Adult Education Class

I suspect that over the next 10 weeks or so I’ll be writing quite a bit about the course I’m teaching this semester, so let me provide a little bit of background.  The class is an elective graduate class in the Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership program at William and Mary.  The title is Adult and Continuing Education Practice and Policy, and it’s framed around principles of andragogy, defined as the art of teaching adults, rather than around pedagogy, the science of teaching children.

That’s the broad framework.  There’s significant discussion within the AE community about the degree to which adult learning is substantively different than other kinds of learning.  I side with those who think that adult learning is qualitatively different–a learning activity with 20 folks over 35 is much different than a learning experience of 20 eighteen year olds.  Neither is better–they are just different.

Malcolm Knowles, who popularized the notion (theory/framework) of andragogy, identified a core group of characteristics that differentiate adult learners.  (His conception changed over the years in various versions of his writing, but the essence is captured in these four principles.)

  • Being an adult–in most western societies–is defined as being responsible for directing your own life, and often, those of others.  Adults learn best when then they have control of what they learn and how they learn it.
  • Adults bring rich experience to their learning and that experience can be a powerful resource for learning.  (Not always, though.  Sometimes experience makes new learning more difficult without significant unlearning.)
  • Most adult learning is embedded in “real life” rather than abstracted in the way schools usually organize learning.
  • Much (not all) adult learning is problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge.  Some adults participate in learning activities because they enjoy the social interaction with other learners.  Others enjoy the learning for its own sake.

From those assumptions, we draw three principles to start the planning process.  (Many more will emerge as we learn together.)

  • The organization of the course has to provide ways for learners to be significantly involved in the planning and evaluation of the course activities.
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.  Learning activities will be richer and more effective if they are tied to direct and previous experience.
  • Adults are most interested in learning  that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.  Learning is real life–it is not preparing for real life.

In this course this plays out in a set of procedures and processes.  Some of them include:

  • We don’t develop the overall syllabus until after we have had a chance to get to know each other.  Through conversation, structured activities and some preliminary class exercises we get a sense of the goals, aspirations and experience that each participant brings to the group.
  • The “course content” is highly individualized and grows out of the genuine needs and interests of the learners.  We manage that through the use of an individualized learning contract which specifies the grade to be earned, the expectations for earning that grade, the learning objectives that will be completed, a rough time line, and an evaluation plan.
  • Learning contracts are developed by the individual learner in collaboration with the course facilitator and other members of the learning group. Because learning in real life is messy and unpredictable, contracts are subject to ongoing negotiation.
  • Blocks of time during class meetings can be scheduled by any class participant to address a topic of interest or to get some assistance with their learning projects.  (This is an experiment in this class.)
  • Each learner will also work on refining a process of reflecting on his/her learning project that incorporates some combination of a learning diary, reflective journal of some sort, some method of critical reflection and whatever other components might be required.

Because the actual learning activities are so highly individualized, this reflection piece is what binds us together as a learning community, as opposed to group of graduate students working on independent study projects.  There are four reflection questions that we’ll look at from a variety of perspectives over the entire duration of the course.

  • What have I learned today, this semester, this week?
  • How did I learn it?
  • How might I learn it differently, maybe even better, in the future?
  • How might I help someone else build on my learning?

We’re at the point in the course where we know each other a little bit, and most folks have defined their learning projects.  The next step is to try to pull what we’ve learned so far into the construction of the syllabus.

Lessons from the WordPress Worm

After reading the news about the WordPress hacking attacks of such as Andy Ihnatko and Robert Scoble, I spent more time than usual cleaning up my hosted account and trying to figure out if I were one of the folks John Gruber had in mind when he questioned the wisdom of amateur system administrators running their own WordPress installations.

I’m pretty good about keeping my primary sites updated, particularly now that WordPress makes it so much easier to install the newest versions. I did have three or four installations that I had installed for various test purposes over time that weren’t up-to-date. There was no obvious indication that any of them had been compromised, but just to be safe, I exported the data, and then implemented the ‘nuke from orbit” sanction.

That led me into the logs for my account–which scared the daylights out of me. The log files are filled with strange entities trying to run scripts, execute PHP code and access a whole host of other stuff that I have no idea what it’s doing. I can’t find any evidence that any of this is actually working, but my Linux and Apache knowledge is so limited that I can’t really be sure. I’ve always liked the freedom provided by Fantasico and Simple Scripts to just stick a new blog, CMS, or some other piece of software up, just to try it out. I’m getting the sinking feeling that maybe the ability so easily install software might have a dark side that needs to be addressed.

It may be time for coffee with John Drummond and a little tutorial about what constitutes responsible administration for a hosted account.

Beginning Digital Rehab

This summer, just before I headed out on my vacation, I finally hit bottom. My digital life was out of control, and I was powerless over my my RSS’s, my API’s, Yammers, Twitters and the rest of my life stream. The initial high that came from registering for yet another microblogging site, bookmark sharing tool, project management application, or music community was replaced with the sense that none of this was really contributing much to the kind of thinking and writing I really wanted to be doing. It was distracting, and the bit of an ego boost that comes when someone comments on my uncanny ability to be aware of the newest Web 2.0 application wears off pretty quickly. (I suspect that many of the folks making those comments really thought that it’s pretty pathetic that someone at my age was still trying to figure out whether Pandora or Last.FM was the best way to explore new music.)

The first (and easiest) step in digital rehab was to disable my FaceBook account. My small community was a attractive distraction late in the afternoon when I didn’t feel like working, but it was hard for me to move beyond fascination. Outside of a small circle of professional colleagues that I know pretty well, I never did get comfortable with merging the personal and social so tightly. The group of folks who were interested in my son’s wedding pictures and the progress on my kitchen renovation weren’t very interested in the travails of finding the right support model for online research.

Unlike some other social networking sites, Facebook is pretty easy to escape from right now, with clear instructions on how to disable the account. I officially killed the account on Sunday, and even that little step has given me a new sense of freedom. I’m also finding a bit of an anti-Facebook community–including even tech professor and guru Mark Hofer has joined the community of former Facebookers.

It will be interesting to see how bad the withdrawal becomes and how I’m able to keep connections with some key folks for whom FB really has become a key communications tool.

Starting with the Big Questions

images.jpgSaint Richard (Dick) Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute and founder of the concept of “life-work designing” suggests that one key step in preparing for an uncertain future is to sit down at the end of each week and answer one fundamental question: “what have I done this week that added more value to my organization than I took away from it?

As fallible human beings, all of us will have weeks when we take away more than we give, but if that becomes a pattern, we’re in danger of either losing our jobs or wasting our lives in doing work that’s not really meaningful to us. Saint Richard believes that if we find ourselves in that situation we either change the way we do our jobs or that we change the jobs themselves. (We’ve seen several of our colleagues in the blogosphere make those kinds of changes over the last year or so.)

One of the hardest things for those of us in the academic IT world is to figure out actual value we add to our institutions. In some strategic planning work that I’m doing, we’re trying to identify a few fundamental questions that we think need to be addressed by the institution in evaluating the importance of technology in teaching and learning. Here’s one of the first that I’m proposing:

Ongoing studies by the Pew, Kaiser and MacArthur foundations suggest that students entering our colleges today bring fundamentally different expectations, thinking styles–even basic literacies–than generations before. To what extent to you agree with that assertion?

As I’ve been raising that question with colleagues, responses have ranged from “Duh” to “Poppycock”–though most are quick to identify at least surface changes in classroom behavior, etiquette or expectations. Few are as convinced that these changes are as essential or significant as some of us in the technology arena believe they are. One potentially fruitful area of conversation is to try to come to some common understanding of the types of shifts we’re seeing in the capability of our students and the magnitude of those changes.

Yammering Away

We’ve started a an impromptu experiment with a new application to foster additional communication and awareness within our group. During one of my Arc Trainer sessions last week, I was listening to a TWIT podcast and heard that a program called Yammer was the winner of the “Techcrunch 50”. Later that afternoon, I began my emerging technology class by asking folks what new technologies they had come upon in the last week, and Jon Messer mentioned that a few people at the University of Richmond were exploring Yammer, and Maria Elena signed up for an account and invited a few of us to join. For the past week, a number of the AIS group have been yammering about work. (About 10,000 companies began experimenting with Yammer in the first week after the TechCrunch award.)

Yammer is like a private Twitter. Instead of Twitter’s question, “What are you doing, Yammer asks “What are you working on?” As folks answer that question, a feed is produced provding a running list of ideas, news, questions, links and other information. (Unfortunately (IMHO) Yammer doesn’t enforce the 140 character limit on posts, so they have a tendency to go a little longer than the typical tweet.)

There are about 10 of us who are members, and, so far, I’m finding it to be an interesting application. The AIS group is so widely dispersed that we often miss out the opportunity to communicate informally. Yammer encourages quick, informal communications because it only takes a minute or two to raise a quick question about something that’s on your mind. The conversations are archived, so that the history can be captured if more substantial issues arise. For example, a discussion this morning about finding a specific piece of conferencing software for the Writing Resource Center clearly demonstrated that we need a more systematic strategy for responding to requests for applications sharing and conferencing.

However, users can have threaded discussions, as they can on FriendFeed. Users can also use “hashtags” for tagging topics, and they can follow just those tags, which is useful in following a particular project rather than the people working on it.

According a recent article in the New York Times, “social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it ‘ambient awareness.’ It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does–body language, sighs, stray comments out of the corner of your eye”. Participants in ambient awareness networks develop a sense of the rhythms their fellow participants that they never had before:

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update–each individual bit of social information–is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like a type of E.S.P, as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

Yammer is a very low impact technology–much less cognitively demanding than email. All the posts are available in a single place where they”re “skimmable”. (I keep mine on my second monitor, just outside of my field of vision. (I’ve been using Twitter for a year or so now, so I’ve some time to practice my scanning skills.) If my experience with Twitter is any indication, Yammer be one of those pieces of technology that is almost impossible to explain, but that quickly becomes an integrated on-line presence.

Then, it may be just another thing we try that gets jettisoned because it takes more time than it’s worth.