Notes on Jim’s blogging workshop

Today I attended Jim Sullivan’s workshop “Blogging Across the Disciplines“. Although I’m always thrilled to listen to and learn from Jim, there were a few ideas I picked out that I’m going to work on.

The first was the way Jim’s class blogs with students emphasize the public nature of the blog. His class blogs make clear that the assignments are public writing, and he also posts to an audience rather than just to the students. When I blogged with students, I made the mistake of not emphasizing the public nature of the blog. Rather I was just using WordPress like an LMS. What I missed was the opportunity for students to change their writing in response to an audience (even if that audience doesn’t comment – I didn’t track the visitor stats either).

JimSBlogThe second idea was the way Jim makes students read each others’ work. Not only does he refer to student posts in his own comments, but he has quizzes where the student must match the post author with an idea from that author’s post.

His prompts are also expert. Just one example: “pick a scene from The Devil Wears Prada and explain what it says about work in America”. Instead of assigning the movie (which students would have to either watch or view scenes from), that exercise is embedded in the prompt. The legwork is theirs. And he creates a theme for each class (this one is work).

Some of the participants at the workshop had great ideas. One requires that student posts have “novelty” as a rubric item. Another considered assessing based on “connections”. Clarity about the goal of each post is crucial.

There was discussion about using the methods of ones discipline to design and assess student blogging. The scientific method was mentioned, and some faculty like to have students directly apply knowledge in their posts (rather than just “write about x”). I could do that with the historical method – review it with students, then ask them to apply it to the secondary source articles I assign. In fact, I could do that now, just in forum discussion.

Almost everything I heard in the workshop would also be useful in LMS-bound forums, in fact.

The alst idea occurred to me during the workshop. A blog would be a great site for a Learning Community. I’ve worked at MiraCosta for over 25 years, and during that time there have been various experiments with team-teaching, cluster classes, cohorts, and learning communities. At present it looks like the process is pretty bound up in an administrative sense. But there’s no need for that. Take two classes that work well together, plan it with the other instructor, and have both classes post to a common blog. Instant learning community.

So thanks to Jim Sullivan for another fab workshop!

Challenges of the Experiment

In my last post I detailed my experiment for Fall, wherein I will teach one section of modern U.S. History online using a publisher’s course package, adding only my own discussion topics (four) and writing assignments (five). All other presentation materials and assessments will derive from the package. The class will take place in Blackboard, our fully supported college system.

There are challenges already. The package is set up by chapters, yet chapters cannot be assigned individually inside Blackboard. I have “linked” my Pearson package to the Blackboard class, but all this means is that a button can be used from inside Blackboard which takes you out to the Pearson site. (Supposedly the Blackboard gradebook will reflect the Pearson grades – I’ve “linked” that too.)

PearsonListBut that’s not the real challenge – it’s the material. For each chapter, there is a long list of resources: document activities, image activities, map activities, “closer look” features. Since each of these has at least one question attached (I assume that’s the “activity” – there’s nothing else active here), I assumed these were multiple choice questions, for automatic grading. Turns out most of them are “essay” questions, all of low quality (i.e. “what is x talking about in this document?”), that I would have to grade. I’ve assigned over a dozen for each chapter. Besides, the whole idea of the experiment was to be using their pedagogy as much as possible instead of mine.

So now I’ve spent many, many hours creating multiple-choice questions, one for each document or image. Because I’m an experienced teacher, my questions are good and require critical thinking even though they’re multiple-choice. That in itself may undermine the experiment.

The other (huge) challenge is the quality of the materials. Not only are the questions stupid, but the items themselves do not contain full citations. Some are just copyrighted “Pearson”. Many do not name a photographer, or just say “Library of Congress”. PearsonClipSome don’t even have a date! They let you into just enough code that I can kind of correct some of these by adding words to the title. But there are audio files with no lyrics or transcripts. And, worst of all, the primary source video clips (Edison’s footage of Annie Oakley, footage of the Rough Riders) are in low resolution and look terrible. I could find better quality of the same footage using Internet Archive. There are also typographical errors in the transcript and in the titles and descriptions of the sources.

