Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mary Washington Alum and the Holocaust Museum

In today's New York Times, there's an article about a collection of photographs from a Nazi concentration camp. What makes these pictures unusual is that they're of the camp's SS officers relaxing in various ways which seemingly ignore the atrocities of which they're a significant part. The contrast is chilling and alludes directly to what Hannah Arendt described as the "banality of evil." The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has an online exhibit dedicated to the images here.

I bring this up on this blog because I wanted to share these striking images, but also because the first name mentioned in the story is a former star student from MW, Rebecca Erbelding, a History and American Studies double major who did her senior thesis with me several years ago. [It was a fascinating exploration of the role that an American, Varian Fry, played in getting people out of Nazi Germany.] She interned with the Holocaust Museum, which turned into a full-time job there. She's now an archivist at that incredible institution. I suppose one of the positive counters to getting older is that you have more chances to see your students succeed. That's pretty cool indeed.

Rebecca narrates a slideshow of the images here.

UPDATE: She can also be heard on NPR's Talk of the Nation here.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

I Enter the WPMU Blogging Fray....

This post is a quick summary of my digital pedagogy plans for this semester.

In one class, I'm repeating the wiki-as-discussion starter experiment from last spring. In this class, the first half of an upper-level course on US Women's History, the wiki has already been the site of a great discussion of the theory, history, and current implications of the history of women.

In my new First-Year Seminar on the history of the experiences of returning American veterans and my significantly revised Historical Methods class (required for all history majors), I've taken advantage of the new WPMU (WordPress Multi-User) installation begun at Each class has a course blog (what Barbara Ganley calls the "Motherblog"), and then each student has their own blog, listed in the blogroll. Using RSS, eventually I want to feed their posts into the course blog itself. In both classes students are required to blog at least once a week and post comments on two of their classmates' blogs a week.

In the First-Year Seminar, the blogging is more structured, as their posts will be twice weekly 1-2 paragraph responses to the primary and secondary source reading. [They'll have a chance to rewrite two of the best of those posts near the end of the semester for a separate grade.]

In the Historical Methods class, although they sometimes will have specific blogging topics, at other times, I want them to write freely about their research process, to explore their writing, to discuss their own interests in aspects of history, and to respond to the ideas of others.

So far, everyone in the classes has set up their blogs and made one post introducing themselves. Here we go....

What do I hope to accomplish with this use of blogs? Oh, lots and lots....

As I told the students in the Methods course:
This online space will be used in a variety of ways--a research log, an assignment location, a place to discuss your project and the projects of others--but the ultimate goal is to allow you to create a shared space where you can display your work and begin to reflect on your learning, an electronic portfolio of your time in this class, and hopefully in connections to other courses as well.
I don't want much, do I?

Suggestions for improving this system or encouraging student blogging? Please let me know.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Web Filtering and the Schools

Fair warning: This is a rant about the inability to access certain social tools in certain K-12 school systems. [For another rant on a similar subject see this rejection of over-the-top web-related fears in education.]

I've presented and talked with a number of different K-12 teachers from a number of different school districts in my roles as a history professor and as a relative of numerous such teachers.

I've increasingly been annoyed by the trend among many school districts to block access from their networks to more and more websites. Now, let's be clear. I understand that there is a great deal of material out there that we'd rather our students did not look at. But the process of filtering and blocking is done is such an awkward, blunt manner that the process of teaching is being impacted. [This is not to mention my problem with the notion that blocking access makes these things go away; we should instead be teaching students to engage the Internet in responsible ways.]

Let me give you some examples.
  • and -- social bookmarking sites -- I tried to demonstrate to a group of teachers recently, only to find that it was blocked, for reasons no one could explain. -- How exactly are these a threat to individuals? Seriously, can somebody explain this one to me?
  • Basic Searches -- I was on a K-12 school network and trying to find a citation for a friend to a scholarly article on Civil War prisons. I remembered the title, "Houses of Horror," but was stymied by the keyword filter placed by the school system on the Google Search I ran. Now, I was able to find a workaround to locate the citation, but finding things online are difficult enough without such restrictions.
  • YouTube -- YouTube is blocked by many school systems, and perhaps I can understand why. However, there are many useful videos on there for history (and other) teachers. Why can't teachers access such materials, even if students can't? Why block an incredibly useful resource for teachers? [I know there are walled garden version of these: TeacherTube, unitedstreaming, etc. But none of these are YouTube, the largest and most important of the video sites.]

The two biggest problems I have with the filtering are:

1) It ignores the reality that most students will figure out a way around such filtering. Or even if not, they'll find this stuff outside of school, and likely outside of the guidance of the people who are trained to teach students how to process information in a responsible way. At the least, guided time online outside of walled Internet gardens better prepares students to be better Net citizens. How are students to learn information literacy if they get only a filtered version in the place where they are supposed to be learning critical thinking, source evaluation and knowledge creation?

2 ) It shows a remarkable lack of trust for teachers themselves. Blocking teachers' access suggests that although they are trusted with teaching 20-40 students at any given time, they are not capable of figuring out which sites are appropriate and which are not. The filtering systems used are too often blunt objects which make it harder for teachers to do their jobs well. [I've talked to teachers who've never been on YouTube, never heard of, never tried any one of a number of tools central to Web 2.0, and the main reason is that they don't have access to them in the classrooms and schools where they spend so many hours each day.]

I acknowledge that K-12 school systems face real problems in protecting children and young adults from the worst that is online. I understand much of the effort that they've made in this area, and comprehend that there are very real financial and technical constraints. However, in order for school districts to prepare their students for the digital world in which so often live, filtering systems have to become more targeted, and until they are, teachers need to be able to bypass those systems to gain access to some sites that are wrongly blocked.

Am I off the mark here? Am I missing something? Are there other obvious sites/tools being blocked I haven't listed here? Let me know.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Twitter: Why all the fuss?

I've been using Twitter for several months now. [I have ~25 people I follow and about the same number follow me. I post at least once a day and I've used it to learn more about people I already knew from work, and gotten to know people with whom I've spent less than 48 hours in person. I don't have it on my cell phone, but I do check it fairly regularly when I'm online.]

Although I have no idea what the company's business plan is (probably to be bought by Google or Yahoo), it's interesting to me that so many people are asking themselves how to use it (or dismissing it as overwhelming and/or naval-gazing). If we see it as a slightly different method of keeping in touch with other people, with people we're interested in for a variety of intellectual or personal reasons, then good. Why the hand-wringing or defensiveness about it I see from so many bloggers (many of whom I really respect)? [For example] Is it that it's really hard to explain to people who aren't on it?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Preparing for teaching in the Fall, Or the Manuscript that Ate My Summer

This is a post that I wrote in late July, but never had the chance to finish. As I have a spare moment now that the manuscript is in, but the class papers haven't yet arrived, I'll post it and a series of other thoughts I've been meaning to get out....

I've been feeling overwhelmed lately as I contemplate the time remaining this summer and the things I'd planned to do during the so-called summer break. The manuscript due to my editor in early September is taking longer than I thought and so many of the other goals this summer have fallen to secondary or tertiary status. This includes delving in as much detail as I'd like into responding to recent posts by Shannon, Steve, Mike, and Gardner. Most depressing to me is that I'd love to spend lots more time on my fall classes this summer, especially my new First-Year Seminar. Then came Barbara's beautiful post (Midsummer Preparations for Fall) on what she does in the summer to create new fall classes to make feel even more behind....

Don't get me wrong. I've already spent a lot of time on the fall classes, including the new one, and I'll have it ready on time. [I think the students are really going to like it.] But I'd like to have been able to spend a good month really getting them just right (or at least closer to where I'd like them to be). But balancing my scholarship, my instructional technology interests, and my teaching has been difficult, especially as I attempt to keep all that in balance with the time spent with my wonderful family....

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Why I Love Working (& Teaching & Learning) Here

As I've been working on my big summer project (the revised book manuscript), I've been eagerly following Gardner's summer course entitled From Memex to YouTube: An Introduction to New Media Studies. Then this afternoon (just a few hours before class started), Shannon twittered that she wished she could see the class's final presentations. I echoed her with a plea for Gardner to setup a webcam and soon suggestions for places to host it came in from our local twittersphere. By the time class started a ustream account had been set up and the event was being streamed, live. It spent most of the evening on ustream's front page. Anyone could drop in and see the projects of the people in the class.

I wasn't able to get to the stream until it was more than half over, but when I did I remembered why I like working where I am so much. Why?
  1. The students were amazing. They had great projects and they were incredibly enthusiastic about the class and their own work (and, dare I say, their learning). [See an Alaskan summary of a few of them here and the full video stream from here.] These kind of students are why MW is such a great place to work.

  2. Not a small part of this excitement, interest, skill, and creativity was due to the class environment set by Gardner. Play, interdisciplinarity, technology-enabled creativity, intellectual rigor (the good kind), and real engagement all were at work here, in a Real School class. Cool colleagues are why MW is such a great place to work.

  3. While I watched the students present, I was engaged in a chat with people from all over the continent (Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Canada) many of whom had heard about it from the invite Gardner and Martha put on their Twitter networks. As I chatted with DTLT friends (Jim, Jerry, Andy (on vacation!), and Martha), faculty colleagues (Sue, Gardner), people I'd met at conferences (CogDog) or people I knew largely from the blogosphere (D'Arcy, Chris, Vidya), and students in (and out of) the classroom, I thought to myself: "These are really bright, really engaged, really interesting people, and I can't believe how much fun this is...."

  4. As I was watching the student presentations, I also found myself engaged in three or four chat conversation threads at once. It was chaotic, it was crazy, and it was probably not for everyone. That kind of multi-threaded conversation drives some people mad, but in this environment it just worked for me. Discussions of projects, of software, of Doug Engelbart, of Carl Jung, of the impact of the process of authorship on the author's view of other work, of films and film theory, of numerous bad jokes, inside jokes, sarcastic jokes, and ROTFL jokes, of the wonder and awe of the final presentation of the night--an amazing movie by Serena that brought many of us watching online to the brink of tears.

  5. I want to take this class; and if that isn't possible, then I want to team-teach it with Gardner; and if that isn't possible, then look for the history version, coming soon to a seminar room near you. [Adventures in Digital History!] I love that I teach at a school where there is room in the curriculum and the minds of the people I work with for these kinds of explorations.
Now, admittedly, this post has a little of the fanboy aspect to it. The reality check is that not every day feels like this in this job. There are days when I would love to have 1/10 of the energy I felt tonight. There are conversations with colleagues or students that leave me drained, not inspired. There are days I plod along, rather than lead and innovate. I know that.
In fact, in the middle of this amazing few hours, I found myself in a brief chat with a colleague where we both acknowledged how special this extended moment was and how we wished it could always be like this. So, where do we go from here? Well, we need to hold on to (and brag about) these moments until they are more common. [Hence this post.] I want to harness this energy, bottle it up somehow and feed it to everyone I see: students, faculty, administrators, learners all. This is what learning can be. This is what Real School is all about.

How can you measure or quantify the feeling of excitement, engagement and learning that took place tonight? [Yes, I use those terms deliberately.] We need to figure out how to replicate these moments, not in a cold, cloning kind of way, but in setting the stage for creativity, learning and innovation in and out of classrooms, and then taking advantage of those moments of opportunity to share them.

But for tonight, I'm just going to keep smiling.

Data, Information Overload, and Selling the University (in a good way)

Martha's written another wide open exploration about the soul of academia in the form of a discussion of what data collection means. I responded in her comments, but I wanted to develop it a little more here.

I wonder if this focus on data and rankings isn't just another of a series of poor attempts made to deal with the information overload that all of us have been facing? Both faculty/administrators and prospective/current students/parents have to figure out some way of addressing the role of the increasingly expensive collegiate experience. Colleges have to justify their prohibitive expense and parents (and increasingly students) want that justification spelled out for them (and want a measurable return on their investment). The vast amount of data available today about schools and the college experience means that parents and students are easily overwhelmed in their choices. A ranking system allows those parents and students to cope with that overwhelming set of data, providing a set of “concrete” justifications to hang their decisions on. Rankings systems (based on that data) also allow colleges to address (at least in appearance) questions of fiscal accountability (without really exploring substantive external or internal questions about the links between “value” and “education”). It’s not a perfect system, but the structure that data built does allow a kind of compromise method for all these actors to discuss higher education in a manageable way.

But ultimately this system is far from perfect and reveals a substantive failure of academia to properly identify and explain its role. The argument we should be loudly and broadly and proudly making is that the educational experience Martha and Gardner and Steve and so many others are writing about (learning focused; interdisciplinary in all the best ways; playful; collaborative and individualized; potentially, though not necessarily, technology-enabled) is worth the money spent because it does make graduates better enabled to succeed in the work force, as well as making them better citizens, better friends, better voters, better people....

The data-driven approach to education (epitomized by the US News and World Report Rankings, but perpetuated by many others) appeals to people (and always will--it's easier and it’s minimally satisfying). Of course, if we consider quantitative literacy as important as written, aural, and visual literacy--and what good liberal arts program wouldn't?--then we could teach students (and their parents) as well as our fellow academicians how to look behind those stats to see the assumptions behind them. And let’s turn all that data (and the tools for presenting it) in our favor. Admittedly, many of the benefits we’re talking about are not easily quantifiable. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t quantify them or present them in new ways. That’s why it’s so important that we develop ways to make individual and community educational experiences visible to ourselves and to others.

