Unsolicited Advice: Five Tips for Teaching

Everyone loves a listicle, right?  No?  Oh well, I was writing up some concluding thoughts for our faculty Online Learning Experience and I found myself jotting down brief notes on key ideas I hoped they’d take away from the experience.  It turned into a combination of things I’ve learned in my time as part of ALT Lab and from my longer career teaching–much of which is applicable to all forms of teaching.

I’m sure there are other items that could be added (feel free to do so) but, at the moment, this strikes me as not a bad start.  Nothing particularly original or profound; just a little reminder of some basics.

  1. Explore the unique possibilities of the web; don’t try to imitate a face-to-face course. Faculty teaching online often want to simply transfer a face-to-face course into an online course without major changes.  Bad idea.  You can’t reproduce some of the dynamics of a face-to-face class online.  Fortunately, you can take advantage of the web’s unique possibilities to facilitate sharing of student work in multimedia formats (via blogging, social media, etc), to draw upon the vast resources freely available online, and to share your results with others. You can focus on what you can’t do online, or you can explore the truly interesting things you can do in either online or hybrid courses.
  2. Customize the learning experience; avoid bland, cookie-cutter courses.  Commercial vendors and MOOCs can offer slickly packaged course content, some of which can be useful. But a high-quality course involves an instructor personalizing and customizing the learning experience.  What are you bringing to your course?  Without that customization, faculty are easily replaceable.
  3. Teach and model active, life-long learning skills; don’t focus exclusively on content delivery. You’ve heard it many times before: information is changing at an astonishing pace. In many fields, the particulars of what is being taught today will be outdated before students even graduate. Besides, students rarely remember the sorts of facts easily tested in a multiple choice exam. What they are more likely to remember is learning how to learn; how to find, think critically about, and apply information.  How to explore, grapple with, and learn to use technologies.  How to construct an argument, marshall evidence to support it, seriously consider alternative views, and communicate the results. Those are the sorts of skills that will be widely valuable in whatever our rapidly changing world brings in the coming years.
  4. Engage your students;  share your passion, your humor, and your humanity. Faculty are bright interesting people, but that can get lost amidst formulaic syllabi, dense academic jargon, and a defensive posture. Learning is a social process. Relate to your students; share with them who you are and what you bring. Show students why they should care–and why you do.  By doing so, you’re more likely to see their passions and humanity as well.
  5. Be patient–with yourself and your students; it’s easy to get frustrated, jaded, and demoralized.  This learning stuff is tough but it’s important.  Teaching loads, service work, publication pressures, family responsibilities…they all take a toll.  It’s easy to have your enthusiasm and energy for teaching drained by the problematic minority of students who frustrate and disappoint, rather than have it magnified by the vast majority who make a decent effort and who sometimes surprise and delight you.

What would your list look like?  Everyone loves a listicle.


We Fail Students by Not Grappling with Technology

easy button 2

Americans are terrible at using technology.  

Yes, that’s a sweeping generalization that needs unpacking but it got some empirical evidence this week when the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)–which is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)–released its latest findings. Among the things the nationally representative study in 24 countries tries to measure is “problem solving in technology-rich environments,” by which they mean (citing an OECD definition) “using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.”  When it comes to such skills, folks in the U.S. are dead last among the countries studied.

tech skills

Setting aside issues of methodology and measurement for the moment (the example questions are well worth reading, though), a couple of things struck me as interesting about this effort.

First, it’s notable that the attempt to measure such skills now sits alongside measures of more traditional literacy skills and basic mathematical and computational abilities, two other areas the study measures.   The study’s authors note:

…the Internet has increased instantaneous access to large amounts of information and has expanded instant voice, text, and graphics capabilities across the globe. In order to effectively operate in these environments, it is necessary to have:

  • knowledge of how various technological environments are structured (e.g., an understanding of the basics of the environment, including how to use command names, drop-down menus, naming protocols for files and folders, and links in a web page); and
  • the ability to interact effectively with digital information; understand electronic texts, images, graphics, and numerical data; and locate, evaluate, and critically judge the validity, accuracy, and appropriateness of the accessed information. These skills constitute the core aspects of the problem solving in technology-rich environments domain

The ability to use technology matters and efforts to understand how well people are learning these skills will only increase as we move forward.

Among the many questions this raises: Where are colleges and universities in this process?  Are we making digital competencies explicitly part of our curriculum–both as specialized topics and as integrated into the curriculum broadly?  Where and how are such life-long learning skills–and critical thinking about technology–being taught?  Who is responsible for ensuring that faculty–let alone students–can problem solve in technology rich environments? We’re only beginning to meaningfully grapple with such questions.

Second, the basic rubric for measuring skills (bottom of this post) is fascinating in that higher level skills are understood to involve:

  • multiple steps and operations
  • multiple technology platforms and applications
  • respondent-defined goals
  • unexpected outcomes and impasses

In contrast, so much of technology in higher education aims to offer simple, easy-to-use, fully-integrated platforms, with pre-determined results, that avoid “unexpected outcomes and impasses.”  In other words, much of technology use in higher ed does little to prepare students for real-life problem solving with technology.

