Thoughts on Openness, Access, and Creeping Corporate Control (or, Bridges are Better than (pay)Walls)

This post has very little to do with educational technology, yet it has everything to do with educational technology.  When I post to this blog, I try to keep my thoughts and comments to strictly edtech matters and avoid any overtly political statements.  But this is 2016, and everything is politicized, so there’s little doubt that I’d eventually post something that is slightly political.

On June 3rd, Rajiv Jhangiani published a blog post called “Principles vs. Publishers” where he described his recent battle with Cengage over a chapter he’d written for inclusion in their upcoming Thematic Approaches for Teaching Introductory Psychology anthology.  Jhangiani’s chapter dealt with open educational resources (OER) and offered ideas on how faculty could adopt an open approach to teaching Introductory Psychology.  The publisher, as is their right, requested that the author alter the text of the chapter to make it less critical of the publishing industry and caution faculty to use OER materials at their peril (my words, not theirs).  In the end Jhangiani pulled his chapter from consideration for the text and published the aforementioned blog post.  Inside Higher Ed wrote a piece about it, and that’s how I heard about the whole thing.

A few days later, on June 6, EdSurge published this Op-Ed piece by a Senior VP at Pearson who encouraged community colleges to leap into bed with publishers and allow the corporate deities to solve all their problems.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly.  I read the article and promptly shared a link on Twitter accompanied by the following Dylan lyric:

“Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

Tombstone Blues – Bob Dylan
Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

Now, why would I say something like that? Shouldn’t I embrace the opportunity for community colleges to finally have their “Camelot moment”?  Have I become too cynical in my old age? After all, the author had only the best of intentions and hoped for nothing more than the expansion of access to education, yet here I am being all cynical, assuming there was some profit motive behind it all.

Whenever publishers or other entities declare their love for community colleges and offer up new initiatives designed to help us, the first thing they need to know is that we can’t afford their “help”.  Their “help” has contributed mightily to the problems we currently face, and the OER movement is one way that educators (and the dedicated staff who support them) are trying to clean up the mess.

Community college students are struggling, juggling jobs, education, families, etc., and when students have to choose between paying a utility bill or spending $250 for a textbook and access online publisher materials, guess what doesn’t get bought?  

As an LMS administrator for a community college, my goal is to create seamless, simple, streamlined solutions for our students, to design a system where students spend less time learning how to navigate multiple platforms and more time learning course material.   Each minute a student spends frustrated, trying to figure out how to access or navigate an external platform or trying to figure out how to make the technology work on their particular system, is a minute they’re not spending learning course content.   Every semester, without fail, we get the calls from students who are struggling to access publisher materials that are oh-so-conveniently housed outside of our LMS, and every semester, we see students drop out of courses because they can’t afford to purchase access to the publisher’s proprietary platform. Ofttimes, the answers come slowly, and by the time student issues are resolved, the student’s are already behind.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Rodney, that’s not what that article was about.  It didn’t even mention Pearson’s web-based learning resources.  It was about something different, something innovative, something transformative.  It was about community colleges forging a strategic partnership with Pearson, a ‘public-private partnership,  with shared revenue.’ Come on man!  Get with the program.”

Sorry.  I can’t get with the program.  What I see is another attempt at the corporatization of the community college.  So please forgive me if I’m not eager to entrust retention to the very folks whose business practices have contributed so mightily to student attrition.

If publishers and other outside interests are so eager to help community colleges, they can start by embracing the OER movement.  If they want to help faculty and students, they can listen to Rajiv Jhangiani, take his suggestions, and work with institutions to increase openness and access to knowledge, not explore new ways to exploit institutions by outsourcing professional staff and corporatizing their processes.  If publishers want to help community colleges, they should help community colleges do what they do best, which is to provide affordable, accessible educational opportunities to students who have chosen to attend an open enrollment institution rather than a traditional college or university.  How can they do that?  Simple.  Stop hiding content behind paywalls.  Work with community colleges and instructional technologists to develop streamlined solutions for content integration rather than walling off content and forcing students to purchase access codes.

OER is here to stay, and if publishers are wise, they’ll accept it, embrace it, and find ways to add value to the content they market. After all, in the words of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, “Bridges are better than walls.”

