My intrapersonal struggle with ambition and humility

Last night, 806 - one of the final program requirements - began.  We are asked to write a short reflection after each session.

It was important for me to hear the stories of struggle, persistence and resilience from others last night, and I am made better by hearing these interrupted journeys, setbacks, and triumphs.  “It’s not your life’s work; it’s a program requirement.” That’s what I was told four years ago. Maybe it’s not my life’s work. But maybe it is.

When I decided to pursue the EdD in Distance Education, I was driven by the ambition to become Dr. J.  I had made a career change into postsecondary teaching and learning after 20 years in libraries, and even though it wasn’t required for my position, I pursued the doctorate for reasons of credibility (to be in “the club”) and to raise the ceiling of what would be possible for my future.  

I didn’t want to do anything fancy; I wanted to study the effect of peer assessment using learning analytics because my favourite quote about teaching is this:

The best answer to the question, ‘What is the most effective method of teaching?,’ is that it depends on the goal, the student, the content and the teacher.  But the next best answer is, ‘Students teaching other students.’ (McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin & Smith, 1987, p. 75)

Downes (2013) disagrees, calling peer assessment “the blind leading the blind,” but the topic felt cutting-edge and necessary to achieve high-end e-learning-at-scale.  Leading learning analytics scholars were realizing that analytics is often – but should not be – decoupled from the actual instructional conditions (Gasevic, Dawson, Rogers & Gasevic, 2016), and there were gaps in the literature.  I had no illusions that it was going to be easy, but it felt straightforward because I had access to 60 students in the online course I teach at the University of Alberta’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  It felt like a humble project, in the best sense of that word – free from pride and another important micro-level study into the complex dynamics of online course design.

Then, ambition got in the way.  At the end of 801, Dr. Dianne Conrad asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on assessments in online learning contexts with her. My response: “I’d be crazy to say no, but I would be even crazier to say yes.”  To take on a book project when I was about to start 802 was a decision made out of ambition, and I realized that I had (again) been a master of self-deception.  I wanted something more than a doctoral degree – I wanted to be a scholar, I wanted to be an academic, and I wanted to be a leader (even though I am not sure I can define what I mean by any of those labels).  The book came out in July 2018, and I am thrilled, but also humbled – it wasn’t easy; I haven’t always been the best-version of myself throughout the process.  I have wondered, was the ambition worth it if, at the end of the day, I am only more certain that all is vanity, and that there is nothing new under the sun?  My ambition has diminished me on more than one occasion.

Doubts and disillusionment about the wonders of technology further caused me to change direction for my dissertation. The messages of Selwyn (2014) and Veletsianos and Moe (2017) had started to sink in.  I also came across Ursula Franklin’s Massey Lectures entitled The Real World of Technology.

As more and more of daily life in the real world of technology is conducted via prescriptive technologies, the logic of technology begins to overpower and displace other types of social logic, such as the logic of compassion or the logic of obligation, the logic of ecological survival or the logic of linkages to nature. (Franklin, 1990, p. 95).

Was that not the deepest concern of my heart – that technology was displacing other forms of social logic and that I was part of that process?  Selwyn notes that “the de facto role of the academic educational technologist is understood to be one of finding ways to make these technology-based improvements happen” (Selwyn, 2014, p. 12), or in Franklin’s words, my role as a director of a teaching and learning centre is to make the world “safe for technology” (1990, p. 120).  Is that what my ambition is turning me into – part of the forces displacing the logic of compassion, obligation, and ecological survival?  This is a humbling thought, and part of the struggle I decided to work out in my proposal, which has become my life’s work.  

Downes, S. (2013). Assessment in MOOCs [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Franklin, U. (1990). The real world of technology. Toronto, ON: CBC Enterprises

Gašević, D., Dawson, S., Rogers, T., & Gasevic, D. (2016). Learning analytics should not promote one size fits all: The effects of instructional conditions in predicting academic success. The Internet and Higher Education, 2868-84. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2015.10.002

McKeachie, W. J., Pintrich, P. R., Lin, Y., & Smith, D. A. F. (1987). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the research literature. Ann Arbor, MI: National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning

Selwyn, N. (2014). Distrusting educational technology: Critical questions for changing times. New York, NY: Routledge.

