Just a few technical details. . . on the imaginary “time off” for teachers.

I’m redesigning my World History 1 course around digital history projects with texts that are free to my students. So that my students have access to the sources I selected five sources from one of our college libraries databases, downloaded those sources as pdfs, stitched the pdfs together using Acrobat Pro, wrote up citations for the sources in Markdown (recall I want to be able to give this course away so documenting everything in a format that others can easily play with is important) and . . .  then, uploaded the sources to a third-party clearinghouse (SIPX) that will ensure our use of the databases clears Title XVII of the U.S. Code on copyrights. That last part requires minor navigation of our college’s learning management system so that students don’t have to sign in to our library or another website to do their readings.

Citations in code.
Citations written in markdown.

Now, if you teach, I’d wager that little in the above paragraph impresses you. You probably do similar electronic jumping jacks all the time. But if you don’t teach, please note my activity was for one week’s worth of reading. I still need to design the quizzes and the digital history assignments around the readings. I’m on summer “break.” This is what we do- a highly-skilled and time-consuming dance that requires time away from face-to-face contact in order to continuously improve our teaching.

So tonight, if one presidential candidate makes a snide comment about educators, I’m going to roll my eyes. Congress may not have its eye on our students’ futures, but I do. . . you too I bet.

Safe home.


New format and the absence of values in e-Learning.

To the five people who read this blog: I’m playing with themes. I’ll find one that works soon and stick with it.

In the mean time, consider the distant reading I did of the entire program of the recent e-Learning conference put on by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. I the plugged the text of the entire program in Voyant, and searched for words that address poverty. You can see what I found.

To be fair, there were a couple of presentation about open education resources, but those focused on books, not students.  Next time you attend a conference, scrape the entire program into Voyant and see what it tells you.

Graphic of voyant.
What words were missing from the program of the conference? See the graph on the right of the image for the words I queried.

What is a better train wreck.

When I originally conceived of the title for this blog, I was stealing a phrase used about patients who have myriads of medical problems. Colloquially and away from patients, doctors call these patients train wrecks, everything is wrong. There may be mental, congenital, and emergency health problems confounding a team of physicians working like mad to put out one fire after another. When I asked what do you do when faced with such a disastrous coalition of ailments, how can doctors cope, my wife replied: “you can always make a train wreck better.”

I thought the same thinking applied to many of my students. Many students have poor to no family support, medical and mental health problems, food and housing insecurity and full-time jobs. One friend pointed out that calling students train wrecks wasn’t terribly respectful even if it was honestly expressed.

I’ve come to realize that there is a train wreck, but it’s not my students. It’s the world around them. How is that our country lacks paid time off for parents like every other western democracy? How is it that someone working minimum wage can still not earn a living wage? How can racism continue to shape our lives in such pervasive ways? How do women still only earn a percentage of the wage men earn?

What I find energizing about the train wreck analogy is that it highlights the scope of the problems my students face. I’m realizing that I’ve been working with a misplaced focus. It’s not about making the train wreck that is society a little better, it’s about helping students survive the train wreck successfully. Read that again, survive a train wreck successfully. That’s mine and every other community college teacher’s charge.

Safe home.

Recap of #dhathecc (Digital Humanities at the Community Colleges): Part I

Last week, July 13–17, I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Digital Humanities. This post is summarizes my reflections and attempts to point the way forward for my teaching.

You’ll recall my original project had four parts:

  1. Create a course that adhered to an anti-poverty pedagogy course design principles.
  2. Use only texts that were free to students (OER and library databases).
  3. Build the course around digital history tools (that are part of the larger digital humanities–or DH– world).
  4. Package the course and give it away.

I failed slightly less than I succeeded. Still, I believe I can realistically still accomplish this goal, in fact for two world history courses. Part of my confidence derives from my time at last week’s institute (#dhatthecc).

I learned too much for single post so I’ll just list three problems for which I have new options.

Problem: Students have too many DH website that require new logins.

Option: In the first iteration of my DH world 2 course, I had students create Omeka, google, ARC GIS, and a cloud storage accounts. Following an nice intro by @roopikarisam to how to install Omeka on @reclaimhosting serve, I was able to install serval plugins for Omeka. These plugins (versions of Neatline) will let students use Omeka for 5 lesson plans instead of 1, decreasing the mental bandwidth needed to learn a new user interface.

Problem: Assessment of digital projects borrows heavily from face-to-face assessment and lacks a nuanced estimation of DH competence.

Option: An short article in Digital_Humanites titled “Learning Outcomes For The Digital Humanities” helped me think through how to restructure my assessment rubrics in a way that honors the student contributions as DH creators and historical thinkers.

Problem: Students lack agency in what they want to get out of assignments.

