Twenty twenty twenty-four hours to go, oh-oh

I set the lecture videos for #YogaMOOC to play at 1.5x speed, so that I could get through the material on digital distraction a little faster.

It seems like this is an opportunity for reflection.

It feels like a lot of the literature about online ed and flipped classrooms treats this like a feature. Lectures, a one-way communication channel,  become available where and when we want them in video form. The learner has the ability to rewind and rewatch to get all the information they want. The learner can skip forward, or increase the speed of the lecture, if they feel they already know the content, or just prefer the speaker’s voice to be faster (or are in a time crunch). This respects the learner’s autonomy, which is good for intrinsic motivation, right? It also puts a great deal of faith in the learner’s metacognitive skills – that they really are gleaning everything they think they are from a speeded-up lecture.

The edX interface even allows me to read the transcript and ignore the video entirely. I think this was when the penny dropped for me. One criticism I’ve seen of podcasts in particular is that most of us can read a lot faster than we can listen. So if the goal is to move through content, or to ingest a lot of information in a limited period of time, reading is more efficient than listening. But surely the instructors aren’t just using lectures to support different so-called “learning styles,” and I hope they’re not doing it just because classes have lectures.

No, I assume they’re doing it to share their “gift of voice”. (Thanks to Storycenter for this wonderful term, which wraps up all these wonderful variables of tone, timbre, pacing, expression, and personal viewpoint.) They’re doing it to quickly provide a layer of humanity which is much harder to do with pure text.

And I sped it up, and then skipped it entirely. Which I suppose respects my autonomy, but perhaps disrespects theirs.

I’m looking forward to Todd Zakrajsek’s new book Dynamic Lecturing. Todd’s point, in a nutshell, is that “lecture classes” have gotten a bad rap because of some pretty bad lecture practices, but also because we haven’t done a good consistent job of defining what a “lecture” is.  I might even speculate that we’ve defined any lecture which works (including but not limited to short lectures mixed with active learning exercises) as not a true “lecture class”.

(Bonnie Stachowiak’s got a great discussion with Todd on her podcast if you’d like to get that straight from the horse’s mouth.)

It’s interesting to use some of Todd’s thoughts to examine the #YogaMOOC structure. They’ve done a good job of keeping course content engaging by involving multiple speakers each week. (I might prefer to see more videos with multiple speakers, but even having the videos split up with the 3 instructors does help compared to some of the 1-teacher MOOCs I’ve dropped out of.) I don’t feel like I’m getting a real sense of the different personalities of the instructors – I feel like they’re all in a rather narrow “teacher/presenter” mode – but I can tell that they are different individuals. (And again, I’m the one choosing to skim the lectures, so maybe that isn’t fair.)

On the other hand, the edX interface is regimented in a way which encourages us to think of “Lectures”, “On the mat practice”, “Off the mat assignments”, “Guest interviews” and “Optional readings” as thoroughly separate units. There’s no linking back and forth to let me know that I could go into more depth on a lecture’s topic by checking out a particular reading or interview, or that maybe I could skip from a lecture into a few minutes of yoga practice. The design of the navigation does provide structure, but particularly for this course, it feels like an imposition of order which fights the actual message of the class.

What One Sees

I have more thoughts about digital distraction, but I think I’ll summarize so I can publish this post. For starters, I feel like there’s a lot of sloppiness about whether we want to locate blame in our always-on devices, in the specific qualities of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, in our own habits and choices, or in the cultural values which suggest that anything which can be known should be known, immediately. (That’s a criticism of the discussion generally, not specific to this week’s course lectures.) It seems like, if we want to live more balanced, less distracted lives, then we need to start teasing those back apart.

I’m also deeply concerned about using the language of “addiction” to discuss behavior. I say this because I’m pretty sure that I’m out of step with current psychological research, and I’d love to have someone help me understand why, on a biological level, “addiction” is a more appropriate word than “compulsion” or “conditioned behavior.” I notice that I react very negatively to the expansion of the language of substance abuse to behaviors which don’t involve consuming substances; again I suspect there’s something I’m missing here but simply repeating the phrase is not convincing me that it’s medically useful and not just a rhetorical flourish.

