Sunday, May 15, 2011

Network Down! And Other Thoughts On Shifting Our Educational Practice To A Virtual World

Yesterday the Zenith network went down.  While the message that informed us that things were working again said something about a hardware upgrade, it is difficult to believe that they really intended to take the whole system down during finals week.  I suspect that, although tinkering may have been part of the issue, the network was also overwhelmed.

This happens periodically because of two institutional impulses, neither of which is inherently bad, but which together can create havoc:  putting as much of our work on-line as possible and cutting the university budget.  It is only a guess that these two things are related, but I can't recall a year during which we have lost our online services abruptly so very many times (the last occurrence was in the middle of uploading senior honors theses.)  Here's a lesson for you, if you are an aspiring administrator:  money saved by implementing technological innovations often requires spending the same money to maintain the system better, expand it and do ongoing maintenance so that it can handle the additional traffic. 

Of course, it isn't just budget cutting that has produced this massive shift to putting things on-line.  Some things are genuinely better and more convenient, as long as the system stays up.  Submitting grades, registering for courses, and the various approvals that go up the line from faculty member to chair to dean to the provost (or registrar) work much better without the many forms we used to sign, many of which were folded, spindled, mutilated and left to molder at the bottom of backpacks long after the deadline to hand them in had come and gone. 

Eliminating the forms is often articulated as a positive step, in and of itself.  Whipped up by eco-enthusiasms, the university has created many opportunities to do everything pedagogical and organizational through our computers.  Rumor had it that they were going to pick a couple courses to shift onto iPads, and that everyone would get a free iPad to experiment with this.  I was, like, "Pick me! Pick me!" They did not, so I had to buy my own iPad, but I can see how an iPad would enhance a course in all kinds of ways and I wouldn't mind trying it.  The only down side, as far as I can see, is that you can't use any book that doesn't already have an e-edition, and many university presses are not up to speed with this. The up side would be:  if you are teaching Jane Austen or any other text where the copyright has run out, every reading in the course is free.

This semester,  responding to the periodic exhortations to avoid the use of paper whenever possible, saving entire budget lines and forests of trees, I shifted one course entirely onto Moodle, an open source course management system (CMS) that made our work 100% paperless.  All in all, I would say this has been a real success, I have gained a great deal and I have not sacrificed a single thing that I value.  We do not yet teach on-line, mind you, although I fully expect that we will be invited to do so in the future to support the various graduate liberal studies degrees that Zenith offers, and I fully expect this will be greeted with hoots of derision and warnings about the coming Apocalypse.  But the more you fiddle with the various platforms available, and Moodle is the best one I have yet tinkered with, the clearer it becomes how one might easily teach on-line from the comfort of one's own boudoir. In fact, during the snow emergencies this semester I quelled my anxiety about missing too much face-time by putting entire classes up on-line so that they could review the material themselves, with some gentle guidance from me.  I was able to do this using simple applications available on my Mac and my iPhone, without any instruction from anyone, and to my great surprise and pleasure, it actually worked.  Some of the material from those classes has reappeared in subsequent assignments as texts that had, for many students, the greatest impact of any they read in the course.

Now you might say, "Isn't shifting so much of your teaching to the Internet alienating, Professor Radical?  Is encountering you as a virtual professor really what your students are really paying all that fancy-pants tuition for?"  Here is an important point:  they actually saw me twice a week, and they also had a teaching assistant who ran discussion groups outside of class and worked with them on their writing to great effect.  So I am not yet an expert on what you can accomplish without any human contact whatsoever.  That said, after a semester of Moodling, I find that -- other than the possibility of making all assigned texts and everything used in class available in one place -- the latter feature truly improves my relations with my students.  As you move through the course, they can add things that they think are important, and you can tailor future classes to the students who actually enrolled in the course  (as opposed to the fantasy students who might have enrolled, whose interests will exactly match yours, and who will hang on your every word regardless of what you say to them.)  Although I didn't use these functions as much as I might have, there are also numerous functions that permit/force student participation and create opportunities for students to share their ideas with each other.

I would also say that, overall, I found the business of the course (turning work in and returning it) far more straightforward.  Either the paper was, or was not, in the drop box when it is due, and it can be due at midnight if you want, making it more likely that students who work at the last minute will get it done.  There was no haggling about whether the administrative assistant was -- or was not -- in the office at the designated witching hour. There were no papers slid under the office door, and we had no hoo-hah about printers that mysteriously ceased to function at the unluckiest possible moment.  Importantly, exams taken on-line allowed those with accommodations for learning disability to take the extra time they are permitted with absolutely no effort or planning on my part:  this is actually a very big deal in a lecture course, where you can have as many as ten or twelve different diagnoses that require as many different accommodations.  Exams are clocked in by the Moodle, and there is no need for elaborate proctoring arrangements that also, not incidentally, reveal the identities of those with learning disabilities, invite stigma and, I am convinced, often cause students who would perform better with an accommodation to not reveal themselves..

Marking papers is also more fruitful, in my view.  Instead of scribbling graffitti all over their work, I enable the editing function and add comments, re-arrange their sentences so they are grammatical, explain errors of syntax and structure, and so on.  It took less time on my part, was far more legible (in the past, in order to make my point, I would find myself writing elaborate paragraphs at the bottom of the page, and connecting them to the offending passage with a long, curvy arrow.)  By comparing the original (which remains in the drop box) to the graded version (which you upload later) students who wanted to improve (which is nearly all of them) could actually see the differences between the two versions laid out in front of them, rather than trying to figure out from a hopeless sea of red, green what good writing really looks like.

Downsides?  I can't think of one for the pedagogical experience, except that I had to devise new techniques for learning names, something I normally did by handing back graded work and free writing exercises in class. A second issue that will affect some people more than others is simply spending too much time at the keyboard and risking ligament and tendon damage in the

Here's the catch, however. When the system goes down you can't work, unless you have had the foresight and the wit to download all the written work at once,.  Having the university server crash, or become unstable and need to be taken down for maintenance, in the portion of your day or week that you have set aside expressly to mark papers or do final grades does temporary havoc to your sense of control and order, something we faculty prize enormously.  When this happens, there is literally nothing that you can do but turn your computer off and catch up on the episodes of The Borgias that you have missed because of the intensity of the semester's end.

Why this forced work stoppage occurred yesterday at Zenith is anyone's guess, but it seems obvious that it is most likely to occur at exactly the time of year when we are all using the system most intensely -- finals week -- and during which a crash or downtime will also result  the greatest inconvenience.  Universities are going to have to take what they are saving on paper and administrative assistants and redeploy it to hiring more IT people, updating their systems more frequently, and having emergency crews on retainer to monitor the system during moments of abnormally high usage.

Here's my prediction:  ultimately, universities will no longer maintain their own servers, and IT staffs will exist mainly to  work on server space that is rented from Google, Apple or one of the megaliths.  This will make systems more reliable under normal and extraordinary usage.  But it will raise other challenges, one being a possible narrowing of the choices we have as institutions to decide what platforms and software we are using as those who own the servers have greater power over what kinds of innovation they will support.  Another challenge is that, while each of our universities is vulnerable on its own, by linking our fate to the One Big Server (OBS) we become highly vulnerable together:  a breach of security in one location can take us all down. This is something to anticipate and understand before that moment in which change is inevitable but the terms of change have already been decided entirely by corporations.


Jennifer Evans said...

I too love commenting on papers in the margins electronically with track/change and comments. I also feel I give more precise and original feedback.

Thanks for this post, Claire! Food for thought.


Anonymous said...

I agree with all of your points but with one warning. We've had students drop out and return two years later and try to claim their grade of F was undeserved. You need to keep a paper backup of all grades given all assignments so that when this happens (and it does at my university) you have the evidence you need to refute the claim. (Maybe this isn't a problem at Zenith).

