“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?


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.


Connecting and Community Building to Support Risk Taking

I had the great pleasure of talking with Jeff Utecht and David Carpenter as a guest on their S.O.S podcast the other day. The connections we share, all quite by chance, made this even more fun for me. I had met David Carpenter as a result of exploring graduate programs while I was teaching overseas in Shanghai back in 2001. I was planning on attending the University of Virginia’s IT program, where David happened to be finishing up in the same program, and he was headed with his family to HKIS to do some cool things there. We swapped stories, and places. The connection to Jeff Utecht is through the Shanghai American School, where he is currently working. I was at SAS from 1997 – 2002, and witnessed some amazing growth and change at that school, not the least of which was the creation of SAS Pudong. It was fun to share a memory of the building of the Pudong campus, which back in the late 90’s was a sea wall and a several thousand acre mud pit. My how things have changed! It seems like a world away for so many reasons…I want to thank both Jeff and David for the opportunity to relive a little of that and for hosting me on their podcast.

I really love what David and Jeff are doing with their podcast, which is to ask the big questions that drive the conversation about what it means to shift our schools. I enjoyed the conversation which unfolded around the episode’s essential question of, how do adults learn? I don’t know that we answered the question very well, but I do think we were able to push it in a direction to consider some important possibilities as it relates to teaching and learning with technology. For me, there were three themes that emerged, and I’ll try to summarize them here.

Supporting the self-directed nature of adult learners has become more complex in the wired world
It is important for adult learners in educational settings to be self-directed in their efforts to use technology to support teaching and learning. This is crucial for obvious reasons, but I think it is also made more challenging by the context in which we find ourselves today. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but we live in a time that has witnessed unprecedented growth in access to information, web-based tools, and opportunities for exchange and collaboration. The pace is blistering, and while the “new tool everyday” is exciting, it contributes to a bit of option paralysis in my opinion. This can be overwhelming even for those who are steeped in it and live it everyday. Self-direction in a sea of opportunity can add a layer of challenge that prevents some adult learners from ever moving forward with an exploratory learning project. To say that we should be sensitive to this is an understatement. And while I think it is important to always ask the question about pedagogy – what do you want to achieve instructionally with the technology? – I’m not entirely convinced anymore that this should always be the first question. George Siemens, over at the Connectivism Blog, has a very interesting post addressing this idea.

Risk taking is paid for by overcoming fear
When we ask teachers to use technology in meaningful ways to support teaching and learning, we are asking them to take a risk. We are asking them to step outside their comfort zones, to experience some uncertainty, to be vulnerable, to wrestle with the idea that maybe the students do know more (or maybe not) about the technology, to question notions of expertise and to come to terms with fundamental shifts about power relations in the classroom. How can this kind of risk taking – the kind that results in transformative learning – be supported? How can we help teachers navigate the bumpy terrain bought about by the exploration of instructional technology? Perhaps one thing to do is simply start by acknowledging the fear. To admit that all of us – even the uber geeks – and I mean that as a term of endearment, experience fear when it comes to teaching and learning with technology. There was a presentation at the recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference that did a wonderful job of starting this conversation.

Risk taking can be supported through connecting and community building
When you feel a part of a supportive and engaged community, you begin to share experiences, build relationships, and discuss the success and failures. There is support. You are not playing without a net…and so maybe…you can ride a little closer to the edge than you might otherwise have done. In the podcast, Jeff Utecht talked about learning events at his school where he regularly brings teachers together to explore technology, and build connections. He also mentioned the role professional conferences (at least those that are edtech related) seem to be playing, in that they are more like kick-off events for the creation of community that can be sustained after the conference. In the work we do with faculty at VCU the theme that permeates nearly everything we do is to create community and connections among the faculty. We have found that cohort-based programs related to IT, and specific faculty learning communities where we bring people together an entire academic year can go a long way towards building those connections. It is a slow process, but one we think is worth investing in. The glue among these examples, I think, is the idea of an environmental event in the lives of people that can bring them together and serve as place holder… an organizing circumstance…for subsequent community building and perhaps some strengthened self-directed learning. I think there is something to be gained by paying more attention to the environmental contexts in which we engage with adult learners – teachers – and reflect on how, as a result, some meaningful self-directed learning can be supported and sustained. That is a challenge worth spending some time on.

