The Other Side of the MOOC Fence

The Other Side of the MOOC Fence

An opinion essay on the utility of MOOCs from the perspective of a small campus professor.

By Tim Bower, Kansas State University | Polytechnic Campus

In the last three years, I have participated as a student in several MOOCs (massive online open courses). I finished some and found that I didn’t have the time for some – about the same as reading a book. In fact, MOOCs are a lot like a textbook to me. They are a resource that can facilitate learning. I advocate that MOOCs can and should play a significant role in higher education pedagogy; but that for long term sustainability of MOOCs, all higher education stakeholders need to regard the role of MOOCs the same as the traditional role of textbooks. MOOCs can be a positive benefit to the faculty and institutions that teach them, to publishers that facilitate their distribution, to both degree seeking and life-long learner students, and even to smaller campus institutions and their faculty.

There is broad agreement within academia that, like textbooks, MOOCs are a resource. However, unlike textbooks, opinions are split about other things that MOOCs are or are not.
Are they :

  • A threat to the traditional classroom and degree granting collegiate institutions?
  • A get-rich-quick scheme for large universities, or a venue for faculty to give away the university’s valuable produce for free?
  • A venue for recruiting students or establishing credibility and notoriety?
  • An opportunity for faculty and institutions to demonstrate their benevolence and endorsement of free and open sharing of creative works?

All of the above have elements of truth. However, as is the case for textbooks, the correct answer to all of these identity questions about MOOCs is and should be – no. Trying to attribute more to the identity of MOOCs than that of a learning resource is not in anyone’s best interest.

If you are not familiar with MOOCs, let me explain what I am talking about. MOOCs offer a low cost, or free, online peek into the classrooms of successful faculty at prestigious schools teaching their most popular courses. The instructional content is usually of exceptional quality. The course material is often the same, although sometimes a subset, of the material taught in undergraduate and graduate level courses at the host institution. The faculty teaching these course are experts in the subject being taught. They are usually assisted by a team of graduate students and support staff that assist with responding to questions in online forums, creation and automated grading of assignments, developing the lecture slides, and video recording and editing. Some MOOCs are available to the general public as a set of lecture videos and may be viewed at any time and in any order for the benefit of the viewer as they see fit. Other MOOCs are structured more like a college course with a schedule of deadlines for completing homework assignments and exams. The courses with assignments and exams may also offer non-credit certificates of completion for a small fee. Paying the fee for a certificate can serve as motivation for the student to complete the course and offers proof of their accomplishment.

Like authoring a textbook, teaching a MOOC is not for all faculty. The MOOC instructor should have extensive experience in the course material and the luxury of help from graduate students and a support staff. It is acceptable that most faculty in the course of their teaching use textbooks authored by others. It is less acceptable to use lectures presented by someone else. While authoring a book is optional, lecturing is obligatory for all faculty.

There is much talk in academics about the so-called flipped classroom, where students are expected to view lecture videos outside of class while the class sessions are intended to be conducted more as a recitation or laboratory. The video lectures for a flipped class are usually recorded by the instructor who is also teaching the recitations. What if MOOC lectures were used in a flipped classroom setting? Would the instructor still be teaching or would they be shirking their responsibility? In such a setting, the instructor would still be responsible for all course content. They would have the option to select what lectures and assignments from one or more MOOCs to incorporate into their class. In the recitations, the instructor would assign homework, give exams, and lecture to clarify the content, provide remedial instruction, or extend the material beyond that covered in the MOOC. In this scenario, students are assured that what they are learning is accurate, current, and in-line with what students at other institutions are learning. I feel that such a model can level the playing field between small and large campuses. It can also be a stimulus to raise, or maintain, the level of academic rigor on small campuses.

Does this threaten or diminish the value of faculty on small campuses? I think that it does not. I think it could enable faculty to be more productive. Speaking for myself, I feel that I’m a very competent teacher. Yet, I freely admit that I do not have the same level of specialized knowledge as the instructors of the MOOCs that I have taken. That is not being self-effacing or diminutive. I have a much higher and broader teaching load than they do. Pretty much every aspect of my job as a professor on a small campus is different than that of the faculty that teach MOOCs.

