A look at the UPEI Academic Plan

A little over a year ago, I was asked to leave the work I was doing with the Recruitment and First Year advisement team (partially rolling out a CRM) and go help with student engagement/retention and getting our university’s first academic plan written. A committee of 22 administrators, faculty, staff and students was assembled to craft the next four years of the academic – and to some degree research – direction of UPEI. We spent a year working on it, starting first with our campus Strategic Plan and then through various feedback approaches. We crafted the 28 page Academic Plan that was endorsed by the Board of Governors after having been approved by our Senate. The content of the plan came out of the vision of our Strat Plan and the needs and ideas of campus, but my role was to direct structure and build consensus. I had to develop an iterative vision and process around core questions: What does a good Academic Plan look like? What should it do? What does ours need to do?

What is an Academic Plan anyway?
The term means lots of different things to different people. For some, it is a Strat plan for an entire campus. For some, it is the direction that they will take with regards to programming. For UPEI, the Academic Plan is:

  1. Our method of enacting the UPEI Strategic Plan on the academic/research end of the house.
  2. An attempt to give us some of the tools that we need to be more effective in getting good ideas up and running
  3. A way to respond to academic/research related possibilities/challenges on campus

Data Gathering/Research method
We did web based surveys, world cafe style sessions, and had an open door policy for people who wanted to come in and share ideas/concerns. We used a provisional coding strategy with an initial set of codes from the UPEI Strat plan. We then went through individual and program based feedback and adjusted the code as we went along. Those codes eventually morphed into the 35 initiatives that appear in the final draft of the Academic Plan. We very much took an iterative approach, returning to the committee with the results, the adaptation in the code, and the ways in which those codes translated to initiatives. Lots of good discussion.

What is an initiative?
I spent a fair amount of time wringing my hands over this one. We wanted each initiative to have a goal and objectives, to be assigned to people… to be clear. We also wanted to create a scenario where our subject matter experts would have the latitude to innovate in the ways in which they responded to the challenges. If we waited for that innovation to happen before we wrote the document, we’d be finishing the projects before they’d even been approved. We decided on a middle ground that reflected the codes and responses from campus as best we could, but still allowed the groups that would be running those initiatives the chance to do new and interesting things without being committed to our initial thoughts on the matter. Here’s a nice clean example – Initiative 29 – Student Employment on Campus

Goal: Use our employment of students as a training ground for job search skills
Description: Each year, over 500 students work on the UPEI campus supporting the mission of the University. This provides an ideal opportunity to create supports to help shape their future career skills. This project will provide supports to student applicants before, during, and after their work time here at UPEI.
Responsibility: Office of Skills Development and Learning
Success measures: Baseline of student applicants and successful applicants; new communications procedures and follow-up (including mentorship); number of students supported by providing job hunting, résumé building, and interview skills

Project management on an initiative
Having the initiatives detailed in a document is one thing, figuring out how we’re going to go about getting them done is something else. We have a campus full of smart people who are already working on projects. The challenge for us from a project management perspective was to find an approach that would allow 35 initiatives to all get planned out and completed but still allow people to have a window into the process.

initiative charter
The first step for an initiative is to create a charter. A charter basically sets the high level milestones, sets broad timelines for those milestones, assigns the tasks to specific individuals, has a discussion of scope (in and out), and has a common sense section where we can talk about what success looks like. Think of it as an internal contract with ourselves, where we promise what we’re going to do and commit to actually getting it done. The initiative charters are shared google docs that have a rich history of discussion attached to them. These charters will go to Senate for approval and then will get posted on the academic planning website. We have 7 charters going to Senate this month. Fingers crossed.

project plan
This document gets down to the details. I’ve created a streamlined project management approach that has a google sheet for each project stitched together to a central dashboard giving us a sense of the health of all the the initiatives that we are running. Google lacks some of the fancy features of the pro-style project management software, but everyone can use it, assigning view/comment/edit rights is super easy inside our organization and ‘importrange’ is easy for my caveman mind to use to build a dashboard.

The project plan has what you’d expect. A place for general status of the project. A place to talk about what the challenges might be and what possible resolutions could look like. A breakdown of each milestone into tasks, delivered outcomes, due dates etc… Its one spreadsheet that will get used by all project members and where key details get centralized for efficient obstacle removal. I’m trying to make this an email-less project if possible.

What I hope the Academic Plan will mean
There are a number of individual initiatives and specific outcomes in the plan that I care a great deal about. Higher ed is in a very interesting place right now. Our ability to understand things like networked participatory scholarship, the impact of the new focus on ‘career skills’ and the need for good mentorship doesn’t actually need to conflict with maintaining the things that make a university a university (autonomy, academic freedom, research etc…). We can have both of these things, I think. We just need to find effective ways to work on the things that we care about – to get the job done while still being who we are. If we managed to do anything in this project… that’s what I hope we did.

The Marco Rubio Disaster, rote learning and getting the answer right

The ‘Marco Rubio Disaster‘ is, in my mind, the most amazing 5 minutes of political debate in my lifetime. It exposes, on the surface, the degree of preparation (training/brainwashing) that goes into preparing a candidate for a debate. It also reminds me personally of that feeling that happens to me occasionally in the middle of a talk where I can’t quite pull my thoughts together. I mean… Rubio just totally brain locked. A monumental momentary breakdown. Potentially, spun right, the end of his viability as a political candidate. But that’s all spin. We obviously shouldn’t judge a person on one flaw in one moment. The real interest for me is how it exposes a political teams desire to present us with certainty… and also where that can go wrong.

