Reflections of a DigiPed Lab Rat: How I become BFFs with Sean Michael Morris AND Dave Cormier (and their ideas of course)

Last October, I received a curious email from the Director of VIU’s Teaching and Learning Centre.  “Would you be interested in attending the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Toronto this coming March?” I was so intrigued and curious about the term Digital Pedagogy it led me to eagerly say yes! Accepting the invitation came with a commitment to engage for the next five months with other curious keeners around this curious new world of digital pedagogies.  We didn’t know exactly what we were getting into, but nonetheless dove right in. 

Five months later I arrived in Toronto along with seven other enthusiastic colleagues to attend the Lab. To say I was excited about this opportunity is a major understatement. You see, my colleagues and I had been prepping this event for months – five to be exact.  Each week we’d read a few chapters of Urgency of Teachers.  We’d discuss, and then we’d read some more. We became so familiar with this book that we chatted about the authors, Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, as if they were in our daily lives.  We argued about their views and wrote short posts to share with each other. As you can probably tell, we were not taking this opportunity lightly. And I loved every minute of it!

So, what did I expect the Lab to be? To be honest, I had thought this entire endeavour would be an opportunity for me to become a techno whiz-kid over the span of three days. But, no – that idea was vetoed very early on when we heard ‘no laptops required’ and ‘it’s all about the dialogue’.  So now what did I expect?

I’m going to say whatever it was, has since been subsumed by what I experienced.

Day one:

I started my day with the Introduction to Open Pedagogy Breakout Group. But as a great boost to my confidence, and a testament to my 5-month intensive learning journey, I soon realized that I was actually beyond the introductory stage.

At lunchtime I knew an action plan was needed to discreetly switch groups. As luck would have it the lunch line up that day was long, very, very long, which allowed me more time to think/plan/hide. But then my soon-to-be-best friend, Sean Michael Morris, whom I’d never met before but knew so much about, was standing in front of me. He turned around and asked quite simply “How was your morning?” We started to chat about his wonderful dinosaur stories that he’d shared throughout the Urgency of Teachers. I praised his mum for having such great insight into the link between imagination and learning. One thing led to another; me recommending that he read Dr. Kieran Egan’s Learning In Depth, and then Sean recommending that I join Dave Cormier’s Open Pedagogy group for the rest of the Lab! It was that simple.  There was only one problem; Dave’s session was full. Sean asked me to hold his place in the line-up while he ran off to see if Dave would be willing to take me in. I prayed to the DigPed gods while he was gone. It worked! I was in!

If you are interested in OER and Open Pedagogy you will have to get to know the work of  Dave Cormier. Not only is he the founder of MOOCs and has endless experience designing and facilitating open online courses, he is a master pedagogue. He very quickly determined that I was the only person in his session representing Trades Education; in fact, I was the only person at the Lab representing Trades Education. In the most artful way he began to weave examples from Carpentry and Automotive into the classroom dialogue regarding pedagogy. To me, this is what inclusive education looks like, feels like, and sounds like. I won’t digress here to tell you stories from similar settings where I’ve felt excluded because “Trades is not education; it’s training, right?” Not my words, but I’m thinking if you’ve been in education for a while, you’ll be familiar with this mindset (thanks Plato).

Two of my (fab) colleagues, Jacqueline Kirkham and Louis Matter, were already in this group and have written excellent blogs that I recommend you read. Both Jacqueline and Louis have captured the structure of Dave’s class and the great activities that he facilitated, and so I won’t repeat those stories. I have instead decided to tell you about my own running internal narrative and a few of the conversations I had throughout the next two and half wonderful days I spent at the Lab.

I left Dave’s session absolutely pumped! Firstly, I was so empowered by my ability to act quickly earlier that day to ensure I switched sessions. But bigger than that, I’d found Dave Cormier. And I was now leaving his session with more questions than answers. This is what I call learning.

At the end of day one I wrote up my questions, which I will share with you here:

  1. What is Open Pedagogy?
  2. How does Open Pedagogy differ from the experimental Free Schools (Self Discovery Learning model) that we saw in the UK in the 1970’s?
  3. Are Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources (OER) interdependent?
  4. How does Open Pedagogy fit into Competency Based Trades program?

