curriculum-as-lived

Today we hear from Associate Professor Suzie Attiwill, Deputy Dean Learning and Teaching in the School of Architecture and Design. Suzie offers us a response to a reflection by Professor Peter Corrigan, around curriculum-as-plan vs curriculum-as-lived.

The following article is composed of two parts. The first is a reflection by Professor Peter Corrigan, a distinguished professor in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. The School’s Dean, Professor Richard Blythe invited him to “prepare a short reflection on his view of a university, calling on his own experiences as a student and also on his extensive experience as an inspirational lecturer and professor”. Richard then invited Peter to present his reflection to the School’s senior leadership group as part of the School’s strategic planning. Following this, each member of the group was asked to write a short response.

The purpose of this process, Richard notes, was “to remind us all of the core values of tertiary institutions and what it is, above all else, that we should be striving to achieve”. It is an important time for these kinds of reflections because universities are in a period of rapid change and every one of us, students included, need to be thinking about the consequences, what we value, and where we would like to end up.

The second part is my response – an inflection as Deputy Dean of Learning & Teaching and an associate professor of Interior Design. As the academic year draws to a close – almost! – this article is poised as an extended invitation to other colleagues to reflect on what we are trying to achieve.

University Reflections: a paper by Professor Peter Corrigan   

Recently when I was approached to consider my university days and reflect on my teaching method, I was reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s remark that “MEMORY IS MERELY A TOY SOLD WITH A KEY”. All I can offer are opinions which are entirely personal.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, the question was asked “has neo-liberalism caused architecture to lose its moral mission?” In other words, have the architects lost touch with the responsibilities of yesteryear and thrown in their lot with developers, entrepreneurs and multinational corporations? Is the architect simply pursuing a narrow aesthetics at the expense of history, culture and context? We recognize that this is the world of cost–benefit ratios, of public interest versus the private gain. My education led me to believe that ideas would shape the world I would come to inhabit.

As a young man, I received a Commonwealth Government Scholarship and travelled daily by tram from St Kilda to the university (where I was surprised to discover that some students owned cars). Then, the undergraduate architecture degree was a six-year program. The Student Union possessed a very large room containing twelve billiard tables where I spent many dreaming hours sitting in the shadows on banquettes watching what I took to be mature men (often law students who play football) engrossed in competition beneath clouds of cigarette smoke. In this building there was a room given over entirely to the reading of magazine and newspapers, another room was dedicated to the game of chess, and yet others enabled students to listen to recorded music. Rooms were set aside for the playing of musical instruments and a very large space called The Student Lounge allowed for private discussions and the playing of cards. An enormous cloakroom with attendants guaranteed the secure daily storage of personal items and also enabled luxuries such as cameras and cricket bats to be borrowed. Shoes would be cleaned upon request. The engine room of the Union was a vast cafeteria which provided three cheap home cooked meals a day (with daily specials) and incidental home cooked snacks for between times. Above the cafeteria sat an equally large ballroom which was given over to dancing, concerts or large and splendid dinners. There were of course generous-sized toilets, wash-rooms, a laundry and showers. There were meeting rooms, a 500-seat fully operational live theatre-cum-cinema with a fly tower containing twenty five lines and a capacious workshop in the rear, with large dressing rooms located below stage. Students took all of this, plus an art gallery and a bookshop, for granted.

The next academic institution I attended was Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and here the facilities available to the student body quite shocked me. The Beinecke Rare Book Library (by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM), the Colleges, the Gothic gymnasium (with its competitive swimming pools and basketball courts), the hockey rink (by Eero Saarinen) and the art gallery by Louis Kahn were just the start of it. But these and other extravagances, however, were trumped by the eighteen-hole golf course which I found hard to believe even existed, until I visited it and was told by the resident professional (in a luxurious nineteenth hole shop) that on a busy day, at least 12 students played the fairways. In my first year in the Architecture and Design building, I was surprised by the generous service in its cafeteria and the existence of a nurse in a medical room.  But I did occasionally nap on a lounge on the roof terrace and I marvelled at the size of the in-house library. In my first year I became ill (from the excessive consumption of food and drink) at a Thanksgiving dinner given by an exuberant Italian American family. I was taken to the Yale infirmary, a boutique hospital exclusively given over to students, where I remained for three days. The following year I badly gashed my leg, while crossing Central Park at night, after attending the Rockefeller Center. I was returned to the infirmary where the ugly wound was treated with antibiotics and the latest technology, including a sterile staple gun fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam. Again I was put to bed for three days. All this care was again free of charge. The food, the clean sheets, the peace and quiet, still shine in my memory. I felt a duty of care being enacted.

Lately I have noticed that when I’m under my morning shower and thinking back over this particularly unsettling incident, the scar on my right leg, below the knee starts to throb and I realize that I have turned the key in that particular memory box. These buildings and their floor plans can still be recalled; they remain part of the furniture of my mind. At the time they offered security and identity; they gave promise of a future.

