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.



The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

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.

computerizedlearningThe 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.

wikinoAlthough 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.

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21 comments to The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

  • Cathy R

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been feeling similar disquiet about the use of learning analytics, not just to track students’ progress but to guide it, showing students what the analytics algorithm surmises is “best” for them to see next, based on their usage data to date. Not only is this insidious and controlling, it’s also largely invisible to students – they don’t even know that their “learning pathway” is being manipluated via machine learning. Scary stuff. Apart from the questionable ethics, it actually disempowers students by removing their agency in the learning process.

    The chaotic nature of web surfing is not all bad – it’s certainly not a waste of time if done mindfully (even if not well-structured). The use of predicitive analytics to design “personalised learning pathways” (what a euphemism!! – it couldn’t be LESS personalised!) removes any creativity from the learning process, shuts down opportunities for productive digression, and worst of all, takes the wonder (in both senses of the word) out of learning.

    While learning analytics are a useful tool, in particular for identifying students at academic risk (and hence assisting the targeting of retention strategies) the temptation to use them for evil not good is always with us. I’m doing my best to resist it!

    • Yes, I see the connection to analytics – it hadn’t occurred to me that this could indeed be extended to mandatory pathways guided by prior work. Good call on that. I like “productive digression”!

  • […] to the broader problem with only basic literacy around the managing of your online life. The LMS, Lisa M. Lane argues quite eloquently,  is stealing some of the mot germane opportunities we have to teach students about the web by […]

  • Thanks for this, Lisa! After trying out Canvas as a space over the summer, I had no desire (NONE! ZERO!) to try to actually build something in there. Why would I? I am used to real web spaces built with real tools… and I would say it is a sad commentary on faculty web literacy that they would be satisfied with trying to create content using Canvas “Pages” where you cannot even put labels on things or organize your content into folders/directories, and where there is, literally, NO navigation unless you stuff the content into “modules” with a strictly linear “do this next” approach to navigation. Blech!

    I can easily create a flexible, searchable, discoverable, expandable, sharable, linkable FUN library of free books online for my students using a simple blog (… what a nightmare it would be to try to build that in Canvas. By creating their own blogs and publishing several posts every week, my students likewise learn the power of blogs for content development; some of them also choose to learn how to use a site-building tool like Google Sites, which means that they are then able to look at the advantages and disadvantages of the different tool options. They will never learn any of that inside Canvas.

    Even if you make a Canvas course 100% public (as I have done), content authoring inside Canvas for faculty seems doomed. The LMS doesn’t care about courses as they persist over time; instead, the LMS is built to support an enrollment system which assumes “new course, new semester.” So, yes, I can migrate a Fall course into a Spring course instance: but what about links people might have made to my Fall course content? I won’t be updating the Fall course anymore (I’ll be updating the Spring course)… so either people will be seeing stale content or they will not find the content at all (if I shut down the old course to avoid the duplicate content problem). Nightmare. It’s why I cannot and will not do any course content development in Canvas. Canvas allows open content, yes, but that turns out to be not very useful because, as an LMS, Canvas does not accommodate a lasting course website that gets developed semester by semester, year by year, with stable links and evolving content (while students come and go).

    We have a Domain of One’s Own program at my school, so faculty can get free, excellent webspace of their own to use for course websites, as can students… but that option was not even mentioned in the Canvas training I took this summer, even though the Canvas trainers work in the same program that provides the DoOO pilot.

    It’s downright surreal to be having this discussion in 2016. This is not at all what I expected when I started publishing course content back in 1999 on the open web. Course content MATTERS. But the LMS does not seem to agree. I just don’t get it: why do we do this to ourselves…? Discovery, integration, community: that is what we need, just as you say, yet it is not what the LMS offers at all.

  • Jörg

    Hi Lisa,

    I would partially agree with you. During my university studies, I used to enroll to Coursera-MOOCs while learning for the university. And this gave me two dimensions of learning: the Coursera stuff was more like that foundation that gets skipped in the university, and the university courses required me to read and discuss off trodden tracks.

    I think, both have their right to exist, you just have to know what is good for what.
    And I still think that the time with the professor is better spent if the students already have a certain knowledge and you can discuss critical points intensively.

  • Oren

    I recently visited a small liberal arts college that is sunsetting their use of a LMS entirely – they said faculty by and large didn’t see the value in it when they already had a wealth of other web tools available. I think that’s a smart and gutsy call.

  • I’m no huge Canvas fan. In fact, I’m no huge LMS fan. And I agree that hyperlinking implies navigation, and that wayfinding and other similar conceptions should be integral to how we think about, design, and use online resources.

    But I see challenges in both a less-structured student web experience, and I see opportunities in Canvas to do just what you’re saying.

    First, there’s a fine line between helping students learn to explore and navigate–and letting them get lost and confused. Navigation, like everything else we do with students, should indeed be scaffolded, as you suggest.

    If you meet your students face-to-face, you can support them in navigating a more complex network. You can demonstrate it and answer questions.

    But if your students are 100% online, as mine currently are, when students can’t find things, they can easily just get stuck. And that can crash their entire learning process for that week.

    Second, I don’t see Canvas as enforcing linearity so strictly. Canvas is very configurable. If you want to put every task in linear order, you can–but you need not. Goodness knows it takes a lot of work to build a more interesting interface in Canvas. (Why do LMS purveyors assume that I have all day to click 18 times to create the simplest web experience?) You can ask students to look for things, help them experience the web as a hyperlinked space, and help them get used to finding things where they are likely to be, not in a lockstep straight line.

    I applaud your focus on these issues. But then I have fears and hopes along these lines that are slightly different from those you highlight.

    • Understood. Yes, it is possible to get to know Canvas well enough to be more creative — my previous posts who rather desperate attempts in this regard, many blocked by Canvas’ own restrictiveness. The defaults (used by most novice online faculty) not only do not encourage it; they actively discourage it.

      “Finding” things is a complex issue. What’s desired here is that all courses have the same, simplistic navigation. No one wants students to get lost, but be do want some navigation skills to be nurtured. Not all sites they may experience will be laid out like the Canvas defaults. We are encouraging a dependence and an increasingly inability to explore, by ignoring the basic construction of the web, and learning experiences, as areas of education. Canvas is the most blatant LMS I’ve seen designed to sidestep this knowledge.

