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 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 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.

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.

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.

This is how it feels to use BlackBoard for the first time…

“The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,” reads a quote from Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography. “People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk The one on the top is most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.”

The only experience I’ve had that serves as leverage for setting up a gradebook on BlackBoard is using Windows 95, and even then (as an Apple user since the late-1970s) I never subjected myself to that experience voluntarily. I didn’t exactly decide to use BlackBoard voluntarily this time either. I’m still working on an all-online US History survey class for the fall. For years, I’ve been on the receiving end of the question, “What grade am I getting in this class?” and I’ve always had to explain that I don’t do any math until the end of the semester, but you’re welcome to use the percentages in the syllabus to make a close estimate. That explanation is invariably met with dirty looks.  I don’t feel comfortable employing that option anymore in a class where I won’t physically see students on a regular basis. Hence, my jump to this particular dark side.

And oh man, is it dark! I mean, I’ve been hating on Learning Management Systems for years now simply based on three disastrous training sessions in the early 2000s and a lot of secondhand stories. Oh yeah…there’s also this:


That’s a fuzzy (due to shrinking) screenshot of when I search my e-mail for just a few of the notifications when my university’s BlackBoard has been down for service.  So why subject myself to that kind of heartache?  The things I’ll do to prove a point about faculty autonomy…

Anyhow, in order to properly convey the Pete Puma experience to those of you who have never used BlackBoard, let me focus on three problems I had on the way to getting my gradebook up and running.  The very first one was simply making my course available to students.  If BlackBoard was gonna follow anything like the Steve Jobs Rule above, this would be the easy place to do it, right?  No such luck.  Here’s the minute and fifteen second video BlackBoard produced to explain what Jobs would have done with a single button:

To sum up: You have to access “properties” from the “customization” section of the control panel. The availability function is the third thing down that page. That’s right, the first thing you have to do with any course is buried half way down a page in a menu at the bottom of the control panel listed under titles that sound like they have nothing whatsoever to do with making your course available.

To be fair, I think the second problem I faced is because of the way my university runs BlackBoard rather than BlackBoard’s design per se, but it’s still bad enough to taint the entire experience. When I created the gradebook, there were twice as many names in it than I had students. Apparently, anyone who ever signs up for my course gets listed in the gradebook even if they switch sections or drop before the semester starts. The crazy thing though is that instead of simply deleting them from my book by checking their names and pressing “delete”, I had to delete all of them as “users” from this course so that they wouldn’t show up in the gradebook student list. Totally counter-intuitive and again I had to watch another video to find where that function was buried in the column on the left column of the dashboard.

My last problem was with the columns in the gradebook. I’m used to using Microsoft Excel for grades where you just enter numbers and write a function, but every column in a Blackboard gradebook has properties. Date created. Date the assignment is due. Total number of points available. Whether the assignment has a number or a letter grade. Then you have to mark what view it gets displayed in. To move columns in the layout you have to drag them from a symbol on the left that looks like this: “{}” rather than actually drag them. It took some more video watching and a couple of very polite e-mails just to get this down because again it’s completely counter-intuitive.

Now imagine how many lumps I’d be taking if I built a whole class out of BlackBoard. Now imagine how students feel using a system built like this. Now imagine how all of you feel when BlackBoard comes out with a new version that changes the things that you took hours to learn. No wonder BlackBoard’s market share is tanking.

But no matter how many lumps BlackBoard has already taken, I think they deserve at least three or four more.  Indy EdTech 4ever!!!

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

On Friday, Chronicle Vitae published an essay I wrote in which I argued that tenured professors ought to start teaching online (especially if they hate the idea), since they have the power and the knowledge to do it right.  I’ve been planning my own effort to put my money where my mouth is for a few months now so I thought I’d share exactly where I am.  But before I do that, I need to extend many thanks to my very own volunteer instructional designer, Debbie Morrison (whose extremely helpful blog is here), for her excellent e-mailed advice.

