Category Archives: Teaching with Technology

What My Stepmother Has Taught Me About Learning

MGTP2Yup, my 75-year old stepmother.

In my work with teachers and learners of all stripes, I read extensively, listen carefully to experts, and experiment with methods to most effectively coach the smart use of computer technology, social media, and online interaction in learning.  My goal is to arrive at useful principles that inform teaching and learning. But lately, I’ve realized that some of the my best material comes out of paying attention to my stepmother’s experience with her iPad.

To back up, she started three years ago with a desktop PC. That was a complete and utter failure. Not intuitive, unreliable, subject to mysterious update requirements and outages, and tethered to a room she rarely occupied. But everything changed when she got her iPad.  Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from her:

Power of Portable. The fact that she could access the tablet where ever she was – in the kitchen (for a recipe), in bed (to read the headline news), in the living room (to look up the name of that movie on television), in the car (for directions).  Lesson: The value of computing power when and where you need it.

Consider All Tool Options.  The red magnetic case I purchased for her came with a stylus. I would have never purchased a stylus for her (because I don’t use one with my iPad), but it turned out the stylus was a breakthrough. A germ thing?  A connection to a familiar tool (pen)?  The pressure or size of her fingers not working reliably?  Maybe all three, but the stylus turned out to be key.  Lesson: Avoid the mistake of assuming everyone shares your preferences.

What You Call Things Matters.  Unfortunately the basic architecture of the internet and her computing device are complete mysteries to my stepmother – and, quite honestly, she really doesn’t want to know.  For the most part, that’s ok. But occasionally her lack of understanding trips her up. For example, comprehending the difference between connecting to the internet via a nearby wireless source versus cellular data; the concept of storing documents/photos/videos online; or the mystery of “cookies”.  When she stumbles on these gaps, I’ve found it’s best to construct an analogy that has nothing to do with computing. A similar situation carved from her other interests in life. And in the conversation, completely avoid the use of acronyms and techie terms. Lesson: Meet the learner where they are.

The Fluster Factor.  When things go wrong for my stepmother and her tablet (and they do, oh lordy, they do), I’ve discovered that it’s unwise to intervene immediately. By the time she calls me, she’s been at it for awhile, trying to figure it out on her own. She’s flustered. Upset, frustrated, and ready to chuck the whole thing in the garbage. My strategy has been to suggest she put it away and we’ll talk about it tomorrow. Give her a chance to recover her composure and get some distance from it. Once we do go at it again (typically over the phone), it helps for me to have my iPad in front of me and walk through the situation right along with her. That way I can attempt to translate the diagnostic information she’s providing.  It was only when I had my iPad in hand that I could correctly connect her lament that “Google won’t come up” to the fact that the icon for her browser had disappeared from the task bar. Lesson: Best to solve problems with cool heads and calm psyches.

Reflection and Pride. Over time I’ve learned to remind my stepmother of what she’s mastered. When a new problem crops up or there’s a new function she wants to learn, I start by reminding her of the path she’s been on and asking her for insight on her achievement . “Remember when you started with the iPad and you were nervous about using the camera?  Those photos you took of your grandson’s soccer game last week were quite good – how did you take that action shot?” When she reflects on her success, she inevitably comes up with some insight that would have never occurred to me (for instance, it was important to her picture-taking to completely remove the iPad cover to lighten it and find a way to steady her hands). I’ve noticed that she likes to bring the iPad (with its bright red cover) with her to events – in part to take photos, but also to let people know that she has one  – and uses it. She takes tremendous pride in mastering this piece of 21st century equipment (as well she should) and wearing her accomplishments like a badge of honor is deeply rewarding for her. Lesson:  Attagirls and reflection on successes deepens satisfaction and leads to insights.

Personal Motivation.  I repeatedly made the mistake of introducing a new app to her because I thought she’d like it. I finally figured out (doh) the importance of leading with the need and then introducing the app as the solution. My stepmother wanted to talk with her friend in the U.K.  Perfect vehicle for introducing Skype.  Her desire to communicate with her friend carried her through the difficulty of learning a new application and persevering to figure things out. She doesn’t think in terms of VoIP or of Skype, she thinks in terms of the blue button that allows her to talk with Sue. Lesson:  A learner will persist longer and with more diligence if they are motivated by what is important to them.

So, there you have it. I’m grateful for the chance to learn right along with her.


Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Teaching with Technology

Making Pictures Together

Images by Felice Frankel

Images by Felice Frankel

We are launched. Making Science and Engineering Pictures, an MITx MOOC, is now officially underway. What a contrast to consider the differences between memories of “first day of class” versus what we’re experiencing with this online course. Trudging my way to school with new Pee Chee folders and three ring binders, sharpened pencils, and a pristine lunchbox versus our course team, hunched over our laptops, connected via Skype at 9:00 AM EDT, watching as the first “introduce yourself” posts streamed in.

On day one (June 15, 2015), the course enrollment stood at 6,441 students. Naturally, we know that number will dwindle – it’s a low bar to register for an edX course, all you need is an email address. If the final number of actively participating students dwindles to 500, I’ll be happy. That’s 450 more than we could have reasonably managed in a face-to-face course. 450 more people who will, if we’ve done it right, learn how to make more effective and compelling images of their work.

