Instant Pedagogy

The ad was in my in-box this morning: Now you can teach American History with a global perspective! A new textbook has come out with this perspective, so now I can teach this way!

keurigtIt reminded me of the new instant coffee pods: Now you can have mocha! In your own home!

Couldn’t I have made mocha myself, by adding some cocoa to my coffee? Surely I could teach American history from a global perspective, or any other way, before? The coffee machine determines which pods I can use. Is the way I teach similarly dependent on the textbook?

At many colleges, and in other departments at my college, faculty cannot choose their own textbook. It is given to them. For some, this is a challenge to creativity – they continually “fight” their textbook to provide a more meaningful experience for students. For others, it’s “teach to the text” time.

The difference isn’t in the choice or lack of choice – I also know professors who choose their own text so that they can indeed teach to it. We needn’t divide the pedagogy problem into those who are forced to use a text and those who are not. It’s really between those who want to control their own pedagogy and those who don’t.

I could bring out the old saw that few of us were trained in pedagogy; instead we are just experts in our field. But after a few years of teaching “in the raw”, designing our own lessons, we all develop a pedagogical method. Those who “can’t find a good textbook” or who don’t like the mandated textbook have two choices. They can get creative, or they can allow the text to determine their pedagogy.

Because, make no mistake, all textbooks bring their own pedagogy. The vignettes, the study questions, the biases inherent in the content — all impose a pedagogy. For most of my career I’ve tried to ignore the textbook’s pedagogy, using it more like an encyclopedia. In doing so, I’ve missed some of the good pedagogy embedded in the books, but there was no coherent way to mix what they were trying to do with what I was trying to do.

Many of us now find textbooks unnecessary, as the open web (and our library’s databases) provide ample factual material, tutorials, and visual supplements. I can make my own coffee without having to pick the beans, and I don’t need a coffee machine. I have just finished editing my third text for my students, using open sources for the factual information and primary sources I have selected. My students in Western Civ I, Western Civ II, and US II now have a textbook that is not only free to read (and at cost to print, about $24) but based on my pedagogy.

As a result, I no longer have to deal with the problems of history textbooks: dealing with the author’s perspective, assigning only certain chapters, putting up with the women and minorities “in boxes” instead of as part of the flow of history, explaining the parts the authors got wrong. Now if it’s wrong it’s my fault, and I can change it. And I can choose from unlimited flavors instead of 20.

No, I am not suggesting custom, home-made texts as a solution for everyone. It’s really only for those who are frustrated by their textbooks’ pedagogy, and have a choice, and want to take the huge amount of time involved. Perhaps it’s part and parcel for those of us creating “artisan” courses, where we choose the ingredients, the method, and the products. It’s also for those who have the confidence to know they’re choosing the right ingredients for the rigors of their discipline.

(And it’s a matter of personality, of course. I use the Keurig machine in hotel rooms to make hot water for tea.)


I struggle with textbooks, yet I need a form of context that students understand intuitively. In my rejection of traditional texts, I have been exploring both the new online pathways-though-text offered by publishers like Cengage and Pearson. My experiment with Pearson went badly, and reminded me that the answer is still open resources, free if possible.

Right now all my classes have these elements:

  • Textbook or context reading, sometimes with quiz questions (about 15% of student time)
  • Lectures I’ve written and recorded, with quiz questions I wrote (about 20% of student time)
  • Primary sources inside those lecture, and that used to be in my printed workbook (about 10% if they read them)
  • Constructivist primary source collection creation and writing (about 40%)
  • Writing on those collected primary sources (about 15%)

The main challenge is how to balance the textbook reading, and any accountability via quizzes, with the rest of the workload, particularly the primary sources inside the lecture.

US History II

Open Education Resources include history textbooks, but there are very few. OpenStax_US-History_700x906After much searching, I have discovered one I like for US History II, even though it is left-leaning (a whole chapter on the New Deal? really?) and needs some reorganizing. Unlike most of the OER history texts, it has review questions, is written and peer-reviewed by historians, and comes out of a respected university (Rice). It even looks like a textbook. OpenStax’s system allows a somewhat cumbersome but handy way to reorganized the sections and chapters. I can even rename them. After about 24 hours, it creates a solid PDF version of the book, with a table of contents, repaging and automatic transferring of questions and terms to the appropriate section. While it will take time to extract the questions for quizzes, I think it’s worth it given the quality of the text. I will likely lose the focus on the primary sources inside the lecture – the textbook is too large. But since my US students tend to be at a lower level than my other classes, they likely need both the security of an ordinary-looking textbook and the information it provides. I am testing chapters this semester in all three online sections, even without quiz questions.

But US is it. There are no similar quality resources available for Western Civ, World History, History of England, or History of Technology (my new class!).

History of Technology

BookCreatorSo for Western Civ I tried to create a book from Wikpedia articles, using Wikipedia’s Book Creator. This has not gone well. Wikipedia is for the most part fine from a factual perspective for common areas of history, but some sections are written in too much detail by total fanatics of that particular era or subject. I have spend many hours trying to make it work. For History of Technology, however, I might just need a basic Western Civ overview as background – all else would be articles and primary sources, in addition to lectures. I have created a book from a single overview article. I can add my own stuff with PDF using Preview, perhaps, or just have it online.

Western Civ

103bookFrustrated with the Wikipedia book, I began copying Wikipedia text of the sections I liked into a Word document, and editing. For Western Civ I, I have finished. I have a complete textbook of Wikipedia text edited carefully by me, with main terms in bold, the primary source documents from within the lecture included at the end of every chapter, and quiz questions I wrote from the resulting book. I am using it for the first time this semester in both the online and on-site sections of the class.

It will take time, but it looks like I’ll be doing the same for Western Civ II.

History of England

It is the only class with a published item students much purchase. I wrote my own quiz questions out of it. When they stop publishing The Penguin Illustrated History of England and Ireland, I’m in trouble.


I have had to take open resources in hand myself – I have found nothing that can be adopted wholesale, like a traditional texts. But traditional texts have their own problems, of coverage, rigidity, poor supplements, bad quiz questions, etc. And history texts are costing over $100 now, which wouldn’t be so bad except they aren’t good enough for that kind of money. And my own texts I can edit, re-edit – they can evolve over time at no cost to the student except for printing if they’d like to print.

I’d like to share all this. The Wikipedia books aren’t mine – I’ve done the editing but only written some of the text, and adding documents I have been using for years, most of which have passed copyright clearance on more than one occasion when custom published in previous book efforts. If I do construct quiz banks out of the OpenStax chapters, I’d like them to be available for others to use (my created book already is, inside the OpenStax CNX system). OER should be, well, O.

But it looks like it’s not enough to do OER. Looks like you have to create Build-Your-Own OER.

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?