Friday, October 25, 2013

Putting a Face on Online Learning

“It is common knowledge that a well-bred man should as far as possible have no face. That is to say, not so much be completely without one, but rather, should have a face and yet at the same time appear faceless. It should not stand out, just as a shirt made by a good tailor does not stand out. Needless to say, the face of a well-bred man should be exactly like that of other (well-bred) men and of course in no circumstances whatsoever should it alter. Naturally houses, trees, streets, sky and everything else in the world must satisfy the same conditions to have the honor of being known as respectable and well-bred.”
       -- Yevgeny Zamyatin, Islanders And, The Fisher Of Men

Given the above quote, I’m pleased to report that your online courses are populated by heaps of well-bred individuals.  Indeed, judging by the general pervasiveness of facelessness, your rosters must read like a regular roll call from Burke’s Peerage

What’s that you say?  This isn’t true?

As much as the anglophile in me might wish it otherwise, Zamyatin’s notions of decorum are, of course, at odds with the realities of anonymity and internet trolldom, and sadly, even our best online courses seldom resemble the staid intellectualism of a British tearoom.  Our students often appear faceless but seldom exhibit the haute mannerisms associated with being well-bred.  Thus, lacking any real hopes of emulating Downtown Abbey, I say we just go ahead and give our online students faces.

Really, it isn’t that hard.

You begin with a video.  All good instructors should model the lessons and attitudes they want their students to adopt, and so you should start the semester by immediately pulling back the wizard’s curtain.  "Here I am.  Your instructor.  A real person.  I have a voice and a face; I am human."  This sounds silly, but lacking an introduction video, you are perceived by your students only as some digital force of nature, expressed in text, putting forth commandments and judging your followers.  As tempting as this minor deification can be, I recommend you avoid it.  The image of Godhood is simply too difficult to maintain over a long semester.  Plus, there is always the tiny possibility of committing a mistake, and then the whole mythology might crumble down around you.  This can be very bad.

Once you have presented your face, it is time to solicit the same visual presence from your students.  In a physical classroom most everyone spends the first day eyeballing their compatriots, and it is only fair that we provide them with the same opportunity online.  Fortunately, the prevalence of modern technology makes video introductions easy to construct, and posting them quickly results in a far greater sense of community.  You also get to see them in their natural setting.  This can be fascinating

Now that you’ve met each member of your crew, it’s important that everyone create a face to take with them on the journey.  In many of my own courses, I have replaced the ugly, text-based enthusiasm-slayer known as the Discussion Board with Voicethread.  Voicethread allows your students to upload a picture of themselves, and that picture is present whenever they interact (through video, voice, or text) with their fellow students.  Providing ocular identity clues can completely change the nature of online interaction.  George Smith the name is rescued from the land of bland (and sometimes destructive) anonymity, and is reborn in your course as George Smith, the guy with black hair and a nice smile.  This Smith is statistically more likely to be kind and helpful, and he is easily recognized by his classmates.  “Oh, George, you’re always so funny,” they say, and, “Ah, George was the one talking about stem cells last week.  I wonder what he has to say about this.”  As human beings, we are evolutionarily primed to remember and appreciate human faces, and including them in online interactions greatly benefits the resulting dialogues.

Of course, students sometimes choose to represent themselves with avatars and thereby mask their faces.  While this can result in some protracted anonymity, I remind you of Oscar Wilde’s words: “A mask tells us more than a face.”  When a student represents herself as a castle, a sunset, or a dog, she is making a statement, and though we must be careful not to get too Jungian, this statement is open to interpretation.

Specific avatars can also result in a fair amount of mirth.  Last year an exceedingly bright student chose a picture of her six-month-old baby for her Voicethread profile.  Thus, throughout the semester we all enjoyed nuanced literary comments and in-depth discussions on symbolism originating from the picture of this little sage in a onesie.  Welcome to the 21st century.

Regardless of the chosen image, a visual identity is created and a face given to that student, a face capable of holding positive or negative associations, a face we can become comfortable with, like a neighbor, or even (gasp!), like a classmate in an actual classroom.