0.111x is an online digital photography course, conceived of and taught by Felice Frankel. Felice is talented science photographer who, over the years, has carved out an intriguing niche – working closely with scientists and engineers to help them see their work in a new way. Felice examines the products and objects of a scientists’ work and asks thoughtful, yet naïve, questions (Is that element really necessary? What’s the most important point that you need to convey? Why is this gray? I am confused by this, can you tell me what’s going on here?) and then assembles their petri dishes, batteries, sensors, microreactors, and fuel cells in innovative, clever ways. The results are often novel, wholly original, and always interesting.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.03.26 PM


In this course, Felice has attempted to capture the way she works; the themes and truths behind her approach to visualizing science. She imparts her acquired wisdom in a series of conceptual videos, spanning six week of topics (flatbed scanners, camera basics, lighting, mobile devices/video, presenting your work, and a final week of case study examination). Weekly assignments, designed so that the student photographers discover the week’s principles for themselves, complement the instructional videos.

Starting in week 1, students will upload their photographs to an online visual collaboration platform called VoiceThread (VT). As students log into VT, from the edX course environment, they will be automatically sorted into groups of 30 (I can’t help but think of the sorting hat in Harry Potter). There, in these small online groups, our students will post, share, discuss, and critique their images. This course is a purpose-driven, as opposed to a content-driven, learning environment. What they learn will come as a side effect of their actions, the images they create and discuss with each other and with us. Our instructional material [here’s a sample instructional video from the course on how to use a flatbed scanner to create images of 3D objects] is all designed to support the students’ efforts to master the photographer’s tools (light, aperture, shutter speed, background, and pattern), to create their best possible images to explain what they do.

The students come from 130 countries.

The students come from 130 countries.

And what do they do? Who are these 6, 441 students? Judging by those who’ve so far logged into the discussion forum they are physicists, filmmakers, graduate students, park rangers, molecular biologists, amateur photographers, science communicators, shutterbugs, high and middle school teachers, artists, and neuroscientists. They are from Spain, Brazil, India, Uruguay, Ireland, Canada, Ecuador, Austria, Norway, Italy, China, Scotland, Germany, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, and all over the U.S. Among their reasons for taking the course…. They want to improve the photos they take for their students, for their research group, for themselves, or for the general public. One thing that’s interesting about reading the intended learning goals of a group of MOOC students is that everyone is here because they want to be here. This is not a requirement for anyone – they are pursuing something that interests them, something that they want to learn. Students in this course will document what they’ve learned with the images they create and the VoiceThread conversations they conduct around those images. By sharing and critiquing the images they produce (shared objects of reflection), we will all learn as much from our failures as we do from successes. We’ve provided sample VTs and rubrics to guide their work, but ultimately, the students will devise their own quality standards for evaluating their work and the work of their peers. Part of our mission is to encourage the creation and adoption of critical standards.

We all know that the best, most effective learning comes when students pursue something that interests them, create their own objects of learning, and are supported by peers who are engaged along with them. We like to think that’s what we’ve created with 0.111x. Let’s find out.

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An Ode to the Talented Folks in the NYTimes Newsgraphics Group

Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.48.34 AM

Opening Shot of the NYT Newsgraphic on Ski Jumping

I don’t know what’s going on in the newsgraphics department at the New York Times these days, but they’ve really hit upon the most wonderful way to create beautifully engaging and effective teaching videos. Have you seen these?

Understanding Short Track Speed Skating

Understanding Giant Slalom

Understanding the Luge

Understanding Ski Jumping

And from 2012….Snowfall at Avalanche Creek  and A Game of Shark and Minnow

There’s so much to love about these gems, it’s hard to know where to begin.  But let me try…

  • Stunning images

    Stunning images

    First and foremost, the clean, elegant look – no intrusion of the interface, the video takes over the whole screen in luscious high-definition.

  • The blend of narration and text to explain (good judgement there about when to use what).
  • I admire the way they control the pace of the learner through the story – you vertically scroll to proceed – with some control –  but at certain key points, the video takes over and just plays.  One caveat to this is that there are no standard video controls available to you.  If you try to imagine (as I’ve done) applying their method to an educational module to explain, say protein synthesis or cell division, you would want to give the learner the ability to “rewind” a scootch, replay, reconsider.
  • The overlay of instructive graphics on top of an image is particularly instructive. Not only does this method skewer our eye to the critical element (in the case of the slalom skier, Ted Ligety, the extreme angle of his body in relationship to the ground), but they guide you through the explanation by drawing the graphic in real-time, John-Madden-style.  Very effective.
  • A generous and smart mix of media types – animation, video, audio, still graphics, text, models, sketches
  • A very clever mix of focus – long-view, close-up, macro, micro – your eye and your brain feel exercised and engaged.   There is no downtime.
  • Numbered steps when you need them to aid the explanation.
  • Often when using digital media to teach, we learners suffer from the “spelunking problem” – that is, it’s a bit like spelunking in a cave, you don’t know where you are in relationship to the whole journey – when will it end?  In the case of these modules, you are given subtle cues about how much information lies ahead of you. Note the small vertical column of dots to the right of the screen that serve as a progress bar – a clear commitment read out.  Knowing that, you can relax and concentrate on the business at hand.