But in the end, it was the intellectual communities that shaped me. At Melbourne, I still vividly remember the political activist and poet (and there did seem to be a natural confluence between politics and culture then), Vincent Buckley. He was a small man with a large head and a commanding presence, who was often to be seen striding across the campus to his room in the Old Arts Building, trailing a retinue who hung on his every casual judgement on “how should we live”. Buckley haunted Carlton’s hotels, its student parties, and academic conferences.  He couldn’t resist a racehorse (“Peter, in Ireland they race around in the opposite direction, and there are no grand stands”). He revelled in life’s contradictions but always seemed at ease. But his relationship to his wife and children, however, always puzzled me. As if intimacy was always a vulnerable and enigmatic thing for him.

Vincent Buckley and his circle, those public intellectuals, those men and women of letters who lived in the service of ideas, seeded ideas into our young lives for us to reflect upon then. Was life really a meaningless experience or not? How do we make sense of the implausible? Students were encouraged to take on intellectual lives in order to prepare for responsible futures. Knowledge, (and ideas) were not simply designed to improve us in a practical or commercial sense. It was valued for its own sake; there was no essential justification for the life of the mind. Our values were informed by our exposure to better minds, minds that knew more than we did, from whom we could learn. And eventually experience would bring our values into sharp relief. These hard won values would eventually form the basis for our life’s decisions, the personal and professional, the good along with the bad.  

An elite university training in an ivory tower confirmed my sense of VOCATION. It also sharpened my CLASS HACKLES. It identified a circle of FRIENDS. It informed my TASTE. It firmly established a sense of SELF. And to this day, these attributes for better or for worse have shaped my architectural practice and my teaching. My university education of yesteryear was designed to prepare me to enter a SOCIETY. Today, our universities prepare students to enter an ECONOMY, and what a world of difference there is between these two things.  

My university education taught me to understand that we think with words and that we need to develop an expansive vocabulary to gain entry to the world of letters and conversation, if we aspire to have minds that can deliver content with authority. Nowadays, conversation seems to be in decline while we inhabit a pictorial world of short attention spans.

My university education gave me a sense of boundaries which also, provided me with a reassuring sense of identity. Today, boundaries and the security that goes with them are far less in evidence.  

My university education encouraged me to develop an inner life: an inner reflective life, that sometimes gave pause, and perhaps even, on occasion, the beginnings of patience.

A CODA

Today’s universities are engaged in an amenities arms race. The University of Technology Sydney in New South Wales recently built a Frank Gehry building, and it is hard not to see this as a public exercise.  

Those employed in university administration now outnumber those employed in teaching and research, which is unnerving, particularly as the bureaucratic burden on academics has also increased.

We live on a large island (considerably larger than Europe) that is remarkably endowed with natural and agricultural resources and we have a small diverse population. With reasonable management and a degree of good fortune, we should have a bright future.

But to fulfil this promise, we need to reconsider the University Project and its present priorities should be examined. We need to look at the values that underlay these priceless institutions otherwise our universities will lose their way. They cannot afford to lose the respect of the society they are meant to serve.

Thank you.

Peter Corrigan

16th December 2014

some notes in response to Peter Corrigan’s text

Suzie Attiwill

An idea of life courses through Peter’s writing. He remarks, in conclusion, “my university education encouraged me to develop an inner life. An inner reflective life, that sometimes gave pause, and perhaps even, on occasion, the beginnings of patience”.

Much of his paper discusses spatial and temporal relations with rooms (many of which are described as vast volumes). These encounters make close distant events (such as “the sterile staple gun fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam” that was used to repair an “ugly wound” and continues to “throb” in the present when he thinks back). There is also reference to an intellectual engagement with questions of “how should we live”.

This focus on life connects with something I was reading recently: “The question of how a life might go is intimate to the fundamental problematic of education …. The word ‘curriculum’ relates to currere and is implicitly concerned with the ways in which the course of ‘a’ life might be composed”.

Experience also permeates Peter’s text. Smells, sounds, volumes, people, programs, numbers of things (billiard tables, lines in the fly tower). Atmosphere. Experience continues to be significant in relation to education, and student experience is a key priority for RMIT.

There is a tendency to understand experience as produced by a centred subject. I’m interested in thinking experience as coming before the individual, through a concept of experience that does not limit experience to the individual but instead addresses the experiential world, an art of pedagogy that is more-than-personal (a quote from the reading I mention above), an approach that opens up ways of thinking and attending to student experience other than placing ‘you’ at centre.

be true

Be true to you Latrobe Street building scaffolding, RMIT University, 4 February 2015. Photograph: Suzie Attiwill Enrol Now / Rule Your World Melbourne Polytechnic advertising, Montague Street under City Link Bridge, 21 January 2015. Photograph: Suzie Attiwill

This involves a shift from a subject/object dichotomy to one focussed on relations; an ecological thinking which attends to social, mental, spatial, temporal, material, immaterial relations. This brings in the idea of institution as a process of instituting – attending to the set-up within which relations can be made.

