Thoughts on Teaching #CDT450

I promised myself I’d write. I did, but just not enough … at least not here. I wrote and posted a lot over at the course site for CDT450: Disruptive Technologies, but that isn’t the kind of writing I planned to do along side the course in a more reflective mode. I think I only did that twice.

I want to try and capture my thoughts on the experience before it becomes even harder to grasp — in short it was an exceptional semester, with an exceptional group of students, that taught me an exceptional amount about how to be a better human, teacher, colleague, and leader. I say that without hesitation. I told my wife last night that in many ways teaching this semester made me much better at my job (that is a self reflection based on only my own data). If I unpack that thought a bit I would say that having to juggle the rigor of my day job with preparing a three hour class each week for 15 weeks pushed me in so many different ways. I had to find ways to say no to some things more effectively so I could focus on the most critical things happening around me. I had to learn new approaches to learning content to teach to brilliant and very challenging students — I’ve not taught alone since maybe 2005, so carrying this load by myself was simply the biggest challenge of the semester. I had to figure out how to take on a presidential project with potentially huge implications to the campus under very tight time constraints while still managing to run DoIT, meet the expectations of my vice presidential role, and craft an engaging learning experience. To say that I grew by leaps and bounds along with my students this semester would be an utter understatement.

The course, as I’ve shared before, is framed around three primary themes — community, identity, and design. This was based on the experiences I had co-teaching this course with my long time friend and colleague, Dr. Scott McDonald at Penn State. Going it alone made me rethink a lot of it as we were always able to lean on each others strengths, so this was a very different course in many ways. I won’t go into details, as it would be easy to track our week by week progression by again visiting the course site. I will say this, there were so many unexpected surprises along the way that I thought I would list the ones that stood out the most.

Week One

The first day of a college class is usually a very basic thing — hand out the syllabus, review the course outline, get to know the professor, and do some basic introductions. Not in this week one! Sure we did the basics, but after listening to an episode of the podcast, Reply All the day before class I redesigned what we would do the night before. The episode called, “The Writing on the Wall” is described by the show’s creators the following way, “Yik Yak is an app that allows users to communicate anonymously with anyone within a 10-mile radius. At Colgate University in upstate New York, the anonymity brought out a particularly vicious strain of racism that shook the school.” What that episode so magically (and tragically) did was mash all three of our themes into a very relevant and difficult story. While it effectively brought community, identity, and design into focus — all while introducing the concept of disruptive technologies — it also created the surprising undertone of “race” as an ongoing theme to be continually revisited. Class was over at 6 … we all headed out after 6:40.

Oh, and they got iPads that they had to write about.

Week Five

This was the first Synthesis week, where they got to take over the class and lead the discussion. I purposefully gave them very little instruction so they could be as creative in their overview of our first theme, community. There were only two teams, but the way they crafted their respective synthesis was truly quite amazing. The two teams unintentionally played off each other during their time creating a whole that was most certainly greater than its parts. We noted a theme emerge — we never end at 6.

I asked at the end of class if we had turned into a community … the quick first response from a student, “we did today.”

Week 6

This is the week we moved onto our second theme identity. I asked them to create videos with their iPads and post them to the course blog … some of them were quite amazing. This was a week that we ourselves were disrupted by a snow day as classes were cancelled. That didn’t stop us. Google Hangout to the rescue — can you believe all of the students showed up for this voluntary snow day virtual class. There is a lesson in this for campus — if the network is running, classes (in some shape or form) can go on.

Week 9

As we worked our way through the identity theme another spike in our conversations about race emerged. This time brought on by the Martese Johnson beating at UVA. During that week I posted a link to an interesting site designed and published by students at UVA that one of my students reacted to in their own blog post that I shared with my community on Facebook. Things got crazy from there …

Two Penn State colleagues joined class that day. One, Sam Richards, via Hangout as his 750 student Race Relations class filed into Thomas 100 on the PSU campus to talk about race in America. The other, Curt Marshall who drove from State College, PA to Stony Brook, NY to join class face to face. What an experience for the students. Sam is known to be one of America’s 101 most dangerous academics and a great instigator and communicator. Curt is the Multicultural Affairs and Recruitment Director for the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture and is one of the brightest and most articulate people I know. It was a humbling day and one that I don’t think any of us will forget.

Week 12

By this time we were fully engaged with our final theme, design. The students were working through their Design Challenge creations via the Human Centered Design approach we utilized. They were envisioning an app for the iPad that didn’t exist that was focused on improving the student experience. An evening or two before class I noticed that Stony Brook Alumni Association had highlighted a recent alum who was now an app developer, so I took the chance and sent him a direct message introducing him to our class. He got back to me a little bit later after reading the class blog and decided he would come to class and talk to the students about app design first hand. It was a killer experience for us all … I think Eric really enjoyed it. I wonder if he realizes how much he inspired the students that day?

Weeks 13-15

The last three weeks of class were so brilliant I can’t single any one out. We did paper prototyping to bring app ideas to life, shared so many incredibly insightful ideas, wrote some amazing reflections, read some killer articles, and I got to watch as the two teams put a bow on the entire semester with two unbelievable final synthesis presentations. They brought the three themes together through the lenses of technology, the iPad as a positive disruptive force in higher education, and emerged on the other side as a group that is much more critically tuned to the potential affordances of the technologies we typically take for granted every single day. Their final reflections were amazing and I can’t tell you what a profound experience teaching at Stony Brook was for me in the Spring of 2015. Two pull quotes from final student reflections touched me deeply …

I can say that this has been one of the most remarkable class experiences I’ve had and I am very sad to see it coming to an end.

I’m actually a lot sadder to be writing this post than I expected to be. This class is hands down the most memorable and stimulating class that I have ever taken.

I felt the same way.

2 Replies to “Thoughts on Teaching #CDT450”

  1. It was such an honor to be part of this class. I miss the students, the guests, and hearing more from our instructor. Fortunately for me, the learning continues, in a work environment.

    It was a remarkable and unforgettable teaching experience. Thank you for making me a part of it.

    1. Shady, you are very welcome. I loved having you be part of the continuing “Grand Experiment” that is Disruptive Technologies! It was truly an unforgettable semester for me. Thank you for being a part of that experience.

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