A place to log ideas and thoughts

George Veletsianos, PhD

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Radical Flexibility and Relationality as Responses to Education in Times of Crisis

I am excited to share a new paper with you. I’m excited because it draws together themes from work Shandell Houlden and I have been doing over the last year and which now seems increasingly important. I’m also excited because the paper is part of a special issue of Postdigital Science and Education, which the Editor reports including “more than 50 articles, authored by nearly 200 people from more than 30 countries and all continents.” I’ve been reading many of these – they are currently posted here as Online First but should appear in an issue soon.

I thought I’d share a couple of snippets here, but I’d love to hear your feedback on this work. The paper is available as Open Access here: Radical Flexibility and Relationality as Responses to Education in Times of Crisis.

Our abstract summarizes the main ideas well:

As educational institutions negotiate numerous challenges resulting from the current pandemic, many are beginning to wonder what the future of education may look like. We contribute to this conversation by arguing for flexible education and considering how it can support better—more equitable, just, accessible, empowering, imaginative—educational futures. At a time of historical disorder and uncertainty, we argue that what we need is a sort of radical flexibility as a way to create life-sustaining education, not just for some, but for all, and not just for now, but far into the future. We argue that such an approach is relational, and centers justice and trust. Furthermore, we note that radical flexibility is systemic and hopeful, and requires wide-ranging changes in practices in addition to the application of new technologies.

We end the paper with this:

Solnit (2020) urges us to remember that ‘[o]rdinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality’, and this was in many ways as true in the halls of education as anywhere else. But she further reminds us that hope ‘offers us clarity that, amid the uncertainty ahead, there will be conflicts worth joining and the possibility of winning some of them’. If, out of this struggle, we ground our hope in attention to the relational nature of the many worlds in which we all live together, then perhaps we can achieve the radical flexibility truly liberatory education deserves.

 

Veletsianos, G., & Houlden, S. (2020). Radical Flexibility and Relationality as Responses to Education in Times of Crisis. Postdigital Science and Education, 2(3), 849-862. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00196-3

 

How should we respond to the life-altering crises that education is facing?

Below is the the pre-published version of a short reflection I wrote for Distance Education, published here for posterity. The paper is Veletsianos, G. (2020). How should we respond to the life-altering crises that education is facing? Distance Education, 41(4), 1-3. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2020.1825066

Abstract

Prior literature suggests that to address the problems facing education, researchers and practitioners of online and flexible learning should avoid placing too much emphasis on the potential of technology and consult the history and literature of the field. In this reflective article, I argue that in addition to these activities, we should expand our efforts to broaden the reach and impact of our field and engage in speculative work that asks: What should the future of digital, online, and flexible education look like?

Introduction

“In this increasingly unstable world, crises potentially impact our education systems. This will be true whether the crisis is caused by the circulation of a new pathogen, or something else entirely: hurricanes, flooding or wildfire, now more common due to climate change. We have before us a stark reminder that we should approach the promises of technological solutions with caution. Flexible and resilient educational systems require more than tools. They demand collaboration, care, preparation, expertise, resources and learning lessons from the past. (Houlden & Veletsianos, 2020)”

We wrote the sentences above in March 2020, 2 weeks before educational institutions in North America transitioned to remote education in an attempt to influence practitioners’ and researchers’ responses to the life-altering crises that education is facing. We were hoping to convince readers that even though technology may enable institutions of education to engage in some semblance of educational continuity, technology will not fix the crises facing our educational systems. Such reasoning flows from a long line of scholarship that details the problems of technological determinism and solutionism in our field (e.g., Bayne, 2015; Oliver, 2011; Tennyson 1994), urges researchers and practitioners to avoid placing too much emphasis on the potential of technology (e.g., Selwyn, 2011), and encourages us to heed the lessons embedded in the history of the field (e.g., Watters, 2014; Weller, 2020). Similar arguments are included in this issue of Distance Education as well. Baggaley, for instance, argues that “the surest way to make online learning effective is to consult the decades of practical experience in the distance education literature.” But what may be some additional responses to such life-altering crises as COVID-19 and climate change?

