Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pixels of humanity, dedication and joy in online teaching

I started teaching at Berklee College of Music in a traditional classroom setting when I was 28 years old. It was terrifying. Walking into a room to perform for students. Setting the tone and the expectations. Trying to command respect when I had no respect for myself. Trying to convey musical and technological concepts in a clear and understandable way. Trying to get through all the material  that was necessary for a semester. There was just so much to cram into their heads. My focus was on the topic, how to best convey it, how to make activities around it, how to organize it, how to test comprehension of it. I feel sorry for those students that studied with me those early years, because my focus was in completely the wrong place. I was dedicated to the material not to the student.

Dedication is an important word for me. It is one I come back to over and over. I started thinking about dedication when talking about synthesizers. My students often ask: "Why should I buy a expensive hardware digital synthesizer when a software version in the computer does the same calculations, isn't it the same thing?" This really is a great question, because I struggle with it myself. It should be the same thing. Math is math right? But, then my experience goes against this. Working with a hardware synthesizer is better, it feels better, and it sounds better. Even if the algorithms are the same, the hardware version is better. Why? How could this be so? Dedication. A hardware synthesizer has a dedicated processor, the brain of the synth is focused on a single thing: making amazing sounds. A computer processor is doing thousands of things: checking the web, drawing nice colors on the screen, calculating a reverb, listening for keystrokes, and you can imagine how many more things. Dedication is the opposite of multi-tasking. Dedication is single-tasking.

Aren't you more successful when you dedicate yourself? When you choose to focus, when you choose to succeed?

Dedication is a choice a person makes, one decides to dedicate themselves to a task. As a teacher then, my goal is to cultivate in the students a desire to dedicate themselves to the material, to the teacher, to each other, and to their society. As a teacher my dedication must be to the student. 

In my early teaching years I was dedicated to the material. My lesson plans were perfectly crafted and timed to the minute. Discussions and questions, when unplanned, were distractions from the plan, and causes of stress. This stress was obviously picked up by the students and set a certain tone in the room that was not conducive to learning. The plan was a barrier between me and my students. My dedication was to the plan. With comfort as a teacher came a shift in my focus(my dedication). I think this happens to all teachers at some point. I started to realize that there were people in front of me. I started to care for them. My dedication shifted from the plan to the people. I found an essential teaching tool: empathy.

Learning is something the students do. The teacher doesn't make the students learn. The teacher designs a structure where learning is likely. Students have already decided to learn, that is what they are there for. Learning happens naturally. I have seen students learn from personal lecture, lecture videos, books, discussion, interactive websites, and from games. If coherent information is presented to dedicated students they will learn. The main variable in a student's learning isn't the form of the delivery, it is the dedication of the student.

What has changed with online education? The form of the presentation of the information.
What hasen't changed? The need for dedicated students and dedicated teachers.

People are naturally inclined to dedicate themselves to other people. I am dedicated to all the people in my family and to my friends and I am sure you are dedicated to a large number of people in your life. In a traditional classroom teachers rely on this natural human behavior. By standing in front of class as a model of success and capability the students desire to perform for that person, they are dedicated to the professor. Because of  this dedication(and the trust that goes along with it) the students willingly and enthusiastically perform tasks they might find tedious or frustrating. At least that is the idea. I have experienced it myself. For teachers I am dedicated to I go way beyond the requirements. For those that I am not dedicated to I do the minimum. I am not sure this is the case for everyone, but for me student/teacher dedication is couched in a desire to impress. I want to impress that teacher that I am dedicated to, and I know it will take quite a bit to impress him or her. As a teacher, I want the students to impress me, and I make it known that it takes quite a bit to do so.

So, I have laid out a few things here. Dedication is key to teaching, both in the students and in the teacher. Teacher dedication to material can be counter-productive, and the form of the material is of little importance if the student is dedicated to learning. Dedication to people can be productive and useful. These are of course not the only factors in teaching, but from experience I think they are major factors. How does this translate to online classrooms and to MOOCs?