Textbook publishers eagerly solicit faculty to select the books they peddle for adoption in their courses. Perhaps, within the ever-changing world of higher eduction, it is time for the publishers of MOOCs, such as Coursera, Udacity, and others, to peddle affordable, licensed use of MOOC lectures.

More importantly, it is time for all faculty, students, and administrators to define MOOCs for what they are – a resource to facilitate learning, and nothing more. It is well accepted that higher education in the future will look very different than it did in the past. Perhaps MOOCs will play a key role in the future of higher education.

The Best Way To Teach

A friend recently shared this video of a candidate for state representative in my home state of Kansas discussing Common Core:

Ms Levings rhetorically asks, “What’s the best way to teach kids…?” That is the fallacious assumption behind academic initiatives that attempt to standardize instruction. People are unique, and different instructional approaches will work differently for different people. Let’s be real. What we are really after here is trying to find the most cost effective approach that will work for the most students. While it may not work for your kid or my kid, in theory it should work for most kids.

Thinking there is a “best way” of doing education doesn’t hold up in a messy, real world of individual ideosynchrasies. What if we thought this way about dining? Instead of appreciating Chinese or Mexican cuisine, we would blend it all together in an attempt implement the very best methods of cooking, but we would wind up eating some very nasty smoothies every day.

I’m still waiting for an initiative that recognizes that everyone involved in education, students and teachers alike, is an individual. Where is the initiative that encourages kids to discover their life’s purpose? Where is the program that encourages teachers to teach from their strengths and to tap into their individual creativity so their students will benefit from the very best possible teaching? Because of the assumption that there is a ‘best way’ to teach, we have developed a hostile culture that has zero respect for individual professional educators. Year after year, our young people are subjected to mind-numbing testing in the name of “holding teachers accountable” to the standards that may or may not be relevant.

Standards in themselves are not a bad thing to have. But the real fallout from Common Core has been to suck the joy out of childhood. Kids are fearful and ashamed when they must take tests that make no sense to them. It is the adults who write the awful tests and the adults who subject kids to them who should be ashamed.

Yes, teachers should be accountable. Primarily they should be accountable to the young people whose lives they influence, and to the parents and communities they serve. Let the local school leadership do its job in determining whether or not teachers are doing their job.

I also think that politicians who implement these educational initiatives be held accountable. How many of the many new programs designed to improve education have been successfully implemented over the years? What are the real, measurable results? No one ever seems to hold politicians accountable for their failed policies. Instead, we incessantly move on to the next big thing.

 

 

 

Kansas Farm Draws Unwelcome Attention

Did you see the recent story about the Kansas farm that has been receiving unwelcome attention from around the country? It seems that a company that specializes in geotagging picked an arbitrary point at the center of the USA as a default, and now IP addresses that have no known physical location direct to this single places in Kansas.

For years, the owner of this farm has been receiving harassing letters and phone calls, even actual visits in person, all because thousands of IP addresses default to this one place. If someone gets defrauded or abused in some way and they can trace the IP address of the perpetrator, they use the geolocation service that attempts to connect the IP address to a location. If it isn’t known, the service says by default the location is on a farm in Kansas. Voila, an instant problem for that farm owner.

This is an example of the fallout of living in the Information Age. Sometimes our information is faulty or incomplete, but we rush to act on that information anyway. That is why it is so important that we teach critical thinking and media literacy. It is important to learn to ask good questions, and to gather as much information as you can, because things are not always as they seem.

Presidents and Personnel Reliability

ASROC handling
Sailors working with ASROC missiles

When I was in the service, we had a program called the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), through which everyone potentially associated with nuclear weapons had to be accepted. I recently reviewed those standards; here is an excerpt:

Only those personnel who have demonstrated the highest degree of individual reliability for allegiance, trustworthiness, conduct, behavior, and responsibility shall be allowed to perform duties associated with nuclear weapons, and they shall be continuously evaluated for adherence to PRP standards.

It seems to me that the commander-in-chief should be able to pass these requirements just like anyone in the military having a connection to weapons of mass destruction. I would sure like to have a candidate to vote for who could pass PRP. Primary voters who haven’t voted yet should seriously consider this factor. Unfortunately, this year I’m doubting that any candidate in the general election will measure up to PRP standards. That is a scary thing for the country and for the world.

