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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Checking the Oil

Recently in our GRAD 602 course we have engaged in some thinking about the meaning and use of the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI). I’ve completed the TPI before, and have found it useful for reflecting on my own beliefs about teaching, as well as for facilitating discussion among faculty members who are interested in doing the same. I see the TPI as a reasonably good method of “checking the oil” to get a reading on how we see ourselves as teachers across the five different perspectives. Upon completing the TPI, most individuals tend to have one perspective that is more dominant that others.My scores (pictured above) indicated a tendency toward the “Developmental” perspective (39), followed by the “Apprenticeship” (33) and “Nurturing” (33) perspectives, and then less so the “Transmission” (29) and “Social Reform” (28) perspectives. I try to look at these results holistically – in a collective sense – of my perspectives on teaching. It remains a meaningful exercise for me to revisit the TPI from time to time…and to reflect on my own perspectives, as well as engage in conversation with colleagues about how they see themselves as depicted by their scores. It is a great tool to facilitate some discussion about teaching.

There were a few things that stuck out for me this time around that I’m thinking about in a different light than I recall previously. While I see myself as holding some commitment to the “Social Reform” perspective, I was surprised by two things: 1) It was the perspective with the lowest score for me, and 2) No one in the course logged the “Social Reform” perspective as their highest score…in fact for many it was also the lowest. Curious? I don’t know…

The description of the “Social reform” perspective reads:

From the Social Reform point of view, the object of teaching is the collective rather than the individual. Good teachers awaken students to values and ideologies that are embedded in texts and common practices within their disciplines. Good teachers challenge the status quo and encourage students to consider how learners are positioned and constructed in particular discourses and practices. To do so, they analyze and deconstruct common practices for ways in which such practices perpetuate conditions that are unacceptable. Class discussion is focused less on how knowledge has been created, and more by whom and for what purposes. Texts are interrogated for what is said and what is not said; what is included and what is excluded; who is represented and who is omitted from the dominant discourse. Students are encouraged to take critical stances to give them power to take social action to improve their own lives and the lives of others. Critical deconstruction, though central to this view, is not an end in itself.

Well now…I’ve tended to be an advocate of the critique of education (and schooling) as essentially functioning to create and maintain the status quo…a site of cultural reproduction. In fact, I’d like to think that in my own practice as a teacher I endeavor to act in ways consistent with the “Social Reform” perspective in the TPI. So with this being the lowest score for me…it certainly gave me pause. I’m reflecting on this result and asking questions about what I’m doing and perhaps more importantly – not doing. Should there be more overt interrogation of higher education itself within a course like GRAD 602? Do the design decisions, assignments, reading selections,and practices that are baked into the course encourage students to “take critical stances to give them power to take social action to improve their own lives and the lives of others?” I’m not sure…I can say that I’m not often very explicit about this…and I’m wondering if I should be. So, I’m going to need to live with this one for a bit, think, and engage with my teacher colleagues about their views…in this way I hope to honor the idea of teaching as community property.

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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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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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Tinkering Toward Obsolescence…?

As a society and culture we have invested a great deal in the established flow that supports the institution of higher education – campuses and buildings, courses and programs, faculty and students, lectures and discussions, research and writing, and the awarding of degrees. The time-honored semester keeping pace like a metronome. Fundamental change is not something that comes quickly in this context, and when it does it is often a reaction to some dire conditions.

Change is coming.

The global financial meltdown and shrinking state budgets have severely impacted public colleges and universities who are struggling to support “business as usual” by eliminating services, freezing salaries, cutting faculty positions…and raising tuition. This state of affairs is not limited to the U.S. either, with universities in Europe facing similar conditions. Some fear the worst is yet to come and they are making calls for nothing short of a paradigm shift. The president of the University of New Hampshire, Mark Huddleston, recently outlined a 10-year strategic plan that he hopes will keep the flagship university from sinking. The key initiatives of greater interdisciplinary collaboration, creation of an open learning portal, broadening the definition of scholarship and supporting a learning-centered environment – seem valuable and important – but do they go far enough to bring the hoped for paradigm shifts?

Innovation is needed.

