Processing ELI Notes

Some folks treat conference attendance as an art form. A former colleague of mine used to spend weeks preparing for the American Psychological Association annual meeting–scoping out the speakers, planning the dining and recreation agenda, figuring out what folks he wanted to make contact with. He described his behavior at the conference:

I’m the type of conference-goer who attends every session, takes copious notes, captures every handout, and sucks up everything the vendors have to offer. Once I get home, though, I feel no compulsion to do anything with the notes, handouts or vendor swag. Most of it sits is in my official conference tote bag until I eventually chuck it out.

I take a somewhat different approach. I try to go to a conference with a few general ideas about what I think I’d like to learn and then go with the flow a bit in trying to find information or contacts that contribute to that. Face-to-face conferences generate their own energy–that’s the primary reason they continue to exist–and I pretty much try to respond and follow along. When I get home, thought, I usually do try to take all the notes and figure out how to integrate the learning from the conference into the projects that I’m working on.

In the GTD methodology, that means 1) collecting all the ideas, thoughts, and questions in a single place, 2) processing them to figure out which ones require some concrete action, 3) group the actionable ones into specific contexts (physical or mental location) where they can best be done, 4) make sure that all the items are stored in a trusted source where you’ll remember to do something with them.

I had a two hour layover in Atlanta and I used the time to generate a list of 67 possible actions that were triggered by the conference. Some of them take a minute or two (as long as I remember them when I’m in the right place); others take a lot longer. Here are some samples.

  1. Download and print Henry Jenkins white paper on Digital Media and Learning. (The context requires being at a computer with power and a network connection.)
  2. Read and take notes on Jenkins paper for inclusion in the brown bag on student attitudes toward technology. (The context can be pretty much anyplace. I store most of these long papers in hard copy in a reading file–my dogpile.)
  3. Get Postman’s End of Education from the library. (The context is physically being at the library. This is one of 5 books that were mentioned at the conference that I want to read but not buy. There are also 3 to order–probably second hand from Amazon.)

I store all the items in a Mac application called iGTD that allows me to easily tag items and then organize them by either context or by project. Now the only challenge is to develop some compulsion to actually do the things on the list.

Twittering My Way to ELI

I’ve been a Twitter lurker ever since the University of Mary Washington Faculty Academy this last summer. Lately I’ve been watching Laura and Barbara and a few others chronicle their progress in preparing for the ELI Annual Meeting and my anticipation has grown every day that I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked to get ready. (Obviously bonding is more important than sleeping–ala Chris Dede–when it comes to sharing with their ELI colleagues.)

I’d been watching my Twitter friends largely through the widget on my Netvibes page, but I decided this might be the time to enable Tweets the SMS on the Treo. When the plane landed in Atlanta, the phone started buzzing right away–I had updates from a whole host of folks all traveling to San Antonio. I couldn’t help but think that even a few years ago this kind of real time, automatic updates would be the stuff of a Mission Impossible or Delta Force movie. (The impression is highlighted by the screen names–TechFoot, CogDog, GeekyMom.) Here we a group of academics heading off to the southwest to figure out how to use the technology to fire up students’ imaginations rather than blow up a bridge or assassinate some terrorist.

Now that we’re here the Twitter community is back in full swing, adding a new dimension to the already rich networking of the event.

A Glimpse into the Educative Power of Community

Gardner Writes » Blog Archive » Techfoot’s back on the bull’s eye:

Hamilton College Career Center Philosophy Twenty years ago I wrote the first draft of this philosophy statement. Glad to see it’s still there.

I appreciate Gardner’s kind words about my renewed attention to my blog and his comments on missed opportunities for integrating the academic mission with the goals of other units. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on student affairs:

Student experience: that’s the purview of Student Affairs, right? The people who schedule the mixers and dances and res-hall activities? The people who get the pool tables and climbing walls together for student recreation? Yet how many rich, unexplored opportunities are here for creative informal learning encounters, among students and faculty and staff. Instead, we seem to have independent, centrally funded catering operations–credit catering, activity catering, etc. Where’s the academic mission situated within a view of the whole person?

I spent 14 years of my professional life as part of the student affairs “division” at Hamilton. As the director of the Career Center, my community of practice was a pretty diverse group–the priest and chaplains; the clinical psychologists and counselors; the residence life folks; nurse practitioners and “the doctor”; the campus activities staff, the directors of multicultural affairs and service learning, along with the occasional faculty member doing a three year term as “downstairs dean”. We met in (seemingly endless) staff meetings, task forces, study groups, parties, retreats, sporting events, art shows and campus protests, and developed a remarkable sense of shared purpose and passion, even with the diversity of our professional training and experience.

The passion that held us together was the belief that, as Gardner says, the four-year, residential, liberal arts experience provides an unparalleled opportunity for learning in all its richness. We believed deeply in an expansive view of education that included emotional, motivational, spiritual and physical components as well as the cognitive and critical skills and understandings that were the centerpieces of the “academic mission”. While the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of our work were largely invisible to our faculty colleagues, we believed that we were contributing to something more substantial than merely organizing the next Smashing Pumpkins concert.

Early in my tenure at Hamilton, I got a call from the president’s secretary. One of the president’s practices was to schedule one-on-one meetings with new administrators shortly after they were hired. (His other practice was to protect the college from administrative bloat by writing a statement into appointment letters: “I’m sure that someone with your outstanding qualifications and potential will build on your Hamilton experience to move onto more challenging opportunities within five years.”) During the conversation, he asked me what my goals were for the new job.

Even in my short tenure, I was aware of the general distrust by the faculty of such a pristine liberal arts institution for anyone with the obscenely vocational title of Director of the Career Center. “My goal”, I told the president, “is to be as good at doing my job as the very best of your faculty are at doing theirs and to have you recognize and appreciate the contribution that makes to the College. The folks in my office share the same goals as the instructional faculty. We want to help students develop self-knowledge and understanding, learn to make decisions creatively and critically, and apply their writing and oral communication skills to building their own careers and contributing to their communities. Our methods of doing that are different–but they are every bit as complex as what faculty do within their disciplines. For us, the ultimate measure of success won’t be a book or publication in a prestigious journal. The measure of success will be if we can build on the best ideas of the psychologists, sociologists, learning theorists and our colleagues at other universities to help students lay the foundation for lifelong career development. ”

The president looked at me like I was nuts. He said something like, “As long as all the theoretical stuff doesn’t get in the way of building a good on-campus recruiting program, we’ll be just fine. I would really like to see more top-tier investment banks coming to campus though.”

For the rest of my tenure at Hamilton, we tried share the idea that the Career Center program made an important contribution to the developmental learning process and that students would benefit integrating their skills, values, interests and passions into a commitment to lifelong learning–starting with their first job or grad school search. The success of our attempt to communicate that vision could probably be summed up in the words of the tour guide with the most abrasive voice I’ve ever heard in my life. During the last summer I was at Hamilton, the admissions tour went right by my open office window, and five times a day, I had to listen to her holler:

And this is our career center where the recruiters come in the spring and the seniors go to get jobs…

So much for all that theoretical stuff…

I have to hope that our new tools of communication and collaboration can help someday make the various communities on our campuses more open and more transparent. Blogs, wikis, YouTube and the rest might help provide glimpses into communities that otherwise might be invisible to us, and those glimpses may well grow into something more.

How Good is Good Enough?

Are You as Good a Teacher as You Think?

One of the hardest parts about most of our work in academic technology is trying to figure out how to evaluate our progress. Every workshop could be tweaked to be just a little better. Every web site could be made a little more user friendly. Every class offers an endless opportunity to improve assignments, clarify explanations, or provide better feedback to students. How much is enough?

Paul Price, a psychology faculty member at Cal State, Fresno, has published an interesting essay that focuses on why it is so difficult for us to judge our effectiveness as teachers (or as people who support teachers). He begins by citing a study showing that 94% of faculty members at a major research university considered themselves to be better teachers than the average at their institutions. As a statistician, Price believes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% actually are better than average teachers–whatever that ultimately means. The tendency to overestimate our own abilities is perfectly natural: “…there is plenty of evidence from social-cognitive psychology that pretty much anyone who isn’t clinically depressed systematically overestimates his or her own traits and abilities in a wide variety of domains.” Social psychologists studying “social judgement” have documented the tendency in our assessment of friendliness, driving ability, health, and the quality of our work.

