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)

Words That Don’t Work: Courses as Neutral Zones

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.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo, 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.

In Defense of a More Nuanced View of Lectures

I remember my undergrad History courses very vividly. The instructor was seen by many as the typical Ferris Bueller-instructor, droning on and on from the front. We all dreaded signing up for his class. I put it off as long as I could. But finally, I had to take his course – and I loved it. The guy was cracking jokes every few minutes that were hilarious. Problem was, only me and one other guy in a class of 100 caught the jokes because they were sooo dry. To 98% of the class, this guy was not a good lecturer. I could have listened to him all day.

That’s the thing about people: we all have different preferences. And all lecturers have different delivery styles. I have sat through lectures that we described as “electrifying” by many, but I had a hard time staying awake. Well, of course, I did look engaged because we all learn early on to fake engagement or get called on.

Different learners find different lecturers engaging or boring on different days depending on a whole range of factors from interest to prior knowledge to how much they ate. Sure, good lecturers can recognize when people are not paying attention, when to change course, when to slow down, when to repeat, etc. But those tactics don’t work for every person in the room, just a slight majority needed to keep momentum going. For some people in the course, those tactics don’t work and they just fake engagement to get out of being called on.

Add to this that different people like hands-on learning or connected learning over lecturing for different topics on different days depending on a whole range of factors. And vice versa. For that “electrifying” lecture, my problem was that I already knew the topic and just wanted to get my hands dirty with applying what I already knew rather than hear an hour of knowledge transfer yet again. And then there are times when I have already applied the knowledge and want to connect with other advanced learners to dig deeper together as a group.

This is the main problem with lectures: we force all people in a course regardless of interest, prior knowledge, interest level and so on to listen to one person presenting in one style for an entire session or even semester. The “popular narrative” about lectures is actually more about this main problem. We actually do have a clear understanding of what a lecture accomplishes – lectures are probably the second most researched pedagogical tool behind standardized tests in instructional design literature. Lectures transfer knowledge. And when the right lecturer connects with the right learners that are interested in having that knowledge transferred to them in a way that they prefer, its a great learning scenario. I have been in many of those.

edugeek-journal-avatarBut for the most part, most of the lectures I have been in do not attain to that magical level. Why? Some studies find that up to 70-90% of all college courses use rely on lectures. no educational theory or research supports that level. The problem is not the lecture; it is how we are drowning our learners’ interest to death in them. We don’t need to attack or defend lectures, but figure out how to connect the right lecture at the right time with the right learners and then stop using them at all other times in the learning process just because they are the comfortable norm.

(image credit: Gozde Otman, obtained from

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

Why Design a xMOOC / cMOOC Hybrid? LTCA Theory

So a lot of interest in the earlier post about creating a dual-layer cMOOC/xMOOC, as well as some of the inevitable backlash. The biggest question rattling around seems to be “why?” Well, my first response is: ask George Siemens – this is all his crazy idea. But I wouldn’t be blogging about the idea and sticking with the team if I didn’t think there was something to the idea. We may run into a huge road block down the road and decide to ditch the idea. But the conceptual part of it is fascinating.

I think some of the initial confusion over the idea stems from the divide between theorists and practitioners. As much as I love theory, many theorists tend to get a little too “either/or” minded for practicality. Its either quantitative or qualitative. Its either behaviorism or constructivism. Its either xMOOC or cMOOCs. And so on. In a practical sense, learning never falls along such clean, neat lines. One moment you need to transfer your expert knowledge to a blank slate, the next you need to let your students struggle and construct meaning from chaos because there are just things you can’t copy and paste into their brains.

In my Ph.D. pursuits, I have been exposed to a new emerging theory called Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions. This theory is being created by Dr. Scott Warren at the University of North Texas based on the works of Jurgen Habermas. Without communication, learning can not happen. LTCA theory breaks communication down into four forms present in learning:

  • Normative communicative actions are those that communicate knowledge based on past experiences, such as statements in class instructions that lay out expectations for student activities.
  • Strategic communicative actions are the most familiar educational communicative actions – these occur most often through lectures, textbooks, and other methods where specific reified knowledge is transferred to the learner.
  • Constative communicative actions are debates, arguments, and discourses that allow learners to make claims and counterclaims. Constative communication is also where social constructivism connects with LTCA theory, as students come to agreement over constructed knowledge through these communicative actions
  • Dramaturgical communicative actions are those that allow for expression. Learners can reflect or create artifacts that express the knowledge they have gained as well as who that knowledge makes them as a person.

