Untangling Grades from Feedback: Ungrading a Course

Oh what a tangled web we weave when we grade, mark and give feedback to students in university and college classrooms! Elaborate scoring schemes, points to earn, points to lose, detailed and lengthy rubrics, group project marking formats, deductions for late work, many assignments, tests, quizzes and exams…and on and on. Just so complicated in so many unnecessary ways. Why do educators do this?

Grading and reporting are NOT essential to the instructional process – according to research evidence. Grades often fail to provide reliable information about student learning.

“Grades awarded can be inconsistent both for a single instructor and among different instructors for reasons that have little to do with a student’s content knowledge or learning advances. Even multiple-choice tests, which can be graded with great consistency, have the potential to provide misleading information on student knowledge.

Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, in Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) 2014

There are many reasons why grading has become such a vastly complex and detailed affair in courses and programs with answers related to: requiring sufficient evidence to support grade appeals; marks serving as motivators for students to read materials and attend class; satisfying program expectations for achievement of learning for next courses/levels; discipline expectations for content coverage and acquisition of outcomes; accreditation/quality assurance expectations; managing student behaviour etc. Sometimes instructors employ complex and detailed marking/grading schemes because they are on probationary status and have been asked to follow the department’s policies – or have little pedagogical training to know otherwise. They may have never experienced a course without grades, marking and ranking/rating students!

Squamish Sea to Sky Gondola Experience - Bridge and Mountains By Liesel Knaack This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Squamish Sea to Sky Gondola Experience – Bridge and Mountains (L. Knaack)

But simply put: Grades are not important to the learning process.

Post-secondary educators need to untangle grading from feedback, see the clear line between the two and focus on appropriate and varied forms of feedback. Feedback (all kinds, all types, not all given by the instructor) is essential to learning! To comply with institutional requirements to have final course grades – work with students to determine a grade for a course based on the feedback and outlined expectations for learning. But to get there – you can do it without grading or marking!

Research on the effects of grading has slowed down in the last couple of decades, but the studies that are still being done reinforce the earlier findings.  For example, a grade-oriented environment is associated with increased levels of cheating (Anderman and Murdock, 2007), grades (whether or not accompanied by comments) promote a fear of failure even in high-achieving students (Pulfrey et al., 2011), and the elimination of grades (in favor of a pass/fail system) produces substantial benefits with no apparent disadvantages in medical school (White and Fantone, 2010). 


Alfie Kohn in the Case Against Grades, 2011

How did we get here with grades often taking over the focus of courses and the focus of learning for both instructors and students? How can we wind our way back out of this tangled web of rubrics, quizzes, endless comments on papers, gradebooks, grading policies, percentages, letters, numbers, marking and more marking! How can we ‘take back Saturday night’? How can we leverage digital tools and technologies to assist us in providing feedback (and I am not meaning the LMS’ gradebook or quiz features!)?

Let’s free ourselves of marking! Completely. Right here. Right now.

To ‘ungrade’ or ‘unmark’ your course, you need to start with confidence that you are aiding in the learning process by removing marking and grading – and in no way are negatively affecting students or you in the process. While it would be wise to consult your teaching and learning centre and any supervisory roles, ungrading a course should fit within good teaching practices at any institution. Ungrading a course has been done by many college and university instructors and by K-12 educators for years! The research is clear – ungrading a course changes the learning experience for the better. Your students will thank you and you will have hours of time back in your life – freed of marking and giving grades!

“But I also know that feedback needs to be absolutely separate from evaluation, that opportunities for revision need to be built into any task if we want meaningful learning, and that if we want students to learn to strive for quality (and hold themselves to high expectations) then we need to separate ideas of quality from ideas of grading. This last point is one of the most difficult for me to internalize, and certainly the most difficult for students to accept, because it pushes against the raison d’etre of the letter grading system as well as against the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary culture.”

