Jordan Peterson

An Online University

I have been following the ruckus around Prof. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto in a desultory fashion for some time now. He caught my attention with his protest against being forced to use certain words. I am old enough to recall the furor over the introduction of the term ‘Ms.’ – I remained neutral then and remain neutral now on its use because its use neither irritates nor arouses me to any great passion. I can adopt this attitude as the word  was not forced. You could use it or not use it. But the power of the state is beginning to encroach on language from many directions now, one being the use of human rights legislation to force people to use invented pronouns for those who self-identify as transgender. I say, by all means describe yourself in any way you wish, and ask, yell at, argue with, plead with others to use your invented words. People can then respond in kind. But do not add this to a growing list of human rights. I have listened to arguments in favour and remain entirely unconvinced. But, this is getting off topic. My eyes alighted on the video linked above as a result of a this original controversy, but I watched it because the idea of a new sort of university intrigued me.

Now, Jordan Peterson seems unaware of Coursera or Moocs, or even Canada’s Athabaska University, or for that matter the extensive array of online courses offered by the school where I teach as a contract lecturer, the University of Guelph – which uses a commercial software package called Courselink.

All of these, however, suffer from a defect, or to employ the use of an older version of a word, a ‘want’, that is a ‘lack’, best expressed in one of my favourite Biblical sayings: you cannot put new wine into old wineskins. All these technologies for online teaching strive to put this new form of learning, online learning, into the old wineskins that defined teaching in front of a classroom filled with students. The worst of these I have seen are standard classroom lectures filmed and put up online – complete with references to text books to purchase at university bookstores, and chalk on chalk boards hardly visible for the online viewer. The best I have seen incorporate white boards where you can see the words or diagrams being produced and the prof’s head in a box in a corner talking, or even live video podcasts. I do not like live as that defeats one of the aspects of the new wine:  students can access this at a time convenient for them, not at a pre-set time (this is an old wineskin).

So, Jordan Peterson in this interview was somewhat vague on the format and the technical aspects but I hope it entails a complete rethinking and movement away from the old wineskin of an instructor standing in front of rows of chairs filled with students. In any case in the modern classroom, many of these students are busy texting, or surfing the net, unlike past students who dozed and dreamed and even slept.

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Open Textbooks

The law professor Michael Geist ( a specialist in Internet and eCommerce law at the U of Ottawa) reported on the Creative Commons conference in his recent blog post:

He concentrated on Ontario’s move to provide open and free textbooks. For those who don’t know, textbooks  are extremely expensive to produce, though profitable for publishers. A study was done in 2009, that also looked at digital books, but remember the iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle were launched in 2007 and textbooks were not yet in consideration. University textbooks in Canada can cost $100 or more each. Publishers claim that the low numbers sold of individual text books justify the high prices.  Maybe. A number of years ago, I submitted a textbook idea to an acquisitions editor of a university press. They were interested, but when I asked if they produced eBooks, the editor said, no but some older editions were produced as pdfs. “Hmmmm” I thought, musing that universities are supposed to be on the leading edge. It is one reason my online courses do not require textbooks. The course notes and links together form the course textbook.

Education should be entirely tax supported. It is one thing for families and even teachers to supply paper or notebooks (though these were covered by taxes in my school days). K-12 schools still supply texbooks, though hearsay reports note they are in terrible condition. This is not acceptable at university, and it is even less acceptable that  textbooks should be both required and at a stratospheric cost.

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Term ends/Term begins

When I taught face to face in a classroom, I had lectures prepared and lecture notes and then points listing the key words for each section of the lecture… then an overhead with a list of the main points to be covered in that class, for the class to see as I babbled on. Later of course, this took the form of a projection of my laptop or iPad screen onto the large white screens used for videos.

But there was  opportunity to alter what I was intending to say on the fly. If a student asked a question (sometimes a rarity; sometimes common, depending on the group), that opened a new avenue, I would pursue that road. Then at some point, I would come back to my lecture outline. This is the most important advantage of a classroom lecture over an online course presented with pre-written notes.  You can stray from the published outline and wander into equally useful fields, then find a track back to the main points to be covered, connecting them all, often in a way that is more pedagogically useful than the original plan. This is difficult to achieve in online instruction. There you have what used to be called lecture notes, but which I now call your online textbook, but set in stone. A student might text me, or send an email, or a Skype message that lights a different and better path to the same goal than those set in stone by me. But it is less common than in the physical classroom.