  • I agree with Lisa here: luckily for me, I designed my courses in the real Internet before the LMS had decided to “help” me do that. Do my students get lost? Not much. If they do, they ask me for help, and I help them, and then I improve the design thanks to their feedback. I don’t need to be in a classroom to do that.

    Canvas lets faculty PRETEND that they don’t have to think about design, which is much more insidious in my opinion. By taking away options to make things “easier” for faculty, the LMS helps you to build a nice, safe, predictable, boring course that does not help your students learn, nor does it help them develop digital literacy skills along the way.

    The Canvas training at my school as we make the transition was a “click-here-click-there” approach (exactly what the LMS anticipates), rather than an exploration of what kinds of opportunities are available to us online – some opportunities like in the classroom, some not. Personally, I am a fan of “connected learning,” so the connectedness of the Internet is essential for the kinds of classes I want to design, making the Internet a far better space than the classroom ever was for me. Instead of a teacher-centered classroom, I need students to have their own spaces, connected to one another in a learning network.

    Canvas is a total fail for me in that regard, as is every LMS which does not allow each student to be a node on the class network of learning. I had some dialogue with Canvas’s Jared Stein and Brian Whitmer about this: why does the (awful) Canvas profile page not function as an aggregator, pulling together student contributions within a course or, even better, across courses? The success of person-based streams for social networking has been around for YEARS now, but has the LMS learned from that? Apparently not. And without person-based streams, I cannot design the kinds of courses I want/need to design.

    Convo with Jared and Brian here:

    Now that OU is using Canvas, I watch the Canvas Community, and I just don’t sed much interest in connected learning, which is not surprising I guess. Canvas represents what schools (administrators, technologists) want: a MANAGEMENT… SYSTEM… which is about controlling students. Not about connected learning.

    And really, it is not on Canvas: it is on us. Apparently we’ve got the LMS we want. To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  • Excellent discussion.

    I am not a fan of Canvas either–very much for the reasons mentioned.

    When I supported faculty migrating to Canvas, my suggestion was often:

    1. Hide the existing menu and create your own links.

    2. Write a page presenting the entire course, then a page for each week or unit. Use these pages to orient and guide students, and link *directly* to the resources/activities (files, quizzes, discussions, etc.)

    3. Use the ‘course front page’ at the beginning of the course, and then swap it out each week or unit for you new guiding/orienting/linking page.

    That is rather locked down and does not encourage navigation within Canvas.

    But then one of the upshots of this discussion is *perhaps* that students may learn more about navigation by *leaving* the LMS than by staying within its unappealing beige-colored walls.

  • For the Canvas homepage, I use a blog. Thank goodness it is possible for me to do that, although it requires a bit of wriggling. Details here:

    That’s the same solution that I used in D2L, although it requires more wriggling in Canvas than it did in D2L. I wrote up those notes to help others who might have less patience in learning how to do the LMS wriggle.


  • Lisa,
    I read this post two days ago and I’ve been thinking about it since. I find myself in the curious position of having built my own courses on open platforms (WordPress and GitHub Pages, mainly) for years due to frequent moves and then taking an instructional support position where one of my main roles is to train teachers on how to effectively use Canvas.

    I find myself torn between its usefulness in getting teachers introduced to the idea of putting course materials, and entire courses, online. The templating can be helpful as they make the transition. I agree with Mr. O’Neil above, in that many of my recommendations center on having a fluid, changing course presentation for students based on the current topic or major course needs.

    How much of the frustration being felt (we’re feeling?) is because many of us have already made the switch? Are the confines of the platform are poignant because we know what the alternative can look like? I’m still teaching one course and I’m doing my best to push Canvas to its limit so I know what it can really do in a class setting. At the same time, I’m continuing to make mental notes about what it cannot do and what alternatives we need to present to faculty as they look for more tools to add to their inventory.

    • Hi Brian – yes, I think some of us who’ve been doing this a long time are feeling the pain not only because we know what the alternative can look like now, but because we know what it could have become. The technology restraints that limited creativity in the early days have been mostly resolved, and yet with all these choices, this is what we do? Reminds me of my favorite Zits comic, from 2008:

  • Re: what Brian Bennett said about “what the alternative can look like” … my guess is that one of the biggest barriers we face in promoting different approaches to course design online is that faculty have usually never experienced a student-centered online learning experience. If their experience is driven by their own learning in a classroom, it’s understandable that they would not understand student roles and teacher roles in an online space where things can work differently, even very differently, than in a classroom. If they cannot imagine what the student experience is like, it would then be very hard to imagine their role as the instructor in that different type of course. That problem might change as younger faculty who are coming up, but not if the only online courses they might have taken themselves were poorly designed courses which attempt to mimic (badly) online a conventional classroom course.

    The only solution I can see to that type of problem is for faculty to cultivate an active presence online in social networks where they are learning as part of their professional development. It’s unlikely that there is a simulated “course” they could take that would be a real learning experience, but if they participate in some kind of social network and develop a real presence online, an authentic presence, then on the basis of that online learning experience of their own, they would have a better basis for designing an online course in which students would be using digital literacy skills as part of their own learning.

    Although it’s hard to generalize, the digital literacy skills of many faculty are not really that high, and their use of the LMS is certainly not helping in that regard. Students suffer from that stultifying effect of the LMS, as Lisa pointed out, and faculty do as well. My digital literacy skills are high, but I did not learn them from using Blackboard or WebCT or D2L or Canvas. I learned basically nothing from those LMS tools. Instead, I learned my skills from using real tools as part of my working and learning online, especially blogging and microblogging tools, and because I build my classes with a blogging network, I get to learn new things about blogging and web publishing all the time as a result of working together with my students.

  • P.S. I also have to point out that Canvas Community’s very lively shared communication space for Canvas users is NOT run with Canvas software. Instead, it is powered with Jive community which has LOTS of features that would be enormous enhancements for the Canvas space, shifting it from being a content-delivery-system into a learning community platform. Participating as I do sometimes in that community, I can get “acclaim” and “positive feedback on my contributions.” At Canvas, I can only get… grades.

  • One thing I often do when supporting faculty who will use online tools is: to ‘eat our own dogfood.’