It seems that if higher education is to regain its grip on learning and remain relevant, an entirely new model for the modern university needs to be envisioned. In a recent piece in the EDUCAUSE Review, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams provide us with ideas that move us from simply considering change to thinking about how to innovate higher education. They outline two key shifts: 1) transforming pedagogy by envisioning new practices for collaborative learning, and 2) opening up the university structure so institutions can connect with each other to create what they call the Global Network for Higher Learning. These ideas challenge long accepted values about pedagogy and the fundamental infrastructure of the university.

Where will higher education look to guide innovation? How will colleges and universities choose to engage in this conversation about change and innovation? What will be needed to encourage current faculty members to chart a new course on uncertain terrain? How can future faculty be prepared to engage with and contribute ideas to fuel innovation and create the university of the 21st century?

I’m not sure if these are the right questions, but it seems like if we ignore or pass over them we participate in planning our own obsolescence.

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Learning to Teach with Technology: Is it an Individual Activity?

A couple of days ago I met with a new cohort of VCU faculty members in the CTE’s Exploring Tablet PCs in the Classroom program. This is the third year the CTE is running the program, so there are a growing number of faculty members who are engaged with using tablets in their teaching. It is a small – grassroots program, and this year we have sixteen folks from a range of disciplines.  We will be meeting once a month during the academic year to explore software tools, share instructional uses, and discuss what seems to be working and not working. This represents a significant commitment on the part of faculty members in the program.

One of the things we attempt to do in the design of some professional development opportunities at the CTE is to build programs that sustain engagement over a longer period of time, in many cases a full academic year. Past experience has shown, as you might suspect, that interest ebbs and flows as faculty participate in these programs. There is the initial excitement of getting a new toy – in this case a tablet PC – and learning more about its functionality. Then comes the challenge of using it as a tool to support teaching and learning, and this needs to be balanced with other demands of working in the academy.  What often happens, is that we tend to use technologies in ways that reinforce our existing teaching practices. Technology integration gets translated essentially as “old wine in new bottles.” Innovative instructional uses of technology often mean that we must change our practice to do something new or different, something we would not be able to do without the technology. Changes in teaching practice tend to happen slowly over long periods of time…if at all.

At the beginning of the program I ask faculty members in a survey whether they think that learning to teach with a new technology is more of an individual or social activity. Responses vary a bit, but for the most part faculty members in this program have tended to hold the view that learning to teach with technology is an individual activity. The current cohort of faculty members is mostly split in their views, a change from previous groups. I’m not sure this really suggests anything, other than perhaps subtle preferences for learning in general.

At the same time, I think there is a dominant model of learning to teach with technology that is often implicit in the ways we talk about / promote technology, and in the default expectations for using technology in higher education that are rarely discussed. The message is: learning to teach with technology is a rather uncomplicated activity you do on your own, an isolated endeavor.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with this approach; it seems to work for innovators and early adopters who are often more inclined to play with technology on their own, and seem more comfortable with the inherent risks . However, I have questions about whether largely individual efforts can work for the majority. There seems to be too much time and risk taking involved for solo efforts to result in broad-based adoption.

I continue to think about ways to engage higher education faculty more generally in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. How do we get beyond the low-hanging fruit of working with early adopters? To what extent is the individual learning model a dominant one in higher education? Is a more socially engaged and collaborative approach to learning to teach with technology desirable? If so, why, and how might such an approach be promoted and supported? I’d be curious to hear other experiences and perspectives, as well as thoughts about whether the individual v. social learning view I’ve presented is a false dichotomy.

In any event, during the orientation meeting of the tablet PC program, faculty began to explore the use of their tablets as I provided an initial tour of the hardware and software tools that support digital inking. It was encouraging to see them working together, helping one another and sharing their views about what was interesting and how they hoped to use the tablet in their teaching. I find this kind of work and learning – energizing. I think it builds networks of support and collegiality that do not seem to be a part of the silo systems that define much of higher education. My hope is that the faculty in the program will find collaborative learning valuable, and contribute to some shared understandings about what it means to learn to teach with technology.

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Reflections on the Teaching and Learning with Technology Institute

This past week I had the great pleasure of working with a dedicated group of VCU faculty members, along with my colleagues Britt Watwood and Bud Deihl, during our annual Teaching and Learning with Technology summer institute. The institute is a fairly intense event, 7-8 hours a day of full-on exploration of technology tools and instructional practices. It was concentrated and some might say borderline too much, but we made some very intentional decisions about the design and content. Faculty participants acknowledged this, but also said they appreciated being pushed and challenged. From the other side of the room, I was blown away by their dedication, stamina and desire to learn.

