How much ‘work’ should my online course be for me and my students?

How much work is too much (or too little) work for my students? How much work is too much work for my TAs or for me? How do I design an online course? A post where i propose ‘Total Work Hours‘ as a replacement for the Course/Credit Hour.

As we leave behind the emergency teaching processes that have spurred the development of online courses for end-of-term winter and OMG-summer courses the questions I’m hearing are changing. Fall course start in the Northern Hemisphere is still (only) 10 weeks away and I’ve talked to piles of people who are thinking about how they can revamp their f2f courses to create a fair and equitable learning experience for their students and for themselves.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave aside the section of the teaching population that is resisting this move. I would also like to firmly state that NO SESSIONAL/part-time teacher should be moving a course online for free. PAY THEM. The focus of this post is directed at those educators who are doing the hard work of trying to balance the needs of their department, the needs of their students and their own need to not overwork themselves in the fall.

Total Work Hours (TWH)

My recommendation for people planning their courses, is to stop thinking about ‘contact hours’. A contact hour is a constraint that is applied to the learning process because of the organizational need to have people share a space in a building. Also called a credit hour, (particularly for American universities) this has meant, from a workload perspective, that for every in class hour a student is meant to do at least 2 (in some cases 3) hours of study outside of class. Even Cliff Notes agrees with me. So… for a full load, that 30 to 45 Total Work Hours for students per course that you are designing.

But now we’re teaching online. Maybe we’re not even doing synchronous classes. How do we decide how much work to give students? 3 hours of videos plus 6 hours of readings?

I’m not suggesting you need to give students 9 hours of work a week. I’m saying that this is the current system. If you have two 90 minute f2f classes a week, you must have some expectation that students were reading something, working on a paper, or doing something else outside of class. Your first job is to figure out what you want that number to be. For the rest of this post we’re going to pick 6TWHs. It’s a nice number.

Who says we’re even allowed to do that?

The online guidelines from that same US government standards document linked above are interesting…

Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.

And then…

“in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as a measure of student learning, utilize direct assessment of student learning, or recognize the direct assessment of student learning by others, if such assessment is consistent with the accreditation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment and with the provisions of §668.10.”

So, according to this, basically you can do whatever you want… unless you have specific accreditation guidelines, then you have to follow those.

But even if you do have those guidelines, you still have to translate them to your course. At the end of the day, you are the arbiter of what happens in your classroom, and the expression “recognize the direct assessment of student learning by others” gives you a fair amount of latitude. Let’s go with 6 Total Work Hours.

Scaffolding to 6 TWHs – Activity Method

Those 6 total work hours are going to work out to 90 hours of work over an average term of 15 weeks. (please note, the Carnegie unit wants that to be 120 hours, but we’re going to ignore that). We have 90 hours to work with over the term for a course. How do you want to break that down? It’s going to be drastically different for different courses and styles. But whatever you’re teaching, keep trying to think about it from the perspective of what a student is actually going TO DO.

Simple break down (not quite 90, yes i know)

Watch 3 hours of video* – 5 hours
Read stuff – 20 hours
Listen to me talk – 15 hours
Talk with other students in a group – 15 hours
Write reflections about group chat – 7.5 hours
Respond to other people’s reflections – 7.5 hours
Work on a term paper – 10 hours
Do weekly quiz – 3 hours
Write take home mid-term – 3 hours
Write take home final – 3 hours

A thousand variations of this might be imagined, and there are certainly some of these activities that are going to take less/more time depending on the contexts of each individual student. But imagine being a student (particularly a first year student) and getting a breakdown like this to help you see what you’re supposed to be doing. Don’t like that? Too easy for students? Meh. Don’t give it to them.

note: I haven’t given a mid-term or a final exam in about 10 years, I include them here for reference 🙂

A word on ordering this work in a given week

If you’re using anything that looks like this, a possible structure recommended by one of the faculty we were talking to was – read/watch, quiz, lecture, student group discussion, reflection. The reasoning here is that if you give learners (particularly new learners) a reading without some form of accountability (a quiz) they are much less likely to do it. I know that for me, when I’ve done the readings, I’m far more likely to attend class. Putting the student group discussion after the lecture gives students who can’t attend a synchronous session a chance to review the recording.

Or, i mean, you could just not lecture at all. YMMV.

But what about learning objectives?!?

The history of higher education is replete with successive models designed to improve ‘accountability’ and ‘standardization’ in the classroom. I’m not a big fan to be honest. I recognize that many of you are probably tied down by accreditation standards and may have mandatory targets that you need to reach in your 1st year course so that students can have what they need for their second year course. I get that. For those of you in this situation, I would ask you to imagine what students are actually retaining when they start that second year course. The fact that they ‘need to know it’ doesn’t make it possible for them to do it. Short of curriculum reform (DAVE WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THAT NOW), try to stay focus on what it is possible to do, not what we ‘need’ to do.

For those with a bit more freedom, there are a pile of ways to pass that freedom along to your students. The standardization police have been telling us for years that each student must learn the same things. Poppycock. Scaffolding doesn’t mean taking away student choice. There are numerous approaches to allowing a little or a lot of choice into your classes (learner contracts come to mind). Just remember, most students don’t want choice – at first. 12-16 years of training has told them that you the faculty member have something you want them to do and they need to find the trick of it. It will take a while until those students actually believe you want their actual opinion.

You can have a goal like – get them acculturated to the field – and work through your activities to get there. It’s harder, they will need your patience, but once they get their minds around it, it makes things much more interesting.

Teacher workload

I have not found any real standard for how much work a faculty member is supposed to be doing. Putting aside the time it takes to redesign your course, exactly how many hours can you be expected to put into your course every week? How much of that work can you expect from your TAs.

That second question is easy, if your TA is being paid for 45 hours, that’s as many as they are supposed to work. If your design means they run out of hours, you are uh… going to have to do the rest of the grading.

But what do you need to grade? A short weekly quiz should grade itself online if you set it up properly. So that’s taken care of. That term paper above you’re going to have to read. That’s going to take a pile of time if you have 200 students.

My suggestion is simple. Choose the amount of time you are willing to commit to your teaching, and work through your assessments and interactions. Discussions can be peer reviewed or be participation marks. Term papers can be 3 or 30 pages long. What about those office hours?

If you’re teaching four courses for 15 weeks… and you put in 10 hours on each course, how does that break down to each discussion post your respond to? (ten hours is not a formal suggestion btw, it just divides easily by 4) Be honest about the time it will take to do all the things in your plan, a little bit of thinking now will make for a much better December.

Total Work Hours

I’m talking to many folks who are using this crisis moment as an opportunity to consider what we are doing in our classrooms. Our f2f courses have imposed a variety of structures on us (credit hours) that have shaped our teaching. Moving towards the fall, think about the work you think it’s fair for your students to do, think about how much work you can reasonably do – and design accordingly.

Edit: thought i would add this tweet. Notional learning hours. Just got this link from Simon as well

* suggestion that 3 hours of video actually takes 5 hours to actually do suggested by my good buddy Ashlyne O’Neil.

Move to Online Learning: 12 Key Ideas

I got asked by a long time colleague if I was willing to do a post of all the things that I’ve learned in the last eight weeks about moving online. Not ’emergency teaching’ but actual lessons about people moving to teaching with the internet. I’ve worked with over 100 faculty at my own institution this past few months, taking them through a 1 week intensive course. I’ve also been in constant contact with folks from around the world both through my interviews on and in endless backchannels and side chats. Here’s what I got.