And so we're back to umwronco in at least a couple of its forms. Our work is cut out for us; Martha's right that this is a pivotal moment in education. I recognize the potential "dark underbelly" she refers to, but I continue to be excited by the sheer possibilities inherent in higher education and the potential of academia to lead the caravan through the 21st century.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A New Name for umwronco

In the interests of creating a new, non-trademarked name for what we've been talking about here, let me start by making an ungainly suggestion, one so clunky that others will be inspired to come up with something better. Borrowing from Gardner and Martha, I hereby dub it the "Caravan of Learning Suite for Inspired Learners" or COLSIM for short. [Be warned, if someone else doesn't come up with something better, I will keep using this one....]

Slicing and Dicing for Education: My Thoughts on a Real School Tool

[Let me start by apologizing for the title. I'm working to finish a book manuscript and I'm tending to see everything in history book title form at the moment.....]

Martha has called out those of us who have been participating in some really exciting conversations about the future connections between education and technology. So, this is my response to Martha's vision and an attempt to begin to explain my own. [I'm writing this assuming you've read hers....]

One of the early complicating issues in those initial, wide-ranging conversations, as I remember it, was between those who saw the need for a specific tool for capturing one's own digital trail and those who seemed more interested in the ability to manipulate and view information through a variety of filters (hence the "slice-and-dice" metaphor). Here's Martha's summary:
Originally, I was focussed on one specific tool that I felt would meet a particular need — a Zotero-like device (Firefox plugin?) that a user could use to “capture” any kind of online resource and generate a sort of RSS/XML-feed on steroids. Sick of wondering how to get all the various Web authoring tools and social networking spaces to play nicely together, I wondered what would happen if we just scrapped that approach altogether and built some intelligent, lightweight, browser-based “appliance” that would allow me to cobble together a feed from any spot along my digital trail. (Others have asked if this isn’t I still don’t *think* so, but I can’t really explain it. At least, not right now, I can’t.)
I have to start by noting that I've never seen the set of tools as needing to be a single Zotero-like record of intellectual online travels, in part because of a larger concern with the ability of such a tool to capture off-line material too and in part because I haven't wrapped my head around the best ways to use Zotero itself. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to have such a tool, especially as Martha describes it, but I'm not sure it's the end goal. [It could be one of a set of tools, but I may be one of those who thinks that with its rss feeds is good enough, at least for now.]

I also think that Martha did a great job of summarizing a great deal of what I hope this set of tools will be. Still, she asked for our vision of what umwronco could be, and here's mine:

1) A snapshot of our intellectual life -- I've used this phrase a number of times to suggest a key use for umwronco to me. The life and mission of a university is ostensibly public, yet much of its interactions, discussions, and ideas remain bottled up in silos that range from the individual, to between teacher-student, to within the classroom, to the campus itself. Why stop there, especially at a public institution?
  • Example 1 -- I can imagine talking to a group of potential students and their parents at an admissions function with a screen behind me showing a tag cloud of categories being discussed on campus in the last 24 hours or an intellectual map with student-created connections between and amongst various classes and extra-class sources and ideas. I'm geeked by how powerful it would be for me to tell those parents and potential students, "This is the intellectual life of this institution right now. Don't you want to join us?"
  • Example 2 -- Such a snapshot could (and should) be taken with a broader lens. e.g., what are Virginia college students talking/writing/thinking about right now?
  • Example 3 -- Using such a snapshot, teachers and students, learners all, could see the larger intellectual world of the campus and build off that. [Admittedly the snapshot might be scary -- does anyone want to see that the intellectual life of the campus includes a certain hotel heiress's latest problems? But in that case maybe students and faculty could work to change the intellectual life and soon.]
  • Example 4 -- Using such a snapshot, administrators, including student life personnel, could respond more precisely to student needs and interests, those prosaic (laundry complaints) and profound (responses to tragedies). In other words, it might be a way to measure the pulse of the student body.
I would add that I want to be able to take various snapshots over time (a stop-motion movie of the intellectual life of the institution would be very cool) and to be able to change the scope of the snapshot (capturing the intellectual life of a class, of a department, of a single student, of a dorm--let's not forget that even in the online world that physical, off-line space still matters a great deal). Do you see where the "slicing and dicing" comes in?

2) A way for students to make connections between their various sources of learning and create a self-aware, reflective course of study -- And no, I'm not so self-important to think that this only includes connections between their classes or a reflection on the courses required for their major. It is widely acknowledged that students learn a great deal outside of the classroom and their course assignments and this suite needs to allow students to make such connections. Still, I see this suite of tools as making it possible for students to more explicitly engage in the connections (and perhaps as importantly in the conflicts) between their various classes, even when those courses were created in isolation from each other. [This view is heavily inspired by a recent conversation with Gardner and Steve Greenlaw.]
  • Example 1 -- A student learns overlapping material in my 19th Century American Families class and an English class on Women Writers. What current incentive does that student have to make such connections explicit? [I encourage students to bring up materials learned in other classes and I have some colleagues that do as well. But that process could be expanded and encouraged, allowing self-reflection for students and a view of that connections for others.]
  • Example 1.5 -- A student looking for a class to take for next semester reviews those reflections/connections posted by students who have taken similar classes. Amazon's site has a feature that is effectively: "readers who liked this book also liked this one". Why couldn't that work for students and classes as well?
  • Example 2 -- E-portfolios -- 'nuff said.

3) A way to begin to dip into and process the larger flow (torrent?) of information online. [In other words, learning to deal with information overload.] -- Recently there have been a number of discussions of the disconnect between students' lives online and their abilities to navigate that online world in an academically sophisticated (or perhaps just critical) way. I'd want this suite of tools to train students in the art of information consumption and production.
  • Example -- Digital literacy, as I see it, is fundamentally about the ability to navigate the online world in a reliable, thoughtful, critical way. [My lengthier versions of that definition.... ] So, a student might come to see the umwronco set of tools as a way to help them look at the online world in a new way, especially if it involved tagging/categorization, annotation, and a unified place to keep one's own learning centered.

4) A conscious, explicit reinforcement of the need to keep citation, authority and reliability at the forefront of sliced and diced material and an awareness of the role of bias and perspective. -- Obviously related to the last point, I'm still close enough to my disciplinary origins to insist that any sliced/diced/created/preserved information be linked in a prominent way to its origins. To do otherwise risks exacerbating a sentiment I've noticed among students, namely that the web seems a seamless information source to them, not a series of collections of information with different authors (and therefore different authority and different levels of reliability). I expect that umwronco would help students (and faculty) to be more aware of their own assumptions and biases (in what information they can get, in what filters are being used, and therefore what material is left out) and those of others.
  • Example -- Students could create an extensive, cross-course annotated bibliography through both linking and formal citations that could ground part or all of their online work.

