On Not Silencing Students: A Pedagogical How-to

Painted crosswordWhy do students submit writing to their teachers? Many writing-intensive courses at all levels of education center on student-created, teacher-graded writing assignments. Such a system streamlines the production process, letting students know what tools they should use to create and submit their work, and letting them write to a familiar audience. After all, if students write to a teacher every year, they should be good at guessing what teachers expect by the time they get to college. By always writing to a teacher for a grade, students implicitly learn that writing exists for the benefit of that audience, and that readers assess the quality of writing…and do nothing else in response. All their work creating words falls silent after we issue a grade.

Compare that scenario with the small-scale writing goals of students outside the classroom: They send text messages to coordinate activities with friends, craft Facebook updates to garner likes and tweets to garner retweets or followers, or post yaks to get upvotes or attention. When students write content on social platforms, no matter how public their voices become, their writing is purposeful. Outside the classroom, students write to do things. Inside the classroom, students write to get a grade. What I’ll call the “purpose disparity” immediately renders classroom writing less meaningful and less real to our students. To reverse that imbalance, we need to see student writing in a different context.

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Structure is Not Sacrosanct:  A Pedagogical How-to

Old frame amidst junkWhat does a student-centered classroom look like?  In recent years this question has gone from a fringe conversation amongst scholars of pedagogy to a mainstream discussion more and more common in spaces around higher education and beyond.  A recent report by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA confirms this; for the first time in the history of their expansive triennial study on faculty attitudes in higher education, the majority of surveyed faculty reported using non-lecture classroom methods in their face to face spaces.   Within six years, the study notes, the trend could become permanent, meaning a change in the discourse around higher education, where society no longer views instruction as dictated to passive students from a person standing behind a lectern.

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#iNACOL14: Blended Learning, and the Talk at the Table

Last week, I heard Sal Khan speak at the iNACOL 2014 conference in Palm Springs. Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a virtual, multi-disciplinary massive open project that bears as its tagline the promise: “You can learn anything.” Khan was a good speaker, entertaining and approachable — huggable even, as entrepreneurs go. And the overall message of his plenary keynote speech was very similar to his company’s tagline. He spoke about offering a “world-class education” to anyone, anywhere. He offered up the video testimonial of a high school dropout who used Khan Academy to reignite his love of learning, get a degree, and go on to meaningful, gainful employment (at Khan Academy). The keynote — as keynotes are wont — was meant to inspire and excite the 2,500 teachers and administrators and information technologists in the room toward a better and brighter future for K-12 education. Continue reading

Rhetoric of Design: A Pedagogical How-to

8374850916_f33c988eef_zThe word ‘rhetoric’ has a bad reputation. When most people use it, they use it negatively: “That company just spews rhetoric about their political views.” But most of us who live in the academic world know that rhetoric is much more than this. For Aristotle, rhetoric was “the available means of persuasion,” which is still a pretty good definition today. Recently though, our available means have shifted to include means that many of us never could have imagined as children, not to mention what Aristotle never imagined. Now, we can include items in our persuasion tool belts like fonts, layouts, and even web design. Of course some of us possess internet skills that others don’t, and that’s always okay, but because you clearly know enough about digital writing to be reading this Keep Learning blog, I want to explain how important knowledge of digital design is to have in our pedagogical tool belts.

It is becoming increasingly important for writers to think visually. If we are going to survive in a world of screens, we need to begin to think about how to go about it. One of the tools we already have is design. We already think about the margins and fonts we use when we create a traditional style essay. And those of us who tweet, blog, or use Instagram are thinking about the presentation the 140-character message, the blog we keep about running, or the Instagramming we do of our food. In 2002, rhetoric and composition scholar Diana George claimed in her article, “From Analysis to Design” that “to talk of literacy instruction in terms of design means to ask writers to draw on available knowledge and, at the same time, transform that knowledge/those forms as we redesign” (26). George goes on to quote the New London Group on the matter: “Designing transforms knowledge in producing new constructions and representations of reality.” For both George and the New London Group, design is an impactful part of our rhetorical approach to whatever project we’re working on. Further, design is not a neutral space. Think about the colors you might chose for the background on a blog about your travels to Germany. If you chose to make the background colors red, white, and blue, what message(s) are you sending choosing this color palette over a red, black, and gold one?

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Wired for Collaboration

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Beth Sanders and Pernille Ripp, along with countless other teachers from around the world, are “connected educators.” Beth uses digital technologies “to tear down the walls of a traditional classroom”. An educator committed to social justice, her students share their voices with the world through class discussions held on Twitter. Pernille has brought networked learning to a global level — in 2010, she began the Global Read Aloud program, which connected more than 144,000 students, representing thirty countries from six continents. They are exemplars of connected educators, teachers who construct knowledge, collaborate, and interact with other educators all over the world via social media to develop networks to deepen understanding (Wong, 2013). Connected educators embody Siemens’ connectivist theory emphasizing the need to collaborate, and learn through networks. This approach to teaching and learning enables teachers to positively engage K-12 students with global experts and opportunities.

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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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