I’m Back.

“I’m back.”
–Michael Jordan, announcing on March 18, 1995 his return to the Chicago Bulls

Too dramatic? Yeah, probably, but it is almost March 18th. Over a year ago I had decided to move my entire blog existence from a self hosted WordPress platform to TypePad. I did this for quite a few reasons, the biggest two were to get out of the business of managing my own installation and to experience another platform altogether. I was so frustrated by a really slow host and what I considered a less than powerful writing environment. I really enjoyed using TypePad, but there were too many times I missed the advances happening in the WP space. I will say that in the year I was away, WP really grew and matured. In the end, there are just too many people on this bus.

So in light of all that progress and growth I’ve decided to come back. I spent a few hours yesterday migrating things back over here to my own installation of WordPress, writing under my own URL again, and am finding myself to be pleasantly surprised by the speed I am experiencing. What does this mean for other parts of my life where I’ve neglected WP? Not quite sure yet, but rest assured that the labs are cooking up something really good. We all have to stay tuned to how deep the energy flow can take our collective decision making across multiple spaces. In short, I am very excited about the potential moving forward on lots of fronts.

I’ll have to leave it at that for now. What I will say is that it was amazingly easy to make the migration. The other thing I will mention is that I learned quite a bit from using TypePad for an extended period of time … it does a few things so much better than WP. Some of those things are ideas I’ve pulled into conversations relative to how publishing platforms can better support faculty, staff, and student workflows, social connections, and participation. I am still searching for some of the more elusive pieces to integrate into my professional workflows, but by sampling a diversity of platforms I feel like I am getting closer to it. Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for Jim to leave a taunting comment or tweet.

Well, we’ll see if it sticks … I mean it took Jordan until March 28th to really be back. Now that was a killer Birthday present!

More on Horizontal Contributions as Conversations

I should know better than to post more about this concept given the lack of interest (perhaps my lack of clarity) in my previous piece on it, but I am really interested in generating conversations about it. My friend and colleague, Brad Kozlek, has been working with Intense Debate on his blog showing what it looks like from an end user perspective … Brad does an excellent job of discussing the affordances of this specific tool offers. I think the idea that it is a service unto itself allows it to do so much more than simply handle standard text comments … to me that is exciting in light of at least two of our faculty fellows this summer. If you are interested in what a third party commenting engine can provide jump over and take a look at it in action at my PSU blog.

One of our Fellows, Chris Long, is exploring the notion of “digital dialogues” to start to understand if the platforms of the web 2.0 world can support ongoing dialogue with deeper meaning. From Chris’ post at the TLT Faculty Fellow site describing his investigations …

In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates claims to be one of the only Athenians to practice the true art of politics. As is well known, Socrates haunted the public places in Athens looking for young people with whom he could converse. During these discussions, Socrates was intent on turning the attention of those he encountered toward the question of the good and the just. It is difficult to understate the lasting political power these dialogues have had over the course of time. Yet the emergence of social Web 2.0 technologies opens new possibilities for this ancient practice of politics, which Socrates fittingly called in the Gorgias, a “techne,” or art.

When we started exploring the notion of using an external commenting engine to support some of the work Carla Zembaul-Saul wanted to think about this summer, we instantly saw these new affordances giving Chris new ways to explore his thinking — commenting inline via video is a huge step forward in our minds to relate to his work.

While this interesting itself, the thing I was really interested in was not what you saw when you arrived at a given blog, it was what it looked like from a personal administrative side … I was interested in being able to think about how what my (or students’) contributions look like across the social web. We post and comment traditionally in a vertical fashion, while what we need is an easy way to track those contributions once we leave the vertical. So if lots of people, perhaps across the PSU blog service, could use a a service that keeps track of our horizontal conversations something really exciting could emerge. Something that would let us look at all of these horizontal contributions with ties to the original context. Since it is a service on its own, it has a set of dashboard tools that pulls it all together — people you are following, certain keywords emerge, your own comments, links to the original posts, and more. This is the side of it that makes me really hopeful.

Horizontal Memory

Horizontal Memory

If we can make this happen the way we are thinking about it we can empower some new uses for our platform. Chris gets his ability to engage people where they are in multiple mediums and Carla gets a way to use comments as measurable artifacts. I gain the ability to introduce this to my friend, Keith Bailey, in the College of Arts and Architecture as a viable platform to teach art appreciation — in that world, the idea of the critique is as important as the original contribution. So having an easy way for a faculty member to track contributions across many posts as a way to review and reflect on a given student’s growth in the critique space is now very easy. If we can work to understand how to capture and pack up a single person’s comments across lots of posts I think we are moving towards giving them more to reflect on and faculty a better set of evidence to base assessment on. At least I think so … any thoughts?

