Lecture, sources & discovery

Lecture is not about discovery, unless it is the discovery of how the professor processes and uses information. It can be excellent modelling. When I talk through a historical subject, and its significance, I can model how historians think.

But most professors lecture in order to relay information. This always seemed silly to me, since the “information” was in the book. Now the “information” is on the web. But if they don’t read the information, and understand it, they can get it from the lecture.

In my online lectures, there is indeed information. It is told from my perspective, and everything about it (including what I choose to discuss) represents my interpretation. Because it contains events and dates, and explains them chronologically, it constitutes “content” in the class. My online lectures include my own writing (recorded in audio), links to websites, embedded video, and specially marked links to primary sources.

These sources were originally collected in a paper workbook. Now each unit’s collection is on a web page. Some of them have audio reading the documents (as I’d like to do with Edmund Burke). Questions on these documents are included in the lecture quiz each week.

In “discussion”, my students do not discuss, but rather post their own primary sources, then write about several of the ones posted and the way they tell us something about that era. Through this process I teach historical writing (thesis and evidence).

This week something interesting happened.

In my Depression lecture for US History, I feature a section on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, his radio broadcast from Halloween 1938:


But not until a student posted it as a YouTube video did any of them, as far as I can tell, actually listen to it.

Then this happened:


So I’m thinking. No one went to find the audio before, but they watched a video (that’s really just audio) posted in the forum. Someone was interested because a fellow student posted it. Sure, she posted it because it was mentioned in lecture (maybe), but a student actually experienced it because it was posted by another student rather than by me.

So….back to those other primary sources, the ones I actually assign. Those written primary sources are posted by me as part of the lecture. I suspect few actual read them except to answer quiz questions.

Perhaps if they discovered them instead of me providing the sources? We already do that – they find and post sources every week. Maybe I shouldn’t select sources at all. Perhaps the collection they make is fine – especiallly if they actually look at or listen to what the others post.

I must think on the implications of instructor-provided content. We have this idea that instructors need to curate content. I could do that in a different, more engaging way. But first I need to be sure that, at least when it comes to primary sources, I should be doing it at all.

Trying educlipper

Yes, it’s supposed to be to share pinboards, like a edu-Pinterest. But that’s not what I need. I need a presentation tool.

Trouble is, I’m not very linear anymore when it comes to lecturing. I used to be. I used to have outlines, both on the overhead projector (my specialty is medieval technology) and on my notes (notes? what are notes?).

But over the years I’ve become less linear. But I’ve also become more visual. Powerpoints don’t do the trick – they’re linear too. I don’t like going back five slides, or keeping to multi-slide view open so I can see where to go next.

I tried CoolIris for this a year or two back. It was kind of OK, but clunky. Had to be installed on my classroom computer, which has the RAM of a small treadle sewing machine. I tried installing it on my own server. But then I had to download and upload folders and, well, those little tiles were kinda hard to see unless you moved the mouse just right to see down the…line.

So, pinboards! This is great, I thought, when I first saw Pinterest. So I tried it, but it compressed the images, and when you clicked on them it didn’t make them that big, not in good enough resolution for that big screen at the front of the classroom.

Along comes Educlipper, and that’s working better. I can add not only images from wherever on the web, but pdf files (the homework and documents) and video clips (don’t want to miss that cool Darmok episode where Picard does Gilgamesh).


The Tech Check vs the Affective Domain

At POT workshop presentations now and then, it is noted that I use a Tech Check for my students. It’s like a little quiz at the very beginning of the class, sort of an online version of the syllabus quiz. The idea is for them to check their technology before the class gets rolling. I put in audio and video clips in all the formats I intend to use, and they answer a question about each (i.e. “what am I saying in this audio clip?”). Whenever it comes up at a workshop, people say “oh, that’s a great idea!” and they go do it too.

But this semester I’m thinking it isn’t such a good idea.

It started like any other week-before-the-semester, the early birds coming in and doing the check, what I call the First Day Exercise. Moodle scores each question that has a correct answer (I also collect info about their ISP, browser, technology use, etc that don’t have correct answers).  I have had to turn off the feedback because Moodle insists on a “correct” answer for the general questions, and I didn’t like Moodle telling them it was wrong. So now I allow unlimited attempts – they can do it as often as they like. The feedback tells them they’re good to go, or to try it again. Formative assessment and all that.

Well, in addition to the usual Moodle-isn’t-saving-my-answers problem, this semester the students have been really stressing because the audio files aren’t working well in their systems. Many could not hear my embedded Quicktime audio, coded using object and embed tags for maximum compatibility and working fairly well for  years.


Always fun to encounter one of these!

