Thinking Outside the Digital Box

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It was an unlikely scenario: an online strategic communication professor having an “aha!” pedagogy moment in a village in the dense jungle of Cambodia. But there I was, approaching the community of Prey O’Mal, riding along a dirt road with three graduate students and a bundle of camera equipment we barely knew how to use squeezed between our legs. We’d been riding in the back of a motorcycle-powered tuk-tuk on a remote dirt road for nearly 90 minutes, about to tackle a project I never could have imagined being a part of — because, well, I teach in an online communications program.

Racing against the sun, as the tuk-tuk pulled to a halt, we jumped out, almost entirely unclear what to do next. Oh, sure, I knew why we were there and what we were supposed to produce: short videos for a nonprofit to help it tell the story of the sustainability projects created by local villagers. Another faculty and staff member and I had helped our students plan and prepare, fine-tuning our video production and interviewing skills, and we had developed shot lists and storyboard drafts. But in scenarios like this, you can’t avoid ambiguity. We didn’t speak the language. We were entirely unfamiliar with our surroundings. Most of us were new to video. And the sun was going down.

It was that moment when our feet hit the ground — when dozens of village children and their parents excitedly rushed at us with two-fingered “peace” gestures and greetings — when I mumbled to myself, “This is what education is about.” My students looked to me for direction, but I was as uncertain as they were. Where should we go first? Whom should we talk to? What should we film? What was the most important story we could tell with only a few minutes left of daylight to capture it? (Our lighting equipment had mysteriously vanished on the airplane.)

The next half hour didn’t go as planned. The interview was much harder to conduct than we anticipated, and there wasn’t even a building in which we could film — most of the villagers lived in small huts and slept on hammocks. So … we improvised. We asked the village leader, via translation, if he could hold an ad hoc community meeting (something he regularly did) so we could capture how that worked. We were given a tour of the village and were shown their newly built well and latrine and their mastered farming techniques. In short, we took what came at us, we spent every moment we could speaking to and learning from the locals, and — when we finally boarded the tuk-tuk for our evening ride home — we reflected on what went wrong and what we would do better the next day at another location.

This was an online program, but there was nothing “online” about that moment. While experiential, on-site and service learning are common approaches in brick-and-mortar classrooms, online programs often resist such experiences in favor of programmatic flexibility. Distance and online learning programs tout adapting to market needs and giving busy, nontraditional students malleable learning environments, integrating technological means to provide access and agility. Usually, though, that means fewer person-to-person interactions.

Without question, technological maturity has made online education far more dynamic than it was 20 years ago, but I think it’s safe to say that traveling to Cambodia, working with international nonprofits and collaborating as teams seems wildly out of the flexibility and online context. But I disagree. I worry that what might actually be happening is that online education as a whole may be becoming “black boxed” — a Latourian ideology that suggests a possible method or process becomes invisible to a way of doing something because of that something’s obvious and proven success. (The term is often used in science, where some methods may never be considered or applied simply because the methods currently used and accepted are already working very well.)

Few would argue these days that online education is a successful approach to teaching and learning. We have the technologies — learning management systems, email, videoconferencing, discussion boards, phone apps — to make online instruction fairly seamless. But is the technology (or methods) so effective that it is, ironically, pigeonholing our pedagogies? Does the ease and success of digital learning inadvertently make invisible the more dynamic opportunities available to online curriculum design?

Research has made it pretty clear that online education works. But a similar body of evidence has also shown in recent years that the technological separation between teachers, peers and learners impedes self-motivation, educational empowerment, sense of belonging, conversational elaboration, course-work adaptation and even user experience. In short, technology itself isn’t blocking learning, per se, but it may be impeding possibility.

