Thursday, March 29, 2007

Dialogic Learning Objects Revisited

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No."
Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
Highway 61 Revisited

It’s time for us to make sacrifices about our teaching. For some of us, we’ll be sacrificing our old ways. For others, we’ll be sacrificing a bit on our principles. For still others, it will about sacrificing our (not so) spare time to do course development. Me? I’ve taught recently to mostly freshmen honors students who weren’t likely to take more economics. What I did there worked great in that setting. I’m trying to figure out what would have to be sacrificed going to other settings – high enrollment versions for non-honors students, upper level courses in the major, or adult students in professional programs.

What I did for the honors students was based on my Dialogic Learning Objects piece from a few years ago. Early in the course I had the students do content surveys that I had authored which gave a discourse on an economics question – does such and such market have trade only at equilibrium prices or does trade also occur out of equilibrium? – and then the analysis that flowed from the base question, interspersed with subsidiary questions to which the students got paragraph boxes where they wrote their then thinking in response. Those responses were submitted and I would review them and then we’d discuss further in class. A little later in the course the students had as their first project to make content surveys of their own and then we went through the same drill of administering them online and discussing them further in class.

I learned that I write better than these freshmen. :--) I’m much more familiar with the subject so can layer the discussion with interesting related questions. Their writing is much flatter. But nevertheless, it was an ok way to expose the other students to the ideas as long as we had the follow up discussion. We did the layering then in class, not in the original presentation of the content. Overall this worked quite well.

I’m now focusing on the high enrollment case where the content survey might substitute entirely for the lecture. But I don’t think paragraph questions of this sort can work with those large numbers and I making a good argument on intellectual grounds might not be sufficient to pull the students in – there may have to be other ways to make the content compelling.

I’ve been futzing with this for a while trying a few different things, and now I’ve got something I think is worth taking a look at for other people to react to. Of course, most of them won’t have the context of what a traditional economics lecture is like as a basis for comparison. But I hope you can get the idea.

I authored this in Respondus for WebCT Vista 4 or CE 6. This is a zip file of the Respondus folder. It’s a small file because all the multimedia content is linked. This is the best for viewing the content as it is authored, but you need Respondus for that purpose. (UIUC faculty and staff can get Respondus from the Webstore, where it is free because the Campus has a site license.) This is a zip file of the Self-Test that gets produced for delivery in WebCT Vista. If you have acesss to WebCT, you should be able to import this file and view the self-test yourself. And for those who have neither of these, I made some Web pages that show the questions and feedback on each slide, with a simple navigation at the bottom. This doesn’t give the interaction that one has in a self-test, but it should convey some of the idea.

Here is a quick overview of what I was trying for in making this. I’m aiming to simulate real dialog. So in the self-test, you’ll find some of the narrative in the responses to the questions. I wanted to use some well produced content from outside an Econ course and then based the presentation on that so without almost any effort at all I found this quite long piece from NPR, which is really quite fantastic as intro and motivation for this presentation. In contrast to a textbook presentation, the type I railed about in my previous post, here everything I do is built around the NPR piece. I don’t use the example to illustrate the theory I’ve already developed, which is the standard textbook approach. I used the theory in response to the example, to further illuminate it.

There are some video clips of me lecturing. They are under 10 minutes in total. And they are there to illuminate what is done on the Excel spreadsheet. This might have been done with just voice over. But we’re getting to the point where video of this sort is no more of a big deal than just audio and perhaps there is some value in seeing the face responsible for the content as well as hearing the voice. I’m not sure on that one.

But there is also a lot of writing. I think I’m better as an author than I am as a speaker. Where there is narrative, I write. The speaking is restricted to covering technical aspects that are harder to write about. That particular mixture may be idiosyncratic to me, but perhaps it makes sense for others to try.

If you look through this you can think of each slide like PowerPoint, but with a question at the end and feedback to the question. And instead of bullets there are sentences and discussion. There are links to a variety of different content. I could have embedded some of that (or make it seem embedded) but chose not to do that because when I get to the Excel part I want to the student to see both the self-test question and the spreadsheet at the same time and then window management becomes an issue. If there were only the self test, then embedding content would be ok.

The point is that all sort different materials are mixed in with the only overriding idea to try to preserve the sense of dialog. If you think of each individual item as a little departure on the theme, the departure has to make sense at that juncture. So there is an idea of authoring and pacing of presentation in the background.

I’m sure this doesn’t look slick. But it might still be quite effective if it works in achieving the goals I’ve outlined above. I’d love to know what you think about the approach, because I think it is promising and would like to see others try it.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

What’s Next?

Tuesday evening I got back from the Redesign Alliance Conference in Orlando. Since then we had a little family jaunt to Chicago – perhaps a sign of the times the family was clearly more engaged in seeing 300 at the IMAX theater on Navy Pier than it was in touring the Field Museum – and both the return home from Orlando and Chicago trip gave me with a lot of time for reflection about the conference. This post contains both direct impressions and these afterthoughts.

I had an enormous sense of déjà vu throughout and I believe some of that has relevance for what I want to comment about here regarding future directions, so I’m going to bounce back and forth between the present, the past, and what I’d like to see coming. In the Orlando airport (free Wireless! – almost an offset for the brutality of going through the security check in) I read an email message from Frank Mayadas, who heads up the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Anytime Anyplace Learning Program, where he talked about the “retirement” of some of the pioneers: Burks Oakley (Burks got me started in online learning), Gary Miller (Gary is Executive Director of Penn State’s World Campus), and Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff (authors of Network Nation), all big in the work of Sloan-C. That only accentuated the déjà vu and it made me want to comment about the role that external organizations play and should play in the future in addition to more about how we should do course redesign.

