I have colleagues who invoke “Best Practices” the way that evangelical Christians quote the Bible: God has spoken. During these conversations, I am tempted to say in a serious voice, “Best Practices dictate that teaching writing should include loud music in a public place and synchronized dancing. In short, a flash mob.” I mean, if Best Practices are really going to be the end-all of pedagogy, I want them to be cool.

I had a revelation about Best Practices during a discussion with my students about a similar concept: universal design solutions. We were reading Cradle to Cradle, a book which challenges industry to become more sustainable through ecologically smart design and which raises questions about what architects call universal design solutions. Braungart and McDonough weren’t talking about students. They were talking about household products like detergent. Here’s how a universal design solution works: in order to market the same detergent across the country, the industry designs it to work effectively anywhere, regardless of water quality, no matter what is being washed. That means if I’m washing out my tea mug at a sink with soft water, I use the same detergent as someone 500 miles away washing a greasy pan in hard water. The ecologically devastating result is that I dump harsh chemicals, which were never necessary in the first place, into the waste stream and eventually the water supply, harming aquatic life for no good reason.

Braungart and McDonough summed it up this way: “To achieve their universal design solutions, manufacturers design for the worst-case scenario: they design a product for the worst possible circumstance, so that it will always operate with the same efficacy.” (30) One of my students summed it up this way: “If you care about ecology, universal design solutions suck.”

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My favorite pedagogical tool is the essential question. Briefly, these attempt to focus student attention on the broader implications and deeper meanings behind content. I had been using them in my own quaint way before reading Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe, and that reading both confirmed my intuition and pushed my use of this strategy to a higher level.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, essential questions aim to

stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers. They are broad, full of transfer possibilities. The exploration of such questions enables us to uncover the real riches of a topic otherwise obscured by glib pronouncements in texts or routine teacher-talk. (106)

The authors suggest that “deep and transferable understandings depend upon framing work around such questions” and that “uncoverage is a priority, not a frill or an option if time is left over after learning other ‘stuff’” (106). I train teachers to teach, and I have found that most in-service teachers want tips and tricks, and fun ways to solve common problems in the classroom. However, my courses don’t deal in tips and tricks, so many teacher-trainees react somewhat negatively to my deeper inquiries. Essential questions help me effectively navigate this impasse.

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How to Build an Ethical Online Course

How to Build an Ethical Online Course

The best online and hybrid courses are made from scraps strewn about and gathered together from across the web. We build a course by examining the bits, considering how they’re connected, and creating pathways for learners to make their own connections.

The design-process is what distinguishes online teaching most from traditional on-ground teaching. When we teach an on-ground class, the room in which we teach has been built for us in advance. Usually, it’s in a school, on a campus, has chairs, desks, tables, windows, walls, a door. Sometimes there’s a computer, a projector, a screen. Hopefully, the desks and chairs are moveable and there are chalkboards on multiple walls. When we enter these rooms, we still make (or, rather, should make) intentional design decisions. How will the chairs be arranged? What direction will we face? Will the blinds be open or closed? Where will the teacher’s desk be? Will the room have a front? Will we re-arrange from day to day or maintain a consistent configuration?

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While on a cross-country trip a few years ago, I stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and had a revelation. It was a few days before the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was to begin, and the parking lot was filled with motorcycles. Some of the bikes were occupied by their riders, still clad in leather, helmets on handlebars, and minds intently focused on the interpretive brochures in their hands. Other bikes stood empty as their owners wandered through the visitor center and the grounds reading exhibits and interpretive signs. Apparently these bikers were interested in U.S. history. In my nearly 30 years of designing educational experiences for locations such as this, it had never occurred to me to ask bikers about their interests or what kinds of interpretive experiences would capture their attention and inspire them to visit. Because of my unacknowledged stereotypes I just hadn’t placed bikers and interpretation together.
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A Plea for Pedagogy

A Plea for Pedagogy

It goes without saying that technology is changing education. Children’s brains are being rewired, universities are being threatened with extinction, and we will be in serious trouble if we ignore the transformative power of new technologies. We live in an information/knowledge economy where we are constantly connected to networks of information, our experiences become more and more mediated. It seems that technology changes everything, including education.

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“Building community doesn’t mean that learning happens.”
~ from an audience comment at InstructureCon 2013

Learning in a MOOC
Instruction does not equate to learning. This is the fundamental fly in the ointment of instructional design, and the epistemological failing of learning management systems and most MOOC platforms. Learning, unfortunately, is something no instruction has ever quite put its finger on, and something that no methodology or approach can guarantee. Instead, pedagogical praxis creates roads along which learning may take place (along with plenty of other experiences); and assessment is merely a system of checkpoints along the way to evaluate how well the road, the vehicle, and the driver are cooperating. In other words, assessment doesn’t measure learning. Assessment measures the design of the instruction.
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“It’s early days for online education,” declared a recent article in the technology blog  Techcrunch, with its typical giddiness about the changes that technology is poised to bring to schooling. But the narrative that education and technology have only recently intersected ignores decades of products and practices. It ignores decades of experiences and expertise. And while some things ed-tech might seem quite shiny, it’s worth asking — with a nod to the past and a good deal of skepticism about the promises for the future — “what’s new?”
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Here’s a little secret: when I started teaching people how to teach online, I had no clue what I was doing.

