Tag Archives: online education

History Spaces (V)

In this, the concluding post in my series on history spaces, I want to take up the hardest question of all — how we might find the physical spaces we need to take the sort of creative and new approaches to digital history, online education, and undergraduate research I’ve advocated for here.

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, of our institutions have extra space lying around near our departmental offices that they would be willing to let us have, retrofit, and repurpose. And even if such spaces were just sitting there waiting to be used in new and different ways, it’s probably unlikely that a history department would get to call first dibs. We’re more likely to lose out to our colleagues in the STEM disciplines, the business school, or other programs that bring in larger enrollments and more external funding.

10250968414_cdf0d135e9_nThat being the case, all we have left to work with are our departmental spaces themselves. Unfortunately, if your department is anything like mine, the way your offices are set up right now doesn’t really lend itself to developing new and exciting spaces for student/faculty collaboration. Which leaves us with only one really viable alternative. To get new spaces that will serve us well over the coming decades, we’re going to have to give up something, and that something is going to have to be our private faculty offices.

Yes, I know that to even suggest that a professor give up his/her private office is about as heretical as anything I could possibly suggest. But before you click away to something less likely to elevate your blood pressure, hear me out.

Let’s all be honest for just a minute. Raise your hand if every one of your colleagues uses his/her office for more than 20 hours per week every week. Anyone? No? I didn’t think so. The fact is, every history department in the United States has plenty of office space that is used less than 20 hours per week — much of it for less than 15 hours. And when they are in use, what do we do in our offices? Most of us — not all, I grant, but most — use our offices primarily for prepping our classes, meeting with students, grading, and catching up on email. Very few historians I know do significant research and writing in those departmental offices. That work, as I suggested in my first post in this series, mostly takes place in archives, libraries, or at home.

So, if we have all this space that is being used less than half time, there are two possible alternatives for how we might reconfigure our office spaces to make them into what we want. The first alternative is, in some ways, the simplest — shared offices. Bob, who Booksteaches MWF this semester has the office those days, and Stan, who teaches TR, has it the two other days.

But what about my books???

Trust me, I know. I too love my books and just sitting in my office looking at them makes me happy. But, since we’re being brutally honest here, how about this as a solution to your books. You get to keep every book that you’ve taken down off the shelf in the past 18 months. All the rest have to go home. In my case, that would open up something like 70 percent of my shelf space. Maybe more if I’m being really honest.

The second alternative, and the one that would have to require some serious re-thinking of how we work in our departments, is to move to an open floor plan — no, not cubicles — where individual workspaces are surrounded by offices that can be used for private meetings, project work, or private calls. Almost every other industry in the United States has moved to open floor plans and higher education just can’t be so special, so exceptional, that it couldn’t work for us as well.

1315-Peachtree-Perkins-Will-6Industries where professionals have to engage in creative, intellectual work have found ways to make open floor plans successful and report that collaboration among colleagues, general employee happiness, and overall productivity have gone up rather than down. This image is from the offices of Perkins+Will, an architectural firm in Atlanta, Georgia with a substantial higher ed practice. The main common space shown here holds dozens of workspaces for the architects and is ringed by glassed in offices that are used for various ad hoc purposes — the kinds of purposes I have been describing in my earlier posts. And, you’ll note, everyone has a window. I don’t know about you, but I certainly prefer natural light over florescent tubes.

If the very idea of giving up your private office hasn’t sent you away yet, try this experiment. Make a simple sketch of the total office space your department occupies. Then think carefully about the kinds of new spaces you’d like to have. Do you want a maker lab? Do you want group work spaces for students taking online courses? Do you want a “history lab” where you, several colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students can all work together on long term research projects? How about a new classroom that your department controls and that houses the technology, cartons of artifacts, or whatever, that you’d like to have available all the time?

If you were to halve the number of private offices (option #1, shared offices) that your department has, how much space would that free up? Would it be enough for the cool new spaces you envision? Or, if you were to move to an open floor plan like the one pictured above (option #2), how much space would that free up?

You might object to the whole idea I’ve laid out over the past few days on the basis of pessimism about your institution’s willingness to invest in reconfigured department space. Before you do, it’s worth sitting down with whoever is in charge of your campus spaces — an architect, a space planner, a facilities director — and just have a conversation with them. I can say that all across the United States people who fill those roles at colleges and universities are engaged in a very interesting and dynamic conversation about how campus buildings need to be retrofitted to meet the learning needs of future students and the research needs of future faculty. See if your campus is a member of the Society for College and University Planning. If so, then someone on campus has been at least partly connected to these conversations.

If so, you may just be surprised to find that you have a receptive audience, maybe even a willing partner, especially if you go in an offer up something — the footprint of your department — in exchange for something new and exciting.

