Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Finding balance for change in HE

There is so much more to college than the classes students attend. Many universities have freshman experience courses with mentors for groups of college freshmen to help them manage the transition to college life. Sports teams often have compliance officers but also individuals, often coaches, to help students manage the balance of sports and academics.

Higher education is changing, again. Universities are constantly having to adapt. Those that do not adapt will eventually fail. Those that no longer have relevance to potential students will eventually close.

I like tradition and I like history. I appreciate the value of some things that have been in place for years, even generations, and that still function as they need. I don't mind change but I do mind change for the sake of change. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Leslie Silvey wrote about technology and its value to and for higher education in her Echo360 blog post titled How Technology Can Tip the Scales for Higher Ed. At the risk of stealing her thunder should you read the entire blog post, Ms. Silvey closes with
It’s an exciting time for institutions to leverage technology to enhance teaching and learning and create a more satisfactory experience for students that doesn’t involve shuttering doors, losing the valuable knowledge of tenured professors, or rendering the value of a college degree obsolete.
Balance. I think so much of any hand-wringing and verbal jousting is about balance. I see articles and posts all the time about the latest and greatest "best" practice in education, one of the primary reasons I'm dismissive of the phrase "best practice." It can't be the "best" practice if something else trumps it. Anyway, I see article and posts touting the newest and most spectacular technology tool, resource, or strategy. The One True Thing that will make All of the Difference in the World! Which, of course, it won't or can't, and not just because the next one true thing that will make all of the difference in the world is just now being released by someone else. It's exhausting.

And so, balance.

In some classes, in some disciplines, for some professors the lecture may be effective, perhaps even the majority of class time. Even I doubt that, but it is possible. Because what we don't know without surveying and/or observing every single college educator, including adjuncts, is what they ask their students to do outside of class.

In some classes, in some disciplines, for some professors it may make sense to use a preponderance of technological whiz bang gizmos and gadgets. Because of what they're teaching and what they expect their students to learn.

For some universities, administrators working collaboratively with their faculty will help find that balance. And when administrators and faculty work collaboratively with the communities and businesses most served by their graduates, the balance will be even better because the faculty and the administrators will have a clearer communication feedback loop of what graduates will need to know and be able to do when they graduate.

If I were a faculty member today, I would want community and business leaders to keep me informed of the true trends they are experiencing and how those trends are informing the changes they need to make in their businesses to keep those businesses viable and valuable. To that end, I'd want opportunities to meet occasionally, formally and informally, with the folks and types of folks who are likely to hire my students.

So part of finding the balance is not just what the universities are doing--not just the changes that faculty are making in how they teach or their learning objectives or what and how they expect their students to learn; not just the changes that administrators are making to recruit, support, and retain students; not just the changes administrators and faculty are making to programs and curricula--but changes implemented by local and national businesses, and influences of global businesses and policies.

Successful, viable, relevant universities are not stand-alone entities. Their faculty are involved in their disciplines and the expectations of the direction of their disciplines; those changes and influences are not a surprise to them and, in fact, some faculty are informing those changes and are those very influences. Administrators are well aware of the faculty who are movers and influencers, even on smaller or more discrete levels, and also recognize that the university is part of the community in which it operates as well as part of the businesses and organizations that hire its graduates.

Universities are, or should be, part of an intricate web of individuals, communities, and other outside organizations. They are, or should be, constantly in flux and they will struggle to maintain balance when those outside organizations try to exert more than their fair share of influence.

Technology is a significant part of the university story, but only part of it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The linked array of educational revolutions

Recently I've been doing a lot of thinking about and research on blended, personalized, and competency-based learning, but I've also been thinking a lot about how much we focus on teaching strategies, which has led me to think more about our much we emphasize motivating students to learn. And I've been thinking about the various "revolutions" that are supposedly occurring in education.

"Learning by doing." "Learning by doing." "Learning by doing." This is a phrase that insists on running through my head, when it's not being elbowed out by Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass," Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," or "Let It Go" from Frozen. It can be an interesting mix of stuff in my head.

Try this on for size. Worksheets could be learning by doing. . . when used judiciously and when designed well. Worksheets could provide options for choice. . .when used judiciously and when designed well. Judicious use and strong design are two important caveats, but I have seen some good worksheets that students actually enjoyed doing.

