Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Random thoughts about learning and literacy

I didn't write about the NY Times article on how the Internet is causing reading to decline, but a few others did. I've been thinking about it and discussing it with others. My thoughts aren't fully formed. This morning, I was reading this post and then this one, and they're not really related, but they are, sort of. What I keep thinking is that we (I don't really know who this "we" is) keep privileging a certain kind of literacy, a certain kind of learning. We no longer seem to value the person who's good at fixing cars or can make pottery. In part, this might be driven by a decline in the kind of skilled-labor jobs that didn't require a degree. What options are there for the non-readers, the people who just don't get jived by books? And why are we so upset that they don't? Are we afraid that an educated public might be educated through reading online and watching YouTube and tv and listening to music on their iPhones and that our own book-based learning won't be privileged anymore?

I get the feeling that we're trying to pidgeonhole, to say that learning is this or that, that literacy is this or that, instead of looking at what's out there for people to engage with and figure out how to leverage that for learning.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Welcome to my world

I found this article by Paula Krebs to be quite revealing about faculty vis a vis collaboration. Everything I do is like the Institute Ms. Krebs ran. In fact, I direct or co-direct an Institute every summer. Many staff do these kinds of things here because most faculty won't.

Any project I do has to go through committees and involves at a minimum of 4 people, all of whom have wildly diverging views at times. I almost never have the benefit of getting to work on a personal project or a project where I "get my way" so to speak. I rely all the time on the good will and expertise of the staff around me. Unlike Krebs, I don't have a personal assistant to manage all of my details, but I do parcel out work where I need to--to our department secretary, to our purchasing agent, to our system administrators. I couldn't do anything without them.

Ms. Krebs ends with this paragraph:
I still value my autonomy in the classroom and elsewhere. But I think I have a much better grip on how truly collaborative the educational enterprise is. And that's bound to be good for me, as a faculty member, to remember.
I wish other faculty would learn the same lessons. I'm not sure those that have similar experiences come out of those experiences with the same realizations that Krebs had. Many faculty I know still operate in a kind of "independent contractor" mode. If we had a "we're all in this together" mentality, we might get somewhere.

This dovetails into Dean Dad's commentary today on service. Part of why, it seems, that faculty don't want to or don't know how to collaborate is because it's so obviously not valued. What's valued are individual contributions, either to teaching or research. And the us vs. them mentality that occurs between faculty and staff (esp. administrators) means there are a precious few opportunities for staff and faculty to work together. What that means is that while faculty contribute to decisions about curriculum or tenure and promotion guidelines, they don't often contribute to decisions that effect them daily--how to make certain kinds of purchases, what software or cms to use. They are often asked, but they don't want to do the hard work of attending meetings and making evaluations. I'm not saying this is their fault, by any means. If I were in their shoes, looking at what gets me tenured or promoted, I wouldn't attend a meeting to discuss possible email systems either. But then, I'm not sure it's fair to complain about those decisions either. When faculty ask me about such things, I tell them how to contribute or when they had (past tense) many opportunities to have a say. They shrug. They would be heard if they had their say, which is more than I can say for some staff members.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Web 2.0 and the future of . . .

I was going to say education, but I think it's bigger than that. I spent some time this morning reading around a collection of linked blog posts and articles related to connectedness, web 2.0, education, democracy, etc. Jen argues that the future of education is not Web 2.0, and I think I agree. It's not Web 2.0 because there will be Web 3.0 or 4.0 or something completely different or a complete collapse of the Internet as we know it. It's also not because it's being gentrified as Jim Groom says, moving not into the read/write web, but into the gated communities of CMS's. The promise of Web 2.0 is only for the John Waynes or the Ingalls among us, willing to try and fail and suffer through the server outages, the disappearance of tools and entire web sites, and taking a shower only on Saturdays.

But I do think there's some lessons that we can all learn from Web 2.0. People want to connect and participate and they learn from those connections and that participation. Are we teaching our students to learn from each other, to build a learning network for themselves that's made up of people and resources (a la George Siemens' connectivism)? Nothing that I've accomplished in the last 3-5 years has been accomplished on my own. My dissertation, perhaps one of the most individual of endeavors, was read by blog friends and face-to-face friends and advisers. People commented on the ideas I threw out on the blog. I emailed people and asked for help, for resources, to play a sounding board. I used this blog to keep me motivated and honest. Even in work, I rely on colleagues, both local and remote to help me figure out WordPress, find new tools, articles to read, and ideas to think about.

