Teaching uncertainly #rhizo14


The topic for this past week in #rhizo14 was embracing uncertainty. A familiar topic in my work context. Kimberly Scott, the Director of the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change (my professional home), openly tells graduate students to get used to playing in the ambiguity sandbox. We joke about adding a course to the curriculum: “Dealing with Ambiguity.” Not sure when it meets, or where. Deal with it.

So I thought I would address the topic by sharing more about activity – what I do, and have done – and less about thinking out loud. I am a big advocate of prototyping and experimenting – putting something out there to see what response it creates from the network, community, or organization. Prototypes are one way I deal with uncertainty.

Questions are another.

Refining my questions

The question I came to #rhizo14 with is this: What is teaching presence – when your instructional goal is to shift power?

I am refining that a bit. I am thinking about teaching presence in the context of open courses – or if not fully open, certainly more permeable. Courses where the traditionally defined “student” also engages actively with a larger network or community, and vice versa.

So now I have several related questions, starting with the assumption that teaching presence does make a positive contribution to learning in a course. And I see the course container as simply a contract among participants involving time and topic. I am starting with the Community of Inquiry (CoI) definition and elements of teaching presence as a scaffold for this investigation:

Teaching presence is ‘the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcome.’ Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice. Taylor & Francis.

Garrison el al. also define three elements that contribute to the practice of establishing teaching presence: Instructional design and organization; facilitation; and direct instruction.

My revised questions:

  • Does the definition hold for open/permeable courses?
  • Do the three elements hold? If so, in what ways do the practices involved in each element need to change as you push further toward open-ness?

At the end of #rhizo14, I’ll synthesize some thoughts in a final blog post. The idea is to craft some ideas for new experiments in future courses or formal learning events.

In my experience: Teaching uncertainly

I have two sets of experiences in experimenting to share here: The course I teach for MSLOC and Exploring Personal Learning Networks: Practical Issues for Organizations (#xplrpln) the open learning event we held this past fall.

MSLOC 430. As I note in a #msloc430 class bloggers: Exploring networks, communities and knowledge, between January and June of each year I teach a course in which we explore technology and people and knowledge. The course is actually taught twice during that time period ( we are on 10-week quarters).  Every year I attempt to find ways in which the two class sessions can learn from each other, and from a growing network of alumni and practitioners who know us and this course.

This year I redesigned a blogging assignment. Students work with each other and with me to define a question (or two) on a topic of professional or academic interest that can draw, in part, from content or concepts we cover in the course. But the question must tap into their interests; not mine, or what they think is mine. They map out their own blogging path to explore the question (there is a minimum number of 4 posts required to meet the assignment) and they are encouraged to use the course hashtag on Twitter (#msloc430)

I had no idea where this was going to go. I still do not. But some early outcomes intrigue me.

Andee Weinfurter’s initial post exploring trust and relationships in online communities was grabbed – via Twitter – by Mariana Funes and integrated into a wonderful Storify: The interpersonal contract in cMOOCs. The Storify explores the interpersonal “contract” in both #rhizo14 and Cathy Davidson’s MOOC #FutureEd. Mariana writes this about Andee’s questions:

She asks wonderful ‘non-googlable’ questions as she sets out to blog for her course this semester. One of them speaks to this story as she wonders ‘How do individuals develop trust over technological platforms?’ A question I still ask myself over a year after the start of my own experiment in being an open educator and learner. [emphasis mine]

“A question I still ask myself…” is exactly where I am with many of the questions posed by bloggers in MSLOC 430. As well, the remainder of the Storify explores topics of deep interest to me.  Neither Andee nor I knew Mariana before this connection (I now follow her on Twitter – so yes, the rhizomes are spreading). Andee, I know, is finding value in these and other connections made through her blog post. But so am I. In this scenario, where is the teacher presence and where the learner? Or is this an example of a power-shift moment, when the roles of teacher/learner converge?

