Monday, September 15, 2014

Rethinking Gen Ed/Undergrad Ed: A Tale of Two Meetings

Image from
During the past two weeks, I've had the opportunity to take part in two different but overlapping conversations about the future of undergraduate education.  The first came on the UT Austin campus, when I attended a full-day symposium--Campus Conversation--dedicated to the complicated but important question of how a research university like mine can do a better job of integrating research and discovery into the undergraduate curriculum.  In some ways, I think the charge of the symposium was too narrowly conceived.  It struck me as an important question, but also something of a defensive response to legislative threats to the value of research that doesn't make money.  My students can benefit from my activities as an active and engaged scholar without themselves "doing research".  If we define research in broad terms, as something more like question-driven learning, then I'm fully on board.  If we mean that all freshmen should be treated like miniature versions of ourselves, I'm a bit less enthused.  In the same way that graduate programs have run into trouble by assuming that the end goal of graduate training was solely to produce imitations of ourselves, it makes no sense to treat all undergraduate as future researchers.  It DOES make sense to leverage the power of curiosity and digital tools to structure our courses around questions to be answered, problems to be solved.  I will say more about this Campus Conversation in a separate post (and I've written a quick overview of it, with links, here).

The consensus of the faculty was that we need to find ways to re-imagine our undergraduate courses and curricula to engage our students in meaningful, authentic learning experiences.  How we do that, given the current state of budgetary austerity under which we are operating, is a different and more challenging question.  The problem with meaningful and authentic learning experiences is that they tend to require a lot of resources, especially human resources.  Indeed, it is the human interaction--the interaction of teacher and student (or, in other terms, novice and expert)--that stands at the center of the learning experience and drives it.  It is exactly why, even as we experiment with taking certain kinds of learning out of the classroom (i.e. basic content acquisition), the interactive piece of learning--online or f2f--becomes all the more necessary.  In "The Power of the Personal", Daniel Chambliss observes: "Time and again, finding the right person, at the right moment, seemed to have an outsize impact on a student’s success—in return for relatively little effort on the part of the college."  In other words, the secret sauce of student success seems to have student-faculty interaction as a main ingredient.  Automation has a place to play in the 21st education at resource-starved institutions, I would contend; but faculty, especially tenure-track faculty (not because they are superior to non-TT faculty but because it says something about the institution's commitment to them and their subsequent willingness to give back to the campus community), are the sine qua non of meaningful learning experiences and student success, both narrowly and broadly conceived.

Today and tomorrow, I am in Washington DC as a member of a Digital Tools sub-committee for an AAC&U project on re-imagining general education for the 21st century.  The project, called GEMS, is in the planning stage of submitting a proposal to the Gates Foundation.  In this meeting as well as the two earlier ones, we have spent a lot of time talking broadly about general education and its role in the undergraduate curriculum, especially at a time when many students "swirl" around, collecting credits from a variety of institutions until they have enough of the right kind of credits to graduate.  I'm not that old, yet I come from a generation that arrived at college with perhaps a handful of AP credits. I passed some graduation requirements by taking exams--essentially, a form of competency-based education that has always existed.  But I remained a residential student for 4 years, taking full credit loads.  I grew up not far from a community college and even had to take a course there in order to graduate from high school; but few people in my graduating high school class took community college courses with the intention of transferring them and counting them towards their college graduation requirements.  My generation went to college and entered into an essentially closed ecosystem.  That ecosystem is no longer closed.  My UT Austin students take courses at community colleges, at other UT System campuses, and online to "get done with" their GE requirements.  As an institution, we have little control over their lower-division curriculum at this point, even as we lament the ways that this change has not served our undergraduates all that well.  Frequently we encounter upper division students who have weak writing skills, little sense of how to construct an argument from evidence, and a general lack of basic content knowledge.  Oftentimes, they have to retake introductory pre-reqs in their majors in order to be prepared for upper division courses.  This prolongs their time to degree and costs the institution as well as the student.

Given this widespread change in how students go to college, it is clear that general education is in need of reform; and that we need to have more cooperation between institutions, more agreement on what we think are the learning goals and outcomes--the Degree Qualification Profile--of a successful student.  I hesitate to use the word "standardization"; but, in fact, that's partly what we need.  But we also need to use this as an opportunity to get general education right--at least for this generation of students.  My sub-committee, the Digital, has spent a lot of time trying to identify our task.  What, exactly, is it that we expect the digital learning environment to support and facilitate.  Today, continuing a conversation that began in June, we reached the conclusion that, in the end, what we were talking about was how the digital would support and, ideally, enhance, authentic learning. 

I was struck by this focus on authentic learning today, in part because I realized that we all see essentially the same thing: we need to find ways to make student learning more authentic, more discovery-oriented.  Our group would argue that the digital is essential to this curricular transformation, not because it replaces the human element of learning but because it enhances it.  It highlights exactly what it is that we faculty bring to the classroom.  It makes sacred that time when we share space with our students.  It means that we can "offload" most content acquisition to other spaces and spend the time in class engaging in higher order thinking and analysis.  It means that we can be there for the hard stuff, helping to prepare our students for an adult life and working world that will require them to be nimble and adaptable, to constantly learn new and complicated skills.  If they are going to be prepared for this workplace, we need to think hard about how and what and where they are learning.  We need to understand that the notion of students being graduates of individual institutions means something very different today than it did even a decade ago.  Things won't change much for the Harvards and Reeds of the higher education world; but for the rest of us, they have already changed and we are already trying to catch up to the new reality.  Tomorrow's task: articulate in clear terms the role of the digital in this catch-up game, as it pertains to general education courses.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Going Live!

