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.

Creating vs Curating Content in (Online) Course Development

As I finalized plans (and the development budget) for creating an online version of my Intro to Ancient Rome course, I've devoted a lot of time and thought to the issue of created vs curated content.  I've also thought about how this issue might have different answers for a blended or hybrid course vs an online course.  In my course design, the guiding principles have been "good enough" and "narrative flow."  In other words, there needs to be a coherent, sensible narrative (and authorial voice--even if the author herself is relatively invisible); and the priority is always student learning rather than bells and whistles for their own sake.  I am working with a relatively small budget of $150,000 (small enough that I can afford to pay myself AND the team of students helping me; we also have to pay the instructional costs for the first semester out of this budget).  Animations, elaborate simulations, even video-taped lectures are expensive to produce.  On the other side of things, with every passing month, more and more content becomes available on Wikimedia, YouTube, and other sites.  Most recently, as part of their Smart History series, the Khan Academy has begun to post short content videos on major pieces of ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture (e.g. the Capitoline Brutus bust). 

These videos are not without their flaws; but they are good enough for my purposes.  The same is true of the many documentaries on topics like the Punic Wars, Caesar and the Civil Wars, Spartacus, and the Julio-Claudians.  Sure, there is some truly awful stuff out there, for instance, this "documentary" on Caligula.  All of the documentaries take our ancient sources like Suetonius and Tacitus at face value when it comes to the supposedly "mad" emperors Caligula and Nero.  Still, these can be great starting points for talking about the problem of creating a reliable historical narrative from biased written sources, and offers a chance to introduce students to some of the methods that real life scholars use (e.g coinage, inscriptions, other kinds of material evidence).

In deciding whether it makes sense to invest precious resources in the creation of some new piece of content, I ask the following questions: how much will it cost?  Animation can be excellent, especially for demonstrating complex social processes like voting or patronage; but truly excellent animation is time-consuming and very expensive.  What is already available and how good is it?  Can it be integrated easily into the course?  Can I create something that is so much better than what is already out there that it is worth the cost?  Or, would it somehow disrupt the flow of the course to curate rather than create content?  Finally, do I want to take the risk that this free content might someday disappear (YouTube links are constantly disappearing.  It is usually possible to find the same documentary elsewhere, but that means updating links every semester and being ready to deal with links going away mid-course).

Overall, for the online course, I've opted to curate rather than create content whenever possible.  This decision is partly time and budget driven; but it's also because I'm curious to see whether it matters.  When the class runs, it will have an instructor who is not me. It will have lots of opportunities for students to interact with the instructor and one another.  I suspect that it will matter little to them whether they are watching a clip from a documentary to learn about the Siege of Saguntum instead of hearing me talk about.

In my blended class, I've taken a different approach--I do use video clips and other online content to supplement or illustrate my class presentations, but I also assign pre-recorded lectures rather than collections of clips.  I do this precisely because, for my campus course, the students see me as the instructor and would find it very disorienting if I were to completely disappear from the stage.  For better or worse, they are still accustomed to a "sage on the stage" model of instruction in large courses.  It's possible to resist that role of sage, but it has to be done carefully.  As well, many of us who teach blended classes have found that students prefer content to be created by us.  It gives them the sense that we care, that we aren't "outsourcing" our job (which many of them still see as, primarily, delivery of content).  I have a sneaking suspicion that online students will come at the course with an entirely different set of expectations, and that their expectations will allow for an approach that privileges curation over creation.  The challenge is making sure that we carry out that curation thoughtfully, and that all the disparate bits are tied together into a clear narrative that students can follow. 

In Fall  2014, when both the blended and the online versions will be running, I'm going to be paying a lot of attention to this issue.  We are going to make the library of content lectures available to the online students, but they won't be necessary for success in the course.  I'm very curious to see how the students use them.  I am also excited to see how they use the different pieces of curated content and whether they view the created content differently from the curated content.

It seems to me that one of the key issues in online course design is knowing when to create and when to curate, especially as more and more content becomes freely available online.  It makes no sense for every course designer to reinvent the wheel, yet there are clearly times when new content needs to be created and it is worth the cost.  I suspect that, over times, some sense of best practices around this issue will emerge for different kinds of course content.  As well, if consortia like Unizin materialize according to plan, it seems that one benefit will be instructor access to high-quality digital assets that are created and shared by partner institutions.  For many disciplines, this has already been done to some extent by textbook companies (just not for my own of Classics).  But I can certainly imagine a not too distant future in which colleagues around the country share animations, simulations, etc. as well as draw on commercially-produced educational content (e.g. History Channel documentaries).

