Category Archives: General issues in higher education

MOOCs and humanities, revisited

In the last post I discussed how I have come to learn about the different kinds of MOOCs through my participation in etmooc. I also said that through learning about a new kind of MOOC, the cMOOC or “network-based” MOOC, I was reconsidering my earlier concerns with MOOCs. Might the cMOOC do better for humanities than the xMOOC?

A humanities cMOOC

“Roman Ondák”, cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Marc Wathieu

I haven’t yet decided whether or not one could do a full humanities course, such as a philosophy course, through a cMOOC structure. Brainstorming a little, though, I suppose that one could have a philosophy course in which:

  • Common readings are assigned
  • Presentations are given by course facilitators and/or guests, just as in etmooc
  • Participants are encouraged to blog about the readings and presentations and comment on each others’ blogs (through a course blog hub, like etmooc and ds106 have)
  • Dedicated Twitter hashtag, plus a group on a social network like Google+, and a group on a social bookmarking site like Diigo (see etmooc’s group site on Diigo)
  • Possibly a YouTube channel, for people to do vlogs instead of blogs if they want, or share other videos relevant to the course

Would this sort of structure be more likely to allow for teaching and practice of critical thinking, reading and writing skills, as I discussed in my earlier criticism of MOOCs (which was pretty much a criticism of xMOOCs)? I suppose it depends on what is discussed in the presentations, in part. The instructors/facilitators could model critical reading and thinking, through explaining how they are interpreting texts and pointing out potential criticisms with the arguments. They could talk about recognizing, criticizing, and creating arguments so that participants could be encouraged to present their own arguments in blogs as clearly and strongly as possible, as well as offering constructive criticisms of works being read–as well as each others’ arguments (though the latter has to be undertaken carefully, just as it is in a face to face course).

This would involve, effectively, peer feedback on participants’ written work. Rough guidelines for blog posts (at least some of them) could be given, so that in addition to reflective pieces (which are very important!) there could also be some blog posts that are focused on criticizing arguments in the texts, some on creating one’s own arguments about what’s being discussed, etc.

What you wouldn’t be able to do well with this structure are writing assignments in the form of argumentative essays. These take a long time to learn how to do well, and ideally should have more direct instructor/facilitator feedback rather than only peer feedback, in my view. Peer feedback is important too, but could lead to problems being perpetuated if the participants in a peer group share misconceptions.

Another thing you can’t do well with a cMOOC is require that everyone learn and be assessed on a particular set of facts, or content. A cMOOC is better for creating connections between people so that they can pursue their own interests, what they want to focus on. Each person’s path through a cMOOC can be very different. Thus, as noted in my previous post, there is not a common set of learning objectives; rather, participants decide what they want to get out of the course and focus on that.

One would need to have a certain critical mass of dedicated and engaged participants for this to work. If it’s a free and open course, then people will participate when they can, and can flit in and out of the topics as their time and interest allows. That’s fantastic, I think, though if there are few participants that might mean that for some sections of the course little is happening. So having a decent sized participant base is important. (How many? No idea.)

I envision this sort of possibility as a non-credit course for people who want to learn something about philosophy and discuss it with others. Why not give credit? There would have to be more focus on content and/or more formal assessments, I think (at least in the current climate of higher education).

A cMOOC as supplement to an on-campus course

Even if a full cMOOC course in philosophy or another humanities subject may not work, I can see a kind of cMOOC component to philosophy courses, or Arts One. In addition to the campus-based, in-person course, one could have an open course going alongside it. This is what ds106 is like. One could have readings and lectures posted online (or at least, links to buy the books if the readings aren’t readily available online), and then have a platform for students who are off campus to engage in a cMOOC kind of way.

Then, those off campus can participate in the course through their blog posts and discussions/resource sharing on the other platforms, like we do in etmooc. Discussion questions used in class could be posted for all online participants.  Students who are on campus could be blogging and tweeting and discussing with others outside the course as well as inside the course.

Frankenstein engraved

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831),by Theodor von Holst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. One of the texts on Arts One Digital.

Discussions would expand to include many more people with many more backgrounds and things to contribute, which is likely to enrich the learning experience. There might get to be too much for each individual to follow, but then one just has to learn to pick and choose what to read and comment on (more on this, below). All participants could make connections and continue discussions beyond the course itself.

Arts One has already started to move in this direction, with a new initiative called Arts One Digital. So far, there are some lectures posted, links to some online versions of texts, twitter feed, and blog posts. This is a work in progress, and we’re still figuring out where it should go. I think extending the Arts One course in the way described above might be a good idea.

Again, the main problem with this idea (beyond the fact that yes, it will require more personnel to design and run the off-campus version of the course) is getting a high number of participants. It won’t work well if there aren’t very many people involved–a critical mass is needed to allow people to find others they want to connect with in smaller groups, to engage in deeper discussions, to help build their own personal learning network.

Looking back at previous concerns with (x)MOOCs

Besides general worried about their ability to help students develop critical skills, I was also concerned in my earlier post with the following:

  • In the Coursera Course on reasoning and argumentation (“Think Again”) that I sat in on briefly, I found myself getting utterly overwhelmed by the number of things posted in the discussion board. I complained that I could scroll and scroll just to get through the comments on one post, to get down to the next post, and repeat for each of the thousands of posts. Even for one topic there were just too many posts.
  • I felt that the asynchronous discussion opportunities weren’t as good as synchronous ones, which allow for groups to be in the same mind space at the same time, feeding off each others’ ideas and coming up with new ideas. With asynchronous discussions, one might not get a response to one’s idea or comment until long after one has been actively thinking about it, and then at that point one may not be as interested in discussing it anymore (or at the very least, the enthusiasm level may be different).
  • The synchronous option of Google Hangouts seems to be a promising way to address the previous point, but I noted in my earlier post that there had been some reports of disrespectful behaviour in one or two of those in the “Think Again” course. I said I thought a moderator would be needed for such discussions, just as we have in face to face courses to ensure students treat each other respectfully.

Can a cMOOC address these concerns?