Certainly, courses need to be “managed” and some basic functionality needs to be standardized and made easy to use.  But the real stuff of learning–not course management–involves grappling with new and changing information, problem solving, and developing skills usable in ever-changing circumstances and environments.  That stuff is too often neglected.

We hear it all the time: technology’s “hard,” “complicated,” and “confusing.” Yes it is…as is anything worth learning.  We need to do a better job of embracing those difficulties and learning how to manage them, rather than assuming this is the domain of specialized tech-geeks. Otherwise, we’re failing to educate ourselves for our time and failing to prepare students for the world that awaits them.

tech skills rubric

Why It Matters that Education is NOT Most Faculty’s Subject Matter

It’s natural that we’d like others to care about the things we care about.  In an educational setting, conveying that enthusiasm for our subject matter is a big part of effective teaching. For many people working in teaching and learning centers, subjects such as pedagogy and educational technology are our bread and butter.  But for most faculty, education is not their subject matter; their formal training is in other substantive fields.  Consequently, there can be a disconnect between how education people (with M.Ed’s, Ed.D’s, and Ph.D.’s in education) think about teaching and how the rest of the campus does. This difference has some implications for faculty development–especially when it is being done by people with education backgrounds.

This realization comes from having spent the last couple of years housed in a unit focused on teaching and learning. (Granted, ALT Lab is not your typical teaching center, so all of this comes with a caveat.)  It hasn’t been a huge leap for me, since I’ve long been interested in issues of pedagogy but my own Ph.D. is in sociology, not education, and most of my career on campus has been spent in a sociology department, not a teaching and learning center.  I make no claims to being deeply familiar with the scholarship on teaching and learning. I’ve mostly dealt with the sociology of education in a peripheral manner in the context of inequality, where sociologists point out that educational systems are tilted dramatically in favor of those with privilege, reinforcing inequality and providing an ideological justification for it. So my education background is limited to a seminar on teaching in grad school, a career of learn-by-doing experimentation with various pedagogies, and a gig writing sociology texts (in some cases working with a commercial publisher). Now, in a unit focused on educational innovation and faculty development, it’s been fascinating to learn a bit about the educational subculture.  

Early on, it dawned on me that the position of education people is unusually simple: they teach about teaching and learning; their research is about teaching and learning. This kind of fully integrated academic identity is an anomaly on university campuses.  Most faculty are trained in and do research about a substantive field that has very little, if anything, to do with teaching or education. Biologists, chemists, engineers, historians, social workers, etc. read research and do work in their respective subject matters.  When they teach, they are teaching about those topics, not about education. Sure, they might produce the occasional publication based on how they teach their subject matter, but their focus is the substance of that subject area, not the teaching of it.  Their career trajectories (at least at research universities) are heavily dependent on their work in their subject areas; teaching comes a distant second and can easily be seen as taking away time and energy from their primary research areas. (Yes, that’s a problem, but that’s a topic for another day.)  Even when faculty care deeply about teaching, they typically care because of the subject matter, not because of teaching generically.  Education is not their subject matter.

Recognizing this difference of orientation is relevant for those of us doing faculty development work, regardless of our own backgrounds.  My two cents?

  1. Cut faculty some slack–a lot of it.  Educational folks often expect other faculty to care deeply about teaching, pedagogy, and educational technology.  Why wouldn’t they?  This is their subject matter; the thing that interests them, what they studied, were hired to do, and will be evaluated and promoted (or not) on.  But that’s simply not the case for other faculty. Yes, most faculty are teachers but teaching is not the subject matter they study, so we shouldn’t expect it to the focus of their professional work. They want to use pedagogical techniques and technologies, not to study them.  You can’t expect them to care deeply about the scholarship on teaching and learning or new educational technologies in the same way you do.
  2. Get comfortable being (a little) prescriptive. People in teaching and learning centers need to get comfortable suggesting solutions.  This comes up all the time as faculty ask, “What should I do?  What do you suggest?”  Where I work, we’re very hesitant to be definitive in our prescriptions–and rightly so; faculty need to decide what makes sense for them.  But we need to take ownership of education’s knowledge claims and draw upon our experience working with other faculty to make some prescriptions and to suggest some strategies, techniques, and technologies that are more likely to be successful–all the while listening to the goals and concerns of faculty.  
  3. Keep things simple and provide support.  Most faculty don’t want (or have the time) to study pedagogy or spend significant time learning new technologies–both of which can seem daunting. (Remember, they’re busy enough keeping up with their own fields.)  In working with faculty, we should try to keep things simple, lowering the bar to participation and providing ongoing support, as needed.   We need to develop mechanisms to get them up and running quickly, efficiently, and with as little effort at possible.  Over time, faculty need to become mostly self-sufficient, but they need support to get started on that journey.

None of this is easy…or new.  But it seems worthy of a reminder.


An Outline of “Traditional” versus “Connected” Learning

(In revising our faculty development Online Learning Experience (OLE), I worked up a simple table to contrast approaches to online learning, with tweaks from Tom Woodward.  I’m posting it here so I have an easy place to point to.  Perhaps it can be of use to others, too.)

A Connected Learning approach can be contrasted with a more traditional approach to online learning in the ways outlined below.  This is an oversimplified heuristic device, of course.  Real world courses exist along a continuum, incorporating various features of both approaches.  Still, by comparing these approaches you can see the relative emphasis each places on varying pedagogical goals.