There are different kinds of set-ups, and a distinction in education can be made between the curriculum-as-plan and the curriculum-as-lived.

These thoughts make another connection with Peter’s reflections – in particular, his critique of the shift from a social to economic model in education. In the move to a business model based on an economy of commerce/ commercial/ commercialization, there is an emphasis on standardization and normalization where everything is testable and assessable, where every attempt is made to erase the unpredictable and unknown.

The curriculum-as-plan is a product of this shift from the social to the commercial. Curriculum-as-lived is another matter. The “question of how a life might go” courses through our learning and teaching and the lives of our faculty.

Reference: Jason Wallin (2013). Morphologies for a Pedagogical Life. In I. Semetsky & D. Masny (Eds.), Deleuze and Education. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Dammit, the LMS

Our schedule for posting new articles has been interrupted by illness last week and this week. Rather than fall silent at such times, we aim to find and reproduce the good work of others, and use it to connect to our readership.

The learning management system is always a contentious topic in universities. Andrea McLagan has nominated Michael Fieldstien’s article for redistribution to help our debate along. Michael gives good voice against –or maybe for – the notion of being stuck with our LMS in his article originally posted in November 2014. Here it is on the Teaching TomTom, courtesy of Michael’s use of a creative commons attribution copyright license, in case our readers missed it last year.

A 2005 comic about the university adoption of the LMS

And here is a comic strip from 2005 about the university adoption of the LMS by Leigh Blackall

Count De Monet: I have come on the most urgent of business. It is said that the people are revolting!

King Louis: You said it; they stink on ice.

– History of the World, Part I

Jonathan Rees discovered a post I wrote about the LMS in 2006 and, in doing so, discovered that I was writing about LMSs in 2006. I used to write about the future of the LMS quite a bit. I hardly ever do anymore, mostly because I find the topic to be equal parts boring and depressing. My views on the LMS haven’t really changed in the last decade. And sadly, LMSs themselves haven’t changed all that much either. At least not in the ways that I care about most. At first I thought the problem was that the technology wasn’t there to do what I wanted to do gracefully and cost-effectively. That excuse doesn’t exist anymore. Then, once the technology arrived as Web 2.0 blossomed, I thought the problem was that there was little competition in the LMS market and therefore little reason for LMS providers to change their platforms. That’s not true anymore either. And yet the pace of change is still glacial. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the LMS is the way it is because a critical mass of faculty want it to be that way.

Jonathan seems to think that the LMS will go away soon because faculty can find everything they need on the naked internet. I don’t see that happening any time soon. But the reasons why seem to get lost in the perennial conversations about how the LMS is going to die any day now. As near as I can remember, the LMS has been about to die any day now since at least 2004, which was roughly when I started paying attention to such things.

And so it comes to pass that, with great reluctance, I take up my pen once more to write about the most dismal of topics: the future of the LMS.

In an Ideal World…

I have been complaining about the LMS on the internet for almost as long as there have been people complaining about the LMS on the internet. Here’s something I wrote in 2004:

The analogy I often make with Blackboard is to a classroom where all the seats are bolted to the floor. How the room is arranged matters. If students are going to be having a class discussion, maybe you put the chairs in a circle. If they will be doing groupwork, maybe you put them in groups. If they are doing lab work, you put them around lab tables. A good room set-up can’t make a class succeed by itself, but a bad room set-up can make it fail. If there’s a loud fan drowning out conversation or if the room is so hot that it’s hard to concentrate, you will lose students.

I am a first- or, at most, second-generation internet LMS whiner. And that early post captures an important aspect of my philosophy on all things LMS and LMS-like. I believe that the spaces we create for fostering learning experiences matter, and that one size cannot fit all. Therefore, teachers and students should have a great deal of control in shaping their learning environments. To the degree that it is possible, technology platforms should get out of the way and avoid dictating choices. This is a really hard thing to do well in software, but it is a critical guiding principle for virtual learning environments. It’s also the thread that ran through the 2006 blog post that Jonathan quoted:

Teaching is about trust. If you want your students to take risks, you have to create an environment that is safe for them to do so. A student may be willing to share a poem or a controversial position or an off-the-wall hypothesis with a small group of trusted classmates that s/he wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with the entire internet-browsing population and having indexed by Google. Forever. Are there times when encouraging students to take risks out in the open is good? Of course! But the tools shouldn’t dictate the choice. The teacher should decide. It’s about academic freedom to choose best practices. A good learning environment should enable faculty to password-protect course content but not require it. Further, it should not favor password-protection, encouraging teachers to explore the spectrum between public and private learning experiences.

