Complexity over simplicity in online classes

road to the hamlet A student goes into Online Class A for the first time. They see a list of items by type (syllabus, readings, lectures, discussion). They see a syllabus, listing the dates for when each of these content type items is due, and what constitutes them being done (i.e. complete this quiz, post one posting and two replies, submit this essay). They buy their textbook, and follow it, with chapter readings listed clearly on the readings page. At the end, they take a final exam that goes over the entire course content.
forest Another student goes into Online Class B. They see a list of weeks, or topics. There is a syllabus laying out the goals of the course: exploration, discovery, production of assignments, community. Readings are provided, but may not be required or there may be a choice. Perhaps there is a learning contract instead of a syllabus. Forum postings may be focused on what the student has discovered by following research instructions, scaffolded to adapt as the student’s work changes. Assignments may emphasize skills rather than content. The final exam is a video project where their unique research is shared and peer evaluated.

Given the dozen or so years a student has spent in traditional classes prior to college, Class A may seem more familiar, comfortable, and simpler. Class B may be perceived as difficult, or disorganized. Data on student clicks and questions asked may show some confusion, some cognitive challenges that need to be overcome. More questions may be emailed to the instructor, or posted to a forum.

Recent efforts to “improve” online course “integrity” have led to various rubrics, standards, and evaluative tools, wielded by administrators and instructional improvement teams. These assess the “quality” of an online course. The ones I’ve seen, and the faculty I’ve talked to who have been subject to them, note that the rubrics clearly prefer the Online Class A model: content-based, simply laid out, clearly expressing not only expectations but overall outcomes. Complexity is seen as “cogitive overload” and is discouraged.

The result is an unexpected (and for the admins, often unintended) standardization. Although the teams and projects deny that the intention is to standardize online classes, to make them “cookie cutter”, that is the likely result. The instructor’s role is to guide students through the material in an organized way, and to use insightful discussion prompts and exam questions to assess deeper thinking about the content. If the content they used has been structured to clearly align everything the student encounters with particular learning outcomes, so much the better, privileging textbook publishers who create such programs for profit.

How do faculty respond to this push for simplicity, when we know that teaching is inherently complex? In my years heading the Program for Online Teaching, we have always seen a tendency for any instructor new to online classes to automatically follow the Class A model. The reasons for this are varied. In most cases, the instructor has not examined their own pedagogy in the traditional classroom, or does not use online communities and resources for their own learning. Some are intimidated by the technology and throw their own classroom pedagogy out the window, having been guided by instructional designers and other support staff to simply fill in the blanks of the LMS.

Since many faculty new to online teaching are under time pressure to develop a class, the cognitive dissonance in their own learning becomes overload very quickly. The easiest thing to do is opt for the simple path – upload a syllabus in Word or pdf, upload readings the same way, set up a weekly discussion post with a question requiring a response, and create some exams. Many, many students complain that their online classes are impersonal, that they feel like they’re just learning from a computer instead of a person (and in the case of instructors who adopt course cartridges, that is often true). Students come to believe that this is what an online class is – a list of tasks to be completed and graded, rather than a learning experience.

simplemaze complexmaze1
This maze looks complex, but it is actually simple – there is only one path. You will learn little by attempting it.
This maze is complex, so you will need to make choices.

This is why POT has focused on helping instructors understand their own pedagogy, assess their teaching strengths, and build online classes that emphasize these strengths, calling this “Pedagogy First”. We encourage models that break away from “type listing” to create a unique interactive syllabus. And we want faculty to explore models that encourage students to think critically, express their learning creatively, and utilize the affordances of technology. If the supported LMS doesn’t fit what they want to do, we want them to link out or adopt a different venue. If they excel at student-directed learning, student-developed content, constructivism, or connectivist learning, we want them to have the freedom to build their classes around those models.

That’s because we value faculty creativity, originality, and pedagogical goals. We also believe that only by offering various pathways and options to explore learning about online teaching can we help teachers excel as the professionals they are.

Unfortunately, a trend has begun to cast those of us who were early adopters of online technologies, and originators of our own online pedagogies, as outliers instead of guides and modelers. We are being told that the days of “cobbling” our own systems together are over, that we need to join the “community” of large initiatives designed to create more accountable and approvable online classes. There is head-shaking about the learning we had to go through “back then”, and reminders that such efforts (like learning html, or exploring different online tools) are no longer necessary. We now have everything laid out for us; all the features we need are inside the mandated LMS. We must step down from our role as innovators and join the parade, marching together. We must realize that it is time to, in a word, simplify.

