(I’m starting to set up a revised course web site for a summer sociology class. As issues come up, I intend to write brief posts, in part as notes to myself. Perhaps they can be of help to others. This time, the topic is Twitter.)
Lots of course web sites can benefit from a Twitter feed that displays the stream of Tweets using the course hashtag, or a hashtag that feeds course-related content. In my case, it will be #vcusocy101 for the VCU Sociology 101 course, and I may use a separate #sociology feed for generic content, too. Setting up that feed is easy…once you know where to look for the plug-in. There’s more than one way to do this but the simple method below works well. (I’m assuming you have a Twitter account already set up.)
From your Dashboard, make sure you have Jetpack activated.
Now activate the “Extra Sidebar Widgets” feature in Jetpack.
Go to Appearance/Widgets and you’ll now see a widget called “Twitter Timeline (Jetpack).” Drag it to the sidebar where you want it to appear.
While still on the widget page, open the Twitter Timeline widget and you’ll see a link to “create a widget at Twitter.” Open this in a new tab.
From that Twitter widget site, choose the “search” tab, enter the # you want to feed, click “create a widget” and copy the resulting code.
Paste the code somewhere so you can highlight and copy just the “data widget ID” number, which is about 18-digits long. (You don’t need the rest of the code.)
Back on the WordPress widget page, paste the ID number into the appropriate box on your Twitter Timeline widget. You can customize the style here, too.
Save and update and–voila–your feed is live.
Plenty of additional advice and help in the WordPress Codex and support forums.
(You know it’s long if there’s a preface!) In working with faculty, the need to aggregate student blogs comes up regularly. Tom Woodward has an excellent short video on the mechanics of setting this up, as well as links to a series of detailed posts by Alan Levine (Cogdog) on the topic. Here, I’ve elaborated further on some of the issues involved. Hopefully, some of this will be of use to instructors thinking of adopting a blog hub model in their class.
The Internet enables instructors to create new forms of learning experiences, either as a supplement to a traditional face-to-face class or as part of a fully online course. One such possibility is to set up a blog “hub” on a course site that serves as the center for student blog activity. (This model has been around at least since 2002 and is sometimes referred to as a “motherblog.”)1
The concept is relatively simple but some background and instructions might be of value, if you are unfamiliar with it. To that end, this post sketches out the basics:
What is a “blog hub?” (The Basic Concept)
Why would I try this? (Possible Benefits)
How do I create it? (Some Nuts-and-Bolts)
How do I manage it? (Tags and Categories)
How do I prepare students? (Giving Instructions)
1. WHAT IS A “BLOG HUB”? (The Basic Concept)
To create a blog hub:
The instructor sets up a course website (at Rampages.us if you are at VCU).
Students set up their own blog sites (again, VCU students can use Rampages.us) or use an existing blog (in WordPress, Blogger, or any other platform that has RSS–the bit of code that “feeds” content from one site to another).
The instructor links the student sites to the course site.
Students create content on their own site but the content is fed (copied, really) to the course web site where everyone can conveniently see it, thus serving as a “hub” of student blog activity. (It also exists on the student’s own site, where you would go to add a comment.)
Through the use of categories and tags, content can also be sorted dynamically; streamed to different parts of the course site or pulled up to view by the reader.
2. WHY WOULD I TRY THIS? (Possible Benefits)
Blogs in general–and a blog hub in particular–offer some potential benefits for your classes, including:
Students practice being cultural producers, not just audiences/consumers/users. Many students can use popular web services and apps, but relatively few students have the experience or skills needed to create and customize their own web site. They are adept at choosing from a fast-food menu but they can’t cook on their own. Creating one’s own site is more challenging (just as cooking is) but it offers the potential for a more healthful and varied diet, so to speak. Students can do this without a course hub, but integrating a hub into a class–and, ideally, across multiple classes–provides an added incentive and creates an immediate audience for their work.
A WordPress site allows for considerable flexibility, making for potentially more engaging, useful, and pleasant web sites. There are simple ready-made blogs available in places like Blackboard but (in an analogy that comes from Jim Groom, I believe) in these sites students are renters instead of homeowners; very little customization is possible and writing occurs behind LMS walls. There’s nothing magical about the open-source WordPress platform but at the moment–and, more importantly, in the foreseeable future–Wordpress will be a major player. (At this writing, more than 20% of all websites are built on a WordPress platform.) Once students become comfortable with the technology, customizing their own web space can be a creative process that enables them to express themselves and communicate who they are to peers and the broader world. Even simple things like web site themes and photos can add a personal touch often absent from other learning experiences.
Students “own” their work space. This is not intuitive. Students initially see creating a web space as fulfilling an assignment for a course–which it is. But their work in this space can outlive the course and the site can serve multiple purposes:
Student blog sites can be used for multiple courses and customized over time.
Students can create content completely unrelated to their courses (interests, hobbies, etc)
WordPress content is easily exportable (though formatting tweaks are often not), so students can move their work elsewhere if they want. (At this writing, VCU’s long-term support plans for supporting student sites after they graduate is still being determined.)
These sites can evolve into useful eportfolios and be revised to help students create an online professional identity as they hit the job market.
Students (and the world) can more easily see each other’s work. In a traditional classroom, students usually don’t see each others work unless it is a class presentation; they are writing for the instructor. With blogs, students get to consider a potential broader audience: fellow students, family, friends, and anyone with the blog URL. With a blog hub, the likelihood of having fellow students see their work is increased further. Requiring some commenting on other students’ work ensures a readership. Some potential benefits:
students get to practice writing for the “real” world where their thoughts are public
this can help them to “raise their game” since their work is more visible
they can learn from each other by reading other posts
they can help each other by providing feedback
Having students write in public requires some preparation. At the very least, they need a reminder that this is available for the world to see and that content needs to be appropropriate for an open audience. At its best, you might even attract some attention and comments from colleagues, former students, or folks in the field who weigh in on something that catches their interest.