The alternative, I’m sorry to say, is for us to sit in our offices, with our books, lamenting that those STEM people keep getting all the good spaces on campus.

History Spaces (III)

In my first post in this series I suggested that there were three main areas where we, as historians, should start thinking creatively about our departmental spaces and how they will or won’t serve us and our students well as we move forward in the coming decade. In the second post I laid out a series of recommendations for spaces that will help us take better advantage of the opportunities digital history offers us.

If your institution is anything like mine (or like most of the ones I read about and visit), you are being asked to think about how you might incorporate more online and/or hybrid courses into your curriculum. In our case here at George Mason University these conversations are being driven both by a genuine sense that we need to be part of the online delivery of educational content, but also by a space crunch that is only going to become more acute with each passing semester. Whatever the pressures or inducements are at your institution, it’s almost a given that you are hearing something from somewhere on campus about online, online, online.

When we talk about spaces and online education (under which I’m including hybrid courses that blend online and face to face instruction), there are both physical and virtual spaces to consider. I’m on record in many places as not liking BlackBoard or really any other commercially available learning management system (LMS), but I will admit that for many instructors, these open the box and use systems make a lot of sense if only because they are institutionally supported and relatively easy to use. I think they impose a particular set of pedagogical assumptions on the instructor, which is why I don’t use them, but for history departments that want to create virtual learning spaces quickly, the use of a commercial LMS may be the simplest option.

What I’m more concerned with in this series of posts, however, is the physical spaces we control — to the degree we do control them — in our departmental offices. If we are going to do online right, we and our students have to have easy access to two kinds of physical spaces — those that can be used for the production of online historical resources, and those that students can use when consuming those resources. For advice on the first of these spaces, I’d refer you to my prior post, in which I discuss what a digital production space might look like. For more on spaces for students engaged in learning online, read on.

I think educators enamored of online education cling to one really big mistaken assumption when it comes to student learning with online resources. Yes, it is likely that many students will sit quietly by themselves watching videos, working their way through problems, doing research, and interacting with other students enrolled in the same course. But does it have to be that way? Is this face-glued-to-laptop mode of learning the best use of online educational tools? After all, if that’s the way students are going to take our courses, then we don’t need our campuses at all, now do we? They can just sit at home, in Starbucks, or wherever, and consume our curricula all by their lonesome selves. Think of the money we’d save if we shut down all our classroom buildings for good.

What if, instead, we created learning spaces in our departments dedicated to students taking online courses? Such spaces could be Huntsmallish, meaning large enough for a couple or a few students, and wired, so that the students can all watch the same screen simultaneously, but have enough bandwidth to work independently on their laptops/tablets. The image to the right is from the Hunt Library at N.C. State University that opened last year and shows one of many such possible configurations of a space where students can work together, whether as part of an online course, or while planning a group presentation, or whatever.

If our students had such spaces and we designed our online learning opportunities to encourage them to work together in such spaces (or in their dorms, or a Starbucks), what could the learning outcomes be and how would those outcomes be different that what might be achieved in a face-glued-to-laptop mode of online course design? Because some of the very best historical work is the result of collaborative endeavor — showing drafts to friends, presenting to colleagues, etc. — it seems to me that it is incumbent on us to think more carefully about designing online learning around the kinds of collaborations we value in our own work. In that way we help to model a mode of knowledge production that we engage in ourselves. And we give them a reason to engage with our curriculum in our department, where faculty and other students might join in, be available to answer questions, or take part in the production of new knowledge as part of the kind of shared endeavor I discussed in yesterday’s post.

That alone would seem to offer a very good reason why even online students might want to be on our campuses rather than taking courses from online competitors.


To MOOC or Not to MOOC? What’s In It For Me?

The title of this post is purely rhetorical because no one has asked me to teach a MOOC. In fact, I have not been involved with MOOCs at all, except as an observer from afar. Instead, the title is the result of me wondering why anyone would teach a course with tens of thousands of students enrolled (maybe more), who you would never meet, and for which there is an enormous amount of start up effort (designing the course, filming the lectures, figuring out the grading algorithms, etc., etc.)?

I understand why universities want to get MOOCs out there with their most prominent professors teaching them. Having a big name professor offer a MOOC brings many, many eyeballs to your campus logo (and even better to the website) and helps burnish your image in a global market for higher education. In short, MOOCs are marketing dollars well spent, even if they aren’t yet showing any sign they are good for the bottom line, given the terms that companies like Coursera are offering colleges and universities.

