The fear of learning

Since my dissertation directly addresses teaching and learning with technology, I’m constantly thinking about what the implications are of teaching in news ways.  Will Richardson’s post earlier this weekend got me thinking more about what I’m doing and what I think teaching and learning should be.  Will expressed some disgruntlement about the fact that people just don’t get it, that the Internet–and specially tools like blogs and wikis and podcasts–are changing the way people learn.  Teachers, he thinks, should model what they’re teaching. They should, in essence, learn right along with their students: blog with them, collaborate with them, etc. And I agree with that.  I expect my students to contribute as much as I do. I never go into a class with all the answers. I expect, as a class, for us to discover them together. I expect that we’ll explore, together, other issues on our class blog. But I find it hard to convince students that this is an acceptable way to approach teaching. I sometimes think that they expect me to have the answers and while it’s true that I am older and have more years of schooling than they do, they are extremely intelligent people with different points of view, different ways of seeing things, and much that they can bring to the table.

When I’m feeling that students aren’t living up to my expectations, aren’t contributing, aren’t bringing new ideas to the table, I start to get fearful instead of frustrated. And then I often lapse into old methods of teaching, of just talking at them or something.  And this has definitely happened over the years and I think that it happens to a lot of people who have good intentions. I think at the college level, when we use new technologies that bring with them new methods of teaching and learning, we’re learning along with our students and we’re often having to convince our students that this is okay, that there is value to this, that, in fact, in may be more valuable.

Alex Reid, puts this a bit more succinctly, suggesting that most people see the point of education as determining who has authority, of imbuing our students with that authority, so that when they go home with their B.A’s, they will be seen as having been filled with knowledge that grants that authority.  But, he says, new media and networks disrupt that sense of authority:

The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn’t mean that what we’ve learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. . . . I know public school teachers often cite the limitations of testing requirements as a roadblock to innovation. However I think the limitation is more fundamental than that, closer to their own sense of professional identity. As much as the tests may limit teachers, they also secure them within a defined space of authority.

digital digs: the threat of the network

Teachers and professors are seen as “experts,” as people who have a certain kind of knowledge. If we take that away, if we say that that particular kind of authority no longer qualifies one as an expert, then what do you call yourself. What was all that education for? I would argue, however, that someone with a Ph.D. didn’t just absorb a bunch of facts; they learned how to find facts and analyze them, to question them, to present their questions to others, to find and create new knowledge. It’s not about the content; it’s about the process. And that’s what I try to focus on in most of my classes; it’s what I try to convey when I talk to people about using new technology, about using blogs, wikis, Flickr,, etc. to make the process more visible, to help students learn how to learn, how to participate in a broader conversation instead of spitting out information on a test.

If K-12 environments are resistant to change, Alex points out that higher ed might be even worse. At least with public education, there could be a new administration that might enact some kind of sweeping change, but that rarely happens in higher education. However, in both cases, changes from the outside might force people to change. There’s already, as Alex points out, a tension between higher ed and the “outside” world:

I mean the tension between academia and the mainstream culture is heavy enough as it is based strictly on ideological differences. What happens when academics continue to insist on providing an increasingly irrelevant education and charging more and more for the privilege?

digital digs: the threat of the network

I think Will and Alex are both right. There are shifts happening outside of educational institutions that those insitutions seem to be stubbornly ignoring.  I think that they ignore them because they’re afraid to learn; they’re afraid to model learning, as Will says, and they teach instead. I understand that feeling. It does feel a little scary to look vulnerable in front of your students, but imagine how much more vulnerable they feel in front of you. I think this is a difficult time to be a teacher. But it’s also an exciting time, if one can embrace some new ways of doing things and have a willingness to learn. Isn’t that why most of us got into this in the first place? Because we enjoy learning?

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Ghost Teacher

Last week, I had fun commenting on student papers. I know what you’re thinking, no one has fun commenting on student papers.  Well, I did. I made audio comments, using Audacity to record and save my comments as mp3’s. You could also do this with Garageband or a few other recording programs. My students found it eerie, like I was a ghost in the room with them, but also helpful.

Here’s what I did. First, I read through the papers and made marginal comments using Word’s comment feature. I’ve been using this feature for years and find it extremely useful.  Students seem to like it as well. When I made these written comments, I tried to respond as a reader rather than a teacher, asking questions, pointing out where I was confused or found an argument weak. I tried to keep suggestions to a minimum. Then, in the audio comments, I read the paper out loud and made comments about how to approach revising the paper. I tried not to be prescriptive in these suggestions, and just offered possibilities.  I uploaded the commented papers and the mp3 files into Blackboard, but these could be emailed or posted somewhere.

