Practice What You Teach: UDL & (aiming for) Communities of Practice in Adult Education

(This post is adapted from the original posted here, as a preview for the 2nd Pan-Canadian Conference on Universal Design for Learning, being held at UPEI May 31-June 2.)

Sometimes, in teaching, a happenstance discovery can shift the course of your entire practice.

UDL was that discovery, for me. In late 2014, I was hired to design and teach a fully online course in adult learning, as part of an Adult Education program I coordinated at UPEI. The learners in the course were primarily instructors themselves, from our local college as well as our university B.Ed program. As an educator, I operate from the premise that in teaching adult learning, I should design my courses to enact and embody the principles they communicate, and so I wanted to make sure the course was built on the concepts it was intended to convey. I wanted to encourage the students to grapple with course concepts from both learner AND teacher perspectives.

In order to succeed in that endeavour, I had to make sure the course was learner-centered, self-directed, and designed to draw out and respect learners’ prior knowledge and interests, all in an online format.

How to bring learners into an unfamiliar online context without reinforcing teacher-centered pedagogies? While I had longstanding experience teaching online, and in participatory settings, doing so while making it all align with the tenets of adult learning was a new and welcome challenge. I felt the course was a powerful opportunity to model meaningful and participatory learner-driven online learning, and so in order to create that experience I went looking for some new and emerging concepts that would help me engage learners. And when I searched for interesting short videos to explore “increasing engagement with students,” I happened on one about UDL.

I liked the way in which UDL offered a broad conceptual approach to inclusivity: a way for me to offer my learner-instructors an approach to meeting their own adult learners “where they are,” without anybody needing to ask. I was new to the idea of UDL, but brief reading led me to a depth of resources, and I included the video and a short article in our course syllabus and our weekly readings. I designed a week of the course around UDL, incorporating the video, some readings, and activities based on UDL principles of “multiple means” – of representation, engagement, and action/expression. But that’s where I stopped, that first year. UDL was just one of a number of one-week topics that I introduced learners to, as a way of opening thinking about difference and engagement.

I hadn’t yet fully begun to take my own advice, and engage with it as both a teacher AND a learner.

A year later, I was offered a second opportunity to teach the course, and the chance to sit back and reflect on what had worked and what I wanted to try to change. I was proud of the positive feedback I’d gotten from students about the first iteration of the class: many learners who’d initially been hesitant about the online format had expressed real appreciation for the participatory and meaningful work we’d done together. I was looking for ways to build on that success, and particularly to deepen the social learning and community of practice elements of the course.

When I went back to the UDL video I’d included, I wondered…could UDL be used to foster and enable deeper sharing and connection among learners? In the first year of the course, UPEI students from Education and Nursing had worked together with Holland College instructors from all different programs – including practical nursing – to share perspectives on learning in common fields and domains. In this sense, the course design was in keeping not only with its adult learning principles, but with what Lave and Wenger (1991) call community of practice. Communities of practice focus on learning together in areas of shared interest – in the case of our class, conversations about shared growth had emerged, based on participatory prompts and design, not only in relation to adult learning and to the common domains in which people taught or practiced, but also in relation to online learning itself.

I knew, as coordinator of the Adult Teaching program, that a few participants in my second iteration of the course had very limited comfort in online and even text-based spaces, let alone with online learning. I had tried hard in the first course to build a sense of social learning and social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) into the Moodle environment that was our primary site of instruction, but social learning did not minimize the text-heavy nature of forum discussions. I recognized that with this second group of students, UDL might offer me an opportunity to genuinely welcome instructors with low literacy levels, digital and otherwise, into a less exclusive community of practice, and enable meta-learning about online learning at the same time.

So in redesigning the course for its second year, I delved deeper into my own understanding of UDL, and tried to ensure that multiple means of representation, engagement, and action/expression were core to ALL weeks of the class, rather than just the one that covered UDL as a topic. I added more visual and video content to my Moodle design, opened up the assignments to enable a greater number of non-writing-based responses, and created prompts that encouraged learners to connect over their shared online learning curve as well as shared professional interests.

I had a lot to learn. I made an effort that second year, and then an even deeper effort in the course’s third year. If you’d like to hear more about what I tried, and how it worked…come to Bringing User Experience to Education: UDL and Inclusion for the 21st Century! (or check out the Slideshare above – spoiler: UDL had unexpected benefits in terms of making my course more social and further along the path towards a community of practice. I loved teaching all three iterations of this class – the first time I’d taught something that wasn’t explicitly digitally-focused in quite some time – and I loved what UDL fostered in terms of inclusion and participatory engagement.

