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.

It’s the Network Stupid

Technology Review: How Obama Really Did It

In 1992, Carville said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,'” Trippi says, recalling the exhortation of Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville. “This year, it was the network, stupid!

You have an entire generation of folks under age 25 no longer using
e-mails, not even using Facebook; a majority are using text messaging,”
All says. “I get Obama’s text messages, and every one is exactly what
it should be. It is never pointless, it is always worth reading, and it
has an action for you to take. You can have hundreds of recipients on a
text message. You have hundreds of people trying to change the world in
160 characters or less. What’s the SMS strategy for John McCain? None.”

One of the ongoing questions that I have about Web 2.0 applications is the extent to which they can contribute to solving real problems.   I wonder if our students understand that Facebook, mySpace, and the other sites that they use so effectively in their social lives have such enormous potential in the real world.  This article in the MIT Technology Review provides an extended treatment of how the basic tools of social networking can be tailored to meet the specific goals of a political campain–fundraising, canvassing, and communication.  “MyBo”, the Barack Obama networking site enrolled over a million members and is credited with raising record amounts of cash and delivering key primary wins that were essential to gaining the nomination.

MyBo offered a pretty amazing set of specific campaigning tools.  Powerful database queries allowed members to “slice and dice the geographic microdata” in ways that were previously only accessible to technically sophisticated political consultants.  The site, developed by Blue State Digital with the assistance of Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, represented “the ultimate online political machine.”  The power of the site comes from the integration of a suite of individual tools that had been tested in the earlier campaign of Howard Dean, into a coherent whole.

It’s long article, but well worth reading.  Like so many of the others, it challenges us to wonder how we might tap into this same kind of communicative power in ways that quickly leave our bloated CMS software behind.  It also challenges us to rethink what it means to be liberally educated in the 21st century–can a person being truly literate without understanding the potential impact on our culture of these commuity building and activiation tools?

Tying Up the Loose Ends of Your Digital Identity

re.web – The William & Mary Web Redesign

Andy DeSoto, a junior psychology major at William and Mary, has written a guide for students (and faculty) on how to use the new Tribe Voices tool to manage their presence on the web. He argues that a small investment of time can yield big benefits in 1) bringing an element of control about what readers see when they Google you, 2) increasing the reach of your community and 3) “tying up the loose ends” by pulling your digital footprints into one container.

Folks who want more features than those available with Tribe Voices can take a look at wmblogs, William and Mary’s wordpress multiuser solution.

Disclaimer: Both Tribe Voices and wmblogs require a William and Mary userid. Folks from outside the William and Mary community can easily get the same benefits by starting their personal space at WordPress.com or a similar service.

Andy provides a series of suggestions of ways to establish your web presence:

  • Pick the right name (yours) for your site.
  • Update regularly.
  • Link freely.

He also suggests that folks do a little light reading on “search engine optimization”–which might be beyond what most folks are willing to invest in this process.

Read up on search engine optimization (SEO). Search engine optimization, a multi-million dollar industry, is the science of improving the volume and quality of traffic your website receives. It’s a pretty technical topic, but worth a little bit of further reading. Take a look at Wayne Smallman’s Blah, Blah! Technology blog for some beginner articles.

Digital Repository Pilot Project

Over the last semester, we’ve been working with Wayne Graham at the Swem Library and some students and staff at the Charles Center to create a digital repository of honors theses. I just received my first email notification of a submission– an honors thesis by Sara Thomas entitled From Shadwell to Monticello: The Material Culture of Slavery, 1760-1774. Sarah is finishing up an interdisciplinary major in “Jefferson Studies” working closely with Jim Whittenburg:

…also give thanks to James Whittenburg for agreeing to the idea of a self-designed “Jefferson Studies,” major in the first place. I thank him for his tremendous support over the past four years, for driving me around Virginia to see the sites, and for asking tough questions about Jefferson.

I spent a few minutes reading through Sara’s thesis and found it a very interesting piece of scholarship. Without the electronic repository and email notification, I never would have been aware of this work or the fascinating major Sara had designed. I’m looking forward to seeing what other interesting things find their way to my inbox as we continue with this project. (I also think it’s a tribute to Jim’s commitment to his students that he receives thanks not only for his intellectual acumen but also for his chauffeuring skills!)

Harvard is following William and Mary’s lead in creating a central repository of senior theses. The “Free Thesis Project” is a student initiative of the Harvard Free College Culture group and is seen as a student-led extension of the open access motion recently enacted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The faculty project is being coordinated by Harvard University Library’s Office of Scholarly Communication. Typically Harvard has only retained hard copies of theses that receive honors or above.

Hamilton College Alumni Review: Sitting in the Front Row Could Be Dangerous

Hamilton College – Alumni Review – Spring 2008 – Sitting in the Front Row Could Be Dangerous

Hamilton College just ran a long article with reminiscences from alumni about their most inspirational professors. One was by Tom Reid, my freshman year roommate, about Edwin Barrett, professor of English, who was my advisor and inspiration as well. Tom begins by saying

I entered Hamilton in 1967 as a political and emotional conservative. Afraid of people and ideas I didn’t understand, I managed my anxiety by convincing myself that I pretty much had all the answers. Fortunately, courses with professors such as Russell Blackwood, Sidney Wertimer and Robert Simon began to loosen the grip of my insular ideology. However, it took Edwin Barrett to really get through to me.

