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.

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Learning is the Conversation in the Community

conversation

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.

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[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.

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Thinking about RSS, Aggregation and Credibility

I think it is fair, and perhaps rather obvious, to say that RSS fundamentally changed our experience of the web. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the idea of aggregation, both in terms of personal aggregation I can achieve by subscribing to feeds in my RSS reader, and aggregation as a service that is provided by an ever increasing number of news and information portals. As aggregation of media sources becomes an increasingly common and accepted practice, I’ve become more interested in how sources for feeds get vetted and served up at some of the more popular information portals. I know this is not a new idea and that others have certainly entertained the question before, but I’m not sure we ask the question enough of ourselves, or in the work we do with students.

A couple of class sessions ago I explored the idea of RSS and aggregation with the students in my Learning with Digital Media class. I wanted my students to do three things:

  • Set up and use web-based RSS readers to customize information and resources they wanted to have regular access to; essentially setting up a personal newspaper.
  • Explore a process for determining the credibility of content that appears in sites that aggregate news and information.
  • Critique the process of aggregation and raise questions about its impact on how we access news and information.

Students worked in small groups to evaluate four different sites that aggregate news and information. We looked at Google News, NewsCred, Alltop and digg. I selected these sites because I felt they represented different approaches to selecting content for their aggregated feeds. I encouraged students to consider some questions as they examined these sites: Is the process for content selection transparent? In other words, does the site describe how it aggregates the information it presents? To what extent do you feel the content is credible (subjective 1-10 rating scale with 10 being most credible)? What can you offer as a rationale that supports your credibility rating?

The ensuing discussion was interesting. There actually seemed to be a general consensus among the students about the credibility of content on each of these sites. I’ll talk about them briefly here from least to most credible as viewed by the students and try to tease out some overall themes.

Alltop seemed to be viewed as the least credible among the sites. Students tended to see it as middle of the road in terms of credibility. There is a preponderance of blog content on Alltop and the students maintained a general skepticism of information on blogs, even though they acknowledged that blogs can be interesting to read and be quite credible. In addition, there was uncertainty about the selection process on the blogs that were aggregated on Alltop. On one hand it seemed like blogs were aggregated by a combination of self-nomination and then peer review through readership which determined the shelf-life of a blog. This created a view of Alltop that was clubbish, and this diminished the perceived credibility of the content.

digg held slightly greater appeal for students, perhaps due to familiarity with the site. Students seemed to find value in the user rating process that digg employs – the more “diggs” the better or more credible the story or site. However, students also acknowledged that digg tends to cater to a particular demographic, and that content there may not always be of interest to the general population. So while they favored the “voting” process for determining credibility, they also acknowledged that the most popular content on digg was not always the most credible.

NewsCred was a site that not many students had heard of prior to the activity, and represented a hybrid model where custom feeds can be created from established reputable sources, and individual stories / sources receive a credibility rating from users. Students seemed to value what NewsCred was trying to accomplish by making the vetting process for its feeds more transparent, but lacking a complete understanding of the process some students remained uncertain about the ultimate credibility of the feeds. Overall however, NewsCred was viewed quite favorably by students in terms of perceived credibility of aggregated content.

Google News was generally viewed as the most popular and credible source for aggregated information feeds. One student commented that Google is a “household brand” and is simply trusted. A few students however commented that Google News functions on the same kind of algorithms that drive search returns, and that these can be “gamed” or manipulated. So the top stories in Google News are not necessarily the most credible or even the most relevant. Students also commented on the recent mistake, where a 2002 story about a United Airlines plane crash showed up as a top story in Google News and sent the company’s stock tumbling. Accidents like this were viewed as occasionally occurring in an automated system where there is no human intervention or oversight.

As I reflected on this experience with my students a few points emerged that I continue to think about:

1) Students are aware of the range of reliability and credibility of specific sources (e.g., NY Times, BBC, CNN, etc.), and they occasionally seek these out for top stories and breaking news.

2) Credibility of aggregated feeds seems to be significantly shaped by perceived credibility (Google is a “household brand”) and not necessarily an understanding of any vetting process.

3) Students place value on a vetting process where users can vote on the popularity or credibility of a story or source. Human intervention is seen as valuable, and students rely on their social networks for identifying interesting and relevant content on the web. Credibility is shaped by views of the social network.

As the demand for quick and mobile access to news and information continues to grow, aggregation is positioned to play a defining role in the ways we obtain information. And while providers of aggregation services need to strive to be more transparent about their vetting processes, it seems like we need to be thinking about ways to engage students to think critically about the process of aggregation as well. I’d be very interested in your views on this and whether you even see it as an issue. If so, what questions and suggestions do you have for helping us all better understand how aggregation is changing the game?

{Image credit: Picture Perfect Pose}

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Student Views on Defining Digital Media

Last week I met my students for the first time in a new course I’m teaching called, Learning with Digital Media, a special topics course being offered out of the School of Mass Communications. The course title is somewhat ambiguous, which was partially intentional, and could be interpreted in a range of ways. One important aspect of the course is for us to collectively come to an understanding of what digital media means to us. We began our first class with some discussion about how we should define digital media, and this blog post is an attempt to capture a part of our discussion.

