Technology and Education is in the air

Yesterday, I got a request from our school district to fill out a survey about “21st Century Learning.” I did. They asked a lot of the right questions. Although they did ask about whether all children should have laptops, most of their questions were about whether web 2.0 tools should be used and how and what kinds of things would the school need to do to make that happen. One of the things I said was that it would be nice if they could make it easier for parents to participate in their kids learning process through the use of these tools. Right now the extent of my technological participation is a Course Management system that just lets me see grades after the fact and email. Yes, some of the teachers post their assignments on the web, but that’s not participatory. What I suggested was, something along the lines of what Will Richardson has done in the past, having parents reading the same books and commenting on student blogs about those books or learning about science together. If I knew what my kid was doing in his classes, then I might be able to participate in a more meaningful way.


I’ve also been reading the Net Gen Nonsense blog, which I highly recommend to advocates of technology in education. I’ve been an advocate of technology in education, especially socially-oriented and user-creation-based applications, not for the sake of developing technology skills, but because these tools enable better and deeper learning, if used appropriately. And yes, our students are using some of these tools, but as I’ve said time and time again, they need help using them for learning, especially the kind of in-depth learning required in college and that will hopefully continue throughout life. A key quote from a recent study cited by Mark on his blog:

Students make limited, recreational use of social technologies such as media sharing tools and social networking sites…the findings point to a low level of use of and familiarity with collaborative knowledge creation tools, virtual worlds, personal web publishing, and other emergent social technologies.”

I’m reading Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital, which spouts much of the ideas this study is trying to knock down–that “kids these days” are living and breathing web 2.0 and so we need to change our educational and work systems as a result. Actually, what I’m seeing is that there are a handful of students who are using these tools creatively and intelligently and many of them are pushing for changes in work and school, but it’s a very few. What keeps me up at night are actually the vast majority of students who either don’t have access to these tools or worse, who do and either don’t use them or use them irresponsibly. I think we need to change not because students are demanding the change (because quite frankly, they aren’t), but because we need to have studets who are creative, collaborative thinkers.


I’ve also been finalizing parts of my Gender and Technology course for the spring, and I’ve found myself thinking over and over again–what can I do here to drive this point home or to have students experience this more directly rather than just reading about it or hearing me talk about it. So, I’m including some gameplay, some experiences in Second Life, lots of blogging, building a network graph, and creating mashups and multimedia assignments. The hard part about including this stuff is that everyone is going to be at different comfort levels with the technology. And I hate it when technology gets in the way of the experience. It makes me wish we had a lab section. And I think that’s the rub. I’m comfortable with all this stuff and will find a way to use it effectively and help the students get past the technical hurdles so they can see the point. But most people a) aren’t comfortable and b) don’t have the time and/or patience to deal with the hurdles. It makes me wonder who is going to be left behind.

Blackboard as part of the Military-Industrial Complex

I’ve been working on various things that have to do with taking advantage of social software to create active, collaborative learning environments for students. When I talk about using social software, I’m talking about using blogs or wikis or Facebook or Twitter or other freely available web applications and leveraging them for educational purposes. Anyone can do this without having access to an educational institution. I could set up a whole class using Blogger, Facebook and pbwiki.

Blackboard was originally created as a simple way for faculty to put course material online back in the day when putting up a web site meant knowing how to code html and navigate the pathways on a server to get your files in the right place. Most faculty didn’t know how to do this. And so Blackboard and a couple of other companies sprung up as solutions to this problem. Ten years ago, this was great! The web was very interactive anyway and this made it easier for people to post syllabi and course documents. Blackboard was not, however, any kind of innovative technology. It certainly didn’t change the teaching and learning game. It was, and is, still built primarily as a one-way communication medium. Faculty post information and students read it.

Social-software oriented education allows students to create a more personalized learning environment and create a many-to-many communication channel. They no longer have to (nor can they, if done right!) sit and wait for information to flow from the professor to them. They can post their own information, ask questions of each other, see out new information and share it, comment on it, all without needing the professor to intervene. Social-software oriented classes that are open and public also benefit from interacting people not in the class, creating a broader audience for their work and learning from broader perspectives beyond the confined walls of school.

