There is not map to backstage

This post is a summary of ideas from a reflection post I wrote when undertaking a learning design project with the Open University on a module on openness and innovation in online education this year. This module forms part of a Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) which I am currently undertaking. The project was full of frustrations that I tried to turn into opportunities for learning and feedback. At the time I had a sense of splendidly failing at achieving any learning outcome for the project and being lost backstage at the Internet show. This post offers a view of online learning from the perspective of a new user who happens to also be a technologically savvy and experienced educator.

 My sense of failure on the project was not due to lack of trying on the part of my project team or to lack of choice in finding a place for our team to ‘live’ virtually. It was due to the infowhelm I felt l as we tried to set up disparate systems to enable us to work together as a project team. I am reminded of the paradox of choice, how a culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction. Psychologists find that the more choice we have the less satisfied or happy we feel with what we choose. And although there are ways to choose well, we are not great at applying them.
In the context of online education, as evidenced by this project experience, it seems to me that the argument of ‘more is always better’ rules supreme when it comes to online learning design. I notice blogs that talk about developing infotention skills that, in the main, say it is the learners who need to learn to be selective and learn new tools to handle information overload. Yet, as a psychologist I know that humans cognitive systems are poor at inner work unless the mind is consciously and purposely trained to increase its measly 300ms attention span before it jumps to the next thing and that we are hardwired to attend to novelty rather than for sustained attention. It is not as simple as saying, learn to be selective and choose the right tools to augment your mind.
I am left wondering if as online educators we are to taking the easy way out. We offer choice, no matter how overwhelming and how unmatched to the learners’ skills or confidence levels and they ‘just’ need to learn to choose. I believe that my job as an educator is to gage the flow channel  for my learners not just offer infinite choice. In what follows I describe an experience of too much choice from the perspective of an adult learner with a full time career and life in the physical real. I hope to illustrate that the need to spend time backstage requires set up time and a willingness to engage with minutiae that not all learners have and that in themselves have nothing to do wit the topic they may be learning . I believe it is this that stops non-technical people engaging with open education more than they do and that those of us who like to hang out backstage need to work even harder at making unnecessary for the actors to stage manage.

My reflections on the project blog started as follows:
‘This morning I said to my team that I was feeling a little like I was backstage at the Internet. What I meant by that was that I was lost behind the scenes having to deal with a whole lot of things that as an actor on the stage I know nothing about nor am I interested in. My job as a learning specialist is to create learning experiences in a context that meets the needs of my users/learners. In the non-virtual world I do this by being given a design challenge from a client, lock myself in a room either alone or with others with lots of paper and post it stickers to create an event, a training module or an OER that is innovative and meets a need. It was my intention on this project to do this very same thing but in a virtual environment. My expectation was: log on, say hi to your team mates and co-create.’

What I found instead was a sea of conflicting email addresses that did not enable us to share or meet virtually in the way we wanted. We spent the time we had available for synchronous conversations checking that we were logged on with the right account, that we had invited each other to the right environment with the right email addresses. There is gmail, there is the university address, there is our home email address, our work address…

Moving on to the spaces available for us to meet. There was Google Plus where we created a community, there was the University Forum where we logged on daily to find out how many more activities we had to do that week if we wanted to pass the module, there was Facebook, there was Twitter, there was the MOOC community we had built earlier in the module, there was the project website we set up, there was the virtual board we tried to learn how to use to be creative together, but of course there was not just one virtual board but several that we needed to choose from and wait…we had to do this quickly as there were only 25 days left to showcase our work, reflect, write an assignment, make money at work to pay the bills, look after the family, walk the dog, take the dog to the vet but wait….real life did not count as somehow I needed to overlay my virtual life onto my real life and never the twain shall meet. Out of breadth already.Then when we finally settled on one community and one virtual board we are not done. Shall we hook it up to our shared drive? And if so which one? We have cloud based storage associated with each email address we are using. The G+ community will give us a place and it is easy to use, isn’t it? Yes, and at least one of us loves it and has used it before. Phew. And then, we wake up in the morning to a brand sparkling new UI for G+! Hoorah? or Darn it? Well, that depends on how much time we have allowed for interacting in the community. If we have no time, then learning a new UI is not what we want to do in that moment. I want to talk about the great ideas and resources I have found, engage in dialogue with my team and instead I find myself backstage again – where has the hangout button gone? I don’t see the Hangout on Air button either? And how… oh…how does the new Auto Awesome feature work?

So we looked at the email addresses (which, do not forget, we have to multiply by each team member), at the virtual spaces our account gave us access to (which, do not forget, we have not all learnt how to access or use yet) and now finally it is time to get to the work of designing together for this project. Or is it? No. Not yet. It turns out that we still need to learn another system in order to communicate with other teams on the course and it is part of our job to also familiarise ourselves with their websites and comment on them as they build them. This new space is experimental and hence not without its challenges. Still, some of us manage to upload, comment and even choose favourites that give us smiley emoticons, little red hearts icons, and all the while I am wondering what on earth is the point of this? I got it working, but do not know why. Lost backstage at the internet show for hours without a learning outcome in sight. And furthermore, I just do not have time to manage the behind the scenes of it all as well as sound half sensible when engaging with the content of our project. Once again,  as I start to think I will be able to do what I am good at – offer feedback, look at the educational designs of the other teams, get interested in other people’s ideas – I find myself lost backstage: do I have to be logged onto the university site to access? Why can I not comment on each page? What is the point of this site at all? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down with the other teams over a cup of coffee and just share ideas?

Whilst the above example may not show it, I happen to like being backstage as well as being on the stage. If I had all the time in the world, I would have set up the perfect project home connecting up every possible app that could have helped us and would have had fun doing it. But I did not have the time, and had signed up to learn about innovation in learning design not how to replace my IT manager.

 Reich (2013) says:
“Humans have built a system for online social learning: it’s called the World Wide Web.”

What is clear to me now, months after the project experience I have just recounted, is that the issues we had were almost entirely due to having to work with systems that were behind walled gardens attempting to blend with the open web. These two approaches do not seem to co-exit well. Reich (2013) also explores the assumptions behind different approaches to online education and shows that walled gardens may not be the way forward. I believe that to  ‘whisk people away from the open Web into a walled garden’ is a strategy that has had its day. Innovation in online education will thrive from ‘the assumption that people should do their learning work for a course in the same spaces that they do their other online activities.’ Our project might have thrived had it been designed to work only on the open web without registration walls.

As long as institutions act from a place of fear of openness, we will get lost backstage and this will limit access to what open digital education has to offer. The open web requires we visit backstage enough without having to tackle password conflicts and denial of access due to non-adherence to an open education ethos. For myself, my experience as a learner in this hybrid experiment of open education from a walled garden was one of being lost backstage most of the time, having forgotten my lines with opening night just around the corner – not one of learning in flow.  Hence, this was an experience I would not be keen to repeat as a learner or purposefully design for my students.