Surviving dissertation isolation

This post was originally published in Reflections on Academic Lives: Identities, Struggles, and Triumphs in Graduate School and Beyond, edited by Staci M. Zavattaro and Shannon K. Orr, as one of several short pieces offering advice for grad students navigating the (often confusing) waters of academia. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find the book here.

As a PhD candidate in the nebulous “writing phase” of my dissertation, I am frequently offered unsolicited advice:

You know, you just need to get it out. You can make it pretty later.

Have you read [insert dense, complicated theorist here]…?

And my absolute favourite:

The best dissertation is a finished dissertation.

To be fair, much of this advice comes from people who have actually gone through the ugly doctoral process and come out alive on the other side – often even with faculty positions. And they do have many good tips about chapter structure and the revision process and how to prep for your defense. But what no one tells you, what everyone fails to mention, has nothing to do with research or analysis or formatting your references properly — but with something so much worse.

I’ve heard it said that no one talks about just how painful it is to give birth because if they did, no one would get pregnant ever again. I’m beginning to think that there is a similar cone of silence around the process of finishing a dissertation – what happens in your writing phase stays in your writing phase, so to speak. But the best defense is a good offense, so I’m breaking this weird unspoken rule and letting the big secret out so that future doctoral students might prepare better than I did: The worse part of writing your dissertation is the utter and complete isolation that it brings. 

Truly: writing up the document that will one day land you those coveted letters behind your name will make you feel totally alone. It will feel like being the lone passenger on a one-way mission to Mars, or like that poor guy who befriends a volleyball in Castaway. In the early days of your doctoral program, you may have taken classes and befriended other students. But once you’ve moved past your coursework, it can be easy to lose touch with others as you become mired in the writing process. You may even find yourself avoiding friends, family, committee members, and (especially) your supervisor in order to dodge the ever-present question: So, how’s the writing coming?

Because let’s face it: for many doctoral students, the answer is not well. And the longer it takes, the more likely you are to start feeling like perhaps there has been some major mistake: perhaps you don’t have what it takes after all, perhaps you are merely an imposter in the world of academia, a fraud, a failure, a disappointment…

And when that happens, it’s best to be prepared, so here are some (hopefully) helpful hints for surviving dissertation isolation:

First, remember that while you may feel like you’re the only inhabitant of a remote town called Dissertation Ville, you are not alone. More importantly, you are not a failure (sometimes it helps to repeat that point, or even to make a sticky note reminder to put up on your bathroom mirror).

Then, find allies. Those other students you met in your classes? They are likely feeling the same way, so be persistent about staying in touch (or reconnecting) with these people. If you are geographically isolated, connect online. There are wonderful, supportive communities out there – try #phdchat on Twitter as a start. 

Writing your dissertation doesn’t need to feel like travelling down a lonely desert road. [Photo credit: adifferentbrian: Flickr via Compfight cc]

And don’t forget about faculty. Unless you and your supervisor have some serious bad blood, this person is likely one of your best allies. In my own case, I was so used to doing everything school-related by myself that I was somewhat embarrassed to let my supervisor know that I was struggling, and I imagine that many of us who reach this level of education are similarly averse to seeking assistance. But like me, you will probably find that your supervisor is helpful and supportive (remember, they went through the same ordeal at some point). If not your supervisor, then find a committee member or other faculty member to provide some guidance and support. 

Remember that it is sometimes okay to preface a conversation with Please don’t ask about that pesky PhD thing today.

Finally, remember that it is sometimes okay to preface a conversation with Please don’t ask about that pesky PhD thing today. Most people in your life will at least respect this, even if they don’t understand it. Then, move on to other topics of discussion: movies, sports, current events – yes, these things do still exist, and it’s okay to occasionally read/watch/discuss them. 

And ultimately, remember that this too shall pass… at least, I think it will. I’ll let you know when I make it through to the other side.

Dissertation isolation: Say it ain’t so…

Three years ago, if you’d told me I would be writing a dissertation having anything to do with social media, I’d have laughed at you. Three years ago, I had just gotten a Twitter account and had used it…oh…maybe five times. Social media was a fun distraction, sure, but not much more.

Flickr photo shared by Marc_Smith under a Creative Commons ( BY) license

But for the past few days, I have been intently focused on finally getting my proverbial s*** together and finishing a draft of my dissertation which deals, in large part, with social media and digital identity. But I don’t always have the best attention span. I get distracted by many things – organizing my books, vacuuming, obsessing over how many steps my Fitbit has recorded today, and, of course, social media. Some might even say that social media, and the Internet in general, gets in the way of my productivity. And sure, sometimes it does. Did I really need to re-read that hilarious blog post about why procrastinators procrastinate for the twentieth time? Probably not (but if you haven’t read it, you really should…). Did I have to look through the trending hashtags on Twitter to learn that the odd one that I couldn’t parse was, inevitably, about more One Direction drama (I kid you not – every single time). Well, no.


And that’s a big but (no pun intended).


Social media is also a goldmine of incredible information. The vast majority of the citations in my third comprehensive exam paper, which was about digital identity, came from Twitter – well, more specifically, from what I dug up by searching for my Twitter handle + #identity in order to access the scores of articles on the subject that I had carefully curated from others’ sharing over time. And social media is the gift that keeps on giving. Today, I was writing about why it is so critical that all of us, but especially educators, speak out for social justice in online spaces, even though it is potentially risky (and, as in my case, can lead to being trolled in a not-so-nice way). And on one of my social media breaks, I came across this fantastic post by Bonnie Stewart about the way that social media shapes our world. To quote Bonnie:

“Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY.”

Thanks for the dissertation material, Bonnie!

Writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration.

So writing my dissertation has been incredibly hard, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. When I get into my groove, I am a prolific and rapid writer. But these days, I write mostly blog posts, and I find that my ability to write academically has been overtaken, in some ways, by my ability to blog. If I could blog my dissertation, I would. I’m a bit lost without the ability to hyperlink to other blogs or articles or people, and I feel that my writing suffers because of it. Because really, that’s the magic of social media, social writing, and Web 2.0: writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration. A good blog post is a good blog post because it links into a much wider web of knowledge, and it does so in a highly transparent and accessible way. Sure, we cite others in academic papers, but to access a cited work we would usually have to search for it in an academic database or – gasp – go to the library (I have helpfully linked to the Wikipedia page about libraries here in case you’ve forgotten what they are). The way we think about knowledge is changing, at least when it comes to the digital sphere: as David Weinberger said, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” I even watched this shift play out in my research. What began as an ethnographic study/discourse analysis rapidly changed into something much more collaborative. Instead of me sitting alone and analyzing my participants’ words, we sat there and picked them apart together – both their words and, at times, mine. We constructed (well, in the case of my research, deconstructed) understandings collaboratively. And the experience was so much richer because of it.

In a particularly depressing moment of Heart of Darkness, Conrad writes, “We live as we dream – alone.” In many ways, academia seems still to embrace this worldview – it might as well read, “I write my dissertation as I dream – alone.” But just as the magic of Google Drive means I will never have to edit documents alone again, the magic of social media means that I no longer have to write, read, think, or be an “expert” in isolation. Maybe it’s time academia embraced this incredible connected culture that we live in just a little bit more and took up a more social form of learning. After all, “We participate, therefore we are.”

And hey, I might even find a way to work this blog post into my dissertation.


Against willful ignorance: Why we should not be shocked by the “dire conditions” in urban schools

On Facebook this morning, I came across an article titled “Maryland Senator demanding answers after dire conditions found inside city school.” I had to check it twice, because I first thought it was an Onion article. Dire conditions? Baltimore Schools? Yeah, no kidding. You don’t say.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable...way back in 2007.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable…way back in 2007.

Conditions in Baltimore City schools are deplorable. The majority of the schools have similar “dire conditions.” I taught in both West and East Baltimore, in an elementary/middle school and in a high school. I could tell you stories for days about the dire conditions I witnessed. I’ve blogged about it, I’ve talked about it with the pre-service educators that I teach, I’ve tweeted about it … But that’s not the point here.

What angers me is not this story itself, which tells some truth. What angers me is that Bill Ferguson, the Maryland state senator who is “demanding answers,” is a Teach for America alum. A quick Google search reveals that he taught at the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy from 2005-2007. Vivien T. Thomas is located in the Francis M. Woods building, which received a rating of “poor” in the 2012 Jacobs facilities report. That school belongs to the Baltimore City Public School System, a school system with conditions that the ACLU declared to be unconstitutional in 2010. The conditions in these schools are not news to Senator Ferguson, and they are not news to anyone who has set foot in a Baltimore City school.

The floor was peeling up, and I didn't want kids to trip. I made my own repairs  rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

The metal dividing strip had come loose, and I didn’t want kids to trip or cut themselves on the sharp metal edges. I made my own repairs rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

I have no doubt that Senator Ferguson’s intentions are good. The school conditions are dire, and the community, the state, the country, and those of us who taught there should be demanding answers.

But the real story here isn’t about the conditions in Baltimore City schools. The real story is about the entrenched culture of denial surrounding the school conditions for Black children. It is about the willful ignorance surrounding the issue – until it can be leveraged politically. And it is about the refusal to acknowledge the bigger picture of systemic racism that has led to these dire conditions.

So let’s talk about that bigger picture. Let’s acknowledge that the unconscionable conditions in city schools are not isolated incidents, finally noticed by a state senator and only realized in July of this summer, but are instead part of the much bigger issues of the underfunding of American public schools and the school to prison pipeline. Let’s stop pretending to be shocked by stories of dead Baltimore City youth. Let’s acknowledge the police brutality and other systemic violence that people of colour have come to see as commonplace, the need for hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, and the senseless killing of countless people of colour that occurs every day.

And let’s confront this bigger picture, instead of just replacing some windows and repainting some walls.


Developing a framework for teaching open courses

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

Recently, we presented at OER15 in Cardiff, Wales, on the topic of developing a framework for open courses. In our session, we considered our experiences in facilitating MOOC type courses in order to think through and address the challenges that these types of courses present.

So first, a little background: It has been stated that there are two general categories of MOOCs: xMOOCs and cMOOCs. xMOOCs are large-scale MOOCs that often consist of video-delivered content and automated assessments. These MOOCs are often offered by institutions or by large-scale MOOC providers like edX and Coursera. cMOOCs, or Connectivist MOOCs, are network-based: they operate through a distributed pedagogy model, where the connections become as important as the content, knowledge is socially constructed by the group, and participants learn from each other. In many ways, these courses can be similar to learning on the open web: there is minimal guidance in terms of what is learned and when, and participants are instead free to engage with the course in whatever way they choose. Open boundary courses, meanwhile, are for-credit courses (such as those offered by a post-secondary institution) that are opened to the public on a non-credit basis. For instance, the ds106 Digital Storytelling course, originally based out of the University of Mary Washington, is also offered as an open boundary course. If you were to imagine the spectrum of openness in courses, it might look something like this:

Open Boundary Courses

For the purposes of this post, we take the term “open course” to include both open boundary courses and MOOCs (particularly cMOOCs).

Much of our insight into open courses comes from our work with three large, open courses: EC&I 831 (Social Media and Open Education), #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC. The latter two courses were both cMOOCs; #ETMOOC (a MOOC about educational technology) ran in the winter of 2013, and #DCMOOC (a MOOC about digital citizenship sponsored by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education) ran in the spring of 2014. EC&I 831, meanwhile, is a graduate level class at the University of Regina that was developed and then taught for the first time in 2007 and has run every year since. While the course has a core group of for-credit graduate students, it is also open to anyone – classes are held online and the link to the web-conferencing platform is tweeted out each week, so that anyone is free to join any given session. EC&I 831 is not a MOOC; instead, it is considered an open-boundary course, and it’s generally seen as one of the forerunners for the MOOC movement.

One of the common features of MOOCs is the high drop-out rate, which occurs for a variety of reasons. The drop-out rate is not in itself necessarily a negative: it may mean that students have the freedom to try out different courses (or other educational experiences) until they find one that fits their needs, or it may mean that students are choosing to audit only particular portions of courses rather than completing them in their entirety. However, some students drop out or engage very minimally with open courses not due to lack of interest or fit with their own needs but because the format and ethos of cMOOCs can be difficult to navigate for those who have not spent much time learning on the open web. However, with EC&I831, #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC, we have seen a significant level of engagement, persistence, and follow-through with the courses. Perhaps more importantly, many of the participants have stayed engaged with the course community and gone on to become leaders in their own networks; for instance, former participants in #ETMOOC organized their own 2nd year anniversary chat. So the question is, how do we take the strategies that led to positive and lasting outcomes in these courses and apply them to other large, open courses in order to help make participants’ experiences more positive, relevant, and beneficial in the long term?

Below, we identify seven elements of course design that we have used in our own open courses. Then, we suggest possible strategies for building a framework for open courses that might lead to more positive student involvement, in the hopes that these favourable experiences will lead students to continue learning and connecting in open, networked spaces.

  1. Semi-structured course environment

The challenge: The incredible choice of online spaces and tools can be overwhelming to those just starting to learn on the open web.

The strategy: In the open courses that we have facilitated, we help students to gradually ease into the greater digital world through the creation of a variety of interconnected course environments with varying levels of privacy. This can help to gradually “thin the walls” of the more traditional closed classroom environment:

Thinning the Walls

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write: “The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides almost unlimited and resources to learn about anything. The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries.” Keeping this in mind, we design the course environment as a bounded space for learning how to learn that exists within the larger space of the open web; we do this through a combination of different tools (small tools, loosely joined). While our use of specific tools has evolved and changed over time, what is important is the way in which the chosen tools work together in combination to ensure a particular set of affordances. In the current iteration, for instance, we allow for private interactions in a “safe” space by creating a Google Plus community for each of our courses, where students can pose questions, engage in discussion, and share resources. As well, we encourage students to develop their own spaces on the web, but we also employ mechanisms to keep these spaces interconnected in order to create a structure of support. For instance, students create their own personal blogs or ePortfolios, but these sites are aggregated using the FeedWordPress plugin so that posts also appear on a central course hub. Additionally, students develop individual Twitter accounts but remain connected through the creation of a Twitter list and the use of a course hashtag (for instance, #eci831). In this way, students are eased into the open web, but at the end of the course they are left with their own individually controlled spaces, which they can continue to use and expand or, alternatively, choose to delete entirely. The ability for students to continue to grow the networks that they have begun to build in class is markedly different from what happens with a traditional Learning/Content Management System (LMS/CMS), where the course is archived at the end of the semester and students start back at zero.


  1. Interest-based curriculum

The challenge: The overwhelming array of information available online can make it difficult to find a place to begin or a path to take.

The strategy: Martin Weller describes the wealth of knowledge online as a potential “pedagogy of abundance.” For learners who are more used to a structured curriculum, this can make getting started a challenge. However, learning is most meaningful when it is interest-based. So, in our courses, we want to avoid setting a strict scope and sequence type curriculum; instead, we encourage students to let their interests become the catalyst for learning. One particularly successful strategy has been the inclusion of student learning projects in our courses, where students are expected to learn a skill of their choice using online resources and then document the learning process. This allows students to choose a high interest topic, but it also ensures that all students are documenting their learning in a similar manner, which can provide a social glue as students discuss the methods and tools use for documentation (which is a digital literacy skill in itself). As well, weekly synchronous video conferencing sessions and weekly Twitter chats can keep students from feeling lost or disconnected.

  1. Assessment as learning/connection

The challenge: A lack of check-ins/endpoints in online learning can make the learning process seem nebulous.

The strategy: Traditional for-credit courses include assignments that allow students to demonstrate their learning; for instance, in EC&I 831, students create summaries of learning that let them to express their learning using the tools of the open web. These summaries also allow students to practice designing and sharing media in the collapsed context of our networked world, often leading to serendipitous feedback from others outside of the course. Although MOOC-type open courses do not have the same sort of endpoint (as the hope is that learning will continue beyond the course), implementing a similar type of checkpoint – a summary-type assessment that allows students to put tools and theory into practice – can be helpful to allow students to consolidate their learning as well as to connect further through sharing and participating in their newly build networks.

  1. Instructor support

The challenge: The large student-instructor ratio in large open courses can lead to students feeling lost and unsupported as they explore new forms of media.

The strategy: We’ve found that in large courses, it is helpful to have a variety of orientation sessions (for instance, a session on blogging or on using Twitter) in order to help students gain a level of comfort with course tools. This is especially important because students come to courses with an increasingly wide range of digital literacies and technological competencies; while students will work towards attaining a level of digital fluency throughout the course, these introductory sessions give students the basic skills they need in order to access the learning experience of the course.

As well, although we design courses to encourage a high level of peer feedback (or even feedback from others not officially participating in the course), it is important to ensure that all students are getting regular feedback and suggestions for improvement so that they are able to continue to grow; thus, it is helpful to ensure that the facilitation team include members who act as “community developers,” individuals who can comment on student blogs, interact with participants on Twitter and Google Plus, and address any questions that arise; in #ETMOOC, for instance, having a group of co-conspirators meant that the work of community development and course leadership did not fall on a single individual.

  1. Student community

The challenge: Newcomers to online networks can often feel isolated and alone.

The strategy: In a graduate course like EC&I 831, there is a core group of for-credit students with similar aims, and this creates an immediate, built-in Personal Learning Network (PLN). But in larger MOOCs, this core group doesn’t exist, and so facilitators need to work to build a student community through group-building activities. For instance, in #ETMOOC, facilitators organized and created a lipdub video in which course participants could take part. In another recent course, students started a Fitbit group, which allowed course participants to bond over a shared activity. Activities that help to create a sense of presence in the course (such as asking participants to write an introductory blog post or having students create short videos of themselves using a tool like Flipgrid) can help to build a sense of community. Importantly, such community-building activities also help students to build their own PLNs while adding an increased level of personal accountability that can encourage participants to continue with the course.

  1. Digital identity creation

The challenge: Missteps and mistakes can be amplified in digital spaces, where footprints are permanent and easily searchable.

The strategy: In a world where online reputation is becoming increasingly important, it is critical that we take control of our digital presence so that others don’t do so for us. As well, in order to participate more fully in MOOCs in particular and in a PLN in general, it’s important to declare oneself; what we get from our networks depends largely upon what we contribute to them, and it’s difficult to contribute without a digital presence. That might mean creating a blog, developing a Twitter presence, or engaging on other social networking sites. Supporting the development of students’ digital identities as part of open courses will not only help them to network as part of the course, but it will also serve them well in the long term.

  1. Democratizing the web

The challenge: Those new to digital spaces can be hesitant to voice their beliefs publicly due to the nature of digital artefacts, which can easily be shared, remixed, and taken out of context.

The strategy: As digital citizens, we have a responsibility to keep the web democratic and allow for equitable expression, but it can be difficult for non-dominant views to be voiced online due to fear of criticism or other negative repercussions. However, silence can often be taken as complicity, so we need to support students in open courses as they delve into potentially controversial topics, by fostering a community in which students feel more confident expressing viewpoints with the support of a group, and by using our own digital identities to model what it looks like to speak out for social justice issues online.

Although the nature of MOOCs and open courses can present difficulties for those who are new to learning on the open web, these strategies can help to give participants a foothold in the online world, which can, in turn, increase their chances for a meaningful experience that paves the way for a lifetime of learning.

Still waiting for Superman: White saviors and systemic racism in Baltimore City Schools

This post was jointly written with Maggie Elwell and also appears on Maggie’s blog.

“No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set them free bedraggled and penniless, pit them, without assistance in a hostile environment, against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines, begun parallel and left alone, can never touch.”

– Randall Robinson

“If she was a racist, would she be teaching our kids?” As if that were the most obvious thing in the world.

Maggie: A student’s mother called the school office with the accusation that I was racist. My only thought was, This is insane! Everybody who knew me would’ve defended me. Racists hate, and I didn’t hate anyone; racists use the n-word, and I would never; racists are killers, and I was a teacher. The mother, the principal, the student, and I met in my classroom. After the mother spoke about my behavior towards her son, the principal asked, “If she was a racist, would she be teaching our kids?” As if that were the most obvious thing in the world. 

Katia: I applied to Teach for America in my last year of university. I made it to the second round, a phone interview: a TFA alum drilled me on my beliefs about education and the achievement gap. And then she asked what I would do if, even after meeting with parents and creating student contracts and doing home visits, I had a student who still did not show up regularly at school. I said I’d do what I could, but in some cases even my best efforts might not be enough to get the student back on track. Silence. I knew, at that moment, that I wouldn’t get into the program, although at that point I didn’t know why.

Maggie: At least three courses I took to get a Masters degree in teaching required viewing and writing reflections about Freedom Writers, a film in which a pearl-wearing, pony-tailed Hilary Swank succeeds in changing the lives of her underprivileged, tattooed, angry but lovable students through her dedication to their education. None of my professors promoted this film as anything other than inspirational; no deconstruction of the movie took place. On the third or fourth viewing, after some extracurricular reading and conversation, I asked one of my professors about the problems of perpetuating the white savior myth, and she responded that I should reconsider my educational approach in more uplifting terms.

Katia: I spent two years in a Masters program designed specifically for teachers working in Baltimore City Schools. Two years. And I didn’t hear the term “systemic racism” once. I wasn’t given the works of Joe Kincheloe, or Gloria Ladson-Billings, or Paulo Freire to read. Lisa Delpit was mentioned once in passing, and at some point we were told to read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities so that (I can only assume) we could be shocked and outraged by the horrible treatment of black children in American public schools – as if we weren’t witnesses to this story every single day. We didn’t even have drinking water some of the time, because the pipes were lead, and the water coolers were only sometimes filled. But systemic racism? Unheard of.

Maggie: I tried hard to believe the white savior myth, before I knew enough to call it that. Even while I recognized that I wasn’t going to be a teacher who never resented the amount of time and mental energy it took, I did think that I should. But I wasn’t close to being a decent educator until I allowed doubt and questions to mess up that kind of thinking. The idea that everything would be fine as long as you worked hard fell away; a lot of my students were not fine, and neither I nor “hard work” could help them. That I had a racial and gendered identity that impacted my approach to the classroom, and that in fact that identity made me part of the problems I wanted to solve, became known to me. Thoughts of myself as removed from or above the city’s situation left me as a result.

We believed, we were taught to believe, that we could make a difference.

Katia: On the last day of our summer training, we presented inspirational skits. One group performed Taylor Mali’s spoken word piece. That was how we felt – like real teachers, like people who could do the things that Mali did, save and inspire our students like Mali had. But who were we, at the age of 22, to walk into classrooms that September with six weeks of training and some experience in a summer school classroom under our belts? We believed, we were taught to believe, that we could make a difference. The motto of the program at that time was: “The need is real. The time is now. Teach.” I still have the t-shirt with those words on the front; the back is signed by the members of our cohort.

* * * * *

Last week, we received an email from the Baltimore-based alternative certification program through which we’d both earned our teaching certificates. We hadn’t received a single email from the program since we finished our coursework six years ago (not to mention the fact that they rarely contacted us while we were in the program), but when the Freddie Gray protests turned violent and began to garner media attention, the head of the program sent a message to all alumni.

Taken at face value, the email called for teachers to give students the space to voice their concerns about the protests and about the injustice in their communities. In fact, many people would call the email well-intentioned. But there’s a forgiveness in that word that is part of the problem – it is easy to excuse small acts that serve to perpetuate systemic racism, because this allows us to distance ourselves: “They didn’t mean it in a bad way,” “they’re not bad people.”  But the language of the email tells a more complex story.

That conversations about race and inequity and injustice do not occur on a daily basis, and are not encouraged to occur on a daily basis, is at the root of the problem.

We were told, “These are conversations you may never have expected.” Seriously? Yes, seriously: further evidence of the lack of critical engagement with racism and economic injustice that plagued our certification program and our own thinking as young white educators. In a school system like Baltimore’s, systemic racism is writ large on the broken furnaces and cockroach-infested rooms and leaking ceilings of the school buildings, where student data is posted in the hallways and pep rallies are held to build excitement for upcoming standardized tests: the American Civil Liberties Union actually declared the poor condition of school buildings in Baltimore to be unconstitutional. That conversations about race and inequity and injustice do not occur on a daily basis, and are not encouraged to occur on a daily basis, is at the root of the problem.

