Faculty Blogging: My Beat

Back when I was in journalism school–writing my stories for Daily Texan on a IBM Selectric–everyone was expected to develop a “beat“. Your beat might be the night court and police station, the athletic complex, the theaters, or some other part of the institution that you knew better anyone else in the newsroom. Your goal as a beat reporter was to build up a base of knowledge and a web of contacts that allowed you to uncover news that others might miss. (For a while there actually was a Pulitzer prize for “Beat Journalism”.)

Faculty bloggers don’t have formal beats the way that news reporters do, but we do have areas of the college that we have inside and specialized knowledge about. Some of those are formal and tied to our jobs–I think a lot about emerging technology, classroom design, project management and learning theory because my understanding of those topics shape the decisions that I have to make every day.

My “beat” also includes lots of contacts in lots of places that aren’t tied directly to the job. I spend about six hours a week on the Arc Trainer at the Rec Center, some quality time on path or in the halls chatting with other social scientists and a little time most days at the Daily Grind. Those non-work related contacts provide some of the most interesting insights into life at William and Mary, like this one overheard at the Daily Grind.

Student A: One thing I want to be sure to do while I’m here is to take a class from Scott Nelson.

Student B: He’s great. When I grow up, I want to be like Scott Nelson.

Student C: That’s nothing. When I die, I want to come back as Scott Nelson.

Scott Nelson with the Boss
Learning from Scott Nelson, priceless--Scott, his book and the Boss.

What Story Does Your Class Tell?

In preparing for a presentation on course planning for Blackboard last week, I came upon a great course design tip sheet at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard. The sheet begins with a couple of general questions and suggests that teachers not think specific content until after they have thought carefully about their overall purpose and about the expectations, capabilities and needs of their students. Hidden in the midst of that checklist was a question that has really captured my interest: “What’s the story line for this course?”

I’d never thought of my courses as having “story lines”, but they clearly do. The story is what pulls the disparate activities, topics and conversations of a course into a meaningful whole. Each participant constructs an individual narrative that persists long after the “facts” and much of “the content” is forgotten. The story weaves the actions, reactions, motivations, emotions, thoughts and behaviors into an unique experience with the capacity to shape participants as active creators of our own learning. As teachers we don’t control the entire story, but we do get to shape it somewhat by the activities we choose and by the way we interact with our students.

When we look back at the learning that has been most significant in our own lives, we generally relate our experience as narrative. As Gardner wrote about Professor Elizabeth Phillips:

I remember the room where I first heard her speak.  No one in my immediate family had been to college. I had no idea what to expect. After that class, I left the room feeling dizzy, giddy, elated, and not a little anxious, for everything had changed, and I knew I had to at least try to be answerable to that revelation.

All of my classes have a common story line. My goal in the 15 weeks we’re together is to help all of us learn how to learn more effectively. The central issue is developing new flexibility and capacity in learning; content provides the tools by which we develop those capacities. As the catalog outlines in the emerging technology class, we’ll be thinking, talking and writing about a variety of topics including past innovations, present applications, and future advances in educational technology. We’ll look at these topics through multiple theoretical lenses, including change theories, diffusion of innovations, and learning theories. But the ultimate story of the courses goes far beyond that–at least I hope it will.

My goal in designing the course is to prepare educators who are confident in their ability to navigate in a world that is increasingly dominated by information technology. If we’re successful, we’ll be more prepared as teachers and administrators to help our own students deal with increasing pace of change in their lives. Some of the themes that I expect to emerge during my next class include ways that we can help students:

  • Manage their participation in government so that their rights to privacy, security and access to information are protected from both government agencies and corporate interests.
  • Keep personal information management skills up-to-date so that they can continue to be employable in a rapidly changing economy.
  • Manage their personal information both at home and at work to protect themselves—data, passwords, and personal identity—from intrusion and damage.
  • Use technology to overcome parochialism to become more active and effective citizens.

This has all the potential for a fascinating story.

All About Time

This is the point in the year when many of us in the academic community begin to think really seriously about time. When “the summer” began last May, there seemed to be plenty of time to complete our projects, however optimistic or unrealistic our expectations. Now with 5 days to go before our faculty orientation time doesn’t look the same. My project list is longer than it was when I started, and my conversations on the path with others suggest that I’m not alone.

