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...

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.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Educational assumptions discussed (Part II)

Well, here we are, part II of educational assumptions.  That last blog post was getting long, so here we are! These are still some ideas about things I jotted down in the margins, highlighted, or otherwise reacted to when reading a recent research article on Open Praxis by fellow MOOC researchers France and Jenny. Despite my issues and concerns with the article, it's still worth a read so that we can discuss the  things that came up in it.  In this blog post I am wrapping up the responses to some educational assumptions (or myths, depending on where you stand). 

Courses are not experimental
One of the views that came across in the article was that Cormier, as convener of Rhizo14, was experimenting on us learners. This seems to bring up two mental images.  The first is that we, as learners and participants, were in some sort of experiment, like the ones that IRBs warn you about (see Milgram for example), and that courses, whether MOOC or not, aren't by their nature experimental to begin with.  A course is never complete in some ways.  Each time we run our course we iterate though different designs based on the feedback we've gotten from our learners.  This is both explicit feedback through course evaluations and instruments like that, and through feedback like observing many learners not do very well in a particular test item.  As designers, and instructors, we always experiment in our courses to see what works best, or at least to see what might work best.  We experiment with the way we provide feedback, with the language we use in class, with the level of familiarity between us and out learners, with the course materials, with the presentation of those materials, with sequencing...and the list goes on!

At its core I would argue that teaching is experimental.  This is how we advance knowledge of what it means to learn in a variety of contexts.  If teaching we're experimental we would all, potentially, be doing the same thing in our courses. The reality is that we don't. To frame Rhizo14 as experimental, in this sense, not only connotes something nefarious going on, but also it denies the reality that as teachers we strive to improve our practice so that we can then in turn make changes that work for our learners and for the intended learning outcomes. How does one accomplish this?  Through experimentation - over or covert.  In the course that I teach (traditional online course), I've experimented with podcasting (and doing it a few different ways), different ways of engaging with learners in the course forums, framing assignments in different ways, and exploring badges as alternative credentials.  Do learners know that I am experimenting? Sometimes they do, and they can opt-in (example: issuing of badges last spring), and sometimes they don't and they think that this is a normal part of class (example: doing podcasts).  We all experiment - the key is to abide ethical teaching principles.

Learners are not complicit in educational acts
One of the things that didn't sit well with me about  the article (and raised a few red flags on the research end of things) were the quotations used by some informants to the survey.  I should say that it's not the quotation that bothers me, but how the overall narrative is framed in the article, and the experiences I had in the facebook group of Rhizo14. One quote is as follows:
Some questioned the lack of content in the course and felt that it lacked depth and theoretical discussion. For these participants the rhizome is “A pernicious, pervasive weed, rooted in a lot of dirt and “SH***””; “ . . .a ‘thug’ and can be very badly behaved”; “Part of one big family/ plant—joined at the hip”; “Clones of the “same damn plant.” 
 This level of vitriol is fine to express when someone is legitimately silenced.  However I do not recall seeing any serious, prolonged, discussion about this issue in the forums. So two possibilities I can think of is that either this quote is misquoted or misunderstood, or the frustrated learner didn't bother engaging with the community.  This to me is a problem.  Learners are supposed to be complicit in their own learning.  There needs to be a willingness to learn and to experiment with a specific form of learning, and thus engage with the community.  If the course name is "the community is the curriculum" what do you expect?  If the reality didn't meet your expectations it's up to you to  engage and make it happen.  After all, why do we keep talking about empowering the learner if the learners won't stand up and take charge?

In any learning environment, be it MOOC or traditional learning, learners ought to be part of their own learning.  They need to actively engage with peers and instructors to learn whatever is on the table to learn.  Otherwise, in my opinion, they don't have a leg to stand-on when they complain vitriolically like this.

In a course where the community is the curriculum, we gotta stick to the point
This connects with the previous myth.  Personally I didn't want to discuss Deleuze and Gautarri. Some did, so more power to them!  Don't get me wrong, at some point I am interested in reading what they have to say, but Rhizomatic Learning didn't originate with them - so why bother at this point in time when my time is short? The nice thing about MOOCs is that communities can form to discuss smaller parts that interest them.  There is no need to "stick to the point" and just explore the areas that are pre-defined by the course.  An an Open Course participants can go off on a tangent if they so wish.   In a traditional course, where an institution pays someone to make sure certain learning objectives are covered, then sure - OK.  In a MOOC, however, I do not think that this rigidity is necessary.

