Higher Education Silos

One of the aspects of community college teaching I enjoy the most is the autonomy the work provides me.  I am the boss in my classroom, whether it be a physical or virtual space.  I have the privilege of setting my own schedule, for the most part, and teaching when and where I want to teach.  I guess that’s not exactly true, because where I used to want to teach was fully online; however, that idea was blocked by the instructional deans at MSJC.  I was not the only one who was prohibited from teaching 100% online as the maximum load a full-time instructor was permitted to teach was 60% in a semester.  This was an interesting interpretation of an MoU between the MSJCFA and the District.  In the MoU faculty were permitted to teach 120% of their annual load in the online format.  Two hundred percent makes up the annual load, 100% per semester.  The administration interpreted the language of 120% being split between semesters versus its intent to be used in myriad increments, e.g. 100% online in one semester and 20% in the next; 80% in one semester and 20% in the next etc.  Of course there was no minimum amount of online teaching required.

In retrospect I am thankful we have not been able to teach 100% of our load online.  Although I am an introvert and enjoy spending time with myself, I do have a social need, probably not as great as many others, but I still feel a need for human contact with my faculty peers.  I find that I still get energized from other community college professionals who desire to improve their practice of teaching.  This is contrasted with the flexibility and autonomy I was receiving from online teaching.  I enjoyed working in my silo more than I desired to be involved with collaborating with my peers.  Although working 100% online would have still required attendance at convocation, graduation, district, site and departmental meetings, the idea of living wherever I wanted was VERY appealing to me, if I was permitted to teach 100% of my load online.  I envisioned falls in the Berkshires, winters in NYC, springs in Paris, summers on a lake in Washington state.  I could be a vagabond.  I would simply have to have an Internet connection and I would be set.  I could fly in for faculty meetings secretly hoping some would get cancelled; I could work at 5am, noon or on weekends… whenever it was convenient for me!  I thought this idea was totally plausible because I knew of firefighters who lived far away from their home stations and would fly into the area where they worked to fulfill their eight, 24-hour workdays each month.  Upon completing their shifts, they would return to their cottages in the woods or ocean front condos far from their station houses.  I think the teaching profession could be similar, but I believe there is a real need for teachers to collaborate, if they want to improve.  Although collaboration at a distance is totally possible especially with HD quality video conferencing software, e-mail, asynchronous chat programs, etc., there is still something that is difficult to replace when there is a separation of either time and/or space.  I hoped I could accomplish both– live at a distance and collaborate with my peers, but I found I was doing little collaboration with my peers and the prohibition of teaching 100% load online prevented me from being a gypsy.  I was at a crossroads.

Human contact– the need to see people, hear their voice inflections, shake their hands, for some people give hugs, observe and interpret gesticulations that would typically not be observable via a webcam make face-to-face meetings invaluable… at least in my opinion.  As an aside, I have been a traditional student, undergrad and graduate, a completely online student, online teaching certification, and a hybrid student, doctoral program.  Hands down, the hybrid program worked best for me.  I was able to complete much of the work required for my doctorate in the comfort of my own home, in a vehicle traveling to a child’s sporting event, or at a local coffee shop.  The face-to-face meetings held monthly were a great way to connect and after the first meetings reconnect with fellow doctoral students going through the same sequence of courses at the same time as me.  Our face-to-face meetings were often followed by communal activities at a local bar or restaurant.  We enjoyed the time together to commiserate and grow in our understanding of how technology could be used to change the teaching and learning paradigm.  It was an exciting time.

I finished by doctorate in 2004.  Sometimes I miss the learning that took place during those years… the readings, the discussions about the readings, the hypothesizing and philosophizing and the energy that came from sharing an experience with others.  I felt I could institute some of what I learned in my doctoral program back at MSJC.  I soon found my enthusiasm was not matched by many of my colleagues,  It almost felt as if many of them wanted to be left alone to supervise their silos with little or no desire for outside ‘interference’.  I felt alone.  Where were the teachers who wanted to change the world?  Where were my colleagues who wanted to jump at the chance to try something new and exciting?  There were some, but not enough to gain the momentum I was hoping for to reinvent higher education.  I became disillusioned.  I retreated back to my silo and stayed there for a few years.  Like Punxsutawney Phil I would pop up out of my burrow occasionally, but with little motivation or vigor to engage my peers in improving our practice of teaching and learning.

