This actually happened

A doctoral student using auto-ethnographic methodology criticized my research approach as being too “internally focused.”

Qualitative researchers will chuckle at the irony.


I find it interesting how emails cluster in my inbox. This email, showing my current readership dashboard, appeared directly after receiving a rejection for an article submission.

Openo - World Renowned Author 11 3 2018.PNG

Rejections are good. They keep me humble. But they are also like course evaluations - sometimes they are contradictory. For every positive comment there is a corresponding negative comment, usually about the same thing.

Reviewer A liked it.

“The article is clear and understandable. There is no problem in the flow of reading.”

“A study that can contribute to the course design. The added elements are based on rational reasons.”

Reviewer B did not.

“This author does not offer anything new to ODL”

“Satisfactory but also dated.  There is several bodies of literature that were not captured within this literature.”

Reviewers C & E kind of liked it.

“The topic is interesting; however, the research is based on the author’s personal experiences, it can not be generalized to a larger population.”

“Author has made use of recent literature which is the strength of this article”

“This is a well written reflection of an individual case study of a course.”

“I appreciate the author's thoughtful reflection on his own teaching and the lens through which he examines his instructional design process.”

“I doubt the helpfulness of this article for other faculty who are working through instructional design processes and the ability to sufficiently replicate the study.”

Of all the comments, this is probably the one that hurt the most:

“One major weakness of this article is that the manuscript is poorly written. The author is suggested to get it checked from a native speaker.”

I face only instrinsic motivation to produce scholarship. I am going to see what I can do to address some of their comments and then submit elsewhere, perhaps to a journal with a discipline-specific focus on teaching in the discipline. This might make it more generalizable.

And I will practice my English. Perhaps one day I will be able to write like a native speaker!

It's NOT all relative!

Last night’s presenter is conducting her research from a relativist ontology. I believe a relativist ontology is an illogical, self-refuting orientation. The proof: no one lives as a relativist.


Once upon a time, I was facilitating an Instructional Skills Workshop.  One of the new instructors going through the course was a long-term paramedic (an expert), and their 10-minute mini-lesson was on making triage decisions in emergency situations.  When her lesson began, she explained: “You are at a crash site. You have to find, diagnose, and determine who is going to get medical attention. There are four index cards in this room.  You have to find them.  On the back of each index card are indicators that will tell you how to determine (a) whether they have a chance to live with immediate attention, (b)  if they have a chance to live with moderate attention (1-2 hours), or (c) if they are likely to die no matter what you do.  You need to make these decisions quickly and you should direct your attention to those who have the best chance of survival.  In the next three minutes, I will tell you what to look for, and you will have five minutes to find the casualties and make your decisions. Then we will have a short debrief.”

She quickly outlined the criteria to look for, and we listened intently and took notes.  Then she said, “Go save some people,” and we launched into action. We matched the likelihood of survival indicators to the four patients, and we sorted them accordingly.  We followed the instructions perfectly.  Person 1 needed immediate attention – without it, they were likely to die.  Person 2 could wait a couple of hours (broken bones).  Person 3 showed weak vital signs, meaning they were unlikely to survive.  Person 4 showed signs they were near death and no intervention was possible.

And then the instructor revealed:

  • Person 1 was a drunk driver who was seriously injured, but with the right attention would likely survive.

  • Person 2 was the drunk driver’s passenger. They had broken bones and potential internal injuries, but based on their vital signs would likely survive without immediate attention.

  • Person 3 was an in utero child near term.  Even with an emergency C-section, they were unlikely to live.

  • Person 4 was a pregnant mother with a serious head injury.

The lesson, as the instructor revealed at the debrief, was not actually about identifying vital signs.  It was about making professional judgments.  It was applied ethics for paramedics. It was about making the moral judgment to save the life of a person you might hate.  The point of the lesson was that paramedics have to transcend habitually inherited value systems and just see the body, not the person.  They needed to be able to look past their instinctual inclinations about who should be saved.  As we sat in a state of shock, the instructor said she believed saving people you didn’t want to save is an unexplored part of post-traumatic stress disorder in paramedics, but there was no way to prove this. 

It was the best ISW lesson plan I have ever seen, and it proves no one lives as a relativist.