Beyond the intuitive benefits of all this, I offer one final anecdote of the change online faces can elicit.  At the beginning of each semester I have to clear each voicethread discussion of the previous semester's comments.  This is a labor intensive endeavor that requires me to click on each student’s face and then select a trashcan button.  When selected, the trashcan asks me, “Are you sure you want to delete this?”  When I first went about this task, it presented a surprising existential crisis.  “No,” I said, “I don’t want to erase Sally.  She’s come so far.  I loved her thoughts about Wide Sargasso Sea.”  This shows just how potent these images can be.  Seeing the student, she becomes more than just a name on a course roster.  She becomes an individual and her various thoughts, ideas, and emotions accrete to her given icon.  More than mere glyphs on a screen, she is a person, and whether well-bred or not, I’ve come to like that face.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Moving the Statue

Read through the 9x9x25 archives (yes, we’re big enough to have archives now -woot!) and you’ll notice several blogs devoted to the composition and aesthetics of learning spaces.  These posts offer apt reminders on the psychology of setting and nicely provoke instructors into taking more ownership of their surroundings –the ultimate goal being an atmosphere more conducive to teaching and learning.  However, how can we translate these important considerations to online courses, where we have little or no control over the given locale?

The first and most obvious step in this direction is to design attractive, intuitive, and effective dashboards using our LMS or website of choice.  Erin Whitesitt (yes, a shameless family plug) has already offered a fine blueprint in this regard, yet I often find myself worrying about the bigger picture.  As an English major, I was trained to evaluate context, and as an English professor, I’m haunted by the unknown compositions surrounding my lessons online.  When a student logs onto Blackboard, what lies beyond and around that little rectangle of learning, informing, supporting, or undermining my instruction?  My greatest fear is that it’s this:

Now, before addressing this den of depravity, I want to travel back several thousand years to the ancient Greek Festival of Dionysus.  Likely no event in history better evinces the importance of ritual and symbolism better than the Dionysia, the progenitor of all Western theater and drama.  And though we could spend a great deal of time discussing the significance of this toga party, let’s focus just on its initiation.  Several days prior to the holy fete, an acolyte would carefully remove the sacred statue of Dionysus from the temple.  Then, on the first day of the festival, in what was known as the pompē, the citizens of Athens would march the statue back to the temple on the Acropolis in a ceremonial procession.  Due to their historical prevalence, such religious activities don't strike us as odd, but consider that the sole reason for the statue's removal was just so that it could be returned again.  There is no logical impetus for such an action, but there are deeply important social and psychological purposes behind the ritual movement.

What does this have to do with learning?  When a student attends college in a traditional classroom, he/she travels through multiple ceremonial spaces that lend significance to what is about to take place.  He leaves the comforts of home, jockeys through the streets of society, and arrives on campus.  The campus itself is a location that denotes learning via its unique physicality.  Despite sharing traits with many other large collections of buildings, it cannot be mistaken for a hospital or governing complex.  It is quickly and easily identified as a college, and as the student steps into this space, she is subtly prepared, through a lifetime of conditioning, to begin learning.  This preparation is heightened when she arrives at her specific destination.  This is my Sociology 101 classroom, her mind and body tell her.  This is where I learn about sociology.  Looking around she sees other students operating under the same geographical mindset.  Although they may fiddle with their phones, or talk with their neighbor, they are in a dedicated space historically and culturally prepped for learning and new ideas.  This truth is telegraphed by each of the five senses.

Sadly, this is not the case with online learning.  With the click of a button, a student can move from Facebook, Netflix, or worse, pornography, to my English 101 course.  How can such a casual juxtaposition not subtly devalue education?  Lacking all locomotion, there is no physical reinforcement of change, and there is no demonstrative spatial indicators that states “learning is afoot.”  Instead, the student is surrounded (most often literally) by all of the comforts of home, and although that picture of grandma and those footie pajamas may feel good, research supports the notion that we often learn best when we are on the edge or even slightly outside our comfort zone.

There is a social aspect to this as well.  While a student may hesitate to rail against the “liberal agenda” or to denigrate “all them feminist” in a physical classroom (where an accepted atmosphere of civility and professionalism generally reigns), that same student will feel far less restraint in his own bedroom.  Whereas a college campus supports and encourages progressivism and new ideas, our homes and personal effects, even our family members, generally cast a conservative
aura: this is who I was, this is who I am, and this is who I will be.  Such an environment lends itself to intransigence, and, coupled with even a notional anonymity (Ha!  You can’t see my face!), sometimes results in troll-like behavior.  Add to this the typical distractions of being at home (crying children, blaring televisions, annoying siblings/roommates, the smell of dinner, the lure of that Playstation) and the result is not exactly an immersive learning space.  In other words, there is no sacred temple.

