Monthly Archives: April 2016

Sadly, This Was Necessary: Meet Dr. Panchuk

In a course announcement today:

Hi everyone,

I would like to bring a change of procedure to your attention. In the past students have addressed me by my first name, but from now on I will follow standard procedure, which is for you to address me by my academic title, Dr. Panchuk.

I have never had to make this requirement in the past, however I’ve noticed that an increasing number of students are displaying disrespectful and argumentative behaviour. The vast majority do not behave this way, but I’m hoping it will serve as a reminder in those few cases of what is appropriate conduct in an academic context.

You should not take this to mean that you aren’t permitted to raise questions about your work. These are always welcome, and I’m happy to assist you. What it does mean is that you must use an appropriate tone. This is no different from what should happen in any of your other courses.

On a related matter, be aware that the appropriate level of discourse is what would occur in a business setting. What this means is that the shortcuts you might use when sending casual text messages to a friend are not appropriate. Writing “hey cn u hlp me w/ this qustn” won’t do, and for those of you unfamiliar, is not a good approach in general if you’re trying to make a good impression. Some people who receive such a message will take it as a sign of disrespect on your part.

I imagine some of you will be horrified to receive this notice, because this isn’t how you behave or communicate, and I’m sorry to have to send it out. Nevertheless, here we are. If it’s any consolation, appropriate behaviour and communication are noticed, and do set you apart. You can read the comments section of any news story to see what I mean.

I will be sending a second announcement outlining the appropriate way to submit your assignments.

Regards,

Dr. Panchuk

Categories: Challenges, Classroom management, Distance education and e-learning, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Why Open Science Daily?

In February of this year I started a new project: a Twitter account called Open Science Daily (@journal_365). I started after reading about Sci Hub, a project of systematic piracy of research articles from behind journal paywalls. This matters because such articles are the lifeblood of academic work, but the cost of journal subscriptions is keeping them locked away. You might not think it’s a big deal whether or not a scientist has access to the Antarctic Journal of Annelid Research but what about journals publishing the latest findings on cancer?

Contemplating a Life Without Truth

I had the jarring experience myself of discovering that one of the universities I work for had forgotten I existed (at least for staff computing privileges) and cut off my access to electronic journals. It felt like I’d lost a limb or a smartphone. I wondered how anyone could possibly survive without being able to find out stuff whenever the out of stuff needed finding. What do you do without access to truth as filtered through the peer-review process? Those were dark days indeed.

After reading about Sci Hub I thought that it should be doable to establish some sort of framework where a journal could offer content freely by optimizing on the fact that its input (research) comes to it for free, its reviewers are free, editors may be unpaid, and there is no longer the overhead of producing materials in hard copy. As I contemplated how this might work, I suddenly remembered that it already existed, and was called open-access publishing.

Now I’m not the most up on my open-access resources, but I’d like to think that I have at least a little more knowledge than the average Jane. Yet I forgot these things even existed! Free peer-reviewed knowledge, and I forgot! It occurred to me that if I didn’t remember these things existed, then (barring explanations including but not restricted to teaching-related stress, lack of sleep, and lack of caffeine), how many other people don’t know or forgot? And so Open Science Daily was born.

So What, Exactly, Are You Doing?

Using the OSD account, I’ve been tweeting about one open-access science journal a day (more or less- but my track record is pretty good). I include the name, the url, and some key hashtags, but my strategy for maximum attention-getting is to use images. Initially I started off doing this sort of thing:

Earth System Dynamics

 

But then it got a little fancier,

Paleo Electr

 

and fancier (this one makes my eyes happy),

TWBul.png

 

and now they’re mini art projects. (Note the superposition of the semi-transparent storm clouds over the melting glacier to give the whole thing an ominous feel.)

EarthFut

 

While making pretty pictures is fun, I’m cognizant that my images might be the first thing someone sees of a given journal. In other words, I’m making the first impression, and I don’t take that lightly. That means I try to make the images look clean and professional, and take cues from the journal’s homepage about what might be appropriate, or what those running the journal might like to see. Sometimes they make it easy, such as by putting a tiny Mars rover at the top of their page, so I can do this:

GeoIMDS

 

The descriptive text in my images comes verbatim from the journal’s homepage whenever that is possible. This is primarily because I’m dealing with many topics that are new to me, and I don’t want to make paraphrasing errors. It’s also much faster. If I had to go through each journal to come up with my own succinct descriptions I simply wouldn’t be able to do this project. It seems reasonable that the journals should speak for themselves in this way.