Option: Jesse Stommel strongly encouraged participants at #dhatthecc to allow students to self-assess the success of an assignment. I am perhaps less willing to allow students to define all the outcomes for an assignment, yet I do think I’ve been missing an adrogological opportunity to include students in the assessment. I have content, skill, and metacognitive outcomes for my assignments, and @jessifer convinced me I should include a fourth category, something akin to “What do you want to get out of this assignment?” learning outcome on each assignment. Importantly, I think I can ask the students to self-assess and include their self-abasement in the assignment grade.

This is just the first of many thoughts on #dhatthecc . Many more thoughts and thank you to follow.

Safe home.

Is this what middle-age means as an educator?

Is this what middle-age means as an educator?

I’m on the downside of 40, and am increasingly out of sort with the culture in which I live and teach. In areas of life in which I am constant, the world evolves quickly. I’ve become a 10% guy in a 90% world. I used to wear a men’s size medium and now I fit into a small. Everyone but me seems to wear headphones when running. I wear shirts that aren’t non-iron.

There’s a good bit of privilege in my 10% world, I recognize, but it still feels odd to be so far out-of-sync with parts of U.S. culture. When it comes to teaching, I feel equally out of sync, for very different reasons. As digital humanities scholars race ahead in developing new tools and pedagogies, I’m trying to keep up, translating this newness into digestible lessons for my students. At the same time, I teach at a college that is not racing ahead when it comes to digital pedagogies. There is an openness amongst many professors, yet I am one of the leading instructors on matters digital. So I feel like I’m behind 90% of the digital history teachers nationally but in the the top 10% of teachers on digital issues at my school.

There’s a great bit of ink I could spill on privilege, leadership, and cultural equity. I have the time to run, the time or money to press shirts, and access to technology that let’s me evaluate where I am as a digital history instructor. That said, understanding where I am situated matters as it shapes my response to changes around me. For general cultural changes, I live and let live. I buy the small shirt and don’t try to make that mean anything other than I have a shirt that fits. Yet for teaching, I need to reconcile or at least develop greater mindfulness of how I engage various groups. If I’m in the vanguard, I need to rally friends to follow. “Look I can do it, you can to.” If I’m in the rearguard, I need constantly check in with the main host, “what are we doing, where are we going, how are we getting there? And it is a battle we’re fighting, against fear, apathy, and ignorance.

Safe home.

I did it. . . again.

I’ve enjoyed using an Oxford University Press textbook for my World History 1 class these past two years, but I’ve still so much content that’s digital that doesn’t fit. Adding digital history lessons to 30-40 page chapters is too much, and I’ve been exploring the world of Open Education Resources as I teach my World History 2 course. I already abandoned textbooks in my world history 2 course, but now I’ve done it for world history 1 too.

This will truly be teaching without a net because World 1 goes back to prehistory and includes some of students favorite subjects: the Roman empire, the Mongols, the Mayans. Good thing I’m off to the Eugene, OR this summer for a NEH Summer Institute: I’m going to need all the help I can get crafting a new course. At least I’ve learned from the pitfalls of my World 2 course. I can’t help but wonder what my college’s bookstore makes of the $0 next to my courses.

Teaching without a net, again.

Safe home.

Building lessons on free websites . . . or creating children’s books.

One of my favorite “wow” lesson plans uses the website gapminder.com. It presents a variety of data in clear visualizations that let students play with historical statistics. It has huge limitations when studying history. Still, I use it as part of a lesson on quantitative history and the importance visualizing big numbers.

Last week one of the key data sets failed to load (Income per person). The gapminder people corrected the failure in 8 hours, but then the website broke again. Students howled. I howled on the “Report a problem” section of the website. In the end I pushed the due date for their assignment back one day. Nothing ground breaking about the pedagogy or our response to a common problem, yet something worth considering when building from open web resources.

In contrast, for my MN History students, I asked them to write a historical fiction children’s book based on 4 chapters in our textbook. One of the learning objectives for the class is to demonstrate the ability to write different genres of history. A full short-story would take too much time, both to teach and to create, but the basics of historical fiction can be taught with children’s lit (sources, plot, narrative arc, critical deployment of the suspension of disbelief, historical accuracy). And the final products are just fantastic. Granted, some spend more time on the art than the sourcing, but this low tech assignment forces students to grapple with how to tell a story about the past that even my best digital history assignment don’t yet.

So, this week is a contrast in pixels and paper.

On the inelegance of the LMS and the tech world’s response.

My not-so-new though: much of the software we use in college is needlessly complex and inelegant.

We’ve seen this progression in text editing, with MS Word evolving from a more writerly program to a behemoth publishing giant that requires four clicks to do anything and at least 27 inches of screen real estate to be functional. Fed up with the rococo features of Word, writers increasingly turn to simpler apps, such as FocusWriter, WriteRoom, evan nvALT (which is a text editor), to just write.

