Revealing trails through the Wild West

In thinking further about the ideas presented by Jon Dron as “Web 1.5”, there may be another perspective to solving the problem of balancing the teacher-focused, top-down, LMS environment of Web 1.0 with the communal, discovery-based, sharing environment of Web 2.0 (see Dron and Anderson’s Lost in social space: Information retrieval issues in Web 1.5, 2009).

New York (Library of Congress)
A cowboy, 1900-1920 (Library of Congress)

I’m going to consider Web 1.0 and its suburb, the LMS, as life in the big city. Web 2.0 is the Wild West.  [Note: I will also be using the Wild West analogy also for the chapter I’m writing for the e-book Open Online Learning and Teaching being edited by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Rita Kop.]

Assuming the instructor is responsible for creating the environment for learning, there are many places along the spectrum between too closed (big city) and too open (Wild West). If students are accustomed to closed systems (which they often are from standard classrooms and learning management systems), then simply throwing them into the Wild West of the open web is not a good idea. They will be far too busy managing the affective elements of dealing with the open web as a learning space (something akin to Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief) to be able to learn anything. It’s culture shock.

Before our Program for Online Teaching Certificate course began, the feeling most participants expressed in starting the class was “excited”. After a few weeks, that changed to “overwhelmed”. I think we made the mistake of thinking that people who emailed and used course management systems and indicated interest in an open class in online pedagogy were already in Abilene, Kansas, an outpost of organized civilization surrounded by territory full of cowboys and Indians. We didn’t understand that they were big city folk, accustomed to having their services provided in a centralized way.

And yet we wanted them working on the open web, blogging or posting where all can see, sharing and behaving like netizens and contributors to the deep well of all internet knowledge. We didn’t envision them roping calves on the first day, of course, but we wanted them to enjoy the challenge and try twirling a rope.

One step at a time may sound silly, but it might be best to approach things that way, gradually revealing ones reasons and intent as time goes one. So in week one, we might say the task is to set up a blog, and we give advice and tutorials to do that. Then week two is to post something in text, week 3 with an image, etc. all focused on the course content. And as we go along, we explain a bit more each week about why we’re doing this (i.e. posts are for reflection, which is good for learning and sharing; images can help us see what you’re talking about, etc.).

We haven’t quite been doing this, in our effort to balance pedagogical study and tool exploration. Each week we have been doing something different, having them try a new tool. It may be like saying, “look at that cactus”, “watch out for that snake”, and “doesn’t that saloon girl look pretty in those boots?” all at once. It’s possible we should be revealing the trail in a better way.

It may be best, at this point of “overwhelm”, not to explain too much. We want to be transparent about our teaching methods, but we could reveal these gradually, as things arise. Throwing out learning theories and pedagogical explanations right away is like giving a city boy a saddle and pointing him toward a horse — he knows the two things are connected but it doesn’t make sense immediately, even though the clear goal is to move forward.

We need to be a little less Jack Palance, and a little more like a tour guide. While a certain amount of challenge is great, and very important to learning, we need to not forget the comfort of being more on the big city side, having decisions of how to structure learning be set in advance.