Visions always belong to someone

The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.

In the grupetto

No-one sat on and everyone drove as hard as they could.

Matt Stephens, Life in the Grupetto

Here’s the thing about professional cycling. It’s not the lycra, it’s not the drugs, and it’s not the spectacle of Lance talking about himself in the third person as that flawed guy who did the bad things.

It’s the grupetto: the paradoxical collaboration that breaks out among rivals who are struggling at the back of the race, once the whole thing starts climbing uphill. The riders who end up in the grupetto are mostly specialist sprinters. Sprinters are the ones who burst from the pack and ride crazily fast for about ten seconds at the end, but to do this they have to hang on over the whole day with everyone else. Once the bloated caravan of the Tour starts to climb a mountain, the formidably weird biomechanics of the specialist climbers kick in, the peleton swings after them—and the sprinters fall off the back. Watch these super athletes closely and they look as though they’re riding backwards.

The loneliness and stress of their predicament is extraordinary. If each tries to get over the mountain on their own, they’ll struggle to avoid time-based elimination, because the physics of road racing decisively favours a pack riding together over an individual struggling alone into a headwind. But it’s as individuals that they stand to lose.

Why don’t professional cyclists panic when they fall behind on these savage gradients? Why don’t they quit? It’s because they have a plan. They’re waiting. They know that in the tradition of their discipline, a grupetto will form and pick them up, and an experienced leader will emerge and take charge of the group. The grupetto will form afresh every time, taking in those who show up on the day, and sharing out the work of riding as they have to, so that they can all stay in touch with the action at the front. They have to trust each other, and work together.

Here’s a bit more from Matt Stephens’ reflection on the meaning of the grupetto:

In the Grupetto team tactics and rivalries are put to one side and a unique camaraderie flourishes with the theme of one common aim; to arrive at the finish safely and inside the time limit.

This cameraderie is a model of contingent solidarity, also called “l’autobus” for obvious reasons: when you can’t keep up by yourself, you ride the bus. All you have in common is a willingness to respect the skills and struggles of the person you find beside you, and to recognise that if they’re not having the best day, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there at all. The essence of the grupetto is that it’s a form of hospitality, a relief from the nagging squabble in your head between where you are and where you’d like to be. The grupetto works because it creates a logic in which you can recognise yourself in the other person’s situation, and you can accept that their strength and stamina is your own.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I’ve been advising students who’ve fallen behind in an online class. Why do students panic or quit when they fall behind in online classes? Why do I? I think it happens like this: learners working online rule themselves out of succeeding because they’re staring at a syllabus crafted around milestones and deadlines, in which we have written the time-based elimination rules in bold as though these are the most important framing conditions for their learning: it’s all got to be done in time.

This has been my experience in every MOOC so far: before I’ve got my feet in the stirrups, a deadline has hit me like a headwind, and I’m down. I’ve missed the quiz, or the catch-up quiz, or the discussion of the poem, or the live chat. All I’ve got left to me is that last refuge of the time-challenged: the forums. And with thousands enrolled, these are the Grand Pacific Garbage Patch of messages in bottles, so there’s nothing to do there except add to the problem, while waiting not to get my certificate because I’ve failed to keep up.

So even if friendly constructivist MOOCs encourage me to hang around and chat anyway, the plain fact is that I’m missing their deadlines. (And in my most recent experience of this, I found that I was missing the daily deadline simply by sleeping through the North American working day. Go figure.)

When I look at the policy-crafted syllabus I gave the students in this class, I’m ashamed of how much of it is written in the same chastising language of failure and penalty. Failure to do this, that and the other thing, but especially failure to keep up, will result in … failure. Moreover, all sorts of collaboration and sharing except the group work we assign is treated as some kind of collusion among the work-shy, even a form of cheating, and this will result in failure.  All your own work, we chant, because the entire structure of our system is that grades are won—or lost—by individuals. Degrees are earned, and paid for, by individuals, not by teams.

How could students guess from this penalty-driven document that I will help them if they fall behind? More importantly, how do they know that I would recommend that they work together to rescue each other—that those who fall behind catch up by riding on the tailwind work that the leaders have done, and that the leaders have nothing to lose if this happens.

The cultural and institutional pressures against students working together in this way are really formidable. To overcome this, we need to review the assumptions embedded in our policies and documents about the individualist heroics of student success. Instead of focusing on training students how to succeed on their own, we need to introduce them to both the practice and the philosophy of the grupetto—how to feel no shame at all at needing help, and no embarrassment at being in a position to give it.

If we could get this right, we’d really be making an important contribution to their being able to flourish in their professional futures, perhaps as useful as anything else we ever teach.

The time we give each other

In the second week of the new summer course, we spent the day together in class. Because summer in Australia is already snapped in two by Christmas, a whole lot of other weirdness can go on while no one’s looking, so we’re flipping the normal timetable and going with two all-day workshops supported by online reflections and activities.

