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)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Disruption is No Longer Innovative

How can you tell if an innovator is pulling your leg? Their lips are moving. Or their fingers are typing. I write that knowing fully well that it says a lot about my current title of “learning innovation coordinator.” To come clean about that title: we were allowed to choose them to some degree. I chose that one for pure political reasons. I knew that if I wanted to help bring some different ideas to my university (like Domain of One’s Own, Learning Pathways, Wearables, etc), I would need a title beyond something like “instructional technologist” to open doors.

But beyond a few discussions that I have on campus, you will rarely hear my talking about “innovation,” and I reject the title of “innovator” for almost anyone. Really, if you think any technology or idea or group is innovative, put that technology or idea into Google followed by “Audrey Watters” and get ready for the Ed-Tech history lesson the “innovators” tend to forget to tell you about.

In a broad sense, many would say that the concept of “innovation” involves some kind of idea or design or tool or whatever that is new (or at least previously very very “popular”). Within that framework of innovation, disruption is no longer “innovative.” Disruption is really a pretty old idea that gained popularity after the mp3 supposedly “disrupted” the music business and/or the digital camera disrupted the camera industry.

Of course, that is not what happened – mp3s and digital cameras just wrenched some power out of the hands of the gatekeepers of those industries, who then responded by creating the “disruption narrative” (which is what most are referring to when they just say “disruption”). And then proceeded to use that narrative to gain more control over their industry than before (for example, streaming music services). Keep this in mind any time you read someone talking about “disruption” in education. Who is saying it, what do they want it to do, and how much more control do they get over the educational process because of their disruption narrative?

Of course, there is debate over whether disruption is real or not. Both sides have good points. Regardless of if you believe that disruption is real or not, our current disruption narrative has been around for over two decades now… probably long past the expiration date that gets slapped on any “innovative” idea. If you are still talking disruption, you are not an innovator.

If you want to convince me that you are an innovator, I don’t want to know what cool ideas or toys you have. I want to know who you read and follow. Are you familiar with Audrey Watters? Have you read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? Are you familiar with Adeline Koh’s work on Frantz Fanon? Do you follow Maha Bali on Twitter? If I mention Rafranz Davis and #EdtechBlackout, do I get a blank stare back from you?

If you were to chart the people that influence your thinking – and it ends up being primarily white males… I am not sure how much of an innovator you really are. Education often operates as a “one-size-fits-all” box (or at best, a “one-set-of-ideas-fits-all” box), and that box has mostly been designed by white males. Usually a small set of white males that think all people learn best like they do. How can your idea or technology be that “new” if it is influenced by the same people that influenced all of the previous ones?

So what has this “one-set-of-ideas-fits-all” box created for education? Think tanks and university initiatives that sit around “innovating” things like massive curriculum rethinking, “new” pedagogical approaches, and “creative new applications of a range of pedagogical and social technologies.” They try to come up with the solutions for the learners. Many of these are probably some great ideas – but nothing new.

Why not find ways to let the learners set their own curriculum, follow their own pedagogical approaches, or create their own ways of applying technology? Instead of walling ourselves up in instructional design teams, why not talk to the learners themselves and find out what hinders their heutagogical development? Why not look to learners as the instructors, and let them into the design process? Or dump the process and let learners be the designers?

What I am getting at is helping learners create and follow their own learning pathway. Each one will be different, so we need massive epistemological and organizational shifts to empower this diversity. Why not make “diversity” the new “innovative” in education? Diversity could be the future of educational innovation, if it could serve as a way to humanize the learning process. This shift would need people that are already interacting with a diverse range of educators and students to understand how to make that happen.

I would even go as far to say that it is time to enter the “post-innovation” era of Ed-Tech, where any tool or idea is framed based on whether it supports a disruption mindset or a diversity mindset. What does that mean about emerging ideas like big data or wearables? Post-innovation would not be about the tool or the system around it, but the underlying narrative. Does this “thing” support disruption or diversity? Does it keep power with the gatekeepers that already have it, or empower learners to explore what it means for them to be their one unique “human” self in the digital age?

For example, if “big data” is just used to dissect retention rates, and then to find ways to trick students into not dropping out… that is a “disruption” mindset. “We are losing learners/control, so let’s find a way to upend the system to get those learners back!” A diversity mindset looks at how the data can help each individual learner become their own unique, self-determined learner, in their particular sociocultural context: “Based on the this data that you gave us permission to collect, we compared it anonymously to other learners and they were often helped by these suggestions. Do any of these look interesting to you?” Even of the learner looks at these options and rejects all of them, the process of thinking through those options will still help them learn more about their unique learning needs and desires. It will help them celebrate their unique, diverse human self instead of becoming another percentage point in a system designed to trick them into producing better looking numbers for the powers that be.

edugeek-journal-avatarThis is also a foundational guiding aspect of the dual-layer/learning pathways idea we are working on at the LINK Lab. It is hard to come up with a good name for it, as we are not really looking at it as a “model” but something that turns the idea of a “model” or “system” inside out, placing each individual learner in the role of creating their own model/pathway/system/etc. In other words, a rejection of “disruption” in favor of “diversity.” We want to embrace how diversity has been and always will be the true essence of what innovation should have been: each learner defining innovation for themselves.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Will The “Best” Best Practice Please Step Forward?