1. Moving to teaching on the internet is not a technology problem (unless you make it one)

In our course we have been treating online teaching as a conceptual problem. There are things that you can do face 2 face (like make groups quickly) that can be super difficult online. There are other things you can do online that simply don’t work face 2 face (see design your activity for the internet a little later in this list). The technology is something you will figure out through repeated use. Don’t worry about it. Just set aside enough time over successive days to use the tech repeatedly and it will come to you. Concentrate on how the internet is different. If you choose to use too many platforms or try to be too fancy, though, your technology could become a problem. Keep it simple.

2. Moving to the internet is about understanding information abundance

One of the critical pieces of conceptual work is adjusting to the idea that your students already have access to all of the precious information you were planning to give them in class. If you’ve asked a yes or no question, or you have asked a ‘complicated’ question that has a fairly recognized answer, your students are going to google the answer to it. As they should. Those of us with access to the internet (through literacy, technological and financial means) can reach out for any piece of information we need by simply searching for it. Our learning experiences need to reflect that.

3. Complicated vs. complex concepts on the internet

I’ve found the distinction between complicated and complex concepts a good way of keeping track of what I’m asking students to do. A complicated concept is one that responds to a step by step answer. Thought of another way, it’s an answer you could copy and paste. Those answers only work in that bubble of artificial scarcity that are our f2f classes. If you’re looking to evaluate a student’s work online, add some complexity. Something that personalizes the issue to the student. Something that brings their perspective to bear. I’m not saying we can’t teach basic concepts that learners need to remember, just make them part of other things that include complexity if you want to do an assessment.

4. Learning to evaluate good/bad information on the internet is a core skill in any field.

One of the big objections to embracing that giant, complex abundance of information is that students wont know what is good information and what is bad information. This is true. But learning how to find, evaluate and combine information in any field is a critical skill right now. We can’t protect them from the internet. They need to learn how to deal with it.

Our students are going to need more than information to address the challenges they’re facing. They need to be innovators, problem solvers, and strategic thinkers. You may not have had time to include those kinds of activities in your classes before. But now that your students have all of the information, think about how you can address some of these higher order thinking skills.

5. Pedagogies of care (for students and teachers)

We’ve always needed to take time to care for ourselves and our students. One of the challenges of moving online is that we need to consciously think about how we are to ‘care’ for our students. A smile in the classroom can mean a great deal to our students. How are you going to incorporate that caring in your messages? In your videos? In how you design assignments? At the same time, our face 2 face schools also wrap some sanity around how much work we do as teachers. How can we balance the care that we are giving to our students and the care we are giving to ourselves? Imagine what you do the first five minutes of class (smiles, check-ins) and think about ways to do that online.

6. Think of ‘content’ as ‘teacher presence’

One of the concepts we’ve found useful is in thinking about everything a teacher does as teacher presence. In a f2f classroom the work that we do, dropping a comment in a discussion group or explaining a complex concept are conceptually different from a textbook or an assignment. Online all of this stuff combines into your ‘presence’. There is usually a direct relationship between your perceived presence and student engagement. I say perceived presence, because you need to let students know you’re there… simply reading their comments in a discussion forum and not saying anything doesn’t let students know that you’re present. You need to ‘be present’ the same way you need to ‘pay attention’. It’s an action.

You can easily write one post responding to all the posts on a given subject, highlighting themes and correcting misconceptions. Less duplication for you, and it still shows students that you’re involved.

7. Keep it simple

This is the first of the three messages from about how to move to working online. I had a great discussion with one of the science faculty members in our course this week and he was saying that he realized he had to stop ‘covering the content’. He’s always kind of suspected that he was going over too many concepts in his class and that students weren’t getting them. In his move online, he’s focusing on far fewer concepts and digging much deeper. Keep it simple. Focus on the stuff that’s important.

8. Keep it equitable and accessible

This is part access, part care and all about thinking about your context. The accessibility issues that your students have are not going away because they are working from home. Using UDL approaches in your learning and working with student support staff is critical.

Online learning increases the impact of economic disparity on the classroom. If you don’t have a dedicated computer in your house, you are going to struggle to participate in a synchronous activity. You are going to struggle multitasking on a phone or tablet. Many students would go TO SCHOOL, or the library, or McDonald’s to get access to consistent wifi. They may not be able to do this. Think about different ways you can design your assignments to allow for students to complete them in multiple ways. This video does an excellent job of talking through this concept.

9. Keep it engaging

One of the biggest concerns I’ve heard from people moving online is that they struggle to get students to do the work face 2 face, how are they going to get students to do the work online. Part of helping students be engaged is to create the scaffolding they need to understand HOW to be ready to do the work. If you’re assigning readings before a class, give them a 200 word reflection to hand in the day before. Scaffolding doesn’t mean you oversimplify the material, it means you structure the workload, particularly at first, and then maybe reduce that scaffolding as learners get comfortable. If you’re moving away from Multiple choice questions because they don’t work online (and they mostly don’t) you’ll need to apply this scaffolding to let them know what success looks like.

Also. You need to be interesting. If you’ve recorded a super long video to send to students, force yourself to watch it first. When you get bored and want to turn it off… cut your video and send that. 🙂 Imagine yourself as a student. Really work through what the student experience is going to be.

10. Design activities for what the web can do for you.

This concept seems to be helpful to people thinking about the advantages of teaching online. If you’re going to have an essay or a project or any kind of long term work with students, think of those projects as an iterative process. If you were doing this face 2 face, you might have them submit something halfway through the term. You might even get them to journal in a workbook that they hand in to you and that you hand back. It’s an organizational nightmare. Online you can create any number of spaces where learners can check in and post their progress. The web is very good at keeping track of student work for you. It also makes it very easy for students to share with each other.

For this to work, you can’t think of grading EVERYTHING. Setting up discussion for students and having them submit ‘their five favourite posts’ can be a great way to keep discussion open and also introduce curation.

11. Gather resources together… together

Please don’t try and do this alone. YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE TRYING TO DO THIS. IT IS NOT A COMPETITION. Don’t try to create all your resources alone. Don’t try and learn alone. Don’t try to find your resources alone. Make a team. At your school or with others. Here are a few lists of resources.

List of resources about teaching online
List of virtual labs
List of review of online tools for teaching (The Open Page)
Online Learning in a Hurry
#OTT20 ONLINE TEACHING TUESDAYS (Drop in discussion)

There are tons of Open Education Resources (OER) out there you can use. It takes a while. And some deep searching… searching with a team will make it much faster.

12. Last note: If you’re helping someone else

People don’t need to understand the technical language of design. They just need to understand why they need to do what you’re talking to them about.

Teaching Online Teaching Online – a one week course (lessons learned)

(see previous post for more design info)

It seems I struck a bit of a chord with my fellow educators as I sat in my basement at about 7am trying to figure out how to fix the design of the course I’ve been working on with my colleagues at the Office of Open Learning at the University of Windsor.

The task is a daunting one. It kind of reminds me of mandatory tech training that Bonnie and I have offered in k12. Here are a group of smart people, who have spent their lives teaching, who you need to make very uncomfortable before they are going to start feeling comfortable again. Those people expected me to show them how to make the machine go PING! and I was there talking to them about abundance and complexity. Exact same scenario this time. Day 1 feedback was (not entirely, but enough) “We didn’t even learn to DO anything!”

Plus. We had to do it online. Teaching online learning online is hard. Just sayin’.

