Cultivating Thought Partnerships

I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days with my colleagues in Academic Technologies along with my friend and colleague, Enoch Hale, who facilitated the event for us on cultivating thought partnerships. This was framed as an interactive workshop to help us think through the shift we are attempting to make in our work – and our identities – from “fixers and coders” to “consultants and thought partners.” Making this shift requires changes in how we approach our work as technologists, along with the development of new skills and practices. We covered plenty of ground over the course of the two days…and I’m still churning away on much of it…but I wanted to try and capture a some ideas, questions and insights…

What is thought partnership? – First, let me say that members of my team are at the early stages of exploring this together, and we don’t have it neatly sorted out just yet. At the heart of it though, is a desire to engage in meaningful work with faculty members as we think with them about the intersection of teaching, learning and technology. This represents a different approach, and is distinct from the break / fix, and focus on support for technical questions that I think often shapes much of the work of educational technologists. In an effort to better understand what faculty hope to do with digital technologies – and not rush to simple answers and technical solutions – we are recognizing the importance of using questioning frameworks as a part of our consultancy practice. Using clarifying questions we can gain better understanding of what faculty hope to do, as well as help them to explore and explicate some of the assumptions, concepts, purposes and goals they have for using technology. We want to establish thought partnerships…among ourselves…and the faculty members with whom we work.

Clarifying questions and lenses for thinking – OK, so I’ve known for some time the power of asking a good question. Good questions can drive reflection, yield new insights, and yes, generate better questions. But what are the kinds of questions we typically ask faculty members when they come to us to talk about ways to use a particular technology? How do we address pedagogical questions that are sometimes in search of a technological solution? All too often I think we default to “fix it” mode and jump to the ready made solutions. We assume there is a shared lexicon and perspective. We miss opportunities for learning and thought partnership. In our workshop conversation, Enoch introduced us to a simple but powerful set of clarifying questions that I think can really serve to support consultancy practice, while also assisting faculty members in explicating their goals and perspectives. Enoch had a few acronyms to describe the list of questions, but I’ll just pitch them here: How do you define that? Can you share an example? Can you elaborate on that? Can you illustrate that? This set of questions can really serve as lenses to open up a range of perspectives at the intersection of teaching, learning and technology — they can change our thinking. Importantly, they can serve as a foundation to support meaningful instructional consultation that can grow thought partnerships.

Consultancy as shared exploration – There is plenty that gets wrapped into the conversations that faculty members and educational technologists have about using technology in teaching. I know that in my own work with faculty there are always varying expectations, issues of power, layers of expertise, different perspectives, questions of identity, and a mix of desires – to help, support, achieve resolution. Sometimes there is a question, or some general uncertainty, that is delivered as a conclusion…”I want to flip my classroom.” We can rush to assume shared understanding, and offer quick advice about tools that will “get the job done.” We fall into the trap of obeying the tool! In fact, there can be an expectation that this is in fact what educational technologists do. This gets reinforced every time we offer quick fix technically focused solutions to layered questions about teaching and learning.  In the work we are pursuing with cultivating thought partnerships, I think we are seeking to problematize this for ourselves – to refine the kinds of conversations we have with faculty members. For me, the practice of instructional consultation is both humbling and energizing. Ideally, it is a shared exploration of ideas, interests, desires and questions — it takes longer and requires some commitment — but I think we all get to a richer and more meaningful understanding about the ways technology can enhance teaching and learning.

During the course of our workshop, Enoch encouraged us to consider the notion that, “…cultivating thought partnerships might be a hamster wheel.” As he always pushes and extends my thinking, I didn’t see this as a caution, but the seed of a question for helping us to be aware and reflective on how to move forward in an intentional and meaningful way. Onward!

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No guarantees…

The 7 Principles of Good Practice have become a “go to” frame of reference for me when I think about using and adopting digital technologies for learning. For me, the principles represent a useful lens for thinking about my practice and whether a particular use of technology will be able to support or embody them. It’s not an all or nothing deal, but if I can address multiple principles through the use of a technology then I tend to see the combination as a potential learning benefit.