In a small online class, like the ones at I create the material once and the students choose their pace through it (within a week's time). As a class we move through the material together. Online teaching has done me a huge favor. No longer can I dedicate myself to the material, because that is fixed. All that is left is dedication to the student. The challenge becomes how to create that student/teacher dedication through a screen. Well, it is possible and it is actually easy: empathy. Just like I had to realize that the people in front of me in a classroom were people, the online teacher must realize that the people on the other side of the screen are people. Then the teacher needs to show the students that s/he is a person to.

Screens, typing, and asynchronous communication are barriers to empathy that the teacher MUST break down. All too often we use the internet and e-mail as a way to shield ourselves and who we are, but classroom communication needs to be the opposite. The personal student-teacher dedication thrives when there is true understanding between the student and the teacher. Often I feel like I am pushing my personality through the screen and pulling the student's personality off the screen.

In a traditional classroom I stand in front of the group and I set the tone. My carefully crafted teacher/performer personality sets the tone of the class. From that very first moment I look out to the students I set expectations for the students. Every class is different, and I craft my personality and the expectations based on the lesson material and the unique group of students. In the classroom, my dedication is now toward the group, the relationships, the people. 

The importance of setting the tone is even more important in online teaching because it doesn't happen naturally. Even if a classroom teacher doesn't consider the tone to the extent that I do, their personality and presence in the physical space sets the tone. In an online classroom the tone is set initially by the school,  it is like the default tone. And, if the teacher doesn't work hard at creating a unique atmosphere for his space that default will remain. In a traditional school, the tone is usually quite serious and teachers provide the contrast to that. Teachers provide the humanity and the empathy. It is the same online. But, teachers must use different techniques to set that tone, and it might not happen naturally as it does in a physical space. 

Setting a digital tone is tough at first, and runs contrary to "writing in a way that is unmisunderstandable" because setting a tone is an emotional thing and relies on emotional language and emotional language is tough to translate and can often be misunderstood. Saying: "this is a comfortable learning environment" doesn't create a comforting learning environment. We need to show that the environment is comfortable and learning. We need to teach the students how to interact within a digital comfortable learning environment.

The first challenge and what I would recommend first for new online teachers is practicing with  emotional language. So much of what is said in a classroom has a kind of emotional "meta-data" associated with it. Tone of voice and body posture inform how the information is to be understood. In a digital classroom this must be stated explicitly.

In a classroom, along with a smile and a nod, I might say: "The drums are too loud and the vocal melody needs to be EQ'd". The smile and nod say so much, they say "Loudon approves, but here is a little bit to make it better." The students hang on my every gesture to find affirmation of their work. I use that to push them harder.

Online, the smile and nod must be stated explicitly: "Great tune, I enjoyed the ride. The composition is well done and the mix is close. More attention to the drum level(bring it down) and to the vocal EQ is necessary."

This kind of emotional language is natural in critique, teachers often give written feedback, but this must be applied in all online class conversations. Class announcements in online systems go out as e-mails to all students. This is where a teacher can set the mood of the class through emotional language. Writing about the excitement of the new semester and the pride in the group goes toward creating that personal student-teacher dedication.

Creating student-teacher dedication is tougher for sure and there are more barriers like language and scheduling, but in an online system that is the majority of the teacher's job. With the material taken care of the online teacher's primary job becomes empathy. Focus on the student and support them through their time in the class. I know this can be done, and as a teacher I enjoy it much more. Communicating with students and helping them solve their problems is the best part of teaching in general. So, in an online system we get to focus on the best part of teaching.

Now, we come to MOOCs and things change. With thousands of students it is impossible to create student-teacher dedication and honestly I haven't come to terms with this completely. I think the loss of this teaching tool was the source of my stress in creating and running the course. How can I teach when the students don't have a personal connection to the teacher?