Just looking at all four, I think it becomes pretty obvious that each one requires different paradigms, different design, and different technology among other issues. Yet, we need all four to facilitate effective learning. Lately I have been pondering whether some of our problems in education stem from us trying to cram all of these communicative actions into one software solution, one instructional style, one epistemology, etc. Then, beyond that, we tell all students that they have perform all four at the same time as the other students, “because its not time for discussion yet!” or whatever it may be.

So, the idea of MOOC layers is really looking at a four pronged approach to the idea of teaching and learning as communicative actions using LTCA theory. Yes, we could insert strategic communicative actions into constative communicative actions as the instructor sees fit – but are we really going to do that for all students just because two need it? What if a student that needs strategic actions could just duck out and receive that instruction without disrupting the flow for those that don’t need it?

So, the idea I am digging into is that strategic communicative actions are the domain of the xMOOC. And no matter how much you love or hate xMOOCs, you have to admit that this is what they do best. Dramaturgical communicative actions would be the domain of the cMOOC, especially if we could use things like assignment banks and blogs and basically the entire A Domain of One’s Own set-up. Constative communicative actions would be the domain of the design of the course, using activity design to encourage students to interact and debate. Normative communicative actions would be a mixture of the profile system that pulls students together in groups to create their own norms and the instructors vision for the content norms.

The imperative here is that all of this must scale to massive numbers. This is MOOC design, after all. I know there are ways to do all four prongs in one class without dividing out  into layers. But that will only work if the class is small enough. Whatever criticism you have of the whole idea of “massive”… I agree. Education always works better with smaller numbers. But that is not the reality we are being dealt right now. More and more learners are being crammed in our classes – and they don’t even seem to care how this affects their education. So until the customer (learners) wakes up and starts demanding smaller classes, we have to start figuring out this scale thing. That is reality we live in, and that is the reality we are trying to figure out the best solution for.

When Hype Eats the Real Concept

A co-worker emailed me the other day and asked if I had heard of “Online-Only Flipped Classrooms.” After discussing it with him, it seems like this is a real  thing. But it also seems that every reference I can find to “Online-Only Flipped Classrooms” really just describes what we used to just call “online learning”  less than 10 years ago.


You know that the hype around Flipped Classrooms and MOOCs has gained a life of its own when people start writing books about “new directions” for those concepts and don’t even realize they are just describing basic online learning. Think about it: you watch a video or read some text and then come together to discuss or work on a group project. That has been basic online learning for centuries. But now it is being called “Online-Only Flipped Classrooms.” Oh, and not to mention it is labeled as “student-centered learning.”

I guess that is another post – at what point did “making your students work together for the majority of the time” become synonymous with “student-centered learning”?

Feasibility of Personal Learning Environments

Usually when I try to convince people to look into PLEs, I get the same general questions/concerns. These are usually along the lines of “how will the separate systems ever communicate with each other?”, or “how will this scale?”, or “how would you do assessment in this model?” These are all very good questions, but potential also ones that are barking up the wrong tree so to say.

I get it that someone might wonder how one learner will use WordPress, another Drupal, another Twitter, another Instagram, etc – and somehow these will magically come together and no one will get lost. People had the same questions about setting up an LMS, a registration system, an email server, and a whole host of other separate programs at Universities in the 1990s. It didn’t seem like those systems would ever work together, but people figured out how and now people barely have to consider things like “how does this integrate with our student tracking system?” In other words, we created the system that we wanted, and the technology came to us as needed. There are many projects out there that are creating the integration needed to create PLEs, so we are part of the way there and getting all the way there fast.

And to be honest, if some websites don’t want to to be open – like, say Facebook continues down a path of containing your information rather than liberating it – then they just won’t get to play in the PLE sandbox of the future. That’s why you don’t see Wikimedia being installed on too many campuses – they didn’t want to play the “systems integration game,” so they were mostly left out.

