Teaching

Ukulele ii-V-I in C

I had this progression and rhythm floating around in my head this morning and thought it would make a nice lesson for my next ukulele student. But, just for fun, I’m sharing it with you as well. I hope you enjoy it. It uses three chords from the key of C major: the ii (Dm), the V (G), and the I (C):

Here in WordPress, I’m using the OpenSheetMusicDisplay plugin to display a MusicXML file exported from Guitar Pro. Let me know if you have any issues seeing it. This is my first time trying out this way of doing it.

ii-V-I in C (Guitar Pro export)

Featured image photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.

Web-Based Training: Three Paradigms

Before the birth of the web, taking a class meant being at a certain place at a certain time with a group of other students while the teacher held forth on the topic of the day. Correspondence courses have a long and colorful history, but the most popular mode of delivery for teaching/training has been, up until recently, face-to-face. Educators use the term “synchronous” to describe education that has to happen at a certain time, and “asynchronous” to describe its opposite. Most of your classroom memories–at least the ones having to do with instruction–are memories of face-to-face, synchronous instruction.

Web-based training comes in synchronous, asynchronous, and combined forms. The three basic modes I’ve experienced are these:

  • The Webinar
    A synchronous, instructor-led session which attempts to capture the flavor and functionality of face-to-face instruction. The instructor presents through live demonstration, creating a screencast on the fly. Students generally interact with each other and the instructor through some sort of embedded chat application, though conducting Q & A via telephone or VoIP is also popular.
  • The Screencast
    Students are given access to a screencast, previously created (a.k.a. “canned”), which they work through at their own pace. Follow-up with the instructor/designer is generally made available via phone, email, IM, Twitter, etc.
  • The Thing That Should Not Be
    Students meet online at a specific time to view a canned screencast, with live followup after the show via chat, VoIP, or whatever.

The first two of these have their strengths and weaknesses. The third is simply an abomination.

The chief advantage of webinars is that, being instructor-led, they offer at least the possibility of immediate feedback. The chief drawbacks are logistical (you have to be in front of your computer, ready to go, at a certain time) and technical (your connection can always crap out on you).

The chief advantage of screencasts is the lack of logistical drawbacks. You’re booked solid this week? Fine, watch it next week. Work doesn’t allow you long blocks of time? No worries. Pause it and finish it when you can. Slow learner? Watch the tricky bits over and over until you understand them. The chief drawback is the lack of immediate feedback.

Webinars are quite a bit like traditional classrooms, where the instructor leads and you follow. Screencasts are much more like books: you work through at your own pace. Unlike books, though, you generally have the author’s contact information.

The last of these, The Thing That Should Not Be, combines the worst of both worlds. And I wasn’t even aware of its existence until recently. “The Thing” entails all of the logistical difficulties of webinars without the advantage of their immediate feedback and also without the level of control that screencasts provide. I can’t think of a compelling reason to conduct any training this way, and I hope it doesn’t become a trend.

Who needs an LMS anyway?

About a decade ago, I was introduced to the weird world of Learning Management Systems (LMSes). I needed a way for students to submit assignments instructors. The students were in an enrichment program for six weeks each summer, but during the regular school year, they needed a receive and submit work periodically. A colleague at the college was kind enough to tour us through an early version of WebCT, an LMS which some departments used for distance education. This colleague, who was also admin of the system, was nice enough to make us some accounts so we could try it out.

The app itself was an ugly mess of Perl scripts. User experience wasn’t even an afterthought. I liked it so little that I rolled my own solution with PHP/MySQL. All I really needed was a online method for posting assignment descriptions, submitting assignments to instructors, and maintaining an online grade book. I can’t remember the details of my implementation, but it served its purpose and people were happy with it.

WebCT got bought out by Blackboard. It is now a ugly mess of Java, rather than Perl. I use it to teach an online class, and I like it little better now than I did ten years ago. A person could learn a lot about good design by studying the obvious gaffs and shortcomings of Blackboard, or at least the version of Blackboard that is really just a rebranded version of WebCT.