Matthew Cheney in Pass No Pass (2018)

Start by looking at your course and sketch out a narrative of what the intentions and big ideas are for student learning. What do you want students to show you? In terms of the discipline and the level/year of the course, what should students strive to understand, apply, do, think, reflect upon etc. How would you describe what you look for in actions, behaviours, writing, speaking, language, analysis, evaluation, creativity in terms of student learning at three or four progress points (i.e. ‘not yet meeting expectations’, ‘meeting expectations’ and ‘exceeding expectations’? – or similar language). If you can create a description for students at these points of learning for your course, you give students an idea of their learning journey. These descriptions also can relate to grades for discussion at the end of the course.

Tribune Bay on Hornby Island, British Columbia By Liesel Knaack This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Tribune Bay on Hornby Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Once you have a narrative for what the stages of learning look like in your course, amp up the feedback opportunities for students and/or keep what you have for feedback but remove the values/grades/letters/numbers you assign. This means giving students lots of opportunities to hear from you, their classmates, experts, colleagues, and students in other classes about learning progress. Feedback should also entail many times for self-reflection – taking stock of their journey and sharing their own thoughts on progress. But wait – this doesn’t mean more time on your part to write out pages of comments or have meetings every day after class! Absolutely not. See the linked handout below for more feedback ideas.

A system of grading ranks and categorizes students; in doing so, it suggests that students should be the same, instead of encouraging students to build their unique strengths. And, most important, grading trains students to work only for the points or the grade, and in the process, the real excitement and value of learning is lost.

Jennifer Hurley in “Is Throwing Out Grades Too Idealistic? (2018)

Students will benefit greatly from feedback – lots of it and in varied formats. Feedback from students consistently shows they are on board and appreciate the removal of grades and focus on feedback. Study after study, blog post after blog post of faculty sharing their stories of going ‘gradeless’ has nothing but loads of positive responses from students. Give it a try. It will ‘free you’!

So the million dollar question…..
QUESTION: So how do you submit a final grade in a gradeless/unmarked course?
ANSWER: Ask the students to suggest a final grade – with evidence!

Well it isn’t that simple, but it does mean you have to plan for this activity from the start of class. Create a chart outlining the criteria and demonstrations of learning that form the course (e.g., assignments, projects, quizzes, professional learning components, portfolio pieces etc.). Explain each component and its relative emphasis/importance in terms of learning so students know where to focus more/less.

Ask the students mid-point in the course to temporarily assign themselves a grade and provide a justification for it. The reflective portion of this activity will be valuable. At the end of the course, ask the students to assign themselves a grade (A, B, C etc.) and provide justification for that grade. Have the students hand in their self-evaluation and rationale. Discuss with the students in short consultations. Let students know at the beginning of the course you have the right to make any adjustments to course grades – but you may find that students provide fair evaluations of their work.

All in all, going gradeless is a worthy venture.

But I have found that asking students to give themselves a grade also makes the why and how of grades a valuable subject of the conversations we have—valuable because they will go on to be graded in other courses and thinking critically about how and why grading happens helps that become more productive for them.

Jesse Stommel in How to Ungrade (2018)

Next Steps?

  1. Seek out your teaching and learning centre support staff. They can help you!
  2. Skim some of the readings, rants and reflections listed on this handout.
  3. Chat with a colleague about the notion of separating grades from feedback.
  4. Try unmarking/ungrading just ONE assignment as a first step!
  5. Ask your students to support you on this journey. They may surprise you in how helpful they can be!
Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, British Columbia By Liesel Knaack This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

First Gathering: Reflecting on Digital Pedagogies

On Tuesday, January 9th, 2019, all the members of the Digital Pedagogies Pathways Project (DP3) gathered for our first dinner to discuss digital pedagogies. Four members came in via Zoom and seven were gathered in a university meeting room (with the always important – food). We began by hearing from everyone for a few minutes answering these questions, “What are you thinking about? Where is your head at with regards to the readings? What are your reflections on Urgency of Teachers?” I knew they were coming with variations in how much they had read, comprehended and assimilated – so we began with questions about what was on their mind around digital pedagogies.

The responses were as diverse as the people in this wonderful group I have assembled to explore digital pedagogies. They are all adventuresome souls – but I am sure we all don’t know where we are heading or what we’ll learn about ourselves, our practice or each other. They are uncovering new language, different perspectives and what critical pedagogy is all about.

