Getting Lost in the Four Moves of #EngageMOOC

This week we are looking at what to do about polarization and fake news in EngageMOOC. Our assignment this week was to look at Mike Caulfield’s Four Moves and use it to evaluate a web source. The Four Moves idea is a response to what Mike sees as the inadequacies of other information literacy checklists like CRAAP. Admittedly, these checklists do get long and cumbersome. For many people, this is not a problem. For others, it is. But in the end, my concern is that neither one will help with polarization.

So I am going through the Four Moves idea with common arguments that  I often see getting polarized online. To be honest, I really like the Four Moves idea… under certain conditions. I have not read through the longer book that is linked in the post above, so maybe all of this is addressed in there. For now, I will just focus on the blog post. The first step of the Four Moves process (which is not a check list… even though it technically is :) ) starts off with this:

Check for previous work. Most stories you see on the web have been either covered, verified, or debunked by more reputable sources. Find a reputable source that has done your work for you. If you can find that, maybe your work is done.

So this is great when dealing with a really simple new piece of news, like the example given of “Jennifer Lawrence died.” But the problem quickly becomes: what counts as a “reputable” source? Things like the CRAAP method are supposed to be about helping people determine what is reputable, so I am a bit confused as how the Four Moves would replace CRAAP when it technically starts after CRAAP is finished (yeah, I am giggling at that too). In today’s polarized climate, people look to very bad websites like Brietbart, The Blaze, and dozens of other extreme left and right organizations as “reputable.” Millions see these websites as “a reputable source that done your work for you”… even though they aren’t. Then there is the idea of being “debunked.” Of course someone that is anti-vaccination could look at Mercola as “reputable”… but that has been debunked, right? Yes, it has. But then the anti-vaxxers debunked that debunkation (is that a word?). Then the pro-vaccination side debunked that debunkination… and it has been going back and forth for a long time. Years. Decades. There are so many competing debunkinations that it is impossible to keep up with at times. The problem is, everything from the flat earth theory to the alt right to the anti-vaccination movement to the anti-gun control crowd have created an extensive network of websites that cite their own network of research, debunkinators, and reliable/credible sources. The problem is no longer “is this a reputable source” but “who do you say the reputable sites are out of all the competing ecosystems of so-called reputable sources”?

Go upstream to the source. If you can’t find a rock-solid source that has done your verification and context-building for you, follow the story or claim you are looking at to it’s origin. Most stories shared with you on the web are recoverage of some other reporting or research. Follow the links and get to the source. If you recognize the source as credible, your work may be done.

This flows from the same problem as the one above – going back to the source on most of the issues that polarize us will just end up at competing websites that all claim credibility and research. Even if you pull out Snopes or Politifact or Wikipedia, the response will often be “oh, those are leftist sites and I want something unbiased like Fox News.”

Read laterally. If you have traced the claim or story or research to the source and you don’t recognize it, you will need check the credibility of the source by looking at available information on its reliability, expertise, and agenda.

Looking at available information on reliability, expertise, and agenda is technically part of CRAAP… but again, some people see all of this through different lenses. When I look at Mercola’s website, I see an obvious agenda from people without expertise and lacking in reliability. But the anti-vaxxers sees a website that is full of reliability and expertise, with “no agenda but the truth.” The things is, if you see a new article questioning the safety of the flu vaccine, you can go through each of these steps and end up on Mercola and deem the flu vaccine as deadly.

Circle back. A reminder that even when we follow this process sometimes we find ourselves going down dead ends. If a certain route of inquiry is not panning out, try going back to the beginning with what you know now. Choose different search terms and try again.

Selecting different search terms on Google will pretty much give you similar results, because Google looks past those terms and gives you what it thinks you want based on past searches. Of course, using CRAAP you wouldn’t make that mistake… but that doesn’t automatically make CRAPP better.

(hopefully you are giggling as much as I am every time I use CRAAP. Oh wait…)

So the thing is, I really like Four Moves in place of CRAAP and other methods… when dealing with someone that would have the same version of “reliable” and “credible” that I do. And I am sure that someone with a very extreme conservative outlook on life would say the same thing… and would not trust me because of my views on what sites are “reliable” (that is actually not hypothetical – my name was released on the “list of worst pro-vaccination trolls” years ago because I have butted heads with so many anti-vaxxers online through the years). Polarization will continue as long as we can’t deal with the core issue that the different sides have a fundamentally different understanding of what counts as “credible, reliable sources.”

Losing a Friend in Times of Polarization: an #engageMOOC Side Thought

We have probably all experienced either ourselves being defriended on Facebook over something, or seeing others cut off contact with each other due to disagreements. Losing friends like that is definitely difficult due to the evolving constraints of social media, but I am referring to a different kind of loss here.

I met my friend Jeff in college, but we connected better later due to spending a lot of time hanging out during the after-college years. My wife actually knew him before I did. We moved away and somewhat lost touch. However, we would reconnect and catch up as much as we could. When we all got on social media, Jeff and I would connect more often and discuss life as well as our favorite topics: music and/or religion. Our views evolved away from the evangelical bubble we had been stuck in during college. Or, to be more honest, none of us felt the need to try to pretend to fit in with a label that really didn’t fit in the first place.

Jeff was really more vocal about becoming a liberal. This cost him a lot of friends from our college days (but I also lost many of those friends as well). Jeff would get frustrated with the way he was treated and would shut down his social media accounts every so often. After a couple of months, he would pop back up with either a new account or new name and start asking me about music. Sometimes he found me, others I would go looking for him. This was his pattern for the last few years until it changed at the end of 2017. He shut everything down in early November and didn’t come back. So in January of 2018 I decided to do some digging to see where he had popped back up.

All I found was his obituary from mid-November.

What really enraged me about this was that I found out about it so much later. I was still connected with some of his friends from his hometown, but none of them bother to contact us and tell us. he had passed. Additionally, no one from our our college/post college circles seemed to even know he had passed away. We had all become so polarized that we had failed the basics of human decency: let people know when their friends have died.

Jeff had lived a hard life. He was a black child that was adopted by white parents in a small rural town in east Texas. Our mutual friends from that town would have known he passed away, because they all knew Jeff. Jeff often talked about not knowing anything about his birth culture growing up and only discovering it at Baylor University (and even then, he recognized it was a bit skewed there). After getting out on his own, he struggled with discovering he had mental disabilities. He changed his faith to agnostic and his political views to “true” liberal (what most people call neo-liberalism today). He explored different sexualities. All of this caused him to be ostracized by his friends, his old church family, and most people in his home town. My wife and I were the few that stuck with him, because we don’t have conservative views on any of those aspects of life.

But here was his obituary, ignoring all of that, and speaking of all of his activities at our old church. They used that time to describe him, but didn’t bother to tell any of us from that time of his life that he had passed away.

It was all about illusion. As a small town, they had to present the adopted son of a prominent bank manager as a “good Christian boy,” while making sure no one showed up to share any stories that might destroy that facade:

“I really haven’t talked to him since he went so radically liberal on Facebook.”

You see, his Facebook account was completely deleted after he passed away. He shut it down on November 6th. He died from a heart attack in his sleep on the 13th. His posts were deleted a few weeks later. I had thought it was him that deleted them right after Thanksgiving (I noticed his funny comments vanished one day in the “On This Day” section I am addicted to reading every day). Now I know it couldn’t have been him.