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Should UT Austin Join Unizin?

Ultraman Max, stolen from Michael Feldstein
[Disclaimer: Nobody at UT System or UT Austin cares about my thoughts on this subject.  I am thinking aloud, being intentionally provocative. I might be persuaded to change my mind if someone can come up with arguments that I am missing.]

Back on the 16th of May, the intrepid ed tech consultants/private investigators Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill wrote about the existence of Unizin, a secret consortium of universities in talks to collaborate on the creation and maintenance of a new "learning ecosystem."   Imagine my shock when I discovered that my own institution, UT Austin, was one of the possible partners.  This news was especially surprising to me because it has never, to my knowledge, been raised as a possibility to the faculty--even though we had a semester-long series of "Campus Conversations" sponsored by the Provost's office which centered on  the role of the digital in teaching and learning.  Some staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning were aware that a partnership was being considered.  When Unizin finally made its existence public, UT Austin was not among the founding four institutions (see this IHE piece for a good analysis of Unizin's initial unveiling).  Still, I would not be surprised to learn that participation in Unizin remains on the table. 

The decision to join Unizin (or not) seems like precisely the sort of thing that should be discussed openly with the faculty who will be expected to contribute to the collection of digital assets and who would benefit (so goes the argument) from the learning analytics capacity as well as access to the collection of curricular resources (see Joshua Kim's blog post on some of the basic questions we should all be asking).  The absence of such a discussion in advance of such a major decision echoes the process that led to the University of Texas System spending $5 million and many more millions in course development, production, and implementation to join EdX.  Leaving aside the larger issue of shared governance, this failure to engage faculty in the conversation about a potential partnership with Unizin strikes me as a lost opportunity.  It is common to accuse faculty of lacking interest in anything not related to their research; in reality, many important conversations--conversations whose outcomes will shape our institutional future for many years to come--are taking place far away from the faculty.  Sure, faculty can be challenging to work with.  They have been trained to think critically and to analyze situations from every angle.  When we are talking about expensive and large-scale institutional commitments, however, it makes little sense not to take advantage of this collection of deep, engaged thinkers.  It may take longer to reach a decision, but those decisions are likely to be much more considered and to reflect the knowledge of individuals who are working in the trenches, day after day, to support student learning.  The best (i.e. most likely to be successful) decisions tend to come from consideration of all angles of an issue--if only to help one think through and formulate valid responses to the objections.

The pros of a partnership with Unizin largely depend on faith that the founders' vision of a single, cloud-based infrastructure for storing digital assets as well as user data will materialize in the not too distant future.  The mission statement from the Unizin blog is clearly intended to push all the right buttons with skeptical faculty: "Our goals and purpose in endorsing Unizin are simple: As professors and members of the academy, we want to support faculty and universities by ensuring that universities and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships, and reputations that we create. As we look at the rapidly emerging infrastructure that enables digital learning, we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability, and scale. Unizin is about tipping the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond."  In other words, this is about not selling our souls to the VCs and other corporate interests looking to make a buck while institutions operate in a permanent state of austerity.

As Kirsten Wheeler notes in her post about Unizin, "Unizin won’t be an LMS or MOOC platform, but will focus on digital content development and data analytics to improve teaching and learning using the underlying technology."  In theory, it makes sense that the creation of expensive digital assets like animations be done once and shared by instructors across different universities.  At the introductory level and especially outside of the humanities, institutional curricula don't vary that much.  A benevolent interpretation of the motives behind the formation of Unizin would see it as an attempt to create a repository of digital teaching materials that faculty at partner institutions can draw on to enhance their courses.  It's a way of inventing the wheel once.  In addition, it's a way of controlling the means of producing the wheel rather than needing to purchase the materials and expertise from external sources.

