Discussion Forums Review


Abstract big speech bubble flickr photo by DigitalRalph shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

One aspect of online courses that can be the most challenging but also the most rewarding is the discussion forum. There are so many resources about doing this well (that is just a small sampling).


Yes, poorly done message boards and forums can feel a bit like this. It involves some planning and thought!
message board flickr photo by Hungarian Snow shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Although my current online class, EC&I 834, uses synchronous sessions in Zoom and student blogs rather than discussion forums, the format of a discussion board has been a staple of digital interaction for most of the life of the public internet. Message boards were the early form, dialing up to that address and posting your message, checking back later to see if anyone has replied. Email listservs also can have a similar function (or rather, variety of functions). When you get right down to it, a discussion forum is a way to have an asynchronous interaction around a topic. (Although you can schedule something synchronously, there are better mediums in most cases.) This means that students and instructor(s) can have flexible schedules and check in when it is convenient for them. It also means that anyone posting has a chance to read what they are posting, everyone gets a chance to speak, you can go back to something someone said earlier if you want to reply to it (these are often bonuses for introverts).

Since the online class I am working on will require some definite forum interactions, I really wanted to think this through and make sure I had a good grasp of the options to help keep the forums as an integral and useful part of the course.

So in my experience with instructors as well as my research, I’ve found there are some big issues that need to be highlighted when discussion forums come up:

  1. What is the purpose?
  2. How much should the instructor be involved?
  3. How do I get students to participate?


Sincere Purpose flickr photo by John Drake Flickr shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

1. The Purpose

This might seem obvious but honestly, it isn’t always as clear as instructors think. It is always assumed that the purpose is discussion. So it is a replacement for face-to-face in-class discussion. Right? Well, that depends. The purpose needs to be clear before a question or prompt is formulated. Here are some of the purposes I see:

  • Check student comprehension. The questions are usually fact-based and require reading the content but often don’t require a significant amount of thought or additional work. The exact same question could be handed into the instructor privately and have the same learning outcomes. The only outcome is to confirm that students have read/watched/heard/seen specific content. E.g., “What are four uses of discussion forums? Choose your favourite and explain why.” As a student, I don’t get much benefit from reading the responses of others. This is not going to encourage much discussion (and no one would expect it to in a classroom).
  • Debate a topic. Although this requires careful preparation including appropriate behaviour (or netiquette), it can be a good chance to have students come in on various sides of a controversial topic. This is going to get participation from students who have strong feelings. This is precisely the sort of thing that happens in classrooms and can easily eat up much more class time than expected when it goes well. E.g., “Are discussion forums the best format for discussion in online learning and why?” Someone will, invariably, disagree with my answer or I will disagree with someone else because there is not a single right answer.
  • Resource sharing. This can be an easy way for everyone to post articles they find, images, websites, etc. It isn’t as searchable as other tools, and you can’t reuse it in a later semester, but it is a great option for quick posting. E.g., “Post any news articles you come across that relate to cats.” This can work well if you are getting students to share resources for research projects or if you are covering a topic that will be in the news often. Discussions can easily spring up around certain shared items and it keeps that all in a single place. It even works well for sharing experiences or anything like that in a less formal way (it needs to be less formal if you are sharing something like that to have students get invested).
  • Groupwork. I am not a fan of forums for this as I tend to prefer other forms of communication, but it can facilitate groups discussing projects. Just be prepared for some groups to ask to use other resources unless you mandate using the forum, which could aggravate students.
  • Ask a question. Forums are perfect for having students ask public questions that other students may also have. It can also result in students helping students. It provides the sort of “ask your neighbour” opportunity that classrooms and hallways facilitate. It also means that a single answer can reach most students without clogging up the email of students who are not interested.
  • Interactive creation. This one might not jump out, but it can work to have students write something asynchronously, as a group. It requires some prepping to ensure that multiple students don’t post at the same time and all reply to the same thing, taking the project in multiple directions, unless that is intended. Preparation also can prevent long pauses in which no one is sure who should post or long waits for someone to start the idea. E.g., “The zombie apocalypse has begun. What is Amy going to do?” It could be a story but it could also become a case study response. The instructor could interject at various points with more information, or to answer questions, or to keep things moving along.

Getting creative can have some interesting impacts on forums and tend to make them much more interesting.


Don’t be Mr. Burns, lurking in the background and judging the forums.
Mr Burns flickr photo by fabbriciuse shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

2. Instructor Involvement

This isn’t easy and I will say right now it can depend a lot on the group of students you have. Sometimes the students need little prompting and will be vocal by nature, online or face-to-face. Other times they are much more reluctant, or there are a number of silent wallflowers (or “lurkers” as they are called online). Instructors need to decide if that is acceptable or not ahead of time and structure that into how forums are discussed and/or graded. But here are some basic tips I would recommend:

  • Model what you want. Be more engaged in the first and even second forum to show students what you are looking for, to prove to them that you are reading what they write, and to keep things going.
  • Do not pose a question and never respond to responses that involve questions. If you want to poke at a discussion, make sure you check back in as students will respond directly to you.
  • Make sure you continue to engage. It could be posting after a few days and some posts to encourage or fill in some more ideas. It could be sharing an interesting and relevant article. It could be redirecting the discussion. Students need proof that you have not checked out and in many cases they assume you have something to contribute. You shouldn’t respond to everyone every forum but you should be seen. Since they can’t rely on your body language, they need you to post.
  • Avoid “posting from on high.” Unless there is an inappropriate post or comment that needs to be stopped immediately, remember that you are there to facilitate discussion, not provide the be all and end all. If you do that, students will either not have anything more to add or will be reluctant to engage for fear of being called out on being wrong.
  • Be less formal. This can be a tricky one for a lot of people. It is easy to get into the habit of typing more formally and less conversationally but if you type like you are writing an academic paper, so will your students, and that can really limit conversation. The forums can be part of building a community but to do that, you have to be part of that. Open up a little, relax, and let students relax. That means not writing in a style that sounds like an exam question (unless you really want that type of response).
  • Consider the time commitment. In a face-to-face discussion, the timing is fairly limited. Students say what they have to say and you may cut them off if they talk too long. Online, they can think about things more and may end up taking far longer to write their post than you anticipated, especially if you assigned additional work to do the forum. So if you want more time for discussion, ensure that you aren’t loading them up with a bunch of prep work BEFORE they can post (e.g. reading multiple articles or difficult articles, watching a long video, doing research, or formulating the perfect response for an exam). The more time they put in before they post, the less time they will have for discussion.
  • Give some marks. Although face-to-face you may not need to give marks for participation, online you may. They don’t have you staring at them or calling on them to ensure they say something. You may have to show that you value the time and effort the discussion requires by assigning it marks. If you prefer unmarked, you need to make it engaging and something students would want to do and can do easily. For example, sharing something they already know o do or think like introducing themselves or sharing a cultural quirk can get participation easily. If you want more work, however, you need to demonstrate that it matters. You also need to ensure they learn from it. So asking students to regurgitate information is not going to garner much participation.