It’s now ten years since the conception of the SCALE Efficiency Projects, which I oversaw. As there is a reasonably good description of the history that led to those projects in that article, here I only want to add some consideration of the ethical dimension as a driver. Nowadays, we recognize that for course redesign to work there must be an embrace of it by the Central Campus Administration, and in this regard I was impressed by the remarks of Randy Smith of Ohio State in the session on Using Assessment to Achieve Other Goals. To a certain extent we had that in SCALE, with Susan Gonzo in the Randy Smith Role, George Badger as the CIO before our campus had a CIO, and John Ory director of our Center for Teaching all on our advisory board along with Burks. Nevertheless, the authority to implement was entirely delegated to me and so I retain the view that these projects emerged from an entrepreneurial, almost “Wild West” environment otherwise atypical of our campus, where there was a premium for quick implementation and less of a concern about how this would impact future directions. (The effort in Spanish is the notable exception that proved the rule.)

The key ethical issue was that we’d already taken the Sloan Foundation’s money and had spent quite a deal of it promoting and diffusing the approach we then called ALN, an acronym short for Asynchronous Learning Networks, a label coined by Frank. Diffusion was part of our mission, to be sure, but another part was that we had promised in the grant proposal to use ALN to lower the cost of instruction in an overtly obvious way. With the exception of my class and the class taught by my friend and colleague in Economics Larry DeBrock (he and I may not have been as expert as some of the other SCALE grantees in terms of teaching with the technology, but unlike the other grantees we did understand what it meant to lower the cost of instruction) SCALE wasn’t doing that and until Sloan started to put pressure on us to deliver in this dimension, nobody seemed to be particularly troubled about our failure to do so. Reducing the cost of instruction was not a campus goal at the time (this was a period of fiscal opulence) and further many took offense from even mention of this Sloan goal diverting us from our “true mission” – improving the quality of instruction.

On the one hand, I was uniquely suited to deliver something both do-able and sensible in the cost dimension, given my ALN teaching experience and being trained as an economist, while on the other hand I was a novice administrator and it seemed a bit unfair to have to internalize that ethical issue on my own. I didn’t really give much thought to the alternative – let Frank know we couldn’t deliver on cost and then renegotiate the activities to take place under the remainder of the grant. After all, I was delivering on the objectives in my own course. But had I been the PI at the start I would have insisted in more buy-in from the Campus on the cost piece or I would not have put in the cost dimension into the proposal, though I do recognize that putting it in made the proposal seem more appealing. (It also should be remembered that we’re the home of Plato. Plato cast a huge shadow on campus at the time. We’d been doing a lot of CBT pre-Internet and in many departments, notably Physics, some of the aims of Course Redesign had already been substantially achieved and already fully internalized and I was in the awkward position of not being able to use these past successes because there wasn’t a credible way to make them appear a consequence of our current efforts.)

My insight, not particularly profound but not something we had said going in, was to tie the cost issue to high enrollment courses and ignore it elsewhere. And with that there was the realization that a combination of CyberProf or Mallard quizzing and written work in FirstClass or WebBoard was something that would be useful in many courses across different disciplines. Indeed, as I got to know Diane Musumeci who used her pioneering approach in Italian to start up our Spanish Project, we remarked both about how our technology use seemed so similar and how it seemed there were many students taking both our classes – indicating to us that they liked what we were doing.

While Sloan was clearly the major external force pushing us with ALN and on the cost issue, Burks had arranged for the University to have a membership in NLII and there (I believe I first went to NLII in January 1997) I met Bill Graves and from that connection he became one of our featured speakers at the first Faculty Summer Institute. Further, I met some folks from Virginia Tech, notably John Moore and Len Hatfield, and became aware of their Faculty Development Institute, a program that I was jealous about at the time (still am). We ultimately had a bunch of folks from Virginia Tech come out for a workshop to share lessons learned with SCALE faculty and I attended one of their Learning Workshops in Roanoke; we had quite a collegial relationship that pre-dated the cross campus relationships I now have through the CIC Learning Technology Group. Further, NLII/Educom had a Library of thought pieces that provided fodder for me as I was conceiving the Efficiency Projects. So it was a very useful conference for me and that first meeting and future NLII meetings were nurturing.

Here is a bit more history before I return to the present circumstance. I met Carolyn Jarmon in a private meeting with a publisher somewhere in Pittsburgh. George Badger and I went together to this so it likely was late 1997 or early 1998 and there may have been some folks from one other campus. I believe Carolyn was an Educom Fellow at the time. I have no recollection whatsoever about the subject of our conversation, but I do recall seeing her again at a Sloan Conference (then at the World Trade Center in New York) so by the time the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign came into being, I knew her reasonably well from other interactions. While I had seen Carol Twigg speak at a couple of NLII conferences, I don’t believe I actually met her until Burks introduced us at the Sloan Conference in fall of 1998, at which point she got acquainted with the work on the SCALE Efficiency projects. Following that we had quite a dialog via phone and email about her planning tools and I believe I offered some editorial suggestions along the lines of whether what they were doing made sense economically.

Indeed, for a brief stint I was the poster child for Course Redesign with part of our JALN paper quoted in plenary session given by Carolyn at the 1999 NLII conference, where the Pew program was introduced. By this time the SCALE grant had been renewed and the Efficiency Projects continued to be important in the renewal but there was little visibility for these projects on campus because: (1) our Ed Tech Board was not involved at all, (2) we had an Interim Provost that was a signpost for the beginning of us having new leadership in all the key Campus administrative positions, and (3) efficiency was still a dirty word when discussing learning on campus. So nationally there was recognition for my work but on campus essentially none. Talk about cognitive dissonance!

