Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ideas for Blended Learning in Teaching the Bible

In spite of my earlier, somewhat pessimistic, discussion of Humanities-related MOOCs, I come to the end of this program with renewed excitement about the possibilities of engaging mass online audiences with good teaching.  I am in the process of developing a proposal for a blended-learning program on steroids, a class that combines an in-class component with a (more or less) massive online auxiliary experience. Below are the details of the idea, and some questions that I still face.

This fall, I have followed a MOOC on the New Testament book of Ephesians taught by Jimmy Dukes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. NOBTS has developed an interesting strategy in which participants can take the course for credit (paying a tuition fee), not for credit but for a grade (free), or not for credit and not for a grade (also free). Details are here: http://www.nobts.edu/OnlineSeminary/free-online-course.html. The Ephesians course was based on Blackboard as a platform for course materials and online discussions. The students who enroll in the course for a grade are put into small groups, with each group being responsible for two exegetical reports throughout the semester. Each week, one group submits a report for the next section of Ephesians, usually 10-15 verses, with a detailed set of instructions for the form and content of those reports. The grade is based on discussion engagement and on the group reports.

The strengths of this model compared with the Coursera courses that I have taken are the integration of different categories of students along with a robust model for group collaboration. This has helped me think about the possibilities of a blended approach in my own context.

The Bible and Ultimate Meaning

I teach multiple sections of Religion 111, The Bible and Ultimate Meaning, each year. It is a basic introduction to the biblical tradition with a focus on key issues and topics, examined across the canon. For example, the first two weeks is a discussion of the theology of God in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and in conversation with the Western Christian and Jewish Traditions. We go from there to discuss Creation, Covenant, Justice, Messiah, Wisdom, etc. The class presumes no religious background or commitment from students, and is a very basic introduction.

One of the issues that students engage with regard to each topic is the contemporary landscape of religious debate. What do modern Jews and Christians have to say about "God" with regard to issues such as religious pluralism, institutional religious practices, modern scientific skepticism, etc. We read blog posts and watch YouTube videos as windows into these modern conversations.

It occurs to me that if I could somehow get a large and diverse group of people actually conversing with the students on these topics, it would enhance their engagement with and understanding of the contemporary debates. If students had to present their ideas not only to me and their peers, but to a wider outside audience, it would sharpen their argumentation and promote clear expression.

At the same time, if I could somehow make my academic expertise and the excellent contributions of my students available to the larger community, it would enhance the public's understanding of the biblical text and improve the nature of religious debate on the internet. In other words, could my teaching somehow translate into a contribution to the larger world of "public intellectual" engagement?

A Blended MOOC

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of teaching a regular section of Religion 111 while offering a Bible and Ultimate Meaning MOOC at the same time? My idea is that the regular class would be "flipped" or "blended," with the majority of content provided through readings, videos, and audio clips. As in a normal "flipped" classroom, students would spend class time in conversation and working in groups, with much of their work taking the form of online content (blog posts, wikis, discussion boards, video productions, etc.). The recorded content as well as student projects would then become part of the MOOC experience, with online participants engaging each other, the students, and me in conversation through the discussion board and through their own assigned work.

One pivotal question is what kind of platform would provide this kind of interaction. The NOBTS program uses Blackboard, and students must log in to view and use the materials. At Furman, we could open a section of Moodle to anyone who wants to sign up, though there may be technical limitations due to authentication requirements. My preference would be for an open platform that was viewable by anyone and that would persist beyond the course, essentially a media-rich blog and discussion forum devoted to the course. That is a major technological challenge, but if it were set up once, it could be used by others.

Disadvantages and problems:

  • A flipped class is hard to administer even on its own. Integrating a MOOC element would make it doubly challenging. Administrative support in the form of a TA would be essential.
  • Students may feel reluctant to make their work available on a wider basis. This exists with online projects already, but students do not normally receive external responses to their work even when it is posted online.
  • The classroom is a safe space for students to explore difficult issues. Would this kind of online engagement be a detriment to open, honest engagement? Would it polarize students rather than encourage them to consider new ideas?
  • Is it even possible under current FERPA law to expose graded student work to the public in this way? The grades themselves would not be public, of course.
  • How "massive" could it realistically become, and would a small number of online participants make the same contribution or receive the same benefit?
  • Biblical interpretation is a controversial subject. Would this program open up the class to more dissension, or even cause PR problems for the university? 

