Standardizing what’s good

Every October, I work on my classes for next term. Partly this is because the spring schedule comes out the third week of the month, and partly because October has always been particularly difficult for morale and motivation (mine as well as the students’). I’m not sure why. Could be the lack of any real holiday except Halloween (Columbus Day is tainted and it was never a day off anyway), or just mid-term blues.

That’s my excuse anyway, since I’m not supposed to be doing this till after my sabbatical is over. But I am still doing my reading and research. Prepping is more like a break, because mostly what I’m doing is changing settings rather than creating things. It turns me into a non-thinking machine, changing hundreds of due dates and adding lots of links (why aren’t we at a place where I can assign this to someone?). Definitely mindless.

I’ve decided I like the sources and readings for my classes, I like my lectures, so no changes are needed. But at the end of last term, I added two elements to my weekly coursework for two of my classes, then tested again for three this summer. These elements are “Check primary source for points” and “Submit lecture notes”.

So once I’m done, the weekly tasks for each class I teach online will be this:

  • Due Wednesday:
    • Read the textbook
    • Read/listen to lecture
    • Research and post primary source
    • Check primary source for points
  • Due Sunday:
    • Read and discuss the documents
    • Submit lecture notes
    • Quiz

In addition, for the first two weeks there are multi-pages quizzed Learning Units about primary sources. And, three times during the semester, there are Learning Units for the next writing assignment followed by the assignment itself. Writing Assignments are based only on the sources that have been posted in the Boards by the class, and have a scaffolded format that I created myself, so they are difficult if not impossible to purchase or plagiarize. The Final Essay, for the full-term sessions, is based on the third writing assignment, and folds into the grading for Writing Assignments.

“Read the textbook” is linked to the actual textbook pages, except for the one class where I’m still using a purchased book.

“Read/listen to lecture” is linked to my online lectures, hosted on my rented server, which contain audio of me reading the lecture, video clips, etc.

“Research and post primary source” is the laboratory type posting, on a discussion board, of visual primary sources students find on the web, with citations and student commentary.

“Check primary source for points” is a one-question quiz checklist of all the things required for full points on a primary source (image, author, title, date, live link, commentary), so it’s a self-evaluation of their own source, instantly graded.

“Read and discuss the documents” is annotating the assigned textual sources using Perusall inside Canvas as an LTI, which assigns points automatically but I do have to check through all of them and make sure they’re right.

“Submit lecture notes” automatically assigns 2 points when they submit them, and they can be in any format, including images of handwritten notes.

“Quiz” is a multiple-choice quiz based on lecture, documents, and textbook readings.

The grading breakdown is:

Read and discuss the documents 20%
Quizzes 20%
Primary Sources 20%
Lecture Notes 10%
Learning Units 10%
Writing Assignments 20%

Right now, the only class that varies from this is the one US History where I have full discussion. In that class, it’s:

Homework 20%
Lecture notes 20%
Writing Assignments 20%
Discussion 20%
Constitution exercise 10%
Final Essay 10%

The pedagogy, briefly, is based on emphasizing task completion, with grading considerations as secondary. Each individual assignment is low stakes, though with only three or four writing assignments, the stakes are higher for putting all the knowledge together. Assignments that can be graded immediately (quizzes, learning unit knowledge checks self-assessed primary source points, lecture notes) are, so that students can get immediate feedback (yes, I reserve the right to change points if there are inaccuracies or instructions aren’t followed). The addition of lecture notes and self-assessed primary source points adds a metacognitive learning aspect. The work of doing history is engaged in multiple ways, including reading, writing, discovery, sharing, and visual analysis.

Student choice is built in, in several ways. Students choose their own primary sources to post, and their own topics for writing assignments. They can choose which days they work, so long as deadlines are met (each unit opens a week in advance). Lecture note format is up to them, to meet their own note-taking style. Since each individual item is low points, they can choose to miss one or two without it doing serious grade damage. Two attempts are given for self-graded items, so they can go back and correct something without penalty.

