Friday, February 24, 2006

Asynch and Out of Synch

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my blog. Happy Birthday!!! What did I do to celebrate the grand occasion? Unfortunately, the answer is, keep my nose to the grindstone. There were a lot of things to keep up with work-wise and teaching-wise so I haven’t made a post in over a week. I hope to make up for that in the next few days.

Today I want to video in teaching and learning - not the full deal, that is too big a topic – just how it has impacted me this last week or so. I was slated to deliver a presentation at our EdTech Brownbag and since I’m going to be at a CIC meeting this coming Monday and hence will have to miss my class, I thought why not prepare for the Brownbag as if doing an online lecture and in case that turns out ok, I’d do something similar for my class.

So I made a little Web site in lieu of a PowerPoint Presentation that is available here and at first my plan was to use my built in iSight camera in my iMac G5 to record me as a talking head. Unfortunately, and I hope if Apple continues to offer the built in iSight they will change this if they haven’t changed it already, iMovie doesn’t recognize that camera. It seems to require an external camera. However, I found this cheapie third party tool called Boinx iVeZeen which in my tests worked fine and put out Quicktime movies compressed for Web Viewing that seemed quite reasonable in terms of both the effort to make the video and the finished product. But due to procrastination and other work, I didn’t make these videos way ahead of time. So now it’s Tuesday, the day before the presentation and I start recording them. Lo and behold, iVeZeen craps out on me. Either the videos I was making were too long (they were a couple of minutes of talking head) or there is too much of something in some buffer, but whatever, it just wouldn’t work.

Cool and collected under pressure, I start to panic. For whatever reason, while a week earlier I viewed making these videos something of a lark, by that Tuesday it started to seem a critical part of my presentation. So I went to plan B. At home I’ve got an inexpensive Logitech Webcam mounted on the monitor for the family Dell. Also, the campus has recently gotten a site license for the Real Helix server and thrown into the deal is RealProducer Plus. So I made some recordings at home Tuesday night after first trying it on my Tablet PC in my office to convince myself this could work. (The Tablet PC is absolutely horrible for recording audio. The quality is terrible. But it was ok to test that this could be done.)

The process itself begins with Logitech software that comes with the Webcam. That is used to record an AVI file. I’m not film star and actually feel quite uncomfortable making these movies. So I’m interested in “ good enough” quality in the AVI file that is produced. The Webcam meets that minimal requirement. The audio is audible with not too much hiss and the coordination with the video, although it seems surrealistic to watch yourself on screen this way, is not too bad.

Then the AVI file is used as input by RealProducer which converts the file to a streaming format. The current file type is .rv, but I wasn’t sure how that would work with our current streaming server so I converted to the older type, .rm. The default speed is for 256K (DSL at home) streaming and I kept that and added 56K. Perhaps I should have also included a higher rate stream for what I have to say next. But since my prior experience with this stuff was audio only (I had done some video but only with the free version of RealProducer), I did what I did. The software converted this stuff like a charm but it does take some time to get the conversion going. Then via sftp to our streaming server and identifying the links for the files so they will stream and voila, they’re up on my presentation page. I put them there both as embedded in a player (which for whatever reason play only the audio on my Mac) and as a link (which plays the full video fine on my Mac).

I recorded 3 clips Tuesday night. It is hard to do, harder than just recording audio, because there is the question of looking at the camera or looking at the screen (and if you do both back and forth creating a shifty look as a consequence) and you need to show some emotion so the thing is interesting to watch, which is extremely hard for me to do when I’m simultaneously trying to provide factual information, especially without getting feedback from anyone else. So I left the rest of the work for Wednesday morning. If you go through these, you’ll see my shirt is different starting on the slide, Goals for a Gen Ed Course.

Now I want to switch gears for a second and ask whether this sort of stuff should be streamed or downloaded. If the entire presentation were zipped up and then downloaded, to be expanded on the users computer, the file is on the order of 30 – 50 MB. That is not overwhelming size if you know you want to view it and in that case podcasting the zip file seems like the right way to go. But if you just want to sample a bit, that is too much and most people won’t be patient for the download. So better to do as is where each clip is streamed. Now watch a clip or two and let it play a bit. If you do this during normal business hours on campus, then although our server doesn’t get an overwhelming amount of traffic, there is some latency so the audio and video get a little out of synch. That’s one reason for the title of this post. Compared to a couple of years ago with streaming this is quite excellent. Compared to TV, this is still not good enough.

