Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bootstraps, Literacies, and Iron Cages: Thoughts from the week

This week I read not one, not two, but three articles that really made me stop and think, and I'm going to try to do some serious blog-pondering this weekend as a result. The first step: sharing these three great items! The first item (by Michael Berman) is an old post I had missed the first time around, but it has reappeared at just the right time; the second item (by Catherine Cronin) is the beginning post in a series, and I'm excited to read more; and the third item is from a blog (by "Torn Halves") that is completely new to me, and I can tell I need to read more here.

So, starting with Michael Berman and boostrapping:

Becoming the Teacher You Really Want to Be — Online by Michael Berman

I am one of those hardy souls that Michael mentions here: "A few hardy souls jump at the exciting possibilities afforded by teaching in the online environment, but it’s more common to find a combination of reluctance, dread, fear, uncertainty and even downright hostility." I've been teaching fully online since 2002, and I have nothing but good things to say: I love it (Devotedly Digital). I'm also aware, though, that FUD is a much more typical response by faculty at my school who are teaching fully online, esp. if the other classes they teach are traditional face-to-face classes.

Making matters worse, the advent of online has coincided with some real threats to higher ed faculty, with a very unfortunate result as Michael points out: "Online education has become associated in many people’s minds with these economic and political forces, and the myth that online models such as MOOCs will destroy traditional models of higher education, within a short period of time, is promulgated by lazy media and self-promoters."

So, it's a mess. A massive mess. Even if we can overcome and/or sidestep all the negativity (and that's a big "if"), where are the positive models for people to follow? Here's Michael again: "Success in a new endeavor depends on a belief that you can succeed. The first step in becoming a successful online instructor is to be able to imagine yourself in that role. When you never had the experience of being a successful online student, with an online instructor who motivated you and cared about you and believed in you, you are going to have a really tough time believing you can be that kind of teacher yourself in an online environment."

Michael then goes on to explain what they are doing at CSUCI with "Humanizing Online Instruction" and all the great things Michelle Pacansky-Brock is doing. Michael's conclusion in the end is optimistic, but requires patience (more patience than I have...): "In ten or twenty years it will be a lot different. We will have faculty who will remember that online instructor in high school or college, the one that really cared. The one they chatted with about their deepest fears and hopes, the one that believed in them when no one else did. And those teachers will not find it odd in the least to become online teachers – it will be a natural progression. But until we get there we will have to help give our instructors great online experiences and models if we expect them to be effective at teaching our students."

I'm less optimistic, especially given how little progress I've seen in my school over the past 15 years — sure, there are more and more online classes happening... but not all of them inspiring ones (in large part because of the LMS in my opinion, but that's a matter for separate discussion). So, I'm not sure that I'm confident in a natural progression, much less one that will really take shape in just 10 or 20 years. But the more we see of CSUCI's “Humanizing Online Instruction” and projects like it, the better! My school is typical, though: all the preparation for online teaching takes place... in face to face workshops. That, alas, is no way to solve this big bootstrap problem. Maybe our coming LMS transition will be an opportunity to start a "Humanizing Online Instruction" project of their own. Anyway, a girl can dream...

~ ~ ~

A perfect follow-up to Michael's post about faculty in general was this great post from Catherine Cronin about her research on specific faculty perceptions and practices:

Initial thoughts… Exploring OEP in higher education by Catherine Cronin

I am so excited about the way Catherine Cronin's PhD research is coming together, and I'm also grateful for her generosity in sharing it here via her blog, with more posts to come: "The working title of my PhD research study is Exploring open educational practices in higher education. I’m currently at a ‘pausing point’ between phases – so I plan to write a few blog posts to capture my findings and thinking so far and where I’m heading next. This is the first of those posts."

I need to start using this acronym OEP! Catherine points out the range of practices it might include here: "I’m using a broad definition of OEP which includes the creation, use and reuse of OER, open access publishing, the use of open technologies, open learning, and open/public pedagogies in teaching practice, with the goal of enabling learners and teachers to share the processes of knowledge creation."

