Online Learning: a Manifesto

Online Learning: a Manifesto

Online learning is not the whipping boy of higher education. As a classroom teacher first and foremost, I have no interest in proselytizing for online learning, but to roundly condemn it is absurd. Online learning is too big and variable a target. It would be like roundly condemning the internet or all objects made from paper.

Much of the rhetoric currently being used against MOOCs is the same rhetoric that has been used against online learning since the 90s (and against distance education since the mid-1800s). There are important questions to be asked, such as how do MOOCs change the business models of higher education, or how do we maintain online the intimate and tailored experiences some of us create in the classroom, but these are not new questions. What I find exciting about the rise of the MOOC is that it brings with it a new level of investment in discussions of online learning. This isn’t to say that MOOCs are necessarily good or bad (they are, in fact, a lot of different things, depending on the MOOC), but to get lost entirely in the stories being told about MOOCs is to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.

Since I started teaching in 1999, I’ve frequently encountered an anti-pedagogical bent amongst fellow teachers and faculty, a resistance to thinking critically about our teaching practices and philosophies, especially regarding online learning. What we need is to ignore the hype and misrepresentations (on both sides of the debate) and gather together more people willing to carefully reflect on how, where, and why we learn online. There is no productive place in this conversation for exclusivity or anti-intellectualism. Those of us talking about digital pedagogy and digital humanities need to be engaging thoughtfully in discussions about online learning and open education. Those of us in higher ed. need to be engaging thoughtfully with K-12 teachers and administrators. And it’s especially important that we open our discussions of the future of education to students, who should both participate in and help to build their own learning spaces. Pedagogy needs to be at the center of all these discussions.

I’ve said previously that “MOOCs are a red herring,” because there is a bigger beast in the offing. I would not proselytize for online learning or MOOCs, but I would for open education, participant pedagogy, critical voraciousness, and play. The internet didn’t invent collaboration or solve all the problems of institutional access, but it does allow for new forms of collaboration and does bring educational opportunities to new audiences. (In my own online classes, for example, I’ve taught housebound students, new mothers in rural areas hundreds of miles from a university, and soldiers stationed abroad.)

I have no interest in debating the whether of online learning. That bird has most assuredly flown. What I’d like to do here is outline a pedagogy of online learning – not best practices, but points of departure to encourage a diversity of pedagogies.

  1. Online learning happens at many different scales. Not all online learning, though, is scalable. The MOOC is one possible approach, and it is neither a panacea nor a pariah. It might function well for certain learners or for certain courses, but it should be viewed as one of many available approaches. Online learning can happen alone or in groups of 2, 20, 500, or 100,000. The scale of the activity, event, or course changes the experience (but does not define the experience).
  2. I’ve argued elsewhere that “all learning is necessarily hybrid.” The best online learning should engage us in an immediate and physical way. Learning shouldn’t happen entirely at a desk. The best online courses — the best courses of all types — ask students to do work in the world (outside their houses and/or outside the online course portal).
  3. The openness of the internet is its most radical and pedagogically viable feature. This isn’t to say that every class should be entirely open, but we should not assume in advance (or use systems that assume) we need a learning space to be closed (or password-protected). Some learning happens best in rooms with walls, but some learning happens best in fields or in libraries or in town squares.
  4. A class should not be made open purely as a publicity ploy (though publicity can be a happy consequence). We need to ask ourselves how openness serves the students (both the official for-credit students and the unofficial not-for-credit students). The mission of an educational institution is both to serve its students and also to serve a much broader public. Putting these two audiences into direct conversation is (in many cases) an effective pedagogical strategy.
  5. Rigor fails to be rigorous when it’s made compulsory. It can’t be guaranteed in advance by design. Academic rigor shouldn’t be built into a course like an impenetrable fortress for students to inhabit. Rigor has to be fostered through genuine engagement.
  6. Designing an online course involves building both the course and its interface. Online course development requires more preparation, more advance planning, and more technological support. At many institutions there’s a problematic divide between instructional designers and teachers – between those building online courses and those teaching them. Expert teachers need to build their own online courses or we need to create closer collaborative relationships between teachers and instructional designers.
  7. Online learning is not the domain of for-profit institutions. While online learning has been most-visibly used by for-profits, this leaves no permanent black spot upon its hide. Innovative, pedagogically-sound, and ethical work is being done online. That is the work we need to be talking about and advancing with gusto.
  8. Don’t wield outcomes like a weapon. Online learning activities should not be overly designed or too-strictly standardized. In “Explaining Rhizomatic Learning to My Five Year Old,” Dave Cormier writes, “We shouldn’t decide beforehand what we’re going to learn.” Improvisation, play, and experimentation are essential to learning.
  9. FERPA is not an excuse for bad pedagogy. FERPA is designed to protect students and does not outlaw public work. Some simple guidelines: If you’re asking students to do public work online, let them know their work will be public, offer the option of anonymity, never post grades publicly, and don’t forget about intellectual property (which is separate from FERPA).
  10. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to online education. Learning is not neatly divisible into discrete chunks (like courses). We make courses, because they suit a business model and because they’re practical (i.e. gathering a community in the same place at the same time). The chunks, though, 10 weeks, 15 weeks, semesters, quarters, are arbitrary. The course is not always the best container for learning.
  11. Community and dialogue shouldn’t be an accident or by-product of a course. They should be the course. You can’t just stick people into a room and expect them to talk. The same is true for online space. We must create platforms that both actively facilitate and passively encourage interaction. Then, we work to model constructive interaction. The best online courses have a personality, create genuine relationships, and ask hard intellectual questions.
  12. Content-expertise does not equal good teaching. The internet already has lots of experts in all manner of things. A good pedagogue, rather, relies on a variable mixture of content-expertise and careful thinking about teaching practices. The teacher is not merely a facilitator, but uses her own learning of a subject (its histories, theories, and methodologies) to design, structure, and scaffold a learning experience. Once a course begins, the growing expertise of the students, and not the teacher, should be the primary focus.
  13. Online learning needs less quantitative and more qualitative assessment. Students are not columns in a spreadsheet. Most learning management systems make assessment far too neat and tidy. Certainly, some things can be objectively assessed, but that’s not the stuff of learning that we should be focusing on so intently. Numerical data should be a guide only, a way into the deeper conversation about what was learned, a reference point for more productive and qualitative assessment. The most important form of assessment, though, is self-assessment by the students of their own learning.

The first mistake of many online classes and the majority of MOOCs (so far) is that they try to replicate something we do in face-to-face classes, mapping the (sometimes pedagogically-sound, sometimes bizarre) traditions of on-ground institutions onto digital space. Trying to make an online class function exactly like an on-ground class is a missed opportunity. There’s a lot that happens in F2F classrooms that just can’t be replicated in an online environment, and that’s okay. Better to ask ourselves what can be achieved online and what sorts of classes (or learning experiences) we can construct to leverage the potentials of the specific interface or community.

[Photo by wvs]

About the Author

Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) is Director of Hybrid Pedagogy and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. His personal site can be found at jessestommel.com.

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