On my summer reading list

It’s finals week at my institution so I’ve started to compile my annual book list of professional literature that I’m hoping to tackle during summer break. I’m open to other suggestions so if you’ve read something interesting recently be sure to share it in the comments section below. I’ve ordered the books chronologically in the order I plan to read them.

  1. Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning: In this book, James Lang discusses practical ways to incorporate cognitive science into collegiate classrooms. I recently re-read Lang’s book Cheating Lessons as part of a faculty learning community. I’m certain that Lang’s new book will continue to expand the way I approach my teaching roles on campus.
  2. Discussion in the college classroom: This book, written by Jay R. Howard, explores ways to increase the academic discourse that occurs in our classrooms.  Discussions are one of the most widely used instructional strategies on campus and I’m hoping the book will help me facilitate more engaging discussions in my online and face-to-face classrooms.
  3. The work of play:  I recently re-read James Paul Gee’s book What video games can teach us about literacy and learning.  I continue to be amazed at the level of involvement that games can foster with some of the most disengaged students. This book, written Aaron Chia Yuan Hung, examines how video games represent new literacies and captures digital epistemologies. While I’m sure it’s going to be a dense read, I always enjoy books that make my head hurt.
  4. How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where and why it happens: While I like to think I’m up on educational research, I always to like to read new texts that can broaden my perspective. Written by award-winning New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey, this book seeks to challenge long-held beliefs about learning and attention.
  5. Girls & sex: Navigating the complicated new landscape: Besides being a college instructor and a campus professional developer, I’m a father of a teenage girl. Last summer, I read It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd which explored how teenagers use social networks and other digital communication tools. Girls & sex, written by Peggy Orenstein, examines how teenage girls are negotiating a complex sexual terrain that is influenced by mixed signals sent by popular culture and social media.

Are the bots taking over?

I follow a bunch of different people on Twitter. Some are real people I’ve met at conferences who say and share interesting things. Besides these people, I also follow topical Twitter users who share content on specific areas of interest. For instance, I started following a Twitter user that shared stuff on Apple Watches. After buying an Apple Watch last fall, I wanted to learn more about the device and thought that Twitter would be a great way to get started.

After following this Apple Watch user for a few months, I started noticing some odd behavior. First, the user shares a lot. It tweets something new almost every hour, which is a little excessive. Also, it sometimes shares the same posts over and over. If I scroll down through my Twitter feed, I’ll see that this user will share the same post several times over the course of a day. While I don’t know for sure, I’m starting to suspect that the Twitter user isn’t a human at all. After examining the user’s tweets and actions, I’m starting to think that I may be following the machinist musings of a bot.

Bots are scripts that run automated processes over the Internet. Bots can be simple or really complex.  For instance, the Apple Watch Twitter bot may just be programmed to retweet anything with an Apple Watch hashtag. That would explain some of its excessive and repetitive behavior. More complicated bots could be programmed to write news articles for web publications. Sound farfetched? Check out this article from Wired magazine. Bots are already generating the articles on some major news services. Who knows? Maybe you’ve read an article or two that were written by a computer application and you didn’t even know it.

This blog is dedicated to teaching, learning and technology. So, what are the instructional applications for bots?  Before anyone worries about instructors being replaced by Matrix-like computer agents who lecture and assess students, I don’t see bots taking over the instructional landscape.  Like any instructional technology, bots will play a role in supporting the work that instructors do but not replace it.  In a book I reviewed a few months ago, Zhao refers to the process as “dancing with robots.” Instructors will still take the lead in creatively designing lessons and assessments. Bots will complement our pedagogical work.  Maybe bots will help us assess the grammar in papers. Or maybe bots will allow us to email struggling students or offer assistance to students who have missed class for several days.

But this isn’t some distant vision. This is already happening to a degree. Take this post from W. Ian O’Bryne.  He used a bot in a MOOC he regularly helps to facilitate.  Because the MOOC is large and participants share a lot of their work through Twitter, some students are overwhelmed by the shear volume shared by their MOOC-mates.  Some students also feel isolated if nobody in the MOOC shares, likes or responds to their work. To address this, O’Bryne developed a Twitter bot that provided feedback to people when they shared MOOC-based content. He’s still tweaking the bot’s performance to add some randomness and more authenticity but he writes that he can visualize a future where bots become “concierges to learning experiences.”