Jonathan seems to think that I was supporting the notion of a “walled garden” in that post—probably because the title of the post is “In Defense of Walled Gardens”—but actually I was advocating for the opposite at the platform level. A platform that is a walled garden is one that forces particular settings related to access and privacy on faculty and students. Saying that faculty and students have a right to have private educational conversations when they think those are best for the situation is not at all the same as saying that it’s OK for the platform to dictate decisions about privacy (or, for that matter, that educational conversations should always be private). What I have been trying to say, there and everywhere, is that our technology needs to support and enable the choices that humans need to make for themselves regarding the best conditions for their personal educational needs and contexts.

Regarding the question of whether this end should be accomplished through an “LMS,” I am both agnostic and utilitarian on this front. I can imagine a platform we might call an “LMS” that would have quite a bit of educational value in a broad range of circumstances. It would bear no resemblance to the LMS of 2004 and only passing resemblance to the LMS of 2014. In the Twitfight between Jonathan and Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer that followed Jonathan’s post, Brian talked about the idea of an LMS as a “hub” or an “aggregator.” These terms are compatible with what my former SUNY colleagues and I were imagining in 2005 and 2006, although we didn’t think of it in those terms. We thought of the heart of it as a “service broker” and referred to the whole thing in which it would live as a “Learning Management Operating System (LMOS).” You can think of the broker as the aggregator and the user-facing portions of the LMOS as the hub that organized the aggregated content and activity for ease-of-use purposes.

By the way, if you leave off requirements that such a thing should be “institution-hosted” and “enterprise,” the notion that an aggregator or hub would be useful in virtual learning environments is not remotely contentious. Jim Groom’s ds106 uses a WordPress-based aggregation system, the current generation of which was built by Alan Levine. Stephen Downes built gRSShopper ages ago. Both of these systems are RSS aggregators at heart. That second post of mine on the LMOS service broker, which gives a concrete example of how such a thing would work, mainly focuses on how much you could do by fully exploiting the rich metadata in an RSS feed and how much more you could do with it if you just added a couple of simple supplemental APIs. And maybe a couple of specialized record types (like iCal, for example) that could be syndicated in feeds similarly to RSS. While my colleagues and I were thinking about the LMOS as an institution-hosted enterprise application, there’s nothing about the service broker that requires it to be so. In fact, if you add some extra bits to support federation, it could just as easily form the backbone of for a distributed network of personal learning environments. And that, in fact, is a pretty good description of the IMS standard in development called Caliper, which is why I am so interested in it. In my recent post about walled gardens from the series that Jonathan mentions in his own post, I tried to spell out how Caliper could enable either a better LMS, a better world without an LMS, or both simultaneously.

Setting aside all the technical gobbledygook, here’s what all this hub/aggregator/broker stuff amounts to:

  • Jonathan wants to “have it all,” by which he means full access to the wide world of resources on the internet. Great! Easily done.
  • The internet has lots of great stuff but is not organized to make that stuff easy to find or reduce the number of clicks it takes you to see a whole bunch of related stuff. So it would be nice to have the option of organizing the subset of stuff that I need to look at for a class in ways that are convenient for me and make minimal demands on me in terms of forcing me to go out and proactively look to see what has changed in the various places where there might be activity for my class.
  • Sometimes the stuff happening in one place on the internet is related to stuff happening in another place in ways that are relevant to my class. For example, if students are writing assignments on their blogs, I might want to see who has gotten the assignment done by the due date and collect all those assignments in one place that’s convenient for me to comment on them and grade them. It would be nice if I had options of not only aggregating but also integrating and correlating course-related information.
  • Sometimes I may need special capabilities for teaching my class that are not available on the general internet. For example, I might want to model molecules for chemistry or have a special image viewer with social commenting capabilities for art history. It would be nice if there were easy but relatively rich ways to add custom “apps” that can feed into my aggregator.
  • Sometimes it may be appropriate and useful (or even essential) to have private educational conversations and activities. It would be nice to be able to do that when it’s called for and still have access to whole public internet, including the option to hold classes mostly “in public.”

In an ideal world, every class would have its own unique mix of these capabilities based on what’s appropriate for the students, teacher, and subject. Not every class needs all of these capabilities. In fact, there are plenty of teachers who find that their classes don’t need any of them. They do just fine with WordPress. Or a wiki. Or a listserv. Or a rock and a stick. And these are precisely the folks who complain the loudest about what a useless waste the LMS is. It’s a little like an English professor walking into a chemistry lab and grousing, “Who the hell designed this place? You have these giant tables which are bolted to the floor in the middle of the room, making it impossible to have a decent class conversation. And for goodness sake, the tables have gas jets on them. Gas jets! Of all the pointless, useless, preposterous, dangerous things to have in a classroom…! And I don’t even want to knowhow much money the college wasted on installing this garbage.”