  1. From my experience with etmooc, the discussion does not have to get overwhelming. The thing is, each person focuses on what they want to focus on from the presentations, or from what others have said in their blogs, or from resources shared by others. There is no single “curriculum” that we all have to follow, so it’s not the case that everything posted by each person is relevant to everyone else’s interests and purposes for the course. This could be true of a philosophy or Arts One cMOOC as well, so it could be easier to pick and choose what, amongst the huge stream of things to read and think about, one wants to focus on.
  2. Synchronous discussions are difficult in a large group. In etmooc we have some opportunities for them in the presentations, which allow for people to write on the whiteboard, engage in a backchannel “chat,” and also take the mic and ask questions/offer comments. One could have the presentations have more time for discussion, perhaps, which could take place in part on the chat and in part via audio. It’s not as good as face to face discussions, though–much more fragmented.
  3. Google Hangouts are an alternative, though I haven’t tried doing one in etmooc. Some have, though, and reported success. However, the people taking etmooc are mostly professionals, both teachers and businesspeople, and they are both highly motivated and responsible/respectful. Having Google Hangouts where anyone in the world can show up could be inviting trouble. I don’t see a cMOOC addressing this problem.

cMOOCs in humanities–what’s not to love?

What other problems might there be with trying to do a cMOOC in humanities, whether on its own or as a supplement to another course? Or, do you love the idea? Let us know in the comments.

UPDATE: I just found, in that wonderfully synergistic way that etmooc seems to work, this blog post by Joe Dillon, which explains how well a cMOOC like etmooc stacks up to a face to face course. It’s just one example, but it can provoke some further thought on whether a cMOOC for humanities might be a good thing.

A MOOC by another name

 cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Cikgu Brian

Last October I posted some criticisms of moocs (massive, open, online courses) in humanities as too massive to really deal well with promoting critical skills in learners.  Recent experience has made me change my mind, but it’s going to take two blog posts to explain. This is the first. (The second is here.)

Part of the issue with MOOCs that I expressed in my earlier post was that they were too content-focused, and seemed most conducive to topics in which that content can be machine-assessed (with multiple-choice or other automate-able question/answer formats). I wondered whether critical thinking, reading, writing and discussing skills could really be done well in a MOOC.

The problem is, at the time I wrote that I fell into the common trap of thinking that MOOCs are a monolithic type of entity. I may, perhaps, be forgiven this as most of the press about MOOCs is about the Coursera/EdX/Udacity type (as Alan Levine notes in a blog post–see below). It was only through participating in etmooc, a mooc about educational technology and media, that I found that there are other options.

Not all MOOCs are equal

One way of distinguishing types of MOOCs (at least at the moment…things are always changing) is to break them down into two categories: xMOOC and cMOOC. What do these categories mean? The “c” in cMOOC stands for “connectivist,” but I am not sure what the “x” in xMOOC stands for. [Update May 27, 2013: This Google+ post by Stephen Downes says he started calling them xMOOCs because of the “x” used in things like EdX–which stands for the course being an extension of regular university course offerings].

See here, here and here for some explanations of the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. [update March 17, 2013:] Here’s an even more detailed discussion of the differences, by George Siemens. Lisa M. Lane has come up with three categories for MOOCs, though I’m not familiar enough with the “task-based” MOOCs to really comment on them.

Alan Levine has a thought-provoking blog post on the numerous experiments in open learning (should we call them MOOCs?) that are going on at the moment, and how they are very different from the xMOOC model. The range of possibilities in courses that are open to anyone and everyone is astounding.

The etmooc course I’ve been participating in since Jan. 2013 is in the cMOOC category (or, in Lane’s three categories, it’s a “network-based” mooc). The “connectivist” aspect of it is obvious, as it seems clear that one of the main points of the course is to help people forge connections in order to learn from each other. There is a set of topics, one every two weeks, with presentations by various people working in those fields (all archived here). But the emphasis is not at all on learning content. Rather, participants are encouraged to watch the presentations they are interested in, and then (and mostly) to interact with the rest of the community in various ways: through twitter (#etmooc), a Google+ community, a community-curated list of links on Diigo, and posting and commenting on blogs (syndicated in an etmooc blog hub, though many of us read them on an RSS reader). We also have a weekly twitter chat (#etmchat) in which we discuss issues related to the topic for the week.

There really is no single “place” where the course is; it exists in the discussions we have with each other, the blog posts and digital stories we create and share, the connections we make with others and the conversations (about etmooc and teaching/learning generally, and other things) that we have. I haven’t watched all the presentations, and don’t plan to. Nor is it encouraged. Over and over we are reminded by the course “conspirators” and other participants that etmooc is driven by our own interests (and our own schedules…some have more time than others), and that there is no such thing as being “behind” in etmooc. You dive in when and where you want, and the most important part is to engage in discussion when you can. Blog, comment on others’ blogs, participate in Twitter and G+, or whichever of those you feel you can do.

Among other things, the “about” page for the course says:

Sharing and network participation are essential for the success of all learners in #etmooc. Thus, we’ll be needing you to share your knowledge, to support and encourage others, and to participate in meaningful conversations.

Without the various conversations going on in and around etmooc, there really wouldn’t be a course at all. It exists in our connections and discussion, in the things we share and the comments we make.

In addition to forging connections, etmooc, and other cMOOCs from what I understand, are focused on content creation rather than passive learning of content. In etmooc we contribute to content creation by writing in our own blogs and commenting on those of others. Recently we did a segment on digital storytelling and we created numerous digital stories (see my blog post here for links to a few examples). Right now we are talking about digital literacy and are invited to participate in Mozilla’s work to develop a framework for web literacy (open to anyone to contribute).

Etmooc also requires self-directed learning–participants must choose what to focus on, what to read, what to write about, whether to keep up on twitter and G+ or not, etc. There is no set of course objectives that are decided in advance, as explained in this conversation about learning objectives and cMOOCs on Storify. Rather, as Alec Couros puts it in that Storify conversation, participants are to develop their own learning objectives. Different people will engage with the course for different reasons, pursue different paths. And that’s the point.

The value of a cMOOC

Does it work? Do people learn? All I have at the moment is anecdotal evidence.

I have learned more in the last few weeks in etmooc than I ever did in any other professional development opportunity. It’s because of the connections and discussions: I read others’ blog posts (only a few a week, really; don’t have time for more), comment, and get conversations going. And the same thing happens now on my blog. My twitter lists have expanded widely, and I am getting so many links to articles, blog posts and other resources that are useful for topics I’m interested in.

