digital pedagogy

Going Beyond Humanizing Online Learning

If “democracy is a system of self-governance where governance is justified by consent of the governed,,” then are our educational institutions democratic? How about our classes? How about the online learning areas we set up for our students like the VLE?

Join this talk to discuss ways to create a democratic platform in online and blended learning. We will talk about shifts and tensions in teacher identity when we move to online spaces,  our imagined audience and community building. Students are welcome to join the discussion!

This is my session abstract for a talk I will be giving at Goldsmiths tomorrow titled Going beyond humanizing online learning: Creating a democratic platform for and with our students.

The session is discussion based, so I am hoping to tackle this complex topic with the participants on the day and also here on this blog prior and after the event. The motivation for this talk comes from my recent reflections on Parker J. Palmer and  bell hooks. I’ve started to think increasingly about democracy in education and how we might achieve that in online settings. We talk a lot about humanizing online courses, making it a social experience for both teachers and students, but we don’t talk much about how that social space is organised; we don’t talk much about the politics of it. I see a strong need to focus on that, especially to critique and improve our institutional learning spaces.

Palmer (2011) says:

“If students are to be well served and are to serve democracy well, we need to invite them into a lived engagement with democracy’s core concepts and values. There are at least two ways to do this: by engaging students in democratic processes within the classroom and the school and by involving them in the political dynamics of the larger community.”

So what are democracy’s core concepts and values? Well, there is civic responsibility. There is this expectation that you will be “a productive, responsible, caring and contributing member of society.” Palmer mentions many ways to achieve this but what struck me was his argument on creating democratic habits of the heart – the qualities we need to be able to “listen with an open mind” and “respond respectfully”:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of otherness.
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. (This is about turning a seemingly negative event into something positive.)
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

But there is a problem I observe in online spaces: even the most democratic educator, the most caring instructor, can easily shift to quite authoritative teaching methods and ways of being online, if he/she has limited understanding of possibilities. It is not uncommon for instructors to use online spaces to ask students to do things (“submit your assignment,” “book a slot for your one-on-one,” “read this book,” etc.). Students are expected to do things in a space that is designed for them but not with them. The learning space becomes a space that reflects institutional choices and preferences and personal tastes of course designers (I once knew an instructor who had purple background on her site because she liked the color) more than a communal one.

One of the reasons why this shift happens is the heavy emphasis on content. It is so much easier to deliver content online than to build an active and supportive learning community.  A learning community open and responsive to diverse voices… a learning community that welcomes students as a whole person to the environment – real people. The former requires resources and tools, the latter requires commitment and care beyond all content.

In the talk, I will propose that the first step to democracy, to creating democratic habits of the heart, is by enabling open structures in learning (I draw from bell hooks and Parker Palmer on this). An open educator:

  • makes the initial structures of working and/or studying explicit to students and open to discussion (imagine a teacher encouraging her students to comment on the syllabus, on the class activities and assignments);
  • co-constructs the structures of working and/or studying with students (imagine modifying the assignments with the help of students; imagine students co-constructing a code of conduct for their online interactions);
  • doesn’t confine education to a certain space and time (imagine learning “on the web and with the web,” with the public and for the public; imagine a teacher tweeting a resource to the class hashtag long after the course ends);
  • centers education around dialogue (imagine a teacher using conversations with students as content to work with).
  • recognizes the whole person in education (this is complex, but imagine a teacher making the emotional well-being of her students a priority, a lot more important than assessing in-class/for-class “performances.”)

Can our educational institutions be democratic when there is so much reliance on standardized tests, when we want to get accreditation for our programmes, when teachers have so much more power over their students on deciding how things should look like in the learning space, and how the learning should be organized? How can we help students “practice in real responsibility, real dialogue and real authority” (Palmer,  2011) despite institutional and curricular constraints? And how about the limitations of democracy as a system of governance? (Think about how the rule of majority can be a problem in educational settings.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion and let me know about your thoughts.

 

Plugged in or turned off: A critical reflection on the digital literacy of 21st century students in higher education

This post was originally published in EdContexts in Sept. 10, 2015.