Questions about scalability and assessment really dig more into course design than tool integration. These are still good topics to consider, because you do want the tools to be there. But, you have to answer these questions with a huge caveat. PLEs are not LMSs, and LMSs tend to push instruction towards certain epistemologies/ontologies that are very different from the basic epistemology/ontology behind PLEs. LMSs are really based on behaviorist/objectivist viewpoints: stimulus and response. You broadcast the correct content and reward the students for correctly spitting it back at you. Occasionally LMS tools can also dip into cognitivism, where learning is an internal process and you can tell learning is happening based on the papers that learners write to prove it.

PLEs are social constructivist/connectivist in nature. Learning is constructed by connecting with other learners and creating new shared knowledge. So when asking about scalability or assessment, you have to make sure that you are not trying to force PLEs into an LMSs mold. Sure, it is possible to create a PLE-based lesson that still ends with a multiple choice standardized test, but what you essentially did is re-arrange the elements of an LMS to look more like a PLE without really embracing the PLE mindset.

So, yes questions about assessment and scalability are important, but only if you are looking at them from a social constructivist/connectivist view point. Examining questions from a behviorist/objectivist or even cognitivist viewpoint will never give you satisfactory answers, because the entire idea does not really support the paradigm you are coming from. Asking “how will this scale when I have to teach 120 students” is objectivist in nature. Asking “how will I grade 120 papers?” is cognitivist in nature. Asking “how does this support connections between all of the groups that will be created when we bring 120 students together?” is a social constructivist question, and a good one to ask of any PLE system that you try to set up.

2014: The Make or Break Year for MOOCs and Big Data?

So I know in the past that I have tried everything from serious predictions of the immediate future to crazy futurist predictions of the next decade to mocking the whole idea of predicting the future (how long can gaming be 1-2 years from emerging anyways?). I debated whether I should do anything for 2014, especially since there were several good predictions out there already.

Being a bit pf a pragmatist myself, I think the future of online learning is a bit less predictable than it has been in the past. Online learning is certainly on the radars of a lot more people than it was a few years ago, but many of those people are not happy at all with what they are seeing in MOOCs. I would point out that many of the problems that people are seeing with MOOCs deals more with administrative mismanagement of implementation and funding than with the actual idea. If you are really dropping $150,000-300,000 per class to develop a MOOC, then you missed the whole point of the idea in the first place.

For me, I am not really convinced that MOOCs are going to bounce back OR die completely. What I really think is that, as a field, Ed Tech is in uncharted waters here and we really don’t know where we are heading next. So it is hard to say what will happen. I think 2014-2015 will be make or break years for open learning (and big data for that matter). Will we emerge from the valley of disillusionment? I don’t think we really have any clue to know for sure or not. Will MOOCs fade off into the Google Wave sunset, with a promise that the good core ideas will survive… but then they really don’t? I don’t know if we know that for certain, either.

I do think we have a good break with all of this dissatisfaction to jump into the conversation and say “yes, this whole idea of business ideas and MOOCs is horrible, but here are the things about open learning that are good (and have been good since ancient times)”. But let’s face it, too many people sat on their rears trying to play nice with the new xMOOCs for the last few years, and if that happens again we’ll all continue to get lumped in the same category with capitalist ventures that are declared failures by their own creators.

For me, I am still going to be championing the less popular ideas that need more attention, like Heutagogy, Sociocultural theory, Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions, taking control of your Digital Identity, and rethinking learning design to be truly online and not just digitized classrooms. My main prediction for 2014 is that these ideas will continue to be ignored while other fancier, shinier ideas get championed by the cool Ed Tech kids :)

Heading Towards a Post-Course Era?

A few weeks a go, this quote was posted by Dr. Semingson of UT Arlington:

“Today, courses may be better thought of as tools to manage time, staff, and resources or as building blocks for the discipline. However, the bounded, self-contained course can no longer be the central unit of analysis of the curriculum because it may no longer be the place where the most significant learning takes place. In the ‘postcourse era,’ learning occurs through inquiry and participation, social connections (e.g., blogs, wikis), and reflection.” – IT as a game changer, by Diana Oblinger

With all of the focus on MOOCs as anything from “Game Changer” to “University Killer”, I think we are missing larger ideas like this one. MOOCs (at least the xMOOC variety that gets all of the press) are really just another form of modularized assessment, one that will most likely not be considered individually once the degree or certificate (or whatever it may be) is earned. When employers are conducting interviews, do they more often that not want the transcript (list of modular accomplishments) or the resume (summary of accomplishments at a macro level)?

