Automaton at CIMA, photo by Rama, CC licensed.

From Business Week (2 April 2018) about Russian startup Robot Vera:

“The co-founders, with a background in human resources, two years ago found themselves making hundreds of calls to candidates who’s lost interest in the given job or couldn’t be located. ‘We felt like robots ourselves, so we figured it was better to automate the task,’ [cofounder] Uraksin says.”

Ever feel like a robot teaching online? I know I do. Hours of time spend adjusting grades, putting in zeros for incomplete assignments, activating rubrics. Clicking to sort student names, clicking down three levels to send a student a message. I can imagine myself as a Victorian metallic automaton, typing on my computer instead of writing with my quill, mousing around, click, click, click.

Then there’s grading. I’m really fast. I can read an assignment quickly and click the appropriate boxes on the rubric. I know exactly what to look for, because the whole thing is my design. Click, click. But I have good rubrics, that give meaningful feedback to students, so that takes time to do well. Click, click.

So from the Robot Vera perspective (and that of everyone discussing automation taking over jobs), I have to ask: what part of my job should be automated? So many of the things I thought would be done by the machine, after two decades teaching online, are not. Stupid tasks take much of my time. Even auto-grading has to be double-checked (I change about 20% of auto-graded items). I don’t call support for actual help doing or creating things with the system – I get the system. I call because something  horrid and unexpected happened, and 9 times out of 10, it’s because I left a box unchecked, or neglected to use a particular combination of settings. Because I wasn’t, in other words, a good enough automaton.

What would happen if I automated everything that makes me feel like a robot? Marking, grading, tracking, checking outcomes, planning courses according to state mandates to which I am opposed?

Would I have more time to do the actual teaching, the contact with students, the individual discussions, the leading of in-depth conversations? Wouldn’t that feel less robotic, like I’m a person who cannot be replaced by an automaton?

I have already noticed that handing off the grading of primary sources to my students, having them do a checklist to get the grade for their post each week, allows me time to instead respond to the sources, note connections, give feedback so they can fix their work and “earn” the points they gave themselves, encourage them to return and see the work of their colleagues. I get a better view of what’s happening, with human eyes.

I can also respond individually to their auto-graded Lecture Notes (2 points if you turn it in). Doing that this week for the first time, several students took the opportunity to engage in private discussion with me, and it was about the history, not the grades.

So instead of resisting automation, I will continue to grapple with how to make it work for us all. Because, as usual, the simplification of the problem does not reflect reality. The simple version is just a dichotomy: teacher-involved OR auto-graded. But (in current trendy parlance) it can be and. I suspect it can even be because of – because there is auto-grading, I can be more involved as a teacher.

The ideas I’m exploring (student independence, teaching as modeling and demonstrating, learning as practicing and reflecting, and transferring the burden of learning) fit well with some automating if it gives me the freedom to do what I do best: that old-fashioned human teaching. So hand me that can of oil…

Transferring the burden of learning

As you may know if you follow me, I am edging closer to a methodology based on the self-assessment for student work. There are a number of reasons for this. This post will focus on just one: I am concerned about the increasing dependency on the instructor, especially in online classes. As students have adjusted to learning in online environments, as they become more comfortable with the technology, I’ve seen the reverse of what I anticipated. While I expected increased familiarity with learning technologies to increase self-direction, it has instead increased communication with the instructor in a manner designed to, shall we say, selectively individualize a student’s experience.

While I am sympathetic to the ongoing need to experience contact with the instructor on an individual level, I am less enthusiastic about answering multiple messages and emails asking for a repetition of feedback I’ve already given through multiple means, both individual and class-wide. There seems to be difficulty applying public or general feedback to ones own work, even when that feedback (like a rubric) is attached to an individual assignment. It is easier to just contact the instructor and ask, “why did I get this grade?”.

For those of us who provide extensive examples, clear directions, detailed rubrics, and continual feedback to the entire class, this insistence on individual comments which (most of the time) simply repeat what’s been already provided, takes up valuable time that is better spent interacting about the subject matter and the discipline.

