Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tilting at Windmills

When I was a young kid, sharing a bedroom with my even younger brother, my dad used to read us bedtime stories.  While those were many and varied, three characters were repeatedly in the lead, each with his own book.  One was Till Eulenspiegel. (I had trouble with the spelling here and remember the pronunciation of the last name as oy-gan-spiegel.)  Another was Baron Münchausen. These two don't seem to get any mention in the stuff I read and watch.  The third was Don Quioxte, who seems ever present even now.  I mention them because of a new pet hypothesis of mine.  We spend our working life trying to become the characters from the bedtime stories we were read as kids.  And in our retirement, we reach fulfillment.

This December marks 20 years since I got started with learning technology.  The early SCALE years especially, which coincided with the emergence of the Internet, encouraged the kind of thinking that blended fantasy and reality.  Some of that was the time period.  It was an era for lofty expectations.  Another part was that cash flowed so freely then.  But mainly, I think, it was the people involved.  There was a group of exceptionally talented people, from a variety of disciplines, each dedicated to using technology to improve learning.  It allowed a great deal of improvisation in our interactions.

I recall a SCALE retreat that I hosted, this one at Grainger Library.  It was for on campus folks only. Sometime earlier my sister had given me a gag gift, a pocket terminator.  It made very loud noises of the type you hear in the movies.  It occurred to me to use it as MC.  At the beginning of the event I pointed it at the panelists and let go on the Death Ray button.  Then I informed them that if they exceeded their time limit they'd get blasted by me.  Alfred Hübler, developer of CyberProf, became particularly startled by this unanticipated turn of events.  The rest of the day went remarkably well. 

To give a different example, at the very first Faculty Summer Institute, where the plenary sessions were held in the basement of Illinois Street Residence, Donna Brown and Pat Shapley were giving a joint session on Web applications when, to my horror, the electricity went out.  There was no projection.  Indeed, there were no room lights.  But, being the real troopers they were, they just kept on going and didn't skip a beat.  By the presenters staying in the moment, the attendees were kept in the moment as well.  I believe that session was quite highly rated in our evaluation of the FSI.

SCALE overlapped for one year with the Center for Educational Technologies, summer 1999 through spring 2000, though most of the CET staff didn't feel the connection to it.  But for me, SCALE coming to an end was like a good friend passing away.   The experimental approach, with its willingness to embrace what might appear to be a low probability of success activity, gave way to the sensible business model approach in support of learning technology.  Though I didn't realize it at the time, I ended up pushing my wild ideas, though they never seemed that wild to me, into venues where it was just me without CET involved.

The first of these that I recall happened in early fall 2000, when I chaired the oversight committee of the Center for Writing Studies.  I tend to borrow/steal most of the ideas I come up with.  In this case the New York Times recently had run a series called Writers on Writing and then produced an archive of those essays.  I became quite enamored with these pieces.  At the same time, I was desirous of getting faculty to produce essays of how they were integrating technology in their teaching, in order that we could publish the essays on our Web site.  So I put two and two together.  Working together with Gail Hawisher, who at the time was Director of CWS, and Joe Squier, who had been named a campus Distinguished Teacher/Scholar, we came up with an idea for a site, On Writing, that would host pieces by faculty who taught Writing Across the Curriculum courses.

If you are going to talk the talk then you must walk the walk.  That much I understood.  So I produced a draft of an essay that was meant as the first piece to go into this collection.  It gives a more detailed history of this project than I gave above, personalized from my perspective.  Both Gail and Joe thought it quite good and fitting for the purpose.  Yet the idea failed miserably.  That essay generated no coattails whatsoever.  The project was stillborn.  All these years later I still think the idea has merit, but I also know there are very real and practical problems that need to be overcome to generate contributions.  These problems defy obvious solution.  They include: many potential contributors don't otherwise have an online voice, so would feel awkward writing such a piece; the value of such a site is unproven and hence doesn't encourage others to put in the effort to write pieces for it; and, of course, everyone is incredibly busy with other work.  So the failure is easy to understand, though the upside from possible success remains alluring.

Over time, the generation of the wild ideas became more and more an insular activity for me.  A prominent example happened during the summer after I started this blog.  I wrote a series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning, by which I mean older students at the university helping younger students, doing so in campus sanctioned activities, with the entire effort done at scale.  Deploying undergraduates to teach and mentor other undergraduates seems to me something that public research universities should be doing in a big way.  Indeed, on the keeping the costs of the education down while making the learning better front, I believe it to be the single biggest and best thing that might be done.  I tried to push this idea on a variety of my peer administrators, ultimately teaching a class for Campus Honors Program students on Designing for Effective Change, to see if I could jump start its implementation.  This too was a complete failure. 

Let me close with one more example, this one more recent and related to current teaching.  I tried to form a discussion group in the spring with students who took my course the previous fall, with the purpose to have an ongoing conversation about their learning.  I did get a couple of nibbles from students and another student asked me to supervise her Honors project.  But this thing also failed.  It never got started.

The failures notwithstanding, I'm fascinated both with trying this idea again and with other possible ideas that probably have no way to see the light of day, but that are inherently much more interesting to me than those that are more evidently possible.  This absorption with the reasonable but somewhat out of reach is where my head is now.  If I could fill my days with new ideas of this sort, I'd be very satisfied.  Possibility matters.  Accomplishment does not.  What an odd way to live, and yet incredibly natural for me now.  

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