Grading the MOOC University –

I read an interesting piece recently in The New York Times by A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire magazine. It’s on the Time’s website under the title, Grading the MOOC University. Jacobs describes his experience taking several open online courses from such providers as Coursera, Udacity, and Edx.

I found the following excerpt intriguing: Continue reading “Grading the MOOC University –”

“Beam me up, Scotty, if you remember how”

computer nerdOK, so I had my first “synchronous” session with my online class two nights ago. This is when you all log in together at the same time, using a service such as Adobe Connect Meeting. The description that follows is an illustration of the phrase, “pride goeth before a fall,” since I consider myself somewhat tech-savvy.

The meeting was to begin at 9:00 pm, so at 8:45 I got set up and logged in. No one was there yet, so I dashed to the fridge for a soft drink and went back. 8:50–still no one, not even my cohost for the session. 8:55–still no one, so I sent out a quick email reminder. 9:00–room empty. What was going on? As I stared at my screen, it suddenly hit me–I had logged into the PRACTICE session I’d had a week ago to become familiar with the software. I frantically logged out and logged back into the right session, and there everybody was. I felt like the stereotypical freshman who reads his schedule incorrectly and ends up in the wrong room.

To make matters worse, my connection wasn’t good, so I kept getting booted out. Jennifer, my cohost and one of our reference librarians, dutifully kept everything going smoothly as chat messages appeared at the bottom of the screen: “Is Dr. Gobin back yet?” “I think he was for a minute.”

“YES, I’m here,” I practically shouted into my microphone, which had turned off during the reboot. It was like a bad episode from The Twilight Zone, where I was trapped in a parallel universe and nobody could see or hear me.

I may be being a little melodramatic–the evening went fine overall–but I did wonder why I was having connection problems especially since I was using a wired connection. I discovered the reason the next morning as I went to reconnect the yellow cable to my Wii console. I had in fact unplugged the wrong end of the yellow cable, meaning I was plugged into nowhere the night before and had been using our wi-fi connection without realizing it. This from a guy who does actually know how to program a VCR (what’s a VCR, you ask).

I will never again feel smug when a student asks me how to save a file.

The Algorithm Didn’t Like My Essay–The New York Times

computer reading a bookIn a recent New York Times, there was an article by Randall Stross,The Algorithm Didn’t Like My Essay.” I found it interesting because I had posted back in May on a similar article about “robograding.” Stross writes about how consistent computer-scored essays are to human-scored essays in standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He then postulates that using computerized essay grading could free up human resources to interact with students on more meaningful issues at more meaningful levels.

While I don’t disagree with him on a philosophical level–what teacher doesn’t want ways to work smarter and not burn out on repetitive tasks–the fact remains that at present there is no substitute for human interaction when it comes to written expression. For the computerized scoring functions, the grammar and style checker that comes standard with Word does about as well as the standalone programs that supposedly excel at finding errors or at rating levels of sophistication. But none of these programs actually “reads” what a student has written. They can’t detect irony, they can’t identify falsehood, and they can’t recognize empty ideas.

The dilemma is that there are certain assessments that cannot be done quickly or automatically–at least not if they are to mean anything. Perhaps we should eliminate written essays from any kind of standardized tests. Stroll points out that even human scorers of such tests typically spend three minutes or less on each essay. Having been one of these scorers, I would agree with that estimate. In such settings, you train yourself to look for very specific things in a piece of writing; most of them relate more to modes of expression rather than modes of thought. It reminds me of Billy Crystal’s line from years ago, “it is better to look good than to feel good, dahling.”

In the next week, the students in my summer online composition course will turn in their rough drafts of their first essay, and they will then spend two days reading each others’ writing and commenting on it (as will I). Then they will go back to the drawing board (I hope) and spend time wrestling not just with comma splices but with the ideas that need further development. I am just nosy enough to want to know what they really thought about the readings I chose for the course, and I am naive enough to believe our future leaders in business, technological innovation, parenting, and education will be those who were more concerned with the content of their ideas than with the “color” of those ideas’ skin (apologies to Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Response to “The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn”–The Chronicle of Higher Education

Student at ComputerIn the past couple of days, I’ve come across a couple of articles I’ve found thought provoking. The first, The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn, talks about an experiment where researchers intentionally used fonts that were harder to read to create assignments and classroom presentations. In every instance, the subjects who were forced to navigate the more difficult texts learned the material more deeply than the group who encountered the material in a more accessible form. James Lang, the author of the article, describes the idea of “cognitive disfluency,” creating barriers that learners have to overcome, as a key to successful learning.