Emotional language can still set the tone. Weekly announcements that display the teacher's personality can help to create the environment necessary for learning. Frequent activity in the forums shows that a person is there answering questions and interacting with the community even when there isn't one-on-one interaction. Even though students are understanding of the massive nature of the class they still desire a figurehead, and it is the teacher's responsibility to provide that. I attempted to display my personality through weekly youtube video announcements, but I really don't know now effective they were in creating student-teacher dedication. Is this really a solution, I don't think so.

The MOOC system seems to revolve around the community replacing the teacher. The teacher provides the structure and the mood and the expectations, but students dedicate themselves to each other. They grade each other's projects and support each other through tough sections of the material. While this is a wonderful ideal how many people are really dedicated to their fellow classmates in this way? As a teacher I have struggled with empathizing with my online students. I practice it and work on the skill. The students have not had this practice. So, in addition to not having mastery of the material they don't have mastery of the educational format.

Without the one-on-one connection to students the teaching experience changes drastically. I focused on problems and details much more. The negatives jumped up and the positives remained hidden in the smoothly functioning class.

Where is the joy in teaching? it is in touching souls, in seeing the flash of student understanding, in minds rubbing against minds. How can the joy of teaching be retained in a MOOC? There is an intellectual joy, a knowledge that I helped thousands of people understand music production technology. I spread good information among the group and into the internet through the publicly displayed assignments. But, the visceral personal teaching satisfaction is missing. I hope I get a chance to try this again, because like my first time teaching in the classroom I was dedicated to the wrong things. I was focused on the format, the structure, the numbers, and the problems. Next time I will be dedicated to the students, and I have faith I can find the joy in teaching a massive class.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Is there a role for "anonymous" in a classroom?

Teaching a MOOC with Coursera has made me aware of all the anonymous posts in the system.  Coursera allows students to post anonymously on a per post basis. There is a checkbox that allows a forum post to be anonymous. I wonder about the value of this. I can't imagine an anonymous student in one of my physical classrooms.

I think, within a classroom, you should be responsible for what you say. This is a place that can teach you to be serious and considerate. All classes, beyond teaching the syllabus should teach you to be considerate, empathetic, and respectful. A class should teach you to consider what you say before you say it. Posting anonymously allows you to be inconsiderate, un-empathetic and even rude.

Allowing anonymous posts allows students to make "off the record" comments, which in a large way defeat the usefulness of a permanent record of a student's involvement in a class.

Is there a place where anonymous is valuable in a classroom?

Anonymous posts are great for critiquing the teacher in a traditional school. In that role they work beautifully. A student, when critiquing a professor, needs to know that they will not be punished for their comments about the teacher. I have received some of the best student to teacher critique in the anonymous surveys in my traditional and online classes. I thank my students for taking the time to let me and the administration know how my teaching has been.

Behave, or it will go on your permanent record!

It is a kind of cliche now: "Behave in school, it will go on your permanent record!"

As I teach and think about the MOOC I realize how important a permanent record is.

A permanent record contributes to (creates?) an atmosphere of civility.

In general people are more courteous and civil in a classroom. There are many reasons for this, but the permanent record is a major one. If a student in high school is getting into fights and being rude in class that activity travels with them. An awareness of a permanent record forces students to consider their actions before acting.

The permanent record in an american public school is quite vague. It lists the exceptional moments, both good and bad. The permanent record serves to identify the extremes, but leaves the subtleties of everyday achievements and rudenesses unaccounted for. In this role it supports the exceptional achievers and punishes the exceptional misbehaviors. On both extremes it is providing a great service, but with the data provided in an online classroom this permanent record could reveal much more.

Educational institutions provide employers with information about prospective employees. It is one of the major functions of a college degree. It is an important role, which right now is based largely on reputation. Online schools could provide a permanent record that is based less on reputation and more on the actual achievements and personality of the person.

Employers are becoming more nuanced in their hiring. They are using psychology and personality to determine who is the right kind of person for their jobs. They don't blindly trust a candidate because of a degree from an ivy league school. Instead, they think about the needs of the job and what type of person is necessary to do it best.

