Reflections on the Teaching and Learning with Technology Institute

This past week I had the great pleasure of working with a dedicated group of VCU faculty members, along with my colleagues Britt Watwood and Bud Deihl, during our annual Teaching and Learning with Technology summer institute. The institute is a fairly intense event, 7-8 hours a day of full-on exploration of technology tools and instructional practices. It was concentrated and some might say borderline too much, but we made some very intentional decisions about the design and content. Faculty participants acknowledged this, but also said they appreciated being pushed and challenged. From the other side of the room, I was blown away by their dedication, stamina and desire to learn.

As far as institutes go, I think it was a transformative week.

At the same time, I’m well aware of the criticism that has been leveled at these kinds professional development opportunities…that they are hit and run, don’t provide long term support, and can’t often get at the kind of sustained change we hope for in teaching practice. However, we had an amazing week with this group of faculty members, and I just want to share a few thoughts here as I continue to digest and reflect on the experience.

Emphasis on Personal Use of Technology
One of the things we emphasized and modeled throughout the week was the importance of using technology in ways that supported personal learning. We introduced folks to the social side of the web as a way to help them begin to get at how they could use social software and practices to support their own learning.

To my delight, many of them embraced the notion of social bookmarking by establishing and using accounts throughout the week, and really seemed to get the concept of tagging. They created customized feeds through Google Reader, and began to realize the power of RSS and how it has transformed our experience of the web. The creation and use of podcasts and screencasts also seemed to resonate on the personal learning level.

The thinking here is that we wanted faculty to have multiple experiences of using technology – first and foremost – in personally meaningful ways. The hypothesis is that if faculty members viewed tools and practices as supporting their own learning these things would more naturally spill over into the ways they use technology to support teaching and learning. Discussions of classroom application were woven throughout the sessions, but we rarely led with, “this is how these technologies can be used in the classroom.” I think that anchoring this stuff in ways that support personal learning really impacted the uptake and valuing of these technologies and practices among our faculty participants.

Shifting Notions of Collaboration
We attempted to engage folks in the exploration of web-based collaborative tools. We pulled off at the obvious stops…Google Docs and Wikis…and a more exotic rest area – Gliffy. Prior to that however, we brainstormed about our ideas related to collaboration. We discovered that our idealized image of collaboration was layered, complex and nuanced; involving relationships, multiple perspectives and social interaction. The tools we were exploring, with their focus on shared document and resource development, seemed to fall short of our shared view of collaborative process.

We also recognized the challenges of introducing the collaborative value of tools like Google Docs and wikis in a context where sustained collaboration lasts all of a few hours, or at best a few days. I’m not sure it is possible to create a strong experience of web-based collaboration using these tools in a brief workshop-like context. We were however able to gain some experience of what it was like for 20 people to simultaneously edit a wiki or Google Doc (limited to 10 users / time). The context of the Institute – with its time constraints – seemed to force contrived collaboration that in retrospect seemed artificial to me.

One of the things I realized from this experience is that these kinds of tools seem to ask us to rethink our notions of collaboration. What we outlined in our brainstorm map did not readily translate into the use of these web-based apps. In fact, I’m not sure they would even given the extended time of several weeks or months. I have come to see web-based collaboration as something quite different from my traditional notion of collaboration. This might seem like a big “DUH” to some of my more learned colleagues, but it was a breakthrough for me. Norms, values and expectations for web-based collaboration are not transparent; they emerge and are established over time as people work together in a mix of web and F2F environments. It seems that most of us are still figuring out how to do this.

Sustaining Community
One of the exciting things that can happen when people have shared experiences – like participation in an Institute – is the creation of a sense of community. To be honest, I can think of little else that is more powerful in supporting learning than participation in a community. The Institute this past week was a reaffirmation of that belief for me. I again witnessed the contagious energy that comes from learning that is cooperative, challenging and in good measure self-directed.

Despite dominant views, learning to teach with technology is not best mediated by a one-on-one experience with a computer and software; it is a social act where interdisciplinary dialogue, critique and practice are necessary…if not absolutely essential.

The dilemma arises when the Institute or event comes to a close. How can the community be sustained? How can these collegial relationships – so important yet so elusive in higher education contexts – continue to be supported? How can the shared experience and the dialogue continue? How can we continue to ride the wave of enthusiasm and interest?