If your students feel like this, they aren’t going to want to participate and forums will feel like pulling teeth.
Boredom flickr photo by QuinnDombrowski shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

3. Student Participation

Forums should really be about the students (unless the point is just to push information out, which can be done but isn’t too exciting). If you want them engaged, they need to have a reason. Discussions that get students invested face-to-face are exactly the kinds of things that get students engaged online too. They even have more time to do it, theoretically. But you have to plan it. You need to think about the time investment required and be thoughtful. Also, remember this is happening over a wider period of time usually. So some students will work more on class things on the weekend. Some will try to power through and have everything done right away. Some want to read what others are up to first. If any of those are an issue, you need to structure your assignments and instructions accordingly. But most of all, give them sometime they will care about and have something to say about. Regurgitating the textbook is boring. It’s boring for you to read it from every student. It’s boring for them to write it, let alone read it from someone else. If that is the purpose of the forum, be prepared for minimal discussion (I personally think that kind of assignment is not helpful unless it serves another purpose, like having them write or practice citation, etc, but at the very least, just make them hand it in to you and not pretend they want to respond). If you want conversation, have them talk about something meaningful. Make it relatable to their life, to the real world. Give it a purpose.


troll flickr photo by vikapproved shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

It is worth noting that not everyone wants to be the centre of attention. Some students will be leery of posting their thoughts publicly. Moreover, some topics are way more sensitive. Some topics require eye contact. Heard of trolls? It is so, so much easier to be a jerk on the internet because you don’t have to look most people in the eye. So be aware that a) you need to prepare for that potential and be preventative and b) you need to be thoughtful about what you ask. Come up with agreed rules for behaviour. If the students help with that, it is easier to get buy-in and they better understand why it matters. But be prepared for what you will do if something does happen. For example, if a student posts an inappropriate response, know how to delete or hide it, consider whether you might use that as a learning opportunity or deal with it privately, know how to document issues in case that is needed. Do not ask students to out themselves about sensitive issues, or at least don’t require it. or example, if you are talking about mental illness, don’t ask students to share mental illnesses they experience. Some may want to share but some may not. Do not treat students as representative of particular identities. For example, if you have one student from a particular region of the world, don’t use that student as the example of that or as your token student. Prepare students for difficult discussions. For example, if you will be talking about a sensitive subject, let them know ahead of time. Give them a chance to talk to you if there is a concern about public participation.

And, in all honesty, you might have to offer marks. The learning should be the focus, I agree, but right now we are stuck in a system that demonstrates value through grades. So show that you value their work. If the forums are worth 1 point per post, skipping a point isn’t a big deal and students will figure that out. Marks are a way to get them to come to the forums but good questions and discussion make them want to stay.


Diversity flickr photo by shadowtech shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Tony Bates discusses forums although his coverage is just brushing the surface as it fits into his focus on collaborative learning (there are numerous other forms of collaborative learning like Google Docs, wikis, blogs, Prezi, online chats, etc that have nothing to do with discussion forums despite his narrow discussion). I wanted to highlight something that he briefly touches on that is very important:

Thus teachers need to be aware that there are likely to be students in any class who may be struggling with language, cultural or epistemological issues, but in online classes, where students can come from anywhere, this is a particularly important issue.

If your class is going to have cultural variation, be prepared. Be clear about your expectations but also decide how you want to deal with students who do not feel comfortable or who have different expectations. This is something I definitely want to consider, so I don’t plan to grade on grammar or anything like that. I also think that students should have the option to be silent or quieter. I find forums comfortable so I can be guilty of talking too much but others should have the right to not post as much if they can demonstrate learning in what they do post. But that expectation has to be laid out. What will I do if someone DOESN’T post? I have seen “choose 4 of 8 forums” go very poorly and that requires a fair bit of double checking on my end. But I also want to allow students to participate at a level that works for them. To a point.

Obviously I’m still thinking that part through.

So if you’ve participated in forums, what advice would you give me? I give advice to instructors all the time but I could always use more from students. I’m the type who talks a lot in text so I’m not always a good example to use.

Sorry Canvas, It’s Not Me…


Feeling a little stabby after dealing with an LMS for too long
LMS flickr photo by Harold Jarche shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

This week’s blogging assignment for EC&I 834 was to test out a learning management system and discuss our thoughts and experiences. Since Alec and Katia had us look at Canvas anyway, I decided that would be the best choice for me. I had looked at it shortly after it first came out and thought it would be good to see what has happened since. Originally Canvas was created to be student-centric as much as possible. This was the push, a way to be an LMS but be different because it would be made for students. I agree with Audrey Watters’ assertion that reinventing the same thing, especially an LMS, is not necessarily an improvement. It still takes the same premise and I wanted to see whether Canvas had done much to live up to their original intent.

Upon logging in under a teacher account, I am taken to my Dashboard area.