We did make some adjustments based on that (and other) feedback. We reorganized what we were going to do on day 3 and 5. I’m going to do my best here to record the lessons that we learned in the first week. I will say… they are hopeful lessons to me. While exhausting, it was probably the most rewarding week of my educational career. I am left, once again, very thankful to Nick Baker for allowing us (and probably defending me in all kinds of meetings) to stick to our guns and do the course this way.

Conceptual work

Affodances of online spaces

I have a starting premise in doing this kind of work that there is no definitive research in education. I know people tell me I’m wrong, but it might as well be true when we’re working with people who are mostly not going to dig into the research. I can find research to support pretty much any position in education, I mostly chose not to for this course. YMMV

We started by introducing the idea of affordances. The internet fundamentally changes what is possible when it comes to learning. When we were still under the tyranny of paper, our access to diversity of perspective was hugely limited. Our ability to be flexible in what we were going to teach and learn were limited to the texts we could order into our classrooms and the things crammed in the heads of the learners and the teacher.

This has changed.

Information is now abundant. It provides an amazing opportunity to allow learning to be something that emerges from people outside of the textbook/teacher/student nexus.

The tool we used to contextualize this abundance is Dave Snowden’s distinction between the complicated and the complex. In situations that are complicated, it makes total sense to just go identify a resource (a person/text/video etc…) that can explain the step by step, complicated concept. When things are complex, however, the abundance of the internet provides an amazing swath of opportunities.

The third day we talked about how working in digital spaces is fundamentally different. We need to consider how we communicate our humanity- what is a smile in an online course? We need to think about how to give instructions so that they provide context. Martin Weller talked about how setting up roles in a group might take 5 minutes in a live classroom but might take a week when working asynchronously.

We talked about how some things are done better asynchronously than synchronously online. If you’re just going to be telling someone something, record it, send them a paper or something. No need to have someone live just listening to you.

We also talked a ton about different ways to communicate ideas.

The last day we talked a great deal about doing formative and summative assessments online. How with formative assessment you need to find a way to see people’s work early and often (by using iterative assignments for instance) so that you can provide formative help. In a f2f classroom you might be doing that all the time without realizing it, online you need to be more deliberate about it.

We talked about the weakness of online spaces for summative assessment, particularly for MCQ style summative assessment. We talked about the technical, pedagogical and ethical challenges of doing that and what alternatives might be considered to get there.

On the asynchronous days we encouraged people to think about how they syllabus was being constructed.

  • How to do introductions.
  • How to work with the library to get resources
  • How to think about your curriculum
  • Thinking about the connection between content and assessment in digital spaces
  • How to provide group feedback

The technology

While I definitely believe that the concepts are more important, digital spaces are, well, digital. The design of the course has learners doing assignments, discussion board work, working in collaborate, doing tests etc… all while discussing the concepts (in Blackboard). The idea is to give people practical experience using the tools so that when they search/ask for advice, they have the context that they need. We’re NOT going to have time in a one week course to teach people how to fix the settings in the gradebook.

Breakout groups

We did 3 3-hour live sessions. They were exhausting. But we did do some guided breakout groups. We actually broke them out into groups of five and had facilitators guide people through the process of search for Creative Commons images and resources. Those went well. We also used the breakout groups to let people process their feelings about the #onlinepivot. People are upset. It’s important they get a chance to be heard.

Other notes

  • We need to work harder to make better use of the asynchronous days
  • We need to make it MORE clear EARLY that we aren’t ‘explaining technology’
  • I modelled ‘establishing a social contract’ excessively. Made my
  • I performed a number of different models and approaches to show how you could work with students
  • We did a TON of live slides.
  • We talked a bunch about teacher presence
  • We took the opportunity to say ‘contact your librarian’ every day
  • We kept giving them the links to campus supports
  • We created a take away with all our key concepts, links on them
  • We provided ‘extra resources’ for those who were more advanced and wanted more stuff
  • I linked them to a bunch of videos.

Key outcome

They got it. In one week people went from being nervous, sure they were going to do 2 hour live lectures every week and thinking they wanted to make the machine go PING! to thinking about how they could have a great class online. Like they really got it. We treated them like smart people, told them they were going to have to figure out the tech, supported them as much as we possible could and talked all day about pedagogies of care… and they got it.

I mean. I’m sure some of them had that coming in… but there were people who made the whole transition. It was a long week of late night and early morning planning with Alicia, Ashlyne and Nick… but we made it. Looking forward to editing our design this week. I’ll post the final version after we refine it.

Good luck peeps.

Online Learning in a Hurry – a Course in a Hurry

When i started doing the videos for #oliah I was trying to put into words the things I’ve learned about working online. Many of those were hard lessons learned from experience, more of them are lessons that i’ve learned from the excellent educators and students I’ve had the privilege of working with in the last 20 years or so. The video series isn’t really intended to directly prepare someone for teaching on the internet, but rather put some concepts together so that someone can round out their preparedness.

Now, however, we at UWindsor Office of Open Learning (OOL) find ourselves facing the idea of ‘teaching teachers to teach online,’ not for few final weeks of emergency remote teaching, but for a term. At least. Tomorrow we start a course for faculty moving their courses online for our Spring/Summer session.

There are other people more qualified, definitely, and more reflexive, probably, to try and create a course for people who now have the need to go and teach online in what remains a hurry… but here we are. Fortunately this course won’t just be designed or taught by me: all my OOL colleagues have been supporting faculty flat out since the #pivot began, and together we’re a committed course team. Shout out in particular to co-designers Ashlyne O’Neil and Alicia Higgison, who’ve led the course idea from the get-go. Thanks, dudes.

We’ve been wracking our brains for right place to start. Should we be trying to swing for the fences? Do we want to start with comfortable certainty to bring people onside or push people with new concepts to set a tone of uncertainty, making room for growth? Do we come out technical or conceptual?

Ultimately, we end up coming back to what I always advise other people to do and find SO hard to do myself – examining our collective goals. So here’s a quick lay-out of our plan for the UWindsor Online Learning in a Hurry course.

(Caveat: the course is a collective effort, but this blog post is from my perspective and my colleagues are not to blame for any dumb stuff in here.)

Thinking about Goals

So… I don’t know the people who are going to be taking this course. I mean, I probably know a couple of them, but broadly speaking, I don’t know them as people. I don’t know what their level of Internetness will be. I don’t know how they feel about what education is. Some will likely be sessionals and some will be 30 year faculty members. The one thing they all will likely share, is that they have to teach someone in the Spring session online. That… is soon.

The course itself is going to happen in Blackboard (our institutional LMS). That decision is taken out of my hands… but I probably would have chosen to do this anyway. No need to insert another point of complexity at this point. The work we are going to do in Blackboard over the 5 day course will do most of what’s needed to give them a sense of what is possible in the platform… though I wont be ‘teaching’ any of the technology. We have great people doing blackboard support on campus and I’m a big believer in people learning the tech for themselves.

I want this course to be conceptual and the technology to be incidental

So. That decision made, the question becomes – what are the concepts that I think I’m going to want to include. I say ‘think’ because I only really script out the first day. I’ll see after day one how things are going, where the learners fit on the various spectrums of literacies and skills, and how much I think we can actually do together.

The ‘design’ of the course

I am NOT an instructional designer. I have designed a great deal of instruction, but, the same way that baking doesn’t make me a baker, designing instruction doesn’t make me an ID (hence the scare quotes in the section title). That being said, I’m more than happy to impose my own conceptual conceits upon my fellow teachers. The course is setup as follows –

Synchronous times, Mon/Wed/Fri – 9-12. Each synchronous session is broken into two blocks. They are (currently) titled as follows

  1. Introduction to Online learning
  2. Thinking through course goals online
  3. Finding content (includes learner/web as content)
  4. Creating content (includes lecture/text etc…)
  5. Assignments and assessments
  6. The student experience (reflection on their experience in the course and what that tells them about how students will experience it.


