Saturday, February 18, 2017

A few thoughts on Twitter chats as course discussion

One of the exciting and fun experiences of the #openlearning17 cMOOC are the twitter chats. I have not been able to participate in all of them, but the ones that I could make it to were energizing, provocative, and – I don’t want to say full of, but they provided their share of ideas and references. Here we are, in different corners of Virginia, the US, and the world, engaging in an intellectual exchange that can fairly easily fit into our schedules, that requires no travel (not even the 20 minutes that it takes me to get from JMU east campus to JMU west campus on the other side of i-81), and that we can pick up at a later time, read again, add new comments to, and so on.



One of the things that makes the chats exciting is the sheer speed with which tweets keep coming in. To me, this feels a bit like being at a party where everybody is talking; in situations like this, I can’t listen to anybody – I simply don’t understand what they’re saying, even if they’re talking to me. Too much confusion, too much firehose drinking. Tweetdeck is therefore an absolute necessity for me in the chats: One column is reserved for #openlearning17 and one column for responses/threads I am engaged in. Still, my sense is that I am slightly lost and don’t know where the conversation is going. I should check the storifies later on (Where are they, by the way? Can't find them!), but I haven’t done so yet.

Recently, I’ve been reminded of the German word Gespräch and the overtones it has for me. The word refers to a conversation, but a Gespräch is a bit more serious and weighty than most conversations (which we might call Unterhaltungen in German – entertainments). It doesn’t have the competitive aspects of a debate (which we call a Debatte); it is less focused than a discussion (which we call – German is sooooo different from English – a Diskussion).

You say something; I listen. There is some silence while we think and take a sip. I respond at length, going on for a while, with a point that seems off topic at first but turns out to be apposite; you listen. You respond. I ask a follow-up question to better understand what you are saying, and you respond. We’re silent again. I add to what you said. You challenge what I say. I take some time to think about this, then offer a qualification. You do not immediately understand and ask me to explain a point. It turns out we understood a phrase I used in opposite ways and laugh, appreciating the humor of the situation. And so on.

I think a good seminar discussion has the characteristics of such a Gespräch. To me, Twitter chats lack some of these characteristics: there is no silence; there are more statements than questions; it is hard for people to explain themselves at length. We’re on a short ride in a fast machine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Trailmix anybody?

Picture that shows that there are lots of different trail mixes, from fancy to sweet and crunchy
Trail Mixes in Vending Machine flickr photo by Pat Guiney shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

OK, I'm pretty late with this. My day job – workshops to give, roundtables to facilitate, assignments to grade etc. etc. – is running my agenda these days. I am kinda following the readings and listen to all of your blogposts on my one-hour commute, read by ... I think the computer voice's name is Alex. Alex breathes electronically, too, though it sounds occasionally more like a gasp. (If you're interested, I use Instapaper to save articles and strip away most gobbledygook, then create a playlist and have the app read it to me from my iphone. After about 53 minutes, the app crashes and I have some time to listen to cheesy music. Yay!)

I haven't said anything about Vannevar Bush yet. Fun article: There's the geeky "Ooh, look, he envisions the internet. No, it's Wikipedia. No, it's Zotero. No, wait..." part. And then there's the microfilm-nostalgic part. (Hey, have you ever tried to read microcards with your bare eyes?) I enjoyed the connection to made by the #openlearning17 cMOOC creators – nifty tool, and the annotations left by fellow cMOOCistas. And I was pleased by the puns – happy trails and the like. Wondering: did anybody joke with trailmixes? Trailmixtapes? The combinations might open actually meaningful connections – mixtapes as metamusic, just like Bush's annotations and trails and the multidimensional links between texts, tags, notes, and annotators are metatexts.

