Course Design

It’s now perhaps a bit cliched, but these are unprecedented times. Maintaining anything resembling business as usual is challenging indeed, as boundaries between all types of competing spaces and roles – home, family, work, school etc. – have been conflated. I’d like to give a special mention here to friends and colleagues @RCollEMand@RCEMLearningwho are (characteristically) working incredibly hard and innovatively at the moment.

In member experience and education @TheLawSociety we’re managing to pretty much keep a significant change programme on course due to the agile methodologies we adhere to. But one thing that was pleasing this week was seeing some good old course design principles being tested and challenged. We’re in the process of re-designing our Immigration and Asylum Accreditation (further details can be found here), which will be a major course release on our new LMS, which will be launching in the coming weeks. We had a really encouraging response to our call for contributors, and this week’s workshop was really enjoyable for two main reasons:

  • There’s been a lot of discussion recently following the #online pivotto digital education caused by Covid 19. Many institutions have had to rapidly move to online learning without having the right technical or pedagogical infrastructures in place.
  • Digital education is my bread and butter, but these kind of kick-off faculty workshops always do tend to be more effective when conducted face-to-face. However, it ultimately worked really well on Skype. The chat function was frequently used, which made for some productive side-channel exchanges, without adding too much to the cognitive load.

Design Checklist  

Aside from the legal content, a healthy proportion of the workshop was devoted to the overall design and structure of the course. The design principles were adapted from a checklist in Beetham and Sharpe’s Rethinking Pedagogy for the Digital Age(2019), and the full checklist can be foundhereI won’t go into the full checklist here, but on reflection there were a number of points that warrant further engagement:

  • Pedagogy was front and centre: I’m far from the first one to either bemoan or champion this (it’s always worth turning to Audrey Watters here) but any kind of technical innovation will fall on its face if your pedagogical framework isn’t sorted. Early indicators are that’s not the case here, as facilitators and faculty repeatedly stressed the need to align with constructivist principles which acknowledges our learners as highly accomplished individuals who operate in pressurised environments. Moreover, there was an awareness that we need to structure learner engagement around context-specific and authentic scenarios. The narrative of professional life needs to be encoded in the pedagogical framework as the course will be around 9 hours in total, which is a challenge for authors to fluently construct, and for learners to engage with given the contexts in which they operate.
  • Assessment and feedback: One thing we’re working through is how to ensure assessment mechanisms align with the content. The spectre of bolted-on MCQs looms large here, as they so often feel like they just don’t match-up to the robustness of the content that precedes them. Some kind of meta-cognitive or reflective exercise could work here, without adding to learners’ cognitive load or tasks.
  • Adapting for learner differences: There can perhaps be too much of a focus on making sure the content works on all the devices that your end user will be consuming the resources on. But the adaptations can’t stop here, as there might be variances in learner needs we’re not even aware of. Finding ways to bring these into our frameworks is an important task.
  • Broaden the stories: The importance of stories to help and improve learning is a major interest, and there’s some fantastic resources out there on this themeAnother juggling act here will be complementing the technical knowledge with some good stories, which can also help with embedding the content into ongoing development.

The workshop overcame some environmental challenges, and the discussions were really encouraging. But we’re really aware this is the first step; the design principles have to be properly embedded into this course, and into our standard practices (whenever they return to some kind of normal).

The Overstory

I’ve been meaning to start blogging for ages, but numerous things – usually work, family commitments, and doubting the value of adding another blog to the multitudes, along with questioning the worth of anything I’d produce – was always enough to stop me in my tracks. But the prospect of some Covid-19 enforced isolation, coupled with the need to just write something, finally provoked me into action.

The plan is to produce something as regularly as possible on things that provoke some kind of interest, which will usually and primarily be education (with an emphasis on the digital education), and literature. The first effort is devoted to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which I’ve just finished.

Networks and scarcity

It’s been interesting to watch the hysteria unfold in recent weeks, as there’s a paradoxical impulse to self-protect by hoarding and bulk buying, while concomitantly threatening to undo that by ignoring public health advice by continuing to socialise and be out and about. But we’ve all got used to having what we want, when we want it, and one strain of Powers’ novel wants us to question our ‘endless suicidal appetite’ (372) when we’ve been subjected to the omnipresent ‘..gospel of endless growth’ (345)

Like many environmental novels, scarcity lies at the heart of it: what have we lost, what we are in the process of losing, and what (if anything) can be restored. It’s a book about trees, and their essential place – mythically, environmentally, psychologically – in the order of things. Its range is vast, taking in a lot of trees, a lot of research about their interdependency in nature, and a lot of characters (roughly 9 key ones in all) whose narratives are returned to throughout the course of the text. It’s an above-ground rhizome which exposes the innate connectedness of things. Our ‘apex’ status has made it seem natural for us to ‘extend our wills over things’ (314), but this will has blinded us to the ‘networked soil’ (272).

The ethical call to action

Anybody who’s witnessed bog-roll hoarding as Covid-19 unfolds will agree that ‘People aren’t the apex species they think they are’ (356). And that’s essentially the key ethical call to action at the heart of the novel – the anthropomorphic tendency to claim sovereignty over everything is illusory and destructive. This may put plenty of readers off, as the admirable ethical challenge presented by such novels can easily lapse into preachy didacticism.

Neelay, the computer game and virtual world creative genius whose story is one of the recurring narrative threads, is driving the process where we move from individuals with consciousness into nothing but datafied subjects. But the eveywhereness of digital connectivity has masked the loss of a more fundamental set of connections with the natural environment.

But is there a story?

One legacy of academic life has been the battle to reconcile the notion that plots are an entirely false construct set against the notion that, well, they’re important and people generally like them, as they drive stories and narratives. The issues with the novel’s structure and lack of plot certainly gets a bit of a bashing here Despite their best intentions, I suppose one of the issues with environmental novels is that they can’t avoid getting a bit preachy: we’ve done so much damage in such short time, we’re digitally but not environmentally connected, and Powers forces us to look again and again at this in over 600 pages. Jacko’s ‘Earth Song’ accomplished all this in just over 6 minutes, after all.  But what rescues it is the fact that ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story’ (607) and the story here is a compelling one,