Each of the blocks is designed as follows:

  1. Opening mini lectures establishing common language and concepts (Blackboard collaborate) 15min
  2. Break out groups for faculty to discuss with other faculty (they will be keeping notes on a powerpoint that will be used for feedback in the main group) 15min
  3. Feedback (using the slides created by the faculty in the breakout groups) 15min
  4. Assignment (submission of assignment using blackboard assignments) 45min
  5. Participants uncomfortable with the assignment can stay back in the live session for further direction. Participants may return early to discuss issues in greater depth until next block starts.

Asynchronous days Tuesday and Thursday

The asynchronous days will involve some options for content and some challenging questions for use in the discussion forums. Participants will be encouraged to both start threads in the discussion forum and respond to other participants. The first asynchronous day our contributed content will be this contribution sent to me on twitter by @thestacylynn and this video we recorded with our excellent librarian friend Scott Cowan.

That first lecture

I think i basically want to do four things in the introductory lecture… which is probably too many, but why stop now? The first think I want to do is give them a fair idea of what they can expect form the course. If they’re expecting me to teach them which button to press to make the machine go ping… they are going to be very disappointed. so…

Introduce the social contract (both for this course and as a concept)

The second thing i want to do is introduce the distinction between complicated and complex ways of knowing. This is a distinction I’ve written about on this blog a 100 times, stolen from Dave Snowden, and I find it a critical concept to introduce in education. There are some things that are step by step things that you need to know – those are complicated. There are other things that no one really agrees about, but everyone in a given field of knowledge have a sense or (or an opinion about) those are complex. When we teach we inevitably do some of each. Online… they are very different beasts.

Introduce the distinction between complicated and complex

The third thing I want to introduce is the concept of information abundance. Working on the internet breaks the wall of control that a faculty member has over the knowledge in a course. Our education system and our face to face classrooms were designed for a world of information scarcity, where a student needed to come to class to acquire the knowledge in a faculty members head. We now have limitless ways of acquiring information, some of it good, some of it not so much. Teaching online allows for us to integrate this new reality into our teaching

Introduce the idea of information scarcity and abundance

The last thing i want to do is address the human concerns that the participants are likely having about teaching online. I’ll do a couple of live slides, an approach i’ve been using for years, to allow the participants to reflect on their own thoughts and concerns regarding their upcoming teaching assignment. I’ll ask them what they are concerned about teaching online as well as what opportunities they see.

Give learners a chance to process their feelings… introduce student created content through liveslides

Group Discussion

This is a simple breakout group where faculty will be discussing the questions brought up in the liveslides. I want to give them a real chance to talk about their concerns. In order to make sure we’ve got that feedback, we’re going to have other OOL staff in each of the breakout groups keep notes on a powerpoint deck, each facilitator using one slide per question per group. When we all come back to the main room, I’ll lead a discussion based on the notes on that slide deck by using a screenshare of the shared powerpoint deck. We’ll have support in those breakout rooms for the second part of day one, but allow it to be participant lead for the Wed and Fri instances.


The assignment submissions are going to an iterative version of a new syllabus. The first submission will just be a word doc with some headings (and their name on it) and after that we’ll start to include new things each day. From an assignment perspective, the work is to keep adding to a syllabus based on realizations that learners are picking up each day.


We’re also going to use the testing module for participant feedback. I like to offer lots of opportunity to do learner feedback and this seems like a nice way for participants to experience what a student experiences using the testing section of blackboard.


So after all that… what are my goals for the course? I want participants to experience an online course that is more than videos and MCQ. I want them to experience the difference between a live structured learning experience and an asynchronous open ended learning experience. I want them to get some sense of how many options there are for communicating their field to learners, and think about what impact that has on what and how to assess. I want them to come out of the course with a start on their syllabus for the spring with some ideas about how they are going to imagine their Spring student, and think about what they can do to make that learner’s experience a safe and interesting experience.

Making Sourdough Bread… the lazy way.

I have a bit of a problem. Once I get an idea in my head, I tend to want to get to the bottom of it. This fall I decided I wanted to make sourdough bread. I wasn’t able to follow any particular recipe online because, well, I didn’t know enough about bread. I also wanted a recipe that allowed me to be super lazy about it. I am no baker… but now I can make bread. So here’s what I ended up with.

I made 7 or 8 breads that were – not perfect. They started out flat. I only threw one of them out but they all basically tasted good. Number 9 was nice and puffy. A half dozen people have followed these directions and have made good bread. I encourage you in the belief that bread is more art than science. Differences in water, in the yeast in your starter… it will all impact your bread.

If you don’t have starter… or don’t know what that means, please go to the starter section at the bottom of the post. Otherwise, go ahead and give it a shot. These instructions are meant to be followed by people who don’t know anything about bread. Lemme know if something needs more explanation.

8am (ish)

Mix 115 grams of Whole Wheat Flour and 115 grams of water into the starter in the morning (maybe a little more if i’m making more bread)

5pm (ish)

  • In my mixer (or by hand or whatever. In a bowl dammit)
    230 gm of starter
    650 gm of water (blood temp)
    1000 gm of bread flour
    Salt (i use two small cupped handfulls… maybe two large tablespoons?)
  • Mix it until combined. Note: we are not kneading this.
    Let sit 30-60 min

6pm (ish)

  • Put a thin film of water on the counter.
  • Dump the dough onto the counter, sticky side up
  • Get your hands wet
  • Get your dough scraper wet
  • Stretch the dough 12-15 times
  • (stretching instructions are here you should really watch this video)
  • Shape it into a ball
  • Let sit (covered in container) 2 hours

8pm (ish)

  • Put a thin film of water on the counter.
  • Dump the dough onto the counter, sticky side up
  • Get your hands wet
  • Get your dough scraper wet
  • Stretch the dough 4-5 times
  • Shape it into a ball
  • Let sit (covered in container) 2 hours

10pm (ish)

  • Put flour on your counter and on the top of your dough while its still in the container
  • Dump the dough onto the counter, sticky side up
  • Cut dough in half, stretch dough 4-5 times
  • Make into two bread shaped balls.
  • Let sit side by side (covered by towel on counter) one hour

11pm (ish)

  • Put flour in your dough shaping container (i use a banneton, you can use a bowl)
  • Shape dough, put in container sticky side up (banneton/bowl/bread thingy)
  • Place, uncovered, in the fridge

Next day, maybe the day after. At whatever time.

  • Preheat oven and dutch oven to 510 degrees. I put my dutch oven in the oven with the cover off slightly. I don’t really know why. (about half an hour)
  • I also put a cooking stone under my dutch oven to deflect the heat. I find that the direct heat over cooks my bottom crust.
  • After its heated, remove cover from dutch oven. (it will, you know, be hot)
  • Dump bread out of container onto semolina covered baking sheet. Hope it doesn’t stick. If it sticks, you didn’t create enough of a skin in the stretching phase.
  • Slice bread at random, maybe 1cm to half an inch deep along the bread
  • Put in oven immediately. No dawdling. Move it.
  • Put the cover back on the dutch oven. Cook 22 minutes
  • Remove the bread from the dutch oven and put it back in the oven naked.
  • Let cook 5 or 10 or more minutes.
  • Keep checking the bread until you’re happy with the crust.
  • Then, you know, take it out of the oven.