Satisfaction is (at most) 140 Characters Away (or, a Customer Service Revolution)

I’ve using Twitter since 2009, and while I’ve never used it to its full capacity (meaning I don’t have thousands of followers, I don’t follow thousands of people, I don’t typically share pictures of my meals), I use the platform to meet my needs.

I maintain two accounts, one professional (@rhargismccc) where I keep up with news and trends in higher ed and instructional technology, live tweet during conferences or webinars, and interact with others in my profession.  On my personal account (@3twenty6), I follow some of my favorite sports teams (the New York Yankees and Carolina Panthers) or bands (Twitter was indispensable during 2014’s #FareTheWell concerts) or to live-tweet during some of my favorite TV shows (#Banshee, #BetterCallSaul, and #TWD, etc).

When I mention Twitter to friends or colleagues, many of them  say something to the effect of “Oh!  I don’t Tweet!” or “I just don’t get Twitter” or “What’s the point? I’ve got Facebook already.”  If you’re reading this, the odds are that you already get Twitter and don’t need me to explain it.  But I do want to share a couple of experiences where Twitter was used for customer service and how I got immediate satisfaction.

Scenario One:  Qwickly Resolved

This semester, our institution is piloting the Qwickly Attendance tool in Blackboard. Things have gone very well, and from unless something goes horribly wrong, the odds are good that we’ll add Qwickly to our arsenal of tools once the pilot expires.  On February 2, I was hosting our first faculty training session.  That morning, Qwickly released an update to the Building Block which contained significant functionality upgrades. I had given it the cursory testing on our test server and updated it on the live server.  I was eager to show off these new features, and they worked in my test course, so I didn’t take the time to do thorough testing and create a new course with a new instance of the tool (my fault).  Before I went to the training session, I tweeted that I was getting ready to do so and included @QwicklyTools in the tweet (to which they promptly responded), then off I went to showcase our new and groovy tool.

qwickly_convo01

The presentation started off well enough, I opened a course and showed faculty how easily they could take attendance in a class.  Then I went to demonstrate how to configure the tool, and at that point something went wrong…..  I couldn’t get past the setup screen.  I went into the Blackboard admin panel, uninstalled the update and re-installed the previous version and resumed my presentation. and our faculty (who are always great when tech snafus happen) were quite understanding and forgiving, and didn’t let my error dissuade them from using the tool.  But still, I’d presented to a room full of people, and my presentation didn’t go as planned.  I was not amused.  So I took to Twitter and said vented my frustration….

qwickly_convo

Within a matter of minutes, Qwickly was on the case.  They corrected the issue, released a patch, and all was right with the universe.  And, of course, I offered the obligatory shout out Tweet.

qwickly_convo02

Not too bad. Yes, there was a technical issue. Yes, something failed to perform as expected.  Yes, it was partly my fault for not performing thorough testing.  However, the problem was quickly resolved. Nothing exploded. No data vanished.  And it was quickly resolved because I took to Twitter to voice my concerns and the good folks at Qwickly were quick to respond.

Scenario Two:  Politely Kvetching

Last night, I’m at home watching the Yankees season opener (It was a 1pm game, but as an MLB.TV subscriber, I can watch every game on demand), when an ad comes on the screen saying that T-Mobile customers can get a free year of MLB.TV.  I’m a T-Mobile customer and felt a little bummed that here I was having already paid for something I could have gotten for free.  So again, I take to Twitter to politely kvetch about my situation.  I posted a tweet, bemoaning my plight and within a matter of minutes, T-Mobile replied to me.

326twitter

After a few Direct Messages where I provided proof that I am who I say I am, T-Mobile and MLB hooked me up, and again, I publicly expressed my gratitude.

326shoutout

While I didn’t get a refund for my investment into MLB.TV (an investment I make annually anyway), I DID get a credit for MLB’s store for the amount of my purchase ($109).  So now, I can almost afford that Brett Gardner jersey I’ve been wanting.  🙂

The Point

Okay.  So here’s the thing.  One of the things that makes Twitter great is that it is a fully public environment (unless you configure your account otherwise).  Anything said on Twitter goes out to the entire universe.  Most of the time, it’s of no consequence (like when I make some comment about a TV show or a play in a ball game).  It’s just a place where I can hang out with folks who share a common interest and discuss the interest in real-time.

