What publishers are creating instead of Lego sets

I have had the pleasure of exploring one of the top publishing company’s new materials and framework for an online textbook, both as a faculty member being marketed to and as a reviewer. Such work gives me a good feel for how textbook publishers are reacting to the challenges of the web.

The product in this case is an online history textbook with pedagogical elements built in. It tries to take advantage of the online medium, providing charts and maps that students can “explore” by clicking on various elements and rearranging data. It provides audio reading of each chapter. The author and publisher have used current research to determine the optimal length of reading for each section, and the optimal layout (one column only, with short sections and all media centered on the “page”).

I was in a group of professors viewing this product via webinar, and a debate ensued about one of the charts. The other history profs got all excited about the possibilities of moving the data around, and began to argue the various conclusions one could make (in this case, about free blacks as a percentage of the population in the 1790s). I said very little. That sort of exploration, easily done by historians, would have to be guided with students. I would need to be in the room, with the chart on a screen, or in a synchronous session, for them to get anything out of moving raw historical data around.

We were also shown a cool primary source as well as a cool chart. And at that point I found myself rebelling against the package. What a great chart! What a cool source! But I don’t care for the package – the language of the book is at too low a level, and the coverage too superficial. There is too great an attempt to engage interest, and too little rigor. I didn’t like the “critical thinking” questions. They had students do some writing while reading, which is great, but the questions were bad – I would want to use my own.

Why can’t I take what I need (the chart and the source) and put it where I want? Why can’t these things be modular? Why are we still in the format of the textbook, when the technology enables us to move beyond it?

legobricksI have written before about the challenges of Learning Management Systems, and how they need to be more like boxes of Lego bricks than pre-designed Lego projects.  I have come to the exact same conclusion about textbooks. I want the erector set, the Lego bricks, the little bottles of chemicals, not a pre-created product. Even before the web, publishers would market books to me with huge ancillary collections, often including PowerPoint slides, CD-ROMs, and primary sources. But I couldn’t take the PowerPoints apart to get the images and use them differently, and I couldn’t use the primary sources next to my online lecture – instead, students had to pay for access and log in to get to the source. As I recently noted, placing teaching elements in proximity to each other is crucial to effective pedagogy. With publisher materials, I’ve never been able to do it.

The packaged product needs to be offered in pieces, like custom publishing, only cleaner. It is already possible to piece together a “custom” textbook with many publishers, but you choose from their limited database, those things to which they hold copyright.

If, instead, the publishers got together, they could create huge databases of material, and each little item could be priced low (kind of like an iTunes song). The company owning the copyright would get the money, but the product itself could be pieced together online by the instructor. I could include a scholarly paper, my own writing, images, cool charts, and many more items in the order I wanted. There would be testing modules that I could insert anywhere, with my own questions and choice of how the responses are recorded (email to me, LMS, the publisher’s LMS, etc).

All packaged works have their own pedagogy. We need to be able to disconnect the brick-like elements to support our own.

New directions for POT

Yes, we can certainly avoid the obvious jokes, but POT means Program for Online Teaching, the faculty volunteer program I’ve been directing since 2005. We began as a group of online instructors frustrated with the “training” being provided to those starting to teach online. These trainings mostly consisted of teaching faculty how to use technologies the college had purchased (later the LMS) and plug things into it. We wanted to have faculty consider their pedagogy first, then make the technology work for them.

We began by offering workshops through our college’s own professional development program, and gradually these expanded into full workshop days. We also created a website, and posted videos and materials from our workshops there. Faculty have found the site useful, but I’ve been maintaining it pretty much singlehandedly for the last few years. All of us who work as POT are college instructors with large responsibilities for teaching, departmental work, and disciplinary study. Many have joined us from outside our home college. Since 2010, we have offered the POT Certificate Class, an online course mentored and moderated by like-minded experts and teachers from around the globe. The class, too, has taken much time and yet no one has ever been paid to help. (Many of us are of the “sure, I’ll help you move if you feed me pizza” model of social responsibility.)

