(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me


Community as Curriculum: where i come from, where i am going

I am so glad that this week’s #rhizo14 topic is this: the community as curriculum. What it means to me has connections to my past, my present, and my future. I think the topic flows nicely from the one about books making us stupid… I don’t think the connection is clear, so I will try to make my own…

In the past, my teaching has always had two main characteristics:
1. I can never really conceive of a course I am about to teach without really knowing my learners. I do not mean by this knowing their characteristics (e.g. Whether they teach language or science, whether they teach in a private or public school), but who they are.

2. Most (all?) educational institutions I have worked for asked for a syllabus within the first couple of weeks of classes. I always wrote one. I never followed one all the way through.

Well and one third characteristic is that I don’t lecture. It’s not because I have nothing to say, but that I think we all learn better from whatever everyone in the room has to say as well. As a student, I am very talkative and I run the risk of overtalking; strangely as a teacher, I don’t like talking too much. I do talk, but I enjoy listening and facilitating so much more. If I am to talk for more than 10-15 minutes straight, it is often at the end of class, summarizing the discussion and moving it forward or something.

My general view is that I hope the course would benefit participants, and that is almost impossible to do without knowing them. Not just characteristics, demographics, goals, but more: who they are, how they like to learn, how they respond to certain learning environments and situations.

All the above meant that I never taught the same course the same way to another cohort, even if I thought I would. I constantly negotiated with students (and myself) to make the course more beneficial to them. I don’t necessarily claim to have always succeeded, and some students get confused in the middle… There is that need to embrace uncertainty and become independent again!

I thought I was a weirdo, that my overly spontaneous teaching (sometimes I change my plan during class time; the same plan that I had created two weeks before but modified two days before class, sometimes two hours before class), until, while doing my PhD I read about curriculum theory. There are lots of great books on the subject but a great intro can be found here and I no longer felt like I was crazy.

First, traditional approaches that make “content” central to curriculum are problematic on so many levels. Thankfully, I never center a course around content. I make deliberate decisions about content as I go along to try to make sure that content is suitable for what we are trying to learn, rather than assume any content is inherently valuable in and of itself. I am also careful as to how comprehensible and relevant the content will be to my students. More on some of my views of privileging certain content in an earlier post here

Second, outcomes-based (technical/product) approaches to curriculum, common in higher education and needed for things like accreditation and quality assurance are also problematic: they wrongly assume neutrality of the outcomes, and wrongly assume that articulating outcomes well would somehow help the teacher design one curriculum for all students that would help them reach that outcome, a false linearity that ignores differences among students in where they are, how they learn, and where they want to go in the end.

Third, process-oriented and emancipatory approaches to curriculum are closer to what I have always done: centering on teacher judgment and working with students and negotiating the curriculum with students throughout the course – that is what they are about. An emancipatory curriculum goes a step further and centers discussions around issues of social justice and aims to challenge the status quo (something I have started to do, but still find quite complex and difficult)

Soooo… This is where I was before I started #rhizo14

How Rhizo14 Took This Further
So, I was discussing with the Hybrid Pedagogy folks my need to find instructional design approaches that were more similar to my own as yet unarticulated philosophy of teaching – and they pointed me to Dave Cormier’s ideas on rhizomatic learning. I am so lucky they did. But let me articulate specifically how this course takes “community as curriculum” to a whole new level for me.

Mainly, it is because even though we all have similar pedagogical paradigms, we are still diverse and this diversity helps us all learn from each other. The similarity helps us understand each other, I think, though some of us are more radical than others.

We all have different goals for why we are doing this, and yet we are learning from each other and supporting each other.

I am learning from both the process of living through this (5th week now, wow! I feel like I have known you guys and been doing this for years now) and the possibility of research it, as we discussed on facebook. Am a bit busy living it and still having a f2f life in between hehe.

Finally, if we talk about content, the actual content, the reading I do for the course, all comes from the community, not Dave. This means I am learning from the content that folks post, both their blogs about the course topics, and the discussions we have e.g. On facebook, and the additional links of interest people post on facebook or twitter. I am learning from other people’s teaching experiences, such as Frances Bell and Sarah Honeychurch, parenting experiences, and more theoretical musings of Keith Hamon and Cath Ellis, for example. I am learning about ways of building community from the way Jenny Mackness blogs, like here, i have learned from the creative processes of people like Tellio/Dogtrax . I find myself often using examples or terms I got off this course, like just y/day i was thinking “words steal my intent” and i know i read this on Jenny’s blog but unsure where it all came from. I am constantly reminded of the different perspectives one can take on an issue and how challenging it is to get one’s head around those different views. I like Jaap’s shorter reflective pieces like this one, and Scott’s pieces that make me think differently.

I am enjoying the FutureEd MOOC mainly because I am discussing it (incl shortcomings) with colleagues on the rhizo14 facebook group. I was anxious about a new class I am teaching this semester, so I posted about it, and got some great support and tips- and I used Mark’s suggested “Goha story” with my students!

The link to books…
I was recently thinking that textbooks are pedagogically a horrible choice. They deceive learners into thinking learning can come from one organized comprehensive source of all you need to know about a topic. Whereas knowledge is messy and we learn more by getting input from diverse sources. We also learn from finding those sources for ourselves then having a community to discuss them with to help us put things in perspective.

