Friday, September 29, 2006

Educause 10 days away

Because of my accident I'm going to miss the conference this year. Below are a few reflections that may be of interest heading into the conference.

* * * * *

Last night I watched an old interview that Dick Cavett had with Alfred Hitchcock. I think it was on the Turner Classic Movie Channel. Of course there were many stories of the making of his movies, but also Hitchcock held forth and told anecdotes on a variety of topics. At one point he made a particularly bad pun (I recall on the word generality). Cavett dutifully gave him grief for that and Hitchcock responded, no, punning is the highest form of literature. Right on.

Earlier that day I was on campus for the first time since my accident. They had a going away party for me. It was very charming. The best part of all - the staff of my EdTech unit had written a bunch of Limericks about me that Leslie Hammersmith read aloud. I loved that. I've appropriated what they had on the internal wiki site to a Writely page so the world can see their creativity.

* * * * *

Still earlier in the day I attended by phone a meeting of our advisory committee on Learning Technology and in the process of reviewing what themes might be appropriate for this year one colleague told the story that in his department he had convinced the head a couple of years ago to allocated a grad student to support instructors with use of technology in their teaching, but that allocation had been cut this year, because the resource didn't get sufficient utilization. He then went on with a familiar lament, the incentives for teaching are weak on this campus, especially regarding P&T (but also via even modest recognition, for example with a competitive small grant program). So the recommendation was for us to make some suggestions about the process by which teaching gets documented for promotion to include learning technology in that.

No doubt, instructors caring about implementing is an issue on my campus (and I'm sure it is an issue nationally) but perhaps we in the profession need to be asking ourselves whether the problem is that we're not providing the right intrinsic motivation. I believe that. And I believe that's because we've got our attention focused too much directly on the technology. Consider this alternative.

The (quiet) revolution that I would like to see is for the entire curriculum to adopt humanistic elements, the basis of which I would call Situated Story Telling. By this I mean that the story depends on the listeners as well as on the teller. The Dialogic Learning Objects approach I advocated a while back is an example of this. There are other ways to do this as well. Story telling is the key skill to promote both deep understanding of the subject and also to make overt connections between the topic being studied and and other interesting happenings going on in the world.

It seems to me that making the case for situated story telling is a lot easier sell job and more faculty will pay attention to arguments to that effect. To date, mostly I'm seeing these type of arguments coming from people like Barbara Ganley, a big time blogger who teaches writing. I love the type of arguments she makes for getting students to open up in their own blogs.

But the problem is, she teaches writing. Where are the coattails for making these arguments across other disciplines? I teach Econ. If I have my students do situated story telling (and indeed I do) then that is to learn Econ, not to learn story telling per se (though that is a fantastic byproduct). We need people to trumpet about story telling across disciplines as the way for instructors to modify their teaching. It has to happen in Engineering, in Accounting, in Food Science, in other words, everywhere, not just in courses English courses.

The technology is a wonderful instrument for students to tell and share their stories. But wonderful as it is, its still an instrument. The technology per se is less compelling, and while instructors do need to get familiar with it over time and not do too much the first time they teaching with it, encouraging instructors to put up their PowerPoints in the Learning Management System is likely sufficiently disconnected from situated story telling they they never get there in their teaching.

With the technology itself getting more mature, we proiders need to get more mature in the way we convince faculty to use the technology. I believe the above is the way to go about doing this.

* * * * *

With my new job in the College of Business, one of the issues I'm vexed with is wether we will rely on campus provided applications, such as the Learning Management System (which we branded locally here as Illinois Compass) or if we need to differentiate ourself more and support our own applications.

I'm sure my campus is not the only one with this question of centralized versus unit supplied application support. The rhetoric about this has been on generic applications (which should be supplied centrally) versus specific applications that will ahe use in only some disciplines (which should be supplied by the units). The reality, as I see it, is that generic still comes in flavors and to get the favorite flavor one decentralizes, but then one loses possible scale economies from central provision.

This seems to me a big deal issue for which there has not been enough strategic thinking and, like with the case about motivating faculty to teach with technology, there has not been enough good arguments put out there for why unit proiders should opt for a centrally proided solution.

I'd really like to see some thoughtful strategic thinking on this issue.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Road to Redemption

Yesterday marks the start of the third week since my fall. I’m making some progress, small steps but definitely discernible to me. There is less pain when I stand and when I use the crutches it is as a second option now rather than a way to propel me because the left leg can’t bear weight. Actually, it can. Saturday night we had friends over for dinner. I felt unnatural and uncomfortable at first (one of the derivative problems is that I’m sitting so much that my tailbone hurts) so I spend more time than I’d like focusing on my own pain and I have to alter my posture in the wheelchair and that looks weird to others – “can I help you with something?” But we all seemed to adjust into our normal pace after a while and we had a nice dinner and good talk and then caught a few minutes of the third quarter with MSU putting a pasting on Notre Dame. (They are getting their just desserts since having been so highly rated before the season started.) Normal stuff, nothing exceptional to it at all, except in the way it gave me assurance that I and my family will get through this set back ok, not too much the worse for wear.

Some time last week, I had begun to ask myself how I might turn the accident into a strength and if so, how would I go about doing that? A couple of months ago I had posed a query to a philosopher of education friend of mine on use of the term “authentic” and whether it was appropriately used in the contexts in which I was reading it. (For example, Ken Bain uses the expression freely in his book about the best teachers.) The way this term has been used affected me much in the same way as I reacted the first time it was pointed out to me that many in the Midwest will ask, “Where’s it at?” rather than the better sounding to my ears, “Where is it?” In this case the gnawing question is: precisely who determines whether an activity aimed at promoting or assessing learning is authentic? Is it the learner? The teacher? How can a third party affirm or deny that an activity is authentic when the teacher does otherwise?

By coincidence, my friend’s belated response to this question arrived last week and he suggested looking at the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor. Almost immediately after getting this message from my friend, I dutifully do a Google Search on Charles Taylor. I find this WowEssays site on Taylor, not exactly the definitive source on the subject that I was looking for, but readable, as well as this book review by Michael Novak. While the second piece gives me more of a sense about what Taylor is really writing, it is the first piece that seems to more directly relate to my question about turning the accident into a strength. My take away message is clear to me – I’m spending too much time thinking about myself, wallowing in it so to speak. Sure, the writer should write about what he knows, what he is intimately acquainted with, where he is more likely to penetrate deeper. But Taylor seems to say that reality requires human interaction --- other people are a critical piece to the puzzle. Does the introspection ultimately lead outward? If not, it represents a shallow form of existence.

I’ve had some unusual dreams since the accident, I think partly induced by the pain medication. Armed with some of these “visions” and looking to the accident to signify something, I had a brief encounter with the question of whether this is my “opportunity” to embrace religion. I’m not comfortable with the question. So I ultimately dismiss it. Aferwards, I rationalize, perhaps a little more than rationalize, that embracing religion now would be giving in, defeatist, untrue to my self. If anything, I’ve been for reason and intelligent argument (and I've been a tacit atheist for years.) Whether I’m right about what I say is a different matter, but this entire blog is for reasoned argument. Now I’m having a bit of a tough time because of the accident. Do I throw that all away during a time of need and embrace something because the situation seems beyond me? That doesn’t seem right to me.

Then, on Saturday, I start to think about Ross Levy, a classmate from back in Bayside (Junior High and High School), not a particularly good friend, but somebody whom I played basketball with and hung out with a bit, along with some other kids. In previous posts I’ve characterized myself as a math nerd, and I was, but I also played a fair amount of stickball, basketball, and other ball (I was on the tennis team). I hung out with a different group of guys for that. Ross was one of those, a little squirrelly looking, but actually a pretty good basketball player. I remember in gym class watching him outplay somebody else who looked more athletic and was on the team. Ross was a fooler that way.

