the non-geometric mind

I am presently working on a revision of an online course. Part of this revision involves creating an ‘evolving concept map’.  I spent some time googling around to discover what exactly this might be, and when found, it looked interesting. Well, if the word ‘interesting’ means complex and daunting, then that is the word. The idea is to present an evolving concept map that grows with each of six course modules. Courses at my university are designed to fit 12 class weeks in front of a live class in a physical classroom. This does not always fit historical eras or cultural movements that blend into one another. It fits online teaching even more poorly.

I identified six that do overlap (of course) but six worked better than twelve. Each of these will have a pie chart showing the changing hues of three themes running through the study of the relationship between religion and society. And each of the six will have a concept map that shows linkages among cultural aspects.

But it all seems too much like my nightmare experience of High School Geometry. My brain does not easily comprehend carefully charted linkages. Rather I easily grasp a whole scene in depth. Well I must do it and will likely learn from the experience.


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My six year old Brain

I am involved currently in revising an online course. One of the new features will be an ongoing concept map. Until Wikipedia enlightened me, I had only the vaguest idea what this might be – and wikipedia informed me that the inventor of the concept map, Joseph D. Novak taught children as young as six to create concept maps. This article also led me to click on a link to constructivism, a theoretical approach to the nature of learning. I hastily returned as I do not wish to become mired in educational theory. I went back to cyberspace and found the official guide.

But, this blog and the book that will come of it, are not about theory, but about how an instructor instructs online – in the trenches, as it were.

Well, I will let you know whether I am up to the level of a six year old!

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Time Out!

Teaching online can be a seven days a week habit. This thought came to mind today as this is a holiday weekend in Canada. Classroom teachers are out for three days – granted they may have grading to do – but it is more likely they are planting their gardens, or opening cottages (summer cottage to the non-Canadian), or just planning to take family to a fireworks display, or dusting off the BBQ (grill to non-Canadians).

I should define ‘teaching online’ a bit more specifically before delving into this temptation to teach constantly. The whole package consists of marking assignments, commenting on student discussion/conference posts, answering emails, posting information on the main course page, fixing broken links, reading essays, offering advice via email, conference boards, Skype…. posting additional information on a linked Prezi…

Not a terribly tight ‘definition’ but rather a grab bag of duties and pleasures (yes, pleasures!) that take up an online instructor’s time. Unlike a carefully delineated period of time spent in front of a class, online teaching can take a few short minutes in a day, or hours.

I overheard another online instructor telling his teaching assistants to set up one hour per week where they would answer emails or texts or IMs – and that under no circumstance should they communicate with their students outside that hour, unless it was a pressing situation. On the other extreme, there is me. I answer emails at 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. I chatted on Skype video with a student while walking my dog one night. The times when I can smell a burnt toast odour from my brain and notice a few wisps of smoke coming out my ears, I shut down and ignore all my students for a full day. None of this is tightly scheduled.

Should there then be a scheduled day and a scheduled week for online instructors?

I think that you must do what works for you, as long as the students in your class know your availability at the outset – and remind them along the way. Say you decide on an office hour every afternoon, Monday to Friday at 2 p.m., and that you will be unavailable after 5 p.m. and all weekend and holidays…. tell everybody and anybody that, and remind them each and every day.

If you are like me, tell them on the day you know your brain is malfunctioning and just state you will be unavailable on that day, all day.

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Using YouTube

More than a year ago I first mentioned my experiment using YouTube in my online courses. At the time I said it seemed promising, and the passage of time has seen the promise fulfilled. Students listen, watch and in the end of term comments note they like this. The invisible professor becomes a real person.

This may seem odd, but the internet can be a very impersonal space. You can see words, and pictures, and sound and often videos.  But not a person. Many years ago I asked about videos in online courses – perhaps as long ago as 2004 when my first was designed. I was told  this would require booking studio space, and a full recording session. At the time this seemed artificial. Instructors teaching in the traditional manner do not get to do weeks of rehearsals for each class, then a dress rehearsal and finally you go ‘on stage and perform’.

This was not the main reason I chose to use YouTube. I did so because I could do it quickly, using my own laptop and without a lot of preparation. In the past, when speaking in front of a class, I would do research and make notes to jog my memory  while talking, but they got the real me in the presentation.  I wanted at least that for online instruction.

So….. once a week (ideally) I jot down some notes, turn on my Mac Photo Booth app, record a video of me talking in my normal and informal tone, glancing at my notes (and  I don’t hide the fact I am looking at notes), then save that. I run it to make sure I don’t have food in my beard, or something worse out of place and that I made some kind of sense. Usually this is the case. Then I drag the clip onto my desktop, open my YouTube account and upload the video there. I try to keep the clip no longer than 10 minutes and usually in the 5-7 minute range. This ensures the download isn’t too large for most computers, and also will hold the attention of any viewer.

Once the YouTube clip is ready, I upload the link to my course site. Usually I also type what I said in the video for those who prefer reading over watching.

In terms of content, I do videos to introduce a new module in the course, or new content within a module or to say something about grades in general for a just returned assignment – or of course, as a course introduction and the final remarks at the end of term.

I don’t plan to limit how or when I will used YouTube uploads as I like to keep a degree of flexibility, but these are the usual places I use YouTube.


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Ex Nihilo…..

From nothing, nothing comes, goes the old saying.The university Summer term has begun and an online course I have taught since 2004, along with it. World Religions in Historical Perspective was its title, now changed to just plain old World Religions, because the thinking is a reference to ‘History’ will scare students away. You see, online courses tend to attract students from many different disciplines. In my experience, only about 10% are History majors and another 10% from the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Sciences and other more practical courses of study are followed by the bulk of my online students. A few years back this course was revised to make it somewhat more non linear,  and coincidentally to make for a friendlier experience for the non historian.

