Communication Convergence

I don’t know why or how this happens, but sometimes I’ll be flooded with common stimuli from seemingly disparate sources. For example, a few years ago, I heard Joni Mitchell everywhere I went. I’d turn on the radio and there was Joni Mitchell. I’d go to Target and hear a Joni Mitchell song. I’d watch television and there was a Joni Mitchell song being used for the soundtrack of a show. I took it as a sign to listen to more Joni Mitchell.

Over the last week, the same sort of thing has happened. This time, however, hasn’t involved any singer songwriters. Instead, I’ve been flooded with quotes about communication and listening. Again, these have come from different conversations and from different sources, which I’m taking as some sort of sign for me to work on my communication and listening skills.

I came across the first quote in a discussion post written by Andria, a graduate student in one of my classes. Writing about the importance of communication in teaching, Andria drew on a speech by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Realize and be humble to know you do not know everything and do not be afraid to say you do not know. The goal in communicating is not to show everybody how smart you are, the goal in communicating is to have people understand what you’re talking about.

– Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking at Cornell University

A few days later, I was recording a podcast episode with my collaborator, Dr. Scott McDonald. We were discussing the role that dialogue plays in our teaching. Scott shared a quote from a book by Oren Jay Sofer that he was reading.

We need to learn how to reperceive our world with fresh eyes, beyond inherited historical and economic structures of competition and separation that can so easily determine our relationships. True dialogue is more than the mere exchange of ideas. It is a transformative process based on trust and mutual respect, in which we come to see another in new and more accurate ways.

– Oren Jay Sofer, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication

And then, this past weekend, my wife and I went on a road trip to New York state, which gave us a chance to get caught up on some podcasts. We were both taken with the definition of listening that Susan Piver shared.

The best definition for listening I’ve ever heard is from a friend and fellow writer named Catherine MacCoun who said, ‘listening is when you stop thinking your thoughts and start thinking mine.’ So, instead of thinking about I think about what you’re saying, I listen to what you’re saying and trust you and trust myself and give myself to listening. That’s a very underrated skill.

– Susan Piver on the 10% Happier podcast

So, what does it all mean? I don’t know, yet. Or maybe I do, and I’m not sharing. Either way, I’m offering these quotes for you to create your own bricolage and find your own meaning.


A Good Conference Session?

With my role as the director of my institution’s Teaching and Learning Center, I attend a fair amount of conferences that focus on faculty development, innovative pedagogies and emergent teaching practices. Over the years, I’ve also attended a number of face-to-face sessions and webinars to inform the types of programming that I could offer on campus and the evidence-based instructional practices I could promote with my colleagues. Although I’ve attended some great sessions over the years, I’ve also sat through many unrewarding presentations that lacked focus or didn’t present any real usable information. After attending a horrible session a few years ago, I penned a post entitled “Presenting to Colleagues” that attempted to offer some suggestions to inform the design and delivery of conference sessions. Reading back over the suggestions (complement your slides, don’t recite them; engage your audience, provide a roadmap early, etc.), it’s clear that I was focusing on the mechanisms of presentations. After attending several great keynote sessions recently, I may have a different set of criteria to offer.

The Magna Teaching with Technology conference was held this weekend in Baltimore, MD. In full disclosure, I was the conference chair and helped to select the amazing keynotes that we heard. Julie Smith (author of Master the Media) and Josè Antonio Bowen (author of Teaching Naked) offered inspiring and insightful bookends to a Saturday full of thought-provoking sessions. It was Peter Doolittle’s Friday night plenary, however, that has me seeing conference presentations in new ways. In his keynote on Teaching, Learning, Technology, Memory and Research, Doolittle offered the audience three simple questions to use when attending one of the conference’s sessions:

  1. Where’s the processing?
  2. Where’s the design?
  3. Where’s the research?

While Doolittle offered this simple rubric as a way to assess the instructional practices that presenters offered, I thought it would be a good tool for creating strong conference presentations. While I know this won’t apply to many disciplinary conference sessions, if you’re facilitating a teaching and learning session, you should consider the following:

Where’s the processing?
In my original post, I argued that presenters needed to engage the audience. But engagement isn’t enough. Good presenters give attendees the opportunity to process the material being presented. This means more than providing five or ten minutes at the end of the session for questions. A simple strategy would be to build a few “think/pair/share” questions in throughout your session. Get the attendees to make sense of what you’re presenting and to see how the content you’re sharing applies to them and their institution.

Where’s the design?
Good conference sessions are designed to balance sharing information and fostering interaction. Learning, even during a conference session, is a social process and good facilitators design their sessions so that attendees learn from interacting with the content and with one another.

Where’s the research?
This is a big one for me. I want to see an evidence base behind the strategies and technologies being proposed. If someone is suggesting that attendees restructure an assignment, incorporate some novel instructional strategy or redesign an entire course, the presenter better be sharing some larger research base or offering some larger instructional framework to ground their work.  Share your citations and offer any data that can show the impact of the strategies you’re sharing.