One of his Twitter accounts was also deleted. His other one? Still up. I don’t think they ever knew about it. If they did, it would probably be gone. If for anything, just to remove the profile picture he took of himself sticking his finger up his nose at conservatives. That was just Jeff’s sense of humor.

Of course, he was the one that was told he was polarizing others by speaking up for Black Lives Matters, progressive Christianity (and later agnosticism), and systemic injustices against those with mental disabilities. People cut him off for being “divisive.”

That is my biggest concern with the conversation of polarization today: what counts as the “norm” that people are “polarizing” away from? If people were being polarized over the size of the government, or socialism vs capitalism, or some other purely political issue… that is one thing. But when one person is fighting for equality for all, and the other is fighting against it because they think the status quo is just fine…. what can you do? Why is equality a pole to be polarized to, rather than the norm in the middle?

Sorry that I can’t fix that one Jeff. Also sorry that I never convinced you to like King’s X. You won me over on Rush, though – so you won that debate in the end. I guess I had hoped that some day we could actually record our parody of “Staying Alive” that mocks charismatic church culture. But maybe it is for the better that the world is forever spared from “Speaking in Tongues”: “Well, you can tell by the way I speak in tongues, I’m a Holy Ghost guy, no time for talk….”

Vygotsky vs Spivak: Sociocultural Theory and Subalterns in #EngageMOOC

To be honest, I am not sure if I am convinced if the world has become more polarized, or if we are just becoming more aware of how divided we already were. If you go back and look at ideas like sociocultural history, there certainly is ground work for the idea that we are all different. But one thing is sure: we need to improve where we are regardless of whether we just got here or have always been here all along and just didn’t know it.

My interest in sociocultural theory came about in an Advanced Instructional Design course, where we had to take some educational theory and argue 1) why it was an instructional design theory, and 2) why it counted as an advanced one. There are different flavors of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory out there, but the way that I look at it that will suffice for this post is that we all belong to various sociocultural groupings that are constantly changing and affecting who we are and how we learn. These groupings can be anything from physical characteristics to employment status to educational study topic to even where we are currently eating a meal. The first set of videos in EngageMOOC touch on many different ways to look at some important sociocultural groupings, for example.

Because we are all slightly different socioculturally, and who we are socioculurally is in constant flux, making something like education into an unchanging constant becomes counter-intuitive to who we are as the human race. But those unchanging constants are what most theories look to codify.

Was I successful in defending sociocultural theory as an advanced instructional design theory? You can read the paper to judge for yourself (“Sociocultural Theory as an Advanced Instructional Design Method: Examining the Application, Possibilities, and Limitations”), but our instructor also admitted to us that there really is no such thing as “advanced” instructional design theories. The Master’s Degree program had an “instructional design” course, so the Ph.D. program was given an “advanced ID course… just because.

Not too long after that, I became aware of the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and especially her most well-known work Can the Subaltern Speak?  (good one paragraph summary here, or full text here). The basic problem she was addressing was how many post-colonialists were trying to help the untouachables in India, but were speaking for them instead of having them speak for themselves. Additionally, there was also the assumption that all of these groups had one collective opinion on any topic, thus erasing individual differences.

What does this have to do with our current polarization? We seem to throw around solutions like “just listening to the other side” or “just respond in kindness”…. but to those of us that have tried those methods, we find they rarely work. I have responded with kindness. I have responded with heated debate. I have responded with seeking to understand. Sometimes good dialogue is the result, but most times they keep arguing.

However, I have taken note of what starts many fights online. There is usually a provocative thought about the opposite side thrown out by a person, typically containing vast misunderstandings and outright hyperbole about the “other.” This enrages those “others,” who jump in and start swinging. For example, you will rarely see a fight start over someone saying “I am pro-life because I want to see all babies born.” You more typically see enragement ensue after some statement like “I am pro-life, which is so much better than you evil liberals that just delight in killing babies like your leader Killary does in her secret pizza basement ceremonies!”

Obviously, those of the liberal viewpoint take offense at this. But do we ask why they would get offended? I mean beyond the obvious reason that these statements are not true, and cast them in the most evil light. They know people think that way about them already – so why is it different when they see a FB comment from an acquaintance saying so?

I would submit that they feel their ability to speak for themselves has been violated by being cast into the wrong sociocultural grouping, based on assumptions from someone that didn’t even bother to ask what they think in their own voice.

They didn’t let the subaltern speak for themselves.

Spivak spoke about how subalterns can be anyone that is in a position of less power and control in a given situation, and not just the untouchables of India. In education, our students are typically subalterns to the instructors. In online conflicts, those that propose some wild misunderstanding of the “other” tend to quickly jump into the seat of power in those encounters, setting those they unfairly characterize into subaltern roles because of the language they utilize to tear them down.

So, of course, part of the task is getting everyone to realize that we all have unique sociocultural characteristics, and therefore we need to be allowed to speak for ourselves rather than have our beliefs dictated to us. But on the other side, when someone has attempted to erase our own voice in a situation, we should try to realize that it is okay to feel upset by that. It is okay to get “butthurt,” no matter what someone says. It is okay to push back. It is okay to ignore it. It is okay to respond in kindness, and it is okay to be angry. We are all unique people. We can all react uniquely. There is no roadmap.

But I would also suggest that we all need to learn from how we react, to make sure we don’t turn around and make others feel the same way.

Too many times, it seems like our solutions to “fake news” involves finding ways to get rid of anger. That will never happen. Other methods seem to point fingers at every time people get things wrong online. That will never end, because the first time people stamped letters into clay tablets was the first time people misunderstood something and wrote about it. People misunderstand – we always have, we always will.

None of this is easy. There will be no finish lines to cross to say “we fixed fake news!” or “we finally unpolarized everything!” It’s a process. You and I can only be our own unique part in it all.

How Would You Use Innovation to Save Education?

Too often it seems like educators define innovation as “change for the sake of changing something.” Innovation becomes the default context that they start with: if you have a problem, then fix it by innovating. For a while now, various outlets have been asking various questions that all boil down to: How would you use innovation to save education?

This is part of what Audrey Watters refers to as the “Innovation Gospel,” which became overwhelming in education and business a long time ago. One goal of the Innovation Gospel, of course, is to “fix” education… but always by starting with innovation rather than solutions. Watters response to what she would do to fix education is not “innovative” according to many, but it is something that would be a huge change:

This is also a question I have often pondered – what would I do if I had massive money to fix education? “Reparations” being one of the best answers, I will have to go for some runner-up answers. To be honest, nothing really innovative comes to mind at first. What I first think of are things that we all have heard from research as far back as the 80s or 90s (probably earlier) – stuff that we are pretty sure would help education, but that we never really hear mentioned in the Innovation Gospel:

  • Care for students: make sure they are fed, clothed, cared for – and not just with the small (but impactful nonetheless) efforts we currently have.
  • Train teachers to be more empathetic and caring for their students.
  • Pay to make facilities and tools safe and inclusive.
  • For that matter, make our schools and curriculum inclusive and empathetic for all learners. Even the newer ones.
  • Re-vamp curriculum to move away from pedagogy to heutagogy (teaching learners how to learn rather than what to learn).
  • Fund and pay teachers and staff.
  • Remove grades and standardized testing.

