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.

10 thoughts to “On Being Orson”

  1. THANK YOU for this, Lisa – in a couple of weeks I will begin the exciting and always-new task of revising my courses for the year, using ideas I’ve accumulated from students, fellow teachers and my own grey cells to try, once again, to ratchet up the quality of my courses. I really applaud what you say here – esp. the irony that now, when it takes far less technical expertise and daring to teach online than it did 10 or more years ago, we are being overwhelmed by help I don’t think we really need, technical help that doesn’t really advance the pedagogy or the student experience in meaningful ways at all. I want my students to have a space in which to explore their own creativity, and I want the same for myself… Happy Fall Semester to you, and thanks for this great blog post in the spirit of a new school year about to arrive!

    1. Yes – the focus on creativity, and the opportunity for us to engage that too – the new trends seem to be missing this.

      1. OTOH I think I just offended all the educational technologists and instructional designers in my network, who I love. I didn’t mean to.

  2. When we all started doing this (before LMS), teaching online was still an oddity and no one really cared enough to prescribe and manacle online teachers…too much trouble anyway without the LMS technology to track and manage. So they left us alone to our own devices. Laura is fortunate in OK U still, for whatever reason, respecting that prelapsarian space.

    Not part of this discussion but relevant – and another part of Being Orson: teaching ToS http://royanlee.com/?p=2883

  3. Allow me to speak up as someone who went over to the “dark side” from a faculty position in the arts and humanities to the twelve-month world of an elearning department head.

    To extend your analogy, you said “I want to be Orson Welles.” Cool, By all means we should let the Orson’s of the world be Orson’s. What about the people who don’t want to be Orson? What would the film universe look like if all films had to be creations of a single artist? You get things like “Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo.”

    Improvements in technology have made it much easier to record a video and put it in your course, but your webcam probably didn’t come with instructions on storyboarding, planning a shot sheet, or editing.

    The end goal is a good course. If an individual has the skills and inclination to do that as a Welles-like auteur, more power to them; but expecting all online instructors to do all those things well is like expecting all directors to act in their own movies, design the costumes and compose the score.

    1. Hi Jason! It’s not the dark side! If one wants help, it’s wonderful to have people to ask to assist with making a video or whatever they want to do (though I do think professional-style videos give the wrong impression). But the default should be that the instructor is the designer, just like in a traditional college classroom (if I didn’t lecture well, I would use a different technique, not hire an expert to perform my lectures). The difficulty is the new impression (quickly becoming the default) that somehow the whole online teaching thing is too difficult to design on ones own. Technical assistance to someone who asks is a whole different matter.

      1. How does this tie in to the notion of using rubrics like QM and/or online “class visits” to determine which courses might benefit from assistance?

        Also, your comment about hiring an expert brings up an interesting question. In my online music appreciation class, I do a sub-unit on the Bach Mass in b. I have some of my own lecture content but have also linked to lecture demonstrations from the Oregon Bach Festival done by Helmuth Rilling. Rilling has forgotten more about this piece of music than I probably know and he has a chorus and orchestra on stage with him to demonstrate the things he’s discussing. Am I somehow absconding in my responsibility by linking out rather than trying to create my own set of Mass in b lectures?

        1. I’d think we’d have to be very careful with any rubric that determines pedagogy.

          Sounds like you found a great resource for your class, and used your pedagogical approach to determine where and how it could best be used. 🙂

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