Luckily, these days, there are plenty of ways to shuttle files around. Lectures needn’t live in the walled garden of an online course shell. Google Docs, iWork.com, Acrobat.com, and plenty of other services can be used for read-only document sharing. I already use YouTube for videos rather than muck with uploading them to the LMS. So publishing content is the easy part.

There are really only a few things that Blackboard does well enough, though even these could be improved upon. It integrates with student information systems, which means student access to the appropriate shells is managed centrally and, to some extent, automatically. It also provides a framework for creating an administering web-based assessments (read: quizzes, exams) and recording the performance on them to a course grade book. The tools Blackboard provides for creating quizzes are terrible, and they’re saved in some proprietary format, even though quizzes, being structured data, would be simplistic to implement in XML.

The other thing it handles, though not particularly well, is a method for time-stamping assignments students turn in and denying them the ability to turn in past a cutoff date (and flagging those that are late but not past the cutoff date). It handles this functionality very badly, but it’s better than trying to do it via email. There’s surely a better solution, but it would likely involve me having to set up accounts for the students (or having them create their own), which would be too much overhead, since they already have accounts on the LMS.

So, except for those bits of functionality, I think I’m done with LMS. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time crafting XHTML/CSS lectures that Blackboard won’t manage to screw up, I’m going to create new content in iWork Pages and publish it to iWork.com. Then I can just have a one-page outline in the LMS that links out to the content.

I picture an LMS of the future that is made up of loosely coupled components: one for document distribution, one for assessment, one for file shuttling. It probably already exists, though maybe not in the most robust form. It needn’t be a huge, jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none solution, which is what we have at present.

Open content and the future of education

A lot of colleges and universities, big and small, are putting content online for free these days. Not long back, this meant teasers of various sorts, but, of late, more and more players–especially some of the big name institutions, are putting entire courses online. And, these day’s it’s often not just introductory courses. There’s quite a bit of higher-level stuff out there. Yale’s Open Yale Courses site is a good example. There are several full-length courses in each of a dozen or so categories. There are enough schools doing it these days that other sites, like Academic Earth, have popped up just to aggregate the free materials that are out there. If you use iTunes, Apple’s iTunes U provides a nice interface to a lot of what’s available.

If you have any autodidactic tendencies, happen to be bedridden, are a shut-in or an unapologetic misanthrope, this must be the best of all possible worlds. But even for the more-or-less well adjusted knowledge junkie, this is a real find. We live in a time of plentiful information and infotainment, but a lot of what’s out there for free isn’t really worth your time. There’s a lot of surface, but not much depth. A lot of the content on the web is like an infinite magazine rack. And, just as in the real world, the US Weekly and People-grade fluff occupies more space than the more substantive fare.

At first, you might rightly wonder “what’s their angle?” And, while there’s a try-before-you-buy marketing component, that alone wouldn’t justify the time and expense it takes to capture and render the content, much less the work that goes into organizing and maintaining in some sort of content management system and the bandwidth costs that go along with that. I think you have to chalk it up, at least in good measure, to one of those ideas that’s so old-fashioned it will almost feel corny when I type it: the public good.

The first mission of higher education, after all, is to teach people. It can be easy to lose sight of that, sometimes, with all the bureaucracy and politics that go along with it. Colleges these days are often run a lot like businesses. And, while there’s certainly common ground between the two (you gotta keep the heat on somehow), educational institutions worth their salt have higher aspirations than the bottom line. Teaching at its best aspires to make the world a better place by creating a better informed and more thoughtful public, one student at a time. Educational institutions, at their best, are simply the necessary infrastructure that enables good teaching.

I suspect a lot of institutions who are not yet in this game resist because they don’t see how they can profit from giving things away. But they have little to worry about on that score. Even if you could watch an entire degree programs’ worth of video lectures, there’d still be no transcript to point to and no degree on your wall, unless you pony up for online classes, submit work for evaluation, and pay your tuition. That’s fine, I think. If all you want is the knowledge, it’s there for the taking. If you need a credential to move down a career path, there are more options for that than every before. Either way, I welcome it.