Words That Don’t Work: Courses as Neutral Zones

Sometimes the words we choose to describe something just don’t quite work as well as we would like. Its not that they don’t work at all, its just that they fall short – and academics love to pick apart where words fall short. Or even more so where we have differing definitions of various concepts.

At the LINK lab, we have been working on some ideas that are… innovative? Maybe. Different? Kind of, but not quite. Hard to categorize? Probably so. Things like dual-layer courses, customizable modalities, and neutral zones, that take existing ideas and put a spin on them in ways that are hard to classify at times. Its pretty easy to write these off as very limited ideas – MOOC innovations that will probably disappear when MOOCs die (for the third time…. or was it the fourth? I’ve lost count).

But for us, many of these are ideas that will transfer to education in a broader sense, to possibly even become theories in their own right.

For example, the idea of a dual-layer neutral zone would transfer to a bigger concept of courses as neutral zones. But let’s be honest – courses are not neutral. The technology used is not neutral. Any form of content (textbooks, videos, lectures, webpages, etc) is not neutral. The learners are not neutral, and neither are the instructors. Yes, yes – I know that we all feel that we are fair and unbiased and equality-minded. But even the most equality-minded person is still not neutral. People claim all the time to be “agnostic” in terms of certain tools or pedagogies or frameworks, but come on. Those that say that are either lying to themselves or are just not informed enough to know what the positions are.

But the goal of creating neutral zones is to bring those biases, opinions, and perspectives out into the open. To stop pretending that they aren’t there and to deal with them head on. When a learner can look at two pathways, one that is controlled by the instructor and one that is controlled by themselves, they have to make a conscious choice between two different power dynamics. They may not be able to understand the nuances of instructivism and connectivism, but they can understand enough to choose between following the instructor’s prescribed pathway and creating their own pathway. We all need both at different times in our education. The problem is that most pedagogical models contain the assumption that all learners in each class need to follow one pedagogical modality for that content: All learners need to listen to this lecture. Then all learners need to form groups and do a student-centered lesson. Then all learners need to come together to discuss this topic. Learning isn’t that simplistic, and the dual-layer, customizable modality, neutral-zone driven design paradigm is about designing for complexity. It re-focuses the design on the human being at the center of the design and technology, instead of putting pedagogy and tools at the center.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo, choosing a term like “neutral zone” is problematic because there is no way to create a neutral zone. But on the other hand, the hope is that by exposing the biases and epistemologies and ontologies behind the modalities, learners will be able to understand the importance of choosing one modality over another based on their specific needs at that moment at any given time in the course. This zone, whether in MOOCs or traditional brick and mortar classrooms, become neutral because all biases are open on the table, not because they don’t exist.

But someday, someone will need to come up with a better, more accurate term.


Humanize Them All, and Let Them Sort Themselves Out: #dLRN15 Reflections

So now that the #dLRN15 conference is over, its time for the post-conference reflections to begin. As one of the organizers, I wanted to say a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone that presented, spoke, moderated, slacked, tweeted, blogged, organized, commented, questioned, thought, and attended. I was legitimately concerned over whether or not this conference would “click” with those that attended. But it seems from the tweets, slacks and blog posts that many things did click at some very deep levels.

One thing (out of many) that really stuck out to me was how the word “disruption” seemed almost completely absent from any conversation. While the concept of disruption has been incredibly popular recently, many have rejected the idea from the beginning. Education can’t really be disrupted because it has always been changing (even if too slowly for many). Even if education could be disrupted, would we really want it to be? Disruption can’t be predicted or really even controlled, while typically producing inferior products. For example, mp3s are compressed audio files that produce lesser quality audio experiences when compared to CDs – and you usually don’t even get liner notes. Had there been any ability to control the mp3 disruption, we could have at least utilized lossless technology (like FLAC) and kept the liner notes. Society has mostly accepted an inferior technology audio because of disruption.

To me, a more effective discussion focuses on the change agents that have affected education in small and large ways. Technology is an educational change agent; online education is a change agent; political agendas are change agents. Change agents – while possibly moving at a slower pace – have a greater potential to be influenced and directed for good or bad (or both) than disruption does.

