AdjuncTechnology, or why I can’t figure out Blackboard

It’s ironic, really. Enrolled in the Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, participating (or trying to) in MOOCs, teaching myself skills in WordPress and other tools…I certainly appear to be on top of all things ed-techie.

So when I started teaching again this fall as an adjunct instructor in English, hired about one week before classes began, I thought of the opportunities to work with students that technology gives us that I did not have 15 years ago, the last time I taught freshman composition courses. Would I have them each keep a blog? A class wiki? How could we do email and online conferences? Handed the books I was required to use and the essay rubrics I had to teach to, I was informed that the school also used Blackboard to communicate with students.

Wow, my first experience with a traditional learning management system! After all the LMS-bashing I’ve heard from my compatriots in MOOCs and read online, I looked forward to contributing a bash or two.

But between putting in the enormous amount of time dealing with the required texts and rubrics, the sheer volume of written work, and managing a full-time business on top of it…figuring out Blackboard hasn’t taken priority. As an adjunct, I am paid only for the hours I’m actually in the classroom—three per class—which works out to about $7 an hour when I account for the class preparation and grading and student meetings outside of class and supplementing the standard texts with materials that will actually help students write their required research papers. I simply can’t afford more time, which would be deducting from the time I spend writing and editing—what actually keeps me financially afloat. Forcing myself to limit the hours I spend on this teaching hobby sets up a choice between learning Blackboard or spending time with a student struggling with an essay. Of course the real-live person in need is going to win.

Considering that there are about eight full-time faculty and about 80 adjunct instructors in English, is it any wonder that the syllabus and texts I was given to work with look suspiciously like the ones I had 15 years ago? My students say they have not been using Blackboard because none of their instructors do, and I suspect that other departments have the same skewed faculty lineup. For an open enrollment community college, which has an equal mix of students planning to transfer for a four-year degree and students planning to earn their HVAC or culinary certificate, that skew is not surprising. This college is the only affordable option, and to keep it affordable means relying on part-time instructors who don’t get paid very much.

As I think more about it, the debates about doing away with traditional textbooks (my students claim that their rhetoric/grammar cost $78! $78?) could have an unintended consequence for adjunct faculty. If I had to find my own resources, gather them in the LMS, etc., how much more of my time would part-time teaching take up? And then how much more time to be innovative by crafting blog-based assignments and class wikis? I’m frustrated with forced choice I had to make, so frustrated that I’m not going back. (Yes, I know; in theory, the planning/supplementing time would decrease next semester because I’ve already got materials in place and my syllabus planned out…but I’m just not that type of teacher. I’ve always got to remake things so they have a chance to work better.)

We just had a big union fight here in Ohio (and our side won!) so that (full-time) public employees have the right to bargain collectively for their working conditions and benefits. I’m lucky I can walk away from part-time teaching because I have a good income in other ways; some of the adjuncts who are just out of grad school aren’t so blessed (I remember those days). I keep thinking about the loss to students, though, of teachers who have time not only to figure out Blackboard or any LMS but also go beyond that to engage students with new ways of communicating that are authentic and have the potential of a readership wider than just their freshman comp classroom and instructor. I’m jealous and sad I don’t get to be one of those teachers.

MOOCs support inefficient learning…and that’s the point

With the shrill emphasis on standardized testing in K-12, some math educators are fighting back with innovative, hands-on learning for their students. Instead of providing equations for, say, calculating the hypotenuse of a bunch of right triangles with different base lengths, they have their students start with the object under consideration. Perhaps students measure a couple of triangles and talk about what they’ve found. Opponents to these constructivist methods scoff at the idea that students are supposed to “discover Pythagoras’ theorem on their own” by performing tests and measurements that will lead them to the same conclusion. As some of the criticisms of the Khan Academy note, efficiency of instruction does not necessarily lead to student learning. In fact, that efficiency may only promote the rote learning for tests that’s too prevalent.

I started thinking about this in the context of my last online course, run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, which was a MOOC: a massive, open online course that in the past has literally registered more than one thousand students in one course. At first, I was irritated with the overwhelming amount of materials I had to go find: although the course started from a few readings each week, the point of the course was to find the blogs, posts, and tweets of other members as well as other materials around the same subjects. In this last iteration of the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge course, Siemens and Downes experimented with a decentralized structure. What this meant was that there was no “learning management system” in which assignments and grades were posted, readings were collected and housed, and discussions were threaded, nested, and archived. Instead, the content was aggregated with gRSShopper (a Downes’ invention) and then housed in people’s blogs, a Facebook group, Diigo, and other online applications.