This summer, these final reflections on my time and how I invested it have been inescapably colored by the death of Randy Pausch, a man I never met but who I feel I know somewhat through the miracle of the internet. Last night I watched parts the “nuts and bolts” presentation on time management he did at UVA and thought about what a gift it was to be reminded of the importance of the individual decisions we make every day about meetings, phone calls, email and the other things that shape our lives.

We’re doing an experiment in the next month to track how those of us in the Academic Information Services group spend actually spend invest our time. Just a few days into the project, it’s already clear how extraordinarily difficult it is to try to focus energy and time on things that are important. Over the years, we’ve filled our lives with actions and decisions and habits that probably need to change to deal with the realities of our work lives now. Change of this magnitude is always tough, but letting others determine the directions of our lives is tougher in the long term.

Course Planning for Emerging Technology

A colleague of mine recently likened the course planning process to what goes on inside a sausage factory:

Over a century ago, the German statesman Otto Von Bismarck supposedly said, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” Same point can be made about the way I construct course syllabi…

While some folks may be shocked by realities of how faculty members plan their courses, I think there is real value to opening up the process. In that spirit, I’m planning to use this blog to reflect on my activities in preparing the Emerging Technologies in Education course that I’m planning for the fall. The planning model that I use looks something like this.

For me, course planning involves balancing three sets of interlocking goals: the learning goals of the individual students, the constraints (and affordances) of accomplishing those goals in a credit-bearing college course, and the “institutional press” of conducting the class within a specific institutional culture. When I plan a class, I try to structure our time together in a way that does justice to the complexity of these three sets of expectations. In a perfect world, the goals would be largely aligned, but in the real world of practice they seldom are.

As a course planner, I make decisions about structure, sequence, timing, grading and the myriad of other details based on my individual interpretation of the context of the class. There are at least four lenses that I use to focus on the particulars of a class.

  • Educational Philosophy: Since the earliest scientific studies on curriculum, planners have noted that course design is a reflection of individual educational philosophy, and there is tremendous variation in the fundamental world views that shape teachers’ decisions. While my practice draws on a variety of perspectives–liberal education, progressivism, sometimes even behaviorism–my primary decision-making lenses are humanistic education and individualized instruction.
  • Authentic Learning: As an intellectual and genetic descendent of John Dewey, I’m committed to building classes that advance authentic learning: learning that uses real-world problems and projects and that allow students to explore and discuss these problems in ways that are relevant to them.
  • Authentic Teaching: One of the dangers of a scientific approach to teaching and learning is that it devalues the relationship between teacher and learner. In planning courses, I try to find topics, techniques and problems that connect to my genuine interests and concerns. In Parker Palmer’s terms: “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will also find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Fredrick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’”
  • Communities of Practice:. I’ve come agree with John Seeley Brown that one of the major goals of education is to bring students into contact with divergent communities with distinct understanding of knowledge and distinct ways of judging what is interesting, valid and significant. The focus of a community of practice is “learning to be” rather than merely mastering a body of knowledge. A major question in my courses is what does it mean to be an effective learner, citizen, teacher or administrator in a time of unparalleled technological change.

Translating those broad principles into practice—a set of activities and interactions, bounded by time and constrained by the realities of “institutional press”—make the course planning process an enormously complex one, but one that constitutes the heart of effective teaching.

The Importance of Finishing the Job


Some time ago I was responsible for a camp in the Ardirondacks with a big dam that controlled our lake. One summer we had some problems and had to bring in an engineering firm to do some work, and one of the engineers was explaining why building dams is so expensive. Generally about 90% of the work is invisible: rerouting stream beds, pouring footings and installing other infrastructure elements that, on the surface, have noting to do with stopping the flow of water. While that’s true, the entire project has no value unless you finish the job and do the last 10% that actually stops the water.

In some ways many academic IT projects are a little like that, but with the numbers reversed. Buying and installing hardware and software, configuring systems and running pilot tests all take time and technical expertise. But for many of our projects, the real work that produces gains in teaching, learning or productivity just begins when those initial projects are completed. Producing those gains may take years of communication, evaluation, training and re-engineering. I wonder how many of us really understand that and commit to finishing the job when we launch some new initiative. Would we focus our time differently if we were more realistic about what we were committing to?