In my syllabus, I have a list of expectations, which include:

Students should respond to guidance from the instructor, learn from full-group (rather than individual) feedback, and get help from the Help page and college resources as needed.

The ability to apply generalized feedback to ones own work is an important life skill, and yet I often succumb to the quick email or message response. This is because it is easier (and seems nicer) for me to just say, “oh, you just need to cite correctly as noted in the instructions” or “be sure to use only primary sources” than to encourage their independence in a helpful way. I never want to be the type of prof who barks, “read the syllabus!” Providing the information and pointing to it is one way to encourage some independence, I suppose, but it’s still telling, directing, prescribing. I want a slightly different tone.

So today I got a message:

Hello Professor, I do not understand what I am doing wrong on the essay prompts. Can you help me?

Normally I’d go look again at the student’s assignment and my rubric, and answer specifically. But this time, I wrote back:

Sure! First, take a look at the rubric, to see the areas that need improvement.

Then, take a look at the list in my Announcement – do any of those items apply? If so, how might you fix it?

Then, take a look at the work of your colleagues (especially those I put a “Like” on) – notice any differences from your own work.

Then, go to the Help page and look at the samples.

Let me know what you think as you compare your Writing Assignment, and what ideas you might have for what to do for the Final Essay. Happy to provide feedback!

Certainly there is a chance this will be interpreted as “she refused to tell me”, but I hope not. Instead, I hope that I’m teaching how to do what I’ve told them I expect them to do, and in a friendly way.

The burden of learning, you see, shouldn’t be on me – it should be on them. These days I am taking ever more to heart Stephen Downes’ idea that the professor’s job is to model and demonstrate, and the student’s is to practice and reflect. How can they practice if I do it for them? How can they be encouraged to reflect on their own work?

When students write or rewrite something, and send me, say, their new thesis, I am always happy to provide specific feedback, and they really appreciate that. But I’d like to have a better response to the more general “I just don’t get it” message, so we’ll see what happens.

Research/writing workflow

Yet another post recording a workflow so that I don’t forget what I decided to do!

This time I’ve had serious help from my brilliant friend and colleague Jenny Mackness, who generously shared with me the tools she uses (and how she uses them) in writing research articles, including PBworks, Word, Mendeley, and Evernote.

It was only as I investigated and tried these, thinking about her workflow and constantly reminding myself what task(s) I was trying to accomplish, that I realized something about doing research in the information age (or whatever the hell we’ll call this).

What we used to need to write research papers was:

1. bibliography cards for recording references (3 x 5)
2. note cards for recording one idea/note/quotation each (4 x 6)
3. notepads for outlining and brainstorming
4. more notepads for composition
5. typewriter/electronic typewriter/word processor/word-processing program on computer for formatting and final copy

Turns out the process hasn’t changed, just the technology. I think I’m going with:

1. Paperpile for bibliography
I’ve actually paid for this, and I rarely pay for anything. It’s a database where you either enter the bibliographic information or it figures it out from an uploaded PDF (which it actually uploads to Google Drive, not itself). You can annotate the PDF files and add notes to them, but I’ve found this only works well for recent articles. I’m using a lot of stuff from the 1880s, and those PDFs don’t do so well because the program does not OCR. The annotations and notes export, but not in a usable way. So I have quite a few articles where I likely won’t use the notes, but the highlighting is helpful. The best thing is that it integrates for footnoes in Google Docs. The other best thing is that it outputs bibliographies with multiple citation formats.

2. Google Keep for notecards
I’ve gone round and round on this, looking for something that tiles notecards on the screen, and makes them searchable. I tried Evernote again, and still don’t get how to see all the info at once. The main issue is integration between the notes and whatever program I use for composition. I looked at several other programs also, desperate to not go with Google. I know it’s likely Google Keep will disappear, since it’s “below the fold” on the Google menu, so this decision was influenced by #4, below.

