The Art & Technique of Education

Vermeer Melkmeid

Vermeer Melkmeid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just watched the film “Tim’s Vermeer” which is a fascinating exploration of art and craftsmanship. An inventor and video pioneer, Tim Jenison, sets out to solve the mystery of how Vermeer painted nearly photo-realistic paintings at a time when artists in the Netherlands were still working out the basics of their craft. I have written here before on the fascination for optics, mirrors, and the camera obscura in the Northern Renaissance in my discussion of Svetlana Alper’s The Art of Describing.  Jenison finds that Vermeer probably used a series of mirrors to project an image onto a canvas and then used another mirror to view his painting and painstakingly match the tones in the reflection to the image he was creating on the canvas. Jenison reproduces one of Vermeer’s rooms and then sets about to make a Vermeer painting with no formal training in art. His thesis answers questions like: why are there no drawings underneath the paint? and why are there optical distortions in his paintings that only happen with lenses? It is a fascinating film. And then the questions that Jenison is concerned with include questions about what then is art?

Jenison’s experiment used Vermeer’s composition, palette and techniques but is what Jenison produced really art? It is not a Vermeer because Vermeer choosing what he did constitutes a huge part of his art and Jenison made his choices based on making a copy. Jenison could not do what he did without the technology but then again, maybe Vermeer couldn’t either. It is an interesting question.

Somehow, to the modern Romantic sensibility, art married to technology is not “real” art. But I don’t find any of this shocking at all. We dealt with this around photography a hundred and fifty years ago or so. I think that despite the application of technology, and maybe because of it, Vermeer is just as much an artist as Da Vinci or Basquiat. In fact, the Greek word for “art” (τέχνη) and its Latin equivalent (ars) do not signify “fine art” in our modern sense, but were applied to all kinds of human endeavors such as craft, design, or fabrication. Artists are apprenticed in workshops not to learn how to be “artists” in our sense of the term, but to grind minerals into pigments and make paint, to stretch and treat canvas, to learn how to manage the different brushes – in other words, art was something that you did. Vermeer is an artist because he is first a craftsman, and then he hacks the current technology to produce pictures with a visual depth never before experienced.

We experience this phenomena with teaching and learning as instructional designers. Instructional design is often thought of as a technique and not the art of teaching. That instructional design is about tools and not relationships. Teachers sometimes say to me that learning only takes place between the connection between the teacher and the student – everything else is superfluous or gets in the way. When I ask them if this learning takes place in a classroom, they say yes. Does the classroom facilitate the relationship or inhibit it? Are there good arrangements of desks and poor arrangements? Can a white board help those conversations? And they get the idea that yes, even face-to-face classes rely on technology. It is not the technology that is doing the teaching. And technology can be used to facilitate bad teaching, and I resent that because the first thing faculty do is blame the technology! A great example of this is to look at the current state of the conversations around MOOCs.

But another way to look at technology and teaching is to ask one’s self what makes teaching successful? What is good teaching? A few of the measures we use is engagement and interactivity – that is, does the course encourage the interaction between the teacher-student, student-student, and student-content. There is decades of research on the connection between interactivity and student success in courses both online and face-t0-face. Combine this with research on active learning strategies and an instructional designer can start to see a natural fit with teaching and the use of technology in the classroom or in online classes to facilitate that level of engagement. This technology does not make anyone less of a teacher anymore than Vermeer’s mirrors made him any less of an artist.

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Teaching in WordPress

WordPress logo blue

WordPress Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am very interested in this development, Teaching with WordPress. Learning management systems have always been considered a necessary evil at colleges where I have worked, but as the internet evolves, there seems to be no real reason to lock down teaching and learning. I am looking forward to meeting and working with instructors interested in open learning.


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Yes, MOOCs Still Matter

I am sometimes forwarded articles from the Comical of Higher Ed and elsewhere that proclaim the death of the MOOC, that they are not ready for primetime, or that they are better for professional development. All of which I find very funny. The so-called “hype cycle” has played through the press, the entrepreneurs all got their cold dose of reality, and now I think that we can get back to the real work of teaching and learning online, using a wide-variety of platforms and methods, including MOOCs.

English: Photo of tile mosaic, Iowa Hall, Univ...

