Monday, September 15, 2014

Rethinking Gen Ed/Undergrad Ed: A Tale of Two Meetings

Image from
During the past two weeks, I've had the opportunity to take part in two different but overlapping conversations about the future of undergraduate education.  The first came on the UT Austin campus, when I attended a full-day symposium--Campus Conversation--dedicated to the complicated but important question of how a research university like mine can do a better job of integrating research and discovery into the undergraduate curriculum.  In some ways, I think the charge of the symposium was too narrowly conceived.  It struck me as an important question, but also something of a defensive response to legislative threats to the value of research that doesn't make money.  My students can benefit from my activities as an active and engaged scholar without themselves "doing research".  If we define research in broad terms, as something more like question-driven learning, then I'm fully on board.  If we mean that all freshmen should be treated like miniature versions of ourselves, I'm a bit less enthused.  In the same way that graduate programs have run into trouble by assuming that the end goal of graduate training was solely to produce imitations of ourselves, it makes no sense to treat all undergraduate as future researchers.  It DOES make sense to leverage the power of curiosity and digital tools to structure our courses around questions to be answered, problems to be solved.  I will say more about this Campus Conversation in a separate post (and I've written a quick overview of it, with links, here).

The consensus of the faculty was that we need to find ways to re-imagine our undergraduate courses and curricula to engage our students in meaningful, authentic learning experiences.  How we do that, given the current state of budgetary austerity under which we are operating, is a different and more challenging question.  The problem with meaningful and authentic learning experiences is that they tend to require a lot of resources, especially human resources.  Indeed, it is the human interaction--the interaction of teacher and student (or, in other terms, novice and expert)--that stands at the center of the learning experience and drives it.  It is exactly why, even as we experiment with taking certain kinds of learning out of the classroom (i.e. basic content acquisition), the interactive piece of learning--online or f2f--becomes all the more necessary.  In "The Power of the Personal", Daniel Chambliss observes: "Time and again, finding the right person, at the right moment, seemed to have an outsize impact on a student’s success—in return for relatively little effort on the part of the college."  In other words, the secret sauce of student success seems to have student-faculty interaction as a main ingredient.  Automation has a place to play in the 21st education at resource-starved institutions, I would contend; but faculty, especially tenure-track faculty (not because they are superior to non-TT faculty but because it says something about the institution's commitment to them and their subsequent willingness to give back to the campus community), are the sine qua non of meaningful learning experiences and student success, both narrowly and broadly conceived.

Today and tomorrow, I am in Washington DC as a member of a Digital Tools sub-committee for an AAC&U project on re-imagining general education for the 21st century.  The project, called GEMS, is in the planning stage of submitting a proposal to the Gates Foundation.  In this meeting as well as the two earlier ones, we have spent a lot of time talking broadly about general education and its role in the undergraduate curriculum, especially at a time when many students "swirl" around, collecting credits from a variety of institutions until they have enough of the right kind of credits to graduate.  I'm not that old, yet I come from a generation that arrived at college with perhaps a handful of AP credits. I passed some graduation requirements by taking exams--essentially, a form of competency-based education that has always existed.  But I remained a residential student for 4 years, taking full credit loads.  I grew up not far from a community college and even had to take a course there in order to graduate from high school; but few people in my graduating high school class took community college courses with the intention of transferring them and counting them towards their college graduation requirements.  My generation went to college and entered into an essentially closed ecosystem.  That ecosystem is no longer closed.  My UT Austin students take courses at community colleges, at other UT System campuses, and online to "get done with" their GE requirements.  As an institution, we have little control over their lower-division curriculum at this point, even as we lament the ways that this change has not served our undergraduates all that well.  Frequently we encounter upper division students who have weak writing skills, little sense of how to construct an argument from evidence, and a general lack of basic content knowledge.  Oftentimes, they have to retake introductory pre-reqs in their majors in order to be prepared for upper division courses.  This prolongs their time to degree and costs the institution as well as the student.