But, as a consumer, Twitter is more than a place to hang out.  It’s an invaluable platform, a public arena for airing grievances.  Any company that wants to stay in business will pay attention to what’s being said about them on Twitter.  It’s just part of doing business in the twenty-first century.  In the two cases I mentioned, both companies provided me (the consumer) with prompt service and a complete resolution of the issues.  But what if they hadn’t resolved the issues so promptly???

Ooh! That’s Nice! (Or, My Other Favorite Obsession)

This is going to be a relatively short post because there’s not a whole lot to say about it that isn’t readily apparent.

When I’m not living in the digital world of instructional technology or trying to figure out ways to make Blackboard play nice with various instructional materials, I spend a good amount of time obsessing over music.  While my primary area of focus is pre-depression era blues and folk recordings, I have a deep appreciation for jazz as well.

The David Niven collection of jazz recordings at archive.org, is a phenomenal collection of recordings that were painstakingly selected and lovingly assembled by record collector and jazz aficionado David Niven.  The collection consists of about 1,000 hours of material that was recorded and released between 1921 and 1991 and is well worth exploring.

If you’re a jazz neophyte or a die-hard fan, there’s definitely plenty of great stuff in this collection to explore.  Me, I’m gonna start with the Bud Powell…. or maybe Chet Baker… or perhaps the Bessie Smith… or the…..

Yeah. I’m going to be digging this stuff for a while!!

Attendance in Blackboard (or, Seeing my Name “in print”)

Funny how this whole blogging thing works.  Sometimes, I’ve written a draft or I’ve thought about publishing a post on a topic, but for whatever reason I didn’t actually write the post.  Today is one of those times.  I could have sworn I’d written about this before, but apparently I have not. So here goes….

In Spring 2014, we began the process of migrating from ANGEL to Blackboard.  As anyone who has used both systems knows, there are some pretty significant differences between the two systems.  There are certain things that one can do in one but not the other, and one of the native elements of ANGEL that is missing from Blackboard is the ability to track attendance.  We tried the Hardin-Simmons (formerly Baylor) Attendance Building Block, but encountered a few issues with the configuration (long story), and decided to look for an alternative solution.

We are piloting the new Qwickly Attendance tool this semester and are quite satisfied with it so far.  The folks from Qwickly (Twitter: @QwicklyTools) have been incredibly helpful and responsive to each issue we have experienced.  There have been several updates since the initial release of the Building Block, and each update has added significant functionality to the Building Block.  The new update (3.2) is rumoured to bring even more functionality, but I won’t install that on our production server until after the semester is over, as the new version is not backwards compatible with previous versions.

The building block is simple to install  and configure, and even simpler for faculty to set up and use.  I created a video for our faculty that provides a quick review of how to set up and use the tool in a course.  You can check it out below.

Now, I must admit, I’ve been taking a different sort of attack for support with this tool, and it seems to be working very well.  While I do make the traditional support requests via Qwickly’s site, I’ve also taken to publicly stating my issues on Twitter.  Each time I’ve done this, they have responded almost immediately to my concerns.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel that I must mention that I was asked by Qwickly to answer a few questions regarding why we chose to pilot the building block, and what benefit I saw from using it.  My comments were included in their press release and appeared in an article on eCampus News.

As we near the end of the semester, I will post another update to this post to share how the pilot ended, but so far, things are looking quite promising.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms, reach out!

~R

EdTech and the Community College Student (or, Blindfolded Tightrope Uni-cycling in a Hurricane Blizzard)

Last week, I was fortunate enough to bear witness to the first online Future Trends in Technology and Education Forum on the Shindig platform.  The forum was led by Bryan Alexander (Twitter @bryanalexander) and featured special guest Audrey Wattters (Twitter @audreywatters) of Hack Education.  Both Bryan and Audrey are, in my humble opinion, giants in our field and offer incredible insights into the current state of education and technology (henceforth referred to as EdTech) and the hopeful yet horrifying future of EdTech.

