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?
I 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.
As you know, I’ve been mourning the disappearance of two key technologies: the slidecast function in Slideshare (which could sync an audio file to a slidestack) and the annotation function in Flickr (which enabled mouseover notes on an image).
Then Alan Levine posted that he’d found a slidecast working in an embedded version.
At first I had trouble finding a Slidecast I’d embedded somewhere. Then I looked at some of my slideshows in Slideshare and peered at the truncated URLs of where they’d been embedded. Most were in other people’s LMSs (kind of ironic, actually) but some referred back to sites I control.
lisamlane.blogspot? I have a Blogspot blog? So I typed http://lisamlane.blogspot.com into my browser, and … oh! I didn’t find my slidecast, but I did find my annotated Flickr image of a medieval manor.
Imagine my excitement! No, wait, imagine me up several late nights for hours with Dreamweaver and 33 tabs open trying desperately to figure out how to create hotspots and make an imitation of my annotated Flicker image of a medieval manor, when I didn’t keep a copy of my notes. NOW imagine my excitement!
So I posted and Alan, being his wonderful self, figured out that Mbedr was doing the heavy lifting, and he posted about his found treasures. (Mbedr is a utility I discovered and played with in 2010, thanks to – guess who – Alan – and yes, that image still has its notes too!) And because Alan had talked about View Source in another tweet about Slideshare, I viewed the source and found my notes in the code, so I can recreate the image at 2 in the morning once I figure out the hotspots. I have my text!
Then I remembered that I had embedded a whole class of history lecture slidecasts, one at a time, onto web pages, so I could couple them with their audio transcriptions. Sixteen lectures saved!
So embedding preserved our goodies. When Flickr combined the image and the notes, and when a slidecast got embedded in a blog or page, it created something more permanent. It doesn’t solve all our problems, of course – we still can’t get these artifacts out in their original form. But access to anything we embedded seems to be restored!
I just read Audrey Watters’ impassioned post about an old bogey-man of mine, the Learning Management System. And while I started nodding my head as she went through the usual problems with Blackboard and the whole silo idea of LMSs, a subject on which I have opined many times, I ended up shaking my head and thinking about my hard drive and Slideshare slidecasts.
There are some premises here that I’m not so sure about anymore:
The first is that LMSs can’t contain any student-centered learning. I’ve seen, and built, some very good classes in an LMS. No, they weren’t open. But they were still good. I’ve also seen some really bad courses, in the open and in the LMS. I’ve written about how the LMS leads to bad classes, which it can certainly do. But that trend can, and should, be effectively fought with techniques for building good classes anyway, regardless of platform.
Another premise is that open is always better. Closed courses are not just manifestations of bureaucratic and administrative attempts to institute efficiency and focus on outcomes, although they are that too. Closed courses provide a sense of protection for students and professors, just like the closed classroom door does. Even apart from FERPA (which isn’t about what most people think it’s about anyway), there is an argument to be made that academic freedom, student participation, and the use of copyrighted material, is much easier and “freer” in a closed silo.
A third is that open tools are better and, somehow, more reliable. They aren’t. They are as subject to the vagaries of the market as the LMS. And again, my classic example is Slideshare, where I spent many hours synchronizing my lecture audio to my slides, only to have them discontinue the slidecast feature this year, effectively silencing my teaching.
Connected to this is the lament that when the class is over, all the student work disappears. It doesn’t have to, at least not for the individual student. I recommend to everyone, faculty and students alike, that anything they work on, anything they post or build, they should keep a copy of, on their own hard drive. Is it awful that the class disappears, the experience with all the forums and group activity? Sure, but it is ephemeral in the same way as an on-site class. Your work doesn’t have to be.
And if you offer your class in an open system of some kind, what’s to say that system is perpetual and eternal? It could disappear, or become expensive, in a few years. Ask anyone who offered a free class in Ning. And if students lose access to materials, that’s because we’re using materials that can’t be accessed outside the system. Maybe we shouldn’t do that. A simple list on a web page, as I do with my lectures, could be in the open. What can’t be accessed anymore is the navigation and LMS-based pedagogy we’re saying people shouldn’t be using anyway.
So it’s not that the points Audrey makes aren’t valid – she’s great and I love her work. And I love the Domain of Ones Own idea, and WordPress.org, and open courses (I teach some) and the open web and the push to keep it open. It’s just that anyone who’s relying on today’s technology – any of today’s technology – needs to think again. Our work, as Audrey points out, is not secure in the hands of corporations, or, frankly, educational institutions. It needs to be stored, or at least archived, in our own hands. That’s the whole idea behind the e-portfolio market – except that our portfolios should also be on our hard drives.
The ability to download the artifacts we create online, to keep a duplicate, to draft things in a separate program – these may be more important than LMS-or-no-LMS, than open-or-closed, than corporate-or-educational. Use the open web, use whatever works out there, build communities and take your students there and rage against the privacy-invading, data-mining machine. Then print a copy.
In June, I got a haircut, my first short cut since I was…well, around nine years old. And I’ll be keeping it this way.
So I’m back teaching classes and getting into online stuff, and realize that the virtual me still has long hair.
This is gonna take some work….
Second Life avatar 2013
Second Life avatar 2014
So I return from Connected Courses (whole other wonderful story) to find Alan Levine’s call for Open Educational Resources, and I think, hey, no problem, got lots of ‘em…
I started hunting them down. Alan’s right – it wasn’t easy. Found some scat. Some prints… Oh! I remembered where I put one!