The factory-model of education treats, as the video below explains, students as widgets, as one size fits all. Blackboard perpetuates this model by not allowing for much customization, few communication tools, especially those that allow many-to-many communication, by keeping everything behind a password and not allowing for interconnection even within a single institution. Faculty cannot share course materials. Students cannot interact with students from other classes, much less with people outside of the class. Blackboard is built on the concepts of education from the industrial age, even though it was built in the information age.

As I say all the time, the software matters when it comes to using it for teaching and learning. The layout, its flexibility and interface, its ease of use all will affect the teaching and learning experience. Blackboard creates a really unfriendly learning environment. It’s contained and closed off, which gives the message that education only happens within the confines of a “course” and not in the interstices of courses. One can learn, it says, only the information I give you. It pretends, as Michael Wesch is fond of saying, that information is scarce, when it’s not. It makes education and learning narrow and defined when learning is huge and broad and takes place all the time over a lifetime and that is the message we need to be sending.

I used to think Blackboard was okay as a stepping stone to other things, but now I think it’s not. I think it’s okay to use it to keep your copyrighted materials and maybe your grades, but I don’t think it’s okay to use if for learning.

Higher Ed Tech behind

There’s been a fair amount of digital ink spilled already about this report from CDW about faculty, IT staff, and student perceptions of technology use in teaching. My response was, “Duh.” The biggest barrier to use: lack of knowledge on the part of faculty. The problem is, as I’ve said over and over, is that faculty won’t take responsibility for learning the technology. There is no scalable way for most institutions to provide enough support for a technology expert to do most things for the faculty. We can’t be there every time you need to turn on the projector in the classroom or upload a document to Blackboard.

We are currently running two day-long workshops, thanks to NITLE, on using technology. Less than 10 of our faculty are in attendance at either session. That’s less than 1% of our total faculty. I see the same kind of attendance at shorter workshops that I offer throughout the year. We’ve done research that shows that faculty don’t want to learn this way; they want one-on-one assistance as they’re working with technology.

Honestly, most of the technology used today is not rocket science. Back when I first started word processing, you had to remember the markup for line breaks and bold and paragraph indents. Now word processing works just like your old typewriter did. You no longer need to type things at the C: prompt to run programs or find files. You can search via a little box that’s replicated not just on desktops but in browsers and other programs. Yes, if you want to experiment with GIS or another complex technology, you’re approaching a difficulty level where assistance from an expert is warranted. But if you’re interested in 95% of the technology stuff that’s being used, all you really need to do is spend some time trying some things. I think most Ph.D.’s can figure out chat, blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, etc. on their own. Where they may need help is figuring out the best way to take advantage of these tools or figuring out how best to implement them in their classes. Maybe that part needs to come first in order to get faculty to take responsibility. I’m not sure, but I do know that we need to get past this knowledge barrier to get to the good stuff.

This is what professors fear

Laptops. I have seen this attitude of banning electronic devices in the classroom. I sympathize. It is somewhat disconcerting to stare out at a classroom full of screens and not know for sure if students are paying attention. Although I think professors being replaced by laptops is extreme, I do think that faculty aren’t thinking very critically about what to do with electronic devices in the classroom:

What I see happening is that professors aren’t making the decision to accept the inevitability of technology infiltrating the classroom and finding ways to integrate these mediums into their lessons, but instead what they choose to do is to bring all of the students down to a level of engagement where theirs is the only voice that can be heard. They hope that without any competition, the students attentions will naturally drift to them, but this tactic is doesn’t solve anything in the long run.

Instead they are trying to force things to remain as they’ve always been.

The solution that this blogger suggests is:

The correct strategy is to upgrade the professors. Give professors the opportunity to integrate these new social media channels into their lessons so at least we’re communicating at the same level. From there the way to stop laptops from being such distractions is to get professors to be more interesting and add some real value to the educational process.