Image credits:

GIF from Cool Hand Luke, taken from The Scott Rollins Film and TV Trivia Blog because it looked better than the one I found on Giphy.

Book cover for Dynamic Lecturing from Amazon.

“What One Sees” by Ryan Cadby, CC-BY-SA 2.0, found by searching for Flickr for “digital distraction” and limiting to Creative Commons licensed material.

Don’t be afraid to care

Maha Bali’s blog about starting #YogaMOOC felt like I could have written it.

Normally, that’s a good feeling. Maha’s pretty smart; if she says something I was thinking, then I must be on the right track.

But this post resonated differently. I felt some of that free-floating stress in my own life. A general physical off-ness that comes in part from letting my exercise and sleep routines slip. A mental unsettledness, an annoying distractability. The ongoing battle with my own temper (and perhaps that word “battle” is part of the problem).

It’s a little less fun to see the harder parts of yourself reflected. But it’s still a connection.

So I signed up for #YogaMOOC too. Worst case scenario, it’ll be another notch on my belt of online courses started but not completed. (I guess the worst case is really that I’ll injure myself and annoy everyone telling them how great I was before I took a MOOC to the knee, but then, I’m middle aged, my knees are already creaky, and it’s pretty much a matter of time anyway.) But even if I do, I ought to get a couple of more mindful hours out of it.

So thanks, Maha!

Surya Namaskar

It’s important to set realistic fitness goals. I believe this is achievable.

On the face of it, an “online course” about physical activity seems odd. Of course, there are plenty of YouTube videos designed to teach physical skills, and exercise DVDs and tapes before them, and books before that trying to teach technique with still photos. But I’ll still want to think a little bit about how this compares to a physical yoga class.

Autumm Caines had some interesting thoughts about the class too. Why do we persist in some endeavors? (Which implies the question, why do we stop, and sometimes return?) What does it mean to have a discipline (as opposed to just the quality of “being disciplined”)? And what does it mean to love a discipline, a belief, a system?

I don’t think these thoughts are just navel-gazing; I think they’re core to the business of teaching and learning (and supporting teachers and learners). But I think they’re particularly hard to ask within the walls of the academy, precisely because on the one hand there’s probably somebody who’s studied it harder than you have, and somebody else who’s convinced it’s not actually interesting. There’s also probably some larger group which admits it’s interesting but has some more immediate question.

But I’m particularly interested in this class because it’s got a formal reflective component. I suppose I’ll be trying to reflect on the ways greater awareness in body and mind might have social impact, and what role academic support centers might have in promoting this kind of wellness for work-life balance.

So thanks, Autumm!

Image credit:

“Surya Namaskar” by Michael Pravin, CC-BY-2.0 on Flickr. Found because it’s also been added to Wikimedia Commons,

Short books and long flights

Round Playing Card Jack of Hearts

I was thinking about contemplation
How it keeps your learning raw
I was thinking about my father
Who I all too rarely saw
But most of all
I was thinking about the Jack of Hearts

(If Alan Levine introduces me to his recent houseguest, maybe we’ll finish the other 14 verses.)

My father was an engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He travelled a lot for work, out to New Mexico a lot, sometimes to Europe, and many times to Taiwan. As those trips got longer, my dad got tired of having to lug multiple Tom Clancy and Len Deighton books around to keep himself occupied on the plane. And so he started operating by a reading-time-to-weight ratio, looking for the books which could keep him occupied the longest in the fewest number of pages. And so he started reading St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, and Irish poets. (Airport bookstores would look different if we had more liberally-educated engineers running around.)

I’ve told this story a million times, but I don’t know that I really understood it until I flew to ELI, and 12 pages captivated me from Columbus to Houston.

We’re hosting a reading club on contemplative and reflective pedagogies at my center this semester, starting with Mary Rose O’Reilley’s Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice. I was out of town while the group met to discuss Chapter 2, but I didn’t want to get behind. So I leaned against the cold airplane wall, and read. And opened my notebook, and reread. And took a moment to contemplate the grandmotherly honey-smell of a plastic cup of bourbon, and reread again.

