Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing Learners, Not Disrupting Learning: A plea for both faculty and students

Below is my thinking out loud through Randy Bass's Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education from the Week 1 reading list for Connected Courses. Conclusion: I wish that instead of disrupting the students' curriculum, we could instead address how teachers ARE LEARNERS, making sure that we give teachers the opportunity to be connected learners, creative learners, experimental learners, with all the support and encouragement and feedback that learners deserve. Let the teachers be free to learn, and the curriculum will GROW.

We don't need to disrupt the curriculum; instead, we need to make sure teachers at all levels (K-12 and higher ed) have the freedom and support AND TIME they need to learn, to grow, to create... and that is how we will get a better curriculum. So, my main takeaway is that I just wanted to go through the article replace the word "student" with the phrase "students and faculty" instead.  If you want to find out why that was my main takeaway from the article, read on. But yeah, it is definitely tl;dr down there. :-)

Some examples of the substitutition, so that we might think about universities are failing their faculty as much as they are failing their students in terms of faculty-as-learners:
How many students AND FACULTY feel a sense of community, a sense of mentorship, a sense of collective investment, a sense that what is being created matters?
How can students AND FACULTY “learn to be,” through both the formal and the experiential curriculum?
Designing backward from those kinds of outcomes, we are compelled to imagine ways to ask students AND FACULTY, early and often, to engage in the practice of thinking in a given domain, often in the context of messy problems.
As tools of integration, eportfolios also help students AND FACULTY make connections and think about how to present themselves, their work, and their learning to an audience.etc.


Well, I've had this Educause article by Randy Bass on my "must-read" list for a while, and #ccourses has bumped it up to the top of that list... but I hasten to add, I am going against my own rule of thumb which says to avoid anything with "disrupt" in the title as this article has: Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education.

The use of the word "disrupting" plays right into the hands of Clayton Christensen's "disruptive innovation" which has brought nothing good to higher ed from what I can tell, and has instead afflicted us with Coursera and its ilk. If we have to use Christensen's vocabulary, why not sustaining innovations instead of disruptive ones? Sustaining innovations come in both evolutionary and revolutionary forms in his model, and those both seem to me far preferable to the self-aggrandizing rhetoric of disruption. But setting that aside, I'll see what this article has in store...

And sure enough, the rhetoric of disruption that Bass is using here to analyze the formal curriculum is really worrisome to me: if you push at the usage (i.e. if it is not just a loose metaphor but really and truly Christensen's non-sustaining disruption), then it would mean we are talking about getting RID of the formal curriculum, rather than finding creative ways to make connections between the formal curriculum and formal learning with other content and other modes of learning. Me, I'm all for new connections; that is, for extending, not displacing. Is it really so inconceivable that we could IMPROVE the courses that we have now? Or is the design so bad and the teaching so uncreative that we really envision that many (most?) of the courses would be jettisoned...?

In particular, here's my worried assessment: unless we figure out the CAUSES of the poor design and poor teaching we have now, a superficial structural change will not make a real difference; the same problems will undermine the new structure just as it has undermined the old one. So, as I read on through the article I will see just what Bass invokes as the causes of the problems we now face, and whether his "post-course era" would actually address those underlying causes.

Setting that crucial question of "how we got here" aside, I have to say that the high-impact practices, on the other hand, seem to me EXCELLENT examples of what Christensen would call sustaining rather than disruptive innovations, and the behaviors those practices promote are EXACTLY what I would like to see us discussing:
Investing time and effort
Interacting with faculty and peers about substantive matters
Experiencing diversity
Responding to more frequent feedback
Reflecting and integrating learning
Discovering relevance of learning through real-world application

My course is very much part of the formal curriculum (Gen. Ed. required for graduation), but I have designed my courses so that they feature high-impact practices and my goals are exactly the student behaviors listed there. I didn't need, and don't need, to "be disrupted" in order to do this; I just needed to want to offer a more meaningful learning experience to my students! I agree with the question posed here — "If most of the formal curriculum is not where the high‑impact experiences are located, what are our possible responses?" — and that seems to urgently call for us to look at the ways in which high-impact practices can, and should, transform the formal curriculum.