If you’re reading this, you probably know this already, but it bears repeating.  Education technology is like a tightrope…. an icy tightrope…. an greased-down icy tightrope that one must navigate while riding a unicycle, blindfolded, in a hurricane blizzard… It’s the job of the educational technologist to cross this tightrope, knowing full well that the fates of many students hinge upon the successful navigation of this oh-so-treacherous path.

Okay.  I admit.  Maybe I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, but I’m not off the mark by much.

In case you missed the memo, technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace, and with these advances in technology, so expands the overall knowledge of the human race.  The education system is struggling to keep up, fighting tooth and nail to deliver the most current, relevant instructional material to our students with (particularly at the community college level) ever-decreasing funds.

Now that I’ve stated the obvious, let me get to the point.  During the Future Trends Forum, a few of us were tweeting about the topics at hand, and the advances in EdTech, and the following exchange occurred…

tweet

It’s been on my mind ever since.

(In truth, this is a topic that is rarely far from my mind, but the more I ponder it, the more troublesome it becomes.)

We have been witness to all sorts of marvelous advances in technology which have produced myriad learning tools, each one more revolutionary than the last. But for the average community college student, what does that mean?  How many (if any) of these tools are actually designed with the student in mind?  For that matter, how many of these tools will even be around in two or three years?

During the forum, the conversation shifted to the role of the “VC”  (no, not Viet Cong…. the Venture Capitalists) in the development of these new tools, and the cynic in me commented that most of this stuff is designed not for the end user, but for the company itself to gain revenue so that future updates could be applied, thus generating further revenue for further updates, which would spawn more revenue for more updates and even more revenue for……. you get the picture.

And, of course, we can’t talk about new learning tools without discussing analytics and all the wonderful, glorious mounds of data that will be generated by these tools and how we can have legitimate assessment of learning through analytics and on and on and on….

But, as Audrey and Bryan both pointed out, all this quantitative data is meaningless when assessing learning.  The only thing data can truly tell us is what we already know.  Sure, we can get broad ideas about students as a whole, but at the end of the day, did Learning Tool X really make a difference?  Well…. we really don’t know.

But what about “adaptive learning” and the rapidly developing AI??  Do they change the game by personalizing the experience?  (And how many buzzwords CAN I fit into one blog post anyway?)

So where am I going with all of this?  What is my point?

It’s this.

The LMS (Learning Management System) is a mess. It was designed by engineers for technicians.  It’s difficult for faculty and students to find their way around, and when new third-party tools are added, most of the time they don’t work as advertised.

As an instructional technology professional at a community college, it is my responsibility to make the LMS experience as simple and seamless as possible.  If students can’t log in or can’t figure out how to access course materials, or if course components don’t work on the student’s mobile device, then the student spends time learning to navigate the system or troubleshoot their problems.  This is time that should be spent learning curriculum.

So here I sit, deicing and de-greasing my tightrope, working on my balance skills, and trying to see things from a student’s perspective. I’m working on new interactive tutorials and updated designs for our Blackboard environment.  I’m even considering implementing badges into our student training materials so we can make the “learning how to use the LMS” experience more fun and engaging.

But it’s an uphill battle, and every new update, every new tool, every new earth-shattering, groundbreaking, data-driven, integrated, future-ready tool or platform that rolls out makes doing my job just a little bit trickier.

I enjoy tricky.  Tricky makes life interesting.  But at the same time, I want to make sure that at the end of the day, our students don’t get so lost in the latest and greatest technologies that they forget to learn the curriculum.

I’m rambling (or venting) at this point, so I’ll stop the madness.  But I’m going to keep thinking about this, and keep trying to solve the riddle of how to make the experience better for the students….

stay tuned.

 

Semester Rollover Re-Revisited (or, Slaying Mammoths)

I’m a Blackboard administrator.  So some of what follows may not make much sense if you don’t know a little bit about Blackboard or a little bit about teaching online.  This post is a rough draft of an idea that I’m piloting in the coming months, so the execution may change, but the core ideas should remain the same.

First, some backstory….