One possible response may include efforts to broaden the reach and impact of the distance and flexible education literature, as well as literature present in related fields, such as instructional design and technology, learning analytics, and the learning sciences. Such efforts may address limitations that restrict the literature’s helpfulness, applicability, and accessibility. For instance, the literature suffers from a problem of access. Much of our literature, like the literature of other fields, is written for researchers rather than practitioners, and much of it is locked behind paywalls (like this reflection). One set of responses, therefore, may be to refine and rethink the ways our own scholarship is accessed. For instance, at an individual level, we might strive to make our own articles available in open ways, expand our public outreach, engage in more practice-oriented scholarship, write for broader audiences, and address inequities in knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption (cf Czerniewicz, 2013; Scharber et al., 2019). At a systemic level, we may question practices like top-tier publishing, rankings, impact factors, and the various practices that sustain and encourage these, such as institutional policies on promotion and advancement and grant-funding decisions.

A second possible response may involve reflecting on our own scholarship and the scholarship we support, reward, and encourage. Reeves and Lin (2020) argue that to make a real difference in the lives of learners we should be studying and solving problems, rather than studying tools and technologies. In effect, these authors urge us to ask whether our particular work, the work of our students, and the work of our colleagues contributes to better educational futures. My intent here is not to draw demarcation lines between appropriate and inappropriate scholarship. Instead, if higher education is facing the very real possibility that the post-pandemic era may be radically different than our earlier “normal” (Cox et al., 2020), this may be a good time to ask: What should the future of digital, online, and flexible education look like?

This is not a call for more hopeful writing of the possibilities of online education or educational technology. Instead, it is a call for more critical and speculative writing and practice. Such critical efforts are gaining broader visibility and interest and can be found in recent work in both this journal (e.g., Valcarlos et al., 2020) and elsewhere (e.g., Lambert, 2018). To imagine possible educational futures, some researchers are turning to speculative methods as “research approaches that explore and create possible futures under conditions of complexity and uncertainty” (Ross, 2018, p. 197). Envisioning such futures does not solely mean employing fiction in our writing. Rather, speculative methods “inform us about what matters now in the field, what issues and problems we have inherited, and what debates define what can or cannot be currently thought about or imagined” (Ross, 2017, p. 220). Considering that the current state of education, at all levels, is situated within a context of ever-evolving social, cultural, political, and technological shifts, we face an urgent need to engage with uncertainty on multiple levels.

The use of speculative methods, therefore, may enable us to offer guidance when making current decisions related to the future of higher education, and to explore what may or may not be possible in different contexts. In a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology (Selwyn et al., 2019) for example, colleagues examined near-future educational scenarios and critically contemplated the use of technology in education. To use an example of present activities to speculate about desirable and undesirable educational futures, consider the now-broader use of proctoring tools, which were largely adopted to maintain the continuity of such familiar practices as invigilated exams. Now consider a future in which proctoring tools are as pervasive as the use of learning management systems or even email. Are proctoring tools consistent with desirable future educational systems? Asking this question forces us to deal with the ethics of our work. What if, in the process of asking this question, we realize that adopting proctoring software may not only become a barrier to alternative assessments but may also foster a culture of surveillance and mistrust (e.g., Fawns & Ross, 2020; Swauger, 2020)?

Conclusion

Clearly, technology alone will be unable to provide a solution to such a complicated problem as responding to the complex challenges that educational systems worldwide are facing. The two possible responses I offer—broadening the reach and impact of our scholarship and engaging in more imaginative, speculative, and critical work—are not panaceas either. Unlike technological solutionism though, these actions respond to calls by Facer and Sanford (2010), Ross (2017), Staley (2019), and Alexander (2020) to develop scenarios for the future of higher education as a way to address current challenges and work toward desirable outcomes. I imagine such futures to be inclusive, equitable, and just; to serve all of our learners; to prioritize collaboration over competition; to be flexible to learners’ needs; to exhibit care and trust for our students; and to be free of systems of oppression and injustice that operate within our own institutions.