Blog hubs can help promote a sense of community online. Community requires repeated and sustained interaction to exist, which is one of the challenges of all classes. In a face-to-face class, there is the structural requirement of repeatedly sharing the same physical space for a set period of time. An instructor can build on this to facilitate structured interactions that students share (small group exercises, pair-and-share activities, even general Q&A portions of the class). In addition, valuable serendipitous interactions can occur (students chat before class, a discussion continues after class). These features of community are what can be lost in a traditional online course that focuses only on content delivery. A blog hub can create a “course commons,” if you will; a space where intentional structured interactions take place (assignments and the like) as well as a space that can prompt serendipitous communication through comments.
Blog hubs can foster a sense of student ownership of a course. Typically, faculty create content for a class. They write a syllabus and create a course web site to help manage the class and promote student learning. The instructor is the creator of the course, the students take it. By integrating a blog hub onto the course web site, the instructor signals a subtle but significant shift: student creations matter and are part of the course; they are right there on the course web site.
You can also take advantage of non-student blogs. Using the same mechanics described for student blogs, you can add any blog’s content to your course site. For example, you might want to add blogs from professionals in your discipline to show some of the contemporary work being created. These can be fed to a separate area on your site to keep them apart from student work (see the categories/tags discussion below).
3. HOW DO I CREATE IT? (Some nuts-and-bolts)
(Reminder: Tom Woodward’s video does a nice job with this material and you may want to view it now.)
Blog hubs don’t set themselves up (not yet, anyway). If you’re at VCU folks at ALT Lab will help you set this up, if needed. But it’s not that difficult to do on your own and there’s a lot to be said for poking around your WordPress dashboard and learning by doing. (You can always use the WordPress instructions–its Codex, its deep support forums, or just Google “Wordpress [your issue]” for help.) Even if you seek help to set this up, it’s still useful to understand how it works.
First, a caution: step-by-step instructions become quickly dated as WordPress revisions are introduced. (I’m using version 4.1.1 for these instructions and screenshots.) Still, this may be useful for some, even if the particulars have changed by the time you read this.
To get your blog hub set up:
Go to your course web page’s “Dashboard”
Choose “Plugins” from the menu items in the left-hand column
Find and activate the FeedWordPress plugin. (You may have to download it if it’s not already available on your installation.) This will enable you to “feed” your site with the blog entries from your students’ site.
Once activated, FeedWordPress creates a new “Syndication” item on your Dashboard menu.
Open up the syndication menu item and enter the URL of each student’s site into the “new source” window in Feedwordpress. (At VCU, you should add “/feed” after the URL as in the example below.)
If you have more than just a few students, you’ll want to assemble URL’s in advance and add them all at once, which FeedWordPress allows you to do using the “add mulitple” button (see above). Regardless of how you add them, you need to collect your students’ blog URLs. You can set up a Google form, for example, and ask for the URL along with any other survey questions you might ask at the start of the semester.
Once you’ve set up the feeds, have your students write a simple test post on their site and check to make sure it’s getting syndicated to the course site. (A simple self-introduction is always nice.)
If things are not working properly, double-check to make sure you have the correct URL from the student. If that’s not the issue, have students check the following:
Is the site visibility set to be public? In setting up their site, students haven’t made it publicly visible. To work with RSS feeds, site’s visibility setting needs to be public (either of the first two options below), NOT private (any of the bottom three options below).
Is the post visibility set to “public”? If not, it won’t be “seen” in FeedWordPress.
Have you “published” the post? Until you do, the post remains in “draft” mode.
Once any glitches get cleaned up, you’ll be good to go.
4. HOW DO I MANAGE IT? (tags and categories)
Depending on the size of your enrollment and the number of blog assignments you make, a trickle of posts can quickly become a fire-hydrant-stream of content flooding your course site. You need to think in advance about how this stream will be handled to make it usable for you and your students.
There are two basic ways to organize the content stream: by grouping individual posts or by grouping authors. Grouping by post allows you to view content from multiple authors on a single topic, such as when you review responses to an assignment. Grouping by author can be useful if you want to create small groups within larger classes to keep a more intimate sense of community. (You always have the option to view all posts by a single author by simply clicking on a post’s title, which will take you to their blog.)
When it comes to individual posts:
You don’t want everything a student writes to show up on the course site, just the relevant posts. (This becomes an important issue if students are using their blog for more than one class or otherwise creating non-course content.)
You do want to be able to pull up posts related to a particular assignment or topic, especially if you are using it for assessment.
Categories are most useful for a limited set of labels that you know ahead of time. (For example, a set of core concepts, particular assignments, or a list of small groups for your students.) They are a top-down, or deductive, taxonomic structure. You develop the category structure first, then fit content into one or more of them.
Tags are more appropriate when developing labels that you don’t know ahead of time. (Open-ended assignments, for example, where students come up with their own ideas that need to be labelled.) They are a bottom-up, or inductive, folksonomic structure. You create content and then label it with a tag.
Tag clouds (such as the one on this site) or category lists can easily be placed in sidebars to create easy access to groups of posts that share a label.
You can also attach a category to an entire blog, thereby allowing you to sort by author. This is especially useful when you want to organize students into small groups. To do this you would:
Create a category for each group. (This could be as simple as “Group 1,” “Group 2,” etc.)
Assign each student to one of the groups.
Associate their blog stream with the appropriate category. To do this, you:
Go to Dashboard/Syndication and hover over the student’s blog feed.
You’ll see “categories” is one of the options that appears; click on it
Now scroll down and check off the group category you want to assign under the “All posts: Give all posts from this feed these categories”
This will now be a default category applied to all posts feeding from this site, enabling you to steer these posts (along with those of fellow group members) to separate space on the course web site. That’s because a collection of posts that share either a tag or category actually have a unique URL, which can be used in WordPress’ menu feature to create a dynamic “custom link” on your course site’s menu. Each of the small groups in your class, for example, could easily be assigned their own “page” based on the category label you have assigned it. You might have a menu item on your course site labeled “Group 1” for which the URL would be (using Rampages example) “htttp://rampages.us/yourcoursesitename/category/Group1”, where all content from students in this group was aggregated.
