battis.net and I'm all out of bubble gum…

I wrote this originally in response to a question from [the assistant head at Jewish Day School] about how I think about web tools. After writing this, I chatted with him and [my opposite number in the middle school] about how folks that are using OTSW in the middle school that are more successful — largely because they’re using it as a “gateway drug” to a web presence, rather than trying to bring an existing web presence into one place.

Here my general thoughts on selecting tools for teaching and learning, and how OTSW measures up against them. This is in no way meant as a slam on OTSW, but rather an explanation of my thought process in selecting tools with which to teach and learn, while examining the OTSW system.

In general, when looking at a tool, my first concern is how well it does its intended job — whether intended by the developer or by the user. Education is strewn with unintended, but serendipitous uses of tools never intended for that purpose: consider the military’s use of game systems for training.

Assuming that a tool does what it is intended to do, and does it well, my next concern is how well this tool will connect not just to any existing tools, but specifically to the tools that I already use (although a little forward-thinking at this moment, considering tools I might want to use down the road, is not uncalled-for).

Having looked at these two considerations, the final — and really potentially gamestopping — concern is how well this tool will support a safe learning environment for my students and myself. What “safe” means can certainly be construed in different ways, depending on the purpose of the tool (a discussion tool would certainly have different safety concerns than a research tool).

With these three concerns in mind, let us turn our eye to OTSW and our current set of web tools:

What does it do? And does it do it well?

OTSW provides a Facebook-like environment for users of our FirstClass system. It allows users to post status updates, to maintain blogs and wikis, and to comment on each other’s postings.

User status updates are handled reasonably well — there are no major surprises. The status updates are limited in length (as is true of Twitter, Facebook, SMS messages, etc.) The system will display a somewhat shortened (truncated) version of the status message to users who “follow” that user. The users cannot type a longer status update than will fit into the field, but there is no warning when the status update is longer than can be displayed to one’s followers. Potential uses for these status updates are unknown, but a creative mind could certainly come up with something. Mostly, they’re just for fun.

Consider the blogging system: the word processing system for writing posts is comparable to the FirstClass document editor in the FirstClass client, although perhaps more limited. It is also comparable to the WordPress or MindTouch wiki document editors although, again, perhaps a touch more limited: fewer formatting options, no support of the style associated with structured documents built for the web, limited capabilities for facilitating linking to other documents on the same system.

The blog commenting system is apparently “un-threaded” — or, at least, controls for turning on threaded comments are not apparent. This means that a comment posted in response to another comment is shown in the overall list of comments by date, rather than by thread of conversation. This makes complex, truly interactive asynchronous conversations about a blog post difficult, if not impossible, to read. Additionally, already read comments automatically collapse upon the return to the page (with no preference otherwise), providing limited context for new comments.

The wiki document editing system is somewhat more advanced than the blogging system, allowing for the creation of links to other pages within the specific wiki on which you’re working, although not to other wikis on the OTSW system. Additionally, three styles of structured text (body, heading and subheading) are supported on wikis, as well as a few more rich formatting options.

The organization of the wiki pages within a specific wiki on the OTSW system is flat, rather than hierarchical. While this limits the confusion associated with the page hierarchies on the MindTouch wiki, the presentation of the pages for the wiki is now as a “page cloud” in the tool bar, organized apparently by date of creation or modification (making the placement of pages unpredictable between visits). There is no clear way to move or copy a page from one OTSW wiki to another.

As [one colleague] has correctly noted, another oddity of the OTSW wiki system is that, when commenting on a page, the actual content of the page is hidden (although the other comments on the page are displayed as on the blog, along with links to different versions of the page in its revision history). This is at best unhelpful, and certainly confusing to the novice (or experienced) user.

