Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thoughts on teaching - provoked by Connected Courses

Wow, it's not even Wednesday noon (half-way through week 1 of module 1) in Connected Courses and the feed is buzzing with the title (and/or #whyiteach).  Quite interesting.  Lots of things saved to pocket.  I will most likely read through them this weekend ;-)  In any case, I joked on twitter earlier that I should write a post on why I don't teach (who knows, this post may evolve to that near the end), but for now, I thought I would address some questions, and riff off of, or build upon, some comments from Randy, Cathy and Mike from this week's live session.

The first question asked was: What was your favorite class to teach? I've only really taught two classes. I've directed workshops and one-on-one tutorials in the past, however these were really one-offs and there wasn't sustained engagement.   The first class I ever (really) taught was a course that I designed to introduce graduate students in instructional design to research methods.  This was a special topic that hasn't returned to the roster yet.  The course that I generally teach is INSDSG 684: The Design and Instruction of Online Courses.  I think the best class (up to now anyway) was last spring semester.  The reason why I particularly like this group of individuals was because in this specific group more people recognized the contributions that others had made to their thinking. Granted, I did offer a design badge that was voted on by peers, but this was at the end of the semester. I actually saw people acknowledging their classmate's help as early as half-way through the semester, which is something that amazed, and delighted me.

A related question to this was: Worst class ever taught? Since my experience in teaching is limited, I don't really have a worst class taught.  I do have some examples of worst workshops I've taught, and they were all around the use of PowerPoint.   Many undergraduates, and graduates, came to my workshops for Microsoft Office, and PowerPoint was a popular one. Students came in, and the first thing they wanted to know is how to make graphics spin, and zoom, and do all sorts of funky stuff. I had to work really hard at not rolling my eyes.  By the time they left the workshop at least they understood that your presentation doesn't start with the flashy things, but with actual content and flow of information.  What they did after was their own business - I just hope they didn't succumb to the temptation to add pizazz by adding unnecessary animations ignoring their message.

Finally the last question I jotted down was: What is Higher Education about? Oh man, is this a big question! To be honest it seems to me that Higher Education is all things to all people.  It seems to be a universal panacea, and that it is not. In our EdD cohort we recently got an article from our course instructor, from the economist, about trade education.  This generated some interesting discussion among the cohort. I know that when I was in high school higher education seemed like a no-brainer, something you should do, and don't even bother with trades.  Even classes like shop-class (wood-shop, metal-shop, automotive stuff) seemed to be pushed to the side, and things like computers were emphasized. I tend to adopt a more middle of the road attitude.  While not everyone will want (or like to) be an electrician, plumber, auto mechanic, at the same time not everyone wants to be a physicist, or philosopher, or political scientist. I do think, however, that a good mix of the two is what we should strive for.  I'd like to know how to diagnose my own car issues, or fix my own (minor) electrical issues, and I would like to think about things like what it means to be in higher education.  The proportions for me would be different than someone else, but there is still a mix, and the individual determines what that mix is.

So, what is the purpose of higher education?  For me, higher education is not something that you go to in order to get a job. For me it seems like a waste of time and money to get a BA just to enter the workforce. It also seems like an unfair "tax" on those members of society that can least afford to pay for education that would get them a job in order to be "productive members of society".  This is especially egregious when considering that for some fields what one learns as a freshman (as far as content) is outdated by the time they graduate.   Thus, for me higher education is about life long learning.  It's about learning to engage with peers, of various sorts, on a variety of issues.  At the BA level it's also about a lot of content knowledge that will give you a grounding to be a self-directed lifelong learner, but at its very core higher education for me is about that pursuit of lifelong learning. That is timeless.

There are a few things that also stood out in this live session. I think I will pick my top three to discuss:

Purpose drive course vs content driven course 
I don't remember what the context was for this comment, and I do remember seeing it on twitter as well. I  think this is a false dichotomy. Each course has a purpose, and each course has content.  If you look at syllabi, even if it's just a façade, there are learning objectives for the course. In course design there needs to be some sort of synergy between your activities, content, and assessment, and all of those need to tie into the goals set forth by those learning objectives.  You could have some really poorly designed courses that appear to be a major content dump (banking model of education?) but in theory the are purpose driven, not content driven.  Content should support purpose, and purpose is not devoid of content.

Arrrr, it's a mutiny!
Cathy Davidson mentioned that one of the fears of instructors is the course mutiny. What do you do when students take over the course and don't do what you want to? You can always wield the authority stick, but I don't think students will respect you for it. I suppose at the end of the day it depends on why the student's are mutinying and taking over.  If the students just don't want to do any work (and get a grade for it), there are potential issues there (especially if there is no way to pass some assessment of prior learning!). Instead of giving them an "F", you can give them an incomplete grade (which at my institution defaults to an "F" after 1 year) if the students do not demonstrate attainment of the learning objectives for the course through some sort of means that they come up with.  You could then leverage their push-back against what you've designed for the course to have them design their own environment and can nudge them gently to fill any gaps that they have but they are blind to.  Personally I am not afraid of the mutiny since it's an opportunity to work together on a class constitution that is mutually agreed upon and we can go from there. I am willing to take a chance - it's a learning experience. I would just expect learners to be bound by the conditions we agree upon.

You've made the grade!
Cathy Davidson was mentioning an interesting fact: the ABCD grading system didn't enter academia until the mid-1800s and once it entered it spread like wildfire.  Pretty interesting that this grading scheme has been with us for less than 200 years, yet we treat it with reverence. While it is longer than I will ever live, this only goes back to the time of my great-grandfather, so in relative terms it's quite new.  Fascinating!  Cathy was openly braistorming about using Badges as a way to remedy issues with assessment in her courses. Cathy has been lurking on the OpenBadges MOOC for a while now in pursuit of this.  I have to say that I am also considering this for my 684 course.  A good point made was that you: don't fail Karate, you just don't move up to the next rank.  Why fail someone, just  don't give a badge.  Of course, when the University structure gives you a sandbox (the grading scheme) and limited time (a semester), you may have earned so many badges, but when you tally them up, if you haven't leveled up to a certain point, this will be reflected in your grade.

As for my course, the badge experiment last spring was more behavioral in nature.  I did give out a badge to everyone who satisfactorily completed their final project, but  I trid to stay away from awarding badges for things that were evaluated and had point values on the overal course grading rubric.  My course, I think, is in need of a redesign. Now that it's been re-numbered as a higher level course (it used to be 619), I am thinking of removing some early modules that were preparatory (in case people hadn't been exposed to certain concepts in other courses) and reworking the course.  I am thinking of a  1+ 7 + 4 model.  One week of introduction, 7 weeks of content, 4 weeks of development, iteration, and peer review. As I am thinking of making this course into a MOOC (perhaps using Siemens' xMOOC/cMOOC hybrid concept) I think I will re-develop 684 into an open course over the span of the next couple of years (assuming my concept if accepted as a dissertation topic)

Why do I teach?
OK, OK... I will answer your question.  I teach because I want to share what I know, and I want to learn what I don't know.  It's the same reason I joined internet forums like HowardForums, and PDAlive back in the day :)

Question for all of you out there that are still reading:  Mike Wesch asked this: What sort of social contracts do you need in order to make a connected course work?  What do you think?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Appropriateness of primary materials? Thoughts on peer review

It's been a while, but I am finally (sort of) getting back to addressing some feedback that my colleague and I got on an article we are working on with regard to MOOCs.  My colleague, Zaharias, thought it would be a great idea to sit down and make an (initial) typology of issues around the development of MOOCs. The abstract was accepted for a special issue of a journal, but our final version was not.  This I found a bit odd, but I've taken the peer reviewer's comments to heart, and I am thinking of ways of addressing them.  Some, in my mind, are valid.  I "live" in my head, so for me terms like cMOOC, xMOOC, FSLT12, CCK11, MobiMOOC, connectivism and so on are second nature.  I think to some audiences there might be some need to explain what this alphabet soup means.  Other comments that I also took to heart revolve around typos that just sneaked under our radars. After 8200 words, and multiple readings, who could blame us ;-) As a newly minted editor, though, for the CIEE journal I realize how annoying this might be for peer reviewers and editors :)

