Responding to a Post about Teaching and Technology

One of our students, Joe McMahon, has posted a blog entry about the problems related to the (mis)use of technology by professors. [It’s amusingly titled, “You Can’t Make Me Drink the Kool-Aid: Part One.”]

I wrote one of the longest comments I’ve ever written and decided I spent enough time on it to repost it with slight modifications here.

I asked others for their opinions on this piece and now Gardner’s called me out on this as well, so here goes.

I would say that blogging (or wiki-ing, or any assignment, technology-based or otherwise) needs to be created with a purpose. I suspect that all of my colleagues have a goal (or often multiple goals) in mind when they create an assignment. What do I hope to accomplish? What form should it take? What sources do I expect students to engage with? How creative/analytical/exploratory/argumentative do I want students to be? How much freedom should they have to shape their own assignments? The list goes on and on.

For me the question about the use of technology is integral to every assignment I create. [Of course writing your papers on lined note pads is using technology. But Joe is raising the point that for some of these assignments the technology is transparent and well known, allowing students to focus on the content (their argument, their research, their style) without having to spend time figuring out to create a new page, while for others the time spent (in and out of class) figuring the tech out distracts from the focus on content.] I get that. As a result, it’s a conscious choice (one of many that I make when creating an assignment and a class) when I ask students to learn a new technology in order to complete my course. [And frankly I try to always make my thinking on the goals of assignments transparent to students (regardless of the tech involved), although not always at the beginning of the class — sometimes having them struggle a bit on their own is part of the intended process.]

Where I think I really have an issue with the post’s argument is with the notion that students are losing out on content by spending time learning a new technology. First of all, every course I create leaves out much, much, much more “content” than I can possibly cover in a single semester. So, each class is a series of choices I have to make about what gets left out. Are students disadvantaged by the material I leave out of my US History Survey on the battles of Revolution so that I can focus on the popular culture of the time? Maybe, but since I can’t cover everything then I have to focus on the areas that I think are most important in creating a general student experience of learning about the past.

I’ll give you another example with even more of a parallel: I could probably cover those Revolutionary battles if I didn’t spend a third of class time engaged in class discussions of primary sources about the Revolution (and other topics), but instead lectured every class period. Lecturing is an incredibly efficient way to dispense content, though fairly problematic in terms of learning content and even worse if you want to build more skills than just passive note-taking and oral processing. I choose to leave out historical content in order to encourage a set of academic skills that I think are useful beyond the classroom (reading primary documents, understanding context, placing yourself in the past, contributing orally to an ongoing discussion, connecting the words of people in the past to the modern perspectives).

For me the use of (newer) technology fits this category as well. Yes, I’m asking students to do something new, or to push themselves, or to think about doing something in a different way, and yes, that potentially takes away from their time to read (or learn) about those darn battles, but that’s a choice I’ve made as the creator of the course. That choice is based in my desire to balance the skills and content portions of my class (that’s an over-stated dichotomy here) to provide the best possible experience for the students going forward, not just in that course, but hopefully in others as well.

[I haven’t discussed engaging students directly here. I would simply echo Gardner’s perspective on this in his comments on the post, adding only that by being as transparent as possible about my thinking with my students that I’d like to think I’ve been fairly successful as engaging a sizable percentage of them over the years.]

Joe has followed up his first post with a series of suggestions for professors thinking about using technology in the classroom, many of which I agree with. He’s also suggested a Faculty Academy session with students and faculty brainstorming about ways to increase student engagement related to technology. Sounds like a good idea.

Brief Update — End of Week 5

I’ve been kept from blogging here lately by managing various class details and two searches, among other things. Still, I wanted to post a brief update of what’s going on in the Digital History Seminar.

All four groups have submitted proposals (“contracts”) with their plans for the projects and how they will complete the project. [They did this via GoogleDocs that each group had used to write the contract.] These contracts included a description of the project, an annotated list of the digital tools they were planning on using, and a timetable for the completion of the major components of the project.