Of course, today’s LMS doesn’t look much like what I described in the bullet points above (although I do think the science lab analogy is a reasonable one even for today’s LMS). It’s fair to ask why that is the case. Some of us have been talking about this alternative vision for something that may or may be called an “LMS” for a decade or longer now. And there are folks like Brian Whitmer at LMS companies (and LMS open source projects) saying that they buy into this idea. Why don’t our mainstream platforms look like this yet?

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Let’s imagine another world for a moment. Let’s imagine a world in which universities, not vendors, designed and built our online learning environments. Where students and teachers put their heads together to design the perfect system. What wonders would they come up with? What would they build?

Why, they would build an LMS. They did build an LMS. Blackboard started as a system designed by a professor and a TA at Cornell University. Desire2Learn (a.k.a. Brightspace) was designed by a student at the University of Waterloo. Moodle was the project of a graduate student at Curtin University in Australia. Sakai was built by a consortium of universities. WebCT was started at the University of British Columbia. ANGEL at Indiana University.

OK, those are all ancient history. Suppose that now, after the consumer web revolution, you were to get a couple of super-bright young graduate students who hate their school’s LMS to go on a road trip, talk to a whole bunch of teachers and students at different schools, and design a modern learning platform from the ground up using Agile and Lean methodologies. What would they build?

They would build Instructure Canvas. They did build Instructure Canvas. Presumably because that’s what the people they spoke to asked them to build.

In fairness, Canvas isn’t only a traditional LMS with a better user experience. It has a few twists. For example, from the very beginning, you could make your course 100% open in Canvas. If you want to teach out on the internet, undisguised and naked, making your Canvas course site just one class resource of many on the open web, you can. And we all know what happened because of that. Faculty everywhere began opening up their classes. It was sunlight and fresh air for everyone! No more walled gardens for us, no sirree Bob.

That is how it went, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

I asked Brian Whitmer the percentage of courses on Canvas that faculty have made completely open. He didn’t have an exact number handy but said that it’s “really low.” Apparently, lots of faculty still like their gardens walled. Today, in 2014.

Canvas was a runaway hit from the start, but not because of its openness. Do you know what did it? Do you know what single set of capabilities, more than any other, catapulted it to the top of the charts, enabling it to surpass D2L in market share in just a few years? Do you know what the feature set was that had faculty from Albany to Anaheim falling to their knees, tears of joy streaming down their faces, and proclaiming with cracking, emotion-laden voices, “Finally, an LMS company that understands me!”?

It was Speed Grader. Ask anyone who has been involved in an LMS selection process, particularly during those first few years of Canvas sales.

Here’s the hard truth: While Jonathan wants to think of the LMS as “training wheels” for the internet (like AOL was), there is overwhelming evidence that lots of faculty want those training wheels. They ask for them. And when given a chance to take the training wheels off, they usually don’t.

Let’s take another example: roles and permissions. Audrey Watters recently called out inflexible roles in educational software (including but not limited to LMSs) as problematic:

Ed-tech works like this: you sign up for a service and you’re flagged as either “teacher” or “student” or “admin.” Depending on that role, you have different “privileges” — that’s an important word, because it doesn’t simply imply what you can and cannot do with the software. It’s a nod to political power, social power as well.

Access privileges in software are designed to enforce particular ways of working together, which can be good if and only if everybody agrees that the ways of working together that the access privileges are enforcing are the best and most productive for the tasks at hand. There is no such thing as “everybody agrees” on something like the one single best way for people to work together in all classes. If the access privileges (a.k.a. “roles and permissions”) are not adaptable to the local needs, if there is no rational and self-evident reason for them to be structured the way they are, then they end up just reinforcing the crudest caricatures of classroom power relationships rather than facilitating productive cooperation. Therefore, standard roles and permissions often do more harm than good in educational software. I complained about this problem in 2005 when writing about the LMOS and again in 2006 when reviewing an open source LMS from the UK called Bodington. (At the time, Stephen Downes mocked me for thinking that this was an important aspect of LMS design to consider.)

Bodington had radically open permissions structures. You could attach any permissions (read, write, etc.) to any object in the system, making individual documents, discussions, folders, and what have you totally public, totally private, or somewhere in between.You could collect sets of permissions and and define them as any roles that you wanted. Bodington also, by the way, had no notion of a “course.” It used a geographical metaphor. You would have a “building” or a “floor” that could house a course, a club, a working group, or anything else. In this way, it was significantly more flexible than any LMS I had seen before.

Of course, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Bodington, its enormous success in the market, and how influential it’s been on LMS design.

What’s that? You haven’t?

Huh.

OK, but surely you’re aware of D2L’s major improvements in the same area. If you recall your LMS patent infringement history, then you’ll remember that roles and permissions were exactly the thing that Blackboard sued D2L over. The essence of the patent was this: Blackboard claimed to have invented a system where the same person could be given the role of “instructor” in one course site and the role of “student” in another. That’s it. And while Blackboard eventually lost that fight, there was a court ruling in the middle in which D2L was found to have infringed on the patent. In order to get around it, the company ripped out its predefined roles, making it possible (and necessary) for every school to create its own. As many as they want. Defined however they want. I remember Ken Chapman telling me that, even though it was the patent suit that pushed him to think this way, in the end he felt that the new way was a significant improvement over the old way of doing things.