What happened
On February 6 2016, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie were debating Rubio’s lack of executive experience. In the middle of critiquing Christie’s record as Governor, Rubio entered into 30 second monologue about how Obama was trying to ‘change’ the country. Christie called Rubio on the prepared speech. And then rubio responded by repeating the speech, again. In almost the exact same words. Christie called him on it. Then Rubio did it AGAIN. His brain totally skipped on him. He tried to attack Christie to regain power in the discussion, but Christie had done too good a job of exposing the repetition. The crowd turned against Rubio.

talking point to truth
For years now, we’ve taken it for granted that our politicians, senior corporate executives and that guy in your home town who bosses people around are going to repeat things over and over again until we believe them. We have taken it for granted that they are in a position to ‘make truth’ by being louder, by being more persistent and being more authoritative than the next guy.

My father often talks about a guy in our home town who was the Oracle of the Possible (my expression, not dad’s). If he said you could fish a certain way, or build your house in a certain place, it was possible. If he disagreed, people figured it wasn’t possible. He was persistent. People laughed at people who disagreed with him.

In a corporation we call them brand statements. They are expressions and feelings that people want us to associate with a particular company. In many corporations employees are trained to mimic these behaviours and expressions in order to deliver on the ‘brand promise’. Some of these things are great… a brand that commits to ‘things not breaking’ and finds a way to deliver on this promise is probably contributing to a positive process. Sadly many of these promises are of the ‘we’re fun’ or ‘we’re edgy’ variety that try to get people to attach their personal aspirations to the clothes they wear. I signal I’m edgy by wearing X brand. I’ll grant you that it is a form of communication… and we certainly need ways to communicate with new people, but it’d be nice if we didn’t have the baggage that goes with it.

I remember about 10 years ago a politician in British Columbia was talking about a law that held political candidates accountable for the promises they made. The discussion was mostly met with confusion. On the one hand there are obvious problems with locking people down to one perspective on an issue when we could learn something and realize we have to change our minds. On the other hand, it would further contribute to people talking and not actually saying anything. We live in a political climate where politicians are criticized for being ‘too intellectual’. Too smart to be president… i mean… what does that even mean?

Rubio’s brain fart is a fascinating combination of the hometown despot, the brand manager and the politician. His message in that little 30 second snapshot (which we heard 3 times…) is that these other guys, they want to change things, and that’s bad by definition. The things I want to change are not ‘change’ they are things that need to be fixed. He needs to manage his brand in this way, because his perceived weakness (as pundit-ed) is a lack of executive experience. The brand response is to control truth making, as it always is. As a political brand statement, he is looking to return to the greatness of the past, the classic simulacra of American the beautiful, of the perfectland before the evil Obama.

In each of the three cases, it was a correct brand response. The problem, of course, is that they were in the same conversation 2 minutes apart. What Rubio did happens all the time – it happens with the guy down the street, it happens with corporate brands and it happens with politicians. The big question is –

Why do we care that a politician is repeating his talking points as non-sequitur when s/he does it in a row and not when s/he does it 100 times over an election period.

The art of repetition and rote
The first answer, I think, is that we’re trained to it. We actively train our society to respond to ‘the truth’ being made as an authoritative claim by people in positions of authority. Our entire school system is a training ground for this. The teacher is correct. They have prepared what you ‘need to know’. You are going to be tested on whether you have ‘remembered’ what you ‘need to know’. The question of whether you need to know it (How am I ever going to use this in real life?) and whether it’s actually true are not part of the system – though certainly there are some teachers that include it on their own.

Politicians have always recognized that they can do this. Look no further than the record of speeches from the Roman Republic to recognize that we didn’t make this up as an extension of corporate branding. The problem, i think, is that our corporations recognized this about a 100 years ago, and the training that was put into our education system to encourage people to listen to politicians and listen to their bosses in the factories are now also part of the consumerism of our culture. We are told, enough times, that a given thing reflects our personal aspirations and so we decide we need it. Repetition for truth.

Stop getting the answer right
I believe that our education system is a society building machine. I believe that the way we build it, the practices we foster, the underlying concepts in it make citizens a certain way. I totally understand that people want our schools to be accountable, but the choices we have made for accountability have created a society where people believe that repetition is true. We believe that there are correct answers to all questions. That’s how tests work isn’t it? Don’t we represent power in our classrooms through teachers who present and test for correct answers?

It is MUCH easier to check and see if a teacher is doing their work if ‘doing their work’ is the same as getting students to deliver the right answer. We’ve always recognized this. We turn to ‘project based learning’ to give people a chance to do explore, to deal with uncertainty, to make their own answers. Super inconvenient though, PBL. I mean, the students have 6 hours to get something done so… it’s much easier to provide some structure so that they can get there in that time. Teachers change, people start to realize that that structure is way easier to measure than the random things that students think… and then we start to measure the structure.

I’ve come to realize that rhizomatic learning (and many other, similar projects – see connectivism, heutagogy etc…) is about creating a different kind of citizen in our little society building machine. I’m hoping to encourage citizens who can, among other things, see what Rubio is doing not just when he so majestically did it in a five minute span, but when he repeats for truth over the course of a campaign. I would love to be part of encouraging citizens who get MORE suspicious as things are repeated rather than less. To destabilize the brand message so that it was less effective. To make it so that we did not look for TRUTH but rather negotiated truths that included more people.

I think certainty in schools is a key battleground. We need to stop getting the answer right.

Science education, resilience, the workforce, Arduino and rhizomatic learning

This is a ‘first-thoughts’ post. I’d love to hear from others on this.

It’s been a very humbling month of learning at Casa Villa here in Charlottetown. I have been teaching myself the difference between a resistor and a capacitor, the value of a good voltmeter and the wonders of enticing little sensors for the arduino platform. Every day the list of things i don’t know gets longer.

