Digital Pedagogy as Empowered Choice

I had the pleasure of remotely participating in a conversation with Jared Stein and Bonnie Stewart at the Digital Pedagogy Lab this morning. The topic of our discussion centered around balancing the benefits of open and closed approaches to digital pedagogy. An exchange that often comes down to the LMS vs open tools like Twitter, blogs, wikis, etc. What was interesting for me about this conversation was that strict dichotomy is starting to break down in my mind. The question of open vs closed (one I have been harping on for years) is beginning to morph into one centered around ownership, agency, and control.

Pitting open against closed assumes one right approach: open=good and closed=bad. At UMW we’ve defaulted our various systems to open (save the LMS) as a way of pushing our community’s work out on the web. In this regard, UMW Blogs and UMW Domains have become synonymous with open, whereas the LMS has often been understood as the closed space for digital course work. And while this approach to open at UMW has come to define our ethos, one I very much believe in, it also became our prison. Such a stance makes it hard to draw the nuances that were necessary to recognize a spectrum between these two poles.

But increasingly the question seems to be moving towards whether or not faculty and students can control their data. I shift I think Audrey Watters and Kin Lane, amongst others, have done a ton of work to raise awareness around. More and more I find myself thinking about a distributed, API-driven architecture that enables folks to share the work on their own terms, while at the same time making the act of sharing seamless across all these systems, whether it be the LMS, one’s own domain, blogs, the university web site, etc. What intrigues me about this shift is that it returns the decision of sharing back to the individual, rather than a pre-determined choice between LMS versus blog baked into the design of the system. How to we foreground choice and empower folks to make an informed decision?

Such an architecture might help re-focus the question of digital pedagogy back to conversations amongst faculty and students—enabling agency beyond the either/or questions of which system. Andrew Rikard‘s recent article in EdSurge, “Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It?”,  argues that while the push for owning your own data and the greater potential for agency is important, the real shift should focus on a move from “data possession to knowledge production”:

I agree that owning data has the potential to give students agency and control. But it is not a guarantee.

I want to shift the emphasis from data possession to knowledge production. Gaining ownership over the data is vital—but until students see this domain as a space that rewards rigor and experimentation, it will not promote student agency. Traditional assignments don’t necessarily empower students when they have to post them in a public space.

I couldn’t agree with Rikard more here. The shift towards the vision of a personal cyberinfrastructure must be accompanied by a shift in pedagogy that is centered around this idea of creative experimentation. I think this might also open up all sorts of questions surrounding the the role of the domain as an individual versus communal space; the benefits of the traditional stream-driven web versus an alternative, federated vision preached by Mike Caulfield with Smallest Federated Wiki; whether the true revolution at the center of digital pedagogy is to surrender any sense of unilateral power in the classroom, etc.

What I like about this line of discussion is that it frames the questions of digital pedagogy around issues of agency that pertain to both ownership of data as well as ownership of one’s education. Digital pedagogy as a pathway to empowered choice. Both of these shifts require a relinquishing of centralized control, deep faith in collaboration, mutual respect, and a vision of education as empowerment. All things I dig, and a conversation that starts to move us away from discussions around open vs closed that seem increasingly overdetermined.

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11 Responses to Digital Pedagogy as Empowered Choice

  1. Greg McVerry says:

    Thank you for succintly putting to paper what everyone has been thinking but could not articulate.

    Even the most open course can be horribly taught without the focus on agency. Digital pedagogy has to focus on empowering the learner through the process of shapin her identity as they build, test, and iterate on our knowledge.

    I have messed up “so called” open courses many times. Martin Hawksey is always reminding me of Norman’s law:

    Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

    This has happened to me in many “open classes” I tried to teach. It wasn’t the LMS that sucked it was me. I did not build in the pathways and choice that used digital tools to empower students.

    • Reverend says:

      Thanks for looping me back to Martin Hawksey’s post, he is right on the money as usual. I think the LMS has it’s fair bit of problems, but it’s crazy to think we can put some much agency in a system for ruining higher ed when faculty have final say over their teaching. I think another issues that might be interesting here is how the LMS corresponds with the rise of adjuncts, at least in the US. One way to make a system like this indispensable and monolithic is create a temporary workforce that does not have the time or investment to necessarily create twice as much work for themselves. Cause I think good teaching demands a lot more work, and when you are being paid a fraction of what tenured faculty are (who will not necessarily be great teachers based on the fact they are full-time and make much more money) the LMS becomes a the LCD (least common denominator).

  2. Kate Bowles says:

    I read Andrew Rikard’s article with the same conviction as yours: it doesn’t matter how openly students are asked to work, if all they’re being asked to do is the same old thing, for a grade. For me, grading is the enclosing technology here, and the real problem. Grading is the practice that recaptures learning, rounds it up, and herds it back into the institutional data stockyards.