In both the blog and wiki systems on OTSW, the ability to tag posts and pages with keywords is provided. The tagging system in beta versions of OTSW was highly vulnerable to non-alphanumeric characters in tags (e.g. “Seth’s tag” — the apostrophe in one tag rendered an entire community inaccessible). In the current version of OTSW, non-alphanumeric characters are accepted in tags for display… but clicking the tag link to view all documents tagged with that keyword has unpredictable results (in the case of “Seth’s tag” the link takes the user to a page list all documents tagged “Seth” — which does not include the pages tagged “Seth’s Tag”).

Additionally, depending on what actions have recently been taken in the OTSW environment, the tagging tool will appear in unpredictable locations or may not even be accessible. (As is also the case for initial edits of wiki pages: once posted, the user has to leave the wiki and return in order to find an Edit link for that page.) Tagging wiki pages, at least in Safari, appears to be undo-able, as the tagging tool appears the bottom of the page, with scroll bars turned off, and no save button available.

Considering the apparent purposes of the OTSW system:

  • Status updates: nothing particularly unique or different or unusual, automatic truncation without warning.
  • Blogging: limited formatting options, lack of threaded discussions, lack of ability to link even to other posts in the blog.
  • Wikis: limited formatting options, confusing discussion format, no ability to organize pages.
  • Tagging: easily broken, predictably unpredictable.

Interoperability with Other Tools

When it comes to interoperability with the OTSW communities, the highest priority concern would be how well the tools work with our existing array of tools on campus, including our blog and wiki servers and, especially, FirstClass.

The communities are stored as a special type of conference on the FirstClass server. In current versions of the FirstClass client, clicking on these conferences will open the community in a web browser. When viewed by older clients, these conferences will open to reveal a list of documents (the pages, posts, comments, etc. within the community) with an array of specialized columns reflecting how these documents would be displayed in the web browser.

When a user is invited to a community, they receive an email invitation, with a link to click to accept the invitation. Users who have not already logged in to the web interface to the communities have found that these links often are not active: they do nothing. Ideally, the result of clicking this link is that an alias to that community’s conference will appear on the user’s FirstClass desktop, giving them access to the community. Moving these conference aliases off of the desktop (perhaps into a folder called “OTSW Communities”) renders the group memberships inoperable — the conference aliases must remain on the desktop, although each functions only as a bookmark to the web interface to the communities when accessed through the FirstClass client.

When a user creates a community of their own, a new community conference is created on their desktop, and all pages, posts and documents posted to that community will count against the creator’s FirstClass disk quota.

When a user posts a page, post or comment to an OTSW community, that content is displayed as an outgoing message to the users’s My Shared Documents conference in their mailbox. This is confusing.

In terms of interoperability with our blog and wiki tools, there are three standard ways to connect tools to each other on the web: links, RSS feeds of recent updates and embedding.

OTSW communities do not provide any RSS feeds. Links to OTSW communities, pages or posts, will fail if the user is not currently logged in to the OTSW communities in their browser. Following a link to an OTSW community while not logged in will drop a user into their OTSW desktop, rather than the target of the link. OTSW communities provide no options for embedding their content in other tools.

Looking at the flip side of this interoperability, bringing external tools into OTSW provides a somewhat better picture. OTSW supports regular web links in all posts, pages and comments. OTSW supports attaching any kind of document to a wiki page (e.g. a movie or audio file, or Word document).

OTSW does not provide any facility for subscribing to RSS feeds from other tools.

OTSW does provide some support for embedding external content in OTSW pages, posts and comments. These embeds are performed by pasting arbitrary HTML into the OTSW content embedding dialog. Unlike WordPress, which provides some filtering, OTSW will allow anything to be embedded — and, in fact, embeds most objects as IFRAMES (which allows the embedded site unlimited access to OTSW — not great for security).

One oddity of OTSW embedding is that embedded content is masked by the OTSW embed logo, which must be clicked upon to reveal the embedded content (perhaps as a security measure?). Once the logo is removed to reveal the embedded content (which must be done each time the page is loaded, for each embedded piece of content), the embedded content is presented in an IFRAME exactly the same size as the previously masking logo. The logo is smaller than the standard YouTube video, for size comparison. This means that all embedded content is viewed through what amounts to a porthole.