My role is guide on the side, in the middle, at the front, and in the end. Instead of grading constantly, I spend my time reading their notes, viewing their posted primary sources, answering questions, writing weekly or twice-weekly communications, conversing with students in the Perusall annotations, and yes, grading their writing assignments. I have had no complaints about how much work the courses are, since most of the things I’m requesting (like lecture notes) are common to on-site classes. Some students appreciate the trust, and the autodidactic opportunities. Others appreciate that I’m there for them, and respond quickly to their individual messages. (On this, I’ve decided that students want the individual approach, but not necessarily for class content – rather they want it for their individual problems and issues, most of which have nothing to do with the subject. My method leaves time for that.) And I can grade more generously, because the point is to do the work, be the historian, rather than show me you’re good enough to do history without me.

There is also something interesting about having the courses this structured. The course itself seems to be its own entity, has its own trajectory and completeness. It is almost like it’s me, the students, and the course. The students and I interact with the course together, instead of the course acting as a weapon with which I beat students using grades. This goes along with the LMS (Canvas – blech), which the students and I can work in (and on, when things go wrong) together — it’s them and me against the system.

So although on the one hand I don’t like the idea of standardizing courses, in this case I’m standardizing what’s good, what works, what meets my pedagogical goals. I am free to change readings, lectures, materials, instructions, at any time. After 20 years of building these courses, I think I’m onto something less subject to the vagaries of passing fads (personalized learning, individual learning styles), dangerous web spaces (MOOCs, open education), and changing jargon (student learning outcomes, guided pathways), and more founded in solid pedagogy.



The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

Related posts:

Results from 131 students

It’s only taken me 17 years of teaching online to develop a student survey that is both broad enough to cover all my classes and narrow enough to give me good feedback.

Just sharing a few things here. Total students responding was 131. Most students responding were passing the class.


They still like my lectures the most, and textbook readings the least. They still like posting their own primary sources.


Hours and hours of work on that Help Page and – no surprise given what they email me about – they don’t use it. They do like seeing the whole course on one page (so I won’t switch to showing only the current week, an option in Moodle) and they like my comments and the audio of my lectures (I’ll read it for you!). The None category is a little depressing….


The engagement results are clear, too. They like the lectures and posting their own source. They don’t like reading much. But they really liked what I added this year – the completion checkboxes on the Moodle page. I will be sad to lose that. But note: they like seeing each other’s work, but don’t require contact with other students. I’ve been saying that for awhile – collaboration and teamwork is online classes is not always needed. For my class, engagement with the work and posting what you find may be taking the place of “interaction” among students. They can learn from each other without necessarily engaging in forums in response to each others’ posts.

Three online class types

A draft of another tripartite idea, this time focused on online classes in general, across the board.

mcdonalds_fries The McClass

Run inside an LMS, or even better by Coursera or Udacity, and/or offered by proponents of the mass-produced course (U of Phoenix, Ashford, etc), the McClass features recorded lectures, an unmoderated internal discussion (if any), and grading by graduate students, peers or staff (and soon robo-graders). All xMOOCs are in this category, but so are classes created by teams of instructional designers or course developers and “content experts”, but facilitated (I hesitate to use the word “taught”) by less experienced instructors or program coordinators. Sartorial analogy: one size fits all.


The sub sandwich class

It’s a six inch or a twelve — you can change the mix of ingredients inside but the options are standardized. Sub sandwich classes are offered by community colleges and universities dependent on a single Learning Management System, the inherent design of which influences (and may determine) instructor pedagogy. Even built on a whole wheat system like Canvas or an in-house product, the defaults of the LMS are easy to adopt without requiring an examination of ones own pedagogy. Hallmarks include dependence on publisher-produced materials, and an internal, traditional moderated discussion of issues, usually lacking a constructivist focus. Quality varies and is partly dependent on the freshness of the ingredients.


The artisanal class

Created by the instructor, the artisanal class includes only those elements that help realize the instructor’s pedagogy. The design is developed based on knowledge and experience as an active, independent teacher. The artisanal class may exist inside an LMS, but when it does the LMS is substantially customized, and often external web elements are brought in to replace built-in features (blogs, wikis, etc). Hallmarks include a foundation in free and open or home-made formats, innovative assessment techniques, and a distinct lack of top-down control. Discussion may be distributed or focused on content creation. Flaws add character and provide opportunity for community creativity. Most cMOOCs fit this model, but so do classes offered by public institutions who allow faculty substantial control over the design and deployment of their work.



