Being a Human Shopper in a Digital Online Shopping Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(image credit: Blue Chaos 3 by Josh Klute)

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.