According to Price, college teachers are particularly susceptible to these kinds of errors because most faculty members work extremely hard, but they have unusual freedom to focus on things that are important to them. In research universities especially, faculty members decide what courses they teach, how to organize them, what materials to use, what exams and assignments to give. We work very long hours, but generally alone or with the students within our own classes. The fact that our colleagues are working just as hard seldom comes into our field of awareness.

Our ability overestimate our effectiveness is complicated by the fact that we can define good teaching in so many different ways and then use those self-defined definitions to rate our own competence. I might consider myself an excellent teacher because I engage my students in authentic learning activities while my colleague across the hall considers himself to be a truly outstanding lecturer who considers student involvement to be one of those hippy fads that will ultimately go away. Each of us finds security in our own definition of excellence.

Our ability is further compromised by the difficulty of getting valid feedback on our performance, in spite of the amount of time, energy and cash institutions invest in faculty and course evaluations.

As psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated, social feedback tends to be incredibly misleading. Social psychologist David Sears has studied what he calls the “person-positivity bias”—people’s tendency to evaluate other people positively in the absence of any good reason not to. In an examination of student evaluations of their professors at UCLA, comprising literally hundreds of thousands of ratings, Sears found that the average was 7.22 on a nine-point scale… As a result, these kinds of student and peer evaluations tend to confirm our inflated views of our own abilities. A better interpretation of your rating of six on a seven-point scale, then, is that you have no extremely obvious shortcomings. That’s a long way from being a superstar.The better-than-average effect extends beyond judgments about the selfto judgments about almost any individual.

Price acknowledges that a certain amount of self-deception is probably healthy:

scholars from a variety of fields—philosophy, psychoanalysis, and evolutionary biology among them—have argued that this kind of self-deception may be functional. One contemporary view in psychology is that being unrealistically optimistic about one’s traits, abilities, and level of control over the environment is an important component of good mental health

Doing justice to the complexity of teaching, however, requires us to look beyond the natural biases of our psychology by 1) learning more intentionally from our colleagues about their teaching, 2) reflecting systematically on our own strengths and weaknesses as teachers, and 3) communicating more creatively with our students about the substance of their learning. Price closes with the following thought: “When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were.”

Understanding Students’ Experience

Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts – A Neglected Necessity in Liberal Arts Assessment: The Student as the Unit of Analysis

Dan Chambliss, a former colleague of mine at Hamilton, has written a valuable article for the Center for Inquiry in the Liberal Arts. The article reminds us of the difference between the way that most faculty experience academic life and the way students experience it and suggests some ways that we can incorporate a more systematic understanding of student perception into our planning and assessment models.

As a sociologist, Dan has spent much of his professional life rigorously studying things that many of us know intuitively at some level, but often don’t act upon. Research by sociologists and anthropologists has confirmed that students exist in a culture that often runs parallel to that of faculty and administrators, but that only occasionally intersects.

Students and faculty also approach academic disciplines with different expectations. Faculty, for instance, typically place the psychology department among the natural sciences; most psychologists themselves do, and many fiercely advance a scientific agenda and image for their discipline. But most freshmen (reasonably) expect psychology to explain parental divorce, boyfriend problems, and why roommates fight. When they discover that hypothesis testing often figures more prominently than people, many students drop psychology.

Perhaps the most important point in the article for me, though, was the clear identification of he problem of reasoning from “organizational collectivities”:

the success of individual students doesn’t directly reflect the success of classes, departments, programs, or institutions, since individual experience cannot automatically be inferred from the behavior of collectivities.

With all the emphasis on assessment of student outcomes, most of us still fall back on reasoning from collectivities as a way of judging and publicizing our quality. Individual student learning is a complex interaction of all the academic and nonacademic experiences of a whole human being, and measuring the effectiveness of courses, departments and professors will never give the kind of deep insight into individual learning that would be necessary to allow us to make our universities truly liberating. Most universities have the expertise among the faculty in the social sciences to do this kind of research at a much more sophisticated level.

Even though we have the expertise, few of universities are using it to plan policy, because of the natural limitations of our own humanty. All of tend to focus most directly on the contribution that we make to the institution:

As the paid employees of academic institutions, then, we all concentrate on our formal, institutionalized, organized efforts to help our students. So it’s not surprising that when we try to measure what happens, we measure our own efforts: what buildings are newly opened; what programs are designed and initiated; what’s in the course catalogue; the classes we teach and how many students are in them; even how successful those classes are.