The interface for me requires a lot of deep drilling to do things, and the system persists in showing items I supposedly made invisible because I won’t be using them. It does, however, distribute any changes I make across the system.

Clearly MyHistoryLab is just a book supplement, rather than a full course cartridge, and yes, I expected much more. REVEL, their new, more interactive program, only became available yesterday, so I can’t use that yet because I don’t have time to play with it and make assignments. Stuck with MyHistoryLab for this semester, I can only hope this will be a semblance of the experiment I planned.

The Jekyll and Hyde Experiment

Cybermen_formation_DoomsdayAs I continue to advocate hand-made “artisan” online classes and openness and freedom, all forces are moving in the other direction. New education initiatives lead us into forced, system-wide learning management systems, standardized rubrics for evaluating what makes a “good” online class, and tracking mechanisms that give surveillance a whole new meaning.

So I’m going to give the other side a try.

cc licensed Vicky Hugheston via Flickr

cc licensed Vicky Hugheston via Flickr

Right now my online classes are designed and developed by me, and taught in the only LMS that allows for nested single page forums (Moodle). Nested single page forums are essential to the primary source assignments I believe are best for students (and on which I published awhile back).  My self-designed classes feature my own lectures, written in HTML by me, with embedded media elements throughout. I wrote all the quiz questions myself, and have moved almost everything toward free, open resources (one class still has an atlas). My writing assignments are scaffolded and designed to support my learning objectives and student learning outcomes.

But this semester one of my class sections will be different.

For one section of US History, I will abandon all artisan elements of my class. I have searched through the modern US History course packages and cartridges available from the major publishers. They were all quite expensive. I chose the least expensive option with the best textbook (Faragher’s Out of Many). Pearson is developing what they call a REVEL package for this text, but although due out this month it does not appear to be finished yet, so I will use the previous package, MyHistoryLab.

blackborgflickrI’ll use Blackboard as the LMS. I’ve linked the Pearson MyHistoryLab account to the Blackboard course. Although this was supposted to provide “integration”, what it provided was essentially a button that links the student out to the Pearson MyHistoryLab website. Frankly, I was expecting something a little more sophisticated. I know that several of my colleagues use course packages that are more seamless, but I guess History isn’t one of the hot sellers for this stuff.

For this Blackboard class, I am making sure I have all the elements written up in articles on “Best Practices” for online classes, including:

  • BestPracticesNextExitAn introductory video about me containing some personal revelations
  • A forum for students to ask questions
  • A full syllabus with complete schedule and all pertinent rules required by the college
  • Discussions with insightful prompts (no “one answer” questions) and required interaction
  • Frequent low stakes assessment (robograded)
  • Speedy evaluation of all work (mostly robograded)
  • A variety of media – text, documents, images, and video

One thing I can’t bring myself to do is write a statement of Netiquette. I just can’t do it. Since I removed such a statement from my syllabus, I have had absolutely no problems with anyone posting bad things.

I am striving to make the class as standardized as possible. I will, however, have to change a couple of things. MyHistoryLab doesn’t cite its sources for primary source images or documents. They just write “Copyright Pearson” on everything. Some of the photos don’t even have a date. None name the photographer. This is bad History. But it’s a publisher’s product, so it must be OK, right? Nevertheless, I may feel obligated to add a few accurate citations.

The other thing I can’t do is substitute my writing assignments for Pearson’s. My scaffolded assignments fulfill half of my student learning outcomes, so I’m keeping them. It’s just that instead of students going out on the web to find their own sources and pursue their own interests, they will have to use sources from MyHistoryLab.

Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde (1)I call this the Jekyll and Hyde Experiment because it feels like I am two different instructors. Jekyll teaches “old-fashioned”, hand-made classes designed to provide students with choices and freedom within a structure. Hyde will teach with materials and assessments developed and sold by someone else.

I realize that many, many online teachers have to be Hyde all the time. At most for-profit diploma mills, faculty teach a course developed by a “team”. The only way to insert their own personality is in the Staff Information page and their Discussion Board prompts. So this experiment should also give me a better understanding of my colleagues who have far less freedom than I have had.

Then we will see. Will the students in the canned section do better than in my artisan sections? Will they be happier? Will it make any difference at all?  I’ll blog as we go….