5) These tools will be perpetual betas, yet available in various "packages" depending on the expertise and interest of the user. -- The phrase "perpetual beta", which I picked up from Gardner and Jeremy Boggs at Clioweb, took me a while to embrace, but embrace it I have. Faculty and students will need to come to terms with a fast-changing, always-in-revision world of tools. [We need to remember that academia is constantly in revision; it's just typically been on a (much) longer cycle.] Still, we need to be conscious of the need to attract people to the umwronco and I think a series of ronco-packages might be one way to go (even if never formally expressed this way).
  • Level 1 -- alpha testers -- they'll try anything, as long as it has the potential to improve student and teacher learning.
  • Level 2 -- beta testers -- rough edges are fine, they revise their classes almost every semester anyway.
  • Level 3 -- gamma testers -- Fewer rough edges, numerous examples/models for implementation.
  • Level 4 -- Everybody else -- Sneak in a tool or two when they're not looking....
I'm aware that I haven't been especially specific or practical about implementation at this point. I don't think wedding ourselves to one technology or software or tool is the right approach here, especially given the rapid rate of change. I also am aware that I don't know the specifics of how all these technologies work or even more important, the difficulties of implementation. With those two caveats, my view of the suite of tools would include some combination of the following: blogs, multi-user blogs, wikis, electronic forums, RSS feeds,, maybe Zotero, tag clouds, e-portfolios, GIS software, Bluehost, Fantastico, PhpSurveyor, YouTube, Drupal, IM, Twitter and BackTwitter, even (gasp) email. [Just to be clear, I don't see myself using all of these, but the idea of a suite of tools is the point here.]

Let me finish by reminding the reader (congratulations on making it this far!) that this post is part of a much larger conversation about this topic and many others that I have been privileged to be a part of over the last couple of years. Two points about that: First, many of these idea are not my own, or at least not in their original form. Most of them came from the other people in these conversations and so they should get that credit (in addition to those mentioned already: Jerry, Angela, Patrick, Jim, Andy, Chip, Cathy, Charlotte, Sue, and most recently, Laura, Alan, and Barbara). Second, I've been able to be incredibly honest with the people that have been part of that conversation and this post may reflect that directness at times. None of that directness or contrariness should be taken as anything more than respectful disagreement about parts of our shared mission. I mention this not for the core people involved in that conversation, because I know they understand that, but in awareness of the potentially larger audience. If you don't have such a group of people you can be honest and frank and inspired with, well, join ours!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Facebook and Faculty: A Small Tale of Utility

A podcast by CHNM's Digital Campus team and posts by Jerry Slezak and Jim Groom, stimulating an active conversation about the merits and weaknesses of Facebook in academic settings have prompted me to write about my own recent experiment with the social networking site. I've had a Facebook account and a growing number of mostly student friends (~65) for a couple of years now. I've used it mostly to keep in touch with recent grads, though current students have used it to look up my AIM account or converse with me about particular projects or their on-campus activities.

Recently, however, I set up a Facebook group for my History Department Alumni Book club and invited those of my Facebook friends who were alums. Thirty joined in 24 hours, and other alums joined as well (I left the group open) bringing the total close to 40. I've already organized the next meeting and book choice via the event system and people have already RSVPed (and explained to the group why they're not coming, if they can't make it). Not sure why I resisted tapping into that existing community before now, but I'm glad I have.

It doesn't reach everyone; not everyone's on Facebook, and not all of those who are on the site are my friends. [Though, as I noted, a number of unofficial friends have joined on their own .]* I have about 90 people on the email list for the book club and I still use that to contact most people. Facebook also won't be the prime way we meet and discuss the books. [Face-to-face meetings are supplemented by a blog and comments at] Still, Facebook allows an easy RSVP system and a convenient place to coordinate meetings and book choices and it will advertise the book club in a way that most alums wouldn't have stumbled on before. [Not to mention the fact that current students can see it in my Groups and those of their friends who recently graduated, furthering the likelihood that they'll join when they become alums.]

I'm not particularly interested in using it for classroom teaching at this point (though I'm open to the possibility if it made sense); rather I see Facebook as a way to engage students in larger (broader than one course) discussions and as a way of interacting with students and former students through a group channel that persists beyond their time in a particular class or in their collegiate career. I'll post about Facebook's relation to the book club in future posts.

UPDATE: A former student contacted me via Facebook after I created the book club group. He had wanted to be in the book club when he graduated two years ago, but had forgotten to contact me to sign up. He'd seen the book club group on Facebook and he's excited to be able to join it now.

* "Unofficial" is an awkward, though brief, way to describe people who I know, but are not Facebook friends with; however, "non-friends" (an alternative I considered) makes it sound like I don't like them....

Friday, June 01, 2007

Anatomy of a Blogger

Martha has asked over at the Fish Wrapper, what kind of bloggers we are, with the goal of complicating the notion of any one style or method or purpose of blogging. [She's right, I do tend to think of blogging as more or less the same. This is another case of us confusing the technology with the conversation.] I'll answer Martha's questions for myself below.

Generally, are you an impetuous blogger? Or do you mull over an idea or post for hours, days, weeks before hand? Do you draft a post and then let it sit until you’ve had a chance to revise it multiple times, perfecting your language and point?

No, I'm a muller. I will let posts sit for months at a time. But, oddly, now that I think about it, not generally because I want to revise them more. I'm an impetuous drafter, writing blog posts as inspired, but I tend not to hit "Publish" on them very quickly. [Faculty Academy this year being an exception.] That has more to do with a deliberate (self)consciousness of my online presence than the care with which Barbara Ganley calls for in "slow blogging".

Do you “collect” the references in your posts before you write them (if so, describe your system)? Or do you blog with 15 windows open, copying and pasting quotes and URLs, as needed?

15 tabs in Firefox (7 right now....)

Do you blog in the admin panel of your blog? Or do you use some third-party tool? If you use a tool, what features does it have that hooked you?

The admin panel. It's worked pretty well for me.

Do you automatically consider placing images in your posts? Or does this not even occur to you, usually?

I don't usually even think of it. I'm generally blogging about concepts, but I see Barbara and others do the same, but with pictures. I'll have to think about this idea more.

Do you write posts and then delete them before clicking “Publish?” Or, by extension, do you have draft posts that have languished for days, weeks, months waiting for you to pull the trigger?

Yes, see above....

Do you feel compelled to blog on a schedule? Do you feel guilty when you don’t?

No, but I feel left out when I see lots of other people posting and I haven't had time (or something to say).

Do you “craft” the experience of your blog, adding sidebar widgets and custom graphics to lure readers into your space?

I've added some sidebar stuff, but I've not thought about it as drawing readers in. After all, I tend to read other people's stuff in Google Reader (and generally visit their blogs only to comment), so I tend not to worry as much about the reader's Techist blog experience. [Maybe I'd have more readers if I did.... :-]

Martha and Laura's posts about this view of blogging and technology suggest we really need to work harder to clarify that these tools are just that, tools, and ways of furthering conversations, creating interactions, and reading, processing, and adding to, that torrent of information to which we all have access, and with which we all have to deal.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere: Or, the Wiki as Discussion Starter, Assignment Environment, and Class Project Binder

Faculty Academy 2007 Presentation -- [This includes updated material from an earlier post.]