In my “Practice What You Teach: UDL and Communities of Practice in Adult Education” presentation at UPEI Thursday morning, June 1st, I look forward to outlining how UDL’s minimization of barriers to participation had an effect on my course in its second and third iterations, particularly, and served as a positive contributor to social learning and engagement for the adult learners I taught. I’ll share examples from what I did, and explore some of the benefits experienced in combining UDL with a social learning/community of practice approach in adult education. Hope to see you there!

Digital Identities & Digital Citizenship: Houston, We Have a Problem

A couple of weeks back, I gave the closing keynote in Keene State College’s Open Education spring speaker series.

It was a rumination on Open as a set of practices and a site of identity, particularly for those of us in higher ed. I wanted to consider what it means to engage in digital scholarship – and digital leadership – from an identity perspective rather than a role perspective…especially for those of us for whom the standard higher ed roles and labels of student/staff/faculty may be only partial or precarious, aspirational rather than fully institutionalized.

Now, one of these days I will become one of those people who actually writes out their talks. Until that day, Dear Reader, all I have for you is Slideshare and my tendency to post talks as jumping-off points rather than transcriptions.

Digital identities & citizenship: Leading in the Open from Bonnie Stewart

This particular slide deck is a REAL jumping off point, though. Because I was in the middle of my talk – mouth open, mid-sentence – when an awkward realization kinda opened up in front of me.

The connection I was trying to make between digital identity and digital citizenship in the open? Has a big gaping contradiction in it.

Nothing like a lightbulb moment in the middle of a narrative in front of a room full of people.

The point of my talk was that we need to go beyond thinking about identity in the open – digital identity – and start thinking in terms of digital citizenship.

Identities never generate in a vacuum; we are mockingbirds, mimics, ornery creatures whose Becoming is always relational, even if often in reaction to what we don’t want to be. Our digital identities are no different…and unfettered individualism, as a lens, tends to do a TERRIBLE job of acknowledging the ways collaboration and cooperation make the spaces in which we Become actually liveable.

So the presentation for Keene was about going beyond ideas of individual digital identity to ideas of digital citizenship and the shared commons…while acknowledging citizenship as a flawed framework that brings up issues of borders and empire and power. It was about the fact that we can’t really talk about digital identity without talking about citizenship, because when we’re all out in the open Becoming identities together, we’re shaping the space we all inhabit.

But. If I was right on this point – and I still think I was but hey, you can take that up in the comments – it was the other side of the argument that blindsided me.

I hadn’t fully – until that moment in front of the keynote audience – thought through how digital identity, as a practice, operates counter to the collaboration and cooperation that need to be part of digital citizenship.

This is our contemporary contradiction: identity as a construct in contemporary social media spaces makes for pretty rotten social spaces.

We know this. You know this. Much as many of us appreciate and enjoy aspects of the ambient sociality and community that social network platforms deliver us – shout out to everybody who hit “like” on the photos of the Hogwarts letter we made for my son’s eleventh birthday today, because those likes are, frankly, validating whereas if I parade the letter up and down my actual street I’m just weird – we all know there are fundamental drawbacks.

We’re algorithmically manipulated. We’re surveilled. We’re encouraged to speak rather than listen. We’re stuck engaging in visibility strategies, whether we admit it or not, in order simply to be acknowledged and seen within a social or professional space.

Our digital identities do not – and at the level of technological affordances and inherent structure, cannot – create a commons that is actually a healthy pro-social space.

And yet. And yet. Here we all are.

What I realized in developing the talk for Keene was that I used to write a lot about identity, and digital identities…and I stopped.

In the early days of this blog, digital identity was the crux of the phenomenon I was trying to work out and develop a research approach to: the why and the how of making ourselves visible and public in open, online spaces. In those early days, blog comments were still alive and well and many, many people contributed – generously, chorally – to my understanding of identity in the overlapping networked publics that blogging and academic Twitter comprised, back then. I’d been blogging in narrative communities for years, and had watched how monetization and scale of visibility shaped and shifted not only people’s presentation of self, but their experience of it, in the digital context.

I wrote about six key selves of digital identity. I wrote posts with David Bowie songs as titles. I played with messy ideas like brand and cyborgs and never did write as much about theory as I’d intended when I started out and gave the blog a name. But it was mostly identity that I focused on in those first few years.

And then I more or less walked away.

On the flights home from New Hampshire, I reflected on this; on the fact that even in my dissertation, I took up identity and digital identity but balked around focusing enough on it to theorize it, to fully unpack it. Because I knew it was the wrong lens for the socio-technical scholarly sphere I was trying to explore…but I didn’t know why.

Until I finally unravelled what bothered me about it, in the middle of a talk at Keene.