These are questions we have wrestled with – as I’m sure others have – at the end of every single Institute we conduct. We’ve set up discussion boards to continue the conversation, sent the occasional email follow-up, set up collaborative grant opportunities and even threatened to set up a post-institute wiki. Rarely have I witnessed anything gain traction to sustain the energy of the community. Perhaps that is as it should be, an intense moment in time valued for its temporary excitement and energy.

I’m a holdout though…as a teacher, I have to be. The community formed is unlikely to be sustained in its original form – and I’m cool with that – but it can grow from smaller nodes and spread creating new communities where none previously existed…at least that is what I hope for. Watching these folks interact during the past week I got the sense that something had changed for them. They gained insight to the social web and explored some tools and practices to begin the journey to build their own connections and learning communities both locally and virtually. Suddenly, the world is a very different place…I’m looking forward to hearing their stories.


Bridging the Digital Generation Gap

Having just finished our annual week-long summer Institute on Teaching and Learning there is plenty on my mind that is deserving of some reflection. However, I’m tempted by some of the low hanging fruit, and will try to sketch out a few ideas here that are at the surface for me.

The Institute was filled with the ebb and flow of interesting conversation, challenging questions, healthy skepticism and an awesome potluck lunch on the closing day. It is not always easy to predict what generates the spark, but as always, the Institute week contained moments of intensity and passion where discussion about teaching and learning got “hot.” One of these moments came on the morning of the final day when my colleague Britt Watwood was facilitating a session on NetGen learners. Let me begin by saying that Britt did an excellent job with the session, and my comments here are not a critique of his presentation, but rather an examination of the context and what unfolded. The intended purpose of the session was to address some characteristics of NetGen students, explore factors shaping their learning and to consider some implications for teaching and course design…arguably an important conversation to have with faculty members. Britt kicked off the session with Michael Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today as a conversation starter. We’ve used this video in a number of contexts – as many folks have – to generate conversation and highlight some key points about how we see the web impacting teaching and learning. When the clip ended there was a brief moment of silence punctuated by “Wow!” and “That was amazing” and “Interesting.” And then the comments shifted a bit…

One faculty member said something to the effect: “This is an example of why I don’t want to use technology in the classroom. I don’t allow students to use laptops in class while I’m teaching…they are simply a distraction.” This generated some head nodding, and another comment, “And the same with Wikipedia too.” This was the first time I had encountered faculty members responding to Wesch’s video in this way. Instead of examining questions about context, opportunities and challenges, the conversation turned toward a bit of technology bashing. I was baffled. Why were these faculty members seeing the video as a confirmation of why to NOT use technology in the classroom? Were they threatened? Was the message in the video an affront?

With the images of Wesch’s video still dancing in their heads, Britt shifted gears and asked folks to transition from the video to some discussion about the NetGen. This also brought immediate replies and questions: “You mean Millenials, right?” “What about the Gen X students?” It was at this point that something came into clearer focus to me…

Introducing labels like “NetGen” and “digital natives” in discussion establish “us / them” boundaries that divide. They offer very little in the way of understanding diverse sets of students or in guiding our teaching practice.

With all due respect to people who have written eloquently on this topic, I have come to the personal realization that terms like NetGen, digital natives, Gen X…and others that are sure to follow…offer me very little in the way of predictive power about how students will learn in my classroom, and how I might better support their learning. The terms are often used too generally and broadly for my liking, and they also have the undesired effect of masking diverse experiences. In some ways they are examples of grand narratives that attempt to simultaneously be descriptive and prescriptive.

We tend to use terms like “NetGen” and “digital native” to raise awareness and focus discussion about how the Internet and digital technology have impacted students. My recent experience with faculty members in our Institute suggests that the terms confound the discussion, or frame it in such way that detracts from attention to important questions. While many of today’s students have certainly been steeped in digital technology from their earliest days, I don’t think that makes them “digital natives” anymore than “non-native” tech-savvy educators who also use digital media in very meaningful ways…and who also happen to know how to put a stamp on a hand-written letter. Perhaps we are unnecessarily focusing our attention on sorting out artificial distinctions.

