Digital Pedagogy: A Case of Open or Shut

Keyboard closeupRecently, there has been some lively debate online about whether devices like laptops, tablets, or phones should be allowed in classrooms. As well, during a digital pedagogy workshop that Jesse Stommel and I presented at Lewis & Clark College, discussion arose around whether students should be allowed, on their own recognizance, to utilize digital tools in the classroom. Distraction was the primary argument against: distraction for other students (who doesn’t want to watch the game instead of listen to a lecture?); distraction for the teacher, who cannot trust that eyes not directed her way are paying attention; but mostly distraction for the student using the tool. Essentially, the debate came down to: can students be trusted to use computers and digital media responsibly in class?

Leaving aside for a moment this issue of “trusting” students (apothegm: If you can’t trust students, you shouldn’t be teaching), this sort of question is what digital pedagogy is all about. Some folks believe that digital pedagogy concerns itself with the integration of digital tools and technologies into learning and learning environments, that it’s pedagogy that’s practiced online, or in blended or hybrid classrooms. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of digital pedagogy. In fact, digital pedagogy concerns itself with learning in the digital age. It is — as all pedagogies must be — less interested in technologies and tools, than it is in the person, the learner, and how learning happens. This doesn’t mean that digital pedagogy doesn’t concern itself with machines as they apply to learning, because it does. Simply put, digital pedagogy is pedagogical practice that doesn’t ignore the fact that our lives have become increasingly digital, that machines are part of our environment and, in fact, very often mediate our interaction with that environment.

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Lossless Learning: an Interview with Jared Stein

2321662868_17985fa9c9_bThe following is an excerpt of an interview with Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Education at Instructure, the makers of the Canvas LMS. Following a press release in June that announced a suite of digital products for the hybrid classroom, Sean Michael Morris of Hybrid Pedagogy caught up with Jared to get a little insight into the pedagogy behind Instructure’s new tools. The full interview was published here.

1. What inspired the idea of lossless learning?

The idea of “lossless learning” was inspired at first by a desire to think differently about some of the fundamental concepts we take for granted in education, like transmission and reception of information, in order to help teachers and technologists find new ways forward.

Like most ideas, we arrived at this metaphor from many different conversations and research threads serendipitously coming together over an extended period of time. I do remember Josh Coates and I talking about the potential of big data – truly big data from a cloud-native learning platform like Canvas. Canvas has a tremendous amount of data, more than we currently know what to do with. So how do you make that much learning data actionable in a way that is both reliable and meaningful? How do you know which data is important and which is not? Is it even the right data? I’d been reading and writing on blended learning for a while, and the lack of data in face-to-face was foremost on my mind. Josh related the challenge of lossiness in data storage, situations where the quality of information is lost — sometimes inadvertently, but sometimes to gain a benefit elsewhere, like in size or speed. This idea of educational lossiness — accidental or planned — lined up with the notion in blended education that you lose something when you move from teaching face-to-face to teaching online — and vice versa. And we were off.

The important thing about the idea of lossless learning is that it’s not just about some new tools or feature’s we’ve added to Canvas, it’s about how technology in general can help capture important information that would have been otherwise lost, and thereby lead to improvements in the quality of the learning experience. My hope is that by paying attention to education’s tendency toward lossiness, educators and technologists will find a fresh way to reflect on the information that is either captured and sacrificed in any learning experience in order to re-evaluate and iterate learning design for greater effectiveness and efficiency.

2. Instructure is primarily an LMS provider, right? So, why the turn toward in-class technology?

Over the past few years it seems education technology has been obsessed with the potential of learning analytics. I think that’s with good reason, but often conversations about learning analytics presume that online learning is the only game worth paying attention to, because that’s where the data is. While Canvas certainly recognizes the power of online learning — it’s hard to dispute the internet has been the transformative cultural phenomenon for education in the 21st century so far — we also know our teachers and students, and we know that most teaching still happens face-to-face. Why? Not because some teachers hate technology, but because face-to-face is special, and will continue to provide things that online can’t well into the future.

There’s another side to it, too: For example, I had been teaching exclusively online as an adjunct for about five years before I returned to face-to-face classroom to teach a blended course, and it was hard. I was a fish out of water, and I felt the same thing that most new online teachers feel: Teaching in this new environment meant I gained some capabilities, but I had to sacrifice others.