The list could probably go on, but the important thing to emphasize here is that this is all old research. None of it is “innovative” in the way many use the term today.  You will even find these ideas mentioned or even explored in depth in older Instructional Design textbooks as “established ideas” (even though I would still use “established” cautiously at best) or some other term that implies they are not new.

So why do we hear more about learning analytics and virtual reality and innovation “fixing” education these days than these “established” ideas?

Maybe it is our worship of the Innovation Gospel. Maybe it is difficult to quantify care, inclusion, heutagogy, and grade-less classrooms. Maybe it exposes education’s long fascination with increasing surveillance of learners in various ways. Maybe it means we lose the ability to “weed out” less desirable students in the name of standardization and averages. Maybe we are afraid that these are never-ending rabbit holes of problems that we don’t want to know how deep they go. Maybe these are just too hard and complex and overwhelming to know where to start. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Whatever the reason, the people that have the money and means to work on these issues are usually not interested in the fixes that have already been discovered (but poorly implemented or never implemented). They are interested in data policies and future trends and fancy shiny virtual things – all things that might in some way impact education (or they might not). Our challenge is to pull that interest away from the shiny new toy of innovation and focus it on the nitty gritty work of making the hard changes at the classroom level of education. To be honest… that is a pretty daunting dragon to slay.

The Dangerous Implications and Science of “The War Against Boys”

You might have noticed the PragerU videos going around claiming to have proof of a coordinated “War Against Boys” in our schools today. These videos are popping up everywhere, from ads in MineCraft game videos to viral sharing on Facebook. They represent the most recent work of Christina Hoff Sommers’ decades long crusade against what she sees as the problems with liberals and feminism. The two basic points of the video (and the book it comes from) are that 1) feminists invented a problem with girls’ education in order to ignore the problems with boys’ education, and 2) feminists have convinced society to improperly socialize boys, both inside and outside of schools.

The science behind these claims is incredibly problematic, but I want to look at that after looking at the real problem. Lee Skallerup Bessette sums up the implications of boys seeing these videos well:

I followed this up with a lamentation that I couldn’t find a good article that explores her points in addition to the scientific problems together, so I thought.. why not write that article here?

My brief time as an 8th grade teacher taught me that I tend to see in students what I want to see. I noticed that every time some flashy professional development speaker came along with some idea that sounded cool to me, I suddenly started “seeing” that problem in my classes. I finally realized that I need to see students for who they are, not who I wanted them to be. Pretty basic, I know… but I am a bit thick-skulled sometimes.

So when some teachers – especially here in the South – that are already skeptical of feminism see “The War Against Boys”…. how will that affect the way they see (and teach) their classes? Then, on the other side, you show these videos to young boys, convincing them there is a conspiracy – led by women – against them? Throw that in with the “purity culture” pervasive in so many parts of society (that teaches that girls are just there to tempt boys into all kinds of bad situations)…. you have a recipe for a disaster.

Much of this is not new… I remember hearing things about wars against manhood/boyhood/etc back in school in the 80s and 90s. But we need to start seeing the connection between all of this and our current political leader’s weirdness and hatred towards women. Go look into how many political leaders from more conservative area were raised on this idea of “feminist war against men” + “women are out to tempt you to sin.”

But what exactly is the problem with the science of “The War Against Boys”? For this, I will defer mostly to this review of the book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men by E. Anthony Rotundo (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/books/reviews/waragainstboys0703.htm). Its a short look at the problems, which can be summed up with this excerpt:

Examined carefully, Sommers’s case does not hold up well. She persistently misrepresents scholarly debate, ignores evidence that contradicts her assertions, and directs intense scrutiny at studies she opposes while giving a free critical ride to research she supports.

This would also apply to the current videos making the social media rounds, since they are based on the same logic. Rotundo’s conclusion is an important point to consider (he does examine specific points to back up his assertions in between these two quotes it you are interested):

But Sommers’s book is a work of neither dispassionate social science nor reflective scholarship; it is a conservative polemic. Sommers focuses less on boys than on the feminists and cultural liberals against whom she has a long-standing animus. As a society, we sorely need a discussion of boyhood that is thoughtful and searching. This intemperate book is a hindrance to such conversation.

So what is meant by “long-standing animus”? This review does not give too much explanation, but we can turn to another source to discuss that. This “take down” of Sommers is long, but it goes into many of the organizations and movements she has been a part of, as well as her support for the abuse of GamerGate. I link to this not as ad-hominem or guilt by association type of attck, but as context to know why Sommers has “long-standing animus” towards liberals and feminists. This take down shows how her books and videos come from a context that is extremely politicized in nature, specifically against the many straw-man caricatures she creates of those she disagrees with:

While she may bill herself as the “Factual Feminist”, her history suggests she’s a right-wing shill who uses her platform to spread misinformation about feminism, in the hope of opposing social change.

What you end up with is a factually skewed view of complex problems in schools that simplifies those problems to “girls are getting better treatment than boys” because “liberals and feminists hate boys” being fed to children as they watch videos about their favorite video games, and then shared by their parents and teachers on Facebook… none of which are aware of the hidden political agendas behind the videos. This is exacerbated by the teachers who watch the videos and swear they see this “war” happening in their schools.

Can I comment on that last part as a former school teacher? Really? You see evidence of a war against boys all the time – but you haven’t noticed it until some slick video on Facebook convinced you to see it? Who is the head of this war? Where is all of the organization coming from? The feminists and liberals? Even when you work in a school in Texas with mostly conservative-leaning teachers?

No, you don’t see a war against boys. You see a side to take, and instead of being a neutral observer, you join your pre-determined “side” and share the video to attack the other side. Passive-aggressively, of course, because the recent version of the videos has toned down the “evil liberals and feminists” to some subtle dog whistles. What does that mean when you are the one hearing those whistles?

Look, schools have problems. Every one of them has plans to address those issues, so they know. Sometimes those problems are focused among boys, or girls. But the problem is both, not either/or. Black and white dogma like the War Against Boys is the true problem – a carefully crafted war against society, designed to divide us all and destroy one side.

To Grade or Not to Grade: Does the Learner Get a Say?

Grading has been a contentious topic in some circles of education for decades now. Many outside of those circles seem to accept grading as either a good thing at best, or a necessary evil at worst, all the while never questioning if it is possible to not grade in the first place.

For me, I have found grades problematic for a long time. I used to be firmly against them, but years of teaching has changed my status from “against always” to “still not a fan, but it’s complicated.” What exactly has been complicating my views? Talking to students about grades.

I used to teach various undergrad instructional design courses at the University of Texas at Brownsville (before it merged to become UT Rio Grande Valley). We would have many online discussions about all kinds of education topics in these courses. I often found out how much I had framed my progressive / connectivist / critical lens of instructional design through things that looked good to me as a white person (as well as a male) without considering how those stances looked to people of color.

My anti-grading stance was one of these lens.

So I want to try and capture the overarching conversations and issues that were brought to my attention through these conversations with students and many others through the years.

When educators say “grades are bad,” we often offer a “conversational” approach to grading as an alternative. This typically means that instructors should have a dialogue with learners to give them feedback instead of grades, or at least let students come up with their own grade. Of course, this sounds great when you are white (or male) and you will be having this conversation with someone that probably looks a lot like you. But how does this “conversation” sound to an immigrant to this country? What about a first generation college student that is new to the whole system? What about a woman in a field that is typically dominated by men? What about a person of color at a predominately white university? Would they feel comfortable with having their success in the course rely on a conversation with someone that might not realize their own prejudices?

