(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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The role of power, social justice and empathy in our perception of cheating vs learning

I’m here trying to tie some of the ideas of #rhizo14 into a physical event I will be part of in a few hours. I’ll be discussing with a group of other academics my previously published article on critical citizenship – which centers around the role of higher ed in promoting social justice orientation and empathy in students, thar focusing on critical thinking is not enough for citizenship.

In #rhizo14, there have been some mentions of power in the discussion of cheating (Dave on jenny’s blog; Terry on my blog) and if i may summarize the ideas crudely as i understood them:
1. If what constitutes cheating is based on rules, those rules are an imposition of power by some group of people, and by setting those rules, they privilege certain individuals over others (i might have added sthg here, not sure)
2. If cheating is dishonesty, then it might involve ways of gaining unfair advantage/power to compete with others (example of taking steroids in sports was a good one mentioned)

Where do social justice and empathy come in?

I am reflecting on academia. And instances where teachers have broken their very own rules because they were empathetic (or not). E.g. One student told the teacher after the exam time ended that he had not noticed the last page of the exam. She gave him an extra 10 minutes or so. I was her TA and i was like, “that’s not fair to other students who had less time” and “but he had more time than everyone else on all the other questions”. In hindsight, she used her judgment and was empathetic, i think, in her decision-making in ways i was maybe too young to understand?

Another instance which shows the opposite. There were a group of students about to graduate who all failed the final exam of a required course. The (quite young) teacher was rigid – each time someone spoke to him on their behalf to give them a second chance so they could graduate (this is everyone from students to the dept chair to the dean), he refused to budge. Eventually, he did budge: he let them re-take the exam. Was that really the fair thing to do? Probably not. But it was an empathetic thing to do. Were there other options? Probably

Reflecting on my own teaching… I try to be flexible enough to meet my students’ needs and interests. But some ways of creating a community-centered (vs. Student-centered) classroom or course, are not necessarily socially just. For example, a full group discussion disadvantages shy or reflective people. A community-created rubric is really one where the voices of the loudest (or quick thinking, or brave) students end up being what gets written. There are lots of micro-contestations of power in a community-centered course. Social justice and power remain issues.
For example… Breaking rules. I often teach my students about copyright law (often via guest speaker as a way to maintain my integrity – see next), then discuss with them the ways in which copyright laws are unjust and disadvantage us in the poorer countries. Where would we be in our already low-quality education without illegally photocopied texts and pirated software? We tall about legal alternatives like creative commons and cheaper versions of some things (e.g. Free word editors). What some Westerners don’t get, though, is the ENORMOUS difference between a free and a $1 download. It is huge, because many ppl here do not have credit cards, some may not have bank accounts. So cheating is their only way.

So is it then justifiable to break a rule or law? Who decides that it is?

If i publish my article in a non-open access journal, do i really not have the right to email copies of it to others (some journals have allowances for manuscripts or drafts before peer review, or embargoes after which you can post). But my point is: how justifiable (or just “just” as in socially just) are those rules? And what does it mean when we break them? Are we truly hurting or harming others?

This post has rambled a bit but in a weird way connects different aspects of my life as i reflect on a course i am about to teach, an open access/education event we are organizing, and the critical citizenship event tomorrow… And cheating as a topic in rhizomatic learning…

Will unfortunately miss the live event that is at dawn my time! (Sync events are sooo biased – an upcoming article i am working on)



When Cheating is Learning – Inadvertent Plagiarism #rhizo14

The challenge in week 1 of #rhizo14 to think about cheating made me think a lot because my work involves helping faculty at my institution deal with plagiarism. I expected to struggle with this idea, but listening to Dave’s intro video and reading his blog reminded me of an anecdote i share early on in a plagiarism workshop i give.

It is a story I read in one of Helen Keller’s books where she recounts a story of being accused of plagiarism when she was very young (eleven!). Imagine a deaf-blind kid being accused of plagiarism! (full story in her own wordsaccessible here). Apparently, she wrote what she thought at the time was her own original story, only to later discover (by being accused of plagiarism) that her story was very similar to something someone had read to her once (that person was not her mom or her regular nurse, so it took a while before they discovered how she had “read” the story before). She had not been aware of plagiarizing, it just happened. This incident made her very careful afterwards with all her writing, including letters, and she stuck to writing non-fiction. What a shame, right? I share this story as a caution to how accusing a person of plagiarism when they do not intend it could kill their spirit and creativity. Keller herself makes a point that reminds me of rhizomatic learning:

It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. Consequently, in nearly all that I write, I produce something which very much resembles the crazy patchwork I used to make when I first learned to sew.