We’ve been having a similar conversation in GRAD 602, and asking whether we find the 7 Principles to be a meaningful set of guidelines for selecting digital technologies as well as informing teaching practice.

Reviews have been mixed.

Some see the Principles in a positive light,  having immediate application in their current context, or recognize the obvious value, of say, communication between teachers and students.  Others have expanded them to include a few additional principles, and even lamented their absence as part of the professional education of PhD students.

Some regard the Principles with a bit more skepticism, at least with their regard to their being used as a heuristic for teaching. Some urge caution at the use of technology to facilitate contact & communication. Others acknowledge experiences where they have employed the Principles, but did not get the “buy-in” from students. Still others viewed the Principles as an idealized vision for education, and questioned whether faculty teaching practices would ultimately align with them unless they were valued throughout the institution…from the top to the bottom.

Clearly there are no guarantees here. Good teaching practice alone does not lead to enhanced learning, indeed learning can and does occur even in the absence of good teaching.

So, does good teaching practice matter? I guess it depends…

If you care about an answer to that question I encourage you to watch this TED Talk from Sugatra Mitra, and see where it leaves you…

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Scholarship of Teaching, Say Hello to the Web…

In a course I’m co-teaching with Britt Watwood, called Teaching, Learning and Technology in Higher Education, we’ve included blogging as a key means of supporting discussion and sharing ideas. The students in the course are part of a preparing future faculty program at our university, and they hail from a variety of disciplines.

We’ve introduced blogging in a two-pronged sort of way, in that we see it as 1) a potentially valuable way to engage in meaningful reflection on learning and practice, and 2) as an academic publishing platform with an eye toward supporting the role of being a public intellectual.

I think this can be a tricky two-step.

As I reflect on the discussion thus far, I think we may have inadvertently emphasized the academic publishing platform notion a bit too much. It seems that this is a slippery slope, as it can quickly tumble into concerns about openness, intellectual property and the like. What happens next is that the idea of an academic publishing platform on the web are often compared to and then conflated with traditional notions of scholarship. Perhaps this is a natural slip…but it misses the point a bit and inspires some FUD rhetoric…at least from my perspective. All the same, the discussion of how future faculty perceive and engage in new media environments – as both scholars and educators – is a crucially important one. It raises critical questions about peer review, authorship, collective knowledge, open teaching and community building that are worth exploring.

At this point, academic publishing on the web (blogs, wikis, video, podcasts, etc.) remains a fringe notion for the bulk of faculty members with whom I work. To suggest that this kind of work can potentially be a form a scholarship is often met with dismissive smiles and the kind of head tilting dogs do when they hear a high-pitched sound. Alas…

What I’d like to suggest here is that while academic publishing platforms (e.g., blogs) may not yet be considered a form of scholarship, I think that the process of writing in the open for academic / scholarly purposes can serve as an act in support of scholarship.

In 1990 Ernest Boyer made an important contribution to the literature of higher education by authoring the book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. In this book, Boyer argued for a broader definition of what constituted scholarship and called upon those in higher education to “…break out of the tired old teaching versus research debate and define, in more creative ways, what it means to be a scholar.” He outlined the following four areas of scholarship, that taken collectively – he argued – represent a more meaningful approach to recognizing and rewarding the scholarly work of faculty:

• Scholarship of Discovery – Build new knowledge through traditional research.
• Scholarship of Integration – Interpret the use of knowledge across disciplines.
• Scholarship of Application – Aid society and professions in addressing problems.
• Scholarship of Teaching – Study teaching models and practice to achieve optimal learning.

It is this last component, the Scholarship of Teaching, that I suggest could be supported and enhanced through open academic publishing on the web. Blogs provide a platform for sharing ideas, offering aspects of peer-review in the form of commenting, and engaging public as well as discipline-based communities of practice. For faculty members, the act of authoring ideas about education can inspire meta-cognition and support the kind of critically reflective practice that leads to the growth of knowledge in teaching.

