Thursday, September 3, 2020

And just like that, it's fall! (or Autumn, same deal)


It's hard to believe, but the summer is in the rearview mirror.  Next week the fall semester begins and as I look back over the summer  I see some things I learned (or observed) in these coronatimes:

The FoMo is still strong!

I thought I had beaten back FoMo (fear of missing out) but I guess not :-).  This summer many conferences made the switch to online this summer due to the ongoing pandemic and their registration was free.  This made them accessible both in terms of place (online) and cost (free) for me.  So I registered.  I might have registered for far too many because there weren't enough hours to participate synchronously and attend everything I wanted to.  Luckily most sessions were recorded, so I was able to go back and review recordings of things I missed.  Between the Connected Learning Conference, IABL Conference, OLC Ideate, Bb World, HR.com's conference (and a few more that I can't remember at the moment), I got more Professional Development done this summer than any other summer.  By the end of this week, I'll also have caught up with all recordings.  The "AHA!!!" moment for me was this:  About 10-12 years ago when I was first starting out (as a starry-eyed designer) all this stuff would have been mindblowing.  I think online conferences for me are more about filling holes and making me think differently rather than building new knowledge in mind. And that's OK.  I discovered a lot of resources that I forwarded to friends and colleagues who would find them more useful than I did because they are at a different phase in their PD. Just like a garage sale (maybe a bad analogy) can yield nothing at all, it can yield a treasure you never thought existed, or it can yield something for your friends and colleagues. You never know what you will find until you start looking.

Quick startups are possible (darn it!)

This summer I was invited by a friend to co-facilitate a couple of weeks of a bootcamp course for teaching online (Virtual Learning Pedagogy). The learner demographic are educators in Nigeria (the course might have been open to other countries as well). The course was offered through Coderina. I think from the time we were all invited to the first week of the course we only had 2 weeks.  Last week was the last week of the course. I am not sure how much John slept these 6 weeks, but I think that the course was a success.  We talk about agile instructional design in our courses, and I think this was a good example of different teams working on different weeks, checking in with one another, and putting together a course while the course is being taught.  Could it be done better? Yes, everything can improve, but I am proud to have been part of such an agile multinational collaboration. I also got to meet a lot of new colleagues that I didn't know before. I think this was a good case study for agile ID. I can't wait to see what the next iteration of the course will look like :-)

Back into 601!

This summer I taught Intro to Instructional Design and Learning Technologies (it's got another title formally, but that's basically it). I had taken several semesters off from teaching in order to focus on my dissertation proposal (which needed a major rewrite - perhaps more on that after I graduate), and I've been looking forward to getting back into teaching. This summer I used the version of the course that Rebecca designed and uses, opting to not use what I had created a few summers back. Part of the reason for using her course was that she had baked into the course consideration for synchronous sessions.  I tend to be more asynchronous in my designs (so that people can have flexibility), but I wanted to be experimental this summer with sync-sessions.  Another reason I wanted to use someone else's design is to extend my thinking and collaborate with others.  I've got my own version of what an intro course can look like, but looking at another designer's design can add to your own toolkit and thinking,  Additionally, if there is one version of the course that many people contribute to the design of, I think differing student cohorts benefit both from the stability of the curriculum and from the process of collaborative design in the course. This way if cohort A takes the course taught by professor A, they won't get radically different core content than Cohort B taking the course with professor B. Your learning experience may differ, but core knowledge required down the road by other courses should be more or less similar. I really enjoyed teaching this summer. My students were awesome, and we had good exchanges both via synchronous and asynchronous means.  I also loved that I was able to invite friends and colleagues who work in ID to have some candid chats with our learning community. I think this was much more effective than reading articles about what an ID does.  If I could hop into a DeLorean and go back to June: This summer I only had 6 students.  Such a small number of students can make for a nice seminar-style course, but the course was designed with a class size of 10-15. The dynamics are definitely different with such a smaller cohort. I think that if I could go back in time I'd give students an option:  We could have asynchronous forums each week for discussing ideas and topics of the course, or we could forego (most of) the forums and meet synchronously each to accomplish similar means. I think a smaller number of students makes the forum feel a little like an empty playground.  It's got a lot of potential but it's only actualized when many kids go play.

Dissertation ahoy!

