The illusion of the LMS/cloud-based/self-hosted solution

It happened all of a sudden. The feed from one POT Cert Class participant just wasn’t coming into the Pedagogy First aggregated blog. I spent hours trying to figure out why not – the feed finder screen would just go blank on only her feed. I Googled, I pounded, I went through what there is of FeedWordpress documentation. Mostly I wished I were Alan Levine  or Tim Owens.

I have mentioned before that technologies known for doing some really cool things are becoming unreasonably complicated. This particular technological problem rests on a self-hosted installation of the software WordPress (built and maintained by a wonderful community) and the FeedWordpress plugin (built and maintained by a wonderful coding person). When one gets updated, it often doesn’t play nice with the other. And I can’t fix it. I say again unto you, I am not a coder. I find code, I steal code, I envy code, but I do not code.

I finally asked that a new blog be created for this participant, and it seems to be feeding. For now. Of course, the other one had fed too, all of the first semester. Given my own significant limitations, we will not be able to do this again this way next year.

The recipe at the moment is this. Start with recent adventures with self-hosted Moodle, add this new self-hosted WordPress crisis, mix with a dash of cloud failure (Google abandoning Reader, Posterous closing shop, and SeesmicWeb being bought and killed by the inferior HootSuite ). Stir and cook with a big dollop of my recent participation in reviewing a publisher-created program for grading student essays, and you have the kind of disillusionment you get by realizing you have already been devoured by the whale but didn’t know it.

hydraThe monsters (big proprietary systems, cloud-based sites, self-hosting) appeared to be separate, but were actually all parts of the same beast.

Self-hosting, a domain of ones own, the path of ds106  and the noble D’Arcy Norman – this has been the antidote to the bullying tactics of the LMS and publisher-created content. I have held it up as the way to avoid both big proprietary monsters and the vagaries of the disappearing web apps and fly-by-night cloud offerings. I have scoffed (quietly) at those who said they could not run their own blog, it was too hard. While I have not been guilty of encouraging anyone to run their own Moodle installation, I have persisted in doing it myself as a bulwark against Moodlling ignorance and exterally-run systems.

All this begins to seem like folly, a folly based on desire. An example: I want nested discussion forums where students can post multimedia, so I have Moodle. I find out today that (cloud-based) Schoology has nested forums! Yay! No! Wait! They are touted around the web as a “start up” of four years or so who use proprietary code (cue John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back music). I will have a free class, but never be able to access it otherwise, years down the line.

Fact is, none of these options are perfect, or even sufficient. The big LMS systems (including Moodle) upgrade and you can’t restore old courses and actually view student work – they say you can, but in fact it doesn’t work. I have all my courses backed up as Moodle .zip files, but now they’ve changed to .mbz.  Out in the cloud, I can export my Posterous as they close down, but when I import it into WordPress a bunch of stuff is wrong or missing or ugly. These things weren’t built to be transferrable, or to cater to the archiving tendencies of the mere customer. Whether proprietary and exorbitantly priced, or open source and impossible to run without an IT degreee,  none of the options have a sense of history, only a blindered vision of a future fulfilled by profits, market share, or geeky street cred.

Perhaps I am dissembling now to be running a class encouraging faculty to plunge into explorations of web tools and new technologies. I cannot in good conscience suggest anyone build a course around any of them. My colleague Todd Conaway  says that it’s better to learn from creating, to meet the challenge of the occasional failure, to engage the technologies and learn from them even if they’re transient. I know that is true. But if you spend too much time in the belly of the beast (whether self-hosted, cloud-based, or LMSed) , things start to smell fishy.


Ending the Half-Assed Textbook Adoption

Next semester I am completely textbook-free, having dropped even the historical atlas so I can do other cool things with my new Honors class. My Western Civ text is a compilation of my online lectures, which I’m editing over break. Everything else is Wikipedia “context reading” and my extensive online written lectures. All else is student discovery, posting, interaction, practice, etc.

In the meantime, I receive emails from the bookstore demanding my book orders. The assumption is that I must order books. Also in my email is notification of a subcommittee meeting on campus about affordable textbooks and what to do about those high prices.

Is the textbook era over? No. If I loved a book, if I used every page, if I followed a textbook slavishly in my class, I’d order that book.

What’s over is the era of the half-assed textbook adoption. The classes where the prof has students buy a whole hardback textbook but only use half of it, or only assigns a few chapters, or has students read “selections” from it. We can’t, in good conscience, do that when textbooks are so expensive and bookstores just can’t find that previous edition, or sell it used at exorbinant prices.

I didn’t intentionally dump them all, you know. I looked carefully for a book, as I noted in last month’s post.