Canvas dashboard
blocks, colour coding, and a bit of customization

For students, this is pretty much the same. You see an icon menu on the left, the center is the courses represented as coloured blocks, and the right has items you need to look after as your “to do” list. The colours of the blocks can be changed, including by students, to personalize it. Yup, this is definitely personalization. I like the “to do” list being there although I dislike the organization of it. If I’m a student, I want to have it much clearer which tasks are for which course, not just which are due first. Same thing as an instructor. If I get the option to colour code things, that should carry over into things like that.

color
color flickr photo by sepideh* shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Let’s talk about the colour coding. I’m not sure how I feel about it. If it really only applies in very limited ways, I’m not sure how much it adds to my experience as a student or teacher. Also, a colour block is the lowest level of visual identification. Those are big blocks. Why couldn’t they be images WITH colour coding? That would be far more visually appealing for me. What do you think? Is being able to change the colour of the block associated with a course particularly helpful?

For comparison, in UR Courses right now the colour themes for courses are set based on faculty. It’s a branding thing. So at a glance a student will see different colours that they cannot change, depending on what faculty their courses are from (or federated college). So if a student is only taking education courses, they would only see courses with that colour. I can see the improvement for students there. It would drive me crazy as an instructional designer, but I am not really who an LMS should be designed for. I might have 10-130 courses in my list at any given time so I use the current colour coding to help me scan. I would be setting the custom colours FOREVER if I were doing that myself. So this comes out a bit more student-centric. Students can choose a colour.

They can also set a nickname for a course. So if you don’t remember the number or the name of the course, you can retitle it. Okay, again, that’s personalization. It has no real impact on your learning but you can call a course “Math Sucks” if it makes you feel better.

dashboard icons in Canvas
Icons for different aspects of a course

The little icons at the bottom of each course block let you go directly to aspects of the course. That’s handy for students as it can reduce the number of clicks, assuming that each time they log in they have to go back to the dashboard. It does not alert you to items you should check, though, like highlighting new discussion posts, announcements, files, etc.

The “Courses” tab just pops out a list of courses so if you’re on the Dashboard page, it’s pretty useless. You can customize the list. Again, not too useful for students but it gives the illusion of control. This is more useful for instructors and administrators who may have a need to rearrange the list. It could be useful for students if they retain access to courses after the end of the semester, so they could put older courses at the end of the list, etc.

The Account area is pretty clean. Much more texty than the Dashboard but it is relatively easy to navigate and it allows the creation of an ePortfolio. I didn’t test this out as a student so I’m not sure how easily I can take that with me, which is something Stephanie really highlighted as a concern.

Getting into it, however, left me a bit overwhelmed and confused. Liz, it is not just you:

So really, my conclusion of Canvas is that it can be a great LMS if used properly. If used poorly, it can become clunky, difficult to follow, and overwhelming. But really, isn’t this the case with most LMS?

To be fair, like Liz, I’m used to a different LMS. I’ve been working in Moodle heavily for almost 4 years. I am not particularly a fan but I can still find most of the things I need (most, because sometimes it is horrible). So going into Canvas, I opened an assignment that needed grading. I had no idea how to get OUT of the assignment I was grading. I couldn’t see an X, or a “Back to course” link or anything. I did eventually figure out that I can click on the assignment name to go back to that assignment but that takes me to editing the assignment.


directions flickr photo by ollesvensson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Overall it looks relatively straightforward and it’s fairly attractive. It is not, however, particularly student-centric. As the instructor, I still have all the control. Students are granted very limited controls of things that don’t particularly matter. It is not geared towards student ownership of work or even student creation. It is precisely what Watters is talking about:

Despite all the bells and whistles that have been added since … the learning management system remains a way to offload the administrative needs of the student information system — roster, grades, attendance for each individual class — to an interface, accessible through the web, that students and faculty can use.

Canvas is still an LMS. It is still a walled garden. Sure, some of the interface makes it look like the courses aren’t hermetically sealed (I can see a “to do” list for all my courses, I can see a calendar showing dates for all courses) but they are. They are separate. I can’t build a community of students outside those enrolled in the course, I can’t interact with the wider web aside from linking out or importing content. It isn’t about building a student-owned data area.

So in the end, Canvas is still an LMS. A prettier LMS than Moodle and less complex (it hasn’t had nearly the number of coders sticking their fingers in it to create 5 ways to do the same thing and getting rid of the easy way to do something else), and it is a little more focused on the student experience. BUT. It is still designed on the same principles. It is still about managing the students, managing the learning. I can’t open up parts of it to make them public while other parts are private. I don’t see “export content” anywhere (if it’s there, I’d love to hear it).

As another note, I mentioned in our Google+ community that I got called within 48 hours of signing up. I found it invasive and irritating on top of the email I received about 12 hours prior to that, which I hadn’t had a chance to open. I also hate salespeople hovering in stores, though. But not everyone felt that way:

Canvas is marketing and selling their product. They want to have good “customer service.” But who do they consider customers? I said I was trying it out as a grad student (I was also busy at the time so wasn’t too responsive or chatty) and was let off the phone pretty quickly. I’m cynical. I presume this is because they want me to push my university to buy in (I used my U of R email and signed up for a trial with the teacher option so I’m an obvious target). They want my business so they want to make sure I have a good experience. Do students get called? What support exists for students? Is that left to the school to support? (Turnitin, I’m looking at you. I have seen your student support and I know it isn’t about the students as much as you are trying to slowly become an LMS).

In fact, Ashley gave a really positive review of Canvas. I can see from the perspective she takes that Canvas does have a lot to offer. A checklist to help instructors new to setting up courses with what they should include is probably really nice (I am used to being the checklist when I work with instructors but that might be a useful thing for my coworkers to look at). But that’s still very much about how it is to use as a teacher.

This experience unfortunately just reinforced how I feel about the LMS as a type of edtech and I stand by my original picture above. I want other ways to do this, even though for my project I’ll be using an LMS and I work with one ever day. I still want to do this differently so I can give students control of their data, make it easy to have students create and share and take control. I love students being central and not programmed.


break up flickr photo by LNePrZ shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Sorry Canvas, I don’t even want to see other LMSs. It’s not me, it’s you. (Had to get a little retro with this one)

Summary of Learning!

Holy cow, I can’t believe the semester is over already! I’ve seen so many people say that so I’m glad I’m not the only one. Although I admit it’s been a busy semester for me so I’m ready to relax for a bit and just process everything.