Each semester, I am responsible for making sure new course shells are created in Blackboard and that these course shells are populated with the appropriate materials.  I’ve gotten the SIS Integration piece of the puzzle down to a science.  I wrote a program called MOBbBEUS (MercerOnline Blackboard Back End Utility System), which, among other things, takes the data from the SIS, converts it into a Blackb0ard-ready format, then uploads the resultant data into Blackboard.  It’s gone through several iterations and is now at a place where I can comfortably say that it’s pretty much capable of handling any scenario at our institution.

As of July 1, 2016, all of our face-to-face courses will have Blackboard shells as well.  This is a big move for our institution, and one that has involved a lot of work for my team.  We’ve been building up to this for years, and in a few short months, we’ll be diving, head-first, into the LMS-for-all waters.  We moved from ANGEL to Blackboard about 18 months ago, and now we’re bringing all of our faculty and students onto Blackboard.  It’s a mammoth task.

Tackling the Mammoth

But let’s go back to the first sentence of the second paragraph of this post…. “Each semester, I am responsible for making sure new course shells are created in Blackboard and that these course shells are populated with the appropriate materials.”  How do I know what content I’m supposed to use to populate all those course shells?  Simple… I survey the faculty. Once courses have been assigned for each semester, I send a survey to all faculty members who use Blackboard and ask them to let me know what they’d like to have in their new shells, then we follow their directions and populate the courses.

But beginning in July, ALL of our courses (about 1,000 sections per semester) will have Blackboard shells, all of which will need to be populated.  How do we manage this?  This got me to thinking.  And this is what I’m planning to do.  We’ll see how it all works out…

I have decided to streamline the process a little further.  In the new process, we download the files from the SIS and run them through MOBbBEUS, as usual.  But now, MOBbBEUS will do something more.

  • When files are downloaded from the SIS, MOBbBEUS adds all courses to a “Course Status” table in the semester database.  When an instructor is assigned to a course, this is reflected in the data we get from the SIS.  MOBbBEUS will take this assignment and generate an an e-mail to the instructor.  The e-mail will contain a link to the course population request form (an Excel form) which the instructor must complete.
  • Once the instructor submits the form, two things happen:
    • The course is flagged in the Course Status table of the semester database as “ready for population” and MOBbBEUS sends an e-mail to our team containing a list of courses which need to be set up and the complete instructions on how to populate the course.
  • If the instructor does not submit the form within 3 days, MOBbBEUS will send out a reminder e-mail, and will continue to do this every 3 days until the instructor has responded.
  • Once we have populated the courses as requested, we contact the instructor to let them know the process is complete and life goes on.

At least, that’s how it will happen in theory……

It’s gonna be very interesting to see if I can make this all fly…..

oh, and it has to be coded, tested, QC’ed, and in production by sometime in late April.  It’s February 11 right now.

Well, I certainly do love a good challenge……

 

Newfangled Elevators and Online Course Design #INNMA

Right now, I’m sitting in the Marriott Hotel in Copley Place in Boston, MA.  A lovely facility with glorious views and a lot of nifty little twenty-first century features.  I’m in town for the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovations 2015 conference, where I’m once again fortunate enough to be a co-presenter in two sessions.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.  Well, it’s sort of what I want to talk about, but… well… you’ll see.  Just bear with me here.

Like I said, the hotel is ultra modern with all sorts of groovy stuff, but the weirdest, coolest, most technologically advanced, and yes, frustrating “conveniences” here are the elevators.  In a traditional elevator environment, one would… well… I don’t think I need to explain how elevators work.  If you’re reading this blog, I’m pretty certain it’s safe to assume that you know how to use an elevator.  If you don’t know how to use an elevator, If you are, somehow, unfamiliar with how to go about operating an elevator, fear not.  There is a handy video on YouTube that will help you.  Watch the video, then read the rest of this blog post.

If you’re still with me, I’m assuming you know how to operate an elevator and won’t be too perplexed by what is to come.  So, the elevators here don’t function like normal elevators.  Well, they function like normal elevators, but the usual press the call button, wait, enter the elevator, select your floor, ride the elevator, exit the elevator rules don’t exactly apply.  Instead, they have these instructions…

elevator_instructions

If you can’t read the instructions in the image above, basically, they say, select your destination from the menu below.  Once you’ve selected your destination, you will be directed to a specific elevator (A-F).  Once the elevator arrives, board the elevator and proceed to your destination.  Inside the elevator, there are no floor selection buttons, only “hold the door open”, “close the door” and “HELP!” buttons.

