Tuesday, February 26, 2013

MOOCs are for mooks

I realize I'm coming off as a bit of a Luddite here, but I find almost nothing appealing about the idea of a MOOC, or a Massively Open Online Course. I say almost nothing because I like the concept of defined coursework, but as for the rest I have issues.

Massive: Bigger isn't always Better

This concept should be banned from higher education. In fact, I once knew a professor who asked me if we (by which he meant students) were too dumb or just too lazy to demand a refund for any tuition that funded lecture courses with over 80 students.

To his point, learning takes place as a collaborative effort. Students have a responsibility to learn, professors have a responsibility to teach, and education is the ideal end result of that balancing act. Whether online or in person, as the number of students increases, I think it's more difficult to say that they we as teachers are educating anyone. They are educating themselves, and that's not what higher education should be.

MOOCs try to compensate for this disproportion by incorporating more experts and educators into the mix, but I fear we'd be left with a free-for-all without any hierarchy. And what motivations do experts even have in participating in MOOCs? What happens when contradictions emerge? Is there a danger of proliferating misinformation here? I honestly have no good answers.

Open: You get What You Pay for?

Higher education is already a fledgling enterprise. Without increased funding from other sources, a no-charge education system like MOOCs isn't feasible. Many universities have expanded into distance education and seen revenue expansion as a result, but those courses aren't "open" in the sense we're talking about here.

I'm also uncomfortable with notion of "open" as it refers to participation by all. Given the current structure of Western society, too many people are attending university already -- or at least too many are pursuing liberal arts degrees. And I want you to understand I'm not making a statement about class or ability, simply about economics.

So, should college be an unhindered time in which students broaden their horizons? Absolutely -- to a point. But there is an overwhelming societal expectation that a college should provide some sense of job training. In my view, there's sort of an educational-industrial complex churning out graduates with the promise of employment, but those graduates all-too-often find themselves buried in a mountain of debt working a job for which they are overqualified and underpaid -- if they're lucky.

The job market in certain fields is already oversaturated, so I'm leery about opening the doors completely as I feel it would only add to a growing problem. Now a MOOC unaffiliated with any university? Go for it. Learning is a worthwhile enterprise at any level, but it shouldn't necessarily come with a university sanctioned stamp of approval.

Online: Plug in, Tune out

Finally, there's learning online. Nothing wrong with the idea itself, though admittedly I'm skeptical. I don't think anything can compare with the face-to-face interaction and learning experience provided in an appropriately sized classroom (5 to 40 students).

And from the limited experience I've had with online learning, I think advocates of distance education would agree -- or at least their methods reflect that. From what I can tell, online learning experiences often attempt to mirror the in class experience. Wimba has a "hand raising" option for God's sake.

But let's go a bit deeper. Consider, for example, the avatar-based virtual worlds we learned about in a prior tech talk. What struck me about the still images presented were how eerily similar they were to a real world classroom. These avatars exist in a virtual world. I could create a character that's half lion, half unicorn, throw on some wings and fly around like some bad ass version of Pegasus, yet we're going to sit orderly in a classroom or in a circle near a lake? And the professor's avatar is going to deliver a PowerPoint presentation?! Why bother?

Having said all that, I think online education through university systems could be great. We just need to accept that it isn't, nor should it be, an in-person classroom. We'll never achieve a good representation of that experience, so let's create a new and different one.

Too that end, I can see some value in MOOCs. At least there's an effort to reconceptualize online learning to  integrate more fully what the Web has to offer and allows its users to do, which is sorely lacking in what I've seen in university online education initiatives.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Twitter Teaching Assistant

The last tech talk got me thinking about how I could and do use social media in the classroom, so I thought I'd share.

First, I don't think I would mess with Facebook. There's no questioning there's some amazing functionality there, and the near universal reach among students adds to the appeal. But for me, Facebook is a very personal public space -- if that makes any sense.

I can't recall who brought this up in class, but being among the first to have access to Facebook when it was only accessible by college students definitely colored our perception of what the site is. I'm guarded about who sees what I post because I speak more candidly and personally on Facebook than I do anywhere else. I don't want to breach that divide with students.

Now Twitter, on the other hand, is a different story. It's an inherently public forum and always has been. The ability to search for a topic based on hashtags is a great way to enter a conversation and it cuts through the clutter on the rest of its site, which I think is extremely beneficial as it relates to teaching. This feature enables students and teachers who don't "know" one another within the social network to engage in meaningful conversations.

I'm living amidst a great example. I currently TA for a communication law course. The professor discovered that students are floating around on Twitter talking about the course under "#commlaw." He's shared some examples of some of the more interesting tweets to begin class, which is good icebreaker for an early morning class and it's typically good for a laugh too.

Recently, I decided to jump into the conversation following our first exam:

We've been studying political speech and laws regarding campaign contributions, so I made a joke about 501(c) groups. Hilarious, I know. You'd have to understand the concept to get the joke.

