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.

Metamodernist Instructional Design and the False Goal of Primacy in MOOCs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(image credit: James Kunley, obtained from 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.

Which Came First: The Learning Design or the Tool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(image credit: Gozde Otman, obtained from 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.