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:


(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….

Creating a Self-Mapped Learning Pathway

One of the questions I get about learning pathways (on the rare occasion someone actually reads this blog and ask a question) is “when we give learners the option to chose between instructor-centered options and learner-centered options, how do they record what they are doing?” Sure, learners could blog about what they do, but that often ends up being a narrative about the pathway they create rather than an actual visual representation of the pathway itself. A blog post is great in many ways, but I think people are often wonder if there is something different.

Currently, there is no tool that does what I would like one to do to cover everything in the process:

  1. Create a map of the learning pathway that one plans to take
  2. Collects artifacts as one follows (and adjusts) that pathway
  3. Adds a layer of reflection on the learning process that explains why choices were made and artifacts were created.

Blog tools can do this, but you have to scroll through multiple posts to see all of these elements, or set out a lot of ground rules on how to make one blog post to contain all of this. Again, those blog posts can be useful in many ways, but also still not completely cover the process in the best way possible.

At this point, there is really nothing that could do this “the best way possible.” However, if it were me, I would use a combination of a blog, Storify, and Hypothes.is to create the three steps above. Here is how I would accomplish that. I will use a hypothetical example to illustrate.

First, I would create a blog post that basically lists out the learning map I plan to follow. For example, let’s say that I am in a class on Artificial Intelligence and my task is to map out my learning pathway for the first unit. I would create a blog post that lists out thew steps I plan on taking, for example:

  1. Read chapter one from the textbook
  2. Read the Wikipedia article on Artificial Intelligence to learn about recent developments.
  3. Check Google News on AI for recent news stories.
  4. Read this blog post I found on AI and comment
  5. Tweet my thoughts on AI
  6. Join the #AIChat on Twitter
  7. Create my own video on AI to satisfy the Module 1 competency on AI

Alternatively, this list could also be placed at the top of a Storify about this module, followed by the next step. Or the link to the Storify could be placed in this blog post after this list. My link above has random links I found through Google, but those could also be more specific links if this were a real class :)

For those that are interested, here is what the example list above looked like in Storify (you can see later that it ended up looking different in the end):

In an ideal world where a pathways tool exists to do this for me, a Storify-like tool would exist that allows instructors to pre-populate a blank map with instructor suggested content, assignment bank options, scaffolding tools (for those not used to self-directed learning), and some generic social networking/connectivist options off to the side for learners to drag and drop into an interactive map with clickable links to whatever is needed.

Next, after the map is created, I would use Storify to create evidence of the pathway as I follow it. Technically, you could also use a blog to do this. I like Spotify because it makes searching social networks easy, and the drag and drop interface makes it easy to arrange things as you like. Of course, you can do that with cut and paste on a blog post, but I still prefer the way Storify pulls it together. Not to mention how you can embed or export your creations. You may like something different – that is great. Whatever works for you is great.

You can look at the mock-up of my learning pathway on Storify, or see the embedded version below:


Back to the ideal world, if the pathways tool existed, it would have something that looks a lot like Storify as a layer on top of map that existed. People looking at the tool could easily switch between the two to see the map the way that it was planned and then the pathway as it played out in real life. Or maybe the two would exist on the same page, with UX design elements that indicate what artifacts match with which map item, where map items were dropped, where map items were changed, where new ideas were added, etc.

Finally, I would reflect on the pathway process and why I made the choices that I did: Why did I choose this option? Why did I choose to create these artifacts for those options? Why did I add this option? Why did I abandon this thing that I mapped? And so on.

This again could be a blog post as well, or an addition to an existing map post. However, I would prefer to be able to give short explanations of specific choices, ideally where the reader could see exactly what I was talking about. Something like Hypothes.is annotating my Storify artifact pathway. The great thing about Hypothes.is is that I can explain specific parts of my pathway while pointing at that pathway, and it is a social system that would allow others to comment/reflect on my work as well.