It took a while to get used to, I’ll admit. And I was often frustrated at the lack of a sort of ongoing, regular discussion base that I had in graduate school, where each week you picked up where you left off the week before and you could see the knowledge growing in your community because somehow it was more contained, physically, in one small college town—it was a bit more visceral. In addition, because I am hyperstudent, I never felt in CCK11 like I had quite done enough, had read enough in the tucked-away blogs of my colleagues and related materials I tried to find on my own. My Moocolleagues (neologism alert!) also seemed more connected to each other and to other networks of learners, whereas I’m on my own in rural Ohio. By the end of the course, I felt a bit weary, and I was looking forward to my next course, more traditionally organized, housed in a learning management system, and holding only about 20 students. Its potential was more restful.

But now a funny thing’s happened: I miss CCK11. Although many times I felt disconnected and frustrated, I paradoxically felt more engaged then. I did more work, so I got more out of it, even though it was hard and sometimes tiresome.  Using connectivism as both its subject matter and its structure, the experience yanked me out of a comfortable identity called “student” and put me in some other role that I still don’t have a name for. It’s stuck with me, in other words, and I’m not the same—and isn’t that what learning is?

And learning is or should be inefficient. It’s when you struggle to make a WordPress widget work the way you want to (see www.dandydogohio.com’s slideshow for what cause me an hour’s annoyance) that you gain more understanding about PHP rather than just reading the For Dummies guide and following along. The fact is, my arrogant brain sometimes thinks that internalizing information is enough for me, as though if I read a Honda Repair Manual I could build a Civic in the backyard. That hands-on learning I advocate when it comes to K12 and postsecondary education?—yeah, I need it, too. Reading about something isn’t the same as learning: learning should be messy and should contain some moments you just want to go hire someone to do it for you. Reading about connectivism’s belief that learning is a network phenomenon is one thing; trying to form, navigate, traverse, talk about, and reflect upon the network while you’re swimming around in it is another (this may be connected to Siemens’ discussion of internalization/externalization).

Now I’ve signed up for two more MOOCs: one, called EduMOOC, starts next week through the University of Illinois, and the other will be “the mother of all MOOCs” from our friends Downes and Siemens with the addition of Dave Cormier (who makes the great MOOC videos). I’m bound to be, at times, really frustrated and uncertain. I might even gripe. I bet I learn.

Update 6/27: Dave Cormier’s blog post on MOOCs as ecologies.

CCK11: Institutional and/versus networked learning

Below is my final project for our Connectivism course; I will admit that I went a little over the top. I wanted to do something fun and multimedia, and I ended up spending an enormous amount of time on this. I think it’s because in my work life I don’t get much of an opportunity to really do something that engages me or requires me to learn new things. Our CCK2011 course has been great for me in that way; I feel that my brain’s been in mothballs for the last decade after graduate school, and this course pulled it out of the back of the closet and shook out the dust.

I’m taking a step and putting something out that I don’t think is perfect, that I’m pretty sure will crash someone’s computer, all in the spirit of contributing to networked learning. Even if you say, “OMG, I’ll never do that,” I guess then you’ve learned something useful. The film’s a little silly and quite amateurish, but I sure had fun figuring it all out! (P.S. It has sound—sometimes loud, though I tried to mitigate that—and it’s about 11 1/2 minutes long.)

Gosh, I feel like I just got used to this course, and now it’s ending…. TTFN!

Tools:

  • GoAnimate
  • Windows MovieMaker
  • RealPlayer Converter
  • TapeMachine (on Droid)
  • Audacity
  • Photoshop
  • YouTube

CCK11: Wrapping up; the long and short of it

I feel like I’ve just gotten started; how can CCK2011 be ending? I’m going to argue two contradictory perspectives on timing here because I keep waffling between them; then I’m going to finish up by promoting the idea that George and Stephen shouldn’t facilitate CCK next time but instead form a granny cloud of well-wishers.

Why CCK2012 should be longer

The next iteration of CCK should last for 18 weeks. With the lengthened time comes more opportunity to engage at a deeper, ongoing level with the materials that we have been given and that we’re finding on our own. The reading list may end up being filled with the same content, but some of that content—perhaps most especially the readings at the beginning that are quite dense and set up the course—could be spread out a bit to give us time to digest.