The tyranny and comfort of “best practices”

[Originally posted at the Program for Online Teaching website, May 2015]

According to Wikipedia, a “best practice” is one that “has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark”. The page also notes that it is considered by some to be a business buzzword “used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things”.

Without knowing this, I became hostile to the term “best practices” about online teaching early on, for a number of reasons. It hadn’t been around that long, and I couldn’t help but notice that most of the people touting “best practices” were not, themselves, practitioners. And yet, the literature abides:

And that’s just the first few entries in Google.

So what’s wrong with all this?

Such lists, which vary from each other, can easily become prescriptive.

Taking the Penn State list as an example, everything sounds, at first, quite reasonable. Everyone would appreciate the need for the teacher to monitor submissions, but it is apparently a “best practice” to “remind them of missed and/or upcoming deadlines”. The professor is thus responsible for providing reminders, even if the course is already set up with clearly established deadlines. Perhaps I would be expected to send out text messages every week to remind them of every quiz, even if my pedagogy were designed to encourage them to monitor their own workload.6675224737_e680a2e684_m

“Provide meaningful feedback on student work”, it says, and tells us not to say “good job”. This could be interpreted in a number of ways. With my weekly assignments, it could require me to provide full textual feedback to every student every week, which would be impossible. Instead, I use a qualitative scale.

I notice that the Penn State list includes matters of college policy rather than pedagogy, all mixed in to “best practices”.

Or there’s this example:

Here the best practices are all put together into a template used by all teachers in the system, in order to reduce “the cognitive stress students report in navigating educational materials”. And yet many students want similar systems as a convenience, regardless of the learning experience the professor is trying to create. We are heading toward the “canned” course model, where academic freedom runs a distant second to standardization.

6675432873_3379c15d93_mThere is a fine line between “best practices” (meaning some good ideas that you might use), and “college x’s best practices” (the rules which you must follow). The buzz-phrase makes it sound as those these practices have been proven to be “best”, when what’s best is actually affected by instructor personality, discipline, pedagogy, technical knowledge, and other variables. I’ve seen very little agreement on what constitutes what’s best in any sort of teaching, much less online teaching.

Limited knowledge, as usual, leads to efforts to reduce the cognitive load, not of students, but of instructors. It is much easier to follow administratively-led best practices than to determine how to develop ones own online pedagogy. For many faculty, it’s more comfortable to do what you’re told than to develop your own way. We struggle with this with our students – developing inquiry-based exercises and problem-based learning can be difficult when students insist they want to just be told what they’re supposed to learn.

I think it’s wrong to encourage a limited view of teaching online, supporting it with selected (and often very small sample) “studies”, and calling it “best practices”. Doesn’t seem like good practice to me.

Images by Barry Dahl, cc Flikr

Let’s not talk about it

Preparing for the next semester is always when I analyze what is and isn’t working this semester. The discussions, which I left open for students to lead and get extra credit for, aren’t working. In previous semesters, I’ve tried guided discussion, group-led discussion, and open discussion. I’ve tried weekly forums, fortnightly forums, and one big forum with topics.  I haven’t been satisfied with the results of any of them.

Turns out I’m not alone. According to a recent article (1), others are frustrated also. Most of the participants in the study “believed students prefer not to interact with other students in online courses, and this is reason enough not to do so.” They mention open chat rooms no one used, and forums with little participation. They even noted that the “Help I Have a Question!” forums went unused, and that their primary mode of connection with students was, comfortably, email.

And these are teachers to whom overcoming the distance is important, and who want to create a caring environment for students. They are experienced online professors, who have been “influenced by past failures”:  “teachers admitted forgoing some attempts to develop significant learner-learner interaction despite believing it was a necessary component of the web experience”.

In addition, the study points out that our students (underprepared community college) likely require tons of guidance:

In situations where students will likely exhibit low levels of autonomy, either because of unfamiliarity with technology or the complexity of the course materials, the faculty member may need to provide early substantial support and dialogue, while students projected to have greater autonomy may benefit more from socially constructed knowledge and less formal structure from the instructor.

So perhaps there are two factors here – student antipathy to discussion, and their need for firm guidance and structure, working against the open method for forums. I have noticed that my own “Help” forums, which used to get a lot of posts, don’t anymore – students vastly prefer emailing me, and if I really want to be helpful I answer them (rather than saying “post in the forum”).

I’m considering limiting discussion to just a few – specifically on controversial or extra-deep topics. And perhaps encouraging it around the primary sources they post each week. And eliminating all other forums.

Yes, it seems we are going backward, but that shouldn’t be surprising. My honors students asked this week about the format for the final project, and I was trying to link them to some tools when I discovered that most of the free tools (Voicethread, Glogster) aren’t free anymore. They asked if I wanted PowerPoint. No, I don’t, but if they have it that’s what they’ll want to use.

Considering that more students this semester than ever before are struggling with basics (following instructions, comprehending reading, learning from text, submitting their work each week), I do not believe I can afford to “push” them technologically. I will offer cool options, but only as options.

And I should likely spend my time firming up structures and pathways. Let’s not talk about it.





1) John A. Huss, Orly SelaOranim and Shannon Eastep, A Case Study of Online Instructors and Their Quest for Greater Interactivity in Their Courses: Overcoming the Distance in Distance Education, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, Volume 40, Issue 4, Article 5, 2015,

What publishers are creating instead of Lego sets

I have had the pleasure of exploring one of the top publishing company’s new materials and framework for an online textbook, both as a faculty member being marketed to and as a reviewer. Such work gives me a good feel for how textbook publishers are reacting to the challenges of the web.

The product in this case is an online history textbook with pedagogical elements built in. It tries to take advantage of the online medium, providing charts and maps that students can “explore” by clicking on various elements and rearranging data. It provides audio reading of each chapter. The author and publisher have used current research to determine the optimal length of reading for each section, and the optimal layout (one column only, with short sections and all media centered on the “page”).

I was in a group of professors viewing this product via webinar, and a debate ensued about one of the charts. The other history profs got all excited about the possibilities of moving the data around, and began to argue the various conclusions one could make (in this case, about free blacks as a percentage of the population in the 1790s). I said very little. That sort of exploration, easily done by historians, would have to be guided with students. I would need to be in the room, with the chart on a screen, or in a synchronous session, for them to get anything out of moving raw historical data around.

We were also shown a cool primary source as well as a cool chart. And at that point I found myself rebelling against the package. What a great chart! What a cool source! But I don’t care for the package – the language of the book is at too low a level, and the coverage too superficial. There is too great an attempt to engage interest, and too little rigor. I didn’t like the “critical thinking” questions. They had students do some writing while reading, which is great, but the questions were bad – I would want to use my own.

Why can’t I take what I need (the chart and the source) and put it where I want? Why can’t these things be modular? Why are we still in the format of the textbook, when the technology enables us to move beyond it?

legobricksI have written before about the challenges of Learning Management Systems, and how they need to be more like boxes of Lego bricks than pre-designed Lego projects.  I have come to the exact same conclusion about textbooks. I want the erector set, the Lego bricks, the little bottles of chemicals, not a pre-created product. Even before the web, publishers would market books to me with huge ancillary collections, often including PowerPoint slides, CD-ROMs, and primary sources. But I couldn’t take the PowerPoints apart to get the images and use them differently, and I couldn’t use the primary sources next to my online lecture – instead, students had to pay for access and log in to get to the source. As I recently noted, placing teaching elements in proximity to each other is crucial to effective pedagogy. With publisher materials, I’ve never been able to do it.

The packaged product needs to be offered in pieces, like custom publishing, only cleaner. It is already possible to piece together a “custom” textbook with many publishers, but you choose from their limited database, those things to which they hold copyright.

If, instead, the publishers got together, they could create huge databases of material, and each little item could be priced low (kind of like an iTunes song). The company owning the copyright would get the money, but the product itself could be pieced together online by the instructor. I could include a scholarly paper, my own writing, images, cool charts, and many more items in the order I wanted. There would be testing modules that I could insert anywhere, with my own questions and choice of how the responses are recorded (email to me, LMS, the publisher’s LMS, etc).

All packaged works have their own pedagogy. We need to be able to disconnect the brick-like elements to support our own.