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The Online Teaching Manifesto: Slick Marketing or Revolutionary Decree?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A group of instructors in an online master’s program at the University of Edinburg (UK) are looking to add their Manifesto for Teaching Online to the list of all-time greats including the U.S. Declaration of Independence, The Communist Manifesto, MLK’s "I Have a Dream" speech, The Futurist Manifesto, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, and many other notable statements of principle throughout human history (McDonald, Feb 27, 2011). This latest "public declaration of principles and intentions" (Manifesto – from Wikipedia) is substantially different from previous manifestos in that it plays on the idea of the Internet meme (Deseret News, Feb. 26, 2012), and is intended to be remixed and reinterpreted  by individuals with the hope that it will spread virally. But is there value in this beyond bringing attention the University of Edinburg and the scholars who produced it? Certainly the time is ripe for a clear public articulation of what online teaching and learning are and the important role that they can play in society, but is this pop culture approach really what online learning needs to gain widespread public acceptance?

What is the Manifesto for Teaching Online?

A manifesto for teaching online from Jen Ross on Vimeo.

The Manifesto is intended to be a living document which is freely open to remixing and reinterpretation by anyone. It contains 20 points which attempt to concisely capture the priorities, values, basic principles, and worth of online education.  Here are the 10 most important points from the Manifesto with a brief interpretation of their meaning and significance:

  1. Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode.
    This first principle of the Manifesto addresses the core of much rhetoric against online learning – that the absence of physical proximity to the teacher lessens the quality of the education. In a well-designed course that makes good use of available communication technology to connect the teacher and students, distance can actually provide enhancements of the interpersonal communication needed for learning (Baker & Woods, 2005).
     
  2. The possibility of the ‘online version’ is overstated. The best online courses are born digital.
    This addresses the idea that you cannot simply port on-the-ground courses to the online medium any more than you can port texts wholesale to the Web. There are fundamental differences between the two modes that can only be addressed by a thoughtful consideration of the medium of delivery in the instructional design process. Without intentionality of digital design, many possibilities are missed because they do not fit into the F2F paradigm, such as networking and the social construction of arguments.
     
  3. ‘Best practice’ is a totalizing term blind to context – there are many ways to get it right.
    This point speaks to the diversity of content, delivery method, students, and instructors that is possible in the online classroom. Rapid change in Internet technology and the socially constructed nature of knowledge in the 21st Century yield a teaching medium that cannot have one “right way.” In the same way that the Web provides for a unique experience for every user, online learning demands innovative teaching methodologies that incorporate information that changes by the second and the constant proliferation of new modes of delivery. Innovation is at the core of online education and that makes it resistant to the idea of prescriptive “best practices” at its core.
     
  4. Visual and hypertextual representations allow arguments to emerge, rather than be stated.
    In instructional design this is called “emergent design” and is a valid and respected method in both design and research. Connected media allows for the natural flow and evolution of discourse rather than requiring only completely formed ideas to be broadcast. This ties in nicely with the idea that knowledge is a social construct and the societal value that these exchanges have for learning.
     
  5. New forms of writing make assessors work harder: they remind us that assessment is an act of interpretation.
    All communication is an act of mediation, so keeping the focus firmly on the limitations of assessment makes sense, particularly in terms of emerging modes of communication. There needs to be a great deal of openness and flexibility in the assessment process in order to accommodate the ever-changing possibilities of human expression. This point emphasizes the collaborative, social aspects of online education and the value inherent in the process of dialogue
     
  6. Assessment strategies can be designed to allow for the possibility of resistance.
    In a top-down, centralized, authoritarian world, there is no room for resistance in or to assessment. The negotiated meanings made possible through the online environment open up the possibility that assessment can accommodate a wider range of perspectives and opinions. Given the flexibility needed to assess online learning, the accommodation of resistance should be a natural outcome of expanding notions of what assessment should look like in online learning.
     
  7. Place is differently, not less, important online.
    In every way, both physical and virtual, place matters in online education. From the actual location of students and instructors in space and time, to the virtual environment in which learning happens, there are more spaces to consider and more control over the design of those (virtual) spaces than in F2F classrooms. The instructor has control over the design of the online environment – what tools are used, the resources presented, and the overall atmosphere of the course.
     
  8. Closed online spaces limit the educational power of the network.
    This principle speaks to the power of networking for learning and the ways in which openness should be embraced and incorporated into online course design to facilitate connections with students, emergent discourse, socially constructed meaning, and to take advantage of the inherent strengths of the online environment.
     
  9. Online teaching should not be downgraded to ‘facilitation’.
    There is no crime in defending what you believe is right, particularly in a manifesto, and the amount of effort and skill required to design and deliver an online course, particularly one that is innovative and connects with students, cannot be undervalued. Even if the pedagogical approach is different, it is no less valuable or challenging than teaching in a F2F environment. Think of the online instructor as the sage by the side rather than either the sage on the stage or the guide by the side. The idea that online teaching is simply facilitation of learners diminishes the importance of the instructor’s role in actually teaching their students. While that teaching may not look exactly the same as F2F teaching, it is nonetheless, rigorous instruction.
     
  10. Community and contact drive good online learning.
    As with any learning, being part of a community what interacts and works together to construct meaning is key to good online learning. It does not and cannot happen in isolation with many separate, unconnected learners. This belief must be designed into the course to take advantage of the potential for enhanced connectivity available online.
     

Adding to the Manifesto
The Manifesto for Teaching Online is a comprehensive list that covers many aspects of online education in general, as well as teaching in virtual environments. It is an excellent starting place for sparking a discussion about what online teaching is and the potential that it has. One element that seems to be missing is the idea that online teaching and learning possess a great potential for social change. Because of the distributed nature of the technology and the learners, as well as the potential to include previously disenfranchised groups of students, online education is an ideal vehicle for breaking down social, economic, cultural, and class boundaries. Perhaps another point could be added along the lines of:

Online teaching embodies the ideals of a democratic, intellectually and globally engaged society that connects and interacts for the common good.

Beyond that addition, the overall list could use some paring down to something that is more easily digestible like the Internet memes that it seeks to emulate. Several of the points such as those about assessment and connectivity could be combined to reduce the overall size of the list.

No Rush to Judgment
On the whole, this seems like much more than a marketing ploy to make the University of Edinburg seem cool as some would propose (Deseret News, Feb. 26, 2012). The manifesto seems like a sincere attempt to capture the essence of online education and explain it to the world in one easy to comprehend outpouring.

While the Manifesto for Teaching Online lacks the overwhelming passion of some of the great manifestos in history, and does not seem to represent a call to revolution, it is nonetheless an important articulation of the values and value of online learning. It is a call for understanding, acceptance, and validation of a learning trend that is already transforming higher education, but is often misrepresented, misunderstood, or undervalued.

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