Here’s my summary of learning. I decided to try out ThingLink and overall I’m pretty impressed although with a few caveats: the text editor is pretty touchy and if you position your mouse just a little bit off, it will deselect or do the wrong thing or not give you the text cursor; I had to purchase a license to use fullscreen mode and to do any formatting of the text; and there is no way to keep the popups open (which is only an issue when you’re speaking and invariably move your mouse… wait, is that just me?).

But here it is!

Now to put my ipad back to the way it was after creating my own screenshot for the background. The image is based on flickr photo shared by Twechie under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license The file for my version is here: Ipad Screen Capture CC BY-SA

Thanks to everyone, it’s been awesome! Congrats to those who are now finished their degrees! I’ll be on to my last class next semester. Good luck to everyone else still continuing.

Cheers and looking forward to the pizza tonight!

Where IS Virtual Reality in Education?

Last week’s class presentation by Logan Petlak and Bill Cook was all about virtual and augmented reality technologies. In my head, I was thinking of something like this:


flickr photo shared by USUHSPAO under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

This example is real from an actual demo and it is pretty obvious it is from military applications (the date posted is 2002). It is no surprise that we’re looking at that becuase military has been doing virtual training for years and it is only more recently that we are seeing virtual reality move to gaming (because flight simulators were appealing to lots of people) and then also into education. The visor, the gloves, those are what I expected to be seeing by now when I watched movies and tv growing up. Science fiction had very clear ideas about how virtual reality would work.

Sometimes it went more extreme with something like Tron and blurring the lines of reality and virtual or digital reality:

That movie and the remakes give new meaning to the idea of digital reality and whether the digital world is real. Okay, not what we mean when we talk about that, but still, that sort of thing is in my head when I think of virtual reality or augmented reality. Needless to say, neither of these views are here yet but we are still expecting virtual reality to be completely immersive, we are just considering different ways it could happen:

Yes, that is Sword Art Online. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that a new video game has come out and you put on a helmet which sucks your consciousness into the game but the only way out is to beat the game. So people’s bodies are left in a coma-like state in the physical world while they live in a virtual reality. Spoilers, not everyone lives. It’s an interesting question about where tech is going and the potential dangers of it.

So far, though, virtual reality is not even remotely there. And augmented reality isn’t yet at the pervasiveness of Minority Report:

So far, you notice I’m supposed to be talking about education but only one of the things I’ve shown is real. But these days, our imaginations are driving the developments of science and technology. Science fiction is pushing what will become science and technology fact.

What about education?

Well, the NMC Horizon Report has been listing Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality as being within 5 years of huge impact on higher education for quite a while. Five years ago they were saying the “time to adoption” would be within five years. Now they are saying within two to three years it is going to be much more widespread. If you check out the report, you can see links to various recent articles highlighting ways VR and AR are being used in education or could be used.

The applications are promising. Stephanie shared some of her thoughts about applications in nursing and Sharon has talked about it previously too. During class, I know Andrew was involved in some discussion about applications in science (and he mentions his excitement in his blog).

But now I am back to thinking about the first examples I gave. Why were most of my thoughts of VR formulated through entertainment? Well, mostly because that is where the dreamers and visionaries get to play. Military applications might come first (because they have the budgets) but gaming is rarely far behind because again, they have the budget. They also have more freedom to explore and to think and question. The only limitations they have aside from the abilities of the coders and the technology they can work with are whether consumers will buy it.


flickr photo shared by BagoGames under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Yup. Consumers will. In fact, a family member already has and was showing others what it’s like to be in a shark cage in the ocean!

So why is education lagging behind?

I think we are seeing something really important here and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately for various reasons. When I think of education, I tend to get excited and think that is where we should see creativity and ingenuity and innovation. I think our kids and even university students should be experiencing the latest and most interesting ways to learn. If technology is changing at an exponential rate, then a part of my brain just assumes that education is part of that. And it is, as the Dunleavy and Dede chapter shows in terms of who is developing educational designs around augmented reality. And yet. Heidi talked about her hesitancy at first because her first thought was gaming, not about educational uses. Benita thought the same thing. When did gaming outstrip education in the ability to do cool things, be experimental, drive technological change?

Oh. Right. This is one of my frustrations about educational technology. So rarely is it driven by educators on the ground because it takes money and the money that goes into education isn’t going into teachers and educators developing edtech. (It’s going to companies and infrastructure and salaries and services, mostly because there is not enough importance and money going into education, but that’s another rant entirely.) So even though companies find education profitable to market to, we aren’t often seeing education in general driving developments. We might see small labs or individuals doing innovative things (like Alec) but as a whole, education is not really a land of change and pushing boundaries. Those who do want to do that find ways but mainstream changes are hard.

So it is less surprising that VR and AR are slow to move into education.

And even less surprising that there are going to be digital divide issues when they do. Natalie pointed out that “the digital divide goes beyond our students. Perhaps there is a dividing digital line between educators as well. A lack of training or available resources between teachers and schools also creates a gap of equity.” So sure, there are some innovators out there who are doing cool things and who are up for the challenge of learning on their own because that is a) part of their personality and b) part of their experience. What about everyone else? What about the teachers who can’t afford to do the experimentation? Who don’t have the time because that’s the reality and they also have kids and a family and hobbies and there are not enough hours in the day or money for apps or tech or whatever? Not everyone wants to be trying the newest and most cutting edge thing. Sometimes they worry they will bleed and so will their students. It’s a justifiable concern. As Natalie said, who is supporting those teachers? And what about the students who don’t have a phone or don’t have data or who have an old model that can’t run the app?

I see a lot of promise in virtual reality, not least for connecting online students. But I think we are farther behind than we want to be. I think it will take longer. I think we have to keep looking outside education to see what is possible and keep thinking about how we could use that. We need to keep talking to one another to get all sides of the issue.

And yes, I do enjoy video games. I also read. For me, it’s a similar thing, a way to experience things in a different world, to think differently, to be challenged and creative, maybe even hang out with my husband and do something together (we are a couch co-op family). I see logic puzzles and analytical thinking and even just the joy of exploring. And yes, I button mash a bit too. But what this VR and AR discussion has got me thinking is this:

I think we need to keep exploring.

(and for those who heard anything about No Man’s Sky, there is a new update and maybe it’s better now but the premise is amazing even if the execution wasn’t as good as hoped.)