My observations, in brief, after reading these contracts:

  1. In most cases, the proposed projects are more ambitious than those I would have assigned had I been very precise about what I wanted. [I was intentionally broad in my initial descriptions of the projects.] Although one or two of the groups may have to ultimately scale back their goals a little bit, thinking creatively and ambitiously about these projects is exactly what I hoped for these students. They have done that.
  2. The tools they’ve chosen to use are mostly those that DTLT and I presented to them as part of their digital toolkit. [Omeka, GoogleDocs, SIMILE/Timeline, WordPress (via UMW Blogs WPMU), WindowsMovieMaker, scanning, etc. There are a few exceptions that were outside that list (e.g., Adobe Contribute for a site that’ll be part of the school’s official site), but that’s okay. The groups at least had a chance to think about which tools made the most sense, given what they wanted to do.
  3. The schedules were often very ambitious, and that was the most common comment I made to the groups. Still, in almost every case the group members wanted to forge ahead with their ambitious set of deadlines, hoping that it would keep them on track throughout the semester.

Each group received my comments and has until tonight to revise their contract for my approval. [They can still make changes, but they’ll need to have a good reason to do so after this point.] Next week we’ll continue our weekly discussions of a topic related to digital history (this week’s topics are Copyright and Wikipedia) and we’ll see the first groups present status reports to the class as a whole. Not only will these weekly reports force students to articulate where they are and what they’ve been doing, they will also provide a forum for students to share their problems and successes with their classmates.

Honestly, I can’t wait to see the products these groups produce. If anything, I’m more excited now that I’ve seen their proposed contracts. I was talking to a group of alums this weekend about the project and many of them expressed the wish that they were back in school again. [This kind of project is infectious. Be warned!]

The one thing that I’m slightly let down by has been the relatively light blogging of the process by many of the students. [Some have been quite good.] But, since that blogging is a major part of the way I can assess their work (and ultimately leads to part of their grades), I’m a little surprised. Still, that is a minor issue (and one that I’m working on) that I think does little to detract from projects that have the potential of being some of the best student work I’ve ever been a part of. [I don’t think I’m being overly hyperbolic here, but I’m not exactly unbiased either. Besides, I said this would be a brief post, and look at it now…. :-]

Week 2 — Still Chaotic

This week the digital history seminar addressed information architecture and web site design, the open-source presentation software Omeka, and looked at other examples of digital history projects. [With the help of DTLT’s programming, semantic web touting, open-source and server guru, Patrick, of course.] Finally they split into their groups to continue brainstorming about their projects.

I suspect the notion of information architecture is still a bit overwhelming as they are just beginning to narrow down the possible choices for their projects. Figuring out how to lay out their data in a structured way is difficult to comprehend if what that data might be is still not clear. I think they really liked Omeka, though they’ve been running into some problems figuring out how to use it. [I’ve mostly told them to just play with it on their own in the test install Patrick set up, something they’ve had mixed success with.]

For two groups (the James Farmer project and the James Monroe Papers project) the process of deciding on the scope, nature, and form of their project is both enriched and complicated as they are working directly with interested faculty members who have expertise in their area. These two faculty members came to meet with those groups on Thursday and began the process of working with them. Getting to know each other, getting a sense for what each can bring to the process, and getting a feel for various expectations were all part of the process of that meeting.

I’m still very excited about the class and I continue to enjoy going in each day. I’m a little concerned that content is still secondary in the students’ minds as they struggle with the various tools and skills they’re being shown. I’m going to need to continue to remind them (and me) that the digital tools and skills are just different ways of presenting what they want to say.

Web Filtering and the Schools

Fair warning: This is a rant about the inability to access certain social tools in certain K-12 school systems. [For another rant on a similar subject see this rejection of over-the-top web-related fears in education.]

I’ve presented and talked with a number of different K-12 teachers from a number of different school districts in my roles as a history professor and as a relative of numerous such teachers.

I’ve increasingly been annoyed by the trend among many school districts to block access from their networks to more and more websites. Now, let’s be clear. I understand that there is a great deal of material out there that we’d rather our students did not look at. But the process of filtering and blocking is done is such an awkward, blunt manner that the process of teaching is being impacted. [This is not to mention my problem with the notion that blocking access makes these things go away; we should instead be teaching students to engage the Internet in responsible ways.]