Veletsianos, G., & Moe, R. (2017, April 10). The rise of educational technology as a sociocultural and ideological phenomenon. Educause Review. Retrieved from

Experiential Education at MHC: To Lead in Learning Excellence

During the writing of my dissertation proposal, I was asked, "What do you believe about knowledge creation?" This question really threw me for a loop. I answered immediately that every single one of the words was problematic and political, not the least of which is "I". Beliefs, knowledge, and creation are all political, and while that is true, I found what I believe about knowledge creation could be summed up in one word: experience. But that's not as easy as it sounds either. As Dewey writes:

We live from birth to death in a world of persons and things which in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities.  When this fact is ignored, experience is treated as if it were something which goes on exclusively inside an individual’s body and mind.  It ought not be necessary to say that experience does not occur in a vacuum.  There are sources outside an individual which give rise to experience. It is constantly fed by these springs (Dewey, 1997, p. 40).

This quotation speaks to two different sources of knowledge creation; the first type is sculpted by a culture’s stories, and the second is forged in experience.  Every month, I try to put together a brief for discussion at our Academic Leadership Council meetings. Here is what I put together for June's meeting. 

PS. Assessment Strategies in Online Learning: Engagement & Authenticity should be available this Friday (July 6) and available in print on July 22.




Assessment Strategies for Online Learning: Engagement and Authenticity

When I was in college, I dreamed of writing book. It was going to be this epic, mystical-reality bildungsroman about the time I was arrested for a crime I didn't commit. It was going to be hallucinogenic and psychedelically beautiful in line with Huxley's Island, Hesse's Demian and Thompson's Fear and Loathing. I never finished it, and probably shouldn't have. 

But this one did get finished!

Conrad and Openo - Assessment strategies in online learning contexts.PNG

It "hits the shelves" in Spring 2018. One of the reasons it is so exciting to publish with Athabasca University Press is that they believe in open access, so it will be freely available on the web, as well. It was such an honour and privilege to work with Dr. Conrad on this book. It wasn't always easy, but I am thrilled with the final product. 

Writing my dissertation

Andy Warhol once said, "The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape. . . . An interesting problem was an interesting tape. Everybody knew that and performed for the tape. You couldn't tell which problems were real and which problems were exaggerated for the tape. Better yet, the people telling you the problems couldn't decide anymore if they were really having the problems or if they were just performing."

I feel the same way about word processing. It has killed whatever writing life I might have had. I shared this with my cohort last night - that recently, after my son brought home the plague and I was sick in bed, I spent a few days reading about dissertations, research, and picked up a pen and my research journal and just started writing and doodling. So many aspects came clear, focused, and settled for me. I could see my way forward, and as a result, I was going to build this into my nightly routine. Today, I got the best message from one of my colleagues. 

I wanted to thank you for discussing your experiences about your ideas when you were ill. It got me to thinking about handwriting and how it is so helpful to disseminate ideas.  I have been struggling with really clarifying my ideas. I know what I want to do to, but I can never nail down the precise language the way I would like to. I keep rewriting it in different ways, trying to make it click. 

After hearing your story on Tuesday, I decided to keep a manual dissertation journal so I could get messy and be able to record my ideas in whatever form they arrive in...doodles, mind maps etc. As you spoke, I thought Jason is right, typing is so linear in nature, in some ways it was holding me back. So, thanks for the reminder, I am not there yet, but my messy writing journal has been helpful. 

I am glad this insight turned out to be as useful to her as it was to me. Every night, before I go to bed, I re-write the purpose of my study as I understand it today, and any new thoughts that I have had regarding the project and what I want to know. Drawing today's mind map is also useful, because there are a lot of paths that I want to travel, but will not travel in the dissertation. I will make note of them - "Future research should explore. . . ." In my case, for example, as much as I want to explore the experience of online contingent faculty in Canada, especially those who teach at multiple institutions, I won't be doing that. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely, but I am not doing it. Why? Well that comes back to the journal. Write yourself that question again and again. Why? That's your justification. That's why this is included and this excluded. I hope I get to that study, but that will be after this one. 