One possible way around the lack of ability to access an external site’s RSS feed (for example, a feed of recently updated instructional videos from YouTube), would be to use a third party tool such as WebRSS to generate a “badge” which could then be embedded in OTSW.

Considering OTSW’s interoperability with other tools:

  • FirstClass: Rube Goldberg-like dependency on community conferences to remain on the desktop, no warning about disk quota use for conference creators, confusing display of posted content, flaky invitation system.
  • Web Links: outgoing links from OTSW work fine, incoming links are functionally useless.
  • RSS Feeds: non-existent.
  • Embedding: no options to embed OTSW content elsewhere, very limited ability to embed external content in OTSW, requires manifold click-throughs.

Safety

OTSW provides a very well-secured environment for users, in that it leverages our existing FirstClass userbase to automatically limit access to communities. While I have no clear understanding of the true security capabilities of FirstClass, I note that the FirstClass messaging system was, for many, may years, a de facto standard across education — quick and easy to setup, very reliable, very secure. Nine out of ten dentists use it themselves, etc. OTSW does not seem to waiver from the FirstClass security model. In terms of operational security, OTSW appears to be a seamless layer on top of our existing FirstClass system.

Another aspect of security that is well worth considering in a teaching and learning standpoint are the types of habits promoted by a particular tool. For example, blog servers promote, well, self-promotion and publication, hopefully also critical, analytical engagement with external information sources. Wiki servers tend to promote collaboration, with individual accountability, on large documentation and research projects.

As a Facebook-like communication system, OTSW should, then be viewed as a safe learning environment for social networks and media, where students can learn good habits and social graces. Much of the system works in this manner (as did FirstClass in relation to traditional email), providing the ability to track revisions, flag offensive content, engage in asynchronous discussion, etc.

The one oddball is the profile system (and this may be dependent on system settings). By default, the OTSW user profiles are set to demand more and more and more personal information from each user, reminding the users that their “profile is only X% complete… add your [fill in the blank personal information] to complete your profile.” To my mind, without deeper discussion in the classroom, this type of message promotes a culture of thoughtless exposure, rather than a carefully managed digital footprint.

September 26th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, Social Media

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This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

For the last few years, I have found that, when appropriate, I get far more use out of my notes if I take them on a computer. Using the computer allows me to keep my notes organized, to instantly create links to related information (either within my notes or on the web), to flag my own questions as they arise (and unflag them as they are answered), to find ideas in my notes later (search is way faster than flipping through my notebooks and legal pads), to share my notes with colleagues and students, and to link to as references and resources in later iterations of documents.

In Practice

It’s not always kosher to have your laptop open in a conversation. If I take notes in a one-on-one meeting in my laptop, there is a real danger that I will be talking to my computer rather than the person I am meeting with. (Simultaneously, if I take the notes on my laptop, I am able to refer back to them more easily than in handwriting.) Personally, I have found that if I feel compelled to take notes by hand, that those notes are not going to make it into my computer except in extraordinary circumstances, and that the only service that paper notes have for me is as a memory aid (“the information has passed from at least one neuron to at least one other neuron, crossing at least one synapse in the process, giving you a faint hope of remembering the information.” — Duane Bailey).

If there are network connectivity problems (or battery power level issues), my notes may either not be available or may disappear entirely (as happened at one point this fall, taking notes on [a major collaborative project] presentation). This doesn’t happen with notebooks. However, referring back to the last paragraph… those notes would have gone into the ether anyway (for me at least) if I had taken them on paper.

I find that I am much more willing to share my digital notes than I would hand-written notes — not just because of legibility issues, although those are real, but also because when I share my notes, I share it with an expectation that the recipient will be adding some input to those notes, adding value for me as well.

