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there are no agnostics in classrooms

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Maybe I’m just a little cranky this morning, but I’ve heard all this before. Wired Campus has a piece on Luke Fernandez, an assistant manager of program and technology development at Weber State University, Utah, and his encounter with Moodle.

Mr. Fernandez went to Moodlemoot, a conference of Moodle users, last month in San Francisco. He heard that the software embodies a philosophy, one that emphasizes learning as something accomplished socially, through interacting with peers, rather than through isolated inquiry.

Moodle states the pedagogical principles it’s built on and built to afford on it’s Philosophy page.

The design and development of Moodle is guided by a particular philosophy of learning, a way of thinking that you may see referred to in shorthand as a “social constructionist pedagogy”. (Some of you scientists may already be thinking “soft education mumbo jumbo” and reaching for your mouse, but please read on – this is useful for every subject area!)

That statement’s trying too hard to be cute to really get the job done – not to mention the cheap shot at “you scientists,” but it opens the discussion. Social construction is explained in more detail – but with the same attitude – on the Pedagogy page, which opens with

Let’s sit back and really reflect on the pedagogy that is at the core of what we, as online educators, are trying to do.

The page discusses how pedagogy and practice connect, and how the design of Moodle supports social practices such as collaborative writing.

Social construction is old hat to comp-rhet people. Social-Epistemic rhetoric has been in the classroom for 25 years or more – well before networked computers came into play, long before it became social constructivism in education. Typically, comp/rhet scholars set social-epistemic rhetoric in opposition to formalism, as typified by the Five Paragraph Theme. (See James Berlin, Rhetoric and Reality, or Sharon Crowley’s The Methodical Memory).

Using the same distinction, if Moodle uses affordances that encourage social-epistemic exchange, D2L and Blackboard are built for formalism.

One of the interesting aspects of formalism is that it denies its ideology. It purports to be ideologically pure, and situationally universal. There is One Right Way to Write a Paper. Writing is the transmission of knowledge that is discovered independent of writing. If efficiently done, the transmission is successful. And Correct Form is Efficient Form. The writer’s job is to collect, package, and deliver knowledge.

And one of the annoying aspects of social-epistemic rhetoric is that it tries very hard to explain the ideology it’s based on, sometimes to the point of apology. Social-epistemic rhetoric is based on the idea that knowledge and knowing is intimately wrapped up in language, and both language and knowledge exist in a social network. Without a social context, knowledge doesn’t mean anything. Knowledge and knowing don’t exist independently of language. Language does not capture knowledge but creates it, and does so by means of social exchanges. Even when I’m alone in my snub little private garret, alone at Walden, I’m using socially constructed concepts and language to talk to myself, to write, to think with. Language and meaning are social. You can’t stand outside language and expect to mean anything.

My point is that Moodle makes an effort to explain itself. On the other hand, D2L’s literature – like formalism – focuses on “delivery” of educational content:

What We Do
We provide a user-centric, web-based platform for the delivery of online teaching and learning, as well as a complete spectrum of services. >> Learn more about our products

Why We Do It
Our products assist in the delivery of online learning for Schools, Colleges, Universities, and Corporations. Ultimately, this allows our clients to realize their eLearning visions and measure success. >> Learn more about our clients

Short, empty, and focused not on teaching practices but on products and clients. The altruism in Why We Do It is touching (“This allows our clients to realize their eLearning visions “), but really not in keeping with the register. What D2L says is taken back by how they say it. As in formalism, which splits knowledge and knowing from language, learning is independent of delivery. D2L makes a content-less, agnostic delivery system, a platform. No ideology here, of course.

Even D2L’s Media Library (titled Literature on the main page) focuses on their business concerns – those formalistic aspects they can control – rather than pedagogical matters. The ideology isn’t subtle here; it’s enacted. To read their stuff, you have to register with D2L. And in such arch terms, too.

Welcome to the Desire2Learn Media Library

Please fill in the short form below and select which documents you would like to access.

Upon submission of the form you will be able to download any brochures and information that you have selected.

