Redesign for online: 3 easy steps to questioning everything you do as an educator

The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed
– William Gibson on NPR, August 1993

As a card-carrying Gen X human and longtime online educator, I’ve been seeing & hearing the quote above pretty much my entire career. I used to think it was about…well…the internet.

I’ve changed my mind. As I try to redesign my courses for online delivery and advise fellow educators being asked to prepare for online and HyFlex and everything else in the midst of the mad YMMV* of this whole ‘Year of the Pandemic’ misadventure, it occurs to me Gibson may have been a time-travelling Nostradamus, sent back in time from higher ed 2020. Because never have I seen ‘the future’ move so fast. And never have I seen such uneven fault lines laid visible in the process.

(Side meander: I read this Encyclopedia Brown book as a kid where the Boy Detective figures out that a war relic is a fake because its engraving is marked “The First Battle of X.” I distinctly remember Boy Detective smugly pointing out that nobody knew there was gonna be a Second Battle at the time of the first. ie, this ONLY goes down as ‘the Year of the Pandemic’ if we can be one and done by the time we see 2020 out. I have deep doubts about us, people, but…rolling with it.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, since you may not have realized you were being lured here by a title best described as ‘flippant and ill-considered,’ let me note that the idea of three easy steps to online re-design is a sardonic fiction. Redesign is a complex process and an ever-evolving one, full stop.

This post is effectively a really long “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but.” Key takeaways? It doesn’t get easy. And that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.

(Image: “D’oh” GIF of Homer Simpson)

Redesigning for online is a confronting process. It forces you to pare down both your course content AND your course communications to the bits that matter most, then demands that you consider how these things work together.

This is NOT a bad thing. This year of pandemic and protests makes visible the huge variabilities and inequities baked into so many of the systems we participate in. Removing the four walls of the classroom doesn’t magically create inequities in education…they’re present even when everyone sits together in the same space for the same amount of time. Brains and bodies vary: so do the experiences and expectations and assumptions teachers and learners bring with them about each others’ brains and bodies. We all live different realities.

Bitter truth: for the first month of the pandemic I had a full fight/flight recoil from any reflective process. What I lost in the capacity to think in full sentences, though, I gained in the ability to commandeer a fridge and pantry. I am not the cook in our family, but overnight, I became like someone who survived the Great Depression: hark! A stalk of celery and a tin of tomatoes! I can make a gourmet dinner AND make sure there are leftovers that get promptly eaten the following day. We used the hell outta our resources, for months.

This is what some of us do in uncertainty: focus down to immediate needs and capacity. The amygdala rules.

My partner, on the other hand, worked ten hour days, wrote half an Online Teaching textbook, and created an entire site of video resources and interviews about digital pedagogies and Online Learning in a Hurry. Jackal. ;) Even from the same house, we had totally different responses to the stress of the adaptation.

Come September, we won’t know what these last months have been in our students’ lives. We won’t know what their present is.

But we do need to know that going online forces a more drastic contention with the variable social and societal and financial and responsibility contexts in which our brains and bodies are embedded: online forces us to intentionally identify ALL the elements of our course communications and consider how those different contexts might shape how learners receive and perceive the constructs of our classes.

To circle back to Gibson, the internet has always distributed both the future and the present highly unevenly.

On the redesign front, I need to be clear: I have it as good as anybody could. Online is my field. I started on my online learning journey back in 1998. I have a tenure-track faculty position that pays me well for the time I put into redesign, and my university – like many in Canada but far fewer in other jurisdictions – has made a clear commitment to a fully online fall.

(Caveat: I know a lot of educators are navigating what appears to be a “let’s go back to campus, it’s fine!” death cult response from institutions whose bottom lines depend on residences or football or whatnot. It’s a public health and ethics horror show masquerading as an ugly version of The Trolley Problem and I don’t even know what to say about it. I also don’t know what to say about the idea that broadcasting lectures and in-class activities should be considered ‘online teaching,’ except…I’m a nope. So when I say ‘redesign is hard,’ I’m grateful for the problems I have. But maybe it’s important for someone like to me to say, it’s still hard. Trust me.)

Redesign is hard because it’s not actually a three-easy-step process, or a step-by-step process at all. It’s about power and pedagogy more than tools and content. Redesign forces us to think about the internet and how to use it for meaningful communications.

Handy-dandy truth: the infrastructure of the internet is actually designed FOR two-way participatory communications…students can post ideas (in written, video, or visual form) for other students or even public audiences – where relevant – to engage with, and there are ways to scaffold productive peer and public engagement with student work.