Finally, a little bit about this doctoral journey thing.  In May I successfully defended my proposal (yay) which allowed me to apply for IRB/REB clearance (yay!).  At the end of June, I got that clearance (yay!) so I could start reaching out to study participants.  It's hard to believe that a (somewhat) random MOOC I signed up for while waiting to hear back about my application to the EdD program ended up becoming my dissertation topic.  I may have bitten off more than I can chew in terms of story (data) collection but Narrative Inquiry is all about the story through someone's position in that metaphorical parade.  The parade keeps on moving, and so do participants in it, so I am OK with presenting a sliver of that experience (knowing that it's a sliver of it). It's not possible (for a dissertation anyway) to be a completionist when exploring an experience (which I guess pushes back on my FoMo mentioned above).  Hopefully I'll have a good draft of this thing by the end of the semester in December.

So...what was your summer like?


Image credit: "Zen stones" by rikpiks is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Graduate admissions process pondering


This post has been brewing in my head for a couple of years now. Since I am waiting for IRB clearance for my dissertation I thought it would be a good time to jot things down and see what others think.  I usually tend to have people in my network who either teach or work in some sort of instructional designer (or faculty developer) capacity.  I don't (think) I know too many people in the higher education administration aspects of my work to discuss these kinds of things with (so I may just be speaking to no one 😝).

Anyway, one thing that's been gnawing at me for the past number of years is how one enters into graduate programs.  I'll focus more on the master's level for a few reasons.  I manage an MA program, I teach for an MEd program, and from observation, I've seen that masters programs probably don't have as many administrative constraints: for example, [virtual] classroom space, working with a cohort model that's more tightly integrated [as compared to doctoral programs that are more tightly interconnected], and most masters programs allow non-matriculated students to take courses for fun or interest (doctoral programs typically do not). 

In the US, a typical application to a graduate program requires the following:
  • An application (usually electronic these days)
  • An application fee (my institution has it at $60 for domestic students)
  • A statement of purpose (why do you want to apply to the program, how does it meet your goals, etc.)
  • 2-3 letters of recommendation from academic referees (former professors)
  • Your transcript indicating that you completed an undergrad program (sometimes ALL transcripts, even if you decided to take ENGL501 for fun somewhere...).
  • Some sort of standardized test (albeit this is not as common these days)
I've done this song and dance four times since 2004.  The first time I did it (for my MBA), I didn't think much of it.  The second time I did it (for my MS), it was a little easier, albeit annoying because I was applying to the college I was already a student in.  The third and fourth times (MA and MEd degrees) I reused letters of recommendation and I phoned it in. I actually used one application to apply to two programs, and one statement of intent that covered both.  I almost did it a fifth time for another MA degree, but they required GRE scores to prove that I could go graduate work (after having successfully completed 4 masters programs mind you...), which is when I decided to not apply to that program.

As part of my day-to-day work, the admissions process is one of those things I manage, and I'm convinced that the entire apparatus is mostly an arcane and archaic gatekeeping mechanism, built around the constraints of "p-learning" (Dron, 2016) and program scarcity (when MA programs only really accepted a few students each year).   The admissions process doesn't feel like an enabling mechanism.

Take letters of recommendation for example. If you've attended a western institution, and you ask for a letter of recommendation from a former professor, the letters of recommendation that they provide will mostly be good. No one decent will agree to write a recommendation if they are going to negatively evaluate you. Hence, the asking for, and receiving, of a recommendation becomes a ritual of asking former professors to vouch for you, but really knowing ahead of time that, if they agree, what they write will most likely be glowing.  It privileges people who've already built those connections with some professors, and it is a colossal waste of time for the referee. It also privileges western applicants because (it's been my experience) that non-western referees typically write sparse recommendations that typically reference a transcript ("AK was a good student, got A's in my class").  In cases where someone doesn't have academic recommendations (for whatever reason), a common tactic is to take a course or two in the department (as a non-matriculated student) to obtain those letters of recommendation.  If they've taken two courses, and gotten good grades (however you define "good grades"), then the recommendations are pointless (especially since those who write the recommendations are also those who often read them for admissions🤷).

Another thing that I find interesting, is the requirement for a BA (sometimes the requirement is just a BA, even if it's not in the discipline).  A bachelor's degree can be verified by transcript, but I do find it odd that some schools require *every* transcript. So if someone has earned an Associate's Degree in Automotive engineering (school 1), a Bachelor's in Sociology (school 2), and wants to apply to an MA program in school 3 (let's say in a sociology program), that school could ask for a transcript from his AA degree transcript even though it's not relevant, just in case the applicant has anything to hide🙄. If the applicant has demonstrated that they can do academic work by showing a transcript with a completed degree, why request everything? 

