It’s Not Who You Know, It’s How You Help Them

*I was invited to Georgetown University to give a talk on my experience with and vision for Digital Learning. You can find the slideshow at and the text, mildly edited, is below. *

Good morning. Thank you all so much for this opportunity to share my approach to and experience with digital learning. In case you’re not sure who I am, my name is Lee Skallerup Bessette, perhaps better known to some as @readywriting on Twitter. But more on that particular piece of my biography in a moment.

The title of my talk today is “It’s not who you know, it’s how you help them: Digital Learning as Human-Centered, Open, Collaborative, and Affective.” The first part of my title comes from my own take on something my grandmother used to tell me: “Lee,” she would say, “it’s not ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ It is rightfully, ‘it’s not who you know but how you use them.’”

Does the inspirational poster treatment help?

What I’ve learned, it’s not who you know, it’s how you help them.

I come here today not to offer solutions to problems you don’t even know you have with my visionary vision of digital learning, but instead to make the case for a shared, established perspective that builds strong stewardship in order to resist those forces that would seek to radically disrupt, and thus dismantle, what we value most.

Having said this, allow me to shamelessly pander to this particular audience by using Randy Bass and Bret Eynon’s vision for digital learning, put forward in their recent report for the AAC&U, Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem, as the framing device for the rest of this presentation. In it, they identify four essential elements for digital learning: Learner-Centered, Networked, Integrative, and Adaptive. It’s a “learning-first” vision, as opposed to a “technology-first” vision, something that as a long-time educator I heartily embrace and endorse. But, I have some important rejoinders to their four elements, informed by my own experiences in digital learning.


My first experience with Digital Learning was when I started my Master’s in early 2000 (I don’t know if that makes me old or young). I completed my BA at the same institution where I was doing my MA, in a small program that was forward thinking if not in its pedagogy, but at least in its methodologies and subject matter. I had learned in a class during the first semester of my BA (1996) how to hand-code in HTML in the name of future employability, while the professors in our department had just received funding for an early Digital Humanities project, putting a long-standing print bibliography into a database that would be accessible online.

One of my professors, who knew about my extra-curricular efforts to put our student newspaper online and to organize the students to lobby for curricular reform of our undergraduate program, as well as my work term writing for the “intranet” publication of a government agency, approached me about how to incorporate “discussion boards” into his graduate-level classes. He wanted to “flip” the graduate seminar, so to speak, with summaries of the articles assigned for that week and questions on the works of literature shared on the board before class, with preliminary discussions and first impressions done prior to meeting. I thought it was a good idea, but had no idea how to actually make a message board, but I could, at least, help him get set up a site (we all got our own tilde sites) and get started.

Looking back, that was my first experience as an academic technologist.

The professor, who ended up as my MA supervisor, ultimately was interested in harnessing this new resource that “all the kids” were using and talking about to improve his teaching. We now see this idea as quaint, as not really innovative–the discussion board is dead, long live blogging, the twitter chat, or snapchat stories!–but it was innovative when he was doing it, in fact tremendously so, all the more because he chose to do it in a public setting (this was also pre-LMS domination), with his students’ learning experience at the forefront.

His efforts, moreover, also presumed all the students had ready and reliable access to the internet. We had brand-new computer labs in our building, available (as far as I can remember) 24 hours a day. I spent a fortune on my own computer when I started college, with residence having just been wired for what was then considered “high speed” — it wasn’t dial up. When I moved out of residence, three of us shared the bill for dial-up access (and access to my computer) in our apartment. I had no trouble completing this part of my coursework on time and with few problems (unless I got a phone call while I was trying to submit my work, losing it all because the Internet cut out and had to start again because I wasn’t smart enough to type it into a Word document first. Early Internet problems).