Digital technologies and web-based media are impacting all of us in ways that require us to rethink some fundamental assumptions we hold about teaching and learning. So instead of attempting to illustrate how one generation is digitally different than another, perhaps we should shift the conversation to address key issues and questions that impact all of the generations in the digital melting pot.

The next time I have the opportunity to talk with faculty members about how the web is impacting students, I’m thinking I’ll forgo the NetGen rap and see if we can come to any agreement on some of these questions:

1) What does critical thinking – on and about the web – look like?

2) How is the unprecedented access to information on the web [re]shaping our notions of teaching and learning?

3) What is the read / write web anyway? How is it changing our perspectives of publishing, scholarship, authority and authenticity?

4) How is hyper-connectivity (always on) changing our expectations and thoughts about communication?

5) How are web-based social networks redefining the exchange of ideas, collaboration, and community building?

For me, seeking answers to these and similar questions – across generations – is where we are going come to some better understanding of how to build connections among varied expectations and experiences.


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…



I’ve been at the ELI Annual Conference the last few days, and as always it has been both an energizing and thought provoking experience. It will take some time to cook this stew down, but I wanted to take some time here to comment on a session I sat in on yesterday.

Gardner Campbell from the University of Mary Washington, led a learning circle session guided by the framing question: What are creative, innovative ways to engage and motivate faculty to develop their expertise in information technologies? This session was at the end of the day and the room filled to capacity – 70 people or so – in a circle…well more like an amorphous oval. Gardner asked each person to go around and do a brief intro, sharing something that was happening at their institution with faculty development that was working or that they were challenged by. As might be suspected there was a good deal of diversity, but also some impassioned beliefs about what works and what does not. I was struck by the following two themes:

1) Workshops don’t work! There were several folk who were fairly vehement about this, saying that they tried and tried and tried, but that in the end workshops had little impact on meaningful change. “We have stopped doing workshops!” stated one participant. A faculty member at the session underscored this idea by stating, “I don’t like being workshopped!” This was the first time I had heard this phrase, and it spoke to some pretty powerful feelings that I think lie beneath the surface for many faculty – that they see workshops as something done to them as if they somehow were in need of fixing and repair. This is a problematic notion that needs to be addressed by those interested in engaging faculty in the meaningful use of technology for learning. The workshop format and notion is overloaded with negative perspectives for a significant number of faculty in the academy…they will never come to the table.

I think we have all had our fair share of being in some poorly designed workshops and sloppy conference sessions, so it is not difficult to understand how time-constrained faculty members can quickly become inoculated to the notion of attending workshops. And while I tend to agree with the views on overall efficacy, I’m not sure workshops can be easily dismissed. Part of this has to do with the many complex variables that intersect at a particular college / university – numbers of faculty, technology resources, IT support, staff capacity, mission of university, etc. – sometimes workshops can’t be done because of limited resources, and sometimes they are done because of large numbers of faculty who expect to receive (and prefer) some F2F learning opportunity. There is not a clear formula for deciding here. Each institution is different, and this gets sorted organically – or perhaps chaotically – as the variables dictate.

That said, I came away thinking once again that the workshop notion is in real need of some [re]conceptualizing. I do not have an answer. But, I think one of the things that may be key here is the notion of formal v. informal learning opportunities. Informal consultations and small projects with individual faculty may be more impacting, and one challenge is how to capture some of this for larger groups or cohorts…consistently and with limited resources.

2) Faculty Learning Communities are Gaining Traction! Several people in the session indicated that they were beginning to explore the FLC notion and wanted to hear more about how they function and work. I found this to be fairly encouraging. The idea of faculty learning communities has been around for a while, and I found it encouraging that this idea was being more widely considered by those with an IT focus. I suspect that one of the reasons for this might be that university teaching and learning centers across the country are taking on increased responsibility for working with faculty on exploring and using IT to support learning. This is a trend that is likely to increase in my opinion, and I think represents an opportunity to – collectively – begin to have some real impact. I have been engaged in facilitating a faculty learning community focusing on enhancing teaching and learning for the past two years, and it has been a hugely rewarding experience. I plan to blog about the FLC a bit here in a follow-up post.

Overall, the session was engaging and I was happy to see so many people at ELI take up the question of the challenges of faculty development. These challenges in my opinion are significant. Perhaps collectively, we can really begin to chip away at some of this and make some lasting impact. I’m hopeful…