Blood temperature water – i test the temperature of water with my fingers, i’m looking for the water to be about my body temperature.
Proving temperature – Apparently if you prove at room temperature, less sour. If you prove at 80 degrees, more sour.
Pizza dough – I basically use this same recipe (with olive oil added and some super heavy kneeding at the start) to make pizza dough. Put it in the fridge COVERED on day 1, and take it out 2 hours before using.


  • Well. The easiest thing to do is get some from someone. You can also make your own.
  • Get a big glass jar with a closing lid, remove the rubber seal.
  • Add equal parts of water and flour (maybe 50grams or each…i used whole wheat) for about ten days, dumping parts of it out of the jar so that it doesn’t overflow.
  • You are done when your starter doubles in about 6-8 hours.

Thinking about what education was for… 3800 year ago.

As any long suffering reader of this blog will be aware, I have a bit of a thing for the history of education. What I’ve always been curious about are what concepts of ‘what it means to learn’ and ‘what education is for’ are baked deep into our cultural understanding of formal education. I believe that there are bits and pieces dragging around behind our notions of school that profoundly impact and sometimes inhibit what we can do with the giant normativizing system so many of us care about.

First, a little background

My latest point of curiosity has been the schools (they’re called eduba) in Mesopotamia, let’s say between 2500BCE and 500 BCE. There are lots of reasons to love this time period. For one, we are talking about the part of the world that the Greeks probably stole the most from (unless you want to argue Minoan or Egyptian civilization… but, as I’m currently obsessed with Mesopotamian history, I’m going to go ahead and believe what I want).

This period and location is amazing to think about because of how they wrote things down. Sumerian Cuneiform is one of the oldest written languages on record. The internet might even tell you it’s the oldest one we know of, but let’s not fight. It’s really damn old. This is what it looks like

Cuneiform – 2400BCE. It changed over time.

And what makes it so cool is that cuneiform was mostly written in clay. It’s mostly written on clay tablets. What happens to papyrus when the vagaries of time trample it and burn it? It burns. What happens to clay when it gets burnt? IT GETS HARDER. Upshot of it is, we have lots and lots of it.

I have been listening to a series of excellent lectures about Mesopotamia by Professor Amanda H. Podany on The Great Courses (through Audible) and I’ve been totally captivated by it. I have been particularly interested in the places where its been made clear that we know PILES of stuff about how they actually taught students in this time period. Because of the tablets. Also because ‘school literature’ was a writing genre. Most about how terrible it was to go to school and how much students were hit by their teachers.

Getting to the education bit

Now, Nippur was a city smack dab in the middle of Mesopotamia. And we’re going to zero in on one house (House F in fact) in the middle of this ancient city. Most of what is written in this next part comes from Eleanor Robson’s article about “The Tablet House”. While most of the houses that have been excavated in Nippur contain a variety of different tablets, the mixture of tablets in House F were a little different. There were way more tablets designed for teaching people how to write than there were tablets about how many beer they had bought.

So. We have what most experts think is a schoolhouse, from 1740BCE, that is still full of many of the materials that were used by the students who actually studied in it. Researchers have broadly separated the education practices of learners from this period into two categories – beginner and advanced. A beginner would learn how to hold a stylus, how to make the necessary shapes, and then what order of shapes respond to what words. And advanced student memorized and practiced writing a variety of old stories, hymns and other cultural pieces. All carved into clay tablets. Thousands upon thousands of which have survived. The following, for instance, is one researcher’s perspective on the order of elementary education.

The all time classic for advanced students would be stories of Gilgamesh (though if i’m right, House F would be before the story of Gilgamesh had been pulled together into one tale). I do not wish to point you to Gilgamesh, though it might just be my favourite story, instead, I will point you to the fight between the Hoe and the Plough It’s all kinds of awesome.

“7-19 The Hoe having engaged in a dispute with the Plough, the Hoe addressed the Plough: “Plough, you draw furrows — what does your furrowing matter to me? You break clods — what does your clod-breaking matter to me? When water overflows you cannot dam it up. You cannot fill baskets with earth. You cannot spread out clay to make bricks. You cannot lay foundations or build a house. You cannot strengthen an old wall’s base. You cannot put a roof on a good man’s house. Plough, you cannot straighten the town squares. Plough, you draw furrows — what does your furrowing matter to me? You make clods — what does your clod-making matter to me?” – linked above.

What is education for

No matter if you think that Ancient Egyptian pre-dates Sumerian by a hundred years or not, knowing ancient egyptian was not a great deal of help if you were trying to learn Sumerian. At first, Sumerian was written by using pictograms of things to represent sounds. But, eventually, those pictograms became collections of lines made by a flat stick into a lump of clay. In a world without horses, or carts, or printing machines, or computers… how do you go about standardizing which squishy lines mean fish and which ones mean tree?

Note the tidy writing on the far left and the total mess a new student was doing on the right. (also from Eleanor Robson’s article)

Through a process of enforcement that is not clear to me, someone, somewhere started creating lexical lists. Basically lists of words that you need to be able to memorize. There are thousands of them that survive from all over Mesopotamia. The process of standardization required by the first person to do this is staggering. But they managed. And so, we have the elementary education described above. Here’s the list of words. First memorize the trees. Now the animals. Now the stars. This is what they mean. Memorize those scribe-to-be, and other scribes, all over the world [sic] will be able to know what you wrote here.

At the advanced level, they were memorizing the stories that shaped their culture. This post is getting long – there are lots of reasons why its useful to do that. Maybe telling stories was part of being a scribe. Maybe it was just meant as long form practice. Maybe they sold them.

It turns out that this school house had little chests baked into the floor in the corners that researchers believed were where you put broken pieces tablet so they could be soaked and turned back into clay. The writing materials were cheap. The more versions of the standard ‘list of words to remember’ the better. They were standard after all. Repetition makes for good memory. Practice makes perfect.

Standardization and memorization, though, seem to be critical goals for the education system from Nippur in 1740BCE. There are lexical lists actually baked into the walls in that school in Nippur (or so I have come to understand). It’s a lexical list. No one needs to update it. Clay is cheap(ish).

I can totally understand why they taught this way. Lexical words so we could communicate. The 24 stories listed in the Robson article, because each was a cultural touchstone. standardize and memorize. Everyone who graduates gets to be a scribe. One job. Two skills. (please note the exaggeration for emphasis)

Two thousand years of schools being like that is a pretty big percentage of the time that we’ve had schools. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to hear that we were still influenced by it.

Future Challenges Institute

Since my last post I’ve gotten most of the way through writing a book (i hope), gotten accepted to a PhD program, and have started a new position at the University of Windsor’s Office of Open Learning. I am now the Learning Specialist: Digital Learning Strategy and Special Projects. So far – I’ve been having a pile of fun in this role. One of the first things I was asked to do is put together a model for a summer education event. This I have done working with my colleagues here at the Office in Windsor.

The Future Challenges Institute is going to be held on the 11th and 12th of August in Windsor Ontario Canada. You are most welcome to come.

Futures thinking, if you’ve never gotten the chance to try it, is kind of like the opposite of a traditional academic approach. It’s in no way meant to replace it, but rather give a group of people an opportunity to look at the challenges they are facing from a new perspective. Instead of looking at all the research that has been done by your excellent colleagues, you take a look at what trends seem to be happening and ask yourself what would happen if those trends became pervasive. Here’s an example of a part of that process from a session I ran ten years (omg ten years?!?) ago. Also, a nice introduction by Fast Company.

