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 https://WordArt.com/create

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

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: http://bit.ly/ungrade

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 https://wordpress.viu.ca/llewis

Perspectives and Practices in Digital Pedagogies

The Digital Pedagogy Pathways Project members developed this collection of perspectives and related practices (practical applications) after reading Urgency of Teachers by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris.

Perspective

Develop a “pedagogue’s mindset” by building capacity of faculty and instructors to critically reflect on practice for the purposes of improvement of teaching and learning.

Practice

  • Facilitate “critical friendships” through a twinning or mentor/mentee relationship between people who volunteer–scaffold how to be a “critical friend”
  • Teach a variety of ethnographic approaches to exploring pedagogy
  • Provide professional development opportunities for learning strategies such as reflective practice
  • Sponsor reading circles such as materials related to pedagogy.
  • Facilitate “open educational” practices–facilitating colleague observations and visits.
  • Develop collaborative action research projects.
  • Host a Ted Talk – on a related topic to digital pedagogies – to capture and share with others to present various perspectives

Perspective

Build community and opportunities for collaboration with like-minded people.

Practice

  • Connect with others in your field that are currently creating and advocating the use of open resources for both instructors and students
  • Connect via Twitter. Search using hashtags # connected to the topics and discussion related to the book, Urgency of Teachers specifically the authors @jessifer @slamteacher
  • Share relevant open educational resources (OER) with fellow instructors (plant the seed of OER by sharing great resources)
  • Select a few early adopters and get out there to capture their stories!
  • Adopt “open practices” that share what we do–as we do it–to improve teaching and learning
  • Invite/accept opportunities to web conference with others you find online

Perspective

Provide foundational knowledge of digital learning such as “where do I start?” strategies

Practice

  • Community of Inquiry model – Introduce faculty/students to the three elements of an educational experience: cognitive, social and teaching presence. Retrieved from https://coi.athabascau.ca/
  • Research approaches and levels of engaging with “ungrading”, student self-assessment. Identify variety of “entry” points

Perspective

Provide students with opportunities to develop digital agency

Practice

  • Allow students to develop a digital portfolio of their learning throughout a program to showcase and personalize their reflections, growth and examples of learning (they become agents of their own learning, choosing samples, reflecting on growth and designing it as they wish)
  • Ungrade a course (untangle grades from feedback and reduce/remove marks/values on student learning) and allow students to give and receive feedback via digital means on their learning
  • Create safe opportunities for exploration & failure (both with technology and with learning) and model this whenever possible (don’t be afraid to try new technology in front of learners – even if you struggle)
  • Allow students to select or propose alternative media for evidencing learning: podcast, images, video, text, multimedia
  • Provide helpful feedback to students and focus on the value of it, and how it fits within their learning journey

Perspective

Care about our students (digital identity, location and processing of info, inclusive) and access to learning. Those in digital spaces as have different needs, wants, and perspectives.

Practice

  • Ask students about their experiences online to help understand assumptions, perspectives, and background in online. Honour their prior learning experiences
  • Use blogs to allow for class reflections to expand learning in the moment and to work to find ways to have both students and instructor active engagers in the process
  • Clarify for students about the expectations for what is acceptable for ‘videos put online/sharing’ – have the instructor demonstrate this first to show it doesn’t have to be perfect
  • Allow for “practice” in a safe space before going public. Create awareness of implications of but the digital footprint is guarded a bit more closely (digital identity learning!)
  • Engage in conversations with students about what they choose to transmit, share, store etc on the Internet to be respectful of personal requests and needs (added level of care to think about where students’ information (personal identifiable info) is stored and is processed
  • Incorporate UDL (Universal Design for Learning) in materials developed for use online or face-to-face classes.
  • Consider exploring the digital divide in a class (who has access, who doesn’t)
  • Consider equitable ways for students to explore tools and technologies so that the experienced ones aren’t always making the perfect video /slides – and are not intimidated or feel aren’t capable of doing it so are with less confidence – maybe let students in groups explore technology/tool/software together first and feel more comfortable – provide them guidelines on how to work together (focus on inclusion)
  • Are our courses accessible?

Perspective

Honour physical location and social space in online courses

Practice

Provide acknowledgement, introductions of where students are located in physical and social spaces

Perspective

Explore digital experiences options beyond LMS and invite students into creating networked learning.

Practice

  • Use open source technology to develop a student resource that can extend understanding of topics during the course and provide students with a “textbook” takeaway after the course is over
  • Teach about the collaborative development, definition and/or use of hashtags (#) (similar to keywords) to organize shared participatory sharing/creation of information seemingly online chaos of tools like Twitter

Perspective

Create a hybrid course approach to redefine the “classroom” experience.

Practice

  • Guide to Blended Learning. Provides a theoretical foundation as well as concrete examples for different blended learning pedagogical approaches. OER retrieved from http://oasis.col.org/handle/11599/3095
  • Split classes into online and in class sessions to allow for flexibility of schedules and encourage self-regulation.
  • Do the same for office hours – offer virtual and physical spaces where students can reach you (within a schedule because online learning shouldn’t mean you or your students expect to be available 24/7)

Perspective

Give learners meaningful choices

Practice

  • Allow learners a meaningful role in creating the syllabus- even just one part of it.
  • Use blended or online learning spaces to present multiple ways of learning and let students move through content as suits their needs (Turn off content tracking)
  • Move away from grading everything by adopting a grading contract in collaboration with students

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)

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.