“Traditional” “Connected”
Information Focus
Focus is often on information retention and restatement.
Skills Focus
Focus is on “learning to learn” and helping nurture life-long learning skills in a networked world with abundant information.
Instructor Driven
Instructor typically sets the agenda for all topics and work to be done
Student Driven (partially)
As part of the assignments, student is expected to find ways to apply new skills and knowledge to topics of ongoing student interest. The onus is more on students to prove their competencies.
Standardized, Traditional Assignments
Work often:

  • involves multiple choice quizzes/exams
  • writing assignments in response to instructor questions
Innovative, Experimental Assignments
Work often:

  • is project-based
  • leverages multimedia elements
  • has an external audience/purpose
  • uses self-reflection as a major component in proving growth/competency
Emulate Face-to-Face Classroom
Approach is often an attempt to replicate face-to-face experiences, especially through lectures, discussion forums, and, sometimes, synchronous video seminars.
Be “Of the Web”
Approach is to create distinct learning experiences that take advantage of the Internet’s unique capabilities and involve experimenting with assignments.
Work Privately

  • Work often takes place within closed course management system.
  • Courses are isolated from each other.
  • Students lose access to course material shortly after the course is completed.
Work Publicly

  • Much of the work (though not necessarily all) takes place on the open web, often via individual web sites (a.k.a. “blogs”) that are aggregated to a course site.
  • Student work across multiple courses “lives” on their own blog sites, which they control.
  • Students have continued access to the course site after the course is completed.
Standardized Assessment
Emphasis is on working alone, privately, on standardized assignments intended to produce similar results. Identity authentication, cheating, and plagiarism become significant concerns.
Individualized Assessment
Emphasis is on sharing (often collaboratively-created) distinctive work with classmates and the broader world to make a contribution and to be open for potential feedback and dialogue. The unique nature of the assignments and work make identity authentication, cheating, and plagiarism less of a concern.
Assignment as Disposable Practice
Assignments are used only as material for assessment. Work produced can be “thrown away” at the end of a course. Competency is implied through grades.
Assignment as “Real”
Assignments are used for assessment while also often making a contribution to be shared publicly. Work produced can be archived online on publicly-viewable sites and in student e-portfolios.
Standardized, Faculty-Independent
Once created, standardized courses can almost run themselves. They can be efficiently scalable to high-enrollment classes, especially if they rely on automatically-scored multiple-choice exams. The faculty role is less central and potentially expendable, for example, with publisher-created courses intended to be simply managed rather than taught.
Unique, Faculty-Dependent
Most courses are distinctive, requiring extensive faculty monitoring, assessment, and feedback on the unique assignments being completed. This relatively labor-intensive approach makes faculty central to the teaching process and limits the scalability of some features.

(Postscript:  Tables are old-school and often don’t work well on WordPress but I like them nonetheless.  This was done using the TablePress plug-in, which seems to do a decent job of making a table attractive and manageable.)


Managing Expectations When Teaching with Technology

After recently working with a couple of faculty grappling with tech issues early in a course, I found myself repeating some basic advice for “next time.”  Maybe these can be of help to others.

Whenever you introduce technology that is new to students, it helps to plan ahead for how to handle the inevitable questions and confusion.

  1. Write clear, simple, directions.  Obvious but essential.  Explain what you expect them to do.  Highlight key ideas or steps in large, bold, colored fonts, or highlights. Keep it brief so the important stuff isn’t lost in extraneous details.  
  2. Keep instructions (mostly) general.  There are exceptions but it’s usually not a good idea to walk students through step-by-step “click-this-button” directions.  In simply following such specific directions students don’t necessarily learn the “why’s” or principles behind what they are doing. This results in their being lost when anything goes awry and deviates from the step-by-step instructions. In addition, overly-detailed directions will become outdated the moment the technology changes in the least.
  3. Prepare for problems.  There will be problems; that’s the nature of technology.  Be upfront and tell this to students ahead of time so it doesn’t come as a surprise to them and so you don’t feel the unrealistic pressure to run a perfectly smooth course.  They are less likely to freak out when problems arise and you are less likely to feel frantic in response.
  4. Acknowledge your limitations.  Faculty often feel the need to be the “expert” with all the answers. Not fully understanding the technology they are working with can be very unsettling.  As an alternative, I’d suggest being upfront about your limitations. Tell students, “I’m not a tech expert. We’ll be experimenting and learning some of this together.”  Again, don’t create unrealistic pressure for yourself. Best of all, by doing this you’re modelling  for your students how to be a life-long learner.
  5. Test the system before it matters.  Plan ahead and try out as much as you can in advance of the course.  Then create an early low/no stakes assignment that uses the technology in question.  This gives everyone a chance to troubleshoot problems in a low-pressure situation.
  6. Use a public venue for answering questions.  Have a mechanism in place to answer questions and share tips that is visible to all students. Answer a question once and other students are less likely to ask it. What you don’t want is 50 personal emails asking you essentially the same thing.  The public venue for answering questions might be a discussion forum with a tech-question thread, an announcements page on a course website, a Twitter hashtag for the course, a shared tech-issues Google Doc, a few minutes set aside in a face-to-face class, or anything that makes responses visible to all students.  If a student emails you a question, answer it in public and steer the student to the response to insist on this approach.
  7. Encourage students to help each other.  When a student tries and fails to do something with technology, they probably have classmates who were successful in their attempt to do the exact same thing.  These students are now experts and can explain what they did from a student’s perspective, diffusing some of the frustration.  Tap into that expertise; you don’t need to answer everything.  Set the expectation that students will help each other using the public venue you’ve set up.  Applaud students who help.  It’s a win-win-win.
  8. Point to support resources.  Make sure students have easy access to appropriate documentation regarding the technology you’re using (usually just a link to support pages and forums) as well as to any technology support resources on your campus (an IT help desk, for example).  Encourage them to use these.
  9. Suggest limits on your time.  While you need to check in on students regularly, you can’t be online 24-7.  Having a loose routine can help manage student expectations and create some limits for your time. For example, you might check in on an online forums first thing in the morning to respond to any issues from students who often work late at night.  Or you might indicate that Sunday or the weekend are “off” times when you won’t be available. Let students know about your general work pattern so they can adjust expectations.
  10. Encourage self-reliance.  Many of these tips relate to developing students’ self-reliance.  It can be useful to make this explicit.  Remind them that a key part of being educated is learning how to learn. This is especially relevant for quickly-changing technology. Encourage the practice of looking for answers on their own before asking others.  Have them check the support resources you’ve flagged, ask other students, or just Google their questions.  Developing these skills will serve them well long after your course is over.

