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Welcome to D3 – Domains, Data, and Democracy: with special thanks to agency, identity, and environment

On May 20th I was invited to speak at St. Norbert College’s D3 – Domains, Data, and Democracy conference and deliver a welcome address. The post that follows is the text I worked from to deliver that address reworked just a bit – the biggest add was the addition of hyperlinks. The slide deck is also embedded in the bottom. Header image credit Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

Before I begin with the welcome address I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the historical memory of the land we are on and its indigenous peoples as well as our responsibility to work towards reconciliation by reading the St. Norbert College Land Acknowledgement.

You may or may not be familiar with this idea of a land acknowledgement. They are much more ubiquitous in Canada where they are often used to start public meetings such as this one but also in smaller meetings, to start the school day, and I’ve even heard that some of the major hockey teams use one before their home games. There is no one land acknowledgement but rather each is crafted to the local area and the native peoples who at one time maintained the predominant culture there. They don’t have to be tied to the subject of the talk, or the hockey game for that matter, but they are offered as a reminder of how we got here so that perhaps we can think about how we want to go forward. In this case, I do think that there is alignment with this talk as I will be addressing issues of democracy, ownership, and environments (though some may be digital) but I wanted to point out that this connection to the subject matter is not needed and I have included the acknowledgement as part of this talk as a remembrance of the this land and its history.

In the spirit of the Norbertine value of stabilitas loci, a deep commitment to the local community, we acknowledge this land as the ancestral home of the Menominee nation, which holds historical, cultural, and sacred significance to the community. We acknowledge the living history and contributions of the indigenous communities that inhabited this land prior to the establishment of St. Norbert College, as well as the sovereign Native American Nations who continue to contribute to the flourishing of our communities

In 2016 I first became acquainted with St. Norbert College through attending and presenting at the T3 conference. T3, like D3, is a shortened version of a longer name. When I presented it was Transformative Teaching Through Technology and I quickly pointed out that was 4 T’s not 3 but I was told the “Through” did not count. I was also told that in previous years it had been Transformative Teaching AND Technology but that the exact meaning of the name was somewhat neblus.  That there were some who saw this as ‘Transformative Teaching’, and Technology. While others thought that the idea of transformation could encompass both teaching and technology I guess as Transformative: Teaching and Technology.

Fast forward a few years to the planning of this year’s conference – I’m horribly late to an online meeting with Martha and Krissy and when I enter the meeting they tell me that in my absence they have been thinking and talking about changing the name of this year’s conference from T3 to D2 – Domains and Data. This is because SNC has in the past year gotten really serious about its commitment to the Domains project and we had been getting some requests for more support around data literacy. I tell them that I love the idea but point out that we have also been having lots of conversations in ITS and Full Spectrum Learning leadership for many years around digital citizenship and communicating to our students about what it means to be good stewards of the web and I suggest D3 – Domains, Data, and Democracy … and it stuck.

As planning progressed, I started to notice that D3 might be having some of the same problems that T3 was having around the name and how it is being interpreted. There were just these subtle things like the way folks were pausing when they said the name like Domains…. Data and Democracy. I think there was a lack of an oxford comma in drafting some of the materials that we were using. There also might have even been some confusion about where to put the “and” like “Domains” and “Data” and “Democracy” but also Domains and “Data and Democracy”.

At some point I brought up that I was noticing these subtle differences and I that I didn’t think that they were wrong but that I saw democracy as being central to both domains and data and that I also saw connections and overlaps between domains and data themselves. So Krissy asked me to come up and give a welcome address to paint a picture of how the name aligns with the conference and to talk about some of these things.

Last year we had Robin DeRosa come to T3 as our keynote speaker and one of the ideas that Robin hit upon that resonated with several people was this idea of bricolage. She contrasted the methods of the engineer with those of the bricoleur saying that an engineer takes brand new materials, lots of measurements, and lots of money to build perfect products. In contrast the bricoleur takes what may seem like disparate parts that already exist and puts them together as a new whole through a process of trying, testing, failing, and playing around.

I see the main themes of Domains, Data, and Democracy as being a list so they are separated by commas and you could even put them into a bulleted list. Each of these D’s are complex realms and we could have a whole conference on any one of them. Each has multiple moving parts, incorporates subjective decision making with a variety of impacts, and each is open to interpretation from outside entities. All of these themes have problems and issues as well as great gifts to give. My hope is that we have put together a conference for you that is flexible enough to allow you to be a bit of a bricoleur with your thinking around these concepts weighing the complex nature of each. I also hope that you will use the themes as a starting place and connect them not only to each other but also to your own interests and contexts in your own work.

It is my hope that by presenting them as a list of things we can encourage participants of the conference to think of them as building blocks. Some of you may want to grab onto one of these and spend the next two days looking at every event and workshop through that lens. While others may only want to concentrate on some particular set of connections like “Data and Democracy” or “Democracy and Domains” or “Domains and Data”. Still even others may want to keep all three in mind and look for the connections between them.

To help demonstrate this I’d like to share with you a bit of my own bricolage or how I see these themes fitting together. I will use three other frames that I think are important to this. As this is a welcome address I’ll also try to weave my thinking with some information about the instructors that we have invited to the conference and snippets from some of the workshops and other events we have lined up.  I want to encourage you to keep in mind what your own bricolage creation looks like as you weave these themes for yourself.

Domains as Agency

D3 is being held as this past year St. Norbert College has made great headway into a centralized domains project with connections to their philosophy of Full Spectrum Learning and the college’s strategic plan. I’m excited to hear a State of Domains address from the Full Spectrum Learning leadership tomorrow to get all the details about how things are going but I also realize that there may still be those in the room who have different levels of understanding around what a domain is and what it means to give one to a student.

Audrey Watters says that giving a domain to a student is a “radical act” but radical acts do not come without risks and complexity. I will point out in my short examination of each of our themes that all of them come with affordances and constraints. I believe the most radical thing that a domain does is encourage and enable agency – the ability for an individual to act independently and make their own choices. Agency is central to democracy but it can be seen as risky in educational environments as students by nature are not as informed and have not had the opportunity to build specialized knowledge. However, education cannot exist in a risk free environment rather it is the job of educators to weigh risks to the student with the opportunity for learning.

Martha Burtis gives us several opportunities over the next two days to look at the complexities around domains as educators from considering the web itself as a subject of study to situating students and student agency in domains pedagogy.  Martha is one of the founders of the Domain of One’s Own movement and has worked to help higher education see how we interact with and support student use of digital environments and technology as more than a transactional exchange and rather an opportunity for truly transformative learning. No  matter if you are new to domains or have a start and are looking to dig in deeper Martha has planned some amazing conversations and collaborations for us.

Data as Identity

A domains project often gets legs as an e-portfolio project. This ties back to showing a student how to create a digital identity but let’s be clear that a domain does a lot more than that. There are plenty of platforms that we could direct students toward which they could use to build a digital identity but when we direct students to use 3rd party platforms we not only teach the student how to create a digital identity we also teach them that it is okay to give that identity data over to a 3rd party without question.

