Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app

Yesterday, I returned from three days at the Sloan-C/MERLOT Emerging Technologies Symposium for Online Learning in Dallas. I am still processing! But here are some reflections.
My key take away at this moment — aside from reflecting on the deeply amazing humans I met and spent time with — is that some of the significant organizational changes that have been bubbling up throughout higher education surfaced in different ways this year. This is good! I felt that the presentations this year were topical and compelling. In short, there was discomfort and debate — more so than in previous years. This too is good! Some presentations even delved into subjects that have become indiscussable at some institutions. And that, to me, is a significant moment in the process of organizational change. 
According to Argyris (1999), when individuals in an organization are confronted with change they find themselves forced to deal with topics or issues that challenge their traditions.  These traditions are governed by mental models, which are undetectable, yet salient, conditions that inform how a person thinks and acts. 
When a mental model that guides a tradition in an organization is challenged, a person will behave in one of two ways. Most commonly, a person will exhibit defensive behavior. Defensive actions may include exhibiting signs of frustration or simply avoiding the topic all together. For example, “That’s not how we do things here” or “That wouldn’t work because…” These behaviors build upon each other and after enough repetition, the members of an organization become familiar with the expected response and stop raising the topic. The questions (that is, the new ideas, the innovations, the curiosity) stop being introduced into the organization and the status quo is reinforced.  The topic, therefore, becomes indiscussable and the tradition, whatever it may be (even if we all dislike it) remains intact.  We all have seen this right?  Think about when a new person in your organization is hired and asks that uncomfortable question that nobody else asks anymore because everyone else has learned the answer.

 If defensiveness can be overcome when a person becomes aware of his/her mental model, however, the mental model can be seen in a new light. A person can begin to think critically about why and how it became so powerful and start to have a deep conversation about alternative actions. This is when an organization begins to become a learning organization.  This is when awakening can lead to meaningful changes. And it starts with conversations about difficult topics.


Reclaiming Learning

First, Jim Groom @JimGroom shared an important keynote that I both think and hope awakened the minds of many attendees.  View the Storify archive of Tweets here. 
Groom’s keynote to me, illustrates, the model of organizational learning I described above. Groom’s talk took the audience through a historical look at web culture when geocities offered users the opportunities to easily cultivate their own web presence and connect with others.  This open, communal experience was contrasted with the LMS, higher education’s “go to” learning landscape.
It is as if we don’t even think beyond what’s outside the LMS today in higher education. It is as if we think we’re teaching online but we aren’t — we’re teaching inside a walled garden.  And how does learning inside an LMS prepare a student for live in our digital, mobile society? These were some of Groom’s points.
The LMS has become our tradition. The open-web has become the uncomfortable change — the flood waters that the administrators of our institutions try to keep out. This is the indiscussable topic that Groom took hold of in his keynote. 
Throughout the past several years, I have worked with many faculty who have shared with me that they wantto teach with this tool or that tool to promote more engaging, collaborative learning for their online students but their institutions will not allow them to because of this or that.  Or they immediately pause and become filled with caution and concern at the thought of integrating a tool into their students’ learning that is not included within the LMS.
I realize my words may be stirring up emotions within you as you read this and I am fully aware there are topics to discuss and learning that needs to happen in order for us to facilitate learning with web-based tools (which is the crux of my book, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies).  The point is that we can work through these topics together, as a community of online educators, if our top priority is our students’ learning, as opposed to maintaining and controlling them. 
Groom’s points dug deep. If we teach inside an LMS and only inside an LMS, are we truly teaching “online”?  If our students only experience interactions within the controlled, secure walls of an LMS, are they truly experiencing what it means to be online? Are we, as educators, leveraging the educational benefits of the internet if our learners do not engage in activities outside the walled garden of an LMS?  Are we as a system of higher education embracing even a small percentage of the power of this “learning revolution” we appear to be occurring around us?  How is learning online improving students’ abilities to think critically about media? To create original media and share it for re-use in a digital, mobile society? To locate, evaluate, and re-use media effectively?
And as we, more and more, strive to design “learner-centered” online learning environments, the LMS is designed to lock students out from their own learning contributions after a term has ended.  As Groom so eloquently put it, when students learn in an LMS, they learn in an environment that has no relevancy to life after college.
As I reflect on my own teaching, the more I have ventured outside the LMS to designed an online learning environment for my class that incorporates a tapestry of student-centered media projects with web-based tools the more inspired, relevant,  and active my students’ learning has become. And that topic has been the premise of this very blog, my book, and my other related work.  In fact, I became so passionate about this topic that it led me in 2009 to leave my safe, tenured position as a full-time faculty member and eventually begin my life that same year as a free-lancer. In many ways, teaching outside the LMS led me to a life as an academic outside the academy. Hmm. Interesting connection.
The LMS is a helpful tool for providing a secure place for having students authenticate as registered students. That is a function I rely upon it for. The LMS is also a valuable tool for communicating grades to students, which must be done securely to comply with FERPA.  I also use my LMS to deploy periodic traditional assessments for learners, because they provide students with automated feedback from me, as well as opportunities to learn from their mistakes when assessments are allowed to be taken multiple times. 
I have much more processing to do about Jim Groom’s talk. But, for now, I’d like to thank him for taking us to this level of learning.  