As far as institutes go, I think it was a transformative week.

At the same time, I’m well aware of the criticism that has been leveled at these kinds professional development opportunities…that they are hit and run, don’t provide long term support, and can’t often get at the kind of sustained change we hope for in teaching practice. However, we had an amazing week with this group of faculty members, and I just want to share a few thoughts here as I continue to digest and reflect on the experience.

Emphasis on Personal Use of Technology
One of the things we emphasized and modeled throughout the week was the importance of using technology in ways that supported personal learning. We introduced folks to the social side of the web as a way to help them begin to get at how they could use social software and practices to support their own learning.

To my delight, many of them embraced the notion of social bookmarking by establishing and using del.icio.us accounts throughout the week, and really seemed to get the concept of tagging. They created customized feeds through Google Reader, and began to realize the power of RSS and how it has transformed our experience of the web. The creation and use of podcasts and screencasts also seemed to resonate on the personal learning level.

The thinking here is that we wanted faculty to have multiple experiences of using technology – first and foremost – in personally meaningful ways. The hypothesis is that if faculty members viewed tools and practices as supporting their own learning these things would more naturally spill over into the ways they use technology to support teaching and learning. Discussions of classroom application were woven throughout the sessions, but we rarely led with, “this is how these technologies can be used in the classroom.” I think that anchoring this stuff in ways that support personal learning really impacted the uptake and valuing of these technologies and practices among our faculty participants.

Shifting Notions of Collaboration
We attempted to engage folks in the exploration of web-based collaborative tools. We pulled off at the obvious stops…Google Docs and Wikis…and a more exotic rest area – Gliffy. Prior to that however, we brainstormed about our ideas related to collaboration. We discovered that our idealized image of collaboration was layered, complex and nuanced; involving relationships, multiple perspectives and social interaction. The tools we were exploring, with their focus on shared document and resource development, seemed to fall short of our shared view of collaborative process.

We also recognized the challenges of introducing the collaborative value of tools like Google Docs and wikis in a context where sustained collaboration lasts all of a few hours, or at best a few days. I’m not sure it is possible to create a strong experience of web-based collaboration using these tools in a brief workshop-like context. We were however able to gain some experience of what it was like for 20 people to simultaneously edit a wiki or Google Doc (limited to 10 users / time). The context of the Institute – with its time constraints – seemed to force contrived collaboration that in retrospect seemed artificial to me.

One of the things I realized from this experience is that these kinds of tools seem to ask us to rethink our notions of collaboration. What we outlined in our brainstorm map did not readily translate into the use of these web-based apps. In fact, I’m not sure they would even given the extended time of several weeks or months. I have come to see web-based collaboration as something quite different from my traditional notion of collaboration. This might seem like a big “DUH” to some of my more learned colleagues, but it was a breakthrough for me. Norms, values and expectations for web-based collaboration are not transparent; they emerge and are established over time as people work together in a mix of web and F2F environments. It seems that most of us are still figuring out how to do this.

Sustaining Community
One of the exciting things that can happen when people have shared experiences – like participation in an Institute – is the creation of a sense of community. To be honest, I can think of little else that is more powerful in supporting learning than participation in a community. The Institute this past week was a reaffirmation of that belief for me. I again witnessed the contagious energy that comes from learning that is cooperative, challenging and in good measure self-directed.

Despite dominant views, learning to teach with technology is not best mediated by a one-on-one experience with a computer and software; it is a social act where interdisciplinary dialogue, critique and practice are necessary…if not absolutely essential.

The dilemma arises when the Institute or event comes to a close. How can the community be sustained? How can these collegial relationships – so important yet so elusive in higher education contexts – continue to be supported? How can the shared experience and the dialogue continue? How can we continue to ride the wave of enthusiasm and interest?

These are questions we have wrestled with – as I’m sure others have – at the end of every single Institute we conduct. We’ve set up discussion boards to continue the conversation, sent the occasional email follow-up, set up collaborative grant opportunities and even threatened to set up a post-institute wiki. Rarely have I witnessed anything gain traction to sustain the energy of the community. Perhaps that is as it should be, an intense moment in time valued for its temporary excitement and energy.

