Practice and principles

The tension between theory and practice occurs in many fields, and it is certainly marked in online education. As with many academic disciplines, in online education the practice began without a foundation in research, since one can’t research what is essentially new.

As college professors, many of us began (years before there was online anything) by actually teaching. We had very little, if any, training in education or pedagogy. Some of us became good teachers anyway, because we loved what we did, we wanted to share our knowledge, and we cared about students. We learned about principles, research and techniques as we went along, and rolled them in to our practice.

So the idea that we should start with principles when introducing faculty to online teaching seems strange. We now have a good mix of professors who began as “just” practitioners, and those who have had training in teaching techniques. We learn from each other regularly.

So what are these principles, the ones I think should come later in the process? Jim Julius, our current Faculty Director of Online Education, recently put together a workshop on Foundational Principles. It was designed to be the “glue” that holds together a mashup of his office’s workshops with those of our Program for Online Teaching. We are running these this week.

His slides are great! Many of the useful principles I learned as I went along over the last couple of decades are there: Bloom’s TaxonomyUniversal Design, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles, the Community of Inquiry model. So much useful stuff.

As a POT workshop presenter, I am not sure where to use these, however. I know that many faculty come to online teaching concerned about technology, time, and tools. They are professionals already in the classroom, and may be excited or fearful (or both) about teaching online. At POT, our motto has always been Pedagogy First. We want to start with faculty as professionals who have already developed their own approach to both their discipline and their teaching. To present them with principles seems to ignore the knowledge they already have, and suggests that they need to somehow “start over” to teach online, that they don’t have the information or skills they need. Our focus is on the individual instructor, and his/her pedagogical strengths. We want to help faculty translate these strengths into an online class, while exploring online environments and tools they may find interesting. So our approach goes the other way when it comes to principles – we help faculty review the methods they’ve already found effective, and work from there. The principles come up naturally during the evolution of practice.

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The Cart Before the Horse, Flickr cc Emilio Labrador

As a practitioner, then, I find myself dealing with principles by reverse engineering from what I actually do. Here’s what I do, here’s what works – oh yeah, it happens to fit this model and is affirmed by this research. That may be proof of one of two possibilities: (1) I actually read this stuff somewhere without knowing it and unconsciously applied it (this seems unlikely) or (2) the techniques I developed through practice using (and continually revising) my pedagogy were good enough to be backed up by research that came later.

That does not mean that what I do could be considered “best practices”. Rather, they are the best practices for me to use, until I decide to try something else.

The concept of foundational principles, to me, seems to imply a model of “best practices” that apply to everyone. That may be a perfectly valid way to introduce newbies to online teaching, or it may do two very bad things for faculty: limit their approach by making it seem that a certain way is “right”, and intimidate them before they even start.

I am a historian. If I had been presented with the “principles” of History before I did any, I wouldn’t have gone into the field. Most disciplines are like this — the “methodology” or “proofs” course is taught at the sophomore or upper-division level, then again in graduate school.

POT’s Certificate Class tries to combine advice, exploration, self-awareness and a bit of theory, but always starts with the instructor’s pedagogy, not principles. So if we err, and I’m sure to some we do, it will always be on the side of practice over principles.

 

Models for task-based open online classes?

Lately it’s been kind of eerie in the world of open online classes, at least those taught by folks whose work I respect the most.

Emblem7BmedThis year, our Program for Online Teaching leadership for the POT Certificate Class was down to three overworked facilitators, plus our wonderful moderators and those who let us use their videos. The class was definitely a Small Open Online Class, and since it had assigned readings and a schedule, and since MOOCs have become mega-commercial horrors, I no longer call it a MOOC of any sort anyway. For such a small group (60 registered originally), the community was fabulous, both supportive and knowledgeable. A little over a dozen learners completed and earned a badge for spring semester, and/or a certificate for the entire 2013-14 year.