Photo of tile mosaic, Iowa Hall, University of Iowa (Wikipedia)

In the meantime, I am taking a MOOC on “How Writers Write Poetry” from the University of Iowa, and another one on the art, culture and religion of the Alhambra from Universidad de Granada (La Alhambra: historia, arte y patrimonio). The one from U de G is being taught in Spanish and English. Incidentally, I can’t think of a better time in the history of the West to be promoting courses that increase a greater understanding of Islamic Culture and our past pollinations with the Al-Andalus cultures. And this is what education is supposed to do. This is why we got involved in education in the first place: we have a chance, through education, to make a difference, to shift out-moded world-views, to effect positive change by bringing learners a broader perspective on the world.

I don’t really buy into the Gartner “hype cycle” idea. I have written about that here before – it doesn’t predict anything, it is not a “cycle,” and there is no way to measure anything with it. It is basically a valueless subjective claim about any process or technology. With that said, I thought the expectations of MOOCs when the corporations started to get involved were just ridiculous. What public college would think that putting classes online were going to be a cash cow? That myth was debunked in the late 90s if not earlier. One should not go into education expecting to get rich quick. There must be some other reason people go into education – like they believe it is worth doing for some other reason besides money. Online classes (including MOOCs) are just another delivery method. Just like face-to-face courses, they can be designed well or poorly. As the corporations eventually learned, design and support is everything. What software you use or how you deliver videos are nearly irrelevant compared to design and support. As soon as they figured out that MOOCs are real work, they require careful instructional design, and that the students need access to the same kind of support that students need in face-to-face courses (or even in “traditional” online courses), they basically abandoned the idea and declared MOOCs as okay for professional development but not “real” courses. Good. Lets get the corporations out and the teachers back in! Lets get back to the true roots of MOOCs – Connectivist MOOCs with real engagement and interaction rather than video collections online. Now that we have gotten the ridiculous expectations out of the way we can get back to teaching and learning.

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Science and Biology Open Textbooks from BCcampus

English: Coat of arms of British Columbia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sue Schmidt, the NANSLO/CHEO project coordinator for WICHE sent along some great links to openly licensed science and biology textbooks from BCcampus. I think the books and the model of peer review they are following could become of particular interest to us here at Humboldt State University.

BCcampus is a publicly funded organization that uses information technology to connect the expertise, programs, and resources of all British Columbia post-secondary institutions under a collaborative service delivery framework.  BCcampus is also one of North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) partners.  See for more information on NANSLO.

For its member institutions, BCcampus has identified a number of open textbooks that align with the top 40 subject areas in British Columbia and placed links to them on their website –  These textbooks have been reviewed by faculty experts in the science disciplines.

As part of the Consortium for Healthcare Education Online (CHEO) initiative funded by a U.S. Department of Labor TAACCCT grant, BCcampus was asked to review and identify several textbooks that could be used for pre-requisite science courses taught in the allied health field.   Here are links those textbooks that BCcampus engaged CHEO instructors in reviewing.  All were highly rated by these instructors and those it works with in British Columbia.

In addition, BCcampus suggested several others that might be useful in allied health:

I will be interested in talking to BCcampus about their system of peer review and how that works with their faculty. Watch this space…

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Putting the Design into Instructional Design

1st ed. cover by Paul Rand

1st ed. cover by Paul Rand (Wikipedia)

“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.”

– Paul Rand

Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design is back in print and it should be. He has a lot of interesting things to say about design and the design process. This is a good time of year to go back to this because this is the time of year I most often get the questions “what is an instructional designer?” and “why do I need an instructional designer?” I come at the design world through the back door. In the mid-90s, some universities I worked for supposed that if instruction was to take place on like, we had better start teaching instructors HTML and Photoshop. This sort of made sense at the time: the web can be a visual medium, so understanding the principles of visual composition and visual learning together would be a good place to start. I didn’t like a lot of the web design books I saw because the color schemes, fonts and images all seemed to come from video games. One book that I used a lot was the Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. I used this book as my quick introduction – it is still a useful book. I then thought, why let the programmers determine how the web should be presented? What can we learn from how we engage with the print world? What can be applied to the web and what can’t? I used to use social realist images in my posters for the tutoring center because I figured that they worked for the WPA in the 30s, why wouldn’t they work for me now? And they did, they were arresting images that made people stop and look. I began to read more about design. I know that there are faculty out there who shudder at the thought of looking to Madison Ave. for help with designing online courses, but think about it: how effective would the outcome of an advertisement be if all it did was communicate the bare information in text? But by using graphic design and typography, the best advertising asks you to engage with the information. It asks you to ask questions and to want to know more. Shouldn’t that happen in an online classroom? The best lecturers do the same: they lecture in ways that engage the students, lead them somewhere, and compels them (through curiosity) to want to know more.

