Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.
Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.
The implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.
The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.
Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.
With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.
Although at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)
Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.
While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.
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.
They still like my lectures the most, and textbook readings the least. They still like posting their own primary sources.
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….
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 hate emotions. Yes, I know that’s an emotional thing to say, but they get in the way of learning more than any other thing.
I struggle to understand why students drop online classes. I’m not getting much help from the research. Compared to the traditional classroom, we know that online students get lower marks (Fonolahi 2014). But we’re also thinking that they need greater social interaction (Boston et al 2009), want more direct instruction and feedback (Gaytan 2015), and apparently do not need to experience a locus of control (Cui 2015).
Couple this with the article in the Atlantic on Starbucks helping baristas go to college. What’s working to keep students enrolled, the article points out, isn’t just the money for tuition. Contracting university ASU has in turn contracted with a company to provide personalized monitoring. Students are called and encouraged to stay on track. Most need assistance with their confidence as much as working their way through bureaucracy.
The undercurrent here is emotions, the affective domain. I suspect a great deal depends on how students feel. If you feel comfortable in a class, you stay in the class.
On-campus classes often have a built-in comfort/affective boost, because students have been in that environment for 12 years of school. We remove that when we go online – I understand that. And we assume that because students communicate with each other and with parts of society on cell phones and computers, that the environment is familiar, but we know that for learning it really isn’t.
So we worry about the social online environment. Will students feel isolated? Will they feel they aren’t really in a class?
But now I have to add: will they feel it’s too much work? will they feel they don’t have time to do this class? will they feel that other classes are easier than mine so they’ll drop mine?
My classes are friendly, I’m friendly, I reach out, I email when people are struggling. I use their names. I track all these students. I contact them. I do not phone them or go to their house, though (I’ve had an admin suggest that, but there are many reasons students take online classes, and one is privacy).
Since this post in 2009, my drop-out rate has increased. I have done surveys on why they drop, and asked them. In response I’ve reduced the workload, especially the number of writing assignments. I’ve considered publisher cartridges and programs. I’ve even considered switching from Moodle to Blackboard or Canvas, but if I switch, then my very best pedagogy (the History Lab) won’t work because the LMS won’t let me batch grade posts.
And then I start to wonder, why is all the pressure about retention put on faculty? Some newer studies suggest that retention in courses students take for online breadth-requirement classes (like mine) is 64%, about 10% lower than on-site (Wladis et al 2015). If I had more history majors, it would be closer to 81%. All the studies acknowledge “external factors” (reading level, GPA, online class experience, jobs, family support, etc.) and yet all the advice is that faculty should do things to make the classes more inviting, more engaging, more relevant to their current lives regardless of the subject (Park and Choi 2009)
Could the institution help? Yes, I think so, but how they could help would be controversial:
1. Create a barrier. Students attempting to enroll in an online class would have to do something to force understanding of the self-direction and commitment required. Perhaps this would be an interactive tutorial, but it should be something that keeps popping up throughout the semester as a reminder. This might help students feel like this will be hard, this will be a challenge, this will require effort.
2. Have the college contact them. Not the teacher, the college. According to this article, at the University of West Georgia, retention increased when faculty reporting students they couldn’t reach to academic advisers who tracked them down and offered cheerleading services.
I have more research to do, of course (I’m stashing all my Diigo bookmarks here). Many of the studies are based on student surveys, and I know from faculty evaluations that these seemingly “objective” surveys are usually based on how students feel when they respond to them. Some of the research (Croxton 2014) is tying together student satisfaction and retention in terms of theory. In a world where some students want trigger warnings and controls on free speech in order to protect their feelings, any focus on how students feel, and how their feelings affect their decision to drop the class, would be helpful.
In my last post I detailed my experiment for Fall, wherein I will teach one section of modern U.S. History online using a publisher’s course package, adding only my own discussion topics (four) and writing assignments (five). All other presentation materials and assessments will derive from the package. The class will take place in Blackboard, our fully supported college system.
There are challenges already. The package is set up by chapters, yet chapters cannot be assigned individually inside Blackboard. I have “linked” my Pearson package to the Blackboard class, but all this means is that a button can be used from inside Blackboard which takes you out to the Pearson site. (Supposedly the Blackboard gradebook will reflect the Pearson grades – I’ve “linked” that too.)