The temptation is appealing, but what is lost when we shift from complexity to simplicity? When instead of exploring and discovering, we are given the tools and the platform? Do we wish to encourage that sort of simplification for our students, when employers have made it clear that what they want is workers who can actually learn? Are such industrial models appropriate in a post-industrial world?

The only solution, as I see it, is to continue to encourage complexity, in both the development of faculty talents and student potential. POT will continue to encourage the reassessment of the Class A model, and continue to question content-based, standardized, simplistic classes both online and in the classroom. We will view ourselves as people of value, with knowledge to contribute to the discussion. We will treat our fellow faculty as creative, self-actualized human beings, lifelong learners who want to express their teaching goals through any of the myriad of available tools and approaches. And that task, like the work we all do, embraces complexity.

What might they recall?

This semester I instituted “roll calls” in my online classes, one during each week before a drop deadline. My idea was to check on my students quickly, see who was paying attention, before looking more closely at who might need help or need to drop the class.

I did this in the form of a “Choice”, a tiny Moodle survey. Once they answer, they can see everyone’s answer.

The first one is just a check to make sure they’re receiving the announcements (called Latest News in Moodle) by email. The options are:

• Yes, I am!
• No, so I’ll check my spam filter and profile settings.
• No, but I don’t need them because I check Latest News every day.

For next semester, I will be adding: “No, but then I found them in my Promotions folder in Gmail, so I’ll change my settings.”

The second choice asks what their favorite part of the class is so far (see results here).

My third one, about 75% into the semester, said, “What might you recall when this class is over?” and I only gave four options, and they could only choose one. Here’s what happened, across four class sections:

  • factual details from history 36
  • the primary sources I found and posted 48
  • how to write a historical thesis 30
  • how to manage time while taking an online class 29
  • not answered 5

I was surprised by how evenly these were spaced, but gratified that the searches they did themselves were likely to stick.

I have yet to find a way to do this in Canvas. They don’t seem to have open surveys…

Giving SCOPE to Online Classes

It isn’t enough for those of us who are labeled “early adopters” and “artisan” online teachers to just complain about what we don’t want. We know what we are against: monolithic systems, simplistic solutions based on administrative goals, dumbed-down pedagogies, standardized course design, and the stifling of creativity.

But as I’ve been saying about democracy in America (well I have, just not here), we can’t just moan about what’s going wrong – we have to be able to articulate, clearly and convincingly, our positive position. We need to present what we do want, what we favor, what is worthy of defense and respect.

We value:

Serendipity over restrictive pathways.

We believe in frameworks for guiding students in their work — it’s our job to create them. But there must be room for discovery – opportunities for students to find things, pursue their own interests, go down the “rabbit hole”. This might mean having students create content or access the “teacher” features of the technology. It might mean re-evaluating standard grading schemes and “learning outcomes”. This can be messy, and messiness is essential to learning.

Complexity over simplicity.

This does not mean we do not appreciate clear navigation and helping students understand what tasks to do in our classes. What it means is that we really want to challenge students intellectually, to provide multiple pathways to learning and plenty of resources. Online classes should not be simpler than on-site classes, but rather train the student mind for intensive cognitive work. Simple classes which emphasize rote learning and/or “completion” and/or student retention encourage students to see the purpose of the college experience as “getting stuff done” instead of building their minds. What’s easy for students is not necessarily what’s good for students.

Originality over processed content.

Certainly textbooks and material created by others are useful. But the course itself, in design, intent and materials, should be the work of the instructor. Many of us who use Open Educational Resources came to them, not just to save students money, but to provide less restrictive yet more focused objects for student learning. Universal design, while well-intentioned, should never prevent original approaches to material. To us, professional development does not mean learning the LMS – it means discovering ways to find, create, build, and explore so we can create better classes.

Pedagogy over management.

Yes, having an operational website, or even an LMS, may be preferred for “delivering” the class. But the emphasis should be on allowing the instructor to develop their own pedagogy by providing them with the tools and/or freedom to create. The convenience of administration should be a secondary consideration behind creating courses and using tools that emphasize the instructor’s teaching strengths. We want teachers to be able to say, “X works in my class, but Y doesn’t work”, even when the “guidelines” say that every class should have Y, and funding should be provided for X.

Excellence over expediency.

Rewarding instructors who create these serendipitous, complex, original classes for students would go a long way toward making more of them. The goals of building student minds, creating an educated citizenry, and sharing our enthusiasm for our subjects – these define excellence. Excellence is not defined by the opinion of those who appreciated the easy A, or how well a course meets the “best practices” determined by “experts”, or whether the course design is consistent across the disciplines. Rewarding classes that fit the rubric, make administrative processing easy, allow student thinking to remain rudimentary, and provide “options” from a list of things that are all the same — this does no service to our society.