The development trajectory of bots will not be without some bumps, however.  When we reduce complex processes to algorithms, crazy things can happen, especially when the programs are designed to adapt and evolve in the wild. Check out this story of an algorithm that mistakenly tagged photos uploaded through Google.  Or this story of the Microsoft-developed chatbot that became racist after interacting with other Twitter users.  Ultimately, these issues will be worked out and better bots will be developed.  Until then, however, I’m happy to say that this blog post was entirely written by a genuine human being.

Or was it…

Slow teaching

The end of the semester is nearing for a lot of colleges and universities in the Northeastern US.  With the coming closure, one can see a sense of urgency in both students and faculty. Paces are quickened. Emails are written in hurried tones. Meeting goers are arriving late and leaving early, trying to fit as much as they can in their busy days. It’s a fast-paced time of year.

Maybe it’s this crazy time of year, but a few items have come across my digital field of vision that are communicating something clear and poignant:  We need to slow down.  Take the recent review on the Inside Higher Ed website for the book The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.  The book presents a compelling case for slowing down the rate at which we work and teach.  The book draws heavily on the “slow food” movement as a way to makes its point.  Quality food takes time to cultivate and prepare and the sources can only be sustained through concerted, local efforts over extended periods of time.  The fast food movement, with its efficient, low quality offerings, stand in stark contrast to these time consuming productions.

Returning to the book, the authors outline the need for the academy to resist the ever-quickening pace of service, scholarship and teaching and focus on quality experiences over efficient ones.  In a quote from the book, the review discusses that “slow professors act with purpose, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience to the effects of the corporatization of higher education.”  This perspective is particularly important for our classroom instruction, the authors argue. “It is neither frivolous nor incidental that to ensure that we enjoy ourselves in the classroom: it may be crucial to creating an environment in which students learn.”  Slow teaching, it seems, offers greater opportunities for enjoyment, engagement and effectiveness over efficiency and expediency.

As I mulled the “slow professor” premise, a colleague shared a blog post from the great Alfie Kohn.  While the post focused on the “overselling of Ed Tech,” One section of Kohn’s post really resonated with me.  Discussing the widespread adoption of instructional technologies in schools, Kohn writes “But the rationale that I find most disturbing .. is the idea that technology will increase our efficiency at teaching the same way that children have been taught for a very long time.” To drive the point home, Kohn includes a quote from Terry Bracey where he discusses how technology allows educators “to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn’t be doing at all.”  It’s the fast food mode of instruction. It’s efficient but not particularly satisfying long-term.

Reading the blog post more closely, however, it’s clear that Kohn is not attacking the wholesale use of technology in schools.  Instead, Kohn promotes the use of technology for collaborative activities, creative projects and more open inquiry.  These are “slow food” modes of instruction.  They require sustained development and support.  They require long-term cultivation, local facilitation and attention.  While these “slow food” teaching methods often require more instructional time, they can also offer students with a more healthful intellectual diet long-term.

While these two online articles provide disparate views of education, they communicate a similar message.  As educators and scholars, we need to slow down.  Slowing down our academic and professional lives can foster a more positive mindset across our institutions and also promote higher quality instruction in our classrooms.

Do you have TPACK?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently announced its 2016 Tech Innovators.  In this special report, the Chronicle recognizes several faculty members working at different institutions who are pushing the pedagogical envelope and trying new things in their classrooms.  The innovators range from institutions both large and small and span several different content areas.  Take Edward Ayers, a history professor at the University of Richmond.  Ayers has worked with colleagues to develop a historical atlas called American Panorama.  With the technology, history students can examine how important trends and patterns have changed over time.  For instance, the atlas can show the fluctuations of the slave industry during the 1800s and examine how the Civil War and other historical events impacted the trade lines.  But Dr. Ayers is just one example.  There are exciting things happening at all sorts of institutions with a bunch of different content areas.  If you have access to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Innovators issue is an inspiring read.

Looking across the different initiatives, one critical observation emerges: successful innovation occurs at the intersection of content, technology and pedagogy.  While it often appears that different organizations may suggest otherwise, instructors shouldn’t just use technology for the sake of using it.  Technology is used effectively when it supports the teaching and learning of content.  To do this, innovative instructors need to draw on their content area expertise and combine it with their knowledge of pedagogy and technology.  This is no easy task.  In fact, some researchers have developed a unique theoretical construct to capture this specialized knowledge base:  TPACK.