I can’t say for certain why I recently left the comfort of my silo, but I know it has to have something to do with the excitement and energy our new Dean of Academic Computing, Technology and Distance Education brings to the position.  Micah and I have had an opportunity to discuss the seminal phases of our online program during our first few months working together.  He often communicates to me his recollection of the community of online teachers who started the online program at MSJC and who were deeply involved with each others’ professional development.  I’ve told him I thought this community of online practitioners had to develop, if the online program was to survive.  In the earliest days there were many naysayers questioning the validity of online learning… some of them are now online teachers themselves.  We bonded together, Micah’s predecessor, Pat James, developed a wonderful academy model where fledgling online instructors who could work alongside more experienced online teaching peers.  We attended conferences to learn as much as we could.  We returned to campus to share what we learned with our peers.  The academies grew from a once a year phenomena to biannual events.  The online program grew from two courses in the spring of 2001 to over 200 courses in 2015.  The explosive growth in the program has resulted in some fracturing of the online teaching community.  There are no more brown bag lunches.  There are seldom opportunities for mass attendance at conferences focusing on online teaching.  The community perhaps grew too fast to stay together.  I’m sure there are many of my peers who are at a similar crossroads in their careers– stay in their silo or come out and get involved.

It is my hope to rekindle the community of online teachers whom I hope still have a little gas left in the tank and want to be a part of the changes that are a comin’.  In the next several months we will most likely face the most significant changes to our online program we have ever encountered since its inception.  We may be adopting a new course management system which will require substantial orientation and professional development; we will possibly be looking towards a model for online course offerings that will centralize some of the ways we offer online courses and programs and there will more than likely be a reworking of the MoU to incorporate online teaching and learning issues that affect our working conditions.  It is an exciting time.  For me, I wish not to set on the sideline and let others make all of the decisions.  I have come out from my silo to be involved in this exciting time for distance learning at MSJC.  I hope others will join me and we can utilize the power of community to make the changes we hope to make as educators.

Prior to entering the education field as a high school teacher in 1990, I worked at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.  I hated working for a company that produced a product that lead to as many as 400,000 deaths per year so I changed career paths.  I chose education because I wanted to make a difference in peoples’ lives.  In the years since my transition from corporate America to public education I have often reflected on my experiences at RJ Reynolds and how business and education are similar, yet so vastly different.  One area where there is a major difference is in how evaluations are conducted.

At RJ Reynolds I looked forward to being evaluated because if I received a positive evaluation I would earn more money!  At RJ Reynolds I was evaluated by one individual, a lower level manager, and there were no peers involved in the process.  During my first evaluation at RJ Reynolds I was provided a list of criteria that would be used in my evaluation and I was given a date when my manager would accompany me on my sales calls.  I received an exemplary evaluation!  I was going to get a nice raise and I was very excited.  Unfortunately, I learned that new sales reps were not allowed to receive exemplary reviews because that gave them very little incentive to improve and stay motivated– so I was told by the regional manager.  Subsequently, my review was adjusted after the regional manager accompanied me on my sales calls one day.  As a result, my big fat raise was reduced substantially.  I was stunned and hurt by the turn of events.  It really pushed me to accelerate my pursuit of a teaching career.  However, I was left with the impression that evaluations were designed to seek areas of strengths and identify areas for improvement.  Where improvement was needed, an experienced sales managers would accompany me on my sales calls and actually conduct some of the sales calls demonstrating accepted best practices and at other times they would observe me in action and then provide me with feedback based upon their observations.  I am not saying this was an ideal evaluative system, but it was much more in line with what I perceived to be a system whereby practitioners could improve their practice.  These evaluations occurred each six months after my probationary period was completed.

