Being a worm in horseradish

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably recognize this rerun. It’s actually been rerun once before a few years ago. This post originally appeared on this blog in 2013, long before pandemics and learning loss and all of the other stuff we’ve survived (or attempting to survive) today. Over the last week, I’ve used the phrase “a worm in horseradish” probably five or six times to describe how we’re mostly unaware of the worlds we’re navigating. Enjoy the horseradish.

Watching some TED videos recently, I came across a Macolm Gladwell video where he discusses the history of Spaghetti Sauce and choice.  In the video, Gladwell talks about how people don’t always recognize their needs or wants because they don’t possess the worldview to see things differently from how they’re experiencing it.  He talks about Ragu and Prego spaghetti sauces and how Prego didn’t gain market share initially because consumers traditionally bought Ragu sauce and weren’t willing to try something different, even though marketing research showed they would prefer Prego over Ragu.  Drawing on a Yiddish saying, Gladwell says “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”  In this simple quote, he captures that worldview concept.   People sometimes have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the worldview concept and how I’m sometimes “a worm in horseradish.”  This past semester, I had several sixth grade teachers from a local school district visit my class to speak to my students.  After the presentation, the teachers answered questions from my students and one asked about how technology is used in their classrooms.  One teacher responded that the school allows students to bring their own devices to class and that at any given time there might be a handful of students working on Kindles, laptops, iPads or iPod Touches.  Other students may choose to take notes in a paper notebook, he explained, but he allows his students to make their own choices.  The teacher then remarked that he was surprised that not a single one of my students was taking notes on anything but paper during his presentation.  No one was working on a laptop or a iPad.  He wondered whether he was seeing some generational differences between the populations.  One of my students explained that many professors don’t allow the use of laptops or iPads because they find the devices distracting and unprofessional.  The teacher laughed and said that his sixth graders managed just fine.

It’s hard sometimes to see past the world in which we’re working and see how our customs, norms and traditions are different from other places.  We’re surrounded by our institution’s history and work with colleagues who mostly share common experiences.  While newcomers can bring different worldviews and experiences, they can also be swept up into the traditions of the institution pretty quickly.  Take the experiences shared by a colleague recently.  Her daughter just finished her freshman year at another institution but is taking some summer classes at our school to get a little ahead.  On her first day, she pulled out her laptop to take notes and then looked around.  In the large lecture room, not a single other student had a device out.  While no one explicitly communicated that the devices were not allowed, my colleague’s daughter put her’s away before the class even started.  At her school, the daughter explained, she’d be a freak if she didn’t have some device to work on.  At another institution, she was a freak for having one.

My intention with this post isn’t to say that the traditions or customs of one school is better or worse than another or that students using laptops or not using them somehow says something about the university.  The post is intended to shed some light on those tacit norms that impact teaching and learning on our campuses.  Each of us is “a worm in horseradish” in some way.  Maybe the critical lesson to learn is from my colleague’s daughter whose eyes were opened when she traveled outside the world to which she was accustomed.    Maybe we need those new experiences to expand our worldview and see how things are different outside the horseradish.


ChatGPT: A Primer

A new semester starts on our campus this week. In preparation for the new semester, my dean, Dr. Lara Willox, reached out and asked if I’d be willing to write a short blurb about ChatGPT that she could include in her semester kick-off newsletter. Since I’ve been writing and reading and talking about ChatGPT a lot over the last six weeks, I was happy to help. She was gracious enough to let me share that blurb with all of you. Enjoy!

Last November, OpenAI released an artificial intelligence chat bot called ChatGPT into the world. While chat bots have existed for years, ChatGPT disrupted the technology and educational worlds. The tool can quickly and effectively generate text-based responses to all sorts of questions. While previous chat bots were subscription-based or only accessible to research communities, ChatGPT was offered for free to the general public upon its release. Within a few days, millions of people around the world were actively using the tool. Since its artificial intelligence based, ChatGPT will continue to learn and improve with more use.

ChatGPT offers some clear challenges for our work as educators. There are already stories nationally about students submitting ChatGPT-generated work as their own. While traditional plagiarism tools like Turnitin won’t flag ChatGPT-generated text, with a little sleuthing, educators may be able to detect whether a student has submitted work that ChatGPT has created. ChatGPT’s writing should be the first clue. Its writing is pretty formulaic; the tool uses similar transition phrases and doesn’t regularly vary its sentence structure. Also, while it is built on a huge database of information, ChatGPT doesn’t always make accurate connections between concepts and will sometimes just make up information or sources.