My sense is that we’ll stay at this level for some time now. Video for download will become more a regular thing, but because these are comparatively big files there will be a lot of sampling things online – sort of like a try this new appetizer at the grocery store. Streaming that is on demand will handle this sampling type of need. And for many of us who may have quotas on our Web site and have a separate server for streaming, streaming may therefore dominate download where the audience is open. With a known, predictable audience, download via podcast clearly makes more sense because of the improved viewing quality when the files are resident on your own computer.

Let me make another gear switch now and note that in the Brown Bag series my group runs they have been video recording the presentation and then indexing the recorded video for better access by on demand viewers. Several examples are available so you can get a sense of what is being produced. On the one hand, this is a nice thing to offer to campus for those who can’t make the brown bag, although I wonder how many watch it online after the fact. On the other hand, however, I wonder if this use of technology promotes bad pedagogy and hence shouldn’t be promoted broadly.

My own standard for a successful presentation is whether the audience interrupts early and often and there is good dialog back and for the between the audience and the presenter. I really don’t like when the moderator says – let’s hold questions till the end – and with that feel for sure the presentation hasn’t worked well if at the end there are no questions.

My talk was borderline, mostly I talked, a question here and there. If anything, I felt the camera that was recording me contributed to he monolog mode. We used a wired microphone, so I couldn’t stray too far. That’s one factor. But beyond that, we had an operator who ran the camera, one of my staff, and that “leant dignity” to the presentation, dignity that it didn’t otherwise deserve. But that dignity inhibits the audience from asking questions. They’d be less inhibited in a more informal discussion where the technology isn’t present.

Am I out of synch on that? And what does mean when the head learning technology guy would rather have less technology?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Learning Technologist as Elmer Gantry

Very early on in my exposure to online learning, I believe this was late fall of 1994, I attended a presentation that may have been meant for those candidate faculty who would participate in the first round of the SCALE grant. I was there (a “smart classroom” on the first floor in Lincoln Hall) with my colleague in Economics, Larry DeBrock. He was the one plugged into innovative campus efforts in teaching and in this case I was his sidekick in the role of Festus playing off of Larry as Marshall Dillon. (We ultimately got a big bucks internal grant from SCALE for doing ALN in our respective Econ courses.) There was a fabulous crew of presenters starting off with Burks Oakley, whom at that point I believe I had met once before, and including Bob Jones who at the time ran something called the Advanced Information Technology Lab which had done a lot with hypermedia and provided a lot of support for faculty in the humanities, and Joe Hardin who at the time was at NCSA, one of the pioneers involved with Mosaic, and who now is at Michigan running their Sakai efforts. There was electricity in the air. Technology seemingly held such promise and these stars gave a really wonderful show to emphasize the point.

The idea that learning technology needs a show person, somebody who has charisma and knowledge of the technology, somebody who gets ordinary faculty excited about the prospects, who can with fluidity and depth speak of the benefits in terms of student learning but also speak of the technology itself and what the potential is or of the methodology that the that the technology enables, certainly was a prominent part of SCALE when I was brought into the administrative side of the project since Burks was such a master of it, and it became a big issue for the rest of us, who were not quite in Burks’ league in making presentations. Here I talk not just about myself but also the other SCALE staff as well.

For my own part, I’m not a bad presenter and can give a good and coherent talk and on occasion rise a level or two to bring the requisite level of excitement into the presentation. But I was brought up to view salesmen as pretty far down on the social totem pole, and have an aversion to being placed in a situation where I feel that there is a sales job being give to my friends and colleagues, especially when there seems a paucity of quality ideas behind the promotion. And as I’ve become more experienced in management of learning technology, where influencing the expectations of the instructors we support is a primary consideration, I’ve learned (perhaps I've been conditioned) to take a longer term view and hence am less inclined to represent the promise of an emerging technology or method without also discussing the possible pitfalls. That is argument, not promotion. It is what I’m personally comfortable with, but it does not do nearly as much to “sway the masses.” I’ll come back to this point. I think it is important.

Let me fast forward a few years later, say six months or a year into my next big administrative foray with learning technology, our hard money Center for Educational Technology, which supported early offerings of both Blackboard (then CourseInfo) and WebCT, in addition to some other offerings. While I had wanted each of my support people (here we call them CAIS, which is short for Computer Assisted Instruction Specialist, a holdover title from the Plato days) to be reasonably proficient in all the applications we supported and then to develop their own group of faculty clients who would then have a personal support person they would know and could rely on (we’ve since moved away from this model in a significant way because it is less scalable), it turned out that the staff concentrated on one or two applications, in large part because mastering any single one took a good deal of effort, and then something happened that I had not anticipated. The staff began to view adoptions by the faculty members as an indicator of their own personal performance. Of course, uptake was a key measure of the success of the Center as a whole. But it was a surprise to me that some of the staff would take this view at their own individual level when I had not imposed it from above. (At the time I was in no position to attribute adoption by a particular instructor to the efforts of a specific staff member.)

This is not a surprise to me anymore. I believe support staff rightly see their good efforts manifest in what the instructors whom they have helped do with the technology. A very cool implementation is an object of pride and so is getting many instructors on the bandwagon. For the latter, this gives the staff member a reason to be a sales person. In my opinion, some of them embrace this role because they see it as synonymous with doing a good job. They want to be a latter day Burks Oakley and get the faculty excited about the technology.

And now a related point and the real reason for the post. A big deal has been made of late, not in the learning technology arena but rather in the world of politics, that it’s not ideas that are important but rather ideas the way ideas are framed. Ergo the furor over George Lakoff’s book, Don’t think of the Elephant, and how that influenced Democratic Party politics as described in this article by Matt Bai from the New York Times Magazine last summer. (You must subscribe to the Times Select service for that link to work.) So let’s ask the question, what type of framing sells, especially in the case when the recipient of the sale is a faculty member?

The answer to this question that I would like to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but I suspect is not, is that reasoned argument sells, especially when the argument is supported by empirical evidence. Perhaps that answer is correct for some (small) fraction of the audience. Suppose, however, that one assumes the faculty are not that much different from the rest of the population and what sells to the rest sells to the faculty too. So what is the answer then? Well, it’s obvious. It’s sex. Sex sells and any promotion we’re talking about has to be made sexy if it is to catch on.

Ok, so what of it? This alone doesn’t seem like a terribly novel proposition. Here’s the related point. Think of Web 2.0 or for that matter any other comparatively new technology. Does it offer potential for improving teaching and learning? Sure it does. Do we who support learning technology know the details of how that improvement is likely to happen? Well, we might if we tried to use it in our own classes or if we worked it through with some instructor who was going to give it a try or if not that then having a serious conversation with that instructor who did it on her own and wanted to share what she learned from the experience. So it is possible that we know. But it is also possible, and I think in many cases it is likely, that we don’t know this way. But we believe. We believe in the potential for the technology because at our core we got into learning technology because of the potential for it to transform teaching and learning. Part of our essence in what motivates us in doing our work is this belief in the power of technology to transform.

So, based on our belief, we promote technology as sex because that sells and we substantiate that approach by the hope that the technology will transform the teaching. We could go the reasoned argument route and accumulate evidence about effective practice with the technology, but that is a much slower way to diffuse things and after all, doesn’t it create a chicken and egg thing with new technology? How can we know in that case?

This sounds like Elmer Gantry to me.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Comparing the Teacher and the Student to the Writer and the Reader

Yesterday my campus held its annual Active Learning Retreat, sponsored by our Center for Teaching Excellence. The featured speaker was Ken Bain of NYU. He gave a good talk. I was one of about half the audience who had not yet read his book, What the Best College Teachers Do. So it may be surprising for me to say that I learned nothing fundamentally new from his presentation. I already understood the issues he was addressing from my other reading, my interactions with knowledgeable teachers, and my own experience with teaching. But he did provide a very nice framework on which to hang these ideas and to bring it all together. And he was quite engaging while doing that. I’ll get back to his key points in a bit.