For all of the hype and promises of a better life through data, like all of our themes, data is not without its imperfections. We have been generating, collecting, and analyzing data long before digitization but the digitization of data, especially personally identifiable data, has changed the paradigm for what it means to live in a democracy and no one knows this better than Kris Shaffer. Kris works on matters related to digital disinformation, data ethics, and digital pedagogy and his new book Data versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History, will be published this spring.

He writes in the description for his Data Literacy workshop later today that “Big-data algorithms affect just about everything we do these days: the news we read, the shows we watch, the music we listen to, the students we admit, the mortgage rates we’re offered” he goes on to say that many of the claims around the promise of data is nothing more than a marketing scheme and this workshop will help us to understand the difference. Besides helping us to demystify big data and machine learning Kris also offers us workshops around data privacy, fact checking online, and a cryptoparty.

Democracy as Environment

Democracy is a system of governance for and by the people. Rather than having a monarch or a dictator who makes political decisions for the people – in a Democracy the people gather together to govern themselves or, most likely, to elect representation. It sounds great but then like all of our themes, you guessed it, it gets messy fast – few proclaim it is an flawless system.

Often it is hard to see issues in our environment because we live in it every day and it is easy not see the forest for the trees. Ideas get normalized and we stop questioning things that might have earlier given us pause. Let’s stop for a moment and remember that land acknowledgement that I started this talk with which is a reminder that this land was once held by different people than those who are here now – see there is an assumption in this idea of a democracy for and by the people about who “the people” actually are and who “counts” as “the people”. Those who are not included can fight for greater acceptance but there are always those who see this as a zero sum matter and fight to keep barriers and boundaries high.

Digital tools and technology can be used to transcend and span these boundaries, make short work of some of the oldest and strongest barriers like time and distance, and be used to further justice for society. But it is easy to forget that those digital environments themselves can be problematic and can reinforce threats to our societies and cultures.

Another criticism of democracy goes something like this – if all these people, who are not trained in the ways of governance and who are likely uninformed or ignorant, have an actual say in the running of things, well then things are going to go to pot because uninformed people are calling the shots. Democracy answers this criticism with a call for education and an informed citizenry. My interests, questions, and thinking are around what an informed society looks like in a digital age. What literacies and skills are needed to be informed in such an age and how does that impact who we are as a people?

Becoming, Making, and How Do We Do Equity: some quick thoughts as an informal lit review

I was given a pretty cool opportunity last week to think with some pretty cool people about equitable design of digitally-distributed, studio-based STEM learning environments (think makerspaces – but at the same time destroy you idea of makerspaces and rebuild it to mean something more… at least that is what I ended up doing). It was put on by some folks at the University of Arizona and Biosphere 2, where we stayed, and was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The plan was to reflect and write and come away having created some resources – a white paper mainly. It is an awesome opportunity in itself but I was also just humbled to be among the others attending, many of whom are some of my favorite thinkers in our field though I made new connections too – (I’ll save posting a list for fear of leaving someone out or naming someone who would rather not be in my blog post but you can check out #stemequityb2 on Twitter if you would like to see some of the folks who are posting tweets and blog posts about the event).

I’ve never built or run a proper “Makerspace” per se and I can’t even claim to have participated in a “Makerspace” all that much. I suppose I took an old-school photography class back in the day and the lab had that kind of feel. However, I have participated in and even built a few online and face to face learning communities and I have been very interested in how we harness intrinsic interest of students to motivate learning.

It is here where I feel most comfortable – I think this is the idea of the Maker Mindset – tinkering and failing and starting again. I’m new to the more formal theoretical representations of this idea which I believe are tied to bricolage as laid out by Derrida and Levi-Strauss but I feel this kinship in those ideas which seems to also go back to rhizomatic learning for me. I’m still piecing the theory together.

Some resources

So, something feels incredibly spot on in all of this but I also feel a little bit like a fish out of water too. In thinking about all of this in terms of a blog post – rather than diving deep on any particular branch in my thinking I thought it might be best to reflect on some of the shared resources that I got from the gathering. Sort of half blog post half lit/resource review – or perhaps just a really informal lit/resource review – I suppose you will decide. There is no way that I can reflect on all of the resources shared and I’m sure that I will miss several really good ones but these are the ones that I was able to get into a bit enough to have some thoughts about.

Embodied Learning – Michelle Schria Hagerman

I started taking in some of the lit and resources around this trip even before we arrived on site. There was a Slack team created and a channel for resources. Here I became acquainted with Michelle Schria Hagerman from the University of Ottawa and this awesome preprint that she has out about embodied learning in maker environments – which she just released on her blog. This piece has my brain all aflutter about how we think about digital and hybrid spaces and reinforces my belief that all learning is hybrid (nod to Hybrid Pedagogy).

From the piece “You might read this and say: of course our minds and bodies are inextricably dependent on one another. How could this not be the case? Historically, learning scientists have been concerned with higher order cognitive processes such as language, critical thinking, and metacognition, all of which presumably happen in the mind. Proposing that the body is the foundation for higher order thought, that sensory perception is inextricable from abstract cognitive processes, and that humans use the environment to scaffold cognition are relatively new ideas for both psychology and education.

Technology and Learning: A Provocation – Punya Mishra

Once on ground and on the first day we were presented with three provocations. I have to admit some skepticism going in with the first one, which was by TPACK creator Punya Mishra, if for no other reason that it was going to be delivered via a 14 minute video but then…

… Then Punya went ahead and blew me away!

Seriously, this is an awesome reflection on the evolution of thinking in edtech and social learning over the last decade or so and ends with a call for more attempts to understand broader systems and cultures in our work going forward. Seriously, take the 14 minutes to watch this video – you will not be sorry:

Two Resources from the National Equity Project

The second day of the gathering was our big writing day and after some work to define a few projects we broke out for three hours to write and collaborate in our teams. I ended up on a merged group that were separately proposed by Amon Millner and Sundi Richard which attempted to create a Foundations of Equity and Inclusion document that could potentially be used by those who might be proposing (or evaluating) a project to the NSF that included an Equity and Inclusion component.  I don’t want to share the document that we ultimately wrote since we drafted it in just a few hours and it is now in the hands of the project PIs and could go through further revisions but it is basically a list of questions that we drew up using established resources that I would like to share. Both are from the National Equity Project: The Liberatory Design Cards and the Lens of Systemic Oppression. Basically what we did was a journey map of creating a makerspace and then put questions that pertain directly to matters of equity and inclusion to the different stages of development. Some of the questions we made up ourselves but some of them we reworked from these two documents which I found to be a great resource for thinking about .