References

Alexander, B. (2020). Academia next: The futures of higher education . Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Bayne, S. (2015). What’s the matter with ‘technology-enhanced learning’? Learning, Media and Technology , 40(1), 5–20. 

Cox, R. , Slick, J. , & Dixon, T. (2020). Surviving, thriving, or radical revisioning: Scenarios and considerations for pandemic recovery and response planning . Royal Roads University. 

Czerniewicz, L. (2013, April 29). Inequitable power dynamics of global knowledge production and exchange must be confronted head on. Impact of Social Science. https://press.rebus.community/openatthemargins/chapter/repost-inequitable-power-knowledge/  

Facer, K. , & Sandford, R. (2010). The next 25 years? Future scenarios and future directions for education and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning , 26(1), 74–93. 

Fawns, T. , & Ross, J. (2020, June 3). Spotlight on alternative assessment methods: Alternatives to exams. Teaching Matters . https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/spotlight-on-alternative-assessment-methods-alternatives-to-exams/  

Houlden, S. , & Veletsianos, G. (2020, March 13). COVID-19 pushes universities to switch to online classes—but are they ready? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/covid-19-pushes-universities-to-switch-to-online-classes-but-are-they-ready-132728  

Lambert, S. R. (2018). Changing our (dis)course: A distinctive social justice aligned definition of open education. Journal of Learning for Development , 5(3), 225–244. https://jl4d.org/index.php/ejl4d/article/view/290/334  

Oliver, M. (2011). Technological determinism in educational technology research: some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning , 27(5), 373–384.

Reeves, T. C. , & Lin, L. (2020). The research we have is not the research we need. Educational Technology Research and Development , 68(4), 1991–2001.

Ross, J. (2017). Speculative method in digital education research. Learning, Media and Technology , 42(2), 214–229.

Ross, J. , (2018). Speculative method as an approach to researching emerging educational issues and technologies. In L. Hamilton & J. Ravenscroft (Eds,), Building research design in education (pp. 197–212). Bloomsbury. 

Scharber, C. , Pazurek, A. , & Ouyang, F. (2019). Illuminating the (in)visibility of female scholars: A gendered analysis of publishing rates within educational technology journals from 2004 to 2015. Gender and Education , 31(1), 33–61.

Selwyn, N. (2011). In praise of pessimism—the need for negativity in educational technology. British Journal of Educational Technology , 42(5), 713–718.

Selwyn, N. , Hillman, T. , Eynon, R. , Ferreira, G. , Knox, J. , Macgilchrist, F. , & Sancho-Gil, J. M. (Eds.). (2019). Education and technology into the 2020s: Speculative futures [Special issue]. Learning, Media and Technology , 45(1). 

Staley, D. J. (2019). Alternative universities: Speculative design for innovation in higher education . Johns Hopkins University Press.  

Swauger, S. (2020). Our bodies encoded: Algorithmic test proctoring in higher education. In J. Stommel, C. Friend, & S. M. Morris (Eds.), Critical digital pedagogy: A collection. Pressbooks. https://cdpcollection.pressbooks.com/chapter/our-bodies-encoded-algorithmic-test-proctoring-in-higher-education/  

Tennyson, R. D. (1994). The big wrench vs. integrated approaches: The great media debate. Educational Technology Research and Development , 42(3), 15–28.

Valcarlos, M. M. , Wolgemuth, J. R. , Haraf, S. , & Fisk, N. (2020). Anti-oppressive pedagogies in online learning: A critical review. Distance Education , 41(3), 345–360. 

Watters, A. (2014). The monsters of education technology. Tech Gypsies Publishing. http://monsters.hackeducation.com   

Weller, M. (2020). 25 years of ed tech . Athabasca University Press.