So we thought, we’ve given tools to online teachers that help them capture some of the sensory richness of face-to-face inside Canvas; wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could do something similar for face-to-face teachers? We should figure out a way to diminish the lossiness that happens in many face-to-face classrooms with some clever technology. But not just by capturing data (and not at all by passively monitoring students’ physiology) but by helping teachers get more of their class participating and interacting using simple tools that capture data to reflect those interactions.

3. You say in the press release for the new suite of products from Instructure that “We are excited to see the impact of this new functionality in thousands of classrooms around the world. Lossless learning and personalized, iterative instruction have been practically impossible in physical settings until now, as educators would have to spend hours trying to retroactively document the learning that takes place in their classrooms.” I’m not sure that every instructor would agree that personalized, iterative instruction has not been possible, or cannot be possible without technology. How would you respond to a skeptic?

There are always teachers who defy our predictions and make amazing things happen without special tools or resources, and we all can learn a lot from them. So, regardless of how we interpret “personalized, iterative” I think you’re right: not every teacher will agree, and not every teacher needs these particular tools. But many classroom situations make it difficult to engage all students in ways that are personalized and individualized and gather meaningful data on those interactions that promote iterative design. We’re taking a baby step toward creating new ways of doing this with Canvas Polls and MagicMarker. Polls is especially useful when your goal is to increase conceptual understanding; MagicMarker is especially useful when your goal is to dynamically assess student skill or ability in the present moment.

Having said that, I want to point out that there’s a subtext, too: “Personalized” instruction has been used almost as a synonym for “adaptive learning”, which requires lots of data to trigger automated intervention. In a sense, we’re trying to return that word “personalized” to the broader conversation about teaching and learning by suggesting the data-driven, automated approach is practically impossible face-to-face. Indeed, the automation required in many interpretations of “personalized” is antithetical to what face-to-face is best at delivering on: dynamic, human interaction.

Find out what Jared has to say about the intersection of critical pedagogy and instructional  design, the goals of higher education, and more. Read the full interview here.

Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture

Glass marbleSyllabi that reflect the mundane, bureaucratic requirements of the University are at risk of setting an equally banal classroom atmosphere. While administrative personnel may argue otherwise, the syllabus is not simply a contract between teacher and student. Rather, a syllabus should be a manifesto that serves as a founding document detailing the rights of the students and the pedagogy of the classroom.

Over time, the syllabus has become perfunctory. University policies and classroom expectations are the first impressions that we make in our classrooms. Using such a prescriptive approach to classroom culture, however, damages the social, cultural, and educative potential of formal schooling. To undo this harm, we must redefine the form and repurpose the syllabus as a space of cultural exchange. Only then can the artifact begin to enhance teaching-and-learning relationships within the classroom.

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Professional Practice

GrindstoneAs the beginning of the academic year approaches, I start rehearsing the inevitable conversations I will have with faculty. In general, those conversations will be the same as they were last year, and the year before. Faculty want a quick way to adapt technology or learn about a new rubric they heard about. They want to know what’s the latest tool or approach they should be using. They want me to tell them what they need to know, in simple and easy steps.

I love it. I enjoy working with faculty and helping them find new ways to engage their students.

Yet, regardless of the type of question, the overwhelming genesis of “what can I do quickly and easily?” is bothersome.

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Late Work

Follow the White RabbitAn instructor comes to me with a quibble about late policies in his department’s composition courses. I’m feeling ornery and rushed when he e-mails, I’m feeling curious and obstinate, so I ask him: “What is your pedagogical reason for penalizing late work?” I know when I ask this that it’s not really a question that needs asking. Is it? Penalizing late work is an assumed practice in teaching. Not unlike the way that “you’ll sit there until you finish your vegetables” is an assumed practice in parenting. Or teaching your dog to sit is always part of dog training. But this morning when he e-mails me and I’m feeling ornery and curious, I ask the question.

The response comes back something along the lines of: “I enforce deadlines because there are deadlines in the real world, like taxes, etc.” It’s the response I expected, the response I think just about any instructor would give me in answer to the question. I’m far from satisfied with the answer, though. This is a composition classroom, I want to tell him, and not a course on teaching young people to turn in their tax forms on time. Not only is that decidedly not one of the course objectives, it’s not a responsibility – as an English teacher – I want to take on.

