Thursday, August 21, 2014

Is an Online Course a Good Idea for Me?

This fall, UT Austin students will have the option to take my Introduction to Ancient Rome course as a more traditional, classroom-based, large-enrollment course (though we capped it at 200 for the fall); or as a more individualized, more self-paced online course.  The course content is largely the same, except that students in the traditional course will receive credit for meeting two graduation requirements (Ethics Flag and Visual and Performing Arts area requirement).  At present, we have not added an ethics component to the online course and so it meets only the VAPA requirement.  Otherwise, the courses have the same learning outcomes (as pertains to the course content).

What sorts of students are going to succeed in the online course?  First, to succeed in a course that is more self-paced, you will need to be able to discipline yourself.  The course is not entirely self-paced: there are fixed dates for midterms and other assignments.  However, compared to the traditional course, it offers a lot more flexibility to students.  This is likely to be especially useful if you are an upper-division student, with a tight schedule.  The course instructor will be working closely with you to make sure you don't fall hopelessly behind, but you will have to take on a lot of responsibility for managing your time. 

The online course will also appeal to experienced students who, in basic terms, already know how to be college students.  You've been at UT for a few years, you know how to manage your time reasonably well (hint: cramming for exams is NOT good time management and we have excellent evidence, collected over many semesters, that it works very poorly in this course), and you know how to make constructive use of feedback.  In the online course, you will be getting a lot of feedback, some automated and some in real time from the instructor.  The instructor will also work with you to help you identify and clarify points of misunderstanding.  But, again, some of this will demand that you take ownership of your learning, seek out help when you need it, and make good use of the feedback you receive.

There is good evidence that online courses work best for students who are experienced college learners (e.g. generally not freshmen, though there are always exceptions); who are good at self-regulating their learning (i.e. who know how to take in feedback and self-correct; who are able to avoid procrastination and cramming); and who are generally self-directed learners.  If you are the sort of student who gets bored in class but happily do your work outside of class, this is a good course format for you. 

This online course does not expect you to "teach yourself.".  Far from it.  It is carefully designed to engage you in the content, to lead you through the complexities of Roman history. and to help you develop a firm grasp of the most important details.  You will have the chance to connect with other students in the online class as well as in the traditional, classroom-based class.  There will be strong student support in place and we will add more if we can see that it is necessary.  We want you to succeed in this course and will be doing everything we can to support your success.

At the same time, if you know that you need outside structures to discipline your study (e.g. weekly quizzes); if you know that you learn better in the more social environment of the classroom, then you might consider registering for the more traditional, classroom version of CC 302 this fall (or in future semesters).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

I am very excited about my upcoming Intro to Ancient Rome Online course this fall.  The course has been a year in development; and a team of us have been working crazy long hours this summer to get it ready to go live in early September.  It is being offered via UT Extension for the very reasonable (downright cheap!) price of $350 for three transferable credit-hours.   You can see a short introduction to the course here.  Why should you take a course on Ancient Rome?  What have the Ancient Romans ever done for us?  Well, here's one good answer....

The course is intended for high-achieving high school students, university students, but also anyone who is interested in continuing their education.  It would be an ideal introduction to the rich and complex world of Ancient Rome for a couple or family planning a trip to Italy or Western Europe over the next year.  It has been designed in accordance with the principles of active, constructivist learning.  There are very few moments of straight lecture.  For the most part, students will work through interactive modules, answering questions, watching curated videos, looking at and discussing paintings, architectural remains, coins, etc.  In designing the course, we imagined ourselves laying out an entertaining treasure hunt, with clear clues.  But it will be the students' responsibility to navigate the content, construct meaning and understanding, and then refine that understanding based on both automated and real-time instructor feedback.

The course will be run by an instructor, Jessica Luther.  She will work closely with each student as s/he moves through the modules.  She will be offering feedback, both oral and written; she will be available to help with logistical issues; and she will be an excellent resource for helping students identify and correct misunderstandings prior to graded exams.  In addition, Jessica will be hosting several live events, streamed from the UT Austin campus, during the course of the fall.  The course is designed to appeal to learners who need a flexible schedule.  Only the midterm exams have fixed dates.