In the rest of this Blog I will share with you the answers I came away with. In doing so, please know that I am not claiming to be any kind of an expert here, I am simply sharing with you my own understanding as it is today having spent time with Dave Cormier and 14 other wonderful individuals who made 3 days feel like 3 minutes, and yet the impact of these days will last a lifetime.

Question 1: What is Open Pedagogy?

For now, my description of Open Pedagogy is captured in the world cloud below. These are the terms that resonated with me most, and currently act as a guide for my pedagogical lens.

Created using

Question 2: How does Open Pedagogy differ from the experimental Free Schools (Self Discovery Learning model) that we saw in the UK in the 1970’s?

With all the dialogue taking place around Openness, I became suddenly fearful of what might occur if all boundaries are removed from our current pedagogical structures. And for more than a fleeting second, I am reminded of a scene I saw back in the 70’s showing a Free School that was close to my home in the UK. The scene that I am referring to shows unruly students hanging out of second floor windows, smoking in classrooms, and literally running wild. In the absence of this resource, please take my word for it; the school philosophy grounded in the ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had created absolute chaos!

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone in my group, or anyone at the DigPedLab for that matter, perceived Open Pedagogy in the same vein as the experimental Free Schools of the 1970’s. But even though I knew this, I still needed to hear Dave Cormier’s views on how these ideals differ.

This is Dave’s response: “First let establish what is open and what is closed”.

Open versus Closed Pedagogy: “Closed – we decide what you should learn, and then you come and learn it in ways that were pre-determined on your behalf. We then rank your success or failure with pre-existing narrowly focused measures determined by others, again in absence of you.

Whereas Open Pedagogy offers students choice in many aspect of their learning such as curriculum content and learning outcomes, time management, media use, grading structures, and the option to work independently or in groups. The student voice is critical in shaping the learning goals and outcomes for such courses. But… (Note: for me, this is the most pertinent part of this conversation) It is not wise for any curriculum to be fully open.”

And so, here it is in Dave Cormier’s words “Open is not 100% Open, and nor should it be”.

What Dave had to say was music to my ears. This was the point where I was able to situate Open Pedagogy within a Vygotskian Social Constructivist framework. Let me elaborate on that point. In Vygotskian theory the learner’s existing level of knowledge provides the starting point for the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); “the distance between the actual development by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). So in conclusion to my question:

  • Closed pedagogy: the ZPD of the individual learner is not considered. Course work is standardized.
  • Open pedagogy: the ZPD of each learner drives the decisions made between student and instructor during the negotiating and planning of assignments and assessments; thereby allowing the instructor (more capable peer) to guide decisions appropriate to the learner’s ZPD.
  • Free Schools: absence of more capable peer to guide decisions and planning of assignments, assessments, and learning outcomes.

Question 3: Are Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources (OER) interdependent?

Quite simply, the answer is NO! It is possible to facilitate learning through Open Pedagogical practices without the use of OER, in fact many educators have done so for many years with great results. These educators speak about the use of collaborative practices where non-disposable assignments (thanks, Dave Wiley) are co- created in an agreement between student and instructor, along with self-evaluation rubrics, and personal goal setting, all of which are independent of OER.

Okay, got it.  So then, is it possible to utilize OER within a Closed Pedagogy practice? Sure it is! You can easily access Open Educational Resources to support the delivery of a very traditional course that has every aspect of teaching and learning pre-determined, including the classroom setting and the behaviours that are expected within those four walls. So why use OER? Well, it saves students money due to no text book costs, which is always a good thing. And maybe the instructor prefers to use electronic resources licensed under Creative Commons that can be Retained, Reused, Revised, Remixed, and Redistributed.

So why do OER and Open Pedagogy appear to be inter – reliant? Well, that’s because they both represent the same philosophy and when they are used together they form a symbiotic relationship where one supports the other. The bottom line is, Open Pedagogy and Open Education Resources combined fulfill the philosophy of Open Pedagogy – and hold the potential to empower many individuals that have previously been excluded by the existing traditional educational structures.

