The Digital Classroom is a Sham

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we “deliver” online learning. Spurred on, most recently, by Jim Groom’s Sloan-C keynote I’ve come to the conclusion that the fundamental flaw in how online learning is designed is the preconceived notion that we need to create a “digital classroom“. From copyright policies to access and privacy to the structure of course materials we almost always refer to the “digital classroom”. But what is this fictitious construct? In a face-to-face class the classroom serves as a meeting place for a social network of learners engaged in making connections through their interactions (at least in a well facilitated classroom). But how do we translated this to online learning?

A huge part of the projects that come through my door as an instructional designer at a post-secondary institution are translating f2f courses into online versions. The success of this process always relies on the SME being open to not just PDF’ing their lecture notes or worse yet lecture capturing a semesters worth of lectures and posting them online, but actually stripping the course down to it’s core objectives and building meaningful online interactions and activities that take advantage of how the online world works.


The Digital Classroom via the LMS

I attempted to illustrate how we often construct the digital classroom within a locked LMS (warning I am NOT an accomplished illustrator hahah). We have a large box into which we pour our content, some readings, assignment drop boxes, and host discussions for ultimately anonymous students to interact with. But students come to this “digital classroom” through their own portals and peer into the box to see the lecture show. Assignments they complete and interactions they have all take place within the box and are sealed there until the end of the term when the digital classroom doors are sealed forever.

We need to stop thinking of the online course as existing in an online classroom. No other activities we partake in online is confined like this. We hop around the world wide web like fleas on the back of a great dane. We create content and publish it here and there and wherever the most relevant space is, we bookmark articles and websites on a variety of topics and organize them to suit our own personal learning needs, we curate content and make web posts to synthesize and articulate our own understandings of things. The World Wide Web IS the digital classroom. It is large and expansive and messy and personal and powerful and a web of learning networks that can connect ideas and students and teachers and content and industry and scholarly activity and research and your mom’s Facebook page and that’s all really great!

“But if my course is scattered all over the internet how will students know what is expected of them and how will they know where to find the content?”

Ah, the voice of the masses. It’s actually a really good question, but one with simple and logical answers that many educational technologists and instructional designers have addressed. In my own explanation of how this works there are two basic components; the Syllabus and Syndication.

The syllabus template that has been developed for our own use here at the U of S was a collaborative project between the campus wide Instructional Designers Group. It not only fulfills all the legal requirements within the Universities policies, but is a VERY comprehensive map of the requirements of the course and the core learning outcomes, objectives, materials, and assessments. This syllabus should provide the students and instructor the necessary direction for their activities. The activities and content for the course, however, is the active participation part of the learning process that takes place in the open web. Making use of any online tools, networks, and avenues is fair game for both the instructor and the students.

But how do I keep track of all this crazy internet traffic to make sense of it as a cohesive course?

Web Learning Network

Course-Based Learning Network

Syndication. The Domain of One’s Own project at the University of Mary Washington has developed and mastered this process like no other at this point and if you wish to see how to implement syndication on a large scale I’d recommend starting with “Considering Running Domain of One’s Own on Your Campus?” on Jim Groom’s blog. For many individual ed tech’ers or ID’s we’re just trying to get this done in small controlled successes at this stage so that we have some samples of innovation to show the next SME and begin changing philosophies one course at a time. For us, it can be done through simple systems such as hashtags and social bookmarking. these two tools alone will allow students to curate, create, and network in a way that they’ve never had the opportunity to do in an LMS. A course homepage in the form of an instructors blog can act as a hub for activities and announcements and provide a space where students can keep up to date with the activities week by week. Ask students to tag their work with a class hashtag wherever they publish it and also link to it using a social bookmarking account that the class has accounts for. In this way students are given control of their own content and activities, but can share it with their peers and, if they choose, the public. Each student can maintain their own level of privacy and participation and those who learn best by lurking will still have plenty of content to help them achieve the designed objectives of the course.

We need to move beyond our paradigm paralysis of this traditional classroom model being “translated” into an online “space”.  The Digital Classroom is a sham. The internet doesn’t work like that. We don’t work on the internet like that. Start thinking of the grand world wide web as the classroom, or a field trip or let’s stop thinking of it in traditional forms all together.


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