The rhetoric of academic integrity and honor codes and scholarship tends to make it seem like getting help and collaborating are bad things. They are to be avoided at all costs. I know plenty of people who try to get students to do "group work"--writing a paper, doing a project, etc.--and are disappointed. Sometimes they throw up a wiki and figure that the technology will just make that happen. We don't model collaboration for them at all. Professors talk about papers they write, books they write, or conferences they attend. They don't talk about the people that read their drafts or the students who worked in their labs and ran the experiments. They don't talk about the colleagues they see at conferences with whom they have valuable conversations that help them frame their thinking about their research or teaching. And they speak disparagingly, if at all, about the committee work they do, rather than seeing that as collaborative work, which is hard (because yes, you have to keep Mr. Grumpy in check and watch Mr. Know-it-all grandstand) but valuable.

I don't think you necessarily need fancy Web 2.0 tool of the week to help students learn how to learn from each other and from their network. It can make it easier for them. More importantly, I think, is to create assignments that push them to work with others, to have class discussions that draw out lots of different points of view, to have them write in ways that push them to include those points of view, to rely on something besides their own inner thoughts, to find ways to take what's happening in the world and connect it to their academic work. Why are statistics important? How will reading this book make me a better citizen? In what ways does the media distort science? Technology certainly helps find the answers to these questions. Newspapers are readily available online as are the journal articles from which their articles are drawn. Wikipedia offers its discussion tab so that students can see that any article has behind a lot of ideas and positions that may or may not have been included, showing that knowledge itself is in constant flux. Discussion forums and blogs offer opportunities to continue classroom discussions or include book authors or alums in discussions about reading material. But we can't just expect our students to use the technology in that way. Facebook and MySpace don't encourage the kind of deep discussions that can be possible. We need think carefully about the tools we use or don't use and help students navigate the online landscape appropriately.

As for the distractedness of Facebook and Twitter, and their ilk. Yes, they're distracting. Yes, we and our students are pulled in many different directions. And yes, some of the stuff that's out there encourages a kind of shallowness that many disdain. But that shallowness forms some of the fabric of our lives. I can connect with people when we share interests--tv shows, celebrities, movies, games, an Internet meme. Much of the time, we can take it to the next level. And I don't think distractedness always comes from the technology. As workers, I think we are often asked to take on more and more. We become inundated with tasks and have a hard time focusing on one task at a time. It doesn't help when every task seems as urgent as the last. Maybe those tasks come through email and im instead of on the paper memos of the past, which means they come faster, but I don't think it's about the technology, per se. Instead of critiquing the technology, maybe we should look at the economic structures that impose more work on fewer workers and give more money to the people at the top. Maybe we're distracted because we don't even *have* free time anymore.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Colleges Left Behind?

My students and I reading some articles and blog posts focused on the issue of technology integration into courses. We're also interviewing several faculty to find out what they use, why they do or don't take advantage of technological resources, etc. It's been interesting so far. Today's reading includes this blog post by James Farmer on distributed learning. His argument is that the publishers are investing lots of money in creating online resources and, instead of marketing and providing them to the faculty and their institutions, they're marketing them to the students. The problem with this is that many students can't afford to buy these materials and that there's little evaluation of the effectiveness of these materials. Good or bad is determined by market forces, not by considering whether students are learning. What struck me most about the post, however, is the following comment by Farmer on the lack of investment most colleges have made toward developing online course materials.

Creating effective course materials is expensive. So far few colleges and universities have been able or willing to allocate those resources.

It is unreasonable to ask faculty to create such materials because (1) they likely do not have extensive background in pedagogy and instructional design and multimedia authoring technologies, (2) they likely do not have the production experience to produce professional level learning materials, and (3) production takes a lot of time and effort.

For the next decade or so we can expect the costs of production to increase even those the cost of the technology may decrease. Student expectations, as with motion pictures, are constantly increasing. Game-like student/learning system interaction is both very effective and very expensive.

Forthcoming research will show how few resources are available to faculty. Preliminary estimates show a educational technologist supports more than 100 faculty, or less than 12 hours per academic year per professor.

I think Farmer is right on. Faculty aren't going to do this and in many cases, they shouldn't. On the other hand, the people who should be doing this work--technologists--are not plentiful enough to develop enough materials to compete with the investments made by the publishers. From my position in a small liberal arts college not interested in distance learning or much of online anything, what the publishers are producing doesn't necessarily meet our needs. They meet the needs of large state schools, community colleges and/or distance ed programs at various places. While many faculty at schools like mine might say, we don't need those materials because of the kind of institution we are, I think we can't simply dismiss the idea out of hand. What I think is needed is a close analysis of what's out there and to think about what might be appropriate for our institution. We may not need online tutorials on grammar, but maybe a peer-reviewed online undergraduate journal would be interesting. Many faculty here are creating these materials anyway, in an ad hoc way, stretching themselves way too thin in the process--and sometimes losing their jobs as a result. Most faculty, I think, really do recognize the value that some software and online resources provide, but no one is thinking about how to make those materials for themselves or how to fund that effort or how to organize and evaluate it. Which is too bad, because we might find ourselves struggling to keep up or being left behind entirely.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wheeeee Fit