Ross wrote something in my high school yearbook that was a little different from the rest – let the warmth continue. I don’t know why he wrote that, but maybe he saw it as my essence. And maybe it is. What about becoming a champion for human warmth? It was a value that was quite important when I was growing up, something my parents really embraced, something codified in the Yiddish expression, “Be a mensch.” What if I could become an advocate for human warmth in teaching as the core value, whether with or without technology, an approach that both would be a tonic for the current alienation and nihilism and would bring me back to my roots?

So I began poking around in my recollections, looking for a way to define human warmth; it’s easy to know when you see it, but is there a way to communicate about it with our students in a way that they get the picture. I thought about having those students do team projects and invariably before the fact some of the students openly saying they didn’t like to work in teams, because they didn’t like slacker teammates to get credit for their own good efforts. While I understood the lament, I’ve never been comfortable with the students making that point. Might we get past all of that with an embrace of human warmth?

This is a case where mental pictures are better than textbook definitions. I thought about visiting my parents in their old age and infirmity where I’d just sit and hold their hand and then occasionally take the back side of my hand and place it along their cheek, so they literally could feel the human warmth, and watch the sense of comfort and joy that would appear in their face when I did that, evidence to me that it wasn’t so usual a feeling for them at that point in their lives.

Then I thought about the film, The Apartment, with Jack Lemon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred McMurray. The Jack Lemon character goes through a transformation in the film – from an over ambitious corporate climber to someone who genuinely cares about another who is down and out, and it is this notion of personal transformation that would be good for our students to confront –do they see themselves at all in the Lemon role pre-transformation, is such a personal transformation needed, and can it happen without the dire circumstances that underlie the story in the movie? I was surprised when I did the search on it that The Apartment had won 5 Academy Awards. I wonder how students today would react to that film.

I don’t yet have a plan of attack for how to project human warmth in teaching. I only know that nowadays we are prone toward over indulgence. So it has to be there, and it has to be real enough, but it has to be done in a light way, paprika yes, sour cream no. In other words, a big yes for thougthful and senitive response to others, especially when they are struggling, but a big no to throughtless sentimentality. That makes things worse. Let’s see if we can make a bit of progress on this front. Any suggestions on how to proceed would be appreciated.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A new job for me

Starting October, I will become the Associate Dean for eLearning and CIO for the College of Business here at Illinois. My email address will remain unchanged. So for my readers, the change may go unnoticed except for a modest change in the "About Me" area. I'll soon get a better sense of whether the job affects my perspective on the issue, but I'm sure on the "when do I have time to do this?" issues, the jobs won't be exactly the same and so I would anticipate a somewhat slower output here, at least for the next several months.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Been Offline for a While

For my regular readers -

It's been a rugged year healthwise. A week and a half ago, I had a bad fall. This happened in Ann Arbor while visiting my brother for his 50th birthday. Having the accident there was an added burden. I had surgery on my left leg to repair severed tendons. That was a week ago. I came home the following day and been convalescing at home ever since.

Here are a few Web resources about the accident. A campy video clip, intended for my EdTech Unit's open house last friday. An autobiographical essay that was meant to be a blog post about the accident, but it got way too long. I put "Draft" on the document as a watermark, not necessarily because I'm going to re-write it, but rather because I'm not so certain about the quality of writing and didn't have the guts to put it up as a post in this blog. In other words, the document didn't get through all my own internal filters and I wanted some way to convey that. I do think there are valuable lessons from this experience for teaching and learning. In some upcoming posts I will try to extract a few of those.

And, finally, some limericks below. Enjoy.

The family has now adjusted,
To the fact that my left leg is busted.
The home computer I used night and day
Is now theirs with which to work and play.
While it is my Tablet PC that I've now entrusted.

I'm still doing email and browsing,
While staying inside the family's housing.
It's not that different from before,
And though I didn't think my existence a bore.
I also certainly true that I didn't do a lot of carousing.

