Cultivating Thought Partnerships

I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days with my colleagues in Academic Technologies along with my friend and colleague, Enoch Hale, who facilitated the event for us on cultivating thought partnerships. This was framed as an interactive workshop to help us think through the shift we are attempting to make in our work – and our identities – from “fixers and coders” to “consultants and thought partners.” Making this shift requires changes in how we approach our work as technologists, along with the development of new skills and practices. We covered plenty of ground over the course of the two days…and I’m still churning away on much of it…but I wanted to try and capture a some ideas, questions and insights…

What is thought partnership? – First, let me say that members of my team are at the early stages of exploring this together, and we don’t have it neatly sorted out just yet. At the heart of it though, is a desire to engage in meaningful work with faculty members as we think with them about the intersection of teaching, learning and technology. This represents a different approach, and is distinct from the break / fix, and focus on support for technical questions that I think often shapes much of the work of educational technologists. In an effort to better understand what faculty hope to do with digital technologies – and not rush to simple answers and technical solutions – we are recognizing the importance of using questioning frameworks as a part of our consultancy practice. Using clarifying questions we can gain better understanding of what faculty hope to do, as well as help them to explore and explicate some of the assumptions, concepts, purposes and goals they have for using technology. We want to establish thought partnerships…among ourselves…and the faculty members with whom we work.

Clarifying questions and lenses for thinking – OK, so I’ve known for some time the power of asking a good question. Good questions can drive reflection, yield new insights, and yes, generate better questions. But what are the kinds of questions we typically ask faculty members when they come to us to talk about ways to use a particular technology? How do we address pedagogical questions that are sometimes in search of a technological solution? All too often I think we default to “fix it” mode and jump to the ready made solutions. We assume there is a shared lexicon and perspective. We miss opportunities for learning and thought partnership. In our workshop conversation, Enoch introduced us to a simple but powerful set of clarifying questions that I think can really serve to support consultancy practice, while also assisting faculty members in explicating their goals and perspectives. Enoch had a few acronyms to describe the list of questions, but I’ll just pitch them here: How do you define that? Can you share an example? Can you elaborate on that? Can you illustrate that? This set of questions can really serve as lenses to open up a range of perspectives at the intersection of teaching, learning and technology — they can change our thinking. Importantly, they can serve as a foundation to support meaningful instructional consultation that can grow thought partnerships.

Consultancy as shared exploration – There is plenty that gets wrapped into the conversations that faculty members and educational technologists have about using technology in teaching. I know that in my own work with faculty there are always varying expectations, issues of power, layers of expertise, different perspectives, questions of identity, and a mix of desires – to help, support, achieve resolution. Sometimes there is a question, or some general uncertainty, that is delivered as a conclusion…”I want to flip my classroom.” We can rush to assume shared understanding, and offer quick advice about tools that will “get the job done.” We fall into the trap of obeying the tool! In fact, there can be an expectation that this is in fact what educational technologists do. This gets reinforced every time we offer quick fix technically focused solutions to layered questions about teaching and learning.  In the work we are pursuing with cultivating thought partnerships, I think we are seeking to problematize this for ourselves – to refine the kinds of conversations we have with faculty members. For me, the practice of instructional consultation is both humbling and energizing. Ideally, it is a shared exploration of ideas, interests, desires and questions — it takes longer and requires some commitment — but I think we all get to a richer and more meaningful understanding about the ways technology can enhance teaching and learning.

During the course of our workshop, Enoch encouraged us to consider the notion that, “…cultivating thought partnerships might be a hamster wheel.” As he always pushes and extends my thinking, I didn’t see this as a caution, but the seed of a question for helping us to be aware and reflective on how to move forward in an intentional and meaningful way. Onward!


“That’s not a course…it’s a community.”

In our most recent class session for GRAD602 we explored the idea of course sites as platforms of participation. My colleague Britt Watwood led the session and took us on a reflective tour of web-based course sites. This is a schtick Britt has facilitated many times before, and it always begins with a review of the history of the LMS – its development, functionality and the rapid adoption by faculty in higher education. The basic premise is that LMS technology is a rather teacher-centered technology whose appeal lies in the fact that it tends to reinforce existing practices, and functions well to serve as a parking lot for course content and keeps grades locked up safe and available to students. Britt paints a slightly more rosy picture, but that is the gist of it. Students in class reported that their experience of the LMS is not all that well aligned with the idea of being a platform of participation. It is a pretty good platform of compliance though.