Andee’s is one example. We are only two weeks into it, with some students blogging out in the open on the web while others are blogging “semi-open” within our private online learning community of about 200 students and faculty (the setup we use is a cloud instance of Jive software ). I am inspired by the connections and random positive events that are beginning to occur.

Where will this lead? I honestly cannot predict. But I am treating the assignment as a prototype – as something that you put out into a user community, based on researching and observing and trying to understand latent needs. And when you put it out there, you need to watch and learn. That’s where I am at today.

Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln). Earlier this year, Kimberly Scott and I facilitated a 5-week open, online seminar focusing on personal learning networks (PLNs). The question we asked to set the context for the course has no clear answer: Is it possible for PLNs to be fostered within organizations for mutual benefit – for both the individual and the organization?

This is the type of fuzzy-problem organizational question we use often in our graduate program. The experiment for us was to see how some of the problem-based-learning strategies we use in our courses translated into an open, connectivist-inspired event looking at this type of question. We also experimented by using only a Google+ Community, blogs, Twitter (including Twitter chats) and a virtual classroom tool for occasional video broadcasts.

We ended up with about 130 participants who signed on; between 40 and 50 were actively engaged throughout the 5 weeks. Much of the resulting participant content is curated on Scoop.it.

But if you also look at #xplrpln as a prototype or experiment, much of what we learned is captured in Helen Crump’s excellent blog post and comments deconstructing the event design and her experience in it: My footprint of emergent learning in exploring personal learning networks. In one of her comments, Helen writes:

…the learning experience was very powerful because at heart it posed a seemingly innocuous question, or ‘problem’, that could transcend a number of organizations/contexts. However, what transpired was a genuine realization amongst the participants that what we were actually discussing was an emerging phenomena and a very complex one at that, one that was essentially about the changing power dynamics between the individual and the organization. This was the unsettling /extremely emergent aspect of the seminar…

The “seemingly innocuous question” was a scenario we posed to the participants. Your chief executive has heard about PLNs and is excited about the potential advantage it might provide your organization. But the chief exec really knows very little about them, or what it might mean for the organization. You are invited to provide guidance in a one-hour meeting. What would you advise?

In our experience with #xplrpln, this scenario actually influenced the learning dynamic more than we anticipated (in a positive way). It was one of the more interesting bits we learned as designers and facilitators.

Kimberly and I also reflected a great deal on what would be the “right” amount of content to provide, without falling into the trap of having participants trying to figure out what is the hidden meaning behind things we might post (where there IS no hidden meaning). We debated and rewrote questions continuously before our weekly Twitter chats. We worked at trying to share our own authentic voices – in video, in blog posts and commentary – and our different points-of-view and interests.

But I am beginning to think the most important lesson I learned is that we both very honestly engaged in the entire event with this attitude: We have no idea how to best answer the questions we were posing.

photo credit: robonline via photopin cc

7 thoughts on “Teaching uncertainly #rhizo14

  1. Hi Jeff, I love your exploration of your practice, your thinking and how both impact your students. I love the how lightly you are trying to invite your students into opportunities that will provide them with experiences, rather than answers. Lastly I love how aware you are of your potential impact and how you are trying to delicately balance the positives of your teacher presence with any potential negatives.
    I just read this post http://therandomthoughts.edublogs.org/2014/02/05/a-fifth-one-thing-for-students-to-learn/ and the quote “Don’t just answer questions. Question answers” connected me back to your last sentence: “We have no idea how to best answer the questions we were posing.” How do make this the normal learning culture, rather than the exception?


    1. Thanks Carolyn. As usual, you have me thinking more deeply about my own ramblings! Appreciate the reference to Louis Schmier’s post; it certainly resonates with my exploration of continuing to define “teaching presence.” In addition to the quote you pulled, I appreciated this: ”Don’t be afraid to ask me why we do things. If I can’t tell you why we do something in a way you understand, I’ll throw it out. Now, you don’t have to agree with me, but you should understand my ‘why’ and that I’m not doing something either on a whim or because everyone else is doing it. Just see that there’s always a ‘method to my madness’ and a ‘madness to my method.”

