Four Spheres of Learning Innovation

The term innovation has been making its way into the names of centers for teaching and learning, job descriptions, and the broader discourse on learning in higher education.

Gathering around a table at the POD Network’s 2019 annual conference, our working group dove into a working definition of learning innovation. I seeded this conversation with a model that has emerged through conversations I have had recently with several colleagues working in the “learning innovation space.” Thanks to Mathew L. Ouellett of Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation and Rachel Niemer, Director, Outreach and Access at the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation for these rich and fruitful conversations resulting in the Four Spheres of Learning Innovation.

The Four Spheres Model

    I: Methods, practices, or ideas that are new to the individual.  

G: Methods, practices, or ideas that are new to a group (colleagues,
teams, departments, centers). These could include those established in one area of the institution that are adapted to a new context.  

C: Methods, practices, or ideas that are new to the community/
institution, but may be adapted from other institutions.  

W: Methods, practices, or ideas that are new to the world

I recently presented this model to colleagues at my own institution and wanted to draw in some examples that might ground this theory in some practice.

Theory to Praxis

C Programming with Linux Professional Certificate I, C, W

This is a joint project between Dartmouth and Institut Mines-Télécom (IMT), a consortium of public engineering and management universities in France. The program consists of a seven-course series leading to a professional certificate on edX. Building on Dartmouth’s partnership with edX to offer open online courses from Dartmouth faculty from across the arts and sciences and professional schools, this was the first program collaboration between two edX partners. This required cross-cultural, technical, data, financial, and legal capabilities. Working with Thayer Professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor, a project proposal was funded through the support of the Dean’s office; Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning; Information, Technology, and Consulting; IMT; and an external grant.

In addition to over 165,000 enrollments to date, this project provided opportunities for Dartmouth undergraduates to collaborate as members of the course team and introduced a groundbreaking model for learning to code through new webtools. The program has been selected as a finalist for the 2019 edX Prize for Innovative Teaching.

Through a collaboration with learning science experts from Stanford and Cornell, the program has conducted research resulting in a paper, Welcome to the Course: Early Social Cues Influence Women’s Persistence in Computer Science, currently under peer review for CHI 2020 (Human-Computer Interaction conference).

DELTA Summit I, G, C, W

In the summer of 2018, Dartmouth partnered with the National Society for Experiential Education to convene the inaugural DELTA Summit: an applied, reflective professional development program in the theory and practice of experiential learning pedagogy.

The 2018 cohort included 60 educators representing 4 countries, 22 states, 50 colleges and universities, 8 K-12 schools, and 10 independent education organizations. The DELTA leadership team was awarded the 2018 Lone Pine Excellence Award for Innovation.

Classroom Design and Redesign G, C

In 2015, Dartmouth opened the Berry Innovation Classroom, which was designed to provide a flexible learning space to support active learning pedagogies within a technology-enriched environment. A cohort of faculty engaged in the design and use of new classrooms to explore methods in their own teaching and inform the design of subsequent classroom redesign projects.

In working with the faculty Classroom Committee, a survey of all teaching faculty (2018) provided a benchmark of teaching activities and the growing need for more flexible and accessible learning spaces on this historic campus. Working in conjunction with campus planners, technologists, facilities, classroom schedulers, and faculty, we endeavor to provided first-class physical and digital learning spaces to advance the teaching, learning, and research missions of the College.

Reflective Video in Foreign Language Media Course  I, C

Students experienced German language and culture using a new learning management system (at the time – Canvas) and a video platform (Zaption – now defunct) to produce their own short video documentaries in the German. The professor and I screened one student film and co-presented this collaborative case of experiential and technology-enhanced learning to the Trustees of Dartmouth College in spring 2014.

Introducing the Learning Innovation Pyramid

Our POD working group took in this four spheres model and then iterated a bit with …. a pyramid! Educational developers love a Bloom’s Taxonomy-esque model of innovation!

Critical Questions

In exploring this revised model of the learning innovation levels several questions emerged about learning innovation on our campuses.

What is the role of the “the maintainers” in innovation? For example, if you don’t have the basic functionality of stocked markers, you can’t draw a model of innovation. Who stocks the markers? What is the balance of maintaining and innovating? By the way a higher ed movement called The Maintainers have been digging into this on their blog and at their own conference.

How can (if they should at all) centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) claim the learning innovation space? Innovation often evokes examples of digital and technological innovations, however according to the above model, innovation is at its basic level, making change. Rachel Niemer asks, “Should CTL’s claim the innovation space? In what institutional contexts is it beneficial to have CTL’s be the hub of innovation and in what contexts is it detrimental/orthogonal to mission to claim the innovation space?”

