Putting It out in the Open?

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

“Open” is something that has had a big impact on me over the past five years. A little longer probably. I started to be introduced to the concept in small ways, without really thinking about it, through working on a graduate student journal that was talking about using Open Journal Systems (OJS), then working on a website, a conference that used Open Conference Systems (OCS), working with one of the people who was involved in developing the software, helping out slightly with another journal that was using OJS. But once I came to the University of Regina as a staff member, I really started to get it. I started to blog, be more active professionally on social media, and started to discover Open Access. I found out that I really strongly believe that sharing the work I do with others is meaningful. I started my MEd and got even more exposure through Alec, including having to make at least some of my learning open.

That does not, however, mean that I necessarily think all learning should be open. I have talked a bit with Katia in the past about open vs closed learning and we do, at some point, come in on different sides. I have actually done work on this before. With the shifting of “privacy” to something you have to actively seek rather than the assumed default, I think there is value in being open, in sharing what we do. But I think there is also value in knowing when to be open and when to be private.

For my own learning, in general, I love being open. I am usually pretty happy to share what I know or think or wonder. There are, however, limitations. One limitation is that I am a staff member of the University of Regina. For the most part, I am not covered under Academic Freedom (unless I am teaching as a sessional). That means I may have to be careful about what I write or say in a public way about the institution I work for and even my field. For the most part, I have chosen to still be fairly public but I think about what I post. I have happily blogged in the courses I have taken that require blogging and have, at various times, used blogs to think through issues in my field. I publish a lot of my coursework under Creative Commons licenses on my website because I have created it for others to use at will.

Closed flickr photo by Andrea K. shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

There are, however, conversations I can only have in private. Conversations that I might have differently in a classroom than I would in a recorded digital space, let alone on a public blog. Some things could put my job at risk, and I work in a good and supportive environment. That isn’t the case for everyone.

When it comes to students, I do agree with things Katia has said about the importance of students learning how to disagree with policies, procedures, political climates, and find ways to voice important things. I truly do think that is important. I also, however, think that sometimes the ways to do that might be quieter, and might come after finding a job, might come through seeing how that happens in a particular place. Not everyone can be a vocal activist for change on a wide scale. And I don’t think we should force that on anyone because that doesn’t always fit. I don’t mean that people should accept injustice or let it be. But some find quieter ways to work for change, when it is possible. Sometimes silence is worthwhile.

I think there needs to be space to figure things out. Sometimes students are busy negotiating their place in a field, between theories and methodologies, practices and politics. Sometimes they express something poorly or don’t make the right choice. Or sometimes they are exploring the options of change in a field that is not ready to accept that change. Or are dealing with a delicate topic. Some students might have a very hard time discussing sexual abuse, for example, especially if they have experienced it. Do I think they should have to talk about it publicly if they are not ready? Nope. I don’t. I think maybe they might want to process it but may need a safer space.

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

Because the reality is that the internet is not yet a safe space (and I’m not sure it ever will be, and I know our classrooms are not actually safe either). And yes, it is useful for students to have lessons in how to deal with it productively. Does that mean they should have to deal with personal attacks, however? No. I do not think it is. I think they need to know the risks, know the dangers, and instructors and teachers need to be fully aware of those risks and dangers too. especially when pushing for students to be open.

The dangers include threats of personal harm, being sent graphic or disturbing contact (text, pictures, etc), doxxing, swatting, trolling (and if you identify as a woman, assume it is likely to happen). For some, it can include putting employment at risk. For some, the dangers are worse. Minorities can be at greater risk because oppression is live and well on the internet. International students may need to be more careful, especially as the political situation in the United States changes. Actually, anyone using social media might want to consider things carefully if they intend to travel to the US.

One term that is often associated with open learning is that of authentic learning. I strongly feel that while open learning is more likely to feel authentic simply because anyone could engage with the content, there is no guarantee of authentic learning just because an assignment is open. Authentic learning has meaning:

Authentic learning is real life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful product to be shared with their world

Note “tangible” and “useful.” Shared is not the only quality. So writing a paper, pretending I am an expert, and handing it in to my instructor who is significantly more expert than I am is in no way authentic. I am writing for an audience I assume to be more knowledgeable than I am. So why am I bothering? How is that useful, other than providing something to asses?

For learning to be authentic, you need a real audience to target. It also has to actually be relevant. So that question of “when am I ever going to need to know…?” raises its head. Why bother? Why do this work? What meaning does it have?

Well, sometimes it’s hard to have it actually have meaning. Or the meaning could be about proving knowledge, because educators are often under certain restrictions. Or maybe the authenticity is less about the actual task or actual content.

