Saturday, May 2, 2015

The king is dead! Long live the king!

This week in Rhizo15 we are talking about content.  RhizoDave (I think I've decided that's Dave Cormier's new nickname - or his superhero name) has asked us to stretch and pull the word "content" and see what we come up with.  The phrase "content is king" has already come up somewhere in Rhizo15 - it may have been on twitter or Facebook, but I guess that's just one of those phrases that will come up sooner or later when discussing the concept of content. [warning this post may be one big, meandering, brain-dump that goes nowhere. Proceed at own risk]

It's hard to say what content is.  Content is like the matrix, it's all around us (or is it like the force?).  You cannot escape content because content is everywhere.  Rhizo15 is content.  Our twitter interactions are content.  What we do and share on facebook is content. The drawings, and poems, and other non-textual productions of Rhizo are content. It's inescapable.  Now, the way  people tend to use content has to more to do with founts of knowledge, or cannons that we should focus on when we are working in certain arenas.  So, if you are in a European history course, chances are you that you starting with some  history of Greece, Rome, perhaps the World Wars, and so on.  Who determines what this type of content is, or should be, is definitely something that can come from a privileged position. What knowledge you choose to prioritize is both culturally and socially based (societal pressures, traditions, and  hegemonies) as well as instructor based (instructor bias, power, or empowerment).

I can't really speak to K-12, or even the Bachelor-level education because that's not my domain - I am mostly working at graduate level education.  Even in graduate (MA, MEd) education though there certainly seem to be certain things that learners ought to know before progressing further. One good example of this are the things that people in xMOOCs have magically discovered over the past couple of years that those of us in online and distance education have known for more than a decade.  It's new to them, but old hat to us. If our colleagues in other departments had been working with us all along on pedagogy, teaching, and learning experiments they would not be so surprised about these things they've just learned about online education.  In all honesty though, it's not their fault - it's the system that we have in academia that's silo-based.  We don't know what they do, they don't know what we do.  What's new to us is old-hat to them, and vice-versa.  If anything, more cross-discipline collaboration is key in this example.

On another strand of thought: I am getting the vibe that content is a dirty word. Maybe I am misinterpreting what  I am hearing†, but I don't think that content is a dirty word.  I think that content is not oppositional to free-range learning that allows learners to pick their own paths. Content is necessary, as it is all around us and we need it to make sense of the world around us, to describe the word around us, and to critique the world around us.   I see content as raw materials in a recipe.  You need your veggies, your spices, your meats, and your fats. This is the content of your recipe.  You also need some guidelines on how to mix things together based on some previous work done by others - processes that worked out with predictable results and seem to  work well.  This is knowledge is both process and content.  Do you have to stick to the recipe?  Nope.  Do you have to stick to the pre-selected raw ingredients? Nope.  Do you need to know what burns, what doesn't, how things react with each other, and what the temperatures and timings for the meats are before you start?  Maybe!

Now, if I were learning to cook (on my todo list for this summer btw) if I am learning on my own, on my own time-table, and some burnt food is OK - then I don't necessarily need recipes. I also have the safety net of the pizza place next to me if I fail miserably.   If I am taking a course, with a certain time limitation, and with a SME to help me out, and with some sort of final assignment and grade, then yes - by all means - I would love to have all the content I can possibly have to make appropriate decisions for that final assignment.  It's both about learning and passing the test.  If no credit is attached to what I am doing (other than learning to be a passable cook), then I don't mind failing a lot of times (I can always order pizza as a fail-safe), but a course with a grade is different.  That is what changes the field for me.

I do think that for courses, with grades and credit, we can mix both free-range learning, and more structured "content-driven" approaches.  I think that certain structured strands would be helpful to meet certain required (i.e. expected) competencies, however learners can explore paths within those strands to suit their interests and needs. The main problem I see, with content-drive approaches, is that the textbook also sets the design and pace of the course.  If you are requiring learners to buy a $100+ textbook for you course (or more than 1 text!) then you feel a bit of pressure to use as much of that text as you can, otherwise your learners will complain (and rightly so sometimes!).  This is why I love OER and Open Access, and I really wish for OER to become more available. This way you can take from a variety of OER sources, it's free for learners, and you can mix and match content in any way that you need pedagogically valuable for your learners.  Widely available Open Access resources would also enable learners, at least from a cost perspective, to explore their own paths - making each iteration of the course interesting not only for the learners who are going in for the first time, but the instructor who is teaching it for the umpteenth time :-)


† from bits and pieces of the conversation as I have not spent a lot of time reading this week's contributions from fellow rhizoers on this topic - they are in my pocket account though for next week

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Count THIS!