In the meantime, the field has changed. Since 2005, “instructional design” and “educational technology” have become their own disciplines, offering PhDs all over the place. Sponsored companies have been founded to host online courses on proprietary platforms. Administrative careers have sprung up in deploying and managing stables of online instructors at for-profit universities, offering “team-created” courses where the faculty member is only a “discipline expert”. “Best practices” have been promoted based on principles derived from the research of these new doctorates (many of whom used small sample sizes, creating their principles of whole cloth).

It is a world in which POT now appears anachronistic, encouraging what I call “artisan” courses, built as creative endeavors by individual instructors trying to translate their teaching strengths into the online environment. These courses are pedagogically and philosophically the opposite of the canned, instant-feedback, publisher-created “packages” and team-built classes and MOOCs that are now pervasive. Like artisan breads and hand-made cabinetry, these courses require more work to make and are individual in design. Their quality cannot be determined by a list of “best practices”, but by the love and attention that goes into their creation, and the passion and dedication of the teachers who are teaching within their own design.

We have watched these artisan principles undermined not only by forces beyond the institution, but by faculty new to online, who have been encouraged to think along cookie-cutter course lines. Classes where most of the content comes from a publisher course cartridge are being held up as models, locally and statewide, as online initiatives are developed to create more standardization and “accountability”. Faculty now come to POT hoping for “how to” workshops (“how do I get this to work in Blackboard?”) rather than approaching us with pedagogy they want to develop online. The POT Cert Class, which is free, global, and at the moment unsustainable, is being used by some to assure “training” rather than pedagogical preparation. We find ourselves in the position of providing a free service rather than a model, a service which surely should be funded by the state if “training” is so important.

My colleague Jim Sullivan and I have decided that the answer to all this training, standardization, and dependency is primarily journalistic. With all the information out there on “how to”, and all the institutional and administrative backing for training and standardization, it is important that we share, publicly and convincingly, the meaning and methods behind our “pedagogy first” approach. So we are changing the POT website, always in WordPress’ blog format anyway, into the Pedagogy First blog. Here we hope to invite the people for whom “pedagogy first” is the natural approach, to write and discuss. We will ask many of the wonderful people who have mentored and moderated our POT Certificate. We will ask folks to share their talents and techniques as well as their perspectives.

Because when mechanization encroaches on creative endeavor, it is important for artisans to articulate why their way is better, what value is added by their efforts.

Artisans unite.

The Value of Proximity

Togetherness is a good thing.

It’s pretty clear, even in recent studies, that we want to present information to students in “multiple modalities” (text, graphics, video). But there have been a few studies discussing the placement of “learning objects” (text, video, images) on a webpage, and how that placement relates to learning. The results of a 10-year study at UCSB by Richard Mayer and colleagues focused on how best to use audio, text, video and other media elements (1) . They discovered that how media elements are handled on the screen impacts learning.

Improved learning resulted from adding graphics to text, and from adding text to graphics. But “[t]he trick is to use illustrations that are congruent with the instructional message”, rather than for effect or entertainment.
Interestingly, a conversational tone and the use of an “agent” (a talking head video or animated cartoon), even just the voice, also helped learning.

Explaining graphics with audio improved learning also. But too much was overload. Audio and text explaining a graphic decreased learning, and any gratuitous or dramatic elements added only to get attention caused distraction and also decreased learning.

Putting the issue of relevancy aside for a moment (obviously the text and graphics should both be trying to further the same instructional goal), I think the important issue is proximity. If there is a graph at the top of the page, but the graph is explained with text three paragraphs later, I don’t think it will help.

Proximity is critical, because the relationship between objects that may be obvious to instructors may not be obvious to students.

In my online lectures, I have always put illustrative images next to the appropriate text. I remember in the late 90s repeatedly looking up a cheat sheet my mentor, Kathleen Rippberger, made showing me how to write HTML to wrap text around an image (thank you, HTML). Over time, I came to embed videos, then YouTube videos, also within the lecture page (thank you, embed code). This year, I began embedding the primary sources right into the lecture (thank you, iframe).