At 8 am on 2 September 2014, Online Rome went live for UT Austin students as well as for the ten students who enrolled in the course via our extension program (UEX).  Since then, we have released two more modules. The total enrollments: 15 UEX students and 295 UT Austin students.  In addition, I have 190 students in my blended instruction campus course.  I am most relieved that we managed to go live and get the first three modules released without any major problems.  This is a small miracle, given that a week before classes began I was pushing to postpone the course release date to January.  No marketing had been done, registration was opened extremely late, and the oversight of the online courses had moved from one dean to another in early August. 

Our biggest shock thus far has been the amount of student interest.  Given the lack of advertising, even to UT Austin students; and the very late registration opening (the Friday before classes began), we were expecting somewhere between 15-25 UT Austin students.  I was persuaded to wait on pulling the plug with the argument that this would be a good opportunity to beta test the course with a small group.  With 300 students, though, we can't afford any screw-ups.  If I've learned anything about teaching at scale, it is that any minor error has the potential to cause enormous confusion and chaos.  It was a mad scramble to staff the courses appropriately and also to get all the usual course documents prepared for the instructors.  In the first few weeks of the semester, I focused a lot of attention on making sure that we communicated regularly to the online students, and that we were exceptionally responsive to their questions.  As expected, there was a bit of disorientation but I think we were able to resolve it pretty quickly and get everyone down to work on the modules.

And then there was the matter of getting the modules polished and out the door.  We had nearly all of the content finished, but still needed to add short podcasts.  Thankfully, my new project manager is an audio engineer.  I sent him scripts and recordings of me reading all the strange Latin names and terms; he found people to record the podcasts in their studio.  I wanted there to be a multiplicity of voices, and we have that.  My technologist also worked hard to get the first three modules out during these first weeks of the semester.  I did a lot of proofreading, editing, and decision-making while she worked on the packaging of the content. 

The only major issue we've had was with copying the Canvas course site from one course to another.  For some reason, this process is buggy and required us to go in and re-edit the copied site.  Otherwise, apart from some broken links, we've had few questions from students.  They seem to be doing what we want them to do: working on their modules.  They will have their first discussion this week, on Piazza.  In order to facilitate better discussion, we've divided them into groups of about 50.  The quality of these posts should tell us a lot about how well they are learning in the online environment.  It should also serve as a check for them.

My biggest issue is trying to figure out how to manage the scale problem.  The course design is constructivist and high touch.  So far, I've decided that we will make every effort to give generous amounts of feedback through the first three modules.  This will get them to the first midterm.  After that, I am thinking about introducing a couple of things: first, instead of the instructional team grading and responding to all short answer questions (there are quite a few in each module), we will respond to a selection of questions and then post general feedback for the others.  Second, I will have them respond to a peer's short answers.  I am thinking that I might do the first form of response for the modules that lead up to the second midterm; and then the third form for the modules that lead up to the third midterm.  And frame this transition as part of the design (which, in fact, it is): by the end of the semester, we want them to have progressed from passive recipients of feedback to active givers of it, whether to themselves or to their fellow students.  I was motivated to think harder about this issue because of the size of the class, but I actually think it's one of those situations where a problem is actually a stimulus to a better solution.

It is going to be a very long semester for me.  Thankfully, I have my sine qua non, Dr. Liew, helping me every step of the way; a very strong instructional team; and a great project manager who is doing his best to take tasks away from me.  Still, it takes a lot of time to prepare the modules for release.  We have to work very carefully to ensure that no errors are introduced and to ensure that everything is set properly.  But we are also focused on quality.  My team of students who worked on the modules this summer did an excellent job of preparing drafts.  Now we are revising, beefing up content, adding graphics, and creating introductions, summaries, podcasts, etc.  It is interesting but mentally draining work.  On the bright side, we are creating a durable artifact, and much of the work that we are doing this fall will not have to be redone in the near future.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

It's Getting Real: From Conception to Birth

The single adjective that best captures my experience of building and deploying an online, for credit course is frustrating.  Sure, it's been an intensely creative experience; it has made me grateful for all the wonderful people who have worked on the project.  But it has also been intensely frustrating to ensure that all of our hard work was going to result in an actual course that actual students could take for actual credit.  In mid-August, shortly after learning that the oversight for projects like mine was moving from one office and associate dean to another office and different dean (and, in fact, to a very different kind of unit), I thought long and hard about postponing the launch date to the spring semester.  I knew that we would be ready with the course--the product; but was close to losing faith in my university's ability to ensure that the course was staffed and open to students.

As it happened, we barely got the UT section of the online course open for registration and an instructor hired.  We jumped through countless hoops, some of them entirely unnecessary, but managed to pull it off.  I owe a lot of this to the amazing executive assistant in the Classics Department as well as the fabulous staff at the International Students office (the course instructor needed a visa, and yesterday).  We did almost no advertising.  A good friend made a nice poster which we emailed to the undergraduate advisers on the Friday late afternoon before classes started on the following Wednesday.  We were hoping that we'd get maybe 30-40 UT Austin students to sign up.  We'd had no time at all to market the class because it took until late on Friday for the Powers that Be (no, not Bill Powers himself!) to finally sign off on opening the class to students.

Last Sunday night, I logged onto the Canvas site for the Online Rome UT section.  13 students had enrolled!  I was thrilled.  Suddenly, it felt real.  All the work, all the stress and anxiety, the constant nagging of administrators to sign forms, seemed worth it.  13 students were going to take the course!  I was immediately reminded of how challenging it is for faculty to work on courses when we don't have a clear sense of our audience, or even know if there will be an audience.  On Monday morning, I opened my email to find a message from our undergraduate adviser, letting me know that some 70 students had registered for the online class over the weekend.  I was stunned (and realized that Canvas was about 24 hours behind in updating the roster).  Over the week, many more students added the class.  We now have about 250 students in the UT Austin section, another 10 or so in the Extension School section, and then I am teaching 200 students the blended instruction version on campus.  I am utterly floored that, in just over one week and with virtually no advertising at all and well after most students had finalized their schedules, we were able to attract so much interest.

I have especially enjoyed the many exchanges with students, both face to face and over email, about the online class.  It is clear that the prime motivating factor for them is being able to fulfill a graduation requirement while introducing some flexibility into their schedule.  We spoke a lot about how they would still need to find time for the classwork, but that they could do it a bit more on their own schedule instead of the university's schedule.  Nobody asked if the online class easier, nor did they expect that it would be.  Several asked if there were live streaming lectures (since this is the dominant model at UT): nope, I said.  In fact, there's almost no lecture.  These conversations gave me a great opportunity to chat with students about self-regulated learning, about time management, about making use of different kinds of feedback.

As we continue to fine-tune the modules and get ready to start the course on Tuesday with an orientation module, that feeling of intense frustration has been replaced by exhilaration, delight, and excitement.  I am proud of what my team has built and am excited to see how these students worth with the content.  I am sure that we will learn a lot, including ways to make the course work even better.  But having 260 students on the other end of this makes it all worth it and is a great reminder for me of why I do what I do.  I love writing and research and I continue to do it.  But I am at a point in my life and career when I especially enjoy introducing my passions to others, opening their eyes just a bit and letting them have glimpses of the world to which I have dedicated my professional life.

When I tell people that I am working on building an online version of my Introduction to Ancient Rome class, I am sometimes greeted with skepticism: "Who would want to take a course on Ancient Rome?" they ask.  A lot of people, it turns out, both undergraduates but also non-traditional students.  I am convinced that, once we get the word out there that this course exists, we will find that our enrollments via the Extension School will also increase.  To go along with the launch of the Online Rome course, I created a Twitter feed (@OnlineRome).  I wanted a place where I and the course instructors could post cool images and other information about Ancient Rome.  Basically, it would be a feed about Ancient Rome that is curated by content specialists, for students and other interested individuals.  I was shocked to see that, within a few days, the account had around 200 followers from all over the world.  Most of the followers are not academics and clearly just have a side interest in ancient Rome.  This delights me.  These are the people that I want to reach, whether via Twitter or an online course or even a non-credit, less weighty MOOC.  If we are going to get people to care about the humanities, our first step is to engage them and get them to see why it is worth spending money to continue to support teaching and research in this area--even supposedly esoteric fields like Classics.

I am very excited to see how things go over the next several months.  Most of all, I am delighted that all of our work over the past year (and long before that) is going to serve a purpose for at least 260 students.  They say that mothers don't remember the horrors of labor once they have successfully birthed their child.  I am hoping the same holds true for bringing online classes into existence!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Building an Online Course: Resilience, Teamwork, and Organization

Over the past several months, as I have sunk deeper and deeper into the morass of issues around the development and deployment of an online course, I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the particular personality traits and skills that such an undertaking requires.  Working in this world is really nothing like the work that most faculty--especially liberal arts faculty--do as researchers and instructors.  Administrators who are urging faculty to take on these projects likewise seem to have only a tangential sense of what it takes to produce and deploy a high quality, scalable, asynchronous online course in a reasonable amount of time and without running tens of thousands of dollars over budget.  For a complex project like an online course to be successfully developed and deployed, three qualities seem to me to be the sine quibus non: resilience, ability to delegate, and strong organizational skills.

Far and away the most important quality that any project leader for online course development needs to have is resilience.  This is still a brave new world.  Universities are, on the whole, not well-positioned or equipped, either with adequate technical resources or clear policies and procedures around this mode of course production and delivery.  In addition, different parts of a university (e.g. the provost's office vs colleges vs departments) can be (often are?) at odds on matters of policy, including essential issues like who bears the responsibility to staffing these courses (paying instructors but also processing appointments).  I have spent much of the past 8 months feeling like a YoYo, being jerked in every which way and having to work very hard to stay calm and focused.

To give just one small example (with major consequences): I found out in mid-August that the oversight for online course development in my college was moving from one dean to another.  Exactly a year ago, the exact opposite move was made.  The move itself made a certain amount of sense in terms of course development: it was returned to the college unit that oversees instructional technology.  As well, this unit is responsible for producing the SMOC courses (Synchronous, Massive, Online Courses that are filmed in studio and live-streamed to students).  Unfortunately, for a more traditional online course, this move introduced an incredible amount of chaos just as we were pressing to finish development and working to get everything in order to appoint instructors and open the course to registration.  Thankfully, my home department of Classics stepped in and picked up all the many dropped balls (including a pressing visa issue for one instructor).  Still, it has been an incredibly stressful two-week period caused, apparently, by a lack of awareness of all the different aspects involved in course deployment.  Perhaps the most difficult part in all of it was that I was responsible for other people.  Sure, I could have just pulled the plug on going live with the course this fall--I certainly had plenty of reasons to do so.  But, had I done that, I would have been leaving members of my team in the lurch.  This meant that I had to remain calm, focus each day on what needed to be done/who needed to be talked to/what form needed to be signed, and try not to let my frustrations with the lack of institutional infrastructure (or even, clear understanding of what was needed) get in the way.

The second major lesson of this project: it's a team effort and every team member needs to be used to his/her full capacity.  Hire good people, preferably people you know and trust to deliver a quality product on time.  Hire people with different skill sets.  Developing an online course requires a tremendous range of skills: content expertise, creativity, ability to navigate technology, good written/oral communication, a sense of the aesthetic, ability to respond to constructive criticism; willingness to wrestle with challenges.  If classroom teaching has long been the provenance of the individual instructor, high quality online course development is and will always be a team effort (and, incidentally, it causes one to rethink the idea that traditional classroom teaching ought to be done by professors working in isolation).  No single person can do everything--even if they had all the skills.  The workload is simply too high.  As we get ready to go live with Online Rome, I realize that the workload of preparing this class is akin to writing a scholarly book, not to preparing a new course for the classroom.  I was fortunate to have an outstanding team of recent PhDs, a current PhD student, and an undergraduate working with me all summer.  This fall, one of these recent PhDs will continue to work closely with me as an instructor of one of the sections of Online Rome and also in the capacity of a postdoctoral researcher.

Deployment of the course required a whole other team of people: our department's executive assistant to process instructor appointments, including the paperwork for a visa; the course coordinator; the undergraduate adviser.  I hope that, now that these online sections are "on the books", it will be less hectic to open them for enrollment each semester.  But, each semester, decisions will have to be made about how to staff the courses.  Someone will have to process those appointments.  Likewise, the different sections of the online classes will likely need to be coordinated in some manner, and updated.  At present, there is no infrastructure in place to ensure this sustainability.  It is not part of my teaching load and I am receiving no compensation for all the work I've done (and will continue to do this fall) to ensure that the online courses run smoothly.  I am hoping that a good amount of this can be delegated to my post-doc, however.  And that's the other major lesson: delegation is essential--as is knowing what to do yourself and what to delegate.

Finally, when working with a team, it is essential that the team-leader (which, in online course development is likely not the project manager but instead, the faculty leader) have a clear vision, an operative sense of the big picture, and an ability to work a few weeks ahead of everyone else.  It is not necessary for each team member to be aware of issues that don't affect their work (e.g. I handled the vast majority of "project management" issues without the involvement of any of my course development team).  It *is* essential that the faculty leader not simply rely on a project manager to run the show (more on this point in a different post).  The faculty leader is the content expert and they are the person who, in the end, needs to provide that clear editorial voice that will give the course fluency and coherency.  They also need to remain aware at all times of who is doing what, how well they are doing it, whether they need extra help, etc.  Team members need to have firm deadlines for producing work and also need to have a clear sense of how their part fits into the bigger whole.

Even more importantly, when working with graphic designers and technologists, it is crucial that these partners know what you will need them to do well in advance of deadlines.  Problems inevitably come up (we've had several on the technology front); time has to be built in to deal with those problems.  Likewise, it helps these non-academic members of the team if they can plan their own workflow.  I found that I was able to get good results when I communicated needs and deadlines several weeks in advance.  Of course, it is still the case that we are scrambling to finish all the "packaging" of the modules.  Yet, because we've been talking about design specs and vision for final look and student experience of navigating the course, we aren't trying to make decisions and implement them at the same time.  The decisions were made long ago--now it's just a matter of having enough hands on deck to do the work.

Faculty often hear that they are the obstacles to innovation, particularly on the teaching front.  We are the ones who resist adopting new classroom technologies or experimenting with new modes of course delivery.  Some of this is certainly true.  Yet, in reality, I think many faculty are eager to experiment, particularly in developing digital assets that could be used to blend/flip a course or even convert a traditional classroom course into a fully online course.  However, for this to ever happen on a large scale, institutions need to build infrastructures that support these faculty efforts; they need to understand all the complexities of developing and deploying digital content and ensure that these efforts are adequately incentivized and supported.  They need to create and implement clear policies so that it is as straightforward to get an online course approved as it is a classroom course.  We faculty who are diving into these projects are learning a lot about the sorts of support that needs to be in place in the future.  Administrators who are advocates of online course development would do well to learn from our experiences--the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Online Rome for UT Austin

FINALLY jumped through every last hoop!  Online Rome now has a unique number and is open to UT Austin students who are paying flat rate tuition.  A great option for getting your VAPA requirement out of the way while learning all sorts of fun things about Ancient Roman culture, history, politics, art, and literature.

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.

Content Construction vs Content Delivery

Confession: I hate the term "content delivery"; and I especially hate being characterized as a deliverer of content.  Whenever I hear this phrase, I can't help but cringe and imagine myself in some kind of uniform with a package that I hand over to my students.  Or to imagine myself as an animated, embodied textbook.  The notion of professor as deliverer of content also causes me to fixate on all the ways that this delivery process goes awry, all the packages that get lost in transit between instructor and student.

The primary tool for content delivery is the lecture.  xMOOCs, with their heavy reliance on lecture, are an excellent example of reducing teaching and learning to content delivery and content receipt.  Students in MOOCs don't do a lot of content construction.  Rather, they watch as the instructor constructs and packages the content for their consumption.  The Connectivist MOOC, or cMOOC, shifts the construction of content to the learning community and is very much the model for my Online Rome course. 

For a narrative discipline like ancient history, however, it is challenging to figure out how to create a connectivist learning environment that provides adequate support for the students.  In a for-credit course for students who typically have no previous experience with Rome or ancient history, I can't simply throw the students into a virtual room and hope that they come out of it three months later with a good understanding on Ancient Roman cultural and political history.  Most likely, they would have no idea where to start, would wander down far too many dead ends, and would come out at the end angry and thinking that I hadn't done my job and they didn't get what they paid for.

The challenge comes in creating and supporting a connectivist model of learning while providing enough guidance and structure that the students feel oriented enough to engage in good faith. I devoted a lot of energy to thinking through this problem--and especially, thinking about how to recast the instructor in the online environment as a "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage."  In some ways, I think the online environment might make this recasting of the instructor's role in the learning relationship a bit easier.  It's an unfamiliar environment for most of the students; and, because most of the course will be asynchronous, most of them will experience the class largely as a kind of 1-1 tutorial rather than a typical, synchronous classroom experience. When students walk into a lecture hall with 199 other students, they (for the most part) come with the expectation that the professor will profess and they will dutifully take notes, memorize content, and regurgitate it on exams.  They are not sold on the idea that they will work together with the instructor and other students to construct knowledge.  I will wager that these same students will come to an online class with different expectations and, I think, more willingness to actively construct a narrative of ancient Roman cultural and political history.

The difficulty is creating a learning environment that requires students to construct knowledge but also anticipates the kinds of support they will need as they go about this task.  It is about asking well-written, guiding questions that send the students to content sources (e.g. the textbook, ancient historians, documentaries, maps, even pre-recorded lectures).  It is about using lecture as sparingly as possible, so that the students break the habit of looking to lecture for the "right answers."  It is about creating internal navigation features that encourage the students to draw connections between different parts of the course--but does not tell them what connections they should be drawing.  Most of all, it requires embracing the idea that the students can and should construct their own narrative rather than digest one that is provided to them. When I explain this model to the students who are building the modules, I tell them: imagine that you are handing out an exam at the start of a unit and telling the students to go find all the answers to the questions.  That is what we are doing.  Instead of providing the content, we are providing the questions and asking the students to provide the content, in the hope that this will lead to better learning.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Faculty Roles in the New Learning Ecosystems

The Butterfly Effect in the Lorenz Attractor
Higher education at public universities is a kind of endangered ecosystem: out of balance and struggling to figure out what form it needs to take in order to survive into the future.  The forest canopy is gone, the water levels have fallen, and a good part of the native species have fled in search of a more reliable food supply.

Contrary to views that nothing in higher education has changed for hundreds of years (typically heard from pundits attempting to discount the current quality of classroom instruction), change is happening all the time.  This is especially true when we look at the gradual but steady disinvestment of state and federal government in public institutions.  This pattern of disinvestment did not start with the recession in 2008, or even a decade ago; but has been happening as long as I've been alive (i.e. since the early 1970s).  What we are experiencing now is not the result of sudden shifts in policy but rather, the inevitable consequences of a long series of decisions, year after year, to treat higher education as a private rather than public good; and to shift the cost burden from the government to individual citizens.  As individuals are expected to pay a larger portion of the costs of their education, and to carry larger debt loads well into adulthood, attention shifts to questions like the marketability of degrees in STEM vs humanities disciplines; and the quality of education that we are offering to our students.  A butterfly flapped its wings somewhere over China in the late 1960s and now, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, we are trying to deal with the consequent hurricane.

Throw into the mix technology--and the private sector/venture capitalist interest in making money in the education technology arena--and we have our current mess.  Everyone seems to be saying that things need to change (and, indeed, they are changing whether we realize it or not), but nobody quite agrees on how they need to change or how these changes might manifest in unique ways at different kinds of institutions.  Also up for grabs is the role that technology will play in the kinds of changes that we see; and the role that faculty will play in shaping this newly imagined version of public higher education.

I spent the first part of last week at a meeting for the AAC&U/GEMS project in Kansas City.  The project as a whole is focused on re-imagining general education. I am on the digital tools sub-committee and our task is to think about what role the digital will play in this.  This was our second meeting as a group, and it was interesting to see how far we'd come in our thinking since the first meeting back in March.  Last week, we talked a lot about how technology--specifically, the extent to which technology makes basic course content much more accessible--affords educators the opportunity (and responsibility) to think hard about what it is that we are trying to do in general education courses.  Our group was largely in agreement that a 21st century general education course was not really about content transfer; but rather, about teaching our students how we solve problems in our disciplines, what kinds of evidence we work with, and what kinds of questions drive the cutting edge research in specific disciplines.  Technology doesn't just change the way we teach, it changes what we teach.  The problem is no longer one of access to content (though that does remain a significant problem for people around the US and world without access to a broadband connection or device); but instead, about how to sort through, evaluate, and act on the massive amounts of content that is now available to many college students in a split second.

Just as we are asking our students to learn to think in unfamiliar ways, we instructors are being challenged to teach in new ways.  One topic that came up both in the AAC&U meeting and then, later in the week, in a phone call with Brad Wheeler, a professor at Indiana and one of the Unizin founders, is the extent to which our traditional model of faculty "owning" individual courses is almost certainly going to fade away, to be replaced by a more reasonable model of team course design/instruction.  I don't mean team-teaching here--which, as everyone knows, always ends up being twice as much work.  I mean courses that are designed by teams of faculty, technologists, learning specialists, assessment specialists, etc.  I mean courses that might be taught by someone who was not involved in the initial design or "build out" of the course.  This makes sense, particularly as courses start to depend on expensive-to-create and maintain digital assets (e.g. graphics, animations, videos); and as they demand the kind of specialized technical skills that not all faculty will or ought to have.  It simply doesn't make sense for a single faculty member to attempt to design, develop, run, and sustain a course over many years, particularly as the emphasis in the student-teacher interaction moves away from transfer of content and towards encouraging higher-order thinking and analytical skills.  Likewise, unless public universities experience a massive infusion of cash, they will continue to rely on a large force of adjunct labor.  If an assistant professor on the tenure-track doesn't have the time to spend on course development, an adjunct--with a much higher teaching load--certainly doesn't and shouldn't be expected to.

For me, the question I always come back to--and whose answer I don't know--is what role faculty will play in shaping the future learning ecosystem of higher education.  Will we be active creators, engaged in defining our roles and taking part in policy discussions?  Or will we cling to the traditional ways we've done things, the ways that we were taught and the ways that many of us have spent at least a decade of our professional lives teaching, until we are forced to change?  Can resistance win?  Is it futile?  I don't know and I suspect that the answer varies.  My guess is that we will see change happening early and swiftly with general education courses; and much more slowly with graduate level courses.  It will happen swiftly at large, cash-strapped public universities and much more slowly (if at all) at elite, private schools with large endowments. 