Before anyone starts to drift off into an acronym haze, TPACK stands for technological pedagogical content knowledge.  TPACK encompasses a teacher’s understanding of the pedagogical techniques that allow technologies to be integrated appropriately into classroom environments to teach content in unique and differentiated manners.  TPACK as a body of knowledge, however, is not an isolated entity.  It is formed through the development and combination of other bodies of knowledge (content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, etc.) critical for an instructor’s success.

If all of this sounds a little confusing, think of from this point of view.  Is teaching writing the same as teaching mathematics?  Of course they’re not.  Successful instructors of these individual areas know unique strategies that can help students learn their content.  That’s pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).  PCK requires that instructors know both their subject area and the unique teaching strategies that help students learn.  But where does technology and TPACK fit it?   Let’s think about this more broadly. Would writing professors use classroom technologies differently than math professors?  Sure they would.  Maybe a writing professor would use the collaborative features in Google Docs to support peer reviewing and editing while a math professor may use software like Peerwise to foster deeper problem solving and questioning. This difference in technology use demonstrates conceptually technological pedagogical content knowledge. The graphic below may help this whole conversation make more sense.


The challenge, however, is how do instructors develop TPACK?  It’s easier said than done.  In fact, loads of research is happening around different ways to support TPACK development in educators at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels.  Sites like the Learning Activity Types can be helpful but it’s just a start.  For complex concepts like TPACK, there are few easy answers.

Fostering Risk and Innovation

Last week, I discussed a study by the Educational Advisory Board (EAB) which outlined some of the challenges and obstacles that faculty face when seeking to employ innovative teaching practices.  The predominant perspective was the faculty had to negotiate several fears (pedagogical, technological and social) in order to incorporate instructional practices that reside outside of traditional classroom approaches.  This week, I’m going to discuss a few of the strategies that we have used on our campus to foster more risk-taking and innovation by faculty and draw some parallels to the strategies that EAB recommends.

1.  Recognize and celebrate efforts.  In the EAB report, the authors encourage institutions to “empower faculty to reward innovative peers.”  Recently on campus, I’ve worked with some colleagues to create a monthly “Innovative Practices Spotlight” on our institutional teaching and learning website. This spotlight recognizes a different faculty member each month who is examining their teaching practices, taking risks and incorporating new teaching strategies to support student learning.  To date, we’ve featured faculty who are using flipped classroom instruction, expanding online education and creating more student engagement in their lessons. While a page on a website might not seem like much of a “reward,” the public acknowledgement can help to raise awareness of the creative and innovative activities happening on campus.

2.  Gather the troops.  The EAB report discusses the need to “identify innovation outliers.”  Most of this section of the EAB report draws on the kind of data that can be collected from a learning management system and how it can be used to identify innovators on campus.  While I think this unearthing process can be useful, it’s also important to bring those “outliers” together with other like-minded individuals.  For several years, my campus assembled a team called the Community of Digital Innovators (CODI) that grouped together the outliers who were exploring different online and hybrid models of instruction in their classes.  This group helped to foster other innovations across campus.  Examining the nature of the “social fears” explored in last week’s post, gathering the troops makes sense.  While individual instructors may feel some isolation in their home department when they try something new, gathering together kindred spirits can better support their initiatives.

3.  Seed innovation.  The EAB recognizes the need to “lower threshold for seed funding” to help spark the purchase of new devices for teaching learning.  As part of a larger “transformation process” on campus, we created Innovation Block Grants that were designed as low cost catalysts for risk taking and pedagogical exploration.  The block grants helped to fund a wide range of different technologies that could transform the learning environments on campus.  To “close the loop,” Block Grant recipients were asked to share their innovative work with the larger campus community.  This sharing process also addresses another EAB strategy, “generate proofs of concept.”  By providing successful models of innovation developed by other faculty members, other instructors are more likely to explore new initiatives themselves.

