Top Five Myths of Teaching Online

1. I gotta use Blackboard.

No, you don’t, even if your institution sets you up a Bb or WebCT class and has a policy saying you must use it. Blackboard, or any course management system, is just a shell. There are a zillion features you’ll never use. Or maybe you’re an innovator who’d rather teach with blogs and wikis. Solutions:

  • Learn to use the Control Panel’s Course Menu to change all the buttons. Make invisible those features you won’t use. Remove them from Tools. This makes it easier for students anyway.
  • If you want to use the web inside your class, add Course Menu buttons and link out to the URLs of blogs, wikis, etc., being sure to tell students they’ll need to set up accounts. But the pages themselves will look like they’re in Blackboard unless you tell it to open them on a new screen.

2. It takes too much time.

That depends on how you organize, and what you want to do. It is a mistake to assume you must create the entire class before it starts, and have everything visible to students as they enter. Think in terms of it being a regular class, just online instead of in a physical classroom. The same time-savers and time-wasters come into play. Yes, there is a learning curve, so it may feel more like your first year of teaching than your tenth. If you are already web-savvy, this time is negligible. If not, make time first to play on the web.

3. It’s not like real teaching.

It is real teaching in every sense, from preparing class materials, to planning for interaction, grading, and expressing your professorial personality. If you don’t believe that, ask to sit in on an online class someone else is teaching. The trick is to set up a class that demands your online presence, and use every opportunity to create a classroom personality through the way you write and what you create. Some instructors need set times to go in and add to discussion or message students on their progress, so they’re always aware of what’s going on “in class”. Others are on the web anyway and “stop by” daily.

4. The students know more than I do.

If you mean cellphones and Facebook, yes, they just might. Although you could use these technologies to teach, it’s unlikely you’d choose to do so. Students’ superior kills in social interaction technologies do not translate directly into learning online, anymore than being socially popular translates to in-class performance. You know your discipline and you know how to teach more than they know how to learn, in any environment. And anything they know that you want to know, they’ll be delighted to teach you.

5. I don’t know how.

You can learn from others, or just get started. Create a class, planning it just like you would an on-site class. For every element you do in class, look in your course management system or search on the web to figure out how to do it online. Experimentation is key — you can’t break anything. Get technical help when and if you need it. Start small, and build more into your class after you teach it the first time.

The “Student Ease of Use” Argument

I heard today from a gentleman disagreeing with my article Toolbox or Trap? Course Management Systems and Pedagogy in EDUCAUSE Quarterly. His main point was that the choice of CMS should be about the student, not the professor. As a student in postgrad studies, he was frustrated by the multitude of different systems:

As a student, I didn’t care how the organization was done (pedagogically) , but I wanted uniformity among the professors… I didn’t want to learn how each professor want to organize their course uniquely. I want to be able to quickly (and intuitively) navigate each course and have appropriate documentation found in the same location for all courses.

I have heard this argument before at my college. It tends to come up any time it is suggested that we should only have one CMS. After pointing out that many students are enrolled at multiple colleges with multiples systems (nowadays called “swirling”), my response is the same as I made to my correspondent.

I think students are important, too, and I appreciate the argument about student ease of use. But then I look at the web and see a multitude of sites, with many different methods for participating in them.

Then I see the business world and, despite the “computer competency” focus on Microsoft Office, I know that the ability to transfer knowledge from one system to another is what makes for a valuable employee.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the confusion. I recall college classroom experiences of my own, where I found it most annoying that this prof wanted this sort of thinking and assignments, and another had completely different expectations. But improving my ability to respond in a nimble way to a variety of conditions has served me well.

And from what I’ve been reading in David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, our ability to organize for ourselves the mass information and communication at our disposal through the web is what will make us better at acheiving understanding.

So I’m beyond thinking that students should have to deal with different systems because instructors should choose the CMS that fits their pedagogy. I think we’re doing students a disservice not to stretch their ability to learn new systems and transfer that knowledge.

Moodle update

MiraCosta College has arranged to offer both Moodle and ETUDES-NG by arrangement with Moodlerooms and the ETUDES consortium. I am delighted to report that these systems, in addition to Blackboard, will be operating for several years at least.