If you have Hypothes.is installed, you can see the example annotations I made on my example Storify above by going to the page. If you don’t have Hypothes.is installed, you can try this page to see if the annotations appear there for you (click on the yellow highlighted text).

Annotation would also be a built in part of the pathways tool in the ideal world that I envision. Instead of installing a separate tool like Hypothes.is, learners could just click on any part of their pathway and add a comment like they would in Microsoft Word.

All of this is just one example of what I would do if I was a learner in a self-mapped learning pathway (aka dual-layer or customizable modalities) course. I actually had a lot of fun creating the examples, so I hope to use these ideas myself sometime soon. Most of what I have blogged about in the past on this topic was focused on the design and theory of these courses, but all of that needs to fade into the background to decrease design presence in a course with this degree of learner choice. The focus of what learners need to see is something like this that focuses on how they self-map their own learning pathway. Hopefully I will explore all of this in my OLC Innovate session next week.

Is Innovation Contextual or Absolute?

When discussing the concept of truth, many people will make the distinction between “truth” (lower case t) and “Truth” (upper case T), where “Truth” refers to ultimate truth that is true for all, and “truth” referring more to contextual truth that may be true for some but not others. Or, to simplify, absolute Truth and relative truth.

In many ways, I see the same need to differentiate between “Innovation” and “innovation” when discussing the overall concept of innovation. Of course, I’m not sure if I really want to make such a problematic connection between innovation and truth. But I think there is something to determining whether someone is referring to absolute innovation or relative innovation. There are ideas and tools that are new to everyone and therefore count as absolute innovation, and then there are ideas and tools that are not new to everyone, but are new to those that are just discovering them.

For example, online learning is a concept that has been around for decades. It is not absolutely Innovative in a general sense. But to schools that have no online courses, their first online courses will be innovative in their context. Or to a person that has avoided going online in general (or didn’t have access to the internet), the ability to take online courses will also be innovative to them.

Of course, even the idea of “absolute innovation” is problematic. Virtual Reality seems like a new, innovative idea to most…. but the truth is, the concept of virtual reality has been around for some time. Maybe you can more accurately say that the idea of a more widely-available digitally-created simulation-based computer-run semi-immersive interactive virtual reality is innovative in general to anyone. A lot of dashes there.

And I have also intentionally not spelled out how I am defining innovation beyond “something new” for this article. Another problematic area.

So why does all this matter? It probably doesn’t for most. I first ran into this issue 6-7 years ago as a chair for a proposal review committee for an “emerging technologies” track at a conference. The track description relied heavily on the term “innovation” to delineate between “emerging technology” and “latest and greatest technology” (because that was another track). We had submissions that ranged from using the (just recently-released at the time) Google Wave in classrooms to teaching with PowerPoint. Where does one draw the line between “current” and “emerging” based on the criteria of “innovation”?

Well, long story short… you don’t if you want to keep everyone happy :) You let people self-define whether they are innovative or not in their context and then let them take the heat if the session attendees don’t agree that their idea was innovative in general.

So it might surprise people that as an “Innovation Coordinator,” I don’t just look at things like virtual reality and learning analytics. I also look at many established instructional design and digital presence ideas. I also look at low tech ideas on how to be a human in a digital age. Even more shocking to some is how I talk about how throwing a handful of dirt at a poster board on the ground to demonstrate the “Big Bang” to 8th grade students as being one of the more innovative ideas I utilized back when I was an 8th Grade Science teacher. Sure, I also created my own online course hub that I hand-coded in html in the summer of 2000 long before most were putting K-12 material online. But I also had to find a way to help 8th graders visualize the Big Bang on a $200 a year total budget (classroom material, science equipment, everything – $200). So what did I do? I put a white poster-board on the ground, grabbed a handful of dirt, pebbles, and grass in my hand, and did a 2 minute demo on what the Big Bang would look like. It was effective. It was cheap. It was innovative in that context.