This is an area where we need to put our own anecdotes aside. Sure, students might be comfortable conversing with you… but what about all instructors in your department? All professors at your university? All teachers anywhere?

Sure, my white privilege makes having a conversation in place of a grade sound great… because my privilege will help me get the upper hand in that conversation more often than not.

And then, even in a situation where you have a white male student and a white male teacher, the teacher is still in the position of authority… and not everyone feels comfortable with trusting all positions of authority. Often for good reason.

We keep talking about how grading is bad because we need to learn to trust students, but how dangerous is it to replace grading with something else that requires all students to trust all teachers at all times? What does it mean to force them to trust all of us all the time?

So does any of this make grading “good” by comparison? No, it still doesn’t. As many of my students pointed out, they still recognize that tests, papers, assignments, etc have problems, bias, and inequalities. But with a multiple choice question, you know the right answer is there. With a complex rubric, you know exactly what you need to do to get a good grade. Those questions and rubrics are usually problematic, but at least the answer is there – and you just have to learn the game to get the grade.

With a “conversation” about a grade – you don’t know the rules going in. You don’t know which teachers are harboring unacknowledged racism or sexism that will skew the conversation and hold you down. At least with a graded test, if they give you a lower grade because of racism and sexism, you can point easily to that corruption and say “I chose the right answer and you still marked it wrong!” or “the rubric line says 1000 words and I had 1112 and still got points taken off!”

As many students explained to me in many different ways: even though the white dudes will have advantages and privileges with many tests and assessments, those assessments are so cut and dried that there is a clear path for everyone to achieve equality (even if it comes at a greater price for people of color than for the white students). For some, a clear – but more difficult – path to equality can be more attractive than an unclear, unknown path through potentially dangerous conversations. Of course, not all found it to be more attractive, but it is certainly attractive to some. Those students are important voices to listen to.

Then, of course, there are the students that say they are used to grades, so they prefer to have them. They will even go as far to say they don’t see the harm in grades. Not a “good” reason to me… but who am I to say that is the wrong? Research backs me up? Or does it?

Let’s face it – it is really hard to research the impact of grades themselves apart from student opinion. How do we know that we are researching the grades themselves and not the assignment that produces the grades? How do we know that we are looking at grades and not bad assessment design, or even poor teaching of the topic being assessed? Or motivation, or privilege, or tardiness, or…. any number of issues that a “grade” could reflect? The biggest problem with grades is that so many factors go into them that we have a hard time really telling if the grades are the problem or if one of many factors that produced the grade is the real problem.

So that leaves us with looking at things like “student satisfaction” and “self-reported motivation” to tell if grades are a problem or not – which is not a bad thing. But once you go down that path, you have to be careful not to look at the results the wrong way. Too many times, educators see a study and assume the results mean that we know the one solution for all learners at all times: “this study found that group work is good, so let’s make all learners do group work!” Well, the study probably found something like “test scores went up 31% when group work was utilized” or “45% of students indicated greater whatever on such and such survey when group work was utilized.” Studies show averages and statistics – not something that is true for all learners at all times. Research is helpful, but rarely answers one solution for all learners. Educators have to rely on their judgement when making decisions on grading.

Therefore, whether we as teachers choose to grade or not to grade, we are usually centering the decision to be graded on our bias for or against grading, regardless of whether individual learners want it or not.

(What I say is that we need systems that allow for learners to choose how they get graded and by whom…. something we are working on with self-mapped learning pathways (aka dual-layer, customizable modalities, and all the other terms I can’t decide on… :) ), but that is post for another day.)

To be clear, I still find grades incredibly problematic. When I read a post like “Why I Don’t Grade” by Jesse Stommel, I completely agree. I also recognize that there are complications and other sides to many of these points as well. Just as a quick example of what I mean, I want to run through the graphic from this post that has probably been shared the most – not to disagree, but to extend the conversation (probably while repeating some of what was said in this post and others out there – apologies for that):

For example, its true that grades are not good feedback. This is probably because I can’t find much evidence they were ever meant to be “feedback” per se, at least initially. It seems that grades and feedback were meant to be separate but complimentary ideas at one time. The further back in time you go, the more likely you are to see grade-books and graded papers with separate feedback columns. But as society as devalued and de-funded education, you see grades replacing feedback as a means to cope with what society is doing to education. So is that really a problem with grades, or society? I would have to honestly point more at society.

Also, I completely agree that grades make a horrible incentive. They never encouraged me to study harder or lesser. But talk about a can of worms there – try discussing what is an incentive? with a diverse group of students, and you might end up with a heated argument. Everyone seems to find incentive in different things. Its a pretty relative thing in some ways (not in others, of course). But do some students really, truly feel that grades are a positive incentive for them? You bet. Do I disagree? Yes. But if I make my stance on incentive the default one for the entire class, what does that mean about my class? Who is the center then?

For the next one, again I agree that grades are not good markers of learning. But that is because they never really were meant to be markers of learning. Again, you go back in time, there was a greater understanding that grades were a representation of a learner’s ability to apply what they learned to an assessment or paper or what have you. But not as an actual marker of actual learning. There was a greater understanding (at least in older books) that learning was difficult to measure, and a grade was only evaluating the application of learning to an assignment or test. Through the years, many have lost sight of this. Many who champion grades have lost sight of this. Many administrators and policymakers and news-makers and so on have lost sight of this. Again, not the fault of grades but society.

This reasoning also applies to how grades are not reflective of the idiosyncratic, subjective, and emotional character of learning. I completely agree, but again, that is because grades are not supposed to reflect that. They just reflect how learners can apply the idiosyncratic, subjective, and emotional aspects of learning to specific tasks, assignments, assessment, and so on. Again, much of society has just lost sight of that, there by devaluing those aspects of learning to the point of barely acknowledging them in so many corners.

And then, I agree that we see a lot of competitiveness over grades – just look at the news. This is not a good thing. But where does this competitiveness come from? Most grades are based on a scale of 0-100% for a reason: they are supposed to reflect how close an individual learner got to perfecting the graded task (a problematic statement of it’s own, of course). Grades only become competitive when we put one learner’s grades next to another and compare them. That is another societal thing, and it is one of many major issues threatening education on all fronts. I know some people actually like that kind of competition, and I try to be understanding of that mindset. But I think that we can see so many quantitative and qualitative effects of that competition currently consuming education, that we can at least say that we should at least massively dial it back. But again, that is really a societal thing more than a grade thing.

On to the last one. This point is one that gets at the common argument in support of grades: objectivity. This is another one that is a huge can of worms once you get discussing it with students, as there are so many versions of “what counts as fair.” Some see grades as a way to make assessment fair, others see the problems with grading as making that fairness impossible. Really, when it comes down to it, our bias and other factors influence most arguments for or against various definitions of fair. So, unfortunately, the best we can usually come up with is “I think this is fair because I think it is so, and I think that is unfair because I think it is so as well.” We can lean on societal definitions and social contract, but history has proven that is not always the morally best option. Few or our positions are very defensible either way if we were to argue our case before an impartial observer.