Foucault, in The Order of Things, said that truth was an “arbitrary play of power and convention.”  The argument that all truth is arbitrary and relative has been a powerful argument. The eminent historian Paul Johnson believes relativism was misappropriated from science but is the dominant ideology of modernity.  Einstein saw moral relativism as a disease and social pandemic that led him to say towards the end of his life that he sometimes wished he had been a simple watchmaker (Johnson, 1992, p.4). 

Relativism is powerful until you dare to ask Foucault: “You say all truth is arbitrary. Is your presentation itself true?” (Wilber, 1995, p. 29).  Relativists exempt themselves from the very criteria they apply to other value systems. They make truth claims that deny all truth claims, except the privileged stance of relativism, itself a truth claim.  It is worth listening to Ken Wilber at length on this point.

Nobody is denying that many aspects of culture are indeed different and equally valuable. The point is that that stance itself is universal and rejects theories that merely and arbitrarily rank cultures on an ethnocentric bias (which is fine). But because it claims that all ranking is either bad or arbitrary, it cannot explain its own stance and the process of its own (unacknowledged) ranking system. And if nothing else, unconscious ranking is bad ranking, by any other name. And the relativists are very bad rankers.

In short, extreme cultural relativity and merely heterarchical value systems are about as dead as any movement can become. The word is out that qualitative distinctions are inescapable in the human condition, and further that there are better and worse ways to make our qualitative distinctions.

In many ways, we want to agree with the broad conclusions of the cultural diversity movements: we do want to cherish all cultures in an equal light. But that universal pluralism is not a stance that all cultures agree with; that universal pluralism is a very special type or ranking that most ethnocentric and sociocentric cultures do not even acknowledge; that universal pluralism is the result of a very long history hard-fought against dominator hierarchies of one sort or another. (pp. 29-30)

Only when we admit that universal pluralism is a value stance can judgment systems such as nursing ethics, Cultural Safety and Human Flourishing make any sense.  They are not all relative. The values of tolerance and appreciation for diversity are not values simply relative to our particular cultural circumstance. They represent some of the most highly evolved ideas of humankind, ideas that are still evolving and not universally shared across the globe. The individual human being, no matter who they are or where they are, matters.  From the relativist perspective, however, if all value systems are equally valid, then all value-based decisions are equally worthless.

"Someone once remarked that the two great errors in moral philosophy are the belief that we know the truth and the belief that there is no truth to be known" (Wilson, 1993, p. 12).  Without pretending to know the truth or be in possession of a dogmatic truth, we can affirm that we know quite a bit about what contributes to human flourishing and what does not. There should never come another day or time when the idea of Residential Schools makes sense or can be justified. It was wrong and will always be wrong.  It’s NOT all relative.  What if we encountered, as Wilson absurdly suggests as a philosophical counter-example, a society that believed torturing babies produced better crops?

Absurd, yes, but it is a variation of this absurdity that explains why feminists and those fighting for social justice have completely given up on relativist ontologies.  Bloland (1995) describes the inevitable endpoint of relativist ontology very well:

If there are no legitimate bases for rewarding the privileged in our society, there are also no foundational standards for rewarding marginal groups. There are no grounded assumptions or moral grounds from which marginal groups can claim privilege. From this postmodern perspective, there is no compelling reasons for controlling groups to give grounds to others. (p. 529)  

An uninformed opinion becomes as valuable as an enlightened opinion, and who needs nurses at that point?  The death of values also means the death of expertise, and so let’s bring back leeches and bloodletting!  

Bloland suggests that the only course of action left is to "listen and listen very hard and long to the 'other'” (p. 553), and in listening, create space for dialogue.  I listened hard to the presentation last night and offer this in the spirit of dialogue.  I hope the last night’s presenter will give up relativist ontology and choose instead to stand on these values of tolerance, diversity, and universal pluralism.

Done. Axe ground. I am stepping off the soap box.

Bloland, H. (1995). Postmodernism and higher education.  Journal of Higher Education, 66(5). 