I remained blissfully unaware of the impact such demands may have had on some of my classmates with less resources, whether monetary or temporal. Many came from more rural and remote areas of the province, and were looking to avoid “the big city” by going there. My friends and classmates were the children of small-town teachers and nurses, factory workers, farmers, miners, fishermen (and those associated with those industries), mechanics, construction workers, small local business owners, etc. These were not the same professions that my suburban high school friends parents had: engineers, doctors, vice-presidents, executives, lawyers. Many of the other students worked part time. Many of them had child-care responsibilities. Many couldn’t afford their own computer or internet access.

Fast-forward almost ten years.

I am now teaching at a regional, rural state institution whose service area represents some of the poorest zip codes in the country. Now, the impact of the digital and economic divide is obvious, at least to me: students who can’t afford their own computer, have no internet access at home because their town is too remote, can’t afford unlimited data on their phone, which is slow and unreliable anyway. The intervening ten years have not been kind to the economy of the region and most of the students are working multiple jobs to make ends meet for themselves and their extended families, not to mention deep cuts to the university’s budget from the state, impacting the infrastructure of the institution, both digital and otherwise. To be student-centered in this environment is to make the digital optional, which is what I did in my peer-driven learning approach to teaching. The philosophy, not the technology, motivated my pedagogy, a philosophy I see reflected in your own Inclusive Pedagogy initiative.

The students, I decided, deserved better. The students, I discovered, were better. Rather, I didn’t discover it, but had my suspicions reinforced section after section, semester after semester, by the students in my courses who rose and surpassed the challenge I placed in front of them, which was to take ownership over their own learning and build something, digital or otherwise, that had meaning. The industriousness they had learned and practiced and honed their entire lives outside of the classroom were being put to use inside the classroom.

I blogged openly about my peer-driven learning experience with my students, whose work they shared in varying degrees of openness themselves. I quietly built a reputation among the students and some faculty members as someone who was trying something different and a little radical with my gen ed writing courses, courses that had, in theory, been standardized within an inch of their pedagogical lives as a requirement of accreditation. I started a faculty learning community around the approach, spoke at numerous national conferences about what I was doing, and ended up being selected to participate in the campus’ President’s Leadership Academy, the first instructor to be chosen.

And this is where being student-centered comes up against the hard reality of a system that is not human centered. As a non-tenure-track faculty member, my contributions were largely ignored, if not outrightly dismissed, while my position within the university was contingent, a fact that I was reminded of in both implicit and explicit ways. While I was being celebrated outside of the institution for my DIY pedagogical approaches and hacks to make technology accessible to both myself and my students in the classroom, I hit up against the institutional and professional limitations of receiving zero support for and recognition of my efforts.

I know that I wasn’t alone in those frustrations. The data is clear that visible minorities, women, and those with disabilities are systemically excluded from the ranks of the tenure-track, and they are denied tenure at a much higher rate. The same obstacles that “non-traditional” students face exist for the majority of teaching faculty at these institutions. Resources and support for faculty are unevenly distributed, often setting us up, if not for failure, then at least for a road that is unnecessarily more difficult.

No one should have to do it by themselves. No one should have their contributions marginalized or erased because of their job title or identity. No one should look up from their teaching to realize that their best isn’t enough for the students but that there are no more resources, personal or institutional, to do any better.

We need to be human-centered if we are to be successful in being truly student-centered.

Networked and OPEN

In 2010, I got on Twitter and started a blog. Here is a short version of this story: I would not be standing here in front of you today if not for Twitter, for my blog, for what I learned through my network, for the support that my network has given me.

When my words on my blog were nothing more than frustrations and bluster, people still read me, encouraged me, gave feedback, and (most shockingly, to me, anyway) provided me with a larger and larger platform. Ultimately, I went from a personal Blogger blog (I know, not even WordPress!) to University of Venus to InsideHigherEd to ProfHacker, with stops at Women in Higher Education, Hybrid Pedagogy, and others outlets along the way. My words have been shared, amplified, shaped, reshaped, quoted, criticized, inspired, and raised more than a little ire on and through my network.