Photo by Flickr User Farm3 under a Creative Commons Attribution License

How Much Is Enough? Focused Research

too much orange juice

One of my students came back to visit me after more than a year working with African refugees. During the time that he was away, he said that one of the things that he dreamed when he got back to US was drinking a tall glass of cold orange juice. When he got back his home in western New York, he headed down the the local Wegmans grocery store make his dream come true–only to find that he had to chose from more than 60 kinds–pulp, no pulp; with calcium or without; from concentrate or not from concentrate. After a year living with virtually no choice of what he would eat or drink or wear, he was so overwhelmed by the possibilities that he left without making a decision.

Most Americans assume that choice is a good thing–and that more more choice is better. Psychologist Barry Schwartz challenges central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied. For a great introduction to Schwartz’s thinking on this topic, check out his Ted Talk.

We see the problems with too much choice all the time as we help users integrate technology into their teaching and research. Few users even scratch the surface in using the software they purchase. Experts find that most Word users utilize fewer than 5% of the features–even those for whom word processing is the central productivity tool for their work. One of the most difficult–but most important–tasks for those of us in the Technology Integration Program is to find the balance between unfettered choice and a unwarranted centralization that chokes off creativity. We need to take the leadership in exploring new technologies, recommending those that have the widest potential to improve learning and then developing support mechanisms that help faculty adopt new tools quickly and efficiently.

I’ll be writing more about these focused research projects as the summer goes on, but I owe Susan three posts in the next three days, so I’m going to bring this one to a close.

Writing Strategically (Part Two)

This is a quick follow-up to my last post about choosing a writing strategy for your for your blog. In the last post, I talked about treating your blog as an a forum to explore all the interesting things that you learn about through the web, reading, conversations, and all the other sources of information that come into your personal information universe. Readers will seek out your blog as a way of entering into your world and of finding resources that they never would have found on their own.

Another strategy is to pick out a particular area of expertise and write deeply and extensively about issues within that area. Readers come to your site because you know more about this topic than almost anyone else in the world. (Or at least on the internet.) The goal of this type of blogging is summed up in this quote from Ron Gross’s book The Independent Scholar’s Handbook:

Max Schuster was not a man to mince words or to warm you up with small talk. His words were well honed; he obviously had delivered this message before and knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Fixing me with a firm eye over the glistening mahogany desktop he declared: “I have one bit of advice for you–not just for success in this business, but personally. Begin at once–not today or tomorrow or at some indefinite date, but right now, at this precise moment–to chose some subject, some concept, some great name or idea or idea in history on which you can eventually make yourselves the world’s supreme expert. Start a crash program immediately to qualify yourself for this self-assignment through reading, research and reflection. In his librarylike office, such a program did not seem impossible, as a generous slice of the world’s wisdom was within arms reach.

In a world defined by the long tail, just about every topic needs its experts. One of my favorite examples has been

43 Folders where Merlin Mann has turned his own inability to manage his time and his life into what appears to be a full-time job. If you have a passion, no matter how narrow, your blog can be a place to find others who share it.

Writing Strategically (Part One)

This is a part of a series of posts I’m doing in anticipation of my new role as a member of the community of official bloggers at the College of William and Mary. The goal is to identify some guidelines for blogging that have emerged from my work with students and academic blogging over the last half decade.

People visit websites because of the content. Once you’ve figured out why you’re becoming involved in this blogging business at all, it’s helpful to do plan what you’re going to write about. The vast majority of bloggers write primarily to share information with a few friends or relatives, and the content flows naturally from their everyday lives. Their blogs are filled with hilarious anecdotes about their cats, tales of fabulous meals at local Mexican restaurants and occasional musings about the meaning of life.

Professional blogging is a little different. Since you can’t count on your cat to provide the content for your posts, you need to come up with a focus that will attract readers to your site and engage them with your material. There are at least two general strategies for making that decision: the BoingBoing strategy and 43Folders methodology.

Writers following the BoingBoing strategy emulate the success of BoingBoing.net. which seeks to be a world-wide directory of “cultural curiosities and interesting technologies” and draws readers by providing a mix of ideas that readers might miss if left to their own devices. (For most of the history of the blogosphere, BoingBong has been the internet’s most popular blog, though it now appears to have been surpassed by the Huffington Post.)