Johnson, P. (1992). Modern times: The world from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Wilson, J. Q. (1993). The moral sense. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Some current project management challenges in online education

I am writing this from a hotel room in Toronto, shortly after the conclusion of the 2018 Online Global Learning Summit. Rosetta’s presentation tonight focused on project management, and project management is never far from my thoughts when I consider what’s going on in my daily life at work, designing online courses, and managing the project of my dissertation.  This is a jumble of thoughts scribbled down during the conference that relate to Rosetta’s presentation (or at least I think they do).  They reflect the necessity for project management, and some of the challenges and opportunities of managing online learning projects.

Darcy Hardy, Associate Vice President of Blackboard – There is no empirical evidence for the face-to-face classroom. What empirical evidence does exist suggests lecture is not the best way to learn all (or most) disciplines. Instructional design is about creating more engaging, more robust learning experiences. Faculty do not have the same skill set as instructional designers, so how can we adjust online course design practices so that they are not just managing a project, but managing a high-quality learning product?  What new uses of the LMS are required? As Hardy suggests, the LMS is too expensive to just be a repository or holding tank. How best do instructional designers, teaching and learning centres, and online learning specialists disrupt/adapt teaching practices? 

Tim Duncan [lost affiliation and position] wondered what background do you need? This is perhaps the most perplexing question of them all. What background do I need in project management? I have informally been an accidental project manager most of my life.  No background – everything I learned about project management I learned informally.  Many managers do not have a background in project management, and does this help explain why 60-80% of all strategic change initiatives fail? Should PM be a required course in online learning? 

We live in a world obsessed with technology, but there is a growing displeasure with our technology Phil Hill, Co-Publisher and Market Analyst e-Literate, said Artificial Intelligence is “not just another iteration of technology.” It’s not. We cannot suggest this is just a difference of degree.  This is fundamentally different.  There are ethical and philosophical questions we have not answered, but as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spends $1 billion to work out how technology can change pedagogy, is it reasonable to think we can innovate safely and advance the field without pretending “this is not just another iteration of technology?” Hill said that the advance of artificial intelligence forces the rethinking of the learning organization itself.  It forces a rethinking of social structures. As we face the prospect of a learning organization in the age of artificial intelligence, who is doing the learning?

Jill Holliday, Resultant / Curiositeer at Learning Advantage Performance a likened the current age to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We are surrounded by data by, but just like water, there is not a drop to drink. We don’t know how to make sense or use of our data.  As a librarian, I know we have barely moved beyond counting how often our collections are used.  At my institution, I have done some work outlining the project management challenge that leveraging our learning analytics presents. The project management challenge (ethics, integration of multiple systems, intelligent analysis, and developing creative interventions) is so monumentally complex, we haven’t gotten started (and we are not alone).

Gavin Toole, Superintendent of Learning and Development at Vale, began with the wisdom of Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” The average shelf life of skills is 5 years. I don’t totally believe this because it depends on how you define “skill,” “knowledge,” and “pattern recognition,” but I think the great unknown does put us into a state of profound unknowing. What will people need to relearn?  How can we unlearn some of the straight-jacket structures such as the Carnegie Unit, the four-point grading system, the four-year degree, the discipline, etc. What would a project management process look like to dismantle or supplement any of these structures that may have outlived their usefulness?

Mark Milliron, Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Civitas Learning, suggested “we are about to enter a Golden Age of Learning.” I believe this. Conrad and Openo (2018) argue for this pedagogical renaissance. Offering student choice and providing meaningful opportunities for student choice is the heart of our book.  I don’t know how long this Golden Age will last. I fear it will be a short blip for reasons outside of the control of technology-enhanced learning.  One of the things Milliran suggests is that there is no doom of demography – student activity and student choice is the #1 predictor of success.  What innate project management skills (unpacking student motivation) do these students possess?

Stephen Murgatroyd, Chief Innovation Officer, Contact North, would have been perhaps the most controversial speaker if he wasn’t so British, warm, and hilarious. Some of the things he said: Dear faculty, you still matter, not just as much. And you’re not as smart as you think you are. “If we’re so smart, why are we under surveillance?” Because we are all under surveillance and we are all dancing with robots, which is causing a human/faculty identity crisis.

Is he right that “assessment is the new black?”

Is the real hope for faculty to transform into “ambiguity specialists?” Advocates for the learner who demand evidence for change management who are the project managers shifting ideas about what learning? Who demand proof through research and evaluation that pedagogical innovations demonstrate great quality and integrity?