Finally, keep in mind that the same content can be fed to different places. In the example above, a course’s default category (“aggregate”) could be used to feed all course content to a single page, while one blog’s group category (“Group 1”) could simultaneously feed this blog content to a small group page. This allows flexibility in setting up multiple viewing options on a course site; you might want to create a more manageable small group space but also keep open the possibility of serendipitous reading and interaction on the site’s aggregate blog stream.
5. HOW DO I PREPARE STUDENTS? (Giving instructions.)
If you’ve made it this far, you probably see that hubs are a bit of a challenge, especially if you have quite a few students with limited digital skills. Don’t assume students will know how to do any of this just because they are “digital natives.” Instead, provide students with enough scaffolding to get them started. You can avoid most problems by anticipating and addressing them in clear basic instructions.
I’d suggest a comprehensive five-fold approach:
Explain a bit about why you are using blogs and a hub. Describe some of the benefits you’re hoping the class gets from this exercise. I think it’s usually easier to tackle a challenging task if you have some sense of why you are being asked to do it.
Acknowledge students’ (and perhaps your) discomfort and possible short-term frustration. There will be problems that arise as they set up blogs and get started. But, it will be worth it and–surprise!–everyone will survive. Expecting everything to go smoothly sets an unrealistic and anxiety-provoking standard that will never be met. You can model a healthy attitude towards learning by acknowledging ahead of time that learning new things can be a challenge. That’s a plus, not a problem.
Provide some minimal, but detailed, step-by-step instructions on the most essential items (such as how to create an account on Rampages at VCU). Less is more in this case.
Explain how to find more info about any issue or topic (WordPress codex, support forums, or plain old Google) and offer some links to information you think is especially useful.
Offer a forum or other mechanism for students to help each other with questions. Students who have already successfully set up their blogs can be the best source of information for others, saving you the burden of having to answer individual questions.
Don’t be intimidated by the length of this post. There’s nothing like learning-by-doing; jump in and much of this will take less time to do than it has for me to try to explain it. But know that you have this post and lots of online resources available should you need some assistance.
I don’t use the name “motherblog” because I find it misleading. A mother produces offspring. A “mothership,” for example, is defined as “a large spacecraft or ship from which smaller craft are launched.” The “motherblog” is NOT the source of the student content; it’s the other way around. In this sense, I find “blog hub” a more appropriate term. [↩]
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s recent budget not only proposed a 13 percent cut in support for the University of Wisconsin, but it also suggested changing the system’s mission. Gone would be language that encouraged “public service,” the “search for truth,” and the need to “improve the human condition.” Instead, new mission language called for higher ed to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” In the face of immediate and widespread opposition, Walker’s office backtracked, calling the proposed changes a “drafting error.”
But the incident, in a nutshell, reflects the two competing models of higher education. Should college educate people broadly, preparing citizens for life-long learning to promote the well-being of self and society? Or should it be job training to meet immediate workforce needs? These goals don’t need to be mutually exclusive, of course, but they are very different emphases.
The sort of cuts Walker–himself a college dropout–proposed are not unique. The slow abandonment of state public financing for higher education has been going on for years and continues in the post-recession era. That means more debt or locked doors for students with limited means. The children of affluent parents will continue to have access to broad liberal arts education–either at increasingly pricey flagship public schools or, more often, in even pricier private schools. But with funding cuts and a shift in emphasis, students depending on state-supported public institutions are nudged toward more narrowly defined, job-related programs.
The distinction is a personal one for me. I grew up in a working class family. The regional high school everyone attended was vocationally oriented, focusing on secretarial skills, auto shop, building trades, and the like. There was minimal support for the handful of “college track” students. Only about 10-15% of students went on to a four-year college. With 8th-grade educations, my parents knew nothing of college. I don’t think I knew anyone who had gone to college other than school teachers and our family doctors.
I managed to make it to a four-year school, Brandeis, through a combination of a college guide book from the public library, generous financial aid, and no small amount of dumb luck. A classic liberal arts school, Brandeis has a mission that “affirms the importance of a broad and critical education in enriching the lives of students and preparing them for full participation in a changing society, capable of promoting their own welfare, yet remaining deeply concerned about the welfare of others.” That is one vision of higher education.
I had no idea I’d be interested in a “liberal arts” education….whatever that was. Instead, I went to school after telling my parents I’d be a computer science major, even though I’d never touched a computer in my life. It seemed practical to them (vocational education again!) because in 1980 it was clear that computers were only going to grow in importance. But after my first course in programming (Pascal!), I was bored to death. In addition, with my mediocre high school prep, I did poorly my first semester and needed to work double-time to catch up with more affluent, better-prepared students. I also worked half-time to help pay expenses, which added to the challenge. But I survived these initial bumps, discovered a love of sociology (which I’d never heard of before) and double-majored in that and English. I managed to acquire and benefit from a liberal arts education, something I could have never imagined ahead of time that I’d do.
In contrast, two of my three siblings went to a local 2-year school that is now part of the state community college system. (The third didn’t attend college.) It was known then as a vocational-technical college with the mission of training “qualified high school graduates as skilled workers to meet the needs of the state”–language that is remarkably similar to Walker’s changes. That is a different vision of higher education.
What they studied is still a little vague to me. It was some sort of electrical and electronics training. One brother is a licensed electrician and skilled carpenter who does remodelling jobs on the side, though his main employment has been in a paper mill. The other brother worked until retirement doing electronics work in a plant that made jet engines. They both benefitted from their education, on-the-job training and, crucially, the presence of unions in their respective workplaces.
Our family is a mini-case study in the fact that there is no “one size fits all” approach to education. My brothers would have probably hated a full-blown liberal arts education; neither of them was oriented towards “book learning.” They–and the majority of people, I imagine–are interested in other things and do other types of work. In turn, I would have done poorly in a vo-tech program. I pursued college because I was interested in ideas and learning for learning’s sake. I had only the vaguest of notions of how this stint in college might someday lead to a job.
We need a range of models for higher education. I have too much respect for the variety of contributions people make to want to turn everyone into middle class, liberal arts graduates. (It’s never been lost on me that I’ve made a part of my living writing books printed on the sort of paper that my brother once helped to make.) But everyone should get to make a choice about their education. A liberal arts education–as well as more narrowly tailored job training–should be an option for everyone who wants it. That’s what well-funded public education is about; increasing access to the type of education that those with limited resources choose to pursue.
As a New Hampshire native, I didn’t have that choice. In a state with no sales tax and no property tax, the public higher education system was woefully underfunded and much too expensive for me to attend. I was among the lucky few who experienced a liberal arts education by managing to cobble together Federal financial aid, work-study programs, and significant tuition assistance from an out-of-state private institution. That’s not a model for broad-based public policy.
So when I hear that Obama wants training for “in-demand” jobs or Walker is trying to meet the state workforce needs, I understand the practical realities that job-training can make in people’s lives. But when I see such visions accompanied by cuts to public education funding and pitched as a replacement for a broader liberal arts tradition, I see only the furthering of social and economic inequality.
It’s been five years since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad. As tech writer Tim Lee notes in his article about the anniversary, he and other reviewers at the time mostly scoffed at the new device. They criticized it for having glaring omissions (no keyboard, mouse, or standard external ports), for its inadequate software, and for using a closed platform. How could a company that prided itself on forward-thinking innovation create such a limited, simplistic product?
Consumers shrugged at the negative reviews and went on to buy about a quarter billioniPads to date.
Reflecting on the chasm between the negative reviews and the positive sales, Lee concludes, “The iPad wasn’t designed for people like me who spend all day in front of a computer. It was designed for more casual users who value simplicity and convenience over power-user features. And there are a lot more of them than there are people like me.”
This gulf was apparent even back in 2010 when the iPad was introduced. Then, NY Times tech reporter David Pogue wrote, “The haters tend to be techies; the fans tend to be regular people.” The chasm was so great, that he wrote two separate reviews of the iPad, one for each audience. (By the way, the iPad was criticized at the time of its release—rightly so in my opinion—for being primarily a consumption device that was inappropriate for higher ed.)
All of this should sound familiar to anyone working around educational technology. The LMS, course platforms from commercial publishers, and other educational tech ventures periodically receive a sound thrashing from critics (often with good cause). And yet such platforms keep chugging on year after year, with a majority of faculty saying the LMS is critical to their teaching.
For ed-tech power users, innovators, and early adopters, these platforms are known for their plain vanilla features and significant limitations. While there may not be much love lost on such platforms, for regular faculty there is the comfort of familiarity and relative ease of use…at least for the basic features.
So the LMS and other commercial platforms are the iPads of higher ed—at least in the sense that they are often disliked by power users but relied upon by many faculty. And the reasons for this gulf in higher ed are likely similar to those related to the iPad. Faculty have basic course-related needs that can be met—if uninspiringly—by existing technology and spending time figuring out how to use new, often open, technology is not high on their list of priorities. In contrast, learning such things is the bread-and-butter of instructional technologists, educational specialists, and other ed-tech-related folks. Their careers depend on staying abreast of these newer developments.
In addition, faculty have been burned before. “Innovation,” “disruption,” and “revolutions” in the form of new software, tech devices, and pedagogical innovations litter the higher ed landscape. No wonder they can be a skeptical bunch when it comes to educational change.
So what might we learn from the iPad experience as analogy?
It’s rarely either/or. The iPad illustrates again that we need to move beyond a binary good/evil approach to these debates. Apple has been widely touted for its high-performing power-user laptops and its innovative and clean designs (though not its labor practices). At the same time, the company was able to recognize and serve another segment of the market that was interested in something much simpler and more limited. I suspect Apple was able to apply what it had learned from its higher-end ventures to serving this market, and in the process it learned more about reaching out beyond its more tech-saavy core customers. Similarly, those of us working in higher ed needn’t focus exclusively on innovators nor limit ourselves to servicing existing needs. There’s likely useful synergy in being involved in both efforts simultaneously.
Less can be more. The iPad didn’t do a lot of things. But it did a few things well enough to meet the needs of a significant customer base. I suspect that figuring out what was essential and what was expendable in developing such a product was a valuable exercise.
I wonder if we in higher ed might not benefit from focusing more on essentials and learning to do them exceptionally well. We do a very good job of accessing and presenting content online but we are still in the infancy of developing other very basic capabilities such as facilitating meaningful discussion and enabling feedback. As far as I can tell, blogs/comments and social media platforms rarely host substantive student discussion (and that’s one of the key reasons faculty cite in why online learning is inferior to face-to-face classes). What could be done here? Might it be time to reincarnate the classic discussion forum as a more fluid, easy-to-use, easy-to-read (and assess), and visually engaging space? Or is there some other approach to this challenge? And what about re-thinking how faculty provide feedback and interact with students in the online environment? Perhaps a Genius-like application for higher ed? And what else do faculty consider essential to teaching well? And how might we use technology to meet these needs?
It’s a loose and imperfect analogy, of course, but on this anniversary it seems worth asking whether we might learn something from the iPad…even if we dislike it.
I wrote a music column for my high school newspaper. I scoured a half dozen music magazines for ideas (anyone remember Circus? Crawdaddy? Creem?) and reviewed albums I liked (Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, the Clash, Patti Smith, and a number of bands I’m less willing to admit to now). Being a music fan with no money in a small town a couple of hours away from the nearest major concert venue, I also operated an informal ticket service. Place your order with me (and a friend who had a car) and for a reasonable fee we’d periodically take a road trip to pick up tickets for upcoming shows. The fees we charged paid for our gas, our tickets, and some of the vinyl I bought.
This was the late 70s in the pre-Internet world. Information was scarce, Ticketmaster was a fledgling phone-based startup with limited reach, and someone as ridiculously unqualified as I was could play the role of a de facto local music expert. (One regionally popular band even hired me to write their publicity material; my first paid writing gig.) The places to learn about music were very limited. Didn’t understand a lyric? There were no lyric websites; you just argued it out with friends…endlessly. There was no MTV, YouTube, or Pandora. There was Soul Train, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and the Midnight Special (look ‘em up) but those usually catered to pop tastes and bands appearing on television were often seen–at least by my friends–as “selling out.” The most exotic source of music info I had access to was a subscription to Britain’s New Music Express I’d convinced our local librarian to acquire.
I was reminded of all this recently as I listened (for free) to Spotify. I played various music, skimming each artist’s “biography” page, exploring the convenient links to “related artists,” checking out Spotify’s built-in lyrics feature, sometimes jumping to an artist’s Wikipedia discography to learn about the critical reception of their work over time. I started with classic blues (Howlin’ Wolf, Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker), which reminded me of Mali’s Ali Farka Toure which led to Tinariwen and got me thinking about Algeria’s Khaled (not to be confused with DJ Khaled)…and on and on. These were long-time favorites of mine but at each step I ventured off to learn a bit about related folks I’d never heard of and listen to some of their work.
A world of music vastly more diverse than my narrow high school play list was at my fingertips. With a click of the mouse I could instantly listen to artists, access background information, learn about musical influences and cultural references, read critical reviews, and more. I was swimming in an ocean of information–audio, images, videos, text–that would have been completely unimaginable to my laughably parochial teenage self, who considered AC/DC an exotic discovery because they were–gasp–from Australia! How I envy young people growing up in this cornucopia of music! Had I been able to travel forward in time, I suspect I’d see the magical music machine that sits on my desk (or in my hand) as heaven itself.
This is one aspect of what we mean when we say information is no longer scarce. The Internet has facilitated the emergence of a new world of information at our fingertips. The way we hear, experience, learn about, share, and create music is vastly different than what those of us of a certain age did growing up.
And yet, when I look around my campus, most of the classes I see are organized in a way that is remarkably similar to those I experienced in high school and college. It’s as if time has stood still in parts of higher education. We work in educational museums with life-sized dioramas.
I don’t argue for change for change’s sake; some things continue because they are valuable and work. But in a world that’s been transformed, those of us helping students prepare for their future need to adapt. We need to be helping students get ready for the world they will live in, not the world we grew up in. In an era of information abundance–not scarcity–we have the opportunity to help students learn about, navigate, sort through, think critically about, and put in context the ocean of information in which they live. That involves experimenting with new ways to harness the potentials of digital technology and to tap into the vast collective knowledge that is available online. It involves unleashing students so they can investigate these boundless resources and learn to use them to construct their own creations and analyses.
This simple notion of information abundance is well-worn stuff but somehow my little musical journey brought the lesson home again for me.
Imagine a study that examined faculty attitudes towards the quality of learning in different classes. Such a study might ask these sorts of questions:
Can large courses achieve learning outcomes that are equivalent to small seminars?
What are the most important quality indicators of a lecture-based education?
How does the quality of large courses compare with the quality of small seminars?
How supportive are institutions of small seminars?
Which should cost the student more — large lecture-based degree programs or those delivered in small seminars?
Are institutions expanding large lecture-based courses? Should they do so? To what extent do faculty feel that they are appropriately consulted in this decision-making process?
These questions are taken from a recent Inside Higher Edpromotion of a survey that examined faculty attitudes–not toward class size but toward online learning. I’ve mostly replaced the words “in-person” and “online” with “small” or “large.”
The survey is an example of a common implied assumption: that “modality”–whether a course will be conducted face-to-face or online–is the most important variable influencing the quality of education. This is the modality myth.
By focusing exclusively on modality, other crucial variables get obscured. For example, anyone who’s ever taught large and small classes knows they are different animals. But questions about class size seem more likely to be raised in debates about academic labor issues (faculty-student ratios and over-reliance on adjuncts and contract faculty, etc.), than in discussions of learning quality.
Similarly, instructors matter as much or more then modality. Lecturing full-time in a 20-student class wastes the opportunities afforded by a small class. Using the Internet to simply “push” content in an online class wastes the affordances of that environment. A creative instructor can help both those environments come to life.
My point is a simple one. Modality matters but it is just one of several major variables that impact the learning experience. Back in the day when online education was new, perhaps it made sense to pay special attention to the novel issues modality raised. But now, online education has expanded into many different forms. It makes no more sense to think of “online courses” as a monolithic entity than it does to think of the 300-seat lecture hall and 10-seat seminar room as the the same, simply because they share the same modality.
So the next time you see a discussion focusing exclusively on online versus in-person courses, try plugging in other variables (large vs. small, active-learning vs. passive lecture) to get a much better sense of the range of relevant issues that may be influencing quality.
Clay Shirky recently published an article on his decision to “ban unless required” laptops, tablets, and phones in class because these devices are distracting and multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting for students. Previously, he has allowed such devices in class, noting that his reluctance to ban them was based on the fact that:
when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.
But gradually–while he and his courses remained largely the same–the level of distraction posed by these devices increased to the point where he’s decided to not only discourage their use but prohibit them outright. In addition to his personal experience, he justifies his decision by citing some of the early research on the negative impact of these devices on student learning in class, including on those nearby who aren’t using them.
Shirky’s statement is only the latest in a series of such pronouncements (including this one). But the novelty of the announcement–and its prima facie credibility–was based on Shirky’s identity as a long-time proponent of, and enthusiast for, the Internet’s possibilities. In fact, when the Washington Postrepublished his piece, they used the headline highlighting this angle on the story: “Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class.”