I also agree that technology has enormous potential here; much of the transformation of my courses has been enabled by technology. But it was not driven by technology and, indeed, the technology I use in my classes is the technology that had already transformed me as a learner; based on the transformation (NOT disruption) of my own learning by the Internet, I was able to design courses where I hope to catalyze a similar transformation for my students — as learners, as readers, and as writers. And I do all of that within the context of a course; indeed, I am grateful for the fact that I have such a sustained period of time to work with the students. These kinds of transformations do not happen overnight, but over the space of a few months of persistent work every week, I do feel like it is possible for my students to experience real change as a result of my courses, and it is certainly my goal for that to happen. Not disruption. GROWTH.

I also really liked the list of "participatory culture" characteristics since that could stand in perfectly as a list of characteristic features of my own courses too!
Low barriers to entry
Strong support for sharing one’s contributions
Informal mentorship, from experienced to novice
A sense of connection to each other
A sense of ownership in what is being created
A strong collective sense that something is at stake

Teaching at a public university, I am especially proud of the low barriers to entry. It means I have a very wide range of student abilities and interests in every class, but I welcome that as it makes for a better class for everyone involved.

So the next question in my mind is why don't we just DO IT? Why don't we just all decide to design our classes this way and help others to do so? Bass realizes that one problem is that we are not even ready to ask that question: "Some might question whether most courses in the formal curriculum need to be designed for this kind of learning and intellectual community."

I think there are a lot of institutional reasons why not just some but MANY people question the need for transformation of the formal curriculum... but the rhetoric of disruption is one of the reasons that the discussion is getting stifled. Nobody wants to be disrupted. Criminy, I don't want to be disrupted. SPLAT. I don't want to invaded, replaced, etc., and all the other disruptionisms you will find in Christensen.

Instead of being disrupted, I want to GROW. And I think we are far more likely to succeed by talking about how we can grow a new curriculum, rather than disrupting the one we have got... because if we disrupt just for the sake of disruption, I suspect we will end up with something even worse, especially if we have not understood the environmental factors that have constrained our growth thus far.

So, let's talk about the faculty as people who are growing and learning, just as we hope the students are growing and learning. The FACULTY need to have the same opportunity as students deserve: to be first “presented with a challenge and then learn what they need to know to address the challenge” (John Seely Brown).

LEARNING. Not disruption. Instead of talking about how to change the curriculum for students, let's talk about changing the working/learning conditions FOR THE FACULTY. That, to me, needs to be the real question here. We need to talk about time... about technology... about salaries... about work load. Just talking about changing the curriculum without talking about the when and where and why and how, etc. of what faculty do (and what they think they are supposed to do) on the job, I'm not sure we will really see any change.

It's easy to brainstorm about a GAZILLION ways to design courses that embody these high-impact practices. Sit me down for an hour and I will design 20 courses for you. Give me a weekend, and I'll come back with 100 courses. Coming up with totally cool courses is easy. Bass has all kinds of ideas that fill up the rest of this article. Great. All good; I'm not going to comment — he proposes all kinds of nifty ideas. But that's easy. Anybody who has learned to embrace creativity in teaching can do this.

Figuring out why the faculty have not embraced creativity in teaching is the REAL question.

And I would suggest that we start with the obvious: LET'S ASK THE FACULTY. I know that I learn a lot from asking the students to see what they are thinking and feeling about something.

But does anybody at my school ask those of us who are teaching to share our thoughts and ideas? Nope.

THAT to me is the problem. It's clear that my students benefit enormously from working together, sharing their progress, giving each other feedback ALL THE TIME. Every week. All semester.

Where is that sustained support for faculty who want to embark on creative projects and grow their teaching?

Bass then provides a list of four things that we need to do in "connecting ourselves" ... but none of those things involves just asking people simply to share and work together, which is what I think of when I see the phrase "connecting ourselves." His list of four things is about disrupting, not connecting. They sound a lot like "Moses come down from the mountain" pronouncements that simply tell people that they must change now, without understanding just how they got to be the way they are to start with. It seems to me that Bass's four reforms do not themselves embody the participatory culture that he claims to be embracing for student growth and learning.

So, yes, I too am a big believer in Johnson's motto of “Chance favors the connected mind,” which is why I believe in learning networks for students AND learning networks for faculty. Don't decide in advance what the faculty will embrace as a result of that process! Instead, just give them a process to embrace; encourage learning networks among the faculty and see what happens. My school, sadly, is not doing a very good job of that. We have 1500 full-time faculty (I think that is the right number), and no online network that they share. We have email and face to face which means that it fails to sustain real conversations beyond just immediate circles of acquaintance. We don't need a post-course LMS for students so much as we need a Learning Commons FOR FACULTY.

