Archive for the ‘Higher Ed’ Category

Keeping the Same Instructor

Question: Why do we design all the learning for a course (i.e. the syllabus) before we every meet a single student?  Answer: Because there’s no alternative.  At least, not for those of us in Higher Ed.

When you really stop and think about it, does it make ANY sense to design the syllabus before meeting your students?  I’ve been noticing that school systems that get good learning results have an interesting common characteristic. The instructors stay with the same students for several years.  They learn how their students learn best and design the learning to suit their needs.  There is an excellent article in Smithsonian called, Why are Finland’s Schools Successful? Finland is now considered, by international exam comparisons, to be one of the best in the world.  There are many reasons why Finnish students are so successful, but I’d venture a guess that at least one key is instructors taking the time to get to know their students learning quirks (knowing they will be teaching them for several years).  The ability to flex the curriculum as needed, knowing that extra time spent this year can be made up next year when students are better prepared, is invaluable.

In U.S. higher education, especially in the first two years of courses, we rarely see our students more than once.  We certainly can’t depend on seeing our students the next semester … and so we have to push the curriculum out to properly “prepare” our students for the next course, for the next professor.  What a shame.  With more flexibility and a better understanding of how our students learn, we might be able to engage in more successful learning strategies.

I think we could accomplish a lot by keeping our students for more than one semester … but the question is how could it be done?  I’m open to suggestions here.

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What is SOCRAIT?

SOCRAIT is my name for the SRSLS (spaced-repetition socratic learning system) that we need to push learning into the digital age.  The name SOCRAIT (pronounced so-crate) is a play on Socratic (because it’s based on Socratic questions), it contains SOC for social, AI for artificial intelligence, and IT for information technology.

Since July,  I have been preoccupied with this idea.   Many technology and learning experts who have read or talked with me about SOCRAIT have told me that they believe that our learning future has to at least look something like SOCRAIT.  They say (and I agree) that the simplicity of it just makes it feel “right.”  In fact, it’s such a simple idea, that I spent the last four months wondering if I was crazy – after all, if you’re the only one with the idea, then there must be something wrong with it, right?  As more people read the article and prodded at its weaknesses, the idea grew more robust.  The text of my article, The World is my School: Welcome to the Era of Personalized Learning, published today in The Futurist (read it as a PDF or read it online) has been finalized for some time, and at this point, I could probably write another article just about the game layer that SOCRAIT will need.

Now I need your help.  Someone or some company needs to step forward and build SOCRAIT.  I’ve pursued as many avenues as I could, but as a community college professor from an obscure city in recession-occupied Michigan, it’s hard to get taken seriously.  So, here’s your assignment:

  1. Read the article (the whole thing).  You can’t stop halfway, or you’ll get the wrong impression.  Every sentence matters.  Print it and read it.
  2. Agree or disagree, please share your thoughts and ideas (and if you have a public space, please use it) … tweet, blog, write, discuss.
  3. Send the article on to others through email, Facebook, and discussion forums.

If you believe in the power of a new way of learning (even if it doesn’t turn out exactly like SOCRAIT), please help me spread a new (positive) vision for what education could look like in the future.  Thanks!

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The Open Faculty

I feel a little starstruck today.  I was asked to write an article about “Open Faculty” for EDUCAUSE Review… something that hasn’t really been tackled before.  It was agonizing. It took gobs of time. I wanted to make sure I got it right.  I wanted it to help those who aren’t open faculty to understand those that are.  I feel a little out of my league writing in the same issue with some really big names in ed tech … I hope I nailed it!

The Open Faculty: To share or not to share, is that the question?

Actually, you should read the entire issue of EDUCAUSE Review on “Open …” because it’s all good stuff!

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Hacking Higher Education

A few months ago I was interviewed by the  guys from the Business Innovation Factory.  We talked about a variety of things, including the transactional nature of college education today (when it should be a transformational experience).  At some point in the interview, they asked me to explain how I am “hacking” education.

This is an interesting phrase and It gave me a bit of a pause, “am I hacking education?”  What exactly would that mean?  There are many ways we can consider the phraseology of hacking. Some connotations of hacking are positive and some are negative. A lot depends on the perspective. If you think there’s nothing wrong with education. Then “hacking education” would be seen as derogatory — someone who is working outside the accepted structures and norms of the environment.  In an earlier post, Everybody Teaches Everybody Learns, I mentioned that it’s difficult to be a “prophet in your own land.” As soon as you mention changing the system, you imply (whether you mean to or not) that there’s something wrong with the current system, which in turn seems to imply someone is not doing their job.