Random Resource: Phenology

I really love this one so much but it is so random and unstructured I was not sure how to share it other than to simply say it is random and unstructured. Some may say this is not so much a resource but just a passing thought and they would not be wrong. This one did not come from any presentation, conversation, or any shared resource on Slack. It was simply there in Biosphere 2 on several signs and informational kiosks. It is this idea of “Phenology” which is simply the study of the change in life cycle of plants and animals as impacted through seasons (not surprising that stood out to me). It is concerned with questions about why flowers bud and leaves fall etc. but stood out to me in that so many of the learning theories that I’ve come to love are tied to metaphors of nature. Is the learning environment an ecology? Is the story of learning a rhizome? These questions intrigue me but I’m not sure any of them have really accounted for the changing nature of the learner as impacted by a changing learning environment. Could a learning environment have seasons and if so what would that look like and how would those seasons affect a learner depending on where they are at in their own journey? Perhaps that needs to be its own blog post – To every thing…

Several other resources

There are a ton more but I wanted to call out a few really quickly – these were either in the Slack or those that I was putzing around with on my own during this same time that I found overlap with – some of these are on my to read list still yet:

Techno-vernacular creativity, innovation and learning in underrepresented ethnic communities of practice – A dissertation my Nettrice Rosallye Gaskins, Georgia Institute of Technology. Nettrice also gave a provocation about the role of story and of telling the stories of underrepresented populations in makerspaces.

The Inclusive Design Guide from the Inclusive Design Research Center at OCAD University – I posted this one myself after listing to a podcast interview with Jess Mitchell. I love this thing so much as it is filled with practical design perspectives for all kinds of environments. It is a nonlinear resource that you can pick through in all kinds of creative ways.

Making Culture from Drexel University – In-Depth report on makerspaces in K-12 US educational context

Maker Culture has a Deeply Unsettling Gender Problem – from Edsurge

No Textbooks, No Lectures, And No Right Answers. Is this what Higher Education Needs – The Chronicle of Higher Education – Paywalled

A symposium of four articles in Equity and Excellence in Education called Equity in STEM-Rich Making: Pedagogies and Designs – Paywalled

Two resources: an infographic and a white paper – from Techbridge Girls

From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies – by the Connected Learning folks – I do love the CLAlliance folks in general.

Making Through the Lens of Culture and Power: Towards Transformative Visions for Educational Equity – SHIRIN VOSSOUGHI, PAULA K. HOOPER, and MEG ESCUD

Cruel optimism in edtech: when the digital data practices of educational technology providers inadvertently hinder educational equity –  Felicitas Macgilchrist – Paywalled – again this is one that I personally brought to the experience with me but it is a great look at some of the systemic problems surrounding using technology in education.

Digital Identities and “Real” Selves

Well, we are drawing on the end of week 1 around the prompt for Digital Identity in our #DigPINS group and I thought I would check in about my own thoughts on the topic. As a facilitator of the community I can’t promise I’ll have the bandwidth to blog with everyone for every week but digital identity is something that I’m fascinated by and my thinking has been stimulated by all of our conversations and I was inspired to jump in.

Selves and Spaces

Digital identity is an interesting topic to me because it falls in this intersection of who a person is and what impact their environment has on the way they present themselves and how those two realms interact with one another. This is also why I appreciate how the identity week and the networks week in #DigPINS sort of feed into one another.

We like to think that we get to make the choice about who we are and while I think that we have a lot control over defining ourselves I can’t shake how much we are defined by our environments, the roles that we hold, and those that we are surrounded by. 

We like to think that we have the luxury of precisely and specifically defining ourselves for the world but that is never the case. This becomes particularly problematic in thinking about digital identity because there is a plethora of rhetoric both condemning and advocating for presentation of self online that just muddies the waters. 

One side of this paradigm promotes presentation of self, in excess, in as many platforms as possible, toward a complete representation of an authentic self, and holds up this idea as a way to become more in tune with who you are through the connecting with others. This is flawed of course but no better is the other side which sees digital connecting as narcissism and navel gazing at best and demonizes any kind of presentation of self online. 

Active listening

In 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Whol published “Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance” in the journal Psychiatry. Here, they brought in a new concept and term – the parasocial interaction. They observed that there was a one-sided social interaction that spectators could experience with television characters that could begin to feel like a personal relationship to some. If you have ever had a crush on a celebrity or hoped that your favorite TV character might fall in love with another character, you have had a parasocial interaction. 

Parasocial interactions most often are healthy and normal and can even aid in self-development. But for me this begs to ask a question about digital identity. Horton and Whol were looking at connections that spectators were making with people on television but in our modern times so many have the opportunity to create environments where they can be watched and where they try to build an audience. So many who are not professional actors or journalists. I’m sure there is more literature about how spectators of online content creators have parasocial interactions. I need to look into this more but I’m curious how this bleeds together when the content creators are connecting with each other.

Our identities are not just shaped by the digital creations we put out but by how they are received by those who read, view, and consume what we create. I’d like to suggest that as humans we are bigger than what we create. Be we celebrity or low-level education blogger we can’t control every aspect of how our creations will be received. They cannot represent the whole of who we are and yet it seems there persists an expectation that they should. Is this because we are used to parasocial connections that are made with those who are professionals in making content? Are we comparing our digital representations of self to those that have whole production teams behind them?

Real and Authentic Selves

I have a complicated relationship with the way we use the word “real” in online spaces. In terms of digital identity the word “authenticity” is another that gives me pause. It seems that those two narratives that I mentioned before – those two extremes: utopian presentation of self in excess and the other that shuns digital representation – both of these paradigms love to use these words. Both ascribe to the idea that “real” and “authentic” are things that could be simple. Simple as excess of content or lack of content in favor of physicality.

It rings more true for me that our “real” selves are much more complex than we want to admit and that our audiences, friends, and yes even families know us in contexts and environments that align to different presentations of self. That I don’t behave the same way with my family that I would in a job interview or in this blog post is normal and healthy. I think that expectations that we be all things in all contexts are misplaced. 

I recognize that this is dangerous territory,  and I should be clear that I’m not advocating for any of this at a lack of personal integrity. I am advocating for sincerity over authenticity and finding a way to celebrate digital contextualization that is not based in celebrity but in something closer to every-day experiences. It seems that if we can do that anywhere that it would be in learning spaces.  

I’m excited to start week 2 around networks and I’m really grateful that #DigPINS gives us all an opportunity to discuss these concepts. 

This post is cross listed as part of the January 2019 #DigPINS cohort that I helped to facilitate at

Image CC0 Author Foundry from Pixabay

Thoughts on Sync Video Conversations

It has been a while since I’ve posted – I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block. Theoretically, politically, philosophically my mind is racing too fast and I can’t seem to get any of it down. To try to break the block I’m going to set it all aside and go for a simple technical post.

Through my work with Virtually Connecting I do a lot of synchronous video calls so I’ve developed some thoughts on formats, techniques, and technologies. Though warning – I will NOT be advocating, admonishing, reviewing, or even mentioning by name any specific brand of technology for sync video in this post – cause that is how I roll. I see more and more people doing sync video conversations so I’m hoping this will be helpful or start further conversation.

Why Sync Video

Sync video is not always the answer. You have little time for reflection in sync conversations so you need to be more “on”. There is something more vulnerable about sync video than other kinds of technologically mediated communications. Still, as with most things, opening to that vulnerability brings possibilities of a rich experience. Seeing facial expressions instead of emojis, hearing laughter rather than just a lol; this is the kind of immediate feedback that we should be looking to give rather than numbers on a dashboard.

