Free as in Freedom…not Free Beer

A recent Washington Post article surveyed the changing landscape of online learning by describing some “start-ups” that are offering free (or low cost) online courses. I’ve been aware of many of the examples described for some time, but it was the first time I’ve really seen the mainstream media give attention to the open courseware movement…and that might be a good thing.

Some folks might see the “free course” phenomena as a threat to traditional university courses, and something that confounds the notion of “academic credit.” I think it provides a healthy disruption that asks us to think about the future of education. No crystal ball here, but MIT’s online learning initiative (MITx) continues to be an important example of how this space is morphing.

Bottom line…it isn’t about “free” as in gratis, rather it is “free” in the spirit of libre…of setting knowledge free. Greater learner freedom is a good direction for education.

Now go drink to that…cheers!


No guarantees…

The 7 Principles of Good Practice have become a “go to” frame of reference for me when I think about using and adopting digital technologies for learning. For me, the principles represent a useful lens for thinking about my practice and whether a particular use of technology will be able to support or embody them. It’s not an all or nothing deal, but if I can address multiple principles through the use of a technology then I tend to see the combination as a potential learning benefit.

We’ve been having a similar conversation in GRAD 602, and asking whether we find the 7 Principles to be a meaningful set of guidelines for selecting digital technologies as well as informing teaching practice.

Reviews have been mixed.

Some see the Principles in a positive light,  having immediate application in their current context, or recognize the obvious value, of say, communication between teachers and students.  Others have expanded them to include a few additional principles, and even lamented their absence as part of the professional education of PhD students.

Some regard the Principles with a bit more skepticism, at least with their regard to their being used as a heuristic for teaching. Some urge caution at the use of technology to facilitate contact & communication. Others acknowledge experiences where they have employed the Principles, but did not get the “buy-in” from students. Still others viewed the Principles as an idealized vision for education, and questioned whether faculty teaching practices would ultimately align with them unless they were valued throughout the institution…from the top to the bottom.

Clearly there are no guarantees here. Good teaching practice alone does not lead to enhanced learning, indeed learning can and does occur even in the absence of good teaching.

So, does good teaching practice matter? I guess it depends…

If you care about an answer to that question I encourage you to watch this TED Talk from Sugatra Mitra, and see where it leaves you…


Scholarship of Teaching, Say Hello to the Web…

In a course I’m co-teaching with Britt Watwood, called Teaching, Learning and Technology in Higher Education, we’ve included blogging as a key means of supporting discussion and sharing ideas. The students in the course are part of a preparing future faculty program at our university, and they hail from a variety of disciplines.

We’ve introduced blogging in a two-pronged sort of way, in that we see it as 1) a potentially valuable way to engage in meaningful reflection on learning and practice, and 2) as an academic publishing platform with an eye toward supporting the role of being a public intellectual.

I think this can be a tricky two-step.

As I reflect on the discussion thus far, I think we may have inadvertently emphasized the academic publishing platform notion a bit too much. It seems that this is a slippery slope, as it can quickly tumble into concerns about openness, intellectual property and the like. What happens next is that the idea of an academic publishing platform on the web are often compared to and then conflated with traditional notions of scholarship. Perhaps this is a natural slip…but it misses the point a bit and inspires some FUD rhetoric…at least from my perspective. All the same, the discussion of how future faculty perceive and engage in new media environments – as both scholars and educators – is a crucially important one. It raises critical questions about peer review, authorship, collective knowledge, open teaching and community building that are worth exploring.

At this point, academic publishing on the web (blogs, wikis, video, podcasts, etc.) remains a fringe notion for the bulk of faculty members with whom I work. To suggest that this kind of work can potentially be a form a scholarship is often met with dismissive smiles and the kind of head tilting dogs do when they hear a high-pitched sound. Alas…

What I’d like to suggest here is that while academic publishing platforms (e.g., blogs) may not yet be considered a form of scholarship, I think that the process of writing in the open for academic / scholarly purposes can serve as an act in support of scholarship.