I have a number of reasons for having started down the arduino path. I’m both interested and a little worried about the internet of things. I’m fascinated by the possibilities of building fit for purpose items. I think it’s profoundly important that my children understand these things. I think my little girl needs to see a future in math/engineering as just as relevant as her future as a princess. Lots of reasons. The big driver for me, though, is that I’m interested in the confluence of science and self-directed learning in general, and rhizomatic learning in particular.

That’s not how we do it in Science
I am often told that students simply have to memorize things in order to start learning. One of the more lucid discussions (read this as: a discussion where dave didn’t end up jumping up and down) that i have taken part in on the subject surrounded the idea that in the humanities, being about humans, all humans have something built in to say on the matter. We bring our humanity to the subject. In the sciences, for many, the subject is almost entirely new. As this is the case, students simply have to cram their brains full of definitions and concepts in order to understand anything. Take the first step. Master the words. Master the concepts. Then you can science things.

I’m sorry. I have a hard time accepting that taking in words out of context is the best way to learn anything. so…

Why this is bad for resilience
I’m always suspicious of any test that checks for exactly the thing that is asked for. The multiple choice tests that check for the ‘word mastery’ are nasty little beasts. They create a system where students are all rewarded for doing exactly the same thing. I see hundreds of students, little cue cards in their hands, desperately trying to memorize the things they were told to memorize. While I will certainly agree that it helps work on their obedience, and, potentially, their willingness to repeatedly do a disconnected task (excellent factory skills) it does not support the ‘adapt to stress’ resiliency that is so critical to our society.

In order to adapt we need to be challenged by the unknown, we need to be confronted by uncertainty. We need to learn how to find an answer (not the answer) to our problem and react accordingly. Try solutions, improve, create…

What this looks like in the workforce
Ok. Lets face it. We can either hide from the workforce discussion as it relates to schools or we can face it head on. I FIRMLY believe that resiliency is one of the, if not THE, most important workforce skill there is. It is not achieved by teaching people to ‘workforce’ or to use a cash register. I have actually heard, several times, employers complain that ‘kids these days’ can’t even use a cash register. The solution to this seems to be to get them train them to actually use a cash register. Um… no. That’s like eating baking soda because you have too much lactic acid in your muscles. The mind, like the body, is a complex system. It’s not a direct pipe.

We need to teach for resilience. To be unflustered by a reluctant cash register. We teach for memory. In a ‘teach for memory’ world people need to be told exactly what to do so that they can perform that task in the future. Does this sound like the world that we are expecting?

Enter the Arduino
So… in an attempt to put my money (and my poor brain) where my mouth is I’ve started a new project. I want to design a rhizomatic learning inspired approach to learning Arduino. I can’t think of anything more ‘step by step’ mastery-like to approach. There’s tons of insider language (today i ran into Pulse Width Modulation) much of it describing critical phenomenons that will either burn up my chip or simply make it so that it wont work. Here are some project links i’ve been collecting… I’m sure i’m supposed to memorize Ohms law before I use it.

I think the Arduino and the projects that can now be done with them are perfect development spaces for resilience if we take this approach. If we make them a struggle… with a possibility for success. If we can make them a place for experimentation and exploration, not memorization and repetition.

First steps
Rhizomatic learning is a complex approach to the learning process. As such, I always try to reduce any other complexity when i’m trying to design something. In the process of accumulating scads of little tiny wired things, I’ve come across what I believe will be the first step in the learning process – failing/succeeding with the ATTINY85. It’s a tiny little chip that takes next to no power, and can only do one or two things at a time. Here’s an excellent article of some of the possibilities.

So. I have a software platform (ArduinoIDE) and I have a chip (attiny85) and I have a couple of leads (it seems that the tiny85 will run a transmitter)… now i need to figure out a way to allow learners to play with those, to use them to discover the depth meaning in electronics in a way that allows them to make their own meaning from it. If I get near to what I’m looking for, they should leave the ‘course’ not only seeing how a chip connects to a capacitor, but seeing the world around as one of limitless connective possibilities…

So far… so fun.

Afterthought: I recognize that the maker movement has been on about this for a long time. 🙂

Arduino with Kids – Getting started: notes from week 1

I got my two kids (7 & 9) an arduino starter kit for Christmas. I have this crazy idea that among the literacies my kids will need is some understanding of how our world is built up of little sensors tellings us everything. I have this hope that they’ll want to be part of it and try and build crazy little things around the house with these sensors. We’ve been playing for 4-5 days now and if we keep things up I’m sure I’m going to forget all the frustrations/victories that happened when we first started off. If you’re interested in getting started… this is what we’ve learned so far.

What you need to know before getting started
The code
I have a basic understanding of coding. I broadly understand basic coding concepts and am fairly proficient when it comes to understanding how this blog works for instance. So, before you begin

You should understand what code IS

As I understand it, Arduino uses a simplified version of C++. I can tell you that when i look at it, I can workout the majority of what is going on from the context clues and the notes that other nice people have entered into the code. If you’ve never looked at code in your life, you might want to find a friend to help you.

The software
‘arduino’ is also a piece of software that you need to download and put on your computer. It’s where you put your code (they often call it a ‘sketch’)and then upload it to your Arduino through a USB cable. There are tons and tons of sketches available online that you can use and the arduino software comes with a pile of examples. The examples by themselves are not really enough to get started as they don’t contain the things you need to do on the hardware to make things happen.

blink sketch in arduino

This is probably the simplest sketch you can do. It sends power to pin 13. Then it turns pin 13 on and off at 3 second intervals. You can go to your Arduino and put a LED bulb in pin 13 and the ground that is right next to it. Long leg of the LED is the ‘+’ and it goes in pin 13. Short leg of the LED is the ‘-‘ and goes in the ground. (I didn’t know what these things meant before i started)

Trust me, it's blinking

  1. Connect Uno via USB cable to your computer
  2. Go to Tools -> Board -> choose your board (mine is an Uno)
  3. Go to Tools -> Port -> Choose your board (mine was there with ‘Arduino uno’)
  4. Go to File -> Examples -> Blink
  5. Click the ‘upload’ button on the arduino software
  6. Shove the long leg of the LED in pin 13 and the short leg in the ground (GND) slot
  7. Watch the incredible blinking

If these instructions make sense to you… you can probably work on an arduino.

This is diagram software that shows you how things attach in the arduino. It’s a donate for download. I’m still working through it. I figure it will continue to become more important as I understand more things.

The hardware
This is the stuff you have to buy. There are a million different combinations of this on the internet, so I’m going to list some of some of the things that you’ll need and I’ll include my fledgling understanding of what they are for.

The board
There are tons of different ones, but I chose the Arduino Uno. Uno is more of a standard than it is a brand. My particular arduino was made by Sunfounder. I really don’t know if it’s a ‘good one’ or not. It’s done everything its supposed to so far. The board is the home base. That picture up above is my Uno. I kinda like it 🙂

There are tons and tons of sensors that you can buy. They can sense light, sound weather things… pretty much anything you can imagine. They cost somewhere between $1 and $50 depending on what you’re buying and where.

Sound Sensor – We used this to build this project that makes the lights turn on and off when it hears music. Here’s the demo from my kids.

My kit had a bunch of others (humidity, light, RFID, etc) I’m happy with having just bought a pile in my introductory set and buying new ones as i need them. $2 free shipping on ebay.

Displays and motors
I got my little LCD display to work using a bit of code I found out there. The trick is to find the model number of the piece you have and search for arduino sketches that match it. It takes some time, but i find that everytime i do it, i learn a bit more about the overall package.

Wires and bits of things
The Arduino approach is solderless. The wires all plug into the board and attach to the sensors. I bought a ‘breadboard’ which is basically a little connector that allows you to work out all the circuits. You need a breadboard. You need a pile of wires.
You also need resistors. I’m not 100% sure what these do yet, other than that they control the way electricity goes in and out of things. I’m still researching this bit. Just attach them like they show you in the designs.
You’ll probably want a passive buzzer, some buttons and LEDs.

Other things you might need
I’m using an old fishing tackle box to keep all my stuff in. Works great.
Get a good digital multimeter (i bought this one). It will help tell you things about voltage, amperage and Ohms that I currently don’t understand but have it under good authority are super important. They will at least help you tell your resistors apart – which is some crazy arcane bit of business.

Overall… get some hardware and get what else you might need later. Don’t sweat it. Just get started.

We have three projects that we’ve been talking about getting to once we understand enough things. We’re currently just connecting wires to sensors and trying to make them work. I’m hoping to get the these three projects done some time in 2016

The robot car

I’m mean… seriously. Am i right? I have this kit on order… and am hoping i have the other things I need. Not really sure yet 🙂

Weather station/tweeting plant
Oscar, for whatever reason, has decided that the other two projects he’s interested in is making a weather station and a plant that tweets when it wants to be watered. Not sure how these are going to get built yet. One project at a time.

Should I do arduino?
I’m happy I started. I can see my kids getting their minds around it. I think they’ll find whatever knowing we achieve to be useful… If you have about $100 and are willing to figure some things out, I think most people who use the internet should be able to make a light blink on an arduino 🙂

Let me know if you give it a try.

Asynchronous course hour – systemic impacts of the digital on higher education

As some of you are probably aware, I spent the last 10 months working on an academic plan for my university. I tried to be the conduit for 1000’s of pages of feedback, multiple collaborative sessions and piles of surveys. I also tried to listen to hundreds of colleagues and students who had stories they wanted to tell about their time here at the university. It was a fascinating process, and the experience of developing a plan with a committee of 22 people was one I will not soon forget. The digital (meaning the difference between what is possible/likely/imposed in a pre-digital vs. digital society) was hiding around every corner. There was the obvious stuff like the ethical implications of learning analytics and conversations about what ‘quality’ might look like in online learning. There were also more subtle things like integrating student services through a ticket management approach and encouraging networked participatory scholarship. You can ignore it, but you can’t avoid it. We need to re-envision huge chunks of our institutions along new lines taking into account both the affordances and the tyranny of the digital. The systemic impacts of the digital on learning is a panel i’m chairing at the DLRN conference next week. (4 days left to register)

The digital gives us a new window through which to examine our first principles.

An article was posted in Inside Higher Ed yesterday touting the need to shift from the Carnegie Unit to outcomes based education. The author juxtaposes the industrial age approach to learning (thrown them in a room, block out class time) against the information age (let them advance at their own speed towards outcomes). The idea seems to be that we are currently trying to do both industrial, time based education AND outcomes based education at the same time and this leaves us with a commitment to neither. We need to cast off the timed class hour and rebuild our universities to train students for the information economy. Ok. Yup. We need to change because right now we’re trying to do ALL THE THINGS… but lets dig a little deeper.

The two parts of this argument we should ignore
Mastery learning – I have come to see the concept of ‘mastery learning’ as code for ‘and we only care about STEM subjects’. It is a rigid system whereby we create a set of standard blocks of ‘knowing’ that people do one after another, only moving to the next step when the previous one is completed. An assembly line of learning, as it were. An industrial model of learning. I am always a little confused by how people use ‘information age’ networked arguments to suggest we should do mastery learning. And, frankly, many STEM grads will go into companies where the daily work life will look like it did 20 years ago. Research labs or construction sites may have incrementally better technologies, but as many of them rigidly protect their intellectual property and have giant marketing budgets to buy TV ads, the ‘information superhighway’ doesn’t intersect with them very often.