But. To make the most of that potential, you have to be game to do a few things you may or may not be doing in a more conventional classroom environment.

You have to build students’ capacity and confidence as knowledge creators, not just consumers.

You have to be willing to let students see each others’ work, even where that may challenge your power or authority, or your trust in their academic integrity.

You have to develop meta-guidelines about assignment expectations, focusing on core ideas and on what counts in different types of formats…especially outside the realm of formal academic writing.

(I also recommend you be gracious and non-punitive about honing and adapting your guidelines when you realize you’ve missed the mark. Better, engage students IN that adaptation. Build your own learning curve with new forms of communication into the teaching process).

If you want students to build some sense of community and social learning, you also need to teach them how to give meaningful formative feedback to each other. I use this four-sentence RISE model for my own feedback straight outta the gate in any online or blended course, then ask students to take it on as their own. It saves us all from awkward and pointless feedback. Ahem.

(Image: tweet screenshot “Student: I love bread. Me: Joe, I agree with you! I love bread too. I liked the part when you said you loved bread. Great point!”)

Ultimately, to build engaged, participatory online classes, you have to design projects and peer communication opportunities that make their work about more than right or wrong answers.

And, maybe…try to see your own work in a frame that’s wider than right and wrong, too. You won’t get every part of your course design and teaching right, no matter how hard you try. You can’t. Online teaching doesn’t work that way, any more than f2f does. If you’re new to online, you may worry students will disrespect you for not knowing what you don’t know, but…acknowledging that you’re on a learning journey, too, and open to growth is more likely to build respect than damage it.

Or at least I hope so. Since I emerged from my initial pandemic paralysis, I’ve spent a lot of the last few months talking about online teaching, with K-12 educators and folks from around Ontario and the world. But this video from last week is from by FAR the most intimidating session I held: PD for my own faculty colleagues.

I’m not suggesting you should watch this. I can tell you easily 23 things that went wrong. The recording isn’t great, because it’s Zoom and on Zoom, if you record from the same computer you screenshare the slides on, the recording ends up with the faces covering half the slides (here are the slides on their own, FWIW). Worse, if you’ve only used Zoom for webinars and one-way communication, and then try to leap into teaching / modelling participatory engagement without trying out the many-to-many features of Zoom with a live test audience, you’ll find yourself fumbling a lot. The live whiteboard contributions don’t automatically disappear when you move to another slide, because…you’re screensharing, not collaborating on the slides. Basically, it’s a decent PD session that also features raw video footage of me hanging in the wind and learning out loud, in front of my colleagues, while speaking blind to an audience I can’t see and whose esteem I care about. Sub-optimal, if you’re my pride.

But here’s the thing: my pride is not the point. Yes, I designed and redesigned this for hours. And still I missed a bunch and ended up questioning every life choice I’d made that brought me to that moment, because it was my first time using this particular tool this particular way. Full stop.

Maybe, in the end, that’s the best model I can offer to anyone venturing into the intimidation of online redesign and teaching: carry on. Keep learning. Reflect out loud.

*YMMV = ‘your mileage may vary’

I worry about how fast ‘the future’ is moving.

Audrey Watters points out that we need to decolonize the edtech imaginary our institutions are buying into at breakneck speed. Participatory pedagogies that use the communications capacity of the internet are messy, and complex, and confronting…simple ‘push this button and get data’ solutions are easier. They’re being pushed to decision-makers, hard. But if we want ANY future to be more evenly distributed, all of us with an investment in education need to push back.

As Audrey says in the powerful keynote script above, Don’t give me an app. Address structural racism. Don’t fund startups. Fund public education.

That’s the kind of online teaching I want to design for.

The Crosshairs of the Split Hairs: #digciz

This week, Mia Zamora and I are kicking off #digciz 2017 with a conversation about digital citizenship, and what it means in a world wherein “the digital” is increasingly a delivery system for surveillance and spectacle and amplified uncertainty.

(Or maybe that’s just my take. Maybe it’s different in your world. Maybe you see it differently? I would pay big cash money to see it differently so I am open to being invited over. Please note I actually have no big cash money.)

In any case, the month of June will be a #digciz-fest of epic proportions *if* y’all come out and play, and Mia and I have the privilege of leading us all out of the gate with a few provocations and a #4wordstory conversation about what good citizenship means in participatory spaces.

