Welcome To My Buffet.

This is the presentation of your fearless web page editor – Jonathan Rees – at the Colorado AAUP IP workshop on August 11, 2020:

In July, Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame) wrote an article for The Atlantic about teachers going back to school in a few weeks. He’s against it, but I want to play off a smaller point he made there:

I wouldn’t trust the U.S. secretary of percussion to tell me how to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” if they had never sat behind a drum set, so why should any teacher trust Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to tell them how to teach, without her ever having sat at the head of a class? 

Besides seconding that sentiment, I’d like to apply it on the college level to more than a few other people too. In far too many cases, tech executives, IT professionals, very well-meaning instructional designers and even administrators who may have taught before, but still don’t understand how teaching online works, will try to tell you what online tools to use in your class, as well as how to use them. 

Both online courses and online tools for face-to-face courses have become very important because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that shouldn’t infringe upon the central position of the faculty who teach those courses. Because of your advanced education in your chosen discipline, you have earned the prerogative to make the final decisions as to both the content and the manner in which you teach your material. 

The AAUP Redbook, the compendium of our organization’s many contributions to higher education, doesn’t have a statement on online courses per se, but it does discuss distance education:

A faculty member engaged in distance education is entitled to academic freedom as a teacher, researcher, and citizen in full accordance with the provisions of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure…

Perhaps more importantly, here’s our general statement regarding the Freedom to Teach:

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.

To me, the greatest threat to both these principles is the Learning Management System (or LMS).

The LMS was invented during the 1990s as a way to help universities get classes online faster.  Somehow, those LMS operators managed to convince schools all over the world that all courses, online or otherwise, should operate through their products. In an increasing number of colleges and universities around the country, use of the LMS in all classes has become mandatory –  or at least so heavily encouraged to the point that it is difficult to tell the difference.

I think the primary problem with the LMS is that it sets a framework for the way you interact with your students. Unfortunately, this problem is so subtle that it’s difficult to recognize. For example, the idea that students who make progress over the course of the semester should get some extra consideration when you determine their final grade, won’t fit in an entirely numerical online gradebook. The order of the buttons on the homepage of your course is a statement of priorities in that class. The ability of system administrators to add announcements to that page, is an infringement on your prerogatives as a teacher. That said, I recognize that there is some benefit to having every student know exactly where to look for their online course content and to have some familiarity with the basic arrangement of that site.

A few years ago, I started working at the Center for Teaching and Learning at CSU-Pueblo and basically refused to leave. One of the things I did almost immediately upon arriving there was to start lobbying everyone I could find to switch our LMS from Blackboard to Canvas. My primary reason for doing so has been that Canvas plays far better with outside programs than Blackboard does. This makes it far easier for instructors to find technologies that align with their pedagogical goals rather than let the LMS make those decisions for them by imposing its pedagogical framework on your classroom.

That campaign is ongoing, but we at CSU-Pueblo have all come to a pretty good compromise until that change takes place. Blackboard has become the starting place for most of our classes whether on campus or online, but no class is required to end there. While I have listened to a surprising number of worried administrators tell me that there are somehow risks to our accreditation if any professor fails to produce their class discussion logs three years after the fact, I have nonetheless managed to convince enough people in power to recognize that there are great pedagogical benefits to using a number of online tools that work outside of Blackboard and very little downside.

Here are some of the tools, most of which work completely outside the LMS, that I employ in my classes and have introduced to those other faculty members who are inclined to use them. The first two are sort of umbrellas which can lead to a lot of other programs that aren’t mentioned here, which is a long way of saying that this list isn’t exhaustive:

  1. Reclaim Hosting is a Fredericksburg, Virginia-based company run by ex-academic IT specialists designed to provide inexpensive hosting services to faculty and students around the country. While they work directly with many universities, you can also spend about $30/year to get not just your own website up, but any other free or open source program with educational uses that you could possibly imagine. When you run your class through a website you control, you undeniably control all of your own content.
  2. WordPress is perhaps best known as an open source blogging program, but it is now far more important as a popular way to build web sites. It also makes a perfectly good LMS substitute for anyone who is so inclined because you can make a WordPress website that you control do practically anything. I can’t program, but I’ve been working on my WordPress skills for years now and am pretty sure that I’ll never need to.
  3. Slack is a popular e-mail alternative for business teams. I use the free version as a replacement for the terrible discussion boards on Blackboard. What I like most about Slack is that the design is so instinctual that I have never had to spend a single minute explaining how to use it to any student in my class. It also helps that it’s very customizable in the sense that you can use GIFs, emojis and link to stuff outside the limited confines of the LMS.
  4. Scalar is a web publishing program out of the University of Southern California. The idea behind it is that without knowing how to code at all, you (or in my case my students)  publish books online with online media like pictures and video. While I always say that if I had to do my dissertation over again I’d publish it on Scalar, instead I use it for student digital humanities projects. That’s because iin my old age, I’ve decided that I’d rather help students build something instead of just cram facts down their throats that they could always just look up on Google.  
  5. Wakelet is a program to collect URLs to articles all over the web and keep them in one place, organized by subject matter. While it’s a good way to find whatever you’ve read on the web, it is a fantastic tool for you and your students to collect and review materials on the same subject together. As a historian, this is a great way for me to take advantage of all the information the Internet has to offer by letting students do research online, but also teach them what makes particular Internet sources more reliable than others
  6. Hypothes.is is a tool for online annotation. Whether on the web or on a .pdf that you post yourself, it allows you and your students to mark sections of a text and then talk about those sections in the margins of the document. Infinitely flexible and open source, it’s a tool that is useful in every discipline that depends upon words in any way whatsoever.

You’ve probably figured out that there’s a philosophy behind all of this, but it’s not just a philosophy of teaching. It’s a philosophy of the proper relationship between administrators, faculty and technology. My dear friend Jonathan Poritz and I wrote that philosophy up in our 2017 book, Education Is Not an App. This is from the conclusion:

[E]dtech must serve the needs of academic freedom and the choices of the experts, the scholar-teachers. This amounts to a buffet model of educational technology. Instead of simply imposing a single system of classroom management or e-mail or even a single way to access the Internet, the job of campus IT shops is to help faculty, students and staff choose from a diverse selection of IT offerings…This will allow every actor at the university to find the best programs that support their pedagogy or their learning.

So welcome to my buffet. Eat all you want, or eat a little or perhaps eat nothing at all. That choice remains yours.


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