Diffusing Innovation

Regular readers of the 8 Blog know that I spend a fair amount of time focusing on innovations in educational environments.  I work to promote innovative instructional practices and focus on emergent technologies of promise.  By communicating these areas, I hope to help to spread innovations.

I came across some research recently that estimated the “innovativeness” of individuals within a social system.  In his work titled Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers (2003) categorized five different groups based on the degree to which they would adopt new ideas.  The groups included: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.  In Rogers’ conceptualization, innovators were the risk takers and the ones most willing to test uncharted waters. Despite representing only 2.5% of the population of a social system, innovators play a critical role in spreading new ideas. Innovators bring new ideas from the outside and serve as the gatekeepers and prophets for change.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, laggards are the ones most resistant to change.  They are skeptical of innovations and need proof that a new idea works before they try it themselves.  In Rogers’ estimation, 16% of any social system could be categorized as a laggard.  “What about the other 81%?” you may be wondering.  Roughly, 13.5% would be categorized as “early adopters.” Early adopters are similar to innovators in that they are open to experimentation and change.  One key difference, however, is that early adopters are more likely to hold leadership positions and can help to spread innovations by dedicating resources to fuel the diffusion.  The other 68% of the social system are evenly distributed among the early majority and late majority groups.

While categorizing people into different groups may help leaders identify some of the challenges with diffusing innovations, I think it might be more helpful to look at some of the other factors that influence the spread of new ideas.  While Rogers identifies several elements that impact the spread of new ideas, I thought I’d focus on the one element where we may have the most impact: the social system.  In her recent blog post on Edutopia, Alyssa Tormala identifies several strategies that school leaders should employ to create a “culture of innovation.”  School leaders, Tormala writes, need to model innovation by communicating “when we’re taking a risk, asking for feedback, sharing any data that we gather, and then visibly self-assessing and reflecting on the results.”  Additionally, school leaders need to empathize with the challenges that educators face when they encounter new ideas and celebrate whenever educators are willing to take risks.  In his work with establishing the “innovator mindset,” George Couros identifies five characteristics of innovative organizations.  While some of the characteristics are reflected in Tormala’s post, I think two characteristics stand out.  Couros writes that innovations spread through relationships and in environments where sharing of ideas is supported.  Innovations don’t spread if individuals don’t know (or trust) their colleagues or if they aren’t comfortable sharing their successes and failures.  While I agree that leaders need to model this, they also need to create environments where supportive, collaborative relationships are developed.

Five ways to build a more engaging online class

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from a few years ago.  This post was originally shared in May 2015 and explores the elements found in engaging online classes. 

A few months ago, the US News and World Report identified 6 signs of a bad online instructor.  The list includes such markers “no set timetable for emails” and “an unclear syllabus.”  The list was primarily designed for students enrolling in an online class so they could easily assess the quality of a class and withdrawal if needed.  It’s kind of like the brown M&M story for Van Halen.  In their concert contracts with venues, Van Halen would require a bowl of M&Ms backstage with all of the brown M&Ms removed.  While many people felt the band was just exerting their excessive celebrity status, the reasoning was actually much different.  Since the contracts usually outlined explicit safety considerations that were needed for the band to perform, the brown M&M’s gave the band manager an easy way to assess whether the venue had done their due diligence.  If he saw brown M&M’s in the bowl, he would know that the venue hadn’t followed the contract to the letter.  It’s a quick and easy assessment.

While these “signs for bad online instructors” may provide the same easy assessment for students, it’s not that helpful for people wanting to develop engaging online classes.  An online instructor could essentially correct the “6 signs” and still have a poorly constructed online class.  Rather than focus on these areas, I offer the following strategies for building more engaging online classes.  Most of them are directly or indirectly related to Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis’s work with the Social Presence Model.

1.  Be involved.  Students find online courses more engaging when they know the instructor is participating herself.  I’ve blogged about this before and discussed the need for instructors to be VOCAL (visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example).  When students submitted an assignment, provide individualized feedback to students.  If you’ve assigned participation in discussion forums, respond to their discussion posts.  It’s important that you’re e a participant in the online class and not just an observer.