The format of the class was different from the previous year (2012-13), where I had struggled (as a non-programmer) with FeedWordpress to bring in everyone’s feeds. Instead we used a Google Site. We asked everyone to post a link to their blog post at the Site, and engage in discussion at the Site instead of in the blog comments. I was able to bring in blog feeds easily using Gadgets.

I just took a peek at Alec Couros’ DCMOOC, and noticed participants in their Google Plus Community posting links to their weekly blog post. Aha!

Now, when it came to our POT Cert Class this year, there were some issues. I wasn’t delighted with the non-nested discussions in Google Sites, and we discovered that three people couldn’t really run the class effectively, even with moderators, when all three facilitators work full-time plus. But the need, at our college and elsewhere, for pedagogically-based learning about how to teach online is still there. So we decided to create a self-guided Learning Pathway instead.

Then I discovered there was already a Google Plus Community, to which I was invited, called Learning Pathways. Aha!

cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped

cc Wavy1 via Flickr, flipped

Anyway, I started creating the new Pedagogy First! Learning Pathway (work in progress is here), and my colleague Laura Paciorek has been helping. The idea is that the pathway is essentially comprised of curated content and assignments for a portfolio, and that any individual or group could participate and use the site for a “class” or individual study. Then for community, we plan to use our own POT Google Plus Community (mostly because some folks don’t like Facebook, where we also have a POT group).

So then I find that Jim Groom has created a self-directed class for ds106. Based on the successful Headless ds106, it is called the Open ds106 Course. Aha!

The synchronicity is striking, or at least it strikes me. And the trends for these classes, and many more, defy a number of assumptions I made when all this cMOOCishness and openness stuff started. I mean waaaay back in 2005 or so (which is also when I started the Program for Online Teaching).

(NB: I am deliberately ignoring xMOOCs, those based in commercial or university-commercial collaborations. My focus here is on what I’ve called Task-Based MOOCs.)

I am surprised to see that when it comes to task-based open online classes:

1. We haven’t ditched the “course”.

While we all acknowledge the importance of connections and helping people be nodes in a network, what this looks like in practice isn’t that different from any other sort of dedicated community that uses online space to interact. And we all continue to create some sort of teacher-designed content, even if it’s just a pathway through assignments or a schedule or a set of expectations.

2. We don’t have a wide variety of platforms from which to choose.

I believe that Alec Couros began designing open courses in wikis, but now is using WordPress. Jim Groom’s ds106 is WordPress-based also. So was OCTEL. Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOCMOOC used Instructure Canvas, but for most of the open classes and cMOOCs, WordPress seems preferred. I’ve moved back to it myself with the Learning Pathway, although the discussion will be in G+. I recall when the choices were more diverse, and even a time when Alec and I were searching for an open discussion program that featured nested posts, as in Moodle and Ning.

3. The personality/persona of the instructor continues to be a factor in the success of an open class.

Jim Groom, David Wiley, Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Jesse Stommel — all have distinct, interesting personalities and teaching styles. Participants, even while creating communities and connections, are guided not only by the design of the class but by the instructor’s presence. Without a teacher who inspires, an open online class is just a website.

Given these similarities, do we now have models for independent open online classes? And when it comes to designing an open online class, have we hit our stride or are we in a rut?

Course Footprints

This morning I attended the session Footprints of Emergence, led in the SCoPE community out of British Columbia by Jenny Mackness, Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau based on their recent work published in IRRODL.

I have followed, and even worked a time or two, with Jenny, and am always interested in watching whatever she is working on. Since I missed the first session on November 19, I viewed the recording  to catch up on the ideas. Then during the session, I had printed out a footprint map and tried filling it in for the POT Cert Course.