When I decided to try peer-driven learning in my classroom, it was because I had been inspired by so many educators and pedagogues on Twitter, and I knew that I had a support network. We shared resources, we shared our successes and failures, and we emboldened ourselves to push our pedagogy in new and unexpected directions. I learned how to listen on Twitter through these and many other interactions, a skill I keep bringing back to my classroom and in my role as a faculty developer and technologist. I was able to connect directly with people like Cathy Davidson–whose book, Now You See It, set in motion my journey to peer-driven learning–and participate in a larger conversation around pedagogical and technological changes in education.

When I realized I was woefully underprepared to teach First-Year Composition, I co-founded #FYCchat. Inspired by the education chats and hashtags that were largely targeted towards K-12 educators, we decided to start one of the first twitter chats targeted at educators in higher education. I learned a tremendous amount from those weekly chats, and from the people who participated, gaining insight, knowledge, and more than a few assignment ideas. The chat, which took a hiatus when both founders moved into alt-ac positions and no longer taught First-Year Composition, has recently been revived, allowing for a new network of instructors and graduate students to learn from one another and build a learning community.

When I decided to move into faculty development, it was my network that stepped up and stepped in to mentor me, to help me transition into a new career, and find me my first job. Everything I know about faculty development and educational technology–their intersections, their implementation, their perils, and their potential–I know in no small part because of my network. I learn and keep learning from them to this day. I take that knowledge into my classroom, into my meetings, into my interactions with faculty. My network pushes me to be better.

This is the idealized version of networked learning – supportive, responsive, just-in-time, multimodal, personalized, meaningful, relevant, and above all, effective. But I didn’t create my Twitter handle and my blog and this network just appeared. It isn’t who you know, it’s how you help them. I built up my network, tapping into existing networks, bringing disparate resources, sources, and people together, over the years by continually asking myself, how can I help them? How can I add value to this network – contribute, amplify, connect, share, listen, support?

There is no network without trust. There is no learning without trust.

I earned the trust of my network. And I trusted them.

No person was too small to engage with, listen to, amplify, introduce around, connect. Virtually no idea was dismissed outright, but instead met serious engagement grounded in respect. No “crazy idea” or dream or goal or aspiration was ever met with anything except the word, “yes,” and exclamation mark. No outrage was illegitimate and unwarenting of careful attention and empathy … Except if they were violating the safety, respect, or space of others in my network.

I always tried to be the person I wanted to meet and be connected with in my network. And it wasn’t always and still isn’t perfect, but I own my mistakes, my missteps, my human moments, and try to learn from them, to be better.

Trust. Generosity. Transparency. Openness.

We cannot have systems of learning, digital or otherwise, without these pieces. Networks are not neutral, and can be manipulated, can become closed systems, impenetrable and hostile to “outsiders”. Openness, then, is a key criterion that must always be remembered and emphasized as we build our networks for and about learning. Openness about our own privileged positions within that network, and the work we are doing within them. Openness about the shortcomings of these networks, as well, as we confront these baked in inequalities. Openness to make the opportunities we are building available and accessible to more people, while also being open about the ways our networks cannot and will not solve every problem or serve every student. The point is not to be defeatist, but to remind ourselves again and again that the process is always iterative, and that we must keep working to maintain, to improve, and thus to sustain our work.

Integrative and Collaborative

I strived to make a difference for the students in my classroom, but very quickly realized that my efforts were always going to come up short. Every time I told my students, you will never take another class like this again, it broke my pedagogical heart a little more. I had long realized that to make a difference, you have to engage at the system level; this understanding lead to my involvement as an undergraduate student in programmatic reform, becoming Graduate Student Association President during my PhD, and working on behalf of adjunct and contingent faculty, which included unsuccessfully running for President of the Modern Languages Association.

