Results from 131 students

It’s only taken me 17 years of teaching online to develop a student survey that is both broad enough to cover all my classes and narrow enough to give me good feedback.

Just sharing a few things here. Total students responding was 131. Most students responding were passing the class.

ClassElementsRestuls

They still like my lectures the most, and textbook readings the least. They still like posting their own primary sources.

AddtlElementsResults

Hours and hours of work on that Help Page and – no surprise given what they email me about – they don’t use it. They do like seeing the whole course on one page (so I won’t switch to showing only the current week, an option in Moodle) and they like my comments and the audio of my lectures (I’ll read it for you!). The None category is a little depressing….

EngagementResults

The engagement results are clear, too. They like the lectures and posting their own source. They don’t like reading much. But they really liked what I added this year – the completion checkboxes on the Moodle page. I will be sad to lose that. But note: they like seeing each other’s work, but don’t require contact with other students. I’ve been saying that for awhile – collaboration and teamwork is online classes is not always needed. For my class, engagement with the work and posting what you find may be taking the place of “interaction” among students. They can learn from each other without necessarily engaging in forums in response to each others’ posts.

I know where you’re coming from

Starting a new year means starting a new semester, and this time it will start a week early.

The issue today was IM. My classes are in Moodle, but I’ve always used a status button so students can communicate with me instantly if I’m online.

Moodle has something called Messages. Back in version 1.x, I couldn’t tell which class a student was in when they Messaged me. Instead of fixing this in 2.x, they made it worse by removing all user information outside the courses completely, making it not only impossible to tell which class a student was in, but impossible to get back to where you were working in your course site.

I used to use Google Talk Chatback Badge instead.  It didn’t tell me which class a student was in, but at least it was easy to let them know I was available, and they didn’t have to have a Google account or log in. That’s gone. The option now is Hangouts and other stuff where they have to join Googleland. I can’t be responsible for making someone violate their own privacy that way.

Then it was Plupper, which I routed through iChat. It’s been down all week. I don’t know if it’s coming back, but all week isn’t OK, so I went hunting again.

I was getting miffed that I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was running all over the web trying to find a free service. I began to realize I didn’t really need “chat”, but some sort of help-desky thing. I was at first delighted to find Zoho LiveDesk (link removed at request of Zoho) which I could adapt. i could even create different badges for different classes. Then I discovered that this multi-button feature was only available on paid accounts – it turned out I had somehow entered a 30 trial that would expire. So much for that.

Then it occurred to me. I rent my own server space – I wondered what open source stuff was hanging out there? I found Mibew, and installed it. It even built its own database (though I had to go in and tweak a bit).

Their button was not exactly what I needed (I won’t be turning blonde and I’ve never looked that happy):

mibew_on

 

So I got into GIMP and made my own:

newchat_on
Then I made one for offline:

newchat_off

 

After installing Mibew, I was able to set up each class as a “group”, then create button code for each group, so I can see which class they’re coming from! A unique button went onto each class site – I tested them and they work.

I used the Localization feature (which was highly customizable) to change “Live Support” to “For My History Students”, my designation as “operator” to “teacher”, and the language of client and user to student.

It may not be perfect. It may fail. It may crash. Keep in mind, I don’t code. I just know enough to change other people’s code.

But as I was doing this today, I suddenly realized I was Reclaiming the Web, a goal of many smart people for 2014. Happy New Year!

Lecture, sources & discovery

Lecture is not about discovery, unless it is the discovery of how the professor processes and uses information. It can be excellent modelling. When I talk through a historical subject, and its significance, I can model how historians think.

But most professors lecture in order to relay information. This always seemed silly to me, since the “information” was in the book. Now the “information” is on the web. But if they don’t read the information, and understand it, they can get it from the lecture.

In my online lectures, there is indeed information. It is told from my perspective, and everything about it (including what I choose to discuss) represents my interpretation. Because it contains events and dates, and explains them chronologically, it constitutes “content” in the class. My online lectures include my own writing (recorded in audio), links to websites, embedded video, and specially marked links to primary sources.

These sources were originally collected in a paper workbook. Now each unit’s collection is on a web page. Some of them have audio reading the documents (as I’d like to do with Edmund Burke). Questions on these documents are included in the lecture quiz each week.

