Stagnation (a cranky post)

Not that long ago, there were exciting new things to try in ed tech. It was easy to get enthusiastic about not only new products but the way the web was going, and to encourage faculty to jump in.

But in the last few years, the web has gone stagnant. Certain models of development, and certain tools, have become dominant, and online teaching has become far less excitiing.

1. Education is seen as a market.

Education, as Apple has known since 1981, is a market. But instead of marketing products toward innovative faculty, now products become “enterprise” and are marketed to administrators. This is a larger version of the problem I wrote about six years ago. Then, the Learning Management System, particularly the dominance of Blackboard, stifled innovative pedagogy, especially for novices who just plugged things in to the system. Now we have that writ large. We limit what’s available because restriction is seen as the only way to offer “support” (which faculty now desperately need – see #7). Educators are no longer seen as having special standing as users, with full-featured accounts offered for fee — we are just a target market like every other “consumer”.

fbcartoon2. The web isn’t as friendly anymore.

A couple of years ago, I got a note from an irate blogger because I was using her education blog to try out a feed aggregation plugin for WordPress. She thought I was making money off her work. Last week, I received a notice from Zoho, because my last post linked specifically to their LiveDesk page. They asked me to change my link. The link in my post. In my blog. Apparently linking to anywhere in a website other than the main page adversely affects their Google SEO standings.

We have pulled people away from the idea of creating their own web spaces, because it’s so much more convenient to just use Facebook or Google. In addition to the stalkers and evil net users we’ve always been afraid of, commercial entities like Apple and Google now collect, use, and sell our personal information and web use habits. We are watched, tracked, bought, sold, folded, stapled and mutilated on the web. It’s gone from playground to panopticon.

3. Tentative faculty were right.

When faculty were afraid to work with web 2.0 tools, we used to talk about the possible creativity. When they worried that they might work hard on something only to have it disappear, we’d talk about the transience of everything on the web, or how much benefit their work would have for students. But they’ve been right. Even though I’ve preached for years not to keep your important stuff on the web (even this post is backed up in plain text), I have been affected by the loss of tools like Posterous and the audio feature in Slideshare. Colleagues have been impacted by price hikes for Ning. Things that we created learning objects in for free now charge $49/month.

4. Nothing new is out there.

This is true pedagogically and technologically. When the new exciting thing is Haiku Deck (yet another simple tool for making what is essentially PowerPoint slides online), we’re in trouble. Tools that really do something new, like Prezi and Blabberize, are becoming very rare. This is despite the institutionalization of open source as a viable alternative to proprietary development. Now the purpose of development is to Beta a product, then monetize as quickly as possible. Almost every tool I’ve used has either disappeared or gone “freemium”, with the free version (think Blogger) being almost useless for any sort of innovative teaching. The IPO for Twitter is more than economic news — it’s emblematic of the move to commercialism in a way that creates stagnation within the product. All development will now be aimed at monetization.

And the tools themselves just perpetuate the same ways of doing things. We have failed to move beyond PowerPoint. Although we are better at designing slides (huge slides of text are now the exception), it’s still the same idea. Slideshows with audio were not exactly innovative (they duplicated the teacher talking through a filmstrip, if you remember those), but they were at least useful until Slideshare did away with the soundtrack (my last post tried Thinglink and Soundcloud to do something similar). The emphasis, unless you are a professional web developer or video-maker buying big products, is on easy sharing. Pinterest, the most recent “new” way of doing things, is just an easier version of CoolIris, which is just an easier version of posting images on a web page. Blogging plugins are aimed at monetization and search standings. And none of it ever got easier – wikis are still as hard to use as they always were. Sure, we can shrink-a-dink stuff for mobile. But I see little that is new (my online colleagues tell me gaming has seen all the innovations).

