The Temptation of Publishers’ Products

I suppose the sign of an educated person is that they can learn from anyone and anything. This week I’ve learned from a publisher’s product, and the design it uses could solve some problems. The question is whether those problems should be solved, and whether this is the best way to do it. I’m tempted. They’re doing some very cool things, these publishers.

The product is an interactive textbook, with videos and little quizzes built into the page. They are taking the idea of proximity to its logical extent  – everything that relates to the topic is together. The design is intended to force the student to interact with the material several times while on the page, in an effort to reinforce the reading. The reading itself has been scaled down. Each chapter has five or six sections, each section is about four scroll screens, with a single column, lots of white space, and multimedia as well as text.  It is obviously designed to look good on a cell phone.

cc ryanne lai via Flickr

cc ryanne lai via Flickr

It has many elements of a textbook, but frankly it looks a lot more like my lectures. My lectures have media all over the place. What they don’t have is an assessment element, or if they do have that (my History of England lectures have a little Javascript self-quiz at the end of each lecture) the results don’t go to the grade book.

I confess to being impressed (I’ve seen this product demo’d now with two different textbooks), and tempted to adopt. I’ve asked our tech admin to find out how I can integrate this (and other) products into an LMS.

No, go back, don’t be tempted! But I am struggling with student retention and completion as issues the administration takes seriously, so I begin considering adopting this product. What it lacks in breadth it seems to make up for in depth. At the end of each unit, it has students write a reflection that connects the chapter to contemporary topics, and puts their posts into a discussion board. It’s a well-designed “learning system”. I do not buy all their crap about “engagement”, but it does force interaction with the material.

Structured as things are now, this product would replace the textbook. That’s what it’s intended to do. So what is the textbook for? If it’s to provide factual background information to my lectures, this is way bigger than that. It has its own pedagogy and its own interpretation of the material. It requires a different kind of analysis than a new textbook.

My existing course design

First, If I were to assign such a “text”, what would happen to the other elements of my class? These are:

1. My lectures – reported by students every semester as their favorite aspect of the class, my lectures are my interpretation of history and contain embedded primary sources, music, video, and my own voice and video.

2. Primary source research – the second-favorite with students, and my first favorite, I’ve written on using the discussion forum as a lab and I wouldn’t want to lose this.

3. Quizzes – My quizzes now include questions from lecture (including primary sources) and whatever I’m using as a textbook.

4. Writing assignments – I’m down to only five of these per semester, all based on the students’ primary sources in #2.

Since the self-declared reason students drop my class is “the class looked like too much work”, which of these is sacrificed for the more thorough online textual experience? The quizzes might not be an issue, except that they help make sure students are understanding the lecture.

Product location and service

Second, the product is located in a separate web location, in order to make sure everyone is paying for it. I’ve examined several publishers’ products now. Most force you to go outside into what’s becoming their own LMS. Only one lets you bring links in by chapter. I’ve checked out their LMSs, and they won’t work for the primary source forums – forum design is still the weakest area of ed tech, even after 15 years. Most products “link” or “connect” to Blackboard and Moodle, so a student has single sign-on, but the location of the material cannot be put “in” to the LMS in a way that’s seamless. This undermines the whole idea of proximity that is central to the effectiveness of the product. The lack of true integration means that these publishers aren’t yet in the 21st century (I still have to use a phone to call in for their webinars).

Also, because it is not my product, and not a supported LMS, it adds a third layer of possible technological problem and need for support. Publishers are famous for giving you the world until you adopt the product, then not being much help. And everything’s dependent on their servers.

Catering to bad habits

Third, what learning preferences are we catering to with such products? All of the webinars I’ve attended begin with the profs taking turns stating what their greatest challenge is in teaching the x survey class. The answers are totally predictable: underprepared students, getting students to read the text, getting students to use what they read. How do we diagnose these problems? Students aren’t doing the reading, or they’d do better in the class. We want them to do better. We want them to learn. At the same time, we don’t want to lower the standards of the discipline.

cc Chris Wejr via Flickr

cc Chris Wejr via Flickr

The solutions in this product, the depth-over-breadth approach, rely on the “current research” on learning. Well, not on learning, but on student success. Student reading attention span is short, so the solution is to “chunk” information and given them less content. Their reading level is low, so we dumb down the text and put in links to difficult terms. They like video (actually, the publishers claim they learn well with video – I have not seen that to be true in practice), so we add more (short!) videos. Their attention drifts from the text, so we force them to click to see this map, and take a little quiz, and click on the video, and rearrange these items, and do a bit of writing.

So the whole structure of the product is to cater to students who cannot create their own learning pathways, who are accustomed to having everything designed for them, who have difficulty reading and remembering, and who do not know how to study. We support all of these bad habits with this approach, but also use technology to reinforce some depth of understanding.

Weighing the considerations

I’m looking at three ways to go here:

1. Adopt: Foreground the retention concerns and adopt the product, jettisoning at a minimum my quizzes, and making lecture viewing optional. Figure out how to put it into Moodle so I can use the forums for primary sources. Or dump those too.

2. Redesign: Balance the retention concerns with my own pedagogy, by adopting the useful elements of the product using my own technology skills – putting mini-quizzes and pop-up definitions inside of lecture, and dumping the DIY textbooks I’ve been using. This would be, obviously, a huge amount of work.

3. Keep Calm and Carry On: Ignore the retention concerns and continue with my design, which requires extensive reading, weekly 25-question quizzes on lecture and text, weekly primary source posts, and five writing assignments based on these, a workload far less than what I did as a freshman, but which is increasingly becoming anachronistic in a world of weekly log-ins, minimal reading, low-stakes self-checks, and low grading standards.

I confess to being tempted by #1 for the first time in my career. Undertaking #2 is more like a sabbatical project, and could take all my time, but I’d like to explore the options in future posts. #3 is of course the default, encouraging my own bad habits.

The dark side does have cookies. They taste better now, even if they’re not good for you. And we seem to be in a world where everyone just wants dessert, higher grades for less work. Whither the artisanal prof who cares about her field?

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