Brexit, education, the election, and technology

There are a lot of threads coming together in the blogosphere that are helpful as we look for connections between what we do as teachers and what we’ve elected to the White House. I confess this has occupied my mind since the election, even though I was not surprised by the result.

Brexiteers marching in York 5 days before the vote
Brexiteers marching in York
5 days before the vote

Why wasn’t I suprised? Because I was in England during the Brexit vote. I was at the University of Durham talking to students who were afraid of losing their fellowships and their continental relationships. I had dinner with historians who were nervous about the vote, but reassured by the continual press coverage saying Brexit couldn’t win. When they asked me about Donald Trump (this was in June, remember) they wanted the same assurance he couldn’t win. When I said he certainly could, for the same reasons I was seeing Brexit marchers in the streets of York, I depressed a lot of people (even a Scotsman, which I thought was impossible).

At the B&B where I was staying, the middle-class owner said her heart said Brexit, but her knowledge that young people were the future made her vote RemaIN. The woman in the kitchen wanted out. The night before the vote, the London Times confidently announced a RemaIN victory, with lots of cool graphs showing which demographic would vote which way. Then Sunderland results came in, and everyone discounted it because it was Sunderland (depressed, northern). Then the rest of the results came in.

The cab driver, the morning after the vote, told me he was “over the moon” with happiness – he was convinced millions would return from the EU to bail out the NHS. I knew that wasn’t true. It had also become very clear to me that, as the B&B owner had said, the RemaINers were voting with their heads, and the Brexiteers were voting with their hearts, here in a country I had long considered a bastion of rationalism. America is not a bastion of rationalism. We are the nation of independent pioneer types, where freedom is new and still to a great extent untried. We assume, we take for granted — only 50% of us vote.

I’m sure those historians at the University are wondering what they did wrong, in the classroom and with their students. Of course their students, like ours, the ones who voted, didn’t vote for this. But I’ve been teaching for 26 years, not just the past 10 or so. And to a certain extent I’ve bought into the democratic ideals of the Twitter revolution, even as I’ve acknowledged echo chambers and the potential of the new mass media to be less mass, and more media, and to connect crazy people and give repressive ideologies a bullhorn.

So it’s fascinating to read the work of Audrey Watters this week, and to follow her trails. One particularly scary article, for the way it’s written as well as its subject, is Willie Osterwell’s What Was the Nerd?, which notes that white outcast coders and basement nerds may be at the heart of the new rise of fascism (it was certainly refreshing to see someone use this word other than me). Helen Beachem responded to Martin Weller, whom I followed on Twitter throughout the Brexit election. Weller posted brilliantly in September on the “unenlightenment” in open education. His work noted an issue I’ve been following for awhile: the deliberate turn away from rationalism and factual information, something I saw way back in 2008 as Glorifying the Doofus.

What Helen Beachem writes is that educational technology needs to be re-evaluated for its role in what’s happened. She points out that those who are learning successfully online were already successful in education, but that the promise was to do more, to develop everyone as independent learners, to work for a kind of establishment educational plan to counter the new market in e-learning. Taking students outside our institutions, we must be careful:

Suffice to say that when we help students into those unregulated spaces where their learning is unfettered by institutional management systems, assessment deadlines and fair use rules, we are not sending them into the country of the free. We are sending them to the data warehouses of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Weiner.

She also notes that the Brexiteers used social media as advertising, with no one taking responsibility for the emotional response that led to the spread of irrational ideas. She refers to those who live online as “adrenalised and hooked”. The online space itself needs to be interrogated, the culture where we all click and send and message and retweet and like posts — all this has “the illusion of elective power but none of the responsibilities of citizenship.”

Michael Feldstein considers that there are issues of literacy. He notes the political polls that were wrong, and that learning analytics has the same weakness. Data is narrative, he says, and we need to be “literate” (by which I think he means liberally educated, experienced, critically thinking) teachers to be able to make that data useful, and to question it as needed. In this view I see the possibility to reclaim teaching as the experienced construction of narrative that is informed by, but is not dictated by, information, because it acknowledges that information itself may contain inherent interpretations.