Note--Relevant links are posted on the Faculty Academy wiki page for this session and note that only the registered users in the class wikis can edit them or see all the functions.

This semester I used wikis (an installation of MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I did so at Jerry Slezak’s suggestion, despite my greatest previous interaction with wikis being arguing with students about why they can't use Wikipedia as the scholarly source for their research papers. I'll describe the two classes, the way the wiki was used in each class, and my evaluation of the experiment.

In one course, my 15-person senior seminar (426), the wiki was used as an improved forum to prepare students for class discussion. In the other, a 25-person upper-level lecture class (325), the wiki became not only an improved tool for focusing class discussion, but much of the online presence of the course, including the location of students’ wiki-based research projects.

First, the use of the wiki as a discussion starter
All of my classes involve reading discussions, often of primary source materials. In previous semesters, I used to have students email me comments and questions about the reading for a particular day a couple of hours before class starts. I would then take those comments and questions and create a document that categorized those comments along certain common themes. This document, displayed in front of the class, would then shape the class discussion for the day, based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students.

This semester, however, the students in both these classes posted their comments and questions to a wiki page at least two hours before each discussion class. I set up one page for each day's discussion for the semester.I would then go in, just before class started, and bold the questions/comments I saw as most interesting, most relevant, or most commonly expressed. [Bolding became a source of great pride to some students….]

Of course, a large change under this new system is that they now see each others' postings. [I've resisted this before, fearing repetitiveness, copying, and an unfair burden on those who posted first to carry the class.]

I've found that I was completely wrong.

The quality of the questions and comments went up from previous semesters. What's more, they began to respond to each others' questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion began before class did.

Of course, I could have just used a forum on Blackboard or some other open-source software (and I've used such forums with varying degrees of success in other classes with other assignments). They'd still be able to see what the other students had written and respond to those comments. The advantage of the wiki is that students can more easily edit and/or comment on each others' work than in a forum, which is either hierarchical or linear (or both). The wiki is neither.

Using the “history” version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, often inserting themselves in between other people's comments.

They haven't taken to truly editing each others' work, a common issue from what I've heard from those who have used wikis in teaching. [There was a comment deleted by someone else, but that was an accident, for which there was much apologizing.] And actually, I don't see this lack of editing each others' work as a problem since I never explicitly asked them to do that and it’s not what I’m looking for them to do.

This wiki-as-discussion-starter worked in both an upper-level lecture class with once-a-week discussions and in a senior seminar that was all discussion, and required them to post comments/questions on a wiki page before every class period. In 325 – Class discussion started at a deeper level, and the wiki brought out broader discussions than we had time for in class. Plus they were engaged with each others’ ideas before class started. In 426 – Here too the discussions had already begun before class started. Plus it was easy for student discussion leaders to facilitate their own discussion of the readings using the wikis. (Bolding and editing the wiki for their own purposes became common and there was often humor involved, though never at my expense, of course….). :-)

So, overall, other than that, that use of the wikis was a success in both classes. However, in the lecture class, I used the wiki for more than just a discussion starter

HISTORY 325 WIKI Projects
The lecture class is a course about the History of American Technology & Culture. It's a class that's typically 2/3 lecture and 1/3 discussion. Perhaps more importantly, it's a course that in previous iterations has required students to create their own websites about the history of an artifact of American Technology.

Why not continue the old system?

1) Immense amount of work for Jerry and I, as well as for the students, to deal with HTML, page linking, software.
2) Although I began the web project years ago thinking that students should learn HTML or at least web coding as a life skill, it’s not clear that such as skill would actually be useful to these students at the level they’d be gaining.
3) Finally, students’ sites disappeared as they graduated.

The wiki in this class served three purposes:

1) A place for students to post questions and comments about the readings (as I discussed)

2) A site within which each student could create their own research proposal and then their own research project.

3) A class project binder, by which I mean a place where all of the class projects can be gathered together in the same place, a place where students can find the syllabus and all the assignments, and a place where their work has a long-term home, one that can be pointed to as part of portfolio of accomplishments at some point in the future. [One might describe this as a form of CMS or LMS.]


  • Jerry came in for a workshop session where everyone in the class had a laptop and we did a crash course in the basics of wiki creation.
  • They had a couple of assignments early in the semester, culminating in a proposal site with a bibliography.
  • Then they had to build their site structure (laying out all the pages, but without any content).
  • Two weeks after that, the full site was due.
  • Then a week of peer reviews, using the Discussion tab (and my guidelines) to evaluate each other’s work. [See the guidelines students were given.]
  • Then a week of revision before the final project was due.

Advantages for me:

  • See student work in progress
  • See timing of their works in progress through the history function
  • Recent changes RSS feed allows me to watch from afar (through Google Reader or Bloglines).
Disadvantages for me:

  • See student work in progress
  • See timing of their works in progress through the history function
  • Recent changes RSS feed allows me to watch from afar (through Google Reader or Bloglines).
Why? Because I could see that many of the updates, edits, and wiki site building happened the night before, the morning of, the minutes before the assignments were due. [A longheld suspicion proven....]

At the end of the semester, I asked each of the students to present their projects in five minutes.
  • They could discuss the content they covered;
  • they could discuss cool things they had done or discovered;
  • they could discuss the process they used;
  • they could analyze the evolution of their site using the previous version (history) function;
  • or they could talk about what they wish they had known.
Their presentations varied, though most said they wished they had started earlier. I even set up a page on the wiki for them to post their suggestions. [Many of which revolved around wishing they'd looked at each others' projects for ideas earlier.]

But one of the most reflective student presentations included a PowerPoint slide entitled "What Impacted Me The Most" with the following points:

  • The Responsibility/Permanence
    • [Many of the students were extremely cognizant that this was something that would be around after they were finished school and felt that responsibility weigh on them.]
  • Everyone Viewing My Progress
    • As this student pointed out, it was not just me watching them create their sites, it was their classmates (or anyone else who happened to find the site).
  • Citations
    • I made them cite everything (as any research project in history would be) and that process took time and energy (both in getting the citations accurate and in dealing with the wiki formatting to get them to look right).
  • Connections Between Projects
    • This student and others noted how much they enjoyed being able to see how their projects overlapped with each others and with the course themes as a whole.

The Big Finish

One day, late in this semester, a fellow faculty member came to me and told me that one of my students had paid me the ultimate compliment in regards to my wiki site project. She told him, “I’ve never had a project that has been more frustrating, or one in which I’ve learned more.”


Let’s be clear, the goal of the assignment was not to frustrate students, but the process of working through new ways of presenting one’s ideas is not inherently easy.

If students are struggling with the process, but get it done, that means that they are finding ways of adapting to the new requirements, to the new format, to the new expectations. In that way, I hope that they will be better prepared to produce and present information in multiple ways when they graduate.

