Disaggregated knowledge and the LMS

The advantage of teaching so many classes online is that I see patterns in student messages that lead me into larger issues. This one is HUGE. It’s not just about Canvas. It’s about the decline of Western education as we know it.

I stopped using Modules last term, because they “flattened” the elements of my class, making it appear as though each were of equal worth. Modules also forced students along a linear path of that week’s work.

I instead chose to keep my weekly pages, which list the things we do each week and when they’re due. I use bold for the higher-stakes assignments. Canvas automatically puts my due dates on the Calendar, and thus populates the students’ To-Do and Upcoming lists, which appear on the main (Home) page.

Over the years, more and more classes have switched to Canvas, so the average full-time student at MiraCosta would have four classes in a term. What the Canvas Calendar does is acts like any other calendar — it lists the tasks for each day or each week or each month. On the student Canvas app, it shows the To-Do list for each week from all their classes.

Sound convenient? It is convenient in the same way that bottled water is convenient, and that credit cards are convenient. It undermines traditional relationships globally, and creates a sea change.

Yes, I probably sound crazy saying that the Canvas Calendar represents the decline of Western education as we know it. But bear with me.

This week, the first week of class, I have had an unusual number of students message me saying they missed the assignment because they didn’t “see” it. By probing this, I’ve discovered that they mean it isn’t appearing in the To-Do list. This is regardless of the fact that I did check to the box to add these items to the To-Do list (I”ll check that technical issue later). I quickly responded with the yellow highlighted note on the Home page you see below, but I still was getting apology messages for missing work they couldn’t tell they needed to do.

This morrning a student wrote me saying she was sorry she missed it, but the primary source assignment wasn’t on the To-Do list. I sent a student my screenshot in Student View, showing that the assignment was indeed appearing on the list.

 

She replied with two screenshots where it wasn’t there. Here’s the one she sent from her phone:

And it suddenly hit me. The process she’s accessing, the To-Do List, lists all the tasks for all the classes a student takes. It thus disaggregates the courses entirely. She’s no longer taking my History class, or a Sociology class. She’s just doing work, clicking links, crossing things off a list.

By showing the student the tasks for the day, for all three of her classes, Canvas has not only reasserted its contention that all learning tasks are equivalent, but that they are tasks unrelated to anything else. They are just stuff the student needs to complete.

Most scholars think in terms of their field, then teachers think in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. On my weekly page, you can see that the tasks for the week relate to each other. They are all part of that week’s topic. They follow sequentially: first post the primary source (forum), then check it for points (quiz). My design has instantly become irrelevant.

My practical response today has been to go through all my classes, adding the weekly page to the To-Do list, as the first thing that week. It will be tricker to do this for my lectures and other non-graded or linked items, since Canvas doesn’t “see” those at all. I will have to link each on a Page and put the Page on the To-Do list, forcing students to click twice to get to it. This will take all weekend.

But my holistic response is much more important. The units we teach are no longer units — they contain no flow or contiguity when seen as disparate tasks. If students access all academic work as a flat list of tasks, there is no connection between assignments. There is no connection, for example, between Reading 3 and Quiz 3. Assign the Reading for Monday. Assign the Reading Quiz for Wednesday, and it isn’t clear they relate to each other.

This explains the other messages I’m receiving. “I see we have a Lecture quiz due, but what is that on?” At first I smirked and thought, “The Lecture, of course!” But now I realize they don’t see the Lecture unless they’re on the weekly page. “The Calendar says the second post is due – where do I post?” You can’t put two due dates for the same discussion forum. They don’t know where to return to in order to post.

In an age when we worry that students don’t read whole books, we have something here that is much worse. How can they do sequential and scaffolded learning when the system won’t let you scaffold?

It changes the rules utterly. Here are the “new” rules (some have been good practice for awhile):

1. Assessment and responses must appear with the content.

Quiz 3, in other words, must contain Reading 3 within it. You can’t have a link for Reading 3 on Monday and Quiz 3 on Wednesday.

Note here that group text annotation, of the kind I’m using in Perusall, is ideal. The content and the activity are inextricably linked.

2. Double-level discussion may not work.

In Canvas, to have students return to a discussion, it will be necessary to link to that same discussion in the Calendar later in the week.

One alternative will be to have the entire class inside a discussion forum. This won’t work in Canvas because it doesn’t allow real threads, but might work in other systems.

3. Navigation schemes are useless.

Obviously, my own weekly page navigation, even if it’s on the To-Do list, is worked against forcefully by Canvas.