The Balance of Power in the Virtual Classroom

One of the biggest challenges that faced colleges and universities in the 90s and early 2000s was the task of creating and supporting a broad technological infrastructure in the age of the personal computer and the internet. That process led to the development of a powerful administrative hierarchy devoted to Information Technology. Now, as teaching moves online (in MOOC and blended-learning formats), the administrators in charge of campus technology have unprecedented power over the classroom experience itself.

IT Policies and Faculty Needs

Think for a moment about the development of IT policies in Higher Education from the perspective of goals and constraints. They were given a difficult task (to support the technological needs of the academic program) with finite resources. Many of the policies that resulted from this situation imposed limits on what faculty could reasonably expect from their IT department, and even in what faculty were allowed to do.

When IT departments staffed computer labs for faculty and students, they had a tremendous amount of control over what kind of technology and software was used on campus. As they began placing computers in faculty offices, however, it created new possibilities for exploration and experimentation by individual faculty. There arose an inevitable negotiation (sometimes a struggle or conflict) between the desires and needs of the professor and those of the IT department.

IT departments soon realized the benefits of standardization, both for cost containment and for the ease of supporting the campus infrastructure. At Furman, for example, these policies led to rules about how a person can spend their grant money for technology. All computer purchases must be approved by IT, even if the machines are not expensed from the IT budget. Because of security concerns, faculty are not allowed to run servers for internal or external access.  Standardization and administrative control over technology leads to a narrowing of choice and opportunity for technologically-advanced faculty, in the interest of IT sustainability for the campus as a whole.

Who is ultimately responsible for deciding what kind of technology a professor uses and how she uses it? The IT department exists to serve the needs of the academic program, including the faculty, but it also must do this with limited resources, both economic and personnel. This situation is frustrating but necessary given the economic and technical realities.

The Virtual Classroom

Now think about the role of IT in the physical classroom.  In addition to whatever computer or tablet the professor uses while teaching the class, there is usually a projector and/or teaching station for sharing multimedia and slides, and wireless internet for accessing online materials. These are support-level technologies, resources that make particular kinds of activities possible, but in normal classes they are not essential. Even if the power goes out, a professor can still teach a class without any supporting technologies.

How about the virtual classroom? In the case of MOOC, online, and blended courses, the IT department has control over the essential requirements of the course. They determine what space is created for the dissemination of content, what procedures are in place for course discussion and feedback, and how the class is archived and/or repeated after the professor has finished her job. In the physical space, it would be as if the IT department were responsible for building the classroom, assembling the students, making the room safe and comfortable, and controlling who has the permission to talk at any given time.

I am not sure that faculty have thought carefully enough about how changing technological "platforms" for online teaching will control what and how they teach in the future. The Information Technology hierarchy now has unprecedented control over mundane details of professor-student interactions. Given limited resources and capabilities, this will result in increasingly constrained possibilities for faculty teaching in these programs.

Administration Policy and Teaching

One final concern related to the increasing control of IT over teaching is the fact that IT is itself under the direct control of university administration. At most if not all universities, the IT director reports to the President or Provost, not to the Academic Dean. Whose interests are served, therefore, by IT policy decisions related to teaching? One example I would give is the "Blog and Wiki Use Policy" at my university (http://www2.furman.edu/sites/ITS/policies/Pages/blogpolicy.aspx). In addition to rules prohibiting the posting of copyrighted or commercial material, the policy says:

  • Announcements may not include content, material, or links that, upon viewing, could create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive learning and/or working environment.


  • Announcements may not be used to promote activities that are illegal, support commercial activities not associated with the university, or to provide personal financial gain.


  • A web page may be considered in violation of content policies if it contains links to pages that violate the policy.

Thus, the policy prohibits not only "offensive" content, but also links to "offensive" content. Who is ultimately responsible for policing this academic content? The IT Department:

  • Information Technology Services reserves the right to remove, at any time, at its sole discretion, any content posted on the blog or wiki services that it deems in violation of university policy or local, state or federal law."