Which science journals?

I’m working from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and it’s likely this will keep me busy for a while. I’ve covered the journals they’ve filed under “Geology” and am working through categories which are also related to the Earth system and space. I choose journals which use English to describe themselves, so I can avoid cutting and pasting information in a language I don’t understand. The journal must also have a clear description of its focus and scope. Many do, and helpfully label this information “Focus and Scope.” But others have thwarted by best attempts to find a snippet of description that is pithy enough for my images.

Who is this for?

Awareness of open access journals matters for people who are not affiliated with an institution having deep enough pockets to afford journal subscriptions. That could mean people who are members of the general public, who work independently of an institution, or who belong to an organization that simply doesn’t have the cash. It also matters for the researchers and academics whose work is being published, because they might not otherwise consider whether their journal of choice is open access. It matters because institutions can begin to consider open-access publishing in their policy-making, and take steps to encourage it.

This is also for me, because I love the brain rush accompanying the sudden realization that yet another universe of ideas exists, of which I had been completely unaware. It’s like feeling your way around a dark room and encountering an unexpected doorway. Looking at a new journal each day has made me aware of new fields, and allowed me to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts. I sometimes wonder if my little band of followers will become bored if I stray too far from their areas of interest. But I find myself exclaiming, “That’s actually a thing?!” at least once a week, and having that opportunity must appeal to at least a few of them.

Update

After a run of 8 months or so I have deactivated Open Science Daily. I still think it’s a worthy project, but I have other projects right now that need more focus than I was giving them. In the end I evaluated 177 open-access journals for this project, and tweeted about 137 of them.

Categories: Open access, Science and such | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Online Courses and The Problem That No-One Is Talking About

There are two kinds of online courses: those which are taught, and those which are facilitated. The distinction does not apply to the task of interacting with students. I’ve been both “teacher” and “facilitator,” and it’s exactly the same job from that perspective. The difference is one of autonomy, and it is a big difference.

The Gwenna Moss Centre is about to run another offering of their Introduction to Teaching Online course. Although I am a co-facilitator for this course, I would describe it as a course which is taught rather than facilitated. My co-co-facilitator and I discuss the course as it is running, and make adjustments on the fly when necessary. We take note of what worked and what didn’t, look at participants’ evaluations, and then modify the course as necessary for the next offering. Not only do we have the autonomy to make the necessary changes, it is expected that we will.

In Intro to Teaching Online, we assume that the participants will also be able to teach their online courses- that they will make pedagogical and logistical choices to respond to their students’ needs, and to make the course run as smoothly as possible. Also, that they will have the ability to revise as necessary and try new things. That’s how you teach an online course.

When you facilitate an online course, while you might take on the task of assisting students and grading their papers, what you can do beyond that is tightly restricted by a delivery model over which you have very little control. How little control will vary, but most likely it will be difficult or impossible to make substantive changes to what is taught, or how it is taught. Even if you designed the course in the first place, that “you” and facilitator you are completely different people as far as control over the course goes, and designer you lost any input as soon as the design contract was up.

If you are lucky enough to be able to request changes, the process is rather like having completed a painting, then being told you aren’t allowed to touch it anymore. If you want something to change, you must fill out a form describing in detail where the paint should go and how to move the brush. Someone more qualified than you will make the change. They might send a note back to you saying that they plan to improve your painting of a cow by adding spots. You must then explain at length that it is in fact a dog, and should not have spots. When the painting is finally modified, the dog is the wrong shade of brown. You decide it is best to not request modifications to your paintings in future.

Why does this matter? I don’t care how good you are- you never get a course exactly right the first time. If there aren’t any outright problems, then it soon becomes apparent where improvements can be made. Facilitator you gets to see the problems or areas for improvement, but must be content with grading papers and answering questions. If facilitator you is like facilitator me, this will drive you nuts. If facilitator you is subject to the same kinds of course evaluations as someone who can teach their course, and make it the best it can be, then this is not only unfair, but professionally dangerous.

While course quality is affected by this- especially if no-one sees a need to consult with facilitator you about how the course is going, or there are no mechanisms for facilitator you to communicate issues and be taken seriously- there is a bigger problem: the very integrity of the course.