There have been discussions on whether we are a community,a network, etc. these distinctions are helpful when we all agree on what something means. To me, community is when a group of people are loosely connected by some common purpose or circumstance, and communities seem warmer than networks for me, because it implies a sense of caring for others and supporting them, whereas networking implies only interacting when it is beneficial to oneself. It is what these terms mean to me. And for some of us, I felt rhizo14 community built really quickly, even though some people had done MOOCs together for years and years, whereas others were brand new. That is why I would like to study it… How does community develop in ways that help further everyone’s learning?

Enough for now 🙂

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Why #rhizo14?

I am writing this post as my first for #rhizo14, introducing myself and stating my goals for taking this course (though I have written about rhizomatic learning earlier, when I first read about it).

The brief: my goals
I am excited about #rhizo14 for many reasons:
1. To experience my first connectivist-type (M)OOC (Dave says it might not reach the “M”). i keep saying, though, that I thought #edcmooc from Edinburgh offered via Coursera was a good mix between xMOOC and cMOOC
2. I am interested in the ideas of rhizomatic learning, community as curriculum and want to explore them in practice online, rather than just read about them (Dave has a work-in-progress book online).
3. I hope to network with others of a similar mindset and approach to pedagogy. Already started on Dave’s blog and twitter, and this blog post inspired by a discussion on Dave’s blog (i was actually impatient waiting for my comment to be approved – timezone differences will do that to you.
4. I hope it will help me think of ways to support faculty other than traditional instructional design. I recognize this might not work for all disciplines and faculty mindsets, or institutional structures, but it would be an option
5. I hope it influences a d helps me rethink my own teaching. I already follow a communal, flexible approach to my teaching (which baffles my students for a while), but from reading about rhizomatic learning, I am thinking more about my teaching philosophy.

The slightly longer: more about me and why I joined #rhizo14

I am a faculty developer just starting a new position as an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo (been at the center since 2003, started new position 2014). A large part of my new responsibilities relate to promoting and supporting blended learning at my institution (currently not done formally). I am also a teacher educator, and have been teaching a diploma on educational technology for classroom teachers since 2008.

I came across Rhizomatic learning when I asked around about online learning philosophies that do not follow traditional instructional design approaches. Though I had heard of Dave Cormier beforehand, I didn’t notice rhizomatic learning until recently (advice from the Hybrid Pedagogy folks). I have written elsewhere about my own approaches to pedagogy, and I have also written about why rhizomatic learning seemed to resonate with me. I think it goes beyond the more well-known student-centered learning movement, and might be taking the ideas of process-oriented curriculum and Pedler’s learning community concept further than what I have read before.

I look forward to being part of the action!


Different approaches to student input and involvement in learning

I just read a recent article by Prensky that highlights the importance of getting student input on how they want to learn, as early as school level (unsure how “early” is, but i assume as soon as kids can articulate themselves clearly enough; before then, i assume we should still watch their reactions and body language). Prensky in the article brings a panel of students to speak at conferences.

I am interested in this idea of student involvement on so many levels: as a parent, as a teacher, as a teacher-educator and as a faculty developer. I think it is important from very early on, but that there are different layers to it.

There is the simplest layer that any good teacher does: watch students’ faces as you teach them and modify your teaching according to that. Some do it more formally using techniques like the “Minute Paper” and other CATS (Classroom Assessment Techniques).

Another step is to explicitly ask their feedback on how to do things better. This is something we do at work where faculty who want to know ask us (the Center for Learning and Teaching), as an impartial external party) to help get student feedback either using a confidential and interactive in-class assessment technique called Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID), or via online mid-semester surveys. These are formative assessment opportunities so the instructor can improve the class for the rest of the semester. Students really seem to appreciate the opportunity to express themselves this way, especially if they feel the instructor will take their feedback into account.

A different, more advanced, step is to involve students much more in choosing how they would like to be assessed. This can start with having them choose the topic they want to e.g. Write/present about, but can go further in allowing them choices of format (e.g. Wiki, video, …) and even further in allowing them as a group to decide on assessment criteria or rubrics rather than have them imposed.

Another step is to involve them in choosing which content they would like to learn, and how they would like to learn it – possibly allowing different students to take different paths towards achieving the same learning outcomes.

And yet another layer would be to have students themselves as content creators – they aggregate and produce their own content for their colleagues to use in current and future courses.

I try also to go beyond this and provide opportunities for students to set and meet their own learning goals regardless of the ones for the course. This might be easier for adult education than earlier courses that are part of very formal degree programs, where some courses are pre-requisites to others, and some formal bodies of knowledge are expected to be taught/learned.

[note: I always have to remind myself that all these approaches might make some students uncomfortable especially if they are unused to getting so much of a say; this means some students’ say is louder and more dominant than others’]

I am not sure what will be done in the three MOOCs I plan to start this January, but I hope to get more creative ideas about democratizing learning, and improving learning by involving the community of students throughout the process (rhizomatic learning, for example, views the learner community as the curriculum, not just participants in it)… And i hope to find multiple ways to use this for different kinds of courses (not necessarily teaching adult learners which is most of what i do) in formal and informal education.

The three MOOCs, in case folks are interested (I will blog about them later) are:
#FutureEd, #Rhizo14 and #flsustain (sustainability, though i am signed up for several other sustainability MOOCs as well)