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What have you lost?

I heard a report on the radio the other day about the many venues and recreation centers that were banning the infamous “selfie stick.”  If you haven’t yet been introduced to the device, the selfie stick (or photo arm) helps a person take a better-framed picture of herself.  Amusement parks have banned them on rides for safety reasons.  Several music festivals have banned their use completely because they obstructed the view of the musicians on stage.  Jason Gilbert, a technology editor for Yahoo Tech, has compiled a comprehensive list of places that have banned the selfie stick.  Gilbert promises to update the list regularly.  If you’re an avid selfie stick user, you may want to check out the list before planning your summer vacation.

In the radio report, the announcer proposed a suggestion for people to avoid selfie stick withdrawal.  “When you want to take a selfie and you can’t use your selfie stick, ask a passerby to lend you a hand.”  The suggestion may seem incredulous to some but that’s the way people used to take photos at monuments or state parks or museums.  We would ask someone nearby to give a hand.  Now with photo arms, remotes and built-in countdown timers, we’re trying to be independent.  It’s kind of funny that in the new “sharing culture,” we’re sharing a lot less.  Sure, we’re sharing photos of the celebrities we see or the places we visit.  But this is a different kind of sharing.  I’m talking about the sharing of time and talent instead of the sharing for self-promotion or envy.

Along the way, we’ve lost some of the sharing.  I hope I don’t sound like a crotchety old guy.  It’s not really my intention.  Instead, I want to shine a light on the aspects of our culture and society that we lose through the incorporation of technology.  Every time a new tool or technology is introduced, loads of people focus on the features and functionality we gain.  Routines become more efficient and streamlined.  We gain new powers and new routes to communication.  But we also lose some things in return.

A friend of mine completed three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan over a seven or eight year period.  After his last tour, we were discussing how much he was able to use Skype while he was stationed overseas.  He said that it provided comfort to his family to see his face and hear his voice regularly.  “But,” he said, “I don’t have a single letter from this tour.  After the other tours, my wife and I made a scrapbook of all of our letters to each other.  This tour, I don’t have a single one.”  With technology, we gain.  And we lose.

I don’t have a solution to avoid the losses we experience from the incorporation and evolution of new technologies.  Maybe those losses are things we can’t fight even if we try.  Instead, I want to shine a light on the loss and help us do better at recognizing the changes that are happening around us.  We don’t need to mourn the loss.  But maybe we can do a better job of accounting for it.

On my reading list

Summer is approaching and I’m putting together my reading list.  While I’ve never been one to sit on a beach and read, I do like to create a list of books that I’d like to tackle while I’m away from campus.  Here are a few I’ve added to the list so far:

1.  Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology – This has been on my reading list for a while.  I’ve had a copy sitting on my desk for the last few months and I’ve been trying to find the time to read it.  The book is written by Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the first-year learning program at Northern Arizona University.  In the text, Miller discusses the educational value of teaching online.  As someone who teaches a lot online, I’m anxious to see how she frames educational access and discusses the benefits online learning.

2.  ZigZag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity – A colleague recommended this as a possible book for a faculty learning community on campus.  The book identifies different strategies to increasing creative potential and could be a great resource for those of us who work with students in educational contexts.

3.  Talk like TED –  I’m one of the plenary speakers for the Teaching Professor Technology Conference this fall and I’m looking for ways to liven up my address.  A friend suggested that I check out this book to learn the “nine public speaking techniques of the world’s top minds.”  While it may not alleviate my anxiety, it may make my presentation a little stronger.

4.  It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens – As a dad of a teenager, I’m a little nervous about my daughter’s online activity and I hope this book will help me be a more informed parent.  Through exhaustive interviews with teenagers, the author, Danah Boyd, examines how teenagers use technology to interact with their peers.  A colleague has been using the book in her Legal and Ethical Issues in Online Education course and her students have loved the text.

5.  Twenty One Trends for the 21st Century: Out of the Trenches and Into the Future – This book just showed up on my radar recently.  Written by Gary Marx, the book examines different worldwide trends that are going to significantly impact the next century.  Concepts like diversity, sustainability and privacy are going to loom heavily on society and the book could be a good resource for creating some campus faculty development in the coming academic year.