However, I think within the “fairness” argument is a way to frame grades that objectively encapsulates one argument against grades that can’t be influenced by bias or context or the whims of society. One of the reasons grades are not fair is that a grade, by itself, does not tell you anything about how the learner earned that grade. You see an 80 – does that mean it was a perfect score that had 20 points taken off for being late, or a slightly above effort turned in on time by the learner? There is no way of knowing either way just by looking at a grade by itself. Educators mix so many things into grades – punctuality, following directions, context, format, etc – that by the end, any single grade is a reflection of all kinds of things in addition to how well the learner could apply their learning to an assignment. Then, if one adds up all the assignments in one class into an “A, B, C, D, E, F” grade… and then, add up all the class grades into a GPA… you end up with a number that really tells you nothing about the exact way that grade was determined. Whether you label that as fair or not, it is still a huge issue.

Of course, one could say that this issue is easily solved if we just add the ability for every instructor to input qualitative feedback to each grade. Have the instructor tell why that grade happened, and problem solved, right? Very true, but you would then have just eliminated the need for grades for anything other than competition – and no one cares about that competition after you have graduated. They only care about GPAs as a proxy for that qualitative feedback. But if they have it….

In other words, giving the explanation for why someone got a specific grade ultimately negates the need to have the grade listed in the first place.

When one looks at all of my reasons and others’ reasons for not liking grades, so many of them can be written off by the “pro-grade side” (if that really is such a thing) as bias, taking grades out of context, historical misunderstanding, applying relativistic standards, or blaming grades for societal problems. And I still stick with my views on grades even though all of this is true, because you can’t easily separate all of that out even if attempting to “reform” or “fix” or “reclaim” grading. But at the end of all that, I still come down to the fact that a grade by itself doesn’t explain what it really means… and adding that meaning removes the need for the grade in the first place in the bigger picture of what really matters in education (because even if you like competition, you have to recognize it is not what really matters in the grand scheme of education). The main thing that we can do to best fix grades would make them obsolete, and that should say a lot.

Setting Up a Learner Activity Hub Like #YogaMOOC or #OpenEdMOOC

Since a couple of people have asked about how I put together the Learner Activity Hubs for OpenEdMOOC and YogaMOOC, I thought I would put some of the specifics into a blog post for reference (and to help myself remember later how I did it if we ever do another one). Many of the basics are covered in Alan Levine’s most excellent guide to setting up a network hub, so I will only really cover the few things that I did in addition to those instructions. I also won’t cover too much on where to find options in in WordPress – hopefully you can find that easily online, or already know how to do things like add categories, edit posts, upload images, etc.

But first, I want to go over some unique considerations for our learner hubs. The method I describe here has some extra steps involved due to some of the parameters I wanted to have for the hub. You don’t have to have any or all of these parameters in mind. But what I wanted to have unique for these hubs included:

  • No wall of text. It is pretty easy to dump all course blog posts in one place and have a never ending scroll of text. But that is hard on the eyes and a little counter productive to getting people to connect. Also a bit dehumanizing to the individual posts.
  • Link back to individual websites. The wall of text also discourages people from going to individual blogs, and seeing them as unique individuals. So I wanted to have a theme that at most displayed the post titles, linking back to the source website.
  • Images or graphics to humanize each link. If at possible, I wanted pictures of people to link back to their blogs. This introduced a few unique challenges with technical limitations, but I will discuss work-arounds below.

The basic flow of the work would be that participants that want their work to go into the Hub (this is voluntary) would fill out a form to get me the details about their blog. I would get the results of that form. I would then create a Category for each person (based on the name or a pseudonym they give me), attach a featured image to that category (one that they choose), connect that category to an RSS feed from their blog, and let the magic happen. That way, when they create a post, an image of them with a link to their blog post is added to an image grid of blog posts. I love the results, but the process to get there is a little more involved than I thought it would be.

Setting Up the Hub

With all of that in mind, I selected a theme and some plugins to make those goals happen. Somewhat.  Here is what I chose:

  • FeedWordPress plugin. This is a must have for the Hub – see Alan’s instructions above.
  • Morphology Lite Theme. This one had a nice image-based front page blog grid, although you can’t read the titles until you mouse over each image individually. That part is a bit annoying – I would like to find one that has the image with the text imposed over it. But this theme does the basics of what I need it to do well.
  • Category Featured Images Extended plugin. This allows you to associate an image with a category – this is part of the process for creating the grid front page that I will get into below. FeedWordPress can’t pull in featured images, and most people don’t use them anyways, so this is a way to get the images that the front page of Morphology Lite needs added automatically
  • Ajax Search Lite plugin – as the YogaMOOC Learner hub grew, it became hard to find certain people’s work. This plugin seems to work well as an intuitive search. See the results here. However, I couldn’t get it to work on OpenEdMOOC, which had more plugins than YogaMOOC. It may not play well with some plugins.

The first step was to install Morphology Lite and set up my installation like their demo was set-up – they have some handy instructions here. For YogaMOOC, the blog hub is the front page. For OpenEdMOOC, the blog hub is not the front page. It can be set up either way. One thing to note: there is a setting to tell how many images are on the front page (found in Appearance > Customize > Blog Options > “Image Post Template Count”), and it is initially set pretty low. If you are expecting a lot of posts, you might want to set it high (I currently have YogaMOOC set to 600 with no problems).

Next is to set up the FeedWordPress plugin. I pretty much follow Alan’s instructions above except for one change: I don’t set a default category for all syndicated posts. I do that for each participant individually so they get their own unique category (and make sure all incoming categories are converted to tags as Alan’s instructions say). The reason for this will become apparent below.

Also, you can choose to set up the syndication update scheduling how you like. Because the OpenEdMOOC Hub is smaller, I have it set up like Alan recommends. Because the YogaMOOC is so large, there are typically a few problems with updating automatically. I have to update that one manually each day to deal with those issues.

The Category Featured Images Extended plugin pretty much works right out of the box, but I do recommend setting up a Global Fallback Image, which I will go into below.

The Ajax Search Plugin can be configured how you like, but I recommend making sure to turn on any option that says to search Categories as well.

To get the data from the participants, I created a Google Form and embedded it in a page with some basic instructions and a link to more detailed instructions for those that need it. I just collected the information that I needed – but getting user images is a bit more difficult. Depending on our course, you may want to set up a different system for collecting user images.

The final part of the set-up was to create an initial post that contained the instructions for adding blogs to the hub. I kind of see this post as the cut-off point for older posts – anything older then this was probably not created for the course and can be removed from the Hub. This is up to you of course – you can keep older posts if you like. But this initial post also serves as a visual placeholder to make sure your blog display limit is high enough – if you don’t see the post at the end, then turn up the limit. I also use this post to create the global fall back image for the hub. I set up a default category for the blog, and then add an image branded for the course. The key is to check the “set as global image” option. when editing the Category to add the default image. This will set your course iamge as the default image for anything that doesn’t have one.  This can help you to see any feeds that you set up incorrectly: if you see the image where it shouldn’t be, this signals you that something is wrong with that feed because it is falling back to the default.

Adding People to the Hub

This is where the time consuming part happens. It only takes a minute or two to set up each person, but once you get a long list of people it can add up.  However, this is a time commitment that decreases over time once most people in the course that are going to sign up for the hub are signed up.

