Polarities: A question from Twitter

This week, Howard Errey raises an interesting question around choice and consequences, and what is lost when discussion and debate polarises.

 The Argument by Austin Wright. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user DavidKF1949

The Argument by Austin Wright. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user DavidKF1949

Last year, for the What on Earth are they Using Project, we investigated what methodologies and technologies are being used outside of RMIT’s Learning Management System (LMS). It was a marvelous experience where many stories were collected that helped transform how staff approach online practice, regardless of platform. In conversations since the project, about the state of online practice at our institution, I often refer to a question we received via Twitter that seemed to encapsulate the consequences for students.

Firstly, this story needs some context. The question came as the last question, in the last event, of the project in December 2014. Gregor Kennedy and Travis Cox had just explained the LMS setup at Melbourne University. If there are 6 students over in Engineering or wherever, that want a plugin for the LMS, Travis and his team can spec it out, tell IT what to do and what to expect, and they will just go and do it.

By contrast we have an interesting situation where we have a poorly implemented LMS, due to funding, structural and political issues not worth pursuing here. In the meantime some of the Google suite of apps have been turned on enabling a wide range of innovative practice, not to mention teaching time efficiency, as we discovered in our project. The gaps in the LMS are often filled by the easy functionality afforded through Google.

And so to the Twitter question. It came from Jenny Luca a school librarian. Her context is that her school hosts trainee teachers on placement. Her question to Gregor asked when Melbourne University was going to turn on Google. It came from a frustration that Melbourne University students on placement didn’t have a sufficient level of ‘digital literacy’, which has become so important in K-12 education sector, especially with so many schools using Google Apps in Education.

It was an innocent enough question, with an equally simple answer. Gregor’s response was ‘no’.

This then begs questions for me. Is our university accidentally doing our students a favour by supporting a few choices in teaching platform? Are our students, despite what might be a frustrating experience, going out there with better digital resilience? I would like to think so; and where does this then leave us in terms of planning elearning infrastructure and designing better experiences for students?

The positive side of all this is that we have options and a new culture of enablement emerging. The negative side is that we have 2 platforms that are both only partially enabled leading to frustrations. Often complicated work arounds are necessary, giving rise to situations that give plenty of ammunition to the risk averse marketing and copyright policy enforcers, that continue to drive innovation underground.

Polarities

What I notice in our conversations about online practice is how polarities arise, usually between ‘face to face vs online’, or ‘Blackboard vs Google’. The challenge with this is how being invested in either can become your own “prison”, as Jim Groom describes it in relation to ‘closed vs open’. Again perhaps it is good that we have grey areas at RMIT. The challenge I see is that when 2 polarities dominate a conversation there emerges no room for a third element. What if we want a different technology to be supported by the university altogether? In the 2 years I have been at RMIT there has been very little room for such wider conversation.

Another example of a polarity in online educational design, is that between pedagogy and technology. “Pedagogy comes first” is the mantra, rightly so in an educational organisation. At the same time we need to provide the opportunities to play with new technologies, such as the DSC Innovation Incubator, in order to experience those lightbulb moments. Where it gets frustrating, in terms of introducing a third element, is in good quality social design which, as a psychologist, I consider a primary precursor to both pedagogy, technology and student engagement. It is all too easy to assume, as I often hear it, that “social means all that technology stuff like Facebook and Twitter”. The argument is then back in the pedagogy/technology spectrum so that when it comes to starting design, the “pedagogy first” horse has already bolted.

As a mid-design remedy I am thinking of overlaying the educational design course maps and personas, with a social user experience layer. I have been working with an Architecture program where we have an excellent but all too linear course map. On realising this, it occurred to me that using another layer with tracing paper, as per architects’ methods in design, over the top of the course map, could help design a social experience through the course, even before the course starts. In the process it will hopefully help to join some of the dots still missing in our course design efforts, and truly focus on a student centric experience. It will be interesting to see a design with both these layers, and watching for a crossover when the social, or even other factors depending on context, might lead to a better experience and pedagogy.