I appreciate the sentiment, but I have to laugh too. From my perspective, I’ve been trying to “upgrade” professors for about 6 years. There’ve been plenty who have, mostly on their own, but there are still some TRS80’s out there and even some mainframes. I certainly think there’s more ways to give professors the opportunity to work with social media, but currently it’s not on their priority list. In the mix of teaching, research, and service, learning new technology is way, way at the bottom. And honestly, for the mainframes, it’s not just about new technology, but a whole new world. Figuring out that new world requires some time to immerse oneself in it for a few weeks or months and I can’t imagine that most faculty will take that kind of time. I think this blogger is right that something’s gonna give at some point, but our educational institutions are pretty rigid when it comes to integrating technology with pedagogy.

Support for teaching digital natives

Thomas Benton once again writes about issues in teaching the digital natives. I’m going to leave aside the argument about whether we’re getting more stupid. I’m not entirely sure we are.

I want to comment on two things. One, he mentions the problem of college students not being exposed to different generations (more true for K-12). Most of college students’ socializing and work happens among people their own age. I would argue that students who have active online lives have greater potential to be conversing with people of a variety of ages. Someone who has a blog (outside of Live Journal) or who plays online games is likely to interact with some older and some younger people. In my own online experience, I know this variety of generations is both a challenge and a delight.

The second, and more important, issue for me, comes in the last section of the essay:

If digital technologies are a cause of “stupidity,” it is because we have spent freely on computers — among other things — without also giving comparable support to college teachers. The students have been left to negotiate a cultural paradigm shift, comparable to the print and industrial revolutions, with inadequate support from the institutions created to help them.

And that strikes me as unambiguously stupid.

This is a pet peeve of mine. There are two directions this increased support can go. One is to provide faculty with the time and financial resources to learn and develop new teaching strategies that take advantage of technology. This might mean course releases, internal grants, or extended workshops in the summer. The main thrust of this kind of support is giving faculty new knowledge and skills that they can apply to their teaching.

The second direction, one that seems to be more popular, is to offload that work, to have a model I call “digital Kinkos.” In this model, the faculty member might bring their course materials to a team of technologists, who, after an hour-long meeting with the faculty member, produce a digital version of the course, complete with multimedia lectures. I have not seen this happen quite so wholesale, but I have seen it in small one-off situations. When a faculty member asks for video clips or for configuration of a Blackboard course or digitization of images for a lecture, that’s a form of digital Kinkos in my book.

I’m not saying we can get rid of digital Kinkos entirely. Digitization is often a tedious and time-consuming process and a knowledgeable technician is often better at it than a faculty member. But simpler things, such as using the features of a course management system or a blog, should be taken on by the faculty member. As I try to tell my faculty, there is no right or wrong when it comes to using the tools available. It depends on your teaching goals and you know those better than I do.

I would advocate, then, a hybrid model. There will be a need to provide digitization services, but more importantly, faculty should be allowed the time and encouraged to take the time to discover the possibilities of new technologies for teaching. A summertime workshop of a couple of weeks strikes me as a good place to start. A course release in a semester in which a technological overhaul of a course is taking place makes sense too. Financial support in the form of internal grants for hiring staff or students to aid in digitization or for travel to technology-related workshops. And, of course, appropriate credit for technological innovation when it comes time for tenure review. Without these latter rewards and support structures in place, digital Kinkos means nothing. It means you have faculty using materials they didn’t create and know little about. It’s akin to teaching from a book you haven’t read or just skimmed.

What I wonder about is the role of the Instructional Technologist in all of this. It’s clear what the role is for the digital Kinkos model. They make the video clips and the PowerPoint presentations and build the Blackboard courses. In the second model, they can be the person to run the workshops, provide advice during the semester, and do some (but less than in the first model) of the digitization work. But I think the ideal scenario is not to have an IT person per se. The ideal scenario is to have a tech-savvy faculty member providing the workshops and the advice. Perhaps they get a course release for this administrative work. Perhaps they have a team of students to do the digitization. In this scenario, the faculty member who, by virtue of their being “one of them,” immediately garners more respect than an IT person. To me, this makes a lot of sense. Of course, I just wrote myself out of a job.