A MOOC needs learning objectives!
Perhaps I will be seen as heretical in my instructional design circles, but I disagree :)  cMOOCs don't necessarily need learning objectives, at least ones that are really rigid.  In a traditional course, yes we need them because that is the structure we are working under.  You have a curriculum that ties together, you have people working in unison to deliver that curriculum and to scaffold people into new roles as members of a certain profession.  Learning objectives are necessary.  It helps the instructional design process in those cases.

In the early days of MOOCs (for me that was 2011) I was actually astonished that MOOCs offered by big names in MOOCs didn't have learning objectives.  WTH?!  How can this be?  This is BS I though to myself!  Since those days I've pulled a 180 on this topic and at the end of the day, for me, it depends a lot on whether control rests with the conveners (as is with traditional courses) or the learners.  If control rests with the conveners, and you only get credit for what they tell you - then learning objectives matter.  If control rests with the learners, and the course is much more flexible as to what "completeness" means - then learning objectives, set by the convener, are almost meaningless.  The learners need to set their own learning objectives and pursue them.

Alright - so I think that takes care of all of the comments, thoughts, and reactions I had with this article.  I guess now it is time to make a dent on my Pocket reading :)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Learning in a safe environment, and other educational assumptions (Part I)

It's been a few days since I started writing about the various reactions I had (and started noting in the margins ;)  ) to a recent article from fellow MOOCers and MOOC researchers Frances and Jenny. I cut my previous post a bit shorter than I intended because it was getting long, and I didn't want it to go on and on. So this is a follow-up blog post to that original post with some reactions, or thoughts, about what seemed to be to be underlying assumptions about what comes as part-and-parcel for education.  The article seemed to make some assumptions about education, and MOOCs in specific, that I thought should be addressed in some fashion:

It is the responsibility of the convener/instructor of the course to play cop...
... be this a traffic cop who directs the flow of the course and "re-centers" it when it gets off course, a dispute cop who gets in between parties who are arguing about a certain topic, and a jail cop for people who don't observe the "rules" of the course and this should be banned from the community (or at least put on "time out").  I disagree with this opinion - at least to some extent.

In a traditional course, where there are few students (paying students) and the instructor is under contract to instruct a certain topic, individuals who are in the course have authorized the institution, and the individual, to act on their behalf and make sure that certain course objectives need covering get covered and students have an opportunity to learn them.  If someone, during "class time" becomes disruptive or threatening to their fellow students, then the instructor should do something.  It's worth nothing that in these instances the instructor has other campus resources to make sure that laws, rules, and regulations are followed.  There is the ADA office, making sure that if "disruptions" occur due to medical issues those are addressed in a fair manner to the student who is suffering from those medical conditions.  If the student is disruptive in other manners the office of student affairs can help, and in those rare instances you have campus police.  The instructor is just a first line responder and their responsibility ends there.

In a MOOC instructor are often volunteers, or do something for the love of learning and teaching.  They have no extended support behind them, and as such if someone really becomes abusive (think online bully) at most they can band them from the facebook group, moodle course, or other membership-based system.  However, in these instances, it's important to acknowledge the limitations of the systems.  As a former admin of Bulletin Board systems I know that dealing with trolls is, sometimes, like playing whack-a-mole.  One account gets shut down, and the offender can start another one up - easily.  Luckily I have never witnessed such a  bullying offense in the MOOCs I've been in, and hope to never have it.  Long story short: expecting the instructor to be a cop in the course is a bad expectation to have, both in MOOC contexts and non-MOOC contexts.

