Monthly Archives: August 2010

Orientation Video, 2010

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I’ve been making Blackboard orientation videos for first year students for several years now. The idea is actually to provide a bit of a service to the faculty; many instructors aren’t comfortable providing any “intro” for their students, so the first idea was to box up the sort of information I would give if I went into a class to help ease first year students into the system. The concept has clearly evolved since those early days.

Here’s our orientation video for this term, made using the stop motion function on our (relatively) new HD camera. All props to Lauren Di Monte for that fantastic idea! Complete with captions, thanks to our awesome student employee, Lorena. Go team Blackboard!

If you watch the right hand corner, you can see our mobile shelving doing its thing a couple of times.

This video took about five hours to create, from start to finish. We did two takes; the first one took about 45 minutes and resulted in about a minute of video. The second took an hour and resulted in this minute and a half. We were entranced by how white chalk glowed on the chalkboard in the light of the projector.

Blackboard on a blackboard, eh? Aren’t we clever!

How Training without Lecturing breaks the fourth wall

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There is, I have discovered, an imaginary wall between the teacher and the taught, and you will feel it no more strongly than when you opt not to lecture.

What I have learned in the last five years of teaching faculty how to use courseware is that my grand ideas sound really good on paper, and sound good to the ears of chairs, administrators, and even instructors themselves, but they rarely work out as planned. My grand ideas have been these: don’t waste time with fake “training” courses, encourage instructors to use the time we’ve booked to actually build their own courses, with help on hand. If asked, any instructor will tell you that they have more important things to do than sit in a lab and listen to some instructional technologist or (in my case) librarian go on at great length about best practices or feedback we’ve heard from students. They have a deadline, and it’s usually something like tomorrow or the next day, to get this course ready and online. They are often annoyed that they system doesn’t work the way they want it to/hope it will/expect it will, and have exactly 12 seconds of attention to spare. This is why I thought my grand ideas would work out: I’m not going to ask you to sit and listen to me for an hour before you go home and build your course alone. I say: forget the first part, let’s jump to the second, but do it more efficiently. You work on your course: I’ll answer your questions as required. We can learn from each other’s questions. We’ll all walk away having accomplished something.

It never worked. First off, the labs where these training/work sessions happen are built like classrooms, with a podium and a screen and desks that usually face the front. The room itself tells everyone what they should be doing, and it’s not what they want to do or what I hope they will do. Second, no one’s ever ready. We do the training a week or two before classes start, and 9 times out of 10 the syllabus is still in progress, the documents are all over the instructor’s home computer (not in the lab with us), TAs haven’t been assigned, assignments are still being sorted out. So I can book a room to get the work done, but the content is rarely with us. So what happens instead is I (or one of my esteemed colleagues) gets in front of the room and lectures. We lecture about courseware. We point out where the tools are, we walk through the clicks. Here’s how you do it, guys. We pepper the lecture with experience, feedback from students, ideas we’ve seen work well, and those that don’t work so well. We end up serving up exactly what everyone would tell us they don’t want.

So this year, we decided to throw the whole process out and start again. As with any educational enterprise, we had to sit and think about where the value in our training lies. While I can talk at great length about all the tools and how best to use them, my experience is that little if any of my grand words sink in. Of course that’s how it works: the research clearly shows that training of this nature isn’t terribly effective, and I can vouch for that based on the phone calls I get. How often do we get questions from faculty where the answers were delivered in at training session several weeks (or days) prior? About 95% of the time, easily. It’s not that they’re not paying attention; our method just doesn’t work. They feel successful at the time; we have really good interactions with faculty, they clearly understand that we know what we’re talking about, they appreciate that it is our job to help them and we will pull out all the stops to do so. Everyone walks away happy. It’s just that our training objectives (giving instructors the tools to feel confident in creating an excellent, effective online course presence) are rarely met.

We distilled the positives of our current situation down to these: we need to continue to make sure instructors know that we’re friendly, helpful, and available for them on an on-going basis. If nothing else comes across, this has to. The thing we value the very most is our one-on-one discussions with instructors about their use of technology in their courses; we want to keep that. That interaction is valuable for both of us. Beyond that, everything was fair game.

So first, we decided to stop using classrooms to conduct training. The format is too familiar and too controlled. We don’t want everyone to take a seat and stick in it. We want them to move around. A moving body learns better than a stationary one. So no claiming seats. Next, we would not lecture. No lectures. The learning that was going to happen around us would be active, not passive. We’re not going to insert answers into your head. You’re going to have to forage for your answers.