Opening up the classroom to learning

I think I can safely say that most, if not all, faculty go into a classroom with the idea that their students will learn something. Many spend a lot of trying to guarantee that learning will happen. They think long and hard about what students should learn and the process by which they should learn the material. There’s no guarantee, of course, that students will learn, and I know that when confronted with students who haven’t gotten as much out of a class as professors might have hoped, they are often deeply disappointed. Year after year of this might lead to resignation and bitterness. You see this, sometimes, in the cranky comments on IHE articles or Chronicle forums. You know the ones that complain how the students can’t read or write or tie their shoes. (Dr. Crazy has an excellent post debunking many of these complaints–highly recommended reading.)

What I’ve experienced over the last few days, however, is the exact opposite of the complaints the cranks make. It’s the idea that sometimes, maybe lots of times, students learn more than we expect they will and learn things we didn’t expect them to. And they do so because the focus is on learning, not teaching. In the examples I saw today in a panel I organized on teaching with technology, that learning was made visible through technology and was facilitated to some extent through technology, but I don’t think technology is really the point. The point was that shift in focus that the technology allowed, but perhaps could have been accomplished another way.

Anne Dalke, for example, has been teaching online for years and said some things today that really resonated with me. She talked about treating students as budding public intellectuals who are learning how to present their work in a public forum which just happens to be online. She talked about not just encouraging interactions between her students but also bringing in alums and others so that the community of learners is broader than just the classroom. She also talked about not grading them, but having a conversation with them about their ideas, something another teacher I know does also. To me, Anne was treating her students like colleagues, perhaps in an apprentice phase, but still more than children who need to be spoonfed content.

Before that, Wil Franklin and Neal Williams from the biology department showed off their students’ plant blogs. Although these were behind a password in Blackboard, the students really got into them. They set very few guidelines for the blogs except that they needed to use appropriate scientific language. For example, they couldn’t just say that their plants were sprouting little hair thingies, they had to find the scientific terms for these, terms that Wil and Neal did not provide. They made the students look them up–which they did, mostly through Wikipedia according to Wil. I thought this was a great way to teach not just the scientific concepts, but also the process of finding information. They wondered as we segued into Anne’s discussion, whether they might have opened the blogs up to the public. They ended up inviting people in from another school to comment on the blogs and thought that might have been a valuable learning experience to formalize that relationship.

In both of these cases, I think that the faculty had thought a great deal about what might work, but they also had a lot of surprises about what the students did and they were flexible enough to go with the flow and allow the students to do what they needed and wanted in order to get the most out of the class. I also think there was a real recognition of the value of working in public in some way, that real learning can take place by connecting with others, be they alums interested in the topic or experts working in the field, they saw a value in opening up the classroom, not for those outside the classroom, but for their own students. Also, there was a real connection between what the students and faculty were doing online and what happened in the class. Blog and forum posts became jumping off points for discussion in class and discussion continued online sometimes after class.

I’ve also had several conversations with students that have been inspiring, where they are thinking about this cyberworld they find themselves immersed in and they’re starting to wonder what it means and how their education is or isn’t engaging this world. As I told one student, these are the things that keep me up at night.

More on "Get out of my way"

The quote came in response to a question from the audience about how to create more faculty like Michael Wesch. Michael said, “Get out of my way.”

This is just my perspective, based on my 5 years’ experience in this specific role and my over 10 years’ experience in higher ed. Many IT people and by IT here I mean the truly technical folks, the ones who do user support, server support, programming, etc., have no idea how the academic side of the house works. The policies and procedures that they often propose or implement are often driven by a need to reduce workloads or make systems more efficient or reduce costs. Often these decisions create unintended consequences that affect faculty in ways that prevent freedom and innovation.