Given this widespread change in how students go to college, it is clear that general education is in need of reform; and that we need to have more cooperation between institutions, more agreement on what we think are the learning goals and outcomes--the Degree Qualification Profile--of a successful student.  I hesitate to use the word "standardization"; but, in fact, that's partly what we need.  But we also need to use this as an opportunity to get general education right--at least for this generation of students.  My sub-committee, the Digital, has spent a lot of time trying to identify our task.  What, exactly, is it that we expect the digital learning environment to support and facilitate.  Today, continuing a conversation that began in June, we reached the conclusion that, in the end, what we were talking about was how the digital would support and, ideally, enhance, authentic learning. 

I was struck by this focus on authentic learning today, in part because I realized that we all see essentially the same thing: we need to find ways to make student learning more authentic, more discovery-oriented.  Our group would argue that the digital is essential to this curricular transformation, not because it replaces the human element of learning but because it enhances it.  It highlights exactly what it is that we faculty bring to the classroom.  It makes sacred that time when we share space with our students.  It means that we can "offload" most content acquisition to other spaces and spend the time in class engaging in higher order thinking and analysis.  It means that we can be there for the hard stuff, helping to prepare our students for an adult life and working world that will require them to be nimble and adaptable, to constantly learn new and complicated skills.  If they are going to be prepared for this workplace, we need to think hard about how and what and where they are learning.  We need to understand that the notion of students being graduates of individual institutions means something very different today than it did even a decade ago.  Things won't change much for the Harvards and Reeds of the higher education world; but for the rest of us, they have already changed and we are already trying to catch up to the new reality.  Tomorrow's task: articulate in clear terms the role of the digital in this catch-up game, as it pertains to general education courses.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Going Live!

At 8 am on 2 September 2014, Online Rome went live for UT Austin students as well as for the ten students who enrolled in the course via our extension program (UEX).  Since then, we have released two more modules. The total enrollments: 15 UEX students and 295 UT Austin students.  In addition, I have 190 students in my blended instruction campus course.  I am most relieved that we managed to go live and get the first three modules released without any major problems.  This is a small miracle, given that a week before classes began I was pushing to postpone the course release date to January.  No marketing had been done, registration was opened extremely late, and the oversight of the online courses had moved from one dean to another in early August. 

Our biggest shock thus far has been the amount of student interest.  Given the lack of advertising, even to UT Austin students; and the very late registration opening (the Friday before classes began), we were expecting somewhere between 15-25 UT Austin students.  I was persuaded to wait on pulling the plug with the argument that this would be a good opportunity to beta test the course with a small group.  With 300 students, though, we can't afford any screw-ups.  If I've learned anything about teaching at scale, it is that any minor error has the potential to cause enormous confusion and chaos.  It was a mad scramble to staff the courses appropriately and also to get all the usual course documents prepared for the instructors.  In the first few weeks of the semester, I focused a lot of attention on making sure that we communicated regularly to the online students, and that we were exceptionally responsive to their questions.  As expected, there was a bit of disorientation but I think we were able to resolve it pretty quickly and get everyone down to work on the modules.

And then there was the matter of getting the modules polished and out the door.  We had nearly all of the content finished, but still needed to add short podcasts.  Thankfully, my new project manager is an audio engineer.  I sent him scripts and recordings of me reading all the strange Latin names and terms; he found people to record the podcasts in their studio.  I wanted there to be a multiplicity of voices, and we have that.  My technologist also worked hard to get the first three modules out during these first weeks of the semester.  I did a lot of proofreading, editing, and decision-making while she worked on the packaging of the content. 

The only major issue we've had was with copying the Canvas course site from one course to another.  For some reason, this process is buggy and required us to go in and re-edit the copied site.  Otherwise, apart from some broken links, we've had few questions from students.  They seem to be doing what we want them to do: working on their modules.  They will have their first discussion this week, on Piazza.  In order to facilitate better discussion, we've divided them into groups of about 50.  The quality of these posts should tell us a lot about how well they are learning in the online environment.  It should also serve as a check for them.

My biggest issue is trying to figure out how to manage the scale problem.  The course design is constructivist and high touch.  So far, I've decided that we will make every effort to give generous amounts of feedback through the first three modules.  This will get them to the first midterm.  After that, I am thinking about introducing a couple of things: first, instead of the instructional team grading and responding to all short answer questions (there are quite a few in each module), we will respond to a selection of questions and then post general feedback for the others.  Second, I will have them respond to a peer's short answers.  I am thinking that I might do the first form of response for the modules that lead up to the second midterm; and then the third form for the modules that lead up to the third midterm.  And frame this transition as part of the design (which, in fact, it is): by the end of the semester, we want them to have progressed from passive recipients of feedback to active givers of it, whether to themselves or to their fellow students.  I was motivated to think harder about this issue because of the size of the class, but I actually think it's one of those situations where a problem is actually a stimulus to a better solution.

It is going to be a very long semester for me.  Thankfully, I have my sine qua non, Dr. Liew, helping me every step of the way; a very strong instructional team; and a great project manager who is doing his best to take tasks away from me.  Still, it takes a lot of time to prepare the modules for release.  We have to work very carefully to ensure that no errors are introduced and to ensure that everything is set properly.  But we are also focused on quality.  My team of students who worked on the modules this summer did an excellent job of preparing drafts.  Now we are revising, beefing up content, adding graphics, and creating introductions, summaries, podcasts, etc.  It is interesting but mentally draining work.  On the bright side, we are creating a durable artifact, and much of the work that we are doing this fall will not have to be redone in the near future.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

It's Getting Real: From Conception to Birth

The single adjective that best captures my experience of building and deploying an online, for credit course is frustrating.  Sure, it's been an intensely creative experience; it has made me grateful for all the wonderful people who have worked on the project.  But it has also been intensely frustrating to ensure that all of our hard work was going to result in an actual course that actual students could take for actual credit.  In mid-August, shortly after learning that the oversight for projects like mine was moving from one office and associate dean to another office and different dean (and, in fact, to a very different kind of unit), I thought long and hard about postponing the launch date to the spring semester.  I knew that we would be ready with the course--the product; but was close to losing faith in my university's ability to ensure that the course was staffed and open to students.

As it happened, we barely got the UT section of the online course open for registration and an instructor hired.  We jumped through countless hoops, some of them entirely unnecessary, but managed to pull it off.  I owe a lot of this to the amazing executive assistant in the Classics Department as well as the fabulous staff at the International Students office (the course instructor needed a visa, and yesterday).  We did almost no advertising.  A good friend made a nice poster which we emailed to the undergraduate advisers on the Friday late afternoon before classes started on the following Wednesday.  We were hoping that we'd get maybe 30-40 UT Austin students to sign up.  We'd had no time at all to market the class because it took until late on Friday for the Powers that Be (no, not Bill Powers himself!) to finally sign off on opening the class to students.

Last Sunday night, I logged onto the Canvas site for the Online Rome UT section.  13 students had enrolled!  I was thrilled.  Suddenly, it felt real.  All the work, all the stress and anxiety, the constant nagging of administrators to sign forms, seemed worth it.  13 students were going to take the course!  I was immediately reminded of how challenging it is for faculty to work on courses when we don't have a clear sense of our audience, or even know if there will be an audience.  On Monday morning, I opened my email to find a message from our undergraduate adviser, letting me know that some 70 students had registered for the online class over the weekend.  I was stunned (and realized that Canvas was about 24 hours behind in updating the roster).  Over the week, many more students added the class.  We now have about 250 students in the UT Austin section, another 10 or so in the Extension School section, and then I am teaching 200 students the blended instruction version on campus.  I am utterly floored that, in just over one week and with virtually no advertising at all and well after most students had finalized their schedules, we were able to attract so much interest.

I have especially enjoyed the many exchanges with students, both face to face and over email, about the online class.  It is clear that the prime motivating factor for them is being able to fulfill a graduation requirement while introducing some flexibility into their schedule.  We spoke a lot about how they would still need to find time for the classwork, but that they could do it a bit more on their own schedule instead of the university's schedule.  Nobody asked if the online class easier, nor did they expect that it would be.  Several asked if there were live streaming lectures (since this is the dominant model at UT): nope, I said.  In fact, there's almost no lecture.  These conversations gave me a great opportunity to chat with students about self-regulated learning, about time management, about making use of different kinds of feedback.

As we continue to fine-tune the modules and get ready to start the course on Tuesday with an orientation module, that feeling of intense frustration has been replaced by exhilaration, delight, and excitement.  I am proud of what my team has built and am excited to see how these students worth with the content.  I am sure that we will learn a lot, including ways to make the course work even better.  But having 260 students on the other end of this makes it all worth it and is a great reminder for me of why I do what I do.  I love writing and research and I continue to do it.  But I am at a point in my life and career when I especially enjoy introducing my passions to others, opening their eyes just a bit and letting them have glimpses of the world to which I have dedicated my professional life.

When I tell people that I am working on building an online version of my Introduction to Ancient Rome class, I am sometimes greeted with skepticism: "Who would want to take a course on Ancient Rome?" they ask.  A lot of people, it turns out, both undergraduates but also non-traditional students.  I am convinced that, once we get the word out there that this course exists, we will find that our enrollments via the Extension School will also increase.  To go along with the launch of the Online Rome course, I created a Twitter feed (@OnlineRome).  I wanted a place where I and the course instructors could post cool images and other information about Ancient Rome.  Basically, it would be a feed about Ancient Rome that is curated by content specialists, for students and other interested individuals.  I was shocked to see that, within a few days, the account had around 200 followers from all over the world.  Most of the followers are not academics and clearly just have a side interest in ancient Rome.  This delights me.  These are the people that I want to reach, whether via Twitter or an online course or even a non-credit, less weighty MOOC.  If we are going to get people to care about the humanities, our first step is to engage them and get them to see why it is worth spending money to continue to support teaching and research in this area--even supposedly esoteric fields like Classics.

I am very excited to see how things go over the next several months.  Most of all, I am delighted that all of our work over the past year (and long before that) is going to serve a purpose for at least 260 students.  They say that mothers don't remember the horrors of labor once they have successfully birthed their child.  I am hoping the same holds true for bringing online classes into existence!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Building an Online Course: Resilience, Teamwork, and Organization

Over the past several months, as I have sunk deeper and deeper into the morass of issues around the development and deployment of an online course, I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the particular personality traits and skills that such an undertaking requires.  Working in this world is really nothing like the work that most faculty--especially liberal arts faculty--do as researchers and instructors.  Administrators who are urging faculty to take on these projects likewise seem to have only a tangential sense of what it takes to produce and deploy a high quality, scalable, asynchronous online course in a reasonable amount of time and without running tens of thousands of dollars over budget.  For a complex project like an online course to be successfully developed and deployed, three qualities seem to me to be the sine quibus non: resilience, ability to delegate, and strong organizational skills.

Far and away the most important quality that any project leader for online course development needs to have is resilience.  This is still a brave new world.  Universities are, on the whole, not well-positioned or equipped, either with adequate technical resources or clear policies and procedures around this mode of course production and delivery.  In addition, different parts of a university (e.g. the provost's office vs colleges vs departments) can be (often are?) at odds on matters of policy, including essential issues like who bears the responsibility to staffing these courses (paying instructors but also processing appointments).  I have spent much of the past 8 months feeling like a YoYo, being jerked in every which way and having to work very hard to stay calm and focused.

To give just one small example (with major consequences): I found out in mid-August that the oversight for online course development in my college was moving from one dean to another.  Exactly a year ago, the exact opposite move was made.  The move itself made a certain amount of sense in terms of course development: it was returned to the college unit that oversees instructional technology.  As well, this unit is responsible for producing the SMOC courses (Synchronous, Massive, Online Courses that are filmed in studio and live-streamed to students).  Unfortunately, for a more traditional online course, this move introduced an incredible amount of chaos just as we were pressing to finish development and working to get everything in order to appoint instructors and open the course to registration.  Thankfully, my home department of Classics stepped in and picked up all the many dropped balls (including a pressing visa issue for one instructor).  Still, it has been an incredibly stressful two-week period caused, apparently, by a lack of awareness of all the different aspects involved in course deployment.  Perhaps the most difficult part in all of it was that I was responsible for other people.  Sure, I could have just pulled the plug on going live with the course this fall--I certainly had plenty of reasons to do so.  But, had I done that, I would have been leaving members of my team in the lurch.  This meant that I had to remain calm, focus each day on what needed to be done/who needed to be talked to/what form needed to be signed, and try not to let my frustrations with the lack of institutional infrastructure (or even, clear understanding of what was needed) get in the way.