* * * * *

Seeing Carolyn right before the cocktail party at the conference, I asked her perhaps an unfair question: What’s different now with course redesign as compared to 1999 when the Pew project started? It didn’t take long for her to answer. Then nobody believed it could be done. Now there are many believers. The attendance at the conference was a testament to that. It was quite heavily attended in spite of the fact that they were not giving out $200K a pop for redesign as they did in their grant program in 1999. It seems mostly that people are coming now to learn how to do this. And they have a clear reason to, both because of fiscal exigency and because, especially with the community colleges but also some of the four years, success rates are in need of improving and those performance levels are getting much heavier scrutiny. In the sense that this is about getting others to learn what some have already done, the Course Redesign Program is about diffusion of innovation, not about innovation itself.

But I do think the world has changed substantially since 1999 in ways that are relevant for redesign and I want to discuss how some of those changes might be brought into the redesign process.

Perhaps more importantly for this piece, I too have changed. Since the Pew Program was conceived I became the director of a hard money (under) funded unit called the Center for Educational Technologies and later witnessed that merge with the big campus IT organization, increasing my own visibility on campus but making learning technology look like it is more about IT than about pedagogy, with my boss the CIO, a good guy but himself not embraced with the learning issues. Under that I saw us implement an enterprise Learning Management System and watched how that system was eagerly taken up by the high enrollment courses but much less so by smaller upper level courses and also less so by innovative faculty, who want to embrace emerging technologies. I saw us have lukewarm forays with other campus support units, notably the Library and the Center for Teaching Excellence. And I saw how the campus viewed the presentation technology we associate with “smart classrooms” as a goodie to be leveraged on a per seat basis so that all our large general assignment classrooms have it while most of our smaller general assignment classrooms do not.

The big lesson learned from this experience is that at large public R1 institutions such as Illinois teaching is definitely a second fiddle enterprise at best. It therefore behooves those on campus who advocate for change with teaching and learning to speak with one voice, at the risk of being ignored entirely if they do not. But speaking with one voice is hard, very hard. It is much easier for each of us providers to pursue our separate agendas instead of coalescing on a few key notions. So we have one group that cares about learning and a different group that cares about using technology to promote learning. We have yet another group that cares about large Gen Ed courses and, of course, the departments who care about the major. Then we have interdisciplinary efforts to create minors according to a common theme, and on and on. This Tower of Babel approach makes it easier for the rest of campus not to listen at all (and hence for the Provost not to allocate cash to these efforts). One wonders in this regard whether Course Redesign can act as a unifier or if it will end up being just one more dialect.

I also changed in my understanding about learning and in my teaching experience. I was poorly read about learning in 1996, I had read Democracy and Education but not much else; hence I had all the earnestness of a novice learner in my own pursuit of teaching innovation. Since then I pursued a self-directed and quite eclectic set of reading on learning and teaching and now I find myself attracted to people who can offer me a new insight and an area unknown to me to explore. And in my own teaching I can implement novel ideas in a more nuanced way.

Starting in summer 2001 my appointment has been 100% time as an administrator. When I teach now it’s in an overload capacity where the Econ department gets a freebie and hence I’ve opted to take my compensation in kind – as a way to explore my current ideas about teaching. I last taught my Intermediate Microeconomics course in the style of large class redesign in spring 2001. My most recent teaching has been in very small classes, most recently with Campus Honors students.

It’s on this basis that I want to comment about the pedagogy I heard about at the conference. There were two core ideas – quizzing, a way to motivate students by tracking their performance and allocating points for correct response, and embedded assessment, situated feedback for students particularly when they are struggling on some aspect of the course.

The quizzing use was featured in the presentation by Gordon Hodge in one of the Disciplinary Showcase Sessions and which, in turn, was highlighted in the opening plenary that Carol gave. Professor Hodge talked about teaching the large intro psychology course with publisher test banks uploaded into the campus course management system and then administered to students in the form of a twenty question timed quiz, three quizzes per week, students could do them as often as they liked with their highest score determining the points they were allocated. The approach helped the students to put in the requisite time on task and thereby increase familiarity and understanding of the subject.

The embedded assessment idea, also highlighted in Carol’s keynote, was featured in a presentation by Candace Thille, director the of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, who talked about and gave a demo of how students get assessment and then feedback in the OLI software either in junctures between presentation content or when they get stuck on other assessment. The approach helps the students to keep going and not get discouraged.

There are, however, issues with each of these. On the quizzing, about a year before the SCALE Efficiency Projects, I gave an analysis of the issues (this is an old document, none of the links work) based on the economic model of the Principal and Agent. That quizzing does such a good job of addressing the student agency problem is a triumph of extrinsic assessment, an antidote to the disengagement pact that George Kuh talks about. And I must say that I heard from Donna Charelvoix-Romine before the conference talking about her non-major students who take the intro to meteorology course that she teaches and from many others during the conference that students in these high enrollment courses won’t put in any effort whatsoever unless they get course credit for it. So there clearly is a reason for the quizzing.

But many educators, among them the psychologist Jerome Bruner and Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, emphasize an appeal to students via intrinsic motivation, to wit curiosity, a desire to understand the puzzles that real life circumstances pose from the perspective of disciplinary expertise. At the conference I didn’t hear anything at all about intrinsic motivation. That was disappointing. To me it’s a natural and important for Course Redesign to ask how one might bring in elements of intrinsic motivation and yet maintain the student commitment and a scalable approach that the quizzing offers.

In my way of thinking, intrinsic motivation enters into at least two aspects of instruction. It appears in what we have the students read and what topics we talk about in class. When I taught those Honors Students I had them read The World Is Flat, Freakonomics, and MoneyBall, in a course where the students were highly unlikely to take any more economics. We did cover the core models via modules I designed in Excel. But we didn’t rely on a textbook for readings on applying the models. In my view, that kills motivation because the textbook examples invariably seem artificial. My colleague Larry DeBrock told me recently that the thing his Executive MBA students liked best about his class is that he would email them pdfs of articles from the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or other sources with one or two lines of annotation from him. This is a similar idea but with shorter pieces, ones that are quite topical. Take a look at the sidebar of this blog in the top item called Pieces I Enjoyed Reading (sometimes that chokes; it gives the most recent entries from my tag Good_Reads). This is an attempt to introduce something along these lines in a very light handed way.