3. PBworks for outlining
Jenny taught me that the old Peanut Butter Wiki is still around and handy. Here I can put research notes (not content, but process), library holdings lists, plans for articles, basic outlines, links to all the Google Docs (including the pdfs being used by Paperpile) and other stuff online that I might need.

4. Google Docs for composition
It’s the equivalent of those legal pads (I actually used letter-sized lined glued pads, and still do). Because of its integration with Paperpile, and the ease of writing from any of my four (!) computers, it’s the logical choice.

5. Word for formatting
It seems so bizarre that computing hasn’t saved a single step in the old research process, but it hasn’t. Word is crap at all the other processes here except composition, but I’d have to go all Microsoft to get another suite together, and, frankly, they wanted my cell phone number to give me that with OneNote and OneDrive (no). Several journals and conferences want submissions in .docx, and I’ve been using Word since before version 5.1a for Mac (the best version ever). Now if I could just get those citations from Paperpile to come through Google Docs in black instead of gray….

The biggest challenge will be backup (for the work, not for me, although that would be nice). PBworks is best at this – you can back up (export) the whole wiki in html with two clicks. Google, of course, does not want you backing up to your hard drive – it wants you cloud-dependent. So remembering to back up composition Docs as I go is a thing, but I managed it on my recent presentation so I think I can do it. Google Keep backup is awkward at best – you basically have to put them in a Doc and export to get anything usable. But at least a Doc can be exported as plain text.

So, now to work…

Classroom use of student-posted primary sources (and some dissing of Andrew Jackson)

In my on-site classes, I have students do what my online students do – post a visual primary source in a discussion board each week. The post includes the image, then citation, like this:

Artist: Lydia Dickman
Title: Sampler
Date: 1735
Source: National Museum of American History Sampler Collection

Commentary: According to the source, Lydia Dickman was about 13 years old when she did this. Young ladies will learn needlework and reading at the same time doing samplers. The description tells of the very complex work this is, which to me says that the work expected of colonial women could be very difficult in terms of technical skill. Work in the home could be arduous, but also something of which a person could be proud. (Lydia, unfortunately, died only a year after her first son was born, in 1745. She would have been 24 years old.)

They then use these sources (everyone’s – not just their own) as the basis for all writing assignments.

But in my on-site class, I also bring them up on the screen each Wednesday, and ask students to talk about what they posted. While not “discussion”, I’ve found that students are less afraid to talk to the whole class when:

  • they’re seated in a darkened room,
  • everyone is looking at the screen rather than them, and
  • they are talking about their own work and what they found.

Until today, I’ve left it at that (though I do interject connections to lecture or textbook, or ask questions). But today I had a goal in mind: avoiding President Jackson.

Andrew Jackson is my least favorite president, due to all the reasons everyone cites who dislike him: his personality (common, boorish, and obnoxious), the Bank Veto (which he said was anti-elitist but made it hard for ordinary people to get loans), the spoils system in his cabinet (where he appointed his friends instead of people who knew what they were doing), and Indian Removal (deportation in the name of protection). The commonalities with President Trump are so easy it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

So today I was going to have students present their primary sources, then do a discussion comparing Jackson and Trump, but I’d already short-circuited that by talking about it on Monday, accompanied by this Washington Post article. So instead, I kept a list of non-Jackson topics as they presented their sources (I erased the one about presidents):

So when they got into groups, we did a Jackson thing (deciding a verdict based on this video). Then I asked them whether they kept up daily with the actions of President Trump. They told me that was impossible anyway, and that no, they just lead their daily lives. I said that was the same in the 1820s and 30s – people were concerned with things like we had on the board, other topics and events.

So I asked them to:

1) Select one event or situation between 1824 and 1832 that was not directly associated with President Jackson, and explain why it should have gotten more attention.

2) Do the same for 2016-2018.

Just so you know, they decided that the issues of today not receiving enough attention are:

Global warming/environment
Gun law reforms/shootings
Military conflicts/increased military budges/drone use
Protests like Standing Rock that are soon forgotten

And one group wrote: “couldn’t choose – Trump affects everything”.

