Category Archives: interview

Jim Groom and Alan Levine: Resisting the Narrative of Crisis / Zen of Teaching Interview

It is a shame I let quite a few months go by since October 2013 when I held an amazing Zen of Teaching interview with edtech gurus Jim Groom and Alan Levine. So, I am humbly trying now to regain the time past and take out of the drawer some potent stuff. Sorry for the delay to Jim and Alan, two of the most ethical and knowledgeable people in the trade, and friends to me. Jim is director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, the famed DTLT, at Mary Washington University, while Alan is an independent instructional technology specialist and programmer who collaborates often with DTLT. Among other achievements, Jim and Alan are known for DS106, an open, online digital storytelling course which has seen great success in the past few years, even spawning a namesake online radio station. As in the previous interviews within this series and the Zen of Teaching Project, the awesome Gabriela Rivera Torrado has assisted me diligently and she wrote the following summary of the interview. This time, the video has been recorded by our STEMmED Edtech specialist Bernabé Soto. It was a huge pleasure for me, I hope all enjoy it!

Keeping with the recurring theme of exploring the possible myths about teaching, the Web and higher education, Jim and Alan were questioned on their views about the alleged current crisis in education. Groom expresses that the ongoing narrative of crisis in higher ed is due to a lack of narrative, per se. When faced with new advances in technology (some of which promise free, easily accessible information for  the masses and a possible lower cost for education) universities have failed, for the most part, in creating a narrative that explains why anyone  should study and pay for a college education. To make matters worse, in a sense, we are being told we are failing and so we believe it.

Groom resists this narrative of crisis, explaining that he believes that there are “a lot of good people doing a lot of good things” out there. We need to reframe the narrative, taking ownership of it, instead of continuing the relinquishing of our power to shape that narrative- to companies in the tech. industry who are only interested in economic matters of profit. Alan believes that the entire educational system is so complex, that it would be inaccurate to simply state that “it’s in crisis”. What does come to mind with the mention of crisis is the issue of the cost of higher education. The rising costs of college education create a crisis of opportunity for a large sector of the population, with student loan debt on the rise and financial aid occasionally ending up in undeserving hands. Despite all this, Levine and Groom are optimists at heart, who even state that the so called crisis has its benefits, as it exposes the issues, shining a spotlight on problems like aforementioned costs. We need to rethink education! In order to do so, we must take certain measures, such as looking into asking the general public how they feel about innovations such as online education. Tools such as online surveys can be useful in asking for a general opinion.

When asked if they feel that the web is closing up (due to, for example, company and government regulations) the pair continue their optimistic, positive streak, stating that even though the Web may have become more commercial recently, there is also more and more user content every day, the Internet is an infinite space of possibility!

Sometimes we question whether the magnitude of what the Internet is and can be is lost, or will be lost on future generations. Perhaps some have grown up having the Internet around all of their lives and just “assume the Web”. Even so, as Levine states, people of every age can and do find appreciation for the possibilities the Web holds. For Groom, the web constantly defines and redefines itself, with rich history occurring in epochs, such as, for example Wikipedia, YouTube and Napster. Remember Napster? It’s impossible for future generations to be completely oblivious of the strides in innovation and the wonder of all the Web can and has offered. It becomes part of the history and in a way culture of the individual and the collective. These advances change and shape the way that we live and enjoy our lives. Both men remind us in so many words that he next generation will always be blowing the previous’ mind, we have no idea what kind of awesome stuff people will come up with in the future.

Once we’re on the topic of awesome stuff, I’d like to mention DS 106 or Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) -an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington (but can be taken at any time during the year online). Groom and Levine both teach and work on the blog and radio station dedicated to the project. The four year old venture attempts to redefine the higher ed narrative as one that utilizes online tools like the DS106 course in order to create hubs of decentralized education which contribute the knowledge necessary to empower students and make them agents of their own change. With DS 106 Groom and Levine attempt to break out from what you know about teaching and learning and breaking into what we don’t, experimenting and innovating until we find the right way.

Show students how to use the web, show students how to interrogate it, show them how to own it, let them take control of it (…)” says Groom. Alan Levine adds that “education is not a funneling track for people to get a job”. Learning communities such as these have the power to create powerful and meaningful relationships that enrich the lives of many people and may help universities make the Web a better place to learn, thanks to their presence.

Zen of Teaching Interview with Trace Jordan

[NYU, June 2012]

Like with previous interviews, the awesome Gabriela Rivera Torrado has carefully reviewed the video and summarized its most important points here.