Britt then transitioned to taking a look at our current course site which we’ve developed on WordPress, it includes a collection of course feeds via netvibes, a twitter feed, and podcasts. Nothing new here, in fact we’ve shamelessly copied much of this stuff from others far more creative than we are. Yet the course site has some life beyond any single semester instance…it hints at the hope of an extended community…but its not quite there yet. Still, the students noticed that the experience and feel of the WP site was more inviting and was a bit more in line with being a platform of participation (no pressure for them to say that, huh?).

We then took a turn to explore the idea of fan sites. Fan culture on the web is a pretty interesting seam in the conversation around course sites…at least we thought so. The idea of groups forming to share interests, ideas, resources…and engage in dialogue / banter / harangue…around a topic of mutual passion…these sound like awesome ingredients for building online communities. Britt pitched a Justin Bieber fan site (which I purposely will not link to here). There are literally tons of web-based community sites, where user-generated content is the coin of the realm. There really seems to be some value in having course sites collide with fan sites on the web. Henry Jenkins has written far more eloquently about this topic for years…so I’ll just leave that one on the table.

We then pitched ds106 as an example of a course site that seems to have successfully emulated this collision I briefly described. While ds106 was conceived as a course (an open course) it now seems more course-like as it evolved and grew into its current form from robust community involvement that helped to build and grow it…the radio show, the daily create, the assignment bank…user-generated learning content. The students in GRAD602 picked up on these ideas and I was particularly struck by a comment a student made during our discussion in response to ds106…”That is not a course…it’s a community!” That really rang in my ears for a while…and is worth stating again.

“That is not a course…it’s a community!”

Somehow the statement seemed to be suggesting that courses are not supposed to be communities. Or perhaps that notions of community are nice, but not altogether consistent with time honored notions of academic courses. Why not?

We used this statement as a springboard for a post-class debrief which we recorded and posted here:

We discussed a few pieces that seem to contribute to course sites moving towards communities:

  • Shelf Life – Ongoing access to the materials and discussions beyond any one semester
  • Multiple Entry Points – Supports sharing of learner-generated content
  • Open – Can engage the wider interwebs
  • [Re]engagement – “Can I come back?” Provides opportunities for past students to revisit the course

What else might you add?


“Hey Dad, can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”


It all started with my father-in-law sending along a mummified skeleton to my son, Lowell. We were all curious about what the animal may have been, and pitched initial ideas for figuring out how to identify it. A quick image search for squirrels and chipmunks did not yield any clear answers.

At my wife’s suggestion we reached out to the Anthropology Department here at VCU for some possible assistance in faunal identification. Dr. Bernard Means, who directs the Virtual Curation Lab (VCL) here, was both supportive and enthusiastic of my son’s exploration and invited him to the lab. It was a wonderful learning experience, comparing sample skeletons, examining additional artifacts, doing some hypothesis testing and getting an introduction to 3D scanning and printing. The specimen even garnered the attention of Dr. Elizabeth Moore of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) who was a visitor to the VCL. The skeleton was eventually positively identified as a juvenile opossum…very cool. Dr. Means expressed interest in keeping the specimen, and offered to print a scanned copy of the opossum for Lowell.

“Print a copy?” Lowell remarked…he was more than willing to let Dr. Means keep the actual skeleton…and the thought of a copy was pretty intriguing for him, and me as well.

This idea of 3D printing is something I’ve had to warm-up to over the past several years. When I initially heard of the technology a few years ago I admit I did not readily see some of the possibilities for education. But seeing this through my son’s eyes has totally changed my perspective. He has now had an experience where his “real-life” opossum skeleton, could be scanned and reproduced by a 3D printer…something I never even considered within the realm of reason. This is now a baseline perspective for my son. Mummified juvenile opossum.

He emerged with the idea that anything could be printed. This is a rather profound state of affairs for a 9 year old boy. Not only does he have the view that these “real-life” things can be printed, but that things he imagines and creates virtually could also be printed. Real can be virtual and virtual can be real. This realization completely blew the doors open for him. It is this sense of possibility, of imagining things and having the perspective and confidence that you can actually make it in real life with a 3D printer was a transformative moment for Lowell and I. I think this sense of possibility, creativity and imagination holds some profound promise for education and learning in the digital age as well. A few days ago he was showing me a recent creation he made in Minecraft. His imagination and creativity in this environment never ceases to amaze me, and this day was no different. He had made what he described as a kind of a flying fortress…complete with an enclosed garden and living space. “Very cool” I said…to which he responded…”can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”

It is a profoundly different world…


What if your course was more like Chipotle?

