Monday, January 25, 2010

Change and Stasis

Last week I was in Austin, Texas for the ELI Annual Conference and the CIC Learning Technology Group meeting that followed. As is my wont, below is a set of after thoughts from that trip. But first, here is a quick follow up on my health as reported in my Birthday Rhyme.

At a check up yesterday AM my blood pressure was entirely normal. Either the meds have been working (hurray for the miracles of modern medicine) or a week away from the office, especially when it is the first week of the spring semester, is the right tonic, or it's all measurement error. The automated machine couldn't give a reading so they had to take the blood pressure the old fashioned way. I'm guessing I'll have the measurement taken several time over the next few months. Let's see if back to normal is the consistent outcome.

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I didn't attend ELI in 2009. Sloan-C had been at the same hotel (the Caribe Royale in Orlando) and we were just beginning to be in economy mode regarding work-related travel. But I did attend the prior three conferences, in San Diego in 2006, Atlanta in 2007, and San Antonio in 2008.

Having started to blog about a year before the San Diego conference, it is not surprising, I suppose, to have blogged about it. However, the underlying circumstances were more than a bit strange. At the time I was chair of the CIC LT Group and several of the members who were also in attendance at ELI thought the conference could have been done better, so I was tasked to communicate the issues (a bit too much whiz bang and not enough on research about effective use, Mark Prensky's plenary talk especially seemed in that category, the live blogging in the large room didn't work because of bandwidth problems with assorted similar prolems, and the conference as a whole seemed biased against the big schools such as those that populate the CIC) with Diana Oblinger, who was then running ELI. She and I had about an hour phone call soon after I contacted her and then we arranged for a conference call with the entire group. To Diana's credit, she was a very good listener, heard all the issues I brought up, and I believe that effort helped to make for a better outcome for the 2007 conference.

I attended that one in part to follow up on the interventions I had participated in the year before. Indeed there was improvement and I wrote about about that. But since I'm also a teacher who uses technology in the teaching and I like to stretch myself when I do teach, I noticed that the ideas that seem to interest me in my experimentation were hardly being reflected in the conference. So while the conference was an improvement over the prior year, viewing the conference as a signpost of where the profession was heading, I was not satisfied. At the end of the post I took some shots at the profession, then had some regrets about that afterward, so wrote another post trying to give a vision of what I'd like to see. It's hard for me to believe that was three years ago. It feels like yesterday. It did occur to me last week that ELI should have some sessions on visioning, one like mine as well as competing alternatives. How can we evaluate what we are doing in the absence of such a vision?

I suspect that many learning technologists would disagree with what I proposed (which I still embrace, though I will elaborate on it a bit more below). In a nutshell, I believe that technology well employed is invisible. It critically supports learning but is transparent in the way it does that. So technology itself can't be the driver of what we want to achieve. Our ambitions must stem from elsewhere. In that post from three years ago I made up an expression called Humanism Across The Curriculum (HAC), a way to teach in every single course we offer, that would deliver on the promise of Liberal Education. HAC (and learning to use data for real world decision making) is the elsewhere and in that earlier post I tried to give a broad strokes definition of the elements that would comprise Humanism Across The Curriculum, without trying much to explain how technology would promote it.

Many others in the profession would like to see technology play a more overt role. Gaming is one prominent example. I can't see how to use it in my own teaching and I'd say I don't get it. I can see how absorbed my teenage children are with games at home and still I don't get it. So maybe that is me. But I don't get it with other technology too. For example, I don't get it with Twitter and back channels. In conferences, maybe. In ongoing classes, really I don't get it. In particular, I've seen Peter Doolittle of Virginia Tech talk about the impossibility of multiprocessing when the tasks are difficult. Back channels seem to promote the ADHD behavior that the always on technology encourages. I can imagine students mistaking that for deep learning, but it isn't. So an argument for back channels via Twitter or some other technology would have to be along the lines that instructors otherwise don't give students sufficient voice via alternative means, such as in small group work, if back channels were to make sense to me. And here's the thing, this is potentially an empirical proposition to be tested. So a debate based on competing visions might be a very good thing. It might point to work we should be doing. It might also help to identify where we do agree.