I definitely wish there was more focus on looking at innovation beyond the coolest, newest, most expensive gadgets, apps, programs, ideas, etc. How do we innovate when cost is a barrier? When technology access is non-existent? When we need to transfer online lessons to face-to-face classes? We have all kinds of media outlets that look at Innovation the moment “it” happens – any new device, tool, idea, app. But what does innovation look like in a contextual situation, where budgets are small, resources are constrained, and technology access is limited? And not just current situations, but situations that have historically lacked in these areas? How do we innovate access to technology itself? How do we innovate the cost of technology? There is a much wider and more nuanced conversation about innovation to be had.

Being a Human Shopper in a Digital Online Shopping Age

So with a new year, our research lab is going to focus on writing and setting goals for the upcoming year. Our main question at LINK Lab is “What does it mean to be human in a digital age?” I thought this would be a great place to start with processing what my goals should be, so I began my quest to write goals for the year with that question in mind. Then some national news this week helped bring some clarity to how my personal goals would relate to our main question.

This week was full of news that Sears, Macy’s, JC Penny’s and other big name stores are laying off workers and closing stores. Many people have been posting this news on various social media outlets with the general response of “I like to shop online better anyways.” Of course, I do as well. But I have noticed over the last few years that I still make a point to go buy some things in person that I could easily buy online, even while I still buy many things online.

For me, this is one way I am unconsciously pushing back against the increasing loss of control that comes along with living in a digital world. For instance, I know the exact pair of blue jeans that will always fit me from a certain store no matter what. I could easily buy those jeans online, and know that they will be the right pair for me. But I still find myself wandering into the local mall to buy new jeans when I need them. Something in me is pushing back against the digital age to still connect with being a human. Shopping in person is a very human experience. You get to touch and observe the exact product you will buy before buying it.

When you buy something online, you lose control over what you get. It will probably end up being the right thing, but you still lose that control until it arrives at your door. For me, to still be a human shopper in a digital online shopping age means to take control over some things and go do what a human would do. This may be shopping in brick and mortar stores in person, or driving myself somewhere when I could have gotten an Uber, or drawing a picture on a piece of paper instead of blogging about an idea(I have a really interesting idea for a drawing to do about my pathways work – hope I get time to draw that out soon). Its not that online shopping or Uber or blogging are bad – I just need to do things for me that remind me of what it means to be human. That might be different for different people.

To bring this back to work, for me, the aspect of “what does it mean to be human in a digital age” that interests me the most is the tension between control and agency.

In a learning context for projects to be researched, that interest would manifest itself in a question something along the lines of “What happens when learners have more agency over their learning journey?”

edugeek-journal-avatarThis question is obviously a work in process that will probably be refined over the next few weeks. I hope to get some decent goals out of this overarching question that would apply to pathways, virtual reality, publications, etc. But it is a starting point for me at least.

Is It Really Learner Agency If The Instructor “Empowers” It?

For a few years now I have been struggling with how to “verb” agency in education (sometimes referred to as learner agency or student agency). When people first become aware of the idea, they tend to use terminology like “I want to allow student agency in my classes.” I guess on some levels that is technically what happens in many cases, as the teacher typically holds the power in the course, and they have to allow agency to happen.

However, once one uses that terms a bit and gets used to the idea, you usually realize that “allowing” agency is kind of a contradiction. People tend to shift towards using the term “empower”… as in, “My goal was to empower learner agency in this lesson.” This is the verb I hear most at conferences the few times that agency in education is touched on.

Of course, saying that the instructor is “empowering” agency is pretty problematic as well. Is a learner’s thought process really independent if the instructor is the one that empowered it? Is the autonomous action that flows from independent thought really all that autonomous if the teacher had to initiate the power to make it happen?

With some twists in logic and semantic word play, I am sure one could say that agency can be empowered, but to be honest – it really can’t. If the teacher is the one that “empowers” it, then its not really agency. What many really mean when they refer to “empowering agency” is “tricking learners into doing something that looks like independent thought and action, even if they didn’t really independently decide to think or act that way because at the end of the lesson there was a grade for coming up with something within specific instructor-determined parameters.”

