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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random thoughts while working

I am marking (grading) student assignments today (and yesterday and the day before that….). This assignment is a group assignment. I divided the class of about 200 into groups of about five to six people each and they were required to organize themselves within each group to create a photo essay. They were to produce a single document containing one image at least per group member, an agreed theme that reflected the underlying themes of the course and have it submitted by a due date. Some groups managed to meet in person in the university library, but most worked together online, using Google docs, a forum set up on the course web site, email, Skype and so on.

A number of groups had great difficulty getting others to contribute. They learned what all instructors know, that some students do nothing until panic sets in at the last possible moment. I, myself, as an undergraduate pulled a  number of all nighters to get an essay finished by the deadlline, but I was working alone.

What I found surpising was something else entirely. The groups were formed randomly by dividing the alphabetic class list into groups of six in a rote fashion.  Thus a group would have six with last names beginning with ‘S’ for example. Yet this random group formation resulted in some groups producing very sophisticated images and analyses from every group member, and a nuanced thematic overview. Other groups produced work that was shall we say, lacking in nuance.

Perhaps some whiz of a statistician in psychology or sociology has a theory as to why this should occur. As for me, I wrote a blog post mentioning the phenomenon.

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Budgets and Inflexibility

A new semester has begun at my university, where I teach as a Sessional Lecturer (Adjunct to my American friends). Mind you this sort of academic labour is somewhat better than in the United States. I earn enough from my five courses a year to live, if not well, at least to pay bills for a roof over my head and food on the table. Anyway, I don’t want to go off topic as I am wont.  I am teaching two courses this Fall term, both originating from the same source, but one has been extensively redesigned and rewritten to the point it is really a different course.  It is the process of redesign, but more importantly, repair and renovation while on the go I want to look at here.

When I taught in the classroom, I had an officially vetted, one short paragraph course description that students used to decide whether to spend time in my classroom or not. This was the only restriction, along of course with normal things such as the number of weeks, regulations over examination times and so on. But the content was entirely up to me. I could wholly rewrite the content each time the course was presented if I so wished. I could rewrite a section or a sentence. In any case, lecture notes were mine, or I could put a version online for students, or not. Once I stood in front of the class and started to talk, I usually had an outline for the students to see, but the words I spoke centred on these outline points could change on the spot in response to reactions from the students, or in response to some idea that popped into my head as I was talking that helped make a point clearer.

I will give an example of what I mean. I teach the History of Religion. Most of my students then and now were not History majors, but students from all areas of the university who had an interest in religion. Sometimes this meant getting across points that were not obvious to those outside this field. I recall in one semester, explaining that religion was not only, or perhaps even primarily for believers about the institution, the church, the building, the hierarchy, whether complex or simple. That there was a yin/yang aspect of the institution and the spirituality of the people. It popped into my head to give  labels to two fundamental aspects: religio  and spiritus.  These are indeed Latin words, but not used normally to mean what I wanted to get across on this occasion. I wrote them on the board (green, chalkboard, old classroom, no white board) and said, religio I will use in this class to refer to the instituional aspect of religion. The most complex in Christianity would be the Roman Catholic church, the least an independent evangelical church with one building, a pastor, people and some kind of Board made up of elected followers. The Catholic church as  we all know has a complex interntional hierachy and hierarchies, and buildings of all shapes and sizes, mostly large, all over the world. Spiritus I told them, writing that on the board, is the spirit of belief, the sense of community, the intense personal spirituality of the people. This could be evangelicals belting out Christian Rock in a service, or monks chanting in a whitewashed room, or a giant pipe organ blasting out Christian heavy metal. Or it could be a person alone in their bedroom at night praying. I tried not to make these seem separate as they are not, but as two aspects of the same thing. These two Latin-like words popped into my head that day in class as an aid to get this point across.