How do we, as Brian Desbiens, Education Consultant Canadian Digital Learning Research Association and Former President of Sir Sandford Fleming College said, manage the collision between those who are trying to “hold together the past” and those who are “navigating a new future”?  How do we project manage that big change at time when organizations are suffering from initiative fatigue?  Rosetta’s presentation, juxtaposed against the Global Online Learning Summit, provides some enormous things to think about.

Q&A: Toward Better Assessments in Online Courses

This appeared today on Inside Digital Learning. It’s the best coverage we have received for the book so far.

Online learning offers instructors an opportunity to rethink their approach to assessment. A new book hopes to spur that conversation.

Lieberman, M. (2018, October 31). Q&A: Toward better assessments in online courses. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

A real Halloween treat!

On becoming a techno-pessimist

Last night, Stephen presented on Next Generation Digital Learning Environments, and during his presentation, two opposing sides of myself, who are both quite familiar with one another, continued their never-ending dialogue (like the cartoon angel on one shoulder and dirty red devil on the other).  There is the side of me that is excited about the possibilities and potentials of technology in education (my inner technophile), and there is the side of me that is skeptical and terrified of what technology is doing to education (my techno-pessimistic self).

No technology is neutral. Take the humble index card.  The index card was invented by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. The Swedish physician used the index cards to categorize and arrange hierarchies of the world’s flora and fauna.  He cut heavy paper into standard-sized cards and stored a discreet bit of information on each (the origin of metadata), and the card enabled him to reorder his data while keeping each datum distinct. (Davidson, 2017, p. 113). 

In Systema Naturae, Linnaeus also divided humanity into four races based on continent of origin and skin pigmentation.  He specified “temperaments” for each race, and because of his hierarchical assumptions, those who were not white were assigned demeaning and lesser characteristics. He created four races, such as yellow, red, and black, and each of these were assigned negative characteristics.  He also invented a fifth category, called monstrosus, which included people with disabilities and genetic differences (Davidson, 2017, 113).

The index card is particularly fascinating to me, as a librarian, because its use was picked up by Melvil Dewey.  Dewey is famous for hiring women because they had the “housekeeping instinct” (Higgins, 2017, p. 70) that Dewey felt essential for library work.  Melvil Dewey probably also liked to surround himself with women for another reason – he was a serial sexual harasser who got kicked out of the professional society he helped found at a time when it was much easier to get away with sexual harassment (Blakemore, 2017).  The nondescript, everyday index card holds within it the history of racism and misogyny.

The web is no different.  Here is Audrey Watters (2014) on this topic:

I have to come right out and say it, because very few people in education technology will: there’s a problem with computer technology. Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world.  Men of science.  Men of industry.  Military men.  Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

Harassment — of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups — is pervasive online. It’s a reflection of offline harassment, to be sure. But there are mechanics of the Internet — its architecture, affordances, infrastructure, its culture — that can alter, even exacerbate what that harassment looks like and how it is experienced.

The harassment of Chris Bourg, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 2018 is a good example of what happens when someone confronts the ideology of technology in education.  The ideological dimension of technology is expressed well by Veletsianos and Moe (2017) as a “technocentric belief that technology is the most efficient solution to the problems of higher education.”  This technocentric belief “shows ignorance of the significant history and knowledge base surrounding technology use in education” (Veletsianos & Moe, 2017, Assertion 4). Veletsianos and Hodson (2018) have also shown that being more active online can lead to the weaponizing of social media against women academics.  Today, at least, the techno-pessimist seems to have the stronger arguments.

Selwyn (2014) suggests there is a need to counteract the “almost unconscious urge to improve the human condition through technology.” Selwyn suggests that a pessimistic stance is the most sensible and most productive perspective to take because it allows room for an acceptance that specific things are getting better but that many social inequalities continue to persist, or worsen as a result of technology.  The pessimist works within the limitations of educational technology rather than imagining its limitless potential.  Techno-pessimism is a rewarding and heartening position because the pessimist expects nothing, whereas the optimist must suffer through a life of disappointment. The pessimistic perspective draws attention to the fact that the use of digital technology in education is never a completely predictable affair. The purposeful pursuit of pessimism is to be “a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will” (Gramsci, 1929 as cited in Selwyn, 2014, p. 16).  Pessimism is not a passive resignation to one’s fate, but an active engagement with continuous alternatives to develop a set of pragmatic, achievable, and grounded interventions. In this, I hope that Stephen is successful in his work to transcend the limits of the learning management system.  