Communication in the Digital Age

I received a request through an online group for messages to share with young people about “common sense” knowledge. If you have something to share, you can do it through this link. Here is what I said about electronic communications:

When conversing with others online, say only the same things you would say if you were standing in the physical presence of that person. Too often we forget that there is a living, breathing, feeling person receiving our message on the other end of our online communications. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online.

To reinforce this mindset, I encourage people to never comment anonymously. Use your real name whenever you post. If you are embarrassed to have your name associated with what you are saying, chances are that people don’t really want to hear it either.

Finally, don’t be drawn in to mediating difficult dialogs through email or other means, if you can possibly speak about it in person. When you have something important to say, and you are uncertain of how it will be received, don’t be a chicken! Ideally, say it to their face if you can, or at least make a phone call about it. Chances are if the news is difficult, it will be better received in person or by telephone than it would be through an electronic message. E-communications are very tone-deaf, and it is all too easy to misinterpret the motives of the sender when you have other ways to communicate that might be better.

Kansas House Rejects Anti-Common Core Bill

Common Core Bulletin Board

 

The Kansas House just voted to reject a bill that would repeal the Common Core curriculum in Kansas. I personally don’t have a beef with Common Core as a set of academic standards. However, I have problems with how it seems to promote a culture of never-ending standardized testing and teaching to the test. I have big problems with how it became mandatory and the ensuing knee-jerk reaction to adopt so-called “Common Core Aligned” curricula and textbooks; materials often published by the same companies that create and sell the standardized tests that ensure compliance with Common Core in the first place. Saying “Common Core aligned” on the cover doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality when it comes to teaching materials.

I never thought I would celebrate the failure of a bill to repeal mandatory use of Common Core curriculum in Kansas, but I am. The reason? The new bill would mandate the non-use of Common Core. It would have thrown the baby out with the bath water. (Go here to read more about the controversial bill and the use of Common Core in Kansas.)

With the passage of the bill that was ultimately defeated, everything Common Core adopted by our schools would have been outlawed and we would have had to start over from scratch with brand new teaching materials. Fortunately for now, a bad bill was rejected. But our schools have always been political footballs, so we can expect that this fight is not over yet.

A more proper response by the legislature would be to write a law that explicitly permits local school districts to decide locally whether or not to use Common Core. I don’t like how using or not using Common Core gets rammed down our throats. Let professional educators make some decisions on how to use or not use this tool.

But we don’t seem to have a level of respect anymore to realize that Kansas kids living in rural areas may have completely different needs and interests than kids in Kansas’ urban areas do. Instead, we have to standardize, opting for a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone needs to be the same. I think it would be better at the state level to make a recommendation of using Common Core, if that is what is desired, and even assess for it on state assessments if necessary, but ultimately leave it to local school districts and professional educators to decide how best to adopt and implement the standards.

Doctor Songs

Earning a PhD is hard work. When I was doing mine, there were tough things, gut-wrenching things that happened. It messes with your mind. To be successful, you need to find ways to motivate yourself. One of the things I did regularly was to visualize myself in my PhD regalia and imagine using the title “Doctor.”

Another thing I did was compile a list of “Doctor” songs I would play when when I finished my dissertation. October 15, 2015 was one of the best days of my life. That was the day I received the final “thumbs up” and got to play my list. I was up very early, as was my regular routine. I checked my e-mail around 5 am. Congratulations, you are finished! I was so overwhelmed with emotion. Years of effort and sacrifice coming to a close. (Next week will be the first spring break in years, in which I will actually have a break from working on this stuff.) So at six AM I woke everyone up with the “doctor” music blaring. My wife wasn’t happy. What is this all about? Well nothing much, but I’m finished!

So that morning we listened to these songs, and I scheduled posts on Twitter & Facebook so my friends could enjoy the day with me. If you’re working on a doctorate and you need a boost, bookmark the Doctor Song Playlist, and listen along with me. Some day, you’ll have your day of celebration too!

