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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