Not that long ago, there were exciting new things to try in ed tech. It was easy to get enthusiastic about not only new products but the way the web was going, and to encourage faculty to jump in.
But in the last few years, the web has gone stagnant. Certain models of development, and certain tools, have become dominant, and online teaching has become far less excitiing.
1. Education is seen as a market.
Education, as Apple has known since 1981, is a market. But instead of marketing products toward innovative faculty, now products become “enterprise” and are marketed to administrators. This is a larger version of the problem I wrote about six years ago. Then, the Learning Management System, particularly the dominance of Blackboard, stifled innovative pedagogy, especially for novices who just plugged things in to the system. Now we have that writ large. We limit what’s available because restriction is seen as the only way to offer “support” (which faculty now desperately need – see #7). Educators are no longer seen as having special standing as users, with full-featured accounts offered for fee — we are just a target market like every other “consumer”.
2. The web isn’t as friendly anymore.
A couple of years ago, I got a note from an irate blogger because I was using her education blog to try out a feed aggregation plugin for WordPress. She thought I was making money off her work. Last week, I received a notice from Zoho, because my last post linked specifically to their LiveDesk page. They asked me to change my link. The link in my post. In my blog. Apparently linking to anywhere in a website other than the main page adversely affects their Google SEO standings.
We have pulled people away from the idea of creating their own web spaces, because it’s so much more convenient to just use Facebook or Google. In addition to the stalkers and evil net users we’ve always been afraid of, commercial entities like Apple and Google now collect, use, and sell our personal information and web use habits. We are watched, tracked, bought, sold, folded, stapled and mutilated on the web. It’s gone from playground to panopticon.
3. Tentative faculty were right.
When faculty were afraid to work with web 2.0 tools, we used to talk about the possible creativity. When they worried that they might work hard on something only to have it disappear, we’d talk about the transience of everything on the web, or how much benefit their work would have for students. But they’ve been right. Even though I’ve preached for years not to keep your important stuff on the web (even this post is backed up in plain text), I have been affected by the loss of tools like Posterous and the audio feature in Slideshare. Colleagues have been impacted by price hikes for Ning. Things that we created learning objects in for free now charge $49/month.
4. Nothing new is out there.
This is true pedagogically and technologically. When the new exciting thing is Haiku Deck (yet another simple tool for making what is essentially PowerPoint slides online), we’re in trouble. Tools that really do something new, like Prezi and Blabberize, are becoming very rare. This is despite the institutionalization of open source as a viable alternative to proprietary development. Now the purpose of development is to Beta a product, then monetize as quickly as possible. Almost every tool I’ve used has either disappeared or gone “freemium”, with the free version (think Blogger) being almost useless for any sort of innovative teaching. The IPO for Twitter is more than economic news — it’s emblematic of the move to commercialism in a way that creates stagnation within the product. All development will now be aimed at monetization.
And the tools themselves just perpetuate the same ways of doing things. We have failed to move beyond PowerPoint. Although we are better at designing slides (huge slides of text are now the exception), it’s still the same idea. Slideshows with audio were not exactly innovative (they duplicated the teacher talking through a filmstrip, if you remember those), but they were at least useful until Slideshare did away with the soundtrack (my last post tried Thinglink and Soundcloud to do something similar). The emphasis, unless you are a professional web developer or video-maker buying big products, is on easy sharing. Pinterest, the most recent “new” way of doing things, is just an easier version of CoolIris, which is just an easier version of posting images on a web page. Blogging plugins are aimed at monetization and search standings. And none of it ever got easier – wikis are still as hard to use as they always were. Sure, we can shrink-a-dink stuff for mobile. But I see little that is new (my online colleagues tell me gaming has seen all the innovations).
5. Online teaching has institutionalized in the wrong direction.
There were initially two models for online teaching. One was the DIY, faculty-driven, creative, early adopter, free development model. The other was the enterprise system, LMS-for-sale, cookie-cutter classes model. The latter featured scalability via automated grading and servers that could handle hundreds of students. When MOOCs became popular about five years ago, both models were in use. In adopting the standardized model as an answer to high college expenses, and promoting it in the best universities, the standardized, commercial model has won. When big universities other than its originator (Stanford) become commercial partners in Coursera, for example, that’s pretty clear.
6. The field has professionalized, also in the wrong direction.
cc BK at Flickr
Instead of faculty becoming experts in educational technology as part of a creative process, and being supported by their employers to get certificates and degrees to teach others, educational technology and online course administration are now their own fields with their own PhDs. This means that individuals who have never been teachers and have very little experience create small-sample studies and get degrees that net them jobs administrating experiences for faculty. The entire process promotes the idea that ed tech is too complex for ordinary faculty, promoting dependence and lack of agency.
7. Creativity is being outsourced.
A correlary to this trend is that the fun part (or second most fun part, depending on how much you like students) is being done by others. Creativity in teaching online comes in three places: course design, course materials development, and interactions with students. Most online teachers have great potential for developing good techniques for the latter, especially if they have teaching experience in other settings. But the creative fire, and the development of ones own online pedagogy, is being outsourced to “course developers” and “teams” who take the “burden” of creating courses off overworked faculty.