If we think of OEP as a multidimensional spectrum in that way, I've definitely an outlier at the open extremes, which is only natural: I've been teaching these fully online courses for a long time, and from the start it is been my belief that the more open the courses are, the more they will succeed. I have not had any reason to change my mind about that in the past 15 years of teaching online; in fact, I believe that more strongly than I did starting out. Catherine, however, is not working with faculty who teach fully online. Instead, she has interviewed faculty who are teaching either face-to-face or blended courses, not fully online, which means she has been talking with teachers who are not always sold on open, perhaps for theoretical reasons or practical reasons, or both.

What emerged from Catherine's interviews with faculty were four processes that she can associate with faculty's use of OEP: "valuing social learning, balancing privacy and openness, growth mindset re: digital literacies, and challenging role expectations. All four processes were evident for each of the participants who used OEP for teaching." 

Of these four, the one of the most interest to me is "growth mindset re: digital literacies," and Catherine discovered that faculty digital literacy has consequences for the other processes (not surprisingly): "Having a growth mindset re: digital literacies relates to the previous process: balancing privacy and openness. Staff with highly-developed digital literacies are more likely to have the confidence and skills required to manage privacy settings, negotiate various social media tools, and operate with agency in complex social media ecosystems." I am especially interested in learning more about the faculty who are not interested in pursuing digital literacies (whether or not they embrace OEP), and apparently there is more to come about this in the next blog post.

The reason this is of particular interest to me is because of the real breakthrough I've had this year in making growth mindset an explicit part of my classes (more here). My classes have always been focused on asking students to learn a lot about writing and about online technology, and for many students is a big stretch; my students are not necessarily interested in writing (these are Gen. Ed. courses, drawing students from all the majors at my school), and they are also not necessarily interested in online technology (they are usually taking the course online because of a schedule conflict, not out of a preference for online learning). I used a growth mindset approach in my design and teaching of the class, but until this year I had never made that explicit with students... and the results of making growth mindset an explicit part of the class have been great! Several students mentioned in the Fall course evaluations that learning about growth mindset was the most important thing that happened to them in the class, and I have some real growth mindset enthusiasts in the class again this semester.

Based on the students' eagerness in the Fall, I expanded the experiment this Spring to include a related set of challenges that I nicknamed Learning by H.E.A.R.T. (Health-Empathy-Attention-Reading-Time); yeah, the acronym is admittedly dorky, but it was a good way to pull together a lot of assumptions and practices relevant to my classes so that the students could set more challenges for themselves. I'm excited about taking some time this summer to look back on both experiments to see where I want to go with that next year, and I'm also curious to read more about what Catherine has found in her research with faculty. For me, the contrast between student and faculty receptiveness has been night and day: I have found it a wonderful experience working with students on digital literacies over the past many years, but during the two years when I worked as a faculty development "liaison" for our campus IT department back in 2001-2002, I never enjoyed that sense of success. That, in fact, is why I resigned my job in IT and started teaching online courses — the best career decision I ever made.

~ ~ ~

So, as someone who is very content both with my teaching and with my classes, it was sobering to read this piece about the importance of discontentedness. This one is longer than the other two, but I hope people will read the whole thing. It will (I suspect) rattle your cage... in a good way:

Ken Robinson, the Element & the Iron Cage by Torn Halves

I learned about this amazing blog from Simon Ensor, and I clearly need to go back and read all the posts in this blog. I wish I knew the name of the person lurking behind this apparently Adorno-inspired pseudonym (?); I guess I will just think of him as TH for now. This post was especially useful for me in the context of recent screeds by Alfie Kohn, Rolin Moe, and Paul Thomas against growth mindset. Because their posts basically equated growth mindset with grit and/or with corporate ed reform, they did not get at the big issues that appear here, although I suspect this is part of the larger point they were trying to make. TH does not mention Carol Dweck or Daniel Pink (my two self-realization gurus of choice), but instead focuses on Ken Robinson as a way to get at the problems with the whole "self-realization" enterprise.

