Why I Love Working (& Teaching & Learning) Here

As I’ve been working on my big summer project (the revised book manuscript), I’ve been eagerly following Gardner’s summer course entitled From Memex to YouTube: An Introduction to New Media Studies. Then this afternoon (just a few hours before class started), Shannon twittered that she wished she could see the class’s final presentations. I echoed her with a plea for Gardner to setup a webcam and soon suggestions for places to host it came in from our local twittersphere. By the time class started a ustream account had been set up and the event was being streamed, live. It spent most of the evening on ustream’s front page. Anyone could drop in and see the projects of the people in the class.

I wasn’t able to get to the stream until it was more than half over, but when I did I remembered why I like working where I am so much. Why?

  1. The students were amazing. They had great projects and they were incredibly enthusiastic about the class and their own work (and, dare I say, their learning). [See an Alaskan summary of a few of them here and the full video stream from here.] These kind of students are why MW is such a great place to work.
  2. Not a small part of this excitement, interest, skill, and creativity was due to the class environment set by Gardner. Play, interdisciplinarity, technology-enabled creativity, intellectual rigor (the good kind), and real engagement all were at work here, in a Real School class. Cool colleagues are why MW is such a great place to work.
  3. While I watched the students present, I was engaged in a chat with people from all over the continent (Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Canada) many of whom had heard about it from the invite Gardner and Martha put on their Twitter networks. As I chatted with DTLT friends (Jim, Jerry, Andy (on vacation!), and Martha), faculty colleagues (Sue, Gardner), people I’d met at conferences (CogDog) or people I knew largely from the blogosphere (D’Arcy, Chris, Vidya), and students in (and out of) the classroom, I thought to myself: “These are really bright, really engaged, really interesting people, and I can’t believe how much fun this is….”
  4. As I was watching the student presentations, I also found myself engaged in three or four chat conversation threads at once. It was chaotic, it was crazy, and it was probably not for everyone. That kind of multi-threaded conversation drives some people mad, but in this environment it just worked for me. Discussions of projects, of software, of Doug Engelbart, of Carl Jung, of the impact of the process of authorship on the author’s view of other work, of films and film theory, of numerous bad jokes, inside jokes, sarcastic jokes, and ROTFL jokes, of the wonder and awe of the final presentation of the night–an amazing movie by Serena that brought many of us watching online to the brink of tears.
  5. I want to take this class; and if that isn’t possible, then I want to team-teach it with Gardner; and if that isn’t possible, then look for the history version, coming soon to a seminar room near you. [Adventures in Digital History!] I love that I teach at a school where there is room in the curriculum and the minds of the people I work with for these kinds of explorations.

Now, admittedly, this post has a little of the fanboy aspect to it. The reality check is that not every day feels like this in this job. There are days when I would love to have 1/10 of the energy I felt tonight. There are conversations with colleagues or students that leave me drained, not inspired. There are days I plod along, rather than lead and innovate. I know that.
In fact, in the middle of this amazing few hours, I found myself in a brief chat with a colleague where we both acknowledged how special this extended moment was and how we wished it could always be like this. So, where do we go from here? Well, we need to hold on to (and brag about) these moments until they are more common. [Hence this post.] I want to harness this energy, bottle it up somehow and feed it to everyone I see: students, faculty, administrators, learners all. This is what learning can be. This is what Real School is all about.

How can you measure or quantify the feeling of excitement, engagement and learning that took place tonight? [Yes, I use those terms deliberately.] We need to figure out how to replicate these moments, not in a cold, cloning kind of way, but in setting the stage for creativity, learning and innovation in and out of classrooms, and then taking advantage of those moments of opportunity to share them.

But for tonight, I’m just going to keep smiling.

Data, Information Overload, and Selling the University (in a good way)

Martha’s written another wide open exploration about the soul of academia in the form of a discussion of what data collection means. I responded in her comments, but I wanted to develop it a little more here.