Related to this, here is a hypothetical (I haven't seen or heard of this happening in real life, but it theoretically could): students are able to take graduate courses as a non-matriculated student.  As a matter of fact, learners can string together all required courses for a degree as a non-degree student but still not earn the MA because they either lack a BA, or they took all their courses as a non-degree student, so we can't count most of them if they matriculate near the end of their studies.  I am actually not sure where I stand on this.  On the one hand, the MA is positioned as an advanced degree in something (which assumes an introductory degree in it?) but on the other hand if you can do the work, and you demonstrated that you can by actually doing the work, why should you be prevented from earning that degree if you don't have the previous one in the series? 🤔

The graduate admissions protocols (at least for masters programs) seem like unnecessary gatekeeper these days.  Because of all of the documentation required, and the process of review for the materials submitted, admissions has defined calendar deadlines each year, which can shut people out if they happen to miss those deadlines.  Personally, I'd like to see more Open Admissions process to start to take place.  Perhaps some introductory and required courses could be open to anyone interested in taking them (I'll pick a random number, and say that this represents 40% of the curriculum), and then whoever is interested in continuing their studies can submit a brief application, and a reflective essay/statement of purpose and the faculty can make a more informed decision in terms of formal acceptance given their own experiences in class with the applicant. This would cut out the unnecessary transcript evaluation, letters of recommendation, and standardized scores (and all the processing and vetting that goes on with that).

Your thoughts?

Friday, June 19, 2020

HyFlex is not what we need (for Fall 2020)

HyFlex (Hybrid Flexible) is a way of designing courses for (what I call) ultimate flexibility.  It takes both ends of the teaching spectrum, fully face-to-face, and fully online-asynchronous and it bridges the gap.  Back in the day, I learned about this model of course design by taking an OLC workshop with Brian himself, but you can learn more about the model in his free ebook.  I liked the model at the time (and I still do), because it gave more options to learners in the ways they wanted to participate in the course. They could come to class, they could participate online synchronously, and they could just be asynchronous, or a mix of any one of those depending on the week.

Quite a few people on twitter, including @karenraycosta, were pondering whether they don't like HyFlex (in general), or the implementations of HyFlex that we are seeing. Heck, It seems like HyFlex has become the white label flex model for universities because some of them are creating their own brands of flex!🙄. I wonder what marketing geniuses came up with that.  Anyway, colleagues and I have been trying to flex our learning for the last few years as a trial, with mixed results.  The main issue that comes out a lot is a critical mass of students, with a secondary issue of staffing.  In "pure" modality (full F2F or full-asynch) you need to have a critical mass of learners to be able to engage in constructivist learning.  If lectures are your thing and you expect people to sit down, shut up, and listen, then it works just fine.  However, for the rest of us who want to build learner connections and interactivity in the classroom we need a minimum amount of students, and we need to have a sense of how many there will be so we can plan activities.  An activity for 20 people won't necessarily scale down to 2 people.  The same thing is true in asynch, if most people are F2F, writing in the forums might feel like speaking to an empty room.

Things become more complicated if you want to create a sync session online and merge that with a F2F meeting.  The instructor becomes not only an instructor but a producer.  They need to manage the tech, ensure that everyone on-site has devices that they can beam the online folks in (zoom, adobe connect, etc.) to work in groups, for team presentations you gotta work wizardry to ensure that all people are well represented and the tech works. I've seen this type of producing happen in distance education classrooms of old where people connected 2 physical classrooms via P2P connections, and each site had a producer to manage the cameras that connected the students from one classroom to another, and the remote classroom had a tutor. In total there were 4 people to make this happen for a class of 40. HyFlex (the way it's implemented) expects one person to do this: the instructor.

While I think HyFlex is an interesting model to pursue, I think it's something to pursue for large class enrollments (think classes of 80 or more students), or multi-section team-taught courses (ENGL 101 for example that might have multiple sections taught by many people).  HyFlex isn't good for a "regular" class size class (regular defined as 12-20), because you need to design and plan for possibilities that might never occur.  This makes course creation more costly, and course maintenance an issue, which falls upon one person: the instructor.  Considering that the majority of courses are taught by adjuncts these days - who aren't paid well - this also becomes an issue of academic labor.  Think about it (and use my university as an example): 

