Three kinds of online classes

As a six-year update to my Three Kinds of MOOCs, I present this idea.

While it is possible to combine these pedagogies, they are in fact already combined. It is possibly to start with one kind, then expand into the others, if one goes down the list — it is more difficult if one goes upward. The adjectives are ideals rather than realities, models rather than prescriptions, environments rather than methods.


The Controlled Online Class features pedagogy created by the instructor or another entity, designed to make sure students complete tasks in a particular way to a particular standard.

This need not, however, be instructor-centered pedagogy. It is entirely possible to embed choice into each task, assign low and high-stakes items, or have differentiated grading.

For students, the experience emphasizes familiarity and predictability. However, it can still allow for surprise and independence within the assignments themselves, or within an alternate grading system.

This environment is often preferred for large classes, where the instructor would rather spend time in conversation with students, or individually advising, than in managing options. It is also good for workplaces where accountability is needed.


The Curated Online Class features selected resources, technologies, or methods designed to embed student choice, while the instructor takes the role of expert or guide.

This need not, however, reject standards nor prevent inventiveness. The application of curated resources may be creative or standardized, and include open debate as well as formal presentation.

For students, the experience balances choice with expert resource selection. If it allows for student-centered application with a variety of expressions, it can also look like a Chaotic course.

This environment is often preferred when choice is desired, but students may not be prepared for the work, or where there are too many exciting resources from which to choose.


The Chaotic Online Class features the appearance of freedom in pedagogy, with so much choice that the result can be beyond instructor influence.

This need not, however, mean there is no control at all. The very existence of any kind of “course” distinguishes this from an unfettered “community”. If there is a timeline, a start and an end, that can provide containment, as can scaffolding of assignments or creative expressions.

For students, the experience can be creative, exciting, and dynamic. It can also be frightening, or give rise to criticism regarding autodidacticism.

This environment may be preferred by instructors who want to break the mould of what they perceive as students’ previous educational experience, or where creativity is a larger goal than accountability or learner comfort.


In all cases, the “setting” for the class need not be particular. A Controlled course, for example, may seem more suitable for an LMS or software package, but in fact may be accomplished in an open course or through various web tools. A Curated class, while easier to conduct using tools that allow instructors and students to collect resources, can also be offered in any platform. A Chaotic class may be the most difficult to create inside an LMS, but it can be done by engendering student control over the platform elements (discussion board, resources, externally-linked web tools) wherever possible.

The concerns about all these models revolve around misapplication rather than design choice. A Controlled class, done poorly, allows students no independence of thought or development of mental processes, and becomes merely an exercise in memorization or task completion. A Curated class, done poorly, limits the selection in a way designed to push a particular agenda, or creates convoluted pathways for learning, or offers so much choice that there are no options for students who come in without previous ideas. A Chaotic class, done poorly, provides no guidance or standards at all, abandons students who need help, or awards intellectually inferior work and thus defeats any sense of accomplishment.


Images from Public Domain Review

The ed tech dream is dead

As if regular old political news weren’t bad enough, we must make connections between the behemoths of technology and the decline of enthusiasm for web-based educational technology and online learning in general. The conclusions are not inspiring.

As you know if you read my blog, I essentially gave up on web-based apps for my students a couple of years ago, and have moved all my class activity to the Canvas system or a Canvas-based LTI within that system (with the exception of one Honors blog).

As the author of Insidious Pedagogy, this has been a painful, soul-searching path leading to closing my classes. Since the beginnings (I started teaching online in 1998), I have encouraged faculty to put their pedagogy first, to find ways to force the technologies to do what you want. As an early fan of pedagogies that emphasize constructivism and connectivism, I have experimented with many formats (contract grading, connectivist learning, open blogging). If you’ve heard of Ning, Glogster, Dellicious, Blip,tv, Blabberize, Elgg, Eyejot, GoAnimate, Lingr, Mind42, MyPlick, Overstream, Plotagon, Plupper, Screenr, Slideshare, Trialmeme, and Posterous, you have some idea of what I’ve tried.

