Learner-Shaped Technology

December 19, 2012

Highlights from the Future of Higher Education Forum

Image made available via CC license @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/feuilllu/5309422823/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Dan Cohen’s comments in the latest installment of the Digital Campus podcast prodded me to check out footage from George Mason University’s recent Forum on the Future of Higher Education.  I wanted to link to and highlight a few snippets that really resonated. A few notes:

*I have to admit that Dan jokingly referring to some of the discussion as being Jerry-Springer-like piqued my interest.  The discussion is actually very civil, and I appreciate Dan’s thoughtful skepticism.

*I haven’t watched all the footage. I saw individuals in the videos whose work I was familiar with (Dan Cohen, Bob Beichner, and Bryan Alexander) and tended to focus on their comments and responses to their insights.

*The video links in the titles below should take you to the appropriate spot in the conversation.  I make note of the time when the discussion shifts and you may want to stop and move on to the next snippet.

1. Context and Learning Environments:  (stop at 33:50) –  I like Dan’s focus on the university’s role in scaffolding and contextualizing information and reminding us that most learners need help with this.  Instructors as designers.

2. Measuring ‘Learning’ and Assessment:  (stop at 16:40) – Dan reminds us that focus on assessment (especially the easy to measure stuff) and learner analytics doesn’t paint a complete picture–not even close. He argues that a university also provides an environment for unexpected outcomes and ways of thinking—aspects of education that don’t lend themselves to tidy measurement.  This reminds me of a recent podcast by Freakonomics contributor Stephen Dubner in which he discusses lessons he uses everyday in his work with the professors who inspired the practice (even if they don’t remember the moment of inspiration!).

3. Student-Centered Instruction: (stop at 8:30) – Bob Beichner describes the SCALE-UP project at NC State, which utilizes problem-based-learning in large intro courses, and he shares how it’s working.  This design is being implemented at many schools across the country, including at nearby Clemson University. The model is adaptable to smaller classes.  Some classrooms would need some serious retrofitting to make this model possible, but it’s worth it.

4. Extending the Model Beyond STEM disciplines (stop at 1:04:45) – Bob shares how the SCALE-UP model can be used across disciplines. I really like how his example covers the entire learning cycle and mixes team and individual work.  Bryan Alexander compares technology use in the sciences and humanities.

5. MOOCs—It’s Complicated:  (stop at 41:35)  – Bryan provides a great overview of the different types of MOOCs, MOOC business models, and how colleges might leverage resources from MOOCs on campus. He also contextualizes several instructional technologies on the Gardner hype cycle.  Ah, the trough of disillusionment.


December 5, 2012

Robert Zemeckis and Ed Tech

Filed under: design,education,technology — Mike W @ 5:51 pm

I listened to an interview with Flight director Robert Zemeckis during my run last night.  This part (transcript from NPR’s Fresh Air) sure reminded me of our approach to educational technology sometimes.

CC licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/vox/276882153/

DAVIES: Do you think digital technology has sort of fundamentally changed moviemaking, I mean, even in films that really don’t involve special effects?

ZEMECKIS: Oh, yeah. But that’s because every new – everything always did, from day one. I mean, you know, you can go back and see how, you know, we – they – in the final years of the silent cinema, where the art of cinema, of storytelling was so magnificent. And then when they invented the microphone and sound, everything got really static, and it all had to be reinvented again, and the same when color came in. And when the invented the steady cam, every movie had a chase up and down a staircase, you know.

So what we do with these technologies is we overuse them and we call attention to them, because they’re just so much fun to have. And then we learn how to use them in the way that all tools of cinema should be used, which is to make them invisible. So now I don’t think you can even tell when a director is using a steady cam. If he’s really good at his job, the camera movement won’t call attention to itself.

So, yeah, I think that, you know, some of the digital stuff that we’re doing now, especially in editing, I find that we’re – there’s editing for what I call no reason. You know, we just edit to edit. And I think we do that in films now because we can. But we’ll get that out of our system and, you know, and then something else will be there that’ll be the new technology of the month.