I am fascinated by the way Chapter 2 lays out a productive tension in the idea of contemplative practices in teaching. On the one hand a practice, by definition, is a behavior you do. If it’s not enacted regularly, then it can’t be a practice… it’s a worldview or a belief or a goal or something. And Chapter 2 is full of behaviors to try – starting classes with silence, observing silence after reading a text, various writing exercises, leaving time for gratitude and review at the end of class. But then O’Reilly closes by asking us not to just appropriate her Buddhist-Quaker-Catholic spirituality by introducing some fashionable faux-Zen! (And echoes Parker Palmer’s warnings against technique in the introduction.) I’ve read a fair number of books on teaching, and I can’t remember seeing another one which said “don’t take my advice!”, or more accurately, “this is not advice which you can just take.”

I hear a lot of people looking for these practices through a non-spiritual framework. They’re hoping that a moment of silence will help students learn the skill of focus, that reflection will be metacognitively useful. And honestly, I believe they’ll find that to be true, but they will be on a different road than O’Reilly describes. Not necessarily a better or worse road, just a different one. Maybe the road they’re ready to be on at that time.

(I went back and looked again at Palmer’s introduction, to find that he’s not so much telling us to avoid “technique” as to avoid using it to protect our hearts. I find myself wondering how often listening to experts about “what works” also provides a convenient outlet to avoid listening to ourselves and our communities about “what’s needed.”)

O’Reilley frames this as a fundamental difference between spirituality and pedagogy. She says that spiritual “practice teaches us what we seek to know and reveals what each one needs to learn about the nature of spirit.” (She collapses time more than a bit here, as anyone who has suffered a long night of the soul – or even a short one – will tell you.) She frames pedagogy, however, as just a matter of technique, a utilitarian decision to do what works.

In matters of technique, we know that practice does not, of itself, make perfect. If you diligently practice a flawed skill, you’ll only make it harder to unlearn. Nor is perfect technique sufficient. It is not only flawlessly executing the steps which makes a great dance partner, but also the awareness of the space and the music and the partner and the other dancers. I suspect that’s the connecting point between this discussion of practice/technique and O’Reilley’s other big theme in this chapter, hospitality. If it’s the teacher’s job to create the hospitable space where learning happens, then the teacher has to be prepared to react to the students’ needs, even if that means changing things. Though one wonders what O’Reilley would think about a course where the students rebel against a contemplative approach… what does attentive hospitality look like if your guests don’t accept it?

“Round Playing Card Jack Of Hearts” photo by Leon Reynolds, CC-BY-NC-SA at

The cover of Radical Presence was designed by Jenny Jensen Greanleaf. Image taken from Amazon.

Virtually Connecting at ELI 2017!

Virtually Connecting returns to ELI in February with four opportunities to talk with presenters on topics from virtual reality to digital citizenship, and hacking institutions to emotional presence in the classroom, and whatever else comes up as we talk! Come join us! (To reserve a seat, tweet to @vconnecting or leave a comment here.)

On Monday, February 13th at 11:30 AM Central, we’ll talk with Flower Darby and John Doherty about the ways emotional presence impacts learning, and how we can convey our emotional presence, and help students develop theirs, in both face to face and virtual environments. Helen DeWaard is our virtual buddy.

Time converter at

(Edit from Future Joe…. Autumm Caines also pulled together a Monday afternoon session with Bryan Alexander, Eden Dahlstrom, Michael Berman, and Kyle Johnson to preview the NMC Horizon Report.)

On Tuesday, February 14th at 9 AM Central we’ll be talking with Kelvin Bentley and Lois Brooks, whose preconference is on hacking higher education institutions to make sure our processes help students succeed. Nate Angell will also be an onsite buddy for this session.

Time converter at

And then at 5:30 PM we’ll be looping in Maya Georgieva and Emory Craig from Digital Bodies to talk about virtual reality. Maya and Emory will be running a series of virtual reality playgrounds on Tuesday, highlighting the ways VR is being used in different disciplines.

Time converter at

Finally on Wednesday February 15th at 10:15 AM, we’ll connect with Sundi Richard, Autumm Caines, Jennifer Spohrer and Annie Almekinder about the post-conference workshop they’re offering on digital citizenship in the liberal arts. We’ll also have Kristen Eshelman as an onsite buddy for this session, and Ken Bauer as virtual buddy.

Time converter at

So lots of opportunities and lots of good colleagues to learn with – tweet at @vconnecting to get a spot!

Many thanks to our colleagues Malcolm Brown and Veronica Diaz at EDUCAUSE, who’ve done a lot of work with us to set up these sessions. We appreciate the support and recognition!

I’ve seen the future and it works

At the beginning of February, I participated in a panel at ELI 2016 on “The Future of Place-Based Learning in a Virtual World.” We’d originally conceived of this session as a “debate” (or perhaps a “discussion”), so while I prepared some remarks, they weren’t delivered paper-style. In fact, I had so much fun talking with and listening to Raechelle Clemmons, Diane Graves, and our moderator Bryan Alexander than I wasn’t entirely sure what I actually said.

So I went on Twitter to find out, and made this Storify story with the results.

(EDIT May 12, 2018.)
Well, Storify got bought out, and they’re shuttering their website. Fortunately, Alan Levine laid out a path for migrating a story off their servers, and then even built a tool to extract the content in an actually usable fashion. So I can still save this thing and include it here.

On Feb. 3, 2016, I participated in a panel on the topic of “The future of place-based learning in a virtual world” with Diane Graves, Raechelle Clemmons, and moderated by Bryan Alexander. This is my attempt to go back through the Twitter record and figure out what the heck I said.

This is not a complete record of the Twitter conversation about our panel. Elements may be out of chronological order for any of a variety of reasons. Some of the reading we did before the session is available at:

Bryan’s first question laid it right out there:

My answer was based on the tendency of digital education initiatives to focus on the individual – which is good and right, but does risk losing the benefits of coming together for learning.

And Raechelle promptly called me out for dichotomous thinking. (I think this was the most contentious moment at a session which was, at one point, considered as a "debate".)

We continued to plumb the question of face to face as a distinctive niche for liberal arts colleges:

We even suggested that high-touch schools might be able to stem the tide of the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” which is the comments section.

Even as the backchannel caught us in a couple of blind spots in our argument…




And some very good questions about campus and community life

Onstage, we had a discussion of what liberal arts colleges can bring to the table in technology discussions, given our generally small staff and resources. Parrotting Berea College professor Matt Jadud, I argued that people with the holistic thinking and interdisciplinary translation skills of the liberal arts education should be highly valuable in product design and support processes.

And my colleagues pointed out interactions highlighting the success of people with liberal arts backgrounds in the tech sector.

Bryan’s next question was about faculty development on liberal arts campuses, given that our faculty are substantially more tenure-track than average for the industry. I fielded this one, as the person on stage most directly charged with faculty development, and my response centered on the way that my center fills a social niche for cross-campus connection and interdisciplinary discussions of teaching and learning.

Technically, I was calling out to Laurie Richlin and Amy Essington’s work in “Building Faculty Learning Communities”, New Directions for Teaching and Learning #97 Spring 2004.

We moved into Q&A before Bryan’s last question for the panel. (A masterful design move for the session, keeping us from just ending because people ran out of steam. More people should consider it, though I suppose it’s harder to do if you’re giving a more formal paper.)

A fascinating design question from Andrew Bonamici – given how much liberal arts colleges talk about the beauty of our places, has anyone really translated that into beautiful online tools? I answered that Kenyon’s got a neat curriculum path tool in development which tries to help students relate their experiences – but no, right now at least, it’s not beautiful.

We had a question about adult learners, and about the best we came up with was Bryan’s comment that maybe focusing on 18-22 year olds is one of the signatures of the residential college sector.

But from the backchannel:

We had a terrific question from Hari Stephen Kumar about inclusivity on liberal arts campuses and in their online environments:

And then Bryan brought us home:

More interesting comments from the backchannel:

Virtually Connecting at DST 2015

I’m excited to be heading to the International Digital Storytelling Conference September 25-27th.  I’ve been looking at digital storytelling predominantly as a form of personal expression and an educational activity, and I think I’m ready to spend some time considering the way that story sharing is inherently a vehicle for social change. Who we share our stories with, and which stories we share, is part and parcel of defining who our social group is and what we hold in common.