So there is more work to do and perhaps we need yet another model of the balance of innovating and maintaining.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The Top Five Competencies for Faculty Innovation, Plus Five More

Originally published in Transforming Higher Education, EDUCAUSE Review, June 7, 2019.

by Mike Goudzwaard and Rachel Niemer

The cultural context for innovation influences the skills that faculty need to successfully improve the status quo of learning.

stars over mountains
Photo by Oliver Newbery on Unsplash

What are the core competencies that faculty innovators need in order to be successful in making sustained changes in and beyond their classrooms? While sitting under the starry Arizona desert sky near Bioshphere 2 during an NSF-sponsored workshop focused on the intersections of STEM education; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and innovations in learning, we decided to bring this question to our colleagues working in higher education learning innovation.

A few weeks later, we gathered with colleagues at the bright new offices of Duke University Learning Innovation for a meeting of HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners). We used this opportunity to ask participants to respond to and reflect upon a list of seventeen competencies, which were developed with Research | Innovation | Scholarship | Education (RISE) at the University of Michigan Medical School. We later shared this list with the readers of Inside Higher Ed (IHE) and asked them to respond. The dialogue that developed yielded a range of insights.

Innovation Competencies and Mind-Sets:

  1. Creativity
  2. Initiative
  3. Teamwork
  4. Networking
  5. Collaboration
  6. Visioning
  7. Enterprising
  8. Intelligent risk-taking
  9. Critical thinking
  10. Challenging the status quo
  11. Identifying problem
  12. Intellectual curiosity
  13. Flexibility
  14. Perceptiveness
  15. Positive self-efficacy
  16. Effective communication
  17. Leadership

(For a full description of each competency, see the IHE article.)

Multiple interviewees and commenters to our original IHE piece noted that we should not be thinking about innovation as an output of an individual (or team) but rather as an outcome of a particular environment. As Karen Costa commented, “As a precursor to all of these competencies, the need for faculty to be supported (financial, time, caring, recognition, autonomy) by the entire campus community. Without that, this just feels like a laundry list of expectations without the necessary support.”

How might we think differently about this list of competencies and mind-sets if we account for the institutional context in which a faculty member is innovating?

We posit that innovation is about improving upon the status quo. In learning, that means increasing how much an individual learns from an experience, as well as improving the quality of the learning experience. It also can mean making the learning experience available to a broader population of learners; using data to assess the effectiveness of the innovation; and/or determining which individuals the innovation is and isn’t effective for.

So, if the consensus is that environmental/institutional support is necessary to foster innovation, it follows that the context in which a faculty member is innovating then shapes which competencies and mind-sets are most important for them to have. If they’re innovating in a culture focused on maintaining the status quo—or what we call steady state—they need different skills from those that would be valuable for someone innovating in a culture focused on continuous improvement.

According to our interviewees/respondents, these are the top five competencies that a faculty innovator needs, regardless of the culture in which they are working:

  1. Teamwork: the ability to effectively and efficiently collaborate with others in a group
  2. Intelligent risk-taking: the ability to weigh potential benefits and disadvantages of exercising one’s choice or action to assume calculated risks
  3. Challenging the status quo: the ability to set ambitious goals that challenge established practices—especially when tradition impedes improvements
  4. Intellectual curiosity: the desire to acquire new knowledge and seek explanations for things—even when the applications for that new learning are not immediately apparent
  5. Flexibility: the willingness to change or compromise according to the situation

For a faculty member working in a steady-state culture, the faculty innovator takes on additional responsibilities that require different competencies, some of which were not in our original list:

  1. Secure in position (new): the assurance that if the innovation fails, job security remains (which often takes the form of tenure for academics)
  2. Personal motivation and commitment (new): driven by personal motivations to begin and sustain projects (when an institutional drive to change is absent)
  3. Sense of optimism (new): the drive to persist, based on the belief that projects will result in better learning for students and improvements beyond one’s own institution
  4. Enterprising: the ability to initiate and leverage available resources to further a goal
  5. Leadership: the ability to motivate or persuade others to act to achieve a goal by communicating a vision, committing to the cause of the organization, and inspiring trust

What our colleagues told us with a strong resolve is that faculty innovators in any cultural context need incentives (career rewards, funding, time) in order to sustain innovative work. Incentives were also identified as important for the inclusion of would-be innovators who have career, funding, or other constraints on their time and work.