It is the responsibility of the convener to provide for everything
This seems like a gray area for both MOOCs and traditional courses.  Why should a course designer, convener of a MOOC, or instructor of a traditional course provide everything that a learner needs in the course?  One of the goals of (higher) education is to enable learners to be life long learners.  This, to me, implies some sort of independence from the instructor and an ability to make sense of things and to wayfind.  I don't dispute that there will always be a need for a more knowledgeable other, to use Vygotsky's terminology, but why can't the classroom community (instructor and peers) be that MKO?    In a traditional classroom setting, I would argue that the instructor is paid to be that mentor, but it is the mentor that knows how to structure and scaffold learners for the ultimate learning goal.  Sure, Daniel might have been annoyed when he was asked to was Mr. Miyagi's car - but there was a point to that.

There are, of course, some differences between traditional courses and MOOCs.  One of the differences is compliance with ADA. Traditional courses need to comply by ADA, and there are - again - faculty resources that can be leveraged in order to provide this for the learners.  In MOOCs, I would argue, that there is no obligation for the instructor to offer all materials in an accessible format. This may seem like an insensitive thing to say, but the instructor, at least in cMOOCs, is a volunteer and this seems like one thing too many to ask of a volunteer. If an institution is paying an instructor to do a MOOC, and they are providing the resources to create the MOOC (including people) then it makes sense to roll-in accessibility as part of this.  I think that if individuals are vulnerable to litigation (see Harvard and MIT being sued for lack of captioning on EdX courses) it will inhibit people from offering what they know for free.  A better approach is to license all materials under a creative commons license and  encourage people to not only make materials accessible (via captioning or descriptive voice over), but also allow people to translate materials to their native languages.  A crowd-sourced effort, in my view, is better than expecting the instructor to do everything (which isn't even true in a traditional course setting anyway).

Learning should safe 
I may be branded a heretic here, but I'll go for it anyway.  How does one define safe? When I was a student in Instructional Design it was a constant point that we came back to - learning should happen in a safe environment.  I think I internalized it well, and I do agree with this point of view to some extent. I agree that we shouldn't have classrooms that create trauma like the Stanford Prison Experiments, or Milgram's Experiments, but should we be holding hands and singing Kumbayah?  A fellow Rhizo14 participant wrote something like "f*ck safety!"  I was taken aback a little, but I started thinking a bit.  I was brought back to High School Math, with Mr. Erhardt. On his wall he had a banner that said "Math is not a spectator sport" (either that or "learning is not a spectator sport").  Obviously the ideas is that you can't just sit back, be lectured at and expect to learn. 

The language also brings to mind arenas, with spectators.  What sort of sports happen in arenas? football, soccer, boxing, baseball, tennis, and  so on.  What happens to the athletes engaging in those sports? They do get hurt from time to time (either a lot in the case of boxing, or through repetitive stress like tennis).  The point is that those environments aren't safe if we think of safe as living in a bubble. Any time we interact with others there is a chance that miscommunication will occur and someone will get hurt in some fashion.  How we rebound is important.  I think trolling and bullying are not to be permitted, but there is a difference between intentional harm (trolls and bullies) and the regular scuffs we get as part of day to day life (or in this case learning).  Should learning be safe?  The answer is yes, but let's discuss what is meant by safe.

Seems like this blog post is getting long, so I guess I'll make this Part I.  Thoughts thus far?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

RhizoResearch - some thoughts brought on by Sunlight and Shade.

It is a bit of an odd thing to admit, but ever since I started formal school again in order to pursue a doctorate the amount of pleasure reading has gone down.  Now, this is to be expected, time resources need to be allocated differently in order to meet the rigorous demands of a doctoral program.  That said, my pleasure reading was research articles anyway, so it's kind of hard to out down your candy (research articles about MOOCs and online learning) in order to have your balanced meal consisting of research in other fields that you aren't necessarily aware of.  This is a good thing, but the amount of research on MOOCs keeps piling up in my dissertation drawer at work.  Summer project!

Anyway, I digress! I saw that France Bell and Jenny Mackness had a recent article in Open Praxis about Rhizo14.  I actually did with it what I do with all MOOC articles these days - download the PDF, archive it, print it out, add to my "to read" pile. Normally that would have been the end of that but two things happened: First, this article seemed to generate a lot of chat in the Rhizo14 community on Facebook, which is still going strong despite the course being over for close to a year now.  Second, all this EDDE 802 work is making me think even more deeply about research articles I read - as though thinking about them "deeply" was not deep enough (I guess we're going from Scuba range to submarine range...). Then of course there was a comment from France on her blog that she would not engage directly on the Rhizo14 facebook page about this work (see here) which really raised an eye-brow. So,  I picked up the article during my morning commutes and over the days I finally was able to read it (it wasn't long, just had other things on my plate).

