Why I Teach

This is my post for http://whydoyouteach.wordpress.com

I never wanted to be a teacher.

I’m from a family of teachers: parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents… my parents’ friends were teachers, half of my childhood friends became teachers. Teaching was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do. It seemed so… predictable. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I didn’t want to teach. It was something I actively resisted; I transferred from my first degree (music and performance) to something else because I knew if I stayed at music college I’d likely end up teaching.

I did NOT want to be a teacher.

So I left music college and started a Linguistics degree – a good move as it turns out, as it introduced me to multiple disciplines including phonetics and speech synthesis, formal semantics and AI, anthropology, sociolinguistics… the list goes on. When it came to my intensive project, I had such a fantastic time measuring hundreds of samples looking for 10msec differences in the length of ‘a’ in 4 words in various English accents (yes, really) that I realised I wanted to carry on with research; to always be learning. I also wanted to carry on making things for the web (which was my sideline). Luckily, I came across a research  post that allowed me to do both. Best of all, it involved NO teaching, just pure R&D.

Sixteen years later, here I am: teaching.

So how the hell did that happen?!

By accident, in all honesty. An academic in the department passed away just before the autumn semester in 2000, and I was asked to deliver his multimedia modules (they were desperate – term was only a week away) and that’s how it started.

I spent the next 5 years delivering a range of multimedia programming modules to students who were not much younger than I was. Although it was fairly mechanistic as I was told what to teach, I enjoyed it – and I think they did too. We had the same cultural references and knowledge of the Manchester social/music scene and I suppose it worked well partly because I understood them and could create assignments that they could relate to.

But I still didn’t want to be a teacher. Not really.

In 2005 I started using blogs and wikis with students in Europe as part of an EU project based around international student support, and this led to a Eureka moment. When I say ‘Eureka moment’, I mean that it was this shift towards open, connected platforms (where multiple audiences could engage in dialogue – to varying degrees of (in)formality) that led to my theoretical knowledge (of social constructivism) being transformed into a powerful experience; deep, authentic and meaningful. I wasn’t just describing the concept; i was feeling it. Through using open, web-based platforms we really were moving towards a culture of reflection, self-expression and participation. I was learning more about students as individuals, rather than just as cohorts taking particular courses. I became interested in learner identities, and found myself taking an increasingly holistic approach to education as these ‘web 2.0’ technologies allowed us to blur the boundaries between public and private, between education, home and work, between formal and informal learning. I had been using Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry model in my work on the EU project, and found that social presence was enhanced significantly when using Web 2.0 platforms. They would write about how they felt in a personal blog more readily than they would in a standard discussion forum specifically set up to discuss ‘the course’. Most importantly, they weren’t just communicating with their peers and their tutor; they were potentially communicating with the world, presenting themselves as individuals with hopes and fears and dreams – not just as students in formal education.

Social presence is the ability of learners to project their personal characteristics into the community of inquiry, thereby presenting themselves as ‘real people.’” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003:23)

The idea of ‘real people’ is key here. Once I started using these platforms in my own teaching, my curriculum changed. The starting point wasn’t the syllabus. The starting point was the individual. I’ve moved from ‘teaching’ multimedia programming into something that’s much harder to define. My courses involve transmedia production, digital scholarship, networked learning, with smatterings of cultural and media theory (Keegan, 2013). I’m still based in Computing, Science and Engineering, but fortunately there is growing recognition of the value of moving beyond disciplinary boundaries. Through connecting with others and developing our networks, we’re more open to opportunity and serendipity and multiple perspectives. I’d describe my ‘teaching’ now as based on learning to learn, questioning assumptions and opening minds to new ways of seeing; a pedagogy of being which is far more indebted to Freire than Skinner.

Connected learning has led to connected teaching which has led to connected courses. Nowadays i’m just as likely to work alongside colleagues on the other side of the world, connecting our learners through open, social platforms in projects that cross levels and disciplines (Cochrane et. al., 2014). I’m constantly learning from and challenged and inspired by those i’m connected to through online networks. The same goes for my students; they challenge me, they inspire me and I learn from them. I’m aware I may be eulogising here, and ‘free-range’ learning and teaching might not be for everybody. However, I can honestly say that now that my courses have become more like unbounded communities of inquiry where we go on a journey together, often into the unknown, I’m genuinely thankful to be ‘teaching’.

Because to teach is to learn together.

When I sat down to write this post I made a list of the reasons why I teach. It’s a long list. It made me realise that while I may have started teaching for reasons that were largely instrumental and accidental, it’s now become who I am.

Later today, we’ll be launching the first unit in Connected Courses: Why We Need a Why. For the kick-off, Mike Wesch will be in conversation with Cathy Davidson and Randy Bass contemplating the purpose of higher education.

Why do we do what we do?

What’s our CORE reason for teaching a specific class?

As a companion ‘make’ for this unit, we want people to share their WHY – specifically, Why Do You Teach? We’d love you to contribute short videos and images that we can pool together into a video like Mike’s A Vision of Students Today – except this time it’s us; faculty.

So have a think. Make a list. Pick one. Pick more than one. It’s always good to remind ourselves why we do what we do.

To find out more about how to contribute, come on over to http://whydoyouteach.wordpress.com

Something for #whyiteach

A post shared by Helen Keegan (@heloukee) on


Cochrane, T., Antonzak, L., Keegan, H., Narayan, V. (2014). Riding the wave of BYOD: developing a framework for creative pedagogies. Research in Learning Technology. Available at: http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/24637. Date accessed: 13 Sep. 2014.

Garrison, Randy & Terry Anderson, (2003). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice (p. 23).

Keegan, H. (2013). Emerging Pedagogies. In: Fraser, P. and Wardle, J. (Ed) Current Perspectives in Media Education – Beyond the Manifesto. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 128-144. http://usir.salford.ac.uk/29556/

A new academic year: global, connected, creative – and not (quite) a MOOC

So, teaching starts next week – and yes, I’m excited. Been working on a new MSc module that will essentially be more of a class research project looking based around Spreadable Media (challenging the notion of ‘virality’ following Henry Jenkins et. al.). I think it could be a great way to be both hands-on creative and scholarly in approach, and for learners to develop a really deep understanding of networks, audience, culture – and of course, the social web.

However, semester 2 is going to be full-on in terms of teaching. I’ll have around 100 students on the Social Tech module, and there are so many things I want to do, amazing connections and projects to pursue – old and new – and it’s really exciting but also rather overwhelming. Having to wave goodbye to the possibility of being able to regularly engage with, and comment on, student blogs is quite a wrench (although in all honesty, following 70+ last semester really stretched me to the max…).

SO, I want to carry on developing our current model-which-has-no-name. I’m not sure what it is – it’s not a MOOC, but it’s certainly pretty open, multi-disciplinary, multi-level and networked, and builds on existing communities of practice and the mentoring that has emerged over the past 6 years (staff and ex-students -> current students). Most importantly, it’s creative, occasionally anarchic and relatively ad hoc (it would be wrong to not give a shout out to #ds106 at this point – #DS106!) – which is probably the best way to describe the way things work with our Social Tech modules…

For the past couple of years I’ve been working with @thomcochrane @mediendidaktik @marett @MaxMobile and a whole host of other people around the globe in a community of practice where we’ve had our students working together on creative social tech projects that cross disciplines, levels, time and space. I wrote about one of them here. However, to work on several international collaborations (which are essentially modules in themselves) at one time with 100 learners – hmm. Quite the challenge, unless I change the way I do things…

One of the difficulties when working on these types of projects is not so much navigating the timezones (although very early-morning/late-night hangouts when working on a few of these projects at a time does lead to a sensation of permanent jetlag…), but the staggered semester dates. However, we’ve decided to re-frame this, and so we’re now looking at the ‘tag-team model’ of education: the projects never end, as there is always a cohort to carry on, and lead into the next group, and when they overlap that’s great – that’s where the genuine collaboration happens.

I was recently most heartened to read about Anne Balsamo’s new DOCC: (Distributed Online Collaborative Course) – a project that ‘uses technology to enable interdisciplinary and international conversation while privileging situated diversity and networked agency.’ I’m a huge fan of Anne’s work (reviewed her book ‘Designing Culture’ last year, and have been recommending it to anybody with ANY kind of interest in interdisciplinarity ever since). This is the kind of model that I’m moving towards – globally connected, but with each cohort grounded with their respective institution (accreditation, QA, etc. etc.)

Alongside this, one of the (many) magical moments of 2012 was when some students who weren’t involved in ELVSS (the international mobile film collaborations) approached me at the end of July (yes, the SUMMER HOLIDAYS) with a brilliant idea for a film which required them to be paired up with ELVSS students in New Zealand – they set up a Google Doc, threw ideas around, and filming will start soon. Bear in mind, this is purely interest/passion-driven, nothing to do with an assessed module, but a genuine desire to create with people across the globe. This is the way I want things to go.

Traditionally, we deliver modules/courses, neatly chunked into 12 weeks, with units of assessment, leading to grades etc. and that’s the way things are (generally) done. I’m not saying scrap all of that, but I do think that modules are best served as springboards to other things. Increasingly, students are connecting across levels and cohorts through Twitter and now we have ex-students getting together with current students, undergrads coming to postgrad classes (and vice versa) as they’ve connected online and have a genuine interest in getting involved in other groups/further curricula outside of their taught modules (must give another shout-out to @ugfl and @watersidestudio at this point!). Obviously hashtags play a huge role in developing connections in this learning ecosystem, but it’s this move towards interest-driven projects, facilitated by network connections that really excites me.

So, the final – possibly serendipitous – piece of jigsaw (time will tell) was tonight’s Google Hangout with @courosa, @cogdog and others to talk about the #etmooc that Alec wants to set-up/explore. This was an initial meeting where we threw ideas around, and I must say it was great meeting Lenandlar Singh, who is a MOOC aficionado (as a student) and getting his perspective, alongside Valeria Lopes and @seani – always great to meet new people ☺.

Whether or not this goes anywhere (i’m sure Alec will make it work – he’s the ultimate networked teacher – i’m just not sure i’ll be able to be involved long-term due to all these other projects), it was a great convo, and I went away feeling excited by the possibilities of developing MOOC-like initiatives that aren’t really MOOCs – which is when we started talking about ‘un-moocs’. Alec went straight off and registered several ‘unmooc’ domains, and it all feels rather exciting…

Increasingly, educators are connecting; networks grow and overlap; we’re connecting diverse groups of students across the globe through both ad-hoc informal projects, and more formal approaches where they are assessed/accredited by their own institutions while working together on a common brief. It’s exciting and potentially rather messy.

I’d really love to know what you think – is it practical? How to cope with multiple projects where (for example) G+ hangouts at all hours of day and night are integral to the experience? Should we set up an informal ‘swap shop’ where our students can take courses from elsewhere, but are assessed from their home institution? For instance, I can easily imagine some kind of ‘virtual exchange’ with #ds106. But the burning question for me is: what the hell is this, and does it even need to have a name?