Category Archives: Connected Courses

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


He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind

Some weeks ago, at office hours, I mentioned that I might be able to keep up with the Hangouts better if they were available in a downloadable audio format. That would allow me to load up my phone and listen to them on long drives.

Howard and Company said that was a great idea, and this being a web course, they deputized me to do it.

Well, I’ve got a nice long drive ahead of me today, so I finally did it. I’ve got a Google Drive folder which includes an MP3 for each Hangout and it’s shared with the world. Perhaps it’ll be useful to you during commutes or exercise or whenever you might enjoy podcasts or audiobooks.

If there’s a better way to store these, or if you have an idea why they came out 25-50 MB larger than I’d expected, let me know.

Why I “Teach”

It’s challenging to address #whyIteach as an instructional technologist (and apostate librarian). I feel like I have to justify “what I teach” and “how I teach” before I even can approach the question of why.

Mostly, in my roles, I teach faculty members. (Sometimes they ask me to teach their students, but that’s been uncommon for a long while.)  This provides a remarkable clarity of context. My learners have brought their own goals to our interaction, more explicitly than the average student in school has. They are looking to make their teaching “better” – where better is a nebulous concept including both “more like my peers” and “in my own style”, where I might be involved in interpreting the main goals of the class or in streamlining a process so the faculty member can catch a few more minutes of sleep after grading.

Inverse Hierarchy of Instructional Technology Needs

Image by Krista Moroder, originally found through

I’ve taught a lot of workshops, but most of my instruction is one-on-one. Working directly with the faculty member helps me explore her goals, which helps me find the right solution and teach more clearly the parts of it which she needs to understand. We can change quickly if his needs don’t match my plans, and it’s a little safer for us both to be vulnerable in the limits of our knowledge away from our colleagues’ observations.

This, in the end, is what I love about my job. I get to help other people pursue their passions. I get to help them reach their goals, whether lofty or light. And I know that in so doing, I’ve contributed indirectly to the core mission of the college.

How I got here

My work/education self-portrait, told in book titles.

I took this picture as part of TDC 986. It’s not precisely #whyIteach but it is a quick professional biography. It was web coding in the early ’90s which drew me into library science, and library science which led to instructional technology, and instructional technology which led to instructional design, all the while in a context of the liberal arts.

If you’re still thinking about ways to make your “why”, a book spine essay might be an interesting way to go.

The greatest of these

The greatest intellectual challenge I’ve been facing in the last year is how to do my job with more love. This is most explicitly the influence of Louis Schmier, but I think there’s a lot in the Open Courses/co-learning community which addresses genuine connection and shared growth without using the word “love”.

Instructional technology doesn’t actually require a lot of love. You can do good service without it. I’m beginning to doubt, though, that you can do great service without it.

Once you get past the “which button do I click” level of training, the questions have very high stakes. What do you want?  What would be good for you? What could elevate or change your thinking? What do you want for your students? What do they want for themselves? What do we value, and why? In change, what do we fear, and why?

How can we enter this project as individuals and leave it as some kind of community?

You can answer these questions effectively, and efficiently, without love. It can just be business. I’m just not convinced it’s the best I can do.

Getting Moved In

I just sent a message to my colleagues in my local Connected Courses cohort, and I thought I might copy a chunk of it publicly. I thought it might help people if I laid out some thoughts about getting a blog set up. Not that there’s a lot here that isn’t already in the pre-course Blog Talk and Getting Started documentation, but I wanted to put my spin on it for folks who know me. I’ve heard from a couple of people who are doing face-to-face cohorts, so I’d love to know how much this look like what you’re doing.

Some media was added in the transition from email to blog…

 Wait, did you say Blog?