4: How does Open Pedagogy fit with Competency Based Trades programs?

Well, I don’t have all the answers to this one yet. In fact, I still have many ideas jostling around because Trades Education is historically situated within a closed pedagogical paradigm (CBET). But to keep you going until I get this figured out, and till I write next, I encourage you to take a look at how one fab, inspirational Trades Instructor, Chad Flinn, has embedded Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources into his Electrical Foundations class here in BC. Take a look here at the Electrical Academy.

Got question? Please ask away!

Got answers? I’m listening.

Find me on Twitter at @sallyvinden

Defining Open Pedagogy?!?

Open pedagogy is hard to define. Over the course of three days in the Open Pedagogy stream of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto, we were unable to come up with a concise definition. In fact, I would speculate that of the 14 people who attended, there were probably 18 different definitions (I know I had at least two over the three days)!  I think that part of the reason for the difficulty in defining Open is because individuals will choose to focus on aspects that relate to them and their teaching practice, so each person will have a unique definition (or definitions!). One thing that was agreed upon, however, is that Open Pedagogy is a much bigger topic than simply Open Educational Resources (OER) or Open Textbooks. While OER and Open Textbooks are an aspect of Open Pedagogy, the idea’s of Open are far more diverse and varied than you might think.

With an understanding that Open Pedagogy is a far larger topic than can be describe here, I will provide the framework that I developed while attending the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto following three days of conversation, experimentation and laughs, with my fellow attendees, and our facilitator Dave Cormier.

My Framework

For me, Open Pedagogy encompasses 4 key principles: Choice with Intent, Intrinsic Motivation, Authenticity, and The Community is the Curriculum. These principles evolved from the conversations, experiences, activities and reflections garnered in the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto, and through experiments in my own classroom. I will outline my thoughts behind these four principles and hopefully convey my definition of Open Pedagogy.

Choice with Intent

Providing our students with the ability to make choices in our courses is seen as a way to involve our students in the learning process. Whether it involves choice with what assignments are required, how the grading is distributed or whether to attend class, choice is seen as a way to empower students to be more involved in their learning. In Open, what differentiates choice from choice with intent, is that the choices provided and the rationale for them are clearly articulated, and the students themselves play a role in developing the options.

Clearly, involving the students in the development of assessments needs to be done in an organized and thoughtful manner, but including them in the process gives them a degree of ownership in the course. This ownership instantly builds a community within the classroom, where everyone involved has a hand in the decision making. Items like grading contracts, co-developed rubrics, peer-reflection and peer-assessment are all ways that can provide students choice with intent, where they start to have more ownership of the curriculum.

As more and more ownership is given to the students, it has the effect of removing ownership of the course out of the hands of the instructor. The classroom becomes more of a community of peers within the classroom. The thought of relinquishing authority in a classroom is not likely something that many instructors are interested in or willing to do. It might be seen as a weakening of the educational system, or an erosion in their “power”. As an instructor, I have a mandate to provide students with the best opportunity to acquire the content within a particular course. If the best way to accomplish that is by empowering students at the cost of my own authority, so be it! As I will explain in the following principles of Open, that loss of authority (by the instructor) is far out-weighed by the benefits received by the students.

Image Credits: Wikimedia and

Intrinsic Motivation

If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life! I don’t know who first said this, but it is something that my father instilled in me throughout my life, and a principle that I am happy to see reflected in the marketing of VIU. I truly, ‘Love where I Learn’. Clearly, at the heart of this anecdote is the idea that if you see the inherent value in what you are doing, you are willing to see it to its conclusion, no matter what. This is where intrinsic motivation intersects Open Pedagogy. It’s easy to see the connection between valuing a task and successfully completing it.

Instructors practicing Open Pedagogy need to assist students in finding that motivation. Hopefully, if a student is enrolled in a program, they will have some reason for being there. Providing students with opportunities to explore and express the “why”, is a critical step in developing and promoting intrinsic motivation. A simple method I have used involves guiding students through a series of simple reflections. I provide students in my Human Anatomy course small, simple questions to answer throughout the semester. I include these for many reasons, including promoting metacognition, pausing the hustle of the semester (even if only for a few moments), to allow students to write more, and to try and find the intrinsic motivation for why they are taking the course.

