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Thinking Outside the Box

As scholars and teachers it is important for us to ask ourselves: Why are we here? What are we contributing? How are we contributing? In what ways are our lives connected to that which we are contributing? When we teach, what is it of value that our students will take with them, that will nourish them physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually (however one defines it), be it in their careers, in their personal lives, in their leisure time, and in their relationships to other human beings and the planet?

We should ask often: What do engineering, chemistry, art, language, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and all the other disciplines to which we are dedicated have to do with the quality of life? Behind every teaching or facilitating move, behind every research or scholarly act, the questions always lurk: What is it that we are doing? Why are we here?

There are many scholars who are exploring these questions and providing concrete proposals for action. Listed below are just a few of them.

The Connected World | Connectivism | Contemplative Learning and Integrative Education | Digital Habitats and Communities of Practice | Guided Reflection | Open Educational Resources | Pedagogy of the Oppressed | Serving vs. Helping or Fixing | Valuing Why We Are at the Academy

The Connected World

A connected world is a better world, right? A thought-provoking look at technology today.


What is connectivism? Here is a partial explanation by George Siemens, Executive Director of the Learning Innovation Networked Knowledge Lab, UT Arlington:

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.

Principles of connectivism:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

George Siemens, “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.”  

“Learning is the creation and removal of connections between the entities, or the adjustment of the strengths of those connections. A learning theory is, literally, a theory describing how these connections are created or adjusted. In this book I describe four major mechanisms: similarity, contiguity, feedback, and harmony. There may be other mechanisms, these and others may work together, and the precise mechanism for any given person may be irreducibly complex.” Stephen Downes, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks.  E-book:

Contemplative Learning and Integrative Education

Palmer, P.J. and A. Zajonc (2010). The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing

From the book jacket: “The Heart of Higher Education is an invitation to everyone who cares about the academy to revisit its roots and help reclaim its highest calling.” Parker J. Palmer “speaks deeply to people in many walks of life, including education, medicine, religion, law, philanthropy, politics, and social change. … Named one of the ‘most influential senior leaders’ in higher education, he holds a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Arthur Zajonc is professor of physics at Amherst College. … He currently directs the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which supports appropriate inclusion of contemplative methods in higher education.”

This book is available through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and the UTA Library.

O’Reilley, M. R. (1998). Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.

This book is available through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and the UTA Library.

For more information on contemplative education, see the website of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

And the Center’s archive of webinars with leaders in contemplative education

Digital Habitats and Communities of Practice

N. White, E. Wenger, and J. D. Smith (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.

Nancy White is interested in building online communities, with implications for higher learning. The philosophy of her organization is …

  • To connect — connect people with ideas, information, services and other people.
  • To collaborate — utilize the full skills, knowledge and experience of each player in every collaboration.
  • To discern — apply the right tools and techniques for the right solution.
  • To learn — from every client and encounter.
  • To enjoy the work and to reward ourselves (sometimes with chocolate!) when we come full circle to completion.

From Full Circle Associates website

Lipmanowicz, H. and K. McCandless (2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation. (This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.) Seattle, WA: Liberating Structures Press.

Guided Reflection in College Courses 

Ash, S. L. and P. H. Clayton (2004). “The Articulated Learning: An Approach to Guided Reflection and Assessment.” Innovative Higher Education (29.2).

From the ABSTRACT: This [article] describes a reflection model that pushes students beyond superficial interpretations of complex issues and facilitates academic mastery, personal growth, civic engagement, critical thinking, and the meaningful demonstration of learning. Although developed in a service-learning program, its general features can support reflection on a range of experiences. 

A copy of this article is on file at the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence.

It is also available at

Open Educational Resources

As textbooks become ever more expensive, and alternative resources for course materials become more widespread, faculty are creating open educational resources for the content in their courses. Using open content makes it easier to update course materials, and students are not as burdened with the high cost of textbooks. Open educational resources can make life - and learning - much better for students. See Lumen Learning: Open for Student Success for more information.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Paolo Freire’s groundbreaking work seeks to empower students in their relationship to society. “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New rev. 20th-Anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.

This book is available through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and the UTA Library.

Serving vs. Helping or Fixing

Dr. Rachel Remen’s “Helping, Fixing, or Serving?” addresses service, but applies to teaching as well, not only in the realm of service learning, but in all teaching and learning endeavors. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF School of Medicine and the Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonweal.

Valuing Why We Are at the Academy 

Rubrics from the Association of American Colleges and Universities website provide food for thought about what it is, of value, that we wish for students to take away from their years of college study and retain, use, and expand years later. They address intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning and cause us to question the highest motives and goals that we have for our curriculum, our courses, and our students’ learning.