Higher Ed and the Monastic Space

Lately I’ve been engaged in a conversation in G+ with Laura Gibbs, George Station, Donna Murdoch and Edward O’Neill. We’ve been talking about the current controversies in higher ed in terms of the value of on-site versus online education, in particular the role of the physical classroom, and the extent to which it may no longer be needed. The question of whether the online classroom will/should/can replace the physical classroom is, of course, a very old (what, 14 years?) topic. But I’m seeing different metaphors now.

The most significant, I think, has to do with space in which to think. For example, I personally like a certain amount of clutter. I like to be surrounded by books and objects. But I also find clearing counters and hiding objects create a different kind of work space, one more conducive to contemplation as well as relaxation.

If we accept that when people learn new things, they need space and time for reflection, the question with online learning concerns the environment where reflection can take place.

My classroom on campus

The physical classroom, at least at the college level, is often a fairly sterile space, without much clutter. I recall when I was first hired that I frantically hung posters on the walls and wondered why there weren’t any bookshelves in the room. It seemed like a place that was too clean and bare to learn anything.

Now I look at my computer screen, cluttered with disorganized files. And my browser, with its many tabs open. Emails come in, ads pop up, while I work and try to learn things. Yes, students have grown up with multiple distractions like this. But in many ways I’m actually more accustomed to it than they are, since I grew up hating silence and quiet. I had the TV (not the radio – that’s only one input) blaring while I wrote every paper in college and grad school.

At the same time, I know many students who do very little classwork outside of the physical classroom. On-site students seem to think that everything to do with learning should take place in that space. It’s a challenge I’ve been working with for a number of years. I was “flipping” the class before it had that name, moving more and more analysis into class time, reducing lecture and shifting the delivery of facts to out-of-class time. The result, predictably, is little reading or listening outside of class, which I anticipated. I now aim for balance.

In declaring the end of Higher Ed as we know it, Edward O’Neill writes that we have a Higher Ed system based on mistaken beliefs, such as proximity being necessary for quality, and learning being transmitted by contact with smart people via osmosis. He writes

In short, colleges and universities are to the mind what monasteries once were to the spirit: places where you lock yourself away in close proximity to powerful souls whose vibrations will influence you deeply by a kind of prayerful osmosis.

CC licensed mbac via Flickr

Monasteries were a place for the mind also, as were medieval universities where a great deal of “study” (quiet, independent study) of texts was key to learning. Even today, most of the great intellectuals, whether they are teaching at universities or not, would tell you of many hours spent in contemplative study. I always find it amusing that so many of the techno-utopians and 2.0 educational reformers have degrees and knowledge based on extensive book learning. Deep learning can’t happen without deep reflection.

So, in the online world (by which I mean both online classes and the always-on-electronic world where many of our students live), where is the space for contemplative study? Could it be the physical classroom?

In suggesting a special place for the physical classroom, I risk the wrath of my colleagues in educational technology, MOOCs, and the other wonderfulness that is learning online (maybe Jim Groom will ask me which side I’m on again!). But I have seen students who need the physical classroom to learn, and it isn’t just because of osmosis or time management issues or tradition or industrialized education or Pavlovian training.

They need it because the physical classroom provides the only even partly contemplative space they have, a space where they are supposed to pay single-minded attention even if they choose to watch surfing videos on their laptop instead, a space where they are supposed to think about one subject for over an hour, a space where some of them actually learn better than online. I have students contact me when they’re not doing well in an online class, and they are very apologetic that they just seem to “need the classroom”. Ira Socol noted, in rejecting the flipped classroom for public schools, that a lot of kids do not have a supportive environment for study outside of school. That is still true in college. We’re a commuter campus with limited library hours. I have students who were kicked out of the house when they reached 18, or can’t think at home because they miss their deployed spouse. They need classrooms.

Our exciting “new models” for higher education are models that counter industrialized and standardized education, which is great. They emphasize collaborative work, social learning, and the affordances of the web in achieving greater learning through guided exploration and community, all fabulous things. But in promoting them as a substitute for “old style” learning, they also risk eliminating a place that may have become the last monastic space in which to work with the mind.