One of the conditions of doing this, in addition to minimal load on IT staff, was that I agree to be the “Faculty Lead” for Moodle, and my colleague John Turbeville the same for ETUDES-NG. In my case, this means I don’t have admin access, but am expected to assist faculty and lead anything having to do with upgrades or functionality, particularly third-party modules like WiZiQ (which we haven’t got quite working yet), Feedback and Questionnaire.

We updated to 1.9 a couple of weeks ago, so I encouraged current Moodlers to back up everything first. I thought a screencast might make it easier, so I made one. I even uploaded it to it’s called Backing Up a Course.

Then questions began to roll in, as more faculty starting setting up their courses. Instead of answering each one by email, I began making more tutorials using Snapz Pro X:

Wish us luck! As I tried to tell IT, I ain’t no SysAdmin, but I’ll do my best.

Rate Me!

Though some of my “Twitter buds” said I was crazy, I have invited my online students to evaluate my teaching, twice. As usual each semester, I have a survey based on MiraCosta’s online instructor evaluation, but with some of my own questions added.

Two of the most important questions I add are

  • I understand why I’m getting the grades I’m getting
    (responses are Likert-style, i.e. Strongly Agree – Agree – Disagree – Strongly Disagree) and
  • How much effort, in time and thought, would you say you put into this one class this semester?
    (responses are: A huge amount of effort – a large amount of effort – a moderate amount of effort – little effort)

These give me an idea of their own level of dedication to the class, and enable me to interpret the ratings. Thus a class that has a lot of slackers but gives me low ratings may not be my fault, or a class that has very low grades but gives me high ratings may have been happy with the experience anyway. The formal MCC evaluations, which are not administered every year but only during my tenure evaluation cycle, do not get to this level of assessment, so I do my own survey for each class each semester. (For those following technologies, I had a lot of trouble with Moodle’s Questionnaire module, and although I was advised to use Feedback instead, by that time I had already reconstructed the survey using phpESP on my hosted server.)

What’s new this semester is that I have also invited students to rate me at by putting the following notice in a Moodle block:

I’m asking everyone to please fill out the course survey at the bottom of this main page. In addition, if you’d like to do something more “public”, I invite you to respond at if you’d like.

As everyone knows, such sites tend to pull in the complainers (often those who dropped in frustration) or the enthusiasts. But in this case, by asking at the end of the semester, I thought I could attract the ones who’d hung in there, who actually know the whole class. And so far, it’s going pretty well.

The 2.0 Fear Factor

Having just finished editing my opinion piece on how CMSs limit pedagogy, I happen to find Fear 2.0, currently being discussed at EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Conference in San Antonio, in a session entitled “Who’s Afraid of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and the Big Bad CMS? A Digi-Drama About Fear 2.0” All the media is posted here.

Several videos were part of this project:

Although I’ve been promoting playing on the web, it never occurred to me that fear was related to anything other than security issues (school admins blocking websites, etc.). Although I do not yet live a full 2.0 life like some of these amazing innovators, I can see how fear of a number of things can be factors in stagnation: fear of change, democracy, looking stupid, losing control, freedom. And although I often think it’s the technology that’s not moving fast enough for me, perhaps people are moving slowly too.

The Results Are In: CMS and Pedagogy

Finally I managed to crack the code and get into the database with my surveys from last spring (don’t ask). I had surveyed MiraCosta’s online instructors (most of whom use Blackboard) and a number from San Diego Community College District (WebCT).

I was assessing the extent to which faculty fully use their course management system to achieve their pedagogical goals.

The 43 respondents to MiraCosta’s Blackboard & Pedagogy Survey set the following patterns:

  • About 40% were teaching fully online; the rest were using Bb for hybrids or on-site classes.
  • Over half had been using Bb for 3 or more years, so they were experienced.
  • Over 80% used the Gradebook and Assignment functions, followed by 48% for Messages, and 41% for Question Pools. Very few used Bb’s more advanced features such as Scholar, Glossary, Office Hours, or MERLOT.
  • 86% did make invisible features they weren’t using, and 93% do customize the Course Menu.
  • 77% run other programs inside Bb.
  • Most are unhappy with the discussion bard.
  • Most do not run a separate FAQ or technical forum on the board, nor a separate forum for students to socialize.
  • Almost 70% upload .doc or .pdf documents into Bb the most. 25% or less upload flash or movie files.
  • Most of the materials they load into Bb are text based (79%).
  • They are only moderately Web 2.0 savvy, with over 30% saying they are somewhat familiar with new uses of the Internet, and almost an equal number saying they aren’t very familiar.
  • They define their greatest workshop need pertaining to Bb as learning to use it more effectively (51%), and equal numbers feel it both inspires and limits or neither inspires or limits their teaching.

