Each semester, most of my online classes fill and have a wait list. I usually email the top several people on the wait list, and invite them to join before the class starts. Then I let in about 5 over the limit (which is 40 – too many, but that’s another post). This way the enrollment will balance down to about 40 by the time our official census occurs, at three weeks in.
But in two classes this semester, I’m down to 33. Usually only one section gets that low, and not until much later in the semester.
Why is this a problem, when 40 is too many for them to get to know each other, and 32 is about right? Because online classes are under the microscope everywhere. There are still people who don’t believe college classes can, or should, be taught online. I just last week heard about a college department all ready to go online, with skilled teachers, and then changing their mind upon hearing from an administrator that the subject just can’t be taught online. At our place, there is concern about the gap in “student success” (defined as those who finish with a grade of C or higher) between online and on-site classes.
Those of us doing this awhile know there are many reasons students might not be as successful online as they are on-site. We know that many students take an online class assuming it will be easier, or require fewer hours. We know they confuse flexibility with total workload. We know some don’t have the technical skills to know where to click or how to submit work. We know that some who aren’t prepared for college are even less prepared online.
But all this knowledge is based on experience, while admins like to focus on the less messy numbers. We do have some studies (like this one from 2005) that indicate some predictors of failure in online classes – students with a low GPA, young age, not taking an orientation, and a habit of dropping classes tend to fail. Another (from 2006) indicates that success online depends on time spent on the class, student initiative and student competence. This one from 2007 concluded that “self-regulated learning strategies” are essential. A 2011 study concluded that individual student attributes (including persistence, academic achievement, and time management) plus life factors (including resources, skills and time) predict both student satisfaction and success. By 2013 we see a study claiming that self-efficacy and “task value” are the biggest predictors. Some studies note which types of students fail more often: males, younger students, AfricanAmerican students, and low GPA students (here). And “students with higher levels of technology self-efficacy and course satisfaction” earn higher grades (here). Specifically referring to students who dropped out, another recent study showed that those who stayed in the class “had higher levels of academic locus of control and metacognitive self-regulation skills than dropout students” (here). An even more recent study decided that in addition to employment and academic preparation for the class, just the fact that the class was online was a predictor of final exam performance.
All of these suggest that the greatest predictors of student success reside in the student. And yet the pressure is on faculty, and the focus on instructional design. The implication is that if students succeed at high levels, it’s because we’re doing something right. If they don’t succeed, we’re doing something wrong. This view creates more pressure for cookie-cutter, idiot-proof, publisher-developed, team-created courses with no academic freedom or creativity for instructors.
So with such a high drop rate and such high stakes for me, I am surveying (anonymously, at a colleague’s suggestion) the students who dropped on or after the first day of the semester. So far, results are interesting. Most of them are saying that the class looked liked too much work, and that they wanted a class where they could log in just once per week. One said s/he dropped because the class wasn’t in Blackboard.
After years of designing my classes to provide quick, low-stakes assignments for the purpose of immediate feedback, so students can track their progress, this is a blow. I have no mid-term exam and no research paper – rather the writing is scaffolded, the quizzes are short and weekly, and the primary source posts take about half an hour of student time. The final exam is an essay they work on for several weeks, with feedback from each other and me.
Does this bring us to the last thing we know, but only anecdotally: that not all online instructors are requiring a similar workload for similar number of units? That my class is now too hard because other online classes are easier? And (a horrible thought) to what extent has my encouragement of online classes led to this?
Or does this bring us back to the studies, where student success clearly resides in student self-efficacy?
As they say, watch this space…
Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.
This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.
We started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.
I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.
So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.
Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:
- Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
- Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
- Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.
The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?
When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.
How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?
By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.
The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.
So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.
It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.
The tension between theory and practice occurs in many fields, and it is certainly marked in online education. As with many academic disciplines, in online education the practice began without a foundation in research, since one can’t research what is essentially new.
As college professors, many of us began (years before there was online anything) by actually teaching. We had very little, if any, training in education or pedagogy. Some of us became good teachers anyway, because we loved what we did, we wanted to share our knowledge, and we cared about students. We learned about principles, research and techniques as we went along, and rolled them in to our practice.
So the idea that we should start with principles when introducing faculty to online teaching seems strange. We now have a good mix of professors who began as “just” practitioners, and those who have had training in teaching techniques. We learn from each other regularly.
So what are these principles, the ones I think should come later in the process? Jim Julius, our current Faculty Director of Online Education, recently put together a workshop on Foundational Principles. It was designed to be the “glue” that holds together a mashup of his office’s workshops with those of our Program for Online Teaching. We are running these this week.
His slides are great! Many of the useful principles I learned as I went along over the last couple of decades are there: Bloom’s Taxonomy, Universal Design, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles, the Community of Inquiry model. So much useful stuff.