At one time distance education was mostly intended to serve those who could not go to a brick-and-mortar institution for one reason or another. Maybe they had a family or a full-time job and couldn’t leave to go to school. Maybe they just couldn’t afford to move. Now things are different. While I don’t have any hard numbers, from what I can tell, at least 70% of my students are already taking classes at a brick-and-mortar school. They take an online class because they can fit it into their schedule better than one on campus, or it isn’t offered on campus at a time they need it, or they’re trying to get ahead/ complete their degrees over the summer.

What this means for the big picture is that students are far more likely to communicate with each other about the course than in the past. It might be two students who take the course together, or it could be someone who took it previously sharing information with someone currently enrolled. In the case that is causing me problems right now, a substantial number of students from one department at one school take the online course to fill a requirement. This is a facilitated course, so perhaps you can guess where this is going.

The students talk to each other. Some of it might be innocent enough, but some of it involves passing on assignments that I’ve graded to the next group of students who take the course. The course has not been updated substantively in some time, so the same assignments and exams still apply.

The problem has become ridiculous of late, with students submitting near-perfect assignments, all exactly alike plus or minus a few careless errors, and within record time. They get things right that no-one ever gets right. Clearly they are working together, but they are also referring to older assignments. I know this for certain for a few reasons: First, the correct answer will frequently appear after incomplete or even nonsensical work. They submit solutions with the answer that would have resulted if a typo, long since removed, was still in the question. They also plagiarize my comments from old assignments, sometimes reproducing them verbatim.

This course has a must-pass stipulation on the final exam. Normally that would be some comfort, because students who haven’t learned anything on the assignments would fail the exams. I’ve seen students with 95%, 99%, and 100% on assignments unable to break 20% on the final. (The exam isn’t that hard.) But over the past few months it has become apparent that the content of the exam has been shared. If not an actual copy, then a very good description of what it contains is in circulation. Exam grades have gone up, and students are regularly answering questions correctly which were rarely answered correctly in the past.

Ideally, if so many students who know each other are taking the course, the assignments should change frequently. In our hyper-connected world, it is almost certain that this kind of communication between students will happen. I even know of a homework-sharing website that has some of the solutions posted. The problem is that in order to change this, someone has to keep on top of the course full-time, and have the autonomy to make the necessary changes. The main consideration should not be the logistics of altering course materials. There’s no excuse for that when the relevant materials are or can be delivered online, and everyone and their dog knows how to upload a file to an LMS.

Nevertheless, the issue is that facilitators cannot be empowered in this way without disrupting the underlying structure of course delivery. Even more problematic is a culture amongst those who do run things- those who are not subject-matter experts but who handle the day-to-day operations- which views facilitators as incompetent, and unable to handle this responsibility. Not long ago I was handed an in-house guide to designing distance education courses. It warned readers at the outset that most faculty would be uncooperative and not understand how a distance education course should run. I felt ill, the way you would feel if you overheard your co-workers complaining about how useless you were. As I recycle that book I will contemplate with irony the damage this attitude has caused to distance education, and wonder if maybe I should take a chance and start the dog-washing business I’ve been thinking about.

There are many reasons to disempower facilitators, not the least of which is the cost savings from having them as casual workers instead of full-time ones. So here’s where I’m going to get in trouble for this post (if I haven’t already): if your concern is the bottom line, what happens when the ease with which students can cheat in your course makes other schools, employers, professional certification organizations, etc., decide that credit for your course is no longer meaningful? Even if cheating is less of a risk, what if word gets around that the course is hopelessly outdated or has problems? You don’t get enrollment, that’s what. And the people who communicate this aren’t going to be disgruntled facilitators. I’m the least of your worries. You need to worry about the students themselves who joke openly about cheating, and how little can be done about it, or who are discovered to lack skills or to have learning that is outdated.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what schools view as the appropriate way to structure a distance education program, and what actually works on the ground, when you’re expecting learning to happen. One involves online teaching and the other does not. There is a cultural gulf between those who have the power to do something about it, and those who can only look on in frustration. There are a lot of dogs to wash, but with most of them you have to spell out B-A-T-H rather than say the word, or they run off. A waterproof apron is useful, but not foolproof. You’ll need lots of towels.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Learning technologies, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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