As I started the research for this process, I was fortunate to come across the excellent futures work that has been done by SSHRC. If you’re not familiar with them, they are the research/granting agency in Canada that supports the social sciences and the humanities. In looking through their work we realised we could build on the work that they’ve done by looking at their societal challenges through the lens of education.

We are looking for up to 60 interested people to come work with us so we can think about what responsibility education has to address the challenges facing our society today. The four tracks we’ve decided to tackle are:

  • The Emerging Asocial Society
  • Working in the Digital Economy
  • Truth Under Fire in a Post-Fact World
  • Building Better Lives Across the Gender Spectrum

You’ll note that these challenges aren’t ‘challenges in education’ but rather things that education contributes to, in one way or another.

I’ll post more on this as we get closer to the event, but for now I just want to invite you all to put us in your calendar. 🙂

You can check things out at

Imagine if we didn’t know how to use books – notes on a digital practices framework

How do we solve for – “but we need to train everyone to teach with the internet?” It’s a problem.

No really. We’ve got a bunch of yahoos wandering around telling people that all we need to do is code and we’ll be fine. That actually has nothing to do with the actual real problem we have. We have this massive knowledge making engine that we aren’t in any way prepared to teach anyone how to use. Not morally. Not ethically. Not practically. Imagine if we didn’t know how to use books… THAT’S WHERE WE ARE. This is a vision on how you might think about training hundreds/thousands of people to learn how to use books… if books were the internet.

This image is a draft of a model i had designed for preparing an education system for the internet. As you see it here it has had some input from folks like Lawrie Phipps but it hasn’t gone through any kind of review process. The idea is that some people are never going to make it all the way to being ready to teach with or on the internet. At least not in the short term. I offer it as a draft for feedback.

I’ve talked a bit about the 20/60/20 model of change. The idea is that the top 20% of any group will be game for anything, they are your early adopters, always willing to try the next best thing. The bottom 20% of a group will hate everything and spend most of their time either subtly slowly things down or in open rebellion. The middle 60% are the people who have the potential to be won or lost depending on how good your plan is. They are the core of your group, the practical folks who will take on new things if they make sense, if they see that they have time. They are always the people we want to encourage. If they buy into your project… you’re a winner.

There are three streams to this model that eventually leads towards people being able to function as good online learning facilitators. The top stream is about all the sunshine and light about working with others on the internet. It’s advantages and pitfalls, ways in which to promote prosocial discourse. The middle stream is about pragmatics. The how’s of doing things, it starts out with simple guidelines and moves forward the technical realities of licensing, content production and tech using. The bottom stream is about the self. How to keep yourself safe, how to have a healthy relationship with the internet from a personal perspective.

Level 1 – Awareness
This model is an attempt to set some standards for things that everyone should be aware of. This is a non-negotiable, you can’t opt out of this conversation, you must participate to this level kind of thing. There are any number of reasons why some people wouldn’t want to participate passed the first literacy level. There are people, certainly, who are just ornery and hate anything that isn’t what they currently see as normal. Lets leave those people aside.

There are many marginalized people, who have been stalked, attacked or otherwise had very negative experiences on the web. There are people with legitimate fears of what their interactions on the internet could turn out to look like. There are others with religious reasons for not collaborating in one fashion or another. I don’t think that we should force those people to go beyond the level of awareness.

Every teacher (and anyone else responsible for a child) should be aware of the dangers of private, obfuscated or otherwise dark communities online. There are an abundance of folks out there who are directly targeting young people in an attempt to radicalize them for one reason or another. Whether its groups that target misinformation against common searches or discussion forums that misrepresent cultural groups, there are a lot of dangerous places on the internet. Everyone should understand this.

This level responds to best practice. The people who never make it past awareness will not be able to necessarily understand the complexity of digital practices and therefore should have a list of dos and don’ts that they can refer to that needed have interpretation. “Don’t let kids use reddit” Does that mean that no one should use it? No. Just that if you haven’t put the time in to understand your own digital practices and those of others, you should stay on the safe side.

If training people is something that you are going to do, I would suggest that the development of these best practices should be at the top of your list. Keeping learners safe is as much about explaining the simple dangers as anything else. Make a postcard of info, steal it from the internet, and paste it next to every computer.

Level 2 – Learning
As we move past awareness to learning online, you’ll notice we’ve left our bottom 20% behind. I don’t think it makes sense to try and bring every person to this point. There are people just before retirement who may be uninterested (though, I should add, many of the best digital practices people I’ve met have been near the end of their career) and for a myriad of other reasons… we shall leave the resistors behind.

This level is going to respond well to some complicated challenges that allow participants to see the power of digital practices to influence and improve their learning experience. I say complicated activities and not complex ones, here, because for the tentative, early success is important. When I’ve given overly open ended projects to people new to working on the internet, they can often flounder. Too much abundance of content too quickly. Try for projects where multiple but not indefinite outcomes are possible. Gradual release of responsibility is key to ensure that you can ensure the best possible first experiences.

This is also where the deprogramming should start. People are going to be coming to these activities expecting to hear about a new app or to get ‘training’ on how to use a particular piece of software. They’re going to be looking for ‘take-aways’ that they can use in their own lives that will make the time spent worthwhile. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t throw in a couple of those (some people will never make it passed level 2) but you should make it clear that this is an early spot on the journey. This is less about a few tricks that can make your life easier, and more about a shift to understanding how knowledge actually works now.

As people make their first claims to identity (twitter/blog/discussion space?) it’s important to build on the early identity and safety discussions from level 1. I make particular note here to straight, white, heterosexual males. The internet can be a dangerous place to other people in ways that it simply isn’t to you. Including people into the internet discussion requires full disclosure on the trainer/guide’s part. If you don’t have a good grasp on what those dangers are, do some reading and call in a friend.

Learning on the internet… that sense that you can find the things that you need if you know how to search for them properly, takes time and authentic activities. It also takes a growing understanding that ‘the thing’ you are looking for is not actually one thing. With access to so many perspectives, ‘the thing’ can be elusive. The learner’s key skills shift away from certainty and towards decision making between various options. It also takes reflexive activities. You need to give people a chance to find, the opportunity to ask others they don’t know, and then the time to have successes and failures.

There are certainly some technical pieces that should be introduced at this point I suppose… A good example is the usage of citation services. Zotero allows you to keep track of the things you find and has the advantage, if you’re going to do any academic writing, of formatting your pages into proper citations. More importantly, however, it’s a way of keeping track of the stuff you’ve found that you might need later and applying a little bit of structure to it. A good, simple technical piece that allows the work done at this stage to be useful later.

Level 3 Interacting and making
Things start to get messy here as learners should be introduced to both the complex end of working on the internet AND some of the complicated PITA that is associated with being a producer as well as a consumer of content. People are going to gravitate with their predilections (technical knowledge or complex application) but i think a good balance here is important.

So much of the ‘learning how’ technical pieces, however, are actually about realizing that things are possible. If you’re using a wordpress blog to claim your digital identity space, develop ideas or track your research, a quick look behind the curtain will show you what you can add to your wordpress setup. Basically, if you can think of it (and its possible) someone has probably made a plugin that will allow you to do it. The ‘technical’ part here is more about understanding the conceptual way the internet is made and how you can use that to your advantage. We aren’t, most of us, coding our way to solutions anymore, it’s not really necessary.

Some of the technical pieces here are also about what the technology can’t do. With all the yacking about Artificial intelligence and machine learning right now, it’s important that we demystify its usage in the learning process. Much of the research around AI’s advantages speak to improvement in student’s memory retention or adoption of repetitive skills. I mean, those are useful, but they may not be goals that you have for the learning process. Analytics and the rights of students is a critical topic that simply can’t be overlooked.