Two thoughts on those metatexts: First, we have known such things for a while as literature reviews. There you have people combing through sources, picking out relevant bits and pieces, creating connections, structures in a literature. This is how we observe the masters' readings (or the doctors', in many areas, if it's not the graduate assistants who write this stuff*). What's the difference, beyond the technology, which is more clunky and inflexible in the case of the literature reviews and more versatile in the case of a shared database? Honest question. I think part of the answer is the open collaborative possibilities of databases like, whose promises are realized only if enough people participate. (We talked about collective action problems on twitter a while back, no?)

Second thought. Metatexts are texts, too: see literature reviews. Who's gotta read all of this? Bush starts off with the observation that modern science (and lets add other types of scholarship to make it worse) produces increasing amounts of text that is not only too voluminous for any person to read, but also too specialized for persons outside of the specialty to understand. With scholarly trailblazing à la or literature reviews, we create additional text: Is this going to be less specialized, more comprehensible for those who aim to integrate knowledge? And if it is, whose trails are we going to follow – will we get specialized intellectual trail makers? (In that case, why not reading literature reviews?) Will we have our personal fellow trail makers whom we trust, whom we know, with whom we work? Will this create new specializations? Will we create our own new jargon among fellow trailblazers? (We talked about collective action problems on twitter a while back, no?)

*This reminds me of the Great Joke of Great Scholars: in the case of some Harvard law scholar who plagiarized the work of some Yale law scholar and excused it with "my student assistants messed up" or the like, it became clear that the Great Scholars don't actually write the stuff that they don't read. The system is unbroken!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Just wandering around

Image of Turtles on Ivy Creek

Story time: A few years ago, I was facilitating a workshop on learning objectives. I had given the workshop a couple of times before, and I think this instance was part of the JMUDesign program (these are probably the slides I used). The precise instance doesn’t really matter, though. What matters to the story was that a colleague of mine, a historian, was among the participants. In the workshop, I provided overviews of Bloom’s revised taxonomy for cognitive learning objectives, the Bloom taxonomy of affective learning objectives, and Fink’s wheel of learning goals (see p.9), and led the participants in working through and refining the learning objectives for a particular class that they were teaching. My historian colleague gave me pushback, though. He argued that learning objectives were basically irrelevant, in fact useless, for his course. Instead of defining ahead of time what students had to learn, he wanted his students to experience the close exploration of original sources and the debate over important historical questions. Clearly defined learning objectives would not reflect this experience.

My response was that maybe my colleague was in fact aiming at Fink’s application (critical and creative thinking), integration (connecting ideas and people), and human dimension (learning about oneself and others) goals. He disagreed. And now that I think of it (or have thought more about it), I tend to agree. True, you can formulate learning goals such as, “I want students to become more curious, open to other people’s thoughts, willing to be surprised by unexpected insights,” and I am sure that a skillful psychologist could device some assessment to capture whether these things are happening, and that there are more or less effective class designs that reach these goals. But what if these learning goals are what you want to discover as an instructor? What if you want to be open to unexpected learning goals, surprised by learning goals uncovered by the students that you had not thought of before?

I think about it like this: When I close my little office after a long day of developing faculty and head to the nearest bar for a cold beer or two (yeah, I wish), I take the quickest way that gets me to my well-deserved pleasure. I try to achieve a well-defined objective and take the most efficient way to get there. On the other hand, if I take a walk in the Ivy Creek Natural Area, I may choose one of the convenient trails, so that I don’t have to decide where to go, but I do not plan to reach a particular destination but wander around, possibly decide to take a different path on a whim if it seems interesting today, and am prepared to be surprised by unexpected discoveries or things that look different today for some reason. I may run into an acquaintance, stop to talk, and learn something that I had not expected along the way. OK, I may also get bitten by a tick.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Open Learning, Yeeeee...

funny photo of kid being thrown into a pool. kid seems to enjoy

toes up flickr photo by popofatticus shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The #OpenLearning17 MOOC people have said GO! and I’m carefully dipping my toe into the hopefully not too chlorinated water instead of jumping in (full disclosure: whenever I try, I land on my stomach. Wait: didn’t one of you all have a funny gif on all of this?). I am curious about all the new ideas and all that gimmicky stuff to learn (I hope there’ll be some of this), but I have no clue yet where I’m going with all of this. My teaching (U.S. Government, courts, and such) tends to be intramural, and my main role is now in faculty development, with a focus on supporting faculty career planning. I have the sense that there is something in all of this that will be very useful, maybe even inspiring, and at the very least fun will be had. Connection and community is the basis of my work, so yay!