  • One course is compensated as 10 hours of work per week (at around $5000, or $33/hour)
    • Assume 2 hours per week prep time (really bare minimum here, assuming all course design is complete and the instructor doesn't have to worry about that). That leaves 8 hours
    • 3 hours of that is "face time" each week.  That leaves 5 hours
    • 2 hours per week are office hours. That leaves 3 hours.
    • Assume 3 hours per week that you are spending engaging in things like forums, mentoring, reading learner journals, and responding back to them (an equal amount of time spent as on-campus). You are left with no paid hours to devote.
  • So what's left out?
    • What if you need to do more than 2 hours/week of student conferencing? Do you take a pay-cut? or do you say "first come first serve, sorry!" (not very student-friendly!)
    • Who grades and gives feedback for papers and exams?  Are they all automated?  That's not really good pedagogy
    • When does professional development take place to be able to use all the tech required for HyFlex?  Is this paid or not?
  • Parking on my campus costs $15 per day, so $225 per semester if you are only teaching one-day per week. If you are unlucky and teach 3 days per week (MWF) or five days per week (MTuWThF), then your parking costs are $675 and $1125 respectively.
    • This makes your compensation per course:
      • $4475 ($31/hour) - one-day teaching schedule
      • $4325 ($28/hour) - three-day teaching schedule
      • $3875 ($25/hour) - five-day teaching schedule
    • While these costs are incurred for people teaching on-campus anyway, when they are off-campus they are not working, however, with HyFlex they still have their online obligations.
  • There is a commuting cost associated with going to/from home. Those hours are not compensated or accounted for.

I think HyFlex can work, but not for everything.  Furthermore, for fall 2020 it puts the lives of faculty in danger because faculty would have to come in to teach on-campus.  The "flex" option seems to only be available to learners.  When Brian Beatty originally proposed the HyFlex model (from what I remember of my OLC workshop), the flex was a two-way street.  The faculty member could also say "well, this week we're online because of obligations I have" - but the flex proposed by colleges and universities doesn't seem to include this two-way flex.

Anyway- that's what I have to say about HyFlex.   How about you? 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Is "online learning" the new "community college"?



Me, pondering
OK, maybe the analogy isn't totally clear to you, so let me explain my context. 

When I was in high school (mid-to-late 90s) the advertised (or expected) path after high school seemed pretty clear to me: go to college. There were really no "buts" about it, and there were no gap years considered (those were luxuries that well-off people had since they had money to burn). It was an expectation, from guidance counselors, from teachers, from parents, maybe even from society. Higher education was the path to a good middle-class life, and people were willing to take out loans to go to their dream school in order to achieve this goal. This was a pretty important goal for my parents considering that neither one of them made it to university and I'd be the first in the family (maybe even my broader family) to do this. No pressure, eh? ;-)

One thing that seemed like an underlying current was how dismissive some (many?) people were about community colleges at the time. I had never really thought of community college as an option because of jokes like this one:

You better do well in __(subject)__ otherwise, you'll be attending Cape Cod Community College!

I don't know why CCCC was the butt of the joke for this particular teacher in high school, but the frequency of such jokes (and the virality of them between students) definitely left an impression of community college being a consolation prize, rather than a fantastic (and comparatively cheaper) educational resource! Imagine how much money would be saved if students decided to complete the first two years of their higher education studies at a CC and then transfer into another school! Or graduate from CC and then go into university with advanced standing. From what I know, in my local context, CCs were (and are) commuter schools.  You don't live on-campus at a CC. Compare that to some big-name school in Cambridge (Massachusetts) that my folks wanted me to apply to that required first-year student to stay in the dorms if they wanted to attend that school.

Anyway, I diverge from my point I started with.  The main idea here is that CC, although valuable, was constantly dismissed.  Fast forward to our current pandemic-world.  Students are suing universities for the return of their tuition and fee costs. Nevermind that some of these law firm pitches sound a lot like ambulance chasers, let's dive down to the core:  Universities have been pitched as a place where people go to explore subjects and topics; a type of free-range learning. This is true for both undergraduate and graduate education. 

In recent years, what you saw in university advertising tended to be anything but the learning.  Learning objectives?  Snore! learning outcomes?  yawn!   Rooms with lavish wood paneling?  Noice!  Parties?  Awesome!   Spring fling dances and cookouts?  I'm there!  When you consider the marketing message of the modern university which focuses on amenities, it's not hard to see why people are pushing back against the price tag.  If you paid for a Cruise in the Bahamas, why would you "settle" for the Holodeck?

What's hiding behind those amenities is the promise of a free-range learning environment where you too can learn and be inspired by the greats!  The reality, though, is that you aren't really in a free-range learning environment.  When your tuition and fees cost $60,000 per year (or more), a wise student would do a reality check and see that it's not free-range learning, but rather a prix-fixe menu (in many cases), and students pick X-many courses from column A, Y-many from column B, and Z-many from column C to graduate as soon as possible.  The longer you stay, the bigger your bill!

Conversely, in online learning, where you don't have the striking visuals of campus life and all the non-academic distractions you are forced to start with the learning outcomes.  You need to assess programs based on the outcomes, and you need to advertise based on the transformative experience of the learning and what sorts of careers you are prepared for, not the extracurriculars.   However, it seems, that prospective students (and their parents) don't have metrics by which to assess programs on their learning outcomes, so lacking the social visuals or metrics offered by a campus experience, they dismiss online education; much like how CC education was dismissed by the relevant authority figures in my teenage life.  I think that for-profit schools also have not helped with the reputation of online learning, but talking about "zoom university" and framing educational costs as an all or nothing is also not very productive.  Education is valuable.  I would argue that education at $60k/year was never valuable to people like me, first-generation students, but I hope that more people are teasing out what matters in education. I hope the medium doesn't impact the message in this case.  And I hope that dual-mode universities finally put some support behind their online offerings beyond the classroom.

Your thoughts?  Do you see a connection between online learning and the community college in how they are talked about?

~AK

Friday, May 1, 2020

Synchronous, online learning, and "remote" learning

The question of synchronous sessions in online learning has been swirling in my head over the past few weeks.  So has the term "remote" instruction (🙄).  I usually tend to sit on the sidelines these days, maybe throwing a few potshots on twitter here and there when I have time, but this article on IHE today was one where my eyes rolled too hard, and there was an audible grunt in the room...

First of all, I guess I should explain my aversion to the term "remote" instruction.  Our field, distance education, has many terms to describe learning at a distance that actually mean something, and have actually had decades of research behind them!  Because the existing terms mean something, and usually have legalistic implications, it's like administrators are using a synonym for "distance" in order to avoid any sorts of contractual agreements that they have made.  For instance, at my institution, if a faculty member develops an online course from scratch (for the first time), they are entitled to a development stipend. There is a process behind this stipend, which includes working with an instructional designer and getting a Bootcamp version of the skills one needs to teach online, but it exists, and it takes time.  In the times of COVID19, timelines are compacted, and such processes are too long, and money is often too short.  So, instead of calling these classes online, they euphemistically call them "remote" in order to avoid paying any stipend.  The "right" course of action would be to negotiate with the faculty union about this.

The second issue that I have with the designation "remote" is that it seems to denote a "less-than" term for distance education.  It's OK that this course stinks because it's a "remote" course.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  I think the correct term for a rushed course is an emergency online course, not a remote course.  Online courses can stink.  And, some do! But to claim that we don't want to call what we do classify what we do in an emergency online learning context as online learning because that's not what online learning is,...well, that's just silly IMO.  We did start off with emergency remote teaching when this started, and why we picked the wrong word - picking remote over emergency - is beyond me. The word emergency should be enough to denote that what's happening is not necessarily the most fully fleshed out, but it is the best we can do in with the time and resources we have at hand.  Furthermore, emergency remote/online/distance learning is perfectly fine when you have one week to make the pivot.  Come September, if we're all still quarantined in place,  distance learning should not be emergency anything!  We should use the summer to plan for good online learning and to build out student supports that may be lacking at the moment!

Finally, there is an aspect of synchronous often tied with the affinity of using the term remote learning. Many people decided to just move their lectures into zoom.  Hey, a 45-minute live session might be OK three-times per week for one class; multiply that by 4 courses for a full-time student. However, sitting in front of a computer for 9 hours per week on zoom sessions that might not be needed, and then being in front of your computer for all assignment (plus all the distractions and poor internet that you might have at home) and it doesn't make for a conducive learning environment.  That said, we do have the option for synchronous online meetings. Online courses aren't designed to be strictly asynchronous or self-paced.  Furthermore, just because mixed-mode institutions have ignored their online learners for the past decade doesn't mean that online or distance learning is inflexible and doesn't adapt to the changing needs of learners. It doesn't mean that there is a lack of community, and it doesn't mean that distance education cannot create co-curricular opportunities.  Just because you have ignored some or all of these possibilities doesn't mean that they don't exist, and it doesn't require that you create a new term to describe them.

In the end, what I am seeing with remote learning is the same thing we saw in the 2012-2014 MOOC Craze years, where what we knew about online and distance education was summarily ignored due to the new shiny.  Did we not learn anything from that experience? ❓


Your thoughts?