And maybe, the audience is and should be solely the peers. Sometimes, when we are dealing with difficult topics, the authentic learning is exchanging knowledge with or peers. I think of the Zoom sessions in EC&I 834. Our breakout room discussions or sharing with others in the class are authentic because we are discussing things that are relevant and are sharing them with the right audience. Let’s be honest, most of the internet doesn’t care that I am posting about open learning and authentic audience. It’s likely that the only people who will read this are other students in the class I am taking. Would it be any less meaningful to me at this moment if it were available solely to those involved? Not really, not in terms of the practicality. There is assumed meaning in it being open, the idea that it is part of professional growth, it is public to be part of a wider conversation that exists. Kara shared some of the impact this can have when there is interaction with the wider community. But the reality is that my targeted blog post written for my class is really only relevant and meaningful to others in the course. An authentic learning project needs to have an authentic audience. Sending it off into silence is only slightly better than something written solely for the instructor.

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

Ashley shared a story privately about having students tweet with an author. That is an amazing experience! And the potential for such encounters is part of what keeps many of us engaging openly. But when nothing happens, it can feel defeating to have exposed oneself without any benefit. That doesn’t necessarily make it authentic if the purpose was to engage with people who have the same experience as you. Maybe a classroom exchange is a better idea. Maybe sharing something with parents. Maybe a specific community is the right audience. The point is to be authentic in the assignment which means having an actual audience in mind. It means creating something that students may want to share later as part of their learning. Even better is giving them a way to take it with them (making it tangible). But it doesn’t have to be open for any of that to occur.

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.)

Assistance… for EVERYONE


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

Last week’s presentation (because I’m running behind again) on Assistive Technologies by Heidi, Holly, Allison, Launel, and Benita was a good kick in the pants for me. In my unit, because we have to work ahead of time on courses as much as possible, we rarely know if there will be any students who will require assistive technologies. Unlike the K-12 system where the teacher appears to be more involved (am I right? correct me if not), the process is somewhat different at U of R.

The issues around assistive technology and other supports come through the Centre for Student Accessibility at the University of Regina (with some students more specifically through Campus for All). They are the ones who meet with students and ensure proper documentation to proceed with authorizing supports. Based on the evaluation submitted (and the type of evaluation depends on the type of issue a student is dealing with), they work with the student to determine what sort of accommodations a student may need, technologies, etc. Sometimes it is a technology, like Kurzweil, or being able to make an audio recording, often it isn’t. Each semester, the student can then make the decision about whether or not they feel they might need to use their potential accommodations and, if so, a letter is sent to the instructor to notify them of which accommodations a students is authorized for. The student and instructor are then supposed to meet to determine which of the accommodations the student actually wants. The control, in a large part, is supposed to be in the hands of the students. That’s both great and… not so great.


flickr photo shared by visualpun.ch under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Student can request the accommodation letter be sent partway through a semester. This means that material covered prior to that won’t have been prepared and there could be a bunch of back work during a busy time and in a rush. For example, for instructors who use videos, there are not always closed captioning options or transcripts. Sure, the hope is that the transcript might be available (did the instructor have notes if they recorded the video?). But a lot of the videos I deal with don’t have a closed captioning option and there is no transcript as far as I know. In that case, suddenly there is a concern. How best can I and the instructor balance the needs of one student with the desires for the course (what if a video isn’t available with closed captioning because it was a small documentary company that made it?)? How much time will it take to rectify the situation? Transcription and closed captioning aren’t cheap. My unit has investigated options before, with the hope that we could just do this for every video, but there are no programs yet that are accurate enough to use to get a transcript without a lot of double checking. So basically, the technology is manual. It requires a person actually writing the transcript which is time consuming and expensive. Technology has not yet solved this. The closest would be Dragon Naturally Speaking or Dragon Dictation but that program only learns one person’s voice and that also takes time.


flickr photo shared by itjil under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license
Youtube is okay, usually, but once it messes up it goes very off track unfortunately.

There are some things technology makes easy, like giving students extra time on quizzes or assignments. That is super easy for me to do and nobody needs to know about it at all except the instructor and me. There are no obvious cues within the course that this has happened for anyone else. We don’t have to make a special quiz or put them in a separate room. I wish it could all be that easy.

Sometimes it is hard not to get stuck. I want to support students. I want to give them options for how to approach material, provide a variety of options so they can learn on their terms and be supported regardless of whether they are registered for accommodations or not. But sometimes I get stuck. Sometimes the timeline defeats me. Sometimes I don’t even get content until shortly before it is needed with no time to discuss anything. Sometimes the content is there but the warning that something is needed or will cause a problem is short notice. Sometimes my time is short and filling in everything I should fill in to match with Universal Design for Learning just aren’t there (alt tags, I am sorry, I try).