And the rest, as you know, was history. The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed wrote pieces describing the revolution on campuses as masses of faculty demanded flexible roles and permissions. Soon it caught the attention of Thomas Friedman, who proclaimed it to be more evidence that the world is indeed flat. And the LMS market has never been the same since.

That is what happened…right?

No?

Do you want to know why the LMS has barely evolved at all over the last twenty years and will probably barely evolve at all over the next twenty years? It’s not because the terrible, horrible, no-good LMS vendors are trying to suck the blood out of the poor universities. It’s not because the terrible, horrible, no-good university administrators are trying to build a panopticon in which they can oppress the faculty. The reason that we get more of the same year after year is that, year after year, when faculty are given an opportunity to ask for what they want, they ask for more of the same. It’s because every LMS review process I have ever seen goes something like this:

  • Professor John proclaims that he spent the last five years figuring out how to get his Blackboard course the way he likes it and, dammit, he is not moving to another LMS unless it works exactly the same as Blackboard.
  • Professor Jane says that she hates Blackboard, would never use it, runs her own Moodle installation for her classes off her computer at home, and will not move to another LMS unless it works exactly the same as Moodle.
  • Professor Pat doesn’t have strong opinions about any one LMS over the others except that there are three features in Canvas that must be in whatever platform they choose.
  • The selection committee declares that whatever LMS the university chooses next must work exactly like Blackboard and exactly like Moodle while having all the features of Canvas. Oh, and it must be “innovative” and “next-generation” too, because we’re sick of LMSs that all look and work the same.

Nobody comes to the table with an affirmative vision of what an online learning environment should look like or how it should work. Instead, they come with this year’s checklists, which are derived from last year’s checklists. Rather than coming with ideas of what they could have, the come with their fears of what they might lose. When LMS vendors or open source projects invent some innovative new feature, that feature gets added to next year’s checklist if it avoids disrupting the rest of the way the system works and mostly gets ignored or rejected to the degree that it enables (or, heaven forbid, requires) substantial change in current classroom practices.

This is why we can’t have nice things. I understand that it is more emotionally satisfying to rail against the Powers That Be and ascribe the things that we don’t like about ed tech to capitalism and authoritarianism and other nasty isms. And in some cases there is merit to those accusations. But if we were really honest with ourselves and looked at the details of what’s actually happening, we’d be forced to admit that the “ism” most immediately responsible for crappy, harmful ed tech products is consumerism. It’s what we ask for and how we ask for it. As with our democracy, we get the ed tech that we deserve.

In fairness to faculty, they don’t always get an opportunity to ask good questions. For example, at Colorado State University, where Jonathan works, the administrators, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that the best course of action is to choose their next LMS for their faculty by joining the Unizin coalition. But that is not the norm. In most places, faculty do have input but don’t insist on a process that leads to a more thoughtful discussion than compiling a long list of feature demands. If you want agitate for better ed tech, then changing the process by which your campus evaluates educational technology is the best place to start.

There. I did it. I wrote the damned “future of the LMS” post. And I did it mostly by copying and pasting from posts I wrote 10 years ago. I am now going to go pour myself a drink. Somebody please wake me again in another decade.

Crossing Borders: Empowering Teachers to Support Discipline-related Extracurricular Activity (ECA)

This week Cathy Leahy has interviewed Noel Maloney, program coordinator of Professional Screenwriting in the School of Media and Communication, about his work in researching extracurricular student activity.

Crossing a boarder at the Museum of Modern Art Istanbul. Photo by Cathy Leahy

Crossing a boarder at the Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul. Photo by Cathy Leahy

Recently I caught up with Noel Maloney, program coordinator of Professional Screenwriting in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. The focus of our discussion was his role as the Design and Social Context (DSC) Innovation Teaching Fellow 2015, in which he is undertaking a project called “Crossing Borders: Empowering Teachers to Support Discipline–Related Extracurricular Activity”. This project will resource teachers and academics to better manage extracurricular, interdisciplinary projects.

What lead you to your interest in this project?

In the School of Media and Communication, and more specifically within the area of professional screenwriting, there has been a long history of projects or events set up with students, or that students initiate, that are not part of formal learning.

There are several important questions these types of projects raise. What do students learn in this sort of activity that they don’t learn in formal learning environments and how do they imagine it benefiting their employment in the future? How can we best support teaching and academic staff to deliver these projects to provide appropriate environments for students, while preserving their characteristic autonomy?

What can be gained through these experiences?