If you have any questions about the course, its intended audience, or the design, please don't hesitate to contact me directly (jebbeler at

Course Development vs Deployment

With one week to go before classes start on the UT Austin campus, the inevitable end of semester panic looms.  One thinks of all the good intentions, the long to-do lists, that marked those halcyon days of late May and early June, when time seemed to be an infinite resource.  Now, in the dog days of August, it is time for the reckoning.

My primary goal this summer was to have an online version of my large-enrollment Introduction to Ancient Rome class ready to go live via the UT Austin Extension School (the current home for all online courses).  This version of the course would be priced at $350 and was aimed primarily at students who were not paying flat-rate tuition as full-time UT Austin students.  I had also hoped that I would be able to work through the cumbersome bureaucracy to get a section of the online course opened to UT Austin students, i.e., students who were paying flat-rate tuition and who would be able to opt for the online version at no extra cost.

One of the biggest lessons of the summer was coming to grips with the distinction between course development and course deployment, that is, making the course available to students.  While the development work was largely in my power, the deployment process relies almost entirely on the decisions of others.  In particular, it relies on the policies and infrastructure of the residential campus.  When I began the development process back in the early Spring, I knew that the policies and infrastructure were not in place.  I spent many months having conversations with the relevant actors about the need for such policies.  I was assured that everything would be in place by the early summer.  As so often happens, however, this hasn't been the case.  So we find ourselves in a somewhat interesting position: a course that has been developed but still largely not available to the students it is intended to serve.

I'm reasonably optimistic that, over the next few weeks, the wrinkles will get ironed out.  At the same time, the immense amount of time and energy that I've spent navigating "back end" issues related to the deployment of the course (e.g. getting it open to registration) has been an important lesson.  We faculty generally don't deal with much of the back end aspects of the university (staffing appointments, marketing, opening courses for registration, managing registration) and tend to think of our job as complete at the point of course development and classroom delivery.  At institutions that are not well-situated to support team-teaching or interdisciplinary course offerings, we might have some sense of how infrastructure can get in the way; yet, on the whole, we are able to ignore issues of policy and infrastructure.

As more campuses are investing serious resources in the creation and management of digital assets, including online courses (but also hybrid or blended courses), it is going to be crucial that they first create at least some basic guiding policies and supporting infrastructure to support the deployment of developed courses.  Yes, it is expensive and difficult to develop digital assets; but, without solid infrastructure and clear institutional policy in place, the work of course development will ultimately be for naught.

In my own case, a lot of the hiccups can be attributed to being on the front lines.  I expect that, even a year from now, my institution will have more clear processes and policies in place.  I expect that getting courses open to registration will happen in a far more timely and effective manner.  I would certainly hope that we would be doing a better job of working with other campuses in our system to allow for a more seamless enrollment process.  In the 18 months or so that I have been involved in conversations about online education on my campus, it seems that we all know what the main obstacles are; but, even a year later, very little progress has been made on finding solutions to those obstacles.  I hope that, as we offer more for-credit online courses, this situation will change.

Most importantly, it will require a serious investment of time and careful thinking to develop clear policies as well as a fully scoped out and adequately staffed infrastructure.  Finally, it will take a clear recognition of the difference between course development and course deployment.  There are faculty who are willing to be "early adopters", the experimenters out on the front lines, but it will be difficult to sustain this energy and interest unless the institution puts in place all the "back-end" support that is so crucial in bringing courses to students.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Online Rome via UT Austin's University Extension Program

Roman Theater at Hierapolis in Phrygia

I am delighted to announce that an online version of my Introduction to Ancient Rome course will be available for credit to non-UT Austin students in Fall 2014 via University Extension.  The course credits are transferable. Here's a preview. The course is designed for current college/university students but would also appeal to lifelong learners with an interest in knowing more about the history of the Roman empire.  It could also be taken by advanced high school students who want to earn college credit. For more online course information visit the College of Liberal Art's online class website

The Introduction to Ancient Rome course is slated to begin in early September and run through mid-December. The course is made up of 9 highly interactive, engaging, multimedia modules, built in the Canvas LMS and keyed to Mary T. Boatwright's A Brief History of the Romans.  Each module concludes with a mastery quiz.  Students can complete the modules at their own pace, but will have fixed deadlines to complete the mastery quizzes and other assignments.  In addition to the modules and mastery quizzes, there are three midterm exams, a discussion component, and a creative exercise.  There will also be some live events throughout the fall, during which experts in Roman art, history, literature, and culture will appear.