For the future, what I liked about this is that it considered a student-created set of primary sources as representing larger topics or issues. I can see how doing that, just deciding on topics based on their sources, can create a set of ideas for them to work with. Even if it’s not in a Jacksonian or Trumpist way.

What is required?

Although I have stepped back quite a bit from my reading and research in online education, I still have a Google Alert set, and still receive and examine recent articles, when I can stomach it.

The dictatorial tone of both articles in my inbox today is the subject here.

The first, The Necessary Knowledge for Online Education: Teaching and Learning to Produce Knowledge (Ferreira et al), did a study of 27 educators, all in the field of Education, to determine what knowledge (this sort of article usually says “skills”) are needed to teach online. What struck me was the premise, stated in the abstract:

Online education requires pedagogical mediation and the skills and competencies to work with technological resources which promote interaction, collaboration, and co-learning.

Well, that’s just not true. Online education does not require an emphasis on collaboration – rather it is one possible approach. It is also entirely possible to create online education that personalizes the class through different kinds of approaches to content, or emphasizes at every step the learner’s relationship with the material rather than through colleagues and “co-learning”. I understand that the current phase in online education pushes the collaborative approach, but it certainly is not “required”.

The second article, Online Continuing and Professional Education: Current Varieties and Best Practices (Schroeder, et al), features this idea:

Teaching online requires a team, not just an individual. While face-to-face teaching may be a singular effort, online teaching includes a multitude of technical, pedagogical, environmental, and associated considerations that requires a team of experts.

That’s not true either. I have never had a “team”, but rather developed not only my own pedagogical and technological skills, but helped design a “Pedagogy First” paradigm wherein the individual instructor’s strengths were basic to course design. I realize that these days there are more resources (among them instructional designers with advanced degrees and research articles produced by candidates for PhDs in Education), but those do not, by some reverse design, indicate that these things are required.

As the literature has developed over the last decade, much of it written by people who are not teachers and have not taught online, the “options” have become “requirements”, and the possibilities have narrowed into “best practices” (best for whom?) and necessary elements. This creates downward pressure on the creativity of teaching online, stultifying the field and cookie-cuttering our courses. Faculty who want students to focus on content are forced to develop “interactions” which oppose their own pedagogy, common sense, and experience. Helpless in a context they did not create, and for which they are pedagogically unsuited, they are told that not only is the social learning method “required”, but that a team is “required” to help them.

Did I mention I’d stepped back from reading the newest in online ed? There’s a reason for that.

The electronic frontier is closed

With the death of John Perry Barlow, it is time to start writing the history of the open web.

Usually, historians are poor analysts of current events, and poor predictors of the future. Just look at Woodrow Wilson, idealistically trying to build a world of peace after the Great War. One of the problems is that we cannot write the history until something ends*. It is too soon, for example, to write the history of school shootings in America, or of post-rational politics. We are in the middle of these things.

In 1893 at an American Historical Association conference, Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the frontier. In his view, the “wild west” was over. The western frontier had served as an escape valve throughout American history, providing a place for dreamers and those who just didn’t fit in to start a new life, take their chances. But gradually the frontier was contained, mapped by geographers, fenced by ranchers, crossed by railroads. And while imperialists might use Turner’s proclamation to support their own internationally expansionist goals, the point was that the wild west was done, and therefore it was time to write its history.

So now it is time to write the history of the open internet, the electronic frontier, as Barlow called it. As in the wild west, the freedom that marked the early web would be contained, civilized, and gradually controlled by commercial and government interests. As it closed, the shift in the nature of the space gave birth to new threats. Where on the open web bad disruptors were restrained by the community, commercial spaces made possible abuses never seen before, and controlled by no one. From trolls to cyberhacking to international meddling in elections, the enclosed spaces themselves gave rise to horrors.

In its obituary of Barlow, The Economist quoted from his 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” :

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather…I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.