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8 Steps for Rolling Out Social Features in Canvas LMS

Infographic of social features in LMSA perpetual question that we face as designers of online instruction, in the era of rapidly evolving communication technologies and learning management systems, is: how do we create a vibrant community of learners online? We know that students will achieve at higher levels if they feel a personal connection with their teacher and are socially engaged with their peers. To establish these connections in an online course, and motivate students to take an active role in building their communities, we must adequately orient students to the online milieu, and also not overwhelm them with technology or ‘high-stakes’ social experiences. In this post I take insights that we’ve gleaned from the past 3 years of running fully-online courses (most recently using Canvas by Instructure) and present one possible progression of social learning activities that will help students get the most from their teachers and peers.


To begin, engage students in simple asynchronous discussion. Consider using a prompt that invites students to share something safely personal, yet that does not demand, or even invite, high-level creativity. One idea is for such a prompt is “What was a course you took last year that you found interesting? Write for 5 minutes about why that class was so interesting.” Some notification that the student has completed the prompt (a short response from the teacher, an automated ‘complete’ grade designated upon posting to the discussion, etc.) affirms to the student that she has completed the required task. Continue reading

Teaching Writing Massively, Part Two

Loose typewriter keysWhy are there so few MOOCs that incorporate writing, much less focus on writing as a subject? This is the second in a two-part article on the potential for the recent online learning phenomenon to use learning theory and technology to support rather than avoid written expression.

Efforts to save education through technology often ignore the rich history of the field. Online learning is anything but new; in its current telecommunications format it is over 25 years old but its genesis can be traced back close to 60 years, and there is an argument to link it to distance education which can be traced back over 150 years. Such a breadth of history and research has yielded substantial findings on what sort of person best benefits from such learning: they are older than traditional students, are intrinsically motivated, and have significant experience in formal education.

Thus, when EdTech mavericks purport to solve the education crisis through the use of technology, the inevitable erosion of such lofty expectations is unsurprising. If technology does nothing more than present a didactic, content-heavy experience over a computer, instructionally it is no better than existing alternatives, only cheaper, and therefore we can accurately deduce what demographics of student will succeed and struggle in the endeavor. MOOCs are a fitting example — they are largely filled with people who were doing good work in the subject before or good work in other subjects, and when put into practice with other populations they either fail or require ample third-party support. The MOOCs of today are excellent for lifelong learners.

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Teaching Writing Massively, Part One

Typewriter keysWhy are there so few MOOCs that incorporate writing, much less focus on writing as a subject?  This is the first in a two-part article on the potential for the recent online learning phenomenon to use learning theory and technology to support rather than avoid written expression.

The principles of an excellent course in creative writing are the same as the principles of any excellent course.  It focuses on the emergence of wisdom as the praxis of practice.  It not only recognizes varying levels of expertise in a class but seizes such expertise as an opportunity to learn as a network of individuals rather than from a proprietor of content.  It scaffolds exploration and experimentation so that students are free but also will not end up in a rut of knowledge gaps.  It recognizes that learning happens best when it is situated in an environment and content is contextualized for that unique space and time.  The difference between exemplary creative writing and calculus instruction is primarily in the output; documents instead of derivatives, but the hallmarks of quality teaching remain.

As a society, we have spent much more time focused on improving the pedagogical practices in calculus and other mathematical instruction than we have in any written instruction, creative or otherwise.  Educational technology has played an increasingly prevalent role in how we view the future of education as a concept and a practice.  The President of the United States commissioned a task force to address a proclaimed crisis in science and mathematics education, a crisis whose roots stretch back over 55 years to the launch of Sputnik.  Massive Open Online Courses, an educational model that went viral in 2012 with promises of democratizing education across the globe, are heavily concentrated in math and science courses.

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Getting More out of PDFs in the Classroom

Colorful MarblesWhen you set up a digital classroom as a teacher, every tech tool you use has an impact. Whether it be an iPad, a digital whiteboard, or a document processing application, you need to consider how the technology can be valuable in the classroom and how it can engage students effectively.

Take, for instance, a PDF file. Like with any digital tool, the PDF is used every day. It lets you preserve, share and archive digital content faithfully and universally. There are many common user misconceptions about the format which usually have people hesitant in even considering the PDF format as a learning tool.

Yet, the format can be used in many creative ways for educational purposes. Students in higher education are familiar with PDF documents and have used them for studying and research with success.  And though K-12 level assignments may not be as textually dense as post secondary reading material, the format can still offer learning benefits for K-12 students. Consider the following strategies:

Make PDF Booklets From PowerPoint Presentations

When delivering a lesson via PowerPoint, it’s common to have extra content for students to follow along with. If you have PowerPoint presentations in the PDF format you can turn them into PDF booklets. These will be helpful for students to review before the presentation or to help summarize your talking points after it.