His session started out, almost immediately, with an “active learning” exercise. On the one hand this was nice in that I met a faculty member in Animal Biology whom I did not know and we got along well. She lectures in our very large auditorium (Foellinger) and uses the campus Learning Management System (WebCT Vista) and seemed to be doing well with these, which was good to hear. And she is the product of public Higher Education, having been an undergrad at the University of Michigan, though she grew up in Illinois. We shared experiences about a teacher who really shaped us in our thinking (that was what we were tasked to do) and in the process I learned that she knew her career path as a scientist early on in her college career, certainly by the time she took organic chemistry as a sophomore. I wouldn’t have noted that except that I asked my own students this same question earlier in the week and they too seemed locked into a career path and most of them were freshmen. Ironically, the only student who expressed uncertainty on this point is a junior.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with active learning. I can see the benefit as a “warm up” activity to get those in the audience ready for what the presenter has to say. And I will concede that in the context of the Retreat, where the presenter had not addressed the audience before, it was a way to level the playing field in terms of audience expectations, getting those in attendance more in tune with what the presenter had to say. But because I still believe in and cherish the necessity of “head scratching” to come to a deeper understanding of what is going on and because that reflection typically needs to occur outside of class when the student is alone and able to concentrate and follow the flow of his own ideas and because nobody seems to be promoting head scratching nowadays as a necessary component to learning, somehow conveying instead that either it is all quick hitter in getting the ideas out or if not that then group brain storming suffices, so instructors should fix their attention on promoting either the quick hitter or the brain storming and God forbid they ask something really hard that won’t be able to be addressed these other ways, I feel we’ve been leading faculty down the wrong path. The hard problems have to be there. Learning depth of understanding and how to penetrate from the surface has to be there. And getting stuck while working on hard problems definitely has to be there. Learning not to abandon ship but rather to develop persistence and that ultimately this produces invention and alternative ways to approach the issue, this is the key.

I’m off my soapbox now and want to get to the title of this post. It is curious to me that the metaphors we use in teaching, in particular “learner centric” or “teacher centric” are so unlike the metaphors we use in writing, good or bad, when the two activities seem to have so much in common. Let me first make the case for invoking that parallel and then draw the lesson from that argument.

Consider this book review of Stephen Jay Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus. The author of the review, John Noble Wilford, quotes Gould in the prologue of the book on Gould’s approach to writing.
Mr. Gould acknowledges that his favorite method of writing is "beginning with something small and curious and then working outward and onward by a network of lateral connections."
The striking part of this quote is that in this single phrase Gould embraces two of the three pillars that Bain argued are the keys to good teaching; first, that knowledge must be constructed, Gould clearly does that via working outward and onward form his initial curious observations and, second, that the learner must be motivated and have passion for the learning, which is why that Gould starts with the small and curious, to make the learning personal and to invoke the interest of the reader.

Bain’s third pillar (it was the first one he introduced to us) is not in this quote from Gould but it infuses his writing and to a large extent provides his raison d’etre for the writing itself – the learner (reader) must be confronted with evidence that his current world view is inadequate to address certain observations or, better still, that the current world view evokes predictions that directly contradicts what is being observed. Gould, in other words, understands his readers. They read on because they want a more mature and complete understanding of reality and they are motivated because their current views are inadequate in this, creating either dead ends or contradictions. Gould as a writer is precisely at the same point where Bain says good teachers are. They understand learning deeply, at this fundamental level.