I did see a few sessions at this conference that spoke to the HAC notion, if only to indicate just how far we have to go to get there. In the last session on Tuesday I attended a presentation from folks at the University of Oregon about students "making history" in order to understand the historical artifacts that they were studying. They took what I would term a dual channel approach to instruction, which I've come to conclude via my own teaching is a necessary aspect of HAC. The Oregon course was an introductory History class taught in lecture-discussion format. That first channel is the traditional one involving the typical presentation and assessment that we all know (but do not love).

The Oregon project entailed a specific section of students who were in a living and learning community that included an undergraduate TA who had taken the course previously. He served as a role model, performing similar online writing tasks as the other students in advance for them to review and he commented online about the work the other students produced. (This TA was one of the presenters at the session. I continue to be amazed by the poise and presence of such students who appear at ELI.) The TA, in turn, was mentored by a faculty member, though not the lecturer for the course. They got very good results in this class with student participation and engagement, pointing to a possible path for a scaled up approach in the future. I too have gotten good results with a similar approach, with me doing the same sort of work that the undergrad TA was doing. More about that below.

There were some parts of what this project did that I didn't get. The project involved the University Archivist and others from the Library, so it was very resource intensive, in a way that I didn't see that it could scale. Further, from the Archivist's point of view, her involvement would make sense if what the students were creating really was worthy of preservation or, from a different point of view, if all student work is worthy of preservation and this was just a demo project for her to understand what would be involved with a broader effort. However, at the session I got the impression that her involvement was being justified because this project was important - these students really were making history. I didn't understand how that could be known now. And if it can't and further if the approach can't scale, then it seemed like a factor that would make the current project successful because it conveyed to the participating students that the University was behind the effort and that would encourage the students to take their own contributions seriously, but it would mean the results would be harder to replicate in the future and thus less interesting to the rest of us.

The opening plenary session by William G. Thomas III also was about teaching history, in this case from the perspective of the lecturer in a large introductory course which relied on digital archives, something that the presenter has expertise in as a researcher - The Valley of the Shadow project is how I became aware of him, and a home grown wiki software developed at the University of Nebraska where the students made their contributions. The session was interesting but not very inspirational, certainly not as good as some of the sessions I had seen at the previous ELI I had attended in San Antonio, because it lacked theater (Michael Wesch, a featured presenter at the San Antonio conference is a dynamic speaker, one whose impact on the audience is hard to clone) and because while I nodded my head in agreement a few times at things Thomas said I didn't have much to take away to try in my own teaching. The session title was about how we teach writing now. On that I was as far along as the presenter. And those in the audience who haven't been involved teaching writing may have been even less engaged with the talk than I was.

The other thought going through my head listening to these sessions is that in some sense a HAC approach in a History course is too easy for a case study. Indeed my own course was also "softy" in that the subject matter, with no math modeling, neither working with numeric data nor experimental data, nor studying difficult to understand theory, readily lent itself to a narrative approach. If HAC is to succeed it needs to work in science and engineering courses and elsewhere in the curriculum where problem sets may have been an integral part of the traditional way of teaching the course while producing a narrative would have been seen as something alien. Such a course would provide a better test case for my HAC approach. But maybe when looking at current reform in those disciplines what is happening doesn't quite match my preconception of HAC.

Here at Illinois, for example, there is an effort in Engineering called iFoundry, which is an attempt to move away from the traditional approach to Engineering and make it more engaging to the students. They have a pilot program that they are expanding called iEFX, which appears to be recasting the Freshman Experience in the mold of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. Since my son is attending starting in the fall, as a parent I don't really want to look under the hood at what they are doing and simply wish him the best. But as an eLearning administrator I've got a whole bunch of questions starting with how much this approach is in line with my HAC conception, followed by how faculty who themselves were weaned in the more traditional approach can become proficient in the new paradigm, and then concluding with how Campus and Unit level eLearning folks can play more of a partnering role with initiatives of this sort.