Dr. Love – Kiss

Dr. Feelgood – Mötley Crüe

Doctorin’ The Tardis – The Timelords

Witch Doctor – David Seville


I Don’t Need No Doctor – Ray Charles


Doctor Feelgood – Aretha Franklin


Doctor, Doctor – The Who

(Doctor, Doctor) Bad Case of Loving You – Robert Palmer


What’s up doc? – Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd


Theme from Doctor Who

Doctor – INXS

The Doctor – Doobie Brothers

Rock and Roll Doctor – Black Sabbath

Doctor Wu – Steely Dan

Dear Doctor – Rolling Stones


Dr. Jackie – Miles Davis

Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive – Men at Work

Doctor My Eyes – Jackson Brown

Facing Adversity

Last fall I completed a PhD I had been working on for over eight years. I have read some blogs that discuss graduate studies, but I was reluctant to discuss it much here on the TechIntersect blog. Much of it was too painful. There were many questions in my mind about whether or not I was even up to the task.

As if working on a PhD while teaching full time weren’t difficult enough, there were a number of things that happened that made me question whether it was even worth it and wonder if I was up to the challenge. Simply put, there were some very dark times.

I think much of the problem was just simply going through life sleep-deprived. For weeks on end, I would get up at 2 or 3am to work on my dissertation and then head on in to work to teach a full day of classes. The only way I could force myself to endure it was to reassure myself it was only temporary and would be worth it in the end.

But there was one year a few years back in which I attended funerals of four close relatives – two grandmothers, an uncle and a brother-in-law all within the space of a few months. It felt like I was getting kicked in the teeth repeatedly. I was so very tired all of the time, only to have this added stress. We also lost a beloved family pet, and things at work are always a challenge. There never seems to be enough money, enough students, or enough administrative support for what we’re trying to accomplish with a new degree program in digital media technology.

What I am trying to say is there was always an excuse to give up. Any one of these things should have been enough to cause me to throw in the towel. But my life has always been full of challenges. For example, no matter how bad things got I could always reflect on the fact that I was no longer in a combat zone – no one was shooting at me. Sometimes it felt like people were taking shots, but no physical lead was flying like it did in Desert Storm. That was a tough time to get through, and in some ways it was easier than the work on a PhD.

In Desert Storm, we always knew what we were supposed to be doing. Even when the Silkworm anti-ship missile was bearing down on us, we knew what to do – brace for shock. Scary stuff, but we knew how to respond. With a PhD, so much of it, I had to figure things out on my own. There was no proven pathway, no well worn path to success. I had a great advisor, but she gave me a lot of freedom to explore (and to fail). And when the failures happened (there were several) it was up to me to get myself through it.

So one of the things I do when I fail is retreat and recover. I just needed some space and some time. There were times when I missed a goal or deadline that I might not do anything about it for many weeks. Maybe this is a bad habit. Maybe I should have gotten right back on the horse again after getting bucked off. Maybe it otherwise wouldn’t have taken me so long to finish. But it is my way. In the back of my mind, I never allowed the thought that I might permanently give up take root.

Another thing I do is to take responsibility for the things that I have control over, and the rest I turn over to God. If I can’t do anything about it, there is no point in worrying about it. This attitude has helped me immensely. And to cement the attitude in, I meditate. I learned to use a Rosary for prayer and meditation. You may find it useful as well, or maybe some other form of meditation will be helpful. But you should look into it if you’re over-stressed. It helps.

So last December I finally graduated and thought that all of this tough stuff would be forever behind me. Yeah, right. Life for me, it seems, just about when you think the chaos is calming, a new piece of drama pops up. It is test after test. How much can you handle, dude? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

But I have some people close to me who have set wonderful examples for me when it comes to dealing with adversity. For example, I had a close relative whose parents divorced back when this just wasn’t ever done. Growing up, he always felt like an outcast. Then, as a young man, he deployed to some of the nastiest jungle fighting in the WWII Pacific. He came home, got married, had some kids, and within 18 or so months time lost his brother, his daughter and his wife. Talk about hardship.

I had another relative whose mother didn’t want him and gave him up for adoption. Later, he wound up in a situation where he had to get married because an unexpected baby was on the way. They wound up having six kids and stayed together for over 50 years.

Another relative of mine lost his wife when she was 23 years old, leaving him with two pre-school kids to raise. He remarried, had three more kids and they’ve been together for over 40 years. Now his second wife has cancer and she’s getting treatments. They seem to be handling things well, and through it all you can easily see they are still deeply in love.