Some of Jesse and Sean’s writing is resonating with the group and some of it is challenging our perspectives or just not clicking at all. I am reminded that this isn’t a book of best practices or research about what works best for teaching with technology. Far from it. It is a collection of blog posts written over six and a half years by two colleagues/friends immersed in teaching and learning in post-secondary education institutions. It is their thoughts (many published on Hybrid Pedagogy – an open access journal on learning, teaching and technology) that dive into topics such as online learning, instructional design, pedagogy, critical pedagogy, digital pedagogies, MOOCs, learning management systems, writing, teaching, learning etc.

Daisies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Daisies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Some of the group’s responses included: learning about the definition of digital pedagogies, “chalkboard pedagogies” (we didn’t call it that then, so why are we calling it digital pedagogies – isn’t it all just pedagogies?), “forking education” – what are the provocative thoughts in that blog post that stir our minds for addressing some key learning issues, “manifesto for online learning” – how do these ideas resonate with those who teach online or those who are just getting into it?, and grading and assessment (oh don’t get us going on assessment and depths we all could go to on this topic)!

I sat there and listened to their opening thoughts making sure everyone had a chance to speak, but soon realized that eleven people sharing for just a few minutes can quickly add up to an hour of elapsed time! Our group is diverse with faculty members from trades to nursing, graphic design to social work, education to kinesiology, education assistant and community support worker to adult basic education – we even have a nursing instructor/teaching and learning support faculty member from North Island College. One of my teaching and learning centre staff rounds out the group.

One member indicated that there aren’t many references or research cited throughout the book – true. While some professions focus on taking cues from the literature and well-established research, this area of digital pedagogies is rather new (past 10 years I think Jesse and Sean feel) but they quote or refer to well-known writers and researchers such as, Audrey Watters, bell hooks, Henry Giroux and Paulo Friere.

Urgency of Teachers is a collection of thoughts, provocations, published blog posts, keynote speeches – snapshots of Jesse and Sean’s explorations into teaching, learning and technology. I consider the book as a collection of topics to discuss – agree or disagree, feel intrigued about or not, want to debate or dive deeper – it was up to you. It is an easy book to access – short blog post chapters, different topics, easy to digest, read in any order – but then good ideas to discuss and explore.

I encouraged the group to not only read the book, but also some of the articles on this website that flesh out some topics a bit more. I read every article on this site before I created the link and located a key passage. I even did searches for additional readings and often stumbled down some rabbit holes reading for hours on end about various topics. So I sat there listening to my group reflect on the book and their perspectives on digital pedagogies and teaching with technology – quietly hoping they will soon read a bit more so we can dive a bit deeper.

We meet three more times before we head off to the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Toronto in March. I am sure we’ll have some good conversations exploring those topics and areas of teaching and learning that provoke us, challenge us, encourage us to look further, and reflect on our own practices. But for now, we are off to a good start!

Lilies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Lilies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Are We Giving Students (Digital) Agency?

Do we regularly engage students as collaborators, co-designers, co-developers, partners in the design of learning experiences leveraging digital tools and technologies (e.g., courses, assignments, activities, assessments)?

Are students creating and contributing to digital content and/or given multiple ways of showing what and how they are learning while having choice and ownership over their digital learning experiences?

Do our students have agency and responsibility in their learning processes and take on a key role in driving the direction and depth of classes and courses?

Are we giving students (digital) agency in their learning experiences in post-secondary education?

Student Agency: providing a learning environment in which students develop ownership over their learning journey to work towards deeper and more meaningful learning experiences, therefore the student assumes the role of the agent; (the one with the active role in learning) L. Knaack

Digital tools and technologies provide many opportunities for students (of all ages) to find and use information, apply and analyze knowledge and skills, as well as create and share learning. Most often courses tend to focus on the finding/using, analyzing/applying pieces via digital tools and platforms. When educators give students more creation and sharing experiences that extend beyond the learning management system and traditional formats of assignments – they give students digital agency.

Students have little agency when it comes to education technology — much like they have little agency in education itself.

The importance of giving students responsibility for their own domain cannot be overstated. This can be a way to track growth and demonstrate new learning over the course of a student’s school career — something that they themselves can reflect upon, not simply grades and assignments that are locked away in a proprietary system controlled by the school.