I have started using terms like “unleash” when discussing agency in presentations, because that is probably about all you can really do with agency – remove the barriers that are holding it down, and let it do its own thing. But still, not really the best verb for agency.

Of course, this is probably why we don’t see much true learner agency in formal education settings – you set it loose, and it could go in any direction, or none, sometimes both from the same learner. It becomes something that is difficult to standardize and quantify once it really happens.

However, I am speaking of agency as if it is something that turns on and off at the flick of a switch, when the reality is that there are shades of agency that exist on a spectrum. Even when we unleash it, or just stand back and see what happens (or how ever you want to “verb” it), its not like learners just jump right into agency feet first and swim around in it like a natural. Some need guidance, scaffolding, a hand to hold, etc – whether because they are new to the idea in a system that has never allowed it or because they just need a more experienced hand to point them towards which way to go. Oh sure, there are many that do just launch out with little to no guidance to do it just fine. In any one class, you are going to have learners all over the place. They will even switch places from day to day or hour to hour.

edugeek-journal-avatarAgency in learning is something that takes the predictable linear instructivist narrative and explodes it all kinds of directions, but then even messes with linear time in that explosion as some need it to go slower while others need a guide through the explosion and others ride the explosion with enthusiasm wanting it to go faster. Oh, and then they all change their place in that process without a moments notice. So how does one come up with a verb to explain this chaos?

(image credit: Blue Chaos 3 by Josh Klute)

Decreasing Design Presence

With the Humanizing Online Learning MOOC in full swing, I wanted to dig more into a topic that I tend to allude to at conference presentations. While educators often talk (rightly so) about increasing teaching, social, and cognitive presence, there is also one form of presence that needs to be decreased when designing and teaching courses: design presence.

I’m using “design presence” here to cover a wide range of user interface, instructional design, and learning theory issues. In my mind, there are at least three areas that are heavy on design presence, and therefore design presence needs to be decreased in these areas:

  1. Technological Design Presence: tool/technology interfaces and instructions
  2. Instructional Design Presence: tool and content instructional design decisions
  3. Epistemological Design Presence: underlying learning theory choices

While some might notice there is some overlap with these areas and teacher, social, and cognitive presence, I have found that there are still some differences. Working to decrease design presence also ends up helping to increase teaching, social, and cognitive presence in the long-run.

Technological Design Presence

This is an area where user interface and instructional design collide, and for many courses designers the options are pre-determined by institutional adoptions. However, where choices are allowed, utilizing tools that have the least complex user interface options is ideal. For example, if you really want to use a listserv, but the tool you have to use is complex to sign-up and use, why not use Twitter? The user interface on Twitter is very simple compared to some older mass email tools. If you have to have a really complex set of instructions to use a tool, why not consider using something with less instructions and stress on the learner?

Or if you have a listserv tool that is easier to use than Twitter, why not use that instead of Twitter?

Where there are several options within a tool (like an LMS), why not choose the least confusing, most ready-to-use tool? Newer features in larger LMS tool sets often have a steep learning curve. For example, the blog feature in Blackboard was very confusing when it was first released, and it really worked more as a re-arranged discussion board. If you have to stay within Blackboard, then stick with the tools that take the least amount of time to explain to learners.

Additionally, think about other issues that cause unnecessary technology confusion. Blackboard was infamous for allowing course designers to set-up boxes within boxes within boxes. Avoid using tools and content structures just because you can. Avoid using desktop tools that make no sense online (like “folders” inside of online content). Avoid using complex navigational structures just because you can.

Once learners have to click around a half dozen times just to get somewhere, or dig through complex tool instructions, or spend too much time figuring out what you want them to do, they are running into too much technological design presence. Decrease what you can where you can.