For example, I’ve seen places try to restrict use of “external” software, some not even allowing use of curricular software outside of the course management system. At one place I worked, I could only have my own web page if I used FrontPage. There was no way for me to create pages at home (I had no office and thus, no access to “college-owned” software such as FrontPage) and then upload them to the college server. I ended up going off-site. We almost implemented a similar system out of the good intention of making managing web sites easier for both us and the web editors until I recalled that faculty don’t use the software tied to this system and thus, we would have inadvertently cut them off from creating and editing course web pages.

Another thing I’ve seen and heard a number of times is FERPA being raised as a reason for faculty not to use social software of any kind. And while it’s important to respect certain student information–grades, personal contact information–it’s not a blanket reason to not let someone use a particular teaching method. It’s often a fear tactic. And this is bureaucratic rather than technical, but because they often get spoken in the same sentence, it becomes the IT people’s problem. And it often comes from the IT people, not the academic side of the house.

Putting these kinds of restrictions on faculty only keeps those with trepidation about technology from trying anything new. For the Michael Wesch’s of the world, it means they turn to other resources–netvibes, Google, WordPress, etc.

For me, this response and discussion raises the question of what role the Instructional Technologist should play. Is our role to cultivate innovation for the cutting edge faculty? Is it to get those middle of the road faculty to go to the next level? Is it to help the folks stuck in the age of the typewriter find their way in this crazy world?

I would lose my mind if I had to spend all day helping faculty use Blackboard. And though I’m always happy to move some middle of the road folks a little ways up the road, it’s the innovative faculty who really make my day. These are the ones who often find things on their own, but often turn to me for ideas about how to use things or for other possible tools. Conversations with them are often about education and learning, not about how to use things. I can often get the motr folks to this point but it’s work, work I’m willing to do, but work nonetheless. The typewriter people wouldn’t be an issue if they didn’t take up soooo much of my time. If I really felt that I could just ignore them, I would, but they’re quite in my face. They have a tendency to panic more so than either of the other groups. So it takes a lot of energy to manage the panic as well.

I asked Michael after his talk what we should do to create more faculty like him. He had some good ideas such as bringing in speakers, providing a page with resources, etc. Although I think there’s a fair amount I can do to serve as a catalyst for change, I think there are things that need to happen that are institutional (changes in tenure and promotion, work loads, etc.) and changes in attitude (gatekeepers of knowledge, blogging is bad, etc.) that need to happen that I have very little control over.

More on irrelevance

In addition my own recent posts, there have been several others discussing the relationship between technologists and faculty. I’m also leading a discussion with a mixed group of faculty and staff tomorrow that may touch on (I hope) some of the issues raised by the online discussions I’ve been reading. Just as the issue of tenure seems to come up over and over again in the academic blogosphere, the issue of teaching and technology seems to come up over and over again in the academic IT side of the blogosphere. I think the issues are raised again and again because there’s a feeling that something isn’t working quite right and we feel a need to fix it. And, too, I think there’s a sense of a struggle, of an us vs. them mentality that we all seem to get bogged down in (myself included).

Let me start by relaying a couple of incidents that occurred over the weekend. At a social event, a faculty member whom I don’t see very often came up to me and said that a bunch of faculty had been talking about me recently. My heart swelled. I thought a great and insightful question or comment or suggestion was about to issue forth. But here’s what came out instead: We were talking about blu-ray and we all said, that’s what Laura should run workshops on. I won’t say how I responded, but suffice it to say it wasn’t pithy enough and obviously the comment has stuck in my craw.

Earlier, I’d gone to hear a talk in which the idea of tradition was lauded and commended and put on a pedestal. I found myself squirming and thinking, isn’t tradition for tradition’s sake a bad thing? Shouldn’t we be fighting against traditions that hold us back? The speaker went on to discuss the web and the wonders of the digital age, all the while reassuring his audience that books will always hold an important place in scholarship, perhaps even still the most important place, but that digital work should be considered as well. (Note: the commenter above attended this talk as well.)

I don’t think there was any maliciousness in the comment. It was a true misunderstanding of what it is I really do. It was also an indication that the commenter has not really investigated the application of technology to teaching or research. He/she very well could have asked me what I thought about the talk that we both attended and especially about the comments on digital scholarship. But no.

