Rethinking Learning Online, also NOT AN ANIMATED GIF

Last Tuesday, a group of about 12 people met in DTLT’s office to discuss an online learning initiative that has been underway at UMW for the last several months. I’ve only recently been pulled into this conversation due to some staffing turnover, but I’ve been following it through conversations with Steve Greenlaw (who has played an integral role in planning and imagining it) and Jim Groom (who has represented DTLT in many of the meetings and conversations).

Generally, the goal of the initiative is to explore online learning within a liberal arts context — with an emphasis on thinking about how the values of the liberal arts can be explored. I think it’s an admirable goal, and I’ve been more intrigued by it than many other conversations about online learning that I’ve been part of in the past because its attempting to address online teaching and learning at a more fundamental level than just the use the Web as a delivery mechanism (more on this below).

The goal of last Tuesday’s meeting was to discuss the review of online courses that a few faculty members have signed up to teach next spring and summer. Part of the project has always included a process wherein colleagues from within UMW and from other institutions would be asked to review the course plans based on some set of criteria. This meeting was to further discuss what that criteria would be.

In preparation for the meeting, I spent some time reviewing three other review mechanisms — specifically rubrics developed by the Illinois Online Network, California State University, Chico,  and the Monterey Institute. All three of these had been suggested to Steve by colleagues at other institutions who had offered advice and feedback on the initiative.

In full disclosure, the word rubric is one that generally leaves me cold. The adoption of rubrics as a way to assess education (both student work, and in this case, faculty work), seems to have emerged out of the increasing presence of instructional designers at our schools and the increasing interest in generating institutional data with which to clobber our accrediting agencies during reaffirmation.

(Now for a short side note about “instructional design”: When I was getting my graduate degree in instructional technology ten years ago, I looked at generally two kinds of programs: ones with a heavy emphasis on instructional design and ones without. I ended up going to one of the latter because there was something about the various instructional design systems that left me cold. Now, to be fair, I’m not an expert on these systems (what with the not going to a school that taught them). But what little I do know about them seems to suggest such a formulaic approach to teaching that it seems to suck the life and art out of the practice. )

I don’t have any particular problem with professional staff being hired to partner with faculty to think about ways to teach that are innovative and creative (hey! that sounds like what I do!). So, if that’s what an “instructional designer” is, fine. I also don’t have any particular problem with institutions being interested in thinking carefully and closely about what they do — and even using that process to imagine ways to evolve and change. If that’s what “institutional data” is for, fine.

But, really, that’s not what I’m seeing. Instead, I see more and more institutions relying on the perspectives of instructional designers and institutional data offices to determine strategic goals.

All of this was weighing on my mind fairly heavily as I gathered the materials for our meeting. I spent sometime reviewing the various rubrics as well as the notes on liberal arts education that the committee had developed earlier this summer. I suggested to Steve that we break the rubrics down into their component parts and then offer these pieces up to the committee to consider as they discussed how UMW should review online courses. In my mind, I was imagining that we would juggle and group the rubric components, finding some that we’d like to look at further for our own purposes, and some that we would eliminate entirely.

I literally printed a card for each rubric component, with the different rubrics each assigned a separate color or paper so that we could keep track of what was what. Last Tuesday, we all sat down at the table in DTLT with piles of colored paper and brief handouts that provided an overview of each rubric.

We started talking.

And then the earth shook. Literally. An earthquake hit Virginia, and, here in Fredericksburg, the walls of duPont rumbled dramatically. The meeting was adjourned.

And ever since then I’ve been joking that the earthquake was some higher power’s sign to us that we needed to treat rubrics with CAUTION!!

In all seriousness, in preparation for the make-up meeting (which, as it happens will be this afternoon), I’ve been doing additional thinking and soul-searching about this project. Here are a couple of thoughts I’ve had, loosely organized, in no particular order.

1. Let’s make Online Learning about Learning Online.
It seems to me that a lot of online learning conversations operate under the assumption that the “online” component is merely the technical component that allows a faculty to deliver a course to students who are not physically co-located. Online simply becomes a mechanism that a faculty member employs for practical reasons. I would like to suggest that we need to start thinking about Online Learning as a practice that considers in a holistic way how learning can happen within a networked, open culture. DS106 is a great example of a course that not only relies on online environments to communicate with students and provide access to content and ideas but also places students within the open Web where their success depends upon learning how to navigate these online spaces, develop networks of support, and contribute their own knowledge and creative practices back to open Web culture.

What if we conceived of our online courses this way? What if faculty were asked to consider how they could incorporate the open Web into their curriculum and students were expected to engage in these spaces as part of their coursework.

2. Let’s Start Over
It seems to me that most online courses grown out of existing face-to-face courses, where a faculty member works (sometimes in conjunction with others) to “transform” or translate the F2F experience to the online course environment (usually an LMS). It’s digital facelifts all the way down. What if we decided to build online courses from scratch? Instead of simply translating a F2F class, how about if every online coure is a NEW course. Perhaps it’s built out of something that has been taught F2F, but it’s given a chance to exist, natively within an online context. Faculty could use online courses to explore those aspects of their discipline that lend themselves to being taught within a Web-based network.

3. Let’s Make (Teaching) Art
I don’t have a particular problem with courses being reviewed by other faculty members, nor (as I stated above) do I have a problem with University’s having people on staff whose job is to partner with faculty to think about new ways of teaching. What I DO have a problem with is taking the review of online courses so far that it sucks the creativity and art out of teaching. Honestly, the rubrics that I reviewed for our meeting were filled with criteria that seemed  over-the-top. We have never subjected faculty to this kind of review for F2F classes. Why do we assume that when they teach online, they’re incapable of making smart choices about how they teach? Can’t our “review” of courses focus more on developing creative partnerships among faculty and their supporting colleagues — partnerships that focus on thinking through the possibilites of a course, bouncing ideas off each other, exploring new technologies or approaches? These partnerships would be a breading ground for discussing the two points I raised above — how to teach a liberal arts discipline within an open, networked Web and how to build natively, online courses within those disciplines.

Okay, that was a LONG post. But when I blog, I don’t just make some crappy animated gifs. I BLOG.   Would love to hear feedback and/or pushback on any of this.