Trace Jordan is a scientist and distinguished professor at New York University (NYU). He is also associate director of the Morse Academic Plan (named after famed inventor of the telegraph and code), NYU’s general education curriculum. For close to the past 15 years, Jordan has been working with the Foundations of Scientific Inquiry aspect of the plan, focusing on a core curriculum in math, science and lab development for the university’s general/liberal arts program. Said program consists of a varied curriculum, including a three part component, with emphasis on quantitative reasoning, natural sciences and life sciences. At the core of this academic plan is the goal of helping non-science students become scientifically literate, to train them to think like scientists, use scientific methods and be able to understand social and ethical  issues of the day.

The classroom of today finds itself at a crossroads, between the classic lecture style used by our teachers and our teacher’s teachers, and the possibilities offered through the integration of tools and technologies that surround us. When dealing with the barrage of media that students are faced with on a daily basis, Jordan believes faculty members are usually divided into three camps. There are those who just don’t deal with it (they choose to accept that students might be texting in class and just ignore things like this), those who completely ban it and the brave few who choose to accept the presence of technology (“it is what it is”) and integrate it as part of the course. Jordan makes emphasis on the importance of having the students be fully present in the classroom, and personally prefers a “lids down”/no cell phone policy during most of his courses (except for taking notes). He suggests that modelling may play an important factor in teaching students the appropriate context for the use of these technologies (who hasn’t seen a professional texting during a meeting or conference?), and that adults should explain etiquette boundaries for things such as texting and surfing the Web.

As an ambassador of sorts for the scientific community in a liberal arts environment, Jordan admits that he has faced certain prejudices towards science from the students. Many students are weary of science, thinking it may be “boring”, “irrelevant” or “hard”. Some are under the impression it’s just about fact memorization and unfortunately, many suffer from “math phobia”. The NYU professor finds it absurd how it can be be seemingly culturally acceptable to basically say “Sorry! I don’t do math!” but in his own words, you can’t say “No! (sorry) I don’t do reading!”.

When asked if he thinks the NYU program is changing preconceptions and opening the minds of students towards science, the professor (who also performs as social director) thinks they are doing a “pretty good job” and that course evaluations have been for the most part positive. Jordan agrees that teachers in the field do have a responsibility to help promote the study of science amongst students.

A potential roadblock to innovation in science education is the adaptability of its faculty. Jordan recognizes this as “a big issue” where the availability of published works don’t even help much. He finds that it’s important to always understand where your average professor is coming from. The professor finds that pioneers in education may have trouble sharing and diffusing helpful ideas, and not due to the invalidity of their methods or theories, but due to sheer lack of awareness from most faculty. When it comes down to it most are overworked and simply too busy, between “teaching, research and grant writing”. Jordan suggests the idea of educational sabbaticals for faculty that is open to furthering their knowledge yet simply lack the time to do so, also dividing the material into “bite sized chunks” in order not to overwhelm.

Above all, in order to progress, Jordan emphasizes the importance of person to person relationships in aiding with cooperation between faculty members. For example, during the interview, Jordan mentioned that, even just “having a beer” with them outside of the work environment can help build these relationships. We each need to take the first step in helping each other and giving a even small amount of your most valuable resource, your time, can have the greatest impact of all.

Rebuilding The Cosmos Through Technology: Paul Levinson’s Zen of Teaching Interview

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with his statement that the traditional, book-oriented intellectuals had become irrelevant for the formulation of cultural rules in the electronic age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The latest scoop interview in the Zen of Teaching series is with

Photo of author Paul Levinson.

Photo of author Paul Levinson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul Levinson, Professor of Communications and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City. An internationally acclaimed scholar of McLuhan and disciple of the late Neil Postman, Paul accepted with joy this interview, without knowing that my tenet about using amateur technology would reveal treacherous. He was very clear and made every effort to explain his positions as carefully as possible during the interview. Problem was, my new camera’s battery died at mid interview and I had to quickly recur to a second backup camera. Of course, Murphy’s law triggered at that moment, and the second camera died too during the interview. Fortunately I had the time to recharge enough of the first to finish the interview. In any case, I had not understood properly the concept of perspective when I decided to videotape the computer screen with a camera too close to it. So, Levinson’s face is a bit off focus, and his voice too. I am sorry, it is all my own fault. But still, magically, the video of this interview, if a bit surreal, still gives us the ideas that Paul put forward and still encourages us to think over them. I really thank Paul for his spirit and of course for what he symbolizes. Let me just add that Paul Levinson, apart from releasing his latest version of the greatly successful book New New Media, has published many scholarly articles and books, but he is also a rock’n’roll musician who delivers records and an accomplished Science Fiction writer!! Last, Paul curates a blog on the best TV series in the US, which is beautifully named Infinite Regress, and which I read regularly, as soon as a new episode of Dexter comes out! Of course, he also finds the time to spend at a surreal interview like this.

