Category Archives: Reflections

Walking the dog

On a recent episode of Teaching in Higher Ed, Bonni Stachowiak invokes the “free like a free puppy” simile. I know this phrase from the open source community, which for a long time drew the distinction between “free like beer” (having no monetary cost) and “free like speech” (referring to having the right to change, hack, express yourself, with a tool or platform). This was eventually expanded to include “free like a puppy” to point out that open resources do require investment to get and keep them working, and a higher level of investment to develop them and keep them healthy and relevant as time goes on.

Bonni says that people she works with have started talking about sending some of their metaphorical “puppies” to go “live on a farm upstate,” and she encourages us to evaluate our “puppy” projects and ask if they’re really bringing us the joy that they should.

Which was a funny thing to hear as I was giving the dog her morning walk.

On campus

Bella is our pandemic puppy. She was a big shaggy older dog at the pound, who looked up at me and said “Sir, I’d really just like to go home please, I’m old and arthritic and I’ll lie on the couch and be no trouble at all.”

Then after about 3 days, she looked up at me and said “hey, it turns out I was just stiff because no one was exercising me. Let’s walk more. In fact, let’s run. Omigod is that a deer come on let’s CATCH A DEER…”

(She did not catch a deer, or a squirrel, or a raccoon, not for lack of trying. She did get the drop on a skunk once… bad for us, worse for the skunk.)

I was also assured that the dog would be my son’s and wife’s responsibility, and all I had to do was tolerate it. I have been informed by the law offices of BigSadEyes and PerkyEars that Bella was not a signatory to that agreement and will not be bound by it. Even when they do walk the dog, she comes home and gives me the “OK, I’m warmed up now, let’s go back out” look.

So it’s kind of funny to hear Bonni talking about projects which consume resources you hadn’t planned on, at the same time I’m trying to convince the dog to stop sniffing everything so I could get home and get changed and go to work.

(She did not stop sniffing everything. I got to work, eventually.)

So while the “send some puppies to the farm” metaphor sat a little heavy with me, I do like the idea of “evaluating” your puppy-projects. What do they need, and what do you need from them? Do you need to give some of your commitments more attention, and are there others which do need to go away? What’s worth doing better, and what’s worth not doing yourself.

I can’t help but think that I have a dog who adores me precisely because someone else said they couldn’t keep up with 80 pounds of running, barking, shedding dog. My colleagues will rightfully roll their eyes and point out that handing off projects is one of my real weak spots, so I’m not saying it’s easy, but not unlike an animal, it’s fairer and easier to find a project its “forever home” before I let it get neglected or in the way of my other commitments.

(Tangent: this reminds me of the terrific episodes of All The Things ADHD in which Lee Skallerup Bessette and Aimée Morrison discuss Marie Kondo and the way things and arrangements of things can “spark joy” or not. Maybe someone can build out that connection in the comments because what would really spark joy for me is hitting that Publish button…)

Universal design for teaching

I was listening to Brenna Clarke Gray’s terrific podcast You Got This Sunday night, in which she talks about the amount and kinds of labor which go into making accommodations for students’ individual situations, and the way this work can be front-loaded or dispensed with entirely through Universal Design for Learning.

And a whole bunch of things clicked – Brenna Clarke Gray talking about distribution of labor, Aimée Morrison and Lee Skallerup Bessette talking about work rules and norms on their podcast, Josh Eyler’s talk on grief and loss, and my colleague Alex’s question when he was just starting at Kenyon about who handled accommodations needed by faculty.

We talk about universal design for learning, when we’re thinking about the things we create for others. But what about the things we create for ourselves?

What would it mean to pursue universal design for teaching? Or let’s say universal design for educating (so we can include all the folks on campus who are engaged in education but don’t ourselves teach in classrooms)? How do we build schools where multiple pathways to doing the work well are equally accessible to all?

It’s a complicated question for lots of reasons, not least being the wide variety of jobs happening on campus and even the variety of tasks handled by individual people. In part, that’s why I think we need a new metaphor. We need to shift from policies which are essentially focused on the needs and desires of the institution, to a suite of options which focus on the needs of the individuals who do the work.

(I’d like to draw a parallel here with teacher-centered vs. student-centered pedagogy, but I can’t quite bring it home. I can even use “guide on the side” to describe the work relationship I want to get to but nothing rhymes with “Administration”. Leave your suggestions in the comments.)

Following some design thinking, I think it would mean really examining whether mission and values, policies, and practices are in alignment. Given that our institutional missions tend to be about the things we do for and with students, we might even need some new level between mission and policy. Shouldn’t there be a map connecting our goals for the environment we create for and with students, to our goals for the departmental environments in which we do the work?

Maybe we need to annotate our faculty handbook and employee handbook, like an annotated syllabus. OK, there are a lot of practical reasons that this is a terrible idea. But take it as a thought experiment – what would be a good way to reflect the community’s knowledge of its own practices? If we replace one-size-fits-all policies with menus of choices, how will we make it understandable? Are there reasonable ways to connect the policies as written to the stories of how they’re implemented?