It also led me to faculty development, where I saw the potential to really make a systematic impact in the academy. My experience in the classroom, alongside my experience with and through my network, and my writing about pedagogy specifically, but higher education more generally, helped prepare me for the challenges that I would face. However, changing your classroom practice, which challenging, is nothing compared trying to implement and scale the kind of change we want to bring to our institutions

At the University of Kentucky, I had the privilege of being a part of the e-Learning Innovation Initiative or eLII (which just so happens to be the first name of the President of the institution). It closely resembles the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning here at Georgetown, but our focus was more narrow, looking to expand the number of online and hybrid courses and programs. eLII was a collaborative initiative between the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), which is where I worked as a faculty developer, and Analytics and Technologies. We reported to the Office of the Provost, while AT reported to the CIO.

Faculty could apply to move their courses online or into a hybrid format to alleviate space and other resource concerns, or move entire programs online. The proposal of new programs, specifically graduate programs, was also encouraged. When a proposal was approved for funding and other support, a team of faculty developers, educational technologists, project managers, and analytics staff were formed to assist the faculty. We worked collaboratively with faculty and administrators on every aspect of the planning, implementation, and assessment.

The programs and courses we worked with were cross-disciplinary and encompassed every aspect of the student experience. From a general education “creativity” courses in dance and theater, which were challenging how we defined “seat” and “face-to-face” time in order to increase enrollment while maintaining a high-touch experience through a hybrid delivery, to a new online graduate program in Historic Preservation, to gateway courses in Math and Engineering, we collaboratively devised a variety of solutions to whatever obstacles we faced.

This included engaging in a number of design thinking exercises to ensure we were able to think past what we had “always done” or get over “that’s impossible” mindsets. When faculty in a program could not conceive of any way to move their program online successfully, we engaged them in an exercise called “Head, Hand, Heart” which allowed them to identify the strengths of the program, as well as identify opportunities that only exist when in an online environment.

When faculty couldn’t imagine not lecturing over powerpoint slides, we shared the appropriate research on engagement with video in online classes, and then a number of design thinking exercises and technology parades to think differently about content delivery. Among other things, this led to the purchase and building of a Lightboard studio so faculty could create a much more authentic lecture video.

Another component of eLII was a cohort model of faculty development, which started in the Spring with a three-day Innovation and Design Lab and followed up through the following academic year by monthly meetings of faculty learning communities that were formed during those three days. We also had two larger events at the conclusion of the Fall and Spring semesters, where participants would share their progress via lightning talks.

Now, that was the model. But as it often happens, the reality was much more complicated. A number of faculty couldn’t make the inaugural I+D Lab, and thus became what we called the 1.5 cohort. Rather than participate in an intensive and coordinated series of talks, workshops, design activities, and team-building exercises, leading to the creation of organic, interest-driven FLCs, this group instead attended a number of disconnected workshops and webinars throughout the academic year and were artificially placed in learning communities that made little sense beyond their availability. Their satisfaction with the program, and their progress on their initiatives were far behind those faculty who participated in the cohort model as it was intended. Instead of collaboration and community, we had individual dissent and dissatisfaction.

The operationalization of the I+D Lab specifically, and eLII more generally, was complicated because of the disparate offices who were tasked with working together to make it a success. Faculty answered to chairs and deans, while we answered to the Provost, and our colleagues in instructional technology and institutional effectiveness answered to the CIO. And we all answered to the Board of Regents, who were concerned about the resources being put into eLII in an era of decreased state support and funding. We all often had very different goals for our participation, and those goals were sometimes at cross-purposes.

When the second iteration of I+D Lab was in the planning stages, we took the feedback seriously and worked to improve the experience and effectiveness of our programming. First up, no .5 cohort – we made it clear in the application process that faculty had to be available for the three-day program, or would have to defer to the next year. Second, we had to find a way to work better, together, in offering a more integrative and active experience for the participants. We worked in more free time for the faculty to get to know one another, as well as introduce a number of “unconference” type blocks, where faculty could choose what they wanted to learn and/or discuss. The one advantage of the 1.5 cohort is that we had A LOT of workshops we could offer on short notice, developed in response to the need of that group of faculty.

