Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland V - Choose Your Own Adventure

It is the consistent confrontation by unsupported, dogmatic assertions which tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) require unquestioning buy-in to even begin talking about online education that marks my own experience of Edu-Cyberland. As a student of religions, I recognize dogma when I hear it and I know true believers when I encounter them.

Nowhere was that clearer than in the third workshop I attended at the Sloan Conference. Entitled “Choose Your Own Adventure: Millenials and the Post-Traditional Credit Hour.” It was an hour long paean to the consumer-student and the university as providers of goods and services. And, in the usual pattern of hubristic hype, it was offered as the way of the future in education.

In Praise of Millennials

The session began in a promising fashion with presenter Sean Traigle laying out the differences between the traditional student (18 year old freshman, needing more structure) and the post-traditional student (older, needing flexible structures). Traigle then began painting a somewhat questionable picture of millennial students:

They expect to be engaged in learning, they don’t do well as passive learners, they won’t stick around if there’s no technology utilized, self-assured, confident,  civic-minded, compelled to make the world a better place.

From my observations, there is some truth in this description if primarily in the thus far unrealized potential of this generation if not its actualization. As with online education, there has been far more hype than substance thus far.

Traigle asserted that 90% of the millenials are in college primarily for career reasons – to advance, start or change careers. This is certainly true of my observations. The vast majority of my students are strategic learners driven by extrinsic motivations. Of course, at some level, they are a reflection of the culture which bred them, a culture which Richard Hofstadter observed to be anti-intellectual 50 years ago and which today clearly values education largely – perhaps solely - in instrumentalist terms.

Whether these students “don’t do well as passive learners” is somewhat debatable. In truth, few real students do well taking passive approaches to learning. One of the great gifts to pedagogy is Paolo Freire’s critique of the banking concept in which experts pour information into the heads of passive learners who must then disgorge such information upon cue. Such approaches produce little retention of its content or critical comprehension, much less its connection to the lives of those learning it.

But Millennials are the products of standardized test driven pedagogies. Their primary question is inevitably “Will this be on the test?” In my experience they do not regularly come to class prepared for discussion (i.e., reading prior to class) and often whine about any kind of engagement demanded beyond the data dump high-stakes testing for which they are so well trained, particularly if it requires even a modicum of critical thinking. Strategic learners are motivated by extrinsic rewards – grades, degrees, accolades. The notion that they would be particularly engaged in learning at any depth is probably not a reasonable expectation.

Traigle also heralded Millenials as keenly aware of the differential between their own “comfort level of technology” and that of their instructors, a phenomenon easily observable today. Yet, as a group they also exhibit a profound inability to judge context in the appropriate use of technology, a failure of judgment that is not only rude but can get you killed in movie theaters in Florida these days. They also display major difficulties in remaining attentive to any given task at hand due to well-developed patterns of constant self-distraction with their technological toys.

While their technical skills are clearly well honed, their contextual awareness and critical judgment about the proper time and place to use those skills are limited if not impaired. Indeed, a number of studies are now suggesting it’s precisely the persistent interaction with technology rather than people that results in such impaired judgment and the decline of interpersonal communication skills as well. 

They are well-trained consumers, indeed.

Creedal Assertions

About halfway through the presentation, the creedal assertions of Edu-Cyberland appeared. Traigle works for an online technology company called Straighterline.  The company describes its services as “providing high quality courses that are guaranteed to fit into your degree program.” Clearly, as with any consumerist enterprise, it is, at least on the surface, all about you.

The site continues

With StraighterLine you earn your college degree from the top career-focused universities, in the field and ultimately in the career of your choice - in less time, with less stress and with $15,000 less in student debt.

Traigle then launched into a diatribe on “being tied to a seat” and being required to regularly study with any level of intensity. Traigle described these behaviors as tied to a traditional system of education whose time has passed, a system which must be replaced by learning with flexible start/end dates, outcomes-based personal learning and accomplished primarily through technology.  In the revealed truth of Edu-Cyberland, the ultimate heresy is always to be seen as “old school.”

The dogmatic presumptions of this approach and their religious implications are pretty clear:

·         Education is strictly about careers (confessional statement)

·         Investment of money, time, presence, intensity and energy in this process are negative values to be avoided at all cost (sin)

·        The consumer is always the best judge of all aspects of the process, at least the limited array presented him/her by the provider of goods and services (personal salvation schema)

·         Learning cannot occur without technology (liturgical ritual) and the terms of its usage must be unconditional (orthopraxis)

This makes for an interesting religion but it is an impoverished view of education if it can truly be called that at all. There are a number of problems with these presumptions beginning with the fact that, like all dogmatic assertions purporting to define revealed truth, they must be accepted without question as a condition of even discussing online education.

