Saturday, December 12, 2009

Two sides of online teaching

From Inside Higher Ed and Clio Bluestocking. Let's call them "ideal" and "reality."

From Inside Higher Ed:
“Most of the professors who teach at the university level have had no experience with pedagogy or instruction in general,” says Janet Buckenmeyer, chair of the instructional technology master’s program at Calumet. “They’re content experts, not teaching experts." . . . Since most professors have spent their lives holding forth from the front of a lecture hall, many have not had to engineer their lesson plans with the sort of rigor required of a well-designed online course, Buckenmeyer says.
Puh-leeze. Not again. Most professors "holding forth in front of a lecture classroom" without a clue about teaching? Can't they let this monster die, along with the "teaches with yellowing notes from 1963" deadwood professor? They're like Bigfoot: everyone has heard of him, but nobody's actually seen him. There may be some, but this is more a 30-years-ago situation than the case today, isn't it?

Here's what I'd like to tell the "education consultant": While university faculty may not have taken education classes, most of them have been taught or have learned to teach well through observation, mentoring, talking with colleagues, and, well, the kinds of critical thinking that we apply to research.

Think about it. No one wants to fail at teaching, and it'd be a rare person indeed who wouldn't spend massive amounts of time figuring out how to succeed--that is, how to engage the students, construct good assignments, and so on. We're eager to find out different ways to do things, different techniques, and different assignments. We look at what's worked for online and traditional courses and reverse-engineer them so that we have the principles of a successful course as we design our own. We want to improve.

We know already that we need to have a sense of the goals for the class and what our students need to do to attain them. We also know to let them know what those goals are and what our expectations for them will be.

What I haven't liked about my dealings with "educational consultants" is this: they have a one best way to do everything (sorry, but that's my experience), and even if you have a better way, they don't want to hear it. Blackboard is the One Best Way. Using a rubric defined by them is the One Best Way. Having a pointless splash page with nothing but the course title instead of announcements on the main page is the One Best Way to set up Blackboard. And they're patronizing about it, too, as they inform you about how wrong you are--again, your mileage may vary.

So I read with interest Clio Bluestocking's run-in with a consultant who wants all the online sections of a course to be identical and--here's the thing--unchanging, with a "designing instructor" and lowly underlings non-designing instructors who can grade but not change anything about the course:
Maybe I'm being unfair. The non-designing instructors CAN change things, they just have to go to the designing instructor. The designing instructor then calls a meeting of the "team." The team then debates the change. Then, if the change is accepted, everyone must adopt the change. A year later.
In short, we are not stupid. We want to be good at what we do, and, guess what? many of us are. Please do us the courtesy of believing that we know a thing or two when we seek your advice instead of telling us that we are mere "content experts" and not "teaching experts." For what it's worth, I don't think you can be one without the other.



Annie Em said...

I've been lucky (knock on wood): I've taught online for two different institutions. One I teach only 1-2 online classes in summer as a "facilitator" (so I did not design the course); however, last year, I offered to "revise" the course and all of my revisions were accepted with glee (and relief, no doubt).

At my home institution we do have an "instructional technology specialist" that we hired 10 years ago (I was on the search committee): she is a goddess. We adore her. She has managed to find a nice balance between offering to teach overworked faculty new technology that she's found, yet she is also well aware that we already ARE effective instructors (for the most part: we actually have one of those yellowing lecture note profs on our campus--alas).

So I'm lucky, perhaps because I've been part of the slow evolution to more online courses, and I make sure that faculty, ultimately, are in control.

Obviously, this is not the case everywhere, and since we are going to have a change in instructional administration next year, we faculty are already combing our contract language on online teaching, looking for holes. So I appreciate your posting, Undine, as well as Clio's---it's not good to get complacent.

heu mihi said...

Our version of this is my personal nemesis, an administrator of some kind who has a finger in every pie and loves to talk about learning outcomes and delivery systems (by which ze means living and breathing faculty). Ze can't put a sentence together without some kind of jargon (and even those sentences lack grammatical coherence), believes that staff with MAs in some field I've never heard of (Higher Education Outcomes Learning Assessment? I don't know; it's like a one-year program) are as qualified to teach college courses as Ph.D.s, and assigns (as the ONLY course book) "Tuesdays with Morrie" for hir (one-credit, in fairness) freshman seminar.

