My adventures in digital history.

These are my remarks as written (if not exactly as delivered) in Paul Harvey’s history seminar at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs this morning:

I recently wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Confessions of an Ex-Lecturer.” Yet my appearance this class (well, the first part of this class anyway) is going to be a lecture. Yes, I’m going to lecture about why and how I stopped lecturing. To get past this enormous contradiction, let me make a distinction between conveying historical content and making a pedagogical argument. You have no reason to memorize anything I say today. There will be no quiz later. Instead, this lecture explains my thinking about teaching history to you and see if I can convince you I’m right. I’ve adopted a lecture format here because I have to tell the story of how my thinking has changed in order for you to follow along with my reasoning.

My opinions on this subject are not popular in historical circles. As one of my former graduate school acquaintances put it on Twitter the other day: “[T]hey will pry the lecture out of my cold, dead hands.” I sympathize. Old habits die hard. That’s the way I learned history when I was in college. Indeed, I never had a class of any kind in college that had fewer than thirty people in it and the vast majority of those class periods consisted of people lecturing at us. A lot of those professors were really good at what they did – although I did take a class from a political science professor who looked up at the ceiling as he talked, which drove me completely crazy….but that’s a story for another time. The reasons I’ve sworn off lecturing in my own classes are twofold.

First, there’s the advent of the cell phone. These small supercomputers have so permeated daily life that the average person – notice how I didn’t say average student – average person can’t go ten minutes without reaching for their phone at least once. Indeed, stick me in some meeting where someone starts lecturing about something that I’m not particularly interested in and I’ll reach for my phone far faster that. I could be the most interesting lecturer in the world (which I most certainly am not), and a good number of you would still reach for your phones at some point during the presentation.

Please understand that I’m not blaming millennials here. I’m blaming everybody. For so many of us, the temptations of the Internet is just to hard to resist. “When people say they’re addicted to their phones, they are not only saying that they want what their phones provide,” writes the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, “they are also saying that they don’t want what their phones allow them to avoid.” If I’m talking at you in a classroom of any size, it is ridiculously easy for you to avoid me and I’m not going to be able to change that. Therefore, I have to talk at you I better make darn sure that I have something interesting to say.

So what if I give you the opportunity to do something rather than to passively absorb information? What the Internet take away, it also giveth. My interest in digital history comes from my interest in finding some alternative to lecturing about historical facts and then testing students on how many of those facts they’re retained. I know this is sacrilege in most historical circles, but I’m gonna say it anyways: You really can Google anything.

The Internet is well-developed enough that most of the time a discerning consumer of information can get reasonably reliable factual information very quickly with limited effort. But, and this is the second reason I’ve basically given up lecturing, with limited technical knowledge it is now possible for ordinary college students to make useful contributions to the great pool of historical information available online. Not only that, by doing so, they can pick up practical computer skills that will increase their employability upon graduation. With that kind of upside, taking some of the attention in class off of me seemed like a small price to pay.

One of the most interesting things about digital history is that this field lets you make professional use of skills that you probably picked up just by being an active digital citizen. For example, I started blogging right after I got tenure in 2003 because I was a lot less worried about someone threatening my employment because of my political opinions. Oddly enough, I devoted my entire blogging life to one subject: Walmart. I learned WordPress from a guy named Jeff Hess in Cleveland, Ohio via e-mail. Jeff was the administrator of our group anti-Walmart blog.

In 2007, when my department wrote and was awarded a teaching American History grant from the federal Department of Education, I used those skills in class for the first time. We were funded to take teachers to historic sites on the East Coast over the summer and this was a way that they could write easily from the road and that we could still follow them. So could their relatives friends and even students, which served as a nice side benefit – a benefit that applies to all sorts of history undertaken on the open web.

Another skill I already had which turns out to have enormous digital history ramifications is some proficiency in social media. Personally, I’m a stonecold Facebook hater, but Twitter has been a godsend to me with respect to digital history not so much in class but for keeping up with the field. Your professor, for example, (if you didn’t already know) is a prolific Tweeter, if mores on American religious history than digital history and things technological. More importantly, my students have used it to reach out to scholars in fields that they’re researching.

It’s also a great tool for publicizing the work you do online. I actually got a book contract thanks to Twitter (although not in history). If you’ve spent any time listening to the Canadian scholar Bon Stewart as I have, you’ll understand how social media in general and Twitter in particular is a great tool for building communities of interest – and I mean that both in terms of what you enjoy and as a way to fight for what you believe.