Next year I'm going to try having my students make screencasts (using jing) to go along with their primary source analysis papers....we'll see how that technology works out.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous: funny you should say that -- I was just printing out my grades and Mrs. Radical wandered by and said, "$hit! I'd better print out my grades!" But the other thing is -- I have been saving their papers in folders, which will then be saved in an automatic back-up in my external hard drive. Why did I decide to do this? I dunno, exactly, but it occurred to me that every once in a blue moon a student I don't know so well returns wanting a recommendation for law school or Biz school or whateverthef*ck, and it would be nice to just scan said persons work to make the rec a little more personal (or accurate.)

So this is easy, since you have to download the paper from Moodle, and then upload after marking it, so you can just save it to a folder marked "paper #2."

BlackDog said...

Thanks for this -- I'm working on integrating an iPad into my instruction, too, especially because I prefer typing comments. my handwriting is illegible at best, but I also like having a record of comments I've given students.

Right now I'm using iTunes + iAnnotate to manage the files, but I wonder if you have a better option? I'm new to the whole iPad biz and while my age would suggest I should have both infinite patience and an infinite capacity to learn about the device,'t.

Janice said...

I love electronic grading: my handwriting is barely legible thanks to a poorly healed broken bone in my ring finger. I also love the ability to foster community and communication in a class through discussion boards (asynchronous communication works so well for my students who live and study on wildly different schedules).

Moodle is a lovely platform: we're using D2L which I don't like half so much. Sadly, the powers that be won't let me run my classes on my own system, so I have to use theirs. Still, it does the important parts, permitting them to upload assignments, me to share class files and hosts a very ugly discussion board system.

I don't think the internet is necessarily alienating as a classroom environment. Teaching entirely online is really difficult sometimes, mind you, as you have to craft incredibly clever interactive modules or spend endless hours coaching every student.

At my institution, the requirement to maintain papers is only one year. We're required to shred any unclaimed papers and all old exams at that point. I keep all electronic assignments with my marks and mark-up in a password-protected folder backed up on my external hard drive. I actually worry about the administration telling me I shouldn't as I find it useful to have the old information, especially when former students seek recommendations for employment or further schooling!

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I have had students turn in papers online for several years now, first by email when I was commuting between Vermont and Massachusetts, and more recently through our course management system. I started doing it for one reason: when I required papers to be submitted in class, I really, really hated the fact that some students would skip class if their paper wasn't done, and others would have skipped the daily assignment because the paper took priority. Accepting papers online meant that I could ask for them on Thursday or Friday, even if I was out of town as part of my commute.

I've since discovered many other benefits, some of which TR and others have pointed out. One that hasn't been mentioned is when students revise their work, it's easy to compare the revision to the original. When I comment on students' papers, I note the first instance or two of mechanical and stylistic problems, but I don't correct them all. And I end with one or two general comments about how the paper could be improved.

When I get a revision online, I can very quickly see whether students have responded to those general comments or whether they've limited themselves to fixing small-scale problems. Making a few sentences clearer is always good, but it won't help much if the paper's main flaw was that the argument flies in the face of the evidence.

Anonymous said...

One note on the network outage yesterday:
Unlike all other the outages this semester (which were caused by equipment breakdowns and overloading), this was one planned. All students got a series of emails leading up to it. I guess that ITS looked at the calendar, saw move out day, and forgot that professors need access to Moodle for grading.

Bike Ride Stories said...

Would love to hear more about with moodle etal from those teaching on line and how they feel about different platforms specifically (not online teaching and learning so much as the platform they use and how it works for online teaching): moodle, d2l, bb 9.1, and sakai. We're investigating whether a shift in systems is warranted at my institution.

Susan said...

Our course management system, through which we submit grades, crashed on the day grades were due last fall. So as I kept getting emails telling my I hadn't turned in my grades, I couldn't log in to our system to submit them. Sigh.

The interface in our system is awful, and it's just plain clumsy. I haven't yet started grading papers electronically, but I may start next year.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Faculty members at Zenith carry their shitte in fucken knapsacks???? That's just embarrassing!

Tenured Radical said...

Naw, it's the fucken studentz, CPP.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Phew. My faith in humanity has been restored.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I, too, find grading in Word far more satisfactory than grading by hand. I've been doing it for years now. But one has to watch out for time creep: it's more efficient to start with, but can become less so because there's so much you *can* comment on, and still keep things relatively orderly and legible.