I’ve been having some initial conversations with my colleagues Enoch Hale and Britt Watwood about how we conceptualize the narrative of innovation as it relates to our work in higher education. We had a wonderful conversation this morning about innovation in the business / consumer world, and used that as a way to map onto higher education (a thought I know will make some of you cringe, but bear with me here). I’m going to steal an idea from our conversation, and use that as my contribution (#3) to the 30-Day question challenge. So here goes:

Question #3: What if your course was more like Chipotle?

What has Chipotle done here that I (and others) find pretty interesting…and I’ll venture to say innovative? They took different pans of well-known taco / burrito ingredients (beans, chicken, carnitas, sofritas, corn relish, salsa, cheese, lettuce) fairly predictable stuff…and empowered their customers to [re]mix and [re]combine them in countless numbers of ways. Choices personalized! As Enoch shared in our conversation, there are exposed and known choices…and then there are the “hidden choices”…or the possibilities and options that folks envision and experience when they come into Chipotle to eat. Let’s face it, the taco / burrito is not a new consumer product. It is a known and familiar entity. But eh Taco Bell “Live Mas” pitch where they stuff the same fixins into a new and innovative wrapper “Doritos Taco Shell” just doesn’t do it for me.

I think higher education does a fair share of claiming new / innovative stuff by putting a new taco shell around old content and practices. Its not appealing…at least not to me.

So is there value in conceptualizing a Chipotle model for courses we teach? I see several potential value options…

1) Bringing imagination of new opportunities to the teaching & learning enterprise…i.e., there is common fare that can be re-conceptualized and shared in new ways.

2) There is opportunity for empowerment and choice for learners right out of the gate.

3) Learning can take on a personalized flavor (obvious pun…sorry couldn’t help it).

4) [Re]mix / [Re]combine…becomes a learning expectation for the course.

Its about option generation…


30-day Question Challenge (#2)

When you find something that works you tend to stick with it. Sometimes it is simply patterned behavior…no big surprise there. But these patterned practices can also become scripted thinking routines…entrenched in teaching and learning, almost to the point where we don’t question…its just accepted as obvious…its what we do.

We see this in simple ways, students (children & adults) who sit in the same place – all the time – and with teachers who do that same go-to activity year after year. We are comfortable with the routine and the predictable. its not that there is inherently anything bad with routine, but I think it can prevent us from thinking about something new, or trying a new practice – in essence – to sit somewhere else. A change of perspective can be healthy.

So my questions:

Question 2: How can we “sit differently” to gain new perspectives on teaching and learning?

What I’m thinking about here are activities that get our brains to do something different than what we might be used to. Its like trying to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Or walking backward through your house. What are some possible analogues that might help us to think different about teaching and learning? I realize I may really have oversimplified the issues here…but I’m wondering about what benefit we might gain from shifting the way we engage in routine teaching-learning behaviors.

What do you think?


30-day Question Challenge (#1)

My colleague here in the CTE, Enoch Hale, who blogs over at Archer’s Paradox has issued a call that I found inspiring: “pose an out-of-the-box question about teaching and learning each day for 30 days.” So, I’ve decided to take the challenge, noting that my blogging frequency is less than a post per month…this is a very real challenge for me. So here goes…

Question 1: What might it mean to teach like an octopus?

OK, I have absolutely no idea what I mean by this, just yet. But I’ve been fascinated by the behaviors of these creatures…

For example…talk about literally thinking out of the box…check this out –>

I picture myself inside that box and think, “no way…IMPOSSIBLE…I’m imprisoned in here.” What is this octopus thinking that makes this seem so effortless and obvious? Believing in the possible? The implications of this for teaching seem worth pursuing for me…and at the same time a little daunting because I have no idea how the octopus pulls this off.

Or this clip depicting the ways in which an octopus can change color, be a shape-shifter, blend and reappear…

Again…the octopus is fascinating in the ways it thinks itself into the possible. What does it mean to teach like an octopus?