Despite the increasing use of wikis in business environments, my goal, in other words, was not for them to learn specific MediaWiki skills.

No, I’m much more ambitious.

I want them to be able to think broadly about the presentation of information, about the structure of ideas, about the multiplicity of ways to pass on their perspectives and researched content. I want them to be adaptable producers in a larger world that rarely will ask them to write a 7-10 page formal research paper, but will often ask them to learn new skills, new tools, and to work in new environments (digital and otherwise) and then to apply those new skills sets in reliable/productive ways. [I don’t want much, do I?]

Now, it wasn’t all serious; some of them began to call me Dr. Wiki, eventually to my face.... But, the reaction of the student who made that comment to my colleague suggests that in addition to the research and analytical skills being developed there was more going on for her and, given the student presentations and conversations I had with others in the class, I believe she wasn’t alone.

Thoughts? Reactions?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ode to a Faculty Academy; Or, My Brain is Full

The process of processing Faculty Academy is always difficult. Sifting through the inspiration and ideas of another amazing two days is going to take a while.

Highlights that stick out at this juncture:

-- Barbara Ganley's two presentations -- one an impassioned "call to arms" for the role of slow blogging (writing with reflection and purpose) in 21st-century learning, the other an inspiring yet practical workshop on the way to frame a technology-intensive course around both the content and the individual students in a given class. [The last deserves a blog post of its own, and probably from someone more articulate than me.]

-- Claudia Emerson's online technology coming-out party -- three presentations on three different projects, and each of them about a site/blog/work that I wish my students and I had created.

-- Alan Levine's reminder that play and experimentation with non-obviously educational technologies like Second Life and Twitter can provide us with new ways to address educational questions.

-- The Teaching and Learning Technology Fellows demonstrating that a little money (a course release), a fair amount of talking, and a lot of support can aid both technology evangelists and technophobes in creating thoughtful, creative projects from which our students will benefit. [And that not knowing at first exactly what you want to do can be a really good thing.]

-- Karen Stephenson's talk about networks of social interaction, of knowledge capital, and the resulting twittering and Twittering about who the hubs, mavericks and heretics of Mary Washington are (and whether or not we need to give them a hug). [Lots more to think about here....] [Thanks to Gardner for his role in bringing Barbara, Alan, and Karen to campus.]

-- The success of Martha Burtis and the DTLT ITSs (Jerry, Jim, Andy, and Patrick) in not only putting on a terrific conference (including several of their own sessions), but also providing the moral and technical support that enabled almost every one of the projects we saw presented.

[What? What do you mean you missed it?! Well, there's always next year. Or you can talk to your friendly neighborhood ITS today. They're happy to help you implement your ideas, or even to help you figure out what you might want to do. Don't have an ITS at your school? Ask for one. (But you can't have ours.) Their presence here is one of the best things about UMW.]

Jerry and the Clickers

The session on clickers by Margaret Ray and Bob Rycroft revealed that students were happy whenever Jerry came into the class room. I think that many of us in Monroe have experienced that feeling before. All hail Jerry & the Clickers (wasn't that a 1950s group)?

Jim Groom & Claudia Emerson Redux

Jim and Claudia presented (neither for the first time at Faculty Academy) on an online literary journal created by one of her classes. Calling Nonce impressive does not do it justice. Check it out for yourself.

[Nearly 40 people crammed into the room to hear them--Standing Room Only....]

One particular point raised by Claudia that intrigued me was the notion of applying to change that particular class from 3 credits to 4, allowing for a "lab" component (or perhaps recognizing the increased time that developing and implementing some of these skills may take). [I'm aware that there are some complications related to campus expectations for what constitutes a four-credit course. Let's set those aside for a second.] What do people think about the idea of a "digital lab" component for more credit?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"The Choir's Getting Larger"

In a conversation today about the difficulty of convincing colleagues of the utility of technology-enabled teaching and a multiplicity of pedagogical approaches, and the concern that the people at Faculty Academy are often the people who have already bought into these notions, one person observed, "We may be preaching to the choir, but the choir's getting larger."

I was taken aback for a moment, but then I realized he was right. Just look at the program for the Academy and you can see an impressive array of departments, ideas, pedagogies, and interests, all who add their voices to the mix.

I would add to that (if I can take the metaphor a step further) that I suspect that the larger choir and its members have never been more in sync with the others in the choir, never more engaged with each other as teachers and scholars, never more able eager to see what others are working on, never been more ready to embrace teaching as a perpetual beta.

[Why now? I suspect it's a confluence of larger trends such as easier-to-use web tools, the rise of digital public learning spaces, and a willingness of students to engage in these online conversations/creations, as well as local strengths such as leadership, infrastructure and support, and the tech evangelism of a key group of people.]

Where do we go from here? Why, back for Day Two of Faculty Academy, of course!

Gardner, Steve, Jerry, and Jim Rock Room B122

Jeff McClurken

I'm sitting here in the panel discussion on "Small Pieces Loosely Joined". I can't decide whether I'm more overwhelmed by the lost opportunity in not using the tools they talked about in my classes this semester, or by my excitement in being able to use them in my classes this fall....

Count me in as the newest fanboy of
WordPress Multi-User....

Monday, May 14, 2007

Faculty Academy 2007 is Coming!

Jeff McClurken

Wednesday and Thursday, May 16 & 17 at UMW’s College for Graduate and Professional Studies. See for more information.

My real blogging began about a year ago, soon after the last Faculty Academy. I'm presenting this year on my class-based wiki projects. Hope to see you all there.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Checklist Phenomenon

Shannon has been blogging about her first-year experiences over at Loaded Learning. In her most recent post she describes her frustration with some of her fellow students who seemed to just be in college to check off a bunch of boxes.*

The checklist phenomenon is one that has always bugged me, though I think I understand where it comes from. It's easier to go about one's daily life without having to question everything, without having to constantly reexamine one's direction, path, education. There is a reassuring certainty to having a checklist, to knowing exactly what one needs to do that is less draining than having to think too much constantly about one's future or present.

I say this not to rag on college students in particular; I see it in my own life and among my colleagues and our attitudes toward the curriculum. If we know that students will take X set of classes from Y set of categories, then we can be reasonably certain that they have been exposed to a set of ideas that we call "liberal arts" and a major with a particular set of skills and fluencies, and therefore we can rest easy about it.

I've been thinking about this assumption lately, however, as our institution reexamines its general education curriculum. I'm not resting as easy as I have been with our Gen Ed course structure. Why? Because what we don't know with as much certainty is what the students actually get out of these classes, or if checking all those boxes off truly makes them better students or better employees or better human beings. We also don't know if those students make any connections between the various checked boxes or their learning. [With a few exceptions, we don't encourage such connections in structural or specific ways.] I'm beginning to wonder if what we need is fewer requirements for specific content areas and more requirements for self and guided reflection by students on their work, their goals, on their education itself.

