Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snow Daze

This is the second day that the U of I has cancelled classes because of the weather. The storm has headed eastward; it’s now sunny outside here. In this Land of Lincoln they still celebrate the Great Emancipator’s actual birthday, which was Monday. So my kids are having a somewhat unplanned 5-day weekend and except to let the dog out, yesterday and today too looks like an inside day. (We might do some snow shoveling in the afternoon.) An experience like this gives a whole new meaning to the value of school. I wonder if they might actually have the kids go to school on Washington’s birthday, or if they have to tack on the both make-up days at the end of the school year, where filling that calendar obligation won’t do any good.

I probably should have used the time better, to catch up on work and write some posts. But I’ve been a bit under the weather – a hacking cough and the chills – so didn’t really have the mental energy to do much original work. I did do some recordings with my new ION ITTUSB turntable, and that kept me amused. For example, I listened to Joan Baez’ album, Diamonds & Rust (another awesome album, this turntable was a great purchase) and then from following the link to the Wikipedia site I learned that in her singing of a Simple Twist of Fate, which is her voice in most of the song, she does a quite good Dylan imitation near the end. I don’t think I figured out that was her in 1975.

The idle time has been somewhat useful to me since I’ve been decompressing on a variety of issues – having attended several of the sessions our Global Campus held to host LMS vendors as part of the Global Campus RFP process, scratching my head for months on how we might do an asynchronous component to an online MBA or online post-bachelor Certificate in Business program, and thinking about how learning technology fits into the campus information technology strategic planning effort. Then, too, I’m chairing the CIC Learning Technology Group for one more month and in planning our spring meeting in Evanston, one of the items is what’s next after Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts, in part motivated by the recently released Horizon Report. I’m not ready for any of this.

Yet I’m no longer at square one. I’ve reached a first or second step and I think it’s worth pausing here to talk about the observations having gotten this far. But before that let me give a personal anecdote to give some context for what I have to say.

My parents used to tell a story about when I was toddler, around two years old. I could walk then, but apparently I found that an inferior self-pedagogy When we’d visit at some friend’s house, they’d plop me down on the floor someplace to leave me with my own devices. When they’d come back about an hour later, I’d be just where they left me. This is not a particularly flattering image and I had to endure some embarrassment as an adult hearing that story relayed. But some fifty years later there are elements of it that still ring true. I believe that metaphor will be helpful in understanding what I have to say next.

While everyone else seems to be into using the new media in creative ways mixing images, sounds, and videos along with text, I’m still thinking about engaging students through reading (mostly text, though it might very well be online, and it might be heavily hyperlinked and with a smattering of the other media). It’s a head scratcher on how to do this well, but it still seems to me to be the right question. One of the conclusions is to mix the prescribed reading with things that are interesting and quite topical, and in some cases offer the latter up for the curiosity only, not as a course requirement.

Those who read my blog regularly will notice a new item on the sidebar, Good Reads. This should be the last 5 items from my page on this subject. On a non-technical note, I know that I read certain things because I find the links on pages of others whom I respect, so if you frame the question as how to direct the reading of our students and you suspend judgment for the moment on using required readings for this purpose, this would seem to be a compelling thing to do. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.

On the technical side of things, in addition to using, I’m using RSS to Javascript to take the feed and place it in the sidebar. This enables me to include my fairly brief text comments on the article. I think those text comments are important. They perhaps give a quick insight into the article and they do show I’ve read the piece. The new Blogger has a sidebar tool for RSS feeds, but it shows the subject line only. I don’t want that.

One other point about how I’m doing this. I read/browse quite a bit of stuff. Most of that doesn’t make it here. I can’t say that my internal filters are perfect and my interests are eclectic so what makes it way here may seem to have no pattern to it, other than that I over sample from the NY Times, but I think the batting average is pretty high on these pieces. If you read them, you’ll be richer for having done that. That’s the goal that I’m after when I post an item to this space.

The setup of this is a bit messy, futzing with the Template in Blogger, building the feed for the page, and inserting the latter into the appropriate place in the former. (It took me about 5 times to get that done right.) Also, with this method you have to beware of cached items that might show up in the sidebar. I had to quit Firefox and restart it a couple of times to get the most current item to show up. But with those caveats, this become remarkably easy to do. I have a post to a button in the Bookmarks Toolbar in Firefox, so when I find something I like I just click the button, add my Good_Reads tag, and put in a couple of sentences. That’s it. So having reached this point, the key to keeping the feed updated is to find a stream of interesting stuff to read. The approach works on that score if you have faith that such a stream will be forthcoming, if only you do a little looking.