My first decision was to jump in the deep end.  What does that mean?  Yesterday morning, I was tweeting with Claire Major of the University of Alabama (who literally wrote the book about teaching online). She noted something that I had already figured out for myself:

That’s why I’m going to go entirely Lendol Calder on this thing. In other words, kill the fact memorizing entirely since you really can Google anything – at least anything that might end up on an American history survey course. There’s also the basic security issue, I’m afraid that the only way nobody can be sure that you aren’t a dog on the Internet is to set up a mini police state so I want to structure the whole thing like an extended writing seminar rather than a series of lectures punctuated by quizzes and tests.

We have fourteen-week semesters at CSU-Pueblo. With all the outside the LMS apps I want to use, I imagine one week of nothing but dealing with technical issues, ten one-week modules and three weeks where students will have nothing to do except write longer essays that will be akin to papers. A post will go up on the class blog every Monday morning at 9 am. It will start with a single broad essay question and a link to a very short intro video on YouTube about the topic.  Yeah, I hate the idea of taping myself at all [I was on a frickin’ BBC radio documentary in February and I STILL can’t work up the nerve to listen to my own voice], but I saw that study that says online classes with intro videos from the professors get better results and I can’t think of a better way to personalize the course. As Debbie noted:

Students love hearing the prof of the their course—one prof I worked with said his online students liked him far more than his F2F students.

Of course, this will also make it harder for anyone to replace me…[He looks around in an extremely paranoid fashion to see if anybody is watching].

Then students will have to work their way through a series of primary and secondary sources. For example, each week will include a few Milestone Documents for them to read because Milestone Documents is the best primary source collection I’ve ever seen (and I suggested most of the ones used for my time period myself), then some links to documents, pictures and videos around the web.

I’m also thinking of using a textbook for the first time in a long time. While this is very un-Lendol Calder of me, it’s not really a textbook in the traditional sense of that word. [The best thing I can do is point you to this post by Lisa Lane, which I’m pretty sure is all about the exact same thing.]

Yes, that’s a lot of reading. Yes, students can’t possibly get through it all. I actually don’t want them to get through it all. I want them to have enough historical content at their disposal in order to write one 400-600 word essay per week related to that week’s historical subject and (more importantly) I want them to navigate the enormous amount of reading together in groups using Slack so that they can find what they need to answer the question that I asked them however they see fit.

I wrote about Slack here, but for purposes of this post let’s just say that it’s structured the way that every single LMS’s discussion page SHOULD be structured, especially since it allows students to break off into groups. With this class capped at forty, I’d establish arbitrary groups during tech week and then let them change up over time based on their experiences. Another tool related to the content that I think want to use is something called which allows for web annotation, but I haven’t tested it yet. To substitute for the Dropbox-like functions in any LMS, I want to try what Kelli Marshall is doing. I’ve begun experimenting with it already. The only thing I’d use from our actual LMS is the grade book.

The broadly-worded essay question is what will tie all this together.  I imagine something designed to force students to take off a chunk of what they’ve read and digest it into a manageable argument. I originally planned ten weekly modules with one 400-600 word essay each, but Debbie strongly suggested switching some of those assignments out to something that doesn’t involve writing. I’ve had an animus towards PowerPoint assignments since the global arm of our university system “bought” my US 1945-Present syllabus and turned my research paper assignment into a PowerPoint, but I wouldn’t mind doing something with curation for at least a few of those weeks.  [I guess I better figure out what Pinterest is soon, huh?]  The “midterm” essays would be twice the size of the weekly essays and include material from earlier modules. The final exam essay would be 1200-1500 words and cover the whole course.

Under this possible future. most of my work in the class would be answering questions, helping students find arguments for that week – possibly reading drafts for people who can work particularly fast. I would also participate in discussions about the material on Slack or in the annotations about what any particular issue happens to mean. And, of course, I’d be grading and commenting upon completed essays or whatever other assignments I require. With forty people that’s a lot essays, but then again I won’t have to stand up and talk at forty generally uninterested college students for three hours per week.

