I use this book in an online course, Intro to Literature. This course lives on a Blackboard server on some third floor air-conditioned , has been declared accessible and was the basis for a “shell” course that new faculty use when designing their own online Intro courses. This means it is supposed to be an exemplary course. Every once in awhile it gets a bit of “stress testing” by students and I realize “I ain’t so very smart.” Or at least there are unknown unknowns lurking waiting to blindside me. Let me explain.
The term ‘stress testing’ comes from engineering, medicine and financial services. Some of us have undergone a treadmill stress test where the heart and circulatory system are observed while undergoing increasing speed and incline on that evil machine. We are warned ahead of time that there is a possibility, slim but there, that we might just keel over dead as the proverbial bag of hammers. Stress can betray weakness, but it also can reveal strength. Or it might have no effect whatsoever. Financial firms might have avoided the 2008 meltdown had there been sufficient stress testing of some of the bogus financial instruments/Ponzi tools being used by banks and non-bank banks at the time.
I decided to apply a bit of stress testing during a National Writing Project conference twitter chat, #nwpam15. Below are the tweets generated from that chat.
Later we had a discussion of the event on a Google Hangout sponsored by #VConnecting.
What I did was to create the added stress of a Hackpad and invite others to join in during and after the tweetchat. The Hackpad pulled tweets, pix from tweets, editorializing gifs, and music into a startling mess of chaordic digital stew. I kept adding to it in the hopes that perhaps it might elicit a response. No one was to blame in my mind when I got no response since my whole purpose was to observe. I got no response…except from Janelle Bence who had been designated by the twitterchat jockeys to respond some way to the Hackpad. This little gem of information did not come out until we had the Google Hangout above later that afternoon.
The discussion of the stress test elicited some really insightful discussion about why there was no response (conferences are not designed to be tested in this way) and how that might change (bake “permeable boundaries” into the DNA of the conference before it starts). Without the stress test that revealed this blindspot, I don’t know if any of us would have had that revelation. I know that I would not have. I am still thinking about what this means institutionally:
- what does “permeable” mean?
- how far can it go?
- what technical tools are available that allow this to happen for as many people as possible?
- are identities and roles permeable?
- can we have degrees of permeability?
- who decides what will be permeable and how permeable?
- are the digital objects we create permeable and should they be?
All of these questions were swirling around in my own head when I got my own stress test out of the blue on my online Intro to Lit course. It brought home to roost some disturbing professional blindspots of my own.
I assign a book of short stories by Kentucky author, Chris Offutt. While he is more famous for his memoirs, this collection is top shelf modern fiction. I teach what I love. I know that is a blindspot, a cognitive bias I own. I try to switch around the course content in an attempt to obviate this problem. During last week’s Offutt assignment one my students wrote this on a Google+ community I have set up for each of my classes to share:
Here is my annotated response where I try to come to terms with the blindspot revealed during her stress test of my content.
Like most teachers, I forget that everything I ask students to do is a stress test. The proof is in whether it is good or bad stress. The joy and pain of the art of teaching is realizing that what is distress to one might be eustress to another. Here’s how Tereza responded:
I lucked up with this stress test this time. I had a resilient student with a desire to learn and know and experience. Now that this blindspot has been revealed, I begin to see the need for more stress testing generally. My own online experience is often one of iconoclasm. Perhaps I have been an unconscious stress tester my whole digital life, my role being to push and prod at the system, a white hat trying to break the blog or the twitterchat or the MOOC so that the fracture grows back even stronger. I do know this: revealing blindspots is potent learning. Thanks to everyone on the twitter chat and in the Hangout who made the stress valuable and, dare I say it, happy. Happy stress to us all. Now how do we go about making this happen?