Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

November 7, 2008

Environmental Engineering and Course Critique

Filed under: Week 9 — Lisa M Lane @ 7:21 pm

The Waiting Room

Yesterday morning I sat in a waiting room for a routine blood test as part of my check-up. The room was crowded, warm, staffed by unsympathetic people who treated the patients like things they had to do, refusing to move clipboards (used to distinguish those with appointments from those without) from one window to another, instead forcing the patients to go to the other window. There were no plants or life in the room, just bad paintings of flowers at their peak. Amid the occasional thumping hum of some machine behind the wall, people sat silently, all hiding in books, knitting, or their electronic devices. The only smile was a woman in a poster hanging on the wall, smugly inviting you to make an appointment next time. The display with the comments cards (“Your Opinion Matters to Us”) didn’t have any cards. Every time someone left, which they did with alacrity, the door automatically slammed behind them.

That place didn’t have to be so horrible. The control was held by the women behind the desk. They determined the tone in an already oppressive setting, and everyone else just shut down in response. Since I’m not the kind of person who could add my sunny disposition to this setting (I wanted to either scream or say “god, isn’t this awful?” to everyone), I shut down too.

The Classroom

Now, I admit, the waiting room of a phlebotomy lab is not supposed to be a learning environment, but I couldn’t help wondering, “wow, do students see my classroom like that? a sterile, unwelcoming environment with dragons in control?” We were all utterly dependent on a system over which we had little control, and we knew it. So then I come home and see these pictures posted by Bob Bell in the Moodle forum this week, with the photo of students in a 19th century classroom juxtaposed with one of students facing the presenter in today’s classroom.

That’s when it occurred to me: it’s ALL environment, the environment created by the setting and the people within it. Teaching is environmental engineering. I joke with my students when we move the chairs, that after class we have to put them back in the “standard” position, all facing the front. It chafes that my “presentation screen” is stuck at the front of the room; only students with laptops have internet access, and they are facing me so I can’t see what they see. Everything about the way our classrooms are structured encourages presentation and passivity. Wonder what would happen if we all came in one day and the desks were gone, replaced with pillows and decorative rugs on the carpet, colorful cloth walls and a plate of couscous for sharing? We’d do different things, I bet.


When I enrolled in this class, I was seeking that kind of unusual learning space. Self-directed learning? engineer your own environment? learn from such cool dudes whose work I respect so very much? I’m in.

We come to this class, where I just know things will be different. And they have been. But a couple of environmental elements have reasserted themselves anyway.

One is in the synchronous meetings. I hoped the live sessions would be highly interactive, and I’m sure our instructors did too. But the focus is always on some sort of presentation, the lecture mode, but with backchannel chat and questions. Our instructors and their guests present, with slides they control. We listen, and are invited to comment with open microphones, but we students do not set the subjects for discussion and it’s hard to take the lead.

Another aspect of the traditional environment is text depedence. An image (as we see above) can show a lot, but I have seen them used only rarely on the blogs and in the forums. In presentations, most of the slides are text based. The videos we have in the “readings” are all presentations, watching people stand and talk, or talk with slides with text. Even the CMaps (visuals!) are have been text, connected with arrows that have text in the middle. (This is in the interest of the explanatory text inside the arrows, and the alternative would be a mindmap, where we could have images. But a mind map, we learned, isn’t a concept map, so it would be very difficult to create a concept map based on multimedia instead of text.) When we join synchronously, the Elluminate whiteboard or Ustream window is too often blank, and only the moderators can access them. By the time a multi-window environment seemed accessible in the October 31 Ustream session, no one outside the moderators were accustomed to the possibility of entering the conversation as full video and audio participants. After awhile, I just wanna say “show me!”:

Some of this, of course, is technological. We can’t really have everyone together, on video, on one screen, promoting a sense of group equality. Or get Elluminate to truly allow more than one microphone open without echoing (I know it says up to 10, but it just ain’t so). I can bring my comfy pillows, but there’s nowhere to put them. The multimedia experiences happen outside the class (Second Life, creative slideshows or videos) and must be brought into the “room” somehow, so it’s awkward, especially since there isn’t really a central room, in the interest of decentralization, although The Daily had to be manufactured anyway to help fill that gap.

Next time around, maybe the technology will have moved forward, and be used in such a way as to create a playground inside a classroom. Maybe RSS feeds will somehow be visual as well as textual. Maybe there will be more equal participation, not just in the freedom to post and say what you want, but in encouragement of interactivity via more than blogs and forums (post/respond). Open class meetings where everyone attending is expected to bring something for show and tell. Central course pages that can be created by the students, with us adding feeds and media ourselves to the “main” classroom (I never got the feeling we were supposed to touch the wiki). And for the grading, way more emphasis on the participation/community aspect (now worth 10%), and less on formal papers and concept maps (now worth 50%).

As you’ve seen, I’m not very good at knitting silently, nor do I wish to complain — I’ve learned amazing things in this class so far! And I hope our instructors will take my critique in the spirit it is intended. If not, I’ll go to the other window to sign the clipboard. 😉



  1. I am guessing that you wrote this after Friday’s ustream session. I tweeted just after it “ustream session made me feel uncomfortable – not sure why “.
    I have been suffering from a really nasty virus this week so was a bit low in spirits. Perhaps that was also why I couldn’t seem to log in and managed to drop the connection during the session. So there I was, with no identity, reading the chat in a tiny box, with much of the screen dominated by a grainy picture of Stephen. I tried shutting my eyes and listening to the voices but then I missed the chat. It felt like the speakers were just filling bandwidth with their streams of consciousness, and I wondered if that’s what my students think when I am speaking. There were some excellent ideas trying to brave the unwieldy format of chat. This was a powerful learning experience for me of what it is like to be a student online (here is another
    In a more positive light, should we as CCK08 students organise a reflective discussion in a forum of our own choosing. There are lots of things to choose from if we could identify a suitable image or video, or even a flickr group or tag to aggregate discussion around images.
    Let’s not be short-changed.