Like with previous interviews, the awesome Gabriela Rivera Torrado has carefully reviewed the video and extracted its most essential ideas, which she then summarized here.

Paul Levinson reflects upon the work of Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher of communications theory, written in the 1950’s and 1960s. McLuhan’s concept of a global village sprouting due to electronic media, developed in the 1960’s, is now a reality and education has become another form of communication within this village. Today’s classroom has become something which is much more than a room that some people happen to be in, the physical place has become much less important to education, as has the physical text book you hold in your hand. Although the internet has not replaced the use of books altogether, resources such as Wikipedia have surged in importance. Levinson points out the instant nature of these resources: “if someone wants to find information all they have to do is log onto Wikipedia (…)”. Dr. Levinson also mentions that he’s even used Facebook to find information, asking questions through his status and receiving an answer almost instantly. According to him, this is education, not from a classroom, not from professors or students, but it’s “ the world educating itself constantly”.

When inquired about the difference between medium and content, and which is more important, Levinson mentions that it is a mistake to even make a distinction between the two, as one cannot exist without the other. He mentions McLuhan’s example of the television. If you didn’t have content, what would television be? Just a screen. If there wasn’t content, the medium would just be “interesting little devices to look at (…) objects d’art”, going so far as to mention “ we might even enjoy our own reflections in the mirror of the computer screen”.

According to Levinson, content is what makes a medium a medium. Nowadays, the content which was once only a product of an elite of published authors, is produced by a wide variety of people. The new media has shifted the equation among the once consumers who are now also producers of that content. McLuhan first noticed this in the 1970’s with the advent of Xerox technology, the machine that “turned every author into a publisher”, creating one of the first times in the mass media which empowered the consumer to become a producer in a very limited way.

Today’s new media empowers the masses through a medium that makes it easy to contribute. Levinson points out that whether its “YouTube, where its just as easy to produce your own video as to watch a video, its that easy… you’re watching this interview on Skype and you could easily put it on YouTube” (which we did!) or a blog post “ it’s just about as easy to write a blog post as it is to read a blog post”. This is especially relevant in the classroom today.

According to Levinson, a professor used to be, in general, someone who taught the books of others to his or her students. For example teaching Charles Darwin in an evolutionary biology course or Charles Dickens in an English course. What’s happening increasingly, thanks to the new media, is that teachers are writing their own books, creating their own podcasts and videos and students are reading and watching this new material.

The way we educate and learn is changing constantly and thanks to the innovations available to us we are able to do so far more effectively than before. As Levinson states in a manner that sounds beautifully poetic to me, “we are rebuilding the cosmos through technology.”

#Zenofteaching Interview with Mario Núñez

At long last, we have completed our assignment and are able to publish a fabulous interview with Dr. Mario Núñez, done at the Tercer Encuentro de Educadores Puertorriqueños (Third Meeting of Puerto Rican Educators) at the Interamerican University in Ponce, Puerto Rico. The event was organized by educapr, during which both Mario and I participated in a panel. Mario’s interview presented a couple difficulties: first the sound quality was somewhat bad; and of course the interview was in Spanish. Thus, we decided to add English subtitles to the video, which complicated things. However, our awesome Ms. Gabriela Rivera Torrado managed to master some subtle subtitling techniques and voilá, the interview video is now available here in both languages. Gabriela’s work also included a full transcription and the summary article that is published here. Enjoy!

Lately, Dr. Mario Nuñez has been interested in the concept of change, how we can stipulate it and the important factors needed in order to create change within the context of education at a scholastic and higher level. Changing conduct can be a difficult process and Nuñez asks: “ How do we make people change, and how do we make that change a permanent one?”. He recognizes that the necessary factor for change is motivation, which may be extrinsic or intrinsic. The educative system is oriented towards motivating people extrinsically, from the outside. According to Nuñez, it is a system in which “they give you strengths, they control you and they condition you” and this is why the student does what he does. The student studies because he has an exam, the student reads a book because it’s been assigned, not because he wants to read. Students are reinforced with grades and a system of merits in order to achieve a certain conduct.  One of the dangers of extrinsic motivations is that when the reinforcement is lost the conduct is lost as well. The problem then lies in trying to control an intrinsic motivation with extrinsic reinforcements, which is what Dr. Nuñez believes the educative system is doing currently.

Professor Nuñez believes that some students have yet to find what Kevin Robinson refers to as “the element”. “The element” is that which makes you feel passionate and which you are good at, and you’re good at it because you have the capacity to do so, as well. Other students are very motivated to study, but find that they don’t have the ability for their chosen career path. The role of the educator at a high school and university level is to help students find their “element”, this way the student can take full advantage of the experience that college offers them so that they may choose their ideal career path.