But, the most important thing, for me, was making sure that those of us tasked with coordinating and then facilitating the event felt like a team working for a common goal and purpose, that everyone’s strengths were best utilized, and that everyone felt like their contribution was valued. With our director travelling internationally, another key team member taking a new job, and another undergoing major surgery, the task fell to me to make sure that I+D Lab happened. When a colleague who required a great deal of planning to deliver a workshop kept having their workshop topic changed, I worked with them to figure out how to adapt and adopt existing materials while also easing their anxiety around not having enough time to plan properly. When another colleague was being marginalized in the process and having their work overlooked, I spoke up and worked to ensure they were included and recognized, while also encouraging them to keep coming up with innovative ideas that I knew faculty would receive positively.

I knocked on doors to check in, I closed doors to listen to concerns, I connected people and made sure they were heard and understood by one another. I managed expectations and calmed panicked moments when logistical challenges inevitably arose. I won’t say the event went off without a hitch, because no event ever does, but it did go better than the previous year, and we got largely positive feedback from the faculty.

I brought all of these lessons with me to the University of Mary Washington. I was particularly excited to come to UMW because of the Domain of One’s Own initiative, a truly (and I don’t use this word lightly) innovative development, one that was on the cusp of being more fully integrated into the curriculum and student experience. The opportunity to work in a collaborative and forward-thinking unit such as the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, in concert with the Digital Knowledge Center, a peer-tutoring service that helps the students do the digital projects we at DTLT help the faculty develop.

I’ve led a few initiatives while I have been with DTLT. I introduced the idea of the “design sprint” as a way to combine the power of design thinking activities in a more compressed timeframe, given the restrictions on teaching-intensive faculty’s time. This was a piece of our larger series of programming this past year around the Digital Liberal Arts. While each session was integrated with the larger theme of the Digital Liberal Arts, and the individual monthly themes, they weren’t integrated enough into a larger initiative to be truly successful, at least for now. They are a new and unfamiliar concept for our faculty; we know workshops don’t “work” and I wanted a more active, immediate, and relevant form of faculty development, but faculty expect the workshop model. Call it another “Cohort 1.5 lesson.”

More successfully, I coordinated the development of a series of “adaptable learning blocks” to help faculty more smoothly and successfully integrate DoOO into their classes. This isn’t the technical aspect of getting started (we have how-to documentation and the DKC for students for that), but instead helps faculty to engage their students with the deeper philosophical implications of owning one’s own domain and building their digital identity. A number of faculty are currently piloting it here at UMW and elsewhere in the community of universities doing a Domains initiative. I am looking forward to workshopping, remixing, and expanding the modules at the Domains conference this June. We are always ensuring the work we are doing here at DTLT is open and available and transparent, for the benefit of our faculty and beyond, particularly through our DTLT blog, which I also coordinate and edit.

But I am most proud of the work I just completed chairing the Working Group on Advanced Digital Fluency. Our new strategic plan at UMW calls upon the university to “Incorporate digital fluency in the curriculum, either as part of general education or by enhancing the digital content within major programs. The Teaching, Technology, and Innovation division will design a plan in AY 2016-17 to guide this conversation.” I was tasked, then with chairing the group, as well as writing the report, which I just submitted at the end of March.

Since August, a group of 12 faculty from across the disciplines, librarians, and staff have been meeting first to define what advanced digital fluency even means, and then to decide how best to integrate it into the curriculum at UMW. I can’t share too publicly what we came up with, but I will say that it is “a phased approach to fully integrating advanced digital fluency across campus.” This was not an easy task; there wasn’t even agreement initially that this was what we should be doing. But through a number of design thinking exercises around our values at UMW and how we view digital fluency, we settled on a definition and a strategy that made everyone on the committee, dare I say, happy.

