The dangers of segregating the digital sphere

I have begun to think it is dangerous to consider the digital, the online, the technological, as separate from the whole.

Partly this thought is a result of attending Martin Weller’s presentation this morning for the Change MOOC, where he presented a wonderful discussion of Digital Scholarship. But my question was whether the attention given to digital scholarship as its own issue doesn’t undermine the effort to have it become mainstream.

This goes beyond the “no significant difference” argument that comes up periodically for online teaching, although for me it started there. At our college, online teaching came about as a “modality” or “mode of delivery”, because it was 1998 and we were trying to offer it as an option for students. We taught ourselves how to teach online, all before learning management systems, best practices, or student learning outcomes. And most of us involved said it was just teaching, doing what we do but adapting it for a different “classroom”. I’m not sure I ever saw the difference between “online education” and “education”, or my “online U.S. history class” and my “U.S. history class”.

It’s not that I don’t acknowledge differences between the relationships, work tasks, and communication we engage in online and those we engage in face-to-face. But I also acknowledge differences between relationships, work tasks, and communication in various face-to-face settings, and it has always been that way. If we say “online community” instead of just “community”, we imply a separate reality that may or may not be the case. Rick Schwier’s presentation in Alec Couros’ EC&I831 last night noted that there are many ways that communities form in online environments, and of course there are many ways that communities form in-person also. Schwier noted that some of us use multiple online personalities, reflecting the in-person reality that you don’t talk the same way to your priest as you do to your coach as you do to your mom as you do to your college president.

A class is a class to me, whether it’s taught under a tree, or in a circle, or over the internet, or by hand-written snail mail.

I’m going to argue for completely ignoring the fact that things are “digital” or “online”. In terms of scholarship (it’s own heavily-laden word), continuing to fight for the acceptance of “digital scholarship” perpetuates the idea that it is somehow different from “regular scholarship”, that is is not as real. We shouldn’t focus only on the vetting of articles, the false scarcity of  information and the tyranny of for-profit journals, but on behaving as if it’s just scholarship. The same standards (peer review, for example) should apply if  you’re going to say it’s real, or scientific, or important, but whether it’s online for free or in a bound pay-walled journal  is irrelevant in terms of its value. It’s either good research and useful to me, or it’s crappy research regardless of format.

This is why I am against the idea of having a “dean of online”, a “coordinator of online education”, or anything else that segregates the digital aspects of education into their own sphere. If we do that, we continue to emphasize its differences. While this may be an advantage up to a point (getting funding for online projects, justifying masters programs in educational technology, paying government employees to create standards and rules for accessibility), it also provides ammunition for those who are resistant to technology and resistant to change. It packages the “technology-enhanced” and the “online” and the “distance ed” into something that is easier to dismiss and de-fund. Such packaging can also discourage innovation by making “online education” a specialization beyond the understanding of ordinary faculty, something that requires strict management by administrators. And that packaging can be literally packaged, by selling “online courses” created by “teams” at for-profit institutions, or “course cartridges” in Blackboard, available for those too controlled or too timid to create their own classes.

The distinction thus gets in the way of professional development, when good faculty feel they are entering a new and scary world instead of just extending something they already do skillfully — teach.

So I’m declaring myself against “digital scholarship”, “online community”, “distance education”, and anything else that applies a special adjective to something wonderful we do as humans but happen to do using a computer.

And no, that doesn’t mean my Facebook “friends” are my “real friends”.

From Course Learning to Snapshot Learning


One of my students wrote on her self-assessment today that she was sad our summer course is ending, because she really enjoyed talking to her colleagues using the Messaging feature in Moodle. She wrote “very sad since I greatly enjoyed the lectures in this class and I’ve met new people via messaging them”.

I have noticed this before, that students often use the Messaging system in Moodle (or any LMS) to talk to each other. I’m not aware of it unless they tell me or I have to go into a student’s account for some reason. But it makes sense. It’s less intrusive than trying to be a Facebook friend, and less direct then email. If you use the LMS system, it means, “Hi! I’m in class with you. Wanna talk about class? or something else maybe?” Less risk, and it draws on your immediate and obvious connection.

