Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Priorities, academics and administration

I have some random thoughts I want to capture here that I've been thinking about over the last few days. I haven't exactly figured out how this all ties together or exactly what I think, but I'm putting it out there anyway. I've written before about the ways in which administrative work is intellectual work and that administrators are often thoughtful about their work in part because they still have ties to the academic side of the house. I've been tying this idea in my mind to the mantra of many liberal arts colleges and other teaching-oriented schools that a faculty member's research informs their teaching (and sometimes vice versa) rather than research being the be-all end-all of a faculty member's work as it might be at an R1. So imagine the same is true for an administrator--that any research-related activities inform their work as administrators and in fact makes them better administrators. That's the theory with research for teaching-oriented schools.

Unfortunately, as many of you know, a lot of administrators don't do research. Some never did. This is especially true of the middle area of administrators who serve in roles similar to mine in support of the academic mission of the college. In theory, I think, those in these roles would be better at their administrative jobs if they had a related research agenda. For me, as I said in the post referred to above, that means writing and presenting in areas related to technology and education. I can imagine other positions that might benefit from delving into research--deans of various kinds, program coordinators, writing center directors (many in this role do research already), student life directors, librarians. There are probably more. It's not a lack of desire or intellectual ability that keeps people from doing research, but has more to do with what work get priority. And often that prioritizing is imposed on people rather than people deciding what to prioritize.

Let me use myself as an example. Today serves as a good example of the variety of work I do and the difficulty someone in a support role might have in determining what to do next. I started my morning with a meeting with a research group. We talked about network systems, social networking, social contagion theory, etc. I'm presenting to this group next week. After this meeting, I came in and started reading a couple of articles for said presentation. Then I met with a student to talk about having her help with some web support. I then spent a little over an hour dealing with what we call "tickets." These are help requests that are tracked in a centralized system. These issues included requests for Blackboard courses to be set up, investigating enrollment issues in Blackboard, restoring course materials in Blackboard, DMCA violations, and more. Then there were conversations about the college web site, our WordPress MU installation, negotiating who is supporting what and more. Open in my browser are the following tabs: Google reader (to read IT blogs), Gmail (both mail and my RTM to-do list), a wiki on Moodle integration with ePortfolios, Blackboard*, the new Research Blogging icon, an article about risks by IT managers (found via my del.icio.us network), a Google spreadsheet that is collecting data via a form for a workshop I'm planning, Amazon, NITLE, the two aforementioned articles, the Anarchist Librarian web site, blogs.brynmawr.edu, a registration page for a project management workshop, a podcast featuring yours truly (as yet unlistened to) Google calendar, this window, and Geeky Mom. If your head is spinning, imagine what mine's doing. And this is a low tab day.

The thing is, stuff has to get done. The "tickets" need to get processed, the calls have to get taken, emails answered. And most of that is what counts as "work" for people like me. But that other stuff, much of what's open in my browser--reading material, keeping up with trends, investigating what other schools are doing--is also important, and I would argue more important than the other "work." Because the other stuff--research, reading, etc.--might actually inform the way the other work gets managed. It might help find more efficient ways of doing things. It might help implement new software, hire new people with different skills. It might improve the institution. My thought is that as long as people remain mired in the grunt work, they're never going to see the big picture.

I think I have more thoughts, but my email icon is bouncing . . .


*I was interrupted by a phone call asking if Blackboard was down or "messed up" because "someone can't do what they need to do" with no explanation of what that thing they were doing was. Sigh. FYI, troubleshooting is difficult without specific information.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why I Love Google Docs

A while back, I made a podcast (which seems to have disappeared) about how I thought Google docs weren't quite ready for the education sphere. For some projects, that's still true. If you need footnotes or even a lot of endnotes, Google docs won't make that easy for you. But if, like me, most of what you write is devoid of special formatting, Google docs is great. I've written memos, letters of recommendation, resumes, and more. By far, the best thing about Google docs is the collaboration features. I'm able to work with people across the country easily, thanks to Google docs. There's no waiting for someone do make changes and email them to you. If you want to jump in and add something--even at the same time as someone else--you can. I've used this with my student workers as well. I'll start a help document, point them to the url and have them add to it.

I recently did a presentation in Google docs. It worked really well and I really like the chat feature, which I wish they'd add to the document area. I like the way your presentation quickly becomes a url and an embeddable presentation. With PowerPoint, there are too many steps to get to that point.