Whenever educational discussions turn towards student agency, learner-centered learning, and other less-utilized (non-instructivist) strategies, several common questions/concerns are raised about going this route. One of the more important ones is how do we put learners in control when there are so many learning mediums? How do we pick which one is best?

This is a great question. We should always strive towards what is best for our learners. The problem with this question comes not really with the question but the context that one or a few mediums are “best” and that we as educators can pick correctly for all learners at all times.

“Best practices” is a term commonly used in this context, and a problematic concept for many reasons. One of the bigger problems being that “best” is not really an objective line in the sand. What is “best” is constantly changing based on context, goals, preferences, and many other factors.

For example, different learning modalities each have their own set of best practices. Do you want a stereotypical instructor-focused course with lectures and quizzes? There are many ways to do that correctly, and many ways to do that incorrectly. Very incorrectly..

Do you want problem-based learning? Our field knows a lot on how to do that correctly, and a lot on how to do that incorrectly. There is also a lot we don’t know. And all of that changes drastically if you want, say, a well-defined contextually specific problem versus an ill-structured problem.

Other modalities (connectivist, cognitivst, social, independent, etc) have their own set of best practices, and each set of best practices changes within each modality depending on what flavor of that modality you are choosing. And even then there are still so many best practices that it really dilutes the term “best practice” down to “do the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff and be cautious with all of the stuff that we aren’t sure where it fits.”

Of course, sometimes when we say “best”, we are referring to choosing the “best” overall modality for a course, or even better, a given module inside a course. Anyone that has taught will know that once you choose a modality, half your learners will like it, and the other half will complain: “Why do we have to do group work? Why can’t you just tell us what to do?” “Why do we have to listen to you tell us what to do? Why can’t we just go do it on our own?” “Why can’t I have a group to help me?” and so on (even if you don’t hear them, you know they are happening in your learners’ heads.)

The truth is that different learners need different modalities for different topics at different times, some times even changing from one day to the next based on a whole range of internal and external reasons.

This means that the best device for choosing the best modality for any given learner at any given time is the learner themselves.

This whole post was inspired by a few tweets today that I think sum up nicely what I am really getting at:

The general idea is that our education needs to shift towards teaching learners how to learn, how to adapt, how to choose their own modality as they learn. We need to focus more on how to be learners and not just what facts and skills to learn. You, teach a person to fish and all that. This is the basis of heutagogy – the process of learning how to learn, how to adapt, how to self-regulate towards self-determined learning.

In other words, how do we get back to putting the human at the center of the educational process instead of our favorite tools and modalities?

edugeek-journal-avatarOne practical way some are working on this idea is the custmozable modality pathway learning design (my term de jour for what we used to call dual-layer). Shameless plug warning! Last week I was able to successfully defend my dissertation on this idea (and there was much rejoicing!). So hopefully after a few months of revisions and edits I will soon be able to start publishing the results on how diverse and personalized learners’ pathways are once they are given the choice. The educational field in general so rarely gives much true learner choice or agency that the outcome of enabling that choice is pretty eye-opening.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dual-layer-choice-1

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

dual-layer-choice-2

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

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

dual-layer-choice-3

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

dual-layer-choice-4

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

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

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

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

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Learning -agogy Overload

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(image credit: James Kunley, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Psuedo-Buzzword Soup: Metamodernism and Heutagogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(image credit: Patrick Moore, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

A Course is A Course, of Course of Course

Recently I have been pondering the term “course” and whether or not it is a good way to describe educational experiences. We seem to be seeing more rumblings about the deconstruction of courses – from people questioning whether MOOCs really should be called courses to the idea of breaking courses down into smaller chunks.

For the record, I really don’t have a problem with the term “course” or it being changed to include concepts like flipped learning, student-centered learning, or any future new concepts. But there are also other obvious times when the concept of “course” is too broad or too limiting.

I think the part that I am growing uncomfortable with is applying the term “course” to everything regardless of design or intent. Courses are most often attached to an official learning process where an expert confirms that the learner understands, demonstrates, knows, etc. a certain set of knowledge or skills or both. This confirmation could be college credit or a certificate of completion or any other form of “certification.”

