Sunday, February 17, 2013

Worlds Collide: The Online Comic Book Course

For a long, long time, what I did for a living was "distance learning" which came to be called "eLearning".  Or, likely, now, "learning".

In 1997 I took a job as a camera operator and switch-room operator for a distance learning outfit in the College of Engineering at the University of Texas getting paid what seemed a king's ransom of something like $5.75 an hour.  At the time I was a Radio-Television-Film student looking for work that related to my dreams of working in movie or TV production,* and handling a camera - no matter how out of date - and working with audio and switching equipment - no matter how lo-fi - was a welcome change of pace from the hours behind the counter at Camelot Records selling copies of Blink 182 to perfectly nice people.

Somehow, upon graduation, I became the guy running the studio (they offered me insurance).  Mostly, back then, we were making duplicates of tapes of classes and mailing them (I KNOW), or hooking up with remote location via ISDN lines, satellite, or using some really, really early days video streaming that its best not to talk about.

Well, we got a new head-honcho in from Stanford, and next thing I knew us state-college kids were being asked to think up how to get our stuff "online", and so we just kind of did it with brute force.  We'd tape a class and then encode it and place it on the web, which is a lot more tedious than you'd think.  Especially as how often those old codecs would fail, so whomever was encoding video would have to start all over again.

In a short time the technology got a lot better and we were encoding video live.

In the meantime, the mainstream press had heard about "online education" and took the bait.  There was a narrative circa 1999 that we wouldn't have any universities anymore in a few years, and all coursework would happen via the internet - and courses would be either taught by rock star lecturers in the world's awesomest, continual TED conference - or, if you listened to the panicky voices - we were going to figure out how to turn all learning into action packed video games.  "This is the Nintendo Generation" we kept being told.  Only, I was about four years older than the people they were talking about, and I was pretty sure we weren't turning "Challenges in Thermodynamic Extraction", "Gender Issues in Media" or "History of Africa from the Post-Colonial Era to the Present" into Legend of Zelda any time soon.

In a lot of ways, lectures have a tremendous amount of value, not because it's how people natively learn - in fact, listening to someone you don't know talk for 75 minutes straight twice per week for fifteen weeks, is sort of anti-thetical to everything we know about how most people learn.  But, you can improvise.  It's inexpensive.  You can answer questions.  Sense if the learners are following you.  Quiz regularly or ask students questions to see if they're following and simply back up and try something else if they're not getting it.

Putting that online has challenges, but both at UT and then at Arizona State, that's what I did 45-65 hours per week.

In the past two years, MOOCs have begun to surface - Massive Online Open Courses - that anyone off the street can register for.  I'm now six and a half years out of the university distance ed game, and four and a half years away from working in corporate eLeaning, so I don't have the whole picture.

But the deal is - any jill or joe off the street can sign up for a class and take it.  For credit of some sort.  I know the UT System is getting involved with the idea, and recently established the sexy sounding Institute for Transformative Learning.

So... so what?  Aside from the fact that I love talking about myself, who cares?

Well, Mark Waid posted an announcement today that he's taking part in assisting with one of these MOOCs out of Ball State.  "Gender Through Comic Books".  Professor Christy Blanche has recruited Waid and a lot of other name creators to partake and assist.  Like so much else Waid's been up to of late, it's online and it's free.  You can just go sign up.

I'm signed up.  I want to to know (a) how this MOOC business works, and (b) figure it out in an environment talking about something that I care about and will make time for.

Those two last things I mentioned?  Those are the soul crushers and are why I don't buy it that 18-22 year olds will one day only attend college online.  Not to mention the academic integrity problems.

So, if you're interested in seeing where eLearning is going while also checking out comics related curriculum from Ball State, this is a pretty nice option.

* this idea did not work out


robedemo said...

Great insight. Reading anything written by MOOCs today is as if God showed Sal Khan a burning bush in 2009 and everything prior to that was pagan. Would love to hear your opinion on the Coursera offering, as well as more about any instructional design you guys used when encoding the video.

The League said...

In early days, I think it's fair to say there wasn't a lot of instructional design. We threw the money at building expensive TV studios that would capture the faculty and students in their native environment and get that up and online so students could be semi-synchronous. Engineering faculty were not, in 2002ish, very open to course design.

What saved us from a tedious process of encoding from tape was a product called "MediaSite Live". We weren't the first to buy it, but we rolled it on a large scale in Spring of 2003. It synched video with a high-res still image.

I know from an Ed Tech standpoint, this is going backward, but when we had to deliver dozens of courses per semester with 4 full-timers and a handful of students, it was all about efficiency.

We did start introducing some instructional design in short courses, etc... but I believe to this day, the ASU online engineering program is still using the same model.

I don't know much about Coursera, but I'll be looking it up and seeing what I can learn in the next few days. I strongly feel like MOOCs are another fad that hasn't been properly thought through - and I say this as the guy who had to devise a Rube Goldberg system for managing incoming and outgoing homework of long equations, etc... for engineering. I don't know how you do that over 1000 students at no cost. I'm not saying "don't do it" or "it'll never work", but I also am aware of the dollars and cents side of this, as well as the organizational aspect.

And, no offense to the guy getting his PhD, but I came out of doing the eLearning jazz and deploying courses with practical objectives for educator, institution and student. I'm still not clear on how MOOCs will fulfill the incentives for all three sides of that particular triangle.