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

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 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2f/Culinary_fruits_front_view.jpg/1280px-Culinary_fruits_front_view.jpg and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tootsie-Roll-Dots-Candy.jpg

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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Abebe_Bikila_maratona_olimpica_Roma_1960.jpg

Authenticity

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 (https://ciel.viu.ca/scholarly-teaching-practice/viu-council-learning-and-teaching-excellence/peer-observation-group), 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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vancouverislanduniversity/6386140449/in/album-72157628004642627/

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.

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

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.