Can this work in a large class setting and promote the outside reading we’d like to see by our students? I don’t know. Perhaps it would be better to take such articles or multimedia content from online repositories like NPR, The NewsHour, and elsewhere and then design interactive quiz content around that, with straight subject matter presentation (followed by more quizzing) aimed at illustrating this online content, which has greater production value than we’re likely able to deliver on our own and which should pique the student curiosity. I don’t know if this will work either, but it seems worth trying. Those repositories didn’t exist in 1999. Leveraging them would be something new.

Intrinsic motivation also enters via “clever assignments,” experiential learning, and classroom experiments. The first assignment I gave to those honors kids was for each of them to identify Principles of Economics textbooks that are in the top 10 by market share, with each student receiving 10 points of credit per book if they were the sole provider of the title and no credit at all if the title was offered up by another classmate as well. The assignment worked like a charm the first time I did this, when I had 15 students. The outcome was that they identified all books in the top 10 and then some, one student earned 10 points but otherwise all the titles that were submitted came in duplicates, and then they had to puzzle over why they put in effort but (except for that one student) got no credit for their travails. This assignment was my introduction to the core idea that economics is about incentives. It was a great introduction. I had them hooked for the rest of course. Is there a way to do something similar in a high enrollment course? Again, I don't know, but it seems worth investigating.

The approach that Professor Hodge discussed has a certain grimness to it – it’s grim in how it motivates students, it’s grim in the type of information he has the students learn, and it’s grim in the amount of effort supplied in addressing the learning issues. One would hope that we could do something more uplifting. A focus on intrinsic motivation is uplifting. Further, as David Wright brought up in a question during a session on Student Readiness for Course Redesign that I attended because my friend Steve Acker was a member of the panel, we really should be about the education of our students; training is not our primary goal. When I was about 10 and in fifth or sixth grade, two or three other students and I got to work apart from the rest of the class with a programmed book for learning grammar - first presentation of the rule, then a question on that, and then response – ring, rang rung; …………bring, brought, brought. A course based purely on quizzing conveys this notion of learning, a notion associated with training, even if the course focuses on more adult topics and in a subject suited for study at the college level. Education, in contrast, has as part a notion of self-directed inquiry reshaping the learner’s world view. Where is the self-direction in the quizzing?

One reason for the grimness, one I’m quite sympathetic with, is that the design and implementation of the content is enormously time consuming. Doing something more along the lines I’ve touched upon might be possible as a matter of principle, but somebody has to do the work and the people already engaged with redesign are working harder than they should be as it is. What we saw then in my Intermediate Microeconomics implementation and see now in Professor Hodge’s course is what can be reasonably expected to be implemented given the resource constraint. That answer would have satisfied me in 1999. I find it less convincing now. Isn’t there some way to do better? To this, an economist like me would naturally look to the market to solve the problem and to the extent that the authoring effort involved in making interesting online content represents a fixed cost, an economist would believe that by distributing that cost over more and more student users, one can implement a better solution.

My friend Sharon Pitt was quick to point out that the Redesign Alliance is quite different from ELI in its view of the role publishers might play (and in a host of other *cultural* matters that pertain to how information technology can enhance learning as well as the role that learning technologists should play in the equation). But apart from the scaling issue there is the question of whether the market demands the type of content I’m calling for and since I’m not yet sure it does my view on this is a bit different from that of Steve Acker and John Harwood, my CIC colleagues who have been most strong about working with the publishers to come up with a new model for distributing their content online.

My view is influenced heavily by the recent Economic Principles text by Krugman and Wells, which appeared with some fanfare, including an online homework partnership done in conjunction with Paul Romer’s company Aplia. The Krugman name should be familiar even to the non-economist. He is an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times and the author of many interesting columns with an economic basis, such as this one on California and fighting Global Warming (now all users with a .edu email can access this content) and indeed a collection of his columns on economics issues would make for great reading in a Principles class. The problem with the Krugman-Wells textbook is that in spite of a very high minded approach articulated in the Preface, the discussion of real world examples in the book becomes subservient to the topic coverage and consequently reading the book one flits from one example to another that are connected not in themselves but only in that they support they underlying topic being considered.

Professor Hodge talked about topic coverage too in his presentation and there he said that one of the main goals was to cover every topic in the book so the students would be well prepared for the next course in psychology. In my view, extensive topic coverage is at odds with intrinsic motivation, which clamors for depth on the matter that is of interest, a full treatment on that and then some. Further, to promote intrinsic interest one should make the theoretical ideas that we instructors present subservient to the real world issues that provide the motivation. Textbooks are not written this way because they are chosen by instructors who are looking to cover topics. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be cut before the market can provide a solution we can use. In the meantime, either I’m too idealistic in my views and in fact we’ll never get there, redesign with intrinsic motivation an essential element is like the search for the Holy Grail, or we need to have pilot projects that themselves may not be sustainable in giving good return to the author’s time commitment but that prove the concept can work from the point of view of the student/reader to point to the place the market should be headed.

How can we move our thinking to consider that? I don’t know but I wish this is a question that would be taken up by the Redesign Alliance. Carol and Carolyn can’t do the work themselves, but they could jawbone on this point and encourage some of us to contribute in this dimension.