The cost of the course is $350--a bargain for a three credit hour course!  Take advantage of this low introductory price. We are working feverishly behind the scenes to open the registration for the course.  If you are interested in taking the class, you can leave your contact information here (see info box on right side of screen) and we will let you know when it is open for registration [update: registration should be open sometime during the week of 7/21].  You can also follow news on Twitter @UTCOLAOnlineEd or contact me directly with any questions (jebbeler at austin dot utexas dot edu).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Pros and Cons of the Discussion Board

Students hate discussion boards--often with a degree of intensity that is absent from their work in the class itself.  Instructors, on the other hand, like them.  We may not love the effort it takes to manage a discussion, but we appreciate the medium as a way of pushing students to think more deeply and to express their thoughts more clearly.  This is especially true for large enrollment classes, where students can often get by without much active engagement with the course content.

I sometimes wonder how I would feel about discussion boards if they had been around back in my college days (not *that* long ago, but just long enough ago to predate the spread of the internet to college campuses).  I like to think that I would have loved it--I am an introvert even now but was especially reticent in college--but I suspect I would feel about it the way I currently feel about email from students: it is nice to have at times but it also means that I don't leave a class behind when I leave the classroom. 

I first incorporated a discussion board (I use Piazza) into my blended, large enrollment Intro to Ancient Rome class in Spring 2013.  I added it as a way to encourage more active learning from the students and also as a way to increase out of class engagement with the course content.  I had two TAs moderate the discussion (one of them also graded the posts on a 0-2 scale).  Threads were open for 48 hours, each student had to post five times over the course of the semester, and later posters were meant to extend the observations of earlier posters.  It was an incredible amount of work for the TAs, not least because they had to find ways to open up new avenues of inquiry on some of the heavier trafficked threads.

I loved the discussion board.  As I read through the posts, I could see that many of the students were wrestling with big ideas.  They made interesting and unexpected connections.  I could also see misunderstandings more clearly.  Often, I would talk about the major points of discussion from the board during the next class period.  Yet, in the two semesters that I used it, it was the one element of the course that the students did not like.  Their rationale: it felt like a waste of time to them.  I made an effort to connect it to class discussions and to talk about why I thought it was a valuable learning activity, but they never bought in.  In part, this is because the class size is too big.  They weren't really reading their classmates' posts (certainly not the ones who posted in response to them); and they rarely visited the board if it was not one of their five occasions for posting. 

I came to realize that, while it was a valuable teaching tool for me, I didn't have a good way to better manage how the students used the discussion board to support their own learning.  This coming fall semester, with a small class (250 students instead of 400), I am replacing the discussion board with worksheets.  The worksheets have 3 questions.  They start with a prompt and then have two follow-up questions.  In essence, it is exactly the same exercise as the discussion board but without the peer-to-peer interaction.  I was sad to remove that opportunity for interaction; but suspect that, individually, the students will get more out of the worksheets than they did from posting on a few threads.  It would have been nice to see more peer-to-peer interaction on the board, but that was probably unreasonable given the size of the class (and, thus, the fact that most students didn't know one another).  The move to worksheets should also mean significantly less work for one of my TAs.

As I've been developing the online version of the Rome class, I've gone back and forth on including a discussion board as part of the graded work.  I will certainly use Piazza as a clearinghouse for information about course logistics or a place where students can post questions.  I'm less sure about including it as a graded element--in part because I have no real sense of who the audience will be (immediately or in the future).  I can imagine that, unlike my campus course, my online students might like a discussion board.  They might value that peer-to-peer interaction much more than do my residential students.  Likewise, it should be a smaller group, which makes it much less challenging to facilitate a rewarding conversation. 

