My favorite mistake.


When I decided to teach online for the first time this semester, I was determined to throw out my old survey class and rebuild a new one from the bottom up. My main design concept was to create a US history survey class that didn’t do what the web does badly, and take advantage of what the web can do well. The class is built around writing. [You can see my two earlier posts about the structure of the course here and here.] I though those of you who are still bothering to read this blog might be interested in how it’s going.

Without getting into too many student-specific details: Not too bad. I am very fortunate to have a very small class. That gives me the freedom to make mistakes with a minimum of embarrassment. It also means that I’m not burdened with too much grading as I try to to read everything I assigned (often for the first time) and continually reach out to all the students who are having trouble with either the technology or the history itself.

I have certainly made tons and tons of mistakes. Most of them have had to do with the syllabus. I spent most of last summer working on that thing, and (inevitably) there are plenty of sections in it where I could have explained what I want better. For example, I don’t think there’s a better tool out there if you want comment on and discuss student writing than I had used it a bit last semester, but after I went to a workshop in Denver a couple of months ago I was absolutely dying to use it more and to use it differently. Unfortunately, I hadn’t used it enough at that point to explain how I wanted it utilized particularly well. Now that I’m using it a lot, I can assure you that that explanation will be much more clear next time around.

Before that workshop, I was actually thinking about dropping entirely because there are so many different programs or publications requiring separate sign ins that I’m using in this course. Five actually. With respect to an LMS, I’m using the free version of Canvas (at a BlackBoard campus). I’m also using Slack,, Milestone Documents and an online textbook. Oh yeah, there’s also a class blog (but all the technical work there is mine). Yes, I knew this would confuse students — but I did it anyway, and this has become my favorite mistake, one that I plan to repeat next semester.

Why? I wanted to use the best tools available. Period. These tools are simply not available under one technical umbrella. Moreover, since all of these tools are outside the direct control of my university, I feel happily free of direct surveillance.

More importantly, I’ve come to believe that this kind of student confusion is in and of itself a tremendous learning opportunity. One of the things that my volunteer remote instructional design coach (the fabulous Debbie Morrison) told me while this course was still in the planning stages is that you have to give up some time at the beginning so that students feel comfortable with the technology. As a result, I planned two weeks of tech work and historical activities that didn’t count towards the final grade before the students had to start writing. Of course, some students got the tech instantly. For others, though, it was a longer struggle than I ever expected — perhaps in large part (but not entirely) due to my poor instructions.

Now that the essays are coming apace, I’ve decided that those first two weeks were in and of themselves valuable. While you really can now Google anything about history and get at least an O.K. explanation eventually, getting over a fear of technology is a lot harder to do. Digital natives my Aunt Fannie. [And I’ve known this for years, not just when I started teaching online.] While I never, ever expected to teach this kind of thing back when I was in graduate school it’s now pretty clear to me that this may be the most important behavior I’m modelling in this whole online survey class.

On the other hand, all those professors in whatever discipline who say things in public like “I don’t do computers” are not only sending the opposite message. They really are  preparing students for a world that no longer exists for every White Collar job in America, as well as an awful lot of the rest of them. They’re also doing a terrible job preparing their students for the outside world – even the world of history graduate school these days (should they be so foolhardy to actually choose that route).

No, I’m not telling you to turn all your courses into computer classes. I’ve basically turned my survey class into a kind of English composition seminar, so it’s not as if I’m abandoning the humanities or anything that heretical. All I’m telling you is that the world is changing all around you whether you like it or not, and all of my colleagues in academia really ought to at least make some effort to get with the program.

Posted in Online Courses, Teaching, Technology

“I don’t need your civil war.”

All us historians let out a loud sigh when we read that story about Republican Senator Ron Johnson wanting to replace us all with Ken Burns videos. It’s an incredibly stupid argument, of course, but it’s also sadly typical of everyone who has no idea what history professors actually do all day. “Leave it to someone from a party led by a reality TV star to confuse videotape with the learning experience of a classroom,” explained Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers:

“What Ron Johnson doesn’t get is that education happens when teachers can listen to students and engage them to think for themselves ― and that can include using Ken Burns’ masterful work. But this is typical for a party with an education agenda as out of date as Johnson’s Blockbuster Video card.”

