Learning to Teach with Technology: Is it an Individual Activity?

A couple of days ago I met with a new cohort of VCU faculty members in the CTE’s Exploring Tablet PCs in the Classroom program. This is the third year the CTE is running the program, so there are a growing number of faculty members who are engaged with using tablets in their teaching. It is a small – grassroots program, and this year we have sixteen folks from a range of disciplines.  We will be meeting once a month during the academic year to explore software tools, share instructional uses, and discuss what seems to be working and not working. This represents a significant commitment on the part of faculty members in the program.

One of the things we attempt to do in the design of some professional development opportunities at the CTE is to build programs that sustain engagement over a longer period of time, in many cases a full academic year. Past experience has shown, as you might suspect, that interest ebbs and flows as faculty participate in these programs. There is the initial excitement of getting a new toy – in this case a tablet PC – and learning more about its functionality. Then comes the challenge of using it as a tool to support teaching and learning, and this needs to be balanced with other demands of working in the academy.  What often happens, is that we tend to use technologies in ways that reinforce our existing teaching practices. Technology integration gets translated essentially as “old wine in new bottles.” Innovative instructional uses of technology often mean that we must change our practice to do something new or different, something we would not be able to do without the technology. Changes in teaching practice tend to happen slowly over long periods of time…if at all.

At the beginning of the program I ask faculty members in a survey whether they think that learning to teach with a new technology is more of an individual or social activity. Responses vary a bit, but for the most part faculty members in this program have tended to hold the view that learning to teach with technology is an individual activity. The current cohort of faculty members is mostly split in their views, a change from previous groups. I’m not sure this really suggests anything, other than perhaps subtle preferences for learning in general.

At the same time, I think there is a dominant model of learning to teach with technology that is often implicit in the ways we talk about / promote technology, and in the default expectations for using technology in higher education that are rarely discussed. The message is: learning to teach with technology is a rather uncomplicated activity you do on your own, an isolated endeavor.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with this approach; it seems to work for innovators and early adopters who are often more inclined to play with technology on their own, and seem more comfortable with the inherent risks . However, I have questions about whether largely individual efforts can work for the majority. There seems to be too much time and risk taking involved for solo efforts to result in broad-based adoption.

I continue to think about ways to engage higher education faculty more generally in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. How do we get beyond the low-hanging fruit of working with early adopters? To what extent is the individual learning model a dominant one in higher education? Is a more socially engaged and collaborative approach to learning to teach with technology desirable? If so, why, and how might such an approach be promoted and supported? I’d be curious to hear other experiences and perspectives, as well as thoughts about whether the individual v. social learning view I’ve presented is a false dichotomy.

In any event, during the orientation meeting of the tablet PC program, faculty began to explore the use of their tablets as I provided an initial tour of the hardware and software tools that support digital inking. It was encouraging to see them working together, helping one another and sharing their views about what was interesting and how they hoped to use the tablet in their teaching. I find this kind of work and learning – energizing. I think it builds networks of support and collegiality that do not seem to be a part of the silo systems that define much of higher education. My hope is that the faculty in the program will find collaborative learning valuable, and contribute to some shared understandings about what it means to learn to teach with technology.

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Continuous Partial Attention – Redux

I recently had the opportunity to take some long overdue vacation, telling myself I had to disconnect in order to [re]connect. I went camping in the mountains of Virginia with my dog, and chased trout with an expensive graphite fly rod and flies. I didn’t see or talk with any people for three days. It was amazing!

One of the things that struck me about this experience however was the amount of time it took me to actually stop thinking about reading blogs, reading / answering email, what was happening on Twitter…what cool ideas was I missing on the Network?! It was a little unsettling at first, and I was almost embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about all this stuff. It took me the better part of three days to really disconnect. As my digital life blurred, I became consumed by hiking mountain trails, scouting the creeks, being quiet streamside and watching bugs hatch off the water…observing feeding trout, gathering firewood and staying warm and dry. In these moments I really appreciated the simple slowness of a day of hiking, fishing and camping out under the stars.

All of this helped me realize how much time is actually required to manage a modern life along with the desire to be a live node on the network. The latter is in itself a full-time job! I remain a little unsettled with the realization.

In any event, I have since been thinking about a concept I heard a few years back – Continuous Partial Attention. To the best of my knowledge this was initially coined by Linda Stone, a social computing researcher at Microsoft. She writes:

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”

Whoa! That set me back a bit. Forgive the rhetorical question, but…what are the implications of maintaining a sense of high alert and constant crisis for extended periods of time?