2.  Get students talking early.   In the very first module of my online courses, I usually have students introducing themselves to their classmates.  This helps to break the ice in the class and fosters a larger community across the group.  I find early involvement in online classes leads to more extended engagement with course content and in the discussion forums.

3.  Use a mix of media.   Students like to hear the voices and see the faces of the people in their online classes.  Rather than having students submitting papers or taking online tests, have them use online tools (MyBrainShark, Screencastomatic, etc.) to record their voices as they present their ideas.    Instead of uploading text-based documents, create short lesson videos that teach the content.  By using a variety of modalities with your online students, you can help them engage with the class at multiple levels.

4.  Connect the content to students’ lives.  While this may be difficult with some subject matter, it helps to build social presence with students.  By having students connect the content with their experiences, you tap into the element of the Social Presence Model that Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis call “Knowledge and Experience.”  When students share their knowledge and personal experience with a topic, they feel more connected with the content.

5.  Seek out new alternate forms of content.  The Internet houses a wealth of educational material. From blogs to videos to simulations, the online instructor really has a world at their fingertips.  Not finding anything valuable on YouTube or through Google?  Check out some of the sites for Open Source Educational Content.

Bringing Public Back

I had a lively conversation with my students last week about the term “public domain.”  Teaching instructional technology to preservice teachers, I dedicate a few classes on the concepts of fair use, copyright and public domain so they better understand the legal implications of using copyrighted material in their future classrooms. Because of the complex nature of the law, some students struggle with the finer points of fair use.  “So, we can’t show Disney videos on Back to School night?”  Um, no.  You’d need a viewing license.  “I found this great content online.  Can I just print it off and share it with my students?”  It depends.

And so goes the complicated nature of copyright laws and fair use.

This year, for some reason, the students really struggled with the concept of public domain. Some thought that content available on Twitter and Facebook would be considered public domain works.  Others thought that anything available online should be considered in the public.  After some healthy conversation and loads of examples, the students came to better understand that the public domain encompasses any creative work where the copyright has expired, been forfeited or isn’t applicable. This generally applies to really old stuff (plays by Shakespeare, for instance) or works by governmental agencies (like photos from NASA).

I’ve been teaching these concepts for more than a decade and I’m finding that it’s becoming more difficult for students to grasp the concepts.  Some of this is probably due to the fact that circumventing copyright is so easy to do online. The students are downloading, remixing, sharing and distributing content more than ever. And they’re rarely considering copyright laws as they go.  While this is somewhat troubling, I find another aspect of this issue even more disturbing. I think we’ve lost a fundamental understanding of what the adjective “public” means and how it important the concept is.

The word “public” was originally derived in part from the Latin word “poplicus’ which means “of the people.” Through the years, there have been all sorts of public entities. Public roads. Public sewage companies. Each of these are supported by the people and contributes to the larger benefit of the people.  While we’ve been talking about public domain works, we could also look at public roads, public sewage or public housing.  Take public roads.  The people benefit from roads that are publicly built and maintained.  Public roads provide for safe transport for all.

But this post isn’t really about public domain works, public roads, or public housing.  It’s about public education. Along the way, we’ve lost the public in public education.  I work at one of the institutions in the PA State System of Higher Education. From conceptual and philosophical perspectives, each of the institutions in the state system is considered a “public institution.” Besides the fact that our buildings and campuses are owned by the taxpayers of the state, our public nature is also a central part of our missions.  We serve the people by offering affordable higher education to over 100,000 students and provide an educational route for prosperity and security to many first generation college students.

To be clear, this isn’t educational elitism.  College graduates typically weather recessions better than their less educated peers.  College graduates also earn more over their lifetime than individuals without college degrees.  But these statistics are often viewed as private benefits. If a person is able to earn more or have a more stable career, this isn’t seen as a public good in the same way as a public road. But it should be. A more educated public can earn more money and pay more taxes which offers greater economic stability to communities for things like public roads, public schools, public sewage and so on.  For the public instituions in the PA state system, 90% of our students come from within the state and almost 80% stay in the state after they graduate. Since almost 40% of our students are first generation college students, it should be clear how these private achievements serve the greater public.