The 7 elements of a good online course

In June, I wrote the article below for The Conversation. Today I start teaching my Fall 2020 (online) course on the foundations, histories, myths, and futures surrounding learning technologies, and I thought it was a good time to republish this piece here under its original Creative Commons license as a reminder for myself and others. The original article is here.

The 7 elements of a good online course

It’s likely that most universities will be conducting classes online in the fall. That doesn’t mean learning will suffer. (Shutterstock)

With very few exceptions, online teaching and learning will be the primary mode of education for the majority of higher education students in many jurisdictions this fall as concerns about COVID-19 extend into the new school year.

As an education researcher who has been studying online education and a professor who has been teaching in both face-to-face and online environments for more than a decade, I am often asked whether online learning at universities and colleges can ever be as effective as face-to-face learning.

To be clear: this isn’t a new question or a new debate. I’ve been asked this question in various forms since the mid-2000s and researchers have been exploring this topic since at least the 1950s.

The answer isn’t as unequivocal as some would like it to be. Individual cherry-picked studies can support any result. But systematic analyses of the evidence generally show there are no significant differences in students’ academic outcomes between online and face-to-face education.

Researchers also find that some students perform worse online than others — and that some of those differences can be explained by socioeconomic inequities.

Advice for students and parents

The problems with media comparison studies — that is, those that compare outcomes between one medium, such as face-to-face, to another medium, such as online — are such that many researchers advocate against them. How can students who enrol in online courses in the fall know they are receiving a good educational experience? What are some of the qualities of a good online course?

Good online courses can be more personal and rewarding for students than the traditional learning in large lecture halls. (Shutterstock)

Here’s some advice for students (and their parents) about what to look for as learning remains online.

  1. A good online course is informed by issues of equity and justice. It takes into account social, political and cultural issues — including students’ backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances — to craft a learning experience that is just. This may take many forms. In practice, it may mean a diverse and intersectional reading list. It means audiovisual materials that don’t stereotype, shame or degrade people. It may mean that open educational resources are prioritized over expensive textbooks.
  2. A good online course is interactive. Courses are much more than placeholders for students to access information. A good online course provides information such as readings or lecture videos, but also involves interactions between professor and students and between students and students. Interactions between professor and students may involve students receiving personalized feedback, support and guidance. Interactions among students may include such things as debating various issues or collaborating with peers to solve a problem. A good online course often becomes a social learning environment and provides opportunities for the development of a vibrant learning community.
  3. A good online course is engaging and challenging. It invites students to participate, motivates them to contribute and captures their interest and attention. It capitalizes on the joy of learning and challenges students to enhance their skills, abilities and knowledge. A good online course is cognitively challenging.
  4. A good online course involves practice. Good courses involve students in “doing” — not just watching and reading — “doing again” and in applying what they learned. In a creative writing class, students may write a short story, receive feedback, revise it and then write a different story. In a computer programming class, they may write a block of code, test it and then use it in a larger program that they wrote. In an econometrics class, they might examine relationships between different variables, explain the meaning of their findings and then be asked to apply those methods in novel situations.
  5. A good online course is effective. Such a course identifies the skills, abilities and knowledge that students will gain by the end of it, provides activities developed to acquire them and assesses whether students were successful.
  6. A good online course includes an instructor who is visible and active, and who exhibits care, empathy and trust for students. This individual understands that their students may have a life beyond their course. Not only do many students take other courses, but they may be primary caretakers, have a job or be struggling to make ends meet. Good online courses often include instructors who are approachable and responsive, and who work with students to address problems and concerns as they arise.
  7. A good online course promotes student agency. It gives students autonomy to enable opportunities for relevant and meaningful learning. Such a course redistributes power – to the extent that is possible – in the classroom. Again, this may take many forms in the online classroom. In the culinary arts, it may mean making baking choices relevant to students’ professional aspirations. In an accounting course, students could analyze the financial statements of a company they’re interested in rather than one selected by the instructor. Such flexibility not only accommodates students’ backgrounds and interests, it provides space for students to make the course their own. In some cases it might even mean that you – the student – co-designs the course with your instructor. This is the kind of flexibility higher education systems need.