While open academic publishing is currently in an emergent stage, it seems to hold great potential for thinking through important questions and issues about what it might mean to engage in scholarly teaching practice in the digital age.

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PLENK, Network Literacy and the Future of Education

This week I came across a few interesting links that served to gel some ideas, or at least confirm the importance of engaging in and understanding networked learning. The first was an open course being taught by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier called PLENK 2010. This 8-week open course covers some pretty interesting topics and provides links to additional readings and resources. Spending some time on this site provided me with some insights about how learning is increasingly more open, connected (networked), and social.

The other piece was an interview that Will Richardson did for EdWeek. In the interview, Richardson touches on the idea of “network literacy” – an idea that really resonates with me – and shared some views about why the teaching of this new literacy is important. While his focus tends to be on the K-12 context his ideas are equally important in higher education. The PLENK 2010 course is a meaningful response to what Richardson is calling for, but I’m wondering where else this is happening? The concept of networked learning remains a bit of a fringe idea when I talk with other faculty about it…and as such it often gets easily dismissed. At the same time, I can’t help but sense that there is a profound transformation taking place right in front of our eyes, and too few people in education seem to be taking notice and considering the implications for education. I just don’t see this as a pervasive conversation in broader education circles… Should it be?

It seems to me there is a gulf of understanding between what many in higher ed. are seeing and thinking and what is happening around them. I liken it to what has happened to traditional news media in the wake of web publishing…none of them (editors, periodicals, newspapers, etc.) saw their own demise coming. Some were nimble and have adjusted…others are still scratching their heads.

A current example of the kind of change that is underfoot is the Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival. This “festival” (read conference) is one of the most interesting I have seen to date in terms of pushing the conversation about the Open Education and networked learning. Combine this with the the announcement this week that OpenStudy is partnering with MIT OpenCourseware and you begin to get a real glimpse of how traditional notions of course-based learning are morphing here. Some very interesting stuff in my opinion.

It seems to me that these examples of changes taking place….(Peer2Peer U., badges for recognizing informal online learning, open courses, open source learning content, etc.) represent a whole different ballgame. Perhaps a bit radical for those with a conservative lens…but I think any position / view of the future of education needs to take into account the changes taking place here.

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[Un]packing the Learning Management System

Of all contemporary web-based educational technologies, the enterprise learning management system (LMS) has enjoyed the broadest adoption and use among higher education faculty. This should not come as a surprise. The LMS is grounded in management practices that provide the instructor with complete control of how the space is used by students. Perhaps this is one reason for its broad adoption and often-narrow use to enhance learning. Technologies are often adopted in ways that support and reinforce existing teaching practices, in essence doing old things with new tools. The LMS simply allows these practices to be repackaged for the web.

So you can imagine that I was not the least bit surprised to hear my students in a recent class describe their experiences of Blackboard as used by faculty in their graduate courses. They echoed findings from the ECAR study of students and IT: faculty post documents, readings, grades, and sometimes course content…and students find this convenient. It works great as one-way storage and distribution mechanism, but it is not seen as a space where learning takes place.

In our class session, I intended for students to take a critical look at the design of the LMS and to explore questions about the pedagogy that is valued based on its design. One hoped for outcome was to see that the LMS is not a neutral space, and is something that we should think about critically in order to make deliberate decisions about its use in teaching and learning. To inform the discussion we read Hamish Coates, Lisa Lane and Gardner Campbell.

We also had the great pleasure of hosting Jim Groom as a guest speaker via video chat from his perch at UMW. Jim’s energy and passion about this topic are legendary in my mind, and I greatly appreciated his willingness to spend time with our class and share his ideas.