If an educator comes across a discussion board post or a paper that doesn’t sound like it was written by a student, there are a few tools that can help.

Although neither tool will definitively say whether some text was written by ChatGPT, both will provide metrics that can be used to inform a plagiarism conversation with a student.

While ChatGPT may present some problems in our classrooms, the tool can also offer some opportunities. We can have students analyze the text that ChatGPT generates and have them critique the connections the tool makes. We can also use ChatGPT to field test our essay questions and discussion board prompts to see the types of responses we may get from our students. Those are just a few ideas. We’re really at the beginning stages of ChatGPT’s impact on the educational community. With time, creative educators will find additional ways that ChatGPT can support the work they do. For some additional teaching ideas, check out this New York Times article: Don’t Ban ChatGPT in Schools. Teach With It.

For some other ChatGPT related content, check out:

My blog posts on ChatGPT:

My podcast episode on ChatGPT:

The Coin of the Realm

I’ve been working in the Educational Technology field for the last fifteen years or so. To me, the EdTech field is a pretty broad umbrella, encompassing online learning, classroom technologies, emergent areas of innovation and all sorts of cool devices. As someone who used to teach a subject (high school physics) that didn’t change substantively in 200 years, it’s wild to work in a field that is constantly undergoing change and development.

While the EdTech field is constantly changing, the primary voices and leaders also seems to change. Figures who seemed to play a critical role a decade ago now have been replaced by new voices with new ideas. As I’ve navigated the field, however, I’ve noticed some interesting (and concerning) aspects of these leading voices. Often they’re gifted writers and presenters who can inspire people to try new things. I won’t list specific people or anything, but if you’ve attended an EdTech conference and been inspired by the presenter, chances are, I’m talking about him or her. Or if you know some cool acronym or catchy term that some EdTech leader developed, I’m probably talking about that person, too.

To be clear, I’m not against the fact that these leaders inspire educators to try new things. As teachers, we should constantly examine our practices and look for new ways to reach our students and help them learn. My concern doesn’t come from the inspirations that these EdTech leaders offer, but the evidence (or lack of evidence) that they provide in support of their innovations. If you work in the EdTech field, go to your bookshelf and pull down one of the books written by those inspiring leaders. Check out the references and citations they provide. I know there are a number of these popular EdTech books that don’t offer a single citation or reference in support of the innovation they’re promoting. That’s the same for some well-known technology integration frameworks and some new pedagogical approaches. They’re promoting these new technologies and innovations without any solid supporting evidence. To me, that’s troubling.

When I point this out to some of my EdTech colleagues, their response is typically “But it makes sense.” While this may be true, whether an instructional technique or educational technology “makes sense” or not shouldn’t influence our decision making. Instead of looking for explanations and innovations that fit our worldview, we should look for evidence to inform our choices. I recognize that may be tough for some innovations since the technology typically outpaces the research by several years. That shouldn’t deter us from trying to make evidence-based instructional decisions, however. It should be our charge as educators and it should be the practice that we model to our students.

As educators, we argue for the importance for critical thinking skills and push our students to make evidence-based arguments. Evidence should be the coin of the realm in education, not just for our students but us as well. And that means challenging EdTech leaders to do a better job of providing it for the innovations they promote. To me, that just makes sense.

Surveying Faculty Perceptions

A few weeks ago, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) released its annual report of faculty perceptions of information and instructional technology. For those of us who work with technology and professional development in higher education, the yearly release of the report is a little like Christmas. We get to examine research collected from thousands of faculty members across over a hundred US institutions. The report provides a holistic snapshot of what’s happening in our field and what areas need more attention. I know it may sound kind of nerdy, but to me, it’s interesting stuff.

While I’ve linked to the full report above, I thought I’d share a few of the big takeaways that I found interesting…

The majority of faculty prefer some level of face-to-face instruction.
While 51% of faculty who participated in the study prefer blended learning environments, 73% prefer a teaching environment that is either completely or mostly face-to-face. Only 9% of faculty prefer to teach mostly or completely online. Among instructors who have taught at least one online course in the past 12 months, nearly twice as many prefer a mostly or completely face-to-face environment, compared to those who prefer a mostly or completely online engagement with their class.