This is my mind at the moment
I must admit, my attempt at a witty post title probably fell really flat.  Oh well, that's why I am not a comedian :-).  Out of the fire (EDDE 802) and into the Rhizome! This is technically week 2 (or is it week 3?) of Rhizo15.  Normally a cMOOC (or as others in the Rhizo14 gang have named Rhizo - an rMOOC),  there is a little disorientation to be expected, but between the barely controlled chaos at work, the wrap-up of my first year as a doctoral student, the ET4Online conference, and Rhizo15 starting at the same time... well... I just need to clone myself a few times to gain sanity ;-)

In any case, regardless what number week it is in Rhizo15, the current topic is "learning is not a counting noun, so what do we count?" (I'll go back to Learning Subjectives in a few days when I've had some time to catch up on what's saved on Pocket on this current topic). This is a good question, and an interesting topic for K-12, academia, and higher education in general.  The instructional designer in me was trained with Performance Objectives in mind, using the ABCD method (Audience, Behavior, Condition, Degree). Behaviorists seem to love to quantify ;-).  Of course, the actual truth in learning is more gray than the Black and White that people like Mager would like to report. Not everything is quantifiable. Perhaps in a corporate environment, if I am receiving cash-register training, or mail-room training there are a finite number of inputs, and a finite number of outputs, and therefore ABCD objectives are applicable, however most learning is messy. There are infinite inputs, and quite infinite outputs.  I would also argue that performance objectives aren't measuring learning, but rather they are measuring behavior - muscle and not mind.

What is a designer to do?  We're not supposed to use verbs like "to understand" in our learning objectives (ooops... don't cross the rhizomes!), but can you really quantify everything in upper level courses where learners are taking the wheel ( I ranting?  probably not). OK, save this strand for next post on learning subjectives

So, the question is "what counts?"  I guess my question to Dave and the Rhizo15 community is "what counts where?".  I think that the answer to what counts can vary, a lot, depending on what community, group of people, and "learning" that you might have in mind. One type of what-counts might not be the same as another type of what-counts. I can only really speak for myself, and for the disciplines that I have studied, with instructional design being the primary since that's also what I teach; so I am not aiming at generalization with my comments :-)

The two things that count for me are: resourcefulness as measured by life-long learning to solve problems you don't already know how to solve; and the ability to cope with chaos, to analyze what's going on, and to come up and test solutions.  If we are looking through the lens of the Cynefin framework I would expect students to be able to deal with complex situations with relative ease and savoir faire; or even tackle chaotic situations with the help of others. In this chaotic case I would say that the principle of a More Knowledgeable Peer would come into play. Then, as a group of people the learners would be able to complement each other's knowledge and skills, learn from one another, and help solve a problem.

Now, there are two problems with my two things that count.  For one thing they are not countable. They are in the same category as sand and sugar.  While I could count grains of salt, sand, and sugar (if I magnify things enough), from a more pragmatic perspective those things aren't countable. Thus,  I can't go to an accreditation committee and claim that "I'll know it when I see it" (when I discuss a pass/non-pass situation with these two things). The educaitonal system is setup for countable nouns.

The other problem is that you can't really build a course around these two things and have it be the same for everyone in the course.  If you have a small group of students who are all interested in the same thing, you probably are able to create a Themed Course (i.e. "Commodities in sub-saharan Africa") but can this be done for a larger class? or can one semester be compared to another meaningfully?  Should we be comparing (or be able to compare) two distinct semesters of a course like this? How about any course? These two things might be something to aim for with the completion of a program of study, but not necessarily in a course, or a specific module in a course.  I guess this is where my sand analogy comes in.  A course or module is a grain of sand, and together many of these build toward what we think of as sand.