I agree with Michelle Franz, though I’d say it’s not just twitter I’m learning from in etmooc:

See also Paul Signorelli’s mid-term reflections on etmooc, where he gives this list of what he has done and learned so far (among other things):

I have become an active part of a newly formed, dynamic, worldwide community of learners; continue to have direct contact with some of the prime movers in the development of MOOCs; had several transformative learning experiences that will serve me well as a trainer-teacher-learner involved in onsite and online learning; and have learned, experientially, how to use several online tools I hadn’t explored four weeks ago.

MOOCs and feedback, interaction

Ted Curran notes in a recent article (found via @jackiegerstein) that MOOCs–or rather, xMOOCs–are “the internet-scale version” of huge  introductory courses at large universities with hundreds of students: “massive, impersonal, and uninspiring exercises.” He notes that this model works well if you want to save money (more students, fewer faculty), but it doesn’t work very well pedagogically. What is needed for both the online and in-person teaching and learning platforms, according to Curran, is more emphasis on faculty interaction with students: “personalized timely feedback and frequent interaction with the teacher is more important to student success than the quality of lecturer, the quality of the textbooks, or the use of technology in courses” (emphasis in original). What MOOCs, and online learning in general, can do is to allow faculty

to automate the less effective activities (lecturing, exams, grading) so they can spend more time interacting with students (discussions, online office hours, targeted interventions when students fail assignments.) In short, online teaching tools let teachers spend more time on students and less time regurgitating content.

I agree that faculty/student interaction in courses can be important; it’s one of the most-cited things that students in Arts One said in a recent survey that they valued about the course. But realistically, is this possible in a MOOC that has thousands of participants? How many faculty can actually interact in a meaningful way with students in a course whose enrollment is upwards of 10,000 students or more?

Enter the cMOOC.

Must the interaction that is necessary to student success come from the instructor? Why not set up and foster a space in which interaction is encouraged amongst participants–indeed, where interaction and discussion are as much of (or more of) the focus as content delivery?

I don’t think the discussion boards on most or all xMOOC courses are enough. Discussion boards are limited as a technology: for example, I think blogs are better for posting lengthy reflections, including links and photos/videos, etc. Following blogs and Twitter feeds also promotes more lasting connections to foster learning after the course is finished. Encouraging participants to blog, comment on blogs, and interact in other ways such as Twitter and Google+ (or similar) has, in my experience with etmooc, worked very well.

The experience is still huge–there are far too many blog posts, tweets, G+ posts to follow. But the conspirators and participants are constantly reminding each other that keeping up with it all is not the point. Again, diving in where and when you want is. That, and creating smaller groups organically, through creating connections–deciding which blogs and twitter accounts to follow regularly, for example. Or creating your own smaller group within the larger group, with its own wiki, as another example.

In etmooc the “conspirators” tweet regularly, join in on some discussions in G+, comment on a few blogs here and there, but they don’t even try to interact with everyone. Instead, they have managed to create a space where participants engage mostly with each other.

Now, a purely connectivist mooc won’t work for all purposes; I’m not arguing for replacing xMOOCs with cMOOCs entirely. After all, in some disciplines there is a certain amount of content that simply must be grasped before one can really engage in meaningful discussions with others about the field. Further, for participants to thrive in a cMOOC, they have to be self-directed learners, as noted above, and not everyone is comfortable with this sort of learning.

But why couldn’t xMOOCs take some ideas from the successes of cMOOCs and incorporate more connectivist principles and practices alongside the traditional methods of learning they tend to use?

MOOCs and the media

Alan Levine points out, in the post linked above, that in mainstream media outlets you won’t hear about many of the “experiments in open courses” that some cMOOCs could be called (including etmooc). While drafting the first part of this post I was also engaging in a Twitter conversation with Rolin Moe (@RMoeJo) about how the hype about MOOCs in the media focuses on one type of MOOC only, even though there are at least two. As he noted, the “connectivist” MOOCs tend to be popular amongst educators, academics, and a few others, and they aren’t winning the PR battle.

The other problem, as we discussed in our twitter conversation, is that cMOOCs are often run by volunteers, because they believe in open learning, and there isn’t much in the way of trying to monetize the efforts. That doesn’t make for interesting news, apparently.

A different name?

Since mainstream media has hijacked “MOOC” to mean xMOOC, perhaps it’s time to call the cMOOC something else? Which is ironic, since apparently the whole idea of MOOCs started with cMOOCs (see “connectivist MOOCs” here).

Nevertheless, would a new name help to avoid the confusion? Or is it enough to try to push the xMOOC vs cMOOC distinction?

*** Update March 14, 2013 *****

I just found this blog post by David Kernohan that points to a third option: open boundary courses, in which an on-campus course is opened to outside participants (usually not for credit). It seems to me the “open boundary” courses could be either more like cMOOCs or more like xMOOCs in structure.

Resources on rhizomatic learning

For anyone interested in rhizomatic learning, as discussed in my earlier blog posts (here, and here), you might also be interested in the following.

I recently came across this glossary entry for “rhizome,” via a tweet by George (@reticulatrix). It is from a Theories of Media Keywords glossary, which appears to have been created by students in a course from 2004. I found this discussion of rhizomes extremely clear and grounded in theory. Especially helpful is the contrast between rhizomatic models and “tree” models.

In addition, through a comment on one of my blog posts, I found this blog, by Keith Hamon, called Communications and Society. It’s subtitled, “A blog to support Keith Hamon’s explorations of the rhizome,” and there are many, many posts there about rhizomatic learning. He discusses numerous theorists whose views are relevant to this topic. I plan to spend some serious time exploring Keith’s posts. He has continued the conversation started on my blog over at his, and he recently joined etmooc. I look forward to learning more with him!

Finally (though this does not exhaust the resources out there, I’m sure), I found this article by Tanya Sasser over at Hybrid Pedagogy. In this article, entitled “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” Sasser argues for a rhizomatic learning approach to first year composition courses. It’s a good example of how to apply rhizomatic learning to a writing course. I have to think about it more carefully, but I plan to comment on this article soon. I am in agreement with the basic idea, but still am a little hesitant. Probably that’s because I’ve been fully immersed in, and convinced by, the idea of using rubrics and step-by-step learning for teaching writing. Still, I’m questioning at least the rubrics part–see this post.