We all know she’s right, but I’m afraid that simply ridiculing the Johnson position isn’t going to be enough to prevent de-skilling and automation in education at all levels.

Perhaps you saw that Ken Burns – God bless him – tweeted in response to Johnson that, “I’m here to support teachers, not replace them.” Unfortunately, Ken Burns doesn’t control the means of educational production in this country. In other words, Ron Johnson and his ilk could replace every history teacher in this country with a Ken Burns video and Ken Burns couldn’t do anything about it. Neither could those teachers themselves, especially non-union secondary school teachers and faculty off the tenure track, because their jobs are so precarious. Better to be the ones inserting the video cassette and administering the multiple choice test after the tape ends than not to have any job at all.

I understand the difference between engagement and watching videos all day. Ron Johnson doesn’t understand the difference. Unfortunately, an awful lot of college professors (the ones who rely primarily on lectures to convey the information that accompanies the skills of their respective disciplines) don’t understand the difference either. The issue here is not how best to use videos in instructional settings, this is actually a debate about what education is.

Yes, I know that some lectures are better than others. Before I gave up lecturing entirely, I took great pains to engage with and watch the faces of the students in my audience. I once had a political science professor back in college who could only lecture staring up at the ceiling. It drove me crazy because I might as well not have been there at all. You could easily have replaced him with the poli-sci equivalent of a Ken Burns video. But, then again, the same thing is true of all us good lecturers too. In my case I think it would have hurt the quality of education in my classroom, but the sad truth is that people like Ron Johnson don’t care about educational quality.

To be honest, I’m not particularly fond of Ken Burns’ work. I don’t need “The Civil War.”* The first twenty minutes or so of “Baseball” are truly mind-blowing, but I have lots of problems with the rest of that documentary.** I liked “Prohibition,” but you probably don’t care what I think about those videos. Neither does Johnson and that’s exactly the problem. The attack on our teaching methods isn’t really economic (as Johnson seems to think). It’s ideological. As a good book review that showed up in my Twitter feed the other day (and which started with the Johnson story) put it:

It’s a common complaint among conservatives that many tenured professors “radicalize” students with Marx and gender theory while living royally off of state funding and federal student loans. Online and competency-based education will fix both, according to critics like Johnson and Scott Walker, by limiting professors’ unchecked power and improving efficiency with market-based solutions.

Replacing all us professors with video, or robots, or even robots showing videos won’t save anyone any money, but it will do a great job at preventing us from “radicalizing” anybody.

All the way back in 2012, Cathy Davidson declared quite famously that every professor who could be replaced by a computer should be. I know she meant well, but the people who have the power to replace professors with computers don’t mean well at all. If educational technology is itself neutral, the companies that push it and the audiences they push it towards aren’t neutral at all. To put it another way, video didn’t kill the radio star. Video companies did. That’s why we have to have a better defense for idiotic arguments like Johnson’s than just calling it an idiotic argument. Otherwise we all run the risk of winning the argument, but still ending up unemployed.

To prevent that from happening, faculty need to choose and control their own technological tools – tools that promote engagement rather than tools that turn college into a video game or a Ken Burns film festival.*** If we suffer from a failure to communicate our true aims – or worse yet, a civil war – the consequences will be dire not just for faculty, but also for society as a whole.

* This isn’t the place to get into why, but it involves WAAAAAY too much Shelby Foote.

** For example, the almost complete absence of the oldest franchise in the National League.

*** That’s why my friend Jonathan and I have written a book about how faculty can take control of their own electronic future. If it’s not out now where you live, it will be available there very, very soon. You might consider buying it.

Posted in Adjuncts, Teaching, Technology

Why America’s MOOC pioneers have abandoned ship.

The Mary Celeste by an unknown artist.

The Mary Celeste by an unknown artist.

On November 7, 1872, the American ship Mary Celeste left New York Harbor en route to Genoa, Italy. On December 5, 1872, a British brig discovered that vessel drifting in turbulent seas about 400 miles east of the Azores. Its cargo of industrial alcohol was intact, but not a soul was aboard. No trace of its ten crew members was ever found, making their fate one of the most enduring mysteries in maritime history.