So what can we do about this?  Well, to some degree, nothing.  When teachers talk about the indefinable “magic” of the classroom, they are partly alluding to what I have discussed above.  No matter how far online education advances, it will never be able to fully replicate the physical act of moving through space in order to gather in a ritualized location to engage in something as a group.  Humankind has been doing this for thousands of years, with varying motivations, and with powerful results.  However, online education is not going to disappear, and so we need to seek out ways to improve the medium.  I encourage my students to develop dedicated work times and spaces even for their online courses.  The coffee shop or the attic may not be as conducive as the classroom, but over time they can come to mirror some of the same associations.  Todd Conaway argues that we should send our online students on field trips.  Regardless of how we do it, we need to develop new and innovative ways to move the statue.  What are your ideas?              

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Milk for Free?

Extra! Extra! Read all About It (online)!  Lloyd’s List, widely thought to be the world’s oldest daily newspaper, is going out of print in December.  Granted, this may not seem as significant as the folding of Newsweek last year, or the many other metropolitan dailies that are dropping like the flies they once swatted, but Lloyd’s has been spilling ink since 1734, and whenever a ducentenarian dies, we should take notice.  The reasons behind the fall of newspapers are multiple and varied, but certainly the most efficient executioner has been the internet.  After all, why should I buy the cow when I can get the milk for free?  A quick internet search will literally put thousands of news stories at my fingertips without once having to venture onto the driveway in my bathrobe or send Junior to the corner market.  And best of all, they come in at the low low price of:
Or course, it wasn’t always this way.  If you can imagine it, once upon a time you may have had to pay for the privilege of reading my words right now.  However, today there are something like one billion blogs to choose from and instead of you chasing material, I’m chasing readers.  And just in case you think this discussion is merely academic, let’s ride that word to my next point.  This is now happening in higher education.
Looking at the two models, one can see that they are actually quite similar.  A fee is paid (via subscription or tuition) and in return access is granted to expertise and information.  Having completed the process, one then walks away an informed individual prepared to engage fruitfully in the important discussions of the day.  Yes, you in the back, the liberal arts instructor; I see your desperate look.  This is a reductionist comparison that denies recognition to the richer and deeper aspects of a broad education, but I will dismiss this quibble with a dollar.  From a business standpoint the two are close enough, and the market bears this out.  The interwebs are full of canned classes, online “degrees,” massively open online courses, and free information.  Ask yourself, what can you tell your students that they can’t find in a Google search?

Sadly, we are already seeing the negative consequences of this.  Academic decisions are made based on market forces.  We offer dual enrollment free to high school students inside local high schools, not because it is the most rigorous education, best practice, good for the student, or the ideal environment for college learning, but  because if we don’t, some other institution will come along and steal that FTSE.  Moreover, students are no longer limited by geography.  Here in Yavapai county, they can attend the local community college, but Grand Canyon University, Rio Salado, and the University of Phoenix are also available and will gleefully accept as much federal aid money as they can get.  Like my blog analogy above, students now have a multitude of choices, and, as the law of supply and demand dictates, institutions must now begin to cater to students to survive.

Education meet free market.

To capture those students we’d best pour money into advertising and make sure that our medicine doesn’t taste too bad.  In other words, add sugar and remove rigor.
And that’s assuming that individuals even want to formally attend college.  MOOCs, Google, the Khan Academy and other enterprising groups can provide education and knowledge without any monetary transactions whatsoever, and if we truly believe in the long term social and individual benefits of learning how can we begrudge a movement working toward a free and readily available education for all?

Is our profession doomed then?  Are our already tiny budgets and puny paychecks in danger of disappearing completely?  For an answer we must return to the newspaper industry.  Some venerable and worthy papers have been forced to fold or downsize into insignificance.  Attempting to compete with free online sources, they made maladaptive moves to shorten story length (you know, because of attention spans), cover more fluff (the Roman bread and circuses stuff), and cater to entrenched political audiences.  While this Faustian bargain worked for a select few, it murdered the majority.  In watering down their product they turned away from their strengths (embedded reporters, in-depth investigative journalism) and ensured a slow (or not so slow) extinction.  Visit any tourist spot and you will see a similar phenomenon.  Shop after shop hocking the exact same cheap baubles and tee-shirts.  None of the owners runs a successful business (most cycle out after 1-2 years), but each ensures a grudging, temporary survival by selling the same safe (albeit crappy) product as his neighbor.

