Honors Contracts in Canvas

Yes, it’s another how-to-so-I-don’t-forget post! (Sorry, I would much rather being doing England travelogues.)

Background

So… I have a stand-alone Honors section this semester, with 25 students of varied abilities, some Honors students and others not, some just desperate to grab a seat in an online US History because we never offer enough. This stand-alone section is online and in Canvas. I have created weekly research tasks for this class, each in a forum so all can share their work as their project progresses. You can see these tasks together here on this Google Doc.

Honors Contracts, however, are the mechanism by which individual students in non-Honors (regular) classes can take the class officially for Honors. This is typically done by working on research individually with the instructor.

I have strived to create community among my Honors Contract students, but with little success. One of the issues is numbers: I am only allowed to teach 5 contracts per term. Since Honors Contracts are fairly new, I usually only get 4-5 requests anyway, but they are from different classes. Excluding 8-week classes for European History and U.S., this leaves my History of England and History of Technology classes for Honors Contracts.

I have struggled with student self-direction with the Contracts, and many of my Contract students don’t complete, for various reasons (mostly personal rather than academic). The problem is that when they get into trouble, the system does not allow them back into the “regular” course – they do the Honors work or they fail.

So last year I had this great idea to combine the Honors Contracts students from these two classes, and have them work on this blog, with set readings and curriculum. The two students that finished did great. But there were problems with the technology (or rather, problems with me and the technology – if I hadn’t insisted the college connect WordPress to the enrollment system, they would not have happened).

The Plan

Since community is not working (for me or for the students),  I will be returning to the original intention of Contracts: individual research projects.

This does not mean I think my set course in “Victorian Science and Science Fiction” wasn’t wonderful (it was effing brilliant) or that everyone shouldn’t study Frankenstein, watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or read Arabella of Mars (they should). It just isn’t sustainable at this time.

Since I have already created weekly research forums for my stand-alone US History class, I will simply import these into my History of England and History of Technology Canvas shells. But they will only be assigned to one group, which I’ll name Honors Contracts (I supposed I could amuse myself by calling it Unicorns or something, but I might get confused.)

The way it works at my college, Contract students are “in class” with the regular section, but just do some different, more advanced work. In order to provide time for their research, I have my Contract students stop taking quizzes and stop uploading lecture notes after the first two weeks of class, so long as their grades are OK. But I don’t want to keep a separate grade tally (you know, on a piece of paper, God forbid). I just found out that it’s easy to Excuse students from taking particular assignments, right in the gradebook, as shown here:

I got this from this Canvas help page. So I’ll do that for all their quizzes and lecture notes.

Since the research forums are forums, if I have more than one Contract student in a class, they can work together, but I’ll change the instructions to remove required interaction. I’ll be their buddy in the forum, just like an individual tutor (I would like to furnish my online office like an Oxford don, but that might be too much — oh, wait, I could Voki!).  If I want to get Contract students together, we can use social media (Facebook group) and/or real-life meetings at Peet’s Coffee.

Ideally, it would be nice to have a separate Canvas course that would integrate all the Contract students from my various classes, but Canvas cannot do that and keep it connected to the regular class site. (I’ll be lucky if it does this properly.)

And yes, it will take awhile to set up, particularly since Canvas will want to do stupid things, like put all forums on the Calendar so all students can see, or include it in the Syllabus Assignments list even when they aren’t assigned to everyone.

But I think it’s more likely that students will stick with their Contract if it’s easier, and if their Honors work is integrated with their regular coursework, at the same online site as their regular work.

Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I continue down this road, paved with good intentions, of bowing to our Canvas overlords.

 


*After writing this, I renewed my Voki account. First week in the research forums will start something like this:

Standardizing what’s good

Every October, I work on my classes for next term. Partly this is because the spring schedule comes out the third week of the month, and partly because October has always been particularly difficult for morale and motivation (mine as well as the students’). I’m not sure why. Could be the lack of any real holiday except Halloween (Columbus Day is tainted and it was never a day off anyway), or just mid-term blues.

That’s my excuse anyway, since I’m not supposed to be doing this till after my sabbatical is over. But I am still doing my reading and research. Prepping is more like a break, because mostly what I’m doing is changing settings rather than creating things. It turns me into a non-thinking machine, changing hundreds of due dates and adding lots of links (why aren’t we at a place where I can assign this to someone?). Definitely mindless.