Since I used a Google form to collect information, I can get the results in a nice convenient spreadsheet. This is where the fun begins. Some people fill out the form great, others miss a lot. I try to extract a name, a link to a blog feed, and an image for each person. The name and image can be flexible, but if the blog link doesn’t work or has no RSS feed, I mark it as a problem and move to the next one. Additionally, I try to respect what people put in the form. If they say they are using a course tag instead of a full blog, but there is no tag, I mark it as a  problem and move on. Once I get through the whole list, I send an email to those with problems with links to help them their issues (typically a form email with everyone BCC’d on it).

The first step is create a category for each person based on their name (or pseudonym if they choose). Sometimes I have to look at their email address or Twitter account to get a fuller name in order to make sure there aren’t several “John”s or whatever in the system (since some people only seem to enter their first name). As soon as you add a new category, it appears at the top of the list – very convenient. I click on the edit link immediately to add the default image for this participant’s category:

The “add image” option can be found near the bottom of the edit category page. Something to think about for images in the Morphology Lite theme: the system displays the image at full size on the front page. This will lead to a chaotic patchwork effect for images of different sizes. If you like that, then no problem. I really wanted to have an organized grid, so I manually crop and resize each image to 240px by 240px. This takes time, but gives a good grid for the final product.

A quick note on finding images. I tell people to have the image they want on their about page of the blog they use, but not everyone does that. Some of them I have to search the source code for an avatar that is hidden (WordPress loves to do this for some reason). Sometimes I have to pull one of the images off the header or sidebar of the blog. But since many of these are stock images within the popular themes, those run out quickly. So then I look for their Twitter avatar if they have one. But sometimes (more often than you would believe), I come up with no images – anywhere. So I basically run their name through jdenticon to get a unique image and move on.

Once you have an image associated with the category and have it updated, you should see it on the Category page:

The Next step is to go to the Syndication area to add the blog to the Hub. This is where it can get tricky as well. Not all blogging services work the same. WordPress works the best for full blogs and tags/categories. Blogger will also work for full blog, but you have to do some link trickery to get Labels (their version of tags/categories) to work (see Alan’s instructions on this one). Some services like Wix, Weebly, etc are just downright problematic at best. They might need RSS feeds turned on for the whole blog, and often RSS feeds don’t work well at all for tags/categories. See Alan’s instructions again on finding tricky RSS feeds.

Once you have the feed, you will need to add it to the syndication area found here:

If a participant is using a full blog, then you usually pick the first one in the list that comes up when you click “Add.” If they are using WordPress tags/categories, you will usually have to scroll down to the third Option on in the list (which is the feed specifically for the category):

Once the feed is added, I will typically add the participant category right away while their name is still fresh in my mind. Scroll down to find the feed you just added. Of course, if you have a large class this list might get long after too long. If you are adding several and are doing them one at a time by following these directions, you can do a CTRL + F to search the page for “none” and this will take you to the new one you just added in the list since it (theoretically) shouldn’t have updated yet. Click on the “Categories” link under the feed you just added:

Then scroll down that page to find the category list, look for the person’s name you just created, click the box next to them, and save:

This will connect their category named after them (which is attached to their image) to their specific feed that you just added. What I usually do after this is go back to syndicated websites, search for the new feed again, and click the “Update Now” button next to it. This lets me check to see if everything is working while also clearing out the “none” next to the “last update” label so that I can search for the next feed I add easily. Once that is finished, it should tell you how many posts were pulled in:

If you are using Morphology Lite, there is still one step needed to add blog posts to the front page. Morphology only displays posts on the front page that are set to the post format of “Image.” FeedWordPress pulls in all posts as a “Standard” post format, even if you tell it to use the “Image” post format. That feature just doesn’t work in Morphology for some reason. However, it does give you the ability to moderate posts since you have to change each post to the correct format before it appears. Sounds weird, but you would be surprised how much non-course stuff I have gotten in the Hubs (resumes, recipes, and randomness, oh my!).

You can find the posts you need to update easily in the Posts list – Image post formats have an image symbol next to them, and the new ones just added should be missing it:

Click edit to update the post. Then change the post format from “Standard”:

To “Image”:

Save, and you are done.

Alternatively, once you get a large number of posts, it may be hard to go into the post list and find one or two new posts hiding in hundreds of links. You can go to the Categories page and use the search bar to find the category you just added, then click on the number in the Count column to just display those posts from that category:

Then I usually like to go to the hub to make sure the new smiling face is in there, just to make sure:

That is about it – repeat until everyone is in. I will also send out a mass email to all that I added successfully as well as a mass email to those that had problems so that they will all know where they stand. A quick note: if people update their post on their blog, FeedWordPress will also update the related info on your Hub. This will reset the post Format back to “Standard,” and the post will no longer appear on the front page. You might want to go through the full post list from time to time to catch these older updated posts.

I tend to go through the moderation process each morning just to make sure it doesn’t pile up.

Hope that covers it all – I will update if I run across anything I forgot.

Learner Activity Hub Guide for #OpenEdMOOC and #YogaMOOC

For those that are taking The Science and Practice of Yoga (YogaMOOC) or Introduction to Open Education (OpenEdMOOC), you might have noticed that we have a learner activity hub for both (OpenEdMOOC here and YogaMOOC here). We did this so that learners could create their reflections on their own websites, but still be connected in manner that is better than posting links in the discussion forum.

After putting many people in the hub, I realized it would have been a good idea to create a more comprehensive guide to creating a blog for these hubs. Better late than never. If you have created a blog and got the email that you were successfully added, this guide might still help you improve your blog. If you got an email saying there is a problem, this guide will hopefully help trouble shoot what caused that. If you are thinking of submitting a blog, please read this guide fully before doing so (even if you are an experienced blogger – not all blog platforms work the same in the hub).

I will start off by going over setting up a blog for the hub, and then cover the parts of the form to sign up for the hub (OpenEdMOOC here and YogaMOOC here) and why we need that info. First, the most important part.

You Need to Have a Blog

A blog is optional in either course, therefore you will have to set one up on your own (or use an existing one). We do not create a blog for you (some people filled out the form thinking that was the case). The blog you use will need to be public (private blogs do not work with the hub). Putting your blog in the hub is also optional, so no problem if you want to keep it private.

WordPress.com blogs are the best option to use with the hub, so if you are new to blogging (or want to create another blog just for this course), then I recommend starting there. The Hub uses WordPress itself, so it works best with those blogs that also use WordPress. Blogger/Blogspot blogs also work well (just read the exception to tags/categories below). Other blogging platforms – Tumblr, Weebly, Wix, Web.com, etc – are hit and miss. The Hub uses a technology called RSS to pull in posts, and some of those platforms have RSS feeds turned off it seems. If you use those platforms, you will have to turn on RSS. If you want to use one of those platforms with tags/categories (see below), you will also need to turn on RSS for tags/categories.

Setting up a Blog

Once you create your blog, you will need to set it up so that we can pull in your posts to the Hub. A newly created blog will generally need a few things to be ready for the hub. Since I am recommending WordPress, I will cover how to this on WordPress – but other blogging platforms should have similar functions.

First, you need to decide if the blog is going to only be used only for the course, or if it will have other topics covered (or already has). Either way is fine – if you want to cover a wide range of topics, but only want to have the ones on your course feed into the Learner Hub, we can do that with tags and categories.

