cms kibble and the vertigo of an open network pedagogy

One of the challenges of teaching these online courses, at leas the way I am doing it, is the extreme vertigo (and resulting anxiety) experienced by the students. As I explain to them, they’ve spent more than a decade learning how to behave in a classroom, from sitting on colored mats in kindergarten to learning the discipline-specific practices of sitting in a circle in English class, participating in science labs, and so on. The  "traditional" CMS-driven online course, as I often say, is all about the "M for management." It is designed to carefully regulate student behavior. However, it is exactly the kind of thing that Ted Nelson warned us about decades ago in Computer Lib/Dream Machines.

If everything we ate were kibbled into uniform dogfood, and the amount consumed at each feeding time tediously watched and tested, we would have little fondness for eating. But this is what the schools do to our food for thought, and this is what happens to people’s minds in primary school, secondary school and most colleges….

Computer-assisted instruction, in this classical sense, is the presentation by computer of bite-sized segments of instructional material, branching among them according to involuntary choices by the students ("answers") and embedding material presented to the student in some sort of pseudo-conversation ("Very good. Now Johnny, point at the…")

As always, some sophoric is always the pharmakon for a lack of equilibrium, and there are few better sleep agents than a CMS. If you object to online education, what you are probably objecting to (or at least what I think you should be objecting to) is the poverty of the kibbled intellectual experience Nelson describes (which is not to say that most face-to-face instruction is any better).

Not surprisingly, I’m trying to avoid going in that direction, but the result is vertigo.

The students enter the course much like they enter the Web, with many choices and only a little guidance. They are presented with the course blog and wiki, where they find an already existing body of material from the course syllabus to some instructional screencasts to material created by students last semester. They have a reading assignment and need to set up their own blog. I ask them to post welcome messages to the blog and wiki, though I give them little guidance as to what to say.

In the next week or two they’ll also be presented with creating audio podcasts and Second Life.

The experience, in short, is an overload. I explain that it is meant as overload, like an immersion approach to learning a foreign language or the way a science fiction novel lets you know right at the start that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Of course, for those of us who live and work in digital spaces, would it not be an average day to do several of the following:

  • comment on a blog
  • write on a wiki
  • write a post on your own blog
  • twitter some
  • check your facebook/myspace
  • IM someone
  • write some e-mails
  • read some blogs/watch some videos/listen to some podcasts
  • hang out in SL

That’s really all I’m asking of the students, these so-called "digital natives" (and not that they do all of these things everyday, but some of them each day).

Put in those terms, it doesn’t seem that bad. What I believe truly makes it unnerving for students is that they are asked to perform these activities in the context of formal education. If our students experience learning as eating kibble, then I am essentially laying out ingredients and telling them to make their own lunch (albeit with me there to help them). They might perform these kinds of tasks regularly in other contexts, but the notion of performing these activities for the purpose of learning is alien.

If this class has similar questions to last semesters, they will struggle with figuring out the level of formality needed in writing to the blog, with determining what they should post on the blog and what should go on the wiki, with developing a purpose for the podcasts they produce, etc. In other words, they will face rhetorical challenges related to genre, media, and networks. And it is not that I’m keeping the answers from them. There are no definitive answers (though I tell them they should think of the blog as being like a classroom discussion). Clearly we are all figuring out how to behave all the time; it’s just that in school we’ve been hard-wired to expect explicit instructions regarding behavior.

Nelson writes

Schools as we know them all run on the same principle: iron all subjects flat then proceed, in groups, at a forced march across the flattened plain … It is not that students are unmotivated but motivated askew. Rather than seek to achieve in the way they are supposed to, students turn to churlishness, surliness, and intellectual sheepishness. A general human motivation is god-given at the beginning and warped or destroyed by the educational process as wee know it; thus we internalize at least the most fundamental of grownup goals: just to get through another day.

Perhaps neither the first nor last to express such thoughts, Nelson did see a way for computers and networks to change this situation, while also recognizing the very real possibility that computer-aided instruction would simply reinforce it. As he puts it, quite simply, "instead of devising elaborate systems permitting the computer or its instructional contents to control the situation, why not permit the student to control the system, show hi how to do so intelligently, and make it easy for him to find his own way?"

So here we go, making our own way through the questions and concerns of writing in the digital age. Inasmuch as we are working as a community within time constraints, and I am expected to provide grades at the end, there are some necessary structures, but beyond that we are standing out on a vertigo-inducing precipice. Or at least that’s the way it seems to many of my students this week.

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