Once faculty become connected learners, I believe they will naturally transform their teaching... and they will probably do so in ways none of us have ever dreamed of, each bringing their own creativity to bear, just as my own students surprise me every semester with their creative projects.

But as long as faculty are just working in isolation and being dictated to from on high (by administrators or by visionaries or by visionary administrators), I don't think we will make any real, lasting progress. I am committed to what Bass lists here in the final sentence — "integrative thinking, or experiential learning, and the social network, or participatory culture" — and I am committed to that for BOTH students AND faculty. And I think if we embrace those values and make them the foundation for faculty working conditions, the curriculum will indeed be transformed as a result.

If we try to "disrupt" the curriculum from on high, it's going to be the worst kind of disruption imaginable. Think: Humpty Dumpty. That kind of disruption. Not good.

HUMPTY DUMPTY sate on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
Three score men and three score more
Cannot place Humpty Dumpty as he was before.

Source: The Nursery Rhyme Book edited by Andrew Lang and illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke (1897).


  1. Yes! In my unit (not until November) on co-learning, I address co-learning as twofold: First, it means that individual learners are in it together and have a responsibility to the learning community to help facilitate the learning of others; Second, it means that the instructor is also a learner and needs to model that and not be afraid to make it clear. I support very strongly your wish for a faculty learning community. I'm afraid that I've lost hope that I, as a lowly adjunct, have any leverage at all to get that going. But I'd love to see examples (and spread the word) (Howard)

    1. Howard, just the kind of word I work on spreading in my not-a-course. Surely Desmond Tutu's "My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together" applies to learning too

      PS I added you to the adjunct blogroll at the precarious faculty blog

    2. FABULOUS quote, Vanessa! Thank you!!!

  2. I keep hoping for some kind of faculty learning community at my school that goes beyond the perfunctory face to face workshops. There are all kinds of barriers and honestly the biggest one I guess is TIME. Everybody is just too busy to do anything! I'm lucky: I'm also an adjunct... so all I have to do is teach and learn! No committees, no research, no schmoozing... I just get to teach ONLINE and learn ONLINE all the time. Not so for almost all the other faculty at my school, most of whom are tenure-track.
    Did you see the fabulous series at Langwitches about starting up online PD community??? It sounds so wonderful - here is part 1 of the 4-part series:
    Building a Professional Development Hub for your School- Part 1- Why?

    1. Thanks, Laura. Great link ~ and something I'd been thinking about.

  3. This is fabulous. I just kept thinking yes, and yes, and yes. Thank you for giving words to something I could not put my finger on about this framework. Kim

  4. Oh, I am so glad it makes sense, Kim - I had a jumble of thoughts as I read this, so I was not sure even what to write. Obviously I love all the John Seely Brown and informal curriculum, portfolios, trans-course and ultra-course learning, all of that... but I realize that most of the faculty at my school do not see things that way, and until we figure out what will win them over, inspire them, encourage them, etc. then just pronouncements about disruption don't seem like they are going to help much. That's certainly been the case at my school, esp. over the past couple of years. I hope that by meeting up with others through Connected Courses I can learn about some good institutional strategies, since that is where I am really stumped. I have endless ideas for exciting projects that the students and I can work on... but I don't have any corresponding sense of institutional excitement at all, alas!

  5. Quite independently, my own jumble post in progress seems to be running along similar lines without any reference to Bass.

    Lukewarm institutional interest is matched by general disinterest among many contingent faculty. There is also increasingly less flexibility in course content and management options. The very word disruption evokes dire images, clouds thinking about changes. For that reason (and because it interests me), I am gradually introducing (sneaking in) learning elements.

    Your G+ page page is a Learning Commons site. So are others ~ I'd say the regulars constitute a learning commons distributed network.

