A Space for Learning (or The Value of Doing Things Half-Assed)

This post’s inspirations: George Siemens’ post Change That Prevents Real Change and the EdTech Posse podcast 5.6 from June (with Howard Rheingold), plus the fact that my colleague Jim Sullivan, our POT expert at blogging with students, is now using a Ning for his class.

George Siemens was concerned that online textbooks weren’t going far enough. His target was Flat World Knowledge, which offers textbooks in a restricted online format for free, and charges for printing or audio. This “tweaks the existing model of textbooks just enough to disrupt publishers, but not enough to disrupt the industry as a whole.” What ought to happen, Siemens argues, is change for the sake of principle rather than convenience, change that is more visionary. Ultimately he acknowledges arrangements like FWK’s as marking “[s]taged or transitional change”.

I now consider myself, having taken Siemens’ and Downes’ first online Connectivism course (which I blogged in great detail) and reading extensively, to be pretty familiar with the visionary goal of open, connected learning. I certainly use it myself everyday, as a learner. But I have had less success adapting it to teaching. Students resist for many of the reasons discussed in the EdTech Posse podcast, including their K-12 “training”, their desire for a more dictatorial class structure, the feeling they aren’t getting their money’s worth, the belief that the teacher isn’t really teaching, a marked absence of expected skills (bookmarking, RSS feeds), etc.

I’ve put this all together into a moderate position.

[If you know me, you may not think of me as moderate about anything. I eat chocolate to excess, get very passionate about things, and in the U.S. I am a political radical. Of course, in Europe, where they have real political parties, and in the CCK08 course itself, I am clearly in favor of moderation. Also as a historian: if one source says this, and another says the opposite, the truth is likely in between. I find myself these days, in the middle of my life, spending a lot of time defending the middle.]

Adding some online elements to a regular class is like creating those free online textbooks where you have to pay to have it in a traditional format. It’s a half-assed approach. I’ve done it continually with my classes (except for the one semester of History 101 which ended with only 40% of students still enrolled). It’s what most of our faculty do, and it is for principled reasons — to expand students’ horizons and take advantage of the wealth of information and tools available now via the internet.

In the face of all the wonderful, extraordinary thinking about open education (including this recent conference) I should be embarrassed to say that 80% of my classes still use a closed system, a CMS (course management system) — currently it’s Moodle. There are many arguments against these “closed silos” (a term coined by Brian Lamb and Michelle Lamberson). I’ve used most of them myself to argue for cobbling together ones own system. I’ve written articles on how to tame a CMS, get away from a CMS, subvert your CMS. And yet, I’m still using a CMS. Why?

Because sometimes half-assed is good.

The reasons I’ve always presented for why I use a CMS (copyrighted material behind a password a la the TEACH Act, and a gradebook integrated with assignments) may be only half the story. The other half, I think now, involves what currently concerns Howard Rheingold about student attention. (Here is his Attention 101 mini-lecture, where he explains his rules in class — how laptops may be used, etc.). Some instructors try to limit laptop use in an on-site class, because students spend their time doing things other than paying attention to the class. (I recall that I once saw a student watching skateboarding videos on YouTube instead of listening to the lecture I was evaluating.) I am aware of myself checking email and doing other things during meetings and conference presentations. Last year I told students with laptops they had to take notes and post them. I wasn’t comfortable with that. During the EdTech Posse podcast, Rheingold recalled how he watched over a student’s shoulder one time as the student used the internet to check email and do other things during a lecture. But he also Googled terms that came up in the talk, and bookmarked pertinent items.


cc licensed flickr photo shared by Koshyk

I now think that in an online class, this is what a closed system provides: FOCUS. Artificial, controlled focus with only a half-assed nod to open education.

Perhaps just a “class homepage” (like I’m using in my on-site History 103 class this semester) does something similar, but nothing says “this is the class” like a closed place which requires a password. Jim’s English 202 Ning is a closed Facebook, a social networking environment enclosed in the class itself. The message is clear.

Everyone whines about how to control all this influx of information on the web. How do we limit our input to what’s really important? pare down information to what matters to us? hold back the tide of continuous partial attention? make time for what’s real? And as teachers, how do we prevent “creepy treehouses”, invading students’ social space?

The closed course has a solution in its a message: this is where you work, not entertain yourself. Where your social contacts are for the purpose of learning. Where whatever other tools are available (RSS feeds, posting boards, Twitter), this marks the spot where you show your learning. That is its true value, not just as a screen behind which we hide, but as a filter.

Thus do I now justify my resistance to leaving a closed system for my fully online classes. It’s not that I want to hide my stuff. I don’t — it’s all CC licensed and is actually on the open web anyway, just linked from the system. It’s not that I need the gradebook.

It’s that I need to define a space as Just for Learning.

4 comments to A Space for Learning (or The Value of Doing Things Half-Assed)

  • Interesting defense of the CMS, Lisa.

    I’ve just adopted a FWK text this semester, and what surprised me most was having to argue with the dean about whether the text was “required” because the students could read it online for free rather than buying it from the bookstore. Sometimes we need to take baby steps.

  • Bob Bell (B-ob

    Lisa,
    Once again you struck paydirt!
    “this is where you work, not entertain yourself”.
    Sounds like what a physical classroom was designed to do.
    One difference is that each instructor can determine which features of the virtual classroom dominate the architecture or even are available to the students. With the Content Management System the instructor can choose to create a minimal “classroom” and extend it using the web or be passive and use the default features including downloaded content from textbook vendors.
    I agree the closed format (CMS) is not the issue. The development of engaged and competent online instructors is the challenge.
    B-ob

  • Ted, I’m a bit confused. Would that mean that work assigned on the web in general could be seen as “not required”? or was this a bookstore issue?

    Bob, yes indeed, creating the minimal classroom with extensions is often what I encourage for those who feel they are dependent on the CMS. And you’re right on. Let’s compare the attitude in the physical classroom to what happens when we take them outside to do the same tasks. Not for a field trip or small group discussion, but for a large group activity. The immediate feeling is, oh, we’re outside, let’s look around, check our phone, get a soda. Four walls can be an advantage to help people focus.

  • Bob Bell (B-ob

    Lisa,
    Going on a field trip is a good analogy. The way primary school teachers keep the sense of class is to have everyone line up and move as a unit. Treating college students like this would be a bit extreme. However, the training students have received throughout their K-12 education perhaps was a poor long term strategy. They may now assume, if there is not an obvious physical restriction, that they are not responsible to continue to behave as a member of a learning class. I believe this attitude is also reflected in the groans associated with assigning group projects.
    Beyond the current discussion:
    I wonder (idealist me) what would happen if the students were given the choice of acquiring course info/tasks in either F2F or virtual formats and then allowed a dedicated place (learning commons) to freely assemble (as a class) to help one another or avoid forming a class altogether and choose learn alone. This would have to be a total change of culture in how we educate from K-12 as well – nevermind 🙂
    B-ob