To some extent, this shortcoming can be overcome in discussion forums. They don’t have to be chatrooms done live: I avoid those as they violate one of the principle strengths of online instruction: students are free within wide boundaries to work on their own schedule without having to worry about being present at a particular time, free from interruption. As an online instructor I appreciate this too, as I cannot always myself be present for a set apart time of day or a particular day, and even when I can, there are outside interruptions. These might be the doorbell, the phone, someone in the house calling you, the cat jumping on the keyboard, the dog barking…. etc. I favour, therefore, set discussions where I post a question and the students have several days to post answers and comments and agreement or rebuttals. It is vital for the instructor to join each of these conversations, otherwise students may go way off course or present complete misunderstandings. No instructor would ask a seminar group in a room a question, then leave for the hour to let them hash it out on their own, nor should this happen online. Mind you, I still have doubts as most seem to post in the last half hour of the week I set aside.

Another possibility to allow for flexibility I suggested earlier: the use of quick, on the fly video comments by me, either to introduce the themes running through each section of the online text, or when an idea occurs to me. What I haven’t done in the past, but will try in the upcoming term, is to pose these comments in such a way that I hope they inspire comments. Which brings me to another possibility. While I don’t like chat rooms, perhaps I could have a chat room specifically for student comments and questions, that I could respond to as though we were in the same place.  Hmmmmm.

Now another term has ended, and I am preparing for the start of the next, a week away. I am thinking, meditating, cogitating on ways to add more flexibility.

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Videos and Animation

Two of the five sessions at the Online Learning Showcase I attended in February dealt with the incorporation of videos into white boards or other presentation software. The first was from a part of the university that is flush with cash and involved using expensive software as well as hiring a trained voice actor. If you have that kind of money, that route was impressive. But, this book I am blogging here  is aimed more at easily usable and immediately practical means for a busy, working instructor to implement a more effective online teaching process.

In this light, the presentation called Concept Exploration Using Video developed for a course in climate change biology, fit the bill. This idea used Powerpoint, with each slide indicating a step in learning about a particular concept, but up in the upper right hand corner there is a video of the instructor explaining the slide.

For both Powerpoint and Keynote this is a simple process once you have a video. Either import or ‘drag and drop’ your video into a slide. With Powerpoint that means going to the Insert menu and the drop down list has a video (and audio alone) choice. Or you can drag and drop files into a slide. The same goes for a Mac, using either Powerpoint for Mac or Keynote. There you go to the Insert Menu and choose the ‘Other’ item.  Drag and drop works fine, as this is the usual procedure on a Mac. Then in either program you can resize and move the video to fit in a corner of your visuals on the slide. Either program can be set to play the video or audio with a click, or to play automatically when the slide opens.

I haven’t used this feature yet and need to see if it can be easily imported into the system my university uses, CourseLink – or will I be required to go through the instructional design department? That is a make or break for me. Why?  Well, the point of much of this is to allow an instructor to add quick modifications to online teaching styles that do not require days, or weeks, or months of preparation plus getting funding approved. This is one reason I got the university ID department to put a Prezi link on my CourseLink menu.I could add content on the Prezi that is linked on the menu on the fly. I may indeed have to put visuals with audio or video into my linked Prezi. But I shall see.

The presentation had some good points about doing videos (or audios) in this way. I also viewed a nearly ten minute tutorial from Sal Khan (of the Khan Academy) which said much the same in a bit more detail: be conversational – students will learn better than from a carefully modulated professional speaker; do not talk above or below students (that is, do not be too simple or too complex); do not have video clips that are more than 10 minutes – 6 is a good optimum. If you do want a longer video, break it up into 10 minute segments.

In the visuals use colours, use hand-drawings …. but that is a topic for another blog post as this requires separate software – or perhaps something on Prezi, Powerpoint, Keynote that I haven’t learned yet!

