The Ivy League Online

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/harvard-mooc-online-education

This article began with a look at the change in culture in the U.S. Here in Canada, I have experienced some of that over my lifetime thus far. I worked for 20 years as a clerk in the head office of a large manufacturing corporation. When I began, the company had 11,000 employees in Canada and about 750 million a year in sales. I recall clearly as a 20 year-old looking at my first pension statement with a retirement year of 2016. So distant! So far into the unimaginable future! The department where I worked had about 20 staff back in the early 1970s. When I jumped ship in 1992, the head office staff had shrunk from 600 to about 80 and my department from 20 to 4 workers. Three, after I left. My lifeboat was a BA I had earned at night school while at this company. I earned this sitting in classrooms from 6:15 to 9:15 pm taking notes in pen on paper as professors, most of whom were good teachers, taught me how to think critically. I didn’t expect ever to need this degree; it was a labour of love. When I saw that the company would sink soon, I managed a bronze handshake and jumped into my BA lifeboat. I rowed it through graduate school, finally achieving a doctorate in History at a mid-level university. There I found myself standing on the deck, or sleeping third class. I tried numerous times to find a permanent berth on nearby ships, but found no place. So now, I live as an unwanted, but somewhat needed deck swabber in the same ship I earned my graduate degree. I now see the same signs I saw in the early 1990s at my former ship. Huge waves swamp the decks where I live and work. So far I have held onto the rail and managed to avoid being swept overboard.

The linked article is about the turn to online learning at even the top American schools, due to the pandemic, but also due to the gradual unaffordability of a college degree in the United States. The situation there is more dire than Canada at the moment. Colleges and universities there have only taken on temporary deck hands for years and offer them fewer places to hang onto rails as each wave washes over. The pandemic is a mighty storm that has swamped many and threatens many more. I began teaching online in 2004, alongside some classroom, face-to-face courses. For the past few years, however, I have taught only online. These are my deck railings that have kept me on board for years now. The big universities in the States are frantically installing more railings as waves wash students – the passengers who pay for these great ships – over board too.

I surveyed MOOCS just as the author of the article has and could not believe the poor quality of education on offer. I recall watching one such course that consisted of a video camera with poor sound pointing at an instructor in a lecture hall, who droned on and on, while referring to notes on a white board that the camera could not show. Not only the poor technical use and poor design of the MOOC, the instructor did drone and would have provided a poor experience for the students actually present. The MOOC surveyed above in 2020 and supplied by Harvard is of better quality in technical terms, but the content is worse than that offered by the droning instructor. But, a student can say they sailed on the good ship Harvard for a while, without financially crippling their future.

What I set out to write here was two-fold. One, the realization that the ships upon which middle class and poor people sail are ancient and leaking, barely staying afloat in the massive storms raging since the oil crisis of the mid 1970s. Meanwhile, the class of sailor and passengers who are in the elites, sail smoothly in their large, well appointed ships, scarcely noticing the storms that have wrecked lives or made life extremely tenuous for the rest of us. The second point I wanted to make was to point out the disastrously poor quality of much of online education. MOOCS were a good idea that, if Harvard as described in the link above is correct, have scarcely improved since their introduction eight years ago. Even worse, the ships with fewer resources and lesser names than Harvard, employ ZOOM to teach which make Harvard’s MOOCs look good indeed.

I will have to say, that the form employed by the ship where I grip the railing so desperately, is good, or can be good. That depends on the instructor more than the course designers. Will the instructor interact with the class frequently? Or will the poor deck swabber, swab mechanically and ignore the paying passengers except when they board and when they debark or when they get in the way of the sweeping motion of the mop? I don’t know. Up to the point of this new storm, the pandemic, I suspect that the permanent crew pretty much ignored us deck swabbers and did not care at all for the promise and the problems of online courses. Now they must.

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The Plague & Online Teaching/Learning

The massive international shutdown of much of ordinary life occasioned by the arrival of the latest plague Covid-19 to, well, plague humanity changed much, at least temporarily. One effect is an increase in online teaching at all levels of the educational system.  My university is heavily invested already in this respect, with a large department devoted to designing such courses and assisting professors with effective techniques.

Some reports in the media have focussed on the inadequacies of online education. When I say ‘media’ I mean the whole modern range. When I say ‘inadequacies’ I mean they do not define online teaching clearly or exactly, other than computers are used. One report I read was in the old media New York Post, another was a Facebook post by a senior professor in my university – both highly critical.

Here is the April 7 New York Post article: https://nypost.com/2020/04/07/what-you-miss-when-teaching-online/ . Most readers, I suspect, would have agreed with his critique. What I saw was an article listing everything that his institution has done wrong in establishing such a course. This instructor’s school is using a platform called Webex. This tool was designed initially for business distance conferencing, but has expanded to include an educational component. As a conferencing tool it seems quite good and possibly a rival to the currently popular Zoom. As described in the Post article, an instructor lectures as though in a lecture hall but to students who sit at home in front of their computers. This is exactly the wrong way to teach online. In the Webex website, they mention that their system can be used as a component of an LMS (Learning Managment system). This is useful advice which seems to have been ignored by this professor’s institution. I am not saying that a live interaction online between an individual instructor and a class scattered about in their homes is not useful, but should be utilized as an adjunct to, or a single aspect of, an overall system.

The Facebook post assumed a similar situation as far as I could tell, but from the point of view of students as unwilling online learners. The post is based on a shared article in the Guardian, the English Left-wing newspaper. This article focussed on those who cannot afford computers, or who have special needs. Given the time most young and for that matter, older adults and children spend on computers, I find this an odd critique. Perhaps the situation in the United Kingdom is very different than in Canada, where all students at university have smart phones, tablet computers, laptops and sometimes all three. Every face-to-face class here has a course website also. Statistics about students being unhappy with online learning are mentioned, but no comparison made to the degree to which students also dislike sitting in a lecture hall, or whether the UK is technologically behind Canada in personal terms and university terms.

Here I will state my mantra about online learning: Do not put new wine into old wineskins. (Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37 -though Luke does go on to say that the old is better, so I had better stop with the Biblical referencing!). Despite Luke, the point I am making here is that online teaching cannot be made to fit old style face-to-face pedagogy in the classroom or the university lecture hall. Online teaching and learning is ‘new wine’ and requires ‘new wineskins’ to be effective. The lecturer in the law school in the New York Post story was attempting to teach as though he were in a lecture hall. This does not work well as he noted. But it does not mean that online learning cannot work. The students referenced in the Facebook post who were unhappy are probably suffering from the same problem.

There is a very large literature on the theory and practice of online learning. I am not writing here from that perspective and can only comment from personal experience as an instructor of 16 years in the cyber trenches. The first rule is to require of yourself a high degree of interaction with students individually. I devise discussions focussed on questions I ask to be the main portal to interactivity. I post a question that asks students to evaluate historical issues or events or physical artifacts in context. The students are organized into groups of 15-20. They have a week to post a response and to respond to others in their group. During that week, I interject, praising, correcting, and mostly guiding individual posts by students. To this I add summary videos posted to the main course site. In these I will give an overview of the week’s work to come, or post overall comments on other assignments of a more static nature such as essays. Essays, although a feature of old wineskin learning are a necessity to teach contextual critical thinking. The videos are actually part of my plan to damage if not destroy the feeling that many students get that they are floating alone in cyberspace. I have had comments from students over the years that they are surprised that the prof is actually reading and interacting with their work online. This makes me think back to an overheard meeting of Teaching Assistants with another instructor. As part time faculty, I have to share a room of several desks with other part time instructors. He was meeting with the graduate students assigned to his course as teaching assistants. I overheard him telling them to set up an hour a week as an office hour and that they were to communicate with students only in that one hour each week. [Buzzer here] WRONG!

Do not put new wine into old wineskins!

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Open Educational Resources

I will write this post after listening to this podcast and researching David Porter:

 

Michael Geist Podcast Episode 45

At long last I have time to comment on this – essays and exams marked, final grades off to the Registrar, so here I go!

