Tuesday, March 07, 2006


It is interesting to me to take note of what moves me emotionally. This past weekend my wife was chaperoning our older son who was participating in Science Olympiad. She talked about how he and his friends didn’t make adequate preparation for some of the events (so what else is new) by rehearsing beforehand and figuring out a strategy for approaching the tasks. One of those was to cut off a stick of some sort to attach to balloon filled with helium. The idea was to have the stick of the right size so the balloon would stay in the air the longest, but not have it tough the ceiling of the room. These kids cut off too big a piece – the balloon never got off the ground. So far whatever aptitude he is showing for science is as a theorist not as an empiricist. Sounds like dad.

They bombed out in some other event too but took a first in genetics, which was apparently done by administering some test. They were coached by a biology student from the U of I, rather than having to prepare for the event themselves. These kids are eighth graders. It is certainly not surprising that the coaching mattered. My son was quite proud of the prize he and his friends won. I could care less about that. But my wife said she talked with this U of I biology students for some time and the student said my son was one of the brightest kids she ever met. For some reason, that mattered to me a lot. I’m getting a little teary here, writing about it now. It’s kind of strange for someone like me who spends so much time thinking about how to encourage good practice to promote deep learning to nonetheless view innate smarts this way. But it clearly matters to me, a lot. Somehow, it is a reflection and vindication on what I’ve been talking about in the blog. And in that vein I’m happy to report that my son does have the reading habit.

Sticking to the thought that we might surprise ourselves by what we react emotionally to, I have to say I was deeply saddened to learn that Stephen Downes has stopped writing his blog, at least for now. I don’t know Stephen well and can’t speak at all to what drove this choice, but certainly he has been a strong and thoughtful voice for open communication, and something of a hero figure for what he has done. I prefer my heroes to be unblemished. I get sad when I learn they are all too human.

I do know there is a certain malaise in the profession now and I’m going to take Stephen’s exit as an opportunity to reflect on that. Part of the problem is simply that those who burn the candle brightest are likely not leading full rounded lives but instead getting so absorbed in the moment and the possibilities that may exist that they are inadvertently putting themselves on an emotional roller coaster with little reserve left over for dealing with the tough but pragmatic issues that emerge from “day job” part of their lives. Periodically, I’m in that boat.

A second very big issue, is that after all the campuses have made these sizeable investments in Learning Management Systems to ask whether that was a sensible step and whether it has assisted on advancing learning on campus. This one has been doubly big and the cause of much strain, first because its not all that long ago where we felt we had a choice to make going down this path and so we feel responsible for that choice and second because it clearly is the most visible service we offer on campus. The criticism about LMS mostly come from faculty or learning technologists who have played with Web 2.0 apps and like them and want to teach with them in an open environment. These innovators have always been our champions and our friends. But now sometimes we are saying no to them. That is hard.

The third big issue is whether learning technology is really part of the rest of Academic IT, as it is on most of our campuses. At a meeting of the CIC Learning Technology group where mostly in attendance were my counterparts at these peer institutions, I asked whether any of them felt they were on a track to become a CIO. None said they were. I found this strange but not surprising. Personally, I don’t feel remotely qualified or interested in being a CIO. But before I posed this question I didn’t sense this feeling was ubiquitous. So we are outsiders and insiders at the same time, perhaps a healthy tension but also a source of strain.

Isn’t there some joy and satisfaction in the work? Certainly there is some. But there are also a variety of strains and tensions. If I can use a metaphor to the various strains and tensions that engineers worry about when they build things, these things do break on occasion, sometimes spectacularly so, but then we learn from that on how to build the things better.

So here is to Stephen Downes. I hope the hiatus is a source of such learning for him.

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