Friday, February 21, 2014

The forum is an illusion

Well, last week of #rhizo14 and we're all pondering where to go from here, planning the next steps I guess.  Although I am getting the distinct feeling that participants are going through the stages of grief ;-)  In any case, the topic of this last week ties into enabling student independence, which was the topic of week 3, except that this week it feels more like kicking the birds out of the nest :)

The other day, independent of rhizo14, I was having a conversation with one of my graduate assistants, who also happens to be in the graduate course I am teaching this semester (titled: The Design and Instruction of Online Courses).  This, and #rhizo14, mixed and produced the following thought process, pondering, and question at the end of the post.

(Historical background - if you want to skip, go down 3 paragraphs)
The first time I taught this course (Spring 2013), I was a last minute substitution. The course designer, and regular faculty member teaching the course, was not available to teach the course, so since I was familiar with the subject I was called upon. I was familiar with the particular course shell since the person who usually taught it was a valuable colleague who shared her materials with me, and I had also taken an earlier incarnation of this course (if we are in version 4.0 now, I took it when it was at version 1.0).

There were a few things in the course that I didn't agree with including in the course (such as learning styles), and certain articles with broad generalizations about generational differences, but since it was the first time teaching that course I decided to focus my time on reworking the six thematic overview lectures. This way learners would have the dissonance of having Professor X speaking in the lectures, but Professor Y actually teaching.  I also decided to be a devil's advocate in the forums to help coax out more critical views of the readings.  The class went well.

Second time around (last fall), I was also a last minute substitute. No worries.  This time around I decided to not do any heavy re-work of the course and decided to focus more on refining course podcasting, something I introduced that first time around. I continued to play devil's advocate in order to help students engage with the materials a little more critically since I hadn't gone back to replace things that I saw as outdated.

Finally, this semester (three weeks in now), I knew that I would be teaching this class for a third time, so I decided to go back and thoroughly review all materials (audio, video, text) to see what can be replaced and made up to date. I also decided to try out badging (more on that in this blogpost).  As I was reading the materials for week 3 (this week) back in December, I removed the Learning Styles stuff (the ones that took themselves seriously anyway) and replaced them with quick overviews of what Learning Styles are so that people are conversant to some extent about them. I also added some more materials critical of learning styles.  There was an article that was there on generational differences, which as I was reading I almost wanted to throw my iPad against the wall ;)  Typical "boomers are this, Get X are this, Millenials are this" stuff which I disagree with (as is evidenced by the JOLT article I wrote a few years ago).  Well, I get to the conclusion, and there while this article was reporting on other people's work, it does include a caveat that you can't generalize (in brief anyway). So I thought to keep this article, at least for this semester, as a way to help students develop a critical reading of literature.

So, back to my graduate assistant.  Since she works in the office next door, I got to hear a lot about what BS this article was, with backup to her arguments (yay!), and apparently some other students thought the same based on her own communications.  But I haven't seen this critical aspect in the discussion forums.  When I queried her about why she hasn't posted any of this in the course fora (it's an online course), I got the response that there is no forum dedicated to this. The (stated) discussion topic of the week wasn't conducive to posting a critique of the reading materials, and she felt that the virtual café wasn't the space for it. The message was clear: make a forum for it.  I disagree with this mode of thinking because I am basically making a path for them to walk (in my view).  What if, in life, they come up with 3 roads (this is a metaphor...), and they are asked to choose, but none of the choices are valid.  Should they not feel comfortable treading their own roads, and having a way to reason and backup their views and opinions?  What if the forum is just an illusion?

Furthermore, I informed her, and other graduate assistants in the room, that when I design a course from scratch, I include materials that are both good (in my view) but also rubbish, so that students can get conflicting views and they need to critically analyze what they are getting, discuss, process, reason, and come to a conclusion of their own. I got a somewhat joking response that they pay money so they expect good content to be put into their brains. I think (hope!) that they were joking since we in the Applied Linguistics department rail against the Banking Model of education ;-). I am pretty sure, however, that there are students out there that do believe that since they pay for a course, they are entitled to only the best content, to read, regurgitate (or apply) and feel happy about it.   Then the instructional designer kicked in and I started wondering about my own practices.  Should I tell students, up-front, that some of the articles I see as good and some as rubbish? Or should I not? My fear is that if I do so, it may become a game of discover what the professor likes and throw it back to him (a fine tradition in schools as I understand it), whereas if I am working with a more with a devil's advocate approach, I won't tell you what I think (well I do, but it's at the end of the process), but I want you to argue your point of view and expand upon it.

Your thoughts?
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