Dr. Nuñez would like to see faculty change their current pedagogic process to one that promotes communication with and between the students. Interestingly, Dr. Nuñez believes that although useful, technology is a non-essential when it comes to teaching. What is essential is that faculty reflect and evaluate what they are doing, they must ask themselves how effective they are as educators. In terms of effective teaching, the most important principle is communication. Fostering good communication between teachers and students is important and technology can be useful for this, but, there are other ways of doing it.

Professor Nuñez highlights the importance of instant feedback, and the face to face contact between teacher and student. He asks:

“What is more transformative within the process of education than the student knowing that the teacher went through the effort of learning their name?”.

In this way, the students know that they were important to the process of education. The second most important element is communication between the students. This can be achieved through collaborative learning, forming groups, group projects and exercises in the classroom and online that promote the students getting to know each other through forums. Through these forums, they can ask questions and answer one another’s doubts, interacting in a synergistic manner.

Although Nuñez states that technology is not essential to education, he does use it in the classroom. For example, in his “Psychology of the Internet” course, Nuñez holds debates where students Tweet their opinions and they are projected in the classroom. During this type of activity the professor can see the process of thought within the student’s minds and how they defend certain ideas. Nuñez notes that often, within these discussions, you find students that are too complacent and agreeable with everything. He would like to see students participate in more discussions at an online level because it is important for them to see that there are people who disagree with them, which is what occurs in the reality outside of the classroom.

In spite of the fact that Professor Mario Nuñez enjoys integrating technology within the classroom, he is somewhat resistant to the idea of courses that are completely online, and even more wary of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs): “But the impression one gets… and I mean even the name: “Massive Online…”, the whole “massive” thing, I don’t like that title. Because it has to do with just that, mass, a whole bunch of people. And then I think.. I mean my question is, how much of this goes against an individualized process?”

Not quite sure if his feelings are due to a certain nostalgia for traditional classroom teaching, Nuñez feels that these open, online courses are too impersonal and chaotic. Uncertainty seems to be recurring theme for Nuñez when discussing MOOCs, he prefers classes with a traditional structure.

These days, Mario Nuñez has a cautious attitude towards technology. Making reference to an article he read about  “Techno-realists, techno-optimists and techno-pessimists (…)”,  Nuñez says hes gone from being a “techno-optimist” to being a “techno-realist” . For Nuñez, it seems prudent to be realistic about what is happening now a days and the impact of technology in our way of living and our interpersonal relationships. He points out, mentioning Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, that many of the technologies that can unite us with people far away can distance us from those closest to us. In order to prevent the constant connection to the internet from distancing adolescents and young adults from their parents and siblings, Dr.Nuñez reccomends taking “digital sabbaticals” to disconnect from the Web and reconnect with those closest to us.

Mario Nuñez has worked in the Science Department of the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez Campus since 1987. He has a Harvard doctorate in “Counseling and Consulting Psychology”. Since 1998, Nuñez has been working on and studying the integration of technology in teaching and learning. A pioneer in blogging, Nuñez’s blog DigiZen is one of the first and foremost academic blogs in Puerto Rico: http://www.vidadigital.net/blog/.

Zen of Teaching Interview with Mike Wesch and Gardner Campbell

The following is a summarized article based on an interview of Michael Wesch and Gardner Campbell. As with some past interviews, a student assistant, Gabriela Rivera, has carefully reviewed my notes, written a transcript, and later produced the following abridged version. I had the great pleasure of meeting with Dr. Wesch and Dr. Campbell during the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference in Austin, Texas held between the 13th and 15th of February, 2012, and this is a short summary of the interesting things which were said during that conversation. I can’t really say how much I am grateful to both Mike and Gardner for their time and disposition. I had a great time, and hope they both -as well as you readers and watchers- have it also.

The interview began with some observation (from Chris Dede) that it is so important and difficult at times, to unlearn the stuff we have built up with time… In the end, the idea of exploring the myths of teaching and learning is just this: to expose the things that we must unlearn if we want to unleash the real teacher in all if us.

When it comes to education and the use of technology and media we must unlearn many unconscious assumptions about learning and teaching that have been created in the past. Gardner Campbell says that a teacher’s job is not to be a proctor. Take blogs, for example. Many teaching professionals get anxious about the idea of having to read every blog post and every comment posted by students. According to Gardner, the job of the educator is going to be richer and not as easy to manage as just monitoring every aspect of the students communication. The students must be encouraged to discuss things amongst each other, and it is important not to intervene as an educator. Spontaneous learning can break out in this type of open, communicative environment.