I’ve decided I like the sources and readings for my classes, I like my lectures, so no changes are needed. But at the end of last term, I added two elements to my weekly coursework for two of my classes, then tested again for three this summer. These elements are “Check primary source for points” and “Submit lecture notes”.

So once I’m done, the weekly tasks for each class I teach online will be this:

  • Due Wednesday:
    • Read the textbook
    • Read/listen to lecture
    • Research and post primary source
    • Check primary source for points
  • Due Sunday:
    • Read and discuss the documents
    • Submit lecture notes
    • Quiz

In addition, for the first two weeks there are multi-pages quizzed Learning Units about primary sources. And, three times during the semester, there are Learning Units for the next writing assignment followed by the assignment itself. Writing Assignments are based only on the sources that have been posted in the Boards by the class, and have a scaffolded format that I created myself, so they are difficult if not impossible to purchase or plagiarize. The Final Essay, for the full-term sessions, is based on the third writing assignment, and folds into the grading for Writing Assignments.

“Read the textbook” is linked to the actual textbook pages, except for the one class where I’m still using a purchased book.

“Read/listen to lecture” is linked to my online lectures, hosted on my rented server, which contain audio of me reading the lecture, video clips, etc.

“Research and post primary source” is the laboratory type posting, on a discussion board, of visual primary sources students find on the web, with citations and student commentary.

“Check primary source for points” is a one-question quiz checklist of all the things required for full points on a primary source (image, author, title, date, live link, commentary), so it’s a self-evaluation of their own source, instantly graded.

“Read and discuss the documents” is annotating the assigned textual sources using Perusall inside Canvas as an LTI, which assigns points automatically but I do have to check through all of them and make sure they’re right.

“Submit lecture notes” automatically assigns 2 points when they submit them, and they can be in any format, including images of handwritten notes.

“Quiz” is a multiple-choice quiz based on lecture, documents, and textbook readings.

The grading breakdown is:

Read and discuss the documents 20%
Quizzes 20%
Primary Sources 20%
Lecture Notes 10%
Learning Units 10%
Writing Assignments 20%

Right now, the only class that varies from this is the one US History where I have full discussion. In that class, it’s:

Homework 20%
Lecture notes 20%
Writing Assignments 20%
Discussion 20%
Constitution exercise 10%
Final Essay 10%

The pedagogy, briefly, is based on emphasizing task completion, with grading considerations as secondary. Each individual assignment is low stakes, though with only three or four writing assignments, the stakes are higher for putting all the knowledge together. Assignments that can be graded immediately (quizzes, learning unit knowledge checks self-assessed primary source points, lecture notes) are, so that students can get immediate feedback (yes, I reserve the right to change points if there are inaccuracies or instructions aren’t followed). The addition of lecture notes and self-assessed primary source points adds a metacognitive learning aspect. The work of doing history is engaged in multiple ways, including reading, writing, discovery, sharing, and visual analysis.

Student choice is built in, in several ways. Students choose their own primary sources to post, and their own topics for writing assignments. They can choose which days they work, so long as deadlines are met (each unit opens a week in advance). Lecture note format is up to them, to meet their own note-taking style. Since each individual item is low points, they can choose to miss one or two without it doing serious grade damage. Two attempts are given for self-graded items, so they can go back and correct something without penalty.

My role is guide on the side, in the middle, at the front, and in the end. Instead of grading constantly, I spend my time reading their notes, viewing their posted primary sources, answering questions, writing weekly or twice-weekly communications, conversing with students in the Perusall annotations, and yes, grading their writing assignments. I have had no complaints about how much work the courses are, since most of the things I’m requesting (like lecture notes) are common to on-site classes. Some students appreciate the trust, and the autodidactic opportunities. Others appreciate that I’m there for them, and respond quickly to their individual messages. (On this, I’ve decided that students want the individual approach, but not necessarily for class content – rather they want it for their individual problems and issues, most of which have nothing to do with the subject. My method leaves time for that.) And I can grade more generously, because the point is to do the work, be the historian, rather than show me you’re good enough to do history without me.