To oversimplify enormously, the idea of the footprint is based on a kind of map for a particular course or “complex learning environment”, and the emphasis is pedagogy and course design. The base map is a circle, with more structured, prescribed learning experiences toward the center, and more “emergent” (self-directed, expansive, connectivist) elements toward the outside, with “chaos” being the ultimate outside edge. The circle is divided into four areas: Open/Structure (the space or environment and how it’s set up), Interactive Environment (the extent of contextualization and interactivity), Presence/Writing (the learning process and product, or the way the learning is realized), and Agency (self-direction and autonomy of learning). A blank map, available in Word  (I just printed out the image) looks like this:

 

 

Each quarter of the circle contains many factors that can be scaled across from more prescribed to more open (here’s one of the charts to explain each). Each can be marked on the map with a dot, and then the dots connected to make a shape. The more the shape is inwards, the more prescribed and directed the experience. The more near the edges the shape is, the more it emphasizes emergent learning. You can see other people’s examples of their courses here.

My interest at first was mapping out the design of the POT Certificate Class, because I knew that much of it is prescribed and I would like it to be more open, although that’s difficult with beginners. I would be mapping the class from the point of view of the designer. As I began, Scott Johnson, who was also in the session and has been with us at POT Cert, offered to map from the point of view of the student. Here’s mine – a footprint of POT Cert as it actually is, rather than my ideal:

 

 

Then Scott emailed me and said something about evaluations, and suddenly many possibilities occurred to me:

  • POT workshops could have faculty map their courses. We could guide them through as we were being guided in this workshop.
  • My students in history classes could do it, and I could see how their view compared with mine (another form of student evaluation).
  • K-12 teachers could use this across the curriculum, sharing their maps with each other.
  • Department members who don’t get along could map their own course to discuss differences in pedagogy.

Because what this system does, in addition to providing a way to think through ones own pedagogy, is create a presentation of ones course that can be seen at a glance and compared to others. It’s much easier than visiting a dozen classrooms or clicking through a bunch of online classes. It could spark conversations about pedagogical goals.

What it doesn’t do is dismiss the more prescribed modes of teaching and learning. Although they are closer to the centre and therefore literally less “edgy”, more controlled environments, materials and assessments are by no means considered as irrelevant. This is refreshing, as in my own experience I have found it very difficult to apply the utopian connectivist principles I love as a learner to my role as a teacher of underprepared community college students.

In the chat, Jenny commented that the idea here was balance, but perhaps it is more than that. These map lines can become fluid, changing at various times in the semester, or even for the individuals in the class. Perhaps a class begins with, for example, very limited agency, but as the course continues, that agency becomes more emergent. That’s what happens in my classes – as the semester goes on students have more and more freeedom to bring in resources of interest to them, while at the beginning things are much more instructor-directed.

Although I will undoubtedly make some adaptations, I will be using this somehow, to generate conversation by having participants actually do something (instead of just telling them to “reflect”). A light bulb went on with this – there are many places it could go.

The new Google-dominated POT Cert Class

Last year, the POT Cert Class was set up in a WordPress blog, and I used the FeedWordPress plugin to pull in everyone’s blog posts. As an open class, some people participating in the class were doing cool things other than following the syllabus, so there was a separate Deep End page for their posts, where I used HungryFeed. The whole setup is explained here and here.

It became too complex for one person to handle, particularly when that person is me and problems occurred, like feeds not being pulled in and the fix being code-level.

So this year I had different goals.  The plan was that everyone still have their own blog, but share the link to their weekly post in the Pedagogy First Google Plus Community.

But as I set up the WordPress blog (which was there for the syllabus, widgets, static material), I realized that there was no need for two systems. After consulting with my colleagues Jim (our blog meister), Laura (our commenter and organizer), and Todd (our captain of synchronicity), I shifted the whole thing to a Google Site. There was no need for the Community, since I had some old gadget that could do discussion.

sitespost

The only miscalculation was that my old gadget nested discussions, but when I moved the discussions to the new site, they didn’t nest. This made me angry, but I got over it. In the first place, each person would be posting a link each week, and everyone would reply to them anyway. And in the second place, it wasn’t worth going back to WordPress just for that. I will miss nesting, but it had just become necessary to simplify.