    That is: if they’re going to build a course in Canvas, all OUR materials are stored in Canvas.

    I then systematically use different tools and ask the faculty I’m supporting what they think of each.

    This way the faculty do get the ‘student experience’ (or part of it), and they incorporate that into their design decisions.

    A larger issue around that is: most people don’t understand design as a process. People often think they are transferring a live experience piece-by-piece in a one-to-one ratio with an online experience. Of course, THERE IS NO SUCH EQUIVALENCE.

    Design is problem-solving where the goal state is largely undefined. And, as several here have thoughtfully pointed out, faculty don’t have a clear image of what that is and SHOULD NOT until they have really defined what they’re trying to accomplish.

    Everyone commenting here has been down that road, and so you know not only the disciplinary learning goals but also these other goals like media literacy, navigation, wayfinding, etc.

    A lot of faculty who teach online will never have all the experiences the folks discussing here have. But faculty who teach online can get a taste of it and see how online teaching is not just plunking down assets in a linear flow–to return to the original topic.

    • If newbie faculty get the student experience, and that experience is based on Canvas defaults, they will find it easy. I have watched faculty do this with Blackboard – the defaults are understood and used as the base of any class, regardless of the pedagogy the faculty use in their classrooms. So I’m not sure I’m against starting with the “transfer” idea – it may help faculty who are new to online consider their pedagogy first. The difficulty here is that if they do understand their pedagogy, and do see some ways of creating it in the online mode, but then the system cannot create it for them, I’m not sure we’ve come very far in design.

  • Well, I am putting the materials in Canvas, so I am not using the defaults. As I wrote: I’m using different approaches so faculty can experience them first-hand and choose.

    I disagree that a face-to-face course can simply be transferred one-to-one online with even moderate effectiveness. If the course is all lectures, with two tests, a midterm, and a final, I can be fairly sure that will not be an effective online set-up, based on what we know about social interactions, frequent and rapid feedback, and online learning.

    Even when faculty have a nuanced sense of pedagogy in the face-to-face context, the learning transfer to a new platform is challenging. That may be what you are saying, Lisa, but it’s hard to tell from our abbreviated online chatting–which is sort of the point.

    • Oh, I don’t think we really disagree. F2F courses cannot be simply transferred to online. But if an instructor is aware of his/her pedagogy, and has developed effective methods of teaching in the classroom (that would certainly include more than just lectures, tests, a midterm and a final), then that can be a good starting point for determining what they want to do online. I have seen countless cases of good pedagogy, pedagogy that suits the instructor and emphasizes his/her strengths, thrown to the wind as the faculty member tries to grasp what they must do in an LMS just to make it functional. So yes, indeed, it is challenging. What you’re doing with making things available in Canvas is, I’m sure, designed to encourage creativity. Not everyone has that kind of awareness and presentation of what faculty do, the way you do. For most faculty, the introduction to online teaching, through Canvas or any LMS, will be LMS training based on defaults.

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.


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.

Three online class types

A draft of another tripartite idea, this time focused on online classes in general, across the board.

mcdonalds_fries The McClass

Run inside an LMS, or even better by Coursera or Udacity, and/or offered by proponents of the mass-produced course (U of Phoenix, Ashford, etc), the McClass features recorded lectures, an unmoderated internal discussion (if any), and grading by graduate students, peers or staff (and soon robo-graders). All xMOOCs are in this category, but so are classes created by teams of instructional designers or course developers and “content experts”, but facilitated (I hesitate to use the word “taught”) by less experienced instructors or program coordinators. Sartorial analogy: one size fits all.


The sub sandwich class

It’s a six inch or a twelve — you can change the mix of ingredients inside but the options are standardized. Sub sandwich classes are offered by community colleges and universities dependent on a single Learning Management System, the inherent design of which influences (and may determine) instructor pedagogy. Even built on a whole wheat system like Canvas or an in-house product, the defaults of the LMS are easy to adopt without requiring an examination of ones own pedagogy. Hallmarks include dependence on publisher-produced materials, and an internal, traditional moderated discussion of issues, usually lacking a constructivist focus. Quality varies and is partly dependent on the freshness of the ingredients.


The artisanal class

Created by the instructor, the artisanal class includes only those elements that help realize the instructor’s pedagogy. The design is developed based on knowledge and experience as an active, independent teacher. The artisanal class may exist inside an LMS, but when it does the LMS is substantially customized, and often external web elements are brought in to replace built-in features (blogs, wikis, etc). Hallmarks include a foundation in free and open or home-made formats, innovative assessment techniques, and a distinct lack of top-down control. Discussion may be distributed or focused on content creation. Flaws add character and provide opportunity for community creativity. Most cMOOCs fit this model, but so do classes offered by public institutions who allow faculty substantial control over the design and deployment of their work.



4 comments to Three online class types

Higher Ed and the Monastic Space

Lately I’ve been engaged in a conversation in G+ with Laura Gibbs, George Station, Donna Murdoch and Edward O’Neill. We’ve been talking about the current controversies in higher ed in terms of the value of on-site versus online education, in particular the role of the physical classroom, and the extent to which it may no longer be needed. The question of whether the online classroom will/should/can replace the physical classroom is, of course, a very old (what, 14 years?) topic. But I’m seeing different metaphors now.

The most significant, I think, has to do with space in which to think. For example, I personally like a certain amount of clutter. I like to be surrounded by books and objects. But I also find clearing counters and hiding objects create a different kind of work space, one more conducive to contemplation as well as relaxation.

If we accept that when people learn new things, they need space and time for reflection, the question with online learning concerns the environment where reflection can take place.

My classroom on campus

The physical classroom, at least at the college level, is often a fairly sterile space, without much clutter. I recall when I was first hired that I frantically hung posters on the walls and wondered why there weren’t any bookshelves in the room. It seemed like a place that was too clean and bare to learn anything.

Now I look at my computer screen, cluttered with disorganized files. And my browser, with its many tabs open. Emails come in, ads pop up, while I work and try to learn things. Yes, students have grown up with multiple distractions like this. But in many ways I’m actually more accustomed to it than they are, since I grew up hating silence and quiet. I had the TV (not the radio – that’s only one input) blaring while I wrote every paper in college and grad school.