But that's what makes it good. I think little things like that bring students into the larger conversation, particularly in these giant lecture courses. It also makes me seem a bit more personable and offers me some forum with which to engage students. I don't lecture. I only provide limited counsel and grade exams. I'll be the most hated figure in the room before the semester is over.

And the communication flows both ways. Twitter provides a channel for students to talk with me. Several of them administer an account for the class, @commlawprobs:

So I follow them and I see concerns about the grades. My reply:
Now we're all on the same page. And the account is a good way for the students to blow off some steam, share concerns, or even make a simple joke:
I haven't decided how beneficial I think this whole project is or could be, but it's definitely interesting if for no other reason than it's some good-old-fashioned grass roots fun we can all be a part of.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Flipping the Classroom

Flipping the classroom blurs distinctions of when and where learning may occur by mixing equal elements of interactivity and preparedness on the parts of both students and teachers.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Buck Stops Here

Harry Truman famously kept his "buck stops here" sign in plain view on the Oval Office's Resolute Desk. I think he wished to convey not only the weight of responsibility that rested on his shoulders, but also the authority he had in making important decisions.

In much the same way, we teachers ultimately have a responsible to foster learning in the classroom; but on the other side of the coin, it's important to remember the authority we have in making key choices.

I bring up this point because I noticed in class that we talked at length about our responsibility as teachers to cater to students learning needs -- and that various technological tools can help us do that. Again, we have the authority to act on our best judgment.

But I think our best judgment must include more than simply the students: it must include us. I believe for teachers to effectively use any learning tool, they must first be comfortable with it themselves.

Let me give you an example. I once taught a course on public relations writing, of which blogging assignments were a critical component. Like our EDHI course, I chose Blogger as the platform -- and for many of the same reasons we discussed in class (access through Google, ease of use, benefits of a universal platform, etc.).

However, before I made this decision I reviewed other options and sought the input of students. By far, Blogger and WordPress were the preferred options, so I played around with both. In my opinion, WordPress is far more powerful, customizable, and ultimately useful.

In the end, however, I was simply more comfortable with Blogger, which is the main reason I went with it. Sure, I was worried that the complexities of WordPress would lead to confusion on the students' part, but I was more afraid they would lead to incompetence on my part. I wasn't comfortable integrating a technology into a classroom with which I was not personally confident using.

Important as the student perspective is in learning, I think it's critical to remember that we, as teachers, are a big part of that equation as well. Ultimately, the buck stops with us.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

In over my head

Image from Gani01
I remember when new technology filled me with a sense of wonder. Now, it's more like a sense of dread.

Don't get me wrong. I'm amazed about what new communication technologies enable us to do. A decade ago I wouldn't have been able to fathom anything like Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, or a tablet computer even existing. Still, the information explosion that's accompanied the spread of the Internet is overwhelming at times.

The concepts of wikis and social bookmarking aren't completely foreign to me, but last week was the first time I really experimented with them firsthand. Now I've got two more Internet accounts to maintain.

I've got Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to manage for social networking; Delicious to handle bookmarks; two blogs to maintain (and a host of others on Google Reader that I try to follow); two separate e-mail accounts; The New York Times and The Associated Press to follow for news; The Onion, which is good for a needed laugh; and -- because of UGA upgrades -- two distinct versions of eLC to keep abreast of.

And time is just one cost: there's also money. Laptops, tablets, smartphones, and Internet service aren't cheap. It feels like all my money and free time are spent in a hopeless effort to keep up with advances that are supposed to make life easier or better, but mostly I just feel anxious and ill-informed.

Despite my Luddite ramblings, I think all of this technological growth is ultimately a good thing, but there's been so much of it so fast that I haven't been able to properly adjust. Part of me misses the elementary school fights over which kid got to use the color computer as opposed to the machines with the old green and black DOS screens. And that part of me doesn't feel like I'm alone in this either.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Apprenticeship Teaching

Benjamin Franklin apprenticing for a newspaper
Though I enjoyed taking the Teaching Perspectives Inventory and the class discussion that followed, I believe there is an inherent flaw in the process we didn't quite get to.

Let me begin by saying that I was pretty well-rounded in my responses. My dominant approach was developmental, but I also scored high (but within the mean) on transmission and nurturing. Strangely, I had no recessive approaches, though social reform and apprenticeship tied and eked above the mean by less than a point.

I must confess that I was somewhat surprised that I scored so low on the apprenticeship score. After all, I work in Grady College, which offers its students many skills-based courses in journalism, advertising, public relations, and media communications. For most students, these are professional degrees more than academic ventures.

At first I thought this divide was a problem until I started reflecting on my past teaching experiences. I worked at the University of Louisville as an adjunct and I essentially resurrected the PR writing course there. For each assignment I explained the importance of the writing task and how to accomplish it (transmission). I also worked with each student individually based on his or her ability to so that he or she could improve upon unique skill sets (developmental).