Individual faculty or faculty teams can (and hopefully will) impact their cultural context: shifting the culture around them from a steady state to one of continuous improvement. In so doing, they are decreasing the need for their colleagues to have a strong personal motivation or to be tenured/secure in their position because in a culture of continuous improvement, the institution fosters motivation for innovation for everyone, regardless of their position within or off the tenure track. As more individual faculty or small faculty teams innovate, ideally an institution witnesses an additional change: the point on the spectrum at which innovations develop moves from the individual to the institution. Examples of individual faculty innovations include flipping one’s classroom, adopting a new pedagogy or technology to improve learning, or creating a MOOC that mirrors an on-campus course. Examples of institutional innovations include creating online degrees to reach new learners; developing truly interdisciplinary, problem-based curricula; and supporting centralized foundational/gateway course initiatives. In between these two poles there are, of course, innovations developed by small faculty teams or departments within a school or college.

We can look at innovations developing in spaces bounded by two tension pairs: the cultural spectrum described above (steady state and continuous improvement), and the spectrum of who is innovating (an individual faculty member or the institution). We’ve mapped out some of the innovations at the University of Michigan (U-M) and Dartmouth College (D) and how our own definitions of what is innovative have evolved over time (see figure 1). For example, in 2012, at the University of Michigan, MOOCs were novel and exciting; they are still exciting in 2019, but schools and colleges are strategic about the MOOCs their faculty create so that alignment exists with online degrees and residential initiatives spearheaded by school leadership. This mapping revealed that the migration of MOOCs was opposite at our two institutions. At the University of Michigan, MOOCs began as individual efforts by some early adopting faculty and since then have been incorporated into regular programs (institutionalized). At Dartmouth, by contrast, MOOCs started with a centrally funded initiative (institutional) and an open call for proposals. In the ensuing years and after that initial fund was expended, MOOCs have become part of individual faculty initiatives.

4 quadrants created by a vertical line and a horizontal line, each of which has an arrow on each end Vertical line Top: Institutional. Bottom: Individual. Horizontal line Left: Steady State. Right: Continuous Improvement. Upper right quadrant (Institutional/Continuous Improvement): MicroMasters/MasterTrackCertificate (c.2015)-U-M. Foundational/Gateway Course Initiatives (U-M c.2017). MOOCs (c.2013) - D [wavy dotted line down to lower right quadrant (Continuous Improvement/Individual) MOOCs (c.2019) - D. Online Programs (MOOCs) - Inst. Collab. (c.2011) - D. Gateway Course Redesign (c.2014) - D. [wavy line running from lower left quadrant (Steady State/Individual) MOOCs (c.2012) - U-M  up through upper left quadrant (Steady State/Institutional)] to  MOOCs (c.2019) - U-M.  Lower right quadrant (Continuous Improvement/Individual): Course (Multi-Section) Redesign - D. Course Redesign - D.
Figure 1. Map of innovations across institutional cultures

Now that we sit staring at our screens, trying to summarize our starry insights and rich conversations in the North Carolina spring, is this list of competencies steady state?

This post is part of the 2019 ELI Key Issues series, which focuses on the top five teaching and learning issues as cited in the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative’s recent community survey.

Michael Goudzwaard is a Learning Designer in Information, Technology, and Consulting at Dartmouth College.

Rachel Niemer is Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan.

© 2019 Michael Goudzwaard and Rachel Niemer. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International License.

Faculty Competencies for Innovation?

Originally published in Insider Higher Ed, April 24, 2019.

by Michael Goudzwaard and Rachel Niemer

If you work in the field of learning innovation in higher education, you undoubtedly collaborate with faculty on course, program, and/or institutional level innovation projects. Thomas Carey in his study of innovation competencies for graduates defines innovation as, “the process of creating lasting value by the successful mobilization of new ideas.” There is increasing awareness of innovation competencies for undergraduate and graduate students, but what about faculty?

A learning innovation project could include flipping classes, creating MOOCs, or changing the course credit system to incentivize micro-learning. Lauren Herckis, an anthropologist at Carnegie Mellon University studied barriers to faculty changing their teaching, finding that the fear of negative student evaluations, respect for their own role models, and fear of the unknown, can inhibit innovation projects.

We decided to ask colleagues at our own institutions what competencies and mindsets faculty exhibited in innovation projects in which they were involved. To prime our colleagues, we posed the following list of innovation competencies and mindsets developed by our colleagues at Research.Innovation.Scholarship.Education (RISE) at the University of Michigan Medical School:

Innovation Competencies and Mindsets

1.    Creativity: the ability to think beyond traditional ideas, rules, and patterns to generate meaningful alternatives.

2.    Initiative: the ability to independently develop, assess, and operationalize ideas that foster positive changes.

3.    Teamwork: the ability to effectively and efficiently collaborate with others in a group.

4.    Networking: the ability to identify and engage external/outside stakeholders in common interest or goal.

5.    Collaboration: the ability to work with various stakeholder to assimilate ideas and needs and reach a solution.

6.    Visioning: the ability to assess future directions and risks based on existing and potential opportunities and threats to implementation.