Bottom line…building connections and community are central to supporting adult learners in taking risks to use technology to support teaching and learning…and I want to again extend thanks to folks like David and Jeff for advancing the conversation about this.


Instructional Technology – Does it Really Matter?

The conversation that continues to be carried forward by Martha Burtis and Laura Blankenship surrounding their recent Fear 2.0 preso at ELI, has encouraged me to reflect on similar thoughts and experiences I have been having recently. Many thanks to them and their co-presenters who put together a session that continues to send out important ripples for us to think about.

The questions about relevance and “does what I do really matter?” are perennial and shifting, especially when it comes to the notion of the role of the instructional technology[ist]. To be honest, I’m not even sure I can say what an instructional technologist is anymore, short of being a container that means lots of different things to lots of different people. But I don’t think that is the point of the conversation that is unfolding here…at least not for me.

I have been fascinated, as many folks have, over the last few years with the seemingly endless emergence of new web-based tools that permit new forms of social exchange, knowledge creation and sharing. It has been easy to share our excitement for the tools.

But, as others have echoed, its not the tools that really matter.

Over the past two years I have had the amazing good fortune to collaborate with a group of five colleagues in a faculty learning community (FLC) at the university where I work. The focus of the FLC has been to explore the ways technology might enhance teaching and learning. The early days of our work found us exploring several web 2.0 technologies – blogs, wikis, podcasting, screen recording, social bookmarking tools…you know the drill. Some of the faculty members attempted to integrate these into their courses and teaching practice. Interest would run high on the new tools from the popular buzz surrounding them, and I certainly felt excited because I had a group of faculty who seemed very interested in what I had to share. Excitement can be hard to sustain, and the glamour of shiny new tools wears off when you are not sure about learning impact, and if you are “doing the right thing.” As our first year wore on, I started to have doubts about the value of what we were all getting out of the FLC endeavor. They had learned about some new tools and experimented teaching with them. Perhaps there was greater support for risk taking through group membership, but I found myself asking questions about what had really changed?

Change is not always obvious, and it often happens in places we didn’t previously consider.

As facilitator of the group, I had hoped that the change would be in the committed adoption of these technologies, and that teaching and learning would begin to be transformed in the classrooms these faculty members taught in. I was wrong. I’m happy that I was.

I think what changed was that we began to respect each other more, to grow in a trusting collegial way that allowed us to feel a little less vulnerable about the uncertainty surrounding what we were trying to do – to be a little less isolated and a little more connected…and perhaps to be a little less fearful about not really knowing. This is the kind of dynamic that the environment of the academy might well benefit from having more of.

We are well into our second year of this FLC, and we haven’t spent any time learning about new tools. I think we have realized that it is not ultimately the focus. We have instead begun to tell our story about our learning and the change that is often slow and circling as we attempt to make sense of technology and practice.

The members of the FLC worked collaboratively to draft a paper describing the work of the FLC and our learning, and have submitted it for publication. In the Fall of 2007, we designed and conducted a survey study exploring student / faculty expectations for using technology, the first study of its kind ever conducted on our campus. Most recently, several members of the FLC attended and presented the early findings of our study at the 2008 ELI conference. Like many who attend this conference, we came away full of new ideas, and energized by the people who make ELI what it is. These activities have confirmed a sense of value for continuing our work in the FLC.

In a recent meeting of our group – post ELI – we excitedly discussed several opportunities for next steps. As a group, we are beginning to ask hard questions about the real impact of technology on learning. Individual FLC members want to examine their own practice as they attempt to use technology in their teaching. They are beginning to critique how technology is shaping their work in the academy. Arriving at the point where this line of inquiry becomes valued and important in the lives of faculty members takes time, patience, the development of trust, and endurance to get through the wondering if it is even worth it.

Engaging in collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship about the impact of technology on teaching and learning has served as an impetus for our group to start a larger conversation – one that has been missing on our own campus – about learning and the role technology should play in it.

So does the technology really matter? I’m not convinced yet, but what we do together in search of an answer certainly does…