Which brings us to Virtually Connecting. Conferences are great places to share stories – but by definition, they lock out those who can’t pay to get to them (in either money or available time). Some conferences are providing an online analogue of the conference – by which we almost always mean “a videocamera in the back of some sessions, with a chat channel if you’re lucky.” That’s a good way to amplify your speakers’ voice, but it doesn’t even attempt the social transformation which happens in the crowd after a session, in the line at the hotel Starbucks, over lunch or dinner.  Maha Bali, Rebecca Hogue, and a growing group of fellow travelers thought they could address that gap. They hop on Google Hangout for an hour or so and have an informal conversation among presenters, attendees, and would-be attendees spread across the globe. No, it’s not the full conference experience, but it is the kind of relatively unguarded interaction which allows real relationships to develop.

Living in the future is cool.

So I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be the “onsite buddy” for a Virtually Connecting session with Joe Lambert of Storycenter. We’ve still nailed down the time – it’ll be Saturday the 26th at 11:30 AM Eastern. If you’d be interested in joining us, tweet us at @joefromkenyon and @vconnecting, or post a comment here. Come talk about stories and hear what we’re talking about!

Hey… here’s what we talked about!

John at the bar is a friend of mine

I’ve been thinking about Planet Money’s recent podcasts about the automation of work, and especially about the episode on the Ziosk tablet making its way into restaurants. The Ziosk, in essence, is an extension of the point-of-service system right to your table – you can order appetizers, drink refills, and desserts, pay your bill, and there’s even a call button if you want to speak to your human waiter about something.

I’m conflicted about this particular device. The idea of going into TGIFridays and being greeted with a training session on how to use the e-menu struck me as a personal hell. I didn’t like the way that it made the waiter’s job sound a lot more stressful. The idea of a call button at a table – convenient as I have to admit it might be – also sounds just about a step away from snapping your fingers and the idea that “tip” means “To Ensure Promptitude.”

Don’t be that guy.

And I was congratulating myself on how I like talking to waiters, and finding out what’s good on the menu, and then the Planet Money folks said I could just pay my bill whenever I wanted. Now this is a service I’d appreciate. Nobody is getting any good at all out of me trying to catch the waiter’s eye, and them having to go run off a bill, and bring it back, and take my card, and run it, and bring back a receipt, and get a signature – yes, if I could be in charge of that wasted time, I could maybe live with things feeling a little more like an automat.

Ziosks improve restaurant profitability by turning over tables faster. They improve tips by having the tip default set at 20%. OK, these seem pretty obvious. And they increase average bills because people buy a lot more dessert from Ziosks than they do from waiters.

Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan.

Mmmmm…. pie.

The story hypothesizes that it’s because the Ziosk isn’t judging you about your caloric intake… and that’s when I started wondering about education. We worry a lot about the students who don’t participate, or even worse, don’t come to office hours, because they’re afraid of being judged. We’ve devised all kinds of approaches to this problem – polling and peer instruction inside the classroom; office hours by email and chat and in coffee shops outside it. One might even argue that syllabi and rubrics and course websites should be designed to increase students’ information and decrease anxiety. Still the pressure exists – we didn’t reach all students, so we should do more. What does “more” even look like?

And what does employment in the academy look like when we get there? Is it an increasing pressure to be always-on? Is it an expanding dichotomy between Teachers and TAs and Advisors? Are courses more standardized for consistent experience? Or… here’s a crazy thought… can this be a discipline which allows us greater freedoms in the other areas? I’d argue that’s what’s currently happening with default answers like “read the syllabus” and “ask a librarian” – some questions get diverted to more efficient paths, letting the faculty member focus on different questions.

(This shoe fits the other foot, too, for those of us in academic support. How can we minimize the anxiety for faculty of asking for help with technology or teaching… or registration, or off-campus study advising, or library acquisitions, or any of the other million processes which are unfamiliar and scary? What do the systems look like which help faculty members describe their desires in ways which work?)

Of course, there’s a more constructionist interpretation of the dessert phenomenon too. Maybe people order more dessert from a tablet because they’re on autopilot. Maybe they order out of boredom more than anything else. Maybe it takes a human connection to get you to really sit with the question for a moment… Am I hungry? Am I satisfied? How do I feel? What do I want?

