After Babel: Designing for Community

There are countless brilliant students who need the opportunity of school.

After Babel: Designing for Community

On October 11, 2019, I was invited to present the keynote address for the Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium at Metropolitan State University. The following is a transcript of that address.

In my home, I’ve got an antique desk. I call it an antique even though I don’t know for certain that it is one. It’s the desk my mother used when she was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado Boulder. Today, a laptop usually sits on the surface; but during my childhood, that desk was weighed down by a heavy, beige electric typewriter. The good kind, with correctable film ribbon. I remember the heavy thunk when it turned on, like a generator clunking to life. And then a deep electrical hum, one that vibrated down through the wood of the desk and into the floor, and which I could always make out from the living room below.

My mom—divorced during her undergraduate years, and left with me and my younger brother to raise, both of us in elementary school—camped out at that desk for hours and hours at a time, pecking away at paper after paper, exam after exam. After she made us dinner, after we watched some TV as a family or took a walk, she would go to that desk and type until long after I fell asleep.

Being a single mom with two school-aged boys would have been challenging enough. Getting her education during those years meant that she had to schedule her courses around our school schedule. No night classes, no mid-afternoon classes. She dropped us off at school and made her way to campus; listened to lectures, took notes, started group projects; and left campus in time to pick us up when school was done. Somehow, she managed it, even while working to keep us in clothes and haircuts, sometimes doing two jobs to make ends meet.

And now her desk sits in my house, carrying the memories of Shakespeare essays and thoughts about Mark Twain which stained themselves into the wood like a varnish.

On September 30, Erik Gilbert published “Higher Education Needs a Reformation” in Inside Higher Ed. The short piece—an editorial using Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses as anecdote and allegory, and perhaps evidence—offers his view that online learning has created in higher education a deficit of meaningful experiences for students. More, he argues that online programs sell a modern equivalent to the medieval church’s indulgences: expedient, point-of-sale pathways to certificates and credentials that support advancement in the buyer’s career.

Quoth he:

"A whole industry of online program managers, or OPMs, has grown up to help colleges tap into this market. They often focus on master’s degrees in fields where graduate degrees have become commodities. Education is a good example. Graduate degrees qualify teachers for pay raises, for specific types of teaching jobs or for the chance to move into administration. As long as the degree is from an accredited college, the school systems typically don’t care about the reputation of the college or program the degree came from. That has created intense competition among colleges to offer those degrees as cheaply and conveniently as possible—which means they often end up delivering online courses with as little rigor as you can get away with without falling afoul of the accreditors."

Mr. Gilbert is not necessarily exaggerating. A steady proliferation of companies offering a wide range of consultative and partnership possibilities for universities and colleges means that, whether we were prepared for it or not, education has become an expensive business. Where instructional designers were once viewed as interlopers in education’s very closed ecosystem, now companies large and small offer services designed to streamline online learning for institutions, proposing to save them money, create greater consistency in students’ learning experience, support more reliable retention and expedient graduation, and make learning—and the marketing of learning—efficient.

Arguments against OPMs have ranged from economic to ideological to pedagogical—from concerns about out-sourcing education to companies who don’t share academia’s mission nor very long history in the work, to the sort of reduction of the value of education that Mr. Gilbert points toward—where arguments for partnerships with these companies are primarily financial and corporate, promising expanded online offerings and greater financial diversity. And while the debate continues, OPMs march forward heedless of academic caution or protest. As Joshua Kim writes in Inside Higher Ed, “It is unusual nowadays for a week to go by without a newly announced university/OPM partnership. The OPM landscape is shifting more quickly than we can keep track of, much less hope to gain a data-informed understanding.”

Data, and the information we interpret from it, are not necessarily the very most reliable indicators of the impact of OPMs. What we are seeing, what we have been seeing for a couple of decades now, is a shift away from a curiosity about how learning happens, and the expertise of those whose teaching is their research, and toward a technicist approach to education and pedagogy. This—and not the fact that more learning is happening online—is the true cause of Mr. Gilbert’s complaint.

Most recently, for example, Audrey Watters reported on the rise of the term “learning engineer,” a position defined in 1967 as an academic staff position which would offer “concrete demonstrations of increased learning effectiveness” in order to persuade “faculty that a professional approach to their students’ learning can be an exciting and challenging part of their lives.” This position certainly predicts that of the instructional designer long before the internet made online and machine-led learning commonplace; but more, it diverts the action of teaching away from those traditionally tasked with it by presuming that faculty need to be persuaded that being professionals can be “exciting and challenging.”