Digital identity isn’t just the wrong lens for figuring out digital scholarship, or encouraging participatory engagement in learning. It’s actually the wrong lens for building towards any vision of digital citizenship that makes for a liveable, decent digital social sphere to inhabit.

You probably already knew that. But I feel like something finally fell into place…years later than it ought to have, maybe, but nonetheless.

Now the question is how do we really get past identity and build for citizenship, in environments that limit, organize, and shape our sociality in ways we often even cannot see?

Excellence &…the Wild Rumpus

This week I got to descend upon Ohio – and OSU’s annual Innovate conference – to give a keynote about networks and higher education.

Here are the slides I used to try to tell the story I was trying to tell:

Funny story about that story.

Innovate’s theme for this year was “excellence,” with a focus on, as their site put it, “sharing innovations that let educators re-imagine their instruction without sacrificing pedagogical quality and rigor.”

Now, I’m not in the habit of making claims about excellence. Or innovation, or even rigor, unless I’m in the throes of a formal academic paper in which case I can dig into ontologies and epistemologies and validity structures and make a case OSU’s own Patti Lather would be proud of. A language of excellence and innovation and rigor tends to emphasize performance rather than learning, and while that’s important for funders and decision-makers it doesn’t necessarily map tidily against ideas of connection and vulnerability. My work is still deeply steeped in the logics of the social web, if aware of that perspective’s limitations…and the forces that aim to eclipse it.

But they clearly knew all that. The ad for the talk read:
Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 8.48.18 PM
I laughed out loud when I read that first sentence. And I decided to approach “excellence” with some of the same wry touch they’d brought to the keynote blurb.

I enrolled my kids’ copy of Where the Wild Things Are to help illustrate the story. I talked about networked practice and its implications for higher ed as The Wild Rumpus.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 3.51.29 PM
Where the Wild Things Are won Maurice Sendak the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book. *That,* quite frankly, is about as safe a marker of excellence as you’re gonna find in the fraught world of higher ed these days, and not just because it’s a kids’ book: rather, that’s how the prestige economy of recognizable, institutionalized legitimacy works.

People have heard of the book, and the Caldecott medal, so the recognizability of the title and the award would serve as proxies for quality, I figured. If you’re going to introduce all kinds of new practices to a group of academics, best to start from a safe place. A signal that resonates. Kinda like when someone says, “I went to Princeton” or “I published in Nature.” Those titles are signals. I have (shhh…don’t tell) never read Nature and I’ve never been to New Jersey, but I have been acculturated enough to academia that I understand that both the journal and the college signal a level of widely-recognized prestige that I’m supposed to be impressed by.

Because that’s how prestige operates: that “supposed to” interpellates people and recruits them based on aspirational identity…the desire to be the sort of person who *gets* that kind of thing. So in academia, outside of our own very specific disciplines, we trade entirely on these broad, external signals. That’s how academia manages to function as a broad in-group in spite of the fact that most of our knowledge bases are so extraordinarily specialized there’s no way for a chemist to actually tell if a sociologist does good work or not, or vice versa. The signals are stand-ins for the actual knowledge we possess.

Entertainingly though, in the process of establishing broadly understood signals – where people went to school, who they’ve studied with, where they sit in the academic hiring hierarchy, where they’ve published, who’s funded them – those signals themselves get reified and the prestige accorded them comes to seem entirely natural.

Yes, Nature has the highest impact factor of all journals…but how many academics can actually explain impact factor, pressed to the point? Princeton is Ivy League, which means something even to us heathens up in Canada, who totally fail to recognize many of the prestige signals of US academia.

(Imagine the dismay and betrayal I felt when, after half a lifetime of hearing the words “Ivy League” bandied about as Americanized synonyms for “Oxford” and “Cambridge,” I discovered the Ivy League IS AN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE. Huh????

I digress.)

Long story short, I figured Where the Wild Things worked as a proxy for excellence in the tiny context of my talk because while both the title and the medal are recognizable, nobody’s gunning for either. Neither the book nor the wild rumpus – even as metaphor – has been declared the next Great Tsunami or Disruption, so nobody’s career or reputation ride on making sure that everybody is clear how mightily it sucks. Plus the book is sweet and nostalgic and most people don’t really remember what it’s about, they just remember how it makes them feel. Which is also how signals operate.

And *that* is how I tripped my own self up on and almost had to ditch the whole thing half-baked in the middle of the journey to making a case for the networked Rumpus as its own form of excellence.

Because I was thinking of The Wild Rumpus as a metaphor for some of the spaces outside the boundaries of conventional prestige signals, just a fun way of talking about an alternative prestige economy, when I realized I should probably re-read the damn book. RESEARCH.