In a traditional school the grades from each class are largely what goes on a college's "permanent record." The student's time and participation at a college is reduced down to a single number, the GPA. Then it is the student's responsibility to record any achievement beyond what is represented in the GPA. Negative activities that don't impact the GPA are not permanent and they are never made known to the prospective employers.

Students know that their activities in college are not really permanent. Largely they are not held accountable for their actions at college, beyond their time at college. What atmosphere does this engender? Out of control parties and the reputation of the "college years" as the "party years." Is this necessary? Does this really train us to be respectful and capable members of society?

Honestly, it is quite difficult to have a more detailed permanent record in a traditional school. Teachers would need to record more of the student activities and that information would need to be logged and made searchable. Teachers are burdened enough, as are administrators.

Online colleges could provide employers with the information the employers really need. Online schools are largely communication structures. They provide a framework for a community to communicate within. Permanently track the activities of students and teachers. Make it known that every activity is logged, recorded, and analyzed. For those(both teachers and students) that are honest, caring, and helpful this will be a major plus. It would record cooperation and track involvement. There could be quantifiable incentives for community involvement (a "helpfulness quotient" calculated from "thanks flags" on comments or something like this).

Often people have great success in fields they did not directly study in. What we learn in college goes well beyond the syllabi of the classes we take. We learn to be studious and supportive community members, we learn to respect authority and we learn how to communicate professionally. These skills are often more important then the topics themselves, but these skills are currently not quantified or recorded by the school. That is how online schools, with a permanent record of all communication, can provide a new service to society. Employers know that who you are is more important than what you know, so schools should provide that information. An accurate and detailed permanent record could supply information based less on reputation of the school and more on who the student is.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Considering the world's time...

Time is a major factor in a mooc.
There are people in every timezone.
How can we be considerate?
How can we be fair?

Some of the most common problems I have seen in the forums regard deadlines.

The Coursera site does "know" what timezone you are in and automatically adjusts the official deadlines to the student's local time.

We need to put deadlines in more obvious locations than the "official" locations. Also, we must announce deadlines in e-mail announcements. So, these automatic localizations will not always function.

Students are often unhappy with deadline times which happen at awkward times of the day or on awkward days for their part of the world. It seems there is no way to make everybody happy.

When we can't make everybody happy we must look for what is fair, logical, and simple.

My first reaction is to make it easy for myself by writing all times in Eastern time and scheduling releases and deadlines on my schedule. This does have benefits. The most important is that it is easier to respond to problems in the delivery of the lesson. Say I release a week at 8:00 PM EDT, if there are problems with the lesson they may not be addressed till the next morning when I wake up and have a look.

There are numerous issues with Eastern time. The first is complicated math. Students must figure out the equation to translate from Eastern time to their local time. While that sounds trivial it can actually be quite complicated. I know that I have trouble with "time zone math" even though I pride myself on my mathematical abilities. The second issue is daylight savings time, which we just entered, and which just caused numerous people to miss an important deadline. The third issue is the 12 hour clock, by using a twelve hour clock and AM/PM the math becomes even more difficult.

How are we to be fair? The only way I can imagine to be fair is to use our worldwide time standard(UTC), and always use a 24 hour clock.. With this decided, I must reformulate all deadlines.

This actually brings up two questions:

1. If I say the week's lessons releases on Friday, what time on Friday, and in what time zone?
  • My preference would be to have my local Friday to release the content, 12:00 noon would be nice.
  • To be fair I will release it at 00:00 UTC Saturday which ends up being 8:00 PM on Friday Eastern Daylight Time.
2. If an assignment is due on Monday, what does that mean? Do they have the whole day on Monday to submit, or is it due before Monday? If we say it is the whole day, then when does the day end?
  • My preference would be to say 6:00 PM EDT, nice and clean for me.
  • To be fair, I will set any Monday due date to be due on Tuesday 00:00 UTC.
The next issue is the number of deadlines. I would like to make the policy clear and simple. So, I have attempted to combine deadlines whenever possible. I will make assignments and quizzes due on the same day, and assessments and new material come out at the same time. This has led to a simplified schedule:

  • The week's video lectures will be released at 00:00 UTC on Saturdays.
  • Peer review assessments deadline is 00:00 UTC on Saturdays.
  • Assignment deadline is 00:00 UTC on Tuesday.
  • Quiz deadline is 00:00 UTC on Tuesday.
  • Quizzes will be accepted up to one day late: 00:00 UTC on Wednesday.