Good writers (and in my opinion Gould was a wonderful writer) are teachers and their craft as exercised in their writing is exactly what we’d like to see in our teachers; their teaching should reflect the same insight and the same attention to detail to produce the learning in the students. Lest the reader of this blog post think that I’m exaggerating the point, after all Gould was a professor of biology at Harvard, all he was really doing in his writing was professing to a general audience who wanted to be touched by the great professor but couldn’t get admitted to Harvard to take his classes, try reading some short story fiction by a good writer. I’ve recently read some of Melville’s classics. Of course, he writes to entertain the reader. He was in the business of selling his stories to periodicals that published for a general, if enlightened, readership. But his stories also clearly educate – they serve as a political commentary, as ethical lessons, as exemplars of how to tell a story well, all tied together in a way that makes it seem so natural and flowing. This is teaching excellence at its highest mark.

We've reached the juncture where we can turn to the metaphor, “learner centric.” For a while I think it was useful to me and helped me think through the fundamental critique of the lecture – you can’t show the learner where to cast his gaze if he’s not ready to look. So lecturing that amounts to pointing the (non) learner in the direction of where to look but does nothing about getting the learner ready is not good teaching and needs to be criticized and rightfully so. But some of what I’ve been hearing from the learner centric crowd – the learner needs to be in control of the learning – is both wrong and wrong headed. I hope by focusing in on the issue we can agree where he problem lies and then move past it.

If the learner operates from an immature frame of view and is comfortable in that, the learner is apt to defend that view rather than to abandon it for something more mature that can account for what is being observed. Bain said this in his presentation. It jives with my experience and is explained by observing that it is unsettling to be forced to abandon one’s world view. Consequently, the students need to be confronted and shocked into the realization that their immature view will not suffice. They will not engage in this confrontation willingly on their own. It is not comfortable. It is only the unusual student who will seek it out. For the rest, the teacher must initiate it. But for the teacher to be able to do that, the student can’t be in control.

This sounds like a power play but it really shouldn’t turn out that way. The relationship between a good writer and her readers is not about power. Both writer and reader want the other to play their role as actively and effectively as possible. And writers most certainly want to hear from their readers and learn how those readers react to the writing. This is hugely important for the writer to keep up with the writing. The reader reaction and in particular the reader explaining his personal growth as a consequence of the reading is fodder for the writer in working on the next piece of writing and making sure it is on the mark.

We in the learning technology arena who have until now embraced the “learner centric” mantra uncritically should move to abandon it and replace it with something else. My vote is for “good teaching as good writing.”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The future of LMS and evolutionary biology

I’ve been “offline” the last few days tending to other things. I did a tad of catching up this morning and wanted to chime in on this future directions issue, because it seems to me that everyone is looking at this too narrowly. But before I get to that and as I warm up let me ask a more drill down question.

Suppose your shop that supports the LMS is thinking about supporting some Web 2.0 application(s) as an alternative to the LMS offering and to keep the folks who want to try something else from getting too restless. The question is this. How important is having a built in WYSIWYG editor as part of the requirements. I had thought it was a big deal, for user convenience and for helping those who are still early on in trying these technologies. But then I stumbled on this free editor that is like a desktop email client. It deals with images on the Web in a very nice way – allows those to be dragged into the message with no need to know the url of the image – and in general looks familiar enough that it should be easy to learn. I tried it on my test blog and it was simple to set up and easy to publish. Might we start seeing more of these utility like applications on the desktop and outside our server based environments? And, in particular, has anyone else tried Qumana and if so what do you think of it?

* * * * *

Now a quick lesson in evolutionary biology courtesy of Steven Jay Gould. The right metaphor is that of the bush, not the tree trunk that you may have seen in your high school biology text. With the bush lots of branches are growing and viable. Then random factors, meaning that they are not predictable ahead of time, select some branch for continued growth and enhancement while the other branches wither and die. I think we’re still in this bush stage with the LMS and most of the insiders are looking at deterministic factors (features within the current offerings) as determinants of the path. It maybe human nature to do this, but it is bad biology. And it is bad industrial organization. Gould and many economists have made a strong parallel between evolutionary biology and how industries evolve. (Microsoft did not become dominant because it had the best offerings.)