So very, very well done.  Bravo, NY Times, and keep them coming!

You can see all of the NYTimes Olympic graphics here and follow the NYTimes graphics group on Twitter: @nytgraphics

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A Tech Support Parable (With a Happy Ending)

Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 9.56.34 AMMy 74- year old mother is my most reliable barometer for how difficult learning new technology can be. For those of us immersed in new media and online tools everyday, we tend to forget how overly complicated the world can feel.  I offer you this tale, from last night, a tech support parable.

My mom has a new iPad (Christmas gift) that she’s trying to master.  We’ve had a few sessions together with it where she’s mastered the basics – email, searching on the web, and using the camera. She likes her new iPad very much and, for the most part has found it pretty easy.  Up until last night, I’d say that her two main challenges have been understanding the language around the computer (techy jargon) and using her finger to “touch” – she tends to use her nail or not get her finger in just the right place.  But she’s been mostly quite successful due to her good cheer, native smarts, typing ability, and persistence.

Mom has an in-home Comcast connection, with a recently upgraded modem to give her wireless for her new iPad. Yesterday she responded to a message on the iPad asking her to update her system software, which she dutifully followed.  In true Apple fashion, it led her through the steps, screen by screen. When she got to the “almost done” part, her iPad asked her to identify the network to which she would like to connect.  Full stop.  Before she headed out to the Apple Store (which has become a life-line for her, though she says that she always looks for the “Genius” who is patient with older people), she called me (90 miles away).  Given what she told me I explained that the problem she was having was a connection problem, not an iPad problem, and that the Apple store folks would not be able to help her. Oh.

So then we began to troubleshoot together.  We quickly arrived at the limitations of her understanding – what is a network? why does it have a name? what is a wireless signal? why are there other networks in the list (who owns those?), why does it need a password?  I don’t have that password.  If I were to pull out the most common theme to technology problems I encounter it would be the whole access management/password confusion thing.  Passwords for your network, your computer, your Apple ID, the individual sites you visit – which ID and password for what, etc.

After retrieving the paperwork from the Comcast technician’s recent visit we determined that there was no network password to be found. Comcast had thoughtfully provided a brochure with a to-be-filled in worksheet for the technician to write in the name of the home network and the password – both of which were blank.

Hokay, we need to call Comcast.  But I knew I couldn’t do it for her; it was unlikely that Comcast would talk with me about her account.  So, I set up a three-way call on the telephone.  I asked Mom to find her latest Comcast bill, as we would need the information therein.  She gave me the number, I placed the call, and looped her in, and we worked through the (formidable) phone tree (that kept urging us to go to the web site to solve our problems…as if!) and finally got a live person (roughly 10 minutes).  Meet Paul.

I explained the situation to Paul, who was extremely kind and patient. Only problem, Paul has a very heavy accent.  I knew that my mother could not understand him.  So, we played out a hilarious kabuki where Paul would ask a question, I would repeat it to her slowly and loudly, and my mom would answer. Finally we got to the meat: she needed to locate and read off the WEP code on the bottom of the modem.  “The what?!”  I urged her to put her phone on speaker, while she located the modem and studied it to find the code.  It took a few minutes to find the speaker button on the phone (“why do they make these buttons SO small?!”). Paul and I waited patiently, listening to her rummage around, “Oh, my! Those numbers are so small! I can’t read that!”  I suggested she find her magnifying glass.  More rummaging.  “Here it is!”  Now she read off the code….H21247323bA556…..I wrote it down and read it back to her.  Check.

Now, says Paul, we need to type that code into the network password blank to join the network.  I translated: “Get to the screen with the blue Join button, Mom.”   She’s still got the phone on speaker, so she can have her hands free, but that means I have to shout.  “H!!!”  “212!!!!”  “Wait, wait!” she says in a panic, “There are no numbers on this keyboard!”  Oh, right.  The iPad has multiple keyboards.  So I explain that she’ll have to access the “number keyboard” and then go back to the “letter keyboard” – that long access code had no less than five switches between keyboards, each one painstaking at her end.  “But I can’t check to see if it’s right since what I’m typing is just dots.”  Riiiight.  Oy.  She finally typed it all in and clicked “Join”.  “Unable to join the network, ” she announces proudly.  Paul and I sigh.  Let’s try it again, just in case there was a mistake.  Paul reminds her about caps/lower case.

“Ok,” says Paul.  “Maybe the technician did assign a password, but didn’t write it down.  I’m going to ping your modem from here and zero it back to the Access code, just to be sure..”  “What’s that?”  asks my Mom.  She’s still hanging in there but I can tell that Paul might as well be speaking Greek and she’s getting tired.

Paul puts us on hold (extremely annoying music) while he does his bit.  She and I try to talk, shouting at each other over the ridiculous music and end up laughing hysterically.  Then, suddenly, my mom is no longer there.  Oh, right!  When Paul pinged her network from Comcast, the phone cut out.  Oh, Paul, you should have thought of that.  Now it’s just me and Paul.  On our own.  He comes back and walks me through what to do.  I also ask him to walk me through how to change her network name and password to something a bit more memorable.  He does, and of course, those steps are even more arcane than the shenanigans we’ve been up to so far.   I’ll have to be hard-wired on her network, with a laptop, type an IP address in, get to her SSID, change the network administration settings…yaddha, yaddha….I’ll figure it out, eventually, I’ve got to run since I’m sure my mother is wondering what the heck happened.

I call Mom back.  As I feared, she’s mystified as to what happened.  “Why did you hang up on me?!”  I explained what happened when Paul sent his signal from home base.  “But that was the internet, not the phone!”  Right.  Let’s let that one go for now.  So, she gets back in position and we go through the gymnastics of typing in the WEP code again, this time I remember to pause in the shift between letters and numbers to give her time to change keyboards.  “This is crazy!”  says my mom and we both laugh, realizing we’ve now been working on this for nearly an hour. And, amazingly, we get it right on the second try!  BAM!  She’s online.

I explain to her that when I’m there visiting next, I will get in and rename her network and assign a new password.  My Mom helpfully suggests that perhaps we could choose a shorter password, something with only letters.  “How about ‘shit’?”  she offers.

So, a couple of things here….

1.  I can’t say enough good things about my Mom’s persistence.  Lesser people would have given up much earlier.  I’m not sure what motivates her to hang in there, but hang in there she does.  And, I think that persistence is the key.

2. Do modem and computer manufacturers have to name everything in such confusing ways?  WEP, ping, router, IP address…it’s all just gobbledygook to most people.

3. When technicians come to your home to set up your network, could they please write everything down?  Fill out the darned paperwork provided, please.

4.  Can’t we come up with something more workable with this whole password management thing?

5.  The importance of holding tight to your sense of humor.


Filed under Teaching with Technology



I spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about the resistance to digital and social media among higher ed faculty.  I’ve read and listened to Gardener Campbell’s insights on the matter and regularly find relief from his wonderful “Bag of Gold” analogy, in his talk No More Digital Facelifts (definitely worth a listen).

Always on the hunt for new insights to understand the nature of the problem, a colleague shared an article with me this week that definitely fit the bill. “Technological Change and the Professional Control in the Professoriate” by David Johnson (University of Georgia), published in Science, Technology & Human Values.  In the article Johnson takes a fascinating look at how university professors perceive instructional technologies focusing on three questions:

1.  How do professors perceive instructional technologies?
2.  How do they perceive administrative initiatives to encourage the adoption of instructional technologies?
3.  What work outcomes do professors experience when they employ technology in their work?
He starts with a review of historical perspective – the thought that the professorate’s concerns about technology is that it will unbundle the academic role.  That is, the use of technology will break apart the functions of research and teaching as well as divide the teaching function into constituent parts managed by others – instructional designers, web producers, programmers, etc.  With that as backdrop, this article’s author set out to investigate faculty perceptions of technology in teaching/learning. He interviewed 42 professors at three research-intensive universities (various departments), all of whom had a documented organizational commitment to technology use. His goal was to look closely at the context of work as experienced and seen through the eyes of the professors exposed to pressures for technological change. Technology in this case was defined as “knowledge-derived tools, artifacts, and devices by which people extend and interact with their environment.”
He chose his interview subjects through contact with department chairs, asking for professors with known use of instructional technology.  Strikingly, even among that population, technology use was quite limited –  the most commonly used was PowerPoint (48%) with course management systems (26%), class web sites (19%), personal response systems (12%) and listservs (7%) listed next.  Powerpoint?  Really?
So, here’s the meat of what he found: the study participants perceived technology tools as lacking an obvious function or value and were very skeptical of the gains derived. Not only did these faculty perceive new technologies to be of limited value, many viewed technology-rich instruction as detrimental to student learning – in their words, “technology as a substitute” – both for attending class and for understanding (e.g. “students want to have the machine do the thinking for them”). Here was a revealing quote from a biologist:
“Technology has a problem.  The slide rules we used to use were wonderful because they gave an intuitive understanding of what you’re trying to do.  The calculators spit out numbers and there’s an incredible loss of intuitive understanding about what your’e doing.  That problem is really magnified when you get to computers.  You have to really know what’s going on and to make sure you don’t lose an intuitive understanding.”
The article’s author goes on to explain that since these professors view the tools as ineffective, coercion (on the part of the administration) to adopt them could feel as though they were being undermined, that they were losing professional control of their work and threaten their sense of autonomy. After all, what tools you use and when you use them is most certainly a key factor of professional autonomy in any field and if you feel the prescribed tools are ineffective, well…
What’s more, the professors who do use technology aren’t necessarily connecting their technology use to pedagogy. Rather, they regularly refer to the context of student motivation and students’ prior socialization to technology.  Here’s another revealing quote:
“You have to keep bombarding them with visual material, even if it’s only peripherally related.”
The perception seems to be that students will disengage if instruction lacks entertainment value. In addition to that context, many of those interviewed describe their technology use as necessary to handle larger-than-desirable class sizes.
When viewed in that context, a picture begins to emerge where academics perceive new technologies as tools to help with peripheral problems (large class sizes and students who require stimulation) but of limited or no functional relevance to instruction. From there, it’s not a far step to conclude that instructional technology contradicts their professional values.
The professors interviewed also believe that administrative plans for campus technology use are driven by marketing (so that the university is seen as “on the cutting edge”), cost saving goals and to achieve economies of scale. With those perceptions, a boundary is drawn (as the Johnson puts it) “between the professional and proletariat”.  That divide is furthered by the perception among these faculty that they were excluded from decision-making, even though they commonly expressed unawareness or disinterest in campus decisions about instructional technologies.
Questions asked about incentives and rewards for using various forms of technology in teaching revealed a familiar dynamic.  Faculty view the work required to learn and incorporate new technology as a burden and a constraint that yields no rewards for them.  Beyond the fact that that they receive no recognition or support for the extra work involved, they perceive themselves as occupying a lower-status position in the department with time spent refining their teaching. The article’s authors point out the stark contrast to the freedom faculty have in selecting research topics.
This article really helped to ground my thinking about the challenge of integrating new media into teaching and learning. It’s clear that we will continue to meet with resistance among faculty until:
  1. The motivation for using technology can authoritatively shift to a quest for a superior means of delivering instruction and improved learning.
  2. Academics become a source of influence in technological change and not a passive recipient of a mandate.
As I continued to connect Johnson’s insights to my own experience, working with faculty, I am reminded of the huge gulf in understanding what technology use can bring to learning between these faculty and those who advocate its use.  We all struggle with the best way to bridge that gap, but it feels clear that whatever methods are used should keep this resistance (and the reasons for it) firmly in mind.


