Troublesome Knowledge: Identifying Barriers to Innovate for Breakthroughs in Learning to Teach Online

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session Research

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Embedded within ‘simple’ practices for teaching online are ways of thinking and doing that can be ‘invisible’ to practitioners and troublesome for faculty who are learning how to teach online. This interactive session presents early research findings and invites participants to strategize constructivist approaches to preparing others for online teaching.

Extended Abstract


Educational Developers, Learning Designers, and Instructional Technologists have long been studying and seeking the most effective ways to teach University Faculty how to teach in online, blended, and web-enhanced modalities. In many, well-documented cases (e.g., Nilson & Goodson, 2018; Wiggins & McTighe, 2012; Online Learning Consortium, 2020), one common practice involves working from a set of research-based evaluation criteria, such as those found on OLC’s OSCQR Course Design Review Scorecard, the Quality Matters Rubric, and several others. For most faculty-learners, programming designed in this way—coupled with individual consultations and support, as well as ongoing professional development—is enough to help them navigate, and sometimes thrive with, online teaching and learning. 

However, we also know that many faculty continue to struggle with learning how to teach online, even though they may have decades of teaching experience or relative comfort with learning new technologies. Depending on several factors, including size and capacity of Institutional Centers for Teaching and Learning or Academic Technology, the much-needed support for these faculty learners can be time-consuming and complicated (see Intentional Futures, 2016, p.15). For learning/instructional designers, technologists, and faculty developers, this work can be frustrating because it feels like a lack of buy-in, trust, or understanding on the part of the faculty learner about how online learning is different from face-to-face—and now, how remote learning is even different from online learning (see Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, and Bond, 2020).

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic propelled more faculty than ever to learn how to teach in some form of ‘virtual’ modality, whether or not they wanted to, with rosters of students that were also propelled into the online learning, whether or not they wanted to. The Online Teaching and Learning Community of Practice was tasked with preparing and supporting all faculty with this effort (see, for example, Koenig, 2020; Decherney & Levander, 2020; Online Learning Consortium, 2020). While much of the advice for those new to online teaching and learning involves ‘keeping it simple’ (Cavanagh & Thompson, 2019), we (members of the Online Teaching and Learning Community of Practice) recognize that, embedded in those simple principles, are practices that can still be difficult. For example, embedded within the principle of a clear, organized, navigable course can be the concept of chunking content into modules, the skills associated with screencasting and posting a course tour, and the practice of socializing students to the course organization through demonstration, explanation, and reinforcement. While these attributes can become fluid with practice, they may not necessarily be intuitive to new learners. Not only are these more than ‘simple’ tasks that can be checked off of a course design list, they are potential technological and pedagogical barriers (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) for some faculty new to teaching this way. 

In August 2020, Learning Design Researchers launched an empirical-qualitative study (IRB#IO5519) to investigate sources and stories of Troublesome Knowledge (Perkins, 2006) associated with learning how to teach online. Perkins suggests that certain types of knowledge inherent in communities of practice can function as barriers to newcomers who are trying to participate. We see this in online teaching and learning: for example, when faculty have a ritualized practice for communicating with students, that ritual can break down when there is an unexpected change. Perkins’ theory of troublesome knowledge reframes conversations about problems of practice, like these, from being a ‘deficit’ in the faculty-learner to a natural opportunity for constructivist sense-making that an instructional designer is uniquely equipped to facilitate. This session will share the methodology and early results from our study. Forty-four higher education professionals—faculty developers, learning designers, and instructional technologists—whose duties include teaching and supporting faculty with online teaching and learning, participated in an online survey distributed through a variety of higher education and instructional design listservs and social media outlets. Through open-ended questions about their experiences working with faculty, participants shared nearly eighty stories about some of the barriers and bottlenecks they regularly encountered specific to faculty learning about online teaching. Some initial themes that emerged from these stories included a limited or misunderstanding of the ways a learning management system can function as a vessel of learning experiences, rather than a repository of information, as well as the difficulties some faculty have transitioning established rituals (e.g., recording grades) to a new medium, for example.  

Session Overview

In this interactive session, the co-PIs will share the methodology (replicable, aggregable) and initial, unpublished findings from this phase of a multi-part study, as well as draw from the collective expertise of OLC attendees to brainstorm strategies for addressing ‘troublesome’ knowledge in online teaching and learning.

OLC Innovate is a conference for the Online Teaching and Learning Community of Practice to convene over common interests, ideas, and innovation goals. Conference attendees will have interest in this session because they may share similar challenges and experiences in their own work, or they may share an interest in learning design research. This conference is an opportunity to collectively examine these processes, problems, and practices, and then innovate for positive change. This session also contributes to conversations in the field of Learning Innovation (Kim & Maloney, 2020) about how to prepare and support faculty who teach online, blended, and web-enhanced modalities. Many who might otherwise prefer face-to-face instruction are compelled to learn other modalities during periods of disruption, as we are facing now, so this conversation is timely, as well.

Session Goals

By participating in this session, attendees will:

  1. Explore Perkins’ (2006) theory of troublesome knowledge—including tacit, ritual, conceptually difficult, foreign/alien, and inert—and consider where those types of obstacles occur in learning design and innovation.
  2. Review initial research findings from a study of barriers to learning how to teach online.
  3. Brainstorm constructivist approaches to barriers to learning how to teach online. These ideas can be used immediately to inform programming and professional development opportunities related to online/virtual teaching preparation.

Session Plan

  1. Introduction & Engagement Activity (5-10 minutes) 
    • Self-introductions
    • Illustrative story of common examples of Troublesome Knowledge that audience members have likely experienced in their own work.
  2. Troublesome Knowledge Concepts (10 minutes)
    • Using a companion website, we will present the 5 types of Troublesome Knowledge as defined by Perkins
  3. Sorting Activity (10 minutes)
    • Participants will be broken up into small groups within the session (depending on session size) and each group will be given a sorting activity in Jamboard. The Jamboard will have spaces for the 5 types of Troublesome Knowledge as well as a selection of the examples obtained from our survey. Groups will be tasked with sorting each example into the category they think it most belongs to. The companion site will be available throughout this activity.
  4. Group Debrief (10 minutes)
    • After the sorting activity, we will discuss as a whole group. We will compare results of the groups along with our own sort of the samples. We will ask the participants for feedback on the sorting experience.
  5. Q&A and Resource Tour (5-10 minutes)
    • We will open the floor up for questions and also offer additional resources on our companion website for how thinking of faculty interactions within this framework can help develop online learning skills.

Level of Participation

This session will offer the chance for participants to make sense of the concepts being presented through an interactive sorting activity. This will allow for active participation in the session, as well as serve as a model for how a new skill or concept can be taught in an online setting. Additionally, we believe this session also offers the unique opportunity for participants to be part of an active research study and this session will inform the second phase of our research.