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It’s About Time: Intellectual Technology and General Education

The first session of this fall’s Educational Technology Planning course met last night after losing a week to Irene. The course is an elective in the Educational Planning, Policy and Leadership program at the School of Education and is made up of a students in masters and doctoral programs in K-12 and higher education administration. The goal is to look at technology decisions through the lens of the leaders who will be responsible for selecting and managing large-scale education technology projects–chief information officers or chief technology officers. It’s a difficult course, since it requires students to integrate a considerable amount of technical information into a personal vision of how information technologies might impact education in the near to intermediate future.

The course is generally built around an authentic learning project for an outside client. This year presented an unusual opportunity since William and Mary is undergoing its first review of general education requirements since the invention of the World Wide Web. Michael Lewis, one of the co-chairs of the Curriculum Review Committee, is a mathematician/computer scientist who has been involved with a number of IT initiatives in the past, and we had talked about the possibility of the class looking at the role of “intellectual technologies” in general education. Obviously, I think that computers and communications technology have transformed society in ways that pose a whole host of technical, pedagogical, ethical, social and economic questions that need to be addressed much differently than we would have addressed them in 1990. For me the broad question might be framed this way:

How much does a citizen need to know about information (educational, intellectual) technology to be considered well-educated in the 21st century?

The project that I suggested to the class was writing a carefully developed white paper where we offer some perspectives, ideas, and thoughts about that question. We have 16 students in the class, 12 weeks of class time, and an incredibly broad range of backgrounds and experiences. Michael came and met with the class to provide an overview of the committee’s work to date and provided some history on general education at WM, and left us to determine if this was the project that we wanted to take on.

The discussion was spirited, but I’m not sure if it was effective or not. My fear is that I really didn’t allow the group the freedom to decide if these was the project that wanted to work on or not. I had put a fair amount of effort into developing a structure that I thought would allow us to get organized relatively quickly, but that structure didn’t seem to work for a fair number of folks in the class. The biggest concern didn’t appear to me to be the importance or substance of the project, but rather if there was enough time to complete it. (At least that’s what I heard.) My own sense was that it was a tight deadline, but we had the time and the tools to make a real contribution to the discussion at the College if we put our minds to it.

We decided–or maybe they acquiesced to my expectation–to give it a week working within the format that I had proposed and see where it goes. We’ll see where it goes.

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.

Creativity, Inspiration and the Conservation of Keystrokes

We have at least three members of our  current adult education class who are experimenting with blogs as part of their learning logs.  The care and feeding of a blog can teach many things.   Some of those things are inspirational; others are more practical.

As the center of your digital identity, your web site can give you of a fighting chance in creating a web presence that helps you accomplish your professional goals.  Your blog can provide a forum for narrating you work and help attract a community to inspire, challenge and expand your thinking.  It also can provide a way to save you some keystrokes.

As Jon Udell has pointed out, saving keystrokes can be very important, particularly if Scott Hansleman is right in his assessment:

There are a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die. Next time someone emails you, ask yourself “Is emailing this person back the best use of my remaining keystrokes?”

If you can communicate with more people with fewer keystrokes before you die–that’s a good thing.  I had the opportunity for the last few days to put the principle of conservation of keystrokes into practice, using another blog that I post to occasionally.  Earlier this week, William and Mary got hit with a particularly nasty phishing attack and a group of faculty accounts were compromised.  The resulting flood of spam resulted in William and Mary’s outgoing mail being blocked by most large ISP’s, including Blackberry.  Every time someone sent email to Blackberry, the mail bounced.  Every time the mail bounced, I got email asking what was going on with Blackberry.

Rather  than answer each one those emails individually, I made a quick post to the SoE blog, then I could direct email to that link rather than respond individually.  Using a blog entry works well in this case because I want to provide a little bit of the back story and show how important it is for all of us in the community to be involved if we want to protect our precious Internet.

Here’s a challenge for you to those of us in the EPPL 714 class.  Can you find a way–high tech or low tech–to invest 1 hour in learning something that will save you 5 hours over the next month?  Can you share it with 10 of your friends so that they can save some time, too? If an hour is too much, can you find a way to invest 10 minutes in something that will save you an hour?  ( Want a hint of a place to look?  If you use Microsoft Word, explore using named styles.)