My student’s sorrow, of course, is based on the fact that this experience is organized as a class that will “close”. No one will come back after this week, and eventually the website will be unavailable as we all move on. It’s like a coffee shop where you meet some people and hang with them all evening, but then the coffee shop closes and really, you’re too shy to ask for anyone’s number.

A lot has been discussed lately about open learning, life-long learning, learning outside the box. We talk about e-portfolios that would span ones whole academic career, and we bemoan courses as isolating events and lack of appreciation for informal learning.

I like to combine things, so let’s try something different, where we still have courses (and grades, and records, and all those socially-sanctioned assessed things everyone needs for credit and advancement regardless of how much you bitch about it). But let’s get rid of the Course in Isolation, and have the Course as Snapshot.

cc Flickr Mykl Roventine

The idea is that everyone would be learning, online and in the open, all the time. I am going to call this Evidential Learning, because you can see that it’s happening. Then an event comes along, which is the Course, and students enroll and work on that course. This happens all the time with MOOCs — one comes along and everyone begins to focus activity they’d already been doing on the schedule, topics, and feedback loops for that MOOC.

So all of their Evidential Learning is considered a flow, but instructors set up courses in their disciplines,and students register as usual, and for that period of time, the student’s energy is directed toward working on that class. This could be in their usual environments, or other online environments added or encouraged by the instructor. Their directed activities during the course are then seen as a “snapshot”, to which is assigned a grade.

Then students will connect to each other in their own way, and the coffee shop need never close.

The Wild West and Mobile Learning

I’m immersing myself in Bernie Dodge’s EDTEC700 seminar  in Mobile Learning, and going through materials from EDUCAUSE’s Mobile Computing 5-Day Sprint from April, but my thoughts are out on the range with the cowboys.

I am always wary of EDUCAUSE because of its central IT/administrative focus and corporate sponsors, but the people in the discussions supported the opportunities and concerns that are forming in my own mind about the taming of the wilderness.

Not so long ago, the internet was the Wild West. Those of us teaching on it when it was new, long before technology plans and wireless hotspots, may not have had a lot of spiffy technologies but we had pretty much total freedom. Over the years, the wild horses have been corralled and tamed by Learning Management Systems, the swift emergence of central IT, and the even swifter development of graduate degrees in educational technology and distance learning.

In the first part of the EDUCAUSE Now podcast #38, Bryan Alexander, Terri-Lynn Thayer, George Claffey Jr, Joanna Young, and Gardner Campbell discuss how movile devices are affecting higher ed:


I am hearing here an echo of the early web-based teaching concerns: how can we keep the freedom? Mobile devices permit all the affordances of the internet (massive amounts of information, social contact, and fun distractions) to be carried around. This provides opportunities to teach in new ways.

Just as some profs didn’t want (and still don’t want) the internet impacting their teaching and their classrooms, some don’t want mobile devices in the classroom (the Turn Off All Mobile Devices in Class syndrome). But, as Gardner Campbell says in the podcast:

“Rather than raise a generation of students who will be waiting until the bell rings so they can go outside and consult their mobile devices, we can and must incorporate the riches these mobile devices present to us into teaching and learning.”

At the same time, out of conferences like this come directives, often along the lines of :

“From a planning perspective, CIOs should assume that the entire user community wil require support for one or more mobile devices.”

“…those institutions with with a well-defined strategy for exploiting mobile technologies will discover significant advantages.”

(These are also from EDUCAUSE, the recent Review).

Last time, the internet cowboys were on the open range. This time, the mobile learning cowboys are already outnumbered by the bank managers, sheriffs, back room accountants in green visors, and federal marshals. There are concerns about central IT and others taking control. I sense these “stable” forces working hard to figure out how to promote the advantages of mobile learning while “organizing” it into “plans” and “strategies”. To me, that means an inevitable restriction of the range by fences.