When I just write on the computer, it is a never-ending process of editing and self-censorship, or leaving things on the cutting room floor. To enjoy this process (and I really want to enjoy this process), I need to build activities that are more process-oriented and less product-oriented. 

Bridging the divide: Leveraging SoTL for quality enhancement

I am very excited to share this piece of research. This was put together by a great group of folks who worked together in the Society of Teaching in Learning in Higher Education's (STLHE) collaborative writing groups. A special issue of the Canadian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning will come out soon and contain all of the collaborative writing group articles. I am very thankful for the opportunity to participate in this group, and I hope that some of the recommendations to recognize the legitimacy of SoTL with Canadian provincial quality assurance frameworks will come to pas as quality assurance in higher education continues to evolve. 

This paper argues a divide exists between quality assurance (QA) processes and quality enhancement, and that the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) can bridge this divide through an evidence-based approach to improving teaching practice. QA processes can trigger the examination of teaching and learning issues, providing faculty with an opportunity to systematically study their impact on student learning. This form of scholarship positions them to take a critical and empowered role in the continuous improvement of student learning experiences and to become full participants in the goal of QA structures. A document analysis of current provincial QA policies in Canada reveals a gap between how teaching and learning challenges are identified and how those challenges are studied and acted upon. A QA report is not the end result of an assurance process. It is the beginning of a change process that is intended to lead to improvements in the student learning experience. The authors consider how SoTL provides a research-minded approach to initiate continuous improvements within a QA framework, and provides considerations for how it might be integrated into evolving provincial frameworks.

Openo, J., Laverty, C., Klodiana, K., Borin, P., Goff, L., Stranach, M., and Gomaa, N. (in press). Bridging the divide: Leveraging the scholarship of teaching and learning for quality enhancement. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Appreciative Leadership: A Cure for Today's Leadership Crisis

This paper was originally written for EDDE 804, Leadership and Project Management in Distance Education.  The assignment called for students to present and review a leadership theory.  I chose Appreciative Leadership because of my powerful experiences with Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Coaching, and because I think Appreciative Leadership may be a cure for today's leadership crisis. 

There is a leadership crisis. Kellerman (2012) suggests “leadership is in danger of becoming obsolete” (p. 200) because of dominant cultural constructions of leadership.  These constructs, promoted by the leadership industry, include that the wider world only matters insofar as it pertains to the narrow world, and this insular leadership focuses solely on financial performance, disregarding any external damage caused.  According to Kellerman, leadership education programs assume leadership can be taught quickly and easily, and that leadership can be taught in silos with a curriculum that concentrates only on what is applicable.  Followership is unimportant, bad leadership is unimportant, and not enough attention is paid to slowly changing patterns of dominance (pp. 191-195).  

Gronn (2003) also suggests conventional constructs of leadership “are in trouble” (p. 23) due to the oversimplified leader-follower binary.  Avolio, Walumba and Weber (2009) add a growing sense that historical models of leadership are not relevant to today’s digital/knowledge economy.  The greatest indication of the leadership crisis, however, is that leadership theories and leadership development programs have not enabled leaders to do what leaders need to do.  If the essence of leadership is influencing change (Uhl-Bien, 2003), and “80 percent of organizational change initiatives fail to meet their objectives” (Black, 2014, p. 3), conventional constructs of leadership are ineffective.

Kellerman (2012) suggests a perfect world would contain an overarching leadership theory with application to leadership practice (p. 195).  Appreciative Leadership may provide that. Whitney, Trosten-Bloom and Rader (2010) define Appreciative Leadership as

a way of being and a set of strategies that give rise to practices applicable across industries, sectors, and arenas of collaborative action. . . Appreciative Leadership is the relational capacity to mobilize creative potential and turn it into positive power – to set in motion positive ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance – to make a positive difference in the world (p. 3).

Gronn (2003) suggests that to study leadership, one should investigate the outcomes of workplace practices and then work backwards.  This can be accomplished by examining examples where appreciative practices have been employed.

