Cultivating affection in online education?

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Agrarian author, Wendell Berry (image licensed under Creative Commons)

Farmer, author, Kentucky boy – Wendell Berry; (Photo licensed under Creative Commons)

Wendell Berry has been a big influence on my thinking and doing in the past few years, thanks to a close friend who not only loves and knows well most of Berry’s work but also embodies many of the things that Berry is passionate about: place and community, to name just two. It’s not a stretch to say that my family’s moving back to our home state of Iowa was for me helped along by exposure to Berry’s work and its resonance with my primarily theological convictions.

But therein lies the tension for someone like me who loves Berry: We’ve moved back to my wife’s little hometown in Iowa and yet I still work as a telecommuter for EMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia. What makes this arrangement possible is a technology and communications infrastructure built upon a particular economic system (not to mention my periodic travel), all systems that Berry has spent a considerable amount of time rightly critiquing for their corrosive effects on local communities and our stewardship of the earth.

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The ed-tech vision for collaboration in Mennonite education

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Collaborative MBA logoFor the past year, a good bit of my energy at EMU has been focused on helping craft the technology framework for an ambitious project which has just recently been announced and begins this fall: The Collaborative MBA – a graduate degree program jointly offered by three Mennonite-affiliated schools, Goshen College, Bluffton University, and EMU.

You can read a bit about the formative story and strategic vision for this program in this recent EMU News release: Unique Collaborative MBA program launched from platform of three Mennonite institutions - What I want to focus on, though, is the ed-tech vision for this program, and how it’s connected to a broader vision for increasing collaboration amongst Mennonite higher educational institutions beyond this first pilot project, the Collaborative MBA.

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MOOCs: The Little Engine That Couldn’t

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Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895

I repeat: “Whoo whoo!”

Just 11 months ago, I chose the visual metaphor to the right to be juxtaposed against the title for a post: “All aboard the MOOC train!” – wherein I expressed some reservations about the MOOC euphoria that was then gripping the nation, having just ended the so-called “Year of the MOOC” in 2012.

Well, it seems my reservations were shared by a critical mass of folks in higher education, because 2013 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Backlash.” The early philosophical critiques by faculty across the US are starting to be validated by a few studies that show MOOCs really aren’t living up to even a little bit of the revolutionary claims their progenitors were making a mere year ago. So the train has indeed left the station, but…well, you know.

Even one of the early public cheerleaders for MOOC craze, Sebastian Thrun, has recently said that “we have a lousy product” and is shifting his company’s platform and approach to corporate/vocational training, away from higher education. But while it’s easy for me to gloat and say “I told you so,” there is something worth considering in the Inside Higher Ed. post above: The MOOC backlash may actually end up hurting perceptions of online education more generally. And that is not a good thing.

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Google Apps changed my life

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Jody Bowie

Jody Bowie

Guest post by Jody Bowie
Instructional Designer at
Southern Nazarene University

[Editor's note: Last fall I saw an e-mail on the technology listserv of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities/CCCU. It was from partner school Southern Nazarene University, announcing that their Friday Faculty Training workshops were open to CCCU schools via web conferencing software. So for the past year I've been periodically, virtually attending these workshops and they've been a tremendous gift to my work. I even had the joy of meeting Jody and a few of his colleagues earlier this year at the CCCU Technology conference in Chicago. With our coming transition onto Google Apps for Education at EMU, and knowing that SNU was already a Google Apps school, I've asked Jody to share a bit about the platform and his instructional design work at SNU. Thanks, Jody! -brg]

Google has been a household name for well over a decade, and Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, also enjoys considerable mindshare and widespread usage. However, many may not be aware of the other products offered by Google, and that they are bundled together and provided to institutions as a single platform. Google Apps for Education (GAE) is one such bundling, and is offered to K-12 and universities free of charge. Google was founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page as a research project while studying at Stanford University, so handing out GAE is a way for them to give back to the educational community.

GAE has a wide variety of tools for both educators and students. Here is a partial list:

  • Gmail
  • Google Plus (Google+ or G+)
  • Drive / Docs
  • Calendar
  • Sites

In the remainder of this post I’ll describe each product and how it can be used in your work as an educator…

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A Catholic Case Against MOOCs: A Mennonite affirmation

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2010 logo for Catholic Schools week in the US

2010 logo for Catholic Schools Week in the US

This morning our provost sent a few folks a story at The Chronicle, “A Catholic Case Against MOOCs,” and asked if we Mennonites had anything to learn from such an argument. Since it dealt with the high-tech MOOC phenomenon, it made its way to me, the “ed-tech guy.”

But I’m also the product of a Mennonite education in theology and restorative justice, and have benefited greatly from various aspects of the robust and long Roman Catholic tradition. The author specifically cites the social justice tradition within Catholicism, which very much resonates with the peace and justice tradition of Mennonites.

The mashup of technology, justice, and higher ed in the piece got my gears grinding, so below are a few reflections which are edited from the e-mail I sent back to our provost. (Hint: My initial response to his question – Do Mennonites have something to learn here? – was a terse “Yes!”)