Diluting the Kool-Aid

Finding myself arguing social benefits of an LMS was a sobering experience. It happened tonight in a COOLCast featuring Bon Stewart, who had mentioned that she prefers networks to systems like Moodle because the students can find each other. I shared my story of discovering students finding each other using Moodle Messages. Then I actually argued that some students might feel more comfortable contacting each other inside an LMS, where there is a commonality with other students, all of whom are taking the class. This might be more comfortable than Facebook, where you are supposed to be “friends”. In the LMS, you are clearly colleagues and might feel freer to call upon each other for, say, help with the class.

This, combined with my last post including some good things about an LMS or course blog, means I’m diluting the Kool-Aid.*

I know the strong flavor of connectivism, the headiness of open networks, the high of networked learning. I’ve experienced and studied it in the CCK08 class four years ago, in the joy that is ds106, in Twitter, in Facebook, and Diigo and Google Plus. I am a networked person, a networked teacher. I’ve read Vgotsky, Holt, Tapscott, Gladwell, Kamanetz, Rheingold. I’ve taken class with Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Couros and Groom. My articles on why Learning Management Systems are badly designed and anathema for novice online instructors still hold true.

Yet I’ve been continually skeptical (some would say critical) of ignoring the bad impacts of social media, the privacy violations, the perpetuation of teenage popularity contests through such sites as Technorati and Klout. I’ve also read Lanier, Bauerlein, and Carr. And I’ve watched in horror as the wonderful openness that is MOOCs gets commercialized and monetized and universitized and systematized.

I’ve used Blackboard and Moodle and WordPress. I’ve watched my own students get lost, inside and outside an LMS. I’ve seen them ignore the obvious, mislay the instructions, forget the deadlines, fail the class, inside and outside an LMS. I’ve also seen them fly outside the box, discover wonderful things, build their own learning, both inside and outside an LMS. In my SMOOC I’ve guided a global contingent of adults in using their own blogs, aggregated to a central blog, and had some get lost, and some get joy.

And each semester I agonize over using Moodle again, feeling trapped in my 6 sections of 40 students each. But I am not a novice online instructor. I create meaningful assignments, and make informed choices about what I have my students do and not do. I can force an LMS to do what I want. So why do I feel pressured to “network” my students’ class experience? Will their learning really improve if they search the web for primary sources and post them on their own blog instead of in a dedicated class space? Will they learn history better communicating with fellow (18 and 19-year-old) students in the space where they talk to their friends? Will they become better historians if they follow their own interests to the exclusion of, for lack of a better term, the canon of historical “content” considered basic knowledge in other countries?

All the flavors are important: self-directed learning, open education, constructivism. But a watered-down version, inside an LMS or on a common blog, can let them join the party without passing out in the bathroom. They can use the open web for their research, finding their sources, then return to the familiar “classroom” to get information, post their work, discuss with colleagues.

But me? I can drink the Kool-Aid straight up to study all this. I want it as strong as I can get it for my own learning about the web as an environment for learning and an educational tool. But I wouldn’t want that if I were taking an online class in biology, math, or literature. I wouldn’t want to go find my colleagues in Facebook if I didn’t understand that Coleridge poem or what Assignment 1 was supposed to be about. I’d want a classroom, and class colleagues, and a space I know is dedicated to learning. I’d at least want to start with watered down Kool-Aid and a sippy cap, then get the strong stuff in a big girl cup when I have more experience.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m thinking today.


* Cultural literacy note: “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a tasteless reference to the Jonestown Massacre

Justify that pedagogy

The focus on technology for teaching becomes increasingly dangerous, and the only response is to articulate ones own pedagogy and be prepared to defend it.

More and more articles imply that teachers who don’t use the current gadgets and technologies are illiterate and useless.

On the other side, in a recent article, it is gleefully pointed out that Michael Wesch’s methods (which rely heavily on Web 2.0 and student exploration) may not be suitable for everyone, as he observes another professor doing quite well with lecturing. And yet Wesch’s awe at the effectiveness of another professor’s non-technology-based pedagogy should not be surprising, because Wesch is a good teacher who sees that different pedagogies may be equally useful.