It was 1998. I was a graduate student, without extensive computer skills or even teaching experience. I’d been a high school English teacher for a few years, and I’d taught GED classes, but my online facilitation background was limited to helping students figure out how to search song lyrics on Altavista.

Then I took a part-time job for my university coordinating a fledgling online M.Ed program. This was new stuff, then, with few best practices available to build on. The college had bought a bright and shiny “online learning platform” and it was my role to facilitate seminars teaching faculty how to use it.  Just as soon as I figured it out myself.

I started out all wrong.
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It’s evening. An Irish pub in Louisville, Colorado. Fish and chips. Beer. A game of soccer on the TV. I’m sitting down with one of my faculty to revisit the department’s Developmental English course (ENG 090). My goal: bring the course fully online, eliminate the text book, and make it a deeper learning and community building experience for all who enroll. The trick is, almost no one enrolls in ENG 090 because they want to. They enroll because they failed a test. How do you take a student from “You failed. Take this class.” to “Writing is fun!” And how do you do that online?

My meeting started with that question, and the course itself grew out of more questions. We spent our time asking how a thing could be done — “How can we eliminate a text book?” “How can we make assignments that are meaningful, student-centered, and relevant?” “How can we make this course equally accessible to native English speakers and second language learners?” — and very rarely, if ever, saying that something could not be done. We opened our minds to the ways that we could open the LMS. We decided on quizzes that were iterative, formative and not summative. We chose to create a voice for the course that was friendly and work that united students in collaboration rather than making them compete against the machine or us.
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This is the first of a four-part colloquy of articles. Each piece has been contributed by authors who have intimate experience with the struggles, failures, and successes of online learning programs. One new article will publish each day following this: “The Failure of an Online Program” by Sean Michael Morris on Wednesday; “The Early Days of Videotaped Lectures” by Audrey Watters on Thursday; and “How Not to Teach Online: A Story in Two Parts” by Bonnie Stewart on Friday.

Online learning in its current iterations will fail.

The failure of online education programs is not logistical, nor political, nor economic: it’s cultural, rooted in our perspectives and biases about how learning happens and how the internet works (these things too often seen in opposition). For learning to change drastically — a trajectory suggested but not yet realized by the rise of MOOCs — teaching must change drastically. And in order for that to happen, we must conceive of the activity of teaching, as an occupation and preoccupation, in entirely new and unexpected ways. We must unseat ourselves, unnerve ourselves. Online learning is uncomfortable, and so educators must become uncomfortable in their positions as teachers and pedagogues. And the administration of online programs must follow suit.

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At exactly this moment, online education is poised (and threatening) to replicate the conditions, courses, structures, and hierarchical relations of brick-and-mortar industrial-era education. Cathy N. Davidson argued exactly this at her presentation, “Access Demands a Paradigm Shift,” at the 2013 Modern Language Association conference. The mistake being made, I think, is a simple and even understandable one, but damning and destructive nonetheless. Those of us responsible for education (both its formation and care) are hugging too tightly to what we’ve helped build, its pillars, policies, economies, and institutions. None of these, though, map promisingly into digital space. If we continue to tread our current path, we’ll be left with a Frankenstein’s monster of what we now know of education. This is the imminent destruction of our educational system of which so many speak: taking an institution inspired by the efficiency of post-industrial machines and redrawing it inside the machines of the digital age. Education rendered into a dull 2-dimensional carbon copy, scanned, faxed, encoded and then made human-readable, an utter lack of intellectual bravery.
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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.

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This sentence is a learning object. Wayne Hodgins, the “father of learning objects,” first came up with the idea for them while watching his son play with LEGOs. The basic notion is that we can create units of learning so fundamentally simple and reusable that they can be applied in different ways to different objectives and lessons, no matter the context. Hodgins’s dream was of “a world where all ‘content’ exists at just the right and lowest possible size.” Like a single sentence. Like a single question on an exam. Like a photograph, a moment in a video, a discussion prompt. As online learning has grown, learning objects have become something of the Holy Grail of instructional design… Or the windmills at which it tilts.

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Early web commenters referred to the Internet as a primitive, lawless place like the “Wild West.” Plenty still needs to change to make certain parts of the web more civil and useful, but some aspect of the “Wild West” spirit is applicable to a discussion of student-directed learning. Too much civilization and society makes us compartmentalized and complacent. The West was a challenging place for European immigrants because it required an expansive sense of responsibility. You could no longer be just an apothecary or a cobbler. You had to provide for your own food and shelter from the resources around you; you had to decide just “what to do” with all this freedom.

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All participation is not equal. Digital media prompt us for comments, but in an academic setting we should harness this cultural habit to teach the difference between expressing opinion and authentic engagement. Professors often feel unfulfilled by poorly designed peer review exercises with their students. They complain: “The students don’t offer anything helpful. They just write things like ‘I like this part,’ or ‘this doesn’t make any sense,’ or ‘good paper!’” In peer review and in online interaction, we should teach and model for students the best methods of intellectual engagement.

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