Are We in the Upside Down? Course Hero, Lumen Learning, and All Kinds of Strange Things are Afoot in Ed-Tech

In my last post on The Quick(ish) Guide to Why Some People Don’t Like Course Hero, I stated that I really didn’t want to get into the controversy surrounding recent hirings at Course Hero. That was easy to say when it was just one head-scratching hire, but other things have happened since then that make it hard not to dive in somewhat. But just somewhat!

Part of the problem is that I have been waiting to see what big announcements Course Hero might make about upcoming changes. That hasn’t happened – but surely they have something up their sleeve? They make the claim that empowering students is in their DNA – but that isn’t true in it’s current form. Students can upload content – but its almost always content that others (usually instructors or content companies) have created. There is no real power in that – the students really have no say what is contained in that content. The instructor or company does. When students can upload something of their own creation that then becomes part of a class – that would be empowerment.

But why would they need Course Hero for that? They can already upload content to blogs, Google Drive, Dropbox, Discord, you name any one of hundreds of services. There is nothing special about yet another file hosting service – so either Course Hero has no idea what they are talking about, or there is a big change planned to their core model in the near future.

Even their core product – offering answers to assessments/assignments/etc – is not truly empowering for students. Students just take the answers and turn their course work in without learning the content… so at best Course Hero is extractive for students, not empowering.

Sadly, it has been difficult to get Course Hero to address this issue without deflecting to systemic issues. Of course the systemic issues are real and need to be dealt with – but Ed-Tech critics should know better than to deflect to systemic issues when they work for a company that quite literally drives the adversarial relationship between students and teachers. Giving away answers to anything and everything just adds more pressure to students to cheat. Not to mention that Course Hero’s access model creates even more pressure for students to steal content. Well… or to at least do something like that….

Additionally, Course Hero is also looking to work with instructors. But to do what? Host files? Instructors already have an LMS for that, along with all of the above-mentioned file hosting services. As it stands right now, instructors don’t really need anything new for hosting files or content. So surely they have something else planned, right?

As many have pointed out, there is a need for “reputation-washing” for a company like Course Hero. They are seen as a cheating site that pays little attention to following the law. There probably is something to this – many people have privately expressed irritation at several well-known educators that have defended Course Hero. But they are friends with these people, and don’t want to harm the friendship. I get that. It makes the world feel upside down, and its hard to know how to navigate this weird new situation.

So this leads to the reputation-washing whether Course Hero is wanting it or not. If you look at something like UngradingCon, many of the Session Leaders would probably boycott the conference if they were listed along with the CEO of Course Hero. But when listed with a friend or personal hero that has also aggressively defended Course Hero? Its a lot harder to know what to do when that person is a friend/mentor. Most would still question whether Course Hero and ungrading are a good mix. Like I said in my other post: “I really don’t see a way that Course Hero could co-exist with ungrading, or if students would even bother to use it if grades were low-stakes in any way.”

Certainly there is a lot of value into getting your company into spaces that they wouldn’t be welcome other wise. Even though Course Hero isn’t a strong match for the ungrading world, they are now a part of that community (like it or not).

But surely that is not the whole game plan, right?

Several people recently started to notice that some links to OER resources hosted on the Lumen Learning website started to redirect to the same content on Course Hero. It doesn’t seem like there was an announcement – it just happened. And yes, it was a weird change – Course Hero doesn’t always follow open licenses very well (according to some – the company disagrees). Steel Wagstaff of PressBooks seems to have uncovered the most information about what is going on here.

As several people have noted – Course Hero is blocked on many campuses. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to then realize what could happen here:

Another factor to consider – some of central figures at Lumen Learning have been laying the ground work for a partnership with for-profit Ed-Tech companies:

And yes, it is problematic to imply that people who might disagree with partnering with for-profits are “close-minded.” I risk the wrath of some of DW’s fervent defenders by pointing this out, but its not an attack to point out that less problematic language could have been chosen here.

Of course, since Course Hero does not have a reputation in some circles for protecting students very well, some instructors are not happy about having their content moved to Course Hero (and especially with out ever being told that the content was being moved). Other services are stepping up to offer alternatives, again proving that Course Hero is not offering a service that is unique in itself.

And then there are other wild, strange things going on as well that I am not sure exactly where they fit in the post, but they still do somehow:

So far, it seems that Course Hero is working on getting access to conferences, school servers, and circles of respect that they didn’t have in the past. But the questions still remains… for what purpose? Course Hero does not empower students, they don’t offer a service that instructors can’t get elsewhere, and they aren’t the best place to host OER content. But this is how they are starting to promote their services – even though we know their employees and spokespeople know better. But they also know what is discussed behind closed doors, so you have to wonder what is coming down the pipe to make them start saying these things? Until we find out what that is, the current situation is one of the stranger things happening in the already odd Ed-Tech space.

Heartbreaking Conversations About the Realities of Gun Violence in Schools

I don’t know why news outlets do it this way, but every time there are gunshots at a school in Texas, the only thing you see for a while is “Gunshots reported at Texas School.” If they know someone was killed, then the headline reads “Fatalities reported at Texas School.” Of course, as a parent of a kid in Texas, either one sends me flying to the most recent reports, praying its not my kid’s school.

Which is selfish, of course, but its the new reality living in the wild, wild wes… errr… Texas.

When it doesn’t end up being your kid’s school, but there are fatalities, you are both relieved and sickened (when you realize what too many families are going to go through today).

Then, of course, your kid starts asking all kinds of hard questions:

“Where should I sit in the classroom to avoid getting shot if someone breaks in?”

“Where should I hide if a shooter breaks in?”

“Where should I spread blood on me to look like I have been killed?”

Wow. He should ask those questions. And I did my best to answer (which wasn’t very good).

But it is heartbreaking that he has to ask them in the first place.

He also wanted a police officer permanently assigned to every classroom. I pointed out there aren’t near enough officers to do that. I didn’t have the heart to also talk about how they might not even try to stop a shooter, and the shooter could possibly out gun them if they did. But he has made comments about that as well… so, he knows.

Our kids live in a world where we won’t do what it takes to protect them in schools.

Despite the fact that we have decades of evidence from around the world that gun laws do work, our leaders don’t want to go the proven route. As usual, they have to turn to Ed-Tech to solve problems.

Yes, arming teachers is an Ed-Tech solution. And as a former teacher, I can tell you it is beyond pathetic to think it will work. They expect teachers to fight off some dude brandishing a modified AR-15 and body armor… with a hand pistol? When the police can’t always do the same? If you arm teachers, you will have dozens of students accidentally shot (and probably killed) by those teacher guns before one single teacher gets their first shot off at a shooter. And I would bet they never stop a shooter that way.

Or how about the whole “add more surveillance” options? Really? You want more video footage of carnage that still doesn’t stop anything? How sick is that?

Then there is the whole “door” argument. Also Ed-Tech, and I get why people turn to this option. If you want to do that in addition to gun law reform, that is great. But you also have to realize that school buildings are living, breathing entities that love to find ways to open doors. Teachers know this: they get left open all the time… or blocked when some object falls out of a backpack. Plus it would be literally impossible at many schools to get all students in through a single entrance at the front before noon. And those multiple entry points just love to find ways to stay open.

