Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The online component of instruction – blogs or LMS? Some discussion

I’ve narrowed down my technology choices for this spring. In the intermediate microeconomics class I will use Moodle as the primary environment. In the behavioral economics class I will have student teams with their own blogs (my suggestion will be to use Posterous) while I will maintain the class blog in Blogger. Then I’ll keep Moodle for the grade book and to have secure messaging about work that has been graded. The last week or so I’ve been learning Moodle and in this post I want to make some comparisons between these environments that I hope will be useful for others.

Before I do that I’d like to make a couple of observations. I hadn’t used Moodle previously. A couple of weeks ago I got an overview and some further support from staff who support Moodle. These people were friendly, responsive, and very helpful to me. I appreciate their efforts. I’m going to say some things about the LMS as a teaching environment that are the opposite of cheer leading. None of those comments are directed at these staff. From my vantage, they are excellent. The other observation is in comparing Moodle to WebCT Vista, an environment I knew quite well from my prior role as Assistant CIO for Learning Technologies. In that comparison Moodle shows pretty well. It is remarkably consistent in the designer interface, it offers quite a bit of functionality, in the main one edits in the same place where students will find the object, and it does things like file attachments efficiently and without fanfare. (The one functional flaw I’ve found is that the text editor doesn’t appear enabled when using the Chrome browser.) I haven’t put Moodle through the paces for functions specific to very high enrollment courses, but I suspect it can handle that ok.

Now let me preface my comparison with how my thinking about teaching conditions my reactions to these online environments. Most recently I’ve taught seminar classes with fewer than 20 students. I’m expecting both of the classes in the spring to have enrollments in the mid 60’s. Yet I’d like to enable some elements of the seminar in these courses too. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m eager to teach this spring is to see what is feasible in this dimension. The mechanism I’ve come up with is that each team of four students will make a blog post about upcoming readings and discussion topics. Then other members of the team will make comments that follow up and extend the discussion. And somewhere within those comments I will make a comment too. This is not identical to the mechanism I wrote about in my Inside Higher Ed piece, but it clearly was informed by that prior experience. I’m hoping that as we get into the course the students will also see their way to commenting on other teams’ blogs. I will encourage this though I will not give credit toward the grade for it.

I haven’t taught intermediate microeconomics for 10 years, but I do have memories of it and as it turns out I also have some electronic materials for it from 10 years ago. Yesterday, I looked through an old midterm that was on consumer theory. I liked what I saw. It put students through their paces and tested them accordingly. It clearly was based on a problem set approach to understanding the economics. For students who are comfortable with that approach from their other courses, it seems a reasonable way to go. But the reality 10 years ago was that most students weren’t in this category and they had an aversion to this particular course. The question then as instructor is whether the appropriate response is, “tough nuggies, this is good for you.” I believe that was my approach 10 years ago, though it wasn’t pleasant teaching this way, because there was a lot of resistance. My intent now is to try something different, though retain some elements of the problem set approach. I want to get more at student formative thinking and I want to spend more of the class time on discursive rather than analytic aspects of learning the economics, in the hope that this will better engage the students and get them to appreciate that economics can help them understand a good deal of the complexity they will confront in their own lives.

In a nutshell my conclusion is that the LMS is a good environment for a problem set approach. It is not nearly as good for a discursive approach. The LMS encourages student work to be graded and in good part is conceived to facilitate that interchange. But much student formative thinking requires response only, no grade, just as in class discussion there is back and forth with no assessment of individual performance in that setting. For the particular mechanism I’ve come up with I played with Moodle (and I needed dummy student accounts to be able to visualize for myself what this would look like) and it appears either that team blogs can be private to team members only and the instructor or that they can be read by other members of the class, but these other class members can’t post comments (though they could indirectly comment in their own blogs). Perhaps there is a way to achieve this in Moodle that I haven’t yet found. This goes to my next point.