One irony from my fall,
Is that it's now I who on the children do call.
Once I transfer to the wheelchair with a plop,
The notion of dependence in the family flip flops
And seeing them be helpful is a ball.

One side effect from killing the pain,
Is a certain unease regarding my processes of the brain
If one fears one's ideas will be dull,
Then drugs that create in the brain a lull,
Are worse than other drugs which might drive one insane.

So far while I convalesce,
If anything I've watched television less.
One might guess it's a great distraction,
With some of the shows a real atrraction.
Yet with the News a source that only can depress.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Need To Process and Reading As Its Own Universe

It’s probably not a great idea to imitate your kids in their recreational pursuits, but after having seen my older son absorbed in the puzzle page of the Newspaper working on some number thing, I tried it myself and very quickly got hooked on Soduku. (Or is it Sudoku?) I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. There is the challenge of figuring out how to do work through the puzzles and there is very little information provided in the way to guide you on how to do that. I did find the Web site, where the one thing I read that stuck a little was at the beginning you would write things down in terms of what you knew, to help with the inferences, but eventually most of that would be done in your head.

I think my process learning to do these things might be called “effortful study” though I certainly didn’t set out to “learn” all I tried to do was “play” but in so doing I developed pattern recognition so could see how to do these things quicker and came up with something of an algorithm for how to work these puzzles. The processing leads to discovery of the algorithm and what is interesting to me, especially in light of the current fascination with Video games and trying to leverage those for enabling students to learn other things, just how little structure there is with these number puzzles. The structure is invented through the processing, not vice versa.

The way it works in the Newspaper, pretty much the same with as with the crossword puzzles, the Sudoku is easier earlier in the week and gets harder each day, with the hardest puzzle of the week on Sunday. This past Sunday, my wife caught me talking aloud as I was working through the puzzle. I was oblivious to that at the time, though I ultimately picked up her remarks about it to the effect that now we know where my younger kid gets his thinking aloud behavior. I laughed that one off and about 15 minutes later proudly displayed the completed puzzle to her. I think I’ve gotten this out of my system now, but the only way for me to do that was to successfully complete a handful of the hardest (insane) puzzles.

Among the things that you don’t know when you work through these puzzles is whether you should only fill in empty squares when a “tight inference” has been made – the logic dictates that’s the only possibility – or if you should guess. I did a Google search or two to find out about that, but I struck out. (Just because you process doesn’t mean you don’t look for “cheat codes.”) So I discovered on my own the empirical regularity that with the easier puzzles you should not guess at all – everything should be tight inference – but with the insane ones sometimes that is too demanding and if after a fashion it seems that all those inferences have been exhausted and you’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities in a certain square, then a guess can really speed things up and a lot of other things fall into place. The guess isn’t always right. One of the nice things about playing online (at least with IE as the browser) is that by opening a new browser window one can copy the game along with all the progress made to date, so if you go astray you can return to the point just before you made the guess.

The Harper’s Magazine article, Grand Theft Education, about the educational possibility of games, starts with a quote from Montaigne, to the effect.

It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity.

I’m inclined to agree (with what Montaigne said. I have some reservations about games that I hope will become clear later in this post.) My question for Montaigne, were he alive today, would be this: are children always at play? Or do they need to be led to play? I don’t know the answer to this. I’ve only got very intimate knowledge on this with my own kids and the kids of a few close friends.

In my title, “the need to process” refers to an “always on” need, like a need to keep busy, an internal urge rather than a normative recommendation. I definitely have that need. My kids seem to have the need. In one sense it is a very good thing in that creative thought is a byproduct of the processing. At least creative thought emerges if the need is bundled with Montaigne’s notion of play (or Ericsson’s notion of effortful study). In other words, the need is not satisfied by a process that is purely dissipative. The process must seem like it gets somewhere and to the extent that is driven by past success there is a feedback loop that encourages the processing.

