Wednesday, February 11, 2015

It's not a "best practice" unless someone makes a profit

At the Chronicle, somebody's determined to confuse/conflate "innovative teaching methods" with "stuff we can charge students for."

Among the "innovative" methods that those pesky professors know about but are swinging their Luddite sledgehammers at:

  •  Using standardized assessment tools to gauge student performance.
  • Using external (paid) materials to augment content (This at a time when a lot of us can't persuade students to buy books and some state legislatures are trying to outlaw book ordering if a free alternative is available)
  • Using clickers 
Also taken as given as "best practices":
  • Flipped classrooms (which Jonathan Rees pointed out in a post about Coursera could be used to divide "content" from "helper teachers" or whatever, the old MOOC model) 
  • Hybrid courses (partly online)
The study is from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but I'm guessing some of the many profitable edtech/content providers are very interested in this, too. 

Just to be clear: Some of these don't cost money, of course, and I have no problem with any of them if the instructor finds them useful. But to take these as evidence of "innovation," and by implication to cast those who don't use them as not using "best practices," is illogical and rhetorically fairly--no, really--shady. 


sophylou said...

I am also getting really tired of "innovative" meaning "technology-based." I've been doing a lot of co-teaching with Special Collections librarians using archival materials, which is some of the most creative and interesting teaching I've done as a librarian, but my library's administration wants us to "innovate" in our teaching, which pretty clearly means "computery things" -- like a game you play on an Apple device that leads you on a tour of the library as a replacement for first-year instruction since we no longer have the staffing for the face-to-face first-year instruction we used to do. Meanwhile I'm moving more and more toward hands-on skills-based exercises that let students practice research skills, but since I'm not using TECHNOLOGYtm to do that, I'm not sure that's going to count as "innovative." Maybe I'll have to make up my own word for what it is.

Also, I'm shocked, shocked to hear that Bill Gates thinks we need to use more technology. And he just happens to have some right there to sell you, doesn't he?

Contingent Cassandra said...

@sophylou: that sucks, and is all too familiar. This shouldn't be necessary, and you probably already know about this, but, given the realities of the situation, have you considered having students take pictures of the archival materials with which they're working, and annotate them in some way, and/or upload them to a platform such as Omeka ( It's not, of course, what your powers-that-be are looking for (because it's solid, labor-intensive, teaching/learning, just like the archival work), but it does involve technology (and in a potentially-useful way: students learn a bit about things like the Dublin Core, and think about how tags work, and such).

Contingent Cassandra said...

More generally: agreed. This seems somewhat similar to "lifelong learning" being transformed from something colleges/universities do as community service/outreach, to a possible new revenue stream (i.e. lifelong student-loan debt service). Dean Dad mentioned this new meaning of the phrase recently, I'm pretty sure.

Hybrid classes work out well for my subject (writing in the disciplines) at my institution, because they help us use scarce resources (computer-equipped classrooms) wisely (two classes can occupy the space that one usually would; one uses the classroom on, say, Monday, while the other class is online, and on Wednesday things switch). But that's one particular class, and it works well for some instructors' teaching styles (and some students' learning styles) than others (for instance, students with ADHD or other sorts of executive-function problems tend to lose track of a class that is out of sight, and thus out of mind). Instructors (individually and collectively) being able to exercise their/our best judgment is, indeed, key.

And yes, students are pretty much in open revolt against buying textbooks and other instructional materials (and legislatures aren't far behind). A school that could advertise "no additional expenses; we use all open-source materials"* -- and, we hope, back that up by giving faculty tenure/promotion/salary credit for creating such materials and publishing them to credible, preferably peer-reviewed, platforms -- could easily make a name for itself as a true innovator in the current market/climate.

*This would, of course, have some serious downsides, especially in the short run. In English, the sale of scholarly and instructional editions, and thus the ability of scholars to produce such editions, would take a serious hit.

sophylou said...

Cassandra, thanks for the suggestion! I've actually had a bunch of conversations this week with the relevant higher-ups and they're fine with what I'm doing (which, ironically, is cutting edge in SpColl-land). Omeka is a bit of a time investment in terms of tech support etc., so it's something I'd need more than a one-shot to do.

I just pitched a 1-credit honors course, which will be all searching-for-primary-sources exercises... I thought initially of using Omeka for it, but it started to look like we'd be spending all our time focusing on the care/feeding of Omeka rather than on the introduction to various formats I wanted to do. The course will focus, loosely, on the history of dating in the US 1940-1990; students will pick a smaller topic within that and we'll spend most classes sessions practicing searching for various types of sources: prescriptive lit, popular fiction, newspapers, historical periodicals, educational film (hello, Prelinger Archive!), and so on -- students will be creating Zotero libraries as we go and then doing a PowerPoint presentation at the end on the sources they found.

