Jim Groom & Claudia Emerson Redux

Jim and Claudia presented (neither for the first time at Faculty Academy) on an online literary journal created by one of her classes. Calling Nonce impressive does not do it justice. Check it out for yourself.

[Nearly 40 people crammed into the room to hear them–Standing Room Only….]

One particular point raised by Claudia that intrigued me was the notion of applying to change that particular class from 3 credits to 4, allowing for a “lab” component (or perhaps recognizing the increased time that developing and implementing some of these skills may take). [I’m aware that there are some complications related to campus expectations for what constitutes a four-credit course. Let’s set those aside for a second.] What do people think about the idea of a “digital lab” component for more credit?

The Checklist Phenomenon

Shannon has been blogging about her first-year experiences over at Loaded Learning. In her most recent post she describes her frustration with some of her fellow students who seemed to just be in college to check off a bunch of boxes.*

The checklist phenomenon is one that has always bugged me, though I think I understand where it comes from. It’s easier to go about one’s daily life without having to question everything, without having to constantly reexamine one’s direction, path, education. There is a reassuring certainty to having a checklist, to knowing exactly what one needs to do that is less draining than having to think too much constantly about one’s future or present.

I say this not to rag on college students in particular; I see it in my own life and among my colleagues and our attitudes toward the curriculum. If we know that students will take X set of classes from Y set of categories, then we can be reasonably certain that they have been exposed to a set of ideas that we call “liberal arts” and a major with a particular set of skills and fluencies, and therefore we can rest easy about it.

I’ve been thinking about this assumption lately, however, as our institution reexamines its general education curriculum. I’m not resting as easy as I have been with our Gen Ed course structure. Why? Because what we don’t know with as much certainty is what the students actually get out of these classes, or if checking all those boxes off truly makes them better students or better employees or better human beings. We also don’t know if those students make any connections between the various checked boxes or their learning. [With a few exceptions, we don’t encourage such connections in structural or specific ways.] I’m beginning to wonder if what we need is fewer requirements for specific content areas and more requirements for self and guided reflection by students on their work, their goals, on their education itself.

Of course, that might still create a checklist of courses and/or requirements that students (and faculty) could check off without the kind of buy-in that real learning and teaching would need. Still, it seems like it would be a start in the right direction, an acknowledgement that we as an institution valued the connections between their various classes, between their classes and their learning, between their learning and their lives, and between their education and their participation as members of larger physical and intellectual communities.

Thoughts? How might we implement such an approach beyond individual classrooms or particular instructors or interested students (because I think that kind of breadth is essential the kind of reflected learning)? [Given the audience for this blog, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here, and, if so, help me figure out what the counter argument(s) is/are. Why wouldn’t this work (and why are they wrong)? :-]

*I think many of us at MW would agree that Steve’s Freshman Seminar should be seen as a success if its only contribution (which this is not) was to encourage this depth of reflective public writing by students.

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), 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).*


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.