Shirky has long espoused the potential power of the Internet, especially to enable groups to organize without centralized organizations and to tap into the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the Internet’s participatory culture. But as others have pointed out, his vision of the liberative potential of the Internet seems inattentive to the stark inequalities that limit such opportunities to those already in relatively privileged social positions. The title of his best known work on Web 2.0 reflects this tone-deaf feature of his work: Here Comes Everybody. Really? “Here Comes A Lot of People” surely, but “Everybody”? No. Many people are and will be left out of this techno-enthusiast vision.
In response to Shirky’s piece, my colleague Jon Becker wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post raising questions about the distracting nature of other “technologies,” including uncomfortable plastic chairs, fluorescent lighting, windows, and the large lecture hall itself. While I appreciate the humor, for me, the analogies are off the mark. None of those were designed specifically to attract eyeballs the way that social media platforms and other Internet sites are. The Internet is a vastly more multi-faceted, engaging, and entertaining technology than a plastic chair. Further, none of these examples are typically in the control of an individual instructor. We’re talking apples and oranges.
But, analogies aside, Becker raises an important question about what might be going on in the classroom and he advocates for more active, engaging learning—a sort of “promote engagement rather than ban distraction” approach. From Shirky’s piece, we can’t really tell if he’s tried this…or how large his classes are…or anything, really, about the context in which his policy is being applied.
And that’s a problem. Shirkey’s blanket “I tried it; it doesn’t work; ban them” approach is a carte blanche justification for anyone doing anything other than incorporating technology. Why are you clinging to wordy Powerpoints and hour-long lectures as the go-to method of instruction? Now there’s a facile answer: “Even the techno-enthusiasts are banning technology from the classroom.” In the wake of his pronouncement, I fear that banning technology in the classroom (with a syllabus link to Shirkey’s article, perhaps?) will increasingly be the response to student disengagement, rather than doing the hard work of re-evaluating our pedagogical strategies amidst 21st century realities. In my pre-Internet student days people read the newspaper in back of large lecture halls, learning to neatly fold the page subway-style to avoid obvious detection. The distracting nature of newsprint and the engaging writing found in the sports section were hardly the real problems.
Here’s where my usual boring call for “all things in moderation” comes in. We shouldn’t fetishize digital technologies nor the non-digital classroom. Where appropriate, technology can play a significant role in education and should be embraced and celebrated. Indeed, we should be much more creative in how we attempt to harness the potential of these still-emerging technologies. But face-to-face discussions, question-and-answer sessions, group exercises, debates, student presentations, and even (brief) lectures, can also be a valuable part of learning. None of these necessarily require the presence of digital technologies and all of them likely benefit from a technology time-out to facilitate social presence, concentration, and close attention to the here and now. (Indeed, a growing–if uneven–literature on the value of unplugging speaks to this strategy in various circumstances.) I’ve never banned tech in the classroom and don’t think I would in the future, but under some circumstances I certainly understand why an instructor would want to do so. Shirky’s right about that.
But Becker’s right to imply that if you’re going to ban technology and ask for close attention, you’d better have a meaningful and worthwhile reason for it. Stale Powerpoints and didactic lectures will likely be met with mental disengagement whether or not technology is present. The daydream is a timeless distraction from a dull classroom.
Academics learn early on about the need to “publish or perish,” a phrase dating back at least to the 1930s.1 Regular publication is a requirement for career advancement in research-oriented academia. But the phrase is often used pejoratively, too. For example, in a 1942 study of academia, The Academic Man: A Study in the Sociology of a Profession, Logan Wilson mentions it in the context of junior faculty resentment towards an emphasis on quantity over quality and a faculty belief that this emphasis results in only “lip service” being paid to good teaching.
Fast-forward to 1985 and the founding of MIT’s Media Lab. The lab’s co-founder, architect Nicholas Negroponte, famously adopted “demo or die” as the Lab’s alternative to “publish or perish.” The idea was to produce a steady stream of awe-inspiring demonstrations that highlighted the innovations under development at the Lab. The demo only had to work once because its purpose was to attract corporate money to continue the Lab’s work and to inspire those companies to adopt and develop the innovations in real-world contexts.
A 2000 New York Times 15-year retrospective on the Lab noted that, “The constant demonstrations … is how the Media Lab survives: embarking on pie-in-the-sky research while simultaneously convincing companies that its ideas are worth the cost of sponsorship, which runs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each company each year.” By ponying up the money for co-sponsorship of the Lab, corporations had the right to use any of the innovations produced there, including royalty-free licenses for patented inventions. In this way, the Lab sought to attract the funding it needed to do its work, while remaining free of contracts to do specific projects for specific companies.
The idea of a “demo” long existed outside of the Media Lab and it has limitations on this generic level. A 1995 Wired magazine article notes that a demo:
… isn’t a demonstration of a game or business application, and it hasn’t been commissioned for any ulterior commercial purpose. The only thing it demonstrates are the skills of its programmer – or, more often, the skills of a group of coders, graphic artists, and musicians who’ve grouped together. And the only reason it has been written is to show off. Demos are the last bastion of passionate, crazed, enthusiast-only programming, crafted purely for the hell of it…
Those limitations spilled over to the Lab. As one graduate of the Media Lab put it, “Occasionally, a demo evolves into a working product, a finished art piece, or a widely used technology. But the real product of the Media Lab is the demo itself. The demo is what gets sponsors, reporters, and the general public excited.”2
The Lab’s focus on demos was rife with difficulties. That same New York Times 15-year retrospective also noted that the Lab’s “…professors, students and even a few sponsors are starting to wonder how it can remain an open arena for exchanging ideas in an age of start-up companies, competitive research and sudden riches for those who turn their innovations into products.” Indeed, the clash of cultures was constant between academia’s open learning and the corporate world’s proprietary pressures.
The first decade of the century saw the implosion of telecom companies (many of whom were Lab sponsors) and a significant decline in the percentage of the Lab’s budget that came from corporate sponsors.3 As early as 2003, after layoffs and belt-tightening, the place was being written about in Wired as “The Lab That Fell to Earth” amidst questions about its sustainability, the seriousness of its media-genic “all icing and no cake” demo approach, and its potential “irrelevance.” “Once rock stars,” the harsh article opined, “the Media Lab crew has become a geezer rock band – Lynyrd Skynyrd with pocket protectors.”