In “discussion”, my students do not discuss, but rather post their own primary sources, then write about several of the ones posted and the way they tell us something about that era. Through this process I teach historical writing (thesis and evidence).

This week something interesting happened.

In my Depression lecture for US History, I feature a section on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, his radio broadcast from Halloween 1938:

 lecturewarofworlds

But not until a student posted it as a YouTube video did any of them, as far as I can tell, actually listen to it.

Then this happened:

warworldsdisc

So I’m thinking. No one went to find the audio before, but they watched a video (that’s really just audio) posted in the forum. Someone was interested because a fellow student posted it. Sure, she posted it because it was mentioned in lecture (maybe), but a student actually experienced it because it was posted by another student rather than by me.

So….back to those other primary sources, the ones I actually assign. Those written primary sources are posted by me as part of the lecture. I suspect few actual read them except to answer quiz questions.

Perhaps if they discovered them instead of me providing the sources? We already do that – they find and post sources every week. Maybe I shouldn’t select sources at all. Perhaps the collection they make is fine – especiallly if they actually look at or listen to what the others post.

I must think on the implications of instructor-provided content. We have this idea that instructors need to curate content. I could do that in a different, more engaging way. But first I need to be sure that, at least when it comes to primary sources, I should be doing it at all.

What do you mean no tags? Conceptualizing what online teachers need.

So I had this great idea that next semester, when students post their primary sources in the forum, they could tag them with a topic. I could provide a list of tags that represent larger areas, the sort of topics they can later work into historical themes: fashion, war, society, medicine, politics, economy, etc. This would work better than search, and allow them to browse the collection they’d created as they thought about their research approach.

But when I went to look at the settings in Moodle (1.9 and 2.2 and 2.3), there was no such thing as tags for a forum post, or even a glossary entry (my other new idea). Moodle only has tags for student “blogs”, which are connected only to each student’s profile and do not work in any interconnected way.

This was a big reminder that Moodle is still an LMS, and that sometimes I simply cannot configure it to do what I need. In WordPress such a thing is a no-brainer, and of course I can set this up in WP, but didn’t I just decide there was no real need for that?

It occurred to me that what I want to do represents an overlap that LMS thinkers don’t understand – the interrelationship between “content” and “activity”. The main Moodle blocks have two drop-down menus when you want to add something, and they clearly indicate the mindset:

A “resource” is supposed to be static, and an “activity” is supposed to be interactive.

A “forum” is considered an activity, a platform for “discussion”. I’m not using it for discussion, but rather for having students create a set of resources (without that nasty confusion a database would bring into play). The students are thus actively creating a “resource” that they need to search and access throughout the class. The lack of acknowledgement of such interplay is what leads designers to think of tags only in terms of blogs.

I am also setting up some secondary historical readings for my Honors class, and there’s no way in Moodle to have students annotate them together.

I just want a static resource, an article, that I’ve introduced, and have students annotate it collaboratively. The only “activity” available in Moodle would be a wiki, and it would not allow in-line commentary. I admit I’m somewhat Talmudic in my idea of what a collaboratively annotated document would look like. So I’ll be trying a circuitous route, uploading a pdf article into Crocodoc, then embedding the resulting doc in a Moodle page to allow for in-place commenting without students needing an account. It’s an awkward solution at best, and one which requires me to wear a Fair Use t-shirt and remove the articles after the semester.

The perpetuation of the division between “content” and “activity” causes harm to learning and prevents some of that innovative methodology everyone says they want. The idea that resources and “discussion” are separate gets passed down to new teachers going online, and they set up their classes that way, limiting their pedagogy.

So, note to LMS designers, including Moodle:

Stop adding internal “features” to your LMS based on webapps you see people using externally  (“blogs”, “scholar”), and start rethinking why teachers use those things. Think about the interactivity between “content” (or resource or page or presentation) and “activity” (the stuff that means servers have to talk to each other).

Wrap your head around the concepts, not just the tools, of teaching online.

The death of Google Talk chatback badge

The Google Talk chatback badge  has been important to a number of us faculty. We are frequently logged into Gmail anyway, and the badge let us put a bit of html on any webpage and students could click and IM with us without logging in to anything. Well, now it’s gone – Google has stopped supporting it and it doesn’t work anymore. They made no announcement (except a single post in a Google Group) and the badges still look like they work, but they don’t. I found out when Pilar Hernández, my esteemed colleague, had students screaming they couldn’t reach her.