From reading this article I have some reactions.  In the past I've been part of a MOOC community that has been studied.  I think that for FSLT12 I was surveyed by the people who offered the MOOC so that they  could produce the final report.  The same was true for OLDSMOOC if I remember correctly.  However both of those MOOCs, despite the connectedness felt at the time, didn't feel as connected as Rhizo. With the exception of Rebecca I actually did not know others all that well prior to Rhizo14. So, Rhizo was a little different, and this probably has an effect on how I interpret the research findings, but I really tried to put my EDDE 802 cap on and look at the findings strickly from a researcher point of view.

The article frames Rhizo14 as an experimental open course, and that there are "light" and "dark" sides to participating in an experimental MOOC.  The article seems to be written in a "one the one hand, on the other hand" manner.  For instance examine the following quote:
There were plenty of learning moments and evidence of joy and creativity, but we also experienced and observed some tensions, clashes and painful interactions, where participants seemed to expect different things from the course and were sometimes disappointed by the actions and behaviours of other participants  
 The way this is written looks perhaps at two dichotomies, the good and the bad side, but is this realy what happened?  Can this only be interpreted as one or the other?  Were there some tensions in Rhizo14?  Well, I can think of at least one.  But Painful Interactions?  Painful to whom? and in what way?  Is painful used in the sense of awkward, and thus in a more literary style? Or is it used in a more concrete style, as in causing harm to someone?  This being a research article, I tended to take painful to mean causing harm, and thus this seemed a bit like an exaggeration to me, given that I have seen most Rhizo discussions over the past year.

Other issues  that came up, other than the tone, are methodological.  For instance the literature review is, for me, incomplete - or at the very least not totally accurate if you are considering all of the cMOOC literature.  For instance Rhizo14 is described as:
Rhizo14 also differed from prior cMOOCs in that it was “home-grown.” Dave Cormier ran the MOOC in his own time, often convening the weekly Hangouts in the evening from his own home. Despite this, his intention was that there would be no centre to the course; he would be one of the participants
If we look at the history of MOOCs, I would say that everything prior to coursera was home-grown.  CCK was home-grown, despite its affiliation with the University of Manitoba, PLENK was home-grown, the various MobiMOOC incarnations were home-grown, and so on. I honestly didn't think that Rhizo14 differed a lot in its setup compared to other, previous, cMOOCs that I had been part of over the years.  The execution was certainly different, but the setup didn't seem different to me. I think that a review of the MOOC literature to date could have painted a broader picture, but I am willing to accept that there were space constraints in this article, and things just needed to get cut out in order to make it to print (I did get a call for papers for Open Praxis and I recall seeing a 5000 word limit which is crazy for a qualitative paper!)

Another issue that came up is the play-time that different views got.  For instance in the article teh authors write that:
The distributed nature of the spaces, the mix of public / private, and the number of survey respondents (47) combine to remind us that we must be missing some important perspectives. What does encourage us is that despite this partial view, our decision to allow for confidential and electively anonymous responses to our surveys, has enabled a light to be cast on what people are thinking, and not saying, in public and semi-public forums. This research will make a contribution to the hidden MOOC experience
By my count, as of today, there are 432 Rhizo14 participants on P2PU, and 321 in the facebook group.  It it hard to tell how many people there are actually in this MOOC, I just know the visible participants of who was actively participating in P2PU or facebook.  Assuming that the P2PU number is the canonical number, 47 respondents only represents  around 10% of the people who signed-up for the MOOC.  Furthermore the researchers do not discuss how, if any, coding was done for the interview and free-form text data in the survey, to determine  the overall themes and positive and negative feelings toward the course, the conveners, and fellow participants. Equal air-time is given to both those who have positive things to say, and negative things to say; however we do not know quantitatively how many people were in each camp (positive/negative).  Were there more in the negative/dissatisfied camp? Or more in the positive?  Or were they equally distributed across this self-selected sample?  Other things that that should have been explored more, such as people feeling isolated despite their "experience MOOCer" status went unexplored.  For instance who deems these individuals as experienced?  Experience in the cMOOC? the xMOOC? both?  And how is that measured?