The desire to keep things together even caused me to explore putting a lecture and the corresponding discussion together on the same page, which I could do using iframes in Moodle. But the effect is still not seamless, and it looks awkward on mobile devices.

lecdisctogether

If we extend the principle of proximity to the defaults on a typical Learning Management system, however, we will be disappointed. I despair as I look at Blackboard’s default menu, with everything separated: “course materials” here, discussion forum there, tests way over there. It was this problem that led our instructors to create the main page as an interactive syllabus. But even there, the page is a list of links:

week1links

The goal of proximity explains why so many instructors try various forms of “modules” and “units”, which seem to me like online versions of the paper packets we used to use in grade school.

Proximity thinking has come a little late to online education, but it needs a place at the table. The delay has been caused by not only the LMS, but by all the reasons the LMS is popular, including deceptive plug-and-play functionality and ongoing difficulty creating structured learning experiences if you aren’t a web-head. Time to consider proximity as its own design concept, within the LMS if necessary.

(1) Ruth Clark, Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why, Learning Solutions Magazine (2002)

LMSing around

Well, it’s been a long time that we have all been discussing the evils of the Learning Management System. From my own articles back in 2008 and 2009, to Michael Feldstein’s November post with all its responses, those of us who believe we are progressive, non-conformist, future-thinking, out-of-the-box people have been gleefully dissing the LMS. The LMS is a tool that encourages conformity, poor pedagogy, closed silos, commercial exploitation, robo-grading, and the death of the open web. It discourages openness, shared resources, perpetual web portfolios, and the joy of a cloud-based utopia.

I have happily been anti-LMS for many years. And all this time I have been using Moodle.

Some are surprised. I had a colleague come up to me, apologetically, last term. He had an LMS question, but prefaced it with, “I know you don’t use an LMS, but…”

I have been participating in Connected Courses, where naturally we all agree that the LMS hampers connections. Connected Courses is a wonderful idea, with wonderful people. The hub of it is housed on WordPress, a customized installation managed beautifully by the god of WordPress, Alan Levine, and designed by a team fed by a grant. It is not a model that many others could follow without institutional support and/or a maestro like Alan hanging out in the garage. I’ve used WordPress in a similar construct (but by no means as lovely a site) for the Program for Online Teaching Class over several years. I gave up on it in May 2013  – it was just too hard. The plugin that makes it possible, FeedWordpress, is supported by one man on his own time, and requires lots of tweaking.

I don’t have staff, assistants, or a grant. I teach at a community college. I teach 40 students per section, 5-7 sections per semester, usually with five different preps (a prep is a particular course – Western Civ I, US History II). I often teach as many as five of these classes online, with at least three different preps. Many of my colleagues teach at multiple campuses, and teach over 300 students in multiple sections all over the county. In all these years, the suggestions of how to be open and wonderful and non-LMS with this many students (considering the requirements put upon us to track and grade their work) have been very few. Connectivism? After much experience, study and thought, I have determined that the management of large numbers of students’ individual achievement cannot be solved with connectivist models. (The popularity of MOOCs is testament to this. Commercial and university xMOOCs are often robo-graded and/or managed by large numbers of “staff” and graduate students.)

Given the 265 students I will need to teach this spring, the LMS provides the space I need, given the dearth of good alternatives.

What the LMS is good at, of course, is management:

  • automatically graded quizzes provide instant feedback to the student
  • grade book feature provides for privacy and quick checks on progress
  • customizations enable me to organize the grade book in a way that makes it possible for me to see at a glance where a student is doing well and where s/he is struggling
  • easy embedding makes it possible for me to make external sites, presentations, and tools part of the class
  • students are automatically added and dropped via connection with the college’s student enrollment system
  • security features create a space mostly closed to surveillance

It’s very poor for:

  • open learning
  • student-created content that lives beyond the semester
  • making students feel like individuals
  • providing multiple learning paths

BUT I mostly solve what’s bad through my own design and pedagogy:

  • having all written work done in forums where students can see everyone else’s work
  • encouraging students to draft all their work on their own hard drives
  • keeping track of students’ preferred names from their posts and using them publicly in the space

No, I can’t solve it all. Neither can WordPress, Ning, Facebook, Google, Schoology, Drupal, Canvas, or the open web. There’s been nothing radically different out there in years. Startups of great tools have mostly shut down. Progress in online learning technology has slowed to a crawl.

