Landing : Athabascau University

Journal paper: p-Learning’s unwelcome legacy

My latest paper is now available in the open journal, TD Tecnologie Didattiche.

The paper summarizes and expands on much of what I have been talking and writing about over the past year or two, looking into the ways that the boundaries that heavily determine the pedagogies of p-learning (collocated learning and teaching) have been imported wholesale into the e-learning environment, despite the fact that most were only needed in the first place because of those boundaries. I pay particular attention to the systemic harmful effect this has on intrinsic motivation: a vast proportion of what we do is designed to attempt to overcome this central inherent weakness in institutional p-learning.

Bizarrely, when we teach online, we tend to intentionally add those same boundaries back in (e.g. through logins, closed walled gardens, differentiated roles, scheduled courses, grades, etc) and actually make things worse. We replicate the stupid stuff but only rarely incorporate the saving graces of p-learning such as the value of a diverse learning community, easy ways to show caring, responsiveness, tacit knowledge transfer, modelling of ways of being, etc. Meanwhile we largely ignore what makes e-learning valuable, such as diversity, freedom, connectivity, and near-instant access to the knowledge of billions. We dumbly try to make better courses (a notable by-product of physical constraints, seldom a great way to learn) when what we actually need is better learning, and force people to stay on those courses using threats/rewards in the form of grades and accreditation. I explain how, historically, this came about: from a technology evolution perspective it is quite understandable, as were horseless carriages, but it is still very foolish. The paper begins to explore how we might flip our institutions and adopt practices that make more sense, given the algorithmic, fuzzy, metaphorical, emergent, illusory, temporally indistinct, space-crossing boundaries of e-learning, and it includes some descriptions of some ways this is already happening, as well as some ways it might.


Formal teaching of adults has evolved in a context defined, initially, by the constraints of physical boundaries. Classroom walls directly entail timetables, norms and rules of behaviour, social segregation into organized groups and, notably, the course as a fundamental unit of instruction. Our adult education systems are well adapted to provide efficient and cost-effective teaching within those boundaries. Digitally embodied boundaries are far more fluid, open, permeable, scalable, metaphorical and fuzzy.
This has helped to drive the increasing dominance of e-learning in intentional informal learning and yet methods that emerge from physical boundaries dominate institutional e-learning, though they are a poor fit with the media. This paper is an exploration of the implications of the removal of physical boundaries to online pedagogies, many of which challenge our most cherished educational foundations and assumptions.


  • Jon, your paper brings to mind a few things that I have been thinking about lately. One is the idea of gamification in courses. I wonder if some of the appeal of games isn't that they are bounded in specific ways with knowable rules. As both a student and and a teacher, I was always aware of the need to "find out what the professor wants" in order to get that A. That is, I wanted to know the rules of the game. In some ways, gamification reinforces the established teaching-learning patterns. It may even speak to a need many feel for extrinsic pressures to perform. Competition as well as collaboration might be one of the benefits of social learning.

    Only one of my five kids loves to get up and ride a racing bike every day--the others are like me in that they know exercise is good for them and it is fun once they get started, but they need some outside motivation. It usually comes in the form of encouragment/pressure from friends, loved ones, doctors, or scary Internet videos. As a teacher, I tried to remember that many, if not most, of my students felt about learning English composition the way I feel about exercise. It will never be a natural pursuit, but that does not let me as a teacher off the hook with respect to doing my best to create an environment that supports those who need the extra push as well as delight those who don't.

    It's true that assessment is mostly used as an enforcement tool, but it seems to me that ideally it's a learning tool. In active learning situations where people learn by applying content to solve a problem or create something new, what they produce is evidence of what they have learned. Reading and writing are the main tools we use in academic learning, but there are many ways we can engage learners in these activities beyond the essay and test that invite cheating and plagiarism.  So I would like to see assessment and teaching more closely aligned rather than decoupling them.

