Connectivism, Composition, Coronavirus

So, I’ve been thinking about online instruction a lot lately. Mostly, that’s because I think it’s fairly possible that at least some amount of instruction at my University could end up being online this fall, for a lot of different reasons. It’s not a sure thing, but it seems worth planning for.  

While I’m a fairly digital guy, I have, in the past, resisted teaching entirely online classes because (as I explain below) I think the standard model of online instruction is a poor fit for the subjects I teach (especially first-year composition) and my pedagogy. The coronavirus, however, looks like it could force my hand, so I’ve gone looking for resources that I could use to build thoughtful, well designed online/hybrid instruction that better meets my needs. In particular, I was drawn to the learning theory called “connectivism,” which I was vaguely aware of as the basis for connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs): a form of massive online class that people I respected seemed to think of as less creepy, awful, and disengaged than the big name MOOCs.

What follows are my initial thoughts about connectivism and online composition pedagogy. Connectivism isn’t the shiny, new thing it was back in 2004, but I think it offers us a useful way to push back against the standard model of online teaching as “content delivery” and start building classes that function as communities where students learn to learn and practice real-world writing skills.

The Standard Model

At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s my sense of the standard model of “good online class design,” based on what I’ve gleaned from various faculty development activities, blog posts, etc.

The basic goal in this model is to break instructional content down into small “chunks,” deliver those chunks in an “engaging” way (usually video), and then do some sort of formative assessment activity (usually a quiz) to reinforce the content delivered in the content chunk. The classic Sebastian Thrun Udacity course on Statistics (Full Disclosure: I’ve failed to finish that course at least twice) is one good example of the model, with Thrun giving short explanations of statistical concepts in 3-5 minute videos using a virtual whiteboard, interspersed with short quizzes to follow up on the material. At my institution, faculty are encouraged to build “modules” in the LMS to deliver online instruction in a similar format.

I have some criticisms of this model, but first let’s admit that it represents a big improvement over the typical form of online instruction we saw during “emergency online instruction” this spring, which often amounted to little more than slapping students into a Zoom room and letting an instructor approximate his or her in-person class in the video call. As a method for delivering the sort of instruction that would traditionally be provided by a large lecture, the standard model probably works well enough (although, to be honest, I’m sometimes mystified by the persistence of the large lecture as a method of instruction).

However, for a lot of teaching, especially in subjects like composition, the standard model has some problems. Composition teaching fundamentally isn’t about learning content, it’s about practicing and developing skills. Furthermore, the standard model tends to have lurking in the background the idea of building online content that can be re-used across multiple classes and “scaled” to meet the needs of many, many students. While this kind of “reusable” and “scalable” content may have economic benefits for institutions, it tends to interrupt the building of relationships between students and faculty that leads to the attentive care that we know helps students (especially students from traditionally marginalized populations) succeed. A video content module may be entertaining but it doesn’t care about you, or your development as writer, much less a person. The standard model also tends to frequently veer into advocating for pervasive surveillance of learning spaces (via exam proctoring services, the surveillance features of the LMS, etc) in order to make up for the lack of student-teacher relationships and try to ensure that students are remaining “engaged” with the content being delivered and avoiding cheating and academic dishonesty. These surveillance techniques also undercut the trusting relationships that would enable the kinds of learning composition classrooms need.

Connectivism, A Better Model for Teaching Online?

If the apotheosis of the standard model of online teaching as “content delivery” is a Massive Open Online Class (MOOC) like those offered by Udacity, then the alternative cMOOCs (which were, in fact, the original MOOCs) seem to offer an alternative. The cMOOC stresses decentralized activity on the open web over content delivered via an LMS. Stephen Downes, one of the co-organizers of the first cMOOC, described the course as “not simply about the use of networks of diverse technologies; it is a network of diverse technologies.”  The class “Connectivism & Connective Knowledge” utilized a blog, a wiki, twitter, moodle, and live class sessions on a platform called elluminate (since acquired and then “depreciated” by Blackboard). The class encouraged students to create, post, remix, and share their own content in class conversations and social media sessions, rather than simply consume content from instructors.

The “Connectivism & Connective Knowledge” MOOC serves as a pretty good illustration of the overall shape of connectivism as a pedagogical mode. As George Siemens explains in the original 2005 article that coined the term, connectivism holds that “Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.” Rather than attempt to optimize content delivery to students, connectivist online teachers ask students to engage in networks and practice the method of building knowledge within those networks. For connectivism, that learning is not just content internalized by a learner, but also the network of human (fellow learners, teachers, experts) and non-human (databases, search tools) that learners build while gathering, evaluating, and producing content.

