,
3. Trying to overlook spelling and grammar errors that I’d mark if they were on a student’s paper,
4. Pearson throwing all the assignments (over 1,000) into the Blackboard grade book, instead of the ones I’ve assigned, with no option to just use those (the two options were “all” or “select”, meaning one at a time),
5. Discovering that Mac OS (10.6 or 10.9) running Chrome won’t work with Blackboard because of Java issues, so I have to use Firefox, and
6. Realizing I have just lost over a week to this that I could have spent improving my own materials.

So, alas, no cool article comparing artisan courses to canned courses. At least until we’ve got better canned courses.

Challenges of the Experiment

In my last post I detailed my experiment for Fall, wherein I will teach one section of modern U.S. History online using a publisher’s course package, adding only my own discussion topics (four) and writing assignments (five). All other presentation materials and assessments will derive from the package. The class will take place in Blackboard, our fully supported college system.

There are challenges already. The package is set up by chapters, yet chapters cannot be assigned individually inside Blackboard. I have “linked” my Pearson package to the Blackboard class, but all this means is that a button can be used from inside Blackboard which takes you out to the Pearson site. (Supposedly the Blackboard gradebook will reflect the Pearson grades – I’ve “linked” that too.)

PearsonListBut that’s not the real challenge – it’s the material. For each chapter, there is a long list of resources: document activities, image activities, map activities, “closer look” features. Since each of these has at least one question attached (I assume that’s the “activity” – there’s nothing else active here), I assumed these were multiple choice questions, for automatic grading. Turns out most of them are “essay” questions, all of low quality (i.e. “what is x talking about in this document?”), that I would have to grade. I’ve assigned over a dozen for each chapter. Besides, the whole idea of the experiment was to be using their pedagogy as much as possible instead of mine.

So now I’ve spent many, many hours creating multiple-choice questions, one for each document or image. Because I’m an experienced teacher, my questions are good and require critical thinking even though they’re multiple-choice. That in itself may undermine the experiment.

The other (huge) challenge is the quality of the materials. Not only are the questions stupid, but the items themselves do not contain full citations. Some are just copyrighted “Pearson”. Many do not name a photographer, or just say “Library of Congress”. PearsonClipSome don’t even have a date! They let you into just enough code that I can kind of correct some of these by adding words to the title. But there are audio files with no lyrics or transcripts. And, worst of all, the primary source video clips (Edison’s footage of Annie Oakley, footage of the Rough Riders) are in low resolution and look terrible. I could find better quality of the same footage using Internet Archive. There are also typographical errors in the transcript and in the titles and descriptions of the sources.

The interface for me requires a lot of deep drilling to do things, and the system persists in showing items I supposedly made invisible because I won’t be using them. It does, however, distribute any changes I make across the system.

Clearly MyHistoryLab is just a book supplement, rather than a full course cartridge, and yes, I expected much more. REVEL, their new, more interactive program, only became available yesterday, so I can’t use that yet because I don’t have time to play with it and make assignments. Stuck with MyHistoryLab for this semester, I can only hope this will be a semblance of the experiment I planned.

Rhizo15: Toppling the teacher

Historically, when a dictator is removed from power, all the factions being oppressed by that dictator fight each other for power. This happens regardless of the peaceful or democratic or socialistic ambitions of those who topple the dictator. In ancient Greece, the pattern was from monarchy, to oligarchy, to tyranny (in this case a ruler brought to power by the people), to democracy, and then often back again to monarchy.

This isn’t because monarchy is a natural state, necessarily. It is because having been under a monarchy or dictatorship, people have had little opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to build something better, particularly with other people.

If we look at our educational system, many have described it as a hold-over from 19th century industrialization, the need to teach people to be good factory workers. This isn’t really true, as many great and creative thinkers came out of those schools, and made improvements in education as well as work.

But it’s a handy narrative for those who want to create a “freer”, inquiry-based experience for students, instead of emphasizing rote learning and one-size-fits-all curriculum.

ComierToppledSo this week we ask whether we could get rid of our glorious leader, Dave. We don’t want to focus on getting rid of Dave as Dave – Dave is so inherently likable, and he gave us all this opportunity to get rid of him. But if he were a dictator, and we were to topple him as a symbol of industrial education, with the goal of creating our own inquiry-based class, would it work?

Yes, because this class is full of people who have, usually through their own efforts and sometimes exclusively so, aquired the skills to be able to do that. If we do it with our students, it can certainly work for some of them (there are many examples of successful inquiry-based classes), but only if enough students acquire the skills necessary to function in that environment.