Dan lays out specific guidelines for doing policy research:

  1. Start by sampling actual student and looking at their entire transcripts. Even small random samples of transcripts can give “startling” insights into the actual academic lives of your students.
  2. Look hard at the academic lives of all your students–not just the award winners. How did the bottom half of the class get there? Does the institution bear any responsibility or is it purely the students’ lack of talent or achievement?
  3. “Finally, remember that departmental or program-level assessment, so politically feasible and apparently efficient, may easily be irrelevant to student outcomes.”

Lots to think about here…

All-You-Can-Eat Music Services Revisited

The student government negotiated a deal with Ruckus last semester for the college to run an on-campus music server. I was (am) a little skeptical that much will come of it since the rights management system used to protect the music is incompatible with the iPod. At least 90% if the students I see at the Rec Center are using iPods, and it’s hard to imagine a music service catching on that doesn’t allow students to take their tracks with them.

The announcement that IT was building this server did get me to take another look at subscription (all-you-can-eat) music services, though. I was an early adopter of MusicMatch’s premium service back in my pre-iPod, pre-iTunes days and continued pay the $100 annual subscription service until MusicMatch was purchased by Yahoo. (Yahoo’s enrollment and upgrade service didn’t work for me, so I let the subscription die.)

MusicMatch claimed about a million songs, allowed you to build custom playlists and to integrate online music with tunes stored on your hard drive. I used an old XP laptop pretty much as a dedicated radio when I was working in the office–the software was PC only, and I’m doing most of my work on the Mac these days. As a certifiable iPod fan-boy, I never considered even trying another MP3 player until a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to explore the iPod free zone again–not with Ruckus but with Rhapsody. Rhapsody offered a two week free trial for unlimited streaming from their catalog of some number of millions of tracks. (I have no idea of how many they actually have–every description is different.) The streaming services works through the browser on either the Mac or PC–with Safari working better than FireFox. (The scroll bars on the music player window don’t display in FireFox.)

To get the most out of the service, I had to install the software on a PC and get a compatible MP3 player. The music-to-go service is $15 a month and the streaming-only service is about $12. I went to Staples and bought the SanDisk Clip for about $30, and, after one very frustrating Sunday afternoon of trying to get the PC to recognize the Clip as a USB device, it seems to work pretty well. I can put about a dozen albums on it, and the sound is certainly good enough to listen to for an hour on the Arc Trainer.

I’m going to keep the service for a month and see if it grows on me. So far, the biggest benefit seems to be the recommendations for albums or artists that I might like to explore. (I still like the concept of Pandora in focusing on specific tracks rather than whole albums, but their selections are still pretty limited.) I’ve also been able to listen to many of my old albums that were destroyed in the great South Carolina Beach Fiasco back in 1974. The subscription service allows me to re-listen to music that isn’t valuable enough for me to buy, but is fun to listen to once in a while. (I’m listening now to an old Buffalo Springfield album–nothing that I’d ever buy again, but interesting enough for a frigid Sunday afternoon of pretending to write.)

The ideal would be an Tunes subscription service, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. This might be a useful addition to my musical life, but I’m not sure that most students will find the drawbacks–not actually owning the music and the lack of iPod support–to be pretty big obstacles to adoption.

Open Notebook Science

Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?: Scientific American

M. Mitchell Waldrop’s excellent introduction to “open notebook” science in Scientific American fits nicely with some of the work we’re doing to support the Charles Center’s initiative on expanding undergraduate research at the College. My class last semester helped plan a web site that will help students in all disciplines make the process of their research more open and transparent. The site will use a series of Web 2.0 tools to build a community among students at William and Mary who are actively engaged in research.

Most students get lots of exposure to the end products of scholarly work, but they are much less likely get much exposure to complexities of producing that scholarly work. As Ron Gross noted in The Independent Scholar’s Guide:

Rarely do researchers or writers “let their hair down,” revealing that they started where each of us must start: with mere infatuation for a subject… Established researchers rarely portray the faltering steps by which they came to pinpoint their purposes, chose their subject, sharpen their skills. By the time the work of the scholar or scientist comes to our attention, it is usually well packaged as a finished monograph, a carefully-crafted article, a well-honed paper, a polished book, a museum worthy collection or display, a documentary on film or videotape, or as some other finished work. This final project seems to have sprung full-grown from the author’s head. So we get a misleading picture of how intellectual and creative projects get started.
Gross, Independent Scholar’s Guide, Introduction to Chapter Two: From Messy Beginnings to Finished Product