Luckily our new provost is not down with any of this.

Anyway, your post brought back a familiar sickened feeling.... At least I have the next month free from such prattle! (Or required prattle, anyway, since obviously I enjoy reading ABOUT it in blogs--very different from being subjected TO it.)

Carl said...

Well, a whole bunch of my students are this close to functionally illiterate, even more of them have apparently never been asked or shown how to think in a straight line, their intellectual curiosity is zip and they're profoundly suspicious of the whole educational enterprise.

This all could be because they've consciously and effectively resisted good instruction for umpteen years. Or it could be because (and educational sociology appears to bear this out) educational success is predetermined in the home by about age four. Since neither of those hypotheses suggest that good teaching is an effective variable in learning outcomes, let's avert our eyes from that abyss and consider the possibility that some significant fraction of our colleagues, perhaps including us, are not good teachers.

What to do about this is a question that's hard to get to if we imagine that the reasons our students haven't learned is about everything but teaching.

undine said...

Annie Em: See, now that's what I want--your goddess. I want somebody who can show me how to do what it is that I want to do, technologically and otherwise, not someone who'll say, "What do you want to do that for?" or "You should be doing this instead" or "You don't need that technology. We have Blackboard!" Oh, and you've actually seen Bigfoot or his campus equivalent!

heu mihi: Well, those M.A. people in Higher Ed Outcomes or whatever are experts in education, and all we know is content :-), and who needs that?

Carl, I'm willing to entertain the possibility that some of us aren't good teachers, but I'm not convinced that telling us that we're the laypeople who don't know squat about the academic mysteries of teaching is bound to get our hackles up. I think that if they approached us the way that Annieem's goddess of technology does, faculty would be more willing to listen. Also, the suggestions seem to go hand in hand with a kind of quantifying mania that has the net effect of dumbing down the content (not that content is important to them). If you can name four flowers that Emily Dickinson used in her poetry, that gets more points on a rubric than a quirky but promising interpretation--or maybe I'm misunderstanding what they're telling me.

undine said...

"won't" instead of "is bound"--sorry.

Carl said...

Thank you Undine. I agree with you that hackles get up when people are questioned on their perceived expertise. So faculty get cranky when we're reduced to content drones, while administrators and ed experts get cranky when they're caricatured as clueless technocrats with no substantive field knowledge. And as usual there's just enough truth to both stereotypes to keep them going strong. Good will and diplomacy between real actual human beings is the key to bridging these divides, I agree.

I really couldn't agree more about the fundamental wrong-headedness of quantification assessments and standardization. It's a race to the bottom for sure when we have to teach to tests that are unable to capture the deeper and ower restructuring of thought and feeling that good liberal arts education fosters.

But the edutocracy has not developed in a vacuum. It's a response to the fundamental mismatch between the real and the aspirational goals of the education industry. On the one hand is the system-legitimating notion that education can open all doors and level all playing fields. On the other is a complexly stratified social order in which the reproduction of elites is job one and education is only one among many variables in allocating what little opportunity for social mobility there is. The educrats are liminal in this situation, on the one hand the functionaries of this system, on the other hand a shell the education industry has grown against it.

I would just add that your completely sensible principle that "no one wants to fail at teaching" overlays a whole range of real-world teacher responses to unsatisfying outcomes, starting with the 'pearls before swine' one where it's the students' failure to learn that's the problem. And sometimes, maybe even often, it is; but how does that not become the prompt for a new teaching practice?

Carl said...

Is/are problems, sorry.

Carl said...

"ower" - ?? Gah, no idea what I was even thinking there.

Word verification: bionce, suggesting that rather than all this teaching and learning we should all be beautiful and talented and make loads of money entertaining each other.

profacero said...

Well I understand and identify with most of what Carl says but the thing is that while these educations specialists may have something useful to say to the deadwood MAs (and it's the deadwood MAs who are the thorn in my side, and all MAs aren't deadwood), most faculty have read more and thought more about how to teach than they have -- *much* more.