The most important question 

It’s the end of the semester and things are getting a little crazy on campus.  It seems that finals week always brings out odd requests, tales of hardship and hopes for opportunities of redemption.  Some students ask for an incomplete grade to continue working on class materials.  Others will request extra credit assignments to boost their grades.  A few desperate students will beg their instructors to overlook a semester full of missed classes or tardies with a last ditch attempt to pull out the proverbial fourth quarter comeback.  This is that time of year.

When I first started teaching, I always had trouble weighing the requests.  I originally took a hard stance and just said “no” to every student, regardless of the situation.  While I consistently applied my “Just say no!” strategy, I realized that wasn’t actually being fair to students in need.  Let’s face it.  While those of us who work in higher education like to think of ourselves completely as academics and scholars, we’re really in the people business.  We work with students and they sometimes need empathy and support.  With this in mind, I’ve come up with the most important question that guides all of my decision-making when considering any instructional course of action.

What is in the best of interest of the student?

It may not be that groundbreaking or revolutionary but the question firmly places our focus on students’ needs.  Before anyone suggests that it means giving passing grades to all students or reducing expectations, I don’t apply the question that liberally.  Like me provide a few examples.  During a recent winter session, I had a student who was struggling financially.  She was taking an online class and had some of her utilities shut off during the course.  Considering her economic situation, I chose to give her an incomplete at the end of the semester so she could have a little more time to make up her work.  I felt the economic impact of an F would not be in her best interest.  She was a bright student and ultimately received a B+ in the class.  The incomplete was absolutely in her best interest.

But let’s look at a different situation.  I worked with a student a few semesters ago who was absolutely in the wrong program.  Although he was an intelligent young man, he wasn’t passionate about his major and his performance in class was lackluster.  I gave him the grade he earned (an F), even though he had requested some leniency.  In his situation, he was forced to consider whether his chosen major was right for him.  The failing grade motivated him to switch directions and find a program in which he was more passionate.  In this situation, the failure was absolutely in his best interest.

More recently, I had a student who I believe was dealing with some mental health issues.  She missed a bunch of classes and always had some drawn out excuse for her absences.  Despite her requests for an incomplete, I graded her on the work she submitted and gave the student an F.  It wasn’t an easy decision.  I hoped that the failing grade would provide some opportunity for a family intervention or maybe motivate her to seek help on her own.   Since it was relatively recent, I’m still waiting to see how this last scenario plays out.  The student was upset and said I was being unfair.  But I know that my heart was in the right place.  I made the decision with her interest in mind, whether she recognizes it or not.

If you’re bored…

I channeled my mother the other day.  My daughter complained that she was bored and that she wanted to go see a movie or something.  Almost on command, I heard my mom’s voice emerge from my mouth:

“If you’re bored, you’re boring.”

It was one of my mother’s go-to phrases whenever one of my brothers or me would complain about under-stimulation.  I never really expected to say those words myself but when my teenaged daughter started complaining, I felt them bubble out of me.  “Find something to do,” I explained to my daughter, adding my own twist to my mom’s favorite phrase.

As my daughter sullenly walked off to grab her iPad, I realized that she almost never complains about being bored.  When I was her age, it was a regular complaint.  But things are different now.  With smartphones in our hands, we’re almost never bored anymore.  We have so many distractions.  Candy Crush.  Trivia Crack.  Instagram.  Facebook.  With all of this stimulation, I see people walking across campus on a beautiful sunny day staring down at their screens.  It’s almost as if those boring walks across our lovely campus are just too much to bear.   But boredom isn’t something to be avoided.  Boredom should be celebrated and embraced.  It should be fostered.  At least that’s what some people are suggesting, based on some recent news reports.