In a subsequent conversation with Stephen Thomas, an amazingly innovative educator at Michigan State University and the same guy who sent me the article, he reminded me of the TPACK model. The easiest way to think of TPACK is to visualize a three-circle venn diagram – for technology (T), pedagogy (P), content and knowledge (C & T). TPACK thinking suggests that we need to work in the sweet spot where those three circles intersect. That effective technology integration requires negotiating the relationships between the three components. To introduce tools, without content or pedagogy just won’t work  and, similarly, to debate content (what’s the cannon and in what order?) in the absence of technology and pedagogy won’t give the harvest we need. A useful way to address the challenges put forward in Johnson’s article?

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A Network Effect Case Study: #organellewars

Here’s a really good network effect story for you – out of Brad Graba‘s Illinois high school biology classroom.  Mr. Graba decided to modify an oft-used student project for his unit on the cell.  In the typical “organelle project”, students pick a cell organelle (the nucleus, the mitochondrian, etc) to promote and (working in teams or as individuals) they wage a campaign for their organelle to be elected President.  Their stump speeches contain the rationale for the organelle’s importance to the cell – what their “job” is, what happens to the cell if they are out of action, how they relate to the other organelles, etc. The project culminates in an “election” where the class votes to choose a “President Organelle”.  Teachers typically do this activity in the fall (around election time).

Example Storify from the Organelle Presidential campaign.

Mr. Graba decided to add a social media twist to the project and encouraged his students to use Twitter to get their organelle’s stump speeches out there.  Students signed up for Twitter accounts in the names of their organelles (e.g. MightyMito), with identifying photos (many used iconic micrographs) and started posting their messages.  Students composed some really interesting and funny messages, adding to their posts with images, drawings, and links. Within 12 hours the Twitter stream caught the attention of a couple of cell biology researchers, including Anne Osterrieder, from Oxford Brookes University in the UK.  She blogged about the student project here and suggested that the students use Storify (a site that facilitates storytelling through the curation of social media) to assemble their various tweets, images, and other resources for each organelle. Check out this one on the Revenge of the Nucleus (“May the Nuc be with you, young eukaryote”).

More scientists tuned in, adding to the tweets, giving students suggestions, articles to read, other sources of information, and actually weighed in on the vote.  John Runions (@JohnRunions), aka Dr. Molecule in the weekly BBC Radio show, caught wind of the project and suggested the hashtag #organellewars, to make it easier to find all the posts. The interest of the scientists and the BBC, of course, spurred the students on.  Bam.  Network effect.

What great work.  This teacher did it right.  He picked a meaningful assignment, selected the right tools for the job, made the expectations/goals clear, provided all the necessary scaffolding, and then turned it over to the students so that they were the producers – not passive consumers.  Once they caught fire and started producing good material, others noticed.  The students now have pride of ownership, a sense of what real, working scientists do, a deeper understanding of cell structure/function, and a compelling record of their work – and Mr. Graba has a few new tools in his tool box.



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With the start of the fall academic calendar, I’ve treated myself to participation in Coursera’s Massively Open Online Course (MOOC), Modern Poetry (#ModPo).   This is a gigantic online course, offered on the Coursera platform (here is a list of courses and the universities offering them, through Coursera), by University of Pennsylvania with the professor, Dr. Al Filreis.  Filreis is a Kelly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House on campus. He is the author of many books and articles, a noted scholar, and a gifted educator.  He’s also got a pretty darned impressive digital footprint (with an active Twitter feed and a blog) – his comfort with online participatory media really shows in this course (and, of course, helps to make it work).  From Filreis’s blog:  “I do believe that’s the genius of this (the Coursera) model. The wisdom of crowds in a format that permits the wisdom to come through.”