But wait! The solution is simply to have random inspections to make sure schools are keeping security up… right? Oh, sure. Anyone that has worked at a school knows that 5 seconds after the surprise inspector shows up, every teacher or employee near a security point will be alerted and fixing any issues they see.

Hundreds or thousands of humans inhabit a campus every second it is open – all with a vested interest in seeing their school pass an inspection – and you think you are going to be able to have a “surprise” inspection? Good luck with that.

I used to work as a health inspector. My surprise inspections – where I would show up in between classes and few people saw me come in – were always reported to the cafeteria well before I set foot in there. This was before cellphones and I would literally talk to the secretary in the front office and see hardly anyone else. Yet they still found a student somewhere to run the back way and warn the cafeteria I was coming.

Oh, and shooters can often get in these new secure doors anyways… even when locked and reinforced and made bullet proof…

My son mentioned that he won’t go back to school until he feels safe going. Maybe that is what we need on a national level: give us meaningful, strong gun reform or we don’t take our kids back to school until it happens.

Of course, we would need some massive donations to help support parents that can’t keep their kids home if we did this – but maybe someone should get on that.

And before you ask – yes, I have specific laws in mind to pass. Yes, I know the differences between assault weapons and assault rifles and AR-15 and so on. Quibbling over those things is just wasting time. We all know what we are talking about even if we don’t use the specific correct terms every. single. time. Even if you mean well bringing that up, it is generally a bad faith argument by many others, and it is well past time to #$&?@ stop that.

Also – anyone that wants to say that the Second Amendment is “sacred” – that is blasphemy and you should stop that as well. There is not a single religious text out there that refers to 2A as “sacred” (most are against weapons in many cases – especially the Bible). Go look up what the word “Amendment” means. There is nothing saying that we couldn’t abolish the Second Amendment if we wanted. I used to be against that option, but after decades of waiting for our leaders to enact “common sense” gun laws… I am tired of seeing nothing happen. So I have a lot more sympathy for the “Abolish 2A” crowd.

Does that upset you? Too bad. I have been waiting for decades for real change to happen while supporting those that want to keep 2A… and it has led to nothing but more death and carnage. So I don’t care about 2A anymore. Sorry if that offends you – you should have been pushing to get better gun laws than getting people like me to protect 2A itself. I’m tired of empty thoughts and prayers. Tired of people arguing moot points about definitions and changeable amendments being somehow sacred and Ed-Tech options that are garbage as actual solutions and all the pathetic nothingness that is putting my son’s life at risk. Do something meaningful in this area or just get out of the way.

Metaversity, Tri-Brid Models, and the Same-Ol, Same-Ol “Innovation”

“Is education moving to a “tri-brid” model that flows between in-person, online and simulated environments?” asks the article titled With Money From Facebook, 10 Colleges Turn Their Campuses into ‘Metaversities’ on EdSurge. Of course, the answer is “no” – but you have to wonder how much time and attention will be given to this idea before it fades into the GoogleWave is the future of Education graveyard?

To be honest, I actually enjoy VR – I have fun playing the occasional game in there, or “hanging out” with family in other cities. I think the ability to create simulations makes VR an interesting educational tool. Interactive tools? Meh – don’t hate them, don’t love them. But to move towards making an entire educational experience or course or campus inside of VR sounds like we are going the wrong direction away from the “Sage on the Stage” model. Sitting and watching an instructor in a class room is replaced with sitting there with the classroom strapped to your face (and collecting all kinds of data on decisions you make without even leaving the room). “Only better” as I guess the people involved with this Enagage-supported project would claim.

It was the whole claim of “Tri-Brid” that first caught my attention:

“Arés argues that the rise of VR technologies will shift the current hybrid model of education—which draws on separate in-person and online environments—into a ‘tri-brid’ model, one that moves ‘seamlessly between online, in-person and simulated, without the limits of time, travel and scale.'”

First of – how do you move “seamlessly” between in-person and simulated when in-person is limited by time, travel, and scale? They point out that learners without VR headsets can use a monitor – so let’s be real here. The “simulated” portion is really just another version of Zoom. This is not really a Tri-Brid but an “Extended Hybrid” model. Look at the picture at the top of the article – it is still a Sage-on-the-Stage, still a white professor lecturing an all-white class, the same ol’, same ol’… with a cool 3-D model added to the PowerPoint.

Sounds a lot like Second Life, right? “Not so fast!” the creators say:

“This may bring to mind the now-defunct digital campuses that universities set up 15 years ago using Second Life—but leaders of the new project are quick to claim that this will be way better.”

Well, okay – I have used Occulus, and in many ways it does work better than Second Life. But when people talk about Second Life in this context, they aren’t talking about graphic quality, or interface design, or any of that. Of course we expect those aspects to improve over time. The problem with Second Life classrooms was that for every one of them that were actually interesting, there were dozens more that we just sub-par equivalents to a video conference. It took lots of time and money to create decent scenarios, and half the time the novelty of those wore off and people went back to more traditional online modes.

In other words – for every “look at how the heart functions by going inside of one” simulation that was out there, there were so so so many “here is my classroom camera feed streaming to a screen in a vague virtual re-creation of my classroom.”

There are other foundational problems with the idea as well. Monica Arés, head of Immersive Learning at Meta, had this to say about VR:

Arés, the leader of Immersive Learning at Meta, is a former teacher. She recalls the nagging worry that her lessons might not hold her students’ attention. “I would spend countless hours trying to create lessons that are visually rich,” Arés says. “I knew the second I put that headset on it was the medium I had been looking for.”

Any Instructional Designer and most teachers will tell you that there are all kinds of ways to get student attention beyond just finding “visually rich” lessons. When your foundational idea of what makes learning effective is so skewed like this… I have to worry about the overall project.

And the problems don’t just stop there. David Whelan, founder and CEO of Engage, had this to say:

“Computers started in homes as entertainment, then creeped into school, then into everyday use items and at jobs,” Whelan says. “VR could take the same route.”

This is not true at all. Most people that I know first interacted with computers at schools and Universities long before they had one at home. Read any book on the 80s. Many people were even working on computers at a job before getting one at home. They were really, really expensive at the beginning. Many of us remember arranging our schedules around light traffic time at school/university computer labs so that we could find a free machine.

Computers started at businesses and universities. Its a pretty easy historical fact to look up.

Maybe Whelan grew up in a wealthy home that could afford a home computer early. Maybe he is not old enough to even know where computers started. I honestly don’t know anything about him. Either way – it makes you question the ability of his company to really know what is going on and where the tech world is going.

Then there is the question of whether or not students will actually like being in VR in the first place. The article makes this claim:

“Trying to pay attention in a college course while manipulating an avatar around a virtual classroom can feel a little odd. But the new Stanford study suggests that this kind of setting gets more comfortable for students over time.”

However, I noticed that the article does not go into how comfortable students were overall, or how much their comfort actually increased over time.