The minimalism and reductionism in these presumptions are staggering.  But the most troubling aspect is the understanding implicitly revealed in the requirement that one avoid any kind of investment in the process that education itself is somehow a negative experience to be engaged in only the most expeditious and painless manner as possible.

Why in the world would that be?

Less Hype, More Critical Reflection

If online education is to have a prayer of success in actually creating an educated public, it is going to have to become MUCH more critically conscious of and willing to discuss its dogmatic presumptions and the values they reflect. The how of online education is much less important in the long run as the why.

  • We need to question whether careers are the only or even the primary reason people should attend college. 
  • We need to question consumerist presumptions of convenience and comfort as the primary values in our approaches to education. 
  • We need to ask ourselves why we see education in such negative terms generally and what such attitudes say about us as a people. 
  • And we need to critically confront the way we use our technologies generally but particularly in the context of education.

My observation is that higher education needs a lot less hype, a lot less dogma and a lot more critical self-reflection.  Perhaps it is only when our hype implodes and our failures confront us - as San Jose State discovered to its great chagrin last year in the meltdown of its MOOC Great Leap Forward – that we will be forced to do the hard work of thoughtfully considering the questions of why we do what we do and how it impacts those we would ostensibly serve. 

Not surprisingly, false gods inevitably give their challengers plenty of evidence of their emptiness to work with. This one is no exception.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
Osceola Regional Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland IV – Revealed Truth

I ran across an article last weekend that stopped me in my tracks. Entitled “2013- the year of ups and downs for the MOOCs,” at the website Changing Higher Education, the unnamed author made a number of observations that were breathtaking in their candidness and their humility, qualities that are rarely observable in Edu-Cyberland.

To wit:

Many of the problems now being faced by the MOOCs are simply a natural consequence of the tremendous hype and enthusiasm that accompanied and drove their growth - reality eventually must come in. However, a large part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the MOOCs have in general been created with little or no attention to extensive research on pedagogy in general, and online pedagogy in particular.

This has certainly been my observation. Online technologies generally have been
heralded as the messianic answer to all the problems besetting education from kindergarten to doctoral studies. Seized upon almost instantly by the primary beneficiaries of this technology – the computer industries, the corporations who stand to gain from their use, the technocratic management of colleges and universities and the politicians looking for an easy out in their duties to public education (not to mention their ability to provide yet another sweet deal for their corporate pimps) – there has been a rush to put everything from law school to speech classes to physical education online.

As the critique rightly observes, much of the rush to cyberspace has been driven more by hype than concern for pedagogical soundness, much less for actual learning. For the techies, it’s an opportunity to have their cherished technology utilized - if not worshiped - by the wider public. For the business boys, there’s gold in them thar hills. For the ever growing technocracies on college campuses, it’s a means of managing their over-enrolled campuses which can no longer physically seat their all cash cows in classrooms. It’s also a way to continue steady cuts in education budgets by politicians now beholden to those same corporations.

It’s a win-win from the perspective of power and money. But from the perspective of the student who has no choice but to take courses online to graduate (and pay extra “technology fees” for them) and the contingent faculty who increasingly must teach online as the alternative to not working, it’s a Hobson choice.

While the website’s critique rightly points out the superficiality of the hype surrounding online education of all stripes and resulting stampede to embrace the same, it only raises one important question: how we do this v. what we’re doing. Far more important questions go unraised here: Why we do this in the first place, what we are assuming about these endeavors and what impacts they might have (and have proven to have) on all the parties to public education.

I was particularly taken by this comment:

This confusion of show business and education will not move the learning process forward any more than does the confusion of technology and education. It is all about using the appropriate, research supported instructional techniques.

This was a response to comments by the CEO of EdX, Anat Agarwal at the Sloan Conference, who suggested that MOOCs might become more effective (translated: popular) if they employed actors to give the lectures. "From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well…”  – not to mention they can probably insure higher profits, right? After all, what’s really the difference between being entertained at the movies or taking a college course on a MOOC, right?

Bear in mind, this is the same speaker who candidly admitted in his address to the Sloan Conference that MOOCs are not working and that hybrid use of online technologies (part face-to-face, part online) is the best and highest use of the technologies.