On the other hand, suppose we see “hacking” education from the point of view of someone who thinks education is broken.  If this is the case, then you may consider hacking to be an alternate definition: an elegant solution to a difficult problem.

Now, the group in charge rarely wants their system to be hacked.  Apple doesn’t want the iPhone to be hacked.  The music industry doesn’t want their DRM to be hacked.  Many administrators and faculty don’t want higher education to be hacked.  And yet there are those of us working within the system, who are trying to find that “elegant solution” to move this mountain.

Why do I think the system of higher education needs a good hack?  In my opinion, education should be a transformational experience, but somewhere along the way, higher education became transactional: student pays x dollars, completes x courses, receives (insert name) degree. Instructor creates several “hoops” for students to jump through. Students jump through these hoops. They receive credit.

I hear over and over that the most important skill we can teach students is how to learn.  But think about the last time YOU sat down with a textbook to learn something. Let me guess – it was the last time you were in school?  Outside of academia (in the “real world”), we learn by discussing problems with our social networks. We learn by trial and error. We learn by exploring and by experience.  We learn by play.  We learn from reading (from a variety of sources, many of them on the Internet).  We learn from watching videos.  When did higher education lose this?

Learning in education is judged, for the most part, by strange transactions between the student and the instructor: papers are submitted, homework is completed, and discussions are moderated. On exams, we look for holes in what the student may know.  Maybe (watch out, radical unjustified idea coming) we should just be asking one thing: Tell me what you have learned. If it’s enough, you pass.  If it’s not enough, you keep learning.

Let’s get back to this transactional system of education.  Consider the discipline-silos of higher ed.  In elementary school (you know, when students still enjoy learning) the instructor teaches a variety of subjects to the same group of students.  If we ignore NCLB and high-stakes testing, we can imagine that these instructors are able to weave subjects together in a cohesive manner and plan class time around themes.  A theme might include a blend of English, science, humanities and mathematics.   In higher ed, we’ve separated all the ingredients.  Math, English, Chemistry, Humanities, Philosophy, Economics, … these are all stand-alone subjects.  In many of these disciplines (math and science in particular) the huge content requirements (breadth not depth) leave little room to stretch outside the discipline.  Is this still appropriate today?  Like lonely ingredients, the disciplines are, by themselves, bland.

As the lines between careers become more blurred, the courses we teach in the discipline-silos of Higher Ed become increasingly removed from reality. Although we do strive to create programs that are well-rounded (i.e. the foundation courses of Liberal Arts), each individual course exists in something of a contextual vacuum.  To prepare students to understand the complexity of our modern society, the core liberal arts curricula should include courses like :

  • Trend Analysis (Math + History)
  • Biology and Human Enhancement (Biology + Philosophy)
  • Science of Exercise (Science + Health & PE)
  • Exploring Water Issues (Science + Politics)
  • Design and Digital Presentations (Graphic Design + Communication)
  • Data Analysis and Information Presentation (Statistics, Graphic Design, and Communication)
  • Exploring Recycling and Refuse (Science, Government, and Humanities)
  • Chemistry of Nutrition (Chemistry + Health & PE)
  • Poverty and World Culture (Humanities, Government, and Sociology)
  • Sociology and Psychology of the Web (Sociology + Psychology)
  • How Computers Think (CIS + Philosophy)
  • Art, Media, and Copyright (Fine Arts + Law)
  • Writing for the Digital Age (CIS + Communication + English)
  • Energy (Physics, Chemistry, and Government)
  • Information, Query, and Synthesis (Literacy, Logic, English)

There are two big problems with teaching these courses.  First, most instructors would feel uncomfortable crossing these discipline lines.  That’s not to say they wouldn’t be willing, but it would require some learning and retraining at the faculty level (and that costs money).  Second?  Transferability.  For example, at community colleges, all of our courses are ultimately given final judgment on one tenet:  Does this class transfer? If the answer to this last question will be no, there’s little point in going through the work to walk a proposed course through the approval process.

We need a swift, national movement to create a set of universally-transferable, interdisciplinary, 21st century courses so that any school with faculty who are ABLE to teach these courses can immediately BEGIN teaching these courses. But how to do it?