What’s in It for Companies? Talking Assessment and Tech

This week’s blog prompt for EC&I 833 from Tyson, Jen, Nathalieand Nicole is a great one on assessment but… not too doable for me since I’m not teaching a class myself. So, instead, I got some inspiration from Launel who mentioned that she was tempted to talk about the politics of assessment but instead talked about assessment strategies she finds to be “underused and undervalued.” I agree both that the politics are incredibly important and that many great assessment strategies are underused and undervalued.


flickr photo shared by William M Ferriter under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Note that I said assessment strategies. When I work with an instructor to help them put together a class, I am much more interested in what they want to assess than in what tool they think they want to use. I can always come up with a variety of ways of assessing something but I want to know what they are getting at. What value does it have for students? Does it have any value for the instructor? What’s the context (is there one? has the instructor even thought about a context for the assessment?)? But sometimes it is easy to get caught up in tools and talking about the tool itself, choosing for reasons other than student learning. It’s cool, it’s fun, students love it. All reasons instructors adopt tools. It makes marking easier, it makes communication easier. Great. But Alec raised some concerns with Class Dojo last week in terms of it influencing the teaching and the uses rather than teachers making more conscious decisions.


flickr photo shared by PS3 Attitude under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Tech is not neutral. Someone designed it. Someone programmed it. Someone made assumptions about how you would and should use it. We are not talking about the Force which just is and only the use determines if it is good or bad. Sometimes the tech itself is problematic. And sometimes the tech itself is amazing. Sometimes it can be shifted to good through effort. Sometimes it can be used poorly and be detrimental to students. I know I’ve used things poorly (hi, PowerPoint!). Anyone got a great example of redirecting a tool that might be a bit questionable?

What muddies all this up is the fact that most of our assessment tech tools are created/coded/written/sold/designed by a company somewhere. Sometimes it is pretty obvious what the company gets out of it: Money. I’ll be coming back to these types of products because it isn’t always that straightforward.


flickr photo shared by 401(K) 2013 under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Sometimes we can use them for free. I’m cynical and this sends up some red flags for me that get me investigating. And sometimes, things really are free and there are no apparent ulterior motives. Other times the company is getting something else out of student use: data.

That’s right. “Data is the new oil.” The video was about AI but the same goes for learning analytics which, to a certain extent, are sort of in the same field. The intent is to learn how students learn, to build a better guide to learning, to help the machine think like a teacher who can guide students along the learning path.

As the video says, nothing is for free and if you get a service for free in exchange for your data, your data is valuable. And even if you paid, you might still be giving your data. Well, so what? So you’re giving your data? Wait… no, you’re giving your students’ data. And you may have access to some of it in the form of reports and logs and analytics. Okay, cool! You (the teacher) can track your student. We have been conditioned to think this is the way it should be. But what about students having access? Audrey Watters has written a whole lot about student data: Student Data, Algorithms, Ideology, and Identity-less-ness, Student Data, Algorithms, Ideology, and Context-less-ness, Student Data and Privacy for just a few related ones). Just what are these companies learning from our students? And are our students learning from their own data?

I very much think that students should know what we are tracking and be able to see it. It is, after all, their data. It is their work and they didn’t sign a release saying that because they are our students, we own their work (unlike some contracts signed by teachers, content experts, developers, etc, but that’s another matter). But since they haven’t signed it, isn’t it theirs?

It’s something to think about every time we use tech for assessment. It can be fantastic and can make life easier, but sometimes there are other costs to think about.

Online Learning Grew on Me

(I’m a little late with this one. It has been a crazy but good week so if you bear with me, at the end of this post I’ll share a bit of what’s been going on!)


flickr photo shared by shareski under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

My first experience with online learning was pretty horrible. I had moved across the country for a graduate program and had been offered a teaching assistant job for a new online class. The class was full of pre-recorded interviews between the head TA and the instructor, students had a coursepack, a weekly reading response assignment, exams, and a weekly question on the forum that was not for marks. There were 7 TAs and 800 students to begin with. By the end, some of us had 60 students, some still had closer to 100, but the course had dropped around 200+ students. The instructor did not participate at all (in fact, if he received student email, he notified them to contact their TA). We were told to spend less time marking and providing feedback. There was no real interaction with students as most of them opted out of the weekly forum time and had no interest in posting questions to the forum during “office hour.” I was overworked, under-appreciated, underpaid, and pretty skeptical that anyone was learning anything.

As you can guess, I was pretty sure online classes were horrible and just a way for universities to do a money grab.

Now I work with online courses daily and I have been taking online courses for my MEd. The EC&I 833 course is different than most of the courses I work on. For the most part I work with asynchronous courses – there is no requirement that students be doing something at the same time. I do see benefit from the synchronous sessions, getting to talk to other people in a more conversational format. It gives you the feeling of actually being in a class with real people. Heidi mentioned how much this is worth the frustration of the scheduling for her. In general, however, we instructional designers tend to recommend mandatory sessions, suggesting recommended sessions that are recorded and posted. Why? Well because scheduling conflicts can prevent students from taking a course which is not what we want. My unit is, after all, called Flexible Learning. Also, the Registrar’s Office has mandated that mandatory sessions be pre-scheduled in the system before students register. It’s a pain to do for our admin people and the goal is to have a course available to as many students as possible when it is offered online. So we tend to suggest instructors make the sessions worth attending rather than using the “show up or you could fail” approach. Nothing against Alec for making his sessions mandatory. Considering that we are having weekly presentations, we definitely need to show up since this is the content delivery model and I bet almost all of us would show up regardless. But not all instructors actually make those times useful.

From taking online courses, I can definitely say that I love them when they are done well. The technology definitely does play a part in that. Zoom, as Jennifer notes, is really easy. I’m with you, Jennifer! I bring up Zoom to instructors regularly because it is user-friendly (except if you are trying to advance slides and type in the chat at the same time, that just gets a bit more complicated). When the technology is comfortable, it lets everyone focus on the learning. And sometimes the technology has to become part of the learning but that time isn’t factored in which can be discouraging.

I am working with a colleague to develop an online class now and it is nice to put into practice things that I have learned or experienced so clearly, I’m a convert. I love being able to attend class in my pyjamas, eat my supper, and hang out with my classmates from the comfort of my own home. I just hope that I can continue to find good ways to practice positive and empowering pedagogy in the online environment!

(So, now on to why I’ve been so busy! I was in Saskatoon twice last week, first day for my husband to get a tattoo, second day for me to get one!

And then I was swamped being awesome on Halloween as I helped some ladies in my unit do some marketing. Four of us made our costumes and went around campus dressed up, giving out candy to promote courses with flexible deliveries

Ghostbusters!
Ghostbusters! One of our Graphics and Multimedia Specialists was so excited he made us trading cards

So my apologies for being late with this post but I’m hoping those make up for it.)

Oh LMS, I wish we could see other platforms…

(I borrowed the headline from a presentation at a conference this spring by Jordan Epp, one of the Instructional Designers at U of S, about the experience some of their instructional designers have had in doing things outside the LMS, mostly with WordPress although they are able to host their own WordPress which is not an option at U of R right now. Not for my unit at least. But I loved the title.)

This week our class has been challenged to post about an educational media or software that we use in our teaching, critiquing it with the following points:

  • Perception vs reality and impacts on education:
  • Proponents, opponents, and adopters of these technologies
  • Effects positive and negative on teaching and learning
  • Pedagogical advantages and disadvantages


flickr photo shared by sandraschoen under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

The piece of technology that dominates much of my work is the Learning Management System (LMS) which in the case of U of R is Moodle. It is branded as UR Courses but under the hood it is an open source version of Moodle with some plugins and a bit of custom coding (e.g. there is no email tool in Moodle, that is a custom code for U of R).

Moodle Logo
Moodle Logo

I did a video showing some of the behind the scenes of the LMS at U of R with some of my thoughts. And below I have more details on my analysis and issues around having an LMS.

In one of our readings this week (Reframing the role of educational media technologies), the LMS came up:

An exemplary case would be Learning Management Systems (LMS), which
entered the market in the early 2000s. Driven by the principle that innovation by academics requires
sufficient staff autonomy and time for exploration, many bottom-up initiatives emerged for trying out
these new technologies. Soon, distance universities found themselves saddled with a dozen or more of
these LMS, which initially served for exploration purposes only, but gradually were used as production
systems (Westera, 2003). At some stage, however, it became unavoidable to remove most of the
systems, and define a shared institutional infrastructure. Obviously, this is was (and is) a delicate process
because many people need to be convinced, if not sometimes forced, to commence using a single
institutional system, one which they also may not prefer.

I’m going to talk about LMSs in general because, to be honest, there are variations but they are all fairly similar. I have heard similar critiques from colleagues whose institutions use Blackboard or D2L (Desire 2 Learn). Canvas was supposed to be different but it really isn’t that different. If those names are meaningless to you, you can still get the general idea if you have used any of the systems.

The purpose of the LMS is to bring multiple tools together to give instructors a virtual classroom of a sort. Like a classroom, there is a door (the login which limits access to the right students, determined by enrolment methods which are linked to Banner – our student management system). There are the equivalent of bulletin boards (pages and blocks around the pages where information can be shared as well as the News Forum which pushes information out), chalkboards (the content uploaded to the course), even classroom discussion (forums or chats), boxes to hand in assignments (assignment and quiz tools), etc. Instructors can post grades which are privately available to the correct students. It can be done quickly (it only takes a couple minutes to upload something to a course if you know what you are doing). Instructors can have control, just like they do in a classroom (although like a classroom, someone else may have put something on one of the “boards” that you are stuck with – like the copyright information which is present in all courses, and the configuration may not make you too happy if you want some different arrangement). In fact, the entire point was to give instructors control in a digital format.

The systems are built to make teaching instructor-centric. By default, the instructor has complete control and students have none. The instructor determines what goes in the course, how it looks, what happens with it. Students are dropped into that space primarily as observers in a private “walled garden.” That is the analogy most used. It is a garden where the instructor plants what they choose and decides what does and does not belong. Students may visit but only within the boundaries of what is acceptable. No one outside the walled garden can play, there is no interaction with other gardens. We are not talking about teaching in the wild (which is very much what EC&I 833 is and the type of course that Alec is more likely to design).

It is possible to give students some control but it takes time and planning and intentional effort. Even in cases where students are expected to have some control, like a seminar course, often the overall control remains in the teacher’s hands. The focus is still on the framework the teacher designed, not on how that is taken by the students.

As the quote above notes, the reality of the LMS is that institutions purchase usually just one, occasionally more than one, and only provide certain amounts of support and customization. Instructors cannot just do whatever they want necessarily because their institution may not support it. When I say support, I mean technical support (aka calling a help desk to know how to do things), financial support (aka paying for it), or even needing additional approval. In the last case, U of R has a policy that states that unless an instructor has approval from their Dean, 75% of the assessment for their course has to be regradable. When it comes to using online tools, that really means that 75% of the grade needs to be collected through something the university backs up unless it is done in hardcopy. It could be email (that’s right, the university can restore all emails sent through their servers), it could be UR Courses (which is backed up although not daily as the storage requirements are so huge that it takes multiple days just to run one backup). When using third party tools, there is no guarantee that a submission can be retrieved or preserved in the case of an appeal or dispute. The purpose of the LMS has become protection and preservation, but only in the interest of the institution. At other institutions, students do retain access to their LMS course space after the end of the semester but that is not how things work at U of R. We are still mimicking the classroom where things disappear at the end of the semester.


flickr photo shared by Harold Jarche under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

As you can guess, I’m not exactly a fan. There are times when an LMS does the job. It does, for the most part, provide some protection for private or sensitive conversations. Nothing that is posted online can ever be truly guaranteed to be private (but then again, neither can anything in a classroom because any person could be recording it or taking a photo). Some things should not be shared openly to protect students (from themselves because sometimes everyone makes bad decisions, from others as trolls and others may get involved, or from unintended consequences like professional censure or a future change of status). It gives students one place to find all their materials and all their courses (if instructors use it). It allows electronic submission of assignments and puts the mark with the assignment (again, if instructors use those features).

It is not, however, overly easy to use. The LMS is designed to some extent for the super-user. To get the most out of it, you still need to be quite technically savvy. It takes time to redesign assignments. The structures are pre-built and may not always work with what an instructor actually wants to do (rubrics and marking guides as well as the grade book are perfect examples of things that work but only if you do it Moodle’s way).

And LMSes are not made for students. No matter what anyone tells you, it was not designed for the students. There is no student ownership. Students do not decide what to do with their work in easy ways. Students have very little control, by design. Students cannot even view what information about their activities is tracked (every load of a page, upload of an assignment, email, all of that is tracked and accessible to instructors, but the systems used also track browsers, platforms, etc.).

It’s an issue. Right now, the LMS is the path of least resistance but I hope that we will see more instructors pushing boundaries, trying new things, doing things differently and giving more of the space to students to control.

Thinking about #edtech


flickr photo shared by CTJ Online under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

It’s time for another online grad class with Alec Couros, this time EC&I 833: Foundations of Educational Technology: History, Theory and Practice (check out the link for our blog hub to see what my classmates are writing). We have started off with some history and contemplating definitions. We have been challenged to consider how we define ed tech (educational technology) in contemporary times and how the history and philosophies around ed tech may have shaped that understanding.

I think at the basis of my understanding of ed tech is the idea that anything could be come ed tech if it is used for teaching and learning. We tend to consider computers ubiquitous for learning but that isn’t necessarily how they started. The same goes for blogs, cameras, tablets, the internet. So many things we use for education were not built solely for education but they can be used extremely well. The ingenuity of instructors and designers has meant that anything could become ed tech through application rather than original intent or labeling. Some things were developed for corporate applications, some for general use, some for entertainment. Minecraft, for example, was not originally created as ed tech but teachers have done amazing things with it! I would still consider them ed tech based on my definition but are they technically ed tech?


flickr photo shared by Reece Bennett under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

The other thing that is worth considering is whether marketing makes something ed tech. There are a whole lot of things that have been marketed as ed tech or marketed specifically to education as the next revolutionary item that will change education. Really?

2dAIC - Radio School - Classroom - By Air Service, United States Army photograph - Air Service, United States Army photograph, Gorrell's History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, Series J Training, Volume 8 Photographic Record of the 2d Aviation Instructional Center via http://www.fold3.com, Public Domain,
2dAIC – Radio School – Classroom – By Air Service, United States Army photograph – Air Service, United States Army photograph, Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, Series J Training, Volume 8 Photographic Record of the 2d Aviation Instructional Center via http://www.fold3.com, Public Domain,

Our classrooms don’t really look like this. Radio was not a sweeping shift in education but it was marketed to educators or, more accurately, to their administrators. That is the reality of today’s ed tech. The marketing is not to the teachers, it is to institutions, organizations, governments. The hope is to get a big contract. Apple had a contract with Los Angeles school board for about two years… before that failed. Why? Because labeling a technology as being for education does not mean it will be used well or that it even fits with good pedagogy. If you are a behaviourist and believe that rewards for good behaviour and training can get students to behave the way you want (thank you so much Skinner for thinking machines can program children) then you might love gameification and analytics. You might be waiting for Duolingo to teach you how to speak another language. Khan Academy could have it all solved because all the information just needs to be downloaded into the learner.

That is the thing. There is always a philosophy, a bias, an ideology behind ed tech. The people who market technology to educators (or really anything – textbooks sure have a philosophical basis!) have their own idea of what will sell and that often includes having their own idea of what education really is or should be. If you are a constructivist, then having all knowledge predetermined and handed to you would feel meaningless until you reconstruct it. If you are a connectivist, then learning in a vacuum without some social component becomes a struggle because that is not what knowledge is to you. If someone instead tried to market a tool like Zoom that allows you to connect, to share, or Google Docs that lets you collaborate, like Slack that lets you communicate, then you might be far more excited.

One ring By Jorge Arimany - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
One ring By Jorge Arimany – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

There is no single version of education, no one theory or philosophy or approach to rule them all. We have no Sauron to control us all through the fancy ed tech that we adopt. There are some who try but they have varying degrees of success. Someone will always find a way to hack it, to adapt it, to use it. Innovation comes in the teaching and the use of the tools, not from the tools themselves. So to me, ed tech is defined by the uses technology is put to rather than the uses for which it was designed.

At what point do we ask, “Is it ethical?” of the intersection of law and technology?

Technology, in shifting our society, has changed more than just the way we do things and the skills that are valued. It has also come up against our laws and had an impact on our morality and ethics. Things that matter today may have previously been a non-issue. Or maybe things that were issues have become even bigger issues because of what technology has made possible.

There are a whole lot of issues I deal with regularly that involve this. I am constantly trying to learn about copyright (especially Fair Dealing) because I need to know what I can and cannot use in courses. Sure, our courses are behind a login system. It can be tempting to ask, “Who’s going to know?” But is that the point? So I try to know what I legally can and cannot do so that I can behave ethically as a representative of the university. This includes grey areas like linking to illegally shared material. Just because you find it on YouTube or Vimeo doesn’t mean that it is there legally, even if it has been there for a really long time.

At the same time, there is another side. With digital interactions becoming more and more common, should more companies not attempt to make their work accessible in other formats? And not just accessible in potential but in actuality, meaning affordable, available to the public, etc? An example would be a video that an instructor has been using in his face-to-face courses for years. It is a documentary from both PBS and BBC. Both of them have educational versions and PBS has built an educational site with resources, etc. The video, however, is only available as a physical copy. That’s great for a traditional classroom but what about a digital one? Normally we seek streaming rights but there does not appear to be any option for that. Many companies have made it nearly impossible to seek educational use of their material in a digital age because they are still terrified of what it means. They worry that they will not make money.


flickr photo shared by FamZoo under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Because in lots of cases, that is what it comes down to. Business. Money. So much of the technology that we use has been built by for-profit companies. It is not neutral as technology. It is not even built for education. No, it is built to make money. The direction of education is HOW the companies make money. Get institutional licenses. Sell to schools. Think of Apple marketing to schools. They aren’t doing it solely because they believe that education is important (and that is assuming that that vision is still part of their mission which I find myself questioning). They want to make money. So you can use their products and they may have some software that is free for educators or reduced in price. But it still costs. And it also encourages schools to get access for their students. And students to learn Apple and then buy in because it is easier. Google isn’t making their Apps for Education for free or without additional motives either. It wasn’t designed by an educator for education, it was designed by a business. So when we think of ethics, we need to think also of who profits. Who makes money out of our decisions? What are they hoping to get out of it and is that a decision we should be making for our students?

