I recently had the pleasure to meet with Ceiren Bell from the Department of Media and Communications (Goldsmiths, University of London) to talk about the VLE space. Here I post my reflections about designing online learning spaces after our conversations.
Jesse Stommel says,
“When we teach online, we have to build both the course and the classroom. A good learning management system is a tool that can help with this process; however, we should never let its design decisions — its architecture — dictate our pedagogies.”
Indeed, teaching online requires good design thinking because the web architecture, the structure of the space, is more or less malleable. The space itself can change and should change with students, with their activities and with what they bring to the class, but at the very least, instructors should know how to create a welcoming and engaging living space. “It’s all about media and communications!” Ceiren said at one point in our conversation, and I couldn’t agree more.
Media, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, affects how we perceive the message. Imagine an instructor posting a welcome video on her site rather than text based content during the first week of class. The video will have a different feeling than text, even if the content is exactly the same. Or let’s say, even if the content appears the same because, as Ted Nelson explains,
“The character of what gets across is always dual; both the explicit structures, and feelings that go with them. These two aspects, exactness and connotation, are an inseparable whole; what is conveyed generally has both. The reader or viewer always gets feelings along with information, even when the creators of the information think that its “content” is much more restricted” (p. 319).
Nelson also talks about how technical manuals, for example, might carry with them an air of authority, non-imagination or competence depending on the readers’ perceptions of how the information is presented. Because, he says, “people receive not only cognitive structures, but impressions, feelings and senses of things.”
Yes! We need to think about content, resources, activities, assessments… but beyond all of that… beyond the “deliverables,” isn’t there a need to pay more attention to “impressions, feelings, and senses of things”? Decisions about media do matter in an online course, where visual clues and bodily experiences are limited by the two dimensional structure of the web.
If we are going to pay attention to the visceral experience, we may also ask, is the VLE a space of reflective (or social) engagement or is it a space of isolation and disengagement? As instructors, how can we make it a space for and of creativity, critical and radical thinking with our intentional choices? How can we make it a place where the whole person can exist? (By whole person I mean acknowledging students with all their complexities, as political and social beings – not just brains to be filled in with new knowledge.)
These are big questions but it may be surprisingly easy to create an engaging online space. Posting informal videos, asking students to post media on the site, allowing them to work on projects that personally matter to them, giving them choices and the agency to further shape the environment are all ways to achieve a vibrant learning environment. It’s, as Ceiren said, all about media and communications, understanding that the VLE is a space we can all co-construct together – for better and or worse.
Ending my post with a smiley face! Below on the left is my default profile picture on Dropbox. How would you compare it to my default profile picture on learn.gold (Goldsmith’s VLE)?