In part 1 of this series, I talked about some design goals for a conversation-based learning platform, including lowering the barriers and raising the incentives for faculty to share course designs and experiment with pedagogies that are well suited for conversation-based courses. Part 2 described a use case of a multi-school faculty professional development course which would give faculty an opportunity to try out these affordances in a low-stakes environment. In part 3, I discussed some analytics capabilities that could be added to a discussion forum—I used the open source Discourse as the example—which would lead to richer and more organic assessments in conversation-based courses. But we haven’t really gotten to the hard part yet. The hard part is encouraging experimentation and cross-fertilization among faculty. The problem is that faculty are mostly not trained, not compensated, and otherwise not rewarded for their teaching excellence. Becoming a better teacher requires time, effort, and thought, just as becoming a better scholar does. But even faculty at many so-called “teaching schools” are given precious little in the way of time or resources to practice their craft properly, never mind improving it.
The main solution to this problem that the market has offered so far is “courseware,” which you can think of as a kind of course-in-a-box. In other words, it’s an attempt to move as much as the “course” as possible into the “ware”, or the product. The learning design, the readings, the slides, and the assessments are all created by the product maker. Increasingly, the students are even graded by the product.
This approach as popularly implemented in the market has a number of significant and fairly obvious shortcomings, but the one I want to focus on for this post is these packages are still going to be used by faculty whose main experience is the lecture/test paradigm.1 Which means that, whatever the courseware learning design originally was, it will tend to be crammed into a lecture/test paradigm. In the worst case, the result is that we have neither the benefit of engaged, experienced faculty who feel ownership of the course nor an advanced learning design that the faculty member has not learned how to implement.
One of the reasons that this works from a commercial perspective is that it relies on the secret shame that many faculty members feel. Professors were never taught to teach, nor are they generally given the time, money, and opportunities necessary to learn and improve, but somehow they have been made to feel that they should already know how. To admit otherwise is to admit one’s incompetence. Courseware enables faculty to keep their “shame” secret by letting the publishers do the driving. What happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. In a weird way, the other side of the shame coin is “ownership.” Most faculty are certainly smart enough to know that neither they nor anybody else is going to get rich off their lecture notes. Rather, the driver of “ownership” is fear of having the thing I know how to do in my classroom taken away from me as “mine” (and maybe exposing the fact that I’m not very good at this teaching thing in the process). So many instructors hold onto the privacy of their classrooms and the “ownership” of their course materials for dear life.
Obviously, if we really want to solve this problem at its root, we have to change faculty compensation and training. Failing that, the next best thing is to try to lower the barriers and increase the rewards for sharing. This is hard to do, but there are lessons we can learn from social media. In this post, I’m going to try to show how learning design and platform design in a faculty professional development course might come together toward this end.
You may recall from part 2 of this series that use case I have chosen is a faculty professional development “course,” using our forthcoming e-Literate TV series about personalized learning as a concrete example. The specific content isn’t that important except to make the thought experiment a little more concrete. The salient details are as follows:
- The course is low-stakes; nobody is going to get mad if our grading scheme is a little off. To the contrary, because it’s a group of faculty engaged in professional development about working with technology-enabled pedagogy, the participants will hopefully bring a sense of curiosity to the endeavor.
- The course has one central, course-long problem or question: What, if anything, do we (as individual faculty, as a campus, and as a broader community of teachers) want to do with so-called “personalized learning” tools and approaches? Again, the specific question doesn’t matter so much as the fact that there is an overarching question where the answer is going to be specific to the people involved rather than objective and canned. That said, the fact that the course is generally about technology-enabled pedagogy does some work for us.
- Multiple schools or campuses will participate in the course simultaneously (though not in lock-step, as I will discuss in more detail later in this post). Each campus cohort will have a local facilitator who will lead some local discussions and customize the course design for local needs. That said, participants will also be able (and encouraged) to have discussions across campus cohorts.
- The overarching question naturally lends itself to discussion among different subgroups of the larger inter-campus group, e.g., teachers of the same discipline, people on the same campus, among peer schools, etc.
That last one is critical. There are natural reasons for participants to want to discuss different aspects of the overarching question of the course with different peer groups within the course. Our goal in both course and platform design is to make those discussions as easy and immediately rewarding as possible. We are also going to take advantage of the electronic medium to blur the distinction between contributing a comment, or discussion “post,” with longer contributions such as documents or even course designs.
We’ll need a component for sharing and customizing the course materials, or “design” and “curriculum,” for the local cohorts. Again, I will choose a specific piece of software in order to make the thought experiment more concreted, but as with Discourse in part 3 of this series, my choice of example is in no way intended to suggest that it is the only or best implementation. In this case, I’m going to use the open source Apereo OAE for this component in the thought experiment.
When multiple people teach their own courses using existing the same curricular materials (like a textbook, for example), there is almost always a lot of customization that goes on at the local level. Professor A skips chapters 2 and 3. Professor B uses her own homework assignments instead of the end-of-chapter problems. Professor C adds in special readings for chapter 7. And so on. With paper-based books, we really have no way of knowing what gets used and reused, what gets customized (and how it gets customized), and what gets thrown out. Recent digital platforms, particularly from the textbook publishers, are moving in the direction of being able to track those things. But academia hasn’t really internalized this notion that courses are more often customized than built from scratch, never mind the idea that their customizations could (and should) be shared for the sake of collective improvement. What we want is a platform that makes the potential for this virtuous cycle visible and easy to take advantage of without forcing participants to sacrifice any local control (including the control to take part or all of their local course private if that’s what they want to do).
