After this there will be no more good clean online fun

I’m not sure how it happened, but I found myself poking some fun at Matt Crosslin and Brian Lamb on Twitter based on this exchange:

It led to a bit of discussion, and I found myself being dragged in regardless of my best impulses. What was supposed to be a drive-by comment tweaking folks turned out to be a bit of a broader issue in my mind, so I figured it was high time to move it to the blog before the 250 character trap failed me even more, not to mention fear of alienating folks I deeply respect. Also, I know that everybody is a bit frayed right now for a variety of reasons, personally I am heading into week 5 of lockdown and it is definitely taking its toll. So, maybe trying to blog through it will be a bit therapeutic, or maybe not 🙂

Online learning should be fast, fun, crazy, unplanned, and inspirational. It should be provided by people who are more like DJs than television producers. It should move and swim, be ad hoc and on the fly. I wish educators could get out of their classroom mindsets and actually go out and look at how the rest of the world is doing online learning. Watch a dance craze spread through TikTok, follow through-hikers on YouTube, organize a community in a Facebook group, discuss economic policy in Slack. All of that is online learning – and (resolutely) not the carefully planned courses that are over-engineered, over-produced, over-priced and over-wrought.

The above quote was the bit by Stephen Downes Matt Crosslin was taking issue with, but it is one I was sympathetic to given I tend to favor the more spontaneous approach to online course design. What’s more, the idea that Clint Lalonde suggested that anything happening now can’t be considered online learning is what Downes appeared to be taking issue with specifically. If you’re teaching a course there should be some assumption around expertise in your take on the subject matter, so there should be some foundation to work within immediately. I was reading Downes as suggesting the nature of the online pivot might open some space for forgiveness for subject experts to explore and experiment a bit. I know this is counter to the bunker down mentality on the frontline, and admittedly I am not supporting faculty directly at the moment so I may be speaking out of turn. But again, I was not seeing Downes as suggesting explore brave new technologies and learn how to broadcast on the radio or something, but rather just be flexible and try different approaches whether via email, LMS, WordPress, Youtube, etc. I imagine some faculty will do this and get turned on to a whole new world of possibilities for online learning, but that isn’t necessarily salvo to the pain so many edtech folks like Matt and Brian are feeling as the try and scale up for this Herculean “pivot.” The concern I have is the idea that what happens in the next few months is not considered “real online learning” might discount some of the emergent approaches born of necessity. What’s more, I tend to associate the idea of extensive planning and real, serious online learning as mandate for big, costly edtech that is overly produced, and I am assuming given his post Downes was making the same connection.

And frankly, I do not think it is crazy given the way MOOCs went in 2011 and 2012. What was supposed to be a more fluid experiment with new approaches quickly became co-opted (one could argue willingly) as highly-produced videos with LMS backends that scale.  That said, given the rapid uptake and seemingly high stakes for R1 schools there was little room for experimentation and pushing the boundaries of this model beyond video-taped lectures delivered at scale, and that was a travesty for the field. I recognize now is no time for experimentation, and that is not what I am getting at here, but I do think the outsourcing to entities like Coursera, EdX, Udemy, etc. over the last decade, not to mention the arguably even more financially disastrous role of the Online Program Managers (OPMs) that have hollowed out entire programs in higher ed, sometimes scandalously, has a role in the current crisis. This points to some of the real questions so many higher ed schools (at least in the U.S.) face more broadly when it comes to investing in outsourced solutions rather than paying livable wages for teams of talented people.

So, I am wondering if more than a few universities are making their staff pay for the undervaluing and outsourcing of their expertise right now, moreover edtech programs are bearing the brunt of this and find themselves faced with an untenable charge. In fact, it’s a broader question of labor and responsibility on the part of HE administrations that have not invested in people.