I’m a holdout though…as a teacher, I have to be. The community formed is unlikely to be sustained in its original form – and I’m cool with that – but it can grow from smaller nodes and spread creating new communities where none previously existed…at least that is what I hope for. Watching these folks interact during the past week I got the sense that something had changed for them. They gained insight to the social web and explored some tools and practices to begin the journey to build their own connections and learning communities both locally and virtually. Suddenly, the world is a very different place…I’m looking forward to hearing their stories.

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Bridging the Digital Generation Gap

Having just finished our annual week-long summer Institute on Teaching and Learning there is plenty on my mind that is deserving of some reflection. However, I’m tempted by some of the low hanging fruit, and will try to sketch out a few ideas here that are at the surface for me.

The Institute was filled with the ebb and flow of interesting conversation, challenging questions, healthy skepticism and an awesome potluck lunch on the closing day. It is not always easy to predict what generates the spark, but as always, the Institute week contained moments of intensity and passion where discussion about teaching and learning got “hot.” One of these moments came on the morning of the final day when my colleague Britt Watwood was facilitating a session on NetGen learners. Let me begin by saying that Britt did an excellent job with the session, and my comments here are not a critique of his presentation, but rather an examination of the context and what unfolded. The intended purpose of the session was to address some characteristics of NetGen students, explore factors shaping their learning and to consider some implications for teaching and course design…arguably an important conversation to have with faculty members. Britt kicked off the session with Michael Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today as a conversation starter. We’ve used this video in a number of contexts – as many folks have – to generate conversation and highlight some key points about how we see the web impacting teaching and learning. When the clip ended there was a brief moment of silence punctuated by “Wow!” and “That was amazing” and “Interesting.” And then the comments shifted a bit…

One faculty member said something to the effect: “This is an example of why I don’t want to use technology in the classroom. I don’t allow students to use laptops in class while I’m teaching…they are simply a distraction.” This generated some head nodding, and another comment, “And the same with Wikipedia too.” This was the first time I had encountered faculty members responding to Wesch’s video in this way. Instead of examining questions about context, opportunities and challenges, the conversation turned toward a bit of technology bashing. I was baffled. Why were these faculty members seeing the video as a confirmation of why to NOT use technology in the classroom? Were they threatened? Was the message in the video an affront?

With the images of Wesch’s video still dancing in their heads, Britt shifted gears and asked folks to transition from the video to some discussion about the NetGen. This also brought immediate replies and questions: “You mean Millenials, right?” “What about the Gen X students?” It was at this point that something came into clearer focus to me…

Introducing labels like “NetGen” and “digital natives” in discussion establish “us / them” boundaries that divide. They offer very little in the way of understanding diverse sets of students or in guiding our teaching practice.

With all due respect to people who have written eloquently on this topic, I have come to the personal realization that terms like NetGen, digital natives, Gen X…and others that are sure to follow…offer me very little in the way of predictive power about how students will learn in my classroom, and how I might better support their learning. The terms are often used too generally and broadly for my liking, and they also have the undesired effect of masking diverse experiences. In some ways they are examples of grand narratives that attempt to simultaneously be descriptive and prescriptive.

We tend to use terms like “NetGen” and “digital native” to raise awareness and focus discussion about how the Internet and digital technology have impacted students. My recent experience with faculty members in our Institute suggests that the terms confound the discussion, or frame it in such way that detracts from attention to important questions. While many of today’s students have certainly been steeped in digital technology from their earliest days, I don’t think that makes them “digital natives” anymore than “non-native” tech-savvy educators who also use digital media in very meaningful ways…and who also happen to know how to put a stamp on a hand-written letter. Perhaps we are unnecessarily focusing our attention on sorting out artificial distinctions.

Digital technologies and web-based media are impacting all of us in ways that require us to rethink some fundamental assumptions we hold about teaching and learning. So instead of attempting to illustrate how one generation is digitally different than another, perhaps we should shift the conversation to address key issues and questions that impact all of the generations in the digital melting pot.