But the public concept has gotten muddied over the years.  Some public entities are no longer really public. Take the people who manage public roads. Many of the workers aren’t public employees but instead work for private companies that have subcontracted with local governments. Returning to the public colleges in Pennsylvania, support of the 14 institutions in the state has been drastically decreased over the last twenty years.  Despite having the tenth largest public higher education system in the country, it ranks 49th in state funding.  Covering this summer’s appropriations hearings, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

“State funding per student for public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania is down 33 percent from 2007-08 when adjusted for inflation.”

In response to these reductions in appropriations, the state’s public universities have drastically raised tuition which makes education less affordable and accessible to the public it was designed to serve. Adding further disruption to the public concept, the state system is now fighting to institute sweeping policies that will undermine the quality of the education each institution offers to their students. These appropriation cuts, tuition increases and proposed systematic changes are not in the public good.  They don’t support affordable public education and don’t represent the history or spirit of public entities in our nation.

Considering all of these efforts, it’s no wonder that my students are struggling with the concept of public domain. Their academic and governmental leaders have undermined the public concept so completely that its lost its purpose and its value.

Finding your Tribe

In astronomy, scientists talk about a region called the “Goldilocks zone” which represents the habitable area near a star.  Because water is one of the critical ingredients for life, the Goldilocks zone encompasses the area that is not too hot nor too cold for water to exist in its liquid state.  Like the age old children’s story, the Goldilocks is “just right” for finding life.

I have to say that I’ve always been searching for a Goldilocks zone, professionally. My interests include an odd mix of research, teaching and technology that makes searching for my personal Goldilocks zone pretty difficult. While I attend some regional and national instructional technology conferences, the sessions often focus too little on examining the research behind technology integration. While I also attend a variety of research conferences, the presentations are rarely implementable in my day-to-day teaching.  Add in my role as a director of our institution’s teaching and learning center and it’s hard to find a home that’s “just right.”

I wanted to share this struggle after attending the Teaching Professor Technology Conference this weekend. In full disclosure, I was the chair of the conference and have been a member of the advisory board since the conference’s inception. Like me, the conference is a little hard to describe, involving an odd mix of teaching, technology and research.  While sessions focus on tools and devices, it’s not really a technology conference.  Although most of attendees and presenters hold advanced degrees in their content background, it’s not really a research conference. If I needed to describe the Teaching Professor Technology Conference in a single phrase, it’s a conference that “shares informed teaching strategies that leverage technology in higher education settings.”  Kind of a mouthful, I know.  But like I said, it’s kind of hard to describe.

Because of my chair responsibilities, I had to make several group announcements at lunch and dinner and introduce the keynote speakers.  This sort of me a visible figure at the conference. Midway through the conference, an attendee stopped me, introduced herself and explained excitedly that she had attended a really great session.  She went on to declare that she had “found her tribe.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she’s been searching for people who shared her focus on teaching, technology and research.  She described the difficulty SHE had finding her professional home and that she felt the attendees at the Teaching Professor Technology Conference were just like her.  She was surrounded by people who shared her vision, enthusiasm and teaching philosophy.  She had found her tribe.

When I shared the attendee’s observation at the next morning’s announcements, the phrase “found my tribe” took over the activity stream in the conference app.  As the conference came to a close, several attendees posted similar sentiments.  One participant wrote:

“last session of the conference – going home is bittersweet when something is so wonderful and your realize you have ‘found your tribe!”

Just to be clear, this post isn’t intended to be an advertisement for the Teaching Professor Technology Conference. Instead, it’s a reflection of my personal and professional journey. While I’ve been searching for a place that was “just right,” I realize that my Goldilocks zone isn’t really a place, but a community of people that share my odd perspective on the interplay of technology, teaching and learning.  While I went looking for a geographical region, I found a tribe instead.

To my fellow tribespeople, I’m looking forward to seeing all of you in Baltimore next October.