 Less clear is whether the proponents of Unizin are imagining a scenario in which, say, each partner university provides a unique set of introductory courses that the other partners can then use on their campuses.  For this to be cost-effective, such courses would be run locally by some form of inexpensive labor (TA?  Adjunct?).  Currently, all institutions attempt to develop and staff courses across disciplines.  Even with the shift to grad student and adjunct instructors for many of these courses, public institutions are finding it very costly to maintain a permanent faculty that covers all disciplines.  I can imagine that it is very appealing to think that universities could abandon the goal of covering disciplines broadly--or even all disciplines; and instead focus on building particular strengths and outsourcing course development in other fields to institutions that have those strengths.  So, for instance, UT Austin could decide that it is no longer interested in maintaining a permanent faculty in Classics but, through partnership with Unizin, could continue to offer classics courses to students by using courses developed by Michigan faculty and hiring adjuncts to run those courses.  Well-developed, introductory-level online courses could easily be run by non-specialists; and, at least initially, some faculty would be relieved to outsource the burden of running such courses at the expense of offering more upper-division courses for majors.

The other major pro of a partnership is the potential for collecting and analyzing student-level data; and using the analyses of that data to improve teaching and learning.  The founders emphasize this point on the Unizin site and link it to better supporting institutions in carrying out their core teaching and research missions.  I am a big fan of evidence-based teaching, and I do hope that, some day, we will have the ability to use learner data in our teaching.  At present, however, we are very far from realizing this dream.  As well, it's a very expensive dream and will require an enormous financial investment in building sufficient infrastructure--human and otherwise--to collect and process this data.  Additionally, it will require that students and instructors are trained in using this data to change behaviors.  With enough of an investment, I am confident that we can build up organizations on campus to collect and analyze this data; I'm far less confident that any of this will be worth the significant investment and especially the opportunity costs.  Our LMSs and other digital tools already allow instructors to track student behaviors and make interventions.  Sure, the current system is clumsy and superficial--but it largely works and does not cost much.  It's not clear to me that more precise data is going to result in the sorts of individual and organizational change that proponents imagine.  This is especially true if, in order to build these new centers for data collection and analyses, we are reallocating resources away from instructional budgets.  Many faculty would argue (rightly, in my view) that the single best way to improve student learning outcomes, especially in introductory courses, is to spend more money on reducing class size.

Institutional consortia do not have a good track record of success (see Walsh, Unlocking the Gates).  The fundamental problem is the absence of a sustainable business model.    The second big problem is the lack of substantial faculty support/buy-in.  Teaching consortia rely on individuals contributing free content or otherwise producing content at low cost.  Faculty are inclined to participate in such an arrangement, but only if nobody is capitalizing on their free content.  I will happily share content with colleagues at other institutions when I know they are using it in their classes.  I would not share content with someone who was then going to use it to make money for himself.  Yet a consortium can't sustain itself independent of foundation funding if it is not capitalizing on its product.  For the time being, Unizin requires a $1 million buy in as well as a Canvas license (purchased separately).  There will undoubtedly be additional charges as the consortium makes deals with other private sector companies to support various aspects of its undertaking.  What do partner institutions get for their investment?  Will the consortium ever be able to sustain itself apart from seeking membership fees and other fees from its partners?

UT Austin is already making the move to Canvas; so the only sure cost is the $1 million membership fee.  But that's not quite the way to look at this.  The decision to join Unizin only makes sense if you intend to invest significantly in analytics; and, more than likely, if you intend to make substantial changes to the current model of lower-division course development (and the role of tenured/tenure-track faculty in this process).   The danger here is that, with no real input from campus faculty, important and hugely consequential decisions are being made about the allocation of resources.  At a public institution, this means that resources have to be shifted from elsewhere to pay for any new effort.  The question we have to ask is: will the payoff be big enough to justify this reallocation (which, more than likely, will involve shifting funds away from college instructional budgets)?  I can imagine a version of the future in which the answer is yes.  At what point is it worth the risk?  What factors need to be in place to maximize the chances that the partnership will help UT Austin fulfill its core teaching and research mission in a way that spending those resources on, say, hiring more faculty won't do?

Update (6/20/2014) Eric Stoller, "Unizin, Technology Tables, and the Trouble with Silos."  Arguing for the inclusion of Student Affairs issues in the consortium conversation.

