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Boredom is a powerful invitation to meaningful reflection, creative exploration and emotional resilience. I’ve learned this through direct observation of an elusive subject: the toddler. When bored, my 3-year-old son becomes mentally adventurous. He becomes himself.

Maybe in higher education, our students become themselves when they are bored, too. Maybe, then, boredom is something we should hope for, rather than constrain. As higher education continues to disperse across classroom, hybrid and online learning spaces, we too often respond by controlling our students’ experience of time.

In this essay, I propose boredom as a tool for the learning designer’s toolbox. I invite administrators, educators and designers to keep online education open to the reflection, creativity and resilience that come with being bored.

We must acknowledge the pedagogy of boredom.

The Stages of Toddler Boredom

My son’s boredom usually proceeds through three stages:

  1. Deprived of screen time, subject wanders aimlessly, dramatically crossing arms while huffing and whimpering.
  2. Random proximate object captures subject’s attention. Selection is arbitrary -- may include wooden blocks, Lego figures, clumps of dust, literally anything. Subject silently and patiently examines object.
  3. Subject exhibits two curious behaviors. (1) Quietly sings songs to the object, often old classics with ad hoc lyrical revisions relevant to the situation at hand. (2) Devises elaborate play scenarios involving him, the object and various other players seen and unseen.

These stages are instructive. Boredom engages higher-order cognition (imagination and creation) in ways that artificially introduced stimuli could not. In fact, when I carefully orchestrate the very same imaginative play scenarios, my son loudly and confidently rejects them on the grounds of their artifice.

His songs and made-up games help my son process his day-to-day experiences and form memories. Boredom is vital to these processes of individuation, a point captured by psychologist Vanessa Lapointe in a recent article: “Children need to sit in their own boredom for the world to become quiet enough that they can hear themselves.”

Boredom builds in my son’s developing mind the capacity for self.

My meticulously crafted and (obviously) valid study of toddler boredom raises two questions for those of us in higher education:

What might we gain when we make boredom an asset, an opportunity to dive deeper into our courses through intentional design, and not merely a variable to control?

What happens when boredom becomes a learning objective?

The Credit Hour and the Utility of Time

A droopy-eyed student slumps at the back of the lecture hall, fading out of attention to the lecturer at the front of the room. This scene is made possible by the credit hour. And it is all too conventional. (Google “college boredom” and see for yourself.) The premise of the credit hour is that learning is a transaction mediated by time. The longer you sit in class, the more you learn. This has been the principal logic of institutional higher education through the 20th century, and it shapes the rhythms of many trusted teaching and learning practices.

A mindful educator will quickly remind you that the hours per day, days per week and weeks per term a student sits in a room are not accurate measures of meaningful learning. One of the innovations of online education is its recognition that higher education can more effectively impact a larger diverse population when it relaxes its hold on physical presence in the classroom and pays closer attention to asynchronous cycles of practice and reflection.

Yet even as online education remains progressive with respect to the redistribution of educational space (across self-paced courses, asynchronous online courses, hybrid courses, flipped classrooms, MOOCs, etc.), it appears conservative -- even reactionary -- with respect to the consolidation of educational time. As if following Newton’s third law, the “best practices” of online learning respond to radical expansion of space by consciously controlling the flow and perception of time.

When we optimize lecture video duration to a research-driven six minutes, when we sequence the click patterns through an LMS to identify and eliminate confusion, when we align absolutely everything to a learning objective, we unduly constrain educational time. These measures tighten course structure to maximize the efficiency of student learning. These measures extend the credit hour’s regulatory reach from the classroom to the course schedule, from educational space to educational time.

The learning design models that have become conventional in online education visually reinforce this constraint. One of the pillars of instructional design has always been alignment: overlapping structures and redundancies ensure no cracks in the learning environment for a student’s wandering mind to slip through.

Even one of the most compelling and well respected learning design methods, the Community of Inquiry model developed by D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson and Walter Archer in their seminal 2000 article “Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education,” relies on a logic of containment to seal the learning experience within a set of overlapping controls.

It makes sense that online learning designers would be self-conscious about guiding the pathways of student attention -- the internet is consistently branded as a breeder of superfluous distraction. In education conducted online, variables must be controlled to ensure the rigor and substance of the educational experience.

But in the elegance and efficiency of our models, do we run the risk of designing away opportunities for meaningful learning? For better or worse, the boredom the credit hour invites can have productive consequences: time to wander, time to deviate, time to imagine.

And here we return to the pedagogy of boredom. Can online educators embrace unanticipated and unconstrained time more effectively? Can we harness it to deepen the educational experiences and opportunities for individuation our courses facilitate? I think we can. I think we should try.

Ultimately, the stigma of distraction -- and thus the suppression of boredom -- is an expression of the instructional ego. Both on campus and online, we see this ego in the enduring adherence to the credit hour’s lineage of containment in space and time.

The more we let go of that lineage, the more successfully we can leverage the capacities of networked online learning to help our students develop lifelong strategies for meaningful reflection, creative exploration and emotional resilience.

If a toddler can do it, why can’t we?

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