I also have featured the badge on all my course pages and my home page for years. I recently made a tutorial on how to use them.

We can discuss why Google did this, and why Google doesn’t care, but I’m confident it’s because they don’t like the anonymity of it. They want everyone in Google Plus, which requires a Google account so they can track you. Given my concerns, I’m not comfortable forcing students into Google-dom just so they can chat with me.

Pilar and I spent all afternoon today trying alternatives.  Finding a replacement for Google chatback isn’t easy – it was a seamless and simple service. It wasn’t a shoutbox and it could be put anywhere, and on many different pages. Using this resource, we tried anything that was free. Meebo Messenger, Pilar’s backup, is also shutting down as of July 11,  so we had to go elsewhere.

Here’s what we tried. (Note: we discovered that none of the below worked with the Google Talk feature enabled – it’s obvious Google has gotten rid of that support also.)

  • Plugoo – commercial looking, big, didn’t work with some browsers
  • Olark – insisted I allow it to access all my Google contacts, and I had to email them to close the account
  • Zoho chat – can log in, but only puts shout box on one page
  • Chatbadge.com – when we tested it, we couldn’t get the messages to actually get to their destination – it seemed like the best but we couldn’t get it to work
  • Online Chat Centers – serious overkill, obviously for major helpdesks, had to log in directly and answer the phone, had a major New Delhi feel to it
  • Yahoo Messenger Pingbox  – not visible in all browsers, must log into Yahoo Messenger, doesn’t relay nickname properly

Our best choice was Plupper. It looked good, and has an open API. We were able to get it working by following the instructions for iChat  for Mac, and Miranda for PC.





It does mean more work, since you have to have the IM client open and be logged in. Nowhere near as convenient for us, but just as convenient for students, which is what we needed.

When feedback isn’t seen as feedback

It’s taken me almost a year to figure out what might have gone wrong with last summer’s class. I need to take a look since this summer’s class starts Monday.

Last summer, thrilled at having only 40 students to tend to in an 8-week class, I had students post their historical theses in the forums instead of on a closed essay exam. I graded them according to a qualitative scale that translated into points, and made comments on each directly in the forums, which took a great deal of time.

I was at first so very happy with this method, having spent much time setting it up so beautifully. Then the class was over, and I got the evaluation, completed by only 16 students.
Ignoring the typical one-person-who-hates-everything-I-do student, 5 felt class expectations weren’t stated clearly. A surprising 6 didn’t find the Contribution Assessments helpful (these contain direct feedback for each and every student, in private), and though 14 said they read my comments on their own mini-essays in the forum, 2 thought I wasn’t even present and visible during class. Some comments on the open essays said:

“It would be helpful if we received more feedback on our short essays instead of a general comments so that we could improve our writing skills.”

“For someone who struggles with the weekly thesis maybe a little more information but since it was a summer class it was face paced. I enjoyed the class the grading was fair just needed a better understanding of the thesis but that could just be me.”

“I think more feedback on the essays is necessary. The only kind of feedback that I received was if something was wrong with my essay, but it would be nice to know the things that I’m doing well so that I could continue incorporating things into the essays that worked well.”

“I wish there was more direction for the writing assignments. Especially the final assessment.”

It has thus occurred to me that the continual, extensive feedback I gave several times a week on the posted essays was not seen as actual feedback or guidance by some of the students.

Keep in mind before you say I’m justing whining, that I give this evaluation every semester, and the overwhelming majority say my expectations are clear, the assignments are helpful, and the things they recommend tend to be things like “more content” or “less work”. Keep in mind also that my public comments on their essays were very specific, but kind and designed not to embarrass anyone. I also marked some of them with a bold For Everyone tag in the subject line, to provide more general comments at the same time. I thought this was brilliant — evidently not so much.

I can’t help but wonder whether doing closed essay grading instead, even if I said the exact same thing on each essay, would have led to a different result. Is it possible that forum postings from the instructor aren’t seen as feedback in the same way we view a private comment on a quiz?

So for the class that starts Monday, I have put the essays back into a standard, private, midterm and final exam format, with (as usual) the practice in the forums. We’ll see what happens.