Online platforms: Learning as one goes vs. polished & stable appearance

Recently I posted the following on a course blog (which is a new feature I’m experimenting with this semester):

You will notice that the appearance of the blog has changed and might wonder: Why didn’t the instructors get feedback before going live so the appearance of the online materials could be polished and then stable once the course started?–After all, there are enough “rooms” to explore in the “house” of the online materials without risking having any student feeling that they were in a different house from the one they entered the day before.

Along the same lines of completing the “beta” stage of design and development before the class started, you heard me during class admit that some aspects of the course wiki.. weren’t strictly necessary and some (e.g., a lack of a sidebar menu) were holdovers from the past or compromises so we could use a platform not requiring my university’s login…

Let me reflect on this line of inquiry or critique:

  • One reason for not having everything polished in advance and stable through the semester is lack of time–both for development and for walking through the online materials and seeing the issues above (and others) in advance.  Even if I were to bring out the violins and describe the challenges of working at a public university in times of declining budgets, you would still be entitled to ask: Why take on a time-consuming role if you don’t have time to do things properly?
  • “Doing things properly” is a contestable concept when it comes to online platforms. I avoid the predefined proprietary platforms, such as Blackboard, for many reasons–a) Proprietary platforms suck huge amounts of money away from other university teaching-related budget items and offer little more (often less) than widely available, low-cost online platforms (such as wordpress and wikispaces); b) They require more time to learn than the widely available platforms and what is learned in designing them — and in students using them — cannot be readily transferred outside the proprietary platform. Moreover, they get changed every few years so there is a fresh learning curve and course materials have to be redesigned; c) They do not accommodate the archiving of previous students’ contributions to be made available to future students and inform their work; d) They enforce a flawed pedagogical model in which everything is modular (which is especially obvious when online students cut to the chase by looking for the assignment due without having worked through the learning that is expected before undertaking the assignment).
  • This said, the widely available online platforms keep evolving.  It makes sense to adjust the way a course uses these platforms and to accommodate student expectations (e.g., for a sidebar menu) if not doing so gets in the way of the learning.  After all, this course is not an online course; it simply makes use of online platforms to provide access to materials as well as upload and share assignments.
  • Perhaps the deepest reason for allowing modifications as one goes is that my pedagogical style involves a trade-off:  Students experience an instructor learning as he goes (with shifts and the need for clarifications that might have been avoided by more preparation), but, as compensation, students also experience an instructor who models taking stock and learning from experiences big and small (see recent post on Refractive practice and an earlier series of snapshots on “teaching/learning for reflective practice”).

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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