I also suspect that, a decade from now, we will be running universities in ways that are almost unimaginable right now--we have to if we are going to stay in business.  The most elite/wealthiest colleges and universities may continue to do business as usual, but the vast majority of institutions will undergo substantial change.  A big part of this future is going to involve changing the ways that we create and deliver courses to students.  Personally, I prefer to be out on the frontier, experimenting and having a voice in my own future.  I have come to terms with the reality that I got tenure in a university that, in essence, won't exist in another five years.  I can pout about that or I can focus on figuring out how to adapt to this new ecosystem.  It's still a pretty unfriendly ecosystem, there's not much water to go around, but I have some hope that, with time and patience and creativity, we faculty might use our intellectual gifts to start exploring solutions to the most consequential problems.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Involving Undergraduates in Research (and Teaching)

 On college and university campuses around the country, we spend a lot of time talking about "high impact learning experiences."  AAC&U has published a very useful paper about that lists and describes some of these: First Year Experience; learning communities; experiential learning.  At research universities like UT Austin, a lot of energy has been expended on encouraging faculty to find ways to involve undergraduate students, even first-year undergraduates, in their research.  Research is a core part of what we faculty do; and it is an excellent way for undergraduate students to learn in a new way and to interact with faculty and graduate students outside of a classroom.  There is increasing evidence that undergraduate students are more likely to persist in their degree programs if they get involved in research early in their training.

In the natural sciences, it is relatively easy to bring inexperienced undergraduates into the lab and find tasks for them to do.  It is far more challenging to find tasks that engage them but also don't depend on expert skill.  As anyone who has worked with students knows, it takes time and skill to find roles for variable levels of experience on a research (or teaching) team.  It also takes a lot of patience.  Still, it has become much more common for undergraduates to begin working in research labs in the natural sciences as well as the social sciences (e.g. psychology and sociology, where undergraduates can be very helpful in the collection of survey data, data entry, etc.).

Some disciplines, however, do not lend themselves very well to cooperative research with undergraduate students.  This is true for literary studies, and especially for literary studies in foreign languages.  Even as graduating seniors, students do not have the expertise that would allow them to perform even fairly basic research tasks.  The sorts of tasks they could perform, like organizing a bibliography, are not likely to engage them.  While the archaeologists in my department can develop interesting projects for inexperienced undergraduates, it is much more challenging for us literary scholars.  I have tried to have students help me with a range of different parts of my research, but have never found a good project that was both useful to me and engaging for the students.

The place where I've found collaboration with undergraduates to be most satisfying is in my teaching.  Over the past two years, I've worked with teams of undergraduates as graders.  This has involved training them to grade by a rubric and then meetings to talk about each question.  Over the semester, I have a fair amount of contact with the students. They get to see the field from a different perspective and, in the process, get a refresher on their Roman history while earning some money.  This summer, I have an undergraduate helping me build my online Rome class.  She has done a wide range of tasks for me, from working on the question banks to writing scripts for short concept videos to working on a module of her own.  None of this work is "grunt" work--the liberal arts equivalent of washing test tubes; and, in nearly every case, it involves a lot of thought, research, and close collaboration with me as we talk about pedagogy, course design, and the specifics of my previous experience in teaching particular content.

It had never occurred to me that, for a humanities professor, one of the best places to involve undergraduates in our research is via our teaching.  Specifically, it is by involving them in the creation of teaching materials, whether collecting images or making short videos on well-defined topics or designing an online module.  Each of these activities requires in-depth knowledge of the content (and the particular issues it might raise) but also careful thought about the most effective ways to teach this content to someone else.   As I discuss the projects with my undergraduate student in our twice/week meetings, research issues in Roman studies come up repeatedly.  These activities are creative and engaging for the student, and extremely useful to me.  More than that, they give this student valuable experience in what it means to be a practicing academic.

Update (7/1/2014) Peter Newbury (@polarisdotca) made the excellent point on Twitter that the other significant way that undergraduate students are getting involved in teaching is as peer mentors.  He gave the example of an Astronomy 101 class at the University of Arizona.  UT Austin, in our redesigned Intro Chemistry course, is also experimenting with models of peer mentors.  Click here for an op-ed I wrote about the role of peer mentors in that course.  In some cases, the mentors take the course for credit; in others (usually when their role involves grading), the peer mentors are paid.  When a peer mentoring program is run well, it can be an excellent experience and way for undergraduates to deepen their understanding of concepts in courses they've taken and done well in.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Research and Teaching Consortia: A Good Idea?

In an earlier post, I offered some preliminary thoughts on Unizin, a new consortium of public universities that aims to share digital assets and analytics across a common infrastructure.  As Bruce Maas, the Vice-Provost for Information Technology and CIO at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says in a blog post to the University of Wisconsin campus community, "Our new reality is that we must pool our talents, public and private, to create scalable opportunities to move our primary teaching, learning and research missions forward."  He likens Unizin--and the Wisconsin System's possible partnership with Unizin--to a recently announced research consortium that includes Wisconsin--the National Computing Collaboration.  Especially in computing, there is a long history of collaboration between the private sector and universities as well as between universities.  It makes sense that universities would collaborate and share costs to build the kind of infrastructure that their researchers would need.  For instance, it would be absurd for every university to build and maintain a particle accelerator.

But it is important, I think, to note that research consortia are nothing like teaching consortia.  In the case of research consortia, at issue is providing the equipment, the raw materials, for teams of researchers to carry out their research.  Multiple research groups across universities might also collaborate on solving particular problems, with each research group taking on a clearly defined task.  This is common in the natural sciences, for instance.  These arrangements emerge organically, at the level of the scientists themselves rather than the university leadership. 

Teaching consortia, on the other hand, tend to exist as a way for institutions to be able to offer their students a wider menu of courses.  They allow partner institutions to tap into the expertises of faculty at other institutions.  Teaching consortia also have a long history in higher education.  As a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Penn State, for example, I was awarded a CIC Summer Fellowship for Less Frequently Taught Languages to travel to the University of Chicago and take an Intensive Greek course that was not offered at Penn State.  The CIC--a consortium of Big 10 schools plus The University of Chicago--pooled their resources in the area of language teaching, so that students at these institutions had access to courses on an impressive range of rare languages.  This made a lot of sense. It would have been hugely expensive for each institution to hire faculty in each of these languages; but, as a group of institutions, they covered an impressive range.

