Preaching to the online choir


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.


Anatomy of an ed-tech workshop


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.


Seminary experiments with live sessions & video in online course


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.


Bravo to Amherst faculty!


Amherst College seal

In what is probably the first public “rejection letter” handed to the heretofore uncriticized MOOC phenomenon, Amherst College has said “No thanks” to joining the non-profit platform, edX. The piece at Inside Higher Ed offers some of the reasons why faculty voted down the prospect after months of negotiations with edX. They’re worth listing out there:

  • Incompatibility with the liberal arts – MOOCs were conceived by folks in large and/or wealthy research institutions – Harvard, MIT, Stanford – and by folks rooted in the sciences. While Amherst is, like these others, an elite school (unlike EMU), it is 1) tiny by comparison (like us) and 2) a liberal arts school (like us).
  • Pushing quantity over quality and connection – The “M” in MOOC stands for “massive,” as in “let’s get as many people in this thing as we possibly can!” Amherst explicitly structures itself around small, colloquy/seminar format courses. These two approaches are not easily reconciled, if they’re reconcilable at all, and Amherst faculty spotted this a mile off.
  • Perpetuating an anemic pedagogical approach – Another thing Amherst faculty rightly spotted and resisted was the MOOCs use of the “information transfer” approach to teaching, simply digitized. Teachers lecture, students listen, teacher gives quiz, students take quiz, teachers grade quiz – wash, rinse, repeat, then give final. MOOCs currently have zero in the way of more substantive forms of engagement and assessment. Amherst faculty don’t teach like this and weren’t willing to take a step backward, pedagogically.
  • “Mastery?” – MOOCs grant certificates of “mastery” for the completion of courses. The bar for what constitutes “mastery” in this case – watching lectures, taking simple quizzes – is incredibly low, to the point of almost completely emptying out the word of any substantive meaning whatsoever. Amherst faculty saw that granting ascent to this credentialing scheme would water down its own credibility as an elite institution. The “benefits” of spreading the Amherst “brand” in this manner were not seen to be inadequate. (The capitalistic/marketing language that’s used to justify these MOOCs – even the non-profit ones like edX – continues to grate at my nerves.)


Reusable online video: A field report


Doug lecturing in a local stream for the “streams and floods” unit

In a previous post, I showcased the work that Doug Graber Neufeld undertook to record his lectures for an online earth sciences course last summer. I mentioned that fact that Doug planned to reuse the videos to flip the on-campus version of the same course this spring.

Well, the spring semester at EMU is starting to wind to a close and I recently reconnected with Doug to get a sense for how that flipping experiment went and how the recorded lectures factored into the process.

(For the perplexed, the “flipped classroom” entails moving didactic content outside the classroom – usually to some digital online medium – thus opening up classroom time for other more engaged activities.)


Webinars: Substantive proselytizing for your program


The medium is the message? (Photo by Vincent Diamante/Flickr)

First off: I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek with the word “proselytizing” above. In the highly secularized tech industry, it’s not uncommon to see someone with the job title “product evangelist.” This should strike those of us in Christian higher ed as funny. So I’m merely playing with that a bit there in the title (and the photo). Marketing as proselytizing. So this is on how we can – with webinars – proselytize with integrity.

Before transitioning into the Information Systems (IS) department last spring at EMU, I spent nearly all my four years of grad school working part-time for EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). Most of that time was spent as their web and social media resource, but one of my last projects there was helping design and facilitate the program’s first online restorative justice course last spring. So I spent most of my time there with a “marketing & communications” hat on but also started to get into the territory of “education” near the end.


Beyond the LMS


There’s an excellent post by Sean Michael Morris (@slamteacher) over at Hybrid Pedagogy, on Decoding Digital Pedagogy…Beyond the LMS. The piece has some critical things to say about the LMS, which at EMU we have seen manifested as Blackboard and in recent years Moodle. There are many quips that I’d love to post here, but this one stands out:

No matter how creative and inspired the teacher or pedagogue behind the wheel, the LMS is no match for the wideness of the Internet. It was born a relic — at its launch utterly irrelevant to its environment and its user.

In 2004 when I started back to college in my mid-20s to finish a bachelors degree in English, I was a web application developer by trade and also the software developer and community leader of an online discussion forum community, which consisted mostly of friends I had grown up with in my hometown. Blogs had become popular a few years before but this was right before things like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone pushed the digital revolution into the state we find it in now. But even in the early days of Web 2.0, I spent a lot of time working, playing, and creating on the web, using a wide array of web technologies – so I had a fairly good sense for what it was capable of.