One change agent that we can and should push and influence is the humanization of education, more specifically the designs and technologies we utilize to educate people. This was one of the major themes at #dlrn15: how do we rediscover the people at the center of everything we do in education? My firm belief is that all of our work, policies, discussions, and technology needs to be re-framed with people at the center.

Take my presentations, for example. On the surface, many call the dual-layer model a “MOOC innovation.” Before the conference, I looked at it more as an “instructional design innovation.” And I still do, but I need to start highlighting more that it was not an innovation for innovation sake. The goal of the dual-layer model is to humanize education by creating a practical design for individualized learning. The dual-layer model is an attempt to teach learners how to learn, so that they will realize the epistemological, ontological, even political ideals inherent in all tools (and therefore choose which one to use at any given time accordingly). This power shift is one of many ways to place people at the center of education rather than technology.

Or take larger issues, for another example. We are beginning to understand that where you are born will determine whether you even get to go to college more than any other factor. We tend to look at this as problem to be solved just because it sounds bad. But we need to reframe this as a human problem, by realizing the de-humanizing affect that these statistics have on the people most affected by them. Our tendency is to focus on solving the problem for the sake of solving the problem: those that are least likely to attend college hear that they probably won’t make it into college just because they were born into a lower socio-economic level and won’t even try. However, our focus should not be on solving a problem, because our tendency will be to come up with a one-size-fits all solution based heavily on our own context. Complex problems often involve multiple solutions from many different contexts. We need to re-frame these issues to focus on the people at the center of them, so that we can find solutions that work in their actual, human, real-world context. As Maha Bali put it in our ontology panel, standing on the shoulders of giants doesn’t work for her because those giants were not in her context.

Humanize all people, all issues, all change agents, all technology. All of it. All of them.

The other #dLRN15 theme that resonated most with me is listening to students. Education tends to de-humanize our students by classifying them based on how we think they should be classified. As the “experts,” we sort them out based on our classifications and then tell them what they need the most from us. There is value in that to some degree. But why not let the learners sort themselves out, and then offer our services as guides, mentors, fellow pilgrims on the path to “education”? Where are we creating spaces for them to ask hard questions, fail, get back up, learn outside the curriculum, pick apart a tangent, speak for themselves… in other words, be academics rather than our projects?

edugeek-journal-avatarOh yeah – we don’t really let many academics be academics any more. Maybe we should look at this from all levels. Admins: humanize all of your faculty and staff, and let them sort themselves out. Admin, instructors, and instructional designers: humanize all of your learners, and let them sort themselves out. And you could also say: students: humanize all of your instructors, and let them sort themselves out.

Digging Into What “Choice” is in Customizable Modality/Dual-Layer

After digging more into the idea of “neutral zone” in dual-layer / customizable modality learning design in the last post, I wanted to touch a bit on what “choice” means in this design. “Choice” has several really different levels of meaning in learning, and if you try to create the wrong kind of choices in dual-layer design, you are really just defeating the purpose (not necessarily in a bad way, but just in unnecessary ways).

All learning requires some type of choice, usually situated in the lesson itself. When you create an assignment, there is usually some level of choice to what specific topic the learner chooses to complete the assignment. Some instructors even give choice over the format of the final artifact. A few even give learners the choice of social assignments vs. individual assignments. These are all really great choices to give learners. However, these are not the choices that a Neutral Zone are designed to foster.

Basically, all of these types of situated choices are still occurring in one modality (layer). The epistemological foundation of this modality is instructivism – the instructor is still guiding the overall path of the course, with specific places for divergent side paths. This is a great way to design courses for certain learners at certain times.

However, when considering sociocultural theory, we know that different learners have different needs at different times (and those change for learners on any given day). Some learners on some weeks may not need to be guided by instructors at all. Or the options that are given by the instructor do not match their sociocultural learning needs that week. And so on.

The goal of the customizable modality design is to give learners a more meta level choice of epistemological learning design. They can be guided by the instructor when needed, and create their own experience when needed. Or both.