And we were told to help students to “use nonviolence to demand justice in their community.” It was hard to ignore the underlying message: “It’s fine for your students to be angry, but please make sure they express their anger in the ‘appropriate way.’” To be clear, we are not in support of violence, but there are many articles circulating at the moment that present a more nuanced perspective on the call for peaceful protest (see, for instance, this comic, this video, and this article).

And then the kicker. Attached to the email were resources to help us with these difficult conversations: resources for how to talk about Ferguson. Ferguson? Now? The events of months ago? Should we not have been talking about Ferguson when it was happening? Why were we being sent these resources only now, when the situation had hit too close to home, when our schools had been directly impacted? Why were we only asked to have these uncomfortable conversations when it was no longer possible to avoid them?

Underlying the email and our reflections is the prevailing story of racism, the one that says that we should not normally talk about race, that we should be colourblind, that the idea of meritocracy works for everyone, that the answer to injustice is to protest according to the rules of those in power. And there is the story that pits the good (white) teacher and her students against the world, or the story that teachers should be superheroes like Taylor Mali, teachers whose dedication to the “underprivileged” youth of America knows no bounds. These stories insist that the most important factor in a child’s success is the teacher. But these stories are red herrings: they allow us to pretend that systemic racism does not exist by pinning the responsibility for the “achievement gap” (in itself a problematic term) on the shoulders of the individual teachers and their students. Yes, teachers can play an important role in the lives of their students. But putting all hope on individuals means that we, as a society, do not have to face up to the systemic inequality in our educational system and our society.

We need to accept that racism is pervasive in society and see our own complicity in the structures of privilege and marginalization. We do not need to accept “well-intentioned” oppressive language and actions, or to excuse acts of racism based on a person’s “good character.” We need to discuss these issues long before they explode in the media and become impossible to ignore. We need to speak out alongside, and not for, those whose voices our privilege often seeks to suppress.

And we need to do so now.

Developing Teacher Candidates in a Networked World

This post, co-authored with Alec Couros, originally appeared on the Canadian Education Association Blog.

Recently, pre-service teachers in two of our classes at the Faculty of Education,University Regina, participated in #saskedchat, a weekly Twitter chat hosted by and for Saskatchewan educators. Although the chat typically runs on Thursday nights, organizers scheduled a “special edition” of the chat on the topic of supporting new teachers. Almost instantly, our students were immersed in a global discussion about education – and what’s more, they were instantly connected to a large network of practicing teachers who were able to provide them with advice and tips for success. But while the Twitter chat was an enriching experience for our students, participation in events like these is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing new teachers to learn and flourish in a digital world.

As the field of education changes rapidly, it’s no longer enough for faculties of education to deliver static, technical courses on the methods of teaching. Instead, we need to help pre-service teachers develop the skills and understandings that will allow them to navigate and succeed in today’s global classrooms. And perhaps even more importantly, we need to help future teachers build the personal learning networks that will provide both the support system and continuous professional development opportunities needed to become and remain successful educators.

As instructors tasked to take on these challenges, we have focused on a number of key areas that support students’ successful entry into these new digital spaces. We’ve shared and described a few of these considerations below.


Today’s young people are growing up in a media-rich and connected culture that is fundamentally different than it was even a decade ago. Thanks to the growing trend of posting ultrasound pictures and pregnancy selfies, astaggering 30% of children have a digital footprint before they are even born, and the average digital birth of children is at six months of age. Technology has altered every stage of life: it shapes the way we meet, how we communicate, our intimate relationships, the way we mourn, even our deaths.

If technology has shaped and altered every aspect of society, then learning is no different. Unfortunately, much of what we do in schools hasn’t changed to respond to these shifts in culture – many educators continue to teach the way they were taught and try to keep the digital world out of the classroom. But for today’s students, online and offline life is inseparable. Teachers need to understand the reality of students’ digital lives in order to make education relevant and engaging for today’s young people by bringing the digital into the classroom.