Students read and listened to my comments before meeting with me for a conference. About half of them opted to do the conference virtually via IM.  I asked them what they though of the comments and what they were thinking about doing in terms of revising.  The IM conferences were really successful. It was much more of a conversation than the face-to-face ones are.  I didn’t feel rushed and the students didn’t feel rushed so we just covered whatever we needed to.

Interestingly, I just generally felt more engaged with the process of helping the student revise their paper via IM than I sometimes do face-to-face. I don’t know if the students felt the same way, but it definitely seemed like they were engaged. I’m not the only one who’s found IM to be a useful tool for engaging and interacting with students.

Now, doing all of this took time (and for me, all that time was at night and on the weekend since I have a 9-5 job) and I have the luxury of having only one fairly small class.  But the audio didn’t take any longer than traditional written comments. I know compositionists have been doing audio comments for a long time, using cassettes in the pre-digital world. It’s amazing how easy it’s become to do these things. It was very little hassle for me to get the files to the students and for the students to retrieve them. I’m definitely doing it again, as long as the students don’t mind having a ghost for a teacher. And I could see myself having office hours at night IM occasionally, as long as I can be on the couch in my jammies while I’m having them.

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Lack of curiosity

When I think about what it means to be involved in education, I think primarily about curiosity. I think one should continually be curious about the world around you. One should always want to ask, “What’s new?” and then go find out. Coupled with this curiosity is imagination. I think of education as coming up with new ways of looking at old things, of coming up with entirely new things, of rethinking the way we do things. That all requires imagination.

What I sometimes find, however, is a lack of these two things, especially when it comes to technology. There are lots of reasons for this, most of them institutional. I don’t know of any field, aside from Computer Science perhaps, where technology is integrated in a way where faculty just simply naturally think about it as they are planning their classes. It’s always an afterthought. This, then, leads to a lack of imagination in implementation. How can you possibly come up with something truly interesting and innovative at the last minute? I’ll give you an example. I suggested to a professor, someone who is technically savvy and pretty imaginative, that he use Flickr for a class that was image-heavy. He wanted a way for students to comment on photos they had taken and posted to a web site. Now I give him credit for asking, but this was the second week of class before we were having this conversation. And although I explained that Flickr allowed you to comment, even put sticky notes right on the image and if you want, you can close off your collection just to your students, you can do that too. But there wasn’t time to demonstrate or come to the class and show how it worked or any of that.

I think I can partly blame myself for this. I don’t always reach out before the semester and suggest such things and I think I’ll do more of that. I’m currently writing the “Alphabet Soup” of technology for educators on my other blog. That has actually generated some response so far.

Another problem is that faculty, I realize, do not have time to do some of these things. It takes time to set up a Flickr account, perhaps set up a pool for students to work with, write documentation for that. It takes time to make video clips, to think about blogging, to make your Blackboard site more than just a document repository. I know, because I do these things for my own single class and it takes time. And there’s no reward, no guarantee of success, and the chance that one will be humilated in front of the class and fail miserably.

Many of the faculty at my institution come from places overflowing with staff and resources. Harvard, for example, has about 12 people on its instructional technology team alone. Yale has 16. Stanford has about 30 (too many for me to count quickly). Most of those places, too, have liaisons for each department and separate out work on classroom/research activities from basic technology needs like email, word processing, etc. For basic support, there’s another team of 15 or 20. At these places, a faculty member comes in the semester before and says, “I want an interactive site for anthropology 101” and the site magically appears. Or I want these 100 images scanned and put into a nice powerpoint presentation and voila, it’s done. So, naturally, many of them expect the same kind of service when they arrive at our institution. But alas, with one person as a full-time instructional technologist and who also handles general web and technology issues from both faculty and staff, that service is simply not possible.

Would I like to provide that kind of service? Not really. I personally think there’s value in doing some of these things yourself. First, you know the material and the best way to present it. Reimagining it in digital form often makes you rethink the way you present the material. I’ve heard from colleagues who work at these larger institutions that sometimes the projects they create are never used or are used once and discarded. I’m guessing that if you create or help create a project yourself, you will use it. Often, too, if you’re just producing digital material from analog versions that have been dropped off, there’s never an opportunity to have a conversation about the best way to use the digital material or ways to make it flexible and fit different situations and classes. And there’s just that lack of curiosity and imagination again; there’s no desire to learn how these things work, how they could transform teaching.

I think most people associate technology with a kind of dystopia where curiosity and imagination have been stripped away. And maybe in the 80s and early 90s when the focus was automation and “making life easier.” And maybe that vision of technology still exists now. And it’s hard to get beyond that when much of what I and my department end up doing involves the nuts and bolts end of things instead of the fun, imaginative end of things. For me, technology, especially web technologies is all about creativity and imagination, of connecting and “talking” to people, of seeing things in new ways, of words converted to image, of image converted to words, of infinite possibility. Maybe people are afraid of that infinite possibility or maybe, conversely, they feel constrained and hemmed in by technology instead of feeling free to pursue a different path. I wish that more people would be more curious about technology instead of fearful of it. Unfortunately, I may be able to teach them how to use something, suggest possibilities, but I think it’s beyond my job duties to instill a sense of curiosity. But I’ll keep trying anyway.