Have we not all had similar experiences? We learn something, internalize it, and then we are unsure where someone else’s ideas ended and ours began?

It happens to me all the time, and happened to me during my PhD research. It took me time between finishing my interviews and finalizing the writing up of the analysis and results. There was a particular idea that I had thought was mine, but that I realized (thankfully before i finished the thesis) was actually said in an interview with someone.

I guess what Dave was saying was that the idea of cheating assumes someone else has the answer, and that there is actually one answer that is possible to reach alone. Whereas much learning occurs “in-between” rather than within each of us (sounds like social constructivism but i am sure rhizomatic learning goes beyond that).

In a brainstorming meeting, so many ideas bounce off each other that it is often difficult to attribute the final idea to one particular person… It is a crowd-sourced idea.

I also think Helen Keller’s imagery of how ideas become part of the substance and texture of the mind reminds me of neural networks of our brains… Information gets stored there in ways we cannot imagine in detail, and follows paths that we cannot always predict (at least, that is how computer neural networks work – as I remember from my undergrad years, and I believe they are similar to the human brain in their action).

In that sense, a rhizome is similar to the brain itself… Like the multiple connections between neurons. Or have I got this wrong? (I think I need to go read a bit more about rhizomes, rather than just work with what I understood from reading about them a few times on Dave’s blog and others’) – but i wanted to share this thought right away.

Would love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

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Pedagogy of Misunderstanding

Dare I admit this? Some of the most interesting things I have done and ideas I have thought stemmed from misunderstandings!

It is often considered good teaching to approach our subject matter wanting to figure out our students’ erroneous pre/misconceptions and to correct them. But my own experiences as a learner have shown me that sometimes a misconception or misunderstanding can lead to innovation and insight.

It is really worth pondering the degree to which “discontinuity and being open to surprise often foster creativity in the search for promising ideas” (Conrad and Dunek , 2012, p. 73).

An example of a misunderstanding that led to innovation is my own misunderstanding of how content analysis can be used to assess online discussions. My Master’s thesis used rubrics with online discussion as a method of evaluation. It had never occurred to me that it could be done any other way. When we came to publish a paper out of it, it turned out that this approach was new, and that’s why the paper was publishable!

It happens quite often in group meetings and classes that someone says an idea, then another person builds on it, only to discover that they had misunderstood the original idea. Some great ideas come out of misunderstandings and serendipity. Trying not to finish everything in a synchronous meeting and allowing ideas to develop independently with each person can produce new ideas as well (the discontinuity factor).

I often read a text and misunderstand something because I am reading it out of context (sometimes in purpose I will just open a book in the middle and start reading it – is that just me? I have done this with relatively complex works like Edward Said’s) and reflecting on my own context. Now, generally, I believe we mostly think it is important to read something in context, and I am not questioning the value of that in bringing us closer to the author’s intentions (I even truly believe in the importance of empathetic reading). But there is something to be said for the potential insight and self-reflection that can come out of reading something out of context and connecting it to the reader’s own context and thinking. I am sure the humanities folks have a lot to say about this already. We do it all the time when we share inspirational quotes by people we don’t know, said in contexts we never question.

I don’t think this concept of pedagogy of misunderstanding is something you can depend upon, I don’t think it is something you can even necessarily plan on, but it is something we can embrace and welcome and encourage when we see it happening, and we can appreciate the process and outcome.


Inspiring teaching philosophies

I am writing this post to capture/curate aspects of some of my favorite teaching philosophies written out there. Because of my new job responsibilities, I am particularly concerned about finding deep and critical teaching philosophies about online aspects of learning, as opposed to some of the more traditional institutionally driven approaches (that few good teachers, i assume, really incorporate into their pedagogy). What I have below is a sort of mish mash with little commentary for now, as I think of how I want to go forward.

