When an Existential Crisis Turns Into "Awesome"

I often come out of Bryan Alexander's Future Trends Forums feeling like my world is turned upside down. Just when I think I understand what the future holds and how to guide those I work with to embrace it, a new mind shattering notion gets seeded.  

As the arbiter of the Learning Management System at a biomedical university, I never thought to design learning experiences outside of it. Until I started a blog and opened a twitter account.  Now I have a love affair with the future.  It is both sobering and exciting to contemplate how teaching and learning will evolve in my life time. Privacy, access, privilege, bias, literacy, agency, ownership are all words now swimming in my lexicon when I dialog and write about the intersection of technology and learning. 

A month ago, I had one of my first existential crisis moments during Future Trends Forum # 8, when Bryan Alexander interviewed Jim Groom, the founder of a Domain of One's Own, and creator of the perpetual online DS106 course. Jim suggests students' be taught to own their own domain names and digital touch points to shape their own learning. This opened up my curriculum design work to new possibility. It also made it very clear that giving students ownership of their domains will not be part of conversations at my institution anytime soon.  I love Jim's response to my tweet shared just as I took my headset off at the end of the forum:

Things ARE awesome.  There is a hidden beauty to constraints if you are open to seeing it.  Despite HIPPA (an important constraint in medical education to protect patient records), I seeded the idea to my nursing faculty to bring Twitter into the classroom by calling it a "portfolio of connections". I explained that we can teach students to design a life long learning network and stay connected to them long after they leave the institution. When re-framed this way, it can compel a risk-averse institution to take a closer look at its social media policies. It also helps to consider creating what I like to call a "culture of compliance" for students and teachers. This means understanding one aspect of being a "digital citizen" by knowing what to share and what not to share online. It also means building trust in students and trust in the learning process. 

This week, Bryan interviewed George Siemens another great thought leader and researcher known for his work creating connectivist MOOCS. Now enter in existential crisis number 2:

Algorithms are the new law in learning analytics.

This idea brought forth by George during the forum had me asking him an impassioned question:

What ethical guidelines are merging to guide us to both design and make meaning of student learning data?

George pointed to a resource from the UK's Open University who has a Guide titled: Ethical Use of Student Data for Learning Analytics Policy.

George went on to remind us that there is an inherent bias in everything we design which makes it imperative that educators are transparent about how they sort students. This is not a conversation I get to have very often, if at all, which has me seeking partners and collaborators to engage in this kind of work both inside and outside of my institution. It was tweeted during the forum that “If in fact algorithms are the new law in learning analytics, we need to get ourselves to the table of designing them.” I could not agree more. 

My background is in Student Affairs and now instructional design. So it naturally follows that I advocate for the student voice in all the nooks and crannies of their campus experience and I consider this in the online learning spaces they inhabit.  So I asked George another question:

  How do we teach students how to use their own data?

How do we teach students how to use their own data?

George made the case for designing open, plain-language algorithms. That everyone needs a functional level of data literacy to understand the decision tree and the logic. This is one of the fractals to my continued contemplation of the intersection of teaching and learning that an algorithm demonstrates. How powerful would it be for students to know how the university is sorting them? Frederik Graver tweeted an interesting thought:

If analytics can truly give control to the individual learner, that could change the whole notion of a degree.

To which Steve Phillips replied,

So do we lose something by letting students be solely in charge of defining their success?

I can only think what can be gained. But as I take my headset off to yet another Bryan Alexander Future trends forum and feel the existential crisis set into "awesomeness" I ask:

Will I ever design and watch the magic of a course where students think of technology as a dynamic set of tools to create & learn THROUGH?

Will they own their progress and make meaning of the intersections in their digital lives?

Will the institution’s love affair with assessment break up into discover-able life bits & epiphanies measurable only by a dis-positional marker, Gardner Campbell calls “a capacity for a breath & depth of interest?”

My love affair with the future is not ending anytime soon. Thank you Bryan Alexander for helping the world to improve its "future capacity" so we can both design and build communities of learning to meet it with grace and grit.

Photo credit to Android Jones: http://androidjones.com/tag/portraits/