Of course, there are still plenty of people interested in producing and taking MOOCs, but the founders of the American companies that create them have lately become about as scarce as the crew of the Mary Celeste. In 2014, Coursera founder Andrew Ng left day-to-day activities that company to join the Chinese search engine firm Baidu (although he remains Coursera’s Chairman of the Board). Earlier this year, Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, departed that company earlier this year perhaps frustrated by what he once famously called its “lousy product.” Last week, Coursera’s other co-founder, Daphne Koller, exited in order to join a subsidiary of Google.

Besides MOOC leaders, some of the courses they commissioned during the early years of MOOC-Mania are disappearing too. Coursera, for instance, just changed platforms in order to make it easier for students to take classes “on demand.” As a result, “a few dozen” MOOCs became completely unavailable, and those students who do enroll in the new courses might be taking them without the benefit of thousands of colleagues taking them simultaneously like the first MOOC students did. Some superprofessors, like the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier, have suspended their MOOCs on their own accord.

The most obvious reason why everyone from the founders of MOOC companies to students who sign up for such course are abandoning MOOCs is because these kinds of courses have not lived up to their initial hype. MOOCs were supposed to transform education as we know it, but traditional education with its inefficiency derived from the close proximity between professors and their students has proved more resilient than its wannabe disruptors ever imagined. Yes, there are still plenty of MOOCs available for people who want to take them, but it now seems safe to conclude that Sebastian Thrun’s 2012 prediction that there will only be ten institutions of higher learning in fifty years will be off by a large order of magnitude.

Why aren’t MOOCs more popular? “Many MOOCs are ill–structured, and it takes a lot of onus on the student to do a lot of the work,” explained Dennis Charsky of Ithaca College earlier this year. “It leaves for a lot of exploratory learning, which many students don’t like and can’t persist with.”  While plenty of lifelong learners might be willing to consider this kind of experience as long as it remains free, every attempt to monetize the many eyeballs that MOOCs can attract has so far come up short. With MOOC production costs as high as $325,000 for a single course, profitability is almost certainly the main obstacle to keeping MOOCs viable for the long term.

This problem has been obvious to industry observers since the early days of MOOC Mania. “Coursera has simply never had a coherent plan to generate revenue,” explained Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates all the way back in 2013. “Allegedly, they were going to try to make money on a bunch of other things, like being scouts for businesses on the lookout for bright young talent, but there have been no announcements of revenue from these sources. Given how the tech news industry works, it’s a safe bet that means the figure is close to zero.” Daphne Koller’s recent decision to exit Coursera strongly suggests that this revenue problem has yet to be solved.

While companies like Coursera may still have lots of venture capital money to burn, the passing of this industry’s pioneers from the scene is as good a time as any to recognize that the profitability problem of MOOC providers is a problem that will never be solved. To make an often-used comparison in tech circles, compare education to the music industry. Most recording artists are now getting fractions of cents when consumers stream their songs because replicating digital copies of their work costs almost nothing. To make up for that problem, many bands have come to depend on touring to earn themselves revenue.

Colleges and universities, however, are already charging students an awful lot of money to see live performances by their professorial talent. Moreover, recording those lectures and distributing them for free over the Internet is a noticeably inferior experience to being on campus almost by definition. We professors do much more than talk at you during their live performances. Living, breathing faculty answer your questions, grade your papers and will even chat you up if you visit them during their office hours. MOOC providers will never be able to close this gap in educational quality.

Of course, Coursera and its ilk aren’t really trying to do so for economic reasons. If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities.  Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.

Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time.  Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.

Even if Daphne Koller and company are not yet willing to admit this fact publicly, with all that MOOC hype fading quickly into the rear-view mirror their actions speak louder than their previous once ever-so-optimistic words. MOOCs and other forms of automated online education may persist as long as there’s a surplus of money in Silicon Valley anxious to disrupt higher education for the sake of capital rather than students. That ship may sail on indefinitely, but compared to the inflated rhetoric that once blew through their sails, MOOCs are destined to remain ghost ships floating on the open ocean, without the lost crew that had such high hopes to transform education forever at the start of their long journeys.

Posted in MOOCs

My excuse for not blogging.


So this has happened.  It may take a little while to make it from the publisher in the UK to booksellers around the world, but I still thought I’d take a moment this morning to tell you all a little bit more about it.  Education Is Not an App came about as a direct result of this blog.  Terry Clague from Routledge was an MOLB reader from way back, and he gradually convinced me that getting some of the sentiments contained here into book form was a good idea.

Still don’t know what a MOOC is?  Read this book.  Afraid the robots are coming for your job?  Read this book. Do you teach critical university studies?  We speak your language.  Are you a university IT professional looking for a relatively short, highly-readable group read for your faculty development workshop?  Well, we have a book for you.  Longtime readers of this blog like Terry will recognize many of my well-worn sentiments in these pages, but there’s also tons of outside-the-box, totally new stuff.

Most of that is the direct result of my co-author, Jonathan Poritz – JP to our mutual friends who want to distinguish us more easily.  JP too was reading this space way back during the “Year of the MOOC” and he served as one of my very few guest posters.  “You should write a book about MOOCs,” he told me at least a couple of times.  “Nah,” I said. “MOOCs are just a fad.”  Well, I was at least kinda right.  But as anybody who knows anything about this subject will tell you, there is a lot more to edtech than MOOCs and we wrote a book designed to take in as much of it as we could.  Since JP already knew so much about copyright, OER and other very important subjects that I never touched on this blog, he proved to be the perfect co-conspirator.

If you don’t want to read it because you still think I’m just that guy who hates MOOCs, you’re in for a surprise.  For one thing, I only hate some (OK…most) MOOCs now.  Indeed, this is ultimately a book about distinguishing good edtech from bad edtech and we argue that the key to doing that is faculty autonomy.  When administrative bean counters and greedy edu-preneurs run education technology, education suffers and the vast majority of faculty suffer with it.  On the other hand, when caring faculty are given access to worthwhile tools and the autonomy to use them the way they want to use them…well, that’s when the magic happens.  For that magic to happen, however, also requires professors everywhere to pay at least some attention to an edtech space that’s literally changing all the time and not always in good ways.

That’s why this book is intended as a primer for any faculty member, anywhere in the world, who hasn’t been paying attention while their world has been changing.  JP even managed to convince the publisher to mark down the list price of the e-book (and the paperback to a lesser extent) so that you can easily learn more about your professional future without having it cost you an arm and a leg.

Not ready to buy it yet?  I’ll point to some of the publicity we’re doing for the book from this space as it becomes available, and maybe we can convince you then.

Posted in Books, Education Is Not an App

Think different.

Chaplin Poster

I’ve been an Apple user since the early-1980s. I don’t think I qualify as a fanatic since I haven’t bought anywhere near everything the company ever put out. Heck, I STILL don’t own an iPhone. Nevertheless, I’m a big fan of their aesthetic and the general philosophy surrounding it, so much so that I bought the above poster on eBay a while back and have it framed behind my desk in my office at work.

Of course, because of everything that Apple has done to define modern life, it now qualifies as an official historical subject. That explains why I read Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Steve Jobs. My verdict there is that the subject is interesting, but the writing isn’t. I much preferred Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, which I picked up almost by accident trying to fill a three books for the price of two deal at a table at my local Barnes & Noble. It’s a much more interesting of Steve Jobs’ personality and philosophy than the one offered by the guy who had practically unlimited access to the man.

The interesting principles actually begin with Marc Andreesen’s forward in the paperback addition. Now I’m not exactly a fan of that guy, and this point is rather obvious, but I do think he explains what makes most Apple products superior quite well on p. xiii:

     “Since I have a degree in computer science, I pride myself on never opening the manual on anything electronic. But I could not change the clock on the center console of my father-in-law’s German sport-utility truck. There’s a “Systems” button, and there’s a “settings” option in the “Systems” menu. But there’s no setting for changing the clock. I finally broke down and went into the manual for the console display, and I looked up in the index under “time.” Under “time” it said, “Refer to the other manual.” It turns out you can’t change the truck’s clock from the center console. You have to change the clock from the steering wheel because the clock is controlled by the car’s firmware, not the dash display software. It took twenty-five minutes to change the clock. Pre-Apple in the extreme.

The way Steve would react to that is simple: everybody involved in allowing this product to leave the factory without that being fixed would be fired.”