My college went over to Canvas in the wave of California Community Colleges who’d been made an offer we couldn’t refuse. As California began to standardize its online college education, mass media began to cover the concerns I’d had all along about student privacy and exposure in online environments. I no longer had any arguments to answer those who objected to students working on the open web, even as the web was closing.

So whatever else Facebook and Google have done (and none of it struck me as exceptional or unusual), they have underlined my concerns about students working openly, and undermined public confidence in living portions of our lives on the web. We were so concerned about not being sold by Learning Management Systems that we were sold by the very providers who gave us freedom.

Educators who persist in using social media for the classes are not just outliers in ed tech anymore – they are now collaborators in the dissemination and sale of student information and data. Stalwarts who object to online teaching and web-based learning can now say, “see? it isn’t safe!” Anything not in a protected, encrypted, controlled system is rightly suspect.

We’ve lost, and to me that has meant not only abandoning my own open classwork and my own research in educational trends but a return to subversion inside the system.

My pedagogical focus now is creating encouraging environments and meaningful tasks for students that take advantage of system-based automation while allowing for freedom of pursuits. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ed tech — Canvas forces me to take my place as a nobody functionary, a foot soldier following orders, with limited creativity and continual frustration. It’s one of the worst LMSs ever created, with a “community” deluded into thinking we help improve it. When my head is flat from pounding it against Canvas walls, I try to remind myself it’s like making a movie during the Hays Code.

But doing anything else isn’t moving forward.

Quotation for today

“[W]henever learning feels easy and too fluent, we should carefully check if this is reflected in the performance later…”

The Benefits of Longhand Notetaking versus Slide Annotaton

Paradigm shift? best practice? perhaps not

In searching for information about distance learning theory that might inform my research into 19th century distance education, I came upon this article (thanks to Jenny Mackness):

Lee, K. (2016). A paradigm shift rhetoric and theory-practice gap in online higher education : a case study of an open university. In S. Cranmer, N. B. Dohn, M. de Laat, T. Ryberg, & J. A. Sime (Eds.), Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Networked Learning 2016 : (p. 251-259).

The author is Kyungmee Lee, Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University. Her paper focuses on the discrepancy between social constructivist learning theories and the actual instructional designs for online classes used at places like the Open University.

I have long suspected that the maniacal adoption of collaborative pedagogy was based on very little evidence of efficacy. Instead, in my experiences studying connectivism and constructionist theory, I was aware that such methods were lauded by techno-utopians, many of whom weren’t actually teaching first-year college students. Studies demonstrated student satisfaction with the methods, but not better grades.

Lee notes that despite the insistence on a “paradigm shift” from “old” methods to collaboration and constructivism, resistance implies that the paradigm never shifted at all. The shift has been purely theoretical, and not adopted in practice, where most online classes do not use these techniques. While many studies have chided instructors and designers, implicitly or explicitly, for resisting the new and superior methods, this one subversively questions whether the methods really are better.

Hercules and Bacchus presenting libations while Atë, goddess of mischief and deception, flies above (1778)

It’s an interesting approach, questioning the assumption of a change in the field. While the study does not get into the “new” pedagogies per se, it implies that they may not be better, or may be better under certain conditions, or that people who really want a paradigm shift think they can just declare one. This last is most interesting to me, because it begs the question cui bono?

Many of us assume that if there’s a new technique or tool, it might be better than what we’re doing, or at least be better than older options. We ask questions like: will this work for my students? is this an improvement on what I’m doing? We give it a try.

With a tool, it may occur to us that adopting it benefits the company providing it, especially if we pay for it. If we don’t pay, it’s become increasingly obvious that the “freemium” model either benefits the startup, or that our data becomes the product being traded, a la Facebook.

But perhaps with a method, we fail to ask these questions. To whose benefit is it that I adopt this method? The well-meaning researchers and their careers, certainly. But our students? If so, which students? Does it benefit me as an instructor? How?