So what do you think? Does this sound nuts so far? Debbie responded to those questions with, “Ambitious, not nuts.”  Really, what do you think?  I’ve got lots of time to make changes before next fall, and I’ll try to report them here in subsequent posts.

“Yeah, a storm is threatening my very life today.”

So I got to meet Audrey Watters yesterday. Her talk here in Madison at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute was (as you might expect) pretty intense. I highly recommend that you read it (or watch the video which I’m told should be up at the DPL web site eventually), but here are the points she made that struck me as so important that I had to write them down:

1. Teaching is affective labor (meaning it’s influenced by emotion).

2. This explains why teaching is underpaid and unappreciated, since affective labor is generally associated with women’s work.

3. If the powers that be can convince everyone that computers actually care about students, they will replace all teachers with computers without batting an eyelash.*

While I enjoyed the first day immensely, I did feel like a bit of an interloper until Audrey came along. While I no longer believe that all forms of online education are evil by definition, it is still extraordinarily hard for me to decide exactly what I’m for and what I’m against. Perhaps the great value in Audrey’s talk was that it made me realize that my opinion doesn’t really matter as much as I once thought it did.

If you ever read my old blog, you know that I continually went back and forth on whether a “let them eat MOOCs” approach to higher education would lead to a rebellion among the student population (since they are generally such an inferior form of instruction) or be obediently accepted because that’s what the new normal will become. In fact, I still go back and forth over this same question.

Thanks to Audrey, I realized that the answer to this questions doesn’t really matter because the storm is coming even if John Hennessy now wants it postponed. I once wrote:

“I don’t know whether the Internet will make college professors obsolete, but then again nobody else does, either.”

Unfortunately, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. No, scratch that. The best way to predict the future is to impose it upon everyone else whether they want it or not. The people in charge can make college professors obsolete – whether or not we deserve that fate – because the answer to the obsolescence question depends much more on power than it does on educational quality or justice. No matter how good computers become at mimicking affective labor, they can still make it rain. All we faculty can do is beg for shelter.

Actually, I plan to do more than beg. I think the best way to ride the storm out is to build your own boat. I’m here in Madison in order to learn how to build the strongest and sturdiest boat possible.

* Actually, she put this point in the form of a question, but that’s how I interpreted it since I know we’re both pessimists at heart.

He lost me at “scale.”

I don’t know the historian Steve Mintz, but I do know he’s a pioneer in putting all kinds of historical resources online.  This means he was doing what we now call the Digital Humanities (to which I have some aspirations) long before it was cool.  Today in IHE, he describes his newest project:

This summer, I am designing a U.S. history survey course for online delivery at scale – maintaining chronological sweep while eschewing lectures and emphasizing active learning.

He lost me at “scale.” It’s a shame because if you read that whole blog post you’ll see there’s a lot of things there that I want to do online myself.  Unfortunately, the problems that I have with scale here is so massive, I think they’re insurmountable.  Let me explain why I think they should be non-starters for you too.

In the interests of space, rather than rehash the numerous parts of Mintz’s essay that I agree with I’m going to concentrate on where he lost me.  Here it is all in one paragraph:

One of my goals is to demonstrate that a writing-intensive course built around active learning can be scaled. But successfully implementing such a course won’t be easy. Even when the writing prompts are highly specific and the length of responses is limited, it will be difficult to provide students with the kind of prompt feedback they expect.  There are ways to address this challenge, but many inflict a cost. I can cut back on feedback, reduce the number of modules, or substitute multiple choice questions for written responses. I can also include some ungraded assignments, use some form of peer grading, or experiment with auto-grading.

So what’s he gonna do?  Mintz doesn’t say.  I think there’s a reason he doesn’t say – all those solutions stink.