Ed tech pushers try to force people to get trained in technologies that may soon be worthless or, worse, may force the pedagogy of the instructor into modes unsuitable for that person’s teaching style. I have refused to use far more technologies than I have adopted.

Luddites would have one believe there are no improvements to be made in classroom teaching. While this certainly isn’t true overall, it may be true for those who experience success in the more traditional methods. There is simply no proof that the charismatic lecturer teaches more poorly than the Web 2.0 devotee. Hattie’s studies indicate that student achievement is only related to a few teacher-controlled areas, and that these are primarily feedback, student’s prior cognitive ability, and instructional quality (knowledge, guidance, more feedback), none of which require technologies beyond a space with a roof and some writing materials.

Meta-cognition about pedagogy is what’s valuable here. In a world where some want to push people to use educational technologies (including Blackboard and other expensive college-wide systems) and others want to drone on and on or read from the book and call it “lecture”, we must all be prepared to defend what we’re doing. This is true whether we’re in a formal faculty evaluation or a hallway conversation. The ability to do so is an important skill, or we’ll get overwhelmed by supposed “improvements” that can do a great deal of harm to our effectiveness as teachers.

Few of us were asked to consciously develop pedagogy when we began teaching. We were either left alone or given a specific model to follow (deliberately or accidentally). We assessed our own effectiveness through how well we thought students understood, and what grades they earned according to our standards. Most of us got upset when students did poorly, and changed our pedagogy and materials (often every semester) to try to “get through” and improve results. In this development, we came to believe that certain things were important and other things were not, and through experience created our own pedagogical framework. We operate within that framework every day, keeping what seems to work and changing what doesn’t.

But we must learn to articulate why, to understand our own strengths and the reasons we teach the way we do. Great lecturers should not need to justify why they don’t use the web, unless they are in a research field and are refusing to help their students access the world of information. They should not be forced to engage in small-group activities or other techniques that do not work for them. You cannot use a technique effectively if you can’t do it well, and none of us does everything well. We try to do better (I am currently working on guiding large-group discussion, an area of weakness), but we must be allowed to use the techniques that we find most effective.

So don’t come into my office shaking your head because so-and-so just won’t use the web for his classes. I don’t care. Does he teach well? Does he know his subject, communicate it effectively to students, and assess their understanding? Can he articulate his pedagogy and justify his method?

We also need to be prepared to do this for online teaching. Here the training and understanding of technology is necessary, but its purpose is to achieve our pedagogy in an online environment. The equivalent of the boring classroom lecture is there online too, in posting Word documents in Blackboard, asking a few questions in the discussion forum, and assuming the class will run itself. Good lecturers must learn the technologies to get that energy online if they want to replicate their pedagogy in an online environment. Teachers who excel at groupwork must learn the technologies to do that effectively in an online setting. Those who want to use a guided exploration technique may naturally be led into Wesch-style 2.0 teaching.

All these can be justified if we focus on our pedagogy instead of who “gets it” with technology and who doesn’t.

Middle ground: web 1.5, sets and more

This week I have been attending to the various discussions around the recent work of Jon Dron and Terry Anderson, including the Hot Seat forum related to the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning (no, I’m not going to Maastricht) and Jon’s presentation at the Change MOOC (the web space for this is here). Sources also include Dron and Anderson’s 2009  article Lost in Information Space: Information retrieval issues in Web 1.5.

I am intrigued and delighted with an approach I see as middle ground between the Web 1.0/closed classes/LMS/hard tech/group focus and the Web 2.0/open education/network/connectivism focus.

For the former, the model seems to be formal groups of people, such as a class, using closed but comfortable ways to learn online in a manner prescribed by an instructor, with the result being a grade.

For the latter, we have the open ideas of networks, learning taking place in weak and strong connections, with softer technologies that provide for more creative work. Looser forms of assessment (such as badges and feedback) follow this model as well.

In the middle of this dichotomy is what Dron and Anderson  call Web 1.5, and what they refer to as “sets”, unintentional collectives of people who learn within a shared interest. Thus there is a middle ground between the horribly limited, walled garden system and the wild, diffuse, scary openness of networks.

