Finite and Infinite Pedagogies: Reflections on the Transition to Online Learning


During this unprecedented period of teaching and learning remotely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, James Miller, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Interdisciplinary Strategy and Professor of Humanities, has shared his pedagogical insights regarding the transition online.

Miller applauds the unusual cohort hiring and on-boarding process, notably the Learning Innovation Fellowship (LIF) led by Noah Pickus, Duke Learning Innovation, and Duke Kunshan Center for Teaching and Learning, which helped him skillfully and successfully transition to the remote teaching and learning mode. As part of the interview process, besides standard research talk, faculty candidates need to work in interdisciplinary teams to solve authentic pedagogical problems. During the on-boarding process, the emphasis on teamwork and pedagogy will be continued through virtual and on-site interactions with other faculty in the LIF. Specifically, this process of familiarization and transition of teaching at DKU helps new faculty to develop strong social bonds while writing learning objectives, devising assignments, and achieving better pedagogical goals. 

This unique experience empowered Miller and other faculty members when teaching one of the first-year common core courses, China in the World, in Spring 2020. To better adapt students to online learning, they tried to reduce the numbers of readings and focused on the assignments. As a result, students are better able to explicitly see how the readings, the activities, the assignments cohere with each other, and are aligned with the learning objectives.

In his article, however, Miller compares this approach to pedagogy centered on clear alignment with learning objectives to what James P. Carse (2013) has called “finite game.” In Carse’s work, finite games are understood by contrast with “infinite” or open-ended games that never reach a conclusion. In his article, Miller discusses how online teaching could obscure the potential opportunities for in-class open-ended creativity, in Carse’s term, an “infinite game.” While modern education promotes the “finite games” of quizzes and assignments, it also should hold out the value of the infinite game of life-long humanistic learning. The deepest and richest nature of the humanities and the sciences, argues Miller, points toward an “infinite game” of creativity (probably in the long term). Unfortunately, the current online teaching mode limits faculty to focus on those finite games to achieve learning objectives and make the course coherent.    

To conclude, the transition online enables the courses to become more coherent by playing well-organized finite games. But somehow it has diminished the “messiness” of the regular face-to-face class. Yes finite games are necessary, and is there something more beyond that? Dr. James Miller proposes, when transitioning online, we probably should see beyond the finite games as in the face-to-face classroom and think about how to fulfill “a richer, more humanistic vision of learning and more scientific view of scholarship”

Click here to read and ponder on the original post in the Inside Higher Ed website.  

This summary is written by Duke Kunshan Center for Teaching and Learning and proofed by James Miller, Ph.D.