    Speaking of plagiarism and cheating, I really like what you said about the appropriate role of teachers--they don't need to make students do anything, including refrain from cheating. I do think, though, that while teachers should not be required to provide pedagogies to enforce compliance, they should work with learning designers to provide learning activities/assessments that make cheating and plagiarism irrelevant. Policing for plagiarism was not a role I could ever accept as a writing instructor--we may well come upon plagiarized material in student writing in the course of giving feedback, but that is a teachable moment, not an occaision to penalize beyond a failing grade. And the social and professional consequences of being caught cheating or plagiarizing should be part of the disucussion in any writing course.

    As  you said, education is not only about job skills. Learning ways of thinking--the kinds of theorectical lenses that anthropology and sociology provide, for example--has always been the greatest value of a university education. While outsiders sometimes make amazing leaps that forward a discipline, for most, the socialization into a professional discourse is a necessary step for moving ahead in life. The autodidact often comes up with a skewed version of a discipline that is not helpful, and I think this can happen in networks of learners without sufficient guidance. It makes being a teacher in this kind of environment all the more challenging. Educational developers take it as a given that university professors mostly have not really learned to teach or design courses well. The new learning environments put us all in that boat. We all need to learn new ways to share and create knowledge.

    Thanks for a stimulating paper!



    Mary Pringle September 7, 2016 - 9:37am

  • Thanks for the stimulating response, Mary!

    I largely agree re gamification, as long as (as rightly you imply) it's not pointsification. I particularly like that you can fail frequently in most games and only progress when you are ready, able, and willing -we can learn from that. Apart from anything else, accreditation would be less harmful if we could keep trying until we succeeded. Not sure about competition, though: it can have a place but can be two-edged sword, especially when we are seeking creativity and expansive thinking, and it can put pressure on in ways that can be positively harmful to both winners and (especially) to losers. The educational game can and maybe should be played to win, but it doesn't have to be part of the rules that winning means beating others, let alone scoring points.

    Re motivation, it is certainly true that there are things we need to do which do not intrinsically motivate us (at least, not straight away). Social support is indeed crucial: it really helps to see that what we are doing matters to others, that others care. It is also a critically important teacher role to help learners to see why doing something unpleasant or to which they are indifferent aligns with their own personal goals and values - it's about encouraging internally regulated extrinsic motivation rather than pushing, I think.

    I totally agree about assessment as a learning tool: I know of no theory of learning that does not explicitly emphasize the importance of feedback, and learning goals are really useful things. The problem is not assessment as such (though grades are normally a bad idea) but accreditation. As you say, there are lots of ways to provide evidence of learning and lots of means of assessment that naturally lend themselves to providing such evidence without accreditation becoming the reason for learning.

    I agree about plagiarism etc too.  If we divorced accreditation from learning then it would largely vanish: we would be letting people learn, not making them learn. It would make no sense for learners to cheat when literally the only person they are cheating is themselves. It would be almost inevitable that learning designers would design activities that make plagiarism irrelevant, too, because the only reason for undertaking them would be to learn, not to (summatively) assess. For now, given the constraints that we are forced to work under, I agree that mindful learning design and constructive alignment can make a huge difference.

    I think it remains one of the most critical roles of universities to nurture scholarly networks, and it makes great sense to continue to teach much as ever, as long as we don't force learners to comply, so I'm not too worried about the perils of autodidacticism as long as we nurture those networks wisely and teach well. I think it is useful to have scholars with a duty of care in such networks, who can help to minimize the risks, but there is also a role for crowd-driven collectives to help sort the good from the bad (including those scholars). Without such means of identifying value, as well as checks and balances on those means, self-organizing networks are potentially dangerous, thanks to Matthew Effects, filter bubbles, and echo chambers, amongst other things, that can reinforce bad patterns and ignorance: good for networks, bad for learning. Of course, that is not a bad description of academia in general. It's one big web of trust that, with its tribes, disciplines, peer reviews and so on, illustrates all the good and bad aspects of self-organizing networks! In many ways, it rewards the already rich, separates more than it connects, is filled with cliques, is answerable only to itself, and reinforces doctrine. Of course, it does have mechanisms designed to soften this, but that's the point: those mechanisms are designed. We can improve those designs.

    Jon Dron September 8, 2016 - 11:05am

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