But this semester I used a new book in my early Western Civ, an on-site class. It has good sources and its own methodology, which corresponded with mine — collecting primary sources and analyzing them together instead of engaging in narrative. (Narrative, I’ve decided, is Wikipedia’s job, or mine if I have a particularly good story to tell.) And we used this book, and they did homework from it, and they mined it for documents on open-book quizzes.

But I wasn’t really into the book. I didn’t love it, I didn’t quote it, and we only examined its contents intensively in class a few times. So why did they have to pay $80+ for it? Not good enough.

So go ahead and adopt that textbook. But do it wholeheartedly, because it’s the basis of your class. Because it fits so well with your pedagogy you smile when you open it. Because you know that $150 for the new edition is totally worth it, since it gives your students such an excellent educational experience.

Just don’t go half-assed.

Ethics, Wikipedia and the History Textbook

Wikipedia has now come far enough along that I am comfortable using its pages in place of a textbook, as I did for the first time last semester.

After the adventure that was failed hybrid classes, I now have another regular on-site class at San Elijo campus for fall: Early Western Civilization.

Unlike my Modern US History, my Modern West, and my History of England classes, this class:

  • has no collection of Lisa lectures I can use to substitute for a textbook
  • has not been taught online ever
  • has recordings of a previous semester’s lectures with slides I’m not sure I want to use (example here)
  • has always used a traditional textbook along with my own primary source book

Having requested a desk copy of the current edition of the previous textbook, I not only looked at it but used its test bank to create Aiken versions of all multiple-choice questions to prepare them for uploading into Moodle, which took several hours.

Even so I keep hesitating to adopt the textbook, thinking maybe I could instead take the transcripts from my slidecasts and write a small textbook this summer (eek!).

Then today I came across Wikipedia books, the idea that you can put together a book using Wikipedia articles you select. You can print as pdf or export as open doc. It turns out there are thousands of such books, made when Wikipedia users cobble together (or “curate”) the content.

It seems to me there are some considerations here as I contemplate the direction I have been and seem to be heading here. Naturally I turned first to some Twitter folks to make sure I wasn’t doing something unethical (the ethics seemed dicey to me – see below).


Considerations of the profession

Here’s where the dicey ethics come in.

Some very good historians collaborate on history textbooks. My mentor used to get dissed by his colleagues for spending so much time rewriting and revising the third of the undergrad text for which he was responsible. Monographs may be important to professional respect and moving the field forward, but for many university instructors it’s their textbook that pays the bills.

So if I use a Wikipedia textbook (and indeed, if I continue as I have begun, using my own lectures instead of a textbook for two of my classes), I am affecting the historical profession. Historians mostly have government or university jobs, and their money often comes from writing books, and instead of using those books I’m doing this. I do not think the AHA would approve at all.

Versus considerations of pedagogy

Many people think that textbooks are full of factual historical information, and we all remember having to memorize historical facts. But all history textbooks are innately interpretive — the authors and publishers pick and choose the topics, and the newer interpretations are integrated into the texts (which is why new editions are important).

The teaching of history has many levels, but at the college level the focus should be on analysis. To make full use of a textbook, students must analyze the perspective of the textbook itself. If one is using a published textbook, pedagogical approaches may include analyzing the text’s interpretation.

Historians make choices when they teach, since there is never enough time to cover everything. By “cover” I don’t mean what history teachers call “coverage” (making sure they talk about or assign reading for every era or topic in the chronological outline). I mean covering information about, and allowing students to practice:

  • analyzing primary sources
  • constructing historical theses
  • analyzing perspectives on an event, era or topic
  • researching historical topics
  • understanding historiography (that is, the history of History)
  • creating new paradigms

In a community college class, I can’t do them all, so my focus is on the first two – primary sources and historical theses. I also work on these skills within the context of students researching topics of interest to them. Since I am not using the textbook to analyze historiography or discuss the textbook’s interpretation (except occasionally), I only need it for facts and chronology. Such a factual framework can now be obtained in many places online, though of course each may be presented with its own interpretation.

Given this use, it is not necessary for my students to pay $125 for a textbook.

Trumped by consideration of usefulness

With Wikipedia Books I can put together the pages I assign, and they can get it printed on demand through Pediapress, though for a color book (do I even need color?) that’s a lag time of  15 business days. But I can export as pdf and students can download. I don’t need peer-vetted accuracy (we can talk about that in forums) or objectivity (none exists in the discipline anyway) for the uses I’m making of the information. Wikipedia’s legal policies allow this no problem (and thanks to Chris Lott for pointing me to them).