  6. I'm looking forward to the jumble post, Vanessa! Re: learning commons, my success in trying to make some networked connections with people at my school has worked only at Twitter (that's why I started using Twitter), and even there it is just a handful of people, not really even enough to be called a network (a dozen or so instructional faculty...?). I've tried raising the need for some kind of really participatory and collaborative online network for professional development again and again (especially for those of us who teach fully online, and we are a sizable bunch), but I get nowhere. It's always just more workshops, more face-to-face, and more email... but never anything online for faculty. (My dream-come-true would be something like that described in the Langwitches series linked above; I am glad you liked that!) Online is only for students apparently. But can we really expect students to become connected learners if the faculty themselves are not?

    Meanwhile, we just budgeted TWO MILLION DOLLARS to spend on Janux this year, a completely closed and very disconnected LMS of our own making (we could have made it open, we could have made it connected... but we didn't), a totally top-down and exclusive project. Meanwhile, in the pilot of Reclaim Hosting, the top-down-ness factor is very strong too. It's not clear who was invited to participate and why; I wasn't invited to participate (and some other people who were very obvious and even necessary participants were also not invited), but they did give me an account when I asked for one, and that's where I have been publishing Anatomy of an Online Course.

    In that context, it was surreal for me to read what Jim Groom wrote about OU today (Catching Up with Reclaim Hosting). He writes about the OU community digging deep... what community? Building excitement ... really? I think you can probably count on your fingers (okay, you might need a few toes) how many faculty even know about Reclaim, just as hardly any faculty knew about Janux (although you'd think the two million dollars in the Regents agenda this month would have gotten some people's attention). From my perspective, the top-down-ness of the Reclaim pilot makes me dubious about whether it will really succeed over the long term; it feels more like the special installation of WebCT we used to run for the people who had to have WebCT and just wouldn't use Blackboard (back in the day). Well, maybe the power of Domains will accomplish something. It's a pretty fascinating experiment, in fact: can the magic of Reclaim bottom-up-ness overcome the top-down-ness of my school? I wonder... it would certainly be proof of the power of Reclaim if it does!

    Yet the sad blog graveyard that is provides mute, eloquent testimony to what happened to the previous top-down blogging venture at my school. Click the About page. You know what you'll find. (And the long, sad story of what happened when I requested an account to participate in that experiment is a story I'd prefer just to forget entirely.)

  7. Thanks Laura.
    I think you are asking good questions.
    1) Disruption - for whose aims - I am suspicious of comparisons between content distribution industries - music and education.
    2) I agree with you that this is really a relationship issue. What are the relationships which are desirable/sustainable in education/society.
    3) The reality of 'disruptive discourses' may be used to help teachers/learners reflect on their roles
    4) They will often not be able to take an imaginative leap outside the embodiment of institutionalization.
    5) We need to fînd elements of leverage - caring about ourselves and others as fellow learners/swimmers/drowners to envisage a new mode of functioning.
    6) There is no alternative to embracing a new technological context and using the affordances allowed to humanise and extend relationships.

  8. Thank you, Simon! And thanks also for the wonderful metaphor that I saw you use over at Twitter (was there just now) - saplings of hope in a demolition site! That is something that really touches me because a chunk of forest on the other side of the road from where we live was logged for timber a few years ago, and watching the saplings slowly coming back in that space has been hopeful indeed. Reclaiming the Forest!

    And your remark about FELLOW learners/swimmers/drowners is so true - much like Vanessa's quote from Desmond Tutu above: we need to be learners together WITH our students, and we need to be learning together WITH our fellow teachers. These technological innovations can't just be something we do to students or innovations the administration likewise does to us; it would be so much better if we were doing these things together WITH students.

    As for the "for whose aims" (cui bono?), the marketing factor has been very powerful and influential at my school, esp. in the past few years. An avowed aim of of our "Digital Initiative" is to build OU’s national and international brand as an innovative university ... much the way other schools embraced MOOCs with the thought of marketing and publicity very much on their minds. Marketing and branding is definitely not how I think about things, but the marketing buzz can be a very loud noise! Hard to ignore. :-)

    1. So there is opportunity to reclaim the forest.

    2. Yes yes yes... a NATURAL opportunity!
      I'm just about to sign off for the night, so hopefully I will dream of... trees! Growing!!! :-)

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. There is a post-Katrina image that sticks with me: a solitary sunflower sprouting in the muck against the background of a red brick wall.

  9. Oh, that is a gorgeous one, Vanessa! It reminds me of my Kashmiri proverb poster:
    Man is more fragile than a flower, and yet harder than a stone.


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