Thanks to Steve Wheeler, I’ve also discovered that we’re also haphazardly and instinctively following a primer on the 10 characteristics of authentic learning. I’ve always been irritated by advocates of authentic learning, because there’s such a moralising inference in the label. Nevertheless, the principles listed here make sense to most educators, especially in their valuing of collaboration and reflection. So why don’t we follow them? Is it because we’re wilfully refusing to recognise the world that students will work in? No: we work in this world ourselves. Is it because we’re intent on reproducing ourselves as discipline acolytes? Again, no.

It’s because the structural habits of a university system, encoded in resource management practices (seriously, people with clipboards checking that we’re using all the rooms all the time), are stacked against us achieving the kind of flexible, purposeful practices that characterise quite a bit of professional life, where we do mostly try to deploy time in a way that will achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

But when considering how best to teach, universities typically do it the other way around, designing goals to fit the time that’s been allocated to the task. In a neat move, we’ve also decided that “quality outcomes” (which sound so much nicer than standardised goals for everyone) are best guaranteed by allocating the same seat time in the same way to everything we do. It’s at the core of our standard contract with students, both domestically and internationally: we’re systemically inauthentic.

And this is why we treat the weekly class as an institutional fetish without which we can’t function, along with the term paper, the exam, and the mandatory course readings that no one reads.

So in the spirit of Vin Jones’ Business Practices that Refuse to Die anti email manifesto, I’m declaring my opposition to weekly classes. The weekly lecture is a particularly tired habit we need to rethink, even as MOOCs are busy turning them into bad television. And we need to put a stop to the cheerleading idea that we should fix this individually by becoming more entertaining. Newsflash: I don’t think we’re the problem. The issue is that we’re structurally discouraged from asking when and why a lecture is the best fit for purpose, and penalised if we reserve them for special occasions, or choose not to use them at all.

There is no other practice that we take seriously in universities where we say that getting large groups together for one hour a week is the best way to make significant progress on complex material. But we do this with teaching, and in the standard lecture-tutorial model, we do it in two separate bits on different days, each bit requiring a 150% markup in travel time cost. This is bad for learning, and in commuter universities, it’s bad for the planet.

For every student who attends class on two separate days each week, travelling an hour each way, we have created about 50 hours of travel time over the semester. Multiply this individual cost burden by the number of students in a large class, and you start to see a tiny little carbon footprint appear. Now multiply this by an entire university system behaving thoughtlessly because it has never had to calculate the environmental impact of this wearisome habit.

(American and European readers might be puzzled here, but the majority of Australian students continue to live at home, and even though they may attend a nominally local university, the reality of Australian geography is that a 60-90 minute commute each way is common. Astonishingly, we trundle on as though none of this matters environmentally, although we’re terrifically proud of our campus waste recycling initiatives. Go figure.)

So there are environmental reasons to jailbreak the weekly timetable, but there’s also a strong pedagogical case, to do with the time we’re asking students to give each other. What’s the message we send about the value of collaborative learning when we allocate it in these rushed servings of fast-food time? What part of professional life are we authentically preparing them for? Committee meetings?

Students are evidently unconvinced that showing up to listen to something they could read online, or pause and replay in recorded form, is worth the rising cost of petrol, or the missed shift at work. But the generation that have grown up online are starting to express reservations about more time in front of computer screens. These are the most experienced online users we have ever taught, and they’re telling us that sometimes it feels as though time lost online is a practice of addiction. They do value presence and time together, providing that time is well spent and that they can actively engage with one another, not just listen.

We need to hear this, even as we get excited about MOOCs and the rest, and we need to listen carefully to our own doubts, buried under heaps of composting email.

By coming together this week, for a long and intensive day of thinking and sharing, students in this class gave their irreplaceable time to each other, and to me. I learned a lot, and I hope they did too. They’ve also helped me think about the way our systems are set up to take this astonishing gift for granted. As ever, there are good business reasons why we do bad things, and traditional habits that we’re clinging to, and we have hardwired policy standards for degrees (and visa restrictions for international students) that we can’t just throw in the bin.

But if we want to achieve change in universities, let’s not just talk about catapulting stuff online in sparkly ways: let’s also figure out how to use well the time that we give to each other when we do make the effort to be together in the same room.

And I’m not sure the weekly class is it.

Under pressure

It’s week one again, and I’m up late reading students’ introductory posts at the start of a mostly online course.  They don’t know each other, and in sharing photographs and writing publically about why they’re taking the course, they’re showing quite a bit of trust in strangers that they haven’t met in person, including me.

This care that they show each other is really why I still choose to work online, after a year immersed in the blither of techno-futurism, which does make you want stronger internet filtering just so that you don’t have to read any more crazy-making stuff.

