The problem with edtech evangelism is that it assumes the most valuable lessons are learned from other people’s success. This is why our lives fill up with stories of exciting tools that have transformed this that or the other thing. Exhausting, really.
Given the importance of failure to innovation, it’s interestingly rare to find blogs, lists, journals, or conferences focused on failure, in any field. The Ten Most Awful Mistakes in Online Course Design. Ten Tools I’ll Never Try Again. Seriously, I’d find those useful. But we don’t do it this way. We don’t fly keynote speakers around the world to tell us what they did wrong, from the cartwheeling Prezi that nauseated the audience to the webinars doomed by lag, and the drop box assignments that were impossible to return—or the MOOC in which experienced and highly engaged learners left class early and set up an alternate public discussion of the misalignment of course purpose to course environment, for all to see.
But perhaps we should promote these experiences, because failure is how most of us learn. The only way to test whether or not a new tool does what it promises to do, for example, is to try it in a populated course. This doesn’t always produce splendid results, as Curt Bonk and his Blackboard partners are currently finding out. Lisa M. Lane’s original blog on her decision to quit their experiment is worth reading, but it’s the appreciative discussion in the comments between the MOOC’s course leaders and the unconvinced that’s really gripping.
Could this awkward experience have been predicted? Should either Blackboard or Bonk have given some thought to the possibility that an all night party with an open bar might attract a bigger crowd than would comfortably fit the venue? Was the suck-it-and-see communication strategy really the way to go, given the sensitivity and confusion around openness (and Blackboard’s investment in open) right at the moment? Were expectations driven too high by the opportunity to interact directly with such a well-known eLearning pioneer?
It seems that for some, the problems were embedded in the environment itself—the unchanging assumptions behind the design of online forum tools (“very 1999″, as Lisa Lane puts it). This is the tiny, familiar failure that’s difficult to avoid. Most LMS discussion tools pass the test of course planning simply by being there. Blog? Wiki? Forum? Yup, we’re good. It’s only when you try to use them with 50, 100, 1000 students or more, that you start to see how awful they are.
And this isn’t a trivial limitation. Just as in the face to face classroom, presence is the hinge on which the online gate swings: it’s the simple, human claim that learners make on one another’s time, that enables us all to feel that we’re exchanging ideas with people, not just testing ourselves against prescribed content. If this is important with a small class, imagine how much more vital it is once enrolment cranks up to the thousands. Without it, really, what differentiates a massive online class from a difficult day at the mall?
The comments on Lisa Lane’s blog will ring bell after bell with anyone who has tried to use the communication tools of a standard LMS to engage students in discussion. Somehow, the leading vendors have managed to miss the fact that users want to tailor their online presence, just as they choose how to present their physical appearance. The capacity to craft a personality that works for you is really critical to anyone’s sense of composure in a community of strangers. Users expect to control how their name appears, to use a thumbnail of their choice as their visual avatar, to share images, videos, feeds and links, and to be given some kind of personal site in which they customise, organise and publish what’s meaningful to them, in order to show not only what they think, but to share information about the public online networks through which they move.
This dominos into the second critical issue. Anyone trying to engage with an online class needs to keep up with a snowballing volume of input from others. Messages need to bundle intuitively, to thread and scroll and quote properly. Users expect to be able to flag, sort and prioritise, to use powerful search tools, and to send quick notes of appreciation with likes, favourites and reposts. Some will save and print, because that’s the way they like to work; and others will need it all to be readable on a mobile screen half the size of a postcard. Everyone will need to skim for new messages, and some will want push notification. The singular, standout value of learning through online discussion is that it’s a self-transcribing conversation that fosters review and reflection—but none of this works if you can’t find what you’re looking for.
When we undertook an institutional RFP for a new LMS last year, we expected that big companies whose R&D focus must be on the ways in which people use technology and networks to communicate, learn and manage their lives would develop social learning tools that would synchronise with these trends. Any campus LMS has to sit open on a student laptop where the next tab is Facebook (or Tumblr, Twitter and so on). Students multitask their online learning against a background of rapid, pervasive interaction with friends they genuinely care about; if we’re going to ask them to concentrate instead on staying in the class space, couldn’t LMS designers at least help us out with a social design that’s halfway engaging?
They could—of course they could—so the fact that they don’t is revealing. My guess is that LMS designers who don’t develop their social tools have made a rational calculation that it’s better for them if we handle this bit. The institutional shift to learning platforms, described so well by Phil Hill in a recent post for e-Literate has really been driven by desperate teachers looking for ways to compensate for awful LMS design. So platforming is a strategy of accommodation that works reasonably well for institutions and exceptionally well for LMS vendors; it’s the admission that L is rapidly uncoupling from M. The inclusion of a few engaging social options like WordPress or Google Apps doesn’t expose the big vendors to much risk providing everything’s bolted to the platform: in fact, it perpetuates dependency on whoever provides the core tools for managing the platform itself.
But as more institutions embrace the platform model, there’s going to be much more churn in social features, tools and options, because this is a wide open space for edupreneurs. Academics will come under increasing pressure to try new things, pushed by articulate, informed student demand. Negative feedback won’t wait for teacher evaluations—it’ll be on Facebook. This is why it’s so helpful that Lisa Lane, Curtis Bonk and their colleagues are modelling their failure-to-communicate debate in the open, in the truer sense.
Because there’s a whole world of learning through failure up ahead, and we’re going to appreciate these pointers from our peers that show us both how to give feedback constructively, and how to respond to it openly.
Michael Feldstein’s fresh post that touches on the distinction between edupreneurs and teacherpreneurs (besides a number of other excellent points) really helped me think through some ways forward. As ever, Instructure come off well — but will they be able to sustain their personal approach as they grow? Time will tell.
- Bonk / Bb MOOC week 1: Motivation & Encouragement (?) (jjulius.org)
- Selecting meaningful #socialmedia tools for a #MOOC or #PLN (downes.ca)
- 4 Reasons Why the Bonk MOOC is So Interesting (downes.ca)