I wonder if this focus on data and rankings isn’t just another of a series of poor attempts made to deal with the information overload that all of us have been facing? Both faculty/administrators and prospective/current students/parents have to figure out some way of addressing the role of the increasingly expensive collegiate experience. Colleges have to justify their prohibitive expense and parents (and increasingly students) want that justification spelled out for them (and want a measurable return on their investment). The vast amount of data available today about schools and the college experience means that parents and students are easily overwhelmed in their choices. A ranking system allows those parents and students to cope with that overwhelming set of data, providing a set of “concrete” justifications to hang their decisions on. Rankings systems (based on that data) also allow colleges to address (at least in appearance) questions of fiscal accountability (without really exploring substantive external or internal questions about the links between “value” and “education”). It’s not a perfect system, but the structure that data built does allow a kind of compromise method for all these actors to discuss higher education in a manageable way.

But ultimately this system is far from perfect and reveals a substantive failure of academia to properly identify and explain its role. The argument we should be loudly and broadly and proudly making is that the educational experience Martha and Gardner and Steve and so many others are writing about (learning focused; interdisciplinary in all the best ways; playful; collaborative and individualized; potentially, though not necessarily, technology-enabled) is worth the money spent because it does make graduates better enabled to succeed in the work force, as well as making them better citizens, better friends, better voters, better people….

The data-driven approach to education (epitomized by the US News and World Report Rankings, but perpetuated by many others) appeals to people (and always will–it’s easier and it’s minimally satisfying). Of course, if we consider quantitative literacy as important as written, aural, and visual literacy–and what good liberal arts program wouldn’t?–then we could teach students (and their parents) as well as our fellow academicians how to look behind those stats to see the assumptions behind them. And let’s turn all that data (and the tools for presenting it) in our favor. Admittedly, many of the benefits we’re talking about are not easily quantifiable. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t quantify them or present them in new ways. That’s why it’s so important that we develop ways to make individual and community educational experiences visible to ourselves and to others.

And so we’re back to umwronco in at least a couple of its forms. Our work is cut out for us; Martha’s right that this is a pivotal moment in education. I recognize the potential “dark underbelly” she refers to, but I continue to be excited by the sheer possibilities inherent in higher education and the potential of academia to lead the caravan through the 21st century.

Slicing and Dicing for Education: My Thoughts on a Real School Tool

[Let me start by apologizing for the title. I’m working to finish a book manuscript and I’m tending to see everything in history book title form at the moment…..]

Martha has called out those of us who have been participating in some really exciting conversations about the future connections between education and technology. So, this is my response to Martha’s vision and an attempt to begin to explain my own. [I’m writing this assuming you’ve read hers….]

One of the early complicating issues in those initial, wide-ranging conversations, as I remember it, was between those who saw the need for a specific tool for capturing one’s own digital trail and those who seemed more interested in the ability to manipulate and view information through a variety of filters (hence the “slice-and-dice” metaphor). Here’s Martha’s summary:

Originally, I was focussed on one specific tool that I felt would meet a particular need — a Zotero-like device (Firefox plugin?) that a user could use to “capture” any kind of online resource and generate a sort of RSS/XML-feed on steroids. Sick of wondering how to get all the various Web authoring tools and social networking spaces to play nicely together, I wondered what would happen if we just scrapped that approach altogether and built some intelligent, lightweight, browser-based “appliance” that would allow me to cobble together a feed from any spot along my digital trail. (Others have asked if this isn’t del.icio.us. I still don’t *think* so, but I can’t really explain it. At least, not right now, I can’t.)

I have to start by noting that I’ve never seen the set of tools as needing to be a single Zotero-like record of intellectual online travels, in part because of a larger concern with the ability of such a tool to capture off-line material too and in part because I haven’t wrapped my head around the best ways to use Zotero itself. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to have such a tool, especially as Martha describes it, but I’m not sure it’s the end goal. [It could be one of a set of tools, but I may be one of those who thinks that del.icio.us with its rss feeds is good enough, at least for now.]

I also think that Martha did a great job of summarizing a great deal of what I hope this set of tools will be. Still, she asked for our vision of what umwronco could be, and here’s mine:

1) A snapshot of our intellectual life — I’ve used this phrase a number of times to suggest a key use for umwronco to me. The life and mission of a university is ostensibly public, yet much of its interactions, discussions, and ideas remain bottled up in silos that range from the individual, to between teacher-student, to within the classroom, to the campus itself. Why stop there, especially at a public institution?