Perhaps predictably, students began with a description of hardware and devices, like cell phones, laptops and PDAs and how these devices are connected and networked to the internet. In addition to devices there was talk of data and storage. Much of what they focused on early in the discussion could be described as concern for things electronic.

The conversation changed course when one student remarked that the existing society / culture will tend to define technology in ways that reflects the dominant technology of the day, this was described as a “working form where you are at” perspective. This remark brought a very different flavor to the discussion. Students shifted their focus to thoughts about how digital technologies have impacted how information is distributed, and they saw information as being easily transferable and something they could also interact with. The emphasis was not on how devices / hardware were connected, but rather how people and information were connected.

I was intrigued by the insights students had into how this connectedness and ease of exchange of information – supported by digital media – had impacted their views of communication. They saw information as something that was highly customizable, and this allowed for the development of highly segmented audiences that could be easily catered to. Students seemed to see this as both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand it seems to expand the realm of communication opportunities, and at the same time control our access enabling a focus on very specific interests. In essence they seemed to be suggesting that the power of digitally mediated communication was simultaneously open and closed. Our freedom of access in fact tightens our focus. That is something I need to spend more time reflecting on.
At the end of the discussion we spent some time thinking about key questions we hoped to explore in the course. Several students signaled concerns about where digital media was taking us, and expressed some genuine uncertainty about how the Internet could continue to advance. The general question of “where do we go from here?” captured the difficulty of we face in understanding what digital media innovations could possibly lie ahead. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. They wondered about where we would be if the digital media we have come to rely on somehow went away. They were concerned about how expectations – for everything – have become instantaneous, and how technology has become an “intruder” in their lives. They seemed to also express the concern that technology use begets more technology use, and questioned the extent to which their “free time” has become increasingly eliminated. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. I’m looking forward to exploring these and other questions with them this semester, and hope they’ll chime in here and on their own blogs as their thinking about digital media continues to develop.

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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 del.icio.us 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.

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del.icio.us not Tasty for Everyone

When I encountered del.icio.us about two years ago, it was the first taste of web 2.0 I experienced, and it opened a whole new world. I not only thought it was an amazing way to store my own web links, but to also connect with others that had similar interests who were also saving bookmarks on the web. The idea if social bookmarking was very appealing to me then, and it remains so now. This web-based practice is generally useful and convenient, but it is also a powerful way to discover new resources, build connections among people with similar interests, promote collaboration, and tap into a new way of organizing the web. In many ways, I see it as a bit of a gateway experience to exploring new instructional possibilities and practices…if you get this one, the doors to the participatory web begin to open up.

Clearly everyone doesn’t see it the same way.

In the work I do with faculty to explore meaningful uses of technology to support teaching and learning, social bookmarking – and the concept of tagging in general – is something I try to promote. Some faculty members immediately see the value and become tagging junkies (and encourage their students to do it as well), some have a passing interest and tolerate it for a while and still others see it as bizarre. “Why would I want to share MY bookmarks with people I don’t know?” or “This is a great tool, but I really don’t want to share with anyone…can I keep it private?” or “What do I need a network for?” Comments like these always give me pause for reflection. I try to understand the resistance.

One thing I have been giving more thought to recently is the language and meaning surrounding the ideas of “social” and “bookmarking.” Social brings thoughts of conversation, interaction and public exchange. Bookmarking brings images of one-on-one with a browser, individually saving sites, a private act, and sharing –when it happens – is with an emailed link.

Social = open + public
Bookmarking = personal + private

Like oil and water…these are at odds. Some folks see social bookmarking and say…you must be kidding…mix private and public? The initial contact with the idea seems so foreign that many can’t get past the semantics. They won’t even come to the table. The ideas – appealing to early adopters – are in need of some translation, reconceptualization or repackaging to be more broadly appealing. The practice of social bookmarking needs an emulsifier to mix together seemingly disparate ideas and make a tasty dressing.

I suspect that the language surrounding many of the web 2.0 practices and tools that instructional technologists readily use to communicate with each other, may well leave others scratching their heads, unable to share in the excitement and possibility. I’m feeling a strong need to use different language to talk with faculty members about something like social bookmarking. Sometimes I think that a simple [re]packaging can get the job done. But I’m wondering how social bookmarking can be [re]labeled so that more educators can engage with the notion of building connections through resource sharing? Is this really even necessary? Am I totally missing the boat here? Should I even be concerned?

In a recent post, Will Richardson commented:

We’re in the “Networking as a Second Language” point in teaching, this messy transition phase that is slowly gaining traction where we are beginning to understand what this means but not quite sure yet what to do about it.

I think this notion of “second language learning” gets at a little bit of what I’m struggling with. I think I’m looking for a way to translate, to use concepts in the first language to assist folks in understanding concepts in a new language. I’m feeling a little bit at a loss about how to proceed…

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