7.    Enterprising: the ability to initiate and leverage available resources to further a goal.

8.    Intelligent risk-taking: the ability to weigh potential benefits and disadvantages of exercising one’s choice or action to assume calculated risks.

9.    Critical Thinking: the ability to logically identify strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and analyze these judgments.

10.    Challenging the Status Quo: the ability to set ambitious goals that challenge established practices—especially when tradition impedes improvements.

11.    Identifying Problem: the ability to pinpoint the actual nature and cause of problems and the dynamics that underlie them.

12.    Intellectual Curiosity: the desire to acquire new knowledge and to seek explanations for things—even when the applications of that new learning is not immediately apparent.

13.    Flexibility: the willingness to change or compromise according to the situation.

14.    Perceptiveness: the ability to recognize situational forces that promote and inhibit change.

15.    Positive self-efficacy: the trust in one’s own abilities, talents, and judgement that s/he is capable of achieving a certain outcome.

16.    Effective Communication: the ability to provide regular, consistent, and meaningful information; listen carefully to others and ensures message is understood; and ensure important matters are shared with all appropriate parties.

17.    Leadership: the ability to motivate or persuade others to act to achieve a goal by communicating a vision, committing to the cause of the organization, and inspiring trust.

We would like to hear from others working higher ed about this list.

How do you define “faculty innovator”?

Which are the top four competencies that faculty must have or develop for innovation projects?

What is missing or could be removed from this list?

Add your responses in the comments or you can respond in this brief questionnaire.

Michael Goudzwaard is a Learning Designer at Dartmouth College where he works with faculty on learning invocation projects including classroom use and design and he leads Dartmouth’s MOOC initiative, DartmouthX.

Rachel Niemer is the Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan where she coordinates the Product Management, Public Engagement, and Behavioral Science teams in their work as thought-partners with faculty.

We Be Jammin?

We have a couple of Google Jamboards in our library learning spaces and yesterday I challenged myself to use the Jamboard for an entire meeting.

Summary: Google Jamboard is both a device and an app. It is intended for in-person collaboration as a digital whiteboard. It provides portability and an instant digital record, but takes some practice to use smoothly. This post captures one meeting using Jamboard.

What is a teaching “huddle?”

I was meeting with four instructors and eight undergraduate learning fellows for our weekly “teaching huddle” with instructors and undergrad learning fellows. (For more about the learning fellows program, see this great poster.) The structure of our meetings are roughly as follows:

Thorns: Each person submits one or more thing in advance (via Google Form) that was challenge, that they wished had gone differently, and/or they would like to spend time time as a group addressing. Then in our meeting we vote (2 votes per person) and discuss, brainstorm, and knowledge share about the topic. A frequent topic of thorns is how to support group learning when different members of the group have varying levels of skill (and preparation).

The week ahead: One of the faculty instructors gives an overview of the lessons and homework for the upcoming week. There are four sections of the same course and they all follow a shared syllabus and schedule.

Pedagogical Moments: Each week we spend some time learning and incorporating principles and techniques to support learning in the classroom. Frequent sources for these segments are How People Learn II (NAS:E&M, 2018) and Small Teaching (Lang, 2016).

Roses: This is the flip side of thorns. The prompt is something like, “What went well in class that you would like to share/celebrate?” This seems to quickly become a highlight of every meeting.

Let’s Jam Together

Google Jamboard is both a device (giant writeable monitor running Jamboard app), a mobile app (iOS and Android), and a web app. The experience is slightly different in each of the formats and I quickly found myself device switching to streamline my workflow.

First, I set up a three-page Jam (iOS)
page 1 – title & agenda,
page 2 – Thorns, and
page 3 – How people learn.

Then, I transferred the survey responses (thorns) to sticky notes on the jam (web app). In our room we meet around a round table so I used both the projector (source my iPad) and the Google Jamboard on the opposite side of the table. I told people that both screens would be the same content.

As people walked into the room I explained the Jam-o-sphere, and asked for everyone’s sense of adventure as we all tried this together. There was some immediate expression of skepticism about the replacement of paper sticky notes with virtual ones.

I then asked them to vote for two thorns with stickers. People approached the Jamboard grabbed one the fat crayons (the Google writing implement) and clicked through the menu to select stickers. I also passed around my iPad for a second input device to speed up the process. Some people jumped in to show others who were struggling to navigate the touchy drag-and-drop of the stickers. A few stickers were lost and some random lines streaked the page, but in the end all votes were recorded.

I then selected the top voted post-its. They were too small to read so I enlarged them one at time (two-finger drag in iOS), then returned them roughly to their spot on the board. The rest of the meeting, pedagogical moments and roses we used our analog technologies (popsicle sticks, printed pages, and index cards).

To Jam or Not to Jam?

At the start of our meeting, during voting, and our discussion of thorns I found my attention pulled to the tech

– Did people know how to use the Jamboard?
– Were both screens on the right page?
– How do I erase those stray marks?

As a facilitator I felt less focused on the process and content that wanted to be. That’s not entirely Jamboard’s fault, it’s a common experience anytime I’m using a new tool in front of a live audience.

I’m undecided if our meeting was better with the Jamboard, but I’ll try it again with the following modifications:

Google Jams are made for collaboration more so than presentation. Having multiple authors reduces the burden on the facilitator/teacher. Inviting and requiring others to jump in would help. In fact, I might ask someone else to drive completely next time.

Although Jam is an on-the-fly collaboration tool, planning its use, pre-building pages, and even using templates help a meeting flow smoothly and reduce the tech-stress.

The handwriting to text recognition is a great feature, however the timing of the conversion is touchy. Jam doesn’t always know that I’m still writing. Next time I’ll use more stickies with transparent backgrounds to add text (by keyboard in iOS or webapp)

Finally, inviting participants into your mutual learning journey of a new technology allows all of us to relax into our not-yet-experts space. That can be uncomfortable, but naming it helps.

Ramps, Bridges, and Retreats

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend whom I first met through working on MOOCs at our respective institutions. We realized that both of our institutions have reached a decision point about our MOOC projects: Do we pivot to other learning projects, or persevere with our MOOC-making? And if we persist, what should our strategies be in this next wave of MOOC-making? I wanted to put my thoughts out there in the form this open letter. 


Dear MOOC colleague, 

We met back in the dawn of the MOOC-craze around 2014. Our institutions both made the crazy leap to join a major MOOC platform, even though our strengths were (and still are) face-to-face, residential learning. We had lofty and well-articulated reasons to join: to support open education, extend our reach beyond our campuses, and foster educational experimentation and research. We also knew that we didn’t want to be left behind in what seemed like the place to go for learning innovation.

It was a whirlwind of excitement, risk-taking, and start-up fever. We were all just trying to figure this out this MOOC business – business agreements, legal agreements, project management, forming learning teams – in order to create good learning experiences online for learners we didn’t know. We set out to share our institutions’ teaching with the world, and what we did along the way was establish a sharing economy among those who make MOOCs.

The MOOC-honeymoon is way over now and we’re both wondering what’s next. Do we pivot or persevere? If we stop MOOCing, what does that mean about our commitments to those original reasons for joining…open, global reach, research….? If we persevere, how might we refocus MOOCs on one of three experiences: ramps, bridges, and retreats?


At our historically face-to-face colleges, online learning allows future students, global partners, and even current students to begin a learning journey even before the course starts or they have enrolled at the institution. My institution has partnered with another university to offer a seven-course series in C programming (C Programming with Linux). Unlike many MOOCs, this series has almost no video lectures. Instead, it has interactive coding lessons and real coding challenges. 

One learner in the series wrote recently to say that, although he wasn’t allowed to work due to his refugee status, he could learn a new skill in anticipation and preparation for the day he can work again. That doesn’t happen routinely on our campuses, but it should happen at our institutions. 

Closer to campus, our own students report, “I’m not a code person, but I wanted to take this engineering class. Having a head-start made me realize I am a coder!” 

These MOOCs are ramps to both formal, credit-bearing learning experiences as well as future jobs. There is absolutely no threat to our business models and much to gain by extending our reach while supporting our own matriculated students. 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash


At my institution, students are very busy taking multiple classes, working, finding internships, traveling, socializing, and studying away from campus. There are many starts and stops to the learning cycle, and students report that they tend to compartmentalize their learning into one term at a time. 

Our renewed online learning efforts can provide a bridge between and across learning cycles. Let’s say a student is studying music, and has just completed a residential class in opera. In that 10-week quarter, they had to share their focus with many other things, and and want to continue their opera journey over the holiday break. An online course (like Italian or German opera) could bridge the learning experience until the next on-campus class.


In higher ed, we organize the learner’s path in discrete segments. First students encounter admissions, then our faculty, and finally alumni affairs. All of these offices bring a different approach and culture to working with future, current, and former students. Before they step on campus, and as they step off campus, we encourage our students to be life-long learners. We invite them back to campus occasionally to reconnect (and give back), but why not work together to create knowledge, learn from each other, and reconnect more than every five years?

Our next online learning efforts should focus on alumni in strategic ways. We admitted them once, and now it’s time to welcome them back to a learning journey that began before they matriculated and continues beyond graduation.