For the time being, I am thinking that I will include a discussion prompt at the end of each module (there are 8 modules).  The prompt will be something subjective and will encourage the students to synthesize the material they've learned in the module and to make connections to previous modules.  In a sense, I will use the discussion in place of a summary lecture.  This is very much in keeping with my general emphasis on student construction of knowledge rather than professorial delivery of content.  I'll see how this goes and make adjustments as needed in future iterations.

Deciding the Future of Higher Education

My current state of mind...
As I was falling asleep last night, I saw an interesting tweet in my TL, with a link to a blog post from Jim Groom, an instructional technologist at The University of Mary Washington. The title of the post ("The Bloody Watters of Higher Ed") piqued my curiosity, in part because I thought it had something to do with Audrey Watters (as it turns out, it was just a typo).  The post was a reflection on Jim's experience at a recent conference on the future of higher education.  The "blood" in the title was an allusion to a smart post from the always insightful Kate Bowles, in which Kate warns that the MOOCs --and all the talk of them in the media and on campuses--distract us from the real threats to higher education.  So long as we remain focused on MOOCs, we are blind to these other, far more perilous forces.  I think this is exactly right.

One of the (many) threats to the future of higher education is the extent to which teaching faculty (tenure track or not) have been shut out of the conversation.  Every morning, as I scroll through my TL on Twitter, I'm struck with the number of conferences that have been convened by foundations, institutes, higher education coordinating boards, think tanks, and the like.  I am equally struck by the near total absence of faculty from the programs of these gatherings.  The participants tend to be high level administrators, teaching and learning staff, foundation employees, and employees of ed tech companies.  Judging by the programs, full-time teaching faculty have nothing of value to add to the conversation.  In fact, one suspects that their absence is deliberate, and reflects the view that their presence would only get in the way of much-needed reform.

As I read Jim's post about his participation in the "Framing the Future of Higher Education" symposium, a few things jumped out at me.  First of all, this meeting happened at the conference center on my campus (UT Austin) yet at no point was it widely advertised to the UT Austin faculty.  Only one person with ties to UT Austin appeared on the program--Steven Mintz, who is the executive director for the UT System's Institute for Transformational Learning.  Anyone following higher education news in recent weeks will be aware that UT Austin and UT System do not always see eye to eye on things, particularly when it comes to the respective roles of teaching and research.  It is Dr. Mintz's job to represent the System, not the System's flagship campus.  The meeting was sponsored by the Texas Higher Education Policy Institute; and important issues were on the table for discussion.  Yet, it seems, working faculty were seen to have nothing substantive to contribute to this important conversation. 

In this coming week, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is convening a meeting in downtown Austin, on student success.  Again, one might think that this is a topic to which teaching faculty--many of us with decades of experience--might have something to contribute.  Apparently not.  Each institution in Texas was limited to sending five representatives, most of whose primary position is staff/administrative (though I am sure many teach from time to time).  The topics to be discussed include the ways that various pedagogies (e.g. flipped class, inquiry-based learning) are being executed on campuses.  It isn't difficult to predict how the conversation will go: these representatives will be told that they need to push recalcitrant faculty to get with it and to start caring about student success.  They will be told that student success is improved by tech-enhanced courses and Big Data.  They will be vested with the responsibility to return to their campuses and spread the gospel of education reform.

Far from coordinating a collaboration between faculty, teaching/learning experts on staff, and administrators, such gatherings tend to demonize faculty as resistant troglodytes who care only about their research.  Besides being false, this caricature impedes the sort of teamwork that it is going to take to push public higher education forward in a careful and responsible way.

Another example of this exclusion of teaching faculty from conversations about the future of higher education (and training in new teaching methods) is Educause's Breakthrough Models Academy.  I don't mean that none of the people who are working on the project teams don't also teach (they do); but these are, for the most part, not traditional tenured/tenure-track faculty.  The projects in development look excellent and, if they work, could be great tools for improving student success.  The model of a week-long seminar with various follow-ups is brilliant.  But, I'd argue, this is money that might better be spent on faculty development rather than "new higher education institutions, degree programs, or comprehensive student success systems."  It really does seem as if everyone is trying to imagine a future of higher education that does not include traditional faculty and definitely does not include traditional degree programs.