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Technobabble, or the story of the mechanic who thinks

That would have been a decent name for my blog–but alas, I wasn’t thinking too straight when I named this thing–and really, I have talked more politics than techno. Tech has been keeping me busy lately. I usually get some time during the day to puruse the blogs, some of which are directly related to my work. I wear a lot of different hats at work. My official title is Sr. Instructional Technologist, which doesn’t mean much really. In theory, I am supposed to support the faculty in their use of technology in the classroom. What I find is the faculty who are using technology don’t need/want my help and the ones who aren’t don’t want to use it. Some of them end up being forced to use it, then call me when they don’t know what they’re doing. Although I have a lot of programs in place and I do a lot of outreach for the faculty, I end up with time to do other things–like web development and multimedia development.

Today my hats were more varied than usual. First, I attended a search committee meeting for head of our Art, Archaeology, Cities, and Classic Library. It was a discussion about the qualifications we wanted and the duties we wanted to highlight in the job description. The discussion was revealing because our CIO, who is also head of the library, wants the person to have some ideas about technology, meaning he wants them to be thinking about digital collections and tools to use those collections in research and teaching. The faculty at this meeting immediately jumped to the conclusion that he meant someone who knew their way around a computer and/or a course management system–a mechanic. I did not defend myself, but simply made my anthropological note for later.

That meeting was followed by a meeting with our college counsel to discuss the handling of our DMCA policy. I am the college’s DMCA agent. Our policy is not clearly stated and even those of us who administer the policy are not always clear on what to do. We hammered out what we were required to do and went on to discuss satellite radio and how cool it was.

Then, I finally had some time to myself. I spent it writing up a Blackboard (our course management system) FAQ that I’ve been working on and that will be shared–via Blackboard–with the two other colleges in our consortium.

Lunch, followed by the meeting of our Curriculum Support group where we talk about things we’re working on that are related to the college curriculum. Here is where we actually discuss pedagogy and technology. We spent the meeting discussing key points from the Educause conference–which I had to miss because Mr. GM was off at two other conferences. We also spent some time talking about results from a recent survey about technology literacy.

After that, I spent time talking to a colleague about our upcoming workshop on digitizing audio–from lp to cd.

Then I digitized some video, editing its sound and trimming it and exporting it into two different formats.

In between all of this stuff, I answer numerous e-mails and phone calls, usually about trivial matters.

A lot of hats. And this is a typical day–a good balance for the most part between the mechanical part of my job–using the technology and helping others use the technology and the Thinker part of my job–deciding how best to use that technology or discussing the broader issues surrounding technology and education. And that’s what I like about my job–I get to do both. What I don’t like about my job is when people think I don’t think, that I have no idea what it’s like to be in front of a classroom, that I’m a mechanic. Even the mechanic part of my job requires a lot of thought. There’s a lot of problem solving involved in using technology effectively.

I guess I’ve had one of those days that I felt went really well but that I wish more people understood, especially the people I work with. I am more than just the person who knows the exact path of your web directory and who can help you add a discussion to your Blackboard course. I can help you think about why you’d need a web directory in the first place and how to structure your online discussion to effectively enhance what you’re doing in the classroom. I have a brain and I’m not afraid to use it.

IT Kitchen

Okay, this idea is really great–an online workshop about wikis and blogs. I have been talking about wikis and blogs for years. I only this year got around to really using them regularly, but as an IT professional who works with faculty, I’ve been trying to encourage faculty to use blogs and wikis for teaching and research. Aside from one famous blogger in our midst (who’s now gone), the faculty seem to be averse to blogging. I held a workshop about wikis and blogs and only one faculty member came. Perhaps they’d look into this workshop from time to time and learn something. I’m planning to let them all know about it. I don’t feel like I’m enough on an expert to contribute, but I’d like to try. I can’t wait to see it in action.

Scanning the horizon

I’ve accomplished a few things from my list, though others don’t look like they’re going to happen–oh well. I managed to purchase a scanner and successfully scanned in one of my old poems with Abbyy FineReader (included with the scanner). I have version 5 here, but I have 7 at work, which is sooo much nicer. I did a quick search for some free or cheap OCR programs and there’s not much out there. I’m guessing that OCR is pretty hard to do, so not many people are going to take it on as an open source project. I might have to bite the bullet and upgrade. Sigh. I will be scanning some pictures here shortly–to go with the poems. I think this will be a fun project. My poems have never been published. Frankly, they’re not good enough. They’re better than poems that might show up in Ladies Home Journal, but they’re not Missouri Review material. But I’m attached to them for a myriad of sentimental reasons. They represent a slice of my life from college through graduate school. I’m thinking only a handful will make it.