Did I answer the question?  You tell me ;-)  One of the things highlighted by this topic is that there is a need for all of us to have a firm standing on what our ontological perspectives are.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Some closing thoughts on EDDE 802

Snowed in? Reading about Research?
Here's a badge for you!

I suspect that this won't be the last post on my blog with the EDDE 802 label, but for the purposes of a final assignment in 802 this is my reflective last post for the course.  EDDE 802 was fun, but it was a challenge.  The content wasn't as challenging as the framing: being placed in the role of an impartial researcher, with a specific epistemology, setting up specific balanced research experiments.  I guess one of my issues in writing like this is that it feels abnormal.  No one is bias-free, and picking one epistemological stance is like trying to pick one flavor of ice-cream at the ice-cream shop.

With that in mind, our cohort had some great discussions both through official channels such as the Landing and Moodle, but also in our unofficial channel - the Cohort 7 Facebook page.  I think most of our "real" discussion occurred in the Facebook page and our refined ideas and posting made their way to the various discussions on the Landing.  Moodle didn't work out that well for me this semester.  In 801 I got notifications of new posts in the Moodle forums, but this semester, no matter how much I tinkered with the setting to enable this, nothing was showing as a new post (either by email notification or on moodle itself). As a consequence I ended up missing posts.  Luckily most of the discussion of the course was on the Landing and for that I was getting notifications.

The discussion that I found the most interesting, and thought provoking was the discussion on research ethics.  Even though that discussion is over (well, as "over" as any discussion on the web is), there is still much to be said and explored about the ethics of doing research on the internet.  This is a topic that we've discussed with colleagues, before I got into the AU EdD program, and it's something that we still discuss, especially with topics such as MOOC research.

While I find myself agreeing with Pat Fahy's stance of respecting the rights of the "willing majority," the group of  individuals who do want to participate in research but who might not be able to because a small minority might want to, I don't know how to operationalize it yet.  I think that when the rubber meet the road, i.e. when I get going with my own dissertation work, it will be interesting to see what barriers come up with individuals who do not want to participate in the research and how that might need creative ways of getting past those barriers.

It's hard to pick any one cohort member from cohort 7 that stood out more than others that was helpful to me. I think that the discussions that we had on the Landing, but also on our Facebook page, has made it feel like I am not just discussing academic matters with a random group of people, but I am also in this endeavor with a supportive group of people who are going through this as well, and some times our frustrations and triumphs intersect, and other times not. The point is that I got energy from the cohort, and I hope I gave some energy back to them.

There is one individual, however, that deserves a shout-out, and that's Lisa H. from Cohort 6. She is the designer of the Cabin Fever Epistemology badge (seen above).  Lisa and I have been going back and forth over the semester. She has provided me with peer feedback on the 2 major assignments, and she (and @pinshe and from Cohort 6) have illuminated some areas of 802, while at the same time providing for some relief from the seriousness of doctoral studies.  I don't know if this is a Cohort 6 "thing" but, when discussing assignments with them, there is always an assignment-drink pairing suggestion.  Assignment 4 proof-reading and editing goes well with Tentura (my contribution to the EDDE pairing guide). This inter-cohort support network, just like the Cohort 7 support network on our Facebook page, is an example of a mechanism to maintain and augment motivation to continue (at least for me).

On a final note, I thought I would wrap-up by discussing technologies used in the course. Moodle I wrote a little about (not my favorite LMS, but it's fine-it works), but there were other tools like Adobe Connect, Elgg (the Landing), and VoiceThread.

I written before about Voicethread. In the past I was conflicted about this tool.  I am still conflicted.  At the end I think it's how one uses it.  I've seen some bad uses, and I've seen some good uses.  I think that the voicethread for 802 falls into one of the better uses.  Even though I've been interacting with a couple of member from Cohort 6 on twitter, most Cohort 6 members are invisible.  Seeing (or rather hearing) their reactions to the Koro-Ljungberg et al article on voicethread helped me make a connection with them through time. I still don't know most of these individuals, but it's makes the course more relateable, and suddenly being a doctoral student doesn't feel like such an individualistic venture.  At the end of the day your make-or-break activity (dissertation) is your work, and you are the only author, but you've had a support network to get you through that, and you know that there are others before you that did it as well.  I think that if voicethread were a tool just for our cohort I might have not liked this activity as much, but the fact that it tied one cohort with another made it worthwhile for me.

