Notes on Jim’s blogging workshop

Today I attended Jim Sullivan’s workshop “Blogging Across the Disciplines“. Although I’m always thrilled to listen to and learn from Jim, there were a few ideas I picked out that I’m going to work on.

The first was the way Jim’s class blogs with students emphasize the public nature of the blog. His class blogs make clear that the assignments are public writing, and he also posts to an audience rather than just to the students. When I blogged with students, I made the mistake of not emphasizing the public nature of the blog. Rather I was just using WordPress like an LMS. What I missed was the opportunity for students to change their writing in response to an audience (even if that audience doesn’t comment – I didn’t track the visitor stats either).

JimSBlogThe second idea was the way Jim makes students read each others’ work. Not only does he refer to student posts in his own comments, but he has quizzes where the student must match the post author with an idea from that author’s post.

His prompts are also expert. Just one example: “pick a scene from The Devil Wears Prada and explain what it says about work in America”. Instead of assigning the movie (which students would have to either watch or view scenes from), that exercise is embedded in the prompt. The legwork is theirs. And he creates a theme for each class (this one is work).

Some of the participants at the workshop had great ideas. One requires that student posts have “novelty” as a rubric item. Another considered assessing based on “connections”. Clarity about the goal of each post is crucial.

There was discussion about using the methods of ones discipline to design and assess student blogging. The scientific method was mentioned, and some faculty like to have students directly apply knowledge in their posts (rather than just “write about x”). I could do that with the historical method – review it with students, then ask them to apply it to the secondary source articles I assign. In fact, I could do that now, just in forum discussion.

Almost everything I heard in the workshop would also be useful in LMS-bound forums, in fact.

The alst idea occurred to me during the workshop. A blog would be a great site for a Learning Community. I’ve worked at MiraCosta for over 25 years, and during that time there have been various experiments with team-teaching, cluster classes, cohorts, and learning communities. At present it looks like the process is pretty bound up in an administrative sense. But there’s no need for that. Take two classes that work well together, plan it with the other instructor, and have both classes post to a common blog. Instant learning community.

So thanks to Jim Sullivan for another fab workshop!

Results from 131 students

It’s only taken me 17 years of teaching online to develop a student survey that is both broad enough to cover all my classes and narrow enough to give me good feedback.

Just sharing a few things here. Total students responding was 131. Most students responding were passing the class.

ClassElementsRestuls

They still like my lectures the most, and textbook readings the least. They still like posting their own primary sources.

AddtlElementsResults

Hours and hours of work on that Help Page and – no surprise given what they email me about – they don’t use it. They do like seeing the whole course on one page (so I won’t switch to showing only the current week, an option in Moodle) and they like my comments and the audio of my lectures (I’ll read it for you!). The None category is a little depressing….

EngagementResults

The engagement results are clear, too. They like the lectures and posting their own source. They don’t like reading much. But they really liked what I added this year – the completion checkboxes on the Moodle page. I will be sad to lose that. But note: they like seeing each other’s work, but don’t require contact with other students. I’ve been saying that for awhile – collaboration and teamwork is online classes is not always needed. For my class, engagement with the work and posting what you find may be taking the place of “interaction” among students. They can learn from each other without necessarily engaging in forums in response to each others’ posts.

Floating discussion as a new fix for an old problem

Online discussion often sucks. The prompts are answered best by the first few go-getting students, and everyone else can only agree. Or the prompt is designed to elicit opinion in order to prevent repetition, and devolves into the sharing of personal beliefs without much connection to the class. I’ve avoided the whole thing by making my forums focused on posting primary sources.

Then there’s the issue of where to put the discussion. One giant discussion board with many topics and multiple clicking? A discussion each week, where ideas are abandoned as the class moves on?

Having eliminated weekly discussion as being useless, I have been putting one main forum at the top of each class (called the Coffee House, or Pub, or Tavern, depending on the class). I ask them to post their introductions there at the beginning of the class, but since I don’t require it for a grade, hardly any one participates after the first few weeks. That’s not surprising – all the rest of the work is listed in a weekly block. Why should anyone go back to do anything at the top of the page?

