Education is not a field for mediocre hopes and mediocre dreams

"Education lifts, inspires, changes lives, builds futures, starts careers, reveals new knowledge. It’s this profoundly odd and profoundly unlikely and profoundly beautiful endeavor that strikes at what humans do most naturally and best: learning."

Education is not a field for mediocre hopes and mediocre dreams

"Education lifts, inspires, changes lives, builds futures, starts careers, reveals new knowledge. It’s this profoundly odd and profoundly unlikely and profoundly beautiful endeavor that strikes at what humans do most naturally and best: learning."

On July 25, 2019, I was invited to present at the Cengage offices in Boston, Massachusetts as part of their ongoing speaker series. What follows are my opening remarks.

I. Am not sure why I’m here. I’m happy to be here, but I’m surprised. It’s not often that an educator like me gets invited to talk to the people on the front lines of educational technology. My alliance with decidedly anti-edtech folks like Audrey Watters and Jesse Stommel, and the fact that I helped develop both Hybrid Pedagogy, an online journal, and a professional development event, Digital Pedagogy Lab—both of which support voices in education raised in critique or in question of traditional educational systems and educational technology… all of that means that I tend to be welcomed by like minds, rather than by those who may have fallen on the barbs of the hedgerows I inhabit.

That said, I’m grateful to be here. If Cengage is willing to invite someone like me into a conversation, it tells me something in education is working well. And it gives me hope.

Education as we know it has changed, for better or worse, from how it once was imagined. No longer the purview of ivy-covered brick and stone buildings, lawns spreading languorously between them filled with college students whose whole occupation is the pursuit of knowledge and the honing of their youthful minds, education today is diverse with nontraditional students, urban community colleges, commuter campuses, hybrid and low-residency programs, and fully online experiences that embrace rural, senior, foreign, and professional populations in addition to those we think of as traditional students.

There’s a lot that’s wonderful about this expansion of education. Educators and institutions have turned a much keener eye on inclusion, access, and accessibility. Learning in classrooms that are a mix of Black, Latinx, indigenous, disabled, senior, LGBTQ students and more provides a rich texture for that learning, an intricate tapestry of experiences that weave together stories and collaborations that no lesson plan or learning objectives could ever predict. The proliferation of online learning has begun to bring together global populations, and has raised abundant and intriguing questions about the place and nature of learning, the profession of teaching, new literacies, digital identity, and more.

But upon this expanding idea of education have fallen certain conflicts, and a plethora of very complicated problems. And these have caused schism on many levels. By welcoming more people to education, teaching has become more complicated, and classes have bloomed from seminars and lecture halls, to multiple sections of a single online course or even MOOCs. Finding ways to include everyone has led to approaches like inclusive teaching and Universal Design for Learning, and to heightened awareness of the way LGBTQ identities can be erased online, the way disability (both visible and invisible) is affected by traditional teaching approaches like the lecture and the timed exam, and the many ways that inequality and inequity is reinforced, and created anew, by the internet.

We have entered into what my colleague Amy Collier of Middlebury College calls “higher education after surveillance,” rising out of a recognition that our movement to online learning has amassed a surplus of data about student and teacher behavior in digital environments. We are able to monitor students’ daily patterns, their eyes as they read exam questions, their keystrokes. We can now ask them to check in to class digitally as they walk in the door, to reward good behavior and discipline unwanted behavior. While digital technology has opened many doors for new learning experiences and collaboration across the globe, it has also empowered edtech corporations and institutions to monetize student data, to use that data to change the way teachers and students interact, and to make assumptions about how that data actually reflects success and achievement.

Not a lot of this is news, I know. But as I have been working in instructional design, online and digital learning, and higher education teacher training for the past 20 years, I’ve watched with increasing horror what I see as the dehumanization of learners and learning by the choices we’ve all collectively made about the place of the digital in education. Once a young buck working at an instructional design shop and pioneering new methods for quality assurance, I’ve come to see the harm that Bloom’s taxonomy can do when applied at scale, and how “at scale” leads to a greater and greater need for a return to the personal in learning—which unfortunately has mostly been met by algorithmic attempts at personalization.

The web has grown education, and in response, we’ve found ways to automate it more and more, to replicate it more effectively, to distribute it more efficiently. But the challenges of education have never been meant to be how to do it faster, bigger, better. Because while institutions may be large, learning is always small.

And so, along with my colleague Jesse Stommel, I work now to proliferate a critical digital pedagogy. This is less a response to the exacting expansion of learning out from schools and into corporations, but more a return to revolutionary ideas found in educational philosophers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Maxine Greene, and Henry Giroux. Ideas that center not just the individual, but the project of humanization. And out of critical digital pedagogy has grown a critical instructional design, which aims at realizing the possibility for learning in digital spaces that supports student agency through a practice of inquiry, empathy, and emergence.

I have very high ideals, as I’m sure you all do too. Education is not a field for mediocre hopes and mediocre dreams. Of any vocation—outside that of space travel, perhaps—there are fewer choices made to “settle” for something in education. Partly because of the nature of the endeavor itself. Education lifts, inspires, changes lives, builds futures, starts careers, reveals new knowledge. It’s this profoundly odd and profoundly unlikely and profoundly beautiful endeavor that strikes at what humans do most naturally and best: learning.

