Sometimes the words we choose to describe something just don’t quite work as well as we would like. Its not that they don’t work at all, its just that they fall short – and academics love to pick apart where words fall short. Or even more so where we have differing definitions of various concepts.
At the LINK lab, we have been working on some ideas that are… innovative? Maybe. Different? Kind of, but not quite. Hard to categorize? Probably so. Things like dual-layer courses, customizable modalities, and neutral zones, that take existing ideas and put a spin on them in ways that are hard to classify at times. Its pretty easy to write these off as very limited ideas – MOOC innovations that will probably disappear when MOOCs die (for the third time…. or was it the fourth? I’ve lost count).
But for us, many of these are ideas that will transfer to education in a broader sense, to possibly even become theories in their own right.
For example, the idea of a dual-layer neutral zone would transfer to a bigger concept of courses as neutral zones. But let’s be honest – courses are not neutral. The technology used is not neutral. Any form of content (textbooks, videos, lectures, webpages, etc) is not neutral. The learners are not neutral, and neither are the instructors. Yes, yes – I know that we all feel that we are fair and unbiased and equality-minded. But even the most equality-minded person is still not neutral. People claim all the time to be “agnostic” in terms of certain tools or pedagogies or frameworks, but come on. Those that say that are either lying to themselves or are just not informed enough to know what the positions are.
But the goal of creating neutral zones is to bring those biases, opinions, and perspectives out into the open. To stop pretending that they aren’t there and to deal with them head on. When a learner can look at two pathways, one that is controlled by the instructor and one that is controlled by themselves, they have to make a conscious choice between two different power dynamics. They may not be able to understand the nuances of instructivism and connectivism, but they can understand enough to choose between following the instructor’s prescribed pathway and creating their own pathway. We all need both at different times in our education. The problem is that most pedagogical models contain the assumption that all learners in each class need to follow one pedagogical modality for that content: All learners need to listen to this lecture. Then all learners need to form groups and do a student-centered lesson. Then all learners need to come together to discuss this topic. Learning isn’t that simplistic, and the dual-layer, customizable modality, neutral-zone driven design paradigm is about designing for complexity. It re-focuses the design on the human being at the center of the design and technology, instead of putting pedagogy and tools at the center.
So, choosing a term like “neutral zone” is problematic because there is no way to create a neutral zone. But on the other hand, the hope is that by exposing the biases and epistemologies and ontologies behind the modalities, learners will be able to understand the importance of choosing one modality over another based on their specific needs at that moment at any given time in the course. This zone, whether in MOOCs or traditional brick and mortar classrooms, become neutral because all biases are open on the table, not because they don’t exist.
But someday, someone will need to come up with a better, more accurate term.
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.