Sunday, October 29, 2006

From Behavior to Belief

My personal style is to scratch my head about some issue for a while and then try something based on the head scratching to see if what I was thinking holds water or not. The approach seemingly worked the last couple of times I taught, with Campus Honors students here, and the feeling of having taught them in a style I’d call my own and having that work (though they definitely didn’t like not knowing where the stood grade-wise) is a cause for believing the approach can work elsewhere and is more generalizeable . But how much so? I really struggle with that. How much that works for me in all its particular manifestation and idiosyncrasy is evidence of the general and how much is not? And how is one to tell?

I’m no longer the ed tech guy for the campus, where I can’t say the approach worked particularly well at all but where I believe there were too many constraints – does it scale – to try much of anything at all. Instead, I’ve now got that role for the College of Business where in advance I told myself I’d play it balls out rather than close to the vest, but really, balls out in support of precisely what and to please exactly whom? Before starting on the new job but thinking about how it might play out it was to please me, to justify a certain process of interaction I thought I came up with between the faculty and me, to provide substance to a personal claim that I have a reasonable grasp on human nature and how people learn.

But what I’m discovering is a bunch of circumstances that look to find quick fix solutions, that collectively don’t fit into easy categories, and that have me feeling reactive rather than reflective – looking for a solution rather than for something else to try. I’m responding at first in more or less a knee jerk manner and then when I get a response based on where I see individual excitement. And the reality is that lecture, or should I say instructor performance, because many of the good instructors in the College of Business are really good performers, is a key facet. What if in the technology implementation I propose I take away their ability to perform and ask them to do something else? Will they go for it?

I’ve been urging the use of desktop video, the type that can be embedded in a blog post, the type that can be made without too much of a fuss, either with a Webcam or screen capture software and a microphone. I’ve got one colleague who is liking the idea of doing that with the screen capture approach. He asked me about where to put the completed video and I urged him to use Google Video rather than the Web/file space the College provides for him, because I said that way he’d be doing something that the students could replicate – his behavior as a model for theirs. And for the last couple of days I started to think about instructors assigning homework/projects to the students that would be about making these type of videos in the process of completing the work.

These students have Tablet PCs (and increasingly, so do the faculty). They are either MBA or Executive MBA students and Tablets have been embraced by this group, mostly getting high marks from the users in the process, in spite of the high margin relative to laptops. But are they really taking advantage of the pen technology from a pedagogic perspective, or is all just convenience? I thought of the movie homework partly so they could draw simple pictures and diagrams – much better for conceptual ideas and of course economic theory is full of that sort of thing – and also because the voice over would illustrate the flow of their thinking, where often in this type of homework when the student gets stuck or goes down the wrong path it is hard to tell what is driving the ideas based on what is on the written page.

That seems all well and good to me but do MBA faculty want to concern themselves with the homework/simple projects that the students do or is that all delegated to a grader, with the faculty left to concentrate on their own performance? Indeed is the focus on performance so great that trying to get them to think about the work of the students is a losing battle? I don’t know. I do know some finance faculty tried an experiment to teach online some years ago and they eventually aborted --- too much work --- but in that pre-podcasting time the work was about capturing the audio from the lecture and syncing to PowerPoint slides. I think that’s where the mindset still lies.

So if I start to preach about screen capture movies that students produce – will I be given the time of the day or will people just look at me funny? But even more to the point, even if they can envision the pedagogic benefit, what if the “can be made without too much of a fuss” part is itself a con job, that the students who haven’t yet been doing this and who feel unnatural in making these sort of things feel it is a lot of work, and for what, a trivial homework problem? Is the effort really worth it? Why can’t they just do the homework on paper? It’s not that big a deal, right?

How can you know the answer to these type of questions? But really, they are less fundamental. The bigger question is what should the College support vis-à-vis communications software. I’m pushing for blogging and am encouraging us to look at Elgg for this purpose. I love to blog and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? But I love to write too, and I know not everyone loves that. There are some alternatives to using blogging on the table, including using the Campus Course Management System as one such alternative, and relying on Microsoft Sharepoint as another.

In my gut I don’t feel that those other alternatives are right. Might they be right under certain circumstances? Sure. If we gave all the MBA students accounts on our Exchange server or if these students had accounts (Microsoft’s education offering in this space that accompanies it soon to be released service). Then the Sharepoint might integrate in. (That is a possibility but I don’t know it to be the case.) But the University is in go slow mode about allowing contracts with third parties for email and the like. So for the time being the students will be into something else for email. And does that integration really matter so much or is it the community building and user defined access control (an Elgg strength) which is the right thing to focus on? I know what I like here, but does my leadership mean I’m falsely generalizing from my own like? Hmmm.

There is an entirely different take on blogging, one that I hadn’t considered at all until my colleague pointed out this piece on the role of email in Enterprise 2.0. This has to do with patience and wondering whether “the message is received.” I’ve got confidence that this post will be read, sooner or later, by many of the people I care about whom I’d like to have read it. But even with that, some will and others won’t. Email is more of a direct wire and from somebody I already know certainly I feel there is more of a social imperative to read the email they send than to read their blog post. If you’ve been used to that direct wire, letting go of it is…..scary.

In an already formed social network where this is one additional blogger contributing to the stew, the mental calculation goes one way. When that network is not yet formed and I’m asking earlier adopter types to try this in the hope of forming such a network --- well, they have to take a lot on faith. Those early adopter types are used to trying things out just like I am. And they’re used to coming to conclusions based on what they learn from their little experiments.

Will the blogging work in this context? The only way to know is to try.

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