This Blog Gonna Rise Again?

I had pretty much made my peace with being an ex-blogger.   It’s been a year since the last time I posted to this blog, and, even that last post was just a speculation about the wisdom of amateurs running their own servers.  For the previous four years, the blog had been center of my digital identity and the source of connection with a host of interesting, challenging and involved colleagues.  It also generated a fair amount angst, since writing is a form of torture for me; I’m prone to embarrassing typos, and I’ve been told by several colleagues that the defining attribute of my writing is my “keen sense of the obvious”.

That said, I’ve never quite gotten rid of that small voice in the back of my mind that keeps suggesting I ought to revisit the decision to abandon the blog.  The volume of the voice has gone up this semester as I’m teaching my adult education course for the first time since 2006.   The course is a bit unusual in that it builds explicitly on adult learning principles, which immediately frames the class much differently than most other courses that the students have experienced.  (We write the syllabus together after the fourth week of class, for example.)  There are a couple of guiding principles that emerge that relate to blogging:

  • Adult  educators an ethical responsibility to engage in sustained, systematic and critical reflection about their practice.  One of the major goals of the class is to help students develop methods of reflection that will live on beyond this course and will become integrated into their own lifelong learning and will help guide their efforts in helping others learn over the lifespan.
  • If you can find the courage to do it, sharing some of those reflections in a public way can be a source of continued creativity, inspiration and professional challenge.

Three or four of the students in the class are blogging as part of their reflection efforts, so I’ve been a bit sensitized to the need to narrate my own work.  Then two things happened that pushed me over the top and back into the new post window.  First Gardner posted a comment on a year old post saying stating that he was waiting for something new to appear.  (Curse you, Gardo!)  Then, one of the member  of my class signed up for a Twitter account and started following me, causing me to think that maybe it was time for me to get a little more public about my own reflections and practice.  Maybe it would be good to reopen myself to some of that creativity, inspiration and challenge.

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.

Sneak Peek at a New Program on Teaching Excellence

Last week I spent two full days in sessions of the University Teaching Project in preparation for a new partnership at William and Mary focused on using the best combination of traditional and emerging technologies available to broaden and deepen the conversation about excellent teaching. IT’s academic information services staff will be working closely with the Roy Charles Center–the nerve center for WM’s interdisciplinary programs, competitive scholarships, University Teaching Project and the Sharpe Community service program. As a result, the Charles Center is the home of some of the most interesting programs focused on expanding the range of teaching and learning at the College, and dozens of faculty members are working on projects to make learning even more interactive, integrative and imaginative.

We’ve worked closely with the folks at the Charles Center on a number of initiatives, including one focused on understanding the process of undergraduate research, and we’ve laid the groundwork even more expansive projects in the future. The grand plan for the next two years calls for our group to focus the time and resources that we’d been investing in the former Technology Integration Program on expanding the reach of the University Teaching Project. Our efforts in creating TIP had some very real successes, but we never achieved the kind of seamless integration that we had hoped for.

In practical terms, we’re going to help develop a fully interactive web site that fosters communications and consolidates resources about teaching in a common location. We know that teaching is highly valued at WM, but a visitor from Mars would have to look pretty hard for evidence of our commitment. Efforts at teaching improvement have generally been highly personal and private–shared only with a few close colleagues and department members. Our goal is to keep the support for grassroots efforts at teaching improvement, closely tied to the individual classroom, while publicizing some of successes so that others can build on them. In the early stages of the project, we’ll focus on listening, gathering information and trying to understand what the teaching community of practice is really like.

We’re optimistic about the potential value of this partnership because of the strong alignment between our way of working in the academic computing group and that of Joel Schwartz, Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies:

I am a catalyst,” he said. “What a good teacher does is kind of catalyze thinking and productivity in students. Teaching is not something in which you have a student sit at your feet while you dispense wisdom down to them and they soak it into their heads. You try to help them become original, creative people.” (link)

Links

University Teaching Project