However, this is a good example of the superficiality of much of the online educational world. The focus here is on how things are done, the bells and whistles, the presentation, not what is being done, why it’s being done this way and how it impacts both teachers and learners. Ins short, it’s the difference between a college course taught online, as I always label my own courses, and an online class.

The focus of the first is the content, the pedagogical method and the endeavor to insure learning despite the physical absence of the student and instructor. It is a substantive approach focused more on content than appearance. It requires engagement if it is to work.

The focus of the second is the technology employed to which all other considerations are subject and secondary. It is marked by a focus on process rather than substance, appearance and experience rather than content. It is driven by consumerist considerations of comfort and convenience which often result in minimalism in course requirements and effort demanded as well as reductionism in thinking.

Ding Dong, Delivery Man

But it was this comment that brought me up short:

Research over the years has shown, however, that technology delivers instruction, but the quality of the learning depends on the quality of the instruction rather than the delivery vehicle.

One of the things that is often striking in any conversation about online teaching and learning is its highly dogmatic nature. Much like the great church councils of the late Roman Empire, there are certain truths that are regularly asserted in this discourse which must simply be accepted as unquestionably true. One of them is stated above – that instruction is somehow “delivered. “

The term deliver is problematic on a good day. Here, the usage is connected to a limited endeavor – instruction – but the more general usage of that term among the purveyors of online education is frequently connected to classes. I heard this the first day of my training to teach online (which, ironically, occurred in a face-to-face class rather than online) – you’re going to deliver your class….

Seriously. How can a class - or even instruction - be delivered? Deliveries are the realm of UPS and FedEx agents in smart uniforms who bring packages to your door awaiting your signing for them, opening them and consuming their contents. No real engagement is required in these transactions (so long as the payment has cleared). 

The problems with using such a description for what is ostensibly an educational experience should be obvious. One doesn’t learn simply by paying for a delivery. If learning is to occur, it always requires engagement. What is “delivered” in online courses is a compact, somewhat minimalized opportunity for a student to engage the course material and the other members of the learning community. What happens beyond that initial opportunity lies in the hands of the participants.

One of the key problems with online classes of any kind but particularly of the first wave of MOOCs is that students simply are not engaging them. The correlation between onsite presence and performance is well documented. And the drop out rates, which are several times those of their face-to-face counterparts, are much higher. 

Ironically, it is the educational approach which requires the most investment from the student that appear to be most destined for completion of courses if not success in them, a dynamic completely counter-intuitive to the consumerist mantras of convenience and comfort as the only guiding values. Indeed, might not the very terms we use here – the delivery of instruction – signal to the consumer that their obligations to the process are limited at most? 

Might we be setting students up for failure?

This article reminded me that I had not written my final installment regarding my visit to Edu-Cyberland’s Sloan Conference last month. That follows. 

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
Osceola Regional Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A time to every purpose under heaven

One of the great voices of my youth has fallen silent this day. Pete Singer was the voice of the folk music movement of the early 1960s. His haunting lyrics and melodious songs called Americans whose sons and daughters were being shipped in mass to Southeast Asia to ask themselves, “Where have all the flowers gone? Gone to graveyards every one. When will they ever learn?”  It would become the anthem of an anti-war movement which would galvanize America against the war in Southeast Asia over the next bloody seven years of that conflict.

Seeger led crowds across our nation fighting for civil rights - a fight that continues today for immigrants, LBGT people, working class people and the disabled – in an anthem which promised that someday, “We shall overcome.” Seeger called us to use the hammer of justice to build a new America, to ring the bell of freedom to pierce the din of discrimination and always to keep singing the songs “about love between my brothers and my sisters…all over this land.”

I did not know until this morning that Seeger was the author of what is probably my favorite song of all times. Recorded by The Byrds in 1965, “Turn, Turn, Turn”  took the words of the Hebrew Scriptures found in Ecclesiastes and set them to music. Seeger had crafted them in the late 1950s but The Byrds took the song to the top of the charts.

Simultaneously mindful of our mortality and calling us to be fully present for each day, Seeger reminded us that there is “a time to every purpose under heaven; a time to be born and a time to die.” And, most characteristically, Seeger’s song ended with the exhortation, “A time for peace…I swear it’s not too late.”

I long ago decided that whatever else is sung at my memorial service, I want that service to include “Turn, Turn, Turn.” But for today, it is Pete Seeger’s time to die and I join a generation in grieving his passing and in expressing gratitude for his life, his work and the way it has shaped our own.