While I know this three-question rubric won’t solve every presentation misstep, it may help to make your session more rewarding for attendees. By focusing on the underlying educational processes at play in a conference session, you can make your session a better learning experience for all.

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.

Falling into a Niche

My neighbor and I were debating the differences between Spotify and Pandora recently. I explained how I loved Pandora and its ability to introduce me to new music. When I create a channel based on specific artist or genre on Pandora, the service plays other musicians who have similar sounds. While I try to stay on top of new music, I find that without listening to Pandora or satellite radio, I’m rarely exposed to new artists. “That’s exactly why I love Spotify,” my neighbor explained. “I know the bands I like and that’s all I want to listen to. I don’t want Pandora playing all this stuff I don’t know or like.”

As I talked with my neighbor, I realized his position of Spotify vs. Pandora is actually representative of a much larger trend online and in society: the niche. When it was originally developed, the great promise of the Internet was its unlimited access to information. It was going to be a democratizing force. It was going to foster greater conversations and expand learning opportunities to more populations.  While these positives are undoubtedly happening, there is also a counter effect that is far less positive.  I worry that with the growing expansion of the Internet and other online services, we’re all falling into knowledge niches that limits our worldviews and development. Here’s my reasoning. When I go onto Facebook, Amazon or Netflix, the magical algorithms working behind the scenes are processing my likes, views, searches and creating a “filter bubble” that only shows me more things that they think I’ll like. Since I read an article about a Marvel movie in development on Facebook, my feed is now populated with other articles about superhero movies. Since I bought a book on Online Teaching on Amazon, I’m shown similar titles. Since I watched the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, I’m shown similar series. The goal of these services is to make it easier for me to find other things I like.  While I appreciate the assistance, in a lot of ways, it’s narrowing my field of vision.

While some of this narrowing is a result of the filter bubbles created by algorithms, applications and services that run behind the scenes, our “knowledge niches” can also be directly attributed to our own overt choices and actions. Take recent political discussions on social media. In Twitter and Facebook, I can choose to which people I’ll listen and which ones I won’t. With the growing negativity regarding some issues and events, I’ve chose to hide certain people from my Facebook feed and unfollow others on Twitter.  While this my lower my blood pressure in the short term, it also narrows my access to the larger political discourse and creates an “echo chamber” where my views and opinions are constantly being reinforced.

Before anyone thinks my opinions are just the musing of some curmudgeon, consider this study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Looking at the spread of information on social media, the researchers found that online users “tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.” While the researchers primarily focused on the dissemination of conspiracy theories and misinformation, the findings are similar to discussions occurring in other venues.  Take this blog post that discussed an “un-conference” session on echo chambers in science communication communities last fall. The author writes about her worries that she’s “preaching to the choir” and that we’re all becoming “more exposed predominantly to opinions like our own versus information that might challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Growing up, many of us were advised by our parents to “find our niche.” The reality, however, is that through filter bubbles and echo chambers, the niches we’re finding aren’t helping us gain access to information that can help us grow or develop. So, what’s the solution? How do we avoid falling into a “knowledge niche?” I welcome your comments and solutions.


Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., et al. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 554–559.

Incorporate cellphone interaction with Celly

When I was twelve years old, my family purchased its first computer, a TRS-80.  My father was sort of a computer guy and first learned to program using punch cards on a mainframe at a local university.  He wanted his sons to learn to program as well and presented us with the TRS-80 for Christmas.  My brothers and I learned to program in BASIC and we stored these very simple programs on cassettes after hours and hours of “coding.” We would anxiously run the program, hopeful that no error messages would disrupt the process.

I share these nerdy holiday memories to demonstrate how far we’ve come as a society.  Thirty years ago, the TRS-80 was a relative novelty.  Now, almost every teenager walks around with a device that is far more powerful than that computer.  The Pew Internet Research Center reports that 75% of teenagers (ages 12-17) own cell phones.  While educators often complain about these devices being huge distractions in classrooms, I think we miss the power that these devices hold.  Although I doubt anyone is learning to program in BASIC on their cell phone, mobile devices can be tremendous tools, especially in classroom settings.  Sites like PollEverywhere allow educators to easily create free cell phone polls to engage their students and assess their understanding.  The downside of Polleverywhere, however, is that it only allows one-way communication.  While its great that students can respond to a poll with a text message, the site isn’t really designed to promote teacher-student or student-student interaction.

That’s where Celly comes in.  While Celly allows for student polling, it also offers so much more.  With Celly, an educator can create a “cell” to promote communication and interaction across a group of students.  The cell can be tailored in a variety of ways, allowing teachers to customize how they interact with their students.  A teacher can create a cell to send out text announcements to students or create a cell that allows students to interact with one another. For those of you who may be concerned about privacy, Celly blocks the phone numbers from text messages so you don’t need to be worried about being texted by students in the middle of the night.

The important thing to remember is that cell phones can be powerful communication devices when used properly.  While we don’t want to promote texting while driving or personal texting during class time, we can’t forget that cell phones are mini-computers with tremendous computing power.  Celly can help us expand how we communicate and interact with our students and, best of all, it’s free! For help getting started, check out this Celly guide and this short tutorial.