This is exactly how I felt the first time I used BlackBoard. Indeed, it’s obvious that edtech in general could use a little more of Steve Jobs’ thinking for the good of all its users, professors and students alike.  But that’s a pretty easy point to make. Like shooting fish and a barrel.

Here’s a slightly more complicated one inspired by the same book.  On page 225, the section about iMacs, is Schlender and Tetzeli’s explanation of what Jobs thought computers were for:

To understand why Steve could pare down Apple’s offerings so drastically in 1997, it helps to think of personal computers as protean devices that can be programmed to be any number of tools–a word processor, a supercalculator, a digital easel, a searchable library of research materials, an inventory control system, you name it. There’s no need for the machine to have a different physical form to perform each different service. All it needs is powerful adaptable software within. And in the mid-1990s, the capability of software was expanding faster than ever, thanks to the advent of local area networks and the burgeoning Internet. When software can link you to other people and to databases housed on databases far away from yours, it becomes much more powerful than an application that is strictly to whatever is stored on your own personal computer.

While a learning management system at least doesn’t have to rest inside your computer, as long as it’s designed to make it difficult to utilize material outside that system it’s just another form of walled garden. But that’s not the only problem. Because your provider sets the parameters of what that system can do, what you might want to do could very well be like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

To draw on my own experience using BlackBoard’s gradebook last semester, I wanted to have only four out five of the ID quizzes count towards 20% of my survey students’ final grades. I had to have four slots for grades and go back and  enter the last quiz in different places. This meant (among other things) that the gradebook’s running grade totals  were as good as useless until the very end of the course when I gave the last quiz. This can’t possibly be an uncommon way of setting up grades, right? If you can do it on an Excel spreadsheet, you should able to be do it inside your LMS.

So me and my friend Jonathan have written a book about the many reasons why faculty should take technology choices into their own hands. Just because the systems on your campus make it difficult to think different, doesn’t mean that you can’t do so anyway.

Let me try another analogy to help explain the nature of the problem. We got a new classroom building at CSU-Pueblo about a year ago now. Most of the rooms in that building seat at least forty people and have fixed chairs raised on a slant towards the back, facing giant computer screens. All of my classes have less than forty people and now that I’ve moved my survey class online, I don’t lecture anymore either. Luckily, I still have our old, crappy building with chairs I can move into circles and smaller computer screens in front that I can use whenever I actually need them.

Working inside any learning management system eliminates this kind of freedom, even if that freedom is essential to creating the kind of educational experience I want for my course, online or otherwise. There’s an old Lisa Lane blog post that I included in our book, that I’ll cite again here because it seems appropriate:

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

I’m not saying that I can create any experience as good as Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin or especially Steve Jobs, but some control over the parameters of the technology we teach with is essential for professors to be able to create anything that bears any resemblance to a work of art.

If we don’t think different, we’re all going to end up systematized or standardized or, worst of all, automated out of existence. In other words, choose your tools wisely while the choice is still available. Your employment may depend upon it sooner than you think.

Posted in Learning Management Systems, Online Courses, Teaching, Technology

Coming in September.


The blurb:

“While much has been written about the doors that technology can open for students, less has been said about its impact on teachers and professors. Although technology undoubtedly brings with it huge opportunities within higher education, there is also the fear that it will have a negative effect both on faculty and on teaching standards.

Education Is Not an App offers a bold and provocative analysis of the economic context within which educational technology is being implemented, not least the financial problems currently facing higher education institutions around the world. The book emphasizes the issue of control as being a key factor in whether educational technology is used for good or bad purposes, arguing that technology has great potential if placed in caring hands. While it is a guide to the newest developments in education technology, it is also a book for those faculty, technology professionals, and higher education policy-makers who want to understand the economic and pedagogical impact of technology on professors and students. It advocates a path into the future based on faculty autonomy, shared governance, and concentration on the university’s traditional role of promoting the common good.

Offering the first critical, in-depth assessment of the political economy of education technology, this book will serve as an invaluable guide to concerned faculty, as well as to anyone with an interest in the future of higher education.”