Yes, one of the ways to participate in the course is to set up your own blog and link it into the Connected Courses blog flow. (At this point, most of the blog flow is people saying hello, but there are posts with more meat to them as well.) I think it’s worthwhile for all of us to do this. If we’re imagining courses where we ask students to work in public and co-learn with strangers, it would be good to have some of that experience ourselves.
That said, there have also been good conversations about learning through lurking, so if you’re not ready, there are valid ways for you to just participate in our local conversations.
The first thing you need, to get set up with a blog, is a snappy name. This is your presence online, so of course you can go with some version of “My Name Is…”, but a trip through the blog flow will also show names which are aspirational, disciplinary, humorous, all of the above.
The second thing is some idea of what you’re going to say as an introductory post. Again, lots of examples in the blog flow. My intro is here:
There are a couple of options for blog hosting, and they can seem daunting, so let me make some suggestions. Also know that, whichever you choose, I’m happy to help you get it set up.
1) Blogger. Because Kenyon is a Google Apps school, you can log in to with the same username and password you use for email. I ran a Blogger blog about 7 years ago, and it’s very easy to use. (My skills are rusty, but I have looked at Blogger occasionally since then.)
If the choice seems daunting, my suggestion is to go with Blogger just so you don’t have to remember another password.
(You can also stop here.)
2) Other free solutions. You can use Connected Courses as the excuse to try out something you’ve heard of but never used. Also remember that there’s no penalty for choosing wrong; if you go down this route and get annoyed, you can abandon it and pick a new tool.
You can get a free WordPress blog at ; it’s a popular platform and it happens to be the one I’m using. It is, to my eyes, more powerful and therefore more complicated than Blogger. Some people are using Tumblr at To my mind, Tumblr rewards shorter writing more than longer writing, and “liking” and “sharing” posts more than commenting on them. It’s not what I’d pick for a course, but I think we’ll see successful examples during the year. If you’ve heard of something else like Weebly, that’s also an option.
3) Hosted solutions. If you already own (i.e. pay for) your own web space, you could set up a blog on that space. This is what I’ve done; through Reclaim Hosting I own and I’m running a blog just for Connected Courses at .
In part, this is a decision about owning my own tools. I have more power over my publishing platform because I pay for it and I run it. It’s also because I’m a geek and I wanted to see if I can do it. It’s also about owning my own space, and not simply trading my writing for free hosting. So a little personal, a little professional, a little geeky. (OK, a lot geeky.)
Holler out if you want to talk about the decision. And once you’ve made it, share your address with everyone else. I’d like to try to set up a hub for our blogs, so we can find each others amidst the larger conversation.
Hope you’re settling into the semester!


A Commenting Discipline

Screenshot from Pay It Forward
The movie was a little saccharine for my taste, but your mileage may vary.

Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m a serial MOOC dropout. If we count the MOOC’s ancestors in “free online workshops”, I’ve probably registered for 8 or more of the things, and never completed a one. This is on me, of course – I decided that the work involved in the course wasn’t creating my desired payoff, and I quit.

Nine Times.

But, like Ferris Bueller’s attendance record, it’s also a function of the system. Courses with hyper-strict schedules punish those who get behind. MOOC message boards don’t provide a lot of incentive for participation, especially for those of us who remember mailing lists and Usenet groups where repeating a question was the mark of a newbie from the Eternal September.

I’ve had some interesting discussions, by the way, about the differences between message boards and blogs. Message boards reinforce participation in a group enterprise; blogs reinforce the individual’s ownership of their thoughts. Pedagogically, you might want either one, but I will argue that message boards don’t scale well for active participants. Maybe they work better for lurkers, but the slide from lurker to non-participant is far too easy for me.

Compare and contrast with Connected Courses’ focus on personally owned blogs. I published on Thursday and woke up to comments on Friday. People had actually taken the time out of their lives to come over to my space, read my thoughts, and say something constructive about them. The reward was immediate and significant. I felt – I feel – like part of something bigger than myself, something bigger than a Venture Capitalist’s first taste for free.

This kind of community takes nurturing. It won’t just happen on its own. I am going to commit myself here to a commenting discipline which I think will help. For every comment I get here, I’m going to dip into the blog flow and comment on another recent post. I’m going to try to pay forward the joy of having a stranger give your ideas serious consideration.

I don’t claim that this makes me a big hero; paying attention to one another’s blogs is, after all, part of the point of a connected course. I’m mostly saying that I know myself this well. If I put the focus on my learning, my network, then I’ll engage, somewhat selfishly, with a small number of participants. At least this discipline will cause me to step into the blog flow with the goal of touching base with new folks. I think it will also change my reading, as I start with a goal of encouraging others as much as developing my own thought.

So… here’s where you get some stranger some encouragement, by telling me what you think: