Lecture, sources & discovery

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

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

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

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

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

This week something interesting happened.

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


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

Then this happened:


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

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

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

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

The assumption of informality?

In terms of social communication and interaction, I am not a stickler. I am not offended by spelling and capitalization errors in emails to me or in social networks.

Student work in my discipline, though, is more formal. I have expectations for clear college-level English writing, with all its rules. That is the communication form of a university education. Proper construction, grammar and spelling (and an advanced vocabulary) make the clear presentation of complex ideas possible. They are required.

I suspect now that in online classes, though, there is a tendency to transfer the informality of other online communications into college work. Because it’s the web, the student default is to communicate informally.

A number of years ago, I changed the way students submit their written work. Having read about and seen the benefits of students being exposed to the work of their peers, I have them submit their writing in a forum rather than privately to me via a test or essay. I assess the work in that forum, but only the student can see his/her own grade. I then point to the best work as examples. At the time I changed over, the literature and anecdotes claimed that students writing “in public” in this way are more careful with their work, because it is being seen by their colleagues rather than just the teacher.

I may be seeing the opposite. Their writing is often poor in their assignments. My colleagues, whom I consulted on this problem, think that I may not be communicating high enough expectations at the beginning of the class. And that may be true – since it’s “in public”, I tend to let them practice, commenting generally on any overall problems of content or construction. I have promised myself to enforce proper writing (through grades – that’s the only “enforcement” we have) earlier in the semester next time.

But I am very interested in defaults when it comes to education, i.e. what do most students think when they use this technology? what do most students automatically do when asked to complete a task? where do most students get lost? how do most students assume things should be?

And I wonder whether the fact that they are writing in a student forum means that the default is to write informally. Since I provide a fairly rigid structure for the assignments, the informality comes out in the form of sloppiness in vocabulary, spelling and grammar. I have assumed thus far that they don’t have the proper skills to write at the college level. But one colleague assures me that they do, if only my expectations are raised.

I wonder also whether those who demand that written work be submitted in a Word document, rather than inside an LMS assignment box, get a higher level of work. Perhaps a Word document implies greater formality than a submission to the teacher, which implies greater formality than a post in a forum. I do have anecdotal evidence: I asked my on-site class to write a paragraph about an article, typed and submitted on paper. The level of writing they exhibited was higher than in the assignments they submit online.

So I’m not sure the extent to which the default of informality is a factor. Do they really not know how to write college-level English, or has no one ever expected it from them? Do they assume that because it’s online it isn’t formal? And are their levels of formality implied by the technology, and they simply follow?

Student authentication and the Hays Code

Recently, my college (and many others) have been subjected to demands that we provide solid “authentication” of our online students, in a late and yet hurried attempt to comply with a federal law from the 2008 amendment of the Higher Education Act*.

Ostensibly “student authentication” means somehow proving that the students who take our online classes are the same ones who registered. (This implies that some of them are not, of course – we know that students may have others take classes for them, and that it’s easy to do this online.)

The 14th c. University of Paris,
a hotbed of plagiarism

We ignore, of course, that this form of cheating also happens in the classroom, where we do not force students to show ID and it’s possible to have a mom take an entire class for her kid. We ignore that our on-site students may have others write their papers for them, or buy papers. Entire degrees have been earned by people who were not the ones enrolled, at least since around the year AD 1150 or so.

We react to these problems nowadays by freaking out and instituting methods right out of George Orwell’s 1984: video cameras that watch students take exams (1), keystroke analysis (1), thumbprint verification (2), double-level passcodes.

The big, easy solution is proposed by those who believe in the true “authentication” provided by Learning Management Systems in conjunction with student enrollment systems (3). When a student applies and is given an ID and password to the enrollment system, we assume they are who they say they are. Then we carry that assumption into an LMS that has data fed to it by the enrollment system.

All other places except the LMS are considered “insecure”, because only the enrollment system-LMS password link is considered proper verification in the absence of the more draconian methods listed above.

I have argued extensively and in multiple venues that the structure of the standard LMS adversely influences the pedagogy of online teaching, especially for novice instructors (4). But the days are clearly coming when we will be forced to use the college-supported LMS and only that system (this is already true for many people at many colleges). We have tried to avoid it at my college by developing various policies through faculty power channels, all of which have been gradually dismissed.