Sharing stories gets us back to the big question of an inclusive community. Who gets heard and why? Who gets supported in making the best choices for their situation? Are there differences between material support (access to resources) and social support?

I never said this universal design for educating idea was going to be easy.

(Many thanks to Maha Bali, who nudged me to dust off the blog and write this instead of just talking about it.)

I always feel like Somebody’s Watching Me

The wonderful Rissa Sorensen-Unruh put a good question on Twitter:

And she and some other folks were nice enough to entertain my ideas, and then she pointed out that I’d basically started a blog post and I should go finish it so she could refer to it without counting on Twitter.

The first thing I noticed was that there are 2 questions there. Should we be using automated proctoring, and should we be proctoring at all?

The first question is easy for me to answer today. I simply haven’t seen a single lockdown browser or AI proctoring software option which I think delivers more value than it causes in harm. Look at the student experiences collected at – these are products which crash student computers, which distract and distress and insult students, which introduce the cover of “algorithms” where humans should be responsible for their judgment. And they visit these consequences worst on our most vulnerable students. So as of right now, I think colleges and universities shouldn’t be paying for these services.

(Do I believe that forever? Probably not. I can imagine a world where an AI proctor is closer to a teacher than a prison guard. But the language these systems use to sell themselves doesn’t convince me their designers can imagine it.)

The second question is actually really complicated. Should we proctor? Well, I think having a proctor for a driving test is probably a good idea, yes. When where we’re actually evaluating process, not just outcome, we have to have an observer. We’re not really talking about those when we talk about the kind of proctoring you can outsource, of course, but I think it’s useful to consider the kind of test where the observer adds value.

Similarly, I think it’s possible to agree that there are a set of examinations where the consequences of cheating would be really, really high, and it’s appropriate to impose barriers to success to make sure cheaters don’t get through. Medical boards come to mind; I think it’s pretty important that we not license doctors who cheat. For me, this line is somewhere around “matters of public safety” but more nuanced thought about the definition of “consequences” would be worthwhile.

We’ve started with a troubling assumption: “assume a cheater.” When we start with the assumption that every class includes a student who is, in essence, trying to steal their degree, then all sorts of choices become justifiable, and not only justifiable but necessary. Prioritizing catching cheaters also send the message that cheating is common, which can’t be a good message to send students.

I’m reminded that a long time ago I did some research into honor codes. One of the findings which stuck with me (though I can’t find it at the moment) was that the presence of an “honor code” per se wasn’t nearly as important as the presence of an active discussion about academic integrity on campus. This is the approach which starts by questioning the assumption – what can we do to have fewer cheaters? How do we inculcate a positive value for academic integrity, instead of a fear of being caught cheating? Could we just make the amount of cheating go down?

This is related to the question of how you build assessments and courses which students don’t want to cheat on, which you’ll notice, is at the heart of the original debate. There are lots of approaches to these, using language like “authentic assessments” and “nondisposable assignments.” And they’re all really good ideas, since they get at moving students toward practicing more complex skills, hopefully in more motivating environments. That’s what we’re all looking for, right?

Well, sort of. Every discipline does have some body of knowledge which you just need to have in your head to be successful. An “authentic assessment” might be an indirect way to test that knowledge, while a more direct test might be a better measure of exactly what’s known and what isn’t. If you’re looking to identify the specific areas where a student and a teacher need to focus their efforts, less “authentic” measures might make sense.

We’ve shifted into the zone of formative assessment, though. If the point is less to take a measurement than to use that measurement to further learning, then suddenly we’re in the zone of retrieval practice and spaced repetition and automatic re-takes on quizzes… in other words, strategies which don’t particularly require proctors. (At least not if the students actually understand why we’re using these approaches.)

I’m reminded of Jim Lang’s fantastic Cheating Lessons, which looks at the ways in which course and assignment design can incentivize or remove the incentives to cheat. One of the things I really like about this book is the way Lang offers both an extreme example of a course which has been radically redesigned to address a reason students cheat, and some less extreme examples of courses which make smaller changes.

Because these things are more work, right? Even the more liberal approaches to quizzing imply spending more time writing good quiz questions. Authentic assessments might mean searching out authentic but appropriate data sets; they mean spending more time coaching students and eventually more time grading more complicated assignments. This is the work of good teaching, but it is labor that has to come from somewhere. It can’t be by accident that I see lots of good teaching innovations which return in a year, scaled back a little. Faculty members find out which parts work best and trim the less valuable parts away. Much the way their students do.

And more complex assessments are also labor for our students. Many of our students are already stretched to their max between commitments inside and outside the classroom. The “opportunity” to work harder, learn more, demonstrate their accomplishments more meaningfully may be a double-edged sword, for those students who need to learn about prioritization and letting some things be “good enough”. I don’t in any way mean that classes should be dumbed down, but scale is important, and it needs to be considered across the whole student experience.

Speaking of “good enough”, it’s time to not write my cool closing paragraph and just hit publish…

If you read that far, you deserve something, so here’s the clip where I learned that some people call proctors “invigilators”.

The original thread is really good and I encourage you to check it out. Lots of folks had good points which fed into any good points I made.