Instructional Design Presence

This next facet has many connections to the first one, so there will probably be some overlap. Many times, course designers will make tool and content design decisions that are unnecessarily complex. For example, complex grading schemes that require dense explanations and calculators to figure out. Why go there? Obviously, there is merit to the idea that grades are problematic altogether, but many instructors are stuck with them. So why make them so complex? Why not just base course grades on a 100 point scale (which most people understand already), and make each assignment a straight portion of that grade. Complex structures based on weighted grades and 556 point scales and what not are a burden for both the instructor and the learner.

Rubrics are also a part of this area. Complex rubrics with too many categories and specific point values are, again, a burden for learners and instructors. Compare the complexity of this rubric with this one. I realize some people like the first one because it has so much detail, but to be honest, it is something most readers aren’t going to read through, because just glancing at it could cause stress.

Or another issue might be design choices that add unnecessary complexity, like having students upload Word docs to discussion forums for class discussion. Why not just use blogs? That is basically what you are doing with Word Docs and discussion forums.

Course designers typically make many choices with tools and content in their courses. Do these choices increase the instructional design presence of those decisions? Or do they decrease the design presence and allow learners to focus on learning rather than figuring out your designs?

Epistemological Design Presence

This area is a bit more difficult to get at, as it probably affects overarching decisions that affect everything in your course. For instance, if you lean more towards instructivism that places yourself at the center of everything in a course, you will probably choose many tools and interfaces that support your instructivist leanings: lecture capture, content heavy videos, long reading assignments, multiple choice tests, etc.

Now, just to point out, I am not a person to bash instructivist lectures across the board no matter what. There are times when learners need a well executed lecture. However, in education, many instructors use lectures too much. They use lectures to fill time when learners should be doing something hands on and/or active. If you are using lectures on video (or textbook readings) when learners should be creating their own knowledge, or applying concepts hands-on, or collaborating in groups, you have increased the epistemological design presence of your preferred learning theory at the expense of what the learners really needed. Time to decrease that facet of design presence.

There are times when learners don’t need to socially connect or listen to lectures, but work on their own. There are times when they need to connect with others rather than work individually. Don’t stick with instructivism or social constructivism or connectivism or any other theory you love just because you like it best. Put the learner first.

But what about the times where learners are at different levels and need different theories? Or, when no one theory fits and it is really up to the learner? I say, give them the choice. Build in multiple pathways for learning in your course. Build in scaffolding for learners to change into different theories. But avoid the mistakes I have made in the past and make sure to decrease the design presence of those options and pathways as much as possible. Don’t focus on the difference between the pathways – just focus on the fact that learners can make the choices they need at any given moment and then show the choices.

Decreasing Design Presence

edugeek-journal-avatarIf you are a good course designer, you probably already know everything I have touched on here. There is nothing new or different about what I am outlining here – this is solid instructional design methodology taught in most instructional design courses or learned on the job. However, it is seldom examined from the angle of decreasing design presence, and since I am one of the “wayfinders” in a course on the Community of Inquiry framework that covers teaching, social, and cognitive presence, I thought it would be a good idea to have a place to point to every time I mention “decreasing design presence.”

(image credit: Human Presence by Manu Mohan)

Self-Determined Learning: The Lesser-Explored Side of Open Learning

OpenEd 16 is in full swing and I am already kicking myself for not going this year. I seem to miss at least half of the cool conferences. Adam Croom has already provided a fascinating analysis of the abstract topics, which reveals a great list of important topics. However, I do notice something that is (possibly?) missing.

There is a lot about resources, textbooks, pedagogy, etc. Much of this focuses on removing barriers of access to education, which is a topic that we should all support. But what about the design of this education that they are increasing access to?

“Open pedagogy” seems to be the main focus of the design side of the equation. Of course, it is hard to tell from this analysis what people will really present on. When I think of open pedagogy, I think of David Wiley’s important work on the topic. Wiley’s description of open pedagogy is focused on being open about the design and assessment process, as well as allowing learners to remix and create their own open content.

So the question is – where is the learner agency, the self-determined learning, and the heutagogical side of “open learning”? It is probably there, but just not as explicitly named or explored. When you unleash your learners to determine their own pathway, their own context, their own content, and so on – that is also a part of open learning that needs to be specifically mentioned.