Bruce Maas, VP for IT and CIO at UW-Madison on University of Wisconsin's considerations about partnering with Unizin: "Unizin is good for Students, Faculty, and the Private Sector"

Friday, June 13, 2014

Time Sheets and Other Practical Matters

This week I had the opportunity to learn all about the "back end" administration of hiring hourly staff.  As a faculty member, I typically have absolutely nothing to do with the appointments of graduate students as TAs for my larger classes.  Sometimes I am asked if I have a preference for particular students, but more often than not, my preferences are ignored in the final allocation.  I am expected to make do with whatever I am given (which can be a significant issue when dealing with a very large class and a graduate program in which most of the TAs are 1st and 2nd year grad students--and so, especially in the fall, a good part of them are brand new to the university and have no previous job experience).

With the development of the Online Rome class, I have worked extensively with graduate students.  One senior graduate student worked with me last summer and in the spring on some of the "foundation building" work.  This summer, as we build out the course, I have a team of 2 recent PhDs, a current graduate student and an undergraduate student working with me.  A staff member in my College works with me to manage their appointments and keep me in the loop about my role in ensuring that they get paid.  I have not worked an hourly job since graduate school--and even then, I just reported the hours I worked.  Last summer, in working out the terms of my graduate student's appointment, I got a glimpse of some of the complexities that the online course development process is raising (e.g. is it a benefits-eligible appt?  Does it need to be? if so, who pays the tuition reimbursement?)  Our talented administrative staff is learning as they go, and no two appointments are alike.  I have learned to anticipate problems, be vigilant, but also to be patient.

UT Austin switched to an electronic timeseheet reporting system in the spring.  This week I had the pleasure of being trained to teach my students how to report their hours; and then how to monitor and sign off on their hours so that they would get paid on time.  One of the complications, a result of me having absolutely no sense of paying for work by the hour, was figuring out how to translate a total stipend into an hourly wage.  In my world, I work until a task is completed.  I am not paid by the hour (comp time is a concept that I only recently learned about!).  I am pretty good at determining task-based wages but ridiculously unable to think in terms of hourly wages.  This all got even more complicated when I was finally able to shift some extra money to a couple of the students, but only after setting their hourly rate.  So now they have to record about 10 extra hours/week in order to get paid the full amount of their stipend.

In the future, I hope to work with our staff to create a range of standard hourly wages that make sense, especially for summer appointments that have various restrictions if you want to avoid paying fringe (unnecessary because it has already been covered by the academic year appointment).  I am not a fan of paying for work by the hour, but this is the only option we have for these appointments.  So it will be important for faculty like me to learn how to define these appointments, keeping to all the rules and regulations and ensuring that the students aren't left on the hook for things like tuition (which is normally covered when they have a TA appointment for a campus-based course).

Sunday, June 8, 2014

From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side to Party Planner?

Instructional designers have characterized the transition from lecture-based teaching to other, more learner-centered modes of instruction as a shift from the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side."  In my own experience, at least in large enrollment courses, the shift isn't quite so distinct, and it tends to work best when the course instructor gradually changes roles, all the while training the students in their new role as active participants in the learning process.  This transition can be a challenging one for both instructors and students--and, in fact, many students will energetically resist efforts to put them in the role of active learner.  This resistance, though well-known among practitioners, is rarely discussed by advocates of flipped/hybrid/blended pedagogy.  It often comes as a shock to instructors who are teaching their redesigned course for the first time.  It certainly did to me.  Even more surprising to me was the fact that, while my fellow practitioners all told me that they had the same experience, none of the non-practitioner, blended learning "experts" had suggestions for managing this student resistance/rebellion.  Ultimately, the most useful approach, which came from the assessment specialist I was working with, was to take the complaints seriously and find ways to address them without compromising the overall design and aims of the course. The end result was a much improved course design: only about half as many pre-recorded videos to watch outside of class and much more structure and accountability.  It also led me to realize that it made no sense to redesign a course without also overhauling the course assessments.