Therefore, the goal of the Neutral Zone is not to replace one or both of the modalities, but to form a thin guide post to point to the layers that are possible. In general, a basic diagram of this process might look like this:


However, the two options that are represented here are not quite that simplistic in actual design. The instructor-led layer could itself be designed using situated choices, double-loop learning, etc. And the connectivist layer would not look that organized. A more accurate representation of the possibilities would be like this:


Learners that choose either self-regulated or instructor led pathways would then have all of the choices built into either design by the instructor and/or the tools they use. The instructor-led path could still have choices (simple or complex) situated along the pathway . The self-regulated design would have many pathways (many that are intentionally in there, and many even outside of that).

However, while many learners could choose choose either modality, some might go beyond that in a way that mixes both pathways. It may even be the case that design of one layer/modailty will lead learners to the other layer/modailty. Some learners may create a custom path that could become one of thousands that may look something like this:


On top of this, some learners may not even take a linear path, but decide to pick and choose parts of the course as they see fit:


These charts also highlight why we sometimes refer to this overall design process as customizable modality.

The basic way to design for this is to create a compentency for the week. Then you 1) provide a platform (like ProSolo) that facilitates the social learning layer/modality; and 2) have the instructor design a lesson that will guide learners to complete the competency and place it in a platform like EdX. Ideally, you would also have tools (including a neutral zone and others) that will connect the platforms in ways so that learners can turn in work for either tool and it is posted in both.

Theoretically, you can also focus in on any number of epistemologies in place of instructivism and connectivism. You could have cognitivism and social constructivism be the two modalities. You could have more than two – creating entire pathways for behaviorism, cognitivism, and connectivism for example (if you really want to take the time to design and align those three).

edugeek-journal-avatarThe importance of this design is that it taps into the research into heutagogy – teaching your learners how to learn. Giving learners choices over what assignments to do doesn’t really reach a level of truly knowing how to learn. Making choices (hopefully someday guided by recommendation systems for scaffolding) on which epistemology to use digs deeper into learning how to learn.


Designing a Neutral Zone in Dual-Layer (Customizable Modality) MOOCs

One of the design aspects we ran out of time for in the first offering of DALMOOC was the “glue” to pull the two layers together (and the scaffolding and support that would have accompanied that). The original idea was to utilize a daily email that would display various work from course participants as well as being a constant reminder that learners had a choice in how they engaged the course content.

However, this idea has evolved more into a centralized course website that just displays the competencies for that week, the modality choices that can be made, links to the platforms that support those modalities, and some suggested artifacts from other learners to dig into (and maybe connect with those learners). This website would serve as the “Neutral Zone” to provide scaffolding and other support for learners to navigate the dual-layer design.

Whatever form it takes, this “Neutral Zone” space is very important for various reasons:

  1. Learners would be encouraged to realize that there is a choice of how they engage the course content and/or activities. This Neutral Zone would encourage learners to think and learn about how they learn, a process that is important to heutagogy (learning how to learn). If we hide too much of the design process, learners lose the opportunity to expand their skills in this area. Of course, you never want the design of the course to be too clunky or complicated, but smoothing it all out to where there are no conscious choices by the learner is basically just another form of instructor control.
  2. The intent of dual-layer is not to encourage learners to pick the best of two pathways based on instructor’s epistemology, but to realize their own preferences. The term “dual-layer” does imply that one layer might be better or higher than the other. And to many people, one usually is. But those opinions vary widely based on a complex, ever-changing set of sociocultural implications that is different for different learners on different days. This is why some of us that are working on this idea have started using terms like “customizable modalities” more often. Modalities is a better descriptor than layers because it does not imply hierarchy. Cusomizable is probably better that dual because a) there could theoretically be more than two “layers,” and b) it better implies that learners are building an individualized pathway that can change over the duration of the course. Coming back to a Neutral Zone often during the course could encourage the learner (and especially the instructor) to realize that all modalities are valid pathways, and that they can be changed as needed (by the learner) during the course.
  3. Using a specific learning platform usually keeps learners in that platform and encourages preference for that platform. DALMOOC used EdX for the instructivist layer/modality and ProSolo for the connectivist layer/modality. While it would be easy to build the Neutral Zone out of either EdX or ProSolo, the ideal space would be outside of both. Learners often stay within the platform they start in, so it would be a constant effort to pull learners into the other modality. This constant effort to trick them into the other modality could be seen as a enforcing the instructor’s epistemology on the learner, something the customizable modality paradigm tries to avoid. Additionally, many platforms (like EdX) are designed to be sticky, to find ways to keep learners in that space as much as possible. This is not what you want in a customizable modality design. Of course, too many tools can make for a confusing process, so ultimately this Neutral Zone website would need to support single sign on for all other services utilized.
  4. Using a Neutral Zone could lead to the next step of learners owning their data for the course. Of course, the term “Neutral Zone” is misleading in that no technology is ever truly neutral. But when an instructor uses a platform like EdX as abase for their course, they lose control over the data they generate in that course. When learners work in that area, they also lose control over the data they submit. Moving to a Neutral Zone could set the ground work for learners to own their own domain. In other words, they could sign on the the class with their website and then choose what data and artifacts they share with the course, rather than being forced into a contained system.