As he goes after Ken Robinson, TH uses the metaphor of the iron cage (from Weber, as he explains) and he contends that we could subtitle Robinson's books as Learning to Love the Iron Cage because "in helping the individual to make the best of a bad situation they persuade him or her to yield completely to that situation, thereby affirming a state of affairs that really deserves criticism." TH then launches a three-staged criticism — "1) a post-Protestant view of work, 2) a one-sided concern with the individual, and 3) the exclusion of any concern or thought for the ends of our collective activity" — and it is those second and third items (individualism and collectivism) which are of most interest to me, and which are paradoxically bound together as the rise of the personal also becomes the rise of the impersonal with rampant individualism dehumanizing the collective: "Thus the rise of the personal and the rise of the impersonal are two sides of the same coin. In trying to heighten the personal character of our lives we create a society with a public character that is overwhelmingly impersonal and dehumanising."


Of course, I want to say that my insistence on open education is an attempt to imbue growth-centered education with a public character. But is that really true? And is that enough?

Or . . . am I really just a troll? Not troll-as-in-Internet, but troll-as-in-Peer-Gynt, as TH explains: "Ken Robinson must have read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Surely he remembers the distinction Ibsen makes in the play between the properly human notion of being true to yourself and the troll dictum: “Troll, to thyself be enough”. What Ken Robinson is really doing is repackaging the advice of the trolls. Following your passion without any sense of duty or obligation or higher calling is utterly troll-like. The word “true” becomes little more than advertising copy used to give a pseudo-human spin to a product of the trolls."

Ouch again. Are my classes truly human? Or are they instead the pseudo-human product of trolls...?

Put less harshly, but more pointedly: is the freedom I try to promote in my classes completely undermined by the compulsion which brings students to the classes in the first place? My students are taking the class as a Gen. Ed. requirement, an iron cage of sorts which we pretend not to notice, but see this meme (from a blog post by one of my students).

So, if I were to say to the students (as I dare not say), "You do not HAVE to do anything for this class provided you have paid your bursar bill for which you will receive 3 units of Gen. Ed. credit," then would anybody do anything for the class...? Except for the one or two students each semester who aspire to be professional writers, I would probably not see any of the students once I opened the door of the cage (assuming, of course, I could convince them that my opening the door of the cage was not just a trick, as some of them are at first suspicious of my choose-your-own-grade approach to grading).

Customers, prisoners, slaves: take your pick of the metaphors. Are my students just happy slaves? And me too: am I just a happy slave? And am I really prepared to be satisfied by contending that happy slaves are better than unhappy ones...? (I do, after all, prefer my happiness now to the professional unhappiness of my previous job.) Or should we be talking about our liberation from the cage that we do not even talk about? The challenge from TH is this: "If we were to come across a happy slave, we would wonder whether it might not be better to help them to see their slavery for what it is, even if this might make them less happy. If, like Weber, we are troubled by the perception that we are all now in an iron cage, there are good reasons for not wanting people to be perfectly happy with the current state of affairs – for wanting people to draw strength, not from their personal adaptation to the cage, but from their ability to come together to challenge it."

So, in the end, TH calls Ken Robinson to task for not even acknowledging this larger problem in the midst of dispensing self-help advice: "what is most appalling about the Element books is Ken Robinson’s quiet message that there is no need to try to make sense of the world. If the iron cage had ears, that is precisely the message it would like to hear."

