Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Reflections on Teaching in the Public Web

Photo by Jim Brekke, CC-BY-NC-ND
This semester marks two milestones in my teaching career. First, I am stepping away from teaching the History of Photography online at Mt. San Jacinto College, a community college in California, and will be team teaching a critical thinking course for transfer students at CSU Channel Islands with my colleague, Jill Leafstedt. Our class will be a blended format with Jill on-site at CI and me in a remote role. Secondly, Jill and I will be using WordPress to create our course and our students will create their own blogs in CI Keys. CI Keys originated last year as a pilot project at CSU Channel Islands, inspired by a keynote presentation Jim Groom delivered at ET4Online 2014, Reclaiming Learning: A Domain of One's Own (his presentation starts at 6:37).

This change is significant for me, as it represents a move away from teaching with tools that construct a secured "shell" in which students contribute and interact, toward facilitating learning in the public web (the Keys). In this post, I reflect on how this shift is significant to me, in my teaching role as well as my faculty support role, and examine the influences that have shaped my choices to use particular tools over time.

I started teaching online in 2003 and, at the time, Blackboard was the only tool I used. In 2007, the year I started this blog, I began to incorporate the use of tools outside of Blackboard into my class. This decision was driven by my desire to make my students' learning relevant, active, and inclusive. This core value has not changed for me. However, over the years, the tools I teach with have fluctuated.  As I reflect on this topic, I recognize a growing gap between  my "espoused theory" and my "theory-in-use," two theories of action from the work of Chris Argyris, explained in the quote below:
"When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use" (Argyris and Schön 1974: 6-7).
Argyris' work points out that the actions of individuals are guided by mental maps that inform what we think, feel, and choose to do.  Most people do not recognize the impact of these mental models on their actions and, as a result, can be unaware when a significant gap develops between an espoused theory and a theory-in-use.  These concepts can be applied at an individual level, as well as an organizational level.  As I look back over the past 8 year or so, I recognize a gap between the values I set for my teaching and my actions.

A few years into in my online teaching career, around 2007, I started using blogs with my students. I was quickly intrigued by the potential blogs held to engage students in reflection, stimulate peer-to-peer communications, and engage students with an authentic platform for their ideas. The possibility of students engaging with individuals outside of our class in their formal learning environment was fascinating to me.

However, I recall being aware that everyone did not shared my utopian view of blogs.  There were many questions around whether using blogs in a public web environment were acceptable. . . Was it ok to have students create accounts on external sites? Was it permissible to have student work be shared openly on the web? What if students encountered unethical interactions with someone outside the class on their blog? And how could I be sure my students wouldn't share inappropriate photos or write about irrelevant topics? I recall these questions making me uncomfortable. I did not have answers to them and neither did my fellow faculty or administrators.

After a year, I stopped using Blogger and began having my students blog inside a closed social networking tool called Ning (which was free to educators at the time). I didn't make the change because something concerning had occurred. Quite the contrary, I received very positive feedback from students about their blogging experiences. Ning is a tool outside the LMS, just like Blogger, however, the password protected wall it provided between the general public and the work of my students made me feel more comfortable.  Honestly, I also found it easier to manage the content, as well, as it had been tricky to connect 30-40 separate Blogger URLs each term.

And that, right there, is my point. That choice to move to Ning has stuck with me -- for seven years. This past semester I still used Ning in my online class. As my choice to teach in a protected shell, albeit not an LMS, stayed consistent, my perspectives about preparing students for a mobile, digital society through authentic learning experiences became stronger. In 2013, I wrote these words in a blog post for EdCetera (reposted here on GetSmart):
"By designing our courses to have students use social technologies in support of active learning pedagogy, students will be encouraged to participate in the open, social web as they complete their formalized educational experiences." 
We all have espoused theories about teaching and learning. What are yours? It's important to pause and critically reflect on how your values relate to your actions. I really did believe the learning environment in my class was preparing students to participate in the open, social web. But was I right? Over the years, I grew more skeptical of this as social media began to penetrate mainstream life. The fundamental question I am left with is, "How can students hone the skills to manage their digital identity when they're interacting in a password protected shell?" I don't believe they can.

When students leave college, they are expected to be able to demonstrate how they are unique from other new college graduates. Participating in the open web during college can provide a scaffolded entry into the job market.  Blogging in the public web remains a powerful opportunity for students to develop digital citizenship, as well as reflect deeply on their passions, skills, and overall place in this world. When students engage in what David Wiley has described as "non-disposable activities," they are empowered to look back at where they've been, see their growth, and use their work to demonstrate their skills.

So, while there still are no concrete answers to those big, scary questions that plagued me years ago, I now believe that's ok.  In fact, I know believe it's critical to engage with teaching in the open web to facilitate dialogue around these questions. If we all step back into our shells, we can't prepare our students to swim in the ocean on their own.  Finally, I recognize that the CI Keys project at CSU Channel Islands empowers me, as an instructor, to teach how I believe I should be teaching (while I also credit Laura Gibbs, whose innovations and willingness to share continue to inspire me!). The projects and/or tools an organization chooses to support can influence the flow of innovation in higher education. The flow of innovation is less dynamic when faculty are experimenting alone in the shadows of an organization.


Argyris, C., & Schon, D. (1974) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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