Tracking my elusive OERs

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?

The other digital divide

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.

 

I love the web, a poem

Listening to the soundtrack from Midnight in Paris
I heard Bacarolle from “The Tales of Hoffman”.

It sounded familiar, and I had an image of
white birds turning, Mimi, Gigi, Fifi –
the Tiki Room at Disneyland.

But on YouTube someone had filmed it, and instead
they were singing Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies
Sing.

And I thought
that’s wrong
and I went to Wikipedia.
And there it said that among the songs cut from the
Tiki Room was Tales of Hoffman.

And thus my memory
was vindicated.

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:

skypechat

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:

noskypestatus

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 “mystatus.skype.com” 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
http://www.skype.com/go/skypebuttons
–>
<script type=”text/javascript”
src=”http://download.skype.com/share/skypebuttons/js/skypeCheck.js”></script>
<a href=”skype:lisalanesoffice?chat”>
<img src=”http://mystatus.skype.com/smallclassic/lisalanesoffice” 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!