5. Online teaching has institutionalized in the wrong direction.

There were initially two models for online teaching. One was the DIY, faculty-driven, creative, early adopter, free development model. The other was the enterprise system, LMS-for-sale, cookie-cutter classes model. The latter featured scalability via automated grading and servers that could handle hundreds of students. When MOOCs became popular about five years ago, both models were in use. In adopting the standardized model as an answer to high college expenses, and promoting it in the best universities, the standardized, commercial model has won. When big universities other than its originator (Stanford) become commercial partners in Coursera, for example, that’s pretty clear.

6. The field has professionalized, also in the wrong direction.

cc BK at Flickr

cc BK at Flickr

Instead of faculty becoming experts in educational technology as part of a creative process, and being supported by their employers to get certificates and degrees to teach others, educational technology and online course administration are now their own fields with their own PhDs. This means that individuals who have never been teachers and have very little experience create small-sample studies and get degrees that net them jobs administrating experiences for faculty. The entire process promotes the idea that ed tech is too complex for ordinary faculty, promoting dependence and lack of agency.

7. Creativity is being outsourced.

A correlary to this trend is that the fun part (or second most fun part, depending on how much you like students) is being done by others. Creativity in teaching online comes in three places: course design, course materials development, and interactions with students. Most online teachers have great potential for developing good techniques for the latter, especially if they have teaching experience in other settings. But the creative fire, and the development of ones own online pedagogy, is being outsourced to “course developers” and “teams” who take the “burden” of creating courses off overworked faculty.

What seems to be advancement, then, has stifled online teaching.

Lessons of technology

I am a historian of technology – it’s what I do. In discussing some of the above disillusionment with my colleague Scott Johnson, he mentioned how prepping an online course is seen like housework – an ongoing process that people need relief from. Back in the 1980s, historian Ruth Schwartz Cohen wrote a book called More Work for Mother. It was about the changes in domestic technology at the turn of the last century (washing machines, vaccuum cleaners) and the way they were supposed to save labor. But instead, they caused a change in standards for cleanliness that increased their necessity. In addition, they put more of the burden on women, since they no longer needed help beating rugs and hauling laundry tubs.

The promise of technology for improving learning has been realized to a certain extent on the learner end – it is now much easier for the self-motivated, research-oriented students of information and perspectives to save, share and innovate within their own learning experience. But for teachers it’s “more work for mother”, as technologies, instead of relieving a burden, place too many demands on our time for too little return. That not only leaves teachers tired and willing to give up their pedagogical freedom to the nearest ed tech PhD, it leaves the students who need a lot of guidance out in the cold.

A silver lining

There are a number of ways to deal with all this. Most involve some pruning, and even a return to previous ways of thinking.

Select the right tools
When we create something on the web, we should only do so in places where we can download a copy in a typical format, like mp4. Otherwise, we should avoid the product.

Focus on one technology that works
Online courses could be simplified. Select one technology (video, audio, slides) and make that your own. And by “own” I mean created in a way where you can save a copy before uploading to YouTube.

Return to basics
If the technology is turning into a time-suck, return to the more personal way of doing things, like assignments and feedback by email.

Use the technology when it truly saves labor
An automated gradebook where students can log in and see their grades saves labor. Automated grading for multiple-choice or formative assessment saves labor. Other aspects of technology (internal messaging systems, clunky captioning tools, things you have to spend 15 hours learning) may not be good time investments.

Outsource the things you hate
Take advantage of whatever systems or people are provided to you for free, and learn the features or tasks they provide that make these tasks easier. But prioritize first based on what you like – if you love course design, keep it for yourself.

Play with a purpose
It used to be we’d play with the newest gadgets and apps so that we could build permanent things, but this doesn’t work. So play with the intention of learning about technologies in general. All the skills can be transferred to other web technologies.

Go to where you are
If you love your LMS, stay there and learn to use it well. If you prefer WordPress, learn all about it. If you’re a Google fan, become proficient. Don’t worry about going to where other people are (Facebook or mobile apps) if that’s not your thing.

