A User’s Guide to Forking Education

Jesse Stommel

At exactly this moment, online education is poised (and threatening) to replicate the conditions, courses, structures, and hierarchical relations of brick-and-mortar industrial-era education. Cathy N. Davidson argued exactly this at her presentation, “Access Demands a Paradigm Shift,” at the 2013 Modern Language Association conference. The mistake being made, I think, is a simple and even understandable one, but damning and destructive nonetheless. Those of us responsible for education (both its formation and care) are hugging too tightly to what we’ve helped build, its pillars, policies, economies, and institutions. None of these, though, map promisingly into digital space. If we continue to tread our current path, we’ll be left with a Frankenstein’s monster of what we now know of education. This is the imminent destruction of our educational system of which so many speak: taking an institution inspired by the efficiency of post-industrial machines and redrawing it inside the machines of the digital age. Education rendered into a dull 2-dimensional carbon copy, scanned, faxed, encoded and then made human-readable, an utter lack of intellectual bravery.

The learning management system is a perfect example. Most of these systems recreate the bureaucracies of education without capturing the joy and rigor. At their worst, learning management systems turn students into row in a spreadsheet, and their work into columns, taking all that’s ineffable about learning and making it grossly manifest. Learning management systems aren’t all bad, but the idea is bad, the impulse is bad, at its core. They make homogenous what is fundamentally heterogeneous, standardizing what shouldn’t be standardized. Fetishizing the learning management system is to confuse educational administration with learning. Perhaps, the administration of education does need managing, but learning needs to be given a frame and then set loose. Very few online learning tools encourage the sorts of risk-taking that make for the best pedagogies. Quality should not be assured; it should be discovered.

The discussion forum, currently the holy grail of “engagement” inside most online courses, is particularly problematic. Exchanges within forums are usually too strictly controlled and reduce honest interaction to busy-work scored by a rubric. These interactions rarely resemble the many and varied kinds of discussions possible in a classroom. And many teachers require things of online discussions that they would never demand in an on-ground classroom: one post of at least 250 words, properly cited, and exactly 2 responses to fellow students. Imagine trying to create a lively classroom discussion with these kinds of constraints.

Draconian learning management systems, hierarchical discussion forum tools, and automated grading systems replace the playful work of teachers and students with overly simplified algorithms that interface with far too few of the dynamic variables that make learning so visceral and lively. There will be no going back from this fundamental error in judgment. Within even just a few years, structures will be too decidedly built, customs and norms too firmly entrenched. I worry that we may be too far gone already. But, we need to hesitate at this very important threshold, for even just a moment, and decide carefully how to proceed.

Rather than simply transplanting the Lego castle of education from one platform to another, we need to start dismantling it piece by piece, all the while examining the pieces and how they fit together. Only then can we reassemble the pieces thoughtfully inside the digital environment. Nothing can be taken for granted. Everything must be broken in order to be creatively and ethically rebuilt. Everything. The course. The degree. Accreditation. Assessment. Rubrics. Standardized testing. Tenure. Intellectual property. FERPA. Peer review. The power dynamics of teachers and students.

This doesn’t mean we should necessarily eliminate tenure or guidelines for intellectual property altogether, but we should leave no stone unturned, no Lego piece uncontemplated. And things like FERPA and assessment must be refashioned to make them even remotely relevant to the work we do online. I’m not proposing to break and rebuild education as it happens at brick-and-mortar institutions (at least not in this article). Different work must be done there to keep those institutions viable. What I’m proposing is forking education, in order to begin to build something revolutionary in digital space. This work has already been lovingly done in pockets, but now it needs to happen at a much grander scale. The MOOC will have its day, but we need to help guide its course, recognize that it’s just one of many kinds of online learning, and insurgents need to be ready to rise up in its wake.

So what do we break and how do we rebuild:

The course
. The semester. The quarter. The credit-hour. We need to devise learning activities that take organic (and less arbitrary) shapes in space and time. We need to recognize that the best learning happens not inside courses but between them. So, for example, I am working to create collaborations between courses at several institutions and assignments that bridge a course offered one term and a different course offered the next. I ask students to reflect on the connections. Most importantly, we need to create more contexts and communities for learning that don’t live inside courses at all.