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

This has not been a big push at U of R which is unfortunate. For example, check out the W3C Markup Validation check for the U of R homepage: 36 errors, 22 warnings. Not great. I can’t imagine how problematic it would be for a web reader. Adam and Naomi in her comment raise the issue of insufficient support as funding cuts reduce the number of people available. I know at U of R adding an Assistive Technologist could get tricky: whose unit would they be in? who has access? what are their job boundaries? Being in one of the units that has a high technology use, I would love access to someone to give suggestions but I also know that frequently the focus is on face to face students.

So if you were in my shoes, what would you target first? What would be your first step into Universal Design for Learning and making all online courses more accessible with the most impact for the effort?

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.

Let’s talk “edutainment”


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

Last week’s class for EC&I 833 was about audio visual materials for education and a lot of it was about educational television. Katia Hildebrandt joined us and gave us a bit of trauma with a few Sesame Street clips (like one about Mr. Hooper’s death) as well as bringing up some more current shows to get us thinking about the role of television and education. She raised a concern that came from Neil Postman who wrote: “…We now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like “’Sesame Street.’”

Logo for Sesame Street
Logo for Sesame Street

Clearly the implication is that traditional education is not like Sesame Street. Being exposed to shows like that would obviously keep children from loving school as it was (or perhaps he really means more as it should be?). Well, how exactly are they different?

The main issue seems to be that educational television for children needs to be entertaining. It needs to fall into the realm of “edutainment,” or “infotainment” as Finch (2004) refers to it (p. 7), which today has expanded to various forms of media that are traditionally not educational but have been used as a vehicle for education. These terms might be used slightly differently, assuming that you can get information out of infotainment but it is not really about education, but I would argue given the extensive work that went into Sesame Street as education that it is edutainment. Edutainment is more likely to refer to computer games but from what I remember about Sesame Street, it felt more interactive. At least some of the characters break the fourth wall (the tv screen) and talk to the viewers. They get them engaged. So if Sesame Street is entertaining with the intent of making kids love it (I know I sure loved it – much less love for Sesame Park, the Canadian version that replaced Sesame Street a while back), does that suggest school is not entertaining?

Yes. For many people, there is a feeling that school cannot nor should it be entertaining. It is not a teacher’s job to entertain students, it is their job to teach and students’ job to learn. Note the use of the word “job” there in reference to students. That was intentional. School has been, to some extent, job training. With the hidden curriculum, the point was to train students to accept factory conditions, to teach them to accept authority, deal with structured days, be prepared for what the “real world” will be like. And for the most part, many schools are still like this today even though very few of the students will work in factories and many of them will work under very different conditions.

Students were supposed to learn to buckle down and learn, whether they liked it or not.

I was lucky (? really?) that I was a student who could conform to that model, who was able to be successful. I also later learned to question authority, work in different ways, fight for control of my education. I did not, however, love school much of the time. It was boring or I had a teacher I didn’t necessarily like. We had to learn things I had no interest in learning, read and do things I was not excited about. They were, however, required. Sure, Kindergarten and grade one had some entertainment value. There was an urge to make things fun but the older we got, the less our teachers felt that was necessary. Now I work at a university and time and again I hear someone say or read an instructor lament that students expect to be entertained in the classroom. That is clearly not what instructors are there for. They should not have to be entertaining to have students choose to pay attention to them rather than Facebook or World of Warcraft or a text about their sick child.

Postman’s concern is that children will experience Sesame Street or other edutainment and think that school should be about entertainment. The television shows have to be entertaining or kids will not watch them (Finch, 2004, p. 9). But the same does not apply to school which is mandatory with no requirement of enjoyment to require participation. School being fun and entertaining sounds like everyone’s dream; the idea of school being entertaining doesn’t sound so bad from the student perspective. Even some teachers get into it (if you haven’t heard of the Plaid Avenger, go check him out). And why couldn’t school be more enjoyable? During class many of us could name educational television we even watched in school as we were growing up (Bill Nye, Magic School Bus, Sol). So clearly it is not all bad. Our teachers did do fun things sometimes and I personally think that a teacher who never makes class fun in any way could be doing something different.

Conversely, entertainment has seen more education creeping in. TED Talks are a great example but so are cruises with educational talks, playing Minecraft and learning on the go how to play, even MOOCs and iTunes U and sites like Duolingo. The lines have blurred into the entertainment side so is it so surprising that students wonder why education can’t be entertaining?


flickr photo shared by BRICK 101 under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Going deeper, though, we do get to a problem. It isn’t about school, however, it’s about learning. Learning can be difficult. It can be hard work. It can involve struggle and it is important to learn how to go beyond that. I have spent hours trying to fix code for a website, trying to figure out what I broke, or unpicking stitches on something I am sewing only to have to unpick them again. Those things aren’t fun. They aren’t entertaining. If the point of school is learning then Postman’s concern is understandable.

