Cairn by Cairn Course Design

“Have compassion for everyone you meet … You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” ~Lucinda Williams featured in Brain Pickings

My last post about curating open educational resources went over pretty well with some readers, and I thank y’all kindly. I promised many of you that I would post a follow-up in a few days, and well, that was a month ago. It’s been a bit of a wild month personally and politically. 

Allow me to refer quite a bit to my last post without having to explain everything again.

If you had time to read it, then you have all of my adoration. If you didn’t, then let me summarize. I was thinking out loud on the digital page about how to help faculty deal with the interwebs and open educational resources. Thinking about how to teach a workshop about OER while simultaneously trying to sort out course design. All in disciplines that are not my own. Tall order, right? My goal is to create some way of teaching folks how to get started with OER in a way that works for them. I created a workshop where there are five steps beginning with faculty thinking about their course design and purpose to sorting out materials and licensing. It’s sounds like a clusterfuck of impossible tasks, right? Welcome to my life. Keep reading. 

In this follow-up post, I want to sort through some questions. I have no research or data to substantiate what I’m thinking, but I have been to 26 institutions in seven states since July. I’ve met a lot of teachers. It’s truly delightful to talk about OER. Here are the thoughts that haunt me in the dark hours of the night as I contemplate the multiverse and imagine a much happier version of myself who is a bookstore manager that dropped out of college. But I digress. Focus, Indrunas.

How do we create a more hospitable experience for new-to-OER teachers? How do we assist faculty who are exploring open pedagogy? How do we create adoptable course options and adapt them for local needs? How do we help students as quickly as possible?All that at scale. How do I make this workshop experience better the next time? How do I share what I’ve done with others? 

Well. I suppose I’ll get bloggy with it.

During this wicked first month of the year 2017, I read Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans on a cross country flight. I am not the target audience for this book. I’ve heard about the course the book is based on, and I liked the design of the book so I picked it up. Brainy, I know. Part of it was useful if not simply insightful. The second part was pedestrian and too focused on letting go of The Material. And the last part was close to unbearable, but hey, I’m not a teacher at Stanford. What do I know?

During my second masters degree program, I read a lot of books about education and positive psychology for a class. Positive psychology, as a line of reasoning, does not focus enough on the everyday reality of living in a capitalistic system for my taste. It doesn’t click with my views on adult education. You don’t have time to “fail forward” and “iterate with prototypes,” and “design your life,” if you will, when you spend 12 hours a day working a shitty job only to have half of your income go to the rent. Maybe I’m simplifying things too much. It’s hard to think positive thoughts when your country is run by fascist insect who feeds off the lifeblood of The People. Wait. Where was I? Okay, that design book. Right.

Believe me. This may be a fantastic book if you haven’t figured out what makes you tick. If you haven’t figured your passions. Your true motivation. Your true self. Your path. What you love about yourself. What you love about others. What you love about your life. What you love. 

The authors share their experiences teaching students about this life design process, and I have no doubt that this method of taking a “dysfunctional belief” and “reframing” it as a way to see another perspective is truly helpful to their students. Truly helpful for some readers. 

Their thinking about design is not very specific. That I like. They break down design principles as building something more like a cairn than a spreadsheet. Too often we confuse design with the action of engineering. They explain the difference beautifully with many examples. If I was that bookstore manager, I’d push this book into many peoples’ hands.  

The authors teach readers that having a purpose is akin to a “compass” or “wayfinding” from one experience to the next. Very connectivist when you think about learning. And teaching. Yes.

Maybe I dig this framework because I’m a hiker. I love maps. Walking in the woods. Riding my bike in the woods. Tracing different routes along topographic maps. Routes we have made by walking and/or riding together. 

Few things make me happier than walking past a serendipitous rock cairn on a trail. A stack of rocks are a message that strangers have passed this way before me.

They paused to create beauty.

The Designing Your Life authors invite readers to do various contemplative exercises to find your “True North.”

In the chapter titled “Building a Compass,” they use words like “alignment” and “flow” and “calibration.” Many times I stopped thinking about life and I thought only about the way I work with faculty. About instructional design. About the work of change management. About the work of thinking. 