Blakemore, E. (2017, December 19). The father of modern libraries was a serial sexual harasser. The History Channel. Retrieved from

Davidson, C. N. (2017). The new education: How to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world of flux. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Higgins, S. (2017). Embracing the feminization of librarianship. In Lew, S. & Yousefi, B. (Eds.), Feminists among us: Resistance and advocacy in library leadership (pp. 67-89). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.  

Kenney, A. R. (2018, March 12). ARL denounces harassment of Chris Bourg following Code4Lib keynote. Association of Research Libraries. Retrieved from

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

Veletsianos, G., & Hodson, J. (2018, May 29). Social media as a weapon to harass women academics. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

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

Watters, A. (2014, November 18). Men explain technology to me: On gender, ed-tech, and the refusal to be silent. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

I am a librarian

Every month, I write an article for The Fax, MHC’s Faculty Association newsletter. This month’s piece talks about my relationship to libraries because as of May 2018, I am now responsible for Library Services at Medicine Hat College.

Without being overly dramatic, if it weren’t for libraries, I wouldn’t be here (literally, in Medicine Hat, Alberta and perhaps metaphorically, as well).  I feel like libraries saved my life, and I am glad to be responsible for a library again.  After my dad left when I was six years old, the library became my lifeline, and I will never forget the first two items I checked out – AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Billy Joel’s 52nd Street.  They opened my world.  The music came first, then the reading, but I think the most important thing, at times, was simply the space.  On any given summer day, I would ride down to the South End Branch of the Bay City Public Library and lose hours looking through collections of music and Choose Your Own Adventure Dungeons and Dragons books.  I was always welcome to loiter there, and for those with a library narrative, the library becomes part of our identity.  Throughout my life, I have never strayed far away from libraries.

I worked at the Albion College Library at a time when we first got InfoTrac General Reference Center (which excited my passion for library technology).  After working with homeless families in Seattle for five years, I obtained my Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Washington’s iSchool at a time when Amazon, Microsoft, and Google were taking over.  The stories about libraries becoming obsolete were plentiful, and my awareness of the social and political function of information started to dawn.  I then worked for the King County Library System as a part-time librarian (where I experienced the nature of precariously employed labour), and then moved to Oregon to take on my first full-time library job.  Years later, at a library conference, I met the woman who became my wife, shortly after moving to Canada to join the Edmonton Public Library in 2007.  EPL would be the first Canadian library system to the win the Library of the Year award in 2014.  My sever years there were exciting, rewarding years.

Even after I left libraries to join Medicine Hat College and pursue my passion for teaching and learning, I never really left libraries.  I remained an instructor in MacEwan University’s Library and Information Technology program, and now I am a sessional faculty in the University of Alberta’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  I include my library history here for a few reasons.  First, it is not lost on me that 20 years’ worth of stories about the death of libraries are not true here.  In Alberta, the Taylor Family Digital Library, the new Calgary Public Library, and MRU’s Riddell Library & Learning Centre have all recently been constructed.  I won’t say MHC needs to keep pace with the Joneses and build a bigger and better library.  I will say that libraries are more relevant and important than they have ever been before.  They have been made more important by technology, not replaced by it, and the growing importance of critical digital literacy and digital citizenship as core elements of curriculum are proof of that.  74% of institutions say their outcomes include critical thinking, information literacy (59%) and research skills (51%).  The library remains core.

The second reason I have discussed my 20 years as a librarian is because libraries continue to adapt.  Some functions have disappeared, but maintaining collections (physical and digital), delivering services (APA support, reference, and technology assistance) and providing space continue to be important elements of being a library.  Open Education Resources, trends in scholarly publishing, academic integrity, and distance librarianship are growing aspects of libraries that continue to grow more complex and sophisticated.