It is unlikely that students suddenly without a teacher would fight among themselves for control, however. Instead, they would likely seek another leader. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly, in committee meetings, classrooms, and local government. Many people do not want to inquire – they want to be told what to learn, what to think. When we open up the curriculum, they are lost and frustrated without enough guidance.

How do we get past this, help students (and ourselves) acquire the skills necessary to direct their own learning? Won’t we just be leaving different people behind when we topple the dictator?

The Temptation of Publishers’ Products

I suppose the sign of an educated person is that they can learn from anyone and anything. This week I’ve learned from a publisher’s product, and the design it uses could solve some problems. The question is whether those problems should be solved, and whether this is the best way to do it. I’m tempted. They’re doing some very cool things, these publishers.

The product is an interactive textbook, with videos and little quizzes built into the page. They are taking the idea of proximity to its logical extent  – everything that relates to the topic is together. The design is intended to force the student to interact with the material several times while on the page, in an effort to reinforce the reading. The reading itself has been scaled down. Each chapter has five or six sections, each section is about four scroll screens, with a single column, lots of white space, and multimedia as well as text.  It is obviously designed to look good on a cell phone.

cc ryanne lai via Flickr

cc ryanne lai via Flickr

It has many elements of a textbook, but frankly it looks a lot more like my lectures. My lectures have media all over the place. What they don’t have is an assessment element, or if they do have that (my History of England lectures have a little Javascript self-quiz at the end of each lecture) the results don’t go to the grade book.

I confess to being impressed (I’ve seen this product demo’d now with two different textbooks), and tempted to adopt. I’ve asked our tech admin to find out how I can integrate this (and other) products into an LMS.

No, go back, don’t be tempted! But I am struggling with student retention and completion as issues the administration takes seriously, so I begin considering adopting this product. What it lacks in breadth it seems to make up for in depth. At the end of each unit, it has students write a reflection that connects the chapter to contemporary topics, and puts their posts into a discussion board. It’s a well-designed “learning system”. I do not buy all their crap about “engagement”, but it does force interaction with the material.

Structured as things are now, this product would replace the textbook. That’s what it’s intended to do. So what is the textbook for? If it’s to provide factual background information to my lectures, this is way bigger than that. It has its own pedagogy and its own interpretation of the material. It requires a different kind of analysis than a new textbook.

My existing course design

First, If I were to assign such a “text”, what would happen to the other elements of my class? These are:

1. My lectures – reported by students every semester as their favorite aspect of the class, my lectures are my interpretation of history and contain embedded primary sources, music, video, and my own voice and video.

2. Primary source research – the second-favorite with students, and my first favorite, I’ve written on using the discussion forum as a lab and I wouldn’t want to lose this.

3. Quizzes – My quizzes now include questions from lecture (including primary sources) and whatever I’m using as a textbook.

4. Writing assignments – I’m down to only five of these per semester, all based on the students’ primary sources in #2.

Since the self-declared reason students drop my class is “the class looked like too much work”, which of these is sacrificed for the more thorough online textual experience? The quizzes might not be an issue, except that they help make sure students are understanding the lecture.

Product location and service

Second, the product is located in a separate web location, in order to make sure everyone is paying for it. I’ve examined several publishers’ products now. Most force you to go outside into what’s becoming their own LMS. Only one lets you bring links in by chapter. I’ve checked out their LMSs, and they won’t work for the primary source forums – forum design is still the weakest area of ed tech, even after 15 years. Most products “link” or “connect” to Blackboard and Moodle, so a student has single sign-on, but the location of the material cannot be put “in” to the LMS in a way that’s seamless. This undermines the whole idea of proximity that is central to the effectiveness of the product. The lack of true integration means that these publishers aren’t yet in the 21st century (I still have to use a phone to call in for their webinars).

Also, because it is not my product, and not a supported LMS, it adds a third layer of possible technological problem and need for support. Publishers are famous for giving you the world until you adopt the product, then not being much help. And everything’s dependent on their servers.

Catering to bad habits

Third, what learning preferences are we catering to with such products? All of the webinars I’ve attended begin with the profs taking turns stating what their greatest challenge is in teaching the x survey class. The answers are totally predictable: underprepared students, getting students to read the text, getting students to use what they read. How do we diagnose these problems? Students aren’t doing the reading, or they’d do better in the class. We want them to do better. We want them to learn. At the same time, we don’t want to lower the standards of the discipline.

cc Chris Wejr via Flickr

cc Chris Wejr via Flickr

The solutions in this product, the depth-over-breadth approach, rely on the “current research” on learning. Well, not on learning, but on student success. Student reading attention span is short, so the solution is to “chunk” information and given them less content. Their reading level is low, so we dumb down the text and put in links to difficult terms. They like video (actually, the publishers claim they learn well with video – I have not seen that to be true in practice), so we add more (short!) videos. Their attention drifts from the text, so we force them to click to see this map, and take a little quiz, and click on the video, and rearrange these items, and do a bit of writing.