Use sync video when you want to have a conversation.

Silence is Golden?

I’ve yet to work with any system that I really felt was 100% synchronous. There is always a little bit of a lag. You should know this going in and be okay with it. There might be times where no one is talking because they are still listening to what you just said – because it is taking longer for the audio to reach them. These days it is really much better than in the past and it should not be more than a couple of seconds on a day when you have a bad connection for whatever reason. However, if it is too bad you may have to look for other options.

The problem is that those silences do not feel good. They break up the flow and make things seem off. Even in face to face conversations we have all had awkward silences, the technology cannot help with those. If you are trained in media studies then the feeling is even going to be worse for you because you have been conditioned to avoid “dead air”. If you are broadcasting or recording your conversation then it can be even worse and you may even face the opposite problem where everyone is so afraid of dead air that they step on one another trying to avoid it. You don’t have to fear dead air. You can warn your participants about lag before the conversation if they are new to sync video and let them know that natural pauses for reflection and listening are normal and okay.

At the same time there are moments where hospitality can avoid awkward dead air that is not needed. The most obvious for me is when you have a large group and you ask them to do introductions. They don’t know what order to go in. Sync video gets strange with two people starting at the same time. No one wants to go first and no one wants to step on anyone else. So, everyone just sort of sits there looking at one another. Here is where I think you need someone to host. Someone needs to call on people and invite them to introduce themselves. If everyone knows one another really well maybe you don’t need this but it is still nice. I have tried to organize the order before hand or even in the moment and communicate it out to everyone but it just never really works for me. People always forget the order, they are not looking at the chat where I posted the order, or they think the order is different than what I said. It just seems so much nicer to me to just invite people one by one to introduce themselves.

Audio is Often More Important than Video

When you first start doing sync video you might think it is the video that makes it a rich conversation. Well, yes and no. I have a sync video project right now where students will be paying particular attention to nonverbal cues while someone is telling a story. It is a listening exercise. Here video is going to be key. In my past I’ve done some work with the deaf community in terms of sync video – again video is key. Is video really needed for your conversation?

If it is not really needed I would still argue that it can make for a richer conversation; so I’m not saying don’t do video unless you absolutely need it. However, technical issues can make it so that you need to back off. Video takes a lot of bandwidth and if you are in a lower bandwidth situation turning off your video can free things up so that you can continue what is important – the conversation.

And the one everyone forgets – I bet you have a phone. If technical issues around video are too much, call the person. One of my favorite stories is when I was set to have a sync video call with Bob Cole and Joe Antonioli and as the time neared I happened to be backchanneling with Sean Michael Morris when it became clear that it would be great to have him on the call. But Sean was in a coffee shop with really limited wifi. We tried, but it was no go. So I was like “hey you have your phone don’t you”…. I had to put Sean on speaker and hold the phone up to my mic when he wanted to speak, but you know what – we had that conversation.

Seeing the Person(s)

I think it has something to do with the immediacy of it. And yes, it is visual but so much of it is the audio in sync with the visual. However, I think some of it is tactile too – where the vibrations that someone makes come through to me in almost realtime touching my ears or when I see someone throw their hair to the side and get some sense of its texture.

Different platforms treat visuals differently and video may only be one element. Some try to be everything to everyone and break the screen up into other boxes. A box for video, a box for sharing documents, a box for chat, a box for listing the participants, a box for drawing on a whiteboard… If you are working with something like this take time to think about the environment and what is most important. If the conversation is most important make the video the big box and put it in the center. If this is the case look at your lighting and make sure you don’t have a light source behind you like a window. Think about your physical environment, your background, tidy up or even think about things that might be nice to have in the background.

When having a conversation with more than one person different platforms have different approaches. Some privilege the speaker, having a large video of one camera at a time with smaller thumbnails of everyone else on the bottom. The person who appears on the large part of the screen is determined by the audio – whoever has the mic’s attention has the floor. Other times the video is controlled by a host. Still, some platform layouts shrink the video of everyone as members join the call to give equal screen real estate to all. What is best? What kind of conversation do you want to have?

I’ll be honest, I’m biased toward the speaker getting the camera. Listening is done with more than the ears and if someone is speaking I want to see them. I get that it visually minimizes everyone else. I’m sympathetic to the argument for equality that some make for the set-up that shares the space with all. Using this layout I have felt more like everyone is present and no one is any larger than anyone else but I’ve also been distracted by someone who is not speaking who is fidgeting or something. I like the ability to switch back and forth between these layouts because to listen best I like to see.

So, Why Sync Video Again?

You know what I can’t stand – webinars. Why make people come together to listen to you if you are not going to listen to them? Just record the thing and let them listen to it on their own terms. For me, sync video is about a complex interplay of combining the communication senses to further understanding, and ultimately it is about conversation. It is about seeing but it is also about being seen, it is about talking but it is also about listening, and it is about being vulnerable and being brave. It is not for everyone and it is not for every situation. There are many options, there are still many barriers, for me it is about learning and playing with the possibilities afforded through tech, design, and delivery.

Image Credit: Me, Electric Lavender 3, CC0 

When Free Beer Leaves Me Cold: Declaring Interest in #OpenLearning17

I’m super excited that some of my favorite Virginia educators have gotten together to do a cMOOC! #OpenLearning17 started today and I’m so thrilled to follow along and learn with a great community. The syllabus says this week is for introductions, blogs, and working with a connected learning coach.  There is also a great reading all about the meaning of “open” which was enlightening to the history of the word. To this end the article starts with the word “free” as defined by Richard Stallman for the Free Software Definition, distinguishing the difference between “free” as in “free speech” not as in “free beer”. “Free”, in the sense that will eventually grow into “Open”, is focused more on liberation than lack of price. So, besides lacking a price, “free” as defined by Stallman also includes the ability to see and change the program itself – also the ability to redistribute changed versions of the program. It seems to me that in this way the program is used by the person instead of the person being used by the program. It also seems that this encourages community as conversations need to arise around this kind of usage.

I am actually struggling with some “free beer” kind of software (at least I think it is free beer) in my life right now so I thought I’d talk about it as my introduction to the group.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best at email management. Our institution has a size limit on faculty and staff inboxes that is like 20mb or something. I’m always archiving stuff off because I’m getting yelled at for not having enough space in my mailbox. To make more room one of the first things that I do is sort by size and archive off the messages that are the largest. Usually these are messages that have large attachments.

A few months ago it seemed to really start filling up quick. The thing was I would do my little trick of sorting by size and I started finding these messages from one particular professor that I was working with that had no attachment – often they were just a sentence or two of text. I checked to see if perhaps there was an image in the signature line that was taking up a bunch of room but I didn’t see anything like that. I thought it was a fluke, archived the messages, and moved on.

The thing was it kept happening and it was getting worse. The first few times I found these messages they were maybe 500kb but then after a week I was finding that they were 1mb – then 2mb – and always from the same professor. What was going on?