November 20, 2012

The Flipped Classroom: Traps and Before the Lecture

Filed under: blended-learning,design,education,flipped-classroom,technology — Mike W @ 3:27 pm

Take a minute to reflect on some of your biggest teaching fails.  Many of my in-class fails started this way:

“Today I’m going to talk about . . . “

No context.  No student experience on which to build.  Plummeting energy in the room (including my own) . . .

Are we on our way to reproducing this experience online with the flipped classroom?

As I read more examples about how instructors are implementing flipped classrooms, I’m actually very encouraged that this can be done to optimize class time together for deeper student learning. Derek Bruff has a great post and supporting visuals that describe the flipped approach and more importantly the inherent traps.

“The lecture video portion of the flipped classroom approach gets a lot of attention because it’s the piece that involves shiny new technologies, but it’s the pedagogy that drives the flipped classroom, not the technology.  If all you’re doing is posting lecture videos online, you’re not flipping your classroom and, more importantly, you’re missing out on the learning opportunities the full model provides.”

A complex visualization, such as this one from the online comic xkcd can serve as a first exposure or student experience.

I want to build on this idea of traps inherent in the flipped system. Assuming ‘first exposure’ = ‘content delivery’ makes the trap potentially more insidious.  This assumption is likely to lead to mimicking the mistake above, only this time, online.  In this case, it’s actually worse. The instructor is far removed from the vacant stares of the students and unable to make mid-class corrections (like asking questions and bringing student experience back to the forefront).  A misunderstanding of the flipped design, coupled with technology, not only encourages but hides design flaws—a dangerous combination.  To overcome these challenges, we need to consider important steps that come before ‘first exposure’ or rethink what first exposure really means (something other than content-heavy lecture).

So what comes before the online lecture?  I’ll start with an in-person example. I co-led a GIS in the Humanities workshop with Sean Connin (Trinity University) and Alex Chaucer (Skidmore College) in which Alex facilitated a discussion about several key concepts in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place.  His session was a great example of designing around the ‘lead-with-content’ trap. Alex could have lectured about the concepts, but instead, he asked us to spend a few minutes visiting the streets of our childhood using Google Earth street view as well as the interactive Wilderness Downtown website. He posed several questions for reflection before the discussion and introduction of new concepts from the book. The experience was powerful and led to deeper understanding. The brief activity helped us contextualize and draw on previous experience (and emotion!), so the subsequent lecture and discussion had purpose. Alex not only provided a compelling hook, but the design helped us situate new ideas within previous experiences because he had so effectively activated our prior learning.

As we create flipped experiences for students, we’re bound to have a laser-like focus on the quality of the recorded lectures, making it easy to lose sight of the importance of contextualizing those lectures—either within the lecture itself or with activities beforehand. The best pre-lecture activities leave students perplexed and wanting to know more, but also help them situate what’s to come with what they’ve already learned.  Maybe the experience unravels a misconception. Perhaps it oversimplifies a complex topic and encourages the student to develop probing questions. I’m a big fan of Marilla Svinicki’s (1987) call for using the Kolb Learning Cycle as a model for designing instruction.  In that model, experience and reflection precede concept development (often a big component of lecture), so the model serves as a good visual reminder to help us avoid traps.  As her article points out, experience can come in many forms (reading, simulations, observation, evaluating a visualization, etc.).  Careful design, with balanced guidance, is key to purposeful exploration, rather than aimless wandering.

The RadioLab podcast is another great example of this design, and they’re just using audio! Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are masters at using stories to develop complex ideas, skillfully weaving process and content.  I mapped their show on randomness (stochasticity) onto the learning cycle.

Radiolab podcast mapped onto the learning cycle.