I will begin in an unusual way by posting the notes I made while listening to the podcast a second time.

OER Geist podcast 45

  • BC began it with open textbooks by 2012
    • there a creator is paid by the government to create a CC OER but does not receive royalties
  • Ont has an open library that includes already created resources & new resources created  but no payment for creators
    • eCampus Ontario is the vehicle for this
      • functions to aid institutions in developing CC OERs
    • some created by nursing students for that specific area as an example – new resources that practitioners and teachers have identified gaps
  • CC licensing is the back bone
    • these files can be altered and adapted by instructors to suit the course or subject 
    • open copyright
    • if a traditionally copyrighted item is needed, then the resource is the school library – fair dealing is the avenue here but it is difficult to negotiate
      • David Porter’s advice is to avoid traditional copyrighted material and go only to open access CC material where it exists and to create new CC material where needed
      • currently available OERs
        • BC campus
        • SUNY Open
        • eCampus Ontario
        • Open Stacks

 

The shut down of all in-class educational activity was the spur for this conversation on ‘Open Educational Resources’ (OER). I assume they say ‘resources’ rather than books, or publications as these resources include material created online without ever having a physical presence. I assume these could also include physically published material put into digital form. David Porter has been involved in this area of education far longer than I have, since the 1990s,  but from the theoretical, design and implementation end of online teaching, where as I have served in the trenches since 2004 as a teacher. My blog is focussed on teaching online from the perspective of the teacher (or as we say now, ‘educator’). I read theory and listen to podcasts such as this, but only to get tips  for teaching. I have students who  made me aware of the British Columbia online textbook program, and I had heard mention of eCampus Ontario, but was not aware of the other two mentioned.

Back in 2003 when I worked with University of Guelph Instructional Designers to create World Religions in Historical Perspective as an online Distance Ed course, I was determined that it should be entirely online. This presented some difficulties back then. Only academic journals were all online through the university library, where I might add they have to pay huge sums of money to allow students and teachers to have access to these. There were very few monographs in digital form and most websites dealing with academic subjects were very poor in quality. But, as time has gone by, I have found more and more good academic resources online. For example, I used a project created by the University of Cork in Ireland dealing with Irish history. This website contained archival images and university level essays on each aspect of Irish history. The site vanished a couple of years ago. But, I found it archived using the Wayback machine on the Internet Archive and was able to restore the links. My suggested reading list for all three of the courses I teach online grows longer each semester as more and more full academic books are available in good quality digital form.

I say ‘good quality’ because at one point about ten years ago I had an idea to do an academic monograph on religion and society in the Atlantic world. I had a conversation with the Acquisitions Editor at the University of British Columbia press. He requested a detailed outline and I provided that and his interest continued. But, when I asked him if it could by done as an eBook, his answer was, no, they had a few out of print books that they converted to pdfs and put them online but not for new books. I ended the conversation myself as a result. Most academic publication is done by tenure track or by those hoping to get onto the tenure track as ‘publish or perish’ is true in the university world. I had, at this point, already given up on that and was focussed on constructing a career as a contract professor so did not and do not need to publish.

I wanted (and still want) to do this book because it interests me. My vision of the book was an eBook that includes links and images, but especially internal links. For example, in one part that I have already done the rough writing for, I mention preaching techniques used by St. Francis of Assisi. I wanted a link to a mention there of his canticle of the sun that would take the reader to a page where an Italian friend would  read it in the original with text in both English and the original Umbrian dialect accompanying this. Even though my friend who lives in Milano does not of course speak that ancient dialect, it would sound more authentic with a native Italian speaker doing the audio than myself. My goal since 2003 (and 2004 when the course went live) was to break the linear mold to a degree. This is part of my philosophy that one cannot put new wine into old wineskins – that is, teaching online should not attempt to be an pale image of classroom teaching, but something new and different.

I am glad then to have encountered this podcast and will to investigate the sources mentioned above to see what is available that is equivalent in academic rigour to journals and monographs by historians and other academics.