A more reasonable approach than either Big Brother or LMS/enrollment is the argument of pedagogy as verification. Teachers should know a student’s writing style, and be able recognize when they vary from it. Frequent assignments, of course, are necessary to do this, and it’s all highly subjective. One way to manage this subjectivity is to implement requirements that faculty offer a certain type and number of assignments, or use particular strategies for assessments (5). One should not give assignments, for example, that can be easily purchased or copied from elsewhere. While I agree that we shouldn’t do this anyway (unless it’s part of analyzing such works), forcing an instructor to change how they do assignments is as bad as forcing them to use the LMS.

The issue here isn’t one of technological appropriation and student verification. It’s an issue of pedagogy and academic freedom. The professor’s right to teach a course with their own methods is clearly undermined by each of the proposed “solutions” to student verification. Gradually American citizens have been deprived of their civil liberties in the name of national security, and college instructors are experiencing the same in the name of student verification. And yet colleges consider these as technical problems, and few faculty are doing anything about it. Many faculty who do not teach online respond to such issues with the same learned helpless they use to repond to educational technology in general.

haysposterThe only hope, since this incursion cannot be stopped, is to respond to it like Hollywood responded to the Hays Code (6). The Hays Code, in all of its horrid repression of creative expression, forced movie makers to be even more creative. To get around the rules, they came up with new methods, techniques, and memes. The result was an era of screwball comedies and cool mysteries. Many stuck to the rules but got around the intent of those rules, designed to produce only “wholesome” entertainment.

Of course, they also re-cut great films from before 1930, and the restrictiveness affected film-making until the 1960s.

I am trying to determine an appropriate response to the Hays Code atmosphere that is infecting online teaching. Surely somehow the restrictiveness could lead to more creativity?



* The push actually isn’t the 2008 law, but the recent popularity of MOOCs and the desire of many to have have universities accept them for credit. Since they are open courses, often on open systems, the verification issue is more obvious.


(1) Mary Beth Marklein, Colleges try to verify online attendance, USA Today, July 16, 2013

(2) Adam Vrankulj, Human Recognition Systems to launch platform for student ID and attendance verification, BiometricUpdate.com, June 27, 2013.

(3) Jeffrey L. Bailie and Michael Jortberg, Online Learner Authentication: Verifying the Identity of Online Users, Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol 5, no 2, June 2009.

(4) Lisa M Lane, Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching,
First Monday, Volume 14 Number 10 (27 September 2009).

(5) Justin Ferriman, How to Prevent Cheating in Online Courses, LearnDash, July 11, 2013.

(6) The Hays Code http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html.

The Tech Check vs the Affective Domain

At POT workshop presentations now and then, it is noted that I use a Tech Check for my students. It’s like a little quiz at the very beginning of the class, sort of an online version of the syllabus quiz. The idea is for them to check their technology before the class gets rolling. I put in audio and video clips in all the formats I intend to use, and they answer a question about each (i.e. “what am I saying in this audio clip?”). Whenever it comes up at a workshop, people say “oh, that’s a great idea!” and they go do it too.

But this semester I’m thinking it isn’t such a good idea.

It started like any other week-before-the-semester, the early birds coming in and doing the check, what I call the First Day Exercise. Moodle scores each question that has a correct answer (I also collect info about their ISP, browser, technology use, etc that don’t have correct answers).  I have had to turn off the feedback because Moodle insists on a “correct” answer for the general questions, and I didn’t like Moodle telling them it was wrong. So now I allow unlimited attempts – they can do it as often as they like. The feedback tells them they’re good to go, or to try it again. Formative assessment and all that.

Well, in addition to the usual Moodle-isn’t-saving-my-answers problem, this semester the students have been really stressing because the audio files aren’t working well in their systems. Many could not hear my embedded Quicktime audio, coded using object and embed tags for maximum compatibility and working fairly well for  years.


Always fun to encounter one of these!

The audio files are of me reading the exact same lecture text as appears on the screen, or playing some music. As years have gone by, according to my surveys, more and more students are using the audio (there’s likely a reading level/laziness factor here). So more students want it to work.

I knew years ago that eventually those old QT codecs wouldn’t work with newer browsers, so I had a plan to use mp3s. In fact, most of the lecture audio is already converted to mp3 and zipped so students can download the whole lecture (a student request from those who listen while they drive). So I figured I’d just embed the mp3s next to the QT buttons. We’re talking hundreds of files – 16 lectures per class, from 6-12 audio files per lecture, 3 classes.