In the first week of class, students are asked to reflect on, and answer the following:

  • Please tell me why you are studying anatomy and why you chose the Sport, Health & Physical Education (SHAPE) program. Was there an event/person/class in the past that led you here? What do you hope to get out of this course?
  • Also, as we start the semester, what about anatomy do you fear the most and why? Can you think of anything that can help lessen these fears? If you have no fears, why not?

The requirements for the students are to submit the answers in a typed document of no more than 1 page (most are about ½ a page). These non-threatening reflections force the students to think about why they are enrolled in the program, and specifically the course. Other reflections have them examining their performance on assessments, the type, and success of the study and learning strategies that they use, and what they are most proud of in the course. I have found that these reflections, particularly the first one (included above), are an excellent way for students to really think about why they decided to enroll in a challenging and content heavy course like human anatomy, and it is a really great way for me to get to know my students and start the process of building a community within the classroom.

One issue that can impact identifying intrinsic motivation in our students occurs in required or foundational courses (that are part of a degree). Students can often see these courses as “stepping stones” for future studies, where the motivation will/should emerge. These could include prerequisite courses for professional or graduate programs, or technical/foundational courses within a program. Students can often resent these courses as “a waste of time” or “unnecessary” as they are more concerned with getting into their desired program. To combat this apathy for certain courses, it is incumbent on the instructor to emphasize these courses as critical for the success in the profession. To have students find the inherent value in the material from these courses, and providing the context for how that curricula is required for the profession (for example), is critical for developing the intrinsic motivation to succeed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia


Being an authentic instructor, for me, is at the foundation of my teaching practice. My definition of authenticity encompasses being myself in the classroom (no façade), sharing aspects of my life with my students (with few exceptions), being vulnerable about what is going well and what is not, and being open to the reality of the modern student experience. The degree of openness I have in my classroom is clearly not for everyone, and I do not expect or advise anyone to do the same.

Early in my teaching career I was more reserved in the classroom. I was effective and my teaching evaluations reflected that, but in recent years, after actively deciding to be more open with my students, I am far better at building a classroom community. I believe that the openness I share with my students provides a level of trust and promotes a safe learning environment where it is okay to ask questions, and make mistakes. If I want my students to be open in the classroom, I need to model that.

The openness I exhibit in the classroom is fairly radical, and definitely not for everyone. All I can advise is to be who you are in the classroom, whatever that looks like for you. Don’t be a phony, people can spot phonies.

Image Credit: Louis Mattar

The Community is the Curriculum

In the last session of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto, we spent some time reflecting on the concepts of Open Pedagogy, and I started to think of the principles explored above. It was literally in the last few minutes of our session when someone said that “the community is the curriculum”, and my mind figuratively exploded. This simple statement became the central principle of what I believe about Open Pedagogy, and as can be seen, community is weaved throughout the other principles.

Paradoxically, education and instruction can be isolating. We are surrounded by people but are alone in our teaching/learning practice. While I might be in a class with many students, I am often alone in the front of the class. My students are all studying the same material, but they often study alone. I work in a faculty of colleagues, but have little interaction with them about what happens in their classes (unless there are broader issues). We are all working in silos and there is rarely cross-talk about what we do in our classrooms.

Being alone in front of the class stems from the old adage of “the sage on the stage”. As content experts, we are tasked with disseminating the knowledge we have. This often takes the form of lecturing, and I am a firm believer that there is a time and place for lecturing. That said, from an Open perspective (in my interpretation) as a content expert, I may possess the knowledge, but I don’t own the knowledge. I see my role in the classroom as providing students with as many opportunities to acquire and demonstrate mastery of the knowledge.

Viewing the community as the curriculum extends beyond how I manage classroom interactions with students. In many of my classes, I bring in guests who can share their experiences with specific course content. This provides students with practical examples of how the course content becomes relevant outside the classroom (often in a career specific ways), which hopefully has the added benefit of helping students find their intrinsic motivation.