Take the New York Times.  A few weeks ago, they published an opinion piece about the power of boredom.  One moment, the author is a bored, minimum wage employee in a kayak store.  The next, she’s a researcher who’s authoring her own book.  Or check out NPR.  Early this year, All Things Considered aired a story called Bored and Brilliant where people agreed to put down their cellphones for a week to aid in the development of creativity.  The story drew on research that showed that workers were more creative after they completed boring tasks.  With smartphones and mobile devices becoming more and more ubiquitous, the Bored and Brilliant organizers argue, we’re losing the creative advantages from boredom.  The weeklong event involved participants completing challenges each day and writing about their experiences.  To see the full range of activities and a debriefing of the event, check We Got Bored.  If a week away from your smartphone sounds a little barbaric, try a screen-free day.  A few friends of mine have invoked screen-free days on the weekends to become more active and more creative.

Just to be clear, I’m not railing on smartphones or mobile devices or technologies with screens.  It’s the easiness of entertainment and stimulation that’s keeping many people from experiencing boredom and possibly reaching their full creative potential.  The New York Times article included a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald where he stressed “you’ve got to go… through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.”  We’re never emerging from boredom because we’re hardly ever bored.  Next time my daughter complains about being bored, I plan to take a different course.  Instead of quoting my mother, I’ll simply say:  “You’re bored?  Good.  Now go try something creative.”  It’s not as catchy, I know, but at least it’s more motivational.

Uber and “new” technology

Recently, my wife and I visited Chicago for a long weekend trip.  I was attending a conference and she was tagging along to visit the Windy City for her first time.  My wife had made a long list of sights she planned to see and when we reviewed the list, we realized how tough it would be for her to make it work.  Her options seemed limited. She could save money by using public transportation to travel around the city but would sacrifice time traveling from location to location.  Another option included using taxis to travel more directly from place to place.  With the high cost of cab fare, however, she sacrificed spending a lot of money just in transportation.  She seemed a bit dejected.  Until I provided another option.

Uber is a mobile device-based system that allows users to call private cars for transportation.  Since drivers don’t have to pay for cab licenses, they can be much cheaper than taxi services.  For instance, my wife used the service to travel using an UberX car across town to the visit the Robie House that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  While a cab driver quoted a cost of $40 for the trip, it ended up costing my wife only $12.  She used the service several times to navigate the city and each trip was a fraction of what a cab would cost.  It was also quicker and more convenient than public transportation.  Uber saved the weekend.

This post isn’t really about navigating Chicago or about using Uber.  It’s about how we react to new technology.  My wife’s first reaction to my Uber suggestion was one of skepticism and caution.  While there are probably stories of Uber failures out there, my interaction with the service has always been positive.  It’s a new service though and some people react differently to new technologies and services.  Take the iPhone.  When it was introduced in 2007, people panned the design and the need for a phone that combines a computer with an iPod.  Who would we need that?  As it added location services and cameras and much more, the device (and its competitors) have become a ubiquitous part of our lives.  For better or worse, we wouldn’t have services like Yelp, Uber or Instagram without the power of the mobile device.  I can’t imagine traveling without interacting with those applications.

Alan Kay, the legendary computer scientist who has worked at Apple, Disney and Xerox, is often credited as saying that “technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”  For those of us of a certain age, we may not see telephones or televisions or refrigerators as new technology but they were at one time.  Now, these devices form a landscape of lifestyle and convenience to which previous generations were unaccustomed.  To my children, the services and applications supported by mobile technology they’ve had throughout their lives are not “new” technologies.  The tools just exist to provide entertainment, education, communication and convenience.  And that’s “uber” cool.

The blink response

I started re-reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell recently.  While I read the book almost a decade ago, I thought it was time to revisit the text.   Several colleagues have been talking about the power of the blink test in our work with students.  So, I decided to pick up the book again.  Blink discusses the power of “thinking without thinking” and the “impact and consequences of instantaneous impressions and conclusions.” If you haven’t read anything by Gladwell, he’s worth your time.  In his books, Gladwell uses stories and research to bring home elaborate and nuanced concepts.  Like his other books (The Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath), Blink will definitely not disappoint.