Sometimes historians get to experience historical change themselves. While never a computer expert, I learned in the 1980s the mysteries of ProDOS and the Apple IIe. To me, computers were only sophisticated word processors, each generation enabling me to correct errors and write faster. Using Netscape in the late 1990s, I began teaching history on the wild web, grading assignments by email and posting lectures in HTML that I learned from a book.

In education, the wild west began to diminish with the advent of the learning management system, and I spent the next dozen years or so fighting to keep online college classes free of the imposed pedagogy inherent in these systems, even as I learned to use them myself. I also dreamed that the artisan way of doing things would survive the growth of mechanized online teaching. Blackboard and now Canvas are the educational equivalents of Facebook and Google – entities that began with a worthy goal but now manage information in controlled commercial spaces. And, as with the web in general, this control paradoxically encourages the worst elements to emerge. College courses, for so many students the opportunity to think freely, now feature a level of standardization and accountability that Henry Ford would have envied.

I still believe, like Barlow, that the freer the space, the less opportunity there is for abusing our fellow human beings. But all that has passed. It is time now to write the history of the web that was open to all, when everything was possible, where the disembodied voice spoke to a world that wanted to listen and learn. Historians take dreams and wrap them up, explaining events in a way that gives meaning and context. So this is a wrap: the electronic frontier is closed.

*Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France may be the one exception to this rule.

From the introduction of Gryll Grange

by Thomas Love Peacock (1896):

In the following pages the New Forest is always mentioned as if it were still unenclosed. This is the only state in which the Author has been acquainted with it. Since its enclosure, he has never seen it, and purposes never to do so.

A notice to the reader and political protest together.

Full text of the novel available at

Chamber’s Encyclopedia

Doing some research in autodidacticism during the Victorian age, I came across Chamber’s Encyclopedia of 1860. Although actually at the Internet Archive website, the index is best accessed at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.

I had begun with a passage by H.G. Wells in his autobiography:

“There was one of those compilations for the mentally hungry that have played so important a part in supplementing the deficiencies of formal education in the British communities in the nineteenth century. I cannot trace it now. It may have been Cassell’s Popular Educator—I seem to have named that to Geoffrey West and he has jumped to the conclusion that I bought that in parts as it was issued. That was due to his natural desire for animating detail. I never did. I hadn’t the pocket money to buy anything in parts. On the whole I think that the book I have in mind was more probably some compact encyclopædic production of that sound hardheaded Edinburgh firm, Chambers. It had long summaries of the views of various philosophical schools and of the physical and biological sciences, made I should imagine by competent and conscientious Scots.”

And indeed, I immediately got wrapped up in reading about Archimedes (three entries: himself, his theory, his screw, with illustrations).

In the talk I gave recently on diversions from my Wells’ research, a point came up about how some of us as children used to sit in front of the shelf of encyclopedias, just reading.  Today’s web is an encyclopedia, just in its unedited version. When I spend the day looking for evidence, following trails, I’m doing a broader, shallower version of what I did as a child. But when I find it in older works that have been digitized, like this one, the thrill is exactly the same.

Grading and plagiarism goes boink

As I go through routine grading of primary sources (marking rubrics for six criteria for each assignment), I often think about Laura Gibbs’ non-grading routines at the University of Oklahoma.  Her grading system is explained to students here, and I have looked at it periodically for many years, like a diabetic outside a bakery, wishing, wishing…

My primary justification/excuse for not going into an honor grading system has been the number of students I teach. To fabulous profs like Laura, the grading is secondary to the ongoing feedback provided to each individual student. That level of granularity is impossible for my classes of 40 students each. I have also always felt the system would be difficult for the community college level of work.

At the same time, I have worked hard, using Canvas’ rubrics, to establish grading norms that are easy for students to understand, making the feedback, if not fully individualized, at least in-depth and helpful.

Now the overall objection to “declarations” or honors grading, where students declare their work as complete, I hear from many people, as I’m sure Laura has as well. The big one is: “students will cheat”. They will say they are done when they’re not. They will say they covered all the criteria when they didn’t. They will say they wrote all this themselves when they didn’t.

