Category Archives: zenofteaching

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.

The Traveling Zenman at Tulane University

It is now when at long last I have some free will to dedicated to my blog. After this morning post about Bill the Kid, I am going to pay tribute to a couple of events I completely avoided talking about from the past two months. Thus, in this post I’ll talk about Tulane University’s Tech Day of September 27th, and in the next about our TEDxUSagradoCorazón of October 18th and the STEMmED Colloquium of the 17th.

Tulane2013So, how can I begin telling about one of the most spectacular trips ever made? I was in New Orleans for just a few days, guest of Mike Griffith of Tulane University. Well, ever since stepping into the hotel (a great place just beside –coincidence!– the famed Piazza d’Italia, a tribute to Italian immigration into the city) I received the most lavish guest hospitality package ever. I was invited by my friend Mike to talk about my Zen of Teaching project and the myths of teaching, learning and technology in Tulane’s Tech Day 2013 event.

First, I met awesome people with whom I also had awesome drinks. Of course, besides being Faculty Technology Coordinator at Tulane, Mike is my Martini Guru, so I try to perfect my learning as often as possible with him. The best ever drink, however, was the Sazeracread its story here–, a mix of Rye whiskey and absinthe. In 1912 absinthe was banned, I believe almost worldwide, but today it came back. Yes, when sipping it I was thinking not only of vampires and Bourbon Street, but of Rimbaud and Verlaine, who loved sipping it. We had one just before dinner at the gorgeous two-story house-mansion-restaurant Clancy’s, another NOLA’s classic places, which is where to eat fried oysters with brie and other delicacies.

I met and had a delicious time with Charlie McMahon, Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Technology Officer at the Café Adelaide, part of the famed Commander’s Palace, together with a fantastic, sherry-showered turtle soup. In fact, I also appreciated Charlie’s talk –a roadmap of IT throughout the year– which was scheduled just before mine.

The Campus of Tulane is quite nice, with functional, simple and beautiful buildings, offices and halls, though I had just the time to visit a part of it only. And my talk itself was I believe just good enough for such a public. My English worked well, of course with accents from my two mother-y tongues. I had a lot of fun when speaking about the Zen of Teaching (immodestly enough) and happy to be able to bring it around. Also, Mike’s Staff were great professionals and I enjoyed working with them and, later, eating dinner in their company. I felt really well, and pampered, during my stay in New Orleans. Thanks!

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Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance

In my recent work trip to New York City, I had a chance to visit again the fabled Met Museum. In this latest visit I had an interesting encounter with a mythical fantastic persona: Achala, the Destroyer of Ignorance. I immediately linked him to our current situation, precisely due to Ignorance, in both the Washington shutdown and the Puerto Rican debt crisis. But I also connected it to my first job, being a teacher.

So, in a sense, I am -and all teachers are- destroyers of ignorance. Does it sound like the Avengers?

Painting of Achala the Destroyer of Ignorance.

Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance, with Consort. Nepal 1522. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

However, the interesting stuff doesn’t end here. The legend at the portrait’s side reads:

Crowned, jeweled, and grasping a sword, Achala cuts through the veil of ignorance. His left hand, holding a vajra-tipped noose to catch the ignorant, gestures in admonition. He is locked in sexual embrace with his consort Dveshavajri. The pair visually expresses the bliss of enlightenment that can be achieved by the combination of the right knowledge (prajna, female) and the right method (upaya, male).

It strikes me that we find this dualism -a bit naive, if you will- of a combination of two components: Knowledge and Method as essential pieces to obtain the enlightenment and thus the destruction if ignorance. It is certainly fascinating that the metaphor of the combination is sexual, and the artwork is surely tender and hard at the same time -Achala’s tender embrace with his consort, Dveshavajri, accompanied by his menacing sword-grasping.

Also, it strikes me that this is mythology. And I am working with the myths of teaching, learning and technology in my Zen of Teaching project. Often I have dealt with the myth of knowledge and method. In our schools and universities, it is the imperative dualistic construction of the whole educational infrastructure. Which my hyper-dialectic antennae vibrate about. The myth goes like this:

If we can marry (look how the sexual myth is accompanied by language figures of speech, east meets west!) some good chunks of knowledge with the right pedagogic method, and we embody this process in a teacher within a classroom, then, voila, we produce learning.

I have often said that this easy, simplistic model of teaching and learning is adopted and implemented throughout our educational system. Students are convinced that -by some magic induction- they will have learned the lesson at the end of a class session. Without any active part, without any studying, without any will of it being so, without taking responsibility. Of course, then , if students learn at the end of the lesson, then we can measure -assessment!- their learning at the end of said lesson with a nice 1-minute essay.

I believe reality is a bit more complex. You’ll learn a bit within the class lesson, student, but you’ll learn, really learn -not just remember- only if you spend some scarce resource of yours -time, energy, work- by applying yourself at it. Of course, we all know that informal learning is always working in the background. And it works by immersion. But it is not the main component of an academic education.