Blink was originally published in 2005 and I can remember reading it soon after it came out.  I was in a very different place professionally and personally.  I was teaching high school and my daughter was only four at the time.  Fast forward a decade and I’m now teaching at the collegiate level.  My daughter will enter high school herself next year, which has created a world of new challenges for me as a parent.  I provide this background since we all interact with texts based on our own contextual life experiences.  Just like a song that may seem sad or happy based on the state of mind we’re in, texts are colored by our experiences. In this case, sections of the book that didn’t resonate with me before seem to be jumping off the page.

Take an early section on studies conducted with students observing college professors.  In research conducted by psychologist Nalini Ambady, students were given a few seconds of video showing college professors and asked them to rate their teaching effectiveness.  Despite watching only a few seconds of silent video, the split decisions made by students closely aligned with the evaluations given by students who spent the entire semester with the professor.  Ambady shared her work in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In the article, she talks about the power of “thin slices” of observation and the importance of nonverbal behaviors.  In the study, professors who received high ratings were not the most attractive or the ones who looked more scholarly.  Instead, the instructors who received high ratings were the ones who were judged more positively on affective dimensions.  Maybe the professors smiled a little more.  Maybe their body language communicated compassion for students or openness.  Maybe their presence communicated a warmth that resonated positively with students.  Regardless of the specifics, those affective dimensions came through in the short, thin slices and impacted the students’ blink response.

While some may see Ambady’s study as casting a questionable light on student evaluations in general, we should resist dismissing the study or Gladwell’s book.   As I tried to explain to my daughter this morning as she was selecting outfits for school, we’re all being judged by the people we meet.  Whether it’s for our dress, our attitudes or for how we interact with others, all of us are being judged as a result of split-second decisions by the people we meet.  Thankfully for us as educators, the affective nature of our work is what resonates with our students in the thin slices.  If only the blink response by my daughter’s middle school peers was as simple.

Weathering the storm

My students hate my right now.  Okay, I’m probably exaggerating.  They don’t hate me.  But they’re definitely frustrated with me.  In my instructional technology course this week, the students have a screencasting assignment where they examine an assigned technology from the perspective of an elementary teacher.  They evaluate the site’s ease of use and outline how the tool fosters collaboration, creativity and problem solving with younger students.  The screencasting component is actually part of a multiweek examination of classroom technologies.  The students will slowly expand their lens as they start to look at privacy issues (with CIPPA, COPPA and FERPA) and different models of technology integration.  The screencasting component was step one of the larger activity and the students were clearly frustrated.  I could see the frustration as some of the students entered class and I could hear it in their voices as they tried to explain the challenges they were facing in my class.

The students were frustrated because they’re struggling and I’m not saving them.  I’m not trying to be a bad guy (or a bad teacher) but I’m trying to help them become better problem solvers.  I want them to troubleshoot technological issues and try to come up with solutions on their own.  When they email me with their problems, I’ll send them links to helpful sites or give them guidance on Google searches to conduct.  What I won’t do is simply say to them “Click here and do this and then do this.”  Some of the students clearly want this level of support but I can’t bring myself to do it.  And that’s why they hate me.

In Jan Chappuis’ book on Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, she outlines the importance of effective feedback for students.  “Effective feedback,” she writes “does not do the thinking for the students.”  Think about it.  If you’ve ever graded papers and marked off all of the grammar or spelling errors you found, you were do the thinking for your students.  The students would correct those specific errors but would not learn to avoid these mistakes or how to correct these errors on their own.  Instead of circling every spelling and grammar mistake, make a mark next to the sentence in which an error occurs.  This will alert students to where to find their mistakes but not fix the mistake for them.  It’s the classroom version of “Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day.  Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”

While this may sound logical for grading papers or fishing, my students probably won’t be able to translate this reasoning to the world of technology.  They see the technical hurdles and are frustrated at my unwillingness to save them.  But I’m looking at the bigger picture.  If they navigate the technical challenges today on their own, they are better equipped to fix the problems they’ll face down the road.  They have to weather the storm on their own today to be better prepared for the ones they’ll face in the future.  It’s frustrating, no doubt.  While I’m happy to provide them with support, guidance and words of encouragement, the storm is theirs to navigate alone.  That might make me a bad teacher. Or a really good one.  I really don’t know.


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