The syllabus consists of weekly readings, accompanied by captured video discussions of the assigned poems between the instructor and a group of insightful teaching assistants, and online discussion forums (there’s also a course Facebook page and a wiki site).  There are also some assignments – short quizzes (designed for the learner to check their own understanding) and writing assignments.  The first short essay (writing assignment) is a close read of an Emily Dickinson poem (haven’t attempted it yet).

ModPo live webcast.

This morning, I participated in the first ModPo live session. The organizers embedded a Google Hangout widget in the ModPo course page, so we could watch and listen to the one-hour live panel right on the page (no downloads or complicated connections). The live session camera was trained on a panel of five – Al Filreis and four of his graduate students, with all of the rest of us (569!) watching, listening, and chiming in with questions/comments.  Questions from the group came through Twitter (#modpolive), the course discussion forums, and by telephone (they announced a phone number at the beginning and many ModPo students called in, which lent a surprisingly old-fashioned feel to the affair).  It was their first time running the course webcast, and it felt a little chaotic, but certainly gave the course a sense of immediacy.  Fellow ModPo-ers were chiming in from all over the world (South Africa, Brazil, Europe, and all over the U.S.).  It’s so clear that the course organizers have given this tremendous thought and invested hours of planning.  Everything about the course feels well run, organized, and thoughtful.  The web site is clean, simple, and easy to navigate.  I’ve not yet had a technical problem that stood between me and the material, and Al Filreis’s enthusiasm and extraordinary interlocutor skills make it all work like a well oiled machine.  Very impressive.

This morning's Twitter feed.During the webcast session, the crew took questions from the phone lines, from the Twitter feed, and from the Discussion groups. They played a poem read aloud (audio recordings), invited discussion, and commented on the week’s work.  The discussions were wide ranging and completely interesting – connections to the movie “Grease” (you had to be here), of ars poetica (the “art” of poetry), the nature of “openness”, use of punctuation and pauses, and a tremendous amount of insight to the poems we’ve read so far.

So, my impressions so far. I’m thoroughly enjoying the course.  Despite a hectic schedule, and having just moved our home (!), I’m managing to keep up with the course by devoting 40 minutes to an hour, each morning, to the readings and videos (a bit longer this morning with the webcast). The course videos basically capture a “close read” of the assigned poems and I find the discussions between Dr. Filreis and his graduate students fascinating.  Line by line, they take the poems apart and analyze their meaning, their form, and the poem’s relationship to other poems we’ve read. I’m learning everyday – about poetry, about the connections between the poets, about poetic structure, and about the process of a “close read” of a poem (my friend, Karen, who is also taking the course, explains that this “close reading” is just one approach to the study of poetry).  And speaking of my friend Karen, her participation in the course has made a huge difference for me.  If I had a criticism of ModPo, it would be that it feels a bit too large, too impersonal.  With 30,000 students enrolled, I can’t possibly keep up with the discussion forums, the Facebook page, and the Twitter feed.  It feels like an avalanche of commentary and opinions (I made the mistake of subscribing to a thread when I commented on a discussion topic, early on – one hour later I had 70 emails in my inbox!).  But when Karen and I, in our own “small group”, exchange ideas about the poems or the experience of the course, it feels real, solid, and personal.

So far, I would dub this experience an absolute win. To me, this feels like technology applied to education at its best.  A well-designed, content-rich course, that thoroughly mines (and leverages!) the unique affordances of the web.  Well done.  Of course, we have many weeks to go, so stay tuned for further impressions and lessons learned.

Dr. Filreis ended this morning’s session with a very simple, two-line poem from Cid Corman (1924-2004):


As long as you’re here,

would you turn the page?


As a coda to this post, here is a conversation recording between Al and the course’s lead teaching assistant, Julia, discussing the first live webcast, then going on to a wonderful metareading of a William Carlos Williams poem, “The Catholic Bells”.


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Now That’s A Museum Exhibit

A visit to New York City’s Historical Society Museum with my friend, Abe

While in New York City I had the opportunity to visit the New York Historical Society Museum (56th and Central Park West). If you haven’t been there, it’s a gem of a museum.  Terrific permanent collection and a steady rotation of intriguing new exhibits.  Not to mention the life-sized statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas that grace the steps of the two entrances, as if the two men were on their way in.

Main wall of the exhibit.

On this visit, there was a fabulous exhibit in the museum’s lobby called the New York Gallery of American History. Small and unobtrusive, you almost miss the darned thing as you move into the museum to head toward other exhibits.  On one entrance lobby wall is a salon-style display of various museum artifacts that tell the story of New York’s contribution to American history.  It covers the period from the American Revolution to 1804 (when the Society was founded).  What’s really intriguing is the way this exhibit is curated, with multiple entry points and levels of examination.  The artifacts themselves are hung on the wall, floor to ceiling (as you can see in the photo to the right).  Then, on strategically placed media columns, you can engage with touchscreens that replicate a section of the wall allowing you to interact with the artifacts – select one by touching it and you will drill down to a sub image or more information.