Technology bans persist.
Rather than just look at laptops, the report breaks down classroom technologies by categories (laptop, tablet, smartphone and wearable technologies) and examines faculty classroom policies of each. Not surprisingly, smartphones were the most banned technologies, with over 50% of faculty reporting that they banned use of smartphones in classroom environments.  Interestingly, almost 50% of faculty also encourage or require the use of laptops in their classes. Clearly, faculty see instructional benefits with some technology (laptops) and instructional distractions with others (smartphones).

Innovation is a complex process to engender.
Across the report, the complexity of higher education environments resonates. For example, older faculty (Baby Boomers and Gen Xers) are almost twice as likely as younger instructors to prefer teaching fully online. While this may be due to a variety of reasons, the authors write:

Older faculty may be tenured and also likely free of the tyranny of teaching evaluations that often stifle pedagogical experimentation and creative approaches to teaching. Compared with younger tenure-track faculty or adjunct instructors who have professional (and personal) incentives to curry the favor of students, tenured faculty can (and should) leverage their positions of authority to serve as catalysts of change for their departments, institutions, and higher education writ large.” (Galanek & Gierdowski, 2019, pg. 6)

Later, when they examine the data on technology bans, the authors report the impact of professional development on faculty technology policies. They write:

Among faculty who receive professional development regarding the use of technology in teaching and who rate that training as good or excellent, 47% ban smartphones. By contrast, 63% of faculty who did not receive this professional development ban those devices.” (Galanek & Gierdowski, 2019, pg. 15)

This is all to say that the factors that influence whether faculty adopt an innovation like online learning or support instructional technology use is based on a lot of factors. While those of us working with faculty professional development already recognize this, the latest ECAR report drives the point home.

Galanek, Joseph D., and Dana C. Gierdowski. ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2019. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, December 2019.

The Best Technology Tool

I met an educational technology expert recently who said that the industry was facing a challenging dilemma. With all of the new apps and websites and technologies available to students and teachers, he worried that we were now being bogged down by the “tyranny of choice.” I hadn’t heard the phrase “tyranny of choice” before so I googled it. That initial search led me to the Stanford Center on Longevity where they summarized the “tyranny of choice.”

We presume that more choices allow us to get exactly what we want, making us happier. While there is no doubt that some choice is better than none, more may quickly become too much. Drawbacks include regret, unattainable expectations and paralysis.

That’s right. Being offered too many choices can be a bad thing. Think about it. You probably know some restaurant that has an unwieldy menu that takes ten or fifteen minutes to digest. As you stare at the twenty seafood options and the fourteen chicken dishes, you’re facing the tyranny of choice. As you peruse the pages, you may feel some paralysis by the options. When you finally order, you may have such high expectations of what you’ve ordered that you’re bound to be let down. Which can ultimately lead to regret. Yes, you should have ordered the lobster ravioli.

That’s the tyranny of choice.

Bear with me as I stick with the restaurant theme just a little longer. This weekend, I came across an article written by Frank Bruni titled “The Best Restaurant if You’re Over 50!” Having recently hit the five decade milestone myself, I read Bruni’s work with anticipation. Which restaurant would be the best for my newfound demographic? I half-worried that I would now have to start eating at some national chain like Applebee’s or TGIFridays. Or maybe I’d have to start regularly eating at McDonald’s? The horror!

But that’s not what I found. Instead, Bruni wrote that, with age, he’s found comfort in consistency. Examining his evolution, he compared it to his cocktail choices.

When I was 34, I wanted bling, because it persuaded me that I was special. When I was 44, I wanted blinis, because they made me feel sophisticated. At 54, I just want martinis, because I’m certain of what’s in them and of what that potion can do.

Certainty and consistency. That’s what the best restaurant provides, according to Bruni. He’s willing to eat the same thing at the same restaurant over and over. There’s never any regret. There’s never any unattainable expectations or paralysis. There’s no tyranny of choice.

So, what does this have to do with educational technology? And what is the “best technology tool?”

With the explosion of educational technology, I think a lot of people are finding comfort in the certain and the consistent. Sure, new tools are introduced each day and they have different affordances (and constraints). As risk takers and innovators, we need to try them out and see how they impact student learning and engagement.

But those new tools don’t always work the way they’re intended. And they don’t always lead to the desired instructional results. Some aren’t consistently available. Others can be glitchy.

The best educational tool is the one that reliably and consistently does what we want it to do.

It’s not a flashy choice. Or a sophisticated one. But it’s the right one.

So, while I’ll continue to innovate and try out new technologies, I’ll return to those tools that are consistent and reliable.

They’re the best.