In graduate school, courses were 3-4 hours long each week, with intense discussions of what we were reading; that gave me the opportunity to carve out time to talk about the materials and really shake down what I thought about them and how I could use them. The hourlong discussions on Elluminate do not grant us a lot of time (although I hear the FaceBook group has online discussions that go deeper than what we’re able to achieve on Elluminate) and at least a third of them are about listening to guest speakers. Don’t misread me: I love those. But I would have enjoyed, say, another hour after Cable Green’s presentation to talk about all the information he gave us about the work he’s doing. And blogging, which I’ve tried for the first time for this course, doesn’t give the same sustained conversation as real life can.

And because this is not graduate school, which some of us may be used to, having a longer course may allow us to settle into the format before the course starts winding down. I know that just a couple weeks ago was the start of feeling like I had a rhythm to my work for the course: after reading the materials over the weekend, I check the Daily, go to the CCK site to navigate the blog posts and pull out what interests me, read it, click links in it, click around looking for new stuff, etc., on Tuesdays in preparation for Wednesday’s online session. On Thursday or Friday I might start a blog post about it (some of which have never been posted for general consumption).

In addition, a longer course would have allowed a few lulls along the way. Perhaps the Week 4 dropoff in participation could be planned for and accommodated; that is, at Week 5 we take a break to chew over things a bit so that at Week 6 we’re reenergized and raring to go. At Week 10 or 12, same thing. At that point, too, we could have a break to start thinking of our final projects and what we want to create as our artifact for the course. Right now I want more mulling time to think about my project, but I’m running out of days.

Why CCK2012 should be shorter

The next iteration of CCK should last for six weeks and should cull down the weekly readings into two at the most. This gives participants, most of whom are working adults, the time to use those limited readings to jump into their own explorations of content. Exploring on one’s own, making those connections to what you find, is an important part of the experience of a distributed course. Shorter, intense bursts of energy and activity are the way that some people approach a new learning opportunity. I have seen adult learners obsess about a topic, say kabuki theater or bonsai (I’m using my husband as an example here), and gorge on every piece of information they can find…and then move on to a new intensity.

A shorter CCK would also allow a more intense focus for the time we do share. The fourth week dropoff in participation has been mentioned in writings about MOOCs, and I think that with a finish line more closely in sight at six weeks, people may be more likely to pull up their big girl panties and keep up the intensity. For instance, these last 3 weeks or so, my life has been crowding in on any time I can dedicate to this experience. Many people’s initial enthusiasm cools a bit, not because they’re not interested but because the experience is now more “known” than it was before.

In addition, I think a shorter course would help the facilitators manage their time and efforts, too. They could give it more attention knowing that there is a shorter range of time that it will take and could arrange it to happen during part of a year that is for them not as busy with other commitments. A longer break between courses also allows them to help find/foment new content that they could bring back to the learning experience.

Lighten the load

I think I could also write about Why CCK2012 Should Be Taught by a Different Team. Not because George and Stephen didn’t do a good job, but because in that way not only is the course content and participation distributed but also the teaching is distributed. That’s not really a radical model; we did that a lot in graduate school, where each week a student was responsible for leading the discussion about whatever we were doing. They’ve done the course; they’ve collaborated to make it work three times now. Perhaps a cohort of former students could take on its next design and delivery? We could scope for new materials, especially out of the artifacts of prior courses, or create what we think we might need. Six or seven people could take different microtopics and continually develop them.

That way, Stephen and George could swoop in periodically and give us all a cheer. I’ve written about granny clouds before, and Stephen and George could visit our blogs as benign mentors just to say “Hi. I stopped by to see that you’re writing about really interesting things. Keep it up, and best wishes!” They could see the course morph into something they hadn’t expected, perhaps. Alternatively, they could lurk under assumed identities and stir things up a bit by disagreeing with everything.

CCK11: Concept map

Welcome to my Concept Map, assignment #3 for our Connectivism and Connected Learning course. It’s hard to read this small, but I kinda like the over / view. Can you see it?

I tried to make sense of the unique parts of connectivism as a theory of learning in the digital age. I also deliberately tried to keep it extremely simple and clear with few nodes and identified connections.

To create this, I tried a new software, VUE from Tufts University. Although this is a quite basic diagram, VUE seems to have more powerful elements within it. I always like to try new software, and sometimes I get in the try-and-discard mode, running to collect and know about all the latest shiny toys. (Funny, though—I never really did that with toys.)

I believe if you click the image, the large version will come up in your browser. I don’t know whether any of the embedded notes or links will work in this saved version.