Checking the Oil

Recently in our GRAD 602 course we have engaged in some thinking about the meaning and use of the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI). I’ve completed the TPI before, and have found it useful for reflecting on my own beliefs about teaching, as well as for facilitating discussion among faculty members who are interested in doing the same. I see the TPI as a reasonably good method of “checking the oil” to get a reading on how we see ourselves as teachers across the five different perspectives. Upon completing the TPI, most individuals tend to have one perspective that is more dominant that others.My scores (pictured above) indicated a tendency toward the “Developmental” perspective (39), followed by the “Apprenticeship” (33) and “Nurturing” (33) perspectives, and then less so the “Transmission” (29) and “Social Reform” (28) perspectives. I try to look at these results holistically – in a collective sense – of my perspectives on teaching. It remains a meaningful exercise for me to revisit the TPI from time to time…and to reflect on my own perspectives, as well as engage in conversation with colleagues about how they see themselves as depicted by their scores. It is a great tool to facilitate some discussion about teaching.

There were a few things that stuck out for me this time around that I’m thinking about in a different light than I recall previously. While I see myself as holding some commitment to the “Social Reform” perspective, I was surprised by two things: 1) It was the perspective with the lowest score for me, and 2) No one in the course logged the “Social Reform” perspective as their highest score…in fact for many it was also the lowest. Curious? I don’t know…

The description of the “Social reform” perspective reads:

From the Social Reform point of view, the object of teaching is the collective rather than the individual. Good teachers awaken students to values and ideologies that are embedded in texts and common practices within their disciplines. Good teachers challenge the status quo and encourage students to consider how learners are positioned and constructed in particular discourses and practices. To do so, they analyze and deconstruct common practices for ways in which such practices perpetuate conditions that are unacceptable. Class discussion is focused less on how knowledge has been created, and more by whom and for what purposes. Texts are interrogated for what is said and what is not said; what is included and what is excluded; who is represented and who is omitted from the dominant discourse. Students are encouraged to take critical stances to give them power to take social action to improve their own lives and the lives of others. Critical deconstruction, though central to this view, is not an end in itself.

Well now…I’ve tended to be an advocate of the critique of education (and schooling) as essentially functioning to create and maintain the status quo…a site of cultural reproduction. In fact, I’d like to think that in my own practice as a teacher I endeavor to act in ways consistent with the “Social Reform” perspective in the TPI. So with this being the lowest score for me…it certainly gave me pause. I’m reflecting on this result and asking questions about what I’m doing and perhaps more importantly – not doing. Should there be more overt interrogation of higher education itself within a course like GRAD 602? Do the design decisions, assignments, reading selections,and practices that are baked into the course encourage students to “take critical stances to give them power to take social action to improve their own lives and the lives of others?” I’m not sure…I can say that I’m not often very explicit about this…and I’m wondering if I should be. So, I’m going to need to live with this one for a bit, think, and engage with my teacher colleagues about their views…in this way I hope to honor the idea of teaching as community property.


The Coursera Consortium…

The recent MOOC craze has recently given birth – or so it seems – to emergent leadership positions at some Universities that have jumped on the Coursera train. And at the outset here, I want to thank Jon Becker for putting these on my radar…I know he has some ideas of his own brewing about these changes…so perhaps we’ll see a post from him soon.

Stanford University recently announced creation of the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning, which will be led by computer scientist John Mitchell. The online learning initiatives at Stanford appear to be focused on experimentation with the open online course model serving as a way to better understand new pedagogical approaches and methods. The overview for Stanford Online provides some interesting rationale for what they are doing.

The University of Pennsylvania also announced the appointment of law professor Edward Rock as senior advisor to the president and provost and director of open course initiatives. Rock is a leading scholar on corporate law and corporate governance, and has written widely on “the balance of power between shareholders and managers, government ownership, hedge funds, shareholder voting and mergers and acquisitions.” Apparently, these are valued knowledge domains for leading online initiatives at Penn.

I suspect that we will see the rest of the Coursera gang announce – like falling dominoes – similar positions in short order.

This is an interesting development. It appears we may be witnessing the early stages of a strategic realignment / reorganization of institutional power around online courses and learning in elite institutions of higher education.

A piece posted in the early summer at Logos Journal described the collapse of the corporate university, and offers a nice historical arc that serves as a potentially interesting backdrop to the changes at Penn and Stanford. The “Coursera Consortium”…(or the Sweet 16…your call) may well be an early iteration of a new business model for higher education.