  • Example 1 — I can imagine talking to a group of potential students and their parents at an admissions function with a screen behind me showing a tag cloud of categories being discussed on campus in the last 24 hours or an intellectual map with student-created connections between and amongst various classes and extra-class sources and ideas. I’m geeked by how powerful it would be for me to tell those parents and potential students, “This is the intellectual life of this institution right now. Don’t you want to join us?”
  • Example 2 — Such a snapshot could (and should) be taken with a broader lens. e.g., what are Virginia college students talking/writing/thinking about right now?
  • Example 3 — Using such a snapshot, teachers and students, learners all, could see the larger intellectual world of the campus and build off that. [Admittedly the snapshot might be scary — does anyone want to see that the intellectual life of the campus includes a certain hotel heiress’s latest problems? But in that case maybe students and faculty could work to change the intellectual life and soon.]
  • Example 4 — Using such a snapshot, administrators, including student life personnel, could respond more precisely to student needs and interests, those prosaic (laundry complaints) and profound (responses to tragedies). In other words, it might be a way to measure the pulse of the student body.

I would add that I want to be able to take various snapshots over time (a stop-motion movie of the intellectual life of the institution would be very cool) and to be able to change the scope of the snapshot (capturing the intellectual life of a class, of a department, of a single student, of a dorm–let’s not forget that even in the online world that physical, off-line space still matters a great deal). Do you see where the “slicing and dicing” comes in?

2) A way for students to make connections between their various sources of learning and create a self-aware, reflective course of study — And no, I’m not so self-important to think that this only includes connections between their classes or a reflection on the courses required for their major. It is widely acknowledged that students learn a great deal outside of the classroom and their course assignments and this suite needs to allow students to make such connections. Still, I see this suite of tools as making it possible for students to more explicitly engage in the connections (and perhaps as importantly in the conflicts) between their various classes, even when those courses were created in isolation from each other. [This view is heavily inspired by a recent conversation with Gardner and Steve Greenlaw.]

  • Example 1 — A student learns overlapping material in my 19th Century American Families class and an English class on Women Writers. What current incentive does that student have to make such connections explicit? [I encourage students to bring up materials learned in other classes and I have some colleagues that do as well. But that process could be expanded and encouraged, allowing self-reflection for students and a view of that connections for others.]
  • Example 1.5 — A student looking for a class to take for next semester reviews those reflections/connections posted by students who have taken similar classes. Amazon’s site has a feature that is effectively: “readers who liked this book also liked this one”. Why couldn’t that work for students and classes as well?
  • Example 2 — E-portfolios — ’nuff said.

3) A way to begin to dip into and process the larger flow (torrent?) of information online. [In other words, learning to deal with information overload.] — Recently there have been a number of discussions of the disconnect between students’ lives online and their abilities to navigate that online world in an academically sophisticated (or perhaps just critical) way. I’d want this suite of tools to train students in the art of information consumption and production.

  • Example — Digital literacy, as I see it, is fundamentally about the ability to navigate the online world in a reliable, thoughtful, critical way. [My lengthier versions of that definition…. ] So, a student might come to see the umwronco set of tools as a way to help them look at the online world in a new way, especially if it involved tagging/categorization, annotation, and a unified place to keep one’s own learning centered.

4) A conscious, explicit reinforcement of the need to keep citation, authority and reliability at the forefront of sliced and diced material and an awareness of the role of bias and perspective. — Obviously related to the last point, I’m still close enough to my disciplinary origins to insist that any sliced/diced/created/preserved information be linked in a prominent way to its origins. To do otherwise risks exacerbating a sentiment I’ve noticed among students, namely that the web seems a seamless information source to them, not a series of collections of information with different authors (and therefore different authority and different levels of reliability). I expect that umwronco would help students (and faculty) to be more aware of their own assumptions and biases (in what information they can get, in what filters are being used, and therefore what material is left out) and those of others.

  • Example — Students could create an extensive, cross-course annotated bibliography through both linking and formal citations that could ground part or all of their online work.