Information Age and knowing information – the suggestion here is that we need to have ‘information havers’ who we can prove they ‘have information’ for the information age. This seems a little confusing to me. If we live with an abundance of information, then we need to teach people how to assemble solutions from various levels of knowing. If I’m building a new birdhouse I may be an expert in construction, kinda knowledgeable about birds and suck at the marketing part of selling my birdhouse. The great thing about the world we live in is that (given access – lots of people don’t have it) you can do all those things. That’s part of what’s changed. But it’s not about ‘having all that information’ but knowing how to bring together the information and/or the people to get what you need. We can do that today… we mostly don’t need to be ‘masters’ ahead of time.

But he’s also right – the asynchronous course hour
The asynchronous course hour often drives this conversation. The research that I’ve done on it (this article is representative) suggest that most people have thought about it, understand that it’s an issue, but aren’t really sure what to do about it. Here’s the problem. We have all decided, for convenience sake, that we’ll teach about 36 classroom hours to students and expect them to study about 80 hours outside the classroom for each ‘course’. We’ve adapted our curriculum to fit this convention and, ostensibly, try to balance the amount of knowing/work/information/learning (KWIT) to fit that time frame. Early in online learning, we took the amount of KWIT we did in a face2face classroom and used that as the basis for how much KWIT we would use in an online course. This works ok for as far as it goes… and then you start to ask questions

What if I record my lectures, is that equivalent to a classroom hour… am i teaching?
If I’m giving the same tests, can i let the students self-pace and finish whenever?
Is my responding in a discussion forum equal to me grading or me teaching?
What if i start my course from scratch, how do I imagine 36 hours of classroom teaching?
How can I do online testing without them ‘finding the answers’ on the internet?

We are living with a foot in both worlds, and we are being forced (at least i hope we are) to ask some profound questions about what it means to teach in ‘the information age’. We have weird monsters-hybrids like ‘a video camera that watches your eyes to make sure you are only staring at the screen when you’re doing an online test’ and faculty requesting f2f tests for online courses. That walled classroom has it’s own affordances that get blown up when you work online. The classroom hour structure is only the start of it.

Information control
One of the nice things about keeping people in a boxed off space when you’re trying to teach them is TOTAL POWER over the information space. If you can keep students quiet, you can totally control the information that is being presented. This makes testing super-easy to monitor. It also allows you to forward one perspective (or multiple ones if you so choose) and create the knowledge narrative that you subscribe to. The digital totally blows this up. Five minutes of clicking can get you a counter to almost any narrative. The ‘information hiding’ that is so critical to the way many still test is next to impossible (Big Brother watching you through your computer not-withstanding). The lessons that this teaches “hide your information” and “choose the RIGHT narrative” doesn’t really map up against the information age story that we are being told.

What is our relationship to information in learning in 2015?

Most faculty agreements are mapped up against the faculty member spending 36 hours in a classroom. That’s super easy to count. Were you there? Yeah? Ok… you were there. That’s pretty easy right? There are certainly many other things in place, student evaluations, faculty professionalism, etc… I’m not suggesting that faculty just put in time in their classrooms. I’m suggesting that the whole model of ‘doing your job’ STARTS at being in class. But what does that look like in an online space? What does ‘being in class’ mean when you and your students have access to a classroom space (if you’re using a VLE) 24 hours a day? What if you tried to answer all of your students questions when there is an unlimited amount of time for them to ask? I remember trying to find guidance when i taught my first hybrid class (18 hours in class, 18 hours online). I tried my best to make it work out… but how do I know that I’m doing my job? How much is the right amount?

What does it mean to ‘teach an hour’ in 2015?

Fix it with outcomes!!!
The solution to this is to use outcomes based education instead of hours based education. The theory here is that as long as we ensure that students ‘get it’ who cares how many hours it takes? But what is ‘IT’? How do we decide what a person needs to know in order to have a Bachelor’s degree in Arts with a major in Philosophy? What outcomes are you going to choose to make a Major in Biology? Can a student finish in 2 years? What about one year? What about 20 years? Is it time based at all? Well… we could model off of what we have now…

Mastery education advocates often cite professional standards bodies as an alternative way to go with this. They use the fields of engineering, or computer science as their example and say we’ll know when they reach those outcomes that they are prepared to go into those fields. The funny thing is that when i talk to engineers and computer scientists I keep hearing about the need for creativity, time management, grit and people skills as much as I hear about the need to know (insert engineering thing that’s easily measured). Those are wonderful things… but they aren’t mastery things. I am not going to get my first block of creativity learned until moving on to block two of grit. And don’t say i can… because… (angry face)

What outcome do we really want from our universities?
This is just another case where the digital has forced us to consider our first principles. What do we want the ‘outcome’ of a university education to be? As we consider how granular, how technical, how mastery-based we want our outcomes to be we are deciding what it means to be a knower in our society. Our schools have been both drivers for creating drones to work in our factories and an attempt to be places of free thought to allow us to change as a society. They are – always – normative. The way we build them and the ways in which we adjudicate success inside them will be reflections of the society we created… whether we’ve thought about it or not.

The digital isn’t an evolutionary change, it’s a new toolset that allows us to think about the human experience. The internet is full of humans and the residue of the human experience. Given this moment of reflection that we are forced to confront… what do we want ‘knowing’ to be in 2015?