Let’s see if we pivot or persevere. If we persevere, let’s consider building ramps, bridges, and retreats.

With all best (MOOC) wishes,


Writing in Place: Day 1

I’m running on afternoon fumes and a double espresso at the new home of Duke University’s Learning Innovation (DLI) team. The laughter from across cube pods suggests I’m not the only one feeling punchy.

DLI is hosting us for a Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL Storm) writing retreat and peer learning sessions. The days are largely un-programmed with large blocks of time for writing, meals together, and a few lighting talks and office hours around the meal times.

I have a list of writing projects from the practical – workflow processes, project intake frameworks – to the aspirational – session proposals – to the exploratory – faculty learning innovation competencies. The later is a collaborative blog piece I’m writing with a colleague. It started as a conversation about a month ago and blossomed into, “Hey, we should write about this and wouldn’t it be great to have a specific piece to focus on at the HAIL writing retreat.”

We had a productive first day, drafting our process, scoping our piece, drafting questions for colleagues, and circulating that survey for input. We hope to use this retreat as a way to have collective input on ideas while protecting everyone’s time for their own projects. We’re not going to design think this one, we’re just going to think it. And write it.

NC Innovation Express – American Tobacco Campus – Duke University

Can you measure it?

I’m am currently in the foothills just outside of Tucson, AZ at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 for a workshop in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) equity workshop. Forty or so educators representing higher ed, museums, public media (NPR/PBS), and libraries are charged to write a collaborative white peer as part of the National Science Foundation’s Dear Colleague initiative. 

Biosphere 2 is a great location for an immersive writing experience. The spring green on the desert mountains, remote location, spotty cell signal, gathering with familiar and new friends, all provide an incubator for ideas. But will it result in a cohesive document which will speak to the equity, inclusion in digital and studio-based learning? At worst, we’ll leave sphere duo in a couple of days with a great walk down the history lane of privately-funded earth and space research, time to think deeply, new connections, and a chance to disrupt the daily routines. These are all great outcomes, however not the primary charge we have been given. 

In one of our early break out groups were were asked to describe a time when we felt freedom and creativity. One person said freedom and creativity  were in flow when she was cooking in her kitchen, working from a recipe, and short a few ingredients. The plethora of cooking / baking reality beam to our living rooms that in the kitchen, substitution is innovation incarnate.

Another person was invigorated when they pulled an all-nighter, greeting the next day with the invigoration of breaking the “rules” of how much sleep one should get per night and reaching flow state in a writing project around 2am. 

As we shared around the circle, our examples stitched together a common thread of feeling freedom and creativity when there are constraints, and opportunity to break the constraints without out serious danger, and a clear audience/purpose.

We went on to have many conversations and even produced some collaborative docs and and post-its. Even for this extrovert, by social battery was drained my mid-afternoon. We had the constraints of a full agenda, but not of what we were supposed to produce, who our audience was, and how what we were talking about would make it in to a coherent paper. 

Ocean and cliff with trees
Ocean biome at Biosphere 2 (U of Arizona)

So here’s a confession. I broke with the agenda and went back to the casita to reflect and as it turned out a few others were craving the same. I was not alone. We skipped round 2, no documents were produced, and post-its were far behind. But, were we still processing and even learning? 

This morning we started the day with a gallery walk of the charts that we created yesterday. Still the conversation back at the casita, while playing “hooky” stuck with me. So now was the time for an artifact. I wrote on a page, “If learning happens in a forest and no one is there to measure it, does it make a noise?” I hid this on the back side of the board, but it was found and now is a fixed to the podium. 

So now there is some evidence, hanging at the front of the room, and now reflected back in this blog post. If we were to write an observation protocol for playing hooky how might we score just hanging out? 

Yesterday, my breakout group write an observation protocol for studio-based. We did this in the absence of constraints, a clear audience, and purpose. But we found a constraint to break. We left our assigned room, we self-organized and wrote stuff down. Sometimes you need to create your own constraints, just so you can break them and find the flow.

The Trouble With Learning Management

This piece was originally published in EdSurge on April 8,2016.

By Adam Finkelstein and Mike Goudzwaard

If you’ve been an instructor or a student in a class in higher education in the last 10 years, you probably used a learning-management system or LMS. There are plenty to choose from, including Blackboard, Canvas, Sakai, Moodle and D2L. Many of these systems started as small, nimble startups but have grown into large “learning-technology” organizations as they have matured.

One of the biggest challenges with LMSs is that they are designed to support everything. From content organization to discussions, assessments, lecture capture and synchronous learning. This results in an overbuilt system with too many features that you may never use. It’s an 80/20 problem: You need 20 percent of the features, such as a standard webspace to point your students to a roster and gradebook, but 80 percent of your LMS just gets in the way.