Similarly, I’ve decided that the feature creep of my college’s LMS has moved beyond baroque to rococo, especially linking and collecting information. When I want to link in most WYSIWYG editors, I hit control + K and it links whatever text I’ve highlighted. In D2L, I need two additional steps to do the same thing. When I want to collect information from students, say on a midterm student evaluation, I need to use quizzes or self-assessments, and then run a report. Set up for both quizzes and self-assessments is straightforward, but not simple. And the reporting system is Byzantine (sorry Constantinople). In contrast, I can throw together an easy google forms response in half the time it takes in D2L, and the form will auto-generate a spreadsheet of the responses.

We’ve come through Web 1.0 (the renaissance)  and Web 2.0 (the baroque and rococo of software and user interface design). I’m hopeful for selfish reasons and for the sake of our students we’re coming to Web 3.0 design: essential function without adornment- Bahausian design mixed with the Prairie school, perhaps?

The Gloria: An open teaching and learning award

Every day, in every college, students, faculty, and staff struggle. Those struggles can be epic (how do we cure cancer) or limited (how do I factor this polynomial, how can I help this student right in front of me). Lots of folks struggle. When movie makers struggle and succeed, they get awards. Big thinkers get awards named after famous people (Nobel, MacArthur). Even people in college get awards- employee service awards, student scholarships, honor societies. Yet most awards focus more on the epic side of struggle: big events that are marked with degrees or money or wide acclaim. And those awards are given by big institutions.

We need an award for the everyday struggles and successes in teaching and learning, less epic, and more open to all. Not an award for participation, attendance, or mere competence, but for meaningful struggle to make college better. I give you The Gloria.

The Gloria is an open teaching and learning award. It can be awarded by anyone at the college to anyone at the college. The Gloria carries only the payment of a grateful giver. You can give as many or as few Glorias as you wish. You can alter The Gloria however you want (it’s open, like open source programs: I made it, you can modify it). The Gloria can be given to a student from a professor, to a professor from a student, to a staff member from a professor, to staffer from a student. . . you get the idea. A few examples.

The Gloria for

– “Struggling with the registration system to get me the class I need to graduate” goes to Alice, who works in Records. Presented by Joe Bear, student.
– “Hauling my butt through a rough month of English composition to help me earn a C on my argument paper” goes to Joan, who teaches in the English department. Presented by Fatima Hassan, student.
– “Finding a way to care for your kids and still get this homework done the week your mom went in the hospital” goes to Maria Alonso, student. Presented by Professor Fuddy Duddy.
– “Helping me find a book that proved invaluable to my paper” goes to, Lacey, that reference librarian. Presented by Chuck, student.
– “Finally mastering a concept you’ve struggled with all semester” goes to Pat, student. Presented by Professor Fuddy Duddy.

This is an award by you to anyone who has helped make college better for you.

To award you own Gloria, download a pdf or open document version of the award. Fill in the “The Gloria for,” “Goes to” and “Presented by” fields and print or email to the recipient. Be creative.

The Gloria is named after Gloria Aronson, emeritus professor of history who taught at Normandale Community College for more than 40 years. She pioneered teaching world history, women’s history, and study abroad at Normandale. She’ll hate that I’ve named an award for her. Even worse, I’m giving her the first award.

Gloria received the first award with the humility and grace that defined here teaching. She thinks this award a lovely idea. College is a struggle-

Let’s honor those hurly-burly teaching and learning struggles that end in a win with an award- The Gloria.

Snake essential oils and why the term educator matters.

A mild rant today.

Yesterday I participated in a training on Drupal, which is a content management system you can use to create web pages. I’ve used different content management systems (Omeka, wordpress) to teach my students some digital history skills. Still, Drupal offers serious, build from the ground up, learn it and you can be a web-creator, options. The White House uses Drupal, as does the University of Minnesota. (If you ever want to know how a webpage is built, use builtwith.com.)

Lots of interesting participants, including a retired artillery officer interested in G.K. Chesterton, several folks from a local web development firm, and a couple small business folks.

One small business owner described herself as an “essential oils educator.” I’m going to skip the ignorance of her medicine (“when you apply oils to the head, the oil has greater access to the brain” – no it doesn’t), and the appearance of a scheme (“I don’t sell retail, I sell wholesale to others looking to start a business”- like Charles Ponzi) and focus on the educator part.

Those of us who are actual educators must protect, advance, and advocate for that term. Salespeople are not educators. Knowledgeable? Of course. Valuable?, absolutely. When I buy a running shoe I ask the salesperson to help me navigate the different models available. But a shoe salesperson isn’t a foot technology educator. And the sales reps from all the ed-tech firms that are on campus from time to time aren’t education technology educators. Educators are those whose primary mission is to educate, not to sell a service or product, nor to tell others how to teach. If we let the term devolve to anyone who wants to explain something, we risk the same problem that news organizations now face with talking heads claiming the mantle of journalists.

Those who can, teach.