Last week we got a Wii fit. I didn't get around to setting it up until the weekend, but now I've done a Wii workout every day. It's pretty fun. I had a workout "game" for the PS2, but it was somewhat dull. It worked well and had I stuck with it, probably would have been fine, but I got bored quickly. Wii fit has lots of options--yoga, strength, aerobics and games. While some people complained that it's not much of a workout, I don't think that's necessarily true. And, it doesn't have to be the only thing you do to work out. For someone as lazy as I am, it's a great place to start. I like the yoga poses; they're a great way to wind down and stretch after work. The strength training doesn't seem too strenuous, but I'm guessing you could add weights to some of the exercises. The aerobics options are pretty fun--hula hoop and running (yes, running). And the games have been a big hit with the kids and are supposed to promote good balance.

What I like about the Wii Fit is that it rewards you for the time you work out, so you unlock new exercises or games the more you work out. With the PS2 game all you got were new virtual locations. Not as much fun. I also like the weight and BMI tracking as well as the balance tests. I think all of those would be great for the truly sedentary to keep them on track. So, maybe it's not the best option for the already fit, but for those of us who need more than the promise of endorphins to work out, it's a pretty good motivator. I could see the Wii fit being developed for more strenuous workouts. It would be easy, I think to connect it to a treadmill or a bike, to have bluetooth-enabled weights, or to have heart-rate monitors. The feedback from such devices is what tends to motivate me--and I'm guessing others as well. So maybe we'll see a whole Wii gym soon!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Staying up late and being a mom

Those with babies might think I'm talking about the midnight feedings, the all-night cry sessions. Nope, I'm talking about my need to stay up way later than I should simply to get in enough "me" time. After dinner, I pretty much disappear. Occasionally, we'll do something together, but most of the time, we all take refuge in our rooms. The kids need their time now too. And I generally stay up past the time the kids go to bed (9:30-10 in the summer) simply because it's uninterrupted time. Even though the kids have their own things to do, they still seem to have questions--where's that book I was reading? where's my shirt for tomorrow? I need to feel I have some time away from that.

Last week, Laura at 11D wrote about how being a parent tends to make one unhappy. But I think most of that unhappiness comes from the lack of me time most people have as parents. For some periods of parenting, there's not really a way to gain this. When the kids are really little and still waking you up at odd hours, often staying up until 10 is a challenge, but eventually, you can put them to bed at 7 or 8 and have the next 2-3 hours to yourself (with or without a partner). Or, if you can afford a babysitter, that's another great way to go. Mr. Geeky and I went out separately a lot. We couldn't afford a sitter often, but we both had the need to be out of the house on occasion. Let go of the resentment and guilt and just do it. I see a lot of people who a) let their kids stay up until really late and/or b) never leave the house. Of course you'll be unhappy! All your time is with your job and/or your kids. No time to think, to watch that bad movie you wanted to watch, to read that romance novel. I honestly think my insistence on maintaining this time for myself has kept me sane, made me a better mother, and kept me happy.

A blog post this morning confirms this. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding being a mom when I started out was about sacrificing (eat wheat gluten, no chocolate) and creating a semi-perfect environment for your kids. I'm sure the rhetoric hasn't changed much; I just don't read parenting mags anymore. The very first thing on this list of "Things to do to be a Great Mom": do what you love. Don't give up the passion for knitting or writing just because there's another person in the house. Find the time. There's a link to an article for dads too. The author of this one sums up the mom/dad quandary this way:
I think that the biggest mistake dads make is that they become so absorbed in their careers that they do not spend enough time with their families. The biggest mistake moms make, in my opinion, is that they become so absorbed in their families that they do not spend enough time on their own passions.
So if you see a tired mom walking around, give her a break. She's trying to get her me time in.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Blogging: The Slides I Didn't Use

On Friday, I gave yatob*. We were the last panel and so, with time compressed, we went straight for the demo, skipping the slides altogether. It's actually nice to know a topic so well to be able to speak almost extemporaneously on the topic. I had prepared well, though, so it didn't matter that the slides got trashed. Here they are for your own enjoyment:

I ended up using the theme that "software matters." There's no right or wrong to setting up a class blog, but that your choice of space and layout can change the nature of the class. One thing that's nice about blogging is that it's flexible and easy to change midstream. Just move some widgets around and voila! new blogging environment.