Open pedagogy is definitely a scaffold-ed step into self-determined open learning. Maybe some would argue that self-determined learning is implicitly a form of open pedagogy. I wouldn’t disagree, although I tend to avoid using pedagogy as a catch-all term for all forms of learning design due to the co-opting nature of expanding the use of pedagogy beyond “to guide a child.” But that really isn’t a huge deal to me as it is to the early childhood educators that feel left out of most academic educational discussions and usually don’t appreciate the college educators that typically leave them out also stealing the technical term for their design methodology.

Even when looking at the Wikipedia article on open learning, many of the topics touched on get close to self-determined learning, but not quite: self-regulated learning, active learning, life-long learning, etc. Almost there, but not quite.

edugeek-journal-avatarAgain, I know there are people out there that include the topics of learner agency and self-determined learning in the open learning / open education sphere, and that there are some people working in those topics. I just think there should be more. In my opinion, you can offer all the free content you want to and allow people to remix and re-use as much as you want… but if the design still focuses on the instructor (or the pre-determined content) as the center of the course, you have just created an open-licensed “sage on the stage” learning experience. Which I am sure many people will need, but for many others, this falls short of the concepts of learning how to be a learner.

We are the Monster at the End of the Book

I wanted to circle back to a thought I had while reading Maha Bali’s excellent post Reproducing Marginality? The whole post is excellent, but one line made me think more than others. In it, she quotes something that she wrote with Paul Prinsloo and Kate Bowles that says:

…for most of us not in the US (or the UK), this [edtech] vision has often signalled top-down, US-to-world, Anglo-oriented, decontextualized, culturally irrelevant, infrastructure-insensitive, and timezone-ignorant aspirations, even when the invitation for us to join in may be well-intentioned.

Many of us in the Western world of EdTech are trying to figure out how to fix Education and Ed Tech, looking for the evil monsters out there that are causing the problems, and then fixing those monsters with research, technology, design, or methods.

And sometimes we are afraid to see what those monsters are that are damaging education, because they may be too big for us to fix.

This all reminds me of one of my favorite books as a kid: The Monster at the End of the Book.


In this book, Grover notices the title of the book and spends every page trying to stop you, the reader, from reaching the end of the book. He nails pages together, builds brick walls, and pleads with you NOT to get to the end of the book and face the monster lurking there.


Grover is terrified of the monster at the end of the book. But when he gets to the end of the book, he finds that he was the monster all along and that he had nothing to fear.

We (in the western world) are pretty much the monster at the end of the book when it comes to education reform. We are doing everything we can to avoid that possibility – looking to everything but ourselves to fix the problems. But is is our (sometimes) extreme ethno-centrism, socio-cultural centrism, whatever you want to call it, that is the problem all along. I would even go so far to say that as long as we are the center of the education world, we are always going to be the problem.

edugeek-journal-avatarEducation is about learning. Learners do the learning. Learning needs to be the center of what we do. Learners can live anywhere in the world, in any context. We need to examine the structures that keeps the wrong things at the center of education. We need to skip to the end of the book, realize we are the monster at the end of the book, and turn the story around. Learner agency is the only true “innovation” was have left to explore deeply in the education world.

Big (Scary) Education (Retention) Data (Surveillance)

Big data in education might be the savior of our failing learning system or the cement shoes that drags the system to the bottom of the ocean depending on who you talk to. No matter what your view of big data is, it is here and we need to pay attention to it regardless of our views.

My view? It is a mixture of extreme concern for the glaring problems mixed with hope that we can correct course on those problems and do something useful for the learners with the data.

Yesterday at LINK Lab we had a peak behind the scenes at a data collection tool that UTA is implementing. The people that run the software at UTA are good people with good intentions. I also hope they are aware of the problems already hard coded in the tool (and I suspect they are).