The initial endorsements:

‘This is a timely, and essential, book. The authors avoid the common trap of being firmly in a pro- or anti- technology camps and instead view the application of educational technology through a political economy lens. Your classrooms are no longer solely your own, they argue. Educational technology, often driven by Silicon Valley ideology, has particular aims in education. Examining the claims made and the implications for all educators allows us to make informed decisions. The control of education is at stake, and this book sets out the key areas with clarity and passion.’ — Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology, The Open University, UK

‘Digital technologies can expand or contract freedom for faculty and students, depending on who’s making the decisions. In Education is Not an App, Poritz and Rees describe both the threat and the opportunity, and issue a clear call for faculty control of our new digital tools.’ — Clay Shirky, Professor of Social Media, New York University, USA

Available now for pre-order.

Posted in Books, Education Is Not an App

Repeat after me: “You are an expert in your own teaching!”


So I have an announcement: Next year I will be the faculty fellow at CSU-Pueblo’s Center for Teaching and Learning. First you go for the free food. Next thing you know they give you a job. Well, not a job exactly. The reward is one course off to work on bettering my online survey course and to help convince other faculty to employ useful online teaching tools. Here’s my first piece of free advice for everyone on campus: Don’t be like either of these guys:

On the second day of the workshop, Mr. Bradbury had an aha! moment. Stace Carter, a freelance instructional designer, told the group the story of a philosophy professor who insisted on bringing his dog along to a video shoot for his course. Mr. Carter showed a clip in which the professor, Mitchell Green, reads a passage from a book while sitting by a stream. The dog distractingly digs around on the ground and then licks the professor’s face, all while Mr. Green continues reading aloud, unfazed. The roomful of professors at the teaching workshop erupted into laughter.

Mr. Carter admitted his first instinct was to reshoot the video. Instead, he and the professor just went with it. “People loved it. They begged for more, saying they can’t wait for next week,” Mr. Carter told the group. What comes through in the video, imperfect as it surely is, is a sense of authenticity.

I love dogs. However, your dog isn’t gonna make or break your online course. No, scratch that. If your students care more about your dog than the material, your decision to teach with Fido might actually break it for you. Imagine for a moment that you brought your dog to your in-person lecture. Everyone there would be laughing and happy? Would they learn any more? I don’t think so. They’d just remember that there was a dog in class one day and he licked the professor’s face. Why would doing the same thing online be any different.

Why do people take such bad advice? Here’s the problem in a nutshell:


Professor goes into an online class training session, assumes he has everything to learn and becomes susceptible to any old suggestion.

It’s not hatred of dogs here that motivates me here. It’s my well-known hatred of “flipped classrooms.” While the dog lecturer isn’t flipping the classroom in the conventional sense since he’ll be teaching entirely online, it’s still a class that’s dependent on videotaped lectures to get content across. Apparently, some teaching and learning specialists still think taping your lectures is educational magic:

“The traditional style of classroom is one where it’s a full-on lecture for the entire time, and there’s some level of information transmission that happens there, depending on whether students are awake,” said Kevin Barry, president of the group and director of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Notre Dame. “But the processing of that information happens outside of class. What the research shows now is that if we can move that processing into the classroom, for at least part of the class time, we’ll get better results in terms of learning. ‘Flipping the classroom’ is the term.”

You think people will pay more attention to you lecturing when they know the professor’s not watching AND checking e-mail or Facebook at the same time is just a click away? I think not. Shoot, if there’s anything I’ve learned from like 50 of my edtech tweeps it’s that if you want to teach online well, you need to design your classes around what the Internet does well. Don’t just move your existing old course online and hope for the best. In that case, you’re much more likely to make it worse than the better. Having just watched this webinar is currently stuck in my mind. Most historians who use that program, it seems, use that tool to have students mark up texts together and work out the problems in real time. Try doing that with pen and paper! {If I had decent wifi in my classroom building, I’d be doing it myself, but that’s a complaint for another time.]

The moral of this story (if the title isn’t a big giveaway) is that you are an expert in your own teaching! Don’t let some teaching and learning “expert” convince you to do something just because it’s easy or because “studies” suggest that it might work. Have confidence in yourself and your experience. Most importantly, feel free to experiment. We all know that failure is just another word for learning when it comes to our students and the same is true for faculty too. If you don’t believe me, then look at this GIF very closely:


Now read the title of this post over and over again until you actually believe it.