edugeek-journal-avatarA lot of this is pie in the sky thinking, and I realize that. But there is always a tendency with education that those in charge of the class like to pull learners into their preferred epistemology regardless of if that is what the learner needs or not. Additionally, we also face the tendency of pulling learners into platforms that only support one modality over another, even if that modality is not best for the learner. The overarching aim of having customizable modalities is to resist these tendencies by encouraging true individualized educational pathways for learners as much as possible.

(image credit: dis nfo, obtained from


Learning -agogy Overload

Ever wonder how many -agogies there are out there beyond pedagogy and andragogy? I did, and so far this is the full list that I can find (which I can’t seem to all find in one list anywhere).

Pedagogy – the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of education [source]; often narrowed to focus on formal education of any person at any age. Technically, it means “to lead the child,” but many apply it to any education of people of any age. The word dates back to ancient Greece and the slaves who were put in charge of children in Greek households.

Andragogy (Anthropagogy) – the theory and practice of education of adults [source]. Sometimes seen as informal education, continuing education, or anything beyond undergraduate college education. Originally used in 1833. Technically the word means “to lead men”, so some have suggested that “anthropagogy” as a better term, meaning “to lead humans.”

Heutagogy – The study of self-determined learning, or learning how to learn [source]. A learner-centric approach that mixes andragogy and pedagogy to encourage life-long learning. Officially “launched” (as some source put it ) in 2000.

Metagogy – A process of collaborative learning among adults that works on interdependence of learning for the advantage of the individual as well as the community [source]. Also another theory that combines pedagogy and andragogy. Metagogy appears to have emerged in the literature around 2009.

Synergogy (Synergagogy) – systemic approach to learning in which members of small teams learn from one another through structured interactions, thus the idea of synergy in learning [source]. Introduced in 1984. Sometimes, but rarely, used as “synergagogy.”

Geragogy (Eldergogy / Gerontogogy) – the theory and practice of educating the elderly [source]. Many have felt that educating the elderly requires its own theory. Books on this topic date back to at least 1978. Sometimes referred to as Eldergogy, or even less rarely: Gerontogogy.

Peeragogy / Paragogy – a theory of peer-to-peer learning and teaching that addresses the challenge of peer-producing a useful and supportive context for self-directed learning [source]. Sometimes spelled Paragogy.

Additions and corrections are welcome. This list does not include terms like anagogyapagogydemagogymystagogy, and xenagogy – which some would still include but I didn’t because they seems to just be related to education instead of being fully form theories in their own right.

edugeek-journal-avatarWhile some may see this list as repetitive, exhausting, or unnecessary (and I may or may not agree with that in places), I see it as an interesting study into how education is not a simple or black-and-white endeavor. Every one of these theories were created by some that thought the others that already existed were not accurately describing what they thought education was or should be. This gets at the root of why Ed Tech solutionism is so wrong: people are unique, different, and ever-changing. We can’t have one idea or solution that works for all people at all times. We can’t even honestly even grasp for most. We need to look at education as an individualized process of ever-changing sociocultrual implications, not a standardized set of common core skills to master in clone-like fashion. Probably preaching to the choir in the blog, of course, but still a point to raise again and again.

