Beyond Rigor

Beyond Rigor

Intellectually rigorous work lives, thrives, and teems proudly outside conventional notions of academic rigor. Although institutions of higher education only recognize rigor when it mimics mastery of content, when it creates a hierarchy of expertise, when it maps clearly to pre-determined outcomes, there are works of exception — multimodal, collaborative, and playful — that push the boundaries of disciplinary allegiances, and don’t always wear their brains on their sleeves, so to speak.

Hybrid Pedagogy focuses on creating conversations within and outside institutional structures that often eschew multimodal, collaborative, playful work. Through projects like MOOC MOOC and Twitter vs. Zombies, we’ve begun to explore a new sort of communal rigor for the networked learning landscape, which depends on engagement, reflection, and curiosity.

Play is critical inquiry.

The voices that decry collective, playful learning, often do so from the soapbox of rigor: How can this sort of wild learning — that doesn’t aim at specific objectives, that focuses on dialogue and creativity instead of content mastery — ever pass muster as meaningful academic work?

In truth, it cannot. But not because the product of playful learning isn’t meaningful, but because our notion of academic rigor is irrelevant to that product. We must move past our traditional definition of rigorous academic work, and recognize that a learning experience or a pedagogical methodology can be both playful and also have the qualities of the best academic work, if not the reagents of traditional rigor. We hear “rigor,” and the word feels vague and unnerving; or worse, exclusionary. The work we’re describing here is expansive and not exacting — experimental and not insoluble — the moment before (and even anathema to) understanding. This is work where excellence is measured by exception.

Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis states in her book, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher, “The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.” Play, experimentation, and collaboration can all lead to important discoveries and deep intellectual inquiry. Yet the results of play are often overlooked because the process leading to them can’t be evaluated within traditional academic models for assessment. (In these cases, the problem is wrongly assigned to the experiment or approach, instead of to the assessments designed to measure the outcomes of a less playful approach. We faced this issue with MOOC MOOC, when outcomes were unpredictable due to the extemporaneous learning that took place. How do you “objectively” grade a Wordle?)

An unhealthy attachment to outcomes discourages experimentation. In Deep Play, Diane Ackerman writes, “We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution.” At its best, play functions not as a methodological approach toward a set of outcomes but as the outcome in and of itself. (Elsewhere, we’ve made a similar argument about community.) What is rigorous, then, is not process but our curious examination of the (unforeseen, unexpected) results and their effectiveness.

We must redefine rigor (and find practicable alternatives to rigor) for the connected learning environment. If we begin to parse the learning environment itself, we can determine where rigor lies outside academic standards, and this may help us understand how to revise our digital pedagogies.

Rigor in a networked learning environment emerges when that environment is:

Engaged: Meaningful work arises from genuine inquiry. When we arrest learners’ interest, their work bears the marks of higher critical thinking precisely because the subject resonates with their own concerns and preoccupations.

Critical: We can’t be afraid to critique our own circumstances, our own context. In MOOC MOOC, for example, we saw participants playfully deconstruct not just the MOOC, but the systems we were using to examine the MOOC (our online learning environment, Canvas, and the digital tools we asked participants to compose with).

Curious: A rigorous curiosity underpins the most fruitful work scholars do. However, we often forget that our interests, as those thoroughly enculturated by academia, don’t need to be grafted on to students. Better that we model our passion to know something thoroughly than to merely transmit content or knowledge.

Dynamic: A genuine process of inquiry invites unexpected outcomes — indeed, it does not assume outcomes other than a resolution to the inquiry (which may look a lot like the need for further inquiry). The work we do is framed but also emergent, crowdsourced during and not prior to its unfolding. The rigor is apparent in the framework, in the expectation of what can or may be learned and discovered, but is no less apparent in the creative ways that framework is interpreted and reinvented.

Derivative: A rigorously derivative work is aware of its sources but does not handle them with excessive reverence. (In mathematics, a derivative measures the rate of change as one variable influences another.) A derivative learning environment is attentive and alive, responsive not replicative. It emerges, like the Twitter Vs. Zombies community, across a series of iterative experiments.