Governor Brown of California attracted all sorts of comment last week, for example, for finding online education with the help of Google (“I went to my iPhone and I went to Google and I typed in ‘university education online’ and there’s a lot there”). But wait, there’s more:

We can build the most fabulous buildings, we can have the teachers, professors, all this kind of stuff.  But if other people come along and offer the same, or better, when they want it, you’re going to find there’s pressure out there.

I’m not sure Governor Brown’s talking about the fabulous buildings I work in, but the rest rings true. We’re all playing meeting bingo with these ideas, as we’re stuck in a speculator’s market. We’ve had twelve months of the virtues of student-centredness, epic scalability and reputation gain in massive online experiments of all kinds, and so far a lot less about how complicated it is to keep these things in productive balance.

But what Governor Brown is really making clear is that we’re now expected to adopt without criticism the logic that this speculator’s market, that’s so full of rumour and road map, is a trustworthy instrument to discipline the future of what we do. We’re not given any evidence that markets by themselves will create ethical, inclusive or even particularly interesting educational environments; all we’re told is that more and more competition is inevitable—which is precisely how the freedom of the market gets to govern the agency of its creators.  Neat.

And we don’t notice this as discordant with values we hold as educators, because our own singing along is drowning out the choir. At any university at the moment, you’ll get the strong impression that the market is our chiefest, sole delight; competition is the force that sharpens our pencils. The market enables us to show governments and students (and their parents) that we’re accountable, simply by showing how we’re doing better than the place up the road. It keeps us striving to improve our position; isn’t that the very definition of educational purpose?

Rustichello’s Folly has a terrific post (“the market ate my homework“) about what’s wrong with any situation in which we let the idea of the market become so overwhelming it’s impossible to imagine anything existing before or beyond it. It becomes a kind of superclimate for our thinking, that regulates and enables every action, every decision. We believe we can’t step outside of it, as we can’t step outside of language. Even though every day we act out of courage, curiosity, and kindness, in our market-saturation we don’t know how to count these gestures, let alone convert them to a KPI, so we hardly recall them; they’re nowhere in our end of year reporting. We forget that we know how to act for any reason other than competitive self-interest.

We all enable it. We all go with the market flow, seek employment and remuneration, consumption and disposal, debt and asset. Incoming and outgoing, we all try to catch a market wave that will take us toward some naturalised place of safety and autonomy from which we might be able to thrive and flourish. We don’t though, not enough of us and not in the right ways.

Richard Hall is making the same point when he says that under the spell of a new kind of market for knowledge accreditation, we have finally become bewildered about even the idea of a University. What can it be now, in the mad imperial scramble for rank and reputation? Is it a business that’s really in it for the money, relentlessly banging on about the virtue of brand personality, or is it a public good that’s masquerading in corporate wear simply to network with other similarly sized entities in the local economy? (This week I became momentarily confused in a Twitter conversation about edtech as to whether VC stands for venture capitalist or Vice Chancellor. Awkward, really.)

These two writers together have helped me understand why I’ve been worrying about notices that have popped at work up encouraging our students to “compete, succeed and excel”, by entering a competition. It’s not the activity of the competition itself that I mind, or the existence of the “real world” business-like opportunity that we’re offering students.

Nope, it’s the headache-inducing banality of the idea that competitive behaviour naturally produces excellence, and that so long as excellence is our goal, then we never need to imagine the experience of the losers who have to be in place for the winners to win. Winners in competitive systems don’t learn that they’re accountable to the rest for their place, just as anyone striving to be at the top of a ranking system isn’t expected to feel grateful to those who prop up their legitimacy by coming second.

This is what Richard Hall is on about when he says that the market is producing a failure of care:

We are witnessing a recalibration and enclosure of the idea of the student, not as a co-operative, associational subject, but as a neoliberal agent, whose future has become indentured. This subject is individuated, enclosed and disciplined through her debts and is enmeshed inside a pedagogy of debt, in order that s/he becomes entrepreneurial in her endeavours and outlook.

And we’re not doing a much better job of caring for those who work in universities. When we claim that the quality of our competitive recruitment practices is the reason why some academics get to earn salaries and make future plans, while others do the hourly paid work on which the enterprise depends, we are revealing the real cruelty of the market as a ruse: see, our processes are all open and above reproach, it’s just that you don’t make the grade. Please use the back entrance next time you come.

This all seems so inevitable that our imaginations are caged by it. But what if we pushed ourselves to think beyond the market as our governing authority, to remember what lies outside? What practical gestures of rank-blind respect and care in our university workplaces would we then choose to value, and how would we express our appreciation of those who make them every day—without creating yet another system of competitive reward?

I’m really asking.

The view from here

Here come the planes
They’re American planes.  Made in America.