Heather and Suzan met for the first time at the Digital Pedagogies Conference (2015) this year. Heather chose the metaphorical title, “Connectivism: Plugged in or turned off? Does Connectivity equal Inclusivity?”, for a paper she co-presented with her colleague, Jane Hunt, in which they critically examined inclusivity in connectivist learning environments. In this post, we use the same metaphor Heather used in her presentation – being plugged in and turned off – to refer to our understanding and use of digital technologies in general.

Since the conference, we have exchanged many e-mails and Twitter messages discussing issues around inclusivity and digital literacy in connectivism, connected learning, and networked learning in general.Through our conversations, we discovered that we shared similar educational visions and concerns with regard to learning on the World Wide Web. We decided to open this conversation to a wider audience because as Freire noted:

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. (p. 72)

In this post, we challenge common assumptions about digital literacies and access to technology in the 21st century classes based on our experiences. We hope you will join the conversation too by leaving a comment.

Are you plugged in or turned off? What is the impact of technology on your teaching and learning? If you are like us, you feel simultaneously plugged in or turned off. No matter how hard we try, we still may not be aware of the bigger picture of how digital technologies can enable learning in so many different ways. We seem to be running flat out to keep up with emerging technologies whilst desperately trying to respond to the growing consensus that traditional learning theories are either obsolete or, at the very least, need adapting to meet the evolving needs of the 21st century learner.

Quite rightly, there is a sense of urgency to bring education into the digital age, but we believe caution is needed when introducing new digital technologies and learning theories/approaches aligning with those into our classes. We refer to the assumptions surrounding the digital literacy of our students. Our experience is that the 21st century learner may not be as connected and as technological savvy as one might think. In addition, even if students use digital technologies in everyday life, this doesn’t mean that they are comfortable or experienced in using them for their learning. This highlights the fact that the affordances of digital technology are not being fully utilised or indeed understood by a proportion of the student population. So what are the reasons?

In Heather’s experience of a widening participation context: primarily non-traditional students (mature, low socio-economic demographic) studying at a university centre in the UK,  there are students who are the first in their families to enter higher education and are still very much finding their voices. This directly links to having the self-confidence that they have something to say and, perhaps more significantly, that others will want to hear it. This seems to be more evident in mature students who are often less familiar with the affordances of emerging technology, especially in relation to learning. That is not to say that this is true of all students within that context. One digitally literate student used Twitter very effectively to garner opinion concerning the educational policies of opposing political parties and then after critical analysis, incorporated the results into a poster presentation. This student was confident both in terms of using technology as a learning tool and already having an online presence. Whilst he is certainly not unique perhaps this is where we are in danger of cultivating a one size fits all mentality, despite the fact that not all students, or indeed lecturers, are keeping up with the pace: their digital footprint is barely visible in some cases.

Mature students in particular who have not been born into the digital world (in the context of widening participation), generally have certain fears and expectations about their return to education. Their educational biography is often shaped by a bad school experience, external social/familial/economic pressures and lack of opportunities, which sometimes results in learning anxiety. Often a student who has previously had a less than ideal educational experience and has taken the life-changing step to return to education will be hoping for, if not expecting, a nurturing, supportive experience the second time around.Learning anxiety may be further exacerbated due to economic disadvantage because contrary to common assumptions not everyone has the financial means to buy digital devices or connect to the internet.Therefore, if we are to introduce theories which are more compatible with the digitally connected world in which we live and learn, we will need to take such factors into account. The Connectivist approach, for example, promotes self directed learning where the onus is on the student to build a strong, individualised learning network because ‘learning and knowledge is distributed across nodes’ and then the student has to have the skill to make immediate decisions regarding the currency of that knowledge because the “capacity to know is more critical than what is currently known.” Whilst Heather acknowledges the potential of students plugging into a network which enables them to engage with and analyse diverse perspectives which they would not otherwise have been exposed to, she has also identified challenges that may turn them off. If the student is digitally illiterate, or digitally disadvantaged, this theory may be further alienating which, given the premise of connectivity and collaboration, is quite ironic.