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scrambling

Well, here we are in the midst (or the beginning) of the Covid-19 virus panic, or as historians may well call it one day, the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020. More seriously, the economy has taken a nose dive, with those least able to ride out this storm taking the greatest hits. As for me, I am still teaching online so nothing has changed other than the quarterly worry over contract renewal, though I am employed until the end of August.

Ok, now the title of this piece. Because of the panic, the university decided that all courses and exams had to be taught online for the remainder of the term. This meant that the term was extended a week so last week could be set aside for the profs to scramble to convert the remainder of their teaching to the online format. This university has a long history of online teaching and before that correspondence courses. This means they have a whole department of specialists to effect this transition. I offered to help any of the full timers cast into this outer darkness find some light, but was answered politely. In Canadian this translates as ‘no’, or maybe ‘no, thank you’.

I am wondering if this is the beginning of a new normal. The University of Guelph and its progeny the University of Guelph/Humber are three semester schools but the summer is entirely online usually anyway. But will the number of online courses increase now? Or will the pre-Covid normality return at some point. The best guess now is about 3-5 months.  If the problem continues after that point, then online will become more common and perhaps one day, the primary was of teaching.

Anyway, I am glad I teach online!

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Literacy

I have just finished grading essays in both classes I am teaching this term. The final examination papers are next. In the breather I have given myself between the two tasks, something occurred to me about the current generation of students. The best essays are visual rather than traditional text essays.

Let me explain.

In my last year of elementary school (my semi-rural school system did not have Middle Schools), in High School and in my undergraduate degree program essays followed a familiar format. You had a point you were trying to make, a thesis which you introduced in an opening paragraph. You followed this with as many paragraphs of evidence as you needed to make your point. You finished with a concluding paragraph where you summarized your evidence and thesis. In History classes, evidence consisted of issues, events, and so on in the past and you used footnotes to give credit to the words and/or ideas of others and you had a bibliography attached to the paper. The footnotes and bibliography followed a strict format, which in those long ago days was called Humanities Style, then later Traditional Humanities Style and now is called Chicago style (or in some cases, Turabian or Oxford).

I am an historian and I wrote my first history essay using this format in Grade 12. This was in Ontario, Canada which then had a Grade 13 for students who wished to go on to university. In Grade 13 I wrote two more of these essays. Thus, when I arrived in university to take history courses, or sociology, or anthropology, this same format was used in each and already familiar to me. Part of elementary and secondary preparation for university was reading:  quite a bit of reading of plays, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. My mind and that of others was trained to think in this orderly fashion. Evidence and logical argument ruled the day.

Anything visual was frowned upon unless you took an art class and they were rare beyond the very earliest grades of elementary school, for my generation. I was in school from 1957 to 1969. Even imaginative text based work such as poetry was taught in a cold and scientific manner where you deconstructed the parts and identified metre and its uses. Iambic pentameter ruled!  That is the only metre I can recall from those days.

In recent years, I have allowed students to submit visual essays. Not without text, of course, but analyses of art and architecture in relation to religion and society, formed around images. They can use Powerpoint or Keynote, or Prezi. Not too many did, but in the last year or so, more and more are availing themselves of this choice. Many wish to submit purely text essays using presentation software, but I do not allow that.

But what I am finding is that the visual essays are superior on average to the traditional essay. Students are giving quite sophisticated interpretations of the role of art or architecture in history as regards religion and society.

On the other hand, the traditional essays submitted are declining in quality. I teach at two very different, albeit connected schools. One is Toronto-based and has a student body that mostly consists of first or second generation English speakers. The other is a small town, rural based school with a student body mostly drawn from families who have been in Canada for generations. I find no significant difference in the visual vs. text based essays.

This, in a very unscientific manner, leads me to suspect we are in an age where images trump words. Or, words must trot along after images, leaving visual elements in the lead.

So far, the majority submit text based essays and a minority image based. But this blog post was prompted by my dual realization that the proportion of image based essays is growing and that the quality gap between the two is widening.

