Meeting the Minds – Dr. Jon Dron

Marie: You’re an award winning professor for a Teaching Fellowship? What do you think were the forefront variables that led to you being the recipient?

Dr. Dron: I was among the relatively early recipients of a National Teaching Fellowship, a lifelong award given yearly by the Higher Education Academy in the UK to a small selection of those nominated by their universities as outstanding teachers. I was the first one ever to receive the award from my then-university but I was no more deserving of it than a great many others who were at least as good or better than me as teachers.

I am quite proud of it, though it did seem a bit unfair and slightly arbitrary then. It still does. It was good for me though. My university’s faith in me, their nomination, and the support they gave, was a great boost to my confidence in what I was trying to achieve. I had, until then, always felt on the fringes of educational practice and did things that, though I thought they made sense and could back them up with firm research and theory, were not readily accepted by some of my colleagues. The award, along with a few nods here and there for my research and the support of colleagues that I am in awe of here at AU, has helped me to feel more assured that I am at least on a sensible path. People are more inclined to at least listen to what I have to say now, even if they still disagree sometimes.

Marie: Everyone wants to know, at least by the end of this interview: What classes are you teaching and for which ones are you the course designer?

Dr. Dron: I’m running six courses right now. Four of these I designed ?myself? (though course design at AU is always a team effort so it would be wrong of me to claim full authorship?we work as a team, not as auteurs here): at the undergraduate level these are Web Programming (COMP 266), Web Server Management (COMP 470) and Social Aspects of Games (COMP 282); at graduate level Enterprise Information Management (COMP 602). I’m also running two courses on games (COMP 283) and green computing (COMP 635) designed by others. I am (again largely) responsible for two graduate courses that I will be running again later in the year? Ethical , Legal and Social Issues in Information Technology (COMP 607), and Social Computing (COMP 650).

Marie: You have an innovative pedagogy, and may be a leader in the implementation of a more compassionate approach to marking and teaching. What are the most salient themes of your pedagogy?

Dr. Dron: My teaching is guided by many pedagogical theories. I pick and choose according to what works and what fits, rather than adhering religiously to a particular model. That said, the two things that are probably most salient in all courses I design are firstly giving control to students, and secondly respecting and utilizing the knowledge students bring to the learning community?using the wisdom in and of the crowd, if you like. By ?giving control? I don’t just mean giving choices to students. Giving choices to people without ensuring that they have the knowledge or support to make them wisely is at least as bad as giving them no choice at all. It’s about letting students make informed choices and, if they wish, delegating some of those choices to others, whether they be to other students, teachers, Wikipedia or textbooks. I try to make sure that no student ever takes the same path to knowledge as any other?as much as possible, students choose what they do, how they do it, and what matters to them about it. That makes it more interesting to them and also to me?I am easily distracted, so variety keeps me interested in what they are doing, which helps me remain enthused as well as them.

The social element is crucially important too: there is never just a single teacher in a learning transaction?teachers, book authors, other students, web sites, video, etc, and, of course, the learners themselves are all significant teachers. We learn with and from countless others, whether through imitation, inspiration, disagreement, reinforcement or whatever, and other people give meaning and value to what we do. On all my courses, students are explicitly teachers too as, apart from anything else, there is no better way to learn than to teach. I design processes that give them as much freedom as they desire to engage or not with others but, simply by performing the requested activities on the course, they share knowledge with their peers, as a natural offshoot of the process. If they make other contributions beyond the basic sharing requested, like helping others solve problems, they can use those as evidence of success too, but they do not have to do so: it is under their control.

I also like to try to provide meaningful challenges?things that are both difficult and personally relevant, not just a bunch of exercises in a textbook. A lot of this has to do with motivation: in a perfect world I would never exert any extrinsic control over any of the process, and students would do my courses for the love of it, never for grades. However, I am required to make judgements, so I make that happen only at the end, I try to make it a formative and engaging learning process quite apart from its role in assessment, and I give as much freedom as I can to allow students to demonstrate their competence in whatever ways suit them best. Typically, I use portfolios of compiled evidence and reflections on the process for that, because the process of compiling them is itself a learning activity with great value.

Marie: What thought goes into your highly original course design-

Dr. Dron: It’s mostly just tinkering and exploring the borders of the adjacent possible. I’ll grab ideas and inspirations from anywhere and anything, and I get inspired by the oddest of things, from watching hockey to listening to conversations on a bus. I describe myself as a professional learner (great job!) so I am always on the lookout for ideas and tend to daydream and reflect a lot about my own learning, especially in areas unrelated to the one at hand. I see the design process as a conversation, involving things like technology platforms, theories, and models, as much as with other people.

Marie: What do you think is the role of multimedia and social media in your course design?

Dr. Dron:
Well, my courses couldn’t happen without social media of some kind: social media are learning media. We learn from and with others, so having multiple channels, especially those that connect many people, is a good idea. It brings challenge, inspiration, and alternative perspectives, as well as reducing the isolation. I am a fan of avoiding rigid course boundaries?the greater the diversity, the better, especially due to the opportunities for serendipitous encounters and discoveries, and social media provide the means to move beyond the course. But, as ever, it should be under the control of learners: except when it is the topic of study, I would never force students to enter spaces they may perceive as unsafe. But, for those willing to cross the boundaries, not only do they gain a lot themselves, but they bring something back to those who prefer to remain within them.

Marie: How do you encourage student motivation in the online class environment?

Dr. Dron: I am a fan of self-determination theory. A theory that posits that the necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) conditions of intrinsic motivation are to feel in control, to feel challenged (but not beyond one’s competence), and to feel relatedness with others. Basically, I provide as many ways as possible to support those needs, and try to avoid any actions or activities that inhibit them. While the relationship between intrinsic motivation (doing something because you like to do it) and extrinsic motivation (doing something for some reason beyond the satisfaction of doing it) is complex, on the whole the evidence is clear that extrinsic motivation applied in teaching massively reduces intrinsic motivation, if not entirely killing it altogether. Sure, a punishment or reward may push you to do some unpleasant task that you might not otherwise do, but, as soon as that punishment or reward goes away, so does the perceived need or wish to perform the task. There is nothing more natural than to learn?we are built to love it. So, notwithstanding the very rare occasion where a bit of a stick or carrot might help to overcome a hurdle or, for example, to learn a repetitive bit of behaviour, I try to create the conditions where people can learn because it excites them to do so. As a teacher, I do feel I have a role in this beyond just creating content. When it goes right (and often doesn’t!) I try to help a bit though my own behaviour?if I am passionate and enthusiastic, and demonstrate caring about both the subject and the student, then that helps a lot with the relatedness aspects of motivation, as well as modelling ways of thinking that might help learners to realize why it is of value to them and want to discover more. That’s another reason I like to involve students in helping one another, though, as I can only go so far and am (very) fallible. The more people that are involved, the more chance there is of being inspired, enthused, or excited. I’m afraid I often fail?it is difficult to sustain enthusiasm and, like most academics, I get very busy at times, so it is not uncommon for me to fail to respond quickly enough. But I do try!

(Stay tuned for the conclusion of this interview, in two weeks time)