(Laurie Anderson, O Superman)

Being a terrifically slow learner, I’ve signed up for another MOOC.  In my defense, I enrolled a while back and forgot, and now it’s come around just as I’ve been forced to admit that there are only so many chocolates you can eat or stuff down your cleavage before it all falls over.

So now I’m in with x thousand others, trying a constructivist MOOC focused on the current and future state of higher education.

But this time, something’s different.  I’ve scanned the assigned readings, and I’ve even printed one. (Although as ever, being a MOOC student is causing my sympathy for all students to double by the minute, as I realise how much of an obstacle to engagement these practical steps prove to be, and how misleading the sense of achievement when the staple finally goes in. That’s it!  My work is done. The reading is on my desk. OK, back to email.)

Now I’m looking at achieving a personal best by completing the first task, which is why I’ve slumped into a deckchair to reflect on the pressures causing change in higher education, and their possible consequences.

This is a whole skip bin of questions, so I just want to grab a bit I can reach: why isn’t higher education a powerhouse of change, given the innovation talent pool a university typically represents? I have a feeling the devil’s in the small print on this one.  We can change big things, but in the banal and everyday routines we’re not seeing anywhere near the rate of change that most commentators predict. A significant cause of this is that most higher education institutions—whatever the impression created by international rankings—are at heart really parochial. We compare internationally, but we compete locally, and we’re governed by local cultural habits as much as by our locally enabling legislation.

I’ve been thinking about how parochialism operates as a brake on change since reading Ferdinand von Pronzynski’s discussion of the introduction of a Higher Education Achievement Report for British students. To Australians, the idea of a transcript that looks at what students have actually done while at university isn’t revolutionary, but the view from the British system is this:

The expectation that students, employers and others will abandon grades [degree classifications] in favour of a general report is probably naive. Grades are too much part of the culture of higher education and recruitment for employment, to mention nothing else, for that to happen.

And this is how change doesn’t come about: because people look at the way things have always been done in the system of which they’re a part, and they can’t imagine how it could be otherwise, no matter how much evidence there is that this change has already happened somewhere else and everyone is going about their business without fuss.

Taken-for-grantedness is buried deep in our capacity to evaluate the properness of any higher education innovation within our own culture, but it’s also highly exportable if you have enough cultural muscle. This is why education systems in many younger, smaller economies stick with taken-for-granted habits borrowed from somewhere else, from the Oxbridge-esque sandstone quadrangles of Australia’s Big Eight, to the ceremonial language and even the canned music of our graduation ceremonies. And don’t get me started on hats with tassels.

It’s also how the whole world got used to “Facebook”, even though a facebook was a distinctly north American campus phenomenon before it was a social network.

At one level, it does look as though MOOCs have driven a truck through this, by being so big, so free floating, so global. But what’s actually happening is that MOOCs are still mostly made in north America, and the rest of us have an interesting opportunity to experience first hand how they do it, watching their classes, seeing into their lecture theatres, learning about the culturally particular interaction between professors and TAs, figuring out what typical assessments they use. And in this case, we’re also using resources that are for the time being predominantly drawn from north American media commentary on changes to the north American systems, even though there’s a clear mission by the (Canadian) team involved to challenge this somehow.

And there are global taken-for-granteds in play, the hardest ones to unthink—despite our mission as researchers (and teachers) to make change thinkable in many other spheres. Here’s one: even an open, constructivist course that’s not delivering itself as a form of potted TV can’t do without a selection of weekly readings. George Siemens refers to these preselected readings as a “starting point that people want — a contract“, and this expectation certainly matches my experience of removing assigned readings from my own teaching, at which point people looked as though I’d told them I was planning to teach in my underwear.

The capacity to assign the right sort of readings turns out to be a habitual signal of academic expertise, one that we don’t even notice ourselves reinforcing. I know there’s a risk of disingenuous countersignalling in choosing to avoid this when I teach. But for me the alternative is riskier: that we focus our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others, and we close off the possibility that learners may engage more effectively by finding their own resources to share and then seeing how others respond. That’s what keeps Twitter ticking over for many academics, after all.

We were asked in week one what CFHE12 could do better, and after a bit of brooding, this is my practical answer, as a way of thinking about how higher education could change one of its most unexamined habits, and in the same move MOOCs could really make good on their global promise.

Instead of asking participants to introduce themselves “to the class” (awkward, given the constituency) in the first forum, and then respond to the assigned readings in the next, what if participants had all introduced themselves by linking to a locally relevant reading that speaks to the way in which higher education is changing (or not) right where they are?  Curating these in a wiki or social bookmarking system would have created an instant bibliography of the most up to date higher education research and commentary sorted on a country-by-country basis.

It’s a concrete example of something the constructivist MOOCS—who seem to me to treat their mass enrolment as a capable resource, not just an audience—have the capacity to create, that your local university can’t.