This is problematic enough, but extend this to an online course situation and the stakes are much higher. For a non-academic department to have this much control over academic content should be of great concern to anyone interested in preserving academic freedom.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend Lawrence Lessig's Code (now in version 2, http://codev2.cc/), in which he shows how technological advances in recent times have made administrative and legal control more perfect and efficient. See especially Part 2, "Regulation by Code." In the chapter on Cyberspaces (ch. 8), he says: "Spaces have values. They manifest these values through the practices or lives that they enable or disable" (p. 85). If the university administration has direct and minute control over the virtual classroom space, then it will be their values that determine that space, not necessarily the values of the faculty.

On Technical vs. Qualitative Courses

Over the past year, I have participated to some degree in four MOOCs, with a wide range of success and challenges. The first MOOC that I joined was a programming course for beginning Python, and it was very enjoyable and effective. I stayed with it to the end, and have continued to use and develop my beginner Python skills.  Beginning last Spring, I participated in three MOOCs on more Humanities-related topics to see if that good experience would translate into more qualitative subjects. The results have been less encouraging.

The MOOC that I joined last Spring was The Modern and the Postmodern, (https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpostmodern), which is a skillfully designed and executed MOOC on a fascinating topic. It is perfect for anyone looking to learn some things about modern philosophical discussion, with a engaging and talented guide in Professor Roth.  My conclusion in going through this course was that a Humanities MOOC is good for individuals who would like to learn more about a topic, but is not an adequate substitute for an actual college course.

In my work at a small liberal-arts university, the most important aspect of my teaching is the written feedback loop: students write reflections and papers, and I provide feedback and direction along the way, and evaluation when they finish. In a MOOC, the only feedback that one gets is through "peer review." A participant submits a short paper and then provides "peer review" for three other students, which then qualifies the submitted paper for "review" by other "peers." In the rare instance that any qualitative feedback was given (in addition to the numerical rubric scores), the comments were cursory and shallow.

Like many professors teaching college writing these days, I make extensive use of peer review in my composition courses. This primarily takes the form of "writing workshops" during class in which students provide written feedback (following a rubric) for each other.  So why is a MOOC not as good as this?

There are two primary differences in the written peer review that students perform and receive in my composition course. 1) I am present in the room and interacting with them before, during, and after the process. The peer workshop is designed not only to benefit the paper authors, but also those who are giving the feedback. By critically examining another paper, students learn better how to think critically about their own writing, and I actively instruct them in this process. 2) Therefore, the peer review process in my course is learning-focused rather than performance-focused. The rubric check-boxes in my MOOC were purely performance-based, asking "Did this person complete the assignment?"  In contrast, true peer-review contributes to the learning process of both the reviewer as well as the one being reviewed.

On learning vs. performance goals, see the article, "Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis" by Deborah Butler and Philip Winne in Review of Educational Research 65 (1995) [PDF: http://www.konferenslund.se/pp/TV_Butler.pdf]. On pages 255-56, they say:

"Students who adopt learning goals seek expertise in the task's subject matter domain. In contrast, students who adopt performance goals strive to enhance their own and others' perceptions of their competence in the task. The relative emphasis a student assigns to learning goals versus performance goals is related to several prior beliefs, illustrating again the role of knowledge in shaping self-regulation. For example, choosing learning goals is positively correlated with positive beliefs about (a) agency, (b) the need to apply effort in learning, and (c) whether ability is a malleable (incremental) aptitude. In general, students who emphasize learning goals over performance goals study more strategically (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990)."

Learning requires interaction and feedback. However, no expert feedback is possible in such an asynchronous and hierarchical course structure. In my view, this makes the learning process in the MOOC a pleasant diversion, but not a serious replacement for the classroom experience.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Incredibly Shrinking Teacher

Despite my skepticism about MOOCs, especially when it comes to the subjects I teach (philosophy), I have been fantasizing about teaching one.  It’s a sad thing to confess.  And I don’t dwell on it.  But it just keeps popping into my mind.  Partly, I’m drawn to the “Open,” and I think that you can’t really have that in a meaningful way without the “Online.”  I don’t need the “Massively” at all.  But once you’ve got something open and online, what would it mean to restrict participation?  I suppose that you could have an enrollment limit.  Limited (but) Open Online Course...LOOC...?