I have attempted many different pedagogical models in my 28 years of teaching, both in the classroom and online. None have been inherently better than the others. Each method has advantages and disadvantages. Whatever is trendy, though, is considered a paradigm shift, or a “best practice”. Right now, for example, the Online Education Initiative, which is moving to control all online classes at California community colleges, insists that collaboration among students is required as part of its online course approval rubric. There is little research to support this requirement.

If we consider that a paradigm shift has occurred, we are much more comfortable requiring such methods, as if they were based on research instead of theory and some successful practice. By questioning whether the basic principles are sound, whether there is any support for “best practices”, we give ourselves much more choice. We also give ourselves the opportunity to examine past practices, not as outmoded or disproven (which in most cases they are not), but as possibilities for current and future practice.


Automaton at CIMA, photo by Rama, CC licensed.

From Business Week (2 April 2018) about Russian startup Robot Vera:

“The co-founders, with a background in human resources, two years ago found themselves making hundreds of calls to candidates who’s lost interest in the given job or couldn’t be located. ‘We felt like robots ourselves, so we figured it was better to automate the task,’ [cofounder] Uraksin says.”

Ever feel like a robot teaching online? I know I do. Hours of time spend adjusting grades, putting in zeros for incomplete assignments, activating rubrics. Clicking to sort student names, clicking down three levels to send a student a message. I can imagine myself as a Victorian metallic automaton, typing on my computer instead of writing with my quill, mousing around, click, click, click.

Then there’s grading. I’m really fast. I can read an assignment quickly and click the appropriate boxes on the rubric. I know exactly what to look for, because the whole thing is my design. Click, click. But I have good rubrics, that give meaningful feedback to students, so that takes time to do well. Click, click.

So from the Robot Vera perspective (and that of everyone discussing automation taking over jobs), I have to ask: what part of my job should be automated? So many of the things I thought would be done by the machine, after two decades teaching online, are not. Stupid tasks take much of my time. Even auto-grading has to be double-checked (I change about 20% of auto-graded items). I don’t call support for actual help doing or creating things with the system – I get the system. I call because something  horrid and unexpected happened, and 9 times out of 10, it’s because I left a box unchecked, or neglected to use a particular combination of settings. Because I wasn’t, in other words, a good enough automaton.

What would happen if I automated everything that makes me feel like a robot? Marking, grading, tracking, checking outcomes, planning courses according to state mandates to which I am opposed?

Would I have more time to do the actual teaching, the contact with students, the individual discussions, the leading of in-depth conversations? Wouldn’t that feel less robotic, like I’m a person who cannot be replaced by an automaton?

I have already noticed that handing off the grading of primary sources to my students, having them do a checklist to get the grade for their post each week, allows me time to instead respond to the sources, note connections, give feedback so they can fix their work and “earn” the points they gave themselves, encourage them to return and see the work of their colleagues. I get a better view of what’s happening, with human eyes.

I can also respond individually to their auto-graded Lecture Notes (2 points if you turn it in). Doing that this week for the first time, several students took the opportunity to engage in private discussion with me, and it was about the history, not the grades.

So instead of resisting automation, I will continue to grapple with how to make it work for us all. Because, as usual, the simplification of the problem does not reflect reality. The simple version is just a dichotomy: teacher-involved OR auto-graded. But (in current trendy parlance) it can be and. I suspect it can even be because of – because there is auto-grading, I can be more involved as a teacher.

The ideas I’m exploring (student independence, teaching as modeling and demonstrating, learning as practicing and reflecting, and transferring the burden of learning) fit well with some automating if it gives me the freedom to do what I do best: that old-fashioned human teaching. So hand me that can of oil…

What is required?

Although I have stepped back quite a bit from my reading and research in online education, I still have a Google Alert set, and still receive and examine recent articles, when I can stomach it.

The dictatorial tone of both articles in my inbox today is the subject here.

The first, The Necessary Knowledge for Online Education: Teaching and Learning to Produce Knowledge (Ferreira et al), did a study of 27 educators, all in the field of Education, to determine what knowledge (this sort of article usually says “skills”) are needed to teach online. What struck me was the premise, stated in the abstract:

Online education requires pedagogical mediation and the skills and competencies to work with technological resources which promote interaction, collaboration, and co-learning.

