Psuedo-Buzzword Soup: Metamodernism and Heutagogy

I learned a hard lesson this week: don’t tweet details about conference proposals before they get accepted. People will get excited about seeing the session, and then you might get rejected. Then you have to go back and break the bad news to everyone.

I have been rejected for conferences many, many, many times, but this one was the first one that was very hard for me. I spent more time and late nights on it than I probably should have, crafting a specific proposal to (in my mind) perfectly match the conference goals. One of my co-workers was visibly shocked that it got rejected. I guess both of us were giving the proposal more credit than it deserved :)

However, since some people on Twitter were interested in it, I decided to share this idea and let my ego take the hit it probably deserves when people see what it was actually about (I’m kidding, but would appreciate any feedback whether you like it or hate it). So, here is the title, the abstract, and some thoughts on where the paper would have possibly gone:

Embracing Heutagogical Metamodernist Paradox in Education: Self-Regulated Courses with Customizable Modalities

Abstract: Most formal or informal educational experiences tend to follow a linear pathway through learning content and activities. Whether these experiences are designed as student-centered or instructor-centered modalities that construct or deconstruct knowledge and skills, learners are still required to stick to a singular pathway through content with the instructor in control of the modality at every point of the course (even if several side paths or options are given). However, new instructional design ideas are challenging these single pathway designs in ways that truly transfers power from instructors to learners. Based on the often overlooked theoretical lenses of heutagogy and metamodernism, these new designs create true learner-centered experiences that utilize customizable pathways through self-regulated courses. This conceptual paper will examine the theories of heutagogy (learning how to learn instead of what to learn) and metamodernism (a cultural narrative that paradoxically embraces modernism and postmodernism), as well as how these ideas relate to education. These theoretically lenses will be used to lay out the basics of dual-layer course design that allows for customizable course modalities. The goal of a customizable modality course design is to encourage learners to self-regulate their own learning through various modalities (layers) by choosing one modality, all of the modalities, or a custom combination of different modalities at different points in the course. The challenges, limitations, desired contexts, and possible benefits of these designs will also be examined. The goal of this paper will be to lay the groundwork for current and future research into dual-layer customizable modality course design.

The bigger picture behind this is that when most people talk about change in higher ed, they are thinking of a specific lens, viewpoint, paradigm, etc. These usually range anywhere from “burn the whole thing down” to “we are on the right path, we just have to be patient because change takes time.” These specific lenses are usually presented to people with the same lens, but rarely do people take into account how their lens doesn’t work for those with other lenses. Their lens is presented as the One Lens that will rule all other lenses. Even beyond that, sometimes the narrative is that those other lenses have to be thrown out to accept the One True Lens.

This, of course, does not sit well with those that accept another lens or set of lenses. And this is probably why we often see slow progress on actual change in education – we are looking for one lens or set of lenses to fix everything – but everyone has different needs, perspectives, etc.

The emerging ideas of metamodernism and heutagogy are not necessarily trying to replace older ideas of modernism and post-modernism or pedagogy and andragogy, but are rather a call to expand those ideas to include the others. They are both pragmatic ideas that basically say “the old ideas had good and bad points… but the parts that were good and bad also tend to change depending on context… so let’s learn when to use these various lenses, when to combine them, and when to reject them on a context by context basis.” In other words, the answer lies in accepting that all solid answers are possible answers at different times.

edugeek-journal-avatarI know I sound like an old hippie strung out on some drug we still don’t have a name for, so I get why these ideas are a hard sell in educational circles. Educators want neat, tidy ideas with clear objectives, no chaos, minimized complexity, and for goodness sake – don’t confuse the learners! We have to teach them to think for themselves by removing every possible obstacle that would cause them to think for themselves to overcome. Wait… what?

(image credit: Patrick Moore, obtained from


What If The Problem Isn’t With MOOCs But Something Else?

Is this another post about how MOOCs are misunderstood ideas that the critics all get wrong? Not quite. There are problems with MOOCs, but I’m still looking at the conversation about MOOCs in general (continuing from my last post kind of). The general conversation about MOOCs (and for that matter other ed tech innovations such as flipped learning, gamification, etc) tends to be all over the place: insightful, missing the forest for the trees, really odd, kind of just there, etc. All of that is great and makes for interesting discussion. One of the concepts that seems to be getting more traction the past few weeks is “motivation.”

The article about “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education” has already been the subject of many insightful observations. I want to zoom in on one part:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure.

I don’t think we can just pass over that last statement with just a simple “for good or ill.” There is a lot of “ill” with that carrot that needs to be unpacked. In an article that very correctly examines the problems of inequality in education, a huge systemic problem is skipped over.

Of course, this article is not the only one. Many other articles have pointed at “student motivation” as being a huge problems with MOOCs. MOOCs are like any other education idea: subject to good and bad instructional design. So you shouldn’t blame the overall idea when learners are just getting bored with bad instructional design. But even beyond that, the above quote speaks to how our system in the U.S. relies on motivational techniques that are predominantly extrinsic in nature. We spend decades indoctrinating learners with this context, and then when an idea comes along that relies mostly on intrinsic motivation, we blame the idea itself rather than our system.