Let me give you some examples.

  • del.icio.us and ma.gnolia.com — social bookmarking sites — I tried to demonstrate del.icio.us to a group of teachers recently, only to find that it was blocked, for reasons no one could explain. — How exactly are these a threat to individuals? Seriously, can somebody explain this one to me?
  • Basic Searches — I was on a K-12 school network and trying to find a citation for a friend to a scholarly article on Civil War prisons. I remembered the title, “Houses of Horror,” but was stymied by the keyword filter placed by the school system on the Google Search I ran. Now, I was able to find a workaround to locate the citation, but finding things online are difficult enough without such restrictions.
  • YouTube — YouTube is blocked by many school systems, and perhaps I can understand why. However, there are many useful videos on there for history (and other) teachers. Why can’t teachers access such materials, even if students can’t? Why block an incredibly useful resource for teachers? [I know there are walled garden version of these: TeacherTube, unitedstreaming, etc. But none of these are YouTube, the largest and most important of the video sites.]

The two biggest problems I have with the filtering are:

1) It ignores the reality that most students will figure out a way around such filtering. Or even if not, they’ll find this stuff outside of school, and likely outside of the guidance of the people who are trained to teach students how to process information in a responsible way. At the least, guided time online outside of walled Internet gardens better prepares students to be better Net citizens. How are students to learn information literacy if they get only a filtered version in the place where they are supposed to be learning critical thinking, source evaluation and knowledge creation?

2 ) It shows a remarkable lack of trust for teachers themselves. Blocking teachers’ access suggests that although they are trusted with teaching 20-40 students at any given time, they are not capable of figuring out which sites are appropriate and which are not. The filtering systems used are too often blunt objects which make it harder for teachers to do their jobs well. [I’ve talked to teachers who’ve never been on YouTube, never heard of del.icio.us, never tried any one of a number of tools central to Web 2.0, and the main reason is that they don’t have access to them in the classrooms and schools where they spend so many hours each day.]

I acknowledge that K-12 school systems face real problems in protecting children and young adults from the worst that is online. I understand much of the effort that they’ve made in this area, and comprehend that there are very real financial and technical constraints. However, in order for school districts to prepare their students for the digital world in which so often live, filtering systems have to become more targeted, and until they are, teachers need to be able to bypass those systems to gain access to some sites that are wrongly blocked.

Am I off the mark here? Am I missing something? Are there other obvious sites/tools being blocked I haven’t listed here? Let me know.

Twitter: Why all the fuss?

I’ve been using Twitter for several months now. [I have ~25 people I follow and about the same number follow me. I post at least once a day and I’ve used it to learn more about people I already knew from work, and gotten to know people with whom I’ve spent less than 48 hours in person. I don’t have it on my cell phone, but I do check it fairly regularly when I’m online.]

Although I have no idea what the company’s business plan is (probably to be bought by Google or Yahoo), it’s interesting to me that so many people are asking themselves how to use it (or dismissing it as overwhelming and/or naval-gazing). If we see it as a slightly different method of keeping in touch with other people, with people we’re interested in for a variety of intellectual or personal reasons, then good. Why the hand-wringing or defensiveness about it I see from so many bloggers (many of whom I really respect)? [For example] Is it that it’s really hard to explain to people who aren’t on it?

The Revolution in Technology — Links toward a Presentation

Here’s the list of links from the TAH August 2007 Presentation I did on “The Revolution in (Information) Technology” — These are also at http://del.icio.us/tag/tah2007

  1. Hurricane Digital Memory Bank: Collecting and Preserving the Stories of Katrina and Rita

  2. YouTube – How to Use the Dial Phone (1927)

  3. 2007 Horizon Report | nmc

  4. YouTube – Broadcast Yourself.

  5. Google Reader

  6. Bloglines

  7. Alexander Spotswood’s Journey — as seen in Flickr and Google Maps

  8. YouTube – The Machine is Us/ing Us (Final Version)

  9. My Digital Double: Watch the World(s).

    Very cool representation in SL of Van Gogh’s Starry Night

  10. shifthappens » Various Versions of the Presentation

    copies of “Did you know?” presentation

  11. Netvibes

  12. Internet Archive

    A great idea, even without the Wayback Machine. With Wayback, it’s invaluable.

