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...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Institutional Affiliation or Itinerant Scholar?

Rebecca, the other, posted a question on Twitter on #adjunctchat, and later on wrote a little more in length on her blog about this question: What is the value in affiliation? More specifically:
In our new world of adjunctification and alt-metrics, does an affiliation matter? Am I better to declare myself as an itinerant scholar than a scholar associated with a particular university? What is the value of the affiliation, especially when the institution isn’t providing any resources to support the project?
Just to start off, I like the idea of the Itinerant or Nomadic Scholar. I suppose that this notion of nomadism has sort of stuck with me from my work with cMOOCs, and I see nomadic scholars as an extension of this idea. So, the question is what is the value of affiliation?  I think it depends. If you are doing certain types of research, even if the University doesn't support you as a researcher-scholar due to the nature of your adjunct employment, there may be doors that you can open simply by dropping a name. Now, that name doesn't have to go in your final scholarship, but claiming some affiliation at the onset of a research project can help in getting things started.

I would argue that when a scholar reports their institutional affiliation in published research, in those instances, it is the University that benefits from this reporting. The university can count on the name brand recognition it receives when scholarship is penned under the auspices of that university.  When tenured faculty publish (or even if your institution doesn't have tenure, but has some other method of permanence), then it makes sense to publish under the name of that university. The university has hired you to teach, research and publish, and to provide service.  This, I would say, is expected from the terms of your employment.  For adjuncts however, who are only hired to teach specific courses, they aren't hired with research or service in mind.  In cases like these I think that it's not fair for a university to claim some glory from the work of nomadic researchers that they didn't support.  One may argue that they are "supporting" research by hiring that scholar to teach, however I don't see it this way.  I think that if universities want a shot at the limelight they need to support research of adjuncts.

In my case, I am an adjunct at the university where I am employed full time.  My day-job is flexible enough, and appreciative of research, that if I needed some time "on the job" to finish off a paper submission that is due tomorrow, I could do it on the clock without any hassle. It helps that I keep on-top of my regular duties, too - but working on research outside of the scope of my duties isn't frowned upon.  In this instance I do get support from work, measured in time "off" from work, to support my research, so I am more than happy to put the University's name as my affiliation (as much as I like the Nomadic Scholar title).

If I were an adjunct, and taught at a few schools, I would most likely claim the Itinerant Scholar status, and if any research support was given to me from a specific institution, I would put that in an acknowledgements section.  The reason for this is as follows: being employed by more than one institution of higher education is problematic.  If you put one institution down, instead of another, you might be seen as playing favorites, and in future semesters you might be asked to choose your place of employment - us or them.  This is an unfair position to put an adjunct, so the acknowledgements section of published work is a mid-way point.  You acknowledge any help or support received by the institution without making them the marquee. This way you can sidestep issues of people asking why University A was mentioned as the affiliation and not University B but still give a tip of the hat to the appropriate entities.

At the end of the day I think that the current adjunct system is not a good way forward, and higher education needs to address this adjunct issue.  Your thoughts on this?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Humanizing online education: we're not just a bunch of robots

Captain Data (an android)
End of another week.  Sometimes when I reach cognitive overload I feel like a stranded sailor - what days is it? where am I?  what did I do this week?  Did I learn this thing this week or last week?  Anyway,  I've taken some notes throughout the week so that I can discuss and summarize a bit things that made me think. 

So, I had discovered a MOOC, on the Canvas Network, on Humanizing Online Instruction (or #HumanMOOC). I recognized some familiar names as organizers (which was a big draw), and the topic seemed interesting.  Something I could use in the way I conceptualize the course I teach (The Design and Instruction of Online Courses) so that I can keep materials fresh, re-work, re-frame, re-conceptualize the course.  I wasn't sure if I was going to participate in the course, and if past performance was any indication, I would not be "completing" this course; I haven't completed a course on canvas yet - and I've been a content grazer and looky-loo at most xMOOCs this past year (if the topic was marginally interesting and there was no badge or certificate that was free).

Anyway, I started participating in #HumanMOOC because I was drawn in by the gentle nudging email that raised concern about my ability to succeed in the course since I had not logged in during the prep-week (week 0).  I found this odd, and refreshing, so I thought I would give it a try.  If things got too crazy with other commitments I could always step back.  In any case, one of the questions this week was about what we do, as instructors to humanize our online course.  To tell you the truth I had always taken humanization (or at least what is referred to as the human element) for granted in designing and teaching online courses.  It seems like such a foreign concept to me that this element would not be there that it never entered my mind that it isn't there in all online courses†.