A typical BoingBoing session includes topics like the following:

  • US seizes Danish dress-shop’s payment to Pakistan in the name of “terrorism”
  • First-ever video of human ovulation
  • Denial-of-coffee attacks affect networked coffee-maker
  • Recycled teacup lights

Bloggers using the BoingBoing strategy are a lot like the producers of the Today Show. Readers are attracted to the mix of stories and the particular sensibilities of editors. They return to the site to be entertained, challenged and enlightened. One of the best examples of this strategy in the educational arena is the far-ranging writings of Gardner Campbell, covering topics ranging from John Donne to Douglas Engelbart, the Beatles, Beach Boys and fish tacos. Gardner’s blog has been the model that I’ve used most often to introduce my students to blogging, and most of them have adopted the generalist strategy.

There is, however, another method for organizing your blog, and I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

Think First; Type Later

For most people, writing is hard work. Writing for a public forum on the internet is hard, scary work. Once you push the “submit” button, your words are out there for everyone to see and respond to, instantly searchable, and living in perpetuity in the Google cache or deep in the Internet Archive. Yet, tens of millions of folks all over the world overcome their fear to post their content on the web–including 64% of American teens who are “content creators“, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. One good bit of advice for beginning bloggers, and more experienced folks who are starting a new project, is to “think first and type later.” Before making that first post, take a few minutes and answer three questions. (A number one pencil and a legal pad are the perfect tools for this part of the process, but it’s OK to type if you’ve forgotten how to use a pencil.)

  • Purpose: Why am I doing this?
  • Content: What am I going to write about?
  • Process: How am I going to do it?

There are lots of good reasons to publish on the web. For me, posting regularly is a discipline that accomplishes two goals. First, it focuses my attention by forcing me to look the mass of information that I’ve been exposed on any particular day and evaluate the usefulness (or interestingness) of that information. The half-hour that I’m investing in writing this post could be spent in an infinite number of other ways. What, if anything, justifies the time and energy to highlight a particular idea, pie and hold up for further inspection? The possible stories come from everywhere–something that I read, a TV or radio program, podcast, conversation or just a random thought that popped into my mind. Focused attention helps to make sense from the torrent of information.

The second discipline is to try to figure out the utility of writing about a particular topic for the reader. One major reason for publishing is to allow others to benefit from what I’ve learned from my experience. In my writing, I’m always searching for some way to help members of my community to broaden their perspectives, to look at their information universe a little differently, or to think of ways to improve their practice.

As an official faculty blogger, my purpose is a little different than it has been for other writing I’ve done. We know that the most frequent visitors to the site are from outside William and Mary, some of whom may not be interested in the nuts and bolts of our technology infrastructure. My task here is to look what’s happening at the college from my personal perspective and post about topics that be interesting and helpful to parents, prospective students, alumni and members of the larger educational community. By merging my personal perspective with those of the other writers on the project, we provide an additional window into the William and Mary experience that is emergent, individual, authentic and vibrant.

In my next post, I take a look at how to translate that purpose into something more concrete by looking at the second question: what am I going to write about?

On Becoming a Faculty Blogger

I’ve been asked to be an “official faculty blogger” when William and Mary launches the new college web site in July. The re.web project has been one of the most thoughtfully managed projects that I’ve experienced at any university, and I’m honored to be asked to contribute to the final product in this way. Writing as a faculty blogger opens up a new audience for me, and I’m hoping that it will foster some additional communication and community with the other faculty and students who are also participating.

I’ve used blogs in my own teaching and professional development at least since the term was coined in 1999. My students and I have created (and abandoned!) dozens of general interest and special purpose journals using almost every piece of specialized software that’s been available to us. We write primarily about educational technology issues in K-12, colleges and universities, and adult education. Most of the blogs are focused on class issues and tend to die pretty quickly after the grades are in, but a few have turned into extremely powerful forums for professional development.

I’m currently maintaining two blogs–Techfoot, my primary forum for writing about technology, and a test blog called Academic Technology News , which is an internal journal primarily designed to share technical information with our technology specialists.(The jury is still out on that one, and it could well disappear very shortly.) As a faculty blogger, my writing will still be focused on technology, but for a more general audience.

Blogging has become an integrated part of my teaching and scholarship and that of my students. When it works, blogging permits us to play with ideas in a rough draft format and to get immediate (and candid) feedback from members of our community. The feedback effect on blogs comes much more quickly than in traditional methods of communication and potentially provides a much greater range of ideas.

Here’s hoping that this new forum will bring even more voices to the conversation about teaching, learning and technology at William and Mary.