Platforms for Pedagogy I

First Installment in a Month-Long Project “Information Systems for Pedagogical Productivity”

Are you like me? A college or university instructor whose computer storage is littered with multiple copies of syllabi and lectures and slide decks? “SOC101-Lecture5-2021F.pptx,” “Lecture 7 Slides,” “Lecture 7 Slides – OUTTAKES,” “API Diagram (1),” “API Diagram (2),” etc. Is part of your brain used for remembering which files for your courses are the currently authoritative ones? A teacher proud of how you manage to integrate your references on Zotero, your slides in PowerPoint, your lectures in Google Docs, you screen captures from Snagit carefully cataloged on MyMedia, YouTube playlists for each class you teach?

There’s often real brilliance in the systems we come up with. And many of us are continually improving our workflows as we live and learn and find out about new products and gadgets. And then we have directories with names like PPOL Intro Materials (NEW). And the thing is, everyone has their own system; I don’t think I’ve ever heard an instructor say that their “system” was the same as or derived from that of some other instructor. A million instructors have a million different systems.

As brilliant as our solutions are, in all likelihood, some of us have solved some of the problems, and some have solved other of the problems; most of us still have lots of problems.

Our Pedagogical Palette

A teacher is simultaneously an author, a performer, and an experience designer. What repertoire of materials do teachers draw on in that work? At the core are two things: domain expertise and a sense – innate or learned – of pedagogical technique. But in addition to these there are a lot of things: syllabi, slide decks, videos and transcripts, images and diagrams, references and bibliographies, annotations and summaries, outlines, assignments, whole quizzes and exams and banks of questions, practice problems and solutions, lecture notes, feedback boilerplate, handouts, descriptions of learning outcomes, workbooks, simulations, stories, illustrations, and examples.

How do we keep track of all this stuff? Most of us store things in hierarchical directories. If we’re good, we name things wisely making them easier to identify without having to open them and all our stuff is on one machine or perhaps in the cloud and synced to all our devices. But even if we pull that off, there is ample opportunity for consternation. Is the top level organization in a course the weeks or modules of the course or do we organize by genre (slide decks in one directory, videos in another? Is it redundant for the names of all objects include a course identifier if they are stored in a directory that names that course? Should directories contain only materials that are actively in use to remain uncluttered or should they be full archives of what I have produced for this unit? How to account for the fact that some things are files on my computer, some things (e.g., videos) are on my account on platforms like YouTube, other things are just links to things on other people’s accounts or bookmarks of websites? How do I keep track of documents I have PDFs of and and bibliographical listings for? DO I have a PDF of that?

The question here is not merely one of archival integrity, but also of creativity and performance. By performance I mean me teaching a course right now. By creativity I mean me conceiving, designing, and building a course. The painter who has an enviable array of tubes of paint in their storage room does not have an enviable array of colours with which to paint. The colours they have to paint with are the ones squeezed out and mixed on their palette. The question is not one of archiving, but rather of making the archive as fully available to the creator as possible. And I need to use as little of my brain as possible for the keeping to hand and mind of the contents of my pedagogical palette.

Seeing What You are Doing

In a video lecture from long ago (2012) Bret Victor enunciated a principle: creators need an immediate connection to what they create. He goes on to show some tools he developed that allow coders and visual designers to have an immediate connection to what they create. I’ve interpreted Victor’s principle as arguing that the creator should not use their brain to simulate the medium in which they are creating. A painter would not think up a set of brush stroke instructions, fully imagine what their effect would be, and then implement these on canvas. A programmer should not have to simulate the computer and compiler they are using as they write code. And designers should not simulate the world and the users for the things they design; instead, they build prototypes and let the world have its say.

This is the world I imagine for the teacher. We should have synoptic access to our repertoires, our pedagogical palette, and have an immediate connection to the things we are creating.