I think it’s hard not to feel irrelevant in the face of such comments, but I also think the “protests too much” nature of the talk also indicates anxiety about the future of academic work. What is to become of books in the web world? What about publishing articles? What about our students and their horrible Googling habits? The sad thing is, I’m here to help answer those questions, to help scholars and teachers find relevance in the web world. If only people would stop asking me about blu-ray.

I think, too, there’s a little bit of snobbery or something about some of us here in well-resourced schools. Our students and faculty have access to lots of rich materials because of location, because our library has such a great collection, and because our institution has the financial means to send students and faculty to places where they can access materials or to bring those materials to them. Not so at many other places and here, the web offers many opportunities. One of the first images I really looked at online was a digital version of Beowulf. Lacuna took on new meaning for me as it should for many students upon seeing something like Beowulf in the flesh, so to speak. How about accessing images of Shakespeare’s work? Or access to scholarly articles freely? The web has the potential to level the playing field and we have the opportunity to define the field. Will it be about quick, fast, surface-level work? Or will we put our work out there so it’s more about depth and breadth and access to great scholarship and creative work?

So, here’s what I might say to faculty. When you have those panic attacks in the middle of the night and you’re thinking that the Internet is ruining the academy, call me and talk to me about it the next day. I’ll talk to you about how the Internet is actually making the academy even more relevant but only as long as it doesn’t shut itself inside the ivory tower. I’ll help you figure out what to do to make your work relevant. You can share your goals and I can help you find ways to reach them. I won’t give you nuggets, mind you. I’ll teach you how to fish. Just whatever you do, don’t ask me about blu-ray.

Making space and time for technology

I’m so blown away by this article in the Chronicle, I don’t even know where to begin. It expresses some of my deepest-held notions about what institutions need to do in order to incorporate technology more fully into their curricula. As I’ve said time and again, my struggle to change the way faculty teach by embracing technology has little to do with technology and a lot to do with the structures of higher education. There’s just no incentive for faculty to innovate. And institutions have just thrown up their hands. The CMS is a good example, as Tabron says,

most higher-education administrators feel that they did their bit for instructional technology when they adopted course-management systems in the 1990s.

What more could we possibly need to do? Those systems look mostly the same now as they did in the 90s despite all the development that’s occurred on the web. And I’m sorry, but the open-source alternatives aren’t a whole lot better. All these systems simply put online the teaching methods that we desperately need to get away from–the idea that students are there just to absorb information, not to interact with each other, or *gasp* to learn how to learn. It’s why, despite faculty and students saying that their satisfied with the CMS we have, I resist such complacency. Sure, they’re satisfied with it. It maintains the status quo. I want to push them beyond the status quo. Blackboard isn’t going to do that any time soon.

Tabron also argues for IT staff with teaching experience, something that we at least have right. But I know plenty of places where this isn’t true.

IT-staff members with teaching experience and an understanding of the mission of liberal-arts education need a place in which to demonstrate the latest technologies. And they need both space and time to help professors develop new types of lessons, assignments, and grading methods that can fundamentally change how teaching and learning happen.

My institution is halfway there in that I at least fit the description of IT staff with teaching experience and understanding of the mission of a liberal-arts education. And I guess I have some space and time to help professors. In theory, that’s how I should spend all my time. In reality, not enough of them seek me out for this kind of development. What I get called in for is to fix something in Blackboard, cables in the classroom, and other such mundane questions. I provide workshops on topics such as effective use of blogging, using RSS to manage information, and Web 2.0 presentations. But these are sporadically attended. And the people that do attend often respond, “This is great but I don’t have time to think about this right now.” So it’s not me that needs the space and time, it’s the faculty. Tabron suggests, too, that we need to resist the urge, when faculty aren’t banging down our door, to shift our focus to those more mundane tasks. We have to keep trying. I’ll take that to heart and redouble my efforts (look out faculty!).

Because I agree with Tabron’s last sentence: “It will be a dismal future if the only thing our graduates cannot do online is learn.”