I struggle with textbooks, yet I need a form of context that students understand intuitively. In my rejection of traditional texts, I have been exploring both the new online pathways-though-text offered by publishers like Cengage and Pearson. My experiment with Pearson went badly, and reminded me that the answer is still open resources, free if possible.

Right now all my classes have these elements:

  • Textbook or context reading, sometimes with quiz questions (about 15% of student time)
  • Lectures I’ve written and recorded, with quiz questions I wrote (about 20% of student time)
  • Primary sources inside those lecture, and that used to be in my printed workbook (about 10% if they read them)
  • Constructivist primary source collection creation and writing (about 40%)
  • Writing on those collected primary sources (about 15%)

The main challenge is how to balance the textbook reading, and any accountability via quizzes, with the rest of the workload, particularly the primary sources inside the lecture.

US History II

Open Education Resources include history textbooks, but there are very few. OpenStax_US-History_700x906After much searching, I have discovered one I like for US History II, even though it is left-leaning (a whole chapter on the New Deal? really?) and needs some reorganizing. Unlike most of the OER history texts, it has review questions, is written and peer-reviewed by historians, and comes out of a respected university (Rice). It even looks like a textbook. OpenStax’s system allows a somewhat cumbersome but handy way to reorganized the sections and chapters. I can even rename them. After about 24 hours, it creates a solid PDF version of the book, with a table of contents, repaging and automatic transferring of questions and terms to the appropriate section. While it will take time to extract the questions for quizzes, I think it’s worth it given the quality of the text. I will likely lose the focus on the primary sources inside the lecture – the textbook is too large. But since my US students tend to be at a lower level than my other classes, they likely need both the security of an ordinary-looking textbook and the information it provides. I am testing chapters this semester in all three online sections, even without quiz questions.

But US is it. There are no similar quality resources available for Western Civ, World History, History of England, or History of Technology (my new class!).

History of Technology

BookCreatorSo for Western Civ I tried to create a book from Wikpedia articles, using Wikipedia’s Book Creator. This has not gone well. Wikipedia is for the most part fine from a factual perspective for common areas of history, but some sections are written in too much detail by total fanatics of that particular era or subject. I have spend many hours trying to make it work. For History of Technology, however, I might just need a basic Western Civ overview as background – all else would be articles and primary sources, in addition to lectures. I have created a book from a single overview article. I can add my own stuff with PDF using Preview, perhaps, or just have it online.

Western Civ

103bookFrustrated with the Wikipedia book, I began copying Wikipedia text of the sections I liked into a Word document, and editing. For Western Civ I, I have finished. I have a complete textbook of Wikipedia text edited carefully by me, with main terms in bold, the primary source documents from within the lecture included at the end of every chapter, and quiz questions I wrote from the resulting book. I am using it for the first time this semester in both the online and on-site sections of the class.

It will take time, but it looks like I’ll be doing the same for Western Civ II.

History of England

It is the only class with a published item students much purchase. I wrote my own quiz questions out of it. When they stop publishing The Penguin Illustrated History of England and Ireland, I’m in trouble.


I have had to take open resources in hand myself – I have found nothing that can be adopted wholesale, like a traditional texts. But traditional texts have their own problems, of coverage, rigidity, poor supplements, bad quiz questions, etc. And history texts are costing over $100 now, which wouldn’t be so bad except they aren’t good enough for that kind of money. And my own texts I can edit, re-edit – they can evolve over time at no cost to the student except for printing if they’d like to print.

I’d like to share all this. The Wikipedia books aren’t mine – I’ve done the editing but only written some of the text, and adding documents I have been using for years, most of which have passed copyright clearance on more than one occasion when custom published in previous book efforts. If I do construct quiz banks out of the OpenStax chapters, I’d like them to be available for others to use (my created book already is, inside the OpenStax CNX system). OER should be, well, O.

But it looks like it’s not enough to do OER. Looks like you have to create Build-Your-Own OER.

A really good start

Every semester I encourage students to start their online class by posting in the forum (variably called the Pub, or Coffee House, or Taverna, depending on the class). I usually ask them to do a couple of things, like update their Profile, take a distance ed readiness quiz, and introduce themselves. Although I encourage them to reply to each other and make connections, I always have classes where it’s all left-justified responses to my post – they don’t talk to each other.

This semester is totally different – they’re all talking about what it’s like to take an online class, and what their hopes are for this one, and how they’re getting organized to stay on track (not staying on track is, to my mind, the #1 reason for failure in online classes).