When technology causes loss, or bad changes, instead of improving our lives, we should evolve. I got rid of my dishwasher because it was a continual source of disappointment – it didn’t get dishes very clean, and it got to the point where I was pretty much washing them by hand anyway. So I bought a bigger dish drainer, removed the dishwasher, and gained some badly needed kitchen space. But before that happened I wasted a lot of time and effort working with the machine’s inadequacies, because after all it was supposed to save me time and trouble.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when technology is controlling us instead of the other way around. If the web isn’t providing exciting options anymore, it’s time to adapt and get some of our space back.

The value of saving old code

I spent almost two hours the other day trying to embed a Skype status button into Moodle.

First, I copied the code wrong on Skype’s page for making the button  . It didn’t have the </div> tag at the end. Until I figured that out, I kept thinking it was Moodle not letting me add the Javascript, so I spend time on the Moodle forums trying to figure out how to trick Moodle into allowing it. It was important, for example, to turn off the HTML Editor in my profile.

So then I finally get the button added, and it looks like this:


I log into Skype. It looks like that. I log out of Skype. It still looks like that. Why isn’t it indicating my status? I go to Skype’s website again (it made me log in every time I opened a tab and went to the page).

Apparently the “new” button does not indicate your status. I can’t imagine the usefulness of putting a Skype button on your webpage that doesn’t indicate whether you are available or not. But search the support forums and follow the trail and there it is:


It only works if you have the OLD button? So I start thinking – how do I get the code for the old button? I keep searching around the forums, and found someone had posted some old code that they couldn’t get to work, with a “” URL so I used that as a search in the forums, but no joy. I even tried to reconstruct his sample with my parameters.

Then I remembered – I keep a file with code snippets. I’ve got bits like how to write <object> and <embed> html, and the code for making a YouTube video play at a certain spot, and how to zip a folder in ZipIt, and all the other stuff I was afraid I’d forget.

There it was:

Skype ‘My status’ button
<script type=”text/javascript”
<a href=”skype:lisalanesoffice?chat”>
<img src=”” style=”border: none;” width=”114″ height=”20″ alt=”My status” /></a>

Plugged it into Moodle, and it worked like a charm.

So don’t throw that old code away – recycle!

Making the Past Speak

The past, of course, isn’t even past, and in my case, it’s often the present.

One of the problems with teaching history to undergraduates is helping them understand primary sources, particularly documents written awhile ago. For this reason, I have recorded my own voice reading primary sources, at least those written by American women, since that is my voice. I have also asked friends occasionally to record them for me. But it’s difficult to impose on friends for things like documents that should be read by British males, and frankly not everyone can do a good reading.

With all the technologies out there, this should be easier, and I shouldn’t need to impose on anyone.

Here is my next effort, following the resounding response to my Plotagon Gilgamesh.

First, I tried GoAnimate. I’ve been searching for British male text-to-speech, and here it was! But the characters aren’t exactly what I’m looking for, even though I can upload a background. It came out like this:

Then, I went to Blabberize, so I could use an image of Edmund Burke himself instead of an anime teen. But Blabberize wants you to do the speaking, and although I can’t be sure, I’m pretty convinced that I sound nothing whatsoever like Edmund Burke.

So using Snapz Pro X, I recorded the audio from the GoAnimate. Then I converted it to mp3 in Audacity, and uploaded it to Blabberize. Here’s the result:

Still working on it…

Addendum! My online colleague Keith Brennan has gently reminded me that Burke was Irish, not British, and despite my error Keith has offered to record a document. I also discovered that according to the Economist Burke would have retained his Irish accent. This oversight is particularly embarrassing since I’m a big fan of the scene in The Man Who Never Was, where the Scottish father of the body (which the military wants to use as a ruse against the Nazis) is assumed to be doing it “for England” and the father replies something abou the English always saying England when they mean Britain. Here that error is even bigger!

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?

