Critical Digital Pedagogy and the OPM

How a keynote by Sean Michael Morris inspired me to ask some questions about the online program management industry.

October 16, 2019

This blog post is inspired by a keynote by Sean Michael Morris, “After Babel: Designing for Community.”

In Morris's exquisitely crafted keynote, he asks, "Can we give online, distant and nontraditional students the journey Erik Gilbert pines for? And if we can, would that change what online learning looks like? Would that alter or confound the offerings of the OPM?"

Another way of asking this question would be:

How might an OPM built on the principles and values of critical digital pedagogy (CDP) operate?

What are those principles and values?

I'll share my understanding, and I hope those colleagues immersed in critical digital pedagogy networks expand on this description. From what I understand, a critical digital pedagogical perspective is one that puts issues of social justice, inclusion and diversity at the center of its practices. Within this tradition, the functions that universities can serve in concentrating privilege are actively opposed in the spheres of teaching and learning.

An OPM operating under the principles and values of critical digital pedagogy would perhaps take a different approach than is customarily seen in university/company partnerships to develop and run online education programs.

Within the traditional model, OPMs look to partner with universities to maximize revenues. Aligning with a school's goals and mission is undoubtedly critical to any durable school/OPM relationship. An OPM will seek to enable online initiatives where demand for these programs is not currently being served and where the resources that the OPM brings to the table (program design, instructional design, technology, marketing, student support, etc.) can be bundled or unbundled to create new online nondegree or degree programs.

An OPM operating under the values and principles of critical digital pedagogy may take revenues into account, as any business or program needs to be sustainable. However, revenues would be a means to an end -- not the ultimate goal. The purpose of a critical digital pedagogy online program management company (let's call this CDP-OPM) would be to maximize justice, inclusion and equity.

A CDP-OPM would be unlikely to pursue university partnerships that retain high student tuition costs. If such a partnership to create an online program that retains the high tuition costs of a residential program were to be pursued, the CDP-OPM would stipulate that robust scholarships and financial aid are offered.

Today, OPMs completely stay out of (to my knowledge) any internal university discussions of where surpluses generated by online programs should be allocated. The OPMs see this decision -- quite reasonably -- as not any of their business.

A CDP-OPM, however, would be up front in any negotiation and collaboration with a university that a focus on justice/inclusion/equity is inseparable from the assets they bring to any potential partnership.

This sort of CDP-OPM would only partner with universities that are committed to removing barriers for participation in online degree and nondegree programs.

Could something like a CDP-OPM exist? We are perhaps already seeing these sorts of organizations come into existence, as edX and Coursera make the pivot from MOOC providers to at-scale online degree platforms.

These organizations, one a nonprofit (edX) and the other a for-profit (Coursera), seem to be leading a trend of enabling the development and running of relatively low-cost (about $25,000) online graduate degrees. If these low-cost edX and Coursera online programs are of high quality (still an open question), and if they can bring in a more diverse pool of students who are excluded from traditional degree programs due to cost (another question), then this would seem to align well with the values of the critical digital pedagogy community.

Or maybe not. The way that edX and Coursera can achieve low costs (and hopefully greater inclusion) is through scale. Student costs can be low because the throughput of students can be high.

A core value of critical digital pedagogy is the need for a relationally based, as opposed to transactionally structured, design for education. Scale would seem to go against at least some of the core philosophies of those who place themselves in the critical digital pedagogy camp.

Can edX and Coursera built into their methods, platforms and structures an educational experience that is not only less expensive for students to participate, but that also feature the attributes that Morris highlights in his keynote?

Morris calls this "designing for community," and includes the building blocks of a) interstitial, unfacilitated learning, b) agency, meta-cognition and self-determination, c) building skills, and d) mentorship. Are these attributes amendable, or anathema, to scale?

Or is there a third way? Some method in which learning cohorts can stay small, but where student costs can be low? For instance, could an OPM extend the community college model of access, inclusion and care to the online education world? Is there an economic model that would allow a community college-focused OPM?

Reading Sean Michael Morris's keynote has pushed me to think about how the people identified with the field (or ideas) of critical digital pedagogy can come together constructively with those engaging in questions related to OPMs. It feels as if today these are different and distinct worlds, with perhaps opposing worldviews and values.

But it does not have to be this way. There may be a path to embrace both the ideas of critical digital pedagogy and affordances that are potentially enabled by university/company partnerships. Or maybe not. We will only know if we try.

Can you round out the goals and values of critical digital pedagogy and apply those ideas to the OPM world?

Do you see any overlap between these two communities, literatures and practices?


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