There are certain aspects that keep faculty from changing the way that they teach. In Michael Wesch’s experience this may include lack of funds or professional development support, but he believes the majority feel that fear prevents them from changing. Many educators feel that they must model a style of teaching in which they are in control. As educators, we need to model innovative risk taking behavior, and break the cycle of stagnation. The traditional point of view of rigorous thinking incites us to analyze and criticize in an adversarial or cynical way. It is important to promote other types of criticism. Wesch believes empathetic and connective thinking is important because it allows us to put ourselves in the position of others. It can open our minds to other opinions and ways of thinking that may benefit us. It takes true courage and strength as an educator to risk one’s own ego and appearances in favor of promoting wonder and curiosity in the students.

Many educators feel imprisoned by the limits of teaching focused on content. It is evident that nowadays, with the volume of information available, it is impossible to teach students everything there is to know about a certain subject. Educators are limited by a certain amount of hours available in a course where they have to fit a variety of material. That being said, the role of the educator is no longer simply to impart knowledge, but to inspire a certain way of thinking.

I observe that education today needs to focus also on issues that are political in nature. One of the biggest political issues pertaining to education is funding. We need to reform the way in which money is handled when it comes to education, and in Campbell’s opinion, one of the things we can do to begin this process is to follow the money. We need to find a way to address the problem of the political corruption within the education system, and most of this comes down to money handling issues. In many cases these discussions are censored by the institutions themselves. Corruption needs to be called out when it is observed in a clear manner. It is very important to maintain an open debate, in this way, dialogue remains open and new solutions can be forged.

I find it quite disturbing to note that in some ways the Internet may be taking a turn and is now closing in on itself. Campbell replies that the Internet represents something truly rare in human experience: It was designed by very thoughtful people, most of them in an academic context. On the other hand, Wesch points out that the most important aspect of a crisis that we must recognize, is that there are solutions. Today we have the tools with which to resolve this crisis. There are a variety of free, online tools, and the only way to protect them is to get people excited about them.

Another issue presented to Mike and Gardner was the question of the value of College. Due to this global crisis, there are a number of students who question the value and the need for college. The cost of college is exorbitantly high and many students are beginning to doubt whether it is really worth it. Wesch feels that we need to validate the students’ concerns while at the same time encouraging a sense of community within the universities.

Campbell shares with us that the first four years of higher education are an interesting moment in the lives of most students. For the traditionally aged student (about 18 years old) this comes at a particularly interesting moment in their cognitive, social and physical development. At this time, the student should not be expected to gain any degree of mastery in a particular subject, even though they may get fairly masterful in writing and a few other things and certainly a degree of depth in a particular subject. According to Campbell, the most important thing that happens in those four years is that the student is introduced to civilization from the point of view of a co-creator of culture. Through the modeling of professors and the enthusiastic energy of other students, pupils are able to see that the world is much larger and much more susceptible to their own creation. According to Wesch, in order to do this they need courage, a sense of empowerment, a sense of connection and meaning, all of which can be found in a physical, face to face community. Unfortunately, we often see that institutions separate this drive towards co-creation from academic duties. In a sense, educators often stifle a student’s enthusiasm by creating the idea that we must separate these individual or auto-dictated interests from their academic applications.

Within the academic community exists the concept of “transfer” which refers to the ability to take the skills learned in the classroom and apply them to their daily lives or other things within school. We often find that students have trouble applying this concept. This may be due to the problem of compartmentalization. The students master a type of “fake transfer”, just like they would learn any other procedure, often giving what Campbell defines as an “awful simulation of integrative thinking”, because the educators have already ruled out any type of integrative thinking due to fear that it would undermine their established dogmas about genuine integrative thinking (out of fear that it would ruin their disciplines). We must recognize that this transfer cannot be forced.

The activity of meaning-making happens within the mind of the student and it is important, in the words of Campbell, “to model the ability to be surprised, to model the ability to be dizzy with the possibility of a new idea” because it demonstrates that the process of integrative thinking and transfer is occurring within the mind of the educator. The subjects or concepts transferred are irrelevant, it is enough to focus on reason, analytic ability and creative, deep thinking.

Myths of Teaching & Learning: Zen of Teaching Interview at CUNY’s Baruch College!