With all that said, I don’t see this as a reason to say what happens for the next few weeks is not “real online learning,” but rather it might demonstrate the necessity of that expertise as well as some of the limits of those paid third-party services that provide the turn-key solution technically—are they enough to scale online learning?  Maybe it can act as a cautionary tale for schools that did not have the folks on the ground to help. But given there’s a chance that this lockdown could have impact through Fall and possibly next Spring, I am afraid it will be more about big-tech and serious LMS-like solutions than anything resembling innovative and exploratory attempts to explore the very DNA of online learning given the current situation. That was the reason for my original tweaking of Brian and Matt, and let me be clear that I am not suggesting this is the time for wild experimentation, but I hope there will be space for that once the dust settles a bit and folks dig out, that’s all I meant—but I am currently curled up under my desk in the event I am unintentionally inspiring the wrath of edtechs on the ground everywhere 🙂

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9 Responses to After this there will be no more good clean online fun

  1. Thanks Jim. I never expected a footnote on a blog post to elicit such a strong backlash from someone like Stephen, especially considering it came at the end of a blog post that wasn’t even on the subject.

    I appreciate your more nuanced take here, and perhaps I should have spent another 1500 words being more nuanced myself to thoughtfully unpacking what I saw happening in the first phase of the transition instead of trying to pack it into a footnote and, regretfully on my part, using the loaded and imprecise term “real”.

    At any rate, the issue here is what is happening within the system; how higher education is reacting, how institutions are responding. Is it “real” online learning? Well, some of it is. Some educators will take this opportunity to rethink how they do things and adapt their teaching to a new modality. But right now what I see is a lot of “let’s sit 50 people in a Zoom room to listen to a lecture”. That is NOT online learning. That is reverting to what you know, which is a perfectly realistic response given the circumstances. What’s more (and why I even made the point about it being “real” in the first place) is that there are opinions floating around suggesting that now would be a good time to conduct efficacy research on the effectiveness of online learning, which is the subtext of my footnote. Now is a horrible time for research to be done comparing the effectiveness of online learning to other modes of learning. This is truly fly by the seat of your pants people being thrown into the deep end of the online learning pool and being expected to swim teaching & learning. It’s no wonder we are seeing a lot of attempts to replicate face to face in online learning. When under stress, people need the order of familiarity.

    I don’t disagree with your take on what we would like to see happen at this time. That we use this as an opportunity whenever we can to help support instructors to rethink their teaching and learning practice. And for those of us who are working on helping institutions and (in my case with BCcampus entire systems) transition online is to help them move to a place where they DO reconsider their practice. Where they DO re-examine, say, assessment, so that they don’t immediately rush out and sign million dollar contracts with virtual proctoring companies or OPM’s and then embed that as standard online learning once the pivot is done. Or throw out privacy and security for the sake of expediency. I have been in this rodeo long enough to know that once something gets embedded in practice, it is very hard to go back. But I also know that right now, the people many of us are supporting – instructors and students, support staff and administrators – are really struggling. It seems a hard time to be asking them to embrace the chaos and messiness that is inherent with a style of learning so many of us love when they are deep in crisis worried about where food is going to come from, or whether a job in that career they have just spent 4 years preparing for will be there when graduate next month. Or worse.

    I have followed Stephen long enough and know & respect his work well enough understand why he chose to make the point he does and why he used it to advocate for his vision of online learning, although in typical Stephen way he turned it personal when he implied that I am the kind of person who is breaking online learning. I have enough understanding of the field to know there are MANY ways to do online learning, and the “right” way is the one that is going to work for the people (students, instructors, staff) that I am working with and the context I am working in. Stephen’s comment highlights many privileges that he has that many don’t when it comes to teaching & learning online. For example, he has worked online long enough that he knows Archie isn’t just a comic character so he has had decades to develop the necessary digital skills to be able to be ad hoc and spontaneous in an online environment. That is something many instructors don’t have. Now, there is a strong point to be made here that they SHOULD have had those skills, and indeed many of us have worked for years advocating for better ways to develop digital literacy skills among instructors. But the reality is we are dealing with people who’s toolset is often Powerpoint and Word, and they are being thrown online. There are also people whom I work with that are incredibly ad hoc and spontaneous, that are fun and real in an online environment, but it is only because they have spent a LOT of time preparing for that. Their plan gives them comfort and flexibility, gives them freedom to be able to actualize many of those traits in Stephen’s vision of online learning.