At the same time, I know many students who do very little classwork outside of the physical classroom. On-site students seem to think that everything to do with learning should take place in that space. It’s a challenge I’ve been working with for a number of years. I was “flipping” the class before it had that name, moving more and more analysis into class time, reducing lecture and shifting the delivery of facts to out-of-class time. The result, predictably, is little reading or listening outside of class, which I anticipated. I now aim for balance.

In declaring the end of Higher Ed as we know it, Edward O’Neill writes that we have a Higher Ed system based on mistaken beliefs, such as proximity being necessary for quality, and learning being transmitted by contact with smart people via osmosis. He writes

In short, colleges and universities are to the mind what monasteries once were to the spirit: places where you lock yourself away in close proximity to powerful souls whose vibrations will influence you deeply by a kind of prayerful osmosis.

CC licensed mbac via Flickr

Monasteries were a place for the mind also, as were medieval universities where a great deal of “study” (quiet, independent study) of texts was key to learning. Even today, most of the great intellectuals, whether they are teaching at universities or not, would tell you of many hours spent in contemplative study. I always find it amusing that so many of the techno-utopians and 2.0 educational reformers have degrees and knowledge based on extensive book learning. Deep learning can’t happen without deep reflection.

So, in the online world (by which I mean both online classes and the always-on-electronic world where many of our students live), where is the space for contemplative study? Could it be the physical classroom?

In suggesting a special place for the physical classroom, I risk the wrath of my colleagues in educational technology, MOOCs, and the other wonderfulness that is learning online (maybe Jim Groom will ask me which side I’m on again!). But I have seen students who need the physical classroom to learn, and it isn’t just because of osmosis or time management issues or tradition or industrialized education or Pavlovian training.

They need it because the physical classroom provides the only even partly contemplative space they have, a space where they are supposed to pay single-minded attention even if they choose to watch surfing videos on their laptop instead, a space where they are supposed to think about one subject for over an hour, a space where some of them actually learn better than online. I have students contact me when they’re not doing well in an online class, and they are very apologetic that they just seem to “need the classroom”. Ira Socol noted, in rejecting the flipped classroom for public schools, that a lot of kids do not have a supportive environment for study outside of school. That is still true in college. We’re a commuter campus with limited library hours. I have students who were kicked out of the house when they reached 18, or can’t think at home because they miss their deployed spouse. They need classrooms.

Our exciting “new models” for higher education are models that counter industrialized and standardized education, which is great. They emphasize collaborative work, social learning, and the affordances of the web in achieving greater learning through guided exploration and community, all fabulous things. But in promoting them as a substitute for “old style” learning, they also risk eliminating a place that may have become the last monastic space in which to work with the mind.

5 comments to Higher Ed and the Monastic Space

  • I’m glad you found the “conducive” word 😉

    I’m curious more as to what makes a contemplative space. My own years in higher Ed involved a lot of time in classrooms but really might characterize but a few as contemplative. I found that happened in the library, study lounges, out on the grassy mall.

    The space itself dies not guarantee the contemplation it’s also what we are doing there. What I do agree with us the value of having he proximity of others in contemplation, or whatever you call it when people do this in proximity.

    The isolation of what a lot of online learning is today is a problem. I’m curious to think more of how that can leverage the social proximity effect, that space where people can bounce ideas, riff, sniff the adjacent possibilities.

    It *can* happen in a classroom but that itself is not the sufficient condition.

    • Yes, indeed, not sufficient, just necessary for some (possibly many). Some libraries (especially the ones where computers are separated from the stacks and the study corrals) and common spaces work for this if one already has the intention for mental work. And social proximity can provide that expectation as well, although I’m more focused on the activity of the individual mind when placed in particular spaces. In the classroom the expectation of such work is automatically heightened, not just by fellow students and the instructor but by the space. And although not everything that happens there is conducive (!) to contemplation, there is encouragement for thinking, the idea that thinking on a subject should be occurring in that particular space. I want to use these expectations rather than ignore or try to change them.

      The focus on online learning being isolating may be a bit misguided at this point. Many students today are accustomed to online social interaction. I think the multitasking and non-academic social activity be a bigger pull away from contemplation than social isolation.

  • I wonder if it isn’t just a contemplative space that we are lacking but actually the habit of contemplation. The multi-tasking, fast-paced, frantic-activity life that is becoming more and more accepted as normal, if not essential, if we are to be ‘productive’ is squeezing out much reflective time from our lives. I notice this personally at work – only a few years ago sitting and quietly talking with others in an unstructured way in the staffroom for example was seen as productive reflective work that benefited everyone in both direct and indirect ways. Now, this just doesn’t happen – people have higher teaching loads, larger classes etc etc and are always dashing from one thing to another, to everyone’s detriment. For those moving into tertiary study from school, many have never really experienced contemplation or been given the opportunity to explore their own minds and thinking without the distraction of attention grabbing stimuli – sitting silently, quietly thinking, is an alien space for many.

    • It’s true that contemplation is no longer a habit. If everyone is running around and it’s accepted as normal, then the spaces become even more important. Does a room full of people, most of whom are trying to think, help?

  • […] in her post higher-ed-and-the-monastic-space says: Our exciting “new models” for higher education are […]

Diluting the Kool-Aid

Finding myself arguing social benefits of an LMS was a sobering experience. It happened tonight in a COOLCast featuring Bon Stewart, who had mentioned that she prefers networks to systems like Moodle because the students can find each other. I shared my story of discovering students finding each other using Moodle Messages. Then I actually argued that some students might feel more comfortable contacting each other inside an LMS, where there is a commonality with other students, all of whom are taking the class. This might be more comfortable than Facebook, where you are supposed to be “friends”. In the LMS, you are clearly colleagues and might feel freer to call upon each other for, say, help with the class.

This, combined with my last post including some good things about an LMS or course blog, means I’m diluting the Kool-Aid.*

I know the strong flavor of connectivism, the headiness of open networks, the high of networked learning. I’ve experienced and studied it in the CCK08 class four years ago, in the joy that is ds106, in Twitter, in Facebook, and Diigo and Google Plus. I am a networked person, a networked teacher. I’ve read Vgotsky, Holt, Tapscott, Gladwell, Kamanetz, Rheingold. I’ve taken class with Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Couros and Groom. My articles on why Learning Management Systems are badly designed and anathema for novice online instructors still hold true.

