Constructed Meaning

Many of you who have spent anytime around me in the last six months or so know that I taught (what I thought to be) an interesting course with my friend and colleague Scott McDonald last spring. Our course was a graduate seminar offered in the College of Education’s Curriculum and Development department under the working title of Disruptive Technologies for Teaching and Learning. Scott and I both felt the course was a bit of a grand experiment — one where we worked hard to mix the “down in the trenches” application of potentially disruptive social technologies with the best of the rigor associated with a graduate level course. We focused all of our activities, discussions, and readings around our three themes — community, identity, and design.

In many ways, we hoped that the design would emerge throughout the semester — we did quite a bit of planning, but didn’t prescribe everything. Scott and I had a really solid notion of what we were going to do and really understood what we wanted the students to come away with, but we did stop short of producing a full 15 week syllabus. Instead opting for a more flexible approach in which we broke the course into thirds — faculty driven, student exploration, student driven. Each third had about 5 weeks assigned to it. It worked fairly well.

The constructivist nature of the course was very comfortable to me, but I could tell that there were some students who were uncomfortable with it. I just got my SRTE (student rating of teaching effectiveness) results — nothing like timely feedback — and while solid, they express the fact that students were agitated/uncomfortable/uptight/confused with the open nature of the course. SRTE scores are out of 7 and I received a score lower than 6 on only 2 of the 15 items … both make me wonder about our approach and students’ readiness for it.

For the item, “Rate the organization of the course material” I received a 5.82 … while I believe this is still strong I would like to dig into that a little further. Scott and I did not organize the course in a traditional way at all — we did not use ANGEL (our course management system) to post assignemnts, instead opting to have a course blog that he and I could post to. The syllabus was there as were the links to the calendar, readings, and assignments. Much of the content of the course was created by the students in their own blogs and then aggregated together into a social ratings site we set up. So the question I have is related to student expectations with regard to material findability. Here’s the thing, are students so comfortable with the ability to log into ANGEL that they feel a course is disorganized if the majority of the material exist openly on the web? If this is the case, what does it say about our ability to move beyond the CMS and into the open web for course materials?

The other item I got tagged on was, “Rate the clarity of the syllabus in stating course objectives, course outline, and criteria for grades.” I got a 5.36 on that one … again, relatively high, but below the 6 level. This is another one that worries me a bit — but I am torn. As an instructional designer I am keenly aware of the need to clarify all expectations, but as someone who is interested in a more agile approach to teaching and learning I cringe at programmed instruction. The syllabus we posted went through the end of the 4th week … after that, the students were to help co-create the course. And they did! They kicked ass throughout the semester, but really came alive when much of the conversation was left up to them. It is tough to understand how one can be both clear with expectations via a course outline and maintain an open flow to the learning opportunities. So with this I am left wondering how comfortable our learners are with the ideas that they must be (at least) partially responsible for making the learning space come alive. Furthermore I am left wondering how this would play out in an undergraduate course — low structure, but big opportunities to adjust the flow of the course based on how the students are moving through the learning process?

At the end of the day there are things I would change and Scott and I have discussed some of them. We plan to teach the course again with a few minor tweaks to see what happens. But when, on the first day of class, you walk in and announce to the students that the next 15 weeks will be a grand experiment you have to be ready to deal with the unknown. I can’t think of a better compliment than to be dinged on the two items I discussed — they indicate we made the experience slightly uncomfortable and off-balance. That in and of itself in indicative of disruption.


Last week I went to beautiful Bedford Springs, PA to speak to Superintendents from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit … it was both intimidating and exciting. I am always a little nervous speaking to K-12 educators because I always make the mistake of thinking our worlds are so different. It was exciting because I always end up finding out how similar our problems and issues really are. This was no different. I went in thinking I was out of my element and left with a new found appreciation and confidence in my understanding of our shared issues.

I shared a mix of stories and statistics that described how social computing is being used (typically outside of formal learning environments) to create new and engaging online conversations. I was surprised that this group didn’t come at me with the typical doom and gloom questions — they instead were (for the most part) eager to embrace what was happening in the “real world” and engaged me in a pragmatic discussion over what to do. One of the things that was funny was that many of my answers seemed so basic, yet created so much more thinking. I was particularly struck by a question over how teachers should use social environments … as I answered I heard myself talking about how critical it is for teachers to understand how the environments work. If you are going to use youtube for teaching, understand how related movies are chosen, know when to embed a video instead of using the youtube page, and make sure you can navigate the environment. Talking about facebook felt similar … we stressed how important it is to know how the privacy features work, how to really use the environment, and again, just know how to move around. Not earth shattering ideas, but ones that surprised me how much they resonated.

This was a smart group of K-12 administrators who are striving to do great things for their teachers and the students in their districts. They, in general, were very open to new ways of thinking and wanted me to assure them that the teachers we are producing at PSU are prepared to deliver the kinds of educational experiences that will ultimately make students successful in higher education and beyond. We spent a lot of time talking about how important it is for new teachers to foster feelings of creativity — even in the face of strict state standards and the constraints of the no child left behind initiative. I was a little worried about the emphasis on new teachers and not just teachers, but in general I was heartened to hear it and felt like our schools were in good hands.