Risk and Innovation

A colleague shared a study from the Educational Advisory Board that examined the roadblocks to innovations on campus.  The study drew on several other publications that examined instructional innovations in higher education and highlighted some of the challenge that impeded their adoption.  For instance, the study referenced work from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that only 5% of faculty felt they would be adequately rewarded for incorporating learning innovations in their classes.  8% of responding faculty report that their school leaders effectively supported changes in teaching.  This may be why adoption of educational innovations is slow to be adopted.  In the study, the researchers found that while many faculty members knew about emergent instructional techniques (online and hybrid teaching, flipped classrooms, student response systems, open educational resources, etc.), the vast majority did not adopt them.

Innovation takes risk and most faculty identify this.  The EAB study identifies three main types of risk that most faculty must navigate in order to adopt instructional innovations in their classes.  The first type of risk, pedagogical risk, involves an instructional strategy failing in a classroom strategy.  Few instructors want to stand in front of a group of confused students as a new instructional technique flops.  Compared to incorporating something like a collaborative, problem-based learning activity, lecturing is a low risk strategy.

The second type of risk involves technology.  Instructors are fearful that technology won’t work when they need it to.  This may explain why many faculty members avoid using student response systems (clickers) in their classrooms.  They fear that the devices won’t work and they won’t have enough background knowledge to troubleshoot the technical issues.

The last type of risk involves social dimensions.  While some faculty may want to explore innovative instructional practices, they fear social backlash for employing methods that their colleagues may perceive as being ineffective or as watering down the rigor of the class.  Despite the overwhelming evidence for its effectiveness, active learning strategies are not widely used in collegiate classes.  While pedagogical fear may be impacting the adoption, social fear may also play a role. Consider this scenario.  There’s a course at your institution that students typically find very challenging.  Students often do poorly and struggle to grasp the content. After attending a teaching and learning conference, a faculty member decides to incorporate some innovative instructional strategy and students start to become more successful.  How would your institution react? In some industries, the individual’s success would be embraced and the institution would try to promote more widespread adoption of the innovative practice.  In higher education, however, instructional successes are often viewed skeptically.  In this fictional scenario, some of the instructor’s colleagues may accuse her of watering down the content.  Others may say that she was teaching to the test or simply inflating students’ grades.   Factor in the fact that many institutions don’t value teaching ability as heavily as they value research ability and you have a wide continuum of social risks that instructional renegades have to navigate to adopt more innovative strategies.

So, what’s the solution?  How do we help instructors navigate these risks and become more innovative in their practices?  Next week, I’ll identify some of the different programs we’ve tried on our campus.

Mindset: A primer post

I’m helping to leading a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on campus around the book Mindset: The new psychology of success by Carol Dweck.  The book was first published in 2006 but is being revisited by a lot of educational institutions as a way to jump start more student-centered instruction.  Our FLC has met a few times already and we’re really seeing a lot ways that Dweck’s work communicates to the roles that instructors play in students’ success.  This week, I thought I’d assemble some of the Mindset resources we’ve shared in our FLC and some of the ones I’ve come across over the years.

What is Mindset?  If you’re new to the mindset concept and wondering where to get started, this site is a treasure trove of resources to provide a great first step.

Who Gets to Graduate?  This is an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago and really showed the power of adopting a growth mindset at the institutional level.  The article is a little long but rich with ways that institutions are incorporating the growth mindset holistically.  The study that focuses on the impact of different messages in pre-orientation videos is particularly powerful.

Resources for Teaching Growth Mindset:  Edutopia has adopted mindset as one of its focus areas and has assembled loads of great materials to help educators incorporate the growth mindset in their teaching.  The section on giving better feedback to students can be really eye-opening, even for experienced educators.

Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff:  This is another resource from Edutopia but focuses on more administrative processes that can help to foster the growth mindset in departments and schools.

Recognizing and Overcoming a False Growth Mindset:  Mindset definitely has some detractors.  While I think some people balk at the concept itself, other have trouble with how growth mindset is used (and misused) by educators.  In this Edutopia article from earlier this year, Dweck herself addresses these head on.

Nurturing Growth Mindset: Six Tips from Carol Dweck: This appeared in a recent Education Week and discussed Dweck’s keynote address at the Leaders to Learn From event in Washington, DC.    The tips can help provide some comfort for those of us who are still struggling with our own fixed mindsets.  Dweck identifies that we all have fixed mindsets sometimes and that we should recognize these and “name it, claim it and talk about it.”