To my mind, the shark that we need to be focusing our attention on is not the MOOC (which genre, as Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles observed on Twitter, seems to be reverting to distance education circa 1960); but rather, the institutes, foundations, and private companies who are working hard--and, often, together--to fashion and then impose a future of their own creation onto (most especially) budget-challenged public universities.  It seems clear that the invitations for faculty participation in these events will never arrive, in part because the organizers (private sector players and foundations, for the most part) rightly suspect that faculty presence would get in the way.  Faculty ask hard questions; they like evidence of success, not just shows of enthusiasm and buzzword-laden presentations.  It is much easier to leave faculty off the invitation list--and certainly off the speaker list; and then claim their absence as evidence that they are not invested in teaching.

For too long, the majority of faculty have been willing to let others do the often tedious jobs of administration and the bulk of teaching.  The result is a significant reallocation of resources away from the instructional budget and to administrative/staff positions; disappearance of anything like real faculty governance; and the entrenchment of the adjunct/lecturer.  These shifts have been enabled by the general apathy of many faculty when it comes to things other than their own teaching and research.  Thus, instead of faculty-organized conferences on the future of higher education, we have people with a horse in the race working hard to determine the outcome.  This is a big problem.

I'm not sure what the solution is, because it often feels like the opportunity for faculty activism to make a difference has passed us by.  I hope I am wrong about that.  What I do know: any sustainable plan for re-imaging the future of a university will require close collaboration between faculty, staff, and administrators.  It will require faculty becoming informed and coming to terms with the realities of their institution's resources.  It will require working closely with teaching and learning experts, with both sides respecting the contributions of the other.  It will require administrators supporting and encouraging faculty, treating faculty as partners in rather than obstacles to their plans.  Finally, it will require faculty to understand that, for a range of reasons, things are never going to return to "normal."  The question is, what will the new normal be?  And, importantly, what role will faculty play in shaping this new normal.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Gamification Revisited

When I set out to create an online version of my Intro to Ancient Rome class, I very much wanted to gamify the design.  Just as my undergraduates at UT Austin struggle to stay focused throughout the fifteen week semester, so do online students struggle to persist and complete for-credit courses.  By incorporating some of the features of gaming into the course design, I am hoping to provide to my online students additional incentives for staying on track and persisting to completion.  There is nothing novel about encouraging learning through gaming.  Most instructors do some of this as a regular feature of their campus courses (e.g. quiz bowl as review for an exam).  I am having a couple of games built for the course (one is on the voting process).  But what I wanted to do was gamify the course itself--that is, to incorporate gaming features into the process of working through the course.  After casting around for ideas that would work well in Canvas, not be too complicated or distracting, and that would not require a massive effort to design, I settled on something that I am eager to test. 

The graphic design needs are pretty minimal: I am having the graphic designers create a game board template that each student will save in a folder.  The template is the atrium of a Roman house, but emptied of all of its usual ornamentation.  I am also having the graphic designers create 25 icons/game pieces.  These include: a fountain, some statues, frecoes, lamps, books, a cat, etc.  Each of these game pieces will be hidden throughout the modules.  The link to the game piece will be live for a specific amount of time and then will go dead.  If the student is working through the module on time, they will have access to the game piece.  As well, the instructor will be able to award extra game pieces for particularly good performances on the modules, short essay questions, exams, or the discussion board.

Students will be able to place the game pieces they earn on their game board and save the board.  At the end of the class, they will be able to redeem their game pieces for some amount of extra credit.  Special bonuses will go to high scorers.

There is nothing particularly sophisticated about this game--and that is why I like it.  I don't want it to distract from the learning but rather, to provide additional positive reinforcement for the practice of good learning hygiene.  In my campus course, I give students candy for speaking in class (it can be intimidating to speak in a 400 student class and this was a successful way of getting more students involved in class discussions).  Sure, it's middle school tactics and kind of cheesy--but it accomplished my goal of involving more than the front row students in class discussion.  I will be curious to see how this game plays out.  It is meant to be pretty easy to run and play.  I'm sure that there will be some kinks to work out in the first iteration but I am guardedly optimistic that it will work as intended.