Don’t get me wrong, advertising is certainly an ethically fraught enterprise. But in the absence of face-to-face interaction, design considerations, at all levels, are paramount in online courses. This includes graphics and layout – I don’t separate them from the pedagogical concerns of traditional instructional design because the visual elements become another voice in the fugue. Attention to images, fonts, layout, and graphics help students remember your course and the course material. Students begin to use the images and icons as mnemonic devices that organize the course and the information.

There is/was a movement in education around “design thinking” which I know is sometimes criticized. I don’t think there is a one-sized fits all ideal process, but I am not one of those critics – anything that gets instructional designers, teachers (and sometimes even students!) together at the table to discuss teaching and learning is a good thing.

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More on Academic Honesty…

De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have posted on the topic of academic honesty previously here. I know that some of my colleagues have solved this problem or have at least been addressing this since the mid-90s, so it would seem unusual to get a posting like this on this particular blog. But many instructors, especially instructors new to online learning, are very concerned about cheating. This is an issue that is preventing some college programs from going online. As I wrote in my previous post, project-based learning and portfolio assessment solves a lot of these issues, but we still have professors using high-stakes multiple choice tests as a significant part of their courses (specially those using canned courses from publishers). Interestingly enough, we are not really dealing with actual cases of online cheating in these discussions but the perception of online cheating. And the common wisdom (the collected prejudices of our time) take it that online cheating is more common than in the face-to-face classes. But there is a great study out there on this issue by George Watson and James Sottile called “Cheating in the Digital Age: Do Students Cheat More In Online Courses?” They questioned 635 students about academic honesty. In the study, the students overwhelmingly believe that more cheating goes on in online courses yet when they ask the students if they have cheated in a face-to-face class 32.1% said that they did. When asked if they cheated in an online class, 32.7% said that they did. In other words, there was no significant difference between the rates of cheating online versus face-to-face.

Again, project-based learning and portfolios can really make a huge difference. Not just with the cheating issue, but in providing academically rigorous, authentic assessment in any discipline.

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A Brief History of the Future of Education

This is the presentation I did at DET/CHE on how the future is represented in media reflecting the promises and fears of technology with some of the implications for our vision of education:

This is a subject I have been interested in since reading James Burke and Marshall McLuhan. My thin efforts in this area are for entertainment purposes only, and some contents may settle in shipping, but I think it is important to look at how we saw the future in the past because it can help us sort out what we think we are seeing now. I am also tired of seeing declarations via the Gartner Hype Cycle confused with research or insight. That will be drawn out in a later posting.

The team from Humboldt (Morgan Barker, Dan Fiore, Terri Georgopolous, and Kim Vincent Layton) did a stellar job of presenting and conferencing. It was a great conference!

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Implementing an Open Textbook in an Online Biology Lab Course

This was the presentation I gave today on our course design for instructor Chris Callahan’s online biology class:

After spending some time here talking to people about this, I have come up with some great ideas about better integrating the text with the course.

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Rubric of Wonder

Manifest Destinies

Manifest Destinies by Gopakumar

…and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever awaiting
a renaissance of wonder.

– “I am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I was thinking about the course development rubric. It covers the usual areas that you would expect: “At the end of this course, students will be able to identify x, apply x in a typical y setting, etc.” All completely measurable to one degree or another. And also used to decide which textbooks or content to use in the course. Recently, I reviewed one of our courses that met all the course objectives and (on the surface) met the objectives of our course rubric. But the class is a complete failure. It is run like a correspondence course and the students get grades but that is pretty much as far as it goes. I began to realize how much course objectives do not cover. They certainly don’t measure the dedication or vocation of the teacher.

And there is no wonder, awe, or transformation measured by our rubrics or course evaluations. It boggles the mind that in a era where scientists spent ten years sending an unmanned satellite to a comet, actually landing on a comet, the formulas that got it there are more important than the aspiration. In the curricula, measureable objectives and transformation are forever separated like the fleeing lovers on Keat’s Greacian Urn referenced in Ferlinghetti’s poem.