To facilitate easy coordination of calendars, I have also created a Google calendar that will be embedded in the schedule page and I will include XML HTML and iCal links in the class schedule announcement.

Honestly, I have not been clear enough or made it easy enough for the community to know the deadlines. Mainly this is because I had not given it enough thought(a major mistake in my preparation). To be effective, a mooc teacher must have a habit of global thinking. This has become a major challenge for me and I am delighted to take on this kind of thinking. As the planet's population becomes more connected we will have to become sensitive to timezones and how we schedule. This is a benefit for me as a teacher of a mooc, but also a lesson that we can transfer on to our students.

In considering my solution I do find it euro-centric, and I hate to continue that tradition, but the benefits of easy math for all and a clean time/date policy are enough to convince me that it is the correct solution.

The next challenge is announcing this to the class in an "unmisunderstandable" way.

Finally, I have decided to include the students in this blog itself. I want to be open and clear and if students want to see my justification for setting the schedule this way they can view this post. So, I will include a link to this post in the class scheduling announcement.

A MOOC teacher must communicate in an unmisunderstandable way

"unmisunderstandable" it is a joke word, a double negative within a single word.
But, a double negative is not necessarily the same as the original positive.

I have always tried to communicate in an understandable way.
I am usually understood by others.
In a mooc, "usually" is not enough.
"Usually" leaves "some" behind.
In a mooc, "some" is hundreds.
In a mooc, if there is a way to be misunderstood it will be misunderstood.
So, for a mooc teacher "understandable" is not enough.
Instead, we must strive to not be misunderstood.
We must strive to communicate in an "unmisunderstandable" way.

The human capability to misunderstand is quite astounding.
This has been a unintentional running theme in the few past posts.
In a traditional class the teacher is there to correct these misunderstandings.

In a mooc it needs to be avoided instead of corrected.

Responding to a misunderstanding usually means sending a note out to the entire population.
Sending a note out to 20,000 because 100 misunderstand makes the misunderstanding seem widespread.
Sending a note out to the entire population is a chance for further misunderstanding.

How is striving to be understood different than striving not to be misunderstood?
I see it as a matter of focus.
In striving to not be misunderstood I start looking for ways that the content or form could possibly be misunderstood.

Let me point out the example that this inspired this post.

For projects the students are encouraged to create youtube videos and post a link to them for peers to review.

It is stated in the assignment that youtube videos must be made public or unlisted for their peers to be able to view the assignment.

Many students missed that fact and a thread regarding private youtube videos started, to point out the issue.

The fix is easy, if the student has their video private they just need to go into Youtube and switch it to "unlisted".

I sent out an announcement to the entire class and put it on the front of the class site:

Make sure all impmooc assignment Youtube videos are Public or Unlisted
A private youtube video is viewable only by the creator so it will not be able to be graded. If you do not want your video public I suggest you put it "unlisted" that gives you a link to the video that anyone can use, but the video will not show up in any searches. You are free to take the video down from Youtube after the assessment period is over.
Thank you,

I would think, because the wording of the title says "all ... videos" that it would be obvious that this is a general announcement for everyone in the class.
Unfortunately some students thought I was sending the video directly to them. These students were confused because their videos were already "unlisted".

Why did they think the message was personal? some possibilities:
-They may not read subject lines. People often miss important information when it is placed in subject lines and only focus on the body. Without reading the subject the message does seem much more personal.

-Poor translation. I see now that the only clues that the message is public is a function of small gramatical specifics of the english language. After being run through google translate that subtlety could easily have been lost.