I wonder too, if a course run along similar lines but in a classroom format would find any different results?  Online teaching is much more agnostic about the use of presentation software where there is no actual presentation in front of a group. I get puzzled emails from the people at Prezi who had not considered its use in this fashion. I think I might have to develop a section at the beginning of each course where I specifically talk about the use of presentation software in the online setting and where it is appropriate, or even better than the standard essay. As of now, I have a blurb in the course notes where I discuss word counts, double-spacing, thesis statements, etc. as well as a mini essay on writing essays. For my next online class beginning in January, I will need to do a Prezi on presentation software!  The design bureaucracy does not allow me to change the course notes on the fly – they require two good months of preparation time.

So, I will do a Prezi and link it to the section of the course site where I speak to the class in general.

 

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Videos

A new term and two classes online. For the past few years, I have posted YouTube videos where I provide additional explanations of course content. This has been in response to evident misunderstandings of text or images on the course site. One of the problems of the system used at my university is an instructor cannot alter a site, even to correct minor errors. Equally I cannot rewrite sentences or paragraphs that have produced confusion rather than elucidation. Corrections of any sort must be collected, then sent to the Distance Ed team between semesters.

In order to get around this problem I managed to convince the Distance Ed department to link a Prezi to my site, where I could offer additional material. I began also to record 5-10 minute videos, which I could post in the Announcements area. I record initially using my Mac’s Photo Booth app, then upload the result to YouTube. I post this YouTube link on the course site. I would rather have been able to post these videos in the same area of the course that produced the confusion, but this has worked well.

But, each term I had hoped to post an overview video, explaining the theme running through a unit and week at the beginning of that week. (The university uses a Monday-Sunday week instead of the standard Sunday-Saturday calendar week.)

This term I have begun that… and so far so good, except that on the Monday of the first week my electricity was out most of the day, forcing me to post on the Tuesday.

It took me about an hour to research and produce an outline for my comments (I don’t like to read a text) and about 10 minutes to record and another 10 to do the tech stuff to get it onto the course site. These comments are, as I said, intended to give students a thematic sense to the welter of socio-cultural data presented each week.

I will also continue to add shorter videos explaining areas I have identified common misunderstandings.

In the past, I have always received positive comments for posting videos. The increased number may be a good idea and may not; I shall see!

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A murmur of voices

A murmur of voices from stylish young men in silly hats kept intruding on his thoughts. Not that his thoughts mattered much except to keep his synapses oiled and sparking on this day. Bad music played too, barely heard beyond the human noise. Good Friday. Once, long ago he had looked up why it was called that but he had forgotten and it was lost somewhere in the jumble of broken boxes and spilled things and cobwebs. He watched a couple leaving with food from a Chinese restaurant, rebels ignoring the fish & chip place two doors down. He decided to rebel too and put two typist spaces after each sentence despite the article saying woe processors no longer required that, but he felt daring anyway. He only remembered this because part of that article was visible under a torn paper with a poem just peeking out of the half opened box on the floor. Peaking maybe. He noticed the typo now woe processor but decided to leave it as writing was his woe processor.

He began to feel silly and satisfied now at his cleverness and wondered how to stop that bit of nonsense. He frowned, annoyed at his conceit. Suddenly the murmuring hats didn’t seem so silly.

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the book?

Initially this blog was to be just that, a blog. After attending (virtually) a session in a past Alliance of Independent Authors’ online conference that said those challenged for time could use a blog as a first draft for a book, I turned this blog into just that.

I am nearing that point now. I scrolled through the blog posts and discovered that  first is dated March 29, 2012, almost seven years ago to the day.  For some odd reason, the blog counter off to the side puts this March 2012 blog post into 2011. Well, cyber space is an odd place. Nonetheless, now is the time to start turning this long running blog into a book. The session I attended suggested one year of weekly blog posts would be enough. I haven’t posted weekly here, but seven years is more than enough to produce a decent book.

I will continue to post here as ideas and observations occur to me, but it is time!