Openness in a surveillance society

I have been so critical of Learning Management Systems for the past ten years that people write to me asking what I use instead of an LMS, even though I usually use Moodle and blog about it. I have written articles on how the LMS determines pedagogy, and spent much time helping faculty put their pedagogy before the demands of such systems. I have been a huge promoter of using Web 2.0 tools for teaching. I just want to set up my credentials here to preface my concerns about using what used to be these more “open” methods.

In May of last year, I indicated reservations about the way things have gone in terms of openness. In this post, I was wary of closed/open spaces like Google and Facebook, where students could be exploited.  In June I indicated I wouldn’t switch from the anonymous Google Talkback to something my students had to sign up with Google for. That was before the recent public understanding of our surveillance society, brought home by the revelations of Edward Snowden. His work seemed to mark an endpoint that originated with Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy’s famous quotation from 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

My concerns mean I have agonized over terms of service, along similar lines of Royan Lee, whose excellent blog post inspired this one. . Lee writes, in noting the mainstream acceptance of Google for education despite its Terms of Service.

“Suddenly, the amazing qualities of something like Google Apps for Education seems a little more about efficiency and logistics and less about transformation to me as an educator.”

Whenever I ask students to get a free account to do a Glogster or Slideshare, or open a group for them in Facebook, I think about these things.

There is a Google Community called Using Google Apps as a Free LMS, so I posted a link to Lee’s post there and got an excellent question in response:


My response indicates how this is coming together for me.

I would never be one to defend a commercial LMS as a better system. But it is closed in the sense that under normal conditions only the institution has access to the student input. And thinking about it more broadly, student input in the LMS is usually very focused on the course (this depends on pedagogy, of course – some students may indeed post highly personal information in the LMS). Using Google or any open-to-the-web service for classes connects the students’ personal use of that system to their coursework, widening the surveillance opportunities. Same thing with using Facebook. I’ve leaned toward my own hosted WordPress as a more balanced option, but certainly the functionality is not up to the ease of use as Google. My concern is just that the ease comes at a price.

This presents some confusion about open and closed, and what they mean in a surveillance society.

“Open” can mean available to anyone on the web without a password. But it can also mean accessible to ISPs, government surveillance, and commercial data collection. I don’t think we can ignore that anymore, even as we promote open education (I do!) and sharing (yes again!).

It means that a system like Google or Facebook can be “open” in the sense of available to surveillance, and “closed” in the sense of having to sign in and participate in places within the system that are supposedly “closed off” to other areas of the same system (like Google Communities, Google Circles, Google Apps for Education, Facebook Groups). Such areas are deceptive – they imply privacy that does not exist, even as Google and Facebook change their policies to expose more and more of these closed places to the public (for example, Facebook group posts showing up on your timeline) and to their own commercial data collection.

Very few people understand this. They think signing in and turning off Facebook settings and keeping our Circles of people separate implies some privacy. The purpose of signing in is not to protect your privacy. It’s to enable tracking and consolidation and data collection. And while I admire Royan Lee’s goal in spending a lot of time teaching his students about Terms of Service, I need to teach them History. I cannot save my students from the insatiable hunger of Big Data.

Lee is right in corresponding a society that accepts ongoing surveillance by the government with our acceptance of the terms required by web services. They are very similar. It is said that we accept surveillance because we believe if people aren’t doing anything wrong, what’s the harm? We extend this simplistic thinking to our web participation, if we think about it at all.

The solutions seem to be narrowing, to self-hosted LMS options like WordPress or Moodle or one of the newer open-source options. Even then, if you are logged in to Google and use Chrome, for example, your work in other systems can be tracked and (I assume in paranoid moments) recorded.

The closed LMS unfortunately is likely to be safer in a world that doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s just that wasn’t the world in which I wanted to work.

Problems of provenance

Yes, I also write about History (capitalized – meaning the discipline, not the hobby).

And as a historian, I teach my students the difference between primary sources and secondary sources.

A primary source is one created at the time one is studying. A secondary source is created later, about the subject one is studying.