As a POT workshop presenter, I am not sure where to use these, however. I know that many faculty come to online teaching concerned about technology, time, and tools. They are professionals already in the classroom, and may be excited or fearful (or both) about teaching online. At POT, our motto has always been Pedagogy First. We want to start with faculty as professionals who have already developed their own approach to both their discipline and their teaching. To present them with principles seems to ignore the knowledge they already have, and suggests that they need to somehow “start over” to teach online, that they don’t have the information or skills they need. Our focus is on the individual instructor, and his/her pedagogical strengths. We want to help faculty translate these strengths into an online class, while exploring online environments and tools they may find interesting. So our approach goes the other way when it comes to principles – we help faculty review the methods they’ve already found effective, and work from there. The principles come up naturally during the evolution of practice.
As a practitioner, then, I find myself dealing with principles by reverse engineering from what I actually do. Here’s what I do, here’s what works – oh yeah, it happens to fit this model and is affirmed by this research. That may be proof of one of two possibilities: (1) I actually read this stuff somewhere without knowing it and unconsciously applied it (this seems unlikely) or (2) the techniques I developed through practice using (and continually revising) my pedagogy were good enough to be backed up by research that came later.
That does not mean that what I do could be considered “best practices”. Rather, they are the best practices for me to use, until I decide to try something else.
The concept of foundational principles, to me, seems to imply a model of “best practices” that apply to everyone. That may be a perfectly valid way to introduce newbies to online teaching, or it may do two very bad things for faculty: limit their approach by making it seem that a certain way is “right”, and intimidate them before they even start.
I am a historian. If I had been presented with the “principles” of History before I did any, I wouldn’t have gone into the field. Most disciplines are like this — the “methodology” or “proofs” course is taught at the sophomore or upper-division level, then again in graduate school.
POT’s Certificate Class tries to combine advice, exploration, self-awareness and a bit of theory, but always starts with the instructor’s pedagogy, not principles. So if we err, and I’m sure to some we do, it will always be on the side of practice over principles.
Lately it’s been kind of eerie in the world of open online classes, at least those taught by folks whose work I respect the most.
This year, our Program for Online Teaching leadership for the POT Certificate Class was down to three overworked facilitators, plus our wonderful moderators and those who let us use their videos. The class was definitely a Small Open Online Class, and since it had assigned readings and a schedule, and since MOOCs have become mega-commercial horrors, I no longer call it a MOOC of any sort anyway. For such a small group (60 registered originally), the community was fabulous, both supportive and knowledgeable. A little over a dozen learners completed and earned a badge for spring semester, and/or a certificate for the entire 2013-14 year.
The format of the class was different from the previous year (2012-13), where I had struggled (as a non-programmer) with FeedWordpress to bring in everyone’s feeds. Instead we used a Google Site. We asked everyone to post a link to their blog post at the Site, and engage in discussion at the Site instead of in the blog comments. I was able to bring in blog feeds easily using Gadgets.
I just took a peek at Alec Couros’ DCMOOC, and noticed participants in their Google Plus Community posting links to their weekly blog post. Aha!
Now, when it came to our POT Cert Class this year, there were some issues. I wasn’t delighted with the non-nested discussions in Google Sites, and we discovered that three people couldn’t really run the class effectively, even with moderators, when all three facilitators work full-time plus. But the need, at our college and elsewhere, for pedagogically-based learning about how to teach online is still there. So we decided to create a self-guided Learning Pathway instead.
Then I discovered there was already a Google Plus Community, to which I was invited, called Learning Pathways. Aha!
cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped
Anyway, I started creating the new Pedagogy First! Learning Pathway (work in progress is here), and my colleague Laura Paciorek has been helping. The idea is that the pathway is essentially comprised of curated content and assignments for a portfolio, and that any individual or group could participate and use the site for a “class” or individual study. Then for community, we plan to use our own POT Google Plus Community (mostly because some folks don’t like Facebook, where we also have a POT group).
So then I find that Jim Groom has created a self-directed class for ds106. Based on the successful Headless ds106, it is called the Open ds106 Course. Aha!
The synchronicity is striking, or at least it strikes me. And the trends for these classes, and many more, defy a number of assumptions I made when all this cMOOCishness and openness stuff started. I mean waaaay back in 2005 or so (which is also when I started the Program for Online Teaching).
(NB: I am deliberately ignoring xMOOCs, those based in commercial or university-commercial collaborations. My focus here is on what I’ve called Task-Based MOOCs.)
I am surprised to see that when it comes to task-based open online classes:
1. We haven’t ditched the “course”.
While we all acknowledge the importance of connections and helping people be nodes in a network, what this looks like in practice isn’t that different from any other sort of dedicated community that uses online space to interact. And we all continue to create some sort of teacher-designed content, even if it’s just a pathway through assignments or a schedule or a set of expectations.