Some would say return to Modules. But Canvas’ own Modules are irrelevant, except for adaptive release, or to force task order. Students won’t use the Modules page either, even if it’s the main page. They may never see it.

This also applies to the Home page itself, especially a nice one. It is now obsolete. All we’ve learned about making the Home page welcoming is irrelevant.

Again, the new rules (and I’m sure there will be more as we all think about it) are the result of the disaggregation of content and tasks. This is both an effect of the technology, and a cause of the disaggregation of knowledge. We’d better plan accordingly.

Fun with YouTube: the pure embed

I like using YouTube clips for my classes, but I don’t like the clutter: links to other videos when it’s done playing, the title showing at the top, low quality. So I play with the embed code:

//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/yodnppdZh2M?rel=0&vq=hd720&showinfo=0
//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/yodnppdZh2M?rel=0&vq=hd720&showinfo=0

See what I’ve added after the video code, ending with the ?
rel=0 > YouTube adds this when you deselect the “show related videos” on the embed code

vq=hd720 > means to show it in maximum resolution or HQ if it has it

showinfo=0 > to get rid of the title showing at the top of the clip

That’s better.

First road test of Hypothes.is

It’s all about annotation, and I’ve been comparing Kami and Hypothes.is. Last semester, I used Kami  ($50 for no ads) for students to annotate text with my History of Technology class. I had some success, but I was not happy with its limitations, so this summer I tried Hypothes.is instead.

The students were offered a video tutorial on how to use it. I made a group just for them. The assignment was extra credit — for each of the three classes I uploaded an article for them to read and annotate, replying to each other. Sample instructions:

Extra credit for up to 3% of the grade:
1) Get your own account at Hypothes.is at https://hypothes.is/register. Please use your name as enrolled for the username.
2) Join the test group at https://hypothes.is/groups/n3an6ndm/test-group.
3) Go to https://via.hypothes.is/fand.lunarservers.com/~lisahi2/hist104/AnAggravatingAbsence.pdf
4) Annotate the article with your own responses and answer those of others. Annotations are graded on academic quality, connections to coursework, acknowledgement’s of others’ ideas, and evidence of understanding of the article.

I had been concerned that they would automatically post in Public instead of in the Test Group, because I could find no way to limit that or point them directly to the group page – the choice is made only via a drop-down menu in the upper right corner. Sure enough, several students posted in Public and missed the discussion going on in the group. I will have to add this to the instructions as well as in the tutorial.

I had thought that analysis and counting their contributions would be made easier by the brilliantly conceived Hypothesis Collector, created by John Stewart. It worked great last night. Unfortunately, when I tried it this morning, it only gave me the posts that had been made as of last night. I simply couldn’t get it to work and had to manually count annotations to assign points. I have been contacted by Jeremy Dean of Hypothes.is for ways to integrate with Canvas – this might be a huge help next year.

I am considering providing my next class textbook, The American Yawp, with my own annotations. The book, an open textbook, has a number of faults and omissions that would make for great learning opportunities for students. My own annotations would be like mini-lecture commentary, glossing on the text. But for some of the summer articles (one out of three of mine) in Hypothes.is, the section one highlights is quoted in the annotation without spaces, which is ugly. Also, there is little color or design in the annotation box to alert the student to the presence or unique character of an annotation.

Samplehypothesis

I think Kami looks better for this, and then I will export my pages as PDF for the students.

Kamisample

I had originally thought I could use The American Yawp’s own affordances as an updated online text, but just got an announcement that, ironically, their current update will be integrating Hypothes.is. Each page served by them will then come up with an invitation to annotate publicly. While this might or might not help students with the text, it provides an additional way for students to go wrong beside the Public or Group problem, so I don’t think I’ll be working off the Yawp html pages regardless.

Don’t get me wrong – the business model of Hypothes.is is wonderful. They make a real effort to reach out, adapt and update. In fact, that’s one of the reasons for this post – to provide input that I hope will continue its improvement as an open source product made by people who really understand the value of text annotation.

Adventures in Accessibility: Part I

Yes, it’s a pain. Yes, it stifles our creativity. No, it doesn’t make sense to pretend that we can make every online learning artifact accessible to everyone with any type of disability, be it physical, cognitive, emotional, socio-economic, or educational. But we do it anyway. Not because we believe in the dogmatic, administrative, litigation-phobic approaches of universal design, but because it’s cool to do it, when we can.

So I’m taking a closer look at some of my multimedia, to see what can be made more accessible to people with certain types of issues, or, better, to be made more interesting and comprehensible to all students.