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It’s only a matter of time…

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Photo by alitow via Flickr

Where’d we go? – (Photo by alitow via Flickr)

When I started in this role in May of last year, it was coming off of a very rewarding experience helping design and facilitate what I’ve come to call a “highly synchronous” online course on restorative justice. One of my convictions coming out of that course and into my current work was that it was the weekly synchronous/real-time dimensions of this course – and the ways we structured activities and interactions during those meeting times – which contributed to its success.

I was convinced: Asynchronous was out, synchronous was in. Face-to-face engagement creates a deeper sense of connection and cohort in an online course. Therefore, if EMU wants to expand further into online education, then synchronous modes of delivery should be privileged. Indeed, this would be reflective of the Anabaptist-Mennonite premium put on community.

Ah, those halcyon days of yore!

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Learning Moodle (again)

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Learn Moodle For the month of September, a few EMU colleagues and I are working our way through the first-ever Moodle MOOC, called “Teaching With Moodle: An Introduction.” (You can join anytime: http://learn.moodle.net) – It is a four-week, massively open course, run in Moodle, by Moodle, to teach folks how to teach in Moodle. Having participated in an edX MOOC last spring, and being mostly nonplussed about it, I gotta say: I’m impressed with this one. They’ve obviously done their homework and got their content and activities in order for a smooth, streamlined, and engaging month of learning. The activities are already more varied and engaging than the edX MOOC I experience in the spring. In fact, one of the learning activities for week 1 is to write a reflection about the experience so far, so I’m just doing as I’m told, good student that I am.

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Preaching to the online choir

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Adjunct professor, Laura Brenneman, PhD

This past spring and summer, two Eastern Mennonite Seminary online courses – both taught by adjunct professor and EMU/CJP alumna, Laura Brenneman – featured creative uses of our real-time web conferencing platform, WebEx. At EMU, WebEx is integrated into our Moodle environment, giving instructors easy access to real-time virtual interactions with their online students.

The most common use for Moodle-integrated WebEx is the conducting of virtual class sessions, where students and instructors gather at a specified date and time and have an online class session. Laura facilitated both this kind of interaction and also “virtual office hours” with WebEx in her spring course, which I described a few months back.

But in her summer online course on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew’s gospel, chs. 5-7) – Laura took a cue from Jesus’ practice of preaching/teaching to the crowds in the biblical text in question, and assigned each of her students the task of preparing their own sermons and delivering them to their peers in a live WebEx session.

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Anatomy of an ed-tech workshop

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Stop! Ed-Tech Workshop
(Possible nerd-rap lyrics?)

Back in late May, I made my first trip back to EMU’s campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia, since moving last fall to “the cornfields of Iowa,” as my boss Jack Rutt likes to say. It was a short trip, just three days on campus, but on Friday the 24th I facilitated a workshop primarily geared toward graduate program faculty and administrators.

I wanted to get as many folks from EMU’s growing number of graduate programs together to talk about online education and digital pedagogy. All these programs are at different points on the online education spectrum: our MS in Nursing program is nearly all online, while our new MA in Biomedicine program does not have any online components, and the other programs fall somewhere in-between. So I wanted to folks to learn from each other’s experiences more than anything else, and hoped that the experience would inspire some to step further into ed-tech and online education.

In our opening session, we went around the room and introduced ourselves, and I also asked folks to tell me 1) their hopes for the workshop, and 2) their frustration with technology as it relates to teaching and learning. Two strong trends emerged from each:

  • Hopes – Reflections here were often prefaced out of a sense that we’re behind the curve at EMU and need to “catch up” when it comes to ed-tech. This assumed that “catching up” was important and therefore gaining better mastery of ed-tech was important. What really gave me hope was a general eagerness and curiosity to do just that. There was also a hope expressed that faculty would have adequate support in this journey. Yes, indeed!
  • Frustrations – By far the most common response here related to the rapid pace of technological change, and how this creates a sharp challenge for faculty who are (in my own experience as both a student, teacher, and staff-helper to faculty) extremely busy doing what they’re already doing, with very little time to learn more about ed-tech and digital pedagogy. There was also a concern here that the technology/tail not wag the education/dog, something I’ve heard in other settings.

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Seminary experiments with live sessions & video in online course

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Upcoming online courses at EMS

This just-concluded spring semester was the first time an online course offered at Eastern Mennonite Seminary made use of synchronous online activities, which we facilitate through WebEx. In ed-tech lingo, “synchronous” describes any activity that takes place in real-time, in online/virtual space. This is a particularly important moment for EMS because they have been doing online education at EMU the longest, since 1997 when an e-mail based correspondence course was offered. Around 2000, they switched over to LMS-based (Blackboard, then Moodle) online courses and basically hadn’t changed that formula since.

There are currently no comprehensive online programs – such as degree or credentialing programs – offered through the seminary, but a la carte online courses are offered every semester and through the summer, and are taken advantage of by residential and remote students alike. Core faculty have consistently taught these online courses, but there is a trend toward increasing use of remote adjunct instructors to teach them. Such was the case in the spring semester when I assisted Dr. Laura Brenneman (CJP alum, ’00), who resides in Illinois and taught an online Intro to Old Testament course for EMS in the spring.

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