So what other things should we be looking at? Let me point to two that seem obvious to me because they are both within the domain of campus CIOs. The first is email. Depending on where you are, email has been around for perhaps 7 or 8 years longer than the LMS. Most campuses I know are at present supporting big email systems, but many of the students are not using them, opting for gmail, hotmail, or some other commercial alternative that is free to them. I know that we are hearing from some of these vendors about offering us a hosting solution of some sort that would be branded with the University of Illinois and offer a variety of their current features. And I know we have some issues with this regarding information security. So we have not as of yet jumped at this opportunity.

But there is another possible path. That is to get out of the email business. Simply provide a forwarding service and let the users fend for themselves with what has become a commodity service in which we can’t compete in terms of service quality. (And then there is the hybrid version of this where we get out for the students and offer a more boutique service for the faculty.)

I don’t know of campuses that have made the leap on this yet and surely there is a lot of risk in doing so. My point is that how this plays out will have a big impact on how the LMS evolves, and how this plays out is not knowable now. So why aren’t we in the learning technology arena talking about it rather than leaving it to the techies to decide how it should play out?

The other side of this sandwich is the ERP system. At my university, which includes the Chicago and Springfield campuses, we are in the process of moving from Banner 6.x to Banner 7.x. And unlike with changes in the LMS system that usually take place over the summer, the move here is happening right now in time for students to register for their fall courses in the new system.

The ERP, of course, represents institutional lock in to a big system and a more massive expenditure on IT than the LMS. But there does not seem a way to outsource these functions (though I do think if we looked at our business practices for things like how many majors students have and how add/drop dates are managed we have ourselves to blame for the lock in). I know very few people who speak positively of the ERP. To most it seems like master rather than servant and it is a master nobody wanted beforehand. For CIOs who are not learning technologists themselves, the ERP may be a metaphor for the LMS and hence the CIO decision about the LMS may be guided accordingly.

What does that mean? I don’t really know, but again my point is that there is unpredictability here and that may very well come from outside the narrow LMS space. I do know that as an IT organization (our division of labor has the University supporting the ERP and all other administrative apps while the campus supports the academic apps) our back end is looking more and more like the back end needed for the ERP. At a big institution such as mine, that on the one had might signify we inside IT are “doing it right” but it also might signify from the CIO point of view, “this job is not fun.” Hmmmm.

Let me make one more observation to indicate yet another source of uncertainty. Right now in the CIC (the Big Ten Universities plus the University of Chicago), there are several CIO positions that are opening up as the current CIOs have announced their retirements or have moved on. So we’ll be seeing a new crop of folks in these positions in the not too distant future and it will be this next generation of leaders who make the decisions that will drive these outcomes. But who are these folks? And, assuming they have fire in the belly, what is their passion? That has got to matter.

So we can keep talking about the tools inside the LMS, but we are naïve if we think that will drive which approach becomes the branch that sustains.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Being Claude Rains

The Turner Classic Films Network is doing a series on Academy award winning movies (or those that received nominations) for the next month or so, until this year’s awards ceremony. Last night they had two Humphrey Bogart pictures back to back; first The African Queen, where Bogie plays opposite Katherine Hepburn in what might seem unlikely casting but which comes off remarkably well as the derelict gin drinking boatman and the prissy missionary form an indelible bond via their trip down the river in the African Queen and which provides the only role where Bogie won the Academy award for Best Actor, and Casablanca, the quintessential anti-hero picture, which still is a wonderful movie though it has become a cliché – in the Dooley Wilson character Sam, the song As Time Goes By, and the closing line “Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

I want to focus in on the Capt. Renault character and then use that characterization and the relationship of that character to the Rick Blaine role that Bogart plays as the way to idealize the relationship between instructional designer and faculty member and then to pose the question how we might, even remotely, approximate that ideal. Louis has a knowing ironical style throughout the film. He is a corrupt lecher who abuses his power, but does so in a way that both the German bullies and the heroes in the film are comfortable accommodating. He has insight into the behavior and likes of others and in the main respects those deeply, not projecting his own views on things till the very end of the movie. He has a gracefulness in his speech and an elegance in his style that make others want to be around him. Yet he knows he is the second fiddle, in particular to Victor Laslow (played by Paul Henreid) or to “Monsieur Rick.” He knows the arena where it is right to make his own wants and needs the object of focus as wells as the space where he rightly should subjugate himself to the needs of the protagonists.