We set up four zones in a room. At the front near the entrance we have a demonstration zone, with no seating, but one very large whiteboard, a projector, a wii remote, and a IR pen. In the demonstration zone you can use the IR pen to interact with a training shell. Here we demonstrate how tools are used, where to click, how to create elements, etc. based on the questions that are coming from faculty. It’s off-the-cuff and tailored to the instructor in front of us. The advantage of the large format is that other instructors see what’s being demonstrated from anywhere in the room and come forward to interact with it (and us) if they’re interested in the topic.

The second zone is simple a table. Here we encourage instructors with their own laptops to open them up and work with a familiar machine. On the table we have our “how to get your course into Blackboard in a hurry” document, which walks you through each of the basic, necessary steps.

The third zone is the Petting Zoo, which consists of six computers each displaying a different training course shell. They’re designed so that you can play with or look at the tool in action. If required there is a laptop sitting next to the computer with the student view of the same course shell, so you can set it up/create/add content as an instructor and then see what it looks like for a student. There are printed signs on each station advertising which tool is being displayed. On the desk at each station are post it notes with ideas on them for how and why to use this tool. Next to the monitor are printed sheets with step-by-step instructions on exactly how to set up and use this tool.

The fourth zone is simply two computers against the far wall where instructors can log into their own accounts and build their courses.

The basic plan was this: we knew everyone would be a bit uncomfortable at first, not knowing what to do, so we thought we’d start with a short lecturette about some concepts rather than tools. First: the idea that the “course menu” shouldn’t remain in its default state, but rather should be understood as a table of contents for the class. We’d give them a brief dissection of the main page, so they knew where the basic elements were. After that we’d introduce the areas to the instructors, including a brief introduction about each of the petting zoo stations. Point out the instruction sheets. Encourage them to ask their questions and check out whatever stations interest them. Then we let them go.

The very first time we did this, I shuddered a little about two beats after I stopped talking. You can feel the uncertainty, the tiny bit of panic, both on our side and theirs. They expect us to edutain them. There is a silence that needs to be filled, and it should be filled with my confident voice. They (and we) expect us to do the work, the song and dance, while they observe us. This is, at the heart of it, what “learning” looks like in higher ed, doesn’t it? We are so familiar with this set up that taking it away causes real insecurity for everyone involved. But within about four minutes we had faculty playing with tools at the petting zoo, getting questions answered at the demonstration area, and talking to each other at the workstations and around the table. Rather than spend all my time going through the basic rigmarole, I was answering specific questions and brainstorming creative ways to encourage student participation. How to get students to comment on each other’s blogs, which tool to pick for a specific task, how best to tackle groups within large classes. Rather than reciting the content of our tip sheets and how-to documents, we got to spend time using our imaginations and experience. It was exhilarating.

Not only that: most of the instructors stayed longer than the booked time, took more printed paper than usual, and actually (gasp) worked on their courses. I couldn’t believe it. When we give everyone their own computer to work on, no one wants to build their own courses. I think perhaps the fact that we spend most of the time lecturing has the effect of us claiming all the air in the room. When we stop, and force everyone to become an active participant in the training, there’s more autonomy to go around. Everyone seems to take charge of their situations a little more. When instructors have to choose their spot rather than having one essentially assigned, they seem far more willing to get to work. I felt like I did more, even though I was talking to the crowd so much less.

And all those basic questions? The paper does the talking. I don’t have to worry about forgetting to mention how to make your course available, or how to upload a document. There’s a simple set of instructions for that. People with experience and imagination are far more valuable sharing that rather than the basic how-tos.

Every time we run one of these training sessions, and we’ve done five of them so far, it starts out with the same tension; everyone in the room looks at us, a little nervous, wondering what they heck we expect from them. With the librarians, they all stood in an orderly row.

“I know this is uncomfortable at first,” I said as we started. “When we don’t lecture, it breaks the fourth wall.”

“There is no fourth wall,” one of the librarians protested, clearly uncomfortable with being put in this situation. (I can always count on librarians to voice what few others are willing to.)

I looked up at them, in a line, literally forming a wall themselves. “Yeah,” I said. “There really is.”

Within a few minutes, they were all hard at work, papers in hand, discussions on-going. The demonstration area was busy. All the petting zoo stations were occupied, mostly with a pair looking at the tools and discussing them. It’s not the trainers and the trainees anymore. It’s just us, together, learning.

Academic Fandom: Collaborative Doctoral Work

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I really miss school.

I work at a school, yes. But I miss being a student in one. Many people think I’m crazy, but I love being in school. I love the reading, the writing, and most of all the discussion. I’m a Harvard graduate, I know what it can be like to sit in a room full of extremely bright people and wrestle with a thorny problem. I love not knowing and struggling to understand, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing if any of them work.

But I’m a drop-out. I dropped out of a phd program at the very institution at which I am currently employed, in fact. It’s simultaneously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the smartest decision I ever made, and the decision I am most likely to feel regret about. I don’t regret it because I want the life that would have come with finishing; I think I’m far better off as a librarian, playing with tech and managing projects and helping faculty with their courses, than I would be with a load of research and teaching to do. I adore my job, and I feel very lucky to have found this particular path. I only regret it because I’d like to do the work.

