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.