In 1990 Ernest Boyer made an important contribution to the literature of higher education by authoring the book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. In this book, Boyer argued for a broader definition of what constituted scholarship and called upon those in higher education to “…break out of the tired old teaching versus research debate and define, in more creative ways, what it means to be a scholar.” He outlined the following four areas of scholarship, that taken collectively – he argued – represent a more meaningful approach to recognizing and rewarding the scholarly work of faculty:

• Scholarship of Discovery – Build new knowledge through traditional research.
• Scholarship of Integration – Interpret the use of knowledge across disciplines.
• Scholarship of Application – Aid society and professions in addressing problems.
• Scholarship of Teaching – Study teaching models and practice to achieve optimal learning.

It is this last component, the Scholarship of Teaching, that I suggest could be supported and enhanced through open academic publishing on the web. Blogs provide a platform for sharing ideas, offering aspects of peer-review in the form of commenting, and engaging public as well as discipline-based communities of practice. For faculty members, the act of authoring ideas about education can inspire meta-cognition and support the kind of critically reflective practice that leads to the growth of knowledge in teaching.

While open academic publishing is currently in an emergent stage, it seems to hold great potential for thinking through important questions and issues about what it might mean to engage in scholarly teaching practice in the digital age.


PLENK, Network Literacy and the Future of Education

This week I came across a few interesting links that served to gel some ideas, or at least confirm the importance of engaging in and understanding networked learning. The first was an open course being taught by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier called PLENK 2010. This 8-week open course covers some pretty interesting topics and provides links to additional readings and resources. Spending some time on this site provided me with some insights about how learning is increasingly more open, connected (networked), and social.

The other piece was an interview that Will Richardson did for EdWeek. In the interview, Richardson touches on the idea of “network literacy” – an idea that really resonates with me – and shared some views about why the teaching of this new literacy is important. While his focus tends to be on the K-12 context his ideas are equally important in higher education. The PLENK 2010 course is a meaningful response to what Richardson is calling for, but I’m wondering where else this is happening? The concept of networked learning remains a bit of a fringe idea when I talk with other faculty about it…and as such it often gets easily dismissed. At the same time, I can’t help but sense that there is a profound transformation taking place right in front of our eyes, and too few people in education seem to be taking notice and considering the implications for education. I just don’t see this as a pervasive conversation in broader education circles… Should it be?

It seems to me there is a gulf of understanding between what many in higher ed. are seeing and thinking and what is happening around them. I liken it to what has happened to traditional news media in the wake of web publishing…none of them (editors, periodicals, newspapers, etc.) saw their own demise coming. Some were nimble and have adjusted…others are still scratching their heads.

A current example of the kind of change that is underfoot is the Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival. This “festival” (read conference) is one of the most interesting I have seen to date in terms of pushing the conversation about the Open Education and networked learning. Combine this with the the announcement this week that OpenStudy is partnering with MIT OpenCourseware and you begin to get a real glimpse of how traditional notions of course-based learning are morphing here. Some very interesting stuff in my opinion.

It seems to me that these examples of changes taking place….(Peer2Peer U., badges for recognizing informal online learning, open courses, open source learning content, etc.) represent a whole different ballgame. Perhaps a bit radical for those with a conservative lens…but I think any position / view of the future of education needs to take into account the changes taking place here.


The Power of Open

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to ask students to reflect on and share some of their learning in the open. I endeavor to do this myself in some of the writing I do about teaching because it pushes and refines my thinking.  I try to be there with my students as a fellow learner in the process…to model what I’m asking them to do. Sometimes I think it works.

I know I’m not alone in this endeavor; there are other folks who’ve been doing this for a while and trying new things that I find to be wonderful examples of teaching and learning in the open. So I wanted to share a few examples that illustrate what I think is particularly cool and powerful about the process.

One of the gurus for me is Gardner Campbell, who seems to constantly be pulling off amazing learning wherever he goes. He recently described his experience at the OpenEdTech 2010 conference, and shared a story about how he tapped into conversations unfolding in Barcelona and connected them to students at Baylor who in turn amplified and added to the ideas and sent them back around again. His post – The global nervous system worked like a champis thick with meaning for understanding learning that is open, connected and social.

In another example, a colleague of mine here at VCU, Jon Becker, has encouraged his students and his network at large to engage in the learning of the course by sharing the living syllabus on the web, inviting tagging of resources, and reading / commenting on the blogs of students. The opportunity for learning here is amplified and extended by being in the open. Educational leaders not  “officially” in the course can contribute and learn with those aspiring to be school leaders…it becomes a community of practice.

My current favorite is by another VCU colleague, Scott Sherman, who has cooked up a great blog that is his reflective space for sharing ideas about teaching advertising.  Scott has embarked on a very cool project with his students this semester where over 100 students are curating content on the web related to advertisements for Life Savers. They are doing this in the open through individual student blogs aggregated on a Netvibes page as Project54. When the course comes to a close this project will not only be one of the largest collections of curated material about a brand on the web, it will be a learning resource for exploration, dialogue and critique.

Open amplifies learning.


Blogs for Learning and Reflective Practice?

With nearly 147 million blogs currently identified on the web, why should you consider adding yet another blog to the burgeoning blogosphere?

I’m not sure if that is the right question to be asking when we invite students to share their ideas on the web, but that is what I did. I wanted them to consider developing a rationale for writing in the open that could support learning and reflective practice, as well as explore opportunities for connecting and community building. I also understand that my asking them to enter this space is potentially at odds with what some might call “authentic” purposes for writing that are individually motivated. Many have written about the tension and disconnect that can emerge when students engage in this kind of writing for course-based purposes, and I still like Stephen Downes’ take on it.

I believe it is a valuable experience for students to engage with writing in the open for the purposes of reflecting on their learning and connecting their ideas with others who are engaged in a similar pursuit. Consideration of the potential audience is at once humbling, exciting and unknown. From my perspective, there is no other way to reap potential benefits of this experience, or to be able to level a reasoned critique of it, unless you engage in it.

All said, the brief clip below of Seth Godin and Tom Peters talking about why they blog seemed to resonate with us as we discussed a rationale for blogging. In less than two minutes, Godin and Peters offer some of the most honest and encouraging advice I’ve heard…

While their perspectives are great for a general audience, I think their message could apply to educational blogging as well. There are probably better examples for supporting my rationale for blogging in education, but the clip really gets the job done for me. As I think about specific educational examples, I’m hard pressed to find something that tops Gardner Campbell’s view of why he asks his students to blog, or Henry Jenkins’ call to academics to write in the open. Taken collectively, these examples form a foundation for my rationale about why I ask students to engage in blogging to support reflective practice and learning.

I know that there are multiple ways and reasons to engage students in the use of blogs in education…and probably an equal number of reasons not to. So I’m curious…if you are a fan of blogging to support learning what is your rationale? If you have some push back in the other direction I’d really like to hear that as well…


Learning is the Conversation in the Community


The idea that learning within a community is – at its core – the conversation among members of that community, is not necessarily a new idea. Combine this with the fact that I’m a big fan of the notion of communities of practice, and you might be surprised that I’m even choosing to write about what is for many a commonly accepted idea. So I’m going to try to briefly describe a recent experience that really drove the idea home for me in a new way.

In the past few years I’ve been fascinated, and at times confounded, by the ways the web has transformed opportunities for communication and exchange among people, as well as the ways in which virtual communities can be formed and sustained. In fact, I’m still trying to come to terms with the ways in which my own understanding of “conversation” and “community” have been, and continue to be, altered by my participation in web-based communities. Like many folks, I read and comment on blogs, use delicious to share resources with my network, connect with people on twitter, collaborate with people on ning sites, and even begrudgingly let Facebook vacuum up my data in order to stay in touch with friends. All these forms of participation can be seen, on some level, as “conversations” that take place in various communities that are networked and distributed…a part of my personal learning network. I have come to value these opportunities to connect and learn a great deal, and at times some of the exchanges do seem to be conversations. I am also learning more about how my practices are shifting as I attempt to teach in this networked environment. Lately however, I find myself asking more and more – What constitutes a conversation? Are my activities on blogs and twitter really conversations? When does a distributed network of networks on the web constitute a community? How do you recognize the shared “ah-ha” moment among learners in a web-based environment? These are slippery questions for me…