True, the very mobility of mobile learning should mean it will be more like fencing in birds than cows, but technological and commercial limitations take care of the rest. Apple’s success has already shown that people care more about style and snaz than independence and creativity. (I am currently being “encouraged” to buy a new iPod since Apple refuses to create software so I can update my “old” one, even though nothing is really different inside except a camera the software could ignore.) “Apps” now dominate, and many are proprietary, even when they operate on systems that are open source (like Android). Even QR codes are patented by Denso Wave, though they choose not to exercise rights .

Arcade Saloon, Eldora, Colorado 1898, Denver Public Library

So the railroad investors and moguls will make sure whatever range isn’t limited by managers will be limited by their products.

My hope is that the mobile cowboys will do as much as they can now, making models of independence and creativity, before we enter the next age (which should be, what, a year from now, at the outside?).  Those who exercised insane creativity on the last frontier seem to be the only forces holding the web itself as an open space, against the enclosures of property-owners like Facebook.

So let’s do some jailbreaks and fight in the saloons before things get really civilized (and dull) around here.

A Pink Mind

A student of mine, who teaches preschool, told the class that she’d approached the father of a 4-year-old to tell him his son was very good at art. The father replied that he’d better pick something else, since there was no money or appreciation in art until after the artist was dead. Her comment got a lot of responses, supporting the child’s talent. I advised she give the father Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind (2005).

An interesting, pleasurable read, this book promotes the idea that a right-brained set of skills will be necessary for the 21st century workforce. It reads like an article extended to book-length, and the writing style is very similar to everyone else who’s written a book recently on the brain, the brain and the internet, the internet, etc. (Gladwell, Surowiecki, Powers, Tapscott, even Carr). These books are becoming a little formulaic — a couple of really good ideas and lots of folksy examples in the new tradition of “storytelling as information”. I confess that the pattern began to annoy me as the elements of arguments got weaker near the end of the book — I began skimming.

Pink claims that the driving force behind the need for right-brained workers is Abundance, Asia, and Automation, which is cute and alliterative but I don’t buy it. Abundance is not prevalent to the extent he perceives — the argument mostly applies to the middle class in industrialized Western nations. Asia (by which he mostly means outsourcing jobs to India) is not in itself a cause of anything, but rather a symptom of Automation, and Automation isn’t really what’s meant, but that’s where the good idea is.

The basic thesis: we need to be more right-brained because most left-brained things can be increasingly accomplished by machines. He claims a pattern of historical development from the Agricultural Age (through the 18th century), Industrial Age (19th century), Information Age (20th century) to the now new Conceptual Age (21st century). (Yes, I often have to turn off my historians’ mind when reading these books.)

I use the term “right-brained”, though Pink uses “R-directed” (no matter — we are all still in thrall to Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). The skills/aptitudes are presented as dichotomies, claiming we need to move from one more toward the other:

Function -> Design
Examples include people spending more money on cell phone accessories than on the phones and the butterfly ballots of the 2000 election (showing bad design as costly), so everything needs to be properly seen as a design issue. Items need to have significance as well as utility. (I like this, because it will help support several arguments I make about Learning Management Systems.)

less talking, more listening, please

Argument -> Story
Since everyone has access to a zillion facts, putting them into a narrative context becomes the important skill. Revive those ancient narratives, and tell those stories. More specifically, a great example is medical schools teaching doctors to listen to patients’ stories.  (I have trouble with this transfer to narrative, as logic often goes by the wayside — but notice I started this post with a story, which is alien to my nature.)

Focus -> Symphony
This is the ability to synthesize and see the forest instead of the trees, using pattern recognition and the creation of new metaphors. (This works for me because it’s what I do with my students for History — the facts are just building blocks and support for the argument. But they’re still needed, which another reason I have trouble with Argument – > Story.)

We're all very sorry you're having this problem today.

Logic -> Empathy
Although he acknowledges exceptions, here we must buy that the female brain is more empathetic than the male, and that we need to move toward a female brain. Much of this is based on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen. (This shift is already  happening, of course: it is a trend I’ve noticed in cinema and in my students, the belief that feelings are more important than rational thought. And it’s pretty clear I have a male brain by these definitions.)

Seriousness -> Play
This got more into gaming than what I would call “play” (by which I mean experiementation), but the idea is that we need to play to learn, and to laugh.

