Confirmation for “Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed”?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I’ve been telling students that I wanted them to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D’Mello and Art Graesser found “that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning.”

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.

In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”

Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.

On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.

Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”

All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.

Re-Creating the College Classroom of the Past

I just sent the following email to one of my classes for the Spring.

Hello all,

Thanks for signing up for History 328: US Women’s History since 1870.  I wanted to give you a little preview of my plans for our class next semester because the research projects in the class are going to be a little different than that of other history classes (even for those of you who took HIST 327 this fall).

First of all, in many ways, the general structure of the class is going to be fairly standard.  We’ll have lectures on Tuesdays and part of Thursdays, and discuss readings on Thursdays.  There will be a mid-term and a final based on those lectures, discussions, and readings.

What’s different is that the rest of your grade, roughly 40%, will be based on a series of projects we’ll be working on in groups and as a class.  These projects will be based around researching Mary Washington College classes in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, & 1960s (including course topics, pedagogical approaches, majors, gender stereotypes, technology, and clothing).  As the class lectures and readings look at the experiences of women in the United States in the late 19th and 20thCenturies, our parallel goal will be to understand what college meant to women who came to Mary Washington in the four decades in the middle of the 20thCentury.

Each group of 6-7 of you will have a decade to research, using a variety of online and archival sources, as well as interviews with alums from these decades.  Rather than writing a traditional individual research paper, you’ll keep a research blog and  work with your group to create a research site collecting together the information that you’ve found.

Based on those sites, we will collectively decide (perhaps with the help of some alums), which decade we will then use for the final project, a re-creation of a course session or two from that decade.

Now, if this project is not the kind of thing you’ll be interested in working on, you may want to look for another class.  But I hope you’ll each at least be intrigued by the idea and perhaps even excited by doing something that is original, fun, and creative, while tying in to the themes we’ll be discussing more broadly for US women in the class.

Have a terrific break and I’ll see you in January.

Dr. McClurken

I’m very excited about this project, so any suggestions you have for the process, the approach, the research sites, or anything else will be greatly appreciated.

Info Age #4 — The Documentaries

[Be sure to check out the earlier installments of my discussion of my History of the Information Age senior seminar as well:   here, here, and here, as well as the class timeline and the list of the first set of projects to be placed in that timeline.]

Assignment #4 in this course was the group documentaries on some aspect of the Information Age.  I didn’t give the students a great deal of direction, other than to say that they needed to show change over time, that they should be between 5 and 10 minutes, and that they needed to upload them somewhere where they could be seen (they all chose YouTube).  They had about three weeks to come up with a topic (related to the class discussions of the digital age), research, film, and edit the video.


Each group had a basic video camera, and they had access to the editing stations in our Digital Media Lab (with iMovie and Premiere).   Ultimately, only one group used Premiere, one used iMovie, and two used Windows Movie Maker.  
Although they had been given a brief intro to video editing at the start of the semester by DTLT, most of them were going to be doing video capture and editing for the first time.  I recommended that they test out their cameras, video files, and basic editing before they got too far into the process so that they could figure out problems in advance.

They presented the documentaries to the class and they were a great deal of fun.  Certainly, the videos aren’t as polished as they would have been if I had spent more time in training them how to use editing software, or if they’d had more time in the semester to work on them (both points the students make in their after-project posts, linked below), but I’m quite impressed with the work they produced and their willingness to throw themselves into the projects.  

What’s your take?  What suggestions do you have for future iterations of the assignment?

Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else’s blog that grew unwieldy as a comment…. In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about “The Promise of Digital History” . [As Mills points out, it’s quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that “digital literacy” is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of “digital literacy” has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people’s familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I’ve viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.

  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn’t necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We’ve been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim’s post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I’m NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a “digital toolkit” from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they’ve got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it’s good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills’s blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don’t see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I’ve had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they’d worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I’ve been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.

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Speaking of Honor

I was honored to be asked to present the faculty perspective on our school’s Honor Code at our annual Honor Convocation, a moment when all new students at the school are introduced to the Honor System and sign an Honor Pledge, committing themselves to that system.

I only had a week to prepare, so I turned to a number of colleagues and some fellow alums for ideas. Tim O’Donnell and Claudia Emerson were particularly helpful in shaping the direction of the speech.

Thanks to Anand Rao for recording and posting the video. If anyone’s interested, I could post the text of the talk as well.

In any case, I think it went well. It was a real honor to stand up on that stage and start off the academic year in that way and represent the faculty perspective to the entering students.

A Radical Idea for the Teaching Center

As is so often the case for me, this post began as a comment on someone else’s blog post (Steve at Pedablogy) and grew to a silly size, so here’s my expanded version:

I’ve been having this radical idea lately (and it’s one that may make no practical sense, given our institution’s resources and structure), but here it is. In the conversation that the UMW University Committee on Digital Initiatives had with the CIO of Rhodes College, we learned that they had combined the IT and Library departments into one group. One advantage of this for students and faculty was that if you had any questions/ideas/interest about a research/informational topic/project/idea you went to a single place, where you would be referred to the person or people who could best help you (reference librarian, programmer, ITS, or some combo). From a user perspective it helps avoid the paralyzing question about where you go and it avoids some of the “siloization” that seems to be such a problem for academia.

What if the UMW teaching center worked in a similar way? [Here I’m thinking of combining, DTLT, the Speaking and Writing Centers, maybe even academic tutoring.] What if you had any kind of question about teaching or learning and you just had a single source to go to? E.g., I want to brainstorm new assignments to engage my students more fully in a text. Go to the single entry point and you have access to a number of options, a number of experts in various aspects of teaching and learning. Maybe you can talk with someone from the speaking center and someone else from DTLT to create a project.

Imagine what it would be like to be able to have all of those resources in one place, easily accessible to faculty and students. Imagine what collaborations might emerge. Another benefit of having all those groups under one institutional roof would be that they would be able to talk to each other and bridge some of those silos of effort and innovation. [I’m not so naive to think the silos would disappear.] Another potential benefit might be streamlining of spaces and resources and administration.

Obvious Cons: It would take a special group of leaders to make this work. It would require combining some radically different departmental cultures. It might result in fewer people working to support faculty and students in these areas (the dark side of “streamlining”). It risks restricting the nimble, creative nature of at least one of those departments. With the wrong leader, it risks overemphasizing one method or approach over others. Perhaps it should just focus on pedagogy and leave student services where it is.

What am I missing here? [I’m sure a great deal.] And, if the plan itself is impractical, how could we take some of best aspects of it and implement them now, in 2 years, in 5 years?

A Semester of Digital History — Formal Presentations

The formal presentation of my seminar’s Digital History projects will be part of the History Department’s end-of-the-semester symposium. All four groups will present on Friday, April 25, at 3 PM in Monroe Hall 202.

Those of you in the area, please come see them present. We don’t just want to present these projects to the class, but to the department, the university, and the alumni community.

[Over the weekend, I showed the projects to the Alumni Association Board of Directors and they were well received.]

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.)

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.