Which brings me to a recent conversation in a class I was teaching. We happened to be discussing how digital media has changed the landscape of learning, and the potential value of the ideas of the PLE and PLN for adult learners. We had read a piece from Stephen Downes, Learning Networks in Practice, and it generated some interesting perspectives. One perspective was that Downes’ view was old news, pretty much business as usual, while others suggested that his ideas represented a fundamental paradigm shift for education. The tension between these two perspectives made for some valuable in-class discussion. I recognized a quality about this exchange that was missing from the distributed and often fragmented conversations that take place in my PLN.

It was a shared event where people in the conversation could all recognize learning that was the result of collective conversation in the moment. It was a meaningful experience for me. It seemed to be a collective “ah-ha” moment; a moment where the learning is the conversation in the community. It was beautiful. I do not routinely have that experience in conversations that are distributed and networked, that is, where those in the conversation have a shared recognition of the learning. The networked learning seems more individual and parsed to me. I’m having a hard time seeing the community learning in the cloud. Maybe it is my over-reliance and need for physical cues…the head nodding & the non-verbals…the follow-up questions and the comments of affirmation…where the learning seems to get named. I like that. I’m looking for similar cues in the networked environment, where members of a community can experience the collective acknowledgment of learning. Perhaps this happens for folks, and I am just a novice network learner not yet able to see the markers. Maybe I am not dialed in to the subtle ways that distributed learning networks come to shared understanding. Or, it may be that my view here is simply a lament for the vestiges of my thinking, which suggest that learning in community, somehow needs a face-to-face component. Ultimately, I’m not sure the “place-based” experience is necessary, but my sense is that the realization of collective learning and shared understanding among members of a web-based community is more challenging to nail down. So I guess my question at this point is whether its even necessary to identify collective learning that results from the – conversation[s] – in a networked community…is it? If not, I need to figure out how to better navigate without those markers. If it is, I need to get much better at understanding how multiple entry points, fragments of perspective, and varied learning trajectories coalesce to represent learning in a distributed network on the web.


[Un]packing the Learning Management System

Of all contemporary web-based educational technologies, the enterprise learning management system (LMS) has enjoyed the broadest adoption and use among higher education faculty. This should not come as a surprise. The LMS is grounded in management practices that provide the instructor with complete control of how the space is used by students. Perhaps this is one reason for its broad adoption and often-narrow use to enhance learning. Technologies are often adopted in ways that support and reinforce existing teaching practices, in essence doing old things with new tools. The LMS simply allows these practices to be repackaged for the web.

So you can imagine that I was not the least bit surprised to hear my students in a recent class describe their experiences of Blackboard as used by faculty in their graduate courses. They echoed findings from the ECAR study of students and IT: faculty post documents, readings, grades, and sometimes course content…and students find this convenient. It works great as one-way storage and distribution mechanism, but it is not seen as a space where learning takes place.

In our class session, I intended for students to take a critical look at the design of the LMS and to explore questions about the pedagogy that is valued based on its design. One hoped for outcome was to see that the LMS is not a neutral space, and is something that we should think about critically in order to make deliberate decisions about its use in teaching and learning. To inform the discussion we read Hamish Coates, Lisa Lane and Gardner Campbell.

We also had the great pleasure of hosting Jim Groom as a guest speaker via video chat from his perch at UMW. Jim’s energy and passion about this topic are legendary in my mind, and I greatly appreciated his willingness to spend time with our class and share his ideas.

While some of the ideas Jim shared have become quite familiar to me at this point, I always find that he pushes my thinking to look at a new facet of something I may have taken for granted, and which really needs continuous attention in the conversation we create about teaching, learning and technology. I often take for granted that the web is a space for learning, but am reminded that this is not always broadly shared. Jim helped me to see that this remains a central part of the conversation, and is important to continually address when the LMS is often the defining space for the intersection of formal coursework and the web.

So, I’m reminded to continue asking the question: How can we engage in teaching practices that envision the web as a space for learning?

