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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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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Disembodied Voices

One of the difficulties inherent in online teaching is the lack of personal immediacy. I have taught in large classes and small and run discussion groups ranging from 12 to 25 students. Even in the largest lecture halls there is a connection. You can look in students’ eyes; they can look at you. You might see boredom, or interest. In one class, I noticed some guys whispering and looking at their laptop. I wandered over and they were checking the Liverpool FC site for recent scores. So, I pulled up a chair and sat with them for a minute or two, checking along with them. After that, at the start of each class I would ask how the Club was doing. From that time, they became engaged members of the class (after having checked the Liverpool site, of course… first things, must come first, you know).

How to manage this when you only get emails or text messages, or rare skype messages from students you never see. I have for some time now posted YouTube videos of myself commenting or explaining orally parts of the material so they have some idea of my physical presence. I do joke a little –– the occasional wry comment, for example in both video and text–– to let them see the ‘me’ that is in full display in face to face teaching.

My current class had a live session with a librarian that lasted about 45 minutes. Of a class of 89, only four signed in and two of those left after 15 minutes. Maybe to check Liverpool FC scores?

I don’t blame the students.  I intend my online teaching to have only due dates for completion of assignments, not teaching moments where they must be there live and in person, like a webinar. But I do need to contemplate some means of sketching out a body to the disembodied which also produces a reaction from students so I too see an embodied class.

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Epilogue 1 (Epilog 1 for American friends)

I have begun the process of downloading the blog posts here prepatory for the book to come. This will take some time as I have only early thoughts on the purpose and theme of this book. There are many, many scholarly studies of online teaching. There are many techniques I have not  used. Some of these are not considered because they suit different disciplines than mine, History. Some I have not used because I am a contract instructor and do not have full access to funding. Many of these require live online attendance and I do not like sessions in an online course that require students to login at a specific date and time. The other day, the library held a live seminar for my current course, teaching non-Humanities students how to distinguish scholarly from non-scholarly sources and how to find sources online in the library system. There are 95 students in the class, but only 4 logged in live for the session – and two of them did not stay for the whole 45 minutes. I posted a pdf of the slides and a link to the recording, but do not know how many availed themselves of this tool.

This brings me to the underlying point here. The questions asked by some students indicate they do not always (often?) read instructions or read the announcements, both text and video I post giving them more perspective on issues and assignments.

This is true of face to face instruction as well though. You can make a point clearly and with some repetition in class, and someone will come up to you a day or week or even after that very class and ask you a question that shows they slept through your talk.

I hope mostly that students will remember the importance of evidence when thinking.

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Good news (for me)

I am posting this on each of my blogs – this blog is ready to jump to a new life as an eBook, so this news is immediately useful as I write using iBooks Author:


Apple Books

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Blogging a book

I began this blog as a product of a Fellowship I held for one semester at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.  The Fellowship was something of a disappointment to me as my intentions did not work out as planned. I had hoped originally to be allowed access to emails of students and instructors who had taken or taught online at the university. I was then going to develop a questionaire to survey their varied experiences and from that draw usable conclusions. Alas, I was stonewalled on access and at the last minute had to change my approach radically. I decided to present a paper/talk on how to teach online, drawn of necessity primarily from my own experience. I did a lot of reading in the social scientific literature and attended one conference run by an organization that claimed to be in the forefront of best practices for online instruction. I duly finished and gave the talk, but was not happy. The Prezi I used is linked to the website this blog appears on, so anyone can judge. My own thoughts are that my results were pretty thin.

But, one aspect was to continue this blog and the website also and that I do judge better. I am an indie author in another life and at one of the very useful Indie author conferences I attend three times (thrice!) a year I learned about blogging books. Most writers can organize their time sufficiently well enough to have a block of time each day to write. My home situation does not allow this. My writing is done in snatched moments. I can find 5-30 minutes at a stretch to write a blog post and give it a quick edit.

As I say, one session at one of these conferences was about blogging a book. That is, each blog post, whether that be daily, or twice a week or once a week is a building block of a future book. I thought this is perfect for my situation and I decided to produce a book out of this blog. The person presenting this idea suggested that one could produce 50,000 words, a short book, over the course of a  year blogging. This is not to say that this is the finished product – but it would be the first rough draft.

I have 75 blog posts going back to July 31, 2011. I haven’t done a word count but I suspect this is more than enough for a book. It is time I think to transfer these words to my word processor, or better yet to Apple’s iBooks Author program. There I can easily produce a multimedia eBook – after all a book on online instruction should be multimedia. Only this free program from Apple allows a writer to produce a multimedia work without having to hire a development team. The few multimedia books produced that way cost many thousands of dollars to produce. This will be of the same quality but the only cost will be in my time which is mine to spend.

This won’t be the last blog post – I will continue to write here as ideas occur and information flows to me. But the blogs up to this point are now transmogrifying to first draft status as a book.

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