As an added layer, there is a downloadable app for the exhibit affords you a similar path on your handheld device with even more information and helpful connections.  I really appreciated the way the app helped one to see thematic connections, across the exhibit and between individual artifacts.  Very nicely done.

As you wander the length of the wall, exploring the various touchscreens, you notice small portholes in the floor.  Nine of them.  In each porthole is a well-lit object that was found – fittingly – in the ground under New York City by archeologists.  Arrowheads, military buttons, coins, bullets, an oyster shell.

Portholes in the floor.

It was a completely entrancing museum exhibit. It felt like being at the center of perfectly crafted origami creation – unwrapping it as you went along. Layers intricately planned… in front of your eyes, at your fingertips, in your hand, and under your feet.  Lovely.

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New Media Consortium Summer Conference


I just returned from the Summer New Media Consortium (NMC) conference at MIT in Cambridge, MA. A terrific three days, chock-full of excellent speakers, edgy ideas, and excellent networking.  This post will be an attempt to capture and process what I heard and saw – or at least a first stab at it.

The first full day opened with Joichi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, as the conference keynote.  He gave a wonderful talk and set the tone for the meeting ahead by explaining that life at the Media Lab (where innovation rules) is less about “stocking” (filling your head with information) and more about “pulling” (being able to pull the information you need, when you need it).  The Media Lab is really set up like an adult kindergarten – you get interested in stuff, you mess around, you figure things out. Created 28 years ago, there are 26 faculty (in different fields…they call themselves “anti-disciplinary”), 140 graduate students, 300 research projects, 70 sponsors, and an annual budget of $35 million.

Ito talked about the finances of innovation with venture capitalists.  Basically, it comes down to the fact that the “sitting- around-and-thinking-about-it” costs or the “trying-to-retool-it-costs” are always more than the “just-try-it” costs.  If it’s not working, abandon it – good luck, move on, come back when you have another good idea. His average project at the Media Lab costs less than $100k.  He cites the example of a company spending $3 million on a feasibility study to decide whether or not to move forward on a $600k idea. A total waste. Interesting way of thinking…

Ito then went into a description of his media philosophy, by talking about the thinkers who influenced/architected the internet. This is important to provide as context since, as Ito puts it,  “The internet is not a tool, it’s a philosophy.” I really liked that. Starting with Small Pieces Loosely Joined (David Weinberger), then onto David Clark, Rough Consensus Running Code, which basically translates as come to a rough consensus, write code, hack on it, retool.  From there, he went onto The Power of Pull, John Seely Brown, the importance of serendipity, and getting good at using your peripheral vision.

Detecting patterns

Ito went on to encourage us to “think like mushroom hunters”.  When hunting for mushrooms (notoriously hard to spot), experienced mushroom hunters don’t look for mushrooms, they search for complex patterns.  They stop looking at anything in particular (don’t focus), and instead  look for patterns – voila! the mushrooms pop into your view.  The more you focus, the less pattern recognition you have.  So, at the Media Lab, he tries to get people to stop focusing and, instead, use their peripheral vision. We’re so used to planning and focus being good things, but he and the Media Lab are going in the exact opposite direction.

With this approach, he finds that people can be more agile. You can build first, think later. You make things really quickly because you really don’t know until you see it whether or not they will work. He doesn’t believe in longterm strategy – “by the time you figure out the strategy, the world has changed”.

HIS PHILOSOPHY:  resilience (instead of strength)/pull (instead of push)/risk (instead of safety)/systems (instead of objects)/compasses (instead of maps)/practice (instead of theory)/disobedience (instead of compliance)/crowds (instead of experts)/learning (instead of education)

Following that high point, there were a number of other excellent speakers and sessions. Sherry Lassiter (MIT, The Center for Bits and Atoms), talked with us about Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Lab). She set the context for her work by reminding us of the previous two digital revolutions: analog to digital communication and analog to digital computation.  And now, as she sees it, we’re in the third revolution – moving from digital to analog fabrication (making things).

She teaches an MIT course called How To Make (Almost) Anything. If you could make (almost) anything, what would you make?  Students do amazing projects with laser cutters and 3D printing machines. And now, they’ve set up 135 fab labs in 27 countries around the planet.  All the fab labs include a laser cutter, a sign cutter (circuits), milling machine (circuit boards and moulds), and a 3 D printer – all wrapped together with an electronics workbench.  Young people come into the lab, pull the required knowledge as they need it, and apply it to build what they imagine.  Of course, they don’t get it right the first time, but they keep trying until they get what they planned, inventing and problem solving as they go.

Lassiter describes the 21st century workforce as a STEM-capable workforce.  The inventions coming out of the fab lab are amazing – wireless infrastructures, solar homes, agricultural innovations…  Lassiter strongly urged us all go out and “make something” (you’ll be glad you did).

Scott Sayre, founder and principal at Sandbox Studios, a Minneapolis-based group that works with museums and storytelling, also gave a terrific talk. He urged us all to think of the ways that museums display art – in a clean room, simply hung where you don’t really know the story of each piece – how it was created, how it got there, who all owned it.  You also don’t see the behind-the-scenes stuff at the museum – the huge staff, the storage bunkers (~95% of any museum’s collection is in storage), the conservation efforts, the other voices (see the Walker Center’s staff blog site).  Sayre advocates the telling of all of these stories  – past and present – in our museums.