I also started using the spreadsheet function for a large data collecting project that I was working on with someone. It just wouldn't have been practical to pass a spreadsheet back and forth via email or to work on spreadsheets separately. We needed to know who had done what at any given moment. The coolest feature they added to spreadsheets was forms. I've used those a lot. I'm having my students fill out information about work they've done via a Google form. I've used them for workshop sign ups and I'm using one right now to decide when to hold a workshop. It's much faster than coding up your own web form. All the data is neatly organized into a spreadsheet.

And all the documents can be saved in standard formats--pdf, doc, ppt, xls, txt, html. And I'd recommend doing that every once in a while. Google may claim their motto is "Don't be evil" but that doesn't mean that mistakes might not happen (I've seen them on the Internets).

I love that Google docs is simple and straightforward. It doesn't take forever to load and you can just do the basics without too much thought. Also, if I'm unable to get to my computer, I can still get to my documents. Now that I've gone to a laptop, this doesn't happen too often, but I have been in meetings or in a lab where it would be a pain to go get my laptop.

Now, I'll be fair, not everyone thinks Google docs is the best thing since sliced bread. But instead of shelling out money for Microsoft Office in order to get the advanced features, get OpenOffice. But read the original post and comments. There's a good debate there.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Video Game Addiction

A few weeks ago, I finally broke down and bought WoW. I've been avoiding this for years because I knew I'd love it. I've been playing during most of my free moments ever since. I've been playing video games since I was 12 and have always become quickly obsessed with the game du jour. I think addiction is putting it too strongly and I think putting it in a category with drug and alcohol addiction is problematic at best, but I prefer playing video games as a pastime more than most other options available to me. I have no doubt that people can get sucked in and carried away to such an extent that they neglect other parts of their lives. In that regard, perhaps it resembles a gambling addiction. I find it interesting that certain leisure activities get a negative rap (video games, blogging, D&D) while others (golfing, watching sports on tv) are perfectly acceptable and even encouraged as a way of "networking." I think we as a country have issues with leisure generally. Feel free to spin that off in the comments.

At any rate, I've been thinking about why I enjoy games like WoW so much and the relationships between it and other things I think about on a regular basis, like technology and learning. One thing most gamers don't do (and James Paul Gee talks about this as well) is read the manual. They install the game and start it up and just start doing stuff. In fact, most game manuals don't include a whole lot of information. They give you the basic control information and maybe a quickstart guide. The rest of the information you just have to figure out as you go--and that's part of the fun. For some people, this is incredibly frustrating. They want step by step instructions. I find the way one learns the game by just experiencing it and experimenting with it a much more valuable experience than reading a how to. I do usually turn to the manual to see what I've missed and to match up my experience and see if it guides me in any way regarding the subtleties of the game. Of course, the best place, really, to find out more about the game is the web. This is true of most games these days. Back when I was playing Sierra games (Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, King's Quest), eventually you had to call the tip hotline. Now you're a Google or forum search away from help and information.

The added bonus of a game like WoW, of course, is the social component. There are real people to interact with and that adds a whole new dimension and adds to the learning. As an example, I was on a quest and someone came along to help me--people do that all the time, which I think is so cool. In the middle, the person (gendered female in game, but who knows) told me to stop for a minute and not only explained a good strategy, but in doing so taught me something about the game, which I proceeded to learn more about. I thought it was an excellent example of facilitating learning socially without explicit directions. She didn't say, you need to do x, y, and then z. She used the situation to show how things within the game worked with only a little explanation.

I've known all of this in theory for a long time and have experienced it to some extent in gaming, but the more I play WoW, the more I'm seeing the theory in practice. It makes this woman's thesis mean a little more.

I know those of you who have been playing and thinking about these things for years are laughing at me now, but that's okay.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Girls rule--sort of

I found this article about how girls are generally outpacing boys in Internet content creation interesting. I used some of the stats from the Pew study in a presentation a few years ago. I do think there's a disconnect somewhere in that girls' interest in blogging, creating web pages, podcasting, etc. often doesn't translate into learning C++ or PHP or doing software development. I'm not sure if I could have been hooked, for example, if blogging had existed 20 years ago. But maybe. I was frustrated by having to tediously tinker with code that ultimately didn't produce anything useful or fun. Maybe if I could have created applets or widgets, I might have been more inspired. I don't know.

I also am struck by how the activities that girls do participate in is almost immediately devalued. Their activities are only good, the article seems to imply at times, if it leads to harder science. It'll be interesting to see where we are in about 15-20 years when these teenage girls start choosing careers.

New Kid drinks the Kool-Aid

Because the synapses are still slow to fire, I'm going to point you to New Kid's post about technology, which is really fun. I love just playing around with technology, but often no longer have the time now that it's my job. Ironic, huh. Actually, I have to make the time. New Kid may have inspired me to do so. Plus, it's a snow day!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Whither Geeky Mom?

Sorry to have disappeared like that. We're digging out from under the chaos that was created during the great flu epidemic. I had to do things like laundry and grocery shopping--whee! Plus, I spent time playing games and watching tv instead of blogging. It happens. Something about illness in the house makes your brain go to mush. I never got the full blown flu, though off and on throughout the whole event, I felt draggy, sniffly, etc. Just never for more than a day. That's some immune system I've got.

The synapses are starting to fire again, so you may see something worthwhile here soon. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves and/or suggest topics for discussion in the comments. Grab a beer from the fridge. Make yourself at home.

Friday, February 15, 2008

It will all work out


Day 44: It will all work out
Originally uploaded by lorda.
This has been a week when I've needed to repeat this phrase to myself over and over again. Both of the kids got the flu. There was ice and snow. There was lots of work to get done. There has been no food in the house. It's times like these when you realize that you're just barely keeping all those balls in the air. It's not that disaster strikes or that the world fell apart, but you know you're not playing your A game. I handle stress okay, but I much prefer for things to be running more smoothly. I know people who thrive on being right on the edge of overwhelmed. I can do that for a day or two, but long term, no thanks. I'm hoping the sanitary napkin bag prophecy turns out to be true because FSM knows I could use a break.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Down with handwriting

Hooray! I love this article about how we need to stop focusing on teaching handwriting. There are many other ways to get words onto a screen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Under the weather

I've felt out of sorts for the last couple of days without any symptoms of something specific. I felt run down, cold, almost feverish, but no sign of congestion or actual fever. I've chalked it up to a 40 degree drop in temperature--truly caused by the weather. Although I went to work yesterday, I just didn't feel quite myself. It was weird. Now I'm behind on everything. Sigh.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Random Links

Here's some links I've collected, but not written about.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Writing in Public

As it happens, my institution has published a news story with quotes from many of the faculty about how they feel about students publishing their college work online. I have to say I have mixed feelings about what many of them say. I have to respectfully disagree with what the final respondent says: "All you have to do is look at 99 percent of the stuff posted online to realize that writing for a wider audience doesn't always encourage more polished material." That may be true, especially for young adults and teenagers, but I have to think it's due in part to educators not teaching students what it means to write for a wider audience. My experience with my class tells me that most students don't "get" that they're writing for an audience, much less what that means. Once they do understand it, I find they start polishing their arguments and their writing. Most people writing online--in a blog, for example--consider it more like talking to friends than writing. Those that do take the audience seriously, I think, write fairly well.

I am also quoted in the article. If I'd known what some of the others had said before I handed in my quote, I might have said something different--just to stir things up.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Teach the students (faculty) you have

Yesterday, I read an article in the Chronicle by James Lang where he urges teachers to dispel the myth that freshmen will be transformed by their first year of college. Faculty tend to believe that students will have their minds opened and change their worldviews (usually in response to their own classes). He says this idea comes mainly from the fact that most faculty actually did have their minds opened during the first year of college and so they expect their students to do the same. However, Lang argues (based primarily on a book by Tim Clydesdale) that most students just learn to manage their lives during that first year and they hold their views fairly sacrosanct.

I also finished watching and listening to Michael Wesch's ELI presentation where he, too, talks about the 21st century student and how we're not reaching them or providing them with meaningful learning experiences. He says that we need to provide not just content but make that content significant by personalizing the content. We need to help students understand where they fit in the world and why the material their studying matters to them personally. He then describes how he does that in his own class. And it's really amazing.

So, I got to thinking about these two pieces together and it occurred to me that I might apply these ideas to faculty. First, it's true that I want faculty to appreciate and care about learning with technology with the same passion I do. I found using technology in my classes so rewarding for my students that I pursued a career in helping others work with technology. However, faculty mostly just manage their lives the same way the students do. (I wonder if students don't mimic some of the behaviors of their faculty.) They manage prepping for classes, working toward tenure, writing articles and books, serving on committees, and of course, juggling the rest of their lives. So, like students, their questions are bad. Students ask (as Wesch points out), "Will this be on the test?" Faculty ask, "Can you put these readings up for me?"

Both Wesch and Lang offer ways to teach students given where they are, and they're actually pretty similar. Lang explains that Clydesdale has changed the way he teaches to deal with the reality that students are not in his class to have their minds changed:
[Clydesdale] has shifted his learning objectives away from content retention and toward skill development. "Little of the content of liberal-arts courses will be used in the careers of our graduates," he said, "but the thinking, writing, speaking, and analytical skills these courses hone have enormous utility for the careers and the lives in general of our students."
He doesn't lecture and instead students discuss issues in class and work on semester-long projects. Wesch, too, limits lecturing and has his students work on semester-long projects through which they do learn content, but probably learn more valuable skills along the lines of the ones Clydesdale mentions. For Wesch, technology is a key component of helping students gain those skills.