8 Blog Timehop: Presenting to Colleagues

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from a few years ago.  This post was originally shared in July 2013.  Since I’m traveling to chair the Teaching Professor Technology Conference this weekend, I thought this post would be a good one to revisit. Enjoy

I’ve been attending some professional conferences lately and been thinking a lot about how people present to colleagues. We’ve probably all sat through our share of painful keynote presentations and disorganized discussions. So, what makes a presentation successful? This week, I thought I’d share some ideas on giving a good professional presentation.

1. Complement your slides but don’t recite them. I’ve talked about Mayer’s Multimedia Principles in other posts but this is perfect example of how redundancy can actually diminish learning. When a speaker reads every word on a projected slide, the auditory and visual channels of the attendees are no longer working in concert with one another. This redundancy acts as cognitive noise which can diminish the effectiveness of the presentation. The gifted presenters I’ve encountered craft their dialogue to complement what they project to attendees.

2. Engage the audience. I find it surprising that many really good teachers devolve into didactic presenters when placed in professional conference environments. Rather than being the sole voice in a presentation, gifted presenters build discussion opportunities into their presentations to engage the audience and to get attendees actively involved in the content, not just at the start of a presentation but throughout the discussion.

3. Provide a roadmap early. Mayer refers to this as “signaling.” When a presenter provides cues to the organization of the presentation at the start, attendees will be more attentive and learn more. Each cue provides a destination along the presentation’s journey and helps to situate the attendee in the overall scope of the presentation. Many gifted presenters include a slide early in their presentations that identifies the major topics they plan to address and the overall sequence they will follow. This signals the beginning, middle and end of the presentation and better positions the learning that occurs.

4. Too much is too much. You’ve probably seen the slides which are bursting with lines of text. Segment the content into more digestible chunks and project only the most important terms and concepts. Take a look at TED videos where presenters expertly craft slides that showcase only the most critical concepts and terminology.

5. A picture is worth a thousand words. Rather than filling that slide with bulleted and numbered lists, good presentations include graphics that can convey large amounts of information more concisely. In Mayer’s multimedia research, people learn better from words and images rather than from words alone. The same principle can apply to presentations.

6. Be conversational. Some presenters want to write out their entire presentation and recite it verbatim. The recitation, however, can sound automated and forced and have a negative impact on attendee’s learning. Rather than script the entire presentation, consider developing an overall map of the discussion and identify several bullets for each concept along the way. Use the map to guide a more conversational presentation with attendees.

Let’s Talk about Learning

This semester, I’m teaching a class on Emergent Technologies and Innovative Practices for students in our new Educational Leadership doctoral program.  All of the students are leaders in area schools.  Some are principals.  A few are assistant superintendents.  One is a business manager for a local district.  They’re a really smart group who are going to engage in some really heady discourse over how we integrate technology in schools.

We’re entering the fifth week of the semester and I think some of the students are seeing a disconnect.  While the class is titled “emergent technology,” we’ve actually spent very little time so far talking about technology at all.  While we’ll be digging deeper into technologies later in the semester, we’ve spent most of the class discussing learning theory and broader theoretical constructs like TPACK. So, what gives?  Why would I organize the class in such a way?  I think my instructional decisions for this class are best captured in a Tweet I came across this weekend.

“We can’t have conversations around technology until we are ready to have conversations around learning.” @justintarte

I don’t know Dr. Tarte but I think we’re kindred spirits. The education community spends a lot of time talking about devices and apps and learning management systems but very little time discussing learning.  The larger challenge, however, is that educators, school leaders, parents and other stakeholders hold very different beliefs about learning and we don’t spend a lot of time hashing these beliefs out in public forums.  One of the books my doctoral students are reading is Teaching Crowds by Dron and Anderson (2014).  In the book, the authors discuss different pedagogical generations and how beliefs of learning changed during these time periods.  In the behavioral/cognitive era, pedagogy was focused on teaching the individual. The behavioral/cognitive tradition assumes that “there is a body of material or specified measurable skill to be learned that may be transmitted to the learner.” The focal point of this pedagogical generation is the instructor and the one-to-one or one-to-many delivery system.