We’d all like technology to work flawlessly with no hassles.  Not gonna happen.  But with a little planning you can minimize hassles and focus on the benefits you wanted to get from the tech in the first place.

Blackboard, WordPress, or Both?

Blackboard, WordPress, or Both?

I recently chatted with some incoming faculty at an orientation event.  When I mentioned Rampages–our multi-site WordPress install–for course sites, some faculty asked why they would want to use this, given that Blackboard is the default LMS here at VCU.  Good question, so I thought I’d sketch out some of the thinking below. 


  • Blackboard is the default Learning Management System (LMS) at VCU. All course enrollments (along with student email addresses) are fed automatically into Blackboard.  
  • A multi-site installation of WordPress called Rampages (named after the VCU mascot) is available for you (and your students) to create your own websites.  (Since the Fall of 2014, all first-year undergraduate students have been creating their own Rampage website as part of the UNIV Focused Inquiry program.)

Since both Blackboard and WordPress are available, why would you use one, the other, or both in your courses?  Here is some background to help you decide.




WordPress (Rampages)

What is it?

Blackboard is specialized commercial course management software that helps instructors handle the administrative logistics of a course, such as offering online quizzes and posting grades securely.  Over the years, additional features have been added in an attempt to mimic some of the options available on the open web, such as blogs and a discussion board. Rampages is a multi-site installation of WordPress, an open website platform, originally created for blogging but now used for a wide variety of applications and content management.  (Currently, nearly 20% of all websites are WordPress sites.) Because it is an open source platform, new applications are constantly being developed that can be incorporated into your site.
How is it structured?
Blackboard is a centralized software system.  Much of its functionality is self-contained.  Students visit a course website, for example, to submit work, take quizzes, or add a comment to a discussion board. The result is an integrated, enclosed experience. WordPress sites are decentralized and can be configured in a variety of ways.  A single course site can be created where students work.  More commonly, instructors and students each create their own sites, but content for a course can be aggregated from many student sites onto a course site.
Standardized or flexible?
Blackboard has a standardized look, feel, and functionality, most of which is locked-in by the vendor.  This results in consistency across courses but limited flexibility.  Users often describe it as “clunky” and not very attractive but it is useful for getting basic administrative tasks done. WordPress has a large number of themes (that provide different visual looks), plugins, and widgets (that offer variable functionality) making it highly flexible, and enabling the creation of distinct one-of-a-kind sites.  At first, all of these options can seem a little overwhelming for new users but those who stick with it are usually much more satisfied with the results.
Open, closed, portable?
Blackboard content is “walled off” with only authorized users (students) allowed to view content.  Students do not control any of the content they create on Blackboard and their content cannot be easily exported to be saved or used elsewhere.  Students also lose access to their course materials shortly after the course is over. WordPress’ site content is typically viewable on the open web by anyone who either has the URL (web address) or who finds it via a search engine.  However, some pages can be password protected if privacy is a concern.  Site content can also be left up online as long as an instructor wants.
What can I do with it?
With Blackboard you can:

  • post course content
  • quiz students online
  • create and use grading rubrics
  • keep a gradebook and post grades
  • use Blackboard’s plagiarism prevention service (SafeAssign)
  • lockdown a student’s browser while taking a test (Respondus)
  • use Blackboard’s version of blogs
  • use Blackboard’s discussion forum
  • use Blackboard’s basic wiki
  • email registered students en masse
  • use Blackboard Collaborate for video chats
  • connect to publisher-created textbook websites

The focus tends to be on creating a controlled, tightly managed environment.