What seems to be advancement, then, has stifled online teaching.
Lessons of technology
I am a historian of technology – it’s what I do. In discussing some of the above disillusionment with my colleague Scott Johnson, he mentioned how prepping an online course is seen like housework – an ongoing process that people need relief from. Back in the 1980s, historian Ruth Schwartz Cohen wrote a book called More Work for Mother. It was about the changes in domestic technology at the turn of the last century (washing machines, vaccuum cleaners) and the way they were supposed to save labor. But instead, they caused a change in standards for cleanliness that increased their necessity. In addition, they put more of the burden on women, since they no longer needed help beating rugs and hauling laundry tubs.
The promise of technology for improving learning has been realized to a certain extent on the learner end – it is now much easier for the self-motivated, research-oriented students of information and perspectives to save, share and innovate within their own learning experience. But for teachers it’s “more work for mother”, as technologies, instead of relieving a burden, place too many demands on our time for too little return. That not only leaves teachers tired and willing to give up their pedagogical freedom to the nearest ed tech PhD, it leaves the students who need a lot of guidance out in the cold.
A silver lining
There are a number of ways to deal with all this. Most involve some pruning, and even a return to previous ways of thinking.
Select the right tools
When we create something on the web, we should only do so in places where we can download a copy in a typical format, like mp4. Otherwise, we should avoid the product.
Focus on one technology that works
Online courses could be simplified. Select one technology (video, audio, slides) and make that your own. And by “own” I mean created in a way where you can save a copy before uploading to YouTube.
Return to basics
If the technology is turning into a time-suck, return to the more personal way of doing things, like assignments and feedback by email.
Use the technology when it truly saves labor
An automated gradebook where students can log in and see their grades saves labor. Automated grading for multiple-choice or formative assessment saves labor. Other aspects of technology (internal messaging systems, clunky captioning tools, things you have to spend 15 hours learning) may not be good time investments.
Outsource the things you hate
Take advantage of whatever systems or people are provided to you for free, and learn the features or tasks they provide that make these tasks easier. But prioritize first based on what you like – if you love course design, keep it for yourself.
Play with a purpose
It used to be we’d play with the newest gadgets and apps so that we could build permanent things, but this doesn’t work. So play with the intention of learning about technologies in general. All the skills can be transferred to other web technologies.
Go to where you are
If you love your LMS, stay there and learn to use it well. If you prefer WordPress, learn all about it. If you’re a Google fan, become proficient. Don’t worry about going to where other people are (Facebook or mobile apps) if that’s not your thing.
When technology causes loss, or bad changes, instead of improving our lives, we should evolve. I got rid of my dishwasher because it was a continual source of disappointment – it didn’t get dishes very clean, and it got to the point where I was pretty much washing them by hand anyway. So I bought a bigger dish drainer, removed the dishwasher, and gained some badly needed kitchen space. But before that happened I wasted a lot of time and effort working with the machine’s inadequacies, because after all it was supposed to save me time and trouble.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when technology is controlling us instead of the other way around. If the web isn’t providing exciting options anymore, it’s time to adapt and get some of our space back.
Starting a new year means starting a new semester, and this time it will start a week early.
The issue today was IM. My classes are in Moodle, but I’ve always used a status button so students can communicate with me instantly if I’m online.
Moodle has something called Messages. Back in version 1.x, I couldn’t tell which class a student was in when they Messaged me. Instead of fixing this in 2.x, they made it worse by removing all user information outside the courses completely, making it not only impossible to tell which class a student was in, but impossible to get back to where you were working in your course site.
I used to use Google Talk Chatback Badge instead. It didn’t tell me which class a student was in, but at least it was easy to let them know I was available, and they didn’t have to have a Google account or log in. That’s gone. The option now is Hangouts and other stuff where they have to join Googleland. I can’t be responsible for making someone violate their own privacy that way.
Then it was Plupper, which I routed through iChat. It’s been down all week. I don’t know if it’s coming back, but all week isn’t OK, so I went hunting again.
I was getting miffed that I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was running all over the web trying to find a free service. I began to realize I didn’t really need “chat”, but some sort of help-desky thing. I was at first delighted to find Zoho LiveDesk (link removed at request of Zoho) which I could adapt. i could even create different badges for different classes. Then I discovered that this multi-button feature was only available on paid accounts – it turned out I had somehow entered a 30 trial that would expire. So much for that.
Then it occurred to me. I rent my own server space – I wondered what open source stuff was hanging out there? I found Mibew, and installed it. It even built its own database (though I had to go in and tweak a bit).
Their button was not exactly what I needed (I won’t be turning blonde and I’ve never looked that happy):
So I got into GIMP and made my own:
Then I made one for offline:
After installing Mibew, I was able to set up each class as a “group”, then create button code for each group, so I can see which class they’re coming from! A unique button went onto each class site – I tested them and they work.