It was also, as Todd pointed out to me (after his initial concerns about Site, which he works with a lot), an opportunity to learn while doing while learning while doing. That’s what POT is all about anyway. So the fact that I’d never run a Google Site shouldn’t matter, and will be a challenge, and what the hell.

Yes, we’re missing some things doing it this way. Some things are bad:

1. I created a Google Form to have people register, then I manually Share the Site with them, getting their info off the registration form. So they must have a Google account (and I thought a gmail address, but it seems OK so long as the whatever address is accessed via Google). Google does not allow people to just have comment permission – everyone who comments must have full edit permission. But I trust everyone in the class – I know they won’t mess up the site. So as names come in, I must Share with full permissions.

2. Sites will only allow use of a limited number of “gadgets”, which are kind of like WordPress’ widgets but far less flexible.

3. I could not figure out at first why people who were logged in to Google already, and were given full permissions, could not comment. Turned out there is a little, tiny, teeny-weeny “sign in” link at the very bottom of the page. I turned it into a big button. I also found out that when other people log in, they see a link to a Google survey. So I did this next to the button:

sitesbutton
4. The list of those allowed to Share cannot be reorganized, so it’s hard to see if I’ve added someone already.

5. Gadgets are blind. You cannot see them until you save them, so you can only see them in non-edit mode, so if you use a lot of gadgets it’s hard to see what the hell you’re doing.

6. There is a Google Discussion gadget that I could have used instead of my old gadget (I still have no idea where it came from) but that would require putting everyone into a Google Group, yet another little Google box that would have to be set up. Then the forums would be gadgets. Yick.

But I’ve been able to do some cool stuff:

1. Weekly discussion links in the Navigation menu. 

This took a little work, but Site’s More -> Edit site menu settings let me add pages, call them what I wanted, and put them in the order I wanted into the menu.

sitesnavmenu

2. A good substitute for those feeds. 

Although it’s not the central way to read everyone’s work, I was able to create a page of feeds using the same gadget over and over.

addgadget

3. The site can be open yet protected.

Everyone can see everything, but only those with Edit permission can comment.

4. More cool things I don’t know about yet.

But I’ll find them!

Do I have reservations? Only about every five minutes. How could we do this? How could we put our discussions into such a space, dominated and controlled by Evil Empire #2 (or is it #3? I’m losing track)? What if Google cancels Sites next month?

Be flexible, Todd tells me. Be nimble. OK. Let’s do it.

 

POT Cert changes

pflogo2We are planning for the Program for Online Teaching Certificate Class for fall, and there will be some changes!

We’re keeping the independent blogs.

After discussion about having all participants as authors on one blog, we’ve decided that the “space of ones own” concept was too important to lose. MiraCosta instructors will continue to have the ability to get a blog through the college. For others, we’re no longer encouraging Edublogs (which makes you pay now to embed video). We enthusastically encourage a hosted blog of ones own, but we realize not everyone is up to that challenge. We are moderately encouraging WordPress.com. We’re noting that Blogger seems to work rather well, so it’s the first time we’ll recommend that. Since we aren’t aggregating, there are more choices – people could even use Tumblr.

No more FeedWordpress or a big aggregated blog

This turned into a nightmare that could only be improved by being a coder, which I’m not. Dealing with recalcitrant feeds (and finding them when people can’t tell where they are) became a major time suck. I can use another plugin to create a page of feeds if I want to, but it won’t be the core of the course. I still recommend the FeedWordpress method to anyone who has coding knowledge, time, and/or the staff to make it work. I have no staff.

Commenting will be part of a larger community are instead of on the blogs.

Last year, posts were aggregated and clicking to comment led back to the participant’s blog. The blog and comment (call and response) model has not been working as well as we’d hoped.