Calling that confirmation a course even if the process changes to active learning or semi-connectivism or competency based learning or whatever is fine. But even in pure instructivist courses, learners still step outside of the course boundaries (sometimes ethically and sometimes unethically) to learn. Even when you plagiarize you learn something, even though the whole thing is unethical.

I’m beginning to look at “courses” as experiences where the design of the learning and the intent of the learner is to earn some type of official second party confirmation that they learned some skill or set of knowledge or both. Learning experiences that go beyond this official arena are something else. Those that seek to create competencies or smaller modules are still really just changing the length or format of the confirmation process.

In other words, I don’t know if “course” can apply as a blanket statement to all learning experiences, or even to the path for all learners within any one given experience. Take DS106 for example. Learners can go through this experience in many paths. However, for some learners, they go through a tract specifically designed to earn college credit with the intention of earning said credit. The intention of the design and the learner is to officially earn confirmation of learning. For those learners, DS106 is a course. For everyone else, it is something else. Basically, a Connected Learning-based Open Experience (the experience is designed to be open, but the learning can be closed if the learner so chooses). I don’t really like using the terms “connected” or “experience” when referring to networked learning, so I will need to ponder this one more.

But as we push into more varied intentions of learning design, such as heutagogy, our terminology may need to expand so that not everything fits in the same box, or so that there are enough boxes to accurately describe everything that is happening, or _____ (who knows what). So while I identify that those that say that the term “course” can describe any learning experience currently, I also identify with those that say the term is limited. Just instead of getting rid of it, maybe focus it and add others?

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Evaluation of Sociocultural Heutagogical Learning in a Networked, Internet-Like Fashion

To continue with the theme of The Web of the Future, I want to think out loud about some fundamental changes to html itself that could assist with quoting, remixing, cross-site conversations, and even revolutionizing how instructors could evaluate student learning.  I’ll hit on the actual structural idea first and then touch on how it could change online assessment, so hang with me until I get to that. Or skip ahead and see if it is worth reading and then come back for the details. I won’t know either way :)

I love the idea of remixing web content, but to be honest it is a bit cumbersome and disjointed to do so now. You have to copy/paste, create hyperlinks, and give source credit manually. If you are just referencing a blog post in your remix, that’s usually not that hard. But what if you want to remix a particularly insightful comment on a blog post that has dozens of comments? Some platforms make that possible, others not so much. But then you could go through all the trouble to properly cite, link, etc in your remix, some sites may change structure and ruin your work.

I know that some say not to bother with linking and citing because its still too difficult to follow the trail of connections anyways, but I think those connections are important and I will explain why in a bit.

The biggest problem is that for all of the tags and code that goes into making modern web pages work, when you get to the actual content, there have been no major changes to that since html was invented (I know the exceptions, but you know what I mean). What if we could create a new set of tags that allows you to ID separate comments, ideas, and paragraphs in the code, and then utilize those tags to help you quote, remix, and follow conversations across various websites?

A New Tag For Pinpointing Content

So let’s take a look at a tag that could help here. Since I’m talking remix, let’s call this tag “remix”. When you create content, the <p> tags in the content itself might have a remix attribute id, such as <p remix_id=”1012″>. This could be an individual ID that is specific for that page.  Theoretically the author could designate certain ideas as one section or each paragraph separately. Content could start with “01–“, comments with “10–“, images with “20–“, metadata with “50–” or whatever it may be.  Each comment would get its own id, each paragraph it own, etc.

Now, that may seem kind of pointless until you combine it with a browser plugin that recognizes those tags. Then you can click on a paragraph or quote and choose to remix it by sending it to your blog editor, Twitter, etc. If Twitter, Facebook, and other sites would use this tag, you could also remix posts on social media sites, or images on Flickr, or videos on Vimeo, or whatever the case may be. So quoting and remixing could be made easy. But how to give credit and link backs?

Obviously, there are probably enough numbers in the universe to give every single paragraph, comment, tweet, you name it a unique number of its own. But going that route would not necessarily allow for connections to be made with individual author’s content across websites.  So we would probably need some more tags and a centralized tagging service.

For example, in the remix ID for a comment, if there was an author ID that connects to a central service to identify that author ID, the browser plugin could automatically identify the author or remixed bit of content. So the tag surrounding the comment could expand to <p remix_id=”1012″ remix_author=”3949930923″>. Just think about how much control you could have over your digital identity if you could track every comment, forum discussion, etc you have ever made?

On blogs and news sites that might have new pages every day, you’ll still run out of numbers (or they will get too large to manage) if you don’t have a remix page ID for each page. This could be pretty easy – in the page header just stick a tag like <remix page_ID=”201401011234″ />. Obviously, mot sites could just use the date and time stamp for this, but you could also ID static informational pages with numbers that start with “1”.

