Notes on Jim’s blogging workshop

Today I attended Jim Sullivan’s workshop “Blogging Across the Disciplines“. Although I’m always thrilled to listen to and learn from Jim, there were a few ideas I picked out that I’m going to work on.

The first was the way Jim’s class blogs with students emphasize the public nature of the blog. His class blogs make clear that the assignments are public writing, and he also posts to an audience rather than just to the students. When I blogged with students, I made the mistake of not emphasizing the public nature of the blog. Rather I was just using WordPress like an LMS. What I missed was the opportunity for students to change their writing in response to an audience (even if that audience doesn’t comment – I didn’t track the visitor stats either).

JimSBlogThe second idea was the way Jim makes students read each others’ work. Not only does he refer to student posts in his own comments, but he has quizzes where the student must match the post author with an idea from that author’s post.

His prompts are also expert. Just one example: “pick a scene from The Devil Wears Prada and explain what it says about work in America”. Instead of assigning the movie (which students would have to either watch or view scenes from), that exercise is embedded in the prompt. The legwork is theirs. And he creates a theme for each class (this one is work).

Some of the participants at the workshop had great ideas. One requires that student posts have “novelty” as a rubric item. Another considered assessing based on “connections”. Clarity about the goal of each post is crucial.

There was discussion about using the methods of ones discipline to design and assess student blogging. The scientific method was mentioned, and some faculty like to have students directly apply knowledge in their posts (rather than just “write about x”). I could do that with the historical method – review it with students, then ask them to apply it to the secondary source articles I assign. In fact, I could do that now, just in forum discussion.

Almost everything I heard in the workshop would also be useful in LMS-bound forums, in fact.

The alst idea occurred to me during the workshop. A blog would be a great site for a Learning Community. I’ve worked at MiraCosta for over 25 years, and during that time there have been various experiments with team-teaching, cluster classes, cohorts, and learning communities. At present it looks like the process is pretty bound up in an administrative sense. But there’s no need for that. Take two classes that work well together, plan it with the other instructor, and have both classes post to a common blog. Instant learning community.

So thanks to Jim Sullivan for another fab workshop!

New directions for POT

Yes, we can certainly avoid the obvious jokes, but POT means Program for Online Teaching, the faculty volunteer program I’ve been directing since 2005. We began as a group of online instructors frustrated with the “training” being provided to those starting to teach online. These trainings mostly consisted of teaching faculty how to use technologies the college had purchased (later the LMS) and plug things into it. We wanted to have faculty consider their pedagogy first, then make the technology work for them.

We began by offering workshops through our college’s own professional development program, and gradually these expanded into full workshop days. We also created a website, and posted videos and materials from our workshops there. Faculty have found the site useful, but I’ve been maintaining it pretty much singlehandedly for the last few years. All of us who work as POT are college instructors with large responsibilities for teaching, departmental work, and disciplinary study. Many have joined us from outside our home college. Since 2010, we have offered the POT Certificate Class, an online course mentored and moderated by like-minded experts and teachers from around the globe. The class, too, has taken much time and yet no one has ever been paid to help. (Many of us are of the “sure, I’ll help you move if you feed me pizza” model of social responsibility.)

In the meantime, the field has changed. Since 2005, “instructional design” and “educational technology” have become their own disciplines, offering PhDs all over the place. Sponsored companies have been founded to host online courses on proprietary platforms. Administrative careers have sprung up in deploying and managing stables of online instructors at for-profit universities, offering “team-created” courses where the faculty member is only a “discipline expert”. “Best practices” have been promoted based on principles derived from the research of these new doctorates (many of whom used small sample sizes, creating their principles of whole cloth).

It is a world in which POT now appears anachronistic, encouraging what I call “artisan” courses, built as creative endeavors by individual instructors trying to translate their teaching strengths into the online environment. These courses are pedagogically and philosophically the opposite of the canned, instant-feedback, publisher-created “packages” and team-built classes and MOOCs that are now pervasive. Like artisan breads and hand-made cabinetry, these courses require more work to make and are individual in design. Their quality cannot be determined by a list of “best practices”, but by the love and attention that goes into their creation, and the passion and dedication of the teachers who are teaching within their own design.