Turns out, the answer to both is more like “not very much.”

If you look at the original article in question, the results aren’t that impressive. When students were asked to rate “enjoyment” on a Likert scale of 1 to 5, the results hovered between 3.1 and 3.7. In some ways of crunching the data, it did slightly increase over time – but not by much:

Self-presence and spatial presence (feeling like you are really in the environment) both hovered around 4 on a Likert scale of 1 to 7. Social presence and entitativity (“the degree to which a collection of people is perceived as a single, unified entity”) fared a little better: between 5 and 6 on a 1 to 7 Likert scale. But how much of that is attributed to all of the work online courses have put into increasing those aspects online for decades?

Overall, a more honest reading of the outcomes of the study is that, on average, the reaction to comfort in VR was “meh.” Sure – all factors increased over time, but how much of that increase came from the learners being more aware of those factors because they were asked about them ever week? And is it really that surprising to say that people get more used to using something the more they use it? That doesn’t mean they really like it in the first place.

But you might also say “if they want to waste money on a rabbit hole, what’s the big deal? Its not like they have their sights set on anything bigger.” Well….

“I do hope that things like the socioeconomic divide and geography divide can potentially be bridged in education because of some of these new technologies like VR,” (Greg Heiberger, associate dean of academics and student success at South Dakota State University) says. “Those would be the two tenets I would guess are near the top of their (Meta Immersive Learning) list: making money and giving some of those resources back to make the world a better place.”

Not sure how they plan to eliminate redlining, food distribution, prejudices, and all kinds of other societal problems that drive these divides… through VR (and other tech)? A statement like this kind of feels like the “tossing a roll of paper towels” moment of this whole idea. If there is one thing we have learned about the world, is that you can always count on the rich to give their wealth to the poor and not some huge vanity project purchase.

But obviously, Heiberger needs to talk to Arés about all of this “trickle-down” wealth:

“Arés said that Meta is not focused on earning revenue from the partnership; instead, the ‘main goal is to increase access to education and transform the way we learn.'”

Transform the way we learn – by sticking a white dude avatar in front of a 3-D PowerPoint Screen and then strapping this transformed classroom to students face so they can virtually sit in desks from the comfort of their own homes. Even though those homes might not be “comfortable” for all, and you can only wear an Occulus so long before your face starts hurting. Funny how research studies never examine how deep the red marks in the shape of a headset are on users’ face at the end of these immersive learning sessions.

Updates on the Never-Ending Reclaim Project

So with all of the weirdness that is going on in the Ed Tech world recently and the general world today, I needed something to take my mind off of things. I wanted to add a quick update about my Never-Ending Reclaim Project at the end of that post… but it ended up being too long! So, in the interest of archiving the good, the bad, and the ugly of what I am finding out there (not all of it is being kept even if I am reclaiming access)…. here are some interesting (to me, at least) updates of where things are.

First of all, its pretty weird trying to make sure you have ownership of every account you have created. Random things in life suddenly remind you of things you had totally forgotten. Walking by a store one day reminds you “oh, hey – RedBox still exists and I think I had an online account there as well.” Or a random link reminds you that you also had a Reddit account at one time. All reclaimed!

I finally came to a place of acceptance with the not-quite-perfect html exports of WordPress sites. It seems that everything from site suckers to WP plugins just don’t get what relative truly means. Or maybe I just don’t get the settings correct? Anyways – it seems they always add a slash at the beginning of base level files like this: “/images/picture.jpg” or “/css/style.css” or whatever.  That forces my computer and the websites where I deposit them to look in the base directory for everything – but I am trying to get them to go in a sub-folder of an “archive” folder. So the browser just sits there forever trying to figure out what is going on. For less complex websites, its easy enough to remove that slash quickly (“images/picture.jpg” or “css/style.css” or whatever) – and boom! instant relative website that can work online or offline where ever I put it. When archiving WordPress sites with complicated folder structures, it takes a bit of thinking to know how many “../” or “../../” etc to replace those “/” with – and time consuming if you have to think through all “/” in your document.

There is one workaround to make it a bit easier. I have found exporting from within WordPress to be a bit better than external site suckers, because WordPress will still get you all of your orphaned files and pages. This means that bad link you didn’t realized was there can be fixed with one edit, rather than jumping into archive.org to hope and pray that the file is there (only about 50/50 record of that so far for me, unfortunately). Plus, you can hard code a long link with your website address in there – making finding and replacing absolute links with relative “../../” links very, very quick and easy per page. Which I wrote about before – but it’s the best option I have found so far.

The reason this is important is because the old LINK website has bit the dust for now it seems. This was apparently a problem with Google and not the people running the site. They tried everything they could to renew the website registration – but it was originally registered through Google. Let me warn you: don’t do that. It starts easy enough to register… but renewals get harder and more complicated each time. I experienced this a couple of years myself – and it just got worse after that.

Anyways, I was able to get html archives of all LINK lab sites just in case something went wrong (again, it just seemed inevitable the way Google was going). So I have html back-ups of DALMOOC, Pivot to Online Learning MOOC, Open Ed MOOC, etc. Most of these are hard coded to work on my personal website – but I have been able to get DALMOOC converted over to true relative html. I can easily move that folder where ever I want – or send the files to whatever archive site the good folks still bearing the LINK torch set up for LINK Lab. I will work on the other courses as I get time as well.

The other weird thing that happened is that I actually got control of my MySpace account back! The form that I linked to in the last post… actually worked? I mean, it took over a month to hear anything, but I am back in. And it is a sad wasteland in there. Almost all real data is gone – and only a few pictures remain of the many I uploaded. But I now control my corner of the wasteland at least.

I also was able to somewhat re-create the custom profile I made back in the day. The html template I found on GitHub was cool, but also several years beyond the last version I had used. My resurrected custom code didn’t work. But I poked around in archive.org and found a save of Tom’s profile from the date that I saved my custom code. I put the two together, and BAM! I had my profile back in html! Well, it was Tom’s profile styled like mine. So I started replacing Tom’s information with mine as best as I could remember it (or using Latin sample text where I couldn’t). I also found a way to make an image of the profile music player that plays the sample of music that I had on there if you click it.

Now… before I share the link, please keep in mind that I realize this profile has some cultural appropriation. At the time, I was married to someone that traced their heritage back to India, so I was trying to mix her heritage and mine (Irish) on my MySpace page. But anyways – today I would replace the Hindi and sitar (yes I did actually learn to play a few songs on it, even though I have forgotten how) with something from my cultural background. But this is what it was back in the day.

Now, if only I could get the the Foursquare/Swarm people to be as…. umm… “responsive” as the MySpace team…

I also seem to have found some of the limitations of Ruffle – you can’t really import external files (images, other SWF files, etc), which I did a lot in tthe E-SPY X-500. So I just had to link to an external list of the lessons that I wanted to import into the game. I set it up that way because we wanted to be able to upgrade the lessons as needed without re-doing the entire game. For example, the Tobacco Lesson 11 lets the student build a simple Tobacco awareness website – it was pretty basic, but we had bigger plans to make it more robust. But at least it works as originally designed now. Oh, and you have to use the back button to get back to the list.

