Friday, March 25, 2011

The Essential Arguments: Understanding Why Things Are As They Are

When I started this blog I wanted to write about the intersections of teaching, learning and technology.

But what to write about? Not that there was a deficit of issues and activity - but finding the right perspective to inform them any better than many much more brilliant people were never presented itself.

Until I realized my advantage was I actually knew far less than they did about their topics. They were experts - and that was their disadvantage. To an expert - by benefit of greater training and deep, deep knowledge - they understood, in the gestalt of their discipline, why EVERY detail was essential and critical to the integrity of the whole. Without one nail - the war would be lost. And this can often be their greatest single impediment.

Without that constraint I was free to misinterpret - nay question - the unquestionable assumptions of the academy. I was simply too naive to know how wrong I was. And that seems to be a pretty interesting way to look at things. Now I could have experts teach me. Together we could find the essential arguments that made me smarter - and might free them from their bonds of expertise.

So, at least for today as I write, this will be my new lens for looking at education, technology, innovation, disruption and the disjunctions they cause.

The Link Not Taken

(apologies to Robert Frost)

Two links emerged on a search return,

And sorry I could not click on both

And be one surfer, long I churn

And read down one to try and learn

Which to choose and which to spurn.

Then read the other, as just for sure,

And having perhaps the better claim,

It’s URL promised pure;

Though as statistics did ensure

Users clicked both about the same.

So both upon that screen did lay

With promise but unproven track.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how link leads to link along the way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two links diverged in a search, and I--

I took the one less Googled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ode to an Online Class Sonnet 18.1

All apologies to William Shakespeare…this was first delivered on March 1, 2010 at the NROC Member Meeting, March 1 in Monterey, CA.

Ode to an Online Class Sonnet 18.1

Shall I compare thee to a classroom class?

Thou are more digital and interactive.

Online games do shape the minds at play,

And Twitter's speed makes knowledge just one click away.

Sometimes too long the page of learning takes to load

Like Polaroid's 60-second excitement of old

Yet, like a Facebook page revised

Learning now individualized

In context, from experts writing virtual, afar

But never texted from a car

Oh classroom now what is thy fate?

What use now for your lectern so great

And where will sit your faculties so fine

For now, so long as learners learn

So long fair classroom, I learn online.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How do you know if you are in a sea change...

I've been thinking about these factoids/indicators of the fact you MIGHT be in a sea change - lately:

If your tutor's country code is "91" (India)

If you email your professor and say you can't afford the gas to drive to campus

If you find yourself looking for the rewind button when listening to a live lecture

If you're using Google when your parents call and ask if you're at the library

When you tell your students about a great conference and they ask for the URL

(Feel free to add more...)

Everyone in the room had an iPhone

This may - or may not - be a sign of anything. In fact it might just be me validating the purchase of an iPhone - BUT... A couple of weeks ago I went to a meeting and (okay - it was Georgia Tech and there were only six of us) BUT... everyone had an iPhone. I suspect I was the rookie in the group - but there we were - all of using a tool that I've begun describing as the most compelling and satisfying user experience since my Newton.


Friday, September 12, 2008

The Moment I Noticed the World Changing

First, Zoe is just fine.

But a couple of weeks ago we were at the doctor’s office making sure. When the doctor ordered some standard lab tests we dutifully trooped down to the lab on the first floor. After a few procedures we were back up on the 3rd floor waiting to see the doctor again to review the results. As we waited, I downloaded a bubble-wrap app to the iPhone for Zoe to play with. My wife, who to date had found my iPhone obsession somewhere between annoying and obnoxious, listened to the sound of popping bubbles for about .30 picoseconds before she asked politely, “Can’t that thing do anything useful?” Looking over at our busily distracted eight-year-old I was thinking that it was already pretty useful.

But, here’s the interesting part.

My wife asked, “Can you bring up your healthcare site on that thing?” “Sure,” I said, eager to prove the worth of my purchase and quickly thinking up strategies to get the iPhone back from Zoe. Shortly, with the promise to download the “freebird” BIC lighter animation (truly the epitome of ‘crazy useless’), I was navigating through our daughter’s health files. And…the results of the labs – taken only minutes before – were already posted.

Hiding my pride as best I could (while doing a mental happy dance) I glowingly handed the iPhone to my wife. “Why, here are her labs right now!”

“Humph,” my wife (a nurse) replied as she looked over the screen. “She’s normal.” As I prepared a witty “no – above average” response, the receptionist paged us back to the examination room. Moments later the doctor entered, looking over a lab printout. “She’s normal,” he pronounced. With my wife looking daggers at me, I resisted saying, “Hey Doc, we already knew that…”

To me (while glad the medical opinion was positive) the moment was anything but normal. Not only had I proven the value of the iPhone (diminished somewhat when I was later caught waving the glowing freebird animation over my head) but we had just glimpsed the future technology is propelling us into. A future that is more connected, more informed (and yes, a more entertaining) environment.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Daughter Zoe Read A Book

For an eight-year-old this should not be a revelation. As a parent, steeped in the love and lore of reading, it is a relief. Mind you, she can do plenty of other things. Last week she found, signed up for (after asking permission) and downloaded Disney’s online Pirates of the Caribbean game – and played it incessantly for the next three days until she mastered it. But, until recently, she has showed little interest in actually reading something. You can imagine my delight (and relief) as she proudly stated “I’m on chapter twenty-four, Dad!”

This penchant to prefer the digital can disturb people. A year ago I fretted over my mother’s admonition that Zoe “should be outside playing and getting dirty.” To defend myself, I said, “But, you should have seen her the other day.” I went on to explain how I had watched her on the cell phone, sitting at her computer, talking to her BFF Katy. Amazed, I listened as she patiently helped Katy navigate her first visit to the Webkinz site walking her though successive screens and areas until they were both in the same chat room together. “Do you know what sort of communication skills, mental maps and abstract cognition that takes?” I asked my mother. With a certainty only a mother can project, she stated flatly, “She should be outside.”

If you are a parent – or a grandparent – you know the feeling. What is it with today’s kids?

* * *

This spring, citing a growing epidemic of students surfing gossip sites and shopping online during class, the Law School at the University of Chicago eliminated Internet access in most of its classrooms. In his explanation Dean Saul Levmore commented that students “don’t realize the value of what they’re being distracted from…our overarching goal is to have a terrific and interesting classroom experience – that is too important to allow diversions.”

As an educational technology advocate, I was dismayed. We work so hard to get technology into the classroom – and the classroom online – that this seemed like a huge retrenchment. And, even more vexing, it seemed to be for a very good reason. Who challenges the contention that updating MySpace or buying shoes is a legitimate class time activity? But taking the Internet away? It smacks of the “no calculators in the math class” from years ago. What is it with today’s faculty? Couldn’t they just be more interesting?

* * *

The Internet is a powerful transformer – and a powerful distracter – as these scenarios underscore. Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson in their new book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, point out that we cannot respond to these problems in the ways we always have – and, like at the UofC Law School, are now. We must embrace disruption to discover the new order of learning. Instead of one (the same) message to every student – we must enable custom messages that engage every student individually. Solving this koan is at the heart of transforming, some would say saving, our educational enterprise.

So what do we do differently? As Christensen, Horn and Johnson find, simply “cramming” technology into the traditional classroom and the traditional teaching model does not work well. Furthermore, it is too simple – and wrong – to say faculty just need to be more interesting. Like my Zoe shunning books for interactive digital worlds – professors need strategies (and technologies) that attract and enable them to engage students.

So how do we do this? John Seeley Brown, in his paper “New Learning Environments for the 21st Century,” provides an excellent counterpoint to the conundrum of making the too, too attractive Internet freely available in the classroom. He describes an innovative classroom experiment in the Interactive Media Division at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts called Backchannel.

In this classroom every student has access to the Internet – but each computer is linked to individual, large-screen monitors that ring the room. Using a broad mix of social software, every student, and the presenter, can see, and interact with and respond to what each other is doing. While, as Brown notes, the social constraints make idle surfing far less likely – more importantly the paradigm of the lecture is transformed into a collaborative, exploratory studio-like environment. In this room, where faculty model true practice of their discipline – and students are immersed in authentic work – certainly Dean Levmore’s goal of a “terrific and interesting experience” is also being met.

* * *

As so we struggle. Increasingly the evidence indicates the inevitably of tsunamic change. At every turn our instincts, honed and perfected in a world that will soon cease to exist, keep us focused on sustaining our current models. Technology always grows at a pace faster than our ability to use it. The answer cannot be avoiding technology because it is distracting – or charging faculty to be “more interesting.” The challenge is to embrace the chaos wherein lie the new instructional models – the new concepts of the “classroom” as a studio (concrete or virtual) for collaboration – that enable students and faculty to engage as co-learners and even co-creators transforming knowledge into knowing – together.

* * *

As for Zoe – she has asked to go to the library this weekend. Oh, and to the Nintendo store. What is it with these kids?


This first appeared in the WCET Frontiers Newsletter, June 2008( )