This marks a problem common to all online instruction. Where in the past, a student took a course in an incremental fashion, that is, each course rested on one before, this is no longer the case. Few courses have prerequisites; most float independently about the university sphere. Because students have no experience of the Humanities, it is even more so built on ‘nihil’, nothing.  This necessitated features that teach essay writing and which teach scholarly research habits used in the Humanities, for example. The old (for online teaching) tool of the discussion group is effective to this purpose. But it is effective only where the instructor keeps a close watch and intervenes frequently.

In a face to face discussion in a real time classroom, the free flow of ideas is paramount. This is essential in an online environment too, but there other equally important facets here. One of these is to encourage and require students to back up their statements with evidence, and with evidence gleaned from scholarly sources, not through random Google searches of the Net. Focus is important too, and must be encouraged in discussion groups. It is here that students learn to think as scholars before they receive a grade. This could also be taught in the comments made on essays, but that is after the disaster. Discussions allow disaster to be prevented.

By discussions, I mean a forum where a question is posed, and students post answers there, but not in real time as in a chat room. This allows for each person posting to read and reflect and post a carefully considered reply, or new idea – all based on evidence as they have time to do some research and editing of their posts. These discussions are time limited – usually to a week (though most students post in the last half hour it seems).

This simple technique replaces ‘nothing’ with ‘something’ and we are off to the races!

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Today I began the work of revising an online course. They haven’t paid me anything yet, but promise to at some point in the future.

Most online courses I have worked on and teach, follow the techniques of face to face classes. You begin with an introduction, an overview, a statement of goals and purposes. After that you proceed week by week and if it is History, where all my professional teaching is slotted, you build chronologically, then end with a summing up.

There is a degree of sense to this linear modality, especially in the study of history. Yet some important realities are lost. Firstly one must always recall the old logic of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, ‘because one thing follows another, it is not necessarily a result of the first’. Secondly, a purely linear approach loses context and connections. History, that is life, is messy, not neatly organized in lines.

Some cultural practices, some social forms, some wars, some economics straggle inconveniently across carefully delineated periods and hermetically sealed regions. Catholics remained in England after Elizabeth I; Protestants popped their heads up here and there in renaissance Italy; blonde, blue-eyed Italian boys live in modern day Milano.  Last night I saw an entire Muslim family of men and hijab wearing women sitting happily in Tim Hortons sipping coffees and munching Timbits. In short, life is as much a mishmash of congruences and contradictions, all happily ignoring, fighting, getting along with each other.

The result of this thinking for the revised course is to introduce a healthy portion of asynchrony. I began this in a small way in the World Religions course I teach. The techies designed a ‘star field’ graphic where I had icons and labels for the religions covered, arranged in cultural groups. For example, Judaism, Christianity, Islam were close to one another, and so on. Students can click on one of these icons and be transported to the linear unit containing the analysis of that religion. I also had a timeline chart designed which divided the world into rough eras, and then across were listed each of the cultural regions I developed and a student could then look comparatively at the social, cultural, economic and political status of the world.

In the new revision, three underlying themes are proposed. I used these themes in earlier iterations, but with a static weight given to each. This time, as chronology moves along, the relative size of each theme will be adjusted to suit context and times. An as yet to be finally determined map will also accompany each section that reflects context and change over time in a geographical sense.  I hope also to utilize a similar device to the star field. This course is focussed on North America with deep background into the British Isles and continental Europe. The star field graphic will be altered to match this more focussed approach.

It is just begun, but I will enjoy working on this asynchronous interloper!

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Artificial Intelligence

I am listening to a podcast of an Ideas show concerning the impact of AI on the professions. In the show, Professor Richard Susskind is interviewed by the host, Paul Kennedy. The interview is interspaced with excerpts from a speech Richard Susskind  gave at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His thesis revolves around the expansion of new computer technologies, which thus far have altered employment in traditional industries and jobs, but not for the professions. He predicts that AI will begin to replace lawyers and medical doctors in many instances however. For example, AI can predict the outcome of a court case by using a deep database of similar situations. AI can assess symptoms and diagnose often more  quickly  and more accurately than medical doctors. He notes this is driven partially by the cost of legal advice and representation which fewer and fewer can afford, and the cost, complexity and unavailability of health care.

While teaching is still attempting to find a place as a profession, it is a similarly ‘soft’ vocation that requires a human being at its core.  This blog was conceived as an extended meditation on the impact of computer technology on teaching at the university level, as well as promoting a conversation over how best to teach in this environment. I am certain that AI will at some point in the near future begin to affect both online instruction and face to face teaching. It will do so in a more profound fashion than the use of databases, websites, tools to detect plagiarism and so on that form much of my thinking here.

At present, I utilize a range of tools I have myself attached to the basic platform my university subscribes to (Desire2Learn/courselink):  YouTube videos I record myself, Skype (either video or IM), Prezi, podcasts, links to good scholarly sources…. whatever I can find that does not involve the university bureaucracy to implement, and whatever allows for almost immediate responses to student queries or needs and most importantly, dissolves the impersonal nature of cyberspace.

I wonder how AI would affect this? Could an AI voice function answer most student questions faster than I can?  Could an AI function read a student essay and assess its quality in terms of structure, thesis, argument, logic and the veracity of evidence, and the proper application of that evidence?  Could students use AI to write their essays for them? Could the instructor’s AI assistant detect this plagiarism by the other AI entity?

Finally, would I, the human instructor be redundant entirely? That is, if I were employed at all, would I be the assistant?

And would the student learn?

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