At this point we’re also hoping that people are able to connect with social groups and being able to discern whether or not the space they are looking to work is a healthy one or not. Some folks would suggest that reddit is best avoided, but some of those spaces can be the best places to meet like minded people. Its the analysis of the space and its safety/fit that’s the critical literacy at this point.

That kind of active participation where people are not only using the internet to ask questions but also giving back is not for everyone. The suggested participation here is about 60%… that may be high. You have to take your profession pretty seriously to be willing to contribute, and the contribution experience is not positive and supportive for all people alike.

Level 4 – Teaching
Once we’ve made our way through the literacies, we get to the point of preparing to actually organize a learning experience online. There are a number of shifts that occur when we get to this point, but perhaps the most important one is that people are not going to be working with self-selecting folks in your fun community looking to learn together. I mean… they might be, it’s just not likely to happen as much as you’d like. While it would be awesome if we were all able to teach in environments where our learners were ecstatic to learn what we have to teach them, the truth of the matter is a different thing entirely.

There are many folks who would argue that teaching online (well) requires more effort than teaching face 2 face. There are certainly different pitfalls, and starting is much harder online than it is face 2 face. Everyone’s teaching journey is going to be a different one and, as indicated in the percentages in the chart, I don’t really expect the majority of people to get there.

If we see the preparation for teaching online to include the key factors of personal identity management and wellness, a keen understanding of the collaborative power of abundance and community networks and a relatively good understanding of the complicated pieces involved in the tech… I think we’re doing a reasonable job preparing folks for the road ahead.

At the end of the day teaching online, like any teaching, is a personal journey. You can learn from others, adopt skills and literacies through study and observation, but we are all going to be different teachers in the end. Experience can be the only long term guide.

Connecting assessment goals to our education practices – a historical perspective

Through a weird set of circumstances, it seems that i have the summer to focus on writing. I’ve spent the past three weeks working my way through the piles of writing I’ve done over the last 14 years and one of the key themes that I’ve found is the disconnect between our goals for education and our practices. The choice of assessment as a place to start this journey is an incidental one, but it’s been really interesting. I’ve dived into the history of assessment in our field and thought it might be fun (for me at least) to track some of the things I’ve found.

Inevitably I ran into some trouble around what I actually meant by assessment or, as the conversation developed, what i meant by grading. There is a confusing history to this conversation, and I’m not sure I’ve been able to track all of it, but I’ll do my best to lay out what I’ve found and trust that someone will fill in the blanks that I’ve missed.

When i hear about AI improving the ‘success’ of students I’m left with the question “improving what exactly?” Are we making them better at compliance? Is game based education making students more creative? It’s just a question of what our goals are. Here are my notes.

Grading for what exactly?

For the purposes of this discussion, let me suggest that one way of seeing ‘grading’ is as a form of assessment that makes a scaled judgement of the performance of a student against an arbitrary standard. I might give you a pass, or an A or a 72% or call you an ‘Inferiores boni‘ or whatever else you can come up with that has as scale of winners and losers. I say ‘arbitrary standard’ because, as every teacher secretly knows, you have to make up a grading rubric. You can call it valid or verified or rigorous but one way or the other someone is still making it up.

Another basic premise that I would posit is that grading is an extrinsic motivator. It is the way that we as arbiters of the education system motivate students about what they should learn, when they should learn and, inevitably, what it means to have learned. I got an A. I learned. As an extension of this I agree with Grant and Green when they say

[extrinsic motivators] improve performance in “algorithmic,” or repetitious, tasks but are less effective or even counterproductive at “heuristic” tasks that require creativity, concentration, or intuition.

Grading is good at ‘encouraging people’ to do complicated tasks that are often represented by memorization, obedience and linear thinking. If those are our actual goals. If our goals are complex and include things like creativity… we’re looking to support intrinsic motivation. Grades don’t support intrinsic motivation.

Assessment as gate keeping (pass/fail)

We have a long history in education of thinking about assessment as a method of quality control or gate keeping people from a particular field. We see it now in things like the MCAT & LMCC (for medicine in CAD) and Red Seal examinations for The Trades. They are also a good mechanism for maintaining the status quo. You might argue that having a group of people in a field maintaining the status quo is a good thing, and maybe it is, but it tends to slide its way towards keeping out people with new ideas or who come from different backgrounds.

You can step all the way back to the first universities at Paris to see (you passed/you didn’t pass). A student was nominated by his Master to do the examination, to be able to prove, in a public discourse that they were prepared ‘to lecture’. They were judged by a committee of Masters which included a representative of the Pope and a representative of the city of Paris and if they succeeded, they were granted the ‘licence to teach’. Wilbrink

According to Mary Lovette Smallwood, there are records of this being done at Harvard in the 17th century leading to the development of the four tier system at Yale in 1785 – optimi, secondi optimi, inferiores boni, and pejores. We’ve moved, in a sense, from pass/fail to awesome pass, pass, kinda pass and not really passed.

A word on the Smallwood thesis. If you think no one will ever read your PhD thesis… take heart, that one is cited EVERYWHERE.

So, if your goal is to make sure that people who become ‘certified’ are the same as the people already certified, i can see how this works. I can also see the problems… onward.

Catechetical assessment

Another thread of assessment I found in the archives is the call and repeat model. It dominated medieval classrooms and, in some cases, still does today. I say a thing, you repeat that thing, I judge whether or not you said the thing I did. There are any number of reasons for taking a catechetical approach to learning. I’m going to use Charlemagne’s 789 edict (Admonitio generalis) as my example. It set forth some goals for the training of priests and regular folks about how their religion actually worked.

Charlemagne was a bit of a literalist. He was desperately concerned that Priests were mispronouncing their benedictions. He was, in effect, worried that people were going to hell because God couldn’t understand bad Latin. The Correctio was a series of quizzes designed to train priests in the basics of what they needed to know to keep people out of hell. (Rhinj)

Basically… there were verifiable things that needed to be figured out. I, as maybe the bishop, would ask you the questions… you would answer. Then you would return to your monastary/parish and setup a school where you transferred these lessons to other people. We all know what’s true. You just have to remember it. I have no way to prove it, but it stands to reason that our idea of school is heavily impacted by this… hence all the catechetical approaches still existing in our school system.

The thing I like about this example is that the goal that Charlemagne has was very clear. His practices were perfectly lined up to them. Believe this. Now remember it. Now tell other people the exact same thing.

William Farish and the birth of individual grading

There is certainly a point at which we moved from ‘yeah, you got the general idea’ to ‘you got 72%’. There are a number of people who would like us to believe that William Farish is the person who is responsible for the innovation. Some of them would even go so far as to say that he did it because he thought he could process more students and make more money. It took me a while to track down how this story developed… but here goes

2000/2005 Hartmann writes about William Farish founding grading so he could make more money from his students. This is oft cited, but it took me forever to find what he was citing. It describes Farish as the evil founder of grading. It seems that Hartmann was quoting Postman.
1992 Neil PostmanIn point of fact, the first instance of grading students’ papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish.” Please note that all the extra ‘Farish hated his students’ stuff is not present and seems to have been… colourized… by Hartmann.
1967 Hoskin Postman is citing Hoskin and for the rest of the story I’ll turn it over to Christopher Stray’s excellent article

Hilken (1967, p. 40) stated that as moderator in 1792 Farish had introduced the practice of assigning marks to individual questions. The source Hoskin himself relied on (Hilken, 1967) was a short history of engineering at Cambridge written by the then secretary to the faculty. Of the sources Hilken gives for his account of William Farish only one makes any reference to marks. This is Farish’s obituary in the Christian Observer: ‘He was the means of introducing into the University of Cambridge the system of classifying the candidates for a degree according to the number of marks obtained at their examination’
(Anon, 1837, p. 675; copy, with other sources on Farish in Magdalene College Old Library, M5 29).