Now, for those of you who are curious about what the interface looks like, here’s a picture of the touch screen interface from which you may select any floor.  Yes, 13 IS an option!

select_your_floor

In theory, this is an amazing idea.  It’s efficient, it eliminates the possibilities of overcrowding and full elevators stopping unnecessarily on floors just because they’ve been called.

But that’s just theory.

The reality is that the elevator can be overcrowded and it can make unnecessary stops because the interface doesn’t know how many people are boarding the elevator on a given floor and how much baggage the passengers will be carrying.  But, it’s an improvement over the traditional elevator, right?

Sure.  It is.  Really.  But there are a couple of flaws in the design.

The first flaw is that my floor (25) is listed as an option on the menu.  This isn’t a critical flaw, but it’s a flaw nonetheless.

The second, and greater, flaw is that there are no lights or signs which indicate the elevator’s current position.  Now, if we hadn’t grown used to such a feature on elevators, that would be no big deal.  But we have, and it is.  We, as humans in modern society, have been programmed to enter an open elevator door.  That’s how we do it.  The elevator door opens, we get on.  In this system, that’s not the case.  Now, rather than keeping their eyes on all six elevators at once, watching the progress indicators above the various elevator doors, plotting how to best squeeze into the next arriving elevator, passengers-to-be wait in front of a designated door for their elevator to arrive, then board their designated elevator.

But what happens when you’ve been standing there for 5 minutes waiting for an elevator that has yet to arrive while someone else boards their elevator and departs after only 30 seconds of waiting, and you’re still standing there? I’ll tell ya what happens.  You begin to question the integrity and so-called efficiency of the entire newfangled system and yearn for the old days when elevators were a thing of the future and stairs were the only way to go (uphill… both ways…).  Okay, maybe you don’t go all the way into your own Cosbyesque routine of “back in my day….”, but you get the point.  There’s a certain psychological something-or-another that makes us want to abandon new technology the instant it fails to provide us with the immediate gratification for which we constantly yearn.

What would improve this system?  Simple. Indicator displays.  I wouldn’t mind waiting for an elevator half as much if I knew where it was and approximately how much longer I’d be waiting.  Gamify it!  All right, maybe that’s taking it a little too far… or is it?

Okay.  That’s great, but what does this have to do with online course design???

Did you ever notice that in most jokes, the setup is a whole lot longer than the punch line?  Yeah.  Me too.

This relates to online course design in the simple fact that if we don’t provide very explicit instructions on what we expect from students and what students should expect from us, then how will they succeed?  It’s not done intuitively.  Online course design requires a lot of attention to the subtlest of details.  In fact, the small details, the “gotchas”, the buggaboos, the <insert preferred word or phrase here>, are the things upon which student success can often hinge.

So, as we design and develop online courses, and as I, a Blackboard administrator and instructional technologist, look for ways to improve student success, there are often very obvious elements which are missing from a course or a system that could greatly contribute to student success.

Folks who are waiting for an elevator can make it without a progress indicator.  The elevator will eventually arrive, and they will eventually board the elevator  and exit at the appropriate floor.  The same can’t be said for students in online courses who simply give up because they can’t understand how to use the technology or how to complete an assignment.

Ok… Thanks Rodney.  You’ve pointed out a problem.  What’s the solution?

I don’t know, but I’ve got an idea.  Break it down.  Chunk the chunks.  Be redundant in your redundancy.  And this is particularly important for the folks who design the course interface…..  We have a responsibility to keep it simple and visually appealing, while paying particular attention to the details.

So this elevator thing inspired me to blog again.  Yay me!  It’s been a while because my school has been in the midst of migrating from ANGEL to Blackboard for the past year, and that has kept me busy in all sorts of ways.  Add to that some health issues which have led me to become one of only a handful of people to receive a cochlear implant for single-sided deafness (details are on my Medium blog), and you can, hopefully, find it in your heart to forgive my lack of updates.

Anyway, I’m starting to ramble.  So, as always, if you have any comments, questions, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms, feel free to reach out.

Best

~r