Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I miss the people, but not the profession

In my title I'm talking about Learning Technology.  I really would like to see former colleagues.  Schmoozing with them would be wonderful.  I have a deep fondness for many of them.

But I find myself moving further and further away from the profession by what seems to be the now mainstream topics.  For example, I really don't care about mobile computing.  Many of my students have their laptops out in class.  They are note taking vigorously, or so I assume.  Yesterday I had a student come to office hours and as we talked she was note taking vigorously, on paper.  Indeed, once in a while I'd ask her to give me her pen and notebook so I could draw a diagram to illustrate for her.  Laptop versus paper notebook is a difference that doesn't matter to me.

Should either of them be note taking to such a degree, or should they be doing something different to process what is going on in our discussion?  That's a more interesting question, one where I don't know the answer but where I can say I was never a very good note taker.  So on the theory of encouraging the students to be like me, I'd say they should take notes at best sparingly.  That's a cutesy answer.  It would be better to have a real answer, one which I don't have.  I will say it seems that the international students, overwhelmingly Asian, are more prone to take notes with their laptops.  Learning technology and international students seems again like an interesting issue - one that appears to be getting little traction so far.

By the time the next ELI national conference rolls around, it will have been seven years since I published these twin posts on the conference: Thoughts from ELI and Learning Technology and "The Vision Thing".  While the software I use now is quite different from what I was involved with then, I consider that a surface change only.  My real thinking on interesting use of learning technology has not altered much at all in the interim.  I can't say in any objective way whether the profession has changed substantively since.  But my distinct impression is that it wrong headed then and the fundamental error persists to this day.

So that first post was somewhat critical of the profession, though the conference, held in Atlanta, was clearly better than the one the year before, held in San Diego.  At the time of the San Diego conference I was the chair of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  We discussed the conference at some length at our next LTG meeting, and I was tasked by the group to contact Diana Oblinger, then running ELI, to express the group's concerns and see if we could get some changes that would improve matters.  To Diana's credit, she took my call seriously and willingly participated in a conference call with the entire group thereafter.  Substantive change in the form of the conference did happen as a result.

Those twin posts linked above documented the improvements seen in the Atlanta conference and offered up my critique of where the profession seemed to be.  By that time I was no longer chair of LTG, but in its governance structure the group had the past chair, current chair, and chair-elect have calls on occasion to provide some continuity for group function.  So I still had a finger or two in running the LTG and felt some responsibility to the profession in writing those twin posts.  Especially in considering the second post, my criticism of the profession is no different now than it was then.  ELI seems to have technology in the lead role vis-à-vis learning.  I thought that technology should, at most, be in a supporting role, or even just a bit part.  In the lead I cast something I called Humanism across the Curriculum and the second post was meant to give HAC some flesh.  My current teaching attempts to be in that spirit.   I wish that other instructors would do likewise.

Now I will switch modes as a means to shine some light on the above.  In his column today, Joe Nocera asks, What is Good Teaching?  The piece is about K-12 education as it occurs at inner city schools.  It relies heavily on the documentary The New Public.   It makes the argument that effective teaching needs to be situated in where the students are.  The various students themselves might very well be at quite different places.  The piece makes that point that good teaching embraces this diversity and manages it well.  But it also points out that such management is not part and parcel of the training students get at most Colleges of Education around the country.  So newly minted grads of such colleges are not good teachers out of the box.  If they ultimately become good teachers it is because, via reflective practice a la Donald Schon, they discover how to be good teachers over time. 

My class on Economics of Organizations at the University of Illinois is undoubtedly quite different from the classes depicted in The New Public documentary.  But it does share with those classes that the students are diverse in their backgrounds and where they are in their learning.  Some are from well to do families where the parents are working professionals.  Others are from families where the students are the first to go to college and the parents are working class or poor.  Some are transfers, mainly from community colleges, and may be alienated by size of the place and how impersonal it can be for the students.  Though they are mainly Econ majors, some are Business student wannabes, with no intrinsic interest in the economics.  And, as mentioned above, some are international students.   How should I manage that diversity?  In asking this, I'm casting the Learning Technology Profession in the same way that Nocera casts the Colleges of Education around the country.  There is a disconnect between the precepts of the profession and the issues on the ground.

Now a different sort of criticism, one that is more cynical.  In higher education we've had various exposés and documentaries on the learning issues over the last decade or so.   Examples include: What We're Learning About Student Engagement From NSSE, Declining by Degrees, and Academically Adrift.  These make some splash soon after they appear, but otherwise do not seem to alter the agenda for Learning Technology.  That agenda is defined more by developments in the technology arena than by anything else.

Many of the folks I know in the profession, like me, attended the Frye Leadership Institute.  This institute has a new name and is now called the Leading Change Institute.  There is an unintended irony with this name choice, particularly if I'm not far off the mark with my diagnosis above.  The profession appears unable to change its ways in a manner to address the disconnect. 

I have just started to read What the Best College Students Do.   The operating hypothesis there is that these students embrace their own creativity, feed it in their experiences, and enable personal growth through its expression.  But at the outset the book argues only a sliver of the total student population will ever do so.  This parallels the preaching of Maslow, who argued that only a small fraction of the population will become self-actualizers, though do note that the at the end of the linked piece a distinction is drawn between the creativity of artists, such as Van Gogh, and self-actualization.  In my own thinking I often merge the two, perhaps making an error in doing so.

Nevertheless, in considering both creativity and self-actualization there is then an obvious question about how to motivate them.  Is the ultimate purpose of education, particularly education that is not itself vocational, to encourage students to be part of this vanguard of creative people and self-actualizers?  or, at the least, to move the students in that direction?  The operating hypothesis that drives my own teaching is to answer each these questions with a very loud "yes."  In my view, that defines the mission.  Learning technology should act in service of this mission.

The profession appears to think otherwise.  It embraces the view that the technology itself should define the mission.  That is a view I can't subscribe to and it is why I feel myself drifting away from a profession that I was once an integral part of.

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