Cutting back on feedback means that students will not get the kind of writing instruction they deserve. Yes, it’s a requirement for grading at scale, but the problem is that Mintz would be letting the scale engine drive the pedagogy train.  To maintain the integrity of the course would require doing it the other way around.

Reducing the number of modules would mean less actual history instruction.  This is certainly a feasible solution, but it also lacks integrity.  The funny thing about online instruction is that when you say a course is online all those accreditation-related  concerns about seat time just go flying out the window.  Self-paced?  No problem.  While I think it’s unwise to build an online course that resembles whatever your face-to-face course once was, an online course with less material is less likely to achieve whatever the professor’s goals happen to be.  That’s a sacrifice that’s not worth making.

Multiple choice tests?  That would set back history education about fifty years.  I wrote this about multiple choice tests in the history MOOC context way back in 2013:

If we judged the success of a history MOOC on the basis of multiple choice questions based upon the content of superprofessor lectures, then I bet MOOC students would learn a ton. However, no history professor in their right mind would ever define a successful history education this way. I define history education not as the accumulation of facts, but as promoting critical thinking, improving reading and writing skills and as a process of intellectual socialization based upon close interaction between a student, their peers and the professor. None of these things can be measured in numbers.

A regular online history class at scale is actually worse than a MOOC in some ways because it’s designed to replace the labor of living, breathing faculty members.  It’s a job killer by definition.

This is precisely why whatever good Mintz manages to eek out of this experiment will be far overshadowed by the bad.  Yes, I’m talking about the academic equivalent of featherbedding – maintaining jobs that could be rendered obsolete so that people can be employed fill them.  However (and this is a BIG however, so don’t anyone dare quote this paragraph outside its full context), unlike with typesetters during the 1962-63 New York newspaper strike, the people in question here do the job much better than the technology that management wanted to use to replace them.  Mintz’s laudable, unachievable-at-scale aspirations here actually demonstrate why scale hurts the quality of an online history class almost by definition.

The problem that all of us faculty face – whether we teach online or not – is that at least some people with the power to set curricula won’t care.  That explains why faculty keeping control of the technology that might be used to replace them is so important.

Time has come today.

Long before most of us ever heard of MOOCs, I was taking cheap potshots at online education (and my personal all-time favorite).  A lot of those cheap potshots were accurate with respect to a large number of online courses, but certainly not all of them. I’ve since “met” (in the online sense of that word) a fair number of extremely dedicated online teachers who have created the kinds of courses that put many face-to-face courses to shame.

From what I can tell, here are the traits of these kinds of courses:

1) They do not try to duplicate the face-to-face experience. Instead, these courses try to emphasize the kinds of online experiences that can only be done online.

2) They make sparing (if any) use of learning management systems. Instead, these instructors have tried to find tools on the open web that will help them teach the kinds of skills that they want them to learn.

3) These courses are very labor-intensive. Rather than use the online experience as a way to automate tasks that face-to-face instructors must do themselves already, the best online instructors actually make work for themselves.

4) These classes are relatively small. Why? See 3) above.

Last week, I made a decision, ran it by my department chair and, of course, she was thrilled: The time has come today for me to offer my first entirely online course.

OK, maybe not today. It’s gonna take me a while to blow up my 1877-Present history survey class and put it back together again online right, but I think I can get one up and running by next summer (so that I can beta test it) and get the whole thing running up to speed in Fall 2016.

Why do this? After all, it’s not as if anybody’s making me…yet.* Did you see that article in The Nation about the University of Arizona? Here’s what I think is the key paragraph:

Tuition has gone up almost everywhere, and in some places—particularly community colleges and lower-tier four-year schools—class sizes have increased and course offerings have been cut. At flagships like the University of Arizona, however, the effect is more complicated, and in some ways more insidious. Instead of fulfilling their historic mandate to democratize access to elite education for their residents, these schools are relying more heavily on out-of-state students who can pay higher tuition. (In the school year beginning in 2014, in-state tuition at the University of Arizona was about $11,000, while out-of-state tuition was $29,500.) To lure students who can afford to pay that bill, campuses are investing in resort-like amenities, even as they cut academic departments and financial aid. Thus universities meant to ameliorate social inequality are instead exacerbating it.

