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.

More training (what am I missing?)

This internet thing can be evil, or good, or just a time suck. I do my best to listen to my better angels. And I love the ease of finding useful information.

Case in point: I know that content management systems (CMS) are important. For every college web page, there’s a CMS behind it, and in fact, building digital history exhibits requires a CMS. And I gravitate towards open-source software. A buddy of mine at the University of Minnesota told me about Drupal Camp, which is a meeting of people working on a CMS called Drupal. So I check the Drupal Camp website and see that there’s a free (FREE) training for Drupal this Thursday. I can only go to the morning part as I’ve Normandale meetings in the afternoon. But there is no chance I’m going to find some non-profit running a training session without the beauty of the web.

And then there’s the evil side of the web. I tried to take a MOOC once – just once. It was world history, which I teach. I lasted three weeks. The lectures (by a name in the field) were two hours long and had the content density of a light broth. Even sped up to double time, they were soporific. The discussions veered from mildly on topic to blatant trolling. I fled screaming from the discussion boards.

And now comes an OOPS – an online open participatory survey from the University of Minnesota titled “Mutlicultural/Inclusive Learning and Teaching: when Multicultural Learning and Teaching meet Universal Design for Learning.” It runs about 12 weeks and thus far appears peopled with advanced graduate students and faculty eager to explore the topic, and it’s not huge. And it also is free. It can be taken for credit, by I don’t need more credentials. I’m hoping to learn much, and bring it back to both the classroom and to my faculty colleagues. Already I’m mining the course bibliographies. If it let’s me talk about race to my white students just bit more smartly, I’ll count it a win.

Safe home.

Students first, then the rest. #teachingpact

The problem: In the morning when I arrive at work, I boot up my computer and run a routine: read email, check news (academic and general), check twitter. It’s very easy to drop 15-30 minutes on activities that have no direct use to my students. Yes, that article in The Chronicle of Higher Education may be fascinating, yet my students waiting for an email response or grade aren’t helped. I can also convince myself that a half-hour self training session on some sexy new software or website is worth my time. All these things have potential long-term benefits to my students, but aren’t immediate.

A solution: I’ve noted academics on twitter using the hashtag #writingpact as a way to motivate themselves to write. Tagging makes others in their circle makes them aware of the writer’s work (leave me alone), models positive behavior, and solicits support. So my thought is, why not make a teaching pact (#teachingpact) that the first thing I do in the morning directly helps students. The email from my Dean can wait (sorry) as can the local news. I’m responsible for professional development at my school and that can wait too. It’s not that institutional, or self-care, or development needs aren’t important. Only, if I am honest with myself, if I’m an educator first, then the students’ needs should be first.

So, from here out, upon arrival in the morning, I will boot my computer up, and do something for my students. A bit of grading, responding to online discussion questions, responding to student emails. I’ve no formula that requires a certain number of tasks or minutes on task, only to address students first.

Care to join me? #teachingpact

Unforeseen consequences.

I use a great many websites to teach. I do so as  I’m focussed on preparing my students to think critically in a world that finds content everywhere, digital, experiential, even emotional. There is no analog vs. digital, just life, in all its messy glory.

Still, I always imagine my digital tools are going to organize themselves in ways I find useful. Hubris, my friends.

Two quick examples: TurnItIn let’s me set up Peer Reviews, which offers marked improvement over the “everyone bring 3 copies, one for me and two for your review partners” days of yore. In that world, only one copy would show, students would spend 5 days emailing back and forth, and I’d be referring grades for non-compliance. Now, the student finishes the draft, uploads it once, and the exchange part is taken care of. Except, when, say I tell the software to automatically assign two papers to each student to review and it only assigns one. Or I want to modify the peer review and I can’t because the assignment date I set has passed. Some of these issues are technical and some user error, but all of them have yet another learning curve for effective teaching.

Another learning curve is happening right now with my world 2 class. They’re building exhibits using Omeke.net. I’m proud of the work they’re doing. However, a minor technical issue results in students who want to modify the site to make it better, but can’t because I can’t give them permission to do so without letting them also delete other student’s work. TurnItIn and Omeka are teaching me that the only way to actually have a community of learners is to have a community first, built on trust, and not on a benevolent digital dictator. I’m not going to go soft, start passing out gold stars and hugs for rubbish work. But the more structured learning software gets, the more I’m convinced that “open” isn’t just a technical feature, it’s a philosophy that takes time to consider and apply.

Safe home.

New technology vs new pedagogy.

One of my struggles has been helping students learn digital historical tools when I have only recently taught myself those same tools. For example, I’ve designed or modified others’ lesson plans using voyant tools for distant reading or ArcGIS for historical mapping. I had a google maps engine lesson plan that I’d used for a while. . . and then google tweaked its interface and my lesson plan went down the toilet. So I learned ArcGIS instead.

None of these technologies are difficult to learn and all of them have a huge skills/jobs/I can do something amazing! payout. Still, if it takes me an hour to learn a digital tool, that’s an hour I’m not grading, or participating in a discussion, or thinking about how to improve a lesson plan. Teachers, like creative types everywhere, must balance the acquisition and mastery of skills with the practice of those skills (for which we are paid).

In short, any minor, new technical skill I must acquire pulls me away from teaching, and that has meant long nights, and frequent moments of “this lesson plan is good-enough technologically” reflection. This pull between learning the new and relying on the old is a constant for professors, but I feel it more acutely as I’m trying to embrace digital history as a pedagogy.

Courage and time.

I’ve been off this blog since late July, which is both total cowardice and the nature of privileging actual teaching over writing about teaching. To the three folks who follow me, sorry.

To begin again, I’m still working on my four-part project, a world history course that:

  1. uses an anti-poverty course design principles I’m creating (current iteration is here)
  2. uses digital history so that students might learn both history and job skills at the introductory level
  3. uses only sources that are already free to students, such as OER or library databases for which they have access.
  4. bundle the course and give it away under a creative common license.

I’m succeeding in getting students to use digital history tools, but I’m concerned that my formative assessment is so poor or the bar is so low that I’m not optimizing their learning.

I’m only partly successful in my online classes with my anti-poverty course design principles, largely because I haven’t figured out good workflows for closed captioning and I’m making up lessons as I teach. For most teachers that’s fine, including me, but I know that poor students can’t offramp and onramp for lessons as easily, so just-in-time teaching isn’t optimal.

I have stuck with nothing but free resources, but connecting students to those resources has proven a challenge (future post alert).

I’m nowhere close to bundling this course. This summer is realistic.

I’ll be posting more courageously again, sharing what’s working and what’s not.

Why is it so hard to do the right thing? ADA compliance and web authoring software.

So I’m working on building my syllabus, lesson plans, handouts, etc., and I want them to be in accordance with the American with Disabilities Act. Fortunately, my college’s Learning Management System supplies ADA compliant html templates. And if you upload them into the LMS, you can edit the templates in the LMS web editor. Only . .  Continue reading “Why is it so hard to do the right thing? ADA compliance and web authoring software.”

On how I’ll give away my course (and keep it from publishers).

Some faculty share their syllabi freely, others are niggardly with them. As I’ve noted, this project will share not just the syllabus but the lesson plans and sources for the entire course. I still haven’t figured out how to bundle the materials (or created the materials – gasp). But I have figured out the correct type of Creative Commons license I’ll be using. It’s call an Attribution-NonCommercial copyright and will allow anyone to “remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.” I’m wondering if there’s a GitHub of pedagogy? 

I’m grateful today for two former students who shared by email and in person suggestions for how to improve my course for poor students. Their insight is invaluable: thank you Phil and Grant.