At last!! After some full 9 months of delay, I’ve nailed down another big important chapter of the Myths project: Myths of teaching, learning and technology. I have really no excuses, except perhaps the superwork I surrendered to after I got our STEMmED II grant approved last fall. So, without further ado, here are a wonderful interview and its videos. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

The following is a summary of a conversation held on June 22nd 2011 at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute of CUNY’s Baruch College in Manhattan. I had the privilege to share this conversation with Mikhail Gershovich (the Institute’s Director), Suzanne Epstein (Deputy Director), Lucas Waltzer (Assistant Director for Educational Technology), Thomas Harbison (Instructional Technologist) and Gulmeene Khan (Coordinator). Tom Harbison captured the meeting on video, which I am publishing here for the first time. Before anything else, I wish to thank all the participants for their interest, help, and for the patience they showed during the months the video has been waiting for this moment. The interview/conversation was held as part of my project on the Myths of Teaching, Learning and Technology which I pursued during my stay at NYU during June of 2011. Unfortunately, classes and administrative functions prevented me from following up the work done during the summer, until the awesome Gabriela Rivera Torrado came along to rescue the transcript work from its dormant state. This is the result of her transcription work, which she then summarized into the following article. We hope we have conveyed all of the ideas expressed faithfully. Unlike some of the other videos utilized for my research, this one has been summarized thoroughly, since it represents more of a focus group conversation, rather than than a “simple” interview. The videos and this article will be also cross-posted within the site zenofteaching.us, which holds the key to human knowledge, and most importantly, holds (or will hold) the ideas, text and interviews for the book and the whole project. Thanks, everyone!

***

We are living during a very interesting moment in history, as we now have the power to transform education with the technological resources available to us. Currently, there may be some sort of denial about the changes occurring in technology and their possible applications in the field of education. We need to recognize that we are not using these technological resources to their maximum potential. The time has come to experiment with a wide variety of tools available for education, as these tools may play an important role in the development of new pedagogic tendencies.

The first obstacle that exists is the resistance to experimentation. In many institutions research is well compensated, but teaching is not. Therefore, educators that show interest in experimenting with various teaching methods are usually not compensated for their efforts. We need to promote a freer academic environment with a progressive dynamic, where a faculty’s experimental achievements are recognized. Bernard M. Baruch College, better known as Baruch (of The City University of New York) has developed Blogs@Baruch (B@B) as part of the  “Writing Across the Curriculum” initiative which was active under the auspices of CUNY central since 2000. This program is a wonderful example of how experimentation with technology can be successful. As early as 2006, a group of professors composed of Jim Groom, Mikhail Gershovich, Lucas Waltzer, and Zach Davis began publishing daily blogs on WordPress. Soon after, they began to ask themselves how they could use the blog platform in an academic environment. Starting with the premise that many students showed difficulty with writing, they decided to utilize the blog model in order to provide students with the opportunity to develop their writing skills. Blogs@Baruch was launched in 2008. The “Writing Across the Curriculum” program unites various courses from different faculties with the common goal of helping students get used to writing more about a variety of subjects. It is evident that the more students practice writing, the better they read and write.

The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute managed to establish a website with at least twenty individually installed courses. Further along,  WordPress multiuser was launched, facilitating the integration of a variety of blogs for each faculty. This lengthy process demonstrates that even though the experimental process may be tedious and filled with obstacles, the payoff is more often than not quite favorable. Suzanne Epstein explained to us, that from the institutions point of view, many of the initial ideas they had about integrating blogs into the curriculum, were discarded in the experimental process. It is important to promote reflection within the students and to encourage them to maintain communication with other students and faculty through the blogs. Thanks to the wonderful amount of feedback produced in the blogosphere,  Baruch’s professors have been able to modify their blog system according to their preferences and academic needs.

Another example of technological innovation at Baruch college is the development of their VOCAT tool. VOCAT stands for “Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool”. This tool, developed by Mikhail Gershovich and his team at the Schwartz Communication Institute in collaboration with  Zach Davis’ Cast Iron Coding, allows faculty and students to assess oral presentation videos. VOCAT allows users to assign numeric values to presentation video clips. More than 7,000 students have used the program to evaluate their peers.  Eventually, VOCAT’s creators hope to distribute this tool to other institutions.

It is quite evident that education is changing, not only in the way we learn but also in the way that we teach. Online courses have represented a great advance in education.  Asynchronous education has been around for more than 100 years. Soon after the development of the postal system, distance learning courses were developed, where students received learning material through the mail and later sent home work back.  Online courses are a sort of evolution from that system of learning, and the various advances in teaching that have developed over time are evident. The vital element that holds distance learning together is communication. Thanks to communication technologies, in recent times we have seen an exponential increase in how much we communicate and significant advances in the technology we use to communicate. Nowadays it is possible to have real-time communication online, facilitating the necessary feedback essential to education.