In his Introduction to On Critical Pedagogy (2011), Henry Giroux writes, that a commitment to critical pedagogy “provides tools to unsettle commonplace assumptions, theorize matters of self and social agency, and engage the ever-changing demands and promises of a democratic polity.” Giroux’s assessment is apt for anyone wanting to address the changing landscape of online education; it also speaks to connectivist scholars and digital pedagogues interested in digital literacies. We are, when we are at our best, meant to unsettle assumptions, to reorganize our ideas of agency, and to push the boundaries of what is possible in a connected learning environment. How to do this without framing education the way it first appears to each of us: bounded by playgrounds and punctuated by bells for recess?

It’s impossible to ignore that new media practices are changing (have changed) the collaboration and knowledge sharing within and outside of institutions of higher learning. In “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”, Dave Cormier writes, “the foundations upon which we are working are changing as well as the speed at which new information must be integrated into those foundations […] Information is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt.” New media practices — of researching, composing, testing, surveying, and publishing — are developing so quickly that waiting on the traditional publishing cycle to verify knowledge is insufficient. Scholars of digital culture and practitioners of digital collaboration must resort to new methods of knowledge creation, including relocating that creation to spheres outside their own. Vast pools of knowledge are being filled by non-experts, for example. Cormier suggests rhizomatic education — constructing and negotiating community knowledge through a series of interdependent nodes — as a pedagogical solution within quickly changing fields of information. In other words, by connecting to each other, no matter our expertise or station, knowledge grows.

Stephen Ramsay argues, in “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books,” “there are more books, more ideas, more experiences, more relationships worth having than there are hours in a day (or days in a lifetime).” What this means for learning is that a new kind of order emerges when we consider the content of a course to be the connections that form within and beyond that course. We may provide the content, but this is no different today than scattering LEGOs on a table: what happens next is not up to us. Both the content and the practice of our teaching must shift from a traditional model of schooling to one more compatible with the realities of the digital landscape. Experimentation, inquiry, and play are both the research tools we must use to create online and hybrid classrooms, and also the methodologies best employed within those classrooms.

As educators, the three of us have worked to acclimate students and colleagues to social media environments, encouraging a breaking down of the divide between the work we do in classrooms and the work we do in the world. Testing and canonical content are less vital to the new media landscape than interactivity, play, and relevant application. The online class portal and the brick-and-mortar classroom each have valuable lessons to teach the other, and both must adapt to the developing principles of 21st century education. Online teaching practices especially should encourage these principles — that students “show up,” be curious, collaborate, and contribute. The digital has reminded us that learning happens unexpectedly, and so should our approach to learning be unexpectant. We must return play to education, to pedagogy, and to all scholarly practice.

Some Examples of the New Rigor:

A Comics Dissertation”: Nick Sousanis, a doctoral candidate at Columbia Teachers College, is writing his dissertation in the form of a comic. This interview reveals the reasoning and approach behind his playful reinterpretation of an academic staple. In a blog post, Sousanis discusses “Comics as a Tool for Inquiry.” Not surprisingly, his presentation notes were, themselves, graphic.

Spin Weave and Cut

DS106: Digital Storytelling is a well-known, highly-respected open-access course offered at University of Mary Washington. This year, DS106 is running a “headless classroom,” without a teacher — an experiment that invites communal rigor in a very real way.

Rap Genius: Rap Genius started as a site for open annotation of rap lyrics but has evolved into a robust community platform for critically analyzing many sorts of text.

Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: This book was produced by graduate students in a course with Cathy N. Davidson. The text of the work is itself rigorous, but what we find most intensely rigorous is the way the reader is brought into the book’s ongoing creation through simultaneous publishing on communal platforms like Rap Genius, HASTAC, GitHub, and Google Docs.

#arthistory: This project by Charlotte Frost makes #arthistory physically manifest and invites participants to tag, photograph, and share 3-dimensional hashtags. See some additional examples of the #arthistory tag in action on Tumblr.

Last but not least, several seeming larks that, in fact, function as incisive commentary: MOOCthulhuFeminist Ryan Gosling, and “On the Predominance of Cupcakes as a Cultural Form”.

[Photo by Jeff Kubina]

About the Authors

Sean Michael Morris (@slamteacher) is the co-Director of Hybrid Pedagogy. He considers himself a digital agnostic, and allies himself with adjuncts, students, and others who are contingent to the enterprise of higher education. His personal website can be found at

Pete Rorabaugh

Pete Rorabaugh (@allistelling) is Assistant Professor of English, Southern Polytechnic State Univ in @ETCMA_SPSU. Critical pedagogue, Americanist, father, and co-founder of Hybrid Pedagogy.

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

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