Elgg is also one of those love-dislike relationships.  On the one hand I really want to love the Landing.  Back in 2008 I started two networks for my own school, for our instructional design MEd community (current students and alumni), and for the program that I manage now. I want those to take off and be adopted by current students and alumni (but they haven't been wild successes as far as adoption goes). Since I am in the same role as Terry Anderson and Jon Dron are with my own "landings" I want to love it.  At the same time Elgg seems unmanageable.  The discussions tool is fine, the wire is fine, and the content collection is fine. But nothing really draws me in other than the sense of really wanting this thing to take off.  Sometimes I feel like Elgg is tackling too much.

The Wiki in Elgg, for instance, seems a little half-baked.  Not AU's fault, but Elgg's  The wiki platform could be something else.  Maybe wikimedia's platform could be used instead? For assignments like the paradigm wiki (part of  assignment #5) I think that we also need a little more scaffolding.  People like me, who have edited wikis in the past, are able to work naturally in this environment.  Others who are not as familiar will create pages titled "My 3 articles" in the paradigm wiki. If the intent of the wiki is to become a resource for future (and past) cohorts, then wiki pages like this aren't that useful. I understand that this is part of a network literacy that we ought to cultivate, but I don't know if this should be explicitly taught, have small videos explaining how to add and edit the wiki for specific assignments, or if it should be left as is now (students figure it out on their own).

Finally, Adobe Connect session were good.  On the one hand there are days where I feel like zombie at 8pm EST (6pm MTN), but even though I am tired I like the idea of spending an hour with the cohort and the instructor discussing aspects of the course. I think that there are things (resources) that come out spontaneously in a synchronous session that don't necessarily come out in discussion forums.  Would I have liked more connect sessions?  I don't know. My initial thoughts are "no" - I wouldn't want more.  On the one hand, in 801, the weekly sessions did serve as a tool to regulate the course flow (something to expect each week), but on the other hand, with the amount of readings and cognitive processing requirements for 802 I think the little extra sleep gained from not having weekly sessions was good.  My brain's fuse is a bit fried, so I am glad we have a few months break between courses.  The one recommendation I would give is this: I think I would space presentations out a bit so that we don't end up with 6 presentations in one night, but other than that I enjoyed the Connect sessions. I know that some learners don't like going first, and that we need to cover research methods early so that we can tackle other parts of the curriculum, but better spacing is needed between the methods presentations in order to really make it a valuable jigsaw activity.

So, those are my concluding thoughts for EDDE 802 :-)

Stay tuned for more EdD thoughts over the summer as I participate in Rhizo15, hopefully read Deleuze & Guattari,   and I catch up on published MOOC articles from the past year.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Motivating faculty to teach online....errr...coming again?

It seems like I am living in a time-warp this semester :)  I had saved an article to read, and respond to, titled "Motivating Faculty to Teach Online" that was published in Inside Higher Education. I could have sworn that I saved this back in the fall at some point, but looking at the date it was earlier this month. I am not sure if time flowing slowly is a good thing or a bad thing.  In any case, my motivation for responding to this article as been like a seesaw.  Some days when I see it in my Pocket reader I am all gung-ho about responding to it...and then there are days where I shrug my shoulders and wonder what the point is to responding to such an article.

Just to set the frame here: I work for an institution as a manager of an online MA program.  I love what I do. I've been working with faculty for the past 15 years, in a variety of roles, and throughout these 15 years I've seen faculty, and their various motivations, through a variety of lenses.  Our institution gives a development stipend for developing a new online course.  In some instance, rare ones, when a new faculty takes over a course that has been taught by someone else, and the course is ancient, they provide a smaller stipend to re-develop the course.  If you regularly teach the course then they don't pay you to update the course, this is assumed since you are professional who should be keeping up.  Faculty also get paid extra to teach in the summer since faculty have 9-month contracts.