So. Farish kind of introduced grading to Cambridge. But the story that is all over the net about being the grandfather of grading is mostly nonsense.

Grading and assessment as individual process

Whether our friend Farish is the actual founder, 1792 is close enough to the time where this started to happen. We have other instances,

  • Joan Cele as the initiator of the grade system of education (grades 1-8) and exams created to judge when you’ve passed to the next grade (Wilbrink)
  • ‘sub omni canone’ (outside the canon) from the Jesuits, and the idea of grading of this kind being imported from the chinese bureaucratic testing. (Schubert)
  • Class point systems and the ‘nota asini’ (ass’s mark) for students who didn’t get enough points. (Wilbrink)
  • Prizes awarded like with the Mathematical Tripos competition at Cambridge, where the winner got a life-time annuity. (late 18th century)

There have been lots of innovation and encouragements. They are, for the most part, directed at trying to get lots of people to ‘work’. They intend to measure the compliance of our students. Is our goal about compliance? Or, as it says in basically every strategic plan in education in the world, are we trying to support independent, creative citizens?

My last thoughts are with Hoskins and systems of control and a mathematised model of reality.

Hoskin (1979) emphasised the importance of such a change, as a significant moment in the development of the fine tuned marking system. In Hoskin’s neo-Foucauldian narrative this even becomes a crucial one in the emergence of a modern system of control, of ‘normatising individuation’. It was ‘a most momentous step, perhaps the major step towards a mathematised model of reality. … The science of the individual was now feasible. … The blunt weapon of banding yielded to the precision tool of the mark’ (Hoskin, 1979, p. 144). (from Stray)

Are we happy with the ‘mathematised model of reality’ that lives at the root of what we call Artificial intelligence? Does it serve our goals?

Works referenced

van Rhijn, C. (n.d.). ‘Et hoc considerat episcopus, ut ipsi presbyteri non sint idiothae’: Carolingian local correctio and an unknown priests’ exam from the early ninth century. 19. Download
Die Erfindung der Zensuren. (2014, October 3). Https://Www.Fr.De.
VYKOUKAL, E. (1913). Les Examens Du Clerge Paroissial a L’epoque Carolingienne. Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique; Louvain, 14(1), 81–96. Download
Hoskin, K. (1979). The Examination, Disciplinary Power and Rational Schooling. History of Education, 8(2), 21–135.
Smallwood, M. L. (1935). An historical study of examinations and grading systems in early American universities a critical study of the original records of Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Mount Holyoke, and Michigan from their founding to 1900,. Harvard University Press.
Stray, C. (2001). The Shift from Oral to Written Examination: Cambridge and Oxford 1700–1900. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 8(1), 33–50. Download
Postman, N. (n.d.). 1: The Judgment of Thamus. 6. Download
Grant, D., & Green, W. B. (2013). Grades as incentives. Empirical Economics, 44(3), 1563–1592. Download
Wilbrink, B. (1997). Assessment in Historical Perspective. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 23(1), 31–48.

Who is going to help build a pro-social web?

Last year, I was standing in a high school auditorium talking to parents about the internet. A parent told a story about seeing her kids watch a mean-spirited youtube video. She didn’t know how to approach her children to address it. She talked about standing there, excluded, while her children laughed along with the video.

She asked me, “what am I supposed to do about the internet?”

Good question. What am I supposed to do about the what the internet is doing to me? There was a terrible sense of helplessness in the way she spoke about the web. She saw it as something done TO her.

That mom was worried that she wasn’t allowed to parent her children anymore. I tried, in a rambling 10 minute response, to give her permission to parent her kids… even if it’s on the internet.

Later that week, in a discussion before a radio interview, I ended up in a similar conversation about how to parent kids’ access to the internet. The interviewer mentioned their child’s access to the internet was limited to one hour a night, and that the two of them were friends on Instagram. Without really thinking, I asked “You mean on the Instagram account you know about?”

I left that meeting thinking of all the things that a teenager could get into in an hour on the internet. In 2005, the concerns that I would have heard would have mostly been access to pornography and the potential of stalkers. As social sites became more and more prevalent, concerns in 2012 would evolved to include things like bullying in online spaces. A slightly savvier internet user would have suggested that things like Reddit were a danger.

The internet in 2019 has a whole other load of problems. There are very deep algorithms that are tracking that child in the hour they are online, slowly crafting their desires towards some random purchase. The intensity of the attention economy has many of us – kids or no – convinced that we need to craft a personal image to an increasingly refined degree. The prevalence of digital devices has kids in constant emotional flux in their relationships with each other as they can change and shift on a minute by minute basis… often in the middle of the night. There are trolls, professional and otherwise, who are ready to attack for LOLS at any time. And, maybe most dangerous, there are extremists (White Nationalists come to mind) who are actively recruiting young people into some very troubling ideology.

Plus, lets face it, they are constantly inundated by careless, petty micro-aggressions by half the adult population in their own participation in online spaces.

And… there is no way to keep children from the internet. There is no conceivable process that keeps any kid from the amazing potential of the internet. Guitar lessons on youtube. Wikipedia answers to fact-based questions. Recipes. Music… oh my god the music. Almost anything you could ever want to know or do is something that can be found on the internet.

Kids are going to use the internet. Humans are going to use the internet. We are going to learn all the lessons that the internet has to teach. We learn the pettiness. The aggression. That way people dismiss the feelings of famous people by insulting them.


The internet is fundamentally participatory. The internet grows, all internet platforms grow, on the addition of content. Every time you post on facebook, or send a picture into the ether, you’ve contributed to the conversation that is shaping our future. Every comment. Every like. It shapes what everyone else understands. Internet companies make money (often from ads, sometimes from your data) when you participate in them.

And yet, on a weekly basis, I hear otherwise intelligent, caring, socially responsible people saying that they ‘don’t do the internet’ or ‘won’t go on social media’ because its a cesspool (which it definitely sometimes is). And every time one of those people stops connecting online – every time they stop offering a sensible answer or fact check an erroneous story – every time one of those people walks away, the story that we read on the internet gets a little worse.

I mean. I get it. I know lots of smart people who have quit facebook (or twitter, or instagram or whatever) because they don’t want to give away their data or because they are attacked, or because it affects their mental health in negative ways. Every story is different. Those are good reasons to do that. But. If we all turn away from the internet, who is going to be writing the story of our culture moving forward?

You can see where i’m going with this.

You need to help build a pro-social web. Every time you are fair to someone you disagree with on the internet, you leave a good connection behind you. You create a participatory node that represents your values. Every time you fact check something before you post it, you’re creating a reliable lesson that can be learned by someone else. Every time you participate, in a conscious, deliberate way, you are putting another stone into the foundation that supports the values you believe in.

The last three years have shown us the tremendous impact that a cynical, extremist and data-driven web can have on our culture. Look at what it’s done to our poor friends in the UK (good luck over there). So many of these damaging, divisive culture wars are the creation of companies (and governments) with an agenda that has nothing to do with the well-being of our society.

Please participate. Do it well. Put your values on the internet. Our society is literally being shaped by the internet right now, and will be for the foreseeable future. We are all watching the web we’re building. The web is us. Help build a good one.

Please help build a pro-social web.