These qualities aren’t qualities of good online courses. They are qualities of good courses, period.

Physical proximity isn’t a precondition for good education. Comparing one form of education to another distracts us from the fact that all forms of education can — and should — be made better.

Face-to-face learning is inferior to online learning. Maybe. Sometimes. In some cases. If you ignore the nuance. 2/4

This is the second of four posts in a series that explores comparisons between in-person and online education. The first post noted how the binary we use when we discuss the two modalities is problematic. In this post, I examine the following question: What do we mean when we say that student experiences/learning are better in in-person contexts than online contexts? What criteria do we use to determine whether one kind of learning experience is better than another?

Researchers in the field of instructional design and technology typically use three criteria to evaluate learning. Was the experience effective? Was it engaging? Was it efficient? Dr. Dave Merrill summarizes this as “e to the third power”, or e3: effectiveness, efficiency, engagement (pdf).

Dr. Merrill misses a 4th and important e: equity. Unfortunately, this is an area that the field hasn’t paid as much attention to as it needs to, though (thankfully) there’s more and more of this work in the field recently, and it is gaining some momentum. To bluntly put the importance of equity in context one can ask: What is the value of a learning experience that is effective or efficient but positions some people in stereotypical roles, or presents them in dehumanizing ways, or completely ignores their lived experience? What is the value of an engaging learning experience that is at the same time sexist or racist?

To recap. Criteria to evaluate learning experiences: effectiveness, engagement, equity, and efficiency. [As an aside, educational technology companies typically sell their products on efficiency claims. And when they make effectiveness claims, if you’re in a decision-maker, I recommend asking for the third-party research supporting those claims.]

Let’s take a step back. I asked: What do people mean mean when we say that student experiences/learning are better in in-person contexts than online contexts? I asked this question in response to Hannah’s original question (see post #1) around the presumed inferiority of online learning compared to face-to-face learning. Let’s apply these same criteria to face-to-face contexts. That way, we can begin to illuminate the assumption that face-to-face is the best that we can do. Because this debate shouldn’t be about whether one modality is better than the other. It should be about how we can do the best we can do for all learners, staff, and faculty. That might lead us to ask the following questions:

  • Is face-to-face education equitable?
  • Who has access to it and who doesn’t?
  • Who does it privilege?

We know that online learning faces equity and access issues – of course it does – but let’s ask those same questions of in-person education.

That is where today’s post was going to end. But, it can’t. Because the President of Brown University wrote an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that college campuses must reopen in the Fall. Much was written about it already, such as this thread by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. My post can’t end here because in the context that we find ourselves in today, we now also need to ask: Who does face-to-face education put at risk? Which populations are more at risk than others? The questions about equity need to be asked not just about online learning, but also about face-to-face education and institutional plans for the Fall.

New book: Learning Online and The Student Experience (now available for free)

Short version: My new book Learning Online: The Student Experience has been published ahead of schedule by Johns Hopkins University Press. The Press has made the book available online for free as part of its efforts to support COVID-19 responses. Download it here or support the press by purchasing a copy here. Disclaimer: I receive a % of the sales in royalties, but I’ll be donating them to a non-profit in my community.

Long version:The book was scheduled to be published in April/May. In the meantime, COVID-19 happened, and in early March I reached out to Johns Hopkins University Press to ask whether they would be willing to make it – or at least a portion of it – available online for free. My reasoning was that it could be of immediate benefit to faculty, administrators, and higher education leaders aiming to transition their courses from in-person to alternative formats. The press expedited the final steps of the process and I just learned that it is now available for free here. I hope you find it useful, both in these turbulent times that we find ourselves in and in future online learning efforts!

Johns Hopkins University Press must have been thinking about this much earlier than I was, as they have made thousands of their books and papers available for free in the meantime. You can support the press by purchasing a copy of my book here or by purchasing a copy of any of the books that they publish. As standard book authoring goes, I receive a percentage of book sales in royalties. I will be donating those to a non-profit in my community.