Let me turn to the other pedagogic idea, embedded assessment. And here I believe the key issue is that in projects showcased at the conference such as OLI these are 100% computer based instruction with automated assessment only. It has not been implemented in the course redesign model where some of the work students do is to construct online objects themselves, where the embedded assessment is in the form of coaching that the instructor gives to the students in the process of their completing this online work. In other words, at present the ideas Candace Thille was promoting are unlike the ideas that I’ve heard in Writing Across the Curriculum workshops on how to respond to student work, although in my view those should be two sides of the same coin.

Is it possible to have a scalable approach to student writing (or student created multimedia) that makes sense in the context of a course redesign? If it is, isn’t this the way to introduce some student self-direction to the learning? And isn’t it what we expect to happen in well taught courses that have much lower enrollments? So if we are to envision some continuity in approach between the courses that are targets for redesign and these smaller upper level courses, don’t the redesign courses have to embrace at least a bit of this? And if the answer is no, we really don’t need that continuity, then don’t we get stuck with course redesign as a niche, admittedly a niche that entails a large number of enrollments, but a niche nonetheless, one that either will get pushed down to the high schools eventually or which the kids who can get the AP courses will bypass?

These are conundrums. I wish I had the answers. But I don’t. All I’m convinced about now is that there should be some effort put into solving these puzzles.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Damage That Scars Do

Accidents happen. Sometimes we get hurt in an accident. We take precaution to prevent accidents. That, in itself, is good. But after an accident has occurred, it may be that the type of precaution we take is different. We hypothesize of lightning striking twice in the same place. Armed with that improbability, our behavior becomes inhibited, our growth stunted. We become angry with ourselves for our lack of success. We accept inertia as the norm. We lose the sense of the possible. We stop fighting. This is surrender.

I’ve told this story before but it is relevant here, so I’ll repeat it. When I was 9 or 10 at summer sleep-away camp, I was getting ready to be tested to swim in the deep water. I had been swimming over my head for at least a couple of years, so this should have been no big deal. But the swimming instructor pushed me in when I wasn’t ready. I choked and gagged when I got into the water. For a brief moment, I experienced the sensation of drowning. When I got out of the water I was terrified. I stayed in the shallow water that entire summer and perhaps the summer after that. My sense of self-protection was stronger than my need to expand beyond my current capabilities. I went backwards. I was an under achiever. How could I not feel self-contempt?

Last week, I think it was Tuesday night, I watched the Horse Whisperer on one of the Starz channels. I had seen it before, maybe two or three times. I thought it was an ok but not great picture. Sometimes a movie or something you read happens to fit in with your current frame of mind and when that occurs the material takes on an exalted state.

The Horse Whisperer is about people who’ve been scarred. Certainly the daughter, who had been in a horrific accident where she lost her leg and her horse, Pilgrim, who had terribly hurt and frightened are the obvious ones. But so was the mother. She had been pre-occupied playing the dominant executive, an editor of a big time magazine; impatience was her badge, with a foot that waved up and down to signify the churn within. She was out of touch with her daughter and her husband, ignoring the human side of her life for immersion in her work, letting the sense of being in charge substitute for being close to those she cared about. Even the Horse Whisperer himself, the Robert Redford character with the gentle nature, in tune with the rhythms of hurt animals and people alike, had been scarred by the feeling of love lost for his departed wife.

Sometimes we heal. The Horse Whisperer is a story about healing. Healing takes determination and persistence. It also takes gentleness. We who are scarred need to be cajoled into trying things again. We need to endure periods of awkwardness, an odd existence between the inert and the vital. We need to confront our own demons and then push them aside. We need to feel that joy is possible, even normal. The Horse Whisperer had a gift of understanding these things and helping others along. There is a big lesson to take from that movie.

When I worked in the campus IT organization, I had a sense that the organization as a whole was scarred and that many of the long timers had been scarred as individuals, the current behavior more a consequence of the need for self-preservation and feeling some sense of control than about anything regarding possibilities for the campus. There is a great deal of irony in this. The scarring occurred in the late 90s when the IT organization did a huge amount of good for the campus and had a lot of creative elements in it. But growth completely outstripped the service provision and in spite of the creativity the organization was accused of being unfriendly to users, especially to the non-geeks who soon constituted the majority. That scarring occurs during periods of play and creativity is an important observation. This is when we are most vulnerable. Play and self-preservation are like oil and vinegar. A healthy response to an accident will allow play to continue. A grim response will discard play as an unnecessary sidebar.

There is a flip to this too. With healing there should be understanding. Some play is orthogonal to purpose, pure time dissipation, nothing more. Other play is a critical part of creativity, of providing for growth, of seeing the possible, the essence of learning by doing. At the start, we can’t know which we are engaged in. As we play either new possibilities open up or dead ends appear. Continuing to play when having seen the dead end is pure time dissipation. Opening up new possibilities is learning and enables growth. There can be organizational stunting of growth when new possibilities that are the consequence of individual learning are not tried, because they are outside the domain of the current mission, as if that is sacred and future possibilities are less important. A scarred organization can scar even its healthy members by imposing constraints on their own growth. This can be a contagion. It may be difficult if not impossible to heal from within. The response from within is likely to be angry, while what’s needed is a Horse Whisperer.

However, recall that in the movie the Horse Whisperer required the daughter, Grace, to make a commitment to try at the outset and he offered a warning that even with a fair effort it might not work. Pilgrim might never recover emotionally. That possibility of failure even with effort can be an excuse for no effort, in which case the possibility becomes a certainty and a self-fulfilling prophecy, justifying the self-protecting behavior. Healing is hard to accomplish. And it is even harder in organizations than it is in individuals, because some may be ready to heal while others are not yet so. Leadership requires getting everyone ready. We all are impatient and want quick success, like the mom in the movie. So we may very well go forward when there are a few who are ready to do so. But then we are not healers. And our impatience may lead to more damage, not less.