If I were able to get Pediapress books printed quickly enough (naw, I don’t need color), it would be good to have the 10% support the Wikipedia Foundation. If not, I could go with some ebook format or leave it as pdf. I can do what I do with my documents workbook – tell them to print it.

Some students will grouse, because they’d rather go to the bookstore on campus and pay $125, or use the price as an excuse not to buy a book. The first will eventually fade due to the Powers of Convenience, and the second it’s good to eliminate. Publishers will complain, but these are the same publishers that have created systems designed to trap rather than share, creating overpriced books with unnecessary features and PowerPoint lectures that can’t be dismantled, and “rented” textbooks that can’t be written in and the access to which disappears at the end of the class.

What publishers offer these days is comparable to the Lego sets to which I compare the LMS. Instead, Wikipedia provides a set of Legos I can put together how I like.

I only wonder now whether there’s a way for the historical profession to benefit from this instead of lose.

iP*d. But nooooooo.

So a friend of mine has an iP*d (dotted out to avoid the deluge of advertising in my comments), and I go to show her one of my classes, and I notice to my horror that none of my painstakingly embedded YouTube videos (including lecture intros I recorded) are visible.

Of course, I had done some research before using them instead of my embedded Quicktime clips in my own hand-Javascripted pop-up windows. And I thought I knew to use the old embed code because some browsers can’t handle iframes, and some students don’t know what a browser is, and are using Internet Explorer 0.02 or something.

But of course, the old embed code for YouTube is Flash, and iEverything doesn’t want Flash, it wants HTML5, which is supposedly the new YouTube embed code so…. aaarrggghhh.

Next task then, after redoing all the clips (we’re talking about 50 clips over three classes) the first time to change to YouTube embed code, is to redo all the embed codes.

So then I happen to notice I have also embedded a slidecast from Slideshare in my lecture too. Turns out that’s Flash too. I can get a sneaky iframe code from here, but I see that it won’t do audio. The audio is still Flash. My alternative version is on HTML pages with Quicktime audio, but it’s the wrong audio codec so the iP*d won’t play that either.

Which also means that all my lecture audio, obviously recorded in a wrong codec, has little play symbols crossed out. At least they can hear the music. I must have used a codec the sucker likes for the music clips somehow.

What other horrors await, I wonder? I know my students all bought this thing, this iP*d thing that I don’t understand because it’s just a big screen that I can’t connect anything to or do anything with, so I don’t have one and don’t want one. To cater to it is soooo annoying.


Moving Out: Taking Your Web Stuff to a Hosted Space

It’s not a book

I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s post from last week about the Kindle, where he points out that e-books not only reduce books, but add unnecessary elements to them (such as Amazon’s linking the “interesting phrases” in a text). He knows that the “reading medium will, as always, influence the act of reading”.  I understand his despair. But I think one of the problems is that “e-readers” are being called “electronic books” because they have text. But they aren’t books. They are, for lack of a better term, web pages without the web.


How do we deal with the efforts of the new technologies to couch themselves as the updated version of the old technologies? They call these products (Kindle, Nook, etc.) “e-book readers” in the same way that they called automobiles “horseless carriages”, because people hadn’t yet developed a new vocabulary for a new technology. E-book readers have little to do with the book or reading, although initially that is their first use. As Carr notes, the model is commercial, and simple reading cannot be enough economic activity to satisfy.

In the early days of e-readers, I often wondered why these e-readers they had wi-fi. If they were for reading books, you could download the books to your computer (after paying, of course) and then use a USB cable to transfer them to your e-reader. This is, after all, what we do with mp3 players. But, as with smart phones, the e-readers let you download items directly over a wireless network. This means the intent is different than just pay-and-consume. The intent is clearly pay-and-pay-some-more, so the transformation of the text was inevitable. Carr writes in another post  that the idea of “bookishness” was just a metaphor to Amazon, a marketing tactic to get readers to buy the product.

I think it might help if we depart from the marketing ploy, and start thinking of e-readers as mini-tablets, which are themselves mini phone-OS computers, which are dumbed-down versions of  real computers, which are becoming small boxed versions of the internet. The Kindle Fire is clearly a tablet, connected to the “cloud” via a browser. Its only resemblance to something you “read books” on is that it is a pay-and-consume object.  Its purpose is to access the web to buy things, to turn everything into the consumer web. Its effect will be the same as smart phones and iPads, a closure of the open web as it is replaced with App World.

So none of this is about books, or even text (except as a form of  “media”). It’s about multimedia consumption devices, mini-entertainment centers. Some of that entertainment might be couched as text, but that doesn’t make these pieces of technology “electronic books”. There is no such thing as an electronic book. There are books, and there are electronic devices. I like them both, just not for the same reasons.