Quick update on Digital History

The semester and several of my larger responsibilities are coming to a head at the same time, but I wanted to pass on a quick update on the Digital History Seminar. My sense with 4 weeks left in the semester is that although some of the project groups are beginning to reach a stopping place, that most of the groups are beginning to comprehend how much they still have left to do. This realization is causing some tensions in the groups, especially as some people look around and think that they are further along in their work than other members of their group. There is also the issue for some groups of trying to coordinate the various efforts and approaches of 4-5 different people. And I suspect there are some groups still trying to hammer out their vision for their project.

All of this is okay, all of this is expected, and only part of it has to do with the technological aspects of the class. I think these groups, though some may have some stressful moments ahead, will build on the significant work already accomplished to finish some impressive projects.

Responding to a Post about Teaching and Technology

One of our students, Joe McMahon, has posted a blog entry about the problems related to the (mis)use of technology by professors. [It’s amusingly titled, “You Can’t Make Me Drink the Kool-Aid: Part One.”]

I wrote one of the longest comments I’ve ever written and decided I spent enough time on it to repost it with slight modifications here.

I asked others for their opinions on this piece and now Gardner’s called me out on this as well, so here goes.

I would say that blogging (or wiki-ing, or any assignment, technology-based or otherwise) needs to be created with a purpose. I suspect that all of my colleagues have a goal (or often multiple goals) in mind when they create an assignment. What do I hope to accomplish? What form should it take? What sources do I expect students to engage with? How creative/analytical/exploratory/argumentative do I want students to be? How much freedom should they have to shape their own assignments? The list goes on and on.

For me the question about the use of technology is integral to every assignment I create. [Of course writing your papers on lined note pads is using technology. But Joe is raising the point that for some of these assignments the technology is transparent and well known, allowing students to focus on the content (their argument, their research, their style) without having to spend time figuring out to create a new page, while for others the time spent (in and out of class) figuring the tech out distracts from the focus on content.] I get that. As a result, it’s a conscious choice (one of many that I make when creating an assignment and a class) when I ask students to learn a new technology in order to complete my course. [And frankly I try to always make my thinking on the goals of assignments transparent to students (regardless of the tech involved), although not always at the beginning of the class — sometimes having them struggle a bit on their own is part of the intended process.]

Where I think I really have an issue with the post’s argument is with the notion that students are losing out on content by spending time learning a new technology. First of all, every course I create leaves out much, much, much more “content” than I can possibly cover in a single semester. So, each class is a series of choices I have to make about what gets left out. Are students disadvantaged by the material I leave out of my US History Survey on the battles of Revolution so that I can focus on the popular culture of the time? Maybe, but since I can’t cover everything then I have to focus on the areas that I think are most important in creating a general student experience of learning about the past.

I’ll give you another example with even more of a parallel: I could probably cover those Revolutionary battles if I didn’t spend a third of class time engaged in class discussions of primary sources about the Revolution (and other topics), but instead lectured every class period. Lecturing is an incredibly efficient way to dispense content, though fairly problematic in terms of learning content and even worse if you want to build more skills than just passive note-taking and oral processing. I choose to leave out historical content in order to encourage a set of academic skills that I think are useful beyond the classroom (reading primary documents, understanding context, placing yourself in the past, contributing orally to an ongoing discussion, connecting the words of people in the past to the modern perspectives).

For me the use of (newer) technology fits this category as well. Yes, I’m asking students to do something new, or to push themselves, or to think about doing something in a different way, and yes, that potentially takes away from their time to read (or learn) about those darn battles, but that’s a choice I’ve made as the creator of the course. That choice is based in my desire to balance the skills and content portions of my class (that’s an over-stated dichotomy here) to provide the best possible experience for the students going forward, not just in that course, but hopefully in others as well.

[I haven’t discussed engaging students directly here. I would simply echo Gardner’s perspective on this in his comments on the post, adding only that by being as transparent as possible about my thinking with my students that I’d like to think I’ve been fairly successful as engaging a sizable percentage of them over the years.]

Joe has followed up his first post with a series of suggestions for professors thinking about using technology in the classroom, many of which I agree with. He’s also suggested a Faculty Academy session with students and faculty brainstorming about ways to increase student engagement related to technology. Sounds like a good idea.

What is Learning (and What Are We Teaching)?

This question comes from Shannon over at Loaded Learning. Her recent blog post asks “What Is A Student’s Job?” Steve at Pedablogy has decided to ask his first-year advising students to respond to Shannon’s post. I’ll be very interested to see if they take him up on it and what they have to say.

Shannon’s question about the “students’ job” rightly raises questions of students’ responsibility for their own education. I was struck, however, by the implications for college professors (heck, for the mission of higher ed itself) in the challenges raised by Shannon’s post.

What is college preparing student’s for? Is it to be academics? Skilled people for the work force? Contributing members of society?

For the most part it feels like college is training us to be academics, but I don’t think the college is really aiming for that, or should be aiming for that. Of course some people will go on to be educators and work in a highly specialized area of their major, but most likely the vast majority won’t. I will also say that besides content there are goals and themes that carry through college, being able to critical think, speak well, write well, etc. But at times college can really seem like k-12 redux where the content is just more in depth and the papers about the content are longer.

These issues are not new, but they resonate for me at this particular time. I’ve been working on making students’ work more transparent to others (in and out of the academy) and more (explicitly) relevant to them post-college.* And a new longitudinal study suggests that so-called “career-oriented majors” find their post-college footing more quickly than so-called “academic majors”. Now, I’m sensitive to the notion that this focus on post-college work can easily get away from much of what is great about learning and teaching in higher education. But there are real pressures facing the academy in clarifying our relevance (and justifying our high expense) to the larger world. At a minimum, I think it’s worth reexamining our goals for particular classes and for the larger collegiate experience.

I’d be interested in hearing people comment on the issue of what you see your classes and our college education as doing, here or on their own blogs. [I don’t want to interfere with student comments on Shannon’s blog post, because I think that part of the conversation is even more important to get going.]

* [Full Disclosure: Shannon’s post says nice things about one of those efforts, my Digital History Seminar.]

UPDATE: Might as well add this post from Inside Higher Ed for one take on what’s wrong with Liberal Arts Colleges and we need to do to change to the conversation. (I should say that the post has some intriguing ideas, though I add it only as further additions to the larger discussion.)