Rest in peace, brother. You will be sorely missed.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Religion and Cultural Studies
Osceola Regional Campus University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Friday, January 24, 2014

Semblances of sanity returning to my life

After a fall semester so overloaded that I cannot even remember all of it (I call it the Big Blur), life this spring has mercifully slowed to a moderate trot. I am teaching fully online this semester for the university which means I do not have to descend into the maelstrom of campus life three times a week. My only face-to-face interactions with students is at the state college at Osceola, the regional campus where I am now assigned and hold university office hours each week.

The result is decidedly a more sane existence.

Of course, online courses have challenges of their own. Two of the classes I am teaching are first time being taught online. Three of the four classes have enrollments of 50 or larger.  I haven’t taught the Contemporary Humanities class in six years and the last time it was F2F. It’s been a challenge adapting that class to online format. It’s hard to know if the students are getting into the material since I only hear from them via their Discussion posts.

The Christianity class is brand new for me and somewhat new for the department, having more recently been taught as Christian thought and history.  Of course, I love the subject material even as I find myself wishing we could be talking to each other in person about these various points.

Three weeks into the term, I’m already a bit behind on grading because I’m spending a lot of time developing these new courses. Fortunately, the two Humanistic traditions classes could simply be rolled over from previous semesters online and after about a full day and a half worth of labor in resetting links on my Schedule, dates for quizzes and discussions, they’re set for the rest of the semester.

In the meantime, the distance – both physical and emotional -  I have gained this semester from the often toxic culture of a state university slowly squeezing the life out of its liberal arts is proving essential to my ongoing employment there (with retirement and health care my primary motivations for remaining these days) not to mention my own mental health. The detox process has been slow but steady. Landing the regional campus job was one of the best pieces of good fortune I’ve had in a long while.

Semblances of Sanity

In previous entries here I have laid out my lamentations over life in the pressure cooker of main campus with little relief in sight. I began this post on a Sunday morning, having just returned from the 8 AM Holy Eucharist (Rite I, no less!), a word which literally means thanksgiving, mindful of the many ameliorative changes that have come to my life over the past month for which I decidedly am grateful. I wish to be intentional about my gratitude for these changes. I see them as semblances of sanity slowly returning to my life.

Among them….
  •  I finally found the time last week to match up all the loose socks which had been sitting on the top of my dresser inviting cats to scatter them all over the bedroom. They’d been there since I took them out of the dryer the first of December just as end of term and exams demanded my every waking moment.

  •  I sat up until midnight (!) last Thursday watching late night TV and going through a couple of years’ worth of magazines, recycling those I no longer wanted, stacking those I decided to keep into wicker bins beside the couch. It’s amazing! I can actually stay up that late now that I don’t have to be at the bus stop by 9:30. To my surprise, there was actually a beautiful hardwood floor under all those magazines! 

  •   I have finally gotten all the baby agaves planted in the trays I bought for them when the Mother of all Agaves finally gave up the ghost on its bloom spike and fell into the street around Thanksgiving. Some of them had actually rotted in the bottom of the tray by the time I got to them but most of them survived to be planted, awaiting transplant into someone’s yard once they’re a bit bigger. (Anyone interested in a variegated agave?) 

  •  Last Friday I sorted through the entire month of December and first two weeks of January’s mail, recycling the vast majority of it and giving thanks that no overdue bills were among its contents. The mail basket suddenly looks very lonely. 

  • I am beginning to get through all the email that accumulated over the last couple of months of the fall term which I simply had no time to even look at. Apparently I missed a few important emails during the Big Blur but overall, most ended up being deleted. 

  •   I find myself actually sleeping at least eight hours every night. Every night! I was not even aware that was even possible. The dark circles under bloodshot eyes are slowly disappearing. 
  • I have actually been able to walk the 1.75 mile path around Lake Underhill down the street from my home almost daily. It allows me to stretch out my gimpy left knee and to get some sunshine back in my pallid face. I've forgotten how wonderful it is to spend 45 minutes with the birds, the otters, the trees, the clouds skittering across the sky and the sun glittering off the lake surface. It's enough to make this Franciscan heart sing. 

These may seem like little, even insignificant things. And, in themselves, they probably are. But when taken as a whole, they point toward a much healthier state than the one  I have inhabited the past couple of years. I think I’m beginning to actually work to live, not vice-versa. And  I am hopeful these are semblances of the return of a life whose sanity has been most notable for its impaired state if not its elusiveness for far too long

A possible task…

I had all of my four online classes up and running by the midnight deadline for the new term. Two of them are now completely set and the other two have a syllabus, schedule and the first five weeks of assignments up. It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment after last semester’s shot from the cannon beginning and a whole term of constantly being under the gun, a week ahead of the students if lucky, until nearly Thanksgiving.