Yet I’ve been continually skeptical (some would say critical) of ignoring the bad impacts of social media, the privacy violations, the perpetuation of teenage popularity contests through such sites as Technorati and Klout. I’ve also read Lanier, Bauerlein, and Carr. And I’ve watched in horror as the wonderful openness that is MOOCs gets commercialized and monetized and universitized and systematized.

I’ve used Blackboard and Moodle and WordPress. I’ve watched my own students get lost, inside and outside an LMS. I’ve seen them ignore the obvious, mislay the instructions, forget the deadlines, fail the class, inside and outside an LMS. I’ve also seen them fly outside the box, discover wonderful things, build their own learning, both inside and outside an LMS. In my SMOOC I’ve guided a global contingent of adults in using their own blogs, aggregated to a central blog, and had some get lost, and some get joy.

And each semester I agonize over using Moodle again, feeling trapped in my 6 sections of 40 students each. But I am not a novice online instructor. I create meaningful assignments, and make informed choices about what I have my students do and not do. I can force an LMS to do what I want. So why do I feel pressured to “network” my students’ class experience? Will their learning really improve if they search the web for primary sources and post them on their own blog instead of in a dedicated class space? Will they learn history better communicating with fellow (18 and 19-year-old) students in the space where they talk to their friends? Will they become better historians if they follow their own interests to the exclusion of, for lack of a better term, the canon of historical “content” considered basic knowledge in other countries?

All the flavors are important: self-directed learning, open education, constructivism. But a watered-down version, inside an LMS or on a common blog, can let them join the party without passing out in the bathroom. They can use the open web for their research, finding their sources, then return to the familiar “classroom” to get information, post their work, discuss with colleagues.

But me? I can drink the Kool-Aid straight up to study all this. I want it as strong as I can get it for my own learning about the web as an environment for learning and an educational tool. But I wouldn’t want that if I were taking an online class in biology, math, or literature. I wouldn’t want to go find my colleagues in Facebook if I didn’t understand that Coleridge poem or what Assignment 1 was supposed to be about. I’d want a classroom, and class colleagues, and a space I know is dedicated to learning. I’d at least want to start with watered down Kool-Aid and a sippy cap, then get the strong stuff in a big girl cup when I have more experience.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m thinking today.


* Cultural literacy note: “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a tasteless reference to the Jonestown Massacre

4 comments to Diluting the Kool-Aid

  • I’m finding myself less and less concerned about where the main course spaces are these days, so long as students have the ability to take their work with them. So in that sense data portability has become more my focal point than PLEs as such.

    I still believe there is a lot of value in PLEs for the people who really “get” them and have developed the necessary literacies/skills to fluently navigate them. However I also find that students often seek the known L&T spaces that they are familiar with. So unless you are teaching a course on digital culture or media, there is a real danger of the sites/services taking priority over the subject matter and related learning processes.

    I think ultimately in order for PLEs, distributed networks, MOOCs and the like to really have a meaningful effect they seem to require a program level view that devotes the necessary attention to helping students develop the right skills. Given this doesn’t tend to exist in most places, it really does point to the need for a more tempered approach to where these tools fit, I think.

  • I like Tropical Punch myself, the real fruity kind.

    As a half full glass optimist, I prefer to think the networking effects can happen in most any space. Getting lost is uncomfortable, but I worry if we shy too often away from that, because you learn more from finding your way when lost then never getting lost.

  • Lisa, you are lucky with Moodle. With Desire2Learn (and, as I’ve learned) with Blackboard, there is nothing there to drink. The pitcher is empty. For example, in Desire2Learn, students are FORCED to use their “name of record” even though, in a given semester, about one-third to one-fourth of my students are using either a nickname (Bobby instead of Robert, say) or, even more seriously, using their middle name instead of their first name (so, D2L forces my student Greg to be Harold, whether he wants to or not). As long as students do not have basic control over their identity in an online system (choosing the name, choosing the avatar, “representing” themselves in virtual form), I cannot find a good way to make use of the system. That’s why I use a Ning for my class interaction space (blogging space, comment walls for additional person-to-person interaction, etc.). There’s simply no way to make Desire2Learn do even the minimum of what I need it to do for networking… which is no surprise, since Desire2Learn is being marketed to an audience of faculty for whom networking is not a priority. In fact, for many it is positively undesirable.

  • @Mike – agreed on portability, which seems to me relatively rare. I focus on spaces because that is where most faculty start.

    @Alan – yes, exactly, networks can happen anywhere – I just confess I’ve been biased thinking they cannot happen inside systems, although I do think systems may stifle their freedom. I wonder now whether the stifling, kind of like the 1930s Hays Code, doesn’t inspire some need to break away and create your own.

    @Laura – I don’t know what to call those super-closed systems. There is something different about the restrictiveness of Bb and D2L that defies logic and totally contradicts the whole Hays Code idea. Ning is, of course, a system too, a network in a box, but in that way more like Moodle or WordPress.

Justify that pedagogy

The focus on technology for teaching becomes increasingly dangerous, and the only response is to articulate ones own pedagogy and be prepared to defend it.

More and more articles imply that teachers who don’t use the current gadgets and technologies are illiterate and useless.

On the other side, in a recent article, it is gleefully pointed out that Michael Wesch’s methods (which rely heavily on Web 2.0 and student exploration) may not be suitable for everyone, as he observes another professor doing quite well with lecturing. And yet Wesch’s awe at the effectiveness of another professor’s non-technology-based pedagogy should not be surprising, because Wesch is a good teacher who sees that different pedagogies may be equally useful.

Ed tech pushers try to force people to get trained in technologies that may soon be worthless or, worse, may force the pedagogy of the instructor into modes unsuitable for that person’s teaching style. I have refused to use far more technologies than I have adopted.

Luddites would have one believe there are no improvements to be made in classroom teaching. While this certainly isn’t true overall, it may be true for those who experience success in the more traditional methods. There is simply no proof that the charismatic lecturer teaches more poorly than the Web 2.0 devotee. Hattie’s studies indicate that student achievement is only related to a few teacher-controlled areas, and that these are primarily feedback, student’s prior cognitive ability, and instructional quality (knowledge, guidance, more feedback), none of which require technologies beyond a space with a roof and some writing materials.