These features of Captain Renault, as embodied by Rains’ masterful performance, make the character a highly attractive model for the instructional designer. And it contrasts so strongly to the view Mark Prensky gave of instructional designers at ELI – Instructional Designers suck all the fun out of teaching. Rains as Louis is nothing if not fun – mischievous and scheming, taken with his own amusements. Prensky’s description, on the other hand, brings to mind another descriptor – pedantic. And I must say on this point I’ve heard Prensky’s view echoed by many others. The instructional designer is all too often the pedantic authority to whom no faculty member wants to listen. The instructional designer may not have started out that way and, indeed, may very well have been a member of the faculty early in the career. But somehow the pressures of the job or the removal from actual teaching transforms the instructional designer in a way that is detrimental to the job.

So we want to ask how we might turn instructional designers into Claude Rains and how we might make it that faculty seek out the friendship of Instructional designers. This, I think, is not easy and discussing it might create quite a good deal of irritation among practicing professionals. But, in the interest of trying to get from here to there, here is my list of suggestions.

A Bag of Tricks of Quick Hitters that Work

Many instructors don’t want a full analysis of their course for the purposes of coming up with a detailed teaching plan to implement a redesigned offering. Instead they want to make a tweak or two to try and keep the rest of what they were doing beforehand. If they are going to change anything, they want it in itself to make a difference. This is the spirit behind the work on Low Threshold Applications. Instructional designers either need to play with the existing ones on their own so they are comfortable with them and can with confidence recommend them or, alternatively make their own low threshold applications, which requires play of a different but related sort.

Part of the idea is to build up some trust between instructor and designer. If trust is low at the outset, then offer something lightweight that is likely useful. That very well will not solve all the teaching issues, but it will create a good channel for further problem solving down the road. Win some early battles, built trust, and then hope the instructor comes back for more.

Get out of talking about method and instead talk about teaching-issues

Most instructors are simply not interested in learning about method. If they have to learn a full methodology before they can begin to apply it to their class – well that is just too slow and most instructors won’t go for it. Instructors confront issues while teaching. Instructional design must be about issue resolution.

Brand new instructors most likely have a common single big issue – they are afraid of interacting with their students for fear of being shown that they’re not good enough to be teaching them, the “confidence thing” if you will. So the issue is how to build instructor confidence and how to avoid many of the struggles that young professors typically go through.

Many more experienced instructors, after having gone through the “awkward teenage blues” of being a novice teacher, then have the problem that the students don’t talk up in class. This is a different issue, though almost surely related to the first one. The Instructional Designer recommendations have to be seen as instrumental in addressing the issues. Otherwise, why bother paying attention to the recommendations.

Don’t insist that the instructor make course goals explicit

Instructors know a lot about what they want their students to achieve, but they may not be able to articulate that as a list disembodied from the work the students do. Their knowledge may be more situated. So some instructors, and I’m definitely in this category myself, prefer a tacit approach to achieve course goals and thus a discussion of those goals can happen only over a long time period as the variations of the course unfold.

How to proceed, in other words, depends on the learning style of the instructor and the good instructional designer must be sensitive to that style. Absent the ability to administer a formal test of learning style, this will have to come out through conversation and other interaction with the Instructor.

If we’re preaching learner centric approaches, then make the designer–faculty member experience about the faculty member.

The idea here is quite simple, but I suspect this is very difficult to actually do. With regard to knowledge about teaching, presumably the designer is the expert and the faculty member more the novice. In a learner centered approach the expert brings attention to the learner’s focus and tailors the approach accordingly.

In this instance, however, the faculty member may very well not feel comfortable showing their lack of expertise and the designer may feel the need to establish a credential, to justify the faculty member willing putting in the time. But surely this is the road to ruin – the outcome that Prensky talked about. The designer must have enough confidence in himself so that he can encourage the faculty member to vocalize the teaching issues.


I know my suggestions are only a drop in the bucket, not a full answer. I don’t have a full answer, but having the imagery of Claude Rains as the ideal endpoint seems a useful conception to me.