Rather than a list of discrete tasks that exist in a separate environment, WordPress sites are fully “of the web.”  That is, they can be integrated with almost anything on the web and can be used to:

  • present course content of all sorts (text, video, audio, data visualizations, etc.) in highly customizable ways
  • aggregate student-created content from student web sites or via customized submission forms (to add text, images, and other content)
  • import media content, such as Twitter feeds, news and blog feeds
  • showcase content to a potentially broad web audience for possible feedback and interaction

The focus tends to be on an open, connected, and fluid environment.

Why would I use it?
Blackboard is probably best for instructors…

  • who are looking for traditional course management tools
  • who are not tech- or web-savvy and who have no interest in learning
  • who are primarily focused on handling the logistics of classes, especially in large-enrollment courses
  • who like the familiarity of a standardized course site
  • who want to keep their course “behind closed doors” due to privacy or safety concerns.  
  • who are not concerned with controlling or exporting course content (either your own or students’)
WordPress is probably best for instructors…

  • looking for a contemporary platform on which to organize unique course content and activities
  • who may or may not be tech- or web-savvy but who are interested in learning
  • who are primarily focused on offering engaging learning experiences and taking advantage of the web’s capabilities, such as multimedia elements
  • who want customization, ranging from a unique course site look to creating cutting edge learning experiences.
  • who want to help students learn to smartly navigate and use the many resources available on the open web, as well as become content creators, not just consumers.
  • who want to let students control the content they create, perhaps exporting it for future use in professional web site, while posting to a potentially broader audience on the open web
What are the drawbacks?
Blackboard is not so good at…

  • delivering engaging, customized courses
  • meeting the expectations of today’s students, who are accustomed to web sites with higher-level functionality and a more contemporary look and feel.
  • facilitating learning
  • integrating with the open web, including engaging with social media, and integrating multiple platforms  
WordPress is not so good at:

  • offering a quick-start, standardized course template, with no planning
  • handling course logistics, such as posting grades or emailing an entire class.  Both can be done but need some advance preparation.
  • serving as a platform for quizzes and exams
Either or both?
While not mirror-images of each other, Blackboard and WordPress do tend to have complementary strengths and weakness.  Consequently, some faculty choose to use Blackboard for basic course administration (especially posting grades) and any quizzing, while using WordPress to present course content and facilitate student activities.  
To learn more…
  • Take a look at some examples of course web sites created on WordPress.
  • ALT Lab maintains Rampages and provides advice and assistance to faculty in setting up courses using WordPress.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 2 p.m. we have open office hours–our “Agora”–to discuss any teaching issues, including WordPress.
  • VCU Technology Services provides support for their own WordPress installation, including WordPress trainings. This is not Rampages (which has more options for users)  but the WordPress basics are the same.
  • WordPress has extensive support material and an active online community.


Course self-introduction

I’m helping with ALT Lab‘s Online Learning Experience (OLE) for faculty at the same time as I’m teaching an undergraduate online introduction to sociology course.  We’re encouraging faculty to use a brief video to introduce themselves to students in their own courses and establish some basic social presence.

Instead of creating a separate video to say hello to OLE faculty, I thought I’d just show the one I made for my intro course. Sociology can be very heavy (racism, inequality, poverty, sexism, etc.) so I keep this intro light; a little substance, a lot of silly.

Violating the Norms: The Awkward Process of Collaborative Writing

I’m in the middle of helping to create an online faculty development experience with a half dozen colleagues.  The project’s coordinator has been encouraging us to work collectively through Google Docs to draft the content.  We meet face-to-face to discuss some of the ideas but then write them up in more detail on our own.There’s a main document that outlines the basics with links to other docs that flesh out the details of each section.

The process is new for me.  Much of what I’ve published over the years was written with a co-author but I’ve never written this way.  I’m used to:

  1. discussing broad ideas for a framework,
  2. drafting alone,
  3. passing it on for comments/revisions–an iterative process that goes on as long as needed (or the deadline allows).

I’ve always done this in Word documents with “track changes” activated to make revisions clear.  Here, in Google Docs with a group of writers, the process is much less linear and much less clear.  Sometimes it’s just plain confusing.  And confusing is always an opportunity for learning.

The reason for confusion seems obvious: the technical ability for a group to collectively write a document –as opposed to sequential revisions of a document–is relatively new and the social norms about how to do this are not yet clear. The result is considerable hesitation about how best to proceed.

For example:

  • Deleting.  We’ve been encouraged to add, edit, and delete as we see fit.  That’s not an easy thing to do since it violates social norms about ownership of ideas.  No matter how benign and well-intentioned, deleting is fraught with social implications. Deleting seems rude and anti-social.  It’s a judgment: what you’ve written is not worthy of being kept and I–on my own–have decided to relegate it to the trash. Ouch. You need to be thick skinned about this process.  And what about the practical implications of free-wheeling deletions?  Won’t this mean that the last person editing “wins,” since their content will survive?  Won’t more assertive personalities–or indefatigable workers–end up deleting more, potentially divorced from the merit or quality of the content in question?
  • Owning Content.  Some folks started by putting their content in a different font color to distinguish it from other content.  After being asked not to do that, some began adding their initials next to content they inserted.  The notion that an author needed to be attached to particular content lingered from earlier forms of writing. Was it to distance themselves from other content with which they disagreed?  Was it a polite alternative to deleting? It’s not clear to me, but this practice doesn’t work well in this setting..
  • Taking Charge. Because no single person is ultimately responsible for a collaborative project (except perhaps the coordinator) there may be a limited sense of ownership of the effort.  If it’s everyone’s responsibility, it becomes no one’s responsibility. (Insert your beliefs about “human nature” here.)  But making any one person “responsible” for a part of the project effectively gives tacit approval to others to wait to see what they produce, undermining the collaborative nature of the effort.  It’s a problem that plagues student group work–which is rarely truly collaborative–and for which there’s no definitive response.
  • Collaborative?  Cooperative?  Something Else? By the way, what do we call this process?  The brainstorming part was definitely collaborative; sitting in a room together, tossing out ideas, writing notes on the writable wall, sketching the outlines of the project. But writing is different. People write individually but multiple people may be involved in revising a section and the group is certainly involved in creating the project as a whole.  Is that collaboration?  Sort of. Maybe.  It depends on your level of analysis.
  • Creating a Voice.  Even if things go smoothly with plenty of participation, collaborative writing projects can be choppy affairs with an inconsistent voice.  In some cases, this may not matter and may even be an asset as a way of highlighting diversity and multiple perspectives.  On the other hand, if a project needs to have a consistent voice throughout, there really needs to be a process to review and revise for consistency.  As one person suggested, perhaps we should have created a style guide from the start.  We didn’t, so the matter of voice remains to be resolved.

We’re all learning together as we move through this process, trying to establish new norms for our group.  Hopefully, a good debriefing session will help clarify some of this.

For myself, I’ve been thinking about what might constitute reasonable guidelines for cooperative writing efforts to maximize participation, protect feelings, and produce the best results.  Some initial thoughts:

  1. Everyone should write.  In this sort of effort, writing is not a privilege; it’s a responsibility.  As a team-member, you are expected to add your thoughts and ideas, whether rough or well-developed.  You don’t have to be a polished writer to get your basic thoughts across; it’s the substance that matters, not the style. Others can clean up style later.  The value early on is to encourage participation.
  2. There’s No Need for Identifiers on New Content. Colored fonts, initials, etc, really don’t help in the creation or assessment of new content.  Let the work stand on its own (but see #3).
  3. Substantive Changes Should be Justified.  Similar to Wikipedia’s talk pages, substantive changes should be explained (perhaps with a comment added) so that others can understand the logic behind the decision to make major changes or deletions.  (What constitutes “major” is another matter.) Such context is likely to reduce confusion, misunderstanding, or inadvertently hurt feelings.
  4. Alternatives Can Be Useful.  Rather than deleting or rewriting, it can be useful to write out an alternative that may (or may not) improve a section of the document.  That way, collaborators can see the two versions side-by-side and be ready to weigh in on what might be stronger and why. This also encourages people to suggest alternatives, even if they’re not certain they are better.  It’s the written equivalent of “I could be wrong about this but what if we…”   We often use these verbal cues in conversation to signal the tentative nature of our suggestion. In addition, having available alternatives can spark useful discussion and comments.

That’s plenty for now; no need to create a rule book.

I suspect, ultimately, that this is about trust and communication in a group.  If there’s a reasonable amount of trust and ongoing communication, you don’t really need rules.  But maybe some discussion of guidelines–whatever you decide–in advance of projects will help smooth the way in clarifying expectations.

And, by the way, if you are having students work collaboratively, suggesting a discussion about such guidelines before–and while–working together could be invaluable.


What if We Had Social Justice MOOCs?

Social movement organizations face the task of convincing people that their particular issue is:

  • an injustice or crisis
  • to which there are alternatives or solutions
  • and that an individual’s participation is significant and meaningful in helping to achieve change.

They also must help build the skill set of people who already agree with them and who, in turn, will help organize others. All of these elements involve education.  Leaflets, teach-ins, workshops, alternative media publications, and websites have been among the educational efforts of social change organizations.

But, to my knowledge, social justice organizations haven’t fully exploited the web as a place for sustained education about the issues they address and the actions they advocate.  The web offers a platform that is low cost, widely accessible (even with continuing digital divide issues), highly engaging, multi-media friendly, and deeply social.  It would seem to be a valuable resource for movement organizers.  Yet, its use as an educational tool seems limited so far.

Meanwhile, in the broader society, education via the web has exploded.  From Ted Talks (“Ideas Worth Spreading”) to Khan Academy (“You can learn anything.”), the web is being used to learn things.  Perhaps most notoriously, MOOC efforts–with all their limitations–have targeted education and skill-development via the web.  Coursera, for example, offers series of free courses organized around areas of specialization, such as data science, business foundations, and the like.

What if there was an educational hub for promoting democracy, instead of only individual advancement?


Why couldn’t a broad progressive coalition produce a similar educational hub where anyone could learn about issues and develop basic skills useful for democratic participation?  Imagine the “course” list:

  • the basics of economic inequality and possible alternatives,
  • racism in America: how progress was made, what is needed now
  • change that works: inspiring examples and models from around the globe
  • what unions do, and how to start organizing one at your workplace
  • the theory and practice of nonviolent social action
  • how to build an effective website for your group
  • framing your group’s message to communicate effectively

The list of possible topics seems endless.  What would you want to learn?  What might you teach?

Progressive groups already have experience and expertise in teaching people about issues and skills. To name just a couple: United for a Fair Economy has long done popular economics education; the Center for Third World Organizing offers community action trainings; the Midwest Academy teaches about “Organizing for Social Change”.  But nearly all of these efforts still rely on face-to-face workshops, trainings, and institutes.  What if some of this material could also be offered online?  Not as a replacement for the more intensive face-to-face trainings, but as a broader stage on which to share some of the information and insights that activists have?  In some cases, academics could be tapped to offer context and “big picture” analyses  (Marshall Ganz’s organizing work comes to mind).

I’m not talking about traditional academic classes, though.  There’s no tuition, no credits, no exams, no semester structure.  This is popular education; imagine the Highlander Center Online; Freedom MOOCs!  Democratic education about democracy and the challenges it faces.

Mainstream MOOCs as they currently exist–and education more generally–are profoundly individual strategies and responses.  Improve your life by getting a credential or skill that will allow you to advance…individually.  This effort would need to be fundamentally different.  The real challenge would be designing online learning experiences that truly take advantage of the web’s potential to connect people and encourage further contact offline, perhaps connecting them with groups that already exist locally. (Traditional MOOCs already employ face-to-face meetups to supplement courses.)

Yes, there would be major issues:

  • A serious effort would require some staffing and resources–presumably all without fees or commercial sponsorship.  But setting up such an infrastructure would be relatively simple and could be done for a modest investment–a tiny, tiny fraction of what the labor movement spends in a single election cycle, for example.
  • Who and what are included?  Who decides?  On what basis?  How is quality maintained? How is debilitating political infighting minimized?  The politics of such a space would be a challenge but not insurmountable…and itself an exercise in democratic participation.

But, still, couldn’t Social Justice MOOCs be a useful addition to the democratic discourse?

Can Journalism’s Past Help Us Understand Education’s Future?

I’m a student of the news media as a social institution, so I’ve watched over the years as the Internet’s shockwave reverberated across the journalism landscape, toppling edifices once thought to be rock solid. It’s a story that always sits at the back of mind as I think about the future of higher education.  I was reminded of this as I read a speech given last week by Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, entitled “Journalism’s Big Move: What to Discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving from Print to Web.”   In it, Baron makes many points about journalism that echo issues within higher ed.

Baron argues that technology and the economy are forces that:

don’t care about how we prefer to do our jobs, how easily we adjust to change, how much we have to learn. They don’t care about any extra workload. This transformation is going to happen no matter what. And there is only one realistic choice available: We can do what we must to adapt and – ideally – thrive. Or not — in which case we are choosing to fail.

After throwing that gauntlet, Baron lists examples of the dizzying pace of technological change and concludes–again in words that could apply to higher ed:

If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster. And for those who resist the change rather than embrace it, there will be no forbearance or forgiveness. Their destiny is to be pushed aside and forgotten. That is the brutal truth.  So journalism’s Big Move from print to digital comes with discomfort for those, like me, who grew up in this field well before the 21st Century. We just have to get over it.

Resistance is futile in this vision of change. But Baron is not advocating simply rolling over; he’s calling for agents to help shape the future:

While we can – and should – vigorously debate the smartest path forward, anyone living in the real world can see what human communications has become. Cynicism and pessimism cannot rule the day. We need confidence and enthusiasm, a focus on possibilities. We need to be optimistic. Those who feel they work in vain do not succeed. Success goes to those who believe they can achieve it.

Success, for Baron, begins by letting go of some of the past:

  • Paper will not remain a large part of what journalists do; readers have already moved on.  (Tellingly, I read this speech online via my Post digital subscription–and there’s now a video, too.  Last year, I dropped my home delivery subscription–the first time in my adult life I haven’t received a daily print paper.)
  • Most controversially, the days when print was flush with cash are long over, so now journalists should “… abandon the idea that the newsroom can labor in isolation from the business operations.”  In a challenging balancing act he says, “Without abandoning our principles of independent and honest coverage, newsrooms must participate in creating products that appeal to advertisers, boost readership, and deliver satisfying results for both.”
  • Look beyond traditional forms of storytelling because the “web invites its own means of communication.”  The Post’s recent hires “know how to use powerful tools the web makes possible. These journalists write and edit with an ear for what resonates with digital readers. They are not romantics about a previous era.”
  • Staffing and structure will change to reflect the new realities.  “The web has different attributes from print, and it will call for a different approach. That will require rethinking how we deploy resources and how many we deploy where.”
A screenshot of the Martin Baron speech available as a video on the Post’s web site–embodying the sort of change Baron was addressing.

Baron notes that his acceptance–even embrace–of change runs counter to a history of resistance from journalists–again with echoes of higher ed:

Newsrooms grumbled about having to learn to use computers instead of typewriters. When designers were first hired, people complained that we were emphasizing aesthetics over substance. I recall colleagues grumbling that a new emphasis on graphics was just “dumbing down” the paper. When color was introduced, people argued it would have a frivolous effect. Every change took more time than it should have.