Do you have any other rhizomatic learning resources you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments!

etmooc: Rhizomatic learning–a worry and a question

Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf, Flickr (links below)

In my previous post I talked about the notion of “rhizomatic learning” and how it might be implemented in a philosophy course. Here I bring up a worry and a question, things that came up for me after I thought about this idea further.

A worry

I worry that rhizomatic learning, at least as I described it in the previous post, might promote learning within already-established interests, beliefs, values, etc. What I mean is, if one were to let students create their own PLN’s and focus only on things they are interested in, it may be less likely that they’ll stretch the boundaries of what they already believe and value, and the assumptions underlying their views will go unquestioned. One of the many roles that instructors can have is to goad students into investigating and questioning their own beliefs, values and assumptions–as we philosophers might put it, to act as Socratic gadflies.

In my own connected, networked learning experiences I have tended to focus on those people who agree with me, on sites that talk about things I’m already interested in, etc. If I am pursuing what is most meaningful to me in my current state of being, as rhizomatic learning suggests, then I am missing things that might be meaningful in the sense of jarring me, showing problems with my assumptions, and perhaps also pointing out that the way I am speaking and acting might be contributing to exclusion or oppression of others.

This kind of problem could occur with any practice that focuses wholly or mostly on getting students to pursue their own learning paths according to their own interests. If we only ask them to look into what seems most interesting, what they’re excited about, they might miss out on exposure to things that they aren’t interested in but that can really be valuable for them in terms of thinking critically about their own views.

Two things came to my attention this week that really brought this concern out for me.

First, I received this post from the Tomorrow’s Professor email list (the link to the post is to a blog that’s hard to read because there are no paragraph breaks; it’s easier to read once it’s at the Tomorrow’s Professor site, but it’s not there yet. Soon it should be: search for post 1225). It’s from a book by Mark Tennant called The Learning Self: Understanding the Potential for Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2012). In this excerpt, Tennant talks about different ways of conceiving of autonomy and what it means to promote autonomy for students in teaching and learning. I won’t summarize the whole thing here, but just look at a couple of parts of it.

In the first part of the post, Tennant discusses the “humanistic” version of learner autonomy, which (he claims) underlies “learner-centred” educational practices inspired by Carl Rogers, among others. Tennant quotes Pratt and Nesbit (2000) on the topic of learner-centred education:

This was an important discursive shift….Now content, and the specification of what was to be learned, was subordinate to the learner’s experience and participation….Learners were to be involved in specifying what would be learned, how it would be learned, and what would be an appropriate indication of learning….The learner’s experience, as a form of foundational knowledge, replaced the teacher’s expertise as the primary compass that guided learning. As a consequence, the primary role of teacher shifted from teacher-as-authority to teacher-as-facilitator (p. 120).

In the learner-centred view, the instructor is a neutral, nonjudgmental facilitator.

 In the last part of the excerpt, on “critical” autonomy, Tennant notes that those who adhere to the “critical theory” view of teaching (e.g., Stephen Brookfield and Jack Mezirow),

… don’t accept at face value the beliefs and values of learners—quite the contrary, the whole point of education is, they believe, to challenge accepted beliefs and values. …. In the critical theory approach the teacher is anything but neutral, always challenging learners’ assumptions within a framework that recognizes the power of social forces to shape needs, wants, and desires.

Much of the point with critical theory is not just to question assumptions and how one has been socialized, but to do so in order to combat inequality and oppression–it can often be the case that the dominant discourses in which one is raised and feels comfortable, that shape one’s assumptions and beliefs, perpetuate oppression in subtle ways that are not obvious unless pointed out.

The second thing I came across this week was a blog post by @Edu_K, which raised the issue of rhizomes easily becoming “weeds” in the sense of taking over gardens:

Bamboo and other rhizomatic plants are great at spread, survival and colonisation of new territories. But as ecologists and gardeners know, if unchecked they become weeds and can dominate and suppress a plant community or a garden instead of enriching it. They are also clones – the rhizomes produce exact copies of the ‘mother’ plant.

So instead of free exploration and exchange of ideas leading to rich and unpredictable learning – the story of rhizomatic learning can equally be a story of domination and monoculture, with rarer and more delicate ‘flowers’ getting pushed out, suppressed – not able to grow.

To me, this sounded like what can happen in face-to-face courses, where ideas that are shared by many end up becoming dominant, either because those who disagree aren’t comfortable speaking up because they may feel they are alone, or because of the power of popular views to seem right and gain more and more adherents–creating clones. Similar things can, of course, happen in larger groups of connected persons.

I suppose this concern with rhizomatic learning could be mitigated through ensuring that one’s networks have people in them who act as gadflies, who make good arguments on the “other” sides of what one already thinks, who point one to new resources that make one reconsider one’s beliefs–even if only to decide one’s original beliefs are right and reaffirm them. And somehow encouraging ourselves and others to listen to those people, rather than rejecting them out of hand (as happened with many people in their encounters with Socrates, if Plato is to be believed). But if that is hard enough for us to do as instructors (at least it is for me), then it’s likely hard for our students to do as well. And we can’t do it for them.

A question

The more I think about it, it seems that rhizomatic learning is something many people do for much of their lives–at least insofar as we have connections with others, we are often continually learning from them, and forming new connections when we need to learn new things. The technologies of the 21st century have made our capacity for connections grow exponentially, so we are no longer able to connect only with those that we already know, or can be introduced to by those we do know. We can connect much more quickly and easily with potentially thousands of people around the world.

But if it’s the case that many people often learn through connections with others, whether within or outside of educational institutions, then why not think of the courses we teach as just part of the connections students are making in terms of their lives as a whole?  They have connections with their family, friends, people on social media, their fellow students, and also with us as professors. We, and our classes, are another connection in their lives.

Some of those connections, on blogs and Twitter and more, will speak as experts, as authorities, as providing top-down information transfer. Why can’t we do some of that in our courses too, since we do have useful information to share, and still think of their whole learning process as rhizomatic, even if in our particular course the learning is more top-down rather than lateral? This isn’t to say that there might still be areas in which the teaching and learning should, appropriately, be more rhizomatic (though the above concern still holds), but rather to say that maybe all learning is part of a bigger network each person experiences in their lives (or rather, one of a series of continually changing networks, to keep to the rhizome idea).

I don’t know if this is a criticism of rhizomatic learning or not, since Cormier specifically says it’s not appropriate for all teaching situations so information-transfer in courses sometimes is appropriate. But perhaps even that is part of a larger sense of rhizomatic learning?