I have also found that using the tagging feature of the wiki gives me a tool for taking attendance at a meeting — who was there, so that I can find notes based not just on content, but on the makeup of the meeting: “I know we discussed this in EdTech, I think Scott said something about it…”

Reflection

As someone who spent years not taking notes on anything, simply remembering what was said to the best of my ability, I find that taking notes on my computer is a massive advantage: it allows me to empty my brain and forget things with confidence. And taking my notes in a wiki makes them instantly shareable and referable from any computer, anywhere. I love it.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

This is actually a classic use of wikis — the one for which they were developed, in fact — and one that I have found very useful in the past. By documenting my work on a project in a public, shared space, I am both sharing information that needs to be known and inviting other participants to contribute their knowledge as well. I use wikis both for shared projects with my colleagues (as a way to guarantee that only the most current documentation is available, rather than distributing instantly out-dated paper handouts) and as a way of pushing my students to document their own work so that I can grade them on process. Additionally, wikis are a way for me to document my own thought process for both professional development and future planning purposes.

In Practice

Shared Projects with Colleagues

I have found that many of my colleagues (both at [my current school] and [at previous schools]) are hesitant to edit existing documents. The most reliable contribution that I have found my colleagues make is on meeting minutes, when I invite those who did not attend a meeting to insert their contributions to the meeting as comments on the page.

When working on a project with a similarly technically-inclined colleague (say, in the Education Technology department), the process is more likely to be more collaborative, as we edit each other’s work more liberally (although even this is not a guarantee).

Student Documentation of Process

Students don’t document their working voluntarily. I have only had success in asking students to document their work when I have both assigned the documentation for a grade (usually a grade separate from the end product of their work, so that I can distinguish between process and outcome not just in narratives but also in my gradebook).

The closest that I have come to developing a true classroom culture of collaborative documentation was last spring at [my previous school] in my Application Design classroom. In this case, I worked with the students to help them select and design an open-ended project for which they had to do immense amounts of research (they were creating a computer-controlled CNC lathe). I found that there was an inverse relationship between the amount of expertise that I demonstrated and the amount of work and thought that my students contributed: when they could rely on me for answers, they were lazy about documenting their work and finding their own solutions. When I professed no knowledge (often truthfully), students were far more likely to both do much more exhaustive research and to present their findings more clearly.

Professional Development

One challenge of creating a truly collaborative wiki environment (whether with colleagues or with students) is to get all of the participants to read, respond, revise and/or react to each other’s contributions. For example, I am doing a miserable job, on this page, of linking to the work of others in the Laptop Leaders program. I suspect that a major part of this is simply the “drinking from the fire hose” feeling incurred by the stream of data as everyone contributes simultaneously. In a classroom, I have had some success dividing students into groups around a shared research interest. To that end, I need to sift through the other Laptop Leader documentation that refers to, say wikis.

Reflection

At the basic level, my sense is that wikis represent such a shocking change in paradigm for how the web is used that the average user is either befuddled or intimidated by them. I found that I was explaining how wikis work to my classes and the students were fascinated and mildly horrified at both the ease with which they could make changes and the ease with which I could track their use of the wiki. I don’t know for certain, but I wonder if my colleague’s reluctance to update wikis is a combination of fear of the unfamiliar (editing the wiki) and fear of speaking out (publishing their words/ideas to a broader arena in a way that feels more permanent than, say, an email — more on par with a faculty meeting).

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I started off using this model in both my [high school] classes. I post an outline of the class to the wiki before class. At the start of class, as I discuss the agenda for the day with the students, I project the outline on the board. After discussing the agenda (my plan, their questions, etc.), I ask for three volunteers: one to take notes into the outline during class, one to review those notes for content before the next class, and one to review those notes for clarity before the next class. The content reviewer is responsible for correcting any mistakes (or omissions) that the original notetaker made. The clarity reviewer is responsible for proofreading and correcting the notes into a readable, standard English format.