Since the question I get most often is "how do I find XYZ primary sources?" I'd so much rather focus on exercises that given them practice finding and then working with sources, than on trying to figure out how to incorporate technology just to be able to say I've done it. What annoys me is this growing assumption that "innovative" (or even "creative") means technology. There are all kinds of ways to be innovative/creative -- hate to see the language narrow this way.

undine said...

sophylou and Contingent Cassandra--this is a fascinating discussion. I love the combination of hands-on archival/primary source exercises and mounting that on Omeka. It's frustrating that handling old journals or books--old but not old enough to count as worth preserving--isn't seen as innovative for students to do. Does it take long for students to learn Omeka? sophylou, your comment about its "care and feeding" suggests that it takes a while. I've spent time with it but didn't get very far despite some generally good if a little outdated web coding skills.

sophylou said...

I didn't get very far with Omeka either when I looked at it. I also have pretty much zero interest or ability to teach Dublin Core (thanks, crappy metadata professor!). The students would be honors freshmen. Since I would only have the students for an hour a week (usually I get a handful of sessions per course at most), I'd really rather spend that time on the searching exercises than on troubleshooting students' Omeka learning. I also think Zotero is a more relevant tool for freshmen to learn -- it's so transferable across departments, and it's an easier learning curve with more immediate results.

Using Omeka would definitely be more of the kind of "innovative!" public-services admin where I am seems to be looking for. But the kind of archival source instruction (i.e. not as tech-oriented) I've been doing is innovative in the Special Collections field. Starting to want to shift to that field, to be honest.

sophylou said...

Just to clarify -- the honors course I'm proposing is a full-term course, meeting once a week. I usually only get to teach 1-3 sessions of a faculty member's class as a librarian, but while I'd have more time in my own honors course, I'd just prefer to use that time for teaching content/search strategies rather than for software instruction/troubleshooting.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Glad it's interesting, undine. I was a bit afraid I was thread-jacking.

I'm currently trying Omeka for the second time in a gen ed lit course, and I agree with sophylou: I'm not sure it's worth the time (and teaching zotero makes a lot of sense, especially for freshmen). I like the precision that filling out the Dublin Core fields requires of students (among other things, it forces them to think about whether the repository where they found a potential source is reputable/reliable), but, because the fields are necessarily pretty broadly defined, one has to do something to simplify and clarify the process for the students. I wrote detailed instructions for which fields to fill out, and how, and which to ignore, last year; this year, I'm using a hosted Omeka site, which allows me to customize field descriptions, and perhaps simply hide/omit some, as well (I'm still working on how to do the latter without crashing the site). Of course, since I'm not a librarian, I also don't risk getting other librarians mad at me by violating Dublin Core best-practices in the process.

I'm integrating Omeka into a gen ed class because, like sophylou, I have limited chances to teach courses I design from scratch (my load is mostly comp), and I wanted to experiment, both out of interest/curiosity and out of desire to keep my skills current. If I had my druthers, I'd be trying this in a much smaller class with mostly majors, and would try to get much more atart-up support in the way of summer money or a course reduction (I did get a small course-development grant last year, but the course is basically a double prep: figuring out all the usual things necessary to get gen ed students to read and think about texts, and then figuring out the tech tools and how to use them effectively. And then there are the 3 comp sections to keep up with).

sophylou said...

Well, speaking as a reference/instruction librarian, I wouldn't be that concerned personally about doing Dublin Core "wrong" since, again, I had next to no training in it (don't get me started on what dreadful role models for teaching some of my library school professors were) and since I don't work in cataloging or digitization (separate departments), there's not much opportunity for me to use it. Honestly, if I wanted to do Dublin Core "right" I'd have our digitization coordinator and/or metadata librarian do a guest lecture. Depending on what the students are using it for, I think "right" is less of an issue than what students can learn if they have to think about what constitutes creation, reproduction, access issues, etc. But I'd want some expert instruction/guest lecturing if I were to do something like that. There's only so much I can do in a 1-credit course, and I'd 1000x rather teach to the questions I get the most, which are "how do I find primary sources?" rather than introduce a tool that we'd spend a lot of time learning and that wouldn't really address the core issue of learning about/searching for different kinds of primary sources.

Zotero to me seems like a good introduction to thinking about digital tools, because you do have to think in terms of installation, syncing, etc. (students using Zotero in our library will have to download the connectors every time and set up syncing... the connector needing to be downloaded everysingletime is an IT problem that isn't going to get fixed). Once you've mastered those, you then have some mental maps in place for using other tools (i.e. what is involved in installation/registration, etc.? how do I enter items/information? what does the display look like?) and so on.