Lots to ponder here, and as I continue to ponder this post (and read more in this blog), I will make that a challenge to myself also: if the reason I teach the way I do is because I find the usual ways of university teaching to be nonsensical, and because I have doubts about the business-as-usual business of higher education itself, then I will continue to say so more often and more loudly. And just because I usually do that with LOLCats instead of Adorno, that does not mean it is a laughing matter. It is an altogether serious one. I will persist despite setbacks ... and with thanks to Michael, Catherine, and TH (via Simon), who all gave me such good stuff to ponder this week!


  1. Thanks, Laura, for reading our post, and reading it so well. And, yes, you are right about the Adorno allusion. Heartening to see some support from someone devotedly digital for calling the cage by its proper name.

    1. Well, if I have to be in the cage, I far (FAR) prefer the Internet as my cage to the traditional classroom! I'm looking forward to exploring your blog some more.

  2. Many thanks for this wonderful blog post, Laura - making connections and providing links to other fascinating work. Regarding OEP, you might be interested in exploring some of the links in this GoOPEN wiki created by Viv Rolfe and myself: We tried to capture some key resources re: OER & OEP (in the form of an OER wiki itself). All are invited to add to or edit this resource. Hope you find it useful.

    As for the findings of my study re: digital literacies, this is complex and I certainly will write more! However, I do want to clarify that rather than finding that academic staff were "not interested in pursuing digital literacies", I found a complex process of decision-making regarding openness, personal/professional digital identities, whether & how to use social media, and whether & how to work beyond the VLE/institutional systems. I'm hoping that by illuminating some of the complexities, as described by staff -- many of whom find themselves working in environments and conditions where they feel increasingly under stress -- that we might find ways to better support staff and students, particularly those who are marginalised and those who perceive greater risks in moves towards openness.

    I look forward to our future discussions :)

    1. My saying "not interested" reveals how little insight I have there, Catherine, which is why I feel so stuck. I would like to feel less stuck! With the students, I'm able to get more insight because of all our interactions over the course of a semester (especially since during those interactions they are making use of digital tools, so there's always insight to be gained from observing). So, for example, I tried a Known experiment with the students last Fall, and it was a complete dud (although I had such high hopes!), but I was able to learn from their lack of interest in that experiment compared to other options in the course, so that I can come up with a better option to offer next time.

      With the faculty, by contrast, there's no observation point: if they have no online presence of any kind and have decided, for whatever reasons, that they don't want an online presence, then I am stumped, and that is the case for the large majority of faculty at my school, even faculty who teach fully online. What are they looking for that would positively motivate them to participate and share in online spaces? I would like to learn more about that; like I mentioned in the post, even in my two years of doing faculty development (or, rather, trying to do it and failing abysmally), I didn't gain any insight, and here I am now so many years later, and I'm still without insight. If anything, I see things backward: for me, going online was how I coped with the disaster that was my traditional academic job, and it is how I ended up (happily) with this non-traditional but very satisfying job in the end. So, for me, all the risk and stress and marginalization was in the face to face, and going open online was my escape. :-)

  3. Fascinating perspective, Laura. There are so many factors at play here: individual (diverse enough!) as well as discipline, institution, etc. My study is situated at one higher education institution in Ireland, but I hope that it might provide some ideas or findings that could be explored in other contexts. In any case, I'll be presenting my work in different fora over the coming weeks and working on a journal paper. My plan is to continue blogging as this work proceeds. So I'll look forward to our ongoing conversations. I always enjoy learning from and with you :)

    1. Sharing experiences is such a big part of this... and for the students too! The blog space is such a good place for them to share school experiences and find out that they are not alone.
      I'm excited to learn more from your research... it sounds like you have tapped into a lot of important themes that will resonate here too. :-)

  4. Thanks Laura for this brilliant post, linking to three other posts. Catherine's I had seen and I have seen Torn Halves here and there on web but his blog post is just Wow!

    1. Thank you, Frances! I felt so lucky that these three pieces coincided for me at the same time (quite by chance): it was a really good example of "whole greater than the sum of its parts" because each of them was good, but I got so much more out of having the three of them intersecting with each other as I thought about them. :-)


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