Here are some of the take-aways from Jim’s talk that help me continue to live in this question:

  • The conversation about the LMS – and its role in teaching and learning – is really part of a larger argument about the nature of the web. If students experience an “open web” in their personal lives and a “closed web” in their academic lives then this simply reinforces notions that what they do in school on the web is just “schooliness”…not learning.
  • Closed and proprietary systems are not about learning they are about management. If we want to engage students in learning on the web we need permeable membranes that connect, not walled gardens that contain.
  • Explore ways to foster openness in the learning process. Part of the greatest potential of the web is how it permits, as Jim said, “networks of people to huddle” and learn together. At the same time this remains one of the most challenging parts of the conversation I have with colleagues…openness is a paradigm shift for many people…faculty and students alike.
  • When we position students as thinkers and scholars we place value on the intellectual work they do. In doing so, we should identify and create spaces for students to openly share their ideas. UMW Blogs is a great example of this. The notion that the intellectual efforts and learning products of students should be canned up and deleted at the end of a 15-week course seems pretty ludicrous in light of this.

It seems crucial that we engage current and future faculty in openly discussing the role of the web in teaching and learning…and to consider how the ways we engage students in these spaces with formal learning will shape their views of how the web should and can be used…in education, and perhaps in other areas of social life as well. I want my students to question what is at stake when we choose to teach in closed systems on the web. My hope is that they see the future of learning on the table, and that they have an important role to play in shaping it.


The Teaching with Technology Futures Market

What do you think you should be learning about using technology in teaching?

This was the question I opened with in a class I’m currently co-teaching with my colleague Zach Goodell, called Teaching, Learning and Technology in Higher Education. The course is designed for graduate students who are considering teaching in the academy after they finish their PhD. This particular class session was intended to provide all of us with the opportunity to explore perspectives and to consider ways the web and digital media are changing how and where learning is taking place. The class discussion was rich and layered as students shared their views, questions and comments. What emerged was a focus on four key ideas that seemed to be shared among most of the students, but there was not necessarily agreement on what to do about them just yet. The ideas are briefly outlined below…

Technology and Engagement
Students indicated that there was a need to consider the use of technology in teaching in order to engage learners both inside and outside the classroom. “We need to engage students where they are,” was one comment that really seemed to resonate with students as we discussed this idea. There was mention of a Facebook fan page that was set up in different course to facilitate interaction among students, which was viewed somewhat favorably. There seemed to be a general awareness that the current landscape finds students engaged in a range of digital spaces – where they socialize, share information and build connections – and that there is the need to meet them on that ground in order to connect with and engage them in our courses. Additional examples of this remained a bit elusive.

Avoid Gadgetry
There was a shared perspective that, in teaching, we should not use technology for the sake of technology. Students were well aware of the pervasive and popular appeal of technology today, and viewed the lure of modern gadgetry with skepticism. Selecting and using technology to support learning in meaningful ways was something these students recognized the need for.

Balanced Use
These students also recognized that the use of technology tools takes time and practice in order to be used effectively in teaching. They were sensitive to the idea that there needs to be a balance between learning to use the tools and using the tools for learning. Some software applications may take considerable time to learn to use before they become transparent and can be seamlessly integrated into the course. Using course time to learn a tool was seen as potentially impacting the teaching of course content. I saw this perspective very much in terms of return on investment; how do we determine the amount of time that is worth investing in learning use a technology such that the learning payoff will outweigh that in the long view? Students seemed keenly aware of the need to develop this sense of balance.

Age of Distraction
What do we do about gadgets and laptops in class? During our discussion there was, at times, a heightened emotional response to the question about how we make decisions about student technology use in class. Part of my response was that if you want to bring a laptop to my class and browse email, update Facebook, search for information related to the discussion, send twitter messages…whatever…that was up to you. I acknowledged the responsibility of the instructor to create the conditions necessary to support learning and guide attention, I added that it was also up to each individual student to take the responsibility to decide what they were paying attention to in class. At the same time, as these students pointed out, there is potential for in class tech use to be disruptive…as they shared concerns about the cone of distraction that is sometimes created by laptop / gadget users. I’m not sure banning technology in the classroom is the answer, however. My sense is that we have the capacity to use very powerful digital tools for accessing, sharing and communicating about information, and that as educators we need to make careful and deliberate decisions about how we are going to channel that capacity both inside and outside the classes we teach. This continues to be a hot button issue as university faculty members come to terms with how they will deal with technology in the classroom…and the presence of extreme views are an indicator that this issue remains emotionally charged.