Anyhow, the Nepali painting is magnificent, elegant and inspiring.

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Some more thoughts on MOOCs

The Los Angeles Review of Books just published a debate on the future of the Humanities and the lion’s share was, of course, the idea of MOOC:

MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable (Part 1 & Part II) by Ian Bogost, Cathy N. Davidson, Al Filreis and Ray Schroeder.

I liked the debate very much, and I was impressed by the ideas expressed, like Professor Al Filreis from the University of Pennsylvania, who, after offering a “classic” course on contemporary American poetry, began opening it up until he found himself doing it in an online, sort-of-massive scale and definitively open way. So Filreis does a quasi-MOOC without giving up intelligence to machines and the usual, quintessential humanities discussions, interpretations and illuminations were given the role they deserve in the newest version of his course.

He writes:

ModPo is not a textbook; it’s a course, having about it the sense of a course: a collective movement through material, in which one learns the material with teachers and learners working at roughly the same time.  […] The 10-week experience of ModPo happens when it happens, during those 10 weeks, creating a sense that a course is being offered. Many ModPo students have described it, despite its size and despite the far-flung inhabitations of its members, as more “personal” than many huge auditorium-based lecture courses from their university days.

ModPo was, and is, the next step in a 30-year evolution of my course. [My underline]

Filreis has a clear sense that he’s using the highest technology with the utmost sense of personalization, and he’s implementing it.

On the other hand, while not expressing different posititons, Cathy N. Davidson, of Duke University, reminds us that the debate on MOOC’s is wrongly biased from the start since, in the US, higher education suffers from a severe disconnect from reality. She writes:

Let’s start with the numbers. 4.1: That’s the grade point average of a high school student entering the University of California, Irvine this year. 450,000: students on the waiting list for community colleges in California alone. 74%: the percentage of students from the richest quartile of households enrolled at the top 150 colleges in the US.

If you have “to be better than perfect to gain admission to your state university”, she observes”, we’re starting off with the wrong foot. If So, what MOOC discussion are we having, really?

Yet our antiquated educational system rewards a hierarchical form of silo’d, standardized teaching and learning that was designed for the Taylorized Industrial Age. Our over-emphasis on standardized testing undermines the intellectual skills of critical thinking and productive contribution needed to thrive in our interactive Do-It-Yourself era.

The idea is then that MOOCs can play an important role in a more democratic, world-wide education. The point here is that this splendid education offered for free to everyone (difficult to resist) is of course American-centered and American-branded. It seems to me analogous to the old Roman ideal of giving Roman citizenship to all conquered peoples, provided they accepted being Roman.

Thus, I am beginning to feel the idea that this is colonization after all. The xMOOCs may be little nicely painted Troyan Horses with no Cassandras advising the populace.

Says Cathy Davidson:

[…] professors at brick-and-mortar institutions have reason to worry that MOOCs are being hyped by venture capitalists who have no real interest in learning. I share that fear. However, our justifiable worry about the future of the professoriate doesn’t help those students being excluded from higher education today.

True. This is why MOOCs are both good and bad, and actually it’s beginning to make no sense at all to discuss about one or the other. I like these two professors mindsets who, while not necessarily agreeing with the Coursera-style MOOCs are simply stating and advancing the value of massive education through creative, organic uses of new technologies. It is not so much a matter of Humanities, thus. Sure, all disciplines subject to deep discussions and interpretations are best taught by opening up such discussions and interpretations, not necessarily closing them up in a machine-controlled environment made of quizzes and video lectures. But I’d like to pinpoint also that Physics and similar hard science should be taught the exact same way, because in the end, we’re just falling in the trap of producing just some “content” for students to consume. That is not the idea of education, no matter if in the Humanities or Sciences. I don’t wish to enter here the dangerous terrain of the old AI discussion. When AI will produce computing systems capable to hold real, engaging, and humane discussions, we’ll talk. I’m sure it will happen.

In the end, a third panelist (Ian Bogost, Georgia Institute of Technology), writes powerful thoughts:

I am not particularly interested in whether MOOCs are “good” or “bad” educational apparatuses, nor whether individual “positive” examples of the uses of MOOCs can be found to disprove wholesale rejections for the form. Rather, I’m interested in what MOOCs generally speaking do to the educational, technological, cultural, social, and economic landscape: in how they function at large. Individual examples of MOOCs illuminate a part of that picture, but not the whole of it. That whole picture is complex; MOOCs may function on many registers all at once, with interdependencies in-between. But, overall, MOOCs seem to function first and most powerfully as new instruments of fiscal and labor policy, rather than as educational technologies. It’s perhaps time we stopped talking about their value as instruments of learning, and started talking more about what choices they are making on our behalf while we are arguing on the internet about their educational potential.