Of course, that might still create a checklist of courses and/or requirements that students (and faculty) could check off without the kind of buy-in that real learning and teaching would need. Still, it seems like it would be a start in the right direction, an acknowledgement that we as an institution valued the connections between their various classes, between their classes and their learning, between their learning and their lives, and between their education and their participation as members of larger physical and intellectual communities.

Thoughts? How might we implement such an approach beyond individual classrooms or particular instructors or interested students (because I think that kind of breadth is essential the kind of reflected learning)? [Given the audience for this blog, I suspect I'm preaching to the choir here, and, if so, help me figure out what the counter argument(s) is/are. Why wouldn't this work (and why are they wrong)? :-]

*I think many of us at MW would agree that Steve's Freshman Seminar should be seen as a success if its only contribution (which this is not) was to encourage this depth of reflective public writing by students.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Surreal History Mashup Moment

So, I'm just wondering how good Google's directions to the Lost Colony are. I guess their search engines really can find anything....

[This comes from an interesting attempt to build historical maps using the My Maps function on Google.]

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Confessions of a Addict

In recent weeks, I've become increasingly enamored of the social network and bookmarking service known as I set an account up nearly 2 years ago now, but largely used it as online bookmark storage. Gradually, through several friends (online and off) I became aware of its other features. Caleb McDaniel (formerly of Mode for Caleb) demonstrated the numerous tagging capabilities through a couple of emails and conversations. [Looking at my own account ( you can see that my earliest links are not tagged, or if they are, the tags were added later.] Yet, even with the new tagging making my bookmarks more accessible to me, I was still using it as an amped-up version of my own bookmarks in IE or Firefox. It was Martha who alerted me to the use of a network and "for:" tags in in this post. [For the uninitiated, allows users to add other users to their network, allowing you to see the sites they're tagging. The "for:" tag allows you to send particular users in your network particular sites in which you think they may be interested.] I began to add various people to my network (first DTLT members, then people from CHNM, and soon others) and realized how many cool sites I had been missing. As I pored over their various sites, I began to mark particular sites for them, and slowly they began to tag them for me as well.

I have managed to convert other colleagues to, and they too have become addicted to the ease, the social bookmarking, the tagging, and the sharing of good sites. At this point, if I run across a link I that I think someone might want, and that person is not in my network, I'm actually a little annoyed. I think about how much easier it would be if I could just add the "for:" tag and they would be able to see it.

I realized recently that I have created a network of people I know (to varying degrees) who scour the internet for me (and I for them). Although we have overlapping interests and therefore look at some of the same sites, we're different enough that they run across resources I don't and vice versa. In this chaotic, information-saturated online world, having a few (or 14) expert researchers sharing the best (or maybe just fun) resources can prove an incredible boon.

Now, to figure out how to add this to my goals for digital literacy and to my classes this fall. More to come....

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Students, grades, and creativity--A Thought from Student Academy

I'm at UMW's Student Academy, an annual presentation of information technologies created by students in and out of their courses, and I wanted to comment on a statement a student presenter just made:*
"I don't want to experiment too much if it's for a grade...."
What are the implications of this statement for teaching and learning? The student was referring to the differences between his approach to class digital projects, versus his own digital projects that he's done outside of the classroom. Is this a problem for us as teachers? Is the need for grading something inherently squelching of creativity? I don't think so, but I'll be more conscious of the need to create at least some assignments that balance requirements with the flexibility to exercise creativity.

*[I hope to blog on some of the specific presentations later. Check out Ben's Astounding Essays, or Amanda's great blog about Sylvia Plath, for places to start.]

Monday, March 12, 2007

One More Stab at Digital Fluencies

In a previous post I responded to failingbetter's query about my definitions of "digital fluencies" as it related to students. I was rereading the first of his/her questions and it occurs to me that the query has another layer I missed at first glance.
I would like to hear a little more about what fluency means and what it entails that is different from skills. Is it just the combination of one's writing skills with one's technical knowledge of how to construct/write a blog? Or does it also entail knowledge of the norms of blogging? Is there another category of things that differentiate skills from fluency?
I've been articulating a notion of digital fluency that incorporates technical skills and the ability to deploy those skills as part of a skillful consumption and production of information that I think is critical to students and faculty alike. But failingbetter suggests that there are also rules to online social tools (and the societies they create) that students might need to know. Might digital fluency also include an awareness of the norms of online culture(s)? I'm going to have to think about this some. Any thoughts?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere--Part I

This semester I'm using wikis (MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I'm doing so at Jerry's suggestion, despite my greatest previous interaction with wikis being arguing with students about why they can't use Wikipedia as the scholarly source for their research papers. In two separate posts, I'll describe the two classes, the plans for the wiki use in each class, and the progress so far.

In my senior readings seminar, I used to have students email me comments and questions about the reading for a particular day a couple of hours before class starts. I would then take those comments and questions and shape the class discussion for the day based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students. This semester, the students post their comments and questions to a wiki page. [I set up one page for each day's discussion for the semester.] Of course, a large change under this new system is that they now see each others' postings. [I've resisted this before, fearing repetitiveness, copying, and an unfair burden on those who posted first to carry the class.] I've found that so far, I was completely wrong. The quality of the questions and comments have gone up from previous semesters. What's more, they've begun to respond to each others' questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion begins before class does.

Of course, I could have just used a forum on Blackboard or some other open-source software (and I've used such forums with varying degrees of success in other classes with other assignments). They'd still be able to see what the other students had written and respond to those comments. The advantage of the wiki is that students can more easily edit and/or comment on each others' work than in a forum, which is either hierarchical or linear (or both). Using the past version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, sometimes inserting themselves in between other people's comments, sometimes using bold to emphasize particular points that others have made. They haven't taken to truly editing each others' work, a common issue from what I've heard from those who have used wikis in teaching. [There was a comment deleted by someone else, but that was an accident, for which there was much apologizing. :-) ] And I don't see this lack of editing each others' work as a problem since I haven't explicitly asked them to do that.

I hope the quality of posting and interaction remains at the level that it's at for the rest of the semester. If so, I'll see it as a great success.

Next time, I'll discuss the wiki as used in an upper-level lecture & discussion class.

Digital Fluencies--A Reponse

I wanted to respond to failingbetter's comment on my post last fall on digital literacies, but this response (rant?) seemed to expand beyond comment size. So, a new post was born.

1. I would like to hear a little more about what fluency means and what it entails that is different from skills. Is it just the combination of one's writing skills with one's technical knowledge of how to construct/write a blog? Or does it also entail knowledge of the norms of blogging? Is there another category of things that differentiate skills from fluency?
I would crudely define "digital fluency" as the ability to deploy basic technical skills (changing margins or using track changes in Word, participating in online forums, and for some, more complex skills such as website building) in the consumption and production of online materials in a variety of formats. Blogs are just one online format (though perhaps the easiest to engage in--after all, passive consumption is also participation). There are a number of ways that students could demonstrate digital fluency, including appropriate creation of documents, presentations, wikis, websites, forum postings. These things require a wide variety of technical skills, but more than just knowing how to change margins, use email or set up a blog, doing them well requires adaptability, critical thinking, and making clear arguments. [Sound familiar? It should, because digital fluency should be seen as an extension of the core concepts of the liberal arts.]