But anyway, there ARE some courses that I could imagine teaching MOOly. 

Elementary Logic.  These days, we may tell our students that logic is the study of how we think.  Or ought to think.  I think it would a lot better to say what logic textbooks used to say:  “Logic is what logicians study.”  Here’s why it would lend itself to MOOCing:  Logic (at the elementary level) involves a system of rules which, though tricky to master, can be very comprehensively expressed in ordinary language.  The application of these rules can be drilled through discrete exercises.  And those exercises can be checked automatically, say, by a computer.  There is some room for explanation in logic, but mostly the explanations consist in pointing out very definite errors.  There is not much to discuss that requires great attention, group participation, reflection, creativity, etc.  Again, at the higher levels things are different, but at the low levels logic is much like math—there are rules and skills and problems to solve.  With the right tech setup, one instructor could lead almost any number of students through a logic MOOC.  Then again...with the right tech setup, an instructor might not even be necessary....

And that leads me to another course I’d like to MOOC:  my intro level course on Mark Twain and Philosophy.  This class is unlike logic in just about every way.  It requires careful and extensive reading of very subtle stuff.  It calls on one’s ability to move fluidly back and forth from the most abstract philosophical idea to the most concrete narrative detail.  There are no rules to learn, or apply, or practice.  Unlike logic, it is possible, maybe even preferable, for every single student to take away something different from the course.  Unlike logic, it is a subject that grows and deepens and illuminates the more it is subjected to discussion.  Different configurations of students can discuss the same passages over and over again, each time gaining new insights—indeed, it can never really be safely asserted that the topics have been completely explored.  With the right tech setup, you could set dozens of groups off on discussion,  and gather their thoughts and reflections together again on a blog.  It would be hard to monitor the actual conversations, but then, why would you need to?  The instructor could be replaced by a kind of network of discussion groups, all distinct, but all coordinated and kept on track by a few representatives.  Maybe this is more like the cMOOC (connectivist MOOC) idea, or what is now called a DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course).  The goal is more to construct a discursive learning community than it is to transmit something from a teacher to students.  The latter idea hardly even makes sense in that picture.

It certainly seems like my MOOC fantasies range widely across the stuff I teach.  But what they have in common is that they by their nature de-emphasize the role of the traditional teacher/instructor/professor.  Where content is clear, rigid, self-contained, and univocal, it can probably be conveyed, drilled, and assessed mechanically.  We are, after all, in the age of the machine-graded essay!  Where the content is fluid, subtle, open-ended, collaborative, and so on, distributed conversations, loosely connected, are what we want.  There’s nothing to convey, drill, transmit, or assess. 

It could be that the MOOC idea is most attractive to me when it puts me out of business!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Whither the Scholarly Conversation?

A primary component of my job as a library faculty member is to teach students how to search for, discover, and evaluate sources of information to answer questions that their coursework raises for them and to support their arguments in papers, presentations, and debates. I talk with students about entering the scholarly conversation – researching what previous scholars have said about a topic, then furthering the discussion through their own scholarly work. 

I also talk a good bit with faculty about the sorts of research assignments that are most effective in teaching students this process. If they want it to be an authentic research process, I try to steer them away from giving students a bibliography of sources to choose from, putting all the necessary sources on reserve, or scripting the assignment so narrowly that there are right and wrong answers. A MOOC could approximate these three types of assignments, but these are just countless recombinations of sources already prowled and exhausted by the course professor. These assignments can be great for teaching students to write argument papers using supporting evidence and appropriate attributions of intellectual property. But even beyond the obvious and enormous MOOC problem with regard to teaching writing, I would argue that there is no discovery in these types of assignments. There is no evaluation of sources. And there’s no extension of the scholarly conversation.