The interesting thing here, however, isn't just this.  Another thing happened at work this week.  One of the things I do as part of my day job is to answer inquiries about our online MA in Applied Linguistics.  One of the inquiries wanted to know what type of online program we offer.  This prospective student had heard that there are two kinds of online courses.  The first kind is one where the instructor assigns readings and assignments and  the learners learn on their own; and the second kind where students access the online course environment and learn though videos. It's hard to fault students, who don't know better, about reducing online learning to these two camps.  On the one hand, the former example gives a nod programs of study that are sort of like correspondence study, but in online environments, and the latter example really speaks volumes about the influenced that MOOCs have had on our society, and what is considered education.

The interesting thing to me is that prospective learners, in their minds, see these two "extremes" as two ends of the online learning spectrum, but they are really the same end of the spectrum, the only thing that changes is the medium.  It doesn't matter if learners "learn" though reading textual materials or by viewing videos.  If the instructor presence isn't felt, the materials don't do the work of building instructor presence in the course.  Even when video of the instructor speaking to the learners is created and shared in the course, that's not enough to provide learner with a sense that the instructor is there.  Don't believe me?  When was the last time you watched a documentary and thought that the presenter was talking to you? Videos created in classroom contexts, if that's the only thing that bears the instructor's likeness in some way, are in the same category as documentary videos.  Instructor presence is felt throughout the course in a dynamic, non-pre-programmed, and sometimes chaotic, way.

A more recent metaphor I have developed about setting up instructor presence in the online classroom is that of the garden.  As an instructor, and instructional designer, you can have a common starting point to setting up your presence in the online course.  Mine is to contact students early, before the class starts, and provide them with the syllabus, some info about the course, an intro video (on youtube), and some ideas about what the course entails.  I think of this as the seeding stage.  Each group that comes into a specific class has a distinct personality, and there is a a different group dynamic in each group.  One can't really determine how they will establish an instructor presence before getting to see the group in action. Thus, the instructor, like a gardener, should keep an eye out, see what needs watering, pruning, cleaning, and so on. Just like gardening depends on the environmental conditions, and the interaction of the plants that you put next to each other, so does teaching (and instructor presence) require frequent recalibration.  One size does not fit all.   I often tell students that they should develop a toolbox that they can dive into as the need arises.  It's perfectly fine to have a toolbox, you just don't need to use all the tools simultaneously :) Judicious use of tools and practices can help increase instructor presence - even when that presence only means posting one announcement sometimes.

 As a side note, in #HumanMOOC, and in EDDE 802 this past week we've used a tool called voicethread.  I've been familiar with the tool for a few years now but I have a like/dislike relationship with it.  I think I may have written about this in a previous post over the years, and my feelings are not really altered since then. One of the things that a tool like voicethread (or any tool that allows you to do voice or video posting) is that it really lacks scanability.  With plain text I am better able to scan through the text and pick up main ideas, key concepts, and do a quick mental analysis of whether this post is or is not of interest to me, and whether I'd want to respond to it.  Tools like voicethread need you to view or listen to all of the comment in order to determine if it's of use, or if it will get some mental gears working.  This really takes a task that can be quicker and makes it much longer.

That said, both in #HumanMOOC, and in the one EDDE 802 discussion there was some value to voicethread, despite its length. I think that the value of the voicethread activity derives not from the content shared by participants but by actually seeing or hearing those folks.  My EDDE cohort communicate mostly textually, in our facebook group, on the landing, and in live sessions.  I often feel like I am monopolizing the airtime when I speak (or I would if I spoke every time I wanted to say something), so I self-sensor when it comes to using my microphone.  I don't know if others do this, but the net effect is that even our synchronous communication is text-based.  Being able to hear our cohortmate's voices discussing something does add an extra dimension to that feeling of connecteness.  I think this is where tools like this are good.   Added to that, I think it was great to connect with people from Cohort 6 (we are Cohort 7) since the voicethread transcends semesters.  Some people from Cohort 6 I've "met" on twitter and through their blogs, but adding that audio-visual element gives a sense of greater inter-cohort connections.

Of course, the hidden objective here is the social objective that isn't discussed when we are assigning students to work on tools like this one, thus we are meeting a content objective and a social objective by using a tool like this. I still have issues with the lack of captioning in voicethread, but that's just a post for another day ;-)

Thoughts? #HumanMOOC participants?  EDDE 802 cohort-mates?

† online here means traditional online courses, MOOCs I think need a slightly different conceptualization of things like teacher presence and humanization.
- If you are in #HumanMOOC and you are reading this, I hope you weren't scared or put off by my Flipgrid photo - I was messing around and I guess "angry face" became my profile photo ;-)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

One more assignemnt down... One to go...

I am starting to feel like Jack Bauer in 24 as EDDE 802 progresses. 60 days down in the semester, and 25 left to go.  I can hear the clock ticking down...

