Courage to Teach Online

After finishing Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age by Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe, that I discussed in my last post, I have moved to a book I have meant to read for years – The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer.

Self confession time.  I do read a lot, but not all my books have to do with teaching or elearning.


My summer reading

I read a lot of fiction – L’Amour westerns, science fiction, and mysteries … and particularly like old mysteries that I pick up at Goodwill for $3.  So between Beetham and Palmer, I read a great little 1997 thriller by Paul Lindsey called Freedom to Kill.  It involves the FBI chasing a terrorist (a pre-Nine-Eleven kind of terrorist).  Nineteen-Ninety-Seven was only 16 years ago, so the FBI agents did have a laptop, but no WiFi.  In fact, tracking emails sent through dial-up modems contributed to cracking the case.  When they went on stakeout, they checked out a cellphone so that they would not have to find a payphone.  Sixteen years, and how things have changed!!!  Maybe that is why I like the old books.  I was just starting my educational career in the Nineties…and it was not until my third college that I began carrying a cellphone.  So I lived that change!


But back to Palmer and The Courage to Teach.  I have been wanting to read Palmer’s book for awhile.  Many of my colleagues over the past decade have mentioned it.  Given that it was originally published in 1997, then updated in 2008, I was interested in how relevant it might now be (or not be) in this digital landscape in which I teach.

I enjoyed this book, but it is quite spiritual in its message.  It is about the heart as much as it is about the head.  Given that, I like the underlying message.  Palmer notes:

“…teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal – or keep them from learning much at all.  Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions, and good teaching requires that we understand the inner sources of both the intent and the act.”

He goes on to note that his book is built on the premise:

“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”


It sounds to me as if Palmer is writing a book about teaching online!  Is not “creating conditions for learning” what we do?

In my work with faculty around teaching online, I continually make the point that teaching online is about making connections – connections with students, connections between students, and connections between students and the content – not using tools (though some tools help in making these connections).  For a dozen years, I have discussed how I have gotten to know my students’ souls through my online teaching – and “souls” hits the same spiritual notes that Palmer makes.

Palmer states early in the book that we as teachers commonly address “what” we are teaching and “how” we are teaching, but less often address “why” we are teaching and “who” we are and how we relate to our students.  Good questions for classrooms…whether they are on campus or online.  He states that bad teachers distance themselves from their students while good teachers “join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.”  This really resonates with me!  Online teaching has little to do with distance and everything to do with connections.

After discussing teaching from within and these connections, Palmer spends a couple of chapters discussing the culture of fear that he feels permeates higher education and can lead to disconnections.  Fear is a common perspective that I have heard expressed by faculty moving online.  There is the fear of loss of control, the fear of looking stupid, the fear of new technology, and the fear of failure.  Palmer does not suggest that we not be afraid, but rather that we not let fear be us.  A bit Zen…but I like his suggestion that we view the fears as opportunities.  He suggests that we work in a world of paradoxes and our courses should reflect that.  Some paradoxes that can contribute to pedagogical design:

  • The learning space should be bounded and open.
  • The learning space should be hospitable and “charged”.
  • The learning space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  • The learning space should honor the “little” stories of the individual and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition.
  • The learning space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of the community.
  • The learning space should welcome both silence and speech.

His paradoxes have obvious online interpretations.  By bounded, he is not suggesting four walls, but rather good questions that keep us focused…but open to multiple paths for discovery.  Our online “space” – be it Blackboard or WordPress or Canvas or whatever – should feel safe and open to trusted discourse.  Every individual should have the freedom to voice ideas, but collective wisdom should emerge.  Our online facilitation should guide the discourse so that themes emerge that paint the big pictures.  And a combination of asynchronous and synchronous engagements as well as reflective activities allow for both silence and speech.

Palmer makes the case that good teaching is essentially communal.  And while he does not go there, this to me suggests the Community of Inquiry model and Garrison’s work (and of course, that was the earlier book I read in June).  As I noted in my Rethinking Fundamentals post, I believe that community is still a core concept to good teaching online.