There is a difference, an important one, between something being entertaining and something being engaging. Engagement is what schools can and should aim for. Entertainment often implies a level of consumption. There is no need to participate, to be active. That is hardly what educators would wish for students. Lots of educators don’t want to put on a personality and become a fun character who is always entertaining without ever making corrections. And as I said, sometimes learning is hard.

Holly discussed her attempts to make her classroom exciting. Isn’t that what we want to teach students about learning? That it is exciting? Isn’t that why many of us choose to be lifelong learners? Heidi argues that educational television can challenge traditional education and I agree. The challenge, to be fair, is not to be entertaining. That will work for some instructors but not for all. The challenge is to be engaging. The challenge is to get students excited about and interested in the material and that can require some activity on the part of the instructor. Because if kids are taught that learning is supposed to be boring and hard then that is what they will think of formal learning all the time (and maybe even more informal learning) and that is certainly no better.


flickr photo shared by cybrarian77 under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

So we need a balance. We need to find a way to keep students engaged (and maybe sometimes that is with edutainment) without letting them off the hook for the struggle that learning can be. We can use technology to get kids more directly involved (answering polls, playing games, looking things up). But devices need to be used for educational purposes, not just to throw in a bit of tech as a pleaser. Trust me, we could all tell in school when the teacher put on a video just to put on a video and have us zone out. Sure, we liked it, but we usually didn’t learn much.

So let’s try engaging.

Engage!
Engage!

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.

Can we teach what we don’t know?


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

EC&I 832 is very much about thinking through teaching new media and digital citizenship. For my final project I am looking at instructors and what their support needs are. One of my reasons is that it is pretty darn difficult to teach what we don’t know. We refer to instructors developing courses as “subject matter experts” for a reason, after all. Aside from all the issues around the place of teaching in universities, being a teacher (or instructor to differentiate from K-12 which is a whole other debate) means having some knowledge. Admittedly, there is value in learning with students. Actually, it is a fantastic thing to do. It reminds all of us what the process of learning is like, helps model learning for our students, helps build their confidence as they see themselves on the same path as their instructors. It can open up all sorts of interesting was of knowing and paths to learning that we might never use if we remain stuck in the usual patterns.

So how does my final project support that? Well, one aspect of digital citizenship that has been discussed frequently in higher ed for the past 5+ years is a digital portfolio. Recognizing that students do work during their university career and that they will, at some point, be seeking employment or applying for further education, the point is to build something that can showcase what they have learned which can then be used once they leave the institution (although not all options take that aspect into account). Not everyone is on board with this idea yet, but it is coming and some universities have implemented options for this like Mahara or even WordPress installations. It is worth understanding the value of giving students knowledge and control over their work, especially in ways that allow them to take it with them after they are done.


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

Okay, so far none of this is too far outside the norm, even for instructors who are not big fans of technology themselves. Sure, students in this day and age might want to think about these things.

Wait. Who exactly is helping these students? Who is modelling how do to this? Who is crafting the assignments they might use?

Oh.

Now we get into it. If we think it is a good idea for our students, then why is it not a good idea for their instructors? It can be all too easy to tell students one thing but do something completely different. Yes, it would be good to showcase your work. Yes, it would be good to have your own space on the web so that future employers can see what you have done, so you can track your own learning, so you can understand how you got where you are. But do I also need to do this? Should I also consider reflecting on my own learning? Could I or should I share work I have done? Do I want to take some ownership of my presence in a digital world? Moreover, to assume that every instructor will only ever be employed by a single institution is, I think, changing. Many choose to relocate if the culture is not a good fit. Others find somewhere that suits their goals better. Some relocate because of a spouse getting a job elsewhere. Some are seeking tenure and working as a sessional until that day. Others have multiple identities that intersect around their teaching and may need to think through how that all works.


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

For those instructors already out there, experimenting, building their own examples, that is fantastic. They can already model work they are doing. I was a teaching assistant for a professor a number of years ago who encouraged students to check out his blog – Phil Harland. He has since gotten into podcasting. He also links to other sites that he has been involved in, including companion sites to books, online versions, or even virtual tours of archaeological museums. He shares his CV, publications, and even courses including course outlines and additional materials.