I also managed to do a little writing–3 pages. No planting, no laundry. Oh well, there’s always the weekend.

Some Geek Moments

So I had a couple of geek moments today. The last and most astonishing, to me, was the sudden desire to have a phone/iPod combo. I was walking across campus to the car, listening to my iPod, Buddy Holly I think, when suddenly my cellphone rings. I yank my earbuds out, cursing because I almost step on them (I’m not very tall), then nearly dump out the contents of my purse trying to get to my phone (I really hate purses). So after talking to my husband, who just wants to tell me he’s going to the hardware and that the kids are at the neighbors and could I order the pizza, I think, damn wouldn’t it have been great if I just could have hit the “phone” button which would have paused the song, and voila, I’d be talking and then could go back to listening when I hang up? I tell my husband about this when I get home (he’s a geek, too) and he says, well duh, don’t you think they’ve come up with that already. And I’m thinking, where’s the marketing campaign? So, of course, I Google it, which brings up on two items. A concept photo for the iPod/phone combo and the n-gage which is an MP3 player and a phone, but the site is so flashy that I can’t tell if it would work in the way that I just described. I think it’s a cool idea anyway.

My other geek moment came when my boss walked in and I was blogging away and I had to confess I was a little addicted. (I love my job, though. I mean, I got paid for that blogging. 🙂 )Now this was work-related blogging. I’ve had a work blog on my server there for a while, but I’ve become increasingly obsessed with it. It’s even better than usenet and listservs–other forms I was once obsessed with and still use. I’m a bit of an information hound, I guess–or maybe it’s a communication hound because a lot of the blogs I read and enjoy don’t necessarily provide information; they are often discussions of key issues related to topics of interest to me. There’s just something nice about finding people who share my interests. I live in a big city, but aside from the people I work with, I don’t regularly run into people who are enthralled with all things technological as I am. In fact, many of the people I know are kind of horrified by it–they hate tv, for example. Some of them are simply frugal–technology costs money and they don’t rank it highly on their expenditure list. We do. I mean, we plan for computer replacement the way most people purchase homes and cars. We’re working on a second Tivo purchase–with better tv attached–as I write. I have other obsessions. You’ll find out about them later.

Open Source/Shareware Word Processors for Mac OS X

So I spent some time the other day searching for a decent, inexpensive word processor for my Mac. Apple Works just doesn’t cut it. We have a Linux machine too and have OpenOffice for that machine. OpenOffice is okay, but it’s just so ugly. If I’m going to have to stare at something for long periods of time, it should look nice. Plus, it does weird things with my fonts.

So I downloaded a version of OpenOffice for Mac–NeoOffice/J. It’s ugly, too. It’s a java-based application that looks just like OpenOffice for Linux. Plus, I couldn’t open a document. I could create a new one, but I was never able to open one–not good. Granted, it’s beta, so you can’t expect much, but still . . .

So then I downloaded a program called Mellel. It’s actually very pretty and seems quite functional. It looks like Safari and has the formatting palette just like Microsoft Word. I haven’t run this program through all of its paces, but I’m planning to in the next couple of days. This program seems to offer the most promise so far. It only costs $29, which is quite a bargain.

I have just downloaded Nisus Writer Express to see what it’s like. It looks nice from the screen shots, but we’ll see. I’d also heard about Mariner, but they offered no free trial, so I couldn’t test it out.

I also looked into AbiWord, but it’s only available for 10.3 and I haven’t upgraded yet.

I must say I find this whole process frustrating, but I suppose there aren’t too many options on a Windows machine either. You either go with Word, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice. I would really like a better alternative to Microsoft Word and I’m willing to pay for it, though I have limits.

Ultramookie has some good comments about all of these.

Tomorrow–some stuff about Multimedia.

Initial Musings

I’m coming off a week of training students in Web Design and Multimedia–five days, 8 hours a day. They’re an interesting group of students, all with different talents and ideas. Although it is really intense to be helping seven students at once with a wide variety of questions–how do you do a rollover and what is a motion tween anyway–it’s neat to see their progress.

To give you an idea of the kinds of things I do–with school out and all–here’s what transpired today. I assigned a student to teach a professor how to edit video using iMovie; I helped a staff member scan a document to send to alums; I helped another staff member edit a web page and re-post it. Then I copied a DVD–homemade–for another professor. I also listened to 20 progress reports on the projects the above students were working on. All coming along–course it’s only been a week.

Once things settle down a bit–next week–I hope to have some meatier musings.