more wrong questions to ask about digital pedagogy

On Friday morning I'm slated to give an informal talk to my university's teaching and learning committee about online pedagogy. Oh, what to say? Of course one doesn't want to be overly snarky, not after someone has been so kind as to invite you and these are the faculty and staff who have committed enough to teaching to serve on this committee.

They really do want to get some ideas about how to do a better job teaching online.

So here's what comes to mind.

In order to start thinking about teaching online, we have to stop asking the following questions:

  • how can I accomplish the goals of my face-to-face classroom in my online classroom?
  • how can we deliver our established curriculum online? 
  • how do I deliver effective online lectures?
  • how can I move my quizzes/exams/fill-in-the-blank-existing-evaluation to an online format?
  • how do I re-create my classroom's sense of community online?

These are the "horseless carriage" questions. They are the conceptual equivalent of walking up to a car and asking where the saddle goes. To understand their limitations, all one has to do is try moving in the opposite direction, from online spaces to virtual ones?

  • how can I have classroom conversations in which students can contribute at any time or place?
  • how can I have students collaborate in real-time on a single document?
  • how can I bring in speakers and other expert participants from around the world into the classroom?

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. When moving into a fully online course, the first step is to shed oneself of any element of one's curriculum or pedagogy that has been shaped by the technological and physical affordances and limitations of the face-to-face classroom. In other words, almost everything. In fact, the very notion of courses and curriculum is so deeply embedded in an industrial context, that the very notion of an online "class" already has the potential to be unproductively tainted. So it's probably best to start with the characteristics of the course that one is likely not empowered to change.

  • The start and end dates: everything that will happen in the course will happen over this time period.
  • Workload: for both you as instructor and for the students. There is some general expectation of the amount of time and effort that will be put into the course. This is more nebulous than start and end dates, but it's still an existing constraint.
  • Course description: assuming you're teaching an existing course, there is some expectation for what subjects the course will cover. In some ways, this constraint is the trickiest because you have to be aware of the intersection of form and content.

Now there may be another institutional limitation, one that requires you to use a particular platform (e.g. the university's CMS, probably Blackboard). However, my recommendation is to avoid Blackboard as much as possible, if not entirely. Why? Quite simply, Blackboard, in my view, is designed to answer those questions that I have said you shouldn't ask. It's designed to make it as easy as possible to bring your face-to-face class into an online space, making as few changes as possible. Could there be creative ways to adopt Blackboard? Maybe, probably, but why bother when there are so many other interesting opportunities out there on the Internet?

As I've said before in this space, the problem with any ed tech product you might find is that it can never manage to out-innovate the rest of the web. So the best ed tech products would be ones that were as open as possible to incorporating what's out there. Unfortunately, most of these CMS products go in the opposite direction, the direction of the walled garden. 

Once we've reached this point, we've hopefully recognized that pedagogies are products of systems/networks/assemblages. These are different ways of thinking about the relations among objects, but they all at least share an understanding that how objects get put together makes a difference. So the question now becomes "Given your constraints (i.e. time period, workload, course description), what objects will form your online classroom and what pedagogical practices will arise?" I don't mean to suggest that the technology determines the pedagogy. After all, there are a range of pedagogies in the traditional classroom. There is an even greater range of pedagogies in the online classroom because a greater variety of systems/networks/assemblages can be established.

One of the great errors that continues to be perpetrated in online pedagogy is the exclusive commitment to asynchronous learning. Most of the interesting things that happen online today happen between people that are participating in real time (e.g. gaming, video chat). Even applications that are asynchronous on some level, like Twitter, Facebook, or blogging, are much more engaging when shared in real time. Online classes should have regular Google hangouts or live presentations or other virtual meetings where people work together.  That said, certainly there are cases where an asynchronous class is necessary. However, as a default condition, there's no reason to operate that way. Sure, 10-15 years ago, when online courses (and CMS) were being developed, we spent less time online. Connections were slower and less reliable, etc., etc. So it made sense to be asynchronous. Clearly that's not the way we inhabit the web any longer (except, of course, in our online classes!).