Besides the presence of these advances in technology and the benefits that they provide, in some cases there exists a certain resistance from faculty to integrate themselves into an online curriculum. Some professors tend to be a bit more conservative. These educators have a certain idea of what education is and should be. Mikhail Gershovich brought up the example of a certain professor who, when proposed with the idea of having his students give oral presentations, expressed in frustration:

The way that students learn is sitting down to listen to hour-long lectures, that’s how I learned, that’s how my father learned and that’s how his father learned…

It is evident that these fears and myths about education are alive within many educators. Yet this resistance to technology is not exclusive to the faculty. Many students have shown insecurities about the idea of committing to an online course. In Suzanne Epstein’s opinion, many of the students are focused on getting an education, creating a professional persona and bettering their social and economic situation. Therefore, they may hesitate at the idea of taking an experimental online course. Even though there may be quite a few students that are interested in such a course, she believes that the majority hesitate in considering an online course as a viable option.

One challenging obstacle is fear. Many fear change, this is typical amongst human beings. Many faculty members have expressed certain worries about their privacy in online courses, especially in courses that are open to the general public. There is the issue of what happens in the classroom and how it is exposed to the world. They worry about privacy, copyright and the perceived value of tuition. Many students that pay large amounts of money to take certain courses would not think it is fair to provide these courses free of charge online. All of these elements would change the current profit system for universities, and this causes fear within the administration of these institutions.

It is evident that for many professors, the most important thing is to cover all of the content in a course within a certain amount of time. By having this kind of pressure, the faculty finds itself less inclined to experiment with other methods of teaching. The majority of these conservative professors utilize resources such as Blackboard. This resource provides them with a convenient and easy to use platform where they can organize and share their Power Point presentations. Blackboard is a very useful system for disseminating information to students, but many other innovative alternatives exist.

Even when we recognize the pressure that the faculty has to cover a certain amount of content within a parameter of time, we notice that the results of this style of teaching (with a focus on content) does not produce favorable results. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (or PISA), have been quite negative for the US.  We can observe a clear dichotomy between the focus on content and the negative results that the method produces.

We keep thinking in terms of this outdated model that dictates that professors must take all of the knowledge that they have accumulated over years of study and then transmit this content to the students, who are supposed to be sitting in class with open minds, absorbing all of this information. They have a difficult time believing that the students may not absorb about 90% of the material covered in a lecture. Blogs and other technological developments can stimulate us in deciphering another method for measuring content and how it is absorbed by the students. One of the negative aspects of standardized testing is that they only measure what they intend to. In this way, it is difficult to have an idea about erroneous concepts that students may have, unless they are asked about them in the exam. On the other hand, this a positive aspect about blogs, they allow the faculty to observe what the students are doing correctly and what they need help in, in order to correct them.

According to Lucas Waltzer, we are in the midst of profound changes that are occurring in our society, which affect the way that we teach and learn. These changes exist across multiple scales, there are global changes and then there are changes that occur at a personal level. The field of technology is flowering and this creates great opportunities for collaboration between institutions. We are even noticing a change in the students. For example, Mikhail Gershovich expressed how before, the students demonstrated more difficulty as they integrated themselves into online courses. This process would take a few days, while the student registered and became familiarized with the use of the system. Now, we see that, in a certain way, the students live in this digital environment. It is evident that many of them have adapted to the changes and in some cases have exceeded their professors in terms of their confidence level in dealing with new tools, such as WordPress. It is important that we continue to innovate in terms of the resources we use to teach and the methods that we use to evaluate the absorption of knowledge and content. It is important to emphasize that perhaps content is not as important as previously thought. With the use of computers in the classroom, we see an important change in the role of the instructor. Their purpose is not to impart knowledge or information to the student, due to the fact that nowadays students have access to much more information than the professor could possibly know. Their true function should be to create students who ask more questions, and to help them think critically about the world that surrounds them. The role of the modern pedagogue is to guide students in the process of analyzing information.

Many times we encounter people, be they students or professors, young or advanced in years, that show certain difficulty when it comes to adapting to the digital changes that have occurred recently. Lucas Waltzer highlights the fact that there is no such thing as a “digital native”. This concept needs to be discarded because excuses members of the previous generations from the rigors necessary in order to commence utilizing and understanding these tools (such as WordPress). Some individuals postulate that technology makes us less intelligent. They believe that because all the information we seek is available to us at the tip of our fingers, we don’t have the need to learn the same methods of research we were required to learn twenty years ago. For example, nowadays we have mobile phones that save all of our phone numbers, and many of us have lost the mental capacity to memorize a variety of phone numbers, simply because we don’t need to. Now, does that mean that we are less intelligent, or that our intelligence has simply adapted to the world that surrounds us? We still have the capacity to, for example, memorize the periodic table of the elements by utilizing online resources we access through our phones, all while riding a bus to class.