More often than not, employers are looking at applicants from a macro level. They want to know how future employees are pulling all of the pieces together to be a well-rounded contributor to society, business, etc, etc.

Many colleges are aware of this and have responded by adding portfolios and cohorts and other organizational ideas to their degree plans. But even in these cases the course is still the “central unit” or main focus of the assessment of learning. What if we could see inquiry, participation, social connections, and reflection become that central unit? Classes would still be a good way to manage resources or add some building blocks to the overall picture, but the shift would be away from rigid walls and divisions and onto how a learner connects, synthesizes, reflects, and participates with the larger community of learners.

Open learning (which is not just MOOCs) is poised to push this idea forward. Instead of killing or destroying universities, openness can be the concept that turns the tide in favor of the “post-course” era. Portfolios and cohorts can grow into the forum where the most significant learning takes place.

A lot of this has been on my mind recently as I set out to start working on a peer mentor-ship program that has the possibility to be seeding ground for these ideas. I remember a few years ago when I had this crazy idea of “If We Ditch The LMS, How Then Could We Change Colleges?“:

When a student wants to take a course, they would sign up to “follow” an instructor in that instructor’s personal teaching environment (which could also even be a classroom in the real world for all it matters).  They would work through the material and assignments at their pace, moving quickly through what they already know and slowing down on the stuff that they need more time on.  Once they have completed the projects, the instructor could look at them and say “great job – you are finished and ready to move on.”  Or the instructor could say “you are not quite there – spend a few more weeks in class and see how that will change your project.”  Or maybe even “that is something I have never thought of – you pass, but could you stay on a few more weeks and teach us what you have found here?”

So this would be a little bit chaotic.  Students would be moving through the material at their own pace, following the research that instructors add, adding their own research, and creating projects.  New students would be joining each week and interacting with students that are half way through and maybe even about to finish.

I’m considering circling around to these ideas again to see what still has relevancy and what was just pointless hype. But the idea of tearing down the rigid course structure has the true feel of disruption.  MOOCs that just digitize the lecture hall experience? Not so much.

5 Deadly Sins of Do-It-Yourself Online Instructional Design

When I first started in Instructional Design, the process was pretty top down: instructors gave the designer all of the content and they went to work in their secret bat caves to get it all ready to go online. That model worked for the time, but it took quite a while and instructors were often unable to help students with some issues simply because they were not part of the design process. As time went on, more control was given to instructors in the design phase and the role of instructional designer shifted from producer to guide or teacher. This gave rise to the Do-It-Yourself Designer/Instructor. In some places, this was always the case, but in other places this is becoming more of the norm. But as a trained ID, I see many flavors of DIY IDs committing the same basic design mistakes. Here are my top five – although this list could easily expand past these.

5) Jumping On The Band Wagon Because All The Cool Kids Are

I get it that something is all over the media and it looks fun and you want to try it. But if your first question is: “how can I use this in my class?” then you probably shouldn’t. If you read about some cool tool, website, or idea and don’t immediately get an “A-HA!” moment, chances are it just isn’t for you. Sure, you can try to force it in, but your students will probably see past that and get bored. Because that is where the sin is committed – forcing a cool idea into a class just because it is cool. Make sure you have a solid reason for using it. If you have an activity that you like and you examine all options and find that the cool idea ends up being a great solution, then great – go for it. Just make sure to have a good reason at all times. Experimentation is good – but also remember that the more you experiment with an idea, the further away you should keep that idea from the core of your course. Once you have worked out the kinks and bugs, then move it to being more of the core of your class.

4) Accessibility? Of Course My Students Can Log On. Why Do I Have To Care About Accessibility?