-The use of "you" in my language. I tend to try to make notes personal and write as if I were addressing the reader individually. This may make announcements seem personal instead of general.

How can I avoid this misunderstanding in the future?
-At the end of the announcement state explicitly that the announcement is going out to all students.
-At the beginning of the e-mail add in a salutation like "Dear impmooc students," I had left a salutation out because the Coursera system automatically puts one in when announcements are e-mailed to students. I thought it would be strange to have two salutations.
-Explain the situation more thoroughly.

Here would be a better way to do the announcement:

This is a reminder going out to all students in the introduction to music production class. If you have submitted a youtube video for your first assignment please make sure that it is set to "public" or "unlisted" on the Youtube website. Some reviewers found private Youtube videos that they could not assess. It would be unfortunate to receive a failing grade just because a youtube video was configured incorrectly.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Turning complaints into suggestions

I am finding that often there will be negative posts in the forums. Not aggressive or vulgar, just negative comments toward the forum itself. I love suggestions. I want to improve. These comments are actually helpful as they point out how the system can be made better. I just don't like the tone they set. The solution is to add "suggestion box" forums that are monitored. If we can give the students a place to comment on the structure itself they tend to post there and the negativity is turned into positive critique. I have begone to create a pinned suggestion forum along with every major forum in the course. This has dramatically lowered the negative comments, and it is much easier to track. Many great improvements were made in the forums because of this.

For instance I made a set of DAW forums which is a large collection of forums where students can post information related to the software they are using. I created subforums for each of the major DAW's on the market.

These forums were announced in a weekly announcement and have become very popular. Immediately there were some negative comments:

"why wasn't ____DAW included? it is a great DAW they shouldn't leave it out!"

The honest truth is I didn't even know that that DAW existed! It was totally new to me.
I added that forum quickly.

Then I added a "How can I make the DAW forums better?" thread and pinned it so it stays in a visible location and subscribed to it via e-mail.

It turns out there were a few other DAWs that I didn't include, but the students used the new thread and politely asked for the DAW to be added, which I promptly did.

Mooc teachers need to include the students in the community we are creating. Show the community that you want suggestions and they will help you make them better. Do not take a "I am the authority" stance, it will not work. Instead include the community in the discussion at every point.

By including the community it its own development you turn complaints into suggestions.

Promoting real-time communication in a mooc

As they are now moocs rely entirely on asynchronous communication.
Real-time one on one communication is obviously important for education and the educational experience.
Beyond the material of a mooc, students get to be part of a global community.
Student recognition and acceptance of a global community is an amazing side effect of a mooc.
Real-time audio and video communication within the community would make that even stronger.
In response to this Google and Coursera are teaming up to add Google+ Hangouts inside Coursera classes.
The impmooc was the first class to introduce a simplified scheduling tool in the course.
I tried it out for the first time on Saturday and scheduled a Google Hangout.
Ten people responded immediately. 
In the hangout there were people from South America, Texas, Russia, and Canada. 
The world was immediately represented on my screen. 
It was a wonderful experience.

The challenge is teaching students to use the service and showing them how to use it best.
The first task was simplifying the instructions on how to schedule a hangout.
I rewrote all the scheduling instructions following the IBM globalization style guidelines.
I created a Youtube Video demonstrating how to schedule a Google+ hangout.
The video's view count is rising regularly, so people are watching it, which is good.

Since there are so many uses for this tool and it has such deep capabilities people seem to be intimidated by it. 
I think the best way to encourage them to use it is to propose a single use case to the students.
What should we propose there are so many options
  • Freeform social mingling
  • Language based mingling
  • Software study groups
  • Topical conversations
While all of these are great, I think it is best to focus on why the students are really here, to learn from the videos. 
I will teach them to create a hangout where they watch the class material together as a group. 
We can suggest numerous ways to organize groups, by language, by software, or by location.
The proposal I will give them is to create a hangout and watch the material videos together while taking notes and discussing fine points.