Anyway, there was some feedback, though, that I take issue with. In order to do this initial typology our literature review spanned over 100 sources ranging from academic, peer reviewed articles, to conference presentations, to news items from Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle, as well as blog posts from respected leaders in the field, such as Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and people who've run their own MOOCs.  We opted to only use academic literature that was free on the web in an open access format.  I do have access to library research databases, however I find it very odd, philosophically, to study open education and to rely on so many closed access journals in order to do my research.  I could definitely see the peer reviewer's point that we should go after more (closed access) academic articles  to increase the pool of our data, however I take serious issue with the following advice that we got:
The collected materials in this manuscript are not high quality document owing that most of them are informal documents. The authors should collect academic high quality papers to survey and analyze.
Just because something is not in an academic, peer-reviewed, journal doesn't mean that it does not have some sort of quality, and it does not deserve attention.  There have been quite a few blog posts out there that were pre-cursors to academic articles that someone in an academic article down the road deemed to have sufficient quality to publish. Furthermore, if someone has published in peer reviewed articles, and regularly gives conference presentations and keynotes, don't their blog posts carry more weight than mine or someone who's a novice in the subject?  And, last but not least, what happens in professional publications such as the Chronicle and IHE never makes it to academic publishing (see for example the issues with FOE MOOC and #massiveteaching). These things need accounting and addressing, and if they never make it to publication, for one reason or another, they become invisible to educational research. This seems like a big failure to me.

Another thing that piqued my interest is the idea of laying down the groundwork.  I understand that there needs to be some level of definition of terms in academic research, and when I eventually do a dissertation I expect that I will be defining a lot of terms before I get to the heart of my own experiments.  That said, in an academic article, which usually has a limit on the amount of words you can put in it, how much space do you use for definition of terms, and how much do you devote to the heart of the matter? How reasonable is it to expect that, in the age of Google and in light of your providing of a full reference list, that you don't necessarily need to briefly describe terms like xMOOC, cMOOC, CCK, and PLENK? At the end of the day, I am not averse to defining such terms (in addition to any existing citations) but I do wonder how this is counted against the authors of papers when there are defined word limits for articles?

Your thoughts? Any other peculiarities of peer review you have a bone to pick with? :)

Image from:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ask why five times

Good ol' Zoidberg asking Why
Back when I was an MBA student, probably in a project management class, we were told that we should ask "why" five times in order to come to the root cause of the problem (I wonder why this is why kids seem to keep asking "why" incessantly ;-) ). It thus seems quite a propos that the first formal week (two weeks actually!) of Connected Courses are focused on Why we need a Why.

As is the case with most cMOOCs there are some reading suggested by the good organizers of the MOOC, but most content will most likely come from fellow participants, which at the moment number to around 180(!). The live session isn't for another day or so, so I've decided  to tackle some ideas that came up in the readings for this week. Luckily most things were in a format that Pocket could read out loud to me so I was able to tackle most in my schedule ;-)

First up, I came across Who are you and what are you doing here? which was quite odd. The author apparently grew up close to where I went to high school and had similar discussions with his father. For a moment there I had Truman Show moment where I was Truman. An interesting view comes out in this article, something I've discussed elsewhere (either in this blog, or in person), and that is our quite (Ayn) Randian view of why we go to college, which boiled down is to college more money for more stuff.  The author goes on to say that the work of faculty is over-intellectualized and not accessible to people, except to peers in their own group, which in term serves to increase their intellectual capital, which in term gets them better paid and able to pursue this Randian dream.  What about teaching, then?  Well,  teaching (apparently) is not the point of college, so professors keep writing their over-intellectualized pieces, and students continue to party. This, to me, brings to the forefront one of the bigger issues about a college education: the glorification of the Piece of Paper (diploma). We seem to be giving paramount importance to it, thus giving more significance to the signifier than the signified! I wish I could say that this was an anomaly (or at least I could claim I worked in a place where this wasn't an issue!) but I have heard discussions amongst faculty members where their aim is to convince authority-figure X that they should be doing more research, and therefore teach fewer courses.  Maybe being  successful in getting some grants would set them on their way toward that goal.  Of course is this the goal that we should be working toward? Looking at this week the questions are about what should be taught? how? and to whom?  If we have faculty who are so averse to teaching, and we make up for that fact with the hiring of adjuncts, thus creating two classes of academics, and have those that don't teach set the curriculum, the right set of checks and balances for our endeavor?