These discussions are especially timely in light of my own efforts to find such a balance between closed/open, safe/scary, hard/soft in designing my online classes for next semester, where the unscary stuff (my own work, such as lectures, information, readings) is completely open, but the scary stuff (anything graded, such as student forums, quizzes, and essays) is closed in the Moodle LMS.

It is not, as I’ve noted, an ideal balance or compromise, because unlike the Elgg VLE used by these authors, I do not have granularity of permissions where students may choose exactly what elements of their work are open or closed.

I had thought that creating a broader “group” in Facebook (of all my students, not just those enrolled in one class) would design some openness for them, but of course I have been reminded that Facebook is closed too. It’s just an LMS with advertising, and a flat social space. On the other hand, at least there isn’t any hierarchy, and perhaps there is comfort there within a more open way of communicating, if not a more open role.

As much as I love the far out, wild west, final frontier elements of open web-based learning for my own use, I do not think my students are ready to the extent that I could handle helping 240 of them manage it. At the same time, the limitations of LMS-based education drive me crazy. So it’s productive to envision Web 1.5 pedagogies that could, in Jon’s Goldilocks analogy, get to a point of “just right”.



What’s wrong with canned courses? Just one thing.

As we see colleges like Rio Salado and for-profits like National, Argosy, and Walden “Universities” create huge online programs, we see more and more courses designed by “teams” and taught by associate faculty/staff. When online learning began, of course, faculty created their own courses and taught them, but there were efficiencies to be had by creating one course and having it be reused by everyone. Publishing companies were quick to start creating their own courses to go with their textbooks, complete with Blackboard cartridges and/or their own learning management systems (I was asked by at least one of them to write a course they could sell). And now Google and Pearson are teaming up with their own “free” LMS (you’ll pay with your personal and marketing information) so that people can “share” courses (in their LMS’s format) under a Creative Commons license (Attribution only, of course, so they can be sold later — it wouldn’t do to have them be Non-Commercial and Share Alike).

Sense my disgust? To me, these are all canned courses, made to last a long time and be consumable by anyone, but more importantly, taught by anyone. We continue to sojourn, often voluntarily and with enthusiam, into the Land with No Professor, as detailed elegantly by Alex Wright in his From ivory tower to academic sweatship of 2005.

So now I hear things like this more than ever:

“So what’s wrong with using the publisher’s PowerP*ints if it’s good stuff?”
“So why shouldn’t I use the course cartridge? I create and run my own discussion boards.”
“They do all this video and stuff better than I do — that keeps students engaged.”

I sputter around, after I get my chin off the floor. What about the de-professionalization of teaching? what about improving those technology skills? can’t you see it’s all the commercialization of education and you are a willing participant?

But today, after thinking about this issue for, oh, fifteen years, it occurred to me what’s really, really wrong with using course cartridges and canned material.

It’s modeling the wrong thing.

Modeling is very important — some say it’s the most important aspect of college teaching. It’s our main job, Stephen Downes says, modeling and demonstrating. A faculty member shared with me only today an exam where he accidentally had two questions that were the same, but one phrased concretely and one conceptually. The students aced the concrete question and failed the conceptual question, though the answer was the same. I suggested that instead of asking them what happened, he instead should model how he developed the question, what he was thinking he’d get in response, and what happened when he saw the completed exams. I suggested this would show the students he’s human and works on these things, share his method with them so they feel included, get him good answers to why it occurred, and review the material, all at the same time. That’s what modeling does.

So what does it mean when we build our courses on material created by someone else?

If we are using it wholesale, out of the can, we are modeling a lack of creativity (in addition to implying that our own view as a discipline expert is kind of beside the point). It’s very difficult to model how historians do history (or chemists do chemistry, or writers write) when we are using someone else’s interpretation or method.

We are also displaying an absence of critical thinking, the kind that we say we want our students to engage in, unless we are using canned content as the start of a discussion about perspectives on that content (I wish that happened a lot, but it doesn’t).

And we’re showing a lack of respect for our own professions as practitioners of both a discipline and of teaching.

If we want to promote a thoughtful citizenry that can make important decisions, work creatively to change what’s wrong, and innovate to make our society better, it’s a pretty poor example to rely on canned material.