And, yes, LMSs are very much subject to Murphy's law. The upload function (you know, the one students use to upload papers, and professors use to upload comments and review material) on ours ceased working for a full week one December. The only thing I actually grade online is discussion board posts; everything else gets downloaded and graded on my hard drive, and I keep a database with grades there as well. In short, I don't entirely trust the LMS.

I'm getting a bit nervous about the number of businesses that turn out to be using servers owned by Amazon. That's partly because I live and work fairly near one of their facilities -- and I really want my data backed up somewhere else, in case of a fairly widespread regional disaster (that I somehow manage to survive myself). Redundancy in multiple geographical locations, preferably also on systems run by different companies, is going to be key.

Anonymous said...

We also went down an unprecedented amount of times this year.

All this Moodling (of course I also have blogs and regular web pages, I started this pre Moodle and have not stopped; some classes have FB groups, too) does improve and enhance things but it is good in addition to class, not instead of.

Anonymous said...

We're switching from Blackboard to Moodle so I'm glad to hear your kind comments about this. Tomorrow is my day to start to figure out the new system.

I'm an adjunct, teaching writing from afar. Way afar. My students are in Montana, where I was teaching before becoming an expat. I'm in New Zealand.

There is much that I miss about face-to-face teaching, but as I'm teaching basic composition, it does focus their attention (well, most of them) on the written word. It is their only way to communicate with me (so far, I've resisted skype and wimba).

It has been interesting to watch class members (who are also scattered across the state)scold each other on discussion forums for poor presentation (spelling errors, casual slang).

Anonymous said...

Just a minor note, as someone involved in the network outage on Saturday, I can confirm it went pretty much as planned. Everything was, in fact, meant to go down for 6 hours.

Music for Deckchairs said...

I've been teaching and grading online in the humanities since the mid 1990s, so from pre-LMS to now. We've gone from WebCT to Blackboard and like a lot of my colleagues I'm now out on Ning, more or less avoiding the whole university system. But here's the thing: for everything I love about it, and everything that I've seen is absolutely good for my students, this week I'm starting to think about switching back to face to face. What's changed isn't me, or the system, it's the amount of time students are already spending online. To ask them to take class online is to send them into the timesuck zone they're already (since FB) struggling to manage. They need some offline downtime, and I'm starting to see that they might need this to be achieved by coming to class and checking out of their online social lives. Is this just an Australian thing?

Anonymous said...

I do a lot of online supplementation of traditional face to face teaching. We run mixed-mode courses (some "face to face" days, some online days) and fully online courses, too.

There are a great many things that can be added, improved, or deepened, thanks to newer tech options. And it is nice to have students submit papers electronically - frees me from carting around loads of paper, if nothing else.

On the flip side, here are a few things I find problematic about teaching in a partly or fully online environment.

1. Dependence on tech support, as TR notes, can be a real problem. More so, when the tech support isn't even located on your campus anymore (some of the larger CMS's)

2. Proliferation of tech platforms. Until quite recently, we had profs using five different, proprietary, platforms to deliver online material to students. And that's not counting the open source stuff out there (I've also played around with jing, camtasia, and prezi for various things, haven't tried Moodle yet). All of this assumes students who are tech savvy to start with, but it is fair enough when students start to complain that every single prof seems to require them to learn a new CMS twist - or one that is so old, it is new to students again! (We have a few still using really bad 10-year-old CMS's).

3. After reading loads of material on screen, I swear my eyeballs get gluey.

4. Many students love, love, love the online gradebook (me, too) but a fair number of them only look at the grade and never even retrieve the e-comments on their work.

5. I've never had so many incredibly blatant plagiarism issues, as when I've taught fully online. It is just easier to do - though not easier to get away with. Very irritating.

Overall, I think there's more good than bad in terms of the possibilities here, but it isn't all a bed of roses.

JoVE said...

I know someone who runs courses for younger kids online ( and one thing she has pointed out about online discussions is that they WRITE them. It is a good way for them to develop their writing before they write papers. Because one of the most important things about writing is that you are trying to communicate ideas, something they practice in those online forums on Moodle.

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