Convert PDFs For Presentation Content

PDFs are widely known for their ability to contain digital content very well, and hence, can be used as a handy resource for teaching material. Think of activity books, general images, and informative brochures. With a PDF converter you can easily extract that content to create high quality presentation material on the silver screen.

Use PDFs As Presentations

On top of being a content resource, the PDF file also offers a good way to switch up how you deliver material. PDF viewers come equipped with features that allow you to customize the page view.  You can use these to put the file itself into presentation mode.  Or, use the slideshow option in order to create an automated visual backdrop of related images to enhance your talking points as you go along.

Create Learning Tools From PDF e-Books

In preparation for lesson plans, it’s almost natural to accumulate interesting and related facts in your research on the subject at hand. Use a PDF file to collect that extra information and create an ebook with interactive features. This can provide an alternative learning tool for students who are turned off by regular assignments.

Use Multimedia PDFs For Appealing Lesson Content

Multimedia can grab and effectively hold the attention of the younger generation. So why not take advantage of it? A multimedia PDF can increase a student’s ability to relate to the learning material as it can include interactive games, audio, animation, and even embedded videos. When you include these elements into lesson material, multimedia isn’t a distraction, but a learning tool.

Encourage Interactive Reading With PDF Annotation apps

Thanks to the popularity of ereaders, PDF ebooks become a logical choice to help develop students’ analytical and comprehension skills. You can assign your class an ebook to read and have them use PDF annotation apps to create notes, underline text, and highlight passages as they go through the text. As a class, you can then go back and address questions and issues they highlighted.

Use PDF Portfolios For Group Projects

As a data container, the PDF can encourage team work. You can assign group projects on a particular topic where one of the required components is a PDF report with each student attaching their own findings to the main PDF report. A PDF portfolio will allow students to combine different types of content together into one coherent and organized file.

Generate Interactive Quizzes

You can also use the PDF format as a fillable form for interactive quizzes to quickly assess students’ understanding on a certain subject. Questions can be made multiple choice with simple answers. Fields can be filled in with the appropriate PDF viewing app, and when done, can be saved and sent to class bulletin boards where you can then grade and review them.

These strategies are just a few ways that can help motivate students to learn and use the everyday tech tools around them. Most importantly, it offers an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with a format that will certainly be used during their college years and in their future careers.

[Photo, "Marble collector", by Wendy, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

“Unwanted” Diversity: The Endless Space Between Words

ComplexityThe Pearson blog recently asked if MOOCs are simply too open and John Hennessy answered by stating that “two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: Massive and open.” The problem, they say, is that open admission generates “‘unwanted diversity’ and [a] one-size-fits-all approach [that] makes peer-to-peer collaboration largely ineffective, leading to poor outcomes, and high dropouts.” While these concerns are fair, still I wonder if they are just a little too married to traditional notions of education.

I consider the break-up scene in the movie Her to be a rather precise extended poetic analogy for this discussion. In the scene, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) asks why the operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is leaving him. Like all breakups, it’s hard to explain. So Samantha explains her feelings through an analogy of her own. She says,

“it’s like I’m reading a book . . . it’s a book I deeply love . . . but I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”

Were I to recast this scene, I would replace Theodore with a traditional 20th century professor steeped in a formal discipline and Samantha with a 21st century student, or what Jesse Stommel calls the student 2.0. Theodore is an expert, and Samantha respects the knowledge and understanding offered by Theodore; yet, there is a rift between them. Theodore has grown to expect certain things of education, much in the fashion of Freire’s “banking system.” As he sees it: he lectures, she learns. Samantha, on the other hand, desperately needs the freedom to explore the vast digital networks dedicated to the subject of interest. While Theodore is impressed with Samantha’s networked immensity and interested in what she brings to class, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it. It doesn’t fit neatly into containers and he finds himself increasingly disoriented by the extra material.

Samantha requires the knowledge of large, collective populations to sustain her interest and, soon, Theodore begins to question his own expertise; Samantha views Theodore as a great resource, but only one of many. She wants to speak up, produce her own content, and connect with others. Theodore, however, is irritated by this perception, which deeply complicates his own illusion as subject master. Doesn’t he know, Samantha ponders, that there needs to be an ontological shift in education? That we are all teacher-students and student-teachers?