Flash forward a few years and I was preparing for my first classroom “observation” as a high school teacher.  My evaluator was a close-to-retirement assistant principal.  On the day of my scheduled observation she was unable to visit my classroom.  Shortly thereafter, she summoned me to her office and asked that I draft a report of what went on the day she was supposed to visit my classroom.  As a new teacher I was shocked and ecstatic at the same time.  Shocked that the process was so lassez-faire and ecstatic that I would be a step closer to long term job security.  I have since realized this experience was most likely atypical, but I had adhered to the mantra I was taught by a veteran teacher.  He told me, “Del, if you handle all of your own classroom discipline and you don’t need an administrator handling your classroom problems and you are able to have students demonstrate they are producing work in your class, you will stay employed as long as you wish.”  Wow!  How easy would that be.

Twenty-five years later I find myself questioning the role of instructor evaluation.  I remember as a non-tenured faculty member some fifteen years ago I was unsure of the tenure process.  In fact, I considered requesting that I not be given tenure because I was fearful it would decrease my motivation to continually improve.  I chose to accept the offer of a tenured position at MSJC in 2002.  I’m dumb, but not stupid!  During my first four years as a non-tenured instructor I was evaluated every third semester.  In the years following tenure I was scheduled to be evaluated every fifth semester although with the high rate of turnover in the Dean positions at Menifee this was not always the case.

I tell my story because I think we need to rethink instructor evaluations.  I believe at times I ‘feared’ or ‘dreaded’ the evaluation process because it would be a ‘nitpicking session’ looking to find some flaw (see my RJ Reynolds story above), a method to possibly derail a career as a professional educator via unfavorable evaluations (job security woes), a complete waste of time because the process was so flawed (sitting through an evaluation where your name is not in the evaluation because the evaluator used boiler plate language and forgot to change the name from a previous evaluation or the evaluator attended fifteen minutes of a class session because they had other evaluations to conduct that day), or your peers were afraid to be ‘harsh’ in their evaluation because they felt one day they may want you to return the favor and be present on their evaluation team and they would not wish for you to evaluate them harshly.  I’m sure there are many administrators and many of our colleagues who do an exemplary job in the evaluation process, but I’m ‘nitpicking’ and pointing out some of the flaws in our current system.

Because of our current system and because there is no monetary incentive to improve and because once a teacher becomes tenured the process of evaluation becomes mostly a formality, there is little extrinsic motivation for a teacher to improve their craft.  This is sad but true for some.  I would have to say at times I could lump myself into this category.  What makes someone want to get better at what they do?  Is it a professional expectation and/or requirement?  Is it just what a professional educator should do because it is the right thing to do?  I know many colleagues who love teaching, appreciate the opportunity to have a career in a field where their passions lie and they enjoy getting paid well to perform their duties– well at least many do!  And as a result, they are continually improving their practice and refining what they do so as to optimize the potential for student learning in the classes they teach.

I know public education is not a meritocracy and paid bonuses for better teaching (like that’s even measurable) is not in our foreseeable future.  However, our intrinsic desire to improve our craft so we can better serve students should provide ample motivation sans any extrinsic factors.  I am finding that even intrinsic motivation wanes as the years progress and the students who want the greatest results while putting forth the least amount of effort fatigues me, yet I still think within these old, increasingly creaky bones and forgetful memory, lies an idealist who wants to make a difference in other peoples’ lives.

I am finding that I am struggling with getting better because I am my only evaluator .002% of the time (.002% is based upon 176 schools days times 2.5 years– this equates to the days between evaluations conducted every fifth semester for a tenured faculty member).  Sure, my students evaluate me on ‘Rate My Professor’, but a true evaluation where what I am doing is thoroughly analyzed by outside experts and peers is rare… well I think .002% is a rare occurence.