I’d had enough and I knew there was something that I couldn’t see in the background of those emails. I asked our Instructional Designer Jim Kerr what he thought and we started a back and forth of trying to deduct what was going on. Was it only in replies? Was it every email that professor sent me? It did not seem to be happening when the professor sent from his phone… Well eventually we pulled up the source code for the emails and the cause became abundantly clear – there was about 11,000 lines of junk code in each of those emails. I don’t read or write code but one word was sticking out all over the place; Grammarly.

Grammarly is a piece of “free” software that is supposed to help you write better. In real time it corrects spelling and grammar errors in all of your text. You can install it as browser plug-in so that you don’t even have to go to a website – wherever you write text on the web it is there.

Grammarly says it is the “free grammar checker” but I believe this is free as in beer not free as in speech. I’m new to the open/free movement and new to Grammarly so let me know if I got this wrong. I don’t see anywhere that I can get to their code to tweak it or to see what exactly it is doing or why it is ending up in the background of very simple emails and bloating them up. Any talk of community on their site applies to those looking to talk about grammar issues not to talk about the software, how it functions, or how users can change it directly. Grammarly is free but there is a paid tier and the volume licensing also has a cost associated to it. So, I suppose it is like free cheap beer – if you want the stuff that tastes good you have to pay.

I printed the code that was behind the email just so that I could demonstrate how much was actually going on behind the scenes. Mind you this is double sided.

Printed code behind an email message that was one sentence long. This is double sided.

After going through all of this the professor immediately removed Grammarly from his computer – he said his email box was filling every day and no one could figure out why. But it also got Jim and I thinking about how Grammarly works. It is not entirely on your computer – much of the computing process is in the cloud – it needs the internet to function. So, it seems that it is basically a keylogger. Though it is not covert (I mean you install the thing) it is recording every keystroke and sending it to their servers to check for grammar and spelling issues. It does seem that they are encrypting and such but now we are wondering if there are implications for FERPA in an educational setting. And besides having some program record and send my every keystroke is a little creepy to me. Especially, If I don’t know what is going on in the background.

To be honest, I’m not a coder and even if Grammarly did make their source code available I couldn’t make much of it. I think that there might even be security issues if it were that open. Honestly, a big reason why I’m writing this as a part of my introduction for #OpenLearning17 is because I’m trying to better understand the implications from others that might know better than me. I’m wondering if our concerns about FERPA are warranted and if anyone has any clue how the junk code got into the emails. Any feedback would be great but if not, if this is too far outside the interest of #OpenLearning17, that is okay too. Hoping that this post can still act as a way of saying hi and giving folks some idea of the type of things that I’m thinking about.

Looking forward to working with everyone in #OpenLearning17 and can’t wait to see where this takes us.

#codesign16 #ngdle: a response with pauses and concerns

So, JISC is asking for those of us in the field of edtech to envision what the next digital learning environment will look like.

I don’t usually respond to these kind of things. I’m always cautious about futures, I love to imagine but I also know the power of giving voice to things and I feel a huge responsibility in such projections. Ripples, ya know? But maybe it is time to dive in – encountering many things that are influencing my thinking around this kind of thing in just the last few weeks.

Word Concerns

I’m having concerns about the word “connection” lately (just the last few days) and it is very strange for me because this is a word I have felt very drawn to in the past. My concern is that in just the last few days it has begun to feel too clean. Too neutral. Too much like a pipe or a line simply linking two things together. This presents as a problem as I’m considering the next generation digital learning environment. It comes as a problem because I’m considering the connection between humans and systems and it feels anything but clean and neutral.

Humans use systems – we hear this all the time and even call humans “users” when referring to their connection to the system. I wonder if we should ask how systems use humans…. How are humans part system themselves… How is the system a part of the humans… and dare I ask… how human is the system?

Could we start by thinking about and looking at the relationship we have to the digital learning environments that we currently have. Not the environments, mind you, but the relationships. Oh wait. There. Relationship. Perhaps that is the word I’ve been looking for – relationships are messy.


I’ve been thinking about digital citizenship a lot lately. Making plans and putting out content around the subject. Asking people to talk to me about this. Poking and prodding. Cause I want to discover. I’m not sure anyone has really figured this out and I want to talk to other people that want to discover with me. I use public social networks which are public in the sense that anyone can see. I also use ones where I control, a little more, who sees what. I also pay money to have my “own” spaces. I learn this way and it is in the public. I have dreams of teaching students how to do this for themselves.

So what will the next generation learning environment do for me, my students, and others? I gotta ask – what is the relationship of this system to the public systems? Is it a public system itself with a secure backchannel? If it is not in itself a public system then how does it relate to the public social networks that are used as learning systems? Maybe it is not a system but rather systemS. Maybe it is a way of creating relationships between already established formal and informal learning systems. Maybe we think of public systems in which we learn as a part of the next generation learning system. In that case where is our voice in those systems? To influence their direction in terms of hard interface changes. Is a petition for a voice in such changes a part of the system’s development?

Creepy Concerns

The final two questions from JISC in this call give me particular pause.

With the prevalence of analytics in education, can data be used to create a learning environment that is more responsive to student and staff needs?

Can the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) type tools enhance learning environments?

As I write this I’m attending #OpenEd16 and on my way I was able to attend the panel discussion at University of Mary Washington surrounding ethics in online learning. Prior to the event they posted this article from 2013 about failures in online learning and noted the lack of liminal spaces in online environments. Environments that encourage acausal experiences. The article points out that in a physical campus environment these are often the library, a bit of nature outside, or in the coffee shop. It goes on to say:

How can we facilitate the interdisciplinary dialogues that bring a campus to life? What spaces can we build online that aren’t quantified, tracked, scored, graded, assessed, and accredited?

This kind of environment seems important and seems to have been missing for so long in the formal learning systems that we have had in the past. So when I see these questions about analytics in relation to the question of what the next gen learning system will do for me and my students – yes pause. Learning would be happening there and I’m sure we are gonna want to show that to justify the system. But wouldn’t it be kind of creepy if we were tracking that. In a physical environment this would be like the teacher following you to the coffee shop and listening in on your informal conversations. So yeah, I pause.

And in that pause something comes to me (nod to Gardner Campbell’s keynote from #OpenEd16 for recognition of the pause). Maybe the next generation learning system has some tracked spaces and some free spaces. Perhaps this is facilitated by a kind of radical transparency in the data that is being tacked and not being tracked with a heavy point directed at the student having complete ownership over their data. Now we are teaching students what it looks like to be tracked. They can see what is being tracked, they can export their own data and look at it in a variety of ways. They can imagine how other systems might be tracking them in less transparent ways. And there is a safe space where there is no tracking happening – but I suppose that will require something more complex to build – trust.

Would You Like a Receipt with That? Could read receipts be making us lazy empathizers?

A few months ago I asked some folks that I would backchannel regularly with on Facebook if we could move to another platform. I like Facebook but I found that I was spending too much time there. Someone would message me and often I would retrieve the message using my computer rather than my phone and that meant going to Facebook. The little window with the message was a tiny portion of the rest of the screen which was filled with updates from my friends, family, and colleagues and I was just no match for it. While messaging I would inevitably start to scroll the stream and even after the messaging stopped I was scrolling along. So I asked some people that I messaged with there regularly if they wouldn’t mind moving to another platform and for the most part it was not a problem. But then the other day I was just thinking how nice Twitter DMs were because there was no “read receipt” and no typing indicator – when bam Twitter announced both of those.