This report is, in my mind, potentially the most impactful and important thing I have written in my career. The opportunity to help shape the future curricular direction of the institution, with the incorporation of skills and capacities that I value and have tried to embrace and embody as a teacher and an academic technologist, is why I moved into a “staff” position. I am also proud that I was able to achieve consensus on a difficult and charged subject; faculty are rightfully suspicious of broad curricular reform edicts, and “the digital” has long been a point of contention for faculty either lamenting “kids and their gadgets these days” or seeking to resist what they see as administrative meddling in the name of “efficiency.”

And our new UMW President cited it.

I was able to meet the members of the committee where they were, so to speak, in regards to what they knew and understood about digital fluency, and really listened to their concerns, both explicitly and implicitly stated in meetings and privately with me. I made sure that I used the strengths of others on the working group to facilitate certain discussions and activities, in order to decenter myself while also allowing members to feel like they had more ownership over the process. For example, I tapped my colleague Martha Burtis to facilitate a discussion of the various implementation models, as she had much more knowledge and experience with the institution than I had and thus could engage more meaningfully with the models. I also used my years of teaching rhetoric and composition to develop a rhetorical strategy in the report that addressed the concerns of the various working group members, while also keeping an eye on the primary audience (for the moment) of the report, the Provost and the President.

I have long understood the importance of taking an integrative approach for any pedagogical model to be effective, digital or otherwise, but the digital demands of us that we also take a collaborative approach in said integration. That collaboration cannot just be between faculty developer or academic technologist and faculty; I have also learned how to move effectively between the various levels of university necessary to effect change: the administrators, the faculty, the staff, and the students. If you don’t have strong buy-in from all four of these groups, no plan, no matter how great, will ever work.

Adaptive and Empathetic

I have taken an…unconventional approach to my education and to my career. I chose, as a native English speaker, to attend a French university in my home province during a charged political time for my BA and MA. During that time, I got online, as well as taught ESL to francophone teens in the summer (and even taught them how to create their own web pages! In English!) and TA’ed for ESL classes at the college. I then moved across the country, “out west”, to do my PhD, and then changed countries to start my career. My first job here in the States was teaching freshman composition and developmental writing as an adjunct at Cal State San Bernardino, a Hispanic-Serving Institution. I got a tenure-track position at an HBCU. And then spent time at the aforementioned regional institution serving the poorest zip codes in the country. I got back online. And then I moved into faculty development at a flagship R-1, then at a liberal arts college.

Y’all, I can adapt.

With each move, each change, and each new environment, I learned so much, and I carry those lessons with me wherever I go, ready to make even better adaptations than I have before given the situation that presents itself to me. As often as I say, Yes, and! To a faculty member or student, I just as often find myself saying, I don’t know, but let’s find out!

This, I know, is not the natural state for most academics, and even less so for the institutions themselves. We are built to be skeptical, to move methodically, to preserve the permanence of Knowledge and the institution. This, then, becomes one of the biggest hurdles to working with faculty and instituting large-scale, integrative change. It is why we are still struggling to admit and graduate greater numbers of non-traditional students, even as we know that this is where our future students will come from and to achieve the sustainability we need to ensure our “permanence.”

It’s not who you know, it’s how you help them.

While I was at the University of Kentucky, I got to work with a faculty member in the Law School who wanted to change the way she taught Introduction to Criminal Law. There was a classic case that law schools across the country typically used, and she wanted students to embody those various roles in the case, to understand the complexity of the law, defence, and judgement. She also wanted to ensure that students could write according to new ALA standards, so an online role-playing strategy would seem to be appropriate.

Together, the professor, her research assistant, and I developed the game The Extraordinary Saga of Brooks, Dudley, Parker and Stephens: A Substantive Criminal Law Game using the WordPress theme Ivanhoe, developed out of UVa. We worked together over the course of the semester to learn the theme, develop the pedagogical strategies, as well as support materials. Ivanhoe not only facilitated role play, but integrated a reflective and metacognitive element to the procedure; you had the space to share WHY you made the decisions you did. The game was largely a success, and the professor and her research assistant have now presented this approach at a number of conferences and published their findings.