The next time I have the opportunity to talk with faculty members about how the web is impacting students, I’m thinking I’ll forgo the NetGen rap and see if we can come to any agreement on some of these questions:

1) What does critical thinking – on and about the web – look like?

2) How is the unprecedented access to information on the web [re]shaping our notions of teaching and learning?

3) What is the read / write web anyway? How is it changing our perspectives of publishing, scholarship, authority and authenticity?

4) How is hyper-connectivity (always on) changing our expectations and thoughts about communication?

5) How are web-based social networks redefining the exchange of ideas, collaboration, and community building?

For me, seeking answers to these and similar questions – across generations – is where we are going come to some better understanding of how to build connections among varied expectations and experiences.

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Continuous Partial Attention – Redux

I recently had the opportunity to take some long overdue vacation, telling myself I had to disconnect in order to [re]connect. I went camping in the mountains of Virginia with my dog, and chased trout with an expensive graphite fly rod and flies. I didn’t see or talk with any people for three days. It was amazing!

One of the things that struck me about this experience however was the amount of time it took me to actually stop thinking about reading blogs, reading / answering email, what was happening on Twitter…what cool ideas was I missing on the Network?! It was a little unsettling at first, and I was almost embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about all this stuff. It took me the better part of three days to really disconnect. As my digital life blurred, I became consumed by hiking mountain trails, scouting the creeks, being quiet streamside and watching bugs hatch off the water…observing feeding trout, gathering firewood and staying warm and dry. In these moments I really appreciated the simple slowness of a day of hiking, fishing and camping out under the stars.

All of this helped me realize how much time is actually required to manage a modern life along with the desire to be a live node on the network. The latter is in itself a full-time job! I remain a little unsettled with the realization.

In any event, I have since been thinking about a concept I heard a few years back – Continuous Partial Attention. To the best of my knowledge this was initially coined by Linda Stone, a social computing researcher at Microsoft. She writes:

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”

Whoa! That set me back a bit. Forgive the rhetorical question, but…what are the implications of maintaining a sense of high alert and constant crisis for extended periods of time?

I began to think about these ideas in the context of some of the work I am engaged in at the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU. Over the past year, my colleagues Britt Watwood, Bud Deihl and I have been engaged in a collective journey to explore social networking and the development of our own web-based personal learning networks (PLNs). For each of us this journey has involved significant amounts of time and energy to connect and stay connected; to really be part of the networked conversation about teaching, learning and technology…writing blog posts, reading countless blog postings in our RSS readers, tagging resources in del.icio.us, making / listening to podcasts and Twittering. Along with engagement in this conversation there seems to be the added expectation for even more engagement. Based on observations of colleagues and friends, and what I imagine about my network “heroes,” I think it seems safe to say that continuous partial attention, as described by Stone, is a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of developing and maintaining a PLN. If we accept that, I think a whole host of questions arise…Who can really afford to develop and maintain a PLN? Who can afford not to develop a PLN? How does the maintenance of a vibrant PLN impact the attention we have to devote to other aspects of life and work? Are PLNs primarily for the early adopter set?

To me a PLN seems to be a bit of luxury, and at times an extravagant one.

That said, I turn to considering the faculty members with whom I work at VCU, and teachers in general, and wonder how many of them would even remotely consider taking the time required to overcome learning curves, fear, doubting, and network building to begin reaping benefits of a robust PLN. I suspect very few.

Perhaps it is simply my emerging notion of a PLN, ill-formed as it is and full of my own personal trappings, that makes it difficult for me to see how many teachers could really devote the amount of time and energy that appears to be required here. I’m not discounting the possibility, but I do however think we need to be realistic in terms of our expectations about how many teachers (K-12 & higher education) can devote the time required to engage and participate in the development of a robust PLN.

If we value the role PLNs can play in education, we need to find ways of introducing them that don’t confuse or overwhelm by being fully formed, offer meaningful starting point experiences that can lead to further development, and at the same time be part of a balanced practice and life. That is a tall order…and I’m not sure how to do that just yet, but I’m inspired by another comment from Linda Stone:

“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention. We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.”