But even with that, in another sense the need to process is vexing. The need means you can’t put less than fully formed ideas aside to simmer in the subconscious while something else commands your attention. You’ve got to keep processing on the partial idea or consciously discard it (and the latter is hard, unless it becomes known to be a dark alley). So the need implies some degree of compulsion

Recently I’ve been reading about how much in teaching is providing the right motivation for the students (for example, the Ken Bain book that I’ve mentioned before) and so much of what is written to do about student learning is actually about good approaches to teaching. But I’ve not seen anyone talk about encouraging intellectual compulsion to motivate the need to process in our students (and maybe articulated that way, perhaps not too many people would endorse the goal). This can’t be all about instructor provided motivation. A lot of this has to be students working through things on their own via thoughtful play. Sure there is a social dimension to it. But there is an individualistic piece too.

One wonders whether the overall environment is conducive to this sort of thing? For example, what about reducing the number of courses students take but encouraging those they do take to be more intensive – perhaps offered over half semesters rather than full ones? Or what about getting students out of the course environment all together and putting them into a purposeful play scenario, and then sanctioning that with course credit.

This sounds like video games, but now the part where I’d discourage that particular solution, is on the following questions. Can the purposeful play happen in non-media assisted environments as well? Do the students acquire a need to process that they can bring on their own to other situations? And can they convince outsiders of that fact? (Ultimately they will be looking for jobs and though the credentialing part of student work may not help much in the motivational domain, it surely does help with landing a good job.)

I want to switch gears now and turn to reading. I’m aware that in some of m reading I process just as if I’m writing, or working on an Econ model, or playing Sudoku. In other words, I argue with what the author has to say, agreeing with some points, disagreeing with others. I will pause for reflection to make the argument in my own head and then return to finish the piece a little later. And I do believe one can do some processing while reading as one can do some while listening or watching – trying out the ideas in some way as they are being presented. So I want to focus on a subset of reading where narrative is important where the processing doesn’t occur; something else happens instead. And I chose reading rather than, say, watching a film because the distinction may be less obvious with reading, but it is an important distinction to make.

When I read fiction, I work in the service of the author and in a very real sense I’ve surrendered myself to the author’s creation. It is true that I supply the mental images that correspond to the words in the text, and I suppose more effective writing conjures up more vivid imagery (for example, not too long ago I read A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, where there is a scene where the young Daedalus, away from home at school, gets painfully smacked on the wrist with a stick by a teacher he absolutely detested, a scene so vivid that I welled up with emotion in the reading) so certainly reading a good book can be immersive and one might be inclined to call that processing.

But there is no experimentation. No trying out different ideas. (I am focusing on the case here were I do a once through reading rather than where there might be several re-readings. The re-reading activity might in fact invite experimentation in the sense of trying to gather a different meaning or sense of what the author was up to as compared to the first time through.) My analogy is that of taking a journey, where I’m the passenger, not the driver. As the passenger, I see what I can see and try to take it all in. Indeed I want to be led someplace that is interesting. Part of the joy in reading is seeing something new and it is the freshness, depth, and texture of the narrative that makes the reading worthwhile.

I do think I process after I’ve read something and put the book down, but not while I’m reading it, although the book review of Francine Prone’s new book that I mentioned in my previous post might change that for me in the future. It may be that the professional writer does process as she reads the works of others, in good part to learn how better to write.

Even if I’m correct in this distinction what is one to make of it? Here is my point. There is a lot of loaded language these days in talking about learning – the words “active” and “passive” when used to modify the word “learning” are effectively synonymous with “good” and “bad,” respectively. Yet reading as I’ve described it, where I’m clearly being led along by the author, would by that description have to be called passive, though I think this is a wonderful thing to be doing. And doesn’t purposeful play happen outside of contexts where instructors supply the motivation? It seems to me that we as a profession are not thinking right about these issues because there is a focus more on the trappings than on the underlying behavior.