Assuming That Teachers Aren’t the Primary Obstacle to Change . . .

encounters80Introduction: This encounter began with a comment posted by Lynn Zimmerman to Tom Preskett‘s latest article (“Blackboard Reinforces the Status Quo“). ETC has published variations on this theme in the past, but it seems to be a zimmerman40problem that defies the collective wisdom of educators at all levels. Could it be that we’re barking up the wrong tree? If we assume, for a moment, that teachers aren’t the primary obstacle to change, then who or what is? Why? And what can we do to overcome this obstacle? -Jim S

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 10:38 am:

I’m trying to recall a period of my professional life when “teacher resistance to change” wasn’t used as the master explanation for the failure to improve education. Education seems almost equally divided between insisters on change and resisters to change.

So: some random, hypertextual questions and thoughts for Lisa, Tom, Lynn–and me.

If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

Education budgets are in shock. Institutions have already moved to drastic economies, including the increasing use of poorly paid adjuncts to do most of the teaching. Will adjuncts using Web 2.0 pedagogies be able to instruct more students, fewer students, the same number?

If an institution using the old organizational structures offers 25 sections of English 101 to Freshman, should those sections teach from a common syllabus, or does each instructor set her own goals and choose her own Web 2.0 pedagogy?

Michael SandelA Harvard prof named Michael Sandel–you’ll find him on YouTube–teaches a course called “Justice” that attracts as many as a thousand students: so many that Harvard has to commandeer its theater building for the course. Apparently the students as well as the prof thinks the course generates “active learning,” despite these numbers. Can a lecture really generate “active learning”? (Sandel is now in the process of putting his course online.)

It’s been said before–by me among others–that it’s more useful to think of the system as eliciting the resistance rather than any one element of the system, like the teacher.

Churchill, you remember, started with the building. “We shape our building,” he said, “and then our buildings shape us.” Lecture halls, classrooms, offices, dorms: those structures resist change at least as insistently as teachers.

When teachers leave the existing system–when campus faculty become part of an all-distance learning initiative, for example–their “resistance to change” often ends.

We need to consider changing our explanations for teacher behavior. And that might require overcoming our own resistance to change.

jims40Jim Shimabukuro, 21 Oct. 2009, 12:49 pm:

Steve Eskow: If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

Good question, Steve. The answer’s yes and no. The underlying issue in online learning seems to be ease of use. On the one hand, CMSs (Course Management Systems) such as Blackboard, Moodle, and Sakai are responses to the problem of learning how to move courses online, either fully or partially. The assumption is that an integrated system, or a CMS, is the best method. It’s the Swiss Army knife approach, the all-in-one. Learn one system, and you have all the functions that you’ll need to teach and learn online.

The problem with this all-in-one approach is that users are locked in to a limited set of features. If we compare teaching to building a house, then a CMS is a closed construction system that provides basic tools and materials. The instructor, as carpenter, quickly discovers the limits of her/his tools and resources. After a while, it’s obvious that the house can take on only a limited number of shapes — and it ends up as a little box in a virtual landscape of boxes that all look just the same.

Teachers are, if anything, fiercely independent. They want to own their courses, and they do so by selecting their own required textbooks and resources and developing their own syllabi and learning activities. They demand the freedom to set up their own schedules, assignments, learning activities, and grading systems. They often demand a specific room in a specific time slot. This is what makes teaching an art and so personally fulfilling. The CMSs, for all their purported simplicity, run counter to this independent spirit.

On the other hand, a completely open system such as Web 2.0 is, at least for the novice, bewildering. Where to begin to build a course? How? In comparison, a CMS is a haven of order and simplicity.

From the perspective of an administrator, a CMS is a simple and logical way to move classes online. The alternative is, apparently, chaos.

But is this true?

I’d argue that it’s not. A quick exploration will reveal that all the functions available in a CMS are also available on the web. The difference is that they are not roofed under a single CMS. In a very real sense, the world’s largest, most flexible, most open, and most powerful CMS is the web itself. Instead of just one format for discussions, you have scores; instead of just one format for submitting or presenting papers and projects, you have countless; instead of just a handful of ways to present course material, you have a nearly infinite number.

The point is that once you’ve seen what’s available in the world’s market place, there’s no going back to the single store in your neighborhood.

From the perspective of IT folks who are assigned the task of guiding neophytes into the brave new e-world, the prospect of putting all their effort into a single closed system versus a nearly infinite variety in an open system is very attractive.

But looked at another way, this one-answer approach is shortsighted and ultimately noneducative. If learning is empowering, then this approach stifles learning. In the end, you have instructors and students using a very limited subset of what the web has to offer, and the transfer of learning from the single CMS to the worldwide web is nil. The web remains a scary, chaotic place, and the users are back at square one when it comes to web proficiency.

Returning to your question, Steve: Yes, the students taking five online classes in a web-wide or open CMS (OCMS) would have to learn five different OCMSs. But the critical difference is that all of the parts of the different OCMSs are on the web and the student will quickly learn how to categorize and use them. It’s like getting your bearings in a strange city or highway system. You learn that they all have the same features, and it’s just a matter of adapting to slight variations.

In the end, the student and teachers learn to be at home on the web rather than in the limited confines of a single, closed CMS (CCMS). It’s the difference between being at home in the world and being at home in your neighborhood. Opportunities for creativity and development are unlimited. The outcome is empowerment of the student and the teacher.

Are there problems in guiding faculty in the use of this open approach? There are, but they are far from being insurmountable. In fact, the process can be quite simple. It’s the same ones we use to teach general skills that need to be applied in different ways for different settings. But that’s for another discussion.

Are there other problems, such as security? Yes, of course, but, again, solutions aren’t all that difficult to develop.

When it comes to technology, freedom of choice is a critical factor. Examples abound. All we need to do is look at our choices of cars, cell phones, entertainment, travel, computers, software, etc. The movement is always toward more options than less. We can expect no less in education, in teaching and learning.

Steve, I was planning to respond to some of your other points, but I’ll need to do that some other time.

bbracey40Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 21 Oct. 2009, 12:55 pm:

I enjoyed the GAID Global Forum in Monterrey, Mexico, because every time a person blamed it on teachers. I queried:

Who decides what the curriculum is that teachers use and what flexibility is there in your system?

Who creates the infrastructure for teaching and learning in digital ways and what is the way, the method of teacher professional development?

Is it like a vaccinatioin — one shot and that’s it, or is it sustained and supported?

Access to information: Is it there? What speeds are there? So many teachers don’t have broadband at home.

What access do teachers have (in the US, too) to broadband and the rich resources on the web? Do they have it in school and at home?

What time is allowed to update practice and to learn new media?

GAID2009

The professors from Latin America were saying that the computer should not replace the teacher. I asked how would that be possible or do you mean you have a problem with elearning initiatives while you are being webcast? Why one technology and not the other?

Infrastructure, content, community of practice and support, sustained support for devices and programs, use of tools like T Pack, understanding of Bloom’s taxonomy, digital understanding of cyberbullying and resources — who makes these decisions and are they known?

There is a lot more. What really gets my goat is that other people tell us how to teach and then when it does not work we get the blame. For example, the last 8 years of no science and all of the groups that have gone to Washington complaining about it.

Ms. Spelling killed the teaching of science with NCLB. Example: the teachers in Washington, DC, following the practices that DC accepted have now been weighed by Ms Rhee and found wanting. So who is to blame when schools don’t have a website or teachers don’t have email. Hello?

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 21 Oct. 2009, 1:08 pm:

Great questions. I even get bewildered from time to time with so much on my plate. I was single and so time was not a problem. These days I don’t have the time, though I am an eager advocate of what works. Some things are not to my liking, but in a K-12 school system we usually don’t get to make those kinds of decisions.

Some informed practice requires teacher involvement, reflection, and understanding. Everyone tells me teachers can’t program. That is not true, but programing takes an investment of time and support.

Here is an interesting take from an Edutopia Blog: “Let’s Get Real About Innovation in Our Schools,” by Suzie Boss 10/12/09.

Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 1:40 pm:

I have to brood some about your provocative comments, Jim.

One question occurs immediately.

Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine.

Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize?

On the other hand. . .and there’s always another hand:

The system is professional, tested, flexible. . .and allows you and the rest of us to concentrate on ideas rather than systems and technology.

Jim Shimabukuro, 21 Oct. 2009, 2:28 pm:

Steve Eskow: Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine. Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize?

Good question, Steve. Yes, I think my choice of WordPress (WP) for ETC fits with my views on using the web as an open CMS. ETC uses WP as part of the web — not part of a closed CMS. WP, as used by ETC, is available and accessible to everyone. Anyone can use it to set up a blog for an endless number of purposes. Use it in ETC and become proficient, and the tool is also yours to use for your own purposes. Transfer of learning? Yes, definitely. And it’s free.

I explored four different blogs before deciding on WP. Two were part of packaged systems, a social network (Ning) and a closed CMS (Sakai). The fourth was freely available on the web, Blogger, which is easier to use but not as stable or powerful as WP.

There are other blog programs, but for me, it came down to Blogger and WP. I chose the latter. If there are better open web, free blog platforms, I’d like to explore them.

Is it perfect? Definitely not. But improvements keep coming, and in time, it ought to address many of its shortcomings.

WP doesn’t have the feature you want — email notification of a reply or post — but it probably will someday.

We could shift ETC into the Ning social network (SN), and that would give us the feature you want, I think. I’m not sure how powerful Ning’s blog is. My first impression wasn’t very good. Or we could pour ETC into a Ning discussion forum setup to get the feature you want. But in my mind, we win a battle but lose the war. There are so many more advantages to ETC in the WP environment than in Ning.

This is not to say that WP doesn’t need to beef up its discussion features. It does. But my guess is that WP isn’t fully aware of the potential of discussion in blogs. In time, though, hopefully it’ll learn and turn the discussion feature into a powerful tool that surpasses that found in Ning.

WP’s discussion feature is on a par with most open web blogs that feature posts by selected writers. If a reader comments on an article, he/she doesn’t usually receive notification of comments from other writers. This notification feature seems to be standard for SNs, but not for blogs. But this could change.

I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question, Steve, but if I haven’t, please let me know.

keller40Harry Keller, 21 Oct. 2009, 2:48 pm: In public schools in this country, teachers are the problem and the solution. Because so many classroom decisions are left to the teachers, they can stymie reform and innovation. These days they are underpaid and overworked. When your school sits in a difficult neighborhood and your class size has ballooned, you are a miracle worker if you can have any learning take place. It’s not particularly surprising that they resist new ideas. Besides, many new things get funded for just a year or two. The teachers put in the time to learn about these things and then find that they’ve wasted their time when they disappear.

Teachers are the solution for plenty of reasons that I don’t have time to explore now.

I’m getting ready for CSTA (California Science Teachers Association) and have lots more to do before I leave.

CSTA2009


claude40Claude Almansi, 23 Oct. 2009 12:05 am:

[Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 10:38 PM:] If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

[James N Shimabukuro, 22 Oct. 2009, 12:49 AM:] Returning to your question, Steve: Yes, the students taking five online classes in a web-wide or open CMS (OCMS) would have to learn five different OCMSs. But the critical difference is that all of the parts of the different OCMSs are on the web and the student will quickly learn how to categorize and use them. It’s like getting your bearings in a strange city or highway system. You learn that they all have the same features, and it’s just a matter of adapting to slight variations.

Personal experience: in 2007 Università della Svizzera Italiana foresaw an “intensive French module” for their Master course in Intercultural communication, but they have re-used the same URL for the 2008-10 course), to be given in French and English. I was put in charge of this module (which took place Apr. 16-20) rather late, and with indications about number of participants varying from 3 to 15 until the day before it began. Actually, there were four participants, all already inserted in professional life.

When I asked for access to the Master’s Moodle CMS to store info so that students could concentrate on oral activities without having to take notes all the time, the organizers told me I couldn’t because training in the use of the CMS was only foreseen for after the language modules. I thought it was odd to have to train folks in using (managing maybe, but using?) Moodle, but there was no time to argue, so I made a wiki instead (click here to see what it looked like when we started).

When I showed the wiki to the students, their first reaction was, “Why not the Moodle CMS?” I explained, they raised their eyes to the ceiling, then went at the wiki. None of them had ever actively used one before, but it took them under 5 minutes to get the hang of this one. They liked the idea of not having to take notes all the time, particularly the two (a grand 50%) who had broken their writing arm.

I guess nowadays, a new web app is no problem either for younger students who grew up with Web 2.0 things that are all similar due to their XML basis – see Michael Wesch’s classic video “Web 2.0 . . . The Machine is Us/ing Us” (1).

[Steve Eskow, 22 Oct. 2009, 1:40 AM:] I have to brood some about your provocative comments, Jim. One question occurs immediately. Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine.

(en passant: apart from the RSS solutions I mentioned in the thread about notifications, another work around is to make a comment yourself and check the box for “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”)

Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize? On the other hand . . . and there’s always another hand: The system is professional, tested, flexible . . . and allows you and the rest of us to concentrate on ideas rather than systems and technology.

Blogs can be used as LMS, but wikis – which nowadays are just as easy to use – are definitely more adapted, because they don’t have the linear constrictions of blogs (2). Moreover, wikis keep the history of changes, so if you or a student bungle/s, you can always revert to the former version – most free wiki platforms enable download as a zipped file in 3 clicks of the latest version of the whole thing, some even of all the history. Fewer bloging platforms offer this possibility.

__________

(1) If you’re already using intranets in your work: re “The Machine is Us/ing Us” video (also see the thread in this list about folks annotating stuff “on” one’s page with tools like Sidewiki and Diigo): there are several Diigo annotations on the video page, collectible in 2 clicks – including one by Wesch himself about adding the video to Mojiti (where the video actually disappeared under several layers of comments, which you could fortunately disable if you wanted to see the video).

(2) These linear constrictions can be bypassed: in 2005, I made a mirror of a Tunisian Human Rights site that was being blocked by censorship in Tunisia, in a blogger.com blog: I made a “table of content” entry I dated something like 2100 so that it’d stay on top, then linked in it to the other entries where I copied the pages of the site. But a blog is short for web log, and logs are intrinsically linear, because they are time-based, like diaries. Wikis *offer the possibility* of a time-based reading, through the history feature, but they don’t impose it.

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