So far, I am thinking of things written by Dave Cormier, Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, Kris Shaffer, and the folks who designed/taught the U of Edinburgh eLearning and Digital Cultures MOOC/MSc

Here are my favorite quotes/parts:

Sean Michael Morris’ contemplative pedagogy & digital agnosticism:

“…each of us has an obligation to pass on to students not only what we learn, but the contemplative process by which we came to it. I don’t believe as much in subject matter as I do in process. I don’t believe as much in methodology as I do in practice”

Jesse Stommel’s Online Learning Manifesto has lots of great points, including (note these are truncated quotes when i use “…”, APA style):

5. Rigor fails to be rigorous when it’s made compulsory. It can’t be guaranteed in advance by design. Academic rigor shouldn’t be built into a course like an impenetrable fortress for students to inhabit. Rigor has to be fostered through genuine engagement.

8. Don’t wield outcomes like a weapon. Online learning activities should not be overly designed or too-strictly standardized… Improvisation, play, and experimentation are essential to learning.

10. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to online education. Learning is not neatly divisible into discrete chunks (like courses)….

11. Community and dialogue shouldn’t be an accident or by-product of a course. They should be the course. …

12. Content-expertise does not equal good teaching. The internet already has lots of experts in all manner of things. A good pedagogue, rather, relies on a variable mixture of content-expertise and careful thinking about teaching practices….Once a course begins, the growing expertise of the students, and not the teacher, should be the primary focus.

13. Online learning needs less quantitative and more qualitative assessment. Students are not columns in a spreadsheet. …The most important form of assessment, though, is self-assessment by the students of their own learning.

Another manifesto, this one for online teaching, comes from the U of Edinburgh folks who provided the best MOOC experience i have had so far (#edcmooc). Among their manifesto:

Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode.

‘Best practice’ is a totalising term blind to context – there are many ways to get it right.

Every course design is philosophy and belief in action.

Assessment is a creative crisis as much as it is a statement of knowledge.

Online spaces can be permeable and flexible, letting networks and flows replace boundaries.

Course processes are held in a tension between randomness and intentionality.

And one that i need to ponder as a former Turnitin.com administrator:

“A routine of plagiarism detection structures-in a relation of distrust.”

Kris Shaffer’s Open letter to his students was inspiring in that it attempts explain the thought behind the teacher’s pedagogical choices. I spend entire semesters trying to explain my teaching philosophy to students. They usually “get it” half way thru the semester, some nearer the end. I suspect explaining it via open letter won’t completely replace that confusion, but it might be more detailed than what i used to do (a couple of minutes talking in our first class). I think it also might help students respond to surprising or unfamiliar aspects of my teaching. So for example, Kris writes ( again, i use “…” for text i removed):

First, education is more than the transfer of information. Education involves the transfer of information, of course. However, there are things more important, and more difficult, than simply memorizing information.


In other words, I want you to learn how to learn. That means that at times you will be teaching yourself. This is an intentional choice. One of my chief goals is for you to take charge of your own education. Though I will help set a frame in which this will take place, many of you will feel uncomfortable, even overwhelmed, at this. That’s normal. It’s what independent learning feels like quite often. (Because it’s what teaching feels like.) However, if at any time you feel lost, please talk to me. I have gone through the same process many times before, both as a student and as a teacher. I may not remove the discomfort immediately, or at all, but I will help you learn to manage it and harness it to a positive outcome.


Education is about far more than grades…Some of the most important things in a class are things that are hard to assess, so they’re not part of the grade…

I have already blogged about Dave Cormier’s ideas… First here then again more lightly here but i expect as I take #rhizo14 and read Dave’s book, there will be more to reflect on. The main thing Is the whole notion of “community as curriculum”

These are not all the teaching philosophies to ever inspire me, but just recent ones. Will blog about others over time and mybe share my own as I develop it


Novelty, noise, and scaffolding

Some days you come across an idea that provides you with unexpected insights. The idea is simple and should have been obvious to you long ago, but somehow was not, until some other person articulated it well enough.