So the whole structure of the product is to cater to students who cannot create their own learning pathways, who are accustomed to having everything designed for them, who have difficulty reading and remembering, and who do not know how to study. We support all of these bad habits with this approach, but also use technology to reinforce some depth of understanding.

Weighing the considerations

I’m looking at three ways to go here:

1. Adopt: Foreground the retention concerns and adopt the product, jettisoning at a minimum my quizzes, and making lecture viewing optional. Figure out how to put it into Moodle so I can use the forums for primary sources. Or dump those too.

2. Redesign: Balance the retention concerns with my own pedagogy, by adopting the useful elements of the product using my own technology skills – putting mini-quizzes and pop-up definitions inside of lecture, and dumping the DIY textbooks I’ve been using. This would be, obviously, a huge amount of work.

3. Keep Calm and Carry On: Ignore the retention concerns and continue with my design, which requires extensive reading, weekly 25-question quizzes on lecture and text, weekly primary source posts, and five writing assignments based on these, a workload far less than what I did as a freshman, but which is increasingly becoming anachronistic in a world of weekly log-ins, minimal reading, low-stakes self-checks, and low grading standards.

I confess to being tempted by #1 for the first time in my career. Undertaking #2 is more like a sabbatical project, and could take all my time, but I’d like to explore the options in future posts. #3 is of course the default, encouraging my own bad habits.

The dark side does have cookies. They taste better now, even if they’re not good for you. And we seem to be in a world where everyone just wants dessert, higher grades for less work. Whither the artisanal prof who cares about her field?

What publishers are creating instead of Lego sets

I have had the pleasure of exploring one of the top publishing company’s new materials and framework for an online textbook, both as a faculty member being marketed to and as a reviewer. Such work gives me a good feel for how textbook publishers are reacting to the challenges of the web.

The product in this case is an online history textbook with pedagogical elements built in. It tries to take advantage of the online medium, providing charts and maps that students can “explore” by clicking on various elements and rearranging data. It provides audio reading of each chapter. The author and publisher have used current research to determine the optimal length of reading for each section, and the optimal layout (one column only, with short sections and all media centered on the “page”).

I was in a group of professors viewing this product via webinar, and a debate ensued about one of the charts. The other history profs got all excited about the possibilities of moving the data around, and began to argue the various conclusions one could make (in this case, about free blacks as a percentage of the population in the 1790s). I said very little. That sort of exploration, easily done by historians, would have to be guided with students. I would need to be in the room, with the chart on a screen, or in a synchronous session, for them to get anything out of moving raw historical data around.

We were also shown a cool primary source as well as a cool chart. And at that point I found myself rebelling against the package. What a great chart! What a cool source! But I don’t care for the package – the language of the book is at too low a level, and the coverage too superficial. There is too great an attempt to engage interest, and too little rigor. I didn’t like the “critical thinking” questions. They had students do some writing while reading, which is great, but the questions were bad – I would want to use my own.

Why can’t I take what I need (the chart and the source) and put it where I want? Why can’t these things be modular? Why are we still in the format of the textbook, when the technology enables us to move beyond it?

legobricksI have written before about the challenges of Learning Management Systems, and how they need to be more like boxes of Lego bricks than pre-designed Lego projects.  I have come to the exact same conclusion about textbooks. I want the erector set, the Lego bricks, the little bottles of chemicals, not a pre-created product. Even before the web, publishers would market books to me with huge ancillary collections, often including PowerPoint slides, CD-ROMs, and primary sources. But I couldn’t take the PowerPoints apart to get the images and use them differently, and I couldn’t use the primary sources next to my online lecture – instead, students had to pay for access and log in to get to the source. As I recently noted, placing teaching elements in proximity to each other is crucial to effective pedagogy. With publisher materials, I’ve never been able to do it.

The packaged product needs to be offered in pieces, like custom publishing, only cleaner. It is already possible to piece together a “custom” textbook with many publishers, but you choose from their limited database, those things to which they hold copyright.

If, instead, the publishers got together, they could create huge databases of material, and each little item could be priced low (kind of like an iTunes song). The company owning the copyright would get the money, but the product itself could be pieced together online by the instructor. I could include a scholarly paper, my own writing, images, cool charts, and many more items in the order I wanted. There would be testing modules that I could insert anywhere, with my own questions and choice of how the responses are recorded (email to me, LMS, the publisher’s LMS, etc).

All packaged works have their own pedagogy. We need to be able to disconnect the brick-like elements to support our own.