In A Revolution in Higher Education, Sarma Sanjay of MIT asserts there is a "learning by doing" revolution occurring in higher education. That technology will "sweeten the experience" of being an on-campus student because student learning experiences will be coupled with online learning, study abroad options, and field work.

When I do educational technology workshops, inevitably one of the primary barriers for any sort of technology integration is the teacher's fear of failure (or looking stupid or incapable in front of his or her students) and another is the teacher's unwillingness to relinquish control. These two are concerns with or without technology. Somehow educators have come to believe they cannot make a mistake in the classroom and that they must always be in control of whatever is happening in the classroom and how it is happening.

I started thinking about my collegiate teaching experience and what I think I know of some of my colleagues' teaching styles. Many of us lectured, occasionally tiptoed in Socratic questioning, and then gave tests or assigned papers. I remember being exhausted from working so hard to elicit responses from students and had a gobsmacking light bulb moment when a student asked me, his own frustration evident in his voice, what I wanted to hear. Because, for far too long, educators have spent most of students' lives expecting them to provide an answer within a limited parameter of possibilities.

It occurs to me the so-called revolution, whether in K-12 or in higher education, doesn't have to be disruption on the scale of a tsunami. Every classroom teacher could make small changes in his or her classroom to encourage the kind of critical thinking and problem solving skills we seem to value so much. Even using worksheets.

We have to find reasonably engaging ways to help students learn to learn when the learning cannot be made fun. . .because sometimes learning something is just hard and maybe a little boring, and we have to be encouraging through that learning process. We have to find reasonably engaging ways to provide opportunities for students to learn by doing and at different levels, perhaps using Webb's Depth of Knowledge as a resource.

Mike Press wrote in Why learning through making matters, "Learning through making fuses science and art, technology and culture. It defines our humanity and our values, it provides future visions and possibilities. It captures imagination." Because of his work in design and art, some might think his points are limited to "the arts," but I think they'd be wrong.

I think "learning by doing" and "learning through making" are nearly synonymous, and I think the probable intrinsic pleasure and reward students experience through the experience and the results of learning by doing and/or learning by making can catapult their desire to learn and increase their willingness to put up with the more tedious bits of learning.

K-12 educators talk about their work being all about the kids, and for most teachers their work really is all about the kids. In higher education, the professoriate is hamstrung by the "publish or perish" dictum and, all too frequently, their lack of real-world experience with the real world of their disciplines.

The more I think about this, the more I come to grips with the complexity of teaching, of wanting to make sure our students have as much knowledge and exposure to resources, content, and information as they possibly can so they will be "prepared" once they begin to take on the world beyond the classroom. Too often we forget that it's quite possible that the most important thing we can do for our kids and their futures is provide them with a solid foundation (and for some of us that foundation might be a tad excessive because I really do know how hard it is to say one thing is less important than another), and to help them learn how to learn, how to discover, how to wrestle with something and figure it out.

I realize that when I got so frustrated that I didn't have enough time to teach my students everything I wanted them to learn that it was often because I wanted to share that experience with them. I wanted to see and hear what they had to say when they discovered something about something that brought me joy or moved me or challenged me or stopped me in my tracks and forced me to reconsider something. I wanted them to challenge me with their thinking and their perspectives. I wanted them to show me something new but I also wanted to share what it was that I loved and hated, and why.

We cannot teach students everything we want them to learn or everything we think they need to learn before they are no longer in our classrooms. Indeed, perhaps the best we can do is build that foundation of our non-negotiables as we build a rapport and a relationship with our students so what they want most is to continue to learn because of something ineffable, something profoundly moving, something they learned through doing or making that offered a stepping stone to something more--those visions and possibilities.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Addressing the present, planning for the future

Let's assume Mr. Ito, with his ideas on innovation and being a "now-ist" is on to something. Let's assume that hackerspace and bottom-up innovation becomes a more commmonplace thing. There are pros and cons, of course, to looking past the more traditional model of planning, building prototypes, etc. and simply building what seems to solve the immediate problem.

Mr. Ito offers the example of the kids who build some cellphones, manufacture a few thousand, and go see what sells, then return to their manufacturing space to make some changes, build a few more thousand, etc. Sure, that works for those kids, but is it scalable? I don't know, but I do know that large global organizations not only constantly look for ways to improve their processes, but require scalability. And, depending on the product, they require safety and security on a number of levels.