Here’s my proposed higher education hack:

In a manner similar to Perkins funding, suppose the government offered an extra federal education stipend to any college or university that offers at least 5 of the courses on the interdisciplinary list (what list? well, some group of “experts” would have to propose the master list).  Instantly, every college in the country would begin scheming about ways to get their faculty ready to teach these courses. Within a year or two, most colleges would have these courses on the books, and they would be immediately transferable.

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Technology Skills We Should Be Teaching in College

This is a follow-up to my recent research about Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age.  I’ve spent considerable time thinking about how to alter the classes I teach to re-center them on a core of flexible learning.  In all of my classes this semester, students will be completing a variety of learning projects that involve alternative ways to learn (e.g. blogging, making mindmaps, teaching a lesson, making a video presentation, or designing a non-digital game).

The difficult part about including these alternative learning methods is teaching the students all the necessary technology skills first.  Most of my students are the traditional freshman-level age-range  (18-25).  For the most part, they “get” technology (cell phones, facebook, video games, and gadgets), but they haven’t been taught how to do anything productive with technology – at least, not with regards to learning or career skills.

If America wants to continue to be a world-leader, we can do it with a technology advantage – but only if we actually know how to leverage that technology to continue to be more productive.

So, I began to write out a list of the tech skills that I think students should learn before they leave college.  Ideally, these are skills that would be integrated throughout K-12 and college curricula.

Basic Web Stuff
1. Basics of HTML (bold, underline, italics, special characters)
2. How to use EMBED code or make a live link
3. How to make and share a screenshot
4. How to make and share a short video explaining something or asking for help
5. Learn basic abbreviations and emoticons (e.g. ROFL, IMHO)
6. How to build a landing page for your web-based stuff (e.g. iGoogle, NetVibes)
7. How to add gadgets or plug-ins for various sites
8. How to make a simple website (e.g. Google Sites)
9. Build a clickable resume / digital portfolio
10. How (and when) to use collaborative documents or spreadsheets
11. How (and why) to create tags and labels
12. How (and why) to use URL-shortening sites (e.g. TinyURL)

13. How to set up a web-based calendar and use it to manage your time
14. How to set up and manage an RSS reader
15. How to find a common meeting time (e.g. Doodle)
16. How to set up a communication aggregator (e.g. Digsby, Trillian, TweetDeck)

17. How to manage email
18. How to write a good “first-contact” email
19. How to write a good subject line
20. How to write a good email response
21. Texting etiquette (when it’s appropriate, when it’s not)
22. How to summarize your thoughts in 140 characters or less
23. How to use Twitter (reply, retweet, direct message)
24. How to determine whether you should share it in a public forum (will it affect your future job prospects, your current employment, etc.)
25. How to manage an online meeting
26. How to give an effective webinar
27. What are the differences between various social networks and how they are used? (e.g. Facebook, Ning, LinkedIn)

Finding and Managing Information
28. How to use web-based bookmarks
29. How (and when) to use library search databases
30. How (and when) to use an image-based search engine
31. How (and when) to use alternate search engines (e.g. Clusty)
32. Who writes Wikipedia articles and when can they be trusted?
33. How to build a custom search engine
34. When can you trust the information you find?
35. How to use article citations to find better references
36. How to manage a bibliography online (e.g. Zotero)
37. How to set up web alerts to track new information (e.g. Google Alerts)

Privacy, Security, and the Law
38. Creative Commons – what is it and how to choose appropriate license?
39. How to read the legalese that tells you who owns it after it is shared online
40. What should you share and how does that change for different audiences?
41. How to manage usernames & passwords
42. How to find and tweak the privacy settings in common social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter)
43. How do data-mining sites get your information? (e.g. participating in FB quizzes)
44. What are the security concerns with GPS-based tracking systems?

45. How to determine the audience and appropriate length for your presentation
46. Good presentation design principles
47. Principles of storytelling
48. How to share a set of slides on the Internet
49. How to build a non-linear presentation
50. How to build a flashy presentation (and when to use it)
51. How to find high-quality images that can be used in presentations (with appropriate copyrights)
52. How to find audio that can be shared in a presentation (with appropriate copyrights)
53. How to create a captioning script for a video
54. Ways to caption an internet-based video
55. How (and when) to use a virtual magnifier with your presentation

Ways to Learn
56. How to build an interactive mindmap to organize ideas
57. How to use a blog to track your learning process
58. How to find good sites, blogs, and other online publications for the topic you are learning about
59. How to cultivate a personal learning network (PLN)
60. How to participate in a live learning chat (e.g. TweetChats)

Okay, that’s sixty items and I’ve just scratched the surface (I haven’t even touched on virtual worlds, for instance).

