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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In the middle of marking final examination papers as my mind drifted away from the Cristeros rebellion in 1920s Mexico, a thought occurred to me.

I began watching a series of Harvard lectures on the Hebrew Bible. The prof gave his introductory, ‘what this course is about and what it is not about along with the usual business on textbooks, etc.’ in an engaging fashion including answering questions from the class (invisible except for voices off camera).

This got me thinking about my own period of time teaching face to face in a classroom and even in a seminar setting, but principally in a classroom lecture format. Secondly, a student sent me a comment that he had liked my online course because occasionally my ‘dry and quirky’ sense of humour would show through – actually two or three students remarked on this.

Then I thought about the lectures I attended as an undergraduate student, and what it was about those classes that affected me. Usually it was the personal characteristics the professor brought to the classroom as much as it was the information. Information can be had in a classroom course from the textbook, and online in text or image. But bringing that information to life is a factor and function of the personality (or lack thereof, alas!) of the instructor.

So, what to do?

Well something I had planned to do this semester, but massive class size and the new necessity in the university world of …. ummmm… sucking up to your TAs in order to keep your job (Teaching Assistants are more important than part time instructors because we part timers are costs to the university and the department, while TAs are graduate students and bring in grants from the government and tuition and are thus profit centres). This plus home problems of a permanent sort scuttled my intentions. I did several videos, but not as I envisioned them.

Here is what I will do in the new term while teaching one course. It is one course at a university that does not provide Teaching Assistants and which has 95% of its faculty on the part time roster.  This removes the two disadvantages I noted above. I will have at least a weekly video where I introduce and go over the main points in the material for that unit. I will go further and have a short lecture/video for each sub-heading. I will also invite questions – not sure what technical format to use here as I would have to set it up on my own. I will scout around the net and see if I can find a chat room type thingie …. free I hope as in January my income is reduced by a full 50%.

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Slip Sliding Away

A quick post before I attempt to get back on track with actual, real-time, deadlines passing online teaching…..

A basic problem with teaching online is the lack of a specific time of day when you must be teaching. I have thought of this problem only from the perspective of the student. If students do not have a scheduled lecture or seminar class to attend, will they adhere to deadlines for assignments? Or more commonly, do they produce those assignments at the last minute? And I mean ‘last minute’ because my online courses have specific date and time deadlines. It has become common over the 13 years I have taught online courses for a very few students to post early in the week of a one week discussion topic, for example. A larger group, say about 30% will post in the two or three days prior to the deadline. Then another 50% on the last day…. and then the remaining roughly 20% post in the last hour or even half hour (or even last minute and beyond).

But, what about me?  Teaching occurs in my courses in History during discussion assignments. I read posts and respond, to praise, correct, guide, add, subtract. But what happens when I let things slide due to other committments and do not post responses myself until the last day or even last hour?

Perhaps if I looked hard at my own psychology and practices I could find a way to institute changes for students too.

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Peer review online

Currently I am teaching a revised course. One aspect of the revision was to include a ‘peer-review’ tool. The assignment itself was poorly planned and communicated. This was my fault in the sense that I did not stay on top of it, but not my fault in that I did not design the assignment, rather it was handed to me as a fait accompli. During the revision process, the project was generally described to me and I thought it a good idea. When the course began and the time to begin the students on the assignment arrived, I found a number of irritating flaws. I fixed them (though the end of term student comments may disagree with this personal assessment!). But, in the next week I have to teach myself how to use the peer review tool that the university has provided.

This is a group project, online of course. The students are automatically divided into groups of no more than 15 in a class of about 200.  But the peer review group project called for groups of around 7 each. The instructions required the students to form their own groups. In a large, online class this would have been a disaster. I asked the tech designer and he said integrating an automatic tool to create groups would have to wait for the next time the course was offered. But I had a vague memory of being able to alter groups on my own. So I poked around the course and found I could create a second set of groups.  So, I arbitrarily divided the class into groups of 6 or 7. Then I  notified everyone that they could now click their group enrollment button and  see themselves in two groups:  discussions and Group project. Then I prevailed on the regular tech staff to create a Discussion work group area for the project. I announced all this to the class.

After two or three revisions to the instructions I have got most of them working in their individual groups preparing for the first stage, which is peer review. Here each member of each group must assign a grade to everyone else and to the project submission as a whole. At least that’s how I understand it at this point. Once this is done, I then grade each group and perhaps each student, though I am not yet clear on that.

My take away from this:  everything today is done in a rush and in institutional settings, one must expect irritating major and minor problems that the instructor must repair and explain and sort, as the designer will be of little help. The designer will have moved on to the next project and you are now old, dead  history.  The instructor must rise from the grave to keep some sort of efficiency in place.

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How exactly does one teach online?

A nice long title instead of my usual pithy headlines seemed appropriate for this post. I was awarded a fellowship from the University of Guelph here in Canada a few years back to answer that very question. I didn’t answer it, at least to my satisfaction and not, I suspect to that of those who attended my talk (judging from the puzzled looks in the assembled group). At the time I had to fill most of an hour talking about something that could be encapsulated in a sentence or at most two. Engage with your students on a regular basis.  There. Now you have it. You can stop reading if you wish right here.

Ah, but you might ask, how?  And to employ a half remembered bit of Shakesepeare, ‘aye, there’s the rub’.

This rub depends on the platform used to teach online. I am familiar with Coursera and with my university’s system, Courselink.  Coursera seems to be not terribly interactive and not surprisingly so as it is designed to handle tens of thousands of students. But if you are teaching a reasonable number. Well, reasonable in today’s terms – my current two courses this Fall term have respectively, 191 students and 90 students as compared to my first year History course in 1969 at the University of Windsor, Ontario that had 27 students enrolled (and mostly awake.)  For History in this context and using a platform that consists mostly of text and images – somewhat like reading a printed textbook with assignments – I find that discussion groups are the place where teaching happens.

In this method, a question is posed, based on the course readings and links, say perhaps Was Henry VIII of England a Protestant?  Students will answer, the eager students early in the period of time set aside for the discussion, but most will frantically scrabble to post an answer in the last day, or last hour even.

Your job: ‘Post comments on what they say!’  Not just  pats on the head…. ‘good post Jane Doe!’ but engage with the material and their comments to show them how to ‘re-think the thoughts of the past’ and how to do so critically (as in showing the entire context), emphasize context… react to their ideas, chat, talk, guide….. screw every other part of the course up if you must, but do not avoid this!

Some instructors like chat rooms where students enter for a specific period of time and and engage in real time discussion.  This appeals to me as a pedagogical technique, but not as a realistic technique. Why would I say that? Well…. one reason students take online courses is to avoid having to be at a particular place at a particular time – though I must admit (see above) that most end posting answers in the last possible few minutes anyway, so perhaps there is not a lot of difference. More importantly, I think you will get better reasoned answers in the discussion format than in a chat room. Students have time to do a little research, to construct their posts and then to think about responses to others answering the same questions.  Also, you, the instructor have time to frantically search for an answer to an unexpectedly difficult question and keep your reputation as a guru of your discipline.

Both of these are effective techniques and both promote regular engagement with students which is the essence of online teaching. (and why I am not a fan of MOOCs).

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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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