The second article is one by Clay Shirky called Napster, Udacity, and the Academy. This one keeps coming back, and this is probably the third time since it was published that I've read it. The blog post talks a bit about the music industry, their arrogance over the then-new MP3 format and how, they thought, it wouldn't really affect them. They did have a monopoly which was really busted by a number of events that were precipitated by the new format, not the least being able to see what consumer behaviors are in a new environment which wasn't available (or available for measurement) before.  I do think that Shirky's metaphor is a bit weak.  You can unbundle an album and take the one or two songs you like from the rest that you don't.  You can't really always do this with education.  You could just take a few courses here and there, but you can't really go down to the course level and break that up. Why? Because some courses have pre-requisite knowledge that needs to be attained before moving on to other material that builds off that foundational knowledge. Some subjects you may be able to unbundle, but how does that affect the web of understanding that we need in order to fully comprehend what we are learning?  Can we break apart the specifics of a battle during the war of independence for the US and view that through a lens that connects it to previously occurring important events that made it successful/unsuccessful, and the eventual outcomes of the war?  While you may be able to speak to some facts (names, dates, places, people), can you really build those connections in an unbundled environment?  It's an interesting design problem, but I don't know if there are solutions to it at the moment.

The other thing that came to mind is that of the "best" course. I have a problem with this, the best course, is the seminar lecture. Also, why do we still stick to the best course from the best professors from the best institutions trope when it comes to xMOOCs?? Why do we continue to keep perpetuating this colonization of the mind? As Shirky points out, the fight over MOOCs isn't about MOOCs, but rather it's a surrogate fight. It is about what higher education is, who it is for, who delivers it, and who can critique it (among other things).  This connects nicely with the points I tried to make when discussing the previous article: If everyone's off doing research, who's left to do the teaching? I think the "disruption" that may or may not be occurring in higher education with MOOCs has to do more with us questioning some really fundamental things, rather than the lectures one finds online, behind login-walls, that resemble a TED-talk.

Finally, to continue on our questioning, we have, Who gets to Graduate? This one, too, has crossed my path a few times since it was published. I think this is the second full read-through that I have for this article (thanks again to Google and the TTS on Android ;-) ).  A few things came to me as something to jot down in this article and they all have to do with language and how we set ourselves up. It's noted in the article that Higher education is viewed as a prize, fitting into the Rand narrative that I saw in Who are you, and what are you doing here. Given that education is seen as a prize, it seems only natural to conclude that some will attain it, and others will not.  After all a prize is a prize because it's not commonplace, and therefore not everyone is deserving of a golden star?  Or are they?  This discourse is something that I find problematic because I think everyone deserves to be part of an educated populace.  Furthermore, it's not helpful, and it's most likely harmful to adopt a defeatist sour grapes, or "you weren't meant to be here" attitude, as the article pointed out about this student's parent saying to her when she didn't do we on an exam.

College completion is not only related to academics, but rather the background you bring into the class with you (no surprise there), and how you are treated when you get there. The student, who didn't do well in the course, was placed in Chemistry for English Majors since she wasn't doing well in Chemistry for Majors, even though she wanted to be a nurse (and Chemistry is a required course). This is a strong indication of the formation of in-groups and out-groups.  This reminds me a lot of my own experience in computer science when I was an undergraduate. At my school you didn't have a Major advisor until you matriculated in a program.  Once there it seemed that the Major advisor didn't really know a lot about the general education requirements, and seemed to know only the canonical requirements to graduate.  He didn't really seem to know a lot about how the program was setup and seemed to be quite deaf to my professional goals and how school might help me attain them.  My grades in computer science were so-so. When he noticed that my grades in modern languages (my minors) were better, he recommended that I switch majors since I did better there than in computer science.  Why not ask why I am not doing as well in computer science (which was about 50% math, with no computers) rather than recommend that I switch?  Were I not stubborn, and so close to graduation (and also decided to prove my advisor wrong) I might have just dropped out and done something else. Typical of "it's not us, it's you" mentality.  What rubs me the wrong way is that this individual got the teaching award the year that I graduated.

