Changes for spring

Yes, I change stuff every semester (Jen Dalby likes to watch me prep, cuz it makes me tweet crazy things). Here’s what’s on for spring semester:

Expectation zone: percentage changes 


Crocus, harbingers of spring
(cc Julie ann Johnson via Flickr)

I believe students expect the quizzes (based on reading, and factual retention) to count for more. This semester, quizzes are only 30% of the grade. I’m raising it to 50%. Primary sources, which they like and which require some research, have been only 20% – I’m raising it to 30%.

Back to the future : shorter and more frequent writing

Having gone the other way, from weekly writing, to every other week, to six assignments, to five, I am going back to the way I had it at first – weekly writing. The big change is that it won’t be as formal, even though it still scaffolds up to the final essay. The other big change is it won’t be “graded”. Rather, writing will be part of the “A bit of writing and conversation” forum. Students will be encouraged to post a short piece of writing based on their choice of primary sources, and converse with each other.

But I did it!: contribution grading will be based on completion

Instead of the Contribution Assessment, which I have used successfully for awhile (I admit it, I get bored), I am counting 20% of the grade (10% for each half of the semester) for the writing and conversation, all together. I intend to base this primarily on completion, but want flexibility for quality issues and to touch base with students in the middle of the class, which is what I liked best about the assessments. If I change my mind, I’ll do self-assessments.

Autobots roll out: automation for completion

I am turning on the Activity Completion feature in Moodle, and using it for the first time. The “bit of writing and conversation” is a checkbox on the main page – a single post marks it complete. Same for the primary source. For the quiz, completing it and getting an (automated) grade completes the task.  Very few of my students fail the class because they can’t do the work – most fail because they don’t complete the tasks. Since I believe the tasks are important elements of practice, each one is low stakes but all need to be done. The green check (or lack thereof) on the main page will be obvious.

What I’m not changing

In a survey earlier this semester, students indicated that what they liked best were (1) my lectures, and (2) posting their own primary sources. So those aren’t changing at all. They didn’t like discussion, so that’s now optional and part of the writing forums.

But why change anything? (apart from, like, the boredom thing)


cc JD Hancock via Flickr.

I am trying to answer a concern I have about this semester – the drop rate has been very high in all but one section. The drops mostly came at the beginning of the class. When I surveyed students who dropped, they told me the class was too much work. Interestingly, some wanted a class where they only had to log in once a week. I have not reduced the work at all, which I may regret later, but I am going to dare to use my experience to interpret what they’ve said.

I think part of the problem is that the class looks like too much work on the main page. Using Activity Completion makes the work more instantly visible, so they can see their progress and what’s lacking immediately. I am also removing the “labels”, or titles, for each section, so there is less text (a shorter list) to see for each week, while keeping the interactive syllabus format.  For those who think they can do the class only logging in  once a week, they can if they’re smart, by taking the quiz, posting their source, and posting their writing all on the same day. Since I don’t plan to “grade” conversation, if someone really doesn’t want to participate or talk to anyone, they don’t have to.

As with everything, we’ll see what happens!

Forecast: cloudy, with 0% chance of privacy

I recently acquired a MacBook Air, running 10.9 (Mavericks), because my old MacBook (running 10.6 Snow Leopard) was struggling with ordinary tasks. (I think I skipped the leonine versions, 10.8 Mountain Lion and 10.7 Lion).

After clicking on all the “skip” boxes to prevent linking the new laptop with my Apple ID, I proceeded to add it to my household network, which is wired. It allowed me to access my local hard drives and my desktop Mac. But it will not let me print unless I add the IP address of my locally networked printer to iCloud. Um, no thanks. I guess I’ll walk that flash drive across the room.

I tried using TextEdit, and my new laptop warned me it could not save back to the networked computer. I also noticed there was no “Save As” command at all. It took much searching to find out I now have to press Command, as if “Save As” is an unusual thing to do.

It became apparent that Apple wants me to use iCloud. For everything.


Russell Lee, Highway scene, Idaho County, Idaho,
July 1941, from Photogrammar

And so the fog rolled in. I could not install my version of Microsoft Office from my old computer. Or my old versions of anything else. This is the first Mac not to let me drag, drop and use those wonderful old apps that always worked – GraphicConverter, VisualHub, iMovieHD, etc. – regardless of felinity.

As I’ve continued to work with this sleek sans-CD-drive lightweight little miracle, it’s become clear to me what’s going on. There is pressure on my workflow to rise upward and become cloud-like. And it isn’t just an Apple thing. Microsoft is doing the same with its Live stuff – my college’s email is in the cloud now. I can’t buy a boxed version of Office, or Dreamweaver, for the new laptop. Googly Chromebook wants to always be cloudy – it takes special apps to work offline.

I think it’s clear (or rather, foggy) that future consumer computer systems will consist of only a few components: the Processing Unit, an input device (gestural or mouse-like or keyboard-ish) and a networked printer. There will be no wires (only power cords) and no ports on the PU (I don’t say CPU because it won’t be central to anything – it will be a screen with a motherboard).

All your work will be saved to the cloud. All communication with your printer and phone and other devices will be done in the cloud or by Bluetooth-like wireless communication. Your USB hubs and LaCie drives will end up in the garage with the SCSI peripherals and floppies. There will be no need for local files or storage, except for temporary files waiting for the wireless connection to come back on because service was disrupted (kind of like battery backup). There will be no on/off button for the wireless on any device – printer, modem, and PU will all have wireless connections that are always on.

All your family photos will be uploaded into the cloud, conveniently sorted with facial recognition. Your banking transactions will float above the neighborhood with those of everyone who lives near you. Sex chats and Snapchats will drift in the air like confetti. If you are a scientist or someone working on something that needs to remain secret until it’s published, you will find it challenging to keep updating your passwords and praying that cloud services won’t have a security breach like Target or Home Depot.

I, for one, do not welcome our wireless, cloud-based overlords. If I want a machine to which I can privately save my work, neither the hardware nor software will be there to support me. All my recent advice about saving a copy of your stuff is about to become impossible to follow.

I will be very glad of one thing – my manual typewriter. It may be the only way to ensure privacy, and bring in a little sunshine, five years from now.

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.