Finally, my life in libraries has made me aware that it is impossible to prove the value of the library.While large scale studies have been able to correlate surrogates or proxies of student learning (such as grades) with library-related interactions and behaviors, the is impossible to establish causation and say the library caused learning to happen.Library value is ultimately established by the strength of the relationships the Library has with its community and the value it provides to them.The early indicators of the Student Success Centre are positive, and they show the collaborative nature of the library.Chuck, Irlanda, Nicholas, Justine, Natalie, Shawna, etc. all had a vision for how to provide the space, services, and expertise necessary to help MHC students succeed.This is the only definition of Library that makes any sense, and it’s so good to be here!It’s like I never left.

Sweat the Technique

1992.  I was working for the Southwestern Michigan Urban League.  The Urban League “has built a bridge between races and has sought to emphasize the greater reliance on the unique resources of the African-American community to find solutions to its own problems.”  I was one of two white team leaders for the Youth Volunteer Corps that year.  The Youth Volunteer Corps was founded in 1987 to engage youth in service projects that are challenging, rewarding and educational and promote a greater understanding of diversity in their community.  Another of their fundamental goals is to promote a lifetime ethic of service; it certainly did that for me.  Our service projects included rehabilitating homes for young single mothers.  Our young black kids were learning community responsibility by being responsible for their community through plumbing, carpentry, and caring for their vulnerable neighbors.  

While we worked, we frequently listened to Erik B. & Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992) and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990).  These were the philosophers the day who sculpted the ideas for the youth, and ff there was ever a time I understood “the poetry of teaching and learning,” that was probably it. They understood, earlier than others, what it meant to be institutionalized by technique.

Chuck D’s infamous: “I got so much trouble on my mind.”

Erik B. “They wanna know how many rhymes have I ripped and wrecked / But researchers never found all the pieces yet.”

Chuck D: Caught in the race against time / The pit and the pendulum / Check the rhythm and rhymes / While I'm bending 'um / Snakes blowing up the lines of design / Trying to blind the science I'm sending 'em / How to fight the power / Cannot run and hide / But it shouldn't be suicide / In a game a fool without the rules / Got a hell of a nerve to just criticize.”

Erik B. “Philosophers are wondering what's next / Pieces took the last to observe them / They couldn't absorb them / They didn't deserve them / My ideas are only for the audience”

I loved those albums. I loved that year.  I loved teaching and learning with these kids.  When Shelley talked about listening and remixing the poetry of teaching and learning, it was hard not to think of rap music and the fact that this balding, middle-class, middle-aged white guy still listens to Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos as he works out. “I gotta get out, but that thought was thought before.”  I don’t know if there is a way out.   

As Shelley said “everything has become a technique.” She’s right.  And better minds than mine, Ursula Franklin and Jacques Ellul, seem to think so too.  As Ellul says,

Each of us, in his own life, must seek ways of resisting and transcending technological determinants. . . Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won.  The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism.  He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.  In the modern world, the most dangerous form of determinism is the technological phenomenon. It is not a question of getting rid of it, but by an act of freedom, of transcending it.  How is this to be done? I do not yet know.  (1964, p. xxxii - xxxiii).

For Ellul, no one is capable of making a true and itemized account of the total effect of existing techniques.  The same could be said for teaching techniques: (think-pair-share, minute papers, exit tickets, jigsaws, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, case studies, peer instruction, self-assessment, reflective journals, the prediction effect, the testing effect, concept mapping, role plays, debates, student-led discussions, community service learning, work-integrated learning, high-impact educational practices, learning outcomes, rubrics, constructive alignment, etc.).  

And the machine (the computer, the device, the hardware and software)

represents the ideal toward which technique strives. The machine is solely, exclusively, technique; it is pure technique, one might say.  For, wherever a technical factor exists, it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.

This is not just a polemic. In March 2018, OECD put faces to people at risk of automation, and they estimate 32% of jobs could face technological unemployment, and training (education) is not going to be a successful remedy because “participation in training is significantly lower for workers in jobs at high risk of automation” (OECD, 2018, p. 1).

Oxford University estimates that some of the jobs at risk of automation include career and technical education teachers (26% likely), adult literacy teachers and instructors (19% likely), and middle school teachers (17% likely) (Scott, 2017).  Who knows if this is true and/or when/will it come to pass, but many are beginning to think it is time to sweat the technique.  Ursula Franklin, like Ellul, was an early thinker in this area, and she speaks to the difficulty of applying language to technology.  