What made the difference? Well, I made a video about the class, but I’ve done that before. No, I’m convinced it was putting this video, usually just a link for the class, embedded right there in the forum.

I’m guessing that they “see themselves” in the video, students like themselves. They watch it because it’s right there at the start of the class, inside the discussion, right at the top.

The video is patched together from last year’s extra credit assignment, where I asked students to make a video clip with advice for new online MiraCosta students. I graded them higher if they filmed on campus and offered a really good tip. They had to give me permission to use their video publicly. Then I just edited and uploaded to YouTube.

It will be interesting to see how things go from here. Will they talk more in the posting forums, where discussion is not required? I don’t even have a grade for discussion or contribution this semester. Will they stay motivated? Will they stay enrolled? Let’s find out.

Grades: the low-down on the drop-downs

In addition to submitting a grade for each student, and a last date of attendance of they failed, we are now asked to assess the level of learning outcomes for each student for two elements: critical thinking and global awareness.

Our grade sheet is starting to look like a data entry form.

I have heard faculty complain that this is ridiculous and impossible – it would take far too much time to reassess each student’s class performance in outcome areas (last year it was just one) as well as their final grade.

I don’t think so.

I remember many, many years ago, we had a full faculty meeting about developing and tracking our first Student Learning Outcomes. It was the third or fourth iteration of this idea, and we were all sick of it – sick of hearing about this stuff that had clearly come in from the outside, through administrative fiat. And one of my favorite colleagues stood up and said, “Don’t we already have this? It’s called GRADES.”

I’ve never forgotten that. The grade I give means something. I spend a lot of time determining what percentage of the final grade counts for each assignment and skill. So does my grade now mean nothing when set up against outcomes? Do I really have to reassess each student for their demonstration of critical thinking and global awareness?

No, because these are built into the Course of Study, the class design, and my pedagogy. When I give that final grade, it says something already about the student’s achievement in critical thinking and global awareness.

The drop-downs have levels of achievement on these:

My default for a real passing grade (A, B or C) is “Practitioner – Met”. If they hadn’t met my standard for critical thinking and global awareness, they wouldn’t have passed the course.

My default for a D or F is “Apprentice- Not Met” if the student finished the class. If they stopped attending, it’s “Novice-Not Met”.

If I recall their work as being excellent, Critical Thinking jumps to “Expert – Exceeded”. Few get this designation – I am the expert, and few excel in either critical thinking or global awareness. But if they did, I remember it – I don’t have to look anything up.

Similarly, I recall other details leading to exceptions: the brilliant expert student who got a D for not turning stuff in, the B student who didn’t know where China was, etc. Again, no need to look those up.

So even though it seems burdensome, the process goes pretty quickly. Because I trust my grades.

Co-posted at MiraCosta’s Reflections on Practice blog

The Temptation of Publishers’ Products

I suppose the sign of an educated person is that they can learn from anyone and anything. This week I’ve learned from a publisher’s product, and the design it uses could solve some problems. The question is whether those problems should be solved, and whether this is the best way to do it. I’m tempted. They’re doing some very cool things, these publishers.

The product is an interactive textbook, with videos and little quizzes built into the page. They are taking the idea of proximity to its logical extent  – everything that relates to the topic is together. The design is intended to force the student to interact with the material several times while on the page, in an effort to reinforce the reading. The reading itself has been scaled down. Each chapter has five or six sections, each section is about four scroll screens, with a single column, lots of white space, and multimedia as well as text.  It is obviously designed to look good on a cell phone.

cc ryanne lai via Flickr

cc ryanne lai via Flickr

It has many elements of a textbook, but frankly it looks a lot more like my lectures. My lectures have media all over the place. What they don’t have is an assessment element, or if they do have that (my History of England lectures have a little Javascript self-quiz at the end of each lecture) the results don’t go to the grade book.

I confess to being impressed (I’ve seen this product demo’d now with two different textbooks), and tempted to adopt. I’ve asked our tech admin to find out how I can integrate this (and other) products into an LMS.

No, go back, don’t be tempted! But I am struggling with student retention and completion as issues the administration takes seriously, so I begin considering adopting this product. What it lacks in breadth it seems to make up for in depth. At the end of each unit, it has students write a reflection that connects the chapter to contemporary topics, and puts their posts into a discussion board. It’s a well-designed “learning system”. I do not buy all their crap about “engagement”, but it does force interaction with the material.