Similarly, the Associated Colleges of the South have been offering multi-campus courses for more than a decade.  On each campus, there might be only 2-3 students registered for an upper division Latin course; but when the same course is offered to students on all partner campuses, there might be a total of 20 students.  There is a local coordinator on each campus, but the course instructor generally comes from a single campus.  This model has many benefits, not least of which is that students are exposed to new ways of thinking about the course material.  This model makes a lot of sense for smaller disciplines on small liberal arts college campuses.  It's a reasonable way of sharing resources to the advantage of all the partner institutions.  The consortium does not exist to enable a college to avoid hiring in certain areas; but rather, to improve the quality of, especially, upper division courses for majors in fields like classics.

On the face of it, consortia make a lot of sense.  This is especially true when money is tight.  Consortia that involve sharing expensive equipment; or pooling resources (in the case of ACS, students) to improve research and teaching can be beneficial and successful.  But the common features of these consortia are: a. they arose organically, in response to institutional needs identified by faculty; and b. they did not attempt to reconfigure an existing structure.

My abiding concern about Unizin--and why a comparison of Unizin to research consortia is misleading--is that it is an attempt to impose a new model of resource-sharing from on high; and it will almost certainly lead institutions to reconfigure their current staffing.  In part, this is because there's an elision between course content and teaching.  If course content (i.e. the digital assets that Unizin would be warehousing for its partners) is treated as akin to a Supercomputer network, then all is fine.  If it is recognized that all these digital assets, including fully scoped out online courses, are tools and cannot be elided with the act of instruction, then Unizin makes a lot of sense.  My fear, though, is that it will be too easy to start conflating all these digital assets (and the analytics) as a replacement for the kind of highly-skilled instruction that currently happens on campuses.  That is to say, it will be too easy for a money-strapped institution to say, "hey, we can buy this online course from our partner and hire a non-expert to run it locally."  Until there is wider recognition of the content expertise that skilled instruction requires, this scenario seems inevitable.

In addition, it will be far too tempting for these same cash-strapped institutions to use the "crisis" narrative--and, in particular, the "Death of the Humanities" narrative--to justify ongoing down-sizing of humanities faculty.  This is another important point.  Earlier consortia did not aim to downsize faculty, but rather, to take advantage of niche specialties offered at single institutions.  It is reasonable to argue that not every university needs to offer Swahili courses; and to solve the access problem by providing interested students fellowships to travel to universities where they can study less common topics.  It is far less reasonable to decide, from on high, to dis-invest in certain fields simply because a consortium will provide introductory level courses in that field.  Perhaps this is the inevitable future of public higher education, the backside of the expansion of many humanities departments in the 1960s and 1970s.  If that is the case, everyone needs to be clear that this is what we are doing.  It isn't an issue of student interest or enrollments; it's an issue of university administrators making decisions about their institutional priorities--and then finding alternative ways to meet student interest in fields that are being downsized into oblivion.

At the moment, it is not entirely clear what is driving the formation of Unizin.  As more people involved in the high-level conversations begin to make cases for partnership to their campuses, more information emerges.  A significant motivation is the belief that, at public institutions, the current financial model is unsustainable.  Less clear is what parts of that model Unizin is addressing.  Some of the talk is about having more leverage with vendors.  This could be a good thing, especially if it means that institutions will be in a better position to dictate the types of tools that the ed tech sector creates. 

Taking the comparison to research consortia, it also seems that a significant part of Unizin is a tacit recognition that public universities need to stop trying to do everything, to cover every field of research at all levels.  For the partnership fee to make sense, institutions will need to make hard decisions about letting certain areas of their curriculum fall away.  To be clear: this is already happening as retiring and departing faculty are not replaced.  Would it be better if institutions began to talk openly about their priorities and, in specific terms, about how they were going to leverage a partnership with other Unizin institutions?  A lot about Unizin remains unclear, but even in these early days, it does not look much like a traditional research or teaching consortium.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Gamification as a Tool in Online Course Design

Game of Twelve Lines, an Ancient Roman version of Backgammon
This morning I sat down with my technologist to go through her task list for getting this Ancient Rome course ready to launch by September.  Beyond working with the module designers to input their content, embed videos, etc., she will be working with me to find appropriate Canvas-compatible plug-ins that will allow me to do things like insert polls, have students comment on primary texts (and be able to see other comments), and embed short voice-overs to orient students at the start of new modules or to provide content that we can't find elsewhere.  Another course-level design idea I asked her to work on was figuring out a way to "gamify" the course.  I don't intend to turn the entire course into a game; but rather, want to find a way to use students' natural inclinations to compete for rewards to reward good learning strategies (Audrey Watters will hate me for saying this, I know).  There are a couple of reasons for wanting to build this element into the online course design: first, it's a way of translating an important feature of the face-to-face version of the course, namely, the emphasis on identifying and practicing successful learning strategies--basic things like not trying to cram three weeks' of content into a study binge the night before an exam.  It's also a way of helping these online students feel like they are part of a larger group.  It will remind them that they aren't learning in isolation. 