Tin Can as Cheese Press cc Chiot's Run

Is there a good way to use all this excellent content? You bet. We can disassemble, disaggregate, reinvent, repurpose, re-create. We can take just what we need (quiz questions, maps, slides) and use it to support our pedagogy. If the publisher doesn’t allow that (I can’t take apart the PowerPoints provided by the publisher of my textbook, for example) we don’t use it. We can learn just a few skills — maybe editing video or doing a screencast or slideshow. Make our own stuff. It won’t look professional, and that’s OK. It will look human, and students will be seeing an example of an instructor who makes his own stuff to get a point across. As with modeling the design of a test question, whatever we make will be saying to students that we cared enough to make it to help them understand.

It will also model that we are professionals with viewpoints created from a deep understanding of our fields, individual viewpoints based on common methods, vocabulary and standards. That’s what we want them to do — use the skills of our discipline to better understand the world, and help improve it. As Richard Kahn notes about Howard Zinn’s argument that professors should share not only their viewpoints with the class but how they developed them:

[F]rom a perspective such as Zinn’s, our job as educators is to invite our classes into the rigorous pursuit and production of the living history of ideas—the truth of our unfolding human process in all of its registers. In this way, we thus also model for students how to begin naming and navigating the various socio-cultural forces coalescing around them, to articulate and argue for their own perspectives on society and its institutions, and so in good faith become democratic citizens capable of exerting their own civic leadership.

We certainly can’t do that with a course cartridge.

Flipping research

“Flipping” a class (putting lectures and presentations online, then using class time for collaboration and discussion) is all the rage at the moment.  Everyone’s in on it now, from The Economist to The Daily Riff to Daniel Pink. I don’t see the big deal, since basically using a textbook is the same thing (read at home, then come to class). Maybe in the 16th century people were wowed by this idea. I’m glad it’s come back around – I don’t like using class time for relaying information you could find elsewhere. You want to know when the Battle of Waterloo was? Go look it up. It’s easy now to look it up, so it’s easier to justify not lecturing on the facts unless I’m presenting a different paradigm. I think I started doing that, what, fifteen years ago?

But I want to be more innovative, so I’m doing flipped research.

Here’s the idea. I’m referred to in education research circles as “just a practitioner”. I do stuff. I teach history at community college, and try web technologies to help me do that. I use learning management systems, video, slidecasts, whatever it takes. I’ve done everything from Webboard to WordPress to Google + hangouts.

But I’m not an expert in educational theory, nor in the entire edtech field that I’ve watched emerge (and achieve frightening proportions) over the last decade.

So now I’m doing something really cool: offering an open, online class to prepare faculty to teach online. It’s designed like a MOOC, but it’s not a MOOC because it’s not massive (90 enrolled, 81 blogs aggregated). I’m taking ideas from other people, including Alec Couros’s EC&I831 for the structure and the mentoring, Jim Groom’s ds106 for the aggregated blog and the element of insanity, George Siemens and Stephen Downes’ whatever-MOOC-they’re-doing-today for the large topic and distributed conversation. But I haven’t done much “reasearch”. I do read articles on learning management systems and MOOCs, but basically I’m … just a practitioner.

So now I’m writing a research paper based on what I’m doing, and it all feels like reverse engineering. I’m looking up studies on open classes and professional development for online faculty, and finding a few people doing what I’m doing. Some of the articles show findings that what I’m doing might be good; most end with “further research is required”. I’m doing that research, survey participating faculty, planning to note how approaches change on their blogs.

For a historian, this is so not what you do. You create a provisional thesis based on the reading of primary sources. I guess in this case, according to the educational research folks, the primary sources are the studies. They should have guided what I do, and I should have planned my class based on the findings of others. I should have been consciously aware of what everyone else was studying, not just doing. Instead of pulling cool ideas from Alec, Jim, Stephen and George, I should have read a bunch of studies on the ways of doing this and built my class with a solid theoretical and practical foundation.

But no, I just did it. I created the class based on my experience rather than my research. I’ll probably be kicked out of the historians’ club if they find out. And that’s what makes me…just a practitioner.