Trying to support deeper conversation at an ed-conference? DLRN15 is trying Slack

DLRN15 is going to happen in nine days. The conference is exploring the impact of the digital on higher education. We’re hoping to have deep conversations on complex issues. We’ve got passionate people coming. How can we make it as useful to people as possible? How do we allow multiple voices to participate to allow that complexity to emerge? How do we encourage that conversation to continue?

Slack experiment
Following the XOXO festival’s lead this year we thought we might take a run at using Slack to support conference conversations. We’ve been using Slack to help organize the conference… and… well… it’s really helpful. If you haven’t used Slack, its like a more organized, slightly more functional twitter. It lets you create channels (really hashtags) to coordinate conversation topics. It allows basic googledoc integration.

It has one feature that I consider essential to battling signal/noise problems – it has a functional notification system. In all my work with open communities, I’ve found that notification is just about the most important part of the process… whether that comes through a newsletter or through facebook updates. Slack has a fairly good notification process, which might really help people zoom in on conversations that they want to pursue.

How we might use Slack
Conference logistics – At the very least, people will know where to go to ask a question. That alone is pretty useful. Will there be too much noise to make it a good place for that? Maybe. Conference announcements? Slack. Too much noise? Don’t know.
Conference socializing – It can be hard to find people to have lunch with, grab a drink with or have dinner with the night before a conference. I always feel just a little weird posting open dinner invitations to the conference twitter hashtag… like my kids are going to worry that I’m lonely. I’m hoping that at the very least people will know where to find other people at the conference. Looking for someone? Find them on Slack. Don’t want to be found? don’t login. easy peasy.
Conference themes – We have five conference themes that we’re hoping to explore. I’m hoping that we can get a bit of a discussion going before the conference starts on each theme. I’d like to have a place where those five conversations can evolve over the conference. I have this idea that people can keep going back to keep pushing the conversation a little further.
Special topic creation – The XOXO conference had 150 channels by the time their conference was over. I think it’d be great if people started their own channels as topics of special interest emerge.

Social contract
As with any new space and any place where new connections are being made there’s a need for addressing the implicit social contract. We are very much trying to create a space where as many people as possible can have a voice… can be part of the conversation. This is DLRNs inclusion statement…

#dlRN15 is dedicated to trying to create an inclusive conversation for all participants, and to welcome voices across lines of gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, race, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), technology choices, and academic status.

I don’t expect Slack to replace other methods of sending out content. I can still see people tweeting and sending out images on instagram. I still hope to see blog posts. We’re going to try and do some interesting things with Periscope. I’m hoping that Slack will encourage more discussion amongst the participants that will lead to even more stuff being sent out to the web. We’ll see. Have to try it to find out.

We certainly had some folks during the recent open courses I was facilitating concerned about the exclusion they felt when much of the conversation was being held in Facebook. I’m sensitive to this… but I think it’s still worth trying. We’ll keep track of how it goes and report back after the conference.

Sign up
Want to sign up? Here’s the form. Not coming to the conference and still interested in finding out how it works? Feel free to sign up. Will it be a positive experience? No idea. Please let us know.

Community learning – every ‘we’ makes a ‘them’

I have too many draft blog posts accumulating in this space so I’m committed to publishing whatever drivel comes out of my fingers tonight. I was seconded to lead Academic Planning and Retention/student engagement at UPEI, and with the plan finally out to campus, New Student Orientation ready to go and our analytics project coming together, I can turn my mind to other ideas.

After the open course I ran earlier this year (Rhizo15) we found ourselves tangled in a number of publication and presentation projects. We’ve setup a Slack instance to try and deal with the todos on the different projects. It’s been an interesting process trying to bring enough structure to a ridiculously unstructured concept (rhizomatic learning) to be able to talk to other people about it. We’ve been having a conversation over the last week or so about the viability of running a new rhizo (#rhizo16) next year. The focus of that conversation is about how we can include people in the community so that they feel real membership. The very fact that there’s a ‘we’ talking about this in the first place suggests that we might have a problem on our hands.

WEs creating THEMs
I tend to think that membership and belonging are things that humans seek in most things they do. You may be member of a very small, very pigheaded group, but you still have a place to belong… even if that belonging is only in opposition to the dominant group. In the learning stuff that I play with, I always try to be very sensitive to the idea that it can be difficult for new people to play. By this i don’t mean “do people know enough to join”, but rather “do people feel like they are members of the community”. Rhizo14 (the first Rhizomatic learning open course) spawned a set of tightly knit communities that, in some cases, continued working together after the course was over. In some of those cases I think the community may have formed in opposition to the course… but it still formed. We had created some very strong WE during the course of our work during and after the course. We had created a language. We had reifications that were part of shared experience.

At that point of WE the THEMs are created. Lots of us are interested in making these great communities of knowing, but in doing so we are, defacto, excluding all the folks who didn’t make it in, for whatever reason. Some people expect to be part of the WE – just because they showed up. Some people take great offence to starting out as a THEM. Some are very sensitive to these kinds of belonging and others, of course, could care less. As facilitators we have a double responsibility to both the WEs and the THEMs.

In planning for #rhizo15 my main concern was to create a space where new people could join and participate on a level playing field with folks from #rhizo14. Not possible, I know, I guess maybe it was a direction I was heading in. I took a number of approaches:

  1. I committed to running the course by myself, thereby not overtly creating an ‘in crowd’ (though, to be fair, lots of #rhizo14ers helped lots and lots in the background
  2. I changed the name (to 15), the focus and the location of the course… killing off a very successful facebook group in the process
  3. I attempted (and failed) to create a forkable course
  4. I vowed to do way more social intervention work to include people equally
  5. I equally attempted to avoided ‘right answers’ as these favour the initiated
  6. I was terribly mysterious about the content (and, frankly, the goal) of each week… putting everyone in the same position

For all the efforts I made, it was breathtaking how quickly the WE groups formed themselves. We’re still looking at the data from twitter, suffice it to say that people form up pretty quickly. That shared experience starts to create new language, it melds with the old language, and new WEs are created. And that’s good. People start to trust and like each other, and they start to learn together. They care about each other. Community forms. New thinking emerges. WEs happen. But anyone who did not participate in that experience, who did not, for whatever reason, feel included if they did participate… they are now a them. It’s not something I saw people do overtly… it just seems to happen. I’ve been working in online communities (mostly for learning) for a dozen years or so, as a community emerges, it tends to get more and more difficult to join fully. I’ve come to see this as normal, and to see my job as trying to create ways to allow people to belong over time.