I don’t want to stretch the pool analogy too far, but so far I have only some cold (I’m German, after all) shower thoughts to offer: We’re for Open, but it’s all in English, right? K, Virginia is in the US, where lots of people speak that fair-sounding language, but. So, if we want to be really open, we should think how to include languages (or go within languages?) other than English. This may be particularly relevant these days, with the US threatening to become more isolationist and England going Brexit. (Not to speak of right-wing attempts to defund and de-institutionalized public education in the US.) Will English-language academia continue to play the global role it has been playing? Are we ready for this? Canada and Australia to the rescue? What should be our response? Translation tech? Educational translator-ambassadors? Learning Arabic? Chinese?

(True story: A few years ago I gave a paper at a conference in Germany, in my native language. It was a complete umh-and-ah fest. I'm not ready to go non-English myself, even if it's in a language that's fairly close to English.)

(Oh, hey, Camille used the toe-dip metaphor as well in her wonderful post.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Is the absence of grade inflation a problem?

Grade inflation is commonly seen as a problem. An average grade between B+ and A in an undergraduate class is typically viewed as an indicator that instructional rigor is missing and that grades do not properly reflect student learning (or, rather, the lack of it). To avoid this problem, instructors are frequently admonished by academic departments to aim for an average class grade somewhere in the C-range. I’ve been thinking a bit about this and have a question that requires a bit of backup.

Let me start by stating a couple of rules that I think most people would agree with:

  1. Graded assignments should measure students’ knowledge and skills in the subject matter of a class. A more sophisticated–or at least more Benjamin-Bloomsy–version of this rule would state that graded assignments measure whether, and to what extent, students attain the learning objectives that the instructor has set for the class.
  2. Learning goals, assignments, and grading criteria should be transparent, so that students know what to do in order to succeed. In other words, instructors should tell students what they want them to learn and how that learning will be evaluated.
  3. Readings, class activities, and the like should provide students with opportunities to learn the things that graded assignments evaluate. This implies that assignments should actually test what students can learn in the class.
  4. Teaching should generally be effective in that students who participate in the class can learn the skills and knowledge that the class is meant to teach them. This means a number of things. Of course, it implies rule 3: the class should teach what it tests. But it also means that students should receive the support, inside and outside the class, that enables them to be successful. It also means that instruction should be able to address the learning needs of a diverse set of students, giving all the same opportunity to learn.
  5. Instructors should continuously improve their teaching.
  6. Students should be reasonably motivated to learn. This is connected to rule 4 in that effective instruction should include effective efforts to motivate students to learn.
If all of these rules are followed, or if all these conditions (if we want to think of them as such) are met, I don’t see how we cannot see grades go up over time. In addition, if a letter grade of B indicates that a student has achieved a learning objective, and an A indicates that the student excels in that objective, I don’t see how a course average can be below a B in the long run if all six rules are met.

Assume that a class has an average of a B or a B+ and the instructor is asked to lower the grade to a C. What can the instructor do?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Okay, here I go...

I've decided to sign up for the AAC&U Faculty Collaborative's Open Learning Connectivist MOOC, which starts this Monday. Let's see if I can convince myself that this is a type of procrastinating...

See ya, with more blog posts on open learning and such.

Edit: The RSS feed for Blogger that the friendly people at suggest doesn't work for me. Instead of

I have to use

Just as well.