I’d forgotten, of course. Max – the little blighter at the centre of the story who runs away to the fantasy world of the wild things in his fantasies – ends up wanting to go back where people love him best of all and his food is still hot. The rumpus is joy and freedom and the wild things bow down to his taming, but in the end he sails home to his bedroom, back to normal, back to the glorious comfort of the known.

The Wild Rumpus is just a distraction, for Max. Whoopsie.

But in the middle of knowledge abundance and precarity and disinvestment in public education, a world where over 70% of North American higher education instructional staff were reported to be contingent even back in 2007, I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be sailing home to our solid tenured realities when we’re done with the fun of our contemporary Rumpus.

So I made this slide, and turned the story sideways…a bedtime story to wake up conference attendees first thing in the morning. Not a happy ending, but the unpacking of the Rumpus outlines ways to navigate the seas of abundance and change, at least.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.15.31 PM
Post-script: I wish I could say my ideas will change the direction of the ship and bring us home to where supper is still hot.

I tell myself it is wiser to grow up and learn to forage with Wild Things.

I don’t know. The Rumpus has treated me extraordinarily well, but contingency is a flawed and exhausting place to live. The potential networked practice brings to higher ed – the particular versions of excellence it makes possible, the ones outlined in the slides above – are still by far best enacted by faculty and staff with the security to take risks, and iterate. But that’s often not how it works out. Higher ed is an increasingly stratified professional environment, and networked practice may increasingly be seen as a signal of LACK of prestige, as power circles coalesce around the privilege they conflate as excellence.

Maybe THEY are the Wild Things and we can tame them with Max’s magic trick of staring into their eyes and telling them, “Be Still!”

No? Dammit. Now I will not sleep tonight.


What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)

inequality & networks: the sociocultural implications for higher ed

Next week is #dLRN15 at Stanford. Months of planning and debating and collaborating (and panicking!) all come together to launch an inaugural conference/conversation on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks & Change.

It’s all Panic At The Disco around here these days, people.

There are some serious high hopes embedded and embodied in #dLRN15. Not just for a successful event – though a successful event is a joy forever, as the poets say. Or, erm, something like that. But success is a complex thing, and hopes go beyond the event.

#dLRN15 is grounded in the kind of quiet hopes most of us in higher ed these days don’t talk about all that much: the hopes that things can actually get better. The hopes that research can be conducted and communicated in such a way as to shape the direction of change. The hopes for a future for the spirit of public education, in a time when much in higher ed seems to have been unbundled or disrupted or had its goalposts moved.

Those kinds of hopes are waaaaay too big to lay on the shoulders of any single event or single collection of people…but still, we got hopes, and they underpin the conversations we’re hoping to start through this small, first-time conference next week. We have the privilege of bringing together powerful thinkers like Adeline Koh and Marcia Devlin and Mike Caulfield as keynotes, plus systems-level folks and established researchers and students and grad students and people from all sorts of status positions within higher ed, all thinking about the intersection of networked practices and learning with the institutional structures of higher ed.

However, there’s one strand of conversation, one hope, in the mix at #dLRN15 that I’m particularly attached to. It’s the Sociocultural Implications of Networks and Change in Higher Ed conference theme, and particularly the opening plenary panel of the conference, on Inequities & Networks: The Sociocultural Implications for Higher Ed. I’m chairing, and the ever-thoughtful George Station, Djenana Jalovcic, and Marcia Devlin have agreed to lead the conversation from the stage.

But we need you.

No plenary panel is an island…and while all of us contributing have our own deep ties to this topic, our role is only to start the conversation. Help us make it wider and take it further. Whether you’ll be there or not, your thoughts and input are welcome on the #dLRN15 hashtag or on our Slack channel, or here in the comments. Throw in.

To me, this is the strand that gets at the heart of what education is for, and who it includes, and how, in a time of massive stress: is the digital helping widen participation and equality? Is it hindering?

If the answer to both is “yes,” WHAT NOW?

The aim of the panel is to explore how intersectional issues – race, gender, class, ability, even academic status – in higher education are amplified and complexified by digital technologies and networked participation. While digital higher education initiatives are often framed for the media in emancipatory terms, what effects does the changing landscape of higher education actually have on learners whose identities are marked by race/gender/class and other factors within their societies?

We’ll be sharing and unpacking some of the places we get stuck when we think about this in the context of our work as educators and researchers.

What effects do you see digital networks having on inequalities in higher ed? What sociocultural implications do networked practices hold for institutional practices? What are universities’ responsibilities to students who live and learn in hybrid online/offline contexts?

Please. Add your voices, so that this panel becomes more a node in a networked conversation than a one-off to itself. That in itself would pretty much make #dLRN15 a success, in my mind. :)