I’d love to hear your thoughts on my concern and my question(s)! Are there dangers with learner-centred models such that they don’t emphasize enough the important role an instructor could play as gadfly, or the need to seek out gadflies? Is most or all learning already rhizomatic?

——– UPDATE ———-

In a Google+ conversation, Shuana Niessen said the following about this post: “This Ted talk ( adds to the problem of learning that caters to our own interests and choices rather than challenging us to move beyond.”

This is a TED talk by Eli Pariser, talking about how search engines and other applications (like Facebook) filter internet content for each one of us differently, based on our activity within them. Obviously, this is for marketing purposes, but the result is that we may think we have access to all kinds of information, views on different sides of issues, etc., and we are finding a path of our own through that. But often our access is very small, actually, filtered already before we even get to it. Thus, it’s hard to do rhizomatic learning well in the current internet environment, because we may not even be able to make the connections or find the information that would help us think more critically.

The filter bubble website and blog has much more information on this. Thanks to Shuana for pointing all this out to me…I had heard of the issue, but didn’t know about Pariser and his work.


Image: Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf; CC-BY 2.0


Works cited

Pratt, D.D. & Nesbit, T. (2000). Discourses and Cultures of Teaching. In E. Hayes and A. Wilson (Eds), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

etmooc: Rhizomatic learning in philosophy courses

I recently watched Dave CormiersIntro to rhizomatic learning” presentation as part of my participation in etmooc. Here, I’ll explain what rhizomatic learning is as briefly as I can, discuss what it might look like in a university level philosophy course, and ask a few questions.

In the next post I explore a possible critique that I’ve been mulling over. I’m not just assuming here that rhizomatic learning is a good thing (though obviously I find it interesting enough to write about), but rather just at this point examining the idea to help me better work to evaluate it.

What is “rhizomatic learning”? (according to Cormier)

I expect there are numerous views on what rhizomatic learning (or rhizomatic education) are, so I’ll just stick to Cormier’s view here for the sake of clarity. The following is just a brief summary of some parts of his view. If you would like more details, you can watch Cormier’s presentation for etmooc on YouTube, or read his paper on the topic, published in 2008 and posted on his blog, called “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum.”

In his etmooc presentation, Cormier started off by suggesting that the “best learning” has to do with helping people deal with uncertainty, to figure out how to make decisions and choose the paths they should take when faced with situations in which the outcomes are uncertain. Education is tricky because we don’t know exactly what sorts of knowledge will be needed in the future, the changes different fields will undergo, the changes new technologies will bring, etc. So encouraging good decision-making and creative problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to continually guide one’s own learning to gain new knowledge as needed, are critical.

Cormier then introduced the idea of the rhizome, and rhizomatic learning, as “a model for learning for uncertainty.” I didn’t remember what “rhizomes” were, as it’s been quite some time since I took a botany course, and I’m not much of a gardener. Here’s what I found: some plants (such as ginger, hops, asparagus, and bamboo) have rhizomes, which are stems that are usually underground, and that have nodes from which the plant can move upwards to create above-ground stems, leaves, etc. So, if you have some asparagus in your garden, for example, you won’t just get one clump of it; the rhizomes underground will move horizontally and you will get above-ground asparagus stems popping up in numerous places.

by Rhian vK

“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, from Flickr (links below)


A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Rhizomes are very resilient as well; such plants are very difficult to get rid of, in part because new shoots can arise even if you break up the rhizome. As Cormier put it in his etmooc presentation: you can take any part of a rhizome and drop it somewhere else, and the plant will start to grow again. This idea of propagating laterally, rather than horizontally, is important in Cormier’s view of rhizomatic learning–this sort of learning takes place through connections made amongst groups of people, forming a network, rather than through knowledge or information-transmittal through experts (top-down) such as instructors or researchers publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Since in many fields “[i]nformation is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt,” it makes sense to develop environments where “collaborative learning construction” can take place (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”). Such environments include wikis, collaborative documents, as well as environments such as the “personal learning networks” made possible by sharing tools such as Twitter, blogs, social bookmarking and social curation sites, and more. In these collaborative spaces individuals come together in various groups to learn and to create knowledge. Each individual may be a member of multiple groups, and these groups form, change, disband, reform continually.

Cormier also gets some of his ideas for rhizomatic learning from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I haven’t read the book, but found these brief notes on Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of rhizomes useful (I got think link from a google doc linked to a post on Dave Cormier’s blog).

My sense of rhizomatic learning at this point, then, is that it is the sort of thing that is happening in etmooc, as well as informally by many, many people around the globe working with the kinds of social tools noted above, but also working in face to face situations with others. It’s probably the kind of learning most of us do in lives outside of educational institutions.

But Cormier seems to be arguing for it also to be part of more “formal” education. Instead of instructors creating a curriculum in advance that is the same for every student in the course, the community of learners constructs the curriculum.

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Note that in this quote Cormier says the community not only creates the curriculum, it is the curriculum, an idea he reiterated in his etmooc presentation. I am not entirely sure what he means by this, but perhaps the thought here is that as the community changes (and it is always changing–if not in terms of people coming and going, then in terms of what people say and do in it, what they share and discuss, never remaining static), so does the curriculum. “A curriculum for a course is something that can be created in time, while a course is happening,” Cormier says in a blog post called Rhizomatic Learning: Why we Teach”.

What is the role of the instructor in rhizomatic learning environments? Here’s what Cormier says:

The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

In rhizomatic learning environments, then, what is learned and how is shaped by a community of learners, and this changes constantly. I imagine that for a formal educational environment, one could have students set out what they’d like to investigate, help them with the tools they can use to investigate it and to form a community of people to help (a “personal learning network,” e.g.). I also imagine using a grading contract; that’s exactly what Cormier did with one of his courses last year.

When is rhizomatic learning appropriate?

Is Cormier suggesting that all learning should take place through the rhizomatic model? Definitely not. He said in his etmooc presentation that for learning situations in which specific kinds of knowledge must be gained, rhizomatic learning is the wrong way to go. In addition, if a body of knowledge that needs to be learned is stable, then rhizomatic learning may not be appropriate and information transfer more so. Also, as Phil Macoun noted in a blog post, if there are certain basic principles and foundational information needed in a field before learners can really benefit from discussions within a wider network of other learners, researchers and practitioners, then more “traditional” learning approaches would seem to be best for those earlier steps.