CCK11: Educational and other despair

Diane RavitchI just started reading Diane Ravitch‘s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education. Ravitch has been very influential throughout the last few decades in shaping educational policy in the United States. A former supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act (the No Child Left Untested Racket), Ravitch has since decided that she was, in fact, wrong about NCLB and school choice. In her first chapter, as a response to readers wondering why she has switched her position, she quotes John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” She has always been a firm proponent of liberal arts, so she states, “Doubt and skepticism are signs of rationality.  …It is doubt that shows we are still thinking, still willing to reexamine hardened beliefs when confronted with new facts and new evidence.” (See her interview with Jon Stewart. Funny!)

While I have not always agreed with her, I have always respected her willingness to attend to what’s actually going on in the real world as opposed to the ideological one. This book is no different; she amasses a great deal of evidence from real school systems, studded with historical insights and examples, to tell readers what those of us who are parents, citizens, and educators already know: modeling education on business principles does not work for anyone. Top-down decisionmaking, strong arm staffing, rewards based on spurious indicators (student assessment scores? really??), and “competition” among schools (i.e., “school choice,” charter schools) has resulted in…well, nothing. A lackluster educational system with overtested, underchallenged students and teachers constrained from exercising their professional knowledge by having to teach to the test.

I’m only halfway through the book now, but I’m hoping she connects the school system to the larger cultural system to talk about poverty and the income gap, declining neighborhoods, and weird sense of entitlement on the part of parents who want schools to do everything for their child but do not want to pay for it. I’m also hoping she clarifies how schools have changed since, for instance, I attended them. Inclusion policies, whereby a child is placed in the least restrictive environment, strain schools’ and districts’ budgets. Low-performing students with IEPs (individual education plans) are monitored by two teachers devoted just to that paperwork, for example, rather than being in a classroom. SBH (severe behavioral handicap) students are attended to all day, every day; in-school suspension runs all day, every day, supported again by one staff member dedicated to just that…. It’s actually quite startling the myriad of things that schools have to deal with. And now the budget in a rural school 5 miles from me is so strained that they’re doing away with art, music, physical education, recess, and lunch periods as well as laying off teachers and other staff (not administrators though).

Given the situation in my state, where today it’s likely that the legislature will decimate public unions and then accept a state budget that creates havoc for local districts…maybe connected, online learning is the answer. At least for adults. But my excitement about the potential of some of these online networks and tools is increasingly overshadowed by my despair about the direction of my state and country. Yes, it will directly affect me and my family, given that my husband is a well educated teacher with a dozen years’ experience in a very challenging district (after his stint as an Army Ranger in his younger years…yes, we’ve done everything the “right” way: education and hard work). But how can we seriously expect that the increasing gap between the rich and the poor makes for a stable society for anyone? The question of access to these amazing new learning tools isn’t one we can continue to brush aside if we are really interested in learning, unless we’re interested in learning only for those who can afford it—as my husband’s recent protest sign pointed out, under Governor Kkkasich, some pigs are more equal than others—while we leave behind the growing population of those who cannot.

Addendum

Who’s Bashing Teachers and Public Schools and What Can We Do About It?

 http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/25_03/25_03_karp.shtml

By Stan Karp

The short answer to this question is that far too many people are bashing teachers and public schools, and we need to give them more homework, because very few of them know what they’re talking about. And a few need some serious detention.

 Some information from Mother Jones about U.S. distribution of wealth and income gaps:

CCK11: Educurator?

To fulfill Assignment 2 of the Connectivism & Connected Knowledge course

Connecting Curation and Education: Emerging Needs, New Model, Changing a Traditional Role

Teaching and learning are changing; as students in traditional schools engage in social media online, they leave some of their teachers far behind. Frankly, many teachers are resistant to using the technological tools that are available. But I agree with Dean Shareski that “to ignore or deem [Web 2.0 technology] superfluous is nearing educational malpractice” (2010). So here I wish to outline how I could apply some of the most helpful insights of connectivism in a real (potential) teaching space, a nontraditional learning experience in an Ohio town (USA). Children and their parents will understand the more-traditional descriptions of my role (teacher/tutor) and the offered learning opportunity (course/class) in response to an emerging need (computer knowledge) that the school system is unable to offer: In advertising, I will ask, “Is your child learning enough about technology?”1 But how I approach the experiences will, I hope, reformulate some of the traditional expectations and results. Also, it will be affordable to people who would normally believe “tutoring” is beyond their family’s budget.

