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Colin Madland

Inviting participation

5 min read

Word has gotten around that I'm proposing changes.

That could be the end and enough to strike fear in the heart of any introverted educational technologist. But last night, I was invited to speak to the faculty of the program which is up for review and revision. Some of them are worried, and I certainly don't blame them for that. But I do think that the concerns being voiced, while valid, are not fatal to what I hope to do.

Changing a teaching and learning paradigm is not something that happens overnight, unless that is something that is built in to a teacher's practice. Keeping up is a lot easier than catching up.

I recognize that I'm proposing a model of online teaching and learning that is quite different from a traditional 'online' model that grew out of either a f2f or a correspondence model. But I do think that the difficulty in changing will be overshadowed by the benefits gained by rethinking how we invite students to engage with the program.


Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed. - Seymour Papert

But, if we are going to be different; if we are going to become leaders in the field; if we are going to have broad impact, we need to do things differently.

The two primary concerns voiced today were around privacy and digital literacy.

I used an example of a student's response to a discussion question in Moodle. The response was detailed, well-articulated, properly cited, connected to an authentic problem, and exactly what should be expected of a graduate student in an online course. I asked if it would have been appropriate for that response to have been shared on the public web. The answer to that was a rather emphatic 'No!'.

The reason for that response was that the student was an international student writing about a former employer 'back home' and if the post was public on the web, the student could have been in significant trouble with the government, including being disallowed from returning home.

It's hard to argue with the severity of those possible consequences. So I didn't. I acknowledged them as real and relevant. However, should such a clear case example of the consequences of students working on the open web stop us from allowing it? I don't think so.

One thing that became clear in the ensuing conversation was that we must not require students to do their work in the open, and I agree whole-heartedly. But we don't need to require students to do that in order to see the benefits of working in the open. It was pointed out that this was a 'fringe' example, and not the norm with our students.

What we can do, instead of requiring certain modes of interaction, is to invite participation that is more open, in situations where doing so is appropriate. And that leads directly to the other concern, digital literacy.

Our students are studying and practicing leadership as they work towards an MA in Leadership. At times, the content of the classes can be intensely personal or confidential, and if students are required to participate in the open, they could be at significant risk of breaching confidentiality. However, what I suggested is that that shouldn't lead us to avoid the web at all costs, but that we need to be intentional about giving our students the digital skills, awareness, and discernment to be able to interact in a connected world.

Predictably, Audrey Wattters says it better than I

Giving students their own digital domain is a radical act. It gives them the ability to work on the Web and with the Web, to have their scholarship be meaningful and accessible by others. It allows them to demonstrate their learning to others beyond the classroom walls. To own one's domain gives students an understanding of how Web technologies work. It puts them in a much better position to control their work, their data, their identity online.

Knowing how the web works seems to me to be foundational to being able to interact with discernment and wisdom on the web. And to quote Papert again

The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a [student] of the pleasure and benefit of discovery.

You could also say that every time we make a decision that affects students, we remove an opportunity for students to learn. If we say that all students' work must be protected by a login because some students' work might put them at risk deprives the majority of students of the 'pleasure and benefit of discovery'. It deprives them of the pleasure and benefit of exercising agency over 'their work, their data, their identity online'. It also deprives the vulnerable students of honing their skills in protecting themselves online, which may be even more important than protecting those who are not vulnerable.

In advocating for open practices, it is critical that we are inviting participation, not mandating specific requirements and practices. By inviting participation, we are respecting each individual's right to either participate in the open or not. We invite them to participate on their terms, not ours. It means that we design our platforms and learning environments to include as many as possible, and not exclude.

It means we need to do things differently.