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.

February 28, 2011

Focusing and Connecting Presentations with Pecha Kucha and VoiceThread

Filed under: collaborate,data visualization,general,technology — Mike W @ 4:55 pm

Pecha kucha (20 slides / 20 seconds per slide) is a creative way to inspire focused presentations using constraints.  Here are a couple of great examples:


I’ve used this format for student presentations in class and have been really pleased with outcome; however, the way I designed the assignment (the first time), didn’t help us connect ideas from the various presentations very effectively.  This time, I explored VoiceThread’s potential to help us make these connections, mostly outside of class.  For the most part, I’d consider the experiment a success, but our class has some suggestions to make the interface more useful.


A VoiceThread, surrounded by comments.

First some background about the pecha kucha assignment: My goal was for students to gain a better understanding of the major geological processes that are thought to have shaped the Martian landscape, as well as for them to gain an even greater appreciation for the tentative and progressive nature of scientific knowledge.  Mars is definitely a good case study for the latter, as many theories exist for the development various landforms. Ideas have shifted over time, as we sift through and attempt to make sense of mountains of data from various landers (Go Phoenix!), rovers, and orbiters.   In this case, pecha kucha seemed to nudge presenters (myself included) towards a focus on developing concepts with carefully-chosen supporting details, rather than a relentless stream of disconnected facts. After I volunteered to deliver a pecha-kucha at last year’s NITLE summit, I realized just how hard it is to share an idea and advocate for action in six minutes and forty seconds.  I agonized over every word, and spent more time preparing my pecha kucha (the live versions carry much more energy) than I have on 90 minute workshops.

After the live presentations in class, students recorded their pecha kuchas and posted them to a VoiceThread group, visible only to our class.   Here’s the assignment:

Please provide a voice thread comment on 4 posted pecha kuchas (other than your own).  If a presentation has 4 or 5 comments already, find another one to comment on.  Watch the pecha kucha again before commenting.  Please provide insightful comments that extend and deepen the conversation.  Some prompts that might help.

1) I’m still a little unclear about [explanation here].  It would help me to know more about ____________________ or get clarification about ______________________.

2) This seems similar to the features we discussed on _______________________ because ______________________.

3) If I’m understanding _____________ correctly then it means _______________________ (state your interpretation here).  Could it also mean that ________________________?

4) It seems that knowing more about _____________________ would really help us understand ___________________ better because ________________________.

5) A good analogy to help me remember _____________________ process is _____________________.

If you’re familiar with the book They Say, I Say, you’ll notice I borrowed the idea of using templates to help guide student responses.  Okay, so this is the second constraint in the assignment.  I’m all about student freedom.  Really!  I just like the creativity and focus that these particular limits inspired. I was really, really impressed with the depth and quality of student conversation, as they asked questions and identified links between presentations.   I think the combination of student creativity, the VoiceThread interface, and the template above facilitated the discussion.

As the screenshot above shows, VoiceThread comments surround the main presentation, which can be an image, text, or  movie.  Comments can take several forms:

  1. Text comments;
  2. Voice – recorded through the computer, or students can even use their phone.  Students enter their phone numbers on the site (see below), and VoiceThread calls the student and records their comments, automatically posting them to the site;
  3. Video – If students have a web cam (which is more common these days), they can provide a video comment.


Call-in comment feature

The advantages:

  1. The phone option is great.  If a student is having trouble with their computer microphone, they can just dial in.
  2. Students can embed their comment at a particular point in the original presentation.  So if there’s a question about slide 11, you can add your question at the appropriate point in that slide.
  3. Every commenter can annotate the original presentation (called Doodling).  This is great for visual media—much better than a threaded discussion forum in this regards.  Check out the fun Wile E. Coyote example.
  4. In many cases, hearing the student inflection as they posed questions really helped me discern where we needed to spend some additional time in class.  Picking that out in a text-based discussion would have been more difficult.
  5. I was able to easily import a csv version of my roster, which made setting up the class simple.

The disadvantages:

  1. The cost is $99 for a single-instructor, higher ed license.  It’s pretty reasonable, but each student only gets 3 minutes of phone time; then you have to add more virtual coins; then you have to allocate those extra minutes to each student.  Can’t I just get a pool of minutes for all students, VoiceThread?  Better yet, at $99, maybe we should get more minutes included in the package deal?
  2. We ran into problems in which the main presentation got out of sync with a student comment.  For example, Fred (a hypothetical student) was highlighting a crater on the 4th slide of the main presentation to ask a question. But the comment showed slide two when I viewed his comment.  I could refresh the browser to solve the problem, but that was kind of a pain.
  3. You can’t nest comments.  Threaded comments are a must!  When students replied to a question, their comment had to include information to hook their response to a particular question—very inefficient. This will be a much better interface when threaded commenting is added.
  4. I wasn’t able to delete student posts.  They had to do that themselves.  The admin needs that capability.

All-in-all, we thought the interface helped to extend a complex conversation beyond the walls of the classroom.  With a more appropriate pricing model, threaded discussions, and a few bug fixes, this tool can really enhance discussion around rich media when discussion boards tend to fall flat.

Are you using VoiceThread? Pecha Kuchas?  Response templates?  How’s it going?

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress