Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere–Part I

This semester I’m using wikis (MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I’m doing so at Jerry‘s suggestion, despite my greatest previous interaction with wikis being arguing with students about why they can’t use Wikipedia as the scholarly source for their research papers. In two separate posts, I’ll describe the two classes, the plans for the wiki use in each class, and the progress so far.

In my senior readings seminar, I used to have students email me comments and questions about the reading for a particular day a couple of hours before class starts. I would then take those comments and questions and shape the class discussion for the day based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students. This semester, the students post their comments and questions to a wiki page. [I set up one page for each day’s discussion for the semester.] Of course, a large change under this new system is that they now see each others’ postings. [I’ve resisted this before, fearing repetitiveness, copying, and an unfair burden on those who posted first to carry the class.] I’ve found that so far, I was completely wrong. The quality of the questions and comments have gone up from previous semesters. What’s more, they’ve begun to respond to each others’ questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion begins before class does.

Of course, I could have just used a forum on Blackboard or some other open-source software (and I’ve used such forums with varying degrees of success in other classes with other assignments). They’d still be able to see what the other students had written and respond to those comments. The advantage of the wiki is that students can more easily edit and/or comment on each others’ work than in a forum, which is either hierarchical or linear (or both). Using the past version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, sometimes inserting themselves in between other people’s comments, sometimes using bold to emphasize particular points that others have made. They haven’t taken to truly editing each others’ work, a common issue from what I’ve heard from those who have used wikis in teaching. [There was a comment deleted by someone else, but that was an accident, for which there was much apologizing. 🙂 ] And I don’t see this lack of editing each others’ work as a problem since I haven’t explicitly asked them to do that.

I hope the quality of posting and interaction remains at the level that it’s at for the rest of the semester. If so, I’ll see it as a great success.

Next time, I’ll discuss the wiki as used in an upper-level lecture & discussion class.

Digital Fluencies–A Reponse

I wanted to respond to failingbetter’s comment on my post last fall on digital literacies, but this response (rant?) seemed to expand beyond comment size. So, a new post was born.

1. I would like to hear a little more about what fluency means and what it entails that is different from skills. Is it just the combination of one’s writing skills with one’s technical knowledge of how to construct/write a blog? Or does it also entail knowledge of the norms of blogging? Is there another category of things that differentiate skills from fluency?

I would crudely define “digital fluency” as the ability to deploy basic technical skills (changing margins or using track changes in Word, participating in online forums, and for some, more complex skills such as website building) in the consumption and production of online materials in a variety of formats. Blogs are just one online format (though perhaps the easiest to engage in–after all, passive consumption is also participation). There are a number of ways that students could demonstrate digital fluency, including appropriate creation of documents, presentations, wikis, websites, forum postings. These things require a wide variety of technical skills, but more than just knowing how to change margins, use email or set up a blog, doing them well requires adaptability, critical thinking, and making clear arguments. [Sound familiar? It should, because digital fluency should be seen as an extension of the core concepts of the liberal arts.]

2. I don’t know that incorporating DL into classes–if they are to be tech across the curriculum–would work. Most faculty only know the skills that they need to survive (no members of my dept. write a blog or know how). I suspect that faculty ignorance would be a significant barrier to making this work (as I understand it).

First, digital fluencies don’t have to be integrated into every class. Still, they do need to be discussed by every department. The advantage of a plan that argues for departmental definitions of digital literacy is that it allows faculty to meet the requirement where they are in terms of their abilities and desires. But here’s the thing: even though no one in failingbetter’s department writes a blog, I’m willing to bet every department member has some goals for students with regard to digital literacy. For example, I suspect his/her department members would agree that students need to be able to differentiate between reliable and unreliable websites. So would it be overly onerous to add to his/her department’s set of goals an ability to consume online information in a skeptical and critical manner? That might be the limit of what a department decides it wants to do on this issue.

One final point of honesty from me on this: I hope that such conversations in each department about what digital literacy means for their students would push some faculty to look more closely at the skills (and fluencies) they themselves have (or might decide they need). [Let’s be clear about something else: “faculty ignorance” should never, ever, be a reason not to do something.]

