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 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 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,, 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!

Anatomy of a Blogger

Martha has asked over at the Fish Wrapper, what kind of bloggers we are, with the goal of complicating the notion of any one style or method or purpose of blogging. [She’s right, I do tend to think of blogging as more or less the same. This is another case of us confusing the technology with the conversation.] I’ll answer Martha’s questions for myself below.

Generally, are you an impetuous blogger? Or do you mull over an idea or post for hours, days, weeks before hand? Do you draft a post and then let it sit until you’ve had a chance to revise it multiple times, perfecting your language and point?

No, I’m a muller. I will let posts sit for months at a time. But, oddly, now that I think about it, not generally because I want to revise them more. I’m an impetuous drafter, writing blog posts as inspired, but I tend not to hit “Publish” on them very quickly. [Faculty Academy this year being an exception.] That has more to do with a deliberate (self)consciousness of my online presence than the care with which Barbara Ganley calls for in “slow blogging”.

Do you “collect” the references in your posts before you write them (if so, describe your system)? Or do you blog with 15 windows open, copying and pasting quotes and URLs, as needed?

15 tabs in Firefox (7 right now….)

Do you blog in the admin panel of your blog? Or do you use some third-party tool? If you use a tool, what features does it have that hooked you?

The admin panel. It’s worked pretty well for me.

Do you automatically consider placing images in your posts? Or does this not even occur to you, usually?

I don’t usually even think of it. I’m generally blogging about concepts, but I see Barbara and others do the same, but with pictures. I’ll have to think about this idea more.

Do you write posts and then delete them before clicking “Publish?” Or, by extension, do you have draft posts that have languished for days, weeks, months waiting for you to pull the trigger?

Yes, see above….

Do you feel compelled to blog on a schedule? Do you feel guilty when you don’t?

No, but I feel left out when I see lots of other people posting and I haven’t had time (or something to say).

Do you “craft” the experience of your blog, adding sidebar widgets and custom graphics to lure readers into your space?

I’ve added some sidebar stuff, but I’ve not thought about it as drawing readers in. After all, I tend to read other people’s stuff in Google Reader (and generally visit their blogs only to comment), so I tend not to worry as much about the reader’s Techist blog experience. [Maybe I’d have more readers if I did…. :-]

Martha and Laura‘s posts about this view of blogging and technology suggest we really need to work harder to clarify that these tools are just that, tools, and ways of furthering conversations, creating interactions, and reading, processing, and adding to, that torrent of information to which we all have access, and with which we all have to deal.