I don't know if this was the intent of the authors, or if it was an unfortunately side-effect of cutting and selectively editing in order to make a word-limit, but the article has the tone of an article written with "moral panic" as the intended outcome.  The selected quotes which included profanity, and the language of experimentation and participants as lab-rats has the effect of evoking negative feelings toward this MOOC, the people that convened it, and to some extent those participants who were active in the course. 

Finally, since this post seems to be getting long, there are two areas that I think need addressing:  In an article like this, how does one tackle the issue of validity?  One of the ways, in 802, I've seen validity addressed in qualitative research is to have the people interviewed and sampled read the findings and then discuss whether or not those findings resonate with what they've experienced and what they reported or whether they do not.  I don't know if those 47 respondents got a chance to vet this interpretation of what the survey results say.  I may be one of those who took the survey (I don't remember, but chances are high that I did) but I have not seen any indication that I was asked to interpret the interpretation of the survey results. From the reactions I've seen from people in Rhizo, it seems that this paper is not indicative of their experiences, or how they observed interactions in the course, so to some extent the paper seems to lack some validity. The other odd thing, that raises a bit of a red flag for me, is France's disengagement from the Rhizo community on this matter.  It seems that if you study a community you have the ethical obligation to discuss and debate with them your findings on their turf, so to speak, and not on your own.

The other way to address validity is to have other researchers review the anonymous survey data in order to cross-validate the findings in this research.  I know that at least a couple of people have asked to see the data (one I thought was in jest, but at least one seemed serious) only to be turned down due to privacy concerns.  If the data is anonymous then there ought not be privacy concerns. This, in turn, makes things seem suspicious in some sense.  I am not sure what the ethical implications are.  If I run a survey, and conduct a set of interviews, for my dissertation (or any research project for that matter), if other researchers want to see the data in order to validate my findings, should I not oblige? (especially if those asking are on my review/exam committee!). As a researcher I should anonymize the data, and while I wouldn't provide the cypher to the data (so as to render them eponymous), I think that providing anonymized data for analysis is indeed something that falls within ethical guidelines.

At the end of the day, this article has proven to be an interesting case study for my research methods course.

Thoughts? Views? Opinions?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Experience Bij!

It's hard to believe, but this week we are commencing unit 4 (of 5) in EDDE 802 - which is all about data collection, thus leaving behind the research methodology unit.   This past week has been particularly difficult due to the amount of reading.  Now, I should say that my MA in Applied Linguistics has prepared me for a lot for the amount of reading an MA and a PhD student should be doing each week.  In Linguistics we normally had anywhere from 60 to 80 pages per week to read and be able to discuss.  What's particularly difficult about this particular week was that most cohort-mates opted to present Assignment 2 this coming week which means preparatory readings for six different research methods in advance of the presentations (comparatively we had 3 presentations two weeks ago).

On the plus side some methods (case studies, ethnography, DBR, and action research) I have read about before.  I am the only weirdo I know who read about research methods after I was done with my MA because I wanted to know more. However,  I feel like I am missing something if I don't do all the readings assigned by classmates. The intent of the assignment is to be fun and to work as a jigsaw activity, so that we can all teach one another, so in theory if I don't get to read everything it should be OK, but I can't shake this feeling of missing something!  I could certainly use a few more snowdays ;-)

One of the things I am thinking of recommending is adding additional dates for presentations and enforcing a spread over 4 days instead of having 2 and completely student choice.  I like student choice, but some decisions may lead to cognitive overload, which seems counter-productive.

I have a feeling that I will be doing some more work over the summer with  Cohen, Manion, and Morrison as my co-pilots. OK, enough blogging. Time to work on assignment 3, and read, prep for the presentation, prep for 684, and provide feedback.  Maybe even Experience Bij, LOL :p

in case you are curious about "Experience Bij" there is an explanation in the urban dictionary. If you want to see people playing the board game (while having beer), have a look at this video which gives you more context. Viewer Discretion advised (language used can be potentially deemed offensive)