In Practice

I found, almost immediately, that while the [media design] class was (grudgingly) willing to do the notetaking, the [computer animation] class revolted against it. The revolt in computer animation had a lot to do with the difficulty of simultaneously following along with the processes that we were learning in a computer modeling application and also keeping a browser window open and taking notes into the wiki. Theoretically, a dual display setup might have ameliorated some of those concerns (screen real estate was demonstrably at a premium as they were trying to use both applications, the browser and the 3D modeling tool). However, the real issue lay in the division of attention.

I have stopped asking the computer animation class to take notes into the wiki, but continue to encourage them to take their own notes (a practice that none of them engages in voluntarily — and their difficulty grasping new concepts reflects real difficulty storing the concepts for reflection, whether in their heads, their notebooks or their computers).

I have substituted somewhat more detailed notes of my own in the outlines for computer animation, or links to more detailed tutorials online covering the same concepts that we are learning in class, or links to screencasts demonstrating the concepts and processes we are learning in class. (One challenge that I have run into is that, using Blender, many of the tutorials and screencasts assume a great deal of prior familiarity with the materials, if not the tool, so I have been working on recording more basic level screencasts for that class).

On the flip side, we have settled into a routine in [media design] in which I ask for a notetaking team only on days when I know that we will be having a concept-based discussion/critique/lecture (as opposed to process or application-based lessons). A core of students have stepped up as fairly reliable notetakers, although I am working to spread the responsibility out across all students in the class — although I have set up no formal system of rotation (this lack of a formal system is actually based on previous experience with rigid rotations on what is, essentially, a creative task: it’s lousy. It works far better to set up an expectation that everyone will do it, and then ask for volunteers in the moment, while creating a (public) tracking system to ensure that no one is left out.

One issue that I have run into, particularly over a span of project-based lessons which are not discrete lessons but actually the continuation of a single idea (editing a video, for example), is that I lose track of time and forget to keep the wiki up-to-date. I focus my attention on the process occurring in class, rather than in documenting the process. Since my rationale for documenting the process is provide a resource for the students, this is deeply problematic and something that I need to address.

Reflections

Early on, I realized that I should have made more of an effort to distinguish between concept-based and practice-based classes, and to create different models for collaborative notetaking in each of those environments. My computer animation class did well in articulating their frustration (mostly) respectfully, and speaking up for their own needs and learning styles.

I have not incorporated the notetaking into the students’ grades (which was, really, something that slipped my mind), framing the notetaking not as an assignment, but as a collaborative study tool. I’m not sure that this is a winning motivator for students. I think it works in my [media design] class because they are a) intrinsically interested in the material at a more conceptual level and b) generally a year or two older on average than my computer animation class. That maturity is reflected across the board — preparation, classroom demeanor, participation, actual product. It would, of course, be easy to connect a grade to participation in the notetaking (do some math, figure out how many times everyone needs to do it to cover the semester or quarter and assign it that many times).

The other missing component, and this has much to do with my teaching style, is adequate review of the student notes, to provide feedback on quality (and quantity). Early(er) in the year, I should have dedicated much more of a class period to going over the previous period’s notes and pushing each of the members of the notetaking team to be more accountable. To be honest, the switch from meeting my classes 4-5 times a week to 2-3 meetings (yay for changing schools!) left me running ragged trying to keep up with material, and process fell by the wayside.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

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As part of my education technology role at my school, I am a member of our high school “Laptop Leaders” group. A few weeks ago, at the end of our first quarter, the Laptop Leaders were asked to document the work they were doing, to create a shared resource, both for themselves and for other teachers. Ultimately, this is preparation for more large-scale adoption of laptops and technology in general as teaching tools in the high school.

The teachers in this Laptop Leaders group were selected last spring, so I joined the group late, at the beginning of the school year and had, really, only a sketchy plan for what I would be working on. The outline (lightly revised) is below. My intention is to share my various write-ups related to this process in this space.

Collaborative Writing and Editing

I’m working with students to develop a class wiki as a collaborative information source, with students contributing class notes, screencasts and other updates and expansions on course content.