The other article I read, A Technological Cloud Hangs Over Higher Education, is more of a non-scientific lament, but it makes much the same point. Keith Williams, a physics professor, recounts when his department removed all of its pendulums, replacing them with virtual pendulums on computers:

The software did everything, and there would be no more experimental complications, such as higher-order friction and drag. If students wanted to observe what Foucault observed, I suppose they could rotate their screens. Best of all, the students now recorded all quantities with perfect accuracy, so they wouldn’t need to learn how to account for errors. There were no more experimental errors.

Much like Lang, Williams wonders what is lost when everything is neatly available “in the cloud,” with the click of a mouse.

I found these observations intriguing because I had a similar epiphany while designing the online writing course I’m teaching this summer. Initially, I wanted to help my students by making all of the course readings available as scanned PDF files–in essence creating the equivalent of the old photocopied course packs I had to purchase when I was in grad school. I confess I was caught up in the technological “neatness” of it all. When one of the course reviewers asked if I was within “fair use” copyright guidelines (I was), it gave me pause. Why, I thought, in a course that emphasizes the research process as well as writing, was I eliminating an opportunity for students to learn how to find material on their own?

So I removed all of the PDFs I had painstakingly uploaded, and I replaced them with a bibliography of the readings. I had already checked, and all but two of the assigned readings were either available through our library’s periodical databases or online in places like Google Books, so I knew they could get them, but they would have to go through the process of using the library–what a novel thought!

In the process of doing all of this, I also recognized another learning opportunity we will have once the course begins. In creating the bibliography, I took advantage of the “automatic” citation features of the library databases, as well as free web services such as EasyBib. I then proceeded to “fix” all of the things these services got wrong. So we’ll be talking about the dangers of relying on technology to do our thinking for us.

I don’t know if my students will thank me for making their lives more difficult now, but maybe they will later.

It’s Summer, but it’s not Summer Vacation, at least not yet.

blurry typewriterThis is my first post of the summer. A few friends have asked me how being on break has been. The truth is, I haven’t actually been on break, which is why I’ve been fairly out of touch. For the last month or so, as I was finishing up my spring semester duties I was also working on designing and creating the online course I start teaching June 11th. Last summer was my first foray into online teaching, when I designed and taught a literature survey. This summer, it’s a composition course: Exposition and Research. It’s the writing course that all Asbury students take, both our traditional undergrads and folks in our adult professional studies program (unless they’ve already taken it elsewhere).

I felt as if I learned a lot from my experience last summer, so it has been good to put that experience into this course. The one big take-away from both courses so far is the huge amount of thought and work that go into preparing an online course. I’ve been reading lots of articles about online education over the last year–some positive, quite a few negative–and, while I’m not ready to give up face-to-face interaction with students, I think face-to-face teaching can take a page from the pedagogical awareness required in online teaching. You have to think about why you’re doing everything you do, and you have to think about all the possible ways students could get off-track in an assignment, and you have to think about all the different kinds of learning activities you can leverage to create community, motivate independent learning, and inspire critical thinking.

One skill I’ve gotten fairly good at is creating instructional videos. OK, maybe “good” is an overstatement, but I am at least now able to create and edit a passable screencast. I turned my kitchen table into my “studio,” using desk lamps for three-point lighting. Powdering my bald head was minimally helpful in reducing glare: I was reminded of the scene in Tootsie when the cameraman was instructed to pull back on Dustin Hoffman’s soap opera character. “How far?” he asked. “How do you feel about Cleveland?” was the reply.

Editing was a nightmare at first, but I slowly got the hang of it. I can now look at the soundtrack and immediately spot all my “uhs.” Not as easy to edit out the occasional barking dog or kid who should be asleep but isn’t.

This was the final product, which also gives you a peek at the course I created:

It won’t win an Oscar for best short subject documentary, but it gets the job done. I’ll share more about how the course goes over the summer.

Technology in Schools Faces Questions on Value –

I came across this in today’s paper and found it interesting, especially since I just finished teaching an online course this summer and tend to use technology a fair amount in my teaching.  This article talks about the fact that school districts across the country have invested heavily in technology over the last decade and how difficult it is to know whether this investment has actually made a difference in learning.  One of the reasons it’s hard to come up with good data is the fact that there are just so many variables in any educational setting.  Good to think about in an era where we’re trying to figure out how to stretch a school dollar five ways.

Technology in Schools Faces Questions on Value –

Online Teaching is a Wrap–for Now

This past Friday I turned in my grades for my first online course–a survey of Western Classics.  Nine students read The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Othello, Candide, poems by Wordsworth, Keats, and Dickinson, and Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart.  They watched online content, participated in forum discussions, and wrote a LOT!  I will see some of these students on campus in the next week, and I’m eager to talk with them about their experience.

From my perspective, it was a success.  It seemed to me that students connected with the objectives of the course, and they reported in their online reflections and essays that several of the readings meshed with their personal circumstances in some ways that surprised them.