I argue that if higher education wants to survive and thrive in the next hundred years it must do more than offer the interchangeable kitsch of the tourist shop or the diluted product of the failed newspaper.  We must narrow our scope and turn to what we do best.  Steve Student can find out anything he wants about Beowulf on the internet, but I am going to sit down beside him and make it come alive.  I’m going to recite parts of it in Old English.  I’m going to get excited when Wiglaf brings forth the treasure, and, using my own idiosyncratic education and experience, share more relevant historical and literary explanations and real-world hyperlinks than even the most dedicated programmer could provide.  And what’s more, I'll do it real-time and adapt to that student as I go.  When I see the face brighten, I’ll dive in.  When I notice the eyelids droop, I’ll pull back.  Google can’t do this.  The University of Phoenix doesn’t want to.  However, I can, and if we want community colleges to continue to perform their unique and important social role one hundred years, even twenty years, from now, then we need to invest in what is unique and rewarding -what cannot be replaced.  We need to invest in ourselves.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The (E)mail Bag Edition: Wherein I relate a mistake, vent in the guise of offering constructive advice, and briefly discuss response time

I made a rookie mistake this week.  Entering my office on Monday, I flicked on the computer as usual, paid my two minute dues to the start-up gods (I shudder to think what the temporal sum total of this tithe might be over the course of a lifetime), and, like all good little white-collar workers, set about my emails. I scrolled down the long list of black subject lines, all the while resisting the urge to answer them Strong Bad style, and arrived at the oldest missive, from HelloCitty88, descriptively titled “Issue.”  This can’t be good.       

“The video for week six doesn’t work.”

That’s it.  Possibly this student was fleeing a burning building and time was a factor.  Alternatively, he is a superhero of some renown that must closely guard his secret identity.  Regardless, without any identifying information, I must locate and fix the video.  This is my job.  Fifteen minutes later I have checked the clips in each of my four online courses, both in Firefox and Explorer (thank you, free market) and determined that everything is hunky dory (a very Monday phrase).  I then write back to HelloCitty88 the standard it-must-be-your-computer-contact-the-Help-Desk-for-assistance-and-keep-me-posted response.    

Twenty minutes after opening Outlook I now move on to the second email.  Easy one.   Zap!  I get lucky with the third and fourth too.  Zap, Zap!  Email number five is from HelloCitty88 again:

“Nevermind.  I figured it out.”

Over several years of anonymous abuse I’ve learned the hard way to look for multiple emails from the same address and begin with the newest, but occasionally I like to forget this lesson and start my morning with frustration calisthenics:

I’m sure your own emails periodically inspire similar exercises.  Indeed, any instructor (and especially those that teach online) can relate gruesome tales from the Inbox, and as tempting as such swapping is (either in this format, on Facebook, or in the breakroom) I think most of us eventually outgrow the desire to share or vent about it.  While student emails are regularly rude, demanding, grossly informal, panicked, grammatically inscrutable, and inadvertently funny, they ultimately come from a position of subordinance, and it helps to remember this power differential if a response is necessary.  When confronted with a particularly loathsome specimen of online epistle, I often compose two responses: the one I want to send and the one I do send.  The first is pedantic, chiding, and chock full of ten-dollar words sure to test the perspicacity of any college freshman.  It usually contains phrases such as “It’s in the syllabus” or “do you kiss your mother with that mouth?!” As a parent, a teacher, and a fellow human being, this email feels good.  However, like so many things that feel good, it can get you in trouble.  Thus, the second email.  This missive adopts a professional tone, politely points out where the requested information was initially available, provides said requested information, and gently requests that future communiqués come equipped with a greeting and identifying information.  Occasionally it is necessary to also include a cordial addendum on netiquette and what it means to write in all caps.  The "old-school" might bristle at such coddling and kid-gloves, but I’ve yet to regret being kind and polite.  I can, however, recall a small handful of sharp responses I’d like to take back.            

If I can now draw these threads together, let it be said that it is not always and entirely necessary to respond to student emails at once.  Delayed replies offer reflective time for both sender and recipient (time in which frayed nerves may calm) and inspire students to avoid Escalator Syndrome and even problem solve on their own.  That being said, during the week, I keep banker's hours on the web, and endeavor to reply to student emails quickly.  I am consistent about this and work hard to establish a responsive reputation that my charges can rely on.  However, unlike many of my colleagues, I do not check my email on weekends and holidays.  This separation is the result of a promise I made myself and my family as a working graduate student years ago, and it's been a delight to honor this pledge.  I've found that cultivating this bit of distance provides a healthy psychological harbor for myself and encourages my students to be proactive with questions and concerns.  It does create a larger workload the next week, and occasionally an important and deserving email must linger, but in general the policy has weathered the years quite well -even if does occasionally result in a rookie mistake.