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.

Participate or Perish?

I’ve been thinking a lot about institutions lately. In trying to trace a narrative line through the sturm und drang around MOOCs and all that they make visible, I’ve been digging into institutional histories, trying to understand what the hell happened in the last thirty years. Who switched the terms of the game of higher education?

I’m looking at you, market forces.

For those of us raised in the world that Stanford researchers in the 70s called ‘the New Institutionalism’ – a world where education’s entire organizational structure was understood to place it firmly “beyond the grip of market forces” (Meyer & Rowan, 2006, p. 3) – it’s all gotten rather bewildering. Many managed not to notice the stealth incursion of for-profit institutions and Pearson into the world of academia (related: the student populations these corporate entities have served, via ESL textbook empires and “the MBA you can probably get into” ads, have not been the white middle-class that still codes “default university student” in North America. Ahem. Just sayin’.). But MOOCs, with their posh ties to Harvard and Stanford and their grandiose claims of revolution, sorta blew that stealth game out of the water.

MOOCs as Enclosure
This past week alone, Coursera moved into professional development for teachers and announced a partnership with Chegg, an online textbook-rental company, to connect MOOC learners with select, limited-time access to texts from large publishers. As Audrey Watters notes, these shifts are  beginning to look like the enclosure of education against the very openness that MOOCs began from: “What was a promise for free-range, connected, open-ended learning online, MOOCs are becoming something else altogether. Locked-down. DRM’d. Publisher and profit friendly. Offered via a closed portal, not via the open Web.”

This enclosure is about profit models, not learning. And it profits few, in the end, because – as I got het up about in Inside Higher Ed last week – the societal mythology of education as value really only functions if institutionalized credentials in some way tie to social mobility and lucrative work.

That’s not the game we’re in, anymore.

But here’s the thing: MOOCs are a symptom of change in higher ed, not the source of it. We need to find ways of talking about this enclosure of openness by profit models, without conflating these forces with online ed in general or even entirely with MOOCs.

Because we will not resist the corporatization of education by standing solely for conventional institutionalized models. That horse has left the barn. But in online practices there may still be ways to protect and preserve some of the broad societal concept of the “we” that institutions were intended to enshrine.

MOOCs as Symptom: Networks + Neoliberalism
Basically, this is where we are: traditional institutional education is being encroached upon from all sides. And the big MOOCs conflate the two primary forces for change: networks and neoliberalism.

Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 11.56.02 AM

This is an ugly slide – I kinda like to call the clip art “retro” – but it’s the best illustration I have at the current moment for what I see actually happening to higher ed as we’ve known it. From one side, what George Siemens terms “the Internet happening to education,” or the networked opening of what was conventionally the closed domain of knowledge. From the other, the market incursion into the sphere of education, with its attendant ideological leanings towards the measurable and the profitable.

Last week, Dave & I went to two conferences together. We do the majority of our conference travel independently, so even getting to be at the same events was kind of exotic for us: being invited together was a treat. But blending our two separate strains of thought into a single keynote for the second conference was something we haven’t done in a couple of years, since all the MOOC stuff blew up.

We bickered about process: that’s par for the course, for us. We’ve worked together as long as we’ve known each other, and while our ideas and even perspectives tend to complement the other’s, our ways of getting there are pretty much opposite. (Sidenote: our writing on the MOOCbook has been pretty much two solitudes, enabling us to continue our lawyer-free relationship.)

But in the process of pulling together, between the two of us, three hour-long presentations to be delivered over the course of three days, on separate but intertwined topics, something converged and snapped into focus.

I’ve been looking at networks from an identities perspective for a few years now, trying to understand who we are when we’re online and what it is about this whole experience that actually matters, from an education perspective. Dave’s been wending his way through an exploration of rhizomatic learning as a way of navigating uncertainty within an era of knowledge abundance. Both of us have been thinking a lot about MOOCs and what they mean for change within higher ed. Hell, most of our household income comes from academic institutions, so the current budget crunch hits home.

But it became clear this week that our work needs to be about finding ways to use networks to push back against the neoliberal vision of the future of education. About making clear that the two do not share the same set of interests.

The conflation of the two is everywhere. Salon has an interview with Jaron Lanier today that makes the case that the Internet killed the middle class. Lanier’s arguments conflate networks with neoliberalism, making the latter invisible as a force unto itself. Sure, there are places where networked practices rely on neoliberal approaches to the world, in the sense of Foucault’s “entrepreneur of the self.” And neoliberalism often co-opts networked practices and naturalizes the perception that the two are one and the same.

But I don’t think they are. At least…I don’t think they inherently are.

Whether they become so is up to us. Particularly those of us who share the values espoused by public education. We need to build our learning and teaching networks, share our ideas and our questions and our practices and what works and doesn’t, and refuse to be enclosed.

Institutional concepts of educational practices enclose easily: that is their nature. The transition from institutional models of the classroom to a massive for-profit textbook magnate’s version of the classroom isn’t really much of a transition, except in what gets lost in terms of public values.

Networks don’t actually enclose easily. Hence the idea of “participate or perish” that Dave & I came up with the night before our keynote at #WILU2013 in Fredericton: a new academic imperative for our times.

Don’t just publish, because the institutional models are encroached upon and becoming enclosed. Participate. Make things different. Don’t wait for it to be your “job:” that’s institutional thinking. Institutional jobs won’t be there if we let the profit models gut education entirely.

Here are our slides from WILU2013, which trace some of these ideas through our own research lenses.

And here are the slides from my Spotlight Speaker session at CONNECT2013, where I focused in more detail on the participation and networking side of things: on how to go beyond institutional identities. Help yourself.

(Postscript: the “Education is Broken” Narrative as Sniff Test)
I want to return to this one in more depth…but a quick thought. The phrase “education is broken” gets thrown around a lot in the current educational climate. It is, in a sense, one of the key reasons neoliberalism and networks get conflated: it’s the area in which they agree. 

But from one perspective, the idea that education is broken is a learning claim. From the other, it’s a credentialing and business model claim.

If you’re in the process of learning to tell the difference, don’t necessarily run from anything that claims education is broken. Rather, ask what aspect of ed it frames as broken. Is it the learning? You might be looking at a network. Is it the profit model and the structure and the means of offering credential? Probably neoliberalism and enclosure at work.

You’re welcome. ;)