Once you have decided how to use the blog, come up with a title for it that matches how you want to use it. Then change the title in the General Settings. We have probably 30 or so blogs currently in the Hub just called “Site Title” because many don’t change this setting :)

Next, you will probably want to edit the About page that most blogs come with. It is a good idea to put a picture you want to use in the Hub on that page. You have probably noticed that the Hub shows pictures of some people with their post, and generic ones for others. This is because I was able to find images of some people on their websites. I start with the About page and use any image there. Then I look on the sidebar or any other places for images. I also look on Twitter for an avatar there if you put that in there. I then look for any other images on the blog, even if they are stock images from the default template. If I can’t find anything, or the only image I can find has already been used, then I put your name in jdenticon. Note that you can use any image of yourself you want, or even something else to represent yourself like your favorite animal. Just note in the comment forms where the image is that you want me to use, or respond to the confirmation email from me with the image or link to it. Whatever you are comfortable with – your picture or some other image – is fine with me.

Finally, you need to have at least one blog post about the course you are taking, even if the whole blog is going to be used for the course. People try to spam the hub with their… whatever, so having content on your website about the course let’s me know you are legit. WordPress blogs start off with a sample blog post already there. The Hub seems to ignore these if they are left as is, so make sure to change that post to something about the course, or delete it and write a new one. If you want to use tags or categories to designate which content to pull into the Hub, then make sure to add a “YogaMOOC” tag or category to your post (these are called “labels” in Blogger). This is probably the biggest mistake people make filling out the form – they say they are using a tag or category, but then I can’t find a post with either one. I respect people’s wishes on this, so make sure to do what you indicated in the form. If you need help on tags/categories/labels, see these links:

Final note – if you don’t like the way your blog looks, there are thousands of different themes you can choose from to change it.

Filling Out The Form

Once your blog is ready to go, it is time to fill out the form for your course. I wanted to make a couple of notes about the fields on the form:

Name / Pseudonym: We use this to sort the posts in the Hub. Each person is given a category based on their name or a pseudonym. Please note: if you put just your first name in here, there is a chance that will get taken up quickly, and I will have to improvise a longer name for you. Names like “Kat”, “John”, etc get taken up quickly.

Email: This is where we will send confirmation or notification of failure. These are bulk emails, so be sure to check your spam folder.

Twitter Name: Not a requirement, but if you have an avatar there you would like to use in the Hub, then fill this out.

Blog URL: This is the second place people often make a mistake. This is the link to your blog for the people that read it, not to the control panel for your blog. Make sure to view your blog and share that full URL. Also remember: if you can’t copy what you put into this field and put it in a browser to pull up your website, then neither can I. Please make sure it is a full web address. Also, make sure it is not a link to your Facebook page or Instagram account – these are not blogs.

Hub Options: Make sure to choose the one that you will use (full blog dedicated to course, using blog category for course, or using blog tag for course). This is where I find the most mistakes in the form – people say they will use a tag or category and then do not. Also, make sure to use the tag/category designated for your course (YogaMOOC or OpenEdMOOC). Please note that using hashtags like #YogaMOOC or #OpenEdMOOC in the title or body of a blog is not the same as using the label or category feature of your blog.

Comments or Concerns: Let us know any comments/concerns you have here. Also, if there is a specific image you want to use in the Hub, let us know where it is in this field.

You will only need to submit the form once. The process of getting your blog into the hub is a manual one, so there could be a delay before I get it finished (especially if you submit outside of business hours in my timezone). If your blog makes it in the Hub, I will send a confirmation email. If there is problem, you will get an email about that (a generic one that repeats some of this blog post). Once you have fixed any issues with the Hub, respond to the email to let me know your blog is ready to try again. Due to the large number of learners in our courses, I can’t go back and check each one to see if errors have been fixed or not – you will have to let me know when it is ready. Don’t fill out the form again – just respond to the email.

Also, no need to fill out the form every time you create a blog post. The process of pulling in new posts is somewhat automated once you are in.

New blog posts have to go through a process of moderation in order to make sure no spam slips through. Therefore, there may be a delay from the time you publish your post and when it appears on the Hub.

Finally, if you want to change anything about the way your blog appears in the Hub after it has been successfully added, just respond to the confirmation email. No need to fill out the form again.

I hope this covers anything, but feel free to let me know if I left anything out. Have fun, and thank you for your participation!

Further Reflections on #OLCInnovate

After last reflecting on a specific issue at the OLC Innovate, I wanted to dive into a few random reflections and then cover my session. In many ways, I have been getting burned out on conferences. Going to session after session of hit or miss topics and then straight to mixers in the evening can be a bit of a chore. Of course, I realize that many people that attend are like me – they have to present something in order to get funding to attend. So I recognize that sessions are a necessary thing for many people. It just gets hard to go to sessions all day long.

I have always wanted to do a dual-layer conference in the same vein as our learning pathways model: one option of structured presentations and another option of unstructured unconference time that attendees can mix and match to their liking. Or even a day of structure followed by a day of unconferencing. The OLC Innovate conference had some different options like that with the Innovation Lab – a place where you could roam in and look at anything from games to design thinking to improvisation. It’s not exactly a dual-layer design, but still flexible. Due to some lingering headaches, I wasn’t able to attend everything in the Innovation Lab, but what I did see was quite enjoyable. Some of the highlights:

  • Game Design. I wish I could explore game design more in depth, but the taste of it I got at OLC Innovate will probably drive me back into exploration even more. Keegan Long-Wheeler and John Stewart from OU both do an excellent job framing game design in education. Keegan chronicled their lab activities better than I could, so read his post for a better summary. Also see me playing Nintendo Switch as well as hear about our epic dinner adventures.
  • Improvisation and Innovation. My last post described how I was not happy with some of the framing of Innovation at OLC Innovate. The Innovation Lab was a welcome counter point to that narrative. Ben Scragg, Dave Goodrich, and many others showed us how innovation can occur in every day activities, using everything from improv audience participation skits to the most excellent blues guitar improv of Rick Franklin.
  • Legos. Yep, there were Legos at OLC Innovate. I played with them. I tweeted about them. Apparently my Tweet about Legos was honest enough to win me an award. I can now prove to any doubters that I am certifiably honest now :)
  • The Prophet of Innovation Doom. Who ever created this Twitter account is weird. They should probably be banned from OLC events for life. Or put in charge of OLC. Not sure which one yet.

Now for my session at OLC Innovate. I was a bit nervous about this one. This year would be my fourth presentation along the topics of open learning and learner agency (the first two were at ET4Online and then the next two at OLC Innovate). The past three years were successful mostly because I knew many of the people coming to my sessions already, and I knew they were generally in favor of my work. It is easy to joke around, get audience participation, and go off on tangents when you already have that rapport with the attendees. Plus, the first two years I presented with my regular co-presenter Harriet Watkins. Last year Harriet was at my session even though we weren’t able to present together. This year, Harriet and many of the people I was used to presenting with or to were not going to be there. My security blanket was gone. Additionally, even most of the people that were there and that I already knew (like Keegan and John) were presenting at the same time. So I went into this session not knowing who would show up (if anyone) and even if they would want to participate in the discussion or laugh at my corny jokes.