Posted in Personal, Teaching, Technology

Time warp.

If I’m writing about superprofessors again it must be 2012, right?

Posted in MOOCs

How do you build a respectable all-online US History survey class?, Part II.

Part I is here.

So I’m well into writing my all-online US History survey course for this fall now.  Oddly enough, after having spent so much time planning how I want to do it, the actually writing seems very easy.  It’s also totally in line with everything I’ve been doing with my pedagogy lately.  Most notably, recognizing the “You Really Can Google Anything” problem, I’ve turned the whole thing into a kind of composition course, which is basically what I’ve already been doing in all of my other courses anyway.

For fear of this post being several thousand words long, I think I’m going to break this update into two parts.  The first is going to cover theory and (once again) discuss tools.  Then I’ll eventually going to get around to write another post about assignments.

It actually helps that my college has made a terrible mistake with respect to all the first fully-online classes they’ll offer.  They listed mine in the catalog with an “O” next to it, and a time that says “to be arranged.”  Nobody knows what the “O” means and “to be arranged” sounds ominous.  Therefore, my class currently has zero students enrolled in it.  Donna Souder, the Director of our glorious Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) has plans to rectify that with a big push for the few online classes all around the university closer to the Fall, but I’m actually grateful that I’ll likely be able to start small.

Donna deserves mention here again for her goal of getting an online version of every general education course in the university going – a goal to which I’m contributing.  At first blush, that may seem stupid as students already have an option of taking classes through our extended studies program or they could take such classes through a separate system campus that’s entirely online or any other remotely respectable online provider they may chose and transfer the credit in.  Unfortunately, we as a department don’t get any FTE (Full Time Enrollment) credit if they do that.  If enough students do this, both our history program and the university in general run the risk of being eaten alive.

Donna’s objective is to distinguish our courses as being the ones  with living, breathing professors available on campus if you need them, so I’ll actually be keeping office hours over at the CTL in the Fall where the rooms are big enough to talk to more than one student at once and the wifi actually works…but that’s another story.

With respect to the course itself, I’m writing most of it on the free version of Canvas.  My now-very-well-known hatred of BlackBoard is not the only reason I like Canvas.  However, the fact that the gradebook can compute totals from grades with pluses and minuses and our version of BlackBoard can’t certainly is another extra asset in my book.  I also like the fact that in Canvas I can turn off the bells and whistles that I don’t want to use.  Most importantly, though, I’ve written at least a little of every part of the course where I want to use Canvas and I haven’t had to go back and take a tutorial once.  The whole thing is so instinctual, it reminds me of the way Apple Operating Systems used to be (and I’m sure that’s intentional).

For discussion and turning in papers, I’m using Slack.  I’ve already written about why I love Slack.  Two semesters later, I still do for the same reasons.  My thoughts here are to set up a channel for each assignment as well as private groups for students who don’t want to post there questions out loud.  And while I’m sure Canvas has an absolutely lovely way to share files (and I will likely put my handouts there), the drop and drag capabilities of Slack make it by far the easiest way to get papers.  Indeed, judging from the increased propensity of students to avoid e-mail at all costs I’d say it’s the best way too.

This post is getting a tad long now, so I’ll just list the other programs on the sheet and describe how I’ll use them when I cover assignments.  One is Milestone Documents.  I’m definitely going to use with Milestone Documents, but the exact assignment is still a little up-in-the-air at this point.  Weirdly enough, I’m going back to a textbook for this course – not because I have any new love for textbooks, but as a content resource that students can consult.  The book is comparatively cheap and all online, but since I won’t be holding them accountable for specific facts buried inside of it (since the heart of the course is essays) I don’t feel too bad about backtracking in this direction.

Exactly how are those essay assignments going to be structured?  How exactly will I use online annotation?  How the heck can I possibly grade online discussion?  Well, I haven’t answered those questions myself yet, but whenever I do I’ll write up the next post in this series.

Posted in Online Courses, Teaching, Technology

History professors and technology: Why can’t we be friends?