(image credit: James Kunley, obtained from


In Defense of a More Nuanced View of Lectures

I remember my undergrad History courses very vividly. The instructor was seen by many as the typical Ferris Bueller-instructor, droning on and on from the front. We all dreaded signing up for his class. I put it off as long as I could. But finally, I had to take his course – and I loved it. The guy was cracking jokes every few minutes that were hilarious. Problem was, only me and one other guy in a class of 100 caught the jokes because they were sooo dry. To 98% of the class, this guy was not a good lecturer. I could have listened to him all day.

That’s the thing about people: we all have different preferences. And all lecturers have different delivery styles. I have sat through lectures that we described as “electrifying” by many, but I had a hard time staying awake. Well, of course, I did look engaged because we all learn early on to fake engagement or get called on.

Different learners find different lecturers engaging or boring on different days depending on a whole range of factors from interest to prior knowledge to how much they ate. Sure, good lecturers can recognize when people are not paying attention, when to change course, when to slow down, when to repeat, etc. But those tactics don’t work for every person in the room, just a slight majority needed to keep momentum going. For some people in the course, those tactics don’t work and they just fake engagement to get out of being called on.

Add to this that different people like hands-on learning or connected learning over lecturing for different topics on different days depending on a whole range of factors. And vice versa. For that “electrifying” lecture, my problem was that I already knew the topic and just wanted to get my hands dirty with applying what I already knew rather than hear an hour of knowledge transfer yet again. And then there are times when I have already applied the knowledge and want to connect with other advanced learners to dig deeper together as a group.

This is the main problem with lectures: we force all people in a course regardless of interest, prior knowledge, interest level and so on to listen to one person presenting in one style for an entire session or even semester. The “popular narrative” about lectures is actually more about this main problem. We actually do have a clear understanding of what a lecture accomplishes – lectures are probably the second most researched pedagogical tool behind standardized tests in instructional design literature. Lectures transfer knowledge. And when the right lecturer connects with the right learners that are interested in having that knowledge transferred to them in a way that they prefer, its a great learning scenario. I have been in many of those.

edugeek-journal-avatarBut for the most part, most of the lectures I have been in do not attain to that magical level. Why? Some studies find that up to 70-90% of all college courses use rely on lectures. no educational theory or research supports that level. The problem is not the lecture; it is how we are drowning our learners’ interest to death in them. We don’t need to attack or defend lectures, but figure out how to connect the right lecture at the right time with the right learners and then stop using them at all other times in the learning process just because they are the comfortable norm.

(image credit: Gozde Otman, obtained from


DALMOOC 2.0 Re-Design

At some point, there probably will be a DALMOOC 2.0. I can say that with confidence because we are already having discussions about it. But the timing, format, etc are still a bit fluid right now. However, we (the DALMOOC team, not a royal “we”) have put a lot of time and thought into improvements and redesign. From my end as instructional designer, there are several issues I would like to address. This post really serves as a list for me personally, but might be of interest to others.

Instructivist Layer

  • The content later of DALMOOC had a good amount of focus on the facts of Learning Analytics (pedagogy) as well as a good focus on the how to learn about Learning Analytics (heutagogy). There is more discussion on ramping up the heutagogical side of the equation some more, which I think is great.
  • Where the design mostly fell flat on this layer was the assessments. They were tied to multiple competencies per week and left a bit open as to how to participants would complete them. We really need to focus on one assessment activity per week (or even every two weeks). This may mean reducing the number of competencies to one per week, or utilizing sub-competencies.
  • Additionally, since this is the more guided layer, the one assignment we create probably will need to have more guidance for how to complete it. That is the point of instructivism after all.

Connectivist Layer

  • This layer probably suffered the most from not have a good solid “glue” between the layers, so a lot of the re-design will be addressed in “The Glue” section next.
  • The assessment/artifact part of this layer also suffered from having so many competencies to complete, so focusing those into one artifact will help immensely.
  • The assignment bank was unevenly utilized, and that needs to be fixed. Having more focus on the competencies would help with this, also. The idea would be that the assignment bank gives various scenarios, artifact ideas, or data sources to use when working on artifacts to complete each competency. But what the bank contains could actually be different each week. One week that looks at, say, the history of data analytics could have a bank of ideas how to explain the history (video, paper, interactive timeline, blog posts, etc). The next week that looks at how to perform SNA could have a bank of sample data sets to use. Or a bank of scenarios of where to get data from. Finally, each bank would have a “do your own thing” option to point out to learners that in this layer they can come up with their own ideas.
  • Group connections and formation needs a lot of work, but the “Behind the Scenes” section will look at some of that.

The Glue

  • The original intention was to have a weekly/daily email that provided a connection point for all participants, as well as stepping out points and scaffolding for people that wanted to try out social learning for the first time. These emails never happened. And we found out that not everyone reads email (shocking, I know). So a new idea is being floated around.
  • This idea is to have a centralized website for the class. This website only displays what is being worked on that week (but with a menu to get to older content and the syllabus, of course). Basically, think a blog with a simplified theme that only shows one post at a time. This site intros the competency for the week, with options to choose which layer the participant is interested in. Selecting a layer would display links and instructions for what to do next for that layer (view videos in EdX, create goals in ProSolo, etc.). There would also be a link to a scaffolding area for people that want to try the connectivst layer but need guidance.
  • The information on this site would be blasted out to email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Whatever avenue people want to use to be informed that a new week of the course is posted.
  • Finally, this glue site would have a list of people that it recommends for you to connect with, as well as a list of Tweets and Blog Posts that interest you. Hopefully this could be personalized for each user – based on your activity, interests, skill levels, etc. More on that in the “behind the scenes.”

Behind the Scenes

  • The biggest changes to make all of this run smoothly need to be programmed behind the scene. For example, the glue site would need to support single sign-on between EdX, ProSolo, WordPress, Google, etc. Once you sign in, any link you click on should take you to something that you are already signed into.
  • Ultimately, it would be best to create the possibility for this sign-on could be handled by individual websites, so people can own their work and data for this course.
  • A more detailed Profile would be helpful. Using profile data along with course activity/posts/tweets/etc, various programs could recommend specific people for you to connect with, or even specific Tweets or blog posts you might like to read. These algorithms/programs/etc would be working behind the scenes to help find people and content for participants to connect with. At least, for those that choose to opt-in.
  • We are also pondering if we need to add better group tools into the glue site to help people with group activities. Or maybe add that to ProSolo. Plug-ins like BuddyPress for WordPress could create all kinds of tools for groups to use, at least for those that don’t want to find their own.
  • The teams working on QuickHelper and ProSolo also have some great ideas for improving their tools – but I won’t spill any beans on those because they can explain those ideas better than I can.

The Matrix

  • We had an initial course narrative based on The Matrix, but time prevented fuller development of that.
  • The red pill/blue pill metaphor seemed to help many understand course structure. We could possibly integrate that into the Glue website. For example, click on the red pill for one layer and the blue pill for the other. Maybe even create a purple pill metaphor for the scaffolding steps between the two.
  • Other things could be added – use quotes from the movie to explain things here and there. Add Matrix like graphics to the visual syllabus and videos. Have a distracting moving Matrix background. Someone could dress up as DALMorpheus and talk in riddles. And so on. I did make a mock-up of all of these ideas for a “Glue” website. As a warning, this takes the course narrative to Jim Groom extreme levels – which I love. But others don’t, so don’t expect DALMOOC 2.0 to look anything like this. But if we went full tilt on all of these ideas with the course narrative and glue website, it might look something like this.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo, any thoughts, ideas, suggestions, etc would be greatly appreciated.

(image credit: Flavio Takemoto, obtained from


Can We Create Machines to Scale Teaching and Care?

Using machines/algorithms/computers to teach seems to be popping up a lot recently, with many people expressing concern over the idea that we can program computers/machines to make qualitative decisions (ie – care about the students enough to effectively teach them). The reason we want to create teaching machines is, of course, based on the seemingly insatiable desire to scale human behavior to thousands… while hiring less people to do so.