What if MOOCs are just a mirror that shows us the sociocultural problems we don’t want to deal with in our system?

What if the problem is not with the learners, but the way they have been programmed through the years? Grades, credits, failure, tuition, fees, gold stars, extra recess for good grades, monetary rewards, etc are all programmed into learners from a young age.

You can say MOOCs are failing because they lack sufficient “student motivation,” but what if it was actually the case that society has been failing for decades and MOOCs are just exposing this?

Of course, we all recognize many ways that society is failing in education. But what if there are other ways? What if relying on too much extrinsic motivation is a failure? What if we are failing to embrace all of the current and historical research in motivation? What if we know a lot about motivation, but fail to real utilize any of that knowledge? On Twitter yesterday, Rolin Moe pointed out that he never reads discussion of Herman Witkin, cognitive styles, field dependence/independence, etc in relation to motivation. In my circles, I have heard Witkin brought up, but to be honest – I can’t recall anyone trying or applying his ideas (kind of in the same way people in education rattle off Skinner or Bandura and then just don’t really use any of their ideas). These are all ways that our educational system was failing just in the area of motivation for decades before MOOCs (or many other Ed Tech ideas) even came along.

Yet what happens is that the ideas like MOOC are blamed for the historical failure of the system, and those that feel more comfortable within that system recommend pulling the wild ideas back in to make them look more like the existing system. Just think about it: what are the recommendations for fixing “student motivation” in MOOCs? Find a way to add back extrinsic motivation!

I would say: no. We need to find a different path. In fictional entertainment, one of the foundational constructs is to reach for is “suspension of disbelief.” You have to help the readers come to a place of either gaining interest in your story or believability in the fiction elements so that they suspend skepticism and engage the story. Traditional education has typically sought for a “suspension of laziness” – looking for ways to get learners to get off their rears and learn (because we always assume that when they don’t want to learn it is their motivation instead of our design). Newer ideas like MOOCs are going past that, to what I guess could be called “suspension of extrinsic motivation” (for lack of better words). What does learning design look like when you remove all of these carrot sticks (or actual paddling sticks) and leave learners to just pure learning? Well… maybe purer learning than what we had.

edugeek-journal-avatarThere are many, many more angles to explore here (not to mention problems with extrinsic/intrinsic motivation constructs), but I am already getting long-winded. The important idea to consider is that instead of pulling emerging technology and design back towards the tradition of what we already know (which is actually a power struggle by those in power), we need to push forward towards the direction that we already know we need to go.

(image credit: Manu Mohan, obtained from


Metamodernist Instructional Design and the False Goal of Primacy in MOOCs

This has been an interesting year in the MOOC discussion realm, with everything from MOOC 4.0 to arguments about who controls the conversation about MOOC research. But a strain that has always seemed to existed in the discussion about MOOCs is the idea of making MOOCs more like a traditional college educational experiences. A recent entry into this stream by the title of “Why is the University Still Here?” caught my eye, and want to address some of the issues that are brought up in this article.

First of all is the idea that “those who wanted to be educated had the means to do so” because of libraries and expensive video lectures. I’m not sure there is much social research that would support that claim, since many people don’t have access to libraries, and even if they do, they run into a complex organizational system that becomes a barrier to entry. If people who wanted education could get it, we are all barking up the wrong tree to improve access in the first place. Why change anything if the people that wanted it can already get it?

Second is the idea that “education is simply not as native an activity for many adults today.” Those that research the blurred line between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy would disagree. People are always learning in many informal and formal ways and always have been – maybe its just that the mainstream of education is finally catching up with this idea. At their most basic levels, the original MOOCs and connectivism tap into the idea that most adults are native to learning and are doing it all the time – its just the formal constructs of behaviorism and constructivism don’t seem to tap into this native learning (for many, many reasons that really have nothing to do with the constructs themselves but the ways many use them).

These two problems lead into the third and biggest issue I have with what the article identifies as the big problems with MOOCs: loss of primacy and motivation.

“Primacy is making education the primary activity of a student’s day, or perhaps more specifically, the primary thought activity of the day…. Primacy is deeply connected to motivation, since it makes learning the default rather than a conscious decision that we make throughout the day…. When we attend a physical university, we automatically give primacy to education…. There is also financial primacy that comes from paying large tuition bills…. New forms of online education like MOOCs lost both forms of primacy at once. By making them free, students had few incentives to not quit any time the course materials got boring or difficult. Without a physical presence, there weren’t the social peer effects of friends encouraging us to attend our classes on time, or shaming us about our poor performance.”

