Friday, February 1, 2013

Machines, revolutions and uncertainty

I can still remember my anxiety at taking a required typing class in high school (back before the electric IBM self-correcting Selectric II). I was confident about "regular" school subjects and human interactions, but not at all sure about interacting with a machine where I would be "timed" and my competency judged by accuracy and speed. I worked very hard, and became an OK typist--not because I valued the machine, or even the potential careers it might make accessible, but because performing poorly was just not an option. Of course this has been an important tool for me, and even a way to help pay the rent. (I charged $2 a page to type papers and theses for graduate students when I needed flexible hours organizing against nuclear weapons in the 70s and 80s).

I start with this bit of history because the past two-plus weeks in Etmooc have reminded me that I still do not have confidence in my ability to interact successfully with machines (and the often baffling software programs and applications) that have revolutionized our ways to communicate and share/construct knowledge. Douglas Rushkoff's assertion that we can choose to "program or be programmed" makes me nervous. Unlike my resistance to learning to type, I DO want to take up Rushkoff's challenge (at least a middle path of becoming at ease with the tools and aware of their limitations). Still, the issue for me is not that I'd better get good at using new digital technologies or be left in the dust. It's deeper than that, and I've needed this throat-clearing introduction to get to the more challenging part.

Transformation and technology
The how of using these new tools is straightforward enough. I'll get the hang of it in time. The why, though, presents a much bigger challenge. I am surrounded by utopian and dystopian predictions about the transformative effects of the digital revolution (especially recent conversations about MOOCs presaging the end of higher education as we know it). Importantly, the conversation we had this week with Dave Cormier about rhizomatic learning confirms for me that the real transformation in education isn't about the technology, but about the shared construction of knowledge and action that new technologies can facilitate.

The community as the curriculum?
I've considered myself a competent and empathetic teacher,and my over-40 years working with learners (k-12, continuing adult education,community organizing, university) have mostly been a joy. I have sometimes created course syllabi and evaluation processes with students, encouraged students to prepare and teach parts of courses, and reorganized courses with students when my original plans weren't working. I feel comfortable with the process of emergent design. But my work hasn't really embodied Dave's concept of "the community as the curriculum." Here my anxiety is not about machines but about expectations. Every term I produce syllabi/course calendars that map our educational journey in great detail. Students tell me they appreciate this, and so I work to meet their expectation. Bowing to the demands of the assessment/accountability juggernaut, I have carefully related course objectives to methods of assessment and to SLOs, PLOs, and ULOs (student, program, and university learning outcomes). So the bureaucracts and the well-schooled student are at home with the portrait of learning I present in those documents, and that I can "document" in practice. But do I believe I can measure students' learning? This question is way beyond typing, Selectrics, and MOOCs.

Measuring learning as a comfortable fiction
Dave described someone who questioned his rhizomatic learning model, who insisted that we need to measure learning. Dave's response: "I know you need to measure learning, but that doesn't mean you can." Alone in my sabbatical cabin, I raised my fist with an unspoken "Right on!" Others making this same point are Alfi Kohn-- Schooling Beyond Measure and Joe Bower--Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it is a conversation . While teaching at the university, I still need to provide these outcomes statements and I still need to submit grades, but I can also demonstrate the inadequacy of these tools of authority in really designing courses with students.

Embracing uncertainty
Jeff Merrell, in his Rhizome-plosion blog this week, mentions two insights he had in reflecting on rhizomatic learning: "1) Give up thinking I have any 'teaching' power;. . .2) Give up thinking I have any answers." Noting that these insights were particularly freeing, he concludes that "the course container is simply a contract among us involving time and topic." Can a 40-year veteran educator take this leap? I have the luxury this year of a sabbatical devoted in part to exploring the potential of digital technologies for my teaching, and I know already I will be approaching next year differently. Following the cautions of tech-savvy teachers, I'll go slowly in introducing new online tools. But the bigger change will be in seeing "the community as the curriculum." I expect discomfort and resistance from some students (those ones Dave described as "keeners", but also from those who like to know how little they can do and still "pass"). I expect discomfort myself in trying to embody the naked truth of uncertainty (without the pretense of the"expert-in-some-control" mantle). Since students take from artificially-timed and graded courses what they will, not what we say they must, I am curious to see how much ownership might occur if I really do get out of the way.

Image above by Ben Earwicker Garrison Photography,Boise, ID,

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