Madeleine Cookies

I know, that’s a grandiose interpretation of Death By Chocolate, but hell, it worked for Proust…

It’s easy to hide behind that constructionist belief, and say “what we do can’t be automated.” That’s not rising to the real challenge, though. Were we really present to each other? Did I really check in, or was “how are you?” just a different way to say “hi”? Did I give you want you want, or what I think you want, or did I take time to find out what you actually need?

The truth is, of course, we want both. We want a campus full of people who own their own learning, and have strong systems to help them do that. We also want to connect with those people, and extend their capacities and our own.

And the nice thing is, we can have that, if we take the time.

Image Sources

1) John Landis, The Blues Brothers.  Found on BradVan316’s YouTube channel.

2) Berenice Abbot, “Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan.” From the New York Public Library’s Flickr channel. Listed as “No known copyright restrictions.”

3) la-fontaine, “Madeleine”. From  Licensed CC0 – Public domain.

Where the Light Gets In

Kenyon College, Middle Path, Fall 2009, 02

Kenyon’s Middle Path is a mile-long stretch of gravel running through the center of the college. Given time, almost everyone at Kenyon walks Middle Path; it’s not just an pedestrian artery, but arguably the heart of the campus, the place where we see each other, communicate, nurture relationships.

We also joke that it’s a terrible route if you actually have work to do, since you’re likely to leave your office to attend to one job, and get snagged by two or three more people needing your attention.

I thought about Middle Path when I read this quote:

Care workers function as a human loom, shuttling from one home to another, stitching the social fabric back together while many of their employers and shareholders, and government ministers, slash blindly at the cloth… – George Monbiot

It’s not my intention to take on the whole of Monbiot’s argument about inequality, though I think it’s worthy of consideration. Nor do I want to directly compare home health workers to teachers and instructional technologists. I was struck by the metaphor of the “human loom”, and that’s what I’d like to reflect upon.

It’s easy to think of our jobs as primarily existing in their discrete locations – teaching a class, working on a project. These may be the places where we’re most aware of using our specialized skills.  When someone asks “what did you do today?”, these are the stories which are easy to tell. In that construction, shuttling back and forth seems like friction, like overhead.

The shuttle, though, actually does its work by moving, and maybe we do too. It’s incumbent on us to think about the whole “social fabric” as we move from task to task – looking for the opportunities to connect people where our departments or disciplines or institutions have separated them. Particularly at small institutions, academic support staff like instructional technologists and librarians sit in wonderfully interdisciplinary positions for encouraging these conversations. We may know who’s interested in particular pedagogies or scholarly themes, and it’s within our power to get some of these people together, at least to share information and become aware that they are not alone.

Within our professions too, there are wonderful small communities which allow people to connect across institutions. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank some of my professional contacts, friends and mentors, who have modeled these socially connecting behaviors for me, and who I now rather consciously ape.

Cover of Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermot
I wanted to find a CC-licensed image of Anansi, but they don’t come up easily and it’s not an easy search for someone with a heightened fear of bugs…

We should also consider Monbiot’s quote more directly in context. Can we mend those parts of the academic world which are not merely imperfect, but actually broken? Most specifically, I’m thinking here of the adjunct crisis.

Even if we don’t have much power to push for permanent or at least full-time hires, I submit that there are things we can do as individuals to make short-term members of our institutions feel more part of our community. We can be conscious about inviting them to professional development opportunities. (And it’s probably important to make sure some of those events are social, so they can connect with peers better than they might at a traditional  “workshop.”) We can make an extra effort to help them get oriented – to our services and to the institution generally. And as April barrels into May and graduation and the end of contracts, we can make sure people get the support they need to exit our communities well. We can stay in touch.

“Life is made up of meetings and partings,” as a wise frog once said (and I’m surprised to find it’s not an actual Dickens line). Perhaps we should be paying as much attention to those events, little or big, as we do to the stuff which we believe is in between.