2. We don’t have a wide variety of platforms from which to choose.
I believe that Alec Couros began designing open courses in wikis, but now is using WordPress. Jim Groom’s ds106 is WordPress-based also. So was OCTEL. Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOCMOOC used Instructure Canvas, but for most of the open classes and cMOOCs, WordPress seems preferred. I’ve moved back to it myself with the Learning Pathway, although the discussion will be in G+. I recall when the choices were more diverse, and even a time when Alec and I were searching for an open discussion program that featured nested posts, as in Moodle and Ning.
3. The personality/persona of the instructor continues to be a factor in the success of an open class.
Jim Groom, David Wiley, Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Jesse Stommel — all have distinct, interesting personalities and teaching styles. Participants, even while creating communities and connections, are guided not only by the design of the class but by the instructor’s presence. Without a teacher who inspires, an open online class is just a website.
Given these similarities, do we now have models for independent open online classes? And when it comes to designing an open online class, have we hit our stride or are we in a rut?
We’re all told now that creating an online class isn’t just translating a face-to-face class, but what if the f2f class was really good?
You scare people when you say, “you can’t just put your on-site class online – you have to change your whole pedagogy, be a facilitator, do things differently, be innovative”. The implication is that if you “just” translate your classroom pedagogy to online, you will create a lousy class.
That’s not necessarily true. Some examples:
In the classroom, a teacher uses constructivist methods, giving students evidence and having groups create case studies for presentation. For her online class, she uses the same method, using online groups and shared presentations.
In the classroom, a teacher is a great lecturer. For his online class, he records his lectures, making sure his presentation is dynamic, and posts those for the class.
In the classroom, a teacher provides lots of opportunities for guided discussion. In her online class, she creates both asynchronous forums with well-designed, provocative topics, and some scheduled synchronous activities in which students can talk in real time.
In the classroom, a teacher creates a student-directed learning environment, where student interests and agency are paramount. In her online class, she does the same in an open, online environment.
In the classroom, a teacher Skypes in guest speakers, and has students interact with others around the world. In his online class, he does the same.
When people say “you can’t just translate your on-site class into an online class”, what they mean is that if your class is only non-interactive factual lecture, a pedantic printed textbook, and set exams, bad things will happen. The instructor could just write out their lectures, make assignments, and create tests. S/he will focus more on “putting things up” on the LMS in their current form, the content will be dull, and the students may fail to engage.
So there is a risk and an opportunity here. Encourage teachers with dull pedagogies to go online, and it’s possible, but unlikely, that anything good will occur. Encourage teachers who are cognitive of their own approach, who think about their teaching, and who already design experiences that best combine their own strengths with the needs of the students, and good things will happen.
Then instead of telling instructors their pedagogy must change, we can focus on showing them how to achieve a good translation of the work they already do.
A student wrote me last week asking when the extra credit is due in her class. Since I had put the due date next to big red letters as a label in Moodle, I told her the date (of course) and asked if she was able to see it at the site. I sent her a screenshot to be (a bit impatiently, I admit) helpful:
She replied, thanking me and telling me she hadn’t seen it because she uses the “list on the left”. Confused, I asked what she meant. To me the screen looks like this – no list on the left.
It turned out she is using the Navigation menu, which I have docked on the left side. I never use it.
I looked at it and noticed it didn’t have any of my labels, just a list of the Moodle activities that have links:
Here’s that week as I designed it, in the center column, the main page:
Notice that my labels, which have the due dates, are not in the Navigation menu. This prompted me to tweet:
The Navigation menu, which surely more than one student is using, cannot be removed, even if I were running my own installation, which I’m not.
So here is where the technology forces me to change my method, and messes with my design. These things are due every week on the same day. I have the labels to mark them clearly, and they are convenient to replicate throughout the class. They also set a clear pattern, like a calendar.
But if students are using the Navigation menu, and I cannot stop them, my method is poor, and it would be better to put the dates in the description of each activity, or at least have “Due Tuesday” in the title of the activity.
However, what happens when I have a reading assignment from a book? I have one class coming up this summer where I am using a textbook, because I haven’t yet edited a satisfactory version of my Wikipedia-based textbook. So my Moodle page looks like this:
The lectures will appear in the Navigation menu, because they will be linked. But students will not be able to see the reading assignment, because it is a label, because there is nothing to link it to — it’s a real, page-ridden textbook. To fix this, I’d have to create a page for each reading assignment, which is likely what I will have to do.
Students will also not see my introduction to each week’s material.
Hours await me of removing labels I had painstakingly created for five classes, and making activity pages for things that are not activities, all because students are using a Navigation menu to navigate. Super.