It’s true – I am considering adopting a textbook for my spring on-site class in Western Civ, History 103 (that’s origins to 1648).
I do not do this lightly. The fact that it bothers me so much to do it at all is the subject of this post.
I don’t like textbooks, and have been moving away from them. Only one of my online classes has a book, and it’s an atlas.
But going back to a real, commercial textbook? Doing this ignores my own concerns about primary sources and the mid-level student. I’ve said I’m ending the half-assed textbook adoption, yet here I am doing it.
Why? Well, as the character Michael says in the Big Chill, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations.” So here are some.
1. I loved my other textbook that I wrote myself , but it was troublesome in some ways.
And that class, the first to use it, was full of eager, smart students. That can’t be guaranteed for next time, especially after…
2. This semester’s class was awful.
Usually, I teach the first half of Western Civ (103) in fall, and the second half (104) in spring in the same classroom, same timeslot. For spring, though, I’m having to repeat the first half instead. This semester’s students would not engage, the entire semester (only two students seemed interested at all). They would listen attentively to lecture, but refused to work together in groups or help each other. Many were right out of high school, and thought attending meant they didn’t have to do much work to pass. Pop quizzes led to total failure – they seemed to retain nothing at all. About half of the original students worked at below a C level. They were all very polite, but it was like teaching into a great void. This puts an affective load onto doing it again so soon.
3. Their complete lack of historical knowledge was encouraged by a book I never should have adopted.
It was short, it was cheap, I spent many hours writing in-depth homeworks for it that encouraged them to argue with the author by checking the facts themselves (there were actual questions called “look it up”). No one did. On a yes or no question (“Were the Wars of the Roses called that at the time?”), they didn’t even bother to get it right – half the class just wrote “yes”.
4. The Wikipedia book experiment failed.
I worked many, many hours trying to adapt Wikipedia text into chapters, planning to use it as introductory material for my primary sources. Again, my own book. It proved impossible. Text on some areas of history was fine, a good length with good granularity of detail. Others (Rome, oh my god, Rome) was not, and there was no way to pare it down. In Wikipedia, detailed historical subjects (the history of the fulling mill) are written by scholars, but overviews (Rome!) are written by buffs. I could not edit it properly.
5. The writing of my own book is failing.
I keep telling myself that I have time to do it if I hurry. I stay up late writing a brilliant online lecture, because it’s more fun, then believing I’ll adapt it into that magic 10-paragraph summary. It’s not gonna happen. Unlike History 104, I haven’t taught 103 online – there is no Lisa-written pool of cool text. And the amount of engagement I’d have to encourage to make it work could end up in another black hole.
6. These students need a textbook.
These particular students, at this campus, seem to need the text in their hands. This is despite the fact that many are more privileged than my online students, and have both computers and cars more expensive than my own. They see going online to do anything but talk to friends as an imposition, like being told to go to the library. I’ve had on-site students at this campus simply skip the online portion of the class (all writing is due in online forums), even after being conferenced and reminded.
So here it is, the textbook! I know the content is OK because I’ve used the more expensive version of this book before. I’ll order the “Advantage” edition with less color and images, to save money. But I haven’t even adopted yet and already it’s pretty scary. Two things stand out so far:
The horror of the publisher’s website.
My inbox will give you an idea
It forces me to reset my password every time I log in. I’ve called tech support 3 times. Three is the magic number. Three attempts to get in, three password resets a week, three different browsers to keep trying. I finally downloaded everything I might need this morning.
And what did I find?
Ancillaries like it’s 1992
The PowerPoints for each chapter are made up of slides full of text and a few slides (with no text) of some images in the textbook. The “learning objectives” for each chapter are still at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. The “lecture” ideas look like filler written by graduate students. The “clicker” slides have the answers embedded in them for easy cheating.
The student web resources are impossible.
If I actually wanted students to use the online tools for this class (which are now sold rather than provided free), they’d have more trouble with the website than I did. They sent me an “access key” that doesn’t work, and these instructions:
To help your students access CourseMate and enroll in your course, point them to http://poweron.cengage.com/magellan/TechSupport/ProductHelp.aspx?prodrowid=1-SXF0LJ. Once there, students should click the “Downloads” tab, should then click the “Student Registration and Enrollment Clickpath” tab, and, finally, should click the “Download File” link.
Oh sure, for students who wouldn’t look up whether the Wars of the Roses were called that at the time? I don’t think so.
So, my questions are:
Will this be a one-off thing, as I write my own text? Can I shake it off when I’m done?
Or is it like quicksand, and I’ll become reliant on publisher’s materials? It this text a gateway drug, or just to tide me over?
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.
The whole thing is going the wrong way.
Educational research clearly indicates that effective online teaching includes elements such as professorial enthusiasm, use of multiple tools appropriate to the pedagogy, personalized attention to the students, guided pursuit of student interests, and collaboration, even to the point of creating online communities for learning.