The following gave me pause:

…as all sailors know, you can’t chart a course of one straight line–you tack according to what the wind and the conditions allow. Heading True North, you may sail one way, then another direction, and then back the other way. Sometimes you sail close to the shoreline to avoid rough seas, adapting as needed. And sometimes storms hit and you get completely lost, or the entire sailboat tips over (p. 38).

If I had to boil down what was useful to me about this book, I’d cite this quote:

“…once you design something, it changes the future of what is possible” (p. 26).

Yes. Purposeful design that invites serendipity. That’s possible. 

Which brings me back to Course Curation in Five Steps. My five steps work for me as a teacher. Trainer. Consultant. Mentor. Whatever. One faculty member told me that she had really been struggling with how to get started and this exercise really helped. She said it changed everything about getting started. Another faculty member shared that he is really excited to design his course in a way that makes sense to him. Another shared he plans to do this exercise for every unit of his course.

Teaching teachers is one of the true privileges of my career. It’s always a challenge.

As my yoga teacher says, “It’s yoga practice not yoga perfect.”


So here are my slides for this exercise. I have no images. No fancy pants formatting. Nothing special. Just words. A month ago, I had aims to create something better. To tune this up to be something worth sharing than just the version that I created. Something better. Clever. This is what I created at 4:30am in a hotel room. I’d rather write this post and think than tune up the slide deck. It’s CC BY, yo. Have at it. 

If you make this better, then please let me know what you did. That’s the beauty of this network, right? A True North of Sharing. One rock at a time until we have a cairn.

Here’s the thing. 

In 60-90 minutes, you can create a process for faculty to think about their courses. Encourage them to annotate their notes. To think about their thinking. To fall in love with their own ideas. 

Be patient. Give faculty a chance to think. These are some of the busiest people you’re going to encounter. They rarely take time for themselves. Self-care is getting ahead with lesson plans and grading, FFS. They carry guilt for making choices about their time. It’s either their family, themselves, or their students. Time is a luxury. If they are being paid to be in the room with you to learn something, those minutes are precious to advance what you would like to see in the world.

Don’t expect them to finish the whole exercise. In fact, keep giving them advice throughout the five steps. Try to teach them that they can come back to this idea when they are all by themselves in their office. Advise them to take notes for their future selves. If none of them write, just keep talking. Faculty tell me all the time that they “can’t think in a computer lab with their colleagues.” So yes, I get it. Rene Descartes had his visions because he locked himself in a warm office. Go to your stoves mes chéries. Ecrivez-vous! 

Don’t demand that they share or deliver anything. Ask and see if you have volunteers, but don’t expect people to share their ideas. You just asked them a big question about their teaching. When they do talk, listen. Ask a good question. Teaching is incredibly personal.

I like the idea of building a course just like we would a cairn. That’s circling in my brain these days. Designing something that changes what’s possible. Why not?

Cairns are a type of map by land or sea. You find one cairn and then you have to look for the next one. It’s a method of wayfinding. A compass. Step by step. Rock by rock.

By design, you move from one cairn to the next. Forward. Leaving behind a path for somebody else.

Step by step. Rock by rock. Cairn by cairn.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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2 Responses to Cairn by Cairn Course Design

  1. I’m really taken by the idea that cairns are most definitely not spreadsheets.

    I’m just realizing that I wonder why we call them formative assessments? Seems like that emphasizes the judgey rather than the practice and learning.

    The only improvement I would suggest is to save your readers time and increase the clarity of your message by refer to “free, but not open” materials using the now widely-accepted abbreviation/hashtag: #freebnop.


    • Thanks for using my blog for self-promotion of your clever hashtag! #freebnop does teach the idea quite well, so I’ll support it. Nice to know you haven’t changed!

      I’m not sure why we use “formative” and “summative” but I have found them helpful when working with new-to-teaching faculty. The “form” in formative help student form their ideas, etc. The “sum” in summative helps them “summarize” their ideas. It’s all jargon, really.


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