While some of the ideas Jim shared have become quite familiar to me at this point, I always find that he pushes my thinking to look at a new facet of something I may have taken for granted, and which really needs continuous attention in the conversation we create about teaching, learning and technology. I often take for granted that the web is a space for learning, but am reminded that this is not always broadly shared. Jim helped me to see that this remains a central part of the conversation, and is important to continually address when the LMS is often the defining space for the intersection of formal coursework and the web.

So, I’m reminded to continue asking the question: How can we engage in teaching practices that envision the web as a space for learning?

Here are some of the take-aways from Jim’s talk that help me continue to live in this question:

  • The conversation about the LMS – and its role in teaching and learning – is really part of a larger argument about the nature of the web. If students experience an “open web” in their personal lives and a “closed web” in their academic lives then this simply reinforces notions that what they do in school on the web is just “schooliness”…not learning.
  • Closed and proprietary systems are not about learning they are about management. If we want to engage students in learning on the web we need permeable membranes that connect, not walled gardens that contain.
  • Explore ways to foster openness in the learning process. Part of the greatest potential of the web is how it permits, as Jim said, “networks of people to huddle” and learn together. At the same time this remains one of the most challenging parts of the conversation I have with colleagues…openness is a paradigm shift for many people…faculty and students alike.
  • When we position students as thinkers and scholars we place value on the intellectual work they do. In doing so, we should identify and create spaces for students to openly share their ideas. UMW Blogs is a great example of this. The notion that the intellectual efforts and learning products of students should be canned up and deleted at the end of a 15-week course seems pretty ludicrous in light of this.

It seems crucial that we engage current and future faculty in openly discussing the role of the web in teaching and learning…and to consider how the ways we engage students in these spaces with formal learning will shape their views of how the web should and can be used…in education, and perhaps in other areas of social life as well. I want my students to question what is at stake when we choose to teach in closed systems on the web. My hope is that they see the future of learning on the table, and that they have an important role to play in shaping it.

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The Teaching with Technology Futures Market

What do you think you should be learning about using technology in teaching?

This was the question I opened with in a class I’m currently co-teaching with my colleague Zach Goodell, called Teaching, Learning and Technology in Higher Education. The course is designed for graduate students who are considering teaching in the academy after they finish their PhD. This particular class session was intended to provide all of us with the opportunity to explore perspectives and to consider ways the web and digital media are changing how and where learning is taking place. The class discussion was rich and layered as students shared their views, questions and comments. What emerged was a focus on four key ideas that seemed to be shared among most of the students, but there was not necessarily agreement on what to do about them just yet. The ideas are briefly outlined below…

Technology and Engagement
Students indicated that there was a need to consider the use of technology in teaching in order to engage learners both inside and outside the classroom. “We need to engage students where they are,” was one comment that really seemed to resonate with students as we discussed this idea. There was mention of a Facebook fan page that was set up in different course to facilitate interaction among students, which was viewed somewhat favorably. There seemed to be a general awareness that the current landscape finds students engaged in a range of digital spaces – where they socialize, share information and build connections – and that there is the need to meet them on that ground in order to connect with and engage them in our courses. Additional examples of this remained a bit elusive.

Avoid Gadgetry
There was a shared perspective that, in teaching, we should not use technology for the sake of technology. Students were well aware of the pervasive and popular appeal of technology today, and viewed the lure of modern gadgetry with skepticism. Selecting and using technology to support learning in meaningful ways was something these students recognized the need for.

Balanced Use
These students also recognized that the use of technology tools takes time and practice in order to be used effectively in teaching. They were sensitive to the idea that there needs to be a balance between learning to use the tools and using the tools for learning. Some software applications may take considerable time to learn to use before they become transparent and can be seamlessly integrated into the course. Using course time to learn a tool was seen as potentially impacting the teaching of course content. I saw this perspective very much in terms of return on investment; how do we determine the amount of time that is worth investing in learning use a technology such that the learning payoff will outweigh that in the long view? Students seemed keenly aware of the need to develop this sense of balance.