OK, now that the stage is set, in reading this article I really don't get why  institutions are hand wringing over motivating faculty to teach online.  From where I stand, having experienced campus and online courses, and having taught online, it seems to me that teaching, regardless of the medium, is one of the three pillars of tenure track faculty (the other two being research and service). The medium of instruction should not matter.  If a faculty member is contracted to teach a 2-2 course-load each year it shouldn't matter if the courses are online or on-campus.  Is there much more work in an online environment compared to an on-campus environment?  Some may say yes, but I think it's debateable.

You see, in both online and on-campus environments you have great professors and really bad professors.  What's the overlap between the two? The butts-in-seats time (on-campus).  Both great professors and poor professors need to spend these 3 hours per week in a classroom.  What separates great professors from poor professors is the  attentiveness to learners.  While this isn't an exhaustive list, and while it certainly does not apply everywhere, a great instructor both on-campus and online makes the students feel like they matter.  Not only that, he or she also provides both mentorship that learners need and the tough love that learners have to have sometimes.  A poor instructor on the other hand will do the bare minimum. There is one key difference between campus and online that I can point to: Lack of a Reality Distortion Field. See, a poor professor that has honed his or her craft can baffle, and dazzle, you with bullshit in those 3 hours in class.  So much so that you might be able to put up with the otherwise poor performance.  Online such deception is harder to  hide.

What it boils down for me is this:  In other professions there is an expectation that employees improve and hone one's skills. When I was working as a systems librarian† I was hired to do desktop support, maintenance, and management. My colleague (a network sys-admin) and I cross-trained and I learned the skills I needed to maintain, setup, and take care of the server side of things when he was out. To me this was a natural extension of my work (a server after all is just a computer).  When I worked in A/V services we went from Pentium I processors (1998) to post-Pentium Dual Core machines (2006).  We went from Windows 98 and MacOS 9, to Windows Vista and MacOS X. We went from pre-LMS on campus to having the LMS being one of the main tools used for both campus and online courses.  All throughout my career as  a professional in those fields I, and my fellow colleagues, updated our skills to be productive, efficient, and good at our jobs - regardless of the tools that we had at our disposal.

So, why is teaching so different of a profession?  Shouldn't teaching embrace new tools, approaches, pedagogies, and mindsets?  Professors are professors because they, in part, like to research. Research requires inquisitiveness and open minds.  So why doesn't this translate to teaching practice?  One of the linked documents in this IHE article is an Ithaca report from 2012, where faculty are reported to be partly resistant to online because they liked the way they were taught, and their mentor relationships, that they want to replicate that. While I am happy that they have had good, productive, relationships with their former professors and mentors, if I were to use the same analogy in any other profession I would be laughed out of the room.  Well, I really loved how MacOS 8 with ClarisWorks formatted my papers, so I will only use that, and I will never learn to support others who use other systems and other word processors.  Chances are, in addition to being laughed at, I would also be fired from my IT job.  This stance makes no sense.

Finally, I wanted to briefly discuss the issue of rewards. I think that financial, or time-off, rewards are counterproductive today.  15 years ago when we first made our foray into online teaching the financial incentives (stipends) to create courses online worked and were appropriate for the time. Online learning was new and some incentive needed to be in place in order to get those early explorers of the medium to tread the road so that I, and others, could follow after them.

I believe that right now we are at a point where faculty are firmly on the Hedonic Treadmill with those incentives. They have come to expect them course development stipends, and course re-development stipends when they do any work to improve their course.  A few years ago, when I was discussing the lack of redevelopment stipends (remember, at our institution they are not a given), the faculty member indicated that the lack of such stipends was stupid.  After all what incentive does a faculty member have to improve their course if there is no stipend. I was dumbstruck.  This came from the mouth of a tenured faculty member. I would have expected that an annual salary to teach 2 or 3 courses per semester (depending on your department) would include you, as subject expert, making changes and updates to your course for the benefit of your learners. This, to me, signaled that such incentives not only did not work, they also continued to foster an environment of that I can only describe as "gimme! gimme! gimme!"

We need to reframe the conversation.  It shouldn't be about motivating faculty to teach online by providing perks that don't exist on-campus and monetary incentives.  It should be about expecting, enabling, and fostering faculty development so that they do teach online.