Structured as things are now, this product would replace the textbook. That’s what it’s intended to do. So what is the textbook for? If it’s to provide factual background information to my lectures, this is way bigger than that. It has its own pedagogy and its own interpretation of the material. It requires a different kind of analysis than a new textbook.

My existing course design

First, If I were to assign such a “text”, what would happen to the other elements of my class? These are:

1. My lectures – reported by students every semester as their favorite aspect of the class, my lectures are my interpretation of history and contain embedded primary sources, music, video, and my own voice and video.

2. Primary source research – the second-favorite with students, and my first favorite, I’ve written on using the discussion forum as a lab and I wouldn’t want to lose this.

3. Quizzes – My quizzes now include questions from lecture (including primary sources) and whatever I’m using as a textbook.

4. Writing assignments – I’m down to only five of these per semester, all based on the students’ primary sources in #2.

Since the self-declared reason students drop my class is “the class looked like too much work”, which of these is sacrificed for the more thorough online textual experience? The quizzes might not be an issue, except that they help make sure students are understanding the lecture.

Product location and service

Second, the product is located in a separate web location, in order to make sure everyone is paying for it. I’ve examined several publishers’ products now. Most force you to go outside into what’s becoming their own LMS. Only one lets you bring links in by chapter. I’ve checked out their LMSs, and they won’t work for the primary source forums – forum design is still the weakest area of ed tech, even after 15 years. Most products “link” or “connect” to Blackboard and Moodle, so a student has single sign-on, but the location of the material cannot be put “in” to the LMS in a way that’s seamless. This undermines the whole idea of proximity that is central to the effectiveness of the product. The lack of true integration means that these publishers aren’t yet in the 21st century (I still have to use a phone to call in for their webinars).

Also, because it is not my product, and not a supported LMS, it adds a third layer of possible technological problem and need for support. Publishers are famous for giving you the world until you adopt the product, then not being much help. And everything’s dependent on their servers.

Catering to bad habits

Third, what learning preferences are we catering to with such products? All of the webinars I’ve attended begin with the profs taking turns stating what their greatest challenge is in teaching the x survey class. The answers are totally predictable: underprepared students, getting students to read the text, getting students to use what they read. How do we diagnose these problems? Students aren’t doing the reading, or they’d do better in the class. We want them to do better. We want them to learn. At the same time, we don’t want to lower the standards of the discipline.

cc Chris Wejr via Flickr

cc Chris Wejr via Flickr

The solutions in this product, the depth-over-breadth approach, rely on the “current research” on learning. Well, not on learning, but on student success. Student reading attention span is short, so the solution is to “chunk” information and given them less content. Their reading level is low, so we dumb down the text and put in links to difficult terms. They like video (actually, the publishers claim they learn well with video – I have not seen that to be true in practice), so we add more (short!) videos. Their attention drifts from the text, so we force them to click to see this map, and take a little quiz, and click on the video, and rearrange these items, and do a bit of writing.

So the whole structure of the product is to cater to students who cannot create their own learning pathways, who are accustomed to having everything designed for them, who have difficulty reading and remembering, and who do not know how to study. We support all of these bad habits with this approach, but also use technology to reinforce some depth of understanding.

Weighing the considerations

I’m looking at three ways to go here:

1. Adopt: Foreground the retention concerns and adopt the product, jettisoning at a minimum my quizzes, and making lecture viewing optional. Figure out how to put it into Moodle so I can use the forums for primary sources. Or dump those too.

2. Redesign: Balance the retention concerns with my own pedagogy, by adopting the useful elements of the product using my own technology skills – putting mini-quizzes and pop-up definitions inside of lecture, and dumping the DIY textbooks I’ve been using. This would be, obviously, a huge amount of work.

3. Keep Calm and Carry On: Ignore the retention concerns and continue with my design, which requires extensive reading, weekly 25-question quizzes on lecture and text, weekly primary source posts, and five writing assignments based on these, a workload far less than what I did as a freshman, but which is increasingly becoming anachronistic in a world of weekly log-ins, minimal reading, low-stakes self-checks, and low grading standards.

I confess to being tempted by #1 for the first time in my career. Undertaking #2 is more like a sabbatical project, and could take all my time, but I’d like to explore the options in future posts. #3 is of course the default, encouraging my own bad habits.