Audrey Watters in The Web We Need to Give Students
View from Mount Prevost, Duncan, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
View of Suburbs of Duncan, Mount Tzouhalem, Saltspring Island from Mount Prevost, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

One example of giving students digital agency is the Spoken Letters Project done by Vancouver Island University‘s Bachelor of Social Work students. This is an example of a non-disposable assignment. Through an inquiry project, students were asked to read survivors’ stories from those who attended residential schools in Canada and create a spoken response back to them. Students had choice in how they’d like to respond using a variety of formats – poems, song, voice, images – shared via a video. The spoken letters/responses were publicly posted on a WordPress site and shared with the Elders and First Nation’s people who had told their stories. What a learning experience!

Another example of giving students digital agency is Robin DeRosa’s Interdisciplinary Studies program at Plymouth State University. In 2014, Robin and colleagues developed an open pedagogy approach to the curriculum giving students more agency and flexibility around their learning. Students can develop their own eportfolios through obtaining a domain of one’s own, contribute to a program-created OER textbook and engage in a professional learning network to grow their own custom connections over the course of the program.

Digital space allows for (and even demands) a new level, and a new kind, of participation. There is no “head of the class” in an online learning environment, not even the illusion of one. Students must, instead, construct their own strategies, without a recipe, in the moment. And they should even be called upon to help map the terrain in which that can happen.


Jesse Stommel in Participant Pedagogy

Educators need to move beyond the learning management system (LMS) and give students opportunities to investigate, produce, share and create a digital presence that represents their learning. What if we moved from the language of ‘submitting’ an assignment to ‘publishing’ an assignment, or from ‘posting’ a discussion response to ‘sharing’ a set of thoughts in a blog or web page? What if we moved from assigning grades to ungrading a course and having students be part of creating the expectations for learning? What if we encouraged students to move beyond the slideshow or research paper and build portfolios of their learning, including audio, video and images of their experiences along with critical reflections of learning?

So now we have a perfect storm. We’ve doubled-down on courses and the LMS, we’ve bought into the notion that what technology afforded us for teaching and learning was standardization of experience and pedagogy, and we’ve abandoned the nascent spaces that might have let us continue to explore the Web as a flexible, open, and powerful platform for teaching and learning.


Martha Burtis in Making and Breaking Domain of One’s Own: Rethinking the Web in Higher Ed

Other examples of supporting digital agency may include activities and assignments such as: using wikis or blogs to engage in peer review and collaborative writing activities, engaging students as editors of an undergraduate journal, building portfolios of learning experiences, creating an open online textbook, provisioning students with domains of their own/web space, or fostering a network of open student reflections,

Anytime we can put students in the driver’s seat and give them control over their learning experience – we give them agency. We give them a chance to be responsible and be an active learner in the course, class, program or degree. Anytime we can provide digital experiences that move beyond the tool/technology/platform/system and engage students in creating, documenting, capturing and sharing their learning – we are giving them digital agency.

Tree, Ruckle Park, Saltspring Island, Gulf Islands British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Ruckle Provincial Park, Saltspring Island, Gulf Islands, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Considering Context and Culture in Learning about Digital Pedagogies

When I moved from Ontario to Vancouver Island, British Columbia there were a number of new learning experiences such as new real estate, car and medical insurance processes. I also had to learn how to get on and off the island with varied transportation choices (ferries, helicopters, airplanes and seaplanes) and the impacts weather (low ceiling, fog, wind, rain) had on those choices. Cost of food, gas and other living expenses were more than in Ontario, yet provided context for the ways goods and services make their way to an island versus what can be produced and sold locally. Moving to a new province is nothing compared to moving to a new country, but for some parts of my job it was a significant shift.

Tonquin Trail, Tofino British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Tonquin Trail, Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Provincially, locally and institutionally there were many new lenses through which I had to view the work I do, the way I could lead my team and what changes I had to make in how teaching and learning would be supported. I think I have come to understand the culture and context of living and working here, but when I read articles, talk to peers or attend events outside of the province I am reminded how much British Columbia’s and Vancouver Island University’s culture and context impacts education, learning, technologies, research – sometimes for the better, sometimes with small hurdles to jump over and sometimes disappointingly challenging.