Well, that’s just not true. Online education does not require an emphasis on collaboration – rather it is one possible approach. It is also entirely possible to create online education that personalizes the class through different kinds of approaches to content, or emphasizes at every step the learner’s relationship with the material rather than through colleagues and “co-learning”. I understand that the current phase in online education pushes the collaborative approach, but it certainly is not “required”.

The second article, Online Continuing and Professional Education: Current Varieties and Best Practices (Schroeder, et al), features this idea:

Teaching online requires a team, not just an individual. While face-to-face teaching may be a singular effort, online teaching includes a multitude of technical, pedagogical, environmental, and associated considerations that requires a team of experts.

That’s not true either. I have never had a “team”, but rather developed not only my own pedagogical and technological skills, but helped design a “Pedagogy First” paradigm wherein the individual instructor’s strengths were basic to course design. I realize that these days there are more resources (among them instructional designers with advanced degrees and research articles produced by candidates for PhDs in Education), but those do not, by some reverse design, indicate that these things are required.

As the literature has developed over the last decade, much of it written by people who are not teachers and have not taught online, the “options” have become “requirements”, and the possibilities have narrowed into “best practices” (best for whom?) and necessary elements. This creates downward pressure on the creativity of teaching online, stultifying the field and cookie-cuttering our courses. Faculty who want students to focus on content are forced to develop “interactions” which oppose their own pedagogy, common sense, and experience. Helpless in a context they did not create, and for which they are pedagogically unsuited, they are told that not only is the social learning method “required”, but that a team is “required” to help them.

Did I mention I’d stepped back from reading the newest in online ed? There’s a reason for that.

New perspectives on DE from 1961

A book from 1961, New Perspectives in University Correspondence Study (Chicago: Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults), lists the “characteristics that a correspondence student needs”:

  • self-motivation
  • organization skills
  • concentration

and “the characteristics necessary for a good program in correspondence study”:

  • clear goals and objectives
  • manageably sized lessons
  • rapid feedback from a skilled teacher

That’s it then. Nothing has changed. Not sure why people are getting degrees in this stuff, really.

from Terry Ann Mood, Distance Education: an Annotated Bibliography (Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc. 1995), p. 15.

Workflow control, guidance, or punishment?

Yes, I’m practicing using the Oxford comma. But I’m also practicing guided pathways for student work.

In the LMS, you can restrict access to one assignment until another assignment has been done.


Having completed well-designed Learning Units to prepare students for their writing assignments, I added them to all my classes. Then I made the writing assignment unavailable until they took the Learning Unit. I was nice, demanding only a score of 1% before they could submit it and access the writing assignment — I just wanted to be sure they opened it and went through it, practicing the skills they’d need with instant

Having done that, I waited for next semester. But it kept eating at me. Why was I insisting they do this task before another, forcing them to do it, forcing them into what I was sure would be the last-minute opening of a writing assignment due that night, and the angst when they realized they couldn’t just write it and get it over with?

It seemed to violate my willingness to let them fail.

Fact is, when I started developing these units this semester, I posted a few as extra credit, just to see if they helped the writing. Why wouldn’t a student do the unit for extra credit, especially if it was designed to help them get a better score on the assignment. Yet 2/3 didn’t do it.

So I should force them? To what end? Better assignments? Doesn’t seem likely. Because not all of them care about feedback, or about their grade, or about doing well. Those who do will do the unit anyway. Those who don’t will be mad, or frustrated, or annoyed. Not good for getting work done. It feels…punitive. Rush your work in my class, will you? Well here — splat — take that!

So I went back and removed all restrictions, and replaced them with a request. The writing assignmets now say “please do the Learning Unit first!” That’s it. Asking nicely. Feels more respectful of all their needs, not just the need to do good work. We’ll see what happens.

Perils of the OEI Rubric

As you may know, our campus is going over to Canvas from a two-LMS system (Blackboard in house, Moodle outsourced). I have, of course, deep concerns about Canvas as an LMS. But it isn’t just Canvas. It is Canvas sponsored by the state of California through their Online Education Initiative. Back in April, I commented on that arrangement. While I have discussed at my college how it’s being implemented, I haven’t posted on it yet.