It assumes, in other words, something deeply lacking in the profession of teaching, which can only be resurrected with the help of a paid professional. Or, as Audrey Watters puts it: “educational engineering is not just a profession; it is an explicitly commercial endeavor.” And when academia becomes more and more aligned with the commercial, it signals a technicist approach to the mission of education, one which makes learning more instrumental than intrinsic, more serviceable than fulfilling. This is not, I think, what any instructional designer or other teacher wants; instructional designers are, as much as faculty, pedagogues. And yet the work of the instructional designer is often bent more toward engineering than instruction.

In “Countering Indifference: The Role of the Arts,” Maxine Greene, an education philosopher and writer, considers this shift across the landscape of education.

“I am troubled by technicism … in spite of the increases in speed and efficiency brought about by advances in technology. What I am also troubled about, among other things, is the growing tendency of schools to define their objectives in technical or in quantitative terms. It is increasingly disturbing to ... spend so little time on what it means for individuals to become—to create themselves among beings who are different, to choose themselves as thoughtful human beings, decent and engaged, wide-awake to the world.”

This concern, applied to the problem of OPMs and the precipitate commercialization of education, points to the need to keep in mind that education is more than getting an education, more than credentials, more than retention and graduation rates. We must keep the human learner in mind.

So, in all these ways, I agree with the concern Erik Gilbert raises. I am concerned that we are minimizing the necessity for teaching through digital means. I am concerned with the rising declarations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the permission we are giving to AI to enter our learning spaces. I am concerned that we may be forgetting that it is urgent we have teachers. I am concerned that we are devaluing the critical intelligence of instructional designers. But that, I’m afraid, is where my agreement with Mr. Gilbert ends.

Because Mr. Gilbert is weaving his tale of woe from a very privileged position. He writes:

"A college degree once required that you be physically present. For most people, that meant leaving their home and family to move to another city or town, giving up employment and other obligations, and joining a new community of fellow scholars. In many respects, going to college was like going on a pilgrimage. You left home, joined a group of like-minded pilgrims and went on a journey together. When the journey was over, you returned home to family and work, transformed by your experience."

Mr. Gilbert can, for a brief moment, be forgiven his nostalgia. After all, nearly every future scholar dreams the dream of ivy-covered walls and open green spaces where idle college students play frisbee and cavort under the autumn sun. Of the microculture of the dormitory and the quiet solace of seeking wisdom during office hours. Of growing up and changing by being away from home. But we can give Mr. Gilbert indulgence of only that brief moment. Because this Gilbertian educational journey was never a reality for far too many brilliant minds detained from the journey by their sex, the color of their skin, the economic status of their parents, their own documentedness, by factors such as redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, segregation, sexism, transphobia, and more.

Online classes in 2011 consisted of 84% non-traditional students. Today, diversity in online courses continues to increase through representation of “more students with disabilities, learners for whom English is a second language, underrepresented minorities, and economically disadvantaged students.” And yes, more students come to online courses for very instrumental reasons, primarily focused around career—either enhancing their skills in their current field, or developing new skills to move to another field.

But that focus on career as a data point obscures something much more important, much more human. At a conference where I recently spoke, college teachers in the audience emphasized the importance of online learning by saying, “I teach a lot of single moms” and “Many of my online students are stationed overseas.” Moms and military service people. And online learning also reaches folks in rural communities where colleges are missing, where something like a university library will never exist, where the economic demands of labor in those areas would normally make attending class during the day, or even taking night school, an impossibility.

And yet, somewhere out there, in a dozen hundred homes, there are desks like the one I inherited from my mom, where someone’s mom works on her laptop to earn her degree.

There are countless brilliant students who need the opportunity of school, but whose circumstances do not, will not, permit the luxury and privilege of four years astride the green, wistfully browsing the stacks, or joining student clubs and organizations because their weekends are free. The college life that Mr. Gilbert grieves is less and less available to students in today’s world, and was never available to far too many in the first place. But this is not because of the advent or proliferation of digital learning.