In open-notebook science, blogs, wikis, and social networking tools provide a way to share the everyday decisions that shape an actual research project–both the successes and the failures. Scholarly papers offer clear views of what has been accomplished, but generally don’t provide much insight into the things that didn’t work. Often those details are precisely the ones that can jump-start the work of other scientists, making the whole research process more productive and efficient. The OpenWetWare initiative at MIT, for example, has expanded well beyond its beginnings as a few graduate students refining protocols for getting DNA cultures to grow:

In short, OpenWetWare has quickly grown into a social network catering to a wide cross-section of biologists and biological engineers. It currently encompasses laboratories on five continents, dozens of courses and interest groups, and hundreds of protocol discussions–more than 6100 Web pages edited by 3,000 registered users.

The article raises some interesting issues for institutions that are trying to expand undergraduate research. Timo Hannay, head of Web publishing at the Nature Publishing Group summarizes his vision of scholarly publishing in a way that fits nicely with our goals for the technology integration program:

Our real mission isn’t to publish journals, but to facilitate scientific communication,” he says. “We’ve recognized that the Web can completely change the way that communication happens.” Among the efforts are Nature Network, a social network designed for scientists; Connotea, a social bookmarking site patterned on the popular site, but optimized for the management of research references; and even an experiment in open peer review, with pre-publication manuscripts made available for public comment.

Waldrop has posted the article in Scientific American’s Edit This section where readers get to collaborate with the author in giving the story its final form.

Finding Focus

Last year at this time, I launched a little experiment. I set aside the amount of time that I normally would spend taking or teaching a class–about 10 hours a week for 15 weeks–to see how much I could improve my overall fitness. The results were pretty gratifying–I dropped my BMI (the dreaded body mass index) by 50%, brought my resting heart rate into the 60’s, and reduced my the diastolic arterial pressure by 12 points or so. The experiment had two goals: getting in better shape and learning more how I could make changes in my own behavior when I needed (or wanted to).

The second of those goals was important to me. Spending an hour a day on the Arc Trainer can seem like an incredible waste of time–even when listening to some good podcasts. Looking at it as an experiment in my own “learning how to learn” put the effort squarely in the long tradition of adult educators like Allen Tough and his work on intentional change. That helps make the investment seem a little more meaningful.

This semester, I think I’m going to try a different experiment. I’ve been fascinated for some time by David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and the impact on so many in the geekosphere. I’ve played around the edges with some of the tools, but I’m wondering what would happen if I really focused for a semester on developing an integrated approach to the “art of stress-free productivity.” Stress-free? Wonder what impact that would have on the old diastolic.

Welcome to the New Semester

Gardner Writes >> My New Year’s Blogging Resolutions

I love to walk around the campus on the first day of the new semester. From the snippets of conversation it’s obvious that many students have a genuine sense of excitement about the new things they’ll learn, the books they’ll be reading and the people that they’ll meet. This is my 49th semester opening day in my career in higher education, and I’m struck by the gift that the academic calendar gives us–that gift of a fresh start. New books, new classes–maybe even a new commitment to blogging.

I’m inspired by the surge of creativity emanating from Fredricksburg, particularly now that Gardner has begun to focus more energy on the care and feeding of his blog:

I resolve to blog at least once a day. Short or long, ill- or well-considered, focused or rambling, a post is better than silence, and I have learned to my cost how difficult it is to sustain momentum when I skip a day, or two, or ten. This blog has been a crucial part of my own teaching and learning for over three years now. It deserves more care and feeding than I’ve been giving it. Nothing against slow-blogging and its magnificent practitioners–but I feel I need the daily discipline.

Gardner’s recent posts have re-awakened a desire to get back in the game and start participating in the conversation again. I’d spent the last semester down in the weeds trying to improve some of the nitty-gritty details of the way we manage time, deliver services and organize information. (Or, as Jon Udell calls it in his IT Conversations interview with Gardner , taking a “more tempered approach” toward being a change agent and advocate for transformation.)

In many ways, the academic calendar is a historical artifact that sucks the life out of authentic learning. But the fact that twice a year we have the chance to start over, however symbolically, is pretty cool. No promises, but I’m going to hit the post button.