 Cormier explained this point in his etmooc presentation by using the Cynefin decision-making framework from Dave Snowden. Explaining this framework would take an entire blog post in itself, but thankfully Cormier has a post that does so. Rhizomatic learning is appropriate for situations that fall into the “complex” part of the framework, where, as Cormier puts it, there are no clear “right answers.” There is no obvious “best practice,” and we can’t just turn to experts to find out what to think, what is right to do, or what counts as true knowledge. Snowden says in the video linked above that in the complex domain, outcomes are uncertain and unpredictable; cause and effect relationships can’t be known in advance, only in hindsight. One can only engage in experiments and see what happens to determine the best course. This is the domain where novel practices and knowledges are tested and may be adopted, instead of seeking to find already-established solutions from experts. The Cynefin framework is much more complicated than this, but I won’t go into its other parts here.

This is enough to suggest that rhizomatic learning is not so great, perhaps, for basic mathematical skills or some aspects of science education, but it might, on the other hand, be useful for philosophy. We deal in questions that are still open in many ways (though there are some recognized procedures and accepted truths, there is much that is still negotiated and a good deal of room for novel approaches and arguments).

Rhizomatic learning in philosophy

What would rhizomatic learning look like in a postsecondary philosophy course?

For an introduction to philosophy course, e.g., one might allow students to identify what philosophical questions they are interested in, and then provide them with the tools to find out what others have said about those questions and to formulate their own response. The common instruction in the class could be on things like: what common philosophical questions are and a chance to develop your own if you don’t want to pursue one of those; what arguments are, how to evaluate them, and how to construct your own; how to write philosophy essays, etc. Then students could spend part of the class time and part of their own time doing research to work on their questions.

I can imagine this happening in groups within the class, so students interested in the same areas could work together, and thereby build a small network. Then the groups could create wikis, videos, slideshows, or use other means to share what they have found with the rest of the class; individuals could share what they have developed as their own views on the questions separately, perhaps.

The professor could also suggest web resources for certain kinds of questions, and any social networks related to people interested in philosophical issues, as well as social bookmarking sites that might have good links.

This could work for an intro to philosophy course in which the students involved don’t need to gain knowledge of the history of philosophy so much as get a taste of what philosophers do. For courses that are required for majors, and in order for students to take more upper-level courses that rely in part on knowledge of certain aspects of the history of philosophy, then a more focused approach is required to ensure that students are exposed to the necessary authors and texts.

Questions and concerns:

— I can think of a few websites with philosophy information that would be good for introductory-level students, but not many. Of course, they could work to find others that I don’t know about. It would help if there were more open educational resources available in philosophy.

— I’m not sure how I would introduce students into a wider social network of people that could help them with their questions. I guess I could try to include more philosophy teachers in my own PLN (so far it’s mostly people talking about education generally), and connect students that way. Ideally, I would help them connect with other students investigating similar issues (outside the course), so they could learn and generate knowledge together…but I honestly don’t have a clue how I might go about doing that.

— Why only point them to other websites and other people to connect with? Am I not a good connection to have, and shouldn’t I share my own knowledge as part of this community creation of knowledge? Perhaps the idea is to work more one-on-one with individuals or groups on their own projects, and be part of their network that way? That would be fantastic, if only it were possible in intro-level philosophy courses in a large university (ours are about 150 students or so). They can work together as teams on specific questions, but I don’t have time to offer directed help to each team.

— How is this different from students getting together in groups to do research projects and then presenting them to the rest of the class? Is it that one should be helping them develop a larger network to discuss their projects in, rather than just doing research and discussing within the small group?

— If the previous point is the case, then I see this being difficult to do in a short (13-15 week) course. Building that kind of network takes a long time, and then discussing things within it takes awhile too…I doubt there would be time to do it in a single semester/term.

Your comments

 I’m wondering if I’ve misconstrued anything about rhizomatic learning here, or if there are other ways it might be used in a course like philosophy. Or any thoughts about my questions, above?


“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr

Cynefin Framework, CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Using SoTL to create guidelines for teaching

On the Resources” page of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL), I came across a link to “Guidelines on Learning that Inform Teaching,” a project by Adrian Lee, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. Through his work in his position as Pro Vice Chancellor (Education & Quality Improvement) at the University of NSW, Lee decided to work with others to create a set of guidelines, based on research, on what “works” in teaching.

The main ideas behind the project are stated as follows:

  • As academics, our task is to help students learn.
  • There is a vast research literature on how students learn and examples of good teaching based on this research.
  • As we claim to be research intensive institutions should not our teaching be based on this research?

But, as Lee notes, most faculty are very busy, and don’t have time to look into the relevant research on teaching, on top of their own research and teaching activities (I am lucky to be able to spend my sabbatical time doing lots of research into teaching, given that I’m in a teaching position, but most people don’t have that luxury). So he decided to distill the research into a set of guidelines, with links to relevant research papers.

Lee’s paper, “From Teaching to Learning,” linked at the bottom of the front page of the website, provides information (towards the end) on how the guidelines were developed. It also provides a great summary of some other excellent work done at UNSW on professional development for faculty re: teaching and learning–some things to learn from there, for institutions!

There are 16 guidelines, each with its own dedicated page. On those pages are quotes from various research papers that are meant to illustrate the guideline. I found these somewhat helpful, but would liked to have seen more narrative description of each guideline and what kind of research supports it. Perhaps one or two disciplinary examples would have helped illustrate the guideline a bit better, though those are all collected in a different section (see below). There are also links to research papers related to that particular guideline, for those who are interested in seeing some of the sources of the guideline. Of course, this effort is hampered by the fact that so many SoTL articles are not open access, so they can’t be easily linked to. Or rather, he could have put links to them, with notes that they are subscription only–so those whose institutions do have subscriptions could read them. Still, interested faculty could look up some of the non-linked papers themselves if their institutions have subscriptions.

There is also a section that hasDiscipline-specific exemplars,” which has links to ways people are putting the guidelines into action (whether they are consciously aware of these specific guidelines or not!) in different disciplines. The “humanities” section is fairly sparse at this point, but Lee asks for exemplars and provides his email address.