The second major lesson of this project: it's a team effort and every team member needs to be used to his/her full capacity.  Hire good people, preferably people you know and trust to deliver a quality product on time.  Hire people with different skill sets.  Developing an online course requires a tremendous range of skills: content expertise, creativity, ability to navigate technology, good written/oral communication, a sense of the aesthetic, ability to respond to constructive criticism; willingness to wrestle with challenges.  If classroom teaching has long been the provenance of the individual instructor, high quality online course development is and will always be a team effort (and, incidentally, it causes one to rethink the idea that traditional classroom teaching ought to be done by professors working in isolation).  No single person can do everything--even if they had all the skills.  The workload is simply too high.  As we get ready to go live with Online Rome, I realize that the workload of preparing this class is akin to writing a scholarly book, not to preparing a new course for the classroom.  I was fortunate to have an outstanding team of recent PhDs, a current PhD student, and an undergraduate working with me all summer.  This fall, one of these recent PhDs will continue to work closely with me as an instructor of one of the sections of Online Rome and also in the capacity of a postdoctoral researcher.

Deployment of the course required a whole other team of people: our department's executive assistant to process instructor appointments, including the paperwork for a visa; the course coordinator; the undergraduate adviser.  I hope that, now that these online sections are "on the books", it will be less hectic to open them for enrollment each semester.  But, each semester, decisions will have to be made about how to staff the courses.  Someone will have to process those appointments.  Likewise, the different sections of the online classes will likely need to be coordinated in some manner, and updated.  At present, there is no infrastructure in place to ensure this sustainability.  It is not part of my teaching load and I am receiving no compensation for all the work I've done (and will continue to do this fall) to ensure that the online courses run smoothly.  I am hoping that a good amount of this can be delegated to my post-doc, however.  And that's the other major lesson: delegation is essential--as is knowing what to do yourself and what to delegate.

Finally, when working with a team, it is essential that the team-leader (which, in online course development is likely not the project manager but instead, the faculty leader) have a clear vision, an operative sense of the big picture, and an ability to work a few weeks ahead of everyone else.  It is not necessary for each team member to be aware of issues that don't affect their work (e.g. I handled the vast majority of "project management" issues without the involvement of any of my course development team).  It *is* essential that the faculty leader not simply rely on a project manager to run the show (more on this point in a different post).  The faculty leader is the content expert and they are the person who, in the end, needs to provide that clear editorial voice that will give the course fluency and coherency.  They also need to remain aware at all times of who is doing what, how well they are doing it, whether they need extra help, etc.  Team members need to have firm deadlines for producing work and also need to have a clear sense of how their part fits into the bigger whole.

Even more importantly, when working with graphic designers and technologists, it is crucial that these partners know what you will need them to do well in advance of deadlines.  Problems inevitably come up (we've had several on the technology front); time has to be built in to deal with those problems.  Likewise, it helps these non-academic members of the team if they can plan their own workflow.  I found that I was able to get good results when I communicated needs and deadlines several weeks in advance.  Of course, it is still the case that we are scrambling to finish all the "packaging" of the modules.  Yet, because we've been talking about design specs and vision for final look and student experience of navigating the course, we aren't trying to make decisions and implement them at the same time.  The decisions were made long ago--now it's just a matter of having enough hands on deck to do the work.

Faculty often hear that they are the obstacles to innovation, particularly on the teaching front.  We are the ones who resist adopting new classroom technologies or experimenting with new modes of course delivery.  Some of this is certainly true.  Yet, in reality, I think many faculty are eager to experiment, particularly in developing digital assets that could be used to blend/flip a course or even convert a traditional classroom course into a fully online course.  However, for this to ever happen on a large scale, institutions need to build infrastructures that support these faculty efforts; they need to understand all the complexities of developing and deploying digital content and ensure that these efforts are adequately incentivized and supported.  They need to create and implement clear policies so that it is as straightforward to get an online course approved as it is a classroom course.  We faculty who are diving into these projects are learning a lot about the sorts of support that needs to be in place in the future.  Administrators who are advocates of online course development would do well to learn from our experiences--the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Online Rome for UT Austin

FINALLY jumped through every last hoop!  Online Rome now has a unique number and is open to UT Austin students who are paying flat rate tuition.  A great option for getting your VAPA requirement out of the way while learning all sorts of fun things about Ancient Roman culture, history, politics, art, and literature.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Is an Online Course a Good Idea for Me?