Mess in Online Education

Image by Cy Twombly
The plenary presentation at #ET4Online, Mess in OnlineEducation: How It Is, How It Should Be, was delivered by Jen Ross @jar and Amy Collier @amcollier.  Their presentation reframed the culturally derogatory term “mess” into a positive vision for online education.  Yes, your teaching should be messy.  Why?  As the presenters reminded us, learning is messy.  If we could visualize how each of us learns, we would be able to see that each of us learns in an entirely different way. I was reminded of a Cy Twombly drawing while listening to this presentation. Some may see it as a mess; some see it as beautiful. Either way, it’s art.
But mess is more than supporting learning differences.  Mess involves designing for and allowing for learners to experiences the challenges, stumbles, and failures involved with the real world, as well as building in flexibility to allow life to intervene. Right now, my online students are embarking upon a project that involves locating a practicing art photographer (anywhere in the world), interviewing him/her about his/her work, and creating a VoiceThread about the photographer’s work.  I have this project chunked out into three steps, each with a deliverable, clear criteria, and a due date, to keep students on task.  The experience is different for each student. For example, some students identify a photographer quickly, others reach out to several before they make contact with one who is available to be interviewed, and I have had two students (over two years) who have needed my help finding a photographer. Most students relish in how incredible it felt to be in touch with a “real” photographer and learn about his/her experiences. Some have maintained connections with them and even been sent prints from the photographer after the project’s completion. One photographer asked my student’s permission to share her VoiceThread on his blog (nice turn of the tables!) and another student received an email from a photographer letting her know that her project had “validated his career.”
The project is messy. I never know how it’s going to turn out or what problems we are going to encounter. The important thing is that my students know I’m in it with them and I’m there for them — and that they remain in communication with me. I have had semesters where I’ve thought, “Maybe I should end this.” But after listening to Amy and Jennifer’s presentation, I feel empowered to continue this project.  It truly is real-world learning that will foster skills for life, more so than any multiple-choice test, discussion forum, or assigned blog post.  Learning outside the LMS is real world learning. And that is why we need to embrace it.
In the presentation, Collier and Ross also noted one recent trend in edtech that is discouraging mess in online learning — the proliferation of technologies that simplify the teaching and learning process.  In their presentation, they included many screenshots from promotions and writings about products that promote their ability to save teachers time, to minimize assessment challenges, etc.  While I agree that the focus on lifting the teacher from the student experience has been overly celebrated in the MOOC heyday — and I shared early reservations of employing MOOCs widespread in community colleges here— I hope the presentation does not throw cold water on the many innovations surfacing in educational technology today that will continue to improve upon the sterile, tidy LMS-driven experiences Groom critiqued in his presentation.
As I already noted, it were not for the emergence of web 2.0, I would never have ventured outside my LMS.  I would still be teaching my visually-centric art history courses using text-based discussion forums (ouch).  I enjoy not only the opportunity to continue to explore new tools emerging on the edtech horizon, but working directly with entrepreneurs who want to learn how to improve education.  I support more dialogue between higher education and edtech startups — not less.  Entrepreneurs need to learn from online educators –. and those who will survive are those who are willing to learn.

Questions for reflection:

  • “How is your online class preparing your students for success in the 21st century?”
  • “How does the design of your online class generate opportunities for students each go different ways, encounter unique challenges, and identify their own solutions?”

Thinking Ahead to 2015

Next year, I will be conference chair for the 2015 Sloan-C-MERLOT ET4Online Symposium.  The event will be in Dallas once again on April 22-24, 2015.  Send me your ideas and your suggestions so it can continue to be an engaging, thought-provoking experience and advance the conversation about the role of emerging technologies in online learning.


Argyris, C. (1999). On organizational learning. Malden, MA: Blackwell Business.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.