It’s likely you remember as well as I do the terrifying yet exhilarating advent of online education that swept (or knocked) us off our feet roughly two decades ago; like an unexpected visitor, digital learning came as both a pleasant surprise and an uncomfortable disruption. Suddenly anything felt possible — and nothing felt normal. Pedagogically (and, if you’re like me, psychologically), the adjustment was complexly idiosyncratic, frustratingly affected by both students’ and educators’ abilities to adapt to technology. Times have changed, and technology is far more integrated into our sense of learning (and being) than it used to be, but I still think there’s something very human that is missing — interaction and palpable meaning making — in much of our online instruction.

You’ve probably felt it: the inescapable tension that fights at your inner pedagogical core — on the one hand, you’re using a digital platform that flattens the learning hierarchy and invites students from all walks of life to be able to engage, from anywhere. Awesome! On the other hand, you feel disconnected, recognizing the cultural value and epistemological necessity of human interaction and experiential learning, but it’s felt like you’re held hostage to the limitations that technology offers.

Like most educators trying to fight their way through this didactic friction, chances are you’ve explored a smorgasbord of synchronous and asynchronous technologies, attempting to bridge distance education with the human touch — and you’ve most likely felt your head spin (at least a little) trying to keep pace with the buffet of techy products: Skype, WebEx, Slack, Bridge, Canvas, Panopto, Hangouts, FaceTime, Moodle, Blackboard, WeChat, WordPress and on and on. Still, you’ve probably felt some of the same disconnect that research is suggesting students are experiencing.

In the last decade, hybrid or blended learning (defined frequently as “course delivery that combines face-to-face instruction with online activities” has attempted to smooth the friction by integrating both. While such approaches have certainly been a successful step in the right direction, even those concepts tend to disaggregate the things face-to-face from the things online — like having an in-person activity, then an online discussion board.

I’m convinced that truly confluent experiences (as opposed to solely online or some version of hybrid) must be adaptive to heuristically human moments of meaning making, pulling students into a far more immersive digital and interpersonal human interaction. The trick is, how? Doesn’t requiring students to engage in learning in physical locations at certain times kill the whole elasticity of online learning? I’m not convinced it does — or, at least, that it has to. The power of online education lies in the fact that a teacher, mentor or coach can communicate and provide feedback to students anywhere in the world — and students, wherever they may be, can have incredibly high access to experts. It shouldn’t mean that students must be connected to (or oppressed by) a learning management system with premanufactured content. While that may allow them to submit work from home, on an airplane or in their pajamas, it doesn’t in and of itself provide the educational dexterity that is possible.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work at a small, private liberal arts college that encourages pedagogical innovation, particularly with online programs. My given job title at Westminster College is co-chair of the master of strategic communication program — which we label as a hybrid online, competency-based, project-driven professional degree. But my unofficial title might as well be called educational experimenteur. My involvement in the growth and change of this competency-based program over the last six years has allowed me to see higher education in an entirely new way. With my colleagues, we’ve been able to try, fail, redesign and succeed in many different ways. It’s a very organic process, laden with highs and lows, trials and errors, enormous rewards, and inescapable pitfalls. The good news is, despite the challenges, students widely seem to love it. “It’s the way education should be,” one student told me at a recent event, and most others have agreed (read their experiences here, on a third-party website that publishes graduate student interviews [scroll to “Utah,” Westminster College]).

The program is designed as a mentorship, where students work with a faculty mentor, a performance coach, cohort peers and community clients to develop work in five established subject areas. Mentoring happens via phone call, video conference, written feedback, in-person meetings (if they live locally), Slack and through asynchronous communication like email. Learning happens in organizational research, client interviews, on-site visits, team meetings and live presentations. As a culminating project, I lead them on international trips like the one in Cambodia; to date, we have created an integrated marketing plan and website for an organization that empowers young women to get to college (Peru), developed anti-stigma video campaign with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation (South Africa) and delivered digital branding workshops to students at the Institute for Leadership and Communication (Morocco), among others.

I can’t say we’ve ironed out the challenges (and I’m certain wrinkles will always exist), but I believe we’re getting closer to a confluent online/face-to-face educational experience. In a follow-up essay next week, we’ll lay out 10 ways we’ve found to create a more robustly confluent online program.

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