I am now in the midst of another significant redesign, this time from blended ("guide on the side") to online.  Mine is a course that is being designed to be taught at scale.  It can certainly be taught to small groups of students, but it also needs to be possible to teach hundreds of students.  I am fortunate to be coming to this project in the midst of the MOOC era.  I have participated in several MOOCs on humanities topics and quickly realized that recorded lectures, no matter how well produced, were not going to be especially effective learning tools.  They are a great way to make content available, as is a textbook and other readings.  But they are not a very good way to engage students who are likely to be inexperienced learners, and especially inexperienced online learners.  For most of the past year, I have been thinking hard about how to design a history course--a course that is, at its base, the story of a culture--independent of lecture.  The other significant challenge: a good part of the course will be asynchronous.  There will certainly be synchronous elements, such as occasional live lectures/discussions and exams; and students will be encouraged to interact with the instructor.  But one goal is to produce a course that has more flexibility than an on-campus course.  The challenge is to find a balance between flexibility and structure.

I have another reason for wanting to avoid an over-dependence on lecture: most of the time, others will be instructing the online course.  As we have all seen with the MOOCs and the Super Professor culture they have helped to cultivate, talking heads can distract from the course content.  The class becomes about the professor instead of the content.  In a basic sense, I wanted a course design that rendered me invisible.  I wanted to leave space for the course's instructor to assert their presence without having to compete with me.  Finally,  I want my course to be about Roman history, politics, literature, art, and architecture; and not about what I'm wearing or whether I crack funny jokes.

In my own experience as a student of MOOCs and other online courses, talking heads quickly become wearisome.  Professors are not actors and we never, ever look as polished on screen.  Professorial charisma does not seem to translate well onto the computer screen.  As well, it's too easy to get bored and distracted when "taking an online class" means watching a series of lectures and answering a few questions.  The guiding principle of my design has been the same one that guides my blended class: "how do I keep each student as engaged as possible at every moment."  In many respects, this is an easier challenge to meet online than in a large-scale blended class.  The first principle in both cases is: speak in declarative sentences as infrequently as possible.  Use the Socratic method.  In a live class, this means that I pose i>clicker questions, peer discussion questions, and class discussion questions in order to elicit content and model the process of creating and thinking critically about a historical narrative.  In an online class, this means producing a series of modules that are question-based, that require students to interact directly with the content to produce knowledge.  In both environments, it means giving them structured feedback but also encouraging them to develop their intuition (e.g. by showing them an unfamiliar image and asking them to analyze aspects of it).

When I think about my role as course designer/creator and builder (with the help of a talented team), I imagine myself as a kind of party planner.  It's my job to set the scene, make sure there is plenty of food and entertainment, invite the guests and make sure that exes aren't forced to talk to one another.  But the experience of the event is up to my guests.  I will be there to replenish the punch bowl and make sure that the event runs smoothly, but I can't experience the party for my guests.  That's on them.  Like a good hostess, I will operate quietly behind the scenes.  A sign of the course's success is that the students have no idea who I am.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Rome Online: First Steps

 Last August, I was awarded a course development grant of $150,000 from the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning.  My task: to build a fully online version of my successful Introduction to Ancient Rome course (sizzler video here).  I was intrigued--but also mildly terrified--by this task.  As is generally the case with such projects, I had no idea what I was taking on.  I had no idea that I would be not only the course designer but also a de facto project manager.  I have pushed a lot of paper, learned more than I ever wanted to about paying fringe benefits, and had to learn how to supervise and manage a team.   There have been moments of intense frustration with the development process (e.g. being told that it was my responsibility to create a course website and market the course; having a graduate student RA spend significant time on a website; and then finding out that my college's IT unit had now agreed to take that task on).  Rationally, I know that these kinks are to be expected.  My  institution is still working out a process for staffing and supporting projects like mine.  Still, I have "I want to bang my head against the wall" moments. 

Fortunately, as of June 1, the most significant foundation-building (e.g. creating a databank of questions; budgeting and hiring staff; hiring an instructor; creating timelines and deliverables; deciding on the best pedagogy to use; working to get the course listed with our extension school and working with our college's product manager to have it advertised) came to an end and we embarked on the fun part: building the actual modules.  There are still things that frustrate me--most notably, the fact that, at present a UT student cannot register for the course without paying additional tuition.  But it's great to finally be able to see real progress and to feel like we will meet our goal of having the course ready to go live in Fall 2014.