How does one speak about something that is both fish and water, means as well as end?  That’s why I think it is better to examine limited settings where one puts technology in context, because context is what matters most. . . I think it’s important to realize that technology defined as practice shows us the deep cultural link of technology, and it saves us from thinking that technology is the icing on the cake.  Technology is part of the cake itself (Franklin, 1990, pp. 14-17).

And this icing and cake is transforming the act of teaching (transforming being used here without positive or negative judgment to indicate that what teaching will look like in the future will resemble nothing like its present state).  

Franklin describes two primary types of technology – holistic and production technologies. Franklin sees teaching as a holistic technology par excellence.

All of us who teach know that the magic moment when teaching turns into learning depends on the human setting and the quality and example of the teacher – on factors that relate to a general environment of growth rather than on any design parameters set down externally.  If there ever was a growth process, if there ever was a holistic process, a process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education (Franklin, 1990, p. 29).

Even though Franklin describes teaching as a holistic technology, she also recognizes that “schools and universities operate according to a production model.”  This application of the production model may be especially true for online education.  Franklin (1990) describes prescriptive or production technologies as technologies that break down the holistic process into clearly identifiable steps where a separate worker or group of workers carry out individual jobs.  This is what Bates (2015) refers to as the “disaggregation of services” (sec.10.10.3), and this disaggregation is an important aspect of achieving flexibility and scale.  It is now possible to disaggregate course development from delivery, assessment from delivery, and certification from assessment (Contact North, 2016).

Pedagogy is one of the human techniques Ellul outlines, and the conquest of technique renders former modes of social organization incompatible with technique, especially when the technique is applied in the interest of the state. 

When modern youth are fully educated in the new psychopedagogic technique, many social and political difficulties will disappear. . . The new pedagogical methods correspond exactly to the role assigned to education in modern technical society. . . furnish administrators for the state and managers for the economy, in conformity with social needs and tendencies. . . education no longer has a humanist end or any value in itself; it has only one goal, to create technicians. (p. 348)

See any number of articles on the death of the liberal arts.  Farewell poetry.  You have no place here. Or, maybe you do.  I truly hope Shelley can do what Ellul suggests: “What we must do is look about us and note certain obvious things which seem to escape the all too intelligent philosophers” (1964, p. 9).


Bates, T. (2015, February 18). The implications of ‘open’ for course and program design: Towards a paradigm shift. [Personal blog]. Retrieved from

Contact North. (2016). The future of higher education and learning: A Canadian view. Toronto, ON: Contact North. Retrieved from

Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2018). Policy brief on the future of work: Putting faces to the jobs at risk of automation. Retrieved from

Scott, P. (2017, September 27). These are the jobs most at risk of automation according to Oxford University: Is yours one of them. The Telegraph. Retrieved from

A practitioner's expanded model of online course design

This is the abstract for a paper I am currently seeking publication for.

Baldwin, Ching and Friesen (2018) recently presented a grounded theory model of online course design and development.  Their analysis shows that instructors roughly follow the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evualation) instructional design model even though instructors do not follow it in a rigid or formulaic fashion.  Their model is grounded in the experience of practitioners, and this author’s experience agrees with their findings and the implications of the study.  In accordance with their methodological approach, this online instructor has taken a personal approach, as a fellow practitioner, to propose a revised and expanded model based on his online instructional design experience that may be more suited to the everyday context of online course designers.  Baldwin, Ching and Friesen’s model is a strong starting point to fill in the paucity of research on how instructors design online courses in practice, but it may be incomplete because it does not take full account of the disciplinary context or an instructor’s beliefs about teaching.  Other missing elements might include how to structure students for maximum engagement, building an integrated digital learning environment beyond the LMS, and the utilization of course analytics and instructor judgment to validate course design. This expanded model requires addition research for validation and verification.

The structure of the paper outlines the suggested additions, defines that element, and then explains how it impacted my practice.

Openo’s expanded view of Baldwin, Ching and Friesen's (2018) grounded theory of online course design and development.

Openo’s expanded view of Baldwin, Ching and Friesen's (2018) grounded theory of online course design and development.

Baldwin, S.J., Ching, Y.-H., & Friesen, N. (2018). Online course design and development among college and university instructors: An analysis using grounded theory. Online Learning, 22(2), 157-171. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i2.1212

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