I’m going to get back to this in a second, but first another aside about my view on pedagogy. The goose and the gander metaphor is very big in my way of thinking. The last couple of times I taught the principles of economics course to Campus Honors students, I conducted the live class sessions pretty much in the same manner that we conducted meetings in the CIO Cabinet, where the CIO was clearly the leader, but we were all treated as peers with valued opinions to offer. That approach worked well in this class setting. We don’t have enough time or ability to experiment with all approaches we might try in our teaching, so lifting things from elsewhere that seem to work well and then using them in our classes is a natural.

Now a bit of leap, since I haven’t really tried the good reads approach out on others and I don’t yet know that it works well in engaging them. Here I’m going to assume that for the sake of argument. Then, it seems to me that the approach could be used well in teaching too. Suppose the students had course related blogs (and depending on the size of the class and some other factors that might be one blog per individual or one blog per team). Instead of a Good_Reads item, I could have a Reactions_to_Recent_Postings item and then manage the student posts in the same way as I've already done. The pedagogic benefit would seem to be quite high (or is that my wishful thinking) in that it gives a ready method for students to see not just the instructor comment on their own writing but also similar comments on the writing of others, as well as links to that writing. I believe this would be extremely helpful in allowing the instructor to give constructive criticism, as it would help to give the students a sense that the instructor isn’t picking on just them, this the comments are generic to her general style of response.

Some people might respond that the approach violates FERPA. Here’s another quick anecdote that is meant as prep for my rebuttal. This is the best joke of all time.

Q: Did you hear about the constipated mathematician?
A: He worked it out with a pencil.

It’s the best joke because it teaches such a valuable lesson. FERPA has been a major constipator, especially in regard to design of LMS, where it frequently trumps consideration of the pedagogy. Several if not all of the new ones have a “Journal Tool,” that enables private writing by the individual or the group with readership and response limited only to the instructor. If one uses that tool because the student writing itself should be kept private, e.g., there is a personal nature to that writing, fine, that seems sensible. But if it’s the instructor’s comments that should be kept private and that’s why the tools are being used, because that’s what FERPA demands, to this I say nonsense and personally I’m fed up with the privacy issues coming before the teaching and learning questions. In the live class setting if a student makes a comment or asks a question the rest of the class hears the instructor’s response. What is different about when this is done online? Work it out for yourself, with a pencil or otherwise.

There may be some confusion in doing so, part of which stems from the issue about how to manage students homework grades. So let me say for the record, and although the LMS seems to enable this, giving a numerical (or letter) grade on a post by post basis is nuts. Grades are a limited vocabulary means of communication. If the instructor is making comments on the posts, comments that must be interpreted in a formative sense, why add a limited vocabulary summative message to that? Periodically during the term, an instructor might send such a limited vocabulary message, students do need to know how they are doing either to give the pat on the head that their Pavlovian behavior with respect to grades demands or to give a kick in the rear when the pat is not appropriate; many students are not used to getting a lot of instructor feedback via comments so delivering the summative messages in addition amounts to the instructor not putting all her eggs in one basket assessment-wise. Over time one might hope for more of the comment type of communication and less of the pure grade type of communication. Certainly that’s idealistic. But it seems feasible to me in this framework.

I should note a different point since elsewhere I’ve written enthusiastically about Barbara Ganley’s use of Mother Blogs, which include the pictures of students and the first paragraph of student posts in a sidebar, and this morning I’ve discovered that one can do this sort of thing in pretty much any blogging environment through a new tool called Feevy, aptly illustrated on David Silver’s blog. It seems that use of Feevy can really help to build community – something that ordinary blogrolls don’t do well, because with the Feevy approachthe items update as new content appears, while with the blogroll it's just a list of links. I would encourage the Feevy type of function in addition to the Reactions_to_Recent_Postings content, they are not substitutes for one another but can work together to make a richer environment.

Let me conclude by returning this discussion to its local roots, where all the politics is. There is still a huge impediment, particularly in the College of Business where the faculty are so highly paid, to get these instructors to read (some of) the writing of students. None of the above says that hurdle can be leaped. There is a long tradition of graduate students grading assignments and faculty being above all that, except on exams. Bucking tradition is hard. If one is to do so, and on this point I want to be an advocate for change, I think there needs to be a vision of what the alternative might enable, and that vision has to be about the teaching and learning itself, not about the technology.

So I sit on the floor and still think about how we should be doing this. But for me, that’s the place to be.

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