Further, I also have students create content. Whether it is learning resources to assist future first year anatomy students, textbook content for a collaborative and iterative Open anatomy textbook, podcasts or lab experiences, providing the students with the freedom to choose the type and nature of their involvement in creation, reinforces choice with intent, provides them an opportunity to authentically demonstrate their expertise, and helps them develop the intrinsic motivation needed to succeed.

Being part of the curriculum resonates for me with my colleagues too. I have regularly engaged my colleagues with the variety of teaching strategies that I have been exploring, highlighting the things have worked (i.e. team-based learning), but also the things that didn’t work (i.e. clicker-based lab tests). Beyond the classroom based pedagogy, I have also opened my classroom to my colleagues in both my own department and across campus. Using a model of Peer-Observation for Self Reflection (, I try to regularly examine my own teaching practices, gaining an objective view of the aspects that I am trying to work on. The experience of sharing my classroom with another instructor is scary, but since I have tasked my observer to examine specific aspects of my teaching practice, I benefit from their experience and knowledge.

Image Credit: Vancouver Island University flickr

The Closing

Have I defined Open Pedagogy? Probably not, but I hope that from reading this you have gained a brief introduction of my Open Pedagogy practices. Is this the best way to approach Open? Absolutely not, but it highlights the key elements that have evolved for me over the past few years. These are my guiding principles, and if they resonate with you, please explore them.

Open Pedagogy can seem like a massive undertaking. Truth be told, it can be! But aspects of Open can easily be woven into any current teaching practice. Giving students opportunities to make choice with intent by including them in some of the assessment parameters and providing students opportunities to explore their intrinsic motivation through simple reflections can be a powerful first steps. Being authentic when with your students can help forge deep and powerful relationships that can impact their learning, while at the same time laying the foundations for a broader community within the classroom.

Open practices don’t have to be extravagant, but when done in a mindful and caring manner, they can have a profound impact on you and your students. Thanks for reading.

Digital Pedagogy Lab: Toronto – Radical Assessment & Ungrading

Unpacking the words:

  • Digital pedagogy is the study and use of contemporary digital technologies in teaching and learning. Digital pedagogy may be applied to online, hybrid, and face-to-face learning environments. (Wikipedia)
  • Critical Pedagogy: Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Wikiversity)
  • Ungrading: SO this is a tricky one. There are many blog posts, articles, books on how to “Ungrade” and why grading isn’t the best (Jesse Stommel has excellent posts on this) but I am trouble finding a good definition of “ungrading”.

So, what were my takeaways?

Ask Why. Why assess an assignment? Why assign an assignment? Why grade the way you do? Why are things worth the amount they are worth? Why test a concept? Why test so much? Why that question?

By asking why, you are not necessarily deciding NOT to do something, you are critically thinking about how it will benefit a student’s learning and understanding. Will it enhance understanding? Will it allow for a different viewpoint? What else is going on in the student’s life? (I recognize it is not always possible to know the answer). It is also important to examine the effect it will have on your own life. Do you have the time to assess it? How much other work do you have?

Get students involved in their learning. In Adult Education/Higher Education we work with adults. Talk to them about grading. If you have to mark something explain why – is it because it is important? Because the institution requires it? Explain why you are doing/requiring what you are doing/requiring in the class. As an adult, I prefer to know the reason why I need to do something, what benefit it will provide. Why are students any different?

Would I go again?

I am not sure that I would! Unfortunately, because of the name, I thought there would be more doing and practicing. I associate “labs” as hands-on learning. This was more of an unconference. While I have attended unconferences and loved them (IIE does a great one) I was not looking for that for this. I was looking to increase my education and knowledge on a specific topic rather than getting bogged down in definitions and how the university/college system is failing
Here is a Google Doc of what we did:

One fabulous person I met was Rajiv Jhangiani (on Twitter @thatpsychprof. Give him a follow). Truly an inspirational speaker.

This blog was originally posted May 16, 2019 on