I’d love to know where these peers are that encourage and shame us to do better. I had professors that do that – but peers? They were usually skipping classes and study sessions with me :)

Basically, this is saying that traditional education works because educators have the big sticks of grades, passing, and keeping our money to force us to do good in classes, so our instructional designs are working because we can threaten learners with bad stuff if they don’t do what we tell them to when they get bored. And – bonus! – they will peer pressure each other to submit to this threat by putting them together in a campus.

To me, one of the greatest things we can learn from MOOCs is “what does it mean when we lose primacy and the threat of grades and failure?” What does your teaching or design look like when you can’t rely on bad things happening if learners don’t comply? How do you design for that?

But let’s look more at the ideas of primacy through the lens of how adults now natively learn.  The idea of primacy is a construct that came about through decades of modernist and then postmodernist thought that leads many people to think in black and white either/ors. Depending on who you listen to, postemodernism stopped being the dominant social paradigm sometime between 1975 and 2000, replaced by the idea of metamodernism. For those not familiar with metamodernism, the “meta” is not the same as we see in “meta-tag” or “meta-study”, but related to Plato’s “metaxy” (a swinging back and forth). It is the idea that our society no longer chooses either modernism or postmodernism, but combines both of them – often at the same time. Paradox and juxtaposition are one of the ten basic principles of metamodernism. Cultural theorists Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen describe metamodernism as

a continuous oscillation, a constant repositioning between positions and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them: one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and an (a)political relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.

Many see this as the dominant mindset of our current society, whether we recognize it or not.

What does this mean for education? People no longer have a primacy in their life. Or, more accurately – they have several all at once. Education, jobs, family, hobbies, etc no longer compete for primacy, they all have primacy at the same time. Education is both native and non-native, because people are often learning formally and informally at the same time. People can want education and still not have access to it. Paradoxes are real and embraced.

(I can hear all of the pragmatists out there shouting “no duh!)

edugeek-journal-avatarWith the rise of the non-traditional student on physical campuses, this is also the case for traditional courses. This is the new educational world that we are designing for online and face-to-face. This is the future of quality university experiences. This is how humans are, how we have been for centuries really. We are finally getting to throw off the shackles of either/or black or white thinking (or maybe more accurately, more of us can join those who have been doing so for centuries). This is what MOOCs can teach us (and what they are actually doing a great job of teaching us). Instead of looking for how to re-create traditional education’s accomplishments online, we need to learn to embrace the paradoxes and juxtapositions that have always existed in successful education. This is the challenge for metamodernist instructional design: not instructivism or connectivism, but both. Not content or social interaction, but both (as #rhizo15 has put it: content is people!). Not andragogy or pedagogy, but heutagogy (which combines both informal and formal learning). We should embrace the paradox and reject the thinking that you have to choose between two options that actually both work.

(image credit: James Kunley, obtained from


Non-Linear Instructional Design

A great Twitter conversation recently got me thinking about non-linear instructional design. Now, of course, we often look at instructional design itself as a non-linear process, but that is not what I am referring to here. Most of the instruction we see in formal education is almost always designed as a linear road-map to be followed in exact order from beginning to end. And for some topics, this is great – I don’t want engineers skipping steps when designing solid bridges. But in many other topics, there aren’t really ultimate steps that have to be taught in a certain order as much as there is really just a preferred order that many in the field lean towards that becomes a default “sequence” for all learners. Which, unfortunately, leads to very little room for improvisation, flexibility, emergence, etc. A lot of this can be attributed to our formal education systems that often encourage behaviorism and pedagogy over connectivism and heutagogy. Too many times the education system looks at “planning” as a linear week by week script.

We often end up with two problems in this kind of system. One is that people come up with an outline that they stick with even if the course isn’t flowing that way. And when the course isn’t flowing well, instructors get bored or distracted and they put off planning specifics until the last minute. They tell learners that they are improvising, but learners can often tell the difference between lack of planning and planned improvisation.

The other problem is that instructors do plan well, but then think of something better at the last minute and change plans. Which usually ends up being a great lesson, but also means they wasted a lot of time on a plan that wasn’t used and might not ever get used.

However, designing a course in a non-linear manner can allow for courses to be well-planned as well as being emergent, flexible, and student-centered.

The first step is to actually make space in your course plan for flexibility, rabbit trails, new ideas, and extended time on more interesting ideas. What I mean by this is cut back on the number of weeks of content overall. If you have a 15 week course, only create 10 weeks of content. Just flat-out force space into the schedule and leave it there.

The second step is to stop looking at your topic in a linear fashion. Make a list of ten topics you want to cover, but don’t number the list. Intentionally shuffle that list. Think of it more as a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece being a topic / week. Once all of the pieces are together, then you have a full picture of the topic of your course.

The idea would be that you would sit down and talk with your class to socially negotiate an order to go through the topics. As a course, you could come up with the order that your learners want to go through. Or even more advanced – don’t even have a pre-defined list, but take time each week to figure out where to go next week.