      I think that gets at critical thinking: “You don’t have to agree with me, but you should understand my ‘why’…”

      And BTW I was struck when reading your own post re: uncertainty. “Obsessive data collection (aka certainty) the main mechanism of propping.” Yeah. Wow. I teach in a different environment, but really had me step back and think about checking my perspective on our “props of certainty.”


  2. Your question is my question: What is teaching presence – when your instructional goal is to shift power?

    I am writing a paper for OER14 and have quoted you there. I was reading around presence and thought this may be of use:

    “Presence is defined as a state of alert awareness, receptivity, and connectedness to the mental, emotional, and physical workings of both the individual and the group in the context of their learning enviroments, and the ability to respond with a considered and compassionate best next step.”

    Rodgers, C. R., & Raider‐Roth, M. B. (2006). Presence in teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and practice. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12(3), 265-287.

    Seems to me that even if one does not intervene at the content level, teaching presence in the sense of moment-to-moment really ‘seeing’ our students is a responsibility we always carry one of the elements that helps our students be willing to take the risk to learn. For learning is always risky or it is not true learning in my view:

    “Education … is a matter of risk, trust and violence that cannot be reduced to an economic transaction. Learning is a dangerous and risky enterprise that necessarily involves some challenge to existing shibboleths and ideas, and is not something that can be planned or linked with specific and intended behavioural outcomes or objectives” (Lawy, 2006:327, citing Biesta, 2004). http://www.waynebarry.com/blog/?p=806#comment-49593

    You might like Wayne’s blog. Thoughtful and always taking care to build on the ideas of others.

    I am enjoying getting to know you a little better, as I teach on a Masters in People and Organisational development myself it feels like we belong to the same ‘professional home’. I like that expression. In my corner of the world, the only interest shown in open education has been a reluctant concession for me to run ‘a learning lunch’ for the rest of the faculty to explain what it is I am actually doing online….a long way to go and I am not sure it is my battle to fight anymore.


    1. Wow. Well – here’s to sharing questions, “professional homes” and the thrill (?) of advocating for open ed. Glad we’ve connected. And am honestly very happy that something I wrote was worth quoting in your paper. If the production of knowledge depends on this kind of reflective exchange and sense-making, then I am feeling productive today. Thank you.

      Pulled Wayne’s blog into my feed and am digging into the Rogers et al piece. My declaration of the questions I am looking at – in this post – was in part to sharpen my goals for #rhizo14. Busy quarter, so I am working on clarity and focus. Just really starting to explore outside the Garrison body of work to build a bibliography of reading and research; will be sharing that here as I explore. So I really do appreciate the Rogers definition…It certainly resonates. The mental game I am playing as I read these definitions is stretching them to meet the scale and looseness of more open, connectivist-type courses. Does it translate? (I think it does). And what does it mean for our practice?

      I also sense – and maybe you are experiencing this as well – that the more I stretch my own “teaching” practices to more innovative structures (hybrid closed-open courses, open courses, MOOCs, etc.) the more it influences what I do in traditional classroom settings.

      Looking forward to our continuing conversation.


  3. wow, I’ve had this open in one of my 20 open tabs for a week and a half. I’d skimmed half the post and must’ve gotten distracted by something else. Anyway,come back a week and half later and there are some excellent comments added. Really love your attitude towards experimenting with your teaching practice, and something I’m coming to realise as I progress through these posts and ones like it is that each time you teach is an experiment when you start changing that power dynamic and putting more of the responsibility for ‘teaching’ and learning to the students or community. Because the way students go about the learning, and the outcome, might always be different.


    1. Thanks Tanya. It’s always interesting, finding the balance between how much to experiment and how to cycle in the lessons learned from experimenting. But more and more I am becoming conscious of being focused on the goals of breaking down the power dynamic and shifting ownership of learning.


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