Market forces clearly encourage the use or purchase of set systems to house online courses (Coursera, iVersity, Udacity, Instructure), taught through easily standardized modules that don’t need much monitoring, with flexibility and convenience the prized elements for consumers (oh, sorry…I meant students). They offer products, processes and support that will save universities money while they make money through their product. It is in their interest to have only their product in use, if possible tied in with their own support structures to provide a seamless experience for their…um, students.
Market forces do bow to popularity, of course. Online tools that are used by large numbers of people are integrated or plugged in to the systems. Google Docs, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be part of your class, even in Canvas! (Gosh, that’s exciting.)
So, back to that research (and you thought I’d forgotten). The approach promoted by the POT Certificate Class emphasizes the pedagogy of the individual instructor, supported by the use of appropriate tools. Everything I’ve worked on for the past decade has been in the direction of empowering instructors to empower their students to learn, by emphasizing the instructors’ knowledge and approach, realized through cool web tools that the fit the task.
But the tools will not be there if the market forces prevail in education. They will become expensive (think Ning) or unavailable. Faculty who design their own courses, and teach them using tools that fit their imagination, will become fewer and fewer. It won’t be worth the time to create a course in such an old-fashioned way.
Governments and universities are clearly aligning themselves with market forces, in desperation. That desperation is not just financial. It is, ironically, based on lack of knowledge. Little consideration is taken of the research. Market forces, in the forma of educational product companies, couch their products in the illusion of innovation, but what they offer is packaging. They make the process of learning so much less messy.
Trouble is, learning is messy. It can’t be broken down into outcomes and modules. Teachers know this, and the research shows it. But all that can be ignored, and so much money (and hassle!) saved, by having assistants facilitate carefully packaged courses instead of faculty teaching them. No need for faculty – they can be replaced with “content experts” on teams of course designers (yes, I know, it’s already happening, in lots of places).
So ultimately, programs like our Program for Online Teaching Certificate Class (now between semesters) will become anachronisms, teaching skills that are no longer used, like penmanship and typesetting. And by then, there won’t be many pens or typesets to choose from anyway. It will all fade away.
Occasionally it happens that in one particular class, I feel that I am simply not getting through. This always leads to introspection. So I look for ways to improve my teaching. This time, I’m getting a message that doesn’t make sense to me, although I’ve nodded and promoted it for a number of years.
The issue is student engagement. There is tacit agreement that keeping students interested and engaged is a Good Thing. However, after much thought, I’m starting to think that this emphasis is detrimental to good teaching and learning. As a historian, I also fear it will damage my discipline as, well, a discipline by encouraging a lack of…discipline.
We often face classes of staring, bored-in-advance students waiting to be entertained. There’s an excellent post by Dave Graser on how to flip a zombie. He meant flipping a bored class (assigning static material for out of class, and using class for discussion) and connecting it to contemporary issues to engage students. The ideas are exciting, and are behind the whole movement of “flipping” classes.
We also have students who are completely unprepared for the rigors and habits of college-level study. Alford and Griffin on Faculty Focus: Teaching Underprepared Students, claim that the solution for such an unready, disengaged group is “relevance, relevance, relevance”. We must figure out where students are, and then bring them to the subject through connecting their experience to our material.
We are also told can engage them through fun activities, gaming, modern colloquialisms, or pop culture. Dynamic lecturing, new technologies, new approaches, should all be designed to encourage their engagement in our course.
The premise of all this is that teachers have the responsibility is to make things “relevant” and exciting, so that students will stay engaged and maintain focus. It is natural to want happy, active students. I want them too! But there are several problems. One is that the current prescription puts the burden of engagement on the instructor rather than the student, leading to dependency. Another is that trying to effectively engage students can lead to a “dumbing down” of ones discipline.
In short, the current emphasis on student engagement is misguided.
The Instructor’s Role in Engagement
The suggestion, way out there in not-much-research-land, is that engagement equates as student success in the class, presumably in the form of high grades and an advanced level of work.
The problem is that engagement doesn’t do that – engagement makes it interesting to do well if you are already capable of doing well. It cannot ensure doing well if you’re not able to succeed, for whatever reason. I know students who are totally engaged in History, and very enthusiastic, but will not accept instruction in either the discipline or how to express it. Their “teacher” is the History Channel, the things they’ve already read or heard about, and the workings of their own mind, independent of facts and habits of cogent analysis. They are engaged, but cannot construct a coherent historical argument nor back it up with sources.
By the same token, those who do not like the class, or are “disengaged”, may do very well. This is particularly true if they are self-directed and cognizant that they don’t like the class. They push harder to do good work because they want a high grade. Engagement is a side effect, one I encourage by allowing students to pursue their own topics.
I do want them to enjoy their work – that’s important to the quality of the class, providing the opportunity. But it is just, as I’ve indicated before in my post about “student success”, an opportunity. If I don’t provide an opportunity for engagement, by creating a class with both clear direction and some room for exploration, I am not doing my job.
