Virtually Connecting at #digPed 2015 (Day 5)

by Apostolos Koutropoulos (@koutropoulos)
also cross-posted on

The final virtually connecting session of the DigPed Lab Institute (don’t call it a conference!) was on Friday August 14, 2015 and despite the fatigue as people crossed the finish line for this lab institute we had an engaging and lively discussion for our vConnecting session!

Joining us in the virtual realm in this vConnecting session were my co-facilitator Autumm Caines (@autumm393), Greg McVerry (@jgmac1106) who was also joining us from EdCamp, Patrice Prusko (@ProfPatrice), Scott Robinson (@otterscotter), Stephanie Loomis (@mrsloomis), and Jen Ross (@jar).  Onsite we had our onsite vConnecting buddy, Andrea Rehn (@ProfRehn), as well as Amy Collier (@amcollier) who delivered the Friday keynote with Jesse Stommel, Hybrid Pedagogy’s Chris  Friend (@chris_friend), and Sonya Chaidez (@soniachaidez)

There were three broad topics of discussion: emergent learning, and connecting to it was the notion of not-yetness, and “safe” spaces for learning.

Emergent learning, as we discussed, is a space of opportunity, as well as a space of resistance in higher education.  It’s a place of resistance  right now due to pressures faced in our environment. Pressures brought on by measurement, pressures of clearly defined learning objectives, and pressure to get a handle of what “learning” really means. There is also a pressure to get  all learners to be in the same spot when they finish a course of study. This is problematic both in terms of not accounting for variance in learners themselves, but also it means that there is a possibility of missing out on some really great opportunities from the classroom diversity, and opportunities for exploratory learning that can pop up during a regular class session.

Amy talked a bit about three provocations in emergent learning:

  • Complexity is something we should strive for.  When we embrace it we can have excitement and joy around learning.
  • Measurement of learning, specifically the push for evidence-based teaching has narrowed what we think of as “learning” and what “counts” as learning.  This has an impact in how we design and implement “learning”.
  • Really strict and prescribed rubrics  for measuring the learning outcomes, or even the design of courses, and the use of rubrics such as Quality Matters, can really constrict how we design and approach learning. In addition to what Amy said, In my mind this also can mean that courses can look pretty cookie cutter regardless of the course being taught.

Relating to this Chris describes (one of) the drives of academics, that interest to go out there in order to find more knowledge, not necessarily to get specific, defined, and definitive answers, but knowledge.  This emergent and messy learning cannot easily be encapsulated by learning outcomes. In order to do this as well learners need to be able to embrace this uncertainty and undeterminess of the learning experience, or put another way, this not-yetness. Learning is continuous and it does not have just one end, but it does have, potentially, many different checkpoints.

When we are focusing on just outcomes we sometimes miss and forget to the ask the deep, and sometimes philosophical questions. Questions such as what is our goal? What is the purpose? What is it that we are trying to do, and for whom?

One of the interesting comments during this discussion was that Emergent outcomes make students feel very nervous because they don’t know the final outcomes at the beginning of the course. The way we’ve packaged education over the years brings up the analogy of a journey, and in many journeys we have maps to guide us (and taken to an extreme: Tours which also tell us exactly how much time we are spending and where).  By comparison emergent learning might mean going on without a map and making your own.  This tension between the two extremes means that there is potential for pressure on the instructor. How do you both plan for emergent learning, but also work within the framework of accountability, as Greg put it, to be responsible to your learners since that’s the environment that they will need to operate in?

Also, how does one design and implement instruction in a course, or series of courses, where the learner mindset might be “tell me what I need to know, so I can do it, get my degree, and move on”.  This linear progression from point A to Point B doesn’t provide a fertile environment for emergent learning, or does it?

In terms of safe learning spaces, a good point made by Chris, is that you can’t just create a safe classroom space by fiat. No place is truly risk-free, thus the inherent risks of spaces need to be discussed honestly with participants of that space. As Amy said, Instead of thinking in terms of safe spaces, we might want to reframe it as a space of trust. Stephanie also brought up an important point of being able to agree to disagree with your peers.  While many people may do this, it may be done in a dismissive manner.  We should also to be able to understand the other point of view even if you don’t agree with it, not just write off the other person for not having your views.

Finally, the value of emergent goals are much more visible and potent once a final reflection is done by learners. This is where they can “see” for themselves how much more they have learned through an emergent approach as compared to simply just reading certain parts of the textbook each week and doing something with it.   This was an interesting vConnecting session.  If you’re interested on any topics engage with us on @vconnecting on twitter.

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