This entire endeavor was an epic win for a number of reasons – the law school did not traditionally come to CELT for pedagogical assistance, nor were they known for their innovative approaches to teaching and learning, let alone the integration of digital tools and strategies. The school itself was more “adjacent” to the university rather than fully integrated into the larger campus, as many post-graduate schools often are. And there was resistance from her colleagues, from the administrators, and the students themselves. The professor had faced discrimination as a POC in the law school, and whatever she did was put under increased scrutiny. And, as she often to put to me, “I’m just no good at this technical stuff.”

But she had keen pedagogical instincts and an open mind. And we were successful beyond our expectations (although she knew, from the beginning, that if this worked, it could be a game-changer for how criminal law was taught). But one of the most important things I brought to our interactions was patience and empathy. I had to understand the obstacles she faced for this project to be a success, and helped her write the corresponding narrative around the game to make the case to her colleagues and supervisors.

While at CELT, we also noted an important change in the faculty we served; traditionally, we saw faculty from a handful of disciplines, typically in the humanities, social sciences, and a few of the sciences. But with our increased presence due to eLII, we saw increased interest from an unexpected place: the medical and medical-related fields. Medicine, nursing, dentistry, public health – they were starting to attend our workshops in increasing numbers. In response, we started to reach out and talk to their chairs and deans to understand this shift. Turns out, important changes in accreditation either had or were about to take place that required a shift in their pedagogical approach. We not only changed when and where we offered our workshops, addressing the erratic and irregular schedule that these faculty-practitioners had (they all worked in the University hospital), but we had to fundamentally re-think our approach for this new audience. They were crunched for time, and needed fast solutions they could readily implement. And they responded to evidence. The rhetorical strategies we had been using went out the window, and we aggressively worked to create programming that better fit the needs of those working in the hospitals.

At UMW, we are lucky in a lot of ways, in that, institutionally, we have largely embraced a digital approach to learning. Largely. There are always hold-outs. And the biggest challenge we are facing right now is to “level up” with DoOO – the new strategic plan calls for all students to be introduced to the initiative. How do you take a program that was opt-in and sometimes seen as a “niche” project to a campus-wide, required initiative? We have a number of positives – successful faculty who can share their stories, inspiring and informally mentoring other faculty. They are the champions of DoOO. But that doesn’t cover everyone.

One strategy was to develop the modular building blocks that help understand the philosophy that drives DoOO. Another still was to organize a day-long event in concert with Alumni weekend, highlighting successful alum who got jobs through their digital presence, as well as alumni who do hiring, talking about the importance of digital fluency skills. We are collaborating with the DKC to build awareness with the students and staff who work with students.

But ultimately, it’s empathy that will help us to adapt to the needs of the faculty, students, and administration of our institution. It’s hard, it’s time consuming, and it’s difficult to scale, but it is what will inform whatever other strategies we develop, because it will be focus on the community we are a part of, reacting not just to their stated needs, but the reasoning behind those needs. If faculty are hesitant, why? If students aren’t enthusiastic, why? One reason we know that students aren’t as bullish on DoOO is because they often see it as just another course requirement, rather than a potential site of experimentation and play. And I suspect that same element is at work with some faculty, who see this as yet another demand on their time and curriculum. But we will need to listen deeply to hear how faculty want to be helped to achieve the goals of the university. And then help to make that argument to those who hold the purse strings to make those things happen.

So if the challenge is that faculty (and students) see DoOO as an add-on instead of as an integral and integrative initiative, then the framing needs to change. DoOO is one tool (or even many tools under one umbrella) that can implemented in myriad situations, and we need to determine what are the situations that faculty care about so that we can help them to see the purpose of DoOO within a larger, integrative frame. And it just so happens there’s this report on advanced digital fluency that is potentially coming down the pipeline, a problem or issue that the faculty do, in fact, care about, and that DoOO is one tool that can help them achieve their goal of helping the students become more digitally fluent. That re-framing of the challenge, alongside how to approach it, can help us rethink the faculty resistance to the issue, as well as inform how we move forward.