Big Data can definitely look scary for a lot of reasons. What we observed was mostly focused on retention (or “persistence” was the more friendly term the software uses I believe). All of the data collected basically turns students into a collection of numbers on hundreds of continuums, and then averages those numbers out to rank them on how likely they are to drop out. To some, this is scary prospect.

Another scary prospect is that there is the real danger of using that data to see which students to ignore (because they are going to stick around anyways) and which students to focus time and energy on (in order to make the university more money). This would be data as surveillance more than educational tool.

While looking at the factors in this data tool that learners are ranked by led to no surprises – we have known from research for a long time what students that “persist” do and what those that don’t “persist” do (or don’t do). The lists of “at risk” students that these factors produce will probably not be much different from the older “at risk” lists that have been around for decades. The main change will be that we will offload the process of producing those lists to the machines, and wash our hands of any bias that has always existed in producing those lists in the first place.

And I don’t want to skip over the irony of spending millions or dollars on big data to find out that “financial difficulties” are the reason that a large number of learners don’t “persist.”

The biggest concern that I see is the amount of bias being programmed into the algorithms. Even the word “persistence” implies certain sociocultural values that are not the same for all learners. Even in our short time looking around in the data collection program, I saw dozens of examples of positivist white male bias hard coded in the design.

For example, when ranking learners based on grades, one measure ranked learners in relation to the class average. Those that fell too far below the class average were seen as having one risk factor for not “persisting.” This is different than looking at just grades as a whole. If the class average is a low B but a learner has a high B, they would be above the class average and in the “okay” zone for “persistence.”

But that is not how all cultures view grades. My wife is half Indian and half Australian. We have been to India and talked to many people that were under intense stress to get the highest grades possible. It is a huge pressure for many in certain parts of that culture. But even a low A might not register as a troubling signal if the class average is much lower. But to someone that is facing intense pressure to get the best grades or else come home and work in Dad’s business… they need help.

(I am not a fan of grades myself, but this is one area that stuck out to me while poking around in the back end of the data program)

This is an important issue since UTA is designated as a Hispanic Serving Institute. We have to be careful not get into the same traps that education has fallen into for centuries related to inequalities. But as our LINK director Lisa Berry pointed out, this is also why UTA needs to dive into Big Data. If we don’t get in there with our diverse population and start breaking the algorithms to expose where they are biased, who else will?  Hopefully there are others, but the point is that we need to get in there and critically ask the hard questions, or else we run the risk of perpetuating educational inequalities (by offloading them to the machines).

For now, a good place to start is by asking the hard questions about privacy and ownership in our big data plan:

Are the students made aware that this kind of data is being collected?

If not, they need to be made aware. Everywhere that data is collected, there should be a notification.

Beyond that, are they given details on what specific data points are being collected?

If not, they need to know that as well. I would suggest a centralized ADA-compliant web page that explains every data point collected in easy to understand detail (with as many translations to other languages as possible).

Can students opt-out of data collection? What about granular control over the data that they do allow to be collected?

Students should be able to opt out of data collection. Each class or point of collection should have permissions. Beyond that, I would say they should be able to say yes or no to specific data points if they want to. Or even beyond that, what about making data collection opt-in?

Who owns the students’ data (since it is technically their actions that create the data)?

This may seem radical to some, but shouldn’t the student own their own data? If you say “no,” then they should at least have the right to access it and see what is being collected on them specifically.

Think of it this way: How will the very substantial Muslim population at UTA feel about a public school, tied to the government, collecting all of this data on them? How will our students of color feel about UTA collecting data on them while they are voicing support for Black Lives Matter? How would the child of illegal immigrants feel about each class at UTA collecting data about them that could incriminate their parents?

edugeek-journal-avatarThese issues are some of the hard things we have to wrestle with in the world of Big Data in Education. If we point it towards openness, transparency, student ownership, and helping all learners with their unique sociocultural situations, then it has potential. If not, then we run the risk of turning Big Education Data into Scary Retention Surveillance.