I doubt they had the learning cycle in mind when designing the show, but their online “lecture” about randomness doesn’t really begin until after they’ve provided the listener with an experience (a story of the two Lauras) and an opportunity to reflect on the story.  They even throw in an additional coin flipping experience to boot before moving on to the idea that, “Real randomness when you see it, just doesn’t feel random enough.“

I think it’s somewhat natural for teachers to activate experience and provide opportunities for students to reflect and situate new ideas in the physical classroom.  I’m not sure this is so natural online.  So as we look at the flow of the ‘flipped classroom’ let’s add an element right at the beginning—student experience and reflection. This way, passive information reception isn’t the students’ first exposure.  When I think about the flipped classroom movement, I’m both wary and excited. There are some serious traps; however, executed with design at the forefront, the opportunities are vast.  We certainly have our work cut out for us.  Not only do we have to provide information online in a compelling way, but we have to design student experiences that make the content meaningful. Oh, and then there’s the business of designing in-class activities.

Feedback welcome!

Thanks to Diane Boyd for her comments on the draft of this post.  Many of the ideas in this post gelled as a result of preparing for a conference presentation with colleague Jeremy Donald.  A post-presentation debrief over spicy Thai food helped even more.  Thanks Jeremy!

Update:  After authoring this post, I caught up with my feed reading and realized Dan Meyer had also emphasized putting something BEFORE the online lecture to activate students’ intellectual need.  I’m happy to be on the same page as Dan Meyer and others (see comments), even if it means my observation isn’t as original as I first thought!

Svinicki, M. D., & Dixon, N. M. (1987). The Kolb model modified for classroom activities. College Teaching, 35(4), 141–146.

October 28, 2011

Transparency as the Catalyst to Transformation

I’m excited to host my first guest blog by colleague Diane Boyd, Associate Director for Furman’s Center for Teaching and Learning as she reflects on our trip with StudioLab consultants to ThatCamp Pedagogy.

Diane’s post:

THATCamp Pedagogy, Vassar College October 15-16

This was our first THATCamp, and many of us on the road to Poughkeepsie (including Mike Winiski, and student consultants Lacey Brantley, Shanda Edwards, and Boone Pilkington) from Furman’s Center for Teaching and Learning and StudioLab had some trepidation about creating an agenda for the meeting “on the fly” during the first session on Saturday morning.  Added to that low-level anxiety was wondering how to prepare for any impromptu presentations we might give at the conference or during “Dork Shorts.”

I was delighted at how well Matt Schultz orchestrated the schedule building on Saturday morning.  Participants suggested topics online before the meeting (and during our agenda making session) and those people were to take ownership of the session during the conference.  Logistically this worked well, except when a person suggested two sessions that got scheduled simultaneously (as was Mike’s dilemma with “Distant Reading” and “Interpreting Visualization”).  One suggestion: in some sessions it would be more effective to have a more deliberate matching mechanism.  That is, create the option for suggesting sessions without leading them:  people who suggest a session could request a co-facilitator/expert rather than become the session leader. I understand the non-hierarchical advantage to the current set up (which also promotes transparency!), but I also believe the current system prevented people who were genuinely curious about a topic from suggesting it (for fear that they would become intrepid leaders!)

Transparency, and in turn, transformation, emerged quickly as abiding conference themes. The BootCamps I attended provided ample time for brainstorming with fellow campers, and many transformative ideas for digital humanities projects were the result. In “Integrating Digital Projects into Undergraduate Courses” we focused on using audio recordings in a Latina Feminisms class.  The importance of “voice” for the professor made audio interviews a meaningful DH choice.  In “So Long, Lecture” another camper, also a student, talked about a prof who taught iambic pentameter by having her students walk to the beat.  Incorporating multiple senses as key to enduring cognition was useful to me as I plan a “Yoga in America” class where we engaged in daily physical practice a well as investigate the translation of traditional yoga to a Western, American lifestyle. Always our discussions began with the learning goals and then moved to the appropriate technology, if any, that would support the project.  Lacey, Boone, and Shanda agreed that it was transformative to “see behind the curtain”—watching professors struggle with the constraints of administrative demands while also attempting to build meaningful assignments that assist in the life long learning process.  And it was transformative for each of us to once again consider the transparency and integration of our roles at the Center for Teaching and Learning: we are at once teachers, learners, facilitators, experimenters, collaborators.  When we allow these roles to be fluid—when we take the risk to be transparent in our teaching, learning, and thinking—meaningful personal and professional  transformation are the inevitable result.