I also found that many ActionScript functions don’t work in Ruffle, like the code that makes text scroll within small boxes. Oh, well. Maybe there has been an update that I need to look into.

After doing some poking around on Digg and Delicious, it seems that my original Digg account is gone forever (unless someone knows of a way to log in with email?), but Delicious is still around. Kind of. I was able to log in and export my posts from there. It seems like it is just a data repository of your old stuff (can’t add new stuff), but that is a start. You can export to JSON and HTML formats – if you can remember your password (it seems like the password reset function is not implemented yet). The html format also doesn’t look that great, and it saved the tags and dates even though they aren’t displayed. So I decided to grab the html and CSS from their site to make my archive look a lot cleaner. I also decided to go for 60 resultsw per page rather than 20, because mine were all short “Ed Tech new updates” type things anyways.

Anyways, I find this type of stuff fascinating. Some of you might think I am trying too hard to get stuff that should be forgotten, and maybe you are right. Especially after seeing how my old MySpace profile looked. I still need to find a way to convert old Flash files to html5 (without buying an Adobe subscription). I also wonder if I can find a site that emulates old installs of LAMP so I can get a 14 year old export of WordPress working again (WP tells me its too old to import now – boo!). More things to look into!

The Quick(ish) Guide to Why Some People Don’t Like Course Hero

If you are part of certain circles in the education world (especially on Twitter), you probably saw the controversy yesterday about a well-known education critic being hired by the Ed-Tech company Course Hero. I really don’t want to wade into that controversy too much – I don’t know the people involved well enough to comment on their motives. I have never witnessed the whole “change a company from within” strategy ever work, but I know there is no shortage of people who will try. However, Course Hero has run under many people’s radars for a while, and I thought I would go into why some people don’t like the company’s product or business model.

So what exactly is Course Hero? Well, if you read the company hype, you will find things like “partnering with, connecting, learning from and teaching educators in support of them in empowering learners.” Which doesn’t really mean anything specific to be honest. The reality is that they are a resource sharing website, primarily driven by student labor. Students can find answers to test questions, past papers, course documents, and all kinds of materials related to courses they are taking (including entire chapters and courses). After free trials of various kinds, they also have to pay for this access. In turn, they are encouraged to upload documents for other students.

Now, I will say that I am typically sympathetic of students that use websites like this – even though I will still warn them not to.

So before I dive into that problematic system, I will point out to students that using Course Hero can be dangerous. Your institution probably has strongly-worded “Academic Honesty” statements that spell out harsh possibilities for being caught sharing your work with other students or uploading your instructor’s copyrighted content to any website without their permission (and institutions also often claim copyright on course content as well). Even if your intent is to share examples to help other students (something many instructors even encourage), your institution might not see it that way. Plus, I did a quick search through Course Hero yesterday and found a large number of papers that still had the students’ name on them. That means that a random school official could be surfing through their website, see your name, and get you in trouble for a course from a couple of years ago. Course Hero does not appear to be doing much to protect the students that it uses for free labor, so “user beware.”

However, like I said, it is important to understand why students use Course Hero. So many of our institutions still promote high stakes assessment (tests, essays, etc) as the main mode for “weeding out” students (side note: never refer to your students as “weeds”). Sometimes this even comes wrapped in poorly designed courses that don’t do enough to prepare students for these assessments. Students are then given the impression that cheating is the only way other students survive the gauntlet (and in many cases, this is probably true). Focusing on the students that use Course Hero misses the real problem of an institutional system that created the pressure to cheat in the first place.

But remember students – if you are caught using Course Hero, your institution will most likely not do any soul searching on the way they created the pressure to move you in that direction. They will just punish you and move on. Again – user beware.

I see nothing in Course Hero that pushes back against this problematic pedagogy. In fact, it only seems geared to empower that system. I really don’t see a way that Course Hero could co-exist with ungrading, or if students would even bother to use it if grades were low-stakes in any way.

What you have is a company that utilizes free labor (yes, just like other companies like Facebook) and a “freemium” model to get users to start paying. It also has an internal tokening system that creates rewards for uploading content (search Twitter for Course Hero, and most of what you get is users claiming to sell these tokens for cheap). Because most of the users at some point or another are desperate to survive a harsh academic system somewhere, many feel Course Hero is a predatory service relying on student fear. Yes, they do position themselves as a pro-student company, but honestly I don’t see how they are more pro-student than anyone else.

Also of note is the general legality of Course Hero – it’s pretty easy to find many, many examples of how they are in violation of NC licenses. But on top of that, since all material (in the U.S. at least) is automatically copyrighted once it is created – I don’t see how much on their website is technically legal at all (outside of the occasional rare public domain license). You don’t have to agree with copyright laws – I am just pointing out the statues here as they currently stand. In addition, most institutions have added copyright rules that require you to at least get the permission of the instructor, if not the entire institution, before uploading to any external website. Since it would take a massive legal fund to challenge any one of these points, Course Hero probably enjoys a relative “freedom” from legal prosecution. From many accounts I can find online, it is very difficult to get copyrighted material taken down with a simple take down notice. Course Hero does not have a great record of responding to critics of any kind (despite what some might say), including direct legal challenges.

Plus, many institutions will directly name Course Hero as a reason why they have to get proctoring surveillance solutions. Course Hero may not like it (or maybe they do – who knows?), but they are a major player in the course surveillance system. You will hear Course Hero directly named by institutions as one reason they need to increase surveillance. As many people have put it, dealing with a nuclear arms race by adding more nuclear missiles is a step in the wrong direction.

You may disagree with all of these assertions about Course Hero (I am sure the company does). I would refer you back to the title of the post – these are reasons why people don’t like Course Hero. There are many other reasons as well. I’m not here to weigh the praise alongside the criticism.

One of the oldest, cliche moves in the book for tech companies in general is to hire a critic into a high level position at their company. They hope to borrow that critic’s reputation to clean up their image. It never works that way, but still companies try all the time Is that what Course Hero is doing now? Only time will tell. Every single critic that has ever been duped by a tech company in the past all claimed before hand that they were too smart to get duped. Sometimes, they were even hired by someone that really meant it… until that person got forced out by larger forces in the company.

Ultimately, companies don’t really care that much about any of that drama. Drama creates attention, and attention is what they need. They know that when they hire a critic, they also get the loyalty of some of that critic’s friends and colleagues along the way. They know they are getting multiple defenses of their company from many other respected voices… for free. And with Course Hero, you are already seeing that. These defenses range from the normal “I won’t attack someone just for taking a job” (agreed) to the questionable justifications of the company actions to the downright passive aggressive denigrations. One person even made me think “well, Headmaster Killjoy is here to swat down the plebes that dare have a different opinion!” Then there are the attacks and fights. I sincerely hope the people that become that aggressive will realize that they only make people hate Course Hero more when they do that.