I’m not calling for more frequent evaluations, but I do think we need to rethink evaluations as a tool to get better instead of a needless process or something that should be dreaded.  I have often wondered why are f2f evaluations only conducted during a single class session when the instructor is ‘teaching’?  Why aren’t other facets of the teaching and learning processed being evaluated, e.g. assessments, quality of feedback on assessments, rubrics and how they’re deployed, or how an instructor is using ancillary materials to help students to go beyond the lesson in the classroom?  Conversely, there seems to be some ability or willingness to evaluate more of an online instructor’s overall teaching than what occurs in a f2f classroom because the online experience is asynchronous; whereas, the f2f classroom observation is totally synchronous.  The f2f evaluation calls for one classroom observation lasting one class session. As an aside, I have never been evaluated as a classroom teacher based upon the assessments I give my students, the feedback I provide my students on their assessments, how I record and determine a final grade for students or how I interact with my students outside of the classroom environment.  In contrast, an online evaluation can include, and has included, all of these facets in the evaluation process.  An evaluator has ~10 days in which they can visit an online class and no areas of the class are left closed to the evaluator.  This allows the evaluator a comprehensive look into a course.  Conversely, a f2f evaluation provides a single snapshot of one class session.

Which method of evaluation is better?  How is better defined?  Is evaluation a tool for improvement or a method of condemnation?  Should there be separate evaluation processes for f2f courses vs. online courses?  if not, which method should be utilized– a snapshot of one class meeting or a comprehensive look into an entire course?

I ask these questions because as I stated at the outset, our current method of f2f evaluations is seriously flawed in my humble opinion.  Our current method of online course evaluation creates an uneven playing field, if evaluation is perceived negatively rather than a method to help all of us do our craft better.

I look forward to suggestions, comments, criticism regarding the current evaluation processes or the opinions I expressed.  I’m hopeful what will come from this discussion is a strategy whereby we can all perform at an increasingly higher level, have a desire to do so and as a result better serve the students at MSJC who wish to work hard in their pursuit of their educational goals.

A Big Decision

Fifteen years ago when MSJC embarked on its journey to offer online courses, a small group of faculty gathered to assess different course management platforms in an effort to choose one that would provide the tools necessary to deliver online courses.  Three platforms were evaluated: Web CT, eCollege and Blackboard.  Following presentations and demonstrations of each company’s products, MSJC faculty, administration and support staff recommended that we adopt Blackboard as the platform to deliver our online courses.

For fifteen years Blackboard has provided a stable online platform for learning to students who enroll in online and face-to-face courses at MSJC.  Faculty members have undergone professional development to learn about online teaching and learning and how to use the myriad tools available in Blackboard; support staff have been hired and attended professional development workshops to learn how to best deliver Blackboard services to faculty and students.  Blackboard has been integrated with our Student Information Systems software, Web Advisor, to allow students and faculty members to navigate seamlessly between the two.  In the fifteen years since its adoption by MSJC Blackboard has cannibalized much of its competition to become the industry leader in course management systems.

In 2014-15, the Online Education Initiative was looking for a common course management system to host courses that would be offered throughout the state in an effort to provide opportunities for students who needed to take courses but were unable to do so through their local community colleges.  After careful deliberation and evaluation the OEI, with statewide input from a variety of constituent groups, selected a relative newcomer in the course management system business, Instructure’s Canvas Course Management System.  It was decided that Canvas would be the platform in which courses would be offered through OEI.  With its adoption by OEI, Canvas would also be offered to local community colleges who were a part of the OEI pilot program for no licensing fees for up to three years with the potential of reduced fees in the following years.  The reduced fees would be based upon wide scale adoption and the ability of the OEI to negotiate a better deal.