Here are some context and cultural factors that influence how we teach and learn at Vancouver Island University. This blog will provide a reference for future blog posts and work done by this project.

Canada

Responsibility for Education
Under the Canadian Constitution, provincial governments have exclusive responsibility for all levels of education. There is no ministry or department of education at the federal/national level. The ten provinces oversee policies, funding and regulation of teaching and learning of all K-12 and post-secondary education at both public and private levels. In literature from other countries there are often more regulations and overarching organizations engaged in education’s directions.

Honouring The Truth, Reconciling the Future: A summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
This report traces the history and legacy of the residential school system and also includes 94 “Calls to Action” (recommendations for all Canadians such as urging provincial governments to revise K-12 and post-secondary curricula to include the history of residential schools and treaties). Rolling out these 94 calls to action (with a couple of dozen focused on education) isn’t going to happen quickly or easily, yet the discussions happening across the country are worthy ones. Other countries do not have such an initiative nor with the impacts that it has on post-secondary education. For British Columbia and both education sectors, we are very engaged in ways to honour and respect the Indigenous ways of knowing and the perspectives they have to more broadly inform our learning and expand our understandings.

Tofino, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Tofino in the Early Morning Fog, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

British Columbia

Freedom of Information and Privacy of Protection (FIPPA) Act
The province of British Columbia’s terms around data sovereignty and the storage of personal identifiable information affecting government institutions and their service providers. Only British Columbia and Nova Scotia have this regulation for activity taken on by K-12 and post-secondary institutions. This means that we require storage of student work and associated data to reside in Canada and that no access to personal identifiable information is allowed by any non-Canadian company. This impacts the choices we can make about technology platforms and systems are sometimes limits our activity (or forces us to find local and shared instances, hosting and collaborations). On the positive side, we treat data about our students and faculty with a greater degree of consideration as to where it will live and what sorts of data we need to store.

BCNET
BCNET is BC’s provider of shared services for higher education and research. Of the many services BCNET provides, they assist in licensing platforms and systems with vendors to obtain better pricing and access with large scale purchasing with groups of institutions joining the service. As a cost saving measure, it is worthy but it also means that Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) have been done for the institutions who sign on to the service should the data sovereignty be in question.

BCcampus
This is an organization providing teaching, learning, educational technology, and open education support to the post-secondary institutions of British Columbia. They host workshops, conferences, learning series and other professional development opportunities on a variety of topics. They also will run sandbox pilots of educational technologies. Supported by BCcampus, ETUG – Educational Technology Users Group is a grassroots organization of faculty and support staff who connect and share resources, ideas and knowledge. This community of connected educators and support staff is very helpful in building learning experiences around digital pedagogies.

Open Textbooks and Open Education Movement
A government supported open textbook project (led by BCcampus) and strong adoption rates across the province puts BC as a national leader in the use and integration of open educational resources. Faculty, admin and support staff are also leaders hailing from many of BC’s universities and colleges. The principles of open education and the associated practices for creating learning experiences is very prevalent in BC and therefore creates a broad community of like-minded educators.

British Columbia Teaching and Learning Council (BCTLC)
This is a community of leaders from British Columbia’s public post-secondary education system with a mission to provide local, provincial and national leadership on issues, challenges and directions around teaching, learning technologies, scholarly practice, student learning, and related topics to facilitate the enhancement of high quality teaching and learning cultures across the BC system. Having this group of leaders enables teaching and learning centres to have a network of colleagues to reach out to for sharing and growing awareness and engagement of the work of critical digital pedagogies.

Vancouver Island University Campus View (Credit: VIU)
Vancouver Island University Campus View (Credit: VIU)

Vancouver Island University

University Act – Creation of Vancouver Island University (2008)
The University Act sets out that Vancouver Island University (VIU) is “a special purpose, teaching university that serves a geographic area or region of the province.” The Act identifies VIU’s programming to be “adult basic education, career, technical, trade and academic programs leading to certificates, diplomas and baccalaureate and masters degrees.” Further, the Act states: “so far as and to the extent that its resources from time to time permit…applied research and scholarly activities to support the programs of the special purpose, teaching university” (10:47.1) are part of its mandate. There are five such designated universities like this in BC with no others across Canada.