  13. YouTube – Introducing the book

    Medieval Helpdesk

Preparing for teaching in the Fall, Or the Manuscript that Ate My Summer

This is a post that I wrote in late July, but never had the chance to finish. As I have a spare moment now that the manuscript is in, but the class papers haven’t yet arrived, I’ll post it and a series of other thoughts I’ve been meaning to get out….

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately as I contemplate the time remaining this summer and the things I’d planned to do during the so-called summer break. The manuscript due to my editor in early September is taking longer than I thought and so many of the other goals this summer have fallen to secondary or tertiary status. This includes delving in as much detail as I’d like into responding to recent posts by Shannon, Steve, Mike, and Gardner. Most depressing to me is that I’d love to spend lots more time on my fall classes this summer, especially my new First-Year Seminar. Then came Barbara’s beautiful post (Midsummer Preparations for Fall) on what she does in the summer to create new fall classes to make feel even more behind….

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve already spent a lot of time on the fall classes, including the new one, and I’ll have it ready on time. [I think the students are really going to like it.] But I’d like to have been able to spend a good month really getting them just right (or at least closer to where I’d like them to be). But balancing my scholarship, my instructional technology interests, and my teaching has been difficult, especially as I attempt to keep all that in balance with the time spent with my wonderful family….

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.

Facebook and Faculty: A Small Tale of Utility

A podcast by CHNM’s Digital Campus team and posts by Jerry Slezak and Jim Groom, stimulating an active conversation about the merits and weaknesses of Facebook in academic settings have prompted me to write about my own recent experiment with the social networking site. I’ve had a Facebook account and a growing number of mostly student friends (~65) for a couple of years now. I’ve used it mostly to keep in touch with recent grads, though current students have used it to look up my AIM account or converse with me about particular projects or their on-campus activities.

Recently, however, I set up a Facebook group for my History Department Alumni Book club and invited those of my Facebook friends who were alums. Thirty joined in 24 hours, and other alums joined as well (I left the group open) bringing the total close to 40. I’ve already organized the next meeting and book choice via the event system and people have already RSVPed (and explained to the group why they’re not coming, if they can’t make it). Not sure why I resisted tapping into that existing community before now, but I’m glad I have.

It doesn’t reach everyone; not everyone’s on Facebook, and not all of those who are on the site are my friends. [Though, as I noted, a number of unofficial friends have joined on their own .]* I have about 90 people on the email list for the book club and I still use that to contact most people. Facebook also won’t be the prime way we meet and discuss the books. [Face-to-face meetings are supplemented by a blog and comments at umwhistory.blogspot.com.] Still, Facebook allows an easy RSVP system and a convenient place to coordinate meetings and book choices and it will advertise the book club in a way that most alums wouldn’t have stumbled on before. [Not to mention the fact that current students can see it in my Groups and those of their friends who recently graduated, furthering the likelihood that they’ll join when they become alums.]

I’m not particularly interested in using it for classroom teaching at this point (though I’m open to the possibility if it made sense); rather I see Facebook as a way to engage students in larger (broader than one course) discussions and as a way of interacting with students and former students through a group channel that persists beyond their time in a particular class or in their collegiate career. I’ll post about Facebook’s relation to the book club in future posts.

UPDATE: A former student contacted me via Facebook after I created the book club group. He had wanted to be in the book club when he graduated two years ago, but had forgotten to contact me to sign up. He’d seen the book club group on Facebook and he’s excited to be able to join it now.

* “Unofficial” is an awkward, though brief, way to describe people who I know, but are not Facebook friends with; however, “non-friends” (an alternative I considered) makes it sound like I don’t like them….

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.