Anyways, my only real message here is to please understand why there is so much distrust of Course Hero out there. Most of the disagreement with the recent announcement has been serious and respectful, despite what the defenders of the announcement will claim. Not all disagreements have been cordial, obviously… but the announcement came with the direct statement that “this will upset people.” Why tear into people when they are responding exactly as noted?

Or the bigger question: if Course Hero is a good company that truly engages with it’s critics… they why does it need to be subverted from within? Some people are saying both, and it really doesn’t match if you think about it.

We Know Why You Hate Online Learning – and It Has Nothing to Do With Quality

In some ways, I get why some people are saying they hate online learning. Almost everyone was forced into it – even those that didn’t choose it originally. We live in a time where most people that enter school (or teach at school) are aware that there is an online option. There are a few cases where people want to take or teach online courses when there aren’t any options to do so for the most part. But for everyone else, if you wanted to learn or teach online, you probably were able to choose that. The millions that were forced to switch suddenly last year did so against their first preference, and I get how that frustrates many of them.

Let’s face it – we all know that what has been happening the past two years is often not fully implemented, funded, and institutionally-supported online learning. Most tried hard to make it work, but due to shortages in training, prep time, or funding/support, a lot of it fell short of the true potential of online learning.

Of course, this was also true about face to face learning before the pandemic – even dedicated teachers are held back because of systems that don’t give them enough time, or train them well enough, or give them the money and resources they need. We just act like this is the “Facts of Life” for on campus learning… you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have…. a gold standard….?

Nope. Any institutional leader or edu-celebrity that proclaims that on-campus learning is inherently superior to online learning is being disingenuous. They know that reality doesn’t support their claims. They just hate online learning… but not for quality reasons.

The real reason? It’s all about the power and control. Leaders can’t control their students, faculty, and staff remotely like they can on campus. And that control not only brings them a power trip – it also brings in big $$$ for schools when they can manipulate students into spending more money on campus.

And that’s it really: the real reason you have leaders (institutional, thought, and otherwise) claiming that online learning is inferior, and that on campus learning is the “gold standard,” is because they lose power (and the money that comes with that power).

Now – if a student or faculty or even University president proclaims that they hate online learning in and of itself – I get it. We all have personal preferences – I love online learning, but I get why it isn’t for everyone.

But there is a difference between saying one personally doesn’t like it, and saying online learning is inferior, failed, snake oil, etc.

The difference, of course, is research. There really is research showing that there is no significant difference between various outcomes of online learning and on campus learning. Probably one of the best sources to look at for research is the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s “No Significant Different” database:

“This site is intended to function as an ever-growing repository of comparative media studies in education research. Both no significant differences (NSD) and significant differences (SD) studies are constantly being solicited for inclusion in the website. In addition to studies that document no significant difference (NSD), the website includes studies which do document significant differences (SD) in student outcomes based on the mode of education delivery.”

Current, the numbers in that database are categorized as:

  • 141 studies that show no significant difference
  • 51 studies that show “Significant Difference – Better Results with Technology” (online usually being said technology)
  • 2 studies that haven’t been indexed yet
  • 0 studies showing “Significant Difference – Better Results in the Classroom”
  • 0 entries showing mixed results

Maybe it is just my bias… but it seems that the results are starting to trend towards online maybe being… better?

Recently I was in a huge Twitter argument with a group of K-12 educational leaders from the UK that were demanding that I provide an article that proves that online learning could even work at all. They had already ignored two responses to these demands from a female colleague of mine – and still demanded that I provide a link of my own even though I had pointed them to those tweets and the DETA database already. So I just refused to give out any more links to people that weren’t going to look at them anyway – and got attacked in all kinds of horrible ways. But it seems like they were under the impression that I had website addresses to killer pro-online education studies memorized and I was just being a jerk in not spitting them out in a few seconds. Look – asking an online educator to provide one article proving that online learning is okay is like asking a Geologist to provide one study that proves that rocks exist within the Earth. A few might have something in mind, but most of us don’t spend a lot of time memorizing what we see as “proof of the obvious.” Others seemed to think that academics have all the time in the world to respond to tweet #54 demanding that one all-proving link. Look – no one owes you free labor. If you ask for something and they don’t give it, learn to respect people’s time enough to accept that maybe they are as busy as you. Especially if you were the one that came in swinging with the “online learning is a dying evil” rhetoric.

It’s all complicated. I will be the first person to tell you it comes down to personal preferences on whether you should do online learning or not, and for most people its not even an either/or. Different contexts call for different modalities for each person at any given moment. We just need to kill the dated and problematic “in-person learning is the gold standard” BS.

See also:

(Cover photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash)

The Never-Ending Reclaim Project Continues

Like many of you, I have been spending a considerable amount of time reclaiming my data and spaces online. A lot of that is focused on downloading and archiving my data (especially blog posts, reviews, comments, etc) from a myriad of websites I have used through the years. Well, decades now. I don’t know if this post will be of interest to anyone, but it will be a record (Jim Groom-style) for me – and hopefully someone will stumble across a couple of problems I have run into and have some suggestions for me.

So this all started several years (or more) ago when I ran into the idea of the IndieWeb and realized I didn’t have to lose data to dying websites like MySpace and Jaiku. I could take a proactive approach by collecting my information and storing it on my own (and the awesome folks at Reclaim Hosting make it super easy in many ways). So I started downloading data from various websites, and importing blog or informational posts from any website that I could. Then I realized two email addresses I used for a lot of websites through the years could possibly die someday, so I started going back to where ever I could find those email addresses and reclaimed access to those services. Which was mostly on a bunch of dead or dying websites, but it uncovered more posts and blogs to archive. Then several unexpected unfortunate events happened to me last year and this year. Finding out my job in academia was being eliminated caused me to comb through 15 years of signing up for all kinds of services and journals and all kinds of things to discover even more stuff to reclaim. Then an unexpected divorce also caused me to have to comb through even more stuff online, causing even more stuff to reclaim to come to light. So here are the basics of what I found out.

Downloading your data from websites is usually the most straight forward process, as long as the site offers a data download option or an export feature for your posts. One thing I have noticed is that the data that is downloaded does change from time to time – for instance, a good friend of mine suddenly died a few years ago and his family deleted all of his online accounts. So now there are posts on Facebook where he and I had long conversations that just look like I am arguing with myself. So instead of deleting previous data downloads with new, fresh downloads – I keep an archive of past exports. Did a past one capture those conversations that are now one-sided? I don’t know, but I should go look. I really hope so.

Then there were things like Jaiku that are long gone, but I never got a chance to download the data. Bummer. However, thanks to the work of the Internet Archive I did find a lot of my Jaiku posts in their archives. So I decided to copy the html and stitch together my own archive of some my jaikus – including a few comment that I could also find and some pages from the Jaiku site just for nostalgia. Clicking on any avatar on that page leads to me. Some of the other links work as well. But this little archive shows that even 12 years ago Jaiku was way more interesting than Twitter. I also archived as much as I could of the EduGeek Journal Jaiku channel as well. Interesting that this is where Twitter Hashtags directly got the # from (even though technically it came from older sources, it was Jaiku’s Channels that made Twitter users start using the # to mimic the function).