If we want teachers to open their classrooms to the world, we need to model effective and appropriate uses of connected spaces: both new and experienced teachers should have opportunities to see how lead learners interact in networks for professional learning. For instructors working with pre-service teachers, this means demonstrating appropriate interactions in spaces such as Twitter (as in our introductory #saskedchat example) or modeling the curation of a professional digital identity through an About.Me page or an academic blog. In the field, principals can model appropriate digital presence through the creation and maintenance of a professional social media presence, like Chris Lehmann’s Twitter account or Tony Sinanis’ weekly video updates.

Even those in the upper levels of educational leadership should be modeling what it looks like to learn and lead online; for example, Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver School District, uses blogging to model transparency, open leadership, and lifelong learning.

Of course, in order to demonstrate high levels of connected learning, instructors (and other lead learners) must be able to leverage their own existing online networks. For example, in order to support our students and practicing teachers, we were able to tap into Alec’s considerable personal learning network to create a collaborative document of writing prompts for pre- and in-service educators. This means that lead learners must actively work to build their own networks so that they can be effective role models and collaborators.


Just as instructors and other lead learners must demonstrate appropriate online interactions, they must also help new and experienced teachers understand the pedagogical value of networks and tools. In our classes, pre-service teachers research, create resource sites for, and present on various apps and programs, being sure to tie them into the curriculum (for instance, this site that discusses several apps to support language arts and this one that explores the use of iPads for inclusive education). These future teachers also have the chance to experience what it’s like to learn in a connected environment through our own use of various social media platforms and other tools in our post-secondary courses. For instance, we model the use of open learning and connected teaching throughcourse blog hubs and class Twitter hashtags, through the use of Google Plus communities and course sites for communication, and through the incorporation of Google Docs for professional collaboration.

Pre-service teachers must also be provided with rich exemplars from the field, showing practicing teachers’ innovative uses of technology to create connected classrooms that support 21st century learning. For instance, we introduce our students to the Global Read Aloud, Quadblogging, and Mystery Skype. We also discuss thepedagogical possibilities of Twitter and point to hashtags like #comments4kids (where teachers can post student blogs and ask for feedback from their online networks) or teacher-created resources that support the use of technology in the classroom (like this tweet about how to comment on blogs, shared by one of our graduate students).


Along with these examples of great digital pedagogy and online interaction, we need to prepare pre-service teachers to be great connected leaders themselves by helping them learn and create using different elements of digital literacies and pedagogies. In our classes, students explore what it means to take part in “anytime, anywhere” digital-age education by undertaking a Learning Project where they choose a skill to learn entirely online. They also create summaries of learning that highlight the skills and networked literacies they have learned throughout the semester. Additionally, since we want these new teachers to model appropriate online presence in their future classrooms, we ask our students to build professional e-portfolios in order to take control of their digital identities (some students even choose to buy their own domains) as they work to become digital residents rather than simply digital visitors.


As we encourage pre-service and practicing teachers to bring the digital world into their classrooms, we must be sure to address oppression and inequity as they play out in online spaces. On a technical level, we need to help educators understand the legal aspects of terms of service agreements and the implications of big data when asking students to enter online worlds in their school work. Additionally, pre-service teachers are often hesitant to speak out about “touchy” subjects online, fearing that it might affect their future careers, but this type of silence on the part of educators creates a dangerous hidden curriculum that announces that these topics are unimportant. We need to have frank and open discussions about how gender or racial inequity can be both reinscribed and deconstructed online (for example, interrogating the GamerGate hashtag, discussing the events in Ferguson and the subsequent Black Twitter movements like #BlackLivesMatter, or examining the rise of #IdleNoMore). We also need to provide opportunities for students to reflect on these topics in digital spaces both through course assignments and by providing support for student initiatives (such as the StarsRegina site set up by pre-service teachers to create a hub for information about anti-oppressive education). And as lead learners, we need to model the importance of having these discussions out in the open.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done if we want to prepare both new and existing educators to teach in ways that take up the incredible affordances of our global community and digital spaces. But there are also so many inspiring examples of teachers, principals, and other lead learners doing great things online – we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s already being done around the world. What amazing things have you seen in your own learning community, and how are you helping the next generation of educators to be connected future leaders in our field?

Connect with Alec and Katia on Twitter to continue the conversation.