Although not required at this time for the colleges adopting the free state-sponsored Canvas, there is a rubric and a review team for any course that will be offered on the “exchange”. The ultimate goal is to have any California community college online class count for credit at any other, a goal I have supported since, oh, 1998.

The 2015 rubric is hereoeichunked, and has been implemented fiercely. I have already spoken with faculty who have been told that the materials they set up for sound pedagogical reasons will not do — they must be changed to provide students simpler, clearer pathways and simple downloadable materials. The intent is clearly to reduce the complexity of all online classes in order for them to be seen as “excellent” by OEI.

Complexity, of course, may be a pedagogical goal in itself. Pathways to learning are not always in straight lines, either in education or in the working world. Exploration may need to be encouraged. Perhaps the instructor doesn’t want to provide too much guidance, in order to force discovery.

In some cases cognitive dissonance is being confused with cognitive overload. If a student has to click around to find something, this may cause some frustration but it may also created learning. Learning is not clean – it is messy.

Having gotten some pushback, OEI is now revising that rubric. But it isn’t really any better. Here is my annotation of that rubric (my comments are in the right-hand column). At this point, they seem to be only taking internal feedback, so all I can really do is post it here.

Some faculty are going ahead and doing whatever they want, and their dedication to offering their course on the exchange is admirable. Enforced pedagogy, however, is not my style.

Bad tech – no donut

I normally offer students the chance to do revisions of assignments, but I won’t be able to do it anymore because Canvas makes it too difficult to grade individual items in a forum.

And really, the reason I have to grade so many revisions is that students don’t read the instructions carefully.

So I figure, hey, we spend so much time on how to display content online. How about concentrating on teaching them how to do process, how to demonstrate the skills in our student learning outcomes?

I do this some. I have several videos and tutorials on how to create historical themes. But that’s for the last few weeks of the class, as they head toward the final essay. I don’t have tutorials for how to create the writing assignments or post a source. Instead, I have instructions. And checklists. Lots of writing. They don’t read them. They just do the work they think they’re supposed to do, post it, get it graded by me, then re-do it.

So I’m thinking, interactive trails through the skills. Like a Moodle branched lessons, only for Canvas. Canvas’ advantage (there is one! this may be the only one!) is that you can block something (like an assignment) until they’ve done something else first (like a tutorial). Adaptive release. So let’s use that. I’ll make tutorials they have to do first, before they post.

I started with hp5, because I want something that’s on my server, not someone else’s. (Those who got burned painstakingly making interactive videos on Zaption know what I’m taking about.) I also didn’t want to make a bunch of Canvas-dependent page-quiz-page modules that won’t move from semester to semester. But hp5 only works in Drupal, Moodle (sniff), or WordPress.

I create a new WordPress blog, with the five minute setup. Set up my database and frantically search around for my db username. Install the hp5 plugin. Try to install the libraries for all the cool things h5p can do, but it told me I exceeded the max upload size. Oh, gosh, php.ini. Where did I put that thing? Doesn’t it go in wp-content? No…wp-admin. How many php.ini’s does it take to screw in a lightbulb? OK, got it. Uploaded libraries.

I open Interactive Video. I find the YouTube video I made for the start of class, and put that in. I create some little interactive things. OK so far.

So now it’s in a WordPress post. How to get it into Canvas? Try embed code on a page. Nope, it strips the Javascript, of course (according to h5p, I’d need to put it in the global javascript, but of course I don’t have that kind of access to the Canvas install).

Try as a link inside a module. It opens the thing really huge and you can’t resize it (that Javascript was for resizing, of course) or find the button because it’s below the screen space. Embed it in my own webpage with a set iframe size, then link to the page inside Canvas. Ugly. Makes you go all external.

Try making my own webpage SSL to make it stay inside the Canvas shell. No go. Shows a blank page no matter what. Even without the Javascript.

So after five hours, I’m at a dead end, because hp5, WordPress, SSL and Canvas won’t play nicely together.