No Shortcuts in Course Design

Like many of my friends and colleagues, August is the month for deep engagement in course design. If you were to shine a flashlight into this world, you would find me on a couch in the living room, hair disheveled, clothes unchanged for days, various plates and cups tossed to the floor, surrounded by books ranging from Vygotsky’s Mind in Society to Scieszka and Barnett’s Battle Bunny. I love this time of year. And, once I get started on design, it is almost impossible to stop. For me, imagining a learning environment, curating the texts, and designing for community and participation is like playing a great platform video game. Each course becomes a puzzle to solve as I imagine students inhabiting this world I’m trying to build. Like a good gaming environment, course design should allow for learner-driven play and inquiries. And I know — and hope — that students will take the world as it’s designed and mess it up. They’ll mess it up in all the best possible ways.

Imagining the course without students is actually, eventually, easy. As I work through what we will do together, the class plan becomes clear in my head: what we’ll read, how we’ll talk about it, what students will make. And, then, other humans come in the room, and in most semesters, students do things and make things that I could not have imagined. And, I learn. And, we learn. What I learn mostly is that I have to be willing to let go of my favorite things I’ve designed for the course. I have to let students remix, mashup, and throw out our plans: their questions must drive the course even if we meander at times. I appreciate the struggle that comes from designing a course where it is safe to fail. Where failure is valued, not because “anything goes,” but because we are thinking through such complicated ideas we could not possibly solve all of them. We develop routines and ways of working together over time.

Course design means I’ve probably opened 1,000 links in the last few days and I’ve read or re-read 15 books in the last two weeks. And, this devouring of material may be why course prep is so engaging: prep is so much more than putting due dates on the calendar. The reading and re-reading reminds me what matters in my field and points out the holes in my thinking. There is no quick fix I can apply to this work: no matter how much anyone wants us to believe that teaching and learning can be made more efficient, it just can’t. There is nothing easy or tidy about teaching and learning because there is nothing easy or tidy about creating relationships and building communities of practice. Canonical ideas are hard fought. As my colleague Leslie, a physicist, often reminds me, we present ideas to students as if they are tidy, often hiding the labor that happened to reach “known facts.”

So, what if we design educational experiences that give students insights into how we do our disciplines? What if we design educational spaces that immerse students in identities and meaning making in our fields (and across our fields)? What would teaching and learning look like, across kindergarten to higher education, if we stop worrying about making teaching faster or more efficient? If we worry less about students “taking shortcuts” or “not doing the reading,” will we stop building courses with an emphasis on surveillance? What if we design for community and participation? Will faculty still use Turnitin or an LMS or dashboards that just take the place of good teaching? Will they labor over reading quizzes and take attendance via clickers? Will they spend a lot of time thinking through attendance policies? None of those design problems — attendance or grading or tracking — are connected to our disciplines; they are the problems of schooling. I’m interested in design problems of my field, not the design problems of school, per se. And, further, in my 20 years of teaching, I’ve come to understand that when students are engaged in meaning making, when they are a valued member of a community of practice they hope to join, they aren’t interested in shortcuts or skipping out on anything. In fact, they do more, not less labor.

I do understand the impetus to be efficient, especially in a time when educators are expected to do more with less. Because I teach writing, I’m often asked for shortcuts to giving feedback to student writing. I see the look on the faces of my colleagues when my quick answer is that there are no shortcuts: responding to student writing is time consuming. However, there are ways to work smarter and not harder when it comes to feedback: for one, you don’t have to respond to every piece of writing. In fact, as my colleague Chris Fosen often says: “If you’re responding to every piece of writing, then students are not writing enough.” The “efficiency” does not come from Turnitin with its pre-determined or “frequently used” feedback structures: efficiency comes from distributing the labor of feedback in a community because this builds relationships and models for students what it means to be a member of a disciplinary community. Giving feedback on ideas is what we do in our fields. Writing, and feedback, are generous acts we participate in. Our students should experience these practices alongside us.

I appreciate the tribe of educators who also push against “efficient design,” and, instead, ask design questions about community building. Recently, Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris shared their two part presentation from the Domains17 conference, titled “If bell hooks Made an LMS: Grades, Radical Openness, and Domain of One’s Own.” In Stommel’s talk, he argues: “We shouldn’t pre-determine the shape of a student’s learning environment before that student even arrives upon the scene. And I say ‘we’ pointedly, because even if we aren’t implicated in the code of the LMS, all of us in education are in some way implicated in its use.”

When we turn to platforms or tools in our educational design, we must think carefully about the ways in which those platforms shape our design choices, and more importantly, determine and shape our relationships with our students, newcomers to our fields. Stommel and Morris followed their talk with a thoughtful critique of Turnitin, “A Guide For Resisting  Edtech: The Case Against Turnitin,” which I have shared with every colleague who will listen. I’m compelled by arguments that ask educators to stop using student labor for other people’s profit in the name of efficiency and surveillance: “The abuse of student labor and intellectual property is only the beginning of the problem with Turnitin. If the company’s financial and legal model isn’t troubling enough, consider how the application of its services affects the pedagogical relationship between students and teachers.” Again, a central question driving educational design should be “what is the relationship I want to have with students and how will they become productive participants in our disciplines?”

There are no shortcuts to learning and teaching. We can’t flip, copy and paste, and rubric our way to community building. And, if we can’t give students a place to try on identities, to make, play, and fail in educational spaces, and particularly in higher ed, where we still maintain a lot of academic freedom, then where? We should be able to design a space where people are seen and heard and where they contribute to the meaning making of our fields. Let the wild rumpus start.