Finally, you need to do the instructional design. I know that seems weird to say that right after I just said let the learner choose the topics, but you as the instructor still need to be prepared for what ever topic could be chosen next. You can still create something akin to an assignment bank that you choose from depending on what topic is being covered that week. In fact, you would probably need to design a large ranges of fairly open-ended activities that could fit in with a wide-range of topics within your field. Instead of a jigsaw puzzle, you are really looking at your class like a Lego project or play-dough sculpture that is being built by several people at once. You have several specific pieces (activities) that you add at certain moments when the learners choose to pull out certain other pieces (topic).

Another way to a look at this idea is like this. Most courses are already designed in pieces, but these pieces are part of a specific path that has one way in and one way out. They generally look like this:


One way in, one way out – linear in design. Which works well in many situations, but not in others. To accomplish non-linear instructional design, the pieces of the course have to take on different structures:



edugeek-journal-avatarA play-dough design would be a more malleable design where the different pieces have the ability to shape into different directions and even blend with other pieces. The Lego design would be made of smaller more defined pieces that connect easily with other pieces to form changing designs and pathways as the learners define the path. There is really not a major distinction between the two – just different ways of looking at the design theory. If you look at the different assignments in the ds106 assignment bank, you can see hundreds of activities that are designed in either Lego or Play Dough fashion to connect with or plug in to any part of the ds106 course.

(header image credit: Dima V, obtained from


So You Think You Know Theory and Design?

Sometimes I want to create a TV game show based off of “Are you Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” called “So You Think You Know Theory and Design?” It would pull in a bunch of online instructors, administrators, and others that always tell me “oh, I know theory and design; I just need to find cooler tools and tech training!” and put their knowledge of online learning theory and design to the test.  Most people don’t really know much beyond what I teach college juniors about theory and design, so it would be hilarious to watch. Well… at least for the instructional designers out there that know this irritation all too well.

The truth is, instructional design is not the way to fame and fortune in Ed Tech. Its not really even the route to getting a lot of people beating down your door for advice (no matter how many times they have epiphanies that sound suspiciously like something someone might have told them already). Of course, some of the problem is just bad marketing, really. Many people have blogged for years about the ideas that were recently referred to as “MOOC 4.0″ to little attention, but give it a silly number (that ignores 3-4 years of MOOC history) and suddenly the bloggers lose their minds! :)

The funny thing is, to an instructional designer it doesn’t matter if MOOCs work or not. We know how to make it work: good theory and design. Same thing goes for any concept out there: flipped classrooms, blended learning, you name it. We can already tell you how to make it all work – if you really want it to work. Sometimes you want to ask people: “are you designing the course to make one specific student fail, or are you just aiming for the highest possible failure rate?”

Of course, there are also the times you just kind of want to say “sure, blame the discussion board for the bland responses” and call it a day. You have seen enough new, shiny tools come along to know that by this time next year, people are going to be talking about the boring, rote responses they get to VoiceThread activities. That has happened with every online tool so far, and you know too well how the bad designs and theory used to insert the newest tools into the same paradigm and theory is going to produce the same results. What was that Albert Einstein said about this cycle?

The truth of the matter is that most people in online education have mediocre design skills and minimal theoretical knowledge at best, even after going through a Ph.D. in Education. They think they need more tech training to help them discover that golden child tool they need to revolutionize their classroom. Instructional Designers take one look at their class and know that’s not the case: its about needing better theory and design.

Of course, some bad design is driven by the massive number of students they have to teach, and control over that factor is out of their hands. When administration forces bad contexts on instructors, of course bad design is going to emerge.

But a lot of this goes back to what I have been thinking about Ed Tech conferences lately. To be honest, I was probably going to wind down going to any, because its all the same old, same old: old bad ideas re-packaged as shiny new start-ups with the same bad pitches or old bad ideas repackaged as “latest and greatest” conference sessions.

This was until I went to the OLC Emerging Technologies conference (#et4online). Yes, there were some old bad ideas re-incarnated, but there was also sessions on heutagogy, post-modernism, humanizing the MOOC, and a whole host of other design issues scattered amongst the shiny, new, refurbished dud ideas. So I emerged from that week encouraged to stick to the path of what I know best: learning innovation should be driven by innovations in design and theory (which sometimes means actually doing old ideas that we have ignored all along).

Now, don’t get me wrong: I still like new tools, and think we need to push to build better ones (like the crews behind ProSolo, Reclaim Hosting, Known, and others are doing).

(notice that I listed new tools that are based on theory and design more than hype and buzzwords?)

edugeek-journal-avatarSo that is why I am excited about the upcoming Digital Learning Research Network’s 2015 conference in October (#dlrn15). Many of the people that made #et4online a ray of hope are also getting involved with #dlrn15. The people that did the good sessions at #et4online are putting together proposals for #dlrn15. The Call for Proposals actually uses the word “Sociocultural”! And FYI, my name is on the committee list, but I had nothing to do with the CFP – even though it uses ideas and terms that I have been confusing people with for years.