Your thoughts?

† That wasn't my title, by the way, but in any other context, had I earned an MLIS, I would be a systems librarian - so from this day forth I am just calling myself a systems librarian for that job that I had ;-)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Social Presence and Relateability

This week has been rough in the office.  We learned that our colleague - and my former professor - Pepi Leistyna passed away. Details are scant at the moment and everyone in the department is in a state of shock as his death was quite sudden and unexpected.  I was going to write a blog post about about my history with him, how I knew him as a person when I worked in Media Services (good ol' AV department) where he used to pick up VHS players on carts to show clips of films in his courses; how he influenced my development as a learner and a scholar; and finally as a valued colleague when I started working in the department of Applied Linguistics.  While I think this is valuable, and certainly part of the process, I think there is another area to home in on, thanks to this week on #HumanMOOC: Social Presence!

Social Presence is defined as:

...the ability of learners to project their personal characteristics into the community of inquiry, thereby presenting themselves as ‘real people.’ 

Here I want to talk a little about the social presence of the instructor.  I, and every other student who has been in Pepi's classes, knows that Pepi had incredible social presence. Pepi never taught online, and he was a lecturer in his style of teaching, but you never felt bored in his classes.  There was no script to follow, no monotone voice, no scribbling on the blackboard.  What you got was an intellectual engagement for the duration of the class - and that class happened to be lecture driven, in there was Pepi at the front of the room, but his style allowed for a lot of back and forth with students in the class, going "off topic" to explore related areas that are brought up, and artfully getting back "on topic" to make sure that we were all on the same page.  I don't like lectures, I've even fallen asleep in undergrad lectures before, but never in Pepi's classes.

Pepi rarely used new technologies in his course. He still brought VHS tapes and DVDs to show us parts of videos that would inform our discussion for the evening. Wikis? Twitter? Flipgrid? HA! no, that didn't happen - but it didn't matter.  Pepi also basically had one major paper due at the end of the semester, and that was pretty much what your grade was based on (at least that was the case when I took 603 and 618 with him), so not a lot of group-work in or out of class. You could submit parts of your paper in chunks, receive feedback, and rework before you submit your final version at the end of the semester, but I don't know how many people took him up on it.

Pepi accomplished his content goals, and had an incredible degree of social presence, even among alumni who graduated years ago! How did this man do this? After reading facebook posts that have come in after the announcement of Pepi's passing, blog posts from students and fellow alumns, and emails sent to our department email the answer seems simple: relateability.

Pepi could relate with others, and others could relate with him.  It wasn't just that he was energetic in his courses, even when he was feeling sick and low on energy, it was that he brought in his own personality to the courses.  He could discuss, and connect materials from class with what was happening in the world.  If students brought up an example, he could augment it by showing that he cared enough to know what they were talking about.  Yes, there is the teaching and the advising that is part of the job, but he also knew how to weave in non-class things such as his passion for music, travel, and photography.

With Pepi it wasn't all about business, it was also about relating to you as human being.  With some of the emphasis that we put on tools and technologies for our online courses we sometimes get infatuated with the sound of our own voice that we don't often enough think about relating to our learners (it should be noted that this can happen even without technology mediation in campus courses ;-) ). We might not be able to relate to every aspect of our learner's backgrounds - for instance I have a hard time relating with those who are (or want to be) corporate instructional designers. I have never been a corporate instructional designer, and don't want to be one.  However I know enough about the corporate world from my other education that I can start to relate with my learners at some level.

Being able to relate, I think, is something that cannot be taught. You can certainly learn to fake it until you make it, but it is a skill that you, as an educator, need to practice and improve. I don't know if Pepi learned it, or he was naturally a guy who could relate to others, but he certainly had mastered this skill.

I'll close two things. First, with my favorite Pepi quote: "If you are not angry, you're not paying attention".  It's not that Pepi was an angry man - for from it - he was one of the most relaxed people I've ever met. The point was that there is a lot of injustice in the world and if you are not moved by it to even acknowledge it, then you've taken the red pill.

And, finally, one of the few video lectures of him on YouTube (this is from around the time I was about to graduate from the applied linguistics program).

Pepi, you will be missed...