Opening the door
This blog post is here because my excellent colleague asked the question “wonder why we speak of opening the door at all, instead of an open hallway?”. I think we create those doors by liking each other. There are certainly people who are more than willing to just ignore the doors and jump in anyway, but I think that the longer a group of people are together, the fewer people there are who are willing to do that. Unless, of course, people make an overt effort to create strategies that allow people to become members of a community, and, in our case, a community of knowing.

And we all know this really – from the rest of our lives. It takes effort to belong to any tight knit group of people, and I’m certainly not suggesting that all the effort should be on the part of the WE to allow for the THEM. Becoming part of the WE is an overt act of becoming on the part of the THEM. They have to want it. They have to be willing to try and understand the WE even as they come to belong and start to shape what the WE means. But the WE has to continually find new ways to open the door, to allow people to join on equal footing (whatever that means).

What this means for learning – Making people WEs
I’ve always seen Instructivism as a process by which you explain to people that there are things they are supposed to know, and they should just go on about believing those things. There are instances in which i agree with this. Road rules. The names of things (though this is tricky). The fire exits. Timestables. I think its very dangerous, however, when we start applying it to everything. While its probably a more effective way to get someone to pass a test, it’s not as effective a mechanism at encouraging creativity, independence and people’s ability to confront adversity/uncertainty.

That’s where, I believe, Constructivism comes in. From those terms, you are building your own understanding of the world around you. Not a great way to learn to use a stop sign, but a more effective mechanism for emancipation. My particular feelings about learning are, I think, a form of constructivism, where we remove the ‘right answer’ entirely, and try to move people from the THEM category of learning to the WE category. Where we are trying to bring them into the community of knowing rather than enforcing a belief upon them. Teaching is, i think, a constant effort of shoving that damn door open to try and let people in. Making WEs of the THEMs.

Dear Rhizo15

I’m sitting on the front porch of my house, the kids just put to sleep, and wondering at the strangeness of it all. Two years ago I had this idea that I wanted to try and run a course on empty. I wanted to take the work I’d been doing on rhizomatic learning and the MOOC stuff I’d done and take it to its logical extreme. What if there really is no content? Can there be a meaningful experience if there’s nothing more than a title to a course and a few questions? Two years later I’m wondering what to say to an unknown number of people now part of a community (set of communities) on the last day of the second of those courses.

Some of you are people who’s names are regularly used in conversation in my house. You’ve become part of the family in some cases, archetypes in others. There are some whose names, when i see them attached to work, immediately bring that feeling of excitement, that frisson of ‘what have they come up with today’ that makes the internet in general and our community in particular such a compelling place to let your brain run through. There are other names that are attached to parts of the work we are all doing that isn’t mine, who’s work i respect, but don’t quite understand. There are some, and it happened today on the very last day of the course, who’ve clearly been here all along and I haven’t seen. How crazy is that?

I guess what i wanted to say, above all, is that you all mean something to me. You are directly, individually and collectively proof that we can come together, from all over, and make meaning together without making a big deal about it. That people can care about each other and the work we are doing in a way that is sometimes partial, but usually meaningful. That people can be supportive of strangers and their work. That they can be generous and forgiving of flaws and cheerleaders on some very, very silly ideas. You all mean something to me. You make me hopeful.

I also wanted to talk about the quality of the work that’s been done this year. Lenandlar has done a great job of collecting blog posts, and I encourage everyone to drop over there and see some of the work that’s been done. Profound, courageous and intelligent work. Some of it devastatingly funny. Some of it a little odd :). None of it dismissive, or condescending. But that’s only part of the story. Just wandering through the image section of the twitter hashtag is a rampage of jokes, research and reflection that make me feel like this work is worthwhile. So thanks for being smart. And for being willing to bring your smart into my world.

I started the journey into the rhizome because there was something about it that rang ‘true’ for me. Or, maybe more to the point, something that seemed familiar. I had been doing a certain amount of work in internet communities, and that connection was certainly part of it – but there was something deeper for me. I’ve always been suspicious of easy answers, of pat responses, of formulas that fit screwdriver into screw. I see answers making sense in some parts of our world, but I think that we examine the human on too profound a level for that to work. As I’ve grown through thinking about it, but mostly through working with your folks this year, and those of you from last year, I’m starting to see what some of it might mean to me.

For education, it means that learning being difficult doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It means that we can trust people to confront complexity and come out better on the other side. Mostly… because they do that everyday anyway. We are immersed in complexity… we can’t escape it. Learning that allows people to confront uncertainty, make responsible decisions and still be good citizens is exactly the kind of learning I want to support. Learning that sees the ‘content’ of what is learned as simply ‘understand each other’… that’s maybe the core message. The journey of the rhizomatic learner, that nomadic journey, is through the earth of humanity. We move passed the ideas of others, expressed the best way they knew how. We feed on them. The process is always broken, filled with miscommunications and bits and pieces…

For me it means that the last ten years of work still make sense. I’m not sure what the next project is… God knows I’m tangled in enough student projects at my university to last the summer at least. But I do know that there are enough people out there that I respect, that I care about, that I like to think with that I could reach out and find a few of you to play with, or that you might reach out to want to try something out with me. It gives the odd little kid that I was, and the not-quite-conformist adult he became the feeling that he is part of a fellowship. A tribe.