It is not that I am against read receipts or typing indicators, I use both in other platforms, it is just that I was kind of liking not having them in Twitter. It was nice to have one place that did not have them in juxtaposition to all those that do. I was just considering some of the benefits of not having these before it got turned into a new feature so I thought I would reflect some here.

For one, read receipts are misleading; you don’t actually know if the person read your message. What you do know is that the app registered that it was opened  as a new message came through. However, it could be that the person left the app open with your message thread active, but has since walked away from their phone or computer. It could be that the person clicked on the message thread but chose to not read it because they got distracted by something else, or maybe because the thread was rather long and they didn’t have time. Of course with some companies using eye tracking software to make apps that remind us to blink while looking at screens (yeah I’m not going to link to those you are going to have to google that for yourself) I suppose you could get closer to a real read receipt but that is super creepy. It also then begs the question of what it means to “read” something. Can I get an “understood” receipt? How about a “read but was slightly confused due to cultural context” receipt? Oo Oo, how about a “had to rethink multiple world views” receipt?

The other thing is that bugs me about read receipts and typing indicators is that they feed into an always-on mindset. I collaborate with several colleagues all over the world so I can’t talk about how one should block out a particular time of day for not being on the internet – the sun will not allow me that nor would it of anyone working on a global context. Maybe this is why I am more sensitive to these micro-moments like when you see that typing indicator pop up and you are waiting for the person to finish and hit send. Often, I’m thinking as I’m typing and sometimes I even need to delete the message once I’m finished because I can see that it is not right once I compose it. What a let down to someone who has been watching those three bouncing dots for several moments to just watch them go away with no message. Would it be better for me to send a message that I was not happy with just because I think the other person(s) are expecting something? Wouldn’t that lead to worse communications? I thought the point of communication technology was to help us communicate better.

I keep read receipts on for several technologies but I have turned it off on Twitter DM’s for now. They did make me turn them off which is a little annoying. Why can’t new features be opt-in rather than opt-out? Or make it opt-out for new users but let current users keep using the system in the way in which they are accustomed – at least for a little while. There is no option to turn off typing indicators so I guess I will have to live with those.

My point in writing this post is to remind that our lives are hybrid and that our digital interactions often do not allow us to know what is going on with the person on the other side of the screen at any given moment and that I think that is okay. I think that we should use things like language, empathy, and hospitality to reach out to one another when we want to know about each other. In some situations maybe we just need to give some time for the other person to respond. We can’t let on/off switches stop us from connecting with one another. If you are wondering why a person has not responded to you, maybe just ask. People are complex creatures and I don’t think we should rely on a read receipt as an indication of how another person is interacting with us. They could be tired, dealing with other work, in a bad mood, paying attention to family, dealing with social anxieties, or any number of other realities. I’ve been a big proponent of stating that online is real too, but we must realize that when in a world that shifts so readily between synchronous and asynchronous that there is a ton that we cannot see, hear, feel… experience. There is so much that might be going on with a person on the other side of the screen and a little blue check is not going to really give us much insight into their lives.

LOOM’in Large (or perhaps small) at T3 and NMC16

I call them Autummisms. These little ways that I process the world. They are ever growing and changing. They are in-process and; not complete. So… take this for what it is worth. I’m going to warn you up front – it is an acronym



there are two O’s in the middle.

Now, how the hell do I unpack this?…

People are always asking us ‘what is Virtually Connecting?’ Often, we say it is a movement and point them to the manifesto. Let’s start there – movements.

What do I mean by a movement? Well, I think about the recent presentation at the AMICAL conference in Rome by Maha Bali and Jim Groom where they talked about ethos.

From Google (kind of):

ˈēTHäs (tho I say ēTHōs) -noun:
the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.”

So, yes I think that a movement is based in an ethos. Starts from an ethos. Creates and grows through the development of an ethos. Goals and outcomes can be developed around an ethos but I don’t think that a movement enacts from a goal or an outcome so much as it does from an ethos. 

The other thing about a movement is that the start date can be kind of fuzzy…

And end dates…

yeah those don’t exist so much till after the fact. We can look back and say that we see the start of a particular movement tied to an event of some kind; a political upheaval, a gathering, a protest, a leader being elected, etc. And the end date tied to this one person’s death or this one law being changed. But it is not till after… that we see concepts such as starts and stops.

As I write this I’m at the New Media Consortium’s Summer Conference with Helen DeWaard and I’m testing out a one-way live streaming video app while we walk the river and Maya Georgieva asks us how we got involved with Virtually Connecting… how did it start… for us???  and Helen reminds me it was #rhizo15.

Did the event #rhizo15 spark the movement that is VC? Maybe not for everyone… but for Helen and me… well… let’s just stick with maybe… for now.

In the moment, a movement just sort of is.

…So yeah, movements.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about, and something that is tightly tied to Virtually Connecting, is my affinity for small group conversations. I think that there is an untapped potential for the power of small.

I’ve talked before about my idea of the Interpersonal Multitudes Barrier (IMB); which states that in a synchronous conversation that the more people you add to that conversation, the less intimacy you have – (or maybe have potential for?). It is a theory – I think I might have stolen it. Lately, I’ve been feeling it is flawed as I wonder about the histories and diversities surrounding personalities in a sync convo and how they might contribute more so to intimacy than the size of the group.

Still, I can’t help but feel like quantity matters (HA! perhaps an organization is in order). I am aware of the Dunbar number but that has more to do with relationships – I’m just talking about conversations. Real-time conversations.

I digress…

I know I promised you an acronym. Sigh. I’m struggling with that part. Especially, cause it is a double O acronym and so many people have ripped off Dave Cormier’s “MOOC”… Do I really want to be another one of those guys?

But… but… (yells that little voice) it is more than an acronym… It is a metaphor, this particular Autummism, (though I know those too are problematic)… {… is she speaking of metaphors or Autummism’s being problematic?}

Last week I went to the T3 conference in De Pere, Wisconsin at St. Norbert University. T3 is a small local conference and I’m not sure it is the kind of thing that most people travel for – it was mostly faculty and various acatechies from St. Norbert and surrounding areas. So, why travel by car for something like this? Well, I was not that far away, St. Norbert is a very similar kind of school to the one I work at, and there was an opportunity to learn from some of my favorite people: Sundi Richard, Daniel Lynds, Bonnie Stewart, and Dave Cormier.

Dave and Bonnie keynoted – it was a real treat to see them present together. Dave took a historical perspective and laid out the story of how we got where we are now. Reminded me how important it is to remember. How the connections often go back further than we realize and how histories are collected from differing perspectives. 