The big challenge for online students is motivation and persistence.  I'm trying to think about how I can design a course that recognizes and addresses this.  I have some basic ideas: students can earn "laurel wreaths" (or whatever) for things like completing a module within a certain time frame; for persisting on mastery quizzes until they get 100%; for doing practice questions; etc.  They can also be awarded wreaths for particularly good free response answers; for answering another student's question on Piazza, etc.  A particularly impressive exam performance might earn them some sort of badge.  I can imagine allowing them to trade in some number of these for points on an exam.  What I'm struggling with is how to tie these parts together into a coherent whole.  I will be looking around for models.  Have you ever built this kind of incentive structure into your online class?  Can you suggest something useful for me to look at or read?  Do you have ideas you are willing to share with me?  This is very much an experiment and I'd be very appreciative of any advice or suggestions.  I don't want it to overshadow the course itself; the idea is, really, just to add a bit of a fun element for a group of students who will, for the most part, be working on the course asychronously (though I can imagine having some live events, like a kind of quiz bowl before the midterm exams).  Please comment with any ideas, suggestions, things to avoid, whatever!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Public Universities and Introductory Courses

A few weeks ago, the undergraduate student adviser in my department alerted us to the fact that she was now receiving inquiries from students who wanted to use credits from online Latin courses at Midland College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's extension school to meet the language requirement.  Since the department had recently decided to reduce the requirement to three semesters from four, it was now an even more pressing issue.  If we decided that these online courses were equivalents to our campus courses, the students could check of their language requirement without ever taking a Latin class at UT Austin. 

There is nothing especially new about this problem.  We've long had to deal with determining equivalencies for AP and IB scores as well as courses taken at community colleges or even other universities.  On the whole, however, this has not been a major issue for Classics because our discipline tends not to be taught too broadly; and, in order to meet the four semester requirement, students had to take at least one semester of Latin on campus--which meant that they had to be sufficiently prepared to earn at least a D.  The combination of a shortened language requirement, the growing availability of online Latin, and a state requirement that UT Austin accept transfer credit from other Texas institutions is a game-changer. Unless the department decides to quibble about equivalences--which likely would only mean that students would turn to another language rather than take Latin on campus, we will see students meeting the UT Austin language requirement without ever setting foot in a language course on the 40 Acres (or, even, an online course developed or taught by a UT Austin instructor).  The new thing is the scale at which this will (potentially) happen and the consequences it will have for departments and universities.

My College (Liberal Arts) has seen a giant spike in the number of credits students are transferring in from community colleges and online classes to meet graduate requirements.  It has made a significant dent in our enrollments and, I suspect, has something to do with the decision to reduce the number of tenure-track lines in my college by about 20% over the next few years (through attrition, we are told).  There's no reason to think that this trend is going to slow down, either.  The majority of the credit hours we teach are in "service courses"--that is, courses that meet distribution requirements for non-majors.  In the old version of the "Public University as Closed System", this basically worked for liberal arts.  We taught lots of large, lower-division service courses in order to justify teaching smaller upper division courses for our majors.  Likewise, in a discipline like classics, we taught larger first and second year Latin (and, to a much lesser extent, Greek) courses in order to justify the smaller seminars for our majors.  Everything basically held together and, in its heyday, my department had more than 20 tenure-track faculty lines.  Sure, students came in with AP and IB credits; once in a while, they transferred in credits from another college or university.  But, for a discipline like classics, community colleges were never a true competitor.  Other disciplines, like English, History, and Government, have had a lot longer to adjust to the threat posed by community colleges--but they also have a larger base of students to start with (made larger by state-legislated requirements that can *only* be met by courses offered in those departments).

With the rise of for-credit online courses and the expansion of course offerings at community colleges, as well as the fact that more and more students are taking advantage of this alternative to meet their non-major requirements, it seems like the time has come for cash-strapped (and, increasingly, faculty-strapped) public institutions to re-think its role in introductory/general education.  In a good and just world, where education was viewed as a public good and appropriately funded, general education should be undertaken by colleges and universities.  But, in the world we currently have, it makes less and less sense for universities to attempt to offer a wide range of large-enrollment service courses in addition to everything else (freshmen seminars, upper division seminars and larger courses, graduate courses).  At the moment, departments are struggling to staff their lower division service courses without cannibalizing their upper division and graduate curricula.  Some departments, like Government and Psychology, have experimented with the SMOC (Synchronous Massive Online Course) as a way to solve the lower-division staffing issue.  This makes some sense as a staffing solution for very large departments, but not much sense for a department like mine. 

Up to this point, departments have cut sections and reduced the frequency with which various courses are offered.  For instance, when I started at UT Austin in 2002, we regularly offered multiple sections of our Intro Greece, Rome and Mythology courses.  Now we offer one each semester.  We may soon be offering one each year--and even that will stretch resources.  This brings me to an admittedly controversial question: has the time come for large public institutions like UT Austin to get out of the business of large enrollment, introductory-level courses for non-majors?   To some extent, students are making this decision for us, by taking their business elsewhere--and they can do this because state law requires us to accept all transfer credit.  Would it make more sense for UT Austin to, in some sense, curate a list of high-quality courses that meet whatever distribution requirements we set out; and then devote our own limited resources to small seminars for freshmen and sophomores; more courses for our majors; more time for preparing graduate students for an ever more competitive job market. It's not that I think this is a great solution, but rather, that the time has come to make a thoughtful decision about how to proceed with limited resources.

Though I am sure some faculty would be happy to outsource this sort of teaching, most of us actually enjoy teaching these service courses.  We would be sorry to see them go, especially in disciplines that are not represented in the high school curriculum.  But I can't help but feel like we are rapidly approaching a tipping point, where we find ourselves fighting for a "market share" for which we can't compete.  Does it make more sense to re-imagine what students do on campus during their first two years?  Eliminate large "lecture" courses and steer them to online or community college courses (which, in any case, they have no problem finding); and re-allocate resources to teaching more small, intensive, personal seminars (which we already do as part of our First Year Experience) and to providing support/structure for the online courses?  I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm pretty sure that things will need to change.  Otherwise, it seems, we will continue to see reductions in tenure-track lines in liberal arts and other colleges whose enrollments depend on service courses.  Without some significant change of policy regarding transfer credit, there is no reason to think that students are going to stop looking outside of the university to fulfill their distribution requirements--and every reason to think that more and more of them will be doing this.