There is also something interesting about having the courses this structured. The course itself seems to be its own entity, has its own trajectory and completeness. It is almost like it’s me, the students, and the course. The students and I interact with the course together, instead of the course acting as a weapon with which I beat students using grades. This goes along with the LMS (Canvas – blech), which the students and I can work in (and on, when things go wrong) together — it’s them and me against the system.

So although on the one hand I don’t like the idea of standardizing courses, in this case I’m standardizing what’s good, what works, what meets my pedagogical goals. I am free to change readings, lectures, materials, instructions, at any time. After 20 years of building these courses, I think I’m onto something less subject to the vagaries of passing fads (personalized learning, individual learning styles), dangerous web spaces (MOOCs, open education), and changing jargon (student learning outcomes, guided pathways), and more founded in solid pedagogy.

 

 

Historical correction (and Ruskin)

Over two years ago I wrote a post that got no comment nor many readers. It was one of the only posts where I shared my discomfort with today’s identity politics.

Then this week, I received an announcement of some workshops at the college designed to engender “cultural sustaining pedagogies”. I wrote a five paragraph response to the ideas contained within this concept, explaining my views supporting universal principles over the perceived needs of particular groups, be they racial, age-based, cultural, gender, or otherwise. Having spent several hours writing, I realized there was no one to whom I could send it, and nowhere I could post it, without endangering my job and quite a few working relationships that were important to me. At the same time I realized that this was what was wanted, my refusal to engage, because the entire pretext is that I am not worthy to discuss any of these issues.

But when one attacks history, however, as a discipline, I do feel a professional responsibility. I did some reading about culturally sustainable pedagogies (cuz I’m always in for good pedagogy), and at one point was led to this article on How Racism and Patriarchy is Taught at School, published just a few days ago. It was about truth versus distortion in history textbooks and class materials, and cited as heinous examples phrases like black slaves were people “who came to work on plantations” and “[s]ome slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly”. Now the first of these is distorted enough to be an untruth: slaves did not “come” to work — they were forced and they were brought. Factually, they did not “come to work on plantations”, either — they were sold for whatever the buyer wanted them for. But the second quotation is not factually incorrect. Some slaves did report that their masters treated them kindly. There are primary sources where they say so, and I assign them. I then discuss with my students why they might have said so, what influences there might have been on their perceptions and testimony. But the truth is that they did report this kindness. So we are not replacing lies with truth. We are replacing nuanced views requiring discussion, with untruth.

The article mentioned how teachers should use the website Teaching Tolerance to teach “the truth” of the past. So I went to the site (which is sponsored by the ever laudable Southern Poverty Law Center), and it recommended a “formative assessment” for students. I link it here. Several of the questions are loaded or misleading. For example:

In the Declaration of Independence, what percentage of enslaved people were included in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You are supposed to answer 0%, or you’re wrong. This question demonstrates the same sort of oversimplification argued against in the article, just to the other side. Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, were intellectually and morally conflicted by slavery, but stated in a number of places that men may be created equal, but were then subjected to unequal environments, treatment, birthrights, intelligence, etc. Some included women in “men”, while others did not. 18th century intellectuals argued the many sides of these issues. The “line” about equality was likely written by one man, approved by a committee of five, and agreed to and signed by the 2nd Continental Congress. Some had slaves, some didn’t, some had never owned slaves, some made money off the slave trade, some had vowed to release their slaves within a year, others had promised to release them upon their death, and many worried about slavery in its various impacts, discussing its moral, economic, and intellectual problems. To say that slaves were definitely included would be false. To say that they were all excluded would also be false.

The included Teacher Guide says: “The promise of equality and liberty in the Declaration did not extend to any enslaved people. ” But the passage from the Declaration does not promise equality or liberty. It declares them as natural rights. In fact, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t promise anything to anyone — it lays out an argument and justification for breaking away from Great Britain.

Later on the quiz there’s this question:

Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?

To preserve states’ rights
To preserve slavery
To protest taxes on imported goods
To avoid rapid industrialization

You’re supposed to answer “to preserve slavery”. Yes, indeed. But the reason? The only reason? The main reason? There are no historical events with only one cause, and even the extremes of post-modern historicism admit to multiple explanations if not causation.