Bonnie did the color lines exercise, which I saw her do in Cairo at a Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (no I wasn’t IN Cairo but was watching live stream). Here’s how it works: She has each person who is listening turn to someone else and tell them their favorite color. Then, she has them turn to another person and tell them the favorite color of that last person that they talked to… in the next step she has everyone visualize the colors as threads that are connecting each person to one-another.

So, I’m thinking about those threads, and movements, and the power of small when I come back from T3. I’m on backchannel with Maha Bali and Rebecca Hogue one night and again it comes up – what exactly IS Virtually Connecting?

…We played with CMOOCC (Connectivist Mini Open Online Conference Convo) and there was some talk about how we are this perpetual cMOOC (that lower case c bugs me) fueled by conferences…

And then I’m thinking about the idea of small, and I’m thinking about movements, and I’m thinking about the threads of connections, and I’m thinking about collective history… and…

L – Little

O – Open

O – Online

M – Movement

Followed up by “Weaving connections through space and time, baby”

Pops out

And a loom is a technology

And it creates a whole out of parts – parts which happen to be threads

And it does this by connecting the parts together – weaving them into one another

And when done right that whole is beautiful

(And when done wrong…

Well, you know how it is when things are done wrong – right, dear reader?

Disclaimer: It is easy [some may say casual, irregular, or haphazard] to use one’s imagination to draw conclusions to an eventual dystopian [or utopian] end.)

Again…I digress.

So, what is a girl to do when faced with a rip-off acronym and a beautiful metaphor?

Well, when she is attending the NMC Summer Conference and has a VConnecting session scheduled with Gardner Campbell she simply asks “So, I have this theoretical construct that I’m working on and I’m wondering if you could tell me if it is cheesy or… if there might be something more to it?”

Let’s just say Gardner gave his blessing. He also reminded me that loom is more than just a noun … it is also a verb depicting something on the horizon. And it seemed rather appropriate given that we were at NMC talking quite a bit about horizons.

And I’m thinking if LOOMs might be bigger than just VC and I think of the #FTTE online gatherings (and how Bryan Alexander always takes that mingle moment – where he let’s participants break into small groups), and I think of #IndieEdTech and their small gatherings, and I think of #DigPed and and the various #DigPed Lab Institutes which end up being these small group intensives (still room for PEI and Fredericksburg I believe – early bird for PEI ends on June 20th… just sayin..)

And then I start wondering if LOOMs can be people – like single people. Rather than groups of people. But that is crazy because the M is for movement and a person can’t be a movement. But then Helen and I go out to dinner with Bobbie and Jen Lane and Jen says that people can be LOOMs because people can independently hand weave threads to make connections too and that maybe they can be even more skillful and nimble about it because they are individuals.

I’m still unsure how I feel about the LOOM as a construct but as I explained it to people they got a kick out of the idea and it put a smile on their faces so I decided to blog about it. I like that it is focused on the idea of weaving connections – not just weaving nodes or people. But I think that point is subtle and I worry it could get lost. I also worry that it might get boxed in by the little aspect – some forgetting that when dealing with connections things can grow quickly. But I’m trying to work on my addiction to worry so here it is world. LOOM – a Little Open Online Movement – It may be more than you thought at first glance. 

Image Credit Jakub T. Jankiewicz  “Loom in crystal ball” CC BY-SA

Why do we do blended learning?

The following is the transcript of a short lighting talk that I just gave at work during our eLearning Showcase entitled Why do we do blended learning? Slides are at the bottom.


So, if you knew my writing at all you would know that I am fond of disclaimers and this talk is no different. Here the disclaimer has to do with my usage of the word “we” in the title of this talk – Why do WE do blended learning. What do I mean by we?

Well I do mean everyone that does blended learning.

It is impossible for me to speak for all of them. Still, I feel that I am a part of this group that does blended learning and this talk relates to not just why I do blended learning but why those that do blended learning do it. I do not, however mean to speak for specific individuals of this kind.

Some of you may know this I just completed a Master’s degree in educational technology. A part of me that misses being a part of a community of learners at the graduate level. I’m fortunate in the fact that I work in an academic environment, so I’m not completely removed from living in a community of learners. I’m also greatly blessed in the fact that I am immersed in learning communities online.

It was in the last year of my Master’s program that I really dug in and found networked learning community online. I started a blog and while I had been on twitter for many years, I started to use it for more than conference tweeting. I started to create, collaborate, connect, and network with others in my field across distance and time to discuss not just technology but the human elements of educational technology, explore community building, and create rich experiences online that are focused on how technology can support human learning. This totally renewed my love for online learning as I met colleagues from all over the world who were willing to challenge my thinking and expose me to new resources.

The main subject of this talk is why do we do blended learning, but before we go there I would like to discuss the – why of why – with you a little bit. I often get asked about the why of blended learning by various constituencies – yes here at Capital but also out in the world at other schools or at conferences and online. So I would like to explore some of them with you.

Again, I don’t want to paint with a broad brush I’m just relating some of my experience here and it is subjective. But some faculty sometimes want to know why we are spending energy on something that requires more time of them. Especially, in a small school environment where they can see their students face to face on a regular basis.

Although not as often, I have had some students question me about the need for technology in education. I once had to explain to a very annoyed young man that my office was not pushing technology onto his educational experience but rather responding to a very real world that he was going to enter upon graduation.

And finally there are some in leadership who are not so concerned about the why but rather are bedazzled by the promises of increased enrollments and revenue streams. And while I would argue, that the potential for this most certainly exists, in the same way that the potential for any GOOD program to attract more students and bring in greater revenue exists, … that this is not WHY we do blended learning.

So, there are lots of definitions around the university and out in the world about what blended learning is. And if you come to see me over in CELT I will need to get more specific and talk to you about things like percentages of direct instruction and we will try to quantify things like a reduction in seat time. But for this presentation we are simply going to talk about Blended as an umbrella term around the idea of mixing distance, online, experiences and relationally close physical, face to face, experiences. Also, realize that could include the possibilities of fully online courses paired with fully face to face courses.

In the early 2000’s people started talking about and publishing on this idea of the digital native and the digital immigrant. Suggesting that somehow those that grew up in certain calendar years were of a different breed than the rest of us. That somehow because you were younger things like socioeconomic status or race or religion or gender did not matter in terms of the way that you approached and related to technology. Besides the cultural insensitivities of this metaphor it has set us back decades in terms of setting expectations around how to learn in a networked and connected world.

In a recent article entitled Death of the Digital Native Donna Lanclos was cited as saying:

If your university philosophy is grounded in assumptions around digital natives, education and technology, you’re presupposing you don’t have to teach the students how to use tech for their education. And, furthermore, it will never be possible to teach faculty how to use that technology, either on their own behalf or for their students’. ~ Donna Lanclos

On a similar note a quote from one of our own local professors Neal Schmitt in a recent conversation hit on the same vein.

I grew up with a kitchen in my house – that does not make me a Master Chef ~ Neal Schmitt

A better metaphor is that of residents and visitors which if you do some googling you will find a lot of information on – it was actually developed by Donna Lanclos (quote from the slide before last) and David White and some others. This metaphor does not assign a person’s digital literacies to the year that they were born but rather realizes that the relationship between people and their tools is a complex and nuanced one that deserves a closer look. That some of us may be resident on say using library databases while only occasionally visiting facebook or vice versa depending on the person.

