You have just been through 8 hours of unremitting stress flying your bomber over Germany, being shot at, and just keeping your plane in the air. As you approach your airfield in Southern England, you pull the lever to lower your landing gear and listen for the satisfying chirp of rubber on the runway that indicates you are home. Instead, your senses are greeted with a rending crash as your bomber careens over the asphalt runway. Your belly gunner is probably dead and your plane is a wreck. The problem? The knob that lowers your flaps is right next to that which raises your landing gear. Instead of slowing your speed and increasing the lift of your wings the nearly identical knob has raised your landing gear. (https://bit.ly/2UdHpT5)
As Covid-19 shuts down in-person instruction across education, we are faced with a similar situation trying to land our classes in a time of crisis. We must take the time to grasp at the right levers and to design systems so that our students aren’t forced to suffer the consequences of our mistakes, which must surely come. Learning is antifragile. Many of the systems designed around it are not.
We often overlook how broadly design impacts our lives. As Don Norman points out, “All artificial things are designed.” (Norman, Don, The Design of Everyday Things, Basic Books, 2013, p. 4). It impacts every level of the teaching and learning experience. Design touches the layout of our classrooms, the digital tools we use, and the very nature of semesters, class sessions, and curriculum. All of these are being tested right now (except for maybe classroom design). In order to begin any design process, no matter how rushed, we must first understand the goals and constraints of what we are trying to do. For instance, the government has declared gatherings over 10 people inadvisable due to the pandemic. It is mid-semester. Go.
As we ask thousands of instructors and millions of students to go online with little or no preparation, we will see lots and lots of crash landings as all grasp for unfamiliar tools and struggle to survive in poorly designed systems struggling to adapt to rapidly shifting circumstances on the ground. There are many levels of intertwingled systems where poor design can fail us.
At the highest level we run up against is the systemic construct that we call the semester/credit-hour/contact hour class. These are designed realities. “Services, lectures, rules and procedures, and the organizational rules of businesses and governments do not have physical mechanisms, but their rules of operation have to be designed, sometimes informally, sometimes precisely recorded and specified.” (Norman, ibid) In other words, we have to ask ourselves fundamental design questions that underlie many of these kinds of realities. There is pressure to keep the larger system intact and, as a result, there are many systemic factors that prevent us from simply blowing the “traditional” academic structure up. Instead of addressing the systemic paradigm, the initial reaction is to lean on technology to simply move all “instruction online.” The systemic design paradigm hasn’t been challenged at this level at most institutions.
This decision has consequences in that it shifts the burden of design from the administrators to the faculty who now have to deal with a new set of constraints in the design of how they interact with their students. Keeping this at the institutional systemic level for a moment, a second option might have been to pause the semester and extend it into the summer. There are other cascading impacts from that kind of decision but it might have done a better job of preserving academic quality but at the risk of sacrificing enrollments and revenue. It is interesting to note that in England in the plague year of 1665, pausing instruction is precisely what Cambridge elected to do, admittedly under very different economic circumstances.
Putting the burden of adjustment on the instructor is in itself a design decision. It will reshape the parameters and constraints of those struggling with classroom organization in a radically reshaped world. On a classroom level, faculty must consider the systems of learning they are setting up for their students and how these might be disrupted by a shift of modality and related tools for learning. What used to occur as a casual conversation within the class or outside the class must now be intermediated by technology. This technology will inevitably introduce a barrier to communication. Physical meetings also impose barriers in that they involve putting people together in the same place at the same time but these are design challenges we implicitly manage.
All instruction is a form of conversation (Laurillard, Diana, 2003, 2007, 2009). First, as mentioned, there are direct conversations between the teacher and the student, among the students (peers), and between the student and the teacher. Then there are indirect conversations, usually taking the form of assessments. These can also be interactions between students and teachers as well as peers. They require rapid feedback to the learner. Finally, there is the preservation of active learning, which involves immediate, internal feedback to the student. In other words, a conversation that the learner has with his or herself.
Moving instruction online carries with it at least two dangers to these paths of communication, particularly in a time of social isolation. First of all, the isolation itself must be considered and acknowledged. Online learning, as it is usually designed, is often a solitary process. Impersonal bulletin boards are, in the words of Frank Zappa, “lonely person devices,” often with little or no incentive to participate unless compelled to do so by extrinsic motivators. As I once said to an instructor in the early days of Facebook as he was considering using it for his class, “no one wants to go to a cocktail party with their parents.” Don’t expect our students to rush to primitive communication devices like discussion boards.