Big Impact Stuff

We’ve been working to strategiclly align the things we do in ETS to those of the University for quite some time. One of the things we shifted attention to about a year ago was getting reengaged with academic units around large impact opportunities as they relate to curricular design. My first two years in ETS I worked hard to help establish a vision for the creation of platforms to support digital expression and in most cases these were infrastructure moves — Podcasts at Penn State, iTunes U, Adobe Connect, and the Blogs at Penn State are examples. In a few cases they were physical environments … the Digital Commons is the best example of that … but the Educational Gaming Commons is also an emergent example. Ultimately the goal with these platforms was to move our culture into a place where we had new infrastructure to help us think critically about new forms of scholarship and pedagogy.

The platforms allowed us to explore the ideas around Community Hubs and other group publishing platforms … these are places where the community could find new ways to connect, share, and support new thinking. The Community Hubs also helped us identify new participants and helped us rethink how we went about deploying our physical events like the Innovator Speaker Series, the Learning Design Summer Camps, Digital Commons Tailgates, and the TLT Symposium. These face to face events have become a new kind of infrastructure designed to coalesce community at a much larger level. This has paid big dividends.

Additionally we spent quite a bit of time laying the groundwork for new kinds of faculty investments — we created the Hot Team process, Engagement Projects, and the TLT Faculty Fellows. At this level is where we are now seeing our ability to move emerging ideas into real concrete services that can transform large scale teaching and learning challenges into new opportunities. In almost every way, these approaches live on top of the infrastructure stack we took so long to build. In other words, we invested time and energy into people, processes, tools, technology, events, and facilities so we could find new ways to engage faculty around emergent conversations.

At the end of the day when I look around I see us engaged in quite a few big impact projects. A couple of examples include a redesign of an English course that impacts thousands, a Communications course that has 350 students in a single section, a Biology Lab designed, developed, and deployed openly in our Blog platform, and even an Economics course that most of our students in the College of Business take. Each one of these examples leans on the infrastructure we’ve built — regardless of if that infrastructure is physical or virtual.

My point is that as we go forward we can attack new opportunities in the teaching and learning space because we’ve taken our time to get the infrastructure in place. It doesn’t mean that while we were getting it all in place that we stopped working with faculty, it means that we spent less time doing big impact things and worked hard to show demonstrations of the ultimate potential. This requires a very patient and visionary administration and a powerful set of foundational technologies to build on (I am thinking about web space, authentication, a University wide CMS, help desk, etc). We’d never worry about building those things … we lean on them to empower new opportunities. In lots of ways the tangible outcomes we are seeing in the teaching and learning space have everything to do with every single piece of the stack. What is ultimately exciting to me is that we not only have the physical and virtual infrastructure to solve lots of cool problems, but we have a culture that is willing to explore its potential. The success of our large scale projects is really built on the foundations lots of people have built over the years. For that I am thankful and can feel confident that our current team is adding to that infrastructure so things we can’t even imagine can be implemented with speed and agility.

A Bigger Part

I’ve been working in higher education for nearly 11 years now. The idea that I could come to a place like PSU and actually feel like I could honestly make an impact was very difficult for me when I first showed up. The University is so big and so intimidating as an outsider — I can’t even imagine how students feel when they show up! Combine that with the fact that I grew up not being a big Nittany Lion fan and you had a bit of an unwilling participant.

Since that time I’ve been lucky to have held positions as instructional designer, manager, director, instructor, and now after all these years, a student. I feel good to have had the opportunity to be a part of the early days of the World Campus when it was just spinning up. I learned so much as I watched people make real decisions about issues that were so new. I’ve been lucky to have been in the right place to be a part of the launch of the College of IST and become the Director of the Solutions Institute. An amazing time when we were acting like a real start up inside higher education. I’ve been lucky to teach both undergraduates and graduate students. Applying what my teams have been creating first hand has been an incredible opportunity and learning experience. Now I spend my time helping people to think about larger issues that impact a big University and I can’t be happier with that opportunity.

But, with all that said its taken being a student at PSU for me to see the whole picture. I was talking to my colleague Chris Stubbs yesterday about this very notion. Its such an odd feeling going from one side of the podium to the other — it is very strange to be sitting in seats that I routinely work to make decisions about. Let me say that I’ve learned so much more in the last few weeks than what is on the syllabus. Looking at our technologies through the eyes of a student can give us such a stronger sense of what we need to be doing to make the experience really work. I can say that teaching hasn’t quite done that for me, but being a student shows me how much work we have to do to keep up with what students need to be successful long term.

I’m already rethinking much of what we do as an organization and how we make decisions. Having a chance to sit in so many seats for one Institution has given me fresh perspective and motivation to work on old challenges. I’m looking forward to seeing what it all means as summer comes and I have more time to really reflect on how to move new ideas forward, but for now I’m just happy to be a bigger part of the whole system.