“Open and free as a public service” deserves some careful consideration…


Bologna and Cheese

That’s right, bologna and cheese, this is a favorite sandwich among some folks. I know my son sure likes it…he might even love it. I had not eaten any of these sandwiches in what must have been 30 years…then I tried a bite…memory runs pretty deep for me too it seems. It’s predictable – squishy white bread, bologna, and that smooth processed American cheese. It all comes right back when you have a bite. It feels familiar and known…it gets the job done…it just works. It’s connected up to all those things you know – that you have done before – it fits right back in to a place in your brain that makes sense.

That is until you change something. Sometimes I like a little mustard on the sandwich…my son however will not touch a bologna and cheese sandwich with mustard. He likes it plain and simple…a purist you might say. I’ve seen others react in a similar way…bologna and cheese on whole wheat? Are you crazy? It’s better for you, I say…fiber you know? Hell, I don’t eat bologna and cheese because it’s healthy! Or what about a little mayo…or some lettuce and tomato…you know, change things up a bit. Nope! Resistance, rejection, heckling, that is what you get when you try messing with the bologna and cheese equation.

The memory and feelings run deep.

I think the same thing can happen when we try to change things in the classroom…in the ways we teach…particularly after learners have eaten their fair share of bologna and cheese over the course of 12 + years of schooling.

Changing the menu can be a challenge…and working to expand the learning palate can result in what seems like a lot of untouched plates. It is easier to stay with the predictable – because it feels familiar and known…it gets the job done…it just works. It’s connected up to all those things you know – that you have done before – it fits right back in to a place in your brain that makes sense.

So I’ve been looking for examples of things that change the menu and puts some of this in reverse…that might not fit just right in your brain, that is not something we’ve done before, and is not neatly connected to all those things we know.

I’m trying to think carefully about what these things mean for learning…

Ed Parkour
“Ed Parkour is not a person or a movement.  It is people on the move.  In parkour, the structures of the world are not taken as they were meant, but how they might be used.  Walls, obstacles, and barriers become objects to be leveraged, harnessed, and sometimes altered.  The practitioner of parkour sees the world as a playground of possibility.  Likewise, the practitioner of Ed Parkour tries to leverage and harness the “walls” and “structures” that try to control learning.  Ed Parkour is learning around, over, and outside the walls.”

“Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year….but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer (none of those wimpy ass iPads), a hardy internet connection, a domain of your own, some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster (and we’ll spend time helping you get up and running with at least two of the last three requirements).”

“We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. Udacity was founded by three roboticists who believed much of the educational value of their university classes could be offered online. A few weeks later, over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled in our first class, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”

What are you seeing out there that is a change in the menu?


The Promise of Learning

A parent of a student once said to me, “When you have your own children, you begin to think about learning in a very different way.” At the time, I sensed that was obviously true, but she was right…you can’t really feel it in your soul until you have your own kids. I find myself thinking more about this lately as my son, who is 7, has begun his march through formal schooling. It can be a bumpy process when the sifting and sorting mechanism kicks into gear, and instructional efficiency begins to rule the day.

It has made me think – perhaps more than I should – about the promise of learning and what it means to teach…really teach. It is about way more than content and curriculum delivery…at least it should be. It should be about caring for individuals and recognizing that there are many paths to learning. As teachers, we sometimes lose sight of this…or trade it for some higher ideal.

What is your promise for learning?

It’s an interesting question…and I find myself asking it more often…as a parent.

Which is why I found this site of a Swedish primary school to be so interesting. On their site they outline their learning promises…simple perhaps, but I found them inspirational:

Vittra gives every individual the opportunity…

  • to find the best approach for them
    Children play and learn on the basis of their needs, curiosity and inclination in the best ways possible.
  • to learn based on experience
    Children’s learning is based on their experience which increases motivation and inspires creativity.
  • to understand their own learning
    Children are equipped with the tools to acquire new knowledge and increase understanding of ‘How I learn’, which enables them to learn more easily and effectively in the future.
  • to have faith in themselves and their abilities
    Children become more self-aware, aware of their strengths and potential for development which means they dare and like to be challenged.
  • to develop their ability to communicate and engage in respectful interaction with others
    Children understand and are considerate to the needs and interests of others, they can express and stand for their own views as well as take responsibility for their actions.
  • to be equipped for study and work in an international environment
    Children develop effective bilingualism in English and Swedish while experiencing and creating international contacts through networks and exchange programmes abroad.

I don’t know about you, but its not often I see a K-12 school – anywhere in the U.S at least – making any kind of promises about learning. One thing for sure, I have never seen a college or university make these kinds of promises about learning for students who enroll in their programs and courses. I wonder if it would make a difference? A difference in how we teach….