Once you have a specific ID for a page as well as each bit of information on that page, you would finally need a site ID. Right above the page_ID tag could be one for site ID: <remix site_ID=”03489432o3u5″ />.  That ID could be registered at the same site that manages user IDs. Why would you want to use this instead of just the URL? Because URLs can change as blogs change names, companies get re-branded, school change owners, etc. If you do any kind of database work, it is kind of akin to assigning a random number to user accounts for searching a table instead of just using the user ID – the public-facing user ID can change.

So, in theory, the comment that we have been talking about all along would have a random string of numbers attached to it: 03489432o3u5:201401011234:1012 [this works out to site ID:page ID:remix ID]. No matter how much the website changes, if the site owners keeps their site_ID updated in the remix database, a service that uses this number could easily find that content no matter where it moves. So a bit.ly kind of permalink service could be created that crunches those numbers based on the remix database in order to keep each permalink always correctly working.

In quote and remixing different bits of information, you wouldn’t even necessarily need to paste the original quote in the text – a system that is designed well enough could find and pull the content for you. Other attributes could be added to snip the beginning, end or middle off of a quote to just focus on the parts you want. A long quote could be cut down to a tag that just looks like this: <remix quote=”03489432o3u5:201401011234:1012″ snip_beg=”26″ snip_end=”57″ snip_mid=”78,90″ bold=”27,56″ />.  For one quote this much code might be a draw, but in true remixing where you are pulling in large numbers of quotes, this could become as easy coding short cut.

Controlling Your Online Content and Portfolio Storage

So what is the big point in doing all of this? So far I probably just sound like an anal-retentive organizer that needs therapy because I want to tag and organize the whole Internet. So let’s ponder a second want all of this could mean for individual students and educators.

If everything you are writing online is tagged with your ID (or IDs if you wish to have separation or privacy), you could theoretically also have a portfolio on your website that collects everything you create. It doesn’t necessarily have to publish it automatically, but you could easy create a dashboard that tracks all of your activity.  You could them be in control of what you publish to your portfolio, of course. But the general idea is that you can take ownership of all of your work.

In addition, it would be easy to track your conversations across several sites, as well as how people respond to your thoughts across the net . When a conversation starts as a tweet that gets a few responses, and then is turned into a couple of blog posts, all of which get comments and shares on Facebook, and those shares get comments that lead into more blog posts and so on…. well, you see how hard it is to fully follow conversations across the web. But a system that can follow the tags and connect these diverging conversations together, kind of like a tree of some kind, could be very useful. Visually, I am thinking of something like a resembles a Prezi presentation. I know some people hate those as presentation tools. But as a visualization of a branching conversation with several levels of depth? Could be fascinating. Add in the ability to add to the conversation on the appropriate platform at the appropriate level as you are digging through the branches – even more intriguing and powerful.

You could even theoretically see a row of symbols at the bottom of tweets, pics, posts, discussion forums, etc that somehow indicate what direction the conversation took after the part you are reading, and even where it came from. I know several services will show you how many times a blog post has been shared on Facebook or Twitter or other sites, but what if you could actually follow those conversation forks to those sites rather than just a useless number?

Evaluation of Sociocultural Heutagogical Learning in a Networked, Internet-Like Fashion

So how does all of this revolutionize how we evaluate student learning? Think of how we typically do so now. Students turn in one artifact – a paper, a group project, a discussion response, etc – and they are “graded” on how well they performed on this uni-dimensional task. They may get lucky, or they may really demonstrate that they learned something. But what if students could turn in a conversation that demonstrates progressive, non-linear, real-life application of knowledge? What if we left the knowledge acquisition up to the students, who would demonstrate understanding or mastery by turning in a tree of conversation across formal and informal website activities to demonstrate that acquisition?

Basically, instructors would stop being knowledge vending machines and would become the true “guide by the side” as some call it, evaluating student understanding based on real world applications. They would assign a particular skill or knowledge demonstration or whatever it may be, provide input and assistance along the way, maybe even participate in the conversation, but ultimately review the conversation itself that students turn in. They could respond by saying “you did well here and here, but I think you are still missing ____ and need to go to ____ site and ____ to really dig into this concept.”

Obviously, this is a different paradigm of assignment and assessment than most or used to, so it would take adjustment. And none of these ideas are necessarily new or original. But in many ways it could transform online learning and assessment into a new paradigm that more closely matches the networked interconnectedness of the Internet itself. This method would take advantage of true sociocultural learning and well as heutagogical principles to determine if students are learning or not. The entire Internet becomes a canvas to craft learning based on formal and informal social interactions with those of a shared culture (the topic being learning).

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.