August 6, 2020

Revisiting Learning Adventures in the Time of COVID-19

Context: There is good reason for educators to be concerned with online teaching during the chaos being created by the current COVID-19 pandemic. I attended my first online conference in 1985 or ’86 and began leading collaborative online project-based learning with kids in the late 80s.

In mid-1997 I suggested to the late great Dr. Terrence Cannings, Associate Dean of Education at Pepperdine University, that we needed to create an online masters degree program. I sensed that online education was about to blow up and we needed to be at the vanguard or be left behind. He called me a charlatan. A few months later, Dean Cannings asked if we could revisit my idea. So, in late January 1998, I prepared a proposal for an online master of arts in educational technology program to the Dean. (I was just an adjunct at the time.) She listened politely and asked, “What year do you think we should shoot for?” Forgetting that universities tend to innovate at a glacial pace, I replied, “The program should begin this July.” The Dean smiled politely and sent us on our way with a knowing giggle. With Professors Linda Polin and Jack McManus, we had the program accredited by that May and our first cadre of students was on campus for what became known as “VirtCamp” in July. The students would meet face-to-face at a conference in January and present exhibitions of their work the following July on campus. The rest of the program was entirely online.

There is much I could write about the program that remained barely unchanged for two decades, but the most important thing to say is that I am grateful that my more senior colleagues had a longstanding commitment to progressive education traditions and constructionism. Our MA program viewed the online space as the perfect place for enhanced collaboration, community, creativity, and knowledge construction. Nothing was missing from the traditional graduate school experience besides tests, quizzes, and lectures. For several glorious years, we ran the entire online experience on Netscape Newsgroups for asynchronous discussions and Tapped-In for synchronous discussions.

For about a dozen years, I taught a variety of courses in the program, almost including the first trimester, “Learning and Technology,” class. This learning theory course for the digital age used Papert’s The Children’s Machine, Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, and Frank Smith’s Book of Learning and Forgetting as its primary texts. (All three books withstand the test of time) Seeking to model progressive education traditions in this new virtual world while providing experiences demonstrating the power of computing in knowledge construction, I developed a pedagogical approach I called, “Learning Adventures.” My hope was that the experiences my mid-career graduate students enjoyed online would impact their physical classroom teaching as well.

I remember writing a conference paper for an Australian academic conference a year earlier, but I just discovered that there exists video of a talk I gave by the same title, “Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments,” in June, 2009. That video and a recollection of the session written in 2009 are below. That conference was very special for me. I was invited to be a keynote speaker at what would be the last National Educational Computing Conference (now ISTE) in Washington, D.C. where I gave an outrageous (surely career-ending) talk to the largest audience on earth. I honestly do not know how good the presentation (below) is, but I think it may be of value to educators trying to create productive contexts for learning online in 2020 and beyond. Let me know what you think.

(July 25, 2009) Fueled by adrenaline from the early-morning keynote debate, I got the enormous NECC stage to myself to make a presentation called, “Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments” The video of that presentation has finally appeared online and I am most grateful that ISTE filmed the session at such a high level of quality. I am enormously proud of this presentation and am thrilled that my mouth worked pretty well that morning, June 30th, 2009.

As I’ve said in other contexts, I’ve been online since 1983 and have taught online since the late 1980s. Therefore, I look upon the euphoria and controversy accorded “online learning” like a fish looks at water. It just isn’t that interesting to me that people communicate online. I expect it. I depend upon it. Everybody does it, right?

My work is driven by how adults can create the productive contexts for learning in which every human may enjoy the widest array of deep experiences that hold the potential of resulting in the construction of knowledge and a happy life.

It seems cruelly ironic that the viability of school as a “technology” is dependent on the very activities and disciplines (band, choir, drama, studio art, laboratory science, etc…) that schools cut first. Could this just be a manifestation of the phenomena Seymour Papert described in his 1990 speech, “Perestroika and Epistemological Pluralism?

This NECC spotlight session captures many of my thoughts about how online education rarely reaches its potential and my struggle to transform my own teaching online to reflect the most learner-centered, non-coercive, creative principles of face-to-face education while using what I’ve learned online to inform my real-world teaching.

I sure hope you will take the time to watch it! (perhaps even blog a bit about or at least tweet)

There is more information below the video...
NECC 2009 Learning Adventures from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

My most sincere apologies to David Perkins for being unable to remember the correct title of his terrific new book, Making Learning Whole – How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. I highly recommend that educators familiarize themselves of Perkins’ important work.

PS: I’ve learned that if I’m on a stage that large, I need a monitor at the front of the stage and to walk around less. 🙂

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