I began to think about these ideas in the context of some of the work I am engaged in at the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU. Over the past year, my colleagues Britt Watwood, Bud Deihl and I have been engaged in a collective journey to explore social networking and the development of our own web-based personal learning networks (PLNs). For each of us this journey has involved significant amounts of time and energy to connect and stay connected; to really be part of the networked conversation about teaching, learning and technology…writing blog posts, reading countless blog postings in our RSS readers, tagging resources in del.icio.us, making / listening to podcasts and Twittering. Along with engagement in this conversation there seems to be the added expectation for even more engagement. Based on observations of colleagues and friends, and what I imagine about my network “heroes,” I think it seems safe to say that continuous partial attention, as described by Stone, is a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of developing and maintaining a PLN. If we accept that, I think a whole host of questions arise…Who can really afford to develop and maintain a PLN? Who can afford not to develop a PLN? How does the maintenance of a vibrant PLN impact the attention we have to devote to other aspects of life and work? Are PLNs primarily for the early adopter set?

To me a PLN seems to be a bit of luxury, and at times an extravagant one.

That said, I turn to considering the faculty members with whom I work at VCU, and teachers in general, and wonder how many of them would even remotely consider taking the time required to overcome learning curves, fear, doubting, and network building to begin reaping benefits of a robust PLN. I suspect very few.

Perhaps it is simply my emerging notion of a PLN, ill-formed as it is and full of my own personal trappings, that makes it difficult for me to see how many teachers could really devote the amount of time and energy that appears to be required here. I’m not discounting the possibility, but I do however think we need to be realistic in terms of our expectations about how many teachers (K-12 & higher education) can devote the time required to engage and participate in the development of a robust PLN.

If we value the role PLNs can play in education, we need to find ways of introducing them that don’t confuse or overwhelm by being fully formed, offer meaningful starting point experiences that can lead to further development, and at the same time be part of a balanced practice and life. That is a tall order…and I’m not sure how to do that just yet, but I’m inspired by another comment from Linda Stone:

“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention. We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.”

Right on! I’m going fishing…

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Technology innovation and the adoption dilemma

One of the things I have been paying more attention to recently is the extent to which much of the IT professional development we offer to faculty, primarily attracts the early adopters. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice because we receive early confirmation that the ideas, tools and practices we are putting on the table are actually of interest to someone else…albeit the numbers of folks is usually rather small. It’s a curse, because it leaves us at a loss for taking the next steps to attract and engage the next wave of potential adopters…faculty who may be sitting on the fringe, interested but unsure about what the new technology or practice might offer them.

We tend not to think about this until the numbers of faculty showing up for a particular workshop dwindles to almost zero. Then we start scratching our heads, wondering why more folks don’t “see the light” that we see. Workshops often work well for the early adopters. As a group, they are easy to work with because they are already interested in learning and exploring, and come to the table with a strong dose of being self-directed when it comes to technology.

For those of us involved in faculty development, I think early workshop success can be misleading and can lead to a false sense of success, reinforcing the perceived need to run workshops and training sessions. Don’t get me wrong, workshops are a necessary evil. They serve an important function of providing initial introductions to new tools, act as conversation starters, and provide faculty with the important opportunity to network with colleagues. But these are largely hit-and-run events, and can’t sustain adoption of new practices on a larger scale.

At the same time, the world in which we live, teach and learn in is becoming increasingly complex. Change is rapid and the sheer amount of information generated is overwhelming. Early adopters of technology innovations – instructional technologists included – often pick this stuff up quickly and then move on to something else. The question becomes how we can sustain our enthusiasm and interest in a particularly useful technology while it takes time –sometimes several years -for the second wave and late adopters to also find it of value? Bill Buxton, a Principal Scientist at Microsoft Research and the author of Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, recently talked about the concept of the long nose of innovation. In this piece he describes how much innovation is often of low-amplitude and takes place over long periods of time, sometimes as much as 10 years.

I think this creates a bit of a practice dilemma for the instructional technologist working with faculty members interested in exploring technology to support learning. As we take the time to learn about the next emerging tool – Twitter, Ning, Facebook, blogs, podcasting wikis, etc. – we forget that the vast majority of faculty we encounter in our work will not likely adopt these tools for years, if at all! By the time the long nose of innovation runs its course, entire new chapters of internet history will have been written. From this perspective it seems that most technological innovations in education are limited to the early adopter, constraining potential change on a wider scale.

With the mad rush to the “next best thing” how can we pay more attention to and provide more support for the deliberate consideration of the instructional value of these tools to the folks who don’t see it the way early adopters see it? It takes more time. Change is slow. Workshops and online tutorials are not for everyone. The idea of “bringing it to scale” may not have a logical and linear progression, that includes a neatly designed workshop series, or community of practice, or whatever, that will bring along others to engage in similar practices.

Has the pace of innovation outstripped our capacity to exist simultaneously at multiple points on the adoption curve? Perhaps we need to slow down a bit ourselves, find a balance. A balance between engaged participation, deliberate reflection, and importantly a continuous and embedded critique of what we are exploring. I guess it’s that last part that seems to come late in the game…usually just before we head off exploring the next greatest tool that will change education and learning…forever.

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