One site that is sadly long gone is MySpace. I can’t even sign in or reset my password anymore (probably hacked a long time ago). But the important data is gone – it seems MySpace lost or deleted most of it. I should have captured the html and custom CSS I worked for hours on way back in the day. But even the mighty Internet Archive didn’t capture any of that. However, after digging around some, I found this form to submit a support ticket, and then a GitHub project that has Tom’s MySpace profile html. And then searching through my files at home, of course I kept a copy of the CSS I created to customize my profile. So I might have to just make up a bunch of stuff about myself to replace the stuff about Tom, but I could actually have an archive of all of the time I wasted…. errr… “invested” in learning how to hack a custom MySpace profile.

Of course, the biggest project has been capturing my blogs. I thought I only had a handful of Blogger sites to import to WordPress, but then I kept digging up more. WordPress sites for several grad classes.  Old conference blogs. Old work blogs. Some attempts to use Known. Even a short attempt at Tumblr. So many short blogs. So I imported all that I could into one WordPress blog archive on my own site. All of that is easy. Some of the blogs that I liked I even created html archives of the layout. The one that I am having trouble with is Instagram. I would love to import all of my Instagram posts to WordPress blog with a template like the one I set up for my artwork gallery. I found some suggestions online for how to do that, but they only import the last 20 entries. I can import the rest one by one using copy and paste if I want to, but hopefully someone will come up with a way to automate it. Any ideas?

Of course, some of these blogs were older WordPress installations on my website, while others were attached to classes like the HumanMOOC that only make sense as a complete package. But its a pain to keep over a dozen WordPress installations updated and working. So I decided it was time to archive some sites as they are as html exports and shut down the WordPress version. The problem is, I really wanted a stand alone html export that could be moved to any folder or website and still work. The most recommended WordPress html export tool that I found when I started a few years ago (WP Static) doesn’t really work well for the relative links needed to do that. I could export to a defined folder on my site and it would hard code those specific links into every page, but then I can’t move it around (the Jaiku archive I created above can work any where I put it, or even offline if needed).  WP Static does have a relative link function, but it keep messing up the number of “../”‘s you need to make links work. Half the time, it just gets lost and serves up a blank page. Even a quick search and replace on a page doesn’t fix it.

So I looked around at other options, none worked any different. Even desktop based site suckers well… they suck too much. What I mean is, if there is a link to another website on your site, it will try to suck that entire site as well! Finally, I found Simply Static. It has a relative link function as well, and it doesn’t work right out of the download either. But it only messes up in one way, and a quick find and replace on a page makes your archived page spring to life. The only problem is that because of the layers upon layers of sub directories that WordPress uses, you have to do a find and replace per page to get the correct number of “../”‘s right. So it’s a quick process on simple sites… but a longer process on more complex sites. But it works in the end. I have a standalone html archive of the HumanMOOC that I helped to co-design and co-teach that will work where ever I put it. A bonus feature is that I got to finally fix some of the things that I didn’t have time to get right in the WordPress version. The activity bank images never worked right, but now I can have an image per activity. The blog hub now has individual avatars per person so you can see who posted what. The DALMOOC, OpenEdMOOC, and Pivot MOOC should be coming soon. ish.

Then there were other random things I needed to archive. All of my Storify archives, which neatly exported to html, but are slowly dying out as people close accounts, or Twitter changes how they display pictures, or a hundred other reasons. Is it worth going through each one and grabbing what is left? Several chatbots I created are still kicking around, but also falling apart as I need to apparently update the code to not point to the dead LINK Lab website. Add that one to my massive to-do list. Even an old OLC presentation that I did “choose your own presentation topic” style with the audience.

Oh, and going way back there are a good number of html websites I designed 1999-2005 that I am still keeping around for memory sake. Most are too embarrassing to link to, but the one I like the most is the one that I mention in several bios – the website I created to help students when I was an 8th grade Science teacher: Mr. Crosslin’s Class Online. Also my first serious attempt at putting course work online.

Speaking of old sites, I have so many sites that I built in Flash that I have been trying to figure out what to do with for years. I can still open Flash on an ancient computer I have, so I have exported all of my Flash files to image and/or movie files. But some are still a bit complex for that, and even the less complex ones are no fun to watch as a movie. Is there a way to convert FLA files to HTML5? I have looked a little and didn’t like what I found. If anyone knows of a way, even if I have to pay, please let me know.

So I thought for a while that my archives of several websites I created with Flash would be limited to still images of what happened. But then I came across Ruffle. You drop a couple of files on your site, and a few lines of code on your page, and – BAM! – your Flash files start magically working. So now I can get the old U Monthly Magazine archives back online (a lot is still missing, but I will dig it out eventually). My favorite Flash website I (mostly) created is the E-SPY X-500 – a goofy attempt at an educational game that I created for a company that I worked for after teaching.  Go ahead and kick around in there – not every thing works (yet, but on the list), but see if you can find the hidden Easter eggs. You can log in with any username or password over three characters. It has been totally disconnected from the MySQL database, so no data is collected. I should point out that the cartoon characters you will see once inside were not drawn by me, but our staff artist at the time Samuel Torres.

Of course, I have also be going through and making sure that my main portfolio is up to date, because it really serves as an archive of papers, presentations, videos, artwork, and other projects as well. I have also been working on things like a games archive. All kinds of random attempts to create games are in there, including some of the ones I mentioned above (I still need to create a Twine environment for the This Picture app game idea). Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all of this, I am also trying to work with my Mom to create a tribute site to my Grandfather’s artwork, since he sold paintings and worked as a staff artist for a newspaper in a major city.

Changing over email address is quite the chore. I had to look for old accounts with two old email addresses in them, and then I had to go through 15 years of work emails to see which accounts I would want to keep after leaving (mostly access to journals I published in, review accounts, professional website accounts, and others like that). Most places were pretty straight forward. Some places were not. It took a lot of work to get control of my Flickr account. I still can’t get control of my MySpace account – does their support team still even exist? A lot of these accounts I will probably shut down. But I was surprised at how haphazard I was in using whatever email address to sign up for whatever account. At least its all back with me again. And, of course, trying to separate 20 years of joint accounts from my former marriage was a huge undertaking. Some places make it nearly impossible to do that. But then I had to go back through all of these accounts I got back or websites I created and update bio listings about family where needed.

So, even though there isn’t a light at the end of tunnel, I know that a sighting of that light should come soon. Despite all that is left, I still feel that I have cut back my online presence to a streamlined, manageable amount. Someday I will be shutting down some massive websites like this one, so I hope to find even better ways to convert WordPress to html as well. Which I guess I will… give to my son some day? Donate to a museum? Will be people even care about archives like this in a few decades? I guess I will figure that out someday…

Using Learning Analytics to Predict Cheating Has Been Going on for Longer Than You Think

Hopefully by now you have heard about the Dartmouth Medical School Cheating Scandal, where Dartmouth College officials used questionable methods to “detect” cheating in remote exams. At the heart of the matter is how College officials used click-stream data to “catch” so-called “cheaters.” Invasive surveillance was used to track student’s activity during the exams, officials used the data without really understanding it to make accusations, and then students were pressured to quickly react to the accusations without much access to the “proof.” Almost half of those accused (7 of 17 or 41%) have already had their cases dismissed (aka – they were falsely accused. Why is this not a criminal act?). Out of the remaining 10, 9 plead guilty, but 6 of those have now tried to appeal that decision because they feel they were forced to plead guilty. FYI – that is 76%(!) that are claiming they are falsely accused. Only one of those six wanted to be named – the other 5 are afraid of reprisals from the College if they speak up.

That is intense. Something is deeply wrong with all of that.

The frustrating thing about all of this is that plenty of people have been trying to warn that this is a very likely inevitable outcome of Learning Analytics research studies that look to detect cheating from the data. Of course, this particular area of research focus is not a major aim of Learning Analytics in general, but several studies have been published through the years. I wanted to take a look at a few that represent the common themes..

The first study is a kind of pre-Learning Analytics paper from 2006 called “Detecting cheats in online student assessments using Data Mining.” Learning Analytics as a field is usually traced back to about 2011, but various aspects of it existed before that. You can even go back to the 1990s – Richard A. Schwier describes the concept of “tracking navigation in multimedia” (in the 1995 2nd edition of his textbook Instructional Technology: Past, Present, and Future – p. 124, Gary J. Anglin editor). Schwier really goes beyond tracking navigation into foreseeing what we now call Learning Analytics. So all of that to say: tracking students’ digital activity has a loooong history.

But I start with this paper because it contains some of the earliest ways of looking at modern data. The concerning thing with this study is that the overall goal is to predict which students are most likely to be cheating based on demographics and student perceptions. Yes – not only do they look at age, gender, and employment, but also a learner’s personality, social activities, and perceptions (did they think the professor was involved or indifferent? Did they find the test “fair” or not? etc).

You can see by the chart on p.207 that males with lower GPAs are mostly marked as cheating, while females with higher GPAs are mostly marked as not cheating. Since race is not considered in the analysis, systemic discrimination could create incredibly racist oppression from this method.

Even more problematic is the “next five steps to data mining databases,” with one step recommending the collection of “responses of online assessments, surveys and historical information to detect cheats in online exams.” This includes the clarification that:

  • “information from students must be collected from the historical data files and surveys” (hope you didn’t have a bad day in the past)
  • “at the end of each exam the student will be is asked for feedback about exam, and also about the professor and examination conditions” (hope you have a wonderful attitude about the test and professor)
  • “professor will fill respective online form” (hope the professor likes you and isn’t racist, sexist, transphobic, etc if any of that would hurt you).

Of course, one might say this is pre-Learning Analytics and the current field is only interested in predicting failure, retention, and other aspects like that. Not quite. Lets look at the 2019 article “Detecting Academic Misconduct Using Learning Analytics.” The focus in this study is bit more specific: they seek to use keystroke logging and clickstream data to tell if a student is writing an authentic response or transcribing a pre-written one (which is assumed to only be from contract cheating).

The lit review of this study also shows that this study is not the only one digging into this idea. The idea goes back several years through multiple studies.

While this study does not get to the same Minority Report-level concerns that the last one did, there are still some problematic issues here. First of all is this:

“Keystroke logging allows analysis of the fluency and flow of writing, the length and frequency of pauses, and patterns of revision behaviour. Using these data, it is possible to draw conclusions about students’ underlying cognitive processes.”

I really need to carve out some time to write about how you can’t use clickstream data of any kind to detect cognitive processes in any way, shape or form. Most people that read this blog know why this is true, so I won’t take the time now. But the Learning Analytics literature is full of people that think they can detect cognitive activities, processes, or presence through clickstream data… and that is just not possible.

The paper does address the difficulties in using keystroke data to analyze writing, but proposes analysis of clickstream data as a much better alternative. I’m not really convinced by the arguments they present – but the gist is they are looking to detect revision behaviors, because authentic writing involved pauses and deletions.

Except that is not really true for everyone. People that write a lot (like, say, by blogging) can get to a place where they can write a lot without taking many pauses. Or, if they really do know the material, they might not need to pause as much. On the other hand, the paper assumes that transcription of an existing document is a mostly smooth process. I know it is for some, but it is something that takes me a while.

In other words, this study relies on averages and clusters of writing activities (words added/deleted, bursts of writing activity, etc) to classify your writing as original or copied. Which may work for the average, but what about students with disabilities that affect how they write? What about people that just work differently than the average? What about people from various cultures that approach writing in a different method, or even those that have to translate what they want to write into English first and then write it down?

Not everyone fits so neatly into the clusters.

Of course, this study had a small sample size. Additionally, while they did collect demographic data and had students take self-regulated learning surveys, they didn’t use any of that in the study. The SRL data would seem to be a significant aspect to analyze here. Not to mention at least mentioning some details on the students who didn’t speak English as a primary language.

Now, of course, writing out essay exam answers is not common in all disciplines, and even when it is, many instructors will encourage learners to write out answers first and then copy them into the test. So these results may not concern many people. What about more common test types?

The last article to look at is “Identifying and characterizing students suspected of academic dishonesty in SPOCs for credit through learning analytics” from 2020. There are plenty of other studies to look at, but this post is already getting long. SPOC here means “Small Private Online Course”… a.k.a. “a regular online course.” The basic gist is that they are clustering students by how close their answers are to each other and how close their submission times are. If they get the exact same answers (including choosing the same wrong choice) and turn in their test at about the same time, they are considered “suspect of academic dishonesty.” It should also be pointed out that the Lit Rreview here also shows they are the first or only people to be looking into this in the Learning Analytics realm.

The researchers are basically looking for students that meet together and give each other answers to the test. Which, yes – it is suspicious if you see students turn in all the same answers at about the same time and get the same grade. Which is why most students make sure to change up a few answers, as well as space out submissions. I don’t know if the authors of this study realized they probably missed most cheaters and just caught the ones not trying that hard.

Or… let me propose something else here. All students are trying to get the right answers. So there are going to be similarities. Sometimes a lot of students getting the same wrong answer on a question is seen as a problem to fix on the teaching side (it could have been taught wrong). Plus, students can have similar schedules – working the same jobs, taking the same other classes that meet in the morning, etc. It is possible that out of the 15 or so they flagged as “suspect,” 1 or 2 or even 3 just happened to get the same questions wrong and submit at about the same time as the others. They just had bad luck.

I’m not saying that happened to all, but look: you do have this funnel effect with tests like these. All of your students are trying to get the same correct answer and finish before the same deadline. So its quite possible there will be overlap that is very coincidental. Not for all, but isn’t it at least worth a critical examination if even a small number of students could get hurt by coincidentally turning in their test at the same time others are?

(This also makes a good case for ungrading, authentic assessment, etc.)