And to blame online learning for the increasing commercialization of education, for the micro-credential, for the corrosion of that misty academic dream, not only lacks compassion and perspective—a willful ignorance of the work being done through universal design for learning, through critical instructional design, through connectivist and constructivist approaches to online learning—but this position also lacks imagination.

Imagination, in fact, is where my agreement with Mr. Gilbert, and my vehement disagreement with him intersect. Because online and distance learning is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it’s as good as it needs to be. However, even if it’s not as good as it needs to be, that doesn’t make it less necessary or more disposable. And to make online learning as good as it can be will take more than data, more than research and research-based practices—it will take imagination.

What’s at the heart of Mr. Gilbert’s complaint—when it’s stripped of its privileged despair—is digital pedagogy, and how digital pedagogy is conceived, implicated, and enacted.

I work from a position of critical digital pedagogy, which is critical pedagogy within and responding to education’s pervasive digital context. Digital pedagogy does and does not exist as a practice. It does not exist because pedagogy offline is pretty much still pedagogy when it goes online. In this way, critical pedagogy and critical digital pedagogy are almost indistinguishable. But digital pedagogy also does exist precisely because Mr. Gilbert was stirred to write his op-ed. If digital pedagogy didn’t matter, wasn’t an approach or a field all its own, we would either not have Mr. Gilbert’s words or we would simply have to agree with them.

But the critical digital pedagogy which I use for my approach insists that online learning, distance learning, and digitally-inflected learning not only can be something more, but they must be. And it likewise insists on a hope that the opinions of digital learning’s detractors are misinformed and under-theorized. That how learning happens online can be meaningful. A critical digital pedagogy is one where learning and teaching online provides the material from which students can forge themselves into ethical subjects in the context of their lives as hybrid learners and complicated human beings. In other words, college.

In “Composing Critical Pedagogies,” Amy Lee writes that

“Critical pedagogy … suggests that having a political, critical conception of one's teaching will necessarily produce liberatory effects in the classroom that, in turn, will produce better citizens. Here, "better" is understood as capable of critically reading dominant discourses of identity and socioeconomic relationships, recognizing that we are shaped by these discourses, and are capable of resisting and revising them, and working toward a radical democracy. (6)

Paulo Freire said this a bit more simply when he talked about developing the ability to read our world in order to understand how we are historical subjects, and how we can intervene in our present moment. This is very much more aligned with Maxine Greene’s “decent and engaged, wide awake to the world” student than it is with that student presupposed by data supporting OPMs: that student looking for a pay raise, or a credential for the sake of a credential.

I have wondered for a long time whether we can we imagine a digital or online learning, a digital pedagogy, that feels like college, that reaches out to nontraditional and marginalized students with intentions toward community, toward creating alumni who have pride in their alma mater, whose hearts, minds, and imaginations—and not their ability to pass tests, fulfill rubrics, or “post once, reply twice”—carry them over the threshold of graduation. Can we imagine a digital pedagogy that most closely resembles the pedagogy of the classroom, the pedagogy of office hours, the pedagogy of hallway conversations and encounters in the quad? Is there a digital pedagogy that includes class outside on a nice day, or silent reading time, or everyday banter?

In other words, can we give online, distant, and non-traditional students the journey Erik Gilbert pines for? And if we can, would that change what online learning looks like? Would that alter or confound the offerings of the OPM?

Critical digital pedagogy says yes. Yes, we can do this. And more, we should be doing this.

A very long time ago when I served as English program chair for the Colorado Community Colleges Online, I faced a dilemma. Among the population of students under the program’s care were first generation, non-traditional students who lacked the experience with college to make them confident students, and who were bound by their circumstance to take most of their classes online. In other words: alone in their room or at a library carrel someplace, with no real connection to a university or campus, or the communities that occupy those spaces. Learning online is a lonely business. In How Humans Learn, Josh Eyler notes that:

“our sociality is fundamental to everything we do, including learning. Our nature as social creatures gave rise to our unique modes of communication as human beings, and thus became the bedrock for the ways we share knowledge. In turn, these interactions eventually led to more sophisticated kinds of learning.”

And yet most of online learning occurs alone, with only a tenuous connection to the community of the classroom, and often an even more tenuous connection to the instructor. If, for example, the rules of community are “post once, reply twice,” and the instructor is mostly present to dole out grades, how can online education produce the sophisticated kinds of learning Josh Eyler points toward?