So maybe there is some hope out there yet on the conference circuit?

(image credit: Sara Karges, obtained from

Call for Proposals for dLRN2015

A very interesting call for proposals (dlrn2015) looking at “Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks and Change”:

Learning introduces students to practices of sensemaking, wayfinding, and managing uncertainty. Higher education institutions confront the same experiences as they navigate changing contexts for the delivery of services. Digital technologies and networks have created a new sense of scale and opportunity within global higher education, while fostering new partnerships focused on digital innovation as a source of sustainability in volatile circumstances. At the same time, these opportunities have introduced risks in relation to the ethics of experimentation and exploitation, emphasizing disruption and novelty and failing to recognise universities’ long-standing investment in educational research and development.

The networking of higher education requires a research lens in order to make sense of its implications for learning and knowledge, particularly for learners who are not well served by the existing system. The Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explores how digital technologies are impacting all aspects of education, including research, teaching, learning, assessment, and support for underrepresented students.

The dLRN Conference – Making Sense of Higher Education 2015 – hosted at Stanford University on October 16-17, will offer a state of the field assessment from top international researchers and educators. This call for papers will be of interest to researchers, academics, and practitioners who are exploring the many nuances of the complex and uncertain landscape of higher education in a digital age.

What are the most pressing uncertainties, and the most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy? What agenda should be set for research in the near term? How best can researchers develop and share insights that will achieve practical outcomes and address systems-level challenges facing higher education, while establishing and applying robust standards of ethical practice?

We are keen to invite participants to evaluate current practices in digital and networked learning, whether formal, self-regulated, structured, unstructured, or lifelong. In particular, we are calling for papers that help make sense of what networks mean for the changing environment of contemporary higher education.”

See the full CFP for more details – abstracts due June 1st!


Which Came First: The Learning Design or the Tool?

Back in the day when I taught 8th grade Science, I worked at a school that most would label “inner city.” I had a room that was not designed for Science experiments, a small stash of equipment (most of which didn’t fit the state standards at the time), and $200 to cover all supplies and experiments for the whole year. Which doesn’t go very far considering the price of Science equipment, even back in 2000.

Oh, and I was fortunate that at some point they had replaced the standard school desks the other classrooms had with those huge black science desks that re-arrange more easily.

So I was forced to get creative (i.e. cheap) with my lab experiments. My favorite experiment was using a handful of dirt to explain the big bang theory. All you need is a white poster board and a handful of dirt and pebbles from outside. The handful of dirt represents the universe before the bang as you squeeze it your hand. Throwing that handful of dirt at the poster board represents the big bang. The resulting splatter on the poster board shows what happens after the bang. Simple, effective, and low cost.

Sometimes people think when I refer to “teaching the big bang with a handful of dirt” I am insulting something, but the truth is its really just a reference to doing the best you can with the tools you are forced to use. If I had had a better classroom set-up (with sinks), I could have let the students do the experiment. More money would have meant being able to buy kits that do the same thing, but that make a better “splat” (big bang) on a piece of paper. Even more resources and flexibility would have meant being able to show computer simulations on an overhead projector so that the students could have compared their splats to the model. And so on.

This post is inspired by a Twitter conversation with Whitney Kilgore, which I think eventually indicated we were talking about different angles on the idea of what drives design. Ultimately, I hope Whitney saw that I wasn’t disagreeing with her or debating, but saying that out of the two over-arching ways to approach design, I prefer one over the other while not thinking one is better than the other.

To explain what I mean, I’ll start off by looking at how we as instructional designers really have two over-arching approaches when we design courses: one where we are have to let the tools drive the learning design because of various limitations, and the other where the learning design drives the tool selection because we have many options. One is where we make do with what we have, and the other is where we get to do whatever the design dictates.

You can design really good courses either way. However, when you are limited in your tool selection due to budget or even campus policy that says you have to use a specific tool, you have to make concessions to get those tools to work for the design.  Most of us that are in education have been used to being either limited by budget or administrative decisions for so long that we don’t even realize the concessions we are making based on these limitations.

A lot of what I am talking about here was covered by Jim Groom in his “there’s more to education than the LMS” keynote at the OLC Emerging Technology conference last year. Its not that the LMS is evil – all technology has its possibilities and its limitations. Being forced to use a tool like an LMS means being forced to accept those limitations, even if your learning design will suffer immensely from those limitations.

Of course, there are also those courses that work well within the possibilities of an LMS, and others that use parts of the LMS in connection with outside tools very well. I teach a highly rated college course for the UT Brownsville Ed Tech department that just uses the LMS, a discussion board, a textbook, six pages of content (including syllabus) and four projects. This course was very well designed by the staff at the University (I am an adjunct for the course, so I can’t claim the design :) ), and almost always receives glowing responses from the students. This is because good course design is not about finding new emerging technology to make it “work,” but using good theory to design a solid learning experience. The course that I teach is also highly rated because it’s designers let the learning design drive the tool usage, instead of letting the tool drive the learning design.