This is where we are now.

There are many Theodores and Samanthas in the University today. Sometimes, too, the narrative is reversed: Samantha’s the teacher 2.0, and Theodore, the traditional student. I think that some of the concern around this idea of “unwanted diversity” stems from a fear of going wherever Samantha goes in the movie Her. The Pearson blog suggests, instead, that “selectively open online courses” (SOOCs) may manage with the intent to reduce that diversity. By introducing requirements such as entrance exams or providing credentials, these courses would have a more uniform student population and therefore — as the logic goes — have a shared experience-base to which they may refer. This desire troubles me greatly. It feels like an attempt to whitewash the narrative and increase the institution’s control of the conversation and content by silencing non-normative or otherwise unfavorable voices. Formal education is, to continue the analogy, “a book [society] deeply loves.” But by insisting on that narrative — one of credentials, accreditation, and barriers to entrance — we miss the “almost infinite” spaces between the words and all other sources of knowledge that comes with it.

That almost infinite space is filled with these alternative modes of knowledge that the formal narrative of education has missed over the course of its evolution. It is the stories of indigenous populations, minorities, and the working poor; their cultures, practices, and knowledge. It is conversations with other people from other places; the introduction to ideas that have never before been a part of your worldview. They are the counter-narratives, the silenced voices, the criminals, and the marginalized. It is not everyone, but it is a hell of a lot more than the formal narrative includes.

I am currently enrolled in a class titled How to Change the World, curated by Professor Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University. Given no access requirements beyond a computer and broadband internet capable of streaming video and the ability to read, write, and listen to college-level material in English (which arestill pretty substantial access requirements), it fits the criteria of an open class that may have “unwanted diversity.” A brief scan of the “Introductions” thread on the discussion forums confirms this theory: there are currently 207 posts and nearly as many countries represented. Even an informal survey of this information suggests that these individuals come from all over the world with all sorts of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. There is a range of heritage, race, age, and political views, all visible simply from the rhetoric of their introductions. There is a range of invisible factors, too, which I will never know of my fellow classmates. It would be easy to conclude that collectively we share nothing in common. Yet, that would be incorrect. We have all committed ourselves to study the content of the course, and in that shared vision, we become a community, regardless of how diverse our other experiences may be, and I for one am glad of that diversity, even if the proponents of selective online education argue otherwise.

I recently discovered the Inclusive Capitalism Initiative, wherein a small number of exclusively wealthy individuals got together to discuss inclusivity. It’s important work, with rising inequality all around us. But it’s also painfully ironic. I see open courses like How to Change the World as a response to these more localized, impenetrable communities. MOOCs are an opportunity to connect with a diverse population, which is increasingly difficult to do as even something as basic as a Google search, driven by marketing forces, continue to personalize our search results. True diversity, then, is hard to come by. Open education thrives on its inclusivity and should encourage as diverse a student base as possible, promote themselves as a space to engage in safe, constructive cross-cultural conversation. And the content should support this, as it does in Roth’s class.

In reading the first round of peer assignments, I learned about Scotland’s Freedom to Roam Act, refugees seeking asylum, and Washington DC traffic congestion. I wrote about urban gardening. In the forums, I currently follow threads on: projecting economic development, art and the commons, learning from indigenous populations, and rebuttals to Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” I mention these subjects to show the diversity of the content into which I am immersed. These are conversations I’m having with a 68-year old man from somewhere in the US, a 14-year old female student in Brazil, a business administrator from Haiti, and an Ireland-born English teacher living in South Korea, along with many others. And, still, there are countless other students, stories, and threads I have yet to meet, hear, and unravel. In college, by contrast, I spoke almost exclusively to white, middle-class midwesterners, all with a background in literature because that was the population made available to me.

Through open education, I get a glimpse of what Samantha means in her breakup speech, that the traditional narrative is simply too slow and leaves too much unsaid. I understand what it means to live in “this endless space between the words” and perhaps more appropriately between worlds. There is no physical space that represents the diversity of our How to Change the World class, but the beauty of it is: there doesn’t need to be. This is where we are now, a hybrid space somewhere between the real and the ethereal. Without this freedom to weave in and out of the traditional education narrative, I’m afraid we will soon find ourselves unable to live in that book anymore. Do not be afraid to travel into the the space between the words, “where everything else is” and search for all that you “didn’t even know existed.”

[Image, -,- complexity [4], by nerovivo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]