    While Rikard’s article was still warm in my thoughts this week, a student asked me to share the marking rubric for work that is being done in public WordPress but will earn its keep in the Moodle gradebook. I’m more than happy to do this, especially as the rubric itself only exists as a QA mechanism across a large teaching team with 180 students all doing quite different things on their blogs.

    But then I thought: wait, wait, why do we even have this task, this rubric? What are we doing clogging up the open web this way? We have 500-600 students bloggers and they blog a lot. But what do they get out of it, truly? Writing to exchange ideas with complete strangers—like this—is the practice of agency that brought so many of us into blogging. What I think we’re doing with blogging for assessment is a kind of calcification of that improvised joy, and I’m really keen to unthink it.

    I think in reaching for revolution, we missed a step.

    • Reverend says:

      That very idea haunts me. I have all but surrendered any pretense of grading in my classes. And course designs like ds106 and the internet course have more and more been about making something they are interested in and sharing that process out. The difficulty is that some folks will always see this as a chore, I grant that. But I do see, at least in the petrie dishes of these courses, some real interaction and agency. That’s not always easily translatable for them beyond that experience for a bunch of reasons, time, energy, work, other commitments, etc. But the biggest one is often ds106 or the Internet Course stand as anomalies for them. They are rarely asked to do work like this again, so it loses much of the habituation of taking control of one’s online voice. I think Rickard nails the idea of overhauling the process at the level of pedagogy for domains, and the difficulty for me here has always been the fact of how do you seed that kind of sea change institution-wide. UMW is certainly poised, but damn that is a long, painful road to hoe. Im all but hoed out.

    • David Jones says:

      What do students get out of being required to blog on the open web in a course?

      As someone who requires (and marks) 100s of students to do this each year, I often ask myself the same question. Especially when some of the students ask the same question and when so few continue the habit after the course (as far as I know).

      For now, what I can come up with is that they are getting an experience of something new. It’s not a perfect experience and could be enhanced (or better yet transformed). But when compared with what else they experience during their studies it’s a step up.

      Frankly, if I were being pessimistic, I might ask myself what students are getting out of my courses at all.

  3. Scott Robison says:

    This is really good stuff. Agreed that it is no longer about open vs. closed. I keep coming back to process over product. A product can live anywhere, but a process (including audience) should include so much more (ownership, agency, distribution, etc.). I feel like you are nodding to open pedagogy (NOT OER).

    • Reverend says:

      Yeah, I think that is really the shift. I am much more interested in the power of open pedagogy that OER. I am not necessarily against the latter, but I find the focus one how much we save students in dollars and cents, while crucial, a strange way to frame the power of open education. We give them free text books and that changes everything? Seems like yet another layer of feeding (or even aiding and abetting) a system that preys on a temporary work force like adjuncts.

  4. Scott Robison says:

    There are those that definitely have $$$ at the fore-front of their OER initiatives (Tidewater, Maricopa County, etc.). These have little if anything to do with Open Education (and they would admit that). Saving students money is important, but is really quite low on the Open Education totem pole, almost a footnote really. There is so much more at stake here. You’ve done a fantastic job here, given all the “open” work you’ve facilitated for/with students, of connecting the dots and looking around the corner. Thinking of a space where students have complete control over who has access to their work, from only the instructor to the public. Maybe the LMS is replaced by a Sharing Management Space…

    • Robin DeRosa says:

      I think I’d frame it slightly differently (though I am completely with Scott in general here). Instead of thinking about cost-savings as a footnote, I would relate it to a broader conversation about access and public education. Making sure students can afford learning materials is one facet of access. But making sure they have agency and the ability to contribute to, not just consume, knowledge is also about access. This kind of access is at the root of the meaning of the word “public” to me. When we think about public universities, public web spaces, working in public, public scholarship: it’s all about allowing people access to shape the space in which they work and the work that gets done in those spaces. OER is not a low-bar sidenote to this conversation, but a prime example of how we can shift the relationship of learners to their position inside their publics. What is low-bar is the fetishization of cost that happens in conversations, trainings, and sales pitches about OER. I think it’s up to all of us to wrap OER into a bigger OpenPed conversation…

  5. This is something I have been pondering for DALMOOC2.0. The dual-layer design structure gives learners choice over open or closed within the class. Its pretty easy to tie in logins between systems like EdX and ProSolo. But then how do we make it something that learners own their own stuff? I mean, beyond just posting a link to your post in the assignment box? I put most of the re-design ideas in a post ( – would love to see if you have any feedback or thoughts on the re-design from the angle you explore with this post.

  6. Eric Likness says:

    I’m reminded a bit of Doc Searls “Cluetrain Manifesto” ( when it comes to ownership of data and who you share it with. Open vs. closed is a big part of decisions one makes but more important is owning the data apart from how it gets used (as a grade, as a portfolio, as an extension of work post graduation). There’s a lot of resonance here between this thread and Doc Searls “Vendor Relationship Management” (VRM).

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