There are many reasons for this, but my take is the basic idea that blogs weren’t really intended for conversation, only commenting. One purpose of blog comments was to make sure participants knew they weren’t blogging into a void, but this wasn’t always achieved despite the very best efforts of our mentors, moderators and participants. Requiring comments leads to useless comments, and not requiring them leads to very few comments. The method was not fostering community. And no, I don’t believe it would have done so even if the comments had stayed on the aggregated blog. Moderators weren’t really moderating a conversation, but rather giving attaboys which, while important, did not provide real conversation.

Instead, we’ll be asking participants to share a link to their weekly posts in a new Google Plus Community, which is where all discussion and commenting will take place.

No, this is not ideal. There are privacy concerns (well, not so much privacy as Inappropriate Gathering and Use of Personal Information) in forcing folks to use Google. The same was a concern in our Facebook Group, where much interaction has taken place. But in order to introduce participants to the largest social networks being used for education, and in order to have meaningful, recorded and open synchronous sessions, we’ve decided to go with Big Brother.

Workload is reduced and more options provided

It’s a heavy course, with much reading and many tools. We’ve reduced these by providing options (for example, try a video or audio tool, not one of each). We are moving some of the readings into an “optional” column.

A badge can be earned for one semester

We’ve changed the structure to divide the 24-week class into two 12-week semesters, each with a different focus: Online Pedagogy for fall, and Online Education (for spring). Each can earn a badge, with both badges within two years required for the certificate.

This will provide a reward for those completing one semester, and choice of focus. Fall is heavier on pedagogy and course setup; spring is heavier on tools and theory. Beginners will be encouraged to start in fall, but more experienced online instructors are welcome to hop in for spring.

So we’re still working, but these are the ideas so far!

More on setting up a WP/FWP Open Online Class

I administer the technology for our POT Certificate Class. This is despite the fact that I do not code, don’t know PHP, and basically taught myself anything I happen to know, with a lot of help from my online network. Over a year ago, I posted about the initial setup.

One of our class participants, Jaime Oyarzo at the University of Alcala in Madrid, is trying to create a similar setup at his place, and so has been asking me about what I’ve done. Responding to him gave me the opportunity to pick apart what I’ve done a little more.

Participants set up their own blog wherever. Then I need to get the feeds from those blogs into the Pedagogy First! aggregated blog, using FeedWordPress.  I use the Add Link widget (yes, I know it’s old) so participants can add their own, and have provided more extensive instructions for them about blogs and feeds. In particular, we want people who post on many subjects to not only use the “potcert” tags for their posts, but use the feed for that tag only. This is so only their class-related posts show up on the class blog.

The back end of this process is a little more complicated. When participants enter their information in Add Link, it goes directly into the Blogroll. The Blogroll is what feeds into FeedWordPress as a default.

I customize the titles of feeds and the names of participants to use their real names for everything. I change the titles of feeds by going into FWP’s Syndication area and using Feeds & Updates. Using the drop down menu to bring up a particular blog, I change the title and click manual control so it doesn’t revert back the next time the feed updates. When I do this, it seems to update automatically in the Links area. Then I go to Users and make sure their names are their full names by editing them individually.

I also want a widget listing everyone’s blog so that readers can go directly to anyone’s blog at any time. For this, I use a Links widget with a Link Category (this year I called it “Certificate Students, Mentors and Facilitators”). On the Links page, I make sure that everyone’s blog is in that category so it shows.

I created this visual primary to show Jaime what I was doing – he helped me refine it:

For some reason, this year I have experienced no CPU throttling that I’m aware of. I’m using CPU throttling to check load because I had big trouble with it in my summer Moodle class – only 40 students and it was constantly overloading. But despite last year’s problems, I haven’t seen any problems yet, even though I forget to optimize the database more frequently than every two days, the default setting.

So just FYI for anyone trying to do this without knowing how to code.