The lecture
. Teachers need to talk less and listen more. We need to put the work of students at the front of our courses. For example, replace the video lecture that begins many online “lessons” with a video made by a student. Let the voices of authority proliferate rather than congeal. If we want our students to learn from each other (as we should) then they need to be looking at themselves, not us. The job of the teacher is to allow for and foster community, not to be at the center of it. This is not to say that we should never lecture or share our expertise with students, but we need to significantly level the playing field.

. Cathy N. Davidson writes, “We’re so obsessed with assessment we’re missing the fact that, in the real world, excitement and joy and challenge are real motivators of learning and, indeed, success” (“The Year of the MOOC”). We should build hype around learning, generate genuine interest, and pander to intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations. I so often hear variations of “my students won’t do this assignment if it’s not worth points.” We need to give students reasons less banal than points to do the work of learning. For example, I have my students do projects that have real-world audiences — projects that have an immediate impact on them and their world. I tell them that there is no “busy work” in my classes — that they should make noble efforts but ultimately re-imagine any activity that doesn’t feel useful.

. The problem with rubrics is that they are usually structured so that students produce something determined in advance by an instructor (or, in more progressive classes, by the students themselves). By determining a model for assessment in advance we presume to know (even roughly) what students will produce and what their learning will look like while it’s happening and after it’s done. What we need are un-rubrics that invite experimentation, loose frameworks that allow improvisation to flourish. Or we should create rubrics in hindsight as a way to debrief after a learning activity is finished. Sometimes, clear objectives or outcomes are important at the outset of an assignment or course, but we need to leave room for those outcomes to be more roughly handled.

Intellectual property
. These two words are, for me, fundamentally at odds. We need to encourage sharing, remixing, and productive and creative forms of plagiarism. For example, how about an activity where the words of one student are asked to live coherently inside the words of another? Or an assignment that asks a student to intentionally mimic the voice, word-choice, and style of another writer? This is how children learn language, and we don’t police their plagiarisms. Creative Commons Search is a lovely resource in this respect, offering lots of words begging for playful appropriation (with attribution).

The authority of the teacher
. Active learning puts students at the center of the learning space. Participant Pedagogy asks students to help create the space. For participant pedagogy to flourish, participants have to take full ownership of their own learning. Participant pedagogy is not only about students being pedagogues but about teachers coming to class as full participants.

The syllabus
. A good syllabus is not a contract, because by the end of a class, the syllabus should be broken. Participant pedagogy requires not that we work to add stuff to our syllabi but that we work to take stuff away. For example, I often create two versions of my syllabi, the institutionally sanctioned version and then a website that links to the “official syllabus” but also becomes a living document that changes as the term proceeds. I also make sure that the site has ample places for the students to insert themselves through a massively co-authored blog, hackable rules for assignments, and a schedule that we revise together.

Tenure and pay structures for online teachers
. We need systems that reward the best teachers, foster their professional development, and support the work they do with students. We encourage good teaching by hiring (and adequately compensating) the teachers thinking critically about their own practices and working closely with peers and students to develop new pedagogies. All teachers (and especially online and hybrid teachers) need to be trained in and fairly compensated for course design, which is often the most difficult and time-consuming component. We also need contracts or job security for online teachers that allow for adequate lead-time to design courses (at least 6 months and sometimes longer).

The divides between K-12, community colleges, universities, libraries, and non-institutional learning spaces
. We need everyone in the room as we do the work of rebuilding education in digital space. For example, most universities have actively resisted online learning for the last 15+ years. Now, those very same institutions are diving head-first into partnerships with Coursera and the like. In higher education, we need to turn to the experts, many of whom are teaching at community colleges, don’t have Ph.D.s, and don’t have active research agendas beyond their teaching. We need to champion the non-traditional academics that have been doing this work and bring those with experience fully to the table.

. Backbiting. Intellectual elitism. Anti-intellectualism. Online learning should be more friendly, more collaborative, more open, and more accepting. We need to create pedagogies of care online and allow what we discover in these new spaces to influence what we do at brick-and-mortar institutions.

The intellectual bravery we need right now is to believe that we can imaginatively rebuild something valuable in digital space, something that has what we value most about education: the protections, the safety, the excitement, the moments of ecstatic learning, the epiphanies, the collaborations, the debates, the discoveries, and the moments of quiet reflection.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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