In Suzan’s experience of teaching completely online courses in her program area (learning technologies), her students’ expectations are not that different from Heather’s students. We think this is remarkable considering the differences in the two contexts.  Suzan’s courses are highly social  and encourage students to learn in a community via a social networking platform. Most of Suzan’s undergraduate students (US) have been born into the digital world and are affluent users of social media, but they too have challenges in using technology for their learning. It is common for undergraduate students to take more than four classes during each academic semester (typically equivalent to 12 credits; the expected workload for each credit is 3 hours a week) and work part-time to help with the high costs of college tuition. Students generally choose to enroll in online classes because they offer the flexibility they need to juggle work, study and social life. It is not uncommon for Suzan to see her students responding to discussions and working on class projects late at night until the early hours of the morning. Not surprisingly, many students have limited time to figure out new technologies on their own and need ample time and support to familiarize themselves with their course site and its structure.

The challenges are not merely technical or due to a lack of experience and/or knowledge. Students also have learning anxieties that directly tie into the traditional culture of teaching and learning in higher education. For example, they might feel the pressure to earn a good grade or feel deeply concerned about how they present themselves to others in class discussions and openly shared class projects. For some students using a highly structured classroom management system such as Moodle or Blackboard is more reassuring than a social networking site with loosely defined boundaries.

Last semester, Suzan taught a class in which students explored youths’ use of social media from an educational perspective. Inspired by David Wiley’s call to end disposable assignments, and to encourage students have hands-on experience with an emergent technology relevant to the focus of the class, Suzan asked her students to create a blog (optional;the blog could be open on the web or visible to course participants only) for their independent research projects. But it was challenging for Suzan to explain to her students the ethos of blogging and the necessity of creating something that would have value outside of “class walls.” Some students posted long traditional essays for their blog posts (with course descriptions at the beginning and paper-based citation formats), some students copied to their posts large chunks of content from other sites, some students created beautiful designs ticking every box for the minimum requirements for the assignment, but nothing more. Suzan was struck by the diversity in how students approached blogging – getting rid of the disposable assignments wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. Students had blogs but not everyone had a voice in them – it hadn’t become a space for them to be present on the web.

How can we help our students have a voice in a networked learning context, informally or otherwise? How can we facilitate a welcoming and a suitable environment for our students: a space which enables each learner to get the most out of their learning experience?

These are not easy questions to address, but we argue that we can at least start by critically reflecting on our assumptions regarding the digital literacy of our students. To be precise, we should not assume that our students have easy access to the Internet and tools/devices; are technologically competent; and are confident in using digital technologies. To be “plugged in,” we have to ensure everyone (teachers included) has access to the tools and competency in using them efficiently. Perhaps, more importantly, we have to nurture students in this process so that, hopefully, they will gain the confidence and willingness to use technology effectively for their learning, and rather than being “turned off,” their learning will extend beyond the confines of the classroom into the connected world.

Without dismissing the need for scaffolding strategies, being connected implies partnership and we believe the best guidance happens when we work alongside our students, when we see ourselves as learners as well. Suzan, for example, could have blogged along with her students to model writing for a public audience on the web and engage in a more authentic dialogue with her students. That way perhaps she could better help her students “develop the awareness, skills, habits and dispositions necessary to take full advantage of the affordances of the web.” Heather could strengthen her own digital presence and become a node in the network, thereby providing a familiar starting point for her students, whilst guiding them to other nodes.

It is important for students to know that we don’t know everything and are still learners ourselves especially with regard to technology. Showing our willingness to explore and attempt new things…sharing our failures as well as successes…learning with and from our students… These are the types of things we might consider in our teaching because we (students and teachers) are all in the same boat with regard to navigating the open sea of numerous, unimaginable possibilities. There will be waves that may threaten to rock the boat or even capsize it and the fear of this (setbacks, failures) is often at the heart of the resistance to change/reluctance to explore those possibilities but connectivity – the idea that we are learning together –offers a lifejacket.