He makes two very important points which I tend to agree with. First, the justification that MOOCs are needed because of people who are left out of the system for economic reasons, both in the US and outside. Not true, says Bogost, because stats suggest the majority of MOOC students are the usual white privileged males. And many already have completed an undergraduate education. But also, he adds, let’s not forget that the current Coursera-style xMOOCs really follow precisely the same old industrialist model of education which is being criticized. That may exacerbate the problem.

Again, I liked this debate and its positions, even if there’s no trace (as it is happening everywhere in a reconstruction of the past) of Siemens’ work (not even in the references!) with the first connectivist MOOCs since 2008. I most closely agree with Al Filreis, who is doing his work as creatively as possible with the affordances of new media and technologies. If he builds MOOCs in so doing, well, that’s OK. Or, as some say: This Ain’t No Silly MOOC!!

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MOOCs: a Flash

MOOCs. Just a quick thought that occurred to me in a flash of awareness, to add to the

Arthur C. Clarke

Cover of Arthur C. Clarke

post I wrote a couple days ago. Let me begin with saying that I don’t dislike Coursera. I think it is very appealing, and I’m going to say why.

First: Coursera-like MOOCs are attractive to lots of people because (1) they are free and (2) because they work in automatic mode, quasi as if there were not an instructor. They can be done without formalities, and their functioning is very simple.

Second: They work on the eternal cycle (1) Lecture (2) Assignments (3) Exams/Quizzes. Wow! progress.

Third: precisely for this reason, they work in a very familiar mode to students everywhere.

Fourth: Thus, they work standalone, with or without teachers. They use AI robots to correct students’ writings, and use peer-based evaluations for the assignments. These courses don’t need teachers.

Fifth: Remember Arthur C. Clarke saying that If A Teacher Can Be Replaced By A Computer, Then He Should.

Sixth: At this point we have no choice but to deduct that MOOCs Coursera-style are propagating (without being aware of this) one truth: education can live and prosper without teachers.

But this is a paradox, right? Yes it is, and it shows with brute force the following message brought to you by our sponsors:

Teachers who work automata-like in the same way as Coursera are doomed. Either we stand up to this task and really, **really** change the way we do education, from classes to admin to edtech, or there won’t b

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MOOCs, oh my

Français : Blason de l'université d'Harvard (USA)

Français : Blason de l’université d’Harvard (USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reflections and comments on MOOCs

I’d like here to add a few comments to my presentation of yesterday night on MOOCs.

The preso in its Storify form is available herewith. After, I am going to raise a couple of issues from the comments that were brought by two of yesterday’s students.

A hyperbole


So, here are the points I wish to raise here.

  1. The myth of content. Saying “dictatorship of content” is one thing. Which does not mean content is not important. But it is not all-important. In fact, the myth of contents means being slave of one powerful prison: believing that knowledge is freezable into static chunks that need to be passed down (transmitted) from teacher to student. So we get the idea that knowledge can be “delivered” and consumed like a pizza. If content were that important, then a book would be all one would need to learn whatever subject (myself, I learned a few subjects this way). But sometimes we need discussion, passion or simple human participation not mediated by anything.
  2. The role of the professor. Is the gentleman really needed? Schank says AI and robots cannot (yet) analyze or correct a text. Ergo, the role of the teacher is pretty much safe for now! However, in Thrun‘s mind (and operation), a few algorithms are the only subjects who do the evaluation, apart some peer-based student assignment correction. It things were that simple, well, we’d disappear shortly. But things are not that simple, and generally speaking, one cannot set up a self-driving machine to produce a sensibkle learning experience. In some areas one can, actually, and perhaps programming may be that. I didn’t go to many classes, and in a few cases I jumped that part altogether and got the exams only –and passed them. Does this mean there is no need of the professor? Certainly not.
  3. Some say MOOCs will subvert education as we know it. Well, it’s happening, but not in the way MOOCs were supposed to. In fact yesterday I made the point that the Coursera-like MOOC (xMOOC as it is called now) is actually pushing us back to our industrial chain-like view of education. OMG!
  4. One thing MOOCs are subverting is the certification business, credentials and all that. Which may be good, and this may spun new ideas. For instance this may open the doors to competency-based curricula where one students enters a “course” or a micro module and exits when she feels confident about mastering some knowledge or skill. Of course, for this to happen our Universities must loosen the requirement concept, and allow non-credit certificates or similar to be accepted as part of the standard requisites for a given program of studies. This alone is very unsettling for institutions. But we may already have a case with Coursera (which I criticize but publicly say I like their doing).
  5. Last, a very important albeit minor issue is the culture that is propagated through the MOOCs. Apparently MOOCs are given free to everyone, even those who cannot afford an expensive education. But in most countries, unlike the US, education is a social feature free (or low-cost) for all. So, we’re really talking about Harvard-style education being free for all. Great! But, remember: marrying Harvard means marrying its family too: all its culture, which is based on (or at least stands upon) the Great American Values. All right here, but: aren’t thus the GAVs exported or imposed upon all the “poor, ineducate” people of the world? Isn’t this a colonizing principle?
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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/.