A few days ago, blogger and podcaster extraordinaire John Fea  artfully summarized an AHA Perspectives piece about why the number of history majors has dropped nationwide:

1. The 2008 recession led high school students to think about majoring in a field that would give them more economic security and a more direct career path.
2. Colleges and universities throwing money into STEM fields at the expense of the humanities.
3. History departments are still doing a poor job of articulating what students can do with a history major.
4. More men major in history than women and fewer men are attending college.
5. History departments are too rigorous or at least present themselves that way. This may scare students off.
6. History departments rely too heavily on introductory courses to recruit students in an age when an ever-increasing number of students are taking their history requirement in community colleges or fulfilling the requirement through AP exams and dual enrollment.
7. Changes in general education requirements at many colleges now allow students to fulfill such requirements without taking a history course.
8. Jobs in traditional history-related fields such as K-12 teaching and the law are declining.

I wanted to offer another reason that is impossible to test, but I think it’s worth throwing out there anyways. Students find most of our classes – especially large lecture classes – extremely boring and (at least to some extent) obsolete. That’s not the same as saying that we are all boring necessarily. I used to love listening to good history lectures when I was an undergraduate, but this is a new era.

Yes, I am talking about cell phones.  People can’t sit through a Hollywood movie these days without reaching for their phones.  How are you gonna succeed where Captain America and Iron Man regularly fail?  This is why I went all squishy on tech bans a while back.  How can I throw someone out of my class for doing the same thing i do in mandatory college assessment strategy meetings?

But of course when it comes to technology more than just cell phones affect our student’s attention spans. Literally any single fact that I can include in a lecture can be Googled, and in most cases even the Wikipedia entry that appears first in the results will be good enough as a test or quiz answer for an undergraduate survey course. Go try it now. I know I have. I started this practice as soon as I started getting specific factual information on tests that I know didn’t appear in my lectures or the assigned reading.

“But we have to teach students to evaluate sources on the Internet!” Yes, I know. We also have to teach them other skills like how to read critically and, God forbid, how to write coherent essays. Unfortunately, large factually oriented survey classes that are designed to cover large swaths of historical information are absolutely the worst place in college to start doing any of those things. Moreover, the size of the courses only drop when students move on to upper-level classes, but you’ll lose most students before they get there because (as noted above) history departments are losing majors. It’s a vicious circle.

My classes – particularly my survey classes – have been evolving in response to these changes for years now. First, I started adding lecture breaks, like YouTube videos. Then I started revolting against coverage, offering more days devoted to anything but me lecturing. Now, planning my first online course, I’m doing away with lecturing altogether.* I’m certainly not saying that all history courses should be online, but I am saying that we can’t keep doing what our own history professors did for us because it’s not gonna work any longer. Heck, to me the drop in majors strongly suggests that it’s not working now. We are all a lot more like our old history professors (we turned out to be history professors too, you know) than we are like this generation of students.

Luckily, well-chosen technology can actually help us blow up our classes and put them back together again in new and exciting ways rather than boring and dumb ones.  I’m not talking PowerPoint and I’m not talking MOOCs either. What I’m talking about are a variety of programs that can help us teach our students marketable, history-related skills that will help them succeed in life even if they don’t want to become history professors. [And frankly, advising anyone to go to graduate school in history in this job market is tantamount to an economic death sentence, but that’s the subject for another blog post.]

While the projects linked to from here are not from my survey classes, they’re a pretty good indicator of what students can do with Scalar – just one program that I’ve been playing with for a couple of years now. Actually, it has mostly been my students playing with Scalar rather than me and as they’ve teaching me all about it, I’ve been able to guide them better through these kinds of research projects. Now I’m tempted to invoke that stupid cliche about being a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage,” what’s most important here is that I’ve kind of appointed myself as the executive in charge of their research and exploration process. Nobody can fire me and replace me with a grad student or an algorithm because I design the course, I guide its direction (with lots of input from students) and we all learn more about both the tools and the history involved whenever it’s over.

Very longtime readers know that I used to be anti-technology when it came to history instruction, but me and technology are friends now. And as long as I remain the one calling the shots, things are gonna stay that way.

* Yes, I know I owe this blog a second post on how to build an intellectually respectable online course. I swear I’ll get to it. I have a plan, I just need to write more of the course before I continue sharing.

Posted in History, Teaching, Technology