Everting Our Classes: Redirecting Focus

starfish, viewed from below at close range, with false color to make it appear light blue

My work two weeks ago in the MOOC MOOC (summarized in a recent reflection post) and my post on Hybrid Pedagogy (on learning as performance) have kept me thinking about the ways technology is helping—or rather, making—us change the way we work with our students. When I was teaching high school, I often heard other teachers complaining that students weren’t engaged. Much of the current language about the use of new technology in our classes focuses more on claims of student engagement than on anything else.

Yet I have to wonder what, exactly, engages our students in those scenarios: is it the technology itself, the interface, the presentation, or the content? While I applaud the effort to get students involved in their learning, I remain skeptical that the newness of technology attracts students more than the material we want them to learn.

In this post, I attempt to reframe the student/teacher dynamic in computer-enhanced classes as being “everted”, with the traditional power hierarchies and relations to content turned inside-out.

The past few decades have produced a number of pedagogical approaches designed to banish the lecture or otherwise appeal to students’ personal learning needs. Constructivism, active learning, student-centered learning, and various other systems have essentially been so many ways to tell teachers to quit lecturing in their classes. By removing the focus from the lecture and applying it to what students do in class, these strategies for student engagement build classrooms that resemble a workspace more than a theater. Students are expected to do something in the classroom to show that they are learning.

But of course, things are rarely so simple as that. With the transition to online education, the simple processes of dividing students into groups for collaborative work or having students present materials of their peers take on new dimensions of complexity because the students are no longer physically present. Most significantly, the quality of knowledge and experience can suffer with the addition of distance. As Hubert Dreyfus says in On the Internet (Thinking in Action), “Without involvement and presence we cannot acquire skills” (emphasis in original). How different are the learner’s manual for a driving test versus the experience of getting behind the wheel? Depending on the work we ask our students to do, removing them from the classroom may be removing them from the situation in which the learning happens.

On one hand, simple logistical tasks pose formidable challenges. Forming groups becomes an issue requiring back-and-forth communication that, if done asynchronously, can easily take hours to accomplish. Working collaboratively on an assignment requires the negotiation of some form of mediating technology, which may be unfamiliar to students. (I do recognize that traditional in-class group work often requires the mediating technology of pen and paper, which can be troublesome if multiple students work to create one document. However, it is rarely necessary to help students learn the feature set of those tools.) In one respect, moving students online can limit the amount of productive work they’re able to do.

On the other hand, moving the classroom online could potentially open up new opportunities for the flexibility, authenticity, and scope of student work. I used the word “potentially” very deliberately. Recent moves toward “flipping the classroom” address concerns of the relative value of class time but do little to empower students or downplay lecturing. In a flipped classroom, the traditional relationship between class time and homework is reversed. Students are expected to digest content from the teacher at home (usually by viewing lectures online), freeing up class time for projects and other work. I think of this as “inverting” the classroom, essentially turning it upside down and merely rearranging the schedule of events that remain fundamentally unchanged.

The opportunities we have with online learning go beyond simple convenience factors. Sure, students are able to access their courses from anywhere and at any time. But the tools and resources now available online provide access to a wealth of knowledge that makes content mastery almost useless. When students are able to look up for free enough information to develop a new test for pancreatic cancer, knowing stuff is no longer important. Knowing how to work with that stuff matters.

Rather than simply inverting the classroom by changing the schedule, we need to turn the entire approach to teaching inside-out. I recently explained the differences in philosophy between MOOCs and flipped classrooms to one of my peers. She agreed that the MOOC does not take a basic, inverted approach to classroom reform. Her interest in researching the ecological contexts of rhetorical scenes suggest a different vocabulary. “That sounds more like everting. You know…like a starfish does with its stomach.” She then made a delightful hand gesture that unfortunately doesn’t transfer well into text. Take my word for it: it effectively represented the physical contortions involved in a starfish’s digestive process. [Watch what the starfish looks like in action—really neat!]

Her point, though, was that by everting a class, the teacher would no longer be the central figure around whom all activity revolves. Students would no longer be watching from the sidelines, waiting to be told what to do and how to do it. In an everted classroom, students take center stage and take control of their own learning. The teacher can be a resource and an organizational assistant, but the learning and the path to it are directed by the students.

I particularly like the use of the word “everting” because of its ability, through the simple addition of a hyphen, to gain a particular technological edginess. A class that has been “e-verted” could be inverted from teacher-driven to student-driven, converted from lecture-based to project-based, and made electronic through the use of online technologies. An e-verted classroom is one in which students work to find their own creative solutions to authentic problems but have both opportunity and permission to make mistakes—creating a space for play within the work, knowing that mistakes can themselves be excellent opportunities for genuine learning. Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel addressed the issue in a recent post about flexibility in online classes: “True interactivity is not about letting the user do whatever she pleases. It’s about building a structure and letting the user play within and at the boundary of that structure.”

I’m not sure whether the metaphor of a starfish turning its stomach inside out works to represent classroom reform or merely to gross out my readers. I hope it’s the former. I’d love to see more classes get everted so our students have a greater ability to digest the wonderful, rich environment of the Internet.