My challenge, then, was to create a community space for these students. An ungraded, unassessed and unassessable space in which they could collaborate, consult with one another, tutor and find tutoring, and more. It would need to be a generative space, one where they could have access to instructors if they wanted it, but which otherwise would be theirs to engineer. They could not have a campus, they did not live in dorms, they could not spontaneously meet over pizza or beer to study or socialize or commiserate. So I determined to try to give them something analogous. At that time, was only a year old and there weren’t a lot of models beyond MySpace for how people were coming together online. Additionally, my efforts had to be limited to the LMS of the time, WebCT, which demonstrated none of the unique applications and integrations that are commonplace in learning platforms today.

Ultimately, the experiment was sidetracked and never grew in imagination or potential. But the idea stuck with me. Because if there’s one thing the internet is good at, it’s bringing together people who would never otherwise meet. Which is also something schools can be good at, when open to diverse and marginalized and nontraditional communities. But how can that community be established and sustained? Where does it live? How do we, as educators, both feed such a community and also leave it to grow on its own as it must?

In other words, how do we design not a curriculum or a course, but a community? How do we connect a sometimes far-flung network of students, all with different backgrounds and needs, different cultures and hopes for their educations, different levels of digital proficiency and access, different desires for community, and different priorities? We are facing a tower of Babel in this proposition… And yet I think I’m after Babel.

So what seems necessary, if we are to answer the complaint of the Erik Gilberts in the academy, and also acknowledge that online learning as it stands is far too content- and not enough student-oriented, is a design for community, a pedagogy to fulfill what Dave Cormier calls “community as curriculum”:

We are the learning. We learn from each other, through each other, from each other’s learning, from our ideas, our shared and unshared contexts and, maybe more importantly, we learn to continue to do this… because that open collaborative spirit is going to be the curriculum of success as we move forward.

A design for community would necessarily need to be more than personalized learning, or universal design for learning, or any of the other content-first design strategies. Access, inclusion, design all have to fall together in favor of community, of dialogue, with content being no more than the field upon which those play. So, a design for community might include:

  • Interstitial, unfacilitated learning—Because there is always learning that happens between courses and semesters, community design would need to reinforce messages across course-specific content. What messages embedded in and peripheral to the content of a course might encourage intra- and interdisciplinary thinking? Can there be an implied pedagogy to better enable the learner to consider learning that cannot be included in a single course as that learning happens in the interstices between and after course-based learning?
  • Agency, meta-cognition, and self-determination—Because the most successful professionals and scholars are those who can deeply understand the environment of their work and field—and who can harness their agency to improve their work and innovate in their field—community design does not simply focus on content delivery, but also supports students as individuals and professionals. This is a meaningful alliance between critical pedagogy and heutagogical principles (critical heutagogy) because it aims to create a productive relationship between academic expertise and the learner in hopes of building a sustained community, while also enabling the learner to be a change agent in their field.
  • Building skills—The primary appeal of the more transactional education model offered by OPMs and online programs like Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University, Western Governer’s University, and CSU Global is the convenience of quick skill-building and reliable outcomes. A design that supports this, but also emphasizes the benefits of ongoing community looks at building these skills two ways: delivery of content, and collaborative skill-building—by providing opportunities for students to work together collaboratively to both learn the skills delivered by the instructor and also innovate skills themselves.
  • Mentorship—One or two points of contact within the school, but still fully online, could support a sense of connection on the part of the student to both the community of learners and to the institution. A mentor within a given program would be able to provide students with information about programming and upcoming course offerings, support them in their professional development, and help make them aware of other opportunities available through the institution or community, etc.

It’s not a frisbee. And it’s not the smell of autumn on the quad. But a design for community could potentially, if we are imaginative enough, create not only a meaningful space for learning between and around courses in the LMS, but also a sense of belonging for students who might otherwise type paper after paper, exam after exam, at the isolation of their desks.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, raises the point that “new institutions and new credentials are by definition lacking in prestige, the kind of prestige that lower-status workers and students need for their credential to combat discrimination in the labor market.”

But what if we propose a more community-centered approach to both the design of our programs, and to the pedagogy reinforcing them? Might we raise the quality and expectations of our online teaching? Might we be able to provide “college” for those for whom that misty dream otherwise might never come true?