So am I a traitor to the cause? An apologist for the LMS? A closet user who then shows up at 12-step meetings? No, I’m just practical. Do I think that users like me can make the LMS better? Nope, I’m just back to 2012. Only now I don’t feel so guilty.

Changes for spring

Yes, I change stuff every semester (Jen Dalby likes to watch me prep, cuz it makes me tweet crazy things). Here’s what’s on for spring semester:

Expectation zone: percentage changes 

crocus

Crocus, harbingers of spring
(cc Julie ann Johnson via Flickr)

I believe students expect the quizzes (based on reading, and factual retention) to count for more. This semester, quizzes are only 30% of the grade. I’m raising it to 50%. Primary sources, which they like and which require some research, have been only 20% – I’m raising it to 30%.

Back to the future : shorter and more frequent writing

Having gone the other way, from weekly writing, to every other week, to six assignments, to five, I am going back to the way I had it at first – weekly writing. The big change is that it won’t be as formal, even though it still scaffolds up to the final essay. The other big change is it won’t be “graded”. Rather, writing will be part of the “A bit of writing and conversation” forum. Students will be encouraged to post a short piece of writing based on their choice of primary sources, and converse with each other.

But I did it!: contribution grading will be based on completion

Instead of the Contribution Assessment, which I have used successfully for awhile (I admit it, I get bored), I am counting 20% of the grade (10% for each half of the semester) for the writing and conversation, all together. I intend to base this primarily on completion, but want flexibility for quality issues and to touch base with students in the middle of the class, which is what I liked best about the assessments. If I change my mind, I’ll do self-assessments.

Autobots roll out: automation for completion

I am turning on the Activity Completion feature in Moodle, and using it for the first time. The “bit of writing and conversation” is a checkbox on the main page – a single post marks it complete. Same for the primary source. For the quiz, completing it and getting an (automated) grade completes the task.  Very few of my students fail the class because they can’t do the work – most fail because they don’t complete the tasks. Since I believe the tasks are important elements of practice, each one is low stakes but all need to be done. The green check (or lack thereof) on the main page will be obvious.

What I’m not changing

In a survey earlier this semester, students indicated that what they liked best were (1) my lectures, and (2) posting their own primary sources. So those aren’t changing at all. They didn’t like discussion, so that’s now optional and part of the writing forums.

But why change anything? (apart from, like, the boredom thing)

magician

cc JD Hancock via Flickr.

I am trying to answer a concern I have about this semester – the drop rate has been very high in all but one section. The drops mostly came at the beginning of the class. When I surveyed students who dropped, they told me the class was too much work. Interestingly, some wanted a class where they only had to log in once a week. I have not reduced the work at all, which I may regret later, but I am going to dare to use my experience to interpret what they’ve said.

I think part of the problem is that the class looks like too much work on the main page. Using Activity Completion makes the work more instantly visible, so they can see their progress and what’s lacking immediately. I am also removing the “labels”, or titles, for each section, so there is less text (a shorter list) to see for each week, while keeping the interactive syllabus format.  For those who think they can do the class only logging in  once a week, they can if they’re smart, by taking the quiz, posting their source, and posting their writing all on the same day. Since I don’t plan to “grade” conversation, if someone really doesn’t want to participate or talk to anyone, they don’t have to.

As with everything, we’ll see what happens!

Why students drop

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.

classef14But 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.

CC Flickr Matthew Langham

It was too much work on board
CC Flickr Matthew Langham

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…