(Greetings from Planet Brazil.)

tenthmedieval said...

I've yet to really meet any of this particular brand of administrator, rather than the utterly-swamped somehow-competent coffee-zombies on which the UK system basically relies. A UK university who has consultants in on teaching is one with no worthwhile research component, because productive researchers mean funding and therefore get left alone. I generalise from the upper end of the scale, I suppose, but as one who as a mere assistant has been heavily involved in course revisions and applying technology to courses (in both cases because of the course leader's being a brand-new parent, but still--it would have been his job otherwise, not the edutechs', such as they were).

On the other hand, I was lectured by at least two of those 1963 Bigfeet professors you mention, and that was ten years ago, but, they live yet.

Bavardess said...

"While university faculty may not have taken education classes, most of them have been taught or have learned to teach well" - absolutely! By the reverse logic, there are also plenty of people who have had professional teacher training are pretty terrible in front of a class (my secondary school was full of them). To me, though, the biggest long-term risk of these attempts to package education and turn it into some kind of online production line product is that new research from individuals who are experts in their fields will take a lot longer to filter into the university classroom. I imagine that when professors have their passion and creativity stifled in this way in the classroom, this will also be reflected in less interested, less engaged students.

profacero said...

Bavardess -- packaging is the word, and having it take longer for new ideas to get to students (if they get there at all in a recognizable form) is the problem.

Stifling creativity. Well. My latest department chair relieved us of this without realizing what he was doing (I think he didn't). He didn't realize that all the former chairs were addicted to this certain education specialist consultant, who was addicted to a certain textbook provider, and that we all had to fall in line with that for lower division courses (50% of our teaching) because otherwise we wouldn't get important things done like grant proposals signed on time, etc. So the new guy didn't realize the traditional power of this specialist and didn't give him any. So we were liberated.

Why I tell this story: I'd been depressed about my job for 12 years, knew this specialist was a problem, didn't realize how much of a problem he was, assumed it was at least partly me ... until he was gone and I felt myself instantly transformed.

undine said...

Carl, I think I tend to believe in (perhaps too much) the basic goodwill and effort of people who want to be university teachers, which is why I think that people don't want to fail. Sure, sometimes it's the students' fault for not learning something, but sometimes the teacher hasn't thought something through in terms of designing the assignment. If that's so, you try to make it better for the students and then fix the mistake for next time.

That's what I used to find so annoying about the First Person columns in the Chronicle (which I'm taking a break from reading this month); too many of them were "poor me--the students don't understand my special brilliance." Well, if they don't understand your special brilliance, maybe you're focusing on the wrong things, and maybe you should try harder, I'd like to tell them.

undine said...

Greetings in Brazil, profacero. I don't know the level of the "education specialists" I've run into, but I have a serious attitude problem about being patronized and must admit I don't listen very carefully if someone leads off with a dumbed-down exercise because we "content specialists" are assumed to know nothing about teaching.

undine said...

tenthmedieval--so you, too, have seen Bigfoot! I'd rather have your coffee zombies than someone with a shiny new office and salary to match who suddenly decides that we all need to learn the one best way to teach.

undine said...

bavardess, I think that the "stifling creativity" part is what I fear most. If you can't change anything, a lot of the fun of doing it goes out of the process. I think about that sometimes with the elementary school teachers who are given scripts which they must follow word-for-word and minute-by-minute. (It's a new edufad, but I can't remember what it's called.)

Kate said...

Actually, many of these faculty do still exist -- and mostly at elite Us and R1s, because there research is way more important than teaching. I say this because those are the kinds of schools I went to for college and grad school, and I was lectured at for all of my lecture courses. Seminar courses were always awkward because the faculty member rarely seemed to have prepped, and just relied on our having questions to get things going.

I am at another R1 for my job, yet my experience here is more mixed -- a lot of people who really care, who use active learning, etc.

Anyway, all of this is to say that despite the fact that I am at a university where a higher percentage of faculty seem to give a crap about doing more than just lecturing, I have been faced with the weird "delivery specialists" who want me to put everything in a template, seem to think all I'm good for is coming up with readings and knowing basic content, and talk in a weird jargon that, like heu mihi said, sometimes doesn't even make grammatical sense. The one I've been working with makes me nuts, but I am having some success showing higher ups the ridiculousness of this model.