With respect to digital history in particular, the turning point for me in particular was the summer of 2014 when I attended an NEH Institute at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Virginia. Me and a bunch of other folks who never studied this stuff in Grad School got a very intensive tour of what’s on the web, web tools and how we might want to integrate them into our classes. Some of it was old hat for me. Unlike a lot of my fellow professors, I had already heard of two-factor authentication and Password protection programs.

However, when it came to history-specific web tools almost everything they touched on was brand new to me. One I was already using, but learned to use better is Zotero, which actual began at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and really ought to be on every historian’s must-use list. Zotero is a notes program that lets you gain intellectual control of your research by allowing you to search it at the word level. That includes content inside digital copies of things that you’ve scanned and uploaded. As someone who wrote his dissertation on 4×6 notecards I can tell you I am never, ever going backwards on this. That’s why I’m now requiring all my students doing research papers to use it. My students constantly tell me how grateful they are to know about Zotero, and how they wish they knew about it two or three years earlier.

A jaw-dropping research tool for digital historians that I first learned about in Virginia is Camscanner. Camscanner is an app that turns your cell phone scanner into a document scanner. If I could show you the huge pile of Xerox copies I made for my dissertation at 25 cents, 50 cents…even a dollar a pop, you’d know why this is so amazing. Having access to free copies of documents from archive make sit easier to acquire information over what is often very limited research time. I had some experience with researching this way when the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress installed the greatest book scanners that I had ever seen in order to preserve the physical well-being of their collections (since bending things back for ordinary copying does so much damage). Now I’m swimming in information – information that’s searchable using Zotero. The same is true for my students as I have them working with local archives in my digital history classes.

The program I settled on for them to use is Scalar, which comes out of the University of Southern California. It’s actually designed as a book publishing program, something that allows books to appear on the web with digital media embedded into them. I’ve been using it in class for web exhibits. Study after study has shown that putting resources up on the web drive traffic to physical archives and libraries rather than take it away, so I’ve had my student create Scalar projects using local resources and putting them up on the web. Here’s a recent example from the Steelworks Center for the West that I liked a lot. Here’s another about a place I think that everyone in this class ought to know well.

Why Scalar? You don’t have to know how to program in order to make it look good. Indeed, as the experience of countless of my students has more than proven, you can learn how to use it within just an hour or two of starting to play with it. Indeed, I have plenty of students who can Scalar far better than I can because they’ve had far more reason to use more features than I have since I simply use it to put up a few syllabi (although I have trained to do more now).

Another reason I like Scalar is that students and faculty who use it can host their own Scalars if they go through Reclaim Hosting. This is not the place to argue why faculty and students should take back the web from university administrators and private companies (although I did co-author a book that fits in well with that argument), but one of the best things about the Reclaim-related “Domain of One’s Own” project is that it allows students to keep access to their digital work even after they’ve graduated. Scalars students create through Reclaim therefore can serve as evidence to potential employers that they can do something other than just historicize things. Not that there’s anything wrong with the ability to historicize things, but in this manner digital history might actually be the answer to the age-old question, “What can you actually do with a history degree (besides teach)?”

On personal level, my digital history experiments has proved much more interesting than standing up and lecturing to disinterested students about the same old things that I had always been lecturing about. In the future, I’m dying to get into digital mapping, as the Steelworks Center of the West has an absolutely astounding collection of mine maps that cover both towns and mines. I imagine a digital project that traces the physical impact of mining on Southern Colorado’s landscape as soon as I have enough theoretical background to pitch it to some funding agency. What’s really great is that thanks to my changes in pedagogy I’ll be able to get my students to pitch in.

When I was at the American Historical Association meeting in Denver a few weeks ago, I attended almost nothing but digital history sessions. I was really struck by all the people at those sessions by how willing everyone was to admit that they have no idea what they’re doing – that the whole field of digital history is kind of a running experiment. To paraphrase one scholar I heard at the meeting, digital history blurs the line between research, teaching and service. In my case, I’m having students do historical research and putting on the web for the benefit of local historical non-profits. I think the benefits of doing this far outweigh whatever harm that gets done to my ego if I’m no longer the center of attention in class anymore.

Get your side hustle off.

I’ve been streaming a lot of Simpsons with my son lately. Backwards. Since I quit watching the show regularly sometime in the late-90s, this was the best way that we could both enjoy all-new material. The quality of even the most recent stuff is obviously the good thing about streaming the Simpsons. The bad thing is being locked into watching all those Fox commercials since my cable company (or maybe it’s Fox) won’t let us fast forward. The above Uber commercial has been on full rotation for months. In fact, it sometimes plays twice an episode. I’ve been making so many “earnin’/chillin'” jokes that my son now leaves the room when it comes on.

I thought of that commercial twice while I was at the AHA in Denver last weekend. The first time was when I explained to four historians from Northern California (ironically, the first place that I ever took an Uber) how Uber works. [Key lesson: Always tip your driver!] The second time was when I went to my first digital humanities panel on Saturday morning. The commentator, Chad Gaffield from the University of Ottawa, was talking about how DH makes it possible to break down the false dichotomy between work and play. That spoke to me, because I’ve been having an awful lot of fun teaching all my classes lately. Indeed, I’m going to bring that up the next time I hear someone who teaches like it’s still 1995 start talking about “rigor.”

The other point Gaffield mentioned that I thought was really important was the way that DH blends the traditional roles of teaching, research and service. In my case, I teach students how to research using local resources that help the community once they appear online. However, I suspect there are a million variations to that. In any event, when you fill out your annual performance review, we can all include DH work in whichever category we don’t have enough material in already.

In the very early days of this blog, the role of tech critic was something of a side hustle for me. It wasn’t my day job, but my writing nonetheless found an audience. It’s through the conversations which that writing inspired that I stumbled into a large, multi-disciplinary pool of scholar/teachers who were trying to utilize the Internet to create unique educational experiences rather than cheap, dumb carbon copies of face-to-face courses. I started teaching online so that I could try to set a positive example for other people who might be reluctant to make the same jump because so much of what’s out there has a justifiably bad reputation. I still have a long way to go, but one of the most refreshing things I got out of all the DH panels I went to last weekend is that so does everybody else. Even historians who get their DH papers onto AHA panels readily admit that their learning curve remains steep.

By the time I left Denver in Sunday, I had decided I’m never going back. I don’t want my conventional courses to be entirely conventional anymore. In other words, I’ve been convinced that the digital needs to be present in every course I teach.

I am hardly the first person to draw such a conclusion. CU-Boulder’s Patty Limerick wrote in the September 2016 issue of AHA Perspectives that:

In innumerable settings, historians in Colorado are stepping up to this challenge. In the process, they are devising practices that transcend the conventional turf fights between “academic history” and “public history,” uniting in the strenuous and satisfying work of “applied history.”

I think you could make a pretty good case that food and refrigerators are relevant today, but it’s my classes which take students into the Steelworks Center of the West and the Pueblo Public Library that fit this definition of “applied history” the best.

While such activities have little to do with my current research, teaching is 50% of my job according the annual performance review I’ll have to turn in a couple of weeks from now. In short, what was once my side hustle has now become my regular hustle. While there’s still a lot of tech criticism left to write and I plan to write at least some of it when I have the time, this blog, when I have time for it (and why would I have redesigned it if I had intended to never use it again?) is going full pedagogy.

In the meantime, I have another actual history book I want to write…

More mistakes from my first semester teaching the US History survey online.

My first semester as an online instructor is almost over. Who knows where the time goes?

Curating a respectable online survey course experience comes with a lot of responsibility. In my humble opinion, too many online US history survey courses cling to the vestiges of the traditional lecture model. As I’ve explained here and here, mine is more like an English composition class. While I’ve enjoyed teaching it so far, the whole thing is far from perfect. So in the interests of transparency and helping anyone out there who might actually be interested in following my path, I’m going to try to explain more of the mistakes I’ve made (besides this one), as well as all the fixes that I’ll be implementing when I re-write the syllabus over Christmas break for next semester’s students.

1) Many years ago, when I first started at CSU-Pueblo, I asked an Associate Provost whether he thought I should have an attendance policy. “Do it for their own good,” he responded, and I have mostly stuck with that advice. Of course, an attendance policy makes no sense in the context of an asynchronous, entirely online course, but you still need your students to log in to do the work. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have lamented the fact that when I remind students that there is an attendance policy, the people who need to hear it usually aren’t in the room. Telling students to log in and do the work when they never bother to log in is even more frustrating.