The audio files are of me reading the exact same lecture text as appears on the screen, or playing some music. As years have gone by, according to my surveys, more and more students are using the audio (there’s likely a reading level/laziness factor here). So more students want it to work.

I knew years ago that eventually those old QT codecs wouldn’t work with newer browsers, so I had a plan to use mp3s. In fact, most of the lecture audio is already converted to mp3 and zipped so students can download the whole lecture (a student request from those who listen while they drive). So I figured I’d just embed the mp3s next to the QT buttons. We’re talking hundreds of files – 16 lectures per class, from 6-12 audio files per lecture, 3 classes.

Friday night I started converting, uploading, adding code. I got through one entire class. Then a student reported that all the audio was playing at the same time, creating cacophony. After hours in Facebook with my wonderful POT social network, we discovered that this is a problem in Chrome only for PC only. And the brilliant Michael Glasser figured out mp4 would work better instead, but I had already done a whole class and had no clue what might go wrong with mp4. Plus, that would be three formats for each file (.mov, .mp3 and .mp4) when I was resisting html5 because it meant converting to both mp3 and ogg.

SafariScreenSnapz001Meanwhile, students were panicking. Moodle wouldn’t save their answers, and the damned audio buttons wouldn’t work. Many didn’t try another browser, or notice that I’d added the mp3 button to the Exercise question, or that others had already asked the same question in the Help forum. I sent out a reassuring announcement/email, explaining that I didn’t want anyone stressing about this, that it didn’t count for points, that if a couple of tech things didn’t work, we’d deal with it later, and that I would change the “grading” on the check so that 75% correct was fine. I even put a “do it, but don’t stress it” tag on the link to the Exercise.

Several straggly student emails and anxiety-ridden posts later, it occurred to me that this is a lousy way to start the semester. And perhaps it always has been.

When a student enters an online class (or any class), there is some natural trepidation. In the online environment, some of this trepidation is caused by technological obstacles – finding the URL for the class, waiting for the registration system to talk to the class website/LMS system so you can get in, figuring out that you should use your college username and password. You enter a page with a bunch of links, and start clicking on the “Start Here” or “Class Tour” or you just start clicking. You discover the Tech Check needs to be done right away, open it, and there are a dozen more obstacles, and some things that don’t work.

This doesn’t cause a rise-to-the-challenge feeling of confidence. It causes panic and despair, loss of self-worth as you fail again and again taking the tech check over and over. By the time you receive some reassurance you might already have bad feelings about the class.

(A student emailed me today apologizing for all the technical problems, like it was her fault. I wrote back immediately that it was I who was sorry about them.)

If I bail on the Tech Check next time around, then we deal with tech difficulties as they arise. The initial tech problems we had a decade ago are now rare: inability to get into the site at all, or seeing a blank screen. Most websites and LMSs are more reliable in general. More students have taken online classes, and it’s considered normal. And is it really harder to deal with a bunch of technical problems as they come up than this panic as I try to prevent that?

There’s no earthly justification for panic and despair. And if it’s the Tech Check causing that before we’ve even started, I’m thinking of dumping it.

On Being Orson

Your course is designed by an instructional designer, and your assessments are graded by computer or by someone in India. The question is — are you still the teacher?

As a professor, I have been designing, delivering, and agonizing over my own classes for 23 years. This didn’t change when I began teaching online 15 years ago. I found the knowledge I needed to create my classes and I did it. I have never used an instructional designer, a design team, a TA, a grader, or anyone who was paid to help me with creating my classes. My knowledge of pedagogy has come from readings and classes I did on my own, and the wonderful people of many professions in my network, many of them online professors and teachers also.

I already argued back in 2011 why communities for online instructors must be led by faculty. Instructional designers, I said, are caught in between the standardization promoted by the institution’s technology decisions and the needs of faculty who want to help their students. I’ve argued against the use of computerized grading. But perhaps the overall message is being missed.

It’s about the role of the professor, especially at a community college.

In addition to teaching, I read a lot of work by PhDs in instructional design and technology, and I keep up with the “innovations” emerging in the proto-commercial educational world. In an exchange awhile back, my Twitter colleague Jennifer Dalby, an instructional designer, made an analogy between teaching a course and a symphony. One person wouldn’t compose, perform and conduct a symphony, so why would the same person both design and teach an online class?