So, I am glad I read this book and would recommend it to others.  Moving instruction online is disrupting higher education and some faculty find that fearful.  We need faculty with the courage to teach online, and in Palmer’s words:

“…the courage to teach from the most truthful places in the landscape of self and world, the courage to invite students to discover, explore, and inhabit those places in the living of their own lives.”

It is what good teachers have done for ages … and doing it online is a natural evolution of what we do.


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Online Learning Theory

I have just finished reading (and enjoying)  Linda Harasim‘s book, Learning Theory and Online Technology (Routledge Publishing, 2011).  She postulates that the learning theories of the past centuries need updating for the networked learning era in which we find ourselves.  Linda frames a new theory by taking us on a historical journey through the development of previous theories of learning.

Linda harkens back to Thomas Kuhn‘s work on paradigms to note that theories influence, shape and determine our actions.  She suggests the human race has had four major socio-technological paridigm shifts:

  • “Speech (40,000 BCE): the development of speech and intertribal communication in hunter-gatherer communities produces recognizable civilizations based on informal learning with characteristic crafts and symbolic art;
  • Writing (10,000 BCE): agricultural revolution interacts with the massing of populations in fertile regions to produce state structures and cumulative knowledge growth based on the invention of writing and the formalization of learning;
  • Printing (CE 1600): machine technology and the printing press interact with the development of global trade and communication, to expand the dissemination and specialization of knowledge and science;
  • Internet (CE 2000): advanced network technology interacts with powerful new models of education and training that offer the potential to produce knowledge-based economies and the democratization of knowledge production (p.17).”

Marshall McLuhan might have added radio and television to this mix, as we do live in a mediated environment.  That said, it would be hard to argue that the internet has not profoundly influenced, shaped and determined our actions in the past decade.  Linda uses this historical context to map out the history of the internet, and then in parallel to lay out the historical development of learning theories.  She starts with behaviorist theories of Pavlov and Skinner, which in a stimulus – response mode, are seen as too rigid.  She then moved into the cognitivist learning theory, with its mind as a computer model.  She suggests that this was instructor-centered and transmission focused.  She then reviewed the next evolution – constructivist learning theory, with active learning and knowledge scaffolding.

To Linda, the introduction of the internet profoundly shifted how knowledge is created and shared.  The previous three theories were based on scarcity of knowledge and experts.  The internet allowed for the social development of knowledge.  Linda therefore proposed a new theory – Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) Theory, which emphasizes active engagement by groups for idea generation, idea organizing, and intellectual convergence.

A weakness in Linda’s book is that she never mentions connectivism as a theory, and yet many of the characteristics of her OCL theory align with networked learning and the connectivism theory of Stephen Downes and George Siemens.  Like connectivism, Linda sees learning as a process that builds on connections inside and outside the classroom.  An interesting point Linda makes is that the role of teacher/faculty is neither “Sage on the Stage” nor “Guide on the Side”, but rather the connection between the students and her network within her discipline.

Linda provides three chapters of cases illustrating her Online Collaborative Learning theory, which I found useful.  She ends her book by noting the amazing growth of the internet over the past twenty years, from a total of 623 websites in 1993 to the present world of Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Amazon.  The internet has become a familiar and common aspect of life, yet its impact on education does not mirror this growth outside education.  Linda sees the internet as still an “add-on” and not an integrated aspect of teaching.  I might argue that this is less true of students than teachers, but I understand where Linda is coming from.  She is holding up the promise of online learning.