Age of Distraction
What do we do about gadgets and laptops in class? During our discussion there was, at times, a heightened emotional response to the question about how we make decisions about student technology use in class. Part of my response was that if you want to bring a laptop to my class and browse email, update Facebook, search for information related to the discussion, send twitter messages…whatever…that was up to you. I acknowledged the responsibility of the instructor to create the conditions necessary to support learning and guide attention, I added that it was also up to each individual student to take the responsibility to decide what they were paying attention to in class. At the same time, as these students pointed out, there is potential for in class tech use to be disruptive…as they shared concerns about the cone of distraction that is sometimes created by laptop / gadget users. I’m not sure banning technology in the classroom is the answer, however. My sense is that we have the capacity to use very powerful digital tools for accessing, sharing and communicating about information, and that as educators we need to make careful and deliberate decisions about how we are going to channel that capacity both inside and outside the classes we teach. This continues to be a hot button issue as university faculty members come to terms with how they will deal with technology in the classroom…and the presence of extreme views are an indicator that this issue remains emotionally charged.

The Promise of Technology
The views these students expressed about what they want to learn about technology are spot-on from my perspective. Teaching with technology is layered and nuanced, and they have articulated several key aspects that drive meaningful use. It seems that in order to learn what is outlined above, faculty members need encouragement to take the time and opportunity to tinker with, test, reflect on, and refine how they use technology in their practice. Meaningful use doesn’t just happen; it is the result of developing specialized knowledge situated in practice. And the bottom line is that this is not likely to happen for the majority of faculty unless it is recognized as part of what it means to demonstrate excellence in teaching. Colleges and universities continue to spend millions of dollars on technology infrastructure, which is then often coupled with the taken for granted notion that meaningful educational use is simply expected as part of the work of teaching. That is not only misguided, but it flies in the face of what we know about knowledge growth in teaching.

It seems like forward thinking colleges and universities would give more than a passing interest to the following…

1) Acknowledge that the web and digital media tools have profoundly altered traditional notions of how and where learning takes place.

2) Recognize that effective teaching with technology has added a complex set of expectations for faculty work in the digital age, and this should be more openly addressed across all academic departments.

3) Teaching with technology in meaningful ways requires time, encouragement, and support well beyond what was expected of university faculty a short 20 years ago.

4) The demonstration of effective use of technology to support teaching and learning should be valued and supported. Integrating this as an expectation into university roles and rewards documents would be a step in the right direction.

Some of this has already begun happening on campuses, but it is far from the norm. Continuing to ignore these issues simply ensures that the promise of technology will be fragmented and elusive. What else should be considered here? Can the enterprise of higher education change course? Has the boat already set sail?

Curious what you think…

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Google University – Approaching Beta?

The notion of a Google University is not a new one, but recent interest among some universities to embrace the use of YouTube for hosting instructional content has brought things into a slightly different focus for me.

UC Berkeley was the first to jump in and set up a YouTube channel for distributing content, and they have recently been joined by MIT, USC, Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, Texas Tech and Auburn. More are sure to follow. On the surface this seems like a great way of sharing learning resources as well as a marketing tool for colleges and universities to show a different web presence…participating in some of that YouTube love.

Another interesting wrinkle here is that it has not been made transparent by YouTube just how other interested universities might become involved in offering their own YouTube channels. The Chronicle recently reported that calls to the YouTube brass about gaining additional information about how to get involved in YouTubeU have gone unanswered. Club membership seems to be a bit restricted at this point, but why all the interest? Perhaps exclusivity is fueling the the desire to join…

Google, with its vast resources, really seems on the verge here of being able to open up Google University. And if McDonald’s can grant GEDs, it seems quite conceivable that a GU could offer some pretty compelling degree programs. It could provide its students with unlimited web-based access to some of the most amazing library collections in the world (Stanford, University of Michigan, Princeton, Oxford, Harvard, Cornell….etc.), a suite of web-based productivity and learning tools (Gmail, Calendar, Pages, Docs, blogs, Maps, Reader…and not to mention Search) and now an emerging collection of full video recordings of courses and lectures from some prestigious universities. Wow!