I am processing all this, trying to determine where I stand as a community college instructor of History, the one telling my students that nothing is unprecedented. While I have been happy to explore and live in online spaces, I have only rarely asked it of my students. While I have raged against the LMS and other “closed silos” for over a decade, 90% of the online courses I offer have remained in a protected space. Aware of my students’ lack of web savvy, I have asked that online resources be mined, and used, I hope critically. But clearly there is much more work to do.

Sometimes you gotta make something silly

Made with Blabberize to upload the image and animate the mouth, Google Translate to translate the French, Natural Reader preview to make the French voice, Snapz Pro to screencast record the audio (and Quicktime to stitch the audio sections together), Audacity to convert to mp3 for upload to Blabberize (yeah, I know, but Quicktime is faster for me), YouTube to upload and add English captions, HTML cc_load_policy=1 in embed code to force English captions to show.

Too much trouble not to make two:

Early adventures with H5P

I can’t remember how I found H5P, but it was probably when I was looking around for a substitute for Zaption.

Zaption allowed you to create interative video, forcing the student to do a short quiz or answer a question before continuing viewing. Several of my colleagues spent long hours creating Zaption videos. Then Zaption went under.

People lost their work. I don’t like losing my work. That’s why all my lectures, and anything I don’t want to rewrite, is both on my own hard drive and on the web server I rent on Lunarpages.

H5P looks like a startup based on open source. It can create interactive elements like video, flashcards, etc. Right now it works as a plugin for Drupal, Moodle and WordPress. Moodle is being sunsetted at our school and we never used Drupal. I know WordPress.

I installed a new WordPress blog on my server, using their never-fails 5 Minute Installation.

[Side note: Starting a new WordPress blog is a cure for creative teaching block, and the blues. Just as a Cajun recipe starts with “first, make a roux”, I start with “first, create a database for WordPress”.]

I installed the H5P plugin, using their instructions.  Here I got stuck, as my WordPress kept telling me the file was too big to load. I kept messing around with php.ini files until I gave up and created a new one inside my public_html folder.

I created a basic interactive video from my introduction for my students. You can see it here.

You have to see it there because, as I discovered, I cannot embed this post into Canvas. [Nightmares start “first, know that this will not work in Canvas”.] So I stopped creating H5P stuff until I realized that Canvas does not deserve to host certain things within its iframe. Since I had already begun to link out my lectures so my Javascript mini-quizzes would work, I figured I can link out whatever. Students will get used to it, because it’s hard to embed things and most instructors won’t bother with SSL and all that crap.

Since I’ll be using WordPress in this way, I used the Atahualpa theme and deleted all widgets, adding my log in and admin to the footer. I will link to the post, of course, but don’t want students clicking around and getting confused.

The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

Related posts:

The Monsters of Canvas

Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begents Monsters (1798)

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters (1798)

 

We all know that in any system, there are things that go wrong or are difficult to use. We all know people who love their previous LMS, and will hate whatever they’re forced to change to. We all know that learning curves are something we need to ride, trying not to fall off. We journey on…

But occasionally a system begets monsters.

Here are some of the early monsters of Canvas, and the brutality committed to your hard work:

Code Stripping Beast – If Canvas doesn’t like your code, your Javascript or your HTML commenting, it strips it. Other LMSs do that too. But Canvas is monstrous in that it eats everything within your naive HTML commenting, deleting the content between the tags. There is no warning that it will do this.

Quiz Question Ogre  – If you change a question in a Question Bank, it does not change the questions in any quizzes you’ve created. You might not know this, and go blithely along thinking it has.

Disappearance Dragon – Things other than code mysteriously disappear. If you’ve created a page and linked it on other pages, and you change the page’s name, Canvas can no longer find the file. After a few minutes, neither can you.

