Category Archives: myths

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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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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#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:

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.

Zen of Teaching: The Presentation (MOOC version)

I was called to cover for my friend and colleague Rosa Ojeda when she reported she wouldn’t be able to do her talk two weeks ago for George Siemens‘ and Stephen DownesMOOCChange 2011“. I was thrilled to be able to share with the George, Stephen and their co-teachers in this extraordinary feat and feast of learning that i their course. Of course, I was also panicked to be there, on the same spot where Siemens, Downes, Tony Bates, Rory McGreal and Howard Rheingold had talked, among many other giants.

But it seems I didn’t do a very bad job, either. And it was a fascinating and again, thrilling experience. Here is thus my presentation: Zen of Teaching: Myths of Teaching & Learning and Technology.

Just a little comment on the side: Somebody, after I had said how much I appreciated having mentors on my side, helping, encouraging and inspiring me all the time, put this genius line up on the chat:


A big thanks to Siemens and especially to Stephen Downes, who helped me feel at ease and confident with the Elluminate wizardry.

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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, 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 (, 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.

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