The biggest challenge for me has been learning how to be a project manager and team leader.  As a humanist, I am used to working independently.  I have never had a research assistant and am used to taking responsibility for every aspect of a project.  When I "blended" the Rome class, I did a lot of the work myself (though I did have an assessment specialist give me a lot of help; and in version 2.0 and 2.1, I had significant assistance from [Medical] Dr. Jean Liew).  I got a taste of running a larger-scale project when I taught the blended Intro to Rome class to 400 students.  I had 4 paid TAs, an unpaid TA, and 3 undergraduate graders.  It was a production, and excellent preparation for figuring out how to get the Online Rome class built.  It finally taught me to assign tasks and supervise rather than micromanage (not to say that I'm not still guilty of occasionally micromanaging!).

I was less prepared for the active role I would have to play in agitating for resources in areas like graphic design and instructional technology.  Like many universities, my own is undergoing a transformation as it attempts to provide sufficient support for the many innovative teaching experiments happening around campus.  We have MOOCs on EdX; SMOCs in Psychology and Government; and, now, a series of online courses in development.  It is enormously challenging to have enough experienced and skilled project managers, instructional technology staff, and graphic design/audio/video people to support so many projects. 

I have tried to turn this scarcity of available human resources into a strength of the course design.  I rely very little on high-production video or graphic design.  The focus is entirely on helping students to construct knowledge, through a kind of virtual Socratic method: the content is divided into 8 modules, with each module containing a series of different kinds of questions (multiple choice, mark all correct, matching, short answer, etc.).  I use short lectures (3-5 min) only in instances where I am supplementing assigned readings (e.g. relating the story of Regulus's gruesome death) or connecting discrete bits of content that would otherwise seem disparate to them (e.g. explaining how the Roman military and governance changed in the aftermath of the 2nd Punic War).  A few other advantage of avoiding lectures with high production values: they are extremely expensive to produce and age very quickly (as I learned when I recorded lectures for the blended Rome class).  As well, it immediately makes the class about the content instead of the course creator, and it means that an instructor can step in and "own" the class without competing with the course creator.

Each module ends with a mastery quiz, requiring a grade of 90% to move on to the next module.  There are three midterm exams.  I am still deciding how I want to weight different activities in the course in the calculation of the final grade.  A lot will depend on who registers for the course, I suspect.  I am trying to think of a good way to emphasize low-stakes assessments--as I do in my blended class--while still ensuring the integrity of the grades.  One idea: having oral parts to each assessment, done via Skype.  This won't work at scale, but it might work in the first few iterations of the course when enrollment is likely to be smaller.

The other major challenge has been pedagogical.  What are the best practices for "translating" a large-scale, classroom-based course into an online environment?  There is a fair amount of scholarship on the pedagogy of teaching online to relatively small groups of students.  But what if you need to design a course that could be taken by 200 or 400 students?   What if it needs to be designed in such a way that a graduate student in Classics could run it?  I find myself flying relatively blind as I try to create an online class for a narrative topic like Roman history, that does not rely primarily on lecture to "deliver" content.  How do I design a course that models the way that a Roman historian would think and learn, but without actually performing this modeling live (or on video)?  Fortunately, I have learned a lot about how students learn Roman history in a scaled environment in the course of teaching the 400 student blended version of the course.  I suspect that, in these first few iterations of the online course, we will learn a lot about how they learn in an online environment.

Along the way, I've learned a few things.  First of all, there are two huge expenses in creating an online class: paying salaries, especially my own and especially fringe benefits (side note: skyrocketing health care costs have something to do with stagnating faculty salaries); and video/animation.  I made a choice fairly early in the process to avoid video and focus on issues of course design first, before adding bells and whistles.  I can imagine all sorts of concepts that would benefit from animation and, I hope, I'll someday be able to incorporate some of that into the course.  It was also important to me to involve graduate students in the design and production process.  In order to be able to afford to pay others, I ended up paying myself the equivalent of 2 weeks of my annual salary for the entire project.  I worry that, in the present system of accounting, faculty and graduate students end up being too expensive to hire as creators, unless they donate their time (as I know many faculty course designers are, in fact, doing).  Something needs to change to prevent the wholesale outsourcing of online course design (and instruction).  It certainly makes sense to outsource certain parts of the design and production process, but to my mind, a tremendous opportunity for institutions to benefit from faculty creativity and innovation; and faculty to sharpen their intellectual and pedagogical skills by working in an unfamiliar medium is lost if the entire process is outsourced.