Not everyone wants that kind of presence or has an interest in doing podcasts. There is nothing wrong with that. We all have our different times and places on the digital continuum. This is only one example. But if we can see value for our students, perhaps we can find value for ourselves. Perhaps we can connect with our students in learning. We may be able to share pitfalls or concerns or questions about this part of our field when we engage in learning in this place as well as more traditional “locations” for learning and teaching and practicing. How do we assign a student to do work on a site we have never used? And if we see amazing work produced by a student, why couldn’t it influence how or where we ourselves do work?


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

This is where it all comes together. Teaching, being professionals, learning, it can (and I would argue, should) be tied together. Without taking major leaps into the unknown, we can take steps. We can find ways to be digital that are meaningful to us and to our work. And hopefully to our students and colleagues also.

I’ve already started that, building my site as a portfolio that can also feed work into my job, inform my practice as an instructional designer, but also inform my practice as a teacher.

How do we teach?


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by funkandjazz

Today I read a post that argued students like lectures, even the so-called “digital natives.” I even read some of the comments. I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the post, wanting to discuss with the author and many of the commentors although I felt pretty clearly that I did not want to engage there. Instead, I needed some space to think through my issues and concerns.

I begin with the understanding that this is a blog post, not a research article. This is someone presenting an opinion, based on somewhat informal surveying of the author’s students. I don’t expect a lot of reference to research since the title was not about how students learn best. The post is about what students like.

That was actually one of my issues. The students, many of whom are supposedly in Education, reported disliking having teaching methods they were currently learning for use in their own practice turned against them in the classroom. Oh? You say that you dislike being forced to learn in these ways but you are also learning that these ways are effective and good to use with the students who you will be teaching? Hmm. That should be raising flags. Those students should be questioning things. They should be asking why they are expected to teach in ways they themselves dislike learning. Or they should be asking why they dislike learning that way so much if it is actually considered good practice. I’m currently a grad student in Education and I see a lack of connection between what students are learning and how they are learning. I constantly want to get meta. I want to ask about the curriculum design of a course on curriculum design. I want to talk about pedagogy and question it when someone says they are doing something for pedagogical reasons. I think we should practice what we preach, both in our teaching and our learning.

But leaving aside my own frustrations, relying on what students like to determine teaching methods can be rather dangerous. The real question is whether they are learning the things they need to learn. Do our students need to learn how to work in groups or collaborative environments? Do they need to be taught cooperative measures, do they need to know how to cope with committees? If they do, then leaving out group work because it is difficult doesn’t function. It is the instructor’s responsibility to find ways to facilitate the students learning the skills. Maybe class time needs to be devoted to group work if most students are commuter students. Maybe there needs to be facilitation of online, asynchronous discussion if that works better. Maybe there should be discussion of ways technology can ease the communication process.

Maybe we should take responsibility for learning rather than teaching.

I wholeheartedly agree that I expect to learn things from the instructor. I very much expect that. I don’t necessarily require them lecturing at me to achieve that, however. Sometimes it works great. Sometimes I should be applying the knowledge and asking questions. Sometimes I can start with having done the reading, being prepared, and sorting out my confusion with the expert present. Maybe they know more than I can find in the textbook or want to help me balance my approach or my knowledge. Or, as one moves from very intro level to more knowledge, maybe the instructor needs to pose questions and facilitate discussion, encourage peer instruction, add the benefit of their experience that goes beyond the basics.

We need to keep in mind that many of our students are accustomed to being told what to learn, told what to know, told how to know it. Some have experienced other ways of learning but many would very much like to sit and be told what matters.

I am experiencing learning in a totally new field and, more and more, I appreciate the fantastic instructors I have had. I appreciate those who encouraged me to think, to participate, to engage. I appreciate those who shared their knowledge and experience without expecting me to be passively absorbing. I even appreciate the group work I have done, as much as I have hated it. I learned some great skills along the way. Most of all, I learned.

The classroom is not about how you teach. It is about how you encourage your students to learn and what you contribute to that.

Another pet peeve, of course, was the assumption that clickers themselves have anything to do with other ways to teach, or that clickers cannot require thought. A clicker is just a tool. As is a cell phone. If used well, with significant thought, asking some questions that can be responded to with an answer of a, b, c, d can lead to learning. It isn’t learning in and of itself. Designing the questions asked or the activities that frame those questions are where thought leads to learning. Derek Bruff did a lot of work on clickers and I learned a lot about probing questions from his work, however those questions are applied. It takes work on the part of the instructor, though.

It all comes back to work and effort. For student and instructor. So if your lectures are working, if you are engaging your students in critical thinking, helping them learn, great. But if you are holding up student preference as a reason to keep doing it without questioning why… I’ll just find another course to take.