Confessions of a SMECWID 2: The Message in the Medium, or Thinking Outside the LMS

Confessions of a SMECWID 2: The Message in the Medium, or Thinking Outside the LMS
Tom Armbrecht, PhD July 9, 2018

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In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

–Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man 1


In my first blog entry about creating a model online course on French theatre from the ground up, I noted that Canvas, the learning management system (LMS) in which I build, structures content linearly and symmetrically because that is its default mode of presentation. Generally speaking, thematically oriented modules are meant to align with individual weeks. Assignments of the same type are usually due the same day of every week: i.e., post to the discussion Tuesday; respond to it Friday; turn in the assignment Sunday. Although these few parameters (one week = one module; one discussion and one assignment due each week) might not seem as though they would unduly influence the content of a class, the regular scheduling of modules, discussions, and assignments gives a fairly rigid rhythm to every week that pushes the course writer and instructional designer to organize the content to fit the built-in model. As I wrote my course, I found myself asking questions that challenged the norms of the form, such as, “What if I haven’t finished introducing the most important content of week 3 by the time the discussion post is due?” or “Does one week have to equal one module?” and “Why must assignments always be due the same day?” Although, as the writer and designer of Introduction to French Theatre, I can do whatever I want, I realized that I was chafing at the norms of classes I have built but not written, and resisting what I understood was the “correct way” to use the LMS.

Although it’s not unusual to feel frustrated by the limitations or poor design of software, less often do we consider how the electronic environments in which we work influence our ways of thinking. An LMS is like the atmosphere for instructional designers; although we might be so habituated we don’t think much about it, our actions take place and are determined by its context. Without the LMS, our work wouldn’t exist. Canvas’s quasi-invisible pervasiveness does not mean that its effect on what we produce is negligible, however. As noted, LMSs direct a learner through a sequence of pages in a prescribed (usually chronological) order. The pages themselves are also meant to be organized in a hierarchical way, both visually and textually, in part to make them legible across a variety of platforms, and also to respect the tenets of Universal Design for Learning. Although there is nothing wrong with this straightforward mode of presentation per se, its ubiquity could seem to imply that the content of the course is itself best communicated—and learned—through stepped progression, rather than through more unconstrained modes of thought.

Canvas is far from the only software to influence our thinking. All electronic environments do, to one degree or another, and their impact has been noted before. In a 2001 article for the New Yorker magazine, “Absolute PowerPoint: Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?”), Ian Parker claimed that:

PowerPoint […] has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas. It is, almost surreptitiously, a business manual as well as a business suit, with an opinion—an oddly pedantic, prescriptive opinion—about the way we should think. It helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world.

Canvas’s effect on subject material is not so different. Its means of presentation may be logical and convenient, but it shapes our understanding of the material, and through it, our conception of the subject of the course and even of the subject’s place in our lives.

As I adapt previously taught content to make it appropriate for an online class, I have become aware and even critical of the structure imposed by Canvas. Although straightforwardness and simplicity should be attributes of all courses, some subjects may benefit from a more complex presentation that combines trains of thought in non-sequential ways. Introduction to French Theatre cultivates three interrelated skills with the end goal of analyzing a play: 1) methods of analyzing dramatic literature and performance, 2) understanding the historical development of French theatre, and 3) critical interpretation of a French farce. Choosing the most evident organizational design, I have created a module for each topic and presented them in the aforementioned order. Their discrete treatments make me wonder, however, if moving through the subjects one after the other might not only make their concepts abstract, since textual analysis is saved for the end, but even boring, since the first two modules are fact- and concept-focused. Although the obvious answer might be to “mix them up,” each subject is rich and complex enough to necessitate its own elucidation. The task with which I am currently wrestling, therefore, is how to adapt—or even better, to benefit from—online modes of presentation to combine theory and practice while avoiding dryness and confusion.

In an attempt to free my thinking from the organizational dictates of Canvas, I have been writing my own materials and assignments without regard to typical structure, presenting as much material as needed and assessing students whenever the content requires it, not as regularity dictates. I have also consciously avoided using “backwards design” to create my course, even though this approach can be productive and is justifiably employed by instructional designers. Backwards design is a way of creating a course that starts with small concepts and moves towards big ones: begin by stating the learning objectives, then design assessments that will provide “evidence” that these objectives have been met. After selecting materials containing the content on which students will be assessed, you can at last write the lesson plans that will guide them to the learning objective with which you started. This method of course design keeps its eyes on the prize—measurable results that demonstrate the realization of discrete learning objectives—while moving backwards to the macro-elements of the course. This focus on outcome is typical of current trends of academia and of business, as well (of which education has now arguably become part); how you get there matters less than what you’ve got at the end. When what you’ve learned isn’t as important as the demonstrable results you can produce, too bad for skills that are not easily measurable or are not among the stated goals.

Although I agree that making a course’s objectives clear and then meeting them is essential, I have abandoned backwards design for what I am calling “backwards and forwards design” to help subvert the LMS’s overly schematic structure described above. In my working method, I also begin with general learning goals to give direction to the course as a whole, but then write lesson plans and content pages before creating assessments, so that assignments grow naturally out of the material itself. I next make sure that the activities I have created can each be tied to a learning goal, which occasionally means adding knowledge or a skill that I hadn’t thought of to the list. After all the pieces of the course are in place, I look at it globally to see if I have constructed a “complete action” in the Aristotelian sense. In other words, I want the course to have a narrative arc. I begin by introducing the “problem” (i.e., the thesis of the course), then add various examples that complicate and deepen students’ understanding of it, and lastly provide a “denouement” where they draw conclusions, usually in their final papers and projects. (See the first module of the French Theatre course or consult part VII of Aristotle’s Poetics for a more detailed explanation of a complete action.) When I’ve created the parts, I evaluate the course as a whole to make sure that I have listed everything students can expect to accomplish and that have I given them the means to accomplish everything I expect. Only after selecting the content, deciding how to assess students’ understanding of it, and making sure it holds together in its totality do I worry about fitting the course into the structure inherent in Canvas.

My aim in working in this zigzag way—moving back and forth between bigger ideas and smaller goals, letting the material and course narrative inform the objectives of the course—is to create a less formulaic learning experience that is driven by more than measurable results. Although all courses should be organized logically and legibly, I want to avoid giving the impression that all ideas fit neatly into a week’s lesson, regardless of their complexity. I also want students to be ready to learn things that don’t appear on the syllabus as a stated learning objective, but that are part of the process of discovery made possible by a course rich both in materials and in chances to engage with them. As a professor, I often began the semester by explaining to students that the usefulness of what they could learn wouldn’t necessarily be immediately apparent to them, since some of the skills they were acquiring took more reflection and experience to integrate into their lives than a semester permits. As a SMECWID, I want to do the same, but must also design a course that respects the advantages and constraints of online learning.

Teaching students to take pleasure in the content and activities of a class is perhaps the most nebulous, but important goal of mine, even if it means that not every word of the course can be directly linked to a specific learning objective. Online classes are notoriously efficient, in part because of the medium, and in part because of the assumed demands of their students, who often fit them into busy lives that have only a limited amount of time for education. Given the increasing emphasis on “pragmatic” education (aka teaching and learning inspired by what-job-will-this-lead-to thinking) and the growing diversity of types of students (part-time, working, first-generation, returning, credential-seeking, etc.), course writers, designers, and instructors all must keep their students’ needs in mind. Being sensitive to their audience does not mean they can forget to cultivate the spirit of inquiry, however, even in classes designed to be practical. I intend the final version of my course to strike a good balance between the two.

Although asking learners to reflect on material that does “not appear on the test” may seem like heresy in a world that values speed and results, I am teaching my students to be slow and methodical when approaching a text. They must work carefully to ferret out ideas that are not part of its first-degree meaning, or that are sufficiently complicated that they cannot necessarily be grasped upon first reading. My goal in teaching students how to analyze a text (as compared to what they must retain from it) is to show them that close reading “recreates” another’s thoughts in a person’s head, but does not limit the interpretation of them. Reflecting on more than one point of view, experiencing situations without actually living them, and expanding upon others’ thoughts allow us to connect our ideas with those of others—a humanistic skill that is pertinent beyond the boundaries of any course, or indeed, any degree program. My courses are intended to teach students how to learn and to give them a taste for intellectual exploration, as much as to impart a specific body of knowledge to them. In other words, I believe that it is as important to teach process as it is content. Even if this means covering seemingly less material during the term, it will promote my own and my students’ exploration and creativity, while not ignoring the sometimes exaggerated attractiveness and necessity of practicality.

Given that my course is on theatre, I am assigning students creative work in the medium of performance and asking them to analyze their peers’ and their own dramatic efforts in written form. Class members are not graded on their ability as actors, but on their interpretation of the text and their use of drama to convey it. Having frequently taught students in face-to-face classes how to make simple videos, I know that I can ask students to create and film a scene. I am unsure, however, if they will be able to stream a live performance effectively. If the course were to be taught, I would test this assignment with live participants to make sure that it not only could be successfully completed with reasonable effort, but that playing in a live broadcast would teach students something valuable about performance, as well.

One of the best ways to reveal the art of a subject is to spend time exploring it yourself, as a scholar and practitioner, when researching a course. I decided to write the content pages for the course on French Theatre on my own, and then to supplement them with external readings from which I’d gleaned some of my ideas, rather than just to assign these same texts and ask students to reproduce specific ideas contained within them. The pages I am creating are filled with anecdotes, illustrations, and even humor, all designed to help students find the subject rich and compelling, rather than view the course as a way to fulfill an educational breadth requirement. My approach also gives the material a personal perspective that I hope conveys my passion for the French theatre. If my classes, whatever their subject, have an ultimate goal, it is to help students realize that a course is just the start of learning. I am attempting to model this conviction in Introduction to French Theatre in part because it runs countercurrent to trends in post-secondary education that start—and finish—by focusing on the end.

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