Meta-cognition about pedagogy is what’s valuable here. In a world where some want to push people to use educational technologies (including Blackboard and other expensive college-wide systems) and others want to drone on and on or read from the book and call it “lecture”, we must all be prepared to defend what we’re doing. This is true whether we’re in a formal faculty evaluation or a hallway conversation. The ability to do so is an important skill, or we’ll get overwhelmed by supposed “improvements” that can do a great deal of harm to our effectiveness as teachers.

Few of us were asked to consciously develop pedagogy when we began teaching. We were either left alone or given a specific model to follow (deliberately or accidentally). We assessed our own effectiveness through how well we thought students understood, and what grades they earned according to our standards. Most of us got upset when students did poorly, and changed our pedagogy and materials (often every semester) to try to “get through” and improve results. In this development, we came to believe that certain things were important and other things were not, and through experience created our own pedagogical framework. We operate within that framework every day, keeping what seems to work and changing what doesn’t.

But we must learn to articulate why, to understand our own strengths and the reasons we teach the way we do. Great lecturers should not need to justify why they don’t use the web, unless they are in a research field and are refusing to help their students access the world of information. They should not be forced to engage in small-group activities or other techniques that do not work for them. You cannot use a technique effectively if you can’t do it well, and none of us does everything well. We try to do better (I am currently working on guiding large-group discussion, an area of weakness), but we must be allowed to use the techniques that we find most effective.

So don’t come into my office shaking your head because so-and-so just won’t use the web for his classes. I don’t care. Does he teach well? Does he know his subject, communicate it effectively to students, and assess their understanding? Can he articulate his pedagogy and justify his method?

We also need to be prepared to do this for online teaching. Here the training and understanding of technology is necessary, but its purpose is to achieve our pedagogy in an online environment. The equivalent of the boring classroom lecture is there online too, in posting Word documents in Blackboard, asking a few questions in the discussion forum, and assuming the class will run itself. Good lecturers must learn the technologies to get that energy online if they want to replicate their pedagogy in an online environment. Teachers who excel at groupwork must learn the technologies to do that effectively in an online setting. Those who want to use a guided exploration technique may naturally be led into Wesch-style 2.0 teaching.

All these can be justified if we focus on our pedagogy instead of who “gets it” with technology and who doesn’t.

3 comments to Justify that pedagogy

  • […] Lisa’s Online Teaching Blog: “Few of us were asked to consciously develop pedagogy when we began teaching. We were either left alone or given a specific model to follow (deliberately or accidentally). We assessed our own effectiveness through how well we thought students understood, and what grades they earned according to our standards. Most of us got upset when students did poorly, and changed our pedagogy and materials (often every semester) to try to “get through” and improve results. In this development, we came to believe that certain things were important and other things were not, and through experience created our own pedagogical framework. We operate within that framework every day, keeping what seems to work and changing what doesn’t. But we must learn to articulate why, to understand our own strengths and the reasons we teach the way we do.  . . .You cannot use a technique effectively if you can’t do it well, and none of us does everything well.” […]

  • Vanessa Holanda POT class

    Lisa, do you feel you have two different approaches to pedagogy when teaching a F2F class, and an online class?
    If so, what are these two approaches? The reason I am asking you this is because I have never experienced teaching a class online, and I would like to know what has been your experience having the opportunity to live in both worlds? What are the things you have done differently when teaching an class online than when you have to do it in a classroom?

    • I like this question so much I’d like to use it as a foundation for our synchronous session this Thursday!

Middle ground: web 1.5, sets and more

This week I have been attending to the various discussions around the recent work of Jon Dron and Terry Anderson, including the Hot Seat forum related to the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning (no, I’m not going to Maastricht) and Jon’s presentation at the Change MOOC (the web space for this is here). Sources also include Dron and Anderson’s 2009  article Lost in Information Space: Information retrieval issues in Web 1.5.

I am intrigued and delighted with an approach I see as middle ground between the Web 1.0/closed classes/LMS/hard tech/group focus and the Web 2.0/open education/network/connectivism focus.

For the former, the model seems to be formal groups of people, such as a class, using closed but comfortable ways to learn online in a manner prescribed by an instructor, with the result being a grade.

For the latter, we have the open ideas of networks, learning taking place in weak and strong connections, with softer technologies that provide for more creative work. Looser forms of assessment (such as badges and feedback) follow this model as well.

In the middle of this dichotomy is what Dron and Anderson  call Web 1.5, and what they refer to as “sets”, unintentional collectives of people who learn within a shared interest. Thus there is a middle ground between the horribly limited, walled garden system and the wild, diffuse, scary openness of networks.

These discussions are especially timely in light of my own efforts to find such a balance between closed/open, safe/scary, hard/soft in designing my online classes for next semester, where the unscary stuff (my own work, such as lectures, information, readings) is completely open, but the scary stuff (anything graded, such as student forums, quizzes, and essays) is closed in the Moodle LMS.

It is not, as I’ve noted, an ideal balance or compromise, because unlike the Elgg VLE used by these authors, I do not have granularity of permissions where students may choose exactly what elements of their work are open or closed.

I had thought that creating a broader “group” in Facebook (of all my students, not just those enrolled in one class) would design some openness for them, but of course I have been reminded that Facebook is closed too. It’s just an LMS with advertising, and a flat social space. On the other hand, at least there isn’t any hierarchy, and perhaps there is comfort there within a more open way of communicating, if not a more open role.

As much as I love the far out, wild west, final frontier elements of open web-based learning for my own use, I do not think my students are ready to the extent that I could handle helping 240 of them manage it. At the same time, the limitations of LMS-based education drive me crazy. So it’s productive to envision Web 1.5 pedagogies that could, in Jon’s Goldilocks analogy, get to a point of “just right”.



What’s wrong with canned courses? Just one thing.

As we see colleges like Rio Salado and for-profits like National, Argosy, and Walden “Universities” create huge online programs, we see more and more courses designed by “teams” and taught by associate faculty/staff. When online learning began, of course, faculty created their own courses and taught them, but there were efficiencies to be had by creating one course and having it be reused by everyone. Publishing companies were quick to start creating their own courses to go with their textbooks, complete with Blackboard cartridges and/or their own learning management systems (I was asked by at least one of them to write a course they could sell). And now Google and Pearson are teaming up with their own “free” LMS (you’ll pay with your personal and marketing information) so that people can “share” courses (in their LMS’s format) under a Creative Commons license (Attribution only, of course, so they can be sold later — it wouldn’t do to have them be Non-Commercial and Share Alike).