A better question is to ask where are you resident online. Because the simple truth is that there are a large number of humans living, working, and learning online and some use some tools better than others. Some of this is good and some of this not so much. Doxing is real, cyberbullying is real. But so are….

Remote Job Interviews

Online Activism

Virtual Internships



Participatory Culture

Collective Collaboration

and Open Education

We need to realize that our students are not necessarily as digitally aware as the stereotypes tell us. Bonnie Stewart in a recent blog post stated:

“Not that fears and cautions and skepticism about the logics of media and capital that drive the internet aren’t warranted. Many, many are. But the dominant narrative tends more towards essentializing the face-to-face and reducing the digital to instrumental, task-based impersonality, rather than recognizing it as a human space with all the potential – educative and destructive, both – that that implies.” ~ Bonnie Stewart

So, Why do we do blended learning?

Because we don’t take for granted that our students know how to learn online. Learning online is different from learning face to face and it takes a whole other level of literacies and practices to be successful in an online environment and students will graduate into a world that is saturated with online expectations both in public and in closed environments.

Finally, we do blended learning because online/virtual learning experiences can be really dull and boring and static and we need an iterative process of continual improvement to fight the mediocrity and reach toward a place where we are creating a distinctive online learning experience focused on the human learner and not the technology for technology’s sake.  And so it is on that note that I give you today two cases where online educators here at Capital are taking on that charge to give their students opportunities to learn how to learn online.

Image Credit: CC BY Metal kaleidoscope spinner by Patrick Hoesly

High-Tech or High-Touch? Lit Review of CIC Research Brief for PAR Project

I have started a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project around blended learning at my university. I have never facilitated a PAR project before so I may be going about it the wrong way but I have a group and we are now collectively discussing what the research questions should be and soliciting documents from one another for a lit review. As a part of this process, one of the members sent this research brief called High-Tech or High Touch put out by The Council of Independent Colleges and Universities and I’ve decided to review the document in public in the hopes of widening my understanding of it.

In many ways this report was affirming to me. I was already familiar with many of the sources; citing most of them in my MA research. Additionally, I found the lens of independent colleges and universities to be an important one as often ed tech reports are looking to give a broad overview and they leave out the specifics of the environments in which these technologies are deployed ignoring the deep cultures involved in these these deployments.

However there is something about the report that bothers me and I am not sure exactly what it is overall. I may need to blog more about this but I am hoping that I can get some feedback from others that are considering this report.

First of all the title really bothers me in that it is this either or position. Why does it have to be high-tech OR high-touch? Can’t it be both? I searched for the word connectivism in the document but it does not appear. The word connected appears but only once in the hyphenated Internet-connected to refer to the types of devices students bring to college. Networked does not appear in the report at all but network appears twice once to refer to bandwidth and another time to refer to a group of education centers for online learning. As far as I can tell there is no mention of connected learning, networked learning, or participatory culture in the brief at all. This makes me sad.

One of the things that I like about the report is that they offer definitions right of the bat by creating a glossary. Ed tech can be hard to understand because of the proliferation of buzzwords and all the different meanings. It kind of bothers me that the brief makes no mention of the ambiguity surrounding terminology the field over. I hope that by taking a closer look at the terms as laid out in the report that it will help me to dialog with the report better and perhaps help me to better understand what it is about it that is bothering me.

The first definition from the report I want to look at is MOOC:

Massive open online course (MOOC): An online course that a) has start and end dates; b) is free to students, at least for those who are not seeking a certification, and open to anyone; and c) uses social media and automated grading technologies to enroll large numbers of students. Permutations include synchronous massive online course (SMOC) and distributed open collaborative course (DOCC).

I think this is a pretty good definition. I’m not sure I agree with the actuality of start date/end date thing but I will agree that many of them do have that and even if they start early or continue afterward the dates are often there. Yep they are usually free as far as I can tell. But use of social media and and automated grading? I’ve been in some MOOCs that use those but others that do not. And the mention of permutations are important (I even have my own post on these) but why call out the SMOC and DOCC when there seem to be so many? What about SPOCs?

The second term I take beef with is Online Learning:

Online learning: Instruction that is delivered over the internet instead of in a traditional classroom. It includes delivery of course content— for example, through online video lectures or asynchronous discussion boards—as well as more interactive technologies focused on problem solving or skills practice. Basic uses of a learning management system such as posting a course syllabus and assignments for a classroom-based course are not typically considered “online learning.”

I should state that earlier in the report they state that they will use the terms online learning and online education interchangeably.  I struggle with this, however, in my mind learning and education are related but they are not the same thing. Education is a process of teaching and learning and learning is one part of the bigger picture. I think this leads to the reason why the first word in the definition of online learning is instruction. This seems off to me. To me, learning is not a form of instruction and instruction is only one form of pedagogy. I’m worried about this because I think that online learning is a specific type of learning that requires different kinds of skills, attitudes, and approaches. Online education encompasses online teaching and I’m not entirely convinced that instruction is the best approach to online teaching. (BTW count on the word “instruction” is 35).

Next comes Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources (OER): This term is frequently used to describe online educational content or tools that are free to end-users (who may be students) and use open copyright licenses that allow for reuse and repurposing by other instructors.

So, first of all kudos to the report for even including OER in their list of terms. OERs are by no means new but they are, at the same time, far from mainstream. Where I am left wondering is in the fact that after reading the report I don’t remember much else about OERs. Using my handy find feature I discover that here in the glossary section is the only time that this term appears. Why would you define something and then not use it? Did I miss something? My second problem with this definition of OER is that OER is defined in isolation from Open. As far as I can tell Open Education is a complex topic with a rich global history that I am still trying to understand myself. But here OERs are presented in isolation as though they are a solo thing. Am I being too harsh in this criticism?

Finally, I’m going to call out Personalized Learning:

Personalized learning involves creating an online (or offline) environment suited to the needs and preferences of an individual; for example, this could mean tailoring topics that illustrate common concepts to different student interests.

And I am not going to pull this definition out so much because I have something to say about it as much as I just wonder about it. I’m taking the Personal Learning MOOC (#NRC01PL) right now and I am wondering how this definition fits in. I saw in the discussion boards that there was some talk around a difference between personal learning and personalized learning but where does this definition fall?

I don’t want to dump on this report completely; if it is viewed as a lit review I think it is fine. My problem with it is that it seems to be hinting at more than just a collection of facts. It seems to be making a subtle judgement call about the value of online learning. I’m okay with judgement calls if the building blocks of the argument are well thought out. I’m hesitant to say that these definitions are not well thought out; perhaps that is my own reading that is off. But I am struggling with this report so I’m opening this part of my reading of it up to see if maybe others have thoughts on any of this.


Photo: Track at North Station (Shuttle platform at North Station for Atlantic Avenue trains with connecting steelwork to Lechmere viaduct; never used). Creative Commons CC-BY-SA City of Boston Archives