I worry about that too. But my view is changing, oddly enough because my view on plagiarism has evolved over the last 30 years of teaching.

Here’s where I am at the moment. I have students who plagiarize passages out of the book or off the internet. They put them in primary source commentary, discussions, and writing assignments. I catch a lot of these, eventually. I don’t use TurnItIn, because it steals the students’ intellectual property. Rather I rely on my experience reading student work, and Google’s search for phrases I find suspicious. I am almost always right when I suspect plagiarism.

When I find it, I inform the student privately that it’s not OK, to see the syllabus and catalog about plagiarism. The last few years I’ve asked them to discuss with me what plagiarism is, and to promise not to do it again. This last may seem strange, but it’s been helpful. And this term I’ve been asking those who want a regrade to not only tell me what plagiarism is, but to rewrite their work by messaging me with their original work with all the plagiarized passages in parentheses, followed by their revision.

But there’s the larger context. A number of years ago, we were told that we cannot kick a student out of a course for plagiarism. Then we were told we cannot give them an F in the course either. All we can do is give them an F on the assignment they plagiarized. This implied a new view of cheating at the state level. It also reinforced the idea that I am the police officer, responsible for finding plagiarists and catching them. But the punishment is to be limited.

I find that I no longer accept any of this. Plagiarism is cheating – it is an academic crime, yes, but more importantly it is dishonesty, which is a moral crime. It is very difficult to legislate against a moral crime. This country has extreme problems today with the whole issue of cheating and dishonesty. More and more it is seen as OK so long as you don’t get caught. That’s not morality. That doesn’t teach anything at all. I catch you, I give you an F. So you don’t do it in my class anymore. That’s the lesson: not that it’s wrong, but that it’s forbidden.  By some teachers. Sometimes.

At Laura’s institution, there is a group that deals with academic integrity, and states its intention to foster such integrity, inside and outside the classroom. At my institution, the page on academic integrity seems more concerned with the student right to protest an instructor’s punishment.

The moral responsibility for student plagiarism and cheating should not be on me. It should be on the student.  I have become, in today’s world, much more concerned that the student understand the unethical nature of plagiarism and other forms of cheating. I want them to feel it inside, but I have not the time, skill, or knowledge to Socratically take them individually through their own beliefs to guide them toward a universal morality. Instead, I take the approach I’ve mentioned when I catch it. But there must be many, many plagiarized passages I miss. Why? Because if they’re really good at it, I won’t catch it. So I’m only catching the students who aren’t very good at it. Perhaps someday those students will change their minds. But the habitual, hard-core offenders are just proving they’re right to cheat, because they get away with it.

I can’t work in that world anymore. I would like to move to a system where I ask them to promise honesty at the start, and declare that they have completed their work as best they can. Then, if they cheat or plagiarize, I’ve done my best to ensure that they know that what they are doing is cheating and lying. The moral burden is on them.

Being less brave than Laura Gibbs, and subjected to different conditions, I will be adapting her method. My whole class won’t be honor-graded. I am keeping the quizzes and the writing assignments as is. I am keeping the reading annotations in Perusall, because I’ve seen it helps students complete and grapple with the reading. But today I have designed a short quiz for each primary source assignment, and I plan to do it for each homework. The single question asks them to check off criteria on a list. These are the same criteria I currently use on my rubric. As a Canvas quiz question, this is “multiple answer”. All the checkboxes checked will lead to 100% for that assignment in the gradebook, or fractions thereof if not all boxes are checked. It’s up to them to be honest.

I plan to roll this out with my two mid-semester start classes, after spring break. But the idea may be bigger than a self-graded quiz. If I do this for both primary sources and homework, the emphasis of the course will shift toward their own work, and their own assessment of that work. In classes where I don’t have homework, I may well add it, in this self-evaluative format.

So, does all this mean I won’t engage their work, won’t read it all, because they’re doing the “grading”? On the contrary. It will make it possible for me to focus on their work better, to discern patterns, to help the students individually who need help. And when I do catch cheating, it will enable me to place the responsibility where it belongs.