You guys are all right.


Networks and higher ed… so many questions

If you poke around long enough in large change projects in higher education right now, you’ll find a technology that someone is trying to deal with. Whether it’s the needs of a CRM (customer relations management) system, the feedback from a learning analytics project, a social media mental health campaign… whatever. While technology is often complicated to develop/configure and it often does not solve the problem it was acquired for, that’s only the start of it. These technologies are really proxies for human activity, wether they are connective tech or simply a way of story things people said or did, they are still ‘activities’ that we are doing with our students. They are ethical situations, they need to impact policy etc…

In the last few years, as I’ve started to work in student preparation, recruitment, engagement and retention, I’ve been seeing new challenges. How do we incorporate health and wellness into an online program? What are the ethical implications of opening up student’s work to the world? How much learning analytics is too much analytics? How do we encourage systemic change? How much change can we even encourage inside higher ed and still call it higher ed? How does it relate to the way that people work?

And so I got a call from George Siemens talking about the DLRN conference. And it seems that I’m not alone in wanting to ask and talk about these questions. I’m currently on a planning committee with some very interesting folks

Kate Bowles, University of Wollongong
Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island
Matt Crosslin, University of Texas at Arlington
Justin T. Dellinger, University of Texas at Arlington
Kristen Eshleman, Davidson College
George Siemens, University of Texas at Arlington
Bonnie Stewart, University of Prince Edward Island
Candace Thille, Stanford University

Our conference is hoping to explore the most pressing uncertainties and most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy through five lenses for submissions: The Ethics of collaboration, Individualized learning, Systemic impacts, Innovation and work and Sociocultural Implications.

If you’re wondering about these things too… here’s the call for proposals

Content is people – exploring the myth of content

I tend to read (that is, listen to audiobooks) fairly indiscriminately in my spare time. I’m currently caught between reading fantasy novels with my son, re-reading the Iliad, two Sarah Vowell books and a pop-anthropology book called Sapiens. I know i’m not going to remember most of what i read in 12 minutes drives to and from the grocery store so i mostly like books that i can drop in and out of. I also like to be entertained by people’s ideas… regardless of whether they are ‘accurate’. Threaded through the wild and rollicking ride of conjecture, research and really snappy one liners that is Harari’s book Sapiens, are some very entertaining ideas. One of them is a particular view of how we are knitted together by our myths.

He sees myths as shared stories that we use to allow us to communicate and relate to large numbers of other humans. His argument, in part, is that the success of homo sapiens as a species is in our ability to create large scale fabrications that we can all believe in – money is a good example. Money doesn’t really ‘exist’ as a thing, it only works because we all believe it works. He makes the same argument for things like gods and corporations. They aren’t things in the world like you and I and my cat Clementine. They are shared delusions that we make real in order to cope with the complexity of our culture. All myth is, in a sense, a reification – treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing.

The thing in the container
The word ‘content’ is exactly this kind of abstraction. It’s a word that is used by almost every english speaking educator, but in many different ways.

  1. The ‘content’ of a course may be topic of the course – introductory chemistry.
  2. It may be the ‘materials’ (speaking of abstractions) like a laundry list of published articles
  3. It could be a textbook (grrr…)
  4. It may be the whole curriculum of a course – everything that happens
  5. … lots and lots of other things

And yet with all these varied ways of looking at the word, we use it to generally refer to ‘the things that are studied in that class’. They are ‘the things in the container’ of the course. But what does it mean for a course to have content? What does it mean for there to be things that are/should be in a container of first-year chemistry, or medical ethics or educational theory? These things change all the time. If you looked at the ‘content’ of courses from 50 years ago, or from another country, or even from one course to another we see a totally different things in the container.

So what dave? People teach different things. (i totally just said that in my head)

The so what here comes from our ability to choose between one ‘piece of content’ and another to include in our course. The ways in which those particular pieces of content become more popular is a weird social process. Einstein’s theories of special relavity made it to general acceptance because Max Planck supported them. They could be called ‘Universy roundy bouncy’ and be totally differently conceived if Max had found someone else first. But lets leave deep, i really don’t understand it, science aside for a moment. The laundry list of content that we read in any field is as much a matter of who popularized and named what concept at one time. It is the story that someone (or more likely, lots of someones), somewhere told. Whether it was then written down, and we forgot who wrote it, the fact remains…

We are actually just choosing the different stories that actual people have told to tell to someone else. We are choosing between people. Which is fine… it just means that the ‘content’ is actually people.

Content is people
I seem to think that this is profoundly important for learning. If we are journeying through the ideas that are made by different people, it doesn’t really matter where we start that journey. We start from the people we know, from the people we are familiar with… from a touchstone that grounds us in who we are. From there we grow out to the next piece we find and the next. The job of a teacher/instructor/guide/mentor is to continue that process of introduction as best we can manage. We may not know all the people that you might want to know, there may be two different people with the same story to share, but that’s not hugely important. We introduce you to a group of people who believe a certain way, who have a particular story to tell…

What is important is that you come to know enough of the stories of a particular field in order to be able to function in that field. As you continue to learn, you’ll acquire more stories, more ways of looking at things, more people to grow your own story with. This could the story of how you see the points of tension in your medical profession (things like prevention vs. medication), how you look at management, how you apply your own ethics to the way you vote or how you parent. As we become part of a community of knowing, our stories continue to grow. The community is always the curriculum.