* * * * *

Recently I’ve been engaged in a conversation with Susan Curtis, who is leading up our effort on the new Business 101 offering, about phases of student development – going from a world of black and white where their job is to accept the truth that the faculty dole out and absorb it to the extent they can, to a different world where everything is gray and all judgment appears relativistic, to still yet a different world, the world of the adult with nuance, conflicting points of view, and a sense of taste to guide us when making judgments. The operating assumption is that the vast majority of entering freshmen are in the first stage. Then one can frame the work we do as moving the students along to the next stages and to do that as efficiently as possible. We can chide our colleagues who eschew these development goals and define their teaching job too narrowly, adopting a pour-it-into-their-heads style of instruction to cover the subject matter to which they are assigned, which unfortunately confirms the more simplistic view of learning that our younger students maintain.

But suppose we ourselves are wrong in this view of development. Suppose this vast majority of entering students are not at a normal phase but are themselves scarred from years of schooling that have been stunting, that have blocked their own abilities to direct their personal growth and have instead encouraged a form of self-protection that leads to little new understanding yet with passable grades earned by hook or by crook, making for a nihilism and sense of malaise that requires a feeling of aloofness to maintain, and with a different type of blocking coming from their life outside of school, the multiprocessing in the always connected word in which they live belying the need for depth of experience and the type of play that produces greater understanding.

What if unscarred children go through these development milestones much earlier in their lives, perhaps during the first year or two of high school? Then there may be a few of these students among our freshmen who are more secure in their learning and without the need to be healed. But the vast majority will be in need of healing, who are figuratively still in the shallow water and not willing to challenge themselves. Doesn’t the lack of engagement, the excessive drinking, the widespread cheating, all the ills that we think of that plague undergraduate education make more sense if we envision our students as horribly scarred?

If so, where is the nurture in what we do? Our expenditure per student is much higher when they are seniors than when they are freshmen. The classes they take are larger early on and they are much less likely to have direct contact with a professor. Can a single course aimed to reverse these consequences actually succeed?

And if this is a right way of thinking about the issues at the large brushstroke level, what might we do that is different and that would change things? I wish I knew the answer to this. This past week at a meeting of the pilot group for the campus’ WebCT Vista 4 implementation, I was talking with one of our best instructors on campus, somebody who has innovated a lot in her teaching and who in focus groups I’ve conducted gets high marks from the students on using technology in an interesting way in the classroom. She was railing (in a gentle way) about the fact that the students won’t lift a finger in the general education course she teaches unless they are required to do so. Curiosity doesn’t appear to be part of the equation. That is the rule, not the exception.

One goes to revival tents to witness mass healings. Otherwise, I’m afraid the truth is that healing has to occur on an individual basis, with much attention to need and to the readiness of the individual to make the necessary commitment.

* * * * *

Regular readers of this blog know that I experienced a rather bad accident last fall and now, visiting my mother in Boca Raton to do her taxes and hold her hand, before heading north to Orlando for the NCAT conference that starts tomorrow, and wearing shorts without a brace on my leg for the first time since the accident, I can stare at the scar from the surgery and find myself rubbing it repeatedly, looking for assurance that all will be ok with it and with me.

Things are not ok with my mom. She doesn’t know me any more. Her dementia is pretty far along and when she does awake from her sleep she makes utterances in German that are unintelligible to me. There must be memories from childhood for her that stoke the fires in her mind. She grew up in Nazi Germany and that must have traumatized her. If I relive some of the painful memories of my youth, then it seems to make sense that she do likewise, and hers must have been far worse, all the more consuming for that reason. If that becomes a pre-occupation for her due to senility or Alzheimer’s or whatever else we call it, then so be it. There will be no healing for her.

But what about for me? I’ve numbed myself somewhat to my mother’s circumstance. Her existence lies outside my sense of morality and ethics. I was a caring son until my father died, even for years after that, but that has waned. I can’t totally anesthetize myself, but I don’t come down here so often now and don’t feel a need to do otherwise. I used to visit here and entirely suspend my sense of self to make myself useful to my parents and to adopt their sense of morality. Now, I find myself thinking about me rather than about her.

When I look inward, I know that my lifestyle has been too sedentary and that I’ve become more withdrawn. I’m impatient about work, both with colleagues and in terms of the mission I’m supposed to accomplish. It’s no different at home. Too much of my recreation is of the repetitive nihilistic type. Vegging out from time to time is ok as a release, but it is not an avocation. And the lack of sleep, partly a direct consequence of the accident and partly a habit developed from that, makes all of this seem like self-protection, a set of behaviors that can be rationalized if not defended.

Outwardly, I’m healing. Inwardly, I need to do more to help the process along. One step at a time. I’m going for a walk now.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sowing Seeds

A quick follow up to my post about using sports measurement as a way to understand the measurement issues with learning. The last week or two there has been a lot of attention to what is called “the Bubble watch,” an attempt to determine the four or five last in teams to the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament as well as the four of five teams just out. Illinois is one of those on the bubble and so there’s been much local interest in this. Listening to the various pundits on the matter there is one obvious point to make – they disagree. As a fan, I’m not sure even about how I feel about the question. The lesson –when there is a performance standard, the boundary is gray, not a sharp line of demarcation.

The issue is especially relevant given all the current discussion about measuring student competency via ePortfolios. With that one can envision fairly tough standards, so that even those in the gray zone look reasonably proficient, but one can also envision the alternative where the standard itself is moderate and consequently those near the boundary seeming incompetent, though some of these folks will be deemed otherwise. I’ve not read exhaustively about ePortfolios but my sense of this issue, especially given the discussions on the topic in which I’ve been involved, is that it simply hasn’t come up. We live in a Lake Wobegon world where most of us really would rather not think about measuring performance.