So I thought about this and realized, no, it isn’t like a symphony (although the likes of Beethoven and Mozart did compose, perform and conduct).orson

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

At community colleges, we have the ideal teaching environment. It’s the one place between the restrictions of the K-12 curriculum dictated by states, and the research-based non-teaching focus of universities. At the university, I suppose some faculty might beg for instructional designers, especially if teaching isn’t what they want to be doing. At community colleges, we have no such pressures – the main job we have is teaching. This shouldn’t change just because we teach online.

dicaprioThere are a couple of risks in letting things continue the way they are heading:

1. Our profession will be de-professionalized. This happens as parts of our job become other professions. It’s like outsourcing key parts of your job. What will happen if they offer a PhD in Assessment? in Attendance? in Essay Assignment Design? Will we all become Leonardo, adding our special touch to the work of others, instead of creating our own?

2. We help perpetuate the myth that teaching online is too hard for ordinary teachers.  It isn’t 1998 anymore. It no longer takes deep technical knowledge to teach online. Instead it takes the desire, a lot of energy and some self-acquired knowledge.  But if we are all told that we need instructional designers and educational technologists to help us, from baby steps to final course, we will become totally dependent and our creativity will be stifled.

3. The courses could become cookie-cutter. The LMS already encourages this. If everyone chooses from the same set of instructional design “best practices” recommendations, variety will be lessened. As individuality succumbs to standardization, students will become more accustomed to the same platforms and approaches, limiting their thinking and their learning.

(And yes, if you’re thinking gosh, this sounds like an anti-MOOC argument, it could be that too…)

Welles demanded, and got, full artistic control of his work. He tried new ideas, acted and produced, worked in different mediums.  No, there aren’t many like Orson Welles (or John Huston or Woody Allen or Robert Redford). But striving to attain that level of creative control should be expected, supported, and applauded in community college education. We should take back our classes and teach them.

Negative student feedback and a grain of salt

Every semester I ask my students about my online classes. After doing this for many years, I have come to the following conclusions regarding those negative comments, the ones that may be few but that keep us up at night. So if you are dealing with some negative feedback, and blowing it out of proportion, consider:

If you use text, video and audio to explain the navigation of the class at the beginning, they complain that there is too much to do. If you don’t use media to explain the navigation of the class, they complain because they get lost.

If you use a linear form of navigation throughout the class, they complain because they don’t understand what to do. If you use a non-linear form of navigation, they complain that they’re lost.

If you use nested forums where all posts are visible, they complain because the page is too long to scroll. If you use threaded forums where each post must be clicked, they complain that they can’t follow the conversation.

If you use the default buttons in the LMS, they complain because the course is just as boring as their last class. If you don’t use the default buttons in the LMS, they complain because the class doesn’t look the same as their last class.


If you grade things slowly because you’re putting lots of comments on assignments, they complain because they aren’t getting their work back fast enough. If you grade quickly, they complain because they aren’t getting enough detailed feedback.

If you post instructions in one place, they complain that they didn’t see them and so didn’t know about the assignment. If you post them in many places, they get confused that there was so much material they couldn’t find it all.

If you require quizzes provided by the publisher, they complain because either the publisher’s system didn’t work, or they didn’t want a different password, or the wording of the questions was too difficult. If you provide custom quizzes, they complain that the questions were not asking exactly what was written in the readings.

If you are nice and give a student a break on one assignment, they assume that all assignment deadlines are negotiable. If you don’t give them a break, you’re being cruel because it wasn’t their fault.

If you have them submit all assignments privately, they complain because they weren’t given any examples. If you have them work publicly in a forum, they complain because their work is seen by others.

If you have only a few types of tasks, they complain that they weren’t given enough chances to show their knowledge. If you have many different types of tasks, they complain that there was too much to do.

If you provide a rubric, they complain that they didn’t know about it or that their circumstances don’t apply to it. If you don’t provide a rubric, they claim grading was arbitrary.

If you provide only text-based lectures and assignments, they complain because there is so much reading. If you augment with audio or video, they complain because they couldn’t get the technology to work or didn’t think those parts were assigned.

If you do not require context reading aside from lectures, they complain that the course is subjective and they needed the facts. If you provide context reading from Wikipedia, they complain that Wikipedia shouldn’t be assigned because it’s not a good source.

If you do not allow outside readings as a source for writing, they complain because they were limited to only what was provided. If you allow outside readings, they complain because they didn’t know how to choose them or weren’t allowed to use them instead of the assigned readings.

If you create similar interactive activities for each unit, they complain because they’re doing the same thing every week. If you create varied activities for each unit, they complain that it isn’t consistent so they don’t know what to do.

If you do not ask them to complete an anonymous survey, they complain because they weren’t allowed to give feedback about the class. If you do ask them to complete an anonymous survey, they complain about things they would not mention in front of other students.

No, I won’t stop asking them for feedback, and I’ll bet you can tell it’s that grading / marking / begging / exceptions time of year, and many of my students would consider this list a mischaracterization because they love my class, and how it was constructed, and they tell me so, and they are right. But when it comes to considering that negative feedback….pass the grains of salt, please.