In the MERLOT cage…
where it’s so lonely, since 2006. No peer reviews, no discussion, no indications of use. Did anyone use it? I don’t know. It says it’s copyrighted when I didn’t copyright it. I’ll have to stuff it and mount it on the wall. Can’t claim it as a live sighting.
Over the years, I’ve seen my stuff, the stuff I put out in the wild. I’ve seen this image from my blog in a number of places (like wikis and Stephen Downes’ OL Daily). The post that went with it has been cited in a number of dissertations about MOOCs.
Are those real sightings? or just scat?
Maybe it’s more important that others have sighted my stuff, and used it for themselves, rather than redistributed it. They’ve taken a photo of my OER in the wild and put it on their wall of learning instead of cloning it. Before Slideshare got rid of my audio (for which I shall never forgive them), I had a number of lectures there as slidecasts.
Over 6,000 people viewed my “A Very Brief History of American Women Before 1919″ (now in YouTube). Over 5,000 viewed my 6-slide presentation on Online Learning Theory. But what’s really interests me are my hour-long class lectures in history, which (when they had audio) were like taking a whole correspondence class in Western Civ. Thousands of views, many from regions far from the US. Somebody out there was learning, though without the audio they’re now learning a lot less.
So in Slideshare I have a graveyard of OERs, each with a flashy tombstone and visitors who put flowers on the graves.
I also have a fairly complete bank of my online lectures. They’re on a web page, in plain ole HTML. Does anyone use them? I don’t know.
I use several tools designed to track my influence on the web, but they hardly ever tell me when people post about me, so I can’t find these OERs either. (Lisa M Lane is the name I use. The other two Lisa M Lanes who are big on the web are an author of erotic vampire novels and a chess champion. I gave up.)
Do articles count as OERs? I put them on the open web so anyone can use them. Tweets? Flickr pics? Blog posts? This blog post? What about my the assignments I added to ds106?
So, like any academic, I’m gonna question the proposition. What is an OER? Is it a learning object in a repository? An idea (written or visual) that I put on the web and others used? Or are all these just blurry pictures?
I read carefully a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune called Online Class Takers Less Likely to Pass. I am interested in online successful retention rates, the percentage of students passing the class. For online classes at community colleges, successful retention has always hovered around 10% lower for online than traditional classes.
The 10% holds. According to the article, online class successful retention rates are about 60% at California community colleges vs 70% in traditional classes. The article wants to examine why.
But it also presents an even bigger gap. The article says:
Researchers also found that achievement gaps are exacerbated in the online world. For example, the gap between white and African-American students in traditional classes was 12.9 percentage points; that widens to 17.5 points in online courses. They said that might be partly a reflection of the digital divide, where some students don’t have access to computers and broadband.
I’ve heard this argument many times, that the digital divide makes it hard for students to access the technology they need to be successful in online classes. I think someone needs to acknowledge that this is far less true now, in this state, in this country, than anywhere, ever.
Historically, those with lower incomes tend to purchase items for social reasons, even at the risk of sacrificing quality in housing and food. This has been true since at least the Victorian era, and Thorstein Veblen even wrote a book about it in 1899. I have a number of socio-economically disadvantaged students, and they all have smart phones.
As for race, according to Pew research, more AfricanAmerican and Hispanic people in the US have smart phones than “white” people. And, if we want to get away from race and look only at income, 47% of people earning less than $30,000/year have a smart phone.
Although I don’t recommend taking an online class on a smart phone, many of my students do.
In addition, all the college’s students have access via our computer labs on all our campuses, and local public libraries.
This is not that kind of digital divide.
Someone needs to talk about three very real reasons that there is an offset online achievement gap for certain groups:
1. The primary pedagogy of online class continues to be text-based.
For most online classes, the assignments include reading text. Lots of text. And students must write for most of the heavy General Education classes, and they must do it in standard written English, at the college level, on their smart phone or a crowded library. It seems to me likely that those who do poorly with text would have a better chance of success with alternative assignments. That said, such assignments may not be considered appropriate by the instructor as a way of determining whether material was learned. In my history classes, you must write.
2. Students expect flexibility of time to mean less time.
This is mentioned briefly in the article, that students may enroll thinking an online class will be less work. I think it’s just a confusion between flexibility and total time. Self-directed students budget time appropriately, but others assume that because they can work any time, the total time for the class will somehow be different. If you ask students how many classes they can handle during a semester, they often assume they could handle more if the classes were online.
3. The lives of those struggling to meet basic needs is not conducive to the concentration required of online classes.
Here we have to make the jump from race, which is the focus of the article’s statement, to class, which is more to the point. When you are raising your siblings and carrying two low-paying jobs to feed everyone, even if you have a smart phone there may be no good space in which to work. There’s no time to go to the library. I have a number of students from military families and others with very complex arrangements at home. I have students who have been thrown out of the house and are living in their car. For these people, the time spent in a classroom may be the only time they have to focus on the material. Online classes are a poor option.
This last one is the divide no one wants to talk about, because it involves getting into a deeper discussion of poverty, and the lack of social services and public money available to help. Start talking about this, and you must talk about food stamps and living in a country that provides help for tuition at community colleges but can’t help people with hunger and living circumstances. It’s easier to blame poverty itself for failing to provide the means to buy technology.
If the reason for achievement differences were access to technology, the gap would have narrowed in this age of the rapidly increasing adoption of mobile technologies. But it hasn’t – the 10% hasn’t budged. It won’t surprise me if the larger gap holds too.
After over a decade of this, I’m looking forward to the discussion of the digital divide getting broader.