But I cannot force engagement – no one can. And we cannot delude ourselves that we can even track it. I cannot tell whether a student who is looking at me while I lecture or doing the work enthusiastically in her group is learning history or thinking about lunch. Similarly, I can’t assume that the student staring at his desk is not listening and learning. Online, we are deceived by data such as the number and length of log-ins, which is faulty the moment a student leaves to get a sandwich with the lecture screen open, or logs in twelve times a week because they have a nervous disposition.
But these days it is not enough to just provide opportunity and access. If students do not engage, it is my fault, or the fault of the design of my class (my design). They drop because I have not engaged them enough.
I just don’t buy it – teaching and learning doesn’t work that way. I can give them the dance floor and the lessons, but they need to engage the dancing by stepping out there and giving it a whirl. Much of their willingness and ability to do so is beyond my control.
The problem of intellectual integrity
In the above articles, it is advised that we should engage students emotionally first. I know a history instructor who does this, and does it beautifully. He starts his lectures with horrific images or stories of human cruelty. Once students are upset about the injustice being portrayed, they want to know the background, so he gets into the facts in the lecture.
At first, I believed I was just not cut out to lecture that way. But after awhile I realized it isn’t my storytelling ability – I actually have pedagogical issues with the whole approach. An emotional approach is inherently anti-intellectual. It also leads to emphasizing primary and secondary sources that have an extremist viewpoint. There are moral lessons to be sure, but also a real danger of encouraging a “History Channel”, sensationalist approach to history. I have always had trouble with role-playing as a technique for teaching history for the same reason. Although I am enchanted by such projects as the Titanic re-enactments on Twitter (and now, Jack the Ripper), I cannot bring myself to use such a technique with my students. The gamification of education causes the student to focus on side issues instead of learning historical skills (despite the enthusiastic teachers who assign Civilization IV or promote “what if” alternative history).
We are told that we must make history relevant by continually connecting historical events and ideas to those in comtemporary life, and we strive with increasing difficulty to find current affairs with which students are familiar. But again, the approach is misguided. What makes history “relevant” is not related to immediate things, or things that are part of students’ daily lives. And when we emphasize those current connections (having students construct their family histories, or their own) we give the wrong impression of what the historical field is all about.
A great forgetting
Nicholas Carr (in The Atlantic) reports the extent to which our computer dependence causes us to forget how to do things. He uses flying a plane as an example – accidents these days are the result of human error due to lack of practice, rather than mechanical failure. After reading his article, I used an example in my class when students said that the compass was a significant medieval invention. Yes, it was, but it also led to dependence on the techonology – fewer and fewer people would be able to read the sky to know where they were. One of my students came up afterward and told me of a camping trip where they had forgotten their standard compass, and could not figure out how to use the fancy electronic compass on an expensive watch. Only one of them knew where the sun would be, to help find their way.
The final danger is that as we trivialize history to make it relevant, we will forget how to practice skills required for the discipline. Many people are already forgetting how to read a sustained argument, which is essential for understanding many significant historical documents. We are forgetting how to find things in books, how to gloss dense text, and how to take good notes. We are losing the ability to retain information, because we know we can easily look it up.
I used to assure students that they did not need to memorize historical facts, since we could look them up. Now I’m not so sure. To not memorize anything is to allow an important habit of mind to rust into uselessness. Should we really cater to short attention spans with 10 minute videos and breaks in the classroom action every 15 minutes? Perhaps it would be better to teach students how to analyze a document carefully, how to take notes on a document, how to focus on one thing for awhile.
As I noted recently on Twitter, our “customer” in public education is society, not the student. Right now, society in this country is on an anti-intellectual bender, defying rationality in its political system and reducing the financial support for higher education. To cater to students’ demand for entertainment and short “chunks” of information is to further the aims of those who would prefer an uneducated public (as I’ve noted about online “providers”). It is usually the goal of historians to encourage an understanding of the past in order to improve the future. And I’m not sure we can do that if we continue bowing to the gods of student engagement.
To take students through the text of a historical document, I downloaded a sample UK voice called Peter from Infovox (free for 30 days, then $20 for the one voice). It works through my Mac’s Universal Access system. It’s quite awkward to have it read just text, since even at high-threshold settings it wants to read aloud all the computer commands and window changes. By putting the Magna Carta into a TextEdit document and recording with Snapz Pro, I did this:
I also tried a UK male voice at Cepstral but I couldn’t get it to behave properly.
This approach might be more effective with bouncing ball or highlighting, but I’m not sure.
What if I could give a bit of history lecture “on location”?
Continuing with looking at animation, I downloaded Tellagami (which I first read about on Greg Kulowiec’s blog) to my iPod Touch and was able to do this:
It saves as mp4 to the Tellegami website, and their Share button gives embed code. Or I suppose one could download it using one of those sneaky browser extensions.
The limitations were that I had to upload photos to the iPod, and that the audio was a little dicey – I had to make sure the Touch was a couple of feet away from me to not get static. Oh, and it’s limited to 30 seconds!
I don’t have an iPad so it hadn’t occurred to me to look at apps, but now I will.
And next I hope to borrow an iPad to try Explain Everything, the other app from Greg’s post.