The Rutabaga: What to Do with the Digital

The rutabaga. Also known as swede, or neep, part of the mustard seed—or brassica—family of vegetables. Closely related to turnips and cabbage, but distinct from carrots. The name originates from the Swedish for “root bag”.

I had to learn a fair bit about the humble rutabaga last week when I was confronted with a small bunch of them in my refrigerator. They were part of my family’s weekly bounty from our local CSA (community supported agriculture), and I had to either 1. cook something with it, or 2. let it rot in the compost. I chose the former, and went to the web in search of suggestions, answers, illustrations, and recipes. I’d never met a rutabaga before, and I wanted our encounter to be fruitful.

As I am wont, I noticed the pedagogy of the rutabaga right away. What was the rutabaga teaching me? How was it teaching me? And to what learning outcome could I aspire? There it sat, in various stages of being cleaned and peeled as I took extensive breaks to indulge my mystification with the root, apparently doing nothing but confounding me. I admit my trepidation from the moment I pulled the thing from is bag. I don’t think I’d ever washed that much dirt down my disposal.

Being confounded is an opportunity to learn. That is the pedagogy of the rutabaga. Something is placed in our way and no one tells us what we’re meant to do with it. We sense its potential (it kinda looks like a potato), but it will take a certain leap of faith to uncover it. Rutabagas don’t offer us scaffolding. Benjamin Bloom hated the rutabaga.

As teachers in a digital world, the tools we are asked to use can be just as confounding and impossible as a rutabaga staring us down from the cutting board. Do we even know where to cut? What part of the vegetable is for eating? What part or parts should we stay away from? Is a discussion forum really for discussions? Why does everything I do feed into the gradebook? When and how should I use the chat feature? What the blazes is an LTI?

The Learning Management System. Also known as the online classroom, classroom management tool, part of the family of platforms based on principles of instructional design (in turn based upon early educational psychology). Unrelated to and distinct from any other web-based media, but capable of integrating with conferencing tools, social media, and collaboration platforms. The name originates from a misunderstanding of the relationship between teaching and learning.

The truth is that most of the tools designed for education by educational technology companies were built by people who don’t teach. They were built, instead, by people whose passion is making 1s and 0s do amazing tricks. Functionality is the name of the game at the Silicon Valley flea circus. But function—how high, how far, into what holes what pegs fit—has little to do with teaching and learning. The connection between teachers and students can be lost when the online classroom is designed for wizardry.

But the LMS presents us with a learning opportunity. As hardwired as its pedagogy might seem, there are always exceptions to its rules, windows in the walls it puts up around learning. Becoming familiar with the way the LMS works—getting deeply familiar with Middlebury’s LMS, Canvas, for instance—can make a molehill out of a mountain in no time.

Twitter. Also known as microblog, social media, part of the family of tools on the social web (or web 2.0). Closely related to Facebook and Tumblr, but distinct from Tinder. The name originates from the sound a small bird makes when it won’t shut up.

Twitter is one of those digital tools—not built for education, but with pedagogical potential—that causes all kinds of trepidation when we first view it. And yet, the Bread Loaf Teacher Network recently started hosting Twitter chats for their network of writers and teachers (using #BLTN). Just a couple of folks in the network have participated in such chats, and they have limited experience running them. But they plunged in nonetheless. They are learning as they go, snipping and mixing and mashing and figuring things out. No one taught them to use Twitter, and no one told them how to prepare a community there. Their experiment with synchronous online discussion (limited to 140 characters) isn’t a scaffolded one. It’s a sink or swim one, and they’re doing great at swimming already.

Domain of One’s Own. Also known as MiddCreate, OU Create , or simply “Domains”, part of the open education movement. Closely related to blogging, e-portfolios, and personal learning networks, but distinct from each of these as well. The name originates from the prophetic feminist writings of Virginia Woolf, who penned the term (and same-titled work) “A Room of One’s Own”, which referred to the need of individuals to have spaces for personal expression.

Domain of One’s Own originated in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington, under the guidance of Martha Burtis, Jim Groom, and Tim Owens. It has since been adopted by more than 40 schools of higher education under various names, and with varying degrees of adherence to the ideal, which is to give students a domain over which they exercise full control of the content, presentation, format, and form.

At Middlebury, Domain of One’s Own is called MiddCreate, and it offers students, teachers, staff, and programs the opportunity to design unique spaces to express themselves, learn, teach, blog, and experiment with digital pedagogies. For many, it looms as a space too large and too unstructured—there’s a fear that one might go wandering and never be heard from again. But in truth, MiddCreate comes with little risk and significant returns. Like a playground with soft rubber surfaces, the biggest risk is having too much fun.

Adam Croom, the Director of Digital Learning at the University of Oklahoma where he has launched his own OU Create Domains project, wrote that:

the role of ed tech should not always be about the viability/scalability of the product(s) but also about how we sheperd students into building, shaping, curating, and refining their personal learning environment. And this brings deeper questions into what technologies can enter the classroom.

And if you like the sound of that, Adam will be speaking at Middlebury on Monday, September 26 at 4:00PM Eastern time. His talk, “Openness without Penalty: the Cornerstone of the Creative Student / Classroom / University,” will focus on the deep potential of the MiddCreate project, and to the inherent possibilities for digital learning.

We are in a pedagogical moment. Domain of One’s Own is trying to teach us. It is staring us down, wondering if we will 1. make something with it, or 2. let it rot in the compost. The digital is our rutabaga. Let’s use it to feed our imaginations.

Photo by Brendan Ross, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Sean Morris

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