But within this mix I found the most useful moments came from relating assignments to my own professional experience and providing students with detailed examples of what these writing exercises should look like and how structure and content work together to achieve a desired goal. If that isn't apprenticeship teaching, I don't know what is.

Seeing as I received pretty favorable reviews for that class, I'm assuming I didn't screw the pooch, so why did I score so low on that scale?

I think the problem is one of perception. Namely, when taking the TPI, the focus tends to be on broader teaching and learning philosophies, not specific strategies or tactics within a given classroom setting.

As I've said before, I don't think learning is necessarily purposive or goal directed. Though knowledge undoubtedly has a use-value, it has intrinsic value as well. My belief score on the apprenticeship scale reflects that.

However, while that opinion reflects a general approach to teaching, a more narrow, course-specific view pulls out the practical side in me. I think the distinction between the broad and specific is important to consider when interpreting our TPI scores lest we pigeonhole ourselves and allow these scales to become self-fulfilling prophecies rather than the introspective exercises they were intended to be.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Want to get sued?

Picture by Editor at Large
Of course you don't. Now don't get me wrong -- everyone likes a heist movie, and who doesn't want to outrun "the fuzz" in an epic car chase? But getting busted for copyright infringement? That's just boring.

I only mention it because of a happenstance learning opportunity that hit me today. I'm a teaching assistant for a communication law class and the topic of copyright came up in this morning's class. Also, in today's teaching with tech course, we discussed using images and other content in blogs and the notion of "giving credit where credit is due."

Turns out that's not enough. According to U.S. copyright law, original work fixed in a tangible medium (including what appears on the Web) may be protected. This means it can't be used without permission of the copyright holder -- or until the work falls into the public domain.

Interestingly, I just noticed today that Google Images displays the following warning each time you search: "Images may be subject to copyright."

Since Google passes the buck onto the user, it may not be your best bet for image searches. There are several sites that offer (mostly) copyright-free work or work you can reuse simply by attributing the work. Wikimedia Commons and FreeFoto are two pretty good ones, but there are a lot more.

Let me know if you guys find anything good. As a prior copyright offender I'm looking to repent.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why do we blog?

Image by Cortega9
Good question. Of course I posed it, but I stand by it, mostly because I wrestle so much with it.

I once taught a course on public relations writing, and one of the principle components was writing for the Web, particularly in the form of blogs. I devised the following set of rules for blogging after reading up on the subject in my free time:

  1. Maintain a defined focus with your blog topics
  2. Maintain some semblance of a schedule with your posts
  3. Use sans-serif fonts (they're easier to read on backlit screens)
  4. Keep paragraphs short
  5. Keep posts under 500 words
  6. Link to relevant information
  7. Foster interactivity
  8. Understand the relatively casual nature of the medium
  9. Engage your audience
  10. NEVER forget to whom you are writing (See how I used proper grammar with the "whom" to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition? My audience is educated. Plus I don't want to look like I ain't never learned nothing. That would be plumb stupid of me.)
Pretty good list if I do say so myself; though of course, I made it. But the reason why I made it was because I was teaching students to blog for organizations in order to attain organizational goals. I never considered that type of writing to be a personally fulfilling exercise, but rather one of professional development.

But aspiring to career goals is only one of many reasons to blog. For instance, I maintain my own personal blog simply for pleasure, which I have shamelessly plugged using several hyperlinks in this sentence. Seriously, you shoould check out my blog.

Thinking about it, though, I use the word "maintain" incredibly loosely. In fact, I follow few of the rules I taught my students: my posts are long, my themes are often disjointed, my posting schedule is erratic -- even my font choice is poor.

Why is my blog so bad?

Well, it's not. The formatting issues are independently atrocious, but they exist because I always follow rule number 10: never forget your audience. 

The audience for my blog is me. I've only had 4,500 page views over 5 years. I'm shouting into the void and listening for the echo, but I'm okay with that.

My blog helps me articulate my thoughts to hold onto a sliver of sanity. And since I write for me, I remember my audience: I don't mind writing that is long-winded, I don't mind that the focus is as scattered as my thoughts, I don't care about a schedule, and I think Georgia is a beautiful font and that serifs are awesome.

So how does this relate to teaching? It does so because it relates to learning. Sometimes we approach a learning opportunity with clear goals in mind for how we will use the knowledge we acquire. These endeavors are purposeful, directed, and pragmatic. Oftentimes, however, we learn about something simply because it interests us and we have no idea how -- or even if -- we will use that knowledge.

In my professional or personal life, I doubt my knowledge of the key differences between Keynesian and neoclassical economics is going the be of much help. I doubt much that I learned from Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War will come up in a communication classroom, though I dedicated over 11 hours to watching it and found it incredibly fascinating. I'm certain that knowing the history of telephone area codes and their developments is utterly useless.

Still, I like knowing all of these things. I liked learning all of these things. And even though I have little practical use for this knowledge, I think it -- like learning -- can be important for its own sake. As teachers, that's something we should not only remember, but remind our students of.

...And that they shouldn't end blog posts with prepositions.