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.