So what we’re left with are two kinds of schools; those with their own pinkberries and those without. [Read the article and that’ll make sense.] Or to put it another way that doesn’t require you to read that whole article, in the near future there’ll be two kinds of universities: factories and country clubs. I work at a factory. Most of you reading this probably do too.**

Fortunately, working at a factory need not be a cause for despair because you can still work at a factory where you control the shopfloor.  By doing so, you can ensure that it is one of the best darned higher education factories available for students who can’t afford to attend a country club.

In that spirit, rather than wait to find out that my shopfloor has gone online and all my students have followed it there so that they’ll have the time and flexibility to actually finish their degrees, I’m going to move early and stake a claim on the US survey course I currently teach in the non-virtual world. If I don’t do this, two things will probably happen a) Somebody far less-qualified than I am will do it anyways and b) eventually I won’t have any face-to-face students left to teach.

And my online survey class is going to be good. From what I know now, here are the things that I know I’m definitely going to do with this course:

1. Emphasize writing and reading over specific factual knowledge.

I’ve actually been headed down this path for a while now. I wrote this all the way back in 2011:

After all, you can look up just about any historical fact you want on Google and get a pretty decent description of what you’re inquiring about if you’re at all discriminating about picking the web pages where you get your information.

I’ve been teaching American history for over fifteen years now, and even as my lecturing skills have gotten better – much better, actually (and I’m not bragging, it’s just that they were pretty awful to begin with) – my student’s ability to remember historical facts has gotten much worse. This pains me as I believe in the tired old saw that a basic understanding of US History is essential to good citizenship. However, in life you really can Google anything. Why not in history class too?

2. Keep control of my own monster.

We’re a Blackboard school and I hate Blackboard. It’s big, it’s clunky it’s full of things I don’t need and it doesn’t do what I want it to do well at all. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll use the gradebook, but that’s it.

It’s not just a matter of principle.  It’s a matter of educational quality control and a matter of self-preservation.

3. Stick with Milestone Documents.

Primary source documents (many of which I suggested), an online textbook (which I edited) and great customer service all for $19.95. Need I say more? I’ll also make ample use of all the resources available out there on the old WWW, but you gotta have a home base, don’t ya?

[Now Neil, old buddy, is there any chance that you can get me a gradebook by next year?]

4. Cap the Class at 40.

That’s actually the cap for our face-to-face courses. So it should be easy to keep that online too. If it’s not, I can always go back to face-to-face courses, right? And if I keep my stuff off of Blackboard nobody will be able to teach my course in my place.


As part of my reading for the digital history class that I’m debuting this fall, I’ve been going over Clio Wired, the late Roy Rosenzweig’s article collection published by Columbia. In 1994 [1994!!!], he and Steve Brier wrote:

“Although a Luddite resistance to technological change may seem appealing at times, we would argue instead that it is worth engaging with these new technologies in an effort to try to insure that they indeed become badly needed tools of empowerment, enlightenment and excitement.”

Anybody who wants to help me with that last part, tell me what else I need to know about teaching online (especially teaching history online) in the comments, my Twitter mentions or just send a tired, old-fashioned e-mail.

*  Indeed, just while writing this post I got an e-mail from the dean asking for a list of all online and hybrid courses taught in our department.  Ten bucks says they’re not compiling that list because they think we have too many of them.

**  Do you have a pinkberry (or similar upscale frozen yogurt place) on campus?  A lazy river?  A climbing wall in the gym?  Answer “no” to any of those questions and congratulations, you probably work at a factory.