When I came to prepare this same course for an online version, I transferred those words in text to the course. I also transferred  most of my lecture notes, though this time rewritten to look like a textbook. Originally I wrote my lecture notes, taking a page from Winston Churchill’s playbook, with notes on where to pause, where to speak loudly, where to speak quietly, like an actor’s script for a Play rehearsal.  This was the first thing I lost. The spontaneity  that makes a classroom lecture succeed began to leave. Over time, however, I managed to reinject spontaneity using tools such as YouTube videos posted to the course site – videos that I recorded with the use of minimal notes as I had in lecturing, then posted immediately after recording. I also used Discussion fora to interact with students, albeit by typing. But today most students are used to this sort of interaction from their various social media platforms.

The problem of design remained. In my earlier days teaching online, my university had a large and well-funded online teaching department staffed with technical experts and Distance Learning Specialists. If I wanted to change a sentence or paragraph, I had only to send a note to the Distance Learning Specialist attached to my course. Or even a whole paragraph, or to add a new link, or most often to repair a dead link. But the course as a whole had to stay as it was designed unless funds became available to do a complete redesign. This did happen every few years, especially for my first such course, which had been built before there were many online, academically rigorous sources.

But budget cut backs – never spoken of as such, but having worked in big business for 20 years prior to entering academia, I heard  the off key recessional of money right away. Now if even a link breaks mid way through a term, the smaller Distance Education department that replaced three former university teaching support units, will not correct the problem – I have to wait for the period of time before the next term the course is offered, to have the link replaced. This, of course, means that places where I have new evidence, or a new perspective and wish to rewrite a page or a paragraph must wait also.

I get around this problem by linking a Prezi where I can write what I want or by annoncing the change in the Announcements area, and by talking to the students in the YouTube videos I put on the announcements section of the course site. But, the original text remains in place until the next offering.

Being a Sessional/Adjunct means I have no access to the thinking of those in the university hierarchy to suggest changes, or find new ways to improve this situation.  I could, if given temporary access to the HTML, rewrite sections – I did so one term when by accident they gave me access. I am no expert in HTML, but I knew enough to find the URL I wanted to change, and cut and past a new link into the correct place. I could too, replace a word, or add a comma. But that was an error on their part.

Budget constraints make an already barely flexible teaching form inflexible. But that is the world in which we teach now. There is money for capital expenditures, but rarely for operating expenses. I shall continue to apply bubble gum, bandages and  to glue bits and pieces to the body of my courses each term.

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Journals

Online teaching in the academic world requires access to online journals and eBooks.

When I began teaching online in 2004, there were very few eBooks available but almost all journals I needed were accessible through the university library website.  Most journals are deep dives into a topic and rarely suitable for students early in their university path or for those taking a course as an elective. Most of my students fall into those categories. I teach History courses that are slotted at the first or second year level (freshman and sophomore) and I get mostly non-History majors signing up for these courses. In those early years I had to provide links to websites that provided general overview information rather than the deep dives found in journal articles. This was not adequate as there were very few academically sound websites at that time. Mostly I relied on my own course notes, with illustrations that were copyright free and suggestions to the few journal articles that might provide a degree of overview or which were less abstruse than some.

As eBooks became more available and as good, scholarly websites began to appear, I updated my courses to reflect these changes. One problem with updating is my university’s policy of only allowing tech specialists access to the HTML behind the scenes. I can understand why, but one glorious semester, they gave me full access by accident. When a link was broken, I went into the HTML, found the broken link and cut and pasted a functioning URL in its place. I am far from expert on HTML, but I knew enough to be able to replace a link, or change the wording of a sentence without destroying the page.

Even without this happy accident, this was not too great a problem for some time, until the cutbacks came. Just this past year  (2018) I was told that no changes could be made to correct problems after the initial start of the course. Apparently they no  longer have the staff to do this. Now errors must remain until a few weeks before the next time the course is offered and I can give them a list of corrections. In the past, if I discovered a link that had gone dead in the last week of a course, I could simply send an email to the techies and it would be repaired in a day or so. But not now.