The WebCT respondents to my WebCT & Pedagogy Survey (17 of them) were almost all teaching fully online classes, with half teaching 3 years or more.

  • Like the MiraCostans, they used WebCT primarily for administrative tasks (email, calendar, assignments) with 82% using the discussion board.
  • Almost all made unused features invisible, but surprisingly only 70% change the Course Menu buttons.
  • 70% did run programs inside WebCT, and the same number were happy with its discussion board.
  • Half do not run a separate forum for technical issues, and 70% do not have a forum for students to socialize.
  • Like MiraCostans, most upload .doc and .pdf documents, though 70% upload HTML files, much larger than MiraCosta’s percentage (47%).
  • An overwhelming 82% of materials are text-based.
  • 41% said they were not very familiar with Web 2.0, but the percentage saying they are very familiar (24%) was double MiraCosta’s (12%).
  • 41% felt WebCT inspired their teaching, with 35% saying it both inspires and limits pedagogy.

My conclusions are disappointing in the sense that most faculty continue to use their CMS for administrative functions primarily, tend to upload desktop publishing formats instead of native HTML, and rely overwhelmingly on text materials. And these aren’t just newbies either.

However, although not as many as I’d hoped were using Web 2.0 interaction, I was delighted that most are trying to customize the CMS, in the menus themselves and/or making other programs appear inside the shell. Interactivity and rich media are certainly lacking, and in my opinion so is discussion design: few have separate areas for students to get technical help or to socialize, regardless of their satisfaction level with the discussion function.

Interestingly enough, most workshop participants surveyed this fall requested “how to”, “hands on” workshops, and “Making Blackboard Work for You” came out on top. I still sense a reversal of priorities here, but I’m hoping our workshops can help with that. Second place was “Making Online Discussion Work”, which is encouraging. Perhaps we can get people to look away from their CMS and think first about what they want to do?

Moodle: Students rating forum posts

One of the most useful features in Moodle, apparently enabled by default in 1.7, is the ability for students to rate forum posts, using any “scale” developed by the instructor. My students rate forum posts using a scale that includes choices like these:

  • Open Question
  • Informational Statement
  • Reflection on Material
  • Engages Others
  • Adds to Understanding
  • Uses Class Resources
  • Late Post
  • Off Topic

We can thus engage in a discussion of what makes a meaningful contribution to a forum, as well as the topic for the week.

In Moodle 1.7, this was just a matter of a checkbox called “Use ratings” in the updating of a Forum. In 1.8, the establishment of user “roles” means that the setting must be enabled as a Permission for a Student role. The “rate post” feature thus cannot be enabled by a Teacher unless the Administrator has enabled it in the Teacher role to override settings *and* specifically override settings for students (see Using Moodle forum:

This was designed to make it easier to customize access and use, but it sure is cumbersome. Without getting the setting changed, only Teachers can rate posts, and they may not be able to see that students can’t do it anymore if they’re accustomed to Moodle 1.7. And it took me awhile with Moodle documentation to figure out that overriding the Student role can be done at the course level, so long as Teachers are permitted to do it. Because Teachers can also override Student roles (if permitted) for each forum, I thought at first I’d have to do this for all 16 forums in each of 3 courses (you do the math).

But really, it’s worth it to get your Admin to enable this permission if you’re a teacher in Moodle. The pedagogical opportunities of students rating each others’ posts (and yours!) are too cool to pass up!

Planning to Divorce the CMS

Yeah, I’ll leave someday. I’m sure my second Course Management System knows that already. It’s not that it’s been a bad relationship (not like my first CMS — that was brutal — we’re not on speaking terms), but some day I’ll have to move on. I’ve gotten a lot of advice lately, reading some self-help gurus: Brian Lamb, George Siemens, Stephen Downes.

And now I’ve found the last tool to break the chain. It’s called Engrade, and it’s a web 2.0 gradebook (thanks to Sharon Davis and the WOW2 folks for posting the link the other night). I haven’t tried Engrade. It may not work. I don’t care. The fact that it’s there means there will be more apps like it. That’s all I want.