Having accepted deep, often uncomfortable, change, Baron pivots to what is needed now, including a greater embrace of the possibilities of technology, detailed reader metrics to help steer by, and greater entrepreneurship in experimenting with journalism.  He insists, though, that the core of journalism must be preserved, including:

  • original, on-the-scene reporting.
  • engaging writing and storytelling…along with strong editing that demands rigor and fairness
  • and, most importantly, the role of watchdogs who serve the public interest, even when it involves risk, and who hold powerful people and institutions accountable.

And here we run smack into the peculiar challenge faced by both journalism and higher education.  Both institutions must balance pragmatic concerns (money must come from somewhere to pay the bills) with aspirational ideals (the pursuit of truth and public service).  It is the conflict between these orientations–more so than technology per se–that characterizes the shifts facing both social institutions.

Implicitly, Baron understands this.  He observes that there is considerable anxiety about the fact that “…journalism is being thoroughly reimagined — because our traditional economic model is disintegrating.” [emphasis added].  He notes, journalism has been able to delay implementing technological change “because no one at the time directly threatened our business model.” [emphasis added].  Economic pressures are ultimately what spurred change but that took a long time.  My understanding is that different pockets of journalism were partially shielded from these economic pressures for different reasons.  Prominent newspapers were often family-owned, protected from shareholders’ short-term bottom-line mentality.  National network news programs were historically “loss leaders,” expected to bring networks credibility and prestige, but not necessarily profits.  As those realities changed–some of it long before the rise of the Internet, journalism changed.  We shouldn’t romanticize some “golden era” of journalism that never existed, but new economic pressures brought years of slashing newsroom staffs and overseas bureaus, de-funding investigative journalism, and elevating advertiser-friendly “lifestyle” content. Higher education, too, has long made compromises to balance economic efficiency with education.  Those giant lecture halls costing millions to build were not created out of pedagogical concerns.

But Baron steers us off course because he describes economies as “forces of nature.” They are not.  Nor are the technological innovations he describes inevitable.  Human agency shapes these forces and the distribution of power in a society affects who is most likely to be able to influence their direction.  Investors and shareholders, state legislators, students, and voters; these are the agents of social change, not some disembodied “forces of nature.”

And these agents make choices about the relative emphasis they place on pragmatic concerns versus aspirational ideals.  Do we view journalism (and education) through the lens of a market model or a public sphere model?  Elsewhere, I’ve summarized the distinction between the two:

The market model suggests that society’s needs can be best met through a relatively unregulated process of exchange based on the dynamics of supply and demand.  This model treats the media like all other goods and services.  It argues that as long as competitive conditions exist, businesses pursuing profits will meet people’s needs.  As a result, advocates of this model generally call for private, unregulated ownership of the media.  It is consumers in the marketplace, not government regulators, who will ultimately force companies to behave in a ways that best serves the public.

In contrast:

The public sphere model suggests that society’s needs cannot be met entirely through the market system.  Because the market is based on consumer purchasing power, it behaves quite differently from the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote.”  In addition, the public sphere model argues that there are some societal needs that simply cannot be met via the market’s supply and demand dynamic.  It also contends that because it is vital to a robust democracy, media content cannot be treated as merely another product.  Therefore, profitability cannot be the sole indicator of a healthy media industry.  Instead, other public interest criteria–such as diversity and substance–are used in the public sphere model to assess the performance of media.  From this perspective, government plays a useful and necessary role in ensuring that the media meet the needs of citizens, not just consumers.

Read through these lenses, resistance to some technological change–reader metrics, for example–can reflect a genuine concern that overemphasis on pleasing “customers” can undermine journalism’s role in informing “citizens.”  Click-bait does not necessarily make for an informed electorate. Similarly, in higher education, widespread skepticism about the adoption and expansion of new technologies–especially online education–are often intertwined with concern that these models are being advanced to balance spreadsheets rather than enhance education.  And there’s legitimate cause for concern as predatory for-profits and factory-like online efforts focus on generating quantity of dubious quality, often in the name of expanding access.

And so some educators find themselves in a similar position to the one journalists once were in.  Deeply uneasy about why technology is being introduced, even while begrudgingly admitting that its applications can be inspiring, educators look to protect the core of they do while enhancing it through new technologies…precisely what Baron was talking about.

Baron’s right about many things: change is a-coming and merely clinging to the past is futile (and is a disservice to our students).  Merely critiquing, opposing, or cynically standing on the sidelines is no better.  The challenge for us is to “focus on possibilities” and to find imaginative ways to use the new capabilities that are at our disposal–or soon will be, to not only protect our public service mission as educators, but to enhance and expand it.  All the while, we will need to be realistic about the economic pressures that will continue to influence higher education.  That’s no easy task and it will require all hands on deck to survive this shift.

But we may surprise ourselves.  Sometimes we take for granted our familiar social order, forgetting that there’s nothing inevitable about it.  Clay Shirky, whom Baron cites in his speech, has written elsewhere about the once-unthinkable death of the newspaper as we knew it, noting, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” I suspect this lesson about the difference between form and function is what higher education’s future most needs to learn from journalism’s past.  Society doesn’t need universities.  What we need is education. What that will look like in the digital age remains to be seen.  But, rather than bemoaning the past, it seems more productive to get on with figuring out the future.