Is an online synchronous chat room needed for a face-to-face class? Most instructors just leave that chat room in the menu, unsure of its purpose. The result is that this bloated software locks learning into restricted choices between suboptimal versions of features. There are many options for interactivity not included in your LMS you could choose, but the defaults are still there getting in the way. The problem with the LMS is the “M,” management. Learning software should facilitate learning, not manage it. Learning management reduces teachers to middle-managers between students and the registrar.

Micromanagement Migraine

Most institutions will change from one LMS to another specifically to improve upon their learning tools. At most institutions, a switch to a new LMS provokes two reactions: 1) it’s better than the old one, and 2) it’s more complicated and not intuitive. These reactions are both correct. Sure, software built from the ground up will incorporate new features that the old LMS scrambles to shoehorn in with software patches, but both are overbuilt and lock in choices about how learning should happen.

Michael Feldstein explains why our institutions keep repeating the same choices as a procurement problem in the recent piece, “What’s Really to Blame for the Failures of Our Learning-Management Systems.” We have been through a couple of LMS migrations at different institutions and see what Feldstein describes: the committee evaluation and procurement process drive the discussions and decisions of which bloated LMS to buy next. That’s why the emphasis on a learning-management system needs to go.

All LMSs, both new and old, are overbuilt and lock learning into a complex suite of features that administrators and teachers spend too much time trying to figure out, customize and disable. In “What’s Next for the LMS?”Brown, Dehoney and Millichap offer a framework of five primary functions of an LMS and call for a “Lego approach” where components can be fit together and pulled apart to customize the LMS. They are on the right path, but what we really need is not another LMS, but something very different. We need to focus on three features: agility, simplicity and interoperability and ultimately form a new learning operating system.

Trim the Fat

In a recent post,The LMS of the Future is Yours, Mike identifies three features and principles of openness (on the software side) that your next LMS should have. With further discussion, we both propose that your LearningOS just needs two features: a roster and analytics. That’s it.

The roster is the connection to the student information system (SIS). It manages roles and permissions of everything in the online environment. This is a function that every course uses, even if it isn’t currently using the LMS for anything else.

Analytics happen in two domains. First, what has happened, as in time that students spend on tasks, clicks and downloads. Second, what does it mean for a student’s learning, as both formative and summative assessment. This has traditionally been the role of the gradebook, however most lock assessment into letters, points, percentages and maybe a few comments. Analytics will require an API (application program interface) to connect the data from the LearningOS to dashboards and transcripts, much like what is being proposed by Caliper. The Caliper Framework suggests a standard method to capture, display and transport learning analytics.

All of the other tools in the LearningOS are plugins. The good news is there is already a mature standard for this, Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). This means that all the learning tools out there designed to support LTI already work with your LearningOS. Projects like EduAppCenter already provide over 200 tools that can be implemented using LTI.

How is this different than adding plugins to your existing LMS? LearningOS promotes depth rather than breadth by starting with the basics and allowing for teachers and students to plug in the rest.

Are there concerns? Absolutely. Are providers really offering LTI-compliant environments? Are extensions really LTI-compliant or just “mostly compliant”? Is data safeguarded? How will support work in a multi-tool environment? These are among the challenges that institutions will face with the LearningOS.

Some might wonder if LMS providers would support external plugins when they’ve been creating competing toolsets. By allowing for specialization, providers can accommodate for best-of-breed tools built by people with expertise in these specific capabilities, instead of growing a feature set until the platform becomes bloated and static. This move also puts the choices back in the hands of the pedagogs. Don’t want features from one tool? Find another that is compatible and works better for your learning environment. This would ultimately drive greater adoption at an institution, where instructors have greater flexibility of tool choices within an interoperable framework.

LearningOS isn’t just your current LMS stripped down, it’s a new approach that favors well curated plug-ins over vanilla features suites. LearningOS will handle the learning in your classes and probably more, depending what teachers, students and institutions choose.

Mike Goudzwaard (@mgoudz)is is the lead instructional designer for Digital Learning Initiatives at Dartmouth College. Adam Finkelstein (@adamfdotnet) is an educational developer Teaching and Learning Services at McGill University.

Further reading:  LearningOS: The Now Generation Digital Learning Environment (Aug 2017, Educause Review)

Switching Costs

Photo by: Murray Severn

I’m sitting down to write this post and I’m not getting up until I click ‘publish.’ Why? I just can’t afford not to. I was talking to a colleague today, and we were discussing the multi-disciplinary nature of our fields of instructional/learning design. In a given week we’re asked to plan events, design classrooms, run workshops, supervise students, read research, perform research, consult, facilitate, experiment, and maybe design a course. One thing that draws many people to this field is the diverse nature of the work, but is there a cost to switching from role to role, from hour to hour, or minute to minute? When my colleague said there were high “switching costs” to doing so many different things, it clicked. Yes, in a day when I’m doing so many different things, I’m exhausted and don’t feel very accomplished. I tested this idea out on another colleague at the coffee machine. He agreed that days with less switching feel more productive.