Here is the Khan link:


Sal Khan on best practices


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Ideas, Ideas, Ideas

Last week I attended a small conference where different instructors demonstrated techniques they use in their online classes. Ironic in that the meeting was F2F …. but all the ideas presented were useful and worth considering. Not all, of course, fit all subjects but I was interested to see how others are making their classes work online.

Just as important, I made contacts. For example, I have learned something and gained a new avenue for my World Religions course from another instructor who teaches World Music.  Music and religion are often in an intimate relationship and this sharing will be incorporated into my teaching.

Over the next while I will devote a blog post to each of the presentations, which were sent to all participants online.

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Class Size

I decided not to attempt to be clever in choosing a title for this blog post. Universities and colleges for many years now have had to deal with large class sizes. In particular this is a problem for online classes.

When I was in 1st year (Freshman year to Americans)  back in 1969, my introductory History class had 27 students. We sat in a small classroom where the Professor taught us modern European history. There was no Teaching Assistant, we asked questions and were asked questions in an intimate manner. It was small even by the standards of my High School and elementary schools where classes often had 40 or more students. Now, History classes taught in classrooms usually have at least 60 students, which is considered intimate. At one point in my pedagogical career I was a teaching assistant to an introductory history class with 500 students.

Online courses taught in a standard university setting (not a MOOC) number at least 100 students and usually more.

How then do you deal with these numbers?

For major assignments such as essays, which are still a primary tool in learning history and learning evidence-based critical thought that is the principle intellectual tool of the historian, time must be found to add comments. In the past, when class numbers were smaller, or where universities had the budgets to assign adequate numbers of Teaching Assistants, detailed comments on evidence, logic and grammar peppered the essay paper. With very large classes, that is any class over 50 or so, without adequate assistance, a summary comment at the end is all you can do. Grammar skills are very poor these days too often. Unless you are teaching in an English class, you have to let this go except in cases where understanding is difficult – then some comment directing a student to one of the writing labs they have at universities now is appropriate.  But mostly you will just have to grin and bear it, and provide an assessment of the evidence provided and the logic based on that foundation for the student.

Online teaching must involve a fair degree of discussion, as this is the place where learning in direct communication with an instructor occurs. Here personal, pointed commentary is impossible. All you can do is to give an overview for the entire class of strengths and weaknesses of logic, evidence, understanding.

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A New Term

One of the dangers of online teaching and indeed of all teaching is to become stale. By this I mean that once you find a comfortable niche and comfortable practices they can become set in stone. I recall a professor I had as an undergraduate who taught a final year seminar in Historiography. Twelve of us sat around a table in a seminar room with the prof, who was nearing the end of his career. I sat by his left elbow and could see his note papers. Incidentally, I also could see his hands shaking. I have wondered ever since if he was still nervous after all these years or maybe had some debilitating  disease – or was he hung over?  Anyway, to return to the point, the papers were lined notebook papers of the sort we used to put into three ringed binders or tung-lock/Duo-tang folders. Except in his case, they were so old, they were yellowing with edges curled up. This was in the late 1980s but his review of historians stopped in the early 1970s. He, or at least his life as an historian and as a teacher, had become stale.

With online teaching, this is an even greater danger. Technology and indeed publications now arrive at a fast and furious pace. There are a number of multimedia apps and techniques that grow in numbers, and AI (Artificial Intelligence) is just around the corner for teaching both online and in classrooms, I suspect. I maintain a Facebook page for my teaching area, make Prezis to add content to my course, which is done by the university on Courselink. Apparently Courselink is engaged in a major upgrade now, to be ready for next Fall. I make videos of me blathering on for the students using my MacBook Air’s Photo Booth. Photo Booth used to only take still pictures, but now has a video capability. I upload those to YouTube, then post the YouTube link to the main page of the course. I use links within text, but have decided to reduce these. Why? Well I have recently read a number of articles which seemed to have links every other sentence. This is link overkill – if I had spent time clicking on every link in these articles, I would have never finished the actual article, or at the very least, the point would have been lost in the confusion of links.

So, a new semester. I made a video introduction today on the first day of ‘classes’. This I promised I would do as in the past I have not posted until later – I think it important to  begin at the beginning. The essential foundation of good online teaching is to be active and to be seen to be active so students do not spin anonymously in cyber space with the instructor as an after thought.

I do hope to continue as I have begun!




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