And may we also be mindful of our roles in the process, and why, ultimately, what we do is so important.

Conclusion: Moving Forward

To be honest, I wasn’t sure, at first, how I was going to wrap everything up. There is, for me, always more to say. I joked on Twitter as I was writing this that people just needed to stop writing awesome things for, like, ten days, so that I didn’t have to constantly revise, or rather add, to this talk. But sometimes, there comes across my field of vision a piece so egregious, embodying the antithesis of what I, as a critical digital pedagogue, hope to embody and practice, that I HAVE to respond. And I’ll share my albeit abridged (and sanitized) response, because this is how I tackle most challenges, be them intellectual or otherwise.

There’s an article in the most recent issue of Educause Review about how Blockchain will fundamentally disrupt and revolutionize all of higher education, including pedagogy. The details were a little unclear, but what it came down to was a) eliminating the lecture and b) freeing born-leader, self-motivated students from the entire experience of higher education to begin with. We need, as the authors put, to get out of these students’ way. We must ensure that these “roaming autodidacts” to use Tressie McMillan Cottom’s term, slide through the college experience with the least resistance possible.

My blood pressure spiked. As Audrey Watters points out repeatedly, these “roaming autodidacts” are not the typical student, nor are they necessarily who we should all aspire to be, especially given the Silicon Valley mindset and California narrative. The new “typical student” is being underserved by traditional higher education and outright exploited (seriously, read Lower Ed) by these same narratives of disruption Audrey talks about in her writing about ed tech and venture capital.

I needed a way to articulate the frustration I felt with the article. I remembered the words of Mike Caulfield, who I have long read and admired as an educational technologist and learning designer. When he talks about just about anything (the Internet, online learning, digital polarization, design), he comes down to this point: “The excitement here is in building complexity, not reducing it.” I want to get in the way of the self-motivated born leader.

Simultaneously to me working through these thoughts, OER17 was taking place and this tweet crossed my stream:  

What happened to “roaming autodidacts,” asks @dkernohan. “They became Nazis.” #OER17

— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) April 5, 2017

The presentation, written by David Kernohan (and then shared on his site), says much more articulately what I was trying to do here, and draws this conclusion: “But the will is as important as the tool. And teaching roaming autodidacts the will to collaborate, corroborate and develop as a natural everyday response to a primary source is the next great task of the open movement.”

There is a tension in ed-tech and digital learning between “wanting machines to help us do what we have always done, just faster or more efficient” and “wanting machines to completely and fundamentally change what we do.” Or even, break something that is already broken. Digital learning, for me, is less about disrupting the system, than building meaningful complexity to better challenge and engage students. It is both “what we have always done” and fundamentally changing how we do it and who we can do it with.

As I’ve alluded to before, our institutions specialize in complexity, for better or for worse. Often, admittedly, for worse. But ultimately, I think those elements that can make the institution complex in productive ways – empathy, collaboration, human-centeredness, openness – are what will help our students the most moving forward. We can use “the digital” to accomplish these goals, creating complexity not in the institutional gatekeeping, but in the learning and scholarship that takes place.

Name-dropping aside, what I did in response was draw on my network and the knowledge and insight I’ve learned from them to understand and map-out a challenge. Rather than a top-down, disrupt everything “solution,” I have sought and hopefully provided a more nuanced reaction that indicates multiple paths forward while taking into consideration the complexity of the system, including the people in it. Sharing those preliminary (albeit imperfect) thoughts here is a part of that process, too, in order (hopefully) to provoke more conversation and (more importantly) action towards a better set of questions, and thus a better set of solutions.

It’s not who you know, it’s how you help them.

Thank you.