Turn to Fall 2015 and MSJC is at a crossroad.  Should we stay with Blackboard or should we adopt Canvas as our course management system?  Who should make that decision?  Why are only Blackboard and Canvas being considered since other platforms like Moodle and Sakai are open source products and are free to license?  There are many factors that must be considered in this process, but we must always keep in mind why we license a course management system– it enables students an opportunity to pursue their educational goals.  Simply put course management systems are platforms for delivering online content.  It’s the quality of the content, the interaction with the content by students, the interaction between students and other students, and the interactions between students and their instructors that matters most in the learning process.  The platform is just a means to create these interactions.  Some platforms, e.g. Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, etc. offer similar tools to share content and provide spaces for interactions.  Their chief differences are in how they enable instructors to display their content and how they enable instructors to create interactive experiences for students.  Will Canvas provide a better user experience for students than Blackboard?  The OEI evaluators believed it would and as a result they adopted Canvas as the common course management system of the OEI Exchange.

Now it is time for different constituent groups at MSJC: students, faculty, administration, classified staff, to evaluate Blackboard and Canvas to determine which course management system is best suited to deliver online learning opportunities for students at MSJC.  The process is daunting and it is the task of the ETC to create a transparent process to make an assessment and recommendation whether to stay with Blackboard or switch to Canvas.  As an aside, Moodle, Sakai, etc. were not considered in the evaluation process because of the dramatic increase in costs that would be encumbered with local and remote hosting of an open source content management system and the support staff required to host such a system.

EDITORIAL: The prevailing opinion amongst people with whom I have discussed this issue is that it is a foregone conclusion that MSJC will adopt Canvas because of OEI’s selection of Canvas and because it is available to MSJC at no cost for three years and a potentially reduced price thereafter.  This is simply not true!  However, I am sure cost considerations will be factored into the final decision, but cost will not be the overriding factor when making a recommendation just as cost was not the overriding decision for OEI when it selected Canvas.

The recommendation for whether to stay with Blackboard or switch to Canvas will be based upon a team of MSJC students, faculty, administrators, and classified personnel who will attend presentations by both companies during October, a review of each product, both companies will provide access to their products for testing also during October, and a thorough discussion about which product best meets the mission of enabling students to pursue their educational goals.  The face-to-face and virtual discussions will take place after the presentations and testing and will most likely finish up in early November.  A vote will take place by the subcommittee who viewed the presentations and tested the platforms.  The vote will take place in early November with the majority of votes for whichever platform is preferred going to the Academic Senate as a recommendation.  The recommendation of the ETC will not be a decision to adopt one platform or the other, however.  The recommendation of the ETC will go to the MSJC Academic Senate who will then make a recommendation to the College Council regarding the justification of the recommendation.  Afterwards, the college council will make a final decision and sometime in the coming months we will know whether we are staying with Blackboard or switching to Canvas.

Regardless of which platform is chosen, the ETC will continue to provide access to quality professional development workshops to assist teachers who wish to use a course management system to engage their students in interactive learning experiences.

Please stay tuned and as always I would love to have your participation and input in the recommendation process.

Reflective Practitioner

Dear MSJC Online Teaching Community,

I thought for my first post to our online teaching community I would offer up an introspective entry about a couple of the challenges I face as an online teacher.

Online teaching can be lonely.  As an introvert I am seldom lonely, but teaching in a classroom for years allowed me to experience an energy that has been difficult to replace as an online instructor.  Not one online student has laughed at any of my jokes :)  As a result, one of the biggest things I miss being in a classroom on a regular basis is getting to know some of my students.  Don’t get me wrong, I have been able to establish some relationships with a few of my online students, but just never at the depth that I had achieved when I saw my students twice a week for an entire semester.  As an aside I never teach full term online courses any more as they seem to drag on forever.  Now… all of my online courses are offered in an eight week format.  The students who are disciplined, focused and don’t believe they need to be in a classroom to learn often excel in this short term format.  My struggle is with the students who don’t perform well or they quit.  Is it the short term course that poses them problems?  Is it my instructional design of the online learning environment that is inhibiting them?  Do I encourage them enough?  Do they feel a sense of connectedness?  Do they lack adequate motivation to work without consistent reminders when going to a classroom twice a week?  Why do fewer of my online students persevere in my online courses as compared to my f2f courses?  These questions are difficult to answer and the lack of answers leaves me wondering whether I am offering a quality online learning experience for my students?