One of the most satisfying occurrences in my profession is working with a student on research for a topic that truly interests them and having them find sources that explore aspects of the subject they have never encountered before – not in class lectures, not in textbooks or other assigned reading. And an even more exciting occurrence is when that student has found something about which their professor – the expert – ALSO didn’t know. I love observing or hearing a recounting of the student’s utter pride in discussing this finding with their teacher, the teacher’s head popping up in joy and a smile breaking out their face as they are whisked away from the tedium of discussing the same information over and over again.

I’m having trouble envisioning any way to catalyze these occurrences in a MOOC. If one assigned a research project to students in a MOOC, how could you provide them with access to the necessary wealth of scholarly resources (more on this in a future post)? Who would help them understand the nature of the current information environment and the place of scholarly literature within it? Who would teach them search techniques such as Boolean operators, nesting, truncation, and field searching? And then who would help them translate this awareness and these skills into effective searching for their particular topic? Who would evaluate their bibliographies and their use of sources in their writing? These are all difficulties associated with the M – it’s a problem of scale. These things require personal attention and interaction – just like most of the problems we’ve seen with MOOCs.

And if we’re not engaging students in this process as undergraduates, if they’re not having a chance to become empowered and excited by their own intellectual discoveries, will any want to go to graduate school? Where will our next generation of scholarly voices come from? And what will politics and culture and corporations look like if even less of the dizzying universe of information comes from scholars?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Student Goggles

I'll introduce myself, since I think my role and perspective are a little different from most of the faculty on this blog. I'm a member of the library faculty at Furman University. I've been here almost 20 years. I did my undergraduate work at Occidental College in L.A. -- like Furman but smaller and far more liberal. So I'm heavily steeped in the liberal arts. I don't teach regular catalog courses but I do visit classes across the curriculum to teach research skills and theory. I also teach an occasional 2-credit May Experience course.

Last Spring, I took a MOOC entitled “The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness.” It was taught by professor Charmaine Williams, an engaging lecturer from the University of Toronto.  There were about 27,000 students from more than 90 countries enrolled. It lasted 6 weeks, with about 2 hours of lecture and 15 pages of reading per week. Course completion was contingent on 3 essay assignments and one objective quiz. 

When the course began, I tried to imagine myself as an undergraduate or Master's-level student taking the course, comparing it to both my undergraduate experiences at Occidental and the graduate work I did largely via distance education from the University of South Carolina. The first thing that struck me was an extraordinary sense of distance between myself and Dr. Williams. It wasn’t the physical distance, and it wasn’t the screen. I was used to both of those from my M.L.I.S. work, and I had gotten to know almost all of those professors well despite these factors. It was the overwhelming number of other students enrolled in the course, among which I felt that any possibility of my voice being heard by Dr. Williams was extinguished. Douglas Adams fans might recognize my referring to the incident as being something like the torture of the Total Perspective Vortex. Many of the very best of my prior educational encounters had centered around one-on-one or small group conversations with my professors – extending the classroom discussion and digressing in fascinating and provocative ways. It was instantly clear that there was no such possibility here. As I lost myself in the nostalgia, I also briefly lost interest in the course.

But I roused myself and my interest again and decided to explore the discussion boards, in hopes of recreating feelings of connection and stimulation through interactions with my classmates. This had rather the opposite effect. At the point in the course at which I counted, there were 4,270 threads with about 32,000 posts. Searching for keywords related to course topics of interest yielded a hall-of-mirrors of unimaginative posts. I'm sure there were fascinating ones out there. I just couldn't find them. Reading the “top threads” was no more effective. And perhaps the most frustrating (albeit at times fascinating in a gawkish way) were the countless confessional posts relating to the participants’ own mental illness experiences. I should clarify here: I LIKE confessionalism. I LIKE for people to connect the content of their lives outside the university with the content of their courses. So for me to say this was TOO confessional is a really extreme statement. This wasn’t expanding or more deeply exploring the course content. This was wallowing and discussion-board therapy. I’m sure it was useful to the students who received feedback on their personal situations, but it wasn’t what I was looking for in the course. I would imagine that much less of this sort of thing goes on in courses unrelated to psychology and social work, but even the Leo in me is amazed at some of the narcissism and need for attention displayed in these boards.