It is also worth noting that much educational reform these days is being driven by survival instincts in the tough budget climate we find ourselves in, perhaps more so than by the needs to innovate for the betterment of learning of our students. On that score I found this piece an Inside Higher Ed report on a session at the MLA meetings last month extremely intriguing, particularly the presentation by Dawn Bratsch-Prince, on bringing language offerings into alignment with University priorities, in this case by wrapping language and culture skill attainment within the mantle of globalization. So at future ELI I could see having a session on visioning driven by folks from the disciplines, not from the likes of us, where they first discuss programmatic goals and need at the disciplinary level and then present a wish-list for IT to help satisfy the need.

I too have been thinking about how the budget climate and how it would impact my own prescriptions for Higher Ed. I learned first hand last fall that the dual channel approach to instruction is more intensive than the traditional approach. It is certainly more intensive for the students enrolled in the course. Absent the undergraduate TA as in the Oregon example, and maybe even with such a TA present, it is also more intensive from the point of view of the instructor. The tough budget environment will demand that instructors put in more time in teaching (and less in either research or service). With more of the overall funding coming out of tuition dollars, this seems a logical outcome. My view is that that extra time should be spent on more intensive teaching, not on teaching more students in the usual way.

Institutionally to signify support of this view, for example, a heretofore 3-credit course would be awarded another credit. If this sort of thing happened across the board, students would earn the necessary credits for graduation by taking fewer courses, with each course offering a more in depth experience. Some breadth would be sacrificed, obviously, but the overall experience would be richer. This sort of change requires the approval of faculty senates, accreditation bodies, and a change of culture within academe that this reallocation of faculty effort is fitting and appropriate. So it won't happen overnight, for sure. But if that is the picture to be painted, at least we can see where we hope we're heading, and we can understand why that future alternative would be less expensive and better positioned than what we are currently doing.

Unfortunately, it seems that the notion of doing something with less expense is a concept that economists understand implicitly, but others on campus do not. Among my conversations at ELI, only when I talked with my friend Byron Brown from Michigan State, a fellow economist, did I hear anything on this score that made sense to me. We have to talk about things we are no longer doing or plan to stop doing soon. That is where the savings are to be found. There was a session on the last day at ELI about Doing More With Less, a panel where one of the presenters was my friend and colleague from the CIC, Cole Camplese of Penn State. He has been an innovator and his campus provides an excellent model for how to do learning technology well at a very large institution level. Cole did say in that session that they aren't going to let the cuts stop them from innovating - fine. But then he proceeded to talk about a bunch of new initiatives, which sounded much more to me like business as usual than it appeared to be sober talk about managing cuts. The austerity issue isn't going away any time soon, certainly not on my campus nor, I believe, nationally. We need an upbeat but realistic approach. Truthfully I'd prefer desperate and realistic for a while so at a minimum we can affirm reality. That would be a better way to make headway. At present, we still seem to be in denial.

But on that score there is a substantial problem which came out more at the CIC meeting than at ELI. The technologies that we have been supporting for the last decade or so, principally the LMS, as well as emerging technologies such as lecture capture, strongly affirm a very traditional approach to instruction. Further we are very locked into the LMS and thus protective of our users and our staff who support them. From this perspective budget cuts look like pain, not letting us do what we feel we need to do, and innovation beyond that feels almost frivolous, a diversion from the core mission. We compete with each other on emerging technologies like lecture capture playing a game of one upmanship without attention to a strategic goal formed internally without regard for what peers are doing. Such non-price competition, we know, is cost increasing. So the technology is quite capable of creating the opposite to what we want to achieve. And it is unclear to me whether we know how to separate the chaff from the wheat.

I attended two sessions on the general theme of Copyright and Fair Use, one by Patricia Aufderheide of American University, the other by John Palfrey of Harvard Law School. These were my favorite sessions because in the past I've been infuriated and felt penned in by Copyright, most recently in having my students make multimedia projects for my course last fall. These presentations seemed to offer a way out and argued for the importance of us asserting our Fair Use rights. That was refreshing.