Are any of you struggling with whether you are providing a quality learning experience for your online students?  How are you determining whether your course is meeting the needs of students while maintaining academic rigor?  What practices have you implemented to improve retention and success rates?

It is my hope as I share with all of you the challenges I face, we can all share possible solutions to the challenges we face as online instructors.  Please feel free to jump in and share your challenges, successes and failures.

Thanks for reading.



Dear MSJC Faculty,

We all understand that this a very busy time of the year. Thanks for taking the time to glance through some important news and updates regarding Distance Education at MSJC.

  • Your three current DE Coordinators—Belinda Heiden-Scott, John Seed and Tamara Smith—will all be stepping down at the end of Spring term. We have enjoyed serving you.
  • A new single DE Coordinator will be taking over beginning next Fall. This coordinator will cover both campuses, and will have 80% release time. Expect to hear more from Micah Orloff as things move forward.
  • A major project, a 54 page fully updated Distance Ed Plan covering the years 2015-19 has been completed and has been forwarded to the MSJC Academic Senate for review.
  • The DE Plan calls for a physical location (office) to serve DE Faculty, a DE Coordinator with 100% release time and a Full-Time online course designer, to be hired by Spring 2016.
  • As the DE Plan notes: the MSJC District has been designated as a “pilot” district for the California Online Education Initiative (OEI). It is anticipated that one or more MSJC courses may be used in the rollout of the OEI program in fall, 2015. It is also anticipated that the MSJC District will continue to collaborate with OEI as it offers a Common Course Management system and more online classes to its offerings.
  • Because MSJC is near the limit of its ability to house face-to-face campuses, it is anticipated that more DE courses will be offered in coming semesters. Department Chairs should think about how this would be best accomplished.
  • The DE Coordinators recently made the following recommendation to the MSJC Curriculum Office regarding class caps: We recommend that class caps for DE Courses be determined as follows:
    – For courses with face to face caps of 30 or less, the DE course cap will be the same as the face to face class.
    – For all other courses the DE enrollment cap will be a maximum of 30 students.
    – Any instructor teaching a DE course for the first time will have a one time enrollment cap of 20 students for every new     course taught.
  • Finally, we would like to offer thanks and acknowledgement to a few key people:

Thank you to Micah Orloff for guidance and support.

Thank you to Suzanne Uhl who is preparing an OEI course for the Fall.

Thank you to Amrik Randhawa, Wendy Orcajo and Carlos Tovares for their assistance in drafting the 2015-19 DE Plan

Thank you to Rhonda Nishimoto for sitting in on many hours of online OEI meetings.

Thank you to Lorraine-Slattery Farrell, Del Helms and Tamara Smith for all the time they spent in Sacramento.

Thank you to all those who participated in our online Focus Groups.

Thank you to all members of the MSJC ETC.

Thank you to all MSJC DE faculty for your professionalism and support.

The California Community Colleges (CCC) Online Education Initiative (OEI) announced its intent to award Instructure Inc. the contract to provide an online course management system and related services to community colleges statewide.

Support for Instructure’s Canvas system was nearly unanimous among the OEI’s Common Course Management System (CCMS) Committee members, with overwhelming support from student participants, officials said. Canvas is a course management platform that is currently being used by more than 1,000 colleges, universities and school districts across the country.

More at this link…

You can try out Canvas at this link…

Dear MSJC Educators,

Here are some facts and figures that you may find interesting:

  • There are approximately 134 distinct MSJC courses that are approved for Distance Ed.
  • In Fall of 2014 there were 65 hybrid sections and 220 fully online sections offered.
  • There are approximately 150 faculty members involved in online teaching: this includes both full-time and part-time faculty.
  • 37% of online sections are taught by full-time faculty. In comparison, 21% of face-to-face sections are taught by full-time faculty.
  • In Fall of 2014 33% of MSJC Students took DE courses. This accounted for approximately 18% of the college’s term FTE.
  • DE Class size, as set by the curriculum committee is whatever the face-to-face class size is, not to exceed 35 students.

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