We have a wide variety of tools available that assist us in the moment of educating and learning. If we make the effort to dispel negative myths about the use of technology in education, and we decide to experiment with the available resources, we can develop new methods for disseminating information and measuring academic achievement.

An Interview with Clay Shirky

As part of my research on the myths of teaching and learning, I am at last publishing my interview with Clay Shirky of the past 14 June. I needed a long time to review it and transcribe parts of it in order to better convey what was being said. I also played a bit with the video, which is intentionally very low-tech, and at last I was able to transform it into a lower-resolution format and upload it to YouTube. Please, note that the video is completely surreal, since I didn’t realize it was being shot against the light of a window. Thus, basically only Clay’s silhouette is visible, and mine appears luckily only sporadically!

Clay was very kind and we had a very nice conversation which included many themes that are related to my research into the myths of teaching, learning, technology and the Web. I am writing a bookish thing on the subject, so the ideas that I am publishing here will form part of that. For the moment, though, it is interesting for me to share the conversation i had with him as unedited as possible. Here are Clay Shirky’s main points on the subjects covered in the interview. After, the video.

On the changes that are happening -both within and without the University- he finds it very difficult to convince students that what’s happening is actually happening!

If you take 100 19-year-olds and educate them to whatever you felt comfortable giving them a diploma in a particular field, you would not build something that looks like the traditional college today. I think he would take social networks for granted, global access for granted, online learning for granted. I don’t think he would do an online-only college -face to face is so  important- but I’m not sure that you would build a building on the edge of town and move all the people in that building for 9 months a year, 4 years ion a row.

Is the University secure enough to change under its own speed or is it going to be [under] a disruptive external force?

Education today is expensive, slow and inefficient, but creates something of obvious value to participants.

On the divide between learning and credentials:

Separation between high-quality educational material (Khan Academy, U of the People, George Siemens), and the amount of money that comes to play once you ask for certification is I think indication that the system is splitting apart.

Retention rates measure the gap between the way college is funded and the perceived value for the students. Cost of college is not reflected in the price; cost of college is reflected in the time commitment -the opportunity cost. So for many students it looks like an acceptable bargain from the outside. [However,] in their Freshman year they discover there is an additional bunch of costs they’re asked to bear.

On “content”. I say that by putting all that value upon content, “we allow ourselves to perceive knowledge as a frozen body of facts”. He replies:

We always overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to each other.

<My bold>I can’t agree more!</>

On content and the publishing industry, Shirky has a very strong position:

My fear is that because of tenure -the tenure committees assess the quality of the journals- some cartel is going to form to successfully prevent the widespread of knowledge, the widespread in particular of scientific information for another generation.

I comment that “the publishers are taking a revenge by forming alliances with LMS’s and thus closing things up on themselves again -notwithstanding the Internet!

He adds:

The Journals today decrease the speed and decrease the scale of knowledge dissemination. [Unlike in the past, when their role was exactly the opposite!]

On copyright, Shirky thinks we may have two different stories:

1) A new bargain gets formed whereby copyright holders accept a degree of leakiness in return for which the anti-copyright [people] accept that things do spread publicly but eventually, so copyright goes […] into being a model of flow [wherein the speed of the flow is much more important that its content].

2) Locked devices. The direction the iPad is going… [shows] the world I know is torn apart. Now computers are for professionals and iPads are for amateurs who don’t need a computer for creativity [for the production of knowledge].

It is a sad story that keeps me awake at night. It’s alarming.

Clay says he  is happy to see people with iPads also using external keyboards. This means that the disappearance -as Jobs prophetically stated- of the computer is not complete yet and that people need to have a full computer to express their creativity.

He talks about many more ideas: for instance, of the clash between the digital and the atom-based world when a student gets sued by his college because he had created and managed a Facebook Group in his Chemistry Class. The fact is that some rules about the world are not obvious any longer and sometimes they simply do not apply in the inline world. For instance, in the brick-and-mortar world you don’t need to think what happens when you have big study groups of more than 100 people, simply because it is unfeasible to have such groups! He talks about this example in his book “Cognitive Surplus“.

He talks also about the agreement between NYU and the University of the People (http://www.uopeople.org/), the initiative that opens a tuition-free, open University with online BA Programs in Computer Science and Business Administration [See The New York Times: Partnership to Further Global Quest by NYU]. Clay says with this that he believes NYU President is actually saying “Your incoming freshmen class at any given year is our single most valuable asset.”

Which is a nice quote from a President!

OK, now enjoy the video interview. The “tape” stops recording -just because my iPhone decided so- just at almost the right time, just after I was telling Clay about Jim Groom [and community]‘s unbelievable self-sustaining radio station #ds106radio.