But I would also hope that such an examination would occur within the context of significant institutional support. One of the things that I’ve made clear in every conversation I’ve had with the various committees involved in these conversations is the absolute need for substantive investment in a variety of support resources and personnel to make this change. These resources would need to be in the form of software/hardware technology support (personal computers and projectors and software licenses must work nearly all the time, or a reasonable substitute made available within 24 hours at most, so if necessary, you can always get your hands on the best projectors under $200), instructional technology support (people who can take ideas about teaching and show faculty how to implement them), training workshops and summer sessions that people want to go to (even are paid to attend), summer and school-year financial support (or course releases) for those working on such projects, and recognition from the merit and tenure process for efforts made to advance digital fluencies in course and department arenas.

[I want a lot, don’t I? What about what I’ve put forward here is unrealistic? Which of the various portions could be implemented most easily? Are they mutually dependent? Critique away….]

Innovation, Open-Source, and CMSs

Over at Running with Scissors, Jerry Slezak has begun a great discussion about innovation. This post began as a comment there that expanded beyond the original point Jerry was making. Building on Jerry’s notion of the UI$ as a new unit measuring “Unit of Innovation per Dollar” and Jim’s point in the comments about the advantage of a close working relationship between tech innovators and the classroom, it seems to me that targeted investment (small grants and/or new faculty/ITS positions) in implementing various open-source (or nearly free) solutions can result in a high UI$ (if I understand Jerry’s new term correctly). Targeted financial and technical support for specific implementations with open-source or freely available tools in a few courses (or even a department) has a much better chance of a good UI$ than adding a massive CMS that everyone has to learn and that not everyone wants to be a part of.

The Counter Argument

One important counter, however, is the argument that standardization (and massive integration of other campus systems) offered by the major CMSs are good things:

1) Because a standardized CMS/LMS is, well, standard. Everyone can use the same interface. Students and faculty don’t have to learn (or relearn) new materials; tech support has one set of training and support materials to create.

2) Because using open-source and free software means using code that is not always ready for prime time. Techno-geeks (of which I am one) are more forgiving of such issues, in part because they can find workarounds for such problems (or accept it as a feature of cutting-edge code).

3) Because of the breadth of offerings. You can hear the sales pitch by the voice-over guy on late-night television: “It doesn’t just manage your courses, it allows you to pay bills, do your laundry and walk your electronic pets!!!!” In all seriousness, the appeal of meeting many institutional needs at once is clear, especially if the package also comes with support from the manufacturer (something less obviously available from the open-source community).*

Conclusion?

I understand these reasons are powerful forces in shaping decisions for campus technology. But Jerry’s post is really about innovation, and he is right to recognize that tech investment dollars are limited and need to be spent (invested?) as wisely as possible. Should we be worried that what seems to drive resource decisions at many institutions of higher learning is the notion that “Innovation is good, but stability and uniformity is better”?

UPDATE: I listened to the podcast of Jerry and Jim Groom’s ELI Presentation that was the basis for the post discussed above. In it Jerry and Jim address many of the concerns that I brought up, including noting that enterprise CMSs like Blackboard aren’t going away soon since their stability and breadth still addresses the needs of many people on campuses (albeit not always the students or faculty). Of course, the on-target point of the post and the presentation was that enterprise CMSs/LMSs simply don’t seem to be as responsive to the innovative possibilities for teaching and learning that the vibrant, passionate open-source community members have embraced. The other significant gain for me is the cost of innovation terminology of Jerry’s, UI$. I’ll be using that in the future….

* I suspect that there are many members of the open-source community who are incredibly responsive on support issues, but I’m referring to a formalized, contract-driven support that looks more stable from what we might describe as a business perspective.

Historians Moving on Up

So news reports indicate that the new president of Harvard is going to be Drew Gilpin Faust, a prominent historian whose specialties include the Civil War, US Women’s History and Social History. This news comes just a few weeks after Ed Ayers, eminent Southern historian and academic technology pioneer, was announced as the new president of the University of Richmond. [Full Disclosure: I worked on the Valley of the Shadow Project with Ed Ayers for a couple of years before heading off to graduate school.]

At my very first academic conference, the 1997 Southern Historical Association conference in Atlanta, I attended a panel on which both of these eminent historians presented. I remember being impressed at their presence, poise, and good-natured interactions. Who knew that these two would become University presidents within a few months of each other 10 years later?

I’m happy for both of them, because I like and respect them, but also because it suggests that, despite the reputation of historians as out of touch with today’s world, that these two have found ways to make themselves (and more importantly, their ideas) relevant to much larger audiences.

Both Ayers and Faust, despite a number of years as Deans (Ayers at UVA, Faust at Harvard’s Ratcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) remain active, productive scholars in their fields. I can only imagine how difficult that is given the many drains on their time. As a fellow scholar in their fields of interest, I can only hope that their presidencies will not prevent them from continuing to contribute their significant gifts to the discipline. As an academic, I believe that continuing to do so will also make them better administrators of faculty. As Dean, Ayers also managed to continue teaching a class or two a year, something else I hope he’s able to hold on to in his new position. [UPDATE: The front-page February 10 Washington Post article on Faust’s appointment suggests she’s also continued teaching as Dean.] Such activities remind presidents of where their faculties and student bodies are focused.

I know that this perspective is not shared by all academics, many of whom feel that the president’s job is first and foremost to raise money. As important as that is, I have a great deal of respect for those university presidents who continue to teach and research. Leading by example applies to the administrative side of academia as much as it does the classroom.

Is the Internet disparate or unified, sourced or sourceless? It may be a question of NetGenerations

The other day I was discussing the future of history with a number of students in my historical methods class (a regular end of the semester activity in this class). I was asking them how they think the Internet is transforming the practice of history. I expected a discussion of the importance of online primary sources, the broadening of research possibilities for undergraduate students, and the topics that could be found and explored through search engines. To be sure, that was the gist of some students’ comments.

What I found particularly interesting, however, was that several students discussed how distracting online research was for them. When I pressed them on what they meant, they noted that while online primary sources were great, that during those times that they were researching online they constantly found themselves involved in other online activities (IM, Facebook, entertainment sites, etc.). When I suggested they turn IM off while doing research, they indicated they knew that they should, but that they never did. [A couple students pointed out that even if IM was off, online research required being online and therefore the temptation to click elsewhere was always there.]

What occurred to me as I listened was that there was a gap between the students’ understanding of the Internet and my own. [This post title suggests one explanation for that gap, though I acknowledge the small sample size and my own particular biased perspective.] I see the Internet as a collection of various repositories of information (albeit linked together in what is hardly a seamless way); I am constantly conscious of their origins (a fact especially true
when I discuss online collections of primary sources and historical information). For my students, the Internet is a more-or-less seamless information source, and one for which they have trouble tuning out particular parts. In fact one student said that she much prefers offline research (in books of all things) because of the lack of distractions.

If that’s true (and I acknowledge that I may be overstating the dichotomous perspective) then what are the potential effects on our teaching? I now believe that it is even more important than I realized before to get students to identify the sources of particular information in order to better ascertain bias and veracity of online materials. Overcoming the seamless (sourceless?) nature of the web may be a bigger problem than I thought. Or should we of a slightly older NetGeneration just accept the view that the Internet is increasingly seamless and come to terms with a new more-or-less unified way of presenting information?

Digital Literacies and Technology Proficiencies — What do our students need to know?

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been engaged in conversations with a number of my colleagues about the question of what digital skills and fluencies students need to know to be successful in college and beyond. [The longest and most fruitful conversation was with our terrific director of Teaching and Learning Technologies, Martha Burtis.] What follows is a jumbled beginning discussion of what I feel are priorities as we look toward getting students prepared for success in classes and creating adaptable, responsible, information-literate, global citizens.

First, we need to begin with basic informational and technological competencies and we need to start by defining in a broad sense what we mean by “competencies,” a word that has been gaining a great deal of traction lately without a great deal of explanation. I think (though I’m hardly the first to articulate this) that digital competencies are made up of both technical skills (ranging from changing margins in Word and more advanced MS Office functions to a familiarity with online tools including email, search engines, IM, blogs, wikis, and so on) and digital fluencies (requiring a higher-order deployment of those skills in producing and consuming information in an adaptable, creative, responsible way). [It’s also important to note that this definition of “competencies” goes beyond the notion of bare adequacy.]

If we accept this notion of skills versus fluencies, I would argue the emphasis of our digital proficiency goals should be aimed at achieving fluency, not skill mastery. Can we not expect students to come to college with a basic familiarity with the skills of digital life? Can’t basic skills (word processing, email, spreadsheets) be expected? But Jeff, aren’t there plenty of entering college students who are familiar with aspects of the digital world, but don’t know how to do all of these things? Why, yes, I’m glad you asked. Certainly a focus on fluency over skills would require institutional support in the form of a Technology Center, online guides, brief workshops (no more than an hour or two), and perhaps student tech tutors, so that students not capable of certain skills could find the answers to questions about margin changing or Powerpoint presentations or what ever they needed for a particular class.

There is, I think, an important parallel here with the way we address writing in college. A small percentage of our students have poor grammar skills. [Most are quite good at grammar.] There are resources on campus to deal with those issues, but we don’t send them to a separate class on grammar (nor do we advocate all students take a test on grammar). The school does have a writing intensive requirement, however, that necessitates students demonstrate a number of their writing skills, which of necessity requires familiarity and facility with grammar.

So, can’t we tell new students, “these are the basic computing skills every incoming student should have” and then offer them resources to address the gaps they have? The vast majority of our students do have a broad familiarity with basic computing skills. [We might even have an (optional) placement assessment like we do with foreign languages that would allow them to measure their technical computing skills.]

We can then focus the technology proficiency requirement on fluencies, on an adaptable ability to think, create, and operate within the digital world. And we need to make these fluencies the centerpiece of the requirement (not digital skills or even the classes/fulfillment requirements).

The advantages of focusing on digital fluencies over digital skills are numerous:

  • Testing students on basic skill sets makes most of them feel like they are wasting their time on things they already know, or on things they think they’ll never use.
  • Focusing on digital fluencies allows us to expect more technological sophistication from students. [This is as opposed to a kind of low-level investment in a skill-test system that encourages only completion (and that only barely) and not engagement, creativity, or adaptability.]

Broadly stated, what do I see as the key competencies of digital literacy?

  • Researching, finding and evaluating primary and secondary sources
  • Presenting one’s ideas in a variety of formats (written, oral, formal/informal–online)

The next question to ask is how these digital fluencies will be delivered. I think the material should be incorporated into one or a set of class(es), not a separate course on “technology”. Integrating digital fluencies into classes (general education and departmental requirements) has a couple of key results. First, it indicates the importance the institution and faculty have invested in those fluencies. Second, it provides students with content-linked opportunities to demonstrate their ability to maneuver and participate in the digital world (locally and globally)

The most recent discussions of our technology proficiency have revolved around a two-tier system, with a foundational level (a course or courses) intended to address those fundamental competencies incoming students need for their college experience in general, and a discipline-specific requirement. The latter would allow departments to integrate those discipline-specific digital skills and fluencies into their curriculum and support plans. [So a psychology department might incorporate SPSS into their methods classes, while Math could include work with Mathmatica or Dynamic Solver.]

In determining the success of the digital fluency approach (and more generally of the technology proficiency program), we need to make sure that the assessments are not multiple-choice, specific skills tests, but rather allow students to demonstrate competencies within a framework of actual activity and usage.

What do you think? Is this an approach that makes sense? Is it an approach that can garner support among faculty, students, and administrators?

E-Portfolios–Part II–A New Hope?

I started to write this post in the comments section of my last post, but realized it was getting prohibitively long to fit in the comments.

I don’t disagree with either of the comments raised by Steve and Jerry. Various parts of what I described as e-portfolios could be started without a full-blown university-wide e-portfolio system. [And some of my colleagues at CGPS have already begun to do so.] All that is good. Students could demonstrate competencies in technological proficiency and/or digital literacy (they’re different things, a subject for a future post), they could maintain online archives of sorts of their written work using blogs or wikis or some other medium, and even reflect on that work.

But would students do that on their own? Probably not. Will they do so when it’s assigned? Likely, and they might even get something out of it. But without other professors doing the same thing they’re not likely to connect it to a larger educational experience or broader world.

I guess the real appeal to me of the e-portfolio (beyond the practical function as an accessible place to collect work) is on the grand scale. One place to assemble the work of a college career, one place to reflect on four years’ worth of research, writing, even presentations (digitally recorded), one place to make connections between courses and concepts, between science and literature, between language and society. Steve’s right in his comment that this reflection could be going on all the time. Heck, it should be going on all the time. But what appeals to me (and what I see as its biggest problem) is the notion of some kind of complete integration of the e-portfolios, a notion that would require grass-roots and top-down support from administration, faculty and students. Since I have trouble envisioning that broad institutional buy-in, I’m having trouble buying into doing this piece meal.

I suppose my pragmatism is blocking my vision in this case.

Maybe this is the kind of thing that might best be tried out at the departmental level. [If any of my departmental colleagues are reading this, rest easy. This is a thought piece, not next meeting’s new business agenda item.] A department could decide that it wanted its majors to collect their writings, speeches, and everything else related to the major in one place; that it wanted its majors to be consciously reflective about their courses and the material/concepts/skills learned in them; and that it wanted them to explore the value of that content and those competencies for their own goals in and after college.

A department would be larger than a single professor’s desire and therefore would reflect a larger commitment to the concept on the part of a group of faculty within a discipline on campus. On the other hand the issues of scale and practicality I raised in my earlier post would be less problematic with 5-15 professors and 50-250 students than they would be with an entire campus. [Plus, getting buy-in from a single department is more feasible than convincing an entire campus.]

Thoughts?

E-Portfolios — What’s the Point?

It’s not very original of me to keep playing off of someone else’s blog, but Will Richardson’s post, No Child Left Without a Portfolio, inspired me to write on something that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the last couple years.

I recently took part in a technology roundtable discussion with members of my institution’s faculty and staff (and a couple of students) about the future of our technology proficiency requirement for our undergraduate students. A couple of colleagues from our graduate campus noted that they were beginning to use electronic portfolios to assess computing proficiency, as well as present pedagogical skills. I commented that I thought most undergraduate students already had a default portfolio of projects (papers, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, and other electronic materials), but it was sitting on their computers, unorganized and unused since the assignments for which they were created. Certainly those materials might be collectively used to demonstrate the array of technological proficiencies that our students learn.

Still, that use of electronic portfolios seems rather limited. What is the point of electronic portfolios, why would we want to use them, and why has there been such resistance to the idea of them on many campuses? I think the answers to these questions are connected.

Reasons for an electronic portfolio (in no particular order)

  • Demonstrate competence in some skills
    • This gets at what my colleagues from CGPS and I were discussing before.
    • Many teaching programs require paper or e-versions of these now.
  • Gather and reflect on one’s work
    • This might be one way of encouraging a kind of self-reflective (or self-repairing) learning. “Here’s all of the papers you’ve written for your classes in the history department. Reflect on what worked, what didn’t, what you learned about yourself, your researching, and your writing.”
    • In the ideal form, such e-portfolios might even come to serve as a central theme to the liberal arts experiences, a kind of connective tissue between individual classes and between courses and the larger collegiate experience. “Why am I taking all these classes? What’s the point of this array of courses, within my major and outside it and how do they relate to each other?”
  • Serve as long-term online storage for student work (and faculty comments?) that could be used by both the student (for reference, as part of a job or graduate school application) and the school (evidence of student learning, data source for assessing outcomes, examples of projects for future students)
    • Due to privacy the latter uses would depend on selective approvals by students.