I contrast this with the experiences I am having with my daughter’s public school education. I hear very little mention of innovative practice and I am certainly not seeing the ability to be flexible in the delivery of curriculum. I am not pointing fingers at teachers I am just seeing a system that wants so badly to be agile and effective, yet is trapped by red tape and outmoded methods. I don’t see anyone openly discussing learning styles, embracing digital literacy, digital story telling, or portfolio thinking. I mentioned reflective practice to a teacher in my daughter’s school and got a very strange look, as if she were saying, “why do that?” I want so much for my daughter to love school — she is still only in first grade … and I want her curiosity and creativity to be promoted, not stunted. Unfortunately what I see is a path that has been walked on for decades being the only direction, that change in thinking isn’t going to be tolerated, and that a push to the middle is the only option. So, with all the hope and promise of administrative leadership comes the realities of the trenches and I once again realize just how different my environment is than theirs. I am disheartened.

Please won’t you be …

Growing up in Wonder View right across the Susquehanna river from Bloomsburg, PA we didn’t have cable TV … we got the standard package of over the air staples — ABC, CBS, NBC, and my favorite, PBS. Back in the 70’s TV was a little different than it is today. There wasn’t time shifting, NFL Sunday Tickets, high definition channels, or anything like that … it was simple and it actually had some serious educational value. Everyday my parents would drop me off at an older couple’s home while they went to work at Bloomsburg University. In the evenings I would come home and play down in the lower level of our bi-level all the while watching and listening to Sesame Street, the Electric Company, and Zoom … but the real highlight of the day was always Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Usually it would be on during dinnertime and my Mom would come down and shovel the food into my mouth as I watched him take me through a wonderful half hour of learning. Wonderful memories that were brought back to me by watching the clip below from a 1969 Congressional Hearing on the original funding for public broadcasting. If you were ever a child, or have one this is a must watch. The world needs more neighborhoods run by Mr. Rogers.

Rip, Mix, Burn Classroom Podcasting …

I had posted last week about the idea of students taking ownership of the podcasting process in the classroom based on an article I came across.  I had mentioned it was an intersting twist of fate that they would be the ones not only recording, but editing, posting, and distributing the lectures that way.  This morning I awoke to find a very interesting comment from James pushing the notion that it may be the natural evolution of the whole concept.  His comments really got me thinking differently about how to provide the right types of lecture based podcasts in my class (and beyond).

I think what James said pushes us to look at the classroom experience in a new light … most of us talk about creating a “student-centric” opportunity, but in most cases it ends up being a lot of push to them … with a significant amount of pull thrown in, but not a true two way street.  James wewnt on to say, “I actually think the idea of students editing portions of a lecture may be something that is ultimately encouraged especially if the student does this appropriately (audio citation?) as a way to further develop the ideas that are brought to life in the class.”  So I think I may have come across a wonderful new approach to try out in class … encourage students to produce versions of my lectures as they see fit.  What would be so wrong with them taking the basic lecture recording, editing out the nonsense, maybe adding in supplemental material, and cutting in their reactions?  If I can figurre out how to do it right, it would be an amazing learning opportunity.

Podcasting … to Learn Podcasting

Today I had the pleasure of sitting down with a member of my staff at Penn State’s Education Technology Services. I’ve been promoting podcasting on our campus for quite some time and people are catching on. We are putting together a University-wide podcasting solution as I type … it addresses podium recording all the way to final distribution. It has been an interesting and fun project — with lots of issues to navigate.

Tara is a member of the ETS Marketing Team focusing mostly on PSU Training Services (TS). Our TS group wants to start offering podcasting sessions as soon as this summer … we’ve been talking about everything from how you do a podcast to how do you subscribe and so on. Tara took the time to sit down with me and learn a little about podcasting. We went through setup, recorded a podcast, edited it with GarageBand, and published it to the Podcasts at Penn State site — all in about an hour and a half. All in all, it was fun and a nice break from all the stuff I am usually doing during the day.

Tara asked me a bunch of questions about teaching and learning with technology — specifically blogs, wikis, podcasts, and more. Pretty standard stuff, but it was all about learning to podcast. Jump over and take listen if you are interested.

Blog Study … Podcasting Some Ideas

Tonight Chris Millet and I sat down to talk about the blogging study he is conducting at the IST Solutions Institute here at Penn State. Chris and I headed down to the basement in our old studio to talk a bit about the study and to share some thoughts with the faculty participating … this is a 50 minute, unedited discussion. We didn’t have notes or any real notion of what we wanted to talk about other than how we’ve used blogs to power our classrooms. There are some interesting things. Enjoy it … the podcast is around 45 MB. Thoughts?

Direct link to the podcast.

iTunes in Education

I am really starting to enjoy seeing things like this. Stanford has joined the party and started using iTunes for content distribution. It is a very cool project … there are several of these out there. I spent an hour or so talking with some of the folks from U Mich during Educause — specifically in one of the Apple Digital Campus Podcasts (Subscribe via iTunes) — about how they are using it as well. What blows my mind is how this product (iTunes) wasn’t really built for this, but over time Apple has really listened to its education customers and realized just how powerful the iTunes environment really is. I mean, if you get right down to it, eEducation is a whole hell of a lot like eBusiness — transactional, relies on scalable infrastructure, and the notions of community. At any rate, these are good stories.