What does this mean for me and my faculty? Well, if I follow Lang and Wesch, I shouldn't teach content. For me, that means I shouldn't give them the recipe for how to do something. I shouldn't hold workshops where all I do is walk them through the steps for how to use software. I should ask them why they want to do that something and engage them in discussion, hopefully moving them toward thinking critically about the technology they're using. I should let them explore the technology on their own rather than giving them all the answers. (For an example of someone not providing all the answers to their students, see Garnder's latest post.)

Another thing I might think about is the issue of personalization that Wesch raises. How do I make this stuff meaningful to them in a personal way? I'm not sure yet. Unlike Wesch and Lang, I don't have a captive audience. I can't create semester-long projects for them (though I am doing something similar with a few faculty). When people show up for workshops, it's by choice and there's often not a critical mass of people in the room to begin a discussion about the whys of using technology. So, I'm going to have to think about how to do this on a one-on-one basis, which is where I have most of my interactions. As least thinking this way gives me a different way to react other than by being frustrated. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Fear 2.5: Afterthoughts

One thing we discussed as we prepared for our talk at ELI 2008 was that we should all confront our own personal fears and some of us did that. Barbara talked about fear as a faculty member using blogs to teach of being exposed, making a mistake, or generally looking stupid in front of her students. Leslie talked about fearing stagnation, of the fear of investing in technology that takes us backwards instead of forward. A fear I have that I don't think I articulated was a fear of being irrelevant and unnecessary.

How important is my position, really, to the institution as a whole? If my position disappeared, would anyone really notice?

Most of the faculty that reach out to me are really just asking for tech support. They want to know how to perform certain tasks in Blackboard. They want to know how to edit a web site. They don't tend to ask the bigger questions: what is appropriate technology for me to use to achieve my goals, how should I use x to help my students learn.

My fear is that I will never be trusted to answer such questions. I am glorified tech support, someone who knows the technology and who also happens to know and have experience with teaching and learning. What's valued is my ability to answer the technical questions. But that's not what I personally value about my skills.

If me, or someone like me, isn't around to ask the big technology and education questions, will faculty turn to each other for such questions? I don't know that they will. Faculty tend to be insulated and don't discuss such issues with each other. There are a few faculty who are are thinking about these issues, but I suspect when they try to evangelize about what they're doing with technology in their classes, they get the same looks I often do.

Sure, I want to justify my position out of a sense of survival, but I think it's important to question--sometimes in a dramatic way--the logic of certain structures, to ask why and really mean it. So why do instructional technologists exist? Are they really needed and what is their role within an institution? How could they be more effective? Should their role change? Could we envision them teaching or doing research? Or do we want them to shift to be more tech support and be less concerned about the big questions?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Comment and martini inspired thoughts on career and family

Valerie's comment below got me to thinking even more, especially about this little tidbit:

Among other things, this means that if you are a two-earner couple, if you are going to get the kid-rearing job done adequately, at least one parent needs to have a job with some serious flexibility.
She goes on to explain that she came of age in the 70s and believed that she should pursue a career and the family stuff would work itself out. Well, I came of age in 80s and I don't know what wave of feminism that puts me in, but I was under the impression that the structure of the business world was going to change dramatically. Stop laughing, I really thought that. And when I was in a corporate job, I tried to change the culture myself.

Here's the logical extension (to me) of what Valerie's saying. In order to parent well, one parent needs a flexible job. In our culture, flexible jobs tend not to pay well or have good career paths (often they have no career path). Couldn't flexible jobs pay well and/or have good career paths? I'm annoyed by the idea that in order to create a flexible job for myself, I may well have to step off the career path I'm on. And that sucks.

The thing is, I didn't pursue a career with blind ambition. I, like a lot of people I know, stumbled around for a while, taking jobs and pursuing opportunities for various reasons. I went to grad school to pursue something I loved and then found out there was no money in it and I didn't really love it as much as I thought I did. I took a corporate job to pay the bills and discovered that I really like a lot about it. Then back to grad school, a few adjunct positions and now a job in a field that I really like. I couldn't have gone into this with my eyes open. I had no idea where I was going. And quite frankly, I don't think I should have known. Some people may know what they're going to do when they grow up, but I'm still figuring it out. And just when I think I know, I find myself constrained by a work culture and school culture that doesn't acknowledge a) the existence of children (or partners or ailing parents, etc.) or b) the fact that many families are dual career. Sigh.