There’s nothing stopping me from going back. Not to that program, or that topic, or that department, though. I think I’ve moved into a new area now. If I were to go back, it would be in a very different way. And I wouldn’t do it in order to become an academic in the end. Not as job training. Just to improve the person that I am, and to enrich the work I’m already doing.

But you couldn’t drag me back to that style of PhD program. I was lonely, bored, confused about the purpose behind anything I was doing. I felt lost. I have discovered over time that my motivation comes from interacting with other people. This wasn’t immediately apparent all through graduate school because I was de facto surrounded by others. I didn’t realize how much my enthusiasm depended on the community. As soon as I lost that community, I seriously lost my way.

So I was thinking about it a bit, and talking to some doctoral students about the issues they’re facing, I think I’m actually on to something. I think I’ve figured out what kind of doctoral program I’d want to enter. It would go something like this.

You start a doctoral program with a group of like-minded people, interested in working together. In fact, I think the group should actually apply to a program together, be upfront about their collaboration. It’s not a huge group, maybe 4-5 people. Those 4-5 people have agreed beforehand that they want to work on an area of mutual interest. But each of them comes to the subject from a different angle, maybe even a different discipline altogether. They’re looking at maybe the same data, or the same subjects, or at historical data from the same decade, or the same region. Something ties them together, makes each other’s work interesting and appealing to each of them. It gives them a common language and common heroes.

They would all have their own advisers, potentially their own departments to turn to for support and guidance. But the group goes through their programs together, sometimes off doing their own courses and conferences, sometimes working closely together. If they’re doing data collection, the data is shared among the group. They may actually gather data together, and work from the same starting point. Sharing data isn’t plagiarism, after all; the insights you draw from it are the key part.

They discuss approaches and revelations, they have people to turn to when they are wrestling with a thorny problem. They influence each other; they also resist being influenced, or deliberately buck the trend. They read some books in common, but not all. Each brings a lot of unique insights and perspective from their own perspective, or discipline, or area. Comps would be a course (or set of courses, really) where the reading lists are created in an order that will allow all the participants to gain from each other’s thinking along the way. You read your own comps reading list, but you get insight from four others at the same time. Maybe they bring in speakers to talk to them. People to come inspire them or challenge them.

When it comes time to start writing, they have a structured plan, with key milestones and deadlines. They arrange to write their sections with commonalities at the same time, like writing a research paper for a seminar course. The writing process for the collaborative group might look like another set of courses, in fact: they take a “course” together to get each section or chapter finished, with a common deadline and requisite celebrations. They can get a mental tick mark as they complete each step, move through the process like an undergraduate moves through first, second, third, fourth year, graduation. The path of progression would be clear, manageable, collegial. The group could work together along the way to publish collected essays revolving around a theme or element of their collective work. They would meet weekly to discuss their work, their ideas, to be inspired and influenced by each other. They would work collaboratively toward independent goals that are inter-related and complementary. When they’re finished, their dissertations could be published together as a series of books, all related and referencing each other.

Chemistry already works this way, in collaborative units. I think if the humanities started doing the same, the work would be richer. And less tedious to produce.

After I thought it all through, I realized what I was considering: creating a fandom. A fandom in academia, around a topic/theme/group/region. A fandom with it’s language, traditions, communities, familiar cast of characters all re-written and re-imagined by each member. As long as it’s a fandom, it comes with a built in audience of people who are actually interested in your take on the very familiar subject. The conversations are deeper, the details and differences are more obvious. The process gains some meaning, even if that meaning is entirely about finding something to contribute to the group. Flagging enthusiasm can be bolstered up by someone else’s reinvigoration.

It’s not that it’s easier than the traditional PhD; it wouldn’t be. You’d still have to do the reading, pass your comps, do your languages if you have to, collect your data and compose your dissertation. It’s just that it wouldn’t have to be such a solitary task. I think this is the kind of PhD that could actually be fun to do. And wouldn’t the work be richer, with constant insight from others? It wouldn’t prevent you from doing solitary work. Solitary work is the foundation of most academic work, and, ironically, most fandom work too. But what is the benefit of solitary work? Don’t we learn better and think better when challenged and supported and listened to by others? Why do we cut so much of that out of the doctoral process? Doesn’t the solitary work gain meaning when it’s in aid of the collaborative? Isn’t academic inherently collaborative, with academics building on each other work, just at a relatively slow pace? From the slow process of getting an article published and the long wait for meaningful citations in future published work, it’s still highly collaborative. Just crazy slow. Would it be terribly wrong to speed it up a bit?