How do we find excellent online teachers?

I’ve copied the following, with permission, from a post on an online forum. The original poster is a professional educator and adminstrator in a graduate program which relies on online instruction. I think the post asks some good questions.

It will come as no surprise to anyone here that the biggest challenge I face is not in finding excellent teachers who know their subject cold. Rather, it’s (you got it) finding people with all of that going for them who can write in the way that you have to in order to give of yourself, show yourself, online.

My big hiring mistakes have all had the same thing in common — they all glide around classrooms like they’ve spent a lifetime in the theater (i.e., they’re great “performers” and know their stuff so cold that they can hold students spellbound for three hours)… but ask them to commit that to paper, and it’s just no go. We’ve always given our own graduate faculty first crack at writing these courses… usually disastrous, because they’re as bad at writing what they do as they are good at doing it!

Asking for writing samples has been a waste of time… it’s just plain not the same genre, and there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from their last article in The Journal of American YouPickIts.

The same thing happens from time to time with the folks who tend the discussions in the class… they don’t know how to show or give themselves to students in their writing… and that’s what it takes when teaching and learning relationships have to happen and develop in print.

How can I “screen” those applicants with credentials and teaching success for their ability to function online, whose persona in print reflects an appreciation for the very specific art of being able to “talk” in black and white like they do in a classroom? Or am I doomed to a lifetime of having to endlessly edit the stuff of people who know something I need them to share, so that it doesn’t put my students into a coma?

What suggestions can we offer about finding applicants who will excel at online instruction?

Hello World . . . Again

Yes, I’ve changed blogging tools.

Again.

I began this blog in January of 2002, using Radio Userland; I eventually moved to MovableType, and now, I’m using WordPress.

I’ve also changed the location; I was over here, at digitalmedievalist.com, but I’m finally realizing I need to distinguish the scholarly me from the geek me, because it’s awfully confusing to would-be employers.

Google Pages

Google has a beta version of their new Web page creation tool, Google Pages. I gave it a look last Thursday and Friday. By Friday Google turned off new accounts temporarily; nonetheless, here are my general impressions.

You need to have a GMail accout to use Google Pages, and right now the only supported browsers are Firefox and I.E. The rendered Web pages are stored on Google’s servers, with a 100 MB storage limit. Others have compared Google Pages to the old Geopages, but I think they’re selling Google short. The Templates are nicer, as is the interface; in fact Google Pages is so far the best browser-based Web page creation tool I’ve seen. You can choose a Layout (1/2/3 columns, side bar on left or right) as well as a Template. There’s a simple to use Page Manager (the first thing you see after you log in) that lets you create new pages and delete them. Publish and Save are separate procedures, there’s a Preview tool, and a notification tool to let people know your pages are ready.

I think Google Pages is likely to be much easier for a naive user to figure out than other similar online tools. I note that the HTML is not standard (use View Source in your browser to see for yourself). Hard returns generate paragraph breaks. While you do have control over Font and Font style, (the fonts are as you’d expect, the Microsoft Six), and the color of text, the HTML generated by Google uses the deprecated Font tag. The font styles are limited to Bold and Italic, and the actual tags used are Em and Strong. I’d be grateful if they’d provide a Cite tag. I’m quite pleased that Google allows you to directly edit the HTML.

You can use images; there’s an Image insert and upload tool, basic image resizing, and a Link tool. The Link tool uses an exceedingly simple form; you enter a name for the link then the URL for the link. You can link to e-mail addresses, URLs, local pages or uploaded files.

There’s an odd error message and accompanying feature; I was just told “Another user has ended your editing session” with an option to “Break the lock.” Odd that; there shouldn’t be another user with my login. You can take a look at my test here.

On "Serious" Blogging

New Kid on the Hallway drew my attention to this article in Inside Higher Ed by Jeff Rice.

Rice has two central points, I think, in his initial article. I say “I think” because the argument is less than coherent. Rice begins by referring to the “Ivan Tribble” articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserting that “Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously” then makes an initial overture to his central point, his concern regarding “the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.” He defines “seriousness” as “the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing.” This is his first point.

Next Rice segues to a red herring: the issue of anonymous blogging (discussed by Tribble) by academics using pseudonyms like “La Lecturess.” Rice argues that “these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously.” He laments that “Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers”—he lists specific aspects of blogging, both those that relate to writing on the Web in general, like linking, that are easier because of blogging software, and those, like automatic archives, that are characteristic of blogs and blogging software. Rice asserts that this “seriousness” will lead to “stagnation.” He points to literary innovators Cervantes and Rousseau as models, and asserts that “finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.” This is his second point.

Rice closes by giving examples of “provocative and exciting weblogs,” like BoingBoing, or Wonderland, and then points to his own blog, Yellow Dog as a model via a disingenuous occultatio.