Assignment 3 was completed this weekend, a few days before it was actually due (thank you to Lisa for the peer review!).  It's a small assignment describing the conceptual frameworks that we are going to use for researching a specific research question.  My question comes back to Learner Motivation in MOOCs - something that I think I started thinking about in 2011 after MobiMOOC.  With the proliferation of MOOC "types", xMOOC, cMOOC, pMOOC, rMOOC, and whatever else exists these days it makes sense to focus on learner motivation in cMOOCs specifically.  It seems that the smaller volumes of learners in cMOOCs, and the seemingly higher proportion of spontaneous "original" contributions make it an interesting environment to study motivation in.

When I approached this topic for Assignment 1 it was one of several topics I was spit-balling this as one potential topic.  However, as I am entering Assignment 4 (the 6000-9000 world final paper that could be a draft of my methods section for dissertation), I am seriously considering the topic of Learner Motivation in cMOOCs as a dissertation topic. I think that I can get through a substantial amount of the research literature (and general punditry) on MOOCs that I have piling in my drawer over the summer break, and start thinking about motivation in learning as something to research next summer.

The big question is this: build my own MOOC to gather data? Or hop on to another person's cMOOC and ride that wave as a participant-researcher?  The Participant-Researcher role does appeal to me because it feels less sterile than sitting back and observing what's happening in a MOOC.  That said, I can think of potentials for conflicting priorities, and other biases emerging from such a role.  Well, I guess I will cross that bridge when I get to it.  I wonder if I can hammer out a draft proposal for the Introduction (or Methods) chapter over the summer...

To some extent I feel like the doctoral process is not conducive to this pre-work approach. In 3 semesters time I will formally take the course in which one deliverable is to develop a proposal, and it is this proposal that will either get me, or not get me, into candidacy.  Can I work on this proposal before I reach the course?  Is it wise to work on it before the course?  And if I do, and things look good, how does that impact my own learning experiences in that course?  Any thoughts about this from people who've completed their PhD or EdD?

Obligatory graphic for Assignment 3 - A mind map of my current thoughts

Monday, March 16, 2015

Rhizomatic Discussions!

Worlds have officially collided (either that, or the Rhizome has invaded my mind) ;-)

This week is the beginning of Humanizing Online Instruction (or #humanMOOC) on the Canvas Network.  As is usually the case, I tend to lurk in more MOOCs than I can actually "complete†"in any given period.  Given my homework for EDDE 802, and my teaching work on INSDSG 684 (and let's not forget the day-job), I wasn't really going to follow #HumanMOOC that closely.  I still don't know how closely I am going to follow along - but heck, I'll give it the old college try. Even though I am not sure what my activity will look like, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce myself in case blogposts or tweets with #HumanMOOC started coming up with my name on them.

One of the things that my brief interaction in the #HumanMOOC Forums reminded me of is the potentially Rhizomatic nature of knowledge and participation online.  For instance, I might read something on Maha's blog, which might get some mental gears going. I could post a comment on her blog, or if it's longer, or connected to other ideas, I might just write about it here (in one or more posts).  The same is true for news sites, and academic articles: I can read something, and then based on that reading I can comment on it on this blog, I can use the articles as part of a literature review for articles I am writing, and I can discuss ideas about such articles on twitter, google+, or other forums.

In essence, I am forking an idea, or parts of an idea, and rolling those parts into my own understanding of the world.  How is this significant, and why is this an "aha" moment today?  I remember, about 10 years ago, when I started blogging regularly (on a now defunct blog), the goal of bloggers seemed to be to get people to come to their blogs and engage with them on their own turf (their own blog).  These days that doesn't seem to matter as much, at least for most people.  If people comment on my blog posts I am genuinely surprised. I am also surprised that at least 60 people a day read this thing.  Obviously a small minority comment, but the most important aspect here is that ideas carry forward, and hopefully their stimulate discussion. Thus, an idea can grow rhizomatically, starting from one source - a blog, a tweet, a newspost, and it can grow in many different directions. 

My pondering is this: how does one bring back all those roots to one central place, or does it make sense to bunch-up and organize those paths that the rhizome forges? What's more important? The total sum of information collected?  Or one's traversal through that path?


† The notion of completeness is problematic in MOOCs, but this case I mean "complete" by earning one or more badges - I think this is what the designers and facilitators probably consider complete as well.
- A side note here - the little reminder that I might be falling behind #HumanMOOC prompted me to look more closely at it today.  Nice touch.  One of my research threads deals with motivation of learners in MOOCs, and I am wondering what the effect of such gentle reminders are. A while back, maybe in during #Change11 I had pondered about the use of analytics and reminders like this. Wonder if anyone has done any research work on this.