Of course, if we start thinking of online ed only as a revenue stream, not a way to enhance our on-campus education, they will probably start ignoring me...

tenthmedieval said...

Kate, can I ask you something about where you say: Seminar courses were always awkward because the faculty member rarely seemed to have prepped, and just relied on our having questions to get things going.

I've been that faculty member perhaps too often, and it's not because I haven't prepared but because ultimately these classes are supposed to be discussion-driven. I have met some teachers in the profession who actually prescribe not saying anything until the students do, which in some of my groups would result in minutes of painful silence. What I tend to do instead is fire questions at them about what's in the sources, but then they feel as if they're being tested on their preparation, which is often too weak (or my questions too tough or too broad, things like, "so, who's the author of this piece and what's his axe to grind?"...). But I've never felt that this makes the seminars work and I'd be interested in your perspective on what does...

Carl said...

TM, while waiting for Kate I'll interject that I've seen it both ways. Of two of my best favorite seminar faculty, John Marino used to actually take little naps while waiting for us to struggle toward something worth his attention. Jeff Weintraub on the other hand would ask a big overgeneral question, then had about a two second fuse before he'd start talking and keep going for the full two or three hours, whatever it was. By the end he'd answered his question.

I think what works depends on who you've got, who you're trying to reach and what you're trying to accomplish. Some students will learn no matter what you do to them, but picking those low hangers isn't really teaching yet. Some of the others learn well from modeling, which would have been Jeff's theory if he had a theory (I don't think he did; he felt responsible to get the analysis right and that overwhelmed whatever little pedagogical consciousness he might have had), while others are better off learning by being thrown into it and figuring it out, which was John's view.

A 'competitive' environment might work better for boys, a 'collaborative' one for girls, although those poles do not well capture the whole grid of real possible approaches and student dispositions. Some students are used to having you chew the worm up for them, and you have to decide if you're going to do that or push them out of the nest. Some need a pat on the head, some a kick in the butt.

What I find is that a highly dialogic classroom helps me figure out who's who and make the necessary adjustments. As a result I'm a very bad teacher for the students who absolutely, positively want to be lectured at.

Carl said...

Btw I love this quote, which seems right on point:

“…the first thing I learned as a teacher was that nobody is a good teacher for everybody, which I found a very bitter lesson. Slightly later in life I learned the corollary, which I found even worse in a way – that just about everybody is a good teacher for somebody. You meet these incredible klutzes, and it turns out there is somebody out there for whom they have made all of the difference. This observation led me to conclude that teaching is not a method, it’s a name for a whole group of social situations in which all kinds of things happen and about which it is not possible to say anything really very useful on a technical level.” – James Renfield

Unfortunately I have no idea who James Renfield is.

undine said...

Kate, I had some who lectured, but they didn't do the "yellowing notes from 1963" thing. I've struggled with the seminar questions issue, too, but as TM says, those seminars are supposed to be discussion driven. Carl--Taking a nap while waiting for discussion? That takes guts. I had a professor one time who would start by resting his head on his hand, elbow on table, and then slide slowly down in his chair until his head and arm were resting on the table,but he did keep his eyes open and try to seem interested. "Highly dialogic" seems to be the way to go.

tenthmedieval said...

Carl & undine, thanks for comments. I recognise too much of myself in your portrayal of Weintraub, especially that 'responsibility'. I'm beginning to get the grip of picthing for lower-level more general learning outcomes but making a seminar deliver them, when so little of it is under one's control, is a trick I will need a while longer to perfect...

naptimewriting said...

My hackles are up and I haven't had my credentials questioned by these alleged experts.
How insulting to presume that professors, who are by definition lifelong learners, have not absorbed in their careers as students, researchers, writers, colleagues, and lecturers some effective techniques. How condescending to assert that there are no best practices shared, no information available to those who seek it, no department invested in professional development, and no professor who has gleaned from their years of experience and engagement some of what works.
I'm just flabbergasted and can't say much intelligent except, "if your methodologies are so perfect, why aren't you teaching rather than keeping me from it?"