    Comment by Frances Bell — November 8, 2008 @ 2:51 am

  2. Hi Lisa,

    great to read your posts again – you get my vote for students student of the course 🙂
    I think you are spot on with your environmental engineering comments and this ties in with my views on synchronous learning.

    you must join in a synchronous class i will run in the new year. i ran two classes last year on intro to web 2.0 for teaching and learning (for teachers) and internet research tools (for students). i’ll be doing a web 2.0 course again soon – you can help me run it if you want. the emphasis is on student participation (activities followed by discussion).
    I need to update things first though

    also to note that WEbex does a reasonably good job using VOIP technology with 7 allowed to speak at once and the ability to pass the mic. For best results an integrated teleconference call takes all the pain out of audio problems.

    for one reason or another i have not been as active on the course as i would have liked. I think synchronous connection (not just watching a lecture) is very important element in effective online (distance) learning and i like to think i work hard on the environmental engineering whilst connected 🙂

    Bye for now

    Comment by Steve Mackenzie — November 8, 2008 @ 2:58 am

  3. Lisa,
    One of the things I’ve learned in the Elluminate and Ustream sessions is to read and listen at the same time. I simply moved Stephen off the screen in Friday’s recording (yeah, I know he has wonderful hair and he can really drink from a thermos.) I regret that I haven’t been able to attend more of the live sessions. No excuse.

    “Show Me” perfectly expressed how I feel amongst this course filled with super talkers/writers. However, not being one to quit or shut-up, I soldier on sticking my thoughts out there hoping they will help us find some common ground. I’m used to the cacophony of web forums and would hate to see this course be too organized but…

    I agree that MOOC reflects the classroom environment but my critique would center on why. I believe that you can have a small number of participants discussing a multi-faceted subject or you can have a very restricted notion pursued by an unlimited amount of people but when you mix an unlimited amount of participants with a multi-faceted subject the discussion borders on “choas” and the “normal” reaction is to try to impose control rather than contribute.

    A Jigsaw- where small networks are self-selected and then become experts on one path of inquiry might be a way to mediate the chaos in a MOOC. The “I love Bees”
    ARG “Hive” self-formed into several areas of inquiry and each area of inquiry focused on sharing/building that proposed solution. Each area then contributed to the final solution (there was a final solution to the game) Though CKK08 mystery has no definitive solution, it does have paths that could be explored. For instance, how does the teacher make iterative/gradual change in the way her classes are designed and taught and when is an outright insurgency best. Or, perhaps, does the role of the teacher or the institution or both need to simply fade away? Even though this weeks focus was supposed to be on this topic, the conversation often rehashed earlier discussions. Perhaps, starting out with topics of inquiry that the students could choose to fully engage in (cafeteria style) rather than trying to structure the course with the topics in some order, as if one must know this before that, would give birth in the latter part of the course to more focused general discussions. One of the topics would (of course) be the presentation/lecture/examples of the organizers/instructors/facilitators. Sort of what the daily provides now.

    Like you, I’ve learned gobs from this mash-up of ideas and resources and I’m aware of the amount of effort it took to organize CKK08 and the amount of time everyone has contributed.

    Comment by Bob Bell — November 8, 2008 @ 4:30 am

  4. […] I read Lisa’s critique of the course’s technology tools where she discussed the environment of learning. Right on Lisa. This fits in with my experience as an information architect. The environment has a […]

    Pingback by CCK08: Critique of Course Technology tools « Bradleyshoebottom’s Weblog — November 8, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  5. Lisa,

    Right on. See my critique here:

    It’s not as philosophical as yours 🙂

    Comment by Bradley Shoebottom — November 8, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  6. Lisa

    Whenever I read your posts I feel a massive wave of energy. Like you I am finding that many contexts are prompting me to think about CCK08. Participation in this course has opened my thinking to many possibilities and I am keen to look at the role of voice and image in sharing ideas.

    I have struggled for a long time with a chronological timetable in a physical space. I am not sure how your classes work in a timetable but I am imagining that your students get ready for their meetings with you before they get to class and they are thinking about what happened long after the class. I imagine that any teacher of a class after you class will have a real task to focus attention … and yet we timetable students for back to back classes.

    Thanks for this post … like all your posts I arrive in anticipation and depart with a smile.


    Comment by Keith Lyons — November 8, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  7. The learning environment can be welcoming or stifling; collaborative or dictatorial. Whether in a physical classroom or in an online environment, the teacher has the responsibility to ensure that the design of the space meets the needs of the learners.
    For me, much of the audio from the Friday’s synchronous meeting seemed to be ‘white noise’ amid the richness of the back-channel discussion.

    As interactive participants, we were much less of a passive audience this time around. Although the back-channel was frequently chaotic in consideration of many tangential topics, it allowed the learners to engage in parts of the discussion that were particularly relevant to participants. In some ways, it was one of the best examples of connectivist learning we’ve seen in the course.

    Comment by Rodd Lucier — November 8, 2008 @ 11:53 am

  8. […] teaching this class (or a class like it) in future. This builds on my previous critique-y posts Environmental Engineering and Course Critique (week 9) and Network Control via Grades (week 5). Except for the first one, they are about form […]

    Pingback by Course Recommendations: Revamping a MOOC « Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog — November 29, 2008 @ 7:52 am

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