I actually have the luxury of feeling a bit  relaxed about these classes since I know I will not be spending six hours a week on the bus, five hours a week in office hours and another six hours a week in the classroom (and that was just for the two classes on main campus last semester). I should be able to get the rest done without being constantly on edge about what I need to get done next.

It dawned on me last week that this is actually a possible task I face this term. It’s been so long since that was the case that I almost don’t know how to respond to that.

and an old, familiar feeling

I also find myself smiling, experiencing an old, familiar feeling as I teach my only face-to-face class in the Ethics and Critical Thinking I teach for Valencia. Standing in front of my weekly night class I remember why I once actually loved teaching. Even in my poor health, struggling to recover from the flu (complete with laryngitis) the first night, it was a great evening. These folks are going to give me a run for my money. I can’t wait!

This group is a miniature United Nations in a classroom – Pakistani, Lebanese, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Haitian and the indigenous Osceola County redneck and African-American students. What a rich diversity within which to discuss ethics! Every class I see an ocean of hands in the air, my students anxious to offer their responses to the questions I toss out in my Socratic style discussions.

It is always a challenge to make sure everyone has a chance to speak, a major change from my group quiet, frightened young women nursing students in the same class last semester. In my current class, we laugh together and wrestle with hard questions together. The students are energetic and several students stay after each class to continue talking about the topics we’d discussed.  

Indeed, I continue to be immensely grateful for my reconnection to the Osceola campus of Valencia two years ago. It’s a whole different world from the Factory. I still sometimes find myself shaking my head when employees of the college ask me what they can do to be of help. After so many years at a hypercompetitive, status conscious, zero sum games-playing Factory (whose operating mantra is essentially “F**k you, you’re on your own”), it’s sometimes a little disorienting to encounter this atmosphere of cooperation and teamwork.

Last class when my webcourse site would not come up, I quickly ran next door to the learning lab and asked the young man behind the counter if he was having the same trouble. He stopped everything he was doing, checked the computer and told me that the problem was the Google Chrome browser I was using, try switching to Firefox. Voila!  That simply would not have happened at the Factory.

It’s even more disorienting to encounter the unabashed devotion to teaching and learning that I encounter at Valencia. That begins with large classes being capped at 27, still small enough to actually teach. But don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely grateful for this blessed disorientation.

At the same time, I must confess that I miss some of my students and colleagues in the department much more than I thought I would. Several of my students have sent me notes telling me they miss seeing me and some invite me to lunch, coffee or dinner. I miss them. A lot. And while it’s nice to be missed, there is a sadness in recognizing that my days of close, mentoring relationships with prize students and interactions with valued colleagues on the main campus are probably over. Even so, it’s a nice feeling to find myself actually looking forward to my occasional trips to that campus to see old friends and check in with students, even as it costs me $5 a pop to park there.

“I like the changes…”

Last weekend Andy and I went down to visit two friends from Chicago who make a week long snow bird escape to Florida every year after Christmas. We met them in Lakeland at a restaurant where we could sit outside and enjoy the last warm weather we would have before the current prolonged cool spell. (NOTE: This is not whining! I never complain about any break from the heat we get unless it gets down to freezing and damages my jungle) One of my friends, who has been my bosom buddy since our time together in Brasil on our Fulbright trip four years ago, observed “You seem like you are in a much better place than you were last year.” Her friend added, “Yeah, last year it seemed like it was about all over for you in teaching.”

I asked Andy on the way home if that was true. He readily agreed, reeling off a list of changes in our life together starting with the fact we actually had time to get away for that day trip. “Last semester this time, you were pretty much chained to the computer when you weren’t at school. The only reason I was able to tolerate you was because I knew it was going to change. I like the changes.”

I don’t know that teaching online is the long term answer for me. I continue my ongoing process of discerning the best means of investing my remaining time and energies to hopefully make a difference in the world before I actually depart it. But for the time being, this seems to be the place I need to be. I am finally catching my breath after far too many semesters being on a dead run capped by the mother of all terms, the Big Blur,  last fall. And I am starting to enjoy my work once again after a long drought marked by survival mentality. I do not take lightly the semblances of sanity that have begun to return to my life.

For all of this, I am deeply grateful.  Deo Gratias.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
University of Central Florida Regional Campus
Osceola Branch Valencia College, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++