Back in the good old, bad old days of online education (and the internet), the web could be a lonely place. Sure, hypothetically, there were other people out there with you looking at those static web pages, but it was hard to connect directly with them. A lot of online teaching still works that way, as a self-paced, individual experience, much like an old-fashioned correspondence course. Again, there can be situations where this makes the most sense, but I hardly think we should take it as a default for best practices. Instead we should be adopting the real time sociality of the web and incorporating it as part of the online learning experience.

For example, in my online journalism course this past summer we incorporated blogs, a wiki, and twitter as the central learning spaces of the course. Twitter became the central hub of the class. As students would do the assigned readings in the course, they would tweet their observations. Of course we weren't all on at the same time, but often there would be at least one other person who might tweet back. I'm on Twitter a fair amount, so for me, having students tweet is, I imagine, roughly analogous to seeing your students in the library a century ago. That is, I encountered students in my daily work. They would also tweet @ the authors of the books we were reading, who would sometimes respond as well. The course blog allowed for more extensive conversation. It was also the place where we shared other media. The students had personal blogs for more reflective writing. And the wiki operated as a kind of collective course notebook. As a final project, the students composed, edited, and published a webzine, based on a WordPress template.

In my next online course, I would like to incorporate a synchronous element, probably through Google Plus hangouts (even though all the students couldn't participate at once, there is a livefeed option that allows others to at least see what's going on). One thing that appears to have shifted in the last couple years is that students have become quite comfortable with video chat. So I imagine that the technology shouldn't be too alienating, even if they've never used it in a class context. Google Plus might also be a way of taking advantage of some of the affordances of Facebook without invading students' FB spaces. It's easy to imagine creating a course circle and using G+ as a primary element of course. None of the things I'm describing are groundbreaking. They're not meant to be. They are everyday applications employed by millions of people. In other words, they are well within the grasp of any college professor. 

In putting together applications such as these, one creates an online classroom that enables sociality on a level not possible in the traditional asynch blackbored course. In fact, it creates a level of sociality that blackbored intentionally seeks to prevent. And I think this is the key difference between online and face-to-face pedagogies. In face-to-face pedagogy, sociality is, to a certain extent, unavoidable. We make eye contact. We are aware of each other in a room. Informal conversation takes place around the boundaries of the class. Much of the structure of the course has to do with controlling sociality because a room filled with people talking is chaos. The traditional, asynch online class has zero sociality or the tightly controlled exchange of a Bb discussion forum. As I've been discussing the contemporary web allows us to benefit from a widely expanded sociality. I could easily imagine the 2500 students in our composition program each semester sharing common virtual spaces: in a google circle, using a common Twitter hashtag, following/commenting on a single blog, contributing to one wiki.  I'm not saying we wouldn't still need the 80+ instructors we have to run classes, give feedback and such. But my point is that online sociality scales. Unlike the FTF classroom, it gets better as more people become involved. Maybe, I'm the only student in my class of 22 who would like to write his research paper on independent music and P2P file-sharing, but I might find 10 other students among the 2500 who have a similar interest. Now I have a research community. 

The challenge (and the right question) then becomes "what does it mean to teach in this environment?" And before that, "what does it mean to learn here?" What can be learned? How does learning happen? What happens to learning when it becomes more social, when we can more easily make connections between course content, personal interests and interests shared with others? In the conventional classroom, everyone has to learn the same content in the same way at the same time. That is, everyone sits and listens to the same lecture. Of course, it could have been a different lecture and with a different professor it would have been. The same course, with the same goals and the same general content, but a different experience because each professor has her own take, her own perspective. The traditional asynch class just intensifies that experience. But there's no reason now why we can't radically multiply it, so that students can form affinity groups in relation to the content and take it up in different ways: the same goals and the same general content, but now the students have some stake in the approach to the material. 

The great fear faculty have about online teaching is that once the courses are made and the lectures have been videotaped that they will no longer be needed. The only reason they think that way is because they are asking the wrong questions about digital pedagogy. When we start to envision this online pedagogical space where 1000s of students are aligning their interests in relation to subject matter, developing projects, and creating communities, the importance of an expert mentor becomes, I think, self-evident.  


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