Having just finished Linda’s book, I am now starting David Weinberger‘s new book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room .  In many ways, David picks up where Linda leaves off.  David’s previous book, Everything is Miscellaneous, is one of my favorites and very useful in understanding tagging and social bookmarking.  In this book, David notes that society has been bemoaning information overload for thousands of years.  Yet we continue to survive (and thrive).  He quotes Clay Shirky‘s famous “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure,” but adds an interesting nuance.  Filters in the past removed information.  In choosing which books to place on a shelf, libraries filtered out thousands of other published works.  You only saw the books they selected.  In this digital era, he uses as an example Mary Spiro’s list in the Baltimore Science News Examiner of eight podcasts one should not miss.  While she has filtered out thousands of podcasts, those podcasts can still be found on the internet if one chooses.  In other words, today’s filters remove clicks, but not the content itself.  So filters no longer filter out, they filter forward.  When we use a Google search, the fact that our search returns millions of hits no longer seems overwhelming.  We accept it and usually use the first ten hits.  In Weinberger’s view, the filters themselves have become content, making our network smarter.

I am only through the first chapter of David’s book, but it is a timely piece that continues to nudge my thinking.  If you have read either of these books, I would be interested in your thoughts.

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Bill Kist Book

kistOver the weekend, I finished reading Bill Kist’s book The Socially Networked Classroom: Teaching in the New Media Age.

Of course, given my past posts, this book really resonated with me.  But I think it is a good resource for any faculty exploring the use of social media in instruction.  One of the things I liked is that Bill is not totally commited to technology for technology’s sake, but rather really explores possibilities that enhance learning.

The book is written primarily for the middle school and high school teacher, though I think it could easily be applied to higher education classes as well. The chapters are divided into Short, Tall, Grande, Venti, and Refill – Starbucks allusions that work well.  When you order a coffee at Starbucks, the coffee tastes the same whether it is in a little cup or a huge one.  Likewise, Bill has provided social media applications for a low tech teacher to a “venti” one.

At the “short” end, Bill looks are collaborative learning without jumping in to too many web tools.  Using Word forms and index cards, he illustrates how to move from a linear lecture to a simulated hyperlinked activity in a classroom.

The “tall” chapter moves the concepts of community learning on to the web, primarily through internal blogging (such as the Blackboard 9 blogging feature, which allows for blogging within the walled garden of the class).  He has some nice examples of teacher guidelines, some of which I am adopting for my fall class.  He also addresses issues of safety and fair use when working with students in a web environment.

At the ‘grande” level, he looks at moving this use of blogging outside the LMS to the open blogosphere.  I like the guidelines to students that basically equate to “would your mother approve?”.  I recently introduced a faculty member to blogging, and her first post (on Mel Gibson) singed my eyebrows!  Students (and faculty) do need some guidelines, and Bill’s chapter gives some good ones.

At the “venti” level, Bill is exploring tearing down the four walls and looking at what classes look like in hybrid settings (and remember, he is writing about middle and high school classes – what if you did not have to come to school every day?).  His examples obviously work well at the college level, but are pretty radical for K-12.

His “refill” chapter explores some fascinating questions.  Will social networking be used to free students or more tightly limit their freedoms?  What is the relationship between entertainment and education (or as I would suggest, what does learning look like in a web-enabled world?)?  Is there enough time in one’s schedule for social networking?  And finally, what should our schools aspire to?

Regarding time, I read the first chapter of Clay Shirky‘s Cognitive Surplus last night, and he would suggest that we have plenty of time if we would just get off the TV!  I will follow up with more from Shirky as I get deeper in the book.

Kylene Beers wrote the foreword and titled it “Preparing Students for a World Gone Flat.”  My blog has remained with the flat world theme even though that concept is morphing.  Our students, be they K-12 or higher ed, are living in a web-enabled world and interacting in and through the web daily.  It seems to me that too many of our instructional settings attempt to block out this reality rather than see it as an opportunity.  Bill’s book does a good job of laying out options for teachers and faculty as they grapple with those opportunities.  Faculty can order a short cup or a venti cup, but faculty at a minimum need to understand what students are tasting.  Bill’s book gives some ways to start down that road.

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