And if you want it, you can lean on me

bent pillar

I extemporized something in yesterday’s faculty meeting which I thought maybe I should write down. Use it if it’s useful.

For the last 3 years or so, most of my professional engagement has been in the form of online meetings. I am, if I do say so myself, pretty good at them. (Not great, but I know who the greats are and I learn from them.)

By Friday afternoon, I’ll have co-hosted (with my invaluable colleagues) 15 online workshops over 2 weeks for my faculty about moving to remote learning. I’m writing this between workshops 8 and 9.

I’d say the last one was pretty OK, and the one the morning before that was almost pretty OK. None have been up to my high standards.

And yet faculty members are coming back to workshop after workshop, and thanking me and telling me the workshops were helpful. At a time when they need connection and support, they’re getting it. What I’m giving is good enough.

And that’s what I want you to remember. You don’t have to be that good to be good enough. You’ll want to get better, and you’ll get a lot of practice and you will get better, and you’ll learn some tips and tricks which, in future when you actually get to plan in advance, will make you better still.

It’s gonna be frustrating, because you’re exceptionally good teachers and you’re going to see all the flaws. But give yourself – and your students – permission to be good enough.

Because it’s actually pretty good.

Photo: “Bent Pillar” by Bryan Alexander, CC-BY at I tried a couple of different searches on Flickr – “lean” and “good enough” first, and then “support”, and I decided this fits.

To the place I belong

I got in my car and told Google Maps to take me to DC via the big highways and non-toll roads I’m used to.

So when I found myself on a 4-lane toll road somewhere in the Laurel Highlands, scrounging my ashtray to see if I could make exact change, honestly, I was pretty pissed.

Fortunately, pulling out of the toll booth, my buddy Terry put on that song he likes.

And he and my friend Ken struck up a conversation about their influences and activities in open education. Before I knew it, I was relaxed, I was thinking about my communities, and I was able to notice that it was a lot nicer to drive on a slightly smaller road, rolling through gentler hills without all the big trucks of I-79.

Terry and Ken weren’t actually in the car, of course. I was listening to them on my podcatcher, doing a crossover episode of their podcasts.

(That’s Terry’s podcast Gettin’ Air; I should give you a link to Ken’s show at The Flipped Learning Network too.)

This is what the digital storytelling community calls “the gift of voice.” It’s all of the human cues – pacing and timbre and volume – which expand and explain our word choices. It’s the speed with which the presence of the other person becomes palpable, as they literally come into the air around us. It’s the ability of my friends’ voices to short circuit road rage.

I find Terry and Ken to have a particularly relaxed style on their podcasts. They make space for spontaneity with their guests, which makes me feel like I’m observing a conversation, not an interview. For a lot of podcasters, I hear them using their NPR-voices and I imagine them in their recording studios, checking their notes, but I often feel like I could walk up on one of Terry’s or Ken’s episodes happening over lunch at a conference.

I should take a step back and attribute that to craft as much as talent. I know both of them do extensive research and craft their interviews thoughtfully, at the same time they leave the space for the conversation to go where it wants to. That balance probably has a lot to do with why I both enjoy their shows and find them useful for learning. This brings up a question of relationship – how much of my enjoyment of their shows comes from the reminder of spending time with my friends? (Probably a lot. It has to help that, through Virtually Connecting, I’ve seen Terry’s and Ken’s homes and offices, and when I see them in my mind, we’re all together at OpenEd in Niagara.) Conversely, if I knew John Kane and Rebecca Mushtare, ( or Bonnie Stachowiak ( or Ed Burger and Jennifer Stayton ( or the good folks at Xavier University (, would I hear their gifts of voice differently? (Also probably a lot, though each of those hosts do have their own style and that would probably play out differently. And even though I’m not buddies with the hosts, I can recommend all those podcasts without reservation.)

For a decade or more, I’ve reflected that my professional development has been moving away from loyalty to organizations which purport to be disciplinary homes, and toward smaller, more tightly knit personal networks. Events and publications are good; it’s nice for someone to do the work of coming up with a reason to get together. But I feel myself growing more in the meals shared and hallway conversations than in the sessions and articles. Growing differently, anyway. Perhaps podcasting also fills my desire for time spent with other people – for the perception of community, even in a one-way medium, in a way that text and for some reason asynchronous video rarely grants. It’s some combination of a memento of time spent together before, and a ritual of being together again.

Which, because having a dusty untended blog isn’t enough, makes me wonder if anyone out there wants to hear more of my voice. I know there are voices I want to hear (because those are the episodes I download first, or grab as one-offs when my friends tell me they’re on a podcast).

I wonder if it’s really wise to publish a call for there to be even more podcasts, when I look at the days and days worth of unlistened-to episodes I’ve already got. But then I think about all the folks whose voices I’d like to hear more regularly (or, if I’m honest about my listening habits, more irregularly) and I think yeah, bring it on.

Image credit: View north from Sideling Hill rest stop, my own photo. Technically, this view would have been a couple hours after the story, but it’s pretty. CC-BY-NC at

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.

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.

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