One method I use as a work round for this deficiency is to have a Prezi link. In the Prezi I can add corrections and supplementary information without dealing with the understaffed tech department. Not entirely satisfactorally because students have a habit of never looking anywhere except for the course notes. They ignore announcements and links to supplementary material even that which is coded into the main course.

This is a problem I have to think about. But I recall similar problems when I taught in class. You could announce something until you were blue in the face; put it on the white board or chalk board; on hand outs and on the in-class web site and there were always students who claimed never to have heard the message.

Another problem is the growing number of journals, newspaper articles, videos, etc. now lodged in university libraries that are not scholarly or peer reviewed. Along with this is the obscene cost to universities of subscribing to journals which have very little cost to the subscription services. They are online and therefore incur no added print costs; scholars who write the articles are not paid, nor are the editors.

This growing expense has impelled the scholarly community to begin tentatively to search for alternatives.

Listed below are a few free sites that might one day supplant this system and in any case provide access for independent scholars, or for part time faculty who have no access in between teaching jobs.  So far I have been lucky in that I have worked every semester since 2004, but that cannot last forever. The sites listed below are only a selection to give a sense of what is available now (July 2018).

Scholarly publishing is broken. Here’s how to fix it

This article mostly discusses published research in the sciences. I do know, however, that university libraries must spend horrendous amounts to subscribe to journal services.

 

The Directory of Open Access Journals

https://doaj.org

 

Jurn

https://jurnsearch.wordpress.com

Jstor

FREE Resources: 3 articles every 2 weeks (Register and Read Program, archived journals). Also, early journals (prior to 1923 in US, 1870 elsewhere) free, no registry necessary.

I didn’t include a URL here as Jstor is normally only available through a university library.

Open Edition:

This portal lists mostly journals and books in French, but has an English language site:

https://www.openedition.org

Paperity

http://paperity.org

Philpapers  – open access philosophy papers

https://philpapers.org

 

Digital Archive in the UK now archived at the Internet Archive

https://web.archive.org/web/20120716205617/http://www.ahds.ac.uk/

 

British History Online

https://www.british-history.ac.uk

 

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Assisted learning online

This Spring I discovered an area where persons with disabilities are not well served in online teaching. I know that those with visual disabilities can overcome this using screen readers – JAWS for Windows machines and Macs come with built-in software that will read the text on a screen. But for those with a hearing disability there seems to be nothing. I am probably wrong on this, but at least in the case of my university, there is no technology to overcome the problem. The technology for the visually impaired is attached to the student’s computer, but there is nothing apparently for the hearing impaired.

In a course I teach over six weeks in July/August there are several videos with, of course, sound. One of the videos has text on the screen because the original was in Spanish and the producer put English text translating the Spanish onto the screen. The experts in our Distance Ed department told me I had to either find proper software that would put closed captioning, or I had to provide a written text of everything said in the video on my own. I don’t have the expertise or funds to purchase specialized software that will work with the university’s provider (Courselink), nor do I have the time to spend hours and hours going through videos in a painstaking fashion typing out the text of the words spoken in each video.

The result was to reduce the quality of the course by the expedient of deleting all my videos from the course.

I will work at this to see if I can find a solution, but it is too late for this coming semester.

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Broken Links

I’m not referring here to the infamous ‘missing link’. The platform used by my university for online teaching is mostly text based with some pictures and photographs (and the occasional video) inserted. The problem is copyright, an issue being fought out in public, the courts, parliament (which medievalists will know is a court) and in government established commissions. In my own writing I have set myself the task of never using anyone else’s visual work unless they are very close friends or family. Even copying from Wikimedia or Wikipedia is dangerous because one can never be certain that those sites have cleared copyright.