Here’s my opening salvo. :) (I’m a bit of a shit about the word “citizenship”…)

Grumpy Cat, ultimate Digital Citizen, makes the perfect Rorschach Test for your own interpretations of digital citizenship! Is he saying:

a) Even online, we are all people. Kumbay-effing-yah.
b) Digital citizenship sucks because people. People suck.
c) It is irritating to even have this conversation. Stop being a digital dualist.
d) All of the above?

I myself am still not entirely sure. A little over a month ago, I wrote up a talk on citizenship and identity that I didn’t manage to explain very articulately…and got comments like it was 2008 up in here.


Or rather: publish half-baked lightbulb moments more often, *if* you like the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, even years after blogs were supposed to be dead.

(Disclosure: I am actually that person who likes the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, just if there were any questions. But we do not acknowledge that publicly, do we? Because decorum. Or the games we play around palatable identities in an attention economy.)

Only my discomfort with totally half-baked posts – or the rarity of lightbulb moments in my life – will save y’all from wanton comment-chasing, folks.

Which brings me back to the actual lightbulb moment that I’d had in the middle of that talk I tried to write up.

Digital platforms and digital affordances – underpinned by the capitalist enclosure of participatory digital spaces over the last decade or so, with its surveillance and metrics and constant advertising of reductive versions of our identity back to us – do NOT lend themselves to good digital citizenship, in the sense that they do not foster a space I would actually want to be a citizen of, to whatever (limited) extent the citizenship model holds when conceptualized in the border-free digital realm.

They do not lend themselves to good digital citizenship because they shape and direct human behaviour in ways that privilege capital and circulation and extremes, rather than, say, collaboration or empathy. Or even just being alone with one’s thoughts.

They increasingly shape the logic of our learning spaces to Silicon Valley’s concept of what that should be. Spoiler: that tends to be “individualism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, imperialism, the exclusion of people of color and white women.”

They foster spectacle and scale and virality and dogpiles and dragging and while there are moments of justice and glory in it all, at its logical endpoint it’s a Hunger Games.

(Wait. Mixed my dystopias.)

Of course, if you’re reading this, chances are good you don’t live in that web, that digital space. Humans have agency. Technologies or platforms are not determinist. I read my comments section. Got it.

Most of the people who’ll ever click on this post will come to it through the variety of still-quite-participatory communities that form my network, and our collective constellation of “digital” remains very much not-entirely-subsumed by capitalism and spectacle. We resist. We share. We care.

My research was really clear about the caring, the ways in which we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, even in the strange collapsed contexts of academic Twitter.

I’d venture that in most digital spaces that build any sense of ongoing community over time, people do the same. That‘s why I’m a bit of a shit about citizenship.

The web, and the capacity of strangers to receive my words – all of them, even the ugly ones or the half-baked ones or the things I couldn’t say out loud – once gave me back some sense of myself as being able to contribute to a world I wanted to live in.

It gave me a sense of being a citizen – in the rights and responsibilities sense, in the belonging sense – of something I was invested in more than I’ve ever, frankly, been invested in the concept of Canada as a nation-state (no matter how much Trump has done recently to make me appreciate that particular concept and its vulnerability, AHEM).

But the operations of scale and visibility and capital – especially capital – mean that our platforms keep creeping up on us, shifting, creating all kinds of insidious ways to monetize our caring and our sharing and in doing so, shape how we relate to each other…and in the long run, who we get to be in relation to these digital spaces.

And nope, #NotAllPerformativity is negative and #NotAllSoCalledSlacktivism is empty, but platform-based and -driven behaviours that shape our sense of personal identity should be things we’re watching WAAAAY more closely than we seem to know how. Not just because we may be frogs boiling slowly towards whatever Mark Zuckerberg’s end game of world domination may be…but because polarization seems to be eating us alive, as a broader society, online and off.

The fracturing of social bonds and security is not digital. The inequality and uncertainty at the root of it is not digital.

But it all leaves us…confronted. Constantly confronted.

And the digital amplifies our confrontedness.

The digital demands constant signalling. Other people’s signalling confronts us. We create spaces to bond over that confrontedness. Performative wokeness devolves into factionalism. White supremacy festers its way into the open.

This seems to be the yearbook quote of humanity confronted by virtue signalling:

And then, as a FB friend quipped in the thread under my earlier identity/citizenship post…we get caught “in the crosshairs of the split hairs.” THAT.

I think THAT should be 2017’s yearbook quote.

And because we are human, we don’t even always completely notice the way our identities are being shaped by our social environments and what they naturalize…THEY JUST BECOME OUR REALITY.

So…what can we do? How can we envision and work toward something better? What kinds of civic and social spaces do we want, online?