Did I forget to say that all of these are based on real life quotes? So, yeah – there are people out there that don’t get what accessibility is, much less how to design for it. Usually the biggest culprits are things like low font contrast, bright neon colors, no alt tags, no closed captioning, and other easy to fix issues. But a lot of these common issues seem to be rooted in a main source problem: bad graphic design. So here is where you start: if your course looks like it would fit in well with at a 1990’s retro-web museum display, you have probably broken a few accessibility issues on the way to being in trouble with the style police. Did you skip the alt tag box when inserting the cutesy spinning baby gif? Then there is probably no need for it in your class. Does your text move at all? Its not the 70s anymore and disco dancing letters haven’t really been that good of an idea since then. Does the color of your font match the most popular eye shadow colors all the valley girls were wearing in the 80s? Best to leave those colors in the past. And Blackboard headers? If you don’t know how to use modern fonts or how to design banners to blend with the background so that they don’t look like a cheap banner ad, then just step away from the computer. Especially if you want to use Papyrus font.

3) I Have Already Lecture-Captured An Entire Semester, So My Online Class Is Ready To Go.

I am sure that you are the greatest lecturer in the world. I am sure that your students have a blast listening to you in class. But that doesn’t mean it will translate well to lecture capture. The main issue is that you are not talking to the learner sitting at home watching you on a computer. You are talking to a room full of people – who will ask you questions, cause interruptions, fall asleep and cause you to roam off camera to subtlety “refocus” them, etc. Would you be able to sell your lecture capture as an audio book? Probably not – because it is not the right format. We know that students are more satisfied with learning when the instructor engages with them. In lecture capture, you are not engaging the distance learner – you are creating an artifact of you engaging the face-to-face learners. Think of it this way – if you get a video message from your parents, how would you like it if you open up the file and find it was actually a recording of your parents talking to your sibling, and your parents just say “well, we would say the same things to you, so this is good enough.” Create online videos for online learners.

2) These PowerPoints Worked Great In My Lecture, So They Will Be Awesome Online

PowerPoints. Oh, how I wish we would make these illegal online. Mainly because they are not online tools. PowerPoint is basically a program designed to keep people awake in boring presentations. It is not a good tool for communicating content to online students because it was not designed for conveying content. We have this tool for conveying content online called a web page. Most LMS tools have this neat little box where you can enter text and produce a web page faster than you can clean up your PowerPoint files. Oh what’s that? What do I mean by “cleaning up” PowerPoint files? Ummmmm…. well, see…. most PowerPoints tend to be long bullet point lists of short points that serve to remind you what to say next. They usually don’t make sense apart from the accompanying lecture because, well – they rarely contain complete thoughts. And for some reason, even the few complete thoughts that are present get a bullet point stuck in front of them. Ever wonder why your students don’t “get” the lesson when you just give them the PowerPoints from the lecture? It is because they are probably missing everything you share in between those bullet points. Make sure they get all of that – write a flowing narrative that reads like a normal book or article. Your students will thank you for it.

1) ID is Like Bread: Do You Want Stale Stuff From Last Year or Hot New Fresh Stuff?

We probably all remember getting an outdated textbook some point in school – the ones with references to “current” presidents that haven’t been in office for a few terms, or medical advice about sucking poison out of wounds, or blatant racist illustrations that makes everyone squirm. That has always been the problem with printing textbooks – they go out of date quickly. The same happens in online classes all the time – we get them designed, we release them, and then we take it easy for a few semesters. Or even years. The problem is, the world changes from semester to semester. Even from week to week or day to day. Something will go out of date in your course every time it is offered. Many people will spend more time writing update announcements than it would take to just fix the old information. But maybe you should just make it your goal to teach the class differently every time it is offered? Or maybe you should have an active course that relies more on student interaction than your museum content? This is where many so-called “disruptive” technologies get education wrong. They want to capture “good lectures” on video or capture “brilliant minds” in books and turn the course into a museum where you come to watch something that has been recycled for semesters on top of semesters. Some of the best classes I have ever taken as a student were taught by instructors that told us right from the beginning that they taught the course different every time.  Don’t want your students cheating off a roommate that took your course last year? Then make sure its not the same. Don’t want students selling old copies of your assignments? Make them new and fresh every time. Even if your content hasn’t changed, create a theme for the course. Have some fun and make it different every time. Make it more open ended and constructivist so that even you don’t know exactly how it will be taught each time. Move to a student-centered mindset and see how fun (or crazy) it gets. But most of all, don’t be stale.