The Promise of Technology
The views these students expressed about what they want to learn about technology are spot-on from my perspective. Teaching with technology is layered and nuanced, and they have articulated several key aspects that drive meaningful use. It seems that in order to learn what is outlined above, faculty members need encouragement to take the time and opportunity to tinker with, test, reflect on, and refine how they use technology in their practice. Meaningful use doesn’t just happen; it is the result of developing specialized knowledge situated in practice. And the bottom line is that this is not likely to happen for the majority of faculty unless it is recognized as part of what it means to demonstrate excellence in teaching. Colleges and universities continue to spend millions of dollars on technology infrastructure, which is then often coupled with the taken for granted notion that meaningful educational use is simply expected as part of the work of teaching. That is not only misguided, but it flies in the face of what we know about knowledge growth in teaching.

It seems like forward thinking colleges and universities would give more than a passing interest to the following…

1) Acknowledge that the web and digital media tools have profoundly altered traditional notions of how and where learning takes place.

2) Recognize that effective teaching with technology has added a complex set of expectations for faculty work in the digital age, and this should be more openly addressed across all academic departments.

3) Teaching with technology in meaningful ways requires time, encouragement, and support well beyond what was expected of university faculty a short 20 years ago.

4) The demonstration of effective use of technology to support teaching and learning should be valued and supported. Integrating this as an expectation into university roles and rewards documents would be a step in the right direction.

Some of this has already begun happening on campuses, but it is far from the norm. Continuing to ignore these issues simply ensures that the promise of technology will be fragmented and elusive. What else should be considered here? Can the enterprise of higher education change course? Has the boat already set sail?

Curious what you think…


Tinkering Toward Obsolescence…?

As a society and culture we have invested a great deal in the established flow that supports the institution of higher education – campuses and buildings, courses and programs, faculty and students, lectures and discussions, research and writing, and the awarding of degrees. The time-honored semester keeping pace like a metronome. Fundamental change is not something that comes quickly in this context, and when it does it is often a reaction to some dire conditions.

Change is coming.

The global financial meltdown and shrinking state budgets have severely impacted public colleges and universities who are struggling to support “business as usual” by eliminating services, freezing salaries, cutting faculty positions…and raising tuition. This state of affairs is not limited to the U.S. either, with universities in Europe facing similar conditions. Some fear the worst is yet to come and they are making calls for nothing short of a paradigm shift. The president of the University of New Hampshire, Mark Huddleston, recently outlined a 10-year strategic plan that he hopes will keep the flagship university from sinking. The key initiatives of greater interdisciplinary collaboration, creation of an open learning portal, broadening the definition of scholarship and supporting a learning-centered environment – seem valuable and important – but do they go far enough to bring the hoped for paradigm shifts?

Innovation is needed.

It seems that if higher education is to regain its grip on learning and remain relevant, an entirely new model for the modern university needs to be envisioned. In a recent piece in the EDUCAUSE Review, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams provide us with ideas that move us from simply considering change to thinking about how to innovate higher education. They outline two key shifts: 1) transforming pedagogy by envisioning new practices for collaborative learning, and 2) opening up the university structure so institutions can connect with each other to create what they call the Global Network for Higher Learning. These ideas challenge long accepted values about pedagogy and the fundamental infrastructure of the university.

Where will higher education look to guide innovation? How will colleges and universities choose to engage in this conversation about change and innovation? What will be needed to encourage current faculty members to chart a new course on uncertain terrain? How can future faculty be prepared to engage with and contribute ideas to fuel innovation and create the university of the 21st century?

I’m not sure if these are the right questions, but it seems like if we ignore or pass over them we participate in planning our own obsolescence.