It doesn't help that some child-free folks are commenting on an old blog post of mine. Note to them: Seriously folks, I don't want to cramp your style. You're not going to find to many parents more sympathetic to your point of view than me. But if you want to have a discussion, let's be civil about it. Incivility and/or stupidity will just get your comment deleted. Honestly, I want a world where we can all pursue our careers and goals and not get in each other's way.

I think that's all for now. If anyone knows of legal ways I can become independently wealthy, let me know.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

On being ambitious and having a family

I have been thinking about writing this for a couple of days. And then I ran into Aspazia's post commenting on the Dear Cary letter from Salon about mom identity crisis. Let's just say I can relate.

Those of you who have met me personally or who are long time readers will know that I've had numerous issues with Geeky Boy and school. I've been reassured this is a boy thing and that with enough support and prodding, he will eventually figure it out. That doesn't help my anxiety at this moment, though. I constantly think that if I just stayed home, this would not be a problem. And last night over dinner, I asked Geeky Boy what his ideal education would look like and he answered, "Homeschooling. Having you teach me." We were talking about how none of us likes being lectured at and how learning shouldn't be about that and he said, "Well, then, my teachers are doing it wrong." Sigh. I know.

If I just identified myself as a mom, I probably never would have returned to work and I might indeed have homeschooled, or at the very least, spent more time talking to his teachers about what's going on, or researching alternative schools or something. Or, if I didn't care about my work, my career, I'd take more time off to manage all of this. Managing a family takes a lot of work, more work than a two-career couple can really manage. Both Mr. Geeky and I care about our work to the point of working at night and on weekends a fair amount. What that means is that laundry doesn't get done, groceries don't get bought, homework doesn't get followed up on, things fall apart.

I have ideas about doing things careerwise and they all involve sacrifices for my family and so sometimes I outright dismiss them. Moving, spending a lot of time outside of work, or financial sacrifices. These are all things that seem easier to manage if you don't have to think about its effects on children or partners.

The irony is, I'm a firm believer in the "put your own oxygen mask on first" philosophy of parenting. Complete personal sacrifice isn't good for parent or child. However, I have a hard time just saying, "To hell with how this affects the kids, I'm doing it." Every choice I make I have to think about the rest of the family. And sometimes, quite frankly, that's paralyzing. To the writer of the Dear Cary letter, I say, it doesn't matter whether you identify yourself as a mom or not, it's going to affect everything from here on out. And I have to say, at least from my perspective, it's something that affects women more than men. How I feel about that is too complicated for a blog post. Maybe the rest of you can fill in the blanks.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Conferences

I left this really long comment on Alan's blog and thought it deserved its own space. We all discussed this to some extent while at the conference and obviously, I had a lot of thoughts. Thanks Alan, for spurring them again. Here's the comment:

I have a love/hate relationship with conferences. On the one hand, I love the opportunity to travel, to drink, to meet new people, to talk to old friends, and to perhaps hear a few new ideas. On the other hand, I'm finding fewer new ideas at these conferences. What I've enjoyed most is the chatting between sessions, the twittering, flickring, and long talks over dinner that shift from technology to kids to patriotism.

I like going to conferences where I'm way out of my field. I went to SXSW a couple of years ago and that kind of blew my mind. The sessions were different, the chatter in the hallway was way different, and the alcohol was free. :) Problem is, I have to convince my employers that these conferences have merit. I really shouldn't. Shouldn't everything be related to education? If we're preparing our students for the world, shouldn't we see a lot of it, from a lot of different angles?

I have yet to go to an unconference, but I'm thinking of running one. I love the idea of showing up, posting what I want to learn about, what I want to teach, and then just talking to some smart people and hearing what they have to say. As someone said on my blog, though, there are a lot of people not on the bleeding edge of things who do actually get something out of these things. But I keep thinking, just because there are those people, does that mean I have to pander to them or be like them? I wouldn't ask a physics professor to retake Physics 101. Why should I have to take Web 2.0 101? And doesn't the Physics professor acknowledge that her Physics 101 students are at the bottom of a curve? Why can't I acknowledge the same thing of some folks at my school and in the audience of these conferences? I'm not being condescending. I'm acknowledging a reality.

I kind of hinted at the conference that it would be nice to have an "advanced" track, something where we could really talk and play with stuff that's pretty far out there. Why couldn't Apple or Microsoft or Google bring the really new stuff to these conferences instead of iLife and tablets and Google maps which may be new to some, but old hat to many of us? And like you said, maybe we could build something together, the tools that no one else has yet created. But yeah, let's make it fun!