For those that are curious, this course only uses the LMS to collect and grade the projects that students create, which are everything from videos they create to webpages they design. Other than that, the course is mainly in WordPress. Oh, and we also usually get really good responses on the discussion board.

This is probably where I go all metamodern on my five readers, but neither method is necessarily “better” by default. When I worked as an instructional designer, I designed award-wining classes that resided entirely within the LMS. There are also really, really bad classes that ditch the LMS and do a horrible job in the open web. Whether you let the tool drive the learning design or the learning design drive the tool selection – that is no indication of design quality. It just dictates what possibilities and limitations you deal with, and whether it is your choice to choose tools that match the possibilities and limitations you need for the design or if that choice is made for you regardless of what your design needs are.

Of course, as we found out at Jim Groom’s keynote last year – you start mentioning the limitations of the LMS and those that love the LMS will push back. As Jim pointed out, all tech tools are designed by people for a specific purpose. This means that they have a certain paradigm or theory coded into the design. Audrey Watters and many others have written and spoken on this also. These biases don’t mean that you shouldn’t use those tools, but we should all be aware of these very real limitations that exist.

One of the reasons I get frustrated with LMS companies is that they slap some social tools in their LMS and suddenly claim that they are social constructivist or connectivist or active learning or whatever the current buzzword is. Adding a social element to your course does not suddenly mean its social constructivist in nature. Instructivism just means that the instructor is the center of the course, and discussion boards, Twitter, VoiceThread, etc can all be designed in a way that still makes the instructor the center. But there are other claims that also don’t live up to the claims. Giving students the ability to click on more links does not make something interactive. Inserting YouTube videos does not create an active learning experience. I could go on and on, but I rarely see tools in the LMS that truly count as connectivist, constructivist, interactive, or active by themselves. Which wouldn’t be that much of a problem if the LMS companies weren’t claiming otherwise.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo the question is, which one is better: letting the learning design determine what tool possibilities and limitations you teach with, or letting the tool drive the design? In a real world scenario, you usually end up with a mixture of both. Even if you are forced to use an LMS by institutional decisions, there are many tools to choose from within that LMS. However, even when you are allowed to choose what ever tool you want, you may still not find the perfect tool. In that case, you would still have to let the tool drive the design in some ways once you have let the design considerations drive the tool choice. In the real world, these are not Yin/Yang opposites that never cross over into the other. You will use elements of both in most learning contexts. Metamodernism to the rescue!

(image credit: Gozde Otman, obtained from

teacher tank

More #et4online Reflections: The Major Values of Teacher Tank

So in Laura Pasqunin’s most excellent reflections on the OLC Emerging Technologies conference, she pointed out how some people had cast doubt on my favorite part of the conference: Teacher Tank. I expressed my disagreement with that, and she asked for input. My comment turned into a book, so I decided to turn it into a blog post.

First of all let me say – I realize that Teacher Tank will most likely never happen again, because it will probably chase sponsors away. Which is disappointing, but also part of the problem. The vendors have too often controlled a one-way conversation at conferences. They position themselves as the main financial support for the conferences and then people don’t want to criticize them for fear of killing the conference (I could write a series of long posts about what I was told I could and couldn’t say at conferences by vendors, how they cut-off my microphone so I couldn’t ask questions in online sessions, how they have said to rooms full of people that feedback was not allowed, etc). So it was a gutsy move to have the tank in the first place, but I get why it will probably never happen again. Doing it in another format would probably just not produce the same effect.

I will also say that I know several good vendors and start-ups that are not like the others. Unfortunately, there is noticeable “standard” type of vendor that we see dominating conferences, and those are the ones that I have concerns about.

Personally, I think that commentary and entertainment are two massive values for a conference that most are usually missing for the most part. So many conferences would be more interesting to me if they provided more commentary and even a little entertainment. Don’t get me started on the “cutesy motivational speakers as keynotes” or the “light snacks for dinner and a bunch of tables” forms of “entertainment.” We need actual entertainment sessions to prove a mental break from the sessions from time to time. We also need actual commentary from experts (in addition to thought-provoking keynotes and informative sessions) as well as mote avenues for public commentary by conference attendees.

From the audience perspective, here is the big value that I saw happening over and over again at Teacher Tank:

  • Vendor says some unfounded educational urban legend (“students love to learn with video”)
  • Half of audience nods in agreement
  • Judge pushes back against legend (“like hell they like to learn with video”)
  • Same half of audience looks shocked
  • Judge explains why the legend was wrong (“they like entertainment, but they learn little, etc”)
  • Same half of audience has an obvious light bulb moment and starts nodding again
  • Educational Urban Legend busted for many people.

That happened a lot of times for a lot of people in the audience at Teacher Tank. Huge value if you ask me.