Friday, October 4, 2013

MOOCs are not the problem

I’d like to talk like a philosopher for a few minutes—that means that I want to make naive, sweeping generalizations, and to ask some questions that most people think are kind of pointless.  Of course, talk about education very often has those qualities, even when there are no philosophers around.  Maybe I’ll fit right in.

I think that liberal arts colleges are always in a battle.  If they didn’t need students to show up in high enough numbers to pay the bills, who knows what their educational programs would look like?  But they do need students, and so they do try to change in ways that can interest and reconcile bill-paying parents.  This is an old problem.  The MOOC phenomenon won’t take away our students—I just don’t believe that anyone is out there thinking:  Hey, should I go to an expensive, private, liberal arts college....or just take a bunch of MOOCs instead?  Even when there are more and better MOOCs this will not happen much. 

But I think that MOOCs do indeed contribute to the ways in which we see the methods and purposes of education shifting.  And that does indeed affect what bills-paying parents want to see in their kids’ expensive colleges.  Parents, almost all parents, want their kids to get jobs.  If we told them that the education we offer would not help their kids get jobs, we’d never see their kids.  Likewise, if we told parents that we could, for the same money, get their kids jobs without having to go through four years of school, they’d pay the money.  That is, very few parents really care at all about what “liberal arts” means or contains.  They have purely practical concerns. 

I’m not knocking that impulse.  Folks need jobs.  It’s bad luck for us that our institutions ever came to be seen as useful in that way, but there we are.  And so we, not wanting to become purely vocational training centers, have developed an interesting kind of sales shuffle.  Liberal arts is about nurturing the spirit in a thousand ways, in line with the ideals of the ancients, and the pursuit of the Good...and it will also get you a kick ass job.  And just to make sure, we’re changing our curriculum and our methods to make sure that they have practical value.  Future doctor, you don’t have to take Ethical Theory, for we can now offer you Ethics and Medicine, a values-oriented course with practical value.

So as we try harder and harder to filter liberal arts goodness through practically valuable pursuits, the whole idea of what it means to be in college changes.  There are some things that I can’t do in a MOOC, and those are just the sort of things that are less and less part of our notion of education.

For example, what if I believed that the real essence of liberal arts education was composed of conversation?  Conversation with my colleagues, with my students, with my intellectual ancestors and descendants?  What if I believed that the point was to pass down, and participate in, the human search for self-understanding?  Those of you who read Michael Oakeshott will recognize that picture.  For Oakeshott, the point of education was to carry on a tradition of inquiry...not to produce anything, not to decide anything, not to yield any practical payoffs.  It’s a tradition of talking together, and especially one by which students are brought to fluency by teachers who immerse them in the conversation of the ages.

To contemporary ears, it sounds batty.  We are encouraged to be practical, to be marketable, to use the latest technology, to open the classroom to all, to assess rigorously, and so on.  To say that technology isn’t needed in my classroom is to say, virtually, that I am a dinosaur and a bad teacher.  To say that I have nothing practical to impart is to admit that I’m here (on the faculty) as a kind of indulgence, a nice enrichment, but not a key player.  To say that it is impossible to assess the most important “goals” of my teaching is to confirm, to some administrators, that I teach nothing. 

The tide has shifted so that where once it would have been possible to say:  “There are really important things we do here that can’t be done through a MOOC,” we will now say:  “If it can’t be done through a MOOC it is either worthless, undemocratic, or both.”
So I don’t think that the MOOC phenomenon is a threat.  (Some of my administrators do, but they’re wrong.)  I think that it is an indicator and a criterion.  It indicates our growing comfort with the idea of education as transferable product.  And it will become a criterion of pedagogically respectable aims. 

Liberal arts colleges are being pushed in this direction, but it should be obvious that they can’t head that way forever without giving up what makes them distinctive.   Resisting the MOOC movement sends a nice signal about how we feel about where we’re headed.  But nothing much will change if MOOCs turn out to be nothing but another passing fad.  To my mind, no institution has had the courage to say:  “We’re not a training center, and what we offer is not practical.  Go somewhere else for that.  Come here to inherit the questions and conversations of the human search for meaning.”  Until someone has that courage, we won’t really know what hope there is for liberal arts colleges.