There are many ways to give online classes “SCOPE”, and we need to articulate them.

A 50/50 Proposition

The saying goes that there are two types of people: those who divide people into two types of people, and those who don’t.

Our current Program for Online Teaching Chat has turned toward the issue of learner-centered versus teacher-centered instruction. This week’s discussion focused on what has become the so-trendy-we-must-question-it shift from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. This is the belief, promoted in numerous papers and presentations over the last decade, that instructor-led, lecture-based, textbook-based, LMS-dependent, top-down models of pedagogy are antiquated and useless, leaving underprepared or economically disadvantaged or socio-economically challenged students out in the cold.

The answer is to shift to student-led, interest-guided, open resource, open format, participant-centered pedagogies, exemplified by but not limited to Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs). Even apart from the fact that corporate interests have taken the side of this more-customer model, we still have two types of people: those who support a 100% shift to student-centered learning, and those who don’t.

z_creamsicleBut, as many of our experienced faculty have pointed out in our Chat, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. And certainly, every time I change something in my classes, I end up with a combination pedagogy, a 50-50 type of deal.

I hesitate to stay this, but there are few faculty who can actually pull off fully student-centered classes. I do know some who have, and I admire them enormously. But the difficulty is that the risk is too high for those of us who teach large, publicly-funded classes. For these instructors, if we cut off the instructor-directed elements (textbooks, continual reminders, poured-in information) our students could drop or fail. Since many of us can’t afford to let that happen, we have to be careful.

So yes, I support a shift from fully prof-directed pedagogies. But to a 50-50 model:

  • 50% prepared materials / 50% student-created materials
  • 50% open stuff / 50% closed safety
  • 50% instructivism / 50% constructivism or connectivism

Not quite a popular point of view in our increasingly polarized educational and political climate, but heck, I’m a pragmatist. Some students do better with the more instructivist elements, likely because they’re trained to it and it feels safe. Other do better with the more constructivist work, finding it more fun and interesting. I set up my classes with three areas of graded work: one part instructivist (quizzes based on reading), one part constructivist (posting primary sources), and one part a combination (writing assignments based on those sources).

I didn’t do this consciously – it has simply evolved based on my practical experience. Students are pushed out of their comfort zone, but only 50% of the time. They get the content I feed them, but only 50% of the time. My grade scale makes it possible to get a C in the class by being good at half and not good at half. That works for me.

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Adventures in Accessibility: Part I

Yes, it’s a pain. Yes, it stifles our creativity. No, it doesn’t make sense to pretend that we can make every online learning artifact accessible to everyone with any type of disability, be it physical, cognitive, emotional, socio-economic, or educational. But we do it anyway. Not because we believe in the dogmatic, administrative, litigation-phobic approaches of universal design, but because it’s cool to do it, when we can.

So I’m taking a closer look at some of my multimedia, to see what can be made more accessible to people with certain types of issues, or, better, to be made more interesting and comprehensible to all students.

The first discovery: YouTube’s captioning is so much better than it used to be! Log in. Upload your video. Wait overnight (or sometimes just a few hours). You can even set the video to private. YouTube will create captions as best it can. Select the cc button, and see the captions in a sidebar. Click edit and edit them. You can set the video to stop running when you type.

Oh, you say you have a transcript? Perfect. Just upload your video and select the option to transcribe instead. Paste in the transcript. YouTube will set up the timings as best it can.

youtubecaptions

Sliders are now available to move the caption around on the clip. You can even see the audio waveform below to help. You can insert caption bits. Then save.

But wait, it gets better. Don’t like YouTube? Want to serve your video elsewhere. Download the captions using the actions menu (.srt format is pretty standard). Then you can upload it somewhere like Vimeo or Dailymotion, which has better video quality and no ads.

Embedding Hypothes.is in Canvas

This is one of those posts I’m writing so I don’t forget how to do something.

After testing Hypothes.is for annotations, and realizing that the Redirect Tool in canvas would force an ordinary webpage with annotations to only open in a new tab, I figured out something.

Canvas will only embed secure (SSL) pages (those with an address starting https://). All my web pages are just plain ole http. But it turns out that my host, Lunarpages, can create an SSL page by just using the URL of the server (https://fand.lunarserver.com/username + rest of the URL). So any page I already have can become a secure page by using this URL instead.

So to make this happen automatically, here’s the workflow:

1. Create my own webpage with text and images.

2. Include the hypothes.is code in the HTML of the page

<script async defer src="https://hypothes.is/embed.js"></script>

3. Use the Redirect Tool in Canvas, using the URL of the page, but with the Lunarpages server preface (in this case https://fand.lunarservers.com/~lisahi2/)

redirectapp

4. Voila:

hypothesisincanvas