December 8, 2009

Reflections on Using Twitter in the Classroom

Filed under: collaborate,education,general,technology,twitter — Mike W @ 5:22 pm

At the beginning of the term I embarked on a Twitter ‘exploration’ and described it as such to the class.  I’ve noted my Twitter skepticism and reluctant semi-conversion before.  The final push into this venture was inspired in part by a wonderful talk from Todd Zakrajsek at the Lilly South Conference in Greensboro, NC in February of 2009.   He spoke about the power of social norms and our role as instructors in sometimes reinforcing negative norms (“Where is everyone this morning?” –Todd’s example). While he didn’t mention Twitter specifically, as I designed the course, this technology emerged as a possible tool for promoting a community of readers and establishing a positive classroom expectation of preparation. A phone buzzing with an especially poignant comment from a classmate about an assigned reading, seemed like a potentially subtle and effective way of establishing a positive norm and sending the following message:

Not only are my classmates doing the reading well ahead of time, but they are thinking deeply about it.  I better get on it.


Twitter isn’t the only strategy for helping students engage challenging reading material. Bean and others have outlined some very effective strategies that I’ve borrowed. But it seemed worth trying Twitter as a supplement.

Before I summarize the students’ thoughts on the experiment (Students please let me know what I got wrong in the comments), I’ll talk briefly about the mechanics of setting up Twitter for class and how it was used in conjunction with the reading.

1. The mechanics – I set up a private Twitter group using GroupTweet. I liked this option because current Twitter users could keep their existing logins, rather than creating a new one for class.   If they wanted to send a Tweet unrelated to class, they could continue to do so.  If a tweet was directed to the class, they sent a direct message to the group, prefacing their message like so:

D ourgroup What do you think? Arkady p. 340 “Shortness of life was a primary force in the permanence of institutions …”

The setup was a little cumbersome.  Each student had to follow the group and also allow the group to follow them.  After everyone came to class with an established user account, we spent about 20 minutes setting this all up.  I think it was worth the class time, rather than trying to field questions online.  Many students also set up their phones for text messaging at this time.  I emphasized that this could all be done from the Twitter website and that a text plan was not necessary for completing this requirement.

2. Assignments – A bit of tinkering led us to the conclusion that a minimalist approach is best.  After asking the students to read five forensics articles related to the historical case and send two tweets about each, we all agreed this was counter-productive and too hard to track.  After that barrage, the typical assignment involved posting one comment and one question to classmates.  After a while, one question OR comment seemed enough.  More on that in a minute.

The results:


  • Convenience –  Several students commented that it was very convenient to send a text message when away from the computer.  When an idea struck them, they could share it at that moment.  My thirteen year old will attest to the fact that I don’t text much, but I sent quite a few thoughts to the group this way. One question hit me in the parking lot, and it was delivered to class before I got in my car.  No need to log on that night!
  • Social Norm – There was less agreement on this, but some students nodded in agreement when I indicated this exercise potentially strengthened our reading community.  During an especially busy week, I found myself a bit stressed when my phone started buzzing with student ideas and I hadn’t submitted my tweet yet.  By the time I posted, several of my thoughts were ‘taken’. We seemed to have set an unwritten rule that ‘original ideas were required’, so I had to look at the text from a different perspective—an unexpected but significant plus!
  • Length Restriction – Some mentioned being frustrated by the 140-charcter limit but others felt the constraint forced them to tighten up an idea.  All-in-all this tension seemed to be positive thing.  Many of the tweets cried out for more discussion during class.  I’m putting the character restriction squarely in the positive category, with a few, not insignificant, caveats noted below.
  • Connection – I felt much more on top of student perspectives prior to class after reading their tweets.  Their posts helped me prepare questions and plan for the upcoming discussion.  If there was an angle the students weren’t exploring in their tweets, I could pose questions in class that probed the issue more deeply. Their tweets also revealed some unexpected paths.  Yes, in-depth journals or discussion boards might have provided more insight and required more writing, but there just didn’t seem to be room for that with the other assignments and goals.  In the end, I was surprised at how much the tweets helped me get a gauge of student perspective in a very concise way!