Sense my disgust? To me, these are all canned courses, made to last a long time and be consumable by anyone, but more importantly, taught by anyone. We continue to sojourn, often voluntarily and with enthusiam, into the Land with No Professor, as detailed elegantly by Alex Wright in his From ivory tower to academic sweatship of 2005.

So now I hear things like this more than ever:

“So what’s wrong with using the publisher’s PowerP*ints if it’s good stuff?”
“So why shouldn’t I use the course cartridge? I create and run my own discussion boards.”
“They do all this video and stuff better than I do — that keeps students engaged.”

I sputter around, after I get my chin off the floor. What about the de-professionalization of teaching? what about improving those technology skills? can’t you see it’s all the commercialization of education and you are a willing participant?

But today, after thinking about this issue for, oh, fifteen years, it occurred to me what’s really, really wrong with using course cartridges and canned material.

It’s modeling the wrong thing.

Modeling is very important — some say it’s the most important aspect of college teaching. It’s our main job, Stephen Downes says, modeling and demonstrating. A faculty member shared with me only today an exam where he accidentally had two questions that were the same, but one phrased concretely and one conceptually. The students aced the concrete question and failed the conceptual question, though the answer was the same. I suggested that instead of asking them what happened, he instead should model how he developed the question, what he was thinking he’d get in response, and what happened when he saw the completed exams. I suggested this would show the students he’s human and works on these things, share his method with them so they feel included, get him good answers to why it occurred, and review the material, all at the same time. That’s what modeling does.

So what does it mean when we build our courses on material created by someone else?

If we are using it wholesale, out of the can, we are modeling a lack of creativity (in addition to implying that our own view as a discipline expert is kind of beside the point). It’s very difficult to model how historians do history (or chemists do chemistry, or writers write) when we are using someone else’s interpretation or method.

We are also displaying an absence of critical thinking, the kind that we say we want our students to engage in, unless we are using canned content as the start of a discussion about perspectives on that content (I wish that happened a lot, but it doesn’t).

And we’re showing a lack of respect for our own professions as practitioners of both a discipline and of teaching.

If we want to promote a thoughtful citizenry that can make important decisions, work creatively to change what’s wrong, and innovate to make our society better, it’s a pretty poor example to rely on canned material.

Tin Can as Cheese Press cc Chiot's Run

Is there a good way to use all this excellent content? You bet. We can disassemble, disaggregate, reinvent, repurpose, re-create. We can take just what we need (quiz questions, maps, slides) and use it to support our pedagogy. If the publisher doesn’t allow that (I can’t take apart the PowerPoints provided by the publisher of my textbook, for example) we don’t use it. We can learn just a few skills — maybe editing video or doing a screencast or slideshow. Make our own stuff. It won’t look professional, and that’s OK. It will look human, and students will be seeing an example of an instructor who makes his own stuff to get a point across. As with modeling the design of a test question, whatever we make will be saying to students that we cared enough to make it to help them understand.

It will also model that we are professionals with viewpoints created from a deep understanding of our fields, individual viewpoints based on common methods, vocabulary and standards. That’s what we want them to do — use the skills of our discipline to better understand the world, and help improve it. As Richard Kahn notes about Howard Zinn’s argument that professors should share not only their viewpoints with the class but how they developed them:

[F]rom a perspective such as Zinn’s, our job as educators is to invite our classes into the rigorous pursuit and production of the living history of ideas—the truth of our unfolding human process in all of its registers. In this way, we thus also model for students how to begin naming and navigating the various socio-cultural forces coalescing around them, to articulate and argue for their own perspectives on society and its institutions, and so in good faith become democratic citizens capable of exerting their own civic leadership.

We certainly can’t do that with a course cartridge.

9 comments to What’s wrong with canned courses? Just one thing.

  • Clare Atkins

    Thank you Lisa for articulating so clearly so many of the concerns that have nagged at me over the last 10 years! I had never really taken the time out to really examine what made me so uncomfortable about canned courses that can be taught by ‘anyone’ – I just knew there were a number of things wrong with the model, for both students and faculty. I really appreciate you giving me such a well considered reference point.

  • Pedro Tamayo

    Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your thoughts. I agree totally with them.

  • Amy

    And I disagree, but that may be because I oversee a team of instructional designers who work with faculty to build courses for our growing online program. What I’ve seen is that as we work with faculty, the courses we are developing are more creative and rigorous than anything they’ve taught before. Our students are extremely happy to have assignments tied directly to the learning outcomes and with artifacts that demonstrate professional competencies. If I could trust that the 100 or so adjunct faculty that we bring on every 8 weeks to build courses that had the same level of rigor, that had creative ways to meet learning objectives and assess consistently, then I certainly wouldn’t be spending $2m converting 200 courses to what we call “curated” content. What I’ve heard from faculty is that they want less things to evaluate, they think students should be doing less work, I’ve had several faculty complain about including short answer questions in with multiple choice exams because then they have to grade them.

    If you, like I, bring a wealth of online teaching experience and the creative passion to the project, then I value you as a course curator and I want you to help me build the courses that we roll out. (We’ll even pay you more to help design a fantastic class than we will to have you teach it.) But I can’t scale a program from 10,000 students to 100,000 students with individually designed courses, and those 100,000 students? They deserve the best education they can get. (I’m at a non-profit, by the way, and while some complain about the scaling, our growth has kept full time faculty employed, with low health care contributions, high pension contributions, new buildings that allow us to attract great students and a robust financial aid program that lets us get first generation students in and out of college with as little debt as possible).

    • Amy, I understand that people need jobs, that instructional design (especially for the web) is a new field where schools such as those I mentioned are encouraged to give degrees in education, ID, or ed tech to people who need those jobs. I also understand that there are more people with Masters and PhDs than there are jobs, and that college instruction is quickly becoming an industrialized, factory product of the kind you describe here. I regret it wholeheartedly. I don’t “roll out” my courses; I teach them. All students deserve the best education they can get if they are able to do the work, and providing them with canned courses taught by people who don’t want to grade short answer questions because it’s too much trouble is not, I believe, doing that.