Finally, each guideline has a “toolkit” designed to encourage reflection on each one by individual teachers (linked at the bottom of each guideline page). It asks instructors to think of examples, to engage in reflection on the guideline, to consider obstacles to implementing it, and more. I find the toolkit a bit sparse, and think that more instruction could be helpful–more specific questions to guide reflection, for example. And perhaps a prompt to ask instructors to come up with a way they could use it in their own teaching in the future.

Lee’s larger project is to encourage institutions to set up their own guidelines, for a similar purpose–to help faculty think about the current research in a distilled fashion, and see examples of work being done at their own institution and elsewhere that conforms to the guidelines. On the homepage he links to three universities that have used the 16 guidelines as a model for their own set of guidelines. For example, MIT has a page listing exemplars of the guidelines from MIT itself.


I think this is a very important concept–for those who don’t have the time to go to workshops on teaching where they might get similar information (or those for whom such workshops are not available), it’s helpful to have research-based information on quality teaching in higher ed available. Of course, a project like this requires upkeep, and some of the links on the site are currently broken (including the link to one of the three universities with their own, similar guidelines, University of Bedfordshire-UK). In addition, the latest papers linked to on the site are from the mid-2000s, and it would be nice to have later papers available as well. Still, what Lee is really hoping will happen is that universities create their own guidelines and sites, and keep these up to date; and that’s an excellent idea.

Do you know of any colleges or universities that have similar sorts of guidelines, backed by research? If so, please give links in the comments and I’ll send them to Adrian Lee! Or, if you have some discipline-specific exemplars for one or more of the guidelines, please post those below.
P.S. I’m off and on out of town for the next month, as it is summer here in Australia (where I am for sabbatical), so I may be a little slow in responding to comments!


MOOCs in Humanities: too massive?

I recently tweeted about an article I heard about from The Guardian (newspaper) higher education twitter feed: @GdnHigherEd: “Could online courses be the death of the humanities?” by Aurélien Mondon and Gerhard Hoffstaedter, co-founders of Melbourne Free University. I want to discuss that article briefly, and then give some thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of scale in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

In the article noted above, Mondon and Hoffstaedter are commenting on a previous article, “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?,” by Carole Cadwalladr, in The Observer. There, Cadwalladr discusses how open education, and free online courses, could have an impact on traditional university education. Why pay thousands of dollars when you can get the same content taught by the same professors for free? Of course, you don’t get degrees or credit (yet), but for those who just want to learn something, MOOCs are likely a better option than signing up for a face-to-face class that you have to pay for.

In their response to this article, Mondon and Hoffstaedter suggest that the expansion of MOOCs could spell the death of humanities, specifically.

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On time and teaching

My hiatus from posting this Spring

I had every intention of keeping up with this blog this year. Things started off pretty well, but during this Spring term (Jan-April) I found I had zero extra time to devote to blogging. There were numerous things going on in my professional and personal life, most of them due to my own choosing–such as a year-long workshop on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning that has been fantastic but a significant amount of work. I copy here a post that I did for my blog for that workshop. I decided that the points I was making are important enough to share more widely.

Taking a toll on teaching

All of the things I needed to do this term led to my having to work seven days a week, plus nights after putting my son to bed (I took Friday and Saturday evenings off, to keep my sanity, but that was it). Perhaps this is normal for many academics, but I found it utterly and completely exhausting and unsustainable. And more than the physical and emotional toll it took, I realized it took another toll that I found intolerable: my teaching suffered.

I was not only that I did not have enough time to prepare as I wanted to, as I felt I needed to, in order to be as effective as possible. It was also that I was so exhausted and spent that I could not think as well on my feet as I usually do. And that was the worst part–I have found that sometimes having less of a “planned” class meeting can actually be beneficial for the sort of teaching I do, but then this must be balanced by the professor being able to work spontaneously and think in the moment during the class. Many of the classes I teach involve quite a lot of student discussion, and I try to find ways to encourage the students themselves to take the lead in what to discuss and what to say about those topics they themselves choose. This doesn’t, can’t, and shouldn’t happen all the time, of course, but one of the things I hope to promote in my classes in Arts One and Philosophy is practice in independent and original thinking, and thus standing back sometimes and letting students think about and discuss what they want to makes sense. It can be chaotic at times, and some students find it too confusing therefore; I am sure I need to refine my techniques. But I still firmly believe in the value of the potential results of that sort of student-driven learning.

So my usual way of planning class meetings is to take notes on the main arguments in a text (or themes, images, etc. in a literary work), and present some of those things in class to make sure we are all on more or less the same page with the text before either providing questions to discuss or asking students to raise questions to discuss. Then the class moves from there into a discussion mode that I try, with more or less success, to steer such that we at least remain on track with a question for enough time to exhaust students’ comments on that question before moving on to a different one. We may not resolve any of the issues, but that’s not the point–the point is to raise questions, consider possible answers, and leave things open enough for students to explore these (or other) issues further in their own written work.

Well, that’s the ideal, anyway. I found that when I’m too worn out from various responsibilities I cannot run classes this way well. I cannot think well enough in the moment to keep the discussion on track, to come up with potential objections during the discussions, to evaluate well the arguments people are giving. As a result, the discussions are not as effective as they should be. In a formative assessment I asked my students to do of one of my courses this term, a student asked for more “leadership” from me during the discussions. I tried, but was unable to do so because I was simply too exhausted this term. I find this entirely unacceptable.

A bigger issue for universities

This personal problem has links to a wider one. Though I myself chose to take on too many things this term, what I found through this experience is an important issue to consider for academia in general. The more work we expect of teachers, whether it be through greater class sizes, greater numbers of classes, or new course preparations, the less effective they are going to be at doing much more than lecturing from prepared notes. That can be done pretty well even when one is tired and overworked (though I got to the point where I had trouble even doing that well), but the more spontaneous, in-the-moment, on-your-feet work that active learning strategies require cannot be done very effectively when people are overworked.

