Asking New Questions

This morning as I was plowing through the post TLT Symposium haze I came across a track back to a couple of my posts last week over at my friend and colleague, Dr. Chris Brady’s site titled “Technology revolution or evolution.” I started to leave a comment at Chris’ blog, but thought I might work to extend the conversation a bit by offering a little bit more thought to my response. In so many ways I agree completely with what Chris is saying, but wanted to extend it just a bit.

While I don’t see any massive revolution on the horizon in the teaching space, I do see a continual refinement of our understanding of the affordances emerging (or emerged) technologies have on classroom practice. I don’t think web 2.0 is any more related to scholarship than the chalkboard when taken by itself. When I argue that new forms of scholarship are emerging, I am asking people to consider there are new opportunities to ask new types of questions that couldn’t be asked before. Take for example the “Texas Slavery Project” from the University of Richmond. When I got a chance to sit down and listen to the researchers behind it, they insisted that being able to visualize data in this environment caused them to ask questions they hadn’t considered before — that is, the technology was used to create new scholarship opportunities.

We’ve started working with quite a few humanities faculty here at ETS to let them do things with these tools that couldn’t be done before. If we dismiss the notion that these tools are somehow outside the boundaries of scholarship (and I do not believe Chris was saying that) we are not maximizing our new ability to attack new and interesting questions.

So back to the conversation around the Twitter use in the classroom that Scott McDonald and I stumbled upon … we are eager to investigate these same kinds of emergent questions in classrooms — the outcome of the Twitter use in class last year was shocking to me and without that experience I would not be able to question the value of backchannel conversations as enablers of learning. This is just a question that would not exist without the initial disruption. Is a revolution coming? Perhaps, but it will feel more like a glacier moving across the frozen tundra — a few centimeters at a time. But to me, that works because each step makes a big difference for a few students.

Symposium 2009

Today kicks off the TLT Symposium weekend and I couldn’t be more excited. Throughout the year I travel to events across the country and it is always so cool when I can sit back and watch our own kick off and inspire people right here at home. This year is our largest Symposium to date — over 400 people are registered! The theme this year is “Reimagine” … we are placing that in front of all sorts of concepts — scholarship, literacy, portfolios, etc. It is a powerful message at the right time. We’ve followed an arc of sorts in the planning of these events over the last few years — first we introduced emerging web 2.0 stuff, then we brought a view into how to implement them in the classroom, last year we highlighted faculty doing great things, and this year the focus is on students and outcomes. A really nice four year cycle.

The Symposium team, led by Jeff Swain, have done an amazing job. Everything is first rate — down to the posters, the program, and every other single little detail. We’ll have two keynotes from David Wiley and danah boyd that I think will inspire the collective audiences. Last year we had Lessig who blew open the idea that we should all be rethinking copyright and I know David’s message of open education will help us take the next step. danah will spend time sharing critical insights into the social web and how our audiences participate … it is going to be great! We’ll have man on the street interviewers, a video production team, a demonstration room showing off our Educational gaming initiative, and so much more. The keynotes will be recorded and shared as they happen and all the sessions will be blogged and twittered (watch the hashtag #tltsym09). All in all I expect it to be a great event. Take a look at just one of the videos we produced leading up to the event.

Odd Week

Last week was strange on several levels. It was an odd set of experiences that have left me more confused than usual … so much so that I have been unable to figure out how to write about it all. I attended and presented twice at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tech Forum event in Washington DC and while I was really excited to attend I left feeling a bit down. I don’t think it was the event that did it to me, I just think the overall vibe was way outside of my sweet spot. It was a crowd that seemed to be much more interested in yesterday than tomorrow — and as a critical reflection, that may seem a bit short sighted or jaded but that is how I left feeling. If you look at the Twitter search results from the hashtag I introduced I think you can see a bit of the tension, although there may have only been a dozen of us using our Internet voice while things were happening. It felt like an event that was working really hard to connect with fresh ideas, but was not quite ready to let go of old constructs and have some really difficult discussions. With that said, I did learn quite a bit and I met some really interesting people while there … to top it all off, I got to present and spend time with a great friend and make some new ones. I am honestly hoping the CHE does this again and maybe invites some of us to be a part of the planning for the event. I would definitely go back — if they’ll have me.

As a personal aside, I firmly believe my talks did little to stir up the crowd in any sort of proactive ways — there were lots of folks who dismissed what I had to say as being fluffy and not based on the perceived rigors of traditional scholarship. Of course I was running a risk by showing youtube videos of Charlie getting his finger chomped on, but I wasn’t using the videos as the message — I was using them as a metaphor for the explosion of new forms of conversations happening all over the social web. I know for a fact I missed the mark with at least one audience member who had his hand up even before I finished … his comment created a strange segue into the open discussion portion … and he was serious.

If that is scholarship, we are all doomed.

Never mind the session was titled, “Building the Classroom of the Future” … these folks wanted to hear something else. It was very comforting when a woman in the audience raised her hand and told an amazing story about her 8th grade son who decided to (on his own) create a new religion. At first I was nervous where it was going, but the way she described his passion and his intensity as he researched existing doctrine to come to his own conclusions was the exact right kind of example we needed to get back from the edge of being “doomed.” Interestingly enough I spent time talking to one of the other people in the audience who really challenged my notions and he was far more interested in having a dialogue in a more private setting, even telling me he found the talk “engaging and interesting.” He didn’t seem that way during the session as he told me that all this was fine and good for the soft sciences, but there is no room for distractions in the real sciences (he was a mechanical engineer). Not sure I agree and when we did talk he told me how he does use youtube to show difficult concepts.

But perhaps the biggest stir came after the event when the Chronicle ran two separate stories on my message … the first was titled, “Web 2.0 Classrooms Versus Learning.” I was a bit upset with the use of the word “versus,” but I am guessing conflict sells — I felt as though a more appropriate title might have used the word, “supports” or even “and” as a replacement. Oh well … it created some dialogue. The thing that seemed to blow the doors off it all came about as Jeff Young from the Chronicle called me as I was driving home to talk to me about some things I mentioned about how my colleague, Scott McDonald, and I used Twitter during our classes. In the piece titled, “Professor Encourages Students to Pass Notes During Class — via Twitter” my ideas come off as a product of a crazy mad scientist using my students as guinea pigs and my class as an out of control research lab. The comment stream speaks for itself — this is a heavy debate and one that I am really hoping to engage in here locally. I think we have a lot of new opportunities to capture students imagination and engage them in new ways — if we are looking to be a bit crazy … well, here’s to the crazy ones!

And so it was an odd week that has me wondering if what I have to say really does resonate with people or if I am getting the polite nod because people actually think it is all bullshit. Not sure, but I am working to check my own confidence level and working hard this week to get my mojo rising for our own TLT Symposium. I really need to hang out with a group of really engaged and excited educators to get my head back on — and trust me, we have them here at PSU! Maybe I’m not ready to deal with the truth that nothing we do will matter outside these walls — or maybe that is the bullshit in it all. Perhaps those who call it all fluff are holding onto something that no longer exists, maybe notions of control, or maybe that never did exist? I don’t know. Do you?