Rice seems unaware that blogs aren’t that novel; even the most parsimonious blog historian has to grant them a good six years of life—that’s an age on the Web. Moroever, it’s not like the weblog formats and features he finds novel exist as rhetorical oddities; blogs and blogging correspond with the traditional five divisions of rhetoric. Nor am I the only person to compare blogs and commonplace books or nineteenth century pamphlets.

In his contention that we take Tribble’s warnings too seriously, I wonder if Rice actually read the pieces in question. I’m also not sure who Rice is referring to by “we.” With respect to anonymous blogging, while I am not anonymous, it’s because I know that it’s time consuming and laborious to be truly anonymous on the ‘Net, and I’m too lazy. Familiarity with writing for the Web is part of my professional expertise in any case, and the drive for tenure is not likely to be part of my future. I’m lucky. Many of my blogging peers are less fortunate, and people have been fired for blogging. As Professor Nokes points out, there are anonymous bloggers that aren’t anonymous to me, but I take their decision to remain anonymous very seriously and consider their anonymity a matter of privacy and professional courtesy.

Regarding the “seriousness” of other bloggers, which strikes me as a slightly self-serving assertion on Rice’s part, it’s a little difficult to be sure what, exactly, he means. For instance, he refers to “academic bloggers,” but doesn’t indicate what he means by “academic.” Does he mean any professor, graduate student or faculty member who blogs? Does he mean people who blog about scholarly subjects? The blogs I read in my scholarly field, medieval studies, are often quite serious in tone and topic, but they are just as often humorous. Most of us are medievalists because we fell in love with our field, with the music, the languages, the literatures, the art, and the peoples, and that joy is an important part of our lives, our scholarships, and our blogs. I note that a fair number of medievalist bloggers do blog about our field—but we also blog about our outside interests, and our lives, to varying extents. I know several, anonymous and not, who have decidedly non-academic blogs about their hobbies, or their families. I think too that Rice misses the value of scholarly community in his dismissal of “seriousness.” Take, for example, what began as a semi-frivolous aside about an imaginary sheep DNA project on Professor Drout’s blog. But the response encouraged him to actually explore the project. That’s not anything like stagnation.

Rice exhorts us to “play” with the opportunities blogging gives us— yet he seems unaware that that’s exactly one reason many bloggers are anonymous— the anonymity gives them a safer place to engage in serio ludere. Rice even more surprisingly doesn’t seem to realize that the content and the presentation of a blog are two very different things, and that the presentation is ultimately controlled by the reader’s Web browser (Hint: if you have a blog with a style sheet that uses tiny type, or oddly colored text against a text-hostile background, I’m subverting your style sheet). Indeed, after his paragraph in praise of the features of blogs and blog software, the examples of innovative blogging Rice gives are all innovative in terms of content, not form. I also suspect he’s completely unaware of the often forgotten bastard child of blogging—the journal, perhaps best exemplified by LiveJournal; a fair number of “serious” and “academic” bloggers have a LiveJournal account for their less scholarly musings. In short, it seems to me that Rice is really saying not, “don’t take blogging so seriously,” but “why aren’t you all more like me?”

In his follow up post, Rice renders his argument even more confusing. He asks, via hypophora, if anonymity is an issue with respect to academic writing, and then answers “no.” I’d argue that he’s answering too quickly; sometimes anonymity may be an academic writing issue, especially for the non-tenured and the graduate student (both exceedingly common statuses for bloggers). Rice then asserts that anonymity isn’t so much an issue as “access” is. Rice says that “Because academic writing is just not as accessible as blogging. Google changed the interface of interaction in ways other search engines failed.” Rice argues that in order for him to “access” a fellow academic’s work he has to pay expensive journal subscription fees, or be at a school where a library has a current subscription and back issues, and possibly actually go to the library in question.

He’s introduced yet another red herring. “Access” has always been a problem, it’s part of the history of writing (you try toting all the tablets that make up Gilgamesh), a history that includes chained libraries, unwieldy manuscripts that weigh twenty pounds, and closed stacks. It’s not a matter of access (though I note that Rice would do well to explore the issue of access in terms of his own blog). But it might be an issue of Rice attempting to label bloggers, to pigeon-hole them as “academic” or “innovative,” or exhorting them to be more like him.

Weblog Usability

Jakob Nielsen posted an article on the top ten web log design flaws. Most of his suggestions were things I’ve been doing from the start, but two of them were new to me. He suggests a list of the “top posts,” or most popular posts; I’ve added a category on the side for that purpose, linking to the posts that show up most frequently in my referral logs. He also suggests a picture; that one, I’m still thinking about. It seems inappropriate to me, though I understand his reasoning, and I’m not qute sure how to place it in terms of layout. Maybe later.