A couple of days ago, this insight came from a comment on Dave Cormier’s blog post about the upcoming open course on Rhizomatic Learning. Scott Johnson, building on the concept of scaffolding which another commentator mentioned, said:

“Without structure or some realization that help or accompaniment is available (the presence of a sense-making companion maybe?) novelty can be pushed aside as noise”

I’ve known about scaffolding and Vygotsky for years and years, I use the concept often, but this statement opened up my eyes to two important realizations:

1. It made me realize why, at work (I work as a faculty developer), sometimes a new idea that is mentioned in an email or meetings gets “shot down” very quickly by more conservative members of the team – I think I always realized there was some element of others not truly understanding where the new idea comes from, or not truly knowing the dimensions of it, and that this is partly the fault of the speaker for not communicating clearly in the first place and accounting for listener’s background. But the concept of “novelty as noise” is very enlightening. Recognizing that novelty might seem like  “noise”, means we understand that this noise causes discomfort, and you want to “shut it out”, because who wants to keep listening to noise? You’re not able to listen to it, you don’t understand the content of it, and it’s distracting you from listening to more important things. It never occurred to me when introducing novelty in a work setting (vs. a teaching setting) that one could use the concept of scaffolding. Yes, it now sounds obvious, but it was not that obvious to me beforehand!

2. An insight into connectivism: This (the need for some kind of sense-making e.g. via a peer or expert) might be what is truly problematic about connectivism. I have argued elsewhere (publication in process) that cMOOCs are not necessarily scalable across contexts because not all people feel comfortable with the technology or the lack of structure or info overload, and not all disciplines can easily be adapted for that kind of learning especially for non-autonomous and younger learners (well, I might have said it slightly differently, but that is the gist). But maybe what  Scott mentions is what is truly problematic with connectivism – the novelty of it, without peer (or expert) support, seems like noise to the external observer who is not an extremely connected/networked individual… and so it goes totally over their heads. Actually, I think the theory behind connectivism is difficult to imagine or absorb, and even harder to experience for the person who is not highly networked to begin with. I might be wrong, but I think the rest of Scott’s comment about the same people showing up in connectivist learning opportunities rings true: these people are feeling supported and trust each other enough to keep learning together.

This all also made me realize why #edcmooc (eLearning & Digital Cultures MOOC) might have worked really well – it had a lot of elements of connectivism (use of social media not just the traditional MOOC platform) but also some (quite loose) structure. And also encouraging lots of peer support (participants in the first run of the MOOC say they built community before the course even started and that this personal learning network stayed with them beyond).

And so… I think I know why the idea of rhizomatic learning and community as curriculum resonated with me a little more than connectivism. Because the emphasis on “community” seemed to emphasize the importance of the social relationships between learners… versus connectivism which seemed to emphasis the network connections which sounded to me (as a former computer scientist) as emphasizing the network (software or hardware) rather than the people and the social aspect. I’ve never gone too far in reading up on connectivism, and I assume it’s possible “network” means “social community”, but somehow it does not sound completely like that to me… I think I might get my head around all this as we go into #rhizo14. Or not. Either way, I’m excited about that course and the possibilities and social networks I could build and learn with/from through it.

More later…


Learning for Sustainability: on sustainable assessment #flsustain

I use this post to note my favorite quotes/ideas on “sustainable assessment” from the book “Learning for Sustainability”, which is one of the texts for the FutureLearn MOOC offered by U of Nottingham.

Whole paragraph quoted:

assessment strategies should be carefully planned to ensure that what is assessed is the development of the individual rather than their performance. Assessment might span several modules, again to focus upon a journey rather than a moment. A sustainable method of assessment is one that can do ‘double or triple-duty’ – it is appropriate and valid for the learning involved, takes the long view (thus making a contribution to society), and also meets the academic requirements of the university.

(emphasis mine)

And just reading the views in this book about sustainability as a frame of mind for thinking about pedagogy made me realize it coincides with a lot of what my own teaching philosophy involves (and as it evolves): ideas of authentic assessment, focus on the learning process rather than measurable outcomes, and ideas related to open education.

I was initially taking the MOOC on sustainability because I am teaching a module within a course where students will be developing educational games about sustainability. Now, I am thinking the MOOC will also help in another teacher education course I teach related to ethical, legal, social and human issues in the use of educational technology.

If you’re interested in the book, it is available to view/download here

The MOOC itself is available here


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)