2. I don't know that incorporating DL into classes--if they are to be tech across the curriculum--would work. Most faculty only know the skills that they need to survive (no members of my dept. write a blog or know how). I suspect that faculty ignorance would be a significant barrier to making this work (as I understand it).

First, digital fluencies don't have to be integrated into every class. Still, they do need to be discussed by every department. The advantage of a plan that argues for departmental definitions of digital literacy is that it allows faculty to meet the requirement where they are in terms of their abilities and desires. But here's the thing: even though no one in failingbetter's department writes a blog, I'm willing to bet every department member has some goals for students with regard to digital literacy. For example, I suspect his/her department members would agree that students need to be able to differentiate between reliable and unreliable websites. So would it be overly onerous to add to his/her department's set of goals an ability to consume online information in a skeptical and critical manner? That might be the limit of what a department decides it wants to do on this issue.

One final point of honesty from me on this: I hope that such conversations in each department about what digital literacy means for their students would push some faculty to look more closely at the skills (and fluencies) they themselves have (or might decide they need). [Let's be clear about something else: "faculty ignorance" should never, ever, be a reason not to do something.]

But I would also hope that such an examination would occur within the context of significant institutional support. One of the things that I've made clear in every conversation I've had with the various committees involved in these conversations is the absolute need for substantive investment in a variety of support resources and personnel to make this change. These resources would need to be in the form of software/hardware technology support (personal computers and projectors and software licenses must work nearly all the time, or a reasonable substitute made available within 24 hours at most), instructional technology support (people who can take ideas about teaching and show faculty how to implement them), training workshops and summer sessions that people want to go to (even are paid to attend), summer and school-year financial support (or course releases) for those working on such projects, and recognition from the merit and tenure process for efforts made to advance digital fluencies in course and department arenas.

[I want a lot, don't I? What about what I've put forward here is unrealistic? Which of the various portions could be implemented most easily? Are they mutually dependent? Critique away....]

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Innovation, Open-Source, and CMSs

Over at Running with Scissors, Jerry Slezak has begun a great discussion about innovation. This post began as a comment there that expanded beyond the original point Jerry was making. Building on Jerry's notion of the UI$ as a new unit measuring "Unit of Innovation per Dollar" and Jim's point in the comments about the advantage of a close working relationship between tech innovators and the classroom, it seems to me that targeted investment (small grants and/or new faculty/ITS positions) in implementing various open-source (or nearly free) solutions can result in a high UI$ (if I understand Jerry's new term correctly). Targeted financial and technical support for specific implementations with open-source or freely available tools in a few courses (or even a department) has a much better chance of a good UI$ than adding a massive CMS that everyone has to learn and that not everyone wants to be a part of.

The Counter Argument

One important counter, however, is the argument that standardization (and massive integration of other campus systems) offered by the major CMSs are good things:

1) Because a standardized CMS/LMS is, well, standard. Everyone can use the same interface. Students and faculty don't have to learn (or relearn) new materials; tech support has one set of training and support materials to create.

2) Because using open-source and free software means using code that is not always ready for prime time. Techno-geeks (of which I am one) are more forgiving of such issues, in part because they can find workarounds for such problems (or accept it as a feature of cutting-edge code).

3) Because of the breadth of offerings. You can hear the sales pitch by the voice-over guy on late-night television: "It doesn't just manage your courses, it allows you to pay bills, do your laundry and walk your electronic pets!!!!" In all seriousness, the appeal of meeting many institutional needs at once is clear, especially if the package also comes with support from the manufacturer (something less obviously available from the open-source community).*


I understand these reasons are powerful forces in shaping decisions for campus technology. But Jerry's post is really about innovation, and he is right to recognize that tech investment dollars are limited and need to be spent (invested?) as wisely as possible. Should we be worried that what seems to drive resource decisions at many institutions of higher learning is the notion that "Innovation is good, but stability and uniformity is better"?

UPDATE: I listened to the podcast of Jerry and Jim Groom's ELI Presentation that was the basis for the post discussed above. In it Jerry and Jim address many of the concerns that I brought up, including noting that enterprise CMSs like Blackboard aren't going away soon since their stability and breadth still addresses the needs of many people on campuses (albeit not always the students or faculty). Of course, the on-target point of the post and the presentation was that enterprise CMSs/LMSs simply don't seem to be as responsive to the innovative possibilities for teaching and learning that the vibrant, passionate open-source community members have embraced. The other significant gain for me is the cost of innovation terminology of Jerry's, UI$. I'll be using that in the future....

* I suspect that there are many members of the open-source community who are incredibly responsive on support issues, but I'm referring to a formalized, contract-driven support that looks more stable from what we might describe as a business perspective.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Historians Moving on Up

So news reports indicate that the new president of Harvard is going to be Drew Gilpin Faust, a prominent historian whose specialties include the Civil War, US Women's History and Social History. This news comes just a few weeks after Ed Ayers, eminent Southern historian and academic technology pioneer, was announced as the new president of the University of Richmond. [Full Disclosure: I worked on the Valley of the Shadow Project with Ed Ayers for a couple of years before heading off to graduate school.]

At my very first academic conference, the 1997 Southern Historical Association conference in Atlanta, I attended a panel on which both of these eminent historians presented. I remember being impressed at their presence, poise, and good-natured interactions. Who knew that these two would become University presidents within a few months of each other 10 years later?

I'm happy for both of them, because I like and respect them, but also because it suggests that, despite the reputation of historians as out of touch with today's world, that these two have found ways to make themselves (and more importantly, their ideas) relevant to much larger audiences.

Both Ayers and Faust, despite a number of years as Deans (Ayers at UVA, Faust at Harvard's Ratcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) remain active, productive scholars in their fields. I can only imagine how difficult that is given the many drains on their time. As a fellow scholar in their fields of interest, I can only hope that their presidencies will not prevent them from continuing to contribute their significant gifts to the discipline. As an academic, I believe that continuing to do so will also make them better administrators of faculty. As Dean, Ayers also managed to continue teaching a class or two a year, something else I hope he's able to hold on to in his new position. [UPDATE: The front-page February 10 Washington Post article on Faust's appointment suggests she's also continued teaching as Dean.] Such activities remind presidents of where their faculties and student bodies are focused.

I know that this perspective is not shared by all academics, many of whom feel that the president's job is first and foremost to raise money. As important as that is, I have a great deal of respect for those university presidents who continue to teach and research. Leading by example applies to the administrative side of academia as much as it does the classroom.