Luckily, I had a great time. I would say that it was even my most interactive session yet. We had a great time digging through the practicals of designing a course that allows learners to self-map their learning pathway. And they asked some really hard questions. I like it when that happens. I had a line of people afterwards asking me questions. Someone even told me I was one of the few truly innovative presentations at the conference. Take that ELI! :)

(ELI rejected a presentation on the same topic a few years ago. I’m still a little bitter about that I am told.)

My only regret about my session is that special situations outside of work made me too busy to connect with Virtually Connecting to bring them into my session again. I did that last year and it was a blast. Keegan was a part of that last year and his blog post backs up how good of an idea it was to bring them into my session. Of course, it was thanks to Harriet, Rebecca HogueAutumm Caines, Whitney Kilgore, Maha Bali (I even practiced pronouncing her name correctly over and over again and then was too busy or sick to be in VC), and others with VC that made it so successful last year. Hopefully next time!

Here were some highlights from the session that will apply to future posts I am sure. Sorry that I didn’t capture names well enough to give credit to these ideas – if you said one of these let me know and I will update the post!

  • Competencies. My goal was to talk about how to convert objectives to competencies, because that is what I usually have to do with the instructors I am used to working with. The attendees at my session were coming up with great competencies already. What did they need me for? They even brought up several topics that were difficult to have in both competency and objective formats. They weren’t giving me a free pass, that was for sure. The best kind of questions are the hard ones that expose problems with your ideas.
  • Open Rubrics. While discussing the need to have less detailed rubrics, one attendee pointed out that learners could even create their own rubric. In other words, it would be a rubric with the conditions and criteria blank, for the learner to create in a way that allows them to prove they have learned the content or mastered the skill or whatever it may be. This was an idea brought up last year, but in a more general form of allowing learners to grade themselves. This is a more concrete idea that would lend itself more to situations where grades are required.
  • Gamification. Some one mentioned that in many ways, self-mapping is like creating a game out of one’s learning journey. In the Game Station at the Innovation Lab I was re-introduced to Twine. Twine is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” Teacher could look at creating their neutral zone and pathways options in Twine. Learners could use Twine in place of something like Storify possibly. I need to get in and play with the tool some, but I like the idea of looking at a self-mapped pathway as a game.
  • Real Heutagogy. Someone actually came to the session because he knew the term “heutagogy.” This is good, but also scary. Would my idea live up to scrutiny by someone that actually knows a lot about heutagogy? Apparently, it did. He liked it. That is a good sign.
  • Visualizing Pathways. There was a lot of interest in visualizing the pathways that learners take. My mock-up of what that could look like sparked that. We need to find ways to create visual representations of this, because I think it could actually help instructors gain insight into what is happening in their courses. Are there certain points where all learners come back to the instructivist option? Or maybe flee it to the connectivist option? Would those be places where the instructor is exerting too much control? If the learner could see those patterns, would that tell them something they maybe have missed? Is there something happening out in the less structured pathway they are missing? Learner self-analytics: it could be a thing.

There is probably more that I am missing, but this is getting long. As others have said, the conversations and connections were the real gold of this conference. If I get to go again in the future (you never know where the budget in the State of Texas will be at that point), my focus will definitely be on the Innovation Lab and the interaction times. And, of course, the OLCInnovateSnark Twitter Tag as well :)

Can the Student Innovate? An #OLCInnovate Reflection

The 2nd OLC Innovate conference is now over. I am sure there will be many reflections out there on various aspects of the conference. I hope to get to reflect on my presentation on learning pathways and some of the ideas that attendees shared. But I wanted to first dig into one of the more problematic aspects of the conferee: the place and role of students.

The biggest problem related to students at the conference was how they were framed as cheaters at every turn. Chris Gilliard wrote a blog post that explores this aspect in depth. I was able to finally meet and hang out with Chris and many others at Innovate. Those of us that got to hang out with Chris got to hear him pondering these issues, and his blog post makes a great summary of those ponderings.

The other student issue I wanted to reflect was also part of what Chris pondered at the conference as well:

Of course, as soon as I tweeted that, we found there were a few sessions that had students there. But for the most part, the student voice was missing at OLC Innovate (like most conferences).

At some levels, I know how difficult it is to get students at conferences. Even giving them a discounted or free registration doesn’t help them with expensive hotel or travel costs. Sponsoring those costs doesn’t help them get a week off from class or work or both to attend. Its a daunting thing to coordinate. But considering the thousands of attendees at OLC Innovate representing tens or hundreds of thousands of learners out there, surely some effort to find the money would have brought in a good number if the effort had been there.

But beyond that, it seemed that in many places the whole idea of students even being able to “innovate” was left out of some definitions of innovation. Not all, of course. Rolin Moe brought his Innovation Installation back to OLC Innovate, which served as a welcome space to explore and ponder the difficulties in defining “innovation” (those pesky-post modernists always wanting us to “deconstruct” everything….) Rolin did an excellent job of looking at situating the definition of innovation as an open dialogue – a model I wish more would follow:

The definitions of innovation became problematic in the sessions and keynotes. The one that really became the most problematic was this quote from one keynote:

https://twitter.com/mrkampmann/statuses/850107391387611136

(I am also not a fan of the term “wicked problems”)

The context for this definition was the idea that innovation is a capability that is developed, and really only happens after a certain level of ability is obtained (illustrated by a pianist that has to develop complex technical skill before they can make meaningful innovative music). The idea that some creativity/innovation isn’t “good” was highlighted throughout the same keynote:

For context, here is the list of “Innovation Capabilities” that were shared:

There was also various other forms of context, all of which I thought were good angles to look at, but still very top-down:

This was capped off by the idea that there are “good kinds” of innovation and “bad kinds” of innovation, and we should avoid the bad innovations:

Of course, the master of all meme media Tom Evans made a tool to help us make these decisions:

What one person sees as a “bad” innovation might be a “good” innovation to another. Not sure how to make the determination in such an absolute sense.

There was also an interesting terms of “innovation activist” that was thrown in there that many questioned:

I get that many want a concrete definition of innovation. But I think there are nuances that get left out when we push too strongly in any one direction for our definitions. For example, I agree that innovation is a capability that can be trained and expanded in individuals. But it is also something that just happens when a new voice looks at a problem and comes up with a random “out of the blue” idea. My 6 year old can look at some situation for the first time and blurt out innovative ideas that I had never heard of. Of course, he will also blurt out many ideas that are innovative to him, but that I am already aware of. And there lies the difficulty of defining “innovation”….

Whatever innovation is, there is a relative element to it where certain ideas are innovative to some but not to others. Then there is the relative element that recognizes that innovation is a capability that can be cultivated, but cultivation of that capability is not necessarily a prerequisite to doing something “innovative.”

In other words, any definition of innovation needs to include the space for students to participate, even if they are new to the field that is “being innovated.” The list of Educational Capabilities pictured above is very instructor/administrator/leader centric. Some of those items could be student-centered, but the vocabulary on the slide seems to indicate otherwise. But ultimately I guess it goes back to whether one sees innovation as absolute or relative to begin with. If Innovation (with a capital “I”) is absolute, then there are definitely some things that are innovative at all times in all contexts and some things that aren’t, and therefore Innovation is a capability that has to be developed and studied in order to be understood before participating. But if innovation (with a lower case “i”) is relative, then anyone that is willing to can participate. Including students. But you rarely (at any conference) see the student voice represented in the vendor hall. And as with any conference, how goes the vendor hall, so goes the conference….