Staff and students I have interviewed for this project value their participation in discipline-related extracurricular projects in several ways. These projects are seen to enhance student experience and create a sense of participation and belonging. They develop employability skills through managing contingencies, developing agency and working collaboratively with people across various disciplines, in environments that often simulate industry conditions but are safe. Students experience a certain freedom in these activities. They also provide an opportunity to showcase work. While students are not formally assessed in these projects, they still find opportunities to  reflect and contextualise their experiences. In these projects students typically make something from beginning to end and this is highly valued. They experience working in a really intense way, and dealing with chaos. These were not negative problems. They talk about these challenges in a very positive way.

In addition these activities build up the profile of the programs, and for the teachers and academics concerned this can work very much in their favour. It can put people and programs on the map.

What are the challenges for staff to support these activities?

Time and money.

Often staff are not allocated time in their work plans to run these sorts of projects. Inevitably they sit above and beyond their formal duties.  This is one of the operational aspects that this project can look at and highlight. Also, these projects often require funding, and a high degree of pre-planning, if they are to be effectively resourced.  

What activities have recently been undertaken in DSC?

Two of the larger projects are:

  • The “9 Slices” project, bringing students together across a number of disciplines to produce a book in nine days as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

  • A Fashion and Textiles event, where students work collaboratively in a global environment to deliver a “Fashion Challenge”. This project has run over a number of years, originally with RMIT University and Salford University in the UK, and more recently expanded to include Columbia College in Chicago.

Other activities include:

  • The RMIT Screen Network, a university wide initiative for media students
  • Young Ones, an online magazine developed by VE design students
  • A film anthology, One Minute to Go, produced by screenwriting and screen production students, with performers from 16th St Actors’ Studio.
  • A photobook project between writing and photography students
  • Various study tours


What are the outcomes you are hoping to achieve through this project by the end of the year?

There will be a symposium in late November, as well as resources to help teachers and academics better manage these activities.

The symposium will bring together both Vocational and Higher Education staff involved in these initiatives, providing a supportive environment to present and share their experiences to a wider audience. There is a growing enthusiasm for this type of opportunity: it’s something that has always been there, but when you start to talk about it, people light up with its potential.

Inspired and want to know more?

If you know of a discipline-related, extracurricular project that deserves mention, get in touch with Noel Maloney, noel.maloney@rmit.edu.au. Or come along to the symposium that will be held in late November.

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.

Towards sustainable assessment: some thoughts

Dr Peter Rushbrook, Deputy Head, Learning and Teaching at RMIT University’s School of Education shares some thoughts and references about sustainable assessment. 

image depicting a session in a workplace training centre at a major Singapore supermarket chain.

This is an image depicting a session in a workplace training centre at a major Singapore supermarket chain. The trainees are undergoing assessment of their checkout skills, including managing cash and customer service. This is a simulation but the skills learned are put into practice quickly in the demonstration store next door.

Thinking of assessment for, as and of learning (Earle, 2006), not just of learning, is no longer new. What is new are approaches to assessment that build on this basic premise to support Twenty-first century learning. Paying attention to assessment is critically important for adult learning as David Boud (2010) points out,

Assessment is a central feature of teaching and the curriculum. It powerfully frames how students learn and what students achieve.

Assessment is a process, not just an end result.

Assessment for longer term learning focuses on higher order thinking and skills, such as exercising judgment in context. It develops independent, confident practitioners ready to transition to the next phase, ready to work independently and with others to make informed judgments (Boud 2010). We need to focus not just learning how to learn, but on the subset of learning – how to assess (Boud 2000). We need to move away from multiple choice questions and away from assessors looking for answers from an answer sheet. Such practices do not reflect the increasing cognitive (Darling-Hammond, 2014) and complex psycho-social demands required of our workforce. They fail to contribute to the application of learning to contexts outside a classroom or test environment. Essentially, we need to move from narrow assessment to assessment for deeper sustained learning.

Assessment needs to do double duty: both for credentialing and learning purposes. This includes: formative assessment for learning and summative for certification; focusing on the task and developing lifelong learners; and attending to the learning process as well as the content. Assessment of this nature requires the collection of a range of forms of evidence over time to assess the understanding of a learner, as well as equipping the learner with skills to self-assess. This has profound implications for the design of learning. Boud (2010) suggests there are a number of principles of assessment which we can drawn on and adapted to our context and purpose:

  • assessment is used to engage learners in learning that is productive.
  • feedback is used to actively improve learners’ learning
  • learners and educators become responsible partners in learning and assessment
  • learners are inducted into the assessment practices and cultures of performance for work
  • assessment for learning is placed at the centre of curriculum design.
  • assessment provides inclusive and trustworthy representation of learner achievement, providing reliable evidence of performance
  • when assessment is a focus for those involved in curriculum assessment of student achievements is judged against consistent national and international standards that are subject to continuing dialogue, review and justification within professional communities

A new emphasis and direction towards workplace and other forms of blended learning and assessment (classroom, workplace and/or e-environments) in countries such as Singapore (where I am currently working on some assessment research in its Continuing Education and Training sector) signals a move away from a heavy reliance on classroom assessment, and a reimagining of the possibilities of teaching and learning practice. Outcomes through devolving assessment responsibility to learners and ‘outsourcing’ further aspects to employers and industry have the potential to increase learner employability and improve the learner experience – through carrying over into work the skills required to self-monitor developing skill sets and domain knowledge, as well as self-direct integration within new workplace contexts and communities of practice. RMIT is well on the way to exploring these possibilities within Work Integrated Learning (WIL) and similar programs, but may benefit from uniting current thinking within an overall philosophy of sustainable assessment (and learning).