When we do, however, how things look in the gray zone will become critical. And the choices seem to be either to set up a fairly elite club or to be inclusive but then not appear to be very demanding. These issues will be all the more acute if many students find themselves in the gray zone, which is where many students are now, in my view, only we’re mostly taking a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach that has been made somewhat overt, for example by the documentary Declining By Degrees, but not to the extent that it is causing real pain that will lead to fundamental change. The folks advocating for ePortfolios seemingly talk about a kinder gentler form of evaluation – if students are reflective about their own learning within an environment that encourages such self-reflection, then the gray zone issues disappear. With ifs you can put Paris in a bottle.

* * * * *

Last Thursday and Friday I was at Northwestern for a meeting of the CIC Learning Technology Group. It was good to see friends and colleagues from the other campuses around the CIC and to get to know some of the newer members of the group. There are a lot of sharp people and the collective knowledge is quite large. So it ‘s also a good place to get caught up with what’s happening in the profession, at least as far as the impact on big schools.

One of the big disappointments right now is Sakai. People are speaking more highly of Moodle, not as a development framework but as a user friendly environment that generally gets good marks from students and instructors alike. Minnesota is running it at a central level as an alternative to the commercial Learning Management System. Many of us have multiple instances on our campuses that are not centrally supported. Some of the development that had been done in the Sakai setting has moved over to Plone, which is quite a powerful environment and the results from the development apparently can ported to integrate with commercial learning management systems. This is what most of us wanted all along. It is strange because our group and the CIO group talked about Sakai ad naseum at prior meetings, but I can’t recall a single discussion about Plone. (The little I learned about it came from sidebar conversations with individual members of our group, not from talk ensemble as we worked our way through our agenda.)
nterestingly, the agenda item on future directions for our group morphed into a discussion of how to build better relations with folks in the Library. We probably spent forty five minutes to an hour on just that topic. There are several Library groups in the CIC and a few years back we did a joint conference with the DLIOC group held at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago, with the focus on getting Library Content into the Learning Management System. Some of the campuses have now moved to using the LMS for their eReserves and abandoning a separate eReserves system. For the end user this is probably preferred, because then eReserve items can be blended in with other course items. But it is probably worse for tracking purposes and arranging for copyright clearance when necessary.

In our discussion we talked about cultural differences between the Library and Academic Computing, about their need to proceed in a deliberate manner with caution as a seeming guiding principle to their decision making, while we feel a need to be flexible and responsive and hence are more prone to take risks. I got the general sense from the group that we all recognize the need to work more closely with the Library and to engage them on many dimensions, but there was some frustration expressed about why things haven’t moved further in this dimension already. For me personally, I know some folks in the Library very well, but I don’t know too many of them and so my own people network is limited that way.

We spent some time talking about Second Life – there is a CIO group that is now holding meetings there and the question is whether developments in this environment represent the next wave of activity we should be engaging in. There was an argument made by Joe Conte from Purdue to the effect that from a serious gamers point of view Second Life just isn’t good enough. The graphics are less than stellar and they take a long time to render. I countered that on the other hand some of the hard core gaming environments may seem less welcoming to students who don’t think of themselves as geeks and hence for interdisciplinary groups of students it may be the right environment. John Harwood from Penn State raised the question of what we actually know about how learning is encouraged in Second Life or similar environments. At present, the answer seems to be not very much.

We also talked about Facebook and about Campus blog services. Some of the campuses are offering the latter through the CMS. Others are doing this as a stand alone. In both of these cases there is the underlying motivation to tap into informal learning and provide environments that are conducive to that. But we seem to be much more expert on how to start up such services than on how to really address the lead-a-horse-to-water issue. And its on this point that I chose the title for this post.

The members of this group spend a lot of time thinking about production services, whether physical learning spaces, placeware such as Breeze, Elluminate, or Horizon Live, or some of the other offerings I’ve mentioned above. Because of the size of the institutions, there is a bit of a disconnect between the offering and the use and this focus on production services in our discussion created in me a sense that my colleagues are viewing those services as seeds – they throw them out there and see what grows as a result.

One of the reasons I switched jobs is because I’m less interested in sowing seeds now. I want to spend more attention on what you might call cultivation – promoting good use of the services we already have. Our meeting had little discussion of good use. I’m afraid that happens too much with learning technology. And here I’m trying to make a circle with the observation that Barbara Ganley made about the ELI conference – her session with Barbara Sawhill and students from Middlebury and Oberlin was sparsely attended. It’s as if what was done in this session was irrelevant for many of the attendees, though in fact it was the heart of the matter.

At the risk of projecting my own preferences on the profession as a whole, I think we need to abandon some of this seed sowing in favor of cultivation activities. But, and I think these issues are tied together, the younger professional learning technologists were not faculty members first. Learning technology for them has been a career unto itself. And it is first and foremost about the technology itself, being on top of that and having a good pulse of it. That can be all consuming. Unfortunately, it also can create a perception by others that learning technology is irrelevant.

We did a little was down memory lane and reviewed the group’s history. There had been a grant program funded by the Provosts to promote inter-campus projects. The grants themselves were a trifling and as John Campbell of Purdue described it, with the grant program the Provosts were aiming at some very big objectives with a very little bit of funding. Most of these projects did not endure and indeed the grant activity itself died as did Provost sponsorship of our group. This actually was healthy, because there was a lack of realism in that grant program and we’ve move away from the fantasy.