Broadly speaking, I think the variety of uses of e-portfolios actually hinders their acceptance. They mean too many different things to too many different people (and/or disciplines). Some see them as demonstrations of competencies (often of very specific skills or ideas); others see them as reflective tools to discuss progress and learning (a reflection which some people see as not relevant to their discipline).

Then there are the practical issues about online portfolios. What responsibility does the school have for keeping these portfolios? How long is long-term? Ten years? Twenty? Permanently? Sure, hard disk space is cheap, but servers and personnel to maintain them aren’t. Given the numerous problems with privacy and data thefts lately, how much responsibility would schools have in safeguarding access to this material?

None of this is to reject the idea of e-portfolios–I’m especially attracted to the notion of reflective/self-correcting consumers of information and I think they can serve practical goals in demonstrating competencies–only to note that if a school is to take on such a project it would need an extremely clear set of goals (and a long-term plan) to deal with the practical issues.

Digital Literacy in Higher Education

As part of the ongoing reexamination of our curriculum and approaches, my department has been working on the goals for our major, on what we hope students will have learned by the time they graduate.

We discussed writing and speaking skills, knowledge acquisition and critical thinking, familiarity with a diverse set of methodologies, times, and places, and a perspective on the place of the self in the larger society. Although not always expressed in such ways before by us, these are fairly common sentiments in history departments. What was unusual was the addition of a section on what we’re calling “digital literacy.” Here’s what we came up with:

  • As the amount of information available online increases at near-exponential levels, the need for students’ digital literacy grows as well.
    • The ability to find reliable, scholarly, information on a topic
      • Within gated, subscription databases and in the larger, disorganized online world
      • Finding and searching the collections of online archives, museums and institutions of higher education
    • The ability to assess and evaluate the reliability of online sources
      • This is a new facet of the approach historians and history students have long employed, that of judicious skepticism.
    • The ability to produce creative, yet scholarly materials for the digital world
      • These require the same level of rigor applied to traditional papers and presentations.

What have we left out? Probably something about encouraging active participation in an online world (hat-tip to Jerry on this), though I’m still working on ways to write that section. Other suggestions?

We decided the following was what we wanted for our students:

Students who become fluent in all these areas will be adaptable, reflective consumers and producers of information, critical thinkers able to take on any number of occupations, aware of the diversity of thought and opinion in the study of the past, and ready to move forward into the larger world as responsible, productive citizens of local and global communities.

None of this is finished yet (and we still are in the midst of curricular discussions), but I can’t help but be excited about the direction the department and the institution is taking. We are looking to the future in useful ways, for us as teachers/mentors/learners and for our students as learners/mentees/teachers.

The implications of an on-demand future

Almost every morning when I get into the car to take my 3-year old daughter to day care she asks me to play “Puff the Magic Dragon” for her on my MP3 player. [I do have thousands of other songs, but she never seems to want to hear Son Volt or U2.]

This repetitious request by children for the same song over and over is the bane of many a parent’s existence (and perhaps the jackhammer between sanity and insanity). That is, the repetition of children’s songs is not a new experience.

However, it’s begun a thought that’s been rattling in my brain (along with the chorus to Puff) about the delivery of media today and its effect on society, children in particular.

My daughter also always has children’s shows to watch because my wife and I have Tivo’ed a number of them and can play them on demand (well, not literally, since we try to limit her TV watching time, but you get my point).

Sure, other parents have played Puff on CD or cassette tape (or probably 8-track), and they’ve got VHS or DVD versions of their kids’ favorite shows and movies, but it seems to me there is
a fundamental psychological difference to children between getting a tape or cassette or DVD out to put in and play, and just using a couple of button presses on a screen or click-wheel to start exactly what she wants. Will this raise her expectations? Will she demand information and entertainment to just appear with a few clicks? Yes, of course she will.

And so will our students.