We have all been warned about the dangers of multi-tasking and the impact it has on productivity. Rapidly switching between tasks might be just as bad, costing up to 40 percent of lost productivity, state the authors of Multitasking: Switching Costs (American Psychological Society, 2006). I wonder about the design implications for our work and calendars if we were to account for these costs.

It’s important to understand the two stages of executive control involved with switching tasks:

goal shifting – I’m now going to do this rather than that. For example, I’m leaving a course design meeting with a faculty member and answering an email from a student employee.


rule activation I’m turning off the rules for this and on the rules for that. I’m leaving a meeting where I’m a consultant to a communication where I’m an supervisor (APA, 2006).

What is interesting here is that even if I’m not shifting goals–I’m continuing on with answering emails, for example– the rules may still change. I’m writing an email to my boss asking for a raise after writing an email to an instructor answering a technical question. This, too, is switching and has costs.

Here are three ideas to reduce switching costs for learning designers or any knowledge workers:

Message batching: Rather than pouncing after the ding of a new message (which you should turn off), schedule time to read and respond to email. People won’t email you about a true emergency. You might need to pause your messenger (Slack, HipChat, Skype for Biz, etc) too.

Building in transitions: Recently I visited the Southern New Hampshire University. In each of their conference rooms are posted on the wall tips for running high-impact meetings. One community norm was that all meetings start 10 minutes or 40 minutes after the hour to allow people to walk across the block-long office building from meeting to meeting and to switch goals and rules to the next meeting.

Chunk your time: Rather than giving people any time open on your calendar for any task, schedule your days to have no meetings in the mornings. Or consultations on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and course building on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I’m about to click publish and I have gotten up once to switch on the light. That’s a cost I’ll pay, but we simply can’t afford to lose two full days a week to lost productivity through switching costs. What other ideas do you have for reducing switching costs?

Why un-conference?

Image: M Goudzwaard

I’m in Whistler, British Columbia for the edX Global Forum this week. Starting in 2014, several edX partners organized a small un-conference at Boston University held a few hours before the opening reception. Each year the un-conference has grown: 12 people in Boston, 23 in Georgetown, 30 in Paris, and now 50+ in Whistler.

In each of these locations, there were much more tempting ways to spend an afternoon than hiding away from the sunlight in a windowless room with digital learning folks. I’m surprised each year that people choose to gather with colleagues rather than ski, sleep, visit a museum, or drink wine (Paris) for a couple of hours. Here is what participants have said about why they keep showing up and bringing colleagues early to participate in the un-conference.

There is a timely, participant-driven agenda. The topics chosen serve the actual people in the room, not a selection committee or an organizational agenda to give people stage time. Sages have their moments on stages, but allowing the people in the room to generate ideas that are burning for them at that moment makes the conversations relevant. It also gets everyone talking, not just one person, providing a more inclusive and diverse learning space.

A month or so before the meeting, we send out an invitation and ask people to register (at no cost), articulate their goals for attending, and identify any areas of expertise they are willing to share. This is then shared back with everyone planning to attend.

An hour before we start, facilitators write up themes which emerged from participant input on large sheets of paper. In the first portion of the un-conference, participants generate additional topics on very large post-its, and then we have a round of straw poll voting. This voting determines what topics will be included in the breakout conversations.

Disruption is not only tolerated, but encouraged. Un-conferences don’t have many rules, but one of my favorites is vote with your feet. Throughout the three hours people were coming and going to get lunch, to have quieter conversations, or to go to another meeting. When people were in the room, they were talking to each other.

One of the most commonly stated goals for attending the un-conference is to network and build relationships. If you have been part of the edX community for awhile, you probably have no problem finding someone you know to talk to or getting invited to a committee meeting. However, if you’re new here or an introvert, the un-conference can provide a space to meet a few people in small conversations around topics where you have knowledge or curiosity.

Finally, an un-conference provides a space that we work so hard to create in our digital learning spaces, a place where we are learning from each other. As we leave our mountain top meeting, we educators will need to continue to meet up in person and online so we can share practices, curiosities, and challenges.


I want to thank my co-facilitators over the years, Romy Ruukel, Josh Kim, Diana Marian, Ella Hamonic, Shelly Upton, and John Zornig. Erin Brown from edX has been instrumental in building participant-led sessions in and around the Global Forum.