Year in Review 2014

Year in Review 2014

christmas card 2014 468I think it has been a long time since I made a blog post, so allow this to be my reflection on the year 2014 as a teacher. Forgive me as this turns into a treatise on education and technology.

The biggest change I have made this year is that I am no longer an adjunct at Metropolitan Community College. I had been teaching one or two classes per semester both on campus and online since 2008. I severed my relationship with them for two reasons. The first issue was financial. I am now in a position that allows me to work only one job and still survive. I realize this is a luxury in today’s world, so I am thankful for this.

The second reason involved a disagreement about a student who failed my Composition II course. This student did not complete the basic requirements of the class or final paper, and because she complained, I had to go through a rigorous defense of my teaching methods. I felt as if I were being persecuted because this student did not do the work she was assigned. After I was asked to drive to campus for another face-to-face discussion about this grade (following dozens of emails, a few phone calls and one face-to-face meeting), I decided to simply resign. It felt like the right thing to do.

Through this process, I learned a few things about teaching, and especially teaching online courses. The main issue with teaching anything online is that it is virtually impossible to develop a real relationship with students. Anyone who tells you anything about teaching will say that relationships are the number one factor in successful teaching. I have worked hard as an online teacher to maintain and build relationships through multiple technologies including Angel mail, chatrooms, forums, and google documents. However, for some people, accessing and using multiple online tools is a challenge in and of itself. The more we add to our online arsenals, the more we may be able to communicate, but we also add layers of complexity.

This complexity also came up in a recent discussion that our English department engaged in. Westside was in the process of eliminating Blackboard as one of the online tools we use for sharing information with students. This year, we moved to Google as our main online tool. All students and teachers have official Westside google accounts @westside66.net. (grinvalds.jeff@westside66.ne). This was an effort to eliminate FirstClass (yet another tool) and to streamline the whole system. However, the launch was a bit premature perhaps, and many teachers and students were confused. There were growing pains and lots of fits and starts as we spent much of the first few months of the school year dealing with wi-fi issues. So the normal transitional process was made even more complicated by the hardware issues.

In our staff meeting, we were asked to offer feedback about the removal of Blackboard. Many teachers were angered by yet another change in our system. I have been at Westside for eight years, and each of my classes has a Blackboard site with folders and units so that students can access most of my content in one place online. While I have already been in the process of moving to Google Classroom, many teachers were still using Blackboard as their main and only online option. Ultimately, the powers that be determined that they would keep Blackboard for another year. I guess the uproar was enough to change their minds.

One teacher in our meeting brought up the point that students and parents are asked to log into so many different places, and it is true. Right now, I have my google account, my Blackboard account, I still have my First Class account because some email still goes there. I also use an online forum with my students through the Nebraska Writing Project. We use turnittin.com. The school has servers Sometimes I use Todays Meet for backchanneling. I am trying to come up with a comprehensive list, and it is already exhausting me.

Each year, more and more gets added. I have at least fifty online logins and passwords that I keep track of on an old-school spreadsheet. This teacher sent the point home that each of these students may have as many as nine teachers. If each of their teachers has a new website they want to use, that’s nine more places that students need to go online to use technologies. That may be nine new logins, nine new passwords on top of the school-issued logins. It is almost maddening to think about how complex we are making the system for everyone.

Login fatigue. That’s what I want to call it. As an employee, I have a login and password to check my payroll checks, to call in for a sub, and to complete my employee records. I have another login to complete senior letters of recommendations using Naviance. I am certain there are others.

My year in review has become a laundry list of all the online tools that we have access to, and it sounds more like a complaint than anything else, but I don’t want it to be.

I now live in a three-generation household. My 87 year-old father who was born in Latvia has moved in with me. He watches me and my daughter use technology and he is fascinated but fearful. He has no idea how any of it works, and his fear is that he may break something. His constant complaint is that he is “too old” to make any sense of it. He is a reminder of how simple life used to be. There were a few important life items to keep track of, and the remainder one’s memory could be dedicated to other more important things. Now we are confronted by one complication after another. The layers of complexity jumble and tumble over one another until what? What is the end?

Where do we go with educational technology? Where are we heading and what is the end game? Is there ever a place where we can say, “This is good enough. We are successful?” If we are constantly adding, then we have no time for reflective practice or skill building. How do we filter the wheat from the chaff?

My dad told me a story about how in Latvia on New Year’s Eve, people would gather in the old threshing barns with floors of brick, tables laid out and covered with food and drink. You never knew who would show up. Neighbors would dress as the ghosts of those who had died the previous year and travel from barn to barn. If your barn was left empty, that meant that not many people thought very highly of you. There is a good metaphor in that story for modern technology. I think.

Happy New Year and may the ghosts visit your table in 2015!

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