This isn’t as clear-cut as it sounds.


Take, for example, the Scopes trial of 1925, in which John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was tried for teaching evolution, which was against the law. The transcripts of the trial are a primary source. The Wikipedia article about the trial is a secondary source. Ray Ginger’s book “Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes”  is a secondary source.

Or is it? It was written in 1958.  It is a secondary source if you’re studying the Scopes trial. But if you’re studying the arguments about evolution during the 1950s, then Ginger’s book is a primary source.

This is the problem with using primary sources to teach history. What era or subject are they primary for?

So I’m looking at Net Texts, since I’m always seeking good resources, and went to their section on Revolution and the New Nation, which mentioned primary source documents, and I noticed that some of them weren’t, at least not for the American Revolution – several were images from the 1820s supposedly portraying events from the Revolution. They seemed to get around the issue by putting “1820s” as the end date of the unit, but I felt that was deceptive. I went to the source, which they claim was the National Archives, assuming that the site would be more reliable in this regard.

It wasn’t. Throughout the National Archives teaching resources, primary sources were emphasized but many weren’t primary to the issue being studied. In many places they were fine, but in some they were later interpretations or were presented with no date so that students couldn’t tell whether they were primary or not.

(From the Archives, a portrayal of Washington General George Washington and a Committee of Congress at Valley Forge. Winter 1777-78. Copy of engraving after W. H. Powell, published 1866 — Powell was born 24 years after Washington died.)

The year after Washington’s death, Parson Weems published the first hagiographic account of the general and President, not only introducing the cherry tree story but glorifying Washington’s character in general. In the early years of the U.S., such moral tales were important to establishing an American identity and ideology. William Henry Powell’s mid-19th century work is more part of this traditional than of the actual events of the Revolutionary War.

In other words, Powell’s painting is a primary source for the 19th century, not 1777-78.


This is not an idle point. Consider, for a moment, movies. Movies are frequently used to teach history. I used to show Hollywood film clips to illustrate historical events if I felt they were portrayed accurately. But over time I realized that these were being seen as primary sources for the era being portrayed, rather than the era the film was made, and that I was encouraging bad history by showing them in that context.

In other words, the American movie Reds (1981) says more about our revision of communism in the 1980s than it does the Russian Revolution. Going back further, the film Battleship Potemkin (1925) says more about the 1920s than the 1905 mutiny it portrays, and Birth of a Nation is about attitudes in 1915 rather than during Reconstruction. The Battle of the Bulge (1965) is about our ideas of WWII as seen from the 1960s. Lawrence of Arabia (1962 – set during WWI), Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, set during the Crimean War), Zulu Dawn (1979 – set in 1879 South Africa) are about the British dealing with the history of their Empire in the 60s and 70s, once it was lost. Breaker Morant (1980, set during Boer War) and Gallipoli (1981, set during the Great War) show Australian culture coming of age during the 80s. Same thing with films from every nation.

That’s why there are so many remakes (such as Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935, 1962, 1984).  Each generation takes the stories and interprets them in light of current issues and concerns. It’s a signifiant contextual distinction.

The Web

And it’s very tricky now with the web. NPR recently reported on the first web page (Tim Berners-Lee’s demo page from 1990) having been lost. Very few web pages have what we could call provenance (in fact, the term for web purposes seems to refer to accuracy rather than history).

Original web creations will be difficult to date, and thus difficult to use as primary sources. A meme like Selleck Waterfall Sandwich will be difficult to use. One has to rely on secondary sources to date its origin at 2010. But when I search on Google and set dates further back, it pops up in web pages referring to the meme as far back as 2003.

How will we reliably date less popular items? Anyone using Google to check a student paper for plagiarism knows that tons of text has been copied from website to website – it is impossible to tell the origin of many passages of writing. There is often no “date of publication”.

Not that I’m putting Selleck Waterfall Sandwich on a par with a painting of George Washington or a note written by Thomas Jefferson.

But you get the idea.