Blogs

I’m working with students to use the class blog as a publication platform for ideas/questions relevant to the greater community in their discipline (e.g. develop [my class] blog into a discussion of [media and design] and related ideas in the outside world).

Social Bookmarking

I’m working with faculty (and students) to use social bookmarking tools (specifically Diigo) to create dynamic and annotated resources for each other (and for and by students).

Social Media

I’m working with faculty and students to develop personal learning networks that tie together all of these Web 2.0 tools to create an online identity and a group of “fellow travelers” studying and exploring the same area. In students’ case, we’re working on this as a class (blogging), but for faculty tools like Twitter (and personal blogs) may also be useful. Also looking at other sharing sites (e.g. Flickr) for use as collaborative tools.

Useful Tools

In the interests of sharing, when I was at my last school, I sat down and created an iusethis.com profile of the handy applications that I use day-to-day. I’ve added this to my profile [on the school wiki], along with a (slowly growing) list of tools that I’ve built for special purposes around school.

Updated November 22, 2009: I should mention that I have Bowdler-ized some of these posts to protect (at least a little), the identities of my students. When posted to our school wiki, there are a number of links to examples. If you pop me an email or a comment and identify yourself, I’m happy to share these examples. Just trying to do some due diligence with regard to my students’ privacy.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Shelly Blake-Pock just posted a question on his blog about teaching math in a paperless environment (in fact, since I started gearing up to respond, he’s posted some follow-ups as well).

Last year, wearing my math teacher hat (nominally given to me as a member of the Math & Computer Science department — normally only worn on the most formal occasions), I got involved in a project with my department trying to work with our students to develop a mathematical Wikipedia. The idea was that kids would write up their mathematical knowledge for the younger students and their classmates, creating a review site focused on what the students thought was important to know about the material we were covering in class.

The big idea was that this would push the students to both reflect on what they knew (as they worked to articulate it for less experienced students) and take part in some independent learning (as they researched their topics to figure out how to write them up). It wasn’t really a rousing success, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the kids were assigned topics (rather than selecting their own) and ended up mostly parroting their textbook into the wiki. There wasn’t any real collaboration or peer-review going on, at least not in a really critical sense (“Why did you explain it the way the text book does? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now… do you get it?”)

However, Brian Lester and I got excited about the idea of how one would pursue this project from a mechanical standpoint: how would you post mathematics in an editable, readable and shareable way on the web? We went through a number of permutations, but the solution that I think contains all of the desired mechanical qualities is this: use MathML. There’s a handy [take-a-deep-breath-this-is-about-to-be-a-lot-of-jargon] Javascript ASCII-to-MathML translator library online from Peter Jipsen at Chapman University. It works really well: you type in text as you would on a calculator and it gets typeset as you would see it in a professionally printed text. And you can go back and edit it.

MathML requires a plug-in for Internet Explorer 7 (no idea about 8, but I’ll bet it still needs the plug-in), but Firefox can read and parse MathML natively. Peter Jipsen has links to some helpful fonts to download to make it all look a little nicer, but they’re truly optional. Once it’s set up on your server, you just include a magic incantation at the beginning of the page to invoke the translator, type in your calculator equations, and whamm-o: pretty equations!

Now, this only handles equations on the web. We didn’t get to graphs or diagrams in our experiments last year. But I can tell you where I would look for graphs — Google has an embeddable chart generator that might work. I hope there are other similar tools.

Again, all this is with the stated goal of readable, editable, shareable mathematics online. This doesn’t address doing the exploratory work: this is the write-up and reflection after the exploration. Without a tablet, I’m not convinced that one can do general mathematical work on a computer. And with a tablet, I’d add FluidMath (still in beta, I think) to the list of must-have applications.