What this brings me to is that community and language matter. Community connects nicely with Cathy Davidson's post on community. In the decade after my graduation from my BA, the college setup a Success Center and first year programs to help undergraduates succeed in the sciences.  That's great, but attitudes of faculty also need some change as well. Words matter. As the article pointed out you should tell students that they are in your (remediation/student success) program because they will succeed, not because they are in danger of failure.  Setting up a positive tone is key to success. Also, setting up for success means embodying the role that you aim to be in.  If you aim to be a computer programmer, you should not only be picking up ways of making efficient algorithms, and the nauseating math required to test them, but you should actually be building cool stuff. You should be putting what you are learning into practice rather than learning it in a sterile environment with no connections to other areas of your profession.

So, in the end, my question is this: Why are we here, with these (and other) issues in higher education? Is it a  lack of a shared global vision? Is it a lack of understanding in how to implement this vision? Is that people are looking out for themselves and not working cohesively as a group?  Your thoughts?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Some ends, some beginnings, some ponderings, need coffee

This is an eventful week!  Online classes begin at my institution.  This is my first semester not teaching in a few years, so I will be pouring my time into the course I am taking, as well as any MOOCs I have time for. This week #whyopen ends, my course on Negotiation on NovoEd ends, and Connected Courses begins.  I thought I would write a few thoughts on the end of WhyOpen and the NovoEd course, and have a few kick off thoughts (prior to reading anything) on Connected Courses.

As far as NovoEd goes, I've been wanting to take a course on that platform for quite some time, but it seems that most courses were Common Core related (K-12 USA), which isn't really my specialty. There was a course on Designing the New Learning Environment, but I guess I missed the original offering and it hasn't been offered for a while. When the course on Negotiation came up it seemed like a good opportunity‡. I don't know if my experiences are generalizable to other NovoEd courses, but here it goes:  The information dissemination for the course was the lecture, as is the case in other xMOOCs like coursera. However, NovoEd seems to break down the massiveness into (what Downes called) splinter groups. In cMOOCs this happens organically (it seems, from personal observation) while in NovoEd it seems to be a designed mechanic to break down the massive enrollment into smaller groups.  Our team, for example, was comprised of 5 members (the theoretical max of a team in NovoEd).  Our group was followed by another 10 people, so they could see what was happening in the group, but they could not participate.  I did find this dynamic a bit weird since it didn't really seem to add much to the overall experiences.

Each week the assignments we had submitted (once the deadline for submission passed) would show up on the course homepage. This gave others in the course an opportunity to see what others had submitted and to publicly comment on the assignments.  This seemed like an interesting mechanic to me. I did take the opportunity to read a number of assignments, give a "thumbs up" and I probably commented on a few of them.  Some assignments were group-based which gave me pause to ponder. I don't know how other teams worked, but in ours, out of 5 people, only 3 were really active.  I enjoyed working with the two that were active in our team-only area, but I can't help shake the feeling of the problem of the freeloader. I wonder what others think about this. I got a lot out of my participation and interaction with my two peers, but I do wonder how well small groups of 5 work when there is such a high attrition in MOOCs?  It seems like the group, as a metaphor, ought to be more fluid and flexible in the world of the MOOC.

Changing gears, to the last week of Why Open. Our prompt for this week is to go over what we indicated as what open meant to us at the beginning of the course, and think about that. I still stand by what I wrote that first week in the course, but I am starting to lean more (and ponder more) about the Open as Conundrum that I posted as one of my definitions of open. I think that as I have been participating in Why Open, discussing with others (granted, Week 3 and 4 were a little short it seems), and seeing what's happening elsewhere online, I am thinking that Open is a bit of a philosophy more than a concrete set of rules.

Some might make it sound like it's a concrete set of rules, and only those things that abide by them are really open, but to some extent, I am tempted to go back to something I explored initially around the time of CCK11, something I called degrees of openness. I could still argue that something that doesn't meet all 4 Rs (remix, reuse, redistribute, revise) could still be open.  Of course, the question then becomes how "open" must something be to be considered "open".  I realize it's a bit of a circular logic problem to use the word "open" to define "open", but how do we move from something that is essentially I will know open when I see it, to something that is measurable?  I don't know, but something to continue to ponder.

To wrap things up, as I was doing some catching up on my Pocket readings, I was listening to a presentation by Stephen Downes on Cooperation and Collaboration. Here, one of the tidbits was that when the initial MOOCs (now cMOOCs) were developed he and Siemens didn't sit down to create learning objectives, it was a very generative process†. I remember reading this a couple of years ago on Siemens' blog, and my instructional designer brain couldn't fathom such a possibility.

As I am thinking of offering my own MOOC, at least insofar as it supports some eventual dissertation for my EdD, I've decided to rethink my initial question when doing the Analysis phase of instructional design.  My initial question, for traditional  courses, has been who are your learners? Why are they coming to your course?. This has helped anchor any subsequent design work in the course.  In a MOOC, especially if it is massive, it's pretty freakin' hard to design for such a wide variety of learners, especially ones that might just window shop and never commit.

So, my new question, at least as far as MOOCs go, takes a hint from that Downes keynote I listened to, and it is as follows what is your educational philosophy?  I think this will underpin the course design in  a way that is much more applicable. I don't have any hard data to support this, but I am willing to talk about it ;-)

‡ Oddly enough I found an old acquaintance on this NovoEd course, one that I hadn't spoken to in close to 10 years.  Small word!

† it should be noted that I was painting while I was listening to this so I didn't take copious notes - apologies in advance for any unintended representation

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

New Month, new MOOCs, new learning, more grazing?

September is here! New academic year has begun, the campus is again full of life (and lacking parking), and I am back to school as a student, this time at Athabasca University!  I am also looking forward to a number of MOOCs that are beginning this month, among them Connected Courses, which promises to be an interesting cMOOC.  Perhaps I am insulting the course by calling it a MOOC (MOOCs these days seem to have a bad reputation), but it seems like the label that works best for it at the moment.  When compared to xMOOCs, there aren't a lot of cMOOCs offered, so time to savor the learning opportunity here.

Once again I've signed up for quite a few MOOCs (almost all of them xMOOCs) on coursera and futurelearn but I've decided on a different tactic for them.  I've decided to give grazing a try.  In previous attempts at MOOC learning I've been quite determined to follow the path set out by the course designers and facilitators.  Dot every i, and cross every t. The freedom of cMOOCs meant that I could define some of those objectives on my own, but xMOOCs, with their certificates of completion, had meant that there was an element of external motivation (carrot or stick, you decide) that was there that was poking at my need for collecting "stuff", beyond the knowledge that I gained in the MOOC. I guess I needed to have that gold star that said I completed the course, that external recognition.

I've written about this before in another post - but I think it's something to be repeated: be weary of poorly implemented external motivators. They may erode the the scaffolding that was there before by those internal motivators, and if you pull the external motivators once that internal scaffolding is gone...well, you might have spectacular failure ;-). I came across this in an article (or two) a few years ago when I was working on the literature review for the Academic Check-ins article. I wish I had retained my notes from that time because these articles on motivation keep coming back into relevance in my explorations of MOOCs (maybe I should implement the filing system that Pat Fahy demonstrated in our EDDE 801 orientation going forward!)

Anyway, back to the point, now that certain courses no longer offer a certificate of completion, I am thinking hard about my time investment in these xMOOCs and deciding where to devote my limited time. Some courses don't have content that is new to me, but I signed up for them regardless because there is always a nugget of info you might be missing, and there is opportunity to engage with others. The videos and readings represent the nugget of info while the assignments (and to some extent the forums) represent interactions with others.  I have enough time to watch the lectures (commuting makes this possible), but not enough time for writing and engaging with others. Thus, I am saving my writing for courses like Connected Courses where the engagement between peers promises to be higher, instead of taking on the role of the more knowledgeable other in the xMOOCs I am signed up for. I've decided to give this dip-in/jump-out idea a bit more of a trial this semester and practice some xMOOC grazing, going through and cherry-picking materials (mostly video) from courses that seem interesting, but not really engaging a lot in the community. I guess I will be going to the lurking side this semester :)

As a side note, as I was pondering about this course, and trying to get comfortable with my grazing experiment (maybe I should call it my filtering experiment, maybe it has a better ring to it), I thought about this.  I do not know if it's an original thought (probably not), but here it goes: A good course has the capability to engage the learner long after the course is formally over.

What are your thoughts? How you do deal with the glut of xMOOCs available? What do you think of my course design philosophy?