Fixing what ain’t broke

eggbandaidThis semester I did a bad thing – I took something that was working perfectly well (ok, maybe it had one little weakness) and tried to improve it.

By “improve”, I mean I changed it to make it more detailed instead of leaving it broad.

It’s that Contrbution Assessment, the one I’ve been so happy with. I revised it because there were one or two things being misconstrued. The criteria all seemed roughly equivalent, so some thought they could not do any context readings, or not help others. I thought I could fix that.

So I changed it to make the assignment more specific, by asking the students to comment on each of the 12 criteria in the new rubric I made:


Forum Posts, Essays and Final Exams

  1. Use of class materials and activities is expected.
    Essays have made full use (A), good use (B), some use (C), little use (D), or no use (F) of class materials and activities.
  2. Essay theses must be interpretive.
    Essay theses are highly interpretive (A), solidly interpretive (B), primarily factual with some interpretation (C), factual (D) or not a thesis (F).
  3. Essays must use the required number of primary sources from the forums.
    The required number of sources used in the essay are all primary (A or B), mostly primary (C), mostly secondary (D), all secondary or not used(F).
  4. Sources must be fully cited.
    Sources in the essay are fully cited (B), almost all fully cited (B), mostly cited (C), not all cited (D) or not cited (F).
  5. Writing must be at the college level.
    Writing in the essay is at the college level or higher (A), at the college freshman English 100 level (B), at the high school level (C), below the high school level (D or F).

Contribution to the Class

  1. Students should log in at least three times a week.
    Logs in more than three times a week (A), 2-3 times a week (B), once a week (C), less than weekly (D or F).
  2. Students should post/reply at least three times a week in the forums.
    Posts in forums three times a week (A), 2-3 times a week (B or C), once a week (C or D), less than weekly (F).
  3. Students should respond to guidance from instructor, learn from group (rather than individual) feedback, and get help from the FAQ and college resources as needed.
    Responds to instructor guidance as provided through examples, replies, and messages – always (A), almost always (B), mostly (C), occasionally (D), never (F).
  4. Students should be helpful to others through commenting, suggesting, or providing good examples in the forums.
    Is helpful to other students weekly (A), regularly (B), occasionally (C), rarely (D), not at all (F)
  5. Work in the forum should be connected to class lectures and readings.
    Work in the forum is clearly connected to class lectures and readings in every post (A), in many posts (B), in some posts (C), in few posts (D), in no posts (F).Lectures and readings should be completed weekly.
  6. Lectures and readings have been completed every week on schedule (A), weekly (B), most weeks (C), few weeks (D), rarely (F).
  7. Student work should reflect the student’s own interests.
    Writing for theses and essays has been obviously related to the student’s own interests every week (A), most of the time (B), occasionally (C), rarely (D), never (F).


A couple of things happened, and I noticed it first on the mid-term assessment. Some students copied the whole criteria list, and I couldn’t tell which level they were indicating as the one they achieved (text formatting got lost, I suspect, between their writing program and Moodle). Some just listed them (1,2,3) and just put a grade for each (1.A, 2.B, 3. B+) and I kept having to reference the list to tell what they were assessing. Some ignored it completely and just told me what their grade should be.

Now typically, the grades they tell me are really close to what they’ve contributed in terms of their writing and forum posts, and helping each other. Their evaluations of their own contribution have been honest, and the assignment interesting to grade. I’ve been able to check what they say against a downloaded list of their total posts, and their activity as tracked by the LMS.

But I noticed on the mid-term assessment that the grades were a little more off. More students (not a lot) were saying they should get a higher grade than was indicated. They would even discuss all 12 items, tell me they were earning C’s in three or four of them, then say they should get an A anyway.

And now I’m seeing it again, only more marked, on the end-of-term assessments. Some students didn’t read the comments on the first assessment, so didn’t improve, but listed the same grades and said they should get the same as last time. Many more are asking for higher grades than indicated by the criteria. I’m feeling like a meanie, instead of affirming their view. Ugh.

A couple of possibilities:

The 12 points were overwhelming rather than encouraging of reflection.

The 12 points made it appear overly formulaic, so they felt they didn’t have as much flexibility in determing their grade. It came off like a game to trap them, rather than an iterative process designed to engender self-analysis. People respond to games by deciding not to play – or, if the game seems deceptive, they cheat.

Either way, I constructed this and now need to deconstruct it for the summer, or certainly for the fall, and go back to the way I had it before – reference the rubric, then say what you’ve earned and why, and that’s it. In this case, flexibility was better than precision.