Structural Cyclops – Canvas is myopic about its own structure. If you page through a Module using “Next”, which is clearly intended as the default navigation, Canvas does not understand when the Module is done. It just continues into the next Module with no warning, necessitating that you design some form of “Start of Week x” and “End of Week x” pages to alert students so they know they’re done.

Transport Troll – You cannot move select items from one Canvas course into another, like the rubric you just spent three hours developing, or those “End of Week x” pages you made for each week. You have to remake rubrics for each course until you have it set to be saved for just that course. (Update: if both courses are within the same Canvas install, you can import particular content from another course – just don’t every use Export unless you want the whole course, and beware of the Set-Up Siren!)

Set-up Siren – Canvas seduces you with the idea that it can import. But it cannot import individual items you need, like that quiz set you backed up from another LMS.  Without any warning (something like “if you import, everything you’ve done will be erased”), it wipes out everything except its own content when you import, despite the deceptive list of imports implying you can do it more than once.

I’m sure I will find more of these in my Odyssey, a journey in a ship with sails made of Canvas.

First road test of Hypothes.is

It’s all about annotation, and I’ve been comparing Kami and Hypothes.is. Last semester, I used Kami  ($50 for no ads) for students to annotate text with my History of Technology class. I had some success, but I was not happy with its limitations, so this summer I tried Hypothes.is instead.

The students were offered a video tutorial on how to use it. I made a group just for them. The assignment was extra credit — for each of the three classes I uploaded an article for them to read and annotate, replying to each other. Sample instructions:

Extra credit for up to 3% of the grade:
1) Get your own account at Hypothes.is at https://hypothes.is/register. Please use your name as enrolled for the username.
2) Join the test group at https://hypothes.is/groups/n3an6ndm/test-group.
3) Go to https://via.hypothes.is/fand.lunarservers.com/~lisahi2/hist104/AnAggravatingAbsence.pdf
4) Annotate the article with your own responses and answer those of others. Annotations are graded on academic quality, connections to coursework, acknowledgement’s of others’ ideas, and evidence of understanding of the article.

I had been concerned that they would automatically post in Public instead of in the Test Group, because I could find no way to limit that or point them directly to the group page – the choice is made only via a drop-down menu in the upper right corner. Sure enough, several students posted in Public and missed the discussion going on in the group. I will have to add this to the instructions as well as in the tutorial.

I had thought that analysis and counting their contributions would be made easier by the brilliantly conceived Hypothesis Collector, created by John Stewart. It worked great last night. Unfortunately, when I tried it this morning, it only gave me the posts that had been made as of last night. I simply couldn’t get it to work and had to manually count annotations to assign points. I have been contacted by Jeremy Dean of Hypothes.is for ways to integrate with Canvas – this might be a huge help next year.

I am considering providing my next class textbook, The American Yawp, with my own annotations. The book, an open textbook, has a number of faults and omissions that would make for great learning opportunities for students. My own annotations would be like mini-lecture commentary, glossing on the text. But for some of the summer articles (one out of three of mine) in Hypothes.is, the section one highlights is quoted in the annotation without spaces, which is ugly. Also, there is little color or design in the annotation box to alert the student to the presence or unique character of an annotation.

Samplehypothesis

I think Kami looks better for this, and then I will export my pages as PDF for the students.

Kamisample

I had originally thought I could use The American Yawp’s own affordances as an updated online text, but just got an announcement that, ironically, their current update will be integrating Hypothes.is. Each page served by them will then come up with an invitation to annotate publicly. While this might or might not help students with the text, it provides an additional way for students to go wrong beside the Public or Group problem, so I don’t think I’ll be working off the Yawp html pages regardless.

Don’t get me wrong – the business model of Hypothes.is is wonderful. They make a real effort to reach out, adapt and update. In fact, that’s one of the reasons for this post – to provide input that I hope will continue its improvement as an open source product made by people who really understand the value of text annotation.