I think this is a useful issue to consider for universities like UBC that are developing a “teaching” career track as well as a “research” career track. Universities have already been thinking of ways to try to ensure that researchers have enough time for their research (though arguably that isn’t happening for a lot of people), such as buyouts for courses through the use of grant money, reducing teaching loads in departments from (3-3 to 3-2 to 2-2, to even 2-1 in some departments), allowing some people to double up their teaching in one term so as to have another one off entirely from teaching, allowing people to sometimes teach two or more sections of one class to reduce course preps, etc. But I’m not sure we’ve thought in similar ways about people on the teaching track. I’m not sure that those who don’t focus extensively on teaching, who don’t read scholarly research on teaching or reflect significantly on their own teaching practice, have really thought seriously about just how much time it takes to do it well. At least, I have not heard these issues discussed in very many conversations (outside of those between those on the teaching track themselves).

Some examples

I have in the past heard an argument that it might be best for a department to allocate TA hours on the basis of giving priority to research faculty members (Assistant, Associate, Full Professors) over teaching faculty members (Instructor I, Sr. Instructor) and sessional faculty members (not sure where faculty on non-permanent appointments or teaching postdoctoral fellows were to be placed in the priority list). The rationale seems to be that research faculty needed more time to do research and thus need the TA assistance more than teaching faculty. This doesn’t make good sense to me, for a number of reasons (including that making sessionals work even harder for their meagre pay seems to make an unjust situation even worse). Consider that one could make the same argument for teaching faculty as for research faculty: just as research faculty need time for research, teaching faculty need time for teaching. Good teaching is not something one can do in a rush, as I have amply demonstrated to myself this term. The point is that while the argument of research faculty needing time to do their research is common and easily recognized, the structurally similar argument for teaching is not as common and has to be made specifically.

Another issue I have come across at UBC is Instructors being hired a few years after others, being asked to teach more courses than those hired earlier–there may be a push in some Faculties to get Instructors to teach more courses. Alternatively, I have heard of Instructors being asked as the years go by to teach larger and larger classes, without enough TA support to make this teaching work well. I can understand the impetus to try to get Instructors to teach more courses or more students, in part to free up more time for research faculty, and in part to get faculty who love and are good at teaching into more classrooms. Nevertheless, the argument must be made (and was made by the person I am thinking about) that if the university would like to have people in the Instructor track who not only can but do teach well, then there is good reason to limit the number of courses per term one must teach in order to do this teaching as effectively as possible. And we all know that putting more and more students into a course does not always lead to the best results. One can only be so creative in trying to teach effectively to a very large group, especially when one does not have enough TA hours to help with marking.

Instead of extra teaching or extra students, I have heard of a couple of cases of departments or Faculties trying to get Instructors to do a significant amount of service work on top of the teaching they are asked to do. The problem here is the same–such things take time away from teaching as much as they take time away from research. And if we’re serious about having good teaching at the university, we need to consider seriously the conditions under which good teaching is and is not possible.


I have gone on a bit of a rant here, but it actually does not apply specifically to my own situation. My own position is very good in terms of teaching and service. No one has asked me to do an inordinate amount of either, and I am very happy with my place in the University, the Faculty, and my Department. The concerns I raise are not ones that led to my own problems this term; those occurred because I took on too many things, voluntarily. I have learned my lesson in that regard.

But in the process I have had another lesson brought home to me in more than a theoretical respect: the crucial importance for universities of ensuring that teachers have adequate time to teach. Especially for a place (like UBC) that is developing a teaching track with three levels that mirror (somewhat) the levels of research faculty–Instructor I, Sr. Instructor, Professor of Teaching. To reach the highest level one must not only be an excellent teacher, but show leadership in areas such as curriculum development, professional development re: teaching for others (e.g., leading workshops for other faculty and TAs), or research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. If Instructors are to head towards Professor of Teaching, they simply must be treated like research professors in terms of valuing their time. Otherwise, the rhetoric that research and teaching are equally important rings hollow.

Peer Review of Teaching

The University of British Columbia is moving towards emphasizing and improving the practice of peer review of teaching. This website explains the project and its history:

I have recently received a draft of a set of guidelines for the Faculty of Arts, a draft that is still in development so what I say below may change. But still, I find the whole project very interesting and potentially quite valuable.

Explanation and evaluation of some specific aspects of the program:

1. Data sources for peer evaluation of teaching are wider than just one class visit. The guidelines give several options for other sources, stating that not all of these need to be used. Some options:  course materials, such as syllabi, assignment instructions, even possibly samples of student work; one or more meetings with the instructor; meeting with students; statement of teaching philosophy; past student evaluation results; contributions to curriculum or new course development; innovations in teaching practices and/or use of technology; evidence of professional development re: teaching beyond the classroom; evidence of reflection upon teaching; teaching load (number and types of courses); grad students supervised; grad student publications and awards; information solicited from grad students. This seems an excellent way to get a better picture of someone’s teaching capacities than just visiting one course meeting. Of course, it has to be handled carefully within departments so that what is requested of each person in terms of documentation is relatively uniform so as to avoid perceptions of unfairness. Considerations of workload come in here too–gathering and looking over this information can take a significant amount of time and effort, on the part of both the reviewer and the instructor him/herself.

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The ethics of blogging about teaching and learning

I have recently been thinking about something that has only come up since more people have started reading my blog. At first I wrote it mainly for my own reflections, but obviously when I put it online and open to the public I was inviting others to read it too. And some of those who read it are former and future students (not sure about current ones…no one has told me!).

Now, this can bring up a potential ethical issue: when one is blogging about teaching and learning, one will often blog about experiences in one’s own classes. That’s natural and probably expected. But it can also mean that one risks saying things about that experience that could potentially bother some current, former or future students. I don’t just mean that they may not like the sorts of views one has on teaching and learning–that can easily happen anyway, and at least this way potential students may get a sense of those views before registering for a course! Rather, it could be that one may say things that could be viewed as giving a negative opinion of current or former students, even if one doesn’t mean to do so. Obviously a blogger shouldn’t reveal any particular information about students, but what if someone says something negative about a particular class, or some students in a class, how there isn’t a lot of participation going on, or some students aren’t getting things as one would hope they would, etc., and what if some students took offense at that? Maybe a course is a very small one and other students or faculty could determine approximately who one is talking about in a blog post, even if one doesn’t mention any identifying information.

I have tried not to do anything like this, but when things one says are out in public, it may be that they could be taken in ways other than we mean, or we may end up going beyond the line without realizing it.

I wonder if some of us bloggers on teaching and learning should discuss something like a “code of ethics when blogging about classroom experience.” I know I would welcome such a discussion, not so I can police others, but so I can police myself. If one already exists, can someone please let me know?