That’s why I’m moving to mandatory meetings (in person or via Skype) during the first two weeks of class, when everyone’s working on setting up the various accounts and programs I require. On a human level, I suspect it’s a little harder to abandon a course when the professor is a person rather than screen presence. On the more practical level, my one question during those meetings is going to be, “How do I reach you if you suddenly disappear?” Yes, I realize that online courses have always had higher dropout rates than their face-to-face alternatives, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try to make my course something of an exception.

2) Another typical problem I’ve had is with the discussion aspect of the course. For one thing, it proved next to impossible to get and keep a good discussion going with a very small number of students (although things have been better now towards the end of our time together), even though Slack has worked beautifully for student/teacher communications. Besides getting a bigger course, I think my problem here was requiring too little. I’ve been asking for a question and an answer and a document summary for each two-week unit. In the future, I’m going to up that to once a week, and increase the percentage of the grade that goes for discussion. I also need to recommend the Slack mobile app a little more forcefully, as it has been great for keeping track of those discussions that went well.

3) As part of those unit assignments, I’ve been requiring students to bring in a source from the wider Internet in order to evaluate it. I LOVE the fact that I can conceivably do that well in this format, especially after reading the summaries of that bone-chilling Stanford study about students and fake news. The problem in my class has been is that students don’t have any context to evaluate what makes something reliable. Indeed, the best answers I could get all revolved around the origin of the story. “It’s from the New York Times, of course it’s reliable.” Nobody cares where the NYT was getting its info.

My plan is to move the outside sources out of the week-to-week writing assignments and into the pre-exam section of the course, and try to ban them outright for the bi-weekly essays. Too many people were using Google to write their assignments anyway, and not looking at the credible assigned texts. If I move the wider web stuff to the end of the course sections, then they’ll have weeks of assignments and textbook reading that they can compare their outside sources too. If a reliable, already assigned primary source (or even the textbook) corroborates their outside source, then we can all gain a better understanding of what reliability really means.

4) I’m just gonna come out and say it: Online grade books are shit. Yes, the one in Canvas is better than the one in BlackBoard, but if your grading scheme includes something as simple as dropping the lowest grade of any kind of assignment (as mine does) it is impossible to get these systems to do what you want them to do ad still have a reliable total at the end of the row of columns. And don’t even ask me about converting letter grades into points. It’ll just make me angry.

This whole problem reminds me of why I resented grade books for so long back when I was only teaching more conventional classes. Students would constantly ask me what they’re grade was and I’d say, “Do the math.” The math wasn’t that hard, but they were so used to getting their simple running final grade totals on a platter that response made me look like an asshole. Yet there are advantages to not keeping a running total.  For example, I can do crazy things like grade up for improvement over the course of the semester or even curve my results if I decide that my constant pedagogical experiments proved too much for that semester’s students.

So what am I going to do about this? First, I’m going to try to disable the final grade mechanism entirely so all that students can do is read their letter grades. I think that might work if I assign zero points for each assignment and use a separate spreadsheet at the end of the semester. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to stop using a grade book entirely. Sometimes old school is better than dumb school.

5) Read the syllabus:

If you thought reading the syllabus was important for regular courses, it is probably five times as important for online courses because your students don’t get the benefit of listening to you repeat reminders at them all semester. As usual, some students clearly did do so, but others clearly didn’t.

What to do here? At first I was thinking about a syllabus quiz, but that’s so boring. My new idea is an online treasure hunt that will force students to go back through the other programs I’m forcing then to use. [What is in the crazy online GIF that I embedded in the first response in Slack #random channel? Send the response to me as a Slack direct message.] Stick those commands in random places in the middle of the syllabus (and grade them), and maybe I can kill two birds with one stone.

Yes, there are a few more mistakes that I know I’ve made, but the of Gravatars or my my troubles with Hypothes.is groups were in no way pivotal to the success or failure of the class. The mistakes covered here are enough for public consumption. In the meantime, your thoughts and suggestions to what’s here would be much appreciated both by me and my fellow denizens of the CSU-Pueblo Center for Teaching and Learning who are teaching online for the first few times and trying to make their courses better too.

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 Hypothes.is. I had used it a bit last semester, but after I went to a Hypothes.is 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 Hypothes.is 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, Hypothes.is, 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.

“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.

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.

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

via GIPHY

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:

via GIPHY

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 Hypothes.is 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:

via GIPHY

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

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 Hypothes.is 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.

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.