Of course, using machines to scale our empathy and care is nothing new. Answering machines are one example of scaling care – those that use answering machines care about catching phone calls while they are gone, but don’t want to hire a personal assistant to stay at their house and take messages. So in way, they are able to scale the care that they have for talking on the phone to the number of incoming phone messages that they can’t cover. Generally, if you know the person that owns the machine and you know they want to hear what you have to say, you feel that this machine is extending the communication of that empathy into the times when that person is not physically present to answer the phone.

Something about the intent, design, and personalization of answering machines makes some aspect of communicating care scalable beyond the person behind the machine.

However, somewhere between the answering machine and computerized teachers, there is a disconnect for many in feeling what they see as the necessary level of real care and empathy. Despite this, some people just want to continue down the path of computerized teaching, feeling that perfecting the program/numbers behind the system will change that disconnect. They are spending millions of dollars to create program to write custom curriculum for each student, which is ironic seeing that we used to pay human beings $10-15 an hour at Sylan Learning Center to hand write personalized curriculum plans for each learner. Maybe instead of trying to perfect computerized teaching to the point that most actually feel “cared” for – what if we tried to figure out what people actually want to have computerized and what they don’t?

For example, many people really hate how answering machines are scaled to take care of customer service calls at large companies. So what makes that usage different than the basic home consumer answering machine? There are times when people want a person and times when they don’t. For example, if you just want your account details confirmed over the phone, you may not want to talk to a person who might have no business knowing those details.

So instead of trying to force all teaching into a computer algorithm that many might not be happy with, maybe we should look at what parts learners want to have automated and what parts they don’t.

For example, if you teach online, you have probably run into at least a few posts in the Help forum that start with “I’m embarrassed to post this here, but…” followed by a basic question about procedure or other things in the syllabus. Maybe that person would prefer an automated system that answers their question without public embarrassment?

edugeek-journal-avatarOf course, what learners want automated is often different for each learner. But it seems that the general idea is that we need to focus our research and money more on “answering machines” and less on “virtual teachers.” We need things that help us connect with people at a distance, not that replaces the people in the distance process with virtual non-people.

(image credit: Sanja Gjenero, obtained from


Is It Really Possible to Re-do Ed Tech From Scratch?

Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris asked an interesting question at Hybrid Pedagogy a couple of days ago: “Imagine that no educational technologies had yet been invented — no chalkboards, no clickers, no textbooks, no Learning Management Systems, no Coursera MOOCs. If we could start from scratch, what would we build?”

I’m a bit perplexed as to where to start. Its a great question. But would it even be possible to surgically remove educational technology from the larger world around them? So much of our technology is connected to external contexts that it may be impossible to even consider. Can we really imagine a world without books? The line between textbook and book is so blurred… probably not.

My concern though is that our field focuses too much on “how technology is shaping us” and not enough on how much we shape our technology. All technology tools have underlying (and often times not so underlying) ontologies, epistemologies, and so on. We could start from scratch, but if we don’t get rid of the dominant mindset of “instructivism/behaviorism as the one-size-fits-all solutionism” that is so prevalent in Ed Tech – we will end up with the same tools all over again.

However, I wouldn’t start over from scratch with technology as much as I would with theory. I would put active learning as the dominant narrative over passive learning. I would pull ideas like connectivism and communal constructivism up to the same level as (or higher than) instructivism. I would dump one size-fits-all positivism and replace it with context-morphing metamodernism. I would make heutagogy/life-long learning the ending hand-off point of formal education, as opposed to having formal education with a pedagogical “end goal.” I would get rid of the standardization of solutions and replace this ideology with one of different contexts and different solutions for different learners. I would go back in time and make people see the learner as the learning management system instead of a system or program. I would switch from instructor-centered to student-centered at every juncture. And so on.

edugeek-journal-avatarIf we don’t get the right theories and ideas in place in the first place, we will just continue evangelizing people to the same tech problems we have always had, even if we are able to somehow start over from scratch. In other words, the problem is not in our technologies, but our beliefs and theories. Our Ed Tech follows our theory, not the other way around.

(image credit: Gustavo Fiori Galli, obtained from


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