So when I took my first hybrid course (1/2 online, 1/2 in the classroom), whose online portion made use of the WebCT LMS, I immediately thought: Is this it? If so, yuck. So even almost ten years ago I felt what the bolded statement above articulates. The LMS is not now, and perhaps never was, capable of facilitating truly web-based learning in a broad and deep sense.


Problematizing the MOOC


(Image by gbl55, remix of ‘la vaca de los sinvaca‘ by José Bogado/Flickr)

The experience of participating in the Intro to Philosophy MOOC over the past two weeks has my ed-tech brain buzzing with questions and possibilities. I’ll briefly say that my suspicions over lack of a sense of cohort were confirmed when surveying the message boards for the course, where tens of thousands of people are posting messages under the general rubric of whatever the topic of the lecture material is that week. (This week: epistemology.) So I have largely steered clear of the message boards, which in the Coursera sandbox leaves me with watching the lecture videos (which are good) and taking the assessments (which are incredibly easy). Hardly an engaging experience.

Luckily, I found the Twitter hashtag that’s being used for the course – #introphil – and I’ve been following the light chatter about the course there, rather than trying to keep up with the insanity of the message boards. That Twitter is a saner place to quasi-participate in the class (“quasi” because Twitter isn’t required by the course curriculum – more on that below) should say something. Think of it as the hallway outside a very noisy and massive lecture hall.

Interestingly, the few blog posts that I’ve read and commented on from the #introphil stream aren’t about the course content itself, but rather the form of the MOOC as provided by Coursera. So I guess you could say that 1) I’ve found a mild sense of “micro-cohort” w/ the bloggers who are writing about the course and sending links out over Twitter, and 2) I’ve found myself philosophizing about MOOCs more so than learning formal philosophy, which is the subject of the course!

In the process of this philosophizing, I discovered a new and helpful distinction between two approaches to the MOOC: the cMOOC and the xMOOC. (As if one “MOOC” wasn’t enough!) So hang with me while I unpack these distinctions and why they matter for how folks at EMU might approach MOOCs down the road…


Pedagogy tweet-chat, Feb. 1


Just yesterday I discovered the site Hybrid Pedagogy (@HybridPed) – “a digital journal of teaching and learning” – and I’m already hooked. As I was starting to explore their site, I found out that they were hosting a live chat on Twitter over my lunch hour, under the hashtag #digpded. Using Hootsuite - my social media dashboard app of choice - I quickly created a stream to pipe these tweets into my browser, giving me a way to fully engage in the live chat. Boy did that hour fly by!

If you’ve never engaged in a live Twitter chat, it’s an experience. If there are a good number of people on the chat, things happen very quickly, and threads of conversation quickly branch out from the start of the conversation, which in this case was the question from @HybridPed – “What is a learner?” – WHOOSH, you’re off! One participant commented on how stressful the experience was, and I said there’s a certain amount of surrender that’s beneficial to accept in these frenetic conversations. Just let it wash over you. It’s also an interesting experience in reading, since you have to use your rational faculties to try and piece together the strings of conversation flying by you at 140 characters per tweet/per second.


All aboard the MOOC train!


Whoo whoo!

Many like Nathan Harden are saying that the MOOC signals “The End of the University as We Know It.” Free online higher education, Harden argues, is part of the shifting sands for established higher ed institutions in the U.S. If you put much stock in 20-30 year predictions (I don’t), schools like EMU run the risk of being crushed by “the unsentimental beast of progress.” Sounds terrifying!

Elsewhere, media theorist and video game designer, Ian Bogost warns against unfettered MOOC euphoria in his piece up at The Atlantic: Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Saved Online. Bogost argues that…

“Information” was never enough. Information is only intelligible given the proper knowledge, context, and opportunity. Likewise, knowledge is produced and shared within a complex infrastructure supported by a web of different agencies and organizations. Even if made cheap or free for consumers, that knowledge still requires other, more foundational knowledge, community affiliation, and economic freedom to convert into meaningful use.

This sociological insight that Bogost raises is a good check to the kind of starry-eyed optimisim that seems to accompany what I call “smashy smashy” pieces like Harden’s that paint traditional higher education institutions as being dead men walking. And unsentimental beasts of progress have a tendency to create some pretty terrible unintended consequences.

So what does that mean for Mennonite education? What are the contexts and opportunities that can take our educational offerings beyond mere information transfer for our learners? What complex infrastructure and diffuse web of agencies and organizations are (or aren’t) we drawing on to support and carry out our work?