References

Boud, D. (2010). Assessment 2010. Australian Learning and teaching Council, UTS.

Darling-Hammond, L. (Ed). (2014). Next generation assessment. Moving beyond the bubble test to support 21st century learning. Jossey-Bass.

Earle, L. (2013) Assessment as learning. Sage Publications

Earle, L. (2006). Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind. Assessment for learning, assessment as learning, assessment of learning. Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth.

Sustainability: Enabling Graduates

Dr Jude Westrup, Senior Advisor, Strategic Initiatives, Office of Dean, Learning and Teaching updates us on Sustainability at RMIT University, and invites you to a professional learning session on sustainability on the 21st of October.

Sustainability is a major contemporary issue and therefore fundamental to good business practice for education institutions. Australia’s National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability – Living Sustainably , the Rio+20 Treaty on Higher Education  and the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development  over-arch and inform RMIT’s strategic, global implementation of sustainability in learning & teaching, research and industry engagement. Initiatives such as Sustainable Urban Precincts Project  and the global management of international programs and partnerships  contribute to RMIT’s “reorientation…to a focus on achieving a culture of sustainability in … teaching and learning for sustainability… and continuous improvement in the sustainability of campus management” . TT post

As part of the ongoing process of embedding sustainability within the curriculum, research and partnerships across RMIT, the Sustainability Committee via the Office of Dean, Learning & Teaching has undertaken extensive curriculum, professional development (PD) and project work within the Learning & Teaching for Sustainability (LTfS) project during 2013-14.

RMIT’s Sustainability Policy and Action Plan to 2020 defines and directs projects and programs that embed sustainability principles and practices throughout learning & teaching, research and operational activities.

The plan states:

Tertiary education will:

  • Engage students at all levels in learning about relevant sustainability concepts (knowledge, skills and values/attitudes), identifying issues of importance and taking actions in order to empower them as future leaders in industry and society in their chosen fields
  • Embed sustainability capabilities/competencies within disciplinary and professional contexts, including where relevant challenges from beyond narrow or chosen discipline(s)
  • Support academic and teaching staff to develop high levels of discipline relevant sustainability literacy so that they are able (competent and confident) to facilitate sustainability learning

Sustainability: Enabling Graduates – professional development

This interactive, introductory professional learning session will introduce you to Learning & Teaching for Sustainability at RMIT and beyond.

Details are:

Tuesday 21st October in SAB – PD-Room (80.03.001)
From 12noon – 2pm. Details can be found on the DevelopME website:
Sustainability: Enabling Graduates is designed for all academic and teaching staff to:

  • interactively, explore through dialogue and design exercises curriculum refinement or development, with the aim of increasing relevant graduate learning outcomes in Sustainability or embedding sustainability further into the curriculum
  • trial and experiment with a multidisciplinary, e-assessment task design, and
  • examine and explore introductory concepts, praxis and principles ofLearning & Teaching for Sustainability within disciplines and professional contexts – local, regional, and international, that can then be applied to other course and program development or refinement.

Registrations are open until 20th October and inquiries are welcome to Dr Jude Westrup (9925 8377) or jude.westrup@rmit.edu.au

TTpost2There are extensive learning & teaching for sustainability resources on our sustainability pages.  You may like to access these for your pre-workshop reference or for further ideas and inspiration.

So if you are interested in sustainability and education and think you might be:

  • Ready for some new ideas and refreshment?
  • Ready to rekindle your joy of learning after a productive, and long, semester?
  • Then take the opportunity to join academic and teaching staff at the new, experiential, multidisciplinary, multi-modal professional development workshop

then you might want to go along!

Other useful references

TEQSA and the Australian Qualifications Framework promote the importance of being able to measure and evidence graduates’ learning outcomes resulting from their program of study. TEQSA’s approach to Quality Assessments 

The RMIT graduate attribute (GA3) that most explicitly relates to Learning & Teaching for Sustainability is, ‘Environmentally aware and responsive’. This attribute articulates our aim that ‘Graduates of RMIT University will have engaged in processes to develop their abilities to recognise environmental and social impacts and to provide leadership on sustainable approaches to complex problems’

Don’t forget to register (DevelopME website) if you want to attend!

Share your thoughts and questions on sustainability in learning and teaching  in the comments section!
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