I've felt similarly constrained in my teaching by FERPA and I've come to conclude that in the choice of software we support we are promoting values that are antithetical to the real goals of our institutions. In the class I taught in the fall we spent substantial time discussing intrinsic motivation and becoming acquainted with the research that asserts that extrinsic motivation can taint the intrinsic form. My students in the class, coming in, were high achievers all and extremely grade conscious. They didn't see a problem with that. But over time with their blogging as the feedback they got from me was commentary only (the grade would come at the end of the semester only after they had done a critique and a portfolio selection of their own writing) they started to become hooked on the alternative. Indeed my view is that the HAC approach is very much about promoting student motivation and having an ongoing dialog with them that is centered on the issues the students raise is a big part of doing that. That dialog really doesn't need grading to sustain it. If the institution demands it, grades can punctuate the dialog. But elevating the grades can actually be destructive of the learning.

In what I did, most of the commenting occurred on the student blogs. I did make discussion boards in the LMS, private spaces where when I needed to communicate about grade information I could do that along with critique of the work. It was clunky setting that up. There was one board per student and a board for each student group. Though I recognize this is a somewhat unusual practice on my campus, I'm arrogant enough to believe it is more satisfying and appropriate than the practice that is more typical.

So when I hear now that students value the technology mostly for the "convenience benefit" (a phrase I'm growing to detest) and that the most used area in the LMS is the MyGrades area, I have to scratch my head and wonder whether we know that we are encouraging pathology rather than promoting learning. Partly for that reason, after seeing the session by Jon Mott on the Genius of AND, I wrote my prior post on the need for the analog of fair use in FERPA, instructors need to be able to communicate about grades as a natural extension of the dialog they do have with students, not in some cordoned off way.

Alas I wear at least two hats and can't always maintain the idealism of the teacher. As an administrator there are practical issues to confront and here at Illinois electronic grade books have something of a rich tradition, dating back at least to Plato. And when I was the Campus person in charge of us moving to an enterprise LMS, at the time WebCT Vista, I also had the sheer (non) pleasure of presiding over the decommissioning of our Campus Gradebook service, itself an offshoot of Plato, and received many (un) appreciative inquiries from faculty who used Campus Gradebook, wondering why we were getting rid of a perfectly good offering to replace it with the inferior product that was part of the WebCT tool suite. So to amuse myself, though unfortunately not to really address the problem, I built some spreadsheets to show that much of the sophisticated function could be done with Excel, such as this one which builds a smart histogram of exam score results, letting the ranges in the bin be determined by the data, or this one on summing a bunch of homework scores while deleting the lowest n scores, where n is greater than 1, a grading schema that many instructors on my campus like to employ in their teaching. I also engaged in many discussions entailing submission of final course grades out of the LMS into our Banner student system, something Campus never delivered on because we never achieved tight data integration between the SIS and LMS and the batch way of moving the data was simply going to have more problems than it was worth, yet a separate system developed in our Physics department had that capability, which caused undo consternation by large class instructors in other departments.

When dealing with these sort of administrative issues intrinsic motivation becomes a luxury that fades into the background and FERPA wins the day. Wearing multiple hats contributes to having a more multifaceted view of the issues, though it is not necessarily so much fun.

Let me get back to ELI and then close. I don't know if the conference requires critique, but the profession certainly does. The essence of such a critique would be in repeatedly asking questions such as: What does learning look like? Does that particular implementation promote learning? Can the implementation be replicated? How do we know? I do think the pace of change we are seeing as evidenced by ELI is just too slow, though I have no real suggestions on how to speed things up. While bandwidth has obviously improved and there are some technologies that didn't exist then, we don't seem to know that much more about things than when I ran the SCALE project way back when. Based on where we were then, I'd have hoped most things would have been figured out by now. Yet it still feels like we're still just getting started.

Perhaps my peers in the CIC feel otherwise and are much more satisfied about where we are. I do think there is some gender linkage in determining how critical/satisfied we are about events like the annual conference. (In case it's not obvious, the being critical attribute is carried on the male gene. I need an emoticon here.) But I've taken a lesson from my teaching this past semester where I more openly expressed dissatisfaction with the class than I've ever done in the past. That can be a basis for improvement, if we're open about it and admit our own shortcomings. Mine are all too obvious, not the least of which is outstaying my welcome when writing. So I bid you adieu. I hope there has been some benefit in what I've produced above.A

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