But why would a professor, especially a prominent (and presumably busy) professor, bother to spend all the time and effort necessary to bring a MOOC to market and then, one assumes, have some connection to its implementation? After all, designing a new course or redesigning an old one takes a lot of time in the analog world. When you consider the time required to film lectures, work with an editor to polish up that film and add in B-roll, design online assignments and assessments, and think through how students are going to progress through the various online materials, a MOOC represents a lot of time and effort.

After puzzling on this question, I can think of two answers.

The first is what we might call educational altruism. MOOCs offer faculty members a chance to make their courses available, for free, to the widest possible audience. As scholars we are supposed to be engaged in the circulation of knowledge, and being able to circulate one’s knowledge of a particular subject to 70,000 or 100,000 students, even if only a tiny fraction of them complete the course, is a potentially wonderful thing. I’m not sure that those students learn anywhere near what they would learn in a well designed face to face class, given that MOOCs largely replicate the lecture/listen binary model that is so ubiquitous in large American universities. That model has been demonstrated in countless studies by cognitive scientists to yield only minimal learning gains, even when taught by famous, or brilliant lecturers. But if the purpose of teaching a MOOC on one’s subject is to make one’s expertise in a given subject available, for free, to as many people as possible, that’s a laudable act. I’m not sure how much of this educational altruism there is out there, but I’m willing to admit that it might really exist.

The second reason is more mercenary and involves the sale of books and/or other collateral products. In particular, I wondered whether MOOCs offered faculty members an opportunity to make some serious money on the teaching and learning products that they have created?

To test my idea that book sales might just be part of the reason why some faculty members would teach a MOOC, I randomly selected eight courses across the disciplines and from various universities on the Coursera website. I tried to do the same thing at the Udacity site, but one cannot read the course syllabi there. What I found was that on all eight syllabi, the only readings students were expected to do were from free and open source/open access materials. However, five of the eight professors recommended or suggested as optional books that they had written, ranging in price from $8 to $110. One of the professors recommends only open source works, and the other two recommend books published by others for either $44 or $142.

If we assume for a minute that some fraction of the tens of thousands of students taking part in a given MOOC go ahead and purchase the “recommended” or “optional” book written by the professor teaching the course, the potential for significant earnings via book sales is very real. For the sake of argument, let’s say that I taught a MOOC that drew 50,000 students and I recommended as optional the ebook version of my new book ($19.95). And, for the sake of this same argument, let’s say that 10% of the students purchased a copy. Under the terms of my contract with the press, I would make just under $7,000 in royalties from the sale of those books. While $7,000 is not enough for the downpayment on that beach house I’ve been wanting, it’s still $7,000 in additional income.

Different states and different institutions have widely varying rules (and even laws) governing whether faculty members can require students to purchase a book from which the faculty member receives income. But those rules were made with the standard course for credit model in mind. MOOCs disrupt that model by not offering credit and in the cases I looked at, by having all textbooks be “recommended” or “optional.” Once MOOCs move to the credit bearing/tuition charging mode, it will be interesting to see whether there is any change in this approach. I suspect there won’t be, if only because the openness of a MOOC begins to break down once it starts to get expensive for students.

Recognizing excellence in transforming learning?

Not long ago a friend asked me, in the context of the current debate about MOOCs and other forms of supposedly transformational educational innovations, who was awarding prizes to recognize excellence in the transformation of learning, especially in the large class environment?

My response was, “Well…hm…uh…there’s…no. I guess I can’t really think of anyone.”

I did manage to come up with the CASE-Carnegie US Professor of the year awards [I am an off and on judge for these], but these awards are not specifically targeted at innovation in large courses. Some of the past winners, such as Dennis Jacobs (2002) or Michael Wesch (2008), have done some very amazing things in their large classes, but that’s not the specific purpose of these awards. Finding “excellence in undergraduate education” is the brief of the panels reading the final application dossiers.

Because I couldn’t think of anything else relevant, I started scanning around the web looking for that national award for excellence in the use of technology in teaching large courses (or even for using technology in teaching college level courses). I found nothing.

Normally, I’d put that down to my inability to find what I’m looking for online (despite having pretty reasonable skills in that area), but it seems I’m not the only person looking in vain. In a comment on an earlier post on MOOCs, Dominik Lukes wrote:

“I’ve been searching in vain for an educational reform aimed at content or pedagogy that made a transformation of the education system in accordance with its goals. And I could not find one.”

If you know of something that Dominik and I are missing, please let me know and I’ll publicize it here. Rather than seeing lots of time and money thrown at MOOCs, which are largely (but certainly not entirely) using existing technology to push content at students in an efficient manner, I’d love to see some sort of X-Prize competition for academics who want to create new learning opportunities for students that take full advantage of the creative potential of digital media.