OAE allows a user to create content that can be published into groups. But published doesn’t mean copied. It means linked. We could have the canonical copy of the ETV personalized learning MOOC (for example), that includes all the episodes from all the case studies plus any supplemental materials we think are useful. The educational technology director at Some State University (SSU) could create a group space for faculty and other stakeholders from her campus. She could choose to pull some, but not all, of the materials from the canonical course into her space. She could rearrange the order. You may recall from part 3 that Discourse can integrate with WordPress, spawning a discussion for every new blog post. We could easily imagine the same kind of integration with OAE. Since anything the campus facilitator pulls from the canonical course copy will be surfaced in her course space rather than copied into it, we would still have analytics on use of the curricular materials across the cohorts, then any discussions in Discourse that are related to the original content items would maintain their linkage (including the ability to automatically publish the “best” comments from the thread back into SSU’s course space). The facilitator could also add her own content, make her space private (from the default of public), and spawn private cohort-specific conversations. In other words, she could make it her own course.
I slipped the first bit of magic into that last sentence. Did you catch it? When the campus facilitator creates a new document, the system can automatically spawn a new discussion thread in Discourse. By default, new documents from the local cohort become available for discussion to all cohorts. And with any luck, some of that discussion will be interesting and rewarding to the person creating the document. The cheap thrill of any successful social media platform is having the (ideally instant) gratification of seeing somebody respond positively to something you say or do. That’s the feeling we’re trying to create. Furthermore, because of the way OAE share documents across groups, if the facilitator in another cohort were to pull your document into her course design, it wouldn’t have to be invisible to you the way creating a copy is. We could create instant and continuously updated feedback on the impact of your sharing. Some documents (and discussions) in some cohorts might need to be private, and OAE supports that, but the goal is to get private, cohort- (or class-)internal sharing feel something like direct messaging feels on Twitter. There is a place for it, but it’s not what makes the experience rewarding.
To that end, we could even feed sharing behavior from OAE into the trust analytics I described in part 3 of this post series. One of the benefits of abstracting the trust levels from Discourse into an external system that has open APIs is that it can take inputs from different systems. It would be possible, for example, to make having your document shared into another cohort on OAE or having a lot of conversation generated from your document count toward your trust level. I don’t love the term “gamification,” but I do love the underlying idea that a well-designed system should make desired behaviors feel good. That’s also a good principle for course design.
I’m going to take a little detour into some learning design elements here, because they are critical success factors for the platform experience. First, the Problem-based Learning (PBL)-like design of the course is what makes it possible for individual cohorts to proceed at their own pace, in their own order, and with their own shortcuts or added excursions and still enable rich and productive discussions across cohorts. A course design that requires that units be released to the participants one week at a time will not work, because discussions will get out of sync as different cohorts proceed differently, and synchronization matters to the course design. If, on the other hand, synchronization across cohorts doesn’t matter because participants are going to the discussion authentically as needed to work out problems (the way they do all the time in online communities but much less often in typical online courses), then discussions will naturally wax and wane with participant needs and there will be no need to orchestrate them. Second, the design is friendly to participation through local cohorts but doesn’t require it. If you want to participate in the course as a “free agent” and have a more traditional MOOC-like experience, you could simply work off the canonical copy of the course materials and follow the links to the discussions.
End of detour. There’s one more technology piece I’d like to add to finish off the platform design for our use case. Suppose that all the participants could log into the system with their university credentials through an identity management scheme like InCommon. This may seem like a trivial implementation detail that’s important mainly for participant convenience, but it actually adds the next little bit of magic to the design. In part 3, I commented that integrating the discussion forum with a content source enables us to make new inferences because we now know that a discussion is “about” the linked content in some sense, and because content creators often have stronger motivations than discussion participants to add metadata like tags or learning objectives that tell us more about the semantics. One general principle that is always worth keeping in mind when designing learning technologies these days is that any integration presents an potential opportunity for new inferences. In the case of single sign-on, we can go to a data source like IPEDS to learn a lot about the participants’ home institutions and therefore about their potential affinities. Affinities are the fuel that provides any social platform with its power. In our use case, participants might be particularly interested in seeing comments from their peer institutions. If we know where they are coming from, then we can do that automatically rather than forcing them to enter information or find each other manually. In a course environment, faculty might want to prioritize the trust signals from students at similar institutions over those from very different institutions. We could even generate separate conversation threads based on these cohorts. Alternatively, people might want to find people with high trust levels who are geographically near them in order to form meetups or study groups.
And that’s it, really. The platform consists of a discussion board, a content system, and a federated identity management system that have been integrated in particular ways and used in concert with particular course design elements. There is nothing especially new about either the technology or the pedagogy. The main innovation here, to the degree that there is one, is combining them in a way that creates the right incentives for the participants. When I take a step back and really look at it, it seems too simple and too much like other things I’ve seen and too little like other things I’ve seen and too demanding of participants to possibly work. Then again, I said the same thing about blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They all seemed stupid to me before I tried them. Facebook still seems stupid to me, and I haven’t tried Instagram, but the point remains that these platforms succeeded not because of any obvious feat of technical originality but because they got the incentive structures right in lots of little ways that added up to something big. What I’m trying to do here with this design proposal is essentially to turn the concept of courseware inside out, changing the incentive structures in lots of little ways that hopefully add up to something bigger. Rather than cramming as much of the “course” as possible into the “ware,” reinforcing the isolation of the classroom in the process, I’m trying to make the “ware” generated by the living, human-animated course, making learning and curriculum design inherently social processes and hopefully thereby circumventing the shame reflex. And I’m trying to do that in the context of a platform and learning design that attempt to both reward and quantify social problem solving competencies in the class itself.
I don’t know if it will fly, but it might. Stranger things have happened.2
In the last post in this series, I will discuss some extensions that would probably have to be made in order to use this approach in a for-credit class as well as various miscellaneous considerations. Hey, if you’ve made it this far, you might as well read the last one and find out who dunnit.