(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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


The Main Responsibility of Teachers? Make yourself dispensable!

When I read this week’s prompt for #rhizo14, my first thought was “but isn’t that the point of teaching?” – I always thought it was our responsibility as teachers to eventually make ourselves not needed, obsolete – for our learners. I was just telling my students last week (hey, just days before Dave’s prompt went live) something I have always told my students: “there will always be new things to learn, but there won’t always be Maha” – and especially in a field like educational technology, there is almost always something new to learn, almost every day. My role, as I have always seen it, is to help my students figure out how to learn these new things without needing me to show them.

More importantly, while my students think it is about learning how to find new things, and figuring out the technicalities of how to use them, I think what my role as a teacher really is, is to help them develop the judgment to choose what works for their context at a particular moment in time. Barnett & Coate (2005) make this really important point about the emphasis on skills and performativity: that using a technical approach to skills education forgets the importance of helping learners develop this judgment about how to use a skill and when to use it, how to adapt it to context.

Now I think this whole idea of the “planned obsolescence” of the teacher works with all the ideas we’ve been talking about throughout #rhizo14. (The next part sounds more linear than I intended) It connects very much with independence (if you’re going to disappear eventually as teacher, you should probably work on helping learners become independent); if they’re going to be independent, they’ll need to embrace uncertainty, because that’s the way the world is; if they’re going to be independent embracers of uncertainty, they’ll need the support of community. And Apostolos mentioned on his blog an idea that had come to me: that what we really want to achieve as teachers is to make our learners eventually less dependent upon us, so that they become our peers. In that way, we are teaching so that our learners become part of our learning community in future. This is easier to imagine when your students are adults, but I am also now a “peer” of people who were once my professors.

@Jessifer in y/day’s #moocmooc chat said:

@Jessifer: Education privileges knowing rather than championing not knowing. We need to wear our not knowing more openly on our sleeves. #moocmooc

Once we embrace and value not knowing, once we help our students embrace it, we become peers on a journey to navigate the uncertainty that is the world (even while we are still in the formal course together, but recognizing that learning does not begin or end in any course). A world that is complex but that we often try to make legible (and I owe Terry Elliott a separate blog post on that! Coming soon) and lose the reality of its complexity while doing so.

Every model, every metaphor is limited. It is a representation of reality, it is not reality itself.

I look forward to research (hopefully a collaborative autoethnography) with some participants of #rhizo14 , on #rhizo14, as a way to continue our learning journey here. I hope this research somehow, in some way, manages to represent the richness and complexity of this experience. It will be a representation of our individual realities and how they intersected from our perspectives. Sure, we’d like the course leader to participate, and it would be great if he did. But it will be great either way.

Now one last point: how is it that we supposedly want our students to become independent, for our teacherliness to become less important for them, and yet we continue to remain there? As Jaap said in a comment on Apostolos’ blog – it is not just about the teacher giving students permission to stop depending on him/her, but also the students giving the teacher permission to do before the formal course “ends”.

I love Dave Cormier, I don’t remember seeing him much around during week 4 of rhizo14 (maybe I was too busy myself?) but I know that I did not feel a sense of loss for his absence, and that means something went really “right” with #rhizo14! That I did not feel the need to seek him out. I don’t think I even tweeted to him or tagged him on a facebook post last week. I just noticed all this now as I finished writing this blog post…

Leave a comment

My Favorite Teacher?

Cathy Davidson encouraged us in #FutureEd to share who is our fave teacher and why… I had a couple of people in mind, but then reading other people’s responses (and also the interviews in the last video) inspired me to re-think this question.

I am thinking of several of my fave teachers and mentors, and what they all had in common was this: they cared about students as individuals. They were kind and loving and caring.

Yes, some of them also challenged me to think beyond what I thought I could think and do more than I thought I could do.

But kindness and caring for human beings? That’s priceless. That will stay with every student, whether they excelled at the course or barely made it through.

It is a good reminder for how to be a teacher myself. I have seen it more often in the older and wiser teachers, and I hope as time goes by, I will become a wiser and kinder teacher myself.

1 Comment

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)