It is not difficult to imagine or envision a scenario where you could enroll for a Google Course. Courses could draw upon the vast collection of resources, pulling and re-assembling the best learning content to suit the needs of individual learners. The idea of having an intelligent tutor embedded in the web browser that is evaluating decisions, links, and responses to learning content…in real-time…and serving up a multimedia buffet of resources that seemed to be just in time to support that next cognitive step. In such an environment the learner could always remain in that zone of proximal development. Hmmm…a long shot? Maybe.

What might such an arrangement mean for traditional notions of courses? Degree programs? Institutions of higher education? For learning?

Would such an environment be desirable?

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Technology innovation and the adoption dilemma

One of the things I have been paying more attention to recently is the extent to which much of the IT professional development we offer to faculty, primarily attracts the early adopters. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice because we receive early confirmation that the ideas, tools and practices we are putting on the table are actually of interest to someone else…albeit the numbers of folks is usually rather small. It’s a curse, because it leaves us at a loss for taking the next steps to attract and engage the next wave of potential adopters…faculty who may be sitting on the fringe, interested but unsure about what the new technology or practice might offer them.

We tend not to think about this until the numbers of faculty showing up for a particular workshop dwindles to almost zero. Then we start scratching our heads, wondering why more folks don’t “see the light” that we see. Workshops often work well for the early adopters. As a group, they are easy to work with because they are already interested in learning and exploring, and come to the table with a strong dose of being self-directed when it comes to technology.

For those of us involved in faculty development, I think early workshop success can be misleading and can lead to a false sense of success, reinforcing the perceived need to run workshops and training sessions. Don’t get me wrong, workshops are a necessary evil. They serve an important function of providing initial introductions to new tools, act as conversation starters, and provide faculty with the important opportunity to network with colleagues. But these are largely hit-and-run events, and can’t sustain adoption of new practices on a larger scale.

At the same time, the world in which we live, teach and learn in is becoming increasingly complex. Change is rapid and the sheer amount of information generated is overwhelming. Early adopters of technology innovations – instructional technologists included – often pick this stuff up quickly and then move on to something else. The question becomes how we can sustain our enthusiasm and interest in a particularly useful technology while it takes time –sometimes several years -for the second wave and late adopters to also find it of value? Bill Buxton, a Principal Scientist at Microsoft Research and the author of Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, recently talked about the concept of the long nose of innovation. In this piece he describes how much innovation is often of low-amplitude and takes place over long periods of time, sometimes as much as 10 years.

I think this creates a bit of a practice dilemma for the instructional technologist working with faculty members interested in exploring technology to support learning. As we take the time to learn about the next emerging tool – Twitter, Ning, Facebook, blogs, podcasting wikis, etc. – we forget that the vast majority of faculty we encounter in our work will not likely adopt these tools for years, if at all! By the time the long nose of innovation runs its course, entire new chapters of internet history will have been written. From this perspective it seems that most technological innovations in education are limited to the early adopter, constraining potential change on a wider scale.

With the mad rush to the “next best thing” how can we pay more attention to and provide more support for the deliberate consideration of the instructional value of these tools to the folks who don’t see it the way early adopters see it? It takes more time. Change is slow. Workshops and online tutorials are not for everyone. The idea of “bringing it to scale” may not have a logical and linear progression, that includes a neatly designed workshop series, or community of practice, or whatever, that will bring along others to engage in similar practices.

Has the pace of innovation outstripped our capacity to exist simultaneously at multiple points on the adoption curve? Perhaps we need to slow down a bit ourselves, find a balance. A balance between engaged participation, deliberate reflection, and importantly a continuous and embedded critique of what we are exploring. I guess it’s that last part that seems to come late in the game…usually just before we head off exploring the next greatest tool that will change education and learning…forever.

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