Right on! I’m going fishing…

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Connecting and Community Building to Support Risk Taking

I had the great pleasure of talking with Jeff Utecht and David Carpenter as a guest on their S.O.S podcast the other day. The connections we share, all quite by chance, made this even more fun for me. I had met David Carpenter as a result of exploring graduate programs while I was teaching overseas in Shanghai back in 2001. I was planning on attending the University of Virginia’s IT program, where David happened to be finishing up in the same program, and he was headed with his family to HKIS to do some cool things there. We swapped stories, and places. The connection to Jeff Utecht is through the Shanghai American School, where he is currently working. I was at SAS from 1997 – 2002, and witnessed some amazing growth and change at that school, not the least of which was the creation of SAS Pudong. It was fun to share a memory of the building of the Pudong campus, which back in the late 90’s was a sea wall and a several thousand acre mud pit. My how things have changed! It seems like a world away for so many reasons…I want to thank both Jeff and David for the opportunity to relive a little of that and for hosting me on their podcast.

I really love what David and Jeff are doing with their podcast, which is to ask the big questions that drive the conversation about what it means to shift our schools. I enjoyed the conversation which unfolded around the episode’s essential question of, how do adults learn? I don’t know that we answered the question very well, but I do think we were able to push it in a direction to consider some important possibilities as it relates to teaching and learning with technology. For me, there were three themes that emerged, and I’ll try to summarize them here.

Supporting the self-directed nature of adult learners has become more complex in the wired world
It is important for adult learners in educational settings to be self-directed in their efforts to use technology to support teaching and learning. This is crucial for obvious reasons, but I think it is also made more challenging by the context in which we find ourselves today. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but we live in a time that has witnessed unprecedented growth in access to information, web-based tools, and opportunities for exchange and collaboration. The pace is blistering, and while the “new tool everyday” is exciting, it contributes to a bit of option paralysis in my opinion. This can be overwhelming even for those who are steeped in it and live it everyday. Self-direction in a sea of opportunity can add a layer of challenge that prevents some adult learners from ever moving forward with an exploratory learning project. To say that we should be sensitive to this is an understatement. And while I think it is important to always ask the question about pedagogy – what do you want to achieve instructionally with the technology? – I’m not entirely convinced anymore that this should always be the first question. George Siemens, over at the Connectivism Blog, has a very interesting post addressing this idea.

Risk taking is paid for by overcoming fear
When we ask teachers to use technology in meaningful ways to support teaching and learning, we are asking them to take a risk. We are asking them to step outside their comfort zones, to experience some uncertainty, to be vulnerable, to wrestle with the idea that maybe the students do know more (or maybe not) about the technology, to question notions of expertise and to come to terms with fundamental shifts about power relations in the classroom. How can this kind of risk taking – the kind that results in transformative learning – be supported? How can we help teachers navigate the bumpy terrain bought about by the exploration of instructional technology? Perhaps one thing to do is simply start by acknowledging the fear. To admit that all of us – even the uber geeks – and I mean that as a term of endearment, experience fear when it comes to teaching and learning with technology. There was a presentation at the recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference that did a wonderful job of starting this conversation.

Risk taking can be supported through connecting and community building
When you feel a part of a supportive and engaged community, you begin to share experiences, build relationships, and discuss the success and failures. There is support. You are not playing without a net…and so maybe…you can ride a little closer to the edge than you might otherwise have done. In the podcast, Jeff Utecht talked about learning events at his school where he regularly brings teachers together to explore technology, and build connections. He also mentioned the role professional conferences (at least those that are edtech related) seem to be playing, in that they are more like kick-off events for the creation of community that can be sustained after the conference. In the work we do with faculty at VCU the theme that permeates nearly everything we do is to create community and connections among the faculty. We have found that cohort-based programs related to IT, and specific faculty learning communities where we bring people together an entire academic year can go a long way towards building those connections. It is a slow process, but one we think is worth investing in. The glue among these examples, I think, is the idea of an environmental event in the lives of people that can bring them together and serve as place holder… an organizing circumstance…for subsequent community building and perhaps some strengthened self-directed learning. I think there is something to be gained by paying more attention to the environmental contexts in which we engage with adult learners – teachers – and reflect on how, as a result, some meaningful self-directed learning can be supported and sustained. That is a challenge worth spending some time on.

Bottom line…building connections and community are central to supporting adult learners in taking risks to use technology to support teaching and learning…and I want to again extend thanks to folks like David and Jeff for advancing the conversation about this.

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