I hope people read and enjoy the book, and I will gladly talk to anyone about it. Whether you’re teaching a class on the topic or are a higher education leader trying to make decisions about online learning at your institution, I’m happy to talk with you.

Flexible learning as a value

The quote below argues that flexible learning is not a modality, as is often suggested in the literature. Rather, it is a value – a guiding principle. others have argued the same way about openness – that it is an ethos. This is a helpful way to think about flexibility. Inevitably though, it raises questions about its assumptions and outcomes: Is flexibility always “good?” For whom is it “good?” Arguing for making education “less flexible” is of course nonsensical, but the point isn’t to argue for something to be less than. It’s to ask how to think about and mobilize flexibility for education to be more equitable.

Flexible learning is a state of being in which learning and teaching is increasingly freed from the limitations of the time, place and pace of study. But this kind of flexibility does not end there. For learners, flexibility in learning may include choices in relation to entry and exit points, selection of learning activities, assessment tasks and educational resources in return for different kinds of credit and costs. And for the teachers it can involve choices in relation to the allocation of their time and the mode and methods of communication with learners as well as the educational institution. As such flexible learning, in itself, is not a mode of study. It is a value principle, like diversity or equality are in education and society more broadly. Flexibility in learning and teaching is relevant in any mode of study including campus-based face-to-face education.

Naidu, S. (2017) How flexible is flexible learning, who is to decide and what are its implications? Distance Education 38(3), 269–272. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2017.1371831

The premise of my upcoming book

I just finished reviewing the initial copy edit of of the book that I’ve been working on since before I want to admit, and I feel that it is time to let it go. There will always be the tendency to rewrite, restate, polish, add another idea, expand on an element that seems just a tad off. But, I’m ready to let it free. It’s time. And with that, here’s its premise:

In multiple conversations at multiple institutions over the years, I have heard educated, passionate, and good-willed people talk with excitement about the number of students participating in online and distance courses. More than a million students in Canada. More than 100,000 in the early massive open online courses (MOOCs), more than 20,000 in recent ones. More than 200 enrolled in a for-credit foundations course at a local university. Nearly two million online learners at one of the world’s well-known open and mega university. While such figures are impressive, an enthusiastic and all-consuming focus on the numbers can lead us to lose sight of Irma, Magda, Hassan, James, and Asma, or of the reasons that Anna failed to complete her degree, or Nick and Cassandra who were compelled to enroll in higher education while raising a family. Nor is it just our fascination with scale and numbers that leads us astray. A variety of common discourses, practices, and pressures operate in similar ways to alienate us from students and their realities—such as the adoption of business-like language to refer to students as “prospects” or financial constraints that move us to prioritize goals like “competitiveness” and “growth” over more community-oriented or people-centered goals.

Invisible learning, untrackable learning, and hidden learning environments

One of the chapters in my forthcoming book on online learners’ experiences is called The Learner Who “Listened.” It shares the story of an individual who participated in a course in a sort of solitary way, participating in the course without posting on any of the discussion boards, without being visible to the mechanisms developed to encourage participation. Let me paraphrase. She participated – by reading, thinking, watching – but this kind of participation is not typically deemed participatory. The pejorative label typically used to describe this kind of participation is “lurking.”

And even though some learning analytics companies and researchers want you to believe that “we can see everything the students do,” we can’t. In past work (pre-print here), we showed that learners engage with courses in ways that are invisible to instructors and researchers. Even if we could “see everything the students do,” that idea, and the practices that emanate from it, are dangerous and insidious.

I was reminded of this chapter this morning, while reading Clint’s post on untrackable learning in connection to conversations at ALT-C around “invisible learning environments” (Donna’s post here, Anne-Marie’s post here). There are activities that students engage in that should remain invisible – invisible to the instructor, invisible to the platforms that track them, invisible to the institution.

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