The LMS is a complex environment from the viewpoint of the instructor/designer. I can’t say whether other instructors envision the design problem as I do but my approach is to have a broad strokes view of what I want to achieve with the class, develop some understanding of the online environment, and then make a determination of whether to practice judo with this approach to leverage what the software is capable of or to use a shoehorn approach and make the software accommodate my prior design. This task is made much harder when the software is itself complex. My interpretation is that is apt to get a lot of mundane use with the LMS, because anything else becomes too daunting for the instructor. Or, the instructor may imitate the design from another instructor who has done the legwork, whether that is appropriate for this class or not.

The LMS is an online environment that comes out of Higher Education and as such it is informed in its design by educational theory. One element of this theory is the notion of scaffolding. I don’t know definitively that scaffolding explains the design of Moodle, but as with WebCT Vista, in the main class site everything remains a click away. The skeleton of the course is revealed this way. The flesh is hidden. Whether that is important to the students or not, I don’t know yet. It is important to me. I much prefer having dynamic content in the sidebar as well as in the main blog, with the tabbed pages for the static content. This way the content that is immediately important is most apparent. Why it should be a click away doesn’t make sense to me. (Incidentally, as regular readers of my blog know, I’m rather partial to misdirection as a teaching approach, since students have mental blocks that won’t make them appreciate apparent contradictions between their experience and their own held beliefs. I believe the scaffolding should be apparent after the misdirection, but not before.)

Here are a few other issues that are particularly important when taking a discursive approach.

(1) Copying from MS Word. I was told this was a problem. I’ve got Office 2010 and in my testing of it there doesn’t seem to be a problem in Moodle, though it may be with earlier versions of Word. It is a problem with Blogger. There is supposed to be a publish to blog function, but that doesn’t work. And the copy and paste problem is there with Blogger. Posterous is nice here because you can simply email the Word doc as an attachment and it will embed a converted version into the post, including the attachment as well.

(2) Width of text on the screen. There is little aesthetic design to the Moodle blogs or forums. Text can fill the screen. With longish posts, something I want to encourage in my classes, this becomes hard to read. Narrow columns are better. I wish this could be set as an instructor preference.

(3) Blog posts don’t’ have a pemalink in Moodle. They are just individual posts in a scrollable list of posts, arranged in reverse chronological order. I said a student on one team could in her own team blog comment on a post by a student on another team. But indicating which post to refer to would be tricky. This is a big deal if there is a lot of posting.

(4) No distributed administration. LMSs are hierarchical in their authority, giving all the power to the designer. If part of the current idea in teaching is to empower the students, it would be good for the software to encourage this. Having students administer their own site makes sense. Moodle does enable individual student blogs as part of the class site setup, but for team blogs, those are enabled by the instructor/designer.

Let me conclude. Since I had a former life as a campus administrator, I understand that some aspects of the LMS are there because Higher Ed is heavily regulated and the LMS aids the campus in coming into compliance with these regulations. Using blogs as I have suggested may be iffy in that way. But conforming with these regulations is of secondary or tertiary importance. The prime imperative is to encourage learning in the classroom and for that it may very well mean traditional approaches to instruction need to be reconsidered. This doesn’t mean abandoning the LMS altogether. As I argued in my ER piece from last year, what is needed is dis-integration. At present this is happening with the awareness but not the consent of central administration. I would like to see overt advocacy of the approach from those in authority. In my opinion, it’s where we should be heading.


NIS said...

Lanny, when you say "The prime imperative is to encourage learning in the classroom and for that it may very well mean traditional approaches to instruction need to be reconsidered." , what about fully online courses that do not have a "learning in the classroom" situation. What would you recommend?

Lanny Arvan said...

I wrote this post thinking about traditional undergrads. I have never really been able to get vigorous asynchronous discussions that involve the entire class with such students. In days of yore when I taught in the problem set mode, I had online TAs who did nighttime office hours and those were synchronous (text chats) with those subsequently archived so others could review. I had quite a lot of those office hours - maybe 25-30 hours per week, all drop in, which I could afford because my class size was triple the norm. So you need some synchronous tool and for that I believe the privacy consideration is more important than in the asynchronous world. If you use Elluminate or Adobe Connect for those things, or similar environment, then you may want it to integrate with your asynchronous tools - which makes the blogging more problematic. But if you start thinking about unified communication or the Google synchronous tools as the alternative, then it is less clear.

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