Friday night I started converting, uploading, adding code. I got through one entire class. Then a student reported that all the audio was playing at the same time, creating cacophony. After hours in Facebook with my wonderful POT social network, we discovered that this is a problem in Chrome only for PC only. And the brilliant Michael Glasser figured out mp4 would work better instead, but I had already done a whole class and had no clue what might go wrong with mp4. Plus, that would be three formats for each file (.mov, .mp3 and .mp4) when I was resisting html5 because it meant converting to both mp3 and ogg.

SafariScreenSnapz001Meanwhile, students were panicking. Moodle wouldn’t save their answers, and the damned audio buttons wouldn’t work. Many didn’t try another browser, or notice that I’d added the mp3 button to the Exercise question, or that others had already asked the same question in the Help forum. I sent out a reassuring announcement/email, explaining that I didn’t want anyone stressing about this, that it didn’t count for points, that if a couple of tech things didn’t work, we’d deal with it later, and that I would change the “grading” on the check so that 75% correct was fine. I even put a “do it, but don’t stress it” tag on the link to the Exercise.

Several straggly student emails and anxiety-ridden posts later, it occurred to me that this is a lousy way to start the semester. And perhaps it always has been.

When a student enters an online class (or any class), there is some natural trepidation. In the online environment, some of this trepidation is caused by technological obstacles – finding the URL for the class, waiting for the registration system to talk to the class website/LMS system so you can get in, figuring out that you should use your college username and password. You enter a page with a bunch of links, and start clicking on the “Start Here” or “Class Tour” or you just start clicking. You discover the Tech Check needs to be done right away, open it, and there are a dozen more obstacles, and some things that don’t work.

This doesn’t cause a rise-to-the-challenge feeling of confidence. It causes panic and despair, loss of self-worth as you fail again and again taking the tech check over and over. By the time you receive some reassurance you might already have bad feelings about the class.

(A student emailed me today apologizing for all the technical problems, like it was her fault. I wrote back immediately that it was I who was sorry about them.)

If I bail on the Tech Check next time around, then we deal with tech difficulties as they arise. The initial tech problems we had a decade ago are now rare: inability to get into the site at all, or seeing a blank screen. Most websites and LMSs are more reliable in general. More students have taken online classes, and it’s considered normal. And is it really harder to deal with a bunch of technical problems as they come up than this panic as I try to prevent that?

There’s no earthly justification for panic and despair. And if it’s the Tech Check causing that before we’ve even started, I’m thinking of dumping it.

Primary sources and the mid-level student

Here’s what I want my students to do: understand some of the main events and trends in history, get exposed to some of the possible interpretations of those events, learn some historical skills, practice these skills by doing the kinds of things historians do, think and write historically, create their own interpretations, and read some primary sources that contain great ideas that we need even today.

To actually achieve all that, each student would need to do the following tasks each week:

1. Read a textbook or Wikipedia or something that narrates events.

2. Gather, understand, evaluate, cite and use primary sources in their writing in support of their own intepretations.

3. Converse with others to entertain various opinions and interpretations.

4. Read and analyze primary sources assigned by me.

Consider these the four juggling balls of learning history. Each is a slightly different shape, and so easier or harder for a certain individual to handle. But it’s necessary to have them all in the air to achieve some understanding of the discipline. As a semester continues, the sound of dropping balls is common.

And I’ve noticed a pattern.

A and B-level students will keep them all in the air to some degree, because many of them are intelligent and can strategize the time spent on learning. They will occasionally set one aside, depending on their own talents and interests. But they will juggle all four balls most of the time, completing almost all if not all of the various assignments.

Mid-level (C and high D) students will drop a ball early on, and they’ll drop whichever is most difficult for them, regardless of how many points are involved. Most don’t pick it up again, and if they do, they’ve already forgotten how to juggle that many.

And if we look again at the four balls again, there are serious qualitative differences, regardless of which ones are “hard” to work with.

1. Read about the facts: this is what everyone is used to doing through 12 years of schooling, so they expect it and think it’s most important. It’s the easy, round ball. But at college, it’s just the foundation.

2. Understand and use primary sources: this is kind of fun, because they get to discover these on their own and see everyone else’s, so also a fairly round ball. But it takes some work, and some time, to keep it going.

3. Discuss: this is also something they’ve done before, a round ball that’s a little slippery. It’s hard to learn to discuss history critically, but because it seems simple, they’ll set this one aside to deal with the first two when they run short on time – they see it as an extra (many see it in a classroom as an extra also), not real learning.

4. Read and analyze primary sources: a ball with weird stitching, this involves reading English at a level many of them have not achieved, so it’s hard and they put it aside a lot.