But that’s not the real challenge – it’s the material. For each chapter, there is a long list of resources: document activities, image activities, map activities, “closer look” features. Since each of these has at least one question attached (I assume that’s the “activity” – there’s nothing else active here), I assumed these were multiple choice questions, for automatic grading. Turns out most of them are “essay” questions, all of low quality (i.e. “what is x talking about in this document?”), that I would have to grade. I’ve assigned over a dozen for each chapter. Besides, the whole idea of the experiment was to be using their pedagogy as much as possible instead of mine.
So now I’ve spent many, many hours creating multiple-choice questions, one for each document or image. Because I’m an experienced teacher, my questions are good and require critical thinking even though they’re multiple-choice. That in itself may undermine the experiment.
The other (huge) challenge is the quality of the materials. Not only are the questions stupid, but the items themselves do not contain full citations. Some are just copyrighted “Pearson”. Many do not name a photographer, or just say “Library of Congress”. Some don’t even have a date! They let you into just enough code that I can kind of correct some of these by adding words to the title. But there are audio files with no lyrics or transcripts. And, worst of all, the primary source video clips (Edison’s footage of Annie Oakley, footage of the Rough Riders) are in low resolution and look terrible. I could find better quality of the same footage using Internet Archive. There are also typographical errors in the transcript and in the titles and descriptions of the sources.
The interface for me requires a lot of deep drilling to do things, and the system persists in showing items I supposedly made invisible because I won’t be using them. It does, however, distribute any changes I make across the system.
Clearly MyHistoryLab is just a book supplement, rather than a full course cartridge, and yes, I expected much more. REVEL, their new, more interactive program, only became available yesterday, so I can’t use that yet because I don’t have time to play with it and make assignments. Stuck with MyHistoryLab for this semester, I can only hope this will be a semblance of the experiment I planned.
As Rhizo15 leaves the week about content (obviously I was not paying attention), I feel obligated to be the voice at the back of the (now empty) room saying, “But I like content!”
I love it. I’m the kid who sat on the floor reading the encyclopedia. I’m the student who got thrown out of the library when it closed. I’m the one looking up studies on the internet. I love content. All content. The expression of human knowledge, going back for centuries. Give it to me. In books, online, in text, on video. I want it all.
Why do we diss content in favor of connections? I like connections, I learn from them, but only when I bring something to the table. What do I bring? What do my students bring? Understanding of, or questions about, content. Content is what we’ve read, seen, heard.
Let’s not remove content – please don’t take it away. If we do that, we’ll all be connecting and communicating, but about what? About connecting and communicating? I like information – it gives me something to argue about.
Say, all these Rhizo15 tweets and posts I’m reading – they’re content! The product of other people’s minds, set out for me to absorb/enjoy/dispute/misunderstand. We create content, we share it, we respond and the response is more content.
I’ve MOOCed and rhizomed and connected and I still love content. The content we’ve inherited, the content we’re given, the content we discover, and the content we make.
I can’t measure learning, only the symbolic artifacts of learning.
That’s not so strange. We measure civic responsibility by how many people vote, but we can’t measure how “good” those votes are, the extent to which they are backed by intelligent thought or research into the issues. We can only measure outcomes.
As a college instructor with over 200 students and no assistants, I’m in an impossible situation to assess learning. I can only assess outcome achievement. I pretend that I can create assignments that will produce symbolic artifacts of learning. Then I grade the artifacts.
But it’s all a ruse. A student comes in with certain skills. Perhaps they already know how to learn, or have already learned the subject. They get As and Bs because they are engaged and eager to learn. When I give them an A for producing excellent outcomes, I have no idea whether I am grading their learning. What if they already knew or had examined the material before my class? What if they did all the work, but it didn’t change their mind or approach in any way? The “A” is a measurement of outcome achievement, regardless of background.
Similarly, the student who turns in no work at all may have learned something, something amazing, something that may or may not have related to what I taught, but was connected to my class. I’ve had military wives who learned, not history, but how important it was for them to have somewhere to be each day. I had a surfer guy who learned that if he synthesized information and then created his own interpretation, his conclusions were valid and could be important to others. I have students who learn that if they are polite to me and treat me with respect, they will in turn be treated with respect, and students who learn that faceless institutions don’t have to be impersonal.
If my measurement for that were individual, it wouldn’t relate to their grade in History. If my measurement were societal, I’d need to look to society. When I look to society, I see an awful lot of people behaving as if they’ve learned nothing from history. So instead I hope that they learned what they needed, whether or not I was able to assess it.
(this post related to the Rhizo15 class)