For me, the advantage of this approach to composition teaching seem clear. The “learning to learn” approach that is typical to many composition classrooms, where students are encouraged to practice the process of encountering new genres and adapting their writing to meet the needs of new rhetorical situations (rather than memorizing “rules” to guide the production of a fixed set of genres), matches well with the connectivist focus on learning as an ongoing process. As Siemens puts it “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.” Furthermore, the focus on the creation of content, rather than the consumption of content, fits nicely with what we typically want students to do in the composition classroom.

That said, connectivism is not without its failings. The original 2005 article is very much an artifact of its time, with an emphasis on structureless “self-organization” and “decentralization” which feels decidedly dated now. The “Connectivism & Connective Knowledge” MOOC relied heavily on RSS, the once great, now mostly forgotten, technology that allowed readers to gather content from widely distributed blogs and other publishers into a single reader app. No technology is more emblematic of the distributed web we lost than RSS.

More seriously, the “open” model of “autonomous” learning championed by connectivism has proven to be a model that does not serve less-privileged learners particularly well. Research into early cMOOCs showed that many enrolled in the courses did not actively participate, and that those that did participate tended to be more confident in their abilities. One less active participant in an early MOOC expressed their discomfort with the idea of open participation saying “once I was in the MOOC and running the idea, I actually felt almost as though I would be, instead of sharing with others, I was going to be simply showing my ignorance, even in terms of what I was selecting and why I was selecting it.” This skew towards more confident, better prepared, typically more privileged learners recalls Tressie McMillan Cottom’s famous critique of online learning as being designed to serve an idealized subject she calls the “roaming autodidact,” typically coded as white, male, and economically secure.

Nonetheless, I think we can (re)construct a usable online pedagogy for composition by combining some of the insights of connectivism (in particular, the way it stresses helping learners practice to use online tools to build connections and remix, author and share content) with the practices of mentorship and care typical of a more traditional classroom setting. This requires abandoning the idea that online learning can “scale” to be “massive” (an idea both MOOCs and cMOOCs embrace) and instead accepting that education will remain a labor-intensive process of building relationships and care-work.

Starting Ideas for a Connectivism Inspired Composition Class

As I plan my own sections of Intro to Composition this fall, I’m thinking about what the kind of caring connectivist pedagogy I imagine above would look like in practice. For me, a big piece of this planning involves embracing the possibility of a greater role of online/hybrid spaces as a potential strength for a composition class, as these spaces require students to compose their participation in the class itself via writing or electronic media. This makes the practice of class participation, if managed well, an opportunity to engage in composition skills.

With that in mind, what I’m doing now for the fall is brainstorming ways to make the class a community of composition, leveraging electronic tools to allow students to write to and for each other. I think this will rely on early, non-assessed writing assignments (inspired in part by Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement”) students are encouraged to share what forms of composition they care about and regularly consume. I also may attempt to subdivide the class into smaller communities of interest to allow students to compose within an environment of shared passions and ideas. As they go, students would progress from composing less-assessed “discussion” pieces designed to build community with me and their peers, to more structured compositions designed to achieve some purpose they had defined together.

In order to give this shared process some structure, I’ve been brainstorming shared tasks that students could only successfully complete through effective communication and collaboration. The example of how gamers everywhere use wikis and other forms of collaborative communication to share strategies for solving various kinds of puzzles and challenges in games seems like a potentially productive example for how to do this. Learning communities, online and off, that revolve around hobbies from sourdough baking to hairstyling to gardening also serve as potential models. The idea of emulating what effective online learning communities already do is a key insight of connectivism, and one worth continuing to explore (even as we admit the limitations of those “spontaneous” communities).

As students build these shared compositions, I think it makes sense to ask them to reflect on the networks they are building. What tools do they employ to complete tasks and how do the affordances of those tools shape their writing? Who are the people who model the kind of composition they want to do, and who might make up a support network (online and off) they can draw off of as they compose (and then support in turn)?

Furthermore, as I build a class as “community” I’m trying to avoid romanticizing “community” as a safe, stable “home place” where people always feel comfortable, and instead thinking about how to build a community that reflects how real-world communities require compromise and moments of being uncomfortable, especially for the relatively privileged.

This kind of communal, shared, active online/hybrid environment seems to me more promising than the standard model of “content modules.” Whatever form our teaching takes this fall, I think I’ll benefit from spending time thinking through this, and I’d love to hear from others who would like to think about assignments and class activities that could fit this kind of model.

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