Teaching online made me reflect on what I love about teaching, what I assume about the students I teach, and what I assume about my role as a teacher.  Because there is a necessary distance between instructor and student in an online environment (even with all the ways we can “connect” these days electronically), I had to devote more time and intention in the materials I prepared for them.  I also had to watch them read from a distance, which meant I could “coach” their reading but not control it.

The humility in this restraint brought with it the realization that I’m not really controlling students’ reading even when I’m teaching face to face–though I try by moderating in-class comments on assignments.  More important, there’s value in letting students struggle a bit in working out their interpretations of texts, even if I think they’re getting something wrong.  More than once I witnessed a student growing in his or her understanding of a work as they moved through it, revising their assessment of a character or reassessing a situation or theme after gaining a fuller understanding of the culture in which the situation was playing itself out.

Having said all that, I am still looking forward to seeing students in the flesh next week–I’ve missed the face-to-face contact.  That, too, has been a spur for me to think of ways I’ll adjust the online course to foster a greater sense of community the next time I teach it.  Maybe it’s a bit like being asked to explain something you know well but to do it in a different language.  Suddenly, you’re aware of just how idiomatic your accustomed language is and how you have to work harder to re-contextualize meaning and truth.  I’m eager to see how this experience informs my on-campus teaching this year.

Getting ready for Vacation

In one week, we leave for our family vacation to Florida.  Our plan is to visit family, go tubing down the Ichetucknee River, camp somewhere near the Gulf for a few days so we can have some beach time, and maybe, maybe, go to Disneyworld (theme parks in Florida in July with heat-sensitive kids don’t always end up looking like the promotional videos, even with fairy dust sprinkled in).

The week before vacation is my least-favorite time of the year, followed closely by the week after coming home.  Laundry is high on the to-do list for both weeks, but the week preceding vacation also means incessant questions from the kids as to what exactly we’ll be doing and exactly when we’ll be doing it.  I want a voice recorder around my neck that has a looped message: “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know . . .”  Being in the moment does not rank big around our house, despite my efforts to introduce a Zen-like atmosphere.

Then there are my unrealistic ideas of what I’ll be able to wrap up before we leave: errands, work items, household chores.  My ideal is to have nothing on my to-do list left unchecked and an immaculate house to return to.  In reality, it will be a success if the kitchen garbage can is emptied, the dishwasher is run, and there are no wet clothes left in the washing machine for two weeks.  The great thing about being 60 miles down the road is knowing whatever is back there will just have to wait.

Of course, my online course will be going on in my absence, which means probably a few check-ins while I’m on the road, but I plan to keep those to a minimum.  As I wrote earlier, teaching this kind of a course has been a new experience for me, and for the most part it has been positive.  But I realize one of the things I love most about teaching is the direct interaction with my students, and that has been a missing element this go round.  I’m not convinced it can’t happen in an online environment, but I’m still scratching my head as to how to make that happen in a meaningful way (it’s not for lack of the technological resources, although those are not as ubiquitous and transparent as technophiles would lead us to believe: not everyone is Skyping just yet).

So if you don’t hear from me for awhile, it’s because I’m searching the garage for camping gear or waiting in the checkout line at Walmart with a cart full of bug repellant and sunscreen.

Brave New World: Teaching Online for the First Time was the first day of the online class I’m teaching this summer.  It’s Western Classics, a survey of world literature that is part of the liberal arts core at Asbury.

What can I say?  It was quiet–very quiet in class.  Which is not to say it wasn’t busy.  Students were posting various introductory assignments all day long and asking questions about books, how to do certain things on the website, and even starting in on the first work we’re reading, Homer’s Odyssey.

I’ll try to reflect on this experience as the summer goes.  I think it will be similar to learning a new language or traveling to a different country or region.  You suddenly become aware of how your own culture works because you’re somewhere foreign, where they do things differently.  I’m no stranger to being online, and I actually use a lot of online technology in my regular teaching.  But I’m also accustomed to using my mouth a lot–literally–I’m one of those profs who looks at students packing up and says, “What are you doing? We’ve still got 30 seconds here.”

Instead, I’m having to take content that I would normally communicate verbally and communicate it through videos and discussion forum postings.  We will try a few times to use the virtual classroom–Big Blue Button–which lets us video chat in real time.  I’ll have to pick a time when they kids and dogs are quiet–or else go to my office.

That, of course, is the other surreal aspect of all of this: me sitting at my desk at home, drinking coffee and replying to students while my kids are asking for more cereal or letting me know the dogs need to go outside.  My wife’s been good to tell them, “Not now, Daddy’s teaching,”

Just glad the video’s not on then.