So what’s the problem? All students strategize and choose what work they want to do, right?

Take one of the sets of primary sources I assign – selections from Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Beowulf. All have moral lessons, lessons about becoming an adult that can be very meaningful to a 19-year-old, particularly one who’s male, has a tough relationship with his dad (if he has one around), and isn’t sure how to make his own way in the world.

The high-level 19-year-olds will read and learn, but many of them are from higher socio-economic groups in our society, and have gotten the moral lessons elsewhere anyway (they implicitly understood that Star Wars wasn’t just a sci-fi tale). The mid-level students are the ones who need the lesson, but they’re the most likely to avoid these readings.

But I can’t make those sources the whole class. Without the context (#1 – the facts) teaching sources like these is teaching mythology, or ethics, or literature, not history.

We must have the context. But mid-level students read too poorly to do it all, so they pick up a few facts, find a few sources, write some, and skip the hard reading.

So perhaps my own maturity has encountered their efforts at maturity.

As an inexperienced instructor, I too focused on facts. I was into the textbook and the facts I presented in my lecture, and tested them on that. They wrote essays on those facts, the kind you find in essay banks on the internet. After a few years, I began emphasizing interpretations, then more recently I’ve focused on collecting sources and developing historical writing. Now I’m thinking about morality – what is the importance of history if not to teach lessons?

Yes, this is unpopular. The development of social science since the 1940s says that History should be an objective pursuit, while the continuation of History as a humanities class says we are teaching core values. But the social scientists missed the point of historical study – the very focus of scientific endeavor is guided by the needs of society at that particular moment in time. It’s a natural, Dead-Poets-Society kind of thing to try to help young people by using the universal texts that have helped others shape themselves as individuals, in some case for thousands of years.

If I emphasize those sources more, it may also solve another problem I have – the current cultural focus on storytelling. I’ve never been able to relate to it, this urge to put everything (and in some cases every minute of ones life) into a story. But stories that matter have a lesson to them, which is why they’ve been around so long.

Now to get the C and D students to focus on them.

What’s in a name? and where am I?

A little over a year ago, the LMS I use (Moodle) was hooked up via a tool called Conduit to our college’s online enrollment system (SURF).

This meant that when a student enrolled for the class in SURF, their information would automatically appear in my class roster of participants in Moodle. Blackboard had been connected for awhile, but I hadn’t used Bb. I had been using self-enrollment with Moodle, where I gave students the URL and they made an account for themselves. I liked it this way, but the college decided on integration, so despite my protests, we integrated. There were major technical problems at first, but those have been resolved now. The more serious problems, however, remain.

A student’s name appears as their college-registered name, and cannot be changed. If they prefer to be called Jake instead of Jacob, or use their middle name, they can say so in the introduction forum, but everything they post will still say Jacob. Every message they send to each other and to me through the system calls them Jacob. The name they prefer to use (the one we ask for a write down when we take roll in a physical classroom) disappears in an obscure forum. Their very name is taken away.

A lesser, but annoying, problem is that the “short name” of the class has to be set as a series of numbers for the system to work. This changes the breadcrumb navigation so that users must click on the numbers to get back to the main page of the class. Before SURF integration, I used a shortname that made sense, like “Main Page” or “History 103″. But now it’s “0807895″. Imagine being deep in the class and wanting to get back to the main page and seeing navigation that says


And on top of that, if you accidentally hit the back button in the browser in a frantic attempt to get, you know, BACK, you get popped out of the system and get this:


You have instantly been thrown an error by a system you’ve never heard of, represented by a griffin who looks upset with you.

The other advantage to the self-enrollment practice was that students had to enter their own information. Although many refuse to recognize it, the fact is that few students use email to communicate. They use texting and Facebook, and rarely check their email. Thus the emails they entered in SURF way back four years ago when they first registered are often invalid, and they don’t get the emails asking them to update their email address. If they do check their email, they don’t know that spam filters could be throwing everything from MiraCosta in the trash. So if there’s a problem and you need to connect with them by email, it’s been made harder with the integration. With self-enrollment they at least entered their current email, increasing the chance that they’d see mine.

So despite Moodle’s wonderful nested forums (the reason I use Moodle), the system can now dehumanize, frighten, and disconnect students within minutes of starting a class. I can’t see that as progress. Yet another case of administrative efficiency (in this case, authentication and standardization) trumping both the affective and organizational needs of students and teachers, and making things more unfriendly.