This causes an ongoing problem because links go dead, and more and more often, the original site re-organizes and changes the URL for the particular page referenced. In one of my courses, the URL is spelled out, but in others it lives behind the scenes. You click a word such as ‘click’ and it takes you to the page. If it is broken I don’t know the original URL so I can check to see if the address has changed or if the site is entirely gone. The department that handles this work has cut back in the past year or two and no longer will fix things, except within a narrow window prior to the next course offering. They won’t allow me access to the HTML to fix things myself. One semester I was given access accidentally and did a whole lot of ‘fixin’.  I was very careful only to replace or add in a bit of text or improve an awkward sentence, as I am not trained. With Webmonkey at my side, I was able to repair minor problems without waiting for the techies. In those days, they would do this during term, but no longer. And Webmonkey itself is gone – the URL takes you to Wired Magazine now.

So, what to do? What indeed?  I am thinking I will create a special Prezi for broken and repaired links and post that in the announcements area of the course site, so students can find the good URL. Then I can use that list to send to the techies before the next time the course is offered. I already use Prezi to circumvent them for other items I wanted added immediately, but which were so large that the financial folks at the university would want me to jump through hoops of blazing cash to pay for the changes. I pay about $80 Canadian a year for an educational license for Prezi. I decided NUTS to the university  bureaucrats and went around them.

My next problem is how to make the site ready for a deaf student. So far I’ve had no blind students, though there is text to speech software that most have for Windows machines and Macs have it built in. But how about sound to text software?  That is for the next blog post.

Maybe one day AI will solve all this, but probably long after I am gone.

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Work

This is cross-posted from my blog-to-be-book An Historian Looks at the West

 

While marking a discussion post on my History of Religion course, my mind went off on a tangent. I started to think about work (obviously not my current work).  A student was discussing the busy lives of modern individuals and how this is one factor in the decline in church attendance. This is where my mind took off in an alternate direction. The Industrial Revolution (so-called), introduced a new mental time sense to western humanity. The rhythms of an agricultural economy are very different to those of an industrial economy. I don’t even mean here rural vs. urban, because in agricultural economies cities, towns and villages are service centres for agriculture. Now agricultue is a service centre for urban civilizaton.

If you work in agriculture, or are an owner who employs others, your time is dictated by seasons, daylight, weather and technology. I watched a video the other day where someone had recreated a bit of harvest technology pulled by a very large team of horses and which had about a half dozen men working on the harvester. I have today an acquaintance who does a similar job but using a modern combine harvester. This bit of machinery places him in an air-conditioned or heated cab, unlike the half dozen men who were out in the elements. The older technology required someone to guide the horses back and forth across the fields in as accurate a manner as the eye could tell. The modern combine harvester has GPS and uses a satellite to guide the operator. But what has not changed are the long hours, the working in daylight, doing jobs dictated by the season and the weather. This requires a very different mentality and mindset than an industrial economy. Industrial workers and those who are ancillary to industry (accountants, lawyers, clerks, managers) are controlled by a very specific division of time. You start and finish by the clock and you are often doing the same tasks according to a precise ordering of clock time. Weather, seasons, daylight or darkness do not affect your specific task except where they down time is integrated artificially.

Another student was discussing Egerton Ryerson who can be credited with much of the way education is ordered in my part of the world, Ontario Canada. He created tax supported schools that had the prinicple task of preparing students for this world of controlled time, and well as inculcating a necessary degree of literacy and numeracy. You arrived at school at a specific clock time, bells rang (or were hand rung) to indicate start and stop times; you sat in rows under the control of a teacher –– you learned different tasks and skills at different years and at different times of the day. Your mind was trained to the new industrial economy and trained away from the agricultural sense of time.

This is beginning to alter somewhat as education is sometimes now online. Students (and teachers) can be a bit more flexible within broader parameters. But there are still parameters much narrower than in agriculture:  due dates, due times, beginnings and ends. Seasons matter even less, weather matters not at all, day and night are irrelevant but for the human need for sleep at some point.

Well, this will certainly be an entire chapter, or will infuse the whole book when I get to the point of integrating my so far random thoughts. Or should I say, that writing online and producing an ebook is harkening back in some respects to an agricultural, pre-industrial sense of time?

 

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