Of course, the “suspected” part gets dropped by the end of the paper: “We have applied this method in a for credit course taught in Selene Unicauca platform and found that 17% of the students have performed academic dishonest actions, based on current conservative thresholds.” How did they get from “suspected” to “have performed?” Did they talk to the students? Not really. They looked at five students and felt that there was no way their numbers could be anything but academic dishonesty. Then they talked to the instructor and found that three students had complained about low grades. The instructor looked at their tests, found they had the exact same wrong answers, and… case closed.

This is why I keep saying that Learning Analytics research projects should be required to have an instructional designer or learning research expert on the team. I can say after reviewing course results for decades that it is actually common for students to get the same wrong answers and be upset about it because they were taught wrong. Instructors and Instructional Designers do make mistakes, so always find out what is going on. Its also possible that there was a conversation weeks ago where one student with the wrong information spread that information to several students when discussing the class. It happens.

But this is what happens when you don’t investigate fully and assume the data is all you need. Throwing in a side of assuming that cheaters act a certain way certainly goes a long way as well. So you can see a direct line from assumptions made about personality and demographics of who cheaters are, to using clickstream data to know what is going on in the brain, to assuming the data is all you need…. all the way to the Dartmouth Medical School scandal. Where there is at least a 41%-76% false accusation rate currently.

Video Content or Audio-Only Content For Online Courses: Which is Better?

Like many of you, I saw this Tweet about audio-only lectures making the rounds on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/sivavaid/status/1389592396820795397

Now, of course, many questioned “why lectures?” (which is a good question to ask), but the main discussion seemed to focus on the content of courses more than lectures specifically. Video content (often micro-content) is common in online courses. There were many points raised about accessibility (both of videos and audio-only lectures). Many seem to feel strongly that you should do either video content or audio-only content. My main thought was: instead of asking “either/or”… why not think “both/and”?

From certain points of view, audio-only content addresses some accessibility issues many rarely consider. When creating video content, the speaker will sometimes rely on visual-only clues and images without much narration, leaving those that are listening with gaps in their understanding. So while it is easy to say “if you don’t want video, then just play the video in the background and don’t watch,” sometimes the audio portion of a video leaves out key pieces of information. This is usually because when the content gets to a visual part, the speakers often assumes everyone playing the video can see.

“Look at what the red line does here…”

“When you see this, what do you think of?…”

And so on. People that record podcasts often know they have to describe any visuals they want to use so people listening know what they are talking about. For accessibility purposes, we really should be doing this in videos as well. Not to mention that it helps the information make more sense for every one regardless of disability.

There are other advantages to audio-only content as well, such as being able to download the audio file to various devices and take it with you where you go. Some devices do this with video files – but how often do we offer videos for download? And what if someone had limited access or storage capacity for massive video files? Auio-only mp3 files work for a wider variety of people on the technical level.

On the other hand, there are times when video is preferred. The deaf or hard of hearing often come to mind. Additionally, some people think that the focus that video requires helps them understand better. Video can also help increase teacher presence. Plus, video content is not the same as a Zoom call (or even a video lecture broadcast live), so its not really fair to throw both in the same bucket.

I would also point out that just because learners like audio-only one semester, that doesn’t mean the next semester of learners will. And I would guarantee that there are those in Vaidhyanathan’s course that didn’t really like the audio-only, but didn’t want to speak up and be the outlier.

Remember: Outliers ALWAYS exist in your courses. Never underestimate the silencing power of consensus.

But again, I don’t think it takes much extra time to give learners the option to choose for themselves what they want.

First of all, every video you post in a course should be transcribed and closed-captioned as aground rule – not only for accessibility, but also for Universal Design for Learning. But I also know that this is the ideal that often not supported financially at many institutions. For the sake of this article, I am not going to repeat the need to be proactive in making courses accessible.

So with that in mind, the main step that you will need to add into your course design process is to think through your video content (which is hopefully focused micro-content) and add in descriptions of any visual-only content. Don’t forget intro, transition, and ending graphics – speak out everything that will be on screen.

Then, while you are editing or finalizing the video, export to mp3 in addition to your preferred video format. Or use a tool that can extract the audio from the video (this is also helpful if you already have existing videos with no visual-only aspects). Offer that mp3 as a download on the page with the video (or even create a podcast with it). Now your students have the option to choose video or audio-only (or to switch as they like).

Also, once you get the video closed captioned, take the transcript and spend a few minutes collecting it into paragraphs to make it more readable. Maybe even add the images from the video in the document (you already would have full alt descriptions in the text). Then also put this file on the page with video as a downloadable file. You could even consider maybe collecting your transcripts into PressBooks and make your own OER. However you want to do it, just make it another option for learners to get the content.

Anyways… the idea here is that students can choose for themselves to watch the video, listen to the audio file, or read the transcript – all in the manner they want to on the device they want.

One of the questions that always comes up here is how to make the video content sound natural. Spontaneous/off-the-cuff recordings can miss material or go down a rabbit-hole. Plus you might forget to describe some visual content. But reading pre-written scripts sounds wooden and boring. One of my co-authors for Creating Online Learning Experiences (Brett Benham), wrote about how to approach this issue in Chapter 10: Creating Quality Videos. You can read more at the link, but the basic idea is to quickly record a spontaneous take on your content and have that transcribed (maybe even by an automatic service to save some money). Then take that transcript, edit out the side-trails, mistakes, and missteps, and use your edited document to record the final video. It will then be your spontaneous voice, but cleaned-up where needed and read for closed-captioning.

To recap the basics points:

  1. Think about which parts of your video content will have visual aspects, and come up with a description for those parts in words.
  2. Record your video content with the visual aspects, but make sure to cover those descriptions you came up with.
  3. Create mp3 files from your videos and add that to the course page with the video embed/link and transcription file.

If you want to go to the next level with this:

  1. Enable downloading of your videos (or store them in a service that allows downloads if that option is not possible in your LMS).
  2. Turn your mp3 files into a podcast so that learners can subscribe and automatically download to devices when you post new files.
  3. Take your transcriptions and re-format them (don’t change any words or add/delete anything) into readable text, along with the visuals from the video. Save this as an accessible PDF and let learners download if they like.
  4. Collect your PDF transcripts into a PressBook, where you can add the audio and video files/links/embeds as well.
  5. Maybe even add some H5P activities to your PressBooks chapters to make them interactive lessons.

Op-Ed: Online Proctoring is Not Essential

After one of my usual Twitter rants about proctoring software, I was asked to turn the rant into an Op-Ed. Elearning Inside liked it enough to publish it:

In a recent op-ed about online proctoring, ProctorU CEO Scott McFarland made some concerning claims about how he feels proctoring online exams is “essential” and “indispensable.” Many were quick to point out their skepticism of the owner of a proctoring company making such a claim.

One important detail that McFarland left out was that the exams or tests themselves are not essential. Not only that, he skipped over some of the largest concerns with proctoring, while also not accurately addressing the research that is happening in this area…..

You can read the rest of the article, where I make wild references to assessment gods, 5000% of students cheating, and general debunking of the current “cheating is everywhere” FUD. But the main point is that there is a better way based on solid course design.