Desire2Learn Website Privacy Policy

1. Please select which item(s) you would like to view:

Hyper-correctness and archness are hallmarks of formalism, seeking to sound as upright as possible. Not simply “Fill in the form and select the documents you want to read”, but “Upon submission of the form you will be able to download any brochures and information that you have selected.” And look at the desire to be uber-formal in “select which item(s).” Better – that is, more formal – would have been “item or items.”

And D2L doesn’t escape the social construction of meaning here, either. What they call a “short form” makes 20 requests for information. In D2L’s social world, that’s short.

Even better? Just let visitors read the press releases and product descriptions. The need to give D2L information first is a real mark of their ideology, and the formalistic philosophy of education on which their D2L is based.

Which gets me back to Luke Fernandez’s encounter with Moodle

“I wasn’t sure I wanted a philosophy of education built into the software I used in my class,” Mr. Fernandez writes. “After all, what if I subscribed to some other teaching philosophy? Wouldn’t a more agnostic technology be more consonant with a professor’s need for ideological freedom? Mine are common sentiments, and they explain why some harbor reservations about the Moodle software.”

But he says he left the meeting feeling “evangelized.” Moodle, he decided, was both a technology and a community, where software developers interact to create a collaborative environment, and teachers build on that collaboration.

But back home, he’s had two second thoughts. One is that, in his own teaching, things haven’t been as collaborative as Moodle developers preach. Software, he concludes, can only take you so far. Teachers have to go the rest of the way.

Mr. Fernandez had another reservation. “I wonder whether in the rush to celebrate the virtues of openness and the fun of group learning, we’re forgetting the virtues inherent in learning in private, in reclusive Walden-like settings,” he writes.—Josh Fischman

Given the cheerleading language of the Moodle site, I wouldn’t doubt that the Moodle conference touted celebration and fun over the more substantial and difficult work of collaborative learning. Moodle likes to hype as much as every sales person:

You can download and use it on any computer you have handy (including webhosts), yet it can scale from a single-teacher site to a University with 200,000 students.

Understatement can be a virtue, Moodle. Too often, the Moodle developers fall into catchphrases at those points that really need thorough explication. Example: These “referents” (huh?) “boiled down into a simple list that I carry around under the moniker of ‘social constructionism'”

1. All of us are potential teachers as well as learners – in a true collaborative environment we are both.

2. We learn particularly well from the act of creating or expressing something for others to see.

3. We learn a lot by just observing the activity of our peers.

4. By understanding the contexts of others, we can teach in a more transformational way (constructivism)

5. A learning environment needs to be flexible and adaptable, so that it can quickly respond to the needs of the participants within it.

All the statements are true and valid – sort of. Because they are just as false and invalid. It’s less a matter of We Learn by Observing and more a matter of what we learn by observing and what else we do when we observe in order to learn.

In any case, the takeaway oversimplifies and universalizes just at the moment when finer distinctions are necessary, and it’s too easy to slip into takeaways at conferences.

So I can understand Fernandez’s frustration when group learning doesn’t work out. And while I’m not familiar with the educational literature on solitary learning, I can think of a number of “virtues inherent in learning in private, in reclusive Walden-like settings.” Those virtues are all pretty romantic and lyrical, but they made up the bulk of my university learning. As an undergrad in literature and lit theory 30 years ago, I reveled in being left alone with my books.

But I also reveled in the parties and the bars and the discussions ’til dawn. The promiscuity, the existential intensity, the moodiness, the luxury of being anti-social when the mood struck. And the promiscuity. All social. All part of the contexts in which I learned….

Sorry. Got off track there.

What did I come in here for?

Oh, yeah. A statement: All interfaces, every delivery system, every classroom is deeply informed by an ideology of teaching and learning – as well as a social one. It’s a matter of orchestrating them. Books, blackboards, desks, or Walden, or Moodle, or D2L. All media is mediated, all delivery packaged in ideology.

Image: The Glastonbury 2008 posterity shot, BBC.