Give some ideas about what kind of engagement that COULD be included in a rubric. Why not a Rubric of Wonder? I would like to see a time when WASC or ACCJC comes into a college and says “I am sorry, unless there is some kind of personal transformation in your Astronomy classes, this college is on sanction.”

Shouldn’t the learning that takes place in school change what happens in a student’s life? Education should be a transformative experience. I can’t tell you how many times I meet teachers who are dev ed teachers say “I majored in English but I am teaching developmental ed or remedial literacy.” I have more respect for that than teaching Shakespeare to a classroom of students who don’t care. And they don’t care because the teachers are teaching Shakespeare the way that college professors teach Shakespeare to students that did care. The changes that happen in a person who now knows how to read or fill out a job application are far more profound than a teacher’s satisfaction of being able to teach Shakespeare for herself and maybe a select few students. Most of the literature students do not learn Shakespeare, they learn how to take one of those classes where the teacher is more passionate about the topic but maybe less passionate about teaching.

Sometimes the excuse is that well in Math 100, the students are learning the foundational knowledge that just needs to be memorized. There is nothing cool about it. I remember questioning the reality of some of the numbering systems in my math class – the response I got convinced me that math was not something I should study which is one of the goals of that class: to weed out those students who do not have the “aptitude” to go on to higher math classes.

How do we provide evidence of transformation in a course? How do we measure wonder? Maybe it is enough to decide that there are occasions for the numinous experience. Maybe it is enough that courses take the time to provide the venue for personal transformation or even personal reflection. Evidence might be some impact the learning had on the student. A student should be struck with wonder at the complexities and the marvelousness of the human body, the universe, the creativity of their fellow humans; that might even lead them to quit smoking. Learning should be an encounter that changes the trajectory of their lives.

As an instructional designer or teacher, what would that look like? What kind of assignments can we create that finally join the fleeing lovers of the Appolonian measurable objectives and skills into the arms of the Dionysian transformative experience? Assignments that…

  • Connect with something that actually happened in the students life
  • That link the basic skill learned to something significant in the field
  • Assignments that ask the student to focus on why they are here
  • Assignments that as students to play with ideas
  • Link what they are doing with the news
  • Students create and share new knowledge using basic concepts in a particular field
  • ?

There are a number of possibilities. Feel free to comment to add to this list!

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Larry Lessig at #OpenEd14

These are some brief notes about this mornings keynote at Open Education 2014. I was a bit relieved here. My nightmare is that one day I will show up at OpenEd and it will have been completely taken over by corporate interests and big universities (I guess that is a little redundant). But Larry Lessig assuaged my fears. He is one of the founders of Creative Commons. He didn’t talk about open textbooks or OER per se but he talked about the political processes that are getting in the way of the kind of copyright and educational reform that would mean substantial and meaningful change.

These are some rambling notes of uncertain usefulness:

He also talked about Aaron Schwartz and his passion for the removing the corruption, the central problems of copyright. Aaron

He talked about how to understand the problem with our govt.
Tweedism (as in “Boss Tweed”) – Tweeds get to do the selecting and the citizens get to do the electing. and there is a filter between the govt and the citizens.

Tweedism is something that is continuing around the world. The democracy protests in China and elsewhere are protests against Tweedism. A two stage process that filters democracy.

Tweedism is US is supported by funding. Less than 1% are funding the elections. The majority are being excluded. The average voter has no effect on what public policies get passed.

In 1998, US signed into law was the copyright extension act by 20 years. You cannot extend the public good. 6 million dollars from disney and other corporations fought to move it forward and the money talked.

No changes under the Obama administration. The drug companies, media companies, take past employers of the US trade office.

Copyright law regulates copies – but does not really cover existing copies. In US – everything that you do digitally is presumed to be regulated. Even temporary copies. The laws are constantly bending to Hollywood.

The defeat of SEC 124 – the National Review wrote an expose on the restrictions that would have allowed companies to vet OER.

Solution is that we have to reform campaign funding. It needs to be decentralized. Matching funds, vouchers, – politicians can decentralize funding. Pundits say that “people don’t care.”

How do you push back against the resignation to corruption in politics.
Focus on feasible change. A statute that would regulate funding. Ideals about what we believe. Tithe ten percent of our efforts should be addressing the underlying problem of how campaigns are funded. (Corruption in govt).

“Hope is a state of mind…an orientation of the spirit. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” – Vaclev Havel

Just at the time that we are opening things up that regulations come in a close things down.

k12oercollaborative @k12oer

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