5) These tools will be perpetual betas, yet available in various “packages” depending on the expertise and interest of the user. — The phrase “perpetual beta”, which I picked up from Gardner and Jeremy Boggs at Clioweb, took me a while to embrace, but embrace it I have. Faculty and students will need to come to terms with a fast-changing, always-in-revision world of tools. [We need to remember that academia is constantly in revision; it’s just typically been on a (much) longer cycle.] Still, we need to be conscious of the need to attract people to the umwronco and I think a series of ronco-packages might be one way to go (even if never formally expressed this way).

  • Level 1 — alpha testers — they’ll try anything, as long as it has the potential to improve student and teacher learning.
  • Level 2 — beta testers — rough edges are fine, they revise their classes almost every semester anyway.
  • Level 3 — gamma testers — Fewer rough edges, numerous examples/models for implementation.
  • Level 4 — Everybody else — Sneak in a tool or two when they’re not looking….

I’m aware that I haven’t been especially specific or practical about implementation at this point. I don’t think wedding ourselves to one technology or software or tool is the right approach here, especially given the rapid rate of change. I also am aware that I don’t know the specifics of how all these technologies work or even more important, the difficulties of implementation. With those two caveats, my view of the suite of tools would include some combination of the following: blogs, multi-user blogs, wikis, electronic forums, RSS feeds, del.icio.us, maybe Zotero, tag clouds, e-portfolios, GIS software, Bluehost, Fantastico, PhpSurveyor, YouTube, Drupal, IM, Twitter and BackTwitter, even (gasp) email. [Just to be clear, I don’t see myself using all of these, but the idea of a suite of tools is the point here.]

Let me finish by reminding the reader (congratulations on making it this far!) that this post is part of a much larger conversation about this topic and many others that I have been privileged to be a part of over the last couple of years. Two points about that: First, many of these idea are not my own, or at least not in their original form. Most of them came from the other people in these conversations and so they should get that credit (in addition to those mentioned already: Jerry, Angela, Patrick, Jim, Andy, Chip, Cathy, Charlotte, Sue, and most recently, Laura, Alan, and Barbara). Second, I’ve been able to be incredibly honest with the people that have been part of that conversation and this post may reflect that directness at times. None of that directness or contrariness should be taken as anything more than respectful disagreement about parts of our shared mission. I mention this not for the core people involved in that conversation, because I know they understand that, but in awareness of the potentially larger audience. If you don’t have such a group of people you can be honest and frank and inspired with, well, join ours!

Ode to a Faculty Academy; Or, My Brain is Full

The process of processing Faculty Academy is always difficult. Sifting through the inspiration and ideas of another amazing two days is going to take a while.

Highlights that stick out at this juncture:

— Barbara Ganley’s two presentations — one an impassioned “call to arms” for the role of slow blogging (writing with reflection and purpose) in 21st-century learning, the other an inspiring yet practical workshop on the way to frame a technology-intensive course around both the content and the individual students in a given class. [The last deserves a blog post of its own, and probably from someone more articulate than me.]

— Claudia Emerson’s online technology coming-out party — three presentations on three different projects, and each of them about a site/blog/work that I wish my students and I had created.

Alan Levine‘s reminder that play and experimentation with non-obviously educational technologies like Second Life and Twitter can provide us with new ways to address educational questions.

— The Teaching and Learning Technology Fellows demonstrating that a little money (a course release), a fair amount of talking, and a lot of support can aid both technology evangelists and technophobes in creating thoughtful, creative projects from which our students will benefit. [And that not knowing at first exactly what you want to do can be a really good thing.]

— Karen Stephenson’s talk about networks of social interaction, of knowledge capital, and the resulting twittering and Twittering about who the hubs, mavericks and heretics of Mary Washington are (and whether or not we need to give them a hug). [Lots more to think about here….] [Thanks to Gardner for his role in bringing Barbara, Alan, and Karen to campus.]

— The success of Martha Burtis and the DTLT ITSs (Jerry, Jim, Andy, and Patrick) in not only putting on a terrific conference (including several of their own sessions), but also providing the moral and technical support that enabled almost every one of the projects we saw presented.

[What? What do you mean you missed it?! Well, there’s always next year. Or you can talk to your friendly neighborhood ITS today. They’re happy to help you implement your ideas, or even to help you figure out what you might want to do. Don’t have an ITS at your school? Ask for one. (But you can’t have ours.) Their presence here is one of the best things about UMW.]

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.