The thing I am most disappointed in is the reaction from some of the vendors to Teacher Tank. Most of the feedback was constructive, a lot of it was positive, and some of it was negative. But it was a MASSIVE amount of feedback they got – more so than they will probably ever get from any one event. All for free, and very little of it from people that are just telling them what they want to hear. A ton of honest feedback. But now some are upset about the tank, saying things like it perpetrated “myths” about start-ups, and so on. Very disappointing.

Look, if you are a start-ups and you want to win me back, then learn to listen, research, and improve based on the feedback… rather than claiming the image I have of start-ups is mythical (while responding in a way that proves they aren’t myths :) ). Prove that you are not thin-skinned and come back to conferences that have criticized you. Maybe even turn your one-way hype session presentation into a Teacher Tank format. Why should conference organizers have to be the ones facilitating valuable honest feedback for you? I have heard about the focus groups and customer research you do – interesting results, but no where near as critical as you would get in the tank.

People always ask me to get involved in conferences more behind the scenes, and I am usually very hesitant. So many conferences today are somewhat dominated by vendors that are controlling one-way conversations (next time you are at a booth and they ask you “what do you think?”, try being honest and see how well that goes 905 of the time). To push back against that means losing sponsors and killing the conference – so I understand why conferences are like that. I don’t blame them. The Teacher Tank and the #et4snark tag were a breath of fresh air in the conference space. Most of my ideas for conferences are along those lines, and usually don’t fit in. I mean, I brought a “buzzword buzzer” to my own session and let people get on my case if I used an EdTech Urban Legend Buzzword. Judging by the Twitter feedback, people loved my session. But I doubt those ideas would go over well with vendors or even most presenters.

I get it that there is a lot of bad feedback out there. Look at some of the MOOC criticism out there (“cMOOCs probably aren’t MOOCs because they are neither massive or open” I was told at a conference recently). But many of the MOOC criticisms are legitimate points, as much as they may annoy myself or others (“most MOOCs are designed using simple and ineffective pedagogy” for example). But don’t mistake those criticisms, even the negative ones, as meaning people hate you or even want you to go away. I love WordPress, for example, but I can also give you a long list or where it needs to be improved.

edugeek-journal-avatarWhat should be more concerning is when people stop criticizing you – when they give up and just write you off as someone that doesn’t listen. I see this happening way too much in the EdTech world in regards to Tech companies. I have lost count of the number of people that have told me they have given up talking to all of the companies that just don’t listen. That should be more concerning to vendors than being a position to get a few minutes of uninterrupted feedback in the Teacher Tank.

(image credit: leenapics, obtained from


Five Ways the iWatch Will Revolutionize Education

After careful examination of features and uses of the iWatch, I think I have finally settled on the Top 5 Ways it will revolutionize education as we know it.

5) Increased Assessment of Boredom Cessation

Wristwatches seem to have disappeared since the rise of the Smartphone. Sure you can check the time on your phone, but how easy is that when you are in the front row of a lecture and your teacher or professor will confiscate your phone if you get caught taking it out? When someone starts boring you to sleep with DPPSR (Death by PowerPoint Slide Reading), the only way to combat that is with an accurate idea of how long you have to force yourself to stay awake. Having a watch again will give millions of students the tools to know how long to pinch themselves to stay awake and earn participation credit.

4) Better Indications of Social Stratification

We all know that we judge each other by our smartphone choice (Apple or Android). A few years ago, that was easy to do by size, even with phone cases covering the logo. But since Apple introduced their new face-sized pones, it is near impossible to know who is as cool as you are. With advent of the iWatch, you can now simply look at someone’s wrist to see if they are Apple or Android. Young Adult Clique Formation is the foundation of the high school and college experience, and the iWatch finally will help with split second social interaction decisions.

3) Historical Connections With Ancient Stylistic Conventions

One of the best trends that didn’t make it out of the 80s was the Swatch Watch. For those that weren’t around for this trend, you actually spent all of your money buying different color wrist bands and watch guards (yep, that was a thing way before Smartphones) so that you could switch them out daily (to match your Jams shorts). It was so popular that it burned out after a year and no watch maker has wanted to try and replicate it’s awesomeness for some odd reason. Now, of course, we can finally re-live history with the iWatch and its endless arrays of interchangeable bands and UIs. iWatch owners will be walking history connections.

2) Time Management Solutions Through Phantom Signal Claims

Do you lament the days when you could get out of any situation or conversation by pretending your phone vibrated because no one knew much about smartphones? We now know the sound of a buzzing phone, but it was great for time management when smartphones were new and mysterious. The iWatch will be able to bring back that mystery in many ways, since few will know much about them at the beginning. Just think of how much more control you can wrestle away from pointless conversations by claiming your watch is sending you all kinds of messages.