This fall, UT Austin students will have the option to take my Introduction to Ancient Rome course as a more traditional, classroom-based, large-enrollment course (though we capped it at 200 for the fall); or as a more individualized, more self-paced online course.  The course content is largely the same, except that students in the traditional course will receive credit for meeting two graduation requirements (Ethics Flag and Visual and Performing Arts area requirement).  At present, we have not added an ethics component to the online course and so it meets only the VAPA requirement.  Otherwise, the courses have the same learning outcomes (as pertains to the course content).

What sorts of students are going to succeed in the online course?  First, to succeed in a course that is more self-paced, you will need to be able to discipline yourself.  The course is not entirely self-paced: there are fixed dates for midterms and other assignments.  However, compared to the traditional course, it offers a lot more flexibility to students.  This is likely to be especially useful if you are an upper-division student, with a tight schedule.  The course instructor will be working closely with you to make sure you don't fall hopelessly behind, but you will have to take on a lot of responsibility for managing your time.

The online course will also appeal to experienced students who, in basic terms, already know how to be college students.  You've been at UT for a few years, you know how to manage your time reasonably well (hint: cramming for exams is NOT good time management and we have excellent evidence, collected over many semesters, that it works very poorly in this course), and you know how to make constructive use of feedback.  In the online course, you will be getting a lot of feedback, some automated and some in real time from the instructor.  The instructor will also work with you to help you identify and clarify points of misunderstanding.  But, again, some of this will demand that you take ownership of your learning, seek out help when you need it, and make good use of the feedback you receive.

There is good evidence that online courses work best for students who are experienced college learners (e.g. generally not freshmen, though there are always exceptions); who are good at self-regulating their learning (i.e. who know how to take in feedback and self-correct; who are able to avoid procrastination and cramming); and who are generally self-directed learners.  If you are the sort of student who gets bored in class but happily do your work outside of class, this is a good course format for you.

This online course does not expect you to "teach yourself.".  Far from it.  It is carefully designed to engage you in the content, to lead you through the complexities of Roman history. and to help you develop a firm grasp of the most important details.  You will have the chance to connect with other students in the online class as well as in the traditional, classroom-based class.  There will be strong student support in place and we will add more if we can see that it is necessary.  We want you to succeed in this course and will be doing everything we can to support your success.

At the same time, if you know that you need outside structures to discipline your study (e.g. weekly quizzes); if you know that you learn better in the more social environment of the classroom, then you might consider registering for the more traditional, classroom version of CC 302 this fall (or in future semesters).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

I am very excited about my upcoming Intro to Ancient Rome Online course this fall.  The course has been a year in development; and a team of us have been working crazy long hours this summer to get it ready to go live in early September.  It is being offered via UT Extension for the very reasonable (downright cheap!) price of $350 for three transferable credit-hours.   You can see a short introduction to the course here.  Why should you take a course on Ancient Rome?  What have the Ancient Romans ever done for us?  Well, here's one good answer....

The course is intended for high-achieving high school students, university students, but also anyone who is interested in continuing their education.  It would be an ideal introduction to the rich and complex world of Ancient Rome for a couple or family planning a trip to Italy or Western Europe over the next year.  It has been designed in accordance with the principles of active, constructivist learning.  There are very few moments of straight lecture.  For the most part, students will work through interactive modules, answering questions, watching curated videos, looking at and discussing paintings, architectural remains, coins, etc.  In designing the course, we imagined ourselves laying out an entertaining treasure hunt, with clear clues.  But it will be the students' responsibility to navigate the content, construct meaning and understanding, and then refine that understanding based on both automated and real-time instructor feedback.

The course will be run by an instructor, Jessica Luther.  She will work closely with each student as s/he moves through the modules.  She will be offering feedback, both oral and written; she will be available to help with logistical issues; and she will be an excellent resource for helping students identify and correct misunderstandings prior to graded exams.  In addition, Jessica will be hosting several live events, streamed from the UT Austin campus, during the course of the fall.  The course is designed to appeal to learners who need a flexible schedule.  Only the midterm exams have fixed dates.

If you have any questions about the course, its intended audience, or the design, please don't hesitate to contact me directly (jebbeler at