I think most people have these sort of stories to tell, although I think different people handle things differently. Not everyone deals with adversity well. So I’m very lucky. Lucky to have these people who have gone through such difficulties, and some how, some way they kept on keeping on. They have been an inspiration to me. I can only hope that I can pass what I know along to others around me who also face difficulties. It is hard to talk about, but I don’t know of any other way to be an example for others who are also struggling.

Teaching, Without Speaking

A long time ago, I wrote a piece in which I listed some teaching suggestions from Neil Postman’s book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” (http://billgx.edublogs.org/2010/11/24/you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water/)

Some of those suggestions included things like asking more questions than making statements. Or taking every 4th year off to do something other than teaching. Or teaching a subject outside of your specialty. It was a really good list of ideas. I invite you to have a look at it.

Monday, I had a strange experience that happened, and it reminded me of these old suggestions of Postman. My cohort of first year/freshmen students enjoy pranking me from time to time. One time, they piled up all of the chairs in the room against the door, blocking me out. Monday, when I came to class, they all just sat there and smiled. They wouldn’t say a word. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get them to speak. I caught on what was happening, so I decided to teach without speaking either. As it turned out, I had a sore throat and was losing my voice anyway.

I had prepared several worksheets I had planned on working on together as a class, with explanations and examples on the board. Intended as a discussion tool, originally, I had only one handout, but since I feared I wouldn’t be able to speak at length, before class I created a second example, along with a reflective analysis page to get them to think about the implications of the examples we would do together in class.

Instead, I played along with the game. I just handed the worksheets out and made grunts and gestures that I wanted them to work on them. I worked on one myself, and passed the completed one around so they could see how I would solve the problem presented. With the final page, I reflected on the previous ones, to demonstrate what I hoped they would notice from the other two pages. I worked that as well, then passed it around.

Then I collected all of their papers, went to the door, waved goodbye and walked out. This was about 20 minutes before our 75 minute class period was over. I just walked out and never came back. I heard them laughing as I disappeared out of sight.

I love this group of students. They keep me on my toes. I hope I surprised them with my response to their gag. I’m not sure what they were expecting.

Adjusting to a new Macbook Pro

I have been using a Macbook Pro for the last five years and it is probably my favorite computer I have used of all time. It has taken all sorts of abuse (nothing intentional) and it keeps on ticking. Most computers I have used, after three or so years, I am ready to trade them in for something new. Not my Macbook.

However after five years of daily use, the poor thing has seen better days. About two years ago my daughter spilt coffee on the keyboard which partially fried it. I’ve been using an external keyboard ever since. While I was nearing completion of my dissertation my power cord/charger started shorting out, getting hot, and wouldn’t charge the battery. I was in a bind because I couldn’t be without a computer, so I cut the cord open and resoldered it back together. Now the other end is getting frayed too, so the thing is covered with black electrical tape. But the last straw was the battery will no longer take a charge, even with the functional power cord.

The nice thing about this Macbook is that the school I work for originally purchased it, and I’ve requested funds for repairing it. After it is refurbished, it will be quite a nice machine. New keyboard, battery & charger. But we are going to install a Solid State Drive to replace the Hard Disk. I like the idea of repairing things rather than disposing of otherwise perfectly good technology. So I expect we’ll get several more years of use out of it.

But for personal use, I have taken the plunge and purchased a new MacBook Pro. It is similar in specs to what I already had – 13 inch monitor (although the new one has a Retina display), 500 Gb drive (solid state rather than HDD), and several new features. One feature I will miss is the built in optical drive, but I bought an external one for when I need it. The new machine is a little lighter in weight and thinner as well.

The big difference for me is the change in OS-X versions. I’m still finding my way around El Capitan. I hate how you can’t find anything when you get a new computer. Some things are personal preferences, but some of the changes are puzzling. The finder application took a lot of customizations. One of the things I use a lot is the path button to aid in navigating the file system. That was hidden from view until I customized the tool bar to show it.

Overall, though, I love the new machine. It is faster and sleeker than what I had before.

Oh, by the way. The new machine has a messages app. I’ve used that on my iPad, but never on my Mac. I just got some photos from my mother in law in Nebraska. She has an iPad too, and has never sent me any messages before, but she did yesterday and they look great on my Retina screen.

So here’s one of her driveway. They got over a foot of snow. Isn’t that funny how the neighbor left her side of the drive?

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 11.40.11 AM