The first discovery: YouTube’s captioning is so much better than it used to be! Log in. Upload your video. Wait overnight (or sometimes just a few hours). You can even set the video to private. YouTube will create captions as best it can. Select the cc button, and see the captions in a sidebar. Click edit and edit them. You can set the video to stop running when you type.

Oh, you say you have a transcript? Perfect. Just upload your video and select the option to transcribe instead. Paste in the transcript. YouTube will set up the timings as best it can.

youtubecaptions

Sliders are now available to move the caption around on the clip. You can even see the audio waveform below to help. You can insert caption bits. Then save.

But wait, it gets better. Don’t like YouTube? Want to serve your video elsewhere. Download the captions using the actions menu (.srt format is pretty standard). Then you can upload it somewhere like Vimeo or Dailymotion, which has better video quality and no ads.

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)

Another voice for history

To take students through the text of a historical document, I downloaded a sample UK voice called Peter from Infovox (free for 30 days, then $20 for the one voice). It works through my Mac’s Universal Access system. It’s quite awkward to have it read just text, since even at high-threshold settings it wants to read aloud all the computer commands and window changes. By putting the Magna Carta into a TextEdit document and recording with Snapz Pro, I did this:

I also tried a UK male voice at Cepstral but I couldn’t get it to behave properly.

This approach might be more effective with bouncing ball or highlighting, but I’m not sure.

Animated lecture in context

What if I could give a bit of history lecture “on location”?

Continuing with looking at animation, I downloaded Tellagami  (which I first read about on Greg Kulowiec’s blog) to my iPod Touch and was able to do this:

It saves as mp4 to the Tellegami website, and their Share button gives embed code. Or I suppose one could download it using one of those sneaky browser extensions.

The limitations were that I had to upload photos to the iPod, and that the audio was a little dicey – I had to make sure the Touch was a couple of feet away from me to not get static. Oh, and it’s limited to 30 seconds!

I don’t have an iPad so it hadn’t occurred to me to look at apps, but now I will.

And next I hope to borrow an iPad to try Explain Everything, the other app from Greg’s post.

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.

Presence through video and Voki

Instructor presence, though it can be defined more technically, is a perception that the instructor is there and available to the student during a class. Lately, in addition to my weekly summaries and guidance in the discussion forums, plus announcements and messages with individual students, I’ve also been using two other elements: an introductory video at the beginning of class, and a Voki introduction to each week.

Here’s the introductory video for this coming summer:

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/i3Oyg-GDmpY?rel=0

Here’s video on how I create my weekly Voki:

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/nPd7TklVLRg?rel=0&vq=hd720

While both are clearly presentations rather than interactivity, I think the spontaneity is important in encouraging students to see me as a real person at the “other end” of the class. That’s why I prefer cheap and easy methods like these (webcam and iMovie for the video, free Voki for the animation) rather than more “professional” means.

Ending the Half-Assed Textbook Adoption

Next semester I am completely textbook-free, having dropped even the historical atlas so I can do other cool things with my new Honors class. My Western Civ text is a compilation of my online lectures, which I’m editing over break. Everything else is Wikipedia “context reading” and my extensive online written lectures. All else is student discovery, posting, interaction, practice, etc.

In the meantime, I receive emails from the bookstore demanding my book orders. The assumption is that I must order books. Also in my email is notification of a subcommittee meeting on campus about affordable textbooks and what to do about those high prices.

Is the textbook era over? No. If I loved a book, if I used every page, if I followed a textbook slavishly in my class, I’d order that book.

What’s over is the era of the half-assed textbook adoption. The classes where the prof has students buy a whole hardback textbook but only use half of it, or only assigns a few chapters, or has students read “selections” from it. We can’t, in good conscience, do that when textbooks are so expensive and bookstores just can’t find that previous edition, or sell it used at exorbinant prices.

I didn’t intentionally dump them all, you know. I looked carefully for a book, as I noted in last month’s post.

But this semester I used a new book in my early Western Civ, an on-site class. It has good sources and its own methodology, which corresponded with mine — collecting primary sources and analyzing them together instead of engaging in narrative. (Narrative, I’ve decided, is Wikipedia’s job, or mine if I have a particularly good story to tell.) And we used this book, and they did homework from it, and they mined it for documents on open-book quizzes.

But I wasn’t really into the book. I didn’t love it, I didn’t quote it, and we only examined its contents intensively in class a few times. So why did they have to pay $80+ for it? Not good enough.

So go ahead and adopt that textbook. But do it wholeheartedly, because it’s the basis of your class. Because it fits so well with your pedagogy you smile when you open it. Because you know that $150 for the new edition is totally worth it, since it gives your students such an excellent educational experience.

Just don’t go half-assed.