    The point you make about universities making their staff pay by undervaluing and outsourcing their edtech expertise is bang on, and leading to the real burnout of many good people in our field. People at institutions that have systematically cut or outsourced or minimized the importance of skilled knowledgeable people with expertise in online learning and faculty support are going to feel this hard, and I am worried about many colleagues who are trying to do the impossible and help people get through this term when they themselves are also struggling to adapt to whatever the new normal is.

    I’ve taken up entirely too much space in the comments. Stay safe.

    • Reverend says:


      Well, here is a perfect case of the comment being far better than the post. I should have gotten the subtext of the research in your footnote given I have seen that proposal for faculty elsewhere and was gobsmacked at how bad that advice is 🙂 And, everything you say about context and nuance is right on, and it is why I tried to use this post to eat some crow about my cheekiness and throw some love to the edtechs who are being tasked with the impossible. Given that, it certainly does not feel like the right time to be pontificating about possible futures given when that is the source of insecurity for so many right now.

      I hoped this post would be therapy, and while my ramblings weren’t all that effective—-your concise and clear framing of the situation has been, so thanks for being so damn generous with your comment and laying out a context that you really shouldn’t have to. I’ve said it previously through other channels, but I do feel like the web has been a bit more hospitable these days for a variety of reasons (too many unfortunate), but I want to spend my time being as generous with others as you have been here with this comment. Thanks Clint!

  2. I agree with pretty much everything Clint says here, but for one thing:

    “But right now what I see is a lot of “let’s sit 50 people in a Zoom room to listen to a lecture”. That is NOT online learning. That is reverting to what you know, which is a perfectly realistic response given the circumstances.”

    I don’t think it’s fair to say to people that this is not online learning. It *is* online learning. It might be poor online learning, but it may well be a necessary first step that people need to take. People are, as you say, doing what they know. They’re trying to do it online.

    I’ve been trying to give people a sense of hope and a belief that they can do this. The overwhelming response I’ve seen from ed tech people is “no you can’t”. That really disturbs me. If we set the bar so high they can’t possibly succeed then this really does (as I perhaps undiplomatically said) break online learning.

    • Matt says:

      We have thousands of ed-tech people working around the clock for weeks on end without days off to try and help people get online – how on earth does that qualify as “overwhelming response I’ve seen from ed tech people is “no you can’t”” when so many people are literally working non-stop telling everyone “yes, you can”? Come on…. We are offering free classes in what little free time to help people get online because we are not trying to set any bars high at all. “Ed-Tech people” are setting up networks of voluntary help, starting Facebook pages that are so wild with advice flying that even I won’t venture there, and the list goes on… How does any of this count as an “overwhelming response” of “no you can’t”? I just don’t get it.

  3. Pat says:

    The first time I saw it’s not online learning it’s emergency remote teaching I was really, really shocked by it.

    One, it’s a high pressure situation and people need help not judgement. You can say telling them it’s emergency remote teaching is helping, but I think that’s a weird use of time.

    And to be honest if you can tell me what real is and not set course for learning styles, kudos

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  6. Simon Ensor says:

    Well: “I recognize now is no time for experimentation” really?

    To be honest for the majority of teachers that I know in primary/secondary/higher education, that’s exactly what they are having to do: EXPERIMENT.

    They are experimenting because there is no choice at present.

    Ministers appeared on TV to announce everything was ready for pivoting online: BULLSHIT.

    People, teachers are largely on their own trying to get their head around unfamiliar tech while helping their kids do their piles of stay at homework exercises.

    A small number of people have been doing and researching and thinking and tweeting about “online stuff” for years in ever echoing bubbles and meeting in conferences while the vast majority of the educational community have remained (perhaps thankfully) blissfully unaware.

    Now is absolutely the time for experimentation: seeing how we can all take time to be there to help fellow learners (whoever they may be) we are, after all, all out of our depth.

    Of course we also have to make people aware of the circling authoritarian surveillance tech vultures, hyenas, and associated carryon controlling creatures.

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