I can now do everything offered by a CMS outside a CMS. I can patch together the whole thing using webapps. I can mix-and-match, I can blend. I can do it my way (anyone will tell you that’s the way I do everything anyway!). I can create and have my students use and create pages with widgets in Protopage, discussion boards with QuickTopic, IM with Meebo or Adium (for Mac), conference calls in Skype, RSS feeds in Feedraider, blogs at Edublogs, wikis at pbwiki or in <a href="" MediaWiki, slideshows at Bubbleshare and VoiceThread, annotated photos at Flickr, presentations and zillions of other things at Zoho. And all for my very favorite price: free!

No, I won’t move out right away. But my current CMS better start taking out the trash.

Course Management Systems: Limiting the Imagination

Teaching is an imaginative art. One first envisions what one wants to do in class, then tries to make it happen.

A few years ago, I got into a polite discussion with an administrator about the necessity of the college supporting a variety of Course Management Systems, rather than restricting faculty to only one CMS. At the time, I was pretty naive. I assumed that anyone with any sense would realize that the freedom of faculty to teach in their own way was a primary consideration at an educational institution. My naivete evaporated as he explained to me that the CMS was like my physical classroom; it created basic limitations on my teaching and embodied parameters I could not change. I wouldn’t ask to move the walls of my classroom, would I? or expect the college to move the chalkboard, windows or doors?

I was less than convinced, and have long played the argument out in my head. To me, the computer itself was more analagous to the classroom, and within that I demanded academic independence to dream my dreams and achieve my goals. The technology itself already contained ample restrictions — every time I turned around, there was something I couldn’t do online. As I continued in online teaching, and found myself more and more frustrated with the additional limitations imposed on my pedagogical imagination by Blackboard, I entered another stage of naivete. Here I assumed that all online faculty, like myself, put their pedagogical goals first and tried to force the technology to do things to help students learn. Thus, they must be experiencing similar frustrations.

I have gradually been attaining a different level of awareness. In giving workshops and going to conferences, I noticed great similarities among the classes presented inside both Blackboard and WebCT. At places where faculty actually had their courses on display, they all looked very much alike. A few buttons might be changed, the theme color, but overall faculty seemed to be retaining the structural organization and intentions of the default settings.

This worried me. In these CMSs, the material is organized by type (“Course Documents”, “Quizzes”) rather than by topic or weeks. That is certainly not intuitive for those of us accustomed to a syllabus with a schedule. I wondered whether the CMS could be controlling the way a class was taught online, particularly among novice instructors. I began to develop a suspicion that at an introductory level, the CMS could actually determine the pedagogy due to several factors: insecurity about technological expertise, lack of knowledge about the CMS, and lack of dedication to pedagogical goals. The CMS was indeed being seen as the classroom, a physical set of immutable limitations.

A few months ago, I was looking at a colleague’s class as he told me about the limitations of WebCT, having changed over from Bb — he said he lost a certain feature he really liked, and indeed, I could see it was not there on his site. When I later looked at another instructor’s class in the same CMS, the feature was clearly evident on the main page. She showed me the settings she had used. The first instructor’s pedagogy had been hobbled simply because he didn’t know how to enable the feature. I also attended several workshops where I talked about Blackboard features that the instructors, most of whom had used Bb for years, didn’t know were there.

To get more information, I initiated a survey of Blackboard and WebCT users at a few local colleges. So far, results support the two top studies on the subject: University of Wisconsin (2003) and University System of Georgia (2005), which report that most faculty use the CMS for managerial tasks rather than to further their pedagogy. Class management features (gradebook, text upload, testing, email, discussion board) are used far more than interactive features (chat, discussion grading, virtual classrooms, reusable learning objects), even among experienced instructors. It was heartening that many were willing to customize the course menus and link externally from within the CMS, and most wanted to learn more about how to manage the system.

At the same time, I could see that few faculty use the many features of the web itself in their own work. Over half of the 57 faculty surveyed were unfamiliar with web elements such as RSS, blogs or wikis despite the fact that the same percentage have been using their CMS for three or more years. And again, that makes me wonder the extent to which the limitations of Course Management Systems are causing limitations in the pedagogical imagination. My work continues….