The Teacher Guide to this question says, “Every secession document cites slavery as the main reason the southern states seceded.” I have not reviewed every secession document, and I’m not sure whether this means official documents from the states, or whether it also includes letters, diaries, etc. Quite a few both official and unofficial documents also talk about states’ rights, but not always in those terms. A great many talk about freedom and independence, particularly in the context of the American Revolution. Preserving slavery was often discussed within a context of property and ownership, even by people who didn’t own slaves or didn’t care for it as an institution. To not understand and discuss these complexities is to commit presentism (the application of the values of ones own era to the circumstances of the past). Presentism, although increasingly popular, does not actually lead to a rational understanding, but rather a “stand”.

The article also says that our country was “quite literally founded on the slaughter, colonization, enslavement, segregation, and ongoing systematic oppression of millions of indigenous peoples and people of color”. Yes, indeed. But it was also founded on ideals, some of which are worthy discussing and defending. We might want to start with representation, open debate, or any of the rights listed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So none of this is really about truth. It’s about correction. It’s about grievance. It’s about telling the other side, because it isn’t being told. A worthy goal, certainly. Telling the stories that haven’t been told is a main responsibility (and joy) of historical work. It’s why we’re here. But the goal isn’t to replace Storyline A with Storyline Z. It’s to understand how both storylines interact, to whose benefit one side takes precedence, and to what extent evidence supports the stories.

But lest we think these issues are new, I’ve also encountered them in reading today about the man I cannot avoid in my work, although I don’t like him: John Ruskin. In Judith Stoddart’s article* on his Fors Clavigera, I learned about Ruskin’s push to develop cultural literacy in working people with whom he admittedly not only had little in common, but didn’t know very well as individuals. What he did know, however, were big social and political trends, and what he saw was a lower class that was forming into groups to create solutions for their grievances.

In brief, Ruskin saw a grievance culture, and radical groups loosely based on socialist ideals without actually examining them (he was likely thinking of the Paris Commune, for example). Their grievances focused on class-based social hierarchy, even though that was not, to Ruskin, the root of the problem. The problem was moral, not structural. Some people may have more of some things in society, and others less, but the people with less simply taking the things from those who have more does not create a moral system. In fact, it just puts the lower classes into the immoral position that the upper classes had occupied. The problem of capitalist, industrial exploitation cannot be solved by the exploited becoming the exploiters. It is solved by doing away with exploitation.

Ruskin thus had just as much sympathy for the conditions of working people as 19th century radical politicians did. Education was the solution, but it was moral education that was needed. This was not “character education” or brainwashing, or even Christian education (though Ruskin himself was pretty darned devout). Subjects like music, astronomy, and botany, for example, could teach that things in life have an order that can be understood (p53). Understanding the universal concept of order could thus underpin the planning of political action. Basic principles could then be applied in a rational way according to the needs of both society and the individual. Ruskin aimed to “replace class consciousness by cultural consensus” (p45). Movements that engaged in action without any philosophical underpinnings were dangerous, because they displaced morality, elevating the same greed and selfishness that had been protested against in the first place.

Even before Stoddart began comparing Ruskin with Alan Bloom’s ideas of cultural literacy midway through the article, I saw connections to today. We have political and social movements, on both left and right, that are not based on moral philosophical underpinnings, except in their insistence that they are. The oppressed may become the oppressors, claiming their own truth and the inadequacy of all other truths, but that does not solve the problem. It is oppression itself that must be eliminated. The problem of people being silenced necessitates eliminating silence, not applying it to those who speak. Kindness, goodwill, and understanding are universals, not privileges withheld from some groups and given to others. It is not only unnecessary to prevent talking about incomplete ways of understanding the past, it is essential that we encourage such talk to make the historical picture more complete.

If one is trying to create Ruskin’s cultural consensus, then the intention of education should be to examine views based on what human beings have in common. The elements that bind humanity together should be openly available to discuss and to use. These elements may change over time, but to abandon a search for larger truths in a headlong drive to redress grievances will be of no more help now than it was in the 1870s.

 

*Judith Stoddard, “The Formation of the Working Classes: John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera as a Manual of Cultural Literacy”, in Culture and Education in Victorian England, Patrick Scott and Pauline Fletcher, eds. Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1990.

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.

Controlled

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.

Curated

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.

Chaotic

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.

Automat(i)on

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.