  • Forced syntax: While the character limit forced us to be concise, I felt like I was doing Edward Abbey a serious disservice when I tweeted his quote below.  The original goes like this:

“Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.” – Edward Abbey

Here’s how I resolved to tweet the message under the 140-character restriction:

“Anarchism – founded on observation since few men are wise enuf to rule themslvs, even fewer are wise enuf to rule others.” Abbey

Yikes! Tweeting with misspelled words and truncated thoughts just bothers me.  Maybe I need to enter the 21st century, but there’s part of me that doesn’t want to let go.  Am I having trouble with the anarchy of Twitter?  Stop poking me Ed.  You’d hate this Twitter thing, wouldn’t you?  Perhaps Seldom Seen Smith, Bonnie Abzug, Doc Sarvis, and George Hayduke could have coordinated this way.  #monkeywrenching?  But I digress.

  • Linking: bit.ly and tinyurl do make linking easy, so beating the 140 character limit is possible this way.  I could have used these services to link directly to the Abbey quote above; however, if the reader doesn’t have a data plan, this click through is less likely to occur on a phone.  Tweets I get from the Mars rovers hit my phone this way, but since I don’t have a data plan or iPhone, I don’t click through when reading from my phone.  Most of these tweets turn out to be text message noise because the gist of the message is incomprehensible without the detail behind the link.  Reading from a different client (like TweetDeck) helps me stay connected to the latest news from the rovers (which almost always includes links), but text messaging alone doesn’t cut it.  Agreeing on a client and linking practice is key before implementing this in class.
  • Threads: The students were a bit annoyed at not being able to respond easily and in a threaded fashion to a particularly interesting post.  Twitter has reply syntax(@), but let’s face it, it’s not designed for threaded discussion.
  • Reading Classmate Posts: Many of the early tweeters for an assignment admitted that they weren’t going back and reading others’ tweets until we put them on the screen or passed them out on paper in class (the latter seemed more effective).
  • Delay: There was often a significant delay between when students posted and when the tweet actually displayed, which caused some dismay, since tweeting was a requirement for many of the readings.
  • Hashtags:  Initially, we thought hashtags would help us organize the twitter discussion, but for our purposes, they didn’t seem to add much.  They quietly dropped from the dialog during the latter half of the semester.

Final Thoughts

Rather than confirming my initial doubts about Twitter, the experiment highlighted the appropriate niche for Twitter in my classes.  I’m sure there will be more iterations, but here are my tentative conclusions:

  • Twitter is a great tool for giving me a glimpse into how the students are approaching the reading in a low impact way for both the students and for me.  This window (albeit blurry) helps me develop discussion strategies and questions for the next meeting. Student tweets are an excellent springboard for more detailed discussion and analysis.
  • Less is more.  A single tweet can lead to a good bit of discussion and analysis.  It’s a seed crystal rather than a finished product.  I was really impressed at the deep analysis behind some of the tweets we discussed. Asking for multiple tweets on a particular reading was counterproductive for us.
  • Additional strategies are needed to encourage students to read and learn from their classmates’ post.  Simply asking students to come in with 2-3 posts that interested them before coming to class seems like a possible way to encourage this vital practice.  Additional ideas??
  • Participants need to agree on how they will use links.  If text messaging is the primary delivery mechanism, I’d strongly suggest avoiding linking.  The tweet should speak for itself.  If linking is desired, utilizing a client such as TweetDeck probably makes the most sense for everyone.
  • If you’re looking for more than a catalyst for in-depth discussion, journals or discussion boards are a better fit.  Tweets are a beginning, not a final say.
  • Consider mixing in write-to-learn activities and other exploratory writing to provide students with an additional avenue (in addition to class discussion) to explore their ideas or prepare for class discussion.  Twitter is just one of many tools—including actually writing!

Okay.  I’ll do it reluctantly.  Summing up my post in a tweet …

Twtr exp. shows strgths + wknesses. Unexptd + reslts for prof who hates twtr syntax but likes insight into stdnt thgts 2 prep 4 clss


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