Tell us your #4wordstories of what YOU want, using the hashtag #digciz.

The conversation will unfold for 48 hours or so, through June 1st. Or whenever we’re done. Our goal is to get a sense of what people think digital citizenship can be, but also to hash out some of the constraints and realities that shape what it is, for most of us. And what works. What we could be aiming for, as a model of human engagement.

Just a little model for human engagement. You know. Shoot the moon. ;)

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?

what’s next? care, vulnerability & disclosure – a research project

So. Flanked by my children, who have shared their childhoods with the gestation of my Ph.D – a rather demanding sibling – I trotted across the UPEI stage Saturday and had this fancy hat bestowed upon me.

I am now either a right official Ph.D or Head of Gryffindor, one or the other. Either way, it was officially my mother’s very Best Day Ever.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 11.38.33 PM

With the end of a Ph.D comes one question – “what’s next?”

It’s an entirely reasonable and utterly terrible inquiry. In spite of increasingly-regular calls for changes, the long road of the Ph.D tends to veer to the straight & narrow production and acculturation of scholars to a profession that, frankly, has little room for them. Not all Ph.Ds want a tenure track position within the academy, certainly. But those that do face pretty grim odds…and have for some time. And while work in industry may be a far more lucrative option for some, opportunities vary drastically depending on discipline and geographic location and mobility. For those of us based in small, isolated, single-university towns with two young dependents and absolutely zero industry, “what’s next?” tends to be a rather painful confrontation with every Life Choice we’ve ever made.

Unless we get lucky.

I am, for the moment, lucky. I have an ongoing half-time Coordinator’s position at my university, and last week, I began a half-time post-doc with one of the people I like and respect most in my field, George Veletsianos, Canada Research Chair at Royal Roads University. I get to do the post-doc from here in Charlottetown. It’s the kind of research I do best. And so I count myself extraordinarily lucky, even while in the same breath I note that two half-time jobs does not a pension make and Dave & I have big decisions to make in the coming year. We are entertaining possibilities. But for the moment, I get to do good work with people I have great regard for, and I have An Answer to the question, “What’s next?” So glory be.

But there is a safety and security in the public position of “graduate student” that disappears once you get the funny hat. Even if the grad student label is pretty infantilizing for mid-career scholars, it’s still a form of protection against the assumption that you oughtta have a full-time academic job, if you’re any good. Once that student status is removed, you’re left standing naked at the precarious and contingent intersection of contemporary academic employment and the narratives of meritocracy that still fuel a great deal of graduate training. In a prestige economy, it can be risky to acknowledge your lack of prestige. Or your financial insecurity, or your hunger, or your part-time job at Starbucks/Walmart/ that pays the bills.

This is one of the positions that George and I want to explore in our first research project together. It’s a study of disclosure, care, and vulnerability in networked scholarship – an examination of the effects of sharing challenges online.

This is where you come in, dear readers.

We are speaking to people in higher ed about personal and professional disclosures they’ve made within social media networks, and the vulnerabilities and the expressions of care that have resulted, as well as what those experiences have meant for them as individuals and scholars. We have begun by looking at more personal disclosures – physical and mental health challenges, personal losses and life adjustments, identity factors. But my own ruminations on what is speakable online have left me curious about whether it may actually be riskier for scholars to talk about their professional difficulties than their personal ones, in identity spaces as public and traceable and searchable as social media platforms.

So we’re wondering…want to be involved? :)

Our formal invitation is below. The link to the consent form is in paragraph 5…if this research speaks to your experiences in any way, we encourage you to check out the link. Your voice is welcome, and appreciated.


We are inviting PhD students/candidates and academics to participate in a research study that we are conducting entitled “Academics’ use of social media: care and vulnerability.”

While the research community has studied the use of social media for teaching/research, we don’t know much about how these technologies are used by academics to share the challenges they face, express their vulnerabilities, and experience care online.

If you have disclosed a personal OR professional challenge that you have faced on social media (e.g. blogged about: being denied tenure, a dissertation committee conflict, or underemployment or adjunct challenges), we invite you to participate in this study.

We believe that these experiences are significant to share and discuss and we would love the opportunity to interview you to learn and write about your experiences.

If you are interested in participating in this study, please visit the following page to read the consent form that provides more details about this project:

We understand that this topic is very personal and discussing it with us may be difficult. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this study, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We would love to talk to you more about it.


George & Bonnie

Dr. George Veletsianos
Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor
Royal Roads University

Dr. Bonnie Stewart
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Royal Roads University/University of Prince Edward Island