*yet another talk on blogging (I should note that I'm in no way tired of giving these, but I worry that people are tired of hearing about it from me.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The future of Educational Technologists

I've been thinking a lot lately about what educational/instructional technologists should or will be doing 5 years from now. Some of my thinking was prompted by this post, lamenting the technological gap that exists between teachers and technologists. The author was not, as I often am, saying that the teachers need to get with the program, learn these new technologies or else. Basically, he says the technologists are moving too fast and they need to spend more time supporting their teachers.

But this is the rub. What does it mean to support faculty in their technology use?

Increasingly, I think most faculty want people who will do things for them. I don't blame them for this. It's easier to have someone else scan your documents or images, build your web sites, organized your course in a cms than to learn and do these things for themselves. Certainly, the structures of the institution don't give faculty time to do these things. And, increasingly, institutions are hiring people to do this work rather than the more consultative type work most instructional technologists feel they are best suited for.

I think most faculty know that to incorporate technology well would not only mean a large investment of time, but also a change in the status quo. They would have to rethink their teaching. An most faculty don't want to do that with or without technology involved. As my students have said, "You can't really get someone to learn this stuff if they come to you with a closed mind." And far too many faculty have closed their minds to technology. The reasons are many and complex, but it means that instructional technologists are faced with an almost insurmountable challenge. Or a choice.

We can support the status quo--running our Blackboard workshops, writing documentation for Blackboard, meeting with faculty one on one to work on Blackboard. Or we can build systems that may or may not be used--blogs, wikis, data-driven web sites. Or we can fight the system, advocate for change. The problem is we are not positioned to advocate. We don't serve on the committees or attend the meetings where change happens.

I know I've said this a hundred times before, but I guess I figure that if I just reword it a little, maybe I'll hit the right combination of words to get through to the right combination of people. Or maybe I'm preaching to the choir. The thing is, I don't disagree with the blogger I linked to above or with the idea of providing technology production services for faculty. The problem is I don't want to teach someone how to do Power Point or to scan their documents for them. If that's what they want, then well . . .

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Weekend project

Even though my house is a disaster, I'm going to spend the weekend alternating between relaxing and reading and writing. My goal--read through several articles for a class, read through material for an article I'm writing, and begin to sketch out said article. I put this here to hold myself accountable. And now to fill myself with coffee.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What is scholarship

Yesterday, I sent a link to my faculty of the "Top 100 Liberal Arts Bloggers." I recognized quite a few of the names and thought that it might make interesting summer reading. I, in fact, billed it as such--like beach reading. I got a response pretty quickly from someone saying that he/she was disappointed that the blogs weren't scholarship and that the list just confirmed that blogs are worthless.


Where do I begin? First of all, I would say that most academic blogs are not written with "traditional" scholarship in mind. If academic bloggers do address their field, they often do so with a lay audience in mind. As Michael Wesch said of his YouTube work, he's reaching millions of people, different kinds of people than he would reach with his work published in an academic journal. In fact, that's why I appreciate certain blogs, like the blogs at Scienceblogs. I get a sense of fields there's no way I would understand if I read the journal articles. Another way that these blogs come at scholarship is by addressing issues in the news. Stories about science or economics can be expanded upon (or corrected) by experts. Is that or isn't that scholarship?

Secondly, there's more to life than scholarship, at least of the detailed kind I think my correspondent meant. Many of the academic blogs I read discuss work-life balance issues, problems within higher education more broadly, issues in their fields of study, politics, and yes, sometimes just plain old stuff. Is there anything wrong with that? Isn't that somewhat interesting and something we should take time to think about? Shouldn't we wrestle with the problems that an antiquated system brings to bear on current faculty? Shouldn't we talk about what education means, what being an academic means, how to have a life and a life of the mind? But that's not scholarship . . .

And so what if it's not. So what if we can definitively say that in no way are blogs ever to be called scholarship? Do faculty not ever read the New York Times, the New Yorker, Harper's, Time, Newsweek, watch the evening news, a movie or two? Are those bad things? Not intellectual enough? Are faculty not allowed entertainment?

I personally think we need to expand what we mean by scholarship anyway. I think we can still say that a certain kind of scholarship needs to be done (maybe), the kind written for the narrow group of people interested in a topic and published in journals reviewed and read by those same people. But I think there's room for much more--critiques of the industry of higher education, discussions of teaching and grading practices, discussions of news or of peer-reviewed articles. I think blogs bring academics out of the ivory tower and I think that's a good thing for both the academics and for the people who read their blogs. It ups the level of public discourse. I feel sorry for those who feel they should remain ensconced in the ivory tower and don't engage with the world. Their work may become increasingly unknown and irrelevant.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Republicans vs. Democrats

Today, my son asked me what the difference is between the Republicans and Democrats. I went on at some length about economics and energy policy, but what it kind of came down to was that Republicans seemed more inclined to think shorter term while Democrats think longer term. I don't know that that's true, but it's what I feel. What do you all think?