The big problem?  How many educators do you know that have these skills?

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Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

Two years ago at the beginning of the fall semester, I was given the chance to speak to the faculty on my campus about technologies for teaching and getting organized, which is how the mindmaps Web 2.0 for You and Organize Your Digital Self were born.  Now two years have gone by, and I’ve given both of these talks (updated with each presentation) all over the country in various formats.

This year, the Faculty Association invited me to give another talk about what I’ve learned about technology and teaching.  Although I got to choose the specifics,  I figured it had to be a departure from these other two talks (since at least 1/3 of the faculty have seen those).  After much thought and gnashing of teeth, I decided to focus on learning more than teaching, or rather, how the way we teach should be motivated by what we want students to learn.

This brings up the rather sticky question, What should students be learning today? To answer this, I did a lot of research and reading.  In K-12, there are several state initiatives to infuse “21st Century skills” into the classroom – many of these initiatives are part of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (which has an excellent website).  Another organization that is leading the way aims at adult education: Equipped for the Future (EFF) is housed in the Center for Literacy at the University of Tennessee.  Both organizations outline a set of “standards” or “fundamentals” with specific objectives for each.  You’ll see that I’ve largely built my presentation around the goals of these two initiatives.  The two sets of initiatives overlap in places, but you’ll see that they are framed a bit differently.  At the community college level, we are concerned about teaching students who are fresh out of high school as well as those who are adults returning to school.

The big takeaway from all of my reading is that we have to teach students skills that will help them flex into new jobs as the market constantly shifts to accommodate new technological advances, global competition, and sudden “black swan” events (can you say sudden economic collapse?).   Like it or not, the majority of programs in higher education prepare students for a specific career (journalist, nurse, engineer, teacher, etc.), but the industrial-age model of a “career-for-a-lifetime” is ending.

In Michigan, this lesson is particularly painful as we watch a large group of workers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s return to school to be “retrained.”  These folks are not just factory workers, they are managers, engineers, prison guards, retail workers, bank employees, education parapros, school administrators, nurses, journalists, printers, non-profit employees, counselors, and social workers.  Many of these folks have been through the system of higher ed once, and now they face a mandatory second run at it.  What worries me is that we may just be setting them up to experience the same thing when their second career fails.  This is our time to step up to the plate by teaching technology skills that will make our students employable and ready to face the next few decades of work, not just the next job.

The closest model for a degree allowing a large amount of career flexibility for the digital age is the hallowed “liberal arts degree.” However, the Liberal Arts degree needs a wee bit of modernizing for the digital age.  I think there is a way to carefully “hack” a better liberal arts degree into our existing system (like a patch to an older piece of software).  However, this is a blog post all unto itself (see a hint of what is to come on the last branch of the map for this presentation).

Anyways, I digress.  The presentation is called Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, and it is presented mindmap-style.


When I talk about technology, I like demonstrate by using the technologies as an integral part of my presentation.  First, I build the presentation so that it is based on a discussion with the audience.  No speaker, no matter how good, can have much lasting impact if they simply tell their message.  However, if your audience is able to engage with what you’re saying for a long time after they see you, you stand a much greater chance of making a difference.

If you explore the map, you’ll see that I have a small slide deck on one of the branches (for a section that had to present a linear argument).  There is a live chat room to simulate the “back conversation” that you can foster via twitter in a conference presentation or the text chat in a webinar session.   Finally, there’s a PollEverywhere attached to one of the map branches that can be answered via texting or a web page.

Aside from the technologies that I will use during the presentation, I’ve tried to come up with specific examples (most involving technology) of ideas for implementing the 21st century skills in the higher ed setting.  Each branch of the presentation terminates with ideas and links to resources that will aid in implementing the ideas.

Thus, the nuts and bolts of the presentation demonstrates practical ways to use technology, but the technology use is embedded inside of a discussion/presentation about why students should be learning these skills.

More later on how to “hack” higher ed … in the meantime, if you’ve got a teaching example to demonstrate one of the skills on this map, please comment them in!

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Teachers on Wheels

There’s a great set of documentary videos that I found on the blog How the University Works about the plight of adjunct instructors in the United States.  The series is called “Teachers on Wheels” and there are three parts:

Teachers on Wheels, Part I

Teachers on Wheels, Part II

Teachers on Wheels, Part III

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