Teaching-Focused Institution
Faculty members have a larger teaching load than their counterparts at research universities. Typical load is 8 courses per year. Faculty are passionate and highly engaged in teaching.

Poverty
Vancouver Island University has its main campus in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Nanaimo has ranks near the top in the province with the greatest number of people living below the poverty line. This affects the role a university has in engaging families and children in education and assisting in this important regional issue.

Open Access Mandate
With a mandate to provide open access for learners, VIU responds to regional needs including those of students who are disadvantaged, Indigenous, international, dual-credit high schoolers, those pursuing a trade, youth aging out of care, etc. If credentials do not allow for entry, there are upgrading opportunities and other pathways for entry into post-secondary learning at VIU. With most programs needing only a C in Grade 12 English, the opportunities for entry are more extensive than research-focused institutions.

Indigenous Learners
In the spirit of reconciliation, a new learning partnership for Indigenous youth supported with $50M by two philanthropic foundations, Mastercard Foundation and Rideau Hall Foundation, has enhanced opportunities for Indigenous learners. This will double the number of First Nations and Métis students who pursue an education at VIU. VIU already offers a range of initiatives and wrap-around supports for Indigenous students, including outreach workers, student mentors, campus Elders and tuition supplements. New supports include Education Navigators to help Indigenous youth access pathways to learning, improve retention and graduation rates and ultimately support the social and economic development of their communities. Relationships are built by providing in-community services to guide Indigenous learners along their pathways. The vision is that students will no longer need support to navigate the “system”; rather, the system will offer supports to fit the students. ‘Community Cousins’, Aboriginal students studying at VIU, offer campus peer support. The program builds capacity for mentors to gain valuable employability skills and career related experience through mentoring activities. Many students enter through VIU’s Aboriginal University Bridging Certificate. The coaching and mentoring provide learners with access to upgrading for entry into natural resource management, science, health, education and trades programs in demand for local Indigenous communities and employers.

VIU’s Niche
VIU responds to the regional needs for offering education opportunities for all. With both vocational and traditional academic programming, there are also special opportunities created for more interdisciplinary and focused programming. The Niche Statement is as follows:
Adjacent to the rugged coastline of the Salish Sea and within the traditional territories of the Coast Salish People, Vancouver Island University is proud of its unique history and culture as a teaching university that: • welcomes and celebrates learners, from local, regional and international communities, and nontraditional students, as the heart of the institution; • supports and celebrates student success; • provides high quality teaching, affordable high quality programs and multiple ways of knowing; • promotes campus communities offering small class sizes that encourage rewarding faculty/student engagement; • supports Indigenous learners and connections to Indigenous communities; • fosters a global awareness within the campus and external communities; and • promotes community engagement for students and faculty

Two Perspectives: Reflection on “Urgency of Teachers”

I read Sean and Jesse’s book, Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy by the lingering light of day (on the shortest daylight days of the year) during a massive power outage that arose from British Columbia’s most devastating windstorm in decades. The multi-day power outage presented me with a gift of uninterrupted time to read, reflect and think. Yet how fitting it was during this absence of technology that I spent time critically thinking about technology!

I’ve been teaching and thinking about teaching with digital tools and technologies since they came into in our schools and classrooms (decades ago), first as an outdoor educator, then as a K-12 teacher and finally as a university instructor. I have also been supporting faculty on designing/redesigning learning experiences with or without technologies – also for decades. Somewhere between K-12 and university teaching I dove into two graduate degrees on education and technology – and remember now how forward thinking many of my professors were around challenging the status quo around how technology was being used for learning. So, I read this book already on board with many of the calls to action, understanding the journeys Sean and Jesse have experienced and already had debated many of the inequities, injustices, dilemmas, challenges and issues that confront learners each day.

Two Trees at Florencia Beach, Pacific Rim National Park, Tofino, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Florencia Bay, Pacific Rim National Park, between Ucluelet and Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

That didn’t mean I still had much to learn – and it meant I had more messiness and complexities with the topics and pushed myself harder to figure out what the writings meant to me now. I read the book from two perspectives: one as a somewhat experienced educator and one as a somewhat experienced administrator of a university teaching and learning centre supporting faculty members in the very topics and issues, Urgency of Teachers, explores. At times I found myself re-reading sections to consider my thoughts and responses from both perspectives. Sometimes it was a jarring experience – but a worthy one.

Educator Perspective

I liked the format of the book – a collection of published writings composed over six and a half years that showed Jesse’s and Sean’s understandings as they explored and experienced the many facets of digital pedagogies. Each ‘chapter’ or narrative has much to dive into and reflect upon. The writings triggered memories of activities I had done as a less experienced educator and helped me trace how I have evolved my perspectives and actions on digital pedagogies. Each of their narratives has something for every teacher to ponder whether it be the LMS, MOOCs, plagiarism software, teaching online, ethics, assessment, open education, instructional design and so on.

From my teacher perspective I felt that their words were echoing what was in my head but had never made it to paper or computer. I started thinking about my future self as an educator returning to the classroom. How would I approach digital pedagogies with what I know now? What would I change? What do I want to try? How would I engage colleagues in developing a more critical perspective about learning with digital tools? How could I weave my love of ungrading with open pedagogies and inclusive learning environments? How could I have students co-create a course from scratch or build a non-disposable assignment leveraging digital technologies to give them their own identity and voice? What do I still need to learn? Ah, so many questions and still so much learning to do.

Tofino Harbour, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Tofino Harbour, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Administrator Perspective

For almost twelve years I’ve been exploring the field of faculty development – building supports and services to assist faculty with core pedagogic knowledge and skills, creating environments for reflection and reaction and consulting with educators when they hit roadblocks or want advice. It is a tough gig and takes years to hone. But it is also the other perspective through which I read this book.

Recently having done a scan of the literature about leading an open education movement at the post-secondary level and not finding much about the roles teaching and learning centres (and their leaders) can play, I read this book to glean any ideas around supporting change at the institutional level. I understand the calls to action so nicely woven throughout the whole book – and agree on their importance – but am thinking more strategically and tactically about how critical digital pedagogies can be woven into culture and context at my institution. Being more critical about our pedagogies and our digital pedagogies I feel is a core activity any educator, department and institution should be doing.

As faculty developers we know the point when educators go from talking about the ‘whats’ of teaching (describing teaching practices, explaining assignments, outlining outcomes and assessments) to embracing the often messy and challenging state of making change in your practice. The ‘so whats’ and the ‘now whats’ of the reflection process create dissonance and uncertainty, but are a necessary part of being a critically reflective practitioner (Dewey, Schon and Brookfield). If we can move faculty to this state of reflection we can also engage in more purposeful conversations about student learning.

I have similar thoughts as Jesse and Sean do about the need for being more critical (or I might say more inquiry-oriented, necessary, investigative, reflective, focused, purposeful, etc.) in our work with digital pedagogies. In both K-12 and post-secondary education there is a need for more meta-level discussion and extended thinking (critically) about what is going on with digital tools, technologies and learning experiences.

I closed the book thinking about how to build more critical dialogue about teaching and learning across the institution. I pondered how to infuse more inquisition and probing into why and what we are doing both with my own staff and with faculty. I desperately want to encourage more faculty to think beyond the LMS as a storage depot or quiz and assignment collector, or aggregator of grades. I want our centre’s offerings and activities to have critical digital pedagogies embedded within. I would love to have a faculty learning community keen to challenge their own and others’ uses of learning technologies and push into new ways of creating more authentic, accessible and student-authored learning experiences.

So now what? In my head, I am formulating what might be a companion document of strategies, activities and initiatives to begin planting the seeds of critical pedagogies across any post-secondary institution. This is going to take more time to flesh out, discuss my thoughts with other leaders, and explore more at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Toronto. I have also created a faculty learning community on digital pedagogies and am taking them all to the Lab in Toronto hoping to build the movement slowly across a variety of program areas. But for now the book, Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, confirmed I am not alone in my thinking. But I have much more thinking still to do.