I'm impressed with the "citizen scientist" concept and what he and others were able to do as a result of their concern about and their interest in the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant crisis. Yes, the Internet has made many things possible. Amazing things possible.

Yes, because of the Internet and an abundance of technology as well as curiosity about "what if. . .?", kids are creating wondrous things in their dorm rooms and their rooms at home (high schoolers are in on this, too) and entrepreneurs and discoverers in shared spaces, such as 1871 in Chicago, are doing amazing things.

But then there is the "so what?" Is that something that anyone else will care about? What kind of difference can and should and will it make and in what capacity and for whom and why? Is the idea or the product or the service scalable or will it be a niche market that might grow over time when the time is right or better?

I agree that there is some value in taking an agile programming approach to some things, but even with agile programming there are stopgaps or backstops to help with the decision-making. And lest we forget, agile programming came about because programmers believed the older methodologies were less efficient. (Check out the Manifesto for Agile Software Development for some history, but also Agile Programming and a reflection on the impact of Agile 10 years after the Manifesto.) As a former programmer, I understand the importance of finding better and more efficient ways of doing things. If you read the reflection article, you'll see that there are different paths for agile programming which remind us that not only are there different ways to implement good ideas and processes, but that implementation is mostly dependent on what matters most. So, once again, beginning with the end in mind.

After all of that, the statement that really made me sit up and take notice is "learning over education" and that "Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do to yourself." Wikipedia might not have been a great example resource nor the somewhat condescending statements about educators and their expectations. Dude needs to be in a few more classrooms, maybe even at that university attached to his lab.

Should we be "now-ists"? Sure. We need to be in and aware of the present. The work we are doing now, whether in schools or manufacturing spaces, is for the present but it also for the future. And that future might be a few years or decades. We should, on occasion, do more than glance at the past because we can learn from past mistakes and successes.

I believe there is danger is not thinking about the possibilities of the future, about unintended consequences. I believe there is significant danger in not finding balance between the present and the future, and not overcomplicating our thinking and our progress by wading too deeply into the past. I think we need to be "now-turists" as we address the present and design an architecture, framework, or plan for the future, recognizing the future will be influenced by what we do now and might not be as we imagine it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Women and STEM: Changing the World

As with many trends and fads in education, there has been a great deal of breathless handwringing over the lack of women in science, math, engineering, and technology. Could there be more women in STEM? Absolutely.

Rather than worrying about the women who are not in STEM, perhaps we should celebrate those who have been and are in STEM roles and careers. Perhaps that celebration will encourage other women and girls to brave the remaining misogynistic biases and prejudices to follow their heads, hearts, and dreams.

What they face today may be no less cruel than what the STEM pioneers face because the barriers and obstacles can be less obvious. Even so, there is often nothing less satisfying than being able to become a success in something others told you was impossible.

Years and years ago I was working as a bookkeeper for a small software company. I was fascinated by the work they did and started asking a lot of questions. I even took a couple of programming courses to learn more. There was one female programmer on the team; she and I became and still are good friends. But even some of the guys encouraged me and explained some of what they did. Then came the administrative coup and the new president of the company delivered an ultimatum that I could become his administrative assistant or clean out my desk. When I opted to clean out my desk, he told me I'd never be more than an administrative assistant and I should have been more grateful for the opportunity. Fast forward only a few years when I attended a company picnic, invited by my friends who still worked there, and got to talk with that now more humbled and wiser president as a programmer/systems analyst for a much larger company. We just chatted, but he acknowledged my success with grace.

When I think honestly about it, I might never have taken that path had he not delivered that ultimatum. And when I think more honestly about it, the biggest challenges were from other women who seemed to be threatened or intimidated by me. I never let the guys who made "little lady" comments bother me because that just fueled their comments.

We need to continue to celebrate the women who influenced changes in STEM.  We need to talk about the women in STEM--not just the prejudices they encountered and the setbacks they should not have experienced--but the work they did, the breakthroughs for which they were responsible, and their dedication to the spirit that drove them to persevere.

We should be inspired and moved by the women who did and those who continued to do.

We should continue to encourage and provide support for those women and girls who face setbacks, prejudices, and obstacles that should not be part of their lives in 2014 but are. These are the women who will continue to change the world.