Image Credits:

1) Larry Miller, “Kenyon College, Middle Path, Fall 2009, 02″, , licenced CC-BY-NC-ND

2) Gerald McDermot, cover of “Anansi the Spider”, borrowed from

Tyranny of the Meritocracy

Book coverLani Guinier’s new book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy will be of interest to many in the connectivist circles where I run. We believe that individual knowledge is created in social contexts and through social interaction. We prize collaboration skills. We’ve heard it all, and buy it – that this is an increasingly connected age, that good jobs will involve work in teams, that globalization and demographic change will require the abilities to negotiate diversity, that the “problems of the twenty-first century” are only solvable by multidisciplinary teams, that in fact many of those social and political problems have roots in people who can’t communicate outside themselves or their home group. We want to work for an America (for a world) where all people have equal prospects regardless of the color of their skin and circumstances of their birth.

Then we exist in an educational system which mostly rewards people for individual accomplishment, and trains them accordingly in individualistic methods which are remarkably vulnerable to the privileges of class and race.

Guinier points out that this is out of step. She uses Amartya Sen’s definition that merit is the “incentive system which rewards the actions a society values” and points out the stunning disconnect between the skills we claim to value for democracy, and the “testocratic” skills of the K-Ph.D system. This focus on individualized tests and grades actually serves to reinforce power relationships in society – first, because those with the means to impact curricula or hire tutors have a massive incentive to do so, and perhaps more ominously, because students who succeed in the testocracy are allowed to believe that they have achieved success alone, without noting the assistance of their teachers, parents, and classmates. More democratic education would do a better job of reinforcing the importance of working together across difference – and provide that benefit more equitably to those locked out of our current system.

The argument against the SAT is iron-clad. It predicts family income and race much better than grades in the first year of college, and was never designed to assess anything further out than the first year. Yet I found Guinier’s hope for a system like the Posse Foundation’s Dynamic Assessment Process a bit optimistic. Surely, if elite colleges shifted admissions to some form of behavioral interview, it would create a market for coaching. Such tutoring might be more socially valuable than classes on “SAT words” and how to answer a multiple choice question, but it would still be unevenly distributed. We can already see this in admissions processes which do value extracurricular and community involvement. Anyone can take such opportunities, and it makes the admissions process better to consider them. Kids whose families don’t need them to work, or whose parents can shuttle them from school to club to volunteer site, can take advantage of more of them. It might still be better than the system we’ve got, but not quite as diverse as Guinier argues.

IDIC symbol from Star Trek
“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” How you gonna grade that?

Guinier goes on to critique college recruitment strategies, and suggest alternatives in college preparation, recruitment, and pedagogy. As someone who works with college professors on teaching issues, it’s easy for me to hear the argument that we need to make changes in K-12 schools and the college admissions office. (It’s always easier when someone else has to change.) Then she points out that it wouldn’t be fair to bring students into college for their collaborative skills, and demand of them the same individualized pedagogy we tend to use now. Students selected for democratic skills will prosper most in a democratic classroom. Oh. That’s a challenge.

It struck me as interesting that the models here weren’t particularly new to me. It seems impossible to read 5 articles on improving college teaching without someone bringing up the peer instruction work of Eric Mazur, as Guinier does. Yet most of the work in the “blended learning” sphere focuses simply on how group work and class discussion is better for retention and transfer of domain knowledge. It’s an easy sell to get people to accomplish their existing goals better; it’s harder to ask professors to actually shift their learning goals in a collaborative classroom. Guinier frames these potentially fractious issues within the purpose of higher education in a democracy, and if you’ve accepted the assertion through the first half of the book, perhaps you’re ready to hear what’s required from you.

Of course, the assertion that college exists to develop good citizens is not universally accepted. Even among those who accept the general idea, we debate exactly what the proper components of a liberal education are. Guinier asserts that colleges exist to fill a democratic need, without much considering the counter-arguments, and other than skills related to diversity and teamwork, she doesn’t have specific recommendations for a curriculum. Given how much we hear about colleges as paths to “good jobs”, though, or how much “student development” can be taken for granted within the academy, Guinier provides a clear argument, crisply stated and well worth the read.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Book cover, design by Bob Kosturko, art “Seeing the World in Black and White” by Connie Cagampang Heller. Taken from

Image 2: “Idic1.jpg” by Paulo Galvão. Released by author into public domain. Taken from


You’ve got a friend in me

My friend Paul posted to Facebook today that he was having trouble with a WordPress install. WordPress refused to serve any post with a comment on it, preferring to issue an Error 500 instead. I’ve been mucking about with WordPress for, like, 7 whole months now, so of course I volunteered to take a look. (My best guess is that he’s got an out-of-date proprietary theme which is misbehaving, and he’ll end up either paying to upgrade it, choosing a new theme, or figuring out how to hack it with someone who actually knows what he’s doing.)

Animated gif of John Cleese getting his hat shot off in
“Today my jurisdiction ends here.”

This speaks a little bit to the Reclaim/Connectivist ethos and the way personal learning networks work, but I’ve had two specific thoughts I wanted to reflect on.

Technology and The Illusion of Choice

Zen [Explored]

A world of “reclaimed” pedagogy is necessarily going to involve more interactions like this. Faculty members will get a project started, and come looking for help in media res when something stops working. Support staff will be asked to jump into systems they didn’t configure, maybe didn’t even know existed. This will be a real challenge for people and organizations with a binary approach to “support” – that things are either inside the zone or not, and clear algorithms exist to explain whether or not a project gets assistance.

That binary, of course, is an illusion. No matter how big your organization, there’s always some point at which you throw up your hands and say “well, that’s just how it comes from (vendor name).” Or you say “support means reload it and start over,” or “here’s the workaround and we’ll fix it in the summer,” or some other phrase which explains that “support” isn’t really an on/off switch but a complex equation which includes available resources and institutional and personal priorities.

I wonder how we set expectations for this kind of service. I suspect one answer is that we change from talking about tools we support, to talking about tasks we support within tools. Much of “our” software is just too complex to claim that we can help you do anything it advertises it’s able to do.

We’ll also need to talk more about the level of support you can expect – whether we’ll implement a fix, or provide faculty with tested directions, or just sit next to you and say “huh, that’s a new one.” That’s going to require faculty to adopt a different definition of ownership over their tools – and it will require (many) technologists to adopt a different definition of responsibility to assist.It’ll still be a job, and there will still be service level expectations, but I think there will also be a new kind of community growing up. My neighbor once told me that he couldn’t fix my riding mower’s starter, but he could show me how to hotwire it with a screwdriver. I think some part of our job will get more “neighborly” like that.

Mister Rogers

hello, neighbor

Love and Service Professions

My friend was having trouble with his site, and was brave enough to ask for help. I don’t know the subject deeply, but I care enough to take a look. I took the time to explain my thoughts – I wanted to teach Paul anything I could, and I didn’t want any unstated assumptions to gum up a website with 15 years worth of work in it.

This can’t just be about pre-existing friendships or high-priority websites, though, because I’ve provided similar (if much less extensive) advice to strangers in communities like YouShow and DS106. I have received more than equal advice and encouragement in return – maybe it’s about models of behavior? Shared group identities?

The small nagging voice asks me if I do as well at my workplace as I do in these extracurriculars. I’m reasonably confident that I do – certainly I can list big and small projects where I made sure people were more empowered to reach their goals. For that matter, I’ve got a list of “fake it till you make it” jobs where I think I communicated caring, even though my real goal was to get some technical problem out of my hair. But – what about the other ones, the interactions where I’m basically asked for a transaction, and that’s about all I provide?

How can I make there be fewer of those? Even given that sometimes the transaction is all that’s required or desired – how can it be delivered with lagniappe?

I’ve written about this before – what can we do as instructional technologists to expand the love in the world? If my job is ultimately about nurturing the development of increasingly empowered people, what are the steps I need to take to make sure people know that my office is a safe place where they can grow? (Even if, today, all they want to grow into is someone whose Moodle gradebook works right.)

Image credits

Image 1 – John Cleese in Silvarado; animated gif by Alan Lopuszynski at

Image 2 – Zen [Explored] by Riccardo Cuppini. CC licensed BY-NC-ND 2.0 at

Image 3 – Mister Rogers by Grant Lindsay. CC licensed BY-ND 2.0 at