The dark side does have cookies. They taste better now, even if they’re not good for you. And we seem to be in a world where everyone just wants dessert, higher grades for less work. Whither the artisanal prof who cares about her field?

Maybe free is bad – something else not to talk about

I have just spent the last few weeks doing as I meant to do for the last year – creating a book of Wikipedia text and my own edited primary source documents to create a free textbook for my students in Western Civ I.

Now that I’ve finished, and it’s all ready for my summer classes (both as a pdf they can download and print, and chapters inside my online class), I can go back and catch up on my reading about online teaching.

One of the things I’m supposed to be reading about is OEI, the California Online Education Initiative being run by a number of wonderful people. What they’re creating, however, will undermine artisan course design and bring in rubrics that already have several good online teachers in tears.

As part of this project, there are courses being offered by faculty at several institutions. A number of faculty have volunteered to have their classes be models for the new system (I declined when I saw the rubric). The word “model” has now been thrown around the administration as meaning they are great classes.

Some may be. Some of the most lauded, however, are taught with prepackaged course cartridges and full technology from a major publisher. I went and looked at that publisher’s offering for one “model” class, their costly package to students, and found what I expected – the cartridge is essentially teaching the class.

While it’s sickening that this kind of thing is the new “model” course for the future (I’ve ranted about that elsewhere), I was looking at the price. $177 new, with rentals varying from $80-133.

In all classes except one, now, I’ve given all the materials to my students. They don’t need to buy anything. My classes have students who go in and out, don’t do all their work, fail because they don’t follow instructions. In the “model” canned course, student success rates are high, as is retention. Extremely high. Only 10% seem to leave the class. Grades are high too. In History classes overall, it isn’t unusual to have 20% drop the class. We have always thought this is because our History classes are more demanding than what is being offered in other disciplines.

But there may be another aspect. If one pays $177, perhaps one is more dedicated to the class? Or could it be that the canned class makes it easier for students to pass without much stress (i.e. thinking) so they tend to stay? Or could the canned class be better? for whom? for learning? or just to make everything easier for everyone, student and instructor alike?

But wait! I know of another discipline (again, not mine) with high student success and retention also, where their online numbers equal their on-site numbers, but the classes are not canned, and in fact are outstanding artisan classes. The book? $95 new, $52-72 for rental.

My conclusion? I should not be creating free materials – it may be devaluing the classes I’m teaching. I know it’s not the quality of the materials – not only do I edit them all myself, but I have reviewed dozens of textbooks (see my name in many of them) and most are not very good. It’s the perception of the quality of the materials.

I had a student comment on an evaluation that he didn’t want to read the article I had linked from Wikipedia, because it made him feel like he wasn’t in a college class – if he wanted to read Wikipedia, he didn’t need to be paying college tuition. (Of course, he isn’t paying much tuition – the state has him covered – but that’s another post.) The quality of the article wasn’t the point – it was Wikipedia, so it must be useless.

If I’m right, the point that has gotten lost in the anger at high textbook prices, the insistence that community college remain open access, and the administrative concern about retention, is that students may want to pay high prices for textbooks. It may keep them dedicated to the class, even when they have to borrow money to buy them. I don’t think anyone really wants to talk about that possibility.

Wacky online class stuff, part 47

I say “part 47″ because I’m sure I’ve posted at least 46 wacky things so far – I just haven’t called them that.

This wacky thing is about my US History classes. I offer two online sections of the class each semester, and have done for years. Thus, on the registration page, it lists two sections, each with a different section number (say, #1561 and #1562).

Invariably, both sections fill (not because everyone needs US History, but because everyone thinks they do – but difficulties in academic advising are a topic for a different post).

Also invariably, the first section numerically (here #1561) fills first, and that shows in red lettering when one tries to enroll. A logical person would see that it’s full and register for the other section.

Instead, every semester, a handful of students add themselves to the wait list for the first section, even when the other section has plenty of seats.

Now here’s the other wacky part. Every semester, the second section (here #1562) will contain a larger number of students who throughout the semester fail to follow instructions, and whose work is of significantly lower quality.

I am not sure what this means. Is it simply that students who register first for any particular class are naturally drawn to the first section, and they’re first because they plan ahead and can follow instructions? Since I encourage the wait-listed students to instead register for the second section, this might increase the number of students who don’t quite get it, and they combine with the students who added late, either for lack of planning or lack of interest in the course.

Whatever the reason, I can pretty much predict the grade distribution at the end of the semester, depending on the section number. Which seems kinda wacky.