In the wake of further financial and organizational challenges, Joi Ito–ironically, a man without a college degree–was named the MIT Media Lab’s director in 2011. A co-founder and chairman (2006-2012) of Creative Commons among many other digital technology accomplishments, Ito moved the Lab away from its emphases on demos.
In 2014, Ito introduced a new motto for the Lab: “Deploy or Die.” As he described in a Ted Talk (summary), the cost of actually producing some types of usable innovation has plummeted, such as with app development. Sometimes, this enables the producers of innovation to take the next step to deploy their creations on their own, without the need for massive financial sponsorship from corporations. “You have to get the stuff into the real world for it to really count,” he explains. “We should be getting out there ourselves and not depending on large institutions to do it.”
Whether prompted by shrinking funding from corporate sponsors or (in Ito’s positive spin) by the expanding opportunities offered by the Internet, or by a combination of both, the move from “demo” to “deploy” is an interesting development as the Lab appears to be aiming its sights on increased relevance in the practical “real world.”
Though the parallel is far from perfect, hearing about this shift resonated with me in a different context: innovation in higher education. I’ve been struck with both the potential and the limitation of education innovation efforts that have the feel of “demos,” showcasing the possibilities of technological innovation to help improve education.
Our own shop here at ALT Lab has been involved in several such efforts, most notably the interesting cMOOC experiment Thought Vectors in Concept Space. While resource-intensive to set up, such efforts can really display aspects of what is now possible in education, using widely available technology. I think of these efforts as educational “concept cars,” designed to highlight new technology and ideas, though not necessarily intended to be put into mass production. And that’s fine; the point is not to mass produce a single model but instead to suggest some of what is possible. Instructors will hopefully adopt and adapt elements they find useful, bringing their own ideas, interests, and applications to the mix.
Whether thought of as “demos” or “concept cars,” such experiments in educational innovation need to happen. They can inspire others and push the boundaries of what is possible. They are a valuable counterweight to the inertia that affects us all as we routinize teaching and, potentially, fall into the rut of repetition and habit. As such, they are invaluable, mind-expanding demos.
But to be successful and sustainable over time, innovations have to be deployed in the “real world” of non-experts, not just demoed within the community of education specialists. This process introduces entirely new challenges for educational designers and edtech professionals. It introduces the hurdle posed by the often-hated “S” word: scalability. It pits exciting innovation against the mundane but powerful realities of limited faculty time and resources in the face of teaching large numbers of students. Those structural realities will not be wished away by the promise of awesome educational demos. Instead, if innovation is to survive in the “real world” it must be made accessible and intuitive to non-experts. It must offer benefits that are clearly worth the cost of entry. It must address the needs and concerns of those who will be using it. The dilemma, of course, is to find the sweet spot that makes innovation accessible to more than a relatively small cadre of specialists, while maintaining the integrity of the effort.
Sometimes I suspect that innovation diffusion or transfer is undervalued. It’s not sexy or particularly exciting, in itself. But, still, it is a necessary part of the process. We must respond seriously to such issues as the need for privacy in some course situations, the importance of detailed targeted feedback (also sometimes private) on student work, and the need to manage assessment and grading–especially in large classes taught by instructors with full teaching loads. Though mundane, these are real issues that require us to get down into the weeds of course design and technology development to cobble together solutions that meet faculty and student needs. (For example, Tom Woodward grapples with one such challenge around commenting.) Successfully addressing such questions, concerns, and needs will be a key factor in determining whether or not educational innovation gains a foothold more broadly in higher education.
Commercial publishers are active in this area, focusing on developing platforms on which to deliver 21st century courses either online or in-person. Their focus is on things such as intuitive easy-to-use interfaces, learning analytics, gamification, and automatic grading.4 Their ideas live or die by their rate of adoption in the marketplace. (Successful deployment?) There are lessons to be learned from these approaches, even as we avoid some of their obvious limitations.
So demo or deploy? I find myself valuing both of these models and resisting the attempt to make it an either/or choice. Instead, when it comes to educational innovation, perhaps we should work to “demo and deploy”? And perhaps we need to stop seeing these as conflicting approaches but, instead, understand them as the yin and yang of a well-balanced and sustainable approach to change.
Connection (kəˈnekSHən/) noun: a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) ALT Lab where I work has the tagline “Connected Learning for a Networked World.” Most people are familiar with the notion of a networked world but what about “connected learning”? The ALT Lab’s Laura Gogia offers an overview and makes the case for connected learning (in chapter 3), based on various efforts from the Connected Learning Alliance and others. These are useful analyses well worth reading but, for me, they can also have a “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to them. Interesting and relevant topics, production-centered courses, peer supported efforts, and much more are all part of these formal descriptions.
In discussing the idea of connected learning with faculty, I find myself using much simpler language and more intuitive examples that stay focused on the central idea of “connection” and its potential benefits for learning. My approach does not cover all the dimensions of connected learning as elaborated by education specialists but I think it suggests the essence of the potential power of the approach. Basically, this is the story I tell:
Digital technology is more ubiquitous than ever and the opportunities to use these platforms for learning are expanding and becoming more accessible to us all. Connected learning takes advantage of these digital technologies to foster and showcase various types of learning that make connections to people and resources.
Connecting to Content. This is perhaps the best-known type of connection. The Internet is filled with material that is extremely useful for teaching and learning. Blogs, videos, images, data visualizations, slideshares, and more can be found for any field of study. Ideally, learners can make a contribution by creating new resources to share with others. Why not make use of some of this available material and see if there are ways for students to create content that is useful to others?