August 4th, 2009

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My first year teaching, a bright young thing just out of college, I spent the summer before-hand in a state of panic: I assumed that, having gotten a job teaching AP Computer Science, that I would now need to be an infallible expert in computer science. This level of pressure had me practically hyperventilating before my first class.

Fortunately, what gradually became apparent to me (and has been reenforced often since, even as recently as my most recent evaluation this fall) is that the value in my teaching (and, I presume, all teaching) is not in what I can explain to the students, but what I can help them explain to me. And things get really exciting when my students get to explain things to me that are new to me. In fact, the most freeing moment I have had in the classroom was the first time I said, “Gee, that’s a good question. I have no idea. Let’s figure it out.” The practice of working as a collaborative team to solve a shared problem is real, and it is true learning.

Previously, I alluded to the idea of being willing to get lost in the hinterlands on the way to our educational destination. In this scenario, the teacher serves as the knowledgeable and resourceful guide. My best service to my students is to help them prepare for that journey, to load them with the background knowledge they need to tackle real and challenging problems. In this, the question of how and what to communicate to my students arises. I don’t want to tell them too much, for fear that they will come to rely on me, rather than their own intellect, for answers. But I certainly don’t want to tell them too little, for fear that they will never emerge from the hinterland.

This fall, as my computer science class can attest, we have swung both ways, but I think we’re finding a happy medium. As we reach equilibrium in that state of my life, I am turning my attention more directly to the other part of my life, working with faculty on uses and goals for academic computing. And I find myself in a similar bind. What and how should I be communicating? In a previous incarnation of this position, at another school, I believe I said too much and limited the creativity and actual learning of my colleagues. At the same time, I cannot rely on my colleagues now, who are working the so-called “triple threat” while striving to consistently improve their own teaching, to just “figure things out” on their own.

I think that this is exactly the situation for which we must prepare our students: we want our students to be able to lead, but to be able to collaborate with their colleagues to achieve the best possible results. How then, do we prepare our students to do this? And can we use these same tools ourselves to accomplish these same goals for ourselves (surely we should be as good at this as we would like our students to be, and if we’re not… now is an excellent time to get better!)

I believe the first step is to actually consider the nature of the communication that we are doing and to try to use appropriate tools for the problems at hand. Traditionally we are used to face-to-face meetings (which occur in real and simultaneous time for all participants, in a single location), mail (snail or electronic, it amounts to an asynchronous discussion occurring in multiple locations), or some telephonic communication (simultaneous real-time discussions occuring in two different locations). These same basic limitations apply to our communication with even the latest technology (are we in the same location or different locations? Can we talk at the same time or different times? Will this conversation take place all at once or over the course of several communications?)

But we have new tools that let us make better use of both our synchronous and asynchronous time. Consider the process of developing a joint document (a proposal for a new course to be taught by a team of teachers, for example). With our triple-threat schedule, we may only be able to find one quick time for a face-to-face meeting, but we can use wikis and other shared document tools (e.g. Google Docs) to share a single, evolving draft of our writing. Technologies are coming into play to allow us to do the same for video and audio editting.

Similarly, if we want to work the kinks out of a new idea, we would normally try for a face-to-face meeting (with a whiteboard, of course). But what if we blogged the idea, and then the discussion takes place in the comment threads? The same conversation can now take place asynchronously. Or perhaps we want to thread several discussion topics together, as in a discussion board, allowing for more free-wheeling discourse. Or we would like to link together connected ideas in different threads with hyperlink references.

What this describes is a new paradigm for communication. Processes which are traditionally thought of as happening synchronously and face-to-face can now be done asynchronously and at a distance. And this is what we need to be preparing our students to do. And the tools that we can use as teachers to work together in an increasingly pressured educational environment to squeeze the greatest result out of our efforts.

This does not supplant our traditional communication approaches, which still have great strengths (tone, inflection and body language, anyone) but complements them, allowing us to collaborate in a broader array of challenging situations to get more done with greater coordination of effort and less coordination of schedule.

January 2nd, 2008

Posted In: Educational Technology

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