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the manifesto is going to Vegas

and we’re going with it! We’ve been invited to run an afternoon ‘unconference’ workshop at the end of the Sloan-C/MERLOT Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference in Las Vegas on 27 July. Jen will be there in person, and Hamish, Clara and Sian will be collaborating at a distance.

The workshop will be devoted to working with data crowdsourced during the formal part of the conference. Participants – and other attendees – will be asked to listen out for statements or assumptions they hear about being or having a teacher, and about what teaching means in an emerging technology context. Then in the workshop, we’ll use these observations to tease out some broad principles that will form the conference’s own manifesto for teaching with emerging technology.

Needless to say, we think this is going to be a lot of fun, as well as a great chance for stimulating debate and reflection. If you’re coming to the conference, please join us!

The hashtag for the conference is #et4online .

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What can the manifesto do?

It’s been a really rich few weeks of activity around the manifesto – thanks to those who have emailed, commented, blogged and remixed. There are some very exciting ideas and provocative challenges being put forward. We’ve already blogged a bit about why the manifesto is focused on teaching. Another matter that’s come up is the question of what the manifesto can “do” or accomplish. Justin Marquis’ great blog post yesterday raised this explicitly – “is this pop culture approach really what online learning needs to gain widespread public acceptance?”

making online learning cool?

This follows on from a mainstream news article that framed the manifesto as an attempt to make online learning “cool” (which we loved, by the way!). And it echoes many conversations that we had with our colleagues during the development of the document, when we discussed what its purpose was and who we were hoping to convince.

In short, we’re trying to contribute to a conversation about what a generative and exciting vision of online education should be. More and more online and distance programmes are being developed here at our university and around the world. In that sense, I’m not sure that we need to worry about widespread public acceptance. What worries me more is that some problematic assumptions seem to structure a lot of what is developed and promoted as “e-learning”. That’s why it’s been so great to see responses to the manifesto that are exploring some of those assumptions in detail. I’m not knocking pop culture or the meme at all – these are powerful genres for grabbing attention and making ideas accessible. But I’d be disappointed if it didn’t seem like the manifesto is a “good thing to think with” – that it’s open to detailed and critical responses. As Justin put it, it is “a sincere attempt to capture the essence of online education and explain it to the world in one easy to comprehend outpouring”. The extent to which the manifesto points are able to be unpacked and worked with – whether I agree with the interpretations or not – is the extent to which I’ll feel that attempt has succeeded.

More on the emphasis on teaching

Another take from one of the contributors to the manifesto.

First of all, let’s set aside the notion that people who are “teachers” are not simultaneously, and ipso facto, concerned with their own learning.  That said, they are also people who have chosen, or have been commissioned, to take some responsibility for the support of the learning of others.  One must emphasise some responsibility, as it is important not to allow people to feel robbed of their own agency in the matter of personal development.  But we feel that there is, nevertheless, a place for the function known as “teaching”, and that the nature of this function has been rather overlooked in recent years, in the context of an otherwise thoroughly correct emphasis on the importance of the agency of the individual in their own learning.  What is it that one should most usefully do within the zone of proximal development?  Clearly not just stand aside and wait.  The possibility then, is that there is a scholarship surrounding that role.  This is what we are seeking to explore in our own practice, with our students and colleagues, and what we call “teaching”.

“Facilitation” is a benign, though rather vague construct, that conveys the notion of assisting another towards some goal which the other owns, without oneself taking any ownership for the outcome.  At worst, and in its most dangerous form in education, the concept might be used to legitimise standing aside, and leaving the learner to their own devices.  Although this is not the way that it is normally used in the rhetoric of learning and teaching, it leaves that possibility open for exploitation.  More importantly however, the notion of facilitation provides no guidance for action in a learning context.  It is understood primarily by what it prohibits – control, instruction, interference with the agenda and motivation of the learner, and so on.  It gives no lead on any active or collaborative stance on the part of the one we will call, for want of a better word, the “teacher”.  The notion of facilitation is helpful.  At times, it will be absolutely right to stand aside, and provide nothing more than affirmation.  Noting, of course, that affirmation is a conscious act.  But there are times when preparation, intervention, critique and evaluation will be called for, from an agent outside of the learner.  Some of the other manifesto statements seek to expose the tensions that these activities bring.  It is important to understand too, that while the learner must own the learning objectives, they espouse those objectives in a social context, and for social purposes.  Understanding one’s place in all of this constitutes a scholarship of teaching.

Why teaching not learning?

A few people have commented on the emphasis on teaching over learning that’s implied in the title of the manifesto. This was a deliberate move to highlight what we think has been an over-emphasis on ‘learning’ in the context of online education. Our view is that it’s important to continue to value and work with the idea of the ‘teacher’ when we’re online, however that role might be shifted and redefined by the digital. We’ve been influenced by Gert Biesta’s critique of the ‘learnification’ of education here, and the necessity of distinguishing between ‘learning’ and ‘education’ (see http://bit.ly/bh1GG9).

Also, although there are many ways of reading the manifesto, one of our intentions was that it be seen as a series of light precepts for the design of online education and assessment – something that teachers might find useful and generative.