Tom’s claim to have been a political conservative was pretty clear the first day I met him. We were comparing record collections–his focused largely on the Who and mine on Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. The thing I knew, I was the proud recipient of a list of 93 Reasons Why Pete Seeger is A Communist. (My favorite was #34: “He sent birthday greetings to People Songs, Inc., a communist front organization.”)

Tom and I travelled in different circles most of the time that we were at Hamilton. I was pretty surprised to read the story of his encounter with Ed Barrett:

It was my second literature class with him. He had mainly given me C’s and D’s for papers blithely dismissing author after author as too negative or relativistic. Yet for some reason I had started to admire him, despite his obvious liberalism! Then he assigned a paper on "How Jane Austen Defines and Limits the World of Emma." In writing it, I somehow grasped the idea that a work of art should be judged not by external standards but by the values within the work itself. I don’t think I realized what a breakthrough this was for me, but Barrett did. He gave me an A-, but what mattered more was the summary comment he wrote on the title page: "Tom, this is your best vein: sympathetic, precise and undogmatic. If you could do this kind of work consistently, I think you would find yourself as a student, and to some degree as a person."

There were many other influences on me in those years, but nothing helped me see myself as clearly as that one comment. It became a kind of beacon guiding me to a more liberal and compassionate philosophy of life. Without it, I might not have become a teacher myself and might never have become the man who won the heart of my wonderful wife. I still think of Barrett’s words often, especially as I spend my evenings writing comments on the papers of my students, hoping I can be anywhere near as inspiring to them as he was to me.

Tom Reid ’71<br /

I still remember many of the comments from my courses with Professor Barrett. My papers were all typed on erasable bond paper on a Smith Corona electric typewriter and were returned with Ed’s final judgement on the cover page. His handwriting–like everything he did–was exuberant and expressive–more like calligraphy than the normal handwriting on a returned papers. One of my favorites:

Gene, This is the best undergraduate essay I’ve read on this poem. Well done! B+

This is a good reminder for this final week or two when so many of our friends and colleagues are plowing through the seemingly endless piles of papers.

Overcoming Bias: My Favorite Liar

Overcoming Bias: My Favorite Liar

One of the blog that I’ve really come to enjoy is Overcoming Bias housed at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. It’s a great source of information on cognitive bias and on the predictable ways our brains fool us into making bad decisions.

This post focuses on a little technique that can be used to help develop students develop the habit of questioning authority–even authority of the teacher. An economics professor announced the first day of class that he would incorporate one lie into each of his lectures.

Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”

The lie of the day began with an obvious untruth and became more subtle as the quarter moved on. When no one caught the lie by the end of the class the instructor would send them off with a challenge: Ah ha! Each of you has one falsehood in your lecture notes. Discuss amongst yourselves what it might be, and I will tell you next Monday. That is all.”

This makes for a great story, but I wonder how it would fly in today’s classroom. Our students seem so serious; trying a trick like this could really hurt the old evals.

Students Aren’t Fish

Splash Frown Town Evasion

One theme that I keep finding myself returning to this semester is the need for a better understanding of how students make sense of their college experience. At ELI I had a chance to meet up a couple of times with Serena Epstein, a junior at Mary Washington, who has written a great essay providing a glimpse into her world:

As a student (perhaps a “damn idiot” one), it’s always a little surreal hearing professors debate over how best to reach students. The main question seemed to be “how can we use games to get students actively involved in their learning?” On one level, I’m genuinely impressed that these instructors are brave enough to approach this problem….

I think the most important—and often overlooked—question to be asking is not “How can I use this to hook students?” but “How can we do this together?” We’re not fish; we’re (mostly) discerning, intelligent individuals who can certainly tell when professors are introducing a classroom activity simply as an attempt to ensnare us.

Serena suggests that students respond best when faculty are as passionate about using the technologies as they expect their students to be. She sees learning as something contagious–spread from teacher to student by passion, inspiration, and engagement. Since she knows how busy faculty are, she provides a “handy numbered list”. (Hopefully reproducing her entire list still constitutes fair use…)

  1. Care! Care so much that every waking moment is spent obsessing over course content, student discussions, and all the possibilities for what’s next.
  2. Engage your students! Class discussions are the best way to reinforce and expand learning. Students should be interacting with one another in the classroom, not just you. Have students create content for each other.
  3. Give them more creative freedom. Consider assignments that allow students to exploit their own strengths. A piece of artwork or a video mash-up, for example, can demonstrate the same degree of learning as a traditional paper. (Often, these are even more effective.) Allow for flexibility in your assignments and encourage students to suggest their own ideas for how the content should be handled.
  4. Take your class outside the classroom, both physically and figuratively. Play with different learning spaces, like outdoor areas or different types of rooms. Also try different setups within the classroom. Never have discussions with the entire class facing the front of the room. And encourage students to apply learning from the class to other areas of their life or coursework. Have them blog, tweet, photograph, film, paint, type, innovate.
  5. As unbearably cliché as this sounds, don’t be afraid to try new things. Yes, sometimes it will fail miserably. Sometimes it will be a waste of time. But there’s also the chance that you and your students will discover something incredible. Don’t just try until you find one thing that works… keep trying.

Serena’s blog has earned a place on my RSS reader.