Related to this problem, and the second big issue, is the lack of informal learning in most Learning Management Systems. When I say, “informal” learning, I mean spaces that allow students to informally congregate with one another without the intervention of teachers. Peer conversations such as study groups can form in these spaces. More importantly, they may give isolated students (aka, people) the ability to socialize in a society practicing social distancing. Consider how this might be accomplished online. Does your videoconferencing tool give students the ability to form their own groups? Could this reach beyond the traditional course shell to encompass other sections or even other disciplines? Done correctly, this could encourage students to spend more of their online time with each other rather than random strangers in Snapchat.
In addition to space-time issues, technology itself can introduce unfamiliar barriers to student access for both the student and the teacher/designer. In a 2018 article, researchers at the University of Indiana concluded that technological barriers are not evenly distributed throughout our student bodies. In a study of Indiana students researchers discovered that “roughly 20% of respondents had difficulty maintaining access to technology (e.g., broken hardware, data limits, connectivity problems, etc.). Students of lower socio- economic status and students of color disproportionately experienced hardships, and reliance on poorly functioning laptops was associated with lower grade point averages.” And so we have another set of unexpected variables to our design challenge.
These factors are not revelations for faculty who have been working in the distance learning space for decades now. However, even they have been working with a largely self-selected group of students who meet certain technological requirements in most cases (although some depend on campus computing environments for their access so that will be an issue here as well). It is a lot to expect novice online instructors to rise to the level of technical and social design that better online instructors have achieved. To predicate your systemic design assumptions on that assumption is likely to break the system.
Instead, faculty must be directed toward tools that most closely resemble activities within a physical meeting, and which have the lowest possible barriers to entry. Videoconferencing is an obvious solution, but it carries with it at least one caveat: remember that some students may not have access to a computer with a camera or reliable broadband as the Indiana study seems to indicate. Also remember that that the study looked at students at a 4-year institution. Students at community colleges, at least in my anecdotal experience, are more likely to be concentrated within that lower 20% who have unreliable technological assets at their disposal, especially in poorer communities. Therefore, any videoconferencing platform used must have the option to call into the system using an ordinary phone that is not dependent on a data plan to operate. Students are also under a lot of stress right now. Connecting to their classes should not become one of them.
The challenge of informal learning is harder to overcome. Ideally, the videoconferencing systems offered to the students should allow them to form their own meetings as easily as instructor-led meetings. This functionality should be stressed to them. I don’t know how this will play out. On the one hand, less-prepared students, like the aforementioned community college students or younger students in K12, do not always understand the advantage of working with their peers to overcome their learning challenges and may resist congregating in the online space as a consequence, On the other hand, the level of isolation that is occurring right now might encourage students to spontaneously form groups. This will be an interesting social experiment.
Faculty also need to be mindful of what they are trying to do in other areas of the course, such as assessment. Many of the problems and concerns I’m seeing right now amongst the faculty have to do with trying to directly transfer what seems to work for them in a classroom into an online environment. Assessment design has, of course, come to the fore as faculty worry about compromising the integrity of tests online. The important thing to remember here is that tests are just one form of assessment and are also a designed reality that can be changed in a digital environment. Faculty need to take a moment to assess (pun intended) the outcomes they are trying to measure, not just in content but also in the skills necessary to process content, and ask themselves if they can achieve a higher-order outcome by shifting the nature of their assessment to a different level.
I require my students to produce a final portfolio that measures their ability to process and communicate information about government. I am less concerned about the comprehensiveness of their content mastery in my government class than I am in their ability to be able to find relevant information, analyze it, and use it to advocate for an issue that matters to them. This is also a design choice. As this website is their own creation and on their choice of platform, it also creates opportunities for active learning as we work together to improve what they are trying to say, how they are trying to say it, and how this is ultimately presented. It is a lasting artifact of their work in the class. It is also a form of assessment.
We are bending instruction. When things are bent, basic functions of their design come to the fore. Is what is being bent flexible or is it brittle? Can it be adapted into another form and how does that change its form or efficacy of purpose? By looking at it differently, can we see new opportunities for its use? While learning is a process, how we get there is fundamentally a function of design. This logic applies to the modalities we apply to the communication, assessment, and scope of learning in our classes. The good news is that we have a vast new range of digital tools that create design possibilities in and for our classes and this gives us many new tools to use as we navigate the difficult process of learning with our students. Understanding their basic functionalities and how they fit into the overall system of what we are trying to do is going to be key to adapting teaching and learning to our profoundly reshaped social world.