  • Amy

    I understand your objections, I really do, but I think they privilege the elite and don’t reflect the reality of who today’s adult learners are. When I think of the single mothers I know who are our students, they don’t really care who put the content together, they just care that they can do their work to the best of their ability, and still pay for the heating bill or the new boots their 9 year old needs because they grew two sizes in a month. Our economies of scale can help them do that.

    • Maybe I’ve lost track of something in this conversation, but I can’t see how our community college instructors creating their own classes privilege the elite in any way. Serving the population you mention is exactly what we do.

  • Carrie

    I think there have been some rather hasty assumptions made about instructors who teach these “canned” classes. I happen to be one of them. I am a graduate student working as an adjunct at a community college where I *must* teach according to the planned course. I don’t have much choice. I do the best I can with the course shell, and customize or add whenever I can. I also assess student work very diligently; my colleagues do the same. There is a place for many different teaching philosophies; while I have some serious reservations about a factory model of teaching classes, I don’t wish to bite the hand that feeds me either, and I think there are situations where it is possible that such a course is the most appropriate because of material conditions. If you wish to believe you are automatically so much better than those like me just because you have more freedom in course design, then feel free. Just know that such attitudes do little to foster cooperation, collaboration, etc. among educators. I tire of being judged as an instructor “who [doesn’t] want to grade short answer questions because it’s too much trouble.” That is not the case by any stretch of the imagination.

    • Hi, Carrie, and thanks for joining the discussion! 🙂

      I hope I haven’t been misunderstood.

      I do not think I’m automatically better than people who teach canned courses. What I would like to see is a world where instructors DO have a choice to teach as they see fit, and are not just given someone else’s class to teach. I am also aware that I am blessed in having the freedom to design my own classes, and have nothing but admiration for instructors like you who adapt everything they can in an effort to help students.

  • The conversation by all (which I loved) to me highlights that focusing on the technology..even when canned…has less to do with good or bad teaching as the teacher herself or himself. A great phrase I read earlier today is that we teach people, not subjects. We establish relationships with our students in a learning environment. Whether we create that environment from scratch or have it delivered to us, it is what we do with it afterwards that carries much of the impact.

Flipping research

“Flipping” a class (putting lectures and presentations online, then using class time for collaboration and discussion) is all the rage at the moment.  Everyone’s in on it now, from The Economist to The Daily Riff to Daniel Pink. I don’t see the big deal, since basically using a textbook is the same thing (read at home, then come to class). Maybe in the 16th century people were wowed by this idea. I’m glad it’s come back around – I don’t like using class time for relaying information you could find elsewhere. You want to know when the Battle of Waterloo was? Go look it up. It’s easy now to look it up, so it’s easier to justify not lecturing on the facts unless I’m presenting a different paradigm. I think I started doing that, what, fifteen years ago?

But I want to be more innovative, so I’m doing flipped research.

Here’s the idea. I’m referred to in education research circles as “just a practitioner”. I do stuff. I teach history at community college, and try web technologies to help me do that. I use learning management systems, video, slidecasts, whatever it takes. I’ve done everything from Webboard to WordPress to Google + hangouts.

But I’m not an expert in educational theory, nor in the entire edtech field that I’ve watched emerge (and achieve frightening proportions) over the last decade.

So now I’m doing something really cool: offering an open, online class to prepare faculty to teach online. It’s designed like a MOOC, but it’s not a MOOC because it’s not massive (90 enrolled, 81 blogs aggregated). I’m taking ideas from other people, including Alec Couros’s EC&I831 for the structure and the mentoring, Jim Groom’s ds106 for the aggregated blog and the element of insanity, George Siemens and Stephen Downes’ whatever-MOOC-they’re-doing-today for the large topic and distributed conversation. But I haven’t done much “reasearch”. I do read articles on learning management systems and MOOCs, but basically I’m … just a practitioner.

So now I’m writing a research paper based on what I’m doing, and it all feels like reverse engineering. I’m looking up studies on open classes and professional development for online faculty, and finding a few people doing what I’m doing. Some of the articles show findings that what I’m doing might be good; most end with “further research is required”. I’m doing that research, survey participating faculty, planning to note how approaches change on their blogs.

For a historian, this is so not what you do. You create a provisional thesis based on the reading of primary sources. I guess in this case, according to the educational research folks, the primary sources are the studies. They should have guided what I do, and I should have planned my class based on the findings of others. I should have been consciously aware of what everyone else was studying, not just doing. Instead of pulling cool ideas from Alec, Jim, Stephen and George, I should have read a bunch of studies on the ways of doing this and built my class with a solid theoretical and practical foundation.

But no, I just did it. I created the class based on my experience rather than my research. I’ll probably be kicked out of the historians’ club if they find out. And that’s what makes me…just a practitioner.

3 comments to Flipping research

  • Jean

    Great post Lisa! I just yesterday had a meeting with one of my mentor professors at one of the colleges where I teach. I had also attended their as an undergrad. He is going to take on a history of rock course in the Spring and wanted to meet with me to discuss my strategies. I was more than willing and, Frankly flattered beyond belief, especially since this professor had been one of my professors while I attended this particular school. so, long story short (too late) we began talking about “flipping” classrooms and I was sharing what I was doing. He had never heard of it but after hearing what I was doing said “Oh yes! That’s exactly what I want to do in the class.” It was a wonderful moment for me. I distinctly remember being in his class and making the conscience decision to become a college instructor based on his teaching and dynamic personality. Just though compelled to share that with you. 🙂

    • And he’s obviously the kind of teacher who wants to learn from people who were his students. A great role model. Love that you were able to share with him and help him out! 🙂

  • Jenny Mackness

    ‘…only a practitioner’ – Yes, maybe -although I think practitioner is something worth being proud of – not everyone can do it well – and to do research as well – that’s good – research-based practice 🙂

    I hadn’t come across the term ‘flipping’ in relation to all this before reading your post – but ‘flipping research’ – which I take to mean ‘thinking about it and how it might be done differently – is very refreshing – so ‘all power to your elbow’ as they say here in the UK 🙂