I used the Localization feature (which was highly customizable) to change “Live Support” to “For My History Students”, my designation as “operator” to “teacher”, and the language of client and user to student.
It may not be perfect. It may fail. It may crash. Keep in mind, I don’t code. I just know enough to change other people’s code.
But as I was doing this today, I suddenly realized I was Reclaiming the Web, a goal of many smart people for 2014. Happy New Year!
The lecture has been under attack for some time now.
Most recently, I read Tony Bates’ analysis of productivity and online learning. There were so many issues in it, I could not possibly tackle them all here. His focus is on ways to create productivity gains, so already I am struggling. Education is about changing people’s minds, rather than collecting data for student success and determining what qualifies as “good” course design. If online classes had been put in these terms (productivity, data collection, scale, content development, quality), I never would have agreed to create my first online class back in 1998.
But here I’ll just tackle the idea of “content” (meaning subject-based information) as conveyed via lecture. A couple of quotations from Tony’s post:
Content is only one component of teaching (and an increasingly less important component); other components such as learner support and assessment are even more important.
and he notes work like mine as an “impediment” to progress:
[F]aculty often see themselves as creating unique and original material in their teaching; this is true occasionally and needs to be respected, especially where faculty are teaching about their own and related research. Often though faculty are merely repackaging prior knowledge. That prior knowledge is increasingly being made available and open for anyone to use.
This “repackaging” of prior knowledge is also called, among historians, “interpretation”. Essentially, doing history is a process of analyzing sources and creating new knowledge through new interpretation.
New knowledge itself is a repackaging of information and previous knowledge, in any field. To move a subject forward requires either building on or rejecting past knowledge from a foundation of understanding that knowledge.
So when I lecture, I am reframing the historical information and arguments (which we call historiography) into my interpretation, which I am sharing with students via lecture.
Can they find the information on Wikipedia? Indeed they can. Do they have the skills to formulate this information into knowledge? Most do not. Do they need modeling of how to do that? Yes, they do. That’s my job.
We are not talking about the medieval practice of reading aloud from scarce texts, used here by Michael Ullyot as a justification for flipping the classroom. Even if texts are read aloud, the job of the reader in any age is to gloss them, not just read them verbatim. Even in times of scarce texts (the ancient world’s yeshivas come to mind) the scholar’s role is to interpret.
If I do not model ways to reframe the facts of history, I am not teaching. I can do it through lecture, or commentary, or notes on exams, but however I do it, I am engaged in instruction. And because I share my interpretations, based on my knowledge and experience as a historian living in the present age, they are unique, or at least rare. Students on every evaluation comment on the usefulness of my online lectures to their understanding (while many skip the assigned “content” reading).
Again from Tony’s post:
[T]he quality of open educational resources developed by faculty working alone, without applying best course design practices, is often very low and such ‘open’ resources are often not considered suitable for re-use .
My online lectures may be seen as “low quality” if other people tried to use them in their out-of-a-box course. They are openly available, and Creative Commons licensed, but I’m supposed to feel bad because they aren’t appropriate for adoption by others? If they aren’t “suitable for re-use”, I hope it’s because other historians are sharing their own interpretations, by whatever method.
I think it will become important for online “artisan” teachers to be able to defend their approach, to be able to articulate why our methods are superior to those that emphasize cost effectiveness and economies of scale. If we don’t, it will be worse than just being out of a job or being forced to simply assess student work based on someone else’s “good” course design. We could undermine the very foundations of our disciplines.
Having read yet another tweet complaining about the lack of connection between what’s taught in classrooms and what’s needed in the workplace, I posted my own:
It hit a nerve with a number of people.
One of my connections wrote
This is exactly it. My classes in History are General Education. My goal is to help foster an educated citizenry, not an efficient workforce.
And I am not promoting the other narratives either:
One popular narrative is that we should change education because it is irrelevant to the innovations of the future. In this story, today’s entrepreneurs are lauded, the guys who dropped out of school or didn’t like college because their classes were boring. Their success supposedly proves the irrelevance of our educational system. What it actually does is attest to the role of genius, luck, opportunity and money.
Another narrative links the use of electronic technologies, particularly the web, to making education more relevant. While I am deeply tied to the use of web technologies for teaching, I have not been able to buy into the idea that either the openness of the web or the marketplace of ideas is sufficient for providing a full education.
It’s the same reason I can’t accept the narrative that automated online courses and xMOOCs with peer or graduate student feedback schemes are a substitute for what we’re doing well in our colleges.
The final narrative I reject is the one that says that we live in a post-industrial world, so that many of the skills we used to value (the ability to follow an extended argument, or write coherent prose, or articulate ethics) are no longer needed. We need these skills, not because they are going to be applied somewhere specific, but because they change who we are and make us better people.
Knowledge that transforms students, that turns them into growing, learning, educated people, is by necessity broad and deep. What’s learned in college may have very little application to the specific tasks of a student’s future job.
Education changes people’s broad perspective of the world. It trains habits of mind, not technicians.
Related posts: Relevance in an Age of Forgetting
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.