Accumulation -> Meaning
Pink says the predominance of the baby boomer mentality means that the goal of accumulating meterial goods is changing to the desire to find meaning in life, a kind of “post-materialism”.

For each chapter on these aptitudes, Pink provides resources and tips to develop your own brain along the new lines. Thus we go from theory in Chapter 1 to a series of storied examples, then each chapter ends with self-help advice. (It’s already pretty light — I find it very funny that there’s a “Summarized for Busy People” version available.)

But the mental yoga commercial was a distraction from the main idea. What’s significant here is that right-brained, big picture, contextual, design-based thinking will likely be increasingly respected in our culture.

cc Flickr by torres21

“Knowledge” jobs where humans do things that can now be done faster by machines (anything featuring repetitive tasks and computation, such as accounting or basic manufacturing) will become less common or will be outsourced (up to a point — people still need to input and program the machines — ask anyone working on the Google Books project or who spends 9 hours a day typing in medical records).

So if his father can get over it, my student’s 4-year-old pupil might be in luck. Art, music and all those things we cut from the curriculum as fluff may soon be understood as necessary to engender the skills society needs. The book is worth it just for that.


SOS or in light of the web?

I’ve been grading student Contribution Assessments in my online classes. This is an assignment, done twice during the semester and worth 10% of the grade each time, where they have to do a self-assessment of their participation in the class and the contribution they’ve made.

The emphasis is on the forums, which is where the constructivist work goes on. As I’ve said in workshops, I consider my online classes to be 50% instructivist and 50% constructivist. Since the instructivist elements (planned reading and lecture) are prepped in advance, my energy during the semester is focused on the constructivist side, guiding them through finding and posting cool primary sources, then creating increasingly complex theses that use them.

My CMS (Moodle) lets me see where each student spends their time. I graded by comparing their self-assessment to their actual work in the forums, and their stats, including whether they used the Study Guides, looked at the sample exams I posted after a test, etc. And I started to notice something.

A number of the students doing just fine in the class were not viewing the Assignments. This is where I post the pages for assigned textbook reading, and a link to my lectures. I’ve worked very, very hard on these lectures, for every class. Yet here were A and B students not bothering to read them, and passing the tests anyway.

Why? Because the exams are 60-70% multiple choice, and 30-40% essay. The MC is based on the textbook and lecture, and the essay is based on the constructivist portion. But I give them Study Guides for all the multiple-choice, with all possible questions and two chances to practice and see whether they’re right. I planned for them to use these to do strategic textbook reading. But if, out of say 14 MC questions, only a couple are from lecture, why do the lecture? Why even open the Assignment in the first place? So they aren’t.

I graded down a bit students who hadn’t done the Assignment/Lectures, because I figured that was part of participating in the class. I think most people would see that “doing the work” is part of participation. Then a student wrote me:

My first response was, “oh, great, now they won’t even do the work without my telling them! better add it to the rubric…”

My lectures can no longer be assumed to be an inherent part of the class. I see my classes based around them because they took me so much time, and define the order of events. But students see them as supplemental, while they spend much time constructing work in the forums.

But wait. If the connectivists are right, this is actually a new issue. Not because students won’t do the work (hardly new), but because the nature of the web is theorized to be creating new forms of learning. With all the “information” available, what use is a textbook? I’m even getting rid of my textbook for summer, because my lectures are sufficient for “information” purposes in a compressed 8-week class.

But this may not be a mere pedagogical choice. It’s possible that new forms of pedagogy are being forced upon us by the nature of the open web, and the habits of people who use it. It’s strategic studying combined with the ability to pick and choose your work. Yes, I could add more lecture-based multiple-choice questions to the exams, and I likely will. But that’s not the larger issue.

My lectures, which I used to see as providing an active learning opportunity (they contain visuals, audio, self-tests), have become passive when compared to constructivist opportunities in the forums, and connectivist opportunities (which they may or may not use) provided by the web. The role of my creation has shifted, and I will also have to shift, sooner rather than later, or risk the irrelevancy that so many internet pundits say is automatic now that “everything” is on the internet.