“A deed, a gesture, a poem, a painting, a song, a book are always wrapped in thick wrapper.”

A very useful break-out group session called “Don’t Adjust Your Set  – This Class is Live” was given by Andy Rush, Tim Owens, and Grant Potter.  They’ve been making good use of live radio, podcasting and videocasting in their teaching.  Many of you are well acquainted with DS 106 – these are a few of the guy behind it. Great advice on apps, software, and techniques for livecasting cheaply and efficiently. Check out this page for all sorts of useful tips and this page for their past presentation videos.

One of my favorite parts of the meeting was the sessions “Ideas That Matter“, a 90-minute session on the morning of the last day which featured eight excellent speakers giving short, TED-style talks.  Among them was  Helen Keegan‘s presentation of her amazing adventure running a module of her course as an alternate reality game.  If you haven’t read about it yet, you’ll want to:  Who is Rufi Franzen? And see the collection of tweets.  Absolutely fascinating.

Another favorite of mine was Keith Kruger, CEO of Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), who gave a rousing talk “The Big Hairy Problems of Technology and K-12 Education”.  I particularly liked this series of historical quotes he flashed up on the screen:

“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend upon their slates, which are more expensive.  What will they do when their slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write!”   -Teachers Conference, 1703

“Students today depend too much upon ink.  They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.”        -National Association of Teachers, 1907

“Ball point pens will be the ruin of education in our country.  Students use these devices and then throw them away. The virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Businesses and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.”    – The Federal Teacher, 1950

Just a humorous reminder that we humans have been here before, nay-saying new technology…You can read the whole raft of these shades from the past here.

Lord David Puttnam

The meeting concluded with a wonderful capstone in the form of Lord David Puttnam’s talk.  Lord Puttnam is the current Chancellor of the UK’s Open University, but prior to that he was a film producer.  His experiences making movies (Oscar-winning movies!), along with his cinematographer’s eye, is evident in both the content of his message, as well as the way he conveys it.  His talk was a call to action…the undeniable necessity to overcome education’s  “stultifying resistance to change”.

He made a beautiful analogy between the development of the machine gun (and its impact on warfare) and the current situation with educational technology (and illustrated it with a stirring clip from the movie War Horse). Apparently, the machine gun’s introduction was delayed by endless debates over cost/affordable/practicality as well as the love affair that war strategists and officers had with the horse.  Once it was demonstrated undeniably effective in battle (during World War One), there was no more discussion – the money simply had to be found.

Lord Puttnam explained that  it’s the same with educational reform – we simply can not afford not to do it.  “To settle for anything less is to risk the success of the next generation.  We can not allow our children to drift into being second class world citizens.”  It was a stirring end to an intensely interesting week.

Soooo, my key take-aways from NMC12:

– The importance of agility and moving quickly to try things

– The importance of making things and the catalytic environments that support that: Makerspaces, TechShops, Hackerspaces, Fab Labs, DIY

– The power of igniting passion and curiosity in students

– Keith Krueger’s suggestion that the question “should we invest in educational technology?” is the WRONG question.  Rather we should ask  “What should learning look like today so that students are prepared for tomorrow?”.  If we ask that question, technology will be squarely in the center.

For your own NMC exploration you can go to the NMC iTunes page and watch/ listen to the archived conference video collection and here for the four daily digests.


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The Jesus Game

The Wikipedia entry for "Jesus"

We had a bunch of teenaged boys in the house last night who introduced us to “The Jesus Game”.  For the uninitiated, this is a rousing online rendition of “seven degrees of separation”, where the player is challenged to get from some remote, randomly selected topic to “Jesus“, on Wikipedia, in the least number of clicks.

So, here’s how it works.  You navigate to Wikipedia.  I give you a random topic – say, discrete math.  You scan the article, looking for suitable links.  You strategize on your best shot, click, scan the new article for a relevant path, click, and so on. When you finally arrive at the Jesus entry, you’re done.  Then we go back to your browser’s history, count up the number of clicks between “discrete math” and “jesus”, and that’s your number.  Then it’s my turn. Hilarity ensues.

Here’s what I loved about watching these boys play the game last night:  first, they were completely intent.  Focused doesn’t describe it.  If the house had been on fire, I would have had trouble dragging them away.  But the other thing I loved was their conversation around the choices.  They were all looking over the players’ shoulder, making suggestions, shouting out advice, scanning the article for meaning.  Debating whether Catholicism or Protestantism would “get them to Jesus” faster.  OK, so it’s not deep learning, but it’s a darned interesting way to observe their minds at work. It was like game play narration (which I’ve blogged about earlier), they were narrating their thinking, sharing it with others, learing from each other as they carved a path and then, afterwards, reflecting on the their decisions (which paths led to traps, which were the most productive).  And here’s a really interesting thing – once a player made their way to a path previously blazed by an earlier player, they opted to not “cheat” (and mimic that path), but to look for an alternative.  One player announced, “No no, that would be too easy, I’ll look for something else.”

And to complete the metathinking circle, there is a wikipedia entry on The Jesus Game.


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