The social constructivist era, however, changes this focus.  In this generation, social interactions and constructing understanding through experience are the central vehicles for learning.  Few people learn in isolation, social constructivists would argue.  We learn by interacting with one another and by experience the world around us.  These social constructivist beliefs helped to usher in the next pedagogical generation: the connectivist era.  In this generation, the focus isn’t solely on the individual but also on the larger community in which one participates.  In the connectivist era, learning occurs in groups and is demonstrated in and distributed across people’s ability to participate.  Connectivist pedagogy recognizes that “knowledge exists in a social and physical context as well as a personal one.”

These are very short synopses of the larger pedagogical generation described in Dron and Anderson’s text.  The larger takeaway, however, is that different people that are involved in decision-making in schools can hold wildly different beliefs on how people learn.  Not just because of the influence of these pedagogical eras but also from their own experiences as learners and as educators.  These beliefs, however, inform technological decisions, whether through explicit or tacit means.  Someone who believes in instructive forms of learning would select and use very different technologies than someone who believes in more social and collaborative processes of learning.

And that’s why I’m spending a large portion of my doctoral class examining learning theories and the research-base behind each.  As educators, we need to recognize that technology decisions should not just be based on availability, cost or efficiency but should also reflect our beliefs about learning.

Curving Grades vs. Fostering Collaboration

An article in the New York Times struck me recently.  Titled Why We Should Stop Grading On A Curve, I was expecting an impassioned plea for teachers at all academic levels to stop inflating grades.  And that’s where the article initially starts.  In the article, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses how some universities are combating grade inflation by forcing a curve to limit the number of As that are awarded in a class.  In his argument against this practice, however, Grant introduces research showing how forced curves can serve as a disincentive to studying.  While forced curves help create a wider distribution of grades, it also creates

an atmosphere that’s toxic by pitting students against one another. At best, it creates a hypercompetitive culture, and at worst, it sends students the message that the world is a zero-sum game: Your success means my failure.

Instead of adopting a forced curve grading system, Grant decided to try something different.  First, he introduced a simple grading philosophy in his class.

No student will ever be hurt by another student’s grade.

Think about that for a second. At first glance, it makes absolute sense. Individual students should only be affected by their own performance and not by the performance of their peers.  But some grading systems do just that. They pit students against each other and students who excel are looked at negatively. In Grant’s class, however, grade curving would be used only when it benefited students.  For instance, the student who got the highest overall grade would get a 100% and everyone’s grade would be adjusted upward. If the highest overall grade was a 90%, everyone would get 10% added to their score.

While we can argue the benefits and downsides about curving grades, Grant’s other grading strategy is what I’d like to celebrate mostly. On his exams, students mostly struggle with multiple choice questions. Because of their challenging nature, Grant decided to employ a “phone a friend” strategy. Rather than actually calling up peers for assistance, if a student felt unsure about their answer on one multiple-choice question on their exam, they could identify another member of the class for help. If that student answered the question correctly, they’d get the question right too.

Some readers may be wondering why this strategy would even be considered.  In its simplest terms, the strategy rewards students for NOT knowing answers.  While there are actually lots of educational benefits for this policy, I’d like to focus on the collaborative aspects that this strategy engenders.  For a student to benefit in any way, they have to know their peers and have a strong understanding of what their strengths are.  A student couldn’t just write “the girl with the dark hair who sits up front.” They’d actually have to identify a person by name and be confident that the student knew the answer. That only happens when students study together and collaborate for each other’s benefit.

And that’s what Grant found. While the policy was initially met with some student hesitation, after a few semesters, the students started to develop better study system to support one another.  Students developed study guides and shared them with one another.  Some students developed practice quizzes.  Others organized study sessions. As one student wrote to Grant, “your class has changed the way students work together. I’ve never seen a group of students so willing to help one another succeed.”

And isn’t that what we should be fostering as educators. Few people work (or learn) in isolation anymore.  Shouldn’t the processes of grading support and reward collaborative endeavors?  At the risk of echoing one of the presidential candidates, aren’t we stronger together?