Aaron Schwartz’s story is a great example of the ethical dilemmas that come from the shifts technology has introduced. Historically, published work from scholars was expensive, be it a book or a journal, but once a library bought it they had it and anyone could access it if they came to the library. Then came a push for digital versions. That should save money, right? Take up less space, be more accessible, require less paper. The “accessible” part of that was the issue. Digital files are so easy to share. Publishers have seen digital access as a danger to them and their way of business and so they did their best to make digital access incredibly expensive. It also makes access more limited. Aaron Schwartz was someone interested in those issues, interested in who profited from publishing research, who locked it away, who kept it from being publicly accessible to the people who could otherwise benefit from it (especially if it has been done by researchers at public institutions).

The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto: Aaron Schwartz, open access and the sharing imperative by Benjamin L. Hockenberry is a published version of a talk give by a librarian about the ethical and moral issues that influenced Aaron Schwartz to download the JSTOR archives. Hockenberry is clear that Schwartz did not make the archives public himself and may have been intending a research project similar to one he had previously undertaken. Others, however, did. Such an act could easily fit with Schwartz’s concerns about open access to information. I think it is important to be aware of the shift in information control that is happening and that students and teachers will inherit. Also the illegal (but ethical?) work to disrupt the situation. For further reference, in many cases when someone publishes an article in a traditional journal, the journal then owns the copyright of the article, not the author. The ethics for librarians and libraries (and those involved in information curation and dissemination) are huge when it comes to subscribing to digitally published materials. There are lots of ways we can translate this to any area where information is locked up (can your students take all their work and assessments with them? what about their data? are you using digital sources that require log-in where access ends at the end of the semester, year, term?).

This is research that is often accomplished because of public or governmental funding. Now think about all the other things that are being locked up behind copyright, behind paywalls, behind ownership. Is this really the point of copyright? Is copyright really to ensure that I can only have a song on a single device and if I want to listen to it in a different space I need to buy it all over again? Is it to ensure I cannot lend a book to someone else? Is it to make sure that artwork cannot be shared? (My husband is an Art History minor and I’ve learned just how often students and masters worked together, how often ideas were reworked historically. Remixing was normal in art but now we want to lock everything down.) Is it to ensure that the estate of someone who is dead or a company who took advantage can keep making money? Mickey Mouse is an example that is worth looking at. Things are easier and easier to share now but copyright is being locked down. And who is it really protecting to have things this locked down?

With that in mind, it’s all too easy to see how the ethics and moral decisions no longer seem to really match up with the law. This is how we end up in the world Larry Lessig talks about, where breaking the law seems ethical to so many people. So what do you think? Are we hitting the point at which technology has caused ethics/morality and law to diverge? Where does education fit into this?

It may not be the tech that’s broken, it might be our moral compass

Watching that video, it’s hard not to be hopeful. Things should be awesome, right? There should still be possibility for technology to fix what is broken. If the tech right now isn’t doing it, we just need better tech. Right? If you’re a technological optimist, sure. And if we are going with Cory Doctorow’s definition, I’d be on board. Mostly because he is aware that there are problems and that it is only in acknowledging the problems that we can find solutions.

But some days, I’m not sure even that is correct. Some days I’m not sure finding a better technology is the answer.

Actually, that’s most days now. As much as I think we can fix this, we can make the internet better, I also worry a whole lot about where our technology comes from, who drives it, what we adopt, and what that is really meaning. Do you know where your technology dollars go when they leave your pocket? If you have purchased Apple products (and I have), you might want to think about that.


flickr photo shared by hine under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Now let’s think about education. It’s one thing for a person to make choices about their purchases. It’s another for educational institutions. Have our technology purchases and adoptions fixed things in education? According to Audrey Watters’ talk EdTech’s Inequalities, not so much. Educational technology has not solved problems of inequality but has continued many of the civil rights issues, in some cases making inequalities worse. She highlights the ethical and moral issues with the assumption that technology will solve the problems we see in education; rather, it has made these problems even more apparent. She discusses the digital divide and computer usage, that just having access to technology is not the solution but knowing how to use it is becoming more and more of an issue. For an example of that, all we need to do is look to an Australian study. Watters argues more, however, that those who are already priviledged are more likely to be guided in how they use technology, taught how to do productive things. Then there is the issue of using technology to program children rather than children to program technology. You guessed it, those being programmed are more likely to be those who are disadvantaged. Why? Because it’s cheaper. (There’s that business issue again.) She also gets into issues of surveillance and just who and how we use technology to watch and surveille youth. Should we be doing that? Is it really in their best interest? At what point do we have a problem? All of these issues are ethical and moral ones (and some have even become legal issues) around how we use technology in education. “The architecture of education technology is not neutral” was probably the most important statement to me. It brings me to issues like “who profits?” or “whose educational goals?” Because it is companies making these technologies. They want to make money. Bear with me, this may be a common diatribe for a bit. But when we are in education, is it not our responsibility to think beyond convenience to really think about why these companies are doing what they do? Do they really know what is best for our students? Watters has something to say about that too. Here’s a hint: those companies aren’t neutral and neither are the ideologies under which they operate.

So here is my challenge, my call to action, and my question: Are ethics and morality involved when you make your tech decisions? Do your tech choices match your pedagogical ones? Or are you just making do, getting along with the tools you can find because it’s expected?

Are we risking it all on the wrong questions? Questions like “which product is the best?” or “which is the cheapest?” or “what’s close enough to what I want?”

If we’re going to get to the optimism of the first video, I think we need to ask better questions. I think we need to ask if it’s good pedagogy. We need to ask who profits. We need to ask who is left behind, who is being damaged, who needs support. We need to ask ourselves if it is moral and ethical, not just legal.