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teaching History to the pragmatic

I was taking an afternoon nap when my brain finally kicked into gear. I say finally because I have felt rather dull lately – probably too many cookies and candies and the long term impact of Christmas lingering and raising my blood sugars.  Which is probably why I wrote this off topic first paragraph!

Today, one of my more contentious students asked me why he needs to have a thesis driven essay. ‘Why’ he asked, couldn’t he just write an essay telling me what happened. His chosen topic is the Social Gospel in Canada. This university has no History department and no Humanities faculty other than in training for art, writing, journalism and so on:  but no History, no Philosophy, no English literature, etc. Most of my students are in training for business, work in Day Cares, elementary school teaching, media studies or  hoping to be police officers in a program called Justice Studies. They are focussed on a pragmatic career path. We historians are part of an amorphous group labelled ‘Electives’.

Here is my answer, slightly edited:

What impact did the social gospel have? Was the impact lasting? If so why? If not, why not? What cultural forces caused it to come into being? Why were only certain churches proponents of the social gospel? Why did social gospellers in Canada go into politics and form a political party? These are all possible questions you could ask ( theses) and use evidence to answer. It isn’t enough to just give a list of events and describe the social gospel – ask questions about it.

This exchange (one of several with this student via email) sharpened my thinking about how to get ideas across to students online. What do I say to make assignments clearer? What, especially do I say to make the usefulness of the study of history apparent? Students in High School in Ontario, Canada rarely study history anymore. When I was a High School student back in the 1960s, History was a required course in Grades 9, 11 and 12. We also studied history in elementary grades 7 and 8. We had Grade 13 in those days, which was a university prep year, equivalent to the now abandoned Sixth Form in English Grammar schools.

In a face to face classroom, questions such as these arise naturally in the course of talking to students, teaching, that is, and in breaks and immediately after class. Online, they occur mostly through email. The course design used by my university has an ‘Ask the Instructor’ forum but most students avoid this in favour of sending an email question directly to me.

This reinforces the necessity of answering emails promptly, in the same day certainly and even more often if possible.

One problem that can arise, grows out of the lack of body language when communicating with a student. Last semester in my student evaluations one student claimed I was extremely rude to her. I don’t recall being rude to anyone (though I have thought rude things, but keep those to myself). This reinforces the need to be clear and friendly in your language used with students, no matter what. This is a technique that should be used in social media, but is quite rare there, where bad manners and open insults are the order of the day.

Teaching online is not social media; it is not a place to provoke battles. It is a place to work against the culture war raging today in the English-speaking world.

The study of History online is a good place to start this amelioration of anger.

Finally, I hope that training these pragmatic students to ask the question, why, and to look for balanced evidence in answer to this question, is a pragmatic reason to study History.

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After the Storm

Another term has vanished. Though there is the possibility that complaints will arrive and re-grading and deep sighs as debate over a just grade ensues. I find this more common than it ever was when I taught in class. Students would write their exams in paper booklets in an examination room or hall – usually in a gym, (which seems somehow appropriate – but that might make another post, another day). They would hand them in early, or just as the invigilator/proctor called TIME… or keep scribbling frantically until I or someone paid to do this stood over them, waiting, foot tapping to take the examination paper.

That would be that. The papers collected, graded, final grades calculated and entered into the gradebook.

But today, a certain percentage of students in online courses send emails insisting they could not have done so badly on the final examination as they knew they wrote incisive analysis, or at least did better than the grade they received. Please would I, could I, read it over again and change their grade to the proper A that they know they earned. Universities being what they are today allow a formal appeal and a committee of mysterious assemblage then takes the work and does some sleight of hand to mollify the consumer (aka student).  I don’t know if this is common for ‘in class’ courses now. Maybe the problem is general. I only know I would hate to be an employer or a colleague of someone who constantly complained that their less than satisfactory work was somehow someone else’s doing. I worked in the head office of a major corporation for twenty years and cannot quite wrap my head around, or imagine even, someone like that lasting more than a week in employment. But, perhaps as we graduate more and more, this will become a problem for the business world too.

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