We have watched these artisan principles undermined not only by forces beyond the institution, but by faculty new to online, who have been encouraged to think along cookie-cutter course lines. Classes where most of the content comes from a publisher course cartridge are being held up as models, locally and statewide, as online initiatives are developed to create more standardization and “accountability”. Faculty now come to POT hoping for “how to” workshops (“how do I get this to work in Blackboard?”) rather than approaching us with pedagogy they want to develop online. The POT Cert Class, which is free, global, and at the moment unsustainable, is being used by some to assure “training” rather than pedagogical preparation. We find ourselves in the position of providing a free service rather than a model, a service which surely should be funded by the state if “training” is so important.

My colleague Jim Sullivan and I have decided that the answer to all this training, standardization, and dependency is primarily journalistic. With all the information out there on “how to”, and all the institutional and administrative backing for training and standardization, it is important that we share, publicly and convincingly, the meaning and methods behind our “pedagogy first” approach. So we are changing the POT website, always in WordPress’ blog format anyway, into the Pedagogy First blog. Here we hope to invite the people for whom “pedagogy first” is the natural approach, to write and discuss. We will ask many of the wonderful people who have mentored and moderated our POT Certificate. We will ask folks to share their talents and techniques as well as their perspectives.

Because when mechanization encroaches on creative endeavor, it is important for artisans to articulate why their way is better, what value is added by their efforts.

Artisans unite.

Practice and principles

The tension between theory and practice occurs in many fields, and it is certainly marked in online education. As with many academic disciplines, in online education the practice began without a foundation in research, since one can’t research what is essentially new.

As college professors, many of us began (years before there was online anything) by actually teaching. We had very little, if any, training in education or pedagogy. Some of us became good teachers anyway, because we loved what we did, we wanted to share our knowledge, and we cared about students. We learned about principles, research and techniques as we went along, and rolled them in to our practice.

So the idea that we should start with principles when introducing faculty to online teaching seems strange. We now have a good mix of professors who began as “just” practitioners, and those who have had training in teaching techniques. We learn from each other regularly.

So what are these principles, the ones I think should come later in the process? Jim Julius, our current Faculty Director of Online Education, recently put together a workshop on Foundational Principles. It was designed to be the “glue” that holds together a mashup of his office’s workshops with those of our Program for Online Teaching. We are running these this week.

His slides are great! Many of the useful principles I learned as I went along over the last couple of decades are there: Bloom’s TaxonomyUniversal Design, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles, the Community of Inquiry model. So much useful stuff.

As a POT workshop presenter, I am not sure where to use these, however. I know that many faculty come to online teaching concerned about technology, time, and tools. They are professionals already in the classroom, and may be excited or fearful (or both) about teaching online. At POT, our motto has always been Pedagogy First. We want to start with faculty as professionals who have already developed their own approach to both their discipline and their teaching. To present them with principles seems to ignore the knowledge they already have, and suggests that they need to somehow “start over” to teach online, that they don’t have the information or skills they need. Our focus is on the individual instructor, and his/her pedagogical strengths. We want to help faculty translate these strengths into an online class, while exploring online environments and tools they may find interesting. So our approach goes the other way when it comes to principles – we help faculty review the methods they’ve already found effective, and work from there. The principles come up naturally during the evolution of practice.

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The Cart Before the Horse, Flickr cc Emilio Labrador

As a practitioner, then, I find myself dealing with principles by reverse engineering from what I actually do. Here’s what I do, here’s what works – oh yeah, it happens to fit this model and is affirmed by this research. That may be proof of one of two possibilities: (1) I actually read this stuff somewhere without knowing it and unconsciously applied it (this seems unlikely) or (2) the techniques I developed through practice using (and continually revising) my pedagogy were good enough to be backed up by research that came later.

That does not mean that what I do could be considered “best practices”. Rather, they are the best practices for me to use, until I decide to try something else.

The concept of foundational principles, to me, seems to imply a model of “best practices” that apply to everyone. That may be a perfectly valid way to introduce newbies to online teaching, or it may do two very bad things for faculty: limit their approach by making it seem that a certain way is “right”, and intimidate them before they even start.

I am a historian. If I had been presented with the “principles” of History before I did any, I wouldn’t have gone into the field. Most disciplines are like this — the “methodology” or “proofs” course is taught at the sophomore or upper-division level, then again in graduate school.

POT’s Certificate Class tries to combine advice, exploration, self-awareness and a bit of theory, but always starts with the instructor’s pedagogy, not principles. So if we err, and I’m sure to some we do, it will always be on the side of practice over principles.