Right now, the last weeks of class are upon us. In my modern US History classes, I decided to add a discussion of current events,  to take place in the last week. Instead of creating a new forum, I just moved my Coffee House to the final week’s block.

migratingdisc

Then it hit me – I could do that throughout the semester. Have one big board with topics, but add each topic when I move the forum to the weeks they belong. For example, the first week in US History is Reconstruction, but I don’t want a discussion in the first week, while they’re getting used to the class. But when we get to the next week, on The West, I have a question about victimization that makes for good discussion. I could add that at the beginning of that week, then keep pulling the forum down to the weeks where there’s really something do discuss. The forum would migrate according to the week’s topics.

Since I haven’t done this before, I might want to make it extra credit with an expectation to post, rather than a required element.

The advantage would be that all previous discussion would be available each time, and the tracking would be easy with only one forum.  Might be a good idea…

Retention and the affective domain

I hate emotions. Yes, I know that’s an emotional thing to say, but they get in the way of learning more than any other thing.

I struggle to understand why students drop online classes. I’m not getting much help from the research. Compared to the traditional classroom, we know that online students get lower marks (Fonolahi 2014). But we’re also thinking that they need greater social interaction (Boston et al 2009), want more direct instruction and feedback (Gaytan 2015), and apparently do not need to experience a locus of control (Cui 2015).

Couple this with the article in the Atlantic on Starbucks helping baristas go to college. What’s working to keep students enrolled, the article points out, isn’t just the money for tuition. Contracting university ASU has in turn contracted with a company to provide personalized monitoring. Students are called and encouraged to stay on track. Most need assistance with their confidence as much as working their way through bureaucracy.

The undercurrent here is emotions, the affective domain. I suspect a great deal depends on how students feel. If you feel comfortable in a class, you stay in the class.

On-campus classes often have a built-in comfort/affective boost, because students have been in that environment for 12 years of school. We remove that when we go online – I understand that. And we assume that because students communicate with each other and with parts of society on cell phones and computers, that the environment is familiar, but we know that for learning it really isn’t.

So we worry about the social online environment. Will students feel isolated? Will they feel they aren’t really in a class?

But now I have to add: will they feel it’s too much work? will they feel they don’t have time to do this class? will they feel that other classes are easier than mine so they’ll drop mine?

My classes are friendly, I’m friendly, I reach out, I email when people are struggling. I use their names. I track all these students. I contact them. I do not phone them or go to their house, though (I’ve had an admin suggest that, but there are many reasons students take online classes, and one is privacy).

Since this post in 2009, my drop-out rate has increased. I have done surveys on why they drop, and asked them. In response I’ve reduced the workload, especially the number of writing assignments. I’ve considered publisher cartridges and programs. I’ve even considered switching from Moodle to Blackboard or Canvas, but if I switch, then my very best pedagogy (the History Lab) won’t work because the LMS won’t let me batch grade posts.

And then I start to wonder, why is all the pressure about retention put on faculty? Some newer studies suggest that retention in courses students take for online breadth-requirement classes (like mine) is 64%, about 10% lower than on-site (Wladis et al 2015). If I had more history majors, it would be closer to 81%. All the studies acknowledge “external factors” (reading level, GPA, online class experience, jobs, family support, etc.) and yet all the advice is that faculty should do things to make the classes more inviting, more engaging, more relevant to their current lives regardless of the subject (Park and Choi 2009)

Could the institution help? Yes, I think so, but how they could help would be controversial:

1. Create a barrier. Students attempting to enroll in an online class would have to do something to force understanding of the self-direction and commitment required. Perhaps this would be an interactive tutorial, but it should be something that keeps popping up throughout the semester as a reminder. This might help students feel like this will be hard, this will be a challenge, this will require effort.

2. Have the college contact them. Not the teacher, the college. According to this article, at the University of West Georgia, retention increased when faculty reporting students they couldn’t reach to academic advisers who tracked them down and offered cheerleading services.

I have more research to do, of course (I’m stashing all my Diigo bookmarks here). Many of the studies are based on student surveys, and I know from faculty evaluations that these seemingly “objective” surveys are usually based on how students feel when they respond to them. Some of the research (Croxton 2014) is tying together student satisfaction and retention in terms of theory. In a world where some students want trigger warnings and controls on free speech in order to protect their feelings, any focus on how students feel, and how their feelings affect their decision to drop the class, would be helpful.

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.)

BYO OER

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.

Conclusions

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.