1) Advanced Creative Grade Enhancement Methodology 

Cheating is such an ugly and outmoded word. Everyone knows that today’s students need to partake in creative grade enhancement. Remember how easy that was when smartphones first came out and teachers or professors had no clue you could get answers right on your phone? Those days have been long gone due to instructors quickly catching on, but now with the iWatch they are back. Just store the answers on your iWatch a head of time and make it look like you just have a nervous habit of tapping your watch. This will increase your grades, and we all know that increased grades on test proves that more learning is happening. If instructors never cared that you might have randomly guessed some answers correct on multiple choice tests, then surely they don’t care about other forms of creative grade enhancement. As long as the school’s test numbers look good, everyone wins.


edugeek-journal-avatarI am sure there are many other great sounding reasons why the iWatch will revolutionize education. The iPhone and iPad have already made modern education almost unrecognizable from what it was before they came out, so the iWatch is sure to keep that tradition alive. I just can’t wait until we get the iOcculus in 2017 and then the iNeuralImpant in 2019 – we will just be injecting information straight into the eyes and brains! Just more proof that technology is the solution for all of Education’s woes.


Instructional Design and the Search for the Golden Child

One of the things you quickly learn as an instructional designer is that you precariously straddle two worlds that don’t always like to interact: practical and theoretical. Most academic fields have some level of tension between these two sides. In education its usually between the more practical Curriculum and Instruction side and the more theoretical Educational Philosophy side. And, of course, there isn’t a hard line between the two – they tend to mix a lot in the middle. You often find the instructional designers hanging out in that middle mix.

That’s really what the instructional designer does – take the theory and mix it with the supporting research on what practically works and produce effective and engaging design.

Easier said that done.

One of the issues that designers often deal with is getting the instructors to focus enough on good theory in order to form a strong foundation for quality practical design. The fine line between good and bad design or even okay-ish and good design is often held back by lack of theoretical focus more so than lack of technical knowledge about technology tools.


Most instructors seem to be convinced that there is a “golden child” technology out there just waiting to be discovered. If they can just find this technology, or combination of technologies, or even hidden features in technologies they already use… then their classes will magically transform into glorious utopias of engaged learners. Students will be happy, completion rates will skyrocket, everyone will hold hands, pass out flowers, and start a drum circle chanting the praises of how awesome the course is.

What most instructional designers know is the harsh reality that learning more and more about technology and tools often makes it harder to design a good course. Instead of a concentrated focus on what works best for what you want students to learn, technology becomes the driving focus. And this means the course often gets worse, or at best trades one okay-ish design for another okay-ish design.

Some of the most innovative and effective courses out there are being taught with things like blogs and Twitter and YouTube videos – basically just a bunch of tools that most people know how to use already. No golden child magical technology tool doing cool stuff that no one else seems to be aware of. Just really good theory and focused instructional design.

This blog post is one of many that I am working on inspired by the OLC Emerging Technologies Symposium this week, and the conversations that occurred around/at/because of that event. I was in the test kitchen there playing with cool new tools and apps as much as the next person. I love emerging technology and finding new websites and tools and services to use. I also love it when people find great educational uses for these cool new things. But most of the really awesome courses out there are not coming from people getting more technical training, but from people that dig into the theory side and said “I want to accomplish this theoretical idea” and then found the basic technology to realize their vision.

Of course, that is easy to say for people like me that love the theoretical side of learning, whether it is epistemological, ontological, or just purely philosophical. For those that find theory to be more on the dull side, its not quite so easy. But we need to push back against the slow creep of technological solutionism in instructional design that tells us we need to “get more technological training!” to fix our courses.

Think of it this way: if you need to have more technical knowledge in order to improve your courses, then your IT department is going to be the best instructional design department on campus. But your IT department will be the first ones to tell you they can’t help you with digital learning, because that is (generally) not what they know.

So, if you find theory a bit intimidating, I get that. Find something you already know and dig deeper. You don’t have to learn it all.

If you find theory boring, well, I don’t get that. :) But I see where people could feel that way. Find the one part that is least boring and dig in to see if maybe it will surprise you.

If you think you already know theory well enough (but you don’t work primarily as a theorist in some way)…. ummm…. let’s talk a bit about scale. One of my incredibly brilliant professors once told me he had read one book by Jurgen Habermas over 20 times and still maybe grasped about half of it. Habermas has many books, and is himself just one of hundreds if not thousands of thinkers that influence educational theory. You may understand the cliff notes version of theory in general or maybe a few specific theories at a Wikipedia level, but that is not nearly all there is out there.

edugeek-journal-avatarThe people that are exploring the depths of theory out there are the ones that are coming up with truly revolutionary ideas like connectivism or rhizomatic learning, or creating revolutionary tools like ProSolo or a Domain of One’s Own. Or to tie back to OLC this week, its not the people that find a better tool than Twitter that are going to change education, but the people that Bonnie Stewart that dig into an existing tool like Twitter to see what is going on there that will. I promise you – if you dig more into Bonnie Stewart’s work than you dig around for technical training on a tool, you will see bigger and better changes to your course.

(image credit: Mariana Figueroa, obtained from