But there was one aspect of it that I miss and I wish we could capture in our current setup. When we’d meet on a particular campus, the grantees from that campus would do a presentation about their project and we’d have a discussion with them about their implementation. To the extent that there was innovation in the teaching, we got to witness that first hand. We need to do something like that now. We need to connect to the people who are teaching with technology, whether they’ve done something that is fabulous to showcase or if they are only in the working-through-the issues stage. Re-establishing that connection seems critical to me. I don’t know how to do it, but it’s a must. As much as I like to be with my colleagues I want to know what we do matters and that it matters not just to us but also to the community that we are trying to serve.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Students should use Google Calendar

I’m still futzing with my sidebar, trying to add new elements. But Blogger doesn’t seem to be performing well with that content and I’m not sure whether it’s too much javascript calling on too many outside sources of content or if it is Blogger itself. In any event, for the time being I decided to put the most recent experiment on its own Web page. This is a public Google Calendar in Agenda view, with some EdTech events included. Clicking on the title of any event brings up the detailed entry for that event in Google Calendar and there you should find a link back to the source. There is also an ICAL button that when you click on it will allow you to import this Event Calendar into your ICAL compatible calendar tool (Outlook 2007 is the example I have verified and part of the verification was to confirm that the hyperlinks do survive on import; this doesn’t work with calendars in CSV format) and a different Google Calendar button that is for users who themselves have a Google Calendar and want to subscribe to this public event calendar.

I really didn’t put much information into this demo and in truth I likely won’t keep this up (until the rest of the world adopts a like practice) because I had to do some manual data entry to get those events into the calendar and while I was willing to do that to see if the experiment works otherwise, I’m not willing to do that on a recurrent basis. So it may be just as well that this is not in the sidebar. But I want to use that observation to turn the question upside down. I used the CITES EdTech Calendar and the TLT Group Event Calendar as sources for my little experiment. Neither of them put their information up as ICAL nor do they use Google Calendar to distribute their information. The question is, why not?

I know with the EdTech one, since I attended one of their brown bags just yesterday, that they ask you to register and then when you do they send you a confirmation email. I can then take that email in Outlook and drag to my calendar to create an event. But, truthfully, registering for a face to face brown bag seems odd to me; it is not the practice with other seminars and workshops around campus. And, if I’m going to enter the time and place of the event in my calendar in Outlook anyway, why do I have to do the second step of registering too? I’d like this to be done in one fell swoop.

My campus has an Event Calendar Service offered by Web Services, and one of the nice features of this service is that calendar information can be rolled up from other Calendars also using this tool. So, for example, in my college each unit can have an Event Calendar and then the College can maintain an Event Calendar that aggregates the various unit calendars. To the extent that Event Calendars are a form of marketing, this approach makes a lot of sense (though at present I can only get an RSS feed for these calendars; I can’t get an ICAL download). However, there is a different view of event calendars that they are mostly there to solve coordination problems and once you think of events as quite possibly being online then a University based event calendar might be too limiting. For example, if my College were doing something jointly with a Business School in India, where we offered some online seminars and so did they and where we want students and faculty at both places to be in attendance, then the Google Calendar approach would allow calendar sharing readily but the single University Event Calendar approach would not. Also, to the extent that outsiders are encouraged to take part in these events, taking advantage of the Google Calendar search function (requires a Google Calendar account) is a pretty powerful way to identify particular events. Having an event calendar on your site only means these outsiders have to know to frequent that site.

* * * * *

I’m really interested in these issues more from the teaching and learning view and in that setting the canonical problem is that students are on project teams and need to schedule team meetings outside of the regularly scheduled class meeting time. How do they find a good time that works for all team members?

My campus doesn’t at present offer a calendar service that is freely available to students and the two services that currently do exist on a fee basis (Exchange/Outlook, Oracle Calendar) are really aimed at faculty/staff, not at students. So students either do without an electronic calendar at all, keep a personal electronic calendar that is not networked in any way (for example, if they use Outlook as their email client they may use the Calendar function in that, without the Exchange server back end) or they use a third party email/calendar service such as Google’s, Microsoft’s Windows Live (or the older Hotmail), or Yahoo’s offering. And in some cases students have multiple accounts, with the same third party provider or with different third party providers.

At the moment, students have to feel their way in how to make a choice about calendaring. If I were a student now, I’d choose Google. I’d definitely want a networked calendar, and in my opinion at present the Google offering is the most fully functional while still quite easy to use. The event calendar discussion was meant to illustrate the point, and for that we’re talking about publicly available calendar information only. Google is also quite good on sharing private calendar information and in allowing multiple calendars for different uses within one account. This is a well thought through tool.

I do think that mostly students have chosen one or the other of these third party solutions based on the email offering, not based on the calendaring. And a big thing that determined the outcome of that choice was the time it was made. Some of our current Freshmen had email when the were in the fifth or sixth grade, and among those some are still using the same account. Those kids are likely using Hotmail or Yahoo. For those who made a new account with a third party when they came to college, I think many of them chose Google, and they were probably driven by the large quota. Google was clever marketing Gmail that way, but quota has become a non-issue now, because disk space for items that don’t need a high level of security is so cheap.

I think the issue now is convenience – particularly using these services on a handheld as well as on a pc – how fully featured they are, and ease of use. At present, I think Google is the leader in these dimensions. There is an issue of whether that lead is transient or sustainable. I’ve got no crystal ball. I’ve only got the intuition about what made Microsoft so formidable in the ‘90s – they had the operating system. They parlayed that into winning on the Office Suite, and then the browser. I think search now is the analog to the operating system then. Google has search. Of course the others have a search capability too. But Google has search. Bill Gates admitted that much on the Charlie Rose show not too long ago. So if I were betting I’d bet against leap frogging, at least into the near future.

In my College there is a big fandom for Microsoft products and I’m guessing that is true of many business schools. But elsewhere around campus there are pockets where Microsoft is viewed as Darth Vader. As far as I know there are no such pockets where Google is viewed this way, though there is much fear among the security conscious that Google will misappropriate some of the huge amount of profile information that it has been collecting from its users. And for some the risk of that misappropriation will keep them away.

But in my view when weighing risks, upside as well as downside, opting for Google Calendar makes for a good choice.