Building organizational resilience using Appreciative Inquiry

Attached below are the slides from my presentation at the Family and Child Support Service Agencies of Alberta's Power of Prevention conference. on November 24, 2016.

Session description: Best estimates suggest 60-80% of strategic change initiatives fail. Leaders can increase their odds using Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Appreciative Inquiry is unapologetic in its focus on the positive, believing communities can be strengthened through collaborative inquiry as a method to turn problems into transformation. Emerging from positive and sports psychology, Appreciative Inquiry seeks out what is working well within organizations in order to create greater success. AI is a high-engagement process where the members of an organization co-create their preferred future together through appreciative interviews, re-framing, and the development of possibility statements. This highly interactive workshop introduces a new method of strategic planning that is perfectly suited for a time of rapid change and change fatigue. 

From the American, P8: The American Crisis Revisited

I’m eating crow and a slice of humble pie with some old drinking buddies — anger, disbelief and fear — feeling like I did after the Supreme Court cancelled the Florida recount, meaning Gore “lost.” A numb hopelessness won’t let go. But it’s only Day 1. Lincoln is whispering in my ear, “we must not be enemies,” and passion must not “break our bonds of affection.” He’s right, and my better angels will reappear.

So I do what I did in 2000. I read Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis, words that gave the colonists and the Continental Army hope when read to them before the Battle of Trenton on Dec. 23, 1776.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph … My secret opinion has always been that God Almighty will not give up a people … or leave them to perish … Neither do I suppose that He has given us up to the care of devils … Let them call me rebel, but I should suffer the misery of devils if I were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.”

I refused to be a sunshine patriot in 2000, and I won’t be one now. Donald Trump is my president, but I will not make a whore of my soul and be happy about it. Now is the time for faith, that despite evidence to contrary, God has not given us up to the care of devils, and the course is to recommit to working for human decency by recognizing that a majority of Trump’s supporters are not members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’ve eaten with Trump voters at barbecues, some are members of my family, and each one I know is a hard-working American disappointed by a system that has dismissed and demeaned them.

I don’t know what to do right now, other than resist demonizing my fellow citizens. As I reflect, I figured Hillary Clinton would win (not because I wanted her to — like so many others, I fell in love with Bernie) because the Republican Party was imploding. Feuds between Ryan and Trump, McCain and Trump, and Pence and Trump, all indicated a party in disarray, which is a party that typically loses. Obama’s approval ratings were strong, which is a good sign for the party possessing the presidency, and Michelle delivered the best speech of the campaign. Trump didn’t represent classic conservative views of small government, held a confusing stance on abortion, and ran a weird campaign. And I wasn’t alone in thinking it was impossible that a 3 a.m. tweeting, Putin-admiring, tax-dodging, pathologically lying racist woman-hater would win.

This illuminates how obvious it is that it’s not the Republican brand in trouble, but the Democratic Party that’s in shambles, and they can’t blame this on Trump or the FBI. The Democratic National Committee actively worked against Sanders and chose a candidate with a history of scandal, whose foundation may have accepted donations from terrorist-sponsoring countries. Republicans now control two-thirds of state houses, a majority of governorships, and hold a historic margin in the House of Representatives. This should sit heavily on Democratic leaders, and hopefully, this will be the last we see of the Clintons, who have repeatedly failed the American people and destroyed faith in the Presidency. Just like 2000, Gore’s loss had more to do with a Clinton impeachment than it did with the hanging chads in Florida. Democrats have no one to blame but themselves, and only time will tell whether or not they realize that.

From the American, Part 6: The Myth of America

I submitted this to the Medicine Hat News and realized, only after publication, that the final part of this didn’t appear. Ending should read: Clinton better represents how Americans truly see themselves. Most Americans are not ready to see America as a third world country, nor are they willing to give up on their hard fought path of progress. America is far from perfect, and Clinton is far from a perfect candidate, but she better represents America's enduring hopes for equality and democracy, certainly more than Trump.

This piece was submitted before the Access Hollywood revelation. which appears to sound the death bell for Trump's candidacy, whose candidacy should have been dead a long time ago.