For me, learning revolves around the idea of liberation. Liberation from oppression, but more specifically liberation from thought patterns that limit human creativity and genius. I begin here, and it is here I return to when I have questions about learning and teaching, instructional design and education technology. Imagine the liberation a toddler feels when they begin to walk, the way the whole world changes for them with that one discovery of their own capability. Up to that point, they thought they would always crawl. That was the reality they were constrained to. I want to free people from the constraints they perceive they labor under, and the constraints that our systems put them under. My goal is to give people the skills they need to read their world, to recognize they have the agency to change those things that oppress them, and to be able to intervene.

My pedagogy isn’t curricular. It’s not necessarily just about classroom practice. It’s relational and persistent, it’s philosophical, and it’s concerned with praxis—or, action that is informed by values. To me, dialogues about education aren’t just about deepening understanding, but part of making a difference in the world. More concretely, I don’t think about rubrics, for example, as they relate to teaching, I think about them as they do or do not make a difference in the world, or do or do not support students in making a difference in their world. If I’m asked why I don’t like rubrics, I might answer that rubrics not only provide a false promise of equity and fairness, but they also pinion the relationship between a student and their teacher, and a student and their learning.

But the real trouble with rubrics is that rubrics are a red herring, a symptom but not the underlying problem. Aspirin for our headache. As a way to navigate the system and process of education we’ve adopted culturally, rubrics can be useful. But they placate us into thinking that the model of learning and teaching we enact is: first, successful, and second, the only model.

There’s this wonderful line from Paulo Freire that I like to quote. It goes,

I would not like to be a man or a woman if the impossibility of changing the world were something as obvious as that Saturdays precede Sundays. I would not like to be a woman or a man if the impossibility of changing the world were objective reality, one purely realized and around which nothing could be discussed.” (Pedagogy of Indignation, 14)

What he’s saying here is that he does not support the notion that the reality we have been handed is the only possible reality. If Saturday must precede Sunday, if there’s simply nothing we can do about that, then something in our ability to change the world has failed. If we perceived that it was an injustice that Saturday preceded Sunday, it would make sense for us to change that, rather than settle, to admit that “that’s just the way things are.”

The learning management system, to me, is a Saturday. So are grades, rubrics, learning objectives. The digital textbook is a Saturday. As is the habit of schools to outsource curriculum and course design. That doesn’t mean I don’t see a use in these things. It means I don’t believe them. I don’t believe they are the only way to do education, nor the healthiest way, nor the most authentic, the most critical, the most liberatory. They are adaptations to a system that’s not working the way it could, that oppresses teachers and students to varying degrees (depending on their social position and privilege), and they deserve a good hard, critical look. Because if we’re taking aspirin every day, it points to a chronic issue.

But to attempt the critical look I encourage, we must decide that things can be otherwise. That students can find joy in learning online. That equity can be part of the curriculum. That the vast disorganized internet can be a place for learning to roam wild.

And not just that. We must also look past our methods at the problems that made those methods seem like the best idea in the first place. That women are not paid as much as men. That adjunct labor keeps institutions running while executive level positions are paid well beyond reason. That corporations like Turnitin rely upon scare tactics and the labor of students to make millions of dollars that are not shared. That there remains resistance to accepting trans people, their pronouns, and their identities even among the most scholarly.

None of these problems is unrelated to the problem of grading, of rubrics, of best practices. They are problems of power: who has it, and who doesn’t, and the contest therein that indelibly affects any learning environment.

In a certain way, you and I are both fringe to the field of education. Cengage is not in the classroom teaching, and doesn’t engage directly with students. It is a platform, part of the structure of the classroom itself, if you will. The walls, the floor, the overhead projector, the textbook. In my current role, I also only rarely engage with students. I work primarily with teachers, librarians, instructional designers, doing what I can to empower them in the work they do with students.

It is your desire and it is my desire to create better conditions for learning, to empower students, to support the complex and constantly shifting work of education. But we are, neither of us, the deliverers of that education; we are neither of us reporting daily to the environments where learning happens; and we are neither of us sitting down with students who need counsel, support, encouragement, course correction, guidance.

We don’t keep office hours. We don’t issue grades. We don’t see the students whose lives we hope our work affects. And yet we have a direct influence on how learning happens. (Admittedly, you, more than I, weild that influence.) So the question falls between us: what do we do?

Which brings me back to my very first statement. I don’t know why I am here. Unless it is to ask you: What difference do you want to make? How do you want to move forward the work of liberation in education? Or do you? What education do you believe in? What hopes do you have for your work at Cengage? And, how can I help?

How can we, across this wide gap of education—me with my revolutionary ideas and tattooed arms on one side, and you with your products and platform and your goal to create “a world where every student is propelled by the power of education”—how do we help each other? Your web site encourages visitors to “Be Unstoppable”. What does that mean for you? What does that mean for the nontraditional students who use your products, the adjunct teacher who uses your platform? What does that mean for a liberatory educator like myself?

What can you do for me, and what can I do for you?

Photo by nikko macaspac