Hence, Ohio Computer Tutor is gestating with connectivism in mind.2

As a teacher/tutor, I will

create the space where learning can happen. Literally, I need a physical space that will hold approximately 5–6 computer workstations and other equipment (like this). Figuratively, the space must be warm, open, welcoming, diverse, and not dismissive of learners’ experiences or backgrounds/identity (McPherson, 2008, p. 18: “Nodes are often easier to see for those doing empirical work, but these approaches can also miss larger systemic issues”). In addition, parents are welcomed into it as learners/teachers/cheerleaders.

create conditions that highlight know-how and “know-where.” Quick hit, short targeted flashcourses; one piece of one task is modeled. We emphasize how to find the skills you want to use (Siemens, 2005) and how to validate what you find (Cormier, 2008). I share and model my thinking so the search and evaluate process is transparent (and replicable). No learning opportunity is scheduled for more than one hour. If the learners stay for two hours, they are teaching each other while I am present (see below).

welcome learner interests. This may include actually making the following offer: if you find at least six kids who want to know this (skill, thing, technique), I’ll create a new learning opportunity for that group and any other learners who want to join. Or we’ll do it now.

curate materials that learners may not know. Many children in this area lack basic computer skills on traditional platforms and software, even as they text incessantly on smartphones. To start, I gather materials (traditional text, videos, modeling, blogs) that help us think about the task or that model some possible outcomes.3

model and demonstrate particular skills or approaches (Downes, 2006). As a skills-based learning experiment, the approach has elements of demonstration, but like a workshop approach only demonstrates briefly to get learners started on their own projects.

enable learners to reflect and practice those skills or approaches (Downes, 2006). Provide an enormous amount of time in the schedule when I am not talking but am wandering around looking at what the learners are up to.

allow learners to teach each other (and me). Following Sugata Mitra, I do not supply each child with one computer; instead, they pair and triple to learn together (or pair with a parent), pushing and nudging to make space (Mitra, 2010).

am extremely busy being present.  Most important to me: My role does not end at model and demonstrate. Teachers connect again and again. From a welcoming acceptance of learners’ experiments (like Sugata Mitra’s “granny cloud,” to an exploratory question at the right moment, to staying one step ahead of the chaos, an attentiveness to the network itself is part and parcel of the new educator. As Stephen Downes offers, “[B]e the sort of person you want your students to become” (2006, printed page 13). If I want students to become engaged, inquiring, and really smart, then that’s what I have to be, too. At the end of the day, the teacher in a networked, connected, distributed somewhat chaotic new learning environment should be exhausted.

Accomplishing this vision for Ohio Computer Tutor could mean producing slight ripples in the local system of education: I imagine things like schoolchildren wandering over to work together on a worksheet (gasp), helping teachers learn about interesting and useful tools such as Prezi and GoAnimate, offering ideas for how they could use the tools for assignments and homework, teaching each other informally…and dozens more scenarios than I can imagine.


References

Bouchard, P. (2011). Network promises and their implications. The impact of social networks on teaching and learning; Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), 8(1), 288–302.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate, 4(5), article 550. Retrieved January 30, 2011, at http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=550

Downes, S. (2006). Learning networks and connective knowledge. IT Forum. Athens, GA: University of Georgia. Retrieved January 30, 2011, at http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/paper92/paper92.html

Downes, S. (2006). That group feeling. Half an Hour blog. Accessed January 31, 2011, at http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2006/10/that-group-feeling.html.

Downes, S. (2007). What connectivism is. Half an Hour blog. Accessed January 19, 2011, at http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html

McPherson, T. (2008). In T. McPherson (ed.), A rule set for the future. Digital youth, innovation, and the unexpected. The John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1–26.

Mitra, S. (2010). The child-driven education. TED talks. Retrieved October 11, 2010, at http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html

Shareski, D. (2010). Sharing: The moral imperative. Preconference keynote at K12online 2010 Conference, Saskatchewan, Canada. Retrieved March 3, 2011, at http://k12onlineconference.org/?p=610

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1). Accessed January 18, 2011, at http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm


Notes

1 I need to leave aside for the moment the huge question of student motivation. Given that my spouse is an eighth grade (i.e., 13-year-olds) science teacher, I know a lot about the lack of student motivation in urban middle schools. However, I will also say that he has made some progress by introducing his better students to cool tools they can use (e.g., Prezi, GoAnimate) for their projects.

2 Per Downes: “The objective of a theory of learning networks is to describe the manner in which resources and services are organized in order to offer learning opportunities in a network environment” (2006, printed page 9). The characteristics of a helpful network are diversity, autonomy, connectedness, and openness.

3 I also need to leave aside the needs assessment that I am actually developing right now. In it, I identify a few basics of computer use and knowledge that many children do not know. Because I know quite a bit about the classrooms in the elementary schools in the area, I already have some data gathered that demonstrate the lack of skills among both children and their parents.