Connecting Students. Social network platforms of various sorts enable students to communicate, share, and support each other. One way is through blogging, as in our Rampages effort which gives students and faculty easy access to their own blogs, the content of which can be aggregated on course websites in various ways. This speaks to the potential power of online learning that goes far beyond the traditional model of pushing content + quizzes. But this isn’t necessarily a replacement for a face-to-face experience; it could simply be an added dimension to learning. Paradoxically, when online, students can often learn more about each other, interact more, and support each other more than they do in a face-to-face class. Why not help cultivate more student interaction as part of the learning process?
Connecting to the Community. As a field botany class that worked with ALT Lab illustrates, work in the classroom can be linked to natural resources in the community, resulting in an interesting online resource available for all to explore. Why not do something similar with the social resources of our community; the people and organizations that work in social service agencies, schools, community non-profits, and social change organizations to help improve the quality of life here? VCU’s Community Engagement programs, including its service-learning courses, offer students invaluable lessons by applying their coursework outside of the classroom, experiencing the complexity of real-world community efforts, and learning from being exposed to new forms of diversity. But often this work and its products are not easily visible to other students, faculty, or the off-campus community. Why not create digital platforms that help to showcase existing efforts, share information with stakeholders, learn from other projects, and enable new collaborative projects? This might include maps showing the location of university efforts across the community, links to community organizations, data visualizations showcasing community engaged research results, discussion forums, and more. Even taking into account the digital divide, these digital spaces potentially offer unique opportunities for information sharing, discussion, and collaboration.
Connecting to the World. Too often, local community engagement is thought of as being in tension with study abroad and international efforts. But, really, both of these enterprises share the goal of enhancing student learning by connecting to diverse people and experiences beyond the classroom and campus. They are both ripe for technology-enhanced connected learning. Some students already blog about their education abroad experiences, for example. But why couldn’t we use digital platforms to do much more? Link students and faculty abroad with students at home? Connect students abroad in multiple countries with each other? Enable international online research and teaching collaborations with students in multiple countries? The opportunities seem endless.
Connecting Students Across Time. Typically, a course starts, work is done, the course ends, and the work disappears. Rinse and repeat. There is usually no cumulative gain from all of the hard work that students and faculty put into a class. But digital platforms enable course material to be archived so that new students in a course can learn from the work of students who came before. Perhaps final projects can be models for the next cohort of students. Or maybe a virtual annotated bibliography in a topic area can grow over time as a collective resource. Or perhaps a course can feature something as simple as a final blog post offering advice to the next group of students taking the class. Again, the possibilities are endless for how work done in one class might benefit those in the next iteration of the course, thus connecting across time. Why not make course work meaningful and useful for the students (and others) who follow? (Jon Becker writes about this issue.)
For me, those are some of the most enticing possibilities afforded by teaming digital technology with innovative teaching ideas. The point is not technology, of course; the point is using whatever methods we can to promote high-quality, engaging learning experiences for students. Today, one important way to do that is through connected learning.
During an interesting conversation with a colleague and friend about pedagogical issues and the use of WordPress, the topic of “objective” grading came up. In this context, it appeared to be shorthand for things that could be counted–blog posts, comments, perhaps multiple choice responses. Being a sociologist of media, I always cringe a bit at the use of “objectivity” to describe such efforts. That’s because media sociologists long ago debunked the notion of objectivity in journalism, pointing out its historically specific origins.
One of the classics in this area is Gaye Tuchman’s 1972 article, “Objectivity as a Strategic Ritual,” which summarizes in its abstract (using the gendered language of the day):
The newspapermen studied believe they may mitigate such continual pressures as deadlines, possible libel suits, and anticipated reprimands of superiors by being able to claim that their work is “objective.” This article …shows that in discussing content and interorganizational relationships, the newsman can only invoke his news judgment; however, he can claim objectivity by citing procedures he has followed which exemplify the formal attributes of a news story or a newspaper. For instance, the newsman can suggest that he quoted other people instead of offering his own opinions. The article suggests that “objectivity” may be seen as a strategic ritual protecting newspapermen from the risks of their trade. It asks whether other professions might not also use the term “objectivity” in the same way. (p. 660)
My conversation today reminded me of this classic piece and had me wondering if we can usefully think of “objective” grading as a strategic ritual, protecting instructors from the anticipated rebuke of students and (for junior faculty) anticipated criticism of tenure committees.
My curiosity led me back to the article for the first time in years and I found some very useful discussions. For example, Tuchman (661) describes rituals in this way:
A ritual is discussed here as a routine procedure which has relatively little or only tangential relevance to the end sought. Adherence to the procedure is frequently compulsive. That such a procedure may be the best known means of attaining the sought end does not detract from its characterization as a ritual.
This certainly seemed potentially applicable to how instructors might use “objective” grading in classes.
Further, Tuchman (661) notes that invoking objectivity can be understood as a type of performance strategy. In this context:
“The term ‘strategy’ denotes tactics used offensively to anticipate attack or defensively to deflect criticism. Objectivity as strategic ritual may be used by other professionals to defend themselves from critical onslaught.”
Again, this seemed usefully applicable to the case of objective grading.
And then, in re-reading the article, I realized my association with teaching had already been made by Tuchman late in the piece. Citing Everett Hughes’ discussion of ritual, Tuchman (676-677) notes that her study:
…supports Everett Hughes’s contention (1964, pp. 94-98) that occupations develop ritualized procedures to protect themselves from blame. He notes, “In teaching,” an occupation like journalism, “where ends are very ill-defined–and consequently mistakes are equally so–where the lay world is quick to criticize and to blame, correct handling becomes ritual as much as or even more than an art. If a teacher can prove that he has followed the ritual, blame is shifted from himself to the miserable child or student; and failure can be and is put upon them” (pp. 